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Out of the Gate: Hitchhiking Toward the World Cup

March 30, 2015
by Brian Kim
World Cup image

It is night when I set up camp on the beach of La Zona Hotelera in Cancún, away from all the hotels. I’ve just come in from Mérida and am sitting cross-legged in my sleeping bag, listening to the fall of waves about a hundred feet away. From that distance, they sound like measured breaths through the nose. In the morning I’ll see Aashik, my roommate from Berkeley.

Three months earlier, I had dropped out of college to hitchhike to Brazil. “Rio,” I told every truck driver who gave me a ride. La Copa Mundial. The World Cup. I wanted to get down to Brazil by mid-June. Oh! they said. Do you think you’ll make it?

“Si,” I replied confidently. “Tengo mucho tiempo.”

“This is, you know… this is… It’s important to do this kind of stuff,” I’d said to my parents just before I left. This is life, this is living, I’d insisted with all the conviction I could muster. The kind of worry they felt over the next six months, they tell me now, I would only know as a parent. “Just wait,” they say.

On my first day in Mexico, in Tijuana, I procrastinated for two hours before getting up the courage to hitch a ride to Rosarito. Stick your thumb out, Brian. Stick your thumb out now, you stupid idiot. You think people are going to ask you if you’re lost, ask you where you’re headed? This is how you hitchhike, you incompetent, self-conscious…

It took nearly two hours to get to Rosarito, a mere 20 km south, by which point it was nearly 11 p.m. (Hitchhiking did get easier, eventually.)

So today I wake up in Cancún with the sharp sunlight prying open my eyes. I gather my things and walk into the Marriott’s lobby and contact Aashik through the hotel desk.

He’d messaged me a month before that he’d be in Cancún for spring break. I’d initially planned to forego the Yucatán Peninsula, both Mérida and Cancún, for the somewhat less commercialized Oaxaca and Chiapas, but the past three months had been a lot harder than I’d anticipated. An unprecedented loneliness had accompanied me as I walked down stretches of heat-shimmering highway with my thumb out, sandal-clad and burnt black on the back of my neck, and when I lay on my sleeping pad in vacant fields of rural Mexico trying to read by headlamp. Now the independent, self-reliant persona is on the verge of dissolving, and I am in desperate need of friendship.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. Aashik.

“Dude,” he says as we embrace. “You’re so skinny.”

This is true. I’ve lost ten pounds since crossing the California–Mexico border nearly three months ago.

Yeah, man, I say. I’ve been experimenting with this new gas-station-slash-street-food diet, and been walking on the freeway for at least four hours a day.

He laughs. “Very good to see you,” he says. Yes, yes, I agree. Very good.

For the next three days I split my time between the hotel room, the pool, and the beach. Aashik and I bluff our way into the breakfast buffets of other hotels a few times. I can’t afford the $80 Aashik and his friends pay to get into Cancún’s clubs. I don’t mind. While they’re out the first night, I fall asleep on the couch in Aashik’s hotel room while watching TV, and awake late to his knocking at the door.

“Idiot,” he says. “Sleep on the bed.”

My first bed in two weeks.

Aashik and I leave the hotel three days later. He has a flight back to SFO in two hours. We wait for his taxi at the hotel’s entrance.

“You could say thank you,” he says. I mumble my thanks, and we embrace.

And then he is gone and I am alone again. I sit there long after his taxi has left. Things slow down and become quieter as my mind’s white noise rises to a soft static, and the air turns muggier, as if the sunlight is coming through a scummy pane of glass.

I would never make it to Brazil. Or even South America. Two months later, in late May, I would fly out of Panama City, driven by a welcome combination of dwindling money, homesickness, and a powerful and desperate urge to converse substantively in English.

But on this day, I stand up, palms on knees that pop in unison, and hoist my backpack.

I head southward. 

Brian Kim started out with UC Berkeley’s class of 2015 and is still preparing himself for his sophomore year.

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