Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not that a Gordita's Going to Save the World

I’m gradually losing my romantic notion of Peace Corps…adobe huts, smiling children engrossed in a simple game of futbol, Coke bottles for goals posts, fields of swaying maize, artisan senoritas spinning clay pots. Instead, it’s the potable water truck making its daily noisy rounds through the colonia, eh eh, ehhhh, eh eh, the orange vendor below my bedroom storming in and out of his gated home at all hours, the smell of exhaust through my window, the angry dogs behind bars exercising their lungs incessantly, a contemptible night-long symphony, the thumping of the Triple R, the Consejo’s resistance, hours in Cabildo meetings and no decisions – only proposals to build – a blood bank, another park, a police station – grand plans on architect’s paper – endless infrastructure, but no heart, soul, sol, sustainability. Maybe their inefficiency is a blessing.

And the young men with their suitcases, lined up on the curb in Jacarandas on Mondays, waiting for the bus to take them to the other side, take a risk, to pick tomatoes or bus tables, because it’s better than remaining here, unemployed, scraping an existence out of exhausted soil.

I’m afraid I’m blocking out what’s fast-becoming the daily scenery – the beauty of it – the woman in the headscarf, on the corner of Madero and Juarez, cleaning, trimming and bagging nopal cactus for sale at her prestine corner tienda. Or Sarape, the elote man in his three-wheeled cart. He paints his corns like a Matisse canvas - impressionistic brushstrokes of mayonnaise and chile sauce, sprinkled with cheese and proudly finished off with a squirt of lime. Or Abuelita's komal brimming with enchiladas Rioverdenses - a smear of bean, a dollop of pollo, a sprinkle of queso and a spoonful of chili love.

And the harsh reality of it – the old woman who panhandles on the stoop of the SEMARNAT office where I work. I pass by each day and hear her moans, her hand outstretched, her laminated letter I’ve never bothered to read. And on the steps of the pharmacy, there’s the old man with his pant leg lifted, exposing his mangled limb, and holding his ball cap of measly coins in his free hand. I brush by them, on my way.

I’m starving – rushing off to Dianna’s taco stand for a midday migada de lomo – I can almost taste the salty pork and the sweet raw onion and slices of creamy avocado piled between fresh-pressed corn tortillas. But the old lady stops me, motions her fingers by her mouth – hungry too.

I stop, nod, okay, what would you like, gorditas? What kind?

Frijol …y…she pauses, tests me…chicharon…ita. Just a little bit of chicharon. Then she really presses her luck, holding up fingers, two, three, four.

Four?! I laugh. How much is enough? One, frijol con chicharon, por favor. Dianna serves it up wrapped carefully in a napkin. And the old lady, for once up and on her feet to receive her treat, smiles. Her brown lined face blossoms like a flower. And for a moment I remember why I’m here.

Not that a gordita is going to save the world. Nor will it make the Peace Corps brochure. But…

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ni Modo

They're sealing up the back windows - perfect open squares that let in the air and light - with cinder block - four to a hole, and sloppily securing them with cement - dripping on the floor - the worker on the ladder dumbfounded as I exclaim, No, what are you doing?! in English, because when I am emotional I still revert to my native tongue. Que tu estas haciendo?

Pues no sei, following orders, is the apologetic response. Dust and cement everywhere, the place a total mess, as though a tornado has come through over the weekend, since we made the deal, and I promised to come with the deposit on Monday.

I've got the roll of pessos in my in my pocket ready commit, to begin my own life in Green River [Ranch] after five months living with host families - sharing toilets, air space, gorditas, morning conversation in sleepy Spanish. After 20 years living on my own. And after 2 months of searching the city for a place to settle down, then a week of toiling over the decision, I'd finally decided on this place with light.

High on the top floor above the people, with a large balcony and a view of the church steeple - I could breathe, drink my morning coffee, practice a few new verbs, and contemplate my day before entering the fray. But it wasn't perfect - expensive, in disrepair, cracks in the walls, fixtures hanging from holes in the ceiling, a super who I detected was already attempting to take advantage of me, and worst of all, with the marble floors and gated entrance and condo feel, not exactly fitting with my image as a Peace Corps volunteer.

And now they're closing up all the back windows. Why? We're calling the owner to find out. The rain. I haven't seen a drop of rain since I arrived in November. And are there are no other options but cinderblock? How about glass?

Dan, my Peace Corps counterpart, says now you know how the Mexicans feel. This kind of thing happens all the time, with no warning or explanation.

Yes, of course. This is just an apartment. But what about the bigger things - the currency crash of 1994 under Salinas when they all lost everything.

Ni modo, is the expression I hear everyday, said with a shrug of the shoulders. It means there's nothing I can do - nothing I could ever do - so why bother trying.

But there IS something I can do. I can say No. I can keep my 3500 pessos and walk away. It's the only power you have over the system at times.

Or as Michael Keaton put it in that cinamatic tour de force, Nightshift, with Henry Winkler and Shelly Long, I choose 'to shun, from the Latin, to push away... to say uh-uh no thank you anyway I don't want it.'

