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.
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Being Mexican and also an avid reader of your two blogs I can just say that now that I decided to read your first posts I really enjoyed finding this one.
Stereotypes hurt and unfortunately, even though there are places in Mexico that can be dangerous and that can (and will) make us feel uncomfortable, it is also an amazing, full of history, packed with story-telling rocks country that usually greets visitors with open arms.
So… thank you for letting people know that you can actually visit and go back with good moments to share.
Greetings from big, sunny, filled with purple jacarandas and colorful bougainvilleas Mexico City.
Hola Patricia, y muy bienvenida.
Thanks very much for your comment, and I’m very glad you found this post. I sensed that Mexico is very much a lost opportunity for so many of her American neighbours. Right on the doorstep, fascinating, enriching (and yes, occasionally slightly hazardous) but completely underestimated, ignored and unjustly feared.
I worked in Switzerland for some years, during a time when there was a large number of Italian migrant workers. It made me realise how simple economics can engender unacknowledged racism. With unskilled labour from the underprivileged south of Italy carrying out menial tasks as office cleaners and in construction, a view existed amongst too many Swiss that Italians were lazy, uneducated, uncultured and somehow inferior.
And, naturally, a journey of just a few hundred kilometres to the south was all it took to demonstrate conclusively that this just never was the case.
Two wonderful films which carry this same message forward on behalf of Mexico are Bread and Roses (Pan y Rosas) and Babel. I can’t recommend those perspectives enough.
Another interesting idea appeared in the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. The film portrays the irony of an environmental disaster where a humbled United States has to plead with Mexico to allow masses of American refugees fleeing the ice to cross the border. The film closes with the US President sending his heartfelt thanks to the Mexican people for their warmth and generosity.
Just once in a while, it’s good to see life from another point of view – and in many ways that is exactly what this post (and perhaps this site) is all about.
Gracias, Patricia, y hasta pronto – I’ll return to Mexico, one day soon.
Hi Roads, thank you for the warm welcome.
I will have to get back to you on movies that are good for Mexico’s image but right now I’m in Chicago and have to focus on getting to Rhode Island for a short holiday.
I couldn’t agree more on the irony of “The day after tomorrow”… As we all know, life is full of unexpected turns!!
Ah, how I loved Sweet Home Chicago. The architecture is fantastic, and the people very warm as well.
My methods were extreme, but I saw a lot of Chicago, mostly in one day. I hope to return for a more relaxed look around the city before too long.