The Mexico City Flaneur

Southern Florida is a strange little universe in its own right. After spending a good nine days helping my mother move out of her house and tetris everything into a storage unit, I was ready to go back across the border to experience the lighter sides of life once again. More importantly, I was going back to reconnect with the side of me I had lost after living in Denmark for six years.

The intricacies of relationships up north and the pervasive undercurrent of “us vs. them” thinking really got under my skin when I was in Florida. The stigma behind wearing a mask, not wearing a mask, being as a person of color, and feeling oppressed by people of a different color are just a few topics that seem to cause a wee smidge of strife to say the least. These arguments feel so trite in most contexts, and often just create more issues rather than solutions.

On the flip side, there is not much of a PC movement in Mexico. If you are fat, they will nickname you fatty. If you are a gringo, they will call you a gringo. If you are tall with long hair and a beard like me, they will most certainly call you Jesus Christ and ask for a blessing on the dance floor. Mexicans wear their hearts on their sleeves, and there is no beating around the bush or sugar coating when it comes to the everyday. I find this endlessly refreshing in comparison to the constant tip-toeing we have to do up North.

This point hardened further as I waited for the train to the Miami airport. There was a young black man standing next to me, mumbling to himself in a language I did not recognize. Across the tracks, another black man seemed to recognize him, and called out from across the tracks. “Hey, what’s up man!” He waved. The man next to me clearly did not know this other man, and ignored him. “Hey man, we went to school together! What’s up man! Why you ignoring me?”

“I don’t know you, Yankee! I’m from Nigeria! You think just cause I’m black like you, I know you?” He stormed off walking around in circles, cursing to himself in his language, with the only intelligible part being “Fucking Yankees everywhere, man. 85% of people are white!” An oddly specific number, I felt, as I looked around and counted exactly 4 white faces on the tracks among people hailing from Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Vietnam, and countless others watching the display of strange racial frustration on the tracks with me.

“Yo, why you so mad man?” Yelled the other man sincerely from across the tracks. “You smoke weed man?” This stopped the pacing Nigerian man in his tracks. He smiled and yelled back.

“Ya, I always got mine.”

“Bro! Get over here, let’s smoke up!”

The Nigerian man next to me instantly calmed down and ran across the tracks to convene with his new friend. A strange reality we live in indeed, in our little slice of paradise we call the United States.

My plane to Mexico was almost entirely filled by the 1% bubble of Mexico. Easy to recognize by their “European” features and flaunting of wealth. The 1% bubble of Mexico lives in a version of Mexico entirely different from everyone else. They are not familiar with the hardships of having to cross the border illegally or lose a family member to that journey. Many of them may have passports to European countries or may have even gone to school across the border in the US, and now run the family business and go around Mexico City with private security and on holiday to Miami. They are terrified of the real Mexico and thus are likely just as familiar with it as the average American who goes to Cancun to eat chilaquiles in a resort and never leave the compound .

My Uber driver into the city ranted, as many taxi drivers in Mexico will, about how good the food is in Mexico. If there is one combining identity trait that seemly every Mexican takes pride in, it is their cuisine. This driver happened to be lamenting how his two kids always want fast American food. They do not want to go out for tacos, they want to go to MacDonald’s. All he wants is to share his culinary traditions and history with his kids and take them out to his favorite spots, but they just want burgers and fries.

This time around in Mexico City, I opted to stay in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood just North of the center of Mexico City. With a decidedly residential and young-family feel, this felt like the perfect place to put my nose to the grindstone and do some real thinking. My room was on the ground floor, a simple cheap room with everything I needed for my flaneuristic needs. With a sliding door fitted with two strong heavy-duty padlocks, my room felt more like a container storage unit than an Airbnb, but it was all I needed. Close to the metro and close to the bus, this was the perfect place to call home for a week to indulge in the underbelly of Mexico City, and live out all of my self-indulgent flaneuristic fantasies. On top of that, the space allowed me the privacy to write, and think about my life now that I was freshly unemployed and looking to start a new life.

My goal for this week was to catch up on some writing and voice work for an animated video I was creating with a friend. Quickly, though, I slipped into the mentality of all flaneurs: I felt productive while achieving the bare minimum of work necessary, telling myself I was experiencing the local culture by going to coffee shops and self-indulgently sipping beers in pubs. In reality, I was doing nothing different than I would do at home, just enjoying the simple pleasures without actually engaging in anything new or fresh, or unique.

But for where I felt in my heart at this moment, this is the best thing I could do. Having just left Denmark after six years, saying goodbye to a wonderfully loving girlfriend of two years and a supportive community I had built over six years, I felt a little lost and a little heartbroken. Rather than allow myself to be distracted by the city or my phone, I would simply sit with my emotions. When I felt the wave coming, I let it land, and I cried along with it. The ability to just sit and experience my range of emotions without distraction was exactly what I needed at that moment, and to do so from my little storage containment unity of a room was a blessing indeed.

