Meet Platonic. Platonic and I have been friends since college, and linked up over emails several months ago when I was planning this trip to South America. Turns out, we share a friend in Buenos Aires, and a penchant for passport stamps. While I was in charge of planning our treks through Patagonia, Platonic took over the trip to the beach.
“We have to get to Punta del Este,” he said. “ A buddy told me it was awesome.”
So, note to future travelers, as it turns out this is not quite enough information to go hopping international borders. When we arrived in the airport we were greeted by advertisements for Tiffany & Co., Rolex and Ralph Lauren. If only I could have Fairy Godmothered my backpacks into a couple of polo ponies, I would have blended right in. Instead, I showed my passport to customs, sure they would stamp it with big bold letters: HOBO.
Turns out the coastline of Punta del Este, La Barra and San Ignacio are beautifully presented, but it’s a recipe I’m familiar with: one part Hamptons, a pinch of Santa Montica, and dash of St. Tropez. Now that I’ve tasted it, I can tell you, it’s one expensive dish. And yet surprisingly, I find it lacks flavor.
Still, it was a perfect place to spend a birthday. Or maybe I just got lucky. On the beach in La Barra I met Carmen, a campesina who was selling jewelry on the beach. She sold me a necklace that is now my signature piece of flair. She promised the green stone would offer protection, which I thought was brilliant marketing, so I instantly agreed to pay full price.
“What kind of protection, exactly?”
“Health? Financial? Can we drill down a bit here?”
“Yes health, peace of mind, everything.”
“Well, it’s my birthday, I think I deserve to buy some peace of mind.”
“It’s your birthday? How old?”
“No,” she said giving me her very best surprised look, “I would have guessed twenty-seven.”
“I love you. I’ll take two.”
“Is that your husband?”
“Who, Platonic? No, no, we’re just friends.”
“Well in that case, I’m going to throw in a feather earring, I made it myself. It is very special. It’s for fertility.”
At this point I started to wonder if Carmen was in cahoots with my mom. Was she a plant? Or was the state of my reproductive system now a cause for international concern? Either way, I’m superstitious, and I wasn’t about to say no.
“Should I buy another feather earring to match? You know, one for each ovary? Might be a little less ‘Braveheart,’ too…”
“No no, two would just be too much plumage.”
Carmen and I talked for a while, and she invited us to a full moon party that night. She marked an X on my tourist map in place where there were no streets, and drew a couple of trees to indicate woods. This was the part where the map without numbers, forks, and martini glasses– the part that just bleeds into nameless gray squares and out of the imaginations of tourists.
Turns out after a full moon party with locals, it’s hard to get back into the groove of Punta del Este. The next days felt manicured, our food tasteless, and I swore I even saw my backpack roll its eyes. It was time to leave.
Yesterday we caught a bus to Montevideo. Here the grit and graffiti are a stark contrast to the yacht clubs and Mercedes cabs of Punta del Este. The lobby of my hotel smells like a decade worth of cigarettes and my room has the hangover of a feline fiesta. (It’s a bit of a mystery, actually. There’s no hard evidence of kitty occupation, but the odor is unmistakable. I can only assume that, like vampires, the cats of Montevideo live a nocturnal life in which they lounge on laps by day and party in the bathrooms of my hotel by night. I even tried to seal the door with towels, but still, those damn ghost cats persisted.)
I slept well and this morning I walked the streets, took pictures, and stopped into a neighborhood cafe for breakfast. There were no menus in English. No tourist prices. Just a coffee with three inches of foam.
I love it here.
There’s a saying in Maine to describe the weather: “Nine months of good sleddin’, three months of not-so-good sleddin’.” There’s no such thing as “spring” (unless you count mud season). Growing up, it was like we’d wake up after a nine month nap, and BAM: it was summer. There was formal transition marked by blooms and blossoms, just the sudden realization that your snotcicles had melted, and it was time to apply SPF 4000 and venture into the sun. Seasons are weird like that in New England.
