Letter 8 From Mexico

        One day I looked out from the town beach and a huge white cruise
ship was anchored in the bay. It unloaded gringo passengers into covered
life boats with wooden benches that had toilet seat-like patterns on them,
so the passengers would know where to sit. These souls appeared to be in
better shape than the Apple Tours Minnesotans. They were herded around by
athletic looking men with ear phones on their heads and microphones that
curved around in front of their mouths.
        To my horror, they all disembarked from their very used looking
life boats and lined up to take the little Zihautanejo water taxi COOP
boats to the beach I was heading for some quiet snorkeling. I jumped down
from the wharf into a water taxi and got away in a boat filled with
Mexicans. We passed close by the cruise ship, whose name was Ocean Majesty.
The white painted steel plates of its hull showed welded seams that seemed
more raised than I would have expected, as if over time the force of the
water had bent the plates inward. It looked like an old made-over
freighter, with an added topside with luxury liner accenting. In short,
there was a something a little fake and shabby about it. Its anchor held
and its radar spun, but the distance from its lowest deck to the water
would have been a very long jump, and I began to feel a certain sympathy,
almost concern for the passengers who were in boats behind me, coming to
invade my beach.
        By night they were gone. Their dollars for the most part leaving
with them, except for a meal or two on the beach, and I suppose fares to
the water taxis ($2.38 a piece). They had not really overwhelmed the town.
As far as I could count, only three or four life boat loads came ashore,
maybe eighty people, at the most. Surely there were more passengers on the
ship, but they chose not to disembark, either because they had "done" too
many Mexican ports already (that seems unlikely; there aren't that many),
or they were too infirm, or they simply preferred Mexico from a distance,
or they were afraid. Or there were card games and friends and movies and
television and food and drink, and they were simply not interested.
        Next come the yacht-ies. I have to tell you they intimidate me.
They anchor in the bay after God knows what hair-raising experiences
sailing down the coast at night (someone has to be on watch and remember to
keep the safety harness clipped to the boat), and then they ride their Avon
and Zodiac outboard-driven inflatables into the playa municpal (the town
beach) and park them in the corner near the wharf, drag them along on
little stowable wheels, and leave them up above the high tide mark.
        These people walk through Mexican Life as if they had dealt with
far more difficult things, like dodging reefs at night. To me they seem
fearless, unperturbed, steely, and, as far as I can see, unaffected. Deep
down, because of what they've been through, the nights of sheer terror when
they're not sure where they are, they know they are not morally bound to
worrying about whether or not they're being cross-culturally successful.
They have returned to Dry Land for a while. And that is enough.
        Then there are the gringo regulars, maybe snow birds, maybe people
who hang out all winter. They sit on the beach at Playa Ropa (a long walk
from the town), exchanging cigarettes, comparing the price of beer at this
or that watering hole from La Ropa to Ixtapa, reading Danielle Steel
novels, and speaking to each other in one-liners and friendly put-downs in
the cadence and flavor of TV sitcoms, spinning a comfortable web of
language and understanding that gently isolates them from the world of
their barefoot waiters, who bring them beer and rich hot dishes of bacon
and mushrooms and shrimp, heavy with cheese -- clearly a Mexican plot to
stop their gringo hearts at an early age, and keep their dollars. This is
the best beach, with its almost white sand and fresh breeze from the bay
opening, but it is not my favorite place.
        All these kinds of gringos and then some stroll through
Zihuatanejo, exploring the boundaries of their sense of what is dangerous
and what is not, what is comprehensible and what is not. Like newly arrived
astronauts, they take tentative steps, testing the forces pulling on them,
taking the measure of their environment.
        And then there is the last category of tourists -- me.
        I, a professed vegetarian, sometimes twice a day (usually) ate
baked, pan sauteed, or charcoal-roasted sweet fresh flaky Red Snapper and
dorado and sipped beer and watched strolling tourists, both Mexican and
gringo, working fishermen, happy Mexican children, and young women playing
volleyball on the basketball court, watched the lights from La Ropa, or by
day the shimmering blue Pacific, and I praised my good fortune to be
sitting there in the balmy wind far (but not that far) from the dangers of
Route 37.
