We are three hours into a four hour concert, I just had my 4th hot flash of the evening and am feeling slightly queasy. I’m in my seat at the end of a row, against the wall of the Auditorio Nacional, Mexico’s national performance hall, a gigantic space that seats 10,000 people. The show is sold out.
Sergio asked me last week to a concert for Valentine’s Day. It features four singers from the 1960s that he and his dad used to listened to, apparently quite often because he has a whole catalog of old songs memorized.
I’m happy with my wallflower perch as it gives me a view of 9,999 Mexicans all at one time, including my sweet man beside me. The wall space on one side balances out claustrophobia on the other as I realize exiting the row will not be easy.
I’ve worn very cute, impractical platforms which make me look 6 feet tall, which is great. They also make me totter like I’m on stilts, which is not so great. Getting to my seat was the final leg of a typical urban Mexico City hike.
We crossed busy streets, uneven sidewalks, climbed up multiple flights of stairs to our section, and finally finished up by navigating a narrow row filled with elderly senoras, most with a big purse on their lap. They gave me as much room as they could to let me pass, but the rows of seats, like most public areas in Mexico City, are maximized for capacity, not personal space. I barely had space to walk, in my platforms, in the dark, with nothing to hold onto, hoping I wouldn’t fall off the ledge and into the row just below ours.
I'm excited because this is my first time inside the Auditorio Nacional - an imposing venue built in 1952 that continues to perfectly complement the energy and scale of Mexico City. For architecture fans, it’s a must see. It is a strong, balanced huge modernist space; less harsh than the Brutalist structures of post WWII Russia and Europe, and with no trace of reference to Mexico’s colonial past.
Instead it’s a grand space for la gente , the people, a design with roots in the socialism that fed the Mexican Revolution and formed the genesis of many institutions and federal programs today - strong unions, bloated bureaucracy, compulsory military service for young men, universal (and evolving) health care and education.
We didn’t have any luck buying tickets ahead of time, so we decided last minute to try to get tickets from a seller out in front of the venue. We arrive outside the Auditorio and a seller approaches, assuring us that he has excellent seats in the middle. We all know he’s lying but it doesn’t really matter, we just want two seats together.
He then shouts to a muchacho across the way. There ensues a confusing rush of young men racing across the wide stairs leading up to the plaza, whistling to one another. Whistling is a common form of communication among men en la calle in Mexico, probably dating back thousands of years. Sergio’s son Jarkof still knows his dad’s whistle; they use it to get one another’s attention when we are out walking and have drifted apart.
The reason for the running around is to compare tickets and find two seats together. One boy, who looks about 10, comes racing up with a match; the muchacho who is handling the sale with us double-checks them. He gives me my ticket and tells me to enter the gate first. This will prove to Sergio, who waits outside, that the tickets are valid.
I enter without issues, feeling slightly shady. Sergio then pays for the tickets and joins me inside. Sergio is very frugal, he’ll compare prices for 20 minutes at the mercado to save 10 pesos on avocados. The cost of the tickets represents about 2 days of Ubering for him; I am touched that it meant that much to him to invite me.
Arriving in the central plaza, given the scale of the venue, you would expect to find banks of elevators to ferry guests up to the upper levels. You would be wrong. There are 2 small elevators and tonight one is out of service. In many older buildings in Mexico, elevators are more of a last resort than a main option.
The alternative is not bad. The building has long sweeping staircases that force you to take your time as you move upward through the space. I enjoyed the climb in spite of my shoes; unexpected urban obstacles like this remind me why I work out and keep me motivated to do so.
By the time we reach our seats, the first singer is about 2 songs into his set, with live backup singers and band. He’s singing old standards, the crowd sings along and applauds. I notice an annoying hiss that is too erratic to be feedback or static - its kind of like a high pitched Darth Vader sound. Soon I also notice that whenever he moves away from the mic, it stops.
I look at the big screens hung up above the stage. I can’t see the one that is along the same wall I’m up against, and the other screen is dwarfed by the distance across the big hall, but I think I can make out that he is wearing an oxygen tube. I think the sound is coming from him!
I try to follow along the lyrics and applaud on cue. He alternates between sitting on a tall stool and standing. He leaves the stage after his last song and lots of applause, taking the hissing sound with him.
I check the time. One hour exactly.
Uh-oh. I begin to get a sinking feeling I get sometimes when I'm in Mexico and I realize I'm about to enter an alternative Latino time space continuum. There are four singers on the program.
My gringa brain is in denial. NO way this could be a four hour concert. At the same time I know that resistance is futile and that actually, yes, guey, not only is it possible, but in fact it IS a four hour concert.
