I am in Mexico, distant from the headlines in the United States. It would be so easy to dismiss what is happening in the United States right now. Just as easy as it is to dismiss what happens everyday to people of color.
I sat at my computer yesterday, and like 4 million other people, I debated weather or not I needed to see a man be executed. I watched it. And then I watched a woman film the aftermath of her boyfriend's murder, all while calling the killer "sir".
And I cried. And I cried. And I doubted my desire to return to the United States.
We are taught at such a young age that America is the greatest place in the world. We are taught to show respect to our country, to celebrate our country and to serve our country. I can say that I was pretty removed from that "Go 'Merica!" culture from a young age. We never celebrated the Fourth of July- most of the time we went backpacking in the mountains instead. At baseball games, my father would always stand, but never hold his hand to his heart. I mimicked this as I got older. My parents were not some sort of liberal, commie hippies. I don't know what their motivation was, but I suspect that it was the idea that you owe your devotion to God, and not to your country.
I have interpreted their morals, but twisted them so that I don't owe my devotion to 'God', or to my country, but to the people around me. I fail miserably at this effort most of the time.
But I think it has always been the idea that you owe your life to trying to understand yourself, and to understand people around you, that has led my desire to explore, understand and hopefully serve the world around me.
I grew up in an extremely white and privileged neighborhood, in Littleton, Colorado. We had one black girl at our elementary school. Her name was Amy. In the third grade, a group of boys, (white, of course) threw thistles at her, and they became entagled in her hair. I remember Mrs. Johnson, trying to get them out of Amy's hair, which only made the situation worse. Her parents were called, she left school and did not return for a couple days. Her hair was significantly shorter when she returned.
I said nothing, to the boys, or to Amy.
This is one of the few memories that I have of the third grade.
My senior year of high school I grew my thin, blond hair into dreadlocks. The next year I left my white suburb, for Baltimore, Maryland. I could quote Howard Zinn, for the misinterpretation of US History, cite Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
Yet one late night, as I was walking home from my studio on North Avenue, I saw a man across the bridge. He was much larger than me, African-American, and staring me dead in the eyes from 100 feet away. I began to panic. Could I cross the street? Should I avoid eye contact? Should I look him right in the eyes? He came closer and his stare became even more obvious. I was terrified.
"Wow. You have amazing dreadlocks. How long have you been growing them?"
I had to acknowledge that I had just made an extremely racist judgement on a man, whose culture I had appropriated.
Later in life, I lived in Africa for almost two years. I had a family in Africa, people whose skin was much darker than mine, but that I called mom and dad, sister, and brother. I teach at a diverse school, where white students are the minority. I am currently spending six weeks in Mexico, with the understanding that Mexicans are not thieves nor rapists, as Donald Trump might have you believe.
Yet late last night, I heard a noise outside my bedroom, and convinced myself that someone was breaking into my car. I actually had to consciously remind myself that nobody was trying to take what was "mine."
I am white, and I am privileged, and I carry deeply disturbing, subconscious thoughts about race and class. I wish I did not. I was not raised by hate mongering Nazis. I have never been exposed to that sort of ideology. I feel shameful and embarrassed to even write these stories.
But I think they need to be heard. Because chances are that even if you are using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and you are white, that at some point you have held your purse a little closer. And pulling your purse a little closer is not that distant from pulling a gun on an innocent man.
I've developed two small calluses where my palms grip the steering wheel. By my accounts I have now driven close to 2,000 miles in Mexico, which makes me an expert in this Mexican driving business. Ok, well maybe not an expert, but definitely capable of getting myself from point A to point B in one piece.
Before this, I had never driven outside of the US, and it was definitely the most terrifying aspect of this trip. In my head, I envisioned dirt roads, high on a mountain top, with banditos around every corner. Most of the time, this could not be further from the truth....
I have stuck to driving on cuotas, (toll roads) whenever possible. These roads are almost always four lane highways, and for the most part are pretty well maintained. They are also monitored by the "green angels" which are cars that patrol the highways, helping people who break down or get into an accident. So if you get stuck on a toll road, you just dial 074, and a mechanic shows up. I hope that I never actually have to use this, but it's nice knowing that it's out there, and worth the extra cost of driving on a toll road.
