The Spanish word for “travel” or “journey” is “viaje”! Now Now. Is it a coincidence that in the only other language I know (Punjabi that is. And by ‘know’ I mean have knowledge of more than 10 words :P) the word “viaje” means “wedding” and half the aunties in Delhi and their mothers (literally!) keep tormenting me to get some “viaje” soon. Well, so here I was getting my usual dose of viaje in December. And what a viaje it was!
(Caution: this joke will be lost if you don’t know that “j” in Spanish is pronounced as “h” :P Self Confessed language / pronunciation fanatics and Spanish enthusiasts, don’t be offended. This blog is meant to cater to people of all ages & walks).
But then there are wild viajes and sober viajes. You know Grand Delhi-Chattarpur-style viaje vs. Court Viaje-in-a-hundred-rupee-dress! Ok ok, back to normalcy. So there are crazy wild over-the-top trips and then the slightly more temperate ones where you behave more than you expect to.
I mean, there are wild, in-your-face-epic, irresponsible, reckless, impulsive trips where you throw caution to the wind and function on a “major”-high all through. (all innuendos intended). These trips are where the “how was” is answered with jumps up and down (in physical life) and multiple exclamation marks and colon dee smileys (in the web renditions). Where, like Matt Damon in Martian, you come back and cannot wait to tell your earthly friends stories of craziness – intended and unintended, dodgy calls that went right and wrong and dangers taken that went into nail biting climaxes. (but they are not as boring and predictable as the movie itself :P)
But this trip was different from the above. It was different from most trips I have otherwise undertaken, mostly solo, where incidents, rendezvous-es (that definitely isn’t the plural of rendezvous but French isn’t one of the languages I ‘know’ I guess!) and meetings with people formed bulk of the narratable part of the experience. And while all solo trips do provide for moments of contemplation, on the whole answering the question – How was your trip used to be fairly easy as the answers were factual, full of anecdotes and really just accounts of events.
On the other hand, this Mexico trip turned out to be beyond the normal in that when asked after returning – “how” and “stories?”, It was uncharacteristically difficult to find precise incidents to narrate or specific people to describe. (And before the over-smart over-enthusiastic reader jumps to conclusions, it does NOT have anything to do with age :P)
Which is why this blog comes a little late. I usually prefer to write trip blogs in the stupor or high of the travel experience i.e. either at the airport / flight back or at the moment of intersection when you leave one reality or world and enter into another one which is actually the old one itself – your so called home – but everything feels unreal and unknown. But this time, even the 36 hour flight / layover couldn’t jolt me out of the high so much so that after landing in Singapore, I lingered on at the airport cafes for a few extra hours even with all the pathetic-middle-seat-economy-class-squeezed-between-two-fat-uncles-who-drink-too-much-free-booze travel on me, lest getting into a cab break the spell!
So, well, Why?
Well factually, as a last aside, part of the reason was also because I was travelling with a chaperonin *scrunched-up-eyes-and-tongue out-smiley* and extremely cautious travel mate (“TM”) who was traveling in an only-girls group for the first time. For her, this meant that various formidable, herculean tasks like carrying a backpack, ensuring someone doesn’t run away with your money, keeping an eye out on the road, carrying water bottles etc. had to be done on her own which is such a shame because boys usually love doing that for her. (Commonly known side effect of looking like a million dollars!). Consequently, over-compensation worked and the verdict was to confine self to areas where at least 70% of the people are Americans who are apparently “good people” and “safe” (and all the gun control debates can rest in peace!).
Amusingly all the riskiness was happening prior to the trip. A night before the flights to MX, a good samaritan sends the TM some article about the 9.5 rated hostel we were about stay in where 1 chica out of 200-odd found the place a little ‘uncomfortable’ and based on that article the entire trip was about to be cancelled – A night before! ….. ORRR turned into a giant resort-fest! Much cajoling, convincing followed including a thousand examples of “if it bleeds, it leads”.
Logical pleas aside, I guess what really cut the deal was emotional blackmail focusing on our background - Recalling college days together where believe-it-or-not we faced a tribal poisoned spear attack on the entire college which led to a sine die! – Seriously how much worse can be Mexico after that? And so TM agreed to travel - Under certain strict rules of playing extra-cautious.
But the road is such that no matter how hard you try and contain yourself. No matter how many all-inclusive resorts you try and jail yourself in, it doesn’t fail to excite and swoon and seduce in its various ways, creepily smiling from nooks and corners.
You build for staid trips on the road and you end up missing them like a phantom limb.
And these are where you learn that it doesn’t need to be about activities – snorkeling or diving for the first time, singing with bands, meeting snake charmers and weird madcaps. When you turn away eyes from the wackiness - the honest simplicity of people will endear in an entirely different way. What was supposed to be unsafe place to be avoided will turn out to be safer than your own country where dress lengths decide road treatment. That you will find people so lost in their own dances and music that they don’t need to bother with swindling foreigners.
