Cheap Thrills Away From Home

Nick proudly announces that he’d never paid more than $100 apiece for Broadway tickets. Marty insists that $409 for a single ticket to a single seat for Book of Mormon was a real bargain. That was still above my comfort zone, given that amount’s darn close to a partial pair of Ferragamos. Or a week’s worth of Skechers. Or maybe a sack of items at Sephora. I’ve got my priorities, you know. Debt and the kind of culture that generates reviews in places like The New Yorker just aren’t among them.

I’m not part of the lumpen proletariat, I do have an American Express gold card, have flown first class, have bought a Gucci purse or three, have owned French and Tumi luggage, and always check my baggage, frequently more than a single piece. I’ve never stayed at a hostel or Airbnb, because that’s just too close to camping. I prefer to stay at nice hotels, and if I can’t do as well or better than what I have at home, there’s no point in leaving home.

People are always asking if I caught some high-culture event or ate at some restaurant in TripAdvisor’s top ten when I’ve left home, even those who know me well enough to know what my answer will be. Upon returning from San Miguel de Allende, about 150 miles up the road from home, friends will ask about the great restaurants I ate at, only to roll their eyes when I tell them about the take-out grilled chicken from a roadhouse or a tapas bar at a swank grocery store.

My holidays are filled with regular things, regular meals at regular places, and souvenirs are just as likely to be regular stuff. What did I bring home from my last trip to Medellin? Shelf-stable fruit purees, cotton hand towels, antibiotics, some bar soap, a book about Frida Kahlo’s love affair with Trotsky, and a pair of porcelain monkeys. Plastic storage containers, odd condiments, bobèches, hot pads, wire whisks, hair brushes, eyeliner, and unique kitchen tools have found their way into my baggage on other trips, each bearing a tale guaranteed to bore any listener.

Shopping malls may be dying in the United States, but they’re thriving in Latin America and elsewhere. And they rank among my favorite destinations whenever I’m away from home. I’ll research what shopping malls to hit, because the mall is my version of high culture, a sporting event, and a self-guided tour all rolled into one. Malls are an opportunity to see ordinary people, local folks doing quotidian things, even if sometimes there might be a free concert, seldom lasting more than 20 minutes, which is long enough for musical entertainment anyway. Malls are microcosms of society, town centers, and harbor much more than mere mercantile.  Nail salons, beauty parlors, art exhibits, coffee shops, and nice restaurants beckon. At least one full day will be spent at a mall, no matter where I’m going.

Buenos Aires’ Patio Bullrich, Galerías Pacífico, Paseo Alcorta, Alto Palermo, El Solar de la Abadía. Montevideo’s Punta Carretas Shopping, Town Center in Boca Raton, Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, Queretaro’s Antea Lifestyle Center, The Galleria in Houston, Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, Denver’s Cherry Creek Center, Bogota’s Centro Comercial Andino and Hacienda Santa Barbara. I’d rather spend hours at any one of them (and have) than at the Met or the Getty Center. And advance reservations, long lines and admissions never come into the picture.

Even down-market malls have a certain appeal. The Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional is in the heart of the downtown Medellin harbors an amazing collection of the tackiest merchandise you’ll ever see, but the stores aren’t the point. Because it really did start out as the national palace, you’re really there for the architecture.

Give me a day at El Corte Ingles, and I’m better entertained than I would’ve been at the Prado. Far more exciting than a museum, a wander through Harrods’ Egyptian Hall and Crystal Rooms costs nothing. The architecture of the flagship El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico City is breath-taking. Even high-end drug and dime stores like Boots and Sanborns harbor treasures I know I won’t find at home.

I’m impelled to search out Chinatowns wherever I go: Chicago, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Calgary, London. San Francisco and China don’t have the franchise on Chinatown.

Even grocery stores, ranging from little corner abarrotes, bodegas, kioskos, to supermarkets and all the way up to Carrefour, are mustn’t-miss cultural attractions. It’s fascinating to explore new produce items, puzzle over why the meat department is filled with tons of cured meat, chuckle over the offerings over on the gourmet aisle (Pace picante salsa and hard taco shells, anyone?), gaze upon twelve kinds of quinoa, inspect interesting crackers and cookies.  I’m still sporting shopping bags from Carulla with the same pride that attaches to those from Draeger’s Market and Trader Joe’s.

Always beckoning are antique stores and thrift shops, even more entertaining when I’m on a mission. I shop for monkeys, most often the ones impersonating humans. One friend is always on the prowl for Hawaiian shirts, another for antique brandy snifters, and yet another has yet to see a Breyer horse that she can’t pass up.

