I’m half-asleep in the back of a parked bus in Maravilla. It’s the middle of the night on a journey from Camitán, to Palenque, Mexico, and the driver has stopped the bus to catch some shut-eye before the long haul in the morning. The other passengers have found accommodation in the little town while I remained, sprawled out in the back of the bus to avoid an unnecessary hotel fee for the short stopover.
Around the soft edges of my half-dreams, I hear, “Oye, guera! Guera!” roughly translating to, “Hey, white girl! White girl!” It’s the driver, Luis, trying to get my attention.
I come to and mumble a response. It appears Luis may have had some coffee or a late sleep-in this morning because, unlike myself, he is wide-awake and wanting to chat. We talk about the United States and Mexico. We talk about his work. Eventually, like many cross-cultural conversations, our chat finds a deep groove in the cultural woodwork that we both fall into.
This one is about marriage and family.
I’ve encountered this conversational snag before, mostly in India. Someone would ask if I was married and I would say “no.” Like a prewritten formula, the follow up question always seemed to be, “when are you getting married?” to which I would say “I don’t know.” As if they were trying to gauge my domestic timeline, they would then ask me how old I was and what the average age to get married was in the United States. I would tell them that I was 26 and that an average age to wed was probably between 27 and 30, if at all. To my constant chagrin, my interviewers would smile widely and say “that’s coming up soon!” To me, it felt like an attack on my independence and a statement about my womanhood. Why did I have to be married? But, in a culture that highly values marital life and where arranged marriages are still the norm, their response was more likely a statement of excitement at my coming familial happiness than a subtle form of “go make me a sandwich, woman.” I had to take this into account when I had these kinds of conversations.
This is along the lines of what took place with Luis on that Maravilla night in the bus. I attempted to explain that, in the US, there is no timeline for marriage. Not everyone gets married and that I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted for my future. His answer was simple: “How boring.”
Well, I wasn’t expecting that. Here I was thinking that getting married and having kids was the boring thing to do.
I soon discovered that Luis had been married at age 18, had had 10 children with his wife, and that he wanted four more.
“Why in the world would you want 14 kids?” I ask.
“Because it’s what makes life fun,” he says.
I can’t relate to this, and I don’t know if I ever will. Long-term travel means a life without roots and a life without roots potentially means a life without family. The phrase “long-term travel” is also open-ended and ambiguous. It could mean a year or it could mean forever. But to me, this is what makes life fun.
I couldn’t help but think, maybe naively, that our backgrounds provided the basis for what would become the idea of a fulfilling life for the both of us. Luis, born in a small town in Mexico, with family roots as extensive and beautiful as mangroves, dreamt of a cozy home with a dozen children. Me, a California girl born to the endless horizons of the United States, untethered and unobligated, grew up dreaming of the beaches on the other side of the ocean where I dipped my toes. Is it a question of upbringing? Is it a difference between developed and developing nations that build dreams, that cause you to seek a picket fence or to aim for the unconventional?
Either way, at that very moment, the both of us were living our dreams, conventional or not, small town or big world. He, with his wife and his 10 children with dreams of four more wriggling their way into the world. Me, only a border but also a world away from home. I mentally pinpoint myself on a map – Earth, North America, Mexico, Chiapas, Maravilla, back of a bus – having a cross-cultural conversation in a foreign language with all my belongings folded neatly in my backpack beside me, and thinking that dreams really do come true.
The two of us go back and forth, trying, but unable to grasp the concept of what a fulfilling life means for the other. He tells me he wants a house full of children. I tell him I want to see the world.
As I start nodding back into sleep, I hear him murmur from far away,