Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the guy on the evening shift at my hotel. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. So much for my after dinner stroll. I retire to my room with Under the Volcano, just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was when first reading it half a lifetime ago. I took it with me to the hotel restaurant, first consuming Michael Schmidt’s Introduction alongside the chicken consommé – intrigued to discover he grew up in the same streets that encompass Lowry’s narrative – and reading the first few chapters (alongside the steak and nopales – edible cactus – and avocado) with delight and a degree of – is it envy or humility or readerly watchfulness, or a concoction of all three?
Earlier there was a massive storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant: hence my attempt to set out after eating. But I defer to the night-watchman’s concern, and it was past eleven after all. One hears so many contradictory tales about what is safe, and where it is safe to walk, especially at night, that in the circumstances I tend to err on the side of caution, something I would never have done a quarter of a century ago. But twenty-five years ago, perhaps, Mexico was not such a dangerous place, and I was a more reckless person. I remember saying to someone last week, who asked me why I hadn’t travelled to Mexico during my youthful journeys, that if I had done so I would probably have ended up getting killed, as I was such a pain in the arse back then and frequently looking for trouble. Some would say I am still a pain in the arse, but I don’t go looking for trouble any more.
In Xalapa, which seemed a reasonably safe place, there was a formidable police presence when I visited last week. Apparently this kind of thing happens in waves, following some tip-off or other. On the day I left, as I was packing my suitcase I hear an explosion on the street. I looked outside and saw people running, looking around as if not knowing quite from which direction it had come. Then, two minutes later, it is as if nothing has happened. I never find out what it was.
A writer I had arranged to meet there tells me of the corruption in local government: businesses close down, not because of any economic crisis, but because of extortion and their inability or unwillingness to pay the protection money to gangsters, who in turn are in league with crooked politicians and bent police officers. The police presence, as I mentioned, is an offence in itself – the same evening, as I took a walk through a busy Xalapa street, a truck pulled past with four police, heavily armed, black armour and helmets, their automatic rifles aimed in readiness at the civilians passing by on the sidewalk: what is this? Who exactly is posing the threat? Why are they aiming their guns at the very people they are supposed to be protecting?
In terms of everyday violence, Mexico gets a bad deal from the press, especially the US press. This itself is a paradox – most violence in Mexico is drug-related and the USA is the place these drugs are marketed – that verges on the hypocritical. One website I looked at cites UN-sourced evidence that you are more than five times more likely to be the victim of an assault in the USA than you are in Mexico, and that in terms of homicide, the murder rate in Mexico is way down the league of tourist destinations: within Latin America and the Caribbean alone, you are much more likely to get yourself killed in (descending order) Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, St Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Brazil, St Lucia or Ecuador than you are in Mexico. The murder rate in Washington D.C is more than double that of Mexico City (21 per 100,000 as opposed to 9 per 100,000) and in New Orleans it is more than five times greater than in the Mexican capital.
But in terms of everyday security, beyond taking reasonable precautions – i.e. there are some barrios in any city that you simply don’t visit if you can avoid them – bad stuff happens, as elsewhere, mainly because of chance (i.e bad luck). A Mexican couple told me soon after my arrival here that the only time they had ever experienced violence directed against themselves was in Europe: she was mugged in Paris; he was beaten up in a North London pub. Come to think of it, so was I.