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

Bringing Gifts for Guadalupe

Last time I got cozy with my Mexican host family and received some amazing kindness in San Miguel de Allende (plus picked up a nasty cough). This time I leave the shelter of the Expat City and get back on the road.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. Photo by André.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. I adore that it’s a hangar made of old tarps. Photo by André.

Thursday, December 11 (Day 888 of the Great Adventure)—to San Juan del Río

My departure from San Miguel de Allende began with cobble streets so steep I had to get off and walk the bike. I had become settled in San Miguel, with its many cafes and conveniences, and yet unsettled at the same time. I didn’t feel at home with the colonization vibe of my fellow Anglo-Americans—or how they reflected on me. And yet I knew there was a good chance I’d be back; renting a room from Fay for a month or two sounds appealing, and the Spanish language school was just that good.

Eventually I made it up to the high road out of town. The first section of highway wasn’t as steep as I expected, but it ran through lesser mountain ranges that were anything but small.

I started to suffer pretty badly. In San Miguel I had thought seriously about getting rid of some of my equipment—it’s too much weight on the bike. I hadn’t camped once yet on the Mexico trip, and losing that gear would be a blessing. It would also involve the dubious process of trying to mail it somewhere, an endeavor that all my friends, local and ex-pat alike, warn me is a gamble. Packages have a habit of disappearing in the Mexican post office, particularly things that look valuable.

Ultimately I kept the gear, more for the assurance of being able to camp than out of fear of mail sorters. I had been lucky finding hotels so far, but some nights had been close calls and I liked the security of being able to sleep anywhere.

But that extra weight really added up in the mountains out of San Miguel. I could feel the strain in my knees now, and with my lingering chest cold sometimes had coughing fits on the uphills. It was a rough day.

So when I finally reached San Juan del Río, my destination for the night, I was more than ready to quit. The town is build along a river. That means that entering town is a downhill, but going across town is uphill again–going down one river bank and up the other. I didn’t even try to bike in; as soon as I got off the highway I spotted a corporate looking hotel and got a room. It was a bit pricier than I was used to, but nice.

After a shower it was almost sunset. I was hungry, and I generally avoid hotel restaurants. I saddled up the Giant once again, this time without all his heavy gear on him, and rode into town.

The way couldn’t have been flatter. After crossing an old stone bridge I was on a main road toward the Centro. I quickly ran into a variety of roadblocks: backed up traffic, a traffic cop turning away cars, and then balloons, crowds of children and families.

It was December 11, the eve of the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. I knew this holiday would be a big deal but didn’t realize there’d be a parade the night before.

I biked floats and bands getting ready for the march, as far as the Parroquia (parish church), the parade’s destination. I spotted two eateries along the route, one directly across from the other, and decided to check them out.

The first one had a convenient wrought iron fence around the patio tables, the perfect place to lock my bike. But inside it turned out to be more a bar than a restaurant. A too-friendly drunk greeted me warmly and went for an abrazo that I deftly dodged. Stumbling between English and Spanish, he told me he was buying me a drink.

I exchanged looks with the bartender and said I needed to eat before I could drink. I didn’t exactly promise to come back after, but the drunkard took it that way and stopped protesting. I checked out.

Across the street was a taquería that smelled divine. They didn’t have a bar, thankfully, but they had a giant grill and a big selection of alambres. I sat down and ordered some ludicrous combination of grilled meats and veggies. My table was positioned at the open end of the restaurant, directly facing the parade route (and my bike).

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Mexican parades come in many shapes and flavors, but they have some common elements. There’s always people chasing other people with bull-whips, and cracking the whips loudly on the ground. There’s a contingent of dancers in full Aztec regalia (or other indigenous style). There are religious floats put together from colored paper in careful and incredible detail. And there people in what seem like totally random costumes: a devil, a Bart Simpson, a Batman.

All of this and more was present in Guadalupe’s parade. I have to admit that the marching phalanxes of kids were pretty cool, and some of them had great music going. I caught some of the Aztec dancers on video, which you can see by becoming a supporter. (Also in the videos: I catch the taco stand waiter dancing like an Egyptian.)

