Adventure, Mexico City, Travel

Adventure at the Witches’ Market

Everyone seems to love it when I write the stories of my misadventures on the road.

Last week was one of the best yet. Did you know there’s a secret bazaar in Mexico City where witches, priests and wizards gather to buy and sell magic ingredients? I’m not even making this up. I’ve never been to anywhere as cool or special on earth.

You can read the full story of my trip there—and the hunt for magic potions—over at my atelier, altmagic:

Potions at the Witches’ Market

Please share the link so others find it too!

Standard
Adventure, Adventure Prep, Mexico City, Travel

Muy Peligroso

I’m curious what Rogue Priest readers would do in this situation.

You’re visiting Mexico City. You took the subway to a neighborhood called Coyoacán. It’s a good part of town. When you get off the subway, you have to walk about 14 blocks to your destination.

You have an enjoyable afternoon. Then it gets dark.

As the sun sets you ask directions back to the Coyoacán subway station. Unfortunately the directions you’re given are not good. You wander far afield, rush through a dicey neighborhood and find yourself on a major street. Finally, you see a woman walking her dog. You ask directions again.

She’s confused why you want to go to the Coyoacán station. Apparently, you’ve wandered so far that another one—Zapata—is closer. You know Zapata is on the same line as Coyoacán, and either station will take you home.

However…

  • The directions she gives to the Zapata station are long and complicated. You understand the general direction, but not the complicated series of landmarks and turns. You’re pretty sure you’ll get lost finding it. 
  • On the other hand, the directions back to Coyoacán are simple. One long, straight walk, then turn right. But in her explanation you catch the words muy peligroso. You ask her to repeat and she confirms: you’ll go through a neighborhood she considers muy peligroso. Very dangerous.

It’s a dilemma. Going one way you face the known danger of a bad part of town. Going the other way you face the unknown danger of getting further lost, as it gets later and later at night.

You have no cell phone and no one to help you. Muy peligroso or terra incognitaWhich would you choose?

And to add psychology to the game… which do you think I chose?

Standard
Mexico City, Personal Development, Social Skills

I Have Been Challenged

“I didn’t know you were such a wallflower.”

I looked over at Mauricio. He seemed dead serious. Wallflower? Me? My wallflowerin’ days are long over.

“You smug Mexican bastard. What the hell are you talking about?”

He grinned.

The Very Best Way

Mau had noticed that I don’t go out much. If he has a late night, chances are when he comes home I’m typing away at my laptop, reading, or studying Spanish.

“Why don’t you go out and make some friends?”

“Well, what would I say? My Spanish is terrible.”

He just kept grinning.

“Okay, Mr. Adventurer. I have a challenge for you.”

Mauricio had read this post. In it, I challenged myself to learn to strike up conversation with strangers. (I also did a second challenge, where I had to follow up with the people I met.) He decided this would be “the best way for you to learn Spanish.”

More likely it’s the best way to irritate three random residents of Mexico City. Still, I was intrigued. Going out and talking to total strangers, across a language barrier? That’s got to at least lead to some great stories, and who knows, maybe it really will help my Español.

The Terms of the Challenge

“You have to talk to three people you don’t know. Total strangers. You can’t choose people you think speak English. And no asking me or Gabe to translate.”

Okay, three people. I can do that. It sounds like three new friends to me. As with my original challenge, the following people don’t count:

  1. Anyone whose job is to talk to me. Cashiers, waiters – they’re paid to be nice to me. Making extra small talk with them can be a good warm-up, but that’s all.
  2. Anyone I’m introduced to. If I have an introducer, they’re not strangers. Time to cowboy up.
  3. People I have a reason to talk to. If we’re both at a party or we have a mutual interest in meeting new people, it doesn’t actually force me out of my comfort zone.

To these, Mauricio added one more condition:

If there is any kind of offer for follow up, if they invite you to a party or anywhere else, you have to accept.

Deal, mi hermano. Deal.

Results in 1 week. Please tweet and share this post.

Standard
Mexico City, Thailand, Travel

Fashion Around the World

When I quit my job to adventure, there were a lot of things I wanted to see. Beautiful temples, distant lands, the faces of new friends. And of course, food. This is why people travel. (Well, that and we’re hard wired and get depressed if we stay put. But people get angry when I trot that one out.)

