Thursday, June 26, 2008

Crazed crowds call for sound minds

Ever since sitting through lessons about the Holocaust in middle school, crowd mentality has scared the hell out of me. So last Friday, when I was in Mexico City for the Cafe Tacuba concert, I was relieved to be on the other side of the fence, in the VIP section, watching the crowd scream ''todo VIP, todo VIP.'' (everyone's VIP) The faces of those on the front lines were hot with sweat, pushing back against the monstrous crowd. I kept waiting for the fence to topple and the tidal wave of people to crash down upon us, but it didn't. We ordered our beers, drank them down, and enjoyed the concert.

It was only by chance I was not part of the mob. My friend Sophia and I had purchased normal tickets, but when we picked them up, they gave her two VIP tickets instead of her one normal one. We accepted our fortune as good fans should and sold my ticket. As a result, we got to see Cafe Tacuba, one of Mexico's most famous bands, front and center. It was an incredible concert. The whole crowd hung on every word. They moved from the low-key to the intense with amazing fluidity. The instrumentals focused mainly on electric guitars, keyboard, and a little base, and they had such a purposeful sound to each song, like we were all getting something done together, watching the lead singer with his two braids pace around the stage. I felt myself pacing in place too, buying completely into his intuitive assertiveness, as did everyone else. One of the great things about a concert is the group mentality. We were all trying Cafe Tacuba's attitude on for size, all of us on the same wavelength at once, riding it out.

But not everyone in Mexico City was so lucky this past weekend. On Saturday night, when Sophia and I were busy strolling through Zocolo to see the castle-like cathedral, crowd mentality turned sour at a club called News Devine. According to news reports, 200 police decided to raid the place in search of illegal alcohol and drugs. Maybe they chose that club because they knew most of customers were minors, which they reportedly were. The result was a mad rush to get out, at which point the police closed all the doors and refused to let anyone through. Squashed up against the doors by the crazed crowd, twelve people died.

The story sickens me. Why 200 police had to raid a night club is beyond me, especially because I have not found any reports that there were serious drugs involved. It really makes me wonder...what are we thinking when we are in a crowd? There should not be 200 police involved in one raid. That makes them part of a crowd, and then it's easy to develop an army-like approach, where anyone without a uniform is just the enemy, not a citizen to protect. It became an issue of authority against the people, which has a tendency to cut to the core of the Mexican psyche. Not trusting the government, the kids must have gone crazy with fear, clawing their way towards the door, ignoring the deadly trauma they were inflicting on some.

As the second largest city in the world, Mexico City is teeming with people. They are everywhere, selling you things, cutting in front of you on metros, swarming through the streets. It's a great place to enjoy Mexican culture, from the cutting-edge-modern to the traditional, which still thrives. They dance wearing headdresses and soccer jerseys in the street. But if you don't think for yourself, you might just end up in the wrong crowd.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Posh parties

I never expected to like living here so much. It´s a dillapidated city, weathered by smoke and graffiti, suffering from the constant roar of unmuffled motors. When I walk to class, I step over shattered glass and little divets in the sidewalk that one of my friends so wisely termed ¨gringo traps.`` There´s dog shit from the stray dogs. I buy my movies in a huge market made of cement walls and stairs that don´t ventilate, trapping inside its walls all the goods people have crammed in, along with teeming cigarette butts and mold. They serve food inside there, and I cringe remembering I ate there when I first got here. (Maybe that explains all the sickness that kept me down the first few months of life here...oops).

But I do like it here. ├ľkay, if you were to see my unsmiling face when I say I like it here, you would chuckle at me. I don´t like it the way I like home. But here, I have a window into an alternate life, a life that doesn´t really feel like my own. Here, I am living to live. I am getting by. I am poor, but being poor is not what I thought it would be. I live it up more here than I did when I was a ^rich^ American. Here, two blocks away from my house, there is a jazz bar with smooth music, music that has the power to set everything right in your mind for a moment. Looking to appreciate a moment, we turn to the music. We head to cafes and bars that play live bands. We note the announcements on the streets of concerts to come. We head to Teatro Degollado to hear the symphony, then the plaza for some electronica. There´s always something new, something different, something to set your mind going in some new direction without your own initiative.

Everywhere you go, people are trying to express themselves in strangely straightforward ways. Kids sing in the streets. People wear tee shirts that say, in English, "I love my boyfriend." (Couldn´t help but laugh out loud when I saw that one) and "I will love you for the rest of my life, forever and ever." When a guy wants your attention, he comes out with the words to express exactly that--"Te quiero" (I want/love you). Romance precedes all, for the sake of life. Call it cheesy, call it cute, I think it's hilarious.

But you have to admire them for their appreciation of beautiful experiences. On Friday, I went to this really posh, exclusive party that my roomate invited me to. It was held in a beautiful old courtyard filled with strange, modern furniture. The lighting was blue and purple, and in front colorful shapes moved around on a video screen. We sipped watermelon martinis while sitting on white statues of camels. In the states, these experiences always seemed out of my reach, but here, there´s no escaping them. My plans to see movies or spend quiet evenings in with friends keep getting trumped by invitations out to crazy clubs or bars. Some events are more exclusive, more expensive, but I´ve noticed that often exclusivity in Mexico does not depend upon money or politics. You just have to know the right people at the right time, and being a foreigner definitely has its perks. I have yet to meet anyone in Guadalajara who doesn´t get a passionate look in their eye when you start talking about other cultures. They have a no-holds-barred, wear-your-rollerblades-into-nice-restaurants sort of attitude. If it´s new, it´s intersting. If it´s traditional, it´s important to hang on to. They still have their Lucha Libre matches twice a week, a type of traditional Mexican free fighting. And in art exhibits, there are pictures of the indegenous people of the smaller towns, all dressed in their incredible, woven, patterned clothes, looking at the camera with somber interest. I always return the stare.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On the inside

I have had some trouble posting due to technical difficulties lately, so this post is from two weeks ago. The blogging continues, and I have a lot to say lately, so stay tuned!

After returning from Boston last week, where I saw my mom run 26 miles along with thousands of other people, I see Mexico once again with the eyes of an American. The glitter on their clothes, the ceaseless grunts and rumblings of the buses, the sporatic whiffs of a struggling sewer system, and the thickness of the polluted air all seemed intense and foreign the day I got back. After stepping out of my shoes as an American immigrant to Mexico, it was hard to put them back on. The first day, I longed for the quietness of the traffic back home, the reliability of the transportaion systems. I longed for English and grass fields and crisp, cool air.

But a week has passed now, and the readjustment period is over. It's funny, the same things that annoy me about the attitudes here--the ceaseless need for action without thought, constant spontaneity and tendency to change plans--are also the things that lure my attention and interest time and again. While in my mind, I am headed home to study Spanish and go to bed early, in actuality I am going to talk talk talk in the kitchen with my housemates Mario and his mom, Mari and maybe head to a club to try my feet at salsa. And the distractions don't end at the door of my house. The streets are full of distractions. When I am walking home, I usually get stopped for one reason or another. People solicit spare change, sell tamales, ask for directions, strike up random conversations, all with seeming earnestness.

