It was a stiff and increasingly hungry flight which I took from O’Hare that evening after the Chicago Marathon. Elation and relief surrounded me all across the dark expanses and sparse city lights of the Mid West, as I peered down through ten kilometres of space at a blue-lit arch of St Louis far below.
And after the sensory and emotional overload of experiencing, and even participating in, one of the greatest sporting events of the world set against the brilliantly-lit backdrop of a Chicago autumn skyline, it was an exhausted and fretfully REM-riven night which I spent in the softest and deepest pillows of the Westinn Houston Galleria.
I spent three days there, shivering in frozen air-conditioned conference rooms, marvelling at the sanitised and completely artifical existence of the inhabitants in the fattest city on earth. A place where you could enjoy the cuisine of almost every nation of the world, although the restaurants supplying this thoughtul service offered only a theme-parked concoction of that nation’s essential characteristics, each of them sheltering behind a uniformly large and tedious Houston parking lot set beside a long and gaudy strip. The whimsical selection of different meals and countries involved an international trip lasting just a few seconds of gas-guzzling airconditioned driving in the SUV. Culinary cosmopolitanism set in a cultural vacuum.
From deepest Texas we departed on a field-trip to Mexico, just a one hour flight to Monterrey and yet a million miles away in every important aspect.
Our field trip organisers had ‘thoughtfully’ put us up in the airport Marriott, where we could be provided with the ‘essential comforts and sheltered from unnecessary risks’. It was far out of town and as un-Mexican as you can imagine. Before the unwelcome onset of a third evening of sterile poolside chickenwings, I led a breakaway group determined to see something of the city, suggesting rebelliously that having travelled a third of the way across the world to get there, we should make the effort to see something of Mexico’s third city whilst we were in the vicinity. ‘But there’s nothing to see in Monterrey’, came the reply. ‘It’s dangerous, and you won’t feel comfortable.’
A twenty minute taxi-ride later, we stepped out into the dusk of the largest square in Latin America. A beautiful white Carmelite cathedral was throwing open its doors to debouch a stream of elegantly dinner-jacketed and ball-gowned concert-goers just emerging from a Handel recital, whilst across the modernistic and almost communistic Gran Plaza, a rotating searchlight beam was lighting up the darkening sky atop a blackly scary 200′ high monolith.
We headed into the backstreets, needlessly wary at first, to find a largely deserted selection of sumptuous velvet-lined art bars and dubiously exciting night clubs. It was still far too early for the locals, so we whiled away our time eating tortillas in a tacky tacos joint frequented by tee-shirted and authentically moustachioed Mexican youths, before finding an atmospheric flamenco bar with heavenly live music and a heavily scented atmosphere. The cuba libres were más enormes que nunca, and it was clear that we were sampling life in one of its more exuberant moments, a life of vibrancy and raw reality encompassing cuatro cientos milliones (400 million people) of the Hispanic world, and yet ridiculously unsampled and ludicrously feared by the supposedly wealthier and more cultured neighbours just a few hundred kilometres to the north.
‘But there’s nothing to see in Monterrey’ became the ironic watchword for the rest of the trip.
Out in the field of the north Mexican semi-desert, we found simple hospitality in earth-floored village grocery stores and roadside truckstops, where entire families slept the night on blankets laid out in the back after sunset. In one bar, a beautiful teenage girl was smilingly serving Sol beer whilst playing joyfully with her toddler son and a new-born lamb, in a scene of the most abject poverty and yet the most manifest humanity.
Nearby, the famous climbing cliffs at Hidalgo soared greyly into the clouds with a grace and drama largely unnoticed by the locals and for ever unexperienced by the absent tourist hordes, whilst a few of the world’s most expert climbers laconically tested out their moves on the lower faces, waiting for the weather to lift.
Looking back, it was an incredibly invigorating and thought-provoking way to end that marathon journey, a passage which had started to unfold amongst familar pre-race apprehension and the anticipation of a descent over Lake Michigan just ten days or so before. It was difficult to say then, and yet so easy to identify now, just which part of the journey had affected me more.
110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines
4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002
124. Exploring Africa with Bono
91. Madrid me mata
103. Atlas shrugged – in the mountains of Morocco