Author Archives: arubatlewis

Cartagena: solo travel this sensory adventure

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Cartagena is a dizzying Caribbean kaleidoscope of vibrant culture and history that will fully awaken all senses. First of all, the Old City of Cartagena is a Unesco World Heritage site, so the experts have already deemed it as a place of significance, a place where you might want to become fully present and keenly aware of it all. It is a mythic port city of treasures, pirates, and pillage. As a result, it is completely enclosed by a wall that was constructed after Sir Francis Drake attacked in 1586, the wall was the final straw after the Spanish endured too many pirate licks by many other miscreants before Drake. In addition to its historical clout as a premier destination in the big wide world, it’s also easy to make your way around inside the walled Old City of Cartagena. Traveling alone and being a bit directionally challenged, a girl can get completely lost walking the maze of sidewalks and streets without any worries since you are fully protected in every direction by fortified ruins. The only danger being the gaping holes along the sidewalk every other block or so.

It’s a good idea to glance down to the ground from time to time to prevent falling inside these sidewalks, but be sure to look up and around so as to soak up the scenery. And be ready to engage all five senses as you do. The Cartagena sensory experience begins with color. Walk just one block and every house along the way is painted a different hue like eggs in an Easter basket, which is the analogy that comes to mind since I landed in Colombia on Good Friday. After your eyeballs transmit a basket of light waves, get ready for even more color from above because all the balconies have climbing bougainvillea blooming delicate pastel paperlike flowers. And crisscrossing from one rooftop to another, a bright canopy of festive flags flap wildly in the sky, as if there is a birthday party every day on every block in this city. Another street is strewn with upside down iridescent umbrellas. Another with colorful bottles. It seems the possibilities are endless when it comes to reflecting light and color with random objects suspended high above all over the city.

And that is just what you will see. The rest of your senses will kick in shortly after sight. Smell the aroma of Colombian coffee along with exhaust fumes and smoked chorizo and fruit juices and fresh lobster and horse manure and cigar smoke and caramel and coconut candies. Listen late at night in the eerie space of another time to the faint clip-clop of horseshoes coming down the street as they gradually become louder and louder before a carriage dashes within inches in front of you. Or wake up on your morning stroll to an echo as street vendors sing their songs of fruit for sale from nature’s colorful bounty toppling over their old rickety carts. Buy something tropical that you cannot altogether identify to ignite new taste buds. Stop later for some street food at lunchtime where the local crowds are gathered and order the plate-sized triple fried plantain served with a spongy slab of salty fermented curd. Take a break from the sweltering humidity and heat and relax on a bench in a shady spot at one of the many plazas. Aggressive vendors will approach you within minutes, invade your personal space, and deliver a tactile sales pitch. Before you know it an assortment of bracelets will be strung over your wrist or possibly even your thigh. Another vendor will then apply a mess of lotion to your bare skin dispensed from a condiment bottle stored within her bosom. Seconds later, she will then begin vigorously massaging your calf before you can even process what is happening and tell her, “No, no quiero un masaje, gracias.”

Welcome to Cartagena! Your senses are now supercharged. So much so that you question if this is all reality or illusion? Is it no wonder that magical realism was born in this country? Gabriel García Márquez did not have to conjure up all the ideas for his stories using only his imagination. He probably just sat on a park bench and took note of what was all around him.

Rest at ease knowing that you can take a reprieve from this sensory overload by stepping inside one of the many cathedrals, which seem to be at every turn of the corner here. Then be prepared to be transported in your mind to Cartagena’s past, which is a labyrinth in narrative of epic proportion. Sitting inside this grandiose tranquil space, the traces of Cartagena’s history—very much alive today and swarming the city streets outside—spin about in your imagination as if you were rotating through images on the reel of a vintage View-Master.

In one slide, palenqueras in multicolored traditional dresses balance a bowl of tropical fruit on top of their heads. These women are descendants of the people of San Basilio de Palenque, a city established by runaway slaves and the very first free town in the Americas. The women of Palenque went to work shortly after its liberation making use of its natural resources and made their living by carrying fruit into town to sell. They still sell the fruit, but they may also pose for a picture as well these days since their semblance has become an iconic stamp of sorts to symbolize the city of Cartagena.

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In another slide, The Kogi, an indigenous group who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, are huddled together barefoot on the bustling city streets. Men, women, and children are dressed exactly alike, head to toe, in traditional white linen juxtaposed against their long straight raven locks. The only thing to convince you that you haven’t traveled in time to another period in history altogether is the cell phone they hold in their hand as they sell their basket wares. Their ancient ancestors, the Tayrona, made intricate works in gold and it is the lure of gold that brought the Spanish here to this very site where they created a portal in and out of a new world. Galleons of gold and silver were shipped out in one direction and millions of African slaves were shipped through in another.

The exquisite Colonial buildings also tell a story. They were built with the wealth that the Spanish acquired as a result of all that passed through this portal city. The Palace of the Inquisition is one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire city, but this palatial marvel of Baroque architecture houses a grim history of torture. Anyone suspected of heresy or witchcraft throughout all of the islands in the Caribbean would have been brought here by boat to confess their sins. A film playing on a continuous loop tells the true tale to museum-goers of a Haitian woman who used her traditional knowledge of medicinal herbs and magic to help a Spanish aristocratic to fend off the desires of a cheating husband and was brought to Cartagena to confess her sins to the inquisitors when the remedy did not work.

Another building, San Pedro Iglesia, is dedicated to San Pedro Claver who is the patron saint of slaves and seafarers. He was a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life trying to alleviate the suffering of all the slaves who entered Cartagena. He boarded each slave ship as it arrived at the port to administer medicine to those who had survived the journey.  He would then carry a tote bag of provisions—filled with foods and fruits and medicines and brandy and tobacco—to slave auctions and hand these small items of comfort out to the slaves to ease their pain. When there were no slave ships in Cartagena, he traveled to the plantations to continue his mission where he lived amongst the slaves, even sleeping at night in the slave quarters.

In between all of these buildings with tales to tell are scenic plazas canopied by tropical trees and plants. The most verdant and famous of the plazas in the “Jewel of the Indies” is the Plaza de Bolívar. Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, is placed gallantly astride an enormous horse at the center of the plaza. It was Simón Bolívar who gave Cartagena the title of “Heroic City” after it was the first to claim independence from Spain. This plaza quickly became one of my favorites, along with Plaza Fernández Madrid. I later found out that both were spots were Gabriel García Márquez frequented and that Plaza Fernández Madrid may have been a place of inspiration for Love in the Time of Cholera. I discovered this plaza and instantly fell in love with it within the first few hours after my arrival when I stopped here for a traditional dish of bandeja paisa

A friend who I worked with in Aruba and is now living in Bolivia met up with me those first few days after he spent some time in Bogotá. We hit all the big tourist sites such as San Felipe de Barajas, a big castle built on a hill to protect the city with a series of secret tunnels. We went for arepas, toured the Modern Art Museum, and sipped coffee inside coffee shops, my favorite being Abacus Books and Coffee. Every wall inside this coffee shops is floor to ceiling in books, a comprehensive collection of Latin American literature. We only had 48 hours together so we packed it full with a ton of sightseeing. He left Easter Sunday and then I was on my own for the rest of the week after that.

