I’m not in Mexico anymore; I am in Guatemala. I wasn’t planning on going to Guatemala, but then I thought: hey – that looks nice. So now I’m here. But before I write about the big G, I need to wrap up Mexico like a cosy little quesadilla. Vamonos.
After the Day of the Dead, the rest of my time in Mexico City was very chilled. With Liv and Mari gone to San Cristobal, I hung out for my two remaining evenings with Luuk, Bas, Nienke and a few other Dutchies, and on our final night together we went out for tacos, then to a bar with pool tables and Nirvana playing. When it got late we went to the same pulqueria Paola took me to previously. Luuk and I ordered a large fresa pulque, not realising a ‘large’ in this instance was an entire litre of fermented-cactus milkshake. By the time I’d polished it off my IQ had been reduced to single digits and my limbs were made of sponge.
We found a dancefloor downstairs, some trendy queer reggaeton party. Everybody was Mexican, and all had piercings and shaved heads and purple eyebrows or stuff. And you should have seen their dancing: dropping down to inches from the floor, spherical bum cheeks bouncing everywhere, hips winding, pairs on the periphery grinding against one another so aggressively that I had to look away, blushing. We looked incredibly white and touristy by comparison, but nobody seemed arsed in the slightest. It felt very free and chilled.
We danced until 2am, and it was the perfect goodbye to my old travel gang. I hugged them all goodbye as we got the taxi back to our hostels, and we promised to meet in Amsterdam in 2023 sometime. It was a blast.
It was weird being in Mexico City on my last day and realising that all my friends had now left – that I no longer knew anybody in the vast city; that all the fun was finished. Feeling a little melancholy, at 9pm I took a taxi to the Mexico Norte bus station in the rain. There I boarded a 15-hour night bus to Palenque, from where I could cross the border into Guatemala.
It was strange watching the environment change once more as I headed back to Palenque. For the previous two months I’d watched jungle turn to mountain, mountain crumble to beach, beach sweep up into lush valley, and valley drift into desert. Seeing jungle creeping back into the picture made me monstrously nostalgic for the beginning of my trip – for the naïve excitement of those early discoveries. I still remember my first taco: I bought it from a street food stall in Holbox. I ate it with a knife and fork, lol.
The last time I was in Palenque I was still with Luuk and Bas and Nienke and Olatz. My Spanish was non-existent back then. I remember being uncertain of my safety and the order of things, scared of night buses and collectivos and the jungle and dark streets. It’s funny how acclimatised you can grow in just a few weeks.
Liv and Mari were coincidentally in Palenque when I was, so I spent my two evenings there with them, while leaving them to explore the ruins and waterfalls during the day. It was funny to sit and chat on the stools in the kitchen at Casa Janaab, thinking about how six weeks before, Luuk and Bas and Olatz and Nienke had sat exactly where Liv and Mari were now. Spins me out a little bit.
I spent my last day painstakingly arranging the paperwork for the Guatemalan border crossing, and in the evening I cooked with Liv and Mari and shared a bottle of wine. The next morning I got up early, hopped aboard my bus, and said adios to Mexico.
So: how to summarise two months in Mexico?
It’s quite hard, actually.
You see, to be honest, I don’t feel I was privy to any particularly deep Mexican secrets; I never gained any real insight into the culture. In an ideal world, I’d have left the country after such a hefty chunk of time with a sound understanding of its society and the general thoughts and attitudes and outlook of its citizens. But… well, there are two factors in Mexico that you’ll have to contend with if you want to discover anything truly ‘authentic’.
The first is the language: I never learned Spanish in school, and most people outside of Mexico City (and a great many within) don’t speak a word of English. Even many people in the service industry don’t speak it; I was surprised to find many of the hostel receptionists through Yucatan, Chiapas and Oaxaca never uttered an English syllable. This means that everything rode on my lacklustre Spanish. I’ve learned enough in two months to get from A to B, to order in cafes and restaurants with a bit of flair, to ask simple questions and more-or-less understand their answers. But I can’t chit-chat, and I certainly can’t get down to brass tacks with the locals.
