Ghosts of Guadalajara

The tiny traffic light stood before me. The airport was busy; there wasn't time for me to take anything in. I shuffled my feet forward, one anxious step after another. We'd been on Mexican soil for less than thirty minutes and I'd already felt heavy anxiety drape over my heart. Airport employees called out to us in Spanish. Not understanding what was being said to or around me, I blindly followed the line and placed my suitcase on the conveyor. One by one I observed the passengers in front of me walk up to a short post with one red light, one green light, and one large button. Confusion was replaced by dread as my fellow travelers shuffled up to the light and took a turn pushing the button. Green light, you're free to take your baggage and go. Red light, you're not. Welcome to Mexico.

The Gods of Virgin Travelers must have been watching over me that day because as my pale hand reached out and pressed the button, the friendly green light lit up. I grabbed my bag and hurried out of the airport. It was September 2002 and my husband and I had just landed in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Prior to this trip, my only experience with Mexico was from the shelter of a safe and inauthentic cruise ship (as well as my dad's claim to have nearly died on a beach in Mexico some thirty years earlier, but that's a story for another day). Guadalajara was my husband's idea. I'd never been anywhere and was never really bothered by that (ignorance is bliss reigned ashamedly supreme with me back then) but Greg wanted more. He was in search of a bona fide adventure, a genuine experience in the heart of Mexico. What he found was an exquisite city and a bad case of Montezuma's Revenge. What I found was myself.

We had but five days in Guadalajara and, sadly, I wasted a good two or three of those days feeling scared, homesick, and profoundly uncomfortable. No one looked like me. No one spoke like me. The city was the largest I'd ever seen and the sounds and chaos overwhelmed me. I wanted so badly to go home. I wanted so badly to be anywhere but where I was. We wandered the city and I fought back tears as I was stared at and even, in an isolated moment, mildly heckled. I sat in the back of a small van on a city tour led by a Guadalajara native and sniffled as our guide encouraged me to try out my Spanish. Practicing my Spanish was the last thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to go back to our hotel room and count down the minutes until I could return to my comfortable, oblivious existence.

I wish I could remember exactly what was the turning point in that trip. I wish I could recall what changed for me and why. All I know is that at some point I snapped out of it. I became a little more comfortable. I began to embrace the adventure and the unknown. I spoke halting and jumbled Spanish to the hotel staff and I smiled as our taxi skidded over cobblestone streets. I learned how to purchase pan dulce in the panaderia near the Plaza de Armas and I had one of the best meals of my life at El Sacromonte. We laughed with some spirited locals in a small sports store (where my husband purchased a large Guadalajara Chivas goat which strapped to his head in a truly obnoxious yet amusing manner) and we enjoyed an afternoon at the Ballet Folklorico at the Teatro Degollado. For a girl who was late to the party, I ended up having the time of my young life in Guadalajara.

Since that trip my husband and I have traveled a good amount, both domestically and internationally. Yet I look back on that trip to Guadalajara as a pivotal moment in my life. Guadalajara forced me to expand my definition of comfortable and instilled in me a passion for travel and learning. Guadalajara also served as the starting point for personal evolution. I don't recognize that 23-year-old girl who arrived in Guadalajara ten years ago, sheltered and scared and desperate for home. Guadalajara began as a place I didn't want to be and it became the impetus for who I am today.

L Hensrude

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