Archive for June, 2008

The second stop on the 2008 North American Tour: Wheels on Fire found me heading south for my first real trip to Mexico to attend the wedding of my good friend, Marshall. I learned something interesting about traveling to Mexico. When you say “I’m going to Mexico for a week”, everyone–and I really mean everyone–thinks you are going to the beach. Jimmy Buffett, white sandy shoreline, straw hats, Margaritaville, warm water and ass-bronzing, drinking cocktails out of pineapples and wet t-shirt contests.

I am happy to report that my Mexico included absolutely no Jimmy Buffett, everyone’s chests remained dry and all drinks were served in glasses. My Mexico was rich with vibrant color, misty mountains, creeping bougainvillea, tremendous mariachi, homemade tequila, outstanding colonial haciendas, and so many good friends and familiar faces.

The trip began in Mexico City, where Janelle had booked us a courtyard room at the (mostly) quiet and cozy Casa Gonzalez guest house, in the beautiful Zona Rosa section of the city. I was instantly hurtled face first into a language labyrinth, replying to virtually everyone in Korean. This met more than a zillion blank faces. French being my second language, Spanish being my third (y solomente un poquito) and Korean being my everyday, my mind quickly defaulted into a tossed salad of oui’s, siempre’s and annyong’s. English? Who speaks that? Thankfully, it only took a day of marinating to retrieve my Spanish and stop telling people “I’m sorry” in Korean.

Truth be told, I was mildly terrified of Mexico City. I mean, people get kidnapped there, right? Hey, I’ve seen movies. I’ve seen Three Amigos. In my defense, I live in the plastic bubble of Asia, where, as I recently heard David Sedaris describe it, the level of danger is at a negative. Where one could leave a bundle of money on a subway seat and someone else will turn it in. This may not be entirely true (no, really it is), but let’s be honest, people. My adopted country does not have a State Department Travel Warning issued against it.

Needless to say, my reservations were unwarranted (I blame Lonely Planet), and with only a few pesos missing from my change and one uncomfortable encounter with leering taxi drivers, I was greeted with wide smiles and generous Buenos Tardes and Mucho Gusto’s. In fact, after two weeks suffocating from culture shock in Texas, it was a welcome relief to return to the land of the strange, language barriers, street vendors, gracious customer service and a place steeping in culture and history. That is a place in my heart that makes all the sense in the world to me. We ate mole verde and chile rellenos with Pacificos, walked tree-lined streets through colonial neighborhoods, found fresh calabaza y queso tamales for breakfast, visited the lavish El Zócalo district and even rode the city bus. Twice. You don’t scare me, Mexico.

Barely having absorbed the flurry of busy streets, it was time to head north to San Miguel de Allende, located 274km north of Mexico City in the mountainous central state of Guanajuato. The 4-hour bus ride on ETN was one to rival all the Excellent Buses in Korea. Winding through the mountains with Murakami in my lap and late-day sun blasting through a pack of billowing clouds, I finally saw the colors that Marshall has painted these last few years, almost like stepping into someone else’s eyes. Fertile farmland rolling out from the edge of the sky beneath the tower of desert mountains.
sunday afternoon meeting
San Miguel is a beautiful colonial city nestled into the side of the Bajio mountains, spilling over with ex-pats, artists, open air markets and delicious food. But for me, San Miguel was about the company of amazing friends and the celebration that brought me there. Yeah, I know. That hurt my teeth to write, but it’s the truth. It was a week of simple meals and long conversations, family gatherings at Casa Beneficencia and poolside afternoons with cerveza, rooftop nights drinking wine and late loud cantina nights playing music, reuniting and re-connecting the dots of the last five years of living too far away from each other. Who needs sights to see when you’ve got that?
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And the wedding? I’ll say this much: we don’t know shit about weddings. This was by far the most festive one I’ve ever been to, from the honking of the horns at Yadira’s arrival to the all-night dancing and drinking. At midnight, after a long, languid dinner and hours of dancing, when any other wedding would be coming to an end, a mariachi appeared from the darkness of the ranch road followed by two giant mojigangas to begin round two of the celebration. For over an hour they blasted their horns, while family and friends danced and sang along to traditional Mexican folk tunes, older couples beckoning one other with “mi corazón” and “mi amor”. The mariachi was followed by more dancing, more coffee and the 1:30am taco stand. We, the 30-something set, dissolved into an exhausted audience at our tables, watching the 50-plus set dance into the early morning.