In the kitchen, we talk and talk and talk. I ask Mario how to spell different words, and the conversation expands to world politics and then bigger issues. He tells me about his experiences living in Canada, where he endeavored to market Mexican beans and meat to restaurants, and when he discovered that the culture he admired from Mexico seemed strangely closed and uninterested in the culture of Mexico. These issues always send me talking about the importance of cultural awareness, and my desire to learn more about Mexico.

The other night, Mario let me in on one of the most colorful and interesting aspects of Mexican culture--its variety o music. As the notes of Mexican music spilled out into the room, I was enthralled. The music conjured images of bubbles floating out from some heaven source. The sounds transported my mind to another reality. The band, Cafe Tacuba, is not popular in the U.S., and when I told Mario I'd never heard of them before, he said what a shame. When I said that I also hadn't heard of the legend Luis Miguel, he was a bit repulsed.


"They were born, became famous, the whole world said wow, that's incredible, this is wonderful. Then they died. And you guys never knew it." He's holding his arms up in an exagerated shrug when he says this, his lips pursed in a pittying smile.

I laugh and laugh. It seemed ridiculous, and I pictured a cartoon image of this situation, where all of us Americans were standing on our own map, facing inward, working on our computers and then heading to our couches, all of which face Hollywood. Down below on the map was the rest of Latin America, and they were all having a party together, the entertainment flowing in like multicolored waterfalls from various corners of the gloe--Mexico, France, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, the U.S. The people were laughing and jumping and moving to and fro, looking every direction to enjoy the fruits of so many different lands. And in this movie in my mind, we Americans didn't even hear the noise they are making. I laughed, and then I felt embarrassed for us, and then I thought about my reality back home, before I'd heard about these bands, and I realized I am a classic example of the oblivious American. As much as I enjoy other cultures, even pride myself on knowing about them, my work-hard-and-then-relax-mindlessly lifestyle cost me a lot of great music. And the music is only a symbol. As we look inward, and sometimes to Europe, for everything, we miss out on the rich culture of Latin America.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A dose of dinner

Here, dinner time is a lot more like a cocktail party than a sit down sort of affair. After work, I find myself standing and talking to Mario and his mother, Mari, in the kitchen. I find myself leaning on the walls and refrigerator, moving to the refrigerator, migrating around the little room to get out of Mari's way as she cooks, taking care not to knock over the carefully utilized space. We eat tortillas with beans and corn on the cob, which we cover in hot sauce and fresh squeezed lime juice.

It's a cramped space, where the hooks for the spoons are just below the ticking wooden clock. There is enough room for three plates, and there is no space to let dishes stack up in the sink, which is about two inches deep. Water comes out through a shower-like spout onto a tiled surface. Mari is sixty, wears a soft smile, and is always busy relaying tidbits of her day, cleaning the perpetual dust off the floors and counters, and reorganizing the crowded refrigerator.

She and Mario, her son, stand in the kitchen and laugh about the silliness of things. Once I watched them argue for twenty minutes about whether there is a God, their voices rising to punctuate their sentiments, Mario's that religion is inherently bad, and hers that it is inherently good.

The other night, Mario argued against religion for the sake of all the wars it has caused. I cut in to counter that wars fought in the name of religion are not really about religion at all, but rather people's egos. Exactly, said Mari. But in the end, I had to agree with Mario's point that we cannot know for certain whether Biblical stories have any grounding in fact. However, I couldn't help but also agreeing with Mari that those stories can serve a purpose. I suppose I always tend to think stories serve a purpose.

These conversations are a great way to practice my Spanish, and also a great reminder of how far I have to go before I'm fluent. After that conversation, Mario and I found ourselves congregating in the kitchen to exchange ideas. He's always surprising me with his ideas, making me more and more aware that an educated view of Mexico is not exactly what I assumed it was. Take Sunday's debate, for example. The biggest soccer game of the year was commencing in Guadalajara's stadium: Chivas (of Guadalajara) against America (of Mexico City). I'd been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to get tickets and was about to head out to a bar to watch--the next best option.

Mario, a music fanatic who is always taking walks into the center to see what is happening, was not interested in the game. He scoffed at what he sees as an overabundance of pride in Mexican soccer.

"We never move up in the World Cup," he said. "Mexico never wins. But then everyone says oh, Mexico is so great. It is not. It is stupid," he said.

I said that it's understandable that Mexico does not do that well in the World Cup since the economic situation is so poor. I said it must be hard to train for soccer when you are thinking about how to put food on the table. He immediately countered that Mexico is not that poor. The problem is the attitude, he said, that people do not care enough about real success, just about hype and screaming and cheering.

Later that night I watched the game at a dark billiards bar where people were all crowded in, sitting on the extra chairs the place had pulled out of their back room. There was a big screen at the front, all filled with green and the graceful curving runs of players into open spaces and to chase and tackle. The word GOOOOOL flashed across the screen whenever a goal was scored. Soccer is a really pleasant game to watch because it's so fluid, and the play requires such careful and continual attention by all players. All the thinking goes on mid-game, in the heat of the moment, and for this, I was mesmerized. The winning goal was scored with a straight bullet-shot towards the goal, which was redirected at the last moment with a sharp header at the side pocket. The bar erupted. People jumped, swore, flung their fists into the air.

The Chivas won 3 to 2, and it was surprising that they did not win by more since they were ranked highest in the league, whereas America was ranked last. Such a close game makes headlines more interesting and fans' fights more real. After the game, they head out to the statue of the Minerva, on the edge of the downtown, to jump in the fountain and yell and scream. But it's a theater of sorts, according to one of my students. And the next day, the ecstasy of the coaches and the players that make headlines and front page photographs are not entirely genuine. He said corruption reigns among coaches, who have betters interests in mind, often advising their players to miss a goal here or there in order to make a few extra bucks. He shakes his head in a deeply annoyed way when he tells me this, the same sort of expression I get from people when the name Felipe Calderon comes up, or the word government, for that matter.

There is so much suspicion here. Take the way my boss deals with his teachers. When I started, the secretaries told me that the reason for all the paperwork was not about record keeping. Instead, it was to make sure I was "actually working."

There is suspicion about success too, said Mario on Sunday night in the kitchen. There is an unspoken understanding that the status quo is to be maintained for the preservation of happiness. That means no climbing any social ladders. Staying true to your friends is about remaining true to a particular level. If you're not careful, when you climb up in success, you can climb out of your social circle.

Ah! Terrible! Awful! I said. But it's not all peaches and cream in the U.S. either, Mario reminded me. He lived in Toronto for six months about a year ago, on a business venture. Yes, I know, Toronto is in Canada, not the U.S. But I'd say it's a pretty safe grounds for comparison. He said everyone seemed so closed, so preoccupied with work. It was difficult to meet people. They seemed distant and uninterested in him, which really appalled me. I would hope that any normal American would naturally find it interesting that he had travelled thousands of miles to another country to embark on a new business. Despite the fact that he was an educated professional, having worked as a lawyer in Mexico, and was genuinely interested in learning about their culture. Before he went, he'd been curious about the U.S. and Canada and unimpressed with Mexico. But once inside the U.S. productivity machine that he had admired from afar, he found his heart beating more profoundly, more strongly, for Mexico, where people do silly and fun things every day...not just on weekends.

