How the fuck did I end up here? In the heart of Ciudad de México, one of the World's largest and oldest human settlements? In a house whose one wall is decorated with an unremarkable and shabby-looking golden plaque letting passersby know that the legendary Mexican movie Amores Perros was filmed here?
How is it that whenever I leave that house, Gerardo in his apron and thick glasses is already waving at me from the taqueria downstairs, calling out: Hola, Rafa! And that at the nearby bar a few blocks away, they're pulling a bottle of Victoria out of the fridge the minute I walk past the door?
Since when do I introduce myself by my Mexican name more often than my real Czech one? Since when do I tend to think more in Spanish, and since when did I first send a corrupt cop to the places he was born from?
That's how it is after all these years, but it's been a long and tortuous journey. I've been on the edge many times. To be stranded in a foreign world with culture and mentality far distant from our European, not to say Czech, with no guarantees, no connections, and no knowledge of the language, was like becoming a seed thrown out into the desert, trying to take hold, to take root, to integrate with its surroundings, and what is more - to win them over without a drop of water and nutrients.
It was hard, I won't lie. It wouldn't take all my fingers and toes to count all the sleepless nights worrying about what tomorrow would bring. Would I still have money to eat? Will I have a place to live? Will I be able to take care of this and that? Will I get out of this mess? Those nights come from time to time even now, after all these years and with a resident card in my pocket.
I kind of suspect that a lot of people back home see mostly beaches and great-looking food and happy faces in my photos... often envying the pretty things, but not realizing that even here in Mexico, nothing just falls into one's lap. You have to go for it and overcome obstacles. On the other hand: If it were for free and without risk, I wouldn't enjoy it. I might as well have stayed home in the Czech Republic.
It's a journey into the unknown
But how did I end up in that house from Amores Perros? Let's take a broader view.
I've always been fascinated by foreign lands and life there. Even when my parents and I went on holiday to Italy, I was envious of the local kids who could go swimming in the sea after school instead of chasing around apartment blocks, and the teenagers who could walk the vibrant promenades late into the night. After all, even the retired can sit in fragrant cafes with coffee and chess. Life abroad has always seemed somehow more colorful, wilder, and more passionate.
When I became independent, I began to take every opportunity to escape the boring reality of a young careerist in Prague. If only for a night or two, just to experience something new and refresh my soul, which was fading into the grey stereotype, with something adventurous.
But even that would soon become insufficient. I longed for my life abroad to become as monotonous as my life at home. Only then can you truly absorb life abroad. "I want the regulars to know my name and say hello to me when I walk into the local pub," I always told myself, hoping that one day I would succeed.
The year was 2014 when I was traveling briefly in Morocco and met a group of Mexicans in Marrakech. We spent some time together and eventually I got an invitation from them to go to Mexico. I took it as an unimportant formality - I also invited them to the Czech Republic as a courtesy, as I do with everyone I meet on my travels. Mexico was not even on my list of dream destinations at that time. After all, I had only been across the ocean once at that time, it wasn't as commonplace then as it is now.
And yet, after a while, I remembered their invitation and in November 2016 I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico for three weeks. It turned out to be the best expedition of my life. It had everything from exploring beautiful places, to partying, to meeting beautiful women, to countless small and large adventures. I came back to the Czech Republic a different person - I experienced the life I had always dreamed of. I verified that it was not just a chimera, that I could actually have it. I just have to do something about it. And so it was clear that my life as an office rat was over. My dream was elsewhere.
In the months that followed, I quit my job, sold my car, and left the apartment I was living in. I said goodbye to my loved ones, packed my essentials, drank my last Czech beer, and in September 2017, I headed overseas to conquer the world beyond. At least that's how I pictured it at the time. But as you can guess, not everything went according to plan.
The Fatal Earthquake
Despite liking Mexico, my choice naturally fell on the USA - I knew English, I was culturally closer to the country and there were dollars to be made there. Last but not least, at that time I was still suffering from the 90's kid syndrome, i.e. a boundless admiration for America as the ideal of a perfect life. The United States was supposed to be that place of freedom, joy, and endless possibilities - as we knew it from the TV shows.
But I miscalculated. Somehow the two most important items in the equation were missing on my side: money, or power, and connections. I didn't have either, so I couldn't find a job, whereas what little savings I did have were disappearing at breakneck speed in glitzy Los Angeles. All the while I was sleeping in hostel rooms with eight to twelve other poor people and living exclusively on five-dollar defrosted pizzas from 7eleven. There was nothing cheaper.
My American dream was melting into reality. And just as I began to realize this, and was only kept afloat by the thought of the embarrassment of returning home within a few weeks and with zero success after my glorious departure, neighboring Mexico was hit by a devastating earthquake. I watched the tragedy over the distance, in which hundreds were found dead. And so, instead of waiting for a miracle in a hostel somewhere in Hollywood, I decided to be at least a little helpful and get my hands to work in Mexico.
It's fair to say that when I arrived, there was almost nothing left to help with. However, I did at least have the opportunity to meet old friends and recall the great experiences of my first trip to Mexico and the life I left for in general. After that and back in the U.S. it didn't take much to start moving closer and closer to the Mexican border until I found myself on the other side of the fence in Tijuana. From there, it was one step at a time. I was offered a job at a hostel in the Yucatan peninsula, where I also returned to my original profession - writing. I was sending stories from my travels to the Czech media, and when I had done six months in the Caribbean, I decided that I had done what I came here for. I can go back now without any shame.
But back in uptight and sterile Europe, it only took me a few weeks to realize that I had left my heart in another place. Once you've tasted the life of a nomad, it's hard to be shackled by corporate chains again. Only a fool would trade freedom for the illusion of comfort and money and status. And so it was that I landed back in Mexico City a few months later and once again smelled the hot aroma of corn tortillas and began to come to terms with the flood of bizarre situations that await you here every day at every turn.
The nomad's life as a drug
In 2019, I fully moved to Mexico. Gradually, I learned Spanish, got to know the local culture, visited a bunch of interesting places, and found myself in countless situations, both pleasant and unpleasant. But most importantly, I know a few pubs and bars here where when I walk in, the regulars greet me and call me by name. And that's worth the sleepless nights.
Living abroad is like a drug. Once you get used to the daily breaking down of boundaries, overcoming yourself, and improving yourself in the practicalities of another culture, you don't want to go back to your old ways. Where you already know it, where you have nothing to be surprised by and nothing to surprise yourself with. You want more.
Every day here is a new challenge. Every day I experience small or big adventures and learn about life from a different angle. That's what it's all about. And that's what I'm going to tell you about through my posts.