Set Up

It feels like it’s been a whirlwind couple of months. After Brazil, I returned to Canada while Tim extended his holiday for a few more weeks to meet up with some friends in Europe who were trotting around with a tiny house towed behind a car.

It worked out quite well in my favour that flights from Rio to Canada were significantly cheaper to Toronto than to my hometown in Saskatchewan, so I could easily justify adding on a mini-holiday in Toronto to visit one of my best friends who I hadn’t seen in over two years.

I hadn’t been to Toronto since I was about 13 years old, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city – I’ll admit my expectations weren’t high. Though smoggy and a bit clogged up with traffic, Toronto had a much more interesting feel than I expected, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few days catching up with old friends (one who had made the trip to Vancouver to reconnect) and exploring interesting corners of the city, browsing in great markets, and fulfilling all of the cravings for food I’d been having that were either too expensive or simply non-existent in Latin America (think, mainly, Brie and sushi).

Coming in to Toronto and catching up with some of nearest and dearest was the best way to return. It helped me ease into the idea of being back in Canada, helped enormously by generous quantities of wine and girly movies. Too soon, it was time to end the reunion and continue on my journey “home.”

Home is home because I grew up there and my parents are there. But I won’t be moving back there and the ties that bind slowly fade, as more people adopt new lives and move away. One day, not right now, I’m sure I’ll have to figure out a new place to label home.

As I flew over the checkered fields of the Canadian prairies I realised, once again – as one often does after stints like these away – how beautiful home really is. Saskatchewan is known as Land of the Living Skies and for good reason. I’ve never seen a sunset, anywhere in the world, that rival those from home. The area is simply vast. The flat, and occasionally rolling, prairies stretch for hundreds of miles, and it is far off into the distance before land meets sky. My dad tells a joke about a prairie native complaining about the view in the Rockies – the mountains block the views. And it is true, in a sense, for those of us who are used to endless sky and being able to see distances too far to run. I believe this is why I am now drawn so much to the ocean – you get the same expansive view, the sense of endlessness, the feeling of freedom.

After a lovely month or so of catching up with friends and family, doing life admin tasks such as buying a car, getting a job, and such, TIm joined me in Canada and we quickly set off towards Banff where life in Canada was to truly begin.

As the Rocky Mountains rose up to us in the distance, I tried to envision how and explorer would feel, having reached this part of the country – having had smooth and flat travels for thousands of kilometres, and then seeing the mass of cold stone rising in the distance, thickly forested and seemingly impassable. It would not have been a good day.

We stayed in Canmore, which is about an hour west of Calgary and twenty or thirty minutes outside of Banff, for about a week. My mom has an incredibly generous friend who let us stay at the condo they own in Canmore while we sorted out where we were living. Banff, and Canmore, I had been told – repeatedly – were incredible tricky places to find somewhere to live. The vacancy rate is approximately 0%, and we certainly viewed a few duds before finding a great condo to move into, which we share with three girls from Australia.

Arriving in Banff after the summer season helped – it is such a transient town, and summer is much busier than winter. Many people were leaving as we arrived, at the beginning of “shoulder season,” which worked out rather luckily, rather than something we planned. I would certainly recommend this strategy for anyone planning on turning up in a tourist town any time soon.

And here we are, settling into Banff and enjoying all that mountain has to offer before our world becomes blanketed in snow. Busy, busy, will try to keep the words flowing!

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From a Rooftop in Cozumel

We passed through Playa del Carmen and headed straight to Cozumel, an island about 45 minutes by ferry from the mainland. Cozumel is a very popular destination from Playa and this makes for a proportionately more expensive ferry ride than Isla Mujeres, at 326 MXN each, round trip.

Immediately upon arriving in Cozumel, we were greeted by a barrage of tourist-aimed goods, shops, restaurants, hostels, and the associated touts. We’d booked a room at Hostelito, a sprawling, multilevel hostel close to the main square. While exploring town on our first night in search of food, we stuck with the customary method of walking a few streets back from the main drag in order to find cheaper and more local eats. We happened upon one of the better supermarkets we’d come across for quite some time, and ended up cooking ourselves up dinner. (Something we’d done far too infrequently in Mexico, due to the cheap and accessible street food. It ended up being quite the treat.)