One thing I didn’t set out to see was fashion.

Consumer Uniforms

People use clothing very differently from country to country. In the United States, it’s a uniform. From business suits to the 30-something geek’s pithy T-shirts, every person has a narrow range of acceptable clothing based on their age, occupation, and position in society. You can vary the colors or brands but basically, dress code is mandatory and your friends won’t recognize you if you break step.

This might not sound like the oft-eulogized land of the free, but think about it. Can you wear leather pants and a see-through tank top to your staff meeting? Can you wear a polo shirt and khakis to hang with your emo band? To both questions: yes, but get ready for a shitstorm.

It may seem like the tyranny of the corporate system, but it goes beyond that. The U.S. is a consumer culture through and through, so we express our personalities through brands and trends. Unemployed non-conformist 19 year olds are just as rigid in their wardrobe as married project managers. They cleave to a different narrow mold, but a narrow one all the same.

Asia Ain’t So

In Thailand, I was struck by the diversity of styles on the street. Not just different groups but individuals with their own unique look. In the US if someone is sporting a unique look I make a point to go up and compliment them. Had I done that in Chiang Mai I’d never get 100 steps.

Without a doubt T-shirts and jeans were ubiquitous in Chiang Mai, like anywhere. But a substantial chunk of the population takes the time to build their own personal style. For a people with relatively low income, fashion statements seem to be a spending priority among the younger generation.

At its root, this is no different than the American impulse: spend money on clothing that says who you are. It’s the execution that’s different. Americans buy into a brand or group: Nike has this, goths wear that. Thai 20-somethings seem to disregard all lines of brand, style, East and West to make something that says “this is me.”

Chiang Mai was not my favorite place, but this really impressed me.

I can’t explain this phenomena. Have you ever watched anime? Each major character, good or bad, wears a unique style that extends to their accessories, hair style, and tattoos. For a long time I resisted making the anime comparison because, well, “OMG Asia is like anime!” does not sound like the worldly traveler sound bite of the month. But art/life/inspires, you know the deal: they consume a lot of anime there, and anime is in part based on actual youth culture.

Bottom line, people in Chiang Mai are using fashion as a canvas to express their individualism in a way no US high school rebel has ever matched.

What About Mexico?

The difference between US and Thailand was easy to see. It’s drastic, and they’re almost total opposites. But Mexico makes my head spin.

Again, I’m not talking about T-shirts. Sure, those are everywhere. And walk into any business district and you’ll see suits and professional attire. No surprise there.

But it’s in more informal settings I’m surprised. Frequently I see men in vest, tie, jacket and dress pants just out walking their dogs. Not only older men, but men my age too. Women build themselves up: tall boots with tall heels, flaring jackets with high shoulders, so much hip sway they take up two lanes. It reminds me of a cat puffing itself up to scare off bigger animals.

People dress like this to go to the corner market.

I’ve got an ascot. I’m going to start wearing it.

What cultural differences have surprised you? Jump in and tell us a story. Did fashion statements surprise you somewhere you visited? Did you change your own style afterward?

Please tweet the shit out of this post because I love you.

By the way, did you know I’ve started my own business? And I make beautiful things? That are magic? Click on over and check out altmagic.com.

Standard
Mexico City, Spotlight, Thailand

Adventures in Chinese Medicine

Mauricio Quintana is my host in Mexico. I first met Mauricio through, of all things, our mutual interest in online gaming. For several years we chatted online. We share a love of travel, adventure and meditation. Our traveling ways sometimes baffle our more settled friends. Soon we had a strong sense of kinship.

But I didn’t expect to go hunting for blood powder for him.

Tinctures at Mauricio’s clinic in Mexico City.

Skepticism & Weight Loss

“Blood powder” is my incorrect term for yunnan baiyao, a powder that is not made from blood. In fact, no one’s sure exactly what’s in it (proprietary recipe), but it’s been used for about a century to staunch bleeding wounds in Asia.

Mauricio practices Traditional Chinese Medicine and lately the stuff has been hard to come by in his home town of Mexico City. So while I was in Thailand he emailed me to ask if I would go find him some. “It’s common throughout Asia,” he assured me.