Every day I would go for a wander, sometimes down to the hip neighborhood of Roma to peruse the bookstores and cafes, other times to go out further afield to see some local color. Bookstores and markets are always some of the first places I must visit when going to a new country. To visit a bookstore is like seeing a window into the minds of the locals, and here in Roma, I learned that the locals read a lot about philosophy and history. They are deep thinkers, which I can clearly tell when talking to the folks around Roma, as they are all very well-informed and thoughtful. Further afield, I wandered around the Mercado Sonora, a huge market selling everything from puppies to herbs to tarot cards and love potions. It was all a bit overwhelming, so I opted to head back to the calm of Roma or the respite of my container hotel.

In Roma, I picked up a conversation with a homeless man and bought him a cup of coffee. Sometimes when I travel alone, I am strangely able to empathize with the homeless or vagabonds. People tend to look at me with a strange sideways glance as I wander aimlessly, simply sitting and observing. Always on the outside, never in on the fun of the city or in the relationships of the locals.

When I had some extra energy, I would go to the bouldering gym in Roma. I would go to a Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of pho, a bit of nostalgia from when I would go climbing in Hong Kong and grab a bowl of pho afterward. On this first occasion, I sat down and a waiter with a lazy eye came up to me and gave me a menu, followed by an “oh, you’re really very handsome.” I told him thank you, and decided which bowl of soup to order.

When he came back to take my order, he repeated “No, but I’m serious. You are REALLY handsome!”

“Thank you so much, that really makes my day! I’ll have a number two please…” I replied back.

When he brought me my food, he asked for my number and where I was staying. “If you like, I can come and keep you some company.” Rarely am I hit on by gay men, but I guess it shows I know how to slurp my noodles.

When my flaneuristic pleasures needed to escape the city, I would take a little day trip to see the surroundings. One day, I took the bus to Teotihuacan, the famous megalithic pyramids outside of Mexico City and the seat of the former Mexica empire.

The largest pyramids on this diverse continent, and inconceivably gigantic in grandeur. I started my trip like I start every day in the Mexican sun, with a healthy slathering of five or six layers of the strongest sun screen this side of Saskatchewan. While I was hunched over like a filthy Hobbit, coating my creamy white Irish skin, I made eye contact with an attractive young tourist lady wandering around. To her, I was a pale little hunched-over lanky boy, but to me, she was a beautiful red-head who probably had some cool stories to share and whatever. I decided I was single and ready to mingle. However, I had completely forgotten how to be smooth after two years of loving relationship land.

We were in the general vicinity of each other for most of the morning, wandering around the gigantic pyramids, pretending to be interested in the information signs, taking photos, whatever tourists do. At one point, walking down the only road to the main pyramid, I saw my opportunity and decided to walk up to her and strike up a conversation. I told myself I would be smooth as butter on a hot Mississippi day.

I walked up to her and said in Spanish “Do you know which way we are supposed to go first?” Idiotic start. Like butter on a frozen day in Fargo.

“Pardon, I am sohry,” she replied back in the thickest French accent I have heard, “do you speak English?” Just my luck, French girls and I have a terrible track record. But the universe had given me the chance to come up with something more smooth to say to her. Instead, I decided to repeat the same dumb question in English.

“Oh I uh,” a bit flustered, “I was wondering if you knew which uh, which way we were going?” She looked at the single path in front of us, then back at me with the eyes one would look at a small chubby child in a kiddy pool, drawing a face on his belly to turn his flab into a face. “Mr. Tummy hungie.”

“Um…we are on zee only road.”

“Oh ya true!” I said, trying to play it cool. “You just walk with so much confidence I uh, thought you must be a guide or something.” I said with a smile, thinking I had saved myself.

I had not. She grimaced and realized she had to slow down to avoid walking next to me before I turned her into cat food. Seeing this, I wished her a good day and sped up the track. It wasn’t pretty, but you gotta get back on that donkey somehow.

The next day was filled with another little side adventure, down to the botanic gardens at the university in the South side of the city. To get there, I had to take a bus to the metro to the bus to the 20-minute walk. It would be a hike. At the first bus stop, a middle-aged woman named Mercedes noticed me and asked where I was from. We struck up a conversation, and after telling her I was going to Chiapas, she told me that was her home and that I could get in contact with her whenever I needed help. She gave me her number and got off the bus. I didn’t think much of it until an hour and a half later when she called me just to ask how I was doing. “Where are you? Are you having fun? That makes me happy. Have a lovely day!” She still calls me sometimes, on my Mexican number which no longer has enough credit to pick up her call. I hope you are well, Mercedes.

At the botanic gardens, I met with Fine’s boyfriend, Timo. Fine was back in Germany, but Timo was doing some help around the house before going up to California for morel mushroom season. A mycological writer by practice, Timo is the kind of guy who knows more about plants than anything else. A fascinating guy and wonderfully dedicated writer, having grown up in California as a French-Mexican national. His father worked for the Mexican consulate in the States, making his English accent decidedly Californian and his Spanish accent spiced with a hint of gringo. We walked around the botanic garden as I learned about plants and then instantly forgot about all of the facts he had just taught me. When we were planted out, we went back to his parent’s house to cook some lunch. A hodge-podge of sautéed mushrooms with local grain, some roasted veggies, and a salsa of tomatoes and petite sweet avocados. A simple yet delicious lunch, you can always trust a mycologist to perfectly cook a mushroom.

