My seatmate was a solo-flying elderly woman who spoke minimal English. I showed her how to use the in-flight entertainment system, how to recline, and filled out her US landing card. I asked which countries she traveled prior to landing in the US, per the card. She replied, “Jerusalem.” I clarified, “Israel?” She neither agreed or disagreed. I started speaking to her in Hebrew, which she understood, but responded to in broken English. I looked again at her surname and birthday, took a moment before it registered, then meekly said, “Al Qods?” She looked at me with a sparkle in her eye, “Al Qods! You know? I am from Al Qods!” I put my hand over my heart and apologized for assuming she was Israeli, for missing all the clues. She gave a big smile and exclaimed, “it’s oookaaaay!” and gently laughed. In that moment I immediately recalled my interactions with Yehudit Arnon (Holocaust survivor and founder of Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company) before she passed away. I thought about how these two women from opposite sides of the occupation had that same easygoing sense of humor in their old age despite everything they had seen, lost, and overcome.
We talked about the last few weeks I spent in Egypt and that I wanted to learn Arabic. We conversed about my time in Kibbutz Ga’aton and about the 1948 Arabs, as I learned they are called. She grimaced, shaking her head saying “so sad” and brought up the Arabs of Haifa, Nazareth, and Jaffa. Born in 1944 during British Mandate Palestine and currently a US citizen, I had so many questions for her! But I don’t speak Arabic, and more importantly, I didn’t want to focus on the darker parts of her life simply because they had happened. Her story is her story and I’m a million percent sure she has an incredible one.
I felt the presence of the late Hungarian-Israeli Yehudit; both displaced, both torn between cultures, both filled with LIGHT. I’ll remember Georgette and Yehudit and the way they say “oookaaaaay,” and I’ll smile to myself knowing that no matter what happens, we determine our own measure of things.
While wandering the streets of Çukurcuma, I happened into an antiques shop filled wall-to-wall with EVERYTHING in existence. The owner, an elderly Istanbullu with bushy eyebrows - one highly arched - sat cross legged smoking a cigarette as old-timey standards played on the speakers. He paid me no mind as I browsed the labyrinths of ancient cameras, military-issue lighters, records, and dusty old postcards.
By the time I reached his sitting area, he offered me tea, a standard Istanbul ritual. In the areas around Sultanahmet, an invitation by a young Turkish lad for tea is generally followed by a sexual proposition and/or a “visit to my uncle’s carpet shop, very good price, I give you discount”. I never got that vibe from Nevzat, not because he was old, but because he just didn’t strike me as *that guy*, what with his ornery facial expression and old-goat crankiness. Maybe in his youth he was *that guy* but my female-traveler-spidey-sense didn’t kick in so I accepted. I started talking and he abruptly stopped me saying, “I don’t speak English.” From there we continued to converse through Google Translate.
Technology. What a hoot.
I said I liked photography to which he said photographers treat the camera like a Kalashnikov. He despised the soulless aesthetics of the modern travel photographer, popping into his store to snap photos without asking, leaving as quickly as they walked in, making no effort at connection. I internally winced as I know I’ve done this a million times. I always had weird feelings about it but to have my actions likened to using a Kalashnikov, well, that got my attention.
I drank my tea as we sat in a comfortable silence listening to old standards. He opened his Instagram and showed me a studio he owned where music videos and small budget productions are filmed. He shrugged when I pointed out the photos of young pop stars. I wouldn’t have guessed, but I’m not surprised either.
The next day, I found myself in Çukurcuma again searching for Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, which was incidentally across the street from Nevzat’s shop.
I decided to pop in to say hello and he offered me tea. “I wanted to say hello again.” His eyebrow arched and he shook his head, not understanding. I typed the short phrase into Google Translate and read the Turkish translation aloud to him in whatever rustic pronunciation I could muster. He let out the biggest smile, laughed amusingly, took my face in both hands and kissed my forehead before saying something in Turkish along the lines of a grandparent receiving a lovingly, yet horribly inaccurate drawing of a cat by their 4-year-old grandchild. Until that point, I had never seen Nevzat smile.
He offered some suggestions for places to visit in the area, ranted about photographers again (it was Saturday, peak tourist and local photographer day) and told me about his old college professor, a poet. He shared some old Turkish sayings that of course didn’t translate well, each messy translation causing him to grunt and arch his eyebrow, but no matter. Once again, we sat in a comfortable silence over tea and old standards, the wafting of cigarette smoke coming from the table.
She was a Pink haired, Puerto Rican who worked in Publishing. Alliteration is one of my little tricks to remembering people. Okay, that’s not true.
We met during a food tour in Shinjuku over takoyaki balls and an alcoholic drink that made my face fall off. No, not sake. Whenever I drink hard liquor, even within a sugary cocktail, I make this reflexive...face. It’s ridiculous. She let out a whooping laugh and said, “Never trust a girl who drinks something like that and doesn’t make a face!” I fell out of my awkward spiral laughing heartily.
