Tacos and Nobility

Scott Farrell comments:

Traveling to exotic wildernesses and risking harrowing mountain-climbing expeditions are often thought of as exercises in courage, and there’s no doubt that Jeff Salz — an anthropologist who has traversed the Andes, the Himalayas and the Amazon rain forest — is a brave fellow. Yet his reflections on his journeys, such as the one that follows, aren’t about glory, conquest and valor, but humble moments of generosity, grace and nobility — in rugged, foreign places, Jeff has frequently found the essence of chivalry. In fact, Jeff notes that the Argentine gauchos live by a code of honor very reminiscent of the Code of Chivalry, and refer to themselves as caballeros, which comes from the same Latin word that give us “chivalry.”

A distant trek toward chivalry

jeff-salzThe taco vendor threw a few more on the glowing comal. Patillas, the cab driver, handed him a greasy wad of 100 peso notes. His poncho covered his bulging potbelly like a tarpaulin over a monument not yet unveiled to the public. It was 3 a.m. in a very bad part of Mexico City.

His arm was around me. When he spoke, I tried to be nonchalant, dodging the shreds of tortilla — that meat came at me like shrapnel. It was a sacred moment.

“You are an American. I am a Mexican. It does not matter. La nobleza no se conoce fronteras.” (Nobility knows no borders.)

We ate the next round together, shoulder to shoulder, our breath visible in the frosty white light of the vendor’s shack, celebrating the camaraderie of men awake when anyone in their right mind should be sleeping, the savor of salsa that could double for battery acid and the unspoken feeling that individuals on street corners might yet save the world.

Recently I’ve noticed, after nearly a quarter of a century of climbing and escapading from Asia to Albania, Argentina to Australia, the tales I most often tell are not about summits attained, untracked wildernesses traversed. The memories I most cherish are always about people.

My personal turning point came in Chile the night Stephen and I almost shot our horse. It was to have been an equestrian/alpine Andean expedition. Maraquetta, our chestnut packhorse, had turned up lame, having sawed her rear hock to the bone with her tether rope during the night. Too long we had bought and sold horses, tended to split hooves and sore withers. Maraquetta also had the bad habit of rolling on the ground whenever our backs were turned, scattering food, cook pots and climbing gear across the countryside. We decided to jettison whatever we could not fit on the back of our individual horses.

To be unencumbered, free to ride, meant giving up ice axes, crampons and hardware. No climbing rope, just a halter rope. What did not fit in our saddlebags was left, not destroyed but temporarily put out to pasture with poor, lame Maraquetta. Our goal was to travel the length of the Chilean Andes, from Talca to Temuco, like nomadic huasos, Chilean cowboys, roaming free and living off he land. We knew we were out to discover something in this enormity of road-less wilderness. We knew not what.

For months we found shelter in the humble, tumble down homes along the way, or pitched our tent in farmers’ fields while our horses fattened on gifts of oats and alfalfa. In a land so poor that in the handful of villages where a phone was to be found — they joked about having to put fertilizer around the poles before they could speak over the wires — we were received like visiting dignitaries. Loaves of bread were baked, sheep slaughtered, precious casks of wine were broken open. We were welcomed and feasted like royalty in every log shanty and sod cabin we visited for a thousand mountain miles.

How were these simple folk, barely able to subsist on their own, able to afford such hospitality? As Woody Guthrie used to say, it is always those that have the least that seem to give the most. Maybe it’s because they’ve got nothing left to lose.

My life was changed by that trip. I came to see that the experience of “ecstatic oneness” wasn’t exclusively mountain top stuff. Experience taught me that, despite costume and language, the differences of strangers gradually fades, replaced by the inevitable recognition of sameness. I found what, unbeknownst to myself, I had been looking for from the start: the kindness and generosity that had been hiding in my own heart.

Traveling to remote places offers the good fortune of meeting ourselves in other guises. There are an infinite number of permutations of the human expression. There remains but one human spirit. Ultimately it is our own reflection we see in the wild eyes of the Tibetan tribesman dancing his slow and ancient step in the Himalayan night, the sad eyes of the Salvadoran campesina whose son has disappeared on his way home from work, the endlessly loving eyes of the turbaned old Uhygur of Turkestan who cradles his only remaining granddaughter in his arms. Experiencing ourselves in the many forms of humanity, we travel lifetimes in the course of an instant.

Like the experience of the mountaintop, from such grandeur we feel smaller, almost inconsequential, in our tiny chosen lives. Yet at the same time we become immense. We are everything we see. There is no separation. In a distant land … we are home.

To experience the kindness of a stranger in a strange land is really not that uncommon, yet for me it has become the reason I travel. I don’t know if I had stayed at home if I ever would have learned the secret whispered to me that night on the lamp-lit streets of Mexico. La nobleza no se conoce fronteras. The human heart knows no bounds.

One thing I do know: very often it takes a taco or two in the wrong end of town to find out what really matters.

©2004 Jeff Salz

About the author: Jeff Salz is an acclaimed explorer with a Ph.D. in anthropology. He has traversed most of the remaining blank spots on the globe. His book, The Way of Adventure: Transforming Your Life and Work with Spirit and Vision, is acknowledged as one of the definitive works on adventure. This article is reprinted at Chivalry Today by permission of the author.