ONE CHRISTMAS I was feeling generous towards my brother, Chip. I bought two tickets to McAllen, Texas. That is one of the gateways into Mexico. I just didn’t realize how far away the gateway was from where we really wanted to be. We wanted to go as far south into Mexico as we could get. We crossed into Mexico with our passports, very little money and no plan, my favorite kind of trip. It was the day after Christmas, so it was a little chilly causing our next move to be toward the south.
I can remember how stark of a difference there was between our side of the border to south of the border. In McAllen things definitely seemed south Texas but it felt American. You could buy anything you wanted and there was mostly English being spoken. By the time we got there it was nighttime, and the city was Christmas lit. We went ahead and crossed the border at night and were very suddenly in a very different place. It was amazing how quickly and suddenly everything changed. We didn’t have much experience speaking Spanish and it seems that most of the people we asked ‘where the Greyhound station was’ didn’t have much experience with speaking English. We guessed that secretly everyone actually could speak English but wouldn’t, just to mess with us. Not really, but it seemed to me no matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve been able to get by with a little effort. We both wished we had been paying more attention when they tried to teach us Spanish at MRA.
We also had an opportunity to learn some Spanish when we got a summer job in San Jose, Calif. when I was in the 10th grade and Chip was in the 11th grade. We worked with all Mexican crews weed eating the medians of the highways between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, but we still didn’t learn much Spanish. It was our own fault. That summer job is a whole other story I might not write about in case my mother reads it. We came home much wiser than we were before we left… much wiser.
We found our way to the Greyhound station while being absolutely mesmerized by the sights and sounds of our first step into Mexico. It was somewhat how I expected it to be, but I didn’t think we would see it look so Mexico-ish until we were much farther away from our border. We bought two tickets to Mexico City, about 12 hours by bus. We made ourselves comfortable on a really nice bus. This was before cell phones, so we had to amuse ourselves with books and dozing and watching out the windows.
In the area we were traveling through on this leg of the trip I was surprised to see so much farming. It was flat and rowed up with crops like our Mississippi Delta, but it went on for hours and hours. I knew a lot of produce came out of Mexico, but I had no idea that they produced that much. Staring at rows and rows and rows as far as the eye can see is a great way to pass the time until it begins to make me dizzy and causes some serious dozing. We read and dozed the 12 hours. I was very pleasantly surprised how nice the bus was. I was thinking more like wooden bench seats and chickens and goats. I’m sure that is part of the Mexican experience somewhere but for now we had lucked up into a super modern bus.
When we arrived in Mexico City, we had already heard about a place to stay for a few nights that would fit into our budget. We weren’t in a big hurry because we had nearly a month to spend down there. We were slowly making our way to the Guatemalan border. We wanted to see some jungle we had read about. Mexico City is a huge city with so much going on it’s mind boggling. We got there on a weekday so depending on where you are in the city it seemed like a hustley bustley workday with lots of traffic on the streets and on the sidewalks.
It would be so easy to get lost in that city and we did just that. It didn’t matter since we had nothing but time to find our way back. I guess getting good and lost is just not an option anymore since we have the mighty Google machine. I’ll miss that option. We saw the sights in Mexico City. The metro city has 20 million people and was “founded” by Spanish conquistadors in 1521. The city was built on top of the largest Aztec empire that ever existed. People have tried very hard to keep some of the past culture intact. We walked around Aztec temples. We saw colonial era churches, museums, and some of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen. The parks are full of plants we were familiar with and plants I’ve never seen before or since. Mexico City is pretty far south so the plants used were tropical. They also used lots of bedding plants making huge splashes of color.
I could tell that hanging out at the parks was a big part of the culture, especially on the weekends. Big groups and families were cooking and lounging and making music. It was really nice to see. I wondered how people ever got any peace and quiet in such a large and fast moving city. On Sundays everyone got dressed up and spent the day going to worship services and taking long lunches. There were Mariachi bands playing and moving through the crowds. The air smelled so good with chicken and street corn being roasted on every corner.
We walked around for a few days and loved every minute of it, but I had had enough. I’m not that great in big cities. I just don’t know how to act in crowded places like that. I start feeling crazy after a few days of it. Chip is more accustomed to being in big, noisy cities and loves it but thankfully he got in his head that we would have a goal that would lead us right out of there and towards some small villages he had found out about.
