Adventure, Andre Sólo, The Great Adventure, Writing

Return of the Rogue Priest

Hi adventurers. It’s been a while. I’ve spent the last few months doing many things:

  • Planning the next leg of the bike ride
  • Dating someone wonderful
  • Writing

Writing has, in fact, consumed most of my time. And not just writing new stories—I also educated myself about how to build an author career. A few weeks ago I made my first ever submission to a literary journal(!). Those journals are where great authors start out, and they’re the road to prizes, literary awards and publishing contracts. I’m excited to see if I’m accepted.

At the same time, I believe in the indie route. My novella Lúnasa Days was independently published, and was 100% funded by my fans (that’s you guys—I couldn’t do it without you!). Readers also backed the last leg of the bicycle trip, which produced four short stories set in Mexico. One of those stories is the one I’ve now sent out to the journals.

So, what are the fruits of all these months of work? Well, I have three big announcements to make:

1. The Adventure Continues

My Adventure is far from over, and the next leg is coming up soon! I expect to be back on the bicycle starting in November (just in time to escape Trump). The next ride will go from Mexico to Panama, through all the countries shown in pretty colors here:

Next leg of the journey! Image by Wikimedia Commons.

This will be the most borders of any leg of the trip to date. It’ll take me across mountains, rainforests and volcanic lakes, and through places you’ve seen on the news—the countries where child refugees come from.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce that this leg of the Adventure will be a fundraiser. This time, the miles I bike will raise dollars for a worthy cause. I’m working to identify an organization that’s a good fit, preferably with a focus on heroism or immigration, both of which are close to my heart (and appropriate for Central America).

Any thoughts on an organization worth supporting?

2. New Rogue Priesting

The long hiatus of this blog is over. I won’t be posting every week, but you can expect new pieces in the near future. Topics will include:

  • An updated vision of the Heroic Life.
  • A new report on the journey to meet the gods: where I’m at, what I’ve seen, and everything I’ve learned so far.
  • The true story of how I ended up chasing down a laptop thief, and what it taught me about the bystander effect.

3. My New Website

I’ve known for a long time that I need a separate website for my fiction. That site is now under construction! The most exciting part is that I will release free fiction online there, and eventually run a full length fantasy story, told in free weekly episodes.

Don’t miss the first episode when it launches—sign up for my new mailing list and be the first one to see it. Signup is free and you can unsubscribe at any time. Click here to sign up for email updates from me.

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That’s the latest here. What have you all been up to?

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 3—The Twelve Hour Breakfast

Last time I offered a little glimpse of what days and nights were like during my time in Valladolid. But as time went on, they seemed to get wilder.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Offerings I placed in an underground lake in Valladolid for my followers. Photo by Andre.

Party at Seven

Mario, our local chef-cum-poet extraordinaire, has a knack for creating great parties. Generally, if Mario was planning something everyone wanted in. But one plan seemed to go too far:

A breakfast party.

“Picture this,” Mario said. “We start at dawn. I cook. At seven sharp there is an amazing breakfast laid on the table. And together we share it, and the party starts.”

This proposal earned no shortage of groans. For the banda I ran with, it was just too early of a start. But Mario was relentless. Originally the idea was an overnight party—in one of Alberto’s cenotes, no less—with breakfast cooked over a fire the following dawn. Alberto ruled that it was too complicated, and the idea foundered.

At first I didn’t like the idea of an early wake up, either. But in New Orleans we start our Mardi Gras at 5 a.m. Friends force themselves out of bed to meet for a hasty breakfast and the assembly of the costumes. The great holiday ends at midnight, so by 7 a.m. the Faubourg Marigny is alive with revelers. It’s worth the bleary eyes.

Thinking of this, I asked Mario why he wanted a breakfast party so bad. And why so early?

“For the experience! Think of it, Andre: the sun is barely up, the day is not yet hot, the streets are silent. It’s a time we always miss, bunch of drunks that we are, but this one day we’ll get to see it, to experience it, and we’ll celebrate being alive.”

(Mario actually talks like that.)

I was in. “I don’t have a cenote,” I said. “But I have a pool. And an outdoor kitchen. Choose a day.”

And so the breakfast began.

Mario and I had a week to campaign our friends to actually wake up on time. No one wanted to, and almost no one gave a firm commitment. Mario promised to bring enough food for 12 people, and joked that we’d have to eat it all ourselves. Meanwhile, my contribution was a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream for the coffee, which I discovered was kept behind protective glass at the supermarket and required a secret code to purchase.

We shouldn’t have worried. On the day of the party, the guests tumbled in half-asleep and miserable, but quickly perked up at the smell of food. They brought with them fresh juice, treats, and the ingredients for morning cocktails. “Is there milk for the coffee?” someone asked. I slid them the Bailey’s.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

The breakfast. Photo by Andre.

