A Year of Moments

I could get used to hiking here.

I couldn’t stop staring at it.

There I was, Jan. 1, 2013, 3:24 a.m., watching Goonies on the couch of a girl I’d met earlier in the evening. She was witty and cute, but I failed to ascertain her stance on tacos–a mistake I would repeat in 2013. But in the glow of her Christmas tree I noticed something I hadn’t spotted previously. There was some sort of growth on the corner of her mouth. Is that a cold sore? Why did I blackout everything from sex ed? Can I avoid kissing that side of her mouth? Will I go immediately to hell when I die?

“I should head home,” I said after the movie ended. I put my shoes back on, thanked her and gave her a hug. Then I picked up my gym bag, the very bag I stared at for at least a minute while debating whether or not to bring it with me. It functions as a sleepover party bag, replete with sexy items like flannel pajama pants, contact solution, and a toothbrush. With my bag slung over my shoulder, I headed down the stairs and into the frigid morning air.

When you start a year driving home alone at 3:30 a.m., you know you’re in store for a special year.

I’ve never been one for resolutions. Instead I opt for more ambiguous goals. The kind that aren’t specific or measurable. This year’s goal was simple: Do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t. There will always be things we don’t want to do, but have to anyway. Dishes ranks highly on this list. (Note: I will wed someone solely for their willingness to always do the dishes.) Looking back at all the food I made and ate, all the places I visited, and all the things I achieved and learned, 2013 was a fine year.

Food

Overall, there were a ton of great moments and a slew of firsts. A few days after fleeing in the early morning, I was featured in the Daily Herald not for jerk of the week, but as Cook of the Week. Naturally, I shared that on every social network ever created. Once the press requests simmered down, I returned to normalcy. But that week gave me a glimpse of what it must be like for all my friends with kids when they post a picture of their baby.

In other food news, a rep from Plated, a New York-based food delivery company, found my blog and contacted me about trying out their service. After a few emails and conversations, I got two boxes of food for my first dinner party. The menu: BBQ Chicken Burgers with zucchini fries and Shrimp & Grits. I had won a wine tasting earlier in the year and combined the two for a great night of food, wine and stories with friends.

Kale safely wins new ingredient of the year. I started buying it this summer and there was no turning back. I tried several new dishes; coq au vin may be my favorite. I also became a roux master, turning fond into phenomenal pan sauces. Thanksgiving was my responsibility this year, and short of needing salt, the smoked turkey was delicious and the mashed potatoes whipped to perfection. According to the photographic evidence, I consumed/inhaled a burrito a week.

Frolicking

I was fortunate to be able to travel to a lot of new places, and revisit some favorites. I spent my birthday running up a sand dune in Michigan, sunning myself like an iguana, and racing back to the beach to see the sun dissolve into Lake Michigan. Shortly after that, I left the U.S. for the first time! Somehow I managed to visit our incredibly friendly neighbors to the north in Canada and the welcoming folks in Mexico. I already wrote about most of these adventures, but after reflecting, some of my favorite moments were hiking in the unrivaled beauty of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. It was someplace I likely would never have known about or gone to, were it not for my friend Rebecca. That leg of the trip also included staying in a yurt and canoeing, both firsts. I also saw the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls. Both places reminded me of how much beauty there is in this world. No matter how much I love cities, I have always found being near water incredibly restorative.

In September, I packed my bags for another getaway, heading west with my girlfriend. We managed to cover 550 miles in one week from Napa, Calif., all the way south to Rosarito, Mexico. Thanks to a tip from a Stanford student, I witnessed the most breathtaking vista I’ve ever seen, and that includes driving through Indiana. I thought Niagara and Canada were beautiful, but this spot, high on a hill 30 minutes from Palo Alto was nirvana. Stunningly gorgeous. And we sprinted up a trail just in time to see the sun descend into the clouds and Pacific Ocean. Those are moments I hope never to forget.

Fitness

This was also a great year for physical fitness. According to RunKeeper, I logged 133 miles of physical activity–running, cycling, hiking. I entered my first race–the BigTen 5k/10k. My shins were still bothering me from my training, so I opted to walk the 5k and finished in just a tad more than 40 minutes. I ran the fastest mile of my life (7:40ish). Then I doubled over and questioned the meaning of life. Strength-wise I worked up to being able to do 10 wide-grip pull-ups, as well as adding weight in all other muscle groups. I can bench press about 70% of my weight with dumbbells. All of this is a credit to persistence and sugar-laced protein bars.

I also danced a ton, improving my lindyhop and adding balboa to my swing dance repertoire. Sadly, fitness apps don’t track dancing.

I’ve been on vacation the past few weeks and spent an intensive week doing hot yoga before Christmas. Intense seems too weak an adjective. I wish they had a scale so I would know how much water weight I left on the mat. How much does dignity weigh? All that quiet time coupled with reading articles on self-improvement enabled me to deeply reflect on some events in 2013 and in my life. Normally I avoid looking back or looking ahead. I strongly believe that all we have is now, and dwelling on what was and what could be are a waste of thought. Inevitably as the remaining days on the calendar dwindle, I cannot quiet the urge to reflect.

