Monday, November 16, 2009

Big Plain, Deep Freeze

If Mexico were a Rorschach test, one of those psychological exams that measures your responses to ink blots to determine if you’re crazy or not, common associations might include “taco,” “cactus,” “sombrero,” and “hot.”

Hot. Hot. Hot.

The land of deserts and chiles is not exactly known for its frigid temperatures. After all, the ever-stereotypical Speedy Gonzalez never wore a scarf and gloves, did he? And what would be the point of having Spring Break here if the drunken, bikini-clad hordes of college students had to cover up with a parka?

But there’s nothing like familiarity to break down stereotypes: The more time I spend in Mexico, the more I realize that most of the tried-and-true ideas we gringos have about this place simply aren’t true. I’ve never seen a sombrero-clad man take a siesta underneath a cactus, for example. I’ve quickly learned that there’s more to eat here than just tacos and chalupas (Taco Bell, like Speedy Gonzalez and Cinco de Mayo, is really just a gringo creation, the manifestation of years and years of misunderstanding our Southern neighbor). Not everyone has a pet Chihuahua (okay, yes, some do). And – oh yeah – it’s not that hot here.

Actually, it's downright cold.

Especially when you’re 3,200 meters (that’s a mile high, y’all) above sea level in a town called Llano Grande (Big Plain), Mexico’s own version of Boulder, Colorado. Except that the Mexican version has just 92 residents, none of whom seem to have discovered the virtues of central heating, despite the fact that the average temperature of the place hovers somewhere around 45 degrees.

But Llano Grande, tucked away in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountain range, has its perks: Beautiful landscapes, for example (see above). Clear, clean rivers. Delicious locally-grown food. Snow. (The Chicagoan in me still thinks of “snow” with the same distain I hold for other four-letter words, but it is somewhat of a draw for Mexicans.) Zapotec culture. (Llano Grande is one of a system of a dozen or so Pueblos Mancomunados, a series of mostly-indigenous mountain communities that have teamed up to preserve their collective 180 square miles of forest, and all of the natural resources contained therein, while promoting sustainable tourism to the area.) And quaint, brick cabins, tucked away in pine forests.

At this point, I should add that the quaint, brick cabins come equipped with a quaint, brick fireplace, meant to combat the quaint, brick design that has the disadvantage of trapping in cool air, making the interior downright frigid at night.

Upon entering our cabin late on Saturday night (those sinuous mountain roads take some time to traverse) and literally seeing our breath indoors, my travel companion and I decided it was time to fire up the fireplace. He helped me load kindling and logs into la chimenea, and we had a decent blaze going before he left to look for some dinner n’ mezcal (what better way to warm up?), leaving me in charge of feeding the fire and warming the place up before he got back.

Clad in a knit cap and three sweaters, I squatted next to the fireplace, dutifully adding logs to the flames, waiting for it to begin to heat the place so my fingernails might appear slightly less blue. The feeling was familiar, the stuff of waiting for the train on elevated, wind-whipped platforms of a frozen February in Chicago, or of shivering in the icy bathroom of my thin-walled, space-heated Japanese apartment, waiting for my toothpaste to thaw so I could brush my teeth.

Little by little, the cabin warmed up enough for me to be able to peel off a couple of layers of sweaters. I smiled, thinking how warm n’ cozy the place would be for my novio when he came back with our dinner.

Twenty-five minutes later, and I heard my novio’s car pull up next to the cabin. The heat had made me sleepy, so I greeted him with droopy eyes and a big bear hug. But instead of settling down by the fire next to me, he tore around frantically opening doors and windows.

¿Qué diablos estás haciendo? Why the [insert choice explicative here] are you letting the cold back in?

Smoke had filled the room. Nearly drunk on the heat (and CO2) produced by the fire, I hadn’t noticed the swirling grey clouds billowing above my half-asleep head: The chimney was clogged.

It was too late to ask the Llano Grande guys for help. We’d have to air the place out and let the fire die down, despite my protests of cold.

We hurled ourselves into the bed, buried ourselves under a sheet, three thick blankets provided by the Llano folks, two more covers that my novio had the foresight to bring, plus a bedspread that we pulled off the top bunk of the bunk-beds in the corner of the cabin, waiting for oxygen to replace the carbon dioxide in the room. When the last wisp of smoke had left the cabin, we hurriedly closed the windows, bolted the door, and shivered ourselves to sleep.

At some point in that frigid, ink-black night, I woke up, teeth chattering and half-frozen. A beam of icy moonlight stretched across the cabin, up onto the bed, and shone right into my eyes.

