A trip to Mexico
I recently went to Mexico for three weeks, my first trip to a less developed country. My main objective was to study and practice the Spanish language, a recent endeavor of mine. Though I knew I would be living in a burgeoning tourist destination, Playa del Carmen, I figured I would have a few opportunities to venture elsewhere in order to explore the Yucatan peninsula. However, in the three weeks I was away, I got more than I asked for. One ferocious hurricane, an early morning escape from her (EmilyŐs) clutches, two cenotes (caves with ponds), three different ancient Mayan cities, a boat ride to Isla Mujeres (WomenŐs Island), one snorkeling trip to a reef, and nearly 100 liters of bottled water later, I found my mind spinning, my body aching, and my heart longing to return home.
Having had a few weeks to settle down and review notes and memories, I am prepared to share a few thoughts. Admittedly, I offer them with trepidation since I donŐt claim to be a world traveler nor an expert in the area of cultural studies or Mexico. However, perhaps something written will provoke further discussion, something academics are always wanting to do.
First, I had never before felt so moved by mundane purchases. Whether I was buying a $15 multi-colored hammock in a rural Mayan village or a $50 hand woven blanket at a booth just outside of entrance to the famous Mayan ruins at Chichen-Itza, it became clear that these relatively small sums meant the world to the sellers. Through my broken Spanish I came to understand that both products were made by immediate relatives of the sellers. Thus, I was nearly purchasing them from the hands of the makers. Rarely do we get the opportunity to do this in the United States—the ŇFarmers MarketÓ and ŇArt in the ParkÓ being notable exceptions. I felt much more connected with the products that I was purchasing, and with the people that created them. Literally, I couldnŐt bring myself to haggle with the sellers (as most travel guides recommend) when I thought about all the hours of labor that must have been expended in the creation of these products. Perhaps we would value manual labor more (and be willing to pay adequately for it) if we came face to face with the people that make our products or grow our food (an increasing number of whom are faceless to us and from desperately poor countries). If this were to happen, maybe we would actively support global standards of equity for workers rather than allow our nationŐs leaders to pass NAFTA and CAFTA. This might do wonders for eliminating poverty as well (see below).
Second, and relatedly, I have become more aware how much our money can drive development. Cancun, the Mexican city where I first arrived but soon departed, is a favorite destination for many (North) Americans. From what I could glean from conversations, most people venture to Cancun to vacation in its many gargantuan hotels, to swim on its white beaches along the Caribbean Sea, and to party until inebriated beyond recognition. These visitors tend to have (and spend) huge amounts of money, and it is clear to even a casual observer in Cancun how significant this money is to the arrangement of the city and the state of its environment. Most of the hotels in Cancun lie along a narrow ten mile long barrier island (reminiscent of eastern North Carolina, see aerial photo). (The main city of Cancun is several miles away and where people native to the place live.) Ecologically speaking, this string of hotels leaves practically no stretch of beach free of human dominance. The entire barrier island appears to be covered with concrete with an occasional palm tree planted to convince the visitors that they are in paradise (something that was advertised to them). Although Mexico is a Spanish speaking country, rest assured that virtually everyone in Cancun speaks English since its economy is dominated by the tourists; even in the Cancun airport, the signs have English printed in a larger font than Spanish. Visitors need not be bothered to learn Spanish, although many do learn a few words (e.g., agua (water), cerveza (beer), borracho (a drunk), and playa (beach)). Tourists require tons of water, particularly because of the sweltering temperatures and unforgiving tropical sunshine. As a result, bottled water is sold ubiquitously. Apparently, you arenŐt expected to drink water from the tap. If just a fraction of the money that is spent by tourists on bottled water (which was priced at $1-$2 a liter) was put into a fund to improve the quality of the water treatment facilities in the area, all people in Cancun might have access to safe, tasty, and inexpensive tap water; my instincts tell me that the vast majority of the profits from the sale of bottled water currently go into the hands of a few well-positioned businessmen who probably also have controlling interests in many of the hotels strewn across the landscape.
