By KIRSTEN FENN
I learned my first lesson of travel the hard way.
Despite months of mentally preparing for my first international experience ever, nothing had trained me for the long-distance sprints I had to make across the airport, luggage in tow.
After a delayed flight from Ottawa to Toronto, there was little time to catch my flight to Mexico City as I arrived at Pearson International Airport. Having heard “final boarding call” while only halfway to my gate, I began flailing my over-packed clunker of a carry-on bag behind me in a mad dash to catch my flight. Weighed down by a suitcase, trying to summon enough oxygen just to run across the airport at 7am — this was not my finest hour.
Needless to say, I’ve vowed to divorce my outdated carry-on bag and marry the idea of “packing light” during any future adventures. Lesson learned.
Despite the trauma, I did end up catching my flight and making it to Mexico with my Alternative Spring Break (ASB) team – carry-on and all. My first glimpse of the capital city was a culture shock in itself. Having only ever seen an aerial view of Mexico City in books and on Google Maps, witnessing the sprawling mountains and sprinkling of houses across the landscape had me in awe from the moment our plane descended through the clouds.
I was biting my nails for a taste of the city’s culture by the time we even landed. I quickly got my wish during the two hour bus ride to our destination in Cuernavaca.
The colours in Mexico City were the first thing to hit me as we made our way. Houses, office buildings, museums – the entire world glowed in orange, yellow, red, blue, pink and purple. The city screamed “summer” every which way you looked at it – even the bright laundry hanging from broken window panes and shambled rooftops. Among some of the withering houses in the city’s core, colour manages to liven up what might otherwise be dull concrete walls and barbed wire fencing.
Beyond the tight traffic of the city, the shades of yellow blended into dry fields scattered unevenly with concrete houses, easily visible along the edge of the road, as were the garbage and assorted belongings kept under blue and yellow tarps on the tiny rooftops. Strips of home restaurants selling tacos or ice cream lined some areas, with red plastic patio chairs and matching tables laid out for the comfort of customers.
The change of scenery from the city centre to the countryside happened almost as quickly as the winding slopes that took us through the mountainside into Cuernavaca. But again, the reds, yellows, oranges, and blues resurfaced when we met our destination city and arrived at the Cuernavaca Centre for Intercultural Dialogue on Development (CCIDD). The rapid change in living conditions between the countryside and the city was my first realization of the class divide that exists in Mexico. Even within Cuernavaca, I remember seeing tall apartment buildings and large, gated houses on one end of the city, and passing tiny houses with broken glass atop their walls the very next moment.
There remains a kind of discrete beauty to the city. On the streets, the houses are joined together in a flat wall of colour, with heavy doors and few windows to the interior. But when we entered CCIDD’s front door we found something entirely different. There was an expansive yard with lush trees that don’t exist in Canada, blooming red flowers and plants with leaves fit to fan a queen. The beauty and expanse of the accommodations were more than I expected, and provided a different view of Mexico than what’s been fed to me at home in Canada – one of danger, and poverty.
At one of our ASB pre-departure meetings we discussed the idea of the “single story”. The single story is one that makes assumptions and fails to include the voices of those people in its narrative. This in turn leads to stereotypes and bias. Although I have yet to meet the people of Cuernavaca, I can see already that I’ve had a single story of Mexico in my mind, and that I haven’t heard the story of its beauty. I have a feeling that tomorrow, when we experience the market and meet the local people for the first time, my single-sided story will build a few more dimensions.