just mexico

For a long time, I was a snob toward Mexico.

Mexico was the place other people went on Spring Break to get drunk at Señor Frogs, to stay at an all inclusive in Cabo to eat safe food and take cheap drugs, to crisp their skin lying by a pool reading People slathered in Hawaiian Tropic, to get hit on by slimy frat boys. Mexico wasn’t mine. I was too cultured, too educated, too adult for such a banal vacation spot.

A few years ago, Austin and I found ourselves with a last-minute week’s vacation to escape the Canadian winter. He suggested Mexico and I regarded him with a long side eye. He reassured me that it would be fun: no all-inclusive, accommodations right on the town, with day trips and beaches and good food. So I said yes to a week in Puerto Vallarta.

When anyone would ask about my vacation plans, I’d shrug: “Just Mexico,” I’d say, “nothing big, a week to escape the cold and eat some tasty food.” I’d cringe inwardly; surely they were picturing the unsightly scene of me dancing on a bar in my bikini wielding some fluorescent frozen drink with a twirly straw. (The only stock image, it seemed, I could conjure up for “vacation in Mexico.”) When else had I been so lacklustre — shamed, even — about an adventure to a new place?

And there’s the rub. I was embarrassed of Mexico. I also was close-minded and ignorant to judge its soil without first stepping foot on it.

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It’s not just me. We North Americans have a curious and hypocritical relationship with Mexico. Anthony Bourdain last year wrote a stunning piece about the country that we love and shame. He captures our hypocrisy:

We love Mexican drugs. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films. So, why don’t we love Mexico?

I won’t rehash Bourdain’s spot-on thesis, but I will echo his sentiment.

Mexico is an incredible country — with a food culture, architectural history and natural beauty to rival most any other place in the world. The people are hospitable and kind to foreigners, the vistas breathtaking, the cooking impossibly simple but impossibly complex and delicious. Austin and I revelled in our week exploring a sliver of this vast land. We couldn’t wait to return: to eat more, to learn more of its rich history and to see more of its beauty.

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Curiously, we hold Mexico to a standard that we don’t other places. We openly acknowledge (celebrate, even) the seedy underbelly, poverty and drunkenness of New Orleans. We accept these as part of the city’s charm even as we rebuke it. But the sordidness never overshadows the lore and lure of New Orleans — its culture and history, food, architecture… that it enjoys a unique standing. Surely it is like no place else on earth. We can adapt this story to Las Vegas or Amsterdam or many other places. Why then do we turn away from Mexico’s otherness?

We need to stop being embarrassed. We need to stop pretending that Mexico doesn’t count. We need to stop essentializing this country (as I did so recently) as a place to booze and behave as our worst selves in a built up paradise. Because Mexico is so much more than this if we get past first impressions.

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Mexico is palm trees that line dusty highways and the colourful doors and homes and papel picado that wave against blue sky. It’s pervasive bougainvillea that remind me of my Greek island upbringing. It’s markets with young coconuts waiting to be whacked open and perfumey guavas tumbling over stalls and old men scraping cactus paddles smooth of their spines. It’s walking through the village as the sun rises and the chorus of “buenos días!” that greets me and then tucking into drippy chilaquiles for breakfast. It’s the way the sky meets the ocean to offer the most brilliant azure gradient. It’s stopping at the gas station to buy cervezas with my husband and then to the beach where the sun dips into the ocean. Where we crack open the bottles and clink salud! into the deepest, saltiest air. It’s tacos el pastor with shaved radishes and bits of pineapple over tortilla shaped by the woman next door. It’s a country that wants to welcome me back. A country that wants me to understand.

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(Mexico is also crushing poverty and corruption and drug cartels and violence and neglect that we are shielded from, as tourists, and not merely some romanticized purple prose. That’s a more difficult essay, a book, in fact, and required reading.)

Austin and I returned to Mexico for two weeks last winter to celebrate our honeymoon, this time to the country’s opposite coast, as we explored the Riviera Maya. Mexico beat out Marrakesh and Istanbul and other locales for the coveted honeymoon title, and I was no longer bashful about our choice. We had so much still to see, there was so much still to discover… we had so much still to learn.

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We have so much still to learn.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this country is, or even is just to me. I do know that inevitably, we will take a week or two each year to return to this beautiful place and dig a bit deeper. To get outside the “safe” Mexico and further into her cities, to feel at ease ordering from menus in our broken Spanish, to hop on the collectivos that connect her towns and see where the highway takes us. We will return to Nayarit and Jalisco and the Yucatan and Quintana Roo, and still discover Oaxaca and Monterrey and the Puebla.

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Mexico has taught me more than I care to admit about the shows we put on for others and the collective narratives we construct. I didn’t want this country to be part of my story because it was cheap, it was seedy, it was common — all beliefs I had built of folklore — some real and some imagined. Yes, I can go to Mexico to dance on a tabletop with a frat boy who feeds me a bar rail of tequila. But that’s just one story, of a myriad other, more complete ones, that are based in my experience.

Mexico, like many unfamiliar things, taught me that it repays in spades to get under the surface of the obvious, to experience a reputation before internalizing it, and to hand down something’s worth only after the hard work is done to (try to) understand.

[Photos, my own, on Flickr]

2 thoughts on “just mexico

  1. I suppose I never really had any biases towards Mexico. However, when we lived in the US, we went to Mexico City for Thanksgiving and my co-workers were worried we would die. Perhaps we have been lucky, but having travelled to Mexico City, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras (including San Pedro Sula) and South Africa (namely Johannesburg as the roughest of the lot), if one is smart, it is still a safe and enjoyable experience. There is a ton to see and do and love.

    Full disclosure, we never took the chicken buses while in Guatemala. We were not that brave. But the subway system in Mexico City was fabulous and awesome. And super cheap. 😉

    1. Janet — I think you hit it dead on — if you’re smart, all of these places are safe and enjoyable! We usually stick to the coasts, but Mexico City’s food scene is a definite lure.

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