A genie offers a man a wish under one condition, whatever he wishes for, his enemy will get double. The man ponders and says, “pierce me an eye”. I learned about preventive maintenance the hard way. So, I had la Chichona checked in San Cristobal the morning before the trip. Emma showed up exactly at twelve o’clock at the service center; all smiles and excitement. I love Germans. They’re always reliable.
One road connects Palenque to San Cristobal, and it crosses the Zapatista territories. The Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican government in 1993. They had overthrown the military and gained control over most routes in Chiapas. Marco, Emma, and I would be travelling from San Cristobal to Palenque on that one route, through a lawless land.
The road in the mountains was narrow and weaved through bottomless canyons. Every curve looked like a path to the edge of the world. It was scary, mystical, and fascinating. The sun piercing throught the mist overcasted countless shades of green. It soothed the eye. We stopped to capture the moment.
Marco and Emma were taking pictures. I stepped aside for a piss when a biker pulled over next to Marco. He said that the area was dangerous and famous for armed robbery. In no instance should we stop, even if signalled to do so. We
resumed our trip, grateful to have encountered a Samaritan and not a thug. Traffic had gotten heavier. We moved slowly behind a long line of cars and buses when we saw people sitting along the road. I peeked out of the window. Covered-face men were blocking the road with huge metal spikes. Military checkpoints looked cute in comparison. The road was too narrow for a U-turn and there were cars behind us. No possible escape…Fuck.
A young man distributed leaflets to every car. I turned off the engine and read it. The people sitting on the side of the road were villagers. They were out of water for more than two weeks but government officials turned a blind eye on them. They did not even acknowledge the problem. So, the community members took the matter into their hands. They blocked the road in order to raise funds and fix the water issue. They demanded 200 pesos per car.
I didn’t think twice to put on my Arab merchant hat. I told Marco and Emma to play dumb and not say a word, then I started negotiating. First, I empathized with the man. I supported their fight and shat on the corrupt government for sympathy, adding that they should not expect anything from them. The guy cut me short and moved to the next car. Behind him, an old was collecting the money.
I engaged then old man in conversation. I asked him about the water problem and how they were dealing with it. I was sorry it had to come to this. They must have had no other choice. He felt compassion. My words resonated with him. I paused for a moment, then look at the old man’s eyes and challenged him. “Tell me honestly sir, by robbing poor people who had nothing to do with your situation, aren’t you acting just like the oppressive government you hate so much?”
The young man returned. He was angry to see us still talking. I told them we couldn’t afford 200 pesos but I would give them our food budget. I scrapped every part of the van, slow on purpose. The covered-face man was losing patience. Five minutes later, I had collected 91 pesos in small change. I said that they could take it and let us through, or give it back and help us make a U-turn. The old man took the money.
In retrospect, my reaction was reckless and stupid. I argued with a member of a rebel armed group…for 15 fucking dollars. But in the heat of the moment, I reacted to an injustice. I couldn’t bear the idea of being unfairly extorted, so I talked back. That is why stupid people die first.
Was there really an injustice? These people had lost access to water, a basic necessity. Government officials had vanished and people were paying the price. Imagine being a farmer in the mountains and having no water. What resort did they have? Would I have acted differently? Probably not.
The roadblock was not life-threatening, but it tested my reaction to danger. My reflex was to put my ego first. It clouded my judgment and could have led to a sadder outcome.
Faced with danger, one should value their life, not their ego.