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How to Leave a Country

Shirley collects Australians. On the Saturday night I meet her, she’s waiting for her current collection of them to turn up – it’s their last night in Guanajuato and when Chac closes and Shirley knocks off, everyone’s going to go out. I should come. But I’m feeling a bit sick, in the early stages of a cold,  and I’m weary of meeting new people and the routine of going out, so I sneak back to the hostel and pass out and never end up meeting them before they go. Except for Nina. I meet her a few days later.

Shirley is half-Menonite and half-Mexican, meaning that her mother was part of the strange, German and Dutch religious sect that fled to Mexico from Canada after the authorities suggested they should probably start putting their kids into proper schools. And her dad is the Mexican boy Shirley’s mum was not allowed to fall in love with. Shirley is also a lesbian, an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, a bit of a gypsy, and a collector of Australians. She has been working full time as the cook at Chac for 200 pesos a week ($17 or so) since Jerardo opened the place about two months ago.

Jerardo doesn’t earn much more. He is feminine, soft spoken and long-haired. He speaks next to no English so when Shirley doesn’t want to translate, communication is limited to gestures, facial expressions and my smattering of Spanish. When he gets upset, he gets as drunk as Shirley and becomes sinister and nasty, but these times are rare and most of the time he is all sleepy cool smiles and welcome.

I meet Nina a few days after meeting Shirley, when she comes back from wherever the other Australians have gone for good. She is kind of aloof when I first meet her, and on first impression she strikes me as the sort of younger-than-me that I find hard to take seriously, though the difference is only three years. Plus, meeting new people has become hard. But then I start talking to her more, and listen to her talk to Shirley. She has a sharp, energetic humour I understand. And she has my accent, is from where I’m from. Soon, she is quick and funny. She hangs out with Shirley in the kitchen and they play – with words, with plans, with stories. They have been teaching each other the slang of their respective languages and along with collecting Australians, Shirley has been collecting the Australian phrases Nina has been feeding her.

“Get fucked the lot ‘a yaz,” Nina tutors.

“Get fucked the lot of YOU,” Shirley commands.

“Bloody bogan!” Shirley accuses in her thick Mexican accent.

“Is he a booze hound, like me?” Shirley asks about a friend of mine who might be visiting the city. “Because if he’s not a booze hound, he can’t come!”

The three of us go for a hike up to a white cross up on one of the hills surrounding the city. It’s a significant hike and I’m the only one who brought water. From the top, the whole city spreads down the length of the valley like a stream of milk and fruitloops. On the way down, when we’re not so atrociously out of breath, we start talking more and Nina and Shirley tell me about their adventure up North. They and Shirley’s other Australians hitchhiked up there and went into the desert to eat peyote. Peyote and the desert, I’ve already learned, are important parts of Shirley’s personality. They tell me about how dirty they were, but how good it felt. They tell me about eating dinner with Shirley’s family in Chihuahua and about how they were caught in a gun fight outside a service station. I enjoy listening to Nina tell stories. They’re peppered with obscure observations and dry humour that makes you cough out laughter before you’ve even figure out what’s funny.


Nina has an apartment on Dead Dogs Lane and a little white kitten called Mecos de la Luna (Sperm of the Moon), or Meco for short. She says its because when she got him he had a little white body and a long white tale and he looked just like a sperm. She got him from a man on the street. The man  was standing in a doorway holding tiny Meco when Nina walked by. “Para mi?” Nina asked, mostly joking. The man handed her the kitten. “Sweet,” she said and took him home.

Nina sleeps in. During the day, after she finally gets up, we often sit around Chac and pretend to learn Spanish. Sometimes, in the morning, which is often the afternoon, we go down to Chac before Shirley starts work and make scrambled eggs with tortillas and guacamole and Shirley’s incredibly hot chilli sauce. Nina doesn’t like spicy stuff very much; Shirley and I have reached the point where things don’t taste like anything unless they have some sort of chilli on them. Most of Shirley’s food makes me sweat. It’s wonderful.

Somewhere amongst all this, I figure out what I had already figured out ages ago. I call Tim over a ratty Skype line and tell him I’m going to come home.
“Really?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“When?” he asks. The connection is bad and I’m not sure he can see me when I shrug in reply.

The decision makes me much happier, though impatient. I go to Quaretero, where Calvin (the guy I road-tripped down with) has followed his girlfriend to live and work for a year, and the trip is like the bottom of a yoyo throw. I’ll go back to Guanajuato after Quaretero, then back to Guadalajara to get my dental stuff done, then back to La Manzanilla, then back to Yuma for my car, then back up through the States, then to Canada, and then, finally, home.

