It would seem appropriate at this time to carry on what we started with Canada and the States and put down some reflections of Mexico now that we have moved into Central America. As with our 'reflections of America' it must be said that this is only a view point from a subject of the UK with all its prejudices and conditionings that comes from being brought up on that side of the Atlantic. Some people may not agree with what is being said, but what is being said must be seen within our wonderful experience that we had in Mexico. The limitations of our involvement with Mexico and the people was of our doing, not being able to speak Spanish, keeping us distant in understanding, and we regret that, and this distance will no doubt come through in our observations.
It must be said however, that the people we encountered were kind, open to strangers, and very helpful when we asked questions in our then very rudimentary Spanish and patient with our lack of understanding. We always felt safe despite media reports particularly in the USA, of killings and thefts. Mexicans quietly acknowledged their country's problems in this field and we were always helped in keeping Nancy and ourselves safe. We were never stopped by the police or army apart from at check points (mostly we were waved through, and apart from being asked to contribute to the police Christmas ball and one army man wanting a torch (which we declined) we were never hassled). It may have helped being old of body and old of bike, with an old bird riding pillion, as they still seem to respect age, and when they asked how much the bike was worth and we said it was 29 years old and therefore not worth much, we almost felt they were going to pass the hat around for us!
Mexico geographically is part of North America, although culturally it feels much more apart of Central America. What is this 'culture'? In America everything is 'wrapped for your protection' and this wrapping is then disposed of, hopefully in an environmentally friendly way. In Mexico there is less sterility, which adds to it's colour and character. However essential 'wrapping' for example, plastic and glass bottles, cans, polystyrene, carrier bags and other plastics, are piled up along the streets, or seen caught in trees, dangling like long forgotten tinsel on a faded Christmas tree, or simply thrown over cliffs and dumped by the side of roads. We travelled through some stunning places in Mexico but there was always, even in the most remote places, piles of rubbish scaring the landscape, sometimes for as much as 100 meters along the road side where garbage had been systematically dumped over a long period of time. The 'organised' landfill sites were usually no more than clearings of level land, at the side of the road, to which folk brought rubbish and where it was apparently rummaged through by folk, often families and kids, and was set light too: plastic, tins, the lot. The trees on approach and for some time after would be littered with detritus blown by the wind. The stench was not of rotting food, nor were there hordes of scavenger bird or flies as one would expect, but of burning plastic. It was heart breaking and certainly got in the way of the sensory enjoyment of the landscape.
We wondered whether it is that the people don't 'see' the rubbish as a hazard or harmful to the environment, or is it that as long as it's not in my back garden then it's OK? And also what is the person thinking as they throw the plastic drinking bottle out of the bus window, or unloading the back of their pick up over the cliff by the side of the road, or seeing a cow munching on a plastic carrier bag?
A phrase came to mind while David was doing some voluntary work in San Pedro Guatemala, 'One harvest at a time'. There seems to be an inability to think beyond the here and now to the next harvest; the long term affects of actions, whether making a pile of stones there, convenient as it is at this moment, but will have to be moved again as it will be in the way later, or throwing your trash out of the window. Of course the homes of the wealthy are not located amongst the litter, but the homes of the poor are and this is where children play and food is sold from makeshift stalls.
Mexico seems to be a country set up for the wealthy. There are fast toll roads (reportedly safer than the reportedly bandit filled smaller roads) that the average Mexican couldn't afford to travel along, relegating them to tope riddled (sleeping policeman) and severely at times potholed roads, often in very poor condition. We chose to travel the latter roads as they were less sterile and more interesting, but the topes, some of which are very well disguised as completely flat, are a real hazard not only in terms of the bike suspension and our necks, but they are really dangerous, threatening to send the bike airborne, and we drive very leisurely.
