Tits, Tats, and Two-Wheeled Masterpieces: The healing powers of Daytona Bike Week

Tits, Tats, and Two-Wheeled Masterpieces: The healing powers of Daytona Bike Week

The friend who dropped me at the airport kissed me deeply, and I kissed back, enjoying the rush of endorphins for a moment before pulling away, hopping out, and swinging the door so it latched with a satisfying click. I waved and bounded through sliding glass to the ticket line. He and I had engaged in heavy petting for a year or more, but I knew I would never let it advance beyond the occasional make out session. I was recovering from my latest break up with an ex who came around whenever I had gotten over him, stirred things up, and then left again, like ripping off a nearly healed scab. I would kick myself for my flimsy will and swear to say no next time, but I never did. Now, at the end of a long Vermont winter, fighting to keep the embers burning in a rusty wood stove and hitching rides when my car broke down, I was eager to get out of town.

I was heading to Daytona Bike Week for the second year in a row. I had attended the previous year with a couple of guys who saw it as an opportunity to sell their stock of cheap jewelry. They rented a space in a storefront downtown, and wanted a woman to help with sales. When they asked me, I dropped everything to go. We drove the length of the east coast, sleeping in motels, eating in diners, and chatting, until I became so sick of them I was happy to jump on the back of the first bike I saw.

The local bus company gave up during bike week, unable to compete with the constant flow of motorcycles. So while the guys waited hours at an empty bus stop, I sat on a square of padded leather, my hands gripping the thick waist of a stranger, wearing a helmet with the word bitch emblazoned across the back, and cruised the long boulevard to the center of town. The jewelry business flopped, but between shifts manning the booth I had a blast.

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This time I was returning alone, with my camera, hoping to forget my heartache amid the crowds and the chaos. I boarded the plane and watched as the still-frozen land receded beneath me and we hurtled into blue sky. Florida’s eastern coast would be rainy and cool this time of year, with drenching gusts billowing off the Atlantic, but it would be warmer than Vermont. I had a reservation at a youth hostel, several rolls of film, and a three-hundred dollar tax return in my bag.

I was arriving at bike week without a bike. My Kawasaki would have been out of place anyway; in the culture of hogs and bikers, motorcycles like mine were called “rice burners” with no small measure of disdain. No, bike week was no place for a trim, practical machine. Snaking along the curb as far as one could see, new and vintage Harley Davidsons reclined on their kickstands, shapely and seductive, waiting to be admired. I would walk the rows of motorcycles, appreciating all the gleaming chrome, wondering at engine designs, considering the choice of belt, shaft, or chain drive, and laughing at the comic absurdity of airbrushed animals, demons, flames, and grotesquely depicted women. But as impressive as they were, I wasn’t going to see bikes. I was going for the scene.

Bike week was a festival of rowdiness and bad taste, politely rendered. Police conducted preemptive raids and business owners hung “No Colors” signs, a reference to the patches gang members wore, to keep Hell’s Angels and other violent elements away. A playful atmosphere reigned. Men rode the main thoroughfare bare-chested in chaps and Viking helmets, women flashed their breasts to the delight of drunken spectators, and barrooms throbbed to capacity with leather-clad revelers. Bikers for Jesus staged spontaneous performances and told stories of soul saving.

They had prayed for me the year before, when a group of them burst into the shop, infiltrating the crowd and calling out to each other over the heads of strangers. One narrator told how he had gone astray, sinning for so many years, until Jesus His Savior had shown him the light. He had a hard, weathered face but soft eyes, and he smiled broadly as he called me his sister and asked if he could pray for me.

“Sure,” I said, and bent my head toward him as he laid his hand over it. His warmth radiated down through my hair as he prayed aloud for my soul, stopping at intervals to elicit shouts of “amen” or “hallelujah” from his companions, and for a moment I felt so loved I might have joined them, even though I wasn’t Christian, and as far as I was concerned, Jesus was just a character in storybooks. If there is a god, I thought, it is in the acts of well-meaning people. It’s in human tenderness.

