I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s a wrong way to travel. Everyone can do it differently, but I generally muck-up the beginnings. There is always that glistening moment of panic for me when deplaning into a foreign country. That emotion is punctuated with excitement, enthusiasm and an not-unhealthy dose of self-doubt. However, it’s primarily panic.
I speak loudly about wanting to travel. My frequent flier clubs are my long-term committed relationships.
How else does one find “nowhere” in another person’s somewhere? How else will you find the stories waiting to be told to you or find your horizons challenged unwittingly, and often uncomfortably? The world is huge—and it’s just outside that safe umbilical cord of an airport.
Once through the visa portion of customs — “Nope, I’ve never been here before.” & “Yep, I’m excited to spend money in your country as a tourist only!” Insert what I assume to be a nervous/demur smile — I always pause inside the airport gates surreptitiously stuffing my passport deeper into my bag while simultaneously moving my license and a credit card into my bra, just in case. (#Traveltip: Never keep your identifying documents in one place.)
Then it happens, I step out into the country’s airport and my internal barometer, built solely of anticipation compiled through my cramped airplane ride, with the stranger sleeping on my shoulder, who kindly, upon waking held my hand through the agonizing moments of turbulence and weirdly continued to hold my hand as the petulant flight attendants foisted numerous duty-free products upon us – spikes. The pressure of the new and unknown commences its jaunt into becoming the familiar.
Meandering with purpose in the arrivals terminal I head for the glaringly “ATM” sign and I discover that my debit card won’t work. I’ve entered hundreds of new cities and countless countries and yet, I still refuse to withdraw foreign currency prior to arriving in the airport. Everyone knows the cash exchange rates are simply terrible.
Keeping on the move through the airport in case someone happens to be watching me as a potential next target for the next big Hollywood thriller movie which probably wouldn’t end well for me, based solely on the fact that I am not Liam Niseen. I am also spurred-on, Iphone clutched in both hands, searching surreptitiously for an open wifi portal, by fellow traveler’s cautionary tales of similar vulnerabilities and the robberies that followed soon afterwards. (#TravelTip: International MiFis and hotspot devices can be purchased across the world. They are a solid investment to spare you from moments like this.) My salvation comes in the form of a Hot Wings Bar with a gloriously unlocked internet connection, albeit dubious food. I squat casually against their inside wall tucked behind a table and out of site of the servers as I pray internally that the connection is strong enough for me to contact my bank internationally via Skype…
It all works out of course; The funny thing is, it always does in some way or another. There will always be an end to the adventure. A kind stranger might give me a lift to my destination for free because I remind him of his granddaughter, the Airbnb host could fetch me and bring me to my temporary home after I’ve awkwardly borrowed a random airport employee’s personal cellular telephone or triumphantly, as happens now, I’ll find I can magically withdraw money after contacting my bank, hire taxi, for which I’m certainly over-charged, and be on my merry way! (The hostel/Airbnb/tourist bureau warns travelers to pay $XX for a car and not a cent more when landing in Mexico and in most cities. However, when it’s late, when you don’t speak the language and when you’re told that “$xx is the fee” by the certified taxi stand, it’s usually a good time to cut your losses and run with it, especially when the exchange rate is in your favor)
Following the taxi representative out to the busy lanes of airport traffic- he leads me past the official taxi’s standing in line and instead further out into the road where he whistles and a certainly-not-certified-taxi whips around the corner, squealing to a clunky stop in front of me. In I hop, clutching my bags to my person as I try not to look too vulnerable and clueless. My taxi “representative” leans in over me to collect a hefty cash tip from my new driver, pats me on the shoulder, slams the door and away we go.
Did you know that red lights are just a suggestion in Mexico after midnight? And that the daytime charm of the city is well hidden by the dark, when the streets are teeming the lifestyle tourists rarely see? I hadn’t known these things before either; I do now.
A friend of mine dubbed Mexico-now to be a mix between New York, Istanbul, and Berlin. When thinking about CdMx, as it’s rebranded itself, I’d have to agree. The country is certainly dealing with its own issues, as does any government, however, within its central city art thrives, murals politicas span building walls and adorn lampposts. The city’s transit (metro and buses) are prompt and while overcrowded are certainly realistically inclined. The city life is far less impersonal than many first world countries are these days.
I’ll admit, there’s an established camaraderie within the special subway cars that I’ve quite enjoyed being apart of. A crossing guard at the front of the Mexican Metro platform ensures that only women and children board the front two metro cars “for their own safety”. The number of women who have been groped and sexually harassed on platforms and in trains was so great, that separate cars have been created to deal with the issue. We could pause here to discuss my thoughts on these gendered cars or my larger concerns regarding segregating sexes and allowing literal vehicles to assist the government in avoiding the larger condemnation of this behavior as an acceptable cultural norm… However, I am not from the city, nor am I Mexican. I will not pretend to have the answers to a system that an entire country currently deems acceptable.
Rather I’d prefer to mention my appreciation for the communal attempts to shove purses, shoes and the various body parts of strangers into the not-quite-closed-doors of a train. No one is willing to back-up from the platform edge, nor to step out of the train to be left behind enabling an over-crowded train to close its doors. Therefore, people apply brute force, no matter the body-area enabling forward motion for the entire system. True familiarity with your fellow citizens comes when a half-dozen stranger’s hands helpfully force the last inches of your rear-end into the jam-packed car. Then the doors snap closed and you’re off. Barely breathing.
It’s said Mexico city was built upon a lake. The Aztec priests followed a prophecy which told them to build their capital in the place where they found an eagle with a serpent in its beak perched on a prickly pear cactus. They found just such a thing at the small Lake Texcoco. Today that lake is gone and CdMx exists.
In general, it seems that Mexicans have claimed an ownership of their past (or at least certain parts of it, like all good countrymen when remembering history through the victor’s eyes) in an opulently vibrant way I usually reserve for tourists, awestruck by the foreign. The Plaza Mariana holding the dare-I-call-it-gaudy Basilica de Guadalupe and the Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey are magnificent buildings filled with decade old cracks and sloping floors which cannot be repaired without extreme demolition. And the incense is so thick it’s but another layer or mortar. Today these two buildings are but a few of the constant reminders of the 1984 volcano that rocked the city. And the fact that the dormant, not extinct volcanos surround this frenetic city center, even as it rises into its own fruition.