I'm going to draw an analogy between Morton Salt's good ol' tagline and the steady stream of just-when-you-think-it-couldn't-get-any-worse-oh-look-it-just-got-worse headlines coming out of my lovely host country. I think it is an especially fitting analogy as we enter rainy season here in Mexico.
Where to begin...
In case you've missed the headlines for the past, um, year, Mexico's in the throes of a somewhat major drug war. The army patrols streets in border towns. Journalists are murdered. Cartel members shoot at each other in supermarkets and shopping malls. Folks get kidnapped. I can tell you from first-hand experience that in some cities it's impossible to go out for dinner without getting a gun pointed in your direction. It's kind of ugly up near the frontera.
There's also the issue of this pesky recession. Yup, la crisis has officially arrived here in Mexico. The peso is steadily sinking. Prices are steadily rising. A peso here, a peso there. That's a lot of pesos when you're only making 100 of them a day, like many folks do here in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. In my case, an hour of peso-salaried work here in Mexico currently converts to approximately enough dollars to buy a one-way bus fare in Chicago. Nice.
You might have also heard about this swine flu. Death tolls change hourly, depending on who you're asking or what you're reading, but Oaxaca has the dubious honor of being home to the first documented swine-related death. Mexico City shut down last week. And as of noon today, Huajuapan de León has followed suit. My classes have officially been cancelled through May 6. Students have already vacated campus in search of face masks and vitamin C supplements. From tomorrow, I'll be on a vacation of sorts, a kind of vacation where you're not supposed to leave your house or breathe or talk or hug or kiss anyone.
And, just today...more good news. A 6.0 earthquake near Mexico City. We felt it here in Oaxaca. You know, just in case things weren't interesting enough.
If you relied on headlines alone, you'd think that the situation was pretty darn depressing down here. Pistols, pesos, pigs, and...darnit, I can't think of an earthquake-related word that begins with "p."
But, truth is, things ain't so bad.
Or at least things aren't as bad as the US media is making them out to be. Not everyone who visits Mexico gets kidnapped by a drug cartel -- or the swine flu from riding the Mexico City metro. I promise.
But, in my humble opinion, the glue that's holding this country together is the people. Mexicans, if nothing else, are survivors. They're resilient. The past couple of hundred years of Mexican history have seen a disproportionate number of awful events: wars, foreign invasions, natural disasters, financial crashes and political scandals. Folks here are used to these things. The mentality is that if today sucks, mañana will be better.
Life goes on here in Mexico. Cartel violence, economic woes, world health emergencies and natural disasters will not affect Mexico's core, the things that make Mexico an amazing place to live, the things that keep me here this country, even through its rough patch. Crisis will not stop people from greeting strangers in the street with a heartfelt "buenas tardes" (even if it is muffled by a sanitary mask). Crisis will not stop people from making time for friends and family (even if the government has discouraged handshakes and kisses). Crisis will not stop people from having a laugh over a beer (even if the bars are closed).
Crisis will not stop people from smiling.
This afternoon, I happened to be up near the front gate of our university as scores of blue face mask-clad students filed off campus. Some looked a bit worried, some were laughing with friends (no classes for a week and a half is a pretty sweet deal to any 19-year-old, even if a world health crisis is the reason behind it). But I caught a glimpse of one student, walking alone.
He'd drawn a big, goofy smile on his mask, just where his mouth would've been below.
It will get better mañana. I promise.
NOTE: This entry is also posted on a fantastic site called The Truth About Mexico. The site offers "real" perspectives from expat-type people living in Mexico, countering a bit of the sensationalism we're all seeing in the mainstream media. Give it a read, leave your feedback, and please spread the word!!