When the plane landed in Orlando, I headed for the information desk and encountered a guy loaded down with camera gear asking for directions. When he noticed the camera around my neck, we struck up a conversation. He was headed to Daytona, too, to photograph the drag races.

“Why don’t you come along? We can share a room tonight, and tomorrow you can help me shoot.”

In all my solo traveling, logic never dictated my decisions. I trusted my instincts, and this guy seemed fine. Plus, I was a sucker for novelty.

“Sure, I’ll come.”

We rented a room with two double beds and spread photos on the rug as we talked. He spoke about catching the motion and “in the wind” shots. I didn’t think I’d be very good at action shots, but I would try. He spoke about his time as a soldier in Panama, too, telling me about photographing the war, and the images he captured surreptitiously. He was earnest and candid, but I felt no closeness to him. When he described his feelings he seemed to be referring to some long-abandoned object, the kind you leave behind in a drawer at your parents’ house – remembered fondly but without place in your adult life. I liked him enough.

In the morning at the speedway we met up with his partner and their mobile darkroom. They gave me a pass that allowed me to stand right on the track. From the gravel perimeter I breathed burnt rubber and exhaust as souped-up bikes with fat, smooth tires on the back reared and revved, spewing clouds of smoke until the riders popped them into gear and screamed away, only to stop a few hundred yards down the track. It seemed like a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I quickly grew bored and veered off to shoot the crowds. People interested me.

At one of the campgrounds I stopped to investigate cheers I heard emanating from beneath a large canvass tent. There, in the shade, a topless woman stood before a mob of people, mostly men, who whistled and yelled their approval. She smiled sheepishly and began to move her torso, jerking so her breasts spun, first slowly, then with dizzying speed as her nipples circled round and round in a fleshy pink blur. The men’s cheers exploded in an ecstatic crescendo. Outside of this context, the woman might have appeared ordinary, but for this moment she was a star and all eyes belonged to her.

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Throughout the day I handed off rolls of film for printing and the guys taped the best pictures to the side of the trailer so spectators could purchase them. As predicted, I’d had little success with action shots, but I captured some moments between people that I thought were pretty good. In one photo a man and woman talked, their faces almost touching, the man’s hand sculpting the air between them as he described something. They were completely engrossed in each other. It hung on the trailer for an hour or so before the guys told me they had to take it down.

“It’s a good shot,” my new friend said, “but that’s not his wife.”

“Make him buy it!” I said, but he just laughed.

For all the noise and commotion, being at the racetrack felt static, and I craved a more human spectacle. I declined a second day of shooting and said goodbye.

At the youth hostel I bunked above a woman thirty years older with one leg missing. Severed limbs and wheelchairs are a common sight at biker rallies, a reminder of the risk involved in riding. It’s a risk taken in exchange for the thrill of straddling a powerful machine, opening the throttle, and defying bodily limitations. We can feel superhuman for a few miles, a stretch of road, but we might have to forfeit a limb along the way, or worse. The scars, worn leathers, and gaudy tattoos declare membership in a tribe, a counter-culture, and members wear them with pride. Outwardly I didn’t look the part, but I shared the sense of marginality, the nothing-to-lose attitude, and the feeling of being answerable to nobody.

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I called a friend from the year before, hoping to get together. John was a southerner who worked as a mechanic on fancy imported cars and tooled around on his Harley on weekends. I had met him at the jewelry booth, and he had invited me for a ride. He took me to a bird sanctuary, and together we walked through thick fronds of Florida forest, talking and laughing, passing the most pleasant afternoon of my stay. Later I wrote to him from my cabin in Vermont, and he sent me photos of our time together. I was looking forward to seeing him again. He had tickets to a demolition derby that night.

