Cholula to Veracruz

The moment I stepped off the bus, I could feel the Gulf. The air along the coast is hot and heavy, almost mildewed, like Florida. For the past four months I have been living at 7000 feet, in Cholula, on a high plateau watched over by volcanoes. The climate is clear and cool.

Last night I slept in a sweatshirt, under two blankets. I woke up early, church bells ringing, and posted the remaining student blogs from the Puebla Journal, the record of my teaching at “La UDLAP.” I sent off some goodbye emails, my hands shaking, swept out the apartment, and left.

The Fulbright is done. Time to go home, I caught a taxi to Puebla, boarded the ADOgl (gran lujoso) for Veracruz, and stared out the window, as the bus carried me past the high desert and fields of cactus, over the cloudy Sierra Madre, and down to the coast. My plan is to trace the Gulf coast, traveling East, until I reach Cancun, then fly back to the States. The trip by bus, 30 hours total, will take five days.

Since moving to the west coast of Florida almost twenty years ago, I have been staring at this body of water, wondering what was on the other side. The journey back gives me an excuse to find out, to wander Mexican coastal cities and towns–Veracruz, Coatzalcaocos, Ciududad Carmen and Campeche. From Cancun I can catch a flight to Atlanta. There is no direct connection from the Yucatán to Tampa. I find that telling.

The long trip also gives me a chance to to emotionally unpack–to reflect upon the Fulbright, this extraordinary chance to teach and learn in a different country.

When I asked students at “la UDLAP” to describe places important to them, I wanted people to see how stories carry across. Caricatures of Mexico in the United States do a lot of harm these days, and by giving students a platform to share their views, I hoped to do my small part to improve relations between our two countries.

Such lofty goals aside, I also want one more week to boot around Mexico.

After checking into my hotel room, off the square in Veracruz, I stopped by the legendary Parroquia for some café con leche. Downtown was hopping. Locals, dressed in all white and wearing red scarves, performed traditional Veracruz dance. I bought a cigar and chatted with two dock workers from Sinaloa. Técnicos and rudos squared off in a one-night Lucha Libre, set up in the Zócalo. The técnicos won. After the Lucha, kids took over the ring.

I do not want this trip to end.


For five pesos I could hold the crocodilio. The handler explained how he worked for a conservation outfit, protecting the species, though I did not see a hat or uniform or printed information, and I assumed he was a guy just hustling Nature–no different than the elote stands or kids hawking sea shells along the docks.

I gave him his five peso, he gave me the reptile. The transfer was complicated. “Hold your phone in your left hand,” he told me, “and cradle the crocodilio below the front legs.” But the yearling crocodilio thrashed before I could get a firm grip under its soft belly, knocking my phone onto the concrete boardwalk. A commotion was building. On second try I showed more confidence, and by the time I had struck my pose, locals were crowding around to shoot something even more amusing than a crocodilio–a gringo with a crocodilio!

The onlookers would have no way of knowing that I have lived most my adult life in alligator habitats. I felt no reservations about the band of electrical tape around its mouth. I know from one too many nature programs that alligator jaws smack down, not up. This was not my first gator show.

Even in a foreign country, holding an exotic species, I felt on familiar ground. Veracruz, while still Mexico, has the vibe of any gulf coast city. We have a common culture, common roots. The conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez came to Veracruz in 1520 to stop Hernán Cortés. Eight years later Narváez landed somewhere by my own house. What Spain started in colonizing America, the United States finished.

In Tampa Bay, as in Veracruz, men wear guayaberas. They walk around in flip flops and those cargo shorts that refuse to go out of style.

If Tampa had a much older sister, it would be Veracruz. The two cities speak different languages but are one in the same, equally defined by ports and forts, seafood and sunburn.

Over the past four months, I have pushed students to sift through similarities and differences. Early in the semester, I paired UDLAP students with U.S. peers. The undergraduates traded drafts of their papers. The process, while far from perfect, pressed student writers to think about audience and the “self” of a first-person essay. How is the “I” in our essays understood by readers?

