Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tales of Two Mexicos

During the past week we received two articles about Mexico that reminded me of those trick drawings in which one person claims to see a sketch of a haggard old woman while someone else insists it's a picture of a beautiful young girl. Both readings are correct: The difference depends on your point of view which in turn is colored by prejudices, preconceived notions and other data bits in your head.

We also received a tough question via e-mail from a good friend in Chicago: If we knew six years ago what we know now about the security situation and the drug wars would we still have retired in Mexico?

Our quick answer to his query is "yes" though retrospective what-ifs are difficult to answer. Right now Stew and I are happy as a couple of clams--make that "mature" clams, as Stew just turned 64--living in the house of our dreams, in a beautiful spot with an ideal climate.

But that's just us. Our emphatic "yes" is based on our own life experiences, expectations of retirement--and most important our nervousness or fear level, or what financial planners would call "risk tolerance."

Some retirees believe a gated seniors' trailer park in a warm spot is as close to heaven as one can come, while others swear by the germ-free comfort and luxury of Naples, Fla. Those two options certainly would be close to 100 percent safe but Stew and I couldn't stand to live in either place.

The first article was from the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 20) with a grabber of a headline: "Northern Mexico's State of Anarchy." It's a lengthy piece, thoroughly documented (including interactive graphs) and accompanied by photographs that make the small Mexican border town of Mier look like Beirut during its worst days. One of the two names on the byline is José de Córdova, someone I know as a veteran and respected writer on Latin American issues, not prone to hysterics or sensationalism.

According to the Journal, not only some border towns--Reynosa, Matamoros and certainly Mier--but large portions of states such as Michoacán, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas are effectively controlled by warring drug cartels and their enforcers. As the graphic details and statistics pile on, the article begins to sound like a script for the next Wes Craven flick, except that instead of "Nightmare on Elm Street" the title would be something like "Nightmare at the Fruit Stand Outside Nuevo Laredo."

The flipside to that story comes in the December issue of Smithsonian magazine, under the soothing title of "Under the Spell of San Miguel de Allende." It's a similarly well researched story mostly about American expats in San Miguel, going back to the most famous one, Chicagoan Stirling Dickinson who arrived in 1937. Sitting in my office writing this blog and looking out the window at a cloudless, autumnal still life of grasses and dried flowers, with the mountains in the background, I can relate to the rapturous ex-pats quoted in this piece.

Early yesterday morning I undertook what I call a form of walking meditation. Rather that sitting in a lotus position with my eyes closed--which I can never manage--I slowly walked the perimeter of our seven and a half acre land, followed by our two dogs Lucy and Gladys, their noses to the ground for a whiff of a mouse, snake or rabbit. There's very little chance of bloodshed as they never seem to catch anything. Lucy is too big and clumsy and Gladys just bores easily and either returns home or lies under a bush for a quick nap.

My walk was slow and deliberate, and I tried to concentrate on my breath and exclude any thoughts of news, politics, economics or any other static. By the end of the half-hour stroll I was talking to myself, wondering out loud: How did Stew and I find such a beautiful place to live?

But back to the drug war. Both articles made quick nods toward each other's point of view. The Journal pointed out that the mayhem is almost exclusively concentrated along the border and "the country as a whole remains stable." And as if anticipating a charge of being Pollyanna-ish, the Smithsonian writer for his part acknowledged that "mass murder and kidnapping linked to narcotics have overtaken parts of Mexico" but that the area around San Miguel "thus far has been spared."

So how do Stew and I reconcile the two realities, the beauty of where we live and the violence in some parts of the country?

We don't cross the border much, largely because we both hate driving marathons. Between pee stops, gas fill-ups and a few pauses for coffee, doughnuts and contemplation, it takes us as long as 10 or 12 hours to get to The Other Side (as many Mexicans call the U.S.)

But we've talked about the risk of driving through the border nowadays. Although there's no way to prove this of course, if one divided the number of cars and trucks crossing the border into Mexico daily--surely in tens of thousands at least--and divided that by the number of security incidents reported recently, the probability of a gringo with a carload of junk from Bed Bad & Beyond getting hit by narcos would be in the tenths of one percent.

That assumes one takes reasonable precautions. Driving on toll roads during daylight hours, for example. I would no more go cruising for Mexican pottery on the back roads around Reynosa than I would go looking for deep-dish pizza on the West Side of Chicago at midnight. As far as the next Guns & Ammo Expo at the Ciudad Juárez Convention Center, I'd skip that one too for the time being.

But how Americans react to the current situation ultimately depends on each person's level of fear. We have friends who when we mentioned we were building in the country outside San Miguel asked how many guns we planned to buy. The answer is none; we don't feel threatened. We also have friends in San Miguel who've never been to Mexico City--too many Mexicans--and some in the States who wouldn't go near New York City--too much of everyone and everything.

Stew and I often have talked about how, particularly since 9/11, fear seems to drive much of America's public dialog and perceptions, politics and government policy. Americans seem to be afraid of Muslims and Arabs (ban construction of mosques! bomb Pakistan!), immigrants (build a wall to keep the Mexicans out!), the economy (the damned Chinese are taking our jobs!), and the future in general (omg, America is going to hell!). News reports often seem to dwell on every ominous possibility that could befall the U.S. and Americans. Politicians can then make hay out of those fears.

Annie, get your gun!

How much more searching of passengers could the Department of Homeland Security (an Orwellian-sounding name if there ever was one) possibly do at the airports? Or as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow once suggested, should the government should just require every flyer to travel naked, heavily sedated and carry no luggage for the sake of national security?

Indeed, fear can become a noose that gradually chokes the joy and even rationality out of one's life.

Last month Stew and I traveled to the state of Chihuahua the home of the spectacular Copper Canyon--and the dreaded Ciudad Juárez. We've come to enjoy four- or five-day jaunts to Mexico City's restaurants and other attractions. We even, gasp, are learning to use the metro and the buses to get around the capital (Stew's idea). For Christmas we are headed for New York City and its multitudes. Other possible destinations next year include Cuba, which is full of Communists, Instanbul where last month a suicide bomber injured 32 people in the main square, and a whale-watching trip to Baja California, also the home of--oh shit!--the Tijuana cartel.

To go back to my friend's question, we're not afraid of living in Mexico. We think we are prudent and careful in our moves, not a couple of geezer daredevils. But we are also determined not to spend the home stretch of our lives gripped in fear. Naples will have to wait.

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