I’ve decided to begin a new series, focusing on cool people I’ve met while travelling. It doesn’t matter where you go, how beautiful the beaches are, how cheap the beer is, or how golden the sunsets, if you’re in bad company, you’ll have a bad time. The people you meet out in the world are crucial to everything I love about travelling. It’s the people you meet that will change you, more than simply the places you visit.
So here goes. First up, we have Fernando Pacheco.
A bushy black beard, a speckled bald head, massive aviator sunglasses, skin awash with bright, psychedelic tattoos, and a general dislike for wearing a shirt.
Nando was the guide for my group as we traversed the USA. He oozed easy charisma and boundless enthusiasm, and he was endlessly confident in any situation thrown at us by those Weird States of America. From the hilariously crap UFO Museum in Roswell, to the chaotic streets of New Orleans, we followed his Puerto Rican swagger through every dusty truck stop, karaoke bar and mechanical bull rodeo, always egged on to cut loose and make the most of every second.
He only ever slept in a hammock, swinging gently to sleep while we all clambered into our tents. He was first up in the morning, already frying breakfast, cracking eggs and cracking jokes as I crawled out of my tent, bleary eyed and trying to piece together the night before. The nights we didn’t party, Nando would hold court as we sat around the campfire, rolling in laughter, sipping his can of PBR. He whooped us all at baseball on a regular basis. He had an incredible charisma; that enviable talent of making you feel valued just by speaking to you. His catchphrase became all of ours: JEEEEZUUUUUS! His gravelly exclamation of disbelief began as an oddity and after 3 weeks worked its way into all of our vocabularies.
The times I liked most, though, were those rare moments when I caught him off guard. When he was flagging, or a little low. When he wasn’t ‘Nando!!!’, but when he was just a guy taking a van of 20-somethings 4,000 miles across America, and he was tired. When everyone had gone to bed, we’d sit up by the fire and talk over warm cans of beer. He told me about his wife, who he described as the prettiest girl in the world. He told me about his career, how he felt about his job, and he admitted that he couldn’t do it forever, even though he loved it.
One time, we arrived in Houston after a hard day’s drive. It was raining torrentially – you’ve never seen a downpour like it. The campsite was a lake within half an hour. Our only option was to cram all 13 of us into two tiny log cabins. I had to sleep on the wooden floor. That night, Nando whooped and hollered, did impressions, sang, played, teased, joked, and made a herculean effort to keep our sodden spirits up. He was probably the one who needed it most.
He was the only designated driver for the whole three weeks. He drove at least 4 hours a day, sometimes up to 6 or 7. He packed and unpacked the van, organised the days ahead, planned and prepared everything. He never faltered, even when he was the only one awake, ferrying a minibus full of snoring, head-lolling backpackers. I was riding shotgun in the minivan once, on the way to New Orleans. We had been stuck in traffic for hours, we were way behind schedule, and despite my determination to stay awake and keep him company, I nodded off. I woke up a couple of hours later and asked him where we were.
“Be in New Orleans in thirty minutes” he said.
“What? How? We were two hours late!”
“I dunno,” he shrugged, eyes on the road.
I look at him sideways. He was trying to keep a straight face.
“How fast have you been going?!” I gasped.
We both cracked up laughing. He was a brilliant person. I hope I see him again.