Her husband was an officer in the US Navy. Bespectacled with his arms permanently crossed, he was surprisingly friendly. Among the middle aged Canadians, the smile-less Scots, an elderly New Yorker, and our Japanese tour guide, Officer Soldier captured my attention whenever he chimed in with anecdotes from his various deployments throughout the world.
He struck me as a cornfed, good ol’ American boy serving his country. The Pink haired Puerto Rican Publisher on the other hand…clearly she had done some magic. Hers was a voice louder than mine with energy to match, complete with an enormous wit. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
Officer Soldier was telling me about the good ol’ boys serving with him in the Navy, portraying them as the kindhearted redneck troublemakers they really were, many of whom had never left the United States before. He empathized with how exotic a place like Tokyo must seem to a small-town white American kid who has quite possibly seen very few, if any, Asians in his life.
As we chatted, I noticed from the corner of my eye the elderly gentleman from the Upper East Side (not The Heights, as he corrected because -real talk- I don’t know Manhattan by neighborhood and anything between 14th and 120th is Midtown to me) slowly slipping from a lifeguard chair in front of the Robot Café.
(I really can’t make this stuff up.)
“Oh my god, that old guy is gonna fall!” exclaimed Pink Hair. Officer Soldier and I snapped out of our conversation to see if the elderly gentleman was okay.
He was. He laughed it off.
The Robot hostesses out front were not amused.
Over okonomiyaki, the Scots man shared his observations about Japan with me. He brought up Tsukiji Market and made a face. What was that face?
In 4 visits to Tokyo over the span of 9 years I never once made it to Tsukiji Market and kind of felt bad about it, like I was “doing” Japan wrong. It’s one of those places featured on every Top 10 list about Japanese travel, and I never got around to it because, well, I didn't want to. Tsukiji Market is a fish market dating back to 1935 popular for its pre-dawn tuna auctions where giant fish sell for thousands of dollars. There are lots of photo opportunities, sushi, quick moving merchants, and yelling.
The Scots man said he wouldn’t recommend it.
He asked if I was a morning person.
He asked if I liked crowds.
He asked if I liked wet floors and dead fish everywhere. *sigh*
At 9pm on Friday night, our guide led us to a bridge with a scenic view of the Shinjuku skyline vibrantly lit with colorful neon lights and the ubiquitous office light radiating outward, like a beacon for distant office employees. He explained that any light still on meant people were still working inside.
“Even though it’s Friday?” asked Pink Hair. Our guide shrugged, and with a half smile explained, “Its normal for Japan. We work long hours. We can’t just leave.” The conversation moved onto the dreariness of Japanese office politics.
“Hello. I see you. I know you’re in there. You’re doing great!” said Pink Hair, facing the monolithic structures.
And I really believe each person in those buildings felt it.
I wasn’t planning on going to Tlacotalpan, but I was supposed to end up there.
The original plan was to spend a few days in Puerto de Veracruz so I could visit the Mesoamerican ruins of El Tajín but I underestimated the difficulty of getting there. First, a local travel agency had a tour going the following day but cancelled at the last minute. Second, the bus schedule was not working in my favor at all. Third, hiring a private taxi was out of my budget.
Assisting me with my deilemma, Cristobal, the front desk associate at my hotel introduced me to his taxi driver buddy Martín, an affable middle-aged father of many who had lived in Texas at some point but didn’t remember much English. Martín carried a travel brochure advertising Veracruz’s star attractions, including El Tajín. I tried to express through my child’s grasp of Spanish that I didn’t believe the universe wanted me there since more doors seemed to be closing than opening. Martín got the gist and instead showed me photos of Tlacotalpan, a colorful little town on the river a 2 hour drive from my hotel and I agreed.
The next morning, Martín arrived on the dot and we headed out for Tlacotalpan. A proud native Jarocho, he pointed things out and talked about his family and previous life in Texas while switching between radio stations playing traditional Son Jarocho music and 80s English-language ballads.
As we drove through Veracruz’s upscale Boca Del Río district, I found the contrast between the aging luxury hotels and dilapidated seafront properties to be a curiosity. I confess to knowing little about Veracruz’s economy but peering outside the car window showed that business was slow.
Driving past the skeletal remains of seaside restaurants with palapa roofs in tatters, I felt a hint of familiarity as if I were on a foreboding movie set when an old Radiohead song popped into my head. Doing research I learned that the exteriors of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet were shot in Boca Del Río. Ahh, Fair Verona! That’s why it looked so familiar. It could be noted that I belonged to the demographic that movie (and Leo) were aimed at.
The drive to Tlacotalpan was scenic as the road gently curved alongside the Gulf of Mexico with glimpses of small industrial towns inland.
Nestled along the Papaloapan River, Tlacotalpan's main draw is its colorfully painted Caribbean-influenced buildings. The streets were largely empty save for bicyclists and a slow driving truck broadcasting a recording I couldn’t understand, its ominous voice following me up and down the lanes, disappearing into the distance before returning to my audio periphery creating an unexpected soundtrack for the afternoon.