I reached up to hug him when we met. John was tall and blonde, with a shy smile and glasses so thick his eyes looked like a watery mirage on the other side. He limped when he walked, one knee turning slightly inward, and when he stretched his long legs to reach the pegs on his bike, I imagined it was a relief to recline and move with so little effort.

We sat high on the bleachers as we waited for the show to start. Music blasted from speakers and vendors wove through the throngs, selling pretzels and hot dogs, beer and goober peas. John bought some goober peas and offered them to me. I popped one in my mouth and bit. Immediately I spat the thing out, catching fibrous pieces of shell in my hand along with the mushy inner meat. John erupted in laughter and had to catch his breath before he could speak.

“Haven’t you ever had a boiled peanut before?” He was grinning and I thought I saw tears in the corners of his eyes.

“No. I mean, I didn’t know the shell was still on it.” I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t even known they were peanuts.

“I can’t believe you’ve never had a boiled peanut.” He drawled the words with affection and giggled again, shaking his head. He seemed to revel in this realization of my foreignness, my boiled-peanut virginity, until a voice over the loudspeaker announced the first event.

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I was worried; I wasn’t sure I could stand to watch people ramming into each other on motorcycles, because surely that would mean watching people get hurt. But they started with school buses, and the sight of those giant bread boxes bashing together delighted me.

After each crash the drivers would throw their buses into reverse, back up, and accelerate again, landing against the other with a smashing thud. When they paused in their sparring so an ambulance could remove an injured driver, the voice on the loudspeaker announced that they would accept volunteers from the audience. Drunken hands flew into the air, and when the next participant had been selected, the match resumed. By the time the motorcycles took to the track, I had completely forgotten my squeamishness, as I yelled to one or another of the wiry young riders to “Push that guy over!” or “Take his bike! Take his bike!”

The next day I met up with John for a ride, but my fun was cut short when a friend of his confronted me during a moment alone.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, leading him on like this?”

“What do you mean? We’re friends.”

“I mean writing to him, calling him up, hanging out with him… the guy keeps your picture in his toolbox, and he thinks you’re going to be together or something. What are you doing?” He glared at me. He knew what I thought was obvious. John and I had never even kissed, and my feelings toward him were warm, but platonic. I was stunned at this chastising, and I felt a pang of guilt. I thought about John, his gentleness, and the touch of frailty that caused his friend to feel so protective.

When I talked to him I tried to be as clear as I could. It was hard. Still I had to admit, as much as I hated being the one who cared less, the one doing the hurting, I hated it less than being the one who was hurt.

That night I took to the bars. I had been told a woman never has to buy her own drink at bike week, and I accepted an occasional glass as I circulated, pushing through a sea of black and denim, taking pictures. People drank, people laughed, people kissed and screwed in the corners, partying with abandon. There was no focal point to the festivities, but a general sense of celebration. What were we celebrating?

In the pointless fervor of the night, body to body with strangers, I felt buoyant and light, carried away by the utter freedom of it all. In the din of the barroom, had I found the essence of bike week, the frozen image of life in motion, of life “in the wind?” I laughed and ordered another drink.

When I returned to the solitude of my cabin in Vermont, the ground was just beginning to thaw. Slowly, patches of ice melted into puddles, but it would be weeks before I could pull my bike from under its tarp, prime it with fresh gasoline, and fire it up.

That first ride of the season was a reawakening of sorts; gliding along country roads, inhaling earthy sweet air, everything seemed possible again. I raised my fingers from the handlebar to wave at other bikers who passed, and they waved back. It’s a ritual between riders, a gesture of camaraderie and inclusion. For the time, I was happy to accept this loose affiliation with a tribe of irreverent thrill seekers. Sometimes, a loose affiliation is all you need.

