Travel enhances a person’s taste and vision. It can blind and make dizzy. It can cause whiplash and unmoor.
I see it clearly. As a college student in Mexico years ago, I am a young adult in enormous sensuous contact with the world. I might look like an ordinary tourist, paying a few coins to photograph a squat woman with an iguana on her head, or holding my nose to drink the milk of an agave plant. More accurately, I am a sensualist. I yearn to close the distance that separates me from my surroundings. I want to be somebody who has seen marvels and scaled heights and ingested strange bacteria. It is my animal passion to accrue knowledge through even the most outlandish experience. It is perhaps also the case that my encounter with other cultures becomes a form of indulgence, a way to fatten up the goose of self.
In Mexico, my desire to travel is partly the result of gamesmanship. It offers a chance to one-up those who remain at home. The previous summer, while I worked two jobs to pay for my semester abroad, my friends conspired to jump a train to Kansas City. While I went to bed early, they stayed up playing at hobos, risking loss of limb to gaze at the starry sky from a flatbed rail car. Just to say they had done it. I told myself to be patient. Mexico would be my daring adventure. Soon I would fly with a group of students into Mexico City and then bus it to a language school in Cuernavaca. After passing a month there, we would travel by train to Guadalajara where we would hunker down for the rest of the semester.
In his travels, the sensualist takes in an experience without pausing to question. Especially if he is raised in a small town and nourished by books, the sensualist assumes that experience always happens elsewhere and to other people. There is a certain sense of belatedness, a rush to catch up. Perhaps we should call this particular personality type the naïve sensualist. This is not the place for a full definition, but the naïve sensualist should not be mistaken for the hedonist, with whom he is often confused. The sensualist may or may not have tried hedonism, but it does not suit his temperament. His belatedness makes him quixotic, but not necessarily prone to decadence.
When the naïve sensualist believes that at long last, he is in the midst of a true-to-life, authentic experience, he takes on the role of the cheerleader. He draws attention to it. He finds it impossible to remain silent. Do others realize this is happening? How can one not feel something? Think of the gigantic, fan-blown balloon man they set up outside car dealerships to attract passing motorists. The balloon is designed to dance and jerk erect as the air shoots upward. As the air from the fan swells and subsides, the balloon man snaps to attention again and again, straight as a pine. Like him, in these moments I inflate to twenty-feet tall, the air shuddering through me. Check me out on top of a pyramid! I am the Aztec priest holding aloft my own, still beating heart.
In addition to being a sensualist, I am a newly awakened evangelical Christian, which only adds to my tendency to swell like a zeppelin. The year before traveling to Mexico, I stopped experimenting with drugs in order to make the faith commitment that had dogged me for most of my teenage years. I mended my ways, quit my search for sexual experience, and absorbed the Gospel like a tab of LSD imprinted with the outline of a red Yosemite Sam.
Becoming born again—or at least newly revived—made me a more serious student. The encounter with Scripture awakened me to history, philosophy, and literature and imbued the hard work of learning with the promise of self-knowledge and the thrill of conveyance beyond the here and now. The Western tradition held frozen in suspension the kinds of questions I wanted desperately to pursue. My courses in elementary Spanish contributed to my life change by leading to the pleasurable loss of my bearings. Delving into a foreign language brought with it a perspectival shift that felt like renewal. The tongue felt different against the teeth.
So there I am the following fall as a student in Mexico. I am still a baby Christian. My mountaintop freshman year recedes into memory, and the provisional agreement that I had struck between sensual appetite and my zeal for the Lord begins to unravel in alarming ways. Throughout the trip the Spanish language continues to affect me. Under the unrelenting sun, new words cause a rewiring of my head and throat. There is less water in the way I pronounce my r’s, the liquid replaced by more tap and friction. Never before have I been able to trill.
Everything about this season is a bit unreal, magnified by a power of ten. My senses have remained at level orange ever since I boarded the plane in St. Louis and landed in the dry lakebed of Mexico City. It is somehow fitting that my first time flying led to my first time climbing a pyramid which led to my first encounter gazing up at the day signs that make a ring around the Sun Stone.
My enthusiasm for life is my strongest trait at the moment. There’s a girl in our group who is drawn to my ability to register minute tremors of enchantment. Late one night during our first month here, I walked out of her host family’s house to find two horses, unbridled, clopping past in the dark. Where were their riders? Whence did they come? I leaned against the cool metal of the front gate, half in, half out. After pausing a long while to revel in the moment, I set out in search of a taxi as if aglow, possessed of a story without beginning or end that just had to be told.
Mexico is not unfamiliar to the girl, which is perhaps why she desires the company of the naïve sensualist, who is able to restore a sense of the magic that she has lost. The test of this theory comes on Columbus Day weekend, when the girl and I travel to Puerto Vallarta to stay at her parents’ time-share.