Although I still cant say for sure what it was. Was it the fact that this was a longer, slower trip? Was it the halcyon attitude of the people, drinking at noon on a Tuesday without a care in world in a city where everyone paints their houses yellow? Old couples coming out to dance every Sunday evening on the streets in hordes. 50 year old men dressed up in hats and vests and women in white Mayan costumes but really barely able to just cling on than move in the name of dance. A local sexagenarian who was literally omnipresent, we found him anchoring the local song and dance performances at every show we attended in little Merida, always sporting a sombrero - Entertaining town people everyday till midnight at the age of 60.
There was Centro Historico with its pretty rows and rows of colorful houses and pervasive Star Wars craziness. Local street musicians on every corner. Throwback to Mesoamerican civilizations and the architecture of Chichen Itza and Uxmal – also a sharp reminder of one of my favorite movies – Apocalypto. We met a brilliant multiple doctorate holding, half-Indian (Indian here meaning Amerindian) guide with a flawless British accent trying to convince the tourists that his culture, the Mayans weren’t all blood and gore and that what was happening in the world today wasn’t too different. At least they had limited means, knowledge and understanding but for looking at the Jaguar that they apotheosized, what is our excuse?
Paseo de Montejo (The Mexican Champs Elyssey) with its museums that were built by the Spaniards on destroyed Mayan cities, now housing the same Mayan artifacts exhumed from below. Cute Mexican guys who would approach you and without a second thought blue streaking in espanol with the “mi amors” and “senoritas” because well, finally Indians are in a city where they got color camouflage! Whatever it was, it was mesmerizing because it haunted and stayed on for so much longer. Not like a flame but a forest fire.
There were the local crests and troughs and moments of elation, a heart sink, a jump in a sinkhole (cenote), and two non-swimmers flailing about in choppy waves under wild rain. Dancing with the whole city. Happy gleeful smiling faces reflected in the fiery green sauce generously poured on every taco.
And the food oh the food. Food of Mexico by itself deserves an entry on its own. The usual fare of tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, tortillas, empanadas apart there was so much more. I remember reading this quote recently, “I cannot make everyone happy, I am not Rajma Chawal”. Well after this trip that may as well be “I am not refried beans with huevos rancheros & habanero sauce”. We ended up having Mexican food every meal for those ten days. And don’t for a moment assume there were only 3 meals during the day. I also discovered the reason why Mexican food is always served with avocado and sour cream. They work as emollients to quell the fire that the habanero / jalapeno sauces light in your mouth.
(Mexico travel tip: Do not schedule the visits to beach towns towards the latter part of the trip. None of the swimwear photos will make it to facebook or stay undeleted on your phone for more than 3 seconds if you love food half as much as I do!)
An interesting part of the trip was towards the end when I am having same MX fare for like the 50th time with the same amount of gusto staring at the mouth watering (and soon to be eye watering) Arroz con pollo on the menu and TM stares at me wide mouthed. Conversation goes something like this:
TM: This guy, that guy, why are guys are like this. Age. Yada. Yada Job. Money. MBA Yada Yada
Me: Dude forget this entire guy / money crap man. Lets order food. Look at this new fare Cochinita Pibil. Pollo duc. Tamales. Chicken Mole! Mexican food is sooooo the best (repeated for the fiftieth time)
TM: I’m so depressed, I’m going to kill myself.
Me: Chomp Chomp Chomp.
TM is aghast. I order dessert to quell her.
TM: (glaring at me in wonder speechless for 10 minutes like I belong to a different specie). Sigh. Yeh bhi acha tareeka hai life jeene ka. Live in love with food and stop caring about everything else.
Me: Dude its just that Mexican food is soooo good!
Later in Dallas at Einstein Bagel
Me: Oh my god I haven’t tasted a Bagel BBQ Chicken Combo like this ever!!
TM: Walks Away
Food. Kilotons of Food. Dancing, Music, Salsa lessons, wedding shows, Untamed blue waters, ballet capital of Mexico, travel in little mini-buses and unexpectedly comfortable intra-city Volvos, 1000 year old temples built over temples. And beautiful people. Maybe the Indians were meant to feel at home in the land of the Indians. Well, that was that. And I am just glad they let me enter without asking me to describe my moustache! (No jokes there, till some time back it was a visa requirement, even for women).
So when one comes back from these trips, and in silent contemplation sitting at office desks, miss those ordinary moments of sipping coffee at a bus stop or eating a roadside chorizo taco while it rains in an ordinary albeit different country – that’s when you know – it’s the quiet epiphany of wanderlust.
When it’s not the expensive so called “experiential” activities that you really yearn for but just the incomprehensible drone of another language, antics of a different kind of people and the joy of trying to communicate with a vocabulary of 5-10 words.
Eating somewhere else but here. Waking up to somewhere else but here. Watching people walk by some other lanes. Different faces. Different attitudes. Learn different histories.
Fernweh – or the painful yearning to be away, that’s what this trip fed.
And now this monster-baby has tasted blood :)
P.S. Just in case you noticed, extra exclamation in English version in the title because you need more support to express the same emotions in the queens language!