Monday, February 26, 2018

Comiendo My Way Through Mexico

Once upon a time, my boyfriend and I returned home from Honolulu and watched an episode of The Best Thing I’ve Ever Ate where they showed these amazing little choux pastries from a bakery called Beard Papa. The only one in the US at the time was in Waikiki, and it was right down the street from the hotel we stayed in. I was big mad that I had missed out on those little sweet balls of perfection. Later that summer they opened a location in Manhattan and while we were on his annual family trip to New York, I was determined to get some. I begged my boyfriend to rent bikes with me in Central Park for the day and he thought we were going to take a leisurely bike ride.


You ever see Robin Thicke's first music video, before he cut his hair, started doing white lines and cheating on his wife? Before fame changed him? That was us. Riding 45 blocks, Robin Thicke style though rush hour traffic in the sweltering August heat to get puff pastries. Cocaine Sugar is a hell of a drug.

Almost missing out on the perfect pastry is what made me start planning more detailed itineraries before venturing on international trips. But true to form, I didn’t even book a place to stay until I touched down in Mexico City. Luckily I picked a hostel with people that were:

1. Not killers
2. Well traveled 
3. Had already planned itineraries and didn’t mind if I tagged along with them

Also, it was the only hostel that had rooms available.

Day 1 – Mexico City

That morning I came out the bathroom after brushing my teeth to find Huey sitting on one of the plush velvet couches in the common area.

I’m so hungry.” He looked at me with a Save-the-children-for-a-dollar-a-day-face. “Want to get breakfast?”

I checked my phone and James hadn’t texted me to go to the ATM yet, so I agreed.

I’ve studied Spanish since middle school, and even minored in Spanish Language and Literature in college, so I wasn’t too worried about communicating in Mexico. I’m not fluent by any means, but I can understand most of what is said to me if people speak slowly and I can reply in Spanglish in most cases. It was at breakfast where I found out that Huey, despite living in Texas, aka Northern Mexico, was not as gifted with the Spanish language.

We saw a bunch of people dressed in business clothes, probably on their way to work, going into a small eatery, so we decided to follow them. Locals will almost always lead you to good food. Huey looked at the menu on the wall and mulled over what he was going to order. The line was growing exponentially behind us and people were becoming impatient. As I was scrolling through Instagram Huey tapped me on the shoulder and asked,

How do you say, ‘I want the same?”

Just say, lo mismo.”

I looked up from my phone and placed my order, three carne en adobo tacos and an orange fizzy drink, when I noticed the lady behind the counter loading a bunch of tortillas onto a cafeteria tray covered with wax paper.

Did you mean to get that much food?”

I told the lady to give me what the man in front of us got. How much food did I order?"

I looked over Huey’s shoulder. “I’m pretty sure that man ordered tacos for his entire family. I think he ordered like 19 tacos,” I laughed.

Muchos Tacos
After we ate the 22 glorious tacos, with a side of bright green salsa and guacomole that was made right in front of our eyes, we headed back to the hostel.

When we got there, James was waiting out front and introduced us to Jimmy and Benji from Australia. The five of us headed to La Lagunilla, a famous flea market in the area. The market is massive and has sections that sell clothing, furniture and food.

Jimmy & I drinking Jugo
James picked up some multi-colored papel picado. He explained how the generations of men in his family come together to make tamales once a year, and he was going to take these home to Denver to decorate for the occasion. He haggled with some Mexican ladies over spices and Jimmy and I ordered some freshly squeezed orange juice from a stand before we sat down to a lunch of grilled chicken huaraches.

The vendors make everything in front of you, kind of like they do at hibachi style Japanese restaurants in the United States.  Everyone is busy buying their daily groceries and house wares, and in the middle of the chaos you sit down and get to know each other over sizzling hot food, with the aroma of adobo circling around you. Despite the fast pace of the flea market, it felt like we were eating a family dinner at our own little oasis. 