The parade ended not long after dark. I retrieved my bike without running into my drunk friend and crossed the bridge back to the hotel—a bit hairier of a run in the dark with post-parade traffic. The hotel offered wi-fi only in the lobby, not in the rooms, so I took a seat on a couch to work on my computer and ordered a chocolate malt. It’s good for the concentration. 63.7 miles.

Map.

Note: The route leaving San Miguel de Allende isn’t quite right due to one-ways. I knocked 0.1 miles off the listed mileage to compensate.

Tula's centro. Photo by André.

Tula’s centro. Photo by André.

Friday, December 12 (Day 889 of the Great Adventure)—to Tula de Allende

Morning came all too soon. I ordered breakfast from the hotel room service, wanting to get on the road with minimal delay. What arrived was a heaping dish of soggy, lukewarm chilaquiles. I’d feel vaguely queasy for much of the day.

The route was difficult. I headed back toward the same stone bridge as before but, instead of crossing it, turned onto a cross street toward the highway out of town. That highway was nothing but miles and miles of endless uphill, so steep I kept stopping just to breathe. Add in a headwind and sections of freeway with no shoulder and it was an inauspicious start to the day.

It was also slow going. It took about two hours just to get out of the San Juan metro area, simply from the conditions. Once free the scenery got better but the road didn’t change much. The next 35 miles of my ride were all uphill, crossing a mountain range and ascending to a height of 9,000 feet. That’s nine thousand.

To be fair, I wasn’t starting out from a height of zero. More like 5,000 feet. But climbing to 9k is still a ton and this was the highest elevation I’d ever achieved by bike. To put it in perspective, I announced I was starting this 35 mile section on Twitter at 11:15 am and tweeted from the top at 4:24 pm. That’s an average of seven grueling miles per hour with, as I recall, no real breaks.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

At the summit and I took a brief pause for water, panting and admiring the view below. As I started to roll downhill, I saw a sign:

NO BICYCLES

Covered with sweat and hardly able to breathe, I raised my hand and gave the sign a one-finger salute. I couldn’t get a picture of this, obviously, but I sure hope a few Mexicans in passing cars saw the gesture and got a good laugh.

Soon the wind was rushing past my face and I needed both hands on the steed. A plummeting bicycle is an amazing piece of equipment. A twitch of the hips is enough to change direction; at speed you’re just the fin on the missile.

Those downhill miles went by quickly but, alas, it wouldn’t be all bullet time. To reach Tula de Allende I needed to turn off onto a cuota, a toll road. That road ran through a series of miniature mountains, effectively the foothills of the range I’d just crossed, and my progress ground to a crawl once again. By this time the sun was setting and I felt pretty done for the day, with miles still to go.

I crossed a series of three yawning gorges, each seemingly a mile deep below me. My eyes flickered between the road ahead, the traffic behind me and the view under my feet.

Between gorges and curves I saw the lights of Tula in the distance. Or so I thought. It was actually the city’s massive oil refinery: a glittering forest of tower lights reminiscent of the Emerald City.

At dusk I reached the toll road turn-off. It looked totally deserted. I made my assault on the gate, hoping to swerve right around it, but a uniformed man ran out and waved his arms. Weary, I braked.

“Buenas tardes,” I called. I figured he was going to hassle me about biking on the cuota, or tell me I couldn’t go through. But he was in a good mood—in fact he seemed excited to see a cyclist. He warmly offered for me to swerve around the gate (as I was going to do anyway). I appreciated his attitude, but was so tired I kind of wished he just stayed in the booth—I gave up all my speed to talk to him.

Entering town involved an incredibly steep descent into a gorge. I thought I was going to pitch right over my handlebars. At the bottom I crossed two bridges and rolled into the Centro.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Tula immediately felt different from other Mexican towns. At the moment I was too beat to figure out why. I aimed for one of the hotels I saw on Google, the Hotel Cuellar. It was right across from the parroquia in the heart of the Centro. It was already dark when I rolled into its long, narrow entrance.