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Me with a random drinking buddy

Sleeping at Cezanne’s: Penniless in Provence, I dodged trouble and landed at the Chateau Noir

FeaturedSleeping at Cezanne’s: Penniless in Provence, I dodged trouble and landed at the Chateau Noir

On a southbound train from Paris with forty bucks in my pocket, I had a simple wish. It was extravagant, but simple: I wanted to spend the summer in Provence. I closed my eyes and leaned back as all of France whizzed by in a blur of green and yellow, and imagined the details. I pictured myself in a stone cottage with a bicycle and a cat for company. There was no reason to believe this possible, but no reason to believe it impossible, either. I was twenty-eight, seasoned enough to make my way with confidence, but still unjaded enough to see the world as a vast orchard, full of fruit for me to pick and eat if I could reach it. I greeted the occasional worm or rotten spot as expected, then moved on to the next prize.

The weeks I spent in Paris with my friend, Amélie, had turned into a bit of a worm. I loved the city, indulged in all its flavors – eating pastries, drinking too much wine, even making-out with a handsome stranger – but Amélie had been a surly companion. She fell into drunken moods, complained about everything, and ordered extravagantly when we went out, claiming poverty when the bill arrived. I was worried about her, but as the six hundred dollars I had brought to France dwindled, I knew I couldn’t afford to stay and help. Then I purchased a used bicycle that was stolen a day later. I had to get out of town, fast. I bought a ticket and was on my way.

After the train trip and a few days camping, my money was gone. From a phone booth in Aix-en-Provence, I called Amélie and asked her to send a hundred dollars she owed me. She agreed, though she couldn’t do it until the next day. I would have to be creative while I waited. In the U.S. I often stayed at youth hostels, and sometimes I had seen guests cleaning fridges and scrubbing floors in exchange for their night’s stay. The youth hostel in Aix refused, but I would try the one in Marseille. I just had to get there.

I stood at the entrance to the freeway, arm outstretched, thumb pointed skyward, until a car stopped. A dark-haired man leaned across the seat to open the passenger side door. In French, I asked him where he was going. This was my play; I always asked them before they could ask me. Eliciting their answer gave me a moment to size them up before accepting. If I felt uncomfortable I could decline graciously, claiming a different destination.

“Marseille.”

I couldn’t get a read on him, but he was small, unintimidating, and anyway it was the middle of the day and the road was busy. I heaved my pack into the backseat and hopped into the front.

We exchanged niceties and fell silent. Watching the road, I thought about Marseille, Amélie, and the money. She could be unreliable, but she understood my predicament. At some point I glanced over at the man, his hand on the gear shift, his hairy legs protruding from cotton shorts, and I noticed something else sticking out of his shorts. The stubby end of his erect penis pressed against his thigh, stretching the fabric so it looked like it might split. He said nothing, but smirked. Oh good lord.

I put on my best bossy voice and commanded him to drop me off right there, in the middle of the auto-route.

“Ici?” Here?

“Oui, exactement ici.” Yes, right here.

I must have sounded authoritative, because he swerved and stopped abruptly on the shoulder. I got out and retrieved my pack from the backseat. “Merci.” I slammed the door and he drove away.

I stood on the pavement in the sun for a few minutes before another car pulled over. Two young guys laughed and joked as if they were high, but they let me sit quietly in the back. Soon the limestone cliffs of Marseille came into view, gleaming against a clear sky. The sea rolled toward them, all froth and sparkle, the waves breaking in a white ruffle at their feet. The sight moved me, but I held my breath and remained silent. I had been listening for any sign of bad intent from the front. The guys delivered me to a street corner and I waved goodbye.

It was mid-morning and the lobby of the youth hostel was empty when I arrived. A tall, burly man emerged and I asked him if I could work in exchange for a night’s stay. He looked me over, considered for a moment, and agreed. Then he led me down a corridor to a room next to a linen closet, isolated from the rest of the building. I didn’t like this arrangement at all, but what could I say? I needed a place to sleep, and surely this would be safer than the street.

