Steve is a single and straight flight attendant I met in the airport in Guatemala City. He is a fascinating fellow for a number of reasons. He has worked for one airline for 19 years, and has used every opportunity possible to make use of his travel benefits. And interestingly, with his seniority he manages to travel for weeks and months at a time. With just a backpack and a camera, he has traveled to Thailand hundreds of times, Mexico, Central and South America, The Middle East, and other exotic places like Turkey and Tibet.
With his 19 year tenure with the airline, I would assume Steve is middle aged. However, his youthful buoyancy, lean tan figure, and sandy blond hair make one suspect he is the southern California beach boy he claims he is not. He’s apparently, “Just a kid from Ohio.”
Arriving in the airport of a foreign country with no one to greet you can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. There always seems to be the initial culture shock, and the sensation that you are indeed, “Not in Kansas anymore!” It was wonderful to run into Steve and share photography stories. For years he has been capturing amazing images throughout the world, with no intention of selling them or sharing them with anyone outside his immediate circle of friends. His work is truly amazing.
Steve has stories to tell, there is no doubt about it. However, they don’t flow from him like one would expect from a worldly traveler. I had this sensation that I had to pull the stories from him, and he was sometimes shy and awkward in relating them. There always seemed, during our several conversations on the bus from the airport, then again during dinner in San Pedro, to be an unfamiliar hesitancy. It was almost as if he felt his stories weren’t interesting enough for others. And I suppose that is fine, but I always press for more.
During his many travels to Thailand, Steve had become accustomed to getting a full body massage from the beautiful Thai women that treat their customer’s bodies with firm delicacy. And while the sultry Thai air, and the bodies moist with perspiration aren’t usually enough to turn the experience into an erotic one, one of Steve’s stories goes a bit further.
On one occasion, in the grass hut positioned amidst the trees and flowers of a beautiful garden, Steve agreed to a body massage. With this not so uncommon Thai practice, the masseur generally gets on top of the client and massages with their entire body. It is impossible for this experience to not become erotic, with two bodies pressing together and the gentle massaging of increasingly relaxed muscles.
Steve relates the story, with a pause and an almost sinister smile, like a child who had gotten away with something delightfully naughty. As the full body massage was in full swing there was a rustling from behind the two. Though this experience is not unfamiliar to Thailand, Steve went into protection mode, nearly throwing the beautiful Thai woman off his body. However, it was only the masseur’s apprentice, and after the two spoke for a moment and Steve recovered from his Western timidity, the masseur said her friend would like to join them. In an instant, all timidity fled and the Midwestern boy said, “Sure, why the heck not!” And that was the first time Steve experienced a full body sandwich massage in the exotic and delightful forest of Northern Thailand.
Being lucky enough to hear more of Steve’s travel stories over dinner one night, he told me about the time he backpacked through the mountains of Turkey. With his guide and yak entourage, the two walked for days and days from one camp to the next. They found many opportunities to spend time in remote villages that seldom see visitors, and tried many foods that would never be found in a grocery store in the United States. I mean, rat might become a delicacy at some point, but I highly doubt it.
During his first of several trips to this remote place, Steve had the unfortunate experience of having his backpack with thousands of dollars worth of photography gear stolen. He literally took the pack off his back, turned to get a drink of water, turned back to get the pack only to find its solitary indentation in the snow. No backpack was to be found.
If anyone has ever experienced the sense of sudden violation, of something that means much to you, being stolen in the twinkling of an eye, you know the stunned silence Steve found himself in for several minutes. With nothing else to do, the trip continued and he eventually went home.
The experience in Turkey wasn’t enough to keep Steve away too long. He returned two years later, with a new camera and a more highly tuned sense of self preservation. On a lark, as they began making their way from camp to camp, he put out word there was a reward for a backpack containing camera gear from two years ago. He had no expectations, aside from the fairytale possibility that it would sure be nice to recover his equipment.
For Steve, fairytales apparently come true. Word spread about the missing backpack containing the photography equipment, and it spread fast. Two days before his departure, a phone call was received at the number he’d listed for the return of his stolen equipment. Somehow, the equipment was anonymously turned in to a newspaper in Northern India and was awaiting Steve for its recovery. Who would have thought?
P.S. This photo of Steve was taken as we were hiding from gunmen on our bus ride from Guatemala City to Panajachel