An Unsettled Ending in Mexico

by Ekua on December 20, 2010 in Mexico

In the end, I didn’t walk away from Oaxaca, obligation peeled and dragged me away. I was going to be a bridesmaid in my friends’ wedding a few days after getting back from Mexico, and that would be followed by a trip to Los Angeles to help my sister celebrate her 30th birthday.

Still, some of my fellow hostelers had doubts that I would actually leave. Two German girls, whose lengthy time in Oaxaca overlapped mine, came to say goodbye to me as they headed off to the coast. Even though I’d told them I’d be leaving Oaxaca before they got back, one of them said, “We’ll see you in a week.”

“No,” I replied, “I won’t be here. I have to go home.”

They smiled, amused by my response. “Riiight. We’ll see you in a week.”

They didn’t believe me. They thought that when the time came, I’d freeze. They thought I’d submit to Oaxaca. I can’t say they were that far off the mark. But I had to go.

Before I got to Oaxaca, I knew I’d like it, but I didn’t expect to feel so comfortable there. I didn’t expect to find the scenery and culture so appealing and inspiring, so fantastical and full of enchanted earthiness. In Oaxaca, joy and darkness combined and elicited a sort of shadowy but illuminated beauty. The aesthetic there made a lot of sense to me.

And of course there were the locals, the travelers, the expats. Unique encounters with unique people. On one of my last few days there, two old women I’d seen before stopped me in the street. They asked a string of questions, “Where are you from? How long are you staying in Oaxaca? Can we touch your hair?” I’m pretty sure the last question was the one that provoked the conversation, and the previous two were asked out of curious politeness. I let them and they did. They exchanged smiles of surprise and delight and walked on.

Alongside the lingering looks and questions from locals that marked a recognition of my outsidership, the recognition of my humanity that I felt in Mexico City continued throughout my time in Oaxaca. I felt at ease and I wore my content there.

As I handed over the keys to my room to one of the brothers who ran the hostel, he said, “Are you sure you want to do this, Ekua?” I shook my head no, but gave it to him anyway. And then came the goodbyes, then onward to Mexico City.

A sleepless night on freezing cold bus full of the incessant chatter of a man a few rows in front of me. A highway backed up for miles and a sinking feeling as it begins to move and we see the source, a large bus accident on the side of the road. Nonstop rain, July gloom in Mexico City. A hostel that was previously full of lively travelers from near and far now almost completely full of lackluster business students. A jolt back to reality. An easing into leaving.

Most of my best trips seem to end with a drop in temperature and steady rain and a huge shift in the mood of wherever I am. When you’ve got to go, and you find yourself damp and cold and alone, it makes it much easier to get to the airport in time for your flight.

I joined some business students at the table and ate the hostel breakfast of quesadillas and jello, a strange yet comforting combination that morning. I went back to bed and I woke up to a break in the rain and felt inspired to explore more of Mexico City. I took a walk to the Coyoacan metro station and stopped at the Super Tacos Chupacabras taco stand, around the corner from the station. It lived up to the high expectations that had been set by my guidebook and other travelers who recommended it—tasty little tacos served with heaps of good vibes by the men behind the counter and a variety of self-service toppings to suit your most random taco desires.

On a little TV they had on a World Cup match. Uruguay vs. Holland. After Uruguay’s shady elimination of Ghana, I could only root for Holland. The rain started up again and I went inside the mall, poked around the shops, and eventually found the game again. About a hundred businessmen had gathered around to watch the match on several TV screens in the window of an electronics shop by the end of it. I was amused by the idleness of these lunch breakers in contrast to the quick lunchtime movements of business people in the cities of United States. In the U.S., they probably wouldn’t have tried to pull off an extended lunch break to watch a game they were into, they probably would’ve just called in sick. I was happy that Holland beat Uruguay 3-2, but the bulk of the crowd was understandably upset at the elimination of the last Latin American team. Europe vs. Europe in the final match was pretty boring for a World Cup that had been full of newness.

The rain wasn’t going to stop and I didn’t feel like sightseeing, so I decided to head back to my hostel. On my way, I saw a sign advertising a discount on pedicures and I ducked into the salon. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten my nails done. I can always think of several things I’d rather spend time or money on than colorful toenails. But I knew the friend whose wedding I was going to be in would appreciate me righting the wrongs I’d done to my feet by spending a month walking around Latin America in flip flops. And like the taco stand and the mall, the nail salon provided subtle cultural insight and people watching as the Real Housewives of Mexico City around me gossiped away.

Back at the hostel, I tried to avoid the only four people staying there who were not part of the business school group, some hippies from South America who began to take an interest in me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to them, I just couldn’t afford to get attached to anymore travelers or reattached to Mexico City.

