In Praise of Quitting
Sometimes leaving Mexico is the best part of going to Mexico
BY JEREMY FREED
IN THE END IT WAS THE DENGUE FEVER THAT GOT ME, but it had been a while coming. I’d just arrived in a tiny Mexican village near the Pacific Ocean and I was volunteering at an eco-resort, the kind of place that runs on solar power and organic sprouts. I was planning to spend the next month growing food and rescuing baby turtles and, with any luck, awakening within myself a passion for this type of work. I was staying in a house shared by four other volunteers, a simple cinder-block place with no hot water, curtains for doors, a few beds and a handful of wicker chairs in various stages of collapse. It was basic, but liveable and, if I’m honest, not the worst place I’d stayed.
I spent my first workday digging holes for fruit trees, sweating under the morning sun, my hands blistering within minutes. By the time we knocked off work at one in the afternoon, I was exhausted, but in a posi- tive mood. My hands, I knew, would callous and I’d acclimatize to the heat. After having spent most of my working life either behind a desk, or a cheese counter, it was satisfying to work with my body. When I got back to the house that evening, however, I was so tired I could barely walk. I had a deep, radiating heat emanating from somewhere high in my chest. That evening the fever grew worse. The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. A rash had colonized my legs and torso. I tossed and turned in my tangled, sweat-soaked sheets. I spent the next four days laying in my bed, drifting between sleep and waking, a scrawny grey kitten pouncing on the lumps of my toes beneath the sheets. My dreams were harsh, full of vivid colours and noise and horrible fears.
My desire to leave Mexico began as a quiet, nudging suggestion and grew in persistence with every fever-wracked day. I couldn’t do it, of course. I’d planned to stay here for four months and it had been less than two. I’d also sublet my place back home and it wouldn’t be vacant for another six weeks. More importantly, leaving would be quitting. I had already quit my job back home, and quit the lifeI knew in favour of this one. If I quit now I’d be going back to what I’d left without the thing I’d come for, I’d
be giving up on finding meaning and direction through travel and physical labour and baby turtle-rescuing. I had met people who’d been backpacking for months, even years at a time, living happily on the road, making friends as they went, relishing the experiences that come with discovering new parts of the world. When I left home I had wanted to become one of these peo- ple, to get my share of the fulfillment they seemed to receive from a life un- encumbered by possessions or office jobs or whatever was happening on Twitter. If I left now, I’d be acknowledging that I wasn’t.
It was, I know now, a precipice I’d been approaching for some time. Things had begun well. The hostel dorms and roadside tacos and ubiquitous crowing roosters had been exciting for a while. It was all so thrillingly foreign. Something as simple as walking down the street was an onslaught of new experienc- es, unfamiliar sounds and smells. But like marrying someone you met at a craps table in Vegas, after living together for a little while, Travel and I turned out to be less compatible than I had initially believed. The quirks that were so charming at first began to grate on me. Did they have to play that mariachi music so loud? Why can’t I get a salad anywhere? If all of these roosters could possibly not crow the entire night that would be great. My fever eventually subsided and my strength began to return, but my desire for adventure—and the uncomfortable situations it frequently entails—didn’t come with it.
My turning point came during a rare phone call with a friend back home. It was the first time we’d spoken in months and she listened patiently as I explained my predicament.
“It doesn’t sound like you’re having fun,” she said. I reluctantly agreed. “But,” I countered, “It’s not supposed to be all fun, is it?”
“Well, no. But it sounds like you want to leave. So why stay?”
I made a final run at my list of ideals: cultivating a love of backpacking and physical work, learning how to grow food and milk goats, embracing the goodness of the universe and living with less. She was not convinced.
“You can do all of that stuff in other places, you know.”
I hadn’t really thought about that. It also hadn’t occurred to me that all I really wanted was permission to leave. And now I had it.
Things moved quickly. I stuffed my clothes and books into my back- pack, scrawled a vaguely apologetic note to my fellow volunteers, and got on a bus to the airport. I felt like Dustin Hoffman in the last scene of The Graduate, giddy with the thrill of escape, riding forward into the unknown. It was hot, the bus was small and crowded, and music blasted out of speakers at head level. Across from me a toddler in a frilly white dress threw up milk all over the floor by my feet. I felt better than I had in weeks.
Within 12 hours I was gliding down a freeway, my dad at the wheel. Los Angeles, where my parents live, was only a three-hour flight away, but it felt like a different universe. I mar- veled at the smoothness of the roads, the cleanliness of the landscape, the absence of crowing roosters. It was beautiful. My parents had been vocal proponents of me coming to stay with them since they found out I was sick. Normally, the idea of spending more than a few days as their houseguest fills me with anxiety—they bicker, I regress to teenage angst, no one has fun. But it felt different this time. I was genuinely glad to be there, ready to deal with whatever happened as it came. In the last couple of months I’d fit my life into a backpack, navigated Mexico by air, rail and road, braved all manner of hygienically suspect street foods and relied on the benevolence of countless strangers for help along the way. For the first time, I allowed myself to acknowledge the notion that perhaps I had picked up more in Mexico than a horrible, debilitating virus. I hadn’t found myself, nor had it been the paradise of palm trees and never-ending guacamole I’d hoped, but leaving didn’t feel like quitting any more. It felt like a step towards getting what I want out of life—wher- ever I find it. And what I wanted more than anything right then was a hot shower and a cheeseburger.