Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sick of Being Sick

I could swear that I’ve had the swine flu about 46 times since April, which is when the international media started with their oh-my-God-we’re-all-gonna-die sensationalism, if I recall correctly. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m no hypochondriac. It’s just that the common cold seems to pack a pretty big punch here in the mountains, what with the elevation and dramatic temperature changes and all. On any given Huajuapan morning, you can wake up seeing your breath. By noon things have heated up and you’re sweating, peeling off layers of clothes to get to the tank top you’ve cleverly worn under two sweaters and a scarf. Come nightfall and you’re back to shivering under the covers. It takes a while for a gringa gal's immune system to get used to this stuff: Where I come from, it’s either really, really hot or it’s really, really cold, but it’s not both.

These frequent, climate-change-induced colds usually have me so worn down that I’ll swear it’s H1N1. I’ll suck down orange juice and Thermaflu and plan out the monster blog I’ll write about experiencing the phenomenon that may just have replaced donkey shows and getting mugged on the Mexico City metro as the quintessential Mexican experience of our time: The Swine Flu.

“Bravely Battling the Swine Flu in Oaxaca, the Place Where it Supposedly All Originated.” By: Sara Mac, the Gringa Culichi. Has a nice ring to it, right?

But after a few days the symptoms are gone, I’m back to normal, and life goes on. No swine flu. No blog. No glory.

This last time, however, the sick symptoms lingered a bit longer, prompting me to buy an extra-large “freshly” squeezed orange juice from a guy with a cart on my way to work one morning last week. The plan was to blast it all away with a massive dose of Vitamina C, but the quotation marks surrounding “fresh” are foreshadowing for the result: I had to battle some nasty stomach issues – not nearly as “sexy” as the swine flu for blogging purposes – supposedly brought about by bacteria in a bad orange.

By noon, I had to excuse myself from/run out of a meeting at work and barely reached the restroom, where suffice to say, the results weren’t pretty. I won’t be drinking orange juice again anytime soon.

I went home sick and I vomited and shivered and sniffled alone in my apartment that entire afternoon, cursing my misfortune. Why, oh why, couldn’t it be the swine flu? H1N1 would at least have given my suffering a higher blogging purpose, or maybe have even scored me an interview on FOX News, if not just guaranteed me sympathy from my friends back home.

But no, I had to go and get food poisoning from bloody orange juice. Who wants to read about that? (Apparently you, if you’ve made it this far.)

Mexico, however, is almost as synonymous with stomach issues as it is with swine flu, donkey shows and muggings on the metro. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that a full 40 percent of foreigners' travels in Mexico are interrupted by Montezuma’s revenge. In fact, I’d argue that stomach-based maladies are the tie that binds all of us expats living in Mexico. We’ll talk to each other about our pooping and puking in Mexico just as naturally and openly as we would discuss the weather or sports or Sarah Palin’s running shorts back in our home countries.

(At this point it becomes opportune to mention The Tablecloth Rule, which has never failed me, except for the few times I’ve foolishly broken it. The Tablecloth Rule says that when eating out in this lovely, bacteria-ridden country, if you only dine in restaurants that have tablecloths on the tables, you won’t get sick. Just steer clear of tablecloth-free street stalls and, um, men selling juice on carts. Lesson learned.)

At any rate, the good news is that, with such a high rate of ‘em, Mexico is used to dealing with foreigners’ stomach issues. The routine is so common that you don’t even have to leave your bed to get help: I sent a text message to a local doctor (he also happens to be a friend) who came to my apartment, poked around on my stomach, made the orange juice diagnosis and wrote me up a prescription for a cocktail of pills that would make it all go away. I then sent a text message to a local pharmacy who packed my pills into a nifty plastic bag, sent it via boy-on-motorcycle to my apartment, and – 15 bucks and 15 minutes later – I was pumped full of pills and feeling much better.

The doctor wouldn’t even take my money for the house call. Instead, I’m going to treat him to a “thanks-for-helping-me-stop-puking” lunch tomorrow.

And you better believe that we’ll be going to a restaurant with tablecloths. I’m not messing around with this food poisoning stuff anymore. The next time I get sick, I’ll be going down in an H1N1-fueled blaze of glory. Stay tuned for the blog, faithful readers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Big Plain, Deep Freeze

If Mexico were a Rorschach test, one of those psychological exams that measures your responses to ink blots to determine if you’re crazy or not, common associations might include “taco,” “cactus,” “sombrero,” and “hot.”

Hot. Hot. Hot.

The land of deserts and chiles is not exactly known for its frigid temperatures. After all, the ever-stereotypical Speedy Gonzalez never wore a scarf and gloves, did he? And what would be the point of having Spring Break here if the drunken, bikini-clad hordes of college students had to cover up with a parka?

But there’s nothing like familiarity to break down stereotypes: The more time I spend in Mexico, the more I realize that most of the tried-and-true ideas we gringos have about this place simply aren’t true. I’ve never seen a sombrero-clad man take a siesta underneath a cactus, for example. I’ve quickly learned that there’s more to eat here than just tacos and chalupas (Taco Bell, like Speedy Gonzalez and Cinco de Mayo, is really just a gringo creation, the manifestation of years and years of misunderstanding our Southern neighbor). Not everyone has a pet Chihuahua (okay, yes, some do). And – oh yeah – it’s not that hot here.

Actually, it's downright cold.

Especially when you’re 3,200 meters (that’s a mile high, y’all) above sea level in a town called Llano Grande (Big Plain), Mexico’s own version of Boulder, Colorado. Except that the Mexican version has just 92 residents, none of whom seem to have discovered the virtues of central heating, despite the fact that the average temperature of the place hovers somewhere around 45 degrees.

But Llano Grande, tucked away in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountain range, has its perks: Beautiful landscapes, for example (see above). Clear, clean rivers. Delicious locally-grown food. Snow. (The Chicagoan in me still thinks of “snow” with the same distain I hold for other four-letter words, but it is somewhat of a draw for Mexicans.) Zapotec culture. (Llano Grande is one of a system of a dozen or so Pueblos Mancomunados, a series of mostly-indigenous mountain communities that have teamed up to preserve their collective 180 square miles of forest, and all of the natural resources contained therein, while promoting sustainable tourism to the area.) And quaint, brick cabins, tucked away in pine forests.

At this point, I should add that the quaint, brick cabins come equipped with a quaint, brick fireplace, meant to combat the quaint, brick design that has the disadvantage of trapping in cool air, making the interior downright frigid at night.

Upon entering our cabin late on Saturday night (those sinuous mountain roads take some time to traverse) and literally seeing our breath indoors, my travel companion and I decided it was time to fire up the fireplace. He helped me load kindling and logs into la chimenea, and we had a decent blaze going before he left to look for some dinner n’ mezcal (what better way to warm up?), leaving me in charge of feeding the fire and warming the place up before he got back.

Clad in a knit cap and three sweaters, I squatted next to the fireplace, dutifully adding logs to the flames, waiting for it to begin to heat the place so my fingernails might appear slightly less blue. The feeling was familiar, the stuff of waiting for the train on elevated, wind-whipped platforms of a frozen February in Chicago, or of shivering in the icy bathroom of my thin-walled, space-heated Japanese apartment, waiting for my toothpaste to thaw so I could brush my teeth.

Little by little, the cabin warmed up enough for me to be able to peel off a couple of layers of sweaters. I smiled, thinking how warm n’ cozy the place would be for my novio when he came back with our dinner.

Twenty-five minutes later, and I heard my novio’s car pull up next to the cabin. The heat had made me sleepy, so I greeted him with droopy eyes and a big bear hug. But instead of settling down by the fire next to me, he tore around frantically opening doors and windows.

¿Qué diablos estás haciendo? Why the [insert choice explicative here] are you letting the cold back in?

Smoke had filled the room. Nearly drunk on the heat (and CO2) produced by the fire, I hadn’t noticed the swirling grey clouds billowing above my half-asleep head: The chimney was clogged.

It was too late to ask the Llano Grande guys for help. We’d have to air the place out and let the fire die down, despite my protests of cold.

We hurled ourselves into the bed, buried ourselves under a sheet, three thick blankets provided by the Llano folks, two more covers that my novio had the foresight to bring, plus a bedspread that we pulled off the top bunk of the bunk-beds in the corner of the cabin, waiting for oxygen to replace the carbon dioxide in the room. When the last wisp of smoke had left the cabin, we hurriedly closed the windows, bolted the door, and shivered ourselves to sleep.

At some point in that frigid, ink-black night, I woke up, teeth chattering and half-frozen. A beam of icy moonlight stretched across the cabin, up onto the bed, and shone right into my eyes.

The front door of the cabin was wide open.

We hadn’t bolted it properly. No wonder we were frozen.

If I had to take a Rorschach tomorrow, I’d probably be institutionalized: While most people associate frozen blue agave margaritas with Mexico, the mention of the place conjures up the memory of my frozen blue nail beds. Just as Speedy Gonzalez, Cinco de Mayo, and Taco Bell’s 99-cent Value Menu simply don’t exist in Mexico, neither does heat.