When I first started this trip, I would download the directions on google maps, write simplified directions on an index card that I kept in the console, and then finally highlight my route in a copy of "Guia Roji" a book of road maps in Mexico, that I am most thankful to own. Since those first few trips, I have come to rely solely on Google Maps, and found the other two steps to be totally unnecessary.
Mexicans have mastered the art of communicating to other cars on the road, and I wish this bizarre "car language" was something that we used in the US. For example, if you're stuck behind a slow car on a two lane highway, the car in front of you will signal when it's safe to pass, by turning on their blinker. However, most of the time this isn't needed, because most slow cars will always drive on the shoulder. At first, I really hated this, but I've learned that it's actually safer to stay on the shoulder, in case a car coming the opposite direction is trying to pass.
My favorite thing about Mexican driving is the use of hazard lights. Raining? Put on your hazards. Tope coming up? Put on your hazards. Toll? Put on your hazards. Military checkpoint? Put on your hazards. A bunch of teachers blocking the road? Hazards. Construction Zone? Yup, you need to put on your hazards. It's a really nice signal to alert everyone that something on the road is happening, and you need to wake the fuck up.
One of my biggest concerns before leaving was military checkpoints and corrupt police. I heard endless stories of police asking for bribes, of police planting things while doing a routine search of American's cars. However, all of these stories, ended up being from people who had not driven in Mexico for ten years or more. I heard from several people who have driven through Mexico more recently that they never once were pulled over or searched. I have been through about ten checkpoints, and have been waved through every single one of them, even if every other car around me has been stopped. I think this aspect of police corruption in Mexico has changed- that the government at some point realized that foreigners bring a lot of money to Mexico, and that maybe it would be best to just let them pump their money into the economy. But the trip is not over yet, and there will be many more checkpoints here in the Yucatan than there have been in central Mexico, since it's a popular place to illegally cross from Guatemala.
All this being said, I just finished what I expected to be the "worst" driving part of this trip, which is the road from San Cristobal to Palenque. It's a "libre" or free road, and only 120 miles, but google maps expected it to take five hours. It took me six. To top that off, Lonely Planet's description of the road warns of armed robberies of this road, but also says that it's much safer than it used to be due to an increased police presence. But it also says to NEVER drive this route at night. It's a vague description at best. To be on the safe side I hid my camera, laptop, passport, and most of my money.
I found a "buddy" car for the first part of the trip, and we drove together from San Cristobal to Ocosingo. They stopped in Ocosingo, and I was left to fend for myself the rest of the way. It was definitely a hard drive, as the shadows on the road make it nearly impossible to see the potholes and topes. For those of you who have never been to Mexico, a tope is like a speed bump on steroids. They are not gradual bumps, but more like a little wall of asphalt that sometimes appear out of nowhere. I think I was passed by nearly every car on this road, and went over three topes way too fast. My poor little Suby....
At one point I came around a corner, and a bunch of little girls where standing around, looking suspicious. As soon as I approached them, they pulled a rope up and blocked the road. My car was descended upon by ten year olds with mangoes, banging on my window, and pleading for me to buy them. The mango banditas. I shouted at them and eventually drove through their rope. The mango banditas definitely gave me a bit of a scare, and I realized how easy it would be for actual banditos to stop your car on this road.
But they didn't, and I made it safely to Palenque. The actual town of Palenque is nothing to write home about, and I was glad I only stayed for two nights. I have to give a shout out to the lovely hotel, "El Colombre." It's off a dirt road on the way to the ruins and is a big plot of land in the middle of the jungle, with little palapas and an amazing swimming pool. The do breakfast and dinner on site, and were more than helpful. The only other guests were a family originally from Pennsylvania, who are currently living in Mexico City. They are the first Americans I have seen in two weeks.