At the Mexico City airport, I watched a janitor repeatedly spot cleaning the carpet and putting up “Caution, Wet Floor” signs—more for the protection of her hard work, I think, rather than to protect people in the event that they would step on a small damp spot on the carpet and actually slip.

For some reason, my return flight turned out to be much cheaper with a stop in Puerto Vallarta rather than a direct flight from Mexico City. As I arrived for my layover in Puerto Vallarta, I felt ill. Not from motion, but from the scene. A chunk of decimated coastline, the Señor Frogs, the oh-so beachy blond cornrows, the sunburned frat boys wandering around the airport clutching Coronas, the group of California girls talking about how much they hated Mexico when in reality, they didn’t even see it while they were holed up in their resort.

I know that not everyone is a budget traveler and I understand why people want to stay in nice luxury hotels, I really do. I’ve been in places where there’s really great local food, but when I sat down at dinner, I just wanted a hamburger. I understand that some trips are for relaxation rather than down and dirty travel and that’s okay. I get what draws people to packaged tropical beach vacations, but why does it have to be so extreme, so cut off from the reality of the place and so damaging to local economies, environments, and cultures?

I put on my headphones and tried to tune out Puerto Vallarta. I felt far from Oaxaca or Mexico City. Those places had given me a small glimpse into what Mexico is and can be. A Mexico I want to see more of.  At the end of any trip, I think of the things I missed and what I’ll come back and see, knowing that the return trip I’m mapping out will inevitably get swallowed by other destinations. But with Mexico, it feels different, its location too close and the pull of its people, culture, and scenery too strong to not go back. It’s a deep kind of travel love I don’t feel often.

I typically enjoy writing the last posts in my travelogues; putting what I took away from a trip into a succinct summary that helps me make sense of the journeys and destinations. It provides a little travel closure, a nicely packaged story to shelve away with the rest. But with this post I’ve struggled, rambling on rather than wrapping up, not really knowing where or how to end my reliving of my time in Mexico. And maybe that says something.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sunee December 21, 2010 at 7:48 am

There are some people who visit the same country over and over again. It looks like you’ve found yours.

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Ekua December 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I think you’re right. You got right to the heart of this approx 1500 word post in just two sentences 😉

I used to think people who repeatedly visited the same place were missing out, now I get it!

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Julie December 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Ekua-

I loved this post, especially the line about your humanity being recognized. Francisco feels the same way about Mexico and I feel the same kind of deep love that you describe, and which I too find hard to articulate and sum up neatly. Thanks for writing this.

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Ekua December 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Even when they have the best intentions, the kind of attention people give to black people traveling in certain places can be tiring. I’m sure Francisco knows what that can be like. It’s very simple yet pretty significant to be treated with that level of genuineness I found in Mexico. Just an everyday kind of kindness and respectfulness.

Sometimes I wonder if I would still have the same warm feelings about Mexico if I spent more time there, so it’s always good to hear from people who stayed there for much longer and feel the same way. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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Rebecca December 21, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I know you say you struggled writing this, but it’s beautifully written and perfectly captures what (I think) you must have been feeling. I was also going to say that it looks like you’ve found your country, but Sunee has beaten me to it! Great writing.

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Ekua December 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I kept writing and wondering where I was going with all of it until I got to the end and thought, “It is what it is.” Thanks for stopping by and I appreciate your thoughts!

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Andi December 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Now I’m DYING to go to O! It sounds absolutely captivating!!!

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Ekua December 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm

It’s a pretty great place. Oaxaca didn’t convince me at first glance, but I think that’s because it’s a place that’s more for experiencing rather than seeing. That’s something to keep in mind when you go!

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Erin December 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Beautifully written post. I really feel that we are going to love Mexico (we are in Colombia so it’ll take us a while to work our way up there) – I just hope it lives up to the expectations.

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Ekua December 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Thanks, Erin. I hope you’re having fun in Columbia. That’s definitely another misunderstood place that I want to visit soon.

Mexico is a big country so I think there really is something for everyone and you’ll probably enjoy it. But I think it’s also good to go in with as few expectations as possible!

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Lola December 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Loved every line. Others have already said it, but Mexico certainly seems to have your heart.

Thoroughly enjoyed this Oaxaca series!

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Ekua January 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Thanks, Lola. I really enjoyed recapturing that whole trip.

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Arie Uittenbogaard December 29, 2010 at 8:11 am

Hey lingering looks, you write very well. I’m enjoying reading your jumbles!
Love,
-Arie

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Ekua January 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Thanks

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