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On Travel and Drug Lords

NCIS’s latest TV drama, and the current rhetoric about Border walls, would have you believe that there are gun-toting drug lords around every corner in every town in Mexico. The lovely little town of Los Mochis, in particular, has caught flak big-time in the recent NCIS episodes.

I wondered about it myself as I sat in the Oliva restaurant eating dinner two of the evenings I was in La Paz. Across the room from me, a group of about ten men sat around one of the tables, boisterous and raucous. Drug lords or their gun-men? No. It turns out they were officers from the military bases here, enjoying a relaxing evening away from base. La Paz is home to not one but three military bases: Army, Navy and Air Force. Couldn’t be much safer.

Having just returned from Western Mexico, I can attest to having made it through airports, taken cabs, walked the Malecón at night and never even been whistled at.  Okay, maybe it’s that I’m not 30, or tall or a willowy blonde. But the dangers of a mugging would be every bit as great in any big city in the U.S.

Hospitality to its tourists is a key ingredient of Mexico’s over-all tourism industry. No matter where you go, someone will always offer to help, almost always in English. Don’t count on the answers being correct. Your assistant may just be trying to please you by telling you what he thinks you want to hear, whether it’s right or not. Double check. And call taxis from the “sitio” just in case.

Travel in Mexico, either by bus, plane or train, is almost always safe because so many people do it. Not everyone has cars in Mexico. The buses are the best and most inexpensive means of transportation. The bus stations, usually cleaner and much safer than American bus stations, are filled with families, not drug dealers.

Buses run on time and connections are easily made to every little town all over Mexico. Unlike the US with only Greyhound, Mexico is divided up among innumerable different bus lines, each catering to its own area and competing with other lines for business around the country. In good Capitalist fashion, that makes for excellent service.

Gone are the days my mother and father talked about when they visited Zihuatanejo in the 1940s on their honeymoon. Back then, the country folk really did haul their squawking chickens inside the buses and tie their pigs on top. At each stop, they sloshed buckets of water over the pigs to keep them cool. You can imagine what ran down the outside of the bus, coating the windows. My Anglo mother was horrified.

In all the buses I’ve ridden in Mexico lately, and there have been many, I have seen nary a chicken feather or a pig dropping. The elegant first-class buses are always spacious and clean with roomy, comfortable assigned seats. Also, no mean drunks, squabbling passengers, prostitutes or drug dealers, like those I had to contend with on a recent bus trip from Houston to Dallas. Boy, was that a horrible experience! Give me Mexico anytime!

The night bus from the border to Mexico City even had stewardesses handing out pillows and blankets, along with sandwiches and cold drinks. Admittedly, sleeping on a bus, with frequent stops is not comfortable, even in first class, (neither is an airplane to Europe) but it is safe and it is cheap. There are even cheaper 2nd and 3rd class buses without the amenities of sandwiches, although vendors do get on to offer tamales or tortas (sandwiches) and soft-drinks.

Speaking of sandwiches, on the Aeromexico flight back from Mexico City to Houston, a short, two-and-a-half-hour flight, they even served a very nice croissant sandwich and pudding. Haven’t seen that on many peanut-filled flights in the US lately.

And at least the bus seats do recline and are not those 30 inch coffin-like seats on US airlines. In the US you get to walk past the rich, first-class passengers, with their commodious seats and their drinks already poured. It certainly puts the rest of us hoi-poloi in our places. At least in Mexico, there are separate buses and trains so the rich don’t rub it in the faces of the poor.

You have heard, I’m sure, that the US airlines are reducing their seats by another inch, from 31” to 30” to squeeze in more passengers. Once seated, don’t even think about picking up anything you drop on the floor. You literally can’t lean over. And with a big, six-footer sitting next to me on the flight to Mexico, I had no wiggle room at all. He had even less. That is capitalist greed at its worst.

As to the trains, I am not including the Mexico City Subways which are another crazy world altogether. Those are fast, efficient, and on-time but sardines in a can feel spacious compared to the jammed in passengers at rush-hour. The same, of course, can be said of New York subways, only they are neither efficient, nor on time. According to the latest program on “60 minutes,” an Englishman is going to “fix” the New York subways. Good luck, buddy!

The Copper Canyon, or Chepe (for Chihuahua al Pacifico) runs two different kinds of trains. The first class or Express runs every day. In addition to comfortable armchair seating, there is a dining car with cloth covered tables, silverware and crystal service, an excellent menu; a commodious bar car and an observation car for enjoying the scenery. The second-class train, which I have also taken, has wooden bench seats and snacks brought around on a trolley. You see the same scenery, it’s just the mood and the price that is different.

As to the safety of their tourists, Mexico does its very best to protect and defend their visitors. As I recall, the Chepe train had two armed guards who patrolled the train. We’re talking Uzi machine guns slung over black flack jackets, black uniforms and combat boots.

At La Paz, the military bases are not there to protect the tourists. But, as I was walking back from dinner my last evening, two truckloads of fully-equipped, battle-ready soldiers, drove past me on the street. Just checking.

So, is Mexico safe? Of course, it is. Probably much safer than Chicago, at the moment. Just one suggestion. Don’t get on an ATV and go looking for the Drug Lord’s home!