What I Learned from Six Weeks in Mexico

 Anyone who knows me personally or reads this blog with any regularity knows that my fiancee and I are currently traveling around the world. Instead of traveling from place, to place, to place too quickly to really taste what life there is really like, we are generally spending multiple weeks and sometimes even months in one location. So far we've spent six weeks in Arizona, six weeks in Mexico and are currently on week two of a month in Vancouver.

In Arizona we lived like royalty in a beautiful desert edged house on the northern rim of a big city. The house was beautiful, spacious and comfortable and our hosts were gracious and generous. We wanted for nothing except perhaps rain and a cool breeze, both impossible requests in the desert in the late spring.

We chose Mexico as our next long-term stop because we both wanted to break up our time in the United States and Canada with a location that felt culturally different; we didn't choose to travel in order to barricade ourselves in familiar places where everyone looks and talks like us, taking comfort in the sameness (though I came to long for some of that sameness during our time in Mexico). We knew that we needed to be in Vancouver for the end of July to attend a wedding and there were also the budget and round-the-world ticket restrictions to contend with; according to the terms of our ticket, we needed to leave the US via the same city we entered, which was Los Angeles.

Unlike many of my friends and family who have spent a lot of time in Mexican resorts as a way of escaping the long, cold northern winter - it was a country largely unfamiliar to me. I knew that I liked Mexican food - or at least the bastardized version of it made familiar to me through the Old El Paso brand of tacos and salsa sold in supermarkets - oh, and the amazing food in London's Mestizo restaurant near Euston. And I speak some very basic, halting Spanish, which I'd learned mostly from Sesame Street and because there are some words that sound similar to their French equivalent and I did French Immersion from Kindergarten until grade eight.

This was my basis for spending six weeks in Mexico: food and the ability to count to ten in Spanish.

In my 20s I read a bunch of novels by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (technically set in South America) and the colorful towns and people they described informed what I imagined a small Mexican village might be like.

One cold, rainy London day in April I came across some information about San Blas, a small fishing village of about 8,000 people on the Pacific coast of Mexico about a two hour drive North of Puerto Vallarta. It ticked all my boxes: it wasn't particularly touristy, it was on the water, it was cheap, it was supposed to be 'real' Mexico and it had a mythology attached to it in the form of a Henry Longfellow poem called The Bells of San Blas . The place I booked for us didn't have air conditioning, which I imagined would be fine as I shivered in the London damp; a little bit of heat wouldn't hurt us. I also steadfastly ignored all the warnings about the bugs because being from Saskatchewan, I thought I understood how bad mosquitoes can be (I was wrong).

It's taken me a few weeks to fully process my experience in Mexico - and longer still for all the bug bites to heal. I still think about the things I loved, like:
  • the little kitten who adopted us.
  • the salty warmth of the sea water and the way you could walk out forever and it would never get too deep.
  • the avocados.
  • the immense thunder and lightening storms that shook our little bungalow.
  • the quirkiness of places like Billy Bobs Bar and all the leather faced old gringos who had retired there to spend the rest of their days smoking pot; their stories about how a crocodile named Fluffy came to live behind the bar (it's true - we saw him) and the guy who couldn't pay his tab one night so Billy Bob, the owner, took the shirt off his back and hung it from the ceiling (it's still there).
  • Juan Banana Plantain Bread.
  • how affordable everything was, so much so that we got to the point where if we were spending more than the equivalent of $10 for dinner and drinks we felt like it was too expensive.
  • the struggle to communicate, which was both awkward and funny; and the sense of satisfaction when we found that against all odds an understanding was reached.
  • feeling a connection and sense of familiarity to a place; by the end of our time in San Blas we knew every important street, every bar and restaurant and the best market stalls to find the ripest avocados, freshest pineapple or greenest cilantro. Vancouver is lovely but it's vast and unknowable in the way that any city of a certain size is. San Blas was an open book.
  • The badly subtitled Mexican television.
There were plenty of moments of surprise and pleasure in Mexico mostly stemming from the confirmation that life is so unknowable and so big. I knew things would be different there but the extent of the difference still caught me off guard and made me feel the largeness of the world in a tangible way that I've never really felt before.

I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, as much for what it taught me about myself as about Mexico:
  • As much as I dislike it, my capacity for physical discomfort is greater than I would have imagined. Our weeks in San Blas were spent in an uncomfortable, hot little bungalow that we shared with giant spiders, millipedes and a family of chirping lizards; it was about a hundred degrees and the humidity sat steadfastly between the 75 and 100% range. A short walk to the corner store and back and I would be drenched with sweat. The mosquitoes and sand flies were vicious and not deterred much by even the most potent Deet filled bug spray. One morning I woke up with about ten huge welts on my back from something biting me overnight. I desperately wanted to sleep outside of the covers because it was so hot, but was too afraid of what would chew on me if I did, so I slept fitfully in the rough sheeted, hard, sandy bed. And even though I felt filthy, and itchy and sweaty, I managed to adjust - not to the point where I felt good but to where I could mostly ignore my body and find enjoyment in my life there.
  • At least in the smaller villages, Mexico moves at its own pace and you can either adjust to it or spend a lot of time feeling frustrated. I like time lines and deadlines and I like to feel like there is a system in place to ensure that things run smoothly. I struggled against this in Mexico until I came to a place where I could almost give up and just accept that somethings are out of my hands. When I'd feel annoyance bubbling up, a voice in my head would say, "Lady, Mexico doesn't care what you like."
  • My life is one of privilege and although I acknowledged that on an intellectual level prior to spending time in Mexico, I don't think I really understood it. In addition to the physical discomfort, Mexico was inconvenient; I couldn't buy what I wanted, when I wanted it and had to learn to cook using only local produce and make due with what was available. This wasn't an enormous hardship, but it was a new experience for me, accustomed as I was to life in zone two of London - a five minute walk to a Waitrose. I don't think I'll ever take convenience for granted the way I did before. 
  • I could never live in a country without an adequate animal welfare system. The starving stray animals on the street broke my heart every time we went out. I still think about our kitten and hope someone is taking care of her. 
  • It's important to take care of your community and dispose of rubbish properly. Filth accumulates quickly and makes even the most beautiful place feel depressing and unloved. Since being in Vancouver, I am noticing how clean it is and am so thankful for that and for a culture - imperfect as it is - that mostly cleans up after itself.
  • I love cooking and am pretty good at it; I can take a random concoction of ingredients from a little Mexican market and make something pretty wonderful.
  • There are compelling stories everywhere if you take the time to listen. There are so many things I want to write about that are a gift from my time in Mexico.
By the end of week six, we were both desperate to move on but, as cliche as it sounds, I won't ever forget the experience. I think I learned to see my own life a little bit differently, with a new level of appreciation for how lucky I am and how it really is nothing more than luck.

I'll continue to carry this new awareness in my pocket like a smooth, cool worry stone. I don't think I really knew it was there before I spent six weeks in Mexico.

All photos taken in San Blas by me.

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