There and back again

Tijuana, Mexico


What do you think when you imagine Mexico?

A number of times this year we’ve travelled through places which are real voyages into the unknown. What do you expect when you visit Venezuela? Or Guatemala? Or Argentina? Evocative names, but enigmatic.

Mexico is not like that. It seems exploding with images, from ponchos and sombreros, to moonshine and sleaze. I think its due primarily to portrayal of Mexico in American literature and, more transparently, in movies. For Mexico seems to be the quintessential ‘other place’. It’s been that way ever since Cowboys and Indians and the Western. Where do all those desperadoes come from? Think of ‘Rio Grande’. ‘Somewhere In Sonora’. ‘Down Mexico Way’.

And, more currently, Mexico is where the great American Road movie seems to head when the going gets a bit wild. ‘Thelma And Louise’ went to Mexico. And when Tom Cruise wanted a bit of illicit R&R in ‘Born On The Fourth Of July’, Mexico was the inevitable destination. And those are just two examples from films I’ve watched recently (getting a lot of film watching opportunities on long distance bus trips here…) Think a little and you could list a million more.

We all know what to expect in Mexico.

So it was a bit alarming to find the south, on arrival, had little of the expected feel. Apart from unbelievably hot food, it was hard to identify the Mexicanness. The shear diversity of this country has been the single most captivating and intriguing thing I’ve noticed. It is all things to all people, depending where you are.

From the indigenous Central American south we headed to Mexico City, as fine an example of the great modern metropolis as anywhere in the world. And relatively safe to walk the streets at night. Compact and pedestrianised. Cobbled and ancient. Like Barcelona crossed with New York.

Since then, we’ve been in the north. We’re travelling with Helen (my sister) and Nicky at the moment. When Helen told an acquaintance she was visiting Mexico from Mexico City northwards, the other woman replied ‘Oh, shame, you won’t see much of Mexico then’. Reminded me of the traveller we met recently who explained she was only visiting the ‘highlights’ of each country. What are the ‘highlights’ exactly – the bits other people visit?

So, we’ve spent two weeks on the, non-Mexican lowlights of the country. And they’ve proved delightful. Its in northern Mexico that everyone really wears those enormous oversized white cowboy hats. 80% of all the world’s Double Basses are currently appearing in a mariachi band somewhere in northern Mexico (even saw a man carrying a DB down the beach the other day). We sat in saloon bars, with real swinging doors, while locals knocked back Coronas and tequilas and danced (and it was only lunchtime!). We visited 9 colonial churches in one morning – witnessing more graphic statues of saints being martyred than you really need to see in a lifetime.

We rode the Chihuahua railway from the coast to the Copper Canyon. It’s very beautiful terrain indeed. At the top we unexpectedly found ourselves staying in a community of indigenous Tarahumara people – I thought we’d seen our last indigenous communities a way south. And they were very lovely hospitable people.

The last two days have involved a long painful bus ride along the Mexico-US border to Tijuana. At last we see the Mexico of the movies – it’s a bit seedy, a bit edgy. Our bus yesterday stopped at police checkpoints, where all our bags were searched, no less than 5 times. And here in Tijuana you can buy any prescription drug you like over the counter. No one says ‘Have you used paracetamol before?’ and they sell things a lot stronger than that.

Mexico – jack of all trades, maybe master of none. A place that bends to the point of near collapse to accommodate the extremes. I thought the US border (due to cross it later today) would bring a dramatic change in culture and experience. But now I realise that the change happens mostly within Mexico’s huge territory.

It’s a country that only makes sense, and even then not much, when you drag yourself slowly across its entire length and breadth.

But where’s the highlight in that?

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