Finding yourself in an odd part of town filled with stores you never knew existed – one specializing in belts, another in dog collars, one selling zippers and only zippers, and yet another specializing in cabinet pulls with a door knob store next door—is magic. I’ve taken taxis clear across town to visit a Home Depot-esque places in foreign countries, just to see what’s selling, satisfying my curiosity about what a stove might cost, pawing through the garden department for seeds not sold where I live.

Street vendors call out to me. I rarely buy, but I always gawk. A cure-all made from live snail ooze, battery-operated electric flyswatters, lighted walking sticks, a pistol that shoots soap bubbles, cell phone time, pirated merchandise, sponge rats, fake eyelashes in fantasy colors.

The organ grinder mesmerizes me, always evoking the memory of one I saw years ago with live bear tethered to the organ.

Hippie and flea markets may be the same the world over, all surely run by some worldwide hippie market syndicate that prescribes the essentials: candles, soap, odd oils and potions, incense, chocolates, tisanes, herbal remedies, musical instruments made out of gourds by political prisoners, patchouli and El Condor Pasa wafting through the air, indigenous clothing, and some craft made from recycled materials like vinyl records or wooden lasts.

There’s a blessing somewhere for those fortunate to watch a living statue set up at the beginning of a shift and deconstructed at the end.

And then there are the hardcore markets: Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antiques market, which means donning combat clothing, checking anything of value back at the hotel. These are living, breathing museums where all sorts of treasures are for sale.

I don’t understand why people take guided tours when striking out on your own is so much more fun. There’s no cheaper and more interesting way to see a city than by hopping on a commuter train or bus and riding to the end of the line or until boredom sets in and then dovetailing back.

Sunday tango in the streets of San Telmo, a Cuban a capella concert in Merida, a dog show in Sevilla, the juggler playing a harmonica while riding a unicycle in Amsterdam, and a bazaar of new designs and a clown workshop in Bogota all provided lasting memories without costing a dime. Even right here in my hometown of Morelia, fascinating and free entertainment abounds. Grown people, some of them even doctors and lawyers, painting designs on fabric, the stuff I’d roll my eyes at, at least until I realized the participants, chatting away, and having a great time doing what they were doing, left me happier just for watching them. Orchid shows, caporeia exhibitions, dancing horses from Apatzingan, and the Sunday art market in Parque Las Rosas, and book fairs compete for my attention.

And then there’s the matter of eating. Too many friends plan their travel by restaurants and TripAdvisor ratings, and I’ve even accompanied them on those jaunts, forced to stand in line for the opportunity to shed far more money than the dining experience warranted.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to eat, and I like to eat well. I just resist planning and spending outrageous sums of money.

Now, I’m no fan of food trucks or street food, and where I can comfortably plant my derriere is just as important as what goes down my gullet. It’s not all about the cheap; it’s more about the timing and convenience. The rest is just serendipity.

A cup of regular black coffee served in a china cup, along with a domino cookie, for less than a dollar in a sidewalk café populated mostly by city hall employees in Envigado. A Monday meatloaf special in a New Orleans diner of no memorable name. The best cochinita pibil in Merida, located just by asking two lawyers on their smoke break where they would have an ordinary lunch. Those great and incredibly inexpensive meals are still fondly remembered more than some expensive repast at a destination venue like Commander’s Palace or The Russian Tea Room (which I dearly loved for the décor).

When I’m traveling, just as at home, my main meal is midday. The menú turístico (tourist menu) has never let me down, and it’s usually an opportunity to enjoy several courses at a fixed price for far less than a la carte. Upscale grocery stores usually have a deli with an eating area, often a great opportunity to pick up something tasty for a light supper. I’ve enjoyed duck tacos, Lebanese platters, Peruvian ceviches, and pastel de choclo from grocery store takeout.

Food fairs, gatherings of regional cooks, celebrations of traditional cuisine, even charity barbecues have served up great food at affordable prices, and each of those was even better, because I’d just stumbled upon those events.

Even for those who aren’t fast food franchise fans at home, McDonald’s in Lima and Pizza Hut in Madrid command visits for intercultural exploration, fueling their passion more than Astrid y Gaston and Botín.

That Swarovski-encrusted car at Centro Comercial Andino in Bogota remains far more vivid in my mind that any Bruegel art, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Kinky Friedman more appealing than Phillip Glass. Call me easily entertained.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

One comment on “Cheap Thrills Away From Home

  1. Steve Cotton says:

    “High-end drug and dime stores.” I am stealing that phrase.

    Liked by 1 person

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