I was feeling a bit under the weather, and spent half the next day re-energising at the hostel while Tim and Anna shopped around for a dive trip they wanted to do. I took advantage of the terraced outdoor areas of the hostel and did yoga overlooking town, then caught up on some life admin and writing. The team returned with the good news that they’d found a shop they wanted to dive with and were headed out for a twilight and a night dive that evening. I took advantage of our supermarket discovery and started dinner for the crew: a take on fajitas, including a kilo of freshly made tortillas I’d found at the supermarket (for the shockingly low price of 10 pesos) and about as much guacamole.

Tim and Anna really enjoyed their dives, one of which was at a reef wall. Cozumel is world renowned for diving, and they had the chance to see some pretty awesome marine life. A turtle, a shark, sting rays, and an amazing reef wall all featured. They also had the luxury of essentially organising their own dive trip, as it was just them who went out on the boat. The trip ran them 1300 pesos each for the two dives. My brief time in Cozumel was far less exciting, but still perfectly rewarding.

Anna Diving

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Colonial San Cristóbal

A quick 12.5 hour overnight bus ride from Puerto Escondido and we had officially left the coast behind and arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. San Cristóbal is a stunning highland town that retains much of its colonial architecture. You are never at a loss to find places to eat or drink, the markets are incredible, and it’s all plunked among hills in highland Mexico which equals a literal breath of fresh air.

We’d gotten in the habit of, upon arriving to a city, booking our bus out. This habit is the cumulation of a number of factors, namely that the online booking system for the bus line we used the most in this part of the country does not accept international credit cards, travel agents (if you can find them) charge a premium, and we often ended up making the trip back to the bus station before our departure to buy a ticket, which is clearly a waste of time. The trouble with this is that it means making a blind call about how long to stay in a city. For San Cristóbal, we decided two nights, as we’d heard great things, and this was basically the maximum amount of time we could spend here while remaining on track.

I’m happy we didn’t sell ourselves short. The town seems like the kind of town where everything should be jumbled into place, radiating out from the main cathedral, but it’s not. The city is easy to navigate and is built on as close to a grid system as you’re going to get here. The main cathedral dominates the main plaza, and artisan markets – the best we’ve seen, by far – spring up next to two churches a few blocks away. Real de Guadalupe has a large pedestrian section and is crowded with eateries, shops, and bars. The streets are all ridiculously charming, and simply wandering around put me in a fantastic mood. The hills surrounding, a couple with churches perched on top, are less daunting than they appear to climb – despite the altitude – and offer outstanding views of the town and the hills and the surrounds.

San Cristobal

San Cristobal Hills

The markets were amazing. It seemed to be a quiet market day when we were there, as many of the stalls weren’t occupied and the crowds were thin. Nevertheless, the array of goods available was truly outstanding. Unlike many a Mexican market, it was clear to see exactly where most of the products were coming from, as the stall-keeper was often creating more as they sat and waited for approaching customers. The prices were significantly lower than what we’d encountered elsewhere, so much so that it was almost impossible to barter; the value of the goods already exceeded what they were asking – in North American terms at least.

We got into a discussion during one of the evenings, on a rooftop, over wine. There is a huge amount of money tied up, for each of these vendors, in inventory. As they sit and create more goods while minding the market, this is only exacerbated. If nothing was created, at all, it would probably take a year to sell all of the completed work sitting in that market. This isn’t an ideal business model, of course. The solution to this isn’t easy to come up with – do you sell to shops in town, form a co-op, try to figure out how to export? There are a number of established shops in San Cristóbal selling artisans’ work as well, from boutiques to co-operatives, at a scale of different price points, all higher than in the market. Is this better or worse or the artists themselves? For the community? I bought something from one stall, minded by a young boy. He asked for 60 pesos, I offered 50 and he said yes. He then stared at the 50 peso note as if it were the largest amount of money he’d seen in a while. I don’t know how long 50 pesos would last a family, how much wool they could buy with that. I don’t know what it really means to them. We’re going through about 500 pesos a day, each, so it seems like a nominal amount. But the cost of living there, even compared to much of Mexico, is so much lower, that these amounts really make a difference. I’ve got a Bachelor of Commerce degree in my back pocket somewhere, and have become increasingly interested in micro finance and international development, at least in theory. But when you actually look at a situation, and try to start thinking about how it might be improved, it becomes fraught with difficulty. Who are we, for one, to decide if it needs to be improved in the first place? Our western view of efficiency and effectiveness does not and should not translate to many countries in the world. Yet surely, there are talented and hardworking people, who are struggling to get by, who need not struggle, if only the whole operation were to be rearranged a little bit. And like this, we talked, in circles, until the wine was gone.