After lunch we took a subway train to the trajineras. Trajineras are like the Mexican equivalent of gondolas in Venice, Italy but with some exciting differences. First you pick your boat and tell them how long you want to be on the river. We decided on a 2 hour trip.  Next you cruise the canals and people watch while a Mariachi band serenades your family and friends. There are even concession trajineras, were you can order authentic Mexican dishes and drinks right from their boat to yours. 

It’s a great way to get to know each other too. Our crew of 5 international strangers became better acquainted. We shared tales of the greatest places we had traveled.

I heard of this town close to Mexico City that has a big Day of the Dead festival and the entire town participates,” James said excitedly. “They have a parade and everyone dresses up and goes to mass at the church. They decorate the graves of their ancestors in the church graveyard and they make special food for everyone to try.”

Seeing the light in James eyes as he described the town’s traditions made me want to take the journey with him.

I’ll go wherever you go. I mean, *cough cough* Sounds cool. I’m down.

Huey looked at me like…

Maybe I’ll get my face painted too,” I added nonchalantly.

After the trajineras, James took us to a bar that served alcoholic drinks made with marigolds, the traditional flower used to decorate alters and graves during Dia de los Muertos. We were sitting on the side of the road after getting our flower drinks, and we heard a large pop, like a car backfiring, followed by a bunch of yelling.

Apparently a car had stopped working and was stuck in the middle of the road. James jogged over to the light blue punch buggy, spoke to the driver in Spanish and then started pushing the car from behind to help the driver get out of the street. As I watched James be so altruistic my ovaries swelled. The Australians went over to help too. Huey, who had just ordered a snack from a street vendor, stood up and watched them push the car for a bit before sitting back down. I’m pretty sure I saw the exact moment he changed his mind about helping. He looked over at me, rolled his eyes and took a bite of his food.

When we got back to our hostel. James, Huey and the Australians went out to a local club. I decided to spend the night in because I was physically exhausted from catching trains and being out in the sun all day. Plus I was mentally exhausted from remembering how to conjugate verbs in Spanish.

I sat on the velvet couches while listening to the same 50 songs I’ve had on my phone for the last 3 years and ended up making friends with a wonderful black woman from Michigan. Two black people in 2 days! Lori invited me to go to the pyramids with her the next day.

Day 2 - Teotihuacan

The next morning, I invited James to accompany Lori and I to the pyramids but he had already made other plans. He promised to message me when he was finished exploring so we could do something that evening.

Have you seen Huey? Maybe he wants to come with us?”

Huey woke up early and went to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum. I think he’s meeting up with a girl we met last night too."

Ok Huey. I see you!

Lori had just finished serving in the Peace Corps and had a few days of vacation before she returned back to Michigan to finish her doctoral degree. Lucky for me, she was fluent in Spanish and I didn’t have to mentally exhaust myself over verb tenses for the day. I ordered an uber and in perfect Spanish, she gave exact directions to the driver. The uber was only about $14 for a 45 minute ride to the pyramids. We walked around the historical site in the hot sun and climbed what felt like 11 million stairs to the top of the biggest pyramid.

Okay we tried to climb it and failed. We made it half way and then climbed a smaller pyramid and took pics for Instagram. We haggled with vendors on the grounds and I bought a woven blanket and some silver bracelets for my little cousin back home. Then we bought some paletas from an ice cream cart and took a coach bus back to Mexico City.

I’m going to meet some Peace Corps friends for dinner. What are you doing later?”

First thing first, I’m going to take a nap. But after that I’ll probably meet up with James. Maybe we’ll grab dinner?”

He’s really cute. You like him don’t you?” Lori smiled at me like you smile at your friend when you know they have a crush on someone.

I thought about it for a second. “It honestly didn’t cross my mind until you said something just now. Thanks a lot Lori,” I frowned. “Now I’ll probably have a crush on him and daydream about what our children are going to look like.”

Sorry not sorry. At least they’ll be cute bilingual bebes.”



Xiochimilco…it’s the name of the train stop we got off at, to get on the trajineras. We’ll name our first daughter that. And our son will be James the 3rd."

Lori laughed and shook her head. “Be safe tonight, but have fun.”

We hugged goodbye.

