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A Traveler among Tourists: The Anti-tour, Tour Guide


          It’s easy to spot an American tourist abroad. Look for the bewildered and harried, those racing from one must-see site to another, consuming as many experiences as they can. Look for the stuff, the bags and packages, packages and bags, the holdings as beefy as the holder. Tourists are easy to spot with their tell-tail markings and defined habitat. You might not notice the travelers at all. We travelers are camouflaged.

          Most people consider the exotic destination to be the mark of a true traveler but it’s the mindset. You can be as much a traveler in Rome as you can in Kamchatka if you take the right approach. I suppose you can be a traveler at Disney Land too but I’m not willing to test the theory. Here are 5 ways to stray from the herd, to experience something different than Frommer’s or Rick Steves’ agenda, not that I have anything against Mr. Steves. Okay, maybe I do.

Lesson #1: Lighten Your Load

            Tom Robbins wrote, “That which you hold, holds you.” Travel only with what you need. You need a lot less than you think. Purge as you go. Let me explain.

            Before you pack for your trip, go through the closet. If you are like most Americans you over-consume clothing. You have stuff you never wear. If it still fits and you haven’t worn it in months it’s fair game. The one exception is shoes. If you have a pair of shoes that you don’t wear because they are uncomfortable don’t travel with them. Comfortable shoes are the highest priority.

            Add to the “haven’t worn in months” category every shirt, skirt, pants or whatever that is worse for the wear, frayed cuff or collar or hem, stains, shiny knees and elbows, lusterless leather. These are items that you like so much that you have almost worn them out. Let them die with dignity and with an appropriate farewell. Underwear with holes and permanent stains are perfect traveling companions.

           Remove from your selections any item that can only be worn with one other specific item. Divide the number of trip days by two or three… or four If you’re traveling for 14 days you need, at most, seven tops and seven bottoms. You will wear tops and bottoms at least twice and everything has to match up with everything else. Go ahead and pack a full two-weeks worth of underwear and socks if cleanliness is a priority (even though undies and socks are easy to wash in the bathroom sink) but remember holes and stains take priority.

            With each passing day you are going to shed underwear and socks. Every few days you’re going to shed one or more tops and bottoms. You can always buy something new to wear if it catches your fancy or your trip gets extended. If you’re a shopper, you’ll pack your purchases in the freed up space in your luggage where your old clothes used to be. Better yet, ship your purchases home. I once boarded a plane in Barcelona with only my passport and a paperback novel. The Polo duffel that was free with the purchase of the deluxe set of after shave, cologne and lotion stayed behind.

            The south of France is littered with my old underwear.

            Oh, and women, no hair dryers or curlers or any of that beauty nonsense. I have a female friend who insists on traveling with a personal pillow. Sheesh!

            Anyone who cringes at timid little Lesson # 1 can stop reading now. You are and forever shall you be a tourist but never a traveler.

Lesson # 2: Stay Put

            I know what you are thinking. This may be my only chance to see France or Italy or Ireland. I need to see everything and since my crummy job only gives me two weeks of vacation, I need to see everything as fast as I can. Well, unless you want to return home with memories as blurry as your photos, you have to leave that thinking behind. Plant your ass somewhere interesting, Siena, Arles, Guanajuato, anywhere, and let the place come to you. Even if you stay in one place, a two or three-week trip is a horrifically short period of time. You’ll barely scratch the surface. Think micro instead of macro. On your deathbed you’ll remember the friends you made on your trip not the time you spent driving on the autobahn.

Lesson # 3: Don’t over-Plan (or) Ignorance is Bliss

            I book my first night and maybe the last night hotel room in advance. The first night because I’ll be cranky and jet lagged and incapable of rational decision-making. The last night if I need to be near an airport early in the morning. Also, I can get the best rate for an airport room, on-line and in advance. Everything between the first and last night I play by ear, knowing that the best and cheapest and quirkiest places to stay are only to be found in person. If I’m worried about the place being so crowded that I won’t be able to find a room I’m either going to the wrong place or at the wrong time.

            Know when to ignore Lesson # 2. If you’re thrilled with where you are, stay there. If you’re miserable, move on. A former lover, J., might be a wife today were it not for The List, the list of things to do and things to see and when to do and see them. J. is a breathing, walking itinerary. She has plans. She has goals. J. is now rich and married and living in suburban bliss whereas I am broke, unattached and often miserable. I wouldn’t trade one minute of my life for a year of hers.

