Lessons from my year in Mexico

Cover Image for Lessons from my year in Mexico
Paxton Duff
Paxton Duff

Hello readers, I am once again living in the United States. To commemorate Mexico, I have decided to muse on some notable takeaways and lessons.

(Mexican) College football is a metaphor for life after college

Shoutout to my friend, Ben. We were orientation roommates in August and joked about playing tackle football/soccer at our respective Mexican universities. Much like the writing of Leviticus, divine inspiration compelled me to take action. It occurred to me that the worst thing that could happen if I asked to join the team was a casual rejection, so I thrice mentioned my prospects of playing to my boss before twice meeting with HC Miguel—the latter meeting serving as the infamous Asics’ incident that I recounted here.

My first 22 years of life were basically a less dramatic version of the choose-your-own-adventure episodes that Netflix insists on producing. It was full of multiple-choice questions like Which college?,  How many beers is too many?, How many Flame runs should a good fraternity man do?, and Will dressing like 2001 Eminem for eighth-grade Halloween make women love me? These are equally important questions, and all have a defined set of answers.

One of the many soul-crushing realizations in the days after college graduation was the shift in questions I now faced. My whole life had been a multiple-choice test, but now I was given a single essay prompt that said, ‘Go home and learn anything you want if you want to pass this class. I (the teacher) am not actually going to grade this, so I guess you don’t have to turn it in. If you turn it in you can move on to the next class, and you’ll feel badly about yourself pretty soon if your friends finish this class and you decide not to turn anything in. Also, your next class (and every other class forever) has no teacher after day one. P.S. if you don’t turn in this paper then we won’t let you into the cafeteria to eat lunch. I know this seems overwhelming, but if you need some direction, go back and review all of your multiple choice answers.’

It was much easier to guess when it was multiple choice.

I spent a lot of last summer searching for enlightenment in books and podcasts. A piece of repeated advice that struck me was that asking is everything in the post-college world. “The only way to join the American football team at your Mexican university is to repeatedly ask if you can join. And, oh, if you haven’t played organized football in over a decade, be sure to oversell the difficulty you had in deciding whether to play golf or be Centre College's starting slot receiver. The coaches will somehow believe you even as you put your pads on backwards in your tryout,” said a voice. It seemed like oddly specific advice, but it turned out to be pivotal.

Vomiting is not always a choice

For 22 years I repeatedly told people (yes, I was a talking baby) that vomiting was a choice. I made this choice from time to time—before every little league baseball game or after consuming too much Natural Light and Captain Morgan at age 19 (stay classy, FDRs). This belief was fundamental to who I was as a person. Then came a winter day in 2019, where I decided to maximize the bang for my pesos by downing food-court Chinese.

I was wrong. Sometimes your insides decide that all of your lunch and dinner need to be triple-bagged and deposited in your neighbor’s trash at 3 A.M.

American Football and Mexican-American Football are different species

Picture a football coach from 1958. Does something like this come to mind?

Fortunately for the youth of the United States, most coaches know by now that dehydration kills, repeated blows to the head cause trauma (I don’t know how we could have seen that one coming), and it’s very dumb to punt if you’re down 14 in the fourth quarter on 4th & 1 at midfield.

I specified United States in the preceding run-on sentence because not all of these football lessons have spread to the rest of the football Americas. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that ideas don’t immediately spread everywhere. (Also, we’ve learned other things from history.)

If a hominid teenager, O-oaa-o, lived in an African tribe that employed a new use of fire, he could reasonably expect the leader of a nearby tribe to employ fire in this new way, especially if all of the secrets of this fire technique were available on the internet as common-sense fire knowledge. One day, while studying abroad with another clan, O-oaa-o decided that he couldn’t stay quiet anymore if the clan leader (Mushasu) kept using fire in such an illogical way. When O-oaa-o complained about how stupid it was to not use the new fire technique in front of Mushasu, Mushasu looked at O-oaa-o like he had no clue who the kid was, despite six weeks of building fires together. Even though O-oaa-o was on the fire practice squad, he still believed he knew more than Mushasu. Why? O-oaa-o spent his Sundays watching seven hours of commercial-free fire building from the National Fire League.

This was a metaphor for my playbook interaction with the Pumas’ head coach. I regretted typing this by sentence three.

Mexico has 32 states

I promise I knew that (^) before moving to Mexico, but here is a repeat conversation that I’ve had since returning to the USA.

Me: My favorite state to visit was probably Hidalgo or Oaxaca.

Person: Mexico has states?

Me: Yeah there are like 32.

Person: Huh.

If you didn’t know, now you know… sister. Now you’re ready to take on James Holzhauer!

A whole world exists outside of Room

There are 20+ million people in greater Mexico City, a number that affects people in the SS, like myself. Because I was in the SS (smoggy surrounds), I tried to minimize time spent inhaling. How did I do this? By spending an objectively depressing amount of time in my room (Room).

Once I retired from college football, I usually left for school at 8:30 or 10 and came back at 4 or 5. Since the Combi commute was 30 minutes, I only made one round trip per school day. I therefore spent 16 to 18 hours per workday in my room or in the kitchen. Considering I only slept about 8 hours per night, this left me with 8-10 hours per day existing inside of my 14 by 14-foot box.

A 14 x 14 x 8 box probably sounds small, but it’s nothing compared to my September crib.

As you can see, my initial residence made Room feel like the Four Seasons. Room had everything I could ask for: space to do dips, a nice floor that I could sweep and mop every week, a lightbulb that allowed me to read past nightfall, and a bed on which to sleep. If I had a latrine—which seemed ideal at the time—I would have left Room even less frequently.

