Driving in Mexico: A Metaphor for Mexico
The roads of Mexico are a metaphor for Mexico: weaving, wandering, cracked, and chaotic. Double stacked semis coming straight at you with no intention of moving out of your way. Giant unsteady trucks with no safety regulation codes. These are the two-lane roads, not the newly carved road cut deeply into the jungle so fresh that the sap still bleeds from the trees.
Those roads go to Mexico City; on those roads, you fly along separate from the real Mexico. This is Mexico, its infrastructure – a complex, loosely knit sometimes frantic, at times chaotic, network of life. Sometimes Mexico comes to a grinding halt and lifts its head to check its surroundings before starting up again, but when it does that — when it comes up for air — everything else has to do that too. Mexico doesn’t act alone. Everyone waits for Mexico, and the ripple effect is vast.
Driving in Mexico: A Metaphor for Mexico
Once there was an enormous traffic jam. A jam is what they would call it in Malaysia; Malaysians call it a jam because they like things short here, no traffic in jam, no ham in hamburger. The Mexicans like things long and drawn out, the longer things take the better.
So, it wasn’t a Kuala Lumpur jam. It was a two-lane-Mexican-not-highway snafu — a simple route from north to south with tantalizing obstacles along the way. Like, for example, piles of concrete in the middle of the road, roads that peter out to nothingness, slithering snakes sunning themselves on the pavement, pools water with no place to go, cavernous crevasses, unpaved surfaces, workers in straw hats piled atop heavy trucks, and lots of fodder for flat tires.
This wasn’t a traffic jam on the roads of Mexico. It was an obstacle jam. We made guesses about potential causes: construction perhaps, a checkpoint, a group of boys filling a hole with bricks and expecting the passersby to tip them. We didn’t bother to consider that there had been an accident; it could have been a herd of animals or a pile of sugar cane that had dropped off a truck.
The most common cause for the slowing of traffic is topes. Topes are giant uneven bumps of concrete that bring you to a dead stop unless you want to lose the bottom of the car. If there are more than two people in the car, the passengers might have to get out so that you can clear the topes. There is no going around topes either, no shoulder. And big trucks have to grind down to their lowest gear for each one. A small town can have up to 10 topes, so passing through towns in Mexico is an arduous task.
Safety on the roads of Mexico
I never felt unsafe in Mexico, and Mexico is dangerous, especially in the northern corridor where I worked and traveled. There were stories that I heard first and second-hand from students and friends in Tampico. One story was about a little girl driving to school with her father one day. Someone connected to the Cartel stopped them at gunpoint. They took the father but not before he could give her his cell phone to call her mother. Can you imagine what he was thinking: please don’t touch my little girl, and they didn’t. They took him away. He never came home again.
It was dangerous for him, but not for me, not for her. He had pissed off the wrong people – the Mexicans call their Mafia the Cartel. That wasn’t my Mexico. In Mexico, I realized that I can live anywhere in the world and be safe from the dangers of that place, and Mexico is dangerous if you are the wrong person, especially in the northern corridor.
The yellow line
But this is a story about traffic mixed with a little metaphor. Traffic that brought me to a grinding halt on my way from Tampico to Vera Cruz.
So, we kept guessing about the impending obstacle, and as our guesses became more outrageous until finally, we found the culprit who had brought all of us to a pitiful stop on a pock-marked road. We hadn’t guessed that it would be another one-legged man in the middle of the road – we had already seen two of them along the way– and besides, we would have been wrong. This man didn’t have any legs, but there he was in the middle of the road, painting the yellow line.