So close, and yet so far. Mexico.
Yep . . . like everyone else I’ve been to Cancun and Cozumel for the family vacation thing, scuba diving, margaritas, etc., etc. But finally I’ve gotten the chance to experience the real Mexico. Admittedly, circumstances such as viruses and lockdowns have steered me this way, but as it turns out, Mexico is pretty cool.
I’m used to flights that involve travel times in the 9 – 25 hour range, depending on exactly where across the pond I’m going. The flight to Merida, my first destination in Mexico, was only 3 hours from Atlanta. Nice. And Merida is purported to be one of the safest cities in North America, which it certainly seemed to be. I easily felt safer here than in many cities in the USA.
Outside of the most popular tourist destinations, Mexico really does feel like a foreign country. This may seem obvious, but there are plenty of places in the Caribbean, Central and even South America that just don’t feel that foreign to me. And many don’t realize just how big Mexico actually is; it’s the world’s 13th biggest country by overall geographic size, and is the world’s most populous Spanish speaking country. I only scratched the surface on this visit and yet the vast cultural and geographic diversity of the different regions of the country was astounding.
After Merida we flew to the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato. A World Heritage site sitting at a little over 6,000 feet, this place has perfect weather pretty much all year, and is a very popular spot for expats. What is striking about this town is that it has major infrastructure catering to Americans, (for example some of the hippest cafes I’ve seen anywhere in the world), and yet it manages to retain its Mexican authenticity.
I’m always fascinated by the spirituality of peoples in different parts of the world, so I find myself gravitating to the churches in new places. The Mexican people have a strong religiosity about them, and you can see this in the high number of churches in the towns. During just about any time of the day you can find places of worship occupied with a good amount of people of different ages and professions praying and/or just meditating in them. Being predominantly Catholic, there is a strong presence of Mary, but also an inordinate number of icons stressing the suffering of Christ which the Mexican people apparently connect to. Life here can be difficult. Mexico is not a rich country, and indeed there is an intensity in these churches, a seriousness, that reaches out and touches you.
I’ve found the Mexican people to be among the most friendly I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. From a photographer’s viewpoint, Mexico is a pleasure to work in. I am always careful not to stick my camera in anyone’s face when abroad, but in Mexico the people are so easy-going, I found it hard to feel intrusive.
Our final stop was Mexico City, which I have always had a strong desire to experience. And it is massive; the unofficial population of greater Mexico City is well above the 20 million mark. And yet, compared to some other major cities around the world I found it to feel safe and manageable. There is no doubt that Mexico has its problems, and violence and crime can be high, but where you go seems to make all the difference, and I felt safe the entire two months here.
Covid hit Mexico hard, and the people have suffered greatly. By the time I arrived in May, the country as a whole had wrested control of the virus somewhat, although of course it was still present. It’s striking how serious they are taking it, at least when compared to what I experienced in the USA. Everyone here, and I mean EVERYONE, was wearing masks. Stores and restaurants took temperatures of everyone prior to entering, and even people driving solo in their cars seemed to be wearing masks. It’s hard to know what people are feeling, what they are going through in their personal lives, but a stoicism seems to pervade this country. Mexican history reveals many powerful struggles, and perhaps as a result this has made the Mexican people seem strong and resilient. The people, the culture, the colonial towns, and the cafe life made this journey a great one.
Thank you Mexico for your fascinating culture and welcoming smiles. I’m sorry I’ve neglected you thus far.
I will be back.