A Critical Analysis of the Gringo Trail

gringo-trail-cnn*Photo: Mathew Bennet/CNN

When traveling and living abroad I prefer to eat where locals do–even if it requires negotiation with the servers to obtain something vegan. The outcome is never difficult, as most restaurants have lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, and olives if it doubles as a bar. I once made a meal of bloody mary garnishes and iceberg lettuce. It may seem hardcore, and I feel that way at times–but it’s always empowering on some level. I get the opportunity to fine-tune my Spanish speaking and listening skills while welcoming the challenge to collaborate with the server on a spur-of-the-moment dish that could potentially inspire a recipe on this blog.

I suppose this is why I decided not to dine at Saint Germain Bistro and Cafe. With its black bean hummus and coffee cocktail called the “Pharmaceutical Stimulant” (I kid you not) it seemed too akin to the gringo-catering restaurants I spent years learning not to take seriously. From chichi vegan bistros run by expat yuppies in Guatemala to hookah bar strip club pizza joints in Ecuador, I’ve experienced a lot of the same things that inspired me to leave the USA in the first place. In the past eight years I’ve lived in Mexico and Guatemala and backpacked through the majority of both countries. In between and after those experiences after returning to Oregon to graduate from college, I volunteered in Ecuador and lived/worked on a permaculture-inspired farm that I remember fondly and often regret leaving. I’ve traveled by chicken bus through at least half the countries in Latin America, and despite sitting next to a goat with someone else’s toddler on my boyfriend’s lap and a drunken man twice the age of my father impaling my left shoulder upon every sharp turn made by the bus driver who was engaged in a speed race with the bus driver only several yard behind us–I actually really miss it.

My favorite part about backpacking through the other Americas–once with my former co-worker & friend from Eastern Europe and later with my ex, is the spontaneity. I was raised to think ahead and not live in the moment, with good intentions I imagine, though clearly I failed at fulfilling that dream of my parents after fleeing college partway through and spending my life discovering what actually goes on in Latin America–returning with the capability to more or less skip a grade having developed an understanding of contemporary religious, medicinal, and spiritual practices in the region. I’ve been the bystander at many a quinceañera, wedding reception, shamanistic ceremony, and funeral–in locations ranging from graveyards to personal homes complete with candles of the Virgen de Guadalupe and life-size incarnations of Mayan saints resembling My Size Barbie™ but with more engaging facial features and outfits. And cigars. No class I took in college could have prepared me more adequately to write my capstone, which I now hear is called a thesis at some schools even in cases of bachelor’s degrees.

Occasionally I reflect upon my choice to attend and graduate from a smaller institution that is less prestigious than an ivy league or lesser known than other schools in the pacific northwest. Southern Oregon University might not hold the same prestige as the University of Oregon, but my experience there was worth it and if given the choice i wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t think it matters where you attend school. It matter what opportunities you have, the professors/mentors you work with, and the people you surround yourself with if you even have time for friends with a job on top of school. Transitioning away from that life can be confusing, if not completely paradigm-shifting. This too is material for a subsequent article, so moving on.

Living in a country less affluent than the United states was the antidote to existential angst. I would say the cliche “live in the moment” but that’s far from the truth of my experience. Ask anyone who knows me well: I can’t meditate but yoga seems to work because it doesn’t require sitting still. When engaged in yoga poses, I can focus. It’s my answer to meditation, I suppose.

I often wonder if my inability to meditate stems from certain experiences, such as but not limited to hours spent alone sitting on a bench in Esquintla, the drug trafficking hub of Guatemala where the federal prison is also located, where a bald man approximately my age and covered in prison tats and wearing a wife-beater scared the sh*t out of me until he nudged me and offered me his piece of licorice. I hate licorice, but assumed that if I were to accept it I could distract the potential felon, divert my Esquintla paranoia, and run for it. No such luck. In fact, on the bus the guy was so high that he fell asleep on my shoulder despite my reluctance to talk to him and completely disregarding the unregistered semiautomatic pistol in his pants.

Reverting back to Saint Germain Bistro and Cafe, I don’t know whether or not to write a yelp review or to try out their black bean hummus. The ambience seems nice but reminds me of an establishment in which my driver’s license was stolen by an underage girl in Mexico. Hanging out with eighteen-year-olds on club drugs and Tequila would make me feel like Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused.

I will try Saint Germain at some point. Just not today.

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