Camp NaNoWriMo and the Mexican Influence

This is the third post in a month-long series on Camp NaNoWriMo, in which Evaric and Venezia share with you the process of writing a book in a month. Last time we talked about writing really really fast (or not).

Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, Estado de Mexico.
It’s no secret where I get my inspiration from.

The Mexican Influence

Since moving to Mexico City just over three months ago, every story I write has taken a turn for the Mexican. At the time I was writing a thriller set in an unspecified American city, but it took less than a week for me to realize it would be far more exciting if it were set here. Now for Camp NaNoWriMo I’m writing a fantasy adventure, set in what is essentially a medieval fantasy version of Mexico.

That’s not much of a stretch since Mexico is almost a fantasy setting already. Ancient pyramids rise from the desert, and in their shadow prowl creatures which could fell a man with a single bite or sting. Mexican history is a collection of desperate uprisings, unlikely alliances, and prophecies that came true.

Today we’re going to talk about how we, and all writers, can take advantage of where we come from and where we travel to create richer, fuller stories.

Ancient Inspirations

Statue of the rain god Tlaloc in Teotihuacan.
I don’t write fantasy. I live fantasy.

I’ve always been a sucker for pyramids. The first place my mind went when concocting the setting for A Memory in Indigo was pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the amazing societies that ruled it. My gringo compatriots probably think, as I used to, that the Aztecs and Mayans were the only real players before the Spanish came. Some of the most impressive pyramids in Mexico – like the one above – were built nearly 1500 years before the Aztecs existed. Here’s a fact that sends shivers down my spine: the time between the disappearance of the Teotihuacan (who built the aforementioned pyramid) and the rise of the Aztecs is over three centuries greater than the time between the fall of the Aztecs and the present day.

When something inspires you, it’s helpful to dig deeper and find out why. I know that pyramids make me happy, but if I just throw a pyramid in my story for no reason it will fall flat. After some reflection, I realized the appeal for me comes from the inherent, beautiful irony. Thousands of years before we were born, people created something we still find impressive today, but in the end it didn’t do them any good. Their society became dust, and all that remains of them are these structures that have long outlived their usefulness. Now that’s something I can tell a story about.

Mexico City at Night

View of Mexico City from a plane at night
I might have teared up a little when I saw it. Sue me.

I was a little disappointed when I first moved that I wasn’t able to pull off an insane Vancouver to Mexico City road trip and had to fly. Venezia told me the view of Mexico City at night would make up for it. She wasn’t kidding. Since that beautiful first impression, Ciudad de Mexico has continued to take my breath away at every turn.

When I started writing this month I didn’t think anything to do with CDMX would make it into the story. After all, it’s a medieval fantasy set in a fairly small town on a backwater archipelago, not a sprawling urban metropolis. Then, as I had with the pyramids, I thought deeper.

My first glimpse of the city was inspiring because each of the hundred million points of light (probably not even an exaggeration) represented some new experience or opportunity for me. The main setting of my story, the City of Fuscia, may be tiny by modern standards, but my main character wouldn’t see it that way. He comes from a fishing village with a population south of 20. To him, the modest harbors and ramshackle taverns of Fuscia are a whole new world.

Just this morning, as I was walking to the cafe where I’m writing this, I had another thought. An interesting quirk of this city is that each self-contained neighborhood is well-planned out, organized, and aesthetically coherent, but the way these neighborhoods are laid out in relation to each other is sheer nonsense. The result is a diverse and beautifully chaotic patchwork of a city.

My fictional city of Fuscia is constructed across a scattering of small islands linked together by bridges. With borders clearly defined by water, the city is unable to expand outward and new neighborhoods are literally stacked on top of old ones: second stories are added to houses and shops, linked together by catwalks. It seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, but until now I’d never thought about how the design would affect the feel of different neighborhoods. Now my mind is reeling with possibilities: you cross a bridge from a harbor neighborhood, packed with bustling sailors and fish markets, and after walking all of ten feet come to a somber island full of ancient government buildings, a neighborhood that has stood for thousands of years. Climbing a ladder up the side of one of these structures, you find yourself again in an entirely different neighborhood, a recently constructed residential neighborhood of wooden shacks strung with colorful banners where the air is full of laughter and music.