Not being able to actually speak to local people really cements you as a tourist: you can look, you can snap, but you can’t engage in any meaningful way. In India, because English is so widely spoken, I was able to get a real feel for the Indian experience – to ask local people what they felt about their country, about life, about the rest of the world, and through this, I was able to gain new perspectives on issues I’d never properly considered. In Mexico – and in Latin America as a whole – you can’t do that unless you speak Spanish.
Another benefit to learning Spanish, of course, is that by chatting to locals in their own tongue, you will pay less for just about everything, and unforeseen doors will open to you: invitations to dinner, insider tips, perhaps even romance. In other words: the sort of things that can make your trip truly unique. I’ve no interest in cookie-cutter experiences: in being ferried along on the same backpacker conveyor belt, taking the same photos as everybody else, buying the same souvenirs, regaling distant family and friends with the same stories. I want to see something genuine – I want to have a real adventure, something you can’t buy a ticket for. And for those adventures, you need a solid working knowledge of Spanish.
The second factor that stifled my potential discovery of ‘real’ Mexico is safety. On other trips I’ve always done as I pleased: stumbling through Hiroshima off my tits at 1am, giggling like a loon; sauntering home from a night shift in Melbourne at 4am; exploring a dark warren of ancient buildings in Varanasi in search of my hostel, phone out of charge. In Mexico, you’ve got to be more vigilant – and more than that, you’ve got to take preventative measures. Preventative measures like just not fucking going outside after 10pm.
I met a lot of people who’d been victims of crime in Mexico. And not just hapless drunken backpackers either – locals. The receptionist at my hostel in San Cristobal told me he’d moved to the mountain town after being kidnapped twice by gangsters in his home city in the north. One of the staff at my Oaxaca hostel told me she’d had a gun pointed at her head while walking home one night in the city, and had her handbag stolen. Paloma in Holbox told me how she’d had a knife pulled on her by three kids in San Cristobal. In short: it happens a lot, and the second you leave the tourist areas, the odds of it happening to you shoot up. It would have been lovely to simply wander off into Mexico’s less frequented neighbourhoods, to saunter around the sidestreets as the hour grows late, to have one too many and stumble jovially in the wrong direction in search of the hostel – but in Mexico you are not afforded the liberty of stupidity.
In short, then: if you’re going to travel to Mexico and you want an authentic experience, my best advice to you is to learn Spanish, and always carry a big fucking knife.
But do learn Spanish.
Alright – so with the rather meaty caveat that I didn’t see much of ‘real’ Mexico – how to summarise my two months?
Well, upon reflection, I think my mushroom trip in San Jose del Pacifico sort of sums it up. When I’ve tripped in the past (and I’m speaking both drug trips and backpacking trips here), I’ve usually sought to learn something – to reflect and grow and all that jazz. When I took the shrooms in San Jose, however, I wasn’t particularly bothered about transcending or learning. I just wanted to gobble some mushies and have a silly old time – and that’s exactly what happened. Zooming out, Mexico was a similar experience. I didn’t go there looking for anything in particular, nor was I hoping to learn anything. I just… well, I like Mexican food and I like bright colours so… yeah?
I may not have had any wondrous revelations, and I may not have broken through the thick hide of the country to discover the truths of Mexican daily life, but I still had a blast. I said it a dozen times to a dozen people while I was there, but what a culture man?!
There’s one thing you can say about Mexico with absolute certainty: they’ve no interest in subtlety. The fiery food heaped in vast portions, the breathless coalescence of a packed salsa dancefloor, the bellow of the mariachi bands and the pounding bass of reggaeton, the corner shop shelves crammed with teeth-meltingly sugary drinks and tongue-swellingly salty snacks, streets bursting with effortless pastel colours and murals of bone-white Catrinas and muscular Aztec warriors, and out in the jungle and the sea beyond, the toucans and whale sharks, the howler monkeys and jaguars: it’s all so intense.
There’s a Latin American phrase you could use to sum it all up, actually. I learned it a few weeks ago as a way to praise a tasty meal, and it pretty concisely says what I’ve been trying to say for the last 1800 words about Mexico.
Muy fuckin’ rico.