S M Vande Kamp
Based on a trip to Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, December 2019
Traveling abroad can sometimes feel like returning home. This sensation wells up within me just as the plane is banking to land. The bright pink amapa trees dot Mazatlan’s green, cultivated landscape. My family is waiting for me somewhere in this scenery. This adds to the soaring feeling of “I’m here. I’m here. Finally here. Somewhere like home.” I’ve missed this feeling.
On a long sliver of highway, without cash for the toll road, our family friend, Walter, is on his way to pick us up. Walter is my age. He has a serious face and a kind smile. During a gap year, he lived in my childhood home. My parents were his parents. My high school was his high school. My room was his room. I was away at my first year of college.
This shared experience, though shared separately, is a bright ember in our past. In this way, he is my brother. Hermano/hermana we call each other, even though we have never lived under the same roof. Mazatlan is his home and my family, after passing the many milestones of earthly rotations that mark a decade, draw close to him again here, the stranger who lived in their house until he was family.
My friend and I disembark. He hugs us warmly and ushers us out into the landscape. The parking lot is half empty and we can stroll to the car, wheeling our bags behind us, occupying the full lane. There are no cars to dodge. Sometimes living can be so easy. Fresh from Los Angeles, I have forgotten this. There is a difference between convenience and comfort. Comfort is human. Convenience is something different, like an app that tells you who, when, where.
Soon we are flying through the landscape by car, wind in our hair, the bright pink amapa trees only rosetta icing on the horizon. At the toll road, Walter converses with a man, hands him money, and receives his watch back. Trust is another iteration of comfort.
We settle into this life in Mazatlan, the five of us Americans. We soak in the sunsets from our veranda and drink Cadillac margaritas like they are something holy. It is a vacation, but I keep thinking “I could live here.”
I have lived many places. I have woven many homes. They have all taught me something about myself. In each I have gained a part of me. In each I have left a part of who I was.
We are exploring today with Walter and his sister. We swim in the serene bay of the island. The water is warm and calm here even in December. I float on my back and look up at the wisps of clouds. What I’ve been carrying begins to fall from me, piece by piece. My friend, Martha, swims alongside me. This is Walter’s home and by proxy it feels comfortable. The comfort of my family’s presence seeps into everything as well. They are even beginning to treat Martha like another family member.
When Martha isn’t with us, my mom asks where she is, if she needs anything. My mom offers suggestions of good guys that she could date, even though none of them live in California. This is something my mom has never done with me. I have to stop myself from feeling jealousy. This closeness and care between my parents and Martha will continue for long after this trip. One’s definition of family can expand so quickly.
As comfortable as it is to live in the blooming glow of a vacation, there is something else moving beneath the surface. Within the first couple of days, Martha commented on how she couldn’t relax. I felt it too. It was too peaceful. Regular life is demanding. Where we come from, it is loud. The silence feels foreign. Our ears ring. They ring and ring until we feel like something is wrong with the silence or our own selves.
We are both breaking down this emotion, struggling with it like a box that refuses to fold, to lie flush. It is unwieldy, frustrating. It does not do what is expected and it is at odds with our elation on arrival, the comfort of what we have been provided with. I try to sit with this rogue emotion, to let it move through me, to let it leave quietly. But when the discomfort left, eloping in the night, there was something in its place.
When one settles into the peace of a space, as my friend and I eventually did, the peace becomes an alarm itself. It forces us to look back at our home, to evaluate. How does this compare? Yes, this isn’t our home. But how does it compare? Can we picture a different life?
Anything can be normalized when we’ve subjected ourselves to it for long enough. So here is a reminder. Have we sat at a desk for too long? Are our shoulders too tight? Our jawlines hard? Travel is a place for reflection, not a placid, peaceful reflection but a demanding delving. We step into another home, a temporary place of rest, so that we can look back upon our life with discerning eyes. It is not escape. It is seeing life for what it is, what it might be.
And if we don’t like the answer? Do we uproot? Many try. It’s not so easy. Our greatest home will always come with us no matter where we go. But these reflections, bells clanging in the winds of peace, are important.
On the last night in Mazatlan, Martha and I drive through the dark and glittering streets with Walter. Everything is saturated with dark blues and bright yellows. The sounds of the city pour through the open car windows, scooped up as we drive by. There is the chatter of friends on patios, bass-heavy melodies from discotecas, and laughter caught from the other cars speeding by in the darkness. They are moments drawn from the well of the night and we readily sip on them.
We drink in the richness of this land that is more complex and hard than we know. We eat quesadillas with cheese that stretches but never breaks, and we laugh and laugh. But a hollow sadness dances in the silences. Endings are not my thing. I avoided sunsets for the first twenty years of my life.
There is so much in this world, so many ways of living. This is in contrast to our one finite path, the silver thread of a trajectory from birth to the dark door at the end. If we are lucky, we may get to choose what we do and how we live. We build homes on different coasts, go where the wind takes us, root down, consider replanting.
The next day we avoid leaving to the point of having to run out the door in our bathing suits. Our flight is two hours earlier than expected. Maybe there was something in us that did not want to look at the ticket to check. We have to pull ourselves, sticky and gleeful, from this transitory, temporary abode. When we land in Los Angeles, it is raining.
The week after I leave Mazatlan and return home, I don’t return home. This is in part because I’m house-sitting and in part because I’m moving through, separating, and hemming the places where home has changed. I’m adrift and open, saddened and confused. As much as my life feels incredibly light, like a cloud passing by, I realize these roots here are deep. Los Angeles has become more of a home than expected. It has grown like an orange tree from a forgotten planter on the porch. I’m surprised that it towers over me.
I’m trying to figure out if there is a lesson here. What I do know is that something within me shifted in Mazatlan. I’m simultaneously more at home and less content. The future calls for me but I do not know what it is saying. The call itself is enough.
Our homes hold us, they push us back, they move us forward. We float in the bays of safe spaces we’ve created for ourselves. We try to stay above water during rough storms. Like a stone polished by the subtle movement of the sea, we are constantly altered by them, whether we would like to be or not. And when we choose to swim, to dive down deeper beneath the surface of our own life, be it through travel, reading, or protesting, something extraordinary happens. We find a different way to live. We alter the home within us. And our greatest home will always come with us.