Coming to Mexico? Better pack your parka. And a couple of extra blankets.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen to your gut

The apartment looked like it had served as the set of the toilet scene in Trainspotting. (For those Gringa Culichi readers who have not seen Trainspotting and, thus, have just been spared a very disturbing visual, suffice to say that the apartment was less than pleasant). But for a mere $400 USD a month, it could have be mine, in all of its cockroach-infested, urine-fragranced, windowless glory.

I was apartment shopping because I was contemplating a move. And I was contemplating a move because I had temporarily been wooed by the bright lights of the big city that is Mexico City (and that’s big with a capital B-I-G as Mexico City is the third-largest urban sprawl on the planet). Even a cursory glance at my past blog entries will reveal that I’m a city girl at heart, and deeper investigation into the number of times I’ve referenced my homesickness for Chicago or my frustrations with my $38-dollar-a-day-job and country-bumpkin living here in the small mountain-top town of Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca offer further explanation as to why I’d consider such a relocation in the first place.

So when the job offer rolled in -- and when the job offer included couple more zeros at the end of the number on the paycheck than what I currently see here in Oaxaca -- I could hardly control my enthusiasm. I bought my bus ticket to Mexico City. I’d go to check out apartments and to meet my future co-workers. I’d go to feel out what my new life would be in El Distrito Federal (that’s DF locally, for what translates to Federal District in English, which is what people-in-the-know call Mexico City).

I’d be a city girl again. One of those hip chicas who call the place DF instead of one of the schmoes who call it Mexico City.

My mind was humming with the possibilities and my heart was pounding with excitement. But my gut was less than convinced. And because I refused to listen, it was forced to scream: YOU'RE SELLING OUT! All that noise stirred me out of what semblance of sleep I was able to garner on the seven-hour overnight bus trip. But I blocked my gut's message by turning up my iPod, chalking up the unsettled feeling to carsickness.

Luckily, when a girl isn’t smart enough to listen to her gut, the universe steps in to steer her in the right direction. Despite the fact that I spent the entire weekend trying to fall in love with DF, I kept bumping into Oaxaca in the strangest of places.

There was the gardener who greeted me at the door at the fancy-pants apartment buildings I’d made an appointment to see on Saturday. Waiting for the realtor to show me the place, I struck up a friendly “where ya from?” conversation with him. He wasn’t just from Oaxaca -- nope, I never would have caught a sign that subtle from the universe -- he was from La Mixteca, the region where I live, from a town that’s right next door to Huajuapan, as if such proximity were possible in a place where mountains place two-hour barriers between “neighborhing” communities. I asked him how he liked DF. He shrugged as he looked down shyly -- or maybe it was sadly? -- and poked at the dirt with his shovel. After ten years, he said, he “was still getting used to it.”

Later that day, en route to a coffee date with a future co-worker, I got lost in the maze of streets that criss-crossed the metro stop I’d stumbled off at. All of the streets were named for delicious, glamorous big cities: Londrés (London), Tokio (Tokyo), Praga (Prauge). But I was unable to find my desired address on the swanky Hamburgo (Hamburg) because I was lost, wondering around on -- you guessed it -- Oaxaca Avenue. I’d take the wrong exit out of the subway. Or had I?

The final straw came when I stopped to buy a pair of earrings from a street vendor I came across when I finally found my way to Hamburgo. The earrings consisted of colorful turquoise shapes painted on some sort of natural material -- not quite wood, not quite shell -- so I asked about their origin. The material, of course, was from Oaxaca, which, though unsolicited from yours truly, prompted the vendor to tell me how much he loves Oaxaca. That he thinks Oaxaca is one of the most beautiful places in the country. That he would leave DF in a second if he could find work in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca. Oaxaca. Oaxaca.

Listen, amigo. I’ve just come from Oaxaca. I’ve been wondering around on it for the past hour. Or, rather, I’ve been wondering around IN IT for the past year. There’s nothing for me there! Please, please. PLEASE, just let the city girl come home.

I wanted to shake him and yell at him and attempt to reason with him. But the earring vendor had spoken. And so had the universe.

Lest this blog entry begin to eerily resemble the super-cheesy plot line from Serendipity or sound like it was ghostwritten by Paulo Coelho or those new-agey people from The Secret, let me get back to my Trainspotting experience. The next day, Sunday, I marched -- my newly-acquired Oaxacan earrings dutifully dangling from my lobes -- into the aforementioned so-disgusting-it-provoked-my-gag-reflex-upon-walking-in-the-door apartment located off a busy intersection in downtown DF. This apartment represented what my DF life would be: dank, dark and dirty, full of 6-day workweeks and 90-minute subway commutes to teach English to spoiled rich kids and corporate suits. DF may wine and dine you under its sparkling bright lights, but this apartment, dimly lit by a single, naked light bulb flickering from the cracked ceiling, revealed its dark underbelly.

It’s ironic that I had to go all the way to Mexico City to buy earrings I could have just as easily bought in Oaxaca. And it’s also ironic that I had to go all the way to Mexico City to realize that the good life was actually back in Oaxaca.

I won’t be moving to DF, and, therefore, I won't be chic enough to call the city "DF." So, correction: I won't be moving to Mexico City. Call me a schmoe. But at least my gut will finally shut up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Meet the Fockers (à la Mexicana)

There’s nothing like spending a Sunday night in a cemetery.

With your Mexican boyfriend.

And his entire extended family.

Meeting a significant other’s family is always a bit awkward. There’s the anxiety of making a good first impression. Of hoping they like you. Of remembering new faces and names.

Throw in the twist of dating a Mexican, and you do all of the above en español while attempting to juggle cultural differences with an extra-large extended family that includes, like, 36 aunts and uncles and at least 467 cousins: Do you offer Tio Martín a handshake or kiss on the cheek? Do you address thirty-something Prima Lupe in the formal “usted” form or use the more familiar “”? How do you react when nearly-deaf, 85-year-old Tia Josefa can’t understand your gringa accent?

And then there’s the issue of location. What could be more comfortable or natural that doing all of this in a cemetery at 11pm on a Sunday night?

But that’s par for the course here in Mexico. This time of year, families get together to celebrate El Día de los Muertos (that’s Day of the Dead), so what better opportunity to introduce your gringa girlfriend to the crew than when everybody’s together anyway?

And that’s exactly how it went down in a tiny cemetery on top of a mountain somewhere in rural Oaxaca this past Sunday. Mexican families believe that the spirits of the departed come back to visit the living on November 1 (it’s known as All Saints’ Day en inglés). Since they only come around once a year, Mexican Hospitality says you’d best make ‘em feel welcome, with elaborate altars in homes (packed with flowers, candles, pictures, food and beverages of choice) and all-night vigils at the cemetery, where families take turns tending the gravesites with flowers, candles, food and music.

Where I come from, cemeteries are usually somber places, evoking scenes of cold November days with brittle, leafless trees and sobbing widows at grey gravesites. But in Mexico on Day of the Dead, cemeteries are carnival-like, with music and crowds, cumbia-blaring speakers and vendors hawking tamales and pozole and atole right outside the cemetery gates.

So what better place than a cemetery to meet you boyfriend's father's sister's daughter's daughter, whose name you forgot thirty seconds after it was told to you, because you were whisked away to meet your boyfriend's mother's sister’s second cousin's son?

And what, exactly, does one talk about over the graves of the dearly departed? The universal awkward-situation conversation topic – the weather – doesn’t always translate to Mexico, because, let’s face it, it’s sunny and beautiful here all the time. And frankly, it seems a little trite to be comparing precipitation trends in Chicago and Oaxaca when you’re supposed to be honoring the memory of Abuelo and Abuela, who are resting for eternity just below your feet.

Given all of this awkwardness, it is strange to admit that I actually enjoyed the experience? My novio’s family was warm and welcoming, offering me lots of hugs and kisses, and it’s-so-nice-to-finally-meet-yous. They streamed into the family’s capilla throughout the evening, piling yellow and white and purple flowers on the gravesites and lighting candles. We chatted about NAFTA and master’s degrees and beach vacations. And later we noshed on hot chocolate and sweet bread.

If meeting extended family in a cemetery is normal in Mexico, I can only imagine how out-of-place my novio must have felt when I took him to my uncle's house in Central Illinois for a good ol' red-white-n'-blue fish fry this past July, inflicting my cousins and uncle and grandma on him all at once. Perhaps this whole meet-my-entire-extended-family-in-a-graveyard-at-midnight thing was his form of revenge.

At least I got some hot chocolate out of the deal. All he got was fried bass and a Bud Light-induced hangover.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lila & Lateness

When they said the concert would start at 9 pm, I knew it wouldn’t start at 9 pm. Though Mexican Time still continues to mystify me (like it did here and here and here) I’m not naïve enough to think that an event would actually – gasp – begin at the advertised time.

So when we heard that Lila Downs – a Mexican singer who’s somewhat of a heroine ‘round these parts, born in a tiny town called Tlaxiaco to a Oaxacan mom and a gringo dad, verified as a star after her appearance in the movie Frida a couple of years ago and subsequent Oscar – would be playing a rare concert in her hometown at 9 pm on Friday, we jumped at the chance to go. I’d take off work at 6 pm giving us plenty of time to drive the two hours to Tlaxiaco and arrive for the show.

A week ahead of the event, the media hype began. Tlaxiaco, a town of about 17,000, wouldn’t have the infrastructure to support the onslaught of concert-goers that Lila would bring. Speculation ran wild, with estimates of 4,000 people expected to descend on the tiny town with only 1,000 hotel rooms.

