My passport was declined the maximum three times at the new scanning kiosks at Canada customs. I left the wave of Canadians passing with ease through the machines to find a customs officer in the flesh, “Where are you coming from?” Looking me up and down, a middle-aged woman travelling alone, he was confused. “Mexico City” I handed him my passport. “And you didn’t travel in Mexico?” “Yes, I did, but not by plane. By bus. And taxis.” “It’s unusual for a Canadian (he paused here but did not say ‘woman’) to travel like that, from Mexico City.” Given the circumstances (trying to re-enter my country with as little friction as possible), I opted for the simplest, also the most honest, response, I said, “I’m glad to be back.” “I bet” he said.
I hadn’t travelled alone; I met my sister in Mexico City. She had flown from the Yukon. We travelled the two weeks together, visiting her favourite places—Mexico City, Tepoztlan, Acapulco. She’d lived and worked a whole decade in Mexico and returned to Canada five years ago. Her Spanish returned fluid, fluent, the moment she landed. She had asked me to visit so many times when she lived there, but my kids were small, I didn’t have the money, couldn’t secure the time away from work…so many excuses. Even when her partner died suddenly, in a dangerous town just north of the Belizean border where baggies of cocaine wash up on the beach and the people carry machetes and several sport missing limbs, I couldn’t go down there, to help her through that horror. My husband outright forbade it. With good reason, really. This trip was long overdue. And we didn’t have any epic blowouts or even anything more than mild disagreements. Maturity counts for some things. Acquiescing my movements to the pace of a cigarette smoker helped: walk a little ways, smoke break, walk a little further, smoke break.
Dropping into another culture, another climate (several climates really, because with every move we made the temperature, the way the air moved and touched my skin, the scents on the wind, changed), surrounded by a language I didn’t understand, kickstarted my mind. Thoughts, sensory experiences, sparked and fizzed. Released from the demands of work, of family, of regular life, I settled into being, allowing my tongue to bend around the new language, a different grammar, novel tastes.
I didn’t write much. Jotted a few fragments, impressions. I collected flowers—Jacarandas from the purple blossoming trees, bougainvillea, frangipani, others I didn’t recognise—pressed them between the pages of my notebook. I carried my pencil crayons but never drew anything. I didn’t quite feel settled enough. We were on the move. There was too much to look at, take in, make meaning of. Everything was fantastically loud: competing car radios, shop front music blasts, horns, bells, the screeching of brakes, the barking of dogs, the crows of roosters, birdsong, people yelling, begging, singing, whistling, babies crying, children laughing, and Mexican style fireworks which really sound just like cannon blasts. They made me jump. Every. Time. One expat suggested the fireworks—long baton-like sticks held in front of a person as if carrying a flag, gun powder stuffed in the top end and lit—as Mexicans reclaiming the fear they’d felt when colonial conquerors landed with their real cannons in centuries passed. Maybe.
It felt good to get my brain buzzed. To slow down. To simply feel.
I read four books, two by Mexican author Elena Poniatowska (an émigré from France). Her writing is gorgeous and, I imagine, even better in their original Spanish (the short story collections I read were translated by George Henson and Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez). Here is a good and very recent overview of her life as a writer, from The Washington Post, written by Kevin Sieff.
Amidst the concrete, the gates, the walls frothing barbed wire, shards of glass, the flowered vines spilled forth, the flowers rioted, the birds swooped and sang. In a place where even the laundry hung to dry on the rooftops is caged, there is art on the walls and parades of people celebrating. I spent my time ingesting it all. Feeling full.