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.