By Monday morning, I was ready to say Annyonghi-kaseyo to Korea forever and find myself a little casita to call home. Instead, I returned to the bus station, where my abandoned Murakami had been rescued and kept for me, and made my way back to Mexico City to catch my plane to Dallas. Watching the landscape roll past me, it occurred to me more than once to keep rolling. To go deeper south of the border, further west of the sun.


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The first week of my Summer Vacances Officielles found me in my former riverside house in Austin, Texas. It is my first time back in just over two years and it is safe to say that the old adage is dead-on: the more things change, the more they stay 100% absolutely the same.

Except me. I am most certainly 100% absolutely not the same person that left here in 2006. And I guess not entirely true of Austin either, as there are approximately — and this is just a rough estimate — 100,000 new or almost-finished skyscrapers downtown that did not populate the skyline when I left.

But most things are exactly the same. It’s still hot as balls and the warm night air still feels dreamy. There are dogs and tattoos and endless amounts of beer and motorcycles and “all y’alls” everywhere. Friends who hated their jobs two years ago are still there, still hating their jobs. And the hot guy who works at Jo’s coffeeshop and calls me darlin’, the guy on whom I harbored a crush for nearly three years? Yeah, he still works there. Not so hot now, eh?

Since I am not exactly the same as when I was left, it has been a decidedly different experience in Austin this week. After months of yabbering away about all the places I couldn’t wait to visit again and all the food I couldn’t wait to eat, I was surprised by my complete lack of desire to do or eat any of them. Sure, I still feel the gravitational pull of Jo’s every morning and damn do i love me some shady Town Lake trail running. But I still haven’t eaten barbeque, was unimpressed with the chips and queso at Magnolia, and the pizza at Home Slice was merely so-so. Everything I was looking forward to about returning to Texas fell flat.

So instead of a tour of familiar haunts and long-awaited tastes, I opted for doing the things I never did when I lived here. I spent long afternoons reading under the oak trees at Barton Springs and soaking in the cool lithium water, something I did maybe five times in the three years I lived here. I walked for miles and miles through areas I’d never even driven through, exploring new neighborhoods through a new camera lens. And holding firm to the pedestrian lifestyle I keep in Korea, this week I explored Austin by foot and by bus.

Hey Toto, we’re not in Korea anymore.

While Seoul’s transit system is fast, efficient, clean and the primary source of transportation for the majority of the city’s 12 million residents, riding the bus in Austin is a date with the city’s junkies, alkies, downtrodden and the occasional carbon-conscious hippie. I have seen more dried blood on clothing this week than I care to count. I will take soju-soaked ajashis any day over the stench of urine-soaked vagrants. Capitol Metro also apparently runs in its very own time zone, as I waited no less than 20 minutes at every bus stop I used. But it’s not all bad. The fare is $1.00 for a 24-hour period and though it may (will) take you all day to go as far as a 10 minute drive, you can get to virtually anywhere in the city.

The best thing by far this time around has been the kindnesses of strangers and old friends. I have been graced with the warmest of welcomes anyone could hope for, many from people I’ve hardly spoken to in two years, some who I’ve only just met. I’ve been taken in with open arms and given all the sushi, tear-wiping, car-lending, and travel assistance I needed and more. The unflinching generosity and space-clearing I’ve received has been humbling indeed. After all those ways that Austin never quite delivered what I’d hoped for when I moved here, it has become a part of me and will always give me just what I need exactly when I need it.

Now. Get me the eff to Mexico. Inmediatamente!

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