The plan was simple. An early start, coffee, breakfast and make our way to Guanajuato. Jeremiah was his usual dutiful self this morning. Packed, face shield cleaned and clothes neatly folded and laying on the bed he made after waking up. Deciding to forego dressing in riding gear for our morning stroll down Avenida Hildago for breakfast and caffeine, we were ready to go save a quick change of clothes and a final bag to pack into our panniers.
As an adventure traveler with no set schedule other than beating weather and making some sort of progress, it is important to be flexible and open to abrupt changes in route, schedule or activities. So when Hector crossed the street and approached me wearing a casual smile and a quick and confident strut, I had no idea that my packing and preparations this morning would be for naught. Dressed in a casual single-breasted black sport-coat over a white t-shirt with a faint coffee stain and a salt and pepper mustache which framed his gentle smile as much as his white fedora hat with black band topped his casually elegant look. He wore everything well including the “to go” coffee cup he wrapped his well manicured 67-year old fingers around.
“The best coffee in town. You want it? Caffe Paradiso,” he said with his eyes locked onto mine. A mexican national who spent several years in the U.S. military, Hector spoke perfect english. The young man walking with him used little words, but his face, eyes and smile spoke loudly. He was in the company of a legend. A sophisticated man of means, taste and class. The young man carried a brown bag tightly wrapped revealing a shape all to easy for me to identify.
“Is that a bottle of wine?” I asked pointing at the bag.
“Wine? Yes,” Hector grabbed the bottle revealing the label, “unique from Fresnillo,” he spoke of a nearby city in the state of Zacatecas known for its agriculture. “You want a bottle?” he asked. I stuttered while trying to imagine riding my motorcycle with any more weight. I stammered and thought. Thought and stammered.
“You want a bottle, or not?” pushing for my answer clearly indicating that he couldn’t understand my hesitation.
“Sure. Yes. I’d love a bottle, where can I get one.” I finally stumbled out of my stammering and made my decision. He led us across the street into a courtyard then into a tiny shop with wine bottles lining the walls and sitting in glass cases. He spoke in rapid fire spanish to the cute brunette standing behind the counter. Seconds later she was wrapping a bottle of wine neatly in paper and resting it gently into my waiting hand. As I reached for my wallet and asked the “Cuantos cuesto? She shook her head and pointed to Hector. No money was exchanged between any of us. As I’d witness several times during the day Hector’s generosity was as forward and warm as his personality.
The best coffee in town he admitted wasn’t easy to find. “Go between the two lions,” he said. “There’s no sign.” Soon he was leading us to the coffee shop. While he was well spoken in English, his accent masked his sense of humor to my ears. So when he asked if I’d like salt and pepper with my coffee, I was mystified. Was this yet another Mexican tradition that I’d yet uncovered? Or was he as strange as the circumstance I found myself in? The waiter dropped two canisters on the table. One black. One white. I lifted the covers to simply find sugar. He laughted as he pulled a pack of smokes from his jacket and bounded them slightly on his palm.
For the next several hours we were treated to stories of his escapades in the United States, women he conquered and his family. He walked us through the market, through restored Hacienda’s of colonial aristocrats and silver barons. Treated us to “tuna”, a fruit from desert cactus, fresh honey carved out of freshly harvested beehives, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and more. He’s stop and and make jokes with young school children. As he paraded us through the market most of the merchants recognized him. He wouldn’t let us pay for anything. And when paying for the honey for example, he would throw the poor gentrified vendor 4 times the asking price and not accept any change.
He led us into a restaurant for lunch. Freshly roasted chickens that’d put El Pollo Loco to shame. And then full circle back to our hotel. As the hours clicked on that afternoon we saw a part of Zacatecas we missed even after a few days there. Jeremiah and I agreed that our early start failed and we’d spend yet another day on the colorful streets of Zacatecas.
I’m not sure what triggered his beeline approach in my direction this morning. Do I look like a coffee drinker? Are all “gringos” looking for the best coffee? Or was there a connection here? Perhaps many “tourists” would have shrugged him off as a “sales” guy trying to rope people into a shop, while others tired of the relentless barrage of street vendors peddling souvenirs de queso might have simply ignored him and walked by. But this traveler was hooked. And this was my favorite day in Zacatecas.
Photos: (1) Hector my new friend from Zacatecas (2) the honey man of Zacatecas cutting me a piece right from the comb; (3) the broom maker of Zacatecas. Best brooms in the world, per Hector.