Stray Dogs of Mexico
I sat on that street corner, sipping my beer, staring emptily into space. A strange feeling overcame me. I had felt it for some time but it was then that I knew for sure that a war was being waged on my soul. I knew the light wasn’t shining as it once had, my mouth didn’t dispense my truth like before, my feet didn’t touch the ground like they once did. Something was wrong inside of me. I had wandered into some murky realm where I could feel myself disappearing in a darkness. My candle was fading and I stared into the eyes of people passing me in the street and wondered if my struggle was unique or ubiquitous. How many were watching the flames of their being slowly fade out? How many out there were losing themselves day by day? And ultimately what was a man or woman to do about it?
At one point in my life it seemed so easy. When the fire burns bright, it feels like there is no force in this universe strong enough to quell your inner flame. Your eyes burst with light and your heart thunders. Your spirit ignites the world around you. Your pen pours out poetry with ease. But life can sometimes take you down some bewildering paths. You unknowingly start to lose yourself and suddenly you’re left facing a stranger in the mirror, speaking words that are not your own, sitting nowhere, being nowhere. Reflecting back on the past, I knew I had saved my soul before, but could I do it again? I didn’t even know where to begin this time. For once there were no direction signs – no intuition, no guiding stars, and even my deepest passions were now uninteresting to me. I was now thirty years old and didn’t have any other desire other than to get drunk and drift around a foreign country. The idea of being an author had slipped from my mind after my books had sold so few copies. The notion of starting a career or family was just as alien as ever. And even the act of travelling itself had lost much of its magic. My world was a grey place so I just sat on that street corner, sedating myself with alcohol, watching people walk by and wondering where there would ever be peace on earth for those who dreamed a little too much.
Finally I pay my bill using my bad Spanish and then get up to carry on wandering the city streets. They were the streets of Mexico City – one of the biggest cities in the world – and I drift across a busy square and into a church where I see an old lady kneel before the altar. Her hands are tightly grasped in prayer as she stares up with pleading eyes. I can’t help but wonder what she is asking, but in the end I stopped, knowing her pain was private like it was for all. I walk out back into the square and see a queue of men waiting to be cleansed with some smoking plant as it’s rubbed over them. They close their eyes and look deep in thought as the smoke shrouds them in the midday sun. I then see a ranting alcoholic staggering through an intimidated crowd. Elsewhere I see other weary souls like myself sitting on street corners and staring into space. No matter where you looked, the burden of the human condition was evident. Truly it was a hard fight for us all, and at times it became clear just how sprawled out on the canvas we all were.
I continue walking along and see posters of missing women on walls. I see a scruffy stray dog come around a corner and stop in front of me. Its eyes stare into my eyes and there seems to be an unspoken recognition between us – a momentary feeling of union before he carries on along the way. I do the same and then see a man with a missing arm and leg sitting on the sidewalk. He holds a cup out for change and I throw some coins in. I guess it can always be worse, I say to myself. Although can it? A man can lose his mind – he can lose his arms and his legs – but once his soul is gone then what is left for him on this earth but a barren existence of emptiness.
Suddenly I felt a tiredness that was beyond anything I had experienced before. At that moment a part of me wanted to rest – and to rest in the permanent way. The toil of this soul-searching fight had worn me down over the years, and it was clear that for every victory you made, life was always there waiting to break you down once again. But another part of me was ready to respond to the war being waged on my soul. I would grab whatever I had left, stab my flag into the ground, and be ready to turn those dwindling flames into a great fire once more. As always, I was a walking contradiction. Some kind of mistake.
For now I decide a temporary rest at the hotel will suffice. I get some food and head back. Being a little older now, I tried to avoid hostels; I needed a good night’s sleep and was past having sex in a dormitory room. Of course, this meant it was harder to meet other travellers. On this occasion, it was surprisingly easy. I enter my room and open the door onto the balcony. It was a shared balcony with the other two rooms beside me. I walk out, put my arms on the bannister, and hear a voice to the right of me.
“What up bro!?” I turn my head and see a topless guy sitting there drinking a large bottle of beer. He was skinny with long blonde hair, shades, and a big grin plastered across his face. Before even asking, I could see he was drunk in the middle of the afternoon. His energy was good, however, so I walked over and engaged him in conversation.
“It’s not going amazing, to be honest,” I tell him. “How about you?”
“Dude, tell me about it,” he says. “I had a wild night last night; it’s a miracle I even made it home. I left my phone here so I was wandering the streets until six in the morning trying to find the hotel. At one point I honestly thought about sleeping on the street. Then things got worse as the police shook me down for drugs. After that I fell down a ditch somewhere.” He then proceeded to show me the cuts on his elbows and legs. In turn, I showed him the grazes on my face from a recent drunken accident. At least he knew how his wounds were caused; mine were still unknown to me after a week. “Anyway,” he continues. “All that shit happened but here I am drunk once again at three in the afternoon. Ahaha, viva la vida bro!” He then took another large swig of his beer before his face returned to that big grin.
