Escape from Mexico

We don’t fear sleeping just because we might have nightmares. In the same way, I don’t fear traveling or adventure just because it might go badly. Quite the opposite, I get tired of daily life and am always looking for somewhere to close my eyes and drift away to. So, when in December last year the opportunity to live and work as an English teacher in Zacatecas, Mexico, presented itself, I didn’t hesitate seizing it with both hands.

What I thought was a dream first began in early January this year by traveling to Auckland, where I spent a few nights with my friends, Gary and Alana; two film school sweethearts I’d met 11 years earlier at South Seas. I also caught up briefly with another old friend, Nic, who was on his way back to his adoptive home in Melbourne. After Auckland, I flew first to Hawaii, sitting next to an irritating American woman who asked me incessant questions about myself, told me incessant information about herself, and proceeded to claim knowing, on a personal level, every Hawaiian musician who appeared on the safety video with a ukelele. The airport in Honolulu had a distinctly 1970’s decor feel about it, lots of browns, tans, and oranges. I was only there for a few hours. Flying into Los Angeles always has an ominous feeling; the city is such an unapologetic monster, especially at night. This was true of this descent into Los Angeles, just as it always is. It was also my first time arriving in the mainland of Trump’s America. Screwing up my flight times, I had to book an earlier ticket to Zacatecas to avoid being cast adrift in Los Angeles for 24 hours at 1am. I finally boarded a Mexico-bound flight and began heading south towards the most magical country I’ve ever known.

Through the pitch black of night, I flew high over the deserts of Mexico; a thin band of crimson appearing on the horizon to the east as the new day, and my new life, began to dawn. My plane landed at what I assumed was the airport in Zacatecas, however, I later learned we’d landed somewhere else entirely because of fog clogging the runway in Zacatecas. We waited a few hours on the tarmac as the rising sun revealed the dessert landscapes around us, tall mountains in the distance buttressing the brightening sky. In hindsight, the irritating American woman, the screwed up flight times in Los Angeles, and the fog delay in Zacatecas – these were all early signs my dream was swerving into a nightmare, I just didn’t realise it.

However, the first indication of this that I was truly aware of was when the Fluency First Institute school director, Francisco Lopez, picked me up from the airport and showed me the ‘accommodation’ that had been included in my employment package. It was filthy, looked more like a prison cell, and had no working water. I was a little shocked, but I reminded myself that Mexico is a poor country and I hadn’t moved there for glamour but to try and make a positive impact in the world. I was cautious of being a ‘precious westerner’. Besides, Francisco seemed like a nice enough sort of guy and he’d said he’d get the water fixed the following day.

Four days later, however, he still hadn’t contacted a plumber, and I was desperate for a shower, so I asked him if he knew of a nearby apartment building I could move into. He took me to a building nearby and introduced me to Jaime, the building owner. They showed me a room with a disgusting, but functioning, bathroom and with a balcony that had a spectacular view of the city. Unaware what the going rate for such an apartment was, I trusted Francisco had my back and signed a lease for six months, and signed my fate. In reality, Francisco didn’t have my back, and this place, this day, and this signature were together a ticking time bomb. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

I finally had my first shower since leaving Auckland and got my first classes ready for the following day. Francisco hadn’t told me anything about these classes, who the students were, how many there were, what level of English they were, or what was expected of this first lesson – but I assumed a general ‘breaking the ice’, ‘getting to know each other’ sort of thing was needed. The true extent of Francsico’s disastrous organizational skills, or rather the complete lack thereof, was revealed on this first day of classes, as a meeting with the other teachers took place that morning before the classes were due to begin. Us teachers didn’t know how the course was structured, what books we were using, the size and level of our classes, which assignments were expected or when – it was like Francisco was making it up as he went along.

But it wasn’t my job to orgainze the course, so I went with the flow and all things considered, my first day of classes and my first day in my new career as an English teacher went well. So did my first week; I gradually figured out what was expected of my classes, I got on well with the students and they seemed to like me, and I discovered just how much I loved teaching. I’d even made friends with someone, who I’ll keep nameless, who was also working in Zacatecas as a teacher. He would come to save my ass in the drama that would unfold in the coming weeks. He showed me around town and introduced me to his friends and I began making the most of being young, free, single, and relatively monied in a new and exciting place.