I’m now in Punta del Este, Uruguay. It’s amazingly beautiful, but everything here is upside down. It’s not just that winter is summer and summer is winter, or even that fact that dinner is at midnight and the bars are empty until 2am. It’s the beach: it defies everything I’ve ever learned about sun exposure, cellulite and gravity. All the women here are wearing thongs, and doing it with pride. And all of them can pull it off. At the age of 70, these grandmas are still looking great.
But I’m from New England. I am pretty sure my grandmother wore a smock to the beach, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t crack my genetic code. When I showed up in my bikini I instantly felt overdressed and exposed the same time. I stand out here like a New Yorker at LL Bean.
“Don’t worry about it,” I coached myself under my breath. “If they came to your beach at home they would look ridiculous. They probably wouldn’t even be wearing any fleece!”
It seems to me that there are only two female segments here: very young girls in one-piece bathing suits and buxom bronzed beauties who “just say no” to tan lines. “Paddle ball with dad? No problem! Let me just adjust my thong!” Here, bathing suits are to butt cheeks as long johns are to high heels back home: the pairing makes perfect sense until you introduce someone from the outside.
I suppose if you’re a teenager down here one day you just wake up, and suddenly it’s Thong City. There’s no transition–no sporty Speedo, no tankini, just one piece of pricey thread hanging between you and total nudity. Like seasons in Maine, when you wake up one day and realize you don’t need wool socks.
So I guess we have that in common.
Forget all that shit I said about Valentine’s Day. Rejection is the worst.
I’ve been turned down before, nothing compares to the way I’m feeling right now. After 18 days traveling through Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido and San Augustinillo, I’ve been kicked to the curb, pushed aside like third class citizen, or first class tourist, or whatever. I opened my heart to Mexico, loved it deeply, and in the end, it just sat there, drinking a michelada in the shade and answered back, “Let’s just be friends.”
I guess I just feel played, you know? I watch the news, I know how Mexico is supposed to go. You head south of the border and only one thing happens to desirable tourists: you get abducted by drug lords who bleed your family for exorbitant ransoms.
Naturally, I had my hopes set high. I even extended my stay to ensure enough time for proper capture. But I wasn’t kidnapped–not even once! I’m not missing any pinkies, I still have both ears, and not one single member of my family has received a threat. Everyone I talk to is like, “Don’t even worry about it. You’re over thinking it,” and while I want to believe them, at a certain point you have to wonder: is it me?
I look back on it, and honestly, I don’t know what I could have done differently. I mean, I wore a conspicuous camera around my neck in Mexico City, peered into the windows of black SUVs with bulletproof glass, and I even asked the shotgun-toting Federales to point out tourist destinations on my Lonely Planet map. Finally, when things just were clearly not going well, I bought a cubic zirconium bracelet and matching tear drop earrings and walked around unfamiliar neighborhoods for hours on end. And yet… nothing.
But when I made it to Puerto Escondido, I thought my luck had changed. Hugo, a guy I met in La Clandestina in Mexico City, put me in touch with his friend, Hector, who lives there. I called his cell phone as soon as I arrived:
“Hi Hector! Not sure if you got Hugo’s message, but we go way back. I’m the American girl he met in a mezcaleria last Thursday. Ringing any bells? I’m the one who knows all her credit card pin codes by heart, and has never taken a self defense class in her life…”
“Si si, of course. Yes, Hugo mentioned you would call. I am free all day tomorrow. Tell me where you are staying and I will pick you up and show you around.”
“Great! You can get me in Bahia Principal. Do you need me to bring anything? Sedatives? Blindfolds? Unmarked bills?”
“No, just yourself! See you tomorrow.”
Needless to say, I was up all night. “Just yourself.” I mean, how would you interpret that? I thought it was pretty clear: “Just yourself: because you are pure gold in kidnap currency.” I was up all night planning the perfect abduction outfit. This would be the outfit that I would be wearing when I was relinquished to international media and I wanted it to be just right– cute, but not contrived. It would also require breathable fabrics because from what I’ve seen on 60 Minutes those boxes they keep you in during your captivity are pretty cramped. (I wasn’t after any of this “express kidnapping” bullshit. I was looking for a commitment.)
