It was always our intention that once I was all Green Carded-up (tick!) LP and I would take a second honeymoon slash first wedding anniversary-related holiday. I had secretly been hoping that we could get to Europe, but LP has just got herself a fancy new job at a small San Francisco start-up. (How very "Bay Area" of her.) Taking a weeks-long holiday three-months into her job is not overly feasible. Not in America!
About as soon as we started to consider potential holiday spots within the radius of a few hours flight, places we could get to without losing too much time to travel, the topic of Mexico came up. But the idea of Mexico came hand-in-hand with the notion of crime. This left us uncertain.
How much warning should you heed to internal safety issues within a country?
As I scroll down the list of travel warnings for Mexico, my eyes meet a laundry list of worries for the country: kidnapping, disappearances, carjacking, highway robbery, involuntary detainment, murders, drug wars. General instructions given out to visitors include driving only during the day and avoiding isolated roads. Yikes.
I was in Mexico City in the middle of 2007. Crime and violence in certain parts of the country have escalated drastically in the five years that have followed, but it was still a concern even back then.
Funnily enough, my concern and paranoia was largely unheeded. The biggest risk of injury I faced through most of the trip was getting caught out in one of the city's severe summer thunderstorms and slipping over wearing only my jandals. I spent a lot of time beedy-eyed and on high alert. I always counted my money when I was out of sight of anyone and everyone. I'm crafty like that.
There were a couple of weird moments. LP and I were watching Mariachi musicians in a local square at midnight, when a large, hulking man approached me and tried to initiate a hug. I caught sight of a little person approaching me from my right, making a bee line for the buckle of my bag. We also got ripped-off by a taxi driver one night, but when you're spending Mexican Pesos and the driver is making so little money for himself, it's hard to feel too much like you're getting the wrong end of the stick.
Mexico is an interesting example of this conundrum. The battle for dominance between its cartels and the sheer, horrific level of collateral bloodshed in parts of the country is reason to give anyone pause. But, it's huge and there's also a vaguely democratic government in place, with a well-established tourism industry and great beaches.
A friend of mine worked as a diplomat in Mexico City and told me that the city and a lot of the spots were considered a zone of truce between the cartels: everyone has to come in and run errands and take their family on vacation at some point, so why make it harder on everyone?
And sure enough if you dig around most Mexican tourist hotspots are completely unaffected by the crime wave (Acapulco, according to the US State Department, is one spot where tourists should advise extreme caution.)
I also think that if you're sensible when you're travelling you can protect yourself from a lot of bad situations: trusting your gut, paying attention to your surroundings (no headphones, etc.), no flashy displays of wealth, keep your belongings on you in ways that make them difficult to easily lift.
There are still many countries beyond the pale for tourism. Summer in Somalia anyone? Syria?
Then there are places where a little unrest or upheaval in the very general area has put a lot of people off going.
And then there's the Mexico's, or the South Africa's or even the Pakistan's, large countries that seemed to produce shocking headlines of crime, drug violence, terrorism, but are too massive to write off in one swoop, in population and geography.
But why are Mexico and South Africa "proceed with caution" countries and tourism in Pakistan sits at zilch? Who decides? Is it perception or reality and is there a way around this if you want to visit?
Maybe you should just stay home. Or stick to Australia.
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Two dead while the washing hung on the line (graphic content)