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Carl and Lorenas motto, Wherever you go, there you are, certainly seems appropriate. To that pearl of wisdom I would add (conversely), You have never been anywhere that you didnt go.
In an earlier article (Impressions of Mexico, Travel Letter #6) I recounted my first trip to Chiapas. One of my strongest impressions from that trip was that, no matter how much one reads about a foreign culture, one cannot really understand it unless one has experienced it.
Despite some negative impressions from my first trip, my memories of Mexico have grown on me, and I found myself wanting to go back for more. This article recounts my second Mexican trip in December 1997, one year after the first one. I had a one-week break from my teaching job. My itinerary was to fly from Boston to Villahermosa, take the bus to Chiapas, visit there for a few days, and return.
The trip started out with foreboding. A winter storm was forecast for Boston. .... my 6:30 a.m. flight to Dallas was canceled. ....my connecting flight to Mexico City had already left..... a singularly incompetent AA employee .... your missed flight is not our problem, sir..... I wasnt allowed to check in..... there would be a $75.00 fee to change my ticket.... with just five minutes to spare, I was on the Mexicana flight bound for Villahermosa. Are you getting tired of this story? Imagine how I felt.
In Villahermosa I stayed at the hotel across from the ADO bus station. That was a mistake. Loud music from the disco downstairs kept me awake until 2:00 a.m.
The next morning I boarded a bus for San Cristóbal. I was looking forward to revisiting what had been the most enjoyable part of my first trip. I again had a delightful time at San Cristóbal. The restaurant food is varied and generally quite good. Prices were unchanged since my last visit, despite further devaluation of the peso.
The native Indian women and children were a special source of enjoyment for me. I was surprised by how adept the little Indian girls are at negotiating prices for their handicrafts. Having learned a lesson from my first trip, this time I did not try to beat them on deals; actually, I did play the price-haggling game with them, but afterward gave them some extra pesos as a regalo, or gratuity. This time I succeeded in getting some children to sing for me some songs in their native language ... for a few pesos. Cantar es mucho trabajo, one of the tiny girls informed me earnestly.
At the economical Posada Tepeyac it felt good to lie between cotton sheets under a heavy, wool blanket during the cool San Cristóbal nights. The bed gave me a backache, however, and so I moved to a more expensive hotel where the beds were better. There, however, I was between polyester sheets (which I dont like), and I shivered under a thin blanket. Oh well
Wherever I went in Mexico I found the Mexican people to be quite patient with my lousy Spanish, although my blunders sometimes occasioned involuntary laughter. I particularly enjoyed speaking Spanish with Indian children. Since Spanish is a second language for them also, they displayed no judgments over my mispronunciations, lack of agreement between parts of speech, etc. I love the sound of their speaking among themselves. I think I heard several Indian dialects being spoken, but I could not distinguish one from another.
After a few enjoyable days in San Cristóbal I took the bus back to Villahermosa. On that bus a scary thing happened. I have for years carried my passport, money, and tickets in a lockable purse with a strap I wear around my wrist. The bus trip lasted several hours, and for some reason that I cannot remember, I put my purse down on the seat beside me. I was sitting on the bench at the back of the bus; there was a young Mexican man beside me.
At one of the stops I got out to stretch my legs. When I re-boarded, the bus was no longer full, and so I took a seat by myself by a window in the middle of the bus.
At Palenque there was a Federal migracion checkpoint. A uniformed agent got on the bus and asked to see our papers. I couldnt find my purse and went into a panic. I searched next to me, under the seat, on the bench at the back of the bus, on the floor. In incoherent Spanish I told the agent that I lost all my papers: my passport; my money; my plane tickets; everything! No puedo regresar a mi pais! I stammered. Various scenarios began flashing through my imagination. Would I be arrested? Would I be penniless on the street at night in Villahermosa?
The agent asked me to describe my purse, and asked when and where I had last seen it. He asked questions of some of the other passengers. Somehow he got a young man to open his backpack, and there it was! Fortunately my purse was still locked and nothing was missing. I didnt understand what the agent said to the young man, but it was obviously a serious lecture. The young guy spent the rest of the trip staring out the window, whimpering softly.
At Palenque another young man was taken off the bus by the agent. Apparently the guy was carrying falsified documents. The agent said he was suspicious because the guy didnt speak with an accent of the region he claimed to be from. The fellow cut a pathetic figure as he stood at the Federal checkpoint waving with his jacket at the departing bus. I had no idea what would become of him.
It was very fortunate for me, however, that we were stopped. Had the agent not asked for my documents, I would certainly have lost everything. I hate to think of the problems that would have resulted. On the return trip I drew up the following list of resolutions for future travel:
- Use a money belt under my shirt.
- Bring an extra wallet (use one as a decoy if robbed as in my first trip).
- Copy important documents (passport, tourist card, drivers license, credit card, travelers check receipt) and put the copy in my luggage.
- Make another copy of these documents and leave them with a friend at home or with someone reliable in Mexico (e.g., a lawyer).
- Bring an alarm clock.
- Carry condoms (though maybe Ill never get to use them).
- Again in Villahermosa I inexplicably checked into the same hotel where I had spent my first night. Starting at 10:00 p.m. music again reverberated in the building from the basement disco, and I couldnt sleep. Not having a drummer, the bands rhythm was pounded out by an electronic synthesizer. The beat was mechanical and unvarying; it rattled the walls of my second-floor room.
I finally went downstairs and requested a quieter room. They put me in a seldom-used single on the fourth floor. The music reverberated there too. I made earplugs out of toilet paper and hoped for some sleep. There were only five hours before I had to get up for my early morning flight.
A housekeeper had hung up four naphtha wedges in the room and bath, maybe with the idea of killing bugs or to freshen the room. Despite my wrapping the naphtha wedges in toilet paper, opening the window, and turning on the fan, I woke up after only an hour with a heavy film of naphtha gunk on my lips. By daybreak, contact with naphtha residue on the bed sheets had raised large welts on my skin.
On the return flight American Airlines left me unmolested. I got back to Boston without mishap. It had certainly been nice to spend some time in warm, pleasant air after a demanding semester in the cold and damp of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was now snowing again.
After being away for just a week I experienced culture shock. Being among Americans again, I started to feel uncomfortable. Bit-by-bit, I felt my old sense of isolation and loneliness creeping back in. One difference I noticed between my Mexican acquaintances and the Americans around whom I felt uncomfortable, is that Americans seem too wear their personalities on the outside. Americans have few inhibitions about expressing in word or body language their personal judgments about me. Maybe this seems untrue, since Mexicans have the reputation of being more emotionally expressive than Americans.
I guess what I mean is that, if Mexicans have any condescending, disapproving, or disrespectful thought about me, they seemed to be able to keep those thoughts hidden. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be proud of their negative opinions -- and express them through facial expressions, tone of voice, or other body language. Furthermore, despite the financial and political instability of Mexico, that country strikes me as being far more stable socially than the U.S. I have not said this very clearly, but I think there is a kernel of truth in it.
The following winter I returned to Mexico again, this time by car. That is, however, another story.