“I’m free, I think. I shut my eyes and think hard and deep about how free I am, but I can’t really understand what it means. All I know is I’m totally alone. All alone in an unfamiliar place, like some solitary explorer who’s lost his compass and his map. Is this what it means to be free? I don’t know, and I give up thinking about it.”
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
My current working definition of freedom: living on your own in a foreign place. There is so much to explore and even after two months there are moments when I still can’t believe that I am here. The possibilities are limitless with the entirety of Mexico City at my fingertips.
But being free can also be lonely.
For anyone living on their own in a new city, I highly recommend Meetup.com. I dove in headfirst, joining any group within a 5 mile radius, eager to meet new people. I’ve joined a language exchange group, an outdoor adventures club, an Aztec explorers tour group, a vegetarians/vegans meetup, a board game gathering, and a yoga group. There is also a book club and we just got our reading assignment (sounds like I’m in school again haha) for our next book discussion, hence the Kafka on the Shore. It is a bizarre novel, but Murakami certainly nails the paradox of freedom.
It is strange how there are moments when I feel completely at home and others where I feel like I have the word “gringa” written on my forehead. When I’m playing board games with the Meetup group (great way to learn random Spanish words btw, like “comodín” = wild card) I feel at home, like I’ve instantly just made 30 new friends. And then there are those moments where I mess up counting pesos in a restaurant and I feel like an idiot.
Mexico’s independence day, September 16th, was no stranger to this paradox of freedom and feeling at home. We had a long weekend (“puente”) for the holiday and I was invited to celebrate with the family of a good friend of my cousin Monday night for El Grito (when the president reads a speech remembering the leaders of the Mexican Revolution ending with a proud shout of “¡Viva México!”). This was one of those times where I felt completely at home: I tried pozole, a delicious soup very traditional for independence day and set off firecrackers for the first time in the streets. I felt like a kid again and was glad to have been welcomed with such open arms by my friend’s family.
Then on the Tuesday the 16th there was the military parade. This was one of those foreigner moments. As a New Yorker I was expecting some sort of Thanksgiving Day parade equivalent. Military parades are very different. There were no dancers or festive balloons or anything…just an endless trail of guns and artillery and men (and some women) in uniform marching in synchronized steps. It was both impressive and terrifying. I’d never seen so many guns in one place before. It was unsettling to see firsthand the paradox that freedom and violence are often intertwined. The parade was made to make Mexican citizens feel safe and be reminded of the power of their military – both in ammunition and in civil service projects (building bridges, anti-hunger programs etc.). But for me it was a jarring to see children cheering as tanks and anti-aircraft artillery and endless rows of face-painted soldiers marched by.
So. Many. Guns.
These are just a few pictures...I took over 100 of pretty much this same thing, in different colors and sizes.
But freedom is not just for countries : individuals also have the freedom to create. Endeavor recently had a staff training session at RedBox (not the DVD rental company from the US, but the innovative Mexican consulting company). Just walking into their office is inspiring with its modern architecture and glowing inspirational quotes on the walls. I felt at home because it was as if I was back in school: desks, a speaker, a conversation about abstract ideas (innovation, inspiration, creativity). In classroom autopilot mode, I furiously took notes before I remembered that there would be no exam at the end of this lesson. It was strange to break down an intangible concept like “innovation” into a concrete process with step by step instructions. Everyone innately has the freedom to be creative, but we construct limits and walls in our minds that make us think we are “just not the creative type” or that we have writer’s block.
It’s incredible that after so many years of civilization we are still able to create new things. Ancient civilizations began this endless process and we continue it, constantly building on what came before. Sometimes literally. Last weekend I visited the Aztec ruins at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas and Templo Mayor. The intricate detail in these constructions from ancient civilizations is incredible, and yet it was so quickly destroyed and covered with new buildings by the Spanish colonists, blind to the beauty of the civilization they sought to conquer. At both of these sites, churches are built directly on top of Aztec temples and pyramids, crushing the Aztec culture and imposing a new ideology on the native civilization. Walking through el Zocalo after visiting both ruins, I found myself wondering what buried ancient treasures lie beneath the concrete under my feet. Freedom and destruction are divided by a fine line. Mexico City used to be a huge lake, until the colonists, free to use as much water as they wanted, used it all up and turned it into a dry urban basin that today we fill with smog.
La Plaza de las Tres Culturas
Templo Mayor with the cathedral in the background
Inside the church Nuestra Señora de los Angeles in a neighborhood near La Plaza de las Tres Culturas
So I am free. Free to live on my own in a new country. Free to do so thanks to the efforts of countless people who came before me, creating and destroying. Initially, my new freedom was overwhelming, but these past few weeks have made me more aware of what I can do to use it well. There is so much culture and history to explore here, and I have only just begun.