The hostel, Casa San Gallito, is 150 pesos a night (roughly $12) and it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. They even have biodegradable toilet paper, so you can throw it in the toilet, rather than in a bin next to it like with almost every other toilet in Mexico. So simple, but such luxury. I have my first hot shower in over a week. I sleep on a real mattress under a blanket instead of  fully clothed on a deflating sleeping mat, under a poncho I’ve borrowed from Shirley. I do my laundry and soon I have socks that don’t smell like death. The hostel is chicken-themed and the keys are attached to little yellow rubber chickens. All of the signs around the place begin with, “San Gallito says,” and then there’s the picture of a saint with a chicken’s head. “San Gallito says… Please put your name on your personal food,” or “San Gallito says… Sloth is a terrible sin! Please wash your dishes.”

As for Quaretero, it’s a lovely, calm, and thoroughly monied city, colonial with clean and quiet streets. Calvin tells me it’s where all the drug cartel bosses stash their wives and families so there’s a sort of unspoken truce arrangement going on. As a result, it’s one of the safest cities in Mexico and international companies have taken to stashing their staff there, too. Calvin and his girlfriend, for example, work teaching English for Colgate.

When I get back to Guanajuato, there’s a clown festival on. It’s like the circus has taken over the city; strangely dressed performers commandeer almost every square, entertaining people with unicycles and juggling equipment. Nina doesn’t like it at all. She hides out in Chac and shakes her head vigorously when I ask her if she wants to come out with me to see some shows. So I watch them alone, trying to interpret what it is they’re saying in Spanish to make everyone else in the crowd laugh so much.

I’m getting ready to leave now. I think about Tim so often and with such intensity that his absence has almost become a sort of presence. Every day I wake up next to him, and then I wake up again and I’m on the other side of the world.

Fremantle takes on the proportions of the perfect city. It is a utopia in my head and I start describing it to people as such: sitting on the beach at 2am in summer in bathers and not being cold; standing chest-deep in the ocean at night and the water being the temperature of a bath you’ve fallen asleep in, and so clear you can see your feet; the electric blue sky, the dry heat. Home.

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Ordinary Life

It’s somewhere around the beginning of January, when I’m still in La Manzanilla, that I take stock of my family and their respective whereabouts. Dad’s in Dubai or Cairo or one of those on a business trip; my brother’s on an oil rig somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, motoring slowly to port in Africa; my mother’s teaching English in some little village somewhere in East Timor; and I’m in Mexico.

“I’m sorry,” Mum tells me sometimes, “but you’re not going to have an ordinary life. We weren’t made that way. There will be amazing highs, and there will be the lows that come with them. But there won’t be many straight lines. ”

I get an email from her the day I arrive in Guanajuato. There are question marks where the apostrophes should be, and the paragraphs are all strange or mixed up, but it’s an email and news and it comes after more than a week of nothing. The village where she’s staying has limited electricity, let alone internet. I’m pretty sure she has to travel to another town somewhere to check her emails and send ones out.

It also sounds like she’s been busy. She talks about working in the clinic, helping the staff with their English: “Every morning, I sit with one of the Timorese staff members while they dispense drugs to the patients,” she writes. “They describe each patient?s situation in English and I correct them. In between patients, we talk about other things, but there isn?t much time for that. When I arrive, the verandah is overflowing with many, many people waiting to see the doctor, most of them children. I?ve seen an awful lot of paracetamol dispensed and a great deal of malnutrition…”

She describes the private lessons she has with some students and the classes she teaches with others. She is far, far away, in some tiny little village twelve or so hours of rudimentary road from Dili, and she’s feeling little overwhelmed by it all – the strangeness of the place. “Sometimes I feel exhilarated and want to stay forever, but often I?m nearly overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, wondering what the hell I?m doing here. It?s not the conditions, which could be considered quite primitive by our standards, but the awkwardness that comes with being so different and not knowing the language.”

After a few days, I write back. Guanajuato is an astounding city and I tell her that; how taken I am by the place. The street plan is like a bowl of spaghetti. None of the hotels or hostels have maps and after catching the bus into town, it takes a lot of directions and a lot of getting lost before I find the place where I’m staying.

I write: Wandering the city is a regular succession of getting lost and found again. Turn a corner, and you’re in a square. Turn another and there is a magnificent church. Another and there’s a fountain, some steps, the university, a mariachi band, someone selling churros or fruit or tacos from a stand.

