Mexican guidebooks have a lot of rules. Mimi and I have given up on most of them. I’m not-quite divorced, but I’m separated enough to be restless. No-one will be stuck looking after me if I get sick; no-one has to get a call from the embassy in the middle of the night. Most of the rules sound like they’re by and for nervous tourists. I’m a trapeze artist. This is country #38. I am not fragile.
Do not eat street food, it may make you sick. Avoid all dairy products as they may not be pasteurized.
But the pushcart vendor pulls roasted ears of corn off a little grill, scrapes the kernels into paper cups with crema, cotija and lime. The next cart has churros in paper cones. We eat street tacos, sitting on low plastic stools at the Christmas market outside the cathedral.
It is forbidden for foreigners to be part of demonstrations. Avoid large crowds.
Strapped to the roof of my Camry is a bundle of hot-pink poles that build a 22-foot tripod, below which we perform aerial silks and acrobatics and fire-eating in any town where the policemen smile at Mimi’s second-year Spanish. She and I have been street-performing together for four years, but this is the first time we’re a team of two, the first time we’re going wherever we want, no festivals booked, no lodging stipend, no idea where we’re allowed to set up. So far, it’s going OK. We’ve eaten fire in Monterrey and Texmelucan, done the whole show in Guanajuato, and learned that in Mexico, street performers pass the hat before the finale. We learned this by collecting the crowd’s money and watching them not leave. So we did our regular finale twice.
Do not take pictures of policia, federales or border guards.
Mexican states have hard borders, with checkpoints and sandbagged sniper nests. Every time, Mexican cars are waved through and we are pulled over. We can’t figure it out – they always start half-heartedly searching the car, then stop dead at the box of tampons (now we know where to hide any cocaine).
In Tabasco, we’re waved to the side once again, and a cluster of guards with strong Mayan profiles gather around our car. An officer asks my name – not so much “show me your papers” as “heyyyy.”
The guard rooting in the trunk finds my bullwhips. In the show, I do trick cracking and target-taking, and the popping sounds draw more audience, too. The border guards speak urgently to Mimi, who turns bright red and refuses to translate. She attempts to get the guards on track. Do you want to see our tourist permits? Our passports? They ask if we are married, if they can take a picture, if that one can lift me in his arms.
Never argue with a guy carrying a submachine gun.
The guard comes up to my shoulder, the assault rifle strapped to his back at my eye level. He scoops me into his arms, and his fellow guards line up to snap with their phones. I crack the whip a few times. We pass out bottles of water, repack the trunk and drive off into the jungle, the guards calling after us.
“They want us to meet them at a club in Ciudad del Carmen tonight,” Mimi explains. “What he said earlier was, ‘Tell her I want her to do bad things to me with the whip.’”
Now we know. We’re getting stopped because the border guards are bored. Merry Christmas, guys.
I retired from performing in 2015, and these days, I follow a lot more rules. I use the crosswalk. I don’t rush into the middle of crowds that might be a coup. I give officials with guns a wide berth. I’m not afraid for me. I’m still not fragile. But I think of how sad my now-husband would be, spending Christmas without me, how it’s not just about my bravery any more. How caring for him, allowing him to care for me, means sometimes stepping back and watching, keeping safe, taking care of the wife he loves.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats (rebirthyourbook.com). Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on NPR and CBC-Canada. Follow her on Instagram for travel and writing stories instagram.com/guerillamemoir.
As a constant world traveler, Allison reduces her carbon footprint by not having a child, and contributing to Planned Parenthood so that other people can also make a choice that’s right for them.