The Mexico Adventure
Originally a web page by Wonder Russell

The Mexico Adventure
by Wonder Russell

To Mexico and Back Again:
A Collection of Thoughts That Cannot do it Justice

Travel is like the Force; there is both a dark and a light side. The dark side is, you could lose yourself in the process of exploration of foreign territory. The light side is that you can permanently enhance your existence in this realm. So many of the people I know return from a trip with wonderment and confusion in their eyes. The wonderment is captivating and exciting when they tell of their adventures, yet the confusion is present, and typically never taken care of. “I question my goals”, and “I’m a totally different person” are phrases I have heard repeated in lost tones. What’s unnerving is the fact that the traveler may spend months in identity limbo. Travel is also addictive. You can hear it when the traveler speaks of the land he has sojourned in. Once in a while, the voice takes on a sing-song, distant quality, the eyes shine as they see ghosts of amazing images long past that we can only imagine. The longing for the state of mind and being when all was fresh and astonishing reverberates like a haunting song through the traveler’s bones. This sensation, much like nostalgia for the innocence and awakening of childhood, addicts the listener.

Travel is contagious. The listener is affected, whether by simple enthusiasm or by the spell of mystery spreading virus-like from infected carrier to eager, willing host. When I embarked on my trip to Mexico sans parents or relatives, I was determined to hold onto my personality. I would not return dazed, confused by responsibility, yearning for the escape of travel and dubious of what the future held. That was not who I was.

There were three components that led to my decision to take the trip. 1. To enjoy myself, a simple enough wish. 2. To better my Spanish-speaking abilities, and 3. To deduce whether or not life as a travel writer was for me. A silly goal perhaps, but I had to know. The question lurked in my mind as a real possibility. I knew the risks of traveling with questions of my life’s work in mind, but I looked at it as a test for a tender young girl who had never traveled on her own, much less stayed at anything but a resort. When it came down to the nitty gritty, would I sit down brokenly and bawl unabashed for valet parking or my parents? Or would I throw my shoulders back, and view the crisis as another adventure? It was worth finding out.

The trip was a school trip, and the first of its kind. A friend and I approached our Spanish teacher with the bold declaration that we wanted a Spanish trip to Mexico. If high-schools could arrange such audacious outings, how much more so should a University have the power to send students on international jaunts? Our Spanish prof smiled slowly and answered that a trip, and the first of its kind, was in the works. Too thrilled to think of anything else, my friend and I left chatting excitedly about fundraisers. And thus it began. One, then two, and finally fourteen people enrolled in Spanish 393: Language and Culture of Mexico.

The most difficult part of the trip was the night before we left, December 21, 1997. My family had recovered from the initial shock that I was leaving them for Christmas, and we celebrated a cheery if a little strange “quicky-Christmas” that night, opening all presents that were either “To” or “From” me. The rest would be saved for Christmas Day. I was torn in two; I wanted to go on the trip, but I hated making my family feel like I was deserting them. My determination to gain real, positive advantages from this trip was strengthened tenfold.

We had two Spanish professors accompanying us, Rick Bellagh and Ernesto Apella. Most people were either in Rick’s Spanish 101 or 201 class. Ernesto, from Argentina, taught Conversational Spanish. Everyone called him Magu, and he was the minstrel of the group, carrying his guitar with him on every plane and bus. Rick and ten students were already in Mexico the day I left. Armando, Beto, and I were guided from Juneau, Alaska, to Mexico City, Mexico, by Magu. It was a memorable day, and not just because we were in transit for some 16 hours. We didn’t know each other, and that was part of the fun. The parallels between us were amusing. In the US, we three students took on the responsibility for finding the connecting gate, since Magu tended to get lost. In Mexico City, the roles were reversed as we following him closely through the terminal, bombarded by the sound of strange words, and jealously guarding our luggage.

I had few pre-conceptions of Mexico. It’s true that during my previous visits there, I’d stayed in impeccable hotels with safe swimming pools and convenient hot tubs. But I knew more of Mexicans than just the smoothly efficient hotel workers, inevitably clad in sparkling white. My family toured the markets and bartering areas. We talked with people and saw the countryside. I saw gigantic pigs lounging comfortably in his owners’ three-sided home, thin day laborers walking the lengthy, dusty roads, and young divers who depended on the tropical fish they caught for subsistence. I hadn’t seen it all, but I was ready to. Not long before I left, I watched a program on the Travel channel, Rough Guide to Mexico. They went into great detail about the corruption and violence, about the pamphlet the government had recently distributed informing citizens that they had the right to not be attacked, extorted, or terrorized by the city police. I figured it couldn’t be a whole lot worse than some places in New York, and that the key would be common sense.

I looked forward to the challenge of exercising common sense and language skill to watch out for myself. I decided before I left that while in Mexico I would take precautions, be aware of what was going on around me, and proactively make sure that nothing would go wrong if I could help it. If I had one pre-conceived notion about the trip, it was not about the people or the culture, but about me ensuring my personal success regardless of the situation. I don’t want to sound overly-bold or controlling; I simply made the decision to not come home victimized.