Cartagena is the perfect destination to fully experience this solo travel thing. With the realization that it is just you all alone far away in this foreign world, a spotlight beams down on each and every moment of the journey. Apart from the mindfulness aspect of solo travel, traveling alone also sets you free to do things at your own pace. Each day I would venture out with a specific destination in mind and then let the day unravel from there on my own time, which is slow and spontaneous.

The first thing I wanted to do was eat ceviche, and so I headed to La Cevicheria, which was featured on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The wait to be seated at this restaurant was one hour.  Since I was on my own and free to make the decision to wait, I put myself as a party of one on the waiting list and took a stroll around the neighborhood. I returned after an hour and took a seat for lunch at a table outside on the sidewalk. I ordered up a plate fused with the local flavors of Colombia. The next thing I knew I was sipping a mojito and snacking on plantain chips served with a dipping sauce. Moments later, I was served up the largest and freshest platter of ceviche I have ever seen. The first bite was out of this world. Absolutely worth the wait!

The next day I penciled in a museum at the top of my agenda but then quickly wandered off on meandering paths as one boutique after another beckoned me inside. Colombia has quickly become a fashion destination and Cartagena is the perfect window in on Colombian designers. Whether borrowing from indigenous design and fabrics or incorporating bold tropical prints, these one-of-a-kind creations pop up in shop windows all over the city and seem to be an integral part of the landscape. I can’t imagine a trip to Colombia without purchasing a few items to hang inside your closet. Shortly after my shopping spree, more meandering paths led me outside the walled city to Getsemani. This neighborhood is quintessential Cartagena. The buildings are brightly painted with murals that tell the story of the city and its people. And all the people are out and about celebrating life, day and night.

And so I went at this pace for the rest of the week and basically let my itinerary create itself as I turned each corner. I took one afternoon for a spa day on a whim and spontaneously stopped at a restaurant jam-packed with locals—so the food must be good—for lunch on another afternoon. All of this wandering about fully present in the moment at your own pace and never knowing where the next step will lead made this trip feel a lot like a dream. And since Colombia is already a dreamlike destination, traveling it alone makes it even more magical.

And this, in my opinion, is the biggest benefit. It is like zooming with a lens on every moment of your journey. You pick up on details you may have missed otherwise lost in conversation with a friend or negotiating a decision about the next step of action. And something about zooming in on the details creates stronger memories of the whole experience. 

This was my third trip to Colombia over Easter weekend over the last three years. Maybe I will be back next year and make Colombia an Easter tradition. There is definitely more to see.

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island life under construction

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Island time is an illusion of sorts. Yes, it is very real for the most part, people are sauntering about all over the island at this very moment, rum punch in hand without a care in the world. But if you actually conduct your daily life on an island at this island time tempo, there are distinguishing characteristics to island living that will force you to pay in ways that you could never imagine.

Say, for example, island bureaucracy, which will cause you to break into a panic while standing in line under the scorching sun, a line that wraps around the tax building and hasn’t—after thirty minutes of waiting—inched any closer to shaded relief. Or, perhaps, when island elements remind you after paint on your car bubbles up under the mixture of salt and dirt baking on its surface that washing and waxing your car more often is a must. Or, maybe, it is the peculiar problem of island plumbing when your septic tank punishes your procrastination with a menacing gurgle echoing from the toilet during a hurricane. Or it could be the giant leaves of the coconut trees that have lilted and are now blowing in the wind and scratching the window pane while you try to sleep, reminding you it’s time to chop chop. Then there is the inability to turn left on just about every street on the island if you leave your house for work any later than 7:00 AM.

The realizations about the mad irony of island time came to me in January when the infamous car taxes became due. People start talking about this car tax thing as soon as December rolls around every year. “Don’t wait until January,” the natives warn. “You’ll be waiting in line forever if you don’t go now.” It’s the same every year. I never heed their warnings and always end up waiting until January since I am living on island time. Once I waited until the very last day to pay, January 31st. Consequences were suffered, but that was nothing compared to this year, the year of the orange plates.

It began when I returned back to the island the second week of January after three weeks home for the holidays. The orange plates began to multiply, more and more appeared on the roads every day, taunting the rest of us for our slothfulness with their bright hurried hue. These license plates were rapidly changing color from a cobalt blue to which my eyes had become accustomed, to a more fitting bright orange: Oranjestad is indeed Dutch for Orange City. The punctual island car owners received the much coveted orange plates after paying their annual car taxes, probably back in December. Those of us still driving around with the soon-to-be illegal blue plates were going to be at risk for being fined very soon. And in Aruba, that means polis stand in mass and flag random cars off the road at designated roadblocks of shame. I finally made it to the tax office to pay on January 29th, just two days before the deadline.

Luck was with me that afternoon because it could have been far worse. After leaving work early and making my way inside the building and around what can only be described as a grumbling mob certainly exceeding fire code capacity, a machine spit out a ticket with the letter and number M 280. The thing with this lone foreigner following the local masses scenario is that you never really know for sure if you are going to successfully pull off the task at hand even with a ticket in hand. It’s always a crapshoot. You will either get the sticker or stamp from the government official after waiting all afternoon or you won’t. If you don’t, you will usually be scolded and told to come back another time to wait in line all day all over again.

After receiving my dubious ticket, I elbowed my way around the corner and found a place to stand in the middle of the crowd since all the seats were taken, along with the prime counter and wall leaning spaces. One hour later, and one hundred pages into a new book—fittingly, a survival story—I began to look for space along the wall or an open seat since the crowd was starting to thin out slightly. After finding a place to sit and camp out for the remainder of the afternoon, I continued reading, determined to finish the book by the time my number was called. Would the young sole survivor of the plane crash be rescued from the Alaskan wilderness? Would I be called to the counter and victoriously pay for my car taxes? Which would happen first?

There was no logic to these numbers being announced over the speaker: Y-120, Z-130, M-150, E-240. Hours passed, and I began looking for clues as to when this waiting might end. Would I be home before or after sunset? I glanced over at the ticket in the hand of the lady sitting next to me and noticed that her waiting room number was different from mine. I knew I had to notify someone, so I went to the front desk and they sent me outside to the security guard who then sent me back inside to ask a random cashier behind a row of windows. The cashier’s reply was tetchy and gruff; she directed me to sit back down until my number was called. It would be a while, she added, because my ticket read 2:37 PM and they were just now calling people who walked in at 1:00 PM. The clock on the wall told me it was 4:32 PM. What is wrong with this country? Why are 100,000 people changing their license plates all at the same time?

