I am attracted to hostels by the opportunity they offer to meet other travelers – driving solo several thousand miles can be a bit lonely – and they give me access a kitchen, mostly to make tea. There are typically one or more hostels in larger tourist destinations and most offer private rooms which I take – I don’t think I could handle sleeping in a dorm, nor would I want to expose fellow travelers to my nocturnal trumpeting.
The hostel in Chihuahua is in a quiet residential neighborhood just off the freeway where I have scrambled conversations with two middle aged French women, one from Provence and the other from Nice. They are huddled with two Mexicans around a cluster of 40s (Carta Blanca – a Mexican beer) at a patio table. As the French travelers know no Spanish and the Mexicans’ French is limited to saying “bonjour” – which they do with gusto every few minutes – they use Google translate to chat and call out to me for occasional help.
The host appears mysteriously, I hear a baby crying, the heat of the day is dissipating. We find a spot to park my car securely in a lot behind the hostel, he then disappears. One of the Spanish speakers is from East LA and is down here building custom homes and carries himself with the pride and self confidence of someone who knows both cultures, and has survived – thrived even – in a very rough part of the City of Angels.
As best I can tell, the second Mexican is from Guadalajara where he has a small ranch. He designs signage for businesses and proudly shows me several photos of his work The Carta Blanca sets in making his sentences somewhat difficult to parse but deepening the sense of universal brotherhood and the bonds of instant friendship that he feels. We are now closest friends – he wants me to visit him and ride horses – we share contact information that I know will never be used. Indeed, I misplace the information scribbled on a napkin later that evening.
The next morning, looking a little worse for wear, my signage friend clearly remembers nothing of our prior conversation and treats me with a distant politeness.
The hostels have a loose, slightly shambolic, and very welcoming feel that I remember from more youthful travels. Some kitchens are well equipped, others lean: one had two steak knives that counted for vegetable chopping; another had a fridge that looked like it was used in biome growth experiments. Sometimes the fridge is carefully signed to keep it clear of aging food, which makes me almost nostalgic for years spent in an office (“clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here.”). A Mexican student is working on a meal that has a brutalist feel: one where nuance, flavor or technique are unimportant, simple protein and carbs are.
Design savvy or taste is not carefully observed: my room is austerely furnished and lit with cool white energy saving lamps that give my face a corpse-like pallor and the room a prison-like feel. Next up at Ikea: “Prison Chic.”
An Australian software developer has been stranded here for more than a year because of Covid, he is now looking at technical charts for cryptocurrency trading, implying that this is how he invests his money. Yikes! I thought that “Charting” – where analysts would pore over stock trading charts (in paper) to look for patterns (“This double hump indicates the potential for a big rally next week.”) – went the way of two hour, three martini lunches 30 years ago. The process had no basis in financial analysis or economic theory: perhaps powerful analytics and the use of AI have given the practice new life.
A guy from Colombia got out of the country when things got difficult, both with Covid and attendant political instability after taxes were disastrously raised on staples while many people were unemployed. We speak Spanish but it is clear he finds it tortuous; he gets on a call via his laptop and speaks absolutely fluent English with an American accent. He is providing sales support for an American real estate company, trying to get folks stateside to sell their properties. Another real estate bubble is brewing.
A central court opens to the sky, birds in the early morning flit about and the sound of church bells that ring simply and clearly; a reminder that I am in Mexico.
A quiet, slim woman eating granola while hunched over her laptop. I chat with a woman who speaks fluent Spanish and English with an accent. She is Romanian, lived in Montreal and now runs a small business making paletas (popsicles) in Playa del Carmen, where I will meet Jennifer in a couple of weeks. She hadn’t intended to do this but was casting about for a way to make a little money while there and happened on these as a treat that locals and tourists alike enjoy. Paletas originated in Michoacan and are made in dozens of flavors (I saw ones made with avocado the other day), and are sold all over the country.
Maurice, in a crumpled t shirt and slumped on an overstuffed couch looks about my age and not 100% convivial – I try him with a couple of comments about travel in Spanish, then French, then English. He opens up. He is from Quebec and worked as a pastry chef in a gold mine in Nunavut (Canada’s high arctic) for his entire career; he was downsized 4 years ago with a package and has been traveling since then. “The company pays me. I don’t have a wife or children so I travel. I call my sister every 3 months to let her know I am still alive.” It isn’t clear what is driving Maurice’s travels: he expresses no interest in the countries he’s visited and hostels are for him, above all, economical. People, cultures, food, locations do not figure in our conversation; perhaps if I had baked pastries for 30 years in some wind scoured Northern outpost my imagination would be similarly constrained.
Two Quebecoise are chattering away by video with a friend back home. An Englishman is discussing his friends with strangers in a solid Manchester accent Three French strangers are having a thorough, intense, discussion that could only be had by they and their countrymen (I cannot make out details but it has deep feelings and opinions – definitely not about the latest college sports scores or why one does yoga over Pilates.)
At the reception desk, a gaggle of earnest, Northern Europeans are dissecting their next travel move. They are sensibly dressed with just a hint of style (let’s not get carried away.) and are speaking English. Their leader, an older woman, has a German accent and seems just a tad more dutiful that the rest.
A cleaning lady arrives and starts quietly working around us. Rubber gloves, fast, efficient mopping, the smell of Fabuloso, a strong smelling all-Mexican cleaner. Now, a tinny radio is playing Mexican pop music in a room above us; she is quietly singing along. Time to hit to the toll road South.