Gringo in Guadalajara

Watch Your Step

Can a sidewalk be symbolic?  It’s hard to imagine anything less likely to inspire poetry or grand thoughts, but in Guadalajara sidewalks seem to stand out as signs of something larger. 

Spend a few days walking the city and you may begin to think that the chaos is closing in.  For someone used to the watered lawns and perpendicular streets of California, a few hours in Mexico’s second- largest city can seem a bit like a human free-for-all.  Or perhaps that is overstating it.  Certainly there are traffic lights that are (generally) followed, policemen on the beat and a city infrastructure that usually does the job.  But there is also a general lack of official presence and orderliness which Mexicans seem accustomed to.  One-party corruption ruled the country for nearly 80 years so good government has never really caught on in Mexico.  In fact, in some cities to the north, the lack of a strong government presence has created serious security problems such as drug cartels and hostage-takers that make daily life precarious.  Here in GDL, the government vacuum tends more toward the annoying or the inconvenient. 

Indeed, in the battle between nature and humanity, nature seems to have a decided advantage when it comes to Guadalajara’s sidewalks.  As the roots of trees grow and expand through the years, they inevitably weave their way under pavement, popping up the sidewalk cement above them at grotesque and often dangerous angles.  What remains are not only hazards for little old ladies.  No, we’re not talking about a little bump in the road, we are talking about triumphant, twisted tree roots and utterly defeated rubble.

Then again, maybe we Americans miss the point of the jagged Mexican sidewalk.  After all, we expect perfection from our government.  Almost every election of recent memory in our country seems to have been about “change.”  That is, throw the bums out because they aren’t doing the job.  If we see a small bump in the sidewalk, there are likely to be dozens of “concerned” citizens by nightfall petitioning the city to keep our sidewalks safe for little old ladies and the rest of us.  “What kind of government,” these perfectionists say, “can’t even keep the sidewalks safe for a simple walk around the block?  Isn’t this America?"

Surely this is a worthy attribute in a people and no doubt it has contributed to societies of near-perfection.  There are places in America where it seems that not one blade of grass, not one painted crosswalk has not been studied and debated by a citizen’s council.

But perhaps it also makes for a rather uptight people.  We Americans demand perfection and then spend a great deal of time moping, complaining and writing to our member of Congress when we don’t get it.  And even when we do get it, do we really enjoy the journey to get there?

One morning I was walking from my Guadalajara apartment down the opposite side of the street from the neighborhood’s most notorious uprooted sidewalk.  To actually walk across this part of the sidewalk, requires a kind of leapfrogging ballerina dance in order to skip across the jagged pieces of cement.  Approaching this danger zone, I saw a middle-aged man with finely combed white hair, a three-piece suit and an elegance that suggested he was a local businessman of some standing.  Perhaps he was headed to the nearby convention center.  As I watched him walking, it occurred to me that this refined gentleman would soon be approaching this laughably unrefined sidewalk.  I almost couldn’t imagine how such an event could take place.  I quickly wondered what an American businessman would do in his place?  Summon a cab to take him the rest of the way?  Call an on-the-spot press conference to lobby for better sidewalks?  Would he even be walking at all?

But instead this Mexican businessman reached the broken sidewalk and simply soldiered on.  Of course, he crossed it in just about as ungainly a manner as anyone else would, nearly sliding off a cement piece in one fancy shoe as he took a child-like mini-leap with the other.  Then he was across the chasm.  He straightened up with dignity and was on his way.

One dares to say that the Mexican does not seem to expect as much from the world around him.  Life does not always go as planned, the government won’t always be there to protect him and the sidewalk is not always perfect.  Perhaps we can fault the Mexicans for not raising holy Hell, but if we do, we must credit them for something else: They accept life as it is and they enjoy it.  They are able to adapt, to accept the world as it comes and not insist that it be the way they expected.  We may have perfect sidewalks in America, but perhaps the real question is, would we know how to walk if we didn’t? []