        I took the water taxis the twenty minutes across to Las Gatas
beach, rented fins, snorkel and mask for twenty five pesos ($3) for the
day, swam out to the reef and peered down at the most glorious fish, who
peered back up at me, darting toward me a few inches as they defended their
two foot square world. One even nipped me a warning on the end of my little
finger. Some were smoky blue, silky-finned and large, and others with
brilliant blue and purple and violet iridenscent spots, shy creatures that
slipped back into their corral caverns when I approached. Schools of small
fish, stripped yellow, black, and white, who seemed to swim close to me, I
thought, for protection. And a long straight torpedo-like fish with pale
sand and yellow, almost translucent colors, that I thought must be
dangerous with its long snout (nearly a third of it was snout), but which
did not attack -- but did seem fascinated with me.
        Each day I saw new fish. I wore a shirt to protect my own pallid
limbs from the sun, as I swam, and applied lots of sun screen to the back
of my knees, spots that become very exposed. And when I felt my body
temperature dropping after an hour or so, I climbed out, slow and
prehistoric myself, took off my fins and mask and snorkel, staggered to the
renter's shack, thanked him, retrieved my knapsack, which had been sitting
in a corner (untouched) and wandered down the beach to the western point
(there is a restaurant where I seem to be the only customer) for Red
Snapper in garlic and butter, guacamole, potato salad, hot tortillas, and
cold cerveza (beer), brought to me by amiable young Evangelina (who says,
"Lo esperabamos" with her broad smile -- we were waiting for you).
        And then I sit in the shade of a little olive-like tree, watching
the breakers roll by, the fishing boats waiting for the proper moment to
move forward through them, and just looking, looking, looking. I read an
article from La Jornada about a rebellion in the ruling PRI party, or the
arrest of members of a Judiciale Anti-Kidnapping  unit by officers of the
Policia Federal de Caminos (like federal highway patrol) when the former
are caught trying to dump a tortured body (which leads to scores of
indictments),  or the iron grip of the army tightening in Chiapas. And when
that becomes too exhausting, I slip over into the hammock, tilt my straw
hat over my eyes and listen to the movement of the sea and the sporadic
faint laughter of young round-faced Evangelina, far away in the kitchen.
        An older Scotsman out for a brisk walk told me about a trail to a
beach that no one ever went to. I hadn't listened all that closely, but I
set out one morning, found the key landmark (a plank bridge leading away
from the beach, my unfavorite La Ropa), climbed up a low mountain, made
three false starts, picking my way down dead end trails (close enough to
the ocean to hear it), making marks in the ground so I could find my way
back through the hot, dry jungle. I learned that you always take the most
used trail regardless of its apparent direction, because at least it is
going somewhere. In this case farther and farther away from the beach and
the land of tourists and its known safety.
        I picked up a stick someone had cut from a young, living tree -- a
piece maybe four, four and a half feet long, as thick and hard as the thin
part of a base ball bat. This was a trail without burro droppings, hence
one not traveled by campesinos going to their milpas, its purpose and
character therefore not something I understood. And so I considered the
degree of danger I might be putting myself in, in the heat, not knowing
what or who was ahead of me or behind. And I began to recall everything I
had ever heard about the martial arts of stick fighting and what I
remembered of my one year of karate training. Everything and anything I had
even seen in the movies about hand to hand combat.
        I decided on a simple choreography. First a thrust to the throat or
solar plexus with the sharp end. Then striking up with the butt (lower end)
of the cudgel, to the side of the head or the ribs (if his arms are
raised), then following through with the swing, around my head, and coming
down hard on the top of his head, or a swinging, spinning (whirling myself
around) blow against his legs, or a slanting blow to the soft area just
above his waist. And then repeating the process. All of this accompanied by
blood-cuddling cries of aggression.
        The trail dropped down through an arroyo, wound through shoulder
high elephant grass, then re-entered the forest. The heat, the ample sun
screen coating I had given myself which didn't let my body breathe in the
heat, and the 30 seconds of murderous preparation all combined to make my
head throb. The trail came out on a deserted rocky beach (no sand), I
walked to the southern end, found some shade, and took cover, and drank my
water. I studied a pool between some boulders where the water level seemed
to remain fairly constant and where there seemed little danger of being
swept out into the breakers. I decided I would have to watch the spot for a
couple of hours in order to be able to predict that larger waves would not
arrive and bash me against the rocks or carry me away. Plus, there were sea
urchins, creatures about as big as a cupped human palm, with five inch
spines that bury their tips in you, causing great pain (I still have one in
the base of my palm from being washed up on the reef).
