In a city engulfed by corporations and Americana, the essence of true culture is always changing.

Mazatlan, Mexico. It conjures a precision of memories. For many years my family met once a year to live, laugh, eat and drink and recount memories together.

We lounged, strolled, swam, shopped the Zona Dorada, rode horses and para sailed. It was our yearly home at The Inn at Mazatlan, one of relaxation and adventure as a family conglomerate stuck together for a week or more by the sticky juices of squeezed limes and empty Margarita mixes.

Due to my own direction and the various travels, I missed the last three revivals under the Mexican sun, and so I looked forward to my reintroduction to a culture buried within the memories of youth.

As I sat in the back of the taxi from Mazatlan’s international airport, heat and the dust drew in through the open windows. A faded CD flashed in my eyes, as Jesus Mother Mary spun from the driver’s rear view mirror.

An Unrecognizable Return

I watched a beloved Mexico and its culture, passing high-walled penitentiaries and catching the drafts of burning trash and piles of rubber.

Gorging, the corporations find their way as Mexico expands with the faces of Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The noise and debris, the rising dust-clouds into the eternal heat, the rapturous signals, the stoplights and padded feet across cracked pavement before the next race of holy exhaust pipes flood the streets.

I breathed in, and as tin and brick turned to unfinished concrete with spikes of re bar, the city-center approached.

A culture, historic in its patternless flow of work, family, tradition, rice, beans, corn tortillas and cervezas, with mother dodging traffic as she interlinks her arms throughout her five children, and the federales rolling in their crisp black ’06 GMC pickup trucks and Ford Mustangs, fat signs and stripped lands of acres of sweating asphalt surrounded by cheap simplicities.

Gorging, the corporations find their way as Mexico expands with the faces of Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

My heart skipped a beat. But I drew another inhale, observed the life around, and continued to witness Mexico thrive. Dust tickled my throat. I coughed.

How unburdened can a culture remain? I was about to find out.

Arrival At the Inn

The Inn dresses as usual, elegant in contrast with the streets beyond its whitewashed walls. A new tower, more rooms, larger pools and fully-functioning waterfalls. Yoga classes in the morning provide a stretch and increased prajna after a night of drinks, chips, salsa and guacamole.

There’s painting classes, weekly Bingo for the crowds with accompanying time-shares in Branson, Missouri as well as Mexican piñata fiesta for the kin every Wednesday night at seven. With a restaurant on premise, the Inn is a self-sufficient community of lounge-chair potatoes here for whatever is available.

As I search a seafood menu for a vegetarian plate-Mazatlan has risen to its highest, finest, and hottest between the periods of Pacific NW whiteness to burning lobster-red, into the pain and peeling, the lathering of aloe vera in gelatinous greenness to a final golden brown.

Culture? I ask: ¿La cultura? ¿Dónde está la cultura?

Indeed, it won’t be found within the walls of the large resorts and hotels fabricated for the broadening American and Canadian tourists, unless, say, you practice your Spanish with the maids and various workers.

But outside, in the heat and noise, Mexico awaits.

Mazatlan Idol

One evening the family piled in two pulmonias (the equivalent of a crazed golf-cart blaring an ungodly noise of music ranging from YMCA to CCR’s Bad Moon Rising). We drove north to Costa Marinara.

Inside the seafood restaurant/factory, I scanned for a vegetarian plate and came up empty. Drink, talk, laughs of the previous evening, and then to eating. After our meal, the American music toned down and the DJ slapped on your classic Mexican rhythms.

Suddenly, as if transformed into Mexico’s next “American Idol,” a waiter stepped onto the patio platform with microphone in hand. He held it tight, not out of nervousness, but out of passion. Yes, it was Mexico’s one-and-only Tom Jones.

With reverence, he sung his heart out, swooning the customers (who responded often with grimaces) in his love songs of Latino descent. One local, loaded with two of his buddies at a chess table of empty green beer bottles, joined in, grumbling to the melody. We cringed.

“Thomas Joñas,” my sister exclaimed. This was his Mexican stage name, but we knew it was Tom Jones in disguise after his fallout from the Vegas scene. He was reborn and alive, down in Mazatlan to have any and all fall in love with him.

In all the years we had been coming to this restaurant by the sea, we never saw the bills paid and tables emptied as quickly as they did that night.

A Visit From The Country

Señor Joñas wasn’t the only performance. Directly afterwards, six blonde children dressed as Midwestern cowboys and -girls appeared.

Between the ages of five and fifteen years, they seemed out of place from the average Mexican. Not only the pressed red-squared collared shirts, the jeans and boots, the chaps, bandannas and dresses, but also their faces.

These six little children seemed to have just come off the beaches of Santa Cruz with tanned white skin and sandy hair. Let alone, it was nearing ten o’clock on a school night. Depressing and odd.

The DJ queued the music. Georgia-born Alan Jackson, in a thick country singer’s accent, rolled with “Chattahoochee”. The six, in practiced timing, kicked their boots’ heels in a square dance — instantly we were transported on a stagecoach time machine to a backwoods Utah bar.

An American woman, apparently from a similar locale, clapped in a dramatized exuberance. “I love this song! I love it!” I looked over. Her Margarita bowl was at its most bottom slurp.

At the end of their dance, the youngest three did their habituated action and took off their plastic cowboy hats. They turned them upside down and walked to each table, making as little eye contact as possible, pouting, pleading for money.

Smiles were replaced with large eyes and quickened Gracias for one’s generosity.

Our table supplied three dollars, distributed between los niños pequinos. Afterwards, with the silenced laughs and smiles, we sat around the table and did the best thing we could think of: ordered dessert.

Old Streets, The Same Bathrooms

I walked back that evening with my uncle on the main Avenue Cameron Sabalo. We passed restaurants of Japanese sushi, American burger joints, tapas of Spain, and I thought of the real Mexican dishes in the pueblos and mountains: the simple rice and beans of Mexico.

The previous day, my mother recalled the sole brilliance of the establishment known in more languages as simply… McDonalds: “At least we can rely on a clean bathroom no matter where we might find ourselves in the world.”

Yes, Home Sweet McDonalds, along with the other chains, soon to include Dairy Queen, Domino’s Pizza, Subway, Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

Culture. Mazatlan. The input of the West’s dominance and money, yet out on the streets, it is Mexico at its finest.

Yesterday’s Today

Blocks are now splashed with the primary colors of the restaurants’ and consumer stores’ facades, but the dust still rises, the trash still burns, the Chevy trucks, the workers down in the shades and the mothers sprinting across the traffic with young flailing and babies wailing.

Things and their monsters. They let loose to dilute the beauty of this original style of living and culture. Yet cervezas and the guacamole, no matter how diluted, still bring in the Mexican culture of memory to the old and young.

Culture is life. Life is change. Change is Culture.

It is the beauty of the world, no matter how desperate, no matter how congested and overflowing, omnipresent like a McDo baño.

Cameron Karsten writes a weekly spiritual travel column for Brave New Traveler. He left his formal classroom studies to indulge in dreams of travel at 19 years old, and has been wandering ever since. Visit his personal photography website.