Though weary I had to go through the formalities. This includes finding out the price, looking at the room, checking for bed bugs and making sure there’s wi-fi. In this case, the process stopped at the price.

“How much is a habitation for one person?” I asked.

“$600,” replied the owner.

I raised my eyebrows. “$600?”

That’s about US $50, more than I usually pay ($350 is a common rate). I didn’t really want to go somewhere else—but I also had a budget. And I knew there were three more hotels within a few blocks.

The owner looked me up and down. He had seen me come in on the bike. “For you,” he said. “I can offer $500.”

Deal. I thanked him, checked the room and quickly concluded our transaction. He asked me about my travels. To my surprise, I found I could follow the conversation and give good answers. The Spanish classes appeared to be working.

Soon I was upstairs and showering, but without my bike. Usually I take the Giant into my hotel room with me, but here there were a lot of stairs. I chained up the bike outside—to a palm tree.

This wasn’t quite the end of the day’s adventure, however. I still had two objectives:

  • Offer incense to Guadalupe. It was her day, after all.
  • Eat eat eat eat eat

First to the church. The parroquia, a former monastery, occupied high ground in the middle of town and was surrounded with a fortified stone wall. I ascended through its portcullis expecting a giant Guadalupe shrine. There wasn’t one; just a nativity scene, food vendors, and a jam packed church. I decided to keep exploring.

Waking around downtown yielded no shrines but plenty of restaurants. Twice I walked past a sign pointing down an alley:

Espadas de Brasil 

“Swords of Brazil.” I wasn’t in the mood for a meat-heavy dinner at the moment, but I got a good feeling about the place. I turned down the alley…

…and was blown away. The restaurant had two parts: a cozy inside dining room with a bar, and a large outside courtyard with soft music playing. It was chilly so I chose the inside. And the menu offered much more than just grilled meats. Soon I had a huge platter in front of me.

When I finished eating I caught up on some reading on my iPhone, as one does. The owner approached me. We started to chit-chat in Spanish, which is always hell. I just get lost so easily or don’t know enough words and…

…and this time it was different.

As the conversation went on I relaxed. I understood almost everything he said. Occasionally he threw out some words in English to help me, but we basically stuck to Spanish. For ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty. It became the longest Spanish conversation I’d had with someone who wasn’t paid to help me.

And I liked him. Ezra was from Brasil and running this restaurant was his dream. Previously he had been a chef at Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian chain famous enough that I knew of it (but had never eaten at one). He also introduced his wife, Kayla. She didn’t speak much Spanish so she would shyly murmur in Portuguese and he translated. All told we talked a half hour or more.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

He asked me the purpose of my bicycle trip. I smiled. “It’s sort of a spiritual quest,” I said, using the English phrase spiritual quest. Then in Spanish: “I hope to meet the gods.”

He pointed at his heart.

“The gods within?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know if the gods are inside us only, or if they are also in the world. I want to find out.”

He seemed to understand. After a bit more conversation, he mentioned that there was an old Aztec statue in his courtyard.

“It’s a goddess,” he said. He tilted his head. “What’s the English word for goddess?”

I told him. He nodded, and went on.

“It’s very old. This building is ancient and old the statue has been here for hundreds of years. Do you want to see?”

I agreed and the three of us walked into the courtyard. At the far end was a statue of a goddess I’d seen before. If my knowledge of Mexican mythology is accurate, she’s the exact one that Guadalupe is believed to be based on. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Ezra,” I said. “I’d like to make an offering to her for you. is that alright?”

He agreed.

I took out the incense. In my heart, Guadalupe told me to offer only one stick, not two as I’d planned; save the other one for the pyramid. I lit the incense and placed it in the earth before the goddess, praying over it.

Ezra and Kayla had a movie projector set up in the courtyard. It was past closing time and they were getting ready for a movie night together. We said farewell and I promised I would come back during my next few days in Tula.

I wandered a bit more then made my way back to the Cuellar for some sleep. 59.6 miles. 