I dropped my bag on the bed and followed him upstairs. He introduced me to a middle-aged Algerian woman who was cleaning and told her I would help her for the day. She nodded. For the next hours we rinsed and wrung towels we used to clean shelves, toilets, floors, every surface of the building. The woman was kind, but our small talk was limited by the rigor of the work.

At one point she sat down on a step and pulled an orange from the pocket of her loose-fitting shift. As she bit and slurped at the fruit I tried not to watch, but my stomach churned. When she offered a section, I politely refused. I was embarrassed that she had seen my hunger.

By the end of the day the heat, the lack of food, and the work had exhausted me. The owner brought me to a table in a large, dark room where he had placed a chunk of greasy pâté and some bread. I thanked him and ate it while he and a friend watched from the doorway, laughing. I could tell they were mocking me, and for all I knew the pâté might have been dog food, but I was too hungry to care.

That night I lay on top of the bed with the overhead light on, completely clothed, reading. I still wore my heavy leather work boots. Their tread snagged at the bedspread, but I wouldn’t remove them; I wanted my armor intact. When my eyelids began to sag and I let the book close, I heard the electronic buzz of a card unlocking the door and jumped to my feet. The owner pushed into the room and started when he met me face-to-face, fully dressed.

“Tu es réveillée?” You are awake?

“Oui, je suis réveillée.” Yes, I am awake.

I glared into his eyes. To my surprise, he cowered a bit, and then backed away and left. I lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling for the rest of the night, and in the morning I packed my things. On my way out I scolded him for disturbing me. Then I used the last minutes on a phone card to call Amélie; she had sent the money to a post office in Aix en Provence. I sighed. I would have to hitchhike back.

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copyright Mindy Haskins Rogers

I arrived around midday. Aix is a pretty city, with tree-canopied streets and moss covered fountains spouting the healing waters that give the town its name. “Aix” means water in the Provencal language. I found the post office and waited in line to retrieve my money, which I assumed Amelie had sent as a “monat” – a sort of transfer that would get it to me the same day. When I explained to the willowy young man at the counter, he exhaled loudly through his lips and turned to a bunch of cardboard boxes on the floor behind him. Each one contained piles of envelopes. He leaned over and shuffled through a couple of the boxes, then turned back to me and told me my money had not arrived.

My chest tightened. That’s it? I looked beyond him to the boxes, doubting the thoroughness of his search, and skeptical of his filing system. I implored him to check again, but he was resolute. I could try again later.

When the office reopened after lunch, I approached the window again. The young man met me with an impassive expression. “Non. Ce n’est pas arrivé.” No, it did not arrive. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t even looked. I huffed a bit, unsure of what to do next.

“Vous êtes certain?” Are you sure?

I refused to forfeit my spot at the window until he looked once more. Finally a woman in a blazer approached him to find out what was holding up the line. I listened as he explained to her in the twanging French of the region that I was waiting for a monat, but it had not arrived. He added, barely under his breath, “Elle devient presque chiante.” She’s getting a little bitchy.

They both turned toward me now, studying my face, the one self-righteous, ready to be rid of me, the other with a look of mild concern. I appealed to her as politely as I could, but nothing could make the money appear. They sent me to a branch on the other side of town, where my monat also had not arrived, but a kindly employee loaned me a hundred francs, or about twenty dollars, so I would have food that night. I took her name and returned a couple of months later to pay her back, but I never managed to see her again or to thank her properly.

As the workday came to a close and the dinner hour approached, I sat on a sill in the middle of a street marked “piéton,” pedestrian. People flowed by on their way home from work without noticing me and my pack leaned against the closed up storefront. Where could I sleep? I remembered the place on the outskirts of the city where I had camped two nights earlier. Maybe I could walk back to that field and pitch my tent. A woman about my age rode by on a bicycle, her overalls spattered with paint, and I wondered if she would let me stay in her studio for a night. She was gone before the idea could evolve into anything more.