Just outside of Palenque are ancient Mayan ruins, set in the middle of the jungle. Only about 3% of the ruins have actually been excavated, making this an enormous ancient city. You can hike into the jungle and see part of the ruins that have not yet been restored, which I enjoyed much more than the restored ones. It feels much more like walking alone in Angkor Wat, than in Mexico.
This was my fourth of July: Mayan ruins, pool, hammock, nap, pool, hammock, pool, hammock, pool hammock.
I left Palenque yesterday morning, expecting an easy 6 hour drive to Merida. But Mexico does not always go as planned, and I once again hit a road block outside Palenque. I pulled out my copy of "Guia Roji" and plotted an alternative route. I love Google Maps, however it's not very helpful, when you are trying to find an alternative route because teachers have lit a car on fire in the middle of the road you are trying to travel on...
So I detoured to Villahermosa, adding an extra 4 hours to the trip, and getting into Merida just as the sun was starting to set.
The expected temperature in Merida today is 102. I'm about three weeks into this trip, and feeling a bit burnt out. I still have not made it into the city center, and Nilo and I have just been chilling in the lovely casita that we will call home for the week....
I was finally freed from the city of Tuxtla Gutirrez, drove my car over a mountain in the sky, and was spit out into the magical little town of San Cristobal de las Casas. San Cristobal is my new favorite place in Mexico thus far, maybe with the exception of Mexico City, although the two are so different that they feel like they are not even part of the same country.
Maybe because much of Chiapas state, was actually part of Guatemala until less than 100 years ago. Maybe because one third of Chiapas is made up of Indigenous people, many of whom do not speak Spanish, and govern their own land, much like our reservations in the United States.
I spent much of yesterday in two of these indigenous villages, San Juan Chomula and Zinacantan. These two villages are far from "normal" Chiapan villages, as they are relatively wealthy due to people like me, coming in for a visit from San Cristobal. You pay a small entrance fee to get into the villages, then buy all sorts of beautiful textiles, because, hey, when else are you going to be able to by an embroidered purse like this?!? Seriously, though, the textiles produced in Zinacantan are absolutely stunning, and I was told that it takes them over a month to produce a complete outfit. That outfit will sell for 3-4000 pesos, which is around $200. Right now, everyone in the village wears the color purple, as it's the "fashionable" color of the village. In a few more years, they'll change colors, and everyone will wear the new color.
Much like the United States' reservations, these villages have a high rate of alcoholism, and I was able to drink their local favorite, "posh," a strong alcohol made from sugar. And absolutely terrible. Much like I believed vodka was a good remedy for a cold while living in Russia, many natives believe posh to be medicinal.
We next visited the church of San Juan Chomula, which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Sadly, photography is strictly forbidden inside the church, so you'll just have to use your imagination.
When Spain first invaded these villages, they saw how the natives worshipped, and gave them two choices: convert to Catholisism, or die. Needless to say, most chose to convert, but they incorporated their own indigenous beliefs with traditional Catholicism.
So on the outside, San Juan looks like your average church....
However on the inside, he floor is covered in pine needles, the villagers way of bringing the mountains inside. The smell of fresh flowers is overwhelming, as they cover every altar. Traditional Catholic Saints, covered in ribbons and wearing a small mirror around their neck, are encased in glass. They line the walls and the altars of the church and in front of each saint are hundreds and hundreds of burning candles- lit to thank and praise their patron saint, or to ask a favor. Families kneel in front of the saints, lighting candles, drinking posh, and praying. They ask for the healing of their loved ones, and light candles to keep the saints content. Many families have been sent here by a "doctor" to cure an illness of a loved one. The cure? They wave chickens over the candles, then in front of the saints, and finally over their loved one, whose soul has been "taken" from them. The chicken receives the illness that is inside of them, and is subsequently killed.
People praying in their native language, whistles calling for peoples souls to return to them, chickens trying to escape their certain death, these sounds overtake the church.
A truly incredible experience.
I'm Lauri. Teacher for nine months of the year, vagabond for the other three. I've traveled to France, Russia, West Africa, SE Asia and all over the US. This summer I'll be driving to Mexico with my little dog, Nilo.