I left the blue skies and high winds in Cancun before all of this Trump stuff went down. Like many liberals (and even many of his supporters,) I assumed that much of his rhetoric would prove to be hollow and that all of the scary stuff he had promised would at least take some time to roll out.

A happier time

The weeks since Trump’s inauguration have been so horrible. No matter what the conversation or event or situation, the subject inevitably turns back to our horror at the president’s behavior. It’s overwhelming. I am so sickened and anxious whenever I read the news (or, like a masochistic ex, when I read Trump’s tweets) yet I cannot stay away.

I’m glad I got to recharge a little before that.

I loved my time in Mexico. It couldn’t have gone much better. Mexico City was mostly abandoned when I got there, as most of the citizens had left the megapolis to spend the holiday with their families.  That meant I got to watch the city fill up slowly, going from the bizarre but lovely experience of being literally the only person inside museums to walking down a crowded avenida at 6:00 PM, bursting with music and sound and buskers and men promising you write your name in Arabic. Filled-up Mexico City is a carnival, and I got to watch it grow into that from a sleepy little (enormous) village.

I paid 20 pesos for this photo. I would have paid 20 more pesos for a hat that fit. #bigheadproblems

While a lot of what I love about traveling is simply the opportunity to taste new foods, see pyramids and museums, experience exciting and new things, and live every day more fully, I also travel to learn. I always hope that I will walk away from a trip understanding the world a little bit more. I have a different perspective about Muslims from my time in Morocco and Istanbul (turns out: they’re humans.) I have a different perspective about health care from my time living in countries with socialized health care (turns out: our system blows a giant, tetanus-infected trumpet). I have a different perspective about time and history and permanence and impermanence from standing in the dry heat of a museum that mused to be a church that used to be a synagogue, back when the world was different.

Because I love lists, here are

5 Things I Learned This Trip

1. I need to cultivate better gratitude about my ability to travel.

While I was away, someone posted on Facebook about how they don’t understand how people can afford a spontaneous vacation. “I can’t even afford a spontaneous soft pretzel!”

Travel is expensive. This 10-day trip to Mexico cost me around $800, once you add everything up. I choose to spend my money on travel. I rarely go out, currently the only item of clothing I’m wearing that didn’t come from a clothing exchange is my underwear, and my lunch today was  33¢ ramen – but I understand that even frugal people like myself often find travel expenses prohibitive. I’m incredibly fortunate that I had scholarships and financial support for college, so I don’t have loans (I did pay for most of my grad school.) Hell, even the expectation that I would go to college is a luxury many Americans don’t have.

Travel is also expensive in that it takes away days of potential income. I’m both lucky and unlucky in my own work. As an adjunct professor, I have about as much time off as you could ever want- it’s just unpaid time off. Last summer I skipped the opportunity to work a summer semester to travel to Madrid, London, and Norway. I made up for the lost work weeks with task rabbit work and personal assisting. I also have about a million side-hustles, from tutoring to babysitting to paid blog writing. I understand that not everyone has this luxury.

Travel can also be overwhelming. While I was traveling from Cancun to Akumal, I ran into two “Do you speak American?” Americans who had been coming to Cancun for five years but had never seen any Mayan ruins or even a cenote. It’s simply not directly on the tourist route, you know? These people probably would have loved a trip to see some ruins or a cenote of someone helped them with it a bit. Figuring that stuff out isn’t for everyone. Even booking that trip to Cancun might sound exhausting to someone whose 10 days of time off could just as easily be spent resting and spending time with family and friends.

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I did not take this photo. I also did not go to a cenote on this trip.

That woman’s tweet, along with my own awkward feelings of sharing all of my travel pictures with people I know are less able to travel, really struck me on this trip. I have an innate temptation to judge people who’ve never traveled, and I know that’s quite arrogant and unfair. I’m actively trying to transform that feeling into a feeling of gratitude for my own ability to regularly travel.

2. I am not the brave travel warrior I thought I was.

I made some really excellent temporary friends this trip. My first few days were spent with Laura, a little ginger hippy from Westhamshire or some other ridiculous Englishy-sounding name. Together, Laura and I saw the pyramids of Teotihuacan, watched some lucha libre, and visited Frida Khalo’s house. She really was an excellent travel buddy.

 

Just two garfields drinking pulke

As Laura described her post-Cancun trip, I realized how gentle and safe my little Cancun-Mexico City-Puebla-Mexico City-Cancun jaunt was. Laura had no GPS. Laura took the cheapest overnight bus to Oaxaca she could find, figuring she could find a place to stay once she got there. Laura had backpacked through Central and South America- all alone.

