I recently had the opportunity to drive to San Antonio (following my oldest son’s school Swim Team to the State Championships). I’d been to San Antonio previously. We’d taken my (now octogenarian) mother to see the Alamo when she’d visited us in Houston. And even though we’d squeezed it all into a day trip, the place had still left an impression of quirkiness and fun.
This time, I travelled on my own (my son travelled with his team) and I was nervous. It’s been a very long time indeed since I’ve travelled anywhere on my own, and the world is experienced differently on your own than with the buffer of a family. The three and a half hour drive wasn’t nearly as taxing as I had worried it would be, and whiling away the time listening to BBC World broadcasts on my radio made it all the more bearable.
Arriving at my hotel late in the afternoon, it felt decidedly odd to be carrying only one overnight bag (I was only staying overnight after all). Clutching my meagre possessions with me, I wandered into the foyer, nervous and slightly excited at the prospect of having a whole room to myself. The concierge smiled welcomingly, checked me in and handed me my key card. A little thrill of anticipation jittered through me as I found my room and opened up my bag. A whole room to myself. With two beds. You don’t understand. For the first time in a very long time, I would be going to sleep and waking up without having to think of a single other living creature. No wondering if children are asleep, no worrying about waking up a husband, no making sure the dogs have been taken out, no having to wake to someone else’s timetable or consider someone else’s sleep schedule. I was a little overwhelmed, if I’m honest.
I was also on my own. While the Swim Team were there around the same time that I was, they were heading off to a pool to do some training. My presence was clearly not required. So, at a loose end and a little uncertain of what to do with myself, I pottered about. Fortuitously, my husband texted me just as I was losing my courage and planning on an afternoon reading in my room, with the rather magnificent suggestion of finding the Mexican Market at Market Square. He’d taken his parents there (a trip our boys and I hadn’t joined him on) and thought I’d enjoy it too. So, fortified by his suggestion and determined not to retreat into my shell and see nothing of the place, I googled the markets, found an address and set off to see what I could see.
12 minutes drive from my hotel and there I was in this delightful slice of South America. The smells, the sounds, the touristy traps, all calling to me. Cowboy hats and marionettes, wrestling masks and cafés, all competing for my attention. And there, in the middle of it all, unobtrusive exterior opening to a wonderland of sights, sounds and smells, lay the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery. This oasis of mariachis, cakes, margaritas and the nicest slow cooked goat meat I’ve ever had, sprang unexpected in the middle of the CBD.
The sedate exterior belies the wonder of the inside. A festival of colour and sound encased in a very classy building. The foyer of the building is what is euphemistically called the bakery. In truth, it’s a series of display cabinets filled with glorious Mexican sweat meats in eye-popping colours. And the queues are long. People shuffle in, take a numbered ticket from the ticket machine and sidle along trying desperately to decide which of the marvellous cakes to choose.
On the right of the foyer is the cafe. Don’t let the name fool you, this is an enormous restaurant, with room upon garishly decorated room of tightly packed tables. Each space has a theme, and it would seem, its very own mariachi band.
On the left, behind the Mexican Elvis impersonator who does a good job of being a statue and scaring the living daylights out of patrons who pose for photos next to him by moving at the last minute, is the bar. This is the one area of the establishment that isn’t decorated as if it’s a giant piñata. It’s classy and subtle, with framed mariachi outfits on the wall the only nod to the over-the-top Mexican festivals of the other areas.
It was a treasure trove of discovery, not least a rediscovery of the kind of traveller I used to be. I was truly delighted to find that I remain the curious, questioning, interested traveller I have always been, striking up conversations with local merchants about their wares, their origins and the state of the economy. Or communicating with signs when no common language existed, a bharatanatyam of bargaining over a sombrero. I became myself again.