Monday, September 26, 2011

The Many Mexicos -- Otro Vez

I’m hiking down Damian Carmona this morning, on my way to meet Dr. C and Katrina for brunch, and it strikes me: this place is so sophisticated, and so different from Rancho Rioverde. It’s one of the Many Mexicos that Professor Edgardo warned us about during Peace Corps training.

Sure, I got it then – the socioeconomic gradations, the ecosystem variations, the over 80 shades of the Mestizo. But now I really get it – now that I’ve had some distance from this bustling urban center, the home of Peace Corps Mexico and my home for the first three months of my service, during PCT.

Now that I’ve been to places like Paso de Botello where they don’t even speak Spanish and they sign their names with a thumbprints, I can marvel at the shiny BMWs and valet parking and vinotecas with wines from all over the world. In this Mexico you’ve got Cineplex movie theaters and urban day spas and boutiques of Italian furniture. You can hang-out in wi-fi cafes, intoxicated by the aroma of espresso, and connect to the worldwideweb of lies and truths.

I stroll with bounce in my step, infused by all this urban energy, despite last night’s tequila shots in celebration of Drew’s 40th – a fiesta with a ska band in the backyard and incense burning and trendy guests with tattoos and nose-rings and black hair with steaks of smurf blue.

I could be on the New U in DC, it occurs to me, as I follow a block behind a family of four on the amble, tree-line sidewalk, two skinny-jeaned teenage girls, petite mom in A-line skirt and strappy sandals, tall slender dad in Levi’s, sneakers and black T, no eff-me pumps, or cowboy boots, or herds of ninos (or cows) trailing behind. They lick ice cream cones and carry shopping parcels from the market.

Ah, the Many Mexicos. Eh, I know that man, I realize.

And in that very moment, as if on queue, the father pauses and turns around; and sure enough he is Professor Edgardo. It’s been almost a year since those afternoon history classes at the Marista, when he kept us on the edge of seats (despite the sleepy post-Comida hour) with stories of Mexico’s checkered past, his version full of honesty, irony, complexity, corruption.

He recognizes me immediately and stops and waves me over. He introduces me to his family – and says right away that he suspects I have been busy in Rioverde, because he has not seen an Anneseye blog post for a while. ‘Which is okay,’ he assures me, ‘It ‘tis better, really, it means you are working in the campo, with the people.’

Yes, he is right, I say, nodding, relieved. I’ve been worried about my own lack of Web presence – my isolation from the internet world…from the world in general…no television, no time to stay abreast of the political drama on ‘the other side,’ nor check the Facebook status of friends, nor check the roller-coaster ups and downs of portfolio.

I am out there, at the end-end-end of the dirt road, where the people gather in a pool of shade beneath a lone mesquite tree, leaning on their picks and shovels, eager to begin planting. And Angela arrives in her camouflage bucket cap with her bright smile, shaking every hand, welcoming me warmly, so glad you could come. The greetings are soft handshakes, no kisses or backslaps or effusiveness, but every hand touched with genuineness. (In the Muni everyone kisses you, and way too close to the mouth.)

We arrive without the seedlings (the funds haven’t been approved yet in SLP), without the maia for the roof and fencing (we are still waiting for the requisite three competitive quotes). But we make use of the trip to take more signatures, check the progress of the work, and snap fotos of the women removing more rocks from the clearing and smoothing the terrain for their future vivero. And then they feed us – a brick-red mole of chicken and tortillas of maiz cooked on the fire.

‘It tis why you are here, no?’ the Professor adds.

Yes, to be touched, saddened, frustrated, elated by these Many Mexicos, open to the many emotions that come with seeing things the way they are – and creating space for what’s possible.

As we part ways, I promise him I will blog about these realizations soon. In fact, after brunch with the chicas, I’m off to the Italian Coffee Company in the Centro for a luxury afternoon of wi-fi and latte.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Proud Member of the CEA - Part II

