Mexico, Through the Eyes of a Visitor
Ah, Mexico… our neighbor to the south. You’d think that, being so close, we’d have more in common—or at least understand each other a bit better.
That’s not to say that Americans aren’t flooded with information about Mexico. We hear all about the drug war, about the disappeared normalistas, about the presidential scandals. We also hear about Cancún, about San Miguel de Allende, about the places that are still safe to visit.
Depending upon who you ask, Mexico is either a violent semi-failed state or safer for Americans than most of the U.S. It’s either a dirty, sprawling mess of a country or home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural and historic sites. Meanwhile, Mexicans themselves are either the world’s most hard-working people or its most lazy, their culture the warmest and most welcoming or the most machista and closed-minded.
So what is Mexico like, really?
The answer, for me, is all of the above—a bit from each category. I guess that’s the case when you look at any place’s stereotypes really, but I can’t help but feel that Mexico is particularly misunderstood as a country, a culture, and a people. I say that after having lived here for just about eight months now with my Mexican fiancée, so it’s safe to say that I have at least a little bit of experience.
Allow me to share with you an anecdote—nothing more, nothing less. It’s just one person’s story of a single afternoon, one of millions and millions of tales told here on a daily basis. But, for whatever reason, what I did that day has stuck with me—and somehow, it functions in my mind as a sort of microcosm of my Mexican experience, a many-faceted period in my life summed up as best as any single day could allow.
A few weekends back, my fiancée and I drove out of the city and headed to a local reservoir where we’d heard the scenery was beautiful and there were nice walking trails. Arriving, we found a trash-strewn lot next to a chain-link fence. On the other side sat a dam, and in front of us were signs that read, “STOP. KEEP OUT. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ZONE.” We were momentarily confused—we knew we had to cross the dam to the other side to get to what we thought was the park. Somewhat discouraged, we poked around until we noticed that a gate in the fence had been ripped right out, now lying in the nearby weeds. Looking across the dam to the distant shore, we could see that the same thing had been done there as well. So off we went, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something illegal—and perhaps even “bad.”
But once we were on the trail, I was made to feel more comfortable. We passed a picnicking family with children and grandparents in tow. Two men on rickety bicycles passed us, norteño music blaring from what looked like a clock radio duct taped to the handlebars. Further along the small stream we were following, an older man in a cowboy hat approached us. “Have you been here before?” he asked. We said no, and he explained, “This is my ranch. But if you don’t smoke and you don’t bother the cows, I don’t mind explorers. Just please take your trash with you.”
I’m ashamed to admit it, but my American mind immediately jumped to “lawsuit.” That doesn’t seem to happen here though. In Mexico, people are generally free to do as they wish—for better and for worse.
So we continued snaking along the stream bed, massive trees to our right and cacti to our left, cows on both sides. We arrived at a barbed-wire fence and we crawled under it, hanging a left away from the stream and climbing a small hill towards the ruins of an old adobe structure. From there, I could see that we were in the center of a large valley, brown and dry save for a strip of green hugging the water below. Apart from this ruined adobe whatever-it-was, nothing man-made could be seen. At the same time, I knew that a city of one million plus inhabitants sat on the other side of that mountain, a short hike and a 20 minute drive away.
There, on top of that hill, I held my fiancée’s hand and contemplated the brown earth on all sides of us. It was a weird feeling—total quiet and calm, to the point that it was almost unsettling. Though I’d been much deeper into the “wilderness” back home, something about this was different. Perhaps it was simply the desert landscape, or perhaps—I have to admit to myself—it was the fact that this was “Mexico,” that mysterious, often frightening place I’d been hearing about since childhood. I’d been living there for about seven months, but I guess I still hadn’t gotten fully used to it.
But eventually, after resting for a bit and further contemplating the beauty of the valley, that feeling of slight uneasiness began to slip away. I took some granola bars and some guava fruit out of my backpack and I shared them with my fiancée; we talked and we laughed and eventually we turned around to head back towards the car as the sun began to wane in the late afternoon sky.
That evening, after arriving back home, I logged in to Facebook as I am wont to do. A friend of mine had linked me to a local page, where Mexicans were opining about the recent decision of the U.S. Department of State to recommend “extreme caution” when visiting the Mexican state of Aguascalientes. As it turns out, this was due to the state’s proximity to Zacatecas rather than for any activity in Aguascalientes itself. But it still rattled me. How could my government warn against me coming to a place like this, where I’d had such a peaceful, pensive moment just a few hours before?
I never did respond with my opinion (sorry Paty), but I did think long and hard about it. And I realized that the answer was simple—that gun battles between criminal-criminals and criminal-police have in fact occurred just an hour or two away from where I live, many innocent people dying in the process. The U.S. government, in this case, was simply doing its job.
So what is Mexico like, really?
At the end of the day, it’s not a question that I can answer. What I can tell you is that it’s a complicated place, and I could begin by sharing stories of different days here in this strange, beautiful, and oftentimes unsettling land.
If you’re really curious about Mexico, what I suggest is that you come here and see things for yourself. Of course—and no one with any sort of intelligence would deny this—there are a number of places in this country that you simply should not go. But the reality is that these places are few and far between, and most of Mexico is wide open for exploration should you choose to give it a shot.
Whether it’s the jungles of the south, the urban jungle of the distrito federal, the seemingly European streets of Guanajuato, the central desert plains, a sleepy resort town on the Pacific coast, or any place in between, a trip to Mexico is bound to be a pleasant, educational, and eye-opening experience for you. You’ll go back home with a different, considerably more nuanced view of the country that—if you’re from the U.S.—is in reality your neighbor.
If you can manage to hook up with a local guide, all the better—now get out there and get exploring.
By Jim Dobrowolski
Jim Dobrowolski is an American freelance writer and translator currently based out of Aguascalientes, Mexico. In his free time he enjoys hiking, playing basketball, and sampling the many beers this world has to offer. He is the founder of the travel site crosscontinentcruising.com and his personal website can be found at jimdobrowolski.com.