I’ve gotten caught up in Mexico. The food, the places, the language—it’s what I wanted when I left California, almost two months ago. I wanted to conocer, to get to know, Mexico.
I left the hands of my cousin in Zacatecas to embark on some solo adventure. I was nervous as hell getting on the first of four buses to Guanajuato. This was it, I thought, I’m on my own now. I navigated each bus station, no problema, thanks to my tedious notes. I felt anxious. I didn’t want to get stuck in some in-between town, walking through the streets at night, looking for a hotel.
Before leaving, I considered staying in Zacatecas. Maybe the point of this journey was to get to know Mexico through the life of my family? Maybe I should go back to the ranch? But I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I stayed. Part of all this was proving to myself that I am fine on my own.
As my final bus took me from the outskirts of what could have been any Mexican city, to the historical center of Guanajuato, my heart melted and I knew I’d done good to come. Tall, stone walls stand along the streets at the entrance, providing a foreground that reminded me of the walled cities of York and Edinburgh. Hundreds, probably thousands, of houses of every color sat perched on every available nook on the hills behind.
The bus wound itself around narrow, windy, cobblestone roads and eventually dove underground on one of the streets built below the city. Here, I stepped out at the Mercado stop and climbed up a short flight of stairs back into the light and life aboveground. I asked the first person I saw for directions to the city center—a local fishmonger working at a stand outside the market. He pointed up the main road, as did the two or three other people I asked along the way.
I paid for one night’s stay at the hostel I’d found online the previous night, wondering if I should have worked out a discount for three or four nights. There’s usually room for negotiation with 3+ nights, but at this point I wasn’t ready to commit beyond the first. I dropped my bags in my dorm room, where it appeared I had the room to myself (score!).
I walked up a spiral staircase to check out the rooftop terrace. I’d seen it in a photo online and it was the only reason I had shelled out $20 pesos more per night here, rather than a cheaper room elsewhere. The view proved worth it. The terrace faced the pretty, little houses stacked up the hill, with colonial buildings and trees mixed into the landscape. At sunset, the light painted the whole scene with a dreamy golden hue.
I rushed downstairs for my camera, though it’s hard to capture a landscape like that unless standing at the perfect vantage point. The stark, unlovely rooftops between the hostel and the golden scene stuck out enough to prevent a decent composition. I took a minute to take everything down in my mind instead.
Back down below, I met two Aussies staying at the hostel—Mikey and Jim. I didn’t know at the time that we’d end up on some adventures together, but we did. That first evening they told me that they’d worked in Canada for some time, drove through the States, sold their car once they got to Mexico and were hitchhiking farther south. I asked where they’d been in California and they said they drove down the coast, stopping in San Francisco and L.A., until they headed east for Vegas. Typical foreigners I thought, they always go to Vegas. I told them they’d have to visit San Diego next time.
Mikey reckoned, as Australians reckon everything, he wouldn’t visit the country again. “America is great and all,” he said. “But it’s full of Americans, isn’t it?”
What a douche, I thought. Who insults someone to their face?, and so nonchalantly. He must have mistaken me for one of those Americans who travel and talk trash on the States. We met one of those types a few weeks later in Oaxaca and she really got me going. I had had a shot of the locally-made mezcal and a Dos Equis or two earlier in the night, but that only gave me the confidence to say what I would have otherwise kept to myself. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of where you come from,” I shouted to her as we walked away.
But before all that, I was nervous. Though I’d been speaking only Spanish in Zacatecas, I still got wound up about interacting with anyone. This anxiety made tasks like getting something to eat feel like a chore. I thought about it for at least an hour or two before I’d begrudgingly go out to find something edible. There were nights when I went to bed hungry because I didn’t want to deal with what seems simple now—walk to a taco stand, a gordita stand, an elote, corn, stand and order something. Pointing works, ask cuanto? (how much?) and hand over your pesos.
That first night in Guanajuato I ended up at a restaurant with a boldly-colored décor inside. Before I had a chance to fully peruse the menu at the front and consider whether I could afford to eat there, an old man sitting with a jovial crowd beckoned me inside. “Buena comida,” he said as he waved me in. Good food.
I walked inside and sat near his group hoping they’d invite me to join the party. They didn’t and I didn’t care. I felt happy just to sit near them and glance over at their smiles as they enjoyed each other’s company and their bottle of tequila. I ordered one of the cheaper items on the menu, chicken enchiladas covered in mole. I savored the dish slowly with a beer and a jamaica.
Everything in the room—the tables, the chairs, the walls—was bright blue, yellow and red. The chairs had large fruit painted on them that reminded me of the gaudy cookie jars and other kitchen goods for sale along the streets in Tijuana. The wall to my right was covered from floor to ceiling with crosses and sacred hearts that looked like they’d been grabbed up from every corner of Mexico—wood, metal, carved, painted, engraved, with Jesus, without Jesus, etc.
To my left there were dozens of Day of the Dead skeletons on display. One of the ladies from the party climbed up a chair and a table to check them out and asked if she could buy one. The owner came over and said “sure” and gave her a price. She looked over at me and said something about it being pretty, but I didn’t fully understand her statement. I responded with a polite smile and a nod.
I paid my bill and walked back through the romantic, moonlit streets of Guanajuato, past embracing couples, gardens and mariachi bands, satisfied that’d I’d gotten somewhere.