Solo in Mexico
People always ask me, “Why do you travel alone in Mexico?” This is not a question I take lightly, nor is it a question easily answered. I can only describe my experiences as each person’s experiences are uniquely his own. Perhaps, if you follow me through a typical day in a colonial town, some of the mystery inherent in this question will be uncovered.
Birds stuffed into a giant Ficus tree sing to me their stories, squawking for attention, as soon as I leave my hotel each morning at 8 a.m. A gas truck, outfitted with a megaphone, screeches, “Zeta Gas…Zeta Gas…Zeta Gas,” over and over, as it rolls along soliciting neighborhood business. There is a traffic jam ahead, and even though no one can move, everyone lays on their horn at the same time. Those same frustrated drivers smile and wave as I walk by; just another day in the Mexican fabric of life. The horns and accordions of ranchero music blare out of speakers placed on either side of a store front walkway. The louder the music, ostensibly, the more customers will come. Shop owners stand in front of their stores and watch for potential patrons. Their calm, friendly demeanor makes me want to enter, regardless of what is sold inside. These same shop owners scrub their entries with soapy water, and with handmade brooms, sweep away the detritus left behind by stray dogs and homeless people.
Withered ancient ones, once vibrant in their lives of immeasurable pain and unspeakable joy, huddle in shady corners against building walls. They sit as still as petrified wood with their bony hands held out in silent pleas. Their reptile eyes stare fixed ahead as if they are reliving a time when their lives meant something. Without government support, these ancients are left on their own to crumble and die like the cracked cement that is never repaired. I yearn for their stories, so I pay them in pesos to tell them.
If I am lucky, I become a part of this street fabric. An old rancher and his equally old wife were walking toward me one afternoon in the middle of town. From a distance, I could see that they were holding hands with a small child walking between them. At first, all I could see were their diminutive outlines. He, dashing in his vaquero cowboy hat; she, a tiny dancer with her long, flowing peasant skirt; and together, they cut a fine impression. As they came closer into view, I noticed that their dark, wrinkled faces had aged like cracked leather, and that their snow white hair had the texture of spun silk. The gentleman tipped his hat and the woman gave me a toothless smile. They reminded me of a matching set of antique dolls that I would treasure on a special shelf. I might even take the woman doll off of the shelf and plait her braids from time to time. Suddenly, a sharp sound jolted me back to reality. The little boy, about four years old, whistled at me with the tenacity of a construction worker on the prowl. When I looked down, he said, “Ooo la la.” In that moment, we all shared carcajadas, deep, uncontrolled laughter; the kind that rises from the belly and then eventually explodes like the pinwheel sparklers on a Mexican firework tree. I often think of that moment, and when I do, I hope the details never dull with time.
Mexico is not an easy place, but that’s what makes it my church. It is hard to see a young native mother begging for pesos with her shoeless, dirty children. The poorest of the poorest children never see a school room, but they learn the fine art of survival. They take on the city streets with their gum and candy trays, winding in and out of businesses and restaurants from morning until night, thrusting their wares in tourist’s faces hoping for the few pesos that will feed their families for one more day. They learn to melt hearts with their sad eyes; they learn to touch tourist’s arms without being too abrasive; they learn to beg and plead until a sale is made. The most striking pictures I have from Mexico are of the street children I pay to smile for me. I see more than big eyes and youthful innocence; I see old souls who live in young bodies. I see what God must see. I see the fragility of life. I see beauty stripped down to its barest element. I see love.
On the same streets where children beg and the ancients dream, festivals in full regalia turn city parks into circuses. Parades of shiny marching bands and colorful folkloric dancers are led by a dying Jesus on a wooden cross. A Saint is being celebrated at least 365 days a year in Mexico, so every day is a cause to rejoice. Crowds follow these parades where they end in any one of many city parks. From dancers and singers, to jugglers and balloon vendors, to food booths and folk art fares, there is something for everyone. Mexicans live on the streets each evening where the spirits of their ancestors meet them under the stars. Life and death are cyclical with no beginning or end. The secret of a blessed life is strung together by moments with family and friends.
However, it is the people who keep me going back year after year. I’m never alone in Mexico. My best friends are the women who clean my room and serve my buffet breakfast in quaint, clean hotels. They are the ones who hold my head onto their ample bosoms when I am sick. When I am missing my family, these women are the ones who invite me into their homes. Spanish teachers from my favorite Spanish schools take me to pray with local priests when my loved ones back home are ill or sad. Waiters in familiar restaurants remember exactly what I like to order year after year. Young men ask me to dance in popular clubs even though I could be their mother; they just want me to feel welcomed and adored as if I were their mother. I travel alone in Mexico because that is where God waits for me. And He never disappoints.