March 03, 2014

by Paul Rosenthal in

Did you ever read The Borrowers The book series lays out a hidden world of tiny folks living alongside and among us, but just beyond our ken. I’m continually reminded of this parallel world as we trundle through Central America.

We’ve met many kinds of travelers: Swedish girls enjoying a gap year, retirees happily spending their kids’ inheritance, Israelis backpacking after their military service, and church groups motoring south to spread the gospel. And of course, we also encounter people on adventures like ours – driving, motorcycling, or bussing through Latin America.

Yet these varied voyagers are fundamentally similar. All are taking a break from the usual routine to experience something different. At some point we’ll go home, back to school or work or family.

And then there are the others. The drifters. They aren’t taking an exciting break from regular life. This is their regular life. They have no plans to stop traveling, riding “chicken busses” as the whim strikes, surfing, or just meandering from country to country.

Some manage to make their off-the-grid ambling self-sustaining, like the middle aged surfer we met who came south to catch the waves in El Salvador, opened a hostel at a remote beach…and just hangs out surfing and shmoozing with visitors. Others simply have no long-term expectations, like the young woman who told us she quit her job in advertising, sold her Manhattan apartment, hopped in a car with a guy she’d met just a few weeks before, and hasn’t looked back. And some are just nomads, like the genial fellow with the Santa Clause beard who stepped out of a bus while we were all stranded at a protest blockade in rural Mexico. He has spent decades wandering up and down the coast from Oregon to Chile.

The decidedly non-luxury, often gritty travel of Team Last Responders has opened a brief window on this semi-hidden subculture of characters. Like The Borrowers, it has revealed a vast subculture of people who are all around us but in many ways living in a parallel universe.

For my taste, it’s not an alluring lifestyle. The joy of a long (or short) voyage is that it offers a stimulating, refreshing break from the norm. A respite from life usual. But When hitting the road or surfing or bunking at hostels is all you do, then not having a routine becomes routine. And then where’s the thrill variety and change?