Feelings

There were two main learning opportunities this year, and, with time, I have become grateful for both. The first was purchasing a condo. I have been looking for a residence, be it a hovel, condo, or house, for the past three years. At long last, I found a spacious one bedroom in an area of town where I wouldn’t be shot. I was excited at the prospect of increased independence and decorating my own place (clothes and magazines everywhere). The property was bank-owned and the bank was in no rush to unload it. I grew impatient and ended up rescinding my offer. Doing so meant forfeiting a decent sum of money. I read an article in Harvard Business Review about how successful leaders view and deal with loss. Those that cut their losses and move forward, saw it not as a loss, but as a chance to capitalize on another opportunity. That’s how I chose to view my situation. Later in the summer, I saw another condo that I loved. I felt much differently about this place than the one that was “good enough.” I liked it so much, I ended up putting an offer on it twice. My first offer wasn’t accepted and the person they picked wasn’t able to secure financing. Since my life isn’t yet a movie, neither of my offers were accepted. But I learned the value of not settling. If nothing else, I discovered what it felt like to really love a place.

The second big lesson was a variation on my first, but instead of a place it involved a person. After a few months of dating and our trip to California, my girlfriend decided to see someone else. Much like the condo situation, I learned what it felt like to truly love someone. Shortly thereafter, I discovered what it felt like to be deeply disappointed with someone. I had hoped for a different future for the two of us, but we weren’t meant to be.

In most of my relationships, I have the tendency of suppressing or not expressing my needs or wants. When asked what I needed, I simply responded to either be accepted or loved. In retrospect, I skipped over the easier fundamental needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. At this stage of my life, I’m self-sufficient. I don’t need food or housing (unless you know about a condo). What I’m after are those more elusive qualities like unconditional acceptance. That takes time and isn’t as easy as cooking someone dinner.

My takeaway was more introspection and resolving to be more vocal about boundaries. Much like Harry’s line in When Harry Met Sally:

You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance.

Often I get disappointed with friends or loved ones when they don’t do as I hoped. But the flaw in this setup is that I don’t communicate expectations. If I don’t tell someone what I expect, I shouldn’t be disappointed if they aren’t psychic. This serves as a self-defense mechanism. I can dismiss people who act counter to how I would’ve liked them to act. This leads to a false sense of superiority and empowerment. I feel in control by deeming someone not my friend or unimportant to me because they didn’t act like I would or how I would like them to act.

In 2014, I would like to improve a few things. I want to be more accepting of people; to take them as they are and not to be upset if they don’t act as I would like. Second, to share my expectations. My best friend shared the old adage, “People treat you how you allow them to.” To continue to build on this year’s goal of doing more of what I love, that includes developing existing relationships.

It’s been a year.

I declare 2014 the year of MORE. While others are looking to scale back, I will be ramping up. More dancing. More traveling. More cooking. More new experiences. And more living!

The Rocinante of Rosarito

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That’s me.

On a horse.

In Mexico.

If you’re imagining this as the cover of a romantic novel you’d find in the checkout line, stop. I’d like to be delusional and claim that the site of me topless on a beach would cause women to swoon, but after our model scout Tony didn’t mention a need for my patchy tan and slightly rounded features, I’ve accepted my fate as a normal guy. There is one good note though. I didn’t hear any shrieks from the women and children. Full disclosure: we pretty much had the beach to ourselves except for the wandering mariachi band which would’ve masked their screams.

Continue reading The Rocinante of Rosarito

Llévame a los Tacos!

fish taco

mexico, travel, tijuanaThere comes a time in every man’s life when he’s standing at a border. On one side, safety and predictability; on the other, risk and new experiences. If any of you had read my online dating profile, you may recall that I wrongfully claimed I “loved variety” and “new experiences.”

In my case, my border was the legitimate border between the US and Mexico. Conservatively, I have been warned no less than 17 times about going to Tijuana.

“There are men with guns!” my aunt had cautioned.

“It’s filthy,” someone else said.

“Watch your wallet…Don’t take anything you wouldn’t be comfortable leaving in Mexico.”

I looked at my new iPhone for a good minute. Then tucked it in my pocket.

After visiting vineyards in Sonoma and almond orchards in Bakersfield, we were one grow house away from completing the agricultural trifecta.

While planning the trip, we looked at a map and the proximity of Mexico. We can skip over my undying love for Mexican food. The prospect of getting my first passport stamp was also alluring. Plus, we had a half day free to explore. All those tortilla chips started to tip the scale.

The day started meeting Toussaint, a med student in the area, for breakfast. I’d already eaten, since my threshold for sustenance is six minutes after waking up. I ordered a bagel and everyone else got oatmeal. We shared our plan to cross the border and asked about safety. Our breakfast companion, originally from the Dominican Republic, said it’s fine during the daytime, but warned that coming back across the border could take hours via car.

While eating Michelle’s unguarded bowl of oatmeal, I said it might be my last meal and I didn’t know how long they’d hold me in a Mexican prison. Toussaint possesses a laugh that fills a room. It’s more than a laugh. Almost a guffaw. I’d credit the acoustics of the colorful café in Chula Vista, but I’m rather certain his sincere, bellowing crescendo of a laugh would fill even the most boisterous environment.

