Longing and Belonging
The day after we arrived in Merida it was Clo's birthday. The first place I planned for her birthday evening was La Negrita Cantina. As we walked through the front bar area and into the open garden in the center of the restaurant, it’s clear how busy it is and there's no place to sit (and barely any place to stand). An older couple sitting at a table see us looking around, and invite us to sit with them. At the beginning of our conversation they said they didn’t speak much English, but it turns out they were actually rather fluent (at least as much in English as Clo spoke in Spanish). Clo’s Spanish is getting better and better, and I understood enough of what they were saying to follow along. We found out they moved here from Mexico City and lived out of town (they enjoyed the peace and quiet), so didn't come into the city much. They opened up to us and talked about their friends and family, answered our questions about the area and themselves and suggested places for us to visit while we were here.
This for sure was a fun birthday!! Since the beginning of the trip we didn't hang out with very much people, travelers, locals or overlanders, we didn't really look for social situations. I think we were still figuring out a good way to live together (24/7), finding our rhythm and enjoying the peaceful solitude of the road trip. But it has been a few months now, and I think we are both ready to open up to others, and be more outgoing!! This was the first night we really enjoyed bonding with other human beings again, and it was fun!!!!
This was an excellent beginning for our time in Merida. I found it fascinating because it was the first time on the trip we spent time talking to strangers for hours. It was relaxing to sit there, drink our first beers in weeks and take in the amazing atmosphere at the bar. People were friendly, smiling and enjoying their evenings chatting with friends. After not too long, a band started playing and chatting became dancing. There wasn’t a dance floor so much as they moved a few of the tables out of the way, and twenty or thirty people at a time were dancing along to the Cubano/Latin music. Young, old, romantic and just plain fun, it seemed everyone was taking a turn. It was a great night and really gave me an amazing feeling for the community.
We saw a lot more of the people who lived in Merida during the three weeks we were there. We got to know the family who lived across from the place we rented. Their children playing in the street every afternoon. The old man going down the street on a bicycle cart every weekday mornings selling tortillas, yelling about their availability as he moved by slowly. Another family across the street whom owned three older cars, all of them with frequent engine trouble that required work almost every day. And if for some reason the hoods didn’t need to be creaked opened that morning, the engine needed to be revved for a few minutes just to make sure everything was working well.
For me it was the first time I was covering an event in Mexico (as a photographer). I really took it like an regular assignment, and covered The day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) in Merida. And as everywhere in the word, I got to talk to the press service of the cultural center to get my credential, and meet the photographer that was going to show me around, and hang out with all the other local photographers; I have to say: we are the same anywhere in the world. We dress the same, we act the same, the work the same.. it is pretty funny. And comforting. And right away makes you feel like you are where you are supposed to be. In the right place. At your place. That you belong. There is a real sense of community and respect between photographers. Like family members, even if you don't know them personally: they are still family.
And that's also how the next day you get tagged on the instagram!
It was nice having a routine in Merida, even if it wasn’t perhaps the one we would have chosen for ourselves. One of the interesting things about traveling like we are doing is we often see a lot of different types of people and their communities as we meander through the country. This is one aspect of the trip (and traveling in general) I appreciate the most; the ability to see, experience, participate in occasionally and if I’m lucky maybe even learn something from the communities in which we land.
In my mind there is a big difference between communities and individuals, in terms of what I learn. I may really get along with someone and share and learn many things from them, but it is never the same feelings I get as when it’s from a community. With an individual it’s personal. With communities it’s more of a broad, general type of knowledge. It’s an interesting distinction that I can’t quite define even in my own mind. Maybe because it allows me to more easily make stereotypes and classify people?
To continue on that topic of communities and individuals, I would add that it is harder during the trip to learn to know individuals. We are traveling as a couple and I think that's what we are for most people. We are one. People don't really try to learn to know me personally or Matt personally. We talk mostly about what WE are doing, about OUR trip, OUR itinerary etc. And the opposite is true as well, we tend to meet couples or groups of friends, or locals communities or families, and so we learn about the group altogether. But we don't get to know people one on one and truly create a bond.
Matt has been making fun of me lately, but I have been saying pretty often that "I want a friend". Really I would like to have a friend sometimes during this trip (other than Matt!!); I would like a girl friend, someone I can talk to one on one, be myself, laugh, maybe hide to smoke a cigarette and gossip about Matt ;-)) Being together 24/7 is the best part of the trip I think. I love my husband more than ever, I love our fights and our ridiculous reactions at time, I love our self control and our crazy goofy times; I love every minute with him. If on top of that I could have a friend once in a while that would just be the picture perfect !! haha!
Moving on from Merida, we spent time in the yellow city of Izamal before sleeping near Chitzen Itza. As we have done a few times now (and continue to do at every other touristy place we visit), we were at the gates of the ruins the next day as soon as they opened. Our goal is to be there before the vendors have even set up. People are quieter, no one trying to sell you anything. We walk around, Clo takes pictures, I watch the people. Watching the relaxed chatting between the vendors gives me a feeling they have known each other for years; and in fact it’s likely they have. Most vendors are local people who are trying to make some money from the hordes of foreign tourists that have completely changed their communities.