Zacatecas itself was beautiful and the lifestyle, full of wonderful music and food, was easy to get hooked on. I started writing the opening chapters of a new book. I went on a few dates. I visited the Museo Pedro Coronel, which was empty when I went one afternoon, giving me a private moment with walls of Picasso paintings and an exquisite piece by Salvador Dali. The only other person in the gallery was an old man asleep on a chair at the end of a hall.

The other teacher had been in Zacatecas since August and helped me with my Spanish and the general day to day stuff someone needs help with when moving to a new city. This was supposed to be Francisco’s job, but I was beginning to get the measure of this guy; always having to ask him to pay me and hearing stories from other teachers of his short temper. I began to notice more and more unpaid, last minute work cropping up; extra meetings, extra programmes, extra promotion of the school, etc., but I didn’t complain. I was enjoying life in Zacatecas.

The first serious crack, however, showed up a few weeks later when Francisco asked me into his office for a meeting, the point of which I’m still not sure of other than to tell me I was being “paid too much”. My hourly rate was 80 pesos an hour, just over US$4, and I was being given a food allowance of 500 pesos a week, though I always had to ask Francisco several times each week for him to actually give it to me. I told Francisco that I was sorry he felt that way but that was the deal his business parter in Utah, Jared Rhodes, had made with me before I’d started working for Fluency First and that any changes to this deal could cause a problem. Francisco lost his infamously short temper, refused to discuss it further with me because “you’re not listening”, and said that he needed to talk to Jared in Utah. I left his office feeling a little upset – and a lot concerned.

But everyone thinks their boss is a jerk, right? This wasn’t anything to be too worried about, right?

However, then the dream really started to turn into a nightmare when I got mugged one night outside my apartment building. I was walking home when some guy landed a solid punch square in the centre of my face. I’m pretty sure he broke my nose. In any case, I fell to the ground and he ran off with about 2,000 pesos out of my pocket. This kind of thing can happen in any city in the world – so I licked my wounds, laid low for a few weeks, taught my classes, and kept to myself. There were no cameras covering the part of the street I’d been attacked in and the police would never catch the bastard, so I sucked it up and let it go. Besides, there was a problem brewing which meant I couldn’t go to the police for help.

Despite telling me before I arrived and started working that he would arrange the visa I needed through the school, Francisco let it slip one afternoon that he’d done no such thing. I suddenly realised I was working illegally in Mexico. That night, I called the New Zealand embassy in Mexico City and asked them what I should do. Francisco owed me a large amount of money, so I didn’t want to simply leave in the middle of the night, but that was basically the advice from the embassy. They warned me that if the Mexican officials found out about my working illegally I could be detained for one or two months in jail and then deported. The amount I was willing to pay would probably determine how long I’d have to wait for a plane ride home. Fluency First would also get into trouble, but the only way I could ensure Francisco got into hot water too was if I was willing to go to jail myself as well. Catch-22.

So, I couldn’t turn to the police or immigration for help. Whenever I asked Francisco for my money, he always just said, “I’ll go to the bank tomorrow” – but he never did. It dawned on me that I was in a bad jam. I was owed money but had no way of getting it and I had to avoid the authorities. How the hell had this happened? I had been so distracted by moving to a foreign city, starting a new job, and learning a new language that I’d fallen into a serious trap.

But things were about to get a lot worse.

I came home to my apartment one day and noticed my iPod and cash were missing from my desk. I checked the doorframe and noticed a chunk of wood was missing from around the lock. I’d been robbed a second time. Despite this robbery coming without any physical harm, it was altogether more unsettling than the first – someone had been in my room and I had no idea who or when. I contacted the building owner, Jaime, and told him what happened. To my surprise, when he arrived 20 minutes later, he had the missing piece of wood from my door in his hand. He told me he’d smelt smoke coming from the room a few months before I’d arrived and needed to break in to make sure there wasn’t a fire. I’m not stupid; it struck me as unusual. I was immediately suspicious of Jaime, but as the apartment was always pitch black in the hallways, I couldn’t be 100% sure this piece of wood hadn’t always been missing. “Besides”, I thought to myself as Jaime was talking to me, “Why would a landlord break into one of his own apartments? Wouldn’t he just use a spare key? It’s not like there’s cameras in this building, it would be the perfect crime.”

