I have a new favourite country. It is a place like few others, a land of richness, diversity and excessive amounts of culture. It is a place where every region has something to be uniquely proud of, be it something they produce, something they have held for centuries or simply something they have perfected. It is a land of many languages, where the dominant tongue is spoken side by side with a tongue of ancient beauty. I have fallen in love with Mexico.
I love its meat. The markets of Oaxaca have this special method of smashing meat until it is almost flat, then barbecuing it right in front of you with some onions, some chilis and a few tortillas at almost a tenth of the cost for the equivalent amount of meat in a restaurant. I have never eaten as well nor as simultaneously bad as I have in Mexico. Many things are fried, cooked to a crisp, covered in fat, grease and arse-destroying peppers, but it tastes so damn good for something I know is so unhealthy. When you buy fresh meat from the markets, the result is sublime, the meat is beautiful – tasty, well-textured, soft, juicy and not too tough. Perfection.
I still haven’t grasped just how big this country is. It’s 1,972,500 km2 – roughly three times the size of France or quite literally half the size of Europe. That’s big. Really really big. Good times on buses await.
And I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but JESUS TAP-DANCING CHRIST MEXICO CITY IS HUGE!!!!!
The chocolate (an Aztec word, by the way) is unrefined, gritty and, I think, twice as tasty because it adds that extra layer of authenticity to it. It is a wonderful metaphor within itself: chocolate is a speciality from this part of the world, meaning (according to some sources) “bitter water”. Only with the addition of something unknown to the Aztecs, milk, from Europe, do we have the marvellous food we have today. Only with the synthesis of the two cultures, the two culinary styles, do we have one of the most popular and enjoyable substances on the planet. That’s what Mexico is. It is the purest chocolate, with many flavours, many variations, hundreds of artisans working every day to produce something new and exciting for the masses togorge upon and full their greedy guts. I have yet to eat my fill of Mexico and I don’t know if it is even possible.
To finish where I left off last time:
San Cristobal de Las Casas
With a colonial core reminiscent of Antigua Guatemala, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this city as much as I did, but with a cool combination of relaxation, bohemian vibe and good choice of company, I had a damn good time. On the bus over, I struck a conversation with an English woman and a Dutch woman travelling together from Palenque. Both turned out to be very good fun! San Cristobal has some excellent food and some of the best coffee I’ve tasted. The state, Chiapas, is one of the most important economic states in Mexico, being one of the most fertile and with a great variety of micro-climates well-suited towards great coffee and food. We ate tapas and drank Mexican wine from Baja California for about ten euros a bottle, with a free dish of bread and cheese included. Very Spanish. Then we went out and I drank alcohol properly for the first time in quite some time. A slightly staggered walk back to the hostel included what I dubbed a “Disney Moment” – where everyone breaks out into cheesy songs and showtunes about princesses and love and all that sort of thing. Good times were had by all except those who heard us without the extra musical appreciation afforded by slightly bar-deafened ears and a bit too much to drink. Great night out and my first of many parties here in Mexico!
We made our way out to a village called Chamula the next day. This is a mostly indigenous town in the mountains. Here, the main attraction is the bustling market place and the bizzare, Mayo-Christian church. Here, the rituals are based primarily on old practices and ways. Lines of candles are placed on the grounds before idols of Christian saints dressed in traditional Mayan dress as old incantations are hummed with a few words thrown in towards a saint or Jesus or something. It was all very bizzare, but rather fascinating. I felt rather like I was viewing an incomplete conversion or something from the early days of a a conversion, where the religious dates and rituals have been umbrella’d by Christianity, but the basic beliefs and practices remain the same. It felt like there was a long way to go before it was brought into the mainstream of Christianity.
After two days in San Cristobal, the Germans I spoke of earlier, Roman and Tina, and I made our way towards the southern coast of Mexico to a sleepy beach town called Mazunte. We chose it because it is small, relaxed and absolutely beautiful. The rocky cliffs at the side are great for jumping around on. Just over the hill from where I pitched my tent was a little beach that was perfect for watching the sunset over the Pacific. Every night bar one I went out there to watch it and feel the awe inspiring farewell wave of the sun as it lights the sky a peachy hue.