        I found another trail leading up off the beach, heading south along
the coast, again through sharp waist-high grass. There were cactus, black
volcanic rock, and the blue shimmering sea, and to the south a beach that
must have stretched twenty or thirty miles to a cabo (point) at the end --
named Playa Larga. On a mountain top maybe two miles from me (inland) I saw
what looked like an army observation post, maybe to watch the beach, the
coast in general, the general movements of all the players: the drug
gangsters, the ragtag guerrillas (the EPG, the Guerrero Army of the Poor),
the Judiciales, and the Army, and the people. All one big Mafia family.
And me.
        And yet there was nothing moving. I wanted to walk to the
observation post. To see if there were Army in it. The was a bulldozed road
here, with no tire marks and no foot prints. There were mountains ahead of
me, a road leading through them. I've had this problem all my life, that
I've wanted to see what was on the other side of a pass. A young man
approaches me, coming from the opposite direction. He must be as surprised
as I am to see anyone. I ask him how far it is to a road. He says an hour,
hour and a half. "Muy lejos" -- a long way. He's says I'm walking away from
Zihuatanejo. He wants to know what I'm doing there. We stand at some
distance from another. I decide to turn around and go back by way of the
stone beach and the first trail.
        We walk together. He is sullen, conversation is not easy. I feel
something is not right. I hold my cudgel on the side away from him. I try
to make conversation. He's on his way to a sandy beach, somewhere down
below the cactus and grass and bluff. He's going to fish. He does it twice
a week. He walks for an hour and a half to do this. I ask him about the
observation post. He says it isn't one. I ask him who passes through this
area. He says no one and asks me again why I am here.
        There are long pauses, which disturb me. I say I think there aren't
many jobs in the area. He says just tourism. I ask him if it's safe out
here. He seems to brood on this. Finally he says it's not completely safe.
I say: if there is disorde, it must have to do with poverty. He mumbles
something. I mention Chiapas. He says nothing. I mention Lucio Cabanas
(tilde over n), who led the guerrilla army in the Seventies, that spread
into this area, until the countryside was saturated with Army, villages
bottled up, people tortured and disappeared, and help for the guerrillas
dried up out of fear.
        Marcial says he doesn't know (Once when I was the only passenger,
one of the uneducated water taxistas, the captain of the craft, proved to
be an expert on this history, and added that Lucio had escaped to Europe,
all of it told as if it had happened just yesterday and not twenty years
ago). I ask Marcial what he thinks about Chiapas. Silence. No answer. We
walk along without speaking. This impressed me: that he was not going to
talk about Chiapas, that he was not going answer anything. Not the kind of
conversation, not the kind of behavior I was used to.
        We reach the place where his path branches off. I step forward and
shake his hand and then step back. He says, "Ten cuidado" -- be careful. I
watch him walk down the trail. I find my trail. I keep looking back. I drop
down onto the stone beach -- checking behind me. I walk the length of the
beach. He is not following. The climb back up is exhausting, my pulse is
going too fast, I slow down. Nobody knows where I am. Nobody would begin to
know where to look for me. There's no air moving in the jungle forest. At
last the trail drops again into the La Ropa basin. An hour later I am on La
Ropa beach, drinking two large lemonades, sitting among the regulars, and
listening to them talk about where to get the cheapest beer in the bay.
        That night I lie in just my underwear, under the slowly turning
overhead fan, and watch Mexico's two famous telenovelas (soaps): Mirada de
Mujer (The Face of A Woman) and Demasiado Corozon (Too Much Heart), the
latter about drug-police-government corruption.
