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Postcard From There: I Got Off the Train

To You (On This Postcard):

Francesca was convinced no one knew about the small Italian town she traded for Madison County, Iowa, but Robert knew it. He talked about his journey on the train through Italy to reach Greece and how he got off when they reached Bari because he thought it was a beautiful place worth exploring. He stayed for a few days in the breathtaking country. Her face spoke. She asked, “You just…got off the train because it looked pretty?” I was a kid the first time I watched that film, but I knew I wanted someone to look at me with “wow” on their lips when I talked about my travels. I knew I’d have to explore the unexpected beauty. I knew I’d have to get off trains.

I did. I’ve hopped off trains and walked out of more airports during layovers because the ride in was beautiful from the window seat, and I’ve regretted none of it. I’ve met some of the most amazingly hospitable people who welcomed me like I was a son returning from war and only requested positivity as payment. Oh, how I’ve trusted the world and the people in it. Oh, how they haven’t let me down.

The postcard I grabbed for you in Paris just around the corner from Shakespeare and Company was sent from Le Creusot instead of Cannes as promised. I know you wanted the official stamp, but I met a woman – Shosanna – on the train who went on and on about her mother’s cooking and how it wasn’t bland like the French food I’ve had. Shosanna said her mother loved feeding travelers, and invited me to take up refuge in the guest bedroom for a few days. Of course there was an exchange. She’d watched me tapping away at the keys on my laptop and biting my nails and concluded I was a writer, and wanted me to help her with some prose. I couldn’t say no. She didn’t tell me her mother was part Algerian and that all her food came with a twist, which simply means she seasoned it. I called her a cheater and we laughed in her small kitchen, sharing a plate of cheeses, meats, and veggies, all of which she called out in French so they’d sound fancier than they were. We washed it down with mint tea, and chased that with the Navarin d’agneau and Saffron couscous once they were done.

I eventually made it to Cannes days later, after feeling like I’d been in their home too long and reading hundreds of Shosanna’s poems, all of which caused a reaction, and I still didn’t send you a postcard with the Cannes stamp. Again, my apologies.

I sat in the hostel in Bogota one night with a few Germans, a Swede, one other American, and abnormally tall Mexican guy who came equipped with his own height jokes. I meet Germans everywhere I go. We all talked for hours about the must-do’s of the country, the things we missed, the foods we could have done without, and why there was such a focus on the death of Jesus everywhere we went in the city. We laughed being offered cocaine by the hostel keeper after complaining about my shortness of breath while trying to climb one of the many hills. My flight back to New York would come in just a few hours, so I had no intentions of sleeping. Zak, the funniest of the Germans, bought a junk car a few days ago from some kid and was hyped on cocaine, so he had no plans to sleep either and offered to take me to the airport for a few bucks or the rest of my body wash. While everyone slept, I packed in darkness in the room, using my cell phone light to make sure I had the same amount of underwear I arrived with. I met Zak downstairs at 4am and we made our way to the airport.

We talked more intimately about what travel meant to us, and why it was important in what we felt our life’s purposes were. Just before taking the exit to departures, Zak told me he had his bag in the trunk, and was going to drop me off and drive until he nearly ran out of gas. I nodded, thinking it was the cocaine talking, and we headed toward departures in silence. I opened my door, grabbed my backpack from the back seat and stopped. “What if I come with you,” I asked him.

We ran out of gas in Neiva and grabbed crepes for breakfast. We slept for four hours in the car in the parking lot of a hotel, then brushed our teeth in the lobby restroom. After 72 hours, we were in Lima, Peru. After the balancing egg tricks into Quito and the Swing at the End of the World in Baños, after Couchsurfing in Balao in the home of a circus act who reintroduced me to pork then allowed me to sleep next to his toilet all night, after running from stray dogs near the Ecuador Peru border, and after running out of gas on a back road in Piura while looking for the best possible beach entrance to park and sleep, we made it to Lima. We were two guys in a junk car with a few bucks and now dozens of friends. We were happy and hungry. All because – in some sense – we got took that chance. It wasn’t a train, but we saw something beautiful ahead and we went for it. We found a Couchsurfing situation and Zak and the host fell in love. He’s still in Peru, I think. We parted ways a few days later. It’s been a few years, but we check in on each other’s social media from time to time.

You get off the train because there are stories in the beauty you see, waiting for you to share them. I have so many stories to share with you and with everyone else. I’ve learned recipes from old women in Limpopo and young men in Napoli. I’ll cook for y’all and tell you about those people. I have books on my shelf given to me by a market owner in Marrakech and I plan to read it once I get the time to learn Arabic. I’ll share it with you because I trust you with my books.

I got this postcard for you years ago, but lost it. Then I found it in the back of James Baldwin’s Another Country. It was a great bookmark, but I think it’s time I sent it to you. Maybe to say I hope you see something so incredibly beautiful, it causes you to react. I want to go some place in April and I want you to come if you can get the days off and your pennies together. I won’t tell you where, but I’ll tell you it’s one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see and I can hang my hammock. And well take the train.

Darnell Lamont Walker, a self-professed traveling foodie, has been found sitting at tables eating baby goat sweetbreads, drinking tequila, and laughing loudly with strangers. The writer, filmmaker, artist, and sometimes photographer puts happiness above all.