On the Road: The Traveler's Dilemma
Douglas, AZ. – Madera, Mexico
Having traversed the great American expanse and gone through customs I find myself in Agua Prieta, a small boarder town. What lies ahead? I know the stories. War torn border towns, blood soaked streets, headless bodies dumped at the police station, crime, theft, disease. Northern Mexico and Copper Canyon, a dystopian Thunderdome of carjacking, mass murder and disappearances. Despite my previous travels to say I feel no fear would be straight faced lie.
My route begins on highway 2, tracing the border fence. To my surprise the wall seems small; one’s eyes can pierce its slatted façade, minimizing its impact and menace. Its banks are calm. No ominous border patrol agents patrolling, guns blazing in thunderous Tahoes. No families scurrying north, no Coyotes or Minute-Men. The road is empty, well paved, the sides strewn with sagebrush and cacti. I spot my first stopped car on the highways shoulder. The road is banked by 3 foot depressions, nowhere to go. I tense up, try to look big. Is this a roadblock? Is my imminent demise bearing down on me at 60mph? As I near 4 men pop out from behind the truck, I move cautiously, determinately, to the far left, never letting off the throttle. We lock eyes. They wave gregariously and smile, holding their morning coffee and breakfast snacks. Workmen. Friendly ones at that. Relief. I continue on at a blazing pace eager to get these first and most dangerous miles of Mexico behind me.
The road widens, now a glass-smooth 2-lane highway with two broad shoulders and fresh, crisp, geometrically perfect lines. The vehicles on the road are definitively not third world. Lifted Dodge Rams, black Tahoes, and Tundras on chrome wheels and knobby tires, practical Nissan Sentras and Maximas. They do not drive aggressively, but docile. They travel below the speed limit, half the vehicle on the shoulder creating a 3rd lane for passing cars in both directions. As I approach semi-trucks they use their mirrors and anticipate my arrival, using their indicators to invite my passage. The botanic growth on the roadside is now populated almost solely by individual tall leafless trees, each with 20-30 stick-like trunks reaching high to the horizon, a small wispy red tail ends each stalk. All of them are pointed in unison at a 75-degree angle towards the sun. They are not reminiscent of the hands of children screaming and clamoring violently for the last loaf of bread in a refugee camp, but the warm euphoric arms of partygoers summoning the drop of a DJ at a big music festival. All seems tame, calm, civilized, dare I say boring. Yet, I do not let my guard down. When I stop for lunch the kind-eyed girl is from Longmont, CO.
What is this, this discrepancy between our conception of Mexico in the US and Mexico as it is? The media does not report on motorists who wave and smile, this is true. We are, as Humans, intrinsically risk averse, we value life, we above all have a biological imperative to pass on our genes and protect our kin and social groups, this too is correct. Concurrently our brilliance as a species is largely due to our abilities of social cognition, grouping, forming schematic “drawers” to put ideas, places, and things into. If we needed to understand each branch, each leaf, each wheel, each bite of food individually we would be rendered inept. It would be impossible to navigate our world. This is why computers can trounce the best mathematical mind in history but fail miserably to recognize faces with the staggering speed and accuracy of even the feeblest human mind.
In places close and familiar we use our minds to deeply understand contexts, discrepancies. But when we try to conceptualize that which is foreign, impersonal, our drawers get larger and larger. Fear and instinct take over. It is safer for us and our kin to hear “danger” and ascribe it write large to a place, a nation, a people than to venture out, take the risk and learn. And it is a risk, of that I do not deny. Danger does lurk in the world and evil is real.
In the past 30 years the information age has brought foreign lands to our computers and TV sets 24 hours a day, but the information transmitted is often the worst sort, the most sensational. Our social cognition and categorizations have not had the time to catch up. Is their brutal violence in Mexico? Absolutely. The havoc the drug cartels have wrought on towns and communities in Mexico is grotesque and barbaric. But it’s not omnipresent and omnipotent. It’s localized, it is calculated, and it is, a business decision. And this reality in no way precludes beautiful, vibrant, welcoming Mexico of historical and cultural depth to co-exist.
Of the drug violence, I am not the target. As a traveler I know 95% of my safety is derived of my own decisions, not those of others. I can never eliminate all risk, but I can go a long way to doing so by putting myself in the right situation at the right time with the right attitude and the right preparations. There is a risk, but it is a risk I am willing to bear because as a traveler I know this biggest risk is taking no risk at all. If stay home, close my eyes and turn on the TV I will not grow as a human. I will not continue to expand my understanding and context. Rather I will let the world and the media dictate to me what reality is. I will embrace the idea of the other; I will see not what is but what might be, what could be, fear penetrates. Fear and anxiety, ascription of belief to an outside group have an ominous history of manifesting themselves into reality. Preconceptions beget tension, tension begets anxiety, anxiety begets hate, hate begets conflict and conflict manifests our worst fears.
Yet, with a smile, a meal, a drink, a conversation, an understanding, though not always, we can find happiness, commonality, friendship and growth. History bears this out. Despite what we may reflexively think, empirical data shows that in aggregate violent death, crime, even war have been on a precipitous decline for all of human history. Our ability to get out, meet people, build bridges, create economic ties and form relationships has been an accelerating driver of this for millennia.
The biggest emotion of my 300 miles drive comes as I draft close to an old Chevy pickup truck waiting for a line of cars in the adjacent lane to clear so I may pass. I look up and find 6 children smiling, waving, and sticking out their tongues. Americans, Mexicans, Humans. We are not so different. We want the same things. Security for our families, food, shelter, self-actualization, respect, community, to live lives of fulfillment and pass on a better station to our children.
I arrive in Madres, a mid-size town famous for its logging industry. It’s long and narrow; two main one-way thoroughfares dominate the landscape. Cars drive slowly here. The afternoon sun kisses the board sidewalks and pastel buildings bathing them in a warm hue. Shop owners fastidiously clean their windows and round gold-toothed mothers pick up their babies hands and wave to me in unison as I pass by. When I stop for Tamales, which cost 60 pesos, I have only a 50 or a 200. The woman has no change. I offer the 200 but she takes the 50 and says “manyana amigo”. She smiles, turns away and turns up her Mexican orchestral music and begins dancing, cleaning her kitchen as she goes. I find a hotel; as I pull up, pulling my iPhone out of my pocket and my money flies out. It’s windy. A man and two women jump to attention, chasing the blowing cash down the street. The pick it up, turn around, walk slowly to me, smile, hand it to me. I smile back, “Ola” I say, “Ola” they reply. I think Mexico is going to be just fine.
Skippy Mesirow is Chair Next Generation Advisory Commission Aspen, CEO Real World Reporting, AVSC Big Mountain Coach, Enthusiastic Community Member and Friend.