Later in the term we came back to the experiment. Starting from some very fine writing by USFSP English Majors, the UDLAP students had to introduce reflections on New York snow days, folk music in Greenwich Village, Thanksgiving and Halloween.

I asked the Mexican students to write headnotes, hoping the process would open new distinctions. Can one compare Halloween with far denser observances like Día de Muertos? What does it mean for a teenager to set out for New York City, when younger Mexicans live with their parents into their twenties. How do culturally specific holiday fall along the same gender lines? And what do we make of snow? Do clichés about the weather feed other stereotypes?

The exercise cut to the heart of first-person writing: as we present a self, we must also consider audience. The process of persuasion rests on building a rapport with the reader. How you see yourself can look entirely different to someone else.

When I saw the crocodilio on the boardwalk in Veracruz, I wanted a picture because the exotic reminded me of home. Mexicans shot their own photographs, laughing in their friendly way while taking pictures of the gringo holding a crocodilio. To them, the scene was comic and strange. To them, the exotic was me.

Veracruz to Coatzacoalcos

Legend holds that the Río Coatzacoalcos takes its name from the god Quetzalcóatl, who was seen traveling here alone, in a boat made from serpent’s skin, sailing deeper and deeper, until he disappeared into the river. The Coatzacoalcos is a not long river, but it has strategic importance, draining the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where Oaxaca and Chiapas meet. Pemex runs a refinery not far upstream. The river is very, very dirty.

Late in the afternoon, I caught the short ferry from Ciudad Coatzacoalcos to the neighboring village of Allende. Not finding much to do in Allende, I sat by a crumbling sea wall, ate an undercooked tamale, and watched the sun set near the gulf.

Then I paid four pesos for the ferry back across.

Earlier that day, the cab driver who me took me from the ADO to my hotel told me that I could pay a fisherman from the nearby launch to explore the area further. So I stopped by a fish market and asked around. Some calls were made.

After a twenty minute wait, Allen appeared, an out-of-work fisherman wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers cap, alcohol heavy on his breath. “Do you want to go right now or tomorrow morning,” Allen asked.

I told him tomorrow. Allen led me through a rusted gate and down a rubble path to show me a launch, docked by some water hyacinth.

As we talked, a short woman with a chipped front tooth came by. She introduced herself as Sylvia. “Ten cuidado,” she cautioned me. Darkness fell over the river. Sylvia said it again, “be careful.”

Having settled on tomorrow morning, Allen gave me his phone number. I asked him about price. “Two thousand pesos,” he said, a hundred dollars. The cost seemed steep. I balked. After some haggling, Allen suggested that I could pay for gas and give him a thousand pesos, still too much for a hungover guide to take me up a polluted river.

I can be a stupid traveler. There is little I will not try. But I am also cheap. Sometimes you listen to your instincts and turn back around.

Coatzacoalcos to Ciudad del Carmen

What did Key West look like in Hemingway’s time? I bet a lot like Ciudad del Carmen.

Ciudad del Carmen anchors the end of a long peninsula above Laguna de Términos, a massively diverse estuary that runs along the Gulf of Mexico’s south shore, roughly the size of my own Tampa Bay. This morning I walked from the colonial-era hotel where I was staying, across the Zócalo (or town square), past the Cathedral, past the sprawling port, to a long stretch of beach on the north side of town.

I bought some coffee at the nearby Oxxo and called my wife Julie. As we talked, my eyes focused on the long row of unused palapas, and beyond that, a pair of oil platforms, framed in the blue-green gulf.

The state of Florida has fought nobly against this prospect. Where Louisiana and Texas thrive off petroleum, literally sacrificing their own land mass for the sake of oil, Florida’s leaders have long recognized that clean beaches are an economic driver that requires constant protection.