The front door of the cabin was wide open.

We hadn’t bolted it properly. No wonder we were frozen.

If I had to take a Rorschach tomorrow, I’d probably be institutionalized: While most people associate frozen blue agave margaritas with Mexico, the mention of the place conjures up the memory of my frozen blue nail beds. Just as Speedy Gonzalez, Cinco de Mayo, and Taco Bell’s 99-cent Value Menu simply don’t exist in Mexico, neither does heat.

Coming to Mexico? Better pack your parka. And a couple of extra blankets.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen to your gut

The apartment looked like it had served as the set of the toilet scene in Trainspotting. (For those Gringa Culichi readers who have not seen Trainspotting and, thus, have just been spared a very disturbing visual, suffice to say that the apartment was less than pleasant). But for a mere $400 USD a month, it could have be mine, in all of its cockroach-infested, urine-fragranced, windowless glory.

I was apartment shopping because I was contemplating a move. And I was contemplating a move because I had temporarily been wooed by the bright lights of the big city that is Mexico City (and that’s big with a capital B-I-G as Mexico City is the third-largest urban sprawl on the planet). Even a cursory glance at my past blog entries will reveal that I’m a city girl at heart, and deeper investigation into the number of times I’ve referenced my homesickness for Chicago or my frustrations with my $38-dollar-a-day-job and country-bumpkin living here in the small mountain-top town of Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca offer further explanation as to why I’d consider such a relocation in the first place.

So when the job offer rolled in -- and when the job offer included couple more zeros at the end of the number on the paycheck than what I currently see here in Oaxaca -- I could hardly control my enthusiasm. I bought my bus ticket to Mexico City. I’d go to check out apartments and to meet my future co-workers. I’d go to feel out what my new life would be in El Distrito Federal (that’s DF locally, for what translates to Federal District in English, which is what people-in-the-know call Mexico City).

I’d be a city girl again. One of those hip chicas who call the place DF instead of one of the schmoes who call it Mexico City.

My mind was humming with the possibilities and my heart was pounding with excitement. But my gut was less than convinced. And because I refused to listen, it was forced to scream: YOU'RE SELLING OUT! All that noise stirred me out of what semblance of sleep I was able to garner on the seven-hour overnight bus trip. But I blocked my gut's message by turning up my iPod, chalking up the unsettled feeling to carsickness.

Luckily, when a girl isn’t smart enough to listen to her gut, the universe steps in to steer her in the right direction. Despite the fact that I spent the entire weekend trying to fall in love with DF, I kept bumping into Oaxaca in the strangest of places.

There was the gardener who greeted me at the door at the fancy-pants apartment buildings I’d made an appointment to see on Saturday. Waiting for the realtor to show me the place, I struck up a friendly “where ya from?” conversation with him. He wasn’t just from Oaxaca -- nope, I never would have caught a sign that subtle from the universe -- he was from La Mixteca, the region where I live, from a town that’s right next door to Huajuapan, as if such proximity were possible in a place where mountains place two-hour barriers between “neighborhing” communities. I asked him how he liked DF. He shrugged as he looked down shyly -- or maybe it was sadly? -- and poked at the dirt with his shovel. After ten years, he said, he “was still getting used to it.”

Later that day, en route to a coffee date with a future co-worker, I got lost in the maze of streets that criss-crossed the metro stop I’d stumbled off at. All of the streets were named for delicious, glamorous big cities: Londrés (London), Tokio (Tokyo), Praga (Prauge). But I was unable to find my desired address on the swanky Hamburgo (Hamburg) because I was lost, wondering around on -- you guessed it -- Oaxaca Avenue. I’d take the wrong exit out of the subway. Or had I?

The final straw came when I stopped to buy a pair of earrings from a street vendor I came across when I finally found my way to Hamburgo. The earrings consisted of colorful turquoise shapes painted on some sort of natural material -- not quite wood, not quite shell -- so I asked about their origin. The material, of course, was from Oaxaca, which, though unsolicited from yours truly, prompted the vendor to tell me how much he loves Oaxaca. That he thinks Oaxaca is one of the most beautiful places in the country. That he would leave DF in a second if he could find work in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca. Oaxaca. Oaxaca.

Listen, amigo. I’ve just come from Oaxaca. I’ve been wondering around on it for the past hour. Or, rather, I’ve been wondering around IN IT for the past year. There’s nothing for me there! Please, please. PLEASE, just let the city girl come home.

I wanted to shake him and yell at him and attempt to reason with him. But the earring vendor had spoken. And so had the universe.

