[Note: Photo collages below are formatted to enlarge when clicked.]
In February I attended the funeral of a good friend’s mom. She was a lovely, artistic lady who had a very full life before a long struggle with cancer claimed her life. Her funeral was held in our beautiful and grand Catholic Church in the center of town, called St. Vincent’s. The similarities of Mary Ann’s life and of my mom’s, Helen, are striking. As I sat there alone and reflected upon family and mortality, I kept wondering, In this life that is so unpredictable and short, what would my mom want from ME before the end?
There in the church pew I wondered: how to make the most of her time, my time, a lifetime. My mom’s own latest struggle with cancer last year kept her in a very sad but necessary place of only living only for today. The unknown future prohibited her from making future plans and “being with the living” as she once described it. All her energies were focused on healing and surviving. Of course!
Soon after that funeral, I asked my mom what she would want my help with. She described an upcoming trip to Mexico that was similar to a trip she took with her mom when she was around my age. With the recent passing of my grandma, my mom now decided to pay it forward and invite me on a similar trip. We had 9 months to plan.
For those of you who know my mom, you know what a fan of traveling she is. The Lucero gene to DO and SEE ALL THE THINGS runs strong in her. She’s an adventurous lover of different, excitement, and mind-expanding experiences! She would go on 5 big trips a year if her body would cooperate but with all she’s been through, she knows it’s not realistic for her to walk solo through crowded, uneven streets to try and keep pace with a busy tour group. As for me, I can admit to loving the part of travel once I’m at the destination, but I am not the best for airports, flying and the limbo of the in-between. However, THIS was what I could do for her, and as many friends said, what a gift— time with your mom alone, you will never forget or regret it!
My Instagram feed has some of the best photos I took on the trip.
On Nov. 5 we set out on our epic 14-day trip through central colonial Mexico. The tour was organized by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society based in Santa Fe. Our itinerary was: Querétaro (2 nights) > Jalpan (1 night) > San Luis Potosí (2 nights) > Zacatecas (3 nights) > Guanajuato (4 nights) > San Miguel de Allende (1 day) > Mexico City (3 nights) all via chartered coach bus and walking tours. This created a giant 1,035 mile loop on the map through these amazing and ancient places to experience Spanish Colonial cities, churches, art and architecture from the 1500’s and later. Our group numbered 31 and consisted of mostly retired and passionate history, art, architecture fans and collectors from Santa Fe. My mom already knew the guides as well as some of the other people she had traveled or worked with before so that was a bonus.
It took me at least 10 hours of phone calls, emails and organizing to put together the 3 page/3 week calendar for my husband and daughter to follow while I was gone. Carpool, after school dates, lessons, class and school commitments, so much to be recorded and an incredible commitment by my family and close friends to make this happen for my mom and me. I am so thankful.
It would be impossible to describe all that happened during this once-in-a-lifetime trip (and some should be kept as special memories between us only), but some of the things that stood out for me as true highlights and life lessons I’d like to carry with me into 2015 are described here.
Overall I feel like so many doors were opened to us because of my mom’s beautiful and fluent Spanish. Spanish was her first language and she’s maintained her skill even though I’d say 95% of her American day-to-day life is in English. Quite often we left the main group to do something in a town that was not on the schedule because of the security we felt by her being bilingual.
My mom and I were immediately struck by the lack of stress on people’s faces. In the evenings families and friends would gather at the local plaza and stroll. Families were enjoying each other’s company, the community around them and nature. They may have had homework, housework and the business of life to get home to but for the moment, there looked to be nothing more important than enjoying each other’s company and going for a sunset stroll. This cost them nothing but a little time. My mom and I would have coffee and watch the parade of people, enjoying the evening air, holding hands, exchanging kisses and offering smiles and buenas noches to their neighbors. Their faces were not glued to cell phones, they looked up and out at the world around them. Their example was such a breath of fresh air.
