Happy Cinco de Mayo! Mexico is a very special place for me. Not because that’s where my happy hour tipple of choice comes from but because it opened my eyes to photography.
Al and I went to Mexico in 2010. It was my very first overseas trip outside of Canada and the Philippines. I didn’t want to go to the beach. I had lived on a tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for five years when I was a kid. Instead, we decided to go to Central Mexico to see the old colonial cities of Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende and of course, Mexico City.
With Mexico City, it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight. The airport looked really dodgy. I’m from Manila so the airport comparison standard is already set very low. I guess it didn’t help that we arrived at 3:30 a.m. The driver took us down some pretty sketchy streets that didn’t look anywhere like the ones on Google Earth Live. This was pre-Uber era. To be honest, I was more than a little scared. I thought we’d lose our kidneys to some human organ trafficking cartel.
For the first half of our time in Mexico City, we stayed in the Centro Historico in an apartment unit owned by a Mexican artist named Arturo and his English wife, Sarah. This was the first time we used a vacation rental service instead of staying in a hotel. The building was a 300 year old former convent with a beautiful colourful courtyard garden located a few blocks from the Zocalo and the Plaza Mayor. We’re old school, up to this point we relied heavily on guidebooks. Having our local hosts Sarah and Arturo taking care of us and showing us some of the small but really special places that most guide books would not even include on their lists made such a huge difference to the way we saw and experienced the place.
From Mexico City, we went to Guanajuato, Zacatecas, San Miguel de Allende and back. We spent about a month and a half in Mexico. Except for that one time when a group of police officers with full-on assault rifles boarded our bus to Zacatecas, we didn’t feel like we were in any danger. All of the people we’ve met were really friendly. In San Miguel, we were adopted by the family of caretakers looking after our apartment complex, which made our stay really special. In Guanajuato, a guard let us in and gave us a free tour of an ancient former Spanish gold and silver mine that wasn’t open to the public. Even the guy that I fondly call “Pancho Villain” who managed to trick my poor unsuspecting husband into his shoe polishing scam was really nice. We were never charged the tourist price for anything. I suppose it helps to be able to speak Spanish but I genuinely think that Mexicans are some of the nicest people on the planet.
Mexico always seemed so festive as if they were always celebrating something. Mariachi bands played music all the time. In terms of colours, it was the brighter, the better. The churches and monuments were grand. Art was always present and part of everyday life. They live life on a grand scale.
People were in high spirits. Admittedly particularly strong spirits were being consumed openly. Food was far from bland. There were concerts and street parties going on all the time. There were weddings, funerals and baptisms. We’ve walked in on TV dramas being filmed on some of the tourist attractions. There were also rallies and demonstrations. There were families and groups of friends out having a good time. There were amorous couples making out heavily and couples having passionate arguments and very public fights.
It’s in the old colonial city centres where most of the tourist attractions can be found. By and large these are working class areas, except they have beautiful facades. I was reluctant to examine and look a little pointedly but there were clear economic and racial divides.
Mexico was a veritable visual and sensory overload. There were so many things competing for my attention and so much drama unfolding all at once. Maybe it has something to do with the passion inherent to the Latino culture and urgency in the cadence of the Spanish language but Mexicans seemed completely unafraid to show their emotions. It’s as if life itself was on full display on the street, happening right before my very eyes.
I came home with thousands of pictures just from Mexico City alone. To my disappointment, none of them quite captured what I’ve seen. I didn’t know anything about photography or artistic composition then, I still don’t to a large extent. Of course I blamed it on my point and shoot camera rather than my lack of skills. What I took with me from that trip was the self-awareness that my pictures weren’t good enough and a desire to do better. It would take a long time before I was able to finally invest the energy and resources to get into photography but I wouldn’t be a raging shutter bug without that trip to Mexico. I definitely want to go back.