You’d think the Beatles were coming to play live in the the Mixteca. We booked our tickets early and managed to reserve one of those precious hotel rooms.

We left Huajuapan at about 6:30 on Friday in anticipation of a great night. We’d arrive in Tlaxiaco by about 8:30, giving us time to check into our hotel, get to the concert, and maybe even grab a beer before the show. The concert wouldn’t start at 9 pm. We had plenty of time.

But we didn’t expect getting stuck in mud along the pothole-plagued mountain highway on the way to Tlaxiaco. Nor did we anticipate a parade to be blocking all of the streets when, mud-covered, we finally rolled into town – late – at 9:15 pm. We also didn’t budget for the 30 minutes it would take to reach our hotel, which wasn’t in Tlaxiaco at all, but well on the way to the next town over, across streets snarled with traffic and bits of broken parade float.

We arrived at the concert around 10 pm. Apparently Lila had gotten the message about the delay, too, because her fancy-pants truck pulled up the same time we did, allowing me to snap the fabulous “hey there, adoring fans, I’m arriving fashionably late just like you” picture above.

We were right on time. I’d finally outsmarted Mexican Time! We smugly got our tickets, found our seats, and exchanged pleasantries with the people sitting around us (who had arrived at 9 pm – suckers! – don’t you know about Mexican Time?). And we waited.

And waited and waited and waited.

We waited through as the roadies – in all of their black-hoodied coolness – untangled wires on stage. We waited through the sound check-check-check. We waited through the warming-up cacophony of the saxophone, the drums, the harp, the bass guitar and a banjo – all competing to be heard over the piped-in pop en español soundtrack designed to cover up all the noise.

10:30. 10:45. 11 o’clock. 11:15 pm.

We waited as throngs of later-than-us-but-actually-more-on-time people arrived and smugly took their seats.

Suckers! Don’t you know about Mexican Time?

At 11:30 pm, Lila finally took the stage. There is really no way to put the impact of her music into words. Suffice to say that her smoky, goosebumps-inducing voice, coupled with her kaleidoscopic Mixtec dress, made the wait completely worthwhile.

At 1 am, the concert concluded, and I, after happily violating the concert produers' no-photo policy by taking about 300 pictures, dutifully filed out of the hall with throngs of octogenarians and eight-year-olds alike, all of whom had braved the late hour to see their hometown hero. Where I come from, these folks would have been fast asleep at that time.

So, while I’m convinced that I’ll never understand Mexican Time, I’m also comforted by the fact that I’m not alone.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I have a thing with weddings.

No matter what I do, I always seem to be late to ‘em.

There was the time in Chicago where I got stuck in traffic and then subsequently lost in traffic. When I finally frantically rushed into the ceremony, nearly an hour late, I realized that I didn’t actually recognize anyone in the sanctuary. Turns out I was at the wrong wedding in the wrong church.

The next summer, there was a wedding up in Milwaukee. Heavy traffic out of Illinois caused a bit of a lead foot crossing into Wisconsin, so it was no surprise when I got pulled over for speeding. With a $250 ticket crumpled into the glove box, I pulled up late to the wedding anyway.

There’s nothing like opening the doors in a church, interrupting a wedding ceremony that’s already in progress. The sound of creaking door hinges and the glare of the beam of sunlight you invite inside simultaneously turn the heads of the dozens of already-seated, smugly-on-time guests. They all want to check the identity of this offending Late Person. Does she belong to the groom’s side or the bride’s? Their eyes follow you -- the clack-clack of the high heels you painstakingly picked out to match your dress embarrassingly echoing through the sanctuary -- to see which side of the aisle you sit on. You sink into the pew in shame, catching the glare of at least one of the members of the Bridal Party, if not the Bride and Groom themselves.

About a month ago, I was invited to attend a wedding here in Huajuapan. I thought Mexican Time would be on my side for this event, that there would be a possibility of actually arriving on time, since “on time” here in Mexico essentially means “60 to 90 minutes late.”

Unfortuantely, my date/ride, in true Mexican fashion, was more than three hours late to pick me up. (FYI, three hours late is very, very late, even by the generous standards of Mexican Time.) Together, we faced the embarrassment of arriving at the reception just after the meal had been served. The entire party of 200-plus guests looked up from their nearly-clean plates to gawk at the strange, tall gringa clack-clacking her way to be seated at the unadorned, fold-out table in the corner. We were served cold macaroni-and-hot-dog salad for dinner because they’d run out of the real stuff.

It felt like sitting the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Until you learn to act like a grown-up -- chew with your mouth shut, get along with your little sister, arrive on time to things for once -- you’re relegated to PB&J sandwiches at the card table in the kitchen while everyone else is eating drumsticks in the dining room.

So, this Saturday, when a friend invited me to his Big Day here in Huajuapan, I saw it as an opportunity to redeem myself with the Wedding Gods, particularly those of the Mexican variety: I wouldn’t rely on the graces of Mexican Time for this wedding. I’d just try to arrive, well, on time for once.

On Saturday morning, I studied the ceremony start time listed on the invitation: 12 o’clock noon. Time doesn’t get lost in translation.

I nagged my date -- the same guy who’d inflicted the three-hours-late incident on me -- to be ready early. We were leaving at twenty-to-twelve at the very latest. I wasn’t going to suffer that kind of embarrassment again. ¿Comprende?

I nagged him when we left late, at 12:15, because he'd forgotten to sign the card and couldn't figure out what to write. I kept nagging him when we inevitably got lost on the way to the ceremony. (How do you not know where to go? Aren’t there, like, three streets in this whole town?) And the nagging continued as we pulled up to the event, a full forty minutes late.

At 12:40 pm, the familiar feeling of dread churned in my stomach as I played the inevitable scenario in my head: the opening of church doors, the interrupting of sermons, the clack-clacking of high heels, the eating of cold macaroni and hot dogs…

Hand-in-hand, we crept up to the wedding site (it was an outdoor wedding, so there were no doors to be open, gracias a Dios) to find…

…a handful of inpatient-looking people scattered in the audience, a maintenance crew still setting up the priest’s podium, and the band doing their ever-essential check-check on the stage.

The impatient-looking people in the audience looked up, gawked at the strange, tall gringa, and followed the clack-clack of her high heels to see where she sat: Bride’s side or groom’s side? Who arrives this early?

The groom himself showed up at 1:30 pm.

Additional guests began filing in around 2 pm, and the ceremony began at about 2:30.

Right on time, y’all. We, obviously, were just 2.5 hours early this time around.

The bride’s sister arrived at about 3 pm.

Her late arrival turned a few heads, but her high heels didn’t make a sound.

I hated her for that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Idealism is Dead

I’ve had a strange feeling swirling in the pit of my stomach lately. And I don’t think it’s the street-food induced amoebas that have been swimming there since yesterday.

No, this feeling has stuck around for a while. I think it began in Guatemala, in April, when I was there to “vacation” (and, by “vacation,” I mean “get ripped off left and right by the rats that run the Guatemalan tourism industry”) and it seems to have come to fruition in Mexico City, last week, when I was attending a United Nations conference (with my clean suit in tow, thank you Rocco brothers).

The strange feeling seems to be emptiness. There’s an emptiness in my stomach, deep down in my guts, a void that this lovely notion called “idealism” used to occupy. This may seem strange coming from a girl who has just come back from a three-day United Nations conference, but...

My idealism is dead.

I’m tempted to add an “at least for now” loophole to that last sentence, but that would seem a bit, well, idealistic, don’t you think? (My idealism may be gone, but apparently my sarcasm is alive and well.)

This “idealism is dead” declaration will come as a surprise to those who know me best. I’m the girl who, in 1998, upon graduating from high school, wrote that she wanted to be “working in the jungles of Guatemala” by the time her 10-year reunion rolled around. And I’m the girl who, just one year ago, found herself standing in the middle of a bar in Mexico City, on the verge of tears, apologizing on behalf of her US government, to the applause of the entire drunken crowd, for all the wrongs the gringos had done to our Latin American neighbors.

Now, I’m not working in the jungles of Guatemala, but I am working in the mountains of southern Mexico. Close enough. Regardless of geography, I’m living in a place where I am constantly being made to feel like I have to apologize for my US citizenship. And that has gotten really, really, REALLY old.

I’m going to just come out and say it: Mexico’s problems are not my fault. Nor are they (entirely) the fault of the United States government. And as long as the collective blame-directing fingers of my host nation keep pointing north (or toward me), Mexico’s problems will continue.

(The picture I’ve chosen to illustrate this passage provides a case-in-point. These Obama-mask-clad Mexican farmers took the streets in downtown Mexico City last Tuesday, brandishing a sign that read: “If the politicians treated us like they treated Obama, this country would be different.” The farmers had been denied a meeting with the secretary-of-something-important, and this same secretary had met with Obama when he was in Mexico this summer. I understand the farmers' frustrations, but seriously, what does Obama have to do with it? He, after all, didn’t elect Mexico’s corrupt politicians. And neither did I.)

There. That felt good.

Now before you go thinking that I've abandoned my liberal world views or have gone all -- gasp --Ugly American on you, know that I do think Mexico (and most of Latin America) has gotten the raw end of the (big) stick that is US foreign policy. It’s absolutely ridiculous that many of the world’s poorest nations share the same hemisphere with the world’s richest.

