“The old/familiar and new/exciting co-exist,” wrote a friend, of getting back to her home country from Mexico. She is right. Returning to life in Guadalajara was not simply a matter of stopping travelling and going back to school. While I’d been away Jony had overseen a move into a bigger apartment upstairs, so I got to my front gate and was shown into a place I’d never been before. I knew the building, but not my room. This was strange, as was finding Nick had transformed into two lovely European girls. For two weeks everything was adjustment, swapping bedrooms around, cutting keys for everyone, getting out of the travelling mindset. (In many ways it was a relief to get home; not having to concentrate every day on finding places to sleep and eat, people to talk to, cash machines. A bit of stability and familiarity was very welcome after over a month of travelling solo. On the other hand, travelling is addictive: half-expecting at any given moment to meet someone amazing, to see something breathtaking, to experience something completely unforeseeable, is hard to let go of.) And then my final new housemate arrived and a rhythm suddenly emerged in our lives. All the mirrors disappeared from my side of the flat and pink fluffy covers appeared in the bathroom on their side. “Why are there so many dress shops?” demanded Sarah soon after arriving, pointing out the twenty or thirty that dot all the streets within a block of our apartment. “What dress shops?” I said.
The arrival of two European international students in my home and an almost complete change of personnel at school provided me with an interesting perspective on my own Mexicanisation. I was confused by the North American girls at school being worried about the details of our exams, deadlines and essay formatting; confused by the girls at home wanting to use every moment of the day proactively and, yes, be punctual. I don’t worry about those things much any more. Or I do, still, more than a Mexican, but much less than the recently-arrived. If I say I will be somewhere at ten, I may not necessarily be there until ten thirty or eleven. Feeling in something of a half-way condition, partly because of all the new people and partly through the process of re-settling into (relatively) permanent Guadalajaran life, I found myself reflecting often about the contrasts between Mexico and the west.
The most overt difference I remember feeling aware of after travelling was quite simple: the traffic. It is disheartening, when the cars are parked so thickly on the pavements that I can’t physically squeeze between them, and have to wait for minutes at a time before there is a space for me to cross the road. Stemming from that thought, I realize I no longer expect indicators to be used, and have almost stopped noticing that nobody ever dips their headlights. “We did sixty-three shots between the five of us,” recalled one of my friends about a recent night out. “How did you get home?” I asked. “Did you drive?” “I didn’t,” he reassured me, “one of the guys only had three or four so he dropped us all off.” Again, this didn’t surprise me. Because so many people drink and drive from the moment they are able to drink and to drive, they are well-practised and recognise their limits and weaknesses. They distinguish between a good drunk driver and a bad one. Also, sober traffic coming across cars with loud music playing in the small hours will assume that the driver is drunk and make appropriate allowances. In Britain, it wouldn’t occur to me, even at four o’clock on a Saturday morning, that a given driver might be drunk. I say this not because I’m an apologist for drink driving – Jony has had more than one friend killed on the motorway back to his home town, driving at over 100kph after going to a party – but just to comment that it’s hard to retain British zero-tolerance in a culture that has such a different approach.
These are wealthy, well-educated young people I am writing about; they have their own cars. None of them are much darker-skinned than I am. The racial issues in Mexico are drawn along very different lines from what I am used to. I have asked several people here if black Mexicans exist, and have been answered with screwed-up faces and possibly a few maybe on the coast? One of my teachers here, a two-time Premio Nacional-winning academic, was giving a class on the colonisation of Mexico and made a very brief reference to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “I don’t know why they killed each other,” he said, “they’re all black to me.” Instead, the tension here is between Mexicans and the indigenous peoples. Virtually every homeless person I see is wearing traditional clothing and has the distinctive features of an Indian. Indians, legally, have the same rights as any other Mexican citizen, but in practise, they are stopped from entering shopping centres, eating in restaurants and even getting jobs if it doesn’t suit the owner. White is beautiful: Mexicans avoid the sun, have no interest in getting a tan. There is a food crisis developing as I write in the desert states in the north of the country, where whole villages of Indians are starving, and it is not an issue. It’s not on the news; I have heard no-one talk about it. I only hear of it via articles on the internet pointed out to me by friends keeping an eye on foreign news outlets. The government has promised over two billion USD to the region, but no long-term action has been planned until the rainy season restarts in four months’ time.