And let me tell you how many things “went wrong”. None. Everything that happened, however haphazard it seemed, was an adventure. When we got on the wrong bus, or our bus broke down and separated us from the group, when people overslept and had to find the rest of the group later, when we got lost late at night miles from our hotel, when my entire group returned to the hotel deserting me amidst Mayan ruins…the situations weren’t disasters, just quirky challenges. Once when a few of us were doubting whether or not we would be able to reunite with our group in time to catch the bus to the next city, I said to Jaime, “Esta bien. I’m not worried. We know where they’re headed, we’ll catch up.” “Just part of the adventure,” he agreed with me casually.

It was impossible to not learn during the trip. Every city had a different story, every person a different history, each hotel needed to be scrutinized and chosen. Communication brought us together, whether through uncertain Spanish, broken English, gestures and expressions, or simply a shared experience. Our taxi cab driver didn’t need to know English to join us our laughter as we stuffed EIGHT people into his Volkswagen Bug. We were always talking with our cab drivers, joking about women drivers, discussing the murders in Chiapas or speculating about the likelihood of the volcano blowing.

My Spanish proficiency doubled in certain subjects. Changing money and investigating hotels was my specialty. Aside from that, I learned to enjoy something I had previously dreaded: bartering. I usually knew what I would and would not pay for a thing, or where I could get it for cheaper. The only thing occasionally frustrating about bartering was when they would rattle off a sentence in Spanish at you (that was way over your head) and then all their friends would laugh at the gringa’s expense. But, that had positive effects too, spurring my desire to learn more Spanish. The other thing that was occasionally frustrating was when you would order the standard breakfast, y tal vez el camarero te traia huevos revueltos, pero con un poco de jamon, o con queso. O jugo de naranja en una taza grande en vez de una taza pequena, y despues de comer, se tiene que pagar lo que no te querias al principio (pero no sabias que no era el desayuno usual), mientras el camarero insistia “! Tu lo pediste!” aunque no es verdad. O cuando no te traia el jugo, tu le pides otra vez, “el jugo, por favor; estoy esperando”, y te trae un grande vaso, y mas tarde, casi al fin del desayuno, te trae la actual taza de jugo, tan grande como tu dedo. I didn’t appreciate being set up, although I grinned and beared it.

Another interesting cultural point I noticed was that while every town center or ‘zocalo’ was centered around a church, and the population of Mexico is very religious, when people speak of B.C. versus A.D., they say “antes de su Cristo”. And, it’s the “su” that piques my interest. Converted to Catholicism from their original indian beliefs, there is still a thread of differentiation; a boundary hangs in the air. Su Cristo, no nuestro Cristo. I wonder how many Catholic Mexicans realize this, or if the phrase has simply become tradition, and no one ponders the implications.

I was not bothered by the machismo displayed by the Mexican men. The first day in Mexico City I was hyper-sensitive to it…I could feel the stares and anticipated glances and the “Sssts!” . But I wasn’t uncomfortable; I didn’t feel threatened or abused. The furthest thing from my mind was to be all offended and angrily proclaim my autonomous feminism. I accepted it as part of their culture along with the Volkswagen Beetles and street vendors, and the next day I had completely tuned it out. On the other hand, I’m not blond; my “persecutions” could have been much worse.

Machismo reached a comical level on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the beaches of Montepio. After one of the ladies of our party had ridden off into the sunset behind a lucky young Mexican man, his older friend awaited his buxom passenger…but never had the pleasure. However, he didn’t give up easily. He galloped back and for below us on the beach, one arm raised in both command and entreaty towards our party on the hill. “Another woman!” he cried gallantly. And with great flair, called out his heart’s desire for a fair maiden to woo, as we fair maidens shifted our weight uncomfortably and nudged each other half-heartedly.


“No, you go.”

“No way, I’m not going.”

“Make Rosa go. Or Violetta.”

“Yeah, Violetta, you should go.”

“No chance!”

At one point, “Otra Mujer” threatened to ride away as one would tempt a vendor. “I’m going now,” he warned, riding his horse up the beach. “Okay, bye-bye,” one of our group laughed. He eventually gave up his mission and adopted the attitude of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, and came to sit down with us on our cement “balcony”.

Another guest who resigned himself to eating Magu’s fabulous chicken was the crazy horse wrangler, waiting patiently for Don Juan and the American girl to return. He sat casually, one leg dangling over the edge, his battered straw cowboy hat pushed back on his brown forehead. He licked his fingers and happily mumbled about all the languages he spoke, showed off his ‘rare’ coin collection once more, tenderly reminded Nina of the beautiful children they could have, and grandiosed the time he had met Linda Carter. He wasn’t concerned whether or not he was listened to; he was rambling happily among friends in the early Montepio sunset. Life could not be sweeter. I daresay he could have not waited more pleasantly. The chicken he availed himself to was smoky-sweet and tinged with lime---the potatoes hot and peppery, the onions pungent and soft, the tortillas warm and floury. It was a feast for kings, arguably the best meal we had in three weeks. Without a doubt, it was the meal that was gone the quickest.