You can find inspiration anywhere. The old adage “write what you know” is both true and not true. You can certainly write about places you’ve never been, jobs you’ve never done, and experiences you’ve never had, but drawing from your own experience lends truth and depth to your story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a medieval city ruled by pirates and smugglers, but I do know what it’s like to move to a new place and feel your life has suddenly begun.

Venezia has been very busy applying to and interviewing for universities so was not around to share her thoughts this time, but fear not! There is plenty more to come.

 

¿Y Tú Tambien?

What about you? How have the places you’ve lived or traveled shaped your creative works?

Feeling inspired? Check out our video series Exploring Mexico to see more of this beautiful country.

Exploring Mexico Episode 1!

Trail in a monarch butterfly reserve
Getting to the butterflies is a bit of a trek.

We are very excited to announce the first full episode of our first series, Exploring Mexico!

Chasing Butterflies in Michoacan

You may have seen our earlier post covering our trip to the monarch butterfly reserve in the state of Michoacan. This is the video that came out of that trip. It’s a little late, but we think you’ll enjoy it.

If you have ideas or suggestions about what else we should explore, hit us up in the comments here or on YouTube!

5 Mexican Foods You Need in Your Life

Sabritas Adobadas and Sabritas Limones arranged into a flower
Made this to celebrate the Spring Equinox. It was supposed to be a flower….

If you have not lived or traveled in Mexico, you have not tasted Mexican food. Even if you go to Mexican restaurants (or God forbid, Taco Bell), chances are you have no idea what pastor is and think that burritos are something that actually exist south of the border. You just can’t get the best Mexican foods outside of Mexico, and believe me, you are missing out.

5 Mexican Foods You Need in Your Life

5. Oaxaca Cheese

Fresh ball of Oaxaca cheese
The first thing you need to know about Mexico is that all good things come from Oaxaca.

With the consistency of string cheese and the shape of a soft pretzel, Oaxaca cheese can be a bit confusing at first. Try it, though, and you will find it puts all other quesos to shames. It’s mostly used in cooking, but I find myself eating strings of it raw as a bedtime snack more often than I care to admit.

4. Mexican Junk Food

Sabritas Adobadas and Sabritas Limones
Adobadas are the undisputed champion, but Sabritas Limones are pretty great too

Mexico’s colorful and ancient culinary tradition mixes classic Aztec and Mayan dishes with flavors drawn from all over the world, creating something truly unique and beautiful. Sometimes, though, you’re just not in the mood for unique and beautiful. Mexico has you covered: just head down to the Oxxo on the corner and grab a bag of Sabritas Adobadas (read: Lays but better) and a couple Carlos V’s (read: Hershey’s but better [but actually read: Carlos Quintos]).

Carlos V candy bars
For real though, there is legit an Oxxo on every corner.

3. Flan

Two slices of flan
Mini Spanish lesson: when someone asks “¿Quieres flan?” the correct answer is always “Sí, por favor, lo dame ahora si deseas vivir.”

There was more than one episode of Friends mocking this traditional Mexican dessert, which pretty much confirms none of the cast or crew every tried it. With a consistency somewhere between jello and pudding and a taste somewhere between “I’m happy because I’m eating flan” and “I’m depressed because my flan was so delicious I ate it all already”, this is a unique treat that can’t really be compared to anything.

2. Pastor

Authentic pastor being prepared at a restaurant in Mexico City
Shoutout to Taqueria Los Hornillos for putting up with the weird gringo photographer snapping photos of their kitchen.

What is pastor? Hell if I know. I’m not even sure what type of meat it is – pork, I think? It’s probably the one food on this last you would be hardest pressed to find outside Mexico – some gringo restaurants offer “pastor” on their menu, but if you don’t see a spinning fiery pineapple-topped meat wheel in their kitchen, it is not even close to authentic. There are a million ways to eat pastor, but the best way is no contest….

1. Tacos

Tacos al pastor with limes and salsas
Shoutout to Taqueria Los Hornillos for being absolutely fricken delicious.

