Can I Get a For-Here Cup? Flying too close to the sun at Cafe Lapso in Ciudad Guzman, Mexico.

Ciudad Guzman, located an hour and a half south of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, is supposedly fresa. Fresa is the Mexican word for posh or snobby. It’s usually possible to tell if someone is fresa by the way they talk. This is especially true in Mexico City, where the fresa accent is generally very nasal and makes you want to stick an ice pick in your ears.

One place that’s undoubtedly fresa in Ciudad Guzman is a cafe/bookstore called Lapso. It’s fresaness is reflected in the prices and the fact that 70% of the clientele order frappuccinos. It’s fresaness is reflected in the hipster music coming from the speakers, and the beautiful courtyard in the back, complete with plants, fountain, and a winged statue of Icarus.

There’s something extra special about courtyards in Mexico, because usually they’re somewhat unexpected, and a welcome respite from the chaos of the street. Lapso’s courtyard is one of the most peaceful I’ve ever visited. One could be forgiven for coming here, ordering a cappuccino, and spending six or seven hours listening to the birds and basking in the greenness of the plants.

Getting this for-here cup was a battle.

My only gripe with Cafe Lapso is that it lacks identity. The cafe area inside makes you feel one way, the bookstore another, and the courtyard in the back yet another. For example: When sitting in the courtyard I feel as if all is right in the world, and a little bit like I’ve just entered the Garden of Eden and will soon be ashamed of my nakedness after biting into a pomegranate and talking to a snake. But in the cafe area inside I feel like I’m in a cafe that’s trying to be cool and mostly failing. And in the bookstore area I feel angry, because there aren’t any Roberto Bolaño books.

Upon ordering I asked if I could have my cappuccino in a for-here cup, so as not to waste paper. I was dismayed to learn they didn’t have any, but then the employee informed me I could use one of the employee cups.

“OK,” I said.

“But just so you know,” she said, “If you come in the afternoon my co-workers probably won’t do it. Because if someone overhears you they might want a for-here cup, too.”

“OK,” I said.

While she was making the coffee I looked for the Bolaño books and, upon not seeing any, began muttering mild profanities under my breath. But then the cappuccino was ready and I made my way to the courtyard and all was peaceful. The sun had just retreated behind the building. From my corner I could see the statue of Icarus, standing in the middle of the courtyard and thus fully-exposed to the sun’s rays. The cappuccino started to kick in and my brain started to accelerate. I started having grandiose thoughts, thinking about traveling to exotic locations around the world. Even though my body remained below, mentally I started to leave the courtyard and soar overhead. Suddenly, I was a bird. Anything was possible .The world below was just a distant memory. I flew higher and higher, screaming with delight. But then I noticed something was keeping me from flying higher, and that’s also when I noticed the blazing sun, and felt the wax dripping down my back.

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A Demon in the Forest? El Nevado de Colima Attempt #1

nevado de colima

There are times in your life when you look at a volcano and think: I must try to climb that. You’re not sure where this impulse comes from. Possibly from somewhere deep inside you, possibly next to your pancreas. You look down at your shoes and see they’re woefully inadequate for mountaineering and think, To hell with it. I’m going to try anyway.

nevado de colima

Kilometer two. Paying respects.

I left El Fresnito at around 9am, armed only with my skate shoes and a half-full bottle of water. Almost immediately I ran into another group of hikers, two girls and one guy from Guadalajara. I asked them how many kilos they were carrying.

Fifteen, one the girls said.

 

Fifteen? Are you carrying cinder blocks? A hardcover copy of 2666 (In which case: Can we get married?)? I couldn’t understand how they could have so much weight. It sometimes seems like in Latin America the appearance of doing something properly is more important than anything else. You DO NOT go cycling without cycling shorts and a cycling jersey. You DO NOT go running without stretchy pants and running shoes. And you DO NOT go hiking without a huge, overly-loaded backpack.

arbutus madrone nevado de colima mexico

The beautiful madrone.

An hour in I was treated to a welcome sight. The Pacific Madrone, or Arbutus menziesii (to those of us who speak more cultivated tongues), is extremely common in the Pacific Northwest, but only found at higher elevations in Mexico. I like seeing them because they make me feel at home. They’re easy to spot because of their distinctive peeling bark that reveals a smooth, usually green or orange surface underneath.

It soon became apparent that the trail was not the best way to go, so I abandoned it for the longer, but much more manageable, dirt road. Things were instantly better. Instead of a struggle, it was a walk in the park. I was happy. I began to sing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The air began to get cooler and after about two and a half hours of walking I got to a campground called El Alcazar. It was deserted. There were bathrooms and outside them a sink, and I wondered if the sink water was drinkable. After some debate, I decided to fill up my water bottle half full, and on the way down if I saw the people from Guadalajara ask them if they knew if it was safe to drink.

nevado de colima, plantas, plants

Difficult to see, but chandeliers of succulent cacti hanging from these massive trees.