While this latrine sounded ideal in theory, I later realized it could have caused a climate catastrophe. Room was a few months away from becoming the planet Venus: my exercise created a humid climate, so if I left only a little less often, I could have triggered a runaway greenhouse effect in which the mosquito population rises to unsustainable levels and I die of sleep deprivation from the buzzing of the mosquitoes. Close calls like that remind me to take nothing for granted.

VivaAerobús: respect a shameless budget airline

Flights with VivaAerobús are cheap by Mexico standards, and impossibly cheap by US standards. I always respect companies that don’t pretend to harbor any motivation aside from profit, and this company fits that bill. Though the airline is cheap, it requires some savvy veteran moves to evade balloon payments. Anything over the size of a backpack will be weighed at the gate and will cost as much as your flight. Anything after row two has legroom that’s designed for prepubescent Vietnamese girls. If I were only three inches taller at 6’8, I would have had to ask the flight attendant if I can ride in the luggage cabin!

Love your car

I was a child in a family that had two cars. I then drove my own car, a 2013 Hyundai Sonata, for the entirety of college. I didn’t comprehend the full scope of my spoiled lifestyle until I lived on the Combi system in Mexico. I love the Combi, but it’s at least 70% of the reason that I spent so many days in Room (See above). Relatedly, my chronicle of life in the Combis elicited more feedback than any non-football blog post, and I’m happy that it allowed some of you to take a vicarious Combi ride alongside me.

You know what I love more than the Combi? Freedom. Cars give us freedom—freedom to leave the house and travel in more than two directions, and freedom to get to a destination in under 35 minutes. Nothing beats a car. Except a Tesla.

Awkward: to be or not to be

We all live in the same physical reality, but “reality” for each of us is actually just our perception of the one physical reality. By definition, this perception of physical reality exists only in our heads. Proof: a middle-school boy in Oklahoma might describe himself as awkward, but if he grew up in Mexico, this concept of awkwardness that plagues so many seventh graders would never cross his mind. Why?

‘Awkward situations’ aren’t awkward in a culture where there is no direct translation for the word ‘awkward.’ We work with a limited set of adjectives compared to the number of emotions that we feel. The way we describe ourselves is inseparable from which language we’re speaking. If the word awkward didn’t exist, would American kids have higher self-esteems? Would I have grown up feeling less uncomfortable with silence?

I thought of this after witnessing an ‘awkward’ encounter in my student workshop that both students completely shrugged off. I would have described the situation as ‘cringey,’ but ‘awkward’ and ‘cringey’ are nothing more than words I choose. Word choice is everything, and it’s easy to see why negative word choices can quickly lead to a negative and distorted view of the self.

Speaking of awkward, I present this #truelife video.

Clean air: hey guys, let’s not ruin this

Any city with 20+ million people has excessive traffic. Excessive traffic leads to too much smog. Too much smog leads to lots of smog inhaled. Smog in the lungs causes respiratory issues. Respiratory issues lead to hospital visits, then hospital payments that we all pay for.

Even if your TV broke and it’s stuck on Fox News where all of the climate research is conducted by the same researchers that refused to link smoking to cancer leading you to deny manmade climate change, I have good news. Tax dollars are wasted when our cities aren’t clean. You can now support clean air without sacrificing your climate-conspiracy values. It’s a win-win. Clean air!

Potable tap water is highly underrated

This exchange happened in college.

Classmate: “Finland is so much better than the USA. UGGGGGHHHHHH.”

Me: “So, so true. Hey, you really should move there.”

This next exchange happened in an alternate universe (the year 2005, for example) in which I could praise the USA without dealing with a potential s***storm after a classmate puts my face on social media.

Classmate: “Finland is so much better than the USA. UGGGGGHHHHHH.”

Me: “Never mind Finland’s roughly equal size and population to Colorado or the fact that the US has 330 million people. If Colorado became independent I think it’s safe to say that it’s literacy rate, like Finland, would be 100%. Without the federal government, it would make strides in other ways too. But then it would realize that it can’t freely mooch off the other states (read: California, Alaska, and New York) anymore and it would want to come back. Do you think that governing 330 million people is the same as governing 5 million people?”

The USA is regularly compared to other technologically advanced countries like Spain, Singapore, Norway, and Japan. Those countries (combined) comprise 55% of the US population. In reality, the US should be compared to Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, or Pakistan. It’s easy to take clean tap water (and other government-led institutions) for granted, and it’s too tempting to compare the USA to Scandinavia. The USA could eat Scandinavia.

Not only am I spoiled to live in one of two big countries with clean tap water (Japan is the only other country with 100+ million people and safe tap water), I live in the capital of great water.

Louisville natives are oft mocked for bragging about something as silly as great water, but jealousy can be forgiven. Every city has its flaws. Some Louisville natives may brag about the water and some Lexington natives may send death threats to referees of college basketball games, but these are both harmless flaws. Long live Louisville water.

The military police is nothing unusual

Trump has spoken out in favor of arming teachers, and although Mexico doesn’t go that far, every school that I saw had military police bearing machine guns at the entrance. Seeing heavily-armored men is commonplace in Mexico. I never really adjusted to this military presence, which made for interesting discussions with my students about American gun violence.

Side note: if you are in the visitor’s section of a soccer game and the home team wins, stay on your toes. I found myself running down the hallway from the riot police after a man thought it would be wise to charge at a dozen armored guards. You really don’t see women doing things like that.

Sometimes you have to close your eyes and pray…

as the taxi driver after the aforementioned soccer game drives down the oncoming highway ramp to “avoid traffic” in Guadalajara (also a great restaurant chain in Danville, Ky!) All good man, no need to ask your eight passengers for permission before putting their lives on the line to dodge 15 minutes of traffic.

Get Paxton in your inbox

Every time I post, you'll get an email. That's it.