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 123.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 3784.4 miles

Next time you’ll get to see Tula’s famous pyramids—and we’ll fine out why this town feels so different. Until then, more road logs are available here.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, Road Logs, Spanish, The Great Adventure, Travel

My Spanish Immersion in San Miguel de Allende

Last time I weathered a rough night in Villa de Reyes and found greener pastures in historic Dolores Hidalgo. This time I set off with my next rest stop, the popular San Miguel de Allende, in sight.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Sunday, November 30 (Day 877 of the Great Adventure)—to San Miguel de Allende

For once I had absolutely no reason to hurry. San Miguel was only a short distance away, a few hours’ ride, and I knew I’d enjoy it more if I got all my client work done before I set out. I had breakfast at the V Zone and then camped out in the hotel courtyard to do some writing. The hotel staff allowed me to remain there typing for several hours after my checkout, and by early afternoon my docket was clear.

The ride out of Dolores involved a couple steep cobblestone streets that meant walking the bike. Once underway the road was hilly but gentle and pretty. As I got closer to San Miguel de Allende I saw all the telltale signs of a tourist town that had been colonized first by foreign expats and then by the Mexican upper class. Health spas, fancy restaurants and white-walled condo developments appeared in breaks between the rich green hills.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

I approached San Miguel just before sunset. There was one final mountain and as I came over it I could see the city twinkling before me. There really is no more welcome or inspiring site after a day on the road.

For lodging I had booked an AirBnB that a friend recommended. It was in the city but far from the Centro, in a quiet middle class neighborhood. I turned off the highway on a downhill, cruising at speed toward the artery that would take me to the house. It turned out to be cobbled, and I clung to the Giant like a rodeo rider as he lurched and rattled to a stop. I walked him the last few blocks, coming up a gold-lit cobbled lane just at sunset and knocking on the big metal gate of my host’s home.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

Fay is Irish by birth, raised mostly in the US, and a longtime London resident. Nowadays she lives year round in Mexico with her two dogs, one cat, and one long-term lodger who’s rarely home. The remaining bedroom is rented out to travelers like me. The place had come recommended both because Fay herself  is great and because she had set up the room with a good work desk, good wi-fi and everything a location independent freelancer needs.

No sooner had I rolled through the gate than she squeezed me a glass of mandarina juice and put supper on. I hadn’t expected to be invited to dine and enjoyed a very healthy meal of soup and salad with her.

Fay.

The conversation was amazing. Fay is a fellow writer, mostly of poetry but also just about everything else. Her latest book rewrites the 12 steps of alcoholism treatment as a road to eventually recovering and being able to enjoy drinking in moderation. A self-described recovered alcoholic, Fay refocuses the traditional steps on creating healthy change in your life overall. You can find it here: The Steps.

Fay’s book. I’m jealous of the design and production value.

I told Fay I was thinking of going out for tacos. She needed to run to the corner store and offered to give me a mini tour of the neighborhood, including pointing the way to a hidden restaurant. I eagerly tagged along and she showed me a few landmarks plus introduced me to the store clerk. Her Spanish was highly functional, something I would soon come to appreciate made her stand out significantly from all the other retiree expats in town. She knew her neighbors and she could hold real conversations. This is really just the most basic dignity you can express to your neighbors when you move to a foreign country, but it’s one that most expats don’t really bother with.

Faye was done for the night so I went to the hidden restaurant on my own. Hidden indeed. Outside were just a few tables with parasols, the kind of place that could easily be another open air street food booth. But as I pushed open the door I caught my breath. I stepped into one of the most opulent and gorgeous dining spaces I’d ever seen—the first of several, with each room deeper into the home done up in flawless classical style complete with hardwood, marble and tile.

Photo by André

Photo by André

A waiter showed me to a table and turned the menu over with a flourish, to the English side. He spoke flawless English of his own, but that wasn’t what stood out. What stood out was how warm he was, never expressing impatience with my Spanish, not switching to English to show off or to treat me like a child but just to be cordial. I hadn’t realized how rare that was till he walked away with my order.

The place was pricier than my typical road meals but, for such a high end place, not really expensive. The food was excellent, including the free antojitos they brought out to woo me, and everything about the place was delightful except one thing: the company.