Luckily, I ran into them almost immediately. They were struggling up the steep trail I’d fallen on just a few moments earlier trying to see if one of the water tanks I’d been told had water had some kind of spigot where I could fill up my water bottle.

What don’t you take the road? I asked.

Because this is more direct, one of the girls said.

How about we get married right now? Is that direct enough?

But of course I didn’t say this. I said, The trail is hell. The road is so much nicer.

I also asked if they knew if the water from the sink was potable, and they said they didn’t think so.

You can just drink from those tanks, the guy said, pointing up the trail.

You just pull back the lid? I asked.

Yes, he said.

This was welcome news, since I hadn’t had a drink in quite some time. The guy and I peeled the lid back to reveal a rushing brook of pure, cold spring water.

water nevado colima

Ahhhhhh, water.

What a difference a small thing like access to fresh, cold water can make. Even though I hadn’t made it very far up the mountain, I was completely content with turning around and going back down. They continued to struggle up the trail with awful, sliding loose dirt, and I bounded off down the dirt road, happy as a lynx.

The trip back down was long and uneventful. I’d made it to about 2,700 meters from a starting elevation of about 1,700 meters. The summit, for reference, is just over 4,200 meters.

When I got back to the Airbnb where I’m staying, owned by a couple named Augustin and Lupita Ibarra, who’ve hosted travelers and mountaineers since the 90’s, Augustin offered me some beer. It was perfect. I decided to put my water consumption on hold, and instead take in the cold, refreshing suds.

And that was my first attempt at summiting the Nevado de Colima. With skate shoes, I don’t know if I’ll make it to the top. I might try to get a ride up further tomorrow and get closer to the summit. And find the group of girls (and one guy) I’d shared some nice conversation with.

Or maybe I’ll just stay below, drinking beer with Augustin. Both options sound pretty nice.

A special thanks to SCL for supporting this “blugh.”

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A demon in the forest.

Instatravel

“No addiction is good.” – Jose Mujica

There’s no doubt social media and various websites like Airbnb and Google Flights are changing travel, it’s just not quite clear exactly how. Every time you connect to Instagram you’re bombarded with images of happy people visiting exotic locations around the world, and feel a little bit jealous/bad about yourself. Even Airbnb makes something like staying with a stranger, something that used to rarely happen organically, completely commonplace. This weekend, for example, I’m staying with a couple at the foot of the Colima Volcano in Southern Jalisco, Mexico, and I venture to say this experience would never happen without the aid of the internet. I’ll probably take a few pictures while I’m there. I’ll probably write a few blogs.

The question is: Is this a good thing?

hashtaguear

Airport, CDMX.

Travel these days is becoming more in the hands of the people. Instead of getting in a cab, you get in an Uber, and average Jane/Joe takes you where you want to go. Instead of staying in a hotel, Average Jane/Joe rents out their spare room. I have no doubt this peer to peer system will soon extend to even more areas, though my feeble brain is incapable of forecasting where. Airbnb already has Airbnb “experiences,” where Average Jane/Joe takes you on a tour of their town, or teaches you to dance, or cooks you a fabulous risotto dinner, all for a reasonable fee.

One place I don’t think it will ever extend is to the realm of air travel.

“Hi, my name is Billy, and welcome to Uber JET. I have exactly 12 hours experience in the cockpit. Buckle up.”

But then again, what do I know? Maybe one day buying a plane won’t be that much more expensive than buying a car, more people will have their pilot’s license, and this will actually be an option.

With things like Facebook and Instagram, vicarious travel has also become much more accessible, if not unavoidable. Every time you open Instagram you’re transported, sometimes against your will, to places like Thailand, or Paris, or Thailand, and come to think of it, usually Thailand. Telling the world about your trip has become much easier, to the point where everyone is telling everyone else about their trips, all of the time. You go to Paris, take 50 pictures, and all of them go on Facebook and Instagram. You friend does the same thing, but with Rome, and her friend the same thing with Malta, and her friend the same thing with Madrid, and her friend the same thing, again with Paris. It’s a never-ending web of travel images, and suddenly, even though you’ve never been to the Great Wall, you’ve seen 6,000 pictures of it, and it no longer feels as exotic. Maybe it makes you want to travel less. Maybe it makes you go insane. I don’t know how this is affecting us.

mark wetzler ordinary nomad northern chile hitchhiking

Let me take a selfie. Somewhere in Northern Chile.