My main aim in Mazunte was to make an attempt at finishing the Brothers Karamazov. I managed to finish some 250 pages and now have about 100 pages to go. I decided to spend one more day in the hammock just to finish it off while Tina and Roman made their way to Puerto Escondido. So I got close to finishing one of the best novels ever written, but tragically stumbled at the finishing line. Now that I’m in Mexico City, I don’t think I’ll have a chance to finish it before the weekend. So close. So very close.
A Short Note on the Grand Politics of Height
…And a rather lacklustre attempted at not offending short people.
I measured myself in a pharmacy about a month ago. I came out at about 196cm or 6’5″ in the Imperial/American Backwards style. That’s pretty tall by European standards, a little above average by Dutch standards and, somewhat amusingly, gigantic by Central American or South-East Asian standards. In Britain and Ireland, the average male height is about 177cm, the average female around 166cm. Here in Mexico, the average male is 166cm (5’4″) and the average female about 155 (4’11”). As you may have guessed, this poses certain problems. Problem one: the staring. I don’t know if it’s just because I dress so sharply/oddly or look more unusual/awesome than most, but people tend to widen their eyes and gaze up and down as I walk past. On the streets and in the Metro, not a single person is bigger than I – and if they are, then they’re always white. More times than I can count, I have received comments of “!gigante!” or “madre de dios!” or words to that effect. Problem two: nightlife. In a club or bar, I tower over the locals. It makes it somewhat tricky to dance with any dignity on the dancefloor when most of the crowd simply sees my sweaty white head sticking out of the meleé, bobbing back and forth with the awkward grace of a giraffe in a herd of springboks.
I’m not really complaining. I quite like being tall. It commands a certain respect in many places. I was once protesting that filthy cult of $cientology in Dublin and a police officer who had a problem with our “littering” in the form of protest leaflets came right up to me and asked if I was in charge. People look to the tall for leadership – wanted or not. Then there is a hand-clappingly delightful bit of evidence in favour of a positive correlation between height and intelligence (see PDF of the case study here ), meaning we tall people earn more and have greater cognitive ability (wink, wink nudge nudge future employers). I’m certainly not the tallest, many people are significantly taller and far more graceful than I, but I think I’m at a comfortable level of height, agility, speed, power and bulk, whereas some other tall folk aren’t and for that I am somewhat thankful.
It’s just that there are some distinctly irritating downsides to being this tall. I haven’t had a fully comfortable back since I was about twelve, my neck is a mess of muscles and tendons that seem to hate supporting my enlarged skull and I have several bad bumps and scars upon my scalp from walking (and occasionally running and jumping) into door frames and pandejo-placed crossbars. Listening to short people has become tiresome, for the pain involved in lowering oneself (phsyically, not mentally) to their level is usually not paid back in intellectual, emotional or conversational gain. Okay, now I’m being bigoted – emphasis on the former syllable – but you must understand that travelling out here in a system designed for people mostly about 30-40cm (a whole head) shorter than I is an occasionally bothersome experience and I’m feeling the need to push back a bit. But it could always be worse.
A Note on Wonderment and Its Loss in the Modern World of Science and Technology
Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The World For What It Is
I am someone who believes wholeheartedly in the need for scientific understanding. Only with the advancement of scientific knowledge in the natural world will we finally be able to get the hell of this planet and head out and explore the solar system. Maybe when the Western World stops picking fights with those supposedly precocious, uppity poor countries and starts truly investing in technology and intellectual advances will we humans take that giant leap forward into outer space. For now, we must content ourselves with a hybrid system in most parts of the West. Some people have their stark, rational and fact-based understanding of their reality and some people have this magical, illusory perspective. There is certainly grandeur in both views of the world, but there is a lack of veracity in the latter. The majority of the people in Europe and the current generation of youngsters are probably the most enlightened, educated and informed people that have ever existed, with substantial explanations for the origins of most tangible natural events.
