Walter laid staring at the odd shaped ceiling about 15 feet above that looked like a small arch pattern. The peach walls, the pink curtains, the 8 electrical sockets on the walls, the second small room with an elevated bathroom and the unused 8 feet or so above the bathroom that could be used for storage… he'd been in this room before. He thought, "Any one of these elements could have been in any number of Mexican rooms I've stayed in the past, but this combination seems so very familiar."
He'd noticed this upon entering the room and didn't hesitate to take it. Something had led him directly to this room for some reason. He hadn't even checked other hotels. He got out of the cab, walked one block, asked for a room, and that was that. Even the clerk seemed familiar. Walter was all ready to move on to the next town, but something beckoned him to stay just one more day. Maybe he was just being lazy, or maybe there was something to the intense familiarity he was feeling. He'd had this incredible sensation before, mostly in Mexico and it troubled him a bit. Where was it coming from? Was he slowly beginning to lose his mind? Or, perhaps all the years of local mystic plant experimentation had taken it's toll.
Whatever it was, he was feeling again and it was strong. He figured he had the spare time and decided the buses would be too packed with locals returning to their pueblos after a weekend in the city, so he figured he'd stay on one more day.
Walter paid the hotel clerk for another night and asked, "Excuse me, but do I look familiar to you?" The clerk, "Yes sir, you're staying in room 203 and you've been here for 4 days." Walter, "Not this time, but another time perhaps. I've been to Tampico few times but have only stayed here twice. Once I stayed in a hotel on the plaza, and the last time I stayed in a room by the bus station. Yet, this place seems so familiar to me. Even you look familiar. Have you seen stay in this hotel before." The clerk, "No sir. I have never seen you before in my life before this visit." Walter, "Ok, just curious. Gracias."
Walter grabbed a coffee at an OXXO convenient store and continued down the street looking for something interesting and a reason for the urge to stay another night. What was it about his travels in Mexico that sometimes produced this extreme sensation of perpetual deja vu? It's true he'd been all over Mexico over the years and it's likely there was plenty memories that could easily blend into each other, but there was something different about this particular sensation. It had only happened a few times and a couple of times it wasn't in Mexico.
There was a bright yellow wood shack on the corner with bright green trim. The sun was a bit intense, but the contrast and texture was nice, so he tried to get a photo while still balancing his coffee.
Just as he'd managed to switch hands, get a couple photos, then re-pocket the camera without spilling his coffee, a Mexican man came right up to him from behind and started greeting him loudly. Walter startled and almost lost the coffee as he tried to figure out what he was saying.
The man introduced himself, "Hello and welcome to Tampico. My name is Vincente Lopez. Do you speak English?" Walter, "Yes, I do and thank you. Is this your building?" Vincente, "No, the next one is. I have a school where we teach English, computers and cooking. Are you enjoying our city?" Walter, "Yes, I am. I've been here before but this is the first time I've stayed more than a night. It seems like there is an awful lot of police and military. Is it dangerous here?" Vincente's eyes lit up, "Oh, let me tell you, it's just terrible. I have friends from Texas who used to come every year, but after they saw the bodies hanging from a foot bridge one time, they have never come back. I don't know how you say in English, cordon? with ropes." Walter, "Like with a noose?" Vincente, "Yes, and not the big bridges either, the foot bridges where pedestrians cross the road so that everyone can see."
Walter, "I've read about that, but honestly, I've been here 4 days and it seems kinda calm." Vincente, "Well, it has been kind of quiet for the last week, but that's how it goes, it starts and stops. Haven't you seen all the trucks with machine guns?! They aren't doing that just for show." Walter, "But no one looks really nervous. Seems normal for the most part." Vincente, "That's because we are used to the pop, pop, pop and boom. It's just part of our lives now. They keep it out of the news but you can read about what's really going on by reading the Narcos blogs. They have photos of the bodies and everything. It's really bad." Walter, "Well, I figured if I wasn't involved with the cartels, drug tracking, etc. that I was ok. What do I have to worry about?" Vincente, "First of all, we're standing on this corner which is an important corner for the taxis. They turn here to go toward the main plaza. For sure one of them has called someone and reported that there is an American wearing a light colored cap, black vest, shorts and sandals who has been talking to an older Mexican man on such and such corner. Or, maybe those two guys over there on bicycles are calling someone right now. They have people everywhere reporting everything. Who comes and goes and what they're doing. You know who I'm talking about?" Vincente leans over to say quietly under his breath, "There are two, cartel de Golfo.." Walter, "And, Los Zetas?" Vincente, "Yes, they control everything. They control the police and make all the businesses pay. You asked me what you have to worry about. What they do is just pull up in a truck and force you in."