Anyway, seeing as Francisco had landed me in a position of not being able to go to the police for fear of being detained and eventually deported, I decided an iPod and a few hundred dollars wasn’t worth risking my neck over. I asked Jaime if I could change rooms. He took me to a much smaller but slightly cheaper and probably safer room. He still charged me the full rent of the other apartment, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to be out of there, and this room didn’t have a toilet that leaked sewerage.

However, a few days later, my friends found out about my situation and were aghast to learn just how much rent Jaime had been charging me. It was double, nearly triple, the usual price. I was furious at Jaime, but even more so at Francisco – I’d moved to this city, this country, to help out his school for $4 an hour and this was how he was repaying me. I began formulating plans to move cities and change schools, but I was really enjoying Zacatecas; I had friends here, I’d been dating a beautiful woman named Gabriella, I loved my students, and found working with them to be really rewarding.

Despite everything my shady boss and landlord had done to me, I didn’t want to leave Zacatecas.

It was around this time that I began to suspect that it had been no accident that Francisco had shown me to this particular building and that I had been robbed from it. Other than suspicions, however, I had no proof. But my friends remained alarmed with my situation. They’d had similar problems with this extortionate landlord – even getting a lawyer involved when they ended their lease early because they didn’t feel safe there and Jaime had demanded months and months of rent paid as a ‘fee’. The lawyer described Jaime’s leases as legal garbage, having simply typed them up himself in Word, not numbering the pages, not providing copies to tenants, and operating outside of the law.

It was only a matter of time before this perfect storm of bullshit exploded completely and utterly, and on the morning of the 25th of February, only some eight weeks after I’d arrived in Mexico, I woke to discover I’d been robbed a third time, this time in my sleep. Someone had come into my bedroom, presumably with a spare key, while I was asleep and had taken my laptop, my phone, my credit card, my driving licence, my cash, my sunglasses – even my electric razor. They’d gutted me of virtually everything valuable I owned. All I had left were my clothes, my camera (which they can’t have seen, it being protected by a good luck charm I’d been given in Hiroshima in 2016), two pesos, and – thankfully – my passport.

But I had no way of contacting anyone, no way of buying a bottle of water or anything to eat, and no way of getting the police to help. I walked around the streets in a daze, sitting outside on the curb for an hour or two, desperately trying to figure out what to do next. I went back inside and knocked on my friend’s door but there was no reply, he must’ve been out somewhere. I began to panic when I realised the only way insurance would help me recoup some of my losses was if I had a police report – but I was too worried about being put in Mexican jail to go and get one. I had no idea what to do.

In the end, I approached a traffic cop, hoping they’d be the least likely to enquire of my immigration status, and asked for help. I told her I’d been robbed and needed help contacting my friends and family. She helped me contact a local friend of mine, Jose, who drove down and collected me from the side of the road. I reasoned that if I could get Jose to do the talking at the police station, telling him to ask for a police report and only a police report, then maybe I’d get away without further prying into my immigration status. Thankfully, at the police station – my plan worked and I got my police report.

Now, as much as it broke my heart to go, I needed to get the hell out of Mexico. My parents organized a flight home for me, but before I could go I needed my money from Francisco and my remaining stuff from Jaime’s building. I decided to get my money from Francisco first, but when I asked him to pay me, he lost his temper again, swearing at me (“Fuck you!”, “Fuck off!”), demanding I pay Jaime this absurd amount of money as a fee (in the clearest sign to date that they were old buddies), and even punching me. If it wasn’t such a pathetic punch, I probably would’ve returned it with a proper one, but I really didn’t want to get arrested so I simply walked out of Fluency First without fighting back.