Mindfulness is bringing light into the darkness.  First, it’s the act of stopping.         How joyful that can be to not have the busy-ness.
               Tonight, as I sit down to comida in my Diaz Rincon, it occurs to me:  the Peace Corps has        made             me                    stop. 
               Though I keep trying to GO. 
               Biólogo Angel told me once, early-on in my service:  the government opens the door, that’s it. From there it’s up to you what you do with your time here.
               I protested: but we need more help than that. To do the work of sustainability we need engaged counterparts.  We can’t do it alone.  Real development requires partners, if we have any hope of accomplishing things…that will be sustainable… once we are gone. 
               It was a good Washingtonian argument.  But I’m not in DC anymore.  Angel didn’t say it; I filled-in the silence myself. 
               Now, a year into this journey, so many failures and disappointments under my belt, so many days like yesterday in Zamachihue, going along for the ride, snapping photos, watching as the hopes of the women are raised, knowing after just three months of payments, the engineers will disappear and so will the financial and moral support, Band-Aids on cancer, I’ve got to wonder:  Where does that door really lead? 
               I’d come for ‘something bigger than me.’  That’s the mantra that had been brewing in my brain since Cousin Jonny’s death and Grandma Lena’s and the violinist (my very first teenage sweetheart), all in the span of a year.  It was clear time was running out.  Hadn’t I spent enough time – almost 20 years –
as a management consultant in the marble halls Washington?  Wasn’t it time for something more down to earth, the dusty pueblo, people with real problems – water, education, food security – people who really deserved my help?
               A year later, I’m not sure who’s helping whom.
               The Zamachihue women sent me home with a baggy of freshly cut nopales, de-thorned them in front of me – added a handful of dried chile pequin – and rattled off their recipe – garlic, oregano, chile to taste, muy sencillo.  They said on my next visit they’d teach me to make a móle Potosino.  Maybe this is why I came.
               The Peace Corps is called a lot of things: ‘Cuerpo de Paseo,’ a government-funded vacation, albeit a rustic one, a ‘finishing school’ for recent college grads, a jobs program.  To the conspiracy theorists, it’s a clandestine CIA program to plumb info from the (potential) foreign enemy. Let’s see, what useful information have I brought them in my trimester reports?  60 hours of sustainability training for the Semillas of Esperanza; cleanup day and 4 Rs recycling program with the EcoClub of Puente del Carmen; English conversation group every Monday at Café Amore; Agenda 21 capacity-building for the citizen’s Consejo.
               But what if, in the name of global peace and understanding, our generous, forward-thinking government was paying a few lucky ones to go off and develop a relationship with themselves for two hellacious years?  What I’m saying is:  if there were a Central Enlightenment Agency (CEA), this could be it!  And that open door?  It’s really an invitation…to step OUT of life. 
               But I’m not taking it.  I’m still fighting the Mexican system, tangled up in red tape, striving to have an impact.  I don’t want to return home next December and feel like I just wasted two years of my life. (The words of fellow- volunteer during mid-service training who could have been speaking for any of us.)
               Tears. Why?  It’s too easy.  It’s too hard.
               The door is open. Bienvenidos. Adios. I’m paused at the threshold, peeking in, peeking out…beginning my second year of service and taking a few steps, cautiously.  Hola?
               I’m laughing now.  Silly me, I joined-up and have been here for a year, and I’m just now getting it?   
