After recovering from a cancer diagnosis, a young woman has to figure out how to travel again — and she begins in Mexico City.
The plaza is deserted. Lanky palm trees glower over the gray expanse, stoic under the relentless sun. A man in ragged clothing slumps against a tree planter as a plastic cup scoots across the stone and settles at his shin. The air is curdled with the stench of baking trash.
It is nothing like the videos of the famous Plaza Garibaldi, where men in white suits and gold-brimmed sombreros caress violins, strum guitars, and croon through trumpets to a jovial crowd. Where plaza-goers munch cheese-covered corn cobs, clapping and belting along to the music with beer-boosted bravado.
I sit on a concrete planter and swing my feet. The emptiness is a welcome respite from Mexico City’s historical center, which thronged with sweaty, sunburnt tourists despite it being Monday, the day that all the main attractions are closed. Maybe that’s why there’s no one in the plaza today.
I leave the square and lie down on a patch of grass. My feet are beginning to blister beneath my Chaco straps, and my heart is thrumming too loud, too fast. I take slow, deep breaths, inhaling for four counts and out for eight.
It’s been three years since I’ve traveled outside the U.S., since the Peace Corps evacuated me from Paraguay in March 2020, when the world was just beginning to unravel.
Then, a blood cancer diagnosis.
A world already diminished shrank further. To week-long infusions and sterile beige hallways; to a circus of pills and injections, each battling the side effects of another. Poison was the way to tame the mutiny. Control was the way to tame the poison: wake up, stretch, meditate, journal. Green tea. Work. Green tea. No alcohol. No sugar.
But you can’t really tame the poison, or the mutiny. Just the fear.
A year after finishing treatment, a month after a breakup, Mexico City beckoned. My ex-partner and I had talked about going there together, once I was better.
I bought the flight in a moment of impulse – committing only to myself was easy.
Through social media, I discovered my travels would overlap with those of a high school boyfriend with whom I’d reconnected after my diagnosis. We hadn’t seen each other in ten years.
“It would be great to meet up!” he had said cheerfully.
Over burritos, aggressive techno reggaetón thumps, and a waitress appears repeatedly to advertise the shot specials. I learn he’s been traveling in South America for over a year, a journey prompted by a stress-induced seizure and the realization that he was sacrificing the present for an unpromised future.
He is trying to stop chasing achievement, for a time, and just be.
He tells me this, and also that he hasn’t spent more than three days in one place since he began traveling, hitting all the most famous sites, then moving on.
That seems exhausting, I think, I would never travel that way.
We decline another offer for shots.
When we rise to leave, his blue eyes take me in. “You’re taller than I remember,” he says, a little sadly.
He seems different, somehow, too.
On my last day in Mexico City, I leave the Anthropological Museum after a whirlwind hour and a half of beholding ceramic bowls and behemoth stone effigies. I had planned to visit several other sites before my flight to Oaxaca, but I’m too exhausted after days of rapid-fire sight-seeing. I lie down in the park instead.
I don’t even like anthropology museums! Or florid post offices! Or tourist centers!
Oh, I am traveling that way.
Though it may have been right for him, it isn’t for me.
I am leading with fear: a blind urgency to do the things they told me I must.
Pantless skeletons in suit coats and tiny sombreros dance along blue walls, smoking cigars and grinning toothily. Potted crotons line cobbled streets, and the homes are bright: presenting fuchsia, tangerine, and cerulean facades. The smell of elotes wafts on the breeze – corn, cotija, chili powder, mayonnaise.
There is no agenda, just the promise of an unplanned day. Music and chatter commingle in a cheerful bustle, and passersby glow in the brilliant sun.
Intuition guides me to mole tamales and sweaty bike rides through the city, to streetside Spanish conversations and a wedding where a man in white parades a massive heart balloon above his head while women swish colorful skirts in time with a brass band. To a cooking class where I grind nuts and spices through a metate and churn chocolate into a velvet mole. To an immersive art exhibit that explores death as celebration and nature as medicine, and later fuels debate of good and evil over mezcal.
One evening under fairy lights, a man named Rafael shouts enthusiastic instructions to those gathered on the rooftop: “Adelante, atras!”, “Cumbia!” He moves his body (in an impeccably fitting navy suit) with sensual precision, emanating energy from every inch of his compact stature. We partner salsa in a circle and, at Rafael’s command, raise our joined hands and pass underneath them, changing partners. Glee reigns as we move in imperfect synchrony, feet tapping off-beat, arms tangling in approximations of more advanced maneuvers like “la puente!”
“Mezcal!” Rafael commands over the music, sweat glistening on his forehead. Everyone breaks to refill their drink, grinning and shaking shirts to encourage airflow.
We resume our positions and begin again.
At my hostel, I meet Peter, an edgy, Utah man with a tasteful mullet, a cool jean jacket, and unexpected emotional depth. He’s riding a motorcycle through Mexico and undoing decades of toxic masculinity through breathwork.
We go to the textile museum, where we ignore the textiles and instead dig into one another’s family traumas. For dinner we eat tlayudas while a man plays soft pop covers on a saxophone.
“Do you think you feel things more deeply after going through cancer?” he asks me as we sit in the town square, sincerity leaking off him like rain on a windowpane.
In the moment, I say yes, though the sentiment seems incomplete.
We watch the youth karate group performing across the square for a moment, processing.
“I think that’s what life is. Just going through trauma and then being able to experience things more fully after that,” he says, his eyes dark and glistening.
Later, we find a bar with reggaeton. Previously confident, Peter shrinks and wobbles on the edge of the dance floor as I thrust myself into the crowd. The first notes of “Me Rehuso” blare, and, with uncharacteristic forwardness, I grab his hand and pull him into the throng of bodies. His other hand finds my hip, and we sway and spin to the sensual, pining vocals, sharing sweat and inhaling the other’s desire.
Too soon, I’m hailing a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver delights in my Spanish proficiency. “No te vayas!” he exclaims. “Por qué te vayas?” Why are you leaving? It’s a good question I don’t have a good answer to.
“Porque tengo que trabajar?” Because I have to work? It sounds more like a question than a statement. He turns to me, eyes twinkling.
“Cuál es tu meta en la vida?” What is your goal in life?
I laugh and fumble something about community, friendship, and lifelong learning.
“Para mi es la felicidad,” he says simply. Happiness.
Outside the cab window, the sun is setting. Pink clouds streak the brilliant blue, and cows graze in open pastures.
I realize what I failed to articulate to Peter. Not just feeling more deeply, but more so seeking depth, authenticity. Listening harder, asking better questions, dancing more vigorously. Bathing in the raw tragedy and joy of being human and pursuing those who do the same. Yes.
La meta de mi vida?
As I roll down the window, the evening exhales softly, tousling my hair.
The Atoyac River winds along the highway, carving a murky passage through the earth. Over its expanse it will mosey through farms, mountain canyons, and towns; it will widen and narrow, transforming through the seasons and marking the land. It will become the Río Verde, and, eventually, it will reach the ocean.