My wife Lisa and I decided to take a year off from teaching and move our family to Guanajuato, Mexico. In previous incarnations—the hubris of our 20s— Lisa and I had flung ourselves at any unscripted travel; shoestring, boundless, and always eager to confront the unknown. But as most of you know, parenthood tempers impulsivity.
What we really wanted was for our daughters (Grace, 12, and Sophie, 8) to experience life, albeit temporarily, free from the suffocating normalcy of gun violence, the religious right, and the creeping divide in racial equality. America had long surpassed tinderbox stage; it was handing out free Zippos in the gas line.
And Mexico, as hoped, became our sanctuary. As a Unesco World Heritage site, Guanajuato more resembled an Italian hill town with its pastel-colored homes, leafy plazas, and café lined streets. Alive with students and artists, the high desert air of the city always felt bright with possibility.
Even still, Mexico is sprawling, and our wanderlust always lead us on little excursions elsewhere in the country. After six months of serenity and cobblestones, our daughters mentioned how nice it’d be to see the ocean again; Guanajuato resides at an elevation of 8000 feet.
“What about Cancun?” I suggested.
Yes, we all know about Cancun’s reputation for litigation-worthy beach parties. And though true, the fraternal spring breakers with their dayglo beer bongs and Kanye West singalongs were still a few months away. Lisa and I knew it should be relatively safe (and cheap) for an unassuming family of four to spend a weekend. Seven days tops.
And mostly it was. The crowds were sparse, and the turquoise water warm and inviting. We spent whole afternoons splashing and laughing, letting the sun and salt fill our senses to divine overload.
Around the fourth night, we wanted to try someplace new for dinner. We’d discovered some cool restaurants near our hotel, but we all wanted to see more of the old city. I had heard there was a new Italian joint that’d opened up a few miles away from the beaches, so I wrangled up the troops and said we’d make the hike—it was a beautiful night and it looked like on Google maps we could make the walk in about 30 or 40 minutes. Besides, off-season or not, cabs prices in Cancun rival those in New York City.
The streets were deserted, and as my family and I walked down the empty sidewalk next to the lagoon, we kept passing these prominent “Danger: Crocodile Zone” signs posted every 25 feet: the signs pictured a wide-mouth crocodile and a cartoon hand reaching down to foolishly pet it.
I smiled, undaunted.
I knew it had to be some kind of wink-wink photo op for dumb tourists already juiced on a bucket of Coronas and a resort’s worth of sunshine. And I totally got the joke: some moron would hug the sign while his buddy snapped off a couple pics for relatives back in Des Moines still shoveling out their coal bins.
Granted, the mangroves were close enough to touch, no fence separating us from the darkened waters and shadowy undergrowth. The girls started asking why there were so many signs. I kept responding that it was no big deal.
After the 5th sign, Lisa turned toward me.
“They must have put these here for a reason, Chris. The streetlights aren’t very bright, either,” she said, gripping Sophie’s hand.
“Come on, are you kidding? A taxi here is extortion! No way we’re shucking out 10 bucks for, like, a five minute ride!”
“But I gotta pee!” said Grace. “How far away is the restaurant again?”
We stopped and huddled up. I looked out into the tangled mangrove, between roots as thick as human arms rising up and out of the water.
“We’re more than halfway there.” I said. “And these signs are bogus. I mean, think about it: why would they let people just walk along a path next to a lagoon infested with crocodiles?”
But with a sinking and sudden clarity, I realized I already knew the answer.
For all the danger and uncertainty we’d fled back home, we’d discovered our fair share of nuttiness in Mexico: they still let people blow off whole sticks of dynamite in the street when celebrating the birth of a saint, real or imagined. And if you lost a couple of fingers, (or maybe a whole hand), then hey, life’s about choices, isn’t it?
A playground near our home in Guanajuato had a long, brick wall in the back that was low enough for any toddler to climb. On the other side? A thirty-foot drop into smashed cinder blocks.
Just last month, we watched in genuine awe as a group of young girls sped by us while standing in the back of a pick-up. There were, like, 7 of them. Standing. At 40 mph. A cop drove by and didn’t even blink. And when the truck disappeared down a hill and into a tunnel, the girls all squealed like it was just another ride at Six Flags. Yet one little bump and they’d be tossed like shrimp from a wok. You think the United States in the land of the free? Come down to Mexico and see why our daughters continually complain how we don’t let them do anything cool and dangerous like the Mexicans do.
When we finally made it to the restaurant they sat us outside, overlooking the lagoon. We asked our waiter about the signs.
He shook his head thoughtfully. “They didn’t put those up until, I think, the third attack?”
“Third attack,” I said.
“Yes, it was the homeless man. He was sleeping with his dog in the grass.” He pointed in the direction we had all just come from.
“Croc first took his poodle, then came back and took the man’s hand, a piece of his leg.”
“Oh god,” Lisa said.
Sophie was swizzling some lemonade out of her straw. She was about the size of a Dachshund.
I looked out over the water, which was deep and clear and lit like a pool. And then, as if on cue, a 12-foot croc swam slowly, soundlessly out from under the deck and into the lagoon. iPhones started flashing. I heard a woman gasp.
Our waiter wasn’t too impressed. “Oh, I haven’t seen him in a while. You know, last Christmas, a couple was sitting directly at the table you’re at now, holding a chicken breast over the railing, and the thing leapt straight up. It was terrifying,” he said with a laugh.
My daughters wanted to follow the croc, to run around the deck and see if we could catch another glimpse. So the three of us stood up and hurried over to the far rail, and I leaned out into the blackness and scanned the surface.
“I see it,” said Sophie.
“Where, where?” I craned a bit farther.
“No you don’t,” said Grace. “You’re lying.”
I kept looking, but knew it was gone. Or worse, it was hiding at the bottom, looking up at me. I then realized I was leaning tantalizingly far out over the rail, exposing my neck like an easy snack. For the first time that night, I felt afraid.
Afterward, meal over, I called a cab. It was the most satisfying five minute ride of my life. I looked over at my daughters, gently patted Sophie’s leg. She looked up at me and smiled.
“That was good pizza, Pop,” she said.
I smiled back. “Yeah, it was.”
When we arrived at the hotel, I gave the cabbie $20. He turned to make change but I waved him off. “Keep it,” I said. “I owe you.”
Written by: Christopher Locke
Christopher’s travel writing has appeared in such magazines as Islands, Nowhere, Slice, The Nervous Breakdown, Terrain, Bull, The Literary Bohemian and elsewhere. Ordinary Gods, his collection of essays and poems detailing his 25 years of travel throughout Latin America was released by Salmon of Ireland in 2017. His latest poetry collection, Music For Ghosts, (NYQ Books) and a memoir, Without Saints, (Black Lawrence Press) were both released in 2022. Chris lives in the Adirondacks and teaches English at SUNY Plattsburgh.