Feature and Above Photo: Fotos Oaxaca

A traveler goes for a ride on a gringo tour bus and comes away with some unexpected observations about authenticity.

We piled on the bus like a group of awkward middle-aged kindergarteners, fumbling around and smacking our heads against the plastic TV’s. My mom, sister and I, the slightly skeptical cool kids, formed a little grouplet in the back of the bus. There must’ve been around thirty of us altogether, masses of white flesh, sandals, and outdoor wear. The Spanish teacher proceeded to make very slow, meticulous announcements about where we were going and how long it would take to get there, and the middle-aged gringos shuffled around in their seats, chatting.

The bus pulled out of the city and glided onto the highway into the valley. Gringo murmurs filled the cool bus air and the valley opened up into greens, yellows, and rocky buttes, long squares of corn and grass stretching up to dry peaks. Half-built tin houses and orange-green mezcalerías with small maguey fields hinted vaguely, half-heartedly, at the presence of people.

The journey to Mitla was uneventful, all those gringo bodies carted around in a big clean gringo bus that bumbled through ramshackle Mexican pueblos, towering above the moto-taxis and pedestrians and squat Ford stick-shifts, us with our white faces stuck to the windows looking out onto hot, brown-green Mexico.

Photo: author

It felt bizarre. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a tour bus. I’m skeptical of the ol’ backpacker standard affirming the inauthenticity of the tour bus vs. the authentic quest of the “traveler” but damn, I must say that being on one of the things does throw one’s perspective for a loop. Even for someone who thinks she’s cynical enough to grasp and honor the postmodern lack of authenticity behind just about any travel experience, the organized tour can be a bit jarring.

In the beginning, I couldn’t get over the stark inside/outside divide. We sat on our big blue seats in our big white bus looking out on the jumbled cubist scenes below, disarray in various shapes, colors, and sizes, foreignness sprawled out there before us like a movie set we could venture into and shrink from when it got to be too much, and eventually wrap up neatly into a few trinkets and photos so we could say, proudly,

“One time, in Mexico…” or “In Mexico, they do this…” with that satisfied smack of the captured experience.

We got out of the bus in Mitla, blinking, stumbling, little swirls of dust rising around our feet, plunk, plunk, plunk, one gringo after another plunking out of the bus like penguins wandering dazed out of a cave under the watchful eyes of zoo-goers. The sun was high and hot at 10 a.m. and we were standing on the side of the road in a dusty pueblo.

Photo: author

The Spanish teacher guide shooed us this way and that, speaking very carefully as if one of us might dumbly wander over to the other side of the road and get lost, a scenario that I had to admit wasn’t terribly unlikely. Her Spanish came in the cadence of the kindergarten teacher who has spent years explaining how not to hit one’s neighbors and why one shouldn’t eat the glue.

We filed into a family home. One gringo after another, looking this way and that, smiling politely and trying, in all earnestness, to squeeze poignancy and insights and deeply meaningful authenticity out of everything from flowers to dog to grandma. We just kept coming in, one after another, until the simple living room, with its old faded couches in the corners and its pretty altar adorned with photos and flowers, was packed full of gringos.

The Spanish teacher admonished us to make room for the new arrivals and we kept packing in, squeezing into corners and crowding round the couches, the never-ending gringo parade. When we were all relatively settled and quiet, our gringo minder presented the house’s grandma, an older woman with gray-white hair and a gray dress, whom the gringos actually applauded, with no sense of irony or absurdity, in an outburst of gratefulness – A Mexican! A real one! And she’s old! And folkloric! And representative of everything we want to feel and experience and care about before we go back to work on Monday!

Eager and primed on all sorts of travel lit and the spiritual necessity to squeeze every ounce of Culture out of the experience, it’s hard to fight the urge to applaud Grandma Mexico.

The grandma talked about the altar and why she’d built it, and maybe half of the gringos understood, but everyone nodded because they knew she was talking about Culture and whatever it was was deeply moving and emotional and poignant and something they should talk about in hushed, contemplative tones with their friends and co-workers in a few weeks. So they nodded. The grandma finished explaining and took her leave under the mixed gazes of pity and admiration and perhaps, caught up somewhere in there, a tame form of envy.