All We Did in Puerto Vallarta was Rent a Car

We caught a local, second-class bus from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta. There is a cheaper option than the longish-distance buses we were taking: these buses. They tend to serve smaller towns and not go as far, but you can certainly make your way around on them for the most part. The hour-long trip cost us 35 pesos each. Tim had picked up a surfboard in Sayulita and the plan was to sort out a rental car in Puerto Vallarta and spend roughly a week exploring the coast south and hitting a number of key surfing spots. Our limited online research for rental cars had left us a bit less than thrilled, as the prices seemed exorbitant and insurance policies fuzzy. We’d heard that the Mexican rental car insurance is a bit of a minefield, and wanted to make sure we were properly covered. We decided to pop into the airport in Puerto Vallarta to get some quotes in person. This helped us navigate the market a little bit, but it was essentially a waste of time. Walk in rates were around $30/day, including the mandatory third-party liability insurance. Online rates are cheaper, but you’ll still get hosed on taxes, airport fees, and the exchange rate. We ended up booking a car through Expedia, and a company called Fox Rentals, for 9 days and roughly 3800 pesos. The search came up with the lovely rental rate of 4 USD/day, but that’s definitely not what it boils down to.

Basic breakdown in USD: 28.10 for the rental, 179.82 for the mandatory 3rd-party insurance, 14.55 for the 7% airport fee, 35.60 for the 16% VAT federal tax = 258.07 USD which translates into 3,509.75 pesos at the rather abysmal exchange rate of 13.60. We also paid for an extra driver in cash, which was 24 USD and was the only part of it that seemed like a reasonable deal, particularly because of the fact that I am not yet 25 years old and should have had to pay a premium. We happily avoided paying for additional insurance (to cover damage to our rental car, theft, etc.) because I booked the rental on a credit card that offers insurance for rental cars, so long as you pay for the booking on that card. This is exceptionally helpful, and I recommend looking into whether your card offers similar coverage, as it saved us around 15 USD a day in extra insurance coverage. I also recommend doing this before you leave home / the day you want to rent the car, as I spent two hours on hold, with a flaky Skype connection, trying to confirm the details of my coverage. Certain American Express cards offer such coverage, and mine was offered through an MBNA MasterCard. Cards often offer lost baggage coverage, health insurance, and other benefits for travellers that you might as well take advantage of.

Most of our time in Puerto Vallarta was spent doing travel admin, but we managed to find a decent and reasonably priced (300 pesos for a private room) place to sleep – Hotel Lina on Calle Madero will offer all you really need. We also stumbled upon an excellent Italian restaurant on the same street. We bought the bare minimum of a main each – lasagne, as we’d both been craving a bit of comfort food – and were offered two lots of bread, a small entrée, and a handful of tiny biscuits and a shot of cinnamon liquor, all on the house.

Puerto Vallarta is a very popular destination for sun getaways for people from home, and I have no doubt you could have a very fun time there, sitting in a beach chair or on a balcony downing 2 for 1 margaritas, but it probably appealed to me the least out of anywhere we’d visited in Mexico thus far. You’d need to spend a little time there in order to uncover some of the local flavour, which is something I think most visitors miss entirely while they while away their hours inside their all-inclusive resorts. The ease and value of these packaged getaways certainly doesn’t motivate the majority of people to try to explore more of the “real” Mexico, as it would end up being more expensive with flights, accommodation, and food – and you wouldn’t be staying in a 5-star resort. It’s a bit of a shame, really, as Mexico looks exceptionally different and, in my opinion, exceptionally better, from the street, rather than from inside a resort.

