The one-year anniversary of our move to Mexico came and went last week with little fanfare. I was aware that it was coming up but unlike previous years of life in other countries, this one seemed routine.
I think that’s because it is is routine. If it weren’t for Facebook prodding me with photos of my first of what would be many tacos al pastor that day would have just slipped by, like most days do. In fact, I was likely doing laundry.
I was 19 years old the first time I visited Mexico. This was during a long and crazy summer that involved a rental car from east coast to west coast, and hitchhiking back along the same route. My friend and I popped over to Ciudad Juarez for a few hours, back when a driver’s’ license was all you needed, and my teenage self had no fear.
I returned to Mexico again in 2004, this time to Matamoros. Again, it was a trip on a whim and I never ventured further than a mile from the United States and only stayed overnight. I returned with tacky souvenirs, some cheap medication, and a horrible hangover.
When we began focusing our travels on Central and South America I didn’t think much about Mexico. It always felt too mundane, too spring breaky, and just too close. To be honest, I viewed Mexico as a southern extension of the United States and I simply wasn’t interested. It didn’t help matters that my first real trip to Mexico was to Cancun in 2014. Sure, the beaches were lovely but it all felt like a Speedy Gonzales version of Texas or Florida, and as I secretly gloated in my underwhelmed feelings, I was unaware that I’d be returning in six short months, and would be here for a year.
In this year, I have learned more about Mexico than I have about any other country I’ve lived in. Of course I’ll never claim to be an expert on any country –not even my own– and Mexico is so incredibly nuanced that it sometimes feels impossible to comprehend. That being said, I have loved this past year in a quiet and thoughtful way and these are five of the things that I’ve learned about Mexico.
Mexico is Geographically Diverse
I like to think of myself as someone who is pretty knowledgeable about geography, but when it comes to Mexico I knew nothing. I don’t think I’m alone here either. I believe that many people think of Mexico’s Caribbean and Pacific coastlines and beach resorts, and the interior as some vast, uninhabited wasteland. In fact, when I tell people that we now live in San Cristobal they often ask which coast that’s on.
Mexico has 31 states (or 32, now that Distrito Federal is moving toward statehood) and seven climate zones ranging from Mediterranean to temperate. Mexico sees snow, volcanic activity, and faces hurricanes on both coastlines. The northern arid and semi-arid regions produce some of the best wine I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. From the sometimes wild waves of the Pacific to the gentle turquoise waters of the Caribbean and the mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and jungles in between, Mexico dazzles me with its geographic diversity, and once you get a bit more familiar with the country it’s hard not to marvel at how big it really is.
Speaking of Diversity
After all of the time I’ve spent in Spanish speaking portions of the globe I’m still a fumbling mess when it comes to Spanish. I understand most everything I hear, and I can get my needs met in most situations, but I know I sound like a toddler.
However, Spanish is just one of 69 languages recognized by the Mexican government. The other 68 are indigenous languages and there are estimates that 130 more indigenous languages have already been lost. The Mexican government implemented policies in 2002 aimed at preserving the remaining languages and the customs and cultures that accompany them.
Long before the Spanish conquered Mexico there was a thriving culture made up of many different peoples. The remains of those cultures can be found in the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza, the Aztec ruins in the heart of Mexico City, and that’s not all. According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People just over 20% of Mexican citizens identify as indigenous. The bulk of these people live in Mexico’s southern states, and where we live in the state of Chiapas just over a third of the population is indigenous, mostly consisting of Tzeltal and Tzotzil peoples.
This level of population diversity is something completely foreign to me, and makes for a fascinating and often tumultuous regional history. Find a copy of Bordering on Chaos to learn more about Chiapas and Mexico as a whole during the fragile years of the mid-1990s.
Let’s Talk Food
Part of Mexico’s appeal is the food and it has definitely played a part in my perception of the country over the last year. Mexico’s geographic and cultural diversity play a huge role in the many types of cuisine here, and each state, region, and community has their own unique take on something spectacularly delicious.
In addition, migrants from other parts of the world have had a hand in the evolution of Mexico’s food. My favorite –tacos al pastor– is Middle Eastern in origin and is essentially pork shawarma topped with pineapple and sometimes avocado or radish. However, from the pulled pork style cochinita pibil to the delectable soup known as pozole there is much more to Mexican food than meets the eye, or nose, or taste bud.
Mexico is also launching itself directly toward the international foodie scene, and the country’s hub is Mexico City. Several of the capital’s eateries have made coveted “best of” lists and there’s no sign that Mexico’s talented young chefs are slowing down. Perhaps one of the most enticing aspects of this burgeoning aspect of Mexico’s food culture is not that it’s new, but that chefs are embracing ancient techniques and ingredients and reinventing them to reflect the kaleidoscope of Mexican heritage.
But even though five stars now grace many a restaurant kitchen in this country there’s still nothing like a street taco in Mexico. Nothing.
Safety Is Not an Issue
“Do you feel safe?”
This is by far the question I am asked most. By friends, by family, by everyone.
My answer is always a simple “yes”, but sometimes it seems futile to elaborate on that answer. People who think of Mexico as nothing but a cartel-ridden land of beheadings and disappearances won’t likely change their mind just because I say so.
But the truth is that I’ve never once felt unsafe here. We’ve ridden busses throughout half the country. We’ve walked the streets of Mexico City at night. We’ve encountered plenty of angry mobs protesting various things. Not once has anything even remotely unsavory happened. Actually, the only time I’ve ever felt fearful was when the stray dogs would chase my bike in Tulum.
That’s not to say that Mexico doesn’t have problems with safety; it absolutely does. But so does virtually every other country on earth, including the United States, and common sense is the best defense.
I’ve Learned About Privilege
Sometimes the lessons learned while traveling are sobering ones, and this is one of those times. I’ve learned a great deal about privilege during our year here, and that comes with its own heavy dose of guilt.
Mexico has income inequality just as most of the developed world does, and it’s easy to see here. The posh neighborhoods of Polanco and Condesa in Mexico City are in stark contrast to the hillside shacks in Chiapas. Our doorbell buzzes daily and the people waiting on the other side of the door, hoping to sell a bit of fruit or ask for work, fill me with so much guilt that I don’t answer anymore.
I just can’t look at these proud yet desperate faces and mumble “no, gracias” with downcast eyes any longer. I’m ashamed.
The Mexican peso has taken a tumble in the last year. While that’s great news for people like us who get paid in US dollars, it’s bad news for those who rely on the peso. Our privilege is not something I take lightly. It’s hard to explain our absurdly low cost of living without feeling horrible about knowing that the second I turn the corner on Guadalupe Street I’ll see the same old lady, barefoot, withered hand held out in the hope of a peso or two.
Privilege is a heavy cross to bear, and even being able to make that statement reeks of privilege.
We’re probably going to remain in Mexico for a little while, and we’ll likely trade the highlands of Chiapas for the cosmopolitan aspects of Mexico City. You see, the country that I had foolishly written off as too close and too mundane has unfolded for me in delightful ways. Mexico is complex and simple, gritty and polished, chaotic and serene.
And I can’t wait to learn more.