Puppies, Rainbows and Cobblestone Streets

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Puppies, Rainbows and Cobblestone Streets in San Cristobal, Mexico

It’s one of those days. I’m waking up to a cool blue-skied morning in the rugged Chiapas mountains of Mexico’s deep south. I’ve been traveling mostly non-stop for almost three years now — it’s a dream I’m living, a blessing bestowed upon few and I’m very grateful. And yet, today, I’m miserable.

It isn’t always puppies and rainbows out here.

Sometimes, somehow, the magic leaks out as if there’s a hole in my heart. I forget I’m living that dream, walking carefree through exotic lands and meeting amazing people.

I don’t know the time of day, the date or sometimes even the month. I’ve gone feral, disconnected entirely from what I used to think of as the ‘real world’.

The cubicle and the 9-5 ‘American Dream’ lie so far behind that I sometimes forget just how lucky I am.

I’ve had this happen before. After three weeks on a motorcycle in Vietnam, I hit a point where it all looked the same, where I became immune to the charms of endless rice fields, smiling faces, water buffalo and parents introducing their children to the big pale foreigner so they could proudly display their English skills.

My life became a series of dusty, traffic-ridden roads surrounded by endless grids of green and brown, filled with hunched workers laboring under conical hats. After a month of riding a jackhammer and dodging buses for ten hours a day, I was burnt. Fried. Finished.

And, of course, now that I’ve had time to reflect and recharge, I’d give a kidney to be there again.

This is the mood that haunts me this morning as I walk the crooked streets of San Cristobal. I’ve been here too long. It’s lost something. Or even worse, I have….

I’ll admit that this terrible hangover isn’t helping. One bit of magic did happen yesterday: I ran into a friend I’d met in Rishikesh, India over a year ago, a weird beard poet from Oregon named Throck. It was a complete surprise to both of us.

We swapped lies and caught up on events at a sidewalk cafe who’s primary charm was its location and its cheap wine. I wouldn’t want to say that we got completely hammered but the truth is that we got completely hammered.

Puppies, Rainbows and Cobblestone Streets in San Cristobal, Mexico

I’ll wake up the next morning fully-clothed and face down on my bed. He’ll find himself sleeping on the sidewalk outside the wrong hostel because his key wouldn’t work. Tough night.

I stumble to my laptop around noon and try to get some writing done but it’s just not happening.

I’ve rented a habitaciõn in a eight-room complex where, for $150 a month, I enjoy a large room with a desk, good light and fast wifi. The rooms circle an open courtyard, where there is a kitchen and two shared bathrooms — all in all, it’s a nice setup.

Recently, a young couple has moved in and they’ve begun to take over the public space. They make jewelry during the week and sell it in the tourist markets on weekends. I fully support this –they’re making a living while traveling the world– but the downside is that producing their wares requires hours of tapping a hammer on an small anvil. Tap, tap, tap, tap…

I try to be understanding — they’re obviously living close to the edge, cooking all meals at home and washing their clothes each morning. They’re chasing their dream and I resist the urge to complain but this is a house, not a factory. And the constant tink-tink-tink makes it damned hard to concentrate and write.

A week ago, the tinker decided one day to start his routine at 7am. My bleary-eyed, broken-Spanish ass-chewing from the balcony (wearing nothing but boxers) seemed to have made quite the impression and he now waits until 10am or later before making noise.

Now that my Spanish has improved a bit, I’m pretty sure I called him a “butt-sniffing badger”. It seems to have worked, so I’m not complaining.

Today they’ve invited their friend to join them for brunch. He’s an older guy and seems friendly enough (we exchange smiles and ”buenos dias” greetings each time we meet) but he likes to talk. A lot and loudly. He sits in the courtyard spinning yarns at full volume while my neighbor tap-tap-taps, nodding and saying “si.. si.. si…” over and over.

It’s as if he’s learning the English alphabet and is stuck on the third letter.

Hungover and bitchy, I decide to head to my favorite coffee shop to work — I’m getting nothing done. Stepping into the cobblestone street, I realize that this is That Day. That Day happens every couple of weeks and I really can’t say why.

