Phase 1: Mental Plasticity and the Search for Truth
Mexico is an amazing place. Not for everyone and not without significant problems, but the positives outweigh the negatives IMO, with it’s significance as a rising world power not to be underestimated.
Before we get into that, let’s get a few things sorted: I take it for granted that Corporations and Governments, while perhaps not implicitly evil, do not have the best interests of the people at heart. At best, the power structures that influence our practical day-to-day world are separate hands of a lumbering beast, unaware of each others existence and each looking out for their own best interest. At worst, our Lumbering Beast is self-aware, each hand controlled by a manipulative Ruling Class, and we are cattle. Somewhere on that continuum lies the truth, of this I am certain.
Further, I take it for granted that the future does not belong to White Men, and do what I can to understand and facilitate this fact. Mostly, that means I try to listen. (I understand this topic to be controversial to some, but to me it’s not even worth arguing about: get on board or get left behind, the Neanderthal of your time.) It’s time to balance the scales, ’nuff said.
It is also important to note that my reasons for going to Mexico are probably not what you think. It’s not for the amazing food and culture, not for the white-sand beaches of the Yucatan, nor for the ruins left behind by Inca, Aztec, and Mayan cultures we still don’t understand. No, I’m traveling to Mexico to visit my Dad who has lived there for some time, and who was recently diagnosed with dementia.
I started planning this trip a good 7 months ago, in several phases. First, was to be a Mexican Vacation, starting with a trip to Puerto Vallarta where I’d rendezvous with my father for a proper Family Vacation. I had hopes that with enough notice my Dad could figure out a way to make it work financially for him and as much of his Mexican Familia as possible – and that I might even figure out a way to get my son, Henry, to make the trip as well, as he’s only met his Grandfather 3 times in the 7 years since I’ve become a father myself. At first, everything was going swimmingly, all parties with a stake in the proceedings were on-board, deals were struck, plans were put into motion, and the wheels of my trip slowly began to turn.
So of course I booked tickets and locked myself into a travel plan 7 months ago. Which would have been a great idea had I God-like powers and control of the Universe. (In truth, it was still a good idea. I found some unbelievably inexpensive tickets, and keeping my travel expenses low is the key to staying on the road that much longer.) However, committing myself so early has required of me the continual re-evaluation of the parameters of my trip. In fact, it is no small exaggeration to say that every singe reason I purchased the 3 plane tickets I did back in April/May 2016 (Portland-Puerto Vallarta/Cancun-Paris/Cologn-Phuket) has changed between now and then. I am left with the frame-work of a great trip however, and a great trip I intend to have.
Long story short, Puerto Vallarta was not to be. About 3 months in my Dad called and told me he’d been to the doctor and had dementia. He said in matter-of-factly and didn’t waste any words or emotion with it, but I could tell he was clearly shaken. (At that point, and this point still, the full extent of his diagnosis is unclear, though preliminary indications are that it is a still very early and not much advanced. More tests and info to come between now and Christmas, including, I assume, whether this is Alzheimers or not.)
The cherry on top was that I had arranged for Henry to be there after all. Henry’s mother and I split 5 years ago now, and without going into unwarranted detail surrounding the complexities of co-parenting my son with someone I don’t share a life with, understand that it was nothing short of miraculous that I had arranged to get Henry to Puerto Vallarta. His always over-protective mother (not an insult, it’s a mothers job to be thus) had somehow agreed and I was over the moon about it. A trip with my son was a rare and beautiful thing indeed, so the hardest blow for me to take was the realization that Henry would not see his Grandfather, made even harder in light of the diagnosis, on every level. As my father, not someone who’s ever been comfortable expressing emotions around me said, his voice shaking, “I was looking forward to seeing that kid play on the beach…”. It was a terribly sad moment for both of us.
