Letter 7 From Mexico

Toward the end of January I decided I needed to do something I'd had on my mind for some time. Right from the beginning I have had the most non-Puritan thought of wanting to spend at least some part of my sabbatical year somewhere on the Mexican coast, hear breakers and gulls, see white pelicans skimming the water, eat fresh fish grilled with butter and garlic, feel the water on my skin -- as I contemplated the complexities of Mexico through the pages of my daily La Jornada.

And so I bought a one-way ticket to the Pacific. One way, because I wanted to give myself room to return a different way and on my own schedule, in case the coast wasn't as blue and shimmering and wonderful as I hoped it would be.

Dianne (seeing me off) and I boarded a small bus in our town Erongaricuaro, in Michoacan, transferred to a bigger bus in Patzcuaro, and in one hour dropped the fifteen hundred to two thousand feet down into Urapan, a bustling semi-tropical commercial center best known for the river that pours out of a mountain and gushes through a park just a few blocks from the center of town. By locals known as the former avocado, now drug capital of Michoacan.

We spent the night at the best hotel (400 pesos, $47). Business men sat in two's and three's having drinks at the outdoor bar. Two upper class Mexican women in advanced years, with Spanish features, shuffled along behind canes, chatting in English the way wealthy Germans might have chatted with each other in French while staying in a Swiss spa in the early part of this century. Aging musicians, dressed in now too tight gray charro (cowboy) outfits, lounged in corners and against walls, waiting for the guests to assemble for dinner. Evening fell and the temperature began to drop. Traces of smoke drifted down over the hotel from somewhere in the mountains close by, a brush fire perhaps, a major fire, except in this case heavy with the scent of what seemed to be its main fuel -- marijuana. Just off to one side of the pool there was a yard sale of new Mercedes Benz cars, and Dianne, to my horror, without a second thought, opened the door and climbed into a shining, solid, probably semi-priceless equivalent of the Landrover and, in English surely loud enough for the real customers to hear, praised it as cute.

I wondered how many of these the Mercedes corporation would be selling to Save the Children type relief agencies in Mexico (not many), how many to hacendados -- owners of haciendas -- how many to drug lords, and how many to the powerful who protect the drug lords.

A family was eyeing the machines. The wife wore her ready wealth like a girdle that was too tight, trotted along behind her husband, whining every so slightly about the difficulty of making decisions. She lingered near a luxurious sedan. Her teenage children sat on a low stone wall admiring the jeep, quite gathered and sophisticated, talking in hushed tones, as if in church before an altar. They were attractive but clannish and not outgoing. They had a First World air about them, as if they might be attending schools in England or Massachusetts. The father was a big, tall mestizo, buoyant and powerful, who in the end, perhaps in a gesture of appeasement toward his wife, waved his check book toward the one he wanted and bought the Mercedes sedan instead of the jeep.

It was dark and cold at 6:15 the next morning when I walked down the cobble stone lane to the city road. I had ordered a taxi ahead of time. The driver said little as we poked along over topes (speed bumps) and around pot holes. The streets were on the deserted side, and I peered around, trying to determine if he was taking me where the airport might be, or whether we might be about to head down a dark side street to some associates who needed my pesos and credit card. It is not safe to take taxis in Mexico City, but surely it was okay in Urapan, though it is a town on the edge of the area called La Tierra Caliente, the Hot Country which stretches all the way to the coast, known for its poverty, drug growing and trafficking, ragtag guerrilla armies, corrupt and dangerous Federal Police (the State Judiciales), the Army, highway robbers, and, if you can get through all that, for its kind, decent inhabitants who make up the vast majority of the population.

That was why I was flying. The bus line Galeana that runs between Patzcuaro and Lazaro Cardenas on the coast does not guarantee its passengers an absolutely secure trip . I had two separate conversations with the pleasant woman at the ticket counter at the main bus station in Patzcuaro. Yes, she said, after a little hesitation, the buses are stopped by robbers. I was dumbfounded and a little huffy with outrage, perhaps some scorn as well for a company that would admit any such thing. After the second chat, weeks later, and after some calmer thinking, I could see the lack of security was not a problem for people who didn't have credit and ATM cards and who had very little of anything to be stolen.

The twenty seater turbo prop took off with all three of us passengers, and I pressed my nose against the window for some viewing and thinking. For some weeks I had been telling people I wanted to walk cross-country to the coast from our village Erongaricuaro. I had even plotted strategies for leaving towns, maybe taking a taxi or a bus a little way out, then doubling back in different directions to throw off people who might want to follow me and relieve me of my valuables and, if they got nervous, maybe my life, as well.

Looking down, I understood immediately that walking to the coast was neither particularly desirable nor entirely possible. What would it take? I remember thinking six months was a possible high figure. Maybe less. The distances were vast, as was the sweep of dry hot mountains. There would be little potable water. There was almost no sign of agriculture (milpas, plots of corn) or burro trails (another sign of agriculture). Hence very few campesinos who might share some of their tortillas and beans for a few pesos. No food and no water. This was not the horse, burro, and corn culture of the highlands. This was the uninviting Tierra Caliente, and I thought it was good that I was in an airplane far above it.

