Route 2010

It’s the middle of the night, and I am restless. Not only is it stifling hot, but to go from being physically active every day to this inertia is a shock to the system.

I had been having random thoughts about the flu epidemic and why Mexico City has been so hard hit. In the numerous reports that I’ve read, very little space has been given to that fact that just before the outbreak there was a prolonged water shortage in the capital. In terms of hygiene, any water shortage is problematic but with a new virus circulating it is potentially catastrophic. I remember at the time stopping by a bar-cafĂ© before an appointment. I wanted to brush my hair and freshen up. It looked clean enough from the outside, but the two cock-roaches lying on their backs dying in the bathroom and the lack of water in the taps told a different story. This is a country where in certain deprived areas Coco-Cola is drunk as a substitute for water.

Jaime’s parents live in gated accommodation; they rent a house and pool  his father’s work is here, but for most well-off Mexicans this is a standard way of life. Many chilangos have second homes in Cuernavaca. Recently I reviewed Alex Perry’s critique of globalisation, Falling off the Edge, and he made an interesting point that I think can be applied to Mexico. Increasingly, in the developing world there is no middle class to provide a buffer between the haves and have-nots. The gap is widening. For the millions who endure poverty and segregation, there is a growing animosity towards the apparently indifferent wealthy and these resentments are more frequently erupting into crime and violence.

As tensions simmer, the very rich take more and more extreme measures to protect themselves from the have-nots. Gated accommodation is the epitome of this. Last weekend we stayed in a hotel, for Jaime’s work, with a high level of security. As I wandered around the pristine grounds I passed by a number of imposing iron gates. They are supposed make us feel secure but, conversely, I felt imprisoned. I looked through the bars at the world outside and it was as though I was the segregated one, no longer a part of reality, and i felt a profound sense loss.

The drive there had been an eye-opener, along the most dismal of roads that seemed to go on for miles, bypassing the industrial town of Toluca and beyond. It’s known as Route 2010, setting a futuristic tone, that sounds bizarre to me.  A road lined on either side by endless pylons blemishing what would have once been a picturesque landscape with misty mountains rising up in the distance. The road cut through relentlessly flat country, reminding me of East Anglia. In places the smell of open sewers was overwhelming. We passed solitary figures, a few cattle, the occasional goat and even a goose tethered to a stick feebly scratching around in the dirt. Every few miles there would be a football pitch, roughly marked out, or a church – it seemed to be one or the other. Then there were these ugly concrete blocks, housing small communities of people, one or two rooms dumped unceremoniously one on top of another, surrounded by arid space all around. This type of modern housing, one presumes, has replaced the rural villages of old and was evidently meant to be considered progress. Their uniformity and unloveliness was depressing. Further on, we passed signs to a high security prison and Jaime told me that this was also an area of considerable wealth, particularly since a number of rich Mexicans had moved there in recent years -- the families of drug barons who relocated when their breadwinners ended up incarcerated.

Coming off Route 2010, we eventually came to this palatial spa and hotel. Everyone likes a bit of luxury now and then, and I am no exception, but this was just too ostentatious after the poverty we’d witnessed on the way. There were huge fountains in the carefully manicured gardens, minature lakes complete with swans, hunting prints all over the dining room, and giant ornamental eggs everywhere (why?). There was even an embalmed horse (really!) pulling a carriage in the entrance to the spa. I had a close look and the work was exceptional; you could still see the scabs on the horse’s knees and tiny flecks of spray around its nostrils.

I couldn’t help but make comparisons between those living beside the road and our final destination. Ironically Route 2010 refers to the centenary of the Mexican Revolution. A movement, that began in 1910 and was fought to liberate the poor.

In many ways the very rich, behind their imposing walls and armoured gates, in their four wheel drives with their bullet-proof windows have become prisoners of their wealth just as the poor remain trapped in their concrete shacks. Out of the blue, the flu epidemic has proved a genuine leveller, however temporarily. We are all of us, regardless of our status, wealth or health, potential objects of contamination.

* The grandfather of the todder who tragically died in Texas is one of the richest men in Mexico. See the following from Associated Press: