Mexican Memories on the Wind
Mornings on the Campeche coast were a space of growing golden light and sea breezes in from the Gulf of Mexico. Both would drift through the wide open windows, which reached nearly from floor to ceiling in the grand old building that hosted my hostel. When your first breath of the day carries notes like that, it’s hard to be stressed about much of anything, and the world’s worries seem as manageable as the tides on the beach not too far away. I knew there was a new fear moving around out there, in the wider world that occasionally sent me messages I never read. I would read those worries when I was back in that world.
An astonishing amount of travel time can be spent looking for food, but not those days. Around midday I’d meander through the market, where women in colorful clothes might be frying the morning’s catch or bagging up produce with a practiced hand, while men slammed cleavers onto butcher blocks. I took the produce path, gratefully receiving enormous avocados and downright lascivious tomatoes every day. Back in the hostel’s kitchen, I would slice into the aguacate y tomate, green like Eden on the one side, red like the sins you never regret on the other.
But dinner was when that hostel really earned its place in my travel accommodation pantheon. The tall windows in the front opened onto tidy balconies above the parque central, where vendors and local gente would gather every night. Music plucked by nimble fingers danced in the evening air with wafts of savory caper chicken, or the regional specialty pan de cazon, which is layers of tortillas stacked up with beans and fresh fish, then doused in a tomato sauce redolent of onion, local epazote leaves, and yes, because life can be obstinately beautiful, a couple scoops of lard.
My evening usually began with a book on a balcony, listening to the growing hum of voices, and huffing in the growing array of flavors on the cooling breeze. Then I’d take a turn around the park, listening to the musicians, watching the families, and trying not to laugh when the children gazed with rapt attention at the toy sellers who strolled with squeaking doohickies and inflated doodads. People were quickly coming to recognize me, and to my pleasant surprise I already had a few regular saludos to receive and return each night.
Then came the day’s most important task. What to eat for dinner? Coconut shrimp with applesauce? Sweet green papaya? Cochinita suckling pig? But it was hard to resist brazos de la reina, the Queen’s arms, which one could describe as a giant tamale if you wanted to understate the importance of roasted melon seeds and chaya leaves.
Usually I ate in the park, then took another stroll before returning to the balcony for a last chapter or two. Or I would take the food up and eat in the sleepy hostel, looking out over the bustle below. This was travel at its best, the “temporary local” experience, and I hadn’t packed my worries.
Back in the normal world, the worries caught up with me. A pandemic was sweeping around the world. This was 2009 and the Swine Flu was ominous. I had already been traveling when it hit the news, and I understood the people who chose not to risk it. But those of us who took our precautions and reached out for the world were finding it ready to embrace us back. Luckily the pandemic took no toll on my health. But it did reach that place. Two days after I checked out of that hostel, it closed its doors forever. Too many travelers had stayed home, and this remarkable opportunity faded away with their absence.
I find myself coming back to memories like that, as the newest monsters surface in the oceans of print to roar their threats. We have responsibilities to our communities and loved ones to try to protect them and ourselves. But the traveler also knows that invincibility is a fiction, no matter where you live, and there is no reward without some risk. How do we balance it all?
Those are difficult questions all of us must try to answer, and it was with uncertainty that I bought both my previous ticket abroad and my next one. But I am deeply grateful for the memories I gained during those two months in 2009, memories that rise back up now and then to blow in my open morning windows.