The rich are apparently educated (although not in rubbish containment) and get richer through, we were told, the network of corruption that pervades. To get anything done here, needs some greasing of the palm, so the the job will slip ahead. This makes things expensive so nothing is quite finished or seems to be done rather shoddily. So for example in hotels although hot 'suicide' showers are not uncommon and are proudly shown,(so called as they are wired into the mains to heat the water with bare wires just above your head), you are strongly advised not to tough the shower head once the water is flowing as electric shocks are very possible. So showers may or may not work, and may or may not be hot. Light fittings often have loose wires. Tiles hang off walls, toilets block, don't flush or leak. Routinely, taps don't work, sinks block, pipes leak. It seems sad to us that a nation with so many natural resources and so much potential wealth, is so tainted by corruption. And yes we could have spent more on fancy hotels where everything is sanitised and 'wrapped for our protection' (though there is no guarantee that facilities will work) but that is not the point of travelling for us.
Mexico is actually a very rich country, being the 5th largest oil producer in the world, and it has a very cheap to employ workforce. But we wondered whether society is engineered to keep the poor poor, by making education expensive and inaccessible to many (not only to the native Mexican Indians) and keeping wages low, which works to keep many folk ignorant about what is going on and powerless to change it; living hand-to-mouth, one harvest at a time, so the rich and powerful can persist unchallenged. We were only vaguely surprised to find that the richest man in the world. Carlos Slim, who is worth the odd $20 billion more than the next riches person in the world (Mr Microsoft), is Mexican.
Is all this bad we wonder? After all don't many governments work to keep the masses otherwise occupied, so heavily engaged with debt that to keep their head above water, they work long hours to stay afloat, such that they have no energy to look above the parapet to see what's going on. There is something about when you are up to your arse in alligators it is easy to forget that the plan was to drain the swamp!
Perhaps then it does matter. Across the world ordinary folk continue to be pawns in the games of the rich and powerful, and here in Mexico, in 10 to 15 years, you won't be able to see anything of its beauty, or of its people because it will be totally covered in rubbish which is rummaged over for small pickings, and just as elsewhere in the world, there will be an even bigger gap between those that have and those that don't and all because it's human nature to always want more. Of course all of this has been said before. But we have learned a lot from being here, not least of which is humanity's power to endure.
And what role does the Church play in all this. Mexico is a very devout Roman Catholic country, and the riches of the church are in stark contrast to the poverty outside it's walls. This richness seems to be necessary to make the rich feel at home and to make the poor in ore of the grandeur. So it seems to work for most. One does wonder if it is a system which maintains the status quo. All the churches are maintained by the state and if a church speaks out against the state, as did the Jesuit Church in Oaxaca around the teacher demonstrations, the money for vital repairs suddenly dries up. Could make you stay quiet. I was very struck one day watching an elderly woman begging outside a large church. After a while she had been given some small change and she went inside and put it in the church collection box. Her physical need was far greater than the gold leafed church's, but it gave her something, although not the much needed food for herself. The role of the Church seems to be a bit like the social support that is handed out in the west and which works to trap folk. It stops a lot of people taking responsibility for themselves, thus taking away their choices.
I would like to think that religion helps the people that it serves, but I'm not too sure about the role all the very gory images of Christ play and whether the church is serving the people, or the people are serving the church. The message seems to be 'it doesn't matter what you do, Jesus died for you' this is the guilt you must carry. However we saw people wonder in and out of the churches all day long to pay their respect. The church seemed very much a part of their lives, not distant and set apart as it is in the west. It was warming to see: a quiet place for folk (us included) in a hectic world outside, which was very much woven into the life of a town. But we wondered what the church gives in return for the devotion of it's followers. Perhaps a sense of community. Of course a limitation of not speaking Spanish is that we could not ask. One observation we have made is the ready smile and 'buenas dias' people typically have for one another and strangers, whether just walking down the street or entering a shop. For travellers like us a smile goes a long way to welcoming you into an unfamiliar land. This is in stark contrast to the generally expressionless faces many of us wear in the wealthy west, as we go about our daily life. For all our worship of 'money as God', perhaps prosperity doesn't bring happiness after all.
We have wiggled our way through parts of Mexico and there is still much more for us to see. Should we ever return we hope it will be as more fluent in the Spanish language and more able to engage. But for now it has been an amazing experience and has caused us to reflect on, not only the lives of folk here, but also our own and a gradual realisation that we don't need the sophistication of the west to be happy. Viva Mexico!