September 15, 2008. Guadalajara, Mexico. Day Two, Discovery.

The TV was on. The channel? Golden. The movie? Nick of Time (1995) starring Christopher Walken and Johnny Depp. I had never seen it, but I’d watch anything with Christopher Walken. Unfortunately, today I had more important matters: setting out on an epic journey. My purpose was simple, to relish in the rich Mexican culture that was all around me, and in the meantime practice speaking Spanish. What I did not know however, was that by the end of this day I would be knocked unconscious by a freight train and thrown 50 meters, only to be found bleeding and face down in a pool of stagnant sewage by a roaming howler monkey…

Okay so I lied about the freight train part, but you clicked the link didn’t you? I’m sorry it was a dirty trick. It won’t happen again…

This day started much like the day before. I threw on some clothes and headed across the jungle bridge to arrive at Plaza del Sol. Being that the previous day was a Sunday, many of the stores were unavailable for my perusal. So I decided to spend some time carefully scanning each nook and cranny, with the hopes that I would discover a diamond in the rough. I started by scanning the shops located along the perimeter of the Plaza. During this initial phase of my investigation I witnessed a handful of young couples in love. Fiercely making out… In fact, I was disturbed and quickly walked past as each time I stumbled upon a make out session, it became increasingly more bizarre. After a single lap I had not discovered anything spectacular, so I proceeded inward, towards the shops that were sandwiched between the outer perimeter and the main courtyard area.

This leg of my journey left me extremely disappointed. Nowhere could I find a single interesting shop. It seemed like the shops were in a pattern: baby clothes, shoes, textiles, cell phone provider. I quickly grew bored and prematurely moved onto the final objective: the Courtyard. This was the bread and butter of Plaza del Sol. At approximately one quarter mile long there were enough shops here to keep me busy all day. I moved with a hurried pace, entering only those shops that inspired curiosity. The first shop that I entered was a super market, wherein lied a most peculiar scene.

I was strolling down the center aisle towards the foods section when I noticed something very familiar to me. A couple, making out in the middle of the aisle. I hesitated only for a moment, so as not to startle them. On a second glance I noticed that they were both wearing similar outfits, nay, identical outfits. Their loving embrace dissolved as they interlocked fingers and casually strode towards the back of the store. They were about ten paces ahead of me when I noticed something else peculiar about their matching dress: they were wearing smocks. This is when it hit me; these two were employees of this store. There were other people wearing the same outfit stocking shelves and giving out samples of mystery meat. I was severly confused and didn’t know whether I should be concerned or delighted that such an event was not uncommon in the public eye.

My mind was bloated with questions, and I had yet to practice any Spanish. I quickly darted into a few more shops before deciding that shopping was not my cup of tea, and decided to find something delicious to eat for lunch. I had been warned about a few of the eateries within Plaza del Sol, which led me to traverse back across the foot bridge and begin walking. I didn’t know where I was going, and I had no idea what I would find; but some unknown force guided me. I walked past block after block of boarded up buildings and thick, overgrown parking lots that had been long-since chained off to the passing cars. Most people would not continue as long as I did, but something told me I was about to discover something. I came around a slight bend in the road and gazed upon what I thought was a forest.

As it turned out, I was looking at a park-like area. This area was encircled by a three lane traffic circle, which was connected to the highway in front of El Presidente. I don’t know how long it had been since anybody had cut the grass, or trimeed any of the trees but the entire area was in terrible condition. I noticed sporadic benches, and piles of litter next to the over flowing trash cans. I followed the flow of traffic around the circle, passing rows of houses and the occasional broken down Volkswagen Beetle. Before I had even traversed half of the circle I saw a sign and immediately recognized the name: “Tacos & Charleys”. I had been informed of this place, but had never learned the location. Somehow I knew that this was the true purpose of my journey. I moved under the over hang and sat at a table right inside the open-air restaurant. I was the only customer, and it was exactly noon. I uttered my first poorly-pronounced phrase of Spanish and ordered a Modelo and the “Especial Charleys”.

