When I was in college, I spent about ten days travelling in and around Cuernavaca, Mexico. I still remember flying into Mexico City at night, on board a smoke-filled (because you could still smoke on airplanes in the Eighties) Pan Am jet, looking at the sea of lights below. Later, when we climbed a hill at the center of the city to visit a shrine where real blood had supposedly run from the wooden Christ’s wounds and the Virgin had appeared to some schoolchildren, I saw the city on high by day, and remember thinking it looked like Los Angeles, 2019 in the opening credits of Blade Runner. There was no place I looked that I didn’t see buildings and cars and pollution and garbage and smog, stretching as far as the horizon in all directions. We walked everywhere, or took buses. By the time I got back to Syracuse, I was so far into culture shock that I literally forgot how to drive my VW Rabbit diesel.
Cuernavaca is in the mountains about an hour’s drive from Mexico City. It had been Cortes’ summer retreat. For me it was time of firsts, where I made memories of things I did and will probably never do again. My companions and I ate in the village square watched over by soldiers with submachine guns. We played soccer with a young boy named Angelito (Little Angel). We ate simple food like corn, beans, rice, and tortillas. We drank multi-colored,cheap, delicious sodas made with real sugar. We got loaded on cervezas in bars even though we weren’t legal back in the States. We bought single Marlboros at tiny bodegas and smoked them in dark alleys. We got patted down by street kids who, recognizing us as Americans, knew we must be rich and have money to spare. We dined at night in crumbling castles with bats flying overhead in the trees. We swam in desert oases, skinny-dipped in our hotel pool, hiked up to mountain villages where the only constant was the visit from the Coca-Cola truck once a day. Everyone had toilet paper but no one had toilets.
In fact, the subject of excretion comprises a part of one of my most enduring memories from that trip. We were sitting in a restaurant in Taxco, across the square from an ancient cathedral, discussing poverty and wealth, and what constitutes “being rich.” After throwing out a number of pseudo-Marxist, liberation theology theories, one of our Mexican companions said, “A rich man is a man with a bathroom inside his house.” The conversation was over.
One of the strangest effects this trip had one me, though, came towards the end of our stay. I realized that for over a week, I hadn’t heard any music. This was way before Walkmans and iPods. Back then, if you wanted to hear music, you either had to put on an album or hope someone was playing guitar in the street. The only thing I could think about was listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival, of all bands. I mean, I liked their brand of roots swamp-rock as much as the next hippie, but why I became so obsessed with them, I really can’t say. I was more of a Police/Sex Pistols/R.E.M. kind of kid.
All I know is, as soon as I got back home, I found some CCR (somewhere), and put it on. I looked out my back door, like John Fogerty sang. I wasn’t living in a dirt-floored house. I saw birds in my trees, not bats. There were no armed soldiers at my local deli. We did have a bathroom inside our house. Two in fact. I was fortunate, indeed.