The custom of saying buenos días, buenas tardes and buenas noches and de nada became a constant in our days. These phrases felt like a respectful, goodwill offering to a fellow human being. A connection that brings people together if only for a moment. I wondered more than once what would happen if only we could carry on this custom here in the U.S. Not just the usual “good morning” to people we know or want something of. But a buenos días that carries with it the implied REALNESS of: “Hey, I’m wishing you a good day! It is, right?”
I was especially enchanted with the importance and maintenance of the gardens in each town’s plaza, church and public area. The natural world is a huge part of daily life in the towns we visited. In San Luis Potosí we must have walked to 10 or more beautiful plazas, often connected to a church. Each unique jardin with a life of it’s own: food and souvenir vendors, street musicians and performers, kissing couples, kids playing and dogs rough housing. The feeling is that to be outside, enjoying nature is not just a relaxing luxury but an important part of your day. It didn’t seem as though people were having to make time time to go to the park, they automatically had a date with the park as part of their day. We enjoyed beautifully manicured trees trimmed and shaped to create giant overhangs of shade, stunningly bright walls of bougainvillea, and a driver pointed out to us a gigantic poinsettia TREE in full bloom.
Although this trip was ALL ABOUT ART this would be the one area I had to let go of. Right away I could see that there was going to be no way to fully absorb all that we would get to see in terms of unique, historical, mind-blowingly precious art. By the end of each day we had experienced visual overload! I also recognize that I have a very limited bit of my brain left for details and facts so I decided to enjoy what I was seeing via the photographs I took, but could not tell you the who/what/when/why of most of it. From town to town in the bus different people would take the microphone and generously share of their expertise in a particular subject. It’s a fascinating way to hear about a place. Looking out the window at the passing Chihuahuan desert listening to stories of the conquerors who traveled this very trail on the Camino Real all the way North to Santa Fe. Our fellow travelers were people who really know their stuff. From the process of getting a statue of a saint’s skin to look realistic, to little known facts about Pancho Villa, to archaeological work with local colleagues, to Mexico’s role in the world silver trade. So much to think about, shared by such thoughtful and educated people. I’m grateful for all they contributed.
Here I’ll try my best not to compare the Mexican people we met with Americans in generalizations. Again, because we had the luxury of my mom speaking the language, we enjoyed some of the most heartfelt interactions with people. Thoughtful, helpful and sincere conversations occurred over a simple request or mundane observation.
One of our days in Zacatecas was spent seeking food other than Mexican. We ended up at a beautiful hotel called the Quinto Real that was once a famous bullfighting ring. After our delicious spaghetti lunch we walked across the street to the lush “lovers park” where “2 go in and 3 come out!” and were taking our daily selfie when a young woman asked if we wanted her help taking our picture. That small exchange turned into a lovely evening spent getting to know her and her older sister who were also visiting the town. Our new friends were there to check out school and the younger sister’s English was quite good. They offered to walk us back to our hotel and we obliged; walking arm in arm, 2 by 2 we strolled along, Mexican-style. We discussed the student protest that was happening just ahead of us, education, novios and the contrasts between the United States and Mexico. As I questioned my new friend about why she would want to come back to the U.S. when life in Mexico seemed so bucolic, she noted her other family that were here and the opportunities that seem to come inherently with being in the U.S. I respectfully described how much happier people seemed in Mexico and what a shame it would be to take on the American lifestyle to which she did agree by saying that “In America people live to work and in Mexico we work to live.” We’ve all heard some version of this before but at that very moment she had nailed the feeling what we had been observing and enjoying in Mexico so far.