I finally settled on a sun dress and flip-flops, and waited outside for my drug lords. By 12:15 I got a pit in my stomach. Was he really going to be late for my very first kidnapping? Or worse, was he standing me up? Fortunately at 12:20 he peeled into the hotel in a white SUV. PERFECT! I thought. This is definitely the stuff slow speed car chases are made of.
First, you should know that Hector is, for all intents and purposes, Mexican Johnny Depp (the Pirates of the Caribbean version, only with less head gear and more hemp bracelets). So needless to say, when I saw him, my heart fluttered. “I’m going to be held hostage by a pirate!” I thought. How could it get any better? By now I was convinced that not only would there be drug cartels involved, but potentially planks and parrots.
I mean, looking back on it, now I feel so stupid. Why do we girls always get our hopes up? It’s just so easy to get carried away.
What actually happened is that Mexican Johnny Depp took me to lunch at his favorite place on the furthest part of the beach.
“So this is how an abduction begins,” I continued to convince myself. “They get you comfortable, make sure you’re enjoying your tuna ceviche and then start pulling out your fingernails…” I decided if I was going to be tortured, I might as well enjoy a beer. It would probably hurt less if I was at least a little bit buzzed.
After the ceviche I started to get bored. How many signals does a girl have to give? When he wasn’t catching my subtleties, I told him that my parents owned one of the biggest newspapers in the United States. Sure, I mean, I feel a little bit bad about lying to him, but come on. I had to do something. Was he really this dense?
After our lunch he offered to show me the house he was building on the beach, which I took as an obvious sign that I would be sequestered under floor boards, so I leaped at the chance. But when I got there, I tripped over construction beams and cinderblocks. My heart sank: he was telling the truth.
Turns out there would be no abduction in Mexico City, or Puerto Escondido, or anywhere in Mexico. Just local people who wanted to tote me around and share their food and their friends and their favorite bars and hidden trails. What a bunch of teases.
And if you’re reading this future prospective captors, you’re too late. I’m already in Buenos Fucking Aires. And what is it about you men, always wanting a second chance when you so clearly blew it the first time?
Valentine’s Day is like New Years: a lot of hype for nothing. Ultimately, you just wind up alone at midnight, puking in the bathroom.
And the worst part? My birthday and Valentine’s Day are a mere four days apart. This means that I’ve lived a bipolar life: when I’m dating someone, there are amazing highs–presents, cards, and dinners that don’t involve a drive-thru menu. But when I’m not, I enjoy a Lean Cuisine in an echo chamber of self doubt. The second week in February I cover the mirrors, don black armbands, and go into mourning for all my unborn children.
But two years ago, I thought I was having the best Valentine’s Day ever. I had just moved in with my boyfriend. We were living together! I was officially taken, and therefore, one could only assume, not a disaster. Someone had chosen me to share their bathroom sink with, and as anyone knows, this goes really far in the self-worth department.
And not only that, my boyfriend bought me a trip to Mexico for my 30th birthday. Now you should know that while I had never been to Mexico, it had always been my dream. We’d talked about a Journey South since the day we met, five years earlier.
Unfortunately, despite my Valentine’s Day bliss, that trip would never happen. See, this was also the year that swine flu hit, and the 5 o’clock news warned everyone that this epidemic ravished those afflicted with shortness of breath, nausea, migraines and unusual tiredness. But it turns out it wasn’t the swine flu my live-in boyfriend was worried about. He didn’t want to go because only three weeks after I had moved in, he had already checked out, moved on, and — I would soon find out — set his sights sights on someone else.
Despite the fact that my doctor insisted I did not have the swine flu, my flu-like symptoms persisted for the months that followed.
So when it came time to plan my solojourn, Mexico was a strategic first stop. This year Valentine’s Day would not simply be a holiday I would need to muster through, but one I would celebrate. And this February 14th I find myself in one of the most magical places I have ever visited, deep in self-seduction. I am falling in love with me, and let me just tell you, I’m kind of a great date.
