When we step into new places we step with feet shaped by our familiar spaces and places. Our eyes, at first, see only variations on the scenes of our homeland.
I step out of our rented casa in central Mexico onto cobblestone streets. Rough cobblestone, black rocks of all shapes jammed into hard soil, rutted by decades or centuries of travelers. I was here for days before my ankles no longer protested the sidewise wobbles on every step.
Looking for a running route, I see none of what welcomes me back home on the west coast of Canada. No flat spacious sidewalks, no groomed trails. Sidewalks, when they exist here at all, are narrow, sloped this way and that, ending without warning or blocked by power poles and window ledges from the pueblo walls that line every street. Steps might be six inches high, a foot high, five inches wide, two feet wide. Utility boxes set in the stone may be covered, or not.
Scouting for terrain with at least modest predictability, I find some curious looping streets nearby via Google Maps. My wife and I check it out: a kilometre or so of curving crescents that look right out of an American or Canadian suburb. Except there is only one house – a miniature Mexican ‘campo’ on this road to nowhere. A failed real estate project, perhaps?
And those flat concrete sidewalks are interrupted, even here, by signposts that could just as easily be set back, out of the way. The concept of universal accessibility is clearly foreign to the sign installers.
Is it safe, we wonder? Across a small ravine littered with food wrappers, diapers, plastic bags and other miscellaneous trash sits a mish-mash of tin roofed homes, all jammed together. Metal rebar protrudes from brick and concrete walls. Dirt paths criss-cross the neglected ditch and I wonder who would feel safe enough to use those paths.
The scene brings to mind derelict shantytowns, or demolition sites. But Mexican eyes may see it differently. Here where mortgages are virtually non-existent, homes are often built brick by brick, room by room, story by story when time and money allow. A slow progress. Multi-generational houses, built over generations.
On the narrow walk in front of some homes, women splash sudsy water and scrub the stone. A man is out on the cobblestone in front of his house, sweeping up the grit.
Last night, just on a whim, I looked up the per capita murder rate for this Mexican state. It’s about 1/3 of the rate in Orlando, home of the squeaky clean Disney World.
I set out on my first run the next morning, my sea-level lungs quickly burning in the high altitude. I scan for stray dogs, needlessly as it turns out. There is a constant chorus of barking from the casas nearby but the street dogs don’t have the energy for that nonsense. They lay in the morning sun or amble slowly by. A gringo runner is of no interest to them.
And that littered ravine? Nicely dressed and groomed women and children walk down into it and up the other side, taking short cuts to jobs and school. They talk as they walk, unhurried. Family counts here, in visible ways. In the morning and at night, the clusters of walkers on the streets are, as often as not, multi-generational family groups.
I run my pre-planned loop once and then again, sharing “Buenos dias” and nods with passers-by. I am beginning to see this terrain differently but the challenge of understanding a culture is significant. Last night we watched the documentary film ‘Gringolandia’ and I recall the American interviewee who said, after 30 years of living in Mexico, that she still didn’t feel a part of the culture.
In my weeks here I won’t get far. But perhaps I will make small steps towards a deeper understanding.
There is always, I have learned, mañana.
At home, we often habituate to our environments so that we no longer really “see” them. One of the wonderful aspects of travel is how it snaps you out of that. I find that whenever I go to a new place, I see the place initially through the lens of the old one, noting all the differences, which can be exciting or disturbing (or both!). Once I settle in, however, the comparisons with the old familiar place recede and I begin to see the new place on its own terms. Each place has its own integrity, its own vocabulary, its own strange beauty. But it doesn’t emerge until the comparisons with home have ceased. I think both ways of seeing — making comparisons with the familiar and seeing a new place on its own terms — are important because they open us to deeper ways of experiencing our environments. And there’s a bonus: when we return home, we see the familiar with new eyes again.
Lorne Daniel says
Eloquently stated, Kris – in fact, more eloquently than my original post 🙂
Kate D says
I love exploring new places! You probably noticed a lot of things that people who have lived there their whole lives didn’t even notice. That’s the beauty of “fresh” eyes! I like the rainbow plastic crates – I wonder if that was intentional? 🙂