Lost in Numbers

Lung Leg, photographed by Richard Kern

Yesterday, I found myself stuck in Austin for 8 hours, weighed down by a 25 pound rucksack which I got for 500 bucks (about $12.00) 5 years ago at a surplus store in Cubao. I was pretty set on retiring it, until I found out that most of the places I end up staying at when traveling (which is the only time I actually get to use the rucksack) aren’t near stops that are friendly to big, heavy bags on wheels. Thus, travel light and don’t bring what you can’t carry on your shoulders.

After the romance of traveling for leisure, it becomes clear how much of it boils down to numbers–both sexy and unsexy–specifically costs, weights, and time(s). Obviously I’m too cheap to hire an agent, but even that’s a matter of numbers. That I can’t afford a cab is a matter of numbers as well.

In Austin and I got off a bus which took me from the airport to East Koenig, where the Greyhound station was. (A little background, the Greyhound is a cheap and easy way to get around the states, but it has also developed a rather…unsavory reputation for carting drug mules around. Upon serving their sentences, ex-convicts get free Greyhound tickets back home.) Cutting through 3 parking lots I passed a boy with a tiny drawstring bag who smiled at me as I went into the station. He was waiting for the #10 bus, which would take him downtown. In the station, there were no places to deposit my bag for the day: no storage lockers, “Not since 9/11” said the attendant, making it a decade since the war on terror severely depleted the storehouse of trust in all humanity. But I can’t really say much about this, being from a country with a gun-toting guard patting me down and checking my bag at every entrance.

I head back to the bus stop and the kid’s still there. He asked to borrow my phone, and I let him, neglecting the fact that strangers are covered in herpes and sores, therefore I was in danger. Also I’d seen Contagion so this could have been about more than sores. Also, gross. He used the phone but the lack of a contact list rendered the device useless, so he handed it back and talked to me instead.

“A while ago I was thinking, if my iPhone dies, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown. Now my iPhone’s dead, and I’m just waiting for that nervous breakdown.” And so on, and so forth.

I was in Austin waiting for a bus to take me to where my sister lives, 4-6 hours down south. I’m at the 10 stop because no one would take a 25 pound bag in behind a desk for less than $5.00/hour, and doing the math, that’s $5.00/hour I either do not have, or would rather be spending at a bar downtown. Drinking (which come to think of it, is either a really terrible or really fantastic idea if you’re about to hop on a red eye headed in the same direction as Mexico). Since we were headed in the same direction, he offered to give me the tour of his fine city.

“I feel like an asshole for letting you carry this thing around,” he said, picking up my luggage. He, on the other hand, was carrying a cheap little drawstring bag containing thousands of dollars worth of designer clothes, shoved at him by 1/2 of a bickering couple in a parking lot in Waco. “He took the Gucci belt before handing me the bag though. That was a $600.00 belt. I could’ve sold it,” I wondered what the hell I was doing talking to people who get nylon bags full of designer clothes tossed their way in shady motel parking lots. Then I remembered I was right outside the Greyhound station, and the buses from Dallas and Waco had just rolled in.

“You must be super rich, then?” he asked/said over drinks, upon finding out that I’m not in Austin looking for a job, or running away from some shit town in the sticks. Cut to age, again: he was a 19-year-old high school dropout. He actually thought I was a teenage runaway because of the bag I was lugging around. I never know what to say to comments like “You must be super rich,” when I talk about travel because I’d been working and developing a portfolio since I was an undergrad, which put me in career with a notoriously low salary bracket. But it also guarantees benefits that can’t be quantified, like not working for a full month out of every year.

It’s true that travel is the drug of choice for plenty of rich people, but I’ve met just as many rich people who’ve never left the comfort of their mansions. It’s also true that there are ways to go about travel without being “super rich.” You hear the word “travel” and what comes to mind is usually breezing through check-in as a vision of summer, in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, or frolicking through a plaza with every detail documented, and made to look candid for whatever captive audience you have, via social media.

As lame as it sounds, it depends on what is meant by “super rich”, because after cracking the numbers and the best price for the kind of distance you’ll cover, it becomes impossible to calculate just how much is added to you by travel. The control I have over my time makes me feel super rich. The current trajectory of my career, the relationships I cultivate, and my cats all make me feel super rich. But what he meant by “super rich” had nothing to do with this. Then again, it also had nothing to do with meeting on a bus stop outside the Greyhound station, in a shitty part of town.

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