By 8:00 the seats were full, and people came and went all day. After breakfast we sat in bliss and chatted; after chatting we swam. The conversation ranged from philosophy and fate to sex, which to Mario are faces of a coin. When the debate got too intense I cooled it down by pushing Alejandra in the pool. But it was good, easygoing conversation. A party under the sun is just more humane than a party at night.

Swim, snack, chat, swim snack. Eventually someone gathered up ingredients and fixed another meal, and others made beer runs. “Get your glasses!” called Mario. “Get ready for the countdown!”

“What countdown?”

“We started at seven,” he grinned. “It’s about to be seven again.”

The assembled company murmured in disbelief. It was the twelve hour mark of our breakfast. Mario counted down the seconds and we toasted on the hour.

The party continued even longer, but when the sun went down the mood changed. Not for the worse or the better. It just changed.

I decided to rest, but the pool party got wilder. At one point I stepped inside for a call from a friend back home. I guess the guests missed their host, because a few lined up by the window and taunted me with full moons. The guilty parties will of course remain nameless.

By nine or ten, the moment was lost. People found their reasons to make an exit. Many weren’t tired out but were just ready for a new venue. For my part, I closed the door and relaxed, happy.

The Last Supper

The breakfast was far from the only party Mario threw. The greatest was also the last: the closing of his restaurant Naino. He was tired of not making a profit, and the tourist season was over. While everyone else thought it was a tragedy, Mario responded with his usual fatalism. It wasn’t meant to be; there was no point in fighting it; the only thing left to do was go out in glory. And so began the Last Supper.

I figured the name was just a joke, but it quickly became clear that this would be a thoroughly Biblical event. Mario was to play the part of our Lord and Savior. Per his invitation text:

“The next day Naino shall be crucified. Three days later it will make a brief reappearance and then ascend to the heavens, at the right hand of Mario.”

Costumes were encouraged, particularly togas and robes. I didn’t have a toga but I did have a checkerboard cape from my Chess Master costume at Mardi Gras. Striding across town in this outfit got a lot of Mayan double-takes.

The admission fee to the dinner was supposed to be $150 pesos, but Mario neglected to collect it, leaving Manda and me to be his muscle. I also tithed a fair selection of wine, as our messiah had thus far failed to turn water into a liquor license.

The Last Supper by da Vinci

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Last Supper by Mario. Your checkerboard rogue priest occupies the position of St. Thaddeus, near the far right.

The Holy Cross

Despite the good times, I often abstained from parties. Once, when Naino’s kitchen closed and the tables were slid aside for the dancing to begin, I made my way to the door amidst booing and pleading from my compatriots. I believe in living in the moment, but the truth is I do precious little of it. I live more in my plans and my dreams, and a hangover does not help me accomplish them.

Still, I was anything but a wallflower during those months. There are more Valladolid stories than I can possibly tell. At one point I was invited to give a talk on my Adventure to the local community, complete with a Spanish translator. I made friends I haven’t even mentioned here: Denis, the jolly hotel owner and local maven; Allan, the quiet old genius who lives outside of town; and Harriet. Harriet approaches life as a puzzle that can be figured out. She tornadoes into a room with the charm of a New England ladies’ club and the booming voice of a naval commander. Once, at a fundraising breakfast she organized, I teasingly complained about the long speeches. “You know what, Andre?” she cheerfully replied. “Fuck off and die.”

At the end of my Valladolid time, I still had one mission left to accomplish. For 1,700 miles of cycling across Mexico I carried a card inscribed with the names of all the supporters who made the trip possible. (“Follow that Dream,” the card read.) I had pledged to leave it at a shrine of Guadalupe in Valladolid. The problem? There were none. I could spot household shrines through doors and behind gates, but no public ones.

My last week in Valla, I rode the Giant out to the villages. On the  city outskirts I spotted one of the ritual crosses of the Maya. A hundred years ago, when the Maya rose up against Mexican landowners, they formed their own Christian cult around a holy cross that could speak and issue commands to its followers. Even today, the villages have simple wooden crosses dressed in beautiful hand-embroidered garments as if the cross itself were a person.

I stopped at this particular holy cross, its pediment crowded with candles. Leaving the bike aside, I knelt down.

All the candles were of Guadalupe.

Reverently, I kissed the ground and offered the card. “Follow that Dream,” it still said, just barely, the words blurred by moisture and sun and months of riding in a bike bag. I set the card behind the candles, in this place where Mayan, Mexican and European tradition come together.

As I stood I saw a local mother and her two kids on the trail behind me. She held them back to let me do my devotion in peace. But when I met her gaze, she smiled warmly. So did I.

