When traveling in Latin America, 200 km can quickly turn into a four-hour bus ride. But I don’t mind. In fact, I really love the travel days. Racing to be first on the bus and have my pick of the seats. Second-class buses vary wildly in the quality spectrum and in order to have the best window views you need to get in there early. Once I’ve found the perfect row, I settle down into the bucket and wriggle around until I find a position where I can stare out the window, doze off to sleep occasionally and access my backpack with ease — it’s a difficult task, but one of luxury and one that I relish.
Long bus rides are a sort of meditation for me. I generally don’t like to talk during them, which is something Xavi is beginning to realize. Sometimes I shut my eyes and recline my seat to spend the ride drifting in and out of sleep. Other times I’ll have my notebook out and write lists or thoughts or begin working on short stories that I most likely will never finish. But the constant is my shiny purple 16gb iPod nano. I take it out of my backpack and carefully unravel the cable of my earphones and switch the lock button off. I form the soft purple foam to fit my the shape of my ears and block out all the noise on the bus. Then I choose something to listen to — this is the most difficult part, but nothing is more obvious than when I know I’ve chosen the right music. Sometimes I won’t be paying much attention to what’s playing, but then there is the moment when it seems as though there is magic in the air and your hair stands on end and you can think of nothing else than how incredibly lucky you are that someone has created music for this exact moment. And I can’t help but smile, I’m horrible at hiding my emotions.
I watch the window and listen to the music passively; I do a lot of thinking on bus trips. I don’t necessarily think of specific things. Thoughts, memories and ideas pass through my mind as quickly as the trees pass through my window. I’ll occasionally latch onto one for a moment but soon I get lost in the scenery again. And then my meditation breaks as I notice the music and right then I am completely enamored by the ability of musicians, after all these years, to still create music that is new and affecting.
Driving down the coast from Campeche to Sabancuy I watched out the windows as the pelicans would swoop down to graze the water searching for fish as other seabirds spiral-dived straight down 20 or 30 feet into the water to reappear with fish in their beaks. The pelicans would then follow suit. The palm trees were blowing in the wind and the waves were crashing with the shore. I was listening to Beirut’s ‘Port of Call’ and all of a sudden the view out of my window took to the music — the birds were diving in rhythm, trees were passing my field of vision to the beat of the song and the electric wires we were speeding past stretched and dipped from pole to pole like lines on a sheet of music and I could swear it was perfect. And it’s times like this where you realize music is sometimes the missing element to turn something ordinary into something spectacularly inspiring.
Generally, music is superfluous when I’m traveling — a sleep aid, a way to kill time — but there are times when the music unexpectedly becomes the driving force of a moment that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. Not to say I don’t love music or it isn’t a major part of my life. But when I travel and I’m seeing new places and people, I think sounds are a major part of the experience — the local soundtrack.
But there are certainly times that are bettered by my own musical offerings. There really are no better albums than The Best of Leonard Cohen, Explosions in the Sky, Chet Baker or Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter to slip into your ears and usher you to sleep on a long overnight drive. Or maybe if I don’t want to sleep but just relax and watch the window I listen to Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lou Reed. When it comes to writing I find inspiration and motivation in Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg, MIles Davis or John Coltrane. And what could possibly be more inspiring than Otis Redding’s voice aching out of the small portable speakers when it’s late at night and you’re sitting on the beach drinking your fourth rum and Coke — the stars are the brightest you’ve ever seen, the edge of the galaxy stretches wide and nearly opaque across the black sky. You can’t help thinking that the water lapping at your feet, slowly burying them in the cool, wet sand, connects you to all the water across the planet — including the small stream you spent summer afternoons playing in as a child in Ohio. It’s impossible to articulate the intensity of emotions that surface at this moment.
In fact, Otis Redding can find his match in nearly any moment or situation; the ability of his voice to provoke so many intense and unexpected emotions is astonishing. The next time you’re feeling down, I challenge you to sit outside at night by yourself, drink a bottle of wine and listen to You Don’t Miss Your Water — just wait and see what you start figuring out.