Walter, "Do I look like an American? Some have mistaken me as being from Europe. One man asked if I was from Holland." Vincente, "It doesn't matter. You don't look like you're Mexican, so you're a foreigner and you are probably rich." Walter, "But I'm not rich. I carry a backpack and stay in a cheap hotel." Vincente, "I know that, but to them you are foreigner and it doesn't matter where you are from. You likely have more money than them and the economy has been very bad here." Walter, "Now you're talking about the danger being poor folks wanting to rob me. That's not new. What I'm asking about is the danger of cartel violence." Vincente, "Well you have to worry about that too. A few weeks ago some guys were dragging a body out to the street that they'd killed. Some people were walking by and saw them, so they called someone and then this truck comes by and shoots them with machine guns. Then, another night there were these 3 guys sitting on the corner just drinking some beers. They were told to leave this corner. Why, they didn't know. The others left but one refused to leave. He just sat there drinking his beer because he didn't want to be told what to do. You know what happened then? A truck comes from around the corner and tosses a… I don't know in English a grenada?" Walter, "A grenade?!" Vincente, "Yes! That's it. It explodes and completely removes the guys whole face." Walter, "Did it kill him?" Vincente, "My gosh, are you kidding me?! Yes, of course it killed him! It took off the whole front of his head!" Walter, "Jesus! But I haven't heard anything much at night at all. Just something that sounded like some fireworks and a man that was screaming a bit, but that was it."
Vincente, "One night there was a lot of pop, pop, pop and boom. People were running everywhere. They even sprayed my building with bullet holes I can show you. That night my brother-in-law called because he had been hit in his shoulder by a stray bullet. We came in a car to take him to the Red Cross, but they wouldn't let us in. They said it was too dangerous and were all closed up. Then we go to the police station and they draw their guns to shoot us. We waved our arms to tell them we were just looking for help for my brother-in-law who was bleeding all over the place. They said there was nothing they could do to help us and told us to go to the hospital a couple miles away. We got him there and thought everything was ok, but the next day we got a call from the doctor who said that he'd lost too much blood and the arm was dead. Now my brother-in-law is amputated because no one would help us. They didn't want something bad to happen to them too. People on the street saw who did the shooting but no one said anything." Walter, "That's incredible. I had no idea. But it just seems like I would at least hear a little something at night. I've heard nothing and everyone seem to be just going about their business as usual."
Vincente, "Like I said, it's been quiet lately. Here's another one, just about 2 months ago, just down the street from here there's a seafood restaurant." Walter, "Yes, I know the one… by the lagoon?" Vincente, "Yes, that one. Well the woman who owns that restaurant has a college age daughter. One day she's contacted and they tell her that they have her daughter. They demand she pay them 3 million pesos or they will cut her daughter up in little pieces. But, she don't have 3 million pesos so she tells them she has some real estate that she will sign over to them and to please not harm her daughter. They tell her they don't want real estate, they want 3 million pesos. So do you know where she was supposed to deliver the money?" Walter, "No." Vincente, "The police station!!! So she doesn't have the money and a few days later, someone drops off a black garbage bag with someone cut up in little pieces. One of my clients is a doctor for the teeth. I think you all a dentist?" Walter, "Yes" Vincente, "They call my dentist client in to identify someone by the teeth. And it was her… the woman's daughter. The animals cut her up into little pieces just like they said they would."
Walter, "Oh my God! That's horrible! I've been coming to Mexico for many years and I didn't used to worry about it, but am starting to notice it really is getting bad. What do you think happened to take it to this level? And, do you think it's ever going to get better if they control the authorities?" Vincente, "I think something happened after September 11 when the United States started making it much harder to get into the country and to get the drugs through. So much of the drugs coming in from South America get stuck and stay in Mexico. This has polluted their minds I'm sure. And when they can't get drugs through they try other smuggling businesses like guns and people. Anything they can. But, you asked if it's ever going to get better. Yes, I think it will. Most of the killings are the cartels fighting each other. I think eventually they will kill each other off. And the corruption in the police, government and military is getting much better now than it was."