[I’m a planner, and a good one. The flip side is that it’s always been hard for me to let go. Both of my carefully laid plans, and of the responsibility/power that comes with making said plans. It was a few months ago, just before leaving on the Secret Drum Band summer tour, that I decided to firmly try and change that about myself. To let go. To not be in charge. To go with the flow. I mean, why the fuck do I need to be in charge all the time? I reasoned that it would be quite a bit easier to go with the flow if I could just let go in the first place!
Easier said than done, but as a mantra I try and remind myself that my sphere of influence extends to what is within my immediate physical grasp. Outside of that, while it’s fine to try, exert effort, put your best foot forward etc, the results are beyond my control. Sounds obvious when written like that, but I think when you grow up a white-male only child in America (never mind that I was raised by a single mother and we were never even remotely well-off by American standards) it’s a forgone birthright handed down to you in the context clues of language, advertising, and cultural hierarchy.
However, the results of letting go have been staggering and immediately palpable, in that my general day to day happiness has increased and I if I dare say it, a path has opened up before me. What I didn’t expect was that in coming to firmly believe (not understand or realize, but believe) that the actions of others (and their results) are beyond my control, it drastically lessons the ability of said results, should they not be what I hope, to effect me negatively. Again, I’m sure this sounds obvious to many of you, but for me this has been a very eye opening experience, and the Secret Drum Band tour was, as everyone in that band came to agree, one of the best tours ever, and certainly one of my favorite touring experiences to date.]
It was with this in mind that I tackled what to do in light of my father’s diagnosis. First, since seeing my Dad was the important part of the equation, it was clear I needed to make the rest of the variables find their way to this as an end result. Issue 1: My ticket to Puerto Vallarta was non refundable. Issue 2: My Dad doesn’t actually live in Puerto Vallarta, but a 16 hour bus ride North of there in the agricultural and industrial hub of Torreon, where his wife Alejandra was born and raised. Flights from the US to Torreon happen 3-4 times a week from Dallas and are not cheep. Neither is getting to Dallas from Portland. Already having a ticket to Mexico I decided to go with the flow and hopped on an Alaska Airlines flight from PDX to PVR by way of SFO.
I’d been to Puerto Vallarta once before, when my Dad had first met Ale (but long before they were married), somewhere in the early aughts. I was in my early 20s and her two boys, Luis and Armando, were 8 and 11, point being that the place was not unfamiliar to me. I decided to spend a day at the beach just because I was going all that way anyway, and the next day I would hop a bus to Torreon. (Could have taken a plane, but if you have the time to kill, it’s a no-brainer to take the bus in Mexico, as I will explain later.)
Unless you’ve traveled extensively in Mexico and speak the language well, (I have neither of those things) you will pay the Gringo Tax. (But wait, don’t get upset. It’s ok Gringo, just go with the flow.) I mean look, we’re talking about the difference between paying 180 pesos for a cab ride – or possibly twice that, maybe 350 pesos at the most extreme end. Thats an apx $9 difference for a cab ride that would cost you $35 or $40 in America. “But this is Mexico!” I hear you saying under your breath – “it’s supposed to be cheaper!” And it is, it still is! So chill out Gringo, and go with the flow!
It’s important to understand that for the Mexican Peso to be valued so low, so that your vacation dollars can take you just that much longer or possibly that much more luxurious, an entire country has a lower standard of living. That’s the trade off. No, its not your fault so no need to spend time wallowing in White Guilt, but on the flip-side, no need to get all uptight about a few extra Pesos here and there. That’s why I call it the Gringo Tax. In effect, it’s more like a few dollars more for the cab ride, a few dollars more for the street tacos, a little extra for the margarita. To you and me, presumably Western-civilized travelers from the North, this is literally pocket-change. But do the math! This could be enough to change the fortunes of a small family in Mexico.
Of course, that’s not to say let yourself get ripped off. Use your best judgment and don’t agree to anything that doesn’t feel right. Be a street-smart traveler and you’ll be fine. On the other hand, if and when it happens that you look back and realize you paid a bit too much – or the deal was not so sweet after all – don’t feel bad about paying the Gringo Tax. Just smile and realize you’re in sunny Mexico, it’s stunningly beautiful, and the people are friendly. So chill out, Gringo, and go with the flow.