Timo’s father, Bernardo, is a master of connection. An old-school diplomat, he asked for my CV right away to send off to some friends of his. Their humble apartment was filled to the brim with books spanning all of Mexico’s history, quite the collection, stuffing every free space in their living room. We burned out throats with some Mezcal before I went on my way to finish up my time in Mexico City.

After a week of enjoying the flaneuristic pleasures of this beautiful and chaotic city, I decided it was time to move on. I had done my emotional workout time in my containment unit, pretending to be productive while doing nothing but drink coffee, beer, and scaring random French red-heads. I had seen the largest pyramids on this continent and had to lightly reject a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant with a lazy eye. I could only go up from here. So now it was time to move on and see what else was out there in the Mundo Mexico, and continue down the road South to Puebla for a new city and the most chaotically emotional day I have experienced in my life.



A Dusty Nayarit Coast

On the advice of Walter, our host at the Airbnb in the jungles East of San Pancho, Fine and I would head North to the coastal town of San Blas. “Definitely a local beach,” he told us, holding his pantless blond-haired son porky pigging it around the jungle. “Very few gringoes at all, man. You’ll love it.”

“Very few gringoes,” is all I need to hear to venture to a place. My mother and her boyfriend would drop us off in the sleepy town of Las Varas on their way back to Guadalajara, and from there we fended for ourselves. Las Varas only exists as a pit stop for passing truckers on their way to Puerto Vallarta. A town of quiet locals slowly munching on their morning Chilaquiles as they day slowly unfolded before them.

After interrupting a few locals from their morning munching to find out where the bus to San Blas would leave from, we decided to just wait along the highway for a bus that would probably come, at some point.

About an hour later a large bus pulled up to the dusty town to take us down the windy road to San Blas. Mexican provincial buses usually have some form of live entertainment in the form of a bootlegged B-movie for the entire bus to enjoy. The volume is always set to max, with your only respite laying in the guarantee that the scratched DVD will eventually stop playing halfway through the film and provide you some silence.

San Blas is another dusty Nayarit town, but with a decidedly more local atmosphere. There are no resorts, no big flashy restaurants catering to the snowbirds, and best of all: no gringoes. The town is centered on a sour fishy-smelling square with a white adobe church and locals marinading in their jeans under the shade of a jacaranda.

Unlike San Pancho, there were no dirty-footed hippies along this beach town. Only Mexican families eating freshly grilled fish and drinking 1.5 liter beers affectionately called caguamas, thinking to themselves “Oh god, the dirty footed hippies found us,” while looking at me and Fine.

After a few calm days of local beach life, drinking caguamas while watching family Chihuahuas race up and down the long beach, Fine and I continued our journey down to Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit. Tepic reminisces of Guadalajara in its landscape, rimmed by arid volcanoes and living under a pervasively foreboding sun.

Tepic is a nice town to walk around for a few hours, with a central market with Huicholes selling some of their wares. Fine and I popped into the History Museum, featuring a ceramics collection that really amazed us. The local cultures sculpted everything into miniature clay life. Little dioramas of how life looked, even complete with figurines of a medicine man servicing clay figurines of people with tuberculosis and cleft lips. Sculptures depicted the process of sucking sap from the maguey plant to make pulque, a process still utilized throughout Mexico to make this cummy-yet-delicious beverage.

Like most of Nayarit away from the resorts, Tepic is wonderfully devoid of tourists. Locals delight in your enthusiasm for their culture and products, and simply asking them about the fruit they are selling will result in them giving you a sample and telling you about every detail of the exotic little fruit in question.

We decided to spend a night in Tepic before going further to La Querencia, a small town near a lagoon deep a valley filled with volcanoes. We found a cheap Airbnb here, owned by an old British ex-pat who married locally and built his own little paradise in the hills of Nayarit. Here, we would wait for Fine’s boyfriend, Timo, a French-Mexican mycological writer on fresh from a road trip with his parents around the California Sur Peninsula.

While we waited for Timo, Fine and I rambled around in the hills. The only way to get around was by our thumb, which we held out while walking up and down the only arid road in the area. Usually, a passing pickup truck, seeing two white faces, would simply pull over and wait for us to hop on without a word.

When Timo arrived, it signaled that it was my turn to return North for a brief period. But I would be back, to soak up more of the Mundo Mexico and venture further South into the unknown. Fine and her boyfriend decided to stay longer at the Airbnb, while I rode with his parents into Tepic so I could catch a bus into Guadalajara before my flight home.

On my second time in Guadalajara I would stay at a cheap little place in the Northern part of the city, a bit more suburban and welcoming. The streets were lined with modest gated houses with plenty of guard dogs to protect the locals. But the locals stayed out late at night, sitting in the streets with their kids eating ice cream, and chatting about the day. My host gave me a little walk around the house, pointing out all the places to see in the neighborhood. Then he decided to about the taxes in Guadalajara, and how Guadalajara was the biggest earning city in Mexico and the capital was stealing all of their hard-earned pesos. “You must be a capitalist!” I said awkwardly, half joking.

