Unlike all those idiot spring breakers out there, I had to travel out of necessity recently. The US announced it was closing its borders due to the coronavirus and I didn’t want to get stuck in Colombia in case things turned really ugly or there was a family emergency.
I barely slept the night before flying. Those stories about flights getting canceled and people getting stranded in airports kept crossing my mind. And, obviously, I was also worried about contracting the coronavirus on one of my three flights or in one of the four airports I would be passing through.
My original plan was to wear a bandana over my mouth like a wild west bank robber. Hey, something is better than nothing — just ask the guy in the Miami airport who used two travel pillows to cover his mouth. But lucky for me, my cousin in Medellin is a veterinarian and had extra face masks and gloves to spare.
My travel day was long, but I’m happy to say it wasn’t as stressful as I expected. None of my flights were canceled and the process to enter the US was surprisingly smooth. The only two questions I was asked were “Is anyone else traveling with you?” and “Did you visit any other country in the last two weeks?” That’s it.
You can’t visit Boston without eating Boston clam chowder — at least that’s what I told myself repeatedly during my visit there. I didn’t really have much desire to eat clam chowder. Clams really aren’t my thing. But rules are rules, right? And I apparently didn’t want to break the rules because I caved and ordered clam chowder at Logan International Airport before flying out of Boston.
I normally get excited about eating whatever a city is known for. Hell, I’d say nearly all of what I eat when traveling is local cuisine. But sometimes it feels like my travel choices are based on what I think I have to do rather than what I want to do. It’s as if I’m afraid of one day having a conversation about a city I visited and then getting the dreaded “Oh my god, how could you not eat…” response.
Providence managed to do what few slums, red light districts and other sketchy neighborhoods around the world could do: It scared me. I visited Rhode Island’s capital and the birthplace of Pauly D on Sunday and soon realized there was no guarantee I would be leaving that ghost town with my wallet and camera still on me.
For a capital, there weren’t many people on the street — presumably because it was a Sunday. And the few people who were out, for the most part, looked like the types who would pal around with Jesse Pinkman.
The moment my brother and I walked into the famous Katz’s Deli in New York, we were each handed a blank ticket that we would have to present to the cashier when leaving. If one of us were to lose the ticket, God forbid, we would have to pay a $50 lost ticket fee. And because that’s not enough of a burden, we then had to order from a packed counter that was more free-for-all than line and somehow find an open table in that madhouse.
There is no prize for visiting all the major cities and towns in Colombia. You don’t get bragging rights either. So then why have I made it my goal over the years to see the whole country? Honestly, I don’t know. But this imaginary checklist in my head has led me to places I wouldn’t have visited otherwise, including Bucaramanga.
Forget for a second that the name of the city sounds like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle catchphrase. Colombia’s 10th most populated city has potential as a tourist destination. It’s a short distance from the Chicamocha Canyon, which is one of the more impressive sights in the country. I was bugging out riding over that canyon in a cable car. And not too far from Chicamocha is the Salto Del Duende waterfall.
Before heading to the Festival Internacional Festival del Globo in Leon to watch 200 hot air balloons from 23 countries take off at the crack of dawn, I began the day by shouting, knocking on walls and repeatedly banging trash bins in the lobby of my bed and breakfast at 5 a.m. No, I wasn’t sleepwalking again. The front door to this hell hole was locked with a key and I needed someone to come open it. This drum solo took place on and off for 20-30 minutes until the elderly staff member woke up, telling me “So noisy.”
I’d already taken most of my rage out on the trash bins so I let his comment slide. Besides, I had a hot air balloon festival to get to. The only reason I stopped in Leon during my month backpacking around Mexico was to see this festival, which looked pretty cool in photos. And you know what? It turned out to be pretty cool in person too. It’s not often you see hundreds of hot air balloons — with shapes including Jesus, Darth Vader, Van Gogh and Sponge Bob Square Pants — floating above you.
I’ve always assumed I’m claustrophobic, and now I know for sure. During my nightmarish visit to the Great Pyramid of Cholula’s underground tunnels, I spent the majority of the time trying to think of anything but my surroundings. I’ll spare you the anxiety-filled details and just say I had a panic attack but did my best not to show it. Like when you badly need to go pee, the last thing you want to do is talk about it and think about it even more.
I saw more booze flowing than tears while visiting cemeteries in Oaxaca for Dia de Muertos, which tells you something about the Mexican celebration. The families of the deceased sit alongside their graves that they’ve proudly decorated, some with photos and skull decor. Bands play alongside graves, furthering the idea that Dia de Muertos celebrates the dead rather than mourns them.
Some foreigners might feel like they’re intruding on families and their holiday. I heard this sentiment more than a few times due to the fact that some cemeteries were crowded with tourists snapping pics. But when I asked one local woman sitting alongside a grave with her family if they were annoyed with the heavy tourist presence, she responded “On the contrary, we love sharing this with everyone.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I had my face painted to get into the spirit of Dia de Muertos in Oaxaca and figured I’d take a few pics and wipe it off with ease at the end of the night, just like I did when I got my face air brushed for the Dia de Muertos parade in Mexico City days earlier. But, as the title of this post clearly states, things didn’t go as planned.
The problems started when I gave the face painter on the street the creative freedom to do whatever design he wanted. He took his sweet time, despite the long lines, and painted to almost the edge of my eye lids and on top of my lips. An invasive 45 minutes later, I was left with something satanic that was more appropriate for a Rob Zombie horror movie than a friendly Dia de Muertos celebration. Ugh. There went my chances of talking to any Catrinas that night.
When it comes to breakfast in Mexico, the only rule is there are no rules. It’s a free for all with no restrictions. And that’s just how I like it. I’m the same skinny fat kid who has been known to eat leftover pizza and birthday cake for breakfast on occasion. You think I minded starting my day with tamales, quesadillas or chilaquiles?
On Sunday, my brother and I opted for tacos for breakfast. But these weren’t your average artery-clogging tacos with greased up tortillas. No, these were worm tacos. And believe it or not, they were good. Seriously. The restaurant, El Hidalguense, is famous for its barbacoa tacos, but my brother and I both agreed their worm tacos were better. The combination of the tortilla, sauce and seasoning help mask the weirdness of the worms. Just be warned that the worms aren’t as good on their own.
I bit into a single worm that had fallen on my plate and whatever is on the inside of those things squished unexpectedly into my mouth. Man, I wasn’t ready for that. The worm managed to do what tarantula, bull penis and guinea pig couldn’t and that’s make me cringe.