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What is Home, anyway?

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Hostel Sue, in the La Candelaria District of Bogotá.

My sense of home has evolved much in the past year. I’ve been considering it more than usual this past month after I gave up my attic apartment and put all my things into storage and started darting between friends’ homes. The question finally presented itself while I was backpacking with my dear friend Malory last weekend in the beautiful northwoods of Minnesota. We’d set up our tent, had our chairs ready to go, and I’d even brought my expedition hammock to try out. We had, basically, a living room in the middle of a circle of cedars, on the edge of the boulder strewn Manitou River. It felt exquisitely homey. So I had to wonder:

“What is home?”

Is home a pile of books, a mound of ideas floating, playing in the air before me as I sit daydreaming on a couch or an overstuffed chair, a cup of tea or coffee, a bar of dark chocolate? Music from the piano, a woven rug laid before a flickering fire in the fireplace? A comfortable bed, a kitchen table? The sound of laughter from your friends and family in the living room?

I used to live in a lovely little house in South Minneapolis with a black cat and a German Shepherd, with a backyard and a garden. Even while I was grateful to have a home, the experience eventually suffocated me, for reasons I won’t go into now. While heartbreaking to leave it all, the leaving was inevitable. I had some sort of growing to do, a restlessness to wring out, and a journey to undertake. Some might say a journey of the soul, and I would believe that, even though I consider myself more a material philosopher than a mystic.

As I sit here, my first night in Bogotá, Colombia, at Hostel Sue, I understood completely for the first time that I am absolutely free for the next seven months to create Home wherever I am. Even at a random little hostel I find ad hoc through an app.

The same walls that provide comfort for those who choose to live in a house in South Minneapolis had become my shackles, my cage; the lack of a physical space that is my own has produced a deep joy. I don’t question it; I simply accept. I say this even while I dream of a home someday again with a piano, books, a table, friends, and a freshly uncorked bottle of wine about to be served.

That reality will come in time, I’m sure, but not for now.

For the next seven months, “Home” is my backpack, my mind, my heart, my ability to create spaces for myself where I am, the digital spaces in which I communicate with friends and family back home; the communal spaces here, where I will meet new friends.

As my dear friend Malory reminded me regarding the privilege and joy of travel: We enter the Homes of others–whether this is their country, their backyard, their school, their house or their apartment–with humility and open curiosity; and we leave filled with gratitude and a widened knowledge of humanity and the world.

And so, hello Colombia; thank you for receiving me and providing a land and space for my home this month. I eagerly look forward to partaking in your culture, your landscapes, your history.

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My old Home in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. The crew, whom I miss dearly (but they are in good hands now).

Mexico City: Un Taco al Dia es Alegria

There is so much more to Mexico City than tacos, of course. But my first full day there I had the glorious opportunity to try tacos al pastor (see right, above, large quantity of meat rotating on a spit) with spicy salsas, minced onion and cilantro–the first taste of what I now recognize as one of the best cuisines in the world.

Oh how I was won! Try them right off the street at a busy locale. Taste the salsas first before dropping that generous scoop onto your tacos; as I found out, one of them is a very spicy salsa made from habanero chiles. The Spanish verb for the process one will go through after dripping a spoonful too much of salsa picante de chile habanero is enchilarse, or to burn. Which I very much did. I also enjoyed chilaquiles con pollo or con huevos (fried tortillas, refried beans, chicken or eggs, and salsas).

Mexico City. It is perhaps a bit cliche (because in this day and age, one must be always and completely original) to travel when you need to heal yourself in some way or to get a new perspective or a grip on your life. But it is not cliche; rather, it is like medicine for an illness. Travel can truly help reset your mind (let’s ask a neuroscientist about this!) and re-point your toes down a path that is only yours. A caveat: I am talking about the kind of travel which brings you off the all-inclusive path, into a new culture. Resorts are relaxing, which is certainly healthy, but they may not extend your knowledge or challenge you. What I’m advocating is the kind of travel where you allow yourself to be open and willing to meet new people and see things without your usual framework–which is probably same framework that’s been jamming up your spiritual wheels for some time.

So I am taking the medicine gladly. I rode through many life transitions in 2017, including the end of a long term relationship, moving several times, a bitter job situation which prompted me to take stock of my career direction and ultimately decide on moving abroad. And then there was the national heaviness which has become a permanent cloud in my brain as many of us in the United States watched in shock when a popular TV and business icon took reins of the White House. Even while I pushed through it all with my best Minnesotan good cheer, it was,quite frankly, a tough year.

The desire to get away before starting a new job and to celebrate getting through the year occasioned a somewhat impulsive decision to go. I also needed and wanted to travel alone, which I hadn’t done in over ten years. I wanted to see if the person I’d been in my early 20s still thrived inside of me, and whether I’d have what it takes to do an around the world trip without a consistent travel partner. While hanging out with friends one evening, it struck me that a trip to Mexico City would be perfect for my budget and my mind. Many people had previously suggested I would enjoy visiting the capital city, so it had been on my to-visit list for a few years.

