There are different types of violence in the world. We considered going to Israel, for example this winter, until the bombing started. Egypt was at the top of our list too. And actually, even after the bombings and talks of war, we still thought about it. We had conversed with an Israeli family in Tortuguero, Costa Rica (they chose Costa Rica because of its religious tolerance, interestingly) and they told us that Israel was safe. As we left the Denver Marriott for the airport, I grabbed a USA Today, which had headlines about the Connecticut school shooting in the United States. What does “safe” really mean anyway?
In reality, I would feel safer in Israel than in Guatemala right now based on our reading. Random acts of violence in countries where the government is corrupt are really scary to me. I always think of the French Revolution. When people have nothing left to lose, that’s when the situation becomes really dire. And most of Mexico and Guatemala have hit that pitch already.
In places like Cancun and Progreso where there’s a tourist economy, there seems to be some immunity from desperate measures, at least for the time being. I suppose because the people here are less desperate. They have “enough”. They aren’t starving. They still value their lives. Currently, I’m looking for a path from the Yucatan to Mexico City where there’s enough. A path through which we could make our way overland safely, buying bananas and peanut butter; traveling early morning to just before sunset.
I asked Iracema about traveling from here to Mexico City. She was sitting in her SUV and she raised her eyebrows at me, looked away for a second and then raised both hands to pantomime a machine gun and said, “muchos asaultos” (or something like that…I’m not sure how the ‘assault’ word is spelled). I didn’t press for more information. She had a sinus infection and wouldn’t probably think optimistically about a trip anywhere in the world in her condition. Is it safe to drive in Mexico? We’ve done a little of it already in the Yucatan and driving there was so safe it was boring.
I recall our trip to Palenque last year and how the social tenor slowly changed as we made our way into the southern areas of Mexico. We crossed briefly into Tabasco. (“Oh cool!” John said, “We’re in Tabasco…this is where Tabasco comes from…” By that time, we had crossed back out of the state into Chiapas.) In Chiapas, the color of people’s skin changed. The landscape became grassy. There were cows, and a warm, yellow sunset. Then, there were mountains and rainforests. People in the city of Palenque scoped us out. There were pickpockets who followed closely behind us. And there were menacing stares.
We made our way into the mountains. “Let’s go see San Cristobal de Las Casas,” we decided. We had considered living there for a month. So after a morning at the ruins of Palenque, we took off into the hills.
Carefully, we dodged the areas where the roads had collapsed due to landslides. Shanty towns were set up along the winding road. People lived in cardboard homes. Women sold fried plantains in baggies along the topes (Mexican-style speed bumps that can almost make your car high-centered or cause it to break an axel). Up and up we went into the mountains.
Beside a bridge, on the shoulder of a road, that spanned a river, was a man lying supine as we whizzed by.
“Did you see that?” John said. I’d missed it, looking down at the map. “There was a dead body by the road.”
“I’m sure the guy was dead. He was just lying there.”
“I doubt that he was dead, John.” I said. But just then, we passed a big boulder with a motionless fellow spread eagle beside the rock.
We both furrowed our brows.
What the hell?
Another tope. Women selling plantains. “No gracias…” or sometimes we’d just buy some to be nice. Not wanting typhus, we threw them away later.
“We should turn around.” Said John.
“I bet they’re drunk.” I said, but I wondered how and why they chose to pass out so far outside of the little shanty towns. Had they stumbled out here in a drunken stupor. On the other hand, they weren’t bloated or covered with flies. If they were dead, their bodies were at least “fresh”.
Every now and then, we’d see signs supporting the Zapatistas.
“If we see one more dead body, we’re turning around.” John, the voice of reason, said with finality.
Shortly thereafter, we saw an adolescent boy passed out (or dead) on the roadside. “Okay…that’s it! We’re turning around…I don’t care how cool San Cristobal de las Casas is!” John said admantly. We couldn’t turn around just there though. We had to get to a place in the road where there was space to turn around.
Another tope, this time with two women on either side holding a flimsy piece of string spanning across the road like some kind of ‘finish line’. They’d realized that this was one way to guarantee that people stopped for plantains. The level of desperation had hit that danger-point.
“Just buy the damn plantains…” John said, carefully, discreetly pulling money out of his wallet.
On the way back, we looked a bit more closely at the “bodies”.
“Do you want me to get out and check to see if they’re dead?” I joked as John drove around another one of those collapsed areas of the road where the cement and everything underneath is had disappeared recently in a landslide. He said,”No, that’s okay.”
San Cristobal de las Casas remains a far-off place to us by land from Progreso and Merida in the Yucatan, at least until I can prove that the bodies by the road were just unconscious and not dead.