My Favorite Strangers

Pain can sneak up on you in the most unexpected times of your life. For me, it was in a tropical paradise, surrounded by palm trees and fresh coconuts. I was in the worst post-break-up stage when I walked into a café near the beach. I only noticed its name halfway through my green juice, “Los Alebrijes.” I ordered a green juice because I knew my body needed nutrients after 3 days of minimal food and sleep…an attempt at self-care.

There was a musician drinking coffee. He sang one of his songs as he softly strummed his guitar. No one seemed to mind. He was good. The song was about this beach town, Puerto Escondido. It was about love, surfing, and meeting a German girl. “I surfed my battles,” he sang in Spanish. The song went on to tell the story of healing in Carrizalillo beach and eventually finding new love in another traveler. “We’re all travelers,” he sang. I liked that the lyrics were specific to this beach town, mentioning spots only people that are here would know about.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

A middle aged woman came out from the kitchen with a ukulele and joined him in song. I think she was the owner. They both had beautiful voices. First, she sang a song about heartbreak. “Ya no volveré…” (“I will not return…”). It was enough sadness to make me cry mid breakfast bite. This was the first hot meal I had in…2 or 3 days, not sure. I was embarrassed, pretending to browse books on the old shelf next to my table in the corner. The sad song ended abruptly, replaced with La Bamba. A sudden mood switch to the happiest song that’s ever been written.

Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs on Unsplash

The waiter brought a side dish of beans “because it’s the law here in Mexico,” he said. He had an exceptionally kind face, gray hair, tall and skinny, he spoke Spanish with a strong accent. Maybe he was French, American, German…This is a town for expats, for the people with no nations. When I ordered eggs he asked where I was from. “Venezuela,” I replied. Sometimes I say I’m from the U.S. but people look at my obviously latina appearance and I know I have to say something else. I was not in the mood to explain myself. “Then I must ask you this…” he proceeded … “Oh no,” I thought, “Here it goes…” I expected him to want my opinion on the current political crisis in Venezuela, which I am tired of being asked about since 2002. “Would you like bread or tortilla?” he said. “Bread.” I replied. I was perplexed. “It’s an important question because if you were Mexican then I know I must serve you tortillas.” It was actually very thoughtful of him to ask. I enjoyed his obvious perseverance to speak every word in Spanish. I did not get the impression he wanted to talk about where he was from either, so I was glad.

It became clear I wasn’t in just any coffee shop. This was a refuge for my broken heart to get fresh air. I knew that if total strangers could make me feel so safe, so welcomed, then I would eventually be okay again. This storm shall indeed pass. 

I finished my meal and thanked them for singing, but my sudden tears cut me off mid-sentence. I was mortified. The waiter and singer stood up to hug me and invited me to return any time, to talk or not talk. They offered their encouragement because let’s face it, we’ve all had a broken heart. “My boyfriend and I broke up,” I explained as if it was not a big deal. I did not want them to think I was crying for something more serious like cancer. It’s a habit I’ve developed  here, not wanting to make people worry too much about me. The guitarist gave me a compassionate smile and nod. I saved further explanations for my therapy session later that day.

Thank God for sunglasses and dignity. I walked away with my notepad and pen in hand. I knew how important writing about this day would be, so I jotted down thoughts on my way home, stopping awkwardly on the sidewalk.

An alebrije. Photo by Fabiola Villasenor on Pixabay.

The coffee shop was called “Los Alebrijes.” Alebrijes are mystical, colorful creatures that protect people. They are the folkloric Mexican version of a guardian angel. If you’ve watched the movie Coco, you’ll think back to the flying tiger that was the family protector in the after life. I don’t believe everything that happens to us is some kind of sign, but from time to time I believe we find ourselves walking in the exact place we are meant to be. For me, it was a coffee-shop named after guardian creatures, a place where my healing began surrounded by strangers.

Breaking up is hard anywhere in the world, and when you are abroad your options can be limiting. I am not running away to a new country. I am getting comfortable in my sadness, and waiting until it passes. I am going out to coffee-shops, writing, and watching those cheesy Christmas movies where everything works out fine. I am trusting the goodness of strangers to let me know it’s ok to cry in public from time to time. It’s ok if your heart breaks because there is a lot of good that will carry you through. Strangers will get it. Tell them. They’ve hurt too.

Happy Travels, always.







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