This past Sunday my girlfriend and I visited the ancient ruins of Xochicalco, roughly two hours south of Mexico City and about 2,000 feet lower in elevation. Xochicalco is specifically dedicated to the plumed serpent god Quetzalcóatl, revered by not just the Aztecs but by other pre-Colombian tribes as well. Chronologically, Xochicalco was one of the last Aztec citadels, occupied after the mysterious fall (abandonment?) of more famous Teotihuacán. On the way back to Mexico City we changed buses in Cuernavaca, and opted to grab dinner in this lively mid-sized city.
The Cuernavaca city center is dominated by the Palacio de Cortés, an imposing fortress-turned-museum built by (or at the behest of, more likely) Cortés after his men conquered the region. Cortés had the local Aztec temple razed, then used the temple’s stones to build his mighty palace atop the same hallowed ground, most likely using indigenous slave labor, a reminder to them of the European man’s supposed superiority. With Thanksgiving just two days away, I couldn’t help but compare that to the history of my own Estados Unidos de Gringolandia.
We celebrate Thanksgiving as a commemoration of the harvest feast between our own settlers and the Native Americans who supposedly taught us how to harvest crops and live off the land. (We, in turn, taught them how to use firearms and how to perish from our imported diseases, but I digress.) It would be tough to compare who had it rougher over the years – our Native Americans or the Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs, and Zapotecs of modern Mexico. In the U.S., vast swaths of land, particularly in the southwest, are set aside for the Navajo and other tribes, but the people hardly seem to be thriving, and have barely made inroads in either business or politics. South of the border, it’s almost always los indígenas (today’s pure-blooded descendants of those pre-Hispanic hunter-gatherers) who work as itinerant farmers or street vendors. Compared to those peoples as a whole – and in the spirit of Thanksgiving – I realized after visiting Xochicalco that I have much to be thankful for.
Those of you who’ve known me for ten years or less probably marvel at what many see as a life of luxury; I have good health, long-married parents, a strong relationship, and an apparently never-ending travel fund. Those of you who’ve known me since childhood – or at least since college – probably know a slightly different version of the story, at least as regards the financial part of the tale.
I am not rich, I never have been rich, and I probably never will be rich. Same goes for my parents. Growing up, we always had just enough to get by, and if we didn’t have the biggest house or take the best vacations (I wanted to visit Disneyland; dad’s idea was a road trip to see some flat land that grandpa owned somewhere in Oklahoma), we at least managed to be a nuclear family, raised with traditional values but also knowing the importance of enjoying what little money we worked so hard for. We moved a lot, but never very far. International travel for me was but a pipe dream, frustrating knowing how much my father enjoyed his three years abroad as a U.S. serviceman stationed in peace-time Germany, and perhaps more frustrating when most of my high school German class embarked on an Easter break trip to Deutschland yet I had to stay home and flip burgers at McDonald’s instead. Is that the sound of the world’s smallest violin? Perhaps, but it’s all relative.
Everything changed when I went to college.
First and possibly foremost, I am thankful that my father pressured me to go to college – on-campus living for the full, immersive experience. I had secretly been dying to get away from home, if only because the perceived “no rules” atmosphere of university life seemed like such a breath of fresh air compared to…to a life of little money and of a strict, no-bullshit-tolerated upbringing by parents who meant well (and still do) yet often stifled me (and, occasionally, still do). In college, I could sleep in, take afternoon classes, and watch movies all night. I could take out an emergency loan through the financial aid office and have a semester’s worth of drinkin’ money. I could bum rides to the mall from my fraternity brothers. I could get a classical education in Communication, Writing, Theatre, and the Humanities (although I probably squandered it). Most of all, I could have the best four years of my life.
I am thankful that my parents moved from Plainfield to Itasca early in my senior year of college. Itasca is a small town at heart – like Plainfield – but it’s just close enough to Chicago to be an easy 40-minute train ride from downtown. As I didn’t have a car, this enabled me to accept my first post-Millikin job at a small ad agency in Old Town Chicago while living with the aforementioned ‘rents and slowly saving money. Mind you, the job payed just $18,000/year, so very slowly saving money is more like it.
I am thankful for being in the right place at the right time. I was one of several Millikin seniors who attended a job fair in Aurora, and to my knowledge I was the only one who got an employment offer from said job fair. I went there on a whim, bumming a ride from a fraternity brother of course, and the advertising placement firm with which I corresponded ultimately got me that first gig in Old Town. Likewise, knowing the right person at that crucial first job (a colleague who was smart enough to leave the place for greener pastures; thanks Allison!) led to my second job. Being just six months into my second job when my supervisor left (and seeing all her work get pushed onto my desk) ultimately led to me getting two promotions in six months – and a huge bump in pay. A good working relationship with one of her California-based vendors helped me land a job when I changed gears and headed west, just as that company was starting a traffic reporting division and seeking a research director with media buying experience. Getting fired from that job after eight roller-coaster years (a story for another day) opened the door for an undetermined time period of intense round-the-world travel. So I guess I am thankful for that, too.
I am also thankful for making good financial decisions in my first few post-college years, decisions that allowed me to enjoy the years that came later. At times I decided to splurge – scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, trekking with mountain gorillas at $500/hour, buying ridiculously-expensive travel souvenirs like samurai swords and didgeridoos – but at other times I opted to travel on a budget. Not every travel expenditure was a wise one, but in general, my decision to offset a costly, once-in-a-lifetime expenditure (those damned gorillas) by downgrading my food and lodging choices – which meant eating street food and staying in hostels – was a good one. I may have sacrificed a comfy king mattress and my own hotel suite for a squeaky dorm bed (the horror!), but this cost-cutting measure paid back in so many more ways than just money saved. No doubt a third of my Facebook friends are people I’ve met at hostels, and I consider some of them to be among my very best friends. Certainly this includes Pamela.
Finally, I am thankful for sitting at Pamela’s table at breakfast. It was my last day in Guadalajara, almost one year to the day from when I posted this blog entry, as it happens. Like so many other hostels, breakfast here was little more than toast, coffee, and fruit, but it was perhaps 9:30 a.m. and the breakfast room was full. Pamela and I made eye contact in the kitchen as we waited for the coffee to finish brewing; she went first, then returned to sit next to her friend. “Do you mind if I sit here?” I asked them upon entering the breakfast room. They nodded or shook their heads (whichever means “yes”), I sat down, and we struck up a great conversation. As it happened, she was there for a book fair and I was flying home that very afternoon, so I can’t say that we seduced each other that very day. (It did happen at a later date, though, and just never you mind about that!) But my flight home was short, and I already had a Facebook friend request from her when I arrived home. Little did I know that in the 30 seconds between meeting her at the coffee machine and sitting at her table, she had turned to her friend and whispered, “Hey, isn’t that guy over there with the beard cute?” The rest, as they say, is history.
Life is weird sometimes, isn’t it? Mine certainly took a strange turn somewhere along the way. Not every day is good, and not every decision I’ve made is right, and certainly not every blog entry of mine will be this positive. But on good days – like today – I am thankful for everything I have, and for the bumps along the way as well. Feliz Día de Gracias.
Above photo: Pamela and I in front of the Pyramid of Quetzalcóatl, Xochicalco.