Evening was well advanced when the lights of Guadalajara crept under the wing and I started peering out the window like a visiting space alien. Cities at night fascinate me. They look like glowing bacterial cultures in a huge Petri dish, tendrils winding off into the darkness from a dense center. I had been in Washington to sell a condo as a matter of simplification of life: paperwork and labyrinthine taxes make owning anything you don’t have to more trouble than it is worth. The beast was sold. I was ready to get home.
I cleared customs and grabbed a cab. It was about a half hour to where I was going. The driver asked whether it was my first time in Mexico. I said no, I lived there. Ah, and what did I think of his country? Did I like it? People want you to like their countries.
The only possible answer was “Yes,” which had the virtue of being true. I said I liked it because life was quiet. That’s not why I like Mexico. It’s why Mexicans like Mexico.
“Tranquilo…muy tranquilo….” he said with pensive approval.
They always say it. They have a capacity that I don’t, for being what they are and living peacefully where they are. I am incorrigibly American, getting bored after six weeks of anything and wanting to head off for another continent or some jungle or other. People are more philosophic here. Many are content to spend their lives in the same town in the mountains, watching the storms roll in during rainy season and chatting with friends of decades in the plaza.
They seem happier than Americans, but it is a mixed blessing. I talk often to a Mexican woman, highly intelligent and cultivated. She agrees that Mexicans are more at peace, but believes them much less independent and adventurous than Americans. The reason, she says, is that children are coddled hereabouts and that family ties are so strong.
She has a point. Gringos wake up one morning and think, “I think I’ll start a computer company or, you know, learn to hang-glide, or maybe go live in Fiji.” They don’t stay at home very well.
She sees my daughters, about whom I tend to talk, as the perfect gringas. (They are.) Anne and Liz are forever hopping freight trains across Canada, or setting off into the city to be blues singers, or getting tear-gassed in Prague over something or other. Mexican kids don’t. One might as well imagine Thoreau bungee-jumping.
The plaza was hopping, it being Saturday night. Swarms of kids charged about, parents talked, couples wandered around holding hands. Mexico is a country of plazas and churches. The bells ring, at least where I live, to mark the hour and to announce mass. Good bells cost money, which not every town has. The ones here sound like a Dempster Dumpster being repeatedly rammed by a cement truck. I live in the shadow of the church, and the constant whanging has inspired in me a certain ambivalence toward religion.
I unloaded my bags, grabbed some booty from them — CD burner so I can steal music and software, a lovely pocketable digital camera (Canon S400, sweet gadget), and a high-end scientific calculator (TI-89) that my realtor, a friend, had given me as a closing present. Much as I like Mexico, America is a better place to buy Japanese electronics. Clutching the Canon, I headed for Rex’s bar on the plaza to catch up on the ongoing soap opera that is part of expat life.
People in the States often have curious ideas about Mexico. I get a lot of mail asking me, or telling me, about the perils of life here. The gravamen is to the effect that the Federales will at any moment scoop me up in the dark of night and throw me into durance vile, at a location unknown, without benefit of counsel, constitutional protections, or determinate date of dis-incarceration. This amounts to saying that Mexico anticipated Mr. Ashnamara’s Patriot Act: While Mexico has adopted democracy, the colossus of the north retreats from it.
Now, if you want to get in trouble here, you can. Punch out a cop. You will get trouble. Money back if you aren’t satisfied. Or take a flyer at rape, or traffic in drugs, or smuggle guns, or rob a bank. All will serve. Oh yes.
Or try to kill a policeman. Several months back a Mexican guy from Guad came to a local bar here. He found himself blocked by another car and began pistol-whipping the driver. (Isn’t that what you would do?) He then shot at the police. It wasn’t a career-enhancing move, though he did get a free funeral out of it. Public opinion was to the effect that if you beat people and shoot at the police, you take your chances.
Otherwise, you have to look for trouble. The Mexican government is not out to get gringos. Except for getting hit for the occasional bribe, the police are not a topic of conversation among expats. There’s nothing to talk about.
Another thing Americans ask me about is politics here. It’s pretty much like anywhere. Money disappears, deals get cut, bribes get paid. It could be Washington. Scandals bubble. Pemexgate, involving the petroleum industry. The Friends of Fox, about elections. Sheets that cost too much at Los Pinos, which is the Mexican Whitehouse. Some think Fox travels too much. (His airplane is called AirFox One.) None of it is a show-stopper. Fox is a politician, not a dictator, and a pretty decent guy.
Here, as in America, people think the government is insufficiently useful to merit attention. The Mexican commentators worry about abstention by voters as much as American ones. It runs at about sixty percent, says the radio, a bit more than in the United States, if memory serves. I had thought that electile dysfunction was a problem of aging democracies, but it seems young ones get it too: Them as figure they got nothing to vote for, don’t.
A guy in a cowboy hat clopped past the plaza on a horse, his kid of maybe five sitting behind him. From Rex’s Mick Jagger, who helped build the pyramids, hollered about his dearth of satisfaction. The air smelled of coming rain.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.