Today, I took myself to breakfast where I enjoyed fresh fruit and yogurt under a palm tree. I laughed at all my jokes, and even held the door for myself. Then I surfed for two hours, walked the beach by myself, and in the afternoon when I arrived back at my private beach-side bungalow, I found myself laughing out loud … twice! I thought the only people who laughed at themselves were crazy people on the El train. Turns out, crazy people on the El must also be very, very happy.
Tonight I’m headed to a tiny karaoke cowboy restaurant raved about by locals, and the only influenza I plan to see during my time in Mexico is the boat I chartered for my sunrise fishing and snorkeling tour tomorrow:
So this is what they mean by Happy Valentine’s Day.
Today I was enjoying a coconut water under the shade of a beach-side palapa when I noticed a guy who looked vaguely familiar. He was in his 60s, really tan, had stark-white hair and from his profile, it looked like he had swallowed a watermelon.
“You look really familiar. Have we met?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you from Chicago?”
“Shoot, this is going to bother me. Oh well. You should try the shrimp tostadas. They are delicious.”
“Maybe I will.”
“I KNOW! Were you at the naked beach yesterday?”
“Yes! I’m sure that’s how I recognize you. You were at the naked beach yesterday, right?”
“Yes, I was.”
“Ah-ha! I knew it.”
“I’ve been going to Zipolite for years.”
“Now that’s something you won’t find me doing. Tell me, what is it about a naked beach that’s so enticing? Do you get some kind of rush? I mean, I’m not a prude or anything–I have HBO–I just don’t get it.”
“I just don’t like tan lines. Besides, it feels so much more free.”
“Interesting. But aren’t you afraid of burning your...you know?”
“I would think that would be a major concern.”
“Never had a problem. You know what I find interesting? The fact that people have no problem jumping to conclusions about naked sunbathing, but none of them have actually tried it.”
“Probably because of the burn thing…”
“Funny, I don’t remember seeing you at the naked beach.”
“Oh, that’s because you didn’t. I was watching from the cliffs, with the locals.”
“Yeah, I mean, I just stopped by. I’m not weird or anything, my cab driver just took me.”
“Actually, that sounds very weird.”
“I had to go to Puerto Angel, to use the only ATM around here, apparently. Anyway, he gave me a tour on the way home, and we stopped at your beach. I was up there right there next to guy selling hammocks and the woman selling empanadas.”
“Do you make a habit of spying on naked people with strangers?”
“I see. But if a cab driver says he wants to show you a place where there are naked people you just jump at the chance.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. I mean, he wasn’t a total stranger. By the time he offered to take me he had already proposed.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t very romantic. He just asked if I liked Mexican guys and that we would have a lifetime of happiness if I took him home with me.”
“Not to pry, but how old are you?”
“I’m going to be 32 next week.”
“What do you mean, ‘interesting’? I only use that word when I’m judging people.”
“I’m not judging, I just think it’s interesting, that’s all. Here you are, 32, single, in Mexico, spying on naked people and soliciting marriage proposals from cab drivers…”
“Well it’s not like a said yes. I’m not that impulsive. That’s something the old me would have done. But not anymore. I’m really evolving. Really enjoying my freedom, you know?”
“In fact, I do.”
“I told him I’d have to think about it.”
An excerpt of a conversation in my head:
Husband: God damn it! I just blew out the blender motor.
Wife: Oh honey, I’m sorry.
Husband: And I was in the middle of making Margaritas. The ice is still God damn chunky!
Wife: What a shame! Well, if it makes you feel better, I didn’t even want a Margarita, anyway.
Husband: That’s not even the worst part!
Wife: Stop! What is worse than a half-blended Margarita?
Husband: When the motor blew, the lid flew off, I got tequila all over the floor, and now my new socks are ruined!
