Monday, August 18, 2008

Mexican Time

I'm not the most, um, punctual person.

Those who know me best know that I'm usually about 30 minutes late to most social functions. In Chicago, my tardiness was usually met with a rolling of the eyes or a chuckle. In Japan, where "on time" actually means "10 minutes early", my relaxed sense of time didn't always go over so well. But here in Mexico, I usually fit right in. After all, they don't call it "Mexican Time" for nothing.

But, three weeks in to my new life here in Sinaloa, I'm noticing that "Mexican Time" takes many different forms. For example, upon signing my lease with my landlords about two weeks ago, I was told that I'd be able to settle into my apartment "in a couple of days." They wanted to paint the walls for me, they said. They wanted to replace a few broken panes in the windows, they said. Don't worry, mi vida, it will be ready, they said.

One week later, I went to check on the apartment and was welcomed with piles of rubble on the floor. Literally. Chunks of concrete. The little touch-ups that were supposed to take just a couple of days had turned into a full-on construction project. They were replacing ceilings. They were refinishing walls. They were basically destroying the place, and then building it back up again from scratch.

I finally moved in yesterday, about two weeks late.

Gotta love Mexican Time: A Friday deadline for the electric company to turn on the lights really means Wednesday of the following week. A promise to open a bank account on a Tuesday actually means Friday, two weeks later. Stopping by at 8 p.m. really means waking me up at 11 o'clock at night. I've learned to just laugh and roll with it. I think of it as payback for all of the times I've kept somebody else waiting. If that's the case, I've got a lot more "Mexican Time" coming my way.

But a curious thing happened today: Reverse Mexican Time. I'd ordered internet service for my apartment, and the company said they'd send the technician out to install it at 6 p.m. on Thursday. Now, never did I expect anyone to actually show up at that time -- I'd penciled in 8 p.m. into my schedule for Thursday, thinking that I was finally catching onto the way business is done around here.

So imagine my surprise when the technician knocked on my door at 2:30 this afternoon. It's Monday, y'all. He was four days early!

Of course, I was on my way out the door to head to work (I was at home for lunch, my blissful two-hour siesta time). I had to wait for him to complete the installation. It made me late for class. But I guess that's just Mexican Time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Guilt Trip

So I'm feeling a bit guilty after the slightly negative (yet extremely cathartic) blog entry I posted yesterday on my chatterbox students. Why?

Well, I just wrapped up my 7 a.m. class. Usually at that hour, when daylight has barely even broken here in Culiacán, the students are half-asleep and, thus, fairly quiet. I relish it.

Unfortunately, the "Friday Factor" cancelled out the usual tranquility today. Under normal circumstances, the noise would grate on my nerves. But this morning, one student presented me with an ice-cold bottle of Coca Light (the Mexican version of Diet Coke), ostensibly his version of the proverbial kiss-up apple for the teacher.

The kid knows me well, and I've only been his instructor for two weeks.

His little ploy worked: I nursed that bottle through our 90-minute class, and let all of Coca Light's goodness -- the artificial flavoring, aspartame, bubbles and caffiene -- take me to a happy place. A far away, quiet, happy place. There's nothing like a cold Coke at 7 a.m.: The class went off without a hitch.

But now, as I'm coming down from my caffiene buzz, I'm having second thoughts about yesterday's harsh blog entry. These students are not so bad. Just keep feeding me the Coca Light, kiddos, and we'll get along just fine.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shut up, por favor!

I am beginning to realize that, as a teacher, I was quite spoiled in Japan.

Now, the school itself didn’t present much in the way of luxury: the building looked like something out of Communist Eastern Europe, freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Each day, I joined my students for our requisite cleaning time, which involved me scrubbing the long hallways on my hands and knees. The classrooms weren’t wired for Internet. The facilities for extracurriculars were located out in a rice paddy. And I had to squat to pee.

Contrast that with the bells and whistles I have at my school here in Mexico -- air conditioned offices, technology-filled classrooms, well-manicured tennis and basketball courts, palm trees, and my very own laptop -- and one might think that I’d hit the jackpot, work-wise.

But that’s not quite the case: Let’s just say that my Mexican students are a little more, uh, verbose than my Japanese students were.

The Japanese kids were the epitome of politeness. They started off every class with a cheerful “Good Morning!” and a bow. They were absolutely silent during class, and always raised their hands when they wanted to talk. When granted permission to speak, they would stand up, push in their chairs, say their piece, pull out their chairs, and then sit back down. If students ever spoke out of turn, they suffered the wrath of their homeroom teachers’ castigation in rapid-fire Japanese. The verbal assault was enough to scare even me into silence, and I didn’t even understand most of what was said.