For me, living in an affluent zona of one of Mexico’s richer cities, it can be easy to forget that this is a third-world country. Then I read that GDA has won the rights to build a multi-billion dollar technology park because the average wage here is less than a fifth that of the United States. The average wage, that says. The minimum wage is sixty-two pesos – roughly three pounds – for an eight hour day. My prize-winning professor earns 36,000 USD (23,000 GBP) a year, and he is a rich man. He owns his own house in a nice part of the city and his wife has never had to work.
Not that she would have that easy, necessarily. Sarah points out that every time we are presented with a bill in a bar, café or restaurant, it is automatically given to me. Quite literally, the man not paying for everything here is grounds for divorce. This can partly be explained by a machismo surface, but it is a symptom of how deep that culture runs. The chances of a woman earning anywhere near as much as her male counterpart are slim. I have heard stories of women being fired, completely illegally, from work they are overqualified for anyway because their boss doesn’t fancy paying them their eighty days of maternity leave. What is equally sad is that these women don’t rage into the CEO’s office, lawyer in tow, and point to the clause in the Mexican constitution that prohibits this kind of prejudicial behaviour. They shrug their shoulders, have their baby and look for another job. Clearly these anecdotes are simplifying a deeply complex social problem, but it is not for nothing there exists a wordplay between tapatío and apathy.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the drug war. Now is not the time: my reflections on Mexico were getting bleak enough already. But there is another side to this giant eagle-and-cactus coin, one that comes from looking at things a bit closer to home.
If the arrival of the girls made me reconsider my view of Mexico as a whole, the visit of one of my friends from university made me look at my immediate surroundings afresh. Sarah’s presence has been the perfect impetus to discover and rediscover the city and nearby states. Within GDA we visited all the places that I went to when I was first exploring the city in September and October, and many that I had been meaning to see since then but hadn’t got round to yet. We have wandered through Möbius-strip markets, listened to orchestras in bandstands, eaten piles of crépes and tacos, drunk cocktails to live jazz, met far more international students than we intended at a rooftop barbeque, and craned our necks at murals covering the roof and walls of one of the largest hospital complexes in Latin America. On the weekends we went away to Querétaro, one of Mexico’s oldest colonial cities, hitchhiked four thousand metres above sea level into snow and ice at the top of a mountain in Colima, and ate seafood by the busking bands and setting sun at Lago de Chapala, to the south. Two weeks is not enough; there is so much more to see just in GDA, let alone the rest of Mexico.
The important thing, though, has been the Mexicans. Virtually the first thing Sarah said after hugging me in the arrivals hall of the airport was “They’re all so friendly!” and not only is she right, she is importantly right. Cuba had made me notice it again, but trying to look at Mexico through my visitor’s eyes made it even clearer. It makes me very happy that my bus driver wishes me a good day, the girl in the coffee shop outside school says she hopes I like my drink, and that the taxi guy talks to me like an old friend for the whole journey and tells me to enjoy my weekend in his city. Sarah and I were hugged warmly goodbye by a middle-aged lady who talked to us for half an hour about Querétaro and holidays in Europe as we waited for space in a café. I walk down Chapultepec on Saturday evenings with my housemates and wonder why the news companies aren’t interested in telling the world about the busking teenage bands, the artists selling paintings and jewellery, the activists campaigning for education reform, or the old ladies running painting workshops for schoolchildren. What I am trying to say is that Mexico is not a country in despair, that problems are always worse from the outside looking in. The country has difficulties that Europe wouldn’t dream of, but the people don’t just survive, they take pleasure in life just as much if not more than the first world.
With my time left in the country now numbering a matter of weeks, the carpe diem mindset that having a guest has given me is something I am keen to retain. There is, however, another way to take advantage of being here, and that is to do nothing. When next in my life am I going to be able to take any given week and spend it relaxing at home, reading, writing, watching football or chatting to housemates? The opportunity to take it easy, not just for an afternoon but for days at a time, is something I suspect I will look back at with affection. Europeans knows how to live fast, but they haven’t learned how healthy it can be to slow down. It is hard to see with any practicality the relationships between Mexico’s overwhelming problems and its wonderful day-to-day existence, but in the end, I like to think, it is not much worse off than the countries of the old world, or its two northern neighbours.