The city centre is built along the length of the bottom of a valley, while the houses climb up the sides. They are all built to strict structural regulation – the houses – which stipulate they be rectangular and made of concrete. There are regulations for what colours they can be painted, as well, only this is Mexico, so the regulation colours are things like sky blue, apple green, magenta, crimson and canary yellow. The city is a dense, messy patchwork of vivid colour.

The receptionist at the hostel where I’m staying can’t speak English. I use my halting Spanish instead. ‘Casa del Angel’ says a sign at the entrance, House of the Angel, and there are statues of angels and pictures of angels and angel ornaments all the way up the narrow staircase and along most surfaces. My room has four bunk beds and six single beds in it, but all of them are neatly made and empty. I choose the one closest to the window, furthest from the door.

The place was built on a silver mine and when the mine shafts were exhausted they discovered that they could be used as a way to solve their traffic problem. So the cars are all underground, in a complicated maze of mineshafts turned roadways, leaving the streets for pedestrians.

That’s  not entirely true. There are still some cars above ground, but they are awkward on the cobblestones and hardly fit through the tiny streets.

In the common room, an older British man sits with expensive headphones over his ears and a laptop on his lap. He smiles briefly at me as I sit down with my own computer. Another guy, closer to my age, is sitting in one of the other sofas, also staring into his laptop. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else booked in. I will go on the internet for a bit, I tell myself, and then I will maybe go out and have dinner somewhere. Maybe  I’ll get some food and cook it here. I’ll go exploring. It’s a Friday night. There should be something happening. I’ll go explore and that should keep me busy until it’s time for bed, I think to myself, and I start my computer up and sign into my email account, check my Facebook for word from home.

On Saturday night, I wander into some cafe/bar called Chac and make friends with Shirley the cook and Jerardo the owner, and soon I’m staying with them in their little cold-water apartment somewhere up an alleyway behind Mercado Hildago. Some of the walls of the alleyways are barely a shoulder-width apart in this city.

This is when I write Mum the email, soon after moving my stuff out of the hostel and into the apartment.

Sometimes, Mum, I wonder exactly the same thing. What the hell am I doing here?

The apartment is furnished only with four empty bed frames and a fridge. There is no stove, no chairs, no mattresses, no tables.

What is so imperative about the other side of the world that I feel the need to be here all the time?

And then there’s the roof. From the roof, you can see the whole city; the curl of the valley, the colours of houses, the bleached blue of the semi-desert sky. Shirley likes it best up there at night. She likes the lights, but not the buildings.

So often now I wake up on a sofa or a floor or a mattress in someone else’s house and wonder, What’s wrong with just being home? What’s wrong with simple routine and people I know so well we have nothing left to talk about? What’s wrong with a job and a single place to live? What’s wrong with continuity?

A sort of a temporary routine begins to settle over me. By day I wander around the city, study Spanish, check my email. By night, I hang out at Chac and get slowly and pointlessly drunk with what little money I have left, smoking Shirley’s cigarettes, speaking in broken Spanish with whoever is there to speak it to.

This compulsion turned ideal or ideal turned compulsion and back into ideal, empty now of its novelty.

I love the city. I bide time. I miss Tim.

I’m tired, Mum. I’m surrounded by such incredible things. But I’m so tired.

How to Leave a City

This could be any other city. Great clots of traffic muddy up the roadways. There is smog and people, lights and buildings, roundabouts and buses. Everyone is busy going somewhere, weaving their way though everyone else going somewhere else.

At the bus station, taxi drivers at the rank push their cabs forward manually when the line moves, leaning their weight into their open doors, one hand in the steering wheel, engine off until a passenger climbs in. Local buses drip in and I ask the drivers one by one if they’re going to where I am. It’s dark, I’m on my own. I use what Spanish I’ve learnt.

“Voy a La Normal,” and “Va a La Normal?”

Dad spent three years of his adolescence in this city. I’ve arrived the day after his birthday.

About two thirds of the way to the centre, an American in a cowboy hat gets on and sits next to me. I’m the only other white person on the bus. He is old, pasty and hairless and his hat sits on his head like an umbrella on a cream cake. Although I have headphones in and am looking out the window, conversation is immediate and unprompted. He tells me where he’s going and how he’s going to get there. He lists a few bus numbers and street names. He tells me he works for a mining company and he travels a lot, but he lives here in Guadalajara. I ask him how long he’s been in Mexico for. “Too long,” he says. “Too fuckin’ long. Not good fer a man to spend too much time in Mexico. Man can go crazy down here,” he says. And then he suddenly starts reeling off drug war stats: how many people have died and how, the way its been covered up, the way the media won’t report on it anymore in case they get killed, how the different cartels operate. I want to tell him that the media reports on the violence plenty, and how I feel safer in most places in Mexico than I did when I was travelling through his United States, but I’ve already decided that he’s probably not worth arguing with. He smells milky and slightly sour and he holds his face too close to mine as he speaks.