That's what I do...I walk away from the mess and head to Jiminez where Margarita has a sweet, clean, furnished studio with hotplate and mini-fridge, services included, half the price, and befitting of a Peace Corps volunteer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Discovering Green River - Discovering the Consejo - Discovering My Self

Two-month anniversary in my sitio of Rioverde - or as it's colloquially referred to by my new friend Claudia (a local Rioverdense, so she has the right to call it names), ‘Green River Ranch.’

So what's it like in this rural pueblo smack in the center of Mexico? It's a myriad of contradictions, a roller-coaster of altas y abajos. But today's a good day, nothing's wrong, no Montezuma's revenge or homesickness. a quiet Sunday, warm and sunny, breeze through the vertical blinds, Internet is working, ideas are flowing. My host family is gone for the afternoon and I find myself reflecting...

Yes, I'm settling in, actually pretty happy some days, most days, feeling relatively safe and secure here...despite narco news and armed military presence in Plaza Principal. I feel cared for by new friends and ‘family’, engaged if not getting rapidly over-engaged in projects, to the chagrin of my Peace Corps bosses who remind me the first three months are meant to be dedicated to learning, Goals 2 y 3, not doing. And I know they are right; but I learn by doing.

And hence, I'm doing a lot, diving in, making sense of the life and culture here - and some days that’s more confounding as time goes on, as my Spanish improves, as the layers of politeness wear-off revealing the truth, personal agendas, raw humanness, a culture of distrust. Or maybe it’s me, the gringa, creating it, bringing my hard driving good ideas and intentions to the mesa – and maybe it’s not enough.

I don’t necessarily like this, but I have to face it...the truth that this is not easy…this fitting in, finding my space, finding my home here …when maybe what I have to say or do is not particularly welcomed with open arms or minds.

But I forge ahead…with Patience & Perseverance…my new mantra; try to focus my energy where it will at least do no harm.

I start my yoga class on Thursday night with the Nutrispa chicas and their nutrition clients. They are posting things on Facebook about it, and that’s making me nervous. I’ve never taught a yoga class before, much less a class of complete beginners across a language and culture divide! But I forge ahead, because you never know where something will lead.

Taking just one step, one action, following through on an intention to have yoga in my life again, to share it with the girls at the spa, because there is no place else to practice in Green River Ranch except on the floor of my quarto – this intention is leading me to learn more deeply about the ancient tradition of yoga, the union of mind and body through the breath, and the more practical side: how to translate ‘downward dog' to Spanish!

I tell myself no harm can come of this…to share a practice like this, steeped in a tradition of mindfulness, even with the ricos, the ladies of Rioverde who can afford spa treatments. And this is a relief. It’s a practice that can and should be taken, stolen, used, spread, shared – and it can only lead to more good (plus a few free facials in exchange).

But there are times, after two months on site, where I feel timid about taking any action - I'm almost paralyzed - for fear of it being the wrong action with the wrong group of people at the wrong time – or any one of the above. Paulo Freire talks about the insidiousness of oppression – how despite best intentions, we can become part of the problem; in 'helping' we can reinforce the status quo and the belief by the people that they cannot possibly do it themselves.

I turned down teaching positions at two universities just this last week because I wasn’t sure – the arguments compelling, my desire to help strong…but needing time to see, to sense, where can I best be of service? Am I really ready to teach a brand new course in Marketing or Consulting or Non-Profit Management – in Spanish? Will I really be helping the students? MySelf? I don’t even believe in marketing, I told Mario, the University director. But this did not faze him. He needed me, a free resource, an American perspective, an experiment, he called it. Next semester, I promised him, when the experiment can be a little better controlled - and I know more.

Moreover, I am beginning to wonder about my work with the Consejo on Sustainability – my primary assignment and reason for being here in Rioverde. This group of six educated citizens - representatives from academia, business, agriculture, government, ecology, social services - was selected by a joint committee of Mayor’s office and SEMARNAT and Peace Corps representatives (including myself) to represent the people of Rioverde in promoting a UN sustainability initiative called Agenda 21.

Are they the right group with whom to direct my energy? Are their intentions good? Are they ready to represent the people? Are they open to learning and sharing? They are an intelligent bunch and willing to give up their time and energy to serve as volunteers on this board, providing the links between the government and the people of Rioverde, trying to create a culture of awareness of the environment and social needs, and take actions that serve the greater good.

Yet we have just barely begun, the group has taken their oath in Cabildo, and already there is resistance: swirling conversations that lead nowhere, their focus on external forces out of their control, and underlying tone of blame (of the government for their corruption and the people for their apathy), and perhaps underneath that, anger, shame, and forgetting (or not believing) that the answers LIE WITHIN THEM.

I do believe that. It’s the reason I left Washington and joined the Peace Corps – to escape the marble halls where it’s all just talk and work with people on the ground where real change happens.

This is at the heart of my assignment – to help the Consejo believe that too – see that in the others that they will serve – the people in the communities - like Rose in Magdalenas with her center de salud made of trash bottles or Chuey in San Jose supporting the family with her palm jewelry. And in turn, we help la gente see that in themselves - so the change truly comes from them. It's the only way.

Coming together as a small group will be that first step. And that is my goal for this first workshop with the Consejo – to help them understand themselves a little bit better, their motives for participation, and their fellow board-members as well – so that can start the shift from a random collection of people waiting at a bus stop to group with a common purpose and desire for collective action. And maybe in that process, I will better understand my Self and my motives too.