In the end, the most special travel experiences are still the ones that arise organically. You meet someone in a cafe and they tell you about some dilapidated castle five miles out of town you simply must see (followed by an exchange of telephone numbers and medium-term romance), or you meet someone at a bar and they invite you to a party the next day. The reason these organic experiences are more special is because they’re not based on some kind of algorithm or criteria. There are more mystical forces at work, like attraction, mood, and even luck, like the possibility of overhearing a conversation in a cafe. Just as apps like Tinder and Bumble have cheapened dating, the overuse of websites like Airbnb, as well as posting all your experiences on Instagram, cheapens travel. The mystique of travel remains, but I dare say not nearly as much so for the traveler who travels to then post pictures on Instagram. Not that this is a new phenomenon. People have always traveled to brag about their travels, even when it was just inviting the neighbors over for a slide show. But showing a slide to your neighbors isn’t quite the same as posting a picture on the internet for everyone to see.

menos face mas book

Menos Feis, mas Book. Santiago de Chile.

In the end, travel can’t change for you if you don’t let it. Instagram and Facebook can enhance your travel experience when used in moderation (maybe), or cheapen or even ruin it if used ad nauseam. Just try one thing: When you wake up, don’t let checking Facebook or Instagram or Twitter be the first thing you do. Get out of bed, stretch, and say the word “hashtag” a few times out loud. Then, for everything you say that morning, precede it with, “Hashtag.”

“Hashtag, how are you doing this morning?”

“Hashtag, fine.”

“Hashtag, you getting ready for work?”

“Hashtag, you had breakfast yet?”

etc.

You’ll social media blues will be cured in no time, and you’ll be back on the path to reality.

Drinking Topo Chico in San Francisco de Ixcatan

tacos san francisco ixcatan

The day started with me descending into the belly of the beast, i.e. the dark cavern that is Guadalajara’s SITREN, i.e. Guadalajara’s metro. But don’t call it the metro. People will correct you and call it the train, despite the fact that it runs underground, and is indeed a metro in every way possible apart from the fact that people don’t call it that.

But anyway.

My goal this morning was to go SOMEWHERE. Anywhere. All I wanted to do was get out of GDL, and preferably to a small town. I had a few small towns north of GDL in my cross-hairs, one of them being San Francisco de Ixcatan, which looked to be in the mountains, or some kind of valley, next to a rushing body of water, which I believe laymen call a “Rhivjer.”

My plan of attack was this: Take the metro, I mean train, as far north as I could, and look for a bus. This is why I’m not allowed to travel with people. Most people wouldn’t subscribe to this plan. What if there aren’t buses? What if that part of town is really bad? Why don’t we just go to the main bus station and do this methodically?

Bo……..ring. (boring).

I got off the train and started walking north, hoping buses would be going by right there. But when I looked at Google Maps I realized I’d probably have to connect with the main highway before there’d be buses. So I kept walking. I bought a “chocomil,” or chocolate milk, made fresh right there with cinnamon on top. With this glucose infusion I kept walking, and after a few minutes asked a guy sitting by the side of the road if he knew where the buses to Ixcatan left from. He seemed excited. “Right down there, by the Elektra,” he said, pointing down the hill. And so I kept walking. I walked for probably half a kilometer, and the Elektra, an electronics store, came into view. There was a slough of people in front of it, the chaos of buses stopping, the heat, the cars speeding by. I crossed the road and followed people’s lead, taking a seat on a planter in the shade created by the Elektra.

“Good afternoon,” I said to the people sitting next to me. “My name is Mark Thomas, first of his name, and I was wondering if the buses to San Francisco de Ixcatan pass by here.”

“Where’s that?” the woman said.

“Ahhhh, Ixcatan,” she quickly added. “What did you call it?”

“It’s just that it says ‘San Francisco de Ixcatan’ on the map.”

“Why do you wanna go there?” the guy sitting next to her asked.

“I don’t know. To eat. To get out of the city.”

This seemed like a novel idea to them. I gathered from our short conversation that Ixcatan wasn’t exactly on the top of people’s bucket lists.

road to ixcatan

(For the record: I despise the term bucket list. I’m ashamed of myself for using it. It’s kind of a buzz word these days, people always asking each other, “What’s on the top of your bucket list?” followed by a 15 minute conversation about Thailand.)

The bus was glorious. Oh, how I love locomotion. Moving faster than you could under your own power. Is there anything better? Besides chocolate milk, of course.

Within 15 minutes we were out of Guadalajara and a large valley stretched before us. For some reason I had expected everything to be green and florid, but it was decidedly arid. Dry. Parched. And we weren’t going UP in altitude. We were going down. Down a steep, winding hill, further into the heat. Out of the city, but not out of the heat.