The central part of San Cristobal is spotless — the streets are swept, trash collected and everything is kept spic and span for the day’s tourist rush. Except for That Day, when –for some unknown reason– hundreds of dogs sneak in during the night and shit in the street. And on the sidewalks. And –don’t ask me how– occasionally on the walls.

Walking down the middle of the road, I weave like a drunk to avoid soiling my shoes.

I’m aware, of course, that I’d done the exact same thing just the night before but for very different reasons. It’s like following behind the Bi-Weekly Parade for Incontinent Pets.

The coffee shop is closed for renovation (it’s rainy season, so many businesses do this) and I end up at the same place at which Throck and I tried to kill ourselves the night before. They don’t have wifi but they happily steal it from the place across the street and I order wine (hair of the dog and all), water and tacos and I settle in to write.

Puppies, Rainbows and Cobblestone Streets

Now, one of the dangers of staying somewhere too long is that you get to know people. Don’t get me wrong — this is one of the reasons I do tend to move so slowly. And I’ve met some fantastic people here. But when you’re wanting to get things done, sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Main Street is not the best plan. And it catches me today, when Dave from California passes by and decides to join me.

We’ve hung out a couple of times now and he’s quite a character.

There’s no conversation with Dave — he really prefers to just tell stories. He’ll ask you a question, then interrupt within 20 seconds to launch into his tale — the question was just a setup. This can be entertaining when you’re in the mood. Currently, I am not.

He’s nearly 60 with a huge, white ZZ-top beard, a floppy sombero-style hat and torn blue jean shorts. He looks like Santa Claus on vacation and when young kids ask to have their photo taken with him, all he can do is complain. “I get this ten times a day. It’s annoying.” Maybe you could shave or ditch the hat or generally just try looking less like Santa Claus?

Then the rain hits and I’m stuck huddling under the umbrella, listening to tales of his favorite cities in the world to score cocaine. “Wine and a line, I always say”. (You may not be surprised to learn that Bogota, Columbia is high on the list — pun unintended, I swear).

He blathers on and I find myself saying “si… si…. si…”. The irony is not lost on me.

Eventually the sun drops, taking the rain with it. I pay my bill, say my goodbyes and walk home in the dwindling light. I’m lost in thought and doubt, wondering what I’m doing. Why am I wandering so far from home, so distant from friends and family and hand-delivered pizza?

And it’s that walk home that changes everything.

In the distance, a rooster wheezes out his last crow.

I can hear a three-piece mariachi band playing in a nearby cafe — whether they’re annoying or thrilling some tourists is impossible to say.

Then I pass the domino parlor where old men play, the clack-clack-slap of the game muffled only by the bed sheet curtains that guard the door. The men laugh and curse, telling the same stories they’ve told for years.

I gaze up and find the deepest shade of blue I have ever seen. Then I look down and the twilight reflecting off the wet cobblestone street makes it look and feel as if I’m walking on the sky.

And in that instant I remember: this is why I do it.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Lainie Liberti August 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Mmmm…what a story teller.

I’ve had the exact same waves of discontent wash over me, then suddenly I get a similar glimpse into the magic you describe. Thanks for the reminder.

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wes August 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Thank you Lainie — very much appreciated.

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Rachel August 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Hey Johnny,

Loved your story, despite it being slightly depressing. I can’t say I understand, because the longest I’ve been on the road is a month haha. But maybe someday, I’ll get to do my RTW trip.

Actually, most of your stories, because the words that flow out of you help to paint a picture in my head (of what you experience/see/feel), and I try to live vicariously through you.

Enjoy the many twilights and sunrises to come! :) Have a good one.

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wes August 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I appreciate that — thanks.

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Steve @ Backpacker Report August 15, 2013 at 11:44 pm

mate, you’ve got some great writing skills. i quite enjoy reading your narratives! and how do you keep running into these unusual people? i’ve been on the roads for a couple of years too but can’t say i’ve run into a guy like dave
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wes August 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Thanks, Steve. I’m just a freak magnet. I really don’t know how it happens…

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Adventurous Kate August 15, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Wes, you’re probably the best one out there of capturing the dark moments of full-time travel. Thank you for doing that.

