11:00am, Wednesday May 2nd - Teotihuacan to 10:00pm, Thursday May 3rd - Oaxaca.
Look Deep. What does this mean? Is it to stare passionately into the eyes of a lover? Is it to scrutinize consumer reports intently before purchasing a car? Is it to insist on moving past the talking points to understand the core of a political debate before a big election? It can be, and is, all of these things. However, in Mexico, looking deep takes on a simpler and more literal meaning, to look past the surface, past the façade and to peer inside. Through 6,500 km, 17 states and 3 weeks thus far, I have found that this is the only principal required to understand a city and get to know a country and its people. Along the way, I’ve found that when practiced more broadly in one’s own life, you will most certainly increase your empathy, knowledge and happiness.
Mexico’s history is a storied one. Many towns and cities can trace their lineage directly from the Aztecs or Maya. Mexico City still rests on the same basic grid as ancient Tenochtitlan. In that way it is more like Jerusalem than New York despite its 18 million inhabitants. The same is true of small towns; many are perched on hilltops that dot the landscape, a holdover from ancient days when towns were built on mountaintops rather than in valleys so they could communicate by light or sound. In fact Mexico reminds me far more of Israel than any other country I have visited. Following the Spanish invasion and subsequent rule, all these original settlements remained, reengineered in Spanish Colonial style but maintaining their historical layout, the Mexicans retaining much of their indigenous culture.
Owing to this history each of Mexico’s towns and cities look roughly the same. At the center is the Zocolo, a public space filled with trees, gazebos and intricate iron benches, often bustling with food carts, children running around with reckless abandon. A church, the cultural center of town, abuts the Zocolo. It is always the tallest and most dominant building in the cityscape. Stretching outward in a grid pattern form the Zocolo are broad cobblestone streets, lined with one-story cement colonial style buildings painted in various shades of vibrant pastel. Each has a huge central wooden entryway with a small door cut out of it and a few windows, one or two depending on the building’s length. The windows are tall and narrow, dressed in iron bars with a characteristic flourish at the ends; your only portal into what is otherwise a flat cement affair. The entire town-center is commercial. Shops, restaurants, galleries, pharmacies, no one lives here; this is a place of commerce and commune.
As you move outward cobblestone becomes asphalt, asphalt becomes dust, storefronts become family settlements. House after identical white brick house blanket the countryside. They disperse like inconsistent spoke-like nodes around the central hub of the main village. They are basic but sizable, each housing three, four or even five generations.
To be sure, these settlements are not carbon copies. Some are large, others are small, some are clean, others are dirty, some sun-bleached from the desert, others mildewed and darkened by constant rainforest precipitation, yet they all follow a similar logic, repeat the same pattern. Even the largest of cities, Guadalajara and Mexico City conform to this style guide. For reasons as much topographical and geological as cultural and historical, they too follow this low, spread out colonial style, simply multiplied many times over in scale. Yet, despite their aesthetic congruity, these towns and cities could not be more diverse in their personality, demeanor, outlook or offerings.
Many a town is initially off-putting. Graffiti laden, dirty, the iron bars give off the impression of danger. One could be forgiven for thinking the worst and staying inside. For a seasoned traveler, the Mexican people, while never hostile or combative, never openly engage you, never show initial interest. This is not like Asia where everyone wants to shake your hand, to look into your eyes and hear your life story. Like the built structures the Mexican people too require an initial input from you before they reveal themselves and this too can serve as another excuse for skepticism and the instinct to cloister.
Yet, when you look deep, when you peer through the window or enter the doorway or start a conversation, Mexico rewards. The man at the food stall regales with tales of history and stories of yesteryear. The girl selling textiles on the streets talks of friends and school, giving you insight into the culture of modern Mexico. The pale blue wall gives way to a winding art gallery with exhibits by a litany of modern artists. The maroon steel fence conceals a business incubator packed with creative upstarts determined to change the world. The little wooden door reveals an artisanal bakery where a family, led by their young daughter, bakes grandma’s recipes while distilling their own spirits and pushing the bounds of Mexican cuisine in a sheik and smartly marketed environment.
Each town is different, each with its own unique offerings. Coatepec, awash in the fragrance of its coffee and maize plantations titillates with cafes, local jewelers, and bursting artisanal flare. Milinalco, calm and serene with chilled out local artists, Mayan food stalls and hand woven hats. Oaxaca, a more intoxicating smell emanating from each window with its homegrown and homemade moles, cheeses, coffees and chocolates, an electric entrepreneurial spirit manifesting in business incubators, start-ups, boutiques, art galleries, and philosophers. Each town, city, locale, amazing for its own reason, some, like Botopalis or Teotihuacan, for their unimpressive or even cold or vapid nature. Yet, each unique, special, with a character and personality all its own.
Looking deep. Past the doors and over the walls. Looking not just at the exterior of a building but stepping inside. Seeing not just the physical person that stands in front of you but engaging them in conversation. Too often we judge a book by its cover, we decide what music to download based on its popularity, we determine a person’s worth based on their dress and facial expression, or determine what restaurant to patron based on its décor. While one can do this in Mexico, if acted on one would seldom leave the hotel or travel between locales. On the exterior, it all looks the same, but the interior is rich and diverse. Mexico prods, pushes, implores, even requires you to look deep to get to know it. I’m glad it does. It teaches the value, illuminates the need, and demonstrates the worth of that which is…looking deep. I will be practicing this idea, much more.