Even before getting to Ixcatan I was thrilled by the trip. Thirteen pesos and I had gotten a world away from GDL. Why have I not been doing this every weekend? Or every day, for that matter? Why don’t I live in San Francisco de Ixcatan, keep goats, and tend to them? This last question would plague me for most of the day.

plaza ixcatan iglesia church

Upon arriving to the town, which was quiet, a few old men sitting in the main plaza under the shade of a jacaranda tree (I have no idea what kind of tree it was), I sought out tacos. I was rewarded with a stand next to the church that sold tacos dorados for 10 pesos each, of which I had two. After this I drank a Topo Chico, Mexico’s premier mineral water, and headed for the hills. I took a cobblestone road that seemed to lead out of the town, and indeed in less than 10 minutes I WAS out of town, listening to the sounds of the insects, the birds, the sounds of the country on a hot day in old Mexico.

After my foray into nature I walked back into town where I spotted a horse standing on the sidewalk waiting for its owner. I sat next to the horse, and next to a dog that was taking refuge from the sun in a tree planter. There I sat for some time, observing the town. There was a group of people to my left listening to music and drinking beer. A man road by on his horse followed by his son, who was riding a pony, and then they talked to the people and went by me again. The dog, when I sat next to it, stirred for a second, looked at me, and went back to sleep. The horse seemed annoyed at having to wear a bit, but content to be in the shade.

And then I went back to the main plaza, where I continued to sit. When I heard the sound of the bus, I ran to get on it. It didn’t leave for a few minutes, however, so I walked over to a guy selling fruit and got a bag of mango and watermelon covered in chile and lemon for 15 pesos. And then it was time to get on the bus, and time to leave San Francisco de Ixcatan.

horse ixcatan

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The Jalalabad of Central Ohio

ordinary nomad

I’m kind of digging the more journal-themed posts lately. They’re certainly easier to write because I just talk about myself. What I’m thinking.  What I want to do. Where I see my life going.

I’ve been thinking for awhile now how I can get the hell out of Guadalajara. And not necessarily to leave for good, but at least to travel more, at least to take a vacation. I would love to go to Seattle, for example, at the end of April or early May, and combine that with my cousin’s wedding in Chicago on April 28th. But the problem becomes financing that trip. Luckily, I have a bit of a plan. I often participate in research studies in Seattle. You go to the hospital, you surrender your body to science and in turn they give you large sums of money. I did one last time I was living in Seattle where they took out my red blood cells, infused them with a radioactive marker, and then put them back in my body to see how long they’d live. I love stuff like this. This hustle. I’d so much rather make $800 talking to the wonderful pathologist and exposing myself to the kind of danger that’s equivalent to six chest x-rays than expose myself to the danger of having a stagnant life. And so apparently there might be a one-day study at the end of April or the beginning of May which would essentially pay for my flight to Seattle and onward to Chicago. I don’t know how I’d then get back to GDL, or wherever I went, but there’s always hitchhiking.

So that’s been on my mind.

Another thing that’s been on my mind is not leaving this area, not leaving Mexico, but moving to a smaller town. It’s been disgustingly apparent for awhile now that I’m not a city person, that I’m country folk, and yet for some reason I continue to live in cities. But I can’t really think of a better place to live than a small Mexican mountain town (except actually about 100 other places), and I think I’ve found that town. It’s called Concepcion de Buenos Aires. It’s about two hours southeast of GDL, and it’s apparently called “The Switzerland of Jalisco.” People love to call places “The Switzerland of (Insert place).” Apparently Kyrgyzstan, for example, is “The Switzerland of Central Asia.” But what about comparisons between places with not so obvious similarities? For example, what’s the Fort Lauderdale of Eastern Washington? What’s the Des Moines, Iowa, of Northern Manitoba? What’s the Tokyo of Beijing? The Jalalabad of Central Ohio?

I found out about Concepcion de Buenos Aires because of a wonderful blog called Fulanito Viajero that’s inspired me to add a “Blogs I like” section to Ordinary Nomad at some point. In the blog post he talks about 11 impressive municipalities that most people from Jalisco don’t even know about.  There’s one called Bolaños, nestled in a canyon in the middle of nowhere north of GDL that looks not only enchanting but almost shares the same name as one of my favorite authors. And about Concepcion de Buenos Aires it says it’s a place “surrounded by forests and mountains where the faint scent of pine drifts throughout.” In other words, perfect. In other words, ciao Guadalajara.

But I can’t leave Guadalajara right now, because I’ve committed to some classes. That might be the only thing that’s keeping me here, and I’m GLAD it’s keeping here, because before I head off into the unknown again I should be more prepared. In the past I’ve always just left. But maybe I’ll do it right this time. Maybe I’ll really go for it. Maybe…

I just a lonche de pierna the size of a brontosaurus thigh and I feel sleep’s warm tentacles wanting to claim me. But I can’t be claimed. I have to teach a class in a half hour to a Colombian woman who lives in Spain. Have to keep saving. Keep plotting. Keep planning the next adventure.

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