I find Hermano at an all-you-can-eat buffet called Sirloin with the two crudest, most obnoxious girls of the La Manzanilla group. I’m not hungry, but I spend too much money on a buffet plate and the food is shiny and fake, the texture of glue. The girls wolf-whistle at the waiters, write down their phone numbers on napkins and leave them in prominent positions on their empty plates, threaten repeatedly to puke they’re so full. On the bus back to Hermano’s, they blast their little stereo and talk over it and one another, about sex and boys and bodily functions.

Hermano the dentist has spent too long in Guadalajara. He has been six years here, six years in this same little apartment; fours years studying things he hated studying and two years practicing them. In La Manzinilla, he kept trying to extend his holiday, finding reasons to stay a few extra days, an extra night even. The change in him – the Hermano I knew in La Manzinilla and the Hermano I’m getting to know in the city – is startling. He is restless and strange. His movements are quicker but less focused, more fraught. In the mornings he gets up for work, irons his shirt and trousers on his mattress and is gone from the house. When he comes home he sits smokes and watches stupid TV with his feet propped up on a stool.

The girls leave the next day, though it takes them most of the day to do it. They pack and repack, pace the small apartment, fill it with their noise. When they do finally go, I wait tensely for them to come back – they forgot something or aren’t going for some reason – but they don’t and eventually I relax.

I stay four days. Travel is the effort of filling days outside of a routine, when you have no function or position, so your only purpose is detached exploration and maybe learning. Hermano’s apartment is all noise – I wake up to the water man shouting “Ag-gua! Ag-gua!” over his incessantly ringing bell, to the bread boys honking their horns, to the knife-sharpening man’s whistles. Neighbours play music or blast TVs through the thin walls, dogs bark, people call to each other over balconies and the traffic rumbles and grunts overtop of everything else. I wake without much reason to get up but I do it anyway, study some Spanish, take the bus into the centre and walk up and down streets, read my book. The city is smog and density and sound. The city is everything too close to everything else.

“I don’t like music,” Hermano tells me one evening, when I ask him what I should put on. “People think I am crazy, or broken or however they think. They think it’s something wrong, not to like music.”
“You don’t like music?” I say. “How can you not like music?”
“See! You are the same. Everyone thinks it is such a weird thing. I don’t know why not. I just don’t like it.”
“You’re crazy,” I tell him.
“When there is music on, and I have listened to that music before or something like that, so the music carries the place I heard it before. I don’t like it that it is feeling like something else. Music. It is… I don’t know how to explain. It is not real feelings.”
“Really?”
“Yes. Really.”
“Alright then. I won’t put anything on.”
“No. You can play something. You just don’t ask me questions.”
“Is there any music you like more than other music maybe? Like, do you like quieter music, or electonic stuff, or rock?”
“I don’t like any music.”
“Right.”

On his day off, Hermano takes me exploring. We wander through the centre for a while, to the markets and a few other places, then he takes me to Parque Mirador at the end of one of the bus lines. Parque Mirador is a park with a lookout over a huge canyon, a fine green sliver of river way down the bottom of it, tracing this sudden, uneven interruption in the landscape. The city has been built right up against it but over the other side, there’s nothing but empty plains. Density butted up against pure distance, like a dry shoreline. Hermano tells me he’s never been here before. “This is how you get out of the city,” I tell him. “You come to places like this.”

On my last night in Guadalajara, Hermano sticks a torch into my mouth and tells me how many cavities I have. He tells me I have a lot. I’ll need to come back and he’ll need to fix them.  I tell him later. I’ll come back later. And the next day I’m on a bus.

New Years Mexico

I wake up late on New Years Eve and it has been 2012 in Fremantle for an hour already. Today, for these few brief hours, I am separated from home by years as well as by distance, am in a different calendar as well as a different place. I think of Mum and Bruce, at the Woodford festival for the three minutes of silence, thinking of me among absent friends. My brother is at sea and I think of him out there, on an oil rig being towed through timezones, someone announcing New Years over the PA. I think of Dad and Helena, in Perth, with her family but not his.