When we finally arrive in Puerto Vallarta and find the resort, it is a relief to set down our bags. I volunteer to go to the liquor store for rum, primarily because I want to buy postcards. Somebody back home needs to hear about the long, mind-blowing bus ride over the mountains. Working its way across the mountain range, the coach downshifted on sharp descents, and how it seemed to float as it crested the high plateau. Raising the window curtain, I startled at the drop-off so close to the shoulder of the highway, the sight of the green valley cutting away far below. How ironic that our entertainment was a Spanish-dubbed version of one of the Death Wish movies, played on the bus’s small television screens.
At the resort we meet up with a young married couple named Pepe and Veronique, with whom we’ll be spending the weekend. The girl knows them because the husband used to be her tennis instructor in previous years at the time-share. Veronique is his hot American wife, who grew up in Key West, the feral child of bohemian artists. The four of us spend most of the next two days on the beach, lunching and dining together, varying it up with a few excursions to the outlying areas.
Since Pepe has a car, he planned to take everyone back to Guadalajara on Monday. I don’t remember the reason, but I opt out. I decide instead to return by myself late Sunday night on the red-eye bus. Maybe I want them to spend some quality time together. Maybe I find it awkward that everybody has an intersecting back story and I’m the odd one out. (One should also note the difference between the girl and me in terms of social class. This is my first time at a time-share.) Or maybe there is a question as to whether we will all fit in the car given the size of our luggage.
The night of my departure, Pepe and Veronique go out to a discoteca, while the girl walks me to the bus station for my red-eye back to the city. There is something dream-like about this night, such that setting out feels like embarking on a great adventure. As we walk I experience a strong impression, which I will record later in my journal (in my newly adopted Spanish, no less), that I am a soldier preparing to leave for war. I have the feeling as I am walking that I may never see the girl or this town ever again. That I am approaching some kind of end. This imaginative awareness gives an almost palpable aura to everything around me. I try for several months afterward to write a poem about the breeze rustling the palm fronds, the echoing waves, and the disco exploding with fiesta. The word “exploding” is a bit much, doubling up, as it were, on the soldier metaphor. But one can see the connection. This is just the sort of thing that swells the balloon man’s dancing, inflatable form.
As I take my leave of the girl at the bus station, something about our parting registers a change. Why isn’t she as unsettled here, as fired into possibility, as I am? Isn’t the aura as palpable to her as it is for me? On a basic level, the naïve sensualist assumes that his heightened perception of the world should be readily embraced by others, confident that he is privy to a mysterious sense of reality for which others will be grateful. When challenged or ignored (or met with a quiet, reserved look, as in this case), the naïve sensualist responds by clamming up. Boarding the bus, I am aware that somehow my connection with the girl has frayed, or that the connection I thought existed never actually did. Just like that, the sensualist retreats behind the brick wall of aesthetic superiority, wounded and finding solace in self-justification.
As the years have passed, my understanding of this odd moment and the fantasy of departure that led up to it has changed significantly. If the girl hesitated to climb with me to the heights of imagination, I now think it is a testament to her practical wisdom. And the metaphor of the departing soldier seems tasteless in hindsight, over-fermented, as if the only thing I desired from travel was the opportunity to consume a variety of imaginative, escapist roles. The naïve sensualist shops for identity in a land where the dollar goes far.
Pulling out of the beach town, the bus carries me through the long night toward the simulacrum of home.
When we reach the bus station outside Guadalajara, dawn is still breaking. But there will be no quick ride home to crawl into bed. An hour and a half later, when the city buses begin running to the Centro, I finally get a ride back to town. The bus drops me a number of blocks away from my usual stop because the avenue has become a parade route. Access to my neighborhood is blocked by a procession in honor of the Virgin of Zapopán, complete with dancers and dignitaries and crepe-covered floats.
Shouldering my overnight bag, I push through the crowd, which moves to the sound of native drums and the bright flourish of horns. When I finally catch sight of the Virgin, it is nothing like I expected. Riding down the avenue in the back of a convertible Cadillac, the Virgin is a ten-inch tall painted figurine who looks more like prom-queen Barbie than the Mother of God. And why is she encased in what looks like bulletproof glass? The parade features a run-through of Mexican history. A phalanx of Aztec dancers passes by with feathers glued to arm- and headbands, quills outstretched like the rays of the sun, then a group of Spanish conquistadors dressed in frilled white ruffs and doublets and wielding pointy, axe-like halberds. All that is missing is the fierce pointy beard. Next come two cowboys who strike out with bullwhips at demons that swirl around them. The half-naked boys in demon masks thrill at the chance to run wild in the middle of the street, even as the lashes draw real red blood.
At this point the naïve sensualist has begun to wear down, feeling as if he himself were the one being lashed. The fatigue is the result of partying at the resort, his lack of sleep on the uncomfortable bus, and the theater of world events passing in front of him like a parody of the programming one finds on the History Channel. The fatigue is compounded by his newly purchased five-dollar sandals, which are killing his feet, and by the fact that he keeps looking in vain for a break in the procession. All he wants to do is cross the street without drawing attention to himself, so as not to feel like the boorish American insensitive to the fantastic display of Catholic national pride.