I had finished my mission of riding across Mexico. In the future, I’ll pick up at the same place and head farther south—through countries even more dangerous, on roads even more busted, with even less idea of what I’m doing.

But for now, I focus on my career. At the end of May, a friend from the US came down to visit. I left the Canada House and Valladolid in early June, and we spent some time on the beach before I headed to Xalapa to write.

So where am I now? That’s a story for next time.

For more reading, check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 2—Yucatán Nights

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Arianna and Rosalía share a bike near the carousel. Photo by Andre.

Valladolid looks quiet but there’s a lot going on. Last time I introduced the crazy cast of characters I managed to fall in with. Now it’s time for some misadventures.

Writers Are Boring

Most days were tame. Writers are boring artists: we don’t hop around stage and cast spells like musicians or actors. We don’t even put on a show of furious brush strokes. Furious laptopping just looks like you’re unbalanced, too angry over someone’s comment on Youtube. I spent many days quietly typing at home.

But I felt out of place in the Canada House. There were four bedrooms and just one of me. I mostly lived in the back building, but I preferred to work up front in the outdoor kitchen, surrounded by nature. As a result I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. It felt odd having such a huge place to myself.

I wrote four stories I had dreamed up crossing Mexico. The first is about a woman in Laredo, who needs money for her son. She seeks out a magic man that lives in the desert, braving the threat of drug traffickers to find him—only to find out he’s in with the narcos, and requires a sacrifice.

The second one was conceived amidst the ghost towns of Real de Catorce. It follows a desert pilgrimage to the sacred mind-altering peyote. And a third tells of an old woman, an herbalist, who leaves her village and her adult children to seek her fortune in the big city. The big city, unfortunately, does not want her.

The last is a tale set in Xalapa, but it’s not done yet. It also doesn’t fit. While the others are all magical realism, this one is about love.

I wrote other things besides. I started to sit on the street, like an artist with a sketchbook, and write about what I saw.

One road in grabbed my attention. It’s a tiny lane off a major city street, but you’d think you’re in the country. It has trees, a low stone wall built by hand, a thatch roofed cottage, chickens. I mentioned my infatuation to Manda and she lit up. “Do you mean the street off Calzada de los Frailes? Second corner from Alberto’s, isn’t it? It’s rather like a storybook.” Artists think alike.

While I was writing, one of the street’s residents came up and introduced himself. Soon he brought two cups of coffee from his house and got bread from a passing vendor, and we practically had a picnic. He told me he’s a recovering alcoholic. He said he’s gone sober to win back his wife. Later, he confided that his coffee mug contained beer.

The paradox of writing is that to do it well you need to be reclusive, but sitting in your home alone deprives you of fresh material. Everyday I went out and walked around. I observed and made notes. But, deep in my inner world of ideas, I hardly talked to anyone. I ate alone and preferred restaurants where I knew no one. As the wait staff became friendlier I wouldn’t want to return. This hermitage may sound rude or lonely, but it only improved the quality of my work and, most days, my happiness.

Yucatán Nights

In the evenings I was more social. By day Yucatán’s an oven, but after dark there are cool breezes. It’s a joy to sit outside a cafe or bar. Some nights we would go to Alberto’s—his Valladolid residence is a shuttered bakery—and we sat in folding chairs on the plaza outside his door. Families gathered in the plaza at night, and some upstanding citizen had donated a circus carousel for the kids (it was almost election time).

“Wow, what a nice gift to the city,” I said.

“Come on!” yelled Alberto. “Do you know that music plays all night? I’m taking out a hit on that thing!”

We also got a new arrival. Arianna, a professional musician from California, had fallen in love with Valladolid. Now she was scouting possible places to live. Arianna is a person who can talk to anyone, and she relishes doing so (she also has game with both men and women).

She really widened our friend circle. Mexico is a country of clear class divisions, and foreigners are automatically slotted into the upper caste. I can easily make friends with locals who are business owners, hold college degrees and know English. Working class Mexicans, however, sometimes view me with suspicion. Not so when Arianna walks up flashing her smile.

It was through her that I met Rosalía, a 30 year old Maya woman who is unmarried, works 10 hours a day and lives with her family. Unmarried at 30 is unusual in Mexico; no kids is even less common. Both are conscious choices she has made so she can save up money and open a business with her brothers. She is both a dreamer and a hard worker, a dangerous combination.

Soon she invited us to dinner at her house. We shared beer and pizza while her brothers grilled us about life in the US. Arianna’s Spanish made mine look good, but we managed to trade stories in a mix of languages. Slowly they seemed to accept that, although we have more money, we are basically not that different—and we’re at least not stuck up about it. It was the first time they’d ever had a foreigner in their home.

The next day Rosalía apologized fiercely.

“Why?” I said.

“Because we drank so much! You must think we’re drunks!”

