Wide Awake In Mexico (draft)

[Working Title / Notes]


For me, 2020 was a year the world lost its marbles. I was living in Malasaña, Madrid – when it all began. I had quit my Melbourne 9-to-5 six months earlier and was absorbed by a course on documentary photography and reportage. The newsreaders were first to get me apprehensive when they mentioned an infectious little Chinese export. The last time one of those came into my life, I had no resistance. This time, the liberty takers stepped in for my protection. And me and my Macanese missus were banged up abroad.

After three months sitting by the sunny window, we had it on our toes. Berlin for a month. Amsterdam for two. For a brief period, Europe was there to be enjoyed. But winter was closing in, and so was Brexit. The motherland came calling with family time and a chance to plot our next move. But our libertarian leader, and his band of party animals, had other ideas. Channelling his inner Churchill, he came up with chalk rather than cheese. Where old Winston convinced people to give up their lives for our freedoms, his fanboy took away those freedoms to save lives.

Having our wings clipped by jingoistic boomers was one thing. But locking up and paying off the healthy for a mostly mild malady felt like mental, physical and economic suicide. With Brexit, there had been opposition, but the pandemic response was a one-way street. The only thing up for debate was the speed limit.

After six months of captivity, the good ship Rookster slipped its chains and set sail for new horizons. The old country had been unrecognisable. The post-Olympic swagger I left in 2013 was gone. Replaced by a conformity I could not condone. During my five years in Australia, trips home ended with the feeling of how little things change. This time it was the big things. Rebranding our rights as privileges and making them a condition of good behaviour felt very unBritish. But down under, it was worse. The Mick Dundee spirit was dead in the water. And my sense of belonging was on the blink.

If the episode taught me anything, it was the value of freedom and friendships. As the world slipped into pandemic-induced authoritarianism, the masses were swapping liberty for security and convenience. I was not on board. The philosophy of Albert Camus gave me a way through. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Learning to say no to the things I disagree with and having the courage to create something new would be my path to freedom.


In May 2021, the borders finally opened. Our reluctance to join big pharma’s loyalty scheme reduced our travel options. Mexico was open. So with our government traffic light flashing amber, we took the risk (of thinking for ourselves). First stop – Santiago de Querétaro. A city unknown to me until I made a friend on that photography course in Madrid a year earlier. Querétaro happens to be the state where Mexicans declared independence from the Spanish. What better place for a couple on the run?


Looking backwards, I connected the dots. As a fifteen-year-old, Fools Gold by the Stone Roses was my anthem. The song is a nod to the Humphrey Bogart classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A cautionary tale about how greed corrupts the soul. And now, in my forties, on my first weekend in Mexico, I was sitting in the same mountain range, eating blue gorditas with my hands and drinking micheladas under the shadow of a tree. Our liberty was edible – no airs, no graces, a breakfast for the carefree.


In getting to know the locals, I use the word America to refer to the United States. They pull me up straight away. “You are in America now”, they say. “We are American.” It was a subtlety I had not fully considered before. America is a continent, not a country. A sentiment shared by other Latin Americans. The point is valid. But they have not escaped the influence of their neighbours to the north. Bellies are big. Cut price Coca-cola fuels a cultural addiction and has put the nation’s health on the line. In some places, agua has become the more expensive thirst quencher. And sugar diabetes out-kills El Chapo.


The safetyism suffocating Europe is supplied in a slightly more autonomous and contradictory form. Surgical masks are all the rage, but refuseniks are met with indifference. Uncovered manholes keep me on my toes, but park benches are off-limits. And if trouble comes, a pocket full of pesos will get popo paws off my collar.


Acclimatising, I realise the Mexican mind is different to my western one. Making arrangements and spitballing ideas seemed indistinguishable, leaving me at a loose end more than once. Then I discovered the lingo comes with laxity built in. Depending on the tone of voice, the word ‘ahorita’ can mean right now, not anytime soon, in a bit, or probably never. Mystified, I dial down my expectations. Another colloquialism adding to my confusion was the reluctance to respond in the negative. It’s a social faux pas – borne out of politeness. That Nancy Reagan slogan fell on deaf ears south of the border.


As we explore our new favourite country, my camera chimes with the cultural crossovers and contrasts. In the cartel-safe state of Yucatan, a man carries a Scarface picture. While a pile of Oaxacan cheese that looks like Tony Montana’s last shipment props up a thousand-yard stare. A throwaway comment from Nigel Benn in 1987 gives extra significance to the Mexican roadsweepers. There are no lions in England. But at the market in Mexico City, they keep watch. A boy walks out of a Bukowski poem with one eye on his future as a congressman. People pull poses in front of pyramids. Chess players in the park plot their next move. Pinball machines wait to be played – as their minder gets sidetracked by his pocket-sized equivalent. Minnie Mouse waves at a passing coffin – the mourner’s trumpet metaphorically cut by the frame – a life curtailed mid-tune. And a history lesson comes in the shape of the Casa de Léon Trotsky. The exiled revolutionary and bedfellow of the ever-present Frida Kahlo was assassinated here by ice pick. In Guadalajara, a city only on my radar for that Gordon Banks save in the ‘70 World Cup – half a century on, a hotel takes its name from the tournament. Homebrew ferments in a pulquería where CBD laces the lager, and a river runs through the street outside. In the tourist traps: A refurbed wonder of the world sits in the middle of an open-air souvenir market. The boho crumpet of Tulum lookout for the next beefcake in a singlet and a top bun. While in Cancun, caked-up gringos shuttle back and forth between designer shopping malls and the Mexican waves.


…Sometimes you have to travel to find familiar places.