I arrived in PV around 3 in the afternoon. Having read on a Trip Advisor forum that the cab would be less expensive if I crossed the foot bridge over the highway, I hauled my 50 pound rolling bag, guitar, and lap-top/shoulder bag up and over the road in 90 degree absurdly humid weather. Made all that much harder by the knee brace I’m wearing, the one designed to help me walk with an injured meniscus, I crossed the bridge to find no taxis. By this time I am covered and wet with sweat, head to toe. Presently, a helpful shop owner called me a cab and I was off. With a stop at the bus station to buy a ticket for the next day, the cab ride cost me 350 pesos, nearly twice what the drivers at the airport quoted me at 180-220. Meh. Gringo Tax, live and learn. (And smile about it, damnit.)
PV was uneventful. I walked the few blocks from my hotel to the beach and spent some hours people-watching and listening to music. Watched the sun set on the beach, got offered every drug uner the sun every 100 feet or so, drank the obligatory margarita, then walked back to my hotel and went to bed. Having spent the previous week packing up and moving out of my house of 5 years (all with a sprained knee/torn meniscus) and with my journey finally underway, I was more than a little tired.
On my fathers recommendation, I took the ETN overnight bus from PV to Torreon. Ticket was just over $80 at the current exchange rate (roughly half what it would cost to fly) and it’s like this: big, cushy, seats with personal TVs for everyone, lot’s of leg room, no size/weight restrictions on luggage, and bathrooms. Pretty damn Luxo, and for someone my size (6’4″/1,93m), a helluva lot more comfortable that taking the plane. Of course, at 16 hours long this was no cross-town bus ride, so those seats had better be cushy as fuck.
We drove up and out of Puerto Vallarta at 3:30pm, rising from the humid coast to the jungles of Tepic. From Tepic we slowly wound our way back down the sinuous curves of the coast range, reaching Mazatlan around midnight. Then a final climb, this time to the desert of Mexico’s high plateau and the city of Durango. At some point in there we were stopped at both an agricultural checkpoint and a military checkpoint. Both times I was questioned in Spanish, to which I replied “desculpe, hablo espanol un poquito” and was questioned no further. At no time did I feel threatened nor was I asked for my passport/identification.
Finally, arriving 2 hours late at around 9:30 am the following day, we pulled into the sprawling city of Torreon, where my Dad has been living for the last 14 years. With a metro area population of 1,215,993, Torreon is the 9th largest municipality in Mexico, and not a small city. Its also safe to say that my Dad might be the only Gringo there, and you’ve more than likely never heard of Torreon, Coahila, MX.
Torreon is hot in the summer, cold at night in the winter. Quite nice in October, actually, warm without the humidity of the coasts. It’s also heaven for the kind of Mexican food most gringos associate with Mexico – tacos, gorditas, etc. The people are warm and friendly, and my broken Spanish was never met with eye rolls. By most Western standards, however, Torreon would certainly be considered “Third World”. (This, to me, is a loaded term best avoided, and included here only for contextual reasons, as “Third World” implies some manner of cultural superiority. That is to say, things done differently are not things done wrong, and that type of linguistic racism is something I’m only now learning to stop using.)
My father lives in Alejandra’s family home, the home her parents bought when she was young, as part of a government assistance program that all Mexican citizens are eligible for once in their lifetimes. (A few years ago Ale bought herself a home using the same government program, where her oldest son Armando now lives with his wife and 2 children). 2 bedrooms, living room, kitchen, 1 bathroom with a shower, maybe 800-1000sf (but feels even smaller considering the piles of storage my Dad has been hauling around for 20+ years.) As is common in most of Mexico, it’s all concrete construction and all the interior and exterior doors are made of metal. It’s a modest home, where Ale’s family raised 8 children. EIGHT CHILDREN. (Without pictures it’s hard to do that idea justice, but trust me, it’s hard to imagine!)
