December 24, 2007
America Everywhere, Again
The sun cast a fractured shadow at the end of the pool. The shadows looked like lined-up carrots, each of them an oddly-twigged shape that lay side by side, row by row. The crystal blue water looked ten degrees cooler than when I had fallen asleep. How long had it been exactly? An hour, two, maybe longer?
I felt goosebumps along my upper right arm. I rubbed my eyes with the knuckles of my index and middle fingers the way a ten year child does after a nap. No, not a nap, after she wakes up from a long car ride on a lazy summer day.
I had been to Mexico before but not this far south. Despite my global escapades to more than 2,000 destinations, I had never ventured below Baja, as if Mexico didn't count as a foreign destination in my mind. Like Canada, it has always felt like an extension of America even though a Canadian or Mexican would shudder at that comparison.
It's not as if they are not extraordinarily different and ardently foreign in countless ways, but the notion of staying so close to American soil when you simply didn't have to always seemed so uninviting. By venturing outside of its borders and making the effort, you would somehow be rewarded with a life-changing moment, a richer encounter, and what I now refer to as an external 'jolt.'
What I really mean by this is a non-American jolt, what an old friend used to call a walkabout, a journey that, regardless of its length, would hit you over the head with bouts of creativity, insight, wisdom, and reflection -- all of which I was certain I couldn't gain at home.
It's not as if I haven't been deeply jolted by Montana's blissful nothingness, Idaho's surprising beauty, or inspired by the authenticity of a New England fall or a conversation on a New York City-bound train. All of it has both charged and moved me, yet that very important perspective (call it a gift) you only gain when you cross an international border can never be granted on your own soil.
This Mexico, this very developed, expensive and noisy Mexico, less than an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, is known as a major tourist destination. Even with the dollar's decline (no surprise, but did you ever imagine it would fall below the Canadian dollar?), this Mexico is shockingly expensive, with average dinner prices at about the same or higher than San Francisco's mid-ranged options. Out-of-line prices but with a third world infrastructure that doesn’t match them in any way.
Active construction is everywhere you turn with tacky and noisy condos and complexes sprouting up on every inch of beach. It was yet another grass cutter that woke me from perhaps the only relaxing few hours since we arrived.
Grass cutters, lawn mowers, construction on all sides, hammers, saws, backhoes, traffic that hums at the same volume as LA on a Friday night, air conditioning systems, tractor-trailer jake breaks, New York-like sirens, loud music and shouts that carry themselves boisterously down the beach and in every common area imagineable. All that on top of the loudest household appliances I've ever heard. Welcome to this Mexico.
Noisy and expensive With both constantly hitting you in the face, you are at least welcomed by another consistency here: great people. Again and again, the authenticity of the people I've met in shops, on the street, the beach and in cafes have warmed my heart. Yet I feel as if this place has sold out to the yanks in ways that are sadly destructive.
If you ever dive into a conversation about what we as a nation have darkened or flattened, you may feel the air suddenly thicken. After years of trying, perhaps you simply avoid the discussion and go for a foreign jolt instead.
I thought about all of it and this Mexico when I began stirring after hearing yet another lawn mower and then a loud thump, not that dissimilar from the one that woke me up at 4 am the previous morning.
The shade was moving. I packed up my four-foot-long salmon-colored cushion and dragged it to the opposite side of the pool, the only area left with any sun. I turned back for my towel and bag and dragged them too, like the same ten year old who had just been woken up by some adult who told her it was time.
It reminded me of my teenage years in Arizona where our Saturdays that started with Casey Kasem's Top Forty, ended with retreating to the last unshadowed spot by the pool. There we'd apply more coconut oil and talk about boys. Now I'm a grown woman and my friends still talk about the 'boys' in their lives - their husbands, partners and children. All boys.
Now comfortable with the last of the sun warming my only slightly-tanned skin, I had a better view of what could be paradise had I been wearing earplugs so I couldn't hear the constant hum of some external force or machine imported from the states.
You ask for this outcome when you fly to an overpopulated tourist destination during the holidays, yet pickings were slim for what I was looking for this trip. The spoken Spanish and tiny corner supermarkets with products wearing the same packaging they wore in the 1970s at home were at least reminders that I was, in fact, away.
Away, far away, but with everything American following me at every turn, including the wifi extender I purchased to stay connected because today's world requires it. The Colorado-based couple who owned the condo we rented even furnished its interior with Crate & Barrel look-alikes.
How comical that one of the books I brought with me was Anne Tyler's Digging to America. Cynical about many of the same Americanisms that show up here in this Mexico, she tactfully weaves back and forth between the things that make us both shudder and smile.
She initially thought it was going to be a novel about the stark differences between two families living in Baltimore's suburbs: an all-American couple she names Bitsy and Brad, and an Iranian couple who have assimilated themselves into all the things that it means to be American.
Her ability to bring these characters alive in her story of both couples' adoption of Korean babies is astonishingly real, in that kind of way that authors rarely achieve. It's in this kind of writing, this artful way of storytelling, where the characters remain with you for weeks if not months after you finish the last page.
In the end, the book is about belonging and how hard it is to feel like we ever truly belong anywhere. I can see that at home and most certainly can see it here in Mexico, especially this Mexico. Americans out of place, Europeans out of place, Canadians out of place, Mexicans out of place.......all looking for something familiar and comfortable to grab onto, relate to and ultimately connect with.
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