Sayulita Dreams

Logistics. We were heading in the general direction of Puerto Vallarta. But we really wanted to go to Sayulita, a small surfing town about an hour north. We would have to drive right by the turnoff to Sayulita in order to get to Puerto Vallarta, but no buses operating from Guadalajara had an option to go to Sayulita. We could just turn right around upon arriving to Puerto Vallarta and get a bus back up north, so it wasn’t a lost cause, but we were lucky. I asked, but apparently didn’t get my point across, so we just piggybacked onto another couple that alighted at the turnoff to Sayulita, a couple of kilometres from the town itself. We luckily saw a taxi straight away, and completed our mission to disembark early.

We turned up at the Sayulita trailer park, located right on the beach. Next door there was another campground, but for the sake of security, power, and a real shower, we opted to pay a slight premium for our very own trailer site. We were paying 300 pesos a night, which isn’t particular cheap for a campsite, but Sayulita tends to have rather inflated prices, due, in part, to the large number of expats living there. Tacos ran closer to 20 pesos than 7, you could grab a smoothie for about 40, a cappuccino for 35, a margarita for 60, and a meal in a cheap restaurant for around 100. A number of holistic health and wellness practitioners operate out of the small town, charging essentially what you’d pay in the States for their services – aaround 60 USD for massage or acupuncture. Surfboard rentals were in the neighbourhood of 10-15 USD an hour  / 30 USD a day. This is the first place we had been where English had been even remotely prevalent, and it was everywhere. Signs and menus were printed in both Spanish and English, and the majority of people we dealt with had a reasonably grasp. Despite the influx of (mostly North American) toursits and expats, parts of Sayulita are still pretty hard to beat. We were lucky enough to have an amazing set of neighbours, Raime and Jen, a Canadian/Australian couple who worked in the film industry in Vancouver and opted to spend half their year, every second year, in their Volkswagen bus in Sayulita, along with their young daughter, Chia (sp?). They more than helped make us feel at home, offering us lights, bananas, and even a surfboard (for Tim) to use. They regaled us with travel stories; we of thoughts on what was to come. They felt a twinge of jealousy and the itching of the travel bug they had scratched far less since having their daughter (though they’re still doing a pretty damn good job). We admired the life they had cultivated for themselves and the freedom with which they decided to live. There was also beach, there was sun, there was surf. Our uncertainty of how long we would say stretched into four nights as we enjoyed finally relaxing for the first time since we’d arrived. Both Tim and I had a day of average health; I think we were both a bit run down from the last week (the last month, really). And some shrimp tacos didn’t really agree with Tim’s system, the first unpleasant experience either of us had had with the food or water. (For reference, the water in Mexico is generally not safe as drinking water. We have a Platypus GravityWorks water filter that is probably the most useful bit of gear we’ve brought, and it lets us drink the water essentially everywhere. This is thanks to extensive research by Tim, so don’t bother doing your own. Ridiculously easy to use, gravity-operated, lightweight. You can bring just the bits of the kit you need, we make due with the dirty reservoir and the filter.) We became regular patrons of Orangy, the juice bar in town (I recommend the Surfer’s Brunch) and tried out most of the taco stands along the street that has all of the taco stands on it. The one next to Falafel & Friends is more local – we may have ordered “head” one night. There is also tongue on the menu. Burrito Revolution is awesome. Eat as many fish tacos as you can. Fish tacos and smoothies – the Sayulita diet. And that was essentially it. With plans formulating for the stretch south down the coast, and a new surfboard under Tim’s arm, we set off to Puerto Vallarta. Sayulita

Blue Agave

Ah, tequila. The source of so many questionable decisions, at the root of so much blame. Since my first visit to Mexico, in high school, I became enlightened about the varying grades of tequila and the sorry truth that, unless you’re willing to really shell out for it, most of the readily available tequila at home is utter trash. It also tends to make an appearance so far into the night, and after so many bottles of beer/wine/pre-mixed rye and cokes that the inevitable hangover that ensues is then blamed entirely on the tequila, and not the arsenal of liquors and sugars one had been consuming all night. I’ve always given tequila a fair go, so it seemed only right, upon learning of the existence of the town of tequila, to pay a visit.