Now, I realize that, for a variety of reasons, the Japanese scenario could never exist here in the Americas – North, South or Central. But I’d certainly get a kick out of seeing how long my Mexican students would last in a Japanese school. I’d place my bet on about five minutes, because the kids here never seem to shut up.

I'm not having this problem because I'm the new kid on the block here. Even the school's veteran teachers complain about their chatty students. But I hate being that teacher, the one that is always crabby and yelling and shushing. So, this week, I took what I thought was the high road, a creative approach: I asked the students to write me a letter with advice about how they thought I should keep the class quiet.

Their responses were interesting, even chuckle-provoking: Several suggested that I bring tape to cover offending students' mouths, and some thought that I should make talkative students run laps around campus or do push-ups in front of the class. One even advised that I administer tranquilizers! Some apologized for being loud, and many seemed to sympatize with me, including one who closed her letter with this piece of advice:

“Take care, and patience, teacher, you are going to need it.”

Yikes. Guess I will have to bring some duct tape next week.

Friday, August 8, 2008

There's more than tomatoes in Culiacán

Google "Culiacán, Sinaloa" and you'll likely come up with an article on either tomato cultivation or drug trafficking. I've joked with my new Culichi friends that, upon arrival, I was expecting to be served nothing but 'maters by folks who were full-time narcotraficantes. And this has proved to be kind of half-correct. While I haven't met any narcos (yet -- fingers crossed that this remains the case), the city definitely embraces its tomatoes: Their picture graces the license plates here (it literally puts the 'o' in 'Sinaloa'), the local baseball team is named the 'Tomateros' (seriously), and grocery stores overflow with bright red bins of 'em at dirt-cheap prices.

But a visit last weekend to a little piece of heaven called Nuevo Altata proved all of this wrong: There's definitely more than tomatoes here. Nuevo Altata is a stretch of still-mostly-virgin beach located just an hour from the city. There's even a beach-front restaurant that serves up an absolutely divine fried fish, caught right from the Pacific, adorned with a delicious, um, tomato salsa.

So some stereotypes die hard. But the beach is beautiful. Just thought I'd post a picture in case you needed motivation to book your tickets to come visit me...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Public Relations

Turns out Dora and I have something in common besides our mutual love of raspados: we both used to work in Public Relations.

Except that my version of PR was the useless kind. Before I saw the proverbial light and became a full-time teacher, my job was to pitch (read: hawk) stories on products -- ranging from sausage to vodka to encyclopedias -- to TV news producers and newspaper journalists who had much better things to do than take my phone calls when they were on deadline. I spent most of my 60-plus-hour workweek beating my head against the wall.

Dora, on the other hand, worked in relaciones públicas, which I have learned is much different than my version of PR. Relaciones públicas is an art, and Dora is an artist. She worked as a receptionist at a bank, and later at an office for one of Mexico's political parties. In this capacity, her job was actually to relate to the public (read: navigate her way through Mexico's infamous bureaucracy on behalf of her customers). She has long since retired and made it her full-time job to spoil her three grandchildren (and me), but her PR skills are still sharp.

This afternoon, Dora called the light company on my behalf. I'm planning to move into my new apartment this weekend, and need to get my utilities up and running. I stood by while she made the phone call, so I can only speculate as to what really transpired on the other end of the line, but I imagine it went something like this:

Dora: Good afternoon, I need to open a new account please.
Light Company Guy: Okay, we need 48 hours to process your order.
D: But we need the lights for tomorrow.
LCG: I'm sorry, ma'am, but there's really nothing I can do.
D: Listen, honey, what is your name?
LCG: Julio.
D: Julio, sweetheart, here's the thing. The account is for a foreigner. From the United States. And you know we need to be nice to people from our neighboring country, don't you, dear?
LCG: (Long pause) Uh, yeah...
D: So how late do your crews work tomorrow?
LCG: Until 8 p.m.
D: Well, see? There's no problem then. That's almost 48 hours from now. So we'll have the lights for tomorrow, right?
LCG: But we need 48 hours...
D: Did I mention that this foreign girl is really cute? She's beautiful. You can't even imagine...
LCG: But we need 48...
D: Oh, Julio, she's really cute! And you haven't even seen her yet. Just imagine! So lights for tomorrow then? Perfect! Thanks so much, Julio, my dear!

Dora hung up and smiled at me.

"You'll have the lights for tomorrow, mi vida."

What can I say? The woman is good.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"...and you're (NOT) fat."

I've been in Mexico for just two weeks, and already I'm thinking that it's a better fit for me than Japan, which served as my home for the past year. Don't get me wrong; I loved my time in Japan and very much miss all of my friends there, but there's something about this place that just feels, well, right.