Then they served the mezcal. We partook – five tiny plastic cups, five people sipping and laughing. We had one foot out of the experience and one foot in, but for all we tried to look at it on a meta-level our gringoness and the inherent absurdity of our presence in that house in Mitla was exposed and handed to us on a platter.

Tourism, that ugly condition “travelers” like myself try to hide, was branded on our foreheads. A gringo stepped in the flower pot containing zempasuchitl, the flower of the dead, and flowers and water went everywhere. The gringo tried to extract himself, ready the pot, tidy up the flowers, and a swarm of Mexicans surrounded him and removed him from the situation. Everyone was milling around drinking mezcal, turning red, swapping travel stories.

We went to the cemetery slightly buzzed and fully immersed in the absurdity, blinking into the sun, stepping gingerly over the speed bumps and rocks and discarded gravel of the pueblo road, the gringo parade now on full display for the town.

“I feel like we should be singing the national anthem or something,” I whispered to my friend. To complete the full-on gringo show, to make the consumption of pre-fabricated cultural assumptions a little more mutual. We were, I felt, tall and fat and white and nearly all in sneakers or sandals and professional outdoor wear bought from some glass-walled shop in the parking lot of a giant shopping complex somewhere in America.

The blue sky exposed us, the people of Mitla cast bemused passing glances at us and hurried on, and we sipped our little plastic cups of mezcal and soaked up the nearby mountains rising, the white, hot, yellow dryness of Mitla.

The cemetery was a jolt back into reality. Not the reality of the gringo imagination, but the reality of the Day of the Dead in Mitla, of Mexicans going through a ritual that was actual and felt and present and, dare I say it, genuine in that moment. A reality that would exist with or without the presence of the needy wandering gringo-child.

Photo: author

Flowers were everywhere and on everything, calla lilies, marigolds, vibrant purple masses of furry flowers on white-gray graves. The flowers, the sun, the blue sky, made a kaleidscope of color. People bustled in the unhurried way Mexicans bustle, stepping around graves, lighting incense, sorting flowers, carrying babies, sweeping.

There were babies and old people and couples and people laughing and señoras with twin braids with silken fabric woven into them. There was an old, rusted bike I focused on for a minute, narrowing my vision down to one thing. I could start to pick out the tourists after a few minutes, but they were irrelevant, all caught up just as I was.

We walked around for awhile, dazed, looking at graves and at people sweeping and dressing them in flowers, taken aback by the reality of it.

The Spanish teacher tried to keep the order of the cultural lesson in tact, instructing in the same careful tones how the family kept up the grave of the maternal grandparents and then the paternal grandparents, but the neatly packaged and constructed pseudo-authenticity of the experience had briefly disintegrated as people dispersed into different corners of the graveyard, some still chatting about travels through Sweden and only barely catching a glimpse of the spectacle of here and now in Mitla Mexico (would they even remember the town’s name? I doubted it. But it wasn’t really necessary for “one time in Mexico I went to…”) but others absorbing, sorting through that confusing mental stew of outsiderness and insiderness, of wanting to understand and almost understanding, of experiential learning where reflection and experience go side by side, jostling each other.

Then we left. It was back on the street, a little quieter, fireworks going off everywhere around the town now. The little, poppy, jolt-you-out-of-your-skin fireworks they set off every minute of every day around Mexico. Smoke trails lingered in the sky against the blue. People were “bringing back their dead” according to a friend of mine, who managed to walk through the whole experience – bus tour, family home, cemetery, mezcal – with calm grace and humility. A drunk, brown, round nut of a man in a white straw hat weaved towards and away from our gringo parade.

“I live in U.S.,” he slurred in broken English, weaving. “Atlanta.”

Only my teaching experience could help pick out the words. Other gringos shied away from him, wary. I, stupidly, caught his eye and gave a “buenos tardes,” which he latched on to instantly. I spoke in Spanish, he responded in English.

“Trabajas en los estados unidos?” I asked politely.

“I live there,” he slurred, “I’m a resident.” He was half-looking at me and half weaving.

“Ok,” I said, “y qué haces aquí?”

“Vacation,” he said, “I’m on vacation!” There was something much more doomed than enthusiastic about it.

