Driving across Mexico you get the sense that the entire place is tired and timeworn. The streets, the buildings, even the plants, all seem worn out and struggling under the relentless sun. Similar to my grandparent’s house, it’s hard to date much of what you see, but you know it’s not new. It’s full of things that are out of style, things that were inherited from previous generations, objects that speak to a grander and more energetic time in their life, and others that should have been fixed or simply thrown away years ago. Unique sights and smells that can only be fully appreciated by those that live there or visit often.
You may have actually had the chance and privilege to travel to Mexico, but if your story involves the word “resort” or doesn’t at least contain the memory of pausing before a filthy public toilet without a seat, then you don’t know Mexico and you might as well have never been. It’s an interesting experience of culture-shock that leaves you confused not only of the absence of the seat, but also the small trash can filled with soiled toilet paper (that’s right, they don’t flush their used toilet paper – evidently the pipes can’t handle it), and probably most importantly, you’re stuck trying to figure out what sort of move and position to assume in order to complete the task at hand. This experience by no means defines Mexico, but it is one you’re destined to encounter if you travel the parts of Mexico that were not waiting for you and your American money. For all that it is, and everything it isn’t, it is an amazing place that one would be proud to call home, but undeniably there are parts that are in desperate need of an upgrade.
Viewing the exhausted land and cityscape, I realized that I come from a place that thrives on the concept of upgrade. A place where few things rarely get used until they are no longer useful. (I wonder what percentage of our economy provides and entices buyers to get a newer and possibly better version of something they already have…?). We expect efficiency, cleanliness, and a variety of choices. Things should be so good or easy they either go unnoticed or they should be impressive. We as a society and culture have achieved much and our technological success is truly remarkable. The average person now possesses a device that helps them be more productive, have greater access to information, and connect to more people than ever before.
Using such a device while waiting for a flight in the Mexico City airport, I listened to one of Sam Harris’ podcasts in which he was interviewing David Krakauer, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, who studies the evolutionary history of information processing mechanisms in biology and culture. Krakhauer refers to these devices as cognitive artifacts: something created by people that enhances their ability to do a task. It can be as simple as writing a to-do list or complex as Google Maps giving you directions to practically any place you want to go. But not all cognitive artifacts are alike, as Krakhauer describes two kinds: complementary and competitive.
Complementary artifacts can be mastered to the point that even if the object used to aid in the task is taken away, you can still complete the task at the same level as when you had it. Think of using a physical map of Rome to help you get around the city. Once you’ve looked at and used the map enough, you will no longer need it. Your brain has been wired to include the map, and if you spend enough time wandering around the ancient city, you may even be able to give someone directions to best gelateria in the city. It has served as a teacher and “complemented” your own cognitive abilities. However, there are other kinds of inventions in our lives which are competitive artifacts. These, like the complementary artifacts, aid in our ability to complete a task, but when taken away, we are no better for using it. You don’t learn how to be without it; you can only be dependent on it. (This basically applies to every imaginable use of my phone.) I, like most people, have outsourced most of my personal information and tasks to my phone. When I had to dial someone’s number who I regularly called, I eventually memorized their number. Now I just tell my phone who to call and I haven’t learned a phone number in probably 6 or 7 years. I don’t even know my best friend’s phone number. 9,2,7, something, 4, oh forget it. My smart phone is amazing, but it hasn’t made me smarter. I do more, but in some ways, I know how to do less.
So then, technological advancement seems to, at times, come at a cost; it is often that in exchange for convenience and ease, once common knowledge and skills are destined to go away. For everything that Mexico lacks for the American accustomed to the technological advancements and creature comforts of our age, you can find something that may be lost to us. In fact, I can’t think of a more underrated place for Americans to travel. It’s beautiful: the landscape, the people, the food, the mezcal, the history, the sun, the mezcal, the music, the mezcal… The people are relaxed, flexible, and proud of who they are. They have a contentment and are completely satisfied with things remaining the same. Mexico seems to have mastered the simple. Most of my meals contained four or less ingredients and they never disappointed. And the people are generous, seriously generous, like, not-afraid-of-strangers generous. The whole “mi casa es su casa” is real and not just a polite saying. In the middle of my trip, I changed my travels plans to go and see the beautiful city of Pueblo. I ended up there because I met a guy at a party in Veracruz, and after talking to him for five minutes he offered to show me around his city (Pueblo), which included a ride there (about four hours away), a place to stay, and the risk of infuriating his girlfriend, whom he hadn’t seen in a while by informing her that I would be hanging out with them that night. I have really good friends who can’t convince their wives or girlfriends to do something like this on the spur of the moment. It was so refreshing to be around people who had not let the stress or busyness of their lives interfere with their interest in the people around them. The examples I saw of how these people live were the only souvenirs I needed to bring home.
As I drove home to Baton Rouge from the airport, I stopped by my grandparent’s house. My grandparents, like most older people, often struggle and are confused by the new gadgets that pervade their world. While telling them about my trip, I watched my grandmother squint through her reading glasses at my iPhone to see photos from my trip. She accidentally exited the photos app and cursed under her breath, mumbling something about how she doesn’t know how to use the squares (she calls the apps “squares”). I refrained from thinking about how much she doesn’t understand and how the world has changed without her. And rather, I thought about how much I can learn from her.
Go to Mexico. But before you do, go visit your grandparents.