I have just returned from my first trip out of the United States in four years.
The challenges of traveling internationally in the COVID-19 era were daunting and scary, so I spent much of my travel time the last few years camping in the Nevada desert and Sierra Nevada. But when my daughter set her wedding date for April 2022 in San Miquel De Allende, Mexico, I knew I had to go.
We spent a week in this lovely, ancient city and I was reminded how important it is for all of us to spend time in other countries. All Americans need to get out of our big bubble and appreciate what the rest of the world has to offer. These places we visit are very different from the quick sound bite and news clip representations we are bombarded with on a regular basis.
Before I go on about why I think we need to travel to other countries, especially Mexico, it’s important to acknowledge that travel can be expensive, complicated and frustrating. And these days, when you have to test negative for COVID-19 to return to the United States, it can be downright scary. On our last day, the back of my mind was obsessing on what it would mean if the test came back positive.
While for some, travel is out of their budget, for many, the decision to spend money on travel is a matter of priorities. It’s a choice between buying things or paying for experiences. Would you rather have more features on your truck and a new TV or the emotional satisfaction found by learning about a new place and expanding your knowledge of the world? How much we spend on the trip can depend upon the level of luxury we feel we need. We will not necessarily remember the decor in the fancy hotel as much as the conversation we had with a local or the time spent enjoying the view of the cathedral from the town square.
While I’ve been to Mexico five times, the last time was over 25 years ago. The other four were the classic “Woo hoo, lets go party in Mexico” trips. Sure, those weeks in Club Med were a nice escape from life, but they provided only a smidgen of understanding of what Mexico was really like. San Miquel De Allende was a very different experience and was my first chance to really delve into the true depth of Mexican culture. I was handsomely rewarded.
While in San Miquel, we took a tour of the Cañada de la Virgen pyramids about an hour outside of town. There, we learned that the Mesoamerican civilization in central America and southern Mexico was one of a half dozen primary birthplaces of civilization. They built elaborate pyramids and immense sunken patios out of rock without the benefit of the wheel. These structures lined up perfectly so that the moon and sun would hit an exact gap in the structure at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. They were brilliant mathematicians and astronomers and provided to the world such staples of modern life as corn, beans, squash, vanilla and, most importantly, chocolate. I mean, what would I do without tacos and chocolate?
The morning before the wedding, we were guided by a group of vaqueros on a horseback ride up a deep canyon to the top of a mesa. The cowboys and cowgirls were local ranchers who contracted with the guiding company to be our guides and help us control their trusty steeds. (Most of the time, I could keep him under control, but several times my horse Pequeno decided to take off. A quick word or whistle from my cowboy had more impact on bringing him back in line than my aggressive pulling on the reins.) After the ride, we were served enchiladas from homemade tortillas and cheese made right there on the little hacienda from the milk of their small herd of cows.
We spent most of our free time walking around the city, up and down steep hills on the narrow cobblestone streets and walkways and passing by multi-colored buildings–many built hundreds of years ago. The city was impeccably maintained and litter free. We strolled past ancient churches that match the majesty of those seen in Europe and hung out with locals in the town square, doing what almost every person in the world loves to do: people watching. A frequent site were flocks of giant white herons, which landed among the bright purple flowers of the jacaranda trees. And every day we ate astounding gourmet meals, which was why it was a good thing we had hills to climb.
A highlight of the trip was a Callejoneada, a traditional parade in which 12-foot-tall paper mache depictions (the bride called them puppet personas) of the bride and groom are led around the park with a mariachi band, a donkey laden with decorations, and all of the wedding attendees, dressed in white, following behind. It was such a unique and happy way to start the wedding festivities.
Everyone we met in San Miquel de Allende was hospitable and friendly and proud to show off their lovely city–as they should be. We absorbed the deep culture and history of this ancient place and returned home with a much deeper understanding of what the best of Mexico can be. While news coverage in the United States often focuses on Mexicans seeking a better life in the United States, it is important to understand that the vast majority of Mexican people are quite happy right where they are. There is poverty in Mexico, as in all places, but there is also prosperity and an active small business community.
To be an American politician it seems to be a requirement to fervently proclaim that the United States is the greatest country on Earth. This, of course, is because a large segment of the American population would not vote for a politician that didn’t say that. For some reason, being first seems to be a requirement for the American soul, as if we are trying to be the best football team, instead of a place where hundreds of millions of people spend their lives seeking joy and fulfillment.
Why do we think we need to keep proclaiming our superiority? In my experience, many folks who feel the need to make that proclamation (usually in all caps with multiple exclamation points !!) are those who have also not left the country. Once you get the opportunity to visit another country, you understand that who is greatest is a totally irrelevant statement because most places are just what they are. They are their own culture; they have different ways of doing things–things which are not better or worse, but are determined by their history and the preferences of the people who live there.
Over the years, I’ve visited about 25 countries from Hungary to New Zealand, Martinique to Poland. Every time I felt they did some things in a way that made a lot more sense than our approach in America, and there were also aspects of our country that I really missed in those locations. (You just can’t beat American toilet paper.) There is really no right and wrong. It’s just different. We, as visitors, should appreciate those differences, as they add to our experience as humans.
While our contrasts are fascinating, it is also the similarities between cultures that remind us of our common humanity. We all love exploring the world with our children and our partners, enjoying the company of good friends, laughing at the foibles of life, moving our bodies through dance and exercise, and, of course, enjoying delicious food. It is only along the margins of how we do those things that we see the differences between cultures. And in those differences, we get to experience humility, compassion and understanding. Hopefully, by visiting and experiencing other countries, we can better understand the world and our place in it.
Tim Hauserman is a nearly life-long resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently published 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider after-school program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support Tim’s work in the Ally.
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