With the help of my friends, I managed to sneak my belongings out of Jaime’s building and together we all went back to Fluency First. Jared, Francisco’s business partner, was thankfully in town from Utah and was easier to deal with. Aside from assuring me that Francisco “really is a great guy”, he did promise to pay me the money Fluency First owed me.

I spent the next few nights at my friends’ house and got my money from the school the day before I was due to fly out. They wanted to photocopy my passport before paying me but the last thing I was going to do was hand these people my passport. It was sad to say goodbye to my friends and to this beautiful city, but I was glad to be going. I needed to wake up from this nightmare. My only regret was never finding out Gabriella’s last name, so with my phone stolen I lost the ability to contact her and never got a chance to say goodbye. I hope that someday she finds out what happened what to me.

Then, the last hurdle was getting through customs at the airport without any questions about my two months in Mexico and what visa I had been using. It was a nervous wait as the customs official took my passport away to “check something” with his supervisor. I stood at the gate and tried to distract myself with my Spanish copy of The Lord of the Flies (El Señor de las Moscas). Luckily, when the official came back, it had simply been a matter of verifying that my ESTA Visa for the United States was indeed attached electronically to my passport.

A brilliant sunset dropped behind the desert in the distance as I walked out of the terminal and onto the tarmac. My last breaths of evening air in Mexico. My heart was broken into a thousand pieces – I loved Mexico and didn’t want to go. Flying away, the scattered desert towns illuminated in artificial light below, spread across the black velvet of the night, appeared to me to represent all the broken shards of my heart, flung far and wide across the desert.

I didn’t truly feel safe until we were flying low over the gargantuan sprawl of Los Angeles. It struck me that it was always nighttime in Trump’s America, dark, with thick black ink blotting out the sky. I thought of Shakespeare’s “Unto the kingdom of perpetual night”.

With 11 hours to kill in Los Angeles before my flight back to Honolulu, retracing the steps I’d made only eight weeks earlier, I decided to get a cab to a nearby bar to do some writing, have a drink, and meet some of America’s characters. The cabbie reeked of marijuana and I think I caught him mid-smoke, so he was happy to oblige my request to “take me somewhere nearby”, whereas most taxi drivers in LA will only take you to a specific address. He ended up taking me to a bar called ‘Melody’s’, about ten minutes down the road from the airport.

The first person I struck up a conversation with was a woman studying political science at UCLA. She asked me what the political scene in New Zealand is like and I said, “Well, there’s an unmarried pregnant woman in charge. She’s also young, and liberal, and probably an atheist, but nobody really cares enough about that to ask.” The look this young American student gave me, her whole lifetime probably being told America is the greatest democracy in the world, was one of total disbelief. “Any one of those things would bury an American politician”, she said, flabbergasted, “But you have a Prime Minister who is ALL of them?!”

I later met someone else, his name was Devon. I told him what had happened to me and he cracked up laughing, “You stupid fuck! What did you go to Mexico for? There’s a difference between being humanitarian and being an idiot!” I liked his candid approach. We shared a drink and then I figured I should probably go back to their airport. When I got to the Hawaiian Airlines check-in desk, however, it was still four hours away from opening, so I tried to get some sleep on a nearby row of seats. A few hours later, a cop woke me up, “Is this what they do in New Zealand, fall asleep and miss their flights?” I thanked him for waking me up and he said, “C’mon, go home.”

Some hours later, I was in Hawaii again, and some hours after that I was in Auckland. I crashed the night in an airport hotel before flying to Wellington the next morning. One hell of a surreal trip finally coming to an end.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot I can do to Fluency First from here in New Zealand. I’ve had a meeting with the Mexican embassy and told them my story, hopefully beginning a process whereby the school will be investigated by the Mexican authorities, but other than that – the bastards pretty much got away with it. To think, all I wanted to do was teach English and learn Spanish. The only other thing I can do is blog about them, spread the word and warn others to avoid them. One of the books they’re getting the students to read, even though it’s absurdly difficult for someone learning English, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is often misquoted as saying something which seems relevant to this situation, regardless of who actually said it:

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

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