But here, I feel aimless in the empty hours of chatting and sitting and standing, of standing around appreciating a ray of sunlight for its mere existence. I have time for myself to do yoga, read, practice salsa. But I feel a lack of urgency, a lack of goals. There is a lack...of some aspect of personality I am constantly running into in the states--that sharp-eyed look of pensive critical thought. It's not that I think we are right in our approach. The rest of the world seems to think we take ourselves too seriously. But I'm American. Ultimately, I miss the same thing that Mario did when he was in Canada: my own country.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The in group

Today I spent the hour from three to four, when I would normally be teaching, getting the scoop on everything from sexual references to how to get soccer tickets. When I arrived at Sitra, a company that does construction for Holiday Inn, my students were upstairs in their offices eating. They had three computers stolen earlier that week, so they were unable to learn English today. Ignoring the illogic of their conclusion, I agreed and sat down.

We sat in chairs and on desks, some of us spilling out onto the patio, a smoke cloud from one woman's cigarette rising into the air. I learned all the stuff they don´t tell you in Spanish class. (Well, normal Spanish class, that is. My Spanish teacher is pretty cool and does let us in on street talk sometimes.) They told me that fruit has a lot of sexual insinuations, like that lemons mean small boobs and melons big ones. And that if a man asks you if you want chile--assuming you're not in a restaurant--he probably isn´t talking about food.

I laughed along, as they raised their eyebrows suggestively at me. Naturally, since we were on the topic of lude sexual references, they brought up spring break in Puerta Vallarta and asked me if I'd been. They assumed that all Americans had been there for crazy parties. I told them no, and they were shocked. They asked me if spring break is crazy in the U.S., and I said not as crazy as in Vallarta, and they said it´s the American vacationers that make Vallarta crazy.

We spent the entire hour of class talking and laughing about nothing. The one Mexican woman who stayed to explain their antics told me at one point that even she was not sure what exactly they were talking about, so we found ourselves on the same side of the line, shaking our heads and rolling our eyes at the sporatic uproars. There comes a point when the gap between the sexes wins out over that between cultures.

After class, we all filed out of the room into the spacious hallway overlooking the downstairs. It´s a big new building, not fully furnished, which they just moved into, and has the same clean lines, simple designs, and light colored wood and marble that new U.S. office buildings has, a stark contrast to the buildings I am usually in, which boast an array of colors and designs. At the top of the stairs, I found Hector and Pedro, two big soccer fans, and finally got to the insider´s question I was most interested in: how do I get a hold of some soccer tickets? They told me the sad news that tickets for Sunday's game are usually about 3,000 pesos, about $300, which would be more than a paycheck for me. Pedro is going because he has season tickets. The game is between Americas, the Mexico City team, and the Chivas, which is Guadalajara´s home team. Although Americas is ranked last and Chivas is one of the best, it is a long standing rivalry that always attracts a crowd. Guadalajara used to be the capital, and it lost that standing to Mexico City some time ago. This is one of the many reasons locals tend to tell you that Mexico City is not a good place to work or visit. There is an intense city to city rivalry.

So I´ll have to wait for another game, but my students tell me that time is running out. I can´t purchase tickets in advance either and will have to go to the stadium the week of the game in order buy them. A lot of things we do online or at Costco they do through friends. Take medicine for example. It´s like buying illegal drugs. When I wanted iron for cheaper, I had to wait five extra days for my Mexican housemate´s friend to get the delivery for me. But I saved quite a bit of money. It's all about who you know.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Tequila weekend

The sun pervades now, as we leave March behind, heading back to our jobs after the one to two week spring break called Semana Santa. I just finished my morning classes and am sitting here on the steps of Chapultapec, listening to reggae beats flow out into the streets from a nearby car stereo. As usual, the breaks are squeaking and motors are buzzing and rattling along.

My skin is dry, my mouth is dry. About once an hour, I head to the kitchen in attempt to pour water from the garaphone, a huge plastic barrel that sits in a metal swing, into cups. That barrel is king. We get a new one delivered to the house nearly every day, and when we aren’t home to receive it, we tide ourselves over with hot tea until we can’t take it anymore, and then we splurge on overpriced water from the 7-11, or the pharmacy.

I drank alcohol this weekend instead. My anemia is not so pervasive now, and having spent most of my free time last week sleeping, I'm not so tired. So this weekend I took advantage of the energy that suddenly welled up within. On Friday, my Mexican-American roommate Andrea, my American friend Katie, and I tried our feet at salsa. Andrea takes classes at a place on the main drag of the rumbling, screaming-fast traffic of Vallarta, a few blocks from our house. So after some beers, rice, fish, and guacamole, we headed over and climbed the stairs for classes in the upper room, which has windows that overlook the street. I often watch people dance in those windows all the time, whether it’s areaobics, banda, tango, or salsa. There always seem to be moving bodies in there. They seem to be dancing to the music, taking cues from the words and the notes.

When we started, the one-two-three, one-two-three pattern was easy and natural. I watched the ten of us in the mirror sliding to the side, then back and forth, adding in our little sassy touches of hip swings and shoulder rolls. I was in some sort of fairy tale, getting into that happy state of mind where Mexico seems like Disney Land.

I get this same feeling during Sunday runs down Vallarta, when the street becomes closed to cars and people came out in hoards on their rollerblades, wearing their bright colors, keeping pace with their lovers, their children, and their friends. During these runs, on the sidewalks, double dutchers perform jump-push ups inside the ropes and violinists play Pachelbel's Canon across the street from African drummers, as men and women cart around ice cream and cold drinks. Up a little further, life sized games of chess and checkers commence.

But back in that salsa room on Friday, this dreamlike atmosphere disintregrated when we started the actual moves, leaving me tripping up and re-orienting, tripping up and reorienting. I paired up with an older guy who taught me to spin every which way. He’s no prince charming, but I’m sure he’s gotten his share of love interests with his moves. The dance is a flirtation, he told me. It’s like a courting. So I shouldn’t have been spinning out of control, away from him. I should have been staying close. This brings one question to mind: I wonder what real salsa dancers do when they are a bit repulsed by their dancing partners.

After salsa, we headed to a Mexican rock club which was offering free enterance for the night. There were columns and old, elaborate moldings inside…it felt a little castle-like in architecture, but the lights were blue, orange, red, and there were music videos playing in front. I felt entranced by the videos and the sweet sounding singer coming over the speakers. The first video showed a close-up of a young face, singing with innocent feeling, looking unflinchingly at the camera. And I came to the conclusion, as I have so many times, that we are all the same. American rock, Mexican rock. I couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying in Spanish, but I have a feeling it wasn’t too different from other American rock stars’ songs.

On Saturday morning, the energy I had the night before somehow continued to flow, and I headed to Tequila to see the only place on earth where they make real tequila. It’s made from a blue plant called the agave, each of which produces about 20 liters of tequila. There, I got a tour inside the factory. We had to wear hairnets as our guide led us through the rooms lined with huge vats of tequila and laboratory testing rooms complete with test tubes and chemicals. At the end, we tried a variety of different tequilas, from the white stuff that goes down smooth but is lacking in body, to the darker stuff I prefer for its fuller flavor.