The sights and sounds of the parade continue to resonate after dinner that night when the phone rings and it is my parents on the other end, who sound massively relieved when I speak my living voice into the receiver. They have heard reports that a male student in our group has drowned on a weekend trip to the ocean. Eerily, these reports seem to match my description. Weren’t you traveling to the coast this weekend? they ask. Whoever it was who drowned went to my high school and had been on the wrestling team, just like me. Of course they panicked, fearing the worst. The swell of relief they feel lifts our conversation, until we realize the darkness that has descended on another family.
The phone continues to ring later that night as the news of the drowning runs through our group. Where is the body? Has anybody called the embassy? How could this have happened? When the identity of the student is confirmed, I leave the house in hopes that walking aimlessly in the dark will help me sort out my thoughts. I knew the student when he was an upperclassman at my high school and a fellow athlete on the wrestling team. This guy ruled the mat. He threw me like it was nothing, like I was a piece of meat, up in the air and straight onto my ass. When he heard I had enrolled at the university he attended, he sought me out, recruiting me for his fraternity. Before classes started my freshman year, he took me on a fraternity floating trip down a quiet river in backwoods Missouri. We spent the entire weekend baked, blissful, bonding. When I began to love Jesus that fall, I severed ties with almost everyone from my recent past. Our reconnection on this trip had been awkward, to the say the least. I often didn’t know how to act around him, and he probably thought of me as that strange bird, a Jesus freak.
Sure that no one is watching, I scale the fence of the nearby municipal park, sit down beside a small pond. I know what the moment requires. They say the first stage of grief is denial. But I can’t be incredulous about his death when I have a good idea what probably happened. Swimming when you’re high is just plain stupid. He and I had run that risk before.
Sitting by the pond I withdraw further and further inside myself. I think about how, that weekend, I ran all alone into the ocean at midnight without even testing the pull of the currents. It is scandalous to admit, but over and over I think that it could have been me, it could have been me, it could have been me. Stuck on repeat, I feel as if my powers are draining from me. There is no more gust of air within.
In late autumn, in the calm after the drowning, after the funeral, just when things are returning to normal, a gas leak threatens to blow up the Centro. The Centro is the downtown area of Guadalajara where weekdays after school I walk through plazas patrolled by men with automatic weapons to get to the mural “Man in Flames” by José Clemente Orozco, and to the pubescent martyr Santa Inocencia stretched out in a glass coffin in the baroque cathedral. As I walk, soot from the exhaust of city buses falls silently, coating the walls of buildings like lampblack. It gets in your throat.
Underneath the downtown area runs the urban maze of sewer and drainage pipes. Today the pipes have filled with combustible gas. Pemex is working to control the situation, but we’re not yet in the clear. They have evacuated residents and shop owners and priests in the immediate vicinity. The trucks are out, as they say. The last explosion from a gas leak destroyed everything within a fifteen-block radius. The manhole covers shot into the sky, and then the streets themselves rose up in chunks of concrete and twisted rebar. According to the news, this blast could be bigger. And I live with my host family only eleven blocks away.
Despite the scare of the gas leak, this afternoon is like any other. My host family carries on as usual. The father, whose name is Emilio, gets his son to help him perform maintenance on the car. Carlos hands him a wrench, brings a pan to drain the oil. Something about the fan belt. The mother is sweet, traditionally feminine. As far as I can tell, she is hardly puritanical or over-serious. Yet every time my roommate and I leave for a weekend trip, whether to the mountains or to the sea, she thinks there’s a good chance we won’t make it back. She mentions this as a matter of course. The drowning last month has made the subject of death an open topic of conversation.
If nothing seems to rattle them, maybe emergency is the norm. They live behind bars, you know. The grassless front yard, which consists of poured concrete overlaid with white tiles, is separated from the sidewalk by an eight-foot high security fence. The perimeter is secure. As Emilio and his son work on the car inside the tiny compound, the steel bars defend against fortune-telling Roma and the possibility of a home invasion in broad daylight.
After the funeral, the drowning continues to echo throughout the entire student group. Whatever divisions initially separated student from student, we are brought closer together by suffering, closer even than we want to admit. It occurs to us that the appropriate thing is to take a group retreat. So there we are on the bus, headed to a colonial mountain town advertised as a quiet location surrounded by a beautiful oak-pine forest.
The weekend is meant to be free-flowing and therapeutic. We hike up the mountain to discover an amazing vista. Dinner at the local restaurant features a contest for who can eat the most jalapeños. We hear two or three times the tale of the drowning from the one who was with him. We hear with rapt attention about the drunken late-night swim, blacking out, and waking up the next morning in bed covered with sand, unable to recall either how he got there or (though this remains unspoken) whether our lost friend called out for help in his final moments.
The second night of our stay, I decide to retire early. When I come downstairs the next morning, signs abound that the after-hours festivities spilled into an anything-goes session of I’m not sure what. Classmates are three or four to a sofa or bed, in various states of undress, with sheets and blankets strewn about. They have sought solace in wine but also in each other. Everyone looks sheepish at breakfast.
In December, I return from Mexico less green than when I arrived, a little less bold. It is at this point I renew my dedication to the process of becoming who I want to be.
Jeffrey Galbraith is Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College.