I’m not really interested in doing the cheapest, least high-tech possible, most backpacker-y trip in the world. Although I may seem adventurous to my kind, nervous uncle who didn’t want me to go to Mexico at all… really, I’m chicken shit. I didn’t even sleep in a dorm for most of this hostel tour. Princess with her own double room, party of one. You go, Laura. You’re impressive.

3. It’s good to lean into some fear.

I’d never had to independently organize travel within a country whose language I didn’t speak perfectly, and it was pretty scary to me at times. That doesn’t speak to how difficult travel is in Mexico, it speaks to how easy I’d had it before. In Southeast Asia, my friend and travel partner Sonja organized the overnight trains and buses and even flights. In Europe and East Asia, it’s just so stupid easy given how prevalent and simple trains are. In Costa Rica, other friend and travel partner Ryan and I rented a car. That was extremely expensive, but easy to figure out.

Honestly, inter-Mexico travel was pretty simple. Go to the bus depot, ask for a ticket wherever, choose your seat, relax and look at rows and rows of houses.

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Shamelessly stolen from Brad Benson’s instagram (#bradacking) after I realized I hadn’t taken any photos of this experience.

In Cancun, it was trickier. Go to the bus depot, find the dudes yelling “Playa!” Follow them, get off at Playa del Carmen, get onto another bus for Tulum, get off at Akumal. This one tested my Spanish a bit more.I’d have these feelings of “Ooooh, is this worth it? Couldn’t I just stay where I am? Do I really want to see this thing?” It’s rare in my life to feel that particular brand of scared. When I felt that way, I held my hand on my chest, breathed, and accepted the feeling. I’m uncomfortable. I’m a little scared. I know what I’m doing.The end results were good.

 

4. Take the chances to peek into local perspective.

I took Ubers basically wherever I went in Mexico City and elsewhere. For as safe as it’s gotten in recent years, guide books still recommend avoiding Mexican taxis. There’s not a high risk that you’ll get held up at gunpoint by an accomplice (anymore), but what the hell kind of guarantee is that? Uber, please.

I understand that Uber drivers do not represent a cross-section of the Mexican population. These are men (I had no lady drivers) who can afford a car, at the very least. It was a different population from the tourism-influenced group of hostel owners and tour guides I mostly interacted with, though. Boy, did they have things to say about the American election.

Not the things I was expecting, though. Whether in English, Spanish, or Spanglish, in conversation after conversation I found myself hearing the most nuanced, interesting perspectives.

Los hombres controlan a otros usando el miedo. Es lo mismo en Estados Unidos como en México. Cuando una población no tiene educación, ¿qué escuchan? ¿En quién pueden confiar? El miedo es un arma de los poderosos sobre los ignorantes. Men control others using fear. It is the same in the US as in Mexico. When a population has no education, what do they listen to? Whom can they trust? Fear is a weapon of the powerful over the ignorant. Los Estados Unidos está formado por individuos. ¿Cómo puedo asumir lo que un país de individuos piensa basado en una elección? Un país no es una elección. The United States is formed by individuals. How can I know what a country of individuals think, based on an election? A country is not an election.

Holy shit, Uber drivers of Mexico.

Riding an Uber could also be like a damn spy movie. In Cancun, Uber drivers are in a war against licensed taxi drivers. I mean that in a literal sense. According to one Uber driver, if a taxi driver saw an Uber driver operating, they would announce it on their radios and send drivers to purposefully crash into the car or throw rocks. They had the (bribed) police on their side, so they would use police lookouts as well. Uber drivers would call me, say that they would meet me at the corner in front of the Oxxo, and I would get in the front seat. Si me preguntan, eres mi amigo. If they ask, you’re my friend.

Intense.

5. I can get along just fine in Spanish.

Here we see Francesco, Vlad, and Ruoyang, three people who necessitated a lot of Spanish to spend time with. The first two were guides, and the third is a dramatically gay Chinese Frenchman who people apparently thought I was dating.  People in Mexico, who noticed his sparkling mascara, jewelry, and flowingbathing suit coverup, generally addressed him as “señorita” and assumed we were lady friends on a jaunt to the beach. Ça ne me dérange pas du tout! he told me. That doesn’t bother me at all. So French. I translated into French from Spanish for him at meals and I felt amazing.

I have studied Spanish, and I consider myself conversational. That doesn’t mean I don’t get insecure about it. It was really nice to see that my efforts paid off, and I was able to accomplish something. Knowing me, I hope this doesn’t inspire me to give up on improving, knowing I can get by (anyeong, failed attempt to learn fluent Korean.)

You’re a good travel partner, me. Looking forward to hitting the skies with you again soon. ❤


 

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