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Forgive me Father
For I have slacked.
I’m afraid you’re getting another recycled piece of literature today. I’ve spent this week working on commissions that will actually pay (£40! Shall I buy some crypto?) and therefore have not had time to write my usual diatribe. Please enjoy instead a little tale from Mexico.
*Note: this is from like, four years ago. I do now (and should have then) know that there are things you can do in Sri Lanka that are not riding an elephant.
We were trying to decide between Mexico and Sri Lanka. In the end we chose Mexico so our other flatmate would come, because she’d said before that she wanted to go there, but when we announced the decision she said she wouldn’t. I suppose she just didn’t want to come with us, although I didn’t understand why. The three of us had been living in perfect harmony for three months, or at least as much harmony as you can expect for three people as different as we were. We did the hard sell, plotting out the itinerary day by day, almost hour by hour, then presenting it to her as if pitching a product to Dragon’s Den, but she didn’t go for it. True, the itinerary was written on the back of a paper bag we had found in the kitchen, but that didn’t mean the research wasn’t solid.
Anyway by that time we had already started looking at flights and hostels and getting all hyped up for Mexico, so the decision remained. I was secretly pleased because I didn’t know what there was to do in Sri Lanka. Everytime I thought of it I had a probably inaccurate picture in my head of me riding an elephant, which was not something I had a burning desire to do. In Mexico I knew at least we could eat tacos and go to a nature reserve and float down a warm canal in life jackets until someone picked us up in a little boat at the other end, which was something I had read you could do on the Internet. It wasn’t until I started doing proper research that I read you couldn’t drink the tap water or eat fresh fruit and vegetables because they might have been washed in tap water or drink drinks with ice in because the ice might be made from tap water. But by then the flights were booked, so there was nothing to do but sit in a cold sweat for thirteen hours on the plane and wonder how I would survive eleven days without drinking anything.
When we got to the airport in Mexico City we had to queue up to go through passport control, and as we neared the front I noticed there was a neat pile of vomit on the floor, which made me nervous all over again, just when I had been starting to get excited for the trip. Once we were through to the other side we looked up how to get to the hostel. It looked like we had to walk for half an hour to get to a bus stop. We found a female security guard and I asked her in Spanish if that was the only way to get into town. It was about 4.30 a.m. and still dark outside, and she said it would be really dangerous for two girls to be walking by the side of the road in the dark, which I agreed with. She said we could wait until it was light or get a taxi, and gave us directions to the taxi stand. I can’t hold more than two directions in my head at once and my friend didn’t speak Spanish so I kept asking the guard to repeat herself. Eventually she told us to just walk straight on and if we didn’t see a sign then to go up to someone and say we were girls and we were helpless. Those are the actual words she said. We walked straight and saw a sign so luckily we didn’t have to say it to anyone. We had to pay for the taxi at the reception desk inside and we didn’t realise until two days later that the change they’d given us was a counterfeit note. We managed to get rid of it by tucking it into the bill at a coffee shop and then running away, hiding in a hat shop in case someone came running after us. We felt bad but also it wasn’t our fault someone had given us fake money.
When we got to the hostel it was still in darkness because it was only 6 a.m. We sat on the sofa and flipped through a travel guide. Shapes of people drifted through reception to the bathroom and back again, no-one stopping to say hello because it was too early to interact with people. They just slid back into their rooms on their socks that had been pulled half-off in sleep and closed the door.
When 8 a.m. finally rolled around we ventured out into the neighbourhood to find breakfast. My friend bought some sliced mango from a woman selling it from a cart on the corner of the street, which I was horrified by, but she was fine. She never pays attention to those kind of rules and is always fine, and as a result manages to sample the best a country’s cuisine has to offer, while I go home bloated and constipated from eating bread and cheese for two weeks.
After breakfast we went for a long walk through the city, ending up at a famous architect’s house my friend wanted to visit. You were meant to call ahead for an appointment but we stuck onto the end of tour group from Chicago and pretended to be with them, even though it was totally transparent because they kept asking us where we were from, and as soon as we were inside we shook them off.
The man giving the tour was the grandson of the architect and had a lot of very interesting things to say about the house. He showed us all these contours and lines the architect had built in to each room so that when the sun hit at a certain angle, a crucifix would appear in the corner, made of shadow. On the ground floor we went along a corridor painted bright yellow, with great stone slats in the wall to let the sun in. At the end of the corridor was a swimming pool, but it was built so the water was level with the floor, so you could just be walking along and suddenly have fallen in.
You weren’t supposed to take pictures in the house without a permit but my friend sent me to distract the tour guide so she could photograph the swimming pool. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him and I’d already forgotten the name of the architect who designed the house, and after a minute of standing in silence he said:
‘Is that your friend taking pictures?’
‘Your friend, she’s taking pictures.’
‘Who? Oh, I don’t know her.’
My friend strolled out onto the patio, stopping to examine a cactus.
‘Were you taking pictures?’
‘I saw you just now.’
‘No, I was just looking at the pool.’