After a while I picked out serpentine Route 37 below me and studied the distance between vehicles. I saw a bus or a truck here or there. Almost no cars. An essentially deserted highway, one that took the Galeana bus seven hours to travel from Patzcuaro to Lazaro Cardenas (on the coast), with no guarantee of safety. About 220 miles in a straight level line. Far longer when you figure in changes in elevation and endless switch backs.

At the end of a half hour I was on the ground.

I appeared to be the only gringo at the tiny airport in Lazaro Cardenas. I ate a slow, quite decent breakfast of beans and scrambled eggs and tortillas at one of the two tables in a corner of the building that held the restaurant, waiting for the two-hour lay-over to count away.

At 10:00 I passed through the security. I walked toward the turbo-prop. A baggage loader asked me where I was going. When I told him, he pointed to my left -- to a very a small airplane. When I reached it, there was a gringo in the front passenger seat, who mumbled to no one in particular, "This is interesting."

Six of us packed in tight, including the pilot, we lifted off. When we got to the ocean, we headed right out over it, crossing the long bay between Playa Azul and Zihuatanejo, a long way from shore. I tried to estimate the possibility of a glide reaching the beach if something happened to the pilot or the engine. But what I heard inside my head was the voice of a pilot friend reminding me of how many feet per second a plane like this one dropped while gliding with its engine off. I could not remember precisely, but I knew it was not a happy figure.

After thirty minutes we were over the golf courses and beaches of Ixtapa, in another few minutes over the blue water of Zihuatanejo's bay, then out over the beginning an endless beach to the south, where we turned inland, dropped down and landed and taxied over to the other little planes, away from the big tourists jets at the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo airport.

Inside the terminal I bought a ticket for the colectivo, which usually means an old VW bus (usually white) or something similar. The taxis cost 100 pesos for each person. I paid 25 for the colectivo. I asked where I was supposed to stand. I asked what the colectivo looked like. I was told I had to wait for the next flight to arrive. That seemed logical. You had to fill vehicle up. So I waited. Drivers leaned against their taxis, clowning, having fun. Behind them, at the edge of the parking lot, there were six or seven large buses pointed toward the exit doors.

Finally, the awaited flight arrived. Gringos emerged, from Minnesota, I think, pale, dressed as if for the mall in summer, fatigued from the long flight, many limping, many over-weight, all of them as if stepping out of a freezer, surrounded by a blanket of cool other-cultural air, stiff, tense, aware of their sudden exposure to a reputedly hostile environment, but talking loudly still, as if the volume of their voices would dispel the discomfort that gripped them -- and mercifully and courteously shepherded by Mexican tour guides toward the waiting buses.

With time, as the buses filled, the taxi drivers slowly dispersed, some with fares, most without. The buses headed for the hotels of Ixtapa. A company called Apple Tours had arranged the whole thing, and they weren't sharing their profits with the taxi drivers. There weren't going to be a lot of 100-peso fares. The dollars from Minnesota were on their way to the hotel coffers of Ixtapa and their bankers.

When everyone had left, I inquired again about the colectivo, and I was led to what looked like a taxi. I asked, "Is this the colectivo?" Yes, it was. So I got in. I was the only passenger. I asked the young driver if the colectivo was a municipal enterprise, a service subsidized by the town. It was. I told him I'd seen the taxi drivers lose their possible fares to Apple Tours. And my miserable fare, with just one of me for a whole car, wasn't helping much. He told me there was very little work. He drove ten hours a day for the city and made, if he was lucky, five or six dollars.

On that same day, not too far away on Route 134, the road between Zihuatanejo and Mexico City (the stretch between Vallecitos and Coyuca de Catalan), at about 7 o'clock at night, just as it was getting dark -- in the middle of the Tierra Caliente, in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental -- the Second Secretary of the Egyptian Embassy, 32-year old Mohamed Ismail Sadek, his wife and her visiting parents were driving a new Ram Charger van back to Mexico City. No one had told them that was not a good idea. There was a line of rocks across the road. They stopped. Bandits appeared. When it looked like they were going to rape the secretary's wife and daughter, he resisted, and they shot him in the chest, killing him.

The local newspaper in Zihuatanejo reported the bizarre detail that the bullet left a 7 mm hole. The state Judiciales suggested his wife had been raped, but when the federal Judiciales entered the case, they reported there had been no rapes. Other sources later said both wife and daughter had indeed been raped. The story was changed or suppressed, friends have explained, 1) because this type of information is not considered proper for Mexican newspapers, 2) because it did not reflect well on Mexico, and 3) perhaps (on the insistence of the Egyptian Embassy) out of sensitivity for the surviving women who would have to continue their lives in a Muslim country.

Three days later the Judiciales (whose revelations to the press are not necessarily reliable) had captured 19-year old Molina Coria, who supposedly served as a lookout to warn his 5-6 companeros (with a tilde over the n) of approaching traffic. His confession may be a product of torture or threats to his family. He may have nothing to do with this crime. The Judiciales feel obliged to find a culprit. An example made of at least someone serves, I think they believe, as a deterrent and warning to the actual criminals, whom they either can't or don't want to catch, in the latter instance because their ties with them are too close.

