If you are considering taking a trip to Mexico, do some research before leaving the United States. Talk to friends who have been there. Find out as much as possible before taking the plunge, or you may regret the trip-and not for reasons you may imagine.
We have all heard and read about vacations that have turned into nightmares-cruise ships on fire, rampant disease aboard ship without sufficient medicine or crew, serious illnesses requiring emergency intervention hundreds of miles away from home, and the lack of insurance coverage at sea. While some people have been fortunate to only lose their luggage, many others have not been so fortunate in Mexico.
First of all, Americans must understand that Mexico is a third world country. Luxuries that Americans expect will simply not be available in Mexico. A four star hotel in a third world country has decent furniture and access to a bathroom. There is no guarantee that any four star hotel will have the same luxuries as the Paris Hilton might. Remember, you will be in a third world country. Certainly, as a traveler, you may encounter beds infested with bed bugs or worse. Insects and mosquitoes are quite a common nuisance, except when you remember they carry diseases that do not normally exist in the United States. Additionally, you will, most assuredly, encounter what it means to have “bad” water.
In the United States, the term “travelers’ diarrhea” has become a popular phrase. Vision of travelers’ dashing to the bathroom has been cause for amusement for decades. However, in Mexico, there is a reason to be more than amused. Bad water has been the cause of many deaths throughout the centuries because harmful bacteria and protozoa flourish in a country whose water treatment system fails on a regular basis. Swimming pools, lakes, ponds, rivers do not contain the freshest water for human consumption. Even if you notice certain kinds of fish swimming in these waters, do not make the mistake of thinking the water is safe.
Why? Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water. Mosquitoes do not only carry malaria, they carry dengue fever, yellow fever and a host of other unpleasant diseases that can be avoided by carrying bottled water. They also carry worms. The more serious diseases found in “bad” water include typhoid fever and dysentery-both transmitted orally by fecal contamination.
Both typhoid and dysentery are highly contagious. Both begin with symptoms of stomach upset and diarrhea that may pass in a few days. The patient may feel weak and still experience some cramping, but some patients become very sick very suddenly. Diarrhea may course through the body very rapidly with some unable to get to the bathroom in time. While this may not be cause for alarm, handling soiled linen may cause an outbreak and spread the disease throughout an entire family. Any severe vomiting or diarrhea-three or more episodes within two hours-may become a medical emergency more rapidly than you may realize.
Joking about the water situation is no laughing matter, and to prepare yourself and your loved ones, do not take any chances. Bottled water should be used to brush teeth, bathe and shower. Avoid raw vegetables and fruits without a thick rind. Avoid ice in restaurants, and always make sure the seal has not been broken when ordering bottled water.
In addition to the water, travelers need to be extra cautious when visiting rural areas. Outside of the large cities, there are no policemen strolling down the sidewalk on their beat. There are also no Wal-Marts, no grocery stores and certainly no malls. There are no automobile fix-it shops, burger joints, and no mini-marts. Most of the vehicles you will see will be ancient American-made cars that are at least ten years old.
When walking from point A to point B, always do so in a group. Never walk alone. Because Americans are thought to be rich, robbery is quite common. Many have been warned of the consequences should they appear on the street in expensive-looking jewelry. People have been killed for their shoes, jewelry and leather jackets. Guns and knives hold no mystery for the average Mexican male, and most likely-by the age of twelve-most men have seen someone they loved killed on the street where they live.
Americans find it difficult to comprehend the whys of Mexico. They fail to understand that the people are desperate to make a good living for their families. The average wage per week for one man-laboring in a sugar cane field-is one thousand pesos, the equivalent of one hundred American dollars. If a family is fortunate to have an educated, experienced male, that kind of income per week allows families to make a good living. Many families must survive on less.
If a stove should quit working, most families have nowhere to go to replace an appliance because new appliances are not sold anywhere in Mexico. They must find one that has been discarded, find a way to have it repaired, and make do. There are very few electrical lines in small towns. Sewage systems are a rarity. Outhouses are the norm. The few houses that have electricity have so few outlets that one must unplug a refrigerator in order to run the stove. Most families do not have a washing machine and dryer. They have no need for electric can openers, coffee pots or vacuum cleaners. Because most of Mexico is subtropical, even the water is not heated for bathing. There are no baths, and the showers grudgingly give only a trickle of water with the faucet turned on full blast.
There is no such thing as heat. Very few public buildings have air-conditioning. Window units are common in the cities but not in the country. Most single family homes are made out of concrete blocks and boast-at best-two small rooms, one for cooking, eating and living while the second is for sleeping-often five or more sleep in the same room. Beds do not exist in the manner that Americans are accustomed. Mattresses line the walls. Bedding consists of only the most basic covering, and then it is not cleaned very often because water is at such a high premium. Privacy is a luxury.