I’m happy to say that my Dad is well taken care of, loved, and respected as part of their family. Also, as he is married to a Mexican citizen, he is covered by the Universal Health care system that Mexico implemented in 2012… which is no small thing! As an elderly dude who is not only dealing with a recent dementia diagnosis, but who has been in treatment and recovery for Leukemia the past 7 years, all of his doctor visits and tests are covered. All of them. (Chew on that for a while, fellow Americans, chew on that!)
As I said, the main point of my trip to Mexico was to visit my Dad, and while I would not describe us as being the closest of father/son duos, music has always been something we could come together on. Not type-of-music or genre or anything as pedestrian as that – but the idea and the enjoyment of being a musician.
I grew up watching my Dad play country-fried honky-tonk keyboard with his friends in the late 70s and 80s. Think The Band, Little Feet, etc. I was young enough that I can’t comment and don’t remember if it was good or not, but I also don’t think that matters much. Looking back on it now it’s clear that it gave me the confidence to go out into the world and call myself a musician, and the confidence to continue doing so to this day.
My Dad bought me my first drum kit and my first good guitar, a 1954 Gibson 225 that is and hopefully will remain one of my few prized possessions in life. He in no small way facilitated my musical development, all while remaining curiously and steadfastly un-intrusive. He helped me record my first few albums, facilitating studio time in his or other, nicer studios. He taught me about microphones, signal to noise, and basic operation of opamps, all knowledge and ideas that I use almost daily in my quest to be the complete DIY musician. I am clearly my fathers son, and am proud to be so.
It’s a beautiful thing that later in life my Dad has been able to find happiness and fulfillment in raising a family. It’s also no exaggeration to say that he is and has been a Father to Armando and Luis in a way that he was never a father to me. (Different, not necessarily better.) As I well know, it’s a difficult thing to become a parent (apparent, adj – clear or manifest to the understanding; plain; evident; obvious; known; palpable; indubitable), something that so clearly and indelibly stamps its mark on your soul and changes the way you see the world forever.
It casts a shadow back across your own childhood, forcing you to re-examine the choices that your own Mother and Father made, and often, the conclusions from these forced re-examinations are not pretty. This, I believe is part of growing up. It’s part of gaining wisdom, and in the long run, part of forgiving and moving on from whatever pain we all hold from our own childhoods. So I choose to be happy for my Dad, not bitter at my lack of one during my own childhood. I choose forgiveness for both him and my Mother, having learned my own hard and painful lessons about parenting and relationships these last years. And I choose to be happy for my extended Mexican Familia, who so clearly love my Father as exactly that. The past is in the past, and life still holds too many mysteries to hold grudges.
With a current population over 128 million, Mexico ranks 10th in global population. With a median age of 27 years old, Mexico is a young country whose urban enters are dense and alive with culture and art. And yet every drop of water consumed by everyone I met was delivered in a plastic bottle or jug. No one drinks city water, no one, and guess who owns most of the water sold all over the country? Nestle, of course! (Also, little to no recycling to be found…)
Trucks drive up and down the street in my dad’s neighborhood, with loud, looped recordings playing the song of whatever it is they’re selling. Sometimes; “Gaaaaaas, da,da,da,dat,do,daaat…Gaaaaas, gaaaas” or “Tamales, patatas….tamales, patataaaaas”. There’s a few different water trucks too, but most of locals head to the water stations that dot the landscape every few blocks on most every main-drag. It’s a different system to be sure, and one with obvious consequences looming on the not too distant horizon, where Nestle holds the keys to the future of a booming urban population. I find this idea terribly disconcerting.
In Mexico, there is constant construction. “It’s run down” I hear you say. No, Gringo, it’s just constantly being fixed. (Or better yet, always being made better!) Take that into account when you travel in this fascinating country and understand that the very Soul of Mexico is one of renewal. It’s a concept that’s so part of the national identity, so intrinsic and and woven-in, that I doubt it’s even given much thought by the locals.
Renewal, however, is hope, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that in Mexico, there will always be hope.