On Wednesday evening, confined to the sofa with a blanket and hot water bottle by an annoying cold and driving rain, I watched the movie Frida, a biography of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I’ve seen the film before but I’m still fascinated by the life story of the monobrowed feminist painter who suffered a crippling bus accident in her teens, had a turbulent marriage with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, miscarried her only child, lost her right foot to gangrene and was confined to her bed before her death, aged 47. I’m not sure I’d want her paintings hanging around my flat – some of them are quite disturbing, haunting in fact – but they’re mesmorising in their intensity. I remember a Frida exhibition at the Tate Modern (it was 2005 – I’ve just found the poster I bought). I got the audio guide and spent hours listening to the story of her life and the sounds of Mexico.
Of course, Mexico holds a very special place in my heart and the film brought memories flooding back. I lived there from 1995 to 2000 – in my 20s – and I immersed myself in all things Mexican.
They were colourful and crazy years – just like the country and its capital city where I lived – but like so much of my life, they were mixed. What was happening on the outside – the partying, dancing and smiling – didn’t always reflect what was going on on the inside. The freedom wasn’t quite as it seemed.
I stumbled on Mexico. I’d been backpacking for about 18 months around Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the States, interspersed with periods of living and working in various places to earn money (I waited tables in Sydney, picked fruit in Western Australia, washed dishes in Queenstown and made cardboard boxes in Auckland). But by the time I got to San Diego, I was feeling a little lost. Part of me wanted to come home but I wasn’t brave enough to give up my world tour without having achieved something or found what I was looking for, whatever that was. So I told myself I was heading to Colombia, where I had a university friend who might be able to find me some worthwhile work using my Spanish skills. I was going alone and travelling overland. First stop: Mexico.
My journey from the hectic border town of Tijuana to Mexico City – 1,428 miles – is a book in itself. Alone, lost and in search of a youth hostel in Tijuana, I was rescued by two Mexican brothers who took me home, cooked me meals and serenaded me on their guitars. I took the Copper Canyon railway, got off half-way across and sat on the roof of a bus, clinging on to the luggage, as it snaked its way down the canyon’s near-vertical slopes, the road’s bends adorned with makeshift shrines to those who’d miscalculated its curves. To get out of the canyon, I hitched alone in the dead of night (it was too hot for vehicles to make the long drive out in daylight) and got a lift with a Coca-Cola delivery truck.
My next ride was in the form of a tour bus – a Mexican ranchera (country music) band of a dozen men, complete with moustaches, beer bellies and sombreros. I slept at the back of the converted coach, spoke on the radio in a middle-of-nowhere Mexican town about my Liverpool roots and how the Beatles had supported my Dad’s jazz band in The Cavern, and made a hasty exit when the band’s manager – who’d invited me on the trip in the first place – started to get too friendly.
Arriving in Mexico City after a few more adventures, I got a room in a cheap hostel near the Zocalo and accepted an invite to drink tequila and dance salsa with a man I met on the street. He took me to Plaza Garibaldi – the home of the mariachi. Several hours later, I was drunk and sick and the man was suggesting a double room in a hotel. I thank God for getting me back to my dingy hostel alone and intact that night.
So it was a bumpy road to Mexico City but within a week or two I had a job as a reporter on an English-language newspaper, was sharing a flat with a bunch of gringos (the Mexican term for Americans) and had postponed my idea of getting to Colombia. As the months and years passed, I moved to a higher-quality paper and then to Bloomberg, acquired my first ever car – a Golf I bought in cash from a fellow journalist – and found a fantastic group of friends, Mexican, Spanish, American, British and several other nationalities.
If I take a superficial look back at those years, I see fun, travel, adventure, parties, amazing friendships and, most of all, freedom. I see the weekend trips in my Golf to Pie de la Cuesta, a beach haven not far from Acapulco with the wild Pacific Ocean on one side and a beautiful lagoon on the other. We’d water-ski on the lagoon, lie in hammocks on the beach drinking micheladas (beer, fresh lemon juice and salt around the rim of the glass – chilli is optional), and party at night in Acapulco. I see the trips to Oaxaca in the south, Veracruz in the east and the numerous visits to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. I see the nights out in Garibaldi – now safely ensconced within a group of friends rather than wandering around with a stranger – and the sunny days spent floating along the waterways of Xochimilco.
Looking back, life was so free. Money wasn’t a problem, friends were everywhere and Mexico was amazing – its history, culture, music, architecture and natural beauty. We’d fly to New York at the drop of a hat for some fun. And with work, I’d travel to Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia (finally making it to my initial destination but by air – I don’t think I’d ever worked out how I was going to get across the Darien Gap!)
