What getting lost on a business trip to Mexico can teach you about taking chances
Author & Images: Joe Boroi
Editor’s Note: We would like to welcome Joe Boroi as the first official correspondent for 55 Cities. He’s a raconteur and published author, a fearless jack of all trades and war veteran, a historian and general font of worldly knowledge. He will be sharing stories of his life and times on the road as a consultant and traveler, and we are excited to add his unique voice and perspective to the stories here at 55 Cities.
In this installment, we find Joe ruminating on the psychology of solo business travel while wandering the streets and neighborhoods of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico during a business trip, and find out what exactly it means to “get out of your comfort zone” while traveling alone.
There is a mindless trap to fall into when it comes to eating on the road. This is especially true when you travel for work. It’s easy to let long hours or jet lag hold you back from a good solid meal as a craving for convenience takes over. The brain seeks out the familiar and looks for the path of least resistance. Taking the time to find a great watering hole or place to sit down and break bread builds camaraderie among team members, but more importantly, may help you to better understand the culture, customs, and motivations of your location. Food is as much an art as it is a science and when you experience it or immerse yourself in new tastes or smells, it can inspire great things.
A foreign place can feel paralyzing. When you’re alone, it’s easy to let a new environment hold you back from exploring your surroundings. If you’ve hit the road alone, you know that it’s very easy to see how a lone wolf traveler can start to feel like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, “Lost in Translation”. Feeling vulnerable in a new place only makes it more desirable to isolate yourself from the world. Often, the comfort that goes along with playing it safe or eating what you know coincides with a desire to isolate yourself from anything new.
“A foreign place can feel paralyzing. Often the comfort that goes along with playing it safe or eating what you know coincides with a desire to isolate yourself from anything new.”
As a consultant, I have been racking up airline miles for more than a decade. Before that, I spent years living or traveling abroad as a member of the armed forces. No matter how often I leave the world I call home, sometimes it’s still hard to step outside of my comfort zone when it comes to food.
I’ve always found that it helps to travel with the right people. Friends that instigate or push you to be bold. Some of my fondest memories of project work or recreational excursions in a foreign place center around food related experiences. More often than not, those moments began when the people I was with pushed me to do something I wouldn’t otherwise have done. I am not a guy who is going to track down bush meat from a local market or sit down for a traditional Ethiopian meal, but I am the guy who isn’t going to say no to an evening out with friends and colleagues. When my friends want to head out to explore the local food scene, I’m right behind them. That said, travel has really pushed the boundary of my palate over the years. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that those experiences are always positive. A friend of mine returning from a village in Indonesia once brought with him an entire bag of dried, edible sea life to a cabin we rented in upstate New York. I tried it all, but I can tell you now that hardly anything he made us that night will appear in my pantry anytime soon.
“A friend of mine returning from a village in Indonesia once brought with him an entire bag of edible sea life to a cabin we rented in upstate New York.”
Here’s the thing about traveling for work. Maybe I’m an anomaly, but the more you do it, the less you worry about the little things. Lines, waits, delays and disruption become just a part of the game. There’s a complacency that sets in after you rack up a few hundred thousand miles. Now-a-days, I find myself far less worried about the plan. Sometimes, I’m not even aware of what city I will be in, where I am staying, or who I am meeting with. To a fault, I just tend to go with the flow. I click, book, and roll into whatever situation, adapting as I go. In military terms, we might call this a “movement to contact“.
“No plan” might sound crazy to those that think through each detail of their trip or stare at the map on their phone for every leg of the way. In fairness, some of my travel complacency probably comes from years of land navigation training in the army. You learn to “dead-reckon” or let familiar objects guide your path. When I travel there are just certain things that trigger me. Like a skier on the side of the mountain, I set a line and my feet follow.
There are obvious problems with this, like when there is a disruption or a change it can be disorienting. “Wait, where am I? Who am I meeting with?” Or if a familiar object is familiar for the wrong reasons, you end up trying to “key” into the hotel room number you were using last week. Worse yet, you might end up at the wrong hotel all together. I have been in both of these events as a complacent work traveler. The art of making it through these types of situations lies in how you handle your next move.