From reading student papers here in Mexico, I know that the petroleum industry takes its toll on Carmen. (Check out The Love-Hate Relationship of the Tropical Girl, by Laura Priscila Serrano Santoyo.) Drilling churns up shell fragments that make the beaches rough on walking. Potholes form; drownings are common. Oil extraction is filthy business.

The trade-off is sad because, as resort town go, Ciudad del Carmen has extraordinary potential. Every Mexican treasure that you can imagine can be found here–colonial architecture, natural beauty, a charming historic core, archaeological sites nearby. So where are the tourists?

If Queer Eye‘s Fab Five were the Fab Five Thousand, Carmen would get a makeover. And Lord knows, Mexico could use a little Provincetown. A female-friendly and gay-safe resort (for a country where slurs are commonplace, femicide accepted as a matter of course). But I digress.

Why must cities and states, even nations, make this false choice between preservation and extraction? Why does the Gulf of Mexico have to serve as North America’s waste bucket? Why continue to bilge pollutants from refineries on the Río Coatzacoalcos, and pesticides from the Mississippi Delta’s dead zone, into the waters where we get our food, vacation and even live?

The gut response is to cordon off, to fight for what’s left, though this strategy will never work. Every tank of gas that we pump, every federalized-subsidized corn chip, means garbage in the gulf. There is no further downstream. A puppy poops in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or Missoula, Montana and the waste runs South.

Preservation is not local. It will not come from nostalgic longing for an untouched place. That past is gone. The Gulf of Mexico is a working body of water. If we want to clean our oceans and bays and estuaries, we need to reconsider every aspect of our everyday life.

Carmen to Campeche

Campeche at desk. Gringos flock to Cancun for vacation. Why? For God’s sake, go to Campeche!

An article making the social media rounds notes a surprising trend in U.S.-Mexican relations: “More People Are Moving from Mexico to the U.S. Than the Other Way Around.” Online, the headline and photo drew the expected cues: “Let’s go,” a tequila joke, emoji emoji emoji.

I confess to indulging the fantasy myself. When I first stepped foot in the hilly university town of Guanajuato, I wondered why I should leave. More than once, in Cholula, I texted a friend who was making waves about relocating to Latin America, asking: why not here? And in my first evening in Campeche, I strolled past the stone walls surrounding the city’s historic core, exploring narrow streets lined with pastel-colored buildings, and imagined daily life here. (In case you’re wondering, $200K, U.S. dollars, will get you a Campeche dream home.)

How do we move beyond stereotypes and clichés? When I set up the Puebla Journal (with help from Dave and Kyle Pierson, Orange Zest Media), I wanted to broaden impressions of a country that currently wears a political target. My students at “la UDLAP” succeeded wonderfully, capturing Mexico in its full richness and complexity.

From the norteño regions to the Caribbean shores of Quintana Roo, the student reflections brim with affection for home. Marco Antonio de la Peña Velazquez shares his love for Saltillo and its Culture, trying to explain why this desert city holds onto his heart. Paulina Morán Méndez, in Evolution of a Town, unlocks the rural roots of now-bustling Cholula, describing how her grandfather sold fresh milk in the street. Leslie Ramírez Burgos revisits Cuexcomate, or the World´s Smallest Volcano, now an “off-the-beaten path” destination but through her childhood an unofficial homeless shelter. Maximiliano Shinnosuke Takeda Aguirre, in Mr. Paradise, offers insider restaurant tips from Cancun.

These snapshots together capture a country, in all its glory and flaws. I betray no secrets as a Fulbright scholar when I suggest that Mexican-U.S. relations are currently poor. Stereotypes feed a lack of understanding, which in turn, support dubious policy. Countering the dehumanization, used to rationalize decisions like detaining immigrant children in cages, students in the Puebla Journal provide a collective portrait of Mexico’s everyday life.

