Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shit! Sheet!

I get hit up to buy stuff all the time. Glasses of fruit-flavored water off carts in the street. Cups of arroz con leche out of a basket on a woman's head on the sidewalk. Chopped-up cactus from little old ladies. Plastic plug-in crucifixes with flashing lights from corner shops. Couches, refrigerators, doorknobs and you-name-it out of the backs of trucks.

"Hey güera! Do you want to buy [insert name of product I don't have any use for]?"

Usually these sales pitches come from strangers, most often when I'm walking down the street, going to or coming from work. So I was surprised when a student stopped by my office to hit me up at work last week.

Scratch that. It wasn't the location that threw me. It was the language. Here's what I heard as the student stepped through my office door:

"Hi teacher! Do you want to buy a shit?"

Potty mouth. Now obviously, the student was NOT selling feces. But his unique sales pitch certainly caught my attention. I wasn't quite sure how to reply:

"Ummm, are you sure you're selling shit?"

He turned red. Our students here at the university usually don't speak a lot of English before they come to study with us, but by the time they're ready to graduate, they know enough to be dangerous -- enough to know that "shit" is on the list of words that you don't use with your professors.

"No?" He meekly showed me his wares: pictures of sheets and blankets that his mom had sewn.

Now, it's full-on summertime here. Well into the nineties (F) in the morning. The last thing I wanted to buy was more things to sweat through on my bed. But I didn't turn the student away. I needed to make sure that he didn't pitch shit to his next potential customer. So I shut my door, ready to get down to business.

"Look at my mouth. Listen and look at how I say these words."

The good teacher that I am, I carefully pronounced 'shit' and 'sheet' for him a few times. He got the idea. He packed up his pictures, thanked me, and left my office.

I could hear him walking down the hall with his friend, who had been waiting outside my office door for him. Their words bounced off of our building's concrete walls. They were practicing their vocabulary.

Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Shit.

Sheeeeeeeeeet. Sheeeeeeet. Sheet.



Funny as shit, eh?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

El Gobernador

I put a little spritz in my hair and a little gloss on my lips this morning.

The university where I work here in Oaxaca was expecting a visit from the state governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and the staff here at the Language Center was instructed to look extra-sharp for the occasion. (Or at least to don something besides the grubby jeans and t-shirts that we usually wear to teach. Sloppy gringos.)

Ruiz Ortiz was supposed to stop by our Language Lab to check up on some new hi-tech language equipment, equipment that the state had funded. The time for his visit was set for high noon today, and we were notified of the visit yesterday.

The thing was, all of the equipment for the new lab had just arrived and was still packed away in boxes as of yesterday. University staff spent the entire afternoon setting up the new computers and desks to make the lab look like it was up and running…but as we’ve yet to receive the actual language software that will eventually be used in the lab, none of the computers was actually, you know, operational. We hoped and prayed that the governor wouldn’t ask for a demonstration.

PR at its finest.

So, at noon today, we received word that the governor was on his way. All 15 of us language staffers, dressed in our Thursday best, filed out of our offices to the entrance of our immaculate-but-useless language lab. A news crew scurried up the walkway. A photographer showed up with a huge camera.

We waited anxiously for el gobernador to arrive.

And we waited.

And we waited some more.

After about 20 minutes, our secretary got a call. The governor would be there in 10 minutes. We should wait. Un poquito más, por favor.

So we waited some more.

And some more.

Another 20 minutes rolled by. No sign of the governor, nor of his entourage. The midday sun beat down on us. The sweatier we got, the more restless we got.

I, having worked five years in PR in Chicago (and by “worked in PR,” I mean, “stood around for hours, waiting for important people to show up for their damn photo opps”), had a sinking feeling that the governor wouldn’t be coming by for a while (what given that we were dealing in PR time, compounded by the infamous phenomenon that is Mexican Time.)

So I went back to my office to catch up on email. I worked for an hour, interrupted by two false alarms where I was informed that the governor was on his way, and that I should hurry back to the lab and get ready to greet him.

Lies! There was no sign of the governor. We waited some more.