“No.” He replied with a cold serious face. “I’m a warrior.” He removed his hat, exposing a huge scar across his skull. “I’m an Aztec warrior. I served in the military, and now I’m awake to what their really doing.” I, being the naive conversationalist that I am, prompted him to keep going. Sensing that my ears were warmed up to listen, he dove into a rant about the vaccines and their microchips, how the Kardashians bathe in the blood of aborted fetuses, and how he’s the only one that’s really awake to the insanity of the current reality.

“Ya, shit’s pretty fucking crazy right now,” I replied without commitment when I was finally able to get a word in edgewise from his rant.

“Hey, by the way!” He said, excited that I was still listening to him. “There are some really good bars up the street, with really cheap booze. You can also find white girls, colored girls, whatever you’re looking for.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind when I go out.” I thanked him for his time, and as I closed the door his eyes looked upon me with the scared sad eyes of a little boy stuck in a man’s body. The look of a man who has lost himself, a man trying to piece together some form of existence from the fragments of his own mind.

The following day I went back stateside to spend time with my mom and help her move out of her house. Like me, she was also now on a hunt for a new community. But I’d be back in Mexico in a week, and the fulfilling spontaneity and search for purpose after a life of mundane routine would assuredly continue.

To the Western Coast

Fresh-faced and bushy-tailed after parading with the Amazonian women of Pátzcuaro, we made our way South into another unknown Mexican state, Colima. Much like Michoacán, Colima is a state many locals will tell you not to visit.

The threat of violence has become too much for many, even many locals feel that they need to travel with security. As we drove the seven hours down to the capital city of Colima, we passed countless army barricades while simultaneously passing heavily armed cartel soldiers parading down the streets in armored vehicles. To a lot of locals, these barricades feel more like a show of power from the government than a legitimate force of security. The army has certainly been accused of their own atrocities, and in some cases escalate the situation by kidnapping their own civilians for their own malicious deeds. In Mexico, one often has to wonder who really is in control, and who lined the pockets of those who make the rules. A Mexican politician must always remember who helped them get into power in the first place.

The roads felt like a warzone and the countryside of Michoacán outside of the occasional Pueblo Mágico felt equally unwelcoming. Dusty towns with dusty goats and even dustier faces, potholed roads, and hills lined with scraggy volcanoes. Every red light we stopped at in a passing village felt like it could have been our last.

Yet the Gods of Travel were on our side this day, and after seven hours we made it to Colima unharmed other than the intense sunburn on my left arm from sitting next to the window all day.

From the relative feeling of chaos and war outside of Colima, the actual center of town felt quite serene. Pastel sugar-coated houses and a town square reminiscent of the Caribbean with brightly painted buildings and a cool breeze. We only saw one other Gringo couple staying here, a mark of how rarely visited this corner of the Mundo Mexico is. And perhaps for a good reason, Colima is a cute city but not necessarily worth all of your time. With a nearby volcano for trekking, one could stay a day or so before heading to the coast.

After walking around the center and stopping for some dinner, Fine and I reminisced in the garden of our hotel. Little bats darted and dove around catching mosquitoes as an opossum weaved through the barbed wire fence to wander in the dusk air. I asked Fine if, after having lived in this country for two years, Mexico had changed her in any way. When she first arrived in 2018 to live in Querétaro, she felt an overwhelming sense of freedom. After a cold winter of Denmark, coming to the warmth and vibrance of Mexico can cure any blues. The freedom of doing what you please, salsa dancing nights in the streets, and the vibrance of daily life enticed and enlivened her. On her second time back, living mainly in Oaxaca, she experienced a different taste of Mexico. In Oaxaca, a state much more indigenous in identity than Querétaro, Fine experienced a much more challenging atmosphere to connect with locals. For the non-indigenous gringoes living in Oaxaca, there is almost no chance that the locals will ever consider you a part of the community. For many of the months in the mountains of Oaxaca, it felt almost like a jail sentence. Not being able to connect, in the depth of the pandemic, feeling like she would never fit into this distant land.

The next morning we awoke to a mild sticky humidity from the sea, with a brilliant fresh chill from the morning air as the birds chittered away in the hotel garden. Today, we would drive to La Manzanilla on the Jalisco coast, not to be confused with Manzanillo just down the road in Colima. To get there, we drove straight south to the coastal town of Cuyutlán before heading up the coast through the port city of Manzanillo, likely the center of drug trafficking in the state of Colima. As we drove past the burgeoning port, I wondered just how many of these storage containers were filled with contraband or worse.

La Manzanilla, a cute little beach town sitting along a long stretch of beach in Jalisco, turned out to host a surprising community of quiet aging Canadian expats. They come down for the Winter months in their motorhomes, showing off their long white hair, feet black from decades of barefoot walking, constantly shit-talking about North American politics. A town of old washed-up hippies spending some pension money growing redder in the intense heat of the Jalisco sun. An attractive flute-playing hippy girl with her local not-so-attractive guitar-playing boyfriend busking on the dusty streets. Expats bringing in stray dogs to get clipped at the local veterinarian, which had open windows to demonstrate the procedure on splayed, passed-out pups. A Canadian woman with her little misbehaving son running into the local market. A Mexican shopkeeper confiding in me “my son, he’s only ten months old and he just started walking. Finally, he can start working!”