I smiled and thought of the pool parties at Canada House.

The Fatal Chef

Valladolid has some good restaurants. There’s Fallo’s Seafood, where the 5-foot tall owner leaves his shirt open to show off his chest hair while making shrimp cocktails. There’s Yerbabuena, which serves the best breakfast in town, and where my waiter Carlos struggled to accept that he could speak to me in Spanish instead of using his perfectly practiced English. A hundred steps from my front door was Family Restaurant Oasis, more like a bar with a full menu, where the food is awful but the botanas (free snacks if you order beer) are worth the stop. In the evenings I would go to Conato for great food and solitude; Casa Italia, for great food and the risk of running into people; or the most fabled eatery of them all, Naino.

Naino was the restaurant of our Portuguese poet-chef, Mario. Originally he ran it like a standard restaurant with a menu. “I got bored,” Mario told me. “And I had customers get rude if we were out of something. So I took their menu away.” His eyes glittered.

The new deal was simple: you paid 120 pesos and Mario brought you three courses (sometimes four) of whatever he felt like. It was a hit, and rocketed him to the most popular restaurant in Valla. But that didn’t make it profitable. For one thing, 120 pesos is a low price for the kind of fine dining he provided. For another, the city resolutely refused to give him an alcohol license. (Valladolid is controlled by twelve ancient families and is notoriously conservative.) Undeterred, Mario launched a “bring your own” policy with no corking fee and frequently sold illegal cuagamas (40 ounce beers). But every wine bottle brought from the corner store was 150 pesos in missed revenue.

For Mario, the fun wasn’t in making money. It was in creating experiences where people truly let go and enjoyed themselves. There are many terms I could use to describe the man: a fatalist, a sensualist. But I think the best description is that he’s Mario. And Mario came up with ever more extravagant ideas for parties.

One of those ideas was the twelve hour breakfast. But that’s a story for next time.

Until then, check out my book or show your support. Thank you as always for reading.

 

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mayan High Life Pt. 1—The Right Group of People

Valladolid

Valladolid

In the last entry I finished my ride across Mexico and reached beautiful Valladolid. But that was months ago. What was it like living there? Valladolid itself is a small colonial city, but my life there was much wilder than I could have expected. Here’s a first look into that time, and all the people I met.

When I arrived in Valladolid I didn’t have a clear plan. I knew I wanted to live there and write long term. “Long term” meant a few months, a novelty after biking to a new town every few days. But first I needed a place to stay.

For the first few nights I booked a room with Manda, a British fashion designer who came to Mexico to teach design. She ended up hating the job but loving the country. For three years she followed Mexican teenagers photographing their amazing Colombia-inspired fashion. (Her book about the teens is stunning, by the way.) But I knew none of that. I’d chosen her house simply because it was the coolest looking place on AirBnB.

Manda's book

Manda’s book

Soon I made friends with her two dogs, Prince Harry and Chaparro, and her cat Lord Freddy. In the mornings we’d all sit together on the back patio. Manda and I sipped English tea and ate home-made granola (“muesli” in British parlance). In the afternoons I’d work on the computer while Manda made entire dresses or her next piece of home décor. I tried to teach Manda how to make coffee, but with only a pot to heat the water and no filters, I quickly switched back to tea.

I couldn’t dawdle around, though; I needed to find a place of my own. Showing up without a plan is new for me. Not knowing where I’d be living or how long I’d be there was uncomfortable, but strangely relaxing.

Carnival

My arrival in Valla coincided with the height of Mardi Gras season back home. A New Orleans friend told me scoldingly, “I remember someone sitting around my bonfire two years ago and saying he’d never miss another Mardi Gras again.” She called in that oath, and I didn’t need much convincing. Flying was bizarre after so much cycling, and I stared out the window in a trance as we crossed the entire Gulf in hours. Then I hit the Big Easy, saw my friends, and had an amazing Carnival. (Our costume theme was Games, and I went as the Chess Master, with a black-and-white jacket I painted myself.)

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

Treasure Hunt, Candyland, Jokers Wild, Dice, Chess Master.

As a side-effect this trip reset my tourist visa, so when I returned to Mexico I had six more months to play with. Meanwhile Manda had a lead for me: two Canadian friends were getting ready to fly north for the summer, and needed a house sitter badly.

The Canadian House was jaw-dropping. It’s an entire compound arranged around a central garden with a giant pool and a waterfall. The front house is a palapa (thatched roof cottage) and the back is all modern.  It wasn’t a true house sitting gig—I paid rent to stay there—but it was a good deal. It hit it off with the owners and before long I literally had the keys to paradise in my hand.

Valla Days Feb-June 2015 530_rs

“My” pool.