HE WAS OFFICIALLY on a quest for a handmade guitar and he had the name of the village that was famous for it. That sounded good to me. I didn’t care what the quest was for I just wanted to be on one, even if it was for the holy grail. It set us up to have some purpose in our direction which I prefer. We were still heading south which is all I really cared about, that and the fact we were heading away from the giant city.
We came across some really gorgeous villages that were small and friendlier seeming to me. Most of the produce was sold on the streets and sidewalks, I recognized most of it but not all. In some of the more mountainous areas the produce was especially colorful and unusually larger than in other mountainous regions where I’ve traveled. I guess the altitude has some effect on veggies and fruits. I imagine the climate is less harsh and allows the plant to grow with hardly any stress and there tends to be more rainfall in those areas.
I had seen meat displayed on the streets of other third world countries, but Mexico takes the cake in the amount of freshly butchered animals on show for that night’s dinner. Some of the meat was so fresh the animal wasn’t even dead yet. That’s fresh! You could actually pick out your chicken or calf or pig and they’d knock it on the head for you while you wait or you could lead it home and do it yourself if you want it really fresh. I was expecting a kid to offer us some magic beans any minute but all we got offered from the kids was Chiclets. Chiclet kids were everywhere. I didn’t even know that Chiclets still existed. They do. They are all in Mexico.
We eventually made it to the Pacific coast where the water was really beautiful and azure blue. We did what all good tourists do and sat at a cafe near the sea and had some delicious ceviche. I’ve never had ceviche quite as good as I had there. I have to think they led their little shrimps home from the market and knocked them on the head just minutes before they were served to us. We ate our fill and walked around searching for the greatest guitar ever made. I did secretly wonder how Chip planned to get that thing home if we ever did find it. That would just be another adventure that would give us something to worry about if it happened.
We heard about some giant waterfalls that would be on our way to the Guatemalan border. It took us a couple of days to get to the waterfalls and I’m so glad we took the time to find them. I’ve never seen any falls so wide and tall. It reminded me of Angel falls in Venezuela. We stayed there mesmerized by the continuous flow from a giant river down to a pool that was surrounded by mist and fog. It was very surreal. Once we had enough of the falls and area, which was mostly composed of granite, we made a mad dash south because we were itching to see this area and we still had to make the long journey all the way back up to the top of Mexico and to catch our flights home from McAllen.
We finally made it to this overgrown jungle to enter some caves that had some drawings we had seen on some National Geographic show. As we were walking through the jungle five men with long black hair and dressed in white robes approached us or I should say crossed our paths. They never said anything to us or really acknowledged our existence. I looked at Chip, he looked at me. We weren’t sure we saw what we saw. They were traveling pretty fast and had very crude bows and arrows. We didn’t know there were still indigenous people living that way in Mexico. It looked like they were on their way to a tourist party somewhere and they were paid to dress up and maybe do a dance while people threw coins at them. The only thing is there wasn’t any towns or villages or camps for hours away. If we both hadn’t seen them I’d have thought I was hallucinating. Just as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared into the thick growth of virgin jungle. I’ll never forget that moment. Nor will I ever forget what came next.
WE FOUND THE opening to the caves we had been searching for. They were pretty overgrown. We brought our headlamps, turned them on and went in. On the walls dating back to Aztec times or earlier were all kinds of drawings and scribbles. As we made it to the very back of the cave, we saw what we had come for. Amongst all of the crazy drawings was a picture of a man in the fetal position in a capsule with switches and buttons all in front of him. He was reaching for one of the buttons. It looked exactly like a very small space capsule. He even looked like he had a helmet on, or he had a very big head. That was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. How does someone explain that? We will never know.
We came out of the cave scratching our heads and we are still scratching. I really want to go back and see that again. Maybe it was a hoax. It has haunted me ever since.
We bee-lined it all the way back to Texas. We were out of time and money. It was a great trip. I will always be glad we took the time out of life to do. We didn’t find the world’s greatest guitar, but we had fun trying.
I’m hoping you will be able to take a break from life every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be that wild. Sometimes it can be just a visit to a park you’ve never been to before or exploring some of our wonderful museums in our hometown. Anything to break the everyday cycle that we get so tangled up in. Maybe a visit to one of our many garden centers around Mississippi would be an outing that inspires you to do something out of your regular wheelhouse. Go for it.