On Sunday, at breakfast, the Mexican mom of my house suggested that we head to her daughter Gina’s house for a meal. So after a run on Vallarta, where it seemed it was puppy day for all the little dogs jaunting along on leashes, I showered, and Andrea drove us over to Gina’s house. We ate clams from a can, mixed them with avocados, fresh lime juice, rock salt and ketchup. We ate them standing up around the kitchen counter, talking about sports and their business, and raving about the mixtures of flavors we were creating. We drank palomas with good quality tequila, with lime squeezed in and salt around the rims. Then we sat down at the table and started on the tacos. I learned that they afford the nice house there in the dry rolling hills, with its spacious rooms and location away from the chaos of the city because Gina's husband works for an American company. For this, he's been to Las Vegas 4 times and Gina none...I kept thinking about how this is what I'd wanted all along, to be around a Mexican family's table, speaking exclusively in Spanish, eating the way they eat. But there I was, and we were eating ketchup, and they had all the same sleek appliances that we have in the U.S. It felt so American. And I wondered whether this is what success always means here--Americanism. Or maybe we are all headed towards the same fate when we modernize. Maybe its always necessary that designs get sleeker, simpler.

When it comes to questions these days, whether they be questions about what I am supposed to do here or in the future, or whether they be questions of the state of society here, I look for signs in my surroundings. As we headed home on the huge avenue, I kept my eyes wide open. There were German factories, huge American stores like Sam's club and Wal Mart. And when we passed a huge sign that read "Mexican Market," there was a Radio Shack and a 7-11 underneath. Mexico's future modernization process seems to depend upon the U.S. As for my own future, it's still unknown. I wish I could write more on that, but it’s hot out here on these steps and I have no more power in my computer, so until next time, if fate should allow it...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A jewel of interest

It was Semana Santa (holy week) this past week, so everyone rushed out of the city to the little surrounding towns, or to the beach to join hoards of drunken American spring breakers. I'd been dreaming of sun and sand, but hadn't made reservations in advance because I am poor, so I wound up sticking around Guadalajara. I spent the first few days with my new roommate Andrea, from California, and we went running and hiking in parks and fields. It was wonderful, and I felt this strange comfortable, elated feeling as I bounded through the trees. Out in the fields of parque primavera, we found ourselves climbing up a trail through the woods, and I remembered running through some similar looking woods in Colorado, and that same feeling of comfort and happiness that I always feel running through trees returned.

Come Thursday morning, I'd been frugal enough to justify a trip, and my curious mind conjured ideas of myself alone, scouting out hidden towns, talking Spanish to everyone I met. I decided to go to Queretaro, so I left my new apartment with a backpack and some money and hopes of discovering an open bed in some hostel.

In Guadalajara, I notice the noise, the crumpled sidewalks, the way the cars scream down the street in their narrow little lanes with seeming death wishes. I notice how, in my new apartment, the walls vibrate at night when the nearby clubs get hopping. I notice the mohawk-style gelled hair on the men and the tacky high heels on the women, and the way their bright blue earrings match their bright blue jumpsuits. I notice how everything is modern but breaking down, and how people are always talking about new music and the way the world is changing. Sometimes it feels like Mexico is a chaotic place where everyone is always trying to catch someone's eye.

But I gained a deeper sense of Mexico in Queretaro, possibly because I was there alone, with one goal only, and that was to understand the place. Lacking distractions, forced to take an interest, I experienced Semana Santa as a Mexican, attending all the various attractions with the hoards of families.

I discovered the procession of silence twice by accident. First on my run that morning. I heard their music before I saw them coming up the cobblestone street, led by a man with a pointy red cap covering his face. The people walked past in reverent seriousness. That night, the procession continued, and I discovered it by accident when I stepped outside my hostel and found myself in the crowd. They were holding their little children above their heads and watching the procession walk past, carrying plastic statues of Jesus with blood all over him. There was Jesus nailed to the cross, his ribs poking out and his back arched painfully, Jesus in his coffin, Jesus looking pensively out over the people. So many statues of Jesus that the people watched in with their families and friends. Everyone was with someone, sharing the moment with someone, and thinking about their lives. There were also those with the shifty eyes, glancing, looking, glancing, looking all around. I started to feel really itchy then for some reason, and I wanted to leave so badly, like a five year old in church, but I was crowd-locked. Strangely, the kids were intent on staying, watching, thinking sweetly about the meaning of easter. I was pretty convinced that this day is legitimately meaningful for them, unless its an entire town of actors.

So the discovery of Mexico continues. There were museums too, and I discovered there that Mexico began as we did, minus the mutilation of the indigenous people, in a nutshell. Their ideals are so alike, and somehow we've constructed this idea of them being so different in their ideas about life. But in reality, they're not.

Until next time...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I went to Morelia last weekend, and it was absolutely wonderful. I met some travelly people to travel with, and thanks to the fact that my school is international, they were from all over the place: Germany, Sweden, England, and Mexico. We all made our way three hours south on our own and met up at a hostel. On Saturday the adventure began when we took a tour from Morelia to Rosario, a smaller town where the butterfly migration happens each year. We hiked up the hill together to see the butterflies. It's funny how you can feel absolutely exhausted sitting down, but yet able to make it to the top of a small mountain for the love of exercise and trees and dirt, which Gudalajara sorely lacks.

At the top, there was a disappointingly small smattering of orange monarchs flitting around the trees. We stood there for a while amidst the deep green cloaked pine trees with the rest of the crowd. I sat down on the grass for a little bit out of some deep urge to soak up all the wilderness that I could before heading back again to the hard cement grounds of Guadalajara. We had to be quiet on the way up and down out of respect for the butterflies. There were makeshift signs saying please be quiet in spanish. They hung from trees and were misspelled and crossed out and respelled in Spanish. I felt content in my own silence, out of reverence, not for the butterflies but for the place.

There were so many careful and skilled artisans who lined the path leading to and from the butterflies. They sold woven things, beaded things, carved things, each of them so carefully and beautifully constructed. They sold things people love, like blackberries and guanayabas, these amazing yellow fruits that are like pears only more satisfying and interesting. My touri group and I were quiet to, contemplating which fruits to buy and marvelling over the novelties they'd spread out on the dead grass or hung from their wooden constructs.

After seeing the butterflies, we ate at one of the many hillside huts, where they were cooking up meat (which I downed gladly like medicine to combat this stupid anemia) and beans, as well as blue corn tortillas filled with cheese. I can't remember what we talked about, although we did exchange words for a while, sitting there in that little hut, watching the caring old women with their long braids and boldly patterned clothes work at the uneven stove. I felt I could stay until nightfall, but we had to embark on the trek down and the long drive back to our hostel in Morelia. It seemed the trip ended just as it had begun, but maybe it won't be our last group trip.

My roomate Lily took me to Wal Mart last weekend, and I bought a bunch of premarinated steak and chicken. Going to Wal Mart in Mexico was like going home for a second, where the vast world of food choices is simultaneously comforting and overwhelming. I can't cook up the stuff today since the stove broke, but that's okay. I am also well stocked with sliced ham. My sickness is getting better.

