Sarah’s visit came to an end; I felt sorry for myself. Greg went home to the States two days later. Chuan had left, Nick was long gone, the strain of an essay a month was getting me down… Life was hard. I felt embarrassed or sometimes even guilty for wanting to tell friends preparing for finals back home in the cold and the grey that I was lonely or bored. I decreed that the next weekend was going to be a three-day one and decided to get away for a bit, on my own, with the plan of getting back to GDA feeling a bit more positive.
On the Friday afternoon, classes done, I made the hour’s trip from my apartment to the bus terminal and, wondering why it was so much fuller than normal, pushed my way through the suitcases and backpacks and asked for a ticket to Morelia, the capital city of next-door state Michoacán. “No service,” said the lady, in the tone of an employee repeating the same phrase customer after customer. I was so nonplussed I just said thank you and stepped back. I had a look around at the crowd, on their phones or staring into space. Something, I deduced, is up. I bought a bottle of water and asked the girl who sold it to me if she had heard what was going on. She gave me the eyebrows and said she didn’t know, but the word on the street was that the narcos had hijacked a load of buses, locked the passengers inside, and set them on fire.
It didn’t register at first. I was wide-eyed and speechless, but it was an act. Sometimes with someone I don’t know very well, in order to start a conversation, I will ask them something about themselves that I already know the answer to. My reactions are not exactly fake, but constructed to appear appropriate, and that’s what I was doing now. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the bus back home, the afternoon sun turning the city orange, that the idea began to sink in, and I felt unsafe for the first time ever in Mexico. I was less than happy.
Thankfully, it wasn’t true, about the passengers at least. A cartel’s leader had been arrested in the morning and the blockades using inner-city buses, long-distance buses and transit trucks was his gang throwing a tantrum. The Mexicans reacted with characteristic black humour, photoshops of Godzilla stomping through GDA doing the rounds on the internet, and by the morning the city had returned completely to normal. (Later, the cartel responsible took the unusual step of releasing an apology for the disruption, which was greeted with a flurry of Tweets about how lovely it was to have such charming well-mannered gangs of criminals burning our public transport and bringing the whole city to a halt on a Friday night. I will never again accept the stereotype that the Latinos don’t understand sarcasm.)
As for me, I got up early the next morning and made my way untroubled to the lovely Morelia. Michoacán was quiet. Living on a major road in GDA, I noticed especially how the roads here were virtually silent. A friend of mine who’s been in Mexico for a year tells me that it’s because the state is run by the narcos to the extent that if you lean on your horn you might get shot for it. I like to think it’s quiet because it’s a more rural state and there’s a different mentality to road use, but I don’t know. I do know that the owner of the guest-house I stayed in told me that his wife answers the phone and says she’s the cleaning lady because of the chances of it being a narco on the other end, so maybe my friend is right. Despite that, I had a really nice day in Morelia, just taking it easy. I didn’t do much – wandered round the cathedral, did a bit of reading and writing, drank a coffee in the square.
The next day was taken up entirely by a tour to see the Monarch Butterfly Reserve, home for half the year to around 25 million butterflies in the woods on the Michoacán mountains before migrating to Canada. In the minibus on the way there, I met two people who were in many ways unlike anyone I’d ever met before: Mike, 50ish, a US expat of thirty years, and Helen, a girl in her mid-20s, also from the States.* I liked both of them at first impressions. Helen wore colourful handmade clothes and was very friendly; Mike was knowledgeable and chatty about Michoacán and how tourism affected the area. After around half an hour though, Mike casually mentioned his relationship with light, something I had previously found to wake me up in the mornings and allow me to see stuff when I have my eyes open. What I had missed, according to Mike, is that Light is a sentient, autonomous being and had, through Mike, the power to heal any phyiscal defect. To my alarm Helen then jumped in and told a story about a healing with Light a friend had done for her, and how by end of it she had regained twelve pieces of her soul.
Being politely British I didn’t ask how she could have been so profligate with something presumably quite important to her, or why all Mike’s photographic evidence was quite so blurry. I found myself instead wondering how many of my friends feel the same way when I talk about God.
Over the next two hours, as we arrived at the sanctuary and began walking up the mountain, I listened to the two have a completely serious and internally coherent conversation involving time-travellers, shamanism, clairsentience, extra-terrestrials, inter-terrestrials, KGB videos documenting secret alien bases in Siberia… and so on. At one point Helen told me that hugging trees let her absorb a bit of the tree’s energy and stopped her getting altitude sickness. Having previously thought of “a liberal” as a friendly person who was talked about the environment and minorities, often with a beard, I began to see why conservatives interviewed on CNN or Fox News would refer to “liberals” as anything between a bit of a joke to a dangerous underclass.
Fortunately, also on the trip were a Mexican couple with a wide-eyed toddler who spent the day attempting to smuggle dead butterflies past her mother and into her mouth, which kept things a bit more grounded.
On the journey back, I thought it was not often I got to have a no-strings-attached conversation with wackos, so I decided to engage with the conversation. I came to two very different conclusions. As I mentioned earlier, I have to be careful in my attitudes towards people who believe in things they can’t prove. I couldn’t prove to Mike that time travel is impossible, that there isn’t a race of superior beings living undetectably within the Earth, or that you can’t train yourself into having 360-degree vision when you close your eyelids. I have just never seen anything to make me believe those things are possible. Mike believed in them quite literally, and I think it’s a survival mechanism of those who have spent too long as a foreigner. It gave him an identity, and something to absorb himself in.
Helen was the opposite. The more I got her to explain what she was saying, the more I found she was talking about things eminently sensible – she was just doing so in very obfuscatory language. She was interested in relationships with oneself and others, based in eastern philosophies that placed far more emphasis than western philosophy does on the sensory half of the brain. When she talked about memories from past lives, psychic journies into the darkness or absorbing other people’s emotions, all she was doing was presenting metaphors as literal events. This, I concluded, was the result of a mix of placebo and deliberate counter-culturalism. So, for a quick example, when Helen told me about a week she spent in the woods with a group who taught her tantric fire rituals as a spiritual healing process, at first I thought she was crazy. After getting her to elaborate on everything she said that I didn’t understand, I think she had an absolutely authentic experience. She got away from a materialistic culture that values problem-solving so much it has forgotten there is more to the human brain. She met a bunch of people who were like-minded and took her emotions seriously. She spent a week bonding with them and came out the other side feeling much better. I think that’s all completely valid – it’s just that I would describe that as a restorative time through friendship and empathy, and she described it as a mystical process that occurred through rituals with fire.
The next day, I moved on to a smaller town and spent another chilled-out day wandering around, reflecting on whether western philosophy could do with a bit more focus on spiritual energy sources, when I was brought sharply back towards more practical considerations with a bank problem that left me unable to take out any cash for around eighteen diet-enforcing hours. Being stranded on my own in a state where I didn’t know anyone was not much fun, and although I did manage to get hold of enough cash in the end to get back to GDA only a day late, as I write the issue is still unresolved and is a weight on my mind.
And lovely it is to be back too. The summer fruits are coming into season, the flowers are falling off the trees and there was a three-day jazz festival for free about ten minutes’ walk from my apartment. In equitorial Africa there aren’t the four seasons as there are in the UK, so when we moved back my mother would point out every year how beautiful the spring was. At the time my teenage self would respond with a range of non-verbal communication, but her enthusiasm has paid off and I now cannot help but notice and enjoy the trees blossoming blue and purple. All this is making up for the loss of all my friends who have moved back to their home countries while I’m still here, which had previously been getting me down. I am aware of how soon it will be me moving on, as the date of my flight to South America is now less than a month away. I keep seeing adverts for events in the city and thinking, won’t be here for that. Until then though, there is little to do but take advantage of the city, the sun, and the mangos.
*For fear of being sued or something, I have changed their names.