Row upon row of colorfully painted single-and-double-story houses greeted me with whimsical grace while continuously piquing my curiosity. No matter where I turned, colors seemed to explode before my eyes. A couple of senior citizens stopped to chat with me, somewhat curious that a foreigner was visiting their town. Tlacotalpan is actually quite popular with national tourists but remains largely unnoticed by international visitors, understandable given that it is not the most convenient place to reach without a car. I suppose the lack of international popularity helps preserve the town’s charm and character, though it is very much a photogenic destination.
After several hours wandering the many colorful streets and plazas, I returned to the parking lot to find a napping Martín before picking up snacks for the return to Veracruz. On the outbound journey I had noticed a large cemetery in the nearby town Alvarado and wanted to make a quick stop. Here’s the thing, cemeteries in Mexico are anything but boring grasslands dotted with headstones; they are filled with elaborately built mini houses, churches, and temples for individual graves depending on one’s economic status. While not as extravagant as ancient Egyptian burial practices, a visit to a Mexican cemetery is an unexpectedly enjoyable detour if you’re not freaked out by cemeteries. There weren’t any visitors as far as the eye could see, just stray dogs wandering around and two elderly men sitting in the shade by the entrance, presumably the caretakers.
I can’t predict how tourism will grow in Tlacotalpan but I would encourage travelers in Veracruz to make the trip for not only the town’s lovely scenery but for the drive itself featuring views of the shining Gulf waters, small towns, and colorful palapa seafood restaurants dotted along the highway that provide a respite from the (admittedly mellow) bustle of Puerto de Veracruz. With less than 24 hours' awareness of this town, I am very glad I got the chance to experience this unique, charming, and laid back place.
Seoul felt like a blur. A blink-and-I-missed-it blur.
I do remember being without an umbrella during the rainiest morning; soaked head to toe, my shoes squishing with each step in ankle-deep puddles while everyone else (caught in the same discomfort) managed to remain chic and presentable. My next destination was Gangnam, across town. I squish-stepped to the subway as elderly Korean citizens watched sternly unamused as I dripped everywhere I moved.
I arrived to Gangnam as the rain lessened a little and killed some hours at an aquarium and photo exhibition nearby. Later I moved onto Bongeunsa Temple where I clocked a handful of locals and foreigners praying and making offerings. The monks were in a meditative chant in the main temple so I stood outside respectfully listening, disappearing into their ancient sutras.
I reached the central courtyard behind the main temple and observed a lone figure sitting in prayer carrying a bright pink umbrella to shield her from the rain as I listened to the sound of the gong from inside the main temple, the crow’s ominous caws, and the gentle patter of rain drops. I wanted that moment etched within me forever, even in faded vignettes, changing a little with each passing day and year.
Despite being from Mexico City and having moved from place to place as a child, she remarked that I’ve seen more of Mexico than she has. It led me to wonder if that’s really true.
I’ve seen some very touristy places in Mexico, places where you don’t need to speak Spanish, where you can pay in US dollars, where you only see other gringos, and where you hear the broken Spanish of European backpackers and the less melodic barking of Americans not really trying to be understood in any language. Would anyone native to this country want to vacation here? Would my Zacatecan relatives be caught dead eating a bagel sandwich in Tulum?
My Mexican friends tell me where to go while taking into consideration my sensitivities and sheltered background. Mexico Lite. I show up armed with a little more Spanish, pesos, a sense of humor, and patience (patience is key). I suddenly notice more Central and South American travelers, their emergence signaling a slight increase in authenticity. But does it really? My Uber driver snickers as he ponders the relationship between Argentineans and Mexicans (spoiler: no one likes Argentineans) before offering his thoughts on racial tension between Salvadorans and Mexicans in the US and Canada (the latter of which he lived for 20+ years). He’s got some opinions.
Slowly I make my way to the less comfortable places in Mexico feeling a misguided sense of superiority for “leaving the resort”. I struggle to be understood in Spanish and loudly sigh when my 500 peso note cannot be broken by the young woman working the tiendita. God I’m so spoiled.
I walk the streets with my small camera and shoot anything and everything. People often talk to me. Generally they’ve lived in the US at some point so we talk about that. There was this one guy who studied in Tennessee in the 90s. I asked him what it was like to be a Mexican in Tennessee in the 90s. “Exactly how you think. I’ll never do it again” he replied, before adding that Saskatchewan (where he had also lived) was a much friendlier place. Canadians are better than us, I admit.
“I’ve seen bits and bobs of Mexico” was ultimately all I could say to the Chilango before learning she also lived in Veracruz…Puerto de Veracruz to be specific. I began to ponder the gritty charm of that city, a place that doesn’t quite fit into the above descriptions. Perhaps my next conversation will be with a Jarocho…