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.

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