Monte Alban was very different from any of the ruins we had previously encountered. Barren of jungle, the area lacked the mysterious emerald influence of a newly found wonder. Instead, Monte Alban was more like a boneyard. Bleached pyramids baked in the white sun, surrounded by crispy grass and the few, short trees. It was impressive in an ominous way. And here it was that my group deserted me. Not a one stayed behind to accompany me back to the city of Oaxaca, or to even tell me they were leaving. Initially surprised, I soon recovered and waited for the city bus. After an hour of waiting without shade in the heat, a tourist couple I had seen earlier at the ruins pulled up in their VW Bug and offered any two people a ride. An English or Australian man climbed into the back, and after a moment’s deliberation, I did, too, wondering what in the world I was doing and if I was nuts. But, I knew they would take me to the zocalo (if I wasn’t being set up) and that the bus would not. And, being in Mexico, I felt I had a better chance with perfect strangers than on the city bus. In the tiny car, we swapped stories of what we had seen and where we had been. I told about the tension in San Cristobal; the foreign man of getting drunk with indians at a religious festival a few days earlier. The couple said how glad they were they had rented a car after seeing so many bus wrecks, but that they were still apprehensive on the roads when a bus came careening towards them on the high jungle roads with no guardrails. They let me out safe and sound at the zocalo’s familiar corner. I found my group eating lunch not far away, and they could not believe I had hitched a ride back. “Should’ve been there,” I told them jokingly.

On the last, painfully long day traveling from Mexico City to Juneau, Alaska, I was both relieved and saddened. I felt I had seen so much, I needed to hold it inside me for several days—like a treasure a child holds tight in their palm, needing to know it’s there. They sneak looks at it now and again, become intimate with its rough and smooth sides, and are comforted by its weight. That was a bit like I felt, knowing that all my friends and family would be eager to hear everything I had to say, but not knowing where to begin. How can I tell you everything, the way the dogs followed us at Catemaco, the bittersweet of Oaxacan chocolate, the palpable fear the night the bus lurched out of control down the hill with all those people inside, the thrill of hot sun on burning shoulders and not caring, class in the park or on a roof, voices raised in earnest barter, pyramids from another time, nearly another world, the strum of the guitar, the smell of cobblestones in the morning. Everything was so important to the whole experience, my fear is I will leave something out when I tell my story, or tell it the wrong way, or worse, forget.

But I don’t think I could really forget. When I got home to Juneau late at night, I opened the fridge and just stood there laughing. “I can eat all of this!” I explained to my bewildered parents. I ate fake Mexican food (aka Taco Bell) and giggled at the difference. I don’t know if I appreciated my own bed as much as I thought I would, because I was asleep in minutes. I wonder, looking back, if I heartily endorse the “down and dirty” experience of traveling because I was only there for 3 weeks. I didn’t live and work there for months, and I could afford nice things if I wanted them. Yes, we do live well in the United States, comparatively. But I don’t believe that is part of Mexico’s appeal. Perhaps I reveled in living “down and dirty” because hot water and safe drinking water from the tap are common place here. But if you take away those differences, there remain the people and natural beauty of Mexico that will always bring me back.

I didn’t lose myself; I didn’t return lost about my personality, goal-less and adrift in the world. My love of travel and my appreciation of other countries, peoples and languages were heightened and strengthened. People hear a ring in my voice when I talk about my trip, but it is my heart saying “Go! You’ll love it!” By God’s grace, it could not have been a more positive experience.

I did feel different after my trip; I knew it was myself sitting in the classroom, my heart beating, my eyes seeing, yet I was slightly changed. New jewelry decked my hands; a green and silver aztec ring, hemp bracelets with colorful beads, a yellow, purple and black "friendship" bracelet, and woven copper ring. These were the tenderly loved tokens of a whirlwind adventure, each inspiring memories of people, smells, places. I bought the aztec ring in a small jewelry store with Beto. He had convinced me to get green instead of blue, and I remember commemorating the green for the jungle. The bracelets make me think of Rico, and the pesos I'd paid him to make the second bracelet with the circular bead of the moon and stars. The copper woven ring brought back a scorching street in Oaxaca, outside of my little hotel, where a vendor called to the gringos, "Compra un anillo, un collar" of cheap, shining copper and unrefined silver. The wide, colorful friendship bracelet was from the shrewd Indians at San Cristobal, with lime green or fuschia ribbons in their thick black braids, bambinos held snugly to their side or back by a wide, tightly-wrapped woven shawl of orange or blue. I remembered their feet, brown and chafing, frequently clad in battered jelly sandals. I could almost feel Mexico's heat lingering on my fading tan, the music of the guitars ringing faintly..

There is one place I would love to re-visit, and that is Palenque. I don’t know why; Montepio is more beautiful, San Cristobal more colonial, Oaxaca more modern, but it was just such a cute town surrounded by such mystery and thick, jungle beauty. You could buy polyester Soccer jerseys and rotisserie chicken on the same corner before hopping a bus to explore the ancient ruins. I think I loved the roads, cobblestone, uneven and winding. I was hit (gently) by a taxi there. Maybe that’s why I like it, those kinds of differences that make me laugh. It’s the world’s differences that keep it an interesting place.