She then launched into a charm offensive the likes of which I have never seen, inundating the tour guide with questions about the architect and his other buildings, his childhood in Mexico, and elaborating the rest of our itinerary for the trip. By the time we left he was kissing her on the cheek and offering restaurant recommendations.
After we got back to the hostel I went outside to smoke. Someone came down the stairs behind me and I held the door open for him. I’d noticed him that morning because he was dressed in the sort of homeless-chic clothes I always went nuts for, but his face hung in a kind of slack line, his mouth open, that made him look stupid, or like he smoked a lot of weed. When he introduced himself outside he smiled and his whole face changed, as if it had resumed its proper position, and he was beautiful. I had never known someone before whose face was so changed by a smile, but I’ve met several since, and they always make me think of this guy.
It hadn’t even occurred to me to say ‘hi’ to him before he introduced himself; I had thought we would stand on opposite sides of the hostel door, smoking and pretending to look at things on our phones. I was still fairly new to this kind of travelling, where you stayed in hostels and drank beer together and became best friends in two days before losing touch forever. But we started talking and once I’d seen the smile I was only half-listening to what he was saying because the other half was taken up with thinking of things to say that would make him do the smile again.
I’ve been in situations before where I’m talking to someone whose life has been so different to mine that I’m awed into silence. I went on a date once with one of my older sister’s friends from school and he immediately fell into a long and hilarious tale of getting caught smuggling marijuana across the Mexican border when he was living out of his van in California at the age of eighteen. I had absolutely nothing to offer in return. The only time I had crossed the Mexican border at that point was when I was fourteen and on holiday with my parents and we went to Tijuana for the day. We were all unprepared for what it would be like and had no distinct plan, so after an hour of wandering around ended up sitting in a McDonald’s like the worst kind of tourists. A small boy with enormous brown eyes came up and sat at our table, holding a cardboard box full of packs of chewing gum. Eventually my dad bought some to get him to leave and shortly after that we went back over the border, making a quick pitstop so I could buy a Tshirt that said Tijuana on it, where the letters of the town were made out of dancing maracas.
Once the guy had finished his story he started on another one, and another. He seemed quite content to keep telling them and after an hour or so he drunk-drove us in his van to the friend’s house whose sofa he was staying on. We had sex on the sofa with the only condom he had, a blue JLS brand one, until halfway through the living room light came on and an old Chinese man came in, went into the kitchen and started making a sandwich. I left shortly after and saw him outside smoking a cigarette. I nodded at him but he ignored me.
Talking to the guy outside the hostel in Mexico City gave me the same feeling. He was only two years older than me but had lived an entirely different life to any that I had even heard of outside of a movie. He was from California, a recovering heroin addict who started doing drugs at age 13. I had nothing intelligent to say in response but he too seemed to be quite happy to keep talking with little prompting so I left him to it and watched his face instead. I didn’t mind him only talking about himself because he was so good-looking, which is one of those awful things that is just unfortunately true.
After a while we went back inside to go to bed but he said we should hang out the next night, so we did. I didn’t want to go alone but I also wanted to be able to be alone with him if I wanted to, so I zeroed in on another guy in the hostel and asked if he wanted to have dinner with us. He was American too but younger, a swimmer who had just graduated college. He was pretty dull but my friend did a good job of talking to him while I flirted with the other guy. The swimmer had a tiny circle of beard in the dimple of his chin, like he’d forgotten about it.
We went to a bar and my friend and I got beers and the two guys ordered orange juice. The swimmer had his own sad reason for not drinking which he went on to share with us and I marvelled at how unceasingly open Americans are.
After one beer my friend said she was going back to the hostel – we were flying to Cancun at some horribly early hour the next day – which was obviously a cue for the swimmer to leave too, if only to walk her back to the hostel, but instead he ordered another orange juice and me and the other guy silently made faces at each other because at some point it had been implicitly established that we were going to hook up and the swimmer was blithely oblivious.
We shook him off at the hostel entrance on the pretext of having a cigarette and made out in the doorway. His hand clutched my thigh gently but firmly in a way that made me glad that nothing more could happen because I didn’t want anything to ruin the evening, like the inevitable disappointment of having sex with a stranger. We exchanged details and said we would hang out when I moved to New York later that year.
We messaged back and forth for the rest of the trip, and whether I was swimming in a cenote or floating down a river with a lifejacket on or watching the setting sun wash all the buildings in gold in Valladolid, I was always waiting to hurry back to Wifi to see if he had messaged.
It fizzled after a few months, as of course it would, and when it finally died I felt relieved, because if there’s no hope there’s no disappointment. When I think back on that trip I remember thinking every moment of it was so beautiful, because I was sustained by the belief that you could fall for someone that quickly, and they could fall for you too. I wonder if I went back to Mexico now, I would feel differently.
One good thing:
One bad thing:
I met two Australian girls this week who ALSO thought from my accent that I was Australian. Until now it’s only been stupid British people with no imagination who think that, but now it’s been confirmed by the Aussies themselves. So goodbye, I guess. I’m off to Sydney to be with my people.
This week’s is a guest text from my dear pal and old roommate, when she was introducing me to one of her London friends. It’s a succinct but incredibly accurate summary of my personality.