First Travel Lessons From Mexico

I stared at the hundreds of tiny lines disrupting the surface of my mutilated, but still intact, egg. I am incapable of making a goddamned omelet! The granite countertops beamed, the oil crackled mercilessly on the stove, and my shoulders slumped in helplessness. After a second, feeble attempt at cracking the egg into the pan, a feeling of futility brought me nearly to tears.

The Same But Different

Three days earlier, I had landed in Guadalajara delirious with exhaustion and fear. After quitting my job and renouncing my orderly lifestyle of plans and practicality, I made no travel arrangements other than to await my couchsurfing host at the airport.

In my mind Mexico was a vague, alien, deserty destination where I’d embark on an epic journey that would change my life. I had no logical idea of how this would happen, just a sense that travel itself had the capacity to change me and give me the answers I was looking for.

The trip, however, had it’s own agenda, and I quickly began to doubt Mexico’s foreignness. I awoke the next morning to Superbowl Sunday, and ended up tagging along with my couchsurfing host and his group of college buddies for the viewing party. After a trip to Wal-Mart in an SUV, the group plopped on the couch in front of the flat screen TV, noshing on chips and grilled meat, while Patriot fans made bets against Seahawk fans.

My head began to throb. Is this really how I’m spending my first full day in Mexico?! The day was perhaps more American than if I had been at home in the States.

The other overwhelming thought of the day was holy shit I don’t understand anything. Though I had studied Spanish in the past, the rapidfire conversation and jokes during the party were absolutely incomprehensible to me. Someone had brought their 9-month old baby, and I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with her: I was addressed separately, in a different language than the real conversation. I looked over at the baby. She drooled. We had shared a moment.

A Whole New World?

As the workweek began and my host had to work, I in turn went to explore the city. Each morning, as my host commuted to his corporate job, I took a 45 minute bus ride into the city center.

My first day of exploration, I sipped cappuccinos in el centro and watched street cleaners sweeping a large plaza with small brooms. The sun broke the morning clouds; alleys filled with vendors; a cacophony of voices and car rumbles echoed through narrow, cobbled walkways; shops flung open doors to reveal large baskets of strange foodstuffs, or a room filled with toys, or a piles of pan dulce nestled in a display. Now this is exotic, I thought.

My failures at Spanish during the Superbowl party left me fearful of speaking, so I retreated into myself and decided to see the city by simply observing, speaking only when absolutely necessary. I ended up spending two full days just walking and looking and thinking.

I was aimless through markets, forests, strip malls, and long empty stretches of desert with the sporadic housing development. In dilapidated neighborhoods, dogs barked from the roofs and men in sombreros gave me sideway looks in the dusty narrow streets.

Mexico, it seemed, had the capacity to be both familiar and alien. I could see that this city had a variety of lives going on at once: there was the life of my host, not so different from mine with a 9 to 5 job and weekends with college buddies, and the more foreign-looking lives I saw in the streets as I observed from afar.

An Eggselent Observation

And then came the day where, in my host’s kitchen, I found myself staring at the egg I was feebly trying to crack. A Herman Hesse quote popped into my mind:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world.”

The whole purpose of my trip was to change myself: I wanted to leave behind my old lifestyle and start anew. Now that I was here, thousands of miles away, what was I doing to build myself a new life and new world?

After all, travel doesn’t intrinsically mean anything. You can show up in a foreign place and look at the nice buildings, eat the nice food, and read the nice plaques at the museums and walk away saying, what a nice place. I could easily continue to quietly sightsee and stay close to familiar, comfortable situations: being away from home would not force me to become the person I want to be.

It was time to start cracking eggs and destroying the world I had built around myself. I decided to face my anxieties and actively search for situations that woud put me out of my comfort zone.

Though unsure of what was to come, I was ready to make a fool of myself in Spanish, seek out strange opportunities and people… and even get eggshells in my omelet.

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