I have just returned from my first trip from the United States in four years.
The challenges of traveling abroad in the COVID-19 era were daunting and scary, so I spent a lot of time traveling in recent years camping in the Nevada Desert and Sierra Nevada. But when my daughter set the wedding date at April 2022 in San Miquel De Allende, Mexico, I knew I had to go.
We spent a week in this beautiful, ancient city and I remembered how important it is for all of us to spend time in other countries. All Americans need to get out of our big bubble and appreciate what the rest of the world has to offer. The places we visit are very different from the quick audio and news we are regularly bombarded with.
Before I go on about why I think we need to travel to other countries, especially Mexico, it is important to realize that traveling can be expensive, complicated and frustrating. And these days, when you have to take a negative test for COVID-19 to return to the United States, it can be downright scary. On our last day, I was obsessed with what it would mean if the test was positive.
While for some, travel is out of budget, for many, the decision to spend money on travel is a matter of priority. It’s a choice between buying things or paying for experiences. Would you like to have more features on your truck and a new TV or emotional satisfaction that you would achieve while exploring a new place and expanding your knowledge of the world? How much we spend on the trip may depend on the level of luxury we think we need. We will not necessarily remember the decoration of a luxury hotel like a conversation with a local or a time spent enjoying the view of the cathedral from the square.
Although I’ve been to Mexico five times, most recently over 25 years ago. The other four were classic “Woo hoo, lets go party in Mexico” trips. Sure, those weeks at Club Med were a nice escape from life, but they provided just a little understanding of what Mexico really is like. San Miquel De Allende was a very different experience and it was my first chance to truly immerse myself in the true depths of Mexican culture. I was richly rewarded.
During our stay in San Miquel, we took a tour of the Cañada de la Virgen pyramids about an hour outside the city. There we learned that Mesoamerican civilization in Central America and southern Mexico was one of half a dozen primary births of civilization. They built elaborate pyramids and huge sunken terraces without the advantages of a wheel. These structures were perfectly aligned so that the moon and the sun hit the exact gap in the structure at the spring and autumn equinoxes. They were brilliant mathematicians and astronomers and gave the world such staples of modern life as corn, beans, pumpkins, vanilla and, most importantly, chocolate. What would I do without tacos and chocolate?
The morning before the wedding, a group of vaqueros led us on horseback to a deep canyon to the top of Table Mountain. The cowboys and cowgirls were local ranchers who contracted with a leadership company to be our guides and help us control their faithful horses. (Mostly I was able to keep him under control, but my horse Pequeno decided to take off several times. A quick word or the whistling of my cowboy had more of an effect on getting him back in line than my aggressive pulling on the reins.) enchiladas made from homemade tortillas and cheese made right there on the little haciende from the milk of their little herd of cows.
We spent most of our free time walking around the city, up and down steep hills on narrow cobbled streets and sidewalks, walking around multicolored buildings – many built hundreds of years ago. The city was flawlessly maintained and without waste. We walked past ancient churches that look majestically like those in Europe, and we met the locals in the town square, doing what almost everyone in the world likes: watching people. The flocks of giant white herons that landed among the bright purple flowers of the jacaranda trees were a frequent place. And every day we ate amazing gourmet food, so it was good that we had to conquer the hills.
The highlight of the trip was Callejoneada, a traditional parade in which 12-meter paper depictions (the bride called them puppet figures) of the bride and groom lead the park with a mariachi band, a donkey loaded with decorations. and all the participants of the wedding, dressed in white, followed them. It was such a unique and happy way to start a wedding party.
Everyone we met in San Miquel de Allende was hospitable and friendly and proud to have shown their beautiful city – as it should be. We have absorbed the deep culture and history of this ancient site and returned home with a much deeper understanding of what may be best from Mexico. While news in the United States often targets Mexicans seeking a better life in the United States, it is important to understand that the vast majority of Mexicans are quite happy where they are. There is poverty in Mexico, as everywhere, but there is also prosperity and an active community of small businesses.
Being an American politician seems to be a requirement to zealously declare that the United States is the largest country on Earth. This is, of course, because a large part of the American population would not vote for a politician who did not say so. For some reason, being the first seems to be a requirement for the American soul, as if we were trying to be the best football team, not a place where hundreds of millions of people spend their lives looking for joy and fulfillment.
Why do we think we have to constantly proclaim our superiority? In my experience, many people who feel the need to make this statement (usually in capital letters with multiple exclamation points !!) are those who have also not left the country. When you get the opportunity to visit another country, you will understand that who is the biggest is a completely irrelevant statement, because most cities are as they are. They are their own culture; they have different ways of doing things – things that are no better or worse, but are determined by their history and the preferences of the people who live there.
Over the years, I have visited about 25 countries from Hungary to New Zealand, Martinique to Poland. I always felt that they had done some things in a way that made a lot more sense than our approach in America, and there were aspects of our country that I really missed in these places. (American toilet paper you just can’t beat.) In fact, it’s not right and wrong. It’s just different. We as visitors should appreciate these differences as they contribute to our human experience.
While our contrasts are fascinating, it is also the similarities between cultures that remind us of our common humanity. We all love getting to know the world with our children and partners, we enjoy the company of good friends, we laugh at the weaknesses of life, we move our bodies with dancing and exercise and, of course, we enjoy delicious food. We see differences between cultures only on the fringes of how we do these things. And in these differences we experience humility, compassion and understanding. Let’s hope that by visiting and exploring other countries, we can better understand the world and our place in it.
Tim Hauserman is an almost lifelong resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, a recently released 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and often writes on various topics. In winter, he runs the Strider Glider extracurricular program in the Tahoe cross-country skiing area. Support Tim’s work at Ally.
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