I took a new seat next to a woman who looked friendly. I desperately needed someone to shine a light with a gentle smile. Noticing that she was clearly baffled as well, I struck up a conversation with her about the waiting time. “It’s never been this bad,” she informed me. We compared tickets. Her ticket read 1:37 PM, so we both agreed that she would be called soon. I explained my waiting room dilemma, that my ticket had the wrong waiting room on it, that I was a clueless American, and that I could be waiting here until everyone was gone. She took me under her wing after that, insisting that I would be going up with her to pay and she would see to it that I was able to do so. Arubians are truly some of the kindest people on the planet.

Then we carried on talking about the insanity of the waiting time, about the increase in traffic on the island, and about the road construction taking place all over. She gave her opinion on all this island development, “These outsiders come in and change everything. It’s not really fair to those of us who are from here. It’s a quality of life issue. People aren’t happy when they get home from work after spending hours in traffic.”

The noise of the bulldozer and crane seems to have followed me here to a paradise that was once free of these disturbances. Things have changed here on the island. Alas, nearly four years later, I no longer see roaming herds of goats along my morning commute, and it takes twice as long as before to get to work due to road construction. I’m just happy I moved here early enough to have experienced the goats. Talk to people who have lived here a really long time and they will tell you just how ubiquitous the goats once were and about a time when the TV only offered one station out of Venezuela that fired up at 5:30 PM with the national anthem. 

This construction conundrum is a metaphor for my life in general because it too is under construction. My body is still recovering from surgery as I slowly bring back running and climbing stairs to my weekly workout. My future, as well, is under construction without a blueprint of what it will look like at the end of this particular project. All of my worldly possessions are scattered inside the homes of friends and family stateside. Welcome to the piecing your life back together part after moving abroad. It makes planning the next phase rather challenging.

These are the things that tend to go under-reported when telling the story of the big overseas moving adventure. But I think these are really important pieces to the narrative. Here’s the most important truth that must be told. Life is going to happen while you are away. Babies are going to be born. Friends are going to die. One parent will divorce and survive cancer. The other will donate everything to charity and camp out in the Arizona desert indefinitely. And you are going to miss milestone birthdays, one after the other. How thankful I am that my dad is still here to celebrate his birthday on January 29th, the day I so happened to have spent standing in line for five hours at the tax office instead of taking him out to dinner to celebrate. 

And consider yourself lucky to have had a clean bill of health your entire life: 20/20 vision, no broken bones, no cavities. Be prepared to deal with all of these things once you move to another country. This is a thing, and it needs a name. Let’s just call it: anything that can go wrong with your body will go wrong with your body, especially if you move abroad.

Your government appointed dentist tells you in Spanish that you have a cavity for the first time ever since you were a kid. There is no going for a second opinion because you can only change your dentist in March and  December. Last Wednesday she drilled two more teeth without anesthesia while humming “Amazing Grace.” You will go for your first ever pair of eyeglasses and walk in to see a Dutch ophthalmologist who, of course, will reprimand you for not having your eyes checked sooner because he is Dutch and they have mastered the reprimand after generations of practice. Then you will injure your knee while trekking through South American and have to suddenly squeeze in surgery during a visit home over the summer. You get the surgery on the fly because the only alternative is to have the surgery in another country without the pain pills and physical therapy.

Buy the supplemental insurance policy. I really can’t emphasize this enough. Don’t live abroad without it. I’m thankful I paid extra for it. And I continue to be over the moon happy I moved to another country. Nothing I have done in life compares to this experience. It has been absolutely everything I hoped it would be. The bumps and bruises along the way are all part of the adventure. And I have the Arubian fillings in my teeth, reading glasses, and scars on my knee to keep the memories.  But every good adventure turns a corner, and it is time now to take the next turn. I have no idea where that will take me.

I do know that I still have a lot left to do in Aruba. Carnival is next weekend. I haven’t been to the archaeological museum because it was under construction the whole time I was here and just reopened. I haven’t driven an ATV through Arikok. I haven’t tasted kesha yeni or ordered up saco at a San Nicholas takeaway. I am back to Colombia again in a few weeks for my first solo adventure. And I plan to go to Amsterdam this summer and from there to Budapest and Prague. I’ve also realized that I miss big cities and museums. I miss the sprawling bookstores and performing arts. And I can’t wait to shop for clothing for another season besides summer. So the next place needs to have all of this stuff. The construction is about to come to an end; soon I will be walking down a paved road in a big city. 

 

100 songs

 

Somewhere along the way in my twenties, I was gifted boxes and boxes of vinyl which comprised my grandfather’s comprehensive jazz collection. Someone must have been clued in that I cared enough about music to acquire such a treasure. The music really had an impact because I remember signing up for a jazz history class the following semester at university shortly after this rhythmic inheritance. Moving to the Caribbean and taking in all the international sounds merging as part of my experience here reminds me of that time and the hours I spent sifting through all those old records. Nowadays, however, the sifting part involves clicking link after link on illuminated screens instead of flipping front to back in dusty old boxes. Taking a break from writing lately to compile a list of discoveries made with 100 songs.