But if I look a little deeper, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. I wasn’t as free as I seemed on the surface. A bit like Frida with her tortured paintings, often my insides were in turmoil. Yes, my adventurous spirit took me to some amazing places and I have a catalogue of experiences I’ll never forget. But I courted danger, took too many risks and I still think I’m lucky to be alive – and that’s without even mentioning the times I was robbed at gun and knife point.
I remember the tears in Tijuana when the two British guys I’d been travelling with for a few weeks headed back to San Diego to continue their tour of the States and I sat wondering what on earth I was doing in Mexico on my own. I remember calling my Dad to see if I’d been accepted onto a trainee scheme in Brussels I’d applied for. I hadn’t so I didn’t think I could go home – there was nothing to go home to and nothing to go home with. I had nothing to show for my travels except for a sun tan and a stack of photos.
I didn’t feel particularly safe in the home of the Mexican brothers, in the Coca-Cola truck with the two delivery men or packed onto a tour bus with a bunch of Mexican musicians. I’m horrified when I think of all the times I drove drunk, my car packed with friends either slumped in sleep or singing Luis Miguel ballads. And I’m sad about what I put my body through for so many years.
We’d party most nights, but especially on Thursdays. We’d drink and dance until dawn, I’d race home to get changed and then head straight to my serious job at Bloomberg. I’d often throw up in the toilets at work and binge on food throughout the day to get me through. Friday was a big night out too and on Saturday morning, I’d leave my boyfriend sleeping off the tequila and I’d head to the gym for a step class, hungover and after just a few hours sleep. I’d feel sick and dizzy but I was obsessed with staying thin and keeping active. I was in perpetual motion. I couldn’t relax and I had little interest in looking after my health.
I remember the insecurities, never feeling pretty enough or thin enough. The visits to the Mexican doctor and the diet pills (akin to Speed) he gave me despite the fact I may have only been a stone overweight. The reckless behaviour – the phrase “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” just about covers it – because I felt I had something to prove or I didn’t feel good enough and wanted to feel loved or I needed to be on a permanent high because I was scared to discover the fear and pain that lay underneath.
The dismantling of that outwardly confident, ever-smiling personality I built up and the tearing down of the walls of pretense has been a slow process. It began in my early 30s in Brazil (where I lived for 2 1/2 years after Mexico) as I began to realise my overeating, excessive drinking and overdoing were covering up painful emotions that dated back to my childhood years. It accelerated when I finally allowed myself to come home in 2002. At last I had something to show for my travels and could return to the UK, I felt, ‘in triumph’ – as a parliamentary correspondent for Reuters, based in the House of Commons. Of course, I’m sure my family wouldn’t have cared if I’d have returned penniless and unemployed. I’m the one who cared, although my early family experiences had, in part, formed my nature, given me my pride and driven me to achieve.
Years on, that process of dismantling and rebuilding myself is still underway. Many of the obviously unhealthy behaviours have gone but the more subtle ones are still there. I’m still playing a game with myself, hiding from my true self, burying myself. I get many glimpses of the real me – often through my writing on this blog or through my sports – but I’m still afraid to let her fly.
And I’m still trying to understand fear and courage. I can jump off bridges with a bungee cord around my waist, hurl myself out of a plane with a parachute on my back and hitchhike alone on deserted highways. I can speak to presidents and prime ministers or to rooms full of strangers. But having the courage to be me is a whole different story. I’m often reminded of that expression: ‘will the real me please stand up’. I’d say I’m half-way to standing point, still crouched but, thank God, no longer seated.
I guess that’s why I’m so fascinated by Frida and her paintings. She doesn’t hold back. There’s no disguising her pain. It’s splashed in vivid colours across a canvas: from her despair around her miscarriage to her frustration with her broken body to her fiery relationship with her unfaithful husband.
I was thinking of the bright blues, greens and yellows of Frida’s paintings yesterday as I travelled through East London on the tube. It was grey and rainy outside and I was surrounded by soggy feet, dripping umbrellas and miserable faces. Mexico, I thought. The light and life. The colours, smells and flavours. The road trips to Acapulco. The sea, the sand, the sun. The mariachi bands at Garibaldi and Xochimilco. The freedom (at least on the outside). So why did I leave? Why am I living under these grey skies? Why don’t I go back?
I guess the answer is that to find myself I had to come home, to where it all began. And as I’m still finding myself, it’s probably best I stay put.