Poverty or Poison? Mexico Beaches and the Human Stain


I’ve been to Mexico many times, always typically as a dirty surfing traveler. I’ve gotten sick. Whether it’s the water, the food, the fruit in the market, I don’t know, but Mexico isn’t a country that typically agrees with me. It’s a land of contradictions and uncanny juxtapositions. Just on the outskirts of four star hotels in Zihuantenejo is an old Mexico where life is slow, poor and dirty. The town where I am, Saladita, is far away from the glass bottom boat rides and fancy resorts, but it’s been marked by old surfers looking to retire in a surfer’s paradise. But just back off the beach, a few miles inland is the land of serious drug violence. Tourists, even dirty ones with surfboards, are largely shielded from this reality. Drug fighting is bad for beach tourism, especially when it produces a surfeit of bodies being dumped into the ocean. Just a year ago, there were an inordinate amount of shark attacks on swimmers and it was surmised by marine biologists that these attacks may be happening because sharks have gotten used to the taste of human flesh because so many bodies end up in the ocean from different sides of warring factions. No joke.

But where I am, it’s a different world. Saladita is known for a perfect wave that breaks consistently. It’s the kind of wave that surfers dream about – long, peely, and easy to catch. I’ve surfed my guts when we first got here but I haven’t been in the ocean for two days. Why? The rain came. Everywhere, the smell of burning plastic on the beach carries on the wind, and the deluge of trash that comes out of the river makes the ocean off limits for many hours after wards, especially for someone like me. Everywhere I go in the world, I look at places through an environmental, water quality lens. I look at behavior. I look at systems. I see many people unaware that they are poisoning themselves. I wish I didn’t, but you can’t un-know reality once you engage in perceiving it.

Just yesterday, walking around, documenting the human stain on this divine land, I asked a guy spraying chemicals on weeds by the river bank what he was spraying. Paraquat. Paraquat is a non-selective herbicide (meaning it kills everything) and it’s extremely toxic to humans. He filled it from an even bigger tank on the back of a truck, over and over again. Never mind the septic tank leaks, never mind the straight dumping of feces into the river in very poor areas, never mind the animals crapping on the river bank, and never mind all the garbage sent out to sea. Chemicals freak me out. Even taking a small swig of Paraquat and spitting it out can cause death. Sure, it’s diluted a bit, but no matter what, it’s getting into my body. Because everything runs down hill.

But what do you do? And is it a gringo’s place to do anything? That’s the rub. By all standards other than environmental, surfers spending cash and building houses is a good thing for the local people. They make money. And good money.

Right in front of the wave, there is a surf camp called Lourdes’s. Lourdes is a woman about 35, a regal Mexican goddess who makes it her job to know everything that happens in Saladita. Her surf lodge is basic, includes clean sheets and ceiling fans, but otherwise no luxury. I see the money she makes – all cash. I see the car she drives. Surfers are good for her quality of life. But don’t piss off Lourdes. You want to build a vacation Palapa with an infinity pool? Or you just want to buy a cheap bag of ditch weed? You must first pass the ‘pinche gringo’ test with Lourdes. She owns the place and she will bring a hammer down on anyone not in her good graces.

To wit, just up the road sits a half finished Hacienda that was being built by a guy from California. He pissed Lourdes off, and the next day the workers building his place quit coming and stole all the building materials. The guy can’t get anyone to finish it and he’s persona non-grata around these parts. As a traveling surfer, it’s something I like to see: Mexican ownership of Mexican resources.

But how long will it be before people quit coming here to surf because the water is so dirty? With all this gringo infusion of cash, why is there so little infrastructure to manage the waste humans create? It’s all about margins and people in power that control those margins. It’s overwhelming, indeed. Constantly, the environmental movement is chastised for being too ‘doom and gloom’ and enviro non-profits all that want to remain solvent try to balance bad news with hope. But sometimes, looking at the challenges that face a place even as beautiful as this one, you realize quickly that hope is not an effective strategy. Oh Mexico, my heart is still hopeful for you, but I fear for you.

Image: ripkas