I woke up New Year’s Eve day in a small guest room off of a coffee shop on the lakeshore of Catemaco, Veracruz (Mexico) to a large flock of birds chirping incessantly.
I decided to take advantage of my early rising and unusual lodging arrangement by sitting on the porch of the coffee shop and enjoying a cup of tea and the lake view (pity I don’t drink coffee because Veracruz is famous for delicious beans). At the next table, a pair of men – also enjoying the porch – were switching their conversation between English and Spanish. My German travel companion and I played the typical game of “guess the home country of the ex-pats/tourists without directly asking them.” We thought they were German, as the owner of the coffee shop was a German ex-pat.
Eventually, my friend got up to use the restroom, at which point one of the men decided to introduce himself while his buddy was packing. He was an organic pesticide salesman traveling for business, and taking a holiday break to visit the famous butterflies and this beautiful lake in Veracruz. He was the sort of man who used a bad word every three sentences, but it didn’t bother me because someone once told me people who swear are more honest. Which was ironic, considering our next topic of conversation, where the inevitable question arose:
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“El Centro, California,” I responded. “You?”
“I’m Canadian!” he belted, his voice rising above the hundreds of chirping birds across the street.
Now, I’m no expert. But this accent was not the accent of a Canadian. Or rather, since I don’t know Canadian accents well but can certainly recognize an American accent, that was the sound of an American if I’d ever heard one. Our conversation continued on into past experiences he had “visiting” Seattle, and how much his Mexican farmer clients supposedly “hated” Americans because of Trump. Which was a bit of an “ah-ha” moment for me in deciphering the mystery of this man. I had never experienced any animosity as an American abroad, but I was open to hearing his opinions.
We said a pleasant goodbye and my friend and I headed out to a jungle sanctuary for the afternoon, followed by a rambunctious New Year’s Eve celebration in Santiago Tuxtla, and finally, back to Mexico City. God, I love that city. I had such a great time in Mexico City (posts to come!), and truly enjoyed the Mexican people, above all else. Often I felt safer as a solo female traveler than I do in big cities in Europe, as I was frequently surrounded by families, and felt a much more relaxed, considerate vibe. That is, with one major exception.
On my second-to-last day in Mexico, I found myself enjoying the Teotihuacan pyramids followed by an afternoon at the National Museum of Anthropology, one of the more respected museums in Mexico. I was taking a rest at the museum’s restaurant, as I love myself a good museum café, when a bit of a ruckus fired up near me. I don’t like to make assumptions, but what seemed to be a fairly affluent American family sitting at the next table was complaining about everything, and the restaurant management was making rounds to appease their barrage of complaints. I was embarrassed, as I feel inherently linked to other Americans while abroad in a way I don’t when I’m in the United States.
Everyone sitting on the beautiful patio trying to enjoy their lunch heard the ruckus, and an English-speaking Mexican randomly spoke up: “Be careful,” she said. “Stay in the museum. There are riots, and they are after Americans.”
I heard her words, and I immediately went from trying to tune the scene out, to hanging on their every word. “My husband called me and warned me,” she went on. “They are angry about the oil prices, and they are blaming Trump. They are going after the Wal-Marts in the city, looting, because the store is American.”
As I quietly freaked out by slumping in my chair and frantically texting my German friend who works at the Goethe-Institut and is very connected to city happenings, the American family didn’t make any effort to hide their concern. They went from table to table, asking for more information from anyone that would respond. Nice Samaritans began googling local news sites, and a young man tried to calm them, “The United States Embassy is next door. You couldn’t be in a safer place. And if you want, you can call them, but you really don’t need to.” The family spent the next half-hour on their cell phones, calling various people at the embassy.
Meanwhile, my German friend started getting answers. The Mexican woman was right. There was looting going on, and they were targeting Americans. His local friends that knew he was hosting me had started to text him, worried about me and urging me to stay inside. I spent a surreal few hours in the starkly quiet museum surrounded by ancient treasures, trying not to think about the potential chaos outside. They finally closed and ushered us out, and I called an Uber to take me directly to meet my friend. As we drove along, there were guards armed with semi-automatic weapons outside all of the stores we passed.
The night ended without incident, and I was even able to enjoy the historic center the next morning, despite the warnings of a few friends in the city. I returned home to San Diego unscathed, but with a lot on my mind.
This was my first trip outside the United States where my president – or rather, the president on everyone’s minds – was not Obama, a president that I have never heard a negative word about in all my travels. Admittedly, I have a limited perspective, as I didn’t travel much before the Obama administration. Hiding away in the Anthropology museum that afternoon in Mexico City was the first time I’ve felt vulnerable due to my nationality and the international politics of my president. And technically, Trump hadn’t even been inaugurated yet. The words of the “Canadian” organic pesticide salesman began to resonate.
Whether we like it or not, however long or short our travels are, we are mini-ambassadors to the United States in every interaction we have. Interactions that are now under the shadow of the Trump administration, an administration that has sent a clear message to the rest of the world that they are putting “America first.” Whatever that really means – I don’t mean this to be a partisan issue – it is left to the interpretation of the receiver of that information, which we can’t control. And in the case of the Mexicans, understandably angry about the rise in oil prices, the Trump administration was an easy bad-guy, a scapegoat for their woes. But here I am, in their country, face-to-face with these angry people, and Trump is safely in the Whitehouse with men with semi-automatic weapons standing on his roof, protecting him.
I’m considering being “Canadian” as well in order to safely live my ex-pat life, the life that I’ve become so accustomed to over the last five years, a life I’m not ready to give up yet, but a life that has drastically changed shape within this new international political landscape.
I’m curious if any of you have had similar experiences abroad in the last few days, weeks, and months. I would love to hear your thoughts, insights, and concerns.
Thanks for reading.