This week, everything seems to ellicit exhaustion. I've been leaning on telephone poles for support on my way to classes, putting my head on my hand as I teach. I conserve energy by spending a lot of time in bed, walking slowly and carefully down the street, and packing my bag as lightly as possible. In class, the white walls and white tables and white board seem overwhelmingly bright. Like a diseased person, even talking seems a tall order. I've had to explain to my students that I can't talk much because I am sick, and as I do this I am saying to myself, oh, come on, are you kidding? It's hard to believe that talking could actually be a source of exhaustion. But I think it's true, I didn't fabricate this in my imagination, because now the exhaustion is lifting and I'm remembering what it's like to get up out of a chair without wondering if I'll feel light headed or if I'll have to sit down right away again.

On Monday, as I sat in the white classroom with it's white tables and white board, teaching my 7 a.m. class, one of the office women came in and told me that my main class is cancelled for this month. That I can sleep off this sickness after my morning classes for six more hours per week, soaking up all the rest that I'm constantly craving. But it also means 420 less pesos per week (about $42), and that's a pretty significant chunk of my salary. So it looks like there will be no trip to the beach for Semana Santa (the week before easter when everyone takes off for vacations). All I could do when she told me was stare blankly, taking in the meaning of this lifted work. When I asked why the class was cancelled, the office people told me that Wendy, the rich, 21-year old fashionista I teach, was on vacation for the month. Just like that.

I'm not sure if she knew she would be taking this trip. Maybe it was an emergency, the need to relax seizing her and her family suddenly and without warning. Their normal daily activities of eating out, studying a little English, and going to clubs must get a little old after a time, so maybe that is why they left. Oh the rich of Mexico. Her dad trains boxers for fun. He gets his money from this and then some other business venture that he owns. Where this family's money comes from is quite unclear. Her father doesn't exactly work, per say, it sounds like from her descriptions of his daily routines. He "manages" the business, which seems to mean he pays other people to tell other people what to do. Her mother does not work. And she does not work either. I have not met anyone like her in Mexico. Everyone else works, has to work, and can't afford to take a month off. Heck, most people work over eight hours a day during the week, plus a half day on Saturday, to make ends meat. Hence the reputation for a stark divide between the rich and the poor of Mexico.

As tired as the people look, they do not look stressed. There is a soft look on their faces. They are open to new ideas, new opinions. They are wiling to chat, wanting to chat. I have one student whose love for chatting extends into class. Today he went on and on about Mexico and the problems it has. He had so much to say. I kept going to the board to write down English rules, stopping to correct him, but it was of no today. He wanted me, during my time in Mexico, to understand what they are going through. It was like he read my mind, since that is exactly what I am curious about. I felt a twinge of guilt as I let him take over the direction of class. I kept imagining the head teacher, who I just so happen to live with, coming in and discovering me, as I let him slip into Spanish and just chat away. He said that the local government leaders get everything paid for by the government: their cell phones, their houses, everything. He had this really pensive look in his eyes when he told me, like these perks were so beyond belief. I refrained from telling him that these were normal perks for many businesses in the U.S. He said that he wants to see the government pay the teachers, policemen, nurses, and everyone more. These sounded like just echoes of cries I've heard from the poor in the U.S., but the issues are more serious, more pressing, here. Here, a boy recently died after falling in a nearby river that the government had neglected to clean up. He did not drown. He simply swallowed some of the water, and because it was contaminated, he died. Here, the people--educated and non-educated, hard working and lazy--are always dying for money. They're always holding out for payday, which happens twice a month, on the same day for everyone. On th first and the fifteenth, the stores and the banks fill with anxious people. It's tough getting by on the amounts we earn, making it to each payday is a delicate balance, so easily thrown off by little cancellations or unexpected costs.

To improve the economy, the government recently lowered taxes significantly. The idea is to offset the U.S. economic downturn. In an effort to do this, President Felipe Calderon recently cut the corporate income tax, the social security tax, and electricity rates. These cuts are supposed to offset rising costs on some staple products as well as the rising price of fuel.

Regardless of how much the government taxes its citizens, the real issue is what they do with the money, my student Luis said in class today. He wants them to stop lining their own pockets and start offering social security like the U.S. has and fancy educational opportunity programs like Germany. He wants welfare. I smile and nod.

At night, on the weekends, the severely unfortunate make their way out onto the streets. They are the people without legs whose families have abandoned them. They sit, leaning against the buildings, outside of crowded ice cream parlors, with hopeful eyes that gaze up at you. Some of them have deformed faces. I often wonder how they got there. Whoever drops them off is kind enough to do so, but heartless enough to leave them without company as they sit waiting and hoping for fortune.

For some, the waiting and hoping starts at an early age. There is a woman on the street corner, right by my school, that I pass four times a day. She has two children with her who prance around with chicklets as she slices the skins of papayas, cucumbers, oranges, jicama, and mangoes. She also chops the off the hard outsides of watermelons and pineapples. The potpouri of fruit smells perfumes the street as I walk past, and watching her top off the tall cups of fruit with sprinklings of chili and salt and squirts of lime. Always intensely concerned over something, she doesn't smile or look up much. As for her children, they often wear these concerned, desperate looks as they hold out their chicklets for you to buy. Other days, they prance around, like it's their favorite corner to play on. And other days, the five year old boy sits on the ledge by the fruit stand, leaning back on his hands and tossing his voice to the sky in hopeful, happy song.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I don't recommend eating in the streets here

Parasites and amoebas are swimming inside my stomach, Dr. Perla told me today. I found out about her through one of my students, this nice family guy who is really anxious to learn English. I called him desperate for the medical hook up on Monday, when the stomach pains from whatever I caught on Thursday continued to persist. He gave me the number and said I had 40 minutes to get there, or I could wait until another day, so I dropped my teaching planning and hobbled over with my parasites. (These days there always seems to be some reason to drop my teaching planning...or just plain never to get to it. Luckily my students seem pretty happy with the way things are going, but I have a feeling my style is not exactly textbook.) I was pretty relieved to have gotten a recommendation, and not just wound up in any old doctor's chair, especially when they were sticking me with a needle and prescribing me with medication. All in all, if I had to describe the experience in two words, those words would be almost spiritual. The office, on a quiet street, was like an oasis. It had natural looking walls, and the reception desk had a ceaselessly content little lady smiling underneath a huge painting of a red flower. I felt calmer, more comforted, than I'd been in a while. The room was long but spacious, with high ceilings that let strong rectangular streams of light cut in from above. I felt I could sit in the waiting room as long as they wanted, just breathing in and out, knowing they would soon rid me of the waves of stomach pain, and maybe the other symptoms too. It all started last Wednesday, and I'm not exactly sure what it was I ate that triggered it. It started with chills, then a day of a fever, then the stomach issues and everything else that goes with Moctezuma's revenge. During all of this, my roommates decided to give me lectures about dishes that weren't mine and to ask me to clean the entire bathroom. They're not exactly the warmest people you'll meet.

The truth is, you really never know who a person really is until you've known them for a while. Many of my students are beginning to become friends, which I did not anticipate happening. I think they like it when I call them outside of class and they get to hear me stumble through my Spanish, instead of them having to wade through their the strange new sounds and flaky rules of English. I realize when I try to talk to strangers that while the sentence structure makes sense to me at this point, there are still a lot of words I don't know. I've got to get some more vocab!!! It's tough, though. I am still struggling to make it to my classes with prepared lessons. There is always something that comes up that takes up more time than expected---a broken copy machine, a long wait for a bus, the need to write...oops, I guess that last one could be helped. Maybe I'm not cut out for teaching. It's pretty ridiculous when the teacher is the one who just can't stop yawning.