Finally I rose and strapped on my pack. On a hill beyond the roofs of the shops I saw a steeple. A friend once told me about sleeping in churches when he traveled in Czechoslovakia years before. It was worth a try. I started trudging upward, the pointed spire of the church as my compass. Oh no, please don’t ask me to accept Jesus after all these years. I just need a place to sleep. I laughed. When I reached the heavy arched doors of the church, a sign proclaimed it closed for the evening.

Across the street I noticed a few young women standing in front of a placard: Institut Américain. Should I look to fellow Americans for help? At least they might know of some options for a newcomer. I crossed the street and addressed the girls in English. They replied in broken sentences, and I realized they were French. “Oh, you are American! One moment – we should find Madame Jourlait!” One of them darted around the corner and returned with a stately woman in an overcoat with a book bag over her shoulder: their professor.

“Hello! The girls tell me you are American. What are you looking for?”

I blushed. I don’t know what I had expected, but this woman was willing to speak to me simply because we shared a home country and a language. “Yes, I am. I am looking for a place to stay. I was supposed to pick up some money today, but it didn’t arrive.”

As the woman listened, she looked toward the street where the girls had fetched her. “Here, please walk with me. I am meeting my husband in a few minutes.” We walked briskly as she asked questions, and I answered. I told her about the post office, the undelivered monat, and my hope to spend the summer there.

I realized I ought to offer some explanation of why I was there, abroad, without money or a place to stay, and with nobody to call. I hesitated. I knew poverty was at best a suspicious condition, at worst a shameful one. If I simply told her I am poor, but I travel anyway, I travel because being poor is difficult everywhere, but it is more interesting when I travel, and I can’t stand to stay in one place, working every day for nothing more, nothing less, she would have thought I was crazy or reckless or perhaps even criminal. I could have tried to explain about Amelie’s decadence and the stolen bicycle, but I sensed that would lead to the same question of my being there without enough money. So I lied.

“I was robbed – I think.” My voice broke as I struggled to shape the story. “There was a girl in the train station – a Romani girl. She asked me for money and said she was hungry, and when I opened my bag to offer her my sandwich – I think that’s when she stole my money.” I hated myself for this lie, and I hoped this kind woman wouldn’t see the shame burning my cheeks and forcing my eyes downward.

Part of the story was true. The girl was real, and she had asked me for money. I didn’t have any, of course, but when she said she was hungry I offered her half of my lunch. She had refused and acted irritated, and I had laughed. I thought about her now: how in my position she might stage a similar deception, and I used this imagined kinship to soothe my shame. But I felt evil; beyond the crime of lying, I had tossed my own drop of poison into the cauldron of hatred aimed at the Roma.

Luckily the woman was distracted, waving at a car that pulled up next to us. She invited me to get in. “Why don’t you come home with me for now – the thing is, I have a colleague who is looking for a nanny – and anyway, you can stay with us tonight and we will figure something out.”

“Thank you.”

I had no time to hope it might be true before I slipped into the car and she introduced me to her husband, a stout French man who seemed unfazed by his wife’s acquisition of a young American woman. They took me to their apartment, fed me braised rabbit, and gave me a comfortable bed for the night.

By arrangement the next day, I met the man whose children I would nanny. He picked me up in a minivan, the kids sprawled over the back seats, limp in the late-day heat, and drove me to their home, where we discussed the hours I would work, my particular responsibilities, and my lodging. I would stay in their spare room for a few days, but he had a colleague who needed a caretaker for his apartment at the Chateau Noir. Had I heard of it?

The chateau stood on a nearby hillside, partly unfinished, and obscured by trees. Paul Cezanne painted it and many of his famous canvasses of the Monte Sainte-Victoire from the grounds. In exchange for staying in the apartment for the summer, I would care for his friend’s cats. I was welcome to use one of the bicycles he kept in the shed.