The other diners in the house were primarily expats. It was clear that the restaurant was one of those “best kept secrets” of the local foreigner enclave, which trends older and wealthier. Based on the dinner conversation they also trend shittier. A woman at one all-blanco table propounded on why Mexicans don’t make good employees—loudly, in front of the all-Mexican, all-bilingual wait staff. Another table featured two old, lackluster Caucasian men and one young, flamboyant Mexican man, their friendship hinting at the power of money to unzip trousers. The their great credit the wait staff endured all of this with poise and warmth.

Thankfully the place was far from crowded. I was far away from most of my countrymen, and soon a Mexican family arrived for a birthday celebration at the table next to mine. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Feliz Cumpleaños song drowned out the other diners.

24.1 miles

Map.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 1-2 (Day 878-879 of the Great Adventure)—Work Days

I had planned to spend two nights at Fay’s place, giving me a full work day. I quickly extended this to three nights and two work days. At the same time I was looking online at Spanish schools in San Miguel, thinking I might take a few days to sharpen my conversational skills.

The first day went very well, split evenly between writing and exploring the city. San Miguel is kind of an oddity in Mexico, a city taken over by and propped up by expats. Mexico has lots of cities with tourist economies, but these cater mainly to short-term visits. Enclaves of foreign residents are less numerous and, arguably, none are as influential as San Miguel’s.

To hear my Chilango friend tell it, it started with a single wandering American sixty years ago. He happened to find San Miguel de Allende quite charming, even thought it was a dusty and impoverished silver town at the time.

“How much to buy a house?” he asked.

“60 bucks,” came the answer. He bought it and told all his friends how cheap the real estate was. The next house sold for $70, then $80 and so on.

To hear the expats tell it isn’t much different. Fay said that when she first came to San Miguel decades ago there weren’t even phones in the houses. You had to go to a store in the centro and wait your turn to use the line. “If you bought a Coke you had to drink it before leaving the store,” she told me. “They needed the bottle.”

As the place became more popular, all the trappings of expat luxury began to crop up: coffee shops, high end restaurants, boutiques, wifi, even real working telephones. San Miguel is now one of Mexico’s most affluent cities, with an economy propped up by lavish foreign spending habits. (I felt a strange disconnect there, hearing people talk about how “cheap” everything was, when I’d been paying less in every other town.)

There’s no doubt I was quite taken by San Miguel that first Monday evening wandering around. As everyone had promised me, the city center is strikingly beautiful. There’s good food everywhere, with cuisine of all kinds. (There’s even a “New Orleans Style Oyster Bar” which I didn’t dare enter.) Despite the allure, over my time there I would become less enamored. It’s got a lot of convenience, but it’s not my kind of place.

Tuesday morning I arranged to sit in on a class at a local language school, Habla Hispana. The structure was great: four hours a day total, broken into 90 minutes of formal classroom (learning grammar, etc.), followed by a short coffee and snack break, an hour of semi-structured Spanish conversation and then an hour of reading and vocabulary practice. There were three separate classes for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. You had the same classroom teacher everyday, but the teachers rotated who was leading each conversation table so you got exposure to different personalities and styles. In other words it’s pretty much perfect.

I decided to enroll in a week of classes. Habla Hispana also offers a homestay program, and I signed up to move into one of the houses after class the next day.

I expected to have the afternoon to write, but the rear derailleur broke on my bicycle. I spent most of the afternoon trying to fix it before finally hauling it down to a bike store and having a new one put on. This was a huge waste of an afternoon but, honestly, I’m grateful that it happened in a city with bike shops instead of somewhere out on the road. The entire cost with parts and labor was $40 pesos or about US $3.00, which didn’t leave me feeling too good about the quality of the part. But I was able to bike back up the hill to Fay’s house and change gears without incident.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 3-10 (Day 880-887 of the Great Adventure)—Spanish Immersion

Fay gave me permission to leave my belongings at her place till I’d seen the homestay house. Bleary eyed, I rushed to the school and arrived only a few minutes “late” for class; but this is Mexico and class didn’t actually begin till 15 minutes after the scheduled start time. (This is a really effective system, by the way: all the problems with people being late kind of go away if we just agree to start late in the first place.)