  1. Ghetto Organ Jackie Mittoo
  2. Bonito y Sabroso Beny Moré
  3. Legba Na Console Emerante de Pradines
  4. Stop that Train Keith and Tex
  5. Cumbia Sobre el Mar Quantic
  6. To Vals Tou Gamou Eleni Karaindrou
  7. Make me Happy Alton Ellis
  8. Y tú qué has hecho Compay Segundo
  9. Passarinho do Peito Amarelo Nanan
  10. Dónde Estabas Tú Omara Protuonodo
  11. Das Borjka Diego’s Umbrella
  12. Matador Coombes
  13. Noche de Ronda Edye Gormé
  14. Time after Time Owen Gray
  15. Si Me Vas a Querer Damiron
  16. Son of a Preacher Man The Gaylettes
  17. Trocito de Madera King Coya
  18. Cómo Hacer Para Olividarte Manuel Medrano
  19. Me Gustas Tu Manu Chao
  20. Rie Chinito Perotá Chingo
  21. She’s my Shoo Shoo Os Mutantes
  22. Veinte Anos Maria Teresa Vera
  23. Siboney Bebo Valdés
  24. Carnaval Tito Cores
  25. Rumba Pa’los Rumberos Los Muñequitos de Mantanzas
  26. La Thune Angele
  27. It Mek Desmond Dekker
  28. Cool Smoke Don Drummond
  29. Mildred Jackie Opel
  30. Le Vent Nous Portera Noir Désir
  31. Ou Soti Pos Machan Toto Bissainthe
  32. Boquita de Caramelo Rodolfo Aicardi
  33. Gin & Coconut Water Blind Blake
  34. Je Pense a Toi Amadou & Mariam
  35. Walking Down King Street Theo Beckford
  36. Trocitos de Madera La Yegros
  37. On the Nature of Daylight Max Richter
  38. Preta Pretinha Novos Baianos
  39. Soul Sauce Cal Tjader
  40. Choubouloute Gérard Dupervil
  41. Temor dél Sabado Lilian Herrero
  42. Better Must Come Delroy Wilson
  43. Return of Django The Upsetters
  44. Ne me Quitte pas Jacques Brel
  45. Todo Vuelve Che Sudaka
  46. Les Deux Guitares Opa Tsupa
  47. Wau Wau Lord Melody
  48. En el Juego de la Vida Daniel Santos
  49. Enjoy Yourself Prince Buster
  50. El Hijo de Toño Usma y Su Conjunto
  51. De Cara a la Pared Lhasa de Sela
  52. Slow Train Lynn Tait & the Jetts
  53. Blue Moon Raul Seixas
  54. Cancão de Amor Elizeth Cardoso
  55. Cachondea Cheo Feliciano
  56. Comptine d’un Autre été, L’apre-midi Yann Tiersen
  57. Sonido Amazonico Chicha Libre
  58. Fairy Tales Cayetano
  59. Tito on Timbales Tito Puente
  60. My Conversation Slim Smith
  61. Nassau Samba George Symonette
  62. Mandiga Ruben Gonzalez
  63. Matilde The Duke of Iron
  64. Clandestino Adriana Cancalhotto
  65. Bésame Mucho Oscar Aleman
  66. Capricho Árabe Francisco Tárrega
  67. Follow the Sun Xavier Rudd
  68. Jardin d’hiver Karen Ann
  69. Ahiawa Hindi Zahra
  70. Sugar Plum Jackie Edwards
  71. Lan Male m’Ye Manno Charlemagne
  72. Amor Prohibido Tito Cortes
  73. Aruba Steel Drum I Horacio López
  74. Muchacho Amparo Sanchez, Calexico
  75. Gne Gne Giorgio Conte
  76. Mas Que Nada Luis Henrique
  77. Sitting in Limbo Jimmy Cliff
  78. Fever Balthazar
  79. El Papo Tatico Henriquez
  80. Suite Andalucía Ernesto Lecuona
  81. La Blusa Azul Enrique Jorrín
  82. Take it Easy Hopeton Lewis
  83. Le Vide est ton Nouveau Prénom La Femme
  84. What a Wonderful World Gilberto Gil
  85. Saídas E Bandeiras Milton Nascimento
  86. Moon Hop Derrick Morgan
  87. Don’t Let the Kids Win Julia Jacklin
  88. 6 Cuban Dances Ignacio Cervantes
  89. Boliviana Ibrahim Ferrer
  90. Day Dah Light Louise Bennett
  91. Maria Elena Cesaria Evora
  92. Bella Ciao Milva
  93. Aguas de Marco Elis & Tom
  94. Guarapera Pepe Molina
  95. Pata Pata Miriam Makeba
  96. Ay Jose Machito
  97. Piccolissima Serenata Renato Carosone
  98. Derriere le Grand Filtre Francoiz Bruet
  99. De Conversa em Conversa Rosinha de Valenca
  100. Dreams to Remember Toots Hibbert

a-z culinary adventures

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Arepas are a staple food here on the island. The approach can vary depending on whether the arepa is Venezuelan or Colombian made. I’m no expert on the differences so I will let those who know the most speak for themselves. Venezuelan or Colombian

Bitterballen are fried crispy balls stuffed with scorching ragu. I struggled for a while with these, especially the mystery meat inside. Nowadays, I gobble them down like a true Dutchie. Bitterballen are served with joppiesaus, which is a secret yellow sauce. And these balls are best paired with beer.

Ceviche – It’s another staple on the island, and I’ve found out that is the case throughout Peru and Chile as well. Peru definitely serves up the best ceviche on the planet. Forget Machu Picchu, It’s worth a trip to Peru just for the ceviche alone.

Dutch Pancakes Sweet or savory? My favorites of each are sweet strawberries with whip cream and savory cheese, bacon, and apple.

Empanadas are everywhere in this part of the world, especially Chile. The ubiquitous and savory snack seems to play the role that the taco plays in my homeland of Texas. Much like the taco, it’s prepared with love in a variety of ways, stuffed with everything under the sun, served any time of the day, and always hits the spot.

Funchi is an Aruban food and basically consists of a cornmeal mush served up as thick slick rectangular blocks. It sounds awful, but this insipid slab is oddly satisfying. Our chef at the school where I work prepares funchi often as a side dish, especially when seafood is what’s for lunch.

Guinea Pig, or cuy in Quechua, is usually the most expensive item on a Peruvian menu. It also has a 5,000-year history as a major protein source throughout the Andes. If you dare to order cuy for dinner, it will be presented fully intact on a giant platter, dressed for the celebration and festooned with colorful accessories, including a miniature party hat.

Hagelslag are actually sprinkles, like the kind you put on top of donuts and cupcakes, magical colorful confetti reserved for celebratory occasions. Here in Aruba under the influence of the Dutch, grown-ass adults copiously sprinkle this stuff all over plain bread and butter every day for breakfast. Who needs Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms when you have hagelslag to pour over your toast in the morning.

Indonesian/ Surinamese cuisine – This is absolutely my favorite culinary discovery of all. I had never sampled cuisine like this until moving to Aruba. Culinary influences mingled when the Dutch brought laborers from Indonesia, India, and China to work on plantations in Suriname. The cuisine that resulted is out of this world delicious.

Johnny Cakes – I confess that I have not tried everything on this A-Z list. Johnny Cakes are next on the agenda for culinary adventures. The journey will take me to San Nicolaas where there is a spot called Saco Felipe, famous for its saco dushi. The saco dushi is a bag filled with plantain, pork chops, ribs, chicken, potato and the johnny cakes. 

Kaassoufflé – It is very clear what is important in this country, convenient and immediate access to large blocks of kaas. You can even find hunks of it at the Chinese store on the corner. Cheese reigns above all other food as king in the Netherlands, and in the Dutch Caribbean. The kaassoufflé is basically deep fried cheese and the perfect snack. 

Locro is a hearty stew served in the Andes. It consists of corn, beans, potato, and some type of meat, usually chorizo. It can also include onion, peppers, squash or pumpkin. I had my first bowl on a very cold evening in Santiago, Chile, and it did not disappoint.

Meat prepared for an asado in Argentina will be some of the best you have ever eaten. I think the asado dinner in Argentina could easily find its way on the top 10 best meals I have ever had in my life. The meat is the star of the show here, but the Malbec plays an excellent supporting role.