Tequila is a couple of hours’ drive out of Guadalajara, accessible by bus from the old bus station in the city. As we drew nearer to the town, the prevalence of blue agave plants thickened. Tequila (and its closely related cousin, mezcal) are made from the blue agave plant. These spiky blue plants line the hillsides in neat, rolling rows, leaving the impression of a dusty blue hue as you scan the horizon. “Pineapples” are then harvested by jimadores, using primarily age-old techniques. These can weigh, on average, between 70 and 110 kilograms, depending on the region. These pineapples are then transported (now by front end loader, with questionable accuracy) into the ovens where they are slowly baked, and then crushed. The agave juice is what we are after, and the rest of it is waste or, depending on your particular distillery, recycled into feed, fuel, paper, or a myriad of other uses. Then the drink goes through the fermentation and ageing processes which, of course, vastly vary the product you get at the end.

TequilaTequila PiñasTequila Ovens

What YOU Need to Know About Tequila:

There are two main types of tequila, which are then broken down into several categories. These types are the most important part. There is 100% agave tequila, and then there is tequila mixto. 100% agave is, as you could probably guess, made entirely of agave sugars. Mixtos are made up of no less than 51% agave, and then the rest are other sugars – generally cane. Mixtos are also permitted to contain additives such as flavour and colour, further increasing the impurities of your drink.

If the tequila you’re buying does not say 100% agave, then it is not. It is mixed. It tastes worse, contains more additives, and will make you feel worse the following morning. Yes, that bottle of gold Cuervo Especial falls into this category. Both of these types of tequila can be aged, with the older becoming more complex in flavour, deeper in colour, and expensive in price. Añejo and Extra Añejo are the oldest varieties of tequila, with Extra Añejo being aged in barrels for at least three years.

With any alcohol, quality certainly differs from distillery to distillery and with age, but the vast range of tequila – from terrible, artificially coloured gold tequila mixto (which you can buy in this bit of the world for a handful of pesos) to extra añejo, 100% agave tequila (which will still run you hundreds of dollars in Mexico) the taste, experience, and quality is almost of another world. Not that I have personally had many (ahem, any) bottles of extra añejo, extra expensive tequila, but I have had some reasonably good stuff, and I can tell you that it does not even come close to that shocker of a drink I’d been exposed to for so long. Anyone in Mexico will tell you that tequila mixto is to be used for margaritas and margaritas alone, and even that can be questionable.

And if you’re not convinced that tequila doesn’t have to be a golden, liquid, hangover, come to Tequila. They will do their very best to convert you.

