Monday, April 27, 2009

When it rains... pours.

I'm going to draw an analogy between Morton Salt's good ol' tagline and the steady stream of just-when-you-think-it-couldn't-get-any-worse-oh-look-it-just-got-worse headlines coming out of my lovely host country. I think it is an especially fitting analogy as we enter rainy season here in Mexico.

Where to begin...

In case you've missed the headlines for the past, um, year, Mexico's in the throes of a somewhat major drug war. The army patrols streets in border towns. Journalists are murdered. Cartel members shoot at each other in supermarkets and shopping malls. Folks get kidnapped. I can tell you from first-hand experience that in some cities it's impossible to go out for dinner without getting a gun pointed in your direction. It's kind of ugly up near the frontera.

There's also the issue of this pesky recession. Yup, la crisis has officially arrived here in Mexico. The peso is steadily sinking. Prices are steadily rising. A peso here, a peso there. That's a lot of pesos when you're only making 100 of them a day, like many folks do here in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. In my case, an hour of peso-salaried work here in Mexico currently converts to approximately enough dollars to buy a one-way bus fare in Chicago. Nice.

You might have also heard about this swine flu. Death tolls change hourly, depending on who you're asking or what you're reading, but Oaxaca has the dubious honor of being home to the first documented swine-related death. Mexico City shut down last week. And as of noon today, Huajuapan de León has followed suit. My classes have officially been cancelled through May 6. Students have already vacated campus in search of face masks and vitamin C supplements. From tomorrow, I'll be on a vacation of sorts, a kind of vacation where you're not supposed to leave your house or breathe or talk or hug or kiss anyone.

And, just today...more good news. A 6.0 earthquake near Mexico City. We felt it here in Oaxaca. You know, just in case things weren't interesting enough.

If you relied on headlines alone, you'd think that the situation was pretty darn depressing down here. Pistols, pesos, pigs, and...darnit, I can't think of an earthquake-related word that begins with "p."

But, truth is, things ain't so bad.

Or at least things aren't as bad as the US media is making them out to be. Not everyone who visits Mexico gets kidnapped by a drug cartel -- or the swine flu from riding the Mexico City metro. I promise.

But, in my humble opinion, the glue that's holding this country together is the people. Mexicans, if nothing else, are survivors. They're resilient. The past couple of hundred years of Mexican history have seen a disproportionate number of awful events: wars, foreign invasions, natural disasters, financial crashes and political scandals. Folks here are used to these things. The mentality is that if today sucks, mañana will be better.

Life goes on here in Mexico. Cartel violence, economic woes, world health emergencies and natural disasters will not affect Mexico's core, the things that make Mexico an amazing place to live, the things that keep me here this country, even through its rough patch. Crisis will not stop people from greeting strangers in the street with a heartfelt "buenas tardes" (even if it is muffled by a sanitary mask). Crisis will not stop people from making time for friends and family (even if the government has discouraged handshakes and kisses). Crisis will not stop people from having a laugh over a beer (even if the bars are closed).

Crisis will not stop people from smiling.

This afternoon, I happened to be up near the front gate of our university as scores of blue face mask-clad students filed off campus. Some looked a bit worried, some were laughing with friends (no classes for a week and a half is a pretty sweet deal to any 19-year-old, even if a world health crisis is the reason behind it). But I caught a glimpse of one student, walking alone.

He'd drawn a big, goofy smile on his mask, just where his mouth would've been below.

It will get better mañana. I promise.


NOTE: This entry is also posted on a fantastic site called The Truth About Mexico. The site offers "real" perspectives from expat-type people living in Mexico, countering a bit of the sensationalism we're all seeing in the mainstream media. Give it a read, leave your feedback, and please spread the word!!

Ants in My Pants

As the rainy season approaches here in Oaxaca, I've been comparing my apartment (pictured above -- isn't the garden pretty?) to Noah's Arc.

There are lots of, um, species, aboard.

They come inside to escape the torrential rains outside.

And they travel in pairs.

But let me make some clarifications. The aforementioned species aren't the of the cute, cuddly, illustrated Bible variety -- they're mostly larger-than-life cockroaches, nightmare-inducing spiders and large quantities of ants. And they're not just in my apartment to escape the rain. They've been kicking it there for the past 10 months -- for as long as I've been there (I've blogged on their presence before. Their numbers seem to be increasing with the rain factor). And while the cockroaches and spiders seem to travel in pairs, the ants -- oh, those damn ants -- like to hang out in the hundreds.