But according to Dr. Perla, I have am not fabricating my chronic tiredness out of my imagination as some sort of sorry excuse for poor teaching, as I had suspected. I actually do have anemia. I couldn't help but laugh in her office today as she dished out the list of sicknesses I had. All I could think was well, good. Great. I'm not crazy. I thought I was going crazy, or that the elements were just overwhelming me or something. I had been refraining from running, conserving my energy, even before the amoebas and parasites invaded. I kept thinking it was the sound of the rumbling buses or the pollution or maybe the need for more water. But no, I'm actually physically hindered right now. So I've got new medicine, and am scheduled for another consultation about the anemia. I wish I had more to report about Mexico, but I've really just been surviving lately. I'm going to be eating more red meat, and not in the streets. Those are my plans for the next few weeks. And well, if all goes okay, I'll be going to see the butterfly migration in Morelia this weekend.

I hope all is well in the grand 'ole U.S. of A!!!

Until next time...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Feliz San Valentino

Here in Mexico, it seems Valentine's day is a little less commercial than it is in the U.S. (Surprise surprise.) People do celebrate, though. There are special balloons and little gifts that they give, (Yay for chocolate!) but the stores aren't completely tranformed into red and pink havens. In fact, I'm in Starbucks right now, the one place that you would think would go all out, and I don't see any signs of Valentine's day, besides a few pink drinks.

Valentine's day aside, life in the classroom continues. Lately I remember my teachers from high school a lot. Their frustrations have become my own. I remember them scribbling things on the board that were unreadable and wondering why they wouldn't just slow down enough to make things legible. Now I understand. Sometimes, you are just dying to get a sentence down on the board and move on to the next part. Sometimes, lessons drag on and on and on, and you are just dying for them to start understanding so that you can get to the next part. I'll be sitting down with a student, and they will make the same mistake over and over and over again, as I try to explain the correct way over and over and over again. For my beginning students, this happens a lot. There are so many words that they don't know, and it's to the point where I find myself trying to explain things with words they don't know. Pictures are key. So is playing little games of charades here and there. But how do you explain a word like do? Or the word else? Become? There are some words that are a little more abstract, a little more tough to get your head around, unless, of course, you already know. There is always the option of translating into Spanish, but we've been forbidden to do that. It's not exactly realistic to never use Spanish, so I do use it sometimes.

I have this one student who takes classes at 7 a.m. every morning. He comes in late every day lately. I've been really trying to correct his mistakes by correcting him as he talks, but that doesn't work to well because he's already really down on himself about how quickly he is learning. He's always ducking and apologizing, ducking and apologizing. So now I try not to correct to much and to say good as much as possible. But at the same time, it's so frustrating to hear him continue to make the exact same mistakes, after I've corrected him time and again. The most frustrating thing, of course, is when I give an entire lesson on when to use am working, and then, the next day, to hear him use it incorrectly. In the end, it's not a big concern of mine, though. In the end, I am doing my job, and he can either take it in or not.

I found a place to run. There is a train station just one block from mine, and it goes straight to Unidad Deportiva, this park with a bunch of dirt soccer fields and a track. I ran there on Sunday, around and around and around. As boring as it was, it was really nice to be running without stopping at intersections and breathing in exhaust. It's also nice not to be stopped by people who try to strike up conversations as you're running by. I mean, it's nice and all, but it really breaks up the workout. It's so strange how few people go to this park. I'm wondering what it's going to be like to run in the race on the 24th, as I'm planning, because I don't see where the runners are going to come from. I hear some will come from Kenya. Maybe they'll be shipping in all the competition from outside... :)

In any case, they won't have to ship in the interesting spectators. I'm guessing there will be supporters. If there's one thing the people I see on the streets are good at, it's support. Well, support and self expression.

The little things they do

When I went running at Parque Metropolitana on Sunday, I left my bag underneath a tree and smiled at the family picnicking under the tree when I left. A nice looking lady smiled back. When I came back for a brief check on the bag and to get my bearings, the family was leaving, and they told me to take my bag. They said it was not safe to leave it. I told them I had my money and my key on me, and maybe the bag would be okay. I kind of looked at them with a hopeful look, like I hoped they would let me leave it, but like any good mother, the mother shook her head no. She would not let me be that irresponsible.

At Parque Metropolitana, about twenty girls put on a Bring-It-On style show for all the many park goers. As pairs of people wheeled past on their strange pedal-car contraptions (kind of like the Flinstones, only with pedaling power) these girls danced in perfect unison to some great American pop song. They wore these uniforms with short red skirts and red shoes, and white shirts, all of them skinny, with their black hair in ponytails. It’s fun to be a part of a cartoon every now and then.

So often, in the afternoons, when everyone on the bus is incredibly tired, these musicians come on and play. They play guitars and sing. The other day, there were these two bigger ladies with long black hair, and their voices were so strong and smooth. The bus-musicians seem to have a solid amount of talent, enough to be employed by a bar, and people recognize that. At the end of the song, they go around and collect money, and the passengers give it gladly.

Today on the bus an old lady came on, and as the bus lurched forward, she nearly fell, and had to grab onto the seat quickly in order to get her balance. I tried to help steady her, but she was okay by the time I reached out. I felt compelled to do this because it had been done for me. Once when I almost fell on the bus, even though I was holding onto the bar above, a lady in the seat next to me reached both arms out behind me, to catch me if I fell. She looked up at me with a relieved expression and then a smile. I laughed and said “Gracias!”

There is a girl that gets on the bus about the same time I do every day, and she is always dressed in perfect Mexican fashion. I think she’s about 19 and seems a good gauge of what a typical perfect Mexican girl should be. Today she wore shiny silver pointy flats with perfectly tight jeans, the grain of the material running lengthwise. Her Sweatshirt was striped Light and dark purple, and she wore big round purple earrings to match. To match her shoes, she carried a shiny silver purse.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

On happiness

The people of Mexico are not rich, but are they happy? We all know money can't buy happiness, but it's only natural for the American mind to wonder: doesn't economic instability hurt one's overall sense of happiness?

Well, as far as I can tell, the answer is no.

They seem to enjoy riding life's ups and downs, like a roller coaster. People on the streets offer car washes for a little cash with exuberant energy. There is such hope for what can be earned through one's individual efforts. On buses, people take care of eachother. I almost fell down the other day when the bus lurched with more force than usual, and a lady reached out to catch me. We laughed immediately afterward. Musicians looking for cash enter the buses to play their guitars and sing for money. Their voices are incredible, and they explain their hopes for money. Then there are the entrepreneurs selling incense. They too enter the buses, where there is a captive audience, and explain the health merits of their product. In appreciation of the presentation, and the amazing-smelling incense, several bus-goers purchased a few bundles.