Which leaves a question: will people in the United States actually listen?  Despite my best efforts, I have doubts. Early in the semester, we set up a writing exchange between USFSP students and their Mexican peers. Several USFSP English Majors penned lovely reflections, responded to questions from their UDLAP partners, and provided detailed critiques that moved far beyond correcting the English of native Spanish speakers. But other U.S. students failed to respond to the initial emails, leaving me disappointed and confused. Behind this indifference, was there an unspoken racism?

Who knows? Maybe I am being judgemental or harsh. Maybe not.

Over the past four months, I have posted all sorts of “cultural dispatches.” Folks want to read about border politics or diarrhea, both real topics, while attempts to explain humbler aspects of Mexican life fall flat. As an educator, I will never understand the indifference. Willful ignorance take people to scary places.

I hope people with flip through this “emotional atlas.” I hope people will be charmed by Marco Antonio, as he fumbles to explain his affection for Saltillo; that folks will follow Paulina through the streets of old Cholula, or Leslie into the world’s smallest volcano; I personally would like to try some of the tacos and sushi suggested by Shinnosuke.

The wall between the United States and Mexico will continue to exist.

Maybe we can throw these verbal corn tortillas over the wall, like Frisbees. We will only be able to rebuild the relationship between our two countries by getting to know one another. Let’s help these students help change the world … one tortilla at a time.


Campeche to Cancun

Picking up my emergency passport at Efi-Pack, a courier that ships from Cancun to nearby Isla Mujeres–and papers to relieved gringos.

A word on detention. On the last stage of my journey home, I got detained. Not for any political reason, not for long, nor in any way that reflects the hell that undocumented migrants in the U.S. face everyday. Just enough to give me a taste.

On my second to last night, somewhere in Campeche, my passport vanished. I got off the bus after a six-hour ride across the Yucatan, checked into the cute boutique hotel I had reserved for myself as a treat, and realized that papers were missing.

I had an eight o’clock flight the following morning. It was late afternoon Thursday, on Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, a national holiday. Mexicans take their puentes–bridge days to a weekend–seriously and I knew my stay in Cancun could take up to a week.

I scrambled to make some calls. The Help Line at Aeromexico did not have an English speaker over the holiday, so I pleaded my case in Spanish. No luck. Without a passport, I would not fly. An emergency service for Fulbright Scholars gave me the weblink to Aeromexico (which I already had) and the the U.S. Consul’s in Cancun’s office phone–which was dead.

First thing the next morning, I went to the lobby of my gilded cage (the boutique hotel) and waited for a cab to the Counsulate. Making conversation with the receptionist, I shared my woes.

A cleaning lady sat by the elevator, listening, but saying nothing.

Replacing a passport overseas is an elaborate, costly, stressful process. As luck would have it, the consulate was open Friday morning. A bored bureaucrat directed me to the photo lab for a new mug shot, told me how to pay the messenger fee (at the nearby Oxxo), and gave me cursory help with the forms. She took my credit card. An emergency passport should reach the courier office across town in twenty-four hours. If it did not arrive, I would have to wait until Monday and start again.

I felt angry, stupid and alone. I wanted this trip to be done.

Over the past four months, I have talked with countless Mexicans who have lived in the United States, their families ripped apart by economic inequality, working with or without documentation. Scarcely twenty hours have passed without meeting someone who was in Texas, Miami, Los Angeles, New York City, Arizona, Montgomery, Alabama. Wherever there were jobs. Early in my stay, I asked how they liked the U.S. But Mexicans are polite by nature. If I pressed the subject of immigration, almost every time, the conversation turned silent. I learned to step around this painful subject.

I cannot imagine the terror of losing a green card, of facing this hostile government and bureaucratic maze, without funds to fix the problem. I was lucky. My passport would come Saturday morning, I could purchase a ticket on credit at the airport, and only one day later than planned, I would be hugging my wife and son.

Back in the lobby of the boutique hotel, chatting with the receptionist, I tried stupidly to explain my predicament. “I now have a tiny fraction of what it must be like to live without papers,” I volunteered in feeble Spanish.