I try to do the same and it sucks. Attempted to write a piece like that while sobbing my eyes out on a 110-degree 7-hour train ride through Bulgaria the other day. Did not work.
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wes August 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Heh, not sure I’ll put that on my business car but thank you. Some things are tough to write about. I try to focus on the positive but I’m also trying to describe how things really are. It’s a weird balance. Thanks so much for the comment.

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Alex Baldwin August 16, 2013 at 9:33 am

Hi Wes. I’ve only been travelling for half a year, and am yet to hit my point of “Why am i doing this”, but reading your story gives me confidence that i will be able to overcome it and realise why travel is so important to me.

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wes August 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Thanks. Things can definitely get tough at times. But then there are moments that make it all worthwhile. It’s a dance.

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Bama August 17, 2013 at 8:56 am

Thanks for the write up Johnny! It’s an important reminder for those embarking on long-term trips that there will be ups and downs, just like life itself. But at the end of the day it’s our own passion which determines whether or not we persevere against all odds. Hope all is well for you!
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wes August 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm

All well here. Yes, sometimes you just have to push through things. There’s usually light at the end of the tunnel that *isn’t* an oncoming train.

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jennifer August 17, 2013 at 9:41 am

I am not a full time traveler……YET. But I have an insane amount of annual vacation time that allows me to take really long trips. My last one was a month in Europe.

I have had some meltdowns where I wonder why the hell I have gotten myself in this situation, like why on earth did I think coming here was ever a good idea. All it takes is one moment of puppies, rainbows and cobblestones to remind you. After my last mental meltdown in Serbia, I was reminded why I do this when the next day I was on a bus to Belogradchik, Bulgaria. Seeing those rocks outside the bus window, my face hurt from smiling. It made my meltdown seem so stupid.

You are such a great writer that I am glad you came to your senses and had the “THIS is why I am here” moment. We need you to stay out, so you can keep writing and we can keep reading.
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wes August 17, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for the comment. Melt downs happen — it goes with the territory :)

Glad you like the site and thank you for the kind words.

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Jerry Karwowski August 18, 2013 at 10:01 am

I liked this story and I am the same way. I was pissed off at Sri Lanka for two straight weeks and I see one sunset and all is forgiven. Deep as a sheet cake and not afraid to admit it sometimes.

Deeper meaning, magic, blah blah, blah, sometimes it’s just a really cool view that keeps you going.

I think sometimes every tourist/traveler may unintentionally try too hard to give things a meaning especially if you are on the road a while, but you forget to let it happen not force it to happen.

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Lise Griffiths August 19, 2013 at 8:07 am

Really honest article. You captured the feeling of wondering why you’re so far from home really well. Something most travelers have probably experienced even on short trips. Experiences and perspectives like that are priceless in their own way I suppose.

Hahhaaaaaa! I LOVE the butt-sniffing-badger comment, a pitfall anyone learning Spanish must encounter I’m sure!
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Ruzhi August 19, 2013 at 10:19 am

I guess that a fulfilled dream, no matter how pleasant will get dull after some time. Probably those in heaven would love some porn and booze just for a change.. And oh, keep the stories coming, they really have that ‘kick’ and stand apart from the usual guide/diary-like travel blogs!
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wes August 19, 2013 at 11:53 am

Thanks. Yes, it can get dull but rarely. This is more about those days when everything just stacks up in a negative way and overwhelms you.

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Karpa August 21, 2013 at 7:30 am

For what it’s worth, your stories and pictures transport me to an exotic world away from the mundane work and for the few hours I browse through your site, I feel I’m seeing and feeling the same as you do. So, I’m glad you are travelling, taking pictures, sharing your stories and feeling ‘the moments’.

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wes August 21, 2013 at 11:48 am

wow, I really appreciate that.