I could tell straight away he was another classic wandering madman, scratched and scarred on both the inside and out. He was the sort of person I had met many times throughout my travels – the sort that I always seemed destined to stumble across no matter where I went in the world. At that moment I was happy to meet him, and we continued to talk about our trips and whatever the hell it was we were doing here. It turned out he was a forty-three-year-old Canadian who was recently out of work. He decided to deal with this by flying to Mexico and drifting around the country while drunk. Although there were thirteen years between us, I recognised the stage he was at in his life. An affinity was felt and it wasn’t long before I was joining him on the large bottles of beer as we discussed life on that balcony until the sun began to sink beneath the surrounding buildings.
“This is my midlife crisis trip,” he tells me. “Out of work, no woman, I got nothing really going on back home. And with the pandemic, it’s been a rough ride living alone the last two years. The only thing that seems right is to come to Mexico and live like a rockstar for a while off of my savings. I guess it’s not a bad way to spend a midlife crisis.”
“I hear you man,” I said. “But to me, it’s all a crisis.”
“What is?” he asks.
“Life. I mean, here you are: trapped in a slowly-decaying body of flesh and bone, stuck on a rock floating around a big ball of fire for no apparent reason. On top of this, you have around eighty or so years here, and during that time you have to deal with things like money and love and sex and purpose and politics. Yeah, there’s no beginning, middle or end to me. It’s all a crisis. To be human in this world is to be in a crisis.” He looked at me with a smile, nodding his head in agreement and toasting his beer. Our beers clinked and our connection was strengthened on the realisation we were both stray souls wandering the tempestuous wilderness of human existence.
“You know, I’ve had a good life,” he then tells me in a pensive moment of realisation. “I’ve experienced enough of this merry-go-round. You say we have eighty years here, but screw living that long. I think if I checked out in the next ten years that would be enough for me.”
“You really feel that way, or it’s the beer talking?”
“Straight up bro. At this stage in life, I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve travelled around, slept with a lot of women, had a lot of great parties and adventures. I’ve been in love and worked in what I’m passionate about. I’m happy with what I’ve done and don’t want to get much older than what I am now. Life has been a wild ride, but I’m not sure if I can handle another thirty or forty years of it.”
I could hear in his voice that he was being genuine. It might have sounded an extreme statement to some – even a suicidal one – but I understood completely where he was coming from. It was something that was recently on my mind after turning thirty – that I didn’t want to experience the second half of life in old age. Besides a spiritual crisis, I guess I was also having a bit of an age crisis after departing my twenties. Of course, I was still relatively young, but not as young as I would have liked to have been. Inside there was a part of me that resented getting older, and looking at him I could see my future too – still wandering the outside spaces, drinking ever more heavily and going further over the edge of destitution and insanity. To keep on living this way past forty, well I figured that’s when a person really was a stray for life. Most had packed away their backpacks and began to settle down in some suburb of safety and sanity. For me that life was a death sentence already. And the idea of losing my youth – losing my strength and looks and curiosity – horrified me. I already saw the lines forming on my face, the grey hairs sprinkled into my beard, the bitterness in my personality that wasn’t there before. In my head this trip was one last celebration of youth before the downhill truly started.
We carried on drinking and then went out to hit the bars of Mexico City. We spoke bad Spanish to Mexican women, drank with other travellers, danced like idiots, and got lost in a hazy blur of intoxication. The bender had started and we spent the next week or so travelling together until we made it down to the pacific coast, specifically to a little town called Puerto Escondido. The nights of revelry continued there until he eventually headed off on a night bus to another part of Mexico. I bid him farewell and watched him drift out of my life to continue his midlife crisis somewhere else. “Catch you on the flip side,” he said, stumbling onto the bus with a small backpack full of beers.
I was back to my natural state of being alone, and I spent days at the beach soaking in the sunlight and watching the sunset on the ocean. It was a town I felt at home with, and it seemed I wasn’t the only one. Puerto was famous for being a ‘digital nomad’ hotspot. The place was filled with westerners escaping their homelands while they worked on their laptops and sat at the beach and tattooed their skin and prided themselves on escaping the rat race. I knew of these people already, but since the pandemic had made many jobs able to be done remotely from a laptop, it seemed they were now everywhere. Web designers. Graphic designers. Code writers. Even therapists. There they sat on their laptops working four or five hours a day before hitting the beach and sipping beers in the sun.
I thought about what I could do to join them in their little world of escapism from the system. After thirty years, I still truly saw no job or career I had an interest in. The only time I had felt purpose was when I was writing creatively, and by creatively I meant stories or poems – not news articles or anything people actually paid for. And even that passion was now fading. Like everything though, the grass was always greener on the other side, and while the idea of being a digital nomad was a romantic one, the reality of it was a little different. It came with its own struggles and own sadness. An American guy told me about this in a cafe by the beach one day.
