The Unmistakable Odor of Burning Tomato-tops

After a Moka Cappuccino, very dry chocolate panqueque (muffin), (transfer to a different restaurant) another café Americano, tamales chiapaneros, and some pozo (corn and chocolate drink), I’m feeling stuffed and slightly more human. I also got some quality reading in, which I was not able to do on the buses.

I decided to venture in to the 24-hour hot shower offered by my hostel. It’s clean (good news) but the hot water runs out about 3 minutes after I get my hair wet. Nevertheless, being clean feels good! And the hostel thankfully had towels (the last place did not).

As I was drying off, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable sweet scent of burning tomato-tops. My mother will know what I’m referring to, because that’s what she compares this smell to.


I went from “This is a business of God” at the hotel last night in Todos Santos to marijuana. Great.

I am not a smoker of any product, legal or otherwise. I never have been, and unless something drastic about my personality changes I never will be. That said, I have absolutely no problem with people who do choose to smoke (I’ve dated a couple)—your brain cells are none of my concern– but frankly I try to avoid situations where I’m inhaling smoke of some sort.

First of all, I’m asthmatic. Me + smoke of any sort = bad. And the smell of weed makes me feel queasy.

In places like this, where I think I’ll find some camaraderie with fellow travelers, I end up feeling alienated. It’s at (lonely, homesick) points like this that I really, really wish I could find someone like-minded to travel with.

It’s really tough to find someone who doesn’t mind taking the chicken buses, eating in $1.50 comedores, avoiding pre-arranged tours, and staying at $10/night hostels, but will still want to go to bed early in favor of getting up to see the sunrise, forego the extra drugs-and-alcohol, and avoid the gringo-party places.

I feel like there are two main types of travelers that you always run in to (at least in Latin America): 1) Tour-groupies, seemingly always American, Canadian, Australian, or German, who travel everywhere in private shuttles to see the “historical” and “scenic” places in a country, stay in hotels that cost at least U$40 a night, and eat at gringo restaurants that serve sanitized, international food; and 2) Backpackers, of international breed (Americans tend to be around my age, or mid-twenties; Israelis just released from the army; Australians, Brits, and Germans on a gap-year) that take semi-local transportation (a mix of chicken and first-class buses, the occasional shuttle), hang out in budget hotels, go on hiking or other adventure tours, drink and smoke a lot, and party in the gringo bars. They also carry all their possessions in a backpack (and you can usually tell their nationalities by the brand of backpack they carry!)
→ I carry a backpack also, and you can tell I’m from the States because my pack has “REI” written all over it!

Traveling (in my opinion) shouldn’t be a constant party and bar-hop. I mean, c’mon. The gringo bars in these places are all the same. Same “tropical” décor, same drinks, same music, same people!!

Plus, if you stay up late to drink yourself silly, you won’t be able to get up for the 6 am market.

I’m fine with hanging out with the occasional group-o-gringos (and in this case, gringo refers to any foreigner). It’s fun to hear peoples’ stories, what brings them to a place, where they’ve been, etc etc etc.

But, take for example this German guy I met last night. I have no (well, little) problem with his style of travel. He seems like a “go your own way” sort of guy. He whipped out his stack of snapshots that he’s taken from a number of “exotic” places around the world (Ethiopia, Morocco, Ladakh) and told us how he would go in to hospitals and jails in Guatemala and Mexico to take pictures. He didn’t speak any Spanish. (there’s where I have a little bit of a problem)

But he started grilling me, like he refused to believe that I didn’t exactly match the stereotype of a traveling American college student.

I told him that I had been working in San Mateo (he assumed I was teaching English), and was going to Chiapas to see the Indigenous Photo Archive/Project. “No.” he said, “this is bad.”

Thinking he had maybe visited the archive before, I asked him why he said that.

“Well, how would you feel if busloads of people were driving by to take pictures of you all day long?”

Ummm, wow. Not quite what I was talking about buddy. I tried to explain to him that this was an organization that supported indigenous artists—with training, supplies, publishing, etc.

“It is always a project with you. Projects, projects.” He said. Oh really?! Since when does he know me that well?! He admonished, “Don’t you ever just want to visit a place and get to know it?”

Yes, in fact, that is my entire goal here! But I don’t think that I’d get to know this place by not speaking Spanish, going to see the tourist sites (ie: Palenque, Tikal, Lago Atitlan), and hanging out exclusively with other travelers in budget hostels or expat-owned gringo bars.

I really feel that you have to work to get to know a community, and not just over a week or two of vacation—and the best way for me, personally, to do that is to work with a local non-profit organization. Given my personality (kind of shy and timid at first) I’m not able to just walk in to a place and start “knowing” people. It helps if I have a purpose, and if that purpose comes with some built-in insta-friends.

I really prefer working with locally-based organizations, and I explained that to him. I don’t want some group in the USA or Europe (no offense) getting a cut of whatever “fee” I’m paying for them to arrange everything for me, when my time and money could be better spent helping people in a locally initiated and run project. That way, you get to know people in the place that you’re visiting beyond just the “where are you from” formalities. You can learn what their community means to them (through whatever work they’re doing) and you can contribute to a good cause. Better than supporting expat-owned gringo bars, in my opinion.

Wow. That whole tirade there stemmed from my smelling pot while I was in the shower. Scary what that stuff does to you!

And look at me, I’m in one of the most touristy places in Mexico (after Cancun and Puerto Vallarta) and I’m going to go sip coffee and read all day tomorrow. How…gringo.

I’ll read a local paper, I promise. Maybe I’ll even buy an EZLN t-shirt (oh the irony).


1 Response to “The Unmistakable Odor of Burning Tomato-tops”

  1. 1 Katherine September 28, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    I bought an EZLN t-shirt. It’s pink.

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