The previous day I had chosen to sit in on the Intermediate class, which I thought might be over-ambitious, but it was a perfect fit. There were times over the week when I would actually think I might be better off in Advanced, but there were also big holes in my Spanish knowledge. At one point the teacher, Enrique, as astounded that I didn’t know the past tense version of the word for to have.

“Isn’t it irregular?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “How did you know (some other much more obscure word) in the preterite but you don’t know the preterite of tener?”

I shrugged apologetically. “I dunno.”

But actually, I do know. I’ve had almost no formal Spanish instruction. Most of my progress was fueled by living in Spanish speaking countries, using online tools or reading books. The past tense of to have just isn’t a word I needed in taco stands.

Afterwards my classmate Sky offered to walk me over to the homestay house—we were both staying at the same one. She’d been there several days and spoke highly of the house and the host family. Sky herself is a painter who just closed her gallery in Hawaii in order to be able to travel and live a freer life. She was excited when she found out I’m a writer and even more excited when I described my first novella as a work of magical realism.

“My last gallery show was entitled Magical Realism!” she exclaimed. (You can see Sky’s great work here.)

Maria and Alejandro’s house was indeed quite nice. Located on a privada just a few blocks from the school, it was laid out like a Roman villa with all rooms opening on a central courtyard. The story is that it was build by a family with eight children, and accordingly there are eight extra bedrooms, half upstairs and half down. Some, like Sky’s, have their own bathroom. I was given the one closest to the front, which Maria described as the “warmest” in the cold desert nights (my door opened to the foyer, not directly to the open air courtyard). She chose it for me because it had the strongest wifi signal, and the school had told her I needed wifi to do my work.

Maria and Alejandro’s children are grown, but the day I arrived happened to be Maria’s birthday. Their daughter, son in law and grandson were all there for the occasion, plus Sky and me. For reasons I never understood they had not one but seven separate cakes, of which two featured chocolate. Their grandson, Santiago, took it upon himself to cut and serve the chocolate mousse cake, which at age 5 consisted mostly of him licking the serving utensils.

The other member of the household, Ana, was kept busy through the whole meal. Ana is the hired housekeeper and kitchen assistant, doing a good amount of the cooking and most of the daily chores under Maria. She doesn’t live in the house but arrives early in the morning and sticks around till dinner time every day.

(You can meet Maria, Sky and Ana in the video logs for supporters.)

After the giant meal I biked back up to Fay’s house, got my belongings, and said goodbye. I was excited about learning better Spanish but I also knew I was leaving pretty much the ideal workplace. There’s no roommate in the world who understands the solitude a writer needs better than a fellow writer.

Once installed in the homestay house I had to adjust to a Mexican schedule. I had never really gotten into the rhythm of the huge mid-afternoon meal and tiny dinner. To eat with my host family—and get in all the Spanish conversation I could—I had to be ready for comida starting at 2:00, involving multiple dishes and often lasting till 4. Dinner was at 7 and involved leftovers or something small. A couple times there was no dinner at all. It may seem odd, given that I was now supposed to talk exclusively in a language I barely knew, but the hardest part of the week was probably the meal schedule.

Besides classes, Habla Hispana offers various cultural events that are free for students. I had missed the Monday afternoon tour of San Miguel, but Sky and I walked back to the school Wednesday evening to do a Spanish singalong. It was far more in-depth than we expected, and Enrique gave detailed information on which syllables and vowels are stressed in Spanish and why. This one hour of extra-curricular learning may have done more for my Spanish pronunciation than the past two years of practice.

Afterward, Sky and I swung over to a local dance school for Salsa lessons. This caused us to miss dinner, such as it is, and I headed out for a late night burger on my own.