Cuervo

Guadalajara, Lucha Libre, and the Best Steamed Goat You’ve Ever Had

We were still getting the hang of the bus system and, though I knew there must be cheaper options than what we were being quoted at ticket counters, travel agencies, and online, we couldn’t seem to find them. We didn’t quite need the level of flash we kept ending up with. From Guanajuato to Guadalajara, we booked a Primera Plus bus for 378 pesos each for the four-hour trip. This isn’t exorbitant, but still seemed a bit steep. The benefit of taking the more expensive (known as first-class) buses – aside from the comfort and the perks – is the safety they offer. They make very limited or no stops at all between their origin and their destination, and tend to take the shiny, well-maintained toll roads. Both of these facts severely limit the chances of anything bad (hijacking, robberies, etc.) happening to your bus, particularly at night. If you are travelling overnight, it is strongly recommended that you take a direct, first-class bus. We arrived at Nueva Central Camionera in Guadalajara and jumped onto a bus marked ‘Centro’ that we figured would take us close enough to our centrally located hostel. Guadalajara has two classes of city buses, the regular ones, which cost 7 MXN per trip, and the “TUR,” bright turquoise tourist buses at 12 MXN per trip. The TUR buses essentially have two classes as well – the old ones that are marginally better than the regular ones, due to a bit more space and exceptionally worn, but soft, seats (as opposed to hard plastic, which when you’re bouncing around in the back with a backpack over particularly uneven sections of road, is a bonus), and the new ones which look to be about the same level of comfy as the first class buses we’ve been taking from city to city, but that we never actually had occasion to ride on. Guadalajara is a decent-sized city, home to roughly 1.6 million people. People seem to love it, as friends of ours had recommended a stop there, we ran into a couple of people who were planning a move there, and general travel advice said good things. It didn’t thrill me, or particularly charm me, though. It may be one of those cities that hides its charms quite well, and once you begin discovering them, you become hooked. Perhaps we explored some of the wrong areas, and missed some of the best bits, but it didn’t captivate me. That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, as we certainly managed that. I tend to be quite suspect of recommendations in guidebooks, particularly for food (somewhat less-so for accommodation). This is primarily because I would very much like to avoid eating in a restaurant with a bunch of fifty-year-old Lonely Planet-toting North Americans. I would like to eat in a restaurant that is full of Mexican people. It’s like eating at a Chinese restaurant in Canada where no Chinese people would eat. It’s just wrong. The accommodation options I’ve got a bit more lenience towards. I assume that my hostel/hotel/B&B/campsite will be full of tourists. If you were a local you would not need said accommodation. But this time, we did it. Tim had found a listing for a restaurant that he wanted to try, and he seemed quite excited, so I figured we might as well give it a go. We’d been living primarily on street food for the last week, and a meal had rarely cost us more than 5 USD total, so I figured we deserved a proper meal. Birriería las Nueve Esquinas at Av Colón 384 is in a quaint little section of Guadalajara (though the walk there is a bit less quaint, and borders more on sketchy). When we sat down at one of the tables in the restaurant, it was about half Mexicans and half tourists, a ratio that seemed a bit high on the tourist scale, but still doable. The restaurant itself is exceptionally charming; you feel as though you are sitting in an overgrown extension of someone’s kitchen. All of the preparation goes on in front of your eyes, from making dough for tortillas to cooking meat. Then Tim told me that the specialty of the restaurant was their steamed goat. I think the only goat-related thing I’d eaten in the past was cheese, so why not. We ordered one of each of the specialties (their highlighted at the top of the menu, so even if you can’t read Spanish, it’s hard to mess it up), birria de chivo (the goat) and barbacoa de borrego (lamb) and waited to see what arrived. I don’t actually speak enough Spanish to get by most of the time, so it’s always a bit of a gamble what turns up on your table. What turned up? Well … I’m basically salivated retelling this. First, they start you off with corn chips, pickled onions, and two types of salsa. And then the rest of it starts to come. A basket of warm tortillas. Cilantro and onions. Anticipation builds. The meat. Each portion turned up in a traditional clay dish. The lamb was delicious. The goat probably even more so, mainly because of the juices that it had been cooked in. My favourite combination for a taco developed into a one of mostly lamb, a little bit of goat, all of the fixings, and then some extra goat juice poured over the top. It was actually ridiculous. Guadalajara had more to offer us than goat. Namely, lucha libre. Gold old Mexican wrestling. Well, fake wrestling, really. Lucha libre involves generally masked men, sometimes in teams, putting on an extravagant and quite acrobatic show of pretending to beat each other up while the crowd goes mental and hurls insults at the “bad guys.” I don’t think I’d wanted to know Spanish more at any other point than this, when a balcony full of kids chanted something in unison at the wrestlers, and a woman right behind us rarely touched her seat as she screamed at the boxing ring. Entertainment value = very high. Lucha Libre The next day took us to a suburb of Guadalajara called Tonalá. Tonalá is well known as an artisan area, and twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, a seemingly endless street market explodes in dozens of streets around the artisan shops and pottery warehouses. We wiled away a few hours, wandering through the stalls and snacking. The array of goods was outstanding, the quality of the workmanship often was as well. We made quick notes in our notebook of what was on offer, in case we ever had a house and needed to fill it with stuff. At exceptionally reasonable prices. You could aquire an entire set of traditional Mexican style crockery, hand-painted, for less than 20 USD. Pottery. Paintings. Barrel liquor cabinet. Warped canvas. Chairs. Tiles. The area and the market is apparently a haven for wholesale buyers from around the world, and I have no doubt as to why. Particularly in the pottery areas, which seemed to be generally operated as some sort of co-op or collective, buying in bulk was the only option. The dishes we had been eating out of around the area could be seen here, echoed thousands of times. Highly recommend, whether or not the street markets or on or not, as most of the best oodies are in the permanent shops anyways. As much as I had enjoyed the bustling cities of inland Mexico, it was on both Tim and my minds that we wanted to get out to the coast. We wanted beach and waves and sun, palm trees and drinking out of coconuts, hammocks and camping and surf. We wanted our own slice of a Mexican beach holiday, which we intended to chase from Puerto Vallarta all the way south, nearly to the border of Guatemala. Soon, we would go. But first, Tequila.