In the United States, we grab time by the throat on a daily basis and think that we can force it to submit to our agenda. In Mexico, time is considered something outside of your control, like a leisurely river that passes no matter what. If you get caught in a slowly swirling eddy of a long line at the bank, a friend who is 40 minutes late, a colossal traffic jam, or 4 hour concert that you expected would be 90 minutes, oh well. Que sera sera.
The second singer arrives on stage. He is in good form, with a balance of old school Sinatra chit-chat and singing. Near the end of his hour, he sings a heartfelt finale for the crowd of faithful gathered here - “I Did It My Way”- in English, no less. He exits the stage to great applause.
The crowd, thinking it is 5 minute break time, starts chatting and moving about, some heading for the restrooms. Suddenly the band starts up again as the singer re-appears to sing his actual final song.
It’s a bit awkward given that there had been no call for encore, but everyone adjusts and enjoys an entertaining cover of an old mariachi song in which the songwriter assures us that even though he may not have much, he is still the king, his word is law - and goes on to lament the absence of a queen in his life - go figure.
Third singer up, the only woman on the playbill. She tearfully confesses to the audience after her first song that she has been sick and lost her voice. The crowd rallies, begs her to continue in what became a pattern as she croaked along for her full hour, too. The back up singers (the same ones who were three hours into their four hour gig with almost no break) deserve double pay - without them, there would have been no 3rd performance, really. In between songs, the diva finds enough voice to introduce her entourage in the front row, including friends, relatives, and her promoter.
Then she returns to lamenting her lack of voice and saying no, no, I can’t go on, before giving in to the crowd’s supplications that she continue.
She’s obviously a beloved icon, but I found her to be self-indulgent and unprofessional - she should have either canceled her appearance or cut it short - both of which would probably offend her Mexican fans, as no doubt she knows her market better than I do.
I thought about this later. Why did I judged her harshly? It was more than just feeling increasingly uncomfortable hemmed into my seat. It is partly because I am a gringa exigente - a picky white lady - but it is also because she was full-out channeling the latina diva persona just like in the telenovelas. It’s a mixture of over-amped drama and emotional helplessness that disrespects how strong most Mexican women really are, and does nothing to help defuse the sexism they struggle with in most areas of life.
Finally she says goodbye, running from one side of the stage to the other, and not one minute before her hour was up.
Tres down, uno to go. The final singer comes out. We are in the home stretch with an octogenarian channeling Dean Martin, complete with off color jokes in Spanish and a glass of whisky off to the side.
In spite of not knowing many of the songs, I enjoyed the evening very much. It is fun to be dressed up, out in the city at that venue with my sweet man. He is so happy to be there - he is a big romantic at heart and sang along to many songs, including tearing up while he sang one of his dad's favorites to me “Eres Todo Para Mi”.
At my request, we leave about 30 minutes early, something I have always thought old people do, but not in Mexico, where most of the crowd stays in their seats.
Holding my arm as I totter down the long stone staircase, Sergio comments good-naturedly, “Ai mi amor, tu no eres por la carrera larga” - meaning, I can’t handle the long haul.
I say ”What? That was 3 ½ hours in the same seat!”
He just smiles as if he knows something I do not. We reach the bottom of the stairs, cross the plaza and walk out into the night, our long evening with los viejos reminding us that, if we are lucky, they are where we are headed, and every moment is more precious than the last.
Last week we found our way to a small town in the hills after a tiring day that had ended in a big fight. Yes, and don’t tell me you’ve never had a road trip brawl.
It was the end of a week laced with beautiful experiences and some relationship tension. Almost anytime you travel with others for more than a few days, this will come up. Why? Its because we are out of our routine.
If we are used to having some control, we find ourselves in new situations and it feels uncomfortable. Our ego grasps at small details as a replacement.
Instead of noticing the birds in the trees on the patio, I pick apart how my partner makes the coffee and toast.
If you have ever been the designated driver on a trip, you know exactly what I mean. A new world passing by outside the window, and all the folks in the car can pay attention to is how you are driving.
When we travel with those that we live with, we lose our relationship buffer zones - the routine time away from one another that dulls the edges of little irritants. Constant contact sharpens them to a razor’s edge.
That’s how it was for me when I first started traveling. Now, several countries and thousands of miles later, I’ve developed not only an appreciation for solo travel - ha! - but also a more flexible internal response to traveling with others.
But that doesn’t mean I never have days of fatigue or annoyance, and this day was one of them.
When we finally checked into our AirBnB, which took 2 hours to find instead of 1 due to getting lost in translation with Google maps, we dumped our bags and went for a walk.
We were staying in San Agustin, a pueblo in the mountains outside of Oaxaca City. We walked up the only main road, and passed the tiny town plaza perched on the hillside. Mass was in progress under a huge white tent beside the old local church, which was closed for repairs.
