Saturday, February 23, 2008

an impromptu road trip deep into Mexico

We are truly privileged to live in one of Mexico's most modern cities, only three hours from the US border. I just never fully understood how much until this past weekend.

Carlos' mother and sister made their final departure from the US last week. They purchased a 98 Ford Explorer to bring down with them, and Carlos' cousin drove it straight from Chicago to our house. After staying with us for two nights, his cousin flew back to Chicago and Carlos graciously volunteered to drive his mom, sister, and visiting aunt all the way down to Guadalajara, where they were planning to settle. And so we set out at 5:30 am last Saturday morning. We swung around the mountains and were in the nearby city of Saltillo by sunrise.

From there, it was an eye-opening journey (for me) into rural, desolate Mexico. For about 8 hours, Carlos drove down the two-lane highways through Zacatecas, a state seemingly populated mostly by cactus and dust. In the small villages we passed, shelter consisted of flimsy shacks. When we would hit some center of civilization and fill up for gas, various locals would descend on us begging us to buy their cheap, even dirty goods, or just plain plead for food. After just a few moments of this, my heart started to ache. Living in one of these rural villages, this is the best shot at a livelihood these people have. Out in the fields, the only thing that grows is cactus. For them, even the concept of scraping together the money to relocate to a nearby city where they could have a better chance to find a job would be impossible.

Back in Chicago, I often met people who said they were from Zacatecas. It's a pretty common homeland for many immigrants around Chicago. But it wasn't until this weekend that I fully understood why. To live illegally in the US, risk deportation, to be unable to have a driver's license, to have all your opportunities restricted because of immigration status in the US - these challenges are nothing compared to the bleak outlook in Zacatecas state. I was reminded again why people choose to go to the US illegally, and it sort of broke my heart.

We arrived safely to Aguascalientes, where we planned to drop off Carlos' aunt at home and then take on the final 2 hours to Guadalajara. However, after grabbing dinner, Carlos decided he needed rest and wanted to finish the trip on Sunday morning. Now that we had time to relax, Carlos, his sister Pere, and I spent about four hours wandering the fabulous colonial downtown with its stunning cathedrals, beautiful fountains, and relaxing walkways. We took loads of pictures, but unfortunately, they're all on Pere's camera for now, so we'll have to wait till our next trip to central Mexico to upload them.

Sunday morning, long story short, the decision was made not to continue to Guadalajara. Pere enjoyed Aguascalientes so much, she decided to stick around awhile to check it out, and nobody was in any giant hurry to get to Guadalajara. Another of Carlos' cousins took us to the bus station at 6am, and we were back in wonderful Monterrey by late afternoon. Note: luxury bus lines here in Mexico are of much greater quality and comfort than the long-distance lines in the US!

My biggest conclusion is that I don't believe many people, even many Mexicans, realize the diversity of lifestyle that exists in Mexico. It's not all poor villages like we passed in Zacatecas, or like what I imagine exists in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán, or Jalisco, where many immigrants in Chicago escape from. It's not all gorgeous beachside tourist hotspots like Cancun. Nor is it all beautiful colonial towns like Aguascalientes, Querétaro, or Cuernavaca. It's also not all modern, urban centers like Monterrey. It's hard to for one person to experience all sides of Mexico, but I think I'd like to try this year. And the way our life keeps going, we probably will...

Monday, February 11, 2008

small moments of beauty

You know how sometimes life's little moments are so moving for no apparent reason? Tonight I was watching the Grammy awards, and when Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban performed their tribute to Luciano Pavarotti, I was reminded of one of those moments.

It was last fall when we were in Milan. We were strolling around the city center that night, down one of the main passages, where the street vendors were winding down for the night. The artists were packing up their wares and the souvenir -sellers were closing up their stands. But in one corner, an elderly man was still camped out with his portable CD player. From the crackly speakers came the orchestral strains of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" from the opera Turandot. The legendary Luciano Pavarotti is probably responsible for immortalizing this piece, and as the song began, I was reminded that Pavarotti had died just a few weeks earlier.

This elderly man had so clearly been touched by Pavarotti, probably had followed him for his entire career, because as he dug into the core of the aria, his voice began to crack. As the piece crescendoed to its peak at the end, tears streamed down this man's face, and shortly after, mine as well. It was one of those moments where I was so touched by the honest human emotion. I'll never forget.

It's things like that moment that help me keep faith that there is some beauty to be found on Earth. May there be many more in the near future.

Here's a famous performance of Nessun Dorma - Pavarotti and Friends, including Michael Bolton, Bono, Meat Loaf, and the Cranberries. Even when sung by non-opera singers, gives you goosebumps...