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Five things I learned during Nine Days in Mexico


Army.ca Dinosaur
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Five things I learned during Nine Days in Mexico

"If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears" - Cesare Pavese

If you think this sounds like a story about some kind of epic road trip that took me right off the grid and resulted in some juicy stories, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. I have recently returned from a nine day long trip to Mexico. My mission? To summit the third highest peak in North America, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 ft), in honour of the 20th anniversary of the consulting company I co-founded with Shelly Berlin: Berlineaton. Should you wish, you can read more about the climbing portion of my trip here: https://berlineaton.com/blog/honouring-20000-voices--summiting-north-americas-third-highest-peak

Like many Canadians, my awareness of Mexico has been limited to knowledge gained through watching Spaghetti Westerns (one of my guilty pleasures) and Dora the Explorer on TV, as well as one short trip to an all-inclusive beach resort. Prior to this trip, the depth of my knowledge about Mexico could therefore be accurately described as follows: pretty shallow.

As a result, I embarked on this voyage (a reasonably priced, five hour direct flight from Vancouver by the way) with the usual level of concerns when traveling from the known, sleepy Victoria, to the unknown, a place that - according to Fox News - apparently prefers to resolve their political and personal issues with automatic weapons. Of course, once I arrived in Mexico my impressions changed rapidly.

Here are five things I learned about Mexico in my short nine day stay:

1. Everyone was unfailingly polite

It was humbling to be received respectfully, in an authentic way, just about everywhere I went. It didn't matter whether I was in a tiny climbing hut based at 14,000 feet or in downtown Mexico City, everyone I came into contact with were helpful, friendly and generally went out of their way to make me feel at home. Sometimes my pre-conceptions conflicted with this effusive assistance. For example, when I arrived at the climbing hostel near Mt Orizaba, the owner approached me and, using broken English, made hand gestures to me that suggested he wanted me to work a debit machine. I, of course, assumed that he wanted me to pay in advance. He only wanted to make sure that I had the Wi Fi code so that I wouldn't incur any needless personal expense during my stay. Awkward, for me mostly.

2. I always felt pretty safe, even in Mexico City

As some will be aware through monitoring international news stories, Mexico is in the throes of a protracted counter-insurgency campaign connected primarily to the infamous, and powerful, drug cartels. Having been engaged personally in the terror war in Northern Ireland (for the good guys!) I am aware that the coercive measures the state is capable of in such conflicts can be, in a word, draconian. Regardless, in all my travels throughout central Mexico, at no time did I feel under threat from the bad guys or overly controlled by the good. It was common to see truckloads of troops - loaded for bear - circulating in traffic as a visible deterrent to any would be terrorists. Armed police and security guards seem to be everywhere and professional, assault rifle toting Federal police - the Federales - operated vehicle checkpoints on major highways NB: an open dust cover on the rifle's receiver means there's a live round up the spout. Regardless, I felt safer walking the streets at night in a city of over 20 million inhabitants than many other places I've visited around the world, even though I stuck out like a 'Gringo sore thumb'.

3. I didn't get sick, not once

I must admit that getting horribly ill was one of my greatest pre-trip concerns. I took the usual vaccination related precautions to reduce the risk of sickness, mainly because the consequences of being sick during a trip involving the kind of extreme physical exertion I was planning would be mission ending. A year ago I had to abort a major climb of Mt Victoria, in the Canadian Rockies, due to local pizza joint induced food poisoning, so I was a bit paranoid. I didn't get sick at all. My main strategy involved making sure that I ate only from established restaurants and hotel facilities. I mostly drank water from faucets, which was just fine. Really, everything is so cheap here compared with Canada that there is no reason to engage in a street meat meal anyways. The restaurant service was universally excellent, a decent three or four course meal ran to only $15 or $20, and I could always feel like a big shot chucking in a healthy tip that only cost me about 5 bucks CDN. Having said that, during my ascent of Orizaba I encountered several other fellow mountaineers who had to end their summit bids having been overcome by 'Montezuma's Revenge'. They blamed the salad they ate at a roadside cafe they visited on their way to the climb which was good for me, because I got to eat all the yummy fruit and vegetables they subsequently avoided like the plague!

4. Things work pretty well just about everywhere

There is a prevailing misconception that Mexico is all chaos, all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when you realize that Mexico has a population 10 times that of Canada. The highways were generally spacious and well paved (unlike many a BC highway that I could name and shame) and signage was good. Wi Fi is available everywhere and my roaming package easily covered most of the places I visited, including the summit of Orizaba. Traffic in Mexico City, though heavy, moved about as well as, or even better than, some major European cities I have visited. As in London, Montreal or Paris, pedestrians take their lives in their hands crossing the street, but here I had the unique experience of motorists calmly waving you through after stopping in the middle of the road to let you dart across. Reliable, government approved taxis are available 24/7 everywhere in the city and, should you be so inclined, the subway system charges 5 pesos (about 50 cents) per day for unlimited travel. And the museums, like the National Museum of Anthropology, are efficient, cheap and spectacular.

5. I need to up my game in a couple of ways

If there is one thing I would do differently, it would have been to spend some time learning some basic Spanish. Unlike my previous experiences in parts of countries like Italy and France, where apparently English is a completely unknown language, most people I came across can speak some English. Especially in restaurants, some of which have English menus, as well as some other customer service focused businesses, you can get by. Regardless, I found it slightly embarrassing to have only the very basics, like 'Gracias', available to deploy when encountering local Mexicans. Spanish is not all that hard to learn, even if you just spend some quality time with the kids and Dora so, really, I need to get on that. Having said that I'm a quick learner - the prospect of impending starvation has that effect on me - and I had a proud moment when I was able to string together a short sentence asking for directions in a way that obviously hit the mark with a local policeman. The other thing I discovered is that downtown Mexico City is a pretty swanky place. It resembles a summertime Vancouver, Toronto or Bologna, and everyone there dresses to a much higher standard than my usual 'hiker chic' wear. Needless to say, I probably should have packed a set of nicer clothes, or two, to come up to the cosmopolitan standards of the locals.

And as for learnings to take back home with me, I shall resolve to be more like the Mexicans when it comes to interacting with people who are obviously not part of my culture, or who otherwise stand out in some way and are in need: be polite, listen for understanding, offer possible solutions, be patient, then follow up to make sure that they are OK.

That's a lot of learning packed into nine days and, of course, there's more. Nevertheless, should you feel the urge one day to explore the 'Mexico beyond the swim up bar and all you can eat buffet' learn a little Spanish, bring some nice clothes, get your shots up to date, and don't bother worrying about anything you wouldn't otherwise in any other heavily populated country.

Vaya con dios!