Reflection after a trip like ours is no easy task. I find it challenging to pluck apart the lingering memories of Mexico, laughable to try describing the taste of shark or beauty of a dolphin feeding frenzy, and approaching futile to attempt separating my pre-trip expectations from my current self. In many ways, when comparing my visions of Mexico before and after this course, I am reminded of a desert mirage. The only thing of which I am sure is the powerful perspective of proximity.
Before visiting this country, its image in my mind was based largely by my experiences with Mexican-Americans and blurred by sound bites or dramatized film. One the one hand, I pictured spicy mangoes, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a mariachi band. When the campus director of our field station told us we did not need to be afraid, I realized I was also expecting a degree of danger. In reality, while some of the staple national symbols were present, the Mexican state of Sonora is as dynamic a community as my home city – the fourth largest in the U.S. – and there is no more to fear there than at home.
In Mexico I saw many familiar contradictions – a drug boat turned educational vessel, extreme poverty and squatter structures neighboring a luxurious hotel dubbed “hacienda,” conservation murals whose bases were littered by trash and fish bones – all the trappings and complexities of civilization as I know it. I also saw a people with a love for the sea, and an ocean which supplied them haul after haul with a means to exploit it. I met members of an indigenous community with extreme pride in their people, but also disillusionment for those members who did not fit the mold. I swam with sea lions and heard local conservation leaders speak of their decline.
In many ways, my experience in Mexico can be compared to the horizon on the Infiernillo Channel. From a distance, you cannot distinguish between the sea and the sky. Once you are actually atop the water, riding a panga over the horizon, everything comes into focus. You still fail to see the shadows of some sea turtles lingering below the surface, speak too loud to hear terns overhead, and do not often appreciate the finer complexities like the hundreds of plankton species at your fingertips. However, you can tell up from down, you are oriented, and once present you can begin to digest the beauty of a complex system firsthand.