Note: I wrote this post before my trip to Mexico, but never got around to posting. The trip was different than I imagined, as trips generally are. But I thought it was worth posting anyway, and once I have my arms around exactly what did happen there, I will write to that as well.
Trips to Mexico punctuated my childhood with relative frequency. I don’t remember much from my first visit, but I know I was in Mazatlan. And the small terra cotta plate I painted in that part of a resort where they send children to be entertained hangs in my hallway, a colorful memento of my first steps in that first of foreign countries.
I spent other holidays there – spring breaks in the Yucatan, Christmas (and a quinceañera) in Guadalajara, a visit to Mexico City. I never knew to be afraid when I traveled, not the way we do now with State Department alerts and CDC websites. Back then it was about how many stuffed animals I could bring, or what kind of tan I’d have to show off when I returned.
As bona-fide Mexican-American, I found Mexico as foreign as any other far-off place on the map. I didn’t feel home in any sense of the word, but after two or three trips I felt comfortable. I knew what to expect in the city and what to expect in the small towns (2 pesos for toilet paper at the town square restroom).
But more recently, Mexico has receded from the list of next adventures I always refer to. The trouble there with drugs and violence makes me profoundly sad for the proud, hard-working people who must live among those demons. That their once idyllic towns and villages have become freeways for smugglers (headed primarily toward the United States), makes me angry that I am powerless to help in any important way. What appears to be the “safest” way to visit is now my least favorite way to see this country – through the gated entries of all-inclusive resorts, where no one has to leave the comfort of a swim-up bar. I cannot visit Mexico in this way. It violates every instinct I have about how to get to know a country – through their home-cooked food, their festivals, houses of worship and music.
And so of course, feeling as passionate about the tourist-ready version of Mexico I don’t care to see, I’ll be taking a cruise on the Mexican Riviera to Puerto Vallarta at Christmas. I didn’t mean to join the cruising crowd, but it is a gift from my parents for me and my sister – and I’m never one to turn down a trip of any kind. So I’ll cruise to Mexico. I’ll have the comfort of a swim-up bar, and a twice daily cleaned room and as much toilet paper as I’ll ever need. But the two days we spend docked in PV will be my relief. My family, who share the same instinct for culture, will find our way away from the dock, beyond the Senior Frogs and caricature-like mariachi bands. We’ll use my mom’s fluent Spanish to quiz cab drivers on where they eat breakfast, ask women on the street where we can find a Mass on Christmas day, and follow the local crowd to the best and busiest market in town.
I’m sure we will appreciate the pool and air conditioning and unquestionably clean food when we return to the cruise ship. But we’ll know that we’ve seen more of Mexico than most of the people on that boat. Because we care enough about the country and the people to actually see them, for what they are, what they have been and what they will always be.