Hargeisaland

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I flew to Hargeisa on a Saturday and left for work at 7.15 on Sunday morning. Losing a weekend ordinarily would be a cause for resentment, but in this case minimising empty time was a good thing. There is very little to do in Hargeisa, especially if you don’t have an established group of contacts outside one’s own organisation, so half a day to unpack was about right. There was no food in the house when I arrived: meals were provided twice a day, but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically of DRC/DDG, no-one tells new arrivals this. I ate bread found in one of the fridges.

The guesthouse is a spacious two storey building, unusually for Somaliland without an accessible roof but with a little terraced area outside. There are 11 bedrooms, but during my stay there were never more than seven filled. Guesthouse life meant that only one person was there for the duration of my stay: around ten other people in total arrived, left, or did both during what turned out to be only four weeks.

The office had changed since my last trip. We stopped renting the old complex, what had previously been a school, and moved into a three storey office block. Happily it was much closer to the guesthouse, although until I arrived and put my foot down the driver still arrived at the same time, 7.15am, making us some 40 minutes early to work every day. The new office was very new, the concrete stairs noticeably uneven, the water supply barely reaching to my second floor. Outside my office was a balcony upon which mugs, flasks, teaspoons, a box of teabags, and a jar of Nescafe and sugar were presented at 9am every day. One of the flasks contained Somali tea, which is delicious. It tastes strongly of cloves and so sweet it makes me wince.

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We had our bags searched thoroughly, every zip and pocket checked, and were metal-detected before the gate into the office is unlocked for us, one at a time. A herd of camels walked past my window most mornings at around tea time. I shared an office with Muhamed Ismael, Mukhtar, and Ismael Abdi. Later we were joined by a charming Pakistani who also moved into the guesthouse and I did much of exploring of Hargeisa with. Mukhtar helped me with hello, good morning, thank you, and goodbye in Somali, and tried to teach me see you tomorrow, a formidable composition which proved a step too far. Muhamed Ismael sheepishly admitted to being an Arsenal fan and after much investigation and phone calls added me to the office Fantasy Football league. I am 13th.

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I was underworked, sadly for the context. The days were nine hours long because the Somalis stopped for prayer breaks and had an hour for lunch. Lunch for the internationals was brought from the guesthouse in little metal lunchboxes, and was usually rice or pasta with fish or vegetables. I ate on the balcony. January and February is winter in Somaliland so it was not as hot as envisioned; I usually wore a jumper or jacket.

Free time in Hargeisa was a different beast. Much of my week revolved around managing long stretches of time with nothing to do. Normally something to be maximised and looked forward to, here it was not exactly avoided but was certainly treated warily. Going out to a restaurant or friend’s compound was possible, but only around once a week, if that. Otherwise we were confined to the guesthouse. On my one excursion out of the office to a conference at a hotel I met a middle-aged man working for one of the EU’s maritime organs. He had been in Hargeisa for a year and a half and compared it unfavourably with being in prison. “At least there you know you didn’t choose to be there,” he said, half joking.

As an introvert I coped better than many; I read a lot, wrote, listened to music, ran on a treadmill for the first time. On the weekends I sat outside in the sun and watched with delight the weaver birds, Borussia Dortmund yellow and black, building their magical cocoons in the tree, being reminded of poring over my dad’s bird books as a child. One of the seven cats, Elán, the largest, oldest, and most domesticated, adopted me. He had belonged de facto to the previous Country Director and clearly missed the attention. I remember her saying that the cats were therapeutic, and they were: as I stroked Elán, feeling how fluid and cephalopodic he was compared to a dog, it occurred to me that living in such a conservative society meant physical contact was absolutely minimal. I would occasionally shake hands with other men, and that was it. Elán demanded my attention, sitting on my laptop keyboard or shoving himself against my book until I tickled his ears or chin, at which he would sink his claws into my legs in delight and start purring like a helicopter.

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I was happier. The weather was good, the food was good, the Somalis were lovely. Work was a little slow but I was glad to be away from the politics of Nairobi. Hargeisa began to grow on me: it has restaurants and coffee shops, good ones, and I had a couple of friends in other organisations. I would go over to Mine Action Group or HALO and drink smuggled whiskey on their rooves, listening to the de-miners swapping stories about Afghanistan and Iraq and partaking in the curious self-effacing humour of the humanitarian community. The curfew was 9pm, unless you had an armoured car, which, as I heard no end of, HALO did and we didn’t. I rode in one a couple of times: they look normal, but the doors are so heavy it takes two hands to move them.

After four weeks, though, I began to feel the tentacles of cabin fever. I wanted to go for a walk or out for a drink. I was living with a handful of middle-aged men of varying degrees of personability, and missed my women friends. My work permit was still processing but I had another three weeks in Somaliland before my annual leave, and then would be based there until October.

