There’s nothing quite like wrestling your demons in a spectacular setting. For me, it took the form of a showdown with my darker emotions in front of a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Guanajuato.
My first day in the beloved Mexican city, I wandered the streets like La Llorona, the “weeping woman”—a ghost who according to local legend roams eternally with regret. To describe what I felt as “homesickness” sounds too cute—like calling typhoid the sniffles. What I felt was something more existential: total disconnection.
Granted, I was groggy after a red-eye from San Francisco. Listless and unopinionated, I allowed the cab driver take me to a hotel of his choice. It was bleak, dingy, and overpriced. I unloaded my bags, hauled them up the steps, and collapsed on the bed of Room 22. There I lay afflicted with a combination of discontents, the worst that solo travel has to offer: I was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and inexpressibly lonely.
A montage of sounds wafted through the tiny window from the market below: the fast rhyming cadences of Spanish, the creak and clatter of vegetable carts on uneven cobblestone, and the inebriated melody of “De Colores.” The streets were alive, interactive, flowing with life. I crouched in the darkness of my room, a soul afraid to swim.
“Don’t buy into this,” I reminded myself.
I’ve had this same sensation so many times—from my first experience at horse camp at age 12 to leaving for college. The feeling that I’ve made some grave mistake is overwhelming. It’s a demoralizing sensation, a loss of faith, and a complete undoing of everything I aspire to be: bold, adventurous, open to life.
I even start to think: maybe it’s time to settle down into a quiet predictable life.
I have yet to learn the art of arrival.
I peeled myself off the bed and went outside, wandering along the weathered cobblestone in search of food. With its curving narrow ways and baroque and neo-classical architecture, Guanajuato is as beautiful as Venice or Lucca. And like Venice, the town has had to contend with the problem of water. Until recently, torrential rains caused surrounding rivers to crest and flow into the streets. Rather than relocating to drier land, the inhabitants adapted by constructing dams and redesigning parts of the city. Some of the building foundations sit four and five meters over the street.
The city is famous for many things, not the least of which is being ground zero for the Mexican War for independence. Here Miguel Hidalgo launched the first major insurgency against the local Spanish government in 1810.
It’s also a mining town and in the 18th century became the world’s leading center of silver extraction. Shafts tunnel through the surrounding hills, the deepest being Boca del Infierno (“mouth of hell”) which plunges a sinister 600 meters into the earth.
Armed with mining wealth, the Guanajuatons possess the leisure and funds to cultivate sophisticated tastes. As a result, a strong sense of aesthetics defines the city. Most everything in Guanajuato—from the bronze statues and towering Basilica to a simple door knob or the neat arrangement of bell peppers at a street stall–seems touched by an artist’s hand.
I went into the first restaurant I could find–a casual place with vinyl seats, fluorescent lights, and sizzling chickens on a spit. I was alone only a moment when a Mexican balladeer approached my lonely table with a serenade. It was a pathetic tableaux—a scene straight out of “Eat, Pray, Love.”
This was my breaking point. It was time to seize control of my own narrative.
I spied a woman my age sitting alone at a table across the restaurant.
In Jeff Greenwald’s one-man show, “Strange Travel Suggestions” he asks this question: “Who are we when we travel, at our best?” In answer, he pulls out a giant Tarot card of The Fool: the happy wanderer, obliviously stepping of a cliff and into the unknown. There’s a feather of optimism in his hat, and a dog bounding along at his heels.
The Fool, Jeff points out, doesn’t passively surrender to fate; he turns to greet it. Whether or not he flies when he steps off that cliff is determined by moment-to-moment decisions: whether to sit alone in a cafe or to strike up a conversation; whether to spend the day lounging alone, or learning the local language and seeking out community. I think often of this travel wisdom, which has guided me on so many adventures. The philosophy is simple: believe in chance meetings, take strange suggestions seriously, and roam unnamed alleyways.
After devouring a couple of enchiladas, I decided to approach the other lone gal in the restaurant.
“Mind if I interrupt?”
She set down her pen, smiling and receptive. She was from Telluride and was also studying Spanish here.
After introductions, Rachel scribbled some hints for me on the edge of my Guanajuato map: the best budget hotel, internet cafes, and a good language school.
I soon moved into a new room, and enrolled in Spanish school. Later, I got an email from Rachel inviting me to go out.
Not bad for a first day: I had a school, a place, a friend, and plans for the following night. All the ingredients for happiness were in place.
The next day Rachel and I went for a long walk in the sun above town with Paul, another student from the Spanish language school. Rocks flanked the trail, red as Canyonland. Cactus and agave grew from the hillside. Rachel and Paul turned out to be great company, open-hearted lovers of travel.
Late afternoon I walked around town, waking at last to its beauty. In shop windows, I saw small statues of the Virgin de Guadalupe, Dia de los Muertos figurines, and stacks of sugary treats. I noticed how the buildings were a procession of colors—purple, orange, blue, green. Between them on the alley walls I saw spray painted skeletons — the bare-bone imagery of death was combined with flowers and regalia, adding up to a bright-bleak Frieda Kahlo aesthetic. These are the designs of a people unafraid to dance with their demons.
That night Rachel and I went to a nightclub in the Jardin, the town’s main square. There we met Andrew, a 25-year old midway through a two-year bike ride from Canada to Tierra del Fuego. His travel stories had me laughing, and as I laughed a life force began to percolate back through my veins.
Deeper into the night, a cellist played solo — and each slow pull of his bow filled the high-ceilinged Zilch Bar with haunting and sublime snarls. Come midnight we were moving from place to place. Hours slid by as Rachel and I salsa’d with men wearing shiny shoes and Cuban hats. We ended the night eating street tacos with roasted pineapple at 3:30 a.m.
I strolled down Guanajuato’s dark streets, noting landmarks to guide me home—left at the Basilica, a sharp right at the Cervantes Museum, past the bronze rendering of Don Quioxte. I arrived in my room at 4 a.m. carrying two bouquets of flowers: roses and lilies from my dance partners.
I dropped the flowers on the table and fell into bed, feeling ‘in place’ among the old chip-paint buildings, in the valley of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and above the strange layers that make Guanajuato: the ghosts of rivers that once coursed through this valley, the network of silver mines dug on faith. My vibrating bones surrendered to the matress. Somewhere, La Llorena roamed restlessly. But I fell into a deep and contended sleep, the scent of roses and lilies at the foot of my bed.