It's not just that I speak Spanish a heck of a lot better than I speak Japanese. Or that I like tortillas better than rice. Or that I can actually, you know, read here. Literacy is a good thing.

No, it's much more superficial than that: It's because I'm not fat here in Mexico.

A bit of a back story is required. In Japan, I was a giant, blonde, XL-sized-clothing-wearing gaijin woman who often induced open-mouthed gaping when I walked down the street. The fact that I am much bigger than the average Japanese woman (and, let's be honest, the average Japanese man as well) was once reinforced to me by, of all people, a rather large guy from Miami whom I met in Osaka. We'll call him "B." On that ever-memorable evening, B took me out for drinks, chatted me up, and showered me with compliments ("Sara, you're really cute, I like your personality, and you have a great sense of humor..."). I was eating it up.

And then B broke my heart.

"...and you're fat!" he said.

And then, realizing he'd really f*cked up, B tried to spin it as a good thing.

"...and I like that."

Dude had obviously been in Japan too long. Maybe he should come on down to Mexico to get a reality check. Here in Culiacán, I'm surrounded by curvy women and well-built men who actually weigh more than I do. It's fabulous.

And there are little esteem-boosters everywhere. Like on the bus.

The bus system here in Culiacán merits a blog entry of its own. As I don't have a car here, I rely on it to get around town, and each ride is an adventure. Buses here cost about 50 cents (USD) and are well worth the money in entertainment value alone. For example, on my way into work this morning, I boarded at 6 a.m. The sun wasn't even up yet, but there was a full-on party inside the bus. The interior was dark, lit by blacklights on the ceiling. The driver had installed a serious bass system, and had banda music blaring through the speakers. A strand of Christmas lights adorned the front of the bus, surrounding a spray-painted plaque that said "Martín" (I'm assuming this was the driver's homage to himself). The lights were wired to flash in time with the bass of the music.

It was absolutely hilarious.

I cursed myself for not bringing a camera to caputre the insanity. (Instead, I've stolen a picture of a Mexican bus from elsewhere on the web and have posted it here. It's more or less true to life.) And I cursed myself again this afternoon on my bus ride home from lunch. I wasn't on Martín's bus, so the spray-painted plaque was replaced with something else. It was a different sign, completely random, but seemingly a message made just for me:

"Ni eres gorda tú."

Translation: You're not even fat.

Ha! Take that, B! God, I love Culiacán.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

¡Locas por los raspados!

Those who know me best know that I have a slightly, um, addicitve personality. My vices mostly have to do with sweets: I am practically a walking billboard for Diet Coke. I am obsessed with gummy bears, gummy worms, gummy sharks...the list goes on. And I have been known to chew an entire pack of Wrigley Winterfresh gum in one sitting.

I am not alone in these seemingly-benign addictions. I once worked with an entire office of women who were also hooked on Diet Coke (and my sister calls it the "Nectar of Life"). I have developed fast friendships based on mutual love of gummy candy (you people know who you are). And, when I lived in Chicago, home of Wrigley, I often had trouble finding Winterfresh because it sold out so quickly. Addicts, unite!

As of this week, I can add a new addiciton to the list: Raspados.

And I can add a new kindred soul to my list of fellow addicts: Dorita.

Raspados are a kind of snowcone a la mexicana, made with fresh fruit, real fruit juice, tons of sugar, and, yes friends, ice cream. As luck would have it, some of Dora´s neighbors sell raspados from their front porch. They´re dirt cheap: 12 pesos (about $1 USD). And the stand is BYOC (Bring Your Own Container). The raspado boss, Irma, fills the container, provides a straw and spoon, and sits and chats with customers as they sit on her stoop and slurp away happily.

Dora introduced me to raspados on Tuesday. We walked over to Irma´s, armed with some small plastic containers. Irma filled our cups. I slurped and smiled as Dora presented me to the crew of neighbors assembled around the stand, thinking that a raspado could be a nice treat every once in a while.

But "once in a while" quickly turned into "everyday."

Dorita, who I now know to be a closet raspado addict, drew me right into her web of addiction. On Wednesday, she convinced me to go to Irma`s again. On Thursday, I suggested the trip. And by Friday, I had tried every raspado flavor on the menu. The cups we brought with us gradually grew from small to jumbo (yesterday, Dora busted out two liter-sized containers, which Irma still filled for 12 pesos). After a liter of sugary raspados, we were both completely wired, busting into fits of raspado-induced giggling late into the evening.

We had become addicts, and Irma was our enabler.

Thank God that Irma is going on vacation next week. The raspado stand will be closed until mid-August, and Dorita and I will begin to detox. And we have made a solemn pact to try to control ourselves when the stand does finally re-open. Only one per week. We`ll see how long that lasts.

In the meantime, there`s plenty of Diet Coke here in Mexico...