After breakfast I call Tim on Skype. It’s 3am and he’s sitting up, at home on his own, messaging those he misses. As bright a day as it is where I am, his house is the dark of the early hours. He has to find a lamp so I can see him.

There’s dinner and then I dress up sort of – put a dress on anyway – and head for the Jardín. Our motley mob of Mexicans and gringos is caught up in the confusion of a holiday group suddenly adhering to time constraint, and it is the time constraint itself that panics us and slows us down. There’s booze to organise, firewood; getting everyone down to the far strip of beach in front of the cemetery where no-one will bother us, the lighting of the bonfire. I am corralled off with the girls and we all end up at Hermano’s for some reason but without Hermano, mixing drinks on his back deck and talking about girl things. Some boys show up and are gigglingly banished. A photo is taken – a line of dresses and make-up bathed in glaring flash. It strikes me how little I have in common with everyone else there.

But then I’m in the back of a ute, off to pick up firewood, and I’m much more comfortable with this situation. I cling to the cab and grin into the wind. At the beach, we haul it down and Derrick and Hermano start constructing the fire. It’s already after 11pm. A few boys and I head off into the bush for kindling, searching warily with torch beams for scorpions before picking anything up. The gringo girls stand giggling, getting drunk, talking loudly – waiting for everything to be organised around them.

And then we’re sitting in a circle around the fire in the sand. The ocean grumbles dark rhythm to my right. I’m drinking beer. Hermano tips the Oso Negro bottle towards me.
“Nah, dude, I’m good, hey” I say heavily.
“Come on,” he says.
“No, seriously. No fucking way. ¿Cómo se dice, “allergic”?
Alérgico.”
Soy alérgico.”
He smiles, shrugs and wanders off.
It’s a little after 11:45pm now. There’s a gringo boy sitting next to me and a gringo girl sitting next to him. “Do you want to kiss me for New Years?” he asks her.
She shakes her head.
“Aw, c’mon. It’s New Years.”
She shakes her head again. He stares despondently into the fire for moments. Then he turns to me.
“Wanna kiss me for New Years?” he asks. “I’ve got no-one else to.”
I shrug. “Alright,” I say. “Sure.”

And then there are various countdowns and some arguments over whose is accurate and then eventually there’s a vaguely coherent “5…4…3…2…1” and we all cheer in 2012. The boy kisses me and it’s soft and young and careful. We settle into drinking. I’m a few beers in but bored of drinking and not much for conversation. So strange, on New Years, to be so far from the people I care deeply for. But it’s New Years and warm and I’m on a beach in Mexico in front of a bonfire, talking shit and getting drunk. I should want to be here.

When Derrick gets too drunk and wants to go home, I insist on walking him, grab my stuff and slip out. We talk about his girlfriend, who he misses, who he’s confused about. He slurs and holds onto me for support as we walk.

When I get to the Jardin after dropping Derrick off at the foot of his path, Hermano is there eating tacos.
“Heey, Zoe! Where did you go to?” he asks me, trying to keep the taco sauce and toppings within the taco. “You are going back now? To the fire? Some eating, and then we are driving.”
I’ll come back, I tell him, I’m just going to wander on my own for a bit, and I head down to the strip of beach in front of all the restaurants. They had a bonfire there too, for all the grown-ups, along with a barbecue and drinking, but it’s 2am now and most people are gone. I look for Glen, Jeanne and Brian but see no-one I know.

Up the road a bit a band plays on someone’s back patio. It’s a large covered space, backing out onto the main road. They musicians are in full mariachi dress with big, decorative sombreros and colourfully patterned clothes. There’s a double bass and a couple guitars, a mandolin. It’s the end of the evening now and they sing slow, mournful songs in Spanish while people sit around in chairs and watch or talk. Some sing along. I take a seat to the side on my own, ignore the people looking at me. And I’ll admit I’m strange here. Some wandering white girl on New Years Eve, half-drunk and all dressed up, sitting by herself watching a mariachi band among Mexicans.

The Black Bear Burn

It’s a matter of wandering down to the Jardín, or central square, between 8 and 10pm. Sometimes everyone’s piling into vehicles: the Mexicans – mostly boys – trying to organise the mob of gringos – foreigners, mostly girls – into some semblance of order so we can begin traipsing off to the activity for the evening. Sometimes it’s everyone’s wandering in and out of corner stores buying vodka and beer. Sometimes they’re sitting around on the benches around the square. Sometimes they’re up in Steven’s bar.