Even in the midst of their unrest, there is celebration. Such was the case in Thursday's protest, when workers wore corn husk costumes to protest the recent lifting of tariffs on U.S. corn. The agreements from NAFTA recently expired, and that means Mexican corn farmers now have to compete with American farmers to sell their corn. So in protest, a bunch of workers lined up in a huge crowd outside this old government building, calling for something to be done about the agreement. I'm not sure what the local government could do. It seemed ridiculous to me that they would be lining up outside a local government building, calling for something to be done about a national treaty. But in the end, it appeared that whether they had an affect on the government or not, they were going to have a good time. I mean, they were wearing corn costumes. They were also playing music that echoed throughout the plaza, as though it were time for a fiesta. In reality, the unfair tarriff lifts were an excuse to gather in the plaza, take a day off of work, and listen to some good 'ole Mexican beats. I don't mean to dismiss their cause--the trade agreement is a serious issue that is affecting Mexico's economy. But the effort was decidedly quaint and festival-like.

But the calm nature of the event did not stop the police from coming out with their machine guns at the ready. They stood at the side of the building in a neat military formation, wearing black and carrying shields. They stared straight ahead in true military form, shifting their eyes to watch me as I passed. It was really strange. I went over and asked the head police, who was standing on the side with his walkee talkee, if this was common. He said yes, these types of protests happen about 4 or 5 times per year in Guadalajara. But things are very "tranquilo" (calm--one of their favorite words, a huge compliment, it seems) here, he said with a proud smile. The people don't get violent. They don't do anything rash like people do in Mexico City or Monterey.

I started to wish I lived in Mexico City or Monterey when he told me this. I know, that's not exactly an intelligent reaction, but aren't you a little curious too? I want to see the drama of Mexico playing out before my eyes. I don't want to keep missing out on the action. I've lived such a sheltered life. On the cover of a newspaper recently, I saw this photo of people with their hands pressed up against the glass and these really desperate facial expressions. It was a hold up at some bank in Venezuela, far far away. It seems that no matter where I go, the exciting stuff is happening somewhere else. Maybe I'll see something crazy at some point. I've got my eyes peeled. Sometimes on my runs, I take little detours away from the nice neighborhoods, so that I can see the shady streets. I want to see what happens on the streets with the broken glass and all the graffiti. Of course, I only do this during the day and then quickly slip back into the nice neighborhoods with the nice houses and the trees. But sometimes I just wonder what stories I'm missing on these other streets.

As I run through the quieter streets, I often see happy lives unfolding. I see store owners talking idly with customers and friends. I often wonder what they are talking about that keeps them entertained hour upon hour, just standing their, waiting for business to pick up? I visited a little market last Sunday, a market with little eateries lining the periphery. I ate an incredible little quesadilla, which I doused in guacamole and salsa, while talking to the ladies behind the counter. One of them said she'd been working their for eleven years. I asked her how old she was, and she said 17. She said she didn't live close; she lived about a half hour bus ride away, but it was a family business and she liked it. She, her mother, and her sister went about their work peacefully, greeting the men who stopped by for tacos and gorditas with genuine warmth. They smiled as they talked to them. I wonder if they have dreams of meeting their future husband as they work. Maybe they too gaze at the beautiful white wedding dresses in the dozens of "Novias" stores that line Vallarta as I do. Maybe my sense of happiness is not so different from theirs after all.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

News from the streets

A reporter would start out with a main point and then tell a story that exemplifies it. But I can´t come up with a main point. Generalities skew the story I am experiencing. They fail to grip the reality, and they often support or refute stereotypes with an inadequate amount of real knowledge to make such grandiose claims. So this time, because I want you to understand the streets, I´m not going to tell you what I think of them. I´m going to tell you what they´re like.

This morning, the rumble of life is constant but varied. It's a fruit salad-jumble of sensory overload, bursting with the many sounds of work and effort. Stand on the corner of Independencia and Amaldo, just beyond one of the city´s rare patches of grass, and you´ll here it all. High in some second story restaurant across the street a hammer clangs against a nail. The sound repeats every ten seconds. Like every city, traffic flows in its constant way. Here, each one calls out to the world in its own way. Some squeak when they stop, others boom with music. Motorcycles buzz by, always seeming to come out of nowhere. The notes rise and fall, the beat even and consoling, the drum rythms adding a clubbing feel to the streets. Some engines whine as they speed up, others sigh. And the buses do it all. They grunt to get going, let out air with a sighing sound as they wait for passengers to load, and squeak as they stop. The break squeak pitches are high enough to disable a dog´s hearing for life.

Then there are the sights. People in neon outfits ride in pairs on motorcycles, faster than the cars. There are so many children walking with adults who pull them along briskly, on definite missions to just get through this place. Except one girl who passes with her parents. She is carrying a guinea pig cage, following her parents and her little brother.

A woman in a purple cotton skirt and purple sweater around her waist hobbles past. She wears a bright blue headband and a tie died shirt. Hobbling is common down these streets. Using canes, lenaing on walkers, and wearing neck braces is also common. There is a sense that everything needs fixing. I know, I know, I just broke my rules about drawing no general conclusions. I guess if I had to choose a thesis statement, that would be it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On pets, formality, and spiciness

As I spend my days teaching English, reading like mad, and walking to and from class, I now feel prepared to answer some of the questions Angie posted on the blog. Thanks Anj!

Do people have pets?

To answer your question, Anj, yeah. They have dogs that they walk on Sundays. Sundays are a very jolly day around here. One of the main streets opens up for pedestrian use only, and people come out in droves with their families. A lot of them bring their dogs too. Funny thing is, I don´t think I´ve seen any cats the whole time I´ve been in Mexico. Pets don´t seem to be a big deal. It seems like people have other things on their mind, like earning a paycheck and relaxing.

How formal is it? (dress)

Very informal. I live downtown in the second largest city in the country, and so if there is anywhere people would get dressed up, it´s here. A lot of people wear jeans to work, but I also see businessmen and women dressed up in basic business suits. These more serious types are pretty well put together. The women pretty much always wear pointy toed stilletos and the men gel their hair.

In general styles are more intense, and this especially applies to the mainstream. Men sport haircuts with pointy sideburns. Sometimes the back of the haircut even comes to a point, like the hairdresser wanted to give him a rat tail but then stopped short. Hairstyle creativity abounds. I keep seeing this style wear the men make the middle of their hair stick up with gel, kind of like a fin on the top of their head. Downtown, I see lot of women with blonde highlights that don´t exactly look natural with their dark hair.

The women are all about bright colors and patterns: polka dots, leopard print, stripes, flowers. You see it on old ladies, middle aged women, kids, whoever. To appreciate this wealth of aesthetic expression is to appreciate Mexican culture, rich in vibrance and emotion. They love their sequins, beads, and little stitchings of English words. They love their glitter too. I met this girl at a bar whose face looked like it was straight out of the Jetson´s. She had pink eyeshadow, applied in a smooth, thick layer up to her eyebrows. On top of the eyeshadow was a layer of glitter. The blonde highlights in her hair were as pronounced as the blue stripes on her sweater.

Downtown, I see a lot of tacky stuff. There are a lot of questionable styles, either that have gone out of style or are in style now. You´ll see your occcasional pair of pleated jeans. Then there are the twenty-something women who wear really tight jeans. They also wear leggings paired with skin tight shirts. Tight clothes are way in for women, regardless of body type.