The rest of the summer unfolded deliciously, a worthy harvest for the rotten spots I had endured. I fell in love with the children and spent my days cooking, playing, or cuddling with them, in between shuttling them to school, camp, or doctor’s appointments. The money Amélie sent arrived a week later; she had placed some bills in an envelope and mailed it by regular post. By the time the clerk received it, word had spread about my affiliation with Madame Jourlait, and he sent it to her office. When I went to get it, I delivered a handwritten thank you note. It was all I could offer in exchange for her kindness.

I was asked to repeat my story about the Romani girl a few times; each time my shame deepened.

In the evenings I returned to the rocky old chateau on the hill, where a band of half-tame cats greeted me, waiting for their daily meal. At least a dozen of them swarmed outside the apartment door, wild-eyed with a hunger I recognized. I prepared bowls of food and cooed at them as they ate. I found them tragic, dependent on humans they would never trust. I couldn’t blame them. Only one dared to come inside. She rolled on the floor while I petted her, and we enjoyed each other’s affections for a few moments before she rejoined the others and disappeared again among the scrubby trees that covered the hillside.

The apartment’s owner was a large man. I lived among his possessions, sliding into bed next to enormous slippers, a giant bathrobe draped over the bedpost. I felt like Goldilocks, occupying a stolen space, living in the impression of a man, as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. But of course I was, wasn’t I?

EPSON MFP image
copyright Mindy Haskins Rogers

Romani Pilgrimage, 1998

Romani Pilgrimage, 1998

My friends told me not to go, the Roma are “hot” people. “Chaud,” they said, “très chaud” – very hot. It was May, 1998. I had arrived in Paris a few weeks earlier with six hundred dollars and a one-month return. I hoped to find work in France and stay longer, but when my money dwindled to half that sum I needed another plan, quick. I spent most of what I had left on a second-hand bicycle, planning to tour the country by my own leg power. Then a day later a thief snipped the lock and rode away. So I bought a train ticket, packed my bag, and headed south to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a village on the Mediterranean, to join the Roma. I had about forty bucks in my pocket.

I called ahead to reserve a spot at the town’s campground, and the woman on the other end of the line corrected me sharply when I referred to the fête des Gitans. Gitans is the commonly used term for the Roma in France. “Ce n’est pas une fête,” she said, “c’est un pèlerinage.” “It is not a festival. It is a pilgrimage.”

When I arrived, I set up my tent with an eye on a menacing dog in the neighboring site. A Belgian couple emerged from the accompanying trailer, and I greeted them and asked if the dog was friendly. They warned me against trying to steal anything from them. They seemed fearful, and I wondered if they had received the same warnings I had, and if they had mistaken me for Roma.

The bus from Arles had been delayed by hours, so I missed the procession to the sea. I didn’t mind too much; I was ambivalent about being a spectator at a religious ceremony. During the procession, the Roma carry a statue of their patron saint, Sara, from the village’s church down to the shore and then walk her into the sea. Men on white horses corral the crowds, guiding them along.

Accounts of Sara’s history vary. My summary: legends have it, she either arrived on the shores of Les Saintes as the servant of a couple of holy Marys who were exiled from Jerusalem and crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat, or she was already there and welcomed the women ashore, symbolically welcoming the Christian faith to France. She is often referred to as “Black Sara.” Some scholars have noted a similarity between the Roma’s Sara and the Hindu goddess, Kali. In fact, the Roma call her “Sara-la-Kali.” Whatever her origins, her significance to the Romani people is not debatable. Every year on May 24th, thousands of Roma from all over Europe gather in this historic village in the Camargue to honor her.

When I finished setting up my tent, I hung my camera around my neck and walked into town. I passed RVs and cars loaded with people. Some of the cars rivaled any clown performance I had seen – bodies crammed into the seats, children on top of children, windows open as they drove through the streets. A little boy with his pants down leaned forward and peed on the tire of a parked RV. In season, European tourists fill this town, but for these few days it belonged to the Roma.