One night, not long after Christmas, I wander down and everyone’s packing into the back of Big Abraham’s ute.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Get in,” Hermano tells me. “Don’t make questions,” and he laughs.
Everyone loaded, we roar down the road to Miguel’s. It’s walking distance – maybe 5 or 10 minutes – but no-one walks here. The house is on the other side of the narrow little bridge and Big Abraham makes of point of accelerating over it so that the girls scream and everyone has to duck and hang on.

Most of the white girls in La Manzanilla are there because their parents are. Most of them are from Canada or the Northern parts of American, and many of them come every year. Some have a house here and La Manzinilla is where their families come to escape the North American winter.

As for the Mexican boys, most of them live here. Otherwise, they grew up in the town but have moved to bigger cities for school or work and come home for the holidays every year. They collect white girls like playing cards, just like their brothers did before them, approaching them as they circle the Jardín in pairs or trios and invite them to come join in on whatever might be going on that evening. The girls hesitate, paranoid by the stories and stranger danger lessons, but it’s the holidays, and the boys are charming and enthusiastic, and everyone seem nice enough.

And so the mob grows and changes every year, everyone engaged in new and exciting ways to binge drink. This night, at Miguel’s, starts like most others: someone collects a few pesos from each person and takes off, returning later with several bottles of Oso Negro vodka, some mixers, and a few bags of ice. At 70 pesos – $5 or so – for a litre bottle, Oso Negro is the cheapest, nastiest vodka around. Someone starts up the music. On the front patio, Hermano starts setting up a drinking game. He find a deck of cards and balances it on the neck of a bottle. We then take it in turns to blow cards off the top. If you blow none off, or only one, or all at once, you are handed the vodka and ordered to take a straight, searing swig.
“Feel the Black Bear burn!” Ipo yells, cackling as someone pulls on the bottle and flails for a mixer to chase.

Everyone is drunk fast. Plastic cups are filled with ice and mixer and great dollops of vodka and sucked down quickly. People eventually lose interest in the game and Hermano stops collecting up the cards from the ground to rebalance on the neck of the bottle, and starts roaming the party, pouring straight vodka down the throats of anyone who tips their head back and opens their mouth. I keep my head back for particularly long time and don’t need a mixer. “Tough,” Hermano tells me, and this is a good compliment because it’s only my third or fourth time hanging out with these guys and I want them to think well of me.

“Everyone needs to be drunk!” someone commands. “Are you drunk?” I’m asked. And I am. But I’m woozy and cottony and starting to feel slightly ill. But I must not look it because Hermano doesn’t believe me and keeps urging me to drink more, that I need to get drunk, everyone needs to get drunk.

But although I have my father’s alcohol tolerance, I have my mother’s weak, two-pot-screamer stomach, so I usually tolerate for a while, and then I throw up. As a result, I’ve never been blackout drunk, never lost my memory to alcohol. I like getting drunk, but I’ve never been thorough about it like some of my friends, never been able to guzzle alcohol indefinitely until I pass out.

So at this party, vodka bottles circling and people I barely know drunk as sin around me, I nod my head each time the question is posed, try to act drunker than I am, and finally go tell Hermano I’m heading off.

“You can’t go! You’re not enough drunk,” Hermano says, motioning with his bottle that I should tip my head back. I do and swallow the vodka and feel my eyes water.
“There,” he says. “No going.”

The night blurs into bad music and unintelligable conversation. I stop taking sips from my mixed drink. People sit or stand in circles, smoking and nodding their heads along to the beat. Some dance.  Mexicans talk to Mexicans in Spanish, the rest of us speak in English about nothing, slurring and swaying.

Eventually, I find Derrick and the two of us slip out together. His sister, Lauren, wants to stay so we leave her there. We start walking, and conversation is hard, but I’m lucid enough to hold one, and lucid enough to think and walk reasonably straight. Derrick leaves me at the mouth of the path and I stumble heavily up, thinking only about bed.

But when I get there, I can’t hold the world still, the semi-dark pivoting in halting semi-circles. Undressing is hard. It takes a few attempts to get my shoes off. Eventually, I lie down and turn the light off, holding my eyes partially open to pin the world into position. But it doesn’t take long before I am up and bent over the railing, dressed only in my underwear, vomiting heavily into the forest on the other side. Then dry retching. And I can’t stop it.

I try to go back to bed but I’m too sick. And then I find I can’t stand still, or upright, and then I can’t think anymore and suddenly I’ve never been sicker than this. I’m 24 years old and so out of control I can’t stand or sleep or do anything at all except feel very sick and disgusted with myself and very, very scared.

