Until recently, I’d lived most of my life in Texas but never been to Mexico. Given the proximity, that’s no easy trick. Most people I know rave about Cuerna Vaca, tell tales of their college semester in Oaxaca, or at least vaguely remember crossing the border into Matamoros during a debaucherous Padre Island spring break. But not me. A few years ago, we decided it was time to break that seal, and planned a trip to the Yucatan. Not long after booking our trip, swine flu broke out and we faced a dilemma about whether or not to follow through on our plans. The essay below details our unpopular decision to take our daughter to Tulum, and the ramifications of that choice. For a hint on how things turn out, see the photo of our family in fear below.
In case it entices you to read…this essay has NEVER BEEN SEEN IN PRINT BEFORE (meaning it got turned down by several magazines). I’m curious to know whether others would have made the same decision. If you’d like to see a slideshow of our trip, take a look at Resorting to a Resort.
Destination Danger Zone
Passports, bathing suits and sunscreen? Check.
Facemask, flu medication and bulletproof vest? Check.
We were packing for our family trip to Mexico, despite the double whammy pummeling the country’s tourist industry: swine flu and drug-related violence. After all, my husband and I reasoned, the flu had reached pandemic proportions and could be contracted almost anywhere in the world; the violence referenced in the U.S. government’s travel advisory seemed far-removed from the quiet Yucatan beach town we were planning to visit.
Some friends and family disagreed, believing the potential risks were too great. In their minds, the slim chance of catching and dying from a brand new killer virus or getting kidnapped by drug lords far outweighed beautiful sea views, ancient ruins and no cell phone service on the list of pros and cons. Some even suggested we were being frivolous with our daughter’s health and safety for a few days on the beach, and encouraged us to cancel our trip in favor of a backyard staycation.
Though I was intensely irritated by the criticism, it did cause me to consider our motives and decision-making process. My daughter was only two, and many toddlers manage to become productive human adults without a preschool field trip to the Caribbean. Did we really need to hit the Yucatan playa at this particular time in our lives, and at this particular juncture in world history? Upon reflection, I concluded that, in fact, now was the perfect time for this particular vacation, and I was largely unconcerned that current events unfolding in Mexico would impact the health and safety of my family.
When swine flu first brought Mexico to a screeching halt, we were prepared to cancel our plans if the global cataclysm predicted on the evening news came to fruition. But in early May, Mexico lowered the flu alert and the U.S. government followed suit, lifting its recommendation to avoid nonessential travel to the country on May 15.
At about the same time, swine flu was hitting our hometown, and a large area school district shut down for two weeks because of a few affected students. There is still great debate over whether that move was prudent or hysterical, but it bolstered my own decision. If swine flu was a deal breaker, I wondered, why weren’t people fleeing our city? Heck, given its northward trajectory, maybe we’d actually be safer from the flu in Mexico.
The threat of violence was of even less concern. Living in Texas, I am well aware of drug-related problems in Mexican border towns, and would think at least twice before going on holiday to Juarez. But we were going to Tulum, a touristy town 90 miles south of Cancun. I had read nothing that led me to believe it would be any more dangerous than my own urban neighborhood, where a woman was recently carjacked with her children onboard.
Even the advisory on the US Department of State web site gave me some comfort about traveling to Mexico. Though it goes into greater detail about particular regions of the country, the following paragraph sums up the general situation:
“While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including tens of thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business), violence in the country has increased. It is imperative that travelers understand the risks of travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if one becomes a crime victim. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.”
I find this to be excellent advice, and wholeheartedly commit to following it – in any locale I may find myself. Common sense, in general, is a useful tool to employ when making decisions. For example, I would use common sense if contemplating a family vacation to any of the following destinations currently saddled with government-issued advisories:
- Honduras (unstable political and security situation)
- China (unsavory swine flu quarantine measures)
- Gabon (dead president/pending elections/risk of violent uprising)
- Argentina (swine flu outbreak)
- “Hurricane Season” (bad weather could result in an unpleasant vacation…or worse)
My carefully considered reaction regarding travel to these other scarlet A-lerted destinations is a mixed bag. At the risk of sounding provincial, I admit I have never researched China or Gabon as a potential vacation spot, though perhaps I will do so in the future. I know many families who have traveled to Honduras, but concede it may be best to wait out the coup before towing your toddler to Tegucigalpa. Similarly, I will do everything within my power to avoid vacationing in the midst of a hurricane.
Argentina is a different story. If we are to be discouraged from traveling to a country simply because flu season is upon it, we should all pack our bags now. On Aug. 24, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that swine flu could cause 90,000 US deaths this fall. If avoidance is the key to survival, maybe the answer is emigration to a country with no confirmed swine flu deaths. Bermuda, for example, may be a prime location to expatriate – if not for the unfortunate problem of “Hurricane Season.”
And so, selfishly, irresponsibly and with great excitement we flew to Mexico in June, straight into the epicenter of danger and disease – Cancun International Airport. After enduring a cursory cough check and lengthy customs line, we emerged into the sunny sea air and shuttled ourselves down the Yucatan Peninsula, through Playa del Carmen and into Tulum. As we marveled at the amazingly blue Caribbean, we managed not to worry about the drug deals and shoot outs that may or may not have been taking place along a different stretch of highway in some other part of the world.
For the next five cell phone- and e-mail-free days, we splashed in the surf, built sand castles and gave our daughter hours of pool time to reinforce her recently acquired swimming skills. We ate together, played together, left routine behind together and immersed ourselves in the culture together. Toddlers, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate an impressive pile of blocks, and with her first glimpse of the Mayan ruins our awestruck daughter said, “Look, Mommy, somebody build that.”
There is a fine line between parenting responsibly and parenting fearfully. Unfortunately, we are so often bombarded by frightening news and information that we over predict the real threat of a situation and fail to make rational decisions. I am not suggesting it’s wise to wander through parenthood wearing a Pollyanna pantsuit, but neither should unfounded fears cause knee-jerk decisions that make life less rewarding.
In the end, my daughter’s fall out of bed was the worst thing that happened on our family vacation to Mexico. Of all the things that might have gone wrong, I’m afraid it was the one thing I had not even considered.