It’s been a long time since I have ventured past the edge of our reality… and by that, I mean venture South from the US border. The Western Hemisphere seems to have a great divide, an ever-present “Us vs. Them” (or, more specifically, U.S. vs. Them) mentality.
Tell someone North of the border that you’re going South, and they’ll likely say you’re crazy. They’ll say that you’ll die, you’ll get mugged, you’ll shit until your pooty-pucker pokes out. While this can be the case (I certainly experienced five days of the latter, shivering in the fetal position clutching a bottle of Pepto Bismal), I find these responses a tad flippant. Usually, they come from people who have yet to make the journey over the border themselves. They’ve only listened to and judged the world based on the bilious narrative their TV or Facebook feed regurgitates down their cheeping little bird beaks.
Some souls may have gone to Cancun or Cabo during Spring Break. But can a journey from a Mexican airport to an all-inclusive resort for a week without leaving the compound really be classified as going to Mexico?
For many Americans North of Tijuana and El Paso, the border is more of a concept. A selling point. It’s a buzzword that means many things to different people, but to most of them, it means “bad news”. To some, its a way to garner more votes for their side. For others, a remark and reminder of how “good” things are over here on “our” side. To many, the border is a line in the sand that marks where the perceived perception of civilization begins and ends.
Yet for many Mexicans, the line in the sand has a much more painful reality. It represents family members or friends who have crossed and never returned. It has manifested a drug war that has ravaged many parts of the country and taken, since 2006, more than 150,000 lives. Likely more when considering the disappearances and homicides carried out by the military, which largely go unreported. Likely more again considering how many disappearances are left unresolved.
But long before the mafia violence and the passing of human lives and drugs across that line in the sand, the border represented an ideology of superiority. The border is a vast Jacaranda tree casting a centuries-old shadow upon the Mexican people and their way of life, the shade from which a point of contention and turmoil for those living beneath it. There can be no United States without a Mexico, and there can be no Mexico without the United States. The fate and success of both countries are reliably intertwined, for better and for worse. But one of the strengths of traveling is having the ability to go over the border and find out how these two inextricably contrasting societies can, and should, learn and work more with each other.
The border for me represents a much-needed dive into a world of warmth and color that is rarely found up North. Having just come off a stint of living outside the United States for eight years, I was not ready to return. Returning to my native Denver felt like moving to an entirely different country. I had no job, no community, and no reason not to head South.
So much like Kerouac, Trotsky, Lowry, and many other gringo outcasts looking to ruffle their feathers and escape the humdrum monotony of the North, I fled to Mexico.
Fine, a German friend of mine from University, had been spending the entirety of the COVID years out in either a banana farm in Costa Rica or up in the mountains of Oaxaca. Writing freelance from her palm frond palapa with her boyfriend, the two had taken to exploring Mexico to write, learn about mycology and natural medicines, build eco-houses, and much more. Before she moved back to Germany, I wanted the chance to stop in and experience the other side of the border through her eyes.
I would begin the journey in Mexico City, meeting up with my mother and her boyfriend for a few days before heading up north to find Fine.
Mexico is a world within itself, and Mexico City is a fantastic representation of this Mundo Mexico. The arrival itself is quite mundane, a quiet before the storm. A boring plane with fly a couple of hours to get to Mexico, where you walk through a drab airport and get a green stamp from a polite yet homely guard. But that is where the mundane ends and the Mundo Mexico begins.
The city is inescapably large in its sprawl, smog and clutter. Yet through the thickness of the smog and grit is a city with boundless opportunities for respite and calm. There’s a depth of culture the likes we have nothing of in the United States aside from a few Hopi villages which have been continually inhabited for millennia. Here, you feel a depth of history beneath you that can only come from being in a city that has had centuries of souls sifting through the dirt to create their own homes and lives.
This history is broadcasted in a most concisely eclectic way at the Anthropology museum: A world within a world within a world. The museum is home to the largest collection of Pre-Hispanic artifacts, enough to fill a day’s worth of exploring. Every epoch of Mexico’s deep history, from Olmecs to Anasazi’s to Mexica’s and everything before, after, and in between is brilliantly represented in this proud display of history worth being obscenely proud of. Beyond the awe of being able to experience such a wealth of culture, I was struck by the fact that we have nothing this deep to offer in the United States. There’s an excellent Native American History Museum in Washington D.C., but beyond that, we lack a wealth of history that it seems most other countries seem to enjoy.