            The best experiences are often the accidental ones. You can’t have accidental experiences if every minute of your life is planned.

            My wanderlust overtook me in Dublin. I went north to the other Ireland. Sitting on the tiny bed in the tiny room in the tiny town of Port Rush, map spread across my lap, my fingertips traced my train route and beyond, Colerain, Port Rush, and to the east Bushmills? Bushmills. BUSHMILLS! Jesus H. Christ, I was within spitting distance of a distillery.

            A cab sat at the curb, in front of a butcher’s shop. Maybe the only cab in town. Tired of waiting I inquired within. The fat butcher in a blood stained apron, finger held aloft belayed my query. Packages stacked atop the meat case. The customer dropped the packages into her bag. Laden lady leaves. “Where ye off to mate?”” or something to that effect, as he lifts the apron strings over his massive head.

            “In two hours come collect me,” I said. Two hours is an eternity in a distillery, an eternity of grace and beauty and wonder, but an eternity none-the-less. They carried me to the cab. Yeah, I could have done some research in advance and “planned” to visit Bushmill’s but somehow I don’t think it would have been the same.

Lesson # 4: Court Disaster

             Danger is exciting. Danger is sexy. Just date danger. You don’t have to get married. There’s big danger, there’s little danger. Don’t get in over your head but a life without a little danger isn’t worth living. You can’t truly travel without exposing yourself to risk.

            I wound up in Cancun because, well, everyone winds up in Cancun at least once.  I knew on my first day that I despised Cancun. It was Senor Frogs that did it. I don’t need to go to Mexico to meet girls from Michigan. So I boarded the ferry (not the fast tourist ferry but the slow one, the open air one that the locals use) to Isla Mujeres. Yeah, Mujeres is a little touristy too but nothing like Cancun.

            I met Zeke (the name has been changed to protect the not so innocent) in a bar. Zeke was a forty something American ex-patriot who for reasons he’d rather not get into can’t go back to the States. Zeke had a boat and knew how to take Americans to Cuba without the risk of passport stamps and all of that nonsense. I’ll spare you the rant on American foreign policy idiocy. Zeke will take you to Cuba for free. All you have to do is pack your luggage with Cuban cigars (they’re Mexican, if anybody asks) without the identifying bands and boxes. I guess the packaging travels separately with nother accomodating American.

            I now plead the Fifth on the grounds that I may incriminate myself. I admit to nothing,

Cuban women are beautiful.

Lesson # 5: Roam Alone

            Arles wasn’t my destination. I got off the train because I was hungry and hung-over and decided to treat myself to a good meal and a night in a nice hotel. Just one night. Until I met S., the Innkeeper’s daughter. Small and blonde and leggy. Short women can be leggy, I learned. It’s a matter of shape and proportion rather than length. Ooh. La. La., was S. leggy! She introduced me to the finer points of French cuisine and Provencal wine and amour.

            Ten days later, I got to Paris just in time to catch my flight. I should have abandoned the ticket home and stayed with S. (see Lesson #3 and, I suppose, 4).

            Things didn’t work out with S. I tell myself it was because of the long distance romance thing but maybe it was the underwear.

 Mick

Categories: Ramblin'

Guanajuato City, Mexico


What’s your Mexico? Is it the grimy, unsavory third world border town Mexico? Maybe it is the shimmering, glitzy beach resort Mexico. Mine is the charming, beautiful, laid-back Colonial Mexico. Guanajuato City fits into the latter category perfectly.

Guanajuato City is a product of the Spanish conquest. It arose as a center for silver mining in the 16th century. Silver became the source of great wealth for the Spanish empire and the source of great misery for the enslaved indigent population forced to work the mines. The combination of silver and misery resulted in a city of astounding architectural beauty.

Guanajuato City is compact and walk-able. The center, the Jardin de la Union, the city’s main plaza, is adorned with perfectly manicured laurel trees and an abundance of park benches making it perfect for reading or people watching. Radiating outward from the plaza is a network of narrow cobblestone streets that could trick you into thinking you were in old Spain or wandering through a Tuscan hill-town.

Guanajuato City is the opposite of a tourist trap. You will encounter relatively few tourists and the shops offer fare for mostly local consumption (if your Visa card starts burning a hole in your pocket, head up the road to San Miquel de Allende, a lovely but more touristy venue). The beauty of Guanajuato City is its authenticity. While a few words of Spanish are helpful, don’t sweat the language barrier. At hotels, restaurants and other public establishments you’re likely to encounter an English speaking person or two. Or just use the smile, grunt and point method. It works for me.

I began my stay at Hotel Luna right on the Jardin. At Luna, you’ll get a clean, spacious room and friendly, helpful (and, yes, English speaking) staff. The advantages of a central location are many but they come at a price. The lodging, at $80 a night, is expensive (there are many comfortable choices throughout the town in the $40.00 a night range) and the best dining experiences are also to be found farther afield.

Frankly, I’m a “plop-my-butt-down-somewhere-comfortable-with-a-drink” type but if you’re a sightseer the following are obligatory:

  •  Teatro Juarez. A beautiful, elaborate and historic theater just off the Jardin.
  •  The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato on nearby Plaza de la Paz. If ecclesiastical architecture is your bag, you’ll be in heaven.
  • The Museo y Casa de Diego Rivera celebrates one of Guanajuato’s most famous native son. The Museum is housed in Rivera’s birth home and contains a respectable collection of his art, especially early works.
  • Monumento al Papila, honors an independence hero and affords a panoramic view of the city. You can reach it by riding the funicular (a sort of incline up the mountain). Great  fun!
  • There is also a Cervantes Festival in October that is rumored to be quite an affair but if, like me, you are allergic to big crowds and jacked-up prices you’d best avoid it.

 Guanajuato City, unlike Oaxaca, is not famous for its cuisine but good food is plentiful and dirt cheap. The problem is that almost all national cuisines become monotonous in fairly short order. I came back from an extended trip through the south of France unable to bear the sight of bread and cheese…for months. In Mexico it’s the ubiquitous tortilla. Call it what you want, taco, enchillada, chimichanga, whatever, in my book it’s all the same. For an antidote I strongly recommend the following restaurants:

  • El Gallo Pitigorico. Located on the hillside toward the El Pipila monument. It is painted bright blue so you can’t miss it. Good seafood and a decent wine list.
  • Casa del Conde de la Valenciana.  A short, cheap bus ride to the nearby hamlet of Valenciana. There is good shopping there and, of course, a magnificent church. Best of all there is elegant and sumptuous dining. I had one of the best meals I’ve had in all of Mexico here. Not to be missed.

After Hotel Luna I settled in for an extended and less expensive stay at Casa la Pita, a little bed and breakfast perched on the hillside above Teatro Principo. An extended stay and payment in advance is the route to very favorable terms. That is the good news. The bad news is that once you have sealed the deal with good old U.S. currency, you’re stuck. At Casa la Pita, I quickly tired of the trek up the hillside, the very limited maid service and the cacophonous residential neighborhood (late night fireworks, early morning church bells, the gas vendor, and dueling dogs and roosters).

I’m told it was the cantaloupe. Maybe it was the salad greens rinsed with tap water. Montezuma’s revenge! Volumes of cheap toilet tissue the consistency of sand-paper and hearty doses Imodium were the treatment. The best public restroom in all of Mexico is the one right back at the restaurant in the Hotel Luna. It is sparkling clean and well equipped. I came to know it well. Avoid the cantaloupe.

Toward the end of my stay I discovered the Ex-hacienda de San Gabriel de Barrera Gardens. The Gardens is an oasis of green tranquility. After you tour the extensive estate, plant yourself in the little café close to the entrance. Enjoy a beer, the beauty around you and the luxurious absence of hustle and bustle. There is nothing at  Ex-Hacienda  to indicate the passage of time so if you’re not careful you’ll take root. When you’re ready to leave a staff member will happily summon a cab to take you back to Guanajuato.

I already know what you’re thinking. I’ll need a car. Banish that thought. Taxis and buses are cheap and convenient and absent of the responsibility that comes with a rental car. The absolute best way to experience Mexico is to surrender yourself to public transportation. The buses to the towns and villages around Guanajuato wind through the mountains and careen around hairpin turns without guardrails, offering spectacular views. Maybe a little girl with big brown eyes will trustingly apply a sticky hand to your knee to steady herself. A bus driver who looks alarmingly short of sleep blasts ZZ Top on an old radio, a crucifixion hanging over his head. Many of the passengers, accustomed to the wild ride, have nodded off. In Mexico the twin sisters of danger and beauty invite you to dance with them. Just smile and follow their lead.

Categories: Ramblin'