I suddenly felt nauseous. The classroom’s lime-green tiles washed with afternoon light reminded me of a bathroom. I turned away from my students, grabbing at the windowsill where the dried-up whiteboard markers rested cap to end. The ceiling fan churned; outside, a car horn bellowed, followed by the call, more a lament than a sales pitch, ‘Aguaaaa, aguuuuua’. I sat down and waited for the nausea to pass.
It was 2011 and I was living in a tiny town in Mexico’s Jalisco state. My plan had been to teach English for a year and then return to New Zealand better prepared to teach secondary Spanish.
I was rapidly falling in love with the school’s computing teacher: a charismatic local with a deeply sensitive side. He visited me that afternoon at my request. I was living in a small room attached to the main school building; there was nowhere to sit except the bed, so I stood. I remember the way the light entered through the flyscreen, making the air look dirty.
My Spanish was barely good enough to explain the situation, but my shaking hands and pale face conveyed its seriousness: I was pregnant, and not to him. I had had a two-week fling with a friend of my boss and now I was pregnant in Mexico, where abortion is illegal, except in cases of rape and, sometimes, life endangerment, in all states bar one; in a couple of those states, abortion is punishable by prison sentences of up to thirty years.
I expected him to storm out, to never speak with me again, but he surprised me. First, by telling me he would support me in whatever I did, and then by explaining Mexico’s abortion laws (I hadn’t even thought about that). He encouraged me to continue with the pregnancy, reassuring me that he would be there for me. Although I liked him a lot, I was certain this promise wasn’t true.
The town I was living in was traditional, its denizens devout. They thought abortion went against God’s laws. It dawned on me that I would be utterly alone.
I confided in my friend, a receptionist at the school. She was deeply kind, with lively green eyes. I once heard a man compliment her on them and then ask, ‘Son tuyos?’ – ‘Are they yours?’
She told me, quietly but firmly, that she was against abortion, but that she would ask her mother what to do.
I phoned my own mother, not knowing what to expect – judgement, perhaps. But then I remembered the time I crashed the family’s car into our garage after a fight with my sister; my mother had been the voice of reason. And when I raged as a teenager, my mother always understood. This time, she told me to do whatever I thought was best and offered me any money I might need.
I searched online and found a clinic in Mexico City, where abortion is legal. The next day, concerned I would not understand something fundamental, I asked my receptionist friend to call and book the appointment on my behalf. In a low voice, my friend declared her opposition once more, and then she dialled the number.
Upon my friend’s advice, I booked a ticket to Toluca airport. She had never been out of Jalisco and didn’t realise that Toluca was an hour from Mexico City. Even that didn’t throw me: I had resolved to do whatever it took.
Mexico City has such a negative reputation that none of my friends or colleagues could fathom my travelling there alone. Some doubted I would return. If you go out after dark, you will be killed, I was warned. I hated those stories, but what did I know: I had never spent time there.
I was so focused on my end destination – the clinic – that I barely noticed anything on the flight. As we descended, I caught glimpses of a city stretching relentlessly, cloaked in its secretive smog.
The bus from Toluca was full and steamy. Hillsides appeared to slip under the weight of colourful concrete boxes: oranges, pinks, aquamarine, baby blue. We will never get there, I thought to myself. Three hours later, the bus pulled up at a brick hotel far from the city.
I got a quote from a taxi driver who would not look me in the eye. Ten minutes into the drive, after an exchange of small talk, he doubled the fare. I feigned being pissed off and he shaved fifty pesos off the price.
We eventually arrived at the clinic. He insisted I had the wrong address, but I brushed his concern aside, claiming my friend’s place was just next door. Finally, he drove off. My appointment was the next day and I wanted to be sure I knew the clinic’s exact location. After that, my brilliant plan was just to walk until I found a hotel. After six blocks in the heat, I realised that was a stupid idea. Wild-eyed, I found a shop and asked in there. I was determined not to cry.
At the clinic, everyone had sympathetic eyes. I was smiling from relief that I had made it this far. Two succulents in white pots wilted against a frosted-glass window, while flies sizzled on a purple zapper on the wall. I flicked through magazines, trying to be mindful of the other patients’ right to privacy. The staff seemed to think it terrible that I was on my own, but I didn’t mind. I was moved to the next waiting room and invited to gown up. While in there, I heard screams welling up the stairs, followed by sobs and a deep, soothing murmuring. I thought about asking, but decided it was best not to.
The event itself began like a relay of moments: descending steps of consciousness until all was black. Afterwards, I felt so ill I had to keep my pain huddled close and not move. I waited for hours, flicking through magazines again. When I felt better, the clinic receptionist checked where I was staying and whether I had someone to take care of me. She gave me the number of a taxi company. I tried calling while she finished her shift, but no cars were available.
The clinic was closing and I still hadn’t booked a taxi. I wasn’t concerned; I had conquered the worst part. The receptionist returned and told me my hotel was on her way home. She drove me back in her little car and we laughed like old friends.
Later in my hotel room, dining on spongy submarinos (the Mexican version of a Twinkie) and a cup of milk, I reflected on how it was the women who had saved me. There was my receptionist friend who, despite her beliefs, had phoned the clinic on my behalf. Her mother, too, had come by, checking to see if there was anything I needed. My own mother had provided warmth and comfort. And now this incredible stranger, who saw another woman in need and took care of her.
In Mexico, abortion rates are 40 per cent higher than in the United States or Australia. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual and reproductive rights, 45 per cent of clandestine operations in Mexico’s rural areas require medical attention due to complications; these women can very rarely afford basic medical treatment.
There has been a government initiative to provide free family planning across Mexico since the 1970s, but such programs rarely exist in poorer and predominantly indigenous areas, particularly in the south-east of the country. Poor women in Mexico have been prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment for decades after stillbirths. (The test undertaken as evidence that the baby was born dead involves submerging the foetus’ lung in water: if the lung floats, the baby is considered to have been born alive; if it sinks, it was stillborn.)
That was not my story. I was fortunate, perhaps because I was a tourist. But I think about those women a lot.
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