The Guy with the Pool

Before they left, the owners told me, “You should have guests over. Use the house. Use the pool. Enjoy it.” Manda knew everyone in town and introduced me around. I’d like to think I would have made friends on my own, but it didn’t hurt being the guy with the pool. Valladolid is close-knit and I quickly got to know all the local characters, most of whom had stayed in Canada House at some point.

María José is an environmental consultant who moved from Mexico City because she loves the Yucatecan jungle. She owns a small farm in one of the Maya villages, where she’s learning to raise stingless Mayan bees and helps the villagers build up tourism.

Ariane is the owner of Dutzi boutique, an outspoken German and the “other” fashion designer in town. She and Manda are good friends. I first met Ariane on Manda’s patio, where she burst in the door rebuffing one of Manda’s guests: “Look, I can’t talk about ‘oh what part of Germany are you from,’ I’m not on vacation, I just worked twelve hours!” I liked her immediately.

Other regulars included Pelucas, a Spanish artist who can’t keep a straight face; Mario, a Portuguese chef with a poetic streak who served small plates at his restaurant Naino; and Alejandra, the owner of the town’s best tequila shop. Alejandra is an adventurer in her own right, and taught me how to sound like a tequila expert (I am not one).

A cenote. National Geographic photo.

The Fearless Cenote Hunter

One character I kept hearing about took forever to meet. That is Alberto, better known as the Cenote Hunter. Cenotes are the breathtaking underground lakes that lie hidden everywhere under the Yucatán, most completely sealed from the surface. But sometimes there are openings, making them natural wells and much sought-after swimming holes. Many villages have a communal cenote, for their own use or for tourists; most churches and town centers are built right over one, as they were the original water source; and every resort, tour company and rich foreigner wants to own one. Alberto single-handedly carved out a new industry, talking to Maya locals and hunting out cenotes in the jungle. He buys and sells them, and has inspired many imitators.

No sooner did I meet Alberto than I was invited along on a cenote expedition. Alberto is a whirlwind: you cannot make plans with him, but any given morning he might call you and tell you to be ready in 15 minutes. “Where are we going?” I’d ask. “Come on, there is a beautiful cenote I want to show you! Let’s go!”

Whenever feasible the expeditions are carried on bicycle. I got the call and met Manda at her house. We teamed up with Alberto, all on bikes, with both of Manda’s dogs chasing along behind us. The goal: a cenote named Mukul about 18 km away.

“Are you sure the dogs can run that far?” I asked Manda.

“I brought water for them, they’re tough boys, aren’t you my tough boys?”

About 12 km later one of the tough boys was riding in my bicycle basket and the other one had long since abandoned us.

"Who is the dog, and who is the master?"

“Who is the dog, and who is the master?”

Mukul was beautiful. We left the bikes on the roadside and waked a mile through the jungle to two holes in the ground. “Watch that hole,” Alberto said, pointing. He tossed a rock down the other. WHOOSH! About 20 turquoise blue birds exploded out of the depths, spooked by the falling rock, all flying right past my face.

After the bird show we entered the underworld. Mukul’s descent is a mere 100 feet of wobbling ladder, followed by a log staircase that Alberto’s business partner built. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “They almost never collapse.”

The cenote at the bottom was vast. We stood on a natural ledge overlooking it: a cavernous lake extending far into the dark, lit only with a little sunlight from the two holes above. Trails glittered across the black water, caused by mineral dust floating on top. It gave the effect of pathways left by faeries hoping to lure us to their world.

18 km is a short bike ride for me, but in 100 degree weather (with a four-legged passenger) it’s not easy. Plunging into the dark, cool water was like medicine. More friends showed up while we swam, and then the wine bottles were opened.

“I feel like we earned this wine,” Manda said. “It tastes better this way.”

By this time I already knew I had fallen in with a special group of people. I still didn’t know how long I’d be in Valladolid or what I’d do next, but I knew I made the right decision staying there. I just had to make sure I buckled down and got my writing done—but that’s a story for next time.

For more reading check out my book Lúnasa Days.

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Adventure, Andre Sólo, Bicycling, Fellowship of the Wheel, Mexico, Road Logs, Spotlight, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Music Video of My Adventure Across Mexico

My friend Pixi made me a music video(!). She assembled it from footage I took cycling across Mexico. I can’t believe it:

Riding 4,700 miles was not easy. Often I would forget the reason I was out there. An adventure can look glorious from the outside but the reality of living it is you’re just trying cope. This video made me smile because I can see how grand my Adventure looks from the outside, even when it seems pretty overwhelming from the inside. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Thanks Pixi! The song is “Adventure” by Be Your Own Pet.

The footage comes from the 100+ video logs I made during the ride. To get full access, become a supporter today.