I (still) believe, idealistically or not, that this disparity needs to change. That’s why I’ve spent the last year of my life teaching in the proverbial trenches (those of you familiar with Huajuapan de León might agree with this analogy) to try to level that playing field a bit. But when I leave the warm, fuzzy cocoon that is my classroom and venture out into the streets, reality chips away at my idealism.

Before I left for Guatemala in April, a Mexican friend told me to watch out for the ratas de dos patas (that’s “two-legged rats,” e.g, thieves) that he believed plagued the lands of his neighbor to the south. Turns out, that friend was right. Those “two-legged rats” managed to milk me for my every last quetzal during my time in that country.

I should have better heeded my friend’s advice. But regardless, I’d argue that the ratas de dos patas aren’t limited to Guatemala. There seems to be quite a lot of them in Mexico, with an especially large concentration right here in my home state of Oaxaca, a state which also happens to be, arguably, the poorest in the country. These rats, thinly veiled as politicians, subsist on tax revenues and drug money (occasionally laundering it through the construction of a hospital, to be staffed by their best cronies upon completion), while the communities in their charge literally wither and die (there’s no money for water, after all).

I met a man who works for the Mexican Secretary of Education in a hotel bar in Mexico City last week. My increasingly-strong feelings of disillusionment, lubricated by the beer I was drinking, slipped right out of my mouth and into what was supposed to be a friendly conversation. He’d told me that his mother is from Oaxaca, from a small town in the marginalized region of the state where I live and work. The mention of his mom’s roots prompted the wrath of my blame-directing finger, which I pointed squarely at him, asking why he didn’t personally make sure that Oaxacan schools had more resources.

He politely replied that -- actually you silly gringa -- Oaxaca receives one of the biggest slices of the federal education budget of all the 31 states in this country. The problem, he explained, seems to be making sure that the cash actually gets to the schools, seeing as how Oaxaca’s famously-corrupt government takes it upon itself to “distribute” the funds.

With that being said, I stuck my blame-pointing finger in my pocket, and then shoved my proverbial foot inside my already-open mouth.

This Mexican government staffer is no more at fault for all of Oaxaca’s problems than I am as a U.S. citizen. But it’s human nature to want to place blame. So the Ugly American in me is tempted to shift that blame back on my Oaxacan hosts themselves for their complacency, for condoning such corruption.

I’d say that Oaxacans need to get out in the streets and protest the corruption in their government, but many are doing that already, in the form of infamous “teacher strikes” that actually have nothing to do with teachers and are hurting the fragile tourism industry here. I’d say they need to get out and vote for a new administration, but many are unable to do so, given that polling places mysteriously become “unavailable” in certain communities on election day.

So we’re back where we started: The easiest solution seems to be to blame the big, rich, neighbor to the north. I used to do this with mucho gusto, until I became its scapegoat and realized that this whole finger-pointing thing is really quite counter-productive.

While we’re all pointing fingers, the corruption continues. Ain’t nothin' gonna change, amigos.

An acquaintance recently asked me why I didn’t just throw in the towel, move back to Chicago, and marry a rich banker. (She was asking the question rhetorically, as she’s as much of a bleeding heart as I am.) The thought is tempting: Why do I stay here, making $38 USD a day and beating my head against the wall, planning English lessons in an under-resourced university for students who will eventually graduate and become a part of the society that blames me and my government for all of their problems?

Perhaps the loss of idealism, much like the network of fine lines that creeps across my once-fresh face every day, is an inevitable part of getting older. But the longer I spend underneath the oppressive Oaxacan sun, the more accelerated both processes seem to become.

To all of this, on the eve of Mexican Independence Day, I must add a very cynical but equally sincere "¡Viva México!"

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Laundry Wars

About a year ago, I fled a drug war in Culiacán, Sinaloa. In doing so, left behind armed guards at the grocery store, stray bullets in the streets, patrol choppers roaring over my apartment, and, yes, a washing machine.

Oh, how I miss that washing machine.

Huajuapan doesn’t have a drug war, per se, but doing the wash here is a battle all of its own.

It’s not for lack of lavanderías, however. Lavandería roughly translates to “laundry mat” but isn’t a laundry mat at all, at least not by my standards. Instead, a lavandería is where clothes go to die.

For 14 pesos a kilo (that’s about 50 cents a pound), you can drop your clothes off, and someone will “wash” and “dry” them and tell you when you can come by for “pick up.” Those unaccustomed with Mexican laundry mats are likely cursing my good fortune about now: Having somebody else do your wash for you certainly seems like a good deal.

Unfortunately, laundry service here is definitely an example of getting what you pay for: “Wash,” in a lavandería, means “soak in filthy water, throw in cheap soap, beat against rocks, stretch beyond recognition and then splatter with bleach.” “Dry,” in turn, means “blast 100% cotton garments in a heat that guarantees they shrink at least two sizes.” Finally, “pick up” means that you can come by for a bag of clothing that may or may not be your own, which means that somebody else walked off with your favorite black tank top and the green swimming suit that will be impossible to replace in Mexico because most Oaxaqueñas are 18 inches shorter and three sizes smaller than you are…

But I digress.

It took me a while to find a lavandería I could “trust” here in Huajuapan. I sacrificed several pairs of jeans, a least 30 socks, and the aforementioned tank top and bikini to the proverbial laundry gods before I found Lavandería Rocco, a laundry mat owned by two brothers that’s about a block away from my apartment. Over the months, we’ve struck a deal: I become their customer for life, and in turn, they don’t shrink, lose, stain, steal or otherwise ruin my clothes.

The Rocco brothers’ service is good, but not without drawbacks: As a small, family-run business, they’re often closed for days without warning, meaning that they’ve held my clean clothes “hostage” in their shop for the better part of a week in the past.

Their knack for being closed when I need them most has only worsened in the past weeks now that Lolita has gotten sick. Lolita is their dog, a mix of poodle and rat that they like to torture with pink sweaters and matching hair bows.

(One of the Rocco brothers is very effeminate, often greeting me with crimped eyelashes and a hint of mascara and lip gloss. The other couldn’t be more opposite, walking around shitless to show off the collection of tattoos on his chest. I think I know who Lolita belongs to…)

Just this morning, I dropped off nearly three kilos’ worth of laundry with the tattooed brother, and asked about the dog (I’m concerned about poor Lolita’s health, but my underlying motive was to know if the lavandería would be open on Monday. I’m leaving for a UN conference in Mexico City next week and need clean clothes to take with me).

He said Lolita was doing OK, and apologized for the many trips to the vet that had kept him from opening the shop. I smiled, wished him and Lolita the best, and said I’d call him Monday if the shop wasn’t open. (Yes, I have the lavendería’s number saved in my cell phone. That’s they way it’s done here in Huajuapan: Text us if you’d like, we may or may not respond, and you may or may not get your clothes this week.)

I then walked over to Huajuapan’s one and only tintorería (dry cleaner) to drop off my one and only business suit in preparation for said conference in Mexico City. I haven’t had much use for the dry cleaner here, seeing as how I haven’t had much use for my suit (my jean-and-t-shirt clad students wouldn’t know what to make of me if I came to school dressed so formally). I smiled as I approached the counter, presented my suit, said a silent prayer that it wouldn’t come back to me three sizes smaller and covered with bleach, and asked the girl when it might be ready.

“Next Saturday.”

My eyes widened. It takes a week to do drycleaning here? Are you serious? Clearly, I had been spoiled by same-day service in Chicago.

Time for Plan B. I quickly scanned the garment tags, which indicated that the suit could be machine washed in cold water. I hurried back to Rocco’s, hoping that they’d be able to clean it for me before I left for Mexico City on Monday.

When I got to the lavendería, it was closed. Damn it!

I shook my head, silently assessing my remaining options to get my suit clean in time. Did I take a risk with another lavandería in town? Wash it myself in my bathroom sink? Attempt to buy another suit somewhere in Huajuapan?

Suddenly, I heard someone call my name. The Rocco brothers pulled up on a motorcycle, the tough, tattooed one driving, the eyelash-crimped one riding on the back with Lolita and her pink bows in his lap. It was all I could do not to laugh at the scene.

The Rocco brothers are going to wash my suit for Monday, in theory.

Here’s hoping that Lolita’s feeling better next week. If not, here’s hoping that the United Nations doesn’t mind a blue jean-clad gringa serving as a panelist.

Monday, August 17, 2009

La Dentista

It wasn’t exactly a vacation, but my Mexican dental experience was pretty darn nice, all things considered.

What with the debate on healthcare in the United States these days, there’s been a lot of talk about border runs to Mexico…not of the Spring Break variety, but of the medical variety. The trend is called Medical Tourism, or Medical Vacations, and the rationale is that you can get yourself fixed/cured/face-lifted/treated/boob-jobbed/whatever for a heckuva lot cheaper in the Philippines/Cuba/Malaysia/Mexico/wherever than you would in the good ol’ USA. And then you can take the money you’ve saved on your root canal or heart valve replacement and go sip fruity, umbrella-embellished cocktails on a beach somewhere in said country.

But my recent trip to the dentist didn’t come about in a pursuit to save money. Heck, when you’re earning in pesos, spending in pesos doesn’t exactly represent big savings. Instead, my dental experience came about rather serendipitously, as most things seem to happen here in Mexico.