“Sure there was risk involved, but in matters such as this there’s always risk involved. “
I had one of these complacency moments last week. I was flying to Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico for a pitch and booked my trip a day or two before. I have been to three or four regions in Mexico but never Monterrey. My first mistake was that I really put no thought into where Monterrey was, that it was mountainous, or that 6 million people lived in the various districts that make up the city. I also poorly assumed that communication wasn’t a big deal because I could hack my phone to call/text over WiFi. Meanwhile, I would be there for around 48 hrs, so I was only going to be in the airport, hotel, and client offices where I would have connectivity. Sure there was risk involved, but in matters such as this there’s always risk involved.
My problems began as soon as I arrived. I was on a separate flight from my colleagues and arrived nearly 30 minutes later than they did. I hit the ground as rush hour was starting. As soon as I departed from the plane and connected to WiFi, my phone began blowing up.
“Where are you?”
“Get here soon, we have a change of plans, there’s a dinner party planned in the mountains and we’re leaving soon”.
I was fortunate to grab a cab with a fairly aggressive driver. He wore a suit and aviators. His driving style felt more like something out of a Jason Statham movie than it did a leisurely ride to my hotel. Running into gridlock, he quickly jumped a few lanes to exit the highway and began racing down small roads and alleyways to avoid traffic where he could. The city felt like it was just waking up. Cafes were filled, street carts were out, people were gathering outside to chat with neighbors. We passed a park filled with exercise equipment where women were chatting outside while working out on an elliptical machine. At every major intersection, there were people selling food. At one point, my driver rolled down his window to haggle. As we drove off, he said, “Ah 25 pesos, too much my friend.”
We passed a teenage boy juggling in the street just before popping back onto the highway. As we entered through the final mountain pass of our journey, I could see colorful houses dotting the ridge where one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city sits. The neighborhood is deceiving in that it looks more like a sleepy Mediterranean town than it does a ghetto. After a short pass through a tunnel, we enter one of the wealthiest districts in all of Latin America.
My driver drops me off at the front door of the hotel. To my left is a Maserati dealership and through the doors of the hotel I spot a number of restaurants just outside the lobby. We are now a far cry from the boy juggling in the street and the taco trucks lined up outside the bodega.
Monterrey is not short of upscale dining options and each of the restaurants outside the hotel looks appealing. In general, it’s quite the foodie town. I quickly realize via text that my colleagues have already left. They sent me an address. That’s it, just an address. No name, details or directions. I respond via text and ask for some clarification.
“Is there an apartment number?” “What is nearby?”
I receive a photo of meat being prepared as a response. Ok, I guess I am going to find this place by the scent of steak grilling over an open flame? For a brief moment, I imagine the safe play. I’ve spent 7 hours traveling here. I could easily eat dinner downstairs at my hotel and pass out in my room. After all, once I leave the safety of wifi, I go dark and lose my communication ability.
“For a brief moment, I imagine the safe play. After all, once I leave the safety of wifi, I go dark and lose my communication ability. “
I quickly come to my senses after talking to the front desk about how easy it will be to just ride-share to the party and open an app on my phone to call for a car. Within seconds I learn that Juan in a white car is picking me up. With only 2 minutes to wait I step outside, where the disconnection of WiFi reminds me that I am now on my own. I also don’t speak a lick of Spanish other than “No hablo espanol,” a phrase my second grade teacher taught me. If I do end up lost, my problems might only begin in the street. I am still optimistic at this point and can only hope that this trip to the dinner party goes well.
My driver picks me up in exactly 2 minutes. Things are looking up as we exchange pleasantries before heading out. I had copied and pasted the party address from my coworker’s text message into the ride-share app. That app is now offline. I didn’t bother to check a map on my phone to see where I was going. I could have at least cached the local neighborhood in case something went wrong but I didn’t. I was winging it and before long I was worried that the hotel front desk had done me wrong.
As my driver began weaving through the mountain roads of Monterrey, I quickly realized that he wasn’t exactly sure where he was going. I re-assured myself that he was just looking for short cuts as we made turns that seemed to take us in circles. If this trip from A to B goes wrong, I am in trouble.
Each switchback up the mountain reveals more and more of the complex urban jungle built into the cliffs and the network of homes, walls, balconies, and apartments all built on top of each other. It’s almost dark enough that you can no longer make out where the road ends and the buildings begin. As we start to make our way slowly up the final turn, the driver slows to a stop and ushers me out into darkness.
