Friday, December 24, 2010

That first crossing into Mexico

In May 2007, I traveled with archaeologists from the University of Arizona to Chihuahua, the large, northern state of Mexico. At the time, I had not visited any country other than India and the United States. I was restless to see a new place, to experience something new. So the physical act of crossing a border had special meaning for me. That it was the US-Mexico border, a volatile place with a reputation for violence, did not bother me. What mattered was the travel – travel to a developing country whose history I was fascinated by.

We started early in the morning from Tucson, Arizona. We were supposed to cross in the town of Douglas. That would get us into the Mexican state of Sonora; a highway through the mountains would lead to Chihuahua, to our final stop, the town of Casas Grandes, where the archaelogical sites were. Most of our drive – and I liked it that way – would be through Mexico and not the US.

But our plans changed immediately after we started. There had been some trouble in Sonora – something to do with drug or human trafficking gangs, whose presence made all cities on the border dangerous. Forty men had attacked a police station and stolen arms. A grenade had been thrown at a newspaper office. A shootout followed as the police and army responded.

The hint of danger gave the illusion that through my travel I was “engaging” with important contemporary realities. The truth, of course, was that I had no idea of what was going on.

Because of the news, our guides avoided the Sonoran route, and instead took the longer route through New Mexico directly into Chihuahua. But this meant that by noon, despite many hours of driving, we were still in the United States. The entry into a new country, which I had been anticipating eagerly, would be delayed. The crossing came at last at 2 pm, when we reached the border town of Columbus. We passed the US customs and immigration station, and the Welcome to Mexico – Bienvenidos – sign.

Suddenly, we were across, in the town of Palomes, in Mexico.

I was elated. It didn’t matter to me that it was a run-down, poor town: the important fact was that I had made it across; I had “traveled”. The main town avenue was split by a row of forked streetlights; and on each side were shops and businesses, painted bright green, yellow and pink (my first experience of the Mexican penchant for contrasting and bright colors). The cars were small and battered looking. The music was loud in some stores. A frail looking man approached me with wallets and sunglasses to sell.

In Palomes (and for the rest of that trip) I focused on every culturally exotic detail I saw and tended to fixate on it. I later realized that this must be how the eager first time tourist orientalizes his experience.

A woman, no more than five feet fall, somewhat stocky, with a chocolate dark complexion and small slanted eyes came to beg for money. She was dressed in a ragged but colorful skirt. Her two children, a boy and a girl, tagged along. They were already expert at being persistent. “Money! Money!” the boy shouted, understanding that the visitors may not understand Spanish.

I saw other women with the same distinct look, height and dress in Palomes. Some of them sold simple souvenirs outside restaurants and stores. They were women of the Tarahumara tribe. The Tarahumara have faced a long history of dispossession, which continues now, with the forced cultivation lucrative drug yielding crops on their lands. Later, I saw a very shy Tarahumara woman seated under the shade of a tree. She sold hand-woven baskets but also allowed herself to be photographed by tourists for a little bit of money. But it was clear she wasn’t comfortable doing this; her head would lower and never face the camera. I hesitated, but I couldn´t resist taking a picture. I did it simply because, being a Tarahumara, she looked noticeably different. The picture did not come out well. In the end I was left only with a lingering guilt.

The trip was only for a few days. Chihuahua had a landscape similar to Arizona – dry mountain ranges and valleys with desert scrub vegetation. We visited the ruins at Casas Grandes and a village (Mata Ortiz) of artisans, who, inspired by the designs on recently unearthed Pre-Columbian shards of pottery, have initiated a flourishing and commercially successful modern pottery tradition. The parks, the traffic, the style of the shops and homes in Casas Grandes reminded me of middle-class residential neighborhoods in provincial Indian towns. We returned by the same route – through Palomes, where I had some trouble convincing US immigration officials of the validity of my reentry claim. My legs shook from nervousness at the prospect of being denied, but the officials (who were polite throughout) eventually allowed me in.


Since that first trip, I have traveled many times to Mexico and the countries of Latin America. Each visit diluted the novelty of travel and allowed me to focus on other aspects. But I am still not immune to the sort of reaction I had when I first crossed into Mexico. In December 2008, when I met the Lacandon, a small Mayan group in the rainforest bordering Mexico and Guatemala, I was awed by the strangeness of what I was doing. And last December, when I met Aymaras in La Paz, Bolivia, my judgment of Bolivia´s recent politics was influenced by wonder of where I was – in a capital city 13000 feet high in the Andes, close to Lake Titicaca – and the exotic looks, mannerisms and the dresses of the people among whom I was traveling.

Of course, there is nothing particularly wrong or bad about all this. After all, the joy of travel is in experiencing that which is new. I guess it is only when we continuously stress the differences and are unable to go beyond them that our perspectives suffer.


Brendan said...

Artaud's book about his encounter with the Tarahumara:

brendan said...

sorry wrong address listed above

Hari said...

Thanks, Brendan!