In June of 2008, I learned that Chambor Lastra was dead. The news came in an e-mail from a Canadian stranger who had read a travel article I wrote for The Washington Post two years earlier. Headlined “Chiapas, Without Reservations,” the article described a trip down Mexico’s Southern Border Highway, which links Maya ruins, natural sites, and a lot of poor, isolated towns and clear-cut farmland along the Guatemalan border. Chambor had appeared briefly in the story—a “cool, 43-year-old Mexican hippie” driving a magical pick-up with a wooden, tin-roofed cabin built onto the back.
I discovered the truck before I met the man. Parked on the grass next to a cluster of basic, thatch-roof guesthouses, it was a delightful non sequitur, a confounder of vehicular normality. Painted turquoise, pocked with rusty age marks, and missing a taillight, it looked like a funky tortoise with a carapace of neat mahogany planks and peaked tin roofing.
I approached for a closer look. The cabin’s sides bore paintings in a vaguely Mayan style. One appeared to be a centipede covered in hieroglyphs, whereas the other seemed to depict a wispy figure emerging from an erupting volcano. The camper’s back end bore a poster of Che Guevara, an e-mail address, and a symbol of the sacred Om.
If you have a certain attitude toward travel—more on this later—an encounter of this sort contains a message from the universe: Stop and see what happens, wait and see who turns up. And so I met Chambor, who owned the truck.
With shoulder-length hair, a wiry build, and a gently confident air, Chambor immediately treated me as a friend. Hours after meeting him, I tagged along on a casual visit to another of Chambor’s friends, a local shaman. I laughed the next night, when Chambor told of how he and his Swedish girlfriend had walked barefoot through the Lacandona Jungle on a half-remembered trail that, after hours of wrong turns, brought them safely to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak. The denouement of our relationship came when my wife and I caught a ride out of town in the bedroom of Chambor’s wondrous truck, sitting beneath a homemade dreamcatcher. The truck then deposited us at a highway bus stop, and everyone waved goodbye.
In total, I spent maybe eight hours with Chambor. I had not seen him in more than two years. So it was a surprise when word of his death hit me like a punch to the gut. Tears welled in my eyes as I ran errands around Atlanta, thinking of Mexico, and wondering, why, exactly, the death of a passing acquaintance was so affecting.
I’m still not quite sure. But one possibility involves my sometime immersion in the culture of independent travel, which is tied to contemporary spirituality in pervasive, obvious, and hidden ways. Consider language: words like “astonishment,” “magic,” and “serendipity” pervade travel writing (including my own), hinting that to travel is to do more that sip margaritas at the beach. Instead, many of us have suggested, to travel is to brush up against the unfolding mystery of the cosmos, and—if we dare—to trust it, to see where it takes us.
I had glossed that faith in the original newspaper article, describing my entire trip along Mexico’s southern border as an “unscripted journey open to chance encounters and random weirdness.” My experience with Chambor and perfectly fit the script—its randomness, its unpredictability, its whimsy. And then, with equal unexpectedness, that random e-mail had appeared in my inbox, suddenly complicating everything.
The pairing of travel and spirituality has a become staple of American culture, from the feminized indulgence of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love to the lonely, macho seeking of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild—both bestsellers that became movies. And indeed, few practices distill the allures and pratfalls of spirituality, in the spiritual-but-not-religious sense, quite so neatly as travel. On one hand, the rhetoric of travel often promises a sort of seeker salvation: broadened perspectives, liberating self-discovery and endless self-transformation. In many cases, this version of travel comes with a twist of cosmopolitan morality. Travel impresario Rick Steves, for example, has argued that travel is a “political act,” expanding on Mark Twain’s observation that “[t]ravel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
Or not. As critics have pointed out for decades, travel and its literature routinely traffic in exoticized images of cultural others, who serve as human screens for wealthy tourists to project, then consume, their own fantasies—whether of adventure, of a simpler life, of spiritual authenticity, or of other desires. My own earlier writing, unfortunately, amply illustrates these critiques. Yet the concerns do not end there. Leisure travel can also constitute a kind of apogee of capitalist consumption, a realm in which every view, every smell, every culture, and every moment become commodities, opportunities to temporarily buy back your selfhood from the degradations of the workplace. “Find yourself here,” puns the promotional organization Visit California, whose website subdivides “Life in California” into “adventure,” “indulgence,” “romance,” and “delight.” Many paths lead to self-revelation, it hints, for the right price. To be fair, though, if there is a ground zero for “finding yourself,” it is surely California.