Thursday and Friday more or less followed this pattern, except that by Friday it was clear I was getting sick. A nasty chest cold was making its way through Mexico, and I managed to catch it somewhere in SMA. (Sky suspects once of our dance partners, who went on to infect her the next day.) I managed to do a second dance lesson—this time Cumbia, which Sky and I found much easier—but after that had to spend a lot more time in my bedroom, coughing so hard it gave me a headache.

On the weekend there were no language classes. I used the time to explore (while coughing), write in cafes (coughing away from the other patrons) or sleep (followed by a coughing fit upon waking). I started to feel better by the time the next week rolled around, but I knew the cough would be a problem: rapid breathing, tough uphill stretches and thin mountain air are a bad combination. I did everything I could to get myself in shape before my departure, prioritizing rest over a number of cultural activities I could’ve done.

Class continued to go well and so did conversation around the house. I couldn’t believe my progress with Spanish. These seven days were probably the biggest period of growth in my Spanish since my first tutor in Mexico City.

During this period I also wrote El Gato Morado y el Pez Dorado.

My last day of class was Tuesday, but I decided to do one more day of homestay on Wednesday. The extra day let me finish all my client work before again hitting the windy road.

0.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 25 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3661.1 miles

More road logs are available here.

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Andre Sólo, Spanish, Writing

The Goldfish and the Purple Cat

Photo by Gracias

This week my Spanish tutor asked us to write a composition using some of the irregular verbs we’d learned. He wanted just one page in a notebook, with something simple like what we’d done that day before school. But since everyone made such a big deal about the fact that I’m a writer, I decided I had to spend some time on it. I submitted a short story about a goldfish and a purple cat. My hope was to capture some of the morbid outlook of Mexican culture.

I’m just going to put this here, untranslated, for those of you who speak (or read) Spanish. I do welcome feedback and corrections, as I have no illusions that it’s perfect, but it’s really just here for your entertainment.

El Gato Morado y el Pez Dorado

Érase una vez, en una casa invertida, en medio del mar, vivieron juntos un gato morado y un pez dorado. La casa flotaba al reves sobre el oceano. El pez dorado vivía en una charca delgado y larga que se había filtrado en la cima del techo. El gato, en cambio, prefiría las ventanas y los cabrios. El pez no podía saltar al mar y el gato no podía nadar a la tierra. Así que tuvieron una vaga amistad y, por la noche, jugarían al ajedras.

Sin embargo, el pez intuyó que al gato tenía hambre. Al principio había comido su comida enlatada y, cuando acabó, había comido las termitas, porque termitas no pueden jugar al ajedras. Eventualmente era sólo el morado y el dorado.

El pez concluyó que su destino era ser una botána por un gato. Y, pues no creyó que una persona o un pez puede muy bien influir su destino, decidió abrazarlo. Pero, prefirió a encuentrarlo luchando.

Cuando vino el gato por él, el pez estaba grueso, gordo, lleno, y envuelto en una pieza de perejil. El morado sonrió. En un solo movimiento el gato clavó sus colmillos en su amigo. Tragandolo, notó un sabor raro: el distinto sabor de pesticida para termitas.

La casa flotó sobre las olas en perfecto quietud.

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Andre Sólo, Favorites, Personal Development, Spanish, Travel

Inviting Others to Name Me

Photo by rytc, original art by Monseiur A.

Every adventurer needs a great name.

I believe that your identity, your persona is largely tied to how you call yourself, and how others call you. Names have power, they say—the power to define. In my country we’re almost universally defined by others, with names assigned at birth. While it’s normal to choose a form of that name that “feels” right (Andrew, Andy, or Drew?), it’s uncommon to use a name of your own choosing.

But there can be great liberation in doing so.

As Lady Gaga famously said, “When I wake up in the morning, I feel like any other insecure 24-year-old girl. Then I say, ‘Bitch, you’re Lady Gaga, you get up and walk the walk today.’” And I don’t doubt that the people around her react differently to the entity Lady Gaga than they would to Stefani Germanotta—the name she’s carried since birth.

My own identity has changed over the years. I vacillated from “Drew” in college years, to “Andrew” in the hope of sounding more professional, then back to Drew as I sought to make a fresh start, to break free of the work-laden, unhappily married man that Andrew had become.

