Same Place, Next Year

The urge to fill my passport with more stamps than the person standing in line next to me might have had at immigration is over. I’m done with seeking out new places to visit. The days of thinking others might be impressed by what’s on my passport or a recitation of the number of countries I’ve visited are long over.

While that may mean that I’ll never see Vietnam, China and New Zealand, there’s still plenty of desire and opportunity to go back to places I’ve been to before. And that’s just what I do, returning time and again to the same place.

No longer is there the need to venture to far-flung corners of the globe to buy shoes of Spanish leather and Middle Eastern cooking tools and ingredients. All of that’s readily available, even at 3 a.m., courtesy of the Internet. Even biber salçası, the Turkish red pepper paste, and Lipton Yellow Label tea are available from Mercado Libre, Mexico’s version of eBay and Amazon. The department store sells purses made in Italy, French-made bras and Czech tchotchkes. Lebanese halvah and Polish chocolates can be had at the grocery store.

It didn’t happen overnight. It might’ve started with circumscribing my travel world to places where the people looked like me. That ruled out most of Asia, most of Africa, and most of northern Europe. Then I’d narrow it down to countries where the people spoke Spanish. Or maybe it didn’t.

It might’ve happened because I like to conserve time, energy, and money, which are in increasingly short supply. It might’ve happened because the older I get, the more I like to cut to the chase.

But the real motivating factor was none of the above. I wanted to go deeper, learning more about my destinations than If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. I wanted to use what I’d learned from previous visits, avoiding vaunted attractions not worth my time, peeling back layers, and going beyond. I wanted to own that destination, if only in my own mind.

My world didn’t shrink. It just became more concentrated.

Each time you return, you’re upgraded, just like those people who keep returning to Las Vegas. The upgrade might be physical — to a suite from a standard room at a hotel or a better table than someone just walking in off the street for the first time might snag — but the upgrade can also be mental, just because you know your way around a little better the second, third or sixth time around. A few times around the block, you’re no longer at your first rodeo.

The deer in the headlights look of a tourist gives way to acting like you know where you’re going.

There is something about visiting the same museums over and over again, each time taking them in through a different lens. Of course, there are always those temporary exhibits, but it’s always refreshing to revisit what you’ve seen before in the permanent collection. Las Meninas, housed at Museo del Prado in Madrid, looks much different at the age of 60 than it did when you were in your thirties. I can’t get enough Fernando Botero, no matter where his work appears. Each time I return to gaze at a Diego Rivera mural at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, I see more and different details not evident the time before. And you never know what’s newly in stock at the museum store.  But then I’m also a huge fan of museum cafes and restaurants.

The vendors at the Sunday flea market in Usaquen, a Bogota neighborhood, recognize me. And so did hotel bell staff at Diez Hotel in Medellin. I’ve learned which vendors at La Lagunilla Sunday morning antiques market sell pukka and which sell factory-fresh family heirlooms.

Not more than an hour after settling in, I’m at a café, pretending that it’s my usual haunt. In my mind, I’m a local.

A decade or so ago, I would spend a few days in Uruguay, returning a year later. The first time left me baffled, because it wasn’t as expected, having sort of an old, forgotten feeling about it all, a general sameness, not unlike old and yellowed linen from someone’s grandmother’s closet. But all of that gnawing feeling would draw me back a year later, when I found myself enjoying it for what it wasn’t. The sepia landscape of the year before was still not the technicolor of Buenos Aires, but it was also an oasis of calm, Argentine pretense erased. This time around, it made sense.

“Why are you going to Mexico again? You’ve been there so many times before. Why not go to Hawaii or on a cruise?”

Are my odd habits really any different from those who’ll visit Disneyland or Disney World year after year or who return to that same old cabin on Golden Pond?

I bask in the familiarity of it all. And assurance that things will be the same. You return to Whole Foods and a favorite restaurant in your own town over and over again. You might go to Chicago three times a year, seeking out the same Greektown restaurant and revisiting the same steakhouse. Why, there are even people who’ve been known to watch Turandot multiple times.