It has been confirmed by nearly all my friends that I wouldn’t fare well in prison. Let alone an international prison where the only words I know are for la comida. My best shot of survival would be ingratiating myself with a cell mate involved in food service.

We finished potentially our last meal and went to pay the check. The waiter had a perfectly manicured beard and a baseball hat on backwards. Displaying our uncertainty about the adventure, we also asked him about crossing the border. He advised to park the car on the US side, facing North and to cross the border on foot.

Perhaps my brain has been influenced by nightly new footage, but I envisioned the border being a large fence with barbed wire. Instead the border was a large cement wall. Perhaps there was barbed wire at the top. But the only barrier to leaving the US was a metal revolving gate, like one you’d see at your high school track. Yes. Yes, it is that easy to leave the US.

My first sight once in Mexico? Two men with riffles. I’m guessing they are riffles. They were big and I’m nearly certain they weren’t water guns. A very small part of me hoped there would be a welcoming committee with tortas and tacos. Didn’t someone tell them me and mi estomago were coming?

¡Bienvenidos Tijuana! My first impression was that Mexico was like a more rundown version of a fringe neighborhood in Chicago. I felt like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny when he arrives in the south. I know I stuck out. Sadly, I never learned how to say “Oh shit” en español. There was an armada of cabs just past the border. Fortunately for me, Michelle is fluent in Spanish. I’m normally verbose but the surefire way to make me go mute is to take me to a land where I don’t speak the language. The cab drivers had matching uniforms and reminded me of ticket scalpers. Meech negotiated the rate and we hopped in the cab.

Now I know where cars from the ’80s go to die.

Everyone who had a shop or a cab tried to get us to spend our money with them. For $5, the driver took us to downtown Tijuana. It was a strange experience. I didn’t totally feel like I was in another country and it certainly wasn’t Canada. Maybe it was the fact that I was able to walk right in.

Once in downtown TJ, we walked around and I took in the sights and smells. The shops were a rotation of bar, tourist/t-shirt shop, discounted drugs, and taqueria. For some reason the smells also cycled between food and feces/garbage.

We made our way to la iglesia. Prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for safety were in order. For the middle of a Thursday afternoon, there were a fair amount of people inside the open-air church. It had a lot more statues of saints and a ton more candles. There was one corner that housed a statue behind glass. Surrounding the statue were black and white pictures of women. The flyers were for people that are missing.

We returned to the streets and went into a photography museum. The exhibit highlighted scenes from Mexico’s battle for independence, with military generals posing. One man had a face that screamed, “Don’t even think of putting this on Instagram!”

After all that tourist activity, I was in need of some fuel. What would a trip to Mexico be without food? Earlier in the day we had asked what the exchange rate was so we had an idea what things cost. The taqueria offered three tacos for the equivalent of $1. ME GUSTA! TODOS TACOS! We had a sampling of pollo, carne asada y pescado. Now I can say I’ve had tacos tradicional.

Our final stop in TJ was a little coffee shop. I’d gotten my fix on tacos, now it was Michelle’s turn. Since she knew the language, she started conversing with the barista. Show off! Another man was seated behind us in the small, but cozy café. Meech had mentioned that it was my first trip to Mexico and they started discussing Tijuana.

We joined Tony Barragan at his table. He had his laptop, a cup of coffee and his Blackberry resting atop a book. He asked me if I spoke Spanish and I told him I understand it but don’t speak it that well. Kindly, he started speaking in English. He urged us to go to Rosarito to get a better impression of Mexico than Tijuana. Tony gave us specific instructions on where to go and how much it should cost. He was our Mexican Jeremy! Instead of the wiggle, Tony advised us on cabs to Rosarito Beach.

But before we left, we talked with Tony for nearly an hour. We learned about his life and how he became a model scout. He started ditching school and would design window displays. One of the standout moments of the entire trip was when he told us about a model he discovered while walking the streets of TJ. Tony spotted a man washing cars. “And he was gorg-eous.” Tony went up to him and informed him that he was a model scout and he wanted him to come to his office to take some shots. The car washer was aggressive toward Tony and ignored his offer. But the he ended up showing up to Tony’s office when he was told. Tony took some shots and an agency in New York was interested in seeing the newly discovered model. Tony told them he wasn’t ready, but they insisted. Reluctantly, Tony sent him. Once setup in New York, the model was to go to meetings at the agency. While walking around New York, he saw a sign at a construction site looking for workers. In exchange for a day’s work, he would receive $100. He ended up working at the site and not going to his meetings.

The agency reached out to Tony sharing their displeasure. Once the model was back in Mexico he met with Tony and said how the accommodations weren’t good enough for him. At this point, Tony mimed taking off earrings and tucking them in his shirt before executing a perfect Z snap.

After some training and polishing, that car washer is now traveling the globe and will be walking in a show in Milan.

Sadly, neither of us stood out to be global models. But Tony gave us his phone number in case we got into any trouble. We stepped outside  and Michelle asked me what we should do. I mentally went through how much cash we had. We weighed our options, checked the time, then got in a yellow van for Rosarito.