Historically, the tourist search for the authentic—for authentic selves, authentic places, authentic experiences—emerged in tandem with what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called a post-1960s “Age of Authenticity.” Whether or not this “age” characterizes entire societies is debatable, but it aptly describes the contemporary culture of independent travel, which itself grew, in large part, from a youth travel boom in the 1960s and early 1970s. Hitchhiking around North America, drifting across Europe, and following the “hippie trail” through Asia, youthful nomads embraced no single creed. But many, like their distant ancestor Walt Whitman, took to the “open road” to be “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines” and find selves “larger, better than [they] thought.”
Many also partook of a common cultural buffet. They hitchhiked between communes, used psychedelic drugs, read Kerouac, consulted the same guidebooks, divined directions with the I Ching, talked of “energy,” followed vibes, and frequently insisted that their travels offered a more profound education than anything that took place in a classroom. In thousands of such rambles, travel became entangled with the religious, cultural, and ideological currents swirling through the countercultural milieu. The Whole Earth Catalog, that quintessential, hippie-era guide to alternative lifestyles and do-it-yourself liberation, titled an entire product section “Nomadics,” placing guidebooks and outdoor recreation gear pages away from material on meditation and communal homesteading.
Simmering in this cultural stew, the meaning of travel could take on new flavors and nuances, could become more attuned to metaphysics and mysticism. It could become, among other things, an arena for reading signs, following intuitions, and surrendering to hidden currents that could be trusted but not seen.
A fine example appears in the writing of Ed Buryn, one of the first guidebook writers to squarely target the era’s youth culture. In his 1973 Vagabonding in America, Buryn described low-budget, long-term “vagabonding” as a natural psychedelic, capable of freeing energy imprisoned by stale habits and petrified patterns of perception. This metaphysical view of travel also implied a particular way of being in the world. Advising readers of his 1980 guide to follow an intuitive, non-rational “body-knowledge,” Buryn told them that they could
become aware of having wandered into a subtle network of coincidence and serendipity that eludes explanation. On tiptoes, magic enters. … You find that you do not feel endangered in the “chaos” beyond the patterns; on the contrary, you grow confident and exhilarated. The mystery of life enormously enlarges, but surprisingly there is no fear. The mystery is suddenly understood to include you: this is the magic of vagabonding.
The key, Buryn wrote, was to resist “cultural indoctrination” and confront the limiting power of fear. “Believe,” he wrote. “It’s you and the world; that’s all there is. The next thought is the crux: trust what is.”
Trust what is. How had that worked out for Chambor Lastra?
After learning of his death, I tried to learn more about Chambor and how he died, relying primarily on social media. A few clicks on the Internet and there he was: walking his dog on the beach, holding fresh-caught fish with friends, posing under an enormous ceiba tree at the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán. I already knew that Chambor had deejayed and sold handmade crafts at Lake Atitlán, one of Guatemala’s major tourist sites. From an online profile, I also learned, among other things, that his favorite band was Led Zeppelin, that his favorite place to relax was his hammock, that his favorite sports were walking in the jungle and snorkeling, and that his favorite book was The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.
I also messaged several of Chambor’s friends, three of whom responded with versions of the same story. Despite warnings from locals about dangerous currents, Chambor had followed a friend into the ocean for a morning swim. The friend made it back, but Chambor did not. The name of the beach where he drowned, they wrote me, was Boca de Cielo. Literally, the phrase means “Mouth of Heaven,” but it also can be translated as “Entrance of Heaven.”
Surely this was not mere tragedy; it felt more like a mean-spirited joke, or even a betrayal. After all, Chambor certainly struck me as a person who “trusted what is.” By all accounts, he fully incarnated the term “free spirit.” One of his friends wrote that he loved dancing, loved playing the guitar, loved women, loved the jungles and beaches of Mexico. He was “traveling all the time, finding his own spirituality.” He trusted the world, he went for a swim, and then he drowned.
These are my thoughts. How Chambor would understand his own death will, obviously, remain a mystery. What I have gradually realized, however, is that the notion of a benevolent universe is pervasive among travel writers with literary aspirations, the sort likely to have a bookshelf full of Lonely Planet guidebooks. Themselves a product of the countercultural era, Lonely Planet guides now have a dominant position in the “backpacker” market. I have a bookshelf full of them.
