A vendor stops by my table with buckets of fruits cantilevered across his shoulders - Mario is his name. He's delighted to speak English with me. He lived in Texas, but he is back home now. I don't delve into his story. Instead I buy some uvas and goiabas, and he happily poses for a photo.
Four weeks in, and it’s the first blessed break we’ve had from the intensity of Peace Corps trainee life – five hours of Spanish classes per day, culture and language immersion, history lectures and sector training sessions, security drills and vaccines, team-building exercises with our group of 40 fresh recruits - wide-eyed and vigilant as contestants on Survivor about to be voted off the island!
Off hours we bond with our host families, acclimating to shared bathrooms and meals, the silence interrupted by bold attempts to connect across the language divide. And then there’s the business of setting up a basic life in Mexico – back accounts and work visas and cell phones; learning how to get from point A to B, looking down where ever you walk for fear of being swallowed up by a crack in the sidewalk; where to go for a cheap beer on a voluteer’s pay, a decent café fuerte (other than the Starbucks!), an Internet signal. It’s all new; and we are like babies in this country, learning to crawl before we can run.
My attentive waiter checks on me: ‘Tudo bien?’
‘Si, muy bien, saboroso, gracias.’ He fills my water glass, removes my balled up servilletas, slips out of site.
A group of classy senoras, dolled up in flowing colorful camisas and bright lipstick arrives on the veranda smiling, bidding me buenas dias, settling in the table behind me for a nice afternoon comida.
The Mexicans are a kind and friendly and gracious bunch – they make all the change I'm going through worthwhile.
In the background, insipid show tunes blare over the hotel sound system, something from My Fair Lady I think. Next it’s a Barry Manilow song played on the pan pipes! (I didn’t say the Mexicans had good taste in music.) Thankfully a passing pickup blasts Nortena country music for a few rockin’ seconds; but the truck rounds the bend, and I’m left with Feeeeeelings again.
Cyclists of all ages peddle around the square, going places - chicos on BMXs with suspension (they need it on these roads), oldsters in leather shoes and button-down shirts, and trabajadores with their 3-wheeled jobs carting construction supplies. Buses, motorcycles, minibikes, and old VW bugs and Sentras whiz around the square, filling the air with dust and exhaust.
The vendors are arriving and setting-up their gordita carts for the lunchtime crowd, tapping into electricity from a low hanging wire.
And beneath the shade of the sculptured ficus trees the line of lime green taxis grows. I’ve watched driver number one lovingly polish his cab for the last two hours; and by now it’s shiny as a showroom model – the windshield glints in the desert sun.
And still, there are no fares.
He pulls out a flattened cardboard box and secures it beneath the windshield wipers; then he lights up a cigarette and leans against the car to wait some more. Patience is a Mexican (and Peace Corp) virtue. It’s something I’m expected (and hope) to cultivate while I’m here.
At the same time, I sense the pity rising up in me – just like it did last night for the accordion player who strolled the square searching for someone to listen then hand him a few pessos. But I hung back, safe in the hotel lobby, watching, hoping for him –a little scared to traverse the square alone at midnight, and moreover, a little reluctant to stand out like the stereotypical pious Americana (Estadounidoenca, that is, for the Mexicans are Americans too.)
So how will I manage these feeeeeeelings over the next two years while here in Mexico doing this work of sustainable development? How can I see the truth of the hardships – and there’s no shortage of data – and remain positive?
The state-funded fish farm in the desert that struggles to manage the obviously adverse conditions, not to mention developing a non-existent market for their products.
Kilometer 58, a town so far off the beaten path it has no name, and there are no jobs; the community is paid by the government not to work the land anymore, in the name of environmental protection.
How can I transform feelings of pity and anger to compassion to action?
I look up from my laptop and see taxi number one has finally gotten a fare, and I am relieved. I exhale, squint across the plaza to watch him triumphantly pull away, and notice that the client is getting out for some reason – and getting into a car that’s just pulled up. The fare is lost. The cabbie gets out, shuts the door behind himself, pulls his rag from his pocket, and polishes off the chrome handle.
What WILL I be able to do for these people? Vamos ver...