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.