Not a lot needs to be said about tacos. If you haven’t been to Mexico, you haven’t had tacos. If you haven’t had tacos al pastor, you haven’t lived.

Bonus: Mezcal

Bottle of Oaxaca mezcal
Not only is it good luck to eat the worm, but it’s so saturated with alcohol it will get you wasted all by itself.

Not technically a food, but this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning authentic Oaxaca mezcal. I’ve known a lot of gringos who like to think of themselves as serious drinkers, but I’d love to see any of them pound back a shot of real mezcal. It’s hard to describe the experience and do it any justice. You know when you take a swig of tequila and get that sudden burn in the back of your throat? Imagine if just as that burn started to go away, it came back again, stronger than before. And then again and again and again. Literally forever. That’s mezcal.

A Day in Mexico

I just passed my 22nd birthday and am coming up on the three-month anniversary of my arrival in Mexico. It’s still a lot to adjust to and a lot of things are still up in the air, but for the most part I’ve gotten settled and adopted something of a routine. So what is a typical day like for a gringo in Mexico City?

Daily Living in Mexico

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Not a stock photo – this is a picture I took of the house I live in

Casa Hemingway

Rented room in a house in Mexico City
The floor is concrete, but the bed is warm

I rent a room in a large old house with a handful of fellow tenants. The landlady also lives here. Between her family coming and going, the maid, and all my housemates, the place is always lively and bustling. I love the feeling of activity and community. There is always someone to talk to while I cook or eat, even if the conversations are mostly in Spanglish. At least I’m learning.

I had a couple room options when I moved in, and the other ones were more “normal”, but as soon as I saw this one I had to have it. It’s cozy and a little removed from the rest of the house, and there’s something almost…frontier about it. Venezia and I dubbed it Casa Hemingway because we agreed it was the room Hemingway would have picked. Moving here was the adventure of a lifetime, and now I live in what feel’s like an adventurer’s home.

A Run in the Parque

Plaza in Parque de los Venados
This horse is stone, but people ride real horses and donkeys around the park every day

In the mornings before work I’ll sometimes go for a 5K jog in Parque de los Venados, a beautiful park a couple minutes’ walk from my house. There’s a surprising amount of wildlife there for a park in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, including many kinds of birds and squirrels. There’s also vendors hawking their churros and cheeses, young couples canoodling in the grass, and men and women shooting hoops in the nearby courts. As often as not, I share the paths with donkeys and horses.

Beneath the Jacaranda Trees

Patio of a house in Mexico City
I was on facebook when I took this, but I do actual work too, I promise

I work as a content writer. Basically, clients tell me what they want me to write about and how many words they want me to write, and I write it. My dream job is writing novels and I might not be quite there yet, but at the very least I can call myself a professional writer now. Besides, look at my office. I spend my 9-5 in the brilliant Mexican sun beneath the flowering boughs of the jacaranda trees that grow beside the house. Tiny birds sing all around me, and across the street there’s usually a group of construction workers joking and listening to Mariachi or Reggaeton. I’d take my office over a cubicle any day.

Tacos al Whatever

Tacos with chorizo and lime
Not really sure what I was going for, but chorizo is delicious no matter what you do to it

During my lunch break, or just whenever I get hungry, I step into the kitchen and whip up some tacos. I’m still learning when it comes to Mexican cuisine, and I wouldn’t call my tacos authentic, but with a fridge full of traditional ingredients anything I make ends up being delicious. I have the privilege of working with tropical fruits, veggies, and herbs fresher than any you could get north of the border, and meats that are delicious even if I add nothing to them – arrachera, cecina, chorizo, the list goes on. Not to mention tortillas that don’t taste like cardboard.

The Coolest Library in the World

Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City
Yes, there’s a whale skeleton hanging in the middle of the library

When I need a change of scenery, sometimes I’ll bring my work to a local cafe (if there’s one thing Mexicans know, it’s coffee) or else Biblioteca Vasconcelos. There’s an outside chance you’ve heard of this place before – it shows up all over the internet in lists of “Coolest Libraries” or even “Coolest Buildings”. I swear half the pictures on Pinterest under the category Books are just pictures of this library. That said, photos don’t do it justice. When you’re inside, it feels like being in some sort of futuristic space station.