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Adventure, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Sky Opened Up in Mérida

Last time I kicked it in atrocious hotels, while enjoying miles of jungle scenery and small Maya villages. Now it’s time to explore Mérida, the capital of Yucatán—and a place that promises some unexpected experiences.

Saturday, January 31 – Wednesday, February 4 (Days 939 – 943 of the Great Adventure)

My days in Mérida went by fast. Like a few other favorite stops, I stayed longer than I planned. And just as in the others, one of the highlights was the food.

I have an ability to sniff out great places wherever I go. The first one was easy to spot, because of the long lines of locals waiting for a table. It’s called Restaurante La Chaya Maya and offers some of the best Mayan food you’ll ever find. It’s so popular that they had to open a second location two blocks away, and the lines still stretch out the door during comida (the big late afternoon meal). Luckily, I still eat on an American schedule so stopped in around 6:30 one evening, when there was no wait at all. Mayan food consists mainly of pork prepared with a variety of amazing sauces, served in anything from an oversize tamale to a smothering of red onions soaked in lime juice.

(This is also where I first had chaya, a local green sometimes translated as “tree spinach” and delicious when cooked.)

Chaya. Photo via Zoom’s Edible Plants.

Another place caught my eye only because of the atmosphere. I was on a quest for a coffee shop and this place looked more like a diner, but something made me look twice. It turns out Cafetería Pop is a local landmark, the inside dominated by an oversize line drawing of three unhappy men. When I finally went in, it was heaven: the food was good and the silence was golden.

As far as I can tell, Pop is where Mexican men come to read the paper and get away from the world. It could only be more grandpa if it smelled like aftershave. I sank into a seat at one of the orange tables and read over my coffee and huevos, no one speaking to anyone. Blissful.

Image via Cafetería Pop.

(I never did find out what the deal is with the old guys on the wall. I asked twice but my Spanish couldn’t handle the answer. As best I can interpret, I was told, “They’re three disco stars who used to come here to dance.” I’m sure that’s right.)

Café Chocolate. Image via Yelp.

I did find my coffee shop, in spades. The one I liked most is Café Chocolate, where I could sit in overstuffed arm chairs at antique hardwood tables and write in perfect silence. But the one I went to most often—for its convenience and its strong wi-fi—was Café Bolero. This place would have the ambiance of a lesser Starbuck’s except that it has a large outdoor terrace, partly open air and partly covered by a roof high above. It was sort of a mini-plaza squeezed between the cafe and a religious bookstore. It was a good place to do client work for hours on end.

This is where I was sitting when a downpour hit Mérida one evening. I made sure to move under the roof, and continued working. But when I looked up I saw a homeless man stumble out of the rain, into the shelter of the plaza, so soaked he trailed a river behind him. I watched as he went into several stores, probably asking for help, and was driven out by an angry manager. My first thought was (of course): please don’t come talk to me.

And he never did. He looked toward the cafe terrace a few times, but had probably been run off before. So he forsook the shelter of the plaza and stood in the rain on the sidewalk, throwing water at himself and screaming up at the sky.

I became angry at myself, and at my desire that he leave me alone. It suddenly seemed despicable. Abandoning my coffee and computer, I crossed the plaza to talk to him.

“Pardon me,” I said. I had a $200 peso note in my hand, but he didn’t know that yet.

“My watch,” he said. “I’m looking for my watch.”

I nodded as if I understood. I didn’t; I can’t pretend to know whether he was mentally ill or just looking to get attention. And I wasn’t going to get pulled into delusional talk.

“I don’t know where your watch is,” I said. “But I thought this would help.”

I put out my hand, not making the bill obvious, and we shook hands. He discovered the money and his demeanor changed, and for a moment no one was crazy or not crazy. Then he filled one hand with falling rain and pushed it on my head and made the sign of the cross. It was a better blessing than most.

“Thank you,” I said.

He didn’t try to draw me into conversation. I returned to my laptop, the cafe staff watching uncertainly; he sat down under the shelter of the plaza. I was still there when he left. He stepped out into the rain, turned and looked at me, smiled and waved, and then disappeared. I waved back.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Martín of Unknown Merida. Photo by Andre.

Riding with Martín

Every Sunday there’s a large crafts and arts bazaar that spreads in the plaza outside my hotel, and down the street toward the centro. I deftly wove through the crowd as I came and went, avoiding sales pitches and cookie-cutter artesanías. But somehow I caught a glance of the t-shirt vendor—and stopped in my tracks.

T-shirt shops are usually the lowest of the low in tourist goods. In New Orleans they range from “I’m with Stupid” and “Thing 1/Thing 2” pairs to the truly elegant “I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street,” an essential for any gentleman’s wardrobe.