At about 1:50 pm, almost 2 hours after the goveror was supposed to show up, the Vice Rector’s office called to say that he was terribly sorry, that Señor Ruiz Ortiz wasn’t going to be able to come after all, and that we should feel free to go to lunch.

So about 10 of the 15 Language Center staffers left. I stayed back for a few minutes to finish my email. I shut my office door at about 2:01 pm, only to be greeted by a rush a university staffer rushing toward me with a walkie-talkie.

The governor has arrived! Hurry, hurry, hurry! Put on your lipstick and go greet him!

So, I rushed into our Language Lab, accompanied by the three other teachers who hadn't been smart enough to get out while the getting was good. We lined up to shake hands with el gobernador and his crew.

Upon meeting me, he asked if I was a student.


His visit lasted approximately three minutes, long enough to smile for a few photo opps and ask all the foreign staff where we were from. He barely looked at the lab, which is just as well because none of it actually worked anyway.

And then he was off. Riding into the sunset (or, rather, into the blazing afternoon sun), earpiece-weilding bodyguards in tow, in his shiny black government-issued SUV, complete with tinted windows and Mexico City license plates.

The university's tech crew is going to come this afternoon to dismantle our fake language lab. We need the space for classes and exams, so we can’t justify using filling it up with faux lab stuff until the software is actually, you know, installed.

Yes, I’m rolling my eyes as I type this. Silly me, I thought I left all of this PR ruckus behind me when I left Chicago. But a friend, an old colleague, has just reminded me: PR is like the Mafia. Every time you think you're out they pull you back in. (Thanks, Kritty!)

That final sentiment is especially fitting when you consider I’m an ex-PR staffer who lived (scratch that...survived) two months in the Mafia-filled city that is Culiacán, Sinaloa. The ex-governor of my home state of Illinois is currently in the slammer. And Mr. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz doesn’t have the most stellar of track records, either. (There’s a clock in the main square in Oaxaca City that is actually counting down the number of days left in his term. Serious.)

Long live the photo opp!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round

I've been stuck on the bus.

That’s my excuse for not updating my blog this month. Now normally, I’d roll my eyes at that kind of reasoning. Kind of like when a guy blew off at date with me because he claimed had an ingrown toenail. Lame.

But in this case, it’s the truth. I’ve been on the road (read: on the bus) EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND for the past 15 weeks. I’ve been to the beach (20 hours, round trip). I’ve been to Mexico City twice (14 hours round trip, each time). I’ve been an invited guest at a wedding in Tequistitengo, Morelos (12 hours round trip), and I’ve also managed to crash a random 25th wedding anniversary in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca (6 hours, plus big congrats to Tere and Mario!). I dressed up like cookie monster in Putla (10 hours). I’ve spilled wine at a birthday party in Querétaro (20 hours). And I’ve been stranded on the side of the road in The Middle of Nowhere (2 hours).

So, I’ve been to lots of places. But mostly, I’ve just been on the bus.

My Spanish neighbor seems to have caught the same travel bug that I have. She’s joined me on several of the aforementioned marathon trips, each time fearing that she’ll return to Huajuapan with “nalgas planas” (a flat ass) from so much sitting on the bus. And it’s kind of proven true: Our butts are looking smaller these days. Maybe it’s from all of the dancing we’re doing in salsa class.

But the "flat butt factor" is something you have to take into account when you live on top of a mountain. EVERYTHING takes forever to get to. There’s no talking about distances “as the crow flies” here in Oaxaca: What should be an easy 120 kilometers (75 miles) to a neighboring town is a hellish 2.5 hours through winding roads and switchbacks. What I wouldn’t give to be that crow sometimes…

So I’m planning to travel to Guatemala in a couple of weeks. I had all of these romanticized notions of traveling through the jungles of southern Mexico by bus. Of dozing off with my iPod and waking up Central America. Of walking across the border. The ultimate roadtrip, as it were.

But all of that will take about 30 hours. Each way. Minimum.

So I’m going to be the crow, damnit. I’m going to fly. Just hit the "purchase ticket" button on good ol' Orbitz to confirm it.

To bad it’s still 7 hours to the airport -- you guessed it -- on the bus.