And with that, I think I may have found a chink in the U.S.’ armor. Countries with deep histories are able to connect to something much greater than themselves. In Mexico, they are all able to grab on to their Mexica, Zapotec or Mayan culture. Italians can grab on to their Roman history, the same way the Cambodians find strength by identifying with the ancient Khmer. In the United States, we have no history of our own to identify with, thus we identify with our race and origin more than the history of the land we live on. We grasp on to an adoptive heritage of being Irish, Nigerian, or Vietnamese, even if we have never stepped foot in those lands. The “American” identity we attach to it is more a collection of perceived shared values — set out by several well-to-do Anglo-Saxon gentlemen of a singular religious ideology a few centuries ago — rather than something fundamentally tied to the soil like it is in other parts of the world. In my very amateur and uninformed opinion, I believe this leads to some of the issues in the United States at the moment. Ideas and values can only go so far when the roots of those who observe them are stressed and spread so thin. As a country, we don’t have thick traditional roots to attach ourselves to, leaving us without something to moor us to the soil when a storm comes.
This is less the case in Mexico. A Mexican may not always be proud of their country and its politics, but almost everyone I met was proud of their history and perhaps the most impressionable Mexican footprint left on the world: food. The one thing most Mexicans I met are proud of more than anything is their food. If ever I entered into the uncharted territory of an awkward silence with someone, I always knew that the simple question of “What should I eat while I’m here?” would send whoever I was speaking with spinning into a thirty-minute monologue on the countless local dishes to try, and how their mom makes the best Pozole in town.
Yes, the food alone is a reason to make the journey across the border. But there comes a time in every gringo’s life when the squirts and squitters make their first appearance. Montezuma’s revenge. The trots. You never know when it will come. With every bite you take of a taco, or a piece of fish, or even an ice cream, the thought “am I about to spend the next night whispering lullabies into the ears of the toilet priestess?” comes quite readily. For me, my squirts came promptly after landing. On the SECOND day. I’m not sure if it was the food or an Aztec cleansing ritual I had during an Aztec dance to the Sun and Moon. If it was indeed the food, it seemed harmless enough at the time. I had ordered a quesadilla with huitlacoche, a mushroom that grows in corn, in a packed restaurant. I only eat at packed restaurants when I travel, because I know that the locals know best and likely don’t want to get sick either. Yet still, something wasn’t right about this corn smut. I spent the next five days rushing to the toilet on an hourly basis to convene with the devil, praying for him to leave my butthole bare and spare me the pain of dying a slow dehydrated death curled up in a corner wet from raw digestive distress.
Yet, still, I could not stop eating. The pain of the squitters was not enough to deter me from eating this delicious food, and my mouth was gluttonously stuffed on a constant basis. My gluttony became so direct, we even went on a food tour of Mexico City, and I don’t regret it for an instant, clutching a taco al pastor in between hurried bathroom breaks.
From tacos de canasta to churros, you can completely eat your way through the central part of Mexico City for a complete bargain. Besides eating, engaging in the vast culture, and having the squitters, perhaps the best thing to do in Mexico City is wander the streets. Chapultapec park, La Condesa, and every part of Roma are all worth wandering around. These parts of town are all filled with boutiques and hip restaurants servicing the gringos and high-class Mexicans living in the Mexico City bubble. It’s a delicious part of CDMX to explore, if expensive, but worth a wander for sure.
More impressive than anything else in Mexico City is communing with the locals. As I was only beginning to understand, Mexicans are some of the kindest individuals on this little blue Earth. They have the most amazing ability to strike up a conversation out of nothing, and their boundless politeness leads them to listen with genuine enthusiasm. This is a country of people who revel in shooting the shit, convening and connecting with those new and old, and talking about everything under the sun. Aside from the ass-exorcism, this was not the Mexico Northern narratives wanted me to see — this was something much better. And I’m starting to believe that all of this is propaganda to keep our Gringo butts up North and not experience the vibrance of life that is easily within reach.
To me, Mexico City offers the best top-down view of Mexico and is an excellent place to begin one’s adventure through the Mundo Mexico. All of the different and contrasting cultures, foods, and sights are condensed into this bubbling caldo of a city in an entrancing and addictive way. Mexico City is by no means boring, and as far as capital cities go, is probably one of the most vibrant and exciting to explore on this continent.
A few days of Mexico City and we had gotten our first addictive taste of Mexico before heading north to Guadalajara by way of a $30 flight. With it, a whole new world awaited us in Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco.