PD & JD, Xela, Guatemala
We have so much to say about what’s happened in our first week at Spanish school. Not least there is the shocking news that Jeremy is pregnant. That’s what he told his teacher anyway. She informed him it was impossible, so he turned to his dictionary to see where he’d gone wrong. Turns out the words for embarrassed (embarazarse) and pregnant (embarazada) are very similar.
But more of our schoolboy and schoolgirl errors in a few days. For now, if you don’t mind indulging us, we’d like to briefly rewind to a subject that has been in our minds for several months – and now we are out of Mexico we want to address it. It’s a subject that came up in almost every conversation we had with north Americans in California, and then in Mexico itself.
The brutal drugs war in Mexico has led to the entire nation being demonised in the eyes of much of the outside world, but particularly by those north of its border. It’s a deadly, grim situation – no doubt – but no one who actually travels there believes the hysteria is justified.
We were shocked at the level of fear in the US about going to Mexico. Almost everyone – there were maybe only a couple of exceptions – warned us how deadly it was, how we could be caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out, how we would be robbed in the street or in our van, how we would be car-jacked, how we would definitely be “shaken down” by corrupt police or military officials at some point, how we should carry a gun to protect ourselves, how we could be scammed by people faking road accidents, how we could have our tyres spiked by bandits, how we’d get sick on street food… the list goes on.
This wasn’t just the usual over-cautious official warnings about things that could happen – and, to be fair, all of those things can happen, in many countries in the world. It was every conversation we had. And it was hard not to be infected by it.
Most went like this:
US: “So, we’re planning on driving to Argentina in our campervan.”
THEM: “What, through Mexico?”
US: “Well, yes, there’s not really another way from here to Argentina.”
THEM: “Is it safe to drive through Mexico? I’ve read/heard/been told..” [Cue long list of things that would happen – see above].
US: “Well, thanks for the tips, we’ll let you know how it goes or perhaps you’ll read about it in the newspaper.”
One particularly worrying conversation was with a Latin American guy, Angel, who worked at the dealership at which we bought our campervan. When we told him of our plans he said: “What, through Mexico? Wow, that’s brave.”
I asked which country he was from. “Mexico,” he said. Gulp.
Once we were on our way the evidence of fear was all around us – there has been a huge drop in the number of tourists coming from the US, and it shows. While many places were still thriving, we did see virtually abandoned trailer parks where campers and cars sat gathering mildew, rust and leaves because their owners – who would normally go south to Mexico every winter – had obviously not returned for years.
Those that continued to travel there, and US expats that had remained, said they always received the most dire warnings from friends and family who had never actually been to Mexico. They usually blamed the media for its reporting of the drugs war as being over-the-top and terrifying the hell out of everyone.
However, the conflict is real, and we don’t want to try to diminish the effect it has had, with thousands dying every year because of a brutal gang warfare and the government’s response to it. We also don’t want to be so naïve as to claim that just because we spent three months there without incident that there are therefore no problems at all.
The point is that it does not affect every area of the country, and the violence is not targeted at tourists. Many parts of Mexico rely on tourism and it is sad to see people struggling because of a problem that is not of their making. Drugs are a global issue. What market are these gangs feeding? Where does the root of the problem really lie?
Mexico is a vast, varied, modern, culturally-rich, beautiful, welcoming country – a country that is more like several nations within one. It also has loads of problems and its share of crime – who doesn’t?
To characterise it simply as a homogenous violent, dangerous, brutal place is just plain lazy.
Things we now know to be true: We love Mexico