I ended up at the dentist because I was apartment hunting on behalf of two new gringo teachers who will join our department later this month. Follow that?

The teachers need a place to crash, and it is my job to find them one. So I was wondering the streets of Huajuapan last week, looking for places for rent, when I came across a veritable goldmine: a sign advertising an entire building of furnished, rentable-by-the-month rooms located in “downtown” Huajuapan. The sign directed me to get more information…at the dentist office of all places.

So I wondered over to the closest dentist office to inquire. (If you’ll indulge the digression, I want to add that dentist offices are to Huajuapan as Starbucks are to Chicago…there seems to be one on every corner, and one wonders how there can be enough bad flossers/coffee drinkers around to possibly keep them all in business.)

Upon entering said office, I remembered that I, uh, hadn’t visited the dentist in over two years, given my globehopping tendencies and resulting questionable insurance coverage. So I inquired about a room for the new teachers and a tooth cleaning for me. Talk about a two-for-one-deal.

And there was good news and there was bad news. The good news is that both new teachers will have a place to live for the next month until they get their bearings here in Oaxaca. The bad news is that the cleaning revealed that I had a big, fat, ugly, black cavity in one of my molars.

(Yikes. Somebody needs to lay off the Diet Coke.)

So this morning, I requested off work to go see what all this “medical vacation” fuss was all about. I dutifully showed up to my dentist appointment, confident that I knew what I was getting into. How different could Mexican dentists be from American dentists? The dentist office seemed pretty standard: Olive-green chair. Soothing music on the CD player. Spit bib. Lots of scary sharp instruments lying around.

The dentist, a nice lady named Maria Inés, smiled reassuringly at me, pulled on her rubber gloves, and then said: “Well, if it’s OK with you, I think we’ll work without anaesthetic today, OK?”

Um, what?!?

Apparently, this is where the Mexican-dentist-versus-American-dentist differences began. Is this how these Mexican dentists keep their prices so low, by cutting out the numb factor, by hoping for patients with high pain thresholds?

I asked her if anaesthetic (or a bottle of strong mezcal) was available nearby if needed. She laughed, pulled on a face mask, and began drilling away.

Funny thing was, there was no pain. And there was no pain when the bill came either: The entire procedure cost 350 pesos, which is about $27 bucks in the United States. That’s just enough to cover the insurance co-pay for a dentist visit where I come from!

So, heck, the experience was so pleasant that it was almost like a vacation. The only thing missing was a couple of those fruity umbrella-embellished cocktails. But they’d probably give me more cavities, anyway, so it’s just as well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Taxis + Soccer = Social Chaos

Moms are still moms on Mother's Day. And dads are still dads on Father's Day. Teachers still teach on Día del Maestro (that's Teacher's Day, which is celebrated here in Mexico on May 15). Secretaries chug away on Secretary's Day. So why to taxi drivers get a day off on Día del Taxista, or Taxi Driver's Day, celebrated this past Wednesday?

Let me rephrase: It's not that they got the day off work, per se. It's just that they, um, don't work. And that makes getting around even a small town like Huajuapan pretty tough, seeing as how nobody has cars and how many of us work on top of a mountain and all. I live in the valley, and hoofing it up to the university takes the better part of an hour. But in a taxi, it's an easy, sweat-free ten minutes.

I usually have no trouble getting around via the collective taxis that will take folks up and down the mountain all day for the rock-bottom rate of four pesos (three cents USD). There are taxis patrolling the streets every morning when I want to go up to work, honking and flagging and clammoring for my business. The same holds true when I leave work in the evenings, though I usually choose to enjoy the mountain sunset by walking home.

Now there is some trickiness at lunchtime, when seemingly 1,500 university students, plus the teachers that teach 'em, all descend on the taxi stand at exactly the same time, each vying to get down the mountain to eat or run errands. And there's a high school up the road with another couple hundred kids that adds to the problem. But, even with that, transportation is usually pretty do-able.

Not Wednesday.

At lunchtime, all 1,500 of us were left stranded while the taxi drivers were downtown celebrating their Taxi Drivers Day. There was the decorating of the taxis. Then there was a taxi parade. And a special taxi mass at the church. Not that any of us got to witness these things, seeing as how we were all stuck on top of a mountain.

Now, I'm not complaining. Everyone needs a day off now and again. Everyone needs to feel proud of their work. If anything, Taxi Driver's Day is a reminder of just how much we depend on these folks. An 80s hair band put it best: "Don't know what you got 'til it's gone."

But there was a compounding factor on Wednesday: A hugely-hyped Mexico-versus-United States soccer match took care of what shred of civil order was left in Huajuapan. When I finally made my way down the mountain (thanks to a friend who had the foresight to drive to work) and we navigated our way through the confusion of balloons and flowers and taxis that clogged the main streets, I walked down my block to a scene that was equal parts ghost town and chaos.

Businesses, usually open for lunchtime customers, were closed and barred. The din of cheering and "¡GOOOOOOOOOOOL!" could be heard from inside these establishments, coming from what were likely groups of men crowded around foil-covered-rabbit-earred televisions, downing inapporpriate amounts of canned beer, seeing as how it was 3pm on a work day.

The few businesses that were still open had propped small, fuzzy televisions at the entrances, broadcasting the game and drawing large crowds of men, women and children that spilled over the sidewalk into the street. At one locale, an enterprising local had taken advantage of the situation, hawking ice cream to the sweaty masses.

By about 5pm, the USA's defeat and the end of the match left much of Huajuapan clamoring to celebrate Mexico's victory, looking for, uh, taxis to take them to their favorite watering holes. Come quitting time at the university, the combination of soccer game revelry and Taxi Drivers Day would have left us all stuck -- again -- save for some smart folks who rigged up their pick-up trucks to serve as ad-hoc taxis.

I chuckled as I walked down the mountain, as trucks with loads of uniformed high school students whizzed by me, their cargo crammed into the back like cattle. My university students whistled and waved at me from the back of their shuttle-trucks when they passed.

I guess I could pursue a back-up career as a taxi driver if this English teaching gig doesn't work out. At four pesos a head, I'd pay off a pickup truck pretty quickly. And it wouldn't be so bad to get my own parade every once in a while.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For the love of God...

I'm a little cranky today.

My sour mood might have something to do with the fact that, for two consecutive mornings, I've woken up at 5:30 am to fireworks being launched right outside my bedroom window.

Literally. I hear them hissing out of their tubes, see a flash of white through my still-closed eyes, and then -- one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi -- there's the giant boom overhead.

I have the rest of the scenario memorized. It doesn't change much day-to-day: The fireworks set off the alarms of seemingly every car parked up and down my block. Then the neighborhood dogs begin to bark and howl in response. The car-and-dog ruckus is soon drowned out by a single white truck that drives down the street with a giant loudspeaker attached to the roof. Then come the lines of musicians belting out live music. (Tuesday's musical stylings were performed by a mariachi band, and this morning's entertainment was acoustic.) There's another lap with the truck. And then, to wrap things up, there's more fireworks. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes. By 6am, I'm able to fall asleep again, only to have my alarm go off an hour later.

(The shoe store across the street, the one with the fantastically annoying talking car, opens up shortly thereafter, making for a peaceful, relaxing start to the day.)

This morning, upon hearing the first firework being launched, I groaned and stirred, sat straight up in my bed, kicked my sheets away in a mini-tantrum, and exclaimed out loud:


The ironic thing is, that's exactly the point of this whole crazy sleepless procession.

The fireworks are launched by church folks to make sure everyone's up and at 'em. The truck with the loudspeaker makes laps around the city's downtown district, belting out a prayer, pre-recorded by a woman with what possibly is the most monotone, annoying voice on the planet. (The thing is, the volume's cranked up so loud on the speaker that her voice gets distorted, nixing any possibility of actually understanding the prayer even if you weren't half-asleep and Spanish-impaired.) The musicians sing hymns. There's more prayer via loudspeaker. At the end, there are a few additional rockets, thrown in for good measure.

Now, I've blogged on these types of crack-of-dawn religious progressions before. There was the 4:30 am revelry that marked a celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe in December. I guess I should consider myself "blessed" that they've decided to push things back an hour this time. But you'll recall that I've since moved, and now I'm a block closer to the "celebration." The noise is so deafening that I hear it even through the hermetically-sealed windows of my new apartment. Yesterday, I even had the foresight to purchase earplugs. But they were no match for the rockets and car alarms and loudspeakers this morning.

Perhaps I'd be more tolerant and understanding if I understood the "point" behind this sudden religious fervor in the streets. But I've been too tired and cranky to muster the interest to ask which saint or virgin or whatever is being celebrated. My equally tired and cranky Mexican roommates are of no help, brushing the celebration off as the work of "crazy Catholics." (For the record, I don't think that Catholics are crazy. But I tend to think that anyone who shoots off fireworks at 5:30 am, regardless of religious affiliation, has a few issues.) And, again, I'll argue that the religious figure in question would likely be just as honored by a procession that takes place AFTER the sun has come up.