Mexico’s souvenir t-shirts can be slightly better, featuring sugar skulls and Aztec gods; similarly trite, with yet another Frida Kahlo; or they can be indistinguishable, with the same Homer Simpson faces and frat bro slogans translated into Spanish (or not). But they’re all identical from shop to shop and city to city. I categorically ignore these vendors.

Until I tripped past the one in the Hidalgo Plaza. These t-shirts weren’t cookie cutters. They featured original artwork, with a sort of pop postmodern look to them. You could describe it as Mexican-cultural-heritage-meets-Portland-zine.

The vendor was a young man with dark rimmed round glasses, looking every bit the part of the revolutionary Latin intellectual. I had no doubt he was also the artist, and after passing the stall several times I asked his name.

“Martín,” he said.

Martín and I hit it off. I bought one of his t-shirts (featuring two indigenous shamans in deer headdresses shaking rattles) and he was very interested in my journey. He does some cycling himself, sometimes several hundred kilometers or more to do beach trips with his friends. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride the next day.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Martín's t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

Martín’s t-shirts. Photo by Andre.

The next day we met up, taking a few minutes to look over each other’s rides. The first stop was a public market, where Martín treated me to a liter of fresh squeezed orange juice for the road; then a friend’s house to see if we could pick up a third rider (the friend was out). We crossed a highway and headed toward the outlying villages surrounding Mérida.

Our destination was a trail Martín had only heard of, never ridden on. An older man in the village knew where it was and offered shaky directions. I thought my Spanish just wasn’t up to snuff, but once out of earshot Martín turned to me and said, “Did you get any of that?” We went in the direction he had pointed and intuited the rest, pretty soon finding the trail head.

The trail was a rock and dirt affair through a section of forest. My bike isn’t really made for off-roading, but with high quality tires and no gear to carry he did pretty well. We had no particular destination, just a shared desire to go somewhere we hadn’t been before.

Out in the middle of the woods we stopped for a bit. Martín smoked and I stared at the sun through the leaves. We talked about what creatives talk about: dreams, careers, women, what is art and who can call themselves an artist; and women again. (Martín’s prefers to say he is only a student, and that it will take many years for him to be ready to say he’s an artist. I grinned and asked if he really believed that or if it was just good marketing.)

Martín is originally from Monterrey, and he dislikes it about as much as I did. He came to Mérida to make a career as an artist, because it’s a more cultural city. It’s also cheaper and has a large tourist industry, which has allowed him to make his entire living from his t-shirt sales. He creates the designs himself, starting with historic images and photoshopping them to something eye-popping or whimsical. He also prints them himself, with his own screen printing studio in his apartment.

His girlfriend is Argentinian (“she won’t eat the meat in Mexico, it’s not high quality enough”) and also an artist. Together they’ve been driving to other tourist destinations in Yucatán to suss out shops that can sell his t-shirts.

After our bike ride Martín and I went to another public market and got lunch. He suggested that after I finish the Mexico trip, I should consider living in Mérida, not Valladolid.

“There’s nothing in Valladolid!” he said.

“That’s kind of why I want to go there,” I said.

Still, he had a point. Mérida has more to offer creatives, and now I had a friend there. He promised he could introduce me to more people, and even offered to help me find a place to live.

I have to admit, he got me thinking about it.

(You can find Martín’s t-shirt catalog on Facebook or his whole portfolio here; he hopes to offer international orders soon. If you ever visit Mérida, stop at the Parque Hidalgo during the Sunday Market and check them out in person.)

Listening is the Spiritual Education of Humanity

One evening I got dinner at an open-air cafe on the central plaza. The usual parade of “ambulantes” wandered by: women begging for money, girls selling candy, boys with roses, vendors of every kind hoping to tempt you with an impulse purchase. This can happen in any city in Mexico, but it’s frequent in Mérida and I learned to tune it out.

As I was eating, a boy of about 13 years approached my table. He had an assortment of leather bracelets and cuffs.

“Excuse me—” he started in Spanish.

“No thanks,” I said. I was reading while I ate.

There was a pause. Sometimes you have to say no two or three times before a vendor leaves you alone. But I didn’t expect what came next.

“LISTEN.” It was pronounced in clear, commanding English.

I looked up and blinked. “Excuse me?” I also changed to English, looking the kid up and down.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Because listening is the spiritual education of humankind.”

My mouth fell on the table. As I sat dumbstruck, he proceeded to speak with the voice of Moses coming through him. His English was far from good—he pronounced it slowly, carefully, and didn’t always put the words together right. But his confidence never faltered. In this halting way, he delivered a sermon.

He said, essentially, that I don’t have to buy something from him, but I should listen to him, and look him in the eye, and recognize him as a human being. He said that our problems come from people not listening to one another, and that whoever learns to listen begins creating a better world.

My friend Cole likes to say that sometimes, you meet someone who just might be a god in disguise. I almost looked around to see if anyone else could see this kid.