Once you’ve traveled a fair amount, you realize that the world’s all the same, but different, and the oner of travel just isn’t worth it. Comfort supplants adventure.

Never having been to Hawaii, at least not until I was well-settled in Mexico, nor having been on a cruise since the time we crossed the Atlantic in search of America on MV Britannic in the 1950s, I would return to Mexico several times a year. Landing in Mexico City, staying at the Camino Real Polanco, I would have my hair done at George the Jordanian’s beauty shop like the fancy ladies. There was no need to get out a map or even ask directions to Liverpool and El Palacio de Hierro. And I already knew my way around Chapultepec Park.

An airline strike one winter sent me driving to Mexico, which then became habit, and before long, I would find myself spending ten days or so several times a year at the Hotel Villa Montaña in Morelia.

And before you knew it, one thing led to another, which made all those repeat trips to Mexico so very worth it: I get to live here.

Recovering big-time gonzo labor lawyer Jim Karger, a denizen of San Miguel de Allende for the two decades last past, sums it all up in his blog, Slouching into Oblivion:

Travel is overrated. Most people travel not to experience new places but to talk about their experiences, or what they wish their experiences had been. Travel is a status symbol like a Mercedes. No one cares what you drive and they also don’t care where you have been.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2022, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

4 comments on “Same Place, Next Year

  1. Chris stone says:

    I was a single parent and loved more than anything to travel. Since we didn’t have much money, there were many “mommy dearist” moments. Like when we got were stuck in Copper Canyon because we missed the train and there was not enough money to get back. We made it with the help of strangers and funny thing is, my son wrote about that trip in high school describing the best trip ever. I’m guessing the teacher cringed when he wrote about the “nice Mexican doctor” that got us back to the border.

    Fast forward… I don’t know why I didn’t travel much (except Mexico) after they became adults.. I finally visited Europe at 65. Now I have the bug and want to see everything while I can walk without a walker. Not looking for notches on my belt. I love seeing different places. I see life better. I do get your point about visiting the same place again. The first time is just a sample.

    Not all of us are storing up boring snapshots of every meal and bowel movement for Facebook when we travel. Travel enriches me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sararose says:

    Brilliant memoir. . . really. It expresses what I have come to call: The Pause: incandescent moments of landing deeply in the experience of a place we love. In The Pause we become part of that place, part of its atmosphere. In The Pause we give up all of our needs and expectations so we can land in the arms of something truly authentic. And then we become the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kim G says:

    It’s interesting that you write about travel. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m at the age (earliest possible 60s) where I should be doing more of it. Yet here in Mexico City, while it’s increasingly familiar, still has enough of the exotic that I feel like I’m in permanent travel. Also, Europe, aside from the wonderful buildings and history, is increasingly, I don’t know, not what it used to be? In many ways it’s not unlike the USA, rich, efficient, rule-bound. And in other ways, it seems to be a culture that’s losing itself. Like they no longer believe that Mozart, DaVinci, Michelangelo, or any of the other greats of European culture are something to be revered. It’s rather sad, really.

    In the 90s, I spent some fair amount of time in London. My brother worked there as an expat, and from Boston it was a relatively cheap flight. Now? I’m a little afraid of what I’ll see. Wasn’t it John Cleese who was so roundly criticized for noting that London is no longer particularly British?

    Some day I’d love to see Colombia. Or Peru. An old friend married a beautiful Peruvian, much younger than him. He moved to Lima to be with her, but now, a couple of years later, he can’t stand Lima and is moving back to Pittsburgh. So I won’t be able to meet up with him there.

    Oh well. Cheers,

    Kim G
    Roma Sur, CDMX
    Where everything is an adventure.


  4. Sararose says:

    It’s noteworthy that the travel bug has stopped biting a lot of people since covid. Also, unlike lawyer Jim, I love to learn about exotic places and experiences from friends. Stories are wonderful when told by people you hold dear. Gabby strangers, not so much.


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