My mom attempted to join the conversation but couldn’t understand a word the man said. We reached the house and started filing through the door again, and the man knew his vacation was ending there. There would be no authentic Mitla and mezcal sipping for him, not there, anyway. He took advantage of one last try and took my mom by the hand, pulled her aside, and attempted a gallant kiss on the cheek.

“Beautiful, very beautiful woman!” he said.

We went inside, laughing, but I felt a little sickened by the interaction with the man, jutting into the tidy cultural experience of our gringo parade. There wasn’t time for sociological analysis or guilt, though, as we were all soon crowded back around the altar and the family was crying and fireworks were going off outside and my family was crying over the death of my grandparents and then we were drinking beers and eating mole around a table on folding chairs, and a gringo was bragging about how he bought a belt off a peasant in Guatemala for “more money than that guy had ever seen in his life” and when my friend asked how the peasant held his pants up, the gringo shrugged and said, “pins or something.”

I couldn’t really deal with that without making everyone slightly uncomfortable, so I had to stand up and go hover around the baby, who was almost as exciting a gringo attraction as grandma. Being at a susceptible biological moment in my life, I couldn’t resist the baby pull.

She was a little girl called Carlita, oblivious to the oddness of the beaming white faces staring down at her, giving little coos and bubbly smiles to her adoring foreign audience. I let her clasp my finger for a bit and then wandered outside, to where my sister had escaped from the increasingly suffocating swapping of travel tales (“you’ve been to that place in the highlands of Guatemala, too? Almost no one goes there…”)

There was a yard out back, a scrappy little dog, and the quiet sense of life going on as it usually does off down the dusty roads.

The Spanish teacher instructed us that the señoras in this house hicieron trabajos artísticos muy bonitos and we should consider buying scarves porque esta familia nos dio todo gratís y son muy amables, muy amables. It was like having a National Geographic for Kids voiceover distilling the experience for us, dictating where our emotions and priorities and attention should be at any given time. Most people complied with the voiceover’s instructions and bought scarves, lots of them, and soon the gringos were bedecked in bright greens and pinks and blues, beaming over their purchases.

I stood back and observed, and I saw in their faces – trying in broken Spanish to talk with the Mexican grandma, trying on scarves, fondling the material – the desperate need for connection. Something, anything spiritual, anything “real” would do, they just wanted to be a part of it.

If they could buy it for twenty pesos it was an enormous relief, mission accomplished, and if they could give that money directly to this Mexican grandma it was like some big, sweet gulp of water in the parched spiritual desert of the American marketplace, of daily American life.

It was the brief relief from some sort of long detachment and disconnect, and maybe it was all they needed, maybe it was just a vain construct in a world gone so postmodern that even relief from commodification fed back into greater commodification, but it could also have been the spark, the indication, of something much greater. An indication of yearning for a certain connectedness between people, traditions, and beliefs outside of the realm of what could be commodified, bought and sold.

How many of those Columbia boots and jackets and t-shirts had been made in Cambodia somewhere, by a five-year old, and yet their wearers were so desperate to get a little bit of connection here, to feel like this act of buying was noble and was helping to preserve and respect something they honored and even, perhaps, envied.

Instead of seeing that paradox as ironic, I wanted to see it as hopeful – the desire to participate in and respect this culture and its people, to show gratitude for it, and to be respected by it, overlapping the blind, disconnected and detached decisions that go into buying a pair of pants at Target. Maybe the former would usurp the latter, or at least question it.

So perhaps it was the mezcal, but I felt hope there. Of course we then piled back onto the bus, with people already formulating their anecdotes to tell on next year’s trip to Belize, and promptly stopped at a sprawling tourist market full of Mexican souvenirs made in China.

Everyone plodded out and plodded on again, but hardly anyone bought anything. Perhaps that was simply an anomaly, an indication that they were all too tired and sunburned to care. But I like to think it was because they’d gotten a taste of a certain connectedness, and they were still wrapped up in it. And perhaps, the rest of it felt false. Who knew how long it’d last, who knew if it was all a figment of what I wanted to believe. Twenty minutes later we stepped back onto the colonial streets of Oaxaca and parted ways, so I suppose I’ll never know.