I plugged in my phone next to my bed and texted James. He quickly replied with the address to a café near Zocalo Square.

I have a portable charger. Just bring your phone cord and you can charge your phone here with me.”

Ladies and Gentlemen: Welcome to millennial romance.

I’m not a coffee drinker so I didn’t know what to get. James ordered an affogato (a shot of espresso with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it) for me and we shared his scone. We talked about our families and what we did for a living. James managed of one of the busiest bars in Denver, Terminal Bar at Union Station.

The next time I come to Denver, I’ll stop by your bar.”

You’ll have a place to stay too. You’re always welcome. Speaking of places to stay, I’m checking out of the hostel tonight because they don’t have any beds left. Are you staying there your entire time in Mexico?”

I actually need to book my last 2 nights,” I remembered.

Well come and stay with me at my new hostel. It's not far from here, has free breakfast, and it got really great reviews on Trip Advisor."

Chris Brown’s Kiss Kiss started playing in my head...

He want that lovie-dovey. 
That kiss kiss, kiss kiss. 
In his mind, he fantisize 
‘bout getting with meeeeeee.” 

He asked me to change hostels for him. Maybe Lori was on to something.

"I’ll walk you back to the hostel," James offered.

In the courtyard next to the café there was a band playing hip hop with live instruments and a teenager breakdancing to the music. A huge group of people crowded around him, cheering and clapping as he danced. James, who is maybe 6’2 stood behind me, in a protective manner as we watched with the rest of the crowd. Standing there, so close together, I felt, happy and slightly light headed. Maybe I had a crush on James after all. Of course it could have been the caffeine and sugar from the affogato too. I’m not a coffee drinker.

After the crowd started to thin out, we continued to the hostel. A guy that apparently knew James noticed us and sprinted over. Because of his height and glasses, he sort of reminded me of Harry Potter.

Hey are you guys hungry? I was just about to go find something to eat.”

The way to my heart is food and one of the sweetest things a guy has ever said to me is, ‘Are you hungry?'

"Nice to meet you,” I introduced myself.  

Nice to meet you, TK. I’m Aaron."

James had seen a taco bar on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations that was close to our hostel so we looked up the address on Google and headed in that direction. As we were walking, Aaron asked what we had planned for tomorrow.

Aren’t you going out with that girl we met last night?” He asked James.

Yea we have plans to attend a special dinner. Its at a top rated restaurant that I’ve read about.”

She was hot. Is she single?”

I don’t know. I didn’t ask her.”

I felt a little less light headed after Aaron mentioned James’ date with the mystery woman. Or maybe the caffeine and sugar were starting to wear off.

The taco bar was literally a hole in the wall with lights hanging from the ceiling and big silver pots of marinated meat bubbling in front of us. It smelled heavenly. We couldn’t translate all the menu items so we tried using the Google translate app where you hold up the camera on your phone to foreign words, and it translates them into English.

I highlighted a word. "Nah fam, this can't be right. I think my app is broken."

Aaron used his phone to scan the word. "It says brains."

Fresh BRAIN TACO?! Yea I’m good on that.”

James cracked a sideways smile. “How about we make a deal? I try it first, and then you try it too.”

It was hard to say no to this man. He was so adorable.

Aaron interjected, “Maybe if they fry the brain, it won’t be so bad.”

And so that night, I was like Nicki Minaj on the track MonsterEating brains, except without the gold teeth and fangs. I guess that would make James, Jay Z and Aaron would be Kanye West. 

Truthfully, it wasn’t bad. In addition to the brains, we tried cheek tacos and tongue tacos too. Everything was chopped up and seasoned so well that you couldn’t even tell that it was body parts you weren’t used to eating. I decided that I could survive the zombie apocalypse as long as I had a good stash of seasonings.

It was almost 1AM so we finished our inexpensive but satisfying meal and headed back to the hostel for the night. James caught a taxi to his new hostel and we made plans to meet up early the next morning and take a day trip to the town of Puebla together. It was only day 2 of my trip and I was becoming an experienced itinerary crasher.