“I know it sounds great being a digital nomad – and it is for a while – but in the long term I’m not sure how much someone can do it. It’s a lonely existence. At least for me I’ve never really found anywhere that feels like home. I guess it’s because it’s hard to form a community when everyone eventually moves on. And on top of this, you’re constantly surrounded by travellers who are going out and doing cool things, while you have to stay at home and work.” It was something I had thought about before while reflecting on that lifestyle, and it seemed those who had escaped the rat race had their own problems to deal with. There was no magical way to ‘live the good life’ forever, despite what the travel bloggers would have you believe. No matter what you did or where you went, you were destined to struggle in some form or some way. It was the only way – the human way.
Still, I kept thinking about it; about my options in life now my main passions were beginning to lose their spark. Where was there really to go in this life for someone like me? Would I ever return to the time when I felt truly alive? What chance was there? The war on my soul continued to rage as I struggled to see the clearing ahead to somewhere that made sense to me. I was so sure all I wanted to do was to travel the world and write, but now those things had lost their thrill, I saw no glory in anything else. Nothing appealed to me at that moment in time – only the next beer, the next woman, the next night of revelry and intoxication. I thought I was bad, but I continued to meet people that were wandering further out in the soul-searching wilderness than I was.
In a town in the mountains, I met a fellow English guy who was ‘escaping his problems back home’. I eventually discerned this was trouble with gangs and the law. Never had I seen someone so wounded, on both the inside and outside. He was only twenty-two but already had scars all over his body from various stab wounds. He couldn’t even use his left hand after he had been slashed on the wrist during a drug deal. His wounds weren’t just from home; even here he had managed to sprain his ankle here during an escape from a fight. He had also been banned from various hostels and bars after just two weeks in the town. I eventually realised this was down to his addiction to Xanax – an addiction that saw him taking five tablets at once and turning himself into a zombie. The last I saw of him, he was being taken into the back of a police van after having a bust-up with restaurant staff for not paying his bill. It was his first time travelling and I knew he wasn’t going to last long in this way of life, or any way of life for that matter.
Elsewhere I stumbled into an American guy I had met four years previously in Spain. While he was there in Spain, he was constantly chasing women. He stressed and depressed himself over finding a long-term partner, and it seemed four years on that nothing had changed. His desperation to find a woman screamed out of him, and naturally this led them to reject his advances. I even found out he had come to Mexico to meet a girl he had met the previous summer in the states. That relation had broken down after just two days of being here, and so on he went, another stray soul in search of some shelter from the storm.
Although I knew most men found a spiritual home for themselves in the company of a spouse, to me that had rarely seemed the case. There was something inside of me that needed more than a partner, and that was more clear to me than ever having just left my girlfriend just before this trip. We had been dating for a year, even living together, and it was the first time in my life I had been seeing someone regularly for a long period of time. But again, whereas many men only sought to find a nice woman and settle down, I was ready to abandon mine at the sudden booking of a flight to some faraway country. Like careers and everything else, a wife and children were other things beyond me. I needed my soul to be set on fire by something. And while they could give me joy, they just couldn’t give me that spark that was so essential for my spiritual survival.
Still, I had my romances when travelling. Most were one-night stands, but when I got to a place called Oaxaca City, I started seeing a woman continuously. She was a Mexican woman from another part of the country. We hit it off straight away and she invited me to stay with her in her apartment. She lived alone with her dog – a stray dog she had taken in and given a home to. I had to look at the dog and once again see a connection in its eyes, a feeling of union of being taken in by a woman while wandering the streets. It was nice there and I stayed with her for a week or so. We went to bars and restaurants; we went to watch Mexican wrestling; we spent lazy mornings in bed making love. For a moment I almost began to feel like I belonged there. I thought about getting a job teaching English or really having a go at trying to be an online content writer. There we’d live together – my new life in Mexico – but again there was something missing, and one day I decided to book my bus out of there. The horizon called me again and on I went to board that bus to somewhere else. To a place that helped return the fire to my soul. To a place that would fill my heart with thunder again.
The wandering went on and two weeks later I was on a Caribbean island, back to sitting on a beach and staring out at the sunset. My heart was heavy and I thought of all the people I had met along the road. I thought of the path that had led me to here and the path that awaited me ahead. The strange sadness was still there inside, and my eyes were still searching the skies for some kind of salvation. It was then that the stray dogs of the island came out onto the beach, playing around in the sand. I watched them leap about before they suddenly stopped and sat beside me. I stroked one and looked at the sunset and let a smile make its way on my face. Suddenly I felt at peace with where I was; I felt the fire inside begin to flame, and for some truth to make its way into my heart again. Yes to wander, to not belong, to constantly be in a phase of soul-searching – it wasn’t such a bad way to be. And if you kept your eyes open, so many of us were this way. Perhaps secretly we all were. In a way, what else was it to exist than to be another stray on a soul-searching quest, wandering the wilderness in search of some fire. Another stray dog in search of survival. Another stray dog in search of home.