Rumor has it that the 5:30 am ruckus will go on every day until July 25. Luckily, I'm heading out of town tomorrow night, home to Chicago for a visit. I have just one more mornings of fireworks to look forward to. After that, it will be back to the Windy City, back to the soothing sounds of garbage trucks, police sirens and drunken Cubs fans fighting outside my window.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ants in My Pants, Vol. 2

As I spent the last weekend of June without shoes, it seems only appropriate that I would spend the first weekend of July without pants.

Let me explain. Shortly before heading to our would-be dry expat Fourth of July Party on Saturday, a friend and I paid a visit to Huajuapan's very own archaeological site, called Cerro de las Minas. The cerro (that's "hill" in Spanish) was once home to a Mixtec pyramid. (What better way to celebrate 'Merica's birthday than by tromping about on the 500-year-old ruins of a once-powerful indigenous culture? I'll let you sort out the irony.) Today that pyramid is really just a glorified pile of rocks on a pretty green hill, but, really, how many of you can say you live down the road from a former pyramid?

That's what I thought.

At any rate, we cheerily began our ascent up the hill on that sunny Saturday afternoon. Clad in flip-flops and jeans, we didn't exactly take the climb seriously. That is, until, my cerro companion, a local guy with a knack for all things Mixteco, spotted some ants marching along the grass.

"Be careful with those, they really sting," he warned me.

Now, where I come from, ants are little more than nuisances, invading the occasional picnic or unkempt kitchen. They're rarely cause for alarm. Little did I know that these Mexican ants, known as hormiga arriera, apparently emerge from the ground -- the depths of hell, as far as I'm concerned -- when the temperatures go up in the summer. Hormiga arriera translates to "leaf-cutter ants" in English (as per Wikipedia), which would imply that they're peaceful, plant-eating types of critters. Vegetarians, if you will. However, I quickly found that this was not the case: perhaps Wikipedia should replace "leaf" with "flesh" in the translation.

Flesh-cutting ants.

I apparently placed my flip-flop clad foot right in the middle of an hormiga arriera colony while attempting to take a picture of the piles of rocks on the pretty green hill (posted above). And, apparently, an ant climbed onto my flip-flop clad foot and right up my leg. And then, apparently, it got mad.

AGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!!! (I might have said something a bit stronger here, but this, after all, is a family-friendly blog.)

Fire pulsed from the back of my left thigh and quickly spread through my entire leg. I flounced around on my remaining good leg, howling in pain, tears stinging my eyes. I thrashed about at my jeans, attempting to kill the culprit, but instead, managed to merely scare it, causing that damn flesh-cutter to scurry further up my thigh and sting me twice more.

"For the love of God, Sara, take off your pants!" my hiking companion pleaded, doing a good job of feigning concern while smirking ever so slightly.

I quickly de-pantsed, leaving me standing at the top of Cerro de las Minas in my pink underwear, whimpering as my friend carefully turned my pants inside out, shook out the now-dead ant, and mustered his sternest face to keep himself from laughing out loud at me.

Never had I been so grateful that Huajuapan isn't exactly a tourist hotspot: We were the only souls on Cerro de las Minas that afternoon, so nobody saw me in my undies, except maybe for a groundskeeper who appeared about five minutes after the ant attack, presumably to see what the commotion was all about.

I'm still not convinced that the culprit was a hormiga arriera. Perhaps my cerro companion was simply pulling my (now-welt-covered) leg. However, if his story is true, avid Gringa Culichi readers will note that this is the second time that ants have attacked my pants in recent months.

It's a conspiracy, I tell you. And now I have the battle wounds to prove it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Booze and Politics

"Uh, we drink a lot. And then we light some fireworks."

That was my answer to Mexican friends' queries about how we gringos usually celebrate the Fourth of July up in El Norte. I was fielding these important cultural questions at an impromptu Independence Day party held this past Saturday held (indoors, due to lack o' yard space) by a fellow gringo for our little Huajuapan-based expat community. No better way to celebrate the United States' independence from England by chowing on potato salad and lighting sparklers (thus violating indoor fire codes -- you'll notice my terror above) with a handful of British a Russian, a Scot, an Irish guy and all of the Mexicans who love us.

But back to the booze. If I sound cynical, I'm not alone. An article I read recently on Slate summed up Independence Day as celebrating Americans' "freedom to drink outside during daylight hours," adding:

"Some of us will fish Bud tallboys out of an Igloo on the National Mall; others will knock back rosé on picnic blankets and applejack at backyard barbecues; still others will sip on a pint bottle of Cutty Sark on the same park bench as always. We are a diverse nation."

True that, true that. During my State-side tenure, I usually celebrated 'Merica by putting back a $12 bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz in Chicago's Grant Park.

But this year, in a very interesting juxtaposition, I celebrated one of America's drunkest days in a nation where a Ley Seca (dry law) was temporarily in effect. What's more, in another very interesting juxtaposition, this Ley Seca was in effect precisely for the reason we're supposedly so darn proud to be Americans in the first place: Democracy.

July 5 is Election Day here in Mexico. And, in efforts to make an infamously-corrupt election process a little less so, folks aren't supposed to drink. That means that no booze gets sold from midnight on July 3 through midnight on July 5. Ley Seca encourages corrupt poltiticans to be a little more creative in their vote-buying: A can of beer just won't do. Show the people the cash!

There's that cynicism again. But it's hard not to roll my eyes at the brand of "democracy" that is pushed down the throats of people here in Oaxaca. And I'm not implying that the US' brand is the solution for everyone, either. (We've got our own problems: Remember Florida and Ohio?) I'm here as an observer, not a prescriptivist, folks.

But again, I'm not alone in my cynicism. While media in the United States talked about boozing on Independence Day, the Mexican press has been a-chatter with fears that people won't even bother to vote. And that those do show up to their polling places will simply tear up their ballots in an act of defiance. For some, there's no point in "voting for the least worst candidate."

I live in one of the most marginalized areas in one of the most marginalized states of what most would call a "developing" country. Politics here is a heated topic. Three main parties -- the PRD, the PRI, and the PAN -- jockey for power. You'll usually have no trouble finding someone who will readily complain about one of those three parties; however, historically, the "most worst" has been the PRI -- the party that kept itself in power through little more than changing the name on the ballot for 70 years. Since 2000, the PAN has successfully put two men -- Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006 -- in power as president, and the PRD has developed strongholds in several Mexican states . However, Oaxaca remains "PRI Territory," at least if you believe all of the billboards that have cropped up in honor of this year's local elections.

And, if you believe the word on the street, Oaxaca is still "PRI Territory" because the politicians are extremely adept at manipulating all of the poor folks in this state. Friends say that votes are bought for as little as a can of beer, or -- slightly more optimistically -- sometimes for $50 pesos, which would buy approximately two beers.

This political mess is played out in the graffiti tagged all over of Oaxaca City, the state capital, a place I had the pleasure to visit on Sunday, election day. (Ironically, my mission in Oaxaca City was to purchase mezcal for an uncle who I will visit when I'm back home for a vacation later this month. The tourism-starved* woman at the mezcal store was more than happy to sell the booze to me, carefully coating the bottles in bubble wrap before placing them in an discreet black plastic bag. Take that, Ley Seca!)

Anyway, angry protestors (you may have heard a little something about the conflicts between the government and the teachers here in Oaxaca state, unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past, um, three years), in response to a recent bout of troubles, have decorated the walls of churches, offices and historic buildings with such uplifting messages as "¡PRI asesino!" (PRI murders) or "¡Ulises asesino!" (a crack at Oaxaca's governor, a member of the PRI party, whom I had the dubious honor of meeting in March).

Despite the all of that anger and graffiti, today -- the day after election day -- Oaxaca still remains "PRI Territory." The PRI took 11 of the state's 18 districts yesterday. In some areas, however, the PRI victory wasn't due to people tearing up their ballots or exchanging their votes for cans of beer. According to a national newspaper, " menos nueve mil 547 ciudadanos se quedaron sin votar debido a que no se instalaron 19 casillas en localidades que la autoridad electoral tenía señaladas como 'altamente conflictivas'" ( least 9,547 citizens remained without [the right] to vote because voting booths were not installed in 19 communities that electoral authorities had deemed 'highly conflictive'"). Several of those communities were right here in the Mixteca region where I live. Oaxaca's versions of Florida and Ohio, if you will.

So much for democracy. Depressing news like that kind of makes you want to knock back a cold one, right?

*Thank you, swine flu, drug war, civil unrest, and recession, for scaring away all tourists.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shoe Story

Up until last Saturday, I was the proud owner of a pair of amazing black sandals, known as chanclas here in Mexico. They were the perfect traveling shoes -- compact for packing purposes, comfortable for walking purposes, and flat for height-control purposes (I already tower over about 75 percent of the Mexicans I meet, so there's no need for high heels to exacerbate the issue).

Those shoes toured the streets of Culiacán. They climbed the pyramids of Teotihuacán. They crossed the border into Guatemala. So it only seemed natural that they'd accompany me to Vive Latino, a two-day music festival I checked out in Mexico City this past weekend.

So what if the shoes had gotten a little old? A little scuffed? So what if the soles had started to fall off? It gave them personality, man.

And that's precisely what made 'em famous.

So my fellow rockeros and I were sitting on a lawn, taking a breather between bands. Boredom must've set in (or maybe it was the beer), because my amigos started to invent a dialog about the concert, with the soles of my shoes doing the talking. This bout of maturity is perhaps best illustrated by photo 1, above.

