Friday, May 23, 2008

On the Road

I went to Mexico recently for what was glibly described by the Sheriff as a Spiritquest. I managed to parlay that into a conversation starter and a few free drinks, but that’s another story…Really, I ended up in Mexico (Puerto Vallarta, specifically) because it was the cheapest place I could get to that was outside of the US and Canada. So, I packed a backpack and a sidebag with some books and clothes and was bound for Mexico on pretty short notice. Now, I don’t speak any Spanish and I had no real idea of what I was doing. When frequent tourists of PV explained that I don’t need either I was skeptical. As it turns out, they were right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I felt that it was important to document the trip, so I packed one notebook with about 100 blank pages, a digital camera/video camera with 4.5 gigs of memory, and a pocket notebook for miscellaneous notes. I haven’t done any extensive handwriting in years and I haven’t journalled (girnalled? guyary?) in about the same amount of time, so my first few pages are really quite embarrassing. I managed to fill a third of the notebook with worthless observations and semi-coherent political rantings, the camera with about 650 pictures and videos, which a solid 80% are probably uninteresting to anyone but me, with the finally 20% being pretty evenly split between being bizarre and embarrassing. After going through the notes I made while touring and the pictures from tour, I thought that it might be interesting to post my notes from Mexico more or less unedited. The problem I noticed as I was only a few pages in is that not even I was interested by the na├»ve, arrogant, or insipid observations I was making about a city and a culture that I didn’t understand. So, instead I am going to distill all of the nonsense to the most interesting pictures, political rantings, and stories.

When I first arrived in Mexico, I wasn’t sure at all what I was doing there. The only thing that I knew was that barring a total disaster I was committed to being there for a month. This meant that I had to effectively budget my money, which is in and of itself a huge issue for me. I read about PV and all of the tourist nonsense (riding ziplines through the jungle canopy, swimming with dolphins, Spring Break! type nonsense with drunk, obnoxious children of privilege, etc.) that I was excited about partaking in. Almost immediately after arriving, I realized that not only are the tourist “excursions” a racket, but that they are bound up with the timeshare scams in some elusive way. Not only that, but the town is full of people who struggle to survive for a month on what tourists (People of the Occupation) spend in a day. They roar through the narrow, cobblestone streets on a caravan of ATVs as they storm into the jungle to ride a zipline or go see the set where memorable scenes from Predator were filmed. The flaunting of wealth was so obnoxious and apparent that I almost immediately lost any desire to engage in any of the adventures. This disillusionment was also facilitated by the fact that I didn’t bring enough money. Instead, I hunted around for cheap, “authentic” food, religiously practiced Spanish phrases that would at the very least allow me to attempt to be polite, and I laid out on the beach and read (I brought Endgame II, Welcome to the Machine, and Ishmael for company. More than once I found myself questioning my judgment.)

I had two initial experiences that deeply informed the rest of the trip. The first was my experience with the street food or more specifically, my attempt to eat street food.

As I stated before, I don’t speak any Spanish and I spoke less when I got there. Now, I have definite feelings about the fact that I’ve spent the better part of my life working in restaurants, a large part of the staff is made up of Mexicans who are almost always working “undesirable” jobs, and I haven’t picked up even “kitchen” Spanish. It speaks to the fact the liberal, “enlightened,” “progressive,” class that I self-identify with is composed of a large number of useful fictions that are meant to alleviate White Guilt. Among these fictions is the fact that racism in America is relegated to the rural, uneducated whites. Not only am I convinced that all white people in America are racist, but I suspect that everyone of privilege (which means all White people) is racist[1].

After a couple of days in the city, I decided to brave the street food. As I walked up, I was increasingly unsure of myself. I wasn’t sure how to order in English, mush less Spanish, I didn’t know where to sit, and looking at the handwritten menu on a piece of butcher paper, I realized that I also didn’t recognize a single thing. I stood there staring at the patrons, the menu, and the food in complete bemusement. It was then that someone made room for me and in a very friendly manner gestured for me to sit down next to him. I gladly joined him and now everyone around the little cart was staring at me intently. The lady who was cooking looked at me expectantly then spoke to me in Spanish. I can only assume that she was asking me what I would like, but I was totally confused, so I asked (in English) for the only thing I knew how to say, which was a fish taco. Maybe again, I’m getting ahead of myself. I really should contextual this moment before I go any further. In the couple weeks leading up to my trip I’d had many conversations with a friend who had made a similar excursion to Mexico for similar reasons. She would talk dreamily of taco pescados and beer after a day of lying on the beach. She had also told me of her adventures with Ketamine and leaping from a cruising speedboat to a yacht in what she described as her “Charlie’s Angels moment.” I tried to avoid romanticizing the trip too much so I wouldn’t be disappointed and because I know that those Ketamine-and-leaping-from-speedboat moments rarely occur when you’re looking for them. Still, I had been fantasizing about my first taco pescado from a street vendor. And when the moment was finally here, not only could I now order it, but the lady told me no, only beef. I had a moment of indecision before apologizing and telling her that I didn’t eat beef as I got up and left. I knew at that moment that I missed out on an experience fundamental to the culture because I was importing an ethical decision whose context is the working class neighborhood back home. I walked away feeling shitty, which initiated my examination of the context of my ethics and ultimately the reevaluation of many of them.

My second experience was quite silly, really. The weeks leading up to going to Mexico saw an almost complete lapse in my self-control. Not only did I spend money irresponsibly, but I also drank prodigious amounts of alcohol and stopped working out. I was already not in the best shape, but when I got down there and wandered out on the beach I, much to my surprise, was very self-conscious about my pasty, flaccid body. I spent a couple of days hiding under an umbrella trying to be absorbed by Daniel Quinn’s abysmal writing and not think about the guys at the Blue Chairs who looked like they’re carved out of marble[2]. I realized that being shy or self-conscious or whatever was only going to inhibit my experience, so I decided to lie out on the beach in the smallest item of clothing I had brought: low-rise athletic briefs that, as far as I was concerned, looked like speedos. If I was going to be self-conscious, then I was going to force myself to come to terms with whatever it was that was bothering me. Suffice it to say, I was quickly over it as I spent the next few weeks in the sun in the same outfit.

Both of these experiences are pretty trivial, but they were instrumental to what I had to figure out when I was there. After realizing that the avoidance of meat would not only inhibit my experience of the culture but would also seriously hamper my enjoyment, I quickly abandoned my dogmatism and dove right in with no ill-effects, physical or otherwise. Forcing myself to be almost naked in front of a group of strange people set the tone for the rigorous self-analysis that elicited more than a couple of my political rants. The reason I write about these experiences is that they will hopefully contextualize the rest of the experiences. However, some of them are probably without any coherent sort of context at all…

[1] These are really loaded contentious statements that I will analyze at a later date.

[2] This is great example of confirmation bias. There were obviously far more normal or fat people on the beach then Adonises, but in my neurosis I was only able to recognize the most beautiful people. That probably speaks as much to my arrogance as to my insecurity.