The People's Guide To Mexico

The Best Of Mexico: Chiapas

Impressions of Mexico

By Louis Barton
You might be interested in my impressions from a recent trip to Mexico during Christmas break from my teaching job. I drove through Mexico in my car for two weeks, crossing at Reynosa, going down the Gulf coast, up into the mountains to San Cristóbal de las Casas, spending Christmas there, then driving north through Oaxaca to Puebla, west to Pátzcuaro, then north through San Luis Potosí to Reynosa.

I had been thinking of taking a trip to Mexico for ten years and had read a half-dozen guide books, some of very recent publication. My own experience of Mexico, however, was quite different from what I expected from reading the books. More than any other place I’ve visited, including Europe, Colombia and the Philippines, I was unprepared for my experience of Mexico. I concluded that no matter how much one reads about a truly foreign place one cannot really understand it unless one goes there oneself. I study a lot about the Middle Ages and, by analogy, this trip convinced me that no matter how much I read about it I can never really understand what life was like in medieval Europe.

Before leaving McAllen, I bought two-weeks’ liability insurance from Sanborn’s. It cost almost $100; that seemed exorbitant and was a major expense on the trip.

I speak some Spanish, but had not brushed up on it before the trip, assuming that I would find people at hotels and restaurants who spoke a little English. I was astonished in the route I took that virtually no one I met could speak any English. Many of the people whom I tried to teach a word or two of English were simply not interested. Most Americans can say at least “buenos días,” “taco” and “hasta la vista, baby!” I concluded that for a self-guided tour of Mexico, speaking and understanding intermediate-level Spanish is essential.

The road maps that I brought with me turned out to be inadequate, and they caused me several frustrating detours. One bridge I needed to cross turned out to be one-way the wrong way; the map didn’t show that a new bridge had been opened several kilometers away. I found better road maps at a bookstore in San Cristóbal -- more detailed and more up-to-date; I wish I had obtained one before my trip.

The Mexican drivers I encountered were remarkably safe and courteous. Several times when I drove the wrong way on one-way streets, for example, other drivers gave way for me; commonly drivers would signal when it was safe to pass on the highway; drivers were careful not to scrape my fender in the narrow streets. I concluded that most Mexicans have so much invested in their cars that they want to protect them and won’t play chicken with you on the road. In other places I’ve been in the world many drivers act insane; unfortunately I did find some of that in the north around San Luis Potosí. I made it a point to avoid driving in Mexico City.

I was surprised that, with one exception, the police I encountered were all courteous and helpful; in fact, they were very nice to me. The one exception was at a toll booth on the auto pista at night; an officer hassled me for some time, ostensibly on the suspicion that I was driving a stolen car; after several minutes of this a woman in the toll booth yelled something at him in a plaintive voice. Instantly he changed his tone and wished me a pleasant trip. My guess is that the federal government has a new policy to treat visitors well, and that the woman was appealing to the officer to lay off.

By contrast, I found the military guys to be threatening and potentially loose cannons. For instance, I stopped at a gas station to ask an attendant for directions. An army guy came up to the car on the other side and pointed a submachine gun in my direction. I have no idea what he was suspicious of, or what that was supposed to prove. I took it as a sign of self-important machismo; he probably didn’t have much to do all day to justify his being there.

On my return trip I went through a federal, drug checkpoint about an hour from the border. The agent who checked me was sharp and aggressive, though not at all impolite. He really seemed to know his stuff, and I thought he would make a good smuggler if he was working for the other side; maybe the best narcotics police are not far removed from the criminal mindset themselves. He asked whether I had guns in the car; I wondered why he thought anyone would be transporting guns from Mexico into the United States.

In the south, driving up into the mountains toward San Cristóbal de las Casas I went through a village where there was a truck with loudspeakers blaring some diatribe that I couldn’t understand except for one repeating word, “Ö la revolución Ö blah blah blah Ö la revolución Ö.”

Some kilometers further on I was driving through the pine forest in Indian country. I came around a turn and two young guys were standing in the road, so I slowed down. They then pulled out large, silver-colored pistols and aimed them straight at my face. Confused and frightened, I stopped the car.

Having been totally unprepared for bandits, the car windows were rolled down and the doors were unlocked. I hurriedly started rolling up windows and locking doors. I asked the guy on the passenger side what he wanted; your billfold, was his reply. Suddenly the other guy had the driver’s door open.

A scene flashed through my imagination of them pulling me from the car and mugging me. I had more leverage on the door from inside and was able to close it and lock it. I shouted, “No,” at them and jammed the accelerator to the floor. In the rear-view mirror I saw that they both had their guns pointed at the car and were crouched in a firing posture. I took a chance and drove on.
That is the first time in years of travelling that I have been a crime victim. Fortunately, they did not fire; I don’t know whether they had no ammunition, and it even occurred to me that their guns might have been fake. Maybe they didn’t shoot because it was broad daylight and there were occasional vehicles passing on that road. Anyway, I was very shaken by the incident and decided not to stop and visit Indian villages as I had thought I would.

