Sipping an espresso on New York’s Upper East Side at an elegant sidewalk restaurant, I felt worlds away from the trash-strewn streets of the garment district through which I’d passed that morning. I had the same experience when I visited cities in Jordan years ago, and then later in Lebanon. I remember rolling rice into a ball as I ate from a plate of mansuf at the home of middle-class Jordanians. We were mere kilometers from the King’s palace, where riches slipped through jeweled fingers instead of outward to alleviate that nation’s poverty and the squalor of the refugee camps.
The rich of New York or Amman inhabit the same city as the poor, and the poor like it not. “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said. Which I suppose means that we’ll always have the rich with us as well.
The assumption seems to be that the rich fare better than their poorer brethren. But I’m not all that convinced that the rich neighbors in New York or Amman bask in the sublime either. There’s never quite enough, is there? Never quite enough money or things or good times or love. For either group. So, who lives in the greatest poverty?
Contrast this with the attitude of a number of the folk I met in Mexico. Yes, there are rich and poor, but more of the latter. Certainly more of those with modest means in the areas we visited on board Sea Venture.
News stories of murder, mayhem, and drugs abound. There’s misery wherever man submits to the demonic. And I’m sure there are subsets within each group who hate other subsets, and large numbers here who also envy and covet.
We were warned that Mexico abounds in crime. It probably does. So did the CA Delta where another boater stole things from our boat…after all, we had and he didn’t. We heard of thievery in San Carlos, but when they caught a thief with his hands in the cookie jar, it was a gringo who’d hefted a fellow boater’s outboard off the stern. Obviously, he believed in the they-had-and-he-didn’t school of thought. He wanted, so he took—or tried to. It was another gringo who claimed someone stole his outboard from the boatyard and demanded they replace it—so he could sell his old one on the black market. Too bad they caught him.
When we first sailed into Ensenada, we heard rumors of unrest and violence, and, yet, during our six months in the marina there, smiles greeted us daily as we wandered past the gringo enclave of yatistas. Children grinned from behind parents’ legs. Mothers smiled at our “Hola!” Tour guides offered us free carriage rides once they’d dropped off their paying clients. Hawkers for one store showed us where we might find the best tacos and then escorted us so we wouldn’t get lost. Taxi drivers stopped to usher us through a stop sign when we drove anywhere and smiled as they did so. Cars halted if we stepped into the road. Their drivers grinned and waved us on.
And then we drove north for supplies. En route, Mexicans in toll booths laughed at Michael’s jokes. Soldiers smiled and told us to pass, please. But once we got to the border, no one smiled and no one laughed and horns blared and people cursed.
Why? What was the difference? North of the border lies the land of opportunity, doesn’t it? There are riches to be had if you work hard enough, aren’t there? Perhaps.
Only, joy seems sadly missing on the highways, in the toll booths, in the supermarkets or restaurants. And in the doctors’ offices.
The doctors in the US fear malpractice suits. They hurry us through and then bill exorbitantly. They charge for Kleenex and gloves and Q-tips. They recommend test after test after test. Just in case. And then warn us about Mexican doctors.
Malpractice is a non-issue in Mexico. One assumes the doctor cares and does his best. So, he cares and does his best. He puts the patient first, not the insurance company. He treats what needs treating and then does a little more if you’re worried—or if you must satisfy that doctor back home.
Who is happier? The doctor with his Mercedes or the one who lives like the rest of us? The patient who pays hundreds, even thousands, for insurance, who lives at a disconnect from the doctor via a receptionist and then a nurse? Or the patient who pays a pittance in cash to a doctor, with instructions to call his cell phone if any problems or questions arise?
In lower Baja California, the desert heat scorches, but a shy smile radiates from the old man passing on the sidewalk. He doesn’t look as if he owns much, but, oh, he is rich. What’s the difference?
Ah! I smile. Could it be that he lives in a culture that values the family and hard work tempered with patience and a siesta? Could it have to do with villagers, some with few ties to the outside world, who act communally to help each other? Yes, there’s poverty. Yes, there’s dirt. Yes, Mexico is inhabited by imperfect people living in an imperfect society. And, yes, some of them have been seduced by the idea of more. But for every one of those, there are hundreds who have learned how to say gracias for the life they have.
There will always be those who have and those who have not, those who smile and those who grumble, those who give and those who take. We align ourselves by choice. Where do you stand? Wanting more or grinning happily because you have so much—whatever so much means to you?
About guest blogger, Normandie Fischer
Normandie had the best of several worlds: a Southern heritage, access to schooling in the DC area (which meant lots of cultural adventures), and several years of sculpture studies in Italy. It might have been better for her if she’d used all these opportunities more wisely, but it’s possible that the imperfect and the unwise also add fodder for the artist and the writer.
Her life changed radically when she married the love of her life at an age when some would have said she was over the hill and way past her prime. (Cliches often speak the truth, don’t they?) A lifelong sailor, she was delighted to find that Michael also longed to cruise lovely waters, which is what they did from Northern CA to Mexico, spending too-few years in the incomparable Sea of Cortez. Sea Venture, their 50′ ketch, is back home in North Carolina now because Normandie’s mama needed care. Still, it’s gorgeous there, too, and she can write from home as easily as she could on the boat.
Her two grown children, son-in-law, and two step-sons are handsome (or gorgeous, as the case may be), talented, and a delight. She just wishes they lived a lot closer to home. Look for Sea Venture’s clipper bow and beautiful lines as she lips into a harbor near you.
Visit Normandie at NormandieFischer.com.