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.

1 comment:

Crystal said...

How did you start teaching in Mexico? What kind of qualifications did you have to have? I am interested can you tell me where to start?
If you can will you email me at :