Fourth of July fell only a few days after we moved into our house here last year. Not knowing anyone in town and in search of like-minded company on a uniquely American holiday, we piled into a cab with the dogs and the kid and went in search of a party we had seen advertised in the local gringo paper. When we got there things were winding down, so we got back into the same cab and had the driver take us to the main square.
Later in the evening, after a couple of margaritas and some sauntering about town, we headed home only to discover that I had lost my keys. So early in our stay here we had not yet put the house manager’s phone number or email address into our phones, and it took some wheeling and dealing to finally contact someone and get ourselves back into the house. I had no idea where I had lost my keys, the collection of which included not only the house key but also my key to our car and to the locks on the roof-top carrier. It seemed likely that I would never see them again.
I was stunned when one day, at least two weeks later, a cab screeched to a halt on the street beside me and the driver leaned out of the window and dangled my keys. Apparently he had been keeping an eye out for me so that he could give me my keys back, and although I must have looked like Female Gringo #498, he recognized me on the street. Stunned, I whipped out 200 pesos and gave it to him as a reward, which he clearly didn’t expect but graciously accepted.
This experience set the tone for the level of honesty we came to expect in San Miguel. Of all the things people asked us when we told them we were moving to Mexico for a year, easily the most common one was a variation of, “Aren’t you worried it’s not safe there?”, to which we typically replied, well, it’s not safe almost anywhere, but no, we’re not that worried. In contrast, the mass shootings that occur in the U.S. with frightening regularity are far scarier than the threat of drug cartel kidnappings.
The truth is that I have never experienced even a moment of concern at any time of the day or night since moving here. True, we live in an upscale neighborhood and tend to stay in the tourist-filled areas of the Centro, or center of town, most of the time. And while we do hear of crime, especially in the more working-class neighborhoods, in general this town exudes an atmosphere of safety and well-being.
But those things do happen. I just finished a book that I highly recommend if you’re feeling particularly upbeat about life and need something to depress you and even the playing field. It’s called Prayers for the Stolen, and it’s about a group of pre-teen girls growing up in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, near Acapulco. The story takes place in modern times when drug lords routinely “steal” beautiful young girls from their families and turn them into sex slaves. Almost all of the men and fathers in the town have left for the United States and steady work, and the women are essentially defenseless, except when they can pass their girls off as ugly boys by cutting their hair short and blacking out their teeth with markers, or hiding them in holes when convoys of black SUV’s thunder into town to pluck up their next victim.
The book is a work of fiction by a Mexican writer who lives in Mexico City, but it doesn’t take more than a cursory examination of the headlines to see that the threat profound violence is a routine part of life every day in some parts of this country.
A Mexican woman from San Miguel was kidnapped last May, and was returned to her family this past November. No one seems to want to talk about the details, but her son was a student at Wiley’s school. Reportedly the family was wealthy and owned restaurants, and speculation was that sufficient “protection” money had not been paid. There will likely be no arrests, and the family has since moved to Europe.
A couple of weeks back a few of us – and by a few I mean twenty-five grown-ups and kids – traveled a little over two hundred miles over winding mountain roads with switchbacks and hairpin curves to reach a little town in the state of San Luis Potosi known as Xilitla. Xilitla is the home of a very dear friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday. It’s also the nearest town to a bizarre sculpture garden hidden in the rainforest amongst banyan trees and waterfalls. The garden, created between 1947 and the 1980’s by an eccentric British semi-exile named Edward James, attracts an interesting mix of hippies, tourists, and art-lovers.
We had just arrived and headed out from our hotel, which was in the jungle near the sculpture garden. The group had spread out such that the leaders were about fifty yards ahead of the folks in the rear of the group, which included one of my friends and her two kids. I was just ahead of them by about fifteen yards, when I heard her yelling and saw and heard the foliage beside the road thrashing wildly. Two men wearing ski masks had jumped out of the jungle, torn my friend’s purse and camera from her shoulder, and plunged back into the jungle. One of them had a handgun, or at least something that looked like a handgun.
We ran ahead and herded the group back in and returned to the hotel, while the police were called and a search ensued for the perpetrators. The kids were understandably scared, and a place that had so recently seemed so friendly suddenly became sinister and potentially dangerous in the light afternoon drizzle. The pursuit turned up nothing except for Kim’s camera, which had been discarded and still functioned. The jungle was full of trails and groups of campers, any of whom may or may not have been the thieves; there was just no way of knowing at that point. The police took notes and wrote reports, but of course no arrests were made, and it is highly unlikely that any ever will be.
The incident shook everyone up, and for me I had to push down the urge to get my kid and get back on the road to San Miguel. But at the risk of sounding flippant you have to keep going; you have to get back on the proverbial horse and not give in to the bad guys. I don’t know if the adults communicated with something akin to telepathy that we needed to remain calm and normal for the kids, show them that we deal with these things through the proper channels, but then we move forward. But somehow we did just that, and soon enough we were making jokes about the incident in the way well-adjusted people do.
In general there seems to be a slightly more fatalistic view of living life down here. Maybe that’s not the right word for it, and maybe that’s a completely inaccurate statement made by a casual observer. But lots of people here, gringos and Mexicans, ride motorcycles and ATV’s without helmets. Mexicans routinely pack a family of 3 or 4 onto a scooter. It’s very common to see babies riding behind the steering wheel in the lap of the driver.
You undertake a lot at your own risk in Mexico, and it’s also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pin liability on someone else for an injury you incurred pursuing an activity voluntarily. At the sculpture garden we visited in Xilitla, there were staircases leading two or three stories in the air with no handrails. We went horseback riding and rappelling back in January, and no helmets were provided, not even to rappel off a 150-foot cliff.
On the other hand, you almost never see children under the age of 15 alone, or in unsupervised groups. Parents walk their kids to school every morning, and pick them up in the afternoon. And if you could protect your child from any possible outside threat by bundling them in blankets, hats, scarves, gloves, and ski masks when the mercury drops below 65 degrees, Mexican children would be the safest kids on the planet. This extends to small dogs as well.
I guess you never know what might happen, regardless of where you are. Sometimes you get your keys returned to you, and another time you might be a victim of (possibly) armed robbery. You can live in fear and stay at home, or you can flaunt your nose at potential dangers. Or you can try to be reasonable and educate yourself regarding your surroundings to the extent possible. You can trust your instincts and know that ultimately, you can’t mitigate every risk. There are typhoons and tidal waves, car crashes and crazed gun-toting maniacs in movie theaters, leaking nuclear reactors and life-threatening sicknesses. Where you go and what you do is a personal decision for each of us, but In the end, I make the choice to live life and embrace the beautiful experiences it promises.