On the Road: To Move or To Linger?
Oaxaca – San Cristobal
A big toe grips the cobblestone. An arm brushes a wall. A drop of dew is deposited on a forehead. A glint of light reflects off a coffee cup outside a café. Often this is how we see a city. Not so much the photons entering the iris and processed in the visual cortex but the intangibles, the little things. The distant laughter of a child, the wafting of sweet elote, the soft light of a streetlamp, the way a stranger approaches on the sidewalk, the colors of a wall. It is said, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see”. I’ve come a long way the last few days, perhaps too far, to fast, it’s time to engage the present and walk the path to transcendence. Tonight, I wander the streets of San Cristobol. Slowly and determinately. As I do I reminisce about the past week.
The open road between Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido seems weeks ago, the desert plains of the Aztec north giving way to the tropic forests of the Mayan south. The dry, hot, metallic, windswept plains give way to the thick, soup like, musky corn scented air of the south as I wind down canyon roads, up and down. With each incline a return to the dry and barren past, with each successive decline a denser, wetter, hotter world emerges. Cacti become waterfalls, brush becomes lush trees. Scorpions become Tarantula Hawks. Jeans and cowboy hats become colorful traditional dress.
After a long days drive I arrive in Puerto Escondido, a dusty unkempt surf town. Crumbling facades house western restaurants and vociferous bars. Time seems to begin here around 1pm, the terminally hung-over dredge in their hammocks or sprawl along concrete pool sides unmoving like a sweaty zombie army before moonrise. The beaches are a pristine white sand and green water affair. They barely hint at the mêlée beneath. A ravenous town gripped by the search for the next wave, the next drink, the next buzz. Drug addled and life addled. It’s hot, oppressively hot. Leave a u-shaped-sweat-mark in your bed hot, inescapable, suffocating. Yet, fun and free people too pervade in this environment, they are kind, inviting, inclusive and fun. It is a place of Hedonistic masochism, unapologetic and earnest, dangerous and off-putting yet o so seductive. Then another drive.
And now, San Cristobal at dusk. One of Mexico’s best cities. Splendid and glorious, sitting high in the mountains, beautiful and proud. Its warm demeanor belies the cool, crisp air, a gentle breeze seems to constantly caress the softly lit colonial streets. Endless cafes, sheik restaurants, funky wine bars, salsa clubs and night markets, make up the town. The culinary scene is tremendous, very international, trendy, and very good. The city bathes in the warm glow of street lamps and dim café lights. It is serene and happy. It’s not as artsy as Oaxaca, not as traditionally cultured. It’s more cosmopolitan. People are trying to create the next big idea, not focus on the perfect small thing. You imagine this is where the next Chipotle or Forever 21 will come from. The air is filled with the sounds of ladies selling handmade scarves and traditional Mayan clothes, twenty and thirty something’s sharing sangria and fine wine, cafes overflowing with live music, joys abound. There is no need to rush. Everything comes to you. Your sip your coffee, taste your arepa or falafel or taco, linger a bit longer. It is a fantastic city.
I’ve already stayed 4 days longer than initially planned. I wish I had more time. Too often this is a travelers struggle. One place for much time or many places for too few. Strong feelings pervade the traveler community on this; it’s often a point of tension. To me the answer begs the question, what are you traveling for. What do you want to learn, to see, to understand. Only once you have answered this can you pose the question. Then either answer can ring true depending on the initial inquiry. My feeling is that to understand a city more time is preferable, but to understand a country multiple places are ideal. For me, the study of a nation is of deeper interest than one locale. The dynamism intrigues me to a much greater degree.
The tourist/traveler dichotomy is the most prescient distinction. How do you use the time you have. Be it two days or two months the traveler’s job is to see a place as it is. To meet everyone he can, to absorb each bit of culture and knowledge. To walk, to eat, to pay attention. I try to soak it all in, engage every conversation, grace every surface, sample every dish despite my dearth of time. Yet I always feel guilty leaving, there is always something left undiscovered. I try to internalize much, learn what I can from each moment. Tonight and tomorrow, before leaving beautiful San Cristobal, I want to linger. To be present, to not move much. To hear the birds and watch the clouds. To just be, and hopefully in the process see what is.
More friends, more memories, more conversations, another coffee. Thomas Jefferson once said, “One travels more usefully alone, because he reflects more”. This too has been a long held feeling of mine. This Thomas, is for you.