To “shanghai” someone away means to lie, deceive or downright coerce him to undertake a reluctant journey. It’s an old practice that crews on sailing ships would use in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to recruit unwitting sailors into a long voyage. They’d ply them with rum and whiskey and take them on board a ship bound for Shanghai (hence the term) or maybe Hong Kong. When the sailors woke up, the ship would already be well underway. Land would be no more than a distant speck to stern— quite the definition of a crappy hangover.
Well, I can say that today I was shanghaied into Guatemala… again. Last time, I’d been tricked on a ferry and accidentally ended up in another Guatemalan port than the one I’d intended. Belizean navigators in Amatique Bay aren’t the most honest bunch.
This time, however, it had been my own mind that played its black trick. What cruel betrayal! For days, I’d been putting off checking when my flight was leaving for Guatemala, believing with all the stubborn conviction that comes with arrogant self-confidence that I still had a little less than a week to plan (and pack) for what I intended would be a year-long stint across Central and South America. Checking when your flight is leaving is for amateurs, it seemed to think. Mexicans are world-famous procrastinators, and if leaving things to the last moment is a national sport, then I’m on the Olympic team.
My mom and I had just gone to take a group meditation in the afternoon. By the time we’d finished, it was already half past midnight. I looked at my phone, thinking of the eight hours of continuous, uninterrupted sleep I wanted to get that night, only to see a Google assistant notification kindly letting me know my flight was leaving in a few hours.
Aw, fuck! Not again!
Needless to say, my mom wasn’t happy. Maternal instinct wouldn’t allow her to approve of such irresponsible behavior, and it was many a dirty look I received on the way back to the house. Slip-ups like these are a common occurrence for me, and they don’t inspire much confidence in loved ones. All they can do is sigh and hope for the best— the traveler’s prayer.
I spent the rest of that night passing information to my travel computer so I could work from the road, doing laundry like a fury, and alternating between moments of panic and calm as I chose what gear I’d take on a journey that would span two continents and cover very different weather conditions. In the end, I decided to fill half of my 40-liter backpack with clothes made for the very worst tropical weather and the other half with enough warm clothes to layer up and survive a night or two in alpine conditions.
I also started panicking because I’d bought my flight through an online intermediary (who I suspected of being a fraud) and I couldn’t complete the web check-in, which either meant that the system was faulty or I’d been screwed out of my flight. 50-50 aren’t bad odds, although not when you’re flight depends on it.
After taking an Uber to the airport, I walked up to the flight desk and, to my relief, got my ticket to Guatemala. I spent most of the day traveling, taking two flights and a bus to finally reach my destination in Antigua Guatemala.
I was happy to be on the road again. Joy brimmed in my heart as I was reunited with this beautiful, verdant land of color. I saw the volcanoes around Antigua and Lake Atitlan from the plane window, greeting me like old friends. It felt strange to be back in this country after spending so much time writing Children of the A’jaw, my latest manuscript about travels among the K’iche Maya of the Guatemalan highlands. I hadn’t realized just how fond I was of this country.
It’s a strange sensation, to be somewhere one day only to find yourself somewhere else a few hours later. The magnitude of such a statement seldom hits home in our dormant consciousness, especially in a time when travel has become so fast and easy— almost miraculously so.
Maybe when the soul comes to understand that we carry home in our hearts, places stop mattering so much and the entire world opens up. Maybe shanghaiing yourself into a foreign country is the soul’s way of waking up to the experience and preparing you for the beauty of the moments that lie ahead.
That’s truly the magic of travel.