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rebecca August 23, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Lets be honest – that depression was from the dam wine!!!! And sometime we all have cases of the grass is always greener! Never the less I bet you have out way less often then those not fulfilling their dreams!! Great read, I really enjoyed!
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wes August 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

oh, it certainly didn’t help ;)

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Xavier August 26, 2013 at 12:49 am

Some people have a craze on old things, like old photos, shoes, bikes, etc. I am one of them and I love the feeling of being surrounded by all kinds of old things. It’s like in a story that belongs only to your fantasy.

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Ron | Active Planet Travels August 26, 2013 at 5:05 am

Haha I think all of us get the case of “sorry ass” and don’t want to do any work. Just like you said, we go out drinking the night before and before we know it we’re waking up stumbling down the street. haha Just keep following your dreams as the rest of us do because if you find yourself back into that “American Dream” and a 9-5 rut you’ll immediately realize how much better you had it before. :-)
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wes August 26, 2013 at 5:58 am

Amen.

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Ceri August 27, 2013 at 12:49 pm

You are such an incredible writer. Wow. San Cristóbal was my favourite place in Mexico. I miss it so much and regret not staying there longer. Then again, the friend who I went there with returned a few months after we’d left and then reported back that it all gets very samey and loses its charm after being there for too long, so I’m grateful for the time I did experience, I guess. :)
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Ellen Keith August 29, 2013 at 2:31 am

When you’re traveling so long, travel becomes a lifestyle, not a vacation. It’s normal to have off-days, or weeks, or months. Sometimes all it takes is the smallest reminder of why we live the way we live to set us back on our feet. :)
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CB August 29, 2013 at 3:36 pm

HIL-AR-I-OUS ! = ) You make your suffering soooo funny!

These 2 sentences are genius:

“This can be entertaining when you’re in the mood. Currently, I am not.”

Found your site from a link on Adventurous Kate today.

Travel bloggers who have the integrity to pull back the curtain and share a more 360 degree perspective are gold. Thank you. = )

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wes September 4, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Thanks so much. Your comment made my day.

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christian schaffer September 8, 2013 at 3:28 am

this is brilliant. in every way.

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wes September 8, 2013 at 10:42 am

Thank you :)

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Jonathan Look, Jr. September 10, 2013 at 12:44 am

I too am beginning to discover that even a beautiful dream has those moments where routine slips in. But yes, the beauty always seems to reveal itself again. At this point I wouldn’t want to trade the life of a low speed nomad for anything else in the world.
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Ramesh September 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Am I the only one to whom photos look like CGI(not saying that its CGI). I mean it looks very clean and perfect :)

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Eli October 3, 2013 at 5:22 am

one of the travel posts I have ever read :)
great style of writing, I enjoyed reading this one
as for the up and downs, they come with life, and especially with this lifestyle.
I always remind myself not to get too high on the up, and that the down is only a promo for the near up.

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Kiki October 13, 2013 at 6:43 am

God love ya. Another great post. I appreciate your honesty in your writing so much. I look forward to your posts and am delighted you are still living your dream. Even w/ the tink tink tinks, the down days, poo poo on the sidewalk, and California Daves – you narrate a way of life I don’t fully know and a world I am pretty removed from in my vanilla, So-Cal niche. Miss ya dude. Keep it up. I’m so proud of u.

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Morgan November 3, 2013 at 6:26 am

Love this piece! It’s funny how something as simple as a puddled reflection can magically change our perspective and remind us of all the world’s wanders at our finger tips and the many reasons to be happy.
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Morgan November 3, 2013 at 6:26 am

Love this piece! It’s funny how something as simple as a puddled reflection can magically change our perspective and remind us of all the world’s wonders at our finger tips and the many reasons to be happy.
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Silke March 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Hi,
just stumbled across your blog in your article. I travelled for over 6 years through Latin America, earning my living working as a tour guide and I can totally relate to your feeling. Sometimes every beauty is lost on you and you just want to go home, but when I dropped my tourists at the airport and they were off to Europe in winter and I returned to the Carribean beach and had a beautiful Pina colada and gazed at the green blue water and the incredible sky I knew that I am doing the right thing…

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