La Manzanilla was indeed a cute town with a strong expat community that seemed more respectful to the locals than most. We had rented a small Airbnb up the coast a bit, on a quiet stretch of the beach. While this may be the Pacific, the beach was protected and calm offering plenty of opportunities to enjoy the water without getting sucked in from the infamous Pacific undercurrent. Here, we spent several days cracking coconuts, enjoying the ocean breeze and the terns squeaking as they flew through the air.

Like many of the other snowbirds, my mother was traveling through Mexico on a mission to find a second home, a second life South of the border. So we were technically on a reconnaissance mission, finding the best communities and towns to settle down. This meant we had to say goodbye to our little paradise in La Manzanilla and test out another beach up north, in San Pancho.

Dusty horses and more armed drug cartel cars lined our five-hour route North through Jalisco, through the beachside resort of Puerto Vallarta. We did not stop but merely peered into the other world of white-washed resorts and tanned gringoes who never get off the reservation to experience the real Mexico.

Along the way, we stopped at a holy spot for the local Huichol people. A sacred river running through tall palm fronds, exposing a holy site of pilgrimage. To get there, we ventured off the main road, turning down dirt road with a lone figure standing in between two tall trees casting a shadow down upon him. He asked for 20 Pesos to enter, telling us he once lived for eight years in Redwood City before being deported on a DUI.

The day was one of the few overcast days we experienced in our month and a half around Mexico. We parked in a dry riverbed lined with passionfruit plantations before a tall barbed wire fence with a small hole large enough only for the bodies of pilgrims to pass through. The minute we entered the energy was sucked out of our bodies, as we seemingly became one with the passing stream and tall verdant palm fronds.

As we walked up a stream, rocks were dotted with petroglyphs carved centuries ago. Images of peyotes, galaxies, and the corn man (the Huichol creation story) dotted the megalithic boulders as we advanced through the serene valley. Mourning doves cooed lightly as the rolling stream gurgled passed us over rocks carved smooth by millennia of passing water. This valley has been inhabited for centuries by the Tecoxquin and later the Huichol, who found it represented a holy gift of water from the Gods. At its crux, a small waterfall with offerings scattered around for those who come to pay homage to the spirits that live here. The story goes that the ancestors come, appearing as completely white beings, from the hills to worship among these rolling streams. In the pure silence of this location, I can imagine a white spirit emerging from behind a frond at any point.

San Pancho is a town entirely taken over by men who look like me. Long-haired, scruffy-faced, artsy tattoos, and with dirty toes riding dusty skateboards from the hostel to the bar to the beach. The town consists entirely of upscale boho establishments with vegan poke bowls and avocado smoothies. Dreadlocks, mandala tattoos, toe rings, and the thick all-pervasive smell of patchouli with a hint of body odor. We would not be staying with the hippies, however, as we opted to stay in the jungle in a bungalow just East of town.

Our bungalow, deep in the jungle, was a half thought our hippy paradise. The beach, much rougher than the one we enjoyed in La Manzanilla, was a 20-minute hike through the palm fronds and mosquitoes to reach. Rocky sand and unswimmable waters are populated only by a large Mexican family collecting driftwood to make crafts with.

I ended up loving the jungle. Sleeping under a mosquito net to the chirping of geckos and an annoying cat that my mother kept feeding, which kept trying to climb through the ceiling at night to raid our pantry. For my mother and her boyfriend, their trip was soon coming to an end as they went back to Guadalajara to return to Florida. I’d be there with them soon, to help my mother sell her house, but first Fine and I would adventure alone through the dry hills of Nayarit in search of a new unknown piece of the Mundo Mexico.

Monarchs and Muxes of Michoacán

Like an explosion of orange confetti, or a leaf blower being used in the fall, the Monarch Butterfly reserves in the state of Michoacán offer visitors an explosion of orange unlike anything they’ve ever seen — and one they can not fully prepare for mentally until their boots are on the ground and thousands of orange wings are fluttering above them.

This was the first stop on our grand Mexican road trip, driving four hours in our silver manta ray of a Chevy Aveo from Querétaro through the state of Guanajuato into Michoacán and straight to the Rosario Monarch Butterfly reserve. All things considered, Mexican highways are quite good. Just like the US, highways are well maintained as the main cross-country people mover. The only thing a driver must watch out for is the regular and sporadic placement of speedbumps, which occasionally come without warning and have no hazard paint, leading the driver to be shot forcefully into space like a bottle rocket. I had a couple close calls going from 80 kmh down to 0 in a few seconds to avoid shooting out the front window.

Driving through central Mexico, I understand why the Spaniards named this part of the world “New Spain.” It looks remarkably similar to central Spain, in the same pervasively dry way with rolling scrubby hills and sun that burns any skin it touches within 15 minutes.