Hundreds. No lie. But I'll get to that in a minute.

That pretty little garden in front of my apartment (again, see the picture) is a breeding ground for all things creepy crawly. The problem is that the insects don't actually stay there --they make their way into my apartment via the doors and windows on the first floor. And they usually stay on the first floor. This is a double-edged sword because it means that there have been several, um, surprise encounters with insects in my ground-level kitchen and bathroom. But the good news is that my second-level bedroom is usually bug-free.

So I proceed with caution when I'm downstairs. I'm afraid of a run-in with the seven-legged spider that taunts me from my ceiling, or with the cockroaches that like to hang out behind my bathroom door. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. (This, from a girl who enthusiastically hunted bugs n' butterflies during her youth. A girl who proudly co-won The Biggest Bug in Riverton Contest at age seven. What have I become?)

I'm cockier when I'm upstairs. There's never any bugs. I prance around like I own the place (I may pay the rent, but I certainly don't "own" my apartment -- the wildlife calls all the shots).

This was my mindset when I opened the bottom drawer of the dresser in my usually-bug-free bedroom a couple of days ago. I wanted to pull out a pair of sweatpants to go for a jog. I've painted my dresser a cheery yellow. (I like the color. It goes well with the lime green of my interior walls and the very subdued peach of the exterior. Read: sarcasm). But that day, that yellow hue contrasted eerily with what was inside the drawer...

...a seething black mass of ants. Hundreds and hundreds of ants. Crawling all over my pants.

I literally had ants in my pants. (My grandmother pointed this out when I was recounting this disturbing story to her on the phone over the weekend.)

I didn't know how to react. I was too shocked to scream. So I pulled out the entire drawer and threw it out on the balcony outside my bedroom. Pants and shorts and neighbors be damned. I then ran down the stairs and out of my apartment.

OK. I overreacted a little bit.

I steered clear of my apartment for several hours. With a clearer mind, I thought through what would have been smarter reaction scenarios, like calmly carrying the drawer downstairs to the garden, away from my bedroom, and letting the critters crawl out freely. But I didn't do that. And, because I'd overreacted, I'd likely return home to a bedroom full of ants. D'oh!

When I finally did make it back to my apartment, I crept up the stairs to my bedroom. I gingerly flicked on the lights, expecting to see my walls teeming with tiny black ants. But my bedroom was empty.

I carefully opened the door to my balcony, again, expecting to find dark masses crawling all over the floor. No ants.

I hesitantly stepped out on the balcony, reached down to pick up one of the many pairs of pants scattered all over the floor, and shook them. No ants.

I picked up the discarded drawer. No ants.

So I stuffed ALL of my pants into three big plastic bags and dropped them off at the laundry mat the next morning. Eight kilos of clothes. Quite the laundry bill. The clerk looked at the pile of pants with a raised eyebrow. I tried to explain myself, but somehow, the "ants in my pants" idiom kind of got lost in translation...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Shamelessly Stereotypical in Guatemala

It's the stuff stereotypes, the subplot of every bad Hollywood film ever made about life South of the Border: The sombrero-clad, big-moustached, gold-teeth-sporting Mexican taxi driver/police officer/souvenir vendor are supposed to trick the silly, fanny-pack-wearing, camera-laden, map-consulting gringo tourist out of his every last peso. The Mexicans are the rip-offers and the gringos are the rip-offees. And that's the way it is.

Now, I don’t usually subscribe to such stereotypes. I don’t consider myself a fiscally clueless gringa, nor have I ever had a problem with getting ripped off in Mexico. Nonetheless, when traveling with three street-savvy Mexican guys through Guatemala last week, the last thing I expected to be was ripped off. After all, with the Mexicans, there'd be no language barrier to overcome, no tourist traps to avoid, and, of course, the green-eyed, blonde-haired, freckle-faced factor wouldn't apply in their case.

But, at the end of the day, despite our attempt to avoid the touristy, we were all -- three Mexicans and an American -- foreign tourists in Guatemala. And, at the end of the day, we got ripped off. Really ripped off. Milked for our every last quetzal. (FYI, the Quetzal is a very colorful bird, and is also the name of the currency in Guatemala, which I will denote with a “Q” moving forward.)