Lest this blog entry begin to eerily resemble the super-cheesy plot line from Serendipity or sound like it was ghostwritten by Paulo Coelho or those new-agey people from The Secret, let me get back to my Trainspotting experience. The next day, Sunday, I marched -- my newly-acquired Oaxacan earrings dutifully dangling from my lobes -- into the aforementioned so-disgusting-it-provoked-my-gag-reflex-upon-walking-in-the-door apartment located off a busy intersection in downtown DF. This apartment represented what my DF life would be: dank, dark and dirty, full of 6-day workweeks and 90-minute subway commutes to teach English to spoiled rich kids and corporate suits. DF may wine and dine you under its sparkling bright lights, but this apartment, dimly lit by a single, naked light bulb flickering from the cracked ceiling, revealed its dark underbelly.

It’s ironic that I had to go all the way to Mexico City to buy earrings I could have just as easily bought in Oaxaca. And it’s also ironic that I had to go all the way to Mexico City to realize that the good life was actually back in Oaxaca.

I won’t be moving to DF, and, therefore, I won't be chic enough to call the city "DF." So, correction: I won't be moving to Mexico City. Call me a schmoe. But at least my gut will finally shut up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Meet the Fockers (à la Mexicana)

There’s nothing like spending a Sunday night in a cemetery.

With your Mexican boyfriend.

And his entire extended family.

Meeting a significant other’s family is always a bit awkward. There’s the anxiety of making a good first impression. Of hoping they like you. Of remembering new faces and names.

Throw in the twist of dating a Mexican, and you do all of the above en español while attempting to juggle cultural differences with an extra-large extended family that includes, like, 36 aunts and uncles and at least 467 cousins: Do you offer Tio Martín a handshake or kiss on the cheek? Do you address thirty-something Prima Lupe in the formal “usted” form or use the more familiar “”? How do you react when nearly-deaf, 85-year-old Tia Josefa can’t understand your gringa accent?

And then there’s the issue of location. What could be more comfortable or natural that doing all of this in a cemetery at 11pm on a Sunday night?

But that’s par for the course here in Mexico. This time of year, families get together to celebrate El Día de los Muertos (that’s Day of the Dead), so what better opportunity to introduce your gringa girlfriend to the crew than when everybody’s together anyway?

And that’s exactly how it went down in a tiny cemetery on top of a mountain somewhere in rural Oaxaca this past Sunday. Mexican families believe that the spirits of the departed come back to visit the living on November 1 (it’s known as All Saints’ Day en inglés). Since they only come around once a year, Mexican Hospitality says you’d best make ‘em feel welcome, with elaborate altars in homes (packed with flowers, candles, pictures, food and beverages of choice) and all-night vigils at the cemetery, where families take turns tending the gravesites with flowers, candles, food and music.

Where I come from, cemeteries are usually somber places, evoking scenes of cold November days with brittle, leafless trees and sobbing widows at grey gravesites. But in Mexico on Day of the Dead, cemeteries are carnival-like, with music and crowds, cumbia-blaring speakers and vendors hawking tamales and pozole and atole right outside the cemetery gates.

So what better place than a cemetery to meet you boyfriend's father's sister's daughter's daughter, whose name you forgot thirty seconds after it was told to you, because you were whisked away to meet your boyfriend's mother's sister’s second cousin's son?

And what, exactly, does one talk about over the graves of the dearly departed? The universal awkward-situation conversation topic – the weather – doesn’t always translate to Mexico, because, let’s face it, it’s sunny and beautiful here all the time. And frankly, it seems a little trite to be comparing precipitation trends in Chicago and Oaxaca when you’re supposed to be honoring the memory of Abuelo and Abuela, who are resting for eternity just below your feet.

Given all of this awkwardness, it is strange to admit that I actually enjoyed the experience? My novio’s family was warm and welcoming, offering me lots of hugs and kisses, and it’s-so-nice-to-finally-meet-yous. They streamed into the family’s capilla throughout the evening, piling yellow and white and purple flowers on the gravesites and lighting candles. We chatted about NAFTA and master’s degrees and beach vacations. And later we noshed on hot chocolate and sweet bread.

If meeting extended family in a cemetery is normal in Mexico, I can only imagine how out-of-place my novio must have felt when I took him to my uncle's house in Central Illinois for a good ol' red-white-n'-blue fish fry this past July, inflicting my cousins and uncle and grandma on him all at once. Perhaps this whole meet-my-entire-extended-family-in-a-graveyard-at-midnight thing was his form of revenge.

At least I got some hot chocolate out of the deal. All he got was fried bass and a Bud Light-induced hangover.