Into the Heart of Mexico II

The essence of knowing a place is beyond what our camera lenses and words can capture. It is beyond that famous tourist spot. Beyond the sights and sounds we easily remember. But we are lucky that we feel and that our hearts remember so that when we recall memories, we find out that the feelings from the experience are alive. They are the ones that really stay with us.

Whether it is a short trip out of town, a retreat by the mountains or a surrender at the beach or a rare opportunity to be in another country, I try to remember the sensations and write down my reflections or realizations. Sometimes, I don’t get to write them until after weeks, or a month, or months, or a year. Like this writing comes thirty-three days after I arrived.

Reflections and realizations are what makes traveling a learning, to some, life-changing. But they are also the ones that make you realize that wherever you go, you carry your home with you. Perhaps, because our home is inside. So, maybe, traveling, as a process most would describe as getting lost, is just about finding ourselves again. Or seeing what we have been failing to see. Or realize what we have been missing back home.

When I saw the Monument of the Revolution in Mexico City, I remembered what a friend said about how we could have immortalized the lessons of martial law but that we failed to do so. It seems difficult for the youth these days to see and believe that martial law during the Marcos regime was a dark time in history. But it is not difficult to believe the horrors of the holocaust because they have been immortalized in journals and museums. Perhaps, one reason why almost each one of us has a level of fascination with histories is because it is how we connect to our past and they are our mirrors—a reminder of how our present and future can be. They help us move into the direction that we want and evolve or regress.

When I was at Centro Historico, the seat of the Aztec ruins, where you can find the metropolitan cathedral and the national palace, where Aztec artists bang the drums and dance to the beat, while hundreds of people, probably, thousands, come and go to hear a mass, while tourists revel in the beauty of this expansive main square, I asked my Mexican friend, “what does this mean to Mexicans?” “Do you think this means something?” I added. “I doubt,” he said. It is possible that he is in a way disconnected or distant to the history of his city, but it is also possible that historical or archaeological or cultural centers like this have lost relevance to the lives of its people and that it will stay like that until they help us correct mistakes in our history—or until such time they serve to actually make our countries, the lives of the people, better. Look at the EDSA People Power Revolution in the Philippines and how the country has not really changed twenty to thirty years after.

Truly, Centro Historico was beautiful. I could almost cry with joy when we were approaching the main square, because it reminds you of the glories of ancient civilization and they make you see the beauty of human creations. It is in the air. I could taste it.

Some three-to-four hours away from Mexico City by bus is San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato. It is a charming place. The culture is so vibrant you see it in the streets—the music, the food, the souvenirs, the celebrations. I was in the city of Guanajuato in the same state of the same name sometime in May last year. Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende have almost the same features—the long and winding roads of cobblestone, the vibrant colors of houses sitting on the slopes of a hill, the awe-inspiring architecture of different churches and shops—including a Starbucks coffee shop that seemed to have no choice but to blend into the features of San Miguel. The difference, I would say, is that I would liken San Miguel de Allende to a woman and Guanajuato to a man. It has a softer, more feminine features. It is probably the tunnels when entering and when in Guanajuato that makes me think it is more masculine, plus the mummies and El Pipila and the riding of the funicular to get there. San Miguel is more relaxed and graceful, like a woman walking, her dress flowing, swaying with the wind.

When my bus to Mexico City was leaving San Miguel, we saw a rainbow, and it stayed for a while. I knew then that the time that I was in Mexico was a crack to let a whole new light in, to a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling and willing. And I wasn’t wrong. Those angel-winged hearts at the souvenir shop were trying to tell me something.

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Into the Heart of Mexico – May 2016

I wanted to start with the trees in León. Because I fall in love with cities of lush trees, and decent sidewalks, and bike lanes, and wide, open spaces to add to that. Somebody tells me that Guadalajara actually has more trees, but I still love the fact that even non-major roads in León have trees. It tells me that the vision to have preserved them goes beyond superficial beautification and a main thoroughfare showoff. Being from a city—and a country—where it’s mostly bad sidewalks and dangerous roads for bikers, I get fascinated with places that offer the opposite. I like bringing home the good news that it can be done.

There is also something about a church next to a church, that is next to another, and plazas next to them, that feel very much like home. Although gatherings at plazas, in some cultures like ours, have been stereotyped as uncool or “baduy” in the Filipino language, I think that the practice is part of a heritage that societies need not be ashamed of. The plazas represent a central activity for genuine human interaction—conversations, stories, music, dances, crafts, or the arts, in general. It has ties to something of historical significance that has been passed on through generations.

As almost everyone realizes, the culinary heritage of Mexico is one of the best, and it has raised my standards for good food. One doesn’t have to be a connoisseur to know good food, I think. And, yes, appreciation is subjective, but the creative, or intuitive, ways in which Mexicans cook or prepare food and the delightful blend of flavours in most dishes that I have tried is heaven. The combinations of different salsas and guacamole, dishes stuffed with cheese, or with chipotle sauce, the hint of smokey sweetness and the blend of flavours they create together is something I will probably not find outside of Mexico. I hope yes. The variations in the softness or the hardness of the tortilla depending on the dish, I think, is also cunning. I love chilaquiles paired with fajitas de arrachera and fried banana. It’s my kind of perfect gastronomic combo.

I love having seen the city of Guanajuato within the state of the same name. León is also in Guanajuato. While León is more of a commercial center and industrialized, at that, Guanajuato is a colonial city—a picturesque setting of bright-colored houses sitting atop the hill and the valley below, baroque architecture, cobbled pathways, alleyways and underground passages that bring you from one place to another.

I have been told that it was once a mining city, why the tunnels. One thing about being in Guanajuato that takes you on a dreamy experience is the celebration at almost every turn—not material, but rather ethereal, from the singing and dancing, or musings at paintings and monuments and the sight of remembrances of the present past.

Cultural heritage dictates how we live and defines what is important to us and, therefore, what we preserve—or, at least, what our societies try to preserve.

gto church main square

I have seen lovely sights and tasted heavenly good food. I met wonderful and warm people and said I would like to come back. But what I find most intimate and sacred about the time I spent in Mexico is having participated in a Temazcal ceremony. We sit in two concentric circles, around a pit filled with a pile of hot rocks, inside an igloo-shaped mudhouse. It is pitch black darkness inside when the door is closed and only tiny sparks of light are given off when the temazcalero swirls water on the smoldering rocks, infused with different kinds of herbs, that give off different scents—one, pungent, and the other, breezy. The rocks give off hot vapors, or steam, each time the water hits it. And we sweat, moderately, in the beginning; profusely, as the heat intensifies. The temazcalero says a prayer, another tells a story, invoking the spirit of grandmothers from ancient past to allow our healing and purification. They pray, and chant, and sing in a Spanish that I could only barely understand but at the same time understand in a language that speaks to me without words. In the beginning, I feel fear from the fact that the door is closed, and that the lodge is an unfamiliar territory. But as I listen intently, and feel the reverberating sound of the drum, of the singing female voice, and then more voices, my fear subsides, my body sways from left to right, eyes closed, sometimes wide open, feeling home, feeling that I have been here before, grateful that we remember and that we offer our intentions.

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They say that the ritual has been passed on from ancient Mayans and that it is performed to do physical, emotional, mental and spiritual cleansing. Out of a few reasons I’d like to go back to Mexico, Temazcal is one.

Back when I used to sing Soul to Squeeze a lot, I would sing my heart out and sing it loud when I say “where I go, I just don’t know, I might end up somewhere in Mexico.” And I did

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