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And then we had a security incident. The news arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we were instructed not to leave the guesthouse for the weekend. On Tuesday I received an email from my boss and 48 hours later I arrived blinking back in Nairobi. My work permit was rejected.

Having had too little to do in Hargeisa, Nairobi was a shock. The boss was leaving and the organisation going through a significant restructure. I was put in a meeting with two Regional Advisers and told that management didn’t have the capacity to “spar with us” as much as they would like; with an average age of 29 and a combined 11 months of service in the organisation, we were designated a “self-managing team”. I worked until 8 or 10pm most nights that week. I couldn’t stay long; Nairobi was over its limit of foreign staff, Hargeisa obviously not an option, Kampala was full, and Mogadishu was judged unwise given the elections there had only just finished. I was sent to Addis Ababa. On a tourist visa, I have now spent a week sitting in a guesthouse on my own. I have four more days here before a much needed break in UK.

What I’m listening to:

  • Sybille Baier, Colour Green
  • Riton ft. Kah-Lo, “Rinse and Repeat”
  • Card on Spokes, As We Surface EP
  • Sons of Kemet, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
  • Burial, Untrue

What I’m reading:

  • Still Aeneid
  • Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils
  • Emmanuel Katangole, The Sacrifice of Africa

An Ashram And Adios

When I think the word “England” I hear Polly Jean Harvey quiver “The West’s asleep… let England shake;” when I think “Cuba” I hear the slow, two-chord opening strum of Buena Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan; and when I think “La Paz,” I hear my friend Shiona Blackie’s normally softly-spoken Scottish accent biting “La Paz is an atrocity.” A few hours in and around a bus station is hardly enough time to come to any judgement of a city, but I didn’t come across anything to make me think she was wrong. Perhaps arriving on a Sunday meant the number of derelict buildings were more noticeable for the lack of people, but it can’t have made any difference to the dirt, litter and sickly smell of urine. I had half a day to kill which doubtless didn’t help, but I was uncommonly happy to finally set off on another twenty-four-hour-plus bus trip.

I sat next to a Bolivian lady who conducted the following conversation on her mobile every four hours or so:

“Hello my love? Hello darling. Hello sweetheart.” Listens. “We’re in [place along the way] my love, we’re on time, love.” Listens.”You too darling, you too my love. I’m fine my love, yes darling.” Listens. “Yes my sweetheart, yes darling. Yes my love. Thank you for calling, my darling. Thank you my love. OK. Kisses. Bye love. Bye darling. Bye sweetheart, my love. Bye.”

She was, apart from that sideshow, a lovely bus companion, and offered me sandwiches, fruit juice, sweets, chicken legs and indigestion pills from her bag, and apologised humbly for being kicked by me as I lurched towards the toilet at quarter to five in the morning. We complained cheerfully to each other as the stewardess failed to understand the DVD remote and made us watch Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, plus deleted scenes and bloopers reel, for six hours.

After a restorative night in a hostel in Lima, I figured out the two buses and taxi ride to Eco-Truly Park, a Vedic ashram around ninety minutes outside the city. My daily routine started at 6am with yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast at 8.30ish. I worked with the other volunteers until 1pm, for the first week helping the workmen with construction: hauling bricks or mortar, shifting earth, even trying a bit of bricklaying once. The second week I spent in the garden, which was harder work than it looked – my back would start complaining quickly as I shuffled along rows and rows of turned earth placing seeds. After lunch was time for non-work practicalities – clothes washing, going into the village to buy supplies – or talking to the devotees about Vaishnavism (which, in my ignorance, I incorrectly umbrellad under “Hinduism” in my previous blog). My thoughts on Vaishnavism are the material for another entry, so here I will just say that I was fascinated but far from convinced. I did not particularly appreciate being told that my not believing in karma or reincarnation was irrelevant because they exist regardless, nor being unable to extract any reason for those beliefs more detailed than “because it’s true.” Dinner followed at around 6pm, and as the sun goes down and the scant electric lights flicked on there was the option of going to the temple for a short ceremonio to Krishna, or just free time until bed at 9 or 10.

I lived in a hut with a few other volunteers – three at first, and then just one. Volunteers came and went, even in the short time I was there, and I suppose it must have become normal for the residents to see a steady flow of people move through.

The shower was a pipe in the wall, and I didn’t even bother to ask if there was hot water. Toilets were buckets, with sawdust nearby to muffle the worst of the smell. Food was included, three times a day, and varied from exotic and delicious – much of it I could not begin to recognise, but had as much flavour and texture as you could wish for – to barely edible (one breakfast time, being presented with two plain, chewy boiled potatoes was a low). It was all strictly vegetarian and very often vegan, so variety was perhaps a little lacking, but my body is unaccustomed to hours of yoga and manual labour, which made me invariably starving by the time each meal rolled around. I had never done yoga before, and was not capable of keeping up with most of it. My muscles were simply not able to lift, stretch or balance themselves in the way the instructor demonstrated, but it was still fun, often funny and a good way to meet people.