One amigo -- we'll call him Miguel -- spotted a concert camera crew on the other side of the lawn and made a beeline for the videographer. His pitch, reported to me later, made this ex-PR girl proud:

"Hey guys, guess what? There's a funny gringa over there, and she has talking shoes!"

Imagine my horror when Miguel turned around, grinning mischieviously, and started walking back to our patch of lawn, accompanied by the camera crew. Given my protests about not speaking Spanish, the crew proceeded to interview not me, but my shoes about their Vive Latino experience.

Where were they from? What was their favorite band? Why had they come to the festival?

I giggled most of the way through the interview, picturing the reaction of my students back in Oaxaca upon seeing their ridiculous English teacher's shoes live on TeleHit. So my friends supplied most of the dialog, including the part about how the poor English prof couldn't afford new shoes because she'd bought concert tickets instead. Not so far from the truth. See photo 2, above.

The interview complete and my shoes' 15 minutes of fame firmly sealed, we headed over to the main stage to take in another band. We manuevered our way toward the front of throng of 19-year-olds surrounding the stage.

The music started.

Then the jumping started.

Then the pushing started.

And then I lost my shoes. My famous, talking shoes.

The chanclas fell off my feet with all the jumping, and then the crowd pushed me away from them. I couldn't bend down to search the ground for them for fear of being trampled. I was getting stepped on. I was in pain. I turned around to retreat, pushing my way out of the crowd. I emerged, sweaty, my bare feet black from all the dirt and who-knows-what-else on the ground.


Ever-helpful, my resourceful friends constructed shoe subsitutes (photo 3, above) using two styrofoam plates from a generous taco vendor and bits of trash found on the ground. My new shoes caused quite a stir: People pointed and laughed. Passerby smiled as they figured out what had happened. A couple stopped and asked to take a photo with me.

The new shoes were perhaps even more (in)famous that the chanclas had been.

We patrolled around the concert venue for about an hour, asking various vendors if there was a booth that might sell shoes. My friends motioned toward my feet and gravely explained the situation, attempting to stifle their laughter. Their funny gringa friend was again the focus of attention.

After much effort, I was able to score some Bob Marley-themed sandals for $120 pesos (photo 4, above). They'll never replace my chanclas, though.

Chanclas, 2008-2009, RIP.
Sacrificed to the gods of rock.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Digs

My new apartment smells faintly of dog food.

This is because I now live directly above a Purina food store, complete with stacks of animal feed and wire cages brimming with bunnies and chicks. The building is located along what is somehow a busy street, considering that there are few people -- and hence, few cars -- in Huajuapan. I'm reminded of my days in Chicago when big trucks roared by at 2 am, stirring me out of a sticky sleep.

Sticky. I should mention the fact that the apartment's windows don't open -- a fact that I discovered after it was too late to turn back, after I'd packed my stuff in my old place. After I'd rented a truck to move it exactly one block. After I'd handed over the keys to my former apartment, a place full of functioning, opening windows and fresh air. After the mercury in the thermometer rose to 42 Celsius -- well over 100 Fahrenheit.

Ah, the things we do for cheap rent and free internet and proximity to Mexican boyfriends.

Anyway. My non-opening bedroom windows face the street and the shoe store located on the other side. Inside that shoe store in my new arch nemesis, a bright red car, a children's ride, complete with headlight eyes and fender mouth. It's the sort of insert-a-quarter ride you used to find in the lobby of a Wal-Mart back in the day, right next to the machines that would sell stale bubble gum and little plastic treasures inside little plastic eggs. Every 10 minutes, the car's headlight eyes flash and it calls out in an slightly-demonic-sounding cartoon voice: ¡VEN NIÑO, VEN A DIVERTIRTE! ("Come here, kid, come have fun!") and then there's an onomatopoeia-tastic BOOOOOOOOOOOIIIIIIIIING to finish things off. It's loud enough that I can hear it clearly in my room, even with the windows closed (and, yes, they always are!).

And that's the noise level of the car at rest. Imagine the ruckus after a kid actually convinces mommy or daddy to part with two pesos to get the thing going. The result is a hellish-sounding mix of Western music and gas pedal revving.

But besides the car and the dog food and the non-opening windows, my new digs fantastic. In the new place, there are no nightmare-inducing spiders lurking on my ceiling or armies of ants in my pants-drawer. In fact the place is pretty clean (guess that's what happens when it is hermetically sealed with -- have I mentioned this? -- windows that don't open), which is surprising, considering I'm now living with two guys.

(They're two Mexican guys, mind you, who have somehow been programmed to make their beds and do their dishes and take out the trash. While my mom gave raising me right her best shot, it turns out that I'm the slob in the apartment, a fact that my new roommates find endlessly entertaining. Because of this, they've kept the housekeeper they'd hired before my arrival. She comes on Fridays and make the place sparkle for $100 pesos, about $7.50 dollars.)

The best part? My rent. $75 dollars a month! Kind of puts it all in perspective, no?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Name Game

My first name, like the first name of seemingly 85 percent of the female population born between 1980 and 1985, is Sara. There’s the “Sarah With an ‘H’” version of the name, there’s the slightly rarer “Sara Without an ‘H’” version of the name, and here in Mexico, we’re usually known as “Sarita” or “Saris,” but, at the end of the day, we’re all Sara(h)s. There are a lot of us running around.

Because of this phenomenon, I was usually known as “Sara M” in my elementary school years, given that there were inevitably two or three or four or nineteen other little Sara(h)s in my class. During my high school years, within my group of four best girlfriends, three of us were named Sara(h). My college roommate was Sara (also of the “Without an ‘H’” variety). As an adult, I’ve worked with dozens of Sara(h)s. My time in Japan, a place where you’d think I’d be able to “escape” my name, was met with endless mail-delivery related confusion due to fact that another American Sara(h) lived down the street. And here in Mexico, I work with another Sara(h) – also a freckle-faced Irish girl from Chicago.

I guess I’m lucky to have a lot of tocayas – that’s a hard-to-translate Spanish word for people who share the same name. But the downside of the situation is that I’m forever erroneously responding to my name. I’ll hear it called out in grocery stores, in the street, at restaurants, wherever. I’ll inevitably turn my head to find out who’s calling me, and will inevitably find that it’s someone else trying to get the attention of one of the other three billion Sara(h)s on the planet.

I recently experienced this “erroneously responding to my name” phenomenon, but, ironically, it wasn’t because there were lots of Sara(h)s running around.

Now, as usual, there were multiple Sara(h)s involved in this particular scenario – this particular time we were in quadruplicate. There was me, of course. There was Sarah, the aforementioned other freckle-faced Chicago Irish gal who lives here in Huajuapan with me. And there were to two Mexican Saritas. But the many tocayas weren’t the problem.

We were all assembled at Huajuapan’s softball diamond on Saturday afternoon. I’d come at the invitation of a Huajuapeña named Sandra. Sandra had spotted me on my morning jog a week prior, running past her sidewalk juice stand at my neck-breaking clip. Sandra, turning out to be just as speedy, had abandoned her post to run after me. The what-must-have-been strange look on my face –confusion at having an unknown apron-clad woman sprinting after me mixed with apprehension at what I thought would inevitably be an awkward interchange (remember the now-infamous quasi-stalking incident involving the taxi driver-cum television producer?) – did not seem to deter Sandra. She boldly invited me to be a part of her softball team.

So this led to the four Sara(h)s at softball on Saturday. I’d accepted, obviously, and, in turn, had invited Sarah, the freckled Irish-American Chicagoan, to come with me. And the two Mexican Saritas were already a part of the team.

The softball game was lovely. It was nice to meet other athletically-minded women – the stereotype of mexicanas content with being housewives certainly didn’t apply to this spirited group of women, women who expertly stole bases and energetically heckled the other team – as it was also nice to break my eleven-year hiatus at having actually swung a bat.

But there was a disconcerting aspect to the afternoon: I kept responding to the wrong name. And the name wasn’t Sara(h).

It was güera.

I hate that word.

Güera, translated to English, roughly means “white girl.” It’s supposed to be a neutral term. Mexicans have a tradition of calling things as they see them – so if you’re referred to as “Chaparrito” (meaning that you’re short) or “Moreno” (meaning that you’re dark-skinned) or “Chino” (meaning that you have curly hair) – it’s not meant in a mean-spirited way. It’s just because, well, that’s what you look like.

So, compared to many of my dark-skinned counterparts here in Oaxaca, I am very very very güera. And I’m reminded of it constantly – by dirty old men when I’m running, by well-intended cashiers in the grocery store, by my landlord when she sees me heading off to work in the morning. Though the term grates on my still-too-PC-from-having-grown-up-in-the-United-States nerves, I’ve slowly gotten used to responding to it.

So when the people in the bleachers started yelling at the güera on the softball diamond that afternoon, I naturally assumed that they were yelling at me. The familiar flush – part anger, part embarrassment at having been called out because I’m different – crept up my face.

But to my surprise, it was Sandra who responded back, as naturally as if they’d called her by her first name.

Sandra, by local standards, is güera. Her chestnut-colored hair is a couple of shades lighter than that of her teammates, and her skin is a light brownish color. Her "fair" complexion has become something of a trademark for her: She’s so güera that the name of her juice stand basically translates to “White Girl Juice” (Jugos la Güera). I discovered this as I ran past her closed-for-the-sabbath shop on the following Sunday morning.

