He blew into the four-bunk dorm room, a benevolent hurricane of dishevelment. Eduardo, the soft-spoken landlord, trailed him and glanced at me apologetically as if to say, “it’s a shared dorm room, you never know what you’re gonna get”. My watch read 10:45 pm and the long January evening light was fading. I stole a glance out my window over the corrugated tin buildings of Punta Arenas, Chile’s southern outpost, towards the Strait of Magellan.
“I’m so happy! I’m so tired! Hello! I’m sorry! Where you from!” The words flew loudly and percussively and in different directions; ricocheting into all corners of the small bedroom; projectiles from the mouth of the frumpy old asian man in a dirty yellow t-shirt. An earring, his bald patch, his eyes, all caught the light from the single bulb on my nightstand.
And this is how Haruto appeared to me, half shouting in broken English. He seemed like a damn lunatic. A happy, dirty, 75 year old, dishevelled lunatic. And I would still maintain that these first impressions hold some truth. However, over an evening of wine and conversation, he would reveal the knowledge and perspective of a kind and wildly unorthodox global citizen who knows what’s important in the world, and how to achieve it.
He finally relaxed his partially-toothed grin, still running on endorphins from his day climbing to the Torres del Paine. Not a small feat . Especially not for a man of his vintage. He discovered that I was Canadian as we poured our first round of Chilean Carmenere, and he replied, “Me too, from Winnipeg. Well, I’m also Japanese,” gesturing to his eyes and then laughing loudly: “Haw-haw!” Without pausing, he continued in his accent, still heavy despite 25 years in Canada, “Well, I have a house in Winnipeg. My wife lives there, but I haven’t really in many years. I have a car-camper that I park behind the Casino on the Indian reservation in Banff... Banff!" His eyes glistened and bulged excitedly. "Yeeees, Banff is soooo beautiful. Beautiful mountains! Haw-haw!” The accordion of his forehead moved as if to emphasize Banff’s beauty.
“You see,” he said as we poured ourselves another round, “my wife doesn’t like to travel, doesn’t like the mountains, or things that aren’t familiar.” But for Haruto, to engage in the world in continually new ways, to continue going into the unknown, I would learn these to be his raisons d’etre. These are the things to which he seems to have made a commitment when he was a young hippy setting forth from Japan in the late 60’s. Among the first of a generation to set forth not for war, for business, or for his country's interests, but the sake of travel alone.
He went on to explain that he gets free wifi, showers, electricity and food from the casino, where he works in the summers as a chef, though he clarifies he is technically retired and receives a great pension from the Canadian government— much better than he’d receive in Japan. From the windows of his camper he looks out into pristine forests and snowcapped mountains. “For free!” The folds of his forehead condense. He also guides Japanese tourists in their native language, which pays in one day about a week’s chef wages. In the winter, he parks his 1980 Ford Travelaire van at his friend’s house and then bums around the world with a remarkably small, tattered backpack and an enormous “can-do” attitude. The utter lack of inhibition and relentless positivity, learned and earned from decades of bare-bones global travel, continue to propel him around the world at 75 years old. He's as confident and capable at the peaks of mountains at the end of the earth, as he is in markets and seedy boarding rooms above alleyways of chaotic cities of the world’s poorest countries. In October, he will go to Nepal and walk a 300km circuit.
“Not all 300 at once, of course, haw-haw!” he confirmed. “Now that I am old, I can’t go like you can, like I used to. My back hurts very much after today’s climb to the Torres del Paine. You see, you are 25. You are young and strong and can do anything. But you don’t have time. You have to work, the pressure of your future weighs upon you and you have everything to prove. It was once that way for me too. Now I am old, I have all the time in the world.”
He left Japan in 1968 for Europe to “work in factories” and to finance his travels. He told me he lived in a house in Marrakesh, Morroco in a time when $20 US dollars could get you board and food for a month. The only catch was that the house was one open hall, which, along with long party-joints of hashish, was to be shared with up 20 transient room mates at any given time. “Those were the days,” he laughed as he cut a slice of spanish-style Chorizo. Resting his head on the wall at the head of the bed, he gazed at the ceiling and tapped his cup of wine against his single front tooth.
