Sunday, April 12, 2009

Whose World?

It is has long been the game of historians, geographers and politicians, among others, to divide the world up into pieces. They put up borders through Maya lands, break up rivers and seas, and generally try to fit things nicely into their categories. One of these classifications is between the First World and the Third. Mexico, it is generally considered, is part of the Third. But there are some, like neoliberal American military strategist Thomas Barnett, who argue that it is now part of the First. As I traveled through Mexico over the last week I wondered if you can really classify a country as one or the other, or even if you can classify it at all.

Originally the terms of First through Third Worlds came from the Cold War days, but now they are mainly used to label levels of development. Development is a very intangible thing, probably coined by the West and "First" World, so I will create my own definition. Development, and the First World, can be seen in Mexico City at the bus stations where ADO First Class buses come in always on time. It can be seen at the markets where the stalls are scrubbed in hygienic detergents and your food comes in plastic bags. It is in the restoration project of Coyoacan, in all the things that make an American comfortable living in a foreign country. It is part of that globalized city, with its own unique cultural flare but standard in its sense of orderliness that makes any foreigner feel at home. 

But don't start drawing dichotomies just yet. This "First World" aspect of Mexico does not mean that the "Third World" parts are irregular, dissorderly or generally backwards, although they may seem to be so at first glance. One thing is for certain though, the farther we got into the countryside of Veracruz and away from Mexico City, the more things changed. Here, my fast-paced, globalized world choked with a different sort of logic, one where we would arrive in towns where the single bus south leaves only once a day. A trip that takes 6 hours turns into a journey of two days in this world, but no one cared because we took the one bus east instead. And somehow, a trip that would have been logistical hell for someone expecting a globalized experience, was actually one of the most relaxing. It was a good thing we were late, too, because our friend who had access to the beach house, our final destination, was also a few days behind schedule.

Looking back on my  trip, I keep trying to explain the difference between my travels with Avicena, Igmar, Javier and Edgar from any traveling I had ever done before and planned myself. At the heart of this is discovering what was so Mexican about it. While parts of the First World are reaching a general standardized culture that makes traveling within it effortless and traveling without it quite frustrating, part of the local Mexican culture involves learning what its logic is. Certainly it can be characterized by scarcity: we bought the only grocery store in town out of all its bread and potatoes. But somehow this didn't seem to be a big deal; we survive just as the inhabitants survive. 

Maybe I can't quite explain what life is like in Third World Mexico. Sometimes things move more slowly but always they get done. Or sometimes they don't. It is not disorganized here, but it's a logic that an outsider can't immediately understand. And for the global citizen, it's certainly a way of life that takes some getting used to.

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