At the town’s center, the old church cuts a chunky silhouette against the Mediterranean sky. It is a relatively simple structure, lacking the gaudy, gothic ornamentation of the Notre Dame or many other churches in France. Its bell tower is a wall of five bells hanging in arched openings: four below, one above, with three modest peaks pointing into the clouds, when there are any. I peeked through a small side door. Worshippers were filing in and out, and candles burned against the stone walls as they prayed beneath the statue of Sara.

In the courtyard a Romani woman approached me and pinned a small silver brooch onto my shirt, crossing herself, bowing her head, and murmuring something about Saint Sara while she held out her hand. I looked down. The pin was a tiny image of the saint. I pulled out my change purse and dumped the coins into my palm, rifling through for some amount that fit the occasion and my budget. When I offered a couple of francs the woman frowned, cursed me in a language that was not French, and with a single swipe scooped the remaining money out of my hand. I gasped and reached to take it back, thinking of the baguette I might have bought with those coins, but she shook her head and waved dismissively at me. While I was still standing open-mouthed, she removed the brooch and walked away, cursing me the whole time. I was just a tourist to her.

I wandered around the village, passing seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. I bought food from a small market and ate it en plein air.

As night fell people formed circles in the streets. Musicians with guitars strummed or slapped their instruments while others clapped along. Sometimes a voice would rise from the crowd, belting a throaty ballad or trailing off into high, wispy notes that fluttered and dissipated. At the center of each circle, dancers performed; always one male, one female.

They came forward from the throngs, and before each one left, he or she would pull another dancer into the circle to take their place. The older women were bawdy and flirtatious as men in slim pants and pointed shoes tapped out rhythms with their feet. Younger women stared distantly over their partner’s shoulders, seeming unmoved by their thrumming displays of masculinity. A tiny girl swirled in a bright yellow dress with layers of ruffles that rustled and flapped like the wings of some wild bird. Her diminutive partner held his own, his legs and feet a controlled rush of motion.

At one point the sharp crack of splintering wood interrupted the music. Everybody fell silent. A guitar on which one of the musicians was drumming had given way, his hand breaking through the smooth surface of its backside. The silence lasted only as long as an intake of breath before a wave of laughter swept the crowd, originating from the musician himself. The music and dancing resumed.

When people saw my camera, they shuttled me toward the dancers so I could photograph. I had loaded the highest-speed film I had, 1600 ISO, and I was pushing it to 3200 to catch some images by the light of the street lamps. Most of the dancers moved too fast. When I tried to capture the spectators, I discovered they were the best subjects I had ever photographed. If a person saw me aiming my lens at them, they would freeze for a moment until the camera clicked. No smiling, no artifice, just a willingness to be captured as they were. It was an unspoken collaboration for which I was grateful. I no longer felt like a tourist; I felt like a guest.

When it got late and I got tired, I started to make my way back toward the campground. I encountered a tall German man who walked with me. He was walking around Europe, following the path of the Holy Grail. He was friendly enough. Ahead of us, two Romani men stumbled along, embracing to hold each other up. They laughed, talked, and slurred all the way.

I stayed in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for a few days, roasting on the beach and enjoying the natural scenery of the Camargue. In the bathroom at the campground, Romani children teased me and asked for things in broken French, but mostly I went unnoticed. When I left, the crowds were beginning to thin. The RVs and loaded down cars straggled along the road to Arles and back toward wherever they called home.

I hitchhiked out of town with a young Israeli couple. We camped together in a meadow outside of Aix-en-Provence, and in the morning I cleaned snails off my tent before packing it up. They were worried about my traveling with so little money; I had twenty dollars left. “It’s just not safe,” the guy said. I was getting used to these warnings. Had I heeded them, I never would have left home. I agreed to call my friend in Paris, who owed me a hundred dollars from a time I bailed her out stateside. She said she would wire the money right away. Things didn’t go smoothly for me in the next days, but I couldn’t have wished for better fortune than I received that summer. That’s a story for another time.