The (Travel) Junkie
By Olivier Castaignède
Mexico City Airport, 7 April 1997, 9.30 pm
Our company-arranged taxi left the international terminal and hurried along near-deserted streets in Mexico City. Peering out through the tinted window, I got my first view of this megalopolis I had only seen on TV before: marauding dogs tearing apart garbage bags, gleaming rats chasing each other across filth-covered pavement, hooded men (or women) warming their hands over burn barrels, aged prostitutes soliciting business with a fuchsia smile, chunky dealers flashing double-barrelled guns at the corner. Did I really see guns on that day? Maybe not. Maybe I picture firearms in my first images of Mexico City, just like I always imagine people in fur hats when I think of Moscow – even though I went there only once and it was during summer.
‘Muy peligroso por aquí’ said our driver. ‘We’d better not stall. Sometimes tourists get lost in their rented car and never find their way.’
I recoiled in horror in the back of the car, looking at Guillaume and Nicolas, my two French compatriots and companions for this year-long internship with Teléfonos de México. They seemed to be just as scared as me.
What am I doing here? I wondered. Why on earth did I follow them, all the way from Paris.
1997. My life was falling apart (in late teenager speak, that is). My girlfriend had left me, and I had no clue what I was going to do with my life – DJ, scientist, engineer, civil servant or, quite radically, nothing. More importantly, the police had started to clamp down on the free rave parties which had engulfed the embankments of the river Seine every weekend – and, alas, that meant no more, well, let’s call them “Energy pills”. One morning, after being denied entry into Laurent Garnier’s performance at the Rex Club (only for patrons, said the bouncer; but if you never let me in, you idiot, I didn’t reply, how can I become a regular?), I suddenly realised how depressing my plan to study black holes at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics was. Was I really prepared to spend one whole year with nerdy geeks, coding and decoding lines of satellite programs? On a whim, I decided to accompany two fellow students of mine who were going to Mexico. I got an earful from my parents for the following weeks (‘How can you do that to us? Do you know how unsafe Mexico is? Don’t you read newspapers?’) but I stuck to my guns (these ones are real) and at age 24, I took a plane for the second time in my life (the first time, in 1995, I went to Canada but Darryl Whetter had not yet published Keeping Things Whole, so I missed out on lots of cool stuff there).
When we finally reached our hotel in Centro Historico, we were a bit hungry from our eventful ride into town. We asked the receptionist where we could have a late dinner nearby. Walking distance, we insisted.
‘Exit the hotel to your right only,’ the receptionist replied. ‘Walk no more than fifty meters. Don’t venture any further! And if you see someone else in the street, U-turn and run back here.’
‘What about a taxi?’ I asked.
‘Sure, you can take one of those green Beetles in the street. But be careful, if the taxi turns right when it should have turned left, then get down immediately.’
In the end, we ordered room service for the next ten nights, until we found our own apartment. I guess the hotel marketing pitch worked wonders on us.
It took me two months before I could relax in the taxi every morning going to work, without clutching the door handle like the arm of a dentist’s chair, before I could ask my way in the street, before I stopped seeing asaltantes (muggers) everywhere. But once I reached that stage, I could not get enough of the city, “el D.F.” for intimates. Every day promised and delivered extra-ordinary experiences.
Well, I was still a bit startled that day when our speeding Beetle taxi suddenly screeched to a halt on avenue Ejército Nacional, and we were surrounded by a whole crowd of demonstrating Chiapas Indians. Los Panchos serenading Quizás, Quizás, Quizás on the radio, we were on our way to the Venice of Mexico, Xochimilco, where we had planned to spend our Saturday afternoon boating on the canals. When I heard the demonstrators screaming ‘Muerte a los Gringos’ as they walked past us, I could not help but think: ‘Olivier, you’ve made a huge mistake to let your guard down.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said our driver, ‘they are just talking in general.’
And then, despite our protests, he proceeded to roll down his window.
‘Can we pass?’ he screamed.
One of the demonstrators peeked inside the taxi and smiled warmly at us. We shot back our best smile ever, and the crowd parted to let us continue our journey. Half an hour later, like three men in a boat, it was our turn to wave at all the Mexicans singing boleros in their multicoloured lanchas, with mariachis hired from Plaza Garibaldi. Come to think about it, it might have been the very same day when at night, at the Sofa Pervertido – the Perverted Couch, one of Centro Historico’s best underground techno clubs – I learned that Ricky Martin was struggling to stop smoking. (Or was it another day? All memories from Mexico have blurred together in my mind into one single vivid reverie filled with endless excitement.)
‘Hey, I also like Craven As,’ said a tall man next to me, while I was aimlessly hopping on the dancefloor after drinking umpteen shots of Tequila Cuervo Especial. ‘But I am trying to quit smoking.’
‘Well anyway, that’s a Camel,’ I replied.
‘That’s Ricky Martin,’ my Mexican friend shouted into my ear, his voice barely rising above the pulsating sound system.
‘So, what? He says he wants to stop smoking.’
In the end, I still gave Ricky Martin a few puffs of my Camel (although my Mexican friend, when I fact-checked this with him, insisted that I was smoking French Gauloises on that day).
In Mexico, I learned how you can live life to the fullest in foreign, unexplored countries, how dangerous-sounding places can become welcoming, intoxicating even, once you have tamed your fear. I knew how to get high twenty-four hours a day (yes, even your dreams have a special quality), and I was hooked. I read and reread Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and gained insights into Mexicanidad, but Mexicans never ceased to surprise me. On my last day, my Mexican neighbour (well, it was my girlfriend really, but it is better not to mention this fact here, for who knows who is going to read this story?) offered me a calavera, a sugar skull, as we were only two weeks away from the famous celebrations for the Day of the Dead. What a nice parting gift! I never ate it, and watched, as the sugar dissolved on my bookshelf in Paris. It completely disintegrated only after three years. By then, I had already decided that a sedentary life was not for me.
In 2000, I was accidentally posted to the French Embassy in Singapore (instead of Rio de Janeiro), as a commercial adviser and started to explore Asia in its remotest and darkest corners. I danced the nights and days away in seedy rave parties in Bangkok and Jakarta. I travelled the whole of Indonesia from Banda Aceh to West Papua. In 2005, I got married and soon had to switch to more family-friendly destinations like Turkmenistan, Iran or Azerbaijan. And when things started to wear off in 2010, I made my maiden trip to East-Africa, where I would unknowingly retrace the footsteps of the eighteenth century French poet Arthur Rimbaud – the ‘poet with wind soles’ according to Verlaine. I did not understand that yet, but for once, one of my addictions would evolve positively, into something more spiritual.
OLIVIER CASTAIGNEDE: BIO
Born in France in 1973, Olivier has been living in Singapore since year 2000. In 2015, he decided to quit his salaried job in a multinational to focus on writing and traveling. His first novel, Radikal, set in Indonesia has just been published in September 2017 by Editions Gope:
Currently enrolled in the first MA in creative writing in South East Asia, at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore, he also writes in English, mostly short stories and creative non-fiction pieces inspired by his trips around the world.