As described above, we were also in Mexico during protests to call attention to the 43 Mexican students who were mass kidnapped and disappeared in Iguala on September 24. Iguala is only 3 hours from Mexico City and protests of 60,000 people only 2 blocks from our hotel were planned on the Zocalo for the day we were to leave the airport. Some of us chose to spend our last night in Mexico at a hotel attached to the airport just in case (as reportedly would happen) the protesters shut down the airport on Thurs., Nov. 20. This was likely as that day is also Día de la Revolución. During the stress of the unknown and fear for our safety I wrote to my husband about “this horrid event.” Wanting sympathy, wanting to be assured. And this is from the email I received back from Roland:
“I’m not sure what horrible event you mean. If you mean the planned protest, please take a minute to remember why it is happening. 43 people were kidnapped, murdered and their bodies burned, put in trash bags and dumped in a river. Before that some of their compatriots were shot and one had his face cut off. All by, and under the auspices, of the police acting at the behest of the mayor of the town. All very horrible, but the tip of the iceberg of corruption and ties between politicians and drug gangs that has until now left the Mexican people in terror of making any protest for fear of the same thing happening to them. So this protest is ordinary people saying they’ve had enough of living with fear and corruption and being willing to die for change. This protest is human beings at their best.”
A reminder. That my personal inconvenience was one thing, but we are talking about citizens making a life in a country with a long history of corruption and violence. They must endure a military and government that are neither trustworthy or supportive. I’ll never forget standing by the lovers’ park in Zacatecas watching as a huge group of students and other supporters came over a hill chanting in unison. Statements of protest. Calls for responsibility and truth. Sharp whistles saying, “hear us now!” A young woman with a bandana covering identity ran to hand us a flyer. In Spanish, it was a poem calling for answers. She was running ahead of the crowd with such serious intent that her flyers would be taken and word would get out. But her face was covered. She had to fear for her own safety as she spoke up. It was chilling. The differences between our rights and theirs. The desperation of not knowing, wanting answers, living with the obvious criminality and injustice. That woman’s face was burned into my memory. That could be me, or you. Living that reality.
After the initial break-in period I really came to enjoy the alluring state of suspension that is the rhythm of traveling. While on this trip life for us got really simple. Not much to worry about, everything you own is all in one suitcase. What to eat? The choices were often quite limited so no need to over think it. Client projects? Phone bills? Everything of my U.S. daily life was on hold— and out of sight, out of mind.
This also applied to my family. For the most part we spoke or emailed every day but it was the first time I’d been away from my daughter for more than 3 nights and she’s 10 years old! At first the pull was very acute and even painful but it started to ease up for both of us as she relied more on Roland and I got to appreciate time with my mind for long uninterrupted periods again. They did fine without me, which was a relief and an eye opener.
I made an unexpected travel bestie and at the end of some days Ann and I would email each other from our hotel rooms about our observations or latest health updates, it was comic relief from the day and so fun to get to know the incredibly interesting folks on the tour like her. So many other really gracious people in our group will always be remembered by me. Both for their generosity towards my mom and me and for their genuine sharing of themselves and their experiences. I hope to visit them in Santa Fe on my next trip to the Southwest!
You know those moments you won’t ever forget? Like they are seared into your brain as a moment in time like a picture you took yesterday? A moment you know will feel like déjà vu later. A few times my mom and I both recognized when these special events were happening and I think we’d both silently let them happen— knowing how very special it was, about to be stored for forever keeping.
The day we arrived in Zacatecas, my mom really wanted to take the Teléferico (tram) above the town. Even through both our apprehension, we knew we’d want to say we had done this famous ride in this city. We hailed a taxi and were driven to the low point headed towards La Bufa, the bluff that overlooks the town where my mom had been years before on another tour. The little glass box tram that would hold 6 comfortably travels high in the air— the ride is about 10 minutes and the view is incredible. If you think too hard about it, you won’t go, but we deemed it safe and had a thrilling private ride with the operator who spoke very good English and assured us of it’s safety and laughed at our slight squeals of excitement as we climbed higher and saw the entire town’s rooftops and laundry and freeways under us get smaller and smaller. My Instagram has a video of part of the ride.