San Cristóbal de las Casas was something of a disappointment to me, but was fairly pleasant. It’s a comfortably small city, but it lacks the pine-scented, Alpine air that I was hoping for. I was surprised to see a large billboard at the entrance to town advertising Internet services, something of interest to me as a computer professional. I especially liked the Indian kids, who hung all over me on the zócalo. Never have I felt so moved to help poor people as I did with those little Indian girls; the memory of one tiny girl with dirty face and rotting teeth still haunts me; “un peso por mi tortilla,” she kept begging in a whining voice; I gave her a peso but now wish I had done much more.

Many of the Indian women have strikingly beautiful faces but they are not in any way provocative or sexy; their embroidery and other handiwork is truly impressive, not just tourist junk that one brings home as souvenirs. Sitting on the sidewalk, women stitch and embroider; I could hardly believe the sight of their little daughters, little tiny things seated beside them embroidering too, and with remarkable skill. Equally unexpected was to see a number of Indian husbands loading up their wives’ tourist wares into new Volkswagens at night after the close of the mercado.

The only restaurant in Mexico where I saw cockroaches was in San Cristóbal at the Galería, which appeared to be American owned or affiliated; that, I thought, was ironic.

I stayed at the Posada Tepeyac and was fortunate that the proprietor’s daughter Emelina, a college-trained linguist, was home for Christmas; she spent nearly a day helping me in town, principally getting a strut replaced on my car. My episode at a reputable car repair shop was annoying; the owner seemed a very competent mechanic, but a friend showed up with a bottle of rum, and four of them consumed the whole thing. It was a couple hours before the owner sobered up enough to finish installing the strut. When I got home I found out they had botched the job; one tire got ruined, bolts had been put in backwards, etc.

I did not see a single cat in Mexico. Nor did I notice any rats or mice, and grain is stored in open buildings. I couldn’t figure that one out.

The only place in the world where I have smelled and seen human excrement on the sidewalk was in Oaxaca (is that pronounced “Oh! caca”?). It was an unpleasant experience. Four human dumps in one city block, not in the gutter, not in the bushes, on the sidewalk! (No, it wasn’t dog doo.)

On my way back north I took to the auto pistas quite a bit to avoid potholes and to save time. I was surprised at the frequency of toll booths and at how much they charged. This blew a hole in my budget, and it far exceeded the cost of hotels and meals.

I found remarkable the influence of old Spain in Mexico, more ingrained in the culture than I had imagined from studying photographs before my trip. I have been to Spain and didn’t much care for it; I suppose I am a Francophile. I appreciated the Spanish style architecture and furnishings, in a museum sort of way, but never felt really comfortable in it. I interpret the machismo and prima donna attitude of Mexicans as a cultural holdover from Spanish occupation. No matter how dirt poor they may be, many Mexicans seem to have this regal, condescending attitude. I don’t mean everyone; numerous people I met were wonderfully friendly and down-to-earth; but enough machismo to make me constantly aware of it and uncomfortable.

As I drove through different areas of the country it seemed that in the regions that are agriculturally productive, people appear happier and healthier; the men carry themselves in a relaxed, upright posture and don’t evidence the macho hostility that I found so offensive in most of Mexico; women in these places have rosy cheeks and would make eye contact with me rather than posture the haughty, prima donna routine that I saw elsewhere. The relative security of life and the plentitude of agriculturally-rich areas, perhaps, engenders a sense of well-being and that lessens the attitude thing. The industrial areas I went through seemed the worst for machismo.

I asked in a few places about teaching work. From what I could gather, teachers are ill-paid; the attitude is that teachers produce nothing and so shouldn’t be paid much. I fear for the progress of Mexico with this attitude and the inane machismo that can admit to no wrong.

Most of my life I have been an advocate of small government and local control; in Mexico, however, it seemed that the only real progress being made is at the hands of the federal government; local jurisdictions, with the exception of some state governments, seem to be steeped in old ways and practically unconcerned about improving matters. I made an about-face in my ideology with respect to Mexico and believe that their only hope for the future lies with the central government.

Everything I read about Mexico mentioned the poverty there, but like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, I was unprepared for the real impact of seeing it firsthand. Along the highways in the north especially I saw families living in unbelievably crude shacks in the desert; I couldn’t imagine how they get water or are able to pay for food.

I’ve stayed in the desert in Arizona and know that lack of water can become a serious problem. Maybe people in the U.S. who complain that their social entitlements are not high enough should win a free trip to Mexico and see what real poverty is about!

All told, this was a really tough trip for me. I consider it a minor miracle that I got back okay. As I began to find concrete roads again in the north of Mexico, I felt a tremendous relief and looked forward to getting back to the U.S. I would say things to myself like, “This place sucks. I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” Unexpectedly, though, once I got into Texas I soon felt depressed and lonely. Maybe it was all the in-your-face billboards or the self-satisfied Americanisms. Maybe it was the obscene scale of consumption here; just one night at an 'economy' motel in San Antonio wiped out many days of careful budgeting in Mexico.

In the end, I am left with an enigmatic mix of dislike for Mexico and the desire to go back to one or two places that I really enjoyed. Maybe I’ll go back and help those Indian children who made me feel needed.

from the People's Guide Travel Letter #6

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