On January 1, 2010, Andrew Evans boarded a city bus in Washington, DC. His goal was to travel by bus all the way to Ushuaia, Chile, where he would board a ship to Antarctica — if he made it in time! No tickets were purchased in advance, and the route was laid out only vaguely. In The Black Penguin, Evans tells his story, and what a ride it is! As Publishers Weekly puts it, “Sketchy border guards, close calls with violence and natural disasters, and intriguing characters fill vignettes that range from hair-raising to hilarious.” Evans engages the people around him consistently and introduces us to a steady stream of wonderful friends, along with a few foes. His trip across the Americas is interwoven with memories of growing up gay in a conservative faith (Mormon) and the strain that placed on him in middle America, in his church, and with his family.
Here’s a taste of Evans’s preparation, demonstrating his mastery of the fake wallet technique familiar to travelers:
I dressed carefully, stashing fifty dollars in the bottom of one shoe, then a hundred dollars folded tightly into a removable waistband under my pants, and then another fifty in my shirt pocket. Then I packed an old wallet with cancelled credit cards, old student IDs, and a wad of five-rupee notes from India sandwiched between two twenty-dollar bills. If anyone did steal my wallet, they would truly steal trash. I had been mugged once before — in Kiev — and the thieves walked away with about a million dollars of defunct Zimbabwean currency.
And here’s a bit of drama in Bolivia:
It happened in slow motion — the stove-size chunk of granite dropping right down in front of us, crushing the truck in the opposite lane and toppling it over, followed by a rush of rocks and debris. The hard brake jerked us forward, stopping at the pile of rocks. Our bus driver leapt down from the bus and began kicking at the windshield of the wrecked truck, turning the glass opaque with stars. Gripping the rubber lining with his bare hands, the driver peeled away the entire windshield, then reach inside and yanked the keys out of the ignition.
I’ve ridden a number of buses in my time (from Provo to Boston, from Nairobi to Dar es
Salaam, from Busia to Kampala, from Maceió to Recife), and Andrew’s vivid descriptions took me back to my own bus rides. I remember riding a matatu in rural western Kenya: When the bus got a flat tire, there was no jack, so the conductor asked all the male passengers to lift the minibus while he and the driver changed the tire. Evans writes: “To travel is to know the unfairness of the world, time and time again.” It’s true, and yet traveling by bus also — for a brief period — brings people from a wide range of social groups into contact. Evans spins that into a compelling, moving narrative. I wouldn’t miss this travel memoir.
Full disclosure: Andrew Evans is my cousin and dear friend. I even show up briefly in the book: After Andrew hitches a ride on a milk truck in Costa Rica, the driver offers him a beverage: “Though I had broken the rule about accepting rides from strangers, I was still not accepting drinks from strangers. That’s exactly how my cousin got drugged and robbed on a bus in Uganda.” That’s me!
This one isn’t mine. My cousin, a travel writer who just took buses all the way from Washington DC to ANTARCTICA (yes), had a really crazy boat ride that is well worth reading about. Here, at the National Geographic Traveler blog.