The people were worth meeting, as well: they varied from backpackers completely unaware there was a religious angle to the village at all, to shamans, monks and even an Australian gentleman who told me he channeled healing energy from extraterrestrials in the fifth dimension. It was a very interesting experience but not the easiest environment to live in, and I have now escaped to Lima before flying home. I wanted to squeeze in a couple more breakfasts in hostels, a semi-magical process of being virtually guaranteed to meet some great people. Listening to a friendly, funny and informed man from Ireland and girl from the US enthuse about their extensive travels in Peru and other South American countries, my assertion that my travel bug has gone began to feel like a joke. They began listing the first foods they were going eat when they got home after a year on the road: “Don’t!” I said. They looked at me strangely: “You’re going home,” they smiled, “you’re gonna get all of this long before us!” And I am… I had, briefly, almost forgotten. Not really, though: the glow of friends and family is just around the corner.

Thanks for reading.

Pineapple and Glass: Leaving Guadalajara

“That’s so crazy that your year abroad is like, woah… it’s over, you know?” Skyping a friend a week or so ago, it began to sink in that yes, in one sense, I am done. Technically I’m now on holiday until October. Classes finished at the end of March, and in three days’ time I am leaving Mexico indefinitely. The two weeks after school passed vaguely, partly because GDA shut down almost totally for Semana Santa, Holy Week, as most of the city headed to the beach or to family in more rural areas for a week’s holiday. Alone in the apartment, I disciplined myself not to sleep in too late and made lists of things to do to keep busy, ticking off small tasks that needed to get done before I left and making trips to corners of the city I hadn’t got round to visiting yet. I found that the only memento of Mexico I need is a photo of Frida Kahlo, the only artist I know whose paintings speak to me. Fortunately for me, she remains a cultural icon and in virtually every tianguis (street market) there is a stall or two selling antique-style photographs of GDA, heroes of the Revolution, stars of the Golden Age of cinema, and Frida.

I find myself still making mental notes of elements of Spanish I don’t understand so I can ask my teachers at school, then realising that I don’t have any more lessons to go to. And then realising how much my approach to learning has changed since the days when I grumbled privately and publically that technical, classroom learning wasn’t “real” learning, and not a method that helped me very much.

On Sundays, Avenida Vallarta, one of GDA’s major roads and the road on which I live, closes to vehicles and for half a day is filled with joggers, cyclists, dogwalkers and rollerbladers. It’s a lovely time of the week for the complete change in atmosphere it brings, and I have often spent an hour on the terrace of my apartment block or in the outside seating area of the café across the road and just enjoyed the sun, the absence of traffic and the variety of people rolling past. Last weekend, someone set up a soundsystem as well. When they finally moved on from We Speak No Americano I was prepared to forgive them for starting at eight in the morning, and by the time they got round to playing Blondie’s Heart of Glass I was wondering why I was leaving.

I am, after all, very comfortable here. I have long since beguiled the truculent front gate that baffles visitors, I know where to get the best tacos and coffee, and the people in the corner shop let me bring them the money later when I dozily show up without any. I will miss the zealously cool teenagers who forever hang out on Chapultepec, and being able to pick up two-kilo pineapples for eighty pence.

Having made you all jealous, I need to admit that my last six weeks in Mexico have probably been the hardest of my whole time here. The problem with my bank I alluded to in the previous entry is still ongoing, which, having lasted over month, has now left me with the prospect of having to move country with my new debit card lost somewhere in the ether of international post. The Mexican people, as I hope I have accurately conveyed, are uncommonly warm, hospitable and friendly, but there is a surface that is very hard to get past. The culture is much more family- than friend-based, which creates something of a glass wall in terms of feeling truly at home. Saying goodbye to one of my remaining friends last week, I had a conversation about the difficulty of being a single foreigner in Mexico – as she succinctly put it, “if you don’t have a family here, you’re fucked.” What we were trying to express is that without a pre-existing support network here, it’s very hard to create one. Tenuous contacts for jobs not working out, a cracked if not broken heart and the miserable form of Blackburn Rovers have also contributed to a final few weeks that, sadly, have left me eager to leave Mexico and make a fresh start.

The fresh start is Chile, a fairly arbitrary choice and one that, despite what I have written above, causes the “survival” section of my brain to throw anxious pins of mirth, scorn or bewilderment at the “decision-making” department. Why am I leaving a country where I can order quesadillas from taco stands virtually twenty-four hours a day? Why am I trading a Spanish that while far from perfect is at least clear and familiar, for a sound-mangling variant filled with impenetrable slang? Why, in other words, am I not staying in a comfortable environment with lovely housemates, working leisurely on my dissertation, doing a wee bit of travelling and then going home?

