He and his brother left Northern California with a few hundred dollars and a Rambler with vinyl kitchen chairs bolted to the floorboard for seats; the car was sound, except for a missing rear window, a minor detail. Living by their wits, the boys survived Baja and Mexico in a series of adventures and misadventures, but as the summer came to an end, they were broke in Southern Mexico without enough money to get home.
Jim’s brother was due to start college in a few weeks and walked out on the road to hitch hike North. Determined to press on with no money, Jim drove on through to Central America, completely unaware of the internal wars waging in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was captured by rebels and government troops, but with a quick wit and a bravado that bordered between bravery and insanity, Jim managed to keep moving.
Using his mechanical aptitude, Jim managed to keep gasoline in the Rambler, food in his belly, and out of the local jails, most of the time. One of his intermittent jobs was as an unlicensed airplane mechanic. In Costa Rica, he parlayed his newly acquired aeronautical mechanic skills into becoming an unlicensed pilot for a fledgling airline.
Flying as a copilot, he watched the left seat pilot attempt a landing with the wind, instead of against the wind, during a mission to take out some park rangers from a remote location in a jungle. It was a short grass runway; the plane stalled and they crashed the six-seater in the middle of the runway.
In an isolated jungle with daily monsoon rainstorms, they had no way to move the wreck; consequently, a rescue plane couldn’t land. With little hope of ever getting out of the jungle, Jim and a psychotic professor tried the impossible: traversing out of this unexplored and deserted jungle. After many harrowing experiences, they made it to a road and parted company.
Jim drifted into the Caribbean and learned to scuba dive, and after a few misadventures with smugglers, became a ship’s engine room mechanic and sailed into Southeast Asia. He saw the aftermath of our little war in Indo-China and traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma on an elephant and by riverboat. He lived with the peasants and survived because of their kindness.There were several instances of being caught up in regional wars and trying to avoid both sides.
He somehow survived Asia and caught another berth as a mechanic on a commercial boat and headed for Africa and the coastal islands. In Africa, he became deathly ill; a Masai widow in Kenya took him in and kept him alive in a mud hut, while he struggled to survive a fever.
When he left, she gave him a piece of red cloth with some writing in Swahili, it read: “You Get What You Give.”
Now, Jim operates an adventure travel agency out of LA. I know Jim and believe it is the Swahili proverb that directs his life and business; throughout the book, it is obvious that Jim would not have survived without the kindness and generosity of the common people of the many countries he visited.
We all too often associate national identities with the scoundrels in charge, men who are but pale shadows of the former diplomats and statesmen they pretend to emulate. It is these posers and criminal types who steal and ruin national identities. The real cultural identity exists in the everyday interactions with the common people, most of whom are quick with a smile and a helping hand.
Yes, we can go on an elephant safari in Thailand or dive with sharks in the Caribbean, but it is the interaction with the everyday people that will teach us about the different countries. Jim Harlan has illustrated that point well in the story of his adventures while becoming a man. It is one of those books that is hard to put down, and you are saddened when you are reading the last chapter because the book has ended too soon.