        As I watch Mirada de Mujer I list the names of the sponsors:
Columbia Pictures, Telcel (cell phones), Vicks Vapor Rub, Penthium
computers, Elektra (like Circuit City, and owned by the people whose show
it appears on, Azteca TV, with finances coming from Western Union), Hecali
(a Mexican version of Sears), Brut scent, Allen Cleaning (a house cleaning
substance), Boots Cigarette (offices in Nevada, U.S.A), Petalo (Mexican
toilet paper), Raleigh cigarettes, Burger King, Kellogg's, Nestle, Angel
Face (a product of Ponds), Nescafe, Pampers, L'Oreal de Paris (lipstick),
and TelMex (Mexico's telephone monopoly).
        I have just come from a nice waterfront restaurant where I (and
mostly other gringos) sat listening to small waves on the municipal beach,
felt the balmy wind in my hair, and ate tender white dorado with garlic and
listened to Andrea Bocelli singing  Romanza.
        I am in a country that is sliding, I'm afraid, toward civil war.
Salaries continue to fall (44.8% since 1994 in manufacturing, in dollar
equivalence). There is NAFTA (Jan 1, 1994), and now the Acuerdo
Multilateral de Inversiones (AMI) -- something like "Multilateral
Investment Accord" -- is in the works. It is connected to the WTO (World
Trade Organization), and its goal (free trade) seems to be to remove any
(protectionist) investment controls by governments. Stealth senates,
unelected, run by speculators and their managers and lawyers, appear to be
making rules before which weaker economies and their governments are
relatively helpless.
        I am wondering how else to explain the market penetration so
apparent in the advertising of Mirada de Mujer. If what I am seeing is
almost some kind of extorcion against governments like Mexico, the
application of economic pressure so that the markets are open, allowing new
investments schemes, Wall Mart, Payless, and Price Club, and all the
advertisers in Mirada de Mujer, and something like 150 new maquiladoras per
month (assembly plants where workers can not organize, where materials are
often foreign-supplied, and where the finished product is shipped out,
along with much the profits, without the need to pay taxes or tarrifs)
against which Mexican companies can't compete. (A continuing pattern of
Mexico not developing domestic industry).
        I'm wondering if it's something like, (with a polite smile over
cocktails or coffee), Drop the restrictions or we will move the billions
elsewhere (with a tap of the computer key) and your economy will go into
free fall again, as it did in 1994. That sort of thing.
        I am not in the states, so I can't tell you. But have you seen any
Mexican products advertised on US prime time shows? Or is the penetration
just one way?
        Dianne reminds me as I write this that we have heard from a friend
that businesses located in Mexico must be 52% owned by Mexicans. This might
seem like good news, but then we have to revisit an  historical Mexican
tendency toward internal colonization, capital flight (Mexican deposits in
banks in Houston, for example), and the concentration of wealth. We have
heard that of the 10 million people in Mexico City, one million of them are
as rich as any rich people in the world, and that 8 million of them are as
poor as any poor people in the world -- leaving in that city a shrunken
middle class devastated by the 50% devaluation of their wealth in 1995.
        When I left for the airport, I boarded a true colectivo, a beaten
up VW bus, white, with room for ten persons. I paid 3 pesos (36 cents) for
the half hour ride to the airport, not the 100 pesos ($11.90) tourists pay
from the airport to Zihuatanejo. I was traveling in the second economy, and
the second economy is where 80% of all Mexicans travel.
        In a few days I'm flying to Zihautanejo again, to meet a friend
from California. He wants to rent a car and drive the coast road a bit. I
told him I wasn't sure how good an idea that was. Another friend who has
been coming to Mexico for thirty years and who has a house in our village
has just returned from driving that road. He reported seeing Army all over,
even a patroling armored car with a machine gun turret. Apparently this is
the time to travel there, maybe even crossing from Zihuatanejo to Urapan
(by day). Except that after a while, people agree here, the security forces
will "forget," and thing will go back to where they were before. And people
like the Second Secretary of the Egyptian Embassy and his family will enter
zones whose degrees of danger they don't understand, and they will become
victims.
        These are some of the things I will be thinking about as I press my
nose to the window of the 20-seater or the 6-seater -- whichever one they
pull out -- as I look down on the Tierra Caliente, this other part of
Mexico, with its dry mountains and iridescent fish and the pelicans and the
Red Snapper in butter and garlic, and the kind decent people who live
there.

 

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