Napoleon BonBons Aparte – I discovered these just this week after slowing down to explore all the strange Dutch candy for sale at the supermarket. The taste is strawberry tart, and a fizzy powder escapes from tiny holes as the candy melts in your mouth. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride if you can describe hard candy that way.

Oorlog frites – Oorlog is Dutch for war and frites are fries. Put the two words together and you get an edible concoction aptly named war fries due to the anarchy of ingredients piled on top, which includes a smothering of sticky satay sauce, a glob of mayo, and a blitz of finely chopped onions.

Pastechi – This truly is an Aruban essential, especially at breakfast. You can find pastechi on every corner. Another pastry stuffed with meats. Every country seems to have its own version.

Queso con chocolate? Es Verdad? Yes, this is really a thing and leave it up to the magical land of  Colombia to bring forth this heavenly combo. We once ordered the hot chocolate and cheese platter from the room service menu at a hotel in Bogota. Simply drop the cubes of cheese into steamy hot cocoa and use the spoon provided to sift out the gooey clumps that collect at the bottom of your cup. Another place where I found this cheese and chocolate combo was on a menu at a restaurant in Medellin, the arepa I ordered was a sublime savory disc of divinity sent from the gods.

Roti is my favorite thing to order at Indo, which is the restaurant I frequent to satiate cravings for Surinamese and Indonesian foods. In Suriname roti is eaten with chicken curry, potatoes, a boiled egg, and kousenband.

Soursop is a prickly green fruit that grows in the tropics. It’s a scary looking plant, but it makes a refreshing smoothie. I promptly choose the soursop over everything else at the smoothie stand when it is available. It’s supposed to cure cancer, but a compound found in the soursop seed has also been identified as a neurotoxin. Everything in moderation. 

Tamales – In Colombia tamales are as big as your head. Need I say more?

U chocolate letter – It’s Christmas time on the island because Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piet arrived last weekend. Sinterklaas came by boat, but all his Zwarte Pieten jumped out of an airplane and crossed the border via parachute. Now Dutch children can place their clogs next to the front door in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave a chocolate letter of their first name initial inside their shoes instead of beating them with his twig broom. So if your name is Ursula or Ulysses…

Verkade makes the best chocolate letters because they make the best chocolate. Verkade is a Dutch confectionery that has been around since the beginning of time. There is something to be said for experience; they clearly know what they are doing.

Waffle cookie, or Stroopwaffel, is a waffle cookie sandwich with caramel syrup in the middle. I’ve been instructed to rest them on top of a cup of piping hot coffee for a bit before eating them so that the stroop, or syrup, gets all gooey and melty. It’s good advice.

Xmas cookies – Speaking of cookies. The Dutch bring out special cookies when Sinterklaas arrives. Speculaas are cookies that depict stamp like scenes from the traditional story of Sinterklaas. If the whole season of Christmas could be captured in just one crunch, a bite from of a Speculaas and it’s the perfect combo of all the Christmas spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom—would do the trick. Kruidnoten and pepernoten (small bite-size cookies) also make their appearance during this time of year, usually thrown about the room like confetti. The kruidnoten are sometimes covered in chocolate or mixed with marzipan that depict scenes from the story of Sinterklaas.  

Kesha Yeni is a traditional dish in Aruba. I haven’t tried it yet, which just goes to show that there is plenty left to do on this tiny island. I’ve heard that both Cunucu House and Gasparito dish out the best kesha yeni.

Zoute Drop – Beware of this diabolical Dutch trick. Take pause if offered a piece of candy in the shape of a happy cat or whimsical windmill because these little drop fiends come in a variety of disguises. The Dutch love to dole these out to the unsuspecting non-Dutch. Zoute drop stands for salty licorice and dubbel zoute drop is double salt licorice. The result is a caustic attack on your taste buds, which will cause you to revolt at the putrid taste and spit out the happy cat.

More on drop madness – The Dutch have endless games they like to play with their licorice. They also mix it in with an assortment of gummy candies. These candies are similar to the gummy candies we have in the United States. These people are obsessed with their jelly candies. Again, much like the cupcake sprinkles mentioned before, gummy candies are associated with a certain stage of life in the United States, usually between the periods of 8 to 10 year of age. You don’t see many adults voraciously snacking on a 12-ounce bag of gummy worms. Not the case with the Dutch. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you they have an entire aisle at the grocery store stocked with a mad assortment of this stuff in all kinds of colors and caricatures, from green frogs to red Cadillacs. If it sticks to your teeth and is loaded with chemicals that you can’t pronounce, the Dutch scarf it down much the same way we would chocolate covered peanuts.

Once you take a closer look at the packaging whilst strolling the aisle at the grocers, you will come across a sinister bag of tricks, because the Dutch also enjoy dropping their drops in with the innocent cherry and orange flavors of assorted jelly candies. That or they taint a bag of fruity flavored farm animals by giving them licorice helmets. Just a touch of licorice makes everything taste better? I guess it all depends on the culture and country.

 

talk to strangers in another language

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Typically, these travel posts recount every detail, but I’m not sure that is the best formula for this trip since some moments felt like someone was driving an ice pick into my knee. No one needs to read about that kind of anguish; the world is full of enough suffering as it is. Efforts instead will be focused on peculiar twists and turns that make traveling worth the hardships. Moments that were made possible because of adherence to a travel philosophy of sorts, one that is irrepressible and cannot be thwarted by an injury. Mapping out so many unforgettable quirks stumbled upon during our journey this summer, it’s easy to link each of these experiences back to some basic ground rules we follow each time our plane touches down.

A drink is in order once you’ve crossed a border – Arrival time is not a factor here. Crossing an international border is always exhilarating. Everything changes with one arbitrary line. Keep that momentum going to the closest watering hole and order whatever drink it is that sets this country apart from the rest. A pisco sour will do the trick in Chile. An inky Malbec makes sense in Argentina. In Santiago, where our plane landed well after midnight, we ended up in the only place left open near our hotel. We noticed it was packed out with 20 somethings as we entered into an expansive space the size of a concert hall. The air was thick and hazy with smoke. The music was loud enough to make everything shake much the same way an earthquake tremor might in this part of the world. We followed the lead of the locals huddled in groups all around and ordered one giant bottle of beer to share. We’d been dropped from the tropics that morning into this strange winter scene late at night. It was all kinds of insane in there, and we were both entirely too old for the venue, but I will look back fondly on those first few moments in Chile. It sure beats climbing under the covers and going to sleep in our hotel room.

