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.

Friday, May 22, 2009

All Dogs Go To Heaven

If the title of this entry made you groan because it's so darn cheesy, you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs. But it's just that there's so many clichés that would be perfect titles for this entry on the lives of Man's Best Friend here in Mexico. Indulge me.

Like "It's a Dog-Eat-Dog World." Compared to the pampered lives of pups up north, the daily grind ain't easy for perros here South of the Border. People here in Mexico sometimes don't have enough to eat, so tight family budgets don't tend to get stretched to buy fiber-and-flaxseed-enriched super-duper premium heart-shaped gourmet dog food. Pet owners don't drop money to buy their dogs rhinestone-studded collars or Louis Vuitton-patterned carrying cases. There's no doggie daycares or bow-wow bakeries. Nope. Mexican dogs sleep outside and usually subsist on stale tortillas. Or trash in the street.

Or "It's a Dog's Life." Despite the fact that they're homeless and hungry and stuck outside during rainy season so their fur is always matted and dirty, Mexican dogs are darn happy. They trot around with their little doggie friends, tails wagging, sniffing each other's you-know-whats and having a grand old time. To them, it's the good life when they're not being abused or hit by cars. They're pretty easy to please.

There's the "This Place is Going to the Dogs" cliché. Given the tough circumstances, all logic dictates that Mexican dogs shouldn't survive and populate. But there somehow manage to be hundreds of them in your average small town. They outnumber the human population in some areas, running around the streets in motley little packs, chasing each other and shiny cars and -- ahem -- iPod-clad gringas jogging in the street. At any given moment, I'm surrounded by dogs. There's at least two or three that hang out in my apartment complex. There's the gang of 'em that keeps turf near the grocery store. There's dogs in parking lots. There's dogs on beaches.

I've been in Mexico for so long that I've somehow stopped noticing the fact that dogs are everywhere. I sent my family some pictures of my recent beach trip. Instead of commenting on the deep blue Pacific and the pretty orange sunsets, their feedback was, "What's up with all the dogs?" I looked back at the pictures, noticing that there was a different pooch in almost every shot. The tan one that belongs to a friend. The white one that was his (the tan one's) weekend "fling." The big black one that followed me around for three days after I fed her cold oatmeal one morning. The little black one that hung around our campsite. The crazy-looking mixed one that went swimming with us in the river. Pinches perros.

Dogs are part of the landscape here, like cacti and Corona billboards and ancient Vokswagen Bugs. Hell, there are even dogs in churches. True story, people. Check my pictures.

Where's Bob Barker when you need him?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses...

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. And it’s not because I’ve been laid up in a hospital somewhere with the swine flu, contrary to what the media might have you believe. Nope, I’m actually quite healthy and H1N1-free, thankyouverymuch.

My excuse for the nearly-three-week hiatus since my last post does have to do with the flu, though. Or rather, the fabulous -- albeit surprise -- 10-day vacation we teachers got after the Mexican government closed all schools in response to the virus. My excuse has to do with the camping trip that I took down to the Oaxacan coast during those “flu” days. (I simply HAD to get out of Huajuapan. The panic in the eyes of the face mask-clad locals in the street, coupled with the oh-my-God-this-is-unbelievable-we’re-all-gonna-die news reports would be enough to bring anyone to hysterics.)

But really, I’m going to blame the delayed post on the topes. Yup, that's my excuse. Topes.

Avid GringaCulichi readers will realize that this is not the first time that topes (speed bumps, a.k.a reductores, as pictured above) have been the bane of my existence. Nor will it be the last. But I digress…

There is about 500 kilometers (300 miles) highway between Huajuapan and the Pacific coast. Back where I come from, the drive should take about 4.5 hours, assuming you’re cruising the highway at a not-likely-to-get-you-pulled-over speed of 70 mph.

But here in Oaxaca, that 300 miles of highway (that's winding, mountainous highway, mind you) is riddled with topes. And when you’re riding in a car weighed down with two Mexicans, two gringas, a small dog, two tents, lawn chairs, an umbrella, a cooler, a grill, charcoal, enough food for four days, enough booze for four weeks, and assorted trashy paperback novels for beach reading, those topes are darn hard to drive over. The bottom of your car hits the cement and makes an awful scraping sound.

So, all passengers (including the dog, sometimes) had to get out of the car and walk at every tope -- every single PINCHE tope -- while the driver creeped across. I lost count of the number of topes we crossed somewhere after about 114. So, what should’ve been a 5-hour journey, tops, actually took us about 12. Boo.

But we didn’t mind. We were on a surprise vacation, man! We were on a road trip, man! And despite government-issued public service announcements to avoid all contact with the outside word for fear of the deadly flu virus, we were going to the beach, man!

(Out of respect for the international health emergency, we did, however, choose as our destination Las Lagunas de Chacahua, a semi-virgin bit of paradise where a fresh-water lagoon meets the salt-water Pacific. The way we justified it, no people = no germs = no flu virus.)

After 10 hours in the car, we pulled off the tope-ridden highway onto a palm tree-lined dirt road that would take us to the beach (see above). The air was salty. The sky was cloud-free. We were almost there!

But the road was rough. Our average cruising speed was about 15 kmph. (No lies. Check the picture, folks.) That last bit of road – the only thing standing between us and reading trashy paperbacks on the Pacific coast – took an agonizing two hours.

But we got there. We drank our four weeks’ worth of booze in four days. We read trashy paperback novels. We soaked up the sun. And we didn’t hear anything about the damn pig flu, save for a static-filled nightly news report brought to us courtesy of the aluminum-foil-clad antenna of our Chacahuaqueña host’s television. (We were camping under a palapa just outside of her kitchen.)

Despite the fact that we ate all the food and drank all the booze and that I mysteriously managed to lose not only my swimsuit but also one of the trashy paperbacks – despite the fact that our car should have been much lighter on the return trip – it still took us 10 hours to get back to Huajuapan.

So that’s my excuse for the delayed post, folks. I’ve been recovering from tope trouble. I haven’t had time to write. So, please accept my apologies from swine flu-ridden Mexico. As you can see from the envy-inducing sunset and beer-enjoying pictures (Indio should pay us royalties for the latter) above, we’re suffering a lot down here. Special thanks goes to everyone who panicked and cancelled their beach trips and freed up the sand and surf for us in Chacahua!