I purchased my airplane ticket; and within four days I organized for myself a two-week stay in a city known for its complex and layered history, delicious food, spirited nightlife, and nearly endless collection of museums. I bought extra data for my cell plan so I could freely use my phone to message and look up needed information such as hostels, taxis, etc.; alerted my bank of my trip; alerted my part-time employer; washed and packed clothes; cancelled upcoming appointments; and let myself get very excited.

Hostel Life. Upon recommendation from an acquaintance living in the city, Ryan Gray (check out his website here, by the way), I booked myself a bed at Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral in the downtown historic center of Mexico City. I was pleased with my stay there, though switching it up halfway to another hostel would have been nice. I almost switched to Roomie Hostel in La Condesa but did not like the vibe there. Other more experienced backpackers complained there was a lack of community space that fostered getting to know others; I however, found myself hanging out with people most every day.

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Groups of us would walk to go out to eat or out to bars. Taking an Uber was easiest for neighborhoods like La Condesa, which were much too far away for walking to from the hostel. My favorite bar was hands-down the Wallace Whiskey Bar in La Condesa. The live music was also excellent.

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Wallace Whiskey Bar, in La Condesa

I went to Mexico City to see artwork and visit museums, both of which there is plenty to see. My first full day, I woke up and went with a few new hostel companions, Isaac and Roger, to Castillo de Chapultepec. These two taught me how to use the metro, for which I was grateful. The metro can be overwhelming at first due to the sheer volume of folks riding it, but it costs only 5 pesos and is easy to learn. From our hostel, we took the blue line from Zócalo (which means center), one stop to Pino Suarez. There we got off and got on the pink line and took it to Chapultepec. Once you get off, you just ask a few people for the castillo and you’ll be on your way within a few minutes.  Metro Map here.

I also took the metro to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which hosts an important collection of Frida Kahlo’s artwork, as well as that of Diego Rivera. To get to the museum from the Zócalo station, you take the blue line all the way to Tasqueña, follow the signs for the Tren Ligero, buy a card from one of the ticket machines (English is available), load the card with a bit of money, and then take the Tren Ligero to the stop called La Noria. The museum is just around the corner down the busy street by the metro stop. Though I just gave my card away because it was my last day in CDMX, you can easily sell you card to anyone nearby–plenty of people were waiting in line to purchase a card and fill it with pesos.

Back in the historic center of the city, I saw Diego Rivera’s murals in the Palacio Nacional (make sure to bring an ID with– they will hold it while you are inside) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Before or after you see the mural, Man Controller of the Universe, I suggest watching this synoptic and helpful video from Khan Academy.

I was fortunate enough to attract the attention of a retired Mexican history teacher who wanted to know why I wanted a photo in front of Trotsky’s image. We chatted a while and he gave me the sweeping analysis of not only Rivera’s murals but some of the others in Palacio de Bellas Artes. Interestingly, Trotsky’s first assassination attempt (unsuccessful) in the city was carried out by another famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work also covers the walls in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Of course, I also had to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. But one should know that the house does not contain a large collection of her work–hence why I suggest also visiting Dolores Olmedo Museum. It’s a beautiful house, with a vibrant indoor courtyard garden, and a well laid out exhibition of Kahlo’s wardrobe (which was highly intertwined with her art and life).

*Tip: Please please please buy your tickets online ahead of time, and get there with your coffee a half hour before doors open (there’s a lovely cafe called Tierra Garat on the corner of Londres, the same street as the museum, and Av. Mexico). Even with a ticket there’ll be a line to get in, and once inside, the place gets packed–arriving early will offer a more breath-able experience viewing the rooms and getting to know Frida Kahlo the person.

Outside and inside the Frida Kahlo house. Lush colors and gardens. 

Other museums I visited included: Museo Nacional de Antropologia (an absolute must-visit); Museo Soumaya; and Museo Nacional de Arte. I’d say you could skip the last one unless you know there is a collection there you’d want to see. I was not overly stimulated looking at entire exhibit of dimly lit, religiously inspired 19th century oil paintings of persons pale and partly nude.

Flying cherubic heads did catch my attention, however–can someone tell me what they’re all about?

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My favorite painting: The Monkey and Cat Barbershop, by David Teniers el Joven 

At the Museo Nacional de Antropología, enjoy the alienesque fountain that towers over the inner courtyard, and admire the vast array of artefacts from several different cultural groups of Mexico, including the Toltecas, Maya, Oaxaca, and Mexica. The latter ruled the Aztec Empire and populated Tenochtitlan, the capital city located under Mexico City. They created the Piedra del Sol (Sun Stone), a famous round stone that is also known incorrectly as the Mayan Calendar. I first learned of it when I was fifteen years old in my first and favorite Spanish class and felt properly awed to finally see it in person.