When his talk was over I asked him to pardon me. Then I asked his name and told him mine. And this was the moment of truth: he had my attention, would he go for the sale again?

No, this kid had dignity. His sermon wasn’t a pitch, it was truth, and he wasn’t going to sour it. We shook hands and he continued on his way.

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: "Turn off the TV, Light up your mind."

Street art in Mérida that reminds me of a favorite Banksy in New Orleans. Translation: “Turn off the TV, Light up your mind.”

An Awakening

There is one part of my time in Mérida that I can’t explain. It’s a spiritual breakthrough. There was a moment of revelation that came one night as I sat reading on the rooftop terrace. I can say that the experience involved a polytheist journal and Jim Morrison (and no drugs). It was as if the moon became brighter and a voice spoke from the sky.

I’m not ready to talk in detail about this experience. For days it left me feeling different, moving and acting like a better version of myself, much like my Vodou initiation did. And still, months later, these words are echoing with me:

“In order to Meet the gods, you must Be the gods.”

I intend to write an essay specifically about this experience, and will release it here when it’s ready.

Onward

Mérida was nearly the end of my Mexico journey, but I felt no need to rush on. Even so my time there was too short. Martín invited me to come see his studio and meet his girlfriend and friends, but it never happened; I was too busy with work. I hope to see him again one day.

Next time I’ll saddle up and begin the final few days of riding—the days that will bring me into the heart of Yucatán, to the famous pyramids of Chichén, and to my destination, Valladolid.

Until then consider getting a postcard here or check out past road logs.

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Adventure, Ask Me Anything, Business, The Great Adventure, Travel

How Do You Make Money and Travel Without a Visa?

Photo by Jonathan Blocker

Calluna asks:

It seems to me that getting permission to live/work/travel in foreign countries for long periods (3 months or more) can be silly complicated. How are you navigating these legal issues in your travels?

Answer: by making sure they don’t apply to me.

I’ve never actually asked for a visa in any country, because I’ve intentionally never needed one. The same goes for work permits. Here’s how.

Visas

I’m fortunate in that Mexico actually allows foreigners to visit up to six months with no visa. That’s twice as long as most countries. I’m sure this is a win-win: it encourages Americans to come and stay for long trips, long Spanish courses, and long work assignments, spending money the whole time they’re here.

(Of course, there is a “tourist card” you have to get on entry, and you pay a fee for it on exit. But you don’t need to apply for an actual visa.)

With the six months to play with I’ve never needed a visa. To put it in perspective, the  entire bike ride from one end of Mexico to the other took only 90 days.

Looking ahead, the next countries on my route all have 90 day limits. But these are small Central American nations, and by my math I’ll make it through each one on time even if I walk. That’s including rest breaks in cities.

So I’ve never actually applied for a visa. If you wanted to live here long-term, of course, you might consider it. But even then it could be easier just to make a border run. Leaving the country and re-entering starts the six month period over again. I’ve heard that Mexican customs officials can get cranky if you do this too many times, but having been here five times in three years I’ve never had a problem.

Work Permits

The other issue is permission to work. To get a job in a country as a foreigner you need a permit, which helps that country make sure you’ll pay taxes. Getting these is very hard unless your employer helps you (such as a language school).

Luckily I don’t need one. I’m fully employed—in the United States. I’m a freelancer, which means I may be working on my laptop in Yucatán, but the work I do is for US-based clients, who pay me in US dollars deposited into a US bank account. I spend money in Mexico but, like most tourists, I don’t earn money here.

(And yes, I continue to pay my US taxes every year.)

High Leverage Travel

I don’t believe that one lifestyle is right for everyone, and a lot of people are happy with very different lives than mine—with or without travel. But I will say that there are an insane number of benefits to the kind of lifestyle I’ve chosen, that most people don’t realize. For example:

  • Lower cost of living. In Mexico, rent is laughably cheap and most other stuff costs only 60% what it would in the US. Living abroad saves me money.
  • Strong income. Since I work for US dollars, I have the same income as other Americans in my field. Travelers who work locally don’t get this.
  • Continuous income. I freelance, which means even though I may be off enjoying traveling, I still have money in every month. People who save up to travel have a limited budget.
  • No deadline. Because of the above, there is no time limit on my travels.
  • Less hassle. Since I go from country to country, and do not work locally, I don’t have to worry about visas and work permits. That’s rare. Even friends who work for language schools often can’t get the permits they need.

It’s not a perfect lifestyle. Like any freelancer, sometimes I’m up working till 3 am on a Saturday night. Other times I have to cancel amazing travel adventures because a rush project comes up. But I think it’s one of the best career paths you can choose, especially if you value freedom. So if you’re thinking you’d like to travel, or even just save money, I’d consider freelancing.

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