Sharing my status as alpha-güera took some getting used to. I’m used to being the only “white girl” for miles. So I couldn’t help but turn my head when the bleacher set started whooping it up for the güera at bat. My ears naturally perked up when Sandra’s friends approached the dugout and called for the güera. Kids even got in on the act: A four-year-old calling for the güera – that’s Sandra, not me – even caught my attention.

It was unnerving. If Sandra wants the name, she can have it. I’ll take the confusion caused by four Sara(h)s over that of two güeras any day.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mexican Time Strikes Again

In Mexico, a week is equal to eight days. Two weeks is 15 days. And three weeks is 20 days.

Let me clarify. Lo hago dentro de ocho días. Translated to English, this literally means "I'll do it within eight days. " However, the speaker actually wants to convey that he/she will accomplish the task within a week. Lo hago dentro de quince días literally means "I'll do it within the next fifteen days." Here, however, the speaker is really talking about two weeks' time.

Now, math has never been my strong suit, but if a week is eight days, shouldn't two weeks be 16 days? Or, if I listen to the English speaker in me, a week is seven days, so two weeks is 14, right?

Let's take it one step further. Vamos a hacerlo en veinte días might literally mean "We'll do it in twenty days" to an English speaker, but the Spanish speaker is talking about three weeks' time. But taking The Week as Eight Days Factor into consideration, three weeks should be 24 days, right? So we're now missing four days of our three-week time period, which to me, is 21 days.

Not that any of this matters, anyway. If I've learned anything during my 10 months in Mexico, it's that you should never, ever EVER take talk of time at face value.

In addition to The Week as Eight Days Factor, there's more arithmetic involved: You have to apply The Rule of Two to all measures of time. So, if a friend calls you up and tells you he'll meet you in an hour, you simply double the stated time. He'll actually be there in two hours. Or if someone guarantees you something within "ocho días," or one week, you'll want to give it at least two weeks -- which, applying The Week as Eight Days Factor, actually could be anywhere between 14 to 16 days, depending on your native language and, possibly, your math skills.

So what's up with Mexican Time?

I've blogged on this phenomenon before, way back in August, just after I'd arrived in this lovely country. So, you'd think that since last summer I might have learned a thing or two. I might have learned how to understand Mexican folks' conceptions of time, realize that they are different from my own, and stop stressing about it so damn much. But, nope, Mexican Time keeps tripping me up. But at least I'm not alone.

I'll get to that story in a minute. But first you must understand that in addition to The Week as Eight Days Factor and The Rule of Two, there's another trick required to understanding -- or at least attempting to understand -- Mexican Time. There's The Hurry Up and Wait Law, which involves an important bureaucrat scaring the sh*t out of everyone with a crazy deadline, only to have them finish the task at hand way too early, leaving them to stand around and wait for an unspecified amount of time. The Hurry Up and Wait Law might best be illustrated by El Gobernador's visit back in March.

Avid Gringa Culichi readers might recall that El Gobernador came to visit us here at my university's Language Center to check out a new (albeit fake) computer lab, for which he'd ostensibly provided the funding. The lab was promptly disassembled following his visit, given the fact that it didn't, uh, work.

This same lab is the subject of today's story. Though working software was promised to us "dentro de veinte días" (translation: within twenty days, or three weeks, or perhaps six weeks, if one applies The Rule of Two) of El Gobernador's visit, it finally got installed this week, roughly two months later. We were told, by someone important, to clear our calendars for two days' worth of mandatory software training, 9am to 6pm, on Thursday and Friday.

Applying standard arithmetic, that's 18 hours' worth of training. On what is supposed to be user-friendly language software, mind you. What, exactly, were we going to do during that time? Learn how to actually program the software? Or perhaps split atoms?

But mandatory training is mandatory training. We dutifully cleared our schedules. We cancelled classes. We put out-of-office messages on our email accounts. And we arrived early on Thursday morning, ready to begin the first leg of the marathon training.

We reported to our offices, ready to be called down to the new Language Lab. At 9:10 am the training still hadn't begun. At about 9:30 am, we received an email saying that there'd be a slight delay, that they were working out a small bug in the new system, and that training would begin shortly. At 10 am, our Language Center director walked around the hall, knocking on doors.

The "small bug" meant that the computers weren't ready. Turns out they hadn't actually finished installing everything in the lab. Training would begin at 4pm. Seven hours late. Silly us, we'd forgotten about The Hurry Up and Wait Law.

Mexican Time had tricked us all. Again.

Training finally began at about 4:30 pm yesterday. We watched a five-minute video about the software, and then waited for about 30 minutes while the technician, sent from the software company to lead the training, fumbled around with cables in attempts to get the computers to work. He talked to us for about five more minutes, and told us that he'd like all teachers to come in groups for individual 30-minute training sessions on the equipment. That was it. No atom splitting involved.

So my supposed 18-hour training went from about 11 to 11:30 am this morning. It was actually scheduled for 10 am, but you know how Mexican Time works....

...sort of.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The rain falls horizontally

You’d have thought that we wouldn’t have worried about getting wet.

We were going camping at a waterfall, after all.

But the ominous-looking storm clouds starting rolling in just as our destination – Nochixtlán, a small city in the valley – came into view. As we slowly cut down the mountain, following the switchbacks along the two-lane highway, the big desert sky above “Noch” became increasingly ink-colored.

I, the only American and, perhaps accordingly, the only sarcastic one in the group, muttered something in defeated-sounding Spanish about the lovely contrast between the black thunderheads and sunset-stained sky. About how ironic it was that we’d left sunshine and friendly cotton-white clouds behind at home in Huajuapan just 90 minutes earlier. About how, had we left when we said we were going to leave – before we’d sat for an hour and fifteen minutes with Octavio* and his mother in their kitchen, politely nibbling sour green plums and making small talk about all the exotic-to-me, impossibly-named regional fruits (have you ever eaten cuajenicuili?) I’d tried during my 10-month tenure in town, waiting for him to finish his dinner – we might have missed this storm altogether.

My Mexican car mates were stoic as the rain hit: At least we were still dry.

As the wipers struggled to keep up with the sheets of rain striking us head on, I thought of a university colleague’s warning a few days earlier: Umbrellas are of no use. In Oaxaca, the rain falls horizontally.

Whose idea was this anyway, attempting a camping trip in the rainy season?

But I had celebrated a birthday a few days earlier and had been, true to my Taureaness, stubborn. Stubborn in my determination to mark the occasion with an outdoor weekend retreat. I’d elected the waterfall at Apoala, a green gem that’s tucked away in the thirsty terrain that is Oaxaca’s Mixteca Baja. Thirsty, that is, for the ten months of the year when this corner of the world doesn’t see a drop of rain. Nature, it seems, makes up for lost time in May and June.

It was because of the season that friends had been hesitant to commit to the trip. But that Oaxacan Saturday had been blessed with blue skies, and we’d loaded the car with the requisite tent and sleeping bags and a few granola bars, just in case.

The rain let up just as we reached the industrial outskirts of Noch, allowing me to snap several pictures of soggy Corona billboards framed by fragile rainbows. We navigated the grey city’s flooded streets, rolling down the windows to ask locals, attacking the newly-formed pools on storefront sidewalks with tired brooms, for directions to the road to Apoala.

They’d motion vaguely with their broom handles: Por allá. It’s over there.

The rain caught us again just as we transitioned from pavement to mud, easing into the 28-kilometer-long dirt road that would take us to Apoala. Twilight became nearly midnight as we crept past washed-out banks and through flooded potholes, assured every few kilometers by an “Apoala this way” arrow carefully painted on a board nailed to a tree. Sarcastic “are you sure?” remarks from the gringa riding shotgun were met with silence from the three Mexicans.

At least we were still dry.

After three hours, hunger set in, and we raided the stash of granola bars. It was too late to turn back.

Ten kilometers outside of Apoala, the horizontal sheets of precipitation sputtered into a drizzle. Rounding a bend in the road, we caught a glimpse of the bare yellow lightbulbs adorning the homes of Apoala’s 200-something-odd residents. Their confident glow was reassuring as coasted down the mountain: It wasn’t raining in the valley.

We were still dry.

We arrived, our hunger and weariness compounded by the stress of rainstorms on dark country roads, more than four hours after we’d left Octavio’s mother back in Huajuapan. Despite the fact that we’d spent the entire evening under water, as it were, we’d arrived too late to make the hike down to the waterfall to set up camp. Even I, still the only American and still, perhaps accordingly, the only sarcastic one in the group, was too exhausted to make a crack at the irony.

We settled for a campsite in a meadow and began to unload the car. That’s when I stepped -- submerging my sneaker, sock and left sweatpant -- into one of the irrigation ditches that criss-crossed the unlit field. The sound -- the gasp that accompanies a confident stride interrupted by an unforeseen obstacle, the deep plunk of a leg sinking calf-deep into frigid mountain water, the sharp hiss of an English-language obscenity -- was enough to pull my Mexican friends out of their hunger-induced stoicism and into fits of belly laughter.

And I’d been the one carrying the flashlight. The irony was too much. The sarcastic remarks began.

At least they were still dry.

*Names have been changed to protect the chronically late.