Photographer Hironori Kodama’s Journey Beyond Ukraine: Mexico Diary Vol 1. – Monterrey

Leaving Ukraine and arriving in Mexico with a growing desire to continue an “uncomplicated journey”

Before I knew it, all the faces I recognized had changed.

The coach bus filled with passengers traversed countless terminals. The deserts, rocky mountains, and cacti that were once visible from the window disappeared from view. I yearned for a simpler journey, far from the war zones of Ukraine that I visited often for interviews. That desire eventually led me to Mexico.

“I asked the locals. They all said not to ride the bus”.

That was the advice I received from my travel partner and editor, Maruo.

I attempted to convince him at an inn in a small town called Matehuala in central Mexico.

He’s not wrong, either. This country is vast, more than five times the size of Japan. Even locals opt for airplanes when traveling to the countryside since taking a coach bus can sometimes stretch up to 24 hours. It’s also rumored that night buses are frequent targets for police and thieves seeking money.

“But taking a bus is a better way to experience contemporary Mexico”, I persisted.

If we book a flight, we would need to secure tickets in advance and adhere to a set schedule. Given our month-long stay, time is on our side. I envisioned an easy and spontaneous trip, void from any complex plans. Both Jack Keruouc, who wandered the streets of America in pursuit of freedom, and William Burrows, drawn to spiritual experiences, set their sights on Mexico. What was it that attracted them to this place? The recent perception of Mexico, with its drug, gang, and immigration problems, is far from great. Perhaps concealed behind this perception is the reality of the people living here. That’s precisely why I want to travel as my heart desires, to be able to shine a light and experience the current state of Mexico first-hand. I shared with him my genuine motivations for this trip.

Maruo let out a sigh and accepted my reasoning, even though he was eager to go to a show featuring Morrisey in Mexico City. Morrisey, as you may already know, is a British musician. I sensed that this could suddenly alter our course in Latin America, but he was also accommodating my selfish plans. I wanted him to enjoy himself, and we didn’t have any fixed route in mind. Either way, he was going back to Mexico City for a little bit. We agreed to fly into the Northern U.S. border town of Ciudad Juárez three days later to reconvene and commence our southbound journey.

In the meantime, albeit a little lonely, I decided to take a bus to Monterrey alone to get as close to Northern Mexico as possible.

It was nearly evening when I arrived at the terminal. As soon as I got off the plane, the humid air enveloped my body. The electric billboard I had just seen indicated the temperature as 39-degrees Celsius. Located in Northeastern Mexico, the U.S. border town of Monterrey is said to be an industrial city and economic center where many foreign companies, including those from Japan, have established operations. And yet, as I strolled around my hotel, I heard disco music blaring from nightclubs, prostitutes lingering in alleys, and sensed an overall seedy atmosphere.

I set off with my backpack to find another place to stay around the budget lodging area nearby, only to be turned away as all the rooms were occupied. Apparently, many South American immigrants hoping to make it to the U.S. were staying there, and a number of them were congregating around the hotel entrances.

I eventually found a hotel with a spare room, but I can’t say it was clean. There was graffiti all over the door, and the ceiling fan that attempted to ventilate the room merely circulated the hot air. The stifling heat persisted even after taking a cold shower, prompting me to leave the room immediately.

I ate a taco from a nearby food cart alone and returned to my room. Unfortunately, the heat turned my room into a sauna, interrupting my sleep several times throughout the night. I tried to go outside to cool off, only to find the hotel’s exits locked for safety concerns. After multiple showers attempting to cool off, it was already morning.

A Memorial Day parade with 2000 horses and 1000 dancing people

The following day was a Sunday. I strolled down the main street, still sleep-deprived. There was not much foot traffic, perhaps due to the holiday. As I walked along the avenue lined with commercial buildings, a police officer appeared and abruptly began to enforce road restrictions. As I pondered if there had been an accident, I was startled by a rapid succession of pounding sounds on the asphalt.

It was a herd of horses. The sheer number overwhelmed me as they surged forward like a wave. Cowboys atop the horses showcased their skills, and spectators spontaneously emerged out of nowhere. Was it a parade? The horses’ hooves kicked the ground, and the cowboys posed proudly. Each adorned blue jeans, boots, and a sombrero. Some of them even sipped cans of beer and recorded videos on their smartphones while mounted on their steeds. I followed the parade along with the crowd. According to the man beside me, it was Monterrey’s municipal anniversary. Allegedly, they brought 2000 horses into town just for this occasion. Cowboys, referred to as “vaqueros” in Spanish, have deep roots in the history of Spaniards in Mexico.

