Yesterday, on a bus en route to Teotihuacán, I wrote this in my journal: “Today’s the sort of travel day I love. Up early and out the door, got my bearings before the city woke up. Made the short walk to the Metro before 6am, took a jam-packed yet long, silent ride to the transfer station, then to Autobuses del Norte—the big bus station. I wandered a bit, unsure what to do. Folks publicly prayed at a Virgen de Guadalupe shrine, others took photos with a life-sized (and waving) cardboard Papa Francisco. Some ate pan or pasteles, drank café or cans of Coca. I zipped through this busy anthill before finding the one bus serving Teotihuacán.”
I continued: “Though confusion, getting lost, and being otherwise clueless makes me feel extra vulnerable and sometimes freaked out, it always turns out to be the best teacher. Accepting this vulnerability is my education.”
Sometimes I reread these entries and surprise myself. I already know in my guts that when I am away from home, especially in a different culture, I am able to see things much clearer than usual. I can vividly recall the tiniest details like it’s my super power. But when I am reminded of the simplicity of life, and by me no less, I lament the fact that I don’t feel this way all the time. Makes me want to chuck my return ticket and stay on the damn bus. Like, not go back to my flat in Mexico City, not get my truck at my folks’ place in New York, not return home to North Carolina. I want to eschew what’s familiar. Just keep wandering with no destination, no expectation, no explanation.
Yesterday I also witnessed the power of context. I got off the bus, paid my 75 peso entrance fee (about US$5), got my bearings, then headed toward the ruins. Fortunately I’d arrived at sunup and beat the hoards of tour buses not two hours behind me. I couldn’t see the pyramids yet, just a distant mountain lost in smog and low sunlight. My shoes crunched gravel as I walked down a long row of closed vendor stands I knew would be bustling by the time I left. All in all it was kind of perfect.
I walked and wondered if the mountain ahead was some volcanic remnant. Or if I’d get altitude sickness if I were to summit it. Its face still in shadow, the slopes began to look unnaturally straight against the bluing sky behind. Its stone cobble seemed geometric, even brick-like. Not until I was less than 200 meters from its base did I realize this whole time I’d been staring at the largest pyramid in the complex, The Pyramid of the Sun. I stopped. And so did time.
I have no context for pyramids. So I didn’t see it. In fact, as a pyramid, the thing didn’t exist. It became what I knew, a forgettable mountain. The moment I noticed it for what it really was, I literally lost my breath. Call it a moment of panic or anxiety, but that mountain, now a pyramid, engulfed me. Boxed me in. I became that moment rather than someone existing outside of it. This stoppage of time was not cliché, not a metaphor. It was for real—as was the mental thrust I experienced that left me perplexed yet completely overcome with joy. For that instant I experienced a cessation of thought. Yeah, that’s joy.
When I owned a running store I once fit a 95-year old man with shoes. He was the sort of old guy you lean in to listen to, all his words gelded with wisdom. He offered to tell me something about time:
“Time,” he said, “is like driving to your buddy’s house for the first time. You get directions, look at a map, write some notes on a piece of paper, and give it a go. But of course you get lost or turned around the first few times and get to know other parts of town and landmarks as a result. But before long you toss the notes and get there without thinking. Soon you’re doing it late at night, in the dark, maybe even making the trip drunk off your ass and not remembering it at all.”
“That,” he said, “is how time works. After a while, it keeps you from getting to know anything else. So what you need to do is this—keep going to your buddy’s, sure, but take a different route. You gotta mix it up, because if you don’t, you’ll get to be my age an the last thing you’ll be thinking about is buying running shoes.”
The word ‘revenant’ is probably the best word for how I felt at Teotihuacán. Swallowing the views from atop the piramídes, gently grazing my hand atop reedy grass between steep staircases. Eating a PBJ lunch adjacent to where humans were once sacrificed. Revenant, that is, until the Avenue of the Dead filled with scads of fellow tourists toting cameras and applying SPF40, making a ruckus and buying shitty trinkets.
I wondered if this is how the place might have looked and sounded back in the day; my brain succeeding in its desperate need to retake control of time.