When I was growing up, hamburgers were always such a happy sort of thing. If you think about it, the hamburger is the food equivalent of a big, warm hug. A meaty patty enveloped in warm, doughy goodness covered with all sorts of leafy veggies and salacious sauces. It’s a giant, oral hug. Children, of all ages, beg and whine for hamburgers as their superfood. They pray to the god of McDonald’s where the hamburger is king. They call it a Happy Meal for a reason and afterwards your belly feels like it’s had a giant hug. And often for sometime after.This is why it’s such a wonder to me that, lately, the hamburger has become the loneliest food in the world. I very rarely eat hamburgers. I think I have had 3 or 4 since we left Buenos Aires over 3 months ago. But when I eat one, I eat it slowly, alone, with tears in my eyes. I never finish it. I sometimes vomit afterwards. The hamburger, until future notice, is the food of the brokenhearted.
After months on the road, bouts of sadness hit like bowling balls instead of pellets. It’s inevitable and it happens to everyone that travels together: you begin the quickening and painful process of hating each other. It begins with little cat-fights over bus tickets and where to put things and who is being more cranky and why are we going here. It runs the gamut until the sight of your travel partner’s face makes you want to punch them, or a wall, or someone close by. Every word out of their mouth makes you sick to your stomach. Every word that comes out of your mouth is intended to hurt them and vice-versa. Eventually, all you are left with is a whole bunch of hurt and a stomach that is so in knots it can’t handle deciding what to eat for dinner – so you go for the hamburger. Easy.
People often ask me if Paul and I fight on the road when we travel together. I hope this answers the question beyond a shadow of a doubt. All of the emotions of these crazed fights are amplified when your travel partner is your fiance, lover, best friend, and roommate and you are in the middle of Colombia trying to cross to Panama, maybe the only place on the map where you might feel a bit nervous (however unnecessarily) about going it alone however tough you might be.
But everything about Colombia makes me feel closer to home, like it is the gateway to Central America, the gateway to North America. The jeans have become more designer, the malls more gigantic, the streets cleaner, the Spanish more Mexican-sounding, the blond streaks in the hair more frequent, and the prices higher. Last night we went to a MultiPlex to watch a Nicholas Cage film. I mean, really. It’s just yankee sometimes.
It is true that prior to this came weeks of increasing fighting. Mostly my fault, I will admit. I hate the bus and we are traveling over land to California. The design of this trip and my penchant for claustrophobia and attacks of hysteria are not a great match. 4-6 hours into any bus trip, I lose my shit completely. I start getting a panic attack (for which I have medication, which doesn’t calm me) and feeling like I can’t get out. I think the people on the bus are going to kill me, I think we are going to crash, I think I am going to suffocate, I can’t breathe. I work myself into a frenzy and the only thing that helps sometimes is to scream and fight with someone. Someone, in this and every case, being Paul. So we have been fighting. In our hurry to get to Nicaragua on time we have been taking buses all day long. 3 hours in the morning, followed by a taxi, followed by 8 hours in evening. I know it’s not the end of the world but by the end of it, I feel I’d rather roll around in broken glass and then take a lemonade bath than take another bus again in my life. We arrive in hick towns with no hotel destination after dark. I arrive drugged, confused, scared, and reeling from 3 hours of fighting. These are the moments that are unpleasant.
The last (and worst) of these cases was coming here, to Armenia, Colombia where Paul and I spent a couple of days doing things completely separately and not talking before trying carefully to make friends again and keep the peace until we meet up with Julie in Nicaragua. Paul went to the Parque Nacional del Cafe, I went to the Casino and hit the jackpot on video poker.
After my video poker adventure, I got ravenously hungry. Anyone who has ever watched Sex and the City or been a woman knows that eating alone is a sort of female rite of passage for a woman. It is typically done in stages but I am passed that. No sunglasses, no book, no postcards, no journal, no hat, I stroll into a cafe and order a giant hamburger. I eat it slowly, sadly, feeling the weight of the empty chair beside me, wondering if Paul is having a nice time at the Coffee Park. I have good days when I spend them alone, I chat with crazy, toothless video poker addicts at the casinos, I take the best pictures of my life, I eat every nasty thing they sell in the street, and I smile and sing to myself. But my hamburger is sad. Each time I have had a meal alone after a major blow up, it’s been a melancholy hamburger and each time it has ended in tears.
It’s hard to spend all day, every day with anyone. It’s harder still with someone as fiercely independent as Paul to schlep around a girl who at times is no more than a pile of nerves and an over-sized backpack. Between travel partners there are always fights. People say things they don’t mean. Worse still, they say things they do mean. Then they make up and wonder if they should take them back or if it’s better that these things were said but if they can live under the cloud of them.
I don’t know how The Big Schlep will end. Or if it will. Paul has said that if we split up, our joint Schlep writing project will end for him. In the meantime it continues with good days and bad days. Maybe the Caribbean will be the magic bean that we have been needing to make me less nervous, more happy, and make Paul my partner again and not my psychiatrist. I still laugh and cry every day. That is how these adventures should be, I believe. Fighting, laughing, loving, hurling insults, hating, hugging, feeling terrified, eating, and, very occasionally, hitting the jackpot.