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Mexico: Death Isn’t its Only Selling Point

Tania Sawicki Mead



Amongst the many lofty ideas I had conceived for my year overseas, a road trip around Mexico was the one I approached with the most trepidation and excitement. It is hardly a country easily generalised; with a population of nearly 100 million and a cultural history reaching back two millennia before the birth of Jesus, it is more diverse than one can imagine. You can die from a scorpion bite at one end and a hurricane at the other – not that I’m suggesting that death is the only tourist attraction that Mexico offers. There are enough awe-inspiring vistas and hedonistic pursuits to make you want to commit a minor crime and hop on the next train to Tijuana. Overused guidebook adjectives aside, the home of tequila and sombreros is a pretty awesome place. And when you’ve got four sun-filled weeks, a set of wheels and stashes of hideously unhealthy snacks, Mexico is the place to be.
Which would explain how I found myself sitting on the floor of the airport in Mexico City, gazing forlornly at the Meeting Point sign and wondering if this was the moment to make use of the macho Mexican culture and start crying. I was saved from excessive embarrassment by the arrival of my trip buddy, whose lack of acquaintance with international travel meant a two hour delay in her supposed arrival time.
Our first extended stop was Monterrey, the third biggest and most industrialised city in Mexico, which sits on the edge of the Sierra Madre mountain range and the Chihuahuan desert. The (richer) citizens of Monterrey are more likely to worship Western consumerism than Our Saviour, but the city does boast some beautiful Baroque-style churches, and all who walk past the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe will kneel and cross themselves. As I would discover while living with a Mexican family, even if you’re not Catholic, practically every festival and ritual you take part in as a Mexican has Catholicism tied in to it, making it an awkward place to be when my atheistic leanings were taken into consideration.
Monterrey was also the home of Arturo, our road trip companion and amigo-to-be. We spent a week at his house getting over our jet lag and generally discovering the many crazy offerings that life in Mexico made.
Despite our protests, Arturo’s mother would concoct breakfast for us every morning, or at whatever slovenly hour we decided to make an appearance. Breakfast might just be toast or cereal, but was often tortillas, eggs, beans, meat and various other friends of flatulence. A word of advice to the virgin traveler: learn to love corn in all its forms. Corn is everywhere. As are various other unique forms of cuisine, such as cactus gorditas (tortillas), corn slathered in mayonnaise and chilli (chilli too is ubiquitous) and donkey meat spaghetti. ‘Estoy vegetariana’ was to be my most overused phrase, normally greeted by a quizzical look (whether at my shocking Spanish or refusal of meat I shall never know) and an offer of chicken.
We were lucky enough to be in Monterrey at Christmas time, and with the flow of seasonal tidings around us we were welcomed into the bosom of the family. This meant taking part in ‘posadas’, when Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging is re-enacted with elaborate prayers and Spanish versions of Western Christmas songs, replete with references to snow and sleigh-riding. What followed, however, was the piece de resistance: la piñata! The violent tendencies of all small children are actively encouraged, as each little battler does their best to smash a paper mache version of Santa/Nemo/Barbie to smithereens, and are eventually showered with sweets. Naturally we had a swing too, although I must admit defeat at the hands of an unnaturally feisty eight year-old.
From Monterrey we headed for Zacatecas through the arid deserts of Central Mexico, with cactus-filled vistas stretching out to the horizon. This was the Mexico of Western movies and my childhood imaginings: rural, dusty and with the occasional taco joint hunkering down under the glaring sun. In the shimmering distance you see what looks like un torro solitare (lonely bull) and on closer inspection turns out to be just that, only it’s two-dimensional and with an advertisement for Torres Brandy plastered on its side. In the desert, many strange mirages appear (mostly functioning toilets) and then slowly fade again to the faint twangs of Hispanic country music. It is best to ignore them and focus on the consumption of overpriced packet snacks and argue over whose turn it is to play DJ. This I did with much aplomb.
