Sunday, June 26, 2011

Climate Control

Sarah Dos, a fellow PCV from Canada Grande, a neighboring community about an hours’ bus ride away, is up and out already. We had coffee and peanut butter toast and, as the blowup mattress deflated, we chatted about the dismal landfill situation (her community is part of the same municipio and hasn’t had trash pickup since November). Then she packed her big city purchases into her backpack – a new pair of huarache high-heels, Hecho en Mexico, some bilingual kids books, marshmallows for her camp-out with the jovenes…and headed to the cyber spot to connect with the bigger world.

I enjoy hosting fellow-vols because I don’t have to explain the rustic conditions in my Jimenez Hovel – the heat, the noise, the lack of space (I have to navigate around Sarah’s head to get to the bathroom), the switch you have to flick on the shower head to get hot water. Compared to the living situations in many of the rural community sites, bucket baths and dirt floors, my one-room 200 square-foot habitacion in the center of town is a little bit-o-lujo.

But my digs would be significantly less tolerable for my DC friends – I think I would check them into the Maria Delores hotel on the highway. Most of us have had it so easy for so long – beyond easy with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, high-efficiency air-conditioning systems in the summer and heating in the winter, in our cars, homes, garages, offices, Toto toilets that wash your ass when you’re done. (Okay, I don’t have any friends with that model, but some have contemplated it.) We go from one controlled environment to the next – and barely need to think about the elements.

Perhaps my biggest challenge as a PCV has been the total lack of control over my environment. When I arrived in Mexico, without a command of the language, I could hardly order what I wanted to eat off a menu – so unexpected things would arrive, at unexpected levels of spiciness (and perhaps cleanliness), and I’d eat them. And oftentimes in that first 3 or 4 months, I paid the price the next day. To put it bluntly, on many an occasion, I could not even control my bowel. I would run through the streets of Queretaro to get to a place with a toilet, before it was too late.

Now I am over that hump, to be sure, after 10 months in Mexico, one of my proud achievements: I can eat just about anything – carnitatas, gorditas, tortas from street vendors, barbacoa tacos piled with salsa verde, pazole from Western Lunch on the corner…I even eat the much feared lettuce and strawberries (though I have learned how to bathe them in iodine beforehand). The other achievement: I can speak Español, mas o menos, and thus express my needs and wants, even my more philosophical desires and hope (in the subjunctive), in my new idoma. But that doesn’t mean my desires will be satisfied.

Yesterday was a classic out of control day in Mexico. Nothing was the way I wanted it. The workmen awoke me at 8:30 am on a Saturday, banging metal against mental, taking down the scaffolding that’s been in the hallway outside my apartment (aka bedroom) window for the last month. A project that would have taken 2-3 days in the States, I could hear myself fuming, criticizing, comparing mind at work as I lay in bed, incensed they were choosing MY sleep-in Saturday morning to conclude their work.

And there was nothing I could do about it but get up, make my coffee, and escape as quickly as possible to the gym to work out some of my frustrations. Except the gym was closed. Ah yes, Saturday, sometimes Claudia doesn’t open on Saturday. The guys that run the torta cart across the street and sometimes have a spare gym key did not today, the round-faced hombre shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

Ni modo. I needed a Plan C: Amore Café was miraculously open, and the owners, Patty and Vicky were convening with their usual clique of chicas, and I had plans to go straight to the back room, where it’s quiet and I can hide from the world with the fan pointed at my head and work on my computer with relative little disruption.

Except this particular day Nicolas was in the house – and he wanted to play Toystory baseball. And I could not say no to this hermosito, demanding, dark-eyed 5-year-old. Anyway, turns out I forgot my power cord and had no life left on my computer battery. So there was nothing I could do but play baseball – pitch to Nick and teach him some technical terminology: fly ball, grounder, strike, home run. His gleeful giggles at hearing those words try to come out of his own mouth made everything okay for the moment. Despite the heat…oh yes, the heat.

Most days in this cement covered high-plains desert pueblo the temps get up around 40 C (over 100 F) and the treeless streets are scorched in relentless sun. I slather 30 on daily – and stick close to the buildings for whatever shadow I can steel. Without air-conditioning in any of the buildings or apartments or homes or shops – unless your work in the Mayor’s