“The vaquero is a symbol of our confidence, pride, and freedom”, the man proudly declared. Upon arriving at Plaza Zaragoza, the parade’s final destination, the number of horses resembled a ranch. I smiled to myself and thought, “stumbling upon an event like this is a great omen”.

Maria, a female staff member, addressed me in English.

“You must come back here at 5PM tonight. There will be 1000 people dancing”, she said.

1000 people dancing? What does that mean? It was so unexpected that I couldn’t comprehend her words.

After exploring the area, I returned to the square earlier than the designated time and found several groups already gathered, chatting. The girls were dressed in traditional skirts, while the young men sported tight pants and sombreros. I was impressed by their elegant appearance. As I marveled at them, other groups gathered one after another.

I noticed photographers from local newspapers and TV stations convening with their colleagues behind the makeshift stage in the plaza. As I tried to sneak up on stage to secure a place to shoot, a loud voice approached me from behind. When I turned around, a large man suddenly burst out in Spanish. Oh, no. Did I need permission to take pictures? As I searched for a suitable response, he grabbed me by the shoulders and led me over to the other photographers, giving me a thumbs up. He seemed to be saying, “Wait here, I’ll let you go up on stage later”. My worries were unfounded.

The dancing commenced with the start of the band’s performance. The dance featured captivating steps, like kicking the ground with the toes of their boots and twirling their outfits. Witnessing a thousand people dance to the rhythm of the polka was breathtaking. Perhaps it was the carefree spirit of the Latin people in action. Rather than a single, unruly group dance, each dancer genuinely appeared like they were relishing the experience. The local audience, also observing the performance, seemed to be enjoying themselves as they danced along.

As I walked off the stage past the group of photographers, I spotted Maria from earlier, standing in front of the speakers.

“What do you call this dance?” I asked. “It’s Ballet Folklórico!” Maria answered candidly. According to her, the event itself started three years ago with the aim of creating a new trend in an industrial city where traditional culture is difficult to establish. The number of dancers they had was impressive, even for a town celebration

After an hour of dancing, the dancers grew tired and headed for the catered meal. What awaited them was surprisingly, or perhaps predictably, a large quantity of tacos – enough for a thousand people! They joyfully bit into their tacos, their smiles beaming. Although I knew I was jumping to conclusions, I was surprised by the Mexico I was witnessing. While I was reveling in my thoughts, someone approached me and asked if I could take their picture.

The horse parade, the dancing, and these tacos. I felt like I fortuitously experienced the people’s identity just by roaming the streets.

Later that night, Maruo messaged me, dejected. Morrisey’s show had been postponed. I had no choice but to say, “that’s too bad”, and continued to tell him about my day as if to console him.

Two days later, the plane landed at Ciudad Juárez Airport in less than two hours. The runway was wet with rain. My cell phone picked up a signal and sent me the address of a motel where my travel partner Maruo was waiting for me. In the past, Ciudad Juárez was known as “the most dangerous city in the world” because of the drug wars waged by the cartels.

As soon as we got off the plane, Mexican immigration officials promptly began inspecting our IDs and directed foreigners, including myself, to wait at the airport. After the officer carefully checked my passport, I was released without incident, while others were escorted away from the airport in an immigration convoy. What lingered was an atmosphere thick with unease.  Nevertheless, fueled by the excitement of embarking on my journey, I gathered my spirits and  ventured into town in the drizzle.


Hironori Kodama

Born in 1983 in Hyogo prefecture. After working as the news program director at TV Asahi, Hironori Kodama joined NHK. He was also involved in making news programs and documentaries as a photojournalist. Kodama began working as a freelance photographer after he resigned. In 2019, he repeatedly traveled to Hong Kong for ten months since the outbreak of protests to take photos there. His publications include NEW CITY (2020), a photo book comprised of photos of the Hong Kong protests, and BLOCK CITY (2021), a photo book featuring barricades used in said protests (both published by KungFu Camera). Twitter:@kungfu_camera