Attend a foreign film festival on the plane – It goes without saying that you should probably learn some of the history and culture as it relates to where it is you are about to set foot. Learning the language is also helpful. I do, however, realize that we are all busy people trying to cram too much into the mere 24 hours that make up each turn of the axis. And I also know the world is vast and infinite, and once you get out into it, it is clear that we as humans are small in comparison and incapable in our mortal existence of knowing everything there is to know. If all else fails, at the very least take time to watch a movie inflight and en route to your destination. A six-hour plane ride gives more than enough time for a double feature, ideally back to back films made in the country where the flight is headed. After boarding our flight on Latam Airlines from Santiago to Easter Island, I perused the movie selection for Neruda. Since that film was not on the menu, I lined up two others that I wanted to see from the choices presented, which included Fantastic Woman (Chile) and El Presidente (Argentina), both countries on our itinerary.  

Forge your own adventure on a foreign land  – I’m not a fan of tour groups. I hate all inclusive resorts. Adventure is rarely found in such slated scenarios. Sometimes it is necessary to travel following the expert lead of a tour guide. Trekking through the Atacama Desert comes to mind; It would be stupid to go the driest spot on Earth alone. Or stargazing in the Elqui Valley, I could never find the llama in the night sky unless a professional was there to point it out to me. But, generally speaking, when it comes to travel, the best experiences are usually had when you forge your own path.

Even better, rent a car and take off into the unknown behind the driver’s wheel. Driving in another country is an adventure in and of itself. Driving all over Easter Island even more so, and renting a car there is a piece of cake. Just step inside any tourist shop and after a swift exchange of a few Spanish words and penciling in of a short form, the car keys will be handed over to you within minutes. The caveat here is that there is no such thing as insurance on the island so any damage to the vehicle will have to be paid in full before leaving. But no need to worry because once you get out of town the island is pure nature in its raw form: untouched, untainted, and unspoiled. The only hazards to be found out there are wild horses. They will block the road from time to time, so either find a way off road and around or patiently wait for them to move.

If you do forgo the tour guide and group, don’t skip reading up on the history. I bought A Companion to Easter Island: A Concise Guide to the History, Culture, and Individual Archeological Sites of Rapa Nui, and it was worth every Chilean Peso. Some of my favorite nuggets on Pascua de Isla that are stranger than fiction can be found in this book. Here are six of the best in a nutshell, and chronological sequence, of course.

1) The first people (around 20) to arrive on Easter Island did so after a 2,000-mile journey by boat from another Polynesian island, packing up all the provisions they would need to begin a new life there. 2) The moai are actually carved in the likeness of recently deceased ancestors to stand erect forever, looking out over the village where their descendants reside. 3) Much of what we know about Easter Island comes from the accounts of European explorers: The first being a Dutch explorer who named the island because he landed there on Easter Sunday, the second a Spaniard who claimed the whole island for Spain but then never returned, and the third was James Cook who found a deplorable scene of devastation and fighting amongst the islanders, leaving many moai toppled and destroyed. 4) Each year rivaling tribes on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, would send their fittest and finest athletes to compete in a birdman competition, one that required the men to plummet from a cliff top into the tumultuous Pacific Ocean and swim to a distant islet where they would scale up trees, frantically searching bird nests for the first sooty tern egg of the season. The first athlete to make it back to the island and climb the rocky cliff back up top to the village of Oranago with the egg fully intact and safely secure inside a reed basket attached to the top of his head won the much-coveted title of birdman or tangata manu. Then those drab Christian missionaries came along and put an end to all this birdbrained nonsense. 5) The Spanish raided the islands for slaves to work guano mines along the coast of Peru. Eventually, Tahiti put pressure on the Peruvians to return the islanders to their homeland, and of the thousands of islanders snatched, only a dozen returned safely back to Rapa Nui. 6) And finally, during the 20th century, the entire island was a sheep ranch where 70,000 sheep roamed. The natives were confined to Hanga Roa, the main town, while the sheep had the run of the place.  

Eat where the locals go –  The best places are found by simply asking people who live there. It’s also helpful to have done a bit of research on local dishes to sample before ordering anything off the menu. I had a rough list typed into notes on my iPhone for both countries that included: pastel de choclo, empanada, cazuela, porotos granados, ceviche, humista, chorillana, chacarero, asado, and alfajores. One of our best meals in Santiago was at Galindas in the Bella Vista district. It was recommended to us by a German adventurer who used to lead groups on treks through the Andes but has since settled down and opened a hostel, which became our home away from home since we stayed there multiple times after arriving at the airport in Santiago on three separate occasions. Upon entering the front door, Galinda was elbow to elbow without a seat left in the house and not one tourist in sight, all good signs. We ordered humitas (sort of like tamales) and porotos granados, which is a bean stew with mashed corn, pumpkin, basil, and red pepper and pork sausage. Sabroso!

Tune into the soundtrack of your trip – Inevitably, there is a soundtrack that separates each travel from the next. If it isn’t clear if one exists or not, set out to make one by infusing music with your travel experience whenever possible. Find a festival to attend. Walk into a place where live music is playing. Follow the music and let it lead the way. The soundtrack for Valparaiso, a chaotic kaleidoscope of a city, was extraordinary and enduring. The screeching seagulls while walking the city streets late at night reminded me of a Hitchcock film. Blaring commentary and intermittent cheers filled the city because the World Cup was in full effect. Our most memorable of these experiences took place in Bar Ingles, a place filled to the brim with enthusiastic fans. Argentina was up against France that afternoon and the passion was palatable. Another spot, La Playa Bar, was like a time machine with an old Victorian bar that seemed to extend an entire city block, complete with an equally expansive mirror behind it. Bo Diddley turned up as part of the rhythm and blues line up they were playing that evening. Wes Montgomery belted out Satin Doll when jazz dominated the playlist another night. Hearing both of those tunes was surreal for me, as it presented an unforgettable juxtaposition of two worlds.

Visit a city that wasn’t part of the plan – La Serena was that city for us this go around. We wanted to avoid a 24-hour bus trip from Valparaiso to San Pedro de Atacama. Texting with a friend from Amsterdam, messages were sent advising a stop in La Serena to explore the nearby Elqui Valley. We experienced a good deal of Chile that would have been missed otherwise. Without stopping in La Sirena, we would have never seen the llama in the glittering night sky, one of many dark constellations pointed out to us on a stargazing tour. And since the Elqui Valley is a premier destination for stargazing, due to its high altitude and very dry air, we saw more of space than we will probably ever see again in our lifetime. There would have also been no tour of the pisco distillery if we did not add La Serena to our itinerary. Pisco is an integral part of the landscape and culture in Chile, so definitely worth learning about if on tour there. We also met a new friend from Belgium on the pisco tour who popped up serendipitously throughout the rest of our travels.