There were the usual tourist snares: The shop owner in Flores who charged us Q10 for postcard stamps whose actual price was Q4. The restaurant in El Relleno that delivered a bill for Q80 (that’s $10 USD, folks!) for a few stale tortilla chips served with lukewarm beans. The tour boat operator in Livingston who stalked us mercilessly on his scooter, finally convinced us to take his boat, and then left us sitting on the dock for 40 minutes.

But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was Hotel Suli, a complete dive of an accommodation located along a hot, smelly, traffic-ridden street in Rio Dulce, a coastal city we found ourselves in at about 1 am on Friday morning. Foolishly, we’d rolled into Rio Dulce without a hotel reservation on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. Homeless and sleepy, we crowded around a dingy map posted on the side of the road, thumbing through our guidebooks and calling hotels, increasingly disheartened to find that everything was full.

We met a cab driver (who, for the record, was a saint of a man, a refreshing change from other Guatemalan cab drivers we’d met in our journey who’d overcharged us mercilessly). The taxista drove us around the town, stopped to help us inquire at hotels, lent us his cell phone, and then, when all options seemed to be exhausted, offered us a place to stay in his home.

We should have taken the cab driver up on his offer to sleep on his floor.

Shoulda coulda woulda.

But, as (bad) luck would have it, we pulled into Hotel Suli at about 2:30 am, shortly after four guests had apparently left the hotel without paying. This left their room free and the hotel clerk anxious to fill it to recover his losses -- and unfortunately, with no housekeeping staff available to clean the room, this also left us with dirty sheets and a soggy bathroom floor. But, at the time, it seemed better than sleeping on the street -- or inconveniencing the poor cab driver. The hotel clerk cut what seemed like a deal --charging us a three-person rate for four people -- and we sprawled out in the room, sleeping like babies.

That is, sleeping like babies until we were woken by banging on the door at 7am.

It was the same clerk, sent by the hotel owner to inform us that the price of this particular room had increased by Q100, and that, if we’d like to stay another night, we needed to pay him them and now.

Looking back on the scenario, the situation was laughable. But in the moment, sleep-deprived and fed up -- the memories of overpriced stamps and nachos and taxi rides still fresh in our minds -- we let him have it. What, exactly, kind of hotel was this? What kind of hotel tells its customers one price, and then, not five hours later, shamelessly raises that price? And what kind of hotel wakes its guests at 7am to demand payment for the next day?!?

We threatened to leave, and the clerk backed down. In the end, we were able to negotiate a fair price on two smaller rooms -- complete with clean sheets and towels. But just as the stereotype of Mexicans as the proverbial rip-offers didn’t hold true, the stereotype of Guatemala being a dirt-cheap country didn’t pan out either. Don’t believe the hype. You’ll spend quetzales like you'll drink (bottled) water.

There is one stereotype that I did find to be true: Despite the glitzy tourist brochures and bloated prices and throngs of travelers, there is, sadly, still heartbreaking poverty in Guatemala. Most of the positive things I experienced in Guatemala -- the charm of the cobblestone streets of colonial Antigua; the breathtaking views of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán; the magic and mystery of the Mayan ruins of Tikal; the thrill of riding a zip line over the jungle; the things I've included in happy snapshots here -- will never be experienced by many Guatemalans in their own country because they can't afford the obscenely high prices.

I think this is why I was so upset about getting ripped off. I didn't feel angry. I felt guilty. A nagging feeling of shame clouded my every financial transaction. It wasn't an issue of an extra Q100 here and there. It was an issue of lining the pockets of the already-well off (much of the tourism industry in Guatemala is foreign-owned) when their neighbors (native Guatemalans) had nothing. (Note: I did find it refreshing that the Guatemalan government offers a radically reduced "national" fee of Q25 for nationals to visit Tikal. The price for foreigners is Q150, or about $30 USD. But, despite the discount at Tikal, you'd still have to pay the bloated bus prices or be wealthy enough to have a car to get you there.)

Damn you, stereotypes! At the end of the day, despite the best-laid plans, I was the stereotypical gringa tourist getting ripped off in Guatemala. Riding the stereotyptical tourist bus and snapping the stereotypical snapshots of the stereotypical poverty-stricken countryside. The situation would have been kind of a buzzkill, had my cynical side not gotten a kick out of seeing my Mexican travel companions getting un-stereotypically ripped off, too. At least we were in it together.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Next time, we're staying with the taxi driver.