But there are those who believe in a world of wonder and magic, a world where things happen just because or because -insert deities here- did it. This is the world of fantasy, not the world of fact. Until relatively recently, I would have spoken with scorn, sarcasm or disdain for such a perspective, my rationalism suppressing my seemingly natural human tendency towards the fantastic. But in our modern technological world of stark truths, we have either misplaced or neglected the ability to be awed by our surroundings. I feel like we have lost that wonder that makes this world so beautiful. Is it superior to be aware of the orbit of the planets, the formation of our solar system and the constituency of the sun as opposed to believing that we are being spun by beings of immense power on a whim and a finger? Or that a mystical, multi-dimensional being in the shape of a serpent is directing light displays in our skies? Or that a chariot of fire and torches runs across our sky to wake us up and gives us the power we need to survive and, ultimately, thrive? There may not be truth to these claims, I may find them silly and nonsensical, but there is a layer of transfixing wonder to them all. Often, when we figure out the process or mechanism behind something, it can lose its ability to hold such a grip on our minds.
Would an Agatha Cristie murder mystery be as entertaining if we knew preciously what happened before we got to the chase? Sure, there is engagement and joy to be found in the tale, but don’t we lose interest as soon as we find out who the devilishly clever murderer is? After the denouement, it’s the end. The tale is over. The grip is released. The thrill of the unfolding mystery is gone. We lose interest and remember about 15% and then move on.
We have lost that wonder in our stark technological society. We take the workings of our iPods for granted and get frustrated when the unfathomably advanced tech within it fails us. We have some of the greatest achievements of mankind in our own pockets, in our cities, up in the air – even orbiting our planet. Do we appreciate them enough? Do I appreciate the laptop I am working on as much as I should? It took us thousands of years and millions of lives to get to the technological level we are now at and I frequently meet people who simply shrug their shoulders and just feel entitled to it without truly earning it. As Louis CK once said: This is what people are like now. They’ve got their phone and their like [look of frustration while miming texting] ‘uh... it won’t…!’ – give it a second! It’s going to space! Would you give it a second to get back from space!?! Is the speed of light too slow for you?!?”
The ancient cultures of the world knew wonderment. Modern Mexico knows wonderment. The religious ceremonies, the diversity in beliefs, rituals and ways of living contain numerous elements that are there almost purely to expand the feelings of wonder. The artistic beauty of this country is extraordinary. Colours, designs and symbols all contribute towards a rich, endlessly exhilarating display. Fantasy lives strong in this country. Escapism, both personal and social, is almost always available, but limited by the necessity of living and surviving within reality. Imagine, if you still can, the feelings of exhilaration and awe at seeing the wildest garbs, the most extravagant displays of humanity and then adding that extra layer of mysticism, where the visible is heightened by the transcendental. Sounds never before heard and feelings never before experienced all create this powerful moment. They bathe in their ecstasy. For thousands of years, this was a great display that the rulers and spiritual shepherds of the masses put on every so often. They would present the people with something truly wonderful. This feeling lasts for a long time and is vital for the success of a society.
This is pretty much what most religious ceremonies represent. Most of the time, Christianity is exceedingly dull and grey, but it still tries to add that extra layer of magical wonder to its proceedings. The problem with Christianity is that it abuses that feeling of wonder, ties it all up with the deep psychological need to be protected from poor fortune and to escape death and organises people and societies into ways that have had lasting social damage and retarded the progress of humanity in many obvious ways. The feeling of wonder was abused in Europe for power and gain and, from my experience, we have now limited our ability to appreciate it – possibly out of fear or cynicism that it may be abused again.
I just wish we could have one without the other.
More than likely, most people that ever lived never attempted to truly appreciate their surroundings. They probably walked through streets, trees, meadows and beaches with the same dead-eyed acceptance that we do now. Travelling opens up that for us.
I wonder if wonder will ever return to the fore. My fingers crossed, because it is a beautiful thing that need not be reserved for the unfamiliar – there is plenty of wonder to be found in the familiar, too. I intend to find it.