I try showering but it’s only more disorienting. And where before I was drunk and sick, now I’m wet, drunk and sick. Putting on a shirt is nearly impossible. Everything has fucking buttons and I can’t find one without but eventually there’s a singlet and I’m on my way up to the house, barefoot, hammering my steps into the ground. Progress is slow and I’m concentrating harder than I ever have on this simplest of tasks. Finally I’m inside the main house, through the kitchen door, and Brian, who  has been woken up by the sound of someone pushing open his gate and stepping heavily into his house, is standing naked by the dining room table with a machete. And it’s so fucking funny, but all I can manage is, “I’m so sick. Man, I’m so sick.”

Then Jeanne is there as I dry retch into her toilet, though I don’t remember if her hand is on my shoulder or if she’s holding my hair or rubbing my back or whether she’s just there. I can hardly talk now, but I tell her I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I’m so sick. And it’s true – I don’t know what happened. This is so far beyond the drunk I’ve been before that it’s hard to think that half-an-hour ago I was coherent enough to have a conversation as I walked home. But her and Brian just tell me to stop apologising, that it’s completely fine, that they’re just so glad I came up for help.

They drag a mattress into the bathroom, to where I’m half-passed out on the floor. But I don’t have the strength or the stomach to climb up onto it, so I just stay where I am and try to pass out all the way.

When I come to, I find I can make it to the mattress. It feels like I’ve been out ten minutes but in the morning, Jeanne tells me it was an hour or two. They’ve been up the whole time, checking on me, making sure I’m OK. She brings me a pillow and a blanket. I find I can talk a little. I tell her I’m alright now. She believes me. Finally, after being up two or more hours, Brian and Jeanne wish me goodnight and go back to bed.

I wake up and it’s light but only barely. I find I can sit up, stand, move around. My head’s clear but constricted. I fold up the blanket, pile up the pillow nicely, and retreat back to my treehouse.

The Sound of Mexico: A Few Scattered First Impressions

The first thing I notice about Mexico is the sound of it: constant and unrestrained. There’s no such thing as noise complaints in Mexico. Noise and activity, like many other things, isn’t something that seems like it should register as an annoyance. In fact, Jeanne explains to me that a lot of Mexicans would probably be uncomfortable without it.

I arrive in La Manzinilla – the little town where Jeanne, Brian and Glen spend their winters – on Christmas Eve, and everyone is celebrating. You can buy fireworks at a little stall in the Jardín and people do, and they go all night – loud and sudden as gunshots, coughing out more noise than light. My walk into town on Christmas Eve night is flanked by music from houses and shops, from the loudspeakers on the roof of the church. Dogs bark, roosters wake and crow, people call out.

Mexicans here don’t seem to get drunk and go roaring violently through the streets like Australians do, they get drunk and celebrate: play music, joke and laugh, dance, sing – celebrate. Their mode of celebration seems cleaner, less restrained and caught up than the usual Australian modes of celebration too; unconditional and clean. Unselfconscious. This is my first impression, anyway.

* * *


Jeanne, Brian and Glen’s house in Mexico is huge and open, decorated much like their house in Canada: with colour and a million statues and paintings and wall-hangings collected at a million different markets or shops. There is no real consistency outside quirk and colour, so the effect is one of dense, almost chaotic detail and playfulness. It’s the house of grown-ups who have never really reconciled with the idea of growing up. Here, like in their house in Canada, I notice new things every day.

The house is set high on a hill. The main living area is enclosed only by a roof and a few thick wooden pillars in place of walls, with the dining and living areas set forward and the kitchen set back. This means you can stand at the stove or sit at the dining table or lie around in the cane armchairs and enjoy an uninterrupted view of La Manzinilla’s valley, the tall hill opposite, and a triangular slice of the bay to the right.

I am the only young person in the house, with pretty much everyone else being in their late fifties or early sixties. Even though these aren’t the most grown up grown-ups, there is still the tension that comes from interacting socially, and from accepting the hospitality of, people a generation older who aren’t my parents. The status and authority of age, although not really cemented into modern Western interaction by overt practices and language, is none-the-less deeply ingrained into society. Although I would consider Jeanne, Brian and Glen friends, and good friends, they will always be friends of my parents first.  This isn’t necessarily bad or good, it’s just an aspect of the relationship and another way of relating to people.

Even though they’re happy to have me, and all the other people who come to stay, I’m still very aware that I am living in their house and eating their food for long periods of time, both in Canada and in Mexico. Probably more aware than I would be with people my own age. But there’s always that sense when you’re accepting favours from people, which is one of the exhausting things about travel. The only thing to do is the dishes, I find. Help out where you can, enjoy it, be grateful, and help other people out whenever your in the situation to do so. It all works out in the end, I reckon.