Zacatecas was a nifty little town. We delighted our tastebuds with some innovative Mexican-Italian cuisine and had the first of many margaritas in a swanky 60s themed bar. I also had the privilege of using a very space age-y toilet, some 350 meters below the ground, during the tour of an old mine. The fully stocked bar and nightclub (I shit you not) was closed but we were regaled with tales of bacchanalia in the hewn-rock corridors . . . I shotgun the rights for the horror film. The one downside of life in Z-town was the portable alarm clock; we were woken without fail at 7am by a strange disembodied voice intoning ‘El Gaaaaas’ at frequent intervals. The citizens of Zacatecas were dependant on gas in large cylinders delivered to their door every week, thanks to the somewhat ancient piping systems and beaurocratic imbecility.
As it was approaching the end of December, we continued our journey through the colonial heartland, briefly taking in the charms of San Miguelle de Allende, before heading to Guanajuanto. Guanajuanto is the capital of the state of the same name, and is famous for both its history of silver mining and the somewhat eerie Museo de las Momias, where the dead whose family couldn’t afford their graveplot are put on display. Something to do with the quality of air means that the unfortunate deceased are preserved exactly as they were, but completely dehydrated. I’m trivialising, but a 45 minute tour of glass cases filled with the contorted expressions and limbs of those buried alive during the 1833 cholera epidemic is not an easily related experience.
Nevertheless, our main object in the jovial city was not an exercise in the morality of mummies but the pursuit of debauchery and swell times and that worldwide ritual, New Years Eve. As we somewhat untimely discovered, fiery excesses in Mexico begin after 12am; up until then, it’s all about the whanau. Thus we found ourselves sitting in a near-empty bar at 11.45 with a large bottle of tequila and assorted party paraphernalia, wearing silly hats and empty smiles. Thirty minutes later, with the arrival of various liquored-up gringos and locals, the place epitomized ‘fiesta’.
Much to my dismay, our relocation to a nearby salsa club was infiltrated by a local young compadre, who then made it his sole mission to prove that romance can cross all language barriers. From what I gathered from a slurred translation, ours was a love true, and although Juan did not know me personally, he did know that he wanted to be with me . . . forever.
Our desperate flight back to the hostel was terrifying, but timely.
As was our hungover departure from the narrow streets of Guanajuanto. We had a narrow margin in order to make it to Teotihuacan, the ancient Mesoamerican site of the Temple of the Moon, situated on the outskirts of Mexico City. More incredible than I could have conceived, the huge structures and surrounding community of buildings were an eerie testimony to the vast empire that the Spanish managed to bring to its knees. Not content with the construction of arguably the most impressive city of the ancient world, the Teotihuacans had to found their city where they saw an eagle eating a snake, perched on a cactus. If that so happened to be in the middle of an island, so what? “That’ll teach those uppity Egyptians to lord themselves over us!” Although I cannot boast a first hand experience of the Sphinx and her cronies, I can imagine the effect being somewhat akin to that take-your-breath away, hit-on-the-head-with-a-hammer feeling upon seeing the Temple of the Moon. Frida Kahlo climbed it with Leon Trotsky and was similarly affected, so we were in good company.
And so the road trip continued. By now we were well acquainted with the various amenities of Arturo’s car and took perverse pleasure in fiddling with the seat alignment and filming each other deep in drooling slumber. The Mexican highway is a lonely place, permeated occasionally by a lone gas station rife with stray dogs and unhygenic toilets. The dogs were especially heartbreaking, and my PETA- worshipping friend took to buying bags of dog treats to distribute at every occasion. Some crafty entrepreneur had cottoned on to making a profit out of these lonely mutts, and we passed many roadside vendors with a canine in each hand for sale, either tarted up or stolen from the wealthier families of Mexico City. Also on sale on either side of the numerous toll bars and check points were chewy nut bars, candy floss and stuffed toys, should one suddenly need sustenance or comfort during a long truck ride to the South.
We were only halfway through the journey and I was already sick of cheese, dust, bad Mexican rap and having to pay 400 pesos at every 2-hour interval. However, things were about to look up, as we were pointing our headlights to the coast and making for the clean(er) air and tropical offerings of Oaxaca. It had already been a roller-coaster ride of a holiday, but I could never have forseen the adventures that would await us in the second installment. . . . . .
Next time: Einstein, whales and how not to get a tan