One day at breakfast, I noticed a man with a head of messy white hair. It stood out in a room full of blacks and browns and blonds that likely had decade or three of pigmentation left. A couple of breakfasts later, he and his travel partner took the seats across the table from me. The ongoing conversation began that morning.
At home, too many things could’ve stood in the way of this conversation, factors like age difference and the unlikelihood that our crossing of paths would’ve grown into anything more than mere passing. But we’d chosen to stay at the same hostel in the same city and that was all that was really necessary to build a connection in that moment.
Jim was excited to know that we were both from the San Francisco Bay Area. His travel partner was an artist from Vancouver, Canada. They were expats who lived in a small fishing village near Puerto Vallarta and had a circle of artsy expat friends there.
Jim had 60+ years worth of interesting stories and he shared them with a few of us at the hostel over breakfast or in the evenings when people would gather on the roof. He was a Vietnam veteran, and he described his younger self as a daredevil adrenaline junky. He talked about it like his thrill-seeking side had faded over the decades, but I had my doubts. He’d recently gotten into writing, and this was a subject I especially enjoyed discussing with him.
While I was in Oaxaca, it was election season. It seemed like Oaxaca’s favored candidate for governor, Gabino Cue, had the potential to end the 80 year run of the party that was currently in power, the PRI. Jim had the idea that corruption might infiltrate the election process and that Gabino’s PRI opponent could win, which would’ve angered a lot of people. The journalistic hunt for an election story was what drew him to Oaxaca.
But that was just his reason for choosing Oaxaca, there was a larger reason for the larger trip he was on. “I’m traveling until I die,” he told me one day, matter-of-factly. I nodded silently; it was the only response I could come up with. He explained that he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and told his time was limited. He’d asked his friend to go with him on the trip, a significant undertaking on her part.
When it came to certain decisions, he had a “fuck it, I’m going to die anyway” type of attitude. But there’d be moments when he was quite distant, and I can’t begin to imagine the reflective state of mind he must have been in at those times.
Election day happened to be July 4th. That night, the hostel had their weekly Sunday barbecue where we happened to eat cheeseburgers (at previous barbecues we’d sampled more local fare) and there happened to be fireworks that actually exploded in full color for us to admire, rather than the daily Oaxaca firecrackers that made a lot of noise but not much else. It wasn’t until those fireworks began that I remembered that it was Independence Day for the United States. I enjoyed the irony in inadvertently having a very American July 4th on the other side of the border
Months later, when I think of it, I can still feel the vivacity of that night. There was an intense, magical energy on that roof fueled by the kaleidoscopic mix of characters, the irregular and unexpected fireworks, the mezcal, the election hopes. We’d been on the roof for hours when we began to hear cars honking as they drove by. We ran to the edge of the roof, but didn’t get there in time to see what was going on below. Soon enough, another honking car’s flags confirmed what we’d thought and hoped, Gabino had won. People cheered. “Ga-bi-no, Ga-bi-no, Ga-bi-no!”
Though practicality made us wary of the amount of positive change a new governor and party would really bring the state of Oaxaca, we were all excited to be there on the day Oaxaca took a step in a new direction. Jim was surprised and happy with the results. But I could see that part of him hoped for more drama, an exciting story to tell.
Election day was my last full day in Oaxaca. The following night, I returned to Mexico City by bus, but not before exchanging contact info with the awesome people I’d met in Oaxaca, Jim and his travel partner among them.
At the end of September, Jim passed away. Though I’d only known him for a short period of time, I carried Jim’s death on my mind for awhile. A few days after I found out, I received a message from Jim’s travel partner, thanking me for being a friend to him during our overlapping time in Oaxaca. I’d assumed that I was the one benefiting from the conversations; Jim had led a fascinating life and his final trip inspired me. But in that 20-something heavy environment, he’d appreciated my willingness to interact with him.
Acceptance of others and acceptance of fate; these are the two reminders embedded in my brief friendship with Jim.