It’s always worth waking up early – Some people spring up and shoot out from the bed as the first ray of sunshine beams through the window. I will never miraculously become one of those people. Admittedly, I am a danger to myself and others upon rising due to a condition which I have Internet diagnosed as sleep inertia. A condition that manifests itself by robbing victims of the necessary cognitive and motor skills to operate as a fully functioning human person for at least 15 minutes after waking. This affliction can only be cured with exactly five sips of strong coffee. Unfortunately, we were not in Colombia and any coffee to be found in this part of South America was of the instant variety. With that, it is really important while traveling to fight these not a morning person tendencies with every fiber of willpower you can muster up because sleeping in will put you at risk for missing out on spectacular moments. One such moment on this trip was the Tatio Geyser Field. This marvel of earth science only occurs at sunrise so you have to board the bus at a highly unreasonable 5:00 AM. It will also be well below freezing where you are headed, but that biting chill will be what eventually wakes you up without coffee. Rest assured that the geysers are worth every uncomfortable moment.

Talk to strangers in another language – I am big on talking to strangers. I find people fascinating, even more so when they are from another culture. One of my favorite evenings on this trip began with a spontaneous moment stepping inside a random shop while walking down the street in Salta, Argentina. After making our way along a musty interior corridor inside said shop, which led us to a maze of vast open spaces, one after the other, each filled to the brim with Spanish colonial antiques, a tall and oddly handsome man greeted us out of nowhere–perhaps he stepped out from inside one of the many giant antique relics. He could easily be a persnickety butler from a macabre tale. His Spanish was incoherent and garbled, and not for a lack of comprehension on my part. Something seemed to be impairing his speech, something stowed away inside his cheek much like a chipmunk’s stores a surplus food supply in its pouch. At first, I thought he had a deformity, and then I realized his cheek was stuffed with coca leaves. After a few steps to backtrack where it was we entered this strange world, his enthusiastic friends waved from a tiny room just to the right of the front entrance. They were holding a makeshift party to celebrate Argentina Independence Day. The mottled crowd quickly ushered us in with an invitation to join the party, offering each of us a glass of Malbec and lapel pins of the Argentinian flag to attach to our jackets.

We had fun with this cast of characters, and speaking the language truly served as a gateway to a world we would have never had access to otherwise. We were introduced to the polite and intelligent lawyer. Another friendly type with an ear to ear grin claimed to be an actor, admitting that he only landed roles in Chilean B movies. His friend was from Bolivia and worked as a facilitator in the mining business. There was even a poet in the mix, a man of words who sang the praises of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Chipmunk man was a chef, but also the sole heir to this deep-rooted family business in antiques. After taking an inventory around the cozy room where we were now seated, the business also seemed to be selling fine wine, handwoven textiles, and various artisan works that included small sculptures of Jesus and duende dolls. But the one item that seemed to really drum up business was coca.

We talked until the twilight street outside, busy with traffic and pedestrians shuffling back and forth, turned dark. At one point Chipmunk left the room to make a homemade pizza from scratch and proudly presented it to all of us to enjoy, complete with gourmet toppings. It hit the spot because everyone was starving. Eventually, we stepped out on to the town to a nightspot our new friends wanted us to visit.

Plan for an opulent escape in accommodations – Traveling for five weeks, it’s important to mix up the accommodations somewhat. A few hostels early on can be tolerated, and are economically practical when traveling to popular destinations where nightly rates can be upwards to $200. A boutique hotel here and there should be strategically booked after that. Add a bed and breakfast to the mix as well just to round it all out. At some point, a luxury hotel is in order. They usually work well after the 2-week mark. By the time we reached Argentina, we’d been traveling thousands of miles well over two weeks without much of a plan. That type of travel begins to take a toll. We couldn’t bring ourselves to slum it in wine country, so we booked a room at a wine resort in Cafayate. The room was luxurious, the kind with high thread count sheets and numerous fat fluffy pillows. A view out the window of majestic mountains, endless vineyards, and Spanish ruins. And a breakfast spread for a king.

Don’t pack your cultural comforts and customs – Part of the beauty of crossing a border into another country is leaving your own cultural baggage behind. All those parts and pieces of habitual routines should definitely be thrown out for the time being, and perhaps reevaluated upon returning home. You will be much better off as a result. Open your mind to all that a new culture has to teach about the way a day on Earth can unfold from sunup to sundown. Everything about daily life is different. What you eat. What you drink. When you do so. How you get there. How you pay. What you say. The list goes on.

In Argentina, people sit for hours in the park at siesta sipping mate. Dinner isn’t served until 9:30 or 10. One evening we found ourselves eating a heavy asado meal at 10:30 at night. Afterward, we went for gelato next door. It was well after 11 PM and the gelato shop was jam-packed with Argentinians satiating their sweet tooth just before midnight, which is just after dinner in Argentina. The good news is blowing up your daily routine also give you a license to splurge. I don’t eat much sugar in my everyday life. I never keep ice cream in the freezer at home. Just look what ice cream did to Marlon Brando. Why take the risk? Who needs to resist that kind of temptation on a daily basis? But I do allow myself to indulge in desserts when traveling. I eat all the ice cream I want on the road. That evening I ordered a decadent scoop of Malbec and savored every bit of it.

Final deep thoughts on finding a Eucalyptus forest – One of my favorite moments driving Easter Island was through the Eucalyptus forest where cattle peacefully grazed on either side of the road as sunlight filtered in through the soaring branches all around us. The whole scene felt like something from a dream. There was no way to fully capture the moment inside a frame, so I didn’t even bother with the camera. Instead, I filed it away inside my mind as an image that will be easy to keep for the rest of my life, aided by the powerful sensory experience of the Eucalyptus scent, which I deeply inhaled after rolling down all the windows. It’s the kind of imagery that ensures you had a life fully lived without regret. Memories conjured up in those later years when you quietly assure yourself, I may have stumbled at times in this life with a few mistakes along the way, but at least I made it to the Eucalyptus forest on Easter Island.

 

Texas is a Bridge

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The Wittliff is home to the largest collection of one of my favorite photographers: Graciela Iturbide. I found this gem of knowledge out at a SFMOMA exhibit, Photography in Mexico, on a trip to San Francisco years ago. The Wittliff is located at Texas State University in San Marcos and is worth a visit the next time you are driving between Austin and San Antonio. The curator there is exceptionally hospitable and generous with her time. If you notify her in advance, she will have a tower of oversized boxes stacked up on a table waiting for blissful contemplation. Then she will methodically open each box, conjuring up one enchanting image after another with her pristine white magician gloves.

I remember reading a book purchased at the Wittliff, one of those overpriced coffee table books with a plethora of glossy images, a book displayed on the coffee table in my previous life when I bought books to serve such purposes. Flipping through the book one afternoon, I read about how Graciela Iturbide chose the location in San Marcos to care for her life’s work because Texas represented a bridge for her between two worlds: Mexico and the United States.