The receptionist laughed and checked her phone. The cleaning lady, still waiting for the elevator, chewed a cuticle on her thumb. She  looked at me sideways. When the elevator door opened, she walked away.

Cancun to Home

What to do about father’s wanderlust? With the family in Mexico City.

The passport arrived, as hoped, at the courier by ten a.m. I hoofed back to my rented room in centro Cancun and caught a ride to the airport. My ride dropped me off at Terminal 4 (International) but the Aeromexico ticket counter was in Terminal 2; after buying a new ticket, I still had to replace my immigration card (another $30) in Terminal 3. Somehow I made my 1:30 flight to Atlanta. By four o’clock my plane was touching the tarmac.

In Atlanta, I practically ran down the endless corridors through customs, where Julie and Zack were waiting. “Welcome home,” the customs officer said. I have never been happier to be back in the States.

Traffic on I-75 could have been worse. Zack and I debated my celebratory first meal–I had said that I wanted barbecue, but the best joints were in downtown Macon, and Zaxby’s chicken was right off the interstate.

Culture shock hit me right there, in the fast food bathroom. After taking a pee, I flushed and watched the water pool in the drain. I washed my hands under the automated faucet. Restaurants in Mexico typically use no-flow urinals and thrifty sink nozzles. The air conditioner was running, although outside, it was neither hot nor cold. If it were warm in Mexico, a restaurant would open the windows.

Henry Miller called the U.S. “the air conditioned nightmare.”

Returning to my own country is always hard. I ramble, yet I am unapologetically gringo. It’s a paradox. My wife loves an adventure too–after two weeks, however, she’s ready to head back. And don’t even ask about the kid. We have dragged him across four continents, but mostly, he likes to stay put.

It is the paradox of my adult life: family allegiances and incurable wanderlust. I am a proud papa and a rolling stone.

John Keats described such paradoxes as negative capability, being able to hold two sides of a paradox in your head. And the same ability to cultivate opposites marks a good essay. Over the past semester, I have been floored by the willingness of students to cultivate ambivalence. Ana Luca Cuevas’ “The Metro” searches for a vitality she would never find in her CDMX suburb, but the same wry humor comes from having a home base. Daniel Ramírez describes his vexed relationship with Puebla, “In a Relationship–It’s Complicated,” and while Daniel is ready to leave the town where he grew up , he acknowledges a desire to eventually return. Mariana Ramírez digs into her fascination with the gothic in the “Haunted Centro” of Queretaro, while never forgetting her rage over femicide.

To travel into one’s place is not the same as unequivocal celebration. Sentimental nostalgia, or pastoral longing, does a lot of damage. It’s often tied to chauvinism–in its worst forms, a scary nationalism. Such writing wants us to revert to a time that, frankly, we don’t want to go back to. Besides, it’s boring.

When we dig into a place for real, however, we establish perspective. And when we establish perspective, we find ourselves in the middle.

I set out across Mexico by bus because I was not ready to go back to the United States. After a few days, however, I started questioning my decision–wondering why I was not sleeping in my own bed, with my wife by my side, the cat at my feet, my son in the next room. After losing my passport in Campeche, I definitely was ready to be home.

To write about place is to negotiate the paradoxes. With a capacity for ambivalence that one rarely finds at this age, students in the Puebla Journal explore two sides from the middle. Daniel is ready to leave Puebla, but thanks the city for making him who he is … even acknowledges that he will probably return. Mariana explores the underbelly of Queretaro because the mythology is insider her.

One of my teaching mentors, John Elder, describes education through the verb “to cleave.” The word means two things (depending upon its transitive or intransitive use). To cleave means to split apart, like a stick of firewood, but also to cling together.

And is that not the point of an education? To pick apart, then reassemble? To criticize and critique, while recognizing what made us who we are? To wander far afield? Then to come back home?

I am grateful for the time in Mexico. I am happy to be home.