* * *

On my Christmas Eve walk, I notice a large nativity scene out front of the church. Mary and Joseph take centre stage, flanked by a few farm animals, as well as a shepard and a milk maid who are both a few sizes smaller than the others and must have been from a different set. Between Mary and Joseph, the bassinet for baby Jesus is conspicuously empty.
“He hasn’t been born yet,” an American woman, also examining the scene, says to her partner. “Tomorrow. He gets born tomorrow.”

Christmas Day, sure enough, there he is: bright-eyed and loosely swaddled. Mary, who before was turned conversationally out towards her guests, has now been turned to face him and only him – her full, ceramic attention on the Newborn King.

* * *

At Gene, Brian and Glen’s, I am sleeping in the studio at the bottom of the garden. It’s two stories with a bedroom up the top and a toilet and storeroom at the bottom, and Brian’s workshop on the deck. The bedroom is open and set under a palm roof, like a fucking tourist brochure photograph. All four walls are mosquito screens so sleeping in there has much of the visual effect of sleeping outside, which suits me just fine: the temperature, most of the time, is amniotic. The separate bathroom is the opposite of the bedroom in that there are walls but no roof, so I shower and brush my teeth under an uninhibited sky.

Christmas Eve night, I fall asleep to the chorus of celebration radiating up the side of the valley: firecrackers, dogs, music, everything set over the substantial hum of crickets. When I wake, a little after dawn, it is like every living creature within earshot is greeting the light with its voice – announcing that it has awoken alive and ready for the day. Roosters scream in the dawn, a new shift of dogs bark out their existence; birds call, people yell. The gas truck man and the water truck man battle with their loudspeakers for superiority in the soundscape: the water truck with a Tarzan like cry and then “Agua, agua,” the gas truck with a short jingle and then, “Globaal Gaaaas”. More music plays from different houses. Radios chatter through windows. It is the constant clatter and gabble of Mexico – something that is blaring and noticeable now, but will soon ebb down into normality, until anything less would seem loud in its silence.

Mexico for Christmas

Alright, so. It’s Christmas night. There are a little over twenty of us, mostly Mexicans, packed into three cars. The Toyota probably has only two or three over normal capacity but there are around eleven clinging to every available surface of the jeep. I’m in the tray of the ute, hanging on for dear, glorious life, which is exactly what I’m living all the way to the fullest right now. It’s maybe a little after midnight. I’m facing forward, standing stomach against the cab, jostling shoulder to shoulder with three or four others, and we’re hurtling some stupid speed in neutral down a dirt road through the jungle to some beach in the middle of nowhere, Mexico. I’m dressed for Christmas: nice shoes, earrings, wearing a fucking dress of all things, which has ripped neatly along a seam on my way into the tray. Wind in my hair, lungs, face, chest.

Finally, we get to the beach. A few of the Mexican boys, a Canadian boy called Derrick and myself start to gather driftwood and dried up palm fronds to light a fire. The beach is kinda shitty, with a lagoon in the way of the real beach and a mess of driftwood and sticks along the edges. The girls want to go back. They stage a protest in the jeep while the rest of us get the fire ready. But there’s not really enough wood and we can’t get it big enough, and it’s actually pretty cold out here with the wind blowing off the ocean. We persist anyway and eventually the girls give up their protest and stand shivering around our pathetic little fire with us. Someone hauls the eskies out of one of the cars, filled with ice and cheap mixers, and we stand around drinking tequila and vodka out of plastic cups.

After a while, some strange light appears on the horizon over the ocean, and another on one of the hills, which may be some rich fisherman with floodlights or it may, someone says, be the military. A few people seem to thinks it’s the latter, which could be a problem considering we’re not really supposed to be there. Suddenly there’s a flurry of activity as we flee back into our three vehicles, up the private road and the fuck out of there. We stop half-way up the road to unlock one of the gates and notice that the Toyota is not following. The jeep turns back. When they arrive, they find the Toyota bogged and that the occupants have lit another fire and are standing around it, smoking and drinking and hanging out, waiting casually for rescue.

Finally, all three are up on the main road and the ute’s run out of fuel. The Toyota takes off to Melaque to get some more and the rest of us crack out the liquor and cigarettes and just start a new party, right there on the side of the road, blasting music from the speakers of the jeep. The Toyota comes back, they siphon the fuel down a hose from a juice bottle and into the tank, and off we go home again home again.

Thus ends my third day in Mexico.