It’s a little funny for me of all people to go hunting down Chinese Medicine ingredients. A year ago, I viewed Mau’s medical practice with skepticism. I have nothing against the use of medicinal herbs: they’re proven to work, and I’ve been trained in the use of quite a few of the Western ones. But many other aspects of Chinese Medicine—the use of needles and pressure points, the reference to “energy” in the body, and so forth—go beyond what has been observed with science. And science is the best source of information we have.

So, a year ago, I was reluctant to go Mau for help. My weight loss efforts, which had started off well as I tracked and cut calories, had ground to a halt. I was still 50 pounds overweight, a legacy of my unhappy marriage and my lengthy injury. On a whim, I asked Mau if he had recommendations for losing weight.

“Well yes, but you’re not going to like it.”

I was intrigued.

Mauricio described a 13 week program he does once a year which “removes toxins from the body, balances the metabolism, improves liver health, and leads to dramatic weight loss.”

Sign me up, right? Well… the program’s not easy. It includes a formidable regimen of herbal supplements, and tightly controlled dietary restrictions that change every two weeks. I’d be giving up such varied amenities as chocolate, sugar, gluten, red meat, alcohol, even legumes at different points in the program.

That shit is hard. I wanted to know if it would actually work. I began to ask some pretty detailed questions about claims like “removing toxins” and “balancing.”

I was amazed and impressed. There is a lot of language in Chinese Medicine that does not make immediate sense to a Westerner. Phrases like “energy deficiency in the spleen” are very literal translations of Chinese characters. However, they correspond to bodily processes that can be observed and studied. When you explain it as “the stress from worrying too much leads to troubled digestion” and throw me a study proving it, suddenly it makes a lot more sense.

In other words, Mauricio translated the arcane phrases of his tradition to the (equally arcane) jargon of Western medicine for me. He was extremely patient, thorough, and astute. It painted a picture for me of a medical system that knows what it’s talking about. That inclined me to give its treatments the benefit of the doubt.

Thus, I embarked on his 13-week program. I lost an average of 3 pounds per week, for a total of more than 30 pounds in just over 3 months.

That was nearly a year ago; the weight has stayed off.

My moleskin. Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao and directions in Thai to the herb store.

The Hunt

Having seen the power of his art, I was happy to follow up on his request for yunnan baiyao. Actually, I was excited: I hadn’t thought of checking out an herbalist or Chinese doctor while in Thailand, and it would be fun to see one of their shops.

Or, as it turned out, the only such shop.

I went to the Waroros day market, a sprawling bazaar inside of several old warehouses and a number of back streets. Armed with my faithful reproduction of the Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao, I was quickly directed to “the” place to get Chinese Medicine.

“We don’t have it.”

Is there somewhere else that might?

Hahahahahaha.

Hahahaha.

Haha.

Ahhhhhh.

Sure kid, here are some directions to follow. Enjoy. 

The smiling herb lady waved to me as I set out on what would be a week-long goose chase across three day markets and a dozen pharmacists in every part of Chiang Mai.

The rogue priest will never let you down.

We Promise They’ll Have It

Each pharmacist greeted me with a smile and fluent English, followed by a frown when I announced what I was looking for. I’m still not sure whether the frown was because they didn’t stock it, or because they look down on Chinese Medicine like Western doctors do. I got the feeling it was the latter.

Even so, each pharmacist was quite confident they knew a different pharmacist who stocked it.

Eventually, these leads became circular, with Shop D referring me to Shop A and so forth. When I told a pharmacist that I had already tried the person they were referring me to, they were surprised. They all —without exception—then recommended I go to a certain shop in Waroros market.

After double-checking their directions, I confirmed that it was the very first shop I had gone to on Day 1. The shop that was out of stock.

I relayed this to one pharmacist, who laughed at me. “If they don’t have it then there is none in Chiang Mai,” he told me.

I was ready to give up. But something didn’t make sense. If yunnan baiyao is such a basic emergency treatment in Chinese Medicine, why would the only Chinese Medicine outlet in town not have it? Maybe I had talked to the wrong person, or asked for the wrong thing?

I dragged myself back to Waroros Market, approached the lady behind the counter (a different one than the first time) and showed her the Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao.

“Do you want pills or powder?”

Well played, Chiang Mai. Well played.

Mau blogs about Chinese Medicine at Mauricio Quintana and about life & philosophy at The Wandering Dragon.

Standard