We have not read anything about this town prior to our arrival, so it comes as something of a shock to find ourselves in what is clearly a popular tourist destination at the end of a hot and dusty morning. The streets are clean, and the buildings freshly painted in bright colours, with attractively lettered signs hanging outside their doors, often in English. An array of cafés stands around the central square, chairs and tables outside in the sunshine. Gringo cafés, with gringo food at gringo prices.
Ah well. Might as well make the most of it. It could be nice to eat something other than a huge pile of rice and a tiny scrap of salad, which seems to be my usual lot in life these days.
We walk around the square, looking for a café that takes our fancy. A beggar approaches, and reaches out and touches my hip as he asks for money. I am hot, tired, dirty and hungry and this is too much. “No me toque” I say, annoyed, don’t touch me, and walk away.
He follows us, and this time very deliberately reaches out, grabs my hip and squeezes, hard. I’m furious, and yell it at him “No me toque!” as I push him away. Immediately I cringe as I hear the unaccustomed loudness of my voice, screeching at this beggar in this quiet street. I feel the eyes on me, eyes of clean and well dressed tourists, who are no doubt kindly inclined towards beggars, eyes that have witnessed my response but not the provocation. I flush with embarrassment.
The beggar gives up on me (I am clearly not a nice person) and approaches a couple at a table in the nearest café. “Oh the poor thing, he’s hungry” the woman says in a broad Australian accent, and gives him her plate of leftovers. He crouches on the ground and scoops the food into his mouth with his bare hands as quickly as he can. My flush deepens, and I consider moving to a different café. But the menu looks good, and I really am hungry.
We take a seat at the next table and study the menu. The beggar moves off and the conversation, in English, begins to drift our way. An Australian woman and an American man, waxing lyrical about the benefits of travel and the beauties of this place. They are discovering themselves through the blend of yoga, meditation and healthy food on offer here. They discuss diet, and in particular its role in the prevention and treatment of cancer. They approve of quinoa and organic vegetables; they disapprove of dairy products. They agree that eating the right minerals is far superior to conventional medicine and its poisons in the battle against cancer.
All this while both of them puff away on their cigarettes.
My Oncologist husband rolls his eyes at me and I feel myself bristle with irritation, but somehow we just can’t tune these people out. Normally, we eat in cheap local restaurants, where the surrounding conversation is a buzz of Spanish. We might catch some of it if we really concentrate, but we are certainly never in danger of accidentally overhearing. This is different. Every annoying word, spoken in our native tongue, penetrates. We are by now really quite unused to this, and it renders us completely incapable of holding our own conversation.
The food is good, but not great, and I am not sure it’s worth it. When we’re done we pay and leave, glad to be back on our bikes and heading away from what feels like an unpleasant interlude in an entirely foreign land.
I for one will be happy to get back to rice and salad…. particularly if it comes with an unintelligible hum for background noise.