Such writers often use the term “serendipity,” whose history is instructive. It was coined by the eighteenth-century English writer Horace Walpole, who derived it from “The Three Princes of Serendip,” a fairy tale in which the characters went about “making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” In contemporary travel writing, the logic is usually thus: “I was expecting x, when along came y.” For example, “I was expecting a quiet Mexican village when I spotted Chambor Lastra’s magical truck.”
In practice, though, travel’s links to the spiritual milieu often gives serendipity the more metaphysical flavor it takes in Ed Buryn’s “magic.” The underlying assumption is one of correspondences and interconnections between mind and other levels of reality. Carl Jung, for example, speculated about “synchronicity,” “meaningful coincidences” whose resonance revealed connections between the inner and outer worlds. At its most intense, though, the spiritual traveler’s faith in serendipity actually bears a closer resemblance to metaphysical movement known as New Thought. Since its emergence in the late nineteenth century, New Thought has typically emphasized the power of mind over matter, meaning that health, wealth, love, and happiness are available to those who will them. Among the best-known recent examples of this trope is The Secret, a book and film that claim that our thoughts determine our futures by way of the “law of attraction.”
The film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love made a more spiritual and therapeutic nod in the same direction:
I’ve come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call “The Physics of The Quest”—a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: “If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared—most of all—to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself… then truth will not be withheld from you.” Or so I’ve come to believe.
From multiple points of view, “quest physics” are hopelessly naïve and politically oblivious. The world seems benevolent and magical to those who, like Gilbert, have the money and privilege to spend a year in self-actualizing travels around the wrold—what a surprise! Even Chambor, influenced by American music and (counter) culture, seemed to have grown up in the Mexican middle class.
But privilege isn’t quite the whole story. The truth is that I also understood Chambor as delightful evidence of the viability of cosmic optimism, of the possibility that life could be charmed, if you’d let it. So I admired him, and even envied him a little. Because while I can fake it, I am no free spirit. I fret about money, obsess over my (non) career, and sometimes, for no reason at all, check my sons at night to make sure they are still breathing. I do not often “trust what is.”
But, you know, I’d really like to. And, during my brief career as a travel writer, I got to try on this sunnier outlook, got to experiment with “trusting the forces of chaos,” as I once phrased it. The reality, though, is that travel, as a spiritual practice, can distort at least as much as it reveals, and not only because its magic involves wealth and privilege. Because most encounters on the road are fleeting, they exist in memory as a string of shimmering, depthless present moments. The scars of the past, the tragedies of the future, are held in permanent abeyance. Unless, that is, you receive a bit of unexpected news from a Canadian stranger, terrible news that punctures a little bubble of naïve cosmic optimism you never knew you had developed.
Maybe that’s why Chambor’s death upset me. Mulling it over for years, it feels right. And at the same time, it also feels wrong. Travel writing—including my own—contains its share of forced whimsy and bravado, but it is not the only genre that inspires authorial posturing. Scholarly writing (which I do more of these days) responds to its own pressures, not the least of which is to prove that one is more intellectually serious than those silly, New Age boobs who marvel at “magic” when they should see only power.
So let me insist on the obvious: my reaction to Chambor’s death says nothing about how he might have evaluated his own passing. The “personal quote” on one of his social media profile pages, after all, reads “Nací en un presente, vivo en un presente, moriré en un presente.” Chambor mildly mistranslated his own quote, so here’s my rendering: “I was born in a present, I live in a present, I will die in a present.”
Spirituality, as it manifests in travel, can be oblivious to politics and incapable of dealing meaningfully with tragedy. But perhaps it need not be so. Human existence involves life and death, exaltation and tragedy, unjust power and—we hope—moments of “magic,” whatever that may mean. Recognizing this complexity does not require a repudiation of beauty and wonder. So while I do not want to romanticize Chambor’s death, neither do I wish to spin it into a realist’s morality tale, which he would almost certainly reject. The best I can do, I think, is to take seriously his words about living and dying in the present: to hope that, in his last moments, he found life as well as death in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Ben Brazil is a Ph.D. candidate in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion. As a travel writer, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications. His dissertation focuses on the fusion of travel, spirituality, and youth culture in the 1960s and 1970s.