Postcard from Mexico City

Postcard from Mexico City
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My husband and I were invited to a traditional boda (wedding) that was being held this weekend in Ciudad Obregon, a city in Sonora, a northwest region of Mexico that borders Arizona and New Mexico. Paolo, a young psychiatrist had grown up in Italy and we have known his family since he was a child. He was marrying Teresa at the church in her hometown, Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. The young couple had met in the States where they were both completing their education.

When we received the invitation, we were delighted. But admittedly, we did think twice. Our unbridled enthusiasm about sharing this day with Paolo and Teresa was quickly sobered by the increasing reports of kidnapping, violence, and murder attributed to drug cartels in northern Mexico. A recent U.S. State Department travel alert said that US citizens should "avoid certain areas, abstain from driving on certain roads because of dangerous conditions or criminal activity, or recommend driving during daylight hours only." It also recommended not going too afar of tourist areas. My cousin called and told me that he had hired a bodyguard for his college-aged son's spring break trip last month to a luxury resort in Acapulco. "Take only fake jewelry with you," cautioned a friend. In the end, we weren't deterred by fears because of our long friendship with our Italian friends as well as our fondness for Mexico, its people, and its culture.

So we were among the 300 celebrants this weekend, mostly Sonorans, who attended Teresa and Paolo's wedding reception at a ranch-like restaurant, called "Mr. Steak." It took place immediately after the church service in a beautiful outdoor courtyard, covered with crimson flowers that seemingly thrive in the desert heat.

It turns out that when it comes to births, weddings and funerals, many traditions are global. The wedding singers and dancers who might have just as easily been hired to entertain at a gaudy bar mitzvah (particularly if they had they been singing in English) got things rolling. The bride and groom danced their first dance to Louis Armstrong's, "What a Wonderful World." Guests ate, drank and exchanged memories of the couple's childhood and of their own courtships and weddings.

The energetic band got the crowd on their feet to do the "Pony" and the Mexicans danced to lively Latin beats for hours showing no signs of exhaustion. There was a dais and a tiered wedding cake, photographs taken of the proud families, beautiful deep-skinned bridesmaids dressed in vibrant turquoise dresses, and wedding favors.

My wedding reverie was interrupted when a friend sent me an email on my iPhone. Attached to a "breaking news alert" about the potential swine flu pandemic in Mexico City that had already felled more than 1000 persons and killed about 60, my friend Patricia wrote, "You're not there, are you?"

That was our first inkling of the panic that was terrorizing the people of Mexico City, where we had been just two days before. We were glued to CNN whenever we got back to our hotel room. The death rate among victims was estimated at about 7 percent. The lead story in the local paper reported three new cases in Sonora. My friend, Margie, a veteran traveler and adventurer emailed me: "Get out of there. I'm worried about you." We decided to cut our trip short, aborting plans to visit the nearby colonial town of Alamos, Mexico, one of the Pueblos Magicos, after the wedding.

It wasn't easy to rearrange our flight schedule but we were able to get stand-by seats. Our return flight from Obregon connected through Mexico City, an international hub where there are usually hoards of people. Compared to only a few days earlier, both the landscape of the airport and the nature of our anxieties had taken an unexpected turn. The terminal was sparsely populated. Airport employees with blue gloves and passengers with blue masks were cautious and kept their distance from each other. Security was efficient and turned out to be far more brisk than usual.

As we donned one of the ubiquitous blue masks being handed out freely by men in army fatigues, every TV set around the airport was reporting the emergency measures invoked by President Calderon to quell fears and protect public health. Soccer games would go on, but without fans, and the faithful would no longer be flocking to churches. They were warned to stay away from crowds, not shake hands, or cheek-kiss as is traditional among Mexican friends. Museums, schools, universities, bars and restaurants were closed down. People were hunkered down, stockpiling DVDs and Tamiflu.

We worried whether we would get out of Mexico before we got ill or the flu became pandemic. Would airline or immigration officials be ordered to screen travelers crossing borders to prevent its spread? At the same time, we felt terrible about the mounting economic woes being faced by Mexico, a U.S. neighbor that is heavily dependent on tourism, which has already taken a big hit because of crime fears and the downfall in the economy.

At the airport, we read English language newspapers and surfed the Internet. We found out that the swine flu had outpaced our own return to New York and had jumped across continents---within days, cases had already cropped up in several other US cities, Australia, Canada and Israel. I wrote this post on our return flight. More than ever, it became clear to me that whether it is a drug war, global disease outbreak, or other human disaster, international borders are permeable and we are all in this together.

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