They are reasonable questions, even more so given that I’ll (probably) be unable to take money out of cash machines. But the fact is staying in GDA without having anything compulsory to do every day would inevitably lead to boredom. There is of course much more of the rest of Mexico to see: the Baja California peninsula, San Luis Potosí, virtually every beach in the country, the coastal cities, Monterrey in the north… but it’s impossible to visit everything, and if I did all that I’d have no excuse to come back. So, balancing the impulse to make the most of my free time with the instinct to go back home and see everyone, I decided that a new country would be the best thing to do before flying back to Britain. Having my few emails to potential contacts remain unanswered, I don’t have much of an idea how the next two months will pan out. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

Narcos, UFOs and Mangos

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.

Carpe Diem, Mexico

“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.

What Is An Apple?

Mexico threw her arms around me and welcomed me back with comprehensible Spanish, non-segregated food establishments and a unified currency. More than that though were her people; her unreliable, disorganized, ever-tardy people: warm, open, generous and with so much time for anyone who comes their way.

Looking back, it was around this time I was reminded that, just as much if not more than what I see, the pleasure of travelling is in who I meet along the way. It is somewhat self-fulfilling that people who think it’s fun to strap their own bodyweight to their back, spend the best part of most days wedged sweatily into variable public transport and struggle through repetetive conversations in foreign languages will get on well with each other when they meet, but it is still faintly magical to repeatedly come across people with whom it is possible to become friends with so quickly. The literature student and the Spanish teacher in Oaxaca, the political scientist in Cancún, the photographer and the writer in Tulum. The girl with grey and amber eyes who magicked away three days in Mérida. People who it would have been a pleasure to meet under any circumstances, but combined with beautiful locations, good food and the time to talk for as long as we needed became truly memorable. I never got to spend more than two or three days with any of the people I met, but in many ways it wasn’t necessary; that time is enough to establish that you have enough in common beyond the shared experiences of travelling, and modern technology means you simply never have to lose touch.

At this point, half of those people were still to come. I stopped over one night in a Cancún (pleasingly) sleeping off its New Year excesses, this time in a more expensive, less drug-fuelled hostel, before moving quickly on to the ruins of Tulum. Tulum itself was little more than a truck stop, a tiny town built around a single main street lined with fuelling stations, restaurants and backpacker accommodation. Finding a dorm in one of the latter, I met a British-American couple with whom I would spend the next twenty-four hours. We went to the famous ruins together, a curious mixture of a well-preserved site, a stunning piece of turquoise coast and an over-sanitized conservation project that made the whole place feel like a golf course. I find now that I remember our conversation more than the ruins: the phrase “comfortably international” will stick with me for a long time as we discussed being Third Culture Kids, as well as the attempt to illustrate the mind-bending concept of trying to translate words whose referrent only exists in one culture.

We ate well, went for a drink, lamented the mosquitoes and talked about music, politics, technology and travel. In the morning we ate breakfast together, and I enjoyed for the last time my new friends’ ability to be funny, insightful and informed about everything from Chernobyl to taxidermy. Wished that I too had left university long behind and found out a bit more about the world… enjoyed feeling very young. I had to leave; I ate lunch quickly in the same restaurant we’d eaten dinner in the night before, welcomed back like an old friend by the waiter, and then got back on the buses.

Mérida, the last stop of note on my trip, was a nicely busy city on the other side of the Yucatán peninsula. The highlight was a series of cenotes, caves plummeting away underground that – somehow – were filled with crystal blue green pools and inquisitive fish. The last had a set of roots hanging forty feet high from an opportunistic tree on the surface. The days on either side disappeared via art galleries, markets and food stalls, in hindsight made hazy in comparison to the company I shared them with. Again, the conversations about travelling and language, sex and faith, literature and music, have stayed with me more than the lovely central square or the bands and artesans that occupied it. Too soon practicalities were requiring my attention: coaches and planes and the new term starting in GDA. My flight home was from Tuxtla, a town two states away, so after goodbyes in the bus station I settled in for a long trip.

After fourteen hours on the road, I was fully expecting to do nothing in Tuxtla apart from rest and wait for my flight, but Mexican towns are not so easily brushed off. Despite the comprehesive roadworks that were disrupting the city centre (much to the approval of my taxi driver, who was impressed the government was finally doing something so practical and unglamorous) the cathedral, plazas and markets enticed me out of my hotel room. By the end of the day I found myself semi-accidentally in a verdant square thickly populated with young families, cuddling couples and suits finished with their day’s work. I listened to the live marimba band as the sun set, the sight of elderly couples swaying in unhurried circles beginning to soothe the sting of leaving Mérida. I wandered home humming a salsa tune, went to bed early. I got up at five thirty the next morning and went back to Guadalajara.