Wife: Oh no! I hate when that happens! That’s ok honey. I am going to the market tomorrow. I’ll swing by the sock and blender stall on my way home, and you’ll be as good as new in no time!
I have been a student of shoe math for a long, long time. The algorithms are long and the logic is complicated, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s really an incredible tool.
For example, I recently realized that if I made coffee at home I could save a ton of money each morning. I quickly computed that if I eliminated one Starbucks coffee a day, in 5 months I’d have earned a pair of Stuart Weitzmans. If I gave up one latte a day, I could upgrade to a pair of Manolos. See how this works? Think of something you may be tempted by, vow that you’re not going to have it, and then deposit the hypothetical spend in your shoe fund for immediate withdrawl. Confused? Eventually you’ll catch on.
But Mexican shoe math, this is something I simply do not understand. After tripping my way through too many salsa clubs I’ve decided it’s time to get a pair of heels down here. A special pair just for hip shaking and for making my hiking boots jealous. Now, I’ve been pretty good about my travel budget–I’m taking public transportation and I’m not eating fancy meals. But shoes, ironically, were not in my budget. So I did a quick mental shuffle: all I need to do is skip one flight in Chile and take a bus instead, and that’s the equivalent of a really hot pair of salsa partners.
I strolled the Zocalo last night until I was seduced. I saw a pair of strappy black sandals that were simply perfect. All of the shoes were kept behind a glass case, so I asked the shop keeper if I could try them on.
“I’m not sure, in US sizes I’m a 9.”
Now, I’m not sure if I misunderstood the question, or if she misunderstood my Spanish. Maybe it was both. She brought the shoe scale over and instructed me to stand on it.
“Cinco y medio” she answered, and disappeared to the back.
I was stunned. Five and a half? I had spent my life as a clunky, flat-arched nine, and while she was gone, I quickly resolved to do all of my shopping in Mexico. If this shoe math-magic applies to clothing, I might be a zero, and would immediately need to stock up on a lifetime supply of jeans.
She returned from the back and handed me the box. I held a shoe up to my foot and looked at her in disbelief–it was quite literally half the size of my foot. “Must be a Mexican illusion,” I thought, and began cramming in my toes. But by the time I got my toes in my bunion began to throb, and my toes started turning blue.
“I don’t think it fits.”
“Yes, it is your size.”
“But my toes, I think they are bleeding.”
“Well, then maybe the shoe doesn’t fit you.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. Do you have another size?”
“No, that is your size. And it doesn’t fit you. Would you like to try a different shoe?”
“No, no thanks. I just like the shoe in my size that doesn’t fit. Thanks anyway.”
And with that, I left the store to study up on Spanish verbs, and Mexican shoe math.
I made many bad decisions during my short time in Mexico City, but really, it’s not my fault. It turns out that at more than 7,000 feet about sea level, I had come down with a bad case of the altitudes.
It was definitely the altitude that got me so drunk on my first night there, of that I’m certain. It was the altitude that sweet-talked me into believing that I could handle 6 palomas, and that I would be a natural at the tambourine. Later that night it became increasingly clear that I was suffering from a very acute case of the altitudes when I salsa danced with a man with a braided rat tail at Mama Rumba, and let’s just say it was definitely far, far from sea level when I gave him my number.
But by far, the worst case of altitudes was on my last night in Mexico City at La Clandestina, a mezcaleria near my hosts’ apartment in La Condesa. For those of you who have never tried mezcal, you are missing out, and for those of you who are about to, find a chaperone immediately.
You’ll know when you’re being served mezcal. Unlike tequila, mezcal has a strong smoky flavor and is served with a side plate of orange slices dusted in sal de gusano (salt, chili and ground up worms) that looks like this:
Now, while I haven’t visited many mezcalerias in Mexico City, I’m confident that La Clandestina is my favorite. Not only is their mezcal strong and delicious, but the bar is filled with interesting, potent people. The night I was there I met a writer, a book editor, a Mexican film and TV producer, and a Mexican film star (no idea who this guy was, but everyone was in a tizzy). Despite its big-time patrons, La Clandestina is tiny– you’re lucky if you can grab a small table in the back.
