I’d read half of Paul Theroux’s new book, “On the Plain of Snakes,” when I went to hear the author speak Wednesday night, Oct. 16, 2019, at Seattle’s Town Hall. That was probably a mistake.
The night before, I had heard Tim Egan speak on his new book, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.” Since it was published on that very day, I had obviously not read it.
So Egan’s speech was an introduction to the book. Theroux’s talk was probably an effective intro to his book, but for me, I wanted an expansion on what he had written and I had read.
What was behind President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 that changed the U.S.-Mexico border from a simple line that Mexicans crossed every day to work, shop and visit to a place of “fences, patrol cars, security technology and massive deportations”?
Why was President Obama’s Fast and Furious program to sell high-caliber guns across the border so that they could be traced when cartel members committed crimes with them, such a failure?
Tell me more about Trump’s insults to Mexicans, the effects of NAFTA on Mexico’s poor and why Mexico’s government is so corrupt that Mexicans have little time to complain about the corruption in Trump’s administration.
More about the violence in Mexico and how the police and drug cartels are often the same.
But he did expand on some things he had written in the book, like his reaction to what he calls “the fence.” In the book, he wrote:
“An ugly steel fence you might associate with a prison perimeter, twenty-five feet high, like nothing I had seen in any other country. A Texas congressman had called it ‘an inefficient fourteenth-century solution to a twenty-first century problem,’ which was accurate because, like a medieval wall, it was merely a symbol of exclusion rather than anything practical, and easily climbed over or tunneled under. In an age of aerial surveillance and high-security technology, it was a blacksmith’s barrier of antiquated ironmongery: old rusty ramparts running for miles, a visible example of national paranoia.”
Theroux has written more than 50 books, many of them from his travels around the world. He says the southern border is the oddest one in the world, like a Christo environmental art project. He describes walking through the door in the fence at the end of a Nogales street as an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole experience. “Open the door, and suddenly you are in Mexico.”
Despite this oddness, the border is a back-and-forth flow, with most of it nowadays going north. Mexicans still come across, although now they have to stand in long lines with their legal documents to get to their jobs, etc.
One surprise for Theroux was the large number of what U.S. officials call “Special Interest Aliens,” people caught trying to cross the border from India, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and from African nations, mostly from Nigeria. In some Southwest U.S. detention facilities, fewer than half are from Mexico.
So why do they leave, Theroux asked. They are at home surrounded with their culture, family, religion and places they know. But they pay a coyote thousands of dollars to take them to the border and maybe across it. They have everything except that “they ain’t got no dinero.” Annual income for people living in the southern Mexico states of Chiapas or Oaxaca is similar to those in rural Kenya or Bangladesh: $3,400. People living in Eritrea fought for years to win independence and freedom from Ethiopia and are now the top group trying to get into Europe. After fighting like that, why would you leave?
“On the Plain of Snakes” tells the stories of some of these people. It’s not a travel book that will “tell you where the best tacos are in Merida,” but a book that will “see things as they are,” Theroux’s stock in trade.
The other reason I like this book is because it covers a place and a way of travel that I did with my friend Jeff in 1974 and 1975, traveling in the back of trucks that stopped for hitch hikers, in second-class buses and crowded train cars. Not sure if we saw things as they are, but we had a lot of fun traveling through Saltillo, Torreon, Durango, Mazatlan and Tepic, with a few “near death experiences” that Theroux calls the essence of travel books. And Theroux is 78-years-old; it’s not too late to do it again.