Some weather was moving through the valley; the tent was billowing with the wind or the Spirit or both. At the exact moment we arrived and stood at the back, the priest was transitioning to the middle of his sermon. The core of the sermon was how Jesus lived simply and didn’t worry about things.
El Padre told his flock they should use Jesus as their example, take up their walking stick (bastion, in Spanish), be grateful for their robe, and not worry about having things, because God provides all you need.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how an audience full of rural people who don’t have many things to start with, and not much prospect of acquiring them, might interpret this advice. Did they find it comforting? Empowering? Frustrating as they see the world around them incessantly emphasize material possessions?
I have had the luxury of a life filled with an embarrassment of material things. I have never gone hungry or not been able to pay my rent. It is easy for me to resist the pull to acquire more because I’ve experienced the short term ego satisfaction of stuff. That itch has been scratched for me.
I’m currently in a phase where I’m repelled by the prospect of buying anything with a shelf life.
I’m hunting something less tangible and much more profound. I got a glimpse of it on the beach in Oaxaca.
Sergio and I and a good friend had the privilege of helping some newly hatched sea turtles make their way to the ocean. To be honest, the turtle experience was not on my bucket list. I’ve got nothing against sea turtles but I didn’t really see what the big deal was.
We arrived with our guide on a gorgeous, wide deserted beach just before sunset. The turtle volunteers told us that sea turtles are one of the oldest species on earth. Adult Leatherbacks (the most endangered) can grow to be as big as a “Volchi” - the Mexican word for Volkswagen.
They gave each of us half coconut shells filled with three small turtles, the color and size of small avocados, if avocados had little flipper legs. The hatchlings, born about 20 minutes before, were straining to climb out and escape.
I knelt down and turned the coconut shell on its side so they could crawl out. Given how frantic they were just seconds before, I expected them to sprint to the ocean. Sprint being a relative term, given that they were little turtles after all.
They didn’t. They suddenly all got very still, paused at the edge of the coconut shell with their tiny flippers up by their heads, and looked out at the ocean. It was adorable and arresting at the same time. Their sea turtle intensity drew me in. They were sensing the ocean and the big space outside.
Do you know why it is important to not simply dump sea turtles in the ocean? The females pause for a moment and somehow calibrate and imprint their location. They return later to the exact beach that they were born on to lay their eggs. I didn’t know this before.
When we witness sea turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean, we are observing one of the most ancient animal rituals on earth. It’s like a window in time.
Can you picture the turtle’s focus as something we can’t see but we can feel? I will try to describe it. It’s like a tiny cone of primordial concentration that pierces the present moment. When there are dozens of them all channeling that energy, at dusk on a wide golden beach, a momentary portal to an ancient past opens as they pause, calibrate, then take action and rush to the waves.
They are tiny, unprotected, and determined. The big cold crashing ocean is home and safety for them, even as it tosses them back toward shore a couple of times before finally sweeping them out to the heart of the sea.
It’s incredibly moving.
Now I see what the big deal is with little turtles.
Do you have a place that has imprinted itself on your heart and soul? It doesn’t even have to be a place you have visited. Yet.
I read once about a young girl who was fascinated with Japan from an early age, she had scrapbooks and research and trips planned before she was 12 years old, years before she visited for the first time.
Like thousands of women in the mid 90’s, I read a very dangerous book - Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. That book cost us a few thousand dollars because it planted the seeds of a fabulous vacation to Italy a few months later. We almost missed our flight coming back because I misread the time change. The real reason was subconsciously I wanted to stay there more than anything I had wanted in a long time, send for the kids and create a new life. I can see the magic threads of Italy in my new life now, years later.
We did not send for the kids and settle under the Tuscan sun. We continued to live in Texas and took yearly trips out to visit Northern California’s wine country. I remember one trip, we did miss our flight going back. My mom was taking time off from her job to watch our kids; our screw-up inconvenienced her and even though she was really nice about it, I felt guilty.
I thought to myself, I don’t know if I even want to visit Northern California anymore, it’s too hard to leave.
I felt more at home on those trips than I did back in Austin. I tried to tell myself that it was simply a reaction to the carefree feeling of a vacation. Finally, I was talking to an executive coach once about how I felt, and she said matter-of-factly - "Oh, you should definitely listen to that."
Now I know that it was a definite call. One day I finally thought, the only reason I live in Texas is because my parents moved our family here when I was 12. My least favorite saying is “Bloom where you are planted.” meh.
How about “go forth and conquer” instead?
Traveling to someplace that is calling you is a shortcut to insights about your life that are hard to uncover from the comfort of your favorite chair. For me, the current whispers are from Thailand and India, but I'm not in a hurry.
How about you? Pick that spot on the globe that has always fascinated you and go. And keep us posted!
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