Upon our arrival in the city of Guanajuato we were greeted by hoards of people on the plaza outside our hotel. It was a 4-day Mexican holiday and everyone was in a party spirit. We took a perch on a park bench to observe the Cervantes players, the street performers, and the Mariachi bands peddle their talents. As we were watching the people 2 young mariachi musicians kept staring at my arm. They started a conversation with my mom about tattoos asking if mine were real (they had not seen a woman with such a large tattoo that was visible). The charmer of the two then asked if we’d like a song— not something my mom would normally want to spend money on but I told her I wanted to pay for a song. They suggested a certain tourist standard to which she inquired about cost and said she’d really rather have a song by Mexican superstar crooner, Juan Gabriel. Suddenly, at least 8 other musicians were there, one even had a harp! A medley of Juan Gabriel heartbreak songs were then played for at least the next 5 minutes and we felt like queens! So romantic! So special! We topped off that night by buying flowers for our room from a street vendor and enjoyed the fragrance of tiger lilies for the next 4 days.
Another favorite was the day we spent with a private driver. It was our last day in Mexico City and we wanted to see as much as possible. A painful altitude-induced migraine had kept me down for our first 12 hours in the city. Our wonderful driver Ricardo arrived at our hotel at 10am and for the next 5 hours he drove us to the places we wanted to see most. Although his car was a nice VW sedan and not marked as a taxi he drove Mexico City road warrior-style with the best of them. I was never able to get a good video of the dance that is the Mexican way of city driving. There are no rules, lanes matter little, and the split-second decision-making and trust in other drivers is mind-boggling. We got to know “Carro” thoughout the day and in his tie and with his professional take-charge way he ushered us though a beautiful mercado in the neighborhood of Coyoacán where we found excellent handmade trinkets and tasted REAL molé you could eat by the spoonful. I had the best tostada of my entire life and washed it down with the freshest coconut juice! We also went to the Frida museum which was like mecca for us. To be at this beautiful blue house where this incredible artist had lived and created, if you believe in spirits, she is still there— as are her ashes. It was purely magical and again, the gardens were divine.
As simple as it sounds, another one of my favorite recurring themes was each evening spent in our room. My mom had told me we probably wouldn’t be going out to eat dinner every night with the group because of the lateness, darkness, and because we wouldn’t need it (she was so right after those big lunches). So we would wind down around 6:00 with our bottled water, Cheetos or leftovers, and enjoy the stillness of our room after a busy day. Often the only sound would be a nearby church bell sounding the time or issuing a call to mass. She would lie in bed with a novel and I would go through photos of the day, do a little Instagramming and we’d “be in the review” as my grandma used to say. We would usually shut the lights out early and were thankful for many restful nights of sleep given all the variations in rooms, beds and environments we experienced.
Although this was not a trip I’d probably seek out on my own it was a huge gift.
My digital and work life can tend to create an addiction to connection and sharing. Combined with my self-imposed stresses to move forward, achieve, grow, make, build, and do, my daily life is more often than I would like to admit a miserable mess of never-ending, self-consuming NOT ENOUGH. I really hope that I can continue to remember the important lessons learned from this rare chance to leave my life for a little while. We are NOT. ALL. THAT. The world is a big and mysterious place with much more important issues than whether I get my next promo postcard print job ordered or not.
By taking this trip I was taken out of the comfort zone of my structured daily life and provided the opportunity to see a-new. My perspective on the world and my life was expanded. My thoughts about others and myself were upturned and reassembled or some were thrown out altogether. By missing my family I gained a much needed re-set and re-appreciation. My admiration and love for my mom grew more than I thought possible. We made memories that I will always carry with me. We shared more than we have in many years. Thank you mom for this gift. You are a gift and by brave example have shown me the value of a life well lived!
POSTSCRIPT: I am pleased to say that at the beginning of this year with an “all clear” from her doctor, my mom has come out of the surviving phase and moved into thriving— she has taken 2 history classes, has plans to return to painting, works in her yard and continues to enjoy many dates with friends.
PS #2: I took over 1,000 photos and did a little sketching on the road. An upcoming post will have the lettering I created with images.