“As my driver began weaving through the mountain roads of Monterrey, I quickly realized that he wasn’t exactly sure where he was going.”
“Is this the right house?” I ask him, pointing to a structure with a light gleaming from the door.
He nods and smiles, pointing to group of structures in the darkness out of the passenger window. As the car turns to head down the mountain and the disappearing taillights leave me in darkness, it dawns on me that I am alone.
Dogs begin barking as I stand in the street trying to get my bearings. Squinting at a number on the gate, I realize that I am not in the right place. The house numbers don’t match. I am not even sure if this is the right street. A woman comes to her door and begins yelling at me in Spanish. I begin walking and thinking. Now, I am feeling pessimistic. I convince myself that she has just alerted the authorities that some crazy gringo is breaking into houses. My head begins to spin as I imagine my night in a Mexican jail after my arrest for loitering or trespassing. Needless to say, this was not the plan. Then again, I didn’t have much of a plan. It would seem that I am now out over my skis on a line I can’t drop off of. I have no WiFi or any way of asking for help. I wander the mountainside aimlessly looking for the right street. I am tired and hungry. It’s been 12 hours since a light breakfast on my way out the door.
“My head begins to spin as I imagine my night in a Mexican jail after my arrest for loitering or trespassing. Needless to say, this was not the plan.”
The night is hot and there is now only a sliver of moon hidden in the sky. After what feels like hours of wandering in the dark, I see a sign and realize that I’ve found my way to the right street. Before long, I’ve reached what I think is the address and begin to knock. Oddly, it doesn’t feel like anyone is home. Is this all a cruel joke? It’s dark, hard to see, and the dogs inside bark. No one is responding to my knocking on the other side of the tall, heavy wooden door. The dogs continue to bark as I increase the velocity of my knock, hungry enough that I don’t care if it’s the right house.
The air is still and more dogs react in the distance. One thing is for sure, I don’t smell any meat cooking. All I smell is the faint hint of gray water from the sewer under the street. By now, I am thinking “man, I should have stayed at the hotel.” As I sit on the curb to contemplate my next move, a figure opens the door and greets me. It’s a familiar face.
“Oh hey, so sorry, we were all downstairs and I thought the dogs were barking at my wife coming home.”
I enter into a palatial foyer with art as tall as me hanging from the walls. The ceiling extends up to a dome one or two floors above my head from where I am standing. I am escorted down a spiral staircase where my colleagues are gathered around a large dinner table. A long, beautifully crafted mahogany bar sits to the right where food has been placed. The room greets me with cheers. One of them exclaims, “Go help yourself, grab a glass so we can poor you some wine.”
“The room greets me with cheers. One of them exclaims, ‘Go, help yourself, grab a glass, so we can poor you some wine.'”
After finding a plate and some utensils I scoop up a serving of wild mushrooms, slice off some beautifully aged cheese, pick out a few crackers, and survey the dino-sized steaks. I take my time choosing the perfect bone-in slab. The outside is encrusted in a thick layer of spices and the inside is as raw and bloody as it was hanging in the butcher shop. I laugh and think to myself, “No wonder I couldn’t smell it outside. Is it cooked?” I sit down at the table to dig in and my colleagues pour me a dry glass of Spanish wine. So dry that I later down a bottle of mineral water just to wet my palate. They open a third bottle at the table and refill some of their glasses.
The conversation picks back up and before long our local colleagues enter the picture from upstairs welcoming us to Monterrey. The meat is hard to cut from the bone, but once I do it melts in my mouth. The encrusted grains of spice on the steak are more like pebbles than sand. Each bite bursts with flavor. The house seems to be so large and the ceilings so high that the air conditioner can’t keep up. Still hot from my climb, I can feel the meat sweats setting in before I have had a chance to finish my meal.
I devour each course one at a time, then make a plate of scraps for the dogs. They are my heroes. Their barking had saved me from a fate far worse than this. With a smile, I re-tell my adventure as if I am a lost castaway who has finally been reunited with the world. Everyone gets a good laugh at the story before we move to more comfortable furniture to discuss the business at hand. As the dogs curl up at my leg I open a beer, take a long, well earned pull from the bottle and relax knowing that for now, I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
© 2019 55 Cities
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