A World of Exploration

Chapultepec castle in Mexico City
What do you get when you cross Spanish, French, and Aztec?

When Venezia and I get off work, the real fun begins. I may have been here for nearly three months, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the amazing things to do in Mexico City, let alone the rest of the country. From Bosque de Chapultepec, where you can find the only genuine castle in North America, to Teotihuacan, where you can climb massive pyramids built by an unknowable civilization that was ancient when the Aztecs were young, to Centro Historico, where you can walk the very same streets where Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez once walked alongside Aztec Empire Moctezuma, as these unlikely allies struggled to hold on to a crumbling empire, there is enough to see and do in this city alone to keep me busy for a hundred lifetimes.

So here’s to another three months in this beautiful country, and then another three years after that. The odds may be against me, but I hope to explore and learn as much as humanly possible in the time I spend here, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.

Chasing Butterflies in Michoacan

Each Wednesday, I will bring you a post chronicling my experiences as a gringo in Mexico. Last weekend, Venezia and I headed out to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, and while we are working on producing a video to cover the experience in full, here are a few of my personal observations.

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My first thought as we set out for Michoacan was that I honestly had no idea what to expect. Even as a gringo, I have a vague idea of what many of the states are known for. Mexico City is one of the largest metropolitan centers on Earth. Oaxaca is a lush rain forest. The Yucatan is known for its beach resorts. Guadalajara is where the Virgin Mary keeps her summer home. But Michoacan? I checked with Venezia and several others and discovered that not even most Mexicans know what the deal is with Michoacan.

I did some research and I discovered that this might not be an accident. It turns out Michoacan is one of the most naturally beautiful states in all of Mexico, yet its people have actively resisted becoming a developed tourist destination like Cancun and other resorts. This attitude means that in addition to its rolling hills and ancient forests, Michoacan also retains a rich cultural diversity and traditions that go back thousands of years.

Michoacan was the ancient seat of the Purepecha Empire, which rivaled the Aztec Empire at the time of the Spanish conquest. The state’s name means “Place of the Fishermen” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and other ancient civilizations. the name is as apt today as ever, as most of Michoacan’s population still engage in traditional industries such as fishing and agriculture. There is still a significant native population within the state as well, including Purepecha, Otomi, and Nahua peoples. There is also a sizable Afro-Mexican population.

Knowing all this, I wish that we had been able to spend more time in Michoacan, discovering the ancient cultures and traditions that live on to this day. Still, seeing the butterflies at El Rosario was and experience all its own. After climbing a steep trail to the observation point which stands at 10,000 feet above sea level, we were treated to the sight of tens of millions of butterflies wintering in the alpine forest.

I have a personal connection to the monarch butterfly which made this experience all the more valuable to me. I spent the first half of my childhood in Santa Cruz, California, where many monarchs lay their eggs during the summer months before migrating to Canada. Incidentally, Canada is where I spent the second half of my childhood, although I grew up in Western Canada while the butterflies prefer the Eastern side.

Now, having followed the butterflies across the continent, making a journey in a fraction of a lifetime that takes five generations of butterflies to complete, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a visitor in this country. In the current political climate, immigration and international travel are rather heated topics. As an American, I am fortunate to be able to enter Mexico far more easily than a Mexican could enter America, but even so I am learning how difficult it can be to adapt to a new culture and it will be years before I can even begin the process of requesting a citizenship.

And so it was with some jealousy in my heart that I watched the butterflies, who know no borders, who are citizens of a nation far older than the young lands of America, Canada, or Mexico, older even than the ancient empires of the Purepecha and the Aztecs. I find myself thinking about so many people I have met in my life who have never ventured beyond the borders of their home country, never even lived outside the city of their birth. I can’t help but wonder: if more people followed the path of the butterfly, how might the world be different? How would we feel about notions such as borders and citizenship if more of us knew what it is to live in a place 3,000 miles from where we were born, and to call that place home?

Then I remember that the peoples of two of the nations I have lived in have no idea what miles even are, and I feel very American indeed.