I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately, living in Mexico – but not in the way that you’d think. What I’ve been pondering is how to up the ante on real risk taking, though many of my stateside friends think I live dangerously enough just hanging out south of the border. Travel logistics are easy, at least compared to the emotional journeys that often follow.
I had one of those intensely intimate conversations with a stranger this week, catching the airport shuttle in Dallas to visit my son Bryan and his family in Virginia. The only other van passenger was a freckled, red-haired woman about my age who commented on my Mexican purse. When I told her that it – and I – was from Oaxaca, her face lit up.
Her only child, Whitney, had lived for several months in her VW van outside of Oaxaca City a year or two back, in a stint of wandering through Mexico. She’d always been, well, a bit of a challenge but at 32, was back in the U.S. and in school. The woman let a few seconds pass. “Actually, she’s in circus school,” she said. “Learning to be a trapeze artist.”
So on the rest of the way to the airport, I gave her the Cliff’s Notes version of my journey these past six years. How I came to Mexico to learn Spanish, yes, but also partially to unstick myself from a lifetime of habitual thinking with predictable outcomes. About how much I’d learned from these kind of brief, seemingly random encounters with strangers. And how much I’d learned about myself from trying things I was really bad at (salsa dancing would make the list here), putting myself in uncomfortable positions to stretch my risk muscles.
I thought of my first trip alone to Mexico – actually my first trip traveling alone outside of the country – almost exactly six years ago, to San Miguel de Allende. A young woman in my language school was describing how she managed her itinerant lifestyle, traveling through Mexico. “I imagine myself on the circus platform,” she said, “and then I dive off of it head first. And on the way down I say: water, appear!” Her answer alarmed me a little and intrigued me a lot. I wanted to get me some of that.
My former husband used to tell me I wasn’t adventurous because I didn’t like to snow ski or scuba dive, though in my defense I tried them both – just didn’t like them. I’ve come to realize that though I’m not a sports risk taker (I’m not physically coordinated enough), I’m a down-to-the-bone believer in stepping way out of my comfort zone to push myself in ways I never dreamed possible.
Here’s where my rubber meets the road in risk taking:
I live most of the time in a country I wasn’t born in. Oaxaca, Mexico, is just a bit of a cultural leap from Dallas, Texas. There are daily possibilities of misunderstanding everything from directions to the bus stop to the complicated political climate. It keeps me on my toes, unable to coast intellectually, socially or emotionally. I love it.
I live my daily life in a language that’s not my native tongue. If I let myself (and I did, at first), I could feel stupid pretty much all of the time. I still make major mistakes in verb tenses and noun gender to the point where if people weren’t so polite here they would laugh at me. Sometimes they still do, politely. Having arrived in Mexico hardly able to string two sentences together – I didn’t study Spanish in school, but French, not a handy language in Texas – I can now manage in most situations. I even volunteer as a translator guide for a women’s microfinancing organization, En Vía. I’ll be continuing to learn Spanish until the day that I die, and I’m OK with that.
I regularly talk to strangers. On buses, in colectivos, in airports, in restaurants, in bank lines, you name it. Someone once said that every person you meet will know something that you don’t. I now believe that everyone placed in my path has a reason for being there, and I desperately want to find out what that is. My first trip to Oaxaca, one other passenger and I missed our connection from Mexico City. In the time span before we could catch the next plane, he proceeded to tell me that the reason was that God had prompted him to share a very personal message of encouragement to me if I was willing to listen. I was. Believe what you will – and that message was indeed too personal to share here – but that three-hour exchange was life-changing for me.
I ride a motorcycle in Oaxaca traffic. Yes, with a helmet and not driving it myself, but still. There are times when I will myself to be thinner so that my thighs won’t take off the rearview mirrors of the cars we’re passing to get through the traffic light.
I have a Mexican partner. That’s the Spanish word that covers the waterfront and sounds a little more permanent than boyfriend, which also sounds pretty junior high. This in itself is not really taking a huge risk (though I’ve been warned otherwise by well-meaning friends), but add the motorcycle, tattoos and past life and it’s an eyebrow-raiser to people who know I was once a lawyer’s wife in Dallas. One of José’s tattoos says “Susy,” seriously.
I live without much of a safety net. Really, that’s everyone – a midnight phone call or a scary diagnosis can change the seemingly most stable life in the blink of an eye. My lifestyle is just out there where you can see how tenuous it is. What if the freelance work dries up? (Something will turn up). What if I get sick or need surgery? (Did and did, turned out fine). What if I want to see more of my family in the states? (Still working on that one). What if the economy goes bad? (Mexico will be in better shape than most places since they haven’t changed many of the old ways of survival, anyway). Also, a safety net in el norte mostly means economic security. I see it now as more complex: having the survival skills that allow you to adapt gracefully to the formerly unthinkable, along with the support of a community of people who won’t let you starve or freeze as long as they have food and blankets to share.
I don’t have a master plan for my life any more. I did once, but it didn’t work out. So I’ve decided that if I just take each day as it rolls and stay as flexible as possible to meet the inevitable challenges, I don’t have to be disappointed that a long-term plan isn’t unfolding as anticipated. The Spanish subjunctive tense – which puts future actions in a theoretical realm that’s also rife with dreams, hopes and fears – has affected my English phrasing as well. I plan to go to the U.S. next month. I intend to visit my children. Maybe the universe will allow those things maybe not. That’s not up to me. To the Mexican way of thinking, the master plan’s not really in our hands anyway, thank goodness.
The rest of the short list: I take buses everywhere (though on one trip to a nearby village, the ride was so rough I arrived with my pants torn and my leg bleeding). I travel to out-of-the-way places. I’ve hitchhiked when the colectivo didn’t come within a reasonable amount of time. I hike up in the hills, though not alone or at night. I do doctor appointments in Spanish. I eat street food, even fried worms and eyeball tacos. I get my hair cut and even colored, still always fearing I’m going to end up with that purply color that’s not natural on any one. And so on.
I last saw the red-headed woman from the airport shuttle in the check-in line as I headed to Washington D.C. and she to Los Angeles. She took my hand for a moment across the lane tape and smiled. “I’ve worried that my daughter was too different to survive in the real world,” she said, this coming from a Dallas housewife whose only child had first headed to Mexico to live in a VW van and then had literally run off to join the circus. “But maybe I had a limited version of what the real world is. I actually think she’s going to be all right now. Thank you.”
I thought of her daughter, diving for the trapeze in the space between the solidity of the platform and that tiny wooden bar with just air all around it. Whitney, you go, girl.