Zappaterias (shoe stores) are everyone. These people are obsessed with shoes. Even the men wear interesting varieties, like leather shoes with square toes. The women, of course, are the ones who really go crazy. These days, a ton of women are wearing high heeled boots, usually with stilleto heels and pointed toes. They are also sporting flats in every pattern and material imaginable. The fancier ones have teeny heels which you can´t see, but add that reassuring ¨I´m coming¨ click when you walk.

How formal is it? (speaking)

It´s pretty informal with speaking as well. If you look at the literal translation of the things they say, they are a lot more direct, and less polite, than we are in the U.S. Some might argue that it´s just a different way of saying the same thing, but I think that the intricacies of their literal word choices say something about the culture. For instance, there´s no beating around the bush if you want to get through a crowd. You simply say permiso, which is more of a demand than the typical American request, ¨excuse me.¨

Aside from word choice, they tend to treat you in a familiar way right off the bat. If I seem worried about something, the office ladies at my school are quick to say ¨no te preocupas--¨don´t worry. If I apologize for not knowing a word or ask a dumb question, people in stores and other places are quick to offer reassurance. Being late is not a problem. Most are quick to greet with an easy smile, regardless of how well they know you. There is a sense that we are all in this life thing together. On Sundays, everyone relaxes together. You look on the buses, and there is a collective sense of happiness as people ride along together. Everyone is out in couples, in groups of friends, and most of all with family. Friends chat away openly as they ride buses. If they´re not chatting, they at least seem content. This same sense of a collective experience applies on weekdays, at the end of the day, when everyone is tired and stressed together. You look around and eyes are half open. No one talks, but no one acts out in hostility except for the babies. There always seems to be a crying baby on the 5:00 buses.

They´re pretty frank, regardless of how well they know you. They don´t hesitate to push their way through crowds. On the street, people make eye contact and greet eachother for the most part. People don´t hold back when it comes to greeting or speaking frankly with friends and family. It seems people band together a lot. As much as possible, people try to go places with other people. They make an effort to spend time with friends, even if it´s midday on a weekday.

Do you feel your body becoming spicier...like do you choose to wear red, green, and yellow more often? Do you think you could become Mexican if you lived there for thirty years?

I have to say, I don´t really feel too affected by Mexican style personally. I´m still me, still wearing my jeans and my corduroy jacket, still stearing clear of their fake patent leather shoes. But at the same time, I am really becoming profoundly affected by how serious they take every opportunity presented to them, from the big to the small. At the salsa club down the street, people do not take the fun atmosphere for granted. If you are dancing with someone, you are paying attention to them.

Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. It´s not to be taken lightly in life...and people here seem to realize this, at least in the moment the opportunity arrives. It´s making me think.

More on this in future posts...

Pretty much, everything you ever wanted to know about Guadalajara can be taken care of right here, courtesy of me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New Year, New Job

To continue the cliffhanger I left you at last time, we did not go to my host mother's sister's house on Christmas. We spent it around her small table in her home, with her mute son, eating "Ensalada Navidena," a salad of chicken, pinaeapple, raisins, and potatoes mixed with cream. The other dish was some greens and potatoes steeped in shrimp juice. Out of respect for Mexican culture, just in case this was "typical" (which I don't think it was), I'll leave my comments on the meal out.

Looking back on my experience with my host mom in December, I now realize that I did not exactly luck out. While other students were getting big, fancy lunches at their house every day and going on trips to other cities with their family, I was getting invited to the occasional market trip and receiving constant reminders that I would have to be out by December 28, no later. When I realized that my key to the new apartment might not work, and I was not sure if I would be able to get in, I asked my host mom if I could hold on to her key for a few extra days, just in case. The answer was a certain and definite no. "It's not my problem," she said. So I left with my luggage, took a taxi downtown to my new apartment, and luckily, the key worked.

I've now been here for about two weeks, and in comparison to the old place, it's great. First of all, my roomates, Lily and her mother Christine, are really nice. They've been living here for a year and a half and are well settled in. We don't exactly have heating, and as it turns out, they do have winter in Mexico after all, so I'm doing a lot of yoga to keep warm. I've also taken to walking to class as fast as I can, in order to keep the blood flowing. What used to be a 25 minute walk is now something like 15. I do this walk multiple times per day since I have a class early in the morning, and then classes in the late afternoon and evening. During the day, I read and attend Spanish classes...and write about life here.

I'm constantly meeting people on buses, in class, and in passing. They're very open, unashamed to talk about the hardships of their pasts. As I learn and understand more of the Mexican world, I realize what a unique world it is. Above all, the volatile economy keeps Mexicans in a state of uncertainty that colors their histories and their futures. There is a sense that not much can be done, that the powers that be either don't care that the typical Mexican seems to be living pay check to pay check or are just as befuddled over it as the average Mexican. Maybe Mexican leaders need to look at protecting Mexico more and appeasing the U.S. less, suggest Mexican newspaper headlines on trade agreements. (What I want to know is if Mexico is the second leading supplier of oil to the U.S., why don't they seem to have more leveraging power? Why should they need to comply with U.S. trade agreements when the U.S. is at their mercy when it comes to its biggest achilles heal--oil?) Whatever the reason, there is a collective sense that the U.S., not Mexico, is where you go if you want a financially secure life.

"There is not a lot of opportunity here," they keep telling me. When they open up to me, this is the first thing they say. There aren't very many jobs. Many Mexicans have gone through long stretches of time when they were without work, scrounging to find food as each family member searched for work. My house-mate's Mexican boyfriend, Jaime (pronounced Hi-mee) went for six years like this. Cupboards were empty, the future uncertain. You would think this economic volatility would produce a culture that is hyper-sensitive to the importance of hanging onto the money you've got, but it seems that just the opposite is true. Instead, there seems to be a perpetual anxiety not to have, but to spend, money. They grow up with insecurity, are used to insecurity, so when they get money, it is not security that they crave, but rather, the extra luxuries that they've been deprived of: the latest fashions, fancy meals, and nights out. For most, payday is time to spend, not a chance to save. I have a few stories that lead me to these conclusions.

First there's Jaime (Lily's Mexican boyfriend). He spent a few months sick last year and was unable to work. During this time, Lily supported him. Now, don't tell them I told you, but when Jaime got better again and started working, he spent all his money. He did not pay Lily or his other debts. He bought clothes, went out drinking. He told Lily his reasoning, which she imparted to me. "Imagine not having money for a long time, and not being able to spend anything," he'd said to her. "Then when you get it, all you want to do is spend spend spend. You want so many things because you have gone without for so long."

Twenty-nine-year-old Jesus Ola, who I met on a bus when lost on Christmas Eve, told me the same thing. He spent six months in the U.S. earning money, and when he returned he had $1,000. Considering how little his family had, that was a small fortune. However, when he returned, he managed to blow it all in one month. He and his mother, grandmother, and four brothers indulged in wine, steak, fish, and cake for a month. He talks about it with pride though, because to him, it's not a story about failure to make use of his hard-won earnings. It's a story about a time in his life that held the glint and glimmor or a life he'd always hoped for. And maybe he never will experience such extravagance again. Had he saved it, he may have been able to buy things to better his situation--some sort of classes to increase his chances at a more secure salary. But maybe not. "The opportunities are limited in Mexico," he says.