Our journey led us through the state of Guanajuato and into the unknown: Michoacán. Michoacán is now regarded as one of the most dangerous states in Mexico, seeing a recent upturn in violent crime and mafia-related human and drug trafficking. This is unfortunate because Michoacán is probably the prettiest state we visited in Mexico. Pine-covered peaks, gorgeous old towns, and wonderfully kind locals make it a destination worth journeying to with care taken towards safety as a number one priority.

The monarch butterfly sanctuary, located high in the mountains around 3500 meters above sea level deep within a pine forest, is the perfect experience during the winter months when the Monarch’s come to enjoy the warmer weather and feast upon nearly endless amounts of nectar. But this is not some Disney shit. I was expecting to see a drug addict in a butterfly costume, dancing and welcoming tourists to a theme park around butterflies. But what we experienced felt quite special.

The vibrant orange wings of several Monarch Butterflies in the bushes.

You must enter with a guide, who walks into the sanctuary with you to give you some facts and make sure you don’t disturb the habitat. As we walked in, we started seeing a few butterflies. Pretty. But the deeper we went, I started to hear what sounded like the falling of leaves. I looked up and saw thousands of orange wings fluttering about in the sky, their wings sailing in the drift of the air in between the pines. The deeper we went into the forest the more butterflies flew through the air, until we stumbled into the main room for the monarchs. Here, among the tall Oyamel fir trees were thousands of butterflies huddling together for warmth. The trees seem thick with dead leaves, but in reality, there are little wings and proboscises in there snuggling up for a winter nap before heading North again. A beautiful community, seen nowhere else to this degree.

Now for a bit of butterfly talk, cause these little buggers live quite a life. Monarch butterflies migrate in generations, meaning this generation I’m seeing here in Michoacán will soon have a gigantic orgy in which the men will die from dehydration (my dream), before the females begin their journey back north in March and April. They’ll begin their way North, through Kansas and Minnesota and other fly-over states, laying their eggs and passing on the baton to the next generation, who will continue heading North into Southern Canada to enjoy the summer. Then these cheeky little snowbirds, or likely their children, will begin the journey back South to these hills of Michoacán to spawn again and enjoy their massive Monarch orgy. This is one of the most arduous and unique migrations in the animal kingdom, and to go from being in Kindergartner with a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar kit to seeing the end product makes 5-year-old me pretty giddy.

What’s more significant to me about these little guys is their symbolism to the locals. The monarchs represent an interesting dichotomy between belief systems. For us Northerners, I feel we never give too much thought to their journey. We learn about them in school, maybe even buy a Monarch butterfly kit to watch caterpillars turn into butterflies before releasing them back to Mexico. They’re little more than a blip in a textbook or an advertisement in a nature magazine made for kids, a lesson and nothing more.

For Mexicans, these butterflies have a more profound meaning. Their arrival in October coincides with the Día de los Muertos, meaning that for centuries it was believed that the souls of loved ones lived on in these butterflies, flying on their wings to be with family members once again. In a modern context, the butterflies represent the migration of Mexicans to the North. They awake and feel an instinctual urge to go North. Their journey may be fraught with countless perils, but they know that Mexico is where they will always return eventually, in some form. They represent a unique tie, a partnership that only Mexico, the US, and Canada have. They’re the best and most marvelous representation of our unique corner of the world. They represent what it means to be American — meaning any of the kooky characters born on this continent.

When I talked about this subject with our guide, Juan, a man who grew up in the village and never went to school, his eyes lit up as he threw a thumb up into the air. “That’s it!” Like all Mexicans, I found his politeness humbling in a sweet way.

To me, it seems amazing that the meaning of these butterflies can have such a beautiful context to an entire country, and be lost to two others. I do hope that we can look to unite ourselves more with our Americans in the North and South, and realize the beauty in working together to make a stronger America for all of us.

After spending time sitting and enjoying this natural splendor of fluttering orange explosions of life, we said goodbye and wished our winged friends a safe journey North as we headed the opposite direction, to the town of Zitácuaro to spend the night. The town was filled with stray dogs and confused-looking people, not sure why the blondies were walking down their streets.

The next morning we mused about learning new languages and teaching some Spanish to my mom and her boyfriend by going around the breakfast table and translating items. I can attest that coming to Mexico and being able to speak Spanish opens up so many more doors than not being able to speak it. Mexicans want to talk to you at every opportunity, and really listen to what you have to say. They are curious to learn about you, and share their beautiful country with you — yet, language can act as a barrier that only creates shy or awkward feelings from both parties.

Our silver manta ray of a Chevy Aveo would take us deeper into Michoacán today. Into the capital of Morelia on the way to the lakeside Pueblo Mágico of Pátzcuaro. What we did not realize was that today was the final day of carnaval, hence a big party to celebrate debauchery before the coming lent. The old town of Morelia was absolutely packed with young University students and geriatrics alike, ambling about in the intense sunshine of the bleached city. Morelia has a charming old town of towering sandy buildings and one large strawberry ice cream-colored cathedral. It seems fitting that the cathedral would be ice cream colored because Morelia is absolutely ice cream crazy. The cathedral is rimmed by parks filled with the wandering local who is coming from work but isn’t quite ready to go back home yet. We fit into this category a bit as well, yet as travelers we only got a little bit more lost than others on our walk back home.

