By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Many people set out on a spiritual journey to free themselves from preoccupation with material possessions. At the beginning of 2001, we turned this venture upside down. We first rid ourselves of almost all of our material possessions, including our very large townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, and our second car, and then we set out on a journey through Mexico.
We packed our old grey Toyota Camry with clothes for a range of weather, a toaster oven, a pot, a pan, two plates, cups, bowls and cutlery. We also added a laptop computer for Marcia’s continuing research projects – with the promise to Jan that all work would cease at 2pm every day. And since the Kindle had not yet appeared, the remaining space in the Camry was crammed with books.
Many of our family and friends thought we had taken leave of our senses. Although our children and their spouses thought it would be a great adventure, to the others the very idea of homelessness was anathema. Home ownership was not only an American Dream but the essence of the good life. And, as the bumper sticker on our brother-in-law’s sports car announced: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” But, that attitude notwithstanding, many wanted an ongoing description of our journey. This write-up is based on a summary of messages we sent back north in 2000.
As soon as we crossed the Mexico border between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico, we felt an immediate disconnect from responsibilities that had consumed us for up to eighty hours a week in Washington, DC. Leaving behind our total fast-paced preoccupation with data collection, analysis, reports, reviews, grants, contracts, government meetings, employees, home management, and professional obligations, we literally and figuratively were open to new vistas and new experiences. Our eyes, minds, hearts and souls were nourished by the slower pace and the incredible variety of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch of Mexico.
The people of Mexico were helpful and gracious, greeting us warmly and making us feel welcome. Sometimes they tried to steer us to communities of ex-pats or English-speaking tourists, but mostly we preferred to try to get along with our rudimentary Spanish and a phrase book. At one hotel, our breakfast waiter took it upon himself to teach us a few Spanish phrases each morning, listening to our repetitions until we got them just right. Soon we began to avoid English-speaking neighborhoods, because the Spanish we heard there was about the worst, most corrupted language you ever heard, and we couldn’t make any progress by listening to it.
Looking back over our messages, we can see how much the landscapes, art and architecture engrossed us. Free to wander, we visited almost all the states of Mexico and drove through kilometers of high chaparral punctuated by a rich diversity of cacti with fantastic shapes. We traveled up, over and around snowcapped mountains and belching volcanoes on dirt roads and highways brilliantly engineered for high speed travel. And we spent weeks exploring coastlines varying from lake shores dotted with colorful villages, to rock-strewn sheer drops to glistening oceans, to broad beaches that are home to a multiplicity of birds and littoral creatures. We hiked and crawled through caves and caverns with breathtaking columns, stalactites and stalagmites. And snorkeling in the bays of Huatulco was an out-of-body experience of being surrounded by huge schools of brightly colored fish and watching other sea creatures shyly hide under rocks and coral as we floated above their habitats.
Art and architecture became a three-dimensional emotional experience rather than a two-dimensional analytic exercise. From our first-week visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, where we felt as if we had walked into a painting, to our dizzying climbs up the sides and insides of numerous soaring pre-Columbian pyramids and temples, to our exploration of cool, quiet, enormous Colonial cathedrals, we immersed ourselves in the monumental art and architecture of Mexico. The everyday beauty of ordinary structures and objects – both artifacts of past civilizations and current utilitarian homes and furnishing – enriched our nomadic lives. Lying in a guesthouse bed with an elaborately carved headboard and staring up at a perfectly rounded brick boveda (dome) in a room with walls painted in bright colors – a different complementary color for each wall – was akin to Dorothy’s experience in Oz; this certainly wasn’t Kansas – nor Virginia.
The sounds of Mexico were omnipresent. The constant brushing of cleaning brooms and swishing of mops, clinking and hammering of repair tools, the buzz of gardening implements and rattling of cart wheels were soon absorbed into the more euphonious background of burbling fountains and the rustling of palm and pine branches. Along the thousands of kilometers of ocean coastline, we heard the lulling sounds of waves and songbirds. We found the sounds of children in Mexico were different from our prior experiences – primarily they were laughter and quiet chatter, and the occasional crying child was quickly attended to by parents, older siblings, other family, or caregivers. We looked for, but rarely saw, tantrums or fights.
Overlaying all those sounds, everywhere in Mexico, was music. At the turn of the 21st century, earphones were not yet ubiquitous, so there was no escaping song and instruments – some delightful, some just atrocious products of drunkards. Because Mexico means music, we could be sure of a concert of excellent music taking place almost everywhere we went. We learned to check in at the local city center, especially the cathedral or chapel or tourist office, for concert notices. We heard soul-satisfying performances ranging from Baroque organ recitals to stunning orchestral performances of contemporary Mexican composers. In the capital of nearly every state in Mexico we found a state orchestra of which the local residents were justifiably proud.
We were immediately entranced with the food in Mexico. Not only was it delicious and totally different from what we were familiar with in Mexican restaurants in the US, but it varied so much from one part of the country to another. And the smells! The morning yeasty aroma of baking bread and sweet rolls; the waft of corn masa from tortillas heating on a comal; the odor of coffee beans from local plantations being roasted, ground and brewed; the deep essence of hot chocolate; the heady smoke of grilling fish or chicken or meat; the complex odor of simmering moles merging fifteen or more ingredients. We learned the joy of mouth-watering patient anticipation of meals being painstakingly prepared.
We loved fruits that in the U.S. seemed bland after being picked green in Mexico and then trucked thousands of miles. In Mexico, papaya, mangos, tiny bananas and other tropical fruits were picked ripe and ready to eat. Each bite produced a burst of sweet flavor. Chicken and eggs tasted like chicken and eggs rather than a mass-produced version of poultry products. Yogurt, rather than literally being pasteurized to death, had the sweet and tart flavor of microbial activity and kept our taste-buds and guts happy. After having been warned in the U.S., “Never eat the salad in Mexico!” we learned, always eat the salad in reputable restaurants and in our own kitchens. Once the lettuces were thoroughly washed and the other vegetables washed or peeled – the salads were fresh and delicious. And the moles – the moles deserve volumes of descriptions. Each region of Mexico has a different variety of moles, with local spices and ingredients and distinctive flavors and tastes, each delicious in its own way. We spent days in the city of Puebla during the mole festival, sampling and comparing many.
Our journey touched us in many ways. Mostly we remember the people we encountered. At synagogues in Mexico City and Guadalajara, we were hugged and kissed and invited to meals as if we were newly-found family. As our low-slung Camry was totally inappropriate for clearing high topes (speed bumps) in rural villages, we created a diversion for the children and good-natured laughter from the village residents as we slowly scraped the undercarriage of our car. Whenever we were lost, and with no really adequate GPS maps of Mexico at that time, people went out of their way to help us get back on track. People uncomplainingly deciphered our rudimentary Spanish and patiently answered our questions. And at music and other events, strangers introduced themselves and then introduced us to their family. We were made to feel as if we were honored guests in their country and welcome to consider Mexico also ours. We had set out on a home-free journey but were gradually creating another home.