I had no idea what to expect, but I didn’t care. I had walked for so long that my stomach was burning with hunger. A bus boy brought me a bowl of tortilla chips, followed by fresh pico de gallo. He came back with guacamole, and a bowl of freshly chopped onions. He came back once again with two bowls of liquid, which appeared to be hot and mild sauces. “Now this is service”, I thought as I watched the cars zip past. Suddenly, to the left something caught my eye. There was a bench in the park area that had one side half sunken into the earth. On this bench two people were seated. They were making out. I was absolutely positive at this point that I was in fact, in the Twilight Zone. How can so many people need to make out in public? Strange indeed, but I didn’t have time to ponder, as my food was ready. To this day I’m still not entirely positive what it was that I had ordered. I received a basket of tiny flour tortillas, and a large plate of assorted meats covered in a thick layer of cheese.

I didn’t hesitate to figure out what I was about to eat, I simply shoveled a spoonful onto a tortilla and devoured it. My senses were delighted with the juicy flavor of steak, coupled with the salty sweetness of ham and the bitterness of sauteed onion, followed by the gooey warmth of sharp and mild cheddar cheeses. On my next helping I added Pico de Gallo, then Guacamole. I tried one with the raw onion, and another with the hot sauce. My tastebuds exploded with pleasure as I downed helping after helping. I was in utter bliss. Suddenly I was overcome by a great sadness. My hunger had subsided, been satiated, and had transitioned to the feeling of being full. I could not eat any more, and I realized my great folly: I didn’t know how to ask for the remainder of my plate to go. :(

I should’ve googled that before I left, but the thought had never crossed my mind. My waiter friend came to the table and asked if I was done. I panicked, terrified at the thought of that wonderful meal going to waste. The waiter saw the terror on my face and briskly walked away from the table. I didn’t need to say anything, for we had connected on another level. He knew that deep inside my soul, I was broken down by allowing this food to be taken away. I polled the back of my mind, reaching deep into the catacombs trying to think of how to say “box” in Spanish. If I could just think of that one word I would be able to mutter something that he could understand. After thirty minutes of staring longingly at my half-finished plate I came up with nothing. I motioned to the waiter for my check, and took one last glance at my food so as to remember its glory.

I paid my check and walked back towards my hotel, lamenting my food with a song of mourning. I felt defeated and lost; as if I had abandoned my own kin. As I sulked through the Hotel lobby and towards the elevator I made a pledge to myself that I would never again let such a splendid thing go to waste. I finally made it back to my room and collapsed onto my bed, weeping for three hours…

Eventually I was able to pull myself together as I headed downstairs to the Olumpus Club Gym on the second floor (11). There were a number of very elderly Mexican gentlemen riding the cardio bikes in the front room. They each wore a pair of white/cream colored slacks, dress shoes, dress belt, and no shirt. Very excellent. Now I know exactly what I’m going to do when I get to be that age. So I did my workout, returned to my room to shower, and proceeded downstairs to catch the evening’s festivities. Mexican Independence day was upon us!

There was a gazebo that had magically replaced the lobby furniture, and behind it stood a marching band. Quietly, they conversed amongst themselves. I could tell that they were rife with excitement, as there seemed to be a buzzing of energy among everybody present. As the clock struck 10:00, a tremendous roar came over the lobby sound system that had been hastily thrown together. It was the noise of a crowd in downtown Guadalajara, being broadcast on the television sets. A priest came out of the bar area followed by two robed men bearing Mexican flags, and they proceeded up the steps into the center of the Gazebo. As the priest turned around to face the small crowd that had shambled away from their drinks the background noise subsided.

He began to speak. He spoke phrases in Spanish that I didn’t full understand, but every phrase began with “Viva …”. The crowd would answer back after every call with “¡Viva!”. Finally, the call-and-answer session ended with three chants of “¡Viva Mexico!”. It was all very moving and powerful. The band started playing and suddenly there were two bar maids, traversing the crowd handing out scotch glasses full of tequila. Not wanting to look like an outsider I eagerly grabbed a glass and held it high above my head. There was something about the energy amongst these people that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. These people truly loved their country, and relished in their culture. As I stood there contemplating the meaning behind this day’s journey I couldn’t help but think to myself: Viva Mexico.

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