Morelia has a youthful vibe, and even though Michoacán happens to be one of the more dangerous states to live in Mexico, the atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going on this offensively hot sunny day. We stopped for a brief lunch sampling some local dishes. Michoacán is famous for their carnitas, the same hard-beaten tenderly juicy delicious morsels of ropy pork you get on your tacos back home, but better. With food in our bellies, it was off to our stop for the night.

The road leading to Pátzcuaro was picturesque, lined with trees with rambling hills rolling in the distance. If it weren’t for the constant presence of marines and national guard troopers roaming the highway with automatic weapons, it would seem as if we had landed in Tuscany or some Spanish highland. Pátzcuaro itself adds to the picturesque beauty of the region, centered around the main square with cobblestoned streets of old beige houses and shops extending out from the central square.

As we arrived, an eruption of poorly tuned brass instruments playing over some hard beating drums paraded down the streets of the main center, followed by a parade of tall bussomy muscular women holding a papermaché bull and drinking from warm beer cans. We set our stuff down and joined the parade, and upon closer inspection found out that Pátzcuaro is not the center of a new Amazon tribe of tall warrior women, but rather hundreds of crossdressing men in tight melon-filled dresses donning pale white expressionless ‘women’ masks. Everyone was dressed in something, but these women seemed to be the stars of the event, with cross-dressing terrifyingly expressionless faces running around causing havoc. In a strong macho culture like that in Mexico, I can imagine the encouragement to squeeze into a tight dress, put on some orange boobs, and adorn your face with an anonymous expressionless mask would be rather liberating. You get to live out your wildest lady dreams, and as these Amazons got further and further down the warm beer hole they grew even wilder. Confetti is a bit deal here, and people take every chance they can get to throw confetti or crack an egg filled with sparkles over the head of the unsuspecting gringo.

Fine and I split from the parade and wandered around the city, mainly ambling in the park and watching the locals as the light drew dim. What I love about Mexico is the ability for all generations to come out and party together and be free in the same spaces. Babies in walkers to adults in walkers were toddling around the park together, enjoying the fresh dusk air together by simply existing. A taxi driver in Oaxaca would later tell me that Mexicans are unique to this world because they exist. And he didn’t mean because there are Mexicans, but because Mexicans are excellent at just sitting still and simply existing. It’s a national pastime. Everyone does it, and it’s something that takes a bit of getting used to when you come from a go-go Northern rat race life. Fine and I spent another few hours simply being part of this Mexican organism, simply existing and breathing as one.

The next day would lead us deeper into Michoacán and into a new unknown: the little-visited state of Colima. We bid farewell to the butterflies and the booby-adorned masked women and continued the journey south.

The Rambling Hills of the North

My German friend, Fine, lives by the seed of her trousers more than anyone I’ve ever met. Spontaneity is her middle name. I once went hitchhiking with her around the dry arid plains of inland Portugal, waiting hours in the oppressive August heat for a ride. But even in the heat, she was calm and collected with her thumb out waving and smiling at every passing car. “It just takes one person to stop!”

We had written a thesis together from Berlin, spending more time at the clubs than on our computers. We didn’t do well on the thesis, obviously, but we had a great time attempting to write it. She had spent the past two years of COVID in Costa Rica and Mexico, traveling around and learning new skills for living a more sustainable life. A lover of cheese making and ferments, her journey had led her to far corners of Mexico to dig into the remote cultures of those living in the hinterlands.

She had told me she expected to be around Guadalajara by the time we arrived in Mexico, and me and my mother being the prompt travel planners that we are jumped on the opportunity to buy a plane ticket and Airbnb in Guadalajara. By the time we arrived, Fine’s plans had changed and she found herself down at a meditation center in the pine-crested mountains South of Mexico City, heading north to Querétaro afterward. So we had several days in Guadalajara planned, an Airbnb booked, with no real reason to be there other than to experience one of the largest cities in Mexico.

The facade of a large orphanage built in the center of Guadalajara

Guadalajara, much like Mexico City, is unendingly expansive. The sprawl of the city is nothing but mind-boggling, leaving visitors reeling from the pure scale of this city. But the city feels decidedly more Mexican, in a way. Smaller buildings, bleached by the invasive high-altitude sun. Guadalajara, and Jalisco at large, are also home to Tequila and Mariachi music. The city is worth visiting for these cultural points alone.

Two men stand on a corner with their face masks pulled down, both enjoying a cigarette while people watching

Aside from tequila and wandering around the city, I did not connect with Guadalajara. Maybe it was my continual case of the squitters which made life a constant run to the bathroom (Pro travel tip: it finally ended after chugging a bottle of Pepto Bismol), but Guadalajara seemed to be a bit hostile. I know a lot of people love it, which is great for them, but I did not find much to ground me in the city.

As we walked the city, we received side glances from locals in a stand-offish way. On one wander, we ended up in a part of town with a large population of aged prostitutes. This was only at 11 AM, but they were out selling their wares, eyeing me and my mother’s boyfriend and whispering, “Oh, looks like they already have one.”

