FIRST TRIP TO MEXICO

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In 1968 I was finished with UT art school. I learned a few useful things there. I had a few good teachers, but it also made creating art almost impossible for me. Something about the teaching was uninspiring. I need to work with inspiration rather than marketing calculation. I was called “excitable, romantic.” I joke that I’m not from this planet, I don’t always understand how things work in the “real world.”

Also, a young artist shouldn’t be graded by a lot of old fogies as he’s trying to find his way, in my opinion.

Jim was courting my ex-wife on his trips north from Mexico, and he was looking for passengers to help pay gas as he got ready to return to Mexico City. Jim was a tall fellow with a long face, bandito mustache and limp hair. When we got to Mexico City he went out dressed in military looking clothes, complete with epaulets.

My friend Gary and I agreed Mexico was the right escape hatch, better than stick-in-the-mud America at the moment. We signed on. Jim knew all the ropes. He had been living in Mexico for years and spoke Spanish. I heard a vague story of an ex-wife and a gaggle of children that he had somehow left back east somewhere, but I didn’t know if it was true.

His Plymouth station wagon had seen better days but he knew how to coax the best out of it across the deserts and into the mountains. We set off, arriving at Piedras Negras around midnight, continuing on to Mexico City. We were stopped several times where we had to cough up bribes (mordidas). We all chipped in. Jim was chronically short of cash.

At the hotel, Gary and I shared a room and Jim had his own, where he started each day with a joint or three. Then we would go to the ritzy area called The Zona Rosa, where Jim knew everybody. Nobody raised an eyebrow at his attire (I always wondered why he didn’t carry a riding crop).

Jim was very slick at “borrowing money.” I’ve forgotten how much it was in the end. Not a little, as the Brits say. He was our paid guide, I guess.

Gary and I were at a disadvantage, not speaking Spanish, although I had two years of high school Spanish — which of course was completely useless. We decided to take Berlitz classes.

Sitting in front of us in class were two young, attractive blond sisters. We knew they weren’t American, but they might have been German until I heard a telltale French phrase. They were from Paris, it turned out.

Gary insisted we try to get something going but he spoke zero French and I had spent a year in Paris, so the competition was unfair. They spoke no English.

Gary and I were twenty-eight, the girls were ten years younger, their father had brought them to Mexico because he was on the lam from interpol, having bankrupted one of the largest companies in France. Of course we didn’t know any of this.

I’m an introvert of the most extreme variety. I wouldn’t have bothered these girls, but Gary was a flaming extrovert, so he broke the ice. Once the ice was broken though, I was enthusiastic, trying my rusty French in fits and starts. Maybe I could finally learn the language. I had hope, anyway.

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I leapt without looking in those days. In fact, I can’t guarantee that I’ll always look before I leap even now. We all went to Acapulco for December, where Jim and Gary stayed stoned, where Gary almost got pulled out to sea by the undertow and drowned, where we ate and slept like coddled babies. Of course, my French girlfriend turned the tables on me by learning English very quickly and refusing to speak a word of French to me.

Gary was soon arrested and deported for possession of contraband. The Mexico City massacre of students happened when we were out of town and all of our new American friends left the country in a hurry, so my girlfriend and I went to San Miguel and rented a house. I wanted to stay in Mexico. News about San Miguel had been published in Art in America that month. Sterling Dickinson and his efforts to get a real art school going there was the story. We went and found a house to rent, though I never attended classes.

I wanted to hole up and paint without interference. San Miguel was small then, a dusty little town in the Mexican high desert, very few gringos, very few high end restaurants, very cheap rent. It was quiet and the house had a dedicated art studio.

The old Mexican traditions still held then — the paseo in the evenings, the families out together — the food, the celebrations. Some of that still holds, but it’s fading. All the kids have cell phones now, the evening paseo is gone. The town has given way to the modern world. The gringo influence is too strong to resist.

That was a shock to see when I came back from thirty years in France. The French resist the American way, and they are very strict about their language.

Mexicans are more used to Americans’ inept language skills and roll with it.

The town is heaving with North Americans now, and caters to them. It’s good and bad. Medical services there are first class, the food choices are impressive, crime is still low, the parks are cleaned up and there are gringo volunteers galore for every kind of social service, helping the poor Mexicans. It has paid for all that, though, by becoming expensive.

But in those days, my girlfriend’s blonde hair got her too much attention in Mexico, and she wanted out. I liked San Miguel, but we left after a year. Since I function better as myself when I’m in a foreign country, that conflict was never settled until we went separate ways.

Nowadays, I have more clarity about who I am and what I need. I make life decisions a little differently, but I’ve noticed that when things are left up to the gods of chance I’m well taken care of.

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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