A weekend away in Cuernavaca. A city also called land of eternal spring, I enjoyed an especially lively time here while visiting friends who shuttled me to their favorite places. To get to Cuernavaca, I took the metro blue line to Tasqueña; walked across a street with lots of vendors to the bus terminal, bought a ticket with the bus company Pullman de Morelos, and enjoyed a comfortable one hour ride with beautiful views to the terminal in Cuernavaca where my friend Alicia met me.

Right away Alicia and her son Alonso took me to a nearby pueblo called Tepotzotlán, where we hiked up for a lovely vista and rest on the steps of a temple called Teposteco, which was built for the god of pulque (an ancient form of liquor from the maguey plant, from which tequila is made).

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Made it to the templo, in crappy strappy Target sandals no less!
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Downtown Tepotzotlán
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Agua miel, a slightly fermented, younger version of pulque
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Trying different kinds of mezcal with Alonso
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Agua miel, perfectly refreshing after the hike.

The food and drink Alicia and Alonso had me try over the weekend was my absolute favorite of my entire trip. This included the extraordinarily delicious glass of agua miel I had after our strenuous hike; a lunch of itacates, a triangular version of tortilla that is thicker and has some crunch to it, with mushrooms called huitlacoches, which grow on the maiz kernels; tlacoyo de chales, another version of tortilla with meat inside; salsa de jumiles (an insect sold door to door, kept alive in a jar in the kitchen); and micheladas–beer served with flavoring, usually salt, lime, chile and other spices.

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Gorgeous city town square of Cuernavaca. The Sunday crowd, which includes two vaqueros relaxing. 

Back in the city, I was privileged to spend the day with Victor, a friend who is a professional Mariachi singer. He brought me to Garibaldi Plaza, a famous gathering spot for Mariachi groups, where we enjoyed tequila with sangrita casera, a tomato juice with spices. He ended up singing with friends while we sipped our tequilas at a famous musician hangout called Tenampa.

Later that evening, I went back to Garibaldi Plaza for a delightful evening getting to know folks at my hostel. We went to the rooftop bar of the Museo del Tequila y Mezcal, had drinks and food, and then toured the museum. Chapulinas–roasted grasshoppers–made it onto the menu that night.

The Pyramids of Teotihuacán. If in town, you gotta see the pyramids built by the Teotihuacanes, whose city flourished and perished before the time of the Aztecs. A peaceful society which focused on an ancient form of sustainable living along with dedication to mathematical design and astronomy in their religion and architecture, you’ll be awed and tuckered out after exploring the ruins of their city. Folks from the hostel did tours or took a bus out to the site; I was lucky enough to have a friend bring me there. We hired a guide on site, who provided a 2-hour tour. I recommend this unless you already know the history of Teotihuacán and its people.

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Contemplating the climb up the top of Pyramid of the Sun

Logistics, Safety, Etc. I beefed up my data plan before leaving so that I could use my cell phone anytime to message friends and have quick and ready access to information, use Google Maps, and call an Uber. Using the metro during the day felt fine to me, but I did make sure–as I would in any city–to hold my purse in a locked embrace when things got crowded and busy. Unfortunately a friend did have a cell phone stolen from his pocket after boarding the metro. Keep your most important things–debit cards, passports, etc.–locked in your hostel room during your stay. As it is a city, I also made sure to stay close to friends when out at night.

Petty crime is one thing. What about kidnapping or other forms of violence? I, along with my friend Joanna, another solo female traveler, were both told we might get kidnapped if we visited Mexico City. Both of us concurred that we never once felt unsafe while on this trip. Of course, I made sure to keep myself out of unsafe situations–such as going alone at night, taking a random taxi off the street, going off with strangers. Additionally, it is my understanding that, despite the atrocities carried out by the drug cartel in other parts of Mexico, much of this is enacted within the cycle of the drug trade, and targeted toward those involved in the cycle, not at tourists. Even still, we should be aware of our surroundings and keep ourselves as safe as possible. An article from the New York Times gives more details regarding safety for travelers to Mexico in this article .

Furthermore, I highly recommend this article by a favorite author of mine, Francine Prose, who urges us all to visit Oaxaca–my next stop when in Mexico again.

Getting Sick. Do heed the advice of avoiding salads and fresh vegetables and fruits, unless it is at a very tourist-oriented restaurant where they have sanitized their fresh produce. I made it most of my trip without trouble until the second to last night, when I had a salad at a city cafe and felt Montezuma’s Revenge descending swift and powerful only two hours later. I spent the night in agony, as will happen, hugging the toilet for dear life. Luckily a new friend from Mexico who also happens to be a doctor sent me the magical prescription for relief, which I purchased right away the next morning. Though the medicine made me drowsy (one contains antihistamines), it immediately took care of the stomach pain and I could eat more or less normally hours after taking the first dosage without having any more problems. According to a pharmacist friend, these drugs treat pain, nausea and vomiting. Plus an extra dose of probiotics can never hurt.

Sickness aside, it was thoroughly delightful trip, with many new friends made. Until next time, Mexico City.

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People in line for a blessing

Many thanks to Sonia, Alicia and Alsonso, Victor, and Viridiana for taking me around your city. I had such a grand time.