That thought has always stuck with me. I like the idea of Texas being a bridge, and it makes me incredibly happy to call Texas home, knowing that so much Mexican tradition is woven in with everyday life here. Some of my favorite things about Texas are cultural traditions that have their roots in an undeniably spellbinding history, a time when Texas was once part of Spain and later Mexico. Texans may have thrown out Santa Anna, but Mexico still resonates here. The two worlds have always meshed and mingled on this Texas bridge, creating a unique culture that sets Texas apart from many other states, states that, quite frankly, are lacking such a riveting story to tell.

Texas is on my mind lately because I am stuck here a little longer than planned on a recent trip home. A ten-day trip turned into four long weeks. I had to have unexpected surgery on a knee that was injured while trekking through Chile and Argentina this summer. The silver lining here is that I have had ample time to catch up with friends and family over Tex-Mex, one of the many sublime effects produced in this land from the intermingling of worlds. Some people talk of a reverse culture shock that happens when traveling back to your home country. But a deep appreciation is brought about as well after a prolonged absence, as you start to see everything through the same lens you would use to explore any other place on the globe. After living in another country for a few years, you examine your hometown, or in my case ever growing and sprawling metropolis, through the eyes of a traveler.

I had lunch today at El Taquito, a place I frequent because they serve up an authentic plate of chilaquiles. It’s located on East Grand, one of my favorite streets in Dallas because my grandfather used to take me to a diner there when I was kid, but also because there is so much joy hidden behind the urban grit of the storefront windows all along that street. And a trip to El Taquito would not be the same without stopping in at the La Dulceria de las Americas to peruse the homemade piñata section. Each one truly is a work of art.

A few years ago, you had to walk all the way back, along dark corridors, to the very rear of the shop in order to find the artist’s workshop. The daughter of the store owner was usually there to turn on a series of lights, each switch illuminating a new masterpiece. I found out today that La Dulceria de las Americas recently moved one block south of El Taquito. The piñatas are still kept in a clandestine corner, actually a separate room altogether, and you still have to ask with a hushed tone to see them. This piñata making business is top secret and buying one often feels a little like participating in an illicit drug deal. Nowadays, the pinatas at La Dulceria de las Americas are piled up one on top of the other from floor to ceiling (business must be good), almost like hundreds of discarded toys thrown carelessly into a toy box. It’s a strange sight indeed, it’s tough to decipher what is what in there. And it feels as if the box is off limits somewhat, a restricted area if you will, so you have to just ask for whatever it is you want. I’ll take a unicorn if you have it. I am looking for a green flying dragon. Got any pink princesses? If they don’t have what you are looking for, I’m fairly certain it can be commissioned to be made.

It’s difficult to control over spending in that place. It’s custom to bring piñatas to any celebratory occasion in Texas, but I admit sometimes I bought them even without an occasion in mind, purchased purely for the master craftsmanship. I once bought a giant robot for my classroom along with a few tin foil covered red and gold seven-point star to hang from the ceiling. On another visit, I bought a very green witch. She was a Kermit the frog shade of green. Her sorceress attributes are hidden in the grainy black and white world I placed her in the photo below. I remember she was standing right next to a vampire inside the dulceria, whom the teenage daughter of the shop owner/ piñata master extraordinaire sullenly labeled a “wannabe” vampire. Eventually, I went back for the “wannabe” vampire because I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I thought grainy witch could use a companion; they seemed perfect for one another. I tied them side by side and they swung together in harmony, affixed to the branch of a tree. They were on display in the front yard in the weeks leading up to Hallow’s Eve, and then later in the backyard for months and months until the spring storms took them out.

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Legend has it that Marco Polo witnessed the first piñata in China (usually a clay oxen filled with seeds) and brought a few back for the Italians to recreate and acclimate into their Lent tradition. They quickly named it pignatta, something roughly translated to mean clay pot or fragile pot: linked to the Latin word pigna for pine cones or pineapples or something like that. The Spanish brought the tradition to the New World, but the Mesoamericans already had their own version that looked very similar. The Aztec honored their war/ sun god, Huitzilopochtli, by busting apart a clay pot filled with offerings of precious stones, beads, and berries. And the Maya had a game they played where blindfolded participants took turns hitting suspended clay pots with some sort of club. Like so many aspects of Mexico’s culture, the two traditions mixed to give us the colorful donkey that you whack with a stick while teetering unstably from side to side because someone has just blindfolded you and spun you around and around a hundred times. It’s great fun!

Another thing about Texas that I revere as much as the piñata is the mariachi band. An experience that is guaranteed to move your emotions. Mariachi originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which also happens to be the birthplace of tequila, as well as home to a variety of Mexican dog effigy vessels, among other things. So the next time you find yourself drinking tequila alongside a mariachi group because you can’t have one without another, take time to consider the mystery behind the origin of both of these words.

Tequila is said to be a Nahuatl word that describes the place of harvesting plants or perhaps the place of wild herbs or maybe even the place of tricks. Some say it means the place of ceremony since it describes the region where the sacred maguey plant was grown, which the Aztec fermented to make pulque. The maguey plant even had its own goddess, Mayahuel. Another story tells us tequila can be translated to mean the rock that cuts because tequila is located at the base of a volcano, Tequillan. Apparently, the path to Tequillan was littered with sharp obsidian that cut the feet of Indians.

The origin of the word mariachi is equally disputed. Historians have argued for years, but most believe the word has native roots, most likely the wooden platform that performers used. And like so many cultural traditions in Mexico, the Mariachi sound, referred to as son, was created from both native and Spanish traditions. Music was embedded in daily life in the ancient world of the Aztec, clay rattles and conch shells eventually gave way to Spanish guitars and brass horns. Bands were originally accompanied by dances, which varied by region, but all involving intricate footwork that kept syncopated rhythm with the musical instruments.

Today, the mariachi band shows up for those big moments in life, and as well at your table while eating Tex-Mex. The best spot on the Texas map to experience the latter is on the RiverWalk in San Antonio, which is where the picture at the top of this post was taken after my first visit to the Alamo. The next best place to experience the mariachi is at El Ranchito. It’s a restaurant on Jefferson Street in Oak Cliff, known for its fiestas, mariachis, and cabrito. And it brings in some of the best mariachi bands throughout the Southwest on a daily basis.

So there you have it, a bunch of useless information that you probably won’t remember, although I do hope you never forget that tequila has its very own god. And also that Texas is home to many Mexican traditions that some may argue never crossed the border because there was a time not too long ago when there wasn’t a border to cross. And as a fifth-generation Texan, the type in possession of a very worn 100 dollar bill from the Republic of Texas, passed along from ancestors who once lived in a state that was its very own country, I am forever grateful for our Mexican heritage. These traditions were created as well from intermingling cultures, native and Spanish, some of the best cultural traits usually are the result of two worlds meeting. Texas wouldn’t be the same place without them; it certainly would not be near as fun. I’ve always said the United States has so much to learn from Mexico when it comes to community and celebration. And if Texas is a bridge between both worlds, then it’s the perfect place to teach it.