Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Babel Babble

日本語. Español. English.

Never before have I crammed the three into one weekend.

And never before have I been so utterly exhausted.

Let me do a bit of explaining. Before I became the GRINGA CULICHI, I worked as an English teacher in Japan. It was an amazing year, one that I still can’t quite put words to when people inevitably ask, “So, how was Japan?” Not sure if I’ll ever get the elevator speech down for that experience, but you can get the scoop here.

As part of my duties as a token 外人 (foreigner) living in the tiny community of Maruoka-cho, Fukui-ken, a place that might best be described as the Huajuapan de León of Japan, I taught a Thursday night English class at a community center near my house. My students were several decades older than I was, but age wasn’t an issue. We had a blast together, and reflecting back on the experience, I learned more from them than they could have ever learned from me.

Living in Japan was tough, but leaving Japan was even harder, mostly because of the finality of it all. Tears flowed freely for my last couple of weeks in 日本. Moving to Mexico, an ocean away, I thought I’d never see any of my Japanese friends again.

Happily, I was wrong.

Hiromi and Noriko, two students from that Thursday night class, came to visit me in Oaxaca last weekend. And with their visit, my two worlds, my two identities – the gringa in Mexico and the 外人 in Japan – came (or is it crashed?) together.

There was the language issue, of course. Hiromi speaks a little Spanish and Noriko speaks pretty decent English, but neither proved sufficient for haggling with vendors in Oaxacan markets or understanding the rapid-fire language spoken by tour guides. I, much to my chagrin, discovered that I had forgotten about 99.9 percent of the little Japanese I amassed during my year in Fukui, meaning that the three of us were reduced to communicating via a long, painful, exhausting game of charades for most of the weekend. Thank God that the word for bread – pan – is the same in Japanese and Spanish.

There were little cultural things. Like how Japanese folks will wait at red stoplights for ages, even if there aren’t any cars in sight, because in Japan, you follow the rules, but in Mexico, people walk into oncoming traffic without giving it a second thought. Or how the Japanese value of cleanliness made for some pretty interesting visits to ramshackle Mexican mountain bathrooms with no running water or toilet paper. Or how Japanese food, save for 山葵 (wasabi), is pretty darn bland, and Mexican food is known for its spiciness. (“My stomach became hot!” exclaimed Noriko, fanning her hand in front of her mouth, after trying green chile salsa for the first time.)

So the weekend wore me out (I was in bed, linguistically and culturally exhausted, by at the granny-esque hour of 9pm on Sunday night), but it was totally worth it. I’ve hosted friends and family in Mexico before, but my past visitors have all come from the United States, where we’re somewhat acquainted with Mexican culture (or at least the Taco Bell version of it). It was really fun to see how curious and excited Hiromi and Noriko were about the little things that I take for granted – tortillas served with every meal, cheesy mariachi music, even the cacahuates japoneses (Japanese-style peanuts, as they’re called here in Mexico – a type of peanut that, curiously enough, isn’t even eaten in Japan).

At one point in the weekend, the ladies caught a glimpse of the tattoo on my foot – it’s a series of four Japanese kanji that read "一期一会" (“one time, one meeting,” or ”once in a lifetime”). I got the tattoo done in Japan, but for a variety of reasons, kept it carefully hidden while I was there. Now that I’m in Mexico where tattoos aren’t so taboo, I’m not as cautious about covering it up. I cringed when I’d realized they’d seen it, assuming that they’d think less of me because I was "inked," but instead, they responded positively.

This is 一期一会,” Noriko said, referring to our weekend together.

A 28-year-old American girl climbing pyramids, shooting mezcal and singing along to mariachi music with two 60-something-year-old Japanese ladies? Two 60-something-year-old Japanese ladies she thought she'd never see again? In Oaxaca, Mexico?

Definitely 一期一会. Una vida, una vez. Once in a lifetime.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bodega Blues

Tuesday's blog entry was a personal mini-manifesto of sorts, and writing it was pretty darn cathartic. Perhaps the highlight (for me, anyway) was the brief rant about Bodega Aurrera, the Wal-Mart-owned retail megastore that arrived in Huajuapan three years ago and has been closing down local independent shops ever since.

I think that some of Sam Walton's folks might be Gringa Culichi readers, because Bodega took its revenge on me yesterday.

Let me explain, first with an admission. There's a saying here in Mexico: "Mira el burro hablando de orejas." It translates to "look at the donkey talking about ears," kind of the Spanish version of the "pot calling the kettle black" line we English speakers pull when someone is being, well, hypocritical.

I bring up the topic of hypocrites mainly because that's what I am. Yesterday found me standing smack dab in the middle of Bodega Aurrera.

Yes. I know: Pot, kettle. Donkey, ears.

As part of my paycheck here at the university, I get about $200 pesos worth of vales, which I think might best be described as glorified food stamps, each month. The vales can be applied to the purchase of foods and goods at only a select number of locations here in Huajuapan. And by "select," I mean they can only be applied to the purchase of foods and goods at Bodega Aurrera.

