((In a previous blog post titled Breaking Away I referenced the following writing piece, which was written about a year ago, prior to the COVID pandemic. One theme of Breaking Away was the maturing influence in my life of foreign travel.))
“Chicklets… Chicklets” the tiny child implored, as he reached out, doe-eyed, face-smudged, clothing-torn, along the broad sidewalk of Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico’s capital city. Already comparatively tall and lanky, I looked down at the boy and then up at my mom, asking whether I could buy gum that the niño was purveying.
“Of course,” she said, in a manner which I sensed to be both approving and proud. I turned back to the pleading boy in my best elementary school Spanish, “Si, quiero dos chicklets, por favor,” and gave him a peso.
“Gracias,” he responded, as he took my money and handed over the gum. We both smiled at each other, but I felt terribly sad.
How has it been that in retrospect, Mexico, somehow, without my intention, became a touchpoint for critical junctures on my life? From the above-referenced first confrontation with pervasive poverty and inequality, to the beginning of recovery from a disastrous marriage, to a brand-new start to the rest of my work and love life. With its tests of courage and stamina, Mexico has drawn me in, inspired me, changed me. Mexico has been my muse.
1967: Leaving Innocence
The summer after I just turned 12, my parents and I took our first trip abroad to Mexico. By this time, my two older sisters were already off to college, so this was the first trip that was just the new three-person household.
Upon deplaning at Aeropuerto de Ciudad de México, I was fully engaged in all the sensory stimuli that come with foreign travel. A different language, of course. But for the first time, seeing real poverty, real unmet needs. There wasn’t one child selling Chicklets on the sidewalk. There were dozens of them, seemingly wherever we went. Old men and women, lying on the ground, slumping on benches, leaning against walls, arms outstretched, softly, non-threateningly, asking for alms. I was crushed by the poverty. Scared for them. Didn’t understand how such poverty could be.
Our family, the gringo tourists, were not ostentatious. My parents sought to be deliberately, intentionally modest. But we were also a source for local’s economic survival. We slept in hotels, ate in restaurants, visited Teotihuacan and its magnificent Pyramids of the Moon and Sun; all with “servientes” present. We went bowling, and little boys would set up the pins after each roll. Was it ok for me, a boy myself, to take advantage of such need? Or was it good that I helped give them employment? I kept thinking hard about such things.
There, too, remain delightful memories, divorced from poverty. Playing chess in the park with old men. No Spanish needed. Spending the whole day at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the archaeological museum in Mexico City, mesmerized by stories and artifacts. Visiting construction sites for the new stadia and other venues setting up for that next year’s 1968 Summer Olympics. Touring a glass-blowing artisan’s workshop. Dad haggling for a painting of an outdoor market scene at an outdoor market, which to this day hangs on my living room wall. Adventurous eating throughout the trip, in which I took pride in my mature openness to new smells and tastes.
More on the food! The colorful, vibrant, spicy, beautiful food. Fried fish cooked and consumed on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. A fresh coconut sliced with a machete, drilled with a screw, its sweet warm milk sucked out with an inserted straw. The warnings about eating street food and drinking unpurified water, notwithstanding, oh what fabulous street food there was! Tacos, chorizos, buttered corn with hot peppers.
And the Mexico experience seemingly all summed up at the Blanco y Negro restaurant in Guadalajara. Dad, who didn’t know a word of Spanish (other than “la cuenta, por favor” – the check please), would simply speak his English slower and louder until I would intervene with my few Spanish phrases to get us what we needed. “Mmm… this is delicious,” I said to my parents with the waitress standing by. “And so cheap!” My parents were aghast at my insensitivity.
“Oh, I mean inexpensive… uh… doesn’t cost a lot,” I tried to correct. They were getting more uncomfortable, not less, as I clearly had not picked up that for them it was rude to talk about prices in front of the waitress.
I had my first banana split at that Blanco y Negro. How funny, I thought, that what felt like a quintessential American dish, would be inaugurated in my mouth in this little restaurant down south. For the next year, I carefully made my own banana splits at home. Ah, the taste of Mexico!
1989: Leaving Marriage
After trying off and on for 8 months of grueling counseling, small advances and crushing realizations, I gave up. The marriage was irretrievably broken. As was I. “Get your motor running,” screamed the song, blaring from my car’s speakers, as I drove down I-5 to visit with my old college roommate, Andy. “Born to be wild,” rang out the song I had taped and played over and over on that road trip south.
San Diego was warm, not hot, in the pleasant December air. Andy thought a day trip to Mexico would do good for my soul, as he, his girlfriend Adrian, and I crossed the border into Tijuana and drove down the coast of Baja California Norte to a beach restaurant they knew.
After a sumptuous meal – ah, fried fish again on a Pacific Ocean Mexican shore! – we set out down a gentle slope for the white sand beach expanding beneath us at lowering tide. The sun was setting, the wind warmly tousling my hair. Adrian and Andy strolled north, holding hands. Mexican teens playfully laughed as they chased each other across the sands. And I peered out at the vast sea and rolling waves, breathing sporadically, as I deeply sobbed the cathartic cry of relief and fear and the very beginnings of a determined hope.
Spring 2001: Leaving Work and Welcoming Love
It was a time of both exhaustion, loss and potential rebirth. I was physically worn out. I had taken care of my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mom as she transitioned from independence to a nursing home. I had passed a couple of kidney stones which depleted my energies and left me vulnerable and frail. Allowed – if not endorsed – by my ex, my 12-year old son, my only child, had left me – no longer agreeing to go along with the residential placement described in the divorce decree. I had myself left a secure job of seven years with State Parks to take on a new big management position at the Department of Natural Resources, and it was a stretch. An interesting stretch, and a promotion, but also a mission which wasn’t quite the right fit. And then there was Jean, my new girlfriend. My partner? Was this relationship the real thing?
I decided – with her blessing, even her encouragement – to simply quit my job and go to Mexico for ten weeks. I would call it my sabbatical., but I had no job for which to return. This was a risk. A mid-career reevaluation. The aim? A complete break from work. A chance to see if my brain still functioned enough to tackle something that I had tried several times between that 12-year-old boy’s Mexican summer vacation and the present – to learn Spanish. And it would also be a test of my relationship with Jean. For while I would go for ten weeks, she planned to join me for the final four. Could we travel together? Could we be a couple in the eyes of the conservative families we were staying with in home stays during our language school studies? Could we be a couple in our own eyes?
Ah, Mexico. Warm and wild. Gentle people and narco-terrorists. An economy on the upswing. Corruption undeterred. Was this the new start I sought?
The language school concept – immersion, live with a Mexican family, engage with the people – was just what I wanted. Just what I needed. And it worked! By the time Jean arrived, my Spanish was better than hers (that lasted about a week, but she was impressed at the time). I could dialog with the historic preservation official in Oaxaca, make my way around town for shopping and eating, and begin to understand the local newspapers.
Our month together was my test for a decision to move in with her and her boys. And that’s just what we did. Upon my return to the USA, I decided that I wanted to work part time, and got that opportunity back at State Parks where I felt most at home and most competent. And over the next five years, I returned to Mexico twice more. Once with Jean and my son Zac to reconnect with him and try to establish some relationship between those two. And once with Jean, to retain my Spanish, and bring renewed vitality to our lives.
Wither Mexico now? Another hinge-point for retirement? Por que, no?