“Well, I’ve been to Tulum twice now.”
"That’s not real Mexico. You need to start with the capital.”
When my friend from Mexicali told me that Tulum didn’t count, I realized I needed to roll up my beach towel and get off the resort.
It took some time, but while going through a break up, I booked a flight, packed my suitcase, and finally headed to Latin America’s superstar metropolis.
And I cried the whole time.
I’m laughing at myself now, but back then, my god.
I cried during the flight. The American guy sitting in the middle seat next to me absolutely noticed but positioned himself in such a way that I’d still have privacy and space. What a kindness. When I eventually stopped crying, we got to chatting and he told me he was a teacher in LA meeting with his girlfriend, a teacher in San Francisco, in Mexico City.
I cried in my hotel room each morning. I flipped on the television to watch nonsensical physical comedy in Spanish, relieved by the laugh track and absurdity.
I cried in an Uber while driving through the Centro Historico at night, recording video on my phone of the dimly lit streets filled with pedestrians, no sign of slowing down despite the late hour.
I cried on the bus to Teotihuacán. I cried at Teotihuacán, too, but that was more out of sheer amazement. Respite.
I even cried in a damn taqueria.
One day I managed to stop crying and visited the National Museum of Anthropology where I spent several leisurely hours immersed in indigenous cultures, ancient artifacts, and maps. I really do love maps. While taking a breath of fresh air outside, I ran into the teacher from the flight and his girlfriend.
In the largest museum in a city of 9 million people, I somehow managed to run into this guy. While introducing his girlfriend she remarked with some familiarity, “you’re the woman from the flight.” I assumed he must have told her he sat next to a crying woman during his flight. “Indeed. He told me you both are teachers!” The conversation gently moved toward Mexico City before we parted ways; them to the ground floor Totonaca room, me to the 2nd floor Chiapanecan room.
I stopped crying after that museum visit and decided to extend my stay in Mexico City. Those initial overcast, gray days bloomed into shining, blue skies with gentle breezes and I fell in love with Mexico City in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if I weren’t crying the whole damn time.
Then I went for tacos.
While strolling the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul, I wandered into a cluttered antique shop filled with seemingly everything in existence. The elderly shopkeeper sat cross-legged at his desk reading and smoking as old standards played in the background, providing a whimsical soundtrack for the lazy afternoon. He had bushy eyebrows, one of which sat permanently arched. He paid me no mind as I browsed the labyrinth of vintage cameras, military-issue lighters, records, and dusty old postcards.
As I passed his desk, he invited me for tea, a standard Istanbul ritual. I paused. During my previous travels to Istanbul, I quickly learned that an invitation by a young Turkish lad for tea generally preceded a sexual proposition and an invitation to "visit my uncle's carpet shop, very good prices." He didn't strike me as that guy, likely due to his ornery expression, so I accepted.
The old shopkeeper introduced himself as Nevzat. I began speaking when he interrupted, "I don't speak English."
I took another pause. Eyebrow still arched, Nevzat opened a translation app on his phone, spoke a few Turkish words, and out came the robotic monotone of the app's English speaking voice.
Asking me about myself, I shared my interest in photography. Nevzat remarked how photographers treat the camera like a Kalashnikov, popping into his store to snap photos without asking, leaving as quickly as they walked in, and making no effort to connect. I internally winced thinking about the times I treated my own camera like a Kalashnikov while traveling and took gentle accountability.
However, I felt no desire to defend or condemn photographers and their methods today, so I drank my tea as we sat in a comfortable silence listening to old music. Surrounded by Rumi figurines, black and white family photos, antique vases and suitcases, I felt transported to mid-century Constantinople in all its glamour and grit.
The next day, I found myself in Çukurcuma again searching for the Museum of Innocence, incidentally located opposite Nevzat's shop. I went inside.
"I was looking for a museum nearby, so I wanted to say hello." His eyebrow arched, and he shook his head, indicating he didn't understand anything I said. I typed my short greeting into a translation app and read the Turkish translation aloud to him in whatever rustic pronunciation I could muster, clumsily stomping over each word.
The biggest smile and the heartiest laugh escaped Nevzat. He kissed my forehead sweetly before saying something in Turkish with the tone of a grandparent receiving a lovingly, yet horribly drawn cat from a 4-year-old. I realized I had never seen Nevzat smile before.
Offering tea, he shared photos of his grandchildren, ranted about photographers again, and reminisced about one of his college professors. He shared a few Turkish sayings through the app, but with each messy translation causing him to grunt and arch his eyebrow, he simply shrugged his shoulders and took another drag.
Once again, we sat in a comfortable silence over tea and old standards as cigarette smoke wafted 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 over 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 in my deilemma, Cristobal, the front desk associate at my hotel, introduced me to his taxi driver buddy Martín, an affable middle-aged father who had lived in Texas at some point. 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 to go.
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.
Driving past the skeletal remains of seaside restaurants with tattered palapa roofs, 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!
Nestled along the Papaloapan River, Tlacotalpan's main draw is its colorfully painted buildings. The streets were empty except for bicyclists and a slow driving truck broadcasting a recording I couldn’t understand, its ominous voice following me up and down the lanes 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 colorful streets and plazas, I returned to the parking lot to find a napping Martín for our return to Veracruz. I noticed a large cemetery in the nearby town Alvarado and wanted to make a quick stop as cemeteries in Mexico are anything but plain grasslands dotted with headstones; instead, they contain elaborately built miniature houses, churches, and temples on individual graves depending on one’s economic status. There weren’t any visitors as far as I could see, just stray dogs wandering around and two elderly caretakers sitting in the shade by the entrance.
I would encourage travelers in Veracruz to visit Tlacotalpan for the town’s lovely scenery, and for the drive itself with shining sea views, small towns, and colorful palapa-roofed seafood restaurants dotted along the highway providing a respite from the (admittedly mellow) bustle of Puerto de Veracruz. With less than 24 hours' awareness of this town, I am 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 caught 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 while I dripped rainwater everywhere I went.
Still raining, I arrived in Gangnam and killed some hours at an aquarium and photo exhibition. 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 as I stood outside listening, disappearing into their ancient sutras.
I reached the central courtyard behind the main temple and observed a figure carrying a bright pink umbrella while sitting in contemplation, and listened to the sound of the temple gong, the crow’s ominous caws, and the gentle patter of rain drops. I wanted that moment etched within me forever.
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 my Zacatecan relatives find eating a bagel sandwich in Tulum appealing?
My Mexican friends tell me where to go while taking into consideration my sensitivities. Mexico Lite. I show up armed with a little more Spanish, pesos, a sense of humor, and patience. 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 while people 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.
“I’ve seen bits and bobs of Mexico” was ultimately all I could say to the Chilango.