I was overwhelmed by their selection of mezcals–more than 60, all listed by region. Like everyone else in the bar, I just ordered by number (number thirteen was recommended for novices). Here mezcal is “on draft” behind the bar, housed in huge plastic water bottles and poured through a series of long tubes. (I took a picture for you, but as you can see by the blur, the altitude was already starting to get to me:)
To be fair, I’m sure under normal circumstances mezcal is harmless, but consumed at high altitudes it’s incredibly dangerous. See, what I’ve figured out is that people at high altitudes seem to be incredibly happy, and as we all know, happy people are generous people. My intent was to simply sip on number 13, but soon someone bought me number 23. Then number 42, and a glass of 26…. I stopped counting, and shortly thereafter, I stopped being able to count.
I didn’t make it home until well after 3 am, just in time to throw things in my bag, and head straight to the airport. Fortunately, I’ve arrived in Oaxaca. I looked it up, and according to Wikipedia, it’s only 5,080 feet about sea level. I’m already breathing easier knowing I can look forward to better decision making.
In case you were wondering, my next boyfriend will be a Luchador. There’s just no way around it–it’s hard to find anyone more masculine, more virile more…macho. Last night my hosts took me to Lucha Libre, and let’s just say it was the best 100 pesos I’ve ever spent.
For those of you who have never had the privilege of attending Lucha Libre, let me paint the scene. To enter the stadium you have to walk through streets lined with vendadores who will weaken your flair resistance with each block. If you’re like me, you won’t make it into the stadium without one luchador mask for each season, and a corresponding t-shirt to match.
Once you’re in the stadium you will get drunk on very tall beers, and be tempted by popcorn with hot sauce and cups of Ramen Noodles. (The Ramen Noodles part threw me too, but fear not, they were delicious.)
The event itself begins with great ceremony. Before the luchadores enter the ring they oil up, don their finest latex and leather, and are paraded into the ring to music like Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” I captured a little of it for you here, and while it’s long, I encourage you to stick it out–or skip ahead–to El Gitano, around the 2 minute mark. (Warning: hands off ladies, he’s mine):
Needless to say, I haven’t seen such beautiful men since I left Boystown, and I fell more madly in love with each new round. Delta, the luchador in the white spandex, he had the hottest flower tattoo on his hip I have ever seen! And La Sombra? He was in such a testosterone-induced rage that he actually ran into the aisles and fought a man with a glow stick! Fortunately, I was ready with my iPhone to record it:
The men tumbled, wrestled, and slapped each other for hours, but the toughest man of the night was the one who entered the ring at the end, only to beat other luchadores over the head with a frying pan. Yes, a frying pan! I tried to get my picture with him, but all I got was this video instead:
Mexico City, I think I love you.
I’ve only been in Mexico City for five days, but I’ve already indirectly participated in three English classes. Whenever I’m in the Zocalo I get approached by students asking for help in a class project, and I’m more than happy to help out. Today I was approached by a male teen toting a notepad, and his friend, the camera man:
Hello. I would like to ask you some questions for my English class.
How old are you?
In America, you never ask a woman her age.
I am 24.
Ok. Twenty four.
What do you do?
I am a stay-at-home mom without the husband, the house or the kids. And also, without the “staying at home” part.
I am unemployed.
Do you like tequila?
Have we met before?
Yes, you like tequila?
Everyday for breakfast!
Ok, what is the tropical food where you come from?
I am from Chicago, so that’s a tough one. Probably Hawaiian pizza. Pineapple is tropical, right?
No, I have been mistaken, what is the typical food where you come from.
Ahh, ok–that makes more sense. In that case, hold the pineapple.
Ok, I will.
I will hold your pineapple.
No, no, I mean without pineapple. Like–plain pizza.
Pizza. Thank you.
Pizza. You’re welcome.
That is all. Have a good day.
You too! Be good in school, and as we like to say back home, “Never trust a tourist who has nowhere to be!”
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