It would have been about five years ago. I was stood on the roof of a one-story house at about 6 am, watching the sun rise over the golden banana plantations of rural Veracruz. It was there, drinking in the most spectacular show on earth, breathing in the damp heat of the tropical air, that I realised I’d made the right decision. There was no doubt in my mind. It hurt to leave behind my family and friends in the UK and move to Mexico, but it was the right decision, and one that would open my eyes and take me to places I’d only ever dreamed of.
I still remember that moment now. I can still smell the damp earth and hear the busy chattering of birds singing a new day into view. I can still feel the endless green around me. And now, some way further down the road, I’ve made another important decision – one that was just as difficult. It’s time to go back.
I’ve had such an amazing time and opened my eyes to problems and solutions that I never would have been aware existed. I’ve met some incredible people, and come up against some real crooks. I’ve befriended Maya families and travelled the length of the continent. I’ve grown up a lot, but made plenty of mistakes too.
And now I’m coming back to the cold and grey. Back to funny old Blighty. I’m a little nervous about it – anxious about what I might make of my life “back home”. I’m probably a little excited too, but more of that later.
So what have I learned from my time in Mexico? Shall we do a top 10? Let’s do a top 10.
- How to party. It has to be said, the British government’s move to change the drinking habits of a nation by granting bars 24-hour licenses was always destined to fail. We Brits like drinking as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Here in Mexico, I’ve learned to buck this trend and take a more continental approach. It means more forgiving hangovers and longer-lasting nights out. It also means enjoying a good dance. Yes, that’s right, I’ve learned to salsa like the best of them. And I’ll be making sure I inflict my moves on the UK just as soon as I land.
- Rules and laws can be good. I know most of us think the British State is probably a little up-tight and over-bearing, but there is a good side to legality. I’ve learned that the hard way. To begin with, I loved the fact that I could bribe an official in Mexico. It felt liberating and exciting. I thought that anything was possible and that more doors were open than closed. If I didn’t have all the necessary paperwork, or committed a traffic violation by mistake, I could always weasel my way out with a bit of dollar. But, after some time, I started to understand that more often than not, corruption leads to the abuse of power. It means, even when you’ve done nothing wrong and when everything is in order, you’re still expected to dish out bare monies because your only other option is a night in jail. Not great.
- Strangers are only friends you haven’t met. In the UK, I feel there is a general mistrust of strangers. You wouldn’t invite one into your house and you certainly wouldn’t give them a bite to eat or a drop to drink. It doesn’t have to be that way. Sometimes it’s nice for your instinct to side with love rather than hate. You can meet amazing people and hear inspiring stories. You can make new friends and contacts. Whereas in the UK people hit each other for breaking the unwritten law that strangers must remain foreign, alien, in Mexico people tend to embrace each other regardless of whether they know each other or not. It’s quite nice.
- Seafood is the best food. Caldos de camarón, pescadillas, aguachiles, ceviches, tostadas de pulpo en su tinta – seafood is incredible. There is no finer.
- Hard work pays off. It’s true. I never would have thought so, so it’s a good job I moved abroad. I arrived in Mexico with nothing and, incidentally, I leave with nothing – financially speaking anyway. The things I’ve learned, the experiences I’ve had and the roles I’ve worked in are all testament to the art of nose-to-grindstone. It’s been a real struggle at times, but it feels incredible to know that everything I’ve done, I’ve built from scratch. Trumpet blowing it may be, but I’m proud of having worked in Spanish and obtained the broad array of skills life out here has given me. If you want something, work for it. Even a benefit fraudster has to work at their crime.
- The universality of need/want. Everyone, everywhere needs and wants. It might be wealth, knowledge or affection; we all need a reason to be where we are and who we’re with. It doesn’t matter where you go in space or time, we’re all wondering what it is that we’re doing here. We come up with different answers, but from the Aztecs to the modern Western world, we all seek explanations and reason. It’s comforting.
- Everyone thinks the British are cold, but punctual. They also think we drink tea every day at 5 pm. Sometimes I set the record straight, other times it’s more fun to play along. Harmless fun I think.
- It’s all about the fluke of birth. If we think social mobility is close to non-existent in the UK, it really is a thing of fantasy in Mexico. Here, it really matters where you are born and what family you are born into. I really have tried to see it the other way, but I can’t. The more I travel and the more I see, the harder I realise it is to affect change if you’re born into the wrong family. In Mexico, the most expensive universities aren’t those that are academically the best, but those that house the people with the best contacts, the students from the “best” families. The money stays in the hands of the rich. The rich do everything they can to avoid paying taxes – as do those in power. There are two societies at work: those who have a chance at wielding power and those that don’t. The divide is almost impossible to cross. Rich people sometimes brand the poor people lazy or incompetent. In a country where the minimum wage is about 100 USD per month, most families need their kids to drop out of school to help put food on the table. The cycle continues.
- Racism is deeply ingrained in the Mexican psyche. Lots of people have told me that racism doesn’t exist in Mexico. They couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just hidden better – it’s more insidious. If you take a spread of the Mexican population, the richest people are the whitest. Mexico has had only one indigenous president (widely regarded as one of its best). “Indio” is an often-used term and a derogatory one. It is used to describe people who are uneducated, rude or simply poor. “Pinche negrito” is another popular choice. Every single domestic worker I have seen has had darker skin. It seems Mexico has a love-hate relationship with its own identity – something that loads of writers and academics have touched upon. Most are proud of being Mexican but see nothing strange in the proliferation of white faces in advertising and among those in power. Many of my friends in Mexico are fairer skinned and I see that as no coincidence. The type of people you meet, the places you frequent and the chances you get are all determined by the colour of your skin. Some break the mould. More need to do so. It’s everyone’s job to make sure this happens.
- How little one needs, and how much one needs to be happy. Happiness, I’ve recently discovered, is one of the hardest things to achieve – true happiness I mean. There are many things that make us happy – some of which are material – but true happiness, that’s something else altogether. I think we’re all on our journeys to find it. Some have it and let it go. It might elude others for some time. What we can be sure of is that it’s the product of something infinitely deeper than most things we spend our lives worrying about. It’s normally about people. It’s normally about loving who you are and the way you live your life. I think a lot of people in Mexico are happy. I think that’s because they spend a lot of time around the people they love. Might also have something to do with the tequila.
So there you have it – a not entirely concise account of my time away. It’s changed my life enormously and made me, I hope, a better person.
Mexico, thanks, you’ve been amazing. You’ll always be with me in one way or another. Now it’s time for a new challenge. See you soon UK.