Sunglasses, bags, shop; sunglasses, hats, sandals,; sunglasses, hats, bags, bar; sunglasses, bar, bags; more sunglasses, bar, bar, bags, hats, sandals, sunglasses, a club. I know that I am in Mexico, Playa del Carmen to be precise, but the endless, repetitive sequence of well known shops and brands, combined with just a hint of jetlag, makes me feel like I could be strolling along the commercial arteria of any major European capital. To weigh in on the confusion, something essential is missing, something that I thought to be the very fragrance of Mexico. Impossible to escape, surprising you at every corner, grasping your attention at the exit of the metro, at the entrance of universities and museums, in the streets, in public transport, at the door of your home: the scent of tacos.
Mexico City, the only Mexico I have known at this time, had me believing that such aroma was part of the basic infrastructure of the country. But apparently not here, not in Playa. I am not sure yet which one is the exception. I knew from the start that Mexico City is like nothing else, but I did not expect such a lack of resemblance when landing on the sunny, warm grounds of Cancun. Mexico City has prepared me for the crowds, for the traffic, for the loud shouts of the taqueros, for the busses with no doors and for the never-ending flow of pink taxi’s, for the colourful houses, always different from one another, for the continuously changing but never ending neighborhoods, merging into each other in mysterious ways. In short, a head-spinning overload of the senses.
I’m not prepared – however – for what I find before my eyes. American fast food chains, massive hotels dominating the white sandy beach, big SUVs spreading loud music all over the place, hipster bars and expensive clothes boutiques. There is still beauty, there is still Mexico, behind all the sunglasses shops, but it really takes some effort to go and find it. Almost impossible without the help of a local.
After a few days spent between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, we decide to move southward. The bus ride to Bacalár reveals another dimension of Mexico, which I had not yet met. It’s quite a long ride, hours and hours of cutting through a nothingness made of darkness, mangroves, and only a few spots of light. A straight road, going on for miles and miles and miles, penetrating the tropical forest, like an open wound. The number of houses appearing on the side of the road can be counted on the tip of your fingers. They are like fireflies in a summer night: spreading light intermittently, delicately emerging from the darkness of the jungle behind. Their doorless facades resemble peaceful faces of silent and determined guardians, watching over the edge of civilization, marking the border between men and nature. I fix my eyes on those little, insignificant points of humanity, and I follow them as long as I can, before they are swallowed again into the night. But they don’t seem to care much. Each small outpost has a life in it that obscurity cannot defeat. Dogs run around, playing with kids, the echo of lively music propagates through the forest, old men drink sitting on plastic chairs, in the trembling white electric light. It’s a long, fascinating, eerie ride, accompanied by the largest moon I have ever witnessed. When we finally arrive, the feeling is one of emerging from an otherworldly, dreamlike state. I feel that I have left behind something known, and I’m about to see something very different.
Our home for the next few days is a wooden cabin on the edge of the lagoon of Bacalár, 20 meters away from the shore. The lagoon is famous for having seven colors, but we don’t see any of them yet, it’s still all darkness, and nature, and that feeling of losing contact with the composed, contrived humanity that used to surround us just a few hours ago. When the sun rises the morning after, a wave of warm, soft, yellow light ripples across the land and the water, revealing a surprising harmony of blues and greens shimmering before our eyes, untouched, pacific, stretching out for kilometers, from our little cabin on the water all the way to the village of Bacalár and beyond.
Days go by, quick and smooth, in some sort of blissful stupor. Hours just seem to slip over one another in a dreamy sequence of kayaking, light Mexican beer, walking around in flip-flops under the burning hot December sun, limes and spicy sauces.
On our last night in Bacalár we head to the center of the village to have a last dinner with a few fellow travelers met in our hostel. We eat our tacos and beers at yet another taqueria, sitting on Coca-Cola plastic chairs. Then, it’s time to hurry through the town to reach the bus station from where our friends are going to leave. We are late, there is no taxis or busses around. We have to walk, or better, run all the way across town. Forced by the time constraints, we leave the main arteries of the village and start cutting through narrow secondary streets. It seems like crossing a mirror into another dimension, a dive into the real life of the people that are born, live, and die here. The several glimpses that I catch while we hustle towards the station are random frames of an everyday life movie. Most houses don’t seem to have doors or windows, or if they do, they are open most of times. Every opening offers a different view: mountains of empty beer cans thrown in the floor, half-full buckets, women sleeping in hammocks, old people sitting in the dark of their empty little houses, vegetation taking over ruins of destroyed hovels. The streets are dark, the sidewalks are impracticable, the roots of huge magnolias and the lack of human care turned them into concrete traps where we stumble several times. Stray dogs run along with us in the night. After 20 minutes of stumbling across Bacalár, the familiar traffic roar welcomes us as we emerge again in the cold artificial light of a large road.
We’re back to reality. The 25 minutes run seems now like a brief hallucinating trip. Yet, it feels more real than all of the days spent in Mexico so far. How could it be that rushing hurriedly through the outskirts of a small town is the most authentic moment my journey? What broke the spell that in Playa Del Carmen and Cancun always made me feel like in the inside of a window display? What finally transported me to the other side of the glass, back into the concreteness of the lives of people that belong here, people that are not just passing by, taking a picture to post on Instagram?
Who or what is really responsible for that? Could it only be the westerners’ too often pretentiously ignorant and superficial attitude towards traveling, always leading us to the same familiarly exotic destinations? Might it also be because of the quite straightforward, concrete economical interest pushing some cultures to give up holding a grip on their true identities, on their stories, until the point of reducing their most authentic traditions in successful, repeatable shows for the occasional visitor?
I may have not seen enough of the world – and probably never will – to be able to express a thorough judgment, but there is something undeniably and evidently real about this little town, about the smiley faces of the kids running around, about the doorless entrances of these little houses, claiming their existence, and the existence of the lives that go on behind them, indisputable proof that a whole, unknown, self-sufficient world exists beyond the walls of our limited awareness.
I wonder, if were to come back here in one or two years, will these kids and these little houses still be here, careless, colorful, untouched? Or will they have all been swallowed by the merciless tide of globalization?
Cheerful shouts around me bring me back to reality. I find myself waving goodbye to our friends, watching the bus pulling out and rolling away on the road, towards the forest again, ready to be swallowed by another long dark tropical night. With my mind and heart filled with a pleasant sense of sweet melancholy, I turn to the rest of the group and we head back into town, anticipating the approaching night of salsa, merengue, beers and margaritas, all while an immense white moon shines bright on the silent black waters of the Lagoon of Seven Colours.