I spent nearly three months preparing for a trip to Guanajuato, Mexico, to see my girlfriend, who is currently studying abroad there. I started planning, in fact, before she even left. At first the planning was mental – I made checklists of things I would need or things I wanted to do while there and read about all the things the city had to offer.
After she left, and as it got closer to the day I was scheduled to leave, March 23, I started doing all the serious, necessary things I would need to do in order to leave this country – acquire a passport (shout out to the High Point post office), purchase plane tickets (and observe the resultant damage to my checking account), reserve a hotel room (difficult given my barely functional Spanish) and pack my luggage (ended up doing 99.5% of it the night before my flight).
Finally that clear Wednesday morning arrived, and so began a trip that would prove unforgettable, beautiful, difficult, and unpredictable.
That long first day – during which I sat through three flights and wandered around four airports – served as a good crash-course in international travel. I learned that flight attendants are extremely serious about you fitting your carry-on bag underneath the seat in front of you (NOT in your lap or at your feet).
I learned that a flight’s terminal often changes abruptly, sometimes only minutes before take-off, as was the case for my flight from Mexico City to Leon. And I learned that airports sometimes do leave your luggage behind, which also happened to me between Mexico City and Leon (but it’s not the end of the world, as I also learned).
We spent most of the first day just walking around Guanajuato. The city – with its brightly-colored colonial buildings, winding narrow streets, and rolling hills – is beautiful enough that you can spend the day just looking at it without making any particular plans. As much as I’d read about the city, as much as my girlfriend had told me about it since she had arrived, as many pictures as I’d seen – I was completely unprepared for Guanajuato.
In spite of all the preparation, I still felt as if I’d been suddenly yanked out of Greensboro and placed in the middle of this bustling city in central Mexico, completely new to me and absolutely bursting with life at every turn.
That first day, a million things seemed to be happening around me all at once, and I was absorbing only a portion of it all since I spoke so little of the language. This language barrier did not bother me for long, though; when people realized I didn’t speak Spanish, they simply laughed and spoke to my girlfriend instead. Things felt unfamiliar but welcome.
My hotel room was very likely the cheapest in the city of Guanajuato, and though it did not come with towels, toilet paper, a trashcan or soap, it did include several surprise amenities like cockroaches, peeling wallpaper and a large gap in the bathroom wall that connected my private bathroom with the hotel’s communal showers. This allowed for a steady flow of moisture into my room at all times, making it so stuffy that I could barely sleep.
It took me three nights there to realize that that paying $20 per night for a room in any country will probably not guarantee your comfort, so I transferred to a much more welcoming hotel.
I was very conscious of the way I must have looked as I walked around the city – wide-eyed and eager with that gullible “everything around me is new and magical” look on my face, a giant water bottle in one hand and my camera clenched in the other, one of only two Americans walking on that particular street.
It was hard not to think about the ways Americans perceive Mexico in contrast to the way things actually were. Of course, I’m not qualified to speak on Mexico as a whole – it’s a huge country with huge regional variations.
But that’s sort of the point – Americans tend to assume we have a good idea of what this country (the thirteenth largest in the world) must be like.
The man who will very possibly be the presidential nominee for a major American political party is in favor of constructing a massive wall between this country and our own, to keep out the murderers and rapists that supposedly constitute a major percentage of its population (although, to be fair, he does assume some of them are good people).
Of course this was all in the back of my mind while I was there, of course I was conscious of the weird, misguided tone our discussions of Mexico often take on.
But the most blissful moments I had in Mexico happened when I was able to shut this part of my brain off and just be a part of things without analyzing them or trying to reconcile them with my own experiences.
Maybe the best example of this happened on a peak overlooking the city when two small boys began running around me, laughing as they went, as if I were a tree or some other familiar, neutral thing. They grabbed onto me as they circled me and all I could do was look at everything that surrounded me and be totally still, if only for a minute or two.