While Mohamed Ismail Sadek's family mourned and the federal Judiciales (Policia Judicial Federal) came in to take over the case, I followed the story through the pages of La Jornada, booked into a cheap hotel a half block from the ocean, and began to take the measure of my idealized Pacific and of the real Zihuatanejo.

I walked to the Playa Muncipal (the town beach) less than one minute away. A quarter mile of restaurants, coconut palms, pelicans perched on the gunnels of fishing boats waiting for the fishermen to rid their nets of unwanted fish, waiters hawking the benefits of eating at their tables, some on the sidewalk promenade, some on the sand under the coconut palms (you take your chances there with the falling fruit), women cooking on the beach for the fishermen, fishermen selling their fresh catch on the sidewalk, the fish lying on the side walk on burlap or plastic sheets, reds and blues and grays, tuna and Red Snapper, Mexican housewives, restauranteurs and fishermen bargaining for a price acceptable to everyone, tourists gawking, Canadians and Americans in their Bermuda shorts and sneakers, Topsiders and trinkets, moving in a bubble of skepticism, interest, and semi-suppressed fear. They do not look comfortable, do not know Spanish. But they have brought themselves to a Third World country, and that, I believe, is worth some applause.

It is not easy being a First Worlder in a Third Word country. You are a walking dollar in a world where people are barely surviving, and everyone wants a part of the action. It's a danger zone, confusing, beautiful, scary, alluring. There are shocking differences. It's a chance for a gringo to wake up. But that is not easy either.

There are categories of tourists and of what happens to their dollars. There are the poor pallid souls who stagger from the airport terminal and are herded into the Apple Tour buses, the refugees from Lake Woebegone -- beneath all their apprehension drunk with relief at having escaped the cold north.

Their dollars flee from them inside and around the hotels of Ixtapa (a non-town), flow toward investor-owners, move off shore, perhaps to banks in Houston, move capital flight. Who, after all, would not convert their money to dollars as the pesos weakens from day to day? Any taxes that are paid flow toward Mexico City, from which they are dispense with many intermediaries, until eventually some of it returns to the coast, filling pockets, little of it reaching Zihuatanejo. And the Ixtapa work force (which commutes from Zihuatanejo) continues to earn four to five dollars a day.

On top of that I had the impression the hotels were not full, the restaurants mostly empty, that something was keeping the tourists away. Maybe times aren't so good in the fabled north, maybe stories have appeared in the US news (like massacres in Chiapas) that are unsettling and reinforce an already existing non-specific fear of Mexico.

I have my own apprehensions, and so I took off my sandals, checked the water for debris (plastic bags, paper, beer cans), oil, and raw sewage. The water looked good. A couple of children were bathing, but no adults. Almost all Mexican towns pour their sewage untreated into the handiest stream or lake or pond or lowland.

I walked to a stream at one end of the beach. Clear water entering the ocean. I scooped up a handful and smelled it. It smelled good. The stream came straight through the city. It should have been black and smelly. It wasn't. Zihuatanejo clearly had realized that, to keep the tourist dollars coming, the beach and the water had to kept right.

A companion passenger on the little plane (I sat next to him) from Lazaro Cardenas, a civil engineer from Morelia, came to Zihuatanejo to consult with the presidente municipal's office on a water project. After two beers, sitting with me under the coconut palms, in the balmy evening breeze, he fell into a such a supremely cynical funk about the Mafia structure of Mexican society that I decided not to meet with him again the following day, to spare myself more of the same. Even before the meeting, his team knew there was no money available for the water project and that they were simply going through the motions. In Mexico, studies are common, action is not.

I found a real colectivo and took it for three pesos (36 cents) the seven kilometers to the Ixtapa hotel strip. They were widening the highway from two lanes to maybe three (passing lane) and blasting through rock to do it. A finished portion was steel-reinforced cement, then came one grader grading the gravel bed, then one broken down bulldozer, then a few battered dump trucks, then one front end loader, then three or four men breaking up rock with sledge hammers so that it was small enough to fit into the front end loader. Ahead of them a team of three or four men was drilling into the rock mass ahead of them, inserting dynamite and blasting. In front, there was one functioning bulldozer, and it was scraping material away down to the rock level. The whole operation could proceed no faster than the three or four men with sledges could break the rock. There was clearly no money for the machines that could either scoop up the rock and remove it, or break the rock up. The project had been approved, but the necessary money had flowed elsewhere.

One of the places it flowed was the fishermen's boats and the water taxis. The smaller, open fishermen's launches all had new 40 or 48 hp Yamaha or Evinrude outboard engines. The water taxis had new twin 70's.

Tourists will forget a bumpy ride and a little inconvenience in getting to the Ixtapa hotel strip by taxi or bus. But the fishermen's culture is central to the backdrop of the Zihuatanejo tourist experience, and the water taxis need to get across the bay without spewing oil smoke from leaking cylinders or God forbid breaking down in the middle of the bay. A light Ptomkin Village touch is what is needed, a bright face on the structure of poverty. And on that score, on the matter of the equipment of the fleet, the Mexican government has done the right thing.



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