It worked.

Since starting to publish my identity morphed again: my friends still call me Drew, but it’s common for them to refer to me personally as Rogue Priest or simply Rogue. “Alright Rogue Priest, what are the plans tonight?”

This delights me, but it’s not the only new direction my name has to take. I’m on assignment in a Spanish-speaking country, and promise to be in a good seven more before this self-created Adventure concludes.

Know any native Spanish speakers? Ask them to say “Drew.” Try “Andrew” too if you want.

I discovered this glitch on my first Mexico trip in 2006, back when I was still rocking Andrew. Nobody understood my name, despite my enthusiastic attempts to learn me llamo. It was like white people trying to pronounce long Indian names.

I would encourage any Indian (or any other minority in the US) to wear their names loud and proud, without any concern how hard it is on whitey. But I also respect how hard it is to fit into a culture with a name no one can pronounce, and as a white American I’m on the other side of the privilege waterfall.

I have a greater duty to adapt to my host cultures because the default circumstance is for them to cater to me—to an unfair degree.

So I’ve long toyed with using an adopted name while abroad, and on this trip I’m testing it out.

Soy André

The problem is I didn’t know what that adopted name might be. My parents chose a name I happen to adore (after vetting such options as “Chester” and “Wynne”). Andrew comes from the ancient Greek word for “man.” It signifies the virtue of manliness: a quality every man was supposed to strive to possess, comprising bravery, strength, and judicious aggression to one’s enemies.

I’m not a big fan of patriarchy, but in the search for heroism that virtue is one that every woman or man should keep in mind.

The Spanish form of Andrew is Andrés, but for years I thought it was André—and I like that better. André is simple and strong.

Plus, it equips a certain mystique. André is correct in French, but not in Spanish or Portugese. That means that while the name is easy to pronounce for new friends I meet, it will sound unusual, maybe even exotic. If there’s any quality I exemplify it’s unusuality.

From Day One here in the Dominican Republic I’ve introduced myself as André. Occasionally someone will unconsciously add the “-s”, but mostly everyone has understood it and (perhaps because it’s uncommon) remembered it easily.

Like Madonna Or Something

That leaves Jacob, my surname. I have no desire to change my surname, being proud of a lineage of strong, determined and clever Jacobs who stretch back through Pittsburgh to Germany (and my Kings, Forkinses, Hesses too).

But I don’t feel particularly connected to Jacob. And while I have no intention of changing it, I think I’ll stop using it for a bit.

That puts my name as simply André —.

Going by a single name can seem dramatic. Last time I tried it out was with my trusted oracle, Melissa Haney. I could hear her giggling as she tweeted, “The @Rogue_Priest sends me mail from just ‘Drew’ like he’s Madonna or something.”

But, you know, I don’t really mind dramatic. I do things full-way, the way they ought to be done, the way giants would do them, or as near as I can get.

But going André-only has a greater benefit. In real-life interactions, using just one name practically begs people to add another. By going as André I invite others to name me, to narrate exactly who and what André the philosopher-adventurer is.

Where “André Jacob” simply sounds like a multicultural train wreck, “André —” easily becomes “Andre the ___.”

This puts us back where we started, with other people defining who I am—but this time on my own terms. By choosing André I set the stage for who and what I intend to be: a traveler from faraway, and one who stands for something. How people fill in the blank will reflect their culture (which I’m visiting) as well as my actual deeds and how well I live up to my search for heroism.

Of course, I don’t expect grand monikers. How people complete my name will be partly under my control, as I choose to use the versions that make me smile and not the ones that seem mean-spirited. But it’s also beyond my control, and I expect the blank in “André the ___” will change many times depending on who I’m with and what I do.

Ultimately, my sobriquet might come more from practical necessity than anything else:

“What’s your name?”

“André.”

“André what—?”

Only André.”

But then, André Sólo doesn’t have a bad ring to it.

Think this name will evolve the way I hope? Please leave me a comment below and tell me: how would you fill in “André the ___”?

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