It’s late afternoon Sunday, at Naco, Arizona and I’m crossing one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. Past the ugly metal fence—ten feet high and running off into the desert land as far as I can see. Past the friendly American guards who ask if we have guns or bullets. (The correct answer is no.) Past the Mexican guard post and the speed bumps that would wreck your car if you were going more than two miles per hour.
Then I’m in Mexico. The country of violence and corruption. I’ve read about the executions and the torture—the drug cartels with their own armies—the legions of fear. Even my mother, usually an advocate for travel and adventure, encouraged me not to cross over.
I am with a trusted friend who speaks the language and spends part of his life across the border. Still I am uneasy. Is this safe? Am I safe? I am stepping into the unknown. But I remember being a high school exchange student in Japan in the spring of 1970. The anti-war protests were at their height and the Kent State killings had just happened. Several of my friends tried to convince me not to go to college when I returned to the US. From the news reports one could plainly see that college campuses were places of danger and violence.
So I cross over. Into the sleepy town of Naco. Clearly a third world country—single story shops and dwellings in various states of repair and a large church in the middle of it all. Down the side streets the open land beyond is clearly visible – where the activity of this small town merges into the great expanses of flatness beyond. Toward the edge of town we see a man riding a horse by an abandoned building along the side of the road. Getting closer we see the small boy in front of him. Both are dressed in their Sunday best. I guess grandfather and grandson out for a late afternoon ride.
I breath a little easier but notice the persistence of the fear in my belly. Different here, but they seem to be people just like me. But still, what if…
We drive south—into the great Sonoran Desert. Flat land with nothing more than small brush extend into the distance where great mountains arise—standing row upon row—almost blue against the dusty brown of the plains. This ancient land. Harsh and beautiful.
The road is decent with a few cars going either way. I begin to feel more comfortable. At the checkpoint, I reach for my passport but we are waved through by a guard who seems rather bored. Twice we see cars lined up coming north, each one being checked by armed officers with machine guns. This is not reassuring, but I remember I’ve also seen armed uniformed men with machine guns in the airport in Rome. I didn’t like it there either.
After another thirty minutes, we are nearly by ourselves, driving south through vast expanses. The low sun illuminates a range of mountains to our east. The sky is big and the land is open. I am thrilled to be here. Honored to have the privilege to be in this grand beauty, nourished by its difference and grandeur.
I feel queasy again as night falls. But we uneventfully reach our destination by eight p.m. and are greeted with great warmth by our expatriot hotel owners here at Hotel des Arcos in Banamichi, Mexico. Walking into the courtyard I feel safe, reassured, and ready for bed.
The town square is just around the corner. Monday we wander the town. My friend regales a group of high school boys who are pooling their money to buy lunch to eat at plastic tables at Suzie’s outdoor café with his humorous questions and repartee. We hire two horses, which are brought to the door of the hotel, to take a few blocks through the city and into the desert beyond. Walking and galloping, I wonder about the humans who have traversed this dry landscape for hundreds and thousands of years.
This morning, I sit in the courtyard of the hotel serenaded by a chorus of roosters. The shimmering stars fade into the clear blue of morning. Birds sing. An occasional car goes by in the distance.
Today we head back to Bisbee, Arizona. I’m looking forward to the drive, but would happily stay here for a few more days. Already, I feel safer on the streets of Banamichi than I would feel in some parts of my hometown Worcester. In this town, in this part of Mexico, my experience is of the warmth of the people, the majesty of the land, and the freedom that comes from crossing over some of the walls I have built (and those that have been built in my name.)
I would not wander in Mexico indiscriminately. Nor would I do so in New York or Boston. But the beauty and the possibility of this world and of the human heart call me to step across these lines of fear that are both real and illusory. It is not an easy thing. It is not totally safe. But I do believe we are all called, in our own way, to leave the familiar territory of the world as we imagine it to be to travel into the vivid aliveness of a life beyond our knowing.