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’.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.