Communities really are one of the core aspects of the human existence. As noted studies have shown, feeling part of a community is a key aspect to a longer and happier life. As we’re traveling, my own sense of community has changed dramatically. I do feel at times that I can sense and appreciate the communities around me, but we’re certainly not around long enough to be part of them. Perhaps I make friends and feel part of a small community, but it’s not the same as having friends and the broader number of acquaintances and connections that give a feeling of belonging to a place.
We continue driving on through the Yucatan peninsula and all the small and larger communities that are seemingly everywhere around us. Our next destination is one where the community is not human; they’re pink birds. I have never seen Clo more excited to see anything (not even her first big waterfall at Basaseachic Falls); flamingos in the wild. We camped in the middle of the salt flats and woke up the morning to watch the flamingos doing their flamingo thing in the marshes. Then we spent a few hours in the shade of a big tree in the fishing village about twenty minutes away, Clo making tea and just hanging out. Watching the boats come back in from their early morning catches. Women washing clothes. A few local vans acting as taxis. Lots of people just sitting and relaxing. A view into a community we don’t interact with at all, only observe.
This was such a great 24 hours. I wasn't a big "nature fan" before the trip!! That's the least we can say... But things change slowly and I get tamed by those animals, trees and birds yelling early morning. I think sometimes the wildlife is fascinating to observe too, what an great example of community. I got very moved by animals around us a few times.... (should I talk about that time I cried when I saw the little lamb with a broken leg ...) Let me tell you those are some weird feelings to acclimate to!!
Leaving the small town of Rio Lagartos, we headed towards the Cuba ruins. Somewhat surprising to me, everything is so close together in the Yucatan. Partially because it’s not actually that far apart, but also because the vast majority of the roads here are both multi-lane and paved. The power of tourism, I suppose. Depending on your definition of benefit, the nicer roads are definitely a benefit of tourism to transportation facilities. Of course, how much do the local communities use the highways across the Yucatan? Probably not much. Many of the main roads actually bypass entirely the smaller villages, which I thought was a nice touch compared to many other parts of the country we’ve driven through where the roads go directly through the center of a small town. That’s sort of sad to me.
Speaking of small towns, there is one around the Coba ruins. It’s probably been there since the ruins were (re)discovered back in 1882 but now it’s mostly bars, restaurants and a few gas stations. We decided to ask if we could park overnight at one of the restaurants right next to the ruins. No problem! Generally we don’t sleep next to restaurants because they can be noisy, but this place was just too convenient for the ruins the next morning. As we were enjoying the wifi in the restaurant and having a snack, we were chatting to one of the employees there and after a while he invited us to some sort of ceremony/party/dinner/event thing that was happening later in the evening. It was cheaper than the prices of an actual dinner from the menu, so why not?
This is one part of traveling that I really enjoy. It’s not exactly the sort of feeling I get when I get to know a community, but I also quite enjoying getting to know individuals as well. Even if it’s not like we got to know him from childhood on, but we chatted a bit and he was very kind about making sure we parked in the “safest” part of their rather small parking lot. Which we’ve found, to most hosts in Mexico, is right under the brightest street lights. We parked on the other side of the lot in the darkest spot and he was rather concerned, but it made for a much nicer sleep.
Anyway, the event we got invited to was basically the place where they take all the tourists. A Mayan ball game, music, a ceremony, FREE DRINKS AND A BUFFET, that sort of thing. We ate like starving piggies. The show was sort of cool too; not something I would have chosen to do on my holiday but it’s basically free so why not enjoy it? The funniest part to me was the table we were sitting at; a small table for two people in the center of the room. Everyone else (about 50 people) were split up into three large tables, probably sorted by tour company they were with. It was a fun evening, especially since I had two glasses of wine, which is more alcohol at once than I’ve had at any time in the past two months.
This was awesome!!! I felt like I was part of the group!! And it was fun! A touristy kind of fun, but still. And eating in a plate, knife an fork, this was the fancy night out!!! And the pasta... I did not have pasta since... a long time! and it was tasty!!!
The next morning after an amazing few hours in the ruins (at this point in our trip, the pyramid here was my favorite… the view was incredible) we hung out at the restaurant for a while again. Some coffee, some toilet, some wifi; the important items of comfort we often miss. While we were relaxing, it was fascinating to see how all of the tour van drivers knew each other and the restaurant staff. While their customers were sweating their way through the ruins (we do all of ours starting as soon as the gates open), they were chatting about family, bad customers, the weather and everything else you’d hear anywhere around the world.
