Saturday, October 27, 2012

So close yet so far away

During two recent outings, one a shopping trip a couple of weeks ago to the nearby city of Querétaro  and the other a one-day photo safari last Wednesday led by a professional photographer now retired in San Miguel, Stew and I were again slapped on the face with the realities of poverty and economic inequality in Mexico.

Querétaro greets motorists coming in from San Miguel with a new and extravagant ten- or twelve-lane boulevard landscaped with ground covers, twisty jacaranda saplings, oleander bushes and other greenery still being fussed over by ground crews. Subdivisions of new houses painted mostly a blinding shade of white blanket the hills on each side of the road. A new shopping center, rumored to become the largest one in the country when it is finished, also is going up next to the boulevard, with about five or six gangly cranes swinging buckets of concrete overhead.

Fall landscape we found outside of San Miguel during
our Wednesday photo safari.
The state of Querétaro's ebullient prosperity is not compartmentalized, like so much of the wealth in Mexico City, for instance, where a five-dollar, thirty-minute cab ride will take you from Gucci and Ferragamo boutiques in Polanco to rickety taco stands and tire vulcanizing shops in some slum choked with traffic and fumes.

A year ago we drove quite far into the state of Queretáro's countryside and were dazzled by the reach of its good fortune. Newly paved and striped roads with shiny signage; Mercedes Benz minibuses with   kids headed to new public schools; signs for coming-soon sewage treatment plants, soccer fields or roofed and lit basketball courts flanked with bleachers.

But trip from Querétaro back to the state of Guanajuato is a jarring riches-to-rags slideshow even though the two are adjacent.  Twelve lanes wither down to four, then two and if you head for the countryside, you'll soon be on winding dirt roads with craters, puddles and rocks menacing to anything other than pickups or horses, while brown dust, typical during the dry season, swirls around wherever you go.

Our guide, former National Geographic photographer Robert DeGast, drove his pontoon-like 2000 Chrysler Concorde LX, which he referred to as a "pimp mobile," quite capably, nudging it along through the obstacles with a mix of gentleness and exasperated cursing.

The day-long tour led us to a series of chapels, some brightly re-painted by misguided government historic restoration crews. Others were just ruins in waist-high weeds, with dark and foreboding interiors decorated with barely visible murals of arrows, chalices, birds, crowns of thorns and other enigmatic biblical symbolism that even a former Roman Catholic priest in our group could not quite decipher.

An abandoned chapel. 
One of the last stops took us to the settlement of Ciénaga, population a couple of hundred people if that, where we stopped to see what was left of a chapel atop a small hill. By now my feet were bothering me so I let Stew and the others in the group do the reconnoitering.

On his return Stew was noticeably shaken by what he saw: Women trudging along with buckets of water because the above-ground steel water pipes had long ago rusted and come apart; ten-year-olds, who should have been in school, coaxing small herds of goats with sticks; a man yanking a struggling burro loaded with dried corn stalks. And above all, the silence of a place where not much ever happens except the occasional bleating of a donkey or the whoosh of a gust of wind.

Once again Stew muttered that during our travels some months ago through Cuba, a country besieged during the past fifty-four years by endless economic calamities, both natural and man-made, we never encountered the poverty--make that the grinding poverty--that we often have run into in parts of Mexico.

There's plenty of poverty in other areas of Mexico alright, in places like the southern state of Chiapas. But there it's partly camouflaged by the verdant landscape and the bright outfits of the natives, their exotic languages and beautiful handicrafts, which make the penury of their lives somehow seem a bit quaint and less shocking to visitors.  

In our state of Guanajuato the pockets of poverty are unvarnished and Honduras-like. I'm sure state  government economists would vehemently dispute such comparisons, citing hopeful statistics and pointing to charts with zigzagging lines trending ever upward.

It just doesn't seem that way, however, when you butt head-on into some of the poverty we found during our Wednesday safari.

Or when you talk with our gardener Félix as I did the next day, when I presented him with a small electronic calculator. As I explained the buttons, I gradually realized he'd  never learned multiplication or division, let alone the concept of percentages. Stew, far smarter than me at math, will have to teach Félix some basic arithmetic. Short of winning a lottery, what sort of life prospects does Félix and his family have?

Yet forty-minutes or an hour away, in one of Querétaro's dozen or so industrial parks, right next to the city's brand-new international airport, young Mexicans are assembling components for jets for the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.

Why there and not here? A better educational system? More honest and efficient state government? Fate? As far as I know, Querétaro doesn't have any rare natural resources, like oil or uranium. In fact its rocky landscape closely resembles that of Guanajuato.

And thus far Queretaro's runaway prosperity doesn't seem to spreading our way, though a few auto assembly plants have set up shop on the other side of the state of Guanajuato, near León and Irapuato.

I'm sure there are rational economic explanations for these gross inequities though with my mathematically addled brain I doubt I'll ever understand them much less be able to pass them along. For the time being, my stories and pictures is all I can offer.

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