               I’m sitting here at my dining table stuffed pasta primavera I’ve prepared with the freshest ingredients a person could find anywhere the first of January, dead of winter – the ripest cherry tomatoes, crispest broccoli, sweetest red onions, purest white button mushrooms, dried chili pequin from Angelica’s garden, and Perla’s homemade smoked provolone grated on top. And I realize:  this is all part of the CEA plan to eat more wisely – not a single thing out of a package or can.
               I stare up at the batik hanging on my wall. It’s Cualtemoc, the Aztec leader who did not fold.  Or maybe my guy is Mayan from the Yucatan – he has the nose.  Even the fact that I know the difference is exactly what I mean. The work of the CEA is really incredible. 
               I bought the batik from an artisan working the streets of Isla Mujeres last New Year’s.  Got three of my friends to journey South of the Border to meet me for a little R&R away from DC.  And they got a taste of the beauty and complexity (and margaritas) of Mexico, not to mention the beauty and complexity of our relationships, which had gone in slightly opposing directions since I joined up.  That’s okay – all part of the CEA process. 
               Alejandro, the neighborhood carpenter, constructed a rustic frame for my batik, stained it mahogany, and strung it with istle.  And when he came to drop it off and deliver a few pieces of furniture I’d commissioned to fit the dimensions of my Peace Corp-budget apartment, Alex sat at the new dining table to test it out. He was curious about my life, I could tell.  And Jonny Copp’s poem taped to the wall caught his eye. 
               Border Country, he read aloud.  Then he proceeded to recite the poem, word for word, in measured English.  He needed help with a few tough words – penny whistle, sweetheart, cowering down.  What did that mean? 
               A hard one to define, I scratched my head.  To be scared, con miedo?  I did a duck-and-cover, my arms folded over my head. 
               Oh, he said.  This is real?
               I nodded. 
               Alex was a self-confessed wetback who’d lived in San Antonio for a few years.  That’s where he learned his English, his carpentry trade, and his worth ethic, he told me.  Anyone can work…if they want to, he’d said one day as we reviewed designs and negotiated prices.  When I gave him the specs for the medicine cabinet he told me:  I’ll make ten of them and ship them to my brother in Houston. If you like it, other gringos will.  Mexicans don’t use these things.
               Alex was a talker.  But when he finished the poem he was quiet. Maybe he was amazed he understood.  What had he understood?  That Jonny was being engulfed by the earth. 
               Es tu primo? 
               Si, era, WAS my cousin, I replied.
               Alex nodded.  And in that moment his Mexican Mask* seemed to disappear.  Maybe now he understood why I was here:  things had happened to me in my life – maybe not all part of God’s grand plan.  I had made choices, strange ones to him – no husband, no children, alone in this place in Mexico, far from home, and not for money?  But I shared something universal, something he knew: life, death, love, struggle, moments of understanding. 
               This is what I mean about the CEA.
               Sure, I’ve had my problems with HQ – red tape, paternalism, vaccines for things that don’t come near Mexico, security scares that only add to our feelings of vulnerability.  You’d think an outfit that was ABOUT enlightenment would BE enlightened.  But I guess it’s like any organization of imperfect humans.  
               I realize I’m not here for that.  I was right from the beginning:  I’m here for something bigger than me.  It’s just that that BIGness…it’s inside me.
* Mexican poet/writer Octavio Paz, in his 1990 Nobel Prize-winning analysis of the Mexican character and culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, says that the ‘equilibrium of which we [Mexicans] are so proud is only a mask, always in danger of being ripped off by a sudden explosion of our intimacy.’

