The sidewalk was crowded and people rushed in both directions, melting into a blur. Across the street to my left I could see the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and behind it the Palacio de Correos—two buildings that could also be in Paris and Barcelona, respectively. I was coming from the direction of Chinatown heading to the city center—with its Aztec ruins in the shadow of the colonial cathedral. The brass section of a Ska band blared in the distance, and I could hear the faint sound of bagpipes coming from across the street.
What the hell was going on there in Mexico City? That clusterfuck of sound and mismatching architecture made me realize two things: First, Mexico is one of the most eclectic countries I’ve ever visited and, second, three weeks was not enough time to even start scratching the surface of that massive layer cake made of soil, sand, water, jungle, forest, blood, dust and concrete.
I felt like I didn’t want to leave, and that was a first for me.
I left Mexico when I was 19; I’m 34 as I write this. That is, soon I will have spent more than half my life living in other countries—5 years in the US and 10 in Germany. When I left Mexico I was at a point in which I couldn’t care less for the country and just wanted to go somewhere else due to different reasons, but mostly because I felt such a curiosity for the world that I couldn’t stand staying in the same place where I grew up. To an extent I never felt that strong an attachment to Mexico, which was maybe due to the fact that I was not born there.
This detachment, combined with the physical distance during my whole adult life, made my relationship to Mexico rather unimportant. I obviously missed my family, real Mexican food and my football club (obviously), but otherwise only felt connected to the country every four years during the World Cup.
Funnily enough though, due to the fact that I got used to and fell in love with other countries (hi, Ukraine!), Mexico started feeling foreign to me. At some point I realized that I was completely out of touch with the country. And then, just like with any other country I want to visit, I started getting curious about Mexico. I wanted to discover and reconnect with the country, and the perfect opportunity presented itself last month: I was going back for my sister’s wedding, and decided I would spend a few weeks traveling around after that.
It’s easy to be critical about the place you’re from, especially if you’ve left for good. Before this latest trip back, the first in seven years, I decided that I would try to forget that I’m from there and get to know the country like a foreigner. I figured there is really no reason why I couldn’t fall for Mexico like I did for Ukraine—where locals have the same type of love-hate relationship with their own country.
I sat down and listened to the Ska band for a few minutes. The overwhelming whirlwind of motion continued around me, and I started reminiscing of the trip that hadn’t yet ended but was about to: I remembered the gigantic mountains along the way to the Gulf of Mexico and the waves on the Pacific coast. I thought of the Mayan ruins I had seen and the Tzotzil language I had heard in Chiapas, the Art Nouveau Palacio de Hierro by Gustave Eiffel that stands in the city of Orizaba and the engraving workshops churning out political art in Oaxaca. I decided that I would try to piece it all together and try to make sense of all that later and just enjoy my last couple of days in Mexico City—the last station of the trip.
Contrary to my initial expectations, I was fascinated by Mexico and wanted to know more about it. Mexicans are very attached to their traditions, be it music or folklore, which makes all these cultural expressions relevant and even fashionable in today’s modern world. The country’s rich culture is present everywhere—from street art to the mainstream—so traveling in Mexico has a very distinct and unique character that you don’t need to look for.
My trip took me from Mexico City to Apizaco, in the state of Tlaxcala, to visit my dad, and then to Veracruz via the city of Orizaba for my sister’s wedding. From there I traveled to Catemaco, otherwise known as the capital of sorcery in Mexico, and continued onto Palenque, in the state of Chiapas, to see the famed Mayan ruins. Afterward, I traveled south through rebel territory to the magical city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, continued onto Oaxaca, then south to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast. After that I took a flight to Mexico City, where I spent a few days before coming back to Germany.
Along the trip I made many friends, heard songs from my teenage years, saw mind-blowing landscapes, tried new foods, released turtles into the ocean and learned about the country that became foreign to me. I was also disheartened from the inequality and poverty I witnessed, but was equally inspired by the people’s will to somehow get ahead and their readiness to throw you a genuine “good morning” on the street. Also, I felt, for the first time in almost a decade, like an actual local.
Mexico and Mexicans are misunderstood everywhere; unfortunately, the ideas that most people have are based on negative prejudices or silly stereotypes—I’ve heard them all and can only shrug every time. In the coming articles I will write about skyscrapers, social movements, art, literature, diversity, colonial architecture, breathtaking nature, hipsters, metalheads, indigenous people, surfers, expats and everything else that makes Mexico such a complex and entangled mess of overlapping parallel worlds.
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