The weather was a toasty 30 degrees, and I was spending the days leading up to Christmas on the beach a stones throw from my hostel. In summary, it was paradise. Except for the fact that I was missing home and feeling melancholy about spending my first Christmas away from family and friends.
Tiring of beach life, I decided to check out the city centre and explore the cheap stores, shedding some of my battered clothes for bargain replacements. However, I ended up spending too much time lounging around and missed the bus back to my hostel. It was only mid afternoon at that point, and the next bus was an hour away so I didn’t mind waiting and sat down on the bench with my well thumbed Lonely Planet guidebook. It would feel like a longer wait in this quiet station.
I caught a blur of movement in my peripheral vision, and turned to see a man running toward me. He was black and had a brown satchel flung over his shoulder and even from a distance I could see that the clothes looked worn and about a size too big. As he got closer, the man’s pace dropped slightly until finally he approached and sat down beside me trying to catch his breath.
“Do you speak English?” He finally asked when his breathing had returned to normal, and I nodded that I did. It brought a big smile to his deeply lined face and he removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead with a big thumb.
“Great. I think I just missed the bus. They ain’t as regular here as back home.”
We began talking and he started to tell me about his life.
He had left the States to fight in the Vietnam war in the late sixties. During that time he lost several good friends in battle and returning to the U.S. again he found it incredibly difficult to fit back into any semblance of reality after the various traumas he had suffered.
No family of note and no wife or kids he experienced a kind of “emotional flat-line” and realised that he was dying – not in a physical sense, but that his hollowed out existence no longer resonated with his soul, and that he felt empty inside, devoid of purpose. After working in a drudgery job for most of the 70’s earning a comfortable wage, he decided to listen to the voice inside that had been beaten down over the years but still whispered gently to him in moments of quietude.
It told him to quit and see the world.
That was 30 years ago, and in that time his journey spanned the entire globe. For the last 5 years he was living in Central America, ‘cos my soul soars and there’s cheap stores!‘.
Up to that point, I had heard many sob stories during my travels from opportunists and you become hardened to even the most desperate of cases. Most westerners are singled out as easy prey and the desperadoes can be very aggressive if given an inch. I was waiting patiently for the sales pitch from this stranger, but to my surprise it never came.
It appeared that he just genuinely wanted to have a conversation so we continued talking and my guard dropped a little.
While we talked, I couldn’t help but notice the sparkle in his eyes. A vitality that belied his advanced years. He told me that the one way he managed to maintain his sanity amidst the most extreme and difficult circumstances was through the art of boxing.
Before he was drafted in the Army he had a moderately successful career as a prizefighter, winning the Golden Gloves boxing title. Unfortunately, injury cut short his time in the spotlight and he never had the chance to step up from the domestic scene and prove himself on the World Stage.
However, the lessons he learnt in boxing continued to serve him throughout his life, beyond the ring – in the battlefield – and in the game of life.
“Every day I still wake up at 6. Like clockwork. Go skippin’. Shadow box and do a thousand pushups.”
As if to demonstrate, he pulled up his baggy shirt sleeve and flexed a bicep. The muscle danced up and down like his arm was swallowing a rock.
“Not bad for a 66 year old?“
He was in better shape than anyone I knew. I couldn’t believe he was in his sixties. He looked 45. Tops.
We continued to chat, and I told him about my travel itinerary. Most of the countries I had earmarked had already been visited by my new friend. He pointed out some of the best cities that you couldn’t find on a guidebook.
The conversation flowed so easily and his enthusiasm was infectious. I could tell from his clothes that although he was a drifter, and might have been short on cash he never once asked for charity and gave freely of his time, knowledge and experience helping me map out the finer points of my route through Colombia and beyond.
As my bus pulled up a short time later, he gave me a warm bear hug embrace and wished me a safe trip.
“I didn’t catch your name.” I said. He gave me one last big smile and a wink before shaking my hand. The strength in his arm was incredible.
“Jack. But people call me Black Jack.”
I often think about Black Jack now that I’ve returned to normality in Dublin.
A single man in his retirement years, alone on the other side of the world. No family. No roots. Not many physical possessions. Travelling with just the clothes on his back, a few items in his satchel and relying on the generosity of others and the laws of the Universe.
When that bus driver pulled up and saw a skin-headed, sunburnt gringo hugging an elderly black man wearing rags, I wonder what went through his mind. Perhaps it was how two people from different backgrounds, and different generations could find a common connection. Or maybe he was thinking, look at how that homeless bum is trying to extort money out of the gullible Westerner. Idiot rich and their money.
But a rich life isn’t about our bank balance worth. Jack was one of the richest men I know and that zest for life is something money can’t buy.