Now, I do consider myself to be a principled person. But I'm also broke. Really broke. I'm not in a position to "throw away" $200 pesos worth of "free" food. The way I see it, so long as I'm not spending "my" money at Bodega, so long as I only spend the vales, I'm at taking some kind of small stand. It's a grey area. Go with me, folks.

So, I marched into Bodega yesterday, vales in hand, hoping to get the shopping done quickly before anyone saw me in Satan's Layer...err, the store.

I was angry at myself for being in Bodega.

I was angry at the stupid vale system that caused me to be in Bodega.

I was angry at the forces of global economics and politics that caused Bodega to be in Huajuapan in the first place.

And, later, I got really really really angry at Bodega itself.

I had gotten my groceries in record time and was at the checkout. I had worked my way up to the front of a long, long line of people (apparently other Huajuapeños do not share my poor opinion of Bodega) and was waiting for the cashier to finish scanning my stuff. Because I had spent so long in line, I was in a hurry to get back to work on time. I took out my booklet of vales (they come in denominations of $100 pesos to $20 pesos are tightly stapled into this little paper book) and prepared to pay.

I tried to take out the $100 peso voucher, but in my rush, accidentally tore the corner. Not thinking twice, I handed it to the cashier anyway. Money (or faux money) is still money.

She looked at my torn vale disdainfully. "Esto no sirve." That won't work.

Turns out the damn vales lose all value if they're torn. Essentially, I'd just thrown away $100 pesos, or half of my ration. Ugh.

Now, after nearly six months in Mexico, my Spanish is decent. I find that I'm able to express myself pretty well in most situations. Standing in line at the pinche Bodega, what I really wanted to say was, "I thought you soulless capitalist corporate pigs took money in any form!"

But the words wouldn't come to me. And, of course, the situation wasn't the cashier's fault. In fact, she is one of the few people that actually benefits from having Bodega in town -- she has a decent job and a decent wage, at least by Huajuapeño standards.

So, I sighed, resigned the damaged $100 peso vale to the deep recesses of my wallet, and grudgingly took out a hard-earned $100 peso bill to replace it. Yes, I spent my own money in Bodega. Real money. I broke my own rule. It was either that or hold up the long line further while I figured out which groceries I could afford with my remaining vales.

Mira el burro hablando de orejas.

Pinche Bodega.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Changes & Clichés

I, like most of the United States and much of the rest of the world, took 20 minutes out of my day to listen to Obama’s inaugural speech this morning. From Huajuapan. I tuned in via a fuzzy connection to NPR’s internet site that rebuffered continuously throughout the address, often at the most critical parts (argh!). I was unable to connect to anything that would provide video, so I didn’t get to see the visuals that everyone’s been talking about -– Michelle’s dress, Sasha’s cute thumbs-up to her dad, the monstrous crowd that had gathered in Washington DC. And I was interrupted a couple of times by passing students and noise in our office.

But I got the message anyway.

For the most part, I liked what I heard -- Obama’s message of change and hope and national and global solidarity certainly resonated with me. I got chills (or, ‘my skin freaked out like a chicken,’ as an ESL student once described the phenomenon of goosebumps to me) at various intervals throughout his address. But even I, enamored with Obama as I am, raised an eyebrow at one part of his speech. It was when he said: “We will not apologize for our way of life.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to join the scores of detractors who have already posted negative critiques of Obama’s speech all over the internet (haters). To me, the address wasn’t “lackluster,” “fluffy,” or “pie-in-the-sky.” I thought it was inspirational.

But I’d like to make a point on his point: I think we do need to take a long, hard, critical look at our way of life. If not to apologize for it, at least to make some serious changes -- there's that word again -- to it.

Now, I’m not going to try to take Obama’s remark out of context. At this particular point in the speech, Obama was referring to terrorism, and saying we’d defend our nation against it. Right on.

But, the picky linguist that I am, I didn’t like the wording. Our way of life. What exactly does that mean? Freedom? Baseball? Apple Pie? All things worth defending, for sure. But the other side of our way of life, the dark underbelly -- the consumerism, the disproportionate wealth, the strip malls, the SUVs, the Wal-Marts, the obscenely huge carbon footprint -- is causing serious problems across the planet.

I’ve seen the effects of our way of life here in Oaxaca with my own eyes. Local farmers who have lived -- for generations and generations -- on their corn crops are forced out of work because NAFTA has flooded the market with cheap, US-grown, heavily-subsidized, genetically-modified corn. Lands inhabited by Oaxaca’s indigenous communities are drying up and eroding because of global warming. Scores of little pueblos throughout the state are left without fathers, sons, brothers –- any able-bodied man of working age –- because they’ve all gone to El Norte in search of decent-paying jobs. And the Wal-Mart here in Huajuapan (thinly veiled with a different name -- Bodega Aurerra -- it’s still owned by Sam Walton’s folks) is putting the local mom-n-pops out of business while sending the profits back up to Arkansas.

Now, most folks I know back home (e.g. most of the folks reading this blog) are at least vaguely aware of these goings-on. I don’t want to rant, and I certainly don’t want to preach (to the choir, as it were). We are all, slowly, as a nation, becoming aware of the fact that America’s proverbial piece of the pie (apple or not) is too damn big –- we’re taking more than our share.