The search for family apparel has become an expedition for the entire family to make a special trip to the larger cities to attend huge flea markets that specialize in second-hand clothing donated to Mexico by charitable organizations in the United States and then sold to the public for profit. The towels are nearly threadbare. The shoes that are on sale date from twenty years ago with cracked leather and rundown heels, and the prices are exorbitant. One may catch a glimpse of the rare Chanel handbag-so distorted and hard from water damage that it is virtually useless. Automobile tires with worn tread are sold at brand new-stateside-prices-half a week’s wages for one tire.
In addition, there are no medical facilities in rural areas. They exist only in larger cities. Prescription medication is normally sold at pharmacias and can be bought off the shelf. There is usually one doctor on staff who makes decisions about symptoms-without seeing the patient-and orders the antibiotic, usually penicillin. As one might expect, there seem to be no instructions on how long the patient needs to take the medication, and some stop as soon as they feel better.
To make matters worse, in the larger cities-like Reynosa-only the main highways are paved but not painted. Some highways are built a foot or higher off of the ground, and there are no guardrails, no white lines, no yellow lines to separate lanes of traffic-until one approaches the border guards-another surprise that I did not expect. In addition to the borders in the United States to cross into Mexico, there are borders-and Immigration officials-where every state inside of Mexico meets the next state, and they examine the contents of every vehicle, every license and registration, and quiz you on where you are going and why.
Cattle roam freely, even on highways. There are no fences, either to protect the animals or protect the ones driving. In fact, one may drive for hours on end, pass acres of sugar cane, banana palms, orange groves and never see one house. When you do see a house, the dwelling is tiny. Most homes have a front wall with a small courtyard full of blooming plants, cactus and small pinons-a dwarf version of the American palm with scanty plumage. The wall meets nowhere. It is not a fence. It is only for the sake of appearance that it is there, at all. None of the homes have been painted. Grey concrete brick-o-block houses that measure approximately 10 x 10-if that much-dot the countryside with no gas stations in sight, no stores, and no streetlights.
In Reynosa, the neighborhoods consist of tract-like homes on streets that look like a war zone and appear to have been bombed . Drivers weave from side to side to dodge boulders of concrete, rubble and potholes as they drive down the streets. Enormous speed-bumps so high that people inside of small cars passing over them invariably hear the crunching sound of metal being scraped as the undercarriage meets concrete.
There seems to be no pattern to the city. Streets of stucco housing seem to sprout out of nowhere. Around one corner, ten-story office buildings sit side by side with auto repair shops as cars drive past on one paved thoroughfare, and around the other corner an entire street of colorfully decorated one-story buildings-in turquoise, orange, red and green sprout like rare vegetables. Further down the street, the scenery changes to a modern office building and fancy stonework with fountains marking the entrance.
There seem to be no traffic laws. Red lights are ignored. No one uses turn signals. Cars and trucks zoom along the roadways, turning at the last minute with a screech of brakes and the resulting honks from angry drivers. To my surprise, a dirt-covered man leads a donkey that is yoked to a small covered wagon. A woman sits in the driver’s seat, covered in a nondescript scarf, dusty blouse and a long skirt as clouds of dust billow behind them in passing. Two equally dusty young boys scamper behind the cart, barefooted.
On one side of the street was the river-the famous Rio Bravo-a shallow trench of scummy water dug deep into a ravine with tin-roofed shanties above, lining the river for as far as the eye could see. Across the street, high rise office buildings rose majestically into the air, and people were everywhere-on foot, riding bicycles, motorbikes, in cars, pulling wagons, and doing all of their work in one hundred-degree heat.
In the city, women who are educated are allowed to work if they can find a job in an office, a housecleaning job, or a job selling in the many small stores found within the city limits. Outside of the city and in the country, women do not work. When a man is fortunate enough to find steady work in the city, then he will save up his money in order to bring his wife to the city to live. Until that time comes, he visits his family rarely, and then only on the weekend. In the country, work is seasonal because of the growing season. Since there are no office buildings in the country, men must sometimes travel great distances to find work. To make matters worse, men are not allowed to work in any other state in Mexico. They are only allowed to work where they were born and raised.
A friend of mine once shared a memory with me of what it was like for him as a child living in a small country town, a cuidad. He shared a one-room shanty with his parents and four siblings under the age of six. He remembers being eight years old at Christmastime when his younger brother became ill. Since his father did not come home very often because of his work, his mother sent word to her husband that the young child was ill and needed medicine. Two weeks later, when the father came home, the boy was dead.
Mexico is a land filled with desperate people, longing to live a better life. It is no wonder that they are known for their music and dancing, siestas and cerveza, and of course, tacos and enchiladas. Eat, drink and enjoy. One never knows what tomorrow will bring.