Walter, "Wow, I like to wander around and enjoy the culture. I love Mexico, but you've really got me paranoid now." Vincente, "Oh, don't worry. Just be careful. They aren't targeting the tourists. Just keep moving and don't hang around any one spot too long. I have friends who work in the market who take 3 different colored shirts with them to work every day. That way, whenever they leave one location for the next, they change shirts. They're everywhere and they might radio someone that this guy just left his shop and is wearing a red shirt. Well, he just changed his shirt to a green one, so they can't find him. I don't know if that helps, but that's what they tell me they do. I have a friend who's son works at the OXXO. You know OXXO?" Walter, "Yes, the convenient store chain. That's where I got this coffee." Vincente, "Well my friend's son tells us that one day these people come in and say tomorrow you will have one more OXXO employee. But this new employee won't get paid like other employees. So the next day there's a new guy and he already has the uniform and everything. He helps out, sweeps, loads drinks into the fridge, just like a regular employee, only he's also got a radio and he calls in every now and then to report someone he's seen come and go. I'm telling you, they know everything and see everything. Don't be worried though." Walter, "What?! How could I not be worried?" Vincente, "You just have to trust in God. That's all you can do. Don't worry. Keep moving and have a nice visit." Walter, "Trust in God? Where was God when they were chopping up that poor girl into tiny pieces?"
Walter thanked Vincente for the information and continued down the street a bit more tense than he'd been before. He started to question that intuition that urged him to stay in this city another day. But maybe the reason he was supposed to stay was so he could hear that warning and not be quite as careless in his wanderings.
He made another round of the lagoon to check out the crocodiles and kept further from the road in case one of those trucks pulled up. He saw a military truck pass by with a roof-mounted large machine gun with a soldier at the ready. He looked away toward a bright green iguana by the waterside to distract his attention. Just then a much larger brown iguana about 5 times the size of the green one, stomped quickly out of the bushes and pounced aggressively on top of the green one. The smaller green one struggled under the weight but managed to wriggle itself free. Walter continued back toward the bayous and stopped to get another photo of some textured, decaying wood but remembered to keep moving. As he approached the bayou he noticed a Mexican man who looked like he'd lost his mind and was yelling to himself out loud and sniffing on a plastic container of something. He eyes caught Walter's and he stopped to stare him down with an intense rage. Walter picked up the pace and turned the first corner he could find. He wasn't going to get that photo of the bayou he wanted. He thought about being alone under that bridge to get the right angle. Then he thought about the man insanely sniffing some strange chemical. And then he thought of that larger aggressive iguana pouncing out of nowhere on the smaller green one, and decided he'd best keep moving.
The plaza will filled with families enjoying their Sunday. Children road bicycles and everything seemed right with the world. How could the things Vincente told him be true? Wouldn't the people just stay inside or leave the city altogether if it was really that bad? Maybe Vincente had just read one too many of those Narcos blogs? Or, most likely it was all true but the folks here, like the fellow drinking his beer on the corner have simply refused to be told what to do and cave in to fear. They were going to live their lives the best they could and they were determined the animals would not win.
Walter awoke the next morning and once again tried to figure out when he might have forgotten that he'd stayed in this room with the pink curtains. Then, he got up, packed, and made his way to the bus station to catch the first one out and toward the Huasteca indigenous mountain village of Xilitla. As the bus lumbered it's way down the narrow streets and then down the main boulevard in the business district, he looked again at those pedestrian bridges and thought of the poor girl who's mother didn't have 3 million pesos. The bus crossed over the bridge separating Tampico from Veracruz, but Walter didn't look back. He knew by the strength of the intuition that'd he'd return one day and hoped by that time the forces of light might have found a way to beat back down the darkness that strangled the city.
Soon, the twisted concrete gave way to gentle farmland and peaceful vistas. Walter lost himself in the lush scenery as the flatlands gradually morphed into dramatic valleys with giant boulders crowned in vibrant sub-tropical foliage. He pondered how such beauty could be so near and yet so seemingly far away.
The first military checkpoint came up and it was just two easy-going fellows drinking sodas. No bullet-proof vests, no machine guns mounted on trucks… just a stack of old tires and a lazy wave through. The next checkpoint wasn't even manned and Walter felt he could really just let his mind wander out into the low hanging mist mixed with burning season smoke until his spirit was somewhere lounging amid the palms and majestic crevasses. The bus chugged it's way through the daring curves at an easy pace all the way deep into las Huastecas and onward toward the stony mountain village of Xilitla.