Most countries worth visiting, Haruto told me, had governments that made it very difficult for their citizens to obtain US cash. So, because it was hard to get in these countries, it took on a street value much higher than it’s actual exchange rate and a black market thrived. Wealthy people in Morocco, in Afghanistan, in Argentina, they would send agents out with local currency in hopes they could exchange it on the street for US cash. He elaborated, “And us travelers, we knew how to exploit this! I could shop around to find the money changer who would give me the best rate. I could get 2-3 times the official exchange rate for my US cash! But that’s all very illegal now… yeeesss very illegal. So sad.”
The single bulb on the nightstand cast a perfect shadow of his profile on the particle board wall perpendicular to his bed, larger than life. I watched the shadow mouth as it continued to tell me of his wayward excursions.
“After Morrocco, I hitchhiked from Copenhagen through the Middle East to Shanghai. Using that black market money exchange, I did the whole trip with $160 US dollars. US cash was worth more than gold in the kingdoms of the Middle East. You see, they were peaceful kingdoms then. Soooo peaceful. Most peaceful places I ever went. Not anymore though. The golden deserts and snowcapped mountains, the kindest people. Afghanistan was my favourite. Marijuana and Hashish were smoked openly in cafes there... those muslims didn’t have any problem with smoking. Booze though, that was only for foreigners. Well, foreigners and nobility. Once in an expat bar in Kabul, you know who I ran into?”
We each took a sip of wine. “Who?” I finally replied to what I thought to be a rhetorical question. He let the accordion forehead slack, closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. I thought he’d fallen asleep. Then, as if trying to startle me, he jerked forward, opened his eyes wide again and flashed a mischievous grin, now stained red with wine.
“The prince of Afghanistan!” Haruto shouted. “Hotshot, he was, with a real taste for scotch whisky. Obsessed with America” He went on to tell me about the Afghan girls back then. They went to university. They wore miniskirts, debated issues at cafes, went to record shops, and had stylish haircuts. “The Afghan girls were very charming, very beautiful!” I asked him if this was before he met his wife. “Ooooooh yes,” he replied with an exaggerated wink.
The car that took him across Afghanistan’s eastern border towards his eventual destination of Shanghai, it had no windshield, he said. The driver handed him a pair of old fashioned flying goggles instead. At night when they set up their tents in the desert, the driver left the car running. Gas was so cheap in the middle east back then, and batteries were comparatively expensive.
Cost was, and still is, a huge governing factor for every traveller. And so Haruto, 50 years later, would be leaving Patagonia in two days time for the high lands and low prices of Boliva, but not before stopping in Puerto Montt, the Vancouver Island of the Pacific Southwest, where he could buy the “cheapest, freshest, and tastiest salmon in the entire world.” By this point I was fully convinced of his credibility to make such a claim. “I make delicious sashimi with the Salmon in Puerto Montt. With a little soy sauce,” his voice went all high and whispery and he closed his eyes, then puckered his lips, imagining the flavour, “Mmmmm so good!” We both broke into laughter. “But it’s so cheap in Bolivia!” He explained. “No salmon, but so cheap! And the people are so nice! I have many friends there.” I didn’t doubt it.
This guy, this Haruto. He had a surreal quality to him. Like a character in a Murakami novel. He was sincere and warm, but so enigmatic at the same time. Perhaps it’s because he simultaneously embraces and defies so many stereotypes. He knows himself incredibly well, a product of a lifetime of placing himself in new situations, a life time of observing himself from different angles. Along the way he managed to raise a few children who now live as “successful second generation immigrants” in Canada. He’s very proud of them and showed me photos of them on facebook, of their families, of their houses. An accountant in Calgary. A nurse in Winnipeg. He’s worked all over Canada and the world, and his grandchildren think he’s the coolest person on the planet. He always takes them hiking when they visit him in Banff. While he complains about his back, the fact he can still manage such a high calibre of hiking is a testimony to a 75 year old body that refuses to quit and is maintained by willpower and constant activity. He’s refused to fall into routine and social traps, can call others’ bull when he see’s it, and is aware of his own.
On our last night sharing a dorm room, another traveler came in and took one of the extra bunks. After some awkward bumbling in Spanish and English, Haruto realized that she was Japanese. A huge grin materialized on his face, and off he went. I watched her expression: amused at the serendipity, slightly puzzled. But as the conversation in their native language progressed, I could see from my vantage point on my bunk that she too was trying to make sense of this conundrum of a man; soaking in the charisma, trying to discern what was a half truth, a truth, or perhaps a truth and a half. Wind rattled the single pane above my bed. I looked outwards towards the Strait of Magellan and could see dark purple stormclouds coming together over waters, which shimmered golden in the low angle evening sun.