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Proud Member of the CEA - Part I

On the path toward enlightenment we learn to be with the unknown. Cultivating beginner’s mind, we open to the flow of life. We don’t know what will happen next.
 – Donald Rothberg, On the Darkness and the Light
               Yesterday was a day in the dark.  I was ready and waiting at nine sharp, with backpack, water bottle and sunhat, on the stoop of the Maria Delores, as instructed.  Nine came and went. Nine-thirty was approaching. To kill time I’d brought my book; I’d learned that much so far in Mexico.
               I read a few lines, looked up for the truck, and lost my place. Ten o’clock arrived and still no sign of the Engineers. I replayed yesterday’s conversation in my head – we had a full day planned in the campo, they had said.  So don’t be late.  
               Had I gotten the meeting spot wrong?  I often lost details in translation. I noticed dukha and doubt filling the time-space. Breakfast patrons were stepping around me. I felt my mood shift from annoyed to resentful, tired of always waiting for unclear appointments, and never a decent place to perch:  a curb, a stair, a planter, never a bench. 
               Tranquilo, I reminded myself, like I often tried to remind myself in Mexico, in my habitual rush, always hurrying, and then waiting. Espera was a verb I’d learned well, to wait or to hope, or both.
               Just then I heard the horn sound.  I jumped-up, dusted off my ass, and bolted to the truck, still the eager gringa after a year here, trying to reach my goal, something bigger than me.
               I noticed the truck bed was empty.  Where were the tools and the Tenaco for the water? I thought that was the reason for our trip today, to make the delivery.  Maybe I’d gotten that wrong too.  Timidly I inquired:  The Tenaco?
               There was silence at first. I always had the feeling I was probing for government secrets when I asked the simplest questions. 
                Es que...para decir, en pocas parablas, it’s to say, in a few words, Engineer Noé, the jefe of the duo, spoke-up:  the purchase order wasn’t approved.
               I’d gathered from conversations in the office that the new administrator was holding back the payments, forcing them to justify every peso, asserting his power, even cutting off funding for the water cooler and cleaning woman in our tiny regional office that served the entire Zona Media.
               It’s easy for them:  we’re the ones that have to deliver the bad news to the communities, Inginero continued.  Pero ni modo, he concluded his diatribe, shaking his head, so it goes, the Mexican way of letting go of control they don’t have anyway.
               Año de Hidalgo, I added.  I’d learned that expression from Engineer Bibiano. In an election year the politicos take as much off the table as they can before they’re replaced by the incoming regime – a sort of election-year bonus.  And it doesn’t leave much money to actually do the work.
               Es asi, it’s like this, they nodded in agreement.
               The Engineers complained a lot, and fought back very little. That seemed to be the Mexican way. Though on this particular day they had their government-issued monopoly money for a Pemex fill-up; and we were going anyway.  The women of Zamachihue were expecting us.
               But not before we’d had our gorditas.  We were in a rush. Yet there was always time for the gorditas under the Mesquite tree.  The señoras there cooked them on an open wood fire, imparting a smoky taste, and the guiso fillings were always generous. I pointed to the Tupperware container of egg and green chile and another of black bean.  We relaxed under the tree like there was no tomorrow.  When we finished, the lady took our money with a baggie over her hand.
               Finally on the road, already past 11, we journeyed through the cutout in the mountain and followed the rim of the San Ciro floodplain where rice grows and the day laborers were visible specks of color against the monotone brush. At the Rayon crossroads we were waved over by a force of masked military police.  I held my breath as Engineer Bibiano rolled down his window; and after a few questions about the purpose of our trip, environmental work in the indigenous communities, they waved us on with their machine guns.  Supposedly a sign that the Mexican government had things under control, these armored checkpoints did nothing more than remind me of my vulnerability.  The violence was creeping south, and at any moment Uncle Sam could decide our state was off-limits to even us ‘imbedded’ Peace Corps volunteers. 
               From lush the Rioverde valley suddenly rounded a bend and entered a new ecosystem where nothing grows but spikey things that water themselves, the camels of the plant world:  pitayas, yuccas, nopal.  I used to think of the desert as a dead place, compared to the mid-Atlantic deciduous forests and swampy humidity of my hometown Washington; but the high-plains desert austerity was beginning to grow on me. 
               We traveled to where the pavement ends; then it was another good hour along the dry riverbed, terrain so rugged I felt my organs jostled out of place and the urge to vomit-up my breakfast.   I opened my window and gulped the dusty air. We’d lost our radio signal and all that was left was static.
               Navigating out of the arroyo and onto the rocky bank, we’d finally arrived. The clearing was beginning to look like a real vivero.  The Zamachihue women emerged out of their cinderblock sanctuaries in pairs and trios, moms and daughters and granddaughters.  They’d been watching for us. 
               I’d thought at least we’d have the first payment for them, and they did too.  But apparently that money didn’t get approved either. More inexplicable red tape or power lording; or maybe the engineers didn’t do their job or were holding back the payments to simplify their work. I’d been trying to document the process, identifying opportunities for standardization and improvement; but sometimes that idea seemed…irrelevant. 
               We took photos, even though the work was already done. Mas justificación, they said; you couldn’t be sure what Licenciado Miguel would ask for next.  Blood samples?
               The women picked-up their shabby tools (not the new ones that would arrive after the project was done) and got to work, posing in the leveled field for the cameras, hoeing the endless supply of rocks out of this dry land and tossing them in the improv wheelbarrow, a milk-crate on training wheels. 
               Don’t smile – it won’t look real, Engineer Bibiano told them. But they couldn’t help it. Soon everyone was laughing, t-shirts draped over their heads to protect them from the afternoon sun, though you could still see their smiles beneath.  
               Ya! they said. And that meant we were done. And I knew this was coming:  we retreated to the cool adobe house of Angela. It was dark inside; my glasses took time to adjust. They set the clay casarola on the table and lifted the lid. Once it was a mole of chicken, another time a picadillo of beef and potato. But this time it was a steaming stew of pork and cactus, and always their handmade corn tortillas cooked over a wood fire, the kind that tear like fabric and hold in the juice. They taught me which side is up.
               The señoras watched us eat. Then Engineers made jokes that went over my head, though I laughed at the laughter. We swabbed our plates clean with the soft tortillas, and they offered us more.  But we had to get going – it’s was a long journey back to Rioverde on dark, isolated roads, and close to the Tamaulipas boarder.  Abuelita, the grandma with the cloudy blue eyes I couldn’t look into, blessed my forehead and forearm with kisses and crosses of spit. 
               On the drive home I watched the light drain out of the sky and the stars flicker on.  But somehow the yuccas were still visible in the blue darkness, like bones of the dead poking out of the earth.