The road directly across the street from us goes up, and then it goes up some more – it’s a stairway to heaven strewn with dog shit – and then it turns into a dirt and rutted road that goes down; a lot of the roads here in San Felipe start out as paved roads and end in dirt. This place is schizophrenic - even though you have a fancy house with a cook and groundskeeper in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Mexico with a gorgeous view down the valley to Oaxaca city, your garage door opens on a road like something you would see in Jurassic Park. I walk up the road directly across from us a lot because I like to explore and am fascinated with all the places it goes – up into the mountains, down to the river, through neighborhoods with walled compounds and corrugated tin shacks to the park. I usually bring a sturdy bamboo pole with me because the street dogs that plague this country like to bark and follow me as I stroll through their turf. The stick will keep them at bay so I don’t have to find out if they will bite. If I am stickless, my friend Octavio taught me to bend to the ground as if I were picking up a rock and whatever dog is making a show will tuck tail and scurry away (typically, I end up with a rock in my hand because there are plenty of rocks around so why just pretend?) I’ve taught this tactic to Coconut and J and they are amazed that it works so well – classic behavioral conditioning a la Pavlov’s dog – because, I guess, these dogs have been beaten, and kicked, and hit with rocks often enough to know the story if they don’t get the hell out of there!
Notwithstanding the threat of being attacked by a pack of mangy dogs, we’ve felt welcome and safe in Mexico. Honestly, however, based on tales we had heard told before we came here by people who have never been here, R and I did have some nagging doubts regarding whether it was a smart and responsible place to bring a family. We did have some previous experience traveling in foreign countries, and a thread of skepticism of the mainstream runs through the tapestry of my thoughts anyway, so we certainly didn't think we were going to be shot in the face within minutes of crossing the border. But if you hear T.V. news and U.S. border guards as truth-tellers, you might think every place but home is filled with U.S. army surplus machine guns and gangsters who want to pepper the ground at your feet with bullets.
Restaurant health and safety inspections and a stop sign on every corner where there isn’t a traffic light may make a place civilized, but those things don’t necessarily make a place safe, and people may equate one with the other. Admittedly, packs of dogs roaming the streets like high school punks smoking PCP, put life a bit more on the edge, and a proposal was made several years ago in Oaxaca to resolve this stray dog problem by rounding-up and euthanizing the hundreds of poorly groomed mutts since adequate shelter facilities are not available to house them. The proposal didn’t go anywhere because animal rights activists intervened – which surely is evidence of a civilized society - so we are awoken early each morning to the barking and braying of the hounds.
We’ve yet to be woken to gunfire or experience any threat of a random act of violence. Outside of the traffic cops in Acapulco, we’ve yet to even feel intimidated by any person – and they didn’t really intimidate as much as annoy and disgust us. The person-on-person violence reported in the papers seems to be targeted killings that exist in the kingdoms of gangs and turf wars, and sometimes, a massacre of 43 humble scholars who lobby for progressive social reforms. Yet, while my fellow countrymen seem to view the world as such a violent and unsafe place, the number of U.S. states that have not had a random person armed with multiple rapid-fire weapons purchased legally online or at a trade show, go into a random place and kill and terrorize random people, is dwindling. Since R and I got out of the narco-trafficking scene, and I am certainly not an intellectual unless they are serving free beer and cocktail wieners, I think we are more likely to be caught in a cross-fire at the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie in Alexandria.
The truth is Mexico may be safer than the U.S., especially now that religious radicals have cited major U.S. cities, including my D.C. metro area home, as a place where people with some wild ideas might intentionally blow themselves up in a crowd. Since we’ve been good citizens and registered with the local U.S. Embassy, we keep getting email messages describing a worldwide travel warning for U.S. citizens, but I would wager a dozen churros that no place we have been in Mexico or are going in Central America is a target for suicidal crazies. There aren’t enough Western infidels here to hate, and frankly, would the world really care if a bomb blew up in Guatemala City?
A surprising number of folks asked us before we left on this trip if we planned to bring a gun. We didn’t – I’m not certain pulling a gun on a person who has pulled a gun on me is the best negotiating strategy; I’d rather just give them my wallet – and we haven’t. In his book “Travels with Charley,” John Steinbeck writes that while preparing for a cross-country driving tour of the United States in the 1950’s, his friends warned him of the violence that could be perped against him. He heard it so much that he brought a dog with him, thinking that if anyone unwelcome came into his camp, Charley’s barking would alert him. Mexico has done him a few thousand better – and as long as I’ve got my stick and a couple of rocks, I’m safe.