And I know that Obama agrees. He's a fairly intelligent guy, after all. Later in his speech, he said:

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

(My skin freaked out like a chicken here.)

Obama’s whole campaign platform was about change. (See the last sentence taken from his speech above – Hey! Change! There it is again.) He managed to get a lot of Americans -- more than ever I’ve seen in my short 28 years -- talking about change. And his election means that, now, the whole world is expecting change.

But, despite the clichés, one man cannot change the world. Let me rephrase that -- one man cannot change the world alone. He needs some help. And we, as a nation, are individually responsible for making the small changes that will, cumulatively, create the big change we all seek.

It was easy to wear the cool “Yes We Can!” campaign buttons in the months leading up to the election. It was easy to check the “Obama/Biden” box on November 4. It easy to talk about how glad we are that Bush is finally out of office today. But how many of us, when faced with the prospect of rolling up our sleeves and actually CHANGING our way of life, will actually do it?


Are we willing to swap our gas-guzzling cars for a bicycle or public transportation? Are we willing to stop supporting monstrous global US-based corporations until they get their corporate social responsibility policies in order? Are we willing to spend a little bit more to buy fair trade (careful –- that’s NOT the same as free trade) products? Are we willing to stop consuming so much -– buying so much damn stuff –- and invest our money elsewhere?

If we say we want change, then -- gasp! -- we have to change.

Even if it hurts a little bit. As the clichés go, the best medicine tastes bitter. The best things in life aren’t easy. Change is a good thing.

But I think we can do it -- I think we can change. Wait -- one more cliché: Yes We Can!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The word tope best translates to 'speed bump' in English.

Topes may seem like a strange subject for a blog entry, but they actually played quite a large part in my recent trip back to Oaxaca's Pacific Coast (you'll recall my inaugural trip to the beach, a kinda drugged-out adventure, back in November).

The pace of life down along the coast -- a string of beaches called Zipolite, Mazunte, San Agustinillo and Puerto Angel -- is slow and relaxed (and, thus, somewhat analogous to a giant speed bump in our oft-hurried lives). The beaches are connected by dirt roads that are best traveled in the back of a truck. They're dotted with ramshackle beach huts and restaurants that serve super-fresh fish straight from the sea and super-cold beer straight from the bottle. And they're home to a somewhat international community of hippie-dippie, mota-lovin', half-naked beach bums that have come in search of a tope (some temporary, some permanent) in their daily grind.

And this is where my personal experience with topes begins. We -- a group of Huajuapeño friends that spent last week on the coast in celebration of the New Year -- met a guy who embraced this coastal lifestyle so fully that he actually changed his name to Tope.


Tope is a local legend, a sunburnt gringo who whiles away his days at a beach-front bar. Tope can't seem to recall his real name or how long he's been in Zipolite. Tope moseys -- he doesn't walk -- when he heads up to the bar to order yet another bottle of beer. Tope speaks Spanish (and English) so slowly that listening to him tests your patience.

Tope, clearly, is living the dream.

I thought a lot about Tope on our way back home from the beach this weekend -- and not just because I was jealous that he got to stay in 'speed bump' paradise and we had to head back to the reality of work. Rather, Tope (the guy) was top of mind because literally hundreds of topes (the things) dotted the two-lane highway that connects the coast to our mountain-top home.

These topes made a 500-kilometer journey (about 300 miles) take 10 hours. For real.

Now, where I come from, a 300-mile journey would take an easy five-ish hours. If that. But where I come from, roads are flat, well-paved, and often of the six-lane variety. In Oaxaca, the (sometimes) two-lane "highway" is a glorified mix of uneven pavement, rock and dirt that winds its way along the coast, up through the mountains, and through tiny villages. The views from the car would have been spectacular (deep blue ocean, lush green forests, bright orange sunset -- the stuff of legendary road trips) if the damn journey hadn't taken half a day and induced vomiting.

(Our dosage of Vomisin, the magic motion sickness medicine that was so helpful during my last trip to the beach, wore off about halfway through this killer journey.)

And let's talk about the topes. Every time we approached one of these damned little speed bumps, we had to slow to a stop, creep our way across, and cringe as the bottom of my friend's car scraped across the surface (my buddy's poor little Spanish-made Seat was a bit overloaded with three gringos, two Mexicans, a couple of coconuts, and all of our beach gear).

Now, part of me respects the tope: I get that safety is important, that speeding is dangerous, and that topes are cheaper than stoplights. But c'mon people. While we didn't keep count (I will next time -- if there is a next time), I'd swear that there were like 587 topes planted (like little misery-inducing mines) along that 500-km stretch of highway. And even by the most generous estimates, I doubt that 587 people call that same stretch of lonely highway home. So perhaps a tope every 2 kilometers is a bit excessive. Just sayin'.

Anyway, we pulled away from the beach -- happy and sunkissed (see the picture above) -- at about 2 pm, and we arrived -- groggy and carsick (no pictures taken for fear of mutiny from my grouchy car mates) -- at our destination just before midnight.

Damn you, Tope, for being able to live the dream.

Damn you, topes, for making that dream so inaccessible for the rest of us.