It’s a good reminder for me. No matter where I’ve been (or where I am!) in the world, no matter how different the lives of those people may be different than mine, the people themselves all pretty much have the same priorities. Enjoy time with their family and friends. Make money to support themselves and their family. Do fun things. Find meaning in their lives. I believe everyone wants some variation of these things. Communities are part of the first point and what most people value highest. Mine is spread out over the globe. Clotilde. My family. My close, long-term friends. Spread everywhere.
It is very interesting to observe, whatever language you speak and/or what community you are part of: body language tells you all. And somehow we all have the same codes all over the globe. In a group or in a small community you can very quickly understand who is who and what is going on just by watching a scene for a few minutes. This fascinates me.
After Coba we spent some time in a few cenotes and of course we couldn’t miss Tulum. Beautiful but crowded. It was time for us to relax a bit, and we were both looking forward to relaxing for a few days in Xcalak. It’s a tiny fishing village at the bottom of the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. A few kilometers away from Belize. Mostly fishermen, there is also a community of about thirty old expats, retired folks living here and enjoying the peace, quiet and gossip. We spent a few days camping at Toby's place. We got to know people a bit. Got to know Toby. Were invited to a "special yearly event" where Toby invites all the resident expats and tries out his new menu items (we were there during the end of the low season) on them. With a big side of gossip. So much gossip. Crazy!
That evening made me a little sad I have to say. A bunch of people, average 70 years old, decide to leave it all behind and spend the next few years by the beautiful water of Mexico. They meet in this pretty little village and decide to have dinner all together and... and what happens: gossip, and jealousy, and you are not good enough to be invited to the dinner and blablabla... Please people, how old are you? Did life not teach you altruism, acceptance and happiness. Maybe that's why I don't really want to be part of a community, I have never wanted to. That's why I am a freelance photographer working on my own and don't want to be part of the gossips. Maybe that's why we like this trip so much!!!! Just Matt and I. No time for the bullshit that a community commands. Just our own!! ;-))
It was quite interesting to meet this community of people, who all chose to come to the middle of nowhere and live here and have no real choice in their friends and who they see if they want to have some social contact. Like when I was growing up outside of a very small town. And then moved to a slightly smaller town. Both felt bigger than in this small community though! I think one of the reasons why I enjoy feeling part of (or even just observing and being aware of) a community so much is because I’ve never been part of one for an extended period of time. The longest I’ve lived in one place for the last twenty years was 3 ½ years, and most places for less than that. I don’t miss it, but I certainly am very appreciative of the value of a good community.
In Dangriga my definition of a happy community was changed dramatically. We were there for a week and spent almost all our time in this city, mainly for the Garifuna Settlement Day festival. We were there for a couple of days prior to the festival and enjoyed relaxing in this tiny village with some of the most curious, hospital and friendly people I’ve met in a long time. Just walking through the village, people would walk up to us and ask us where we were from, what we were doing, how we were doing, all sorts of random things you (well, I) would never think to ask a stranger. It was great!
Then the festival started. The day of festival, three other people showed up in the otherwise empty hostel we were staying at. Luckily they were pretty cool people. There was another couple who were backpacking around Central & South America, and a single guy from Argentina who was in Yucatan & Belize for a few weeks. Even better, one of the couple was a photographer so Clo had someone to geek out with about photography and pictures. The next three days of the festival were crazy. While we did manage to get a few hours of sleep each night, the center of the party was about 50 meters away from our room. What a party!
Yeahhhhh!!! This was a great week! And after being a bit of a couple of loners for the past few months, we fully embrace 2 communities in the same week!
1- The travelers community by meeting Martha, Max and Javier in our hostel.
Martha and Max are just the best. Of course they are European which helps, and he is a photographer, how awesome to have a photographer buddy to run around and shoot all day!! And Martha is so great and friendly and interesting and paints beautiful watercolors. I might have met the girl friend I was looking for right there!! :-) And the cherry on top she smokes cigarettes sometimes!!
2 - The Garifuna people .
The Garifuna community is so friendly and fun and loving.
It was great partying with them, dancing with them, going to church with them, and feeling that awesome community spirit. We were really included in all the celebration. A community with a pretty heavy past that still influence their way of living today. Living fully and joyfully.
It was a great way to spend our time in Belize. It was the beginning of a much more social time for us, and the first time we’d met other travelers with whom we got along very well. We had our first few days of partying together since we started, and a couple of days of relaxation of either side of it. The community in this village was one of the most welcoming and vibrant I have ever encountered, and we also felt part of a small community of other travelers.
But we are still Matt and Clo, we are not the most social of animals. After too much socialization, we need our 24 hours to relax with no talking and just playing on our phones with no (or so little) interactions. ;-)
I think that's the most interesting part to me during this trip so far. No matter where you go, there is always a community. Sometimes I just observe. Sometimes I am lucky and invited to join part of it. Sometimes I am part of the community observing the other communities... weird. But everywhere there is a community and those are what keep people active and interested in their lives. And our trip is really just starting… I’m excited to see what’s ahead for us in Guatemala and beyond!
PS: I hope you enjoyed the frequent use of the word "community" in this article.