A man in a hair net lounges on a bench and stares at the gringo taking his photo

I did, however, find my first Mexican city love in the form of Querétaro, or as my mom’s boyfriend calls it “Queer-tarrow”, where we finally met Fine. The city is wonderfully designed, with a pedestrian center and gorgeous architecture. The city feels alive at all times of day, bubbling with locals walking and selling goods during the day and public dance events in the parks at night. As a University town, Querétaro has its host of hip bars and shops to keep the students well imbibed for their studies.

A latter leans against a pallid yellow wall of a building

I always love a good University town. Mons, Aalborg, Boulder, all of these cities have the gift of young talented minds bringing new ideas and skills that make the town a more connected and interesting place. A University serves as a place of community for the people living within it, something to be proud of. In Monterrey, their University is their identity. The city is so well known for its University in Mexico that it seems to be their calling card, the rallying call to be proud of just as much as being Mexica or your mom’s pozole.

When I went to Hong Kong to study abroad in 2018, Fine went to Querétaro. Here, she met Mario, a kindhearted guy from a town nearby, who offered to go out with us. This also gave my mother an excellent opportunity to sit down with a Mexican who spoke English to tear down some perceptions she had about the country and people. The main question on her mind was, “why do people feel the need to move North, and why are people in Mexico so different from those that come North?”

The answer turns out to be a bit more complicated than expected. While traveling, I was reading my favorite travel author, Paul Theroux’s new book On the Plain of Snakes. He too wanted to get to the bottom of this issue and spent countless hours driving across the US-Mexico border before heading to the Southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, the two states with the highest population of immigrants to the US. For him, he discovered that wages are so low, and stories of how things were in the past are so embellished, that many from poor villages in the South see going to the US as the only viable option.

Back in the day, you could cross the border with your driver’s license and come back for dinner with a pocket of hard-earned American dollars. Elderly locals come back with these stories and inspire the youth of the villages, often looking down the proverbial barrel of a life of hard menial labor with little pay. Or, in many other cases, down the all-to-real barrel of mafia-related violence and insecurity. These stories get embellished and romanticized, leading to people going North in search of a better way to feed their families. What they find is a border crossing costing thousands of dollars (usually equivalent to a few years or decades of work), and fraught with the dangers of crossing with narcos and human traffickers. Yet despite the risks, some still decide that crossing the border is the only way to go forward in their lives, and find that the journey could be worth it in the long run.

Mario seemed to agree with this explanation for the most part, and I would do my own research on this a bit further when I eventually went to Oaxaca and Chiapas myself. As for the question regarding why the difference between those who come and those who stay, I suppose this is the same as for any country, really. The Americans that come from Florida State University to Cancun to drink and party during spring break are different from your Jill Deer living in Minnesota running a bait and tackle shop next to a lake.

Later, we met with some of Mario’s friends to go to a Oaxaca-style restaurant to eat a tlayuda (a bit like an open-faced quesadilla) with grasshoppers and ants, and drink the Oaxacan specialty firewater of mezcal. For me, this proved an excellent opportunity to sit down and speak Spanish with some locals and dig into the daily nitty-gritty of life in Mexico.

For Mario, coming from a town that has just recently become quite dangerous to live in, he has to decide on a regular basis “would I like to go out for a beer, or risk being shot tonight?” This was a sobering thing to hear, and for me put into perspective the stress that comes from having to think about this on a daily basis. Yet still, I probably wouldn’t want to walk around certain parts of Denver at night, so I suppose we have similar problems back home.

That Sunday, we woke to the sound of drumming in the distance. I thought it must just be some basic street performer act. When we went to investigate, we found the main square outside of a major cathedral filled with Aztec dancers, wearing homemade dresses made of beautiful fabrics, jaguar pelts, and headdresses lined with the plumage of tropical birds. They were dancing, performing ritual dances to the Saint of the church, an interesting display of the past and the present, Christian and “pagan”, mixed together in a uniquely Mexican way. There were hundreds of dancers, coming from as far afield as New Mexico to dance in this square and literally strut their tail feathers.

Plumed musicians with incense walk through the square
Drummers in feathers and headdresses play on drums made of oil barrels.
A dancer with a red headdress featuring the head of a jaguar dances.

That evening, Fine and I went to one of her old haunts to try something I have been burning to get my hands on: pulque. A thick white fermented drink made from the sap of the maguey (a kind of agave), Pulque is a drink sipped with friends over hours and apparently can wreak havoc on your stomach if you drink too much. A bit like kombucha, but usually with around 11% alcohol, pulque has an extremely filling effect to it. It also looks and has the same consistency as drinking a pint of semen, which strangely doesn’t perturb me one bit. There’s still something oddly satisfying about it…I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Two boys stretch out on the street playing with Legos

The plan before coming to Mexico was to travel together for a week or so, and Fine and I would split and go separate ways from my Mother and her boyfriend. Instead, we decided to rent a car and head South towards the coast of Jalisco, stopping in the Monarch butterfly reserve and Colima state along the way. The next two weeks would be filled with beautiful drives, putting us in the occasionally sketchy situation of driving next to armed cartel guards through rural roads. This would be the beginning of our grand Western Mexico road trip.

A pallid yellow and maroon entryway leading upwards and onwards in a building.