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The woman I loved, and had married 36 years ago, went rigid at my side when she saw the photo. "What's that?" she asked, and pointed at the computer screen. I looked up and realized 'd missed seeing it and groaned within.
We had been discussing my upcoming business trip to a remote corner of Mexico during which I hoped to find a reliable producer of the Music Makers's canvas cases and someone to make the previously popular wooden xylophone. All year I'd been dealing with the Belarussian's promises. They were interested in making cases; then they weren't. They were on again, off again, then on again. I finally gave up on them as far as cases were concerned.
It was a friend who suggested we consider having these products made in Mexico. We had befriended Irma, a sweet, gentle and kind woman who barely came to my chest, shortly after moving to Santa Barbara. A week earlier, Irma had lost her brother; a person she and her family had always had a turbulent relationship with.
Irma took his death hard. Perhaps it was the realization she would not be able to make peace with her brother that led her to shut herself up in her house, turn out the lights and grieve alone. Irma refused every offer of help and all invitations to dinner. Seeing Irma shut herself away as she did troubled me, and one day, impulsively, I drove to her house, pounded on the door, and demanded she join us that evening for dinner. Irma hesitated, and then accepted.
As might be expected, the conversation around the dining table felt forced at first, but then took purchase, and Irma was soon laughing and telling stories about her brother. When she left later that evening, she went home with a smile on her face.
During dinner we spoke of our respective businesses (the Gonzales' own a nursery) and when I mentioned the difficulty I'd had having cases and other products made, Irma said there were towns near her ancestral home in Mexico that specialized in just that type of work.
"They do very high quality work too," Irma stressed. "They won't be like the people you've been dealing with."
The following morning I turned on my computer and began doing research, and found everything Irma had said to be corroborated. I decided then and there to go to Mexico.
One evening, my wife asked about the town I would be visiting, and-- rather than tell her--I decided to show her how surprisingly beautiful the area was. I turned to Google Images, typed in the town's name, and began sharing photos of the town square, the beautiful churches, the volcanic landscape and the pretty lakes nearby. I scrolled down the screen for additional images...and then "the" image appeared.
"What's that?" Linda asked, concern, fear and suspicion in her voice. She pointed at an image lower on the screen.
It was a news photo of seven men seated in cheap, white plastic chairs. They had been brought during the night to a roundabout on the outer part of town, blindfolded and bound, seated in the chairs and then executed with a gunshot to the back of the head. A message ice-picked to two of the men's chests read "This is how we deal with criminals here."
I nervously closed the Google window. "There's a bit of a problem down there with drug cartels," I admitted. "But it's not as bad as it looks."
Linda threw me a look that said she didn't believe me.
Right then and there I felt this wasn't the most propitious moment to divulge that the U.S. State Department had issued a travel advisory, advising against all but "essential" travel to the area. Nor did I feel the need to share that two years earlier, three heads had been thrown on the dance floor of a discotheque owned by a rival gang. And was it really necessary I say that armed militias were in open conflict with the Knights Templar cartel; a situation so embarrassing to the Mexican government that they rushed in thousands of federal police (federales) to maintain order?
But that was to the north. I wasn't being an idiot, I'd done my homework.
I'd driven to San Diego to meet with Roberto Serrano, a retired Mexican national who owned businesses in Mexico. When we met for breakfast, Roberto told me the situation was being overblown by the American media.
"The people who are getting killed are usually involved in the drug trade," he said. "They're killing their own."
"You won't have any problems," he advised. "Just be smart about things.
"Don't hang out in bars late at night. Stay in public places. Don't flash signs of wealth. You'll be fine."
On the way home I heard a program on NPR which said Mexico City's murder rate had quadrupled during the past year. When I returned home, I decided to see what Chicago's homicide was. The murder rate was about the same. No-one would think twice about flying to Chicago, I realized, yet almost everyone I had spoken with had expressed serious reservations about my trip.
I also checked the blogs of expats who lived in Mexico. They all essentially said the same thing: the problem was being greatly overstated by the media.
Less comforting, though, was Mr. Serrano's response when I asked him if he took any precautions when he travelled to Mexico.
"Of course," he said, expressing surprise at the naiveté of the question. "I never go at the same time or on the same day. I don't take the same route twice. I wear casual clothes and I never let people I'm meeting with know ahead of time that I'll be coming. And I have a bodyguard with me at all times. Sometimes two."
Hmm...
But I'd always been a free-ranging spirit. My mother (who says I'm stupid) realized this when I was a toddler learning to walk in Africa, fell down--and then pushed her hand away when she tried to help me.
I was going to Mexico. I booked a room at a small hotel near the square of the largest town in the area (low key, in a public place, just like Mr. Serrano had said)) and also a flight on a Mexican low-budget airline.
It was only after buying my tickets that I began to have second thoughts. Perhaps it was the words "Mexican" combined with "low budget airline" that left me questioning my decision.
How was I going to find a company there? Irma hadn't provided any addresses, she had only said the region was known for high quality work.
How would I communicate people? The town was well off the beaten path, meaning it was highly unlikely anyone would speak English and I spoke no Spanish beyond what I'd learned when I played for the Juventud Boliviana soccer team in San Diego decades earlier.
What would I eat? And if I ate there--would I get sick? I'd heard the horror stories.
And then I pushed the fear away and began studying Spanish. I learned the golden rule of eating in Mexico: "Boil it, peel it, fry it--or leave it alone; and drink only bottled water."
This was going to be OK, I felt. I would find a company to make our canvas cases, I would find a workshop that made high quality wooden toys.
I would make this work.