Third, while I was prepared to see poverty, I wasnŐt prepared for all the forms it takes and how clearly it stifles human progress. In a developing country, one expects to witness visible signs of poverty, whether it is in the form of a lack of electricity, lack of clean water, or the lack of fortified shelters. Yet, I observed things that dug deep into my psyche and convinced me that eradicating poverty is a prerequisite for true environmental sustainability. While walking through a typical rural Mayan village, I noticed that while the wood structures (see photo) that serve as homes were filled with young children, older children (those between the ages of 10-18) were not to be found. I was told that that the older children were all working in the neighboring fields or in bigger cities. Monetary pressures dictate that many of these children choose work over further educational opportunities. Also, poverty greatly limits mobility. While a citizen of the United States can enter Mexico with nothing more than a government-issued birth certificate, a Mexican must submit a long application for admission to the United States and can expect to be rejected summarily. Most that enter the United States enter at their own risk, often subjecting themselves to inhumane labor practices, police harassment, or worse. Just blocks from one of the most luxurious hotels in Playa del Carmen, many Mexican families can be found living in what amounts to make-shift structures with no running water which are surrounded by insect-infested puddles where young children can be seen spending their days entertaining themselves. Apparently, the humungous profits made each day at the touristy hotels and restaurants havenŐt yet been invested in the general publicŐs well-being.
Paradoxically, amongst all the signs of poverty, one finds signs of materialism in nearly every vista. Electricity brings television (with all its consumeristic messages) to the most isolated places, including many Mayan wood huts. Cell phones, another powerful agent of consumerism, are everywhere as well; I canŐt imagine what this recent cultural imperative must cost, but as is the case with bottled water, the poor feel they have no other recourse but to enter into a costly and dependent relationship with it. Access to the Internet (with all of its Western images and cultural messages) can be had for only 10 pesos per hour (~$1 in U.S. dollars). Images of Coca-Cola can be seen everywhere, including on the backboards of basketball hoops in remote areas. With clean, potable water at a premium, an aluminum can filled with ŇcleanÓ sugar water (i.e., soda) attracts a lot of interest. And while glass bottles and aluminum cans are rarely seen in the streets (because of an aggressive recycling program on these particular items), plastic bottles (oil-based products) clutter and pollute the vegetative areas and the streets. All of these vestiges of modern industrialism got me wondering about the rapid economic growth rates in China and its more than 1.3 billion people. So while poverty needs to be eliminated, it needs to be redressed in a way that doesnŐt replicate the wastefulness, inefficiencies, and the rampant commodification of basic needs found in the developed world today.
Lastly, what drove me to travel to Mexico in the first place? Recall that I have recently begun to study Spanish. Why? Why would anyone in their mid-thirties with many years spent in institutions of higher learning attempt to learn a new language? Ignorance of other languages and cultures limits our ability to make progress in terms of peace and environmentally-sound decision making. In the hemisphere in which I (and most of us) live, there are two dominant languages. In fact, the fastest growing second language in the United States is Spanish as well. Without a solid Spanish foundation, there are so many voices of neighbors that I havenŐt been able to hear or interact with. For instance, I have certainly missed opportunities to work with various Latino environmental groups here in the U.S. and throughout the Americas. Spanish speakers are not only living here in Western Illinois and in Los Angeles, where my childrenŐs grandparents live, but all throughout this country, not to mention, the 106 million (and growing) citizens of our immediate neighbor to the south. Perhaps if more of us were able to carry on a conversation with people from other cultures and places, we can build unity and solidarity rather than further divide ourselves on the basis of propaganda, doctrine, and nationalism.
Peter Schwartzman is associate professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Knox College. He is a research climatologist with peer-reviewed publications in the area of climate change and human population growth. He is currently looking for a publisher for his book entitled, 1's Power: what you (and your friends) can do to protect the planet, which he wrote with Justin Sornsin, a 2004 graduate of Knox College.