Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 1 of 3

Zacatecas, Mexico - June 28, 2006

   "The sun has yet to climb the hills into the sky, but the town has begun to stir. Uphill somewhere, a rooster has been crowing for the last twenty minutes. Two European backpackers leave the hostel and march up the brick/stone street towards the bus station, preparing to leave the sleeping town behind. A stray cat sifts through a bag of garbage until he is interrupted by the garbage truck. Though far smaller and without the loud machinery and warning beeps of its American counterpart, the small white pick-up truck rumbles to a thundering halt, and the sound of its engine echos off the concrete walls of the small colonial era buildings.

   With the chiming of the church bells the sky turns a lighter shade of blue, as if awakening instantly to an alarm that has sounded every morning for several hundred years. And on cue, the sounds of a waking town join in. The clink of bottles from an upstairs apartment. The sounds of footsteps along the walkway. A baby crying in the distance. Traffic noise becomes more constant. Doors and windows open, and heads peak out to assure themselves that all is as it should be. A pack of dogs trot down the street, trying to sniff out scraps that the garbage men, or the cat before them, may have overlooked. And the chirping and tweeting of hungry birds fills the sky until they are overtaken by yet more church bells. This time, louder and more numerous, the sounds of the bells crash throughout the town, insisting that those who missed the first call rise and join the new day." 

   I wrote that in my notebook while sitting outside on the hillside steps of a sidewalk in Zacatecas. I'd gotten up early that morning to go for a walk. I'd been in Mexico for a few days, and I was experiencing the wonderful way in which traveling to an unfamiliar environment can awaken the senses and fill the head with a romantic haze.

   I'd done a fair amount of traveling before that. I'd been on road trips throughout the U.S. as a child and as an adult. And I'd ventured into border towns like Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo, to take advantage of the nightlife. But this trip was different.

   I was with two of my closest friends, Jason and Joe, and we had almost two weeks to explore interior Mexico. We started up north in Monterrey, and then moved south to Zacatecas and Guanajuato, before finishing up in Queretaro and Mexico City, and eventually going back to Monterrey. My friend Jason was living in Monterrey at the time, so we had the benefit of his previous travels throughout the country, as well as the tips and suggestions that he'd received from other people that he'd met there. That additional source of information, more than anything else, helped shape the format of that trip. And that trip in turn, prompted a major shift in how I viewed travel in general.

    We made our way around the country by bus. For a fraction of the cost of a slow and uncomfortable bus ride in the States, we got big comfortable seats, were given complimentary sandwiches and cans of pop, and direct routes with minimal stops. The buses were equipped with TVs that played bad movies, like George of the Jungle 2 and Daredevil, in Spanish. And as we rode them, we got the chance to take in the scenery.

   In northern Mexico, we rode through the empty desert for hours on end. The differing shades of brown dirt and grey rocks, were the only colors outside of our bus. It was like riding through the remains of an old black and white movie, with all of the props having been rounded up and taken away years before. I remember seeing storms far off in the distance, but they never caught us.

   When we arrived in Zacatecas, it was early evening. We went directly to a hostel that had been recommended by one of Jason's co-workers. I never wrote down the name of the place, but it remains one my favorites on an ever growing list of temporary homes that I've settled into while traveling.

   When we stepped into the old building that housed the hostel, we were greeted by a young man by the name of Ernesto. I don't remember much about Ernesto or his life outside of that job, though we did talk a little about that. But I do remember that he was an eager host. After we dropped our bags in our room, he took us on a tour of the small property. He asked us where we were coming from and how long we'd be in Zacatecas, and he talked about the city's people and history with an open and sincere affection. He showed us the refrigerator full of beer that was available for the hostel's guests, and explained that the tab was tallied up on the honor system. And then finally, he took us to the  rooftop, where other lodgers would gather, usually with several of those beers, and take in the view of the city while trading travel stories and offering suggestions on what to see and do down the road.

   We started off the evening on that rooftop, but were soon out on the cobblestone streets. We wandered from one landmark to another. An old church here, and an old tavern there. And as we walked, we kept running into small bands of boisterous revelers. We'd usually see a couple dozen to a group, but sometimes more. They had trumpets and guitars, bottles of tequila, and small ceramic cups hanging from pieces of string around their necks. Anywhere we walked, we heard their laughter and their songs bouncing around us.

   Once we made friends with one of the groups, we learned that these were politically motivated gatherings. The federal elections were just days away, and the celebrations were a sort of "Get Out The Vote" campaign for the candidates/parties that our new friends were supporting. A big part of me was quite interested in the political aspect of the tradition that we had stumbled upon. But the general feeling that I got from the people around me was casual and carefree, so I let my inquiries go and I embraced the music and tequila side of the party instead.

   We spent the rest of that evening on the streets and in the taverns. For the first time, I used a urinal while taking in a full view of the bar, and allowing the bar an almost full view of me. (That particular bar had crossed the gender barrier years before, so there were small saloon style doors separating the urinal from the rest of the room. And the location and visibility of that urinal did seem like a relic that was held onto for its novelty, in order to help the 100+ year old tavern capitalize on the tourist trade. But some of the darker and dingier bars that I discovered in Mexico had not yet crossed that barrier and were far less discreet.) We met a handful of other travelers, including a tattooed girl from Brooklyn that had a wonderful passion for Heavy Metal and was carrying around a donkey skull in a hefty bag. And eventually we made our way back to the rooftop, opened one last beer, and wound down with some quiet conversation under the big desert sky.

Joe, me, and Jason. Outside of El Eden Mine.
   We made the sightseeing rounds the next day. We took a ride on the teleferico, which gave us an awesome panoramic view of the city. We went on a tour of the old silver mine that the city was built around. Our guide showed us some of the natural beauty inside of the caves while explaining the brutality of the conditions for the men, women, and children that worked in them.  And after that, we walked the streets while munching on mangoes from street vendors and doing some people watching.

   Those daytime walks have since become one of my favorite things to do while traveling. There is a certain magic to the process of simply wandering around for hours, with no specific destination, taking in the sounds and the smells of a new place. The vast array of differences, both subtle and stark, between that new place and the more familiar surroundings of home, have a way of forcing the mind to open up. Because it's not so easy to put your head down and go through the motions of your day, when you can't quite recognize most of what is happening around you.

Me and Sancho Panza on the left. Jason and Don Quixote on the right.
   Something as simple as a search for helpful landmarks or an attempt to use a few new words from a foreign tongue, can get the wheels turning. And then little by little, the things that you do know begin to give way to the things that you don't know. You stop seeing passersby as a lump of motion, predefined and categorized in your mind. And you begin to see the individual expressions on the faces of the people that you pass. You may notice an odd gait on another walker, or you may take a moment to consider the intensity with which a small child can explore a patch of dirt. You might take in the woodwork on a door frame, rather than just passing through the door without a thought. Even something as common and mundane as a piece of litter, or the lack thereof, can spawn speculation about the environment in which you stand.

   Whatever form it takes, the awakening that travel can help facilitate is a priceless experience. And this is where I began to make that discovery.

   After a couple more days in Zacatecas, we made our way to Guanajuato. Guanajuato greeted us with yet another hostel with a rooftop patio. This hostel had a different feel to it though. It was significantly more quiet, but it was a peaceful, rather than an oppressive, quiet. The building was at the top of a small hill, at the end of a series of alleyways and narrow passages. Even the main street at the bottom of the hill was closed to automobile traffic because of construction, which just added to the quiet and out of the way tone of the place.

   The man that owned and operated the hostel was in his 50s. In the evenings, he came up to the rooftop and put some lean and stringy meat on the grill for his boarders. We bought caguamas from a store down the hill, and again spent some time exchanging stories with the other travelers. There were a couple of Americans that were regulars on the rooftop. One was a twentyish college kid with too much Dave Matthews on his ipod, and the other was a middle-aged man from San Francisco named Noonan. Both were in town for several months as students.

   Noonan had a zeal for story telling that was eclipsed only by the laughter that was always brimming among his words and that often erupted from his belly, overtaking him and everything around him. Whether we were on the rooftop with him, or tucked away in our room around the corner, there was never any doubt as to whether Noonan was around.

   The hostel's owner, whose name I can't remember, was a great help to us. From the rooftop, he was able to point out different destinations and points of interest around the city. Using that perch, he guided us to museums, statues, and old churches. And he showed us were we could get a hot breakfast and catch a World Cup match at six in the morning.

   The city itself also held a number of pleasant and/or interesting discoveries. Many of which we were unaware of when we arrived.

   We found El Museo De Las Momias on our second day there. The mummies that lined the halls of the museum were both fascinating and disturbing, and at least a little morbidly humorous as well. Wires were used to hold the bodies in the desired positions, and some still wore clothing that seemed strangely well preserved considering the century and a half or so that had passed.

   Not long after leaving that museum I ate the best damn torta I have ever had. We were eating at a small lunch counter that couldn't have fit more than four people. And whether it was the fresh bread and produce, the buzz of the trip, or some combination of the two, that sandwich was amazing. If I ever find myself back in Guanajuato, finding that little lunch counter will be at the top of my itinerary.

Joe, me, and the puffs.
   We had plenty of aimless daytime wanderings and nighttime bar hopping in Guanajuato as well. We found the world's largest bags of cheese puffs. We met more people. A group of teenagers from the city of Puebla taught us a new drinking game, which I think translated into "keep telling that chubby American guy that he has to take another drink". We found karaoke. And eventually made our way onto a late night dance floor.

   But after a few days of that, we got back on the bus. The next ride was quite a bit shorter than the first two. We had made it pretty far south already. And as we moved in that direction, I noticed a number of changes in our surroundings.

   The countryside in between the towns and cities became more heavily populated. The deserts of the north were replaced with rolling hills. Some of the land was crudely farmed and roadside produce stands spotted the highway. Political billboards sprouted up. The red and yellow of the PRD/PT alliance, virtually nonexistent in the north, was now inescapable. On the outskirts of some towns, goat herders and burro-pulled carts passed among the piles of used tires and broken toilets that littered the ground. Near other towns, the land was noticeably cleaner and more green. The broad hills sometimes covered with healthy looking farms, or low and wide trees and enormous cacti.

And then we arrived in Queretaro. A big, bustling city, complete with the noise, congestion, and chaos that often contribute to the electricity that only the world's larger urban areas seem capable of producing. We didn't find any vacancies at the first few hostels we went to in Queretaro, so we decided to settle in at a cheap, and somewhat seedy, hotel instead. It couldn't have been a better fit for that weekend. And with that development, I saw the birth of one of the most valuable lessons I've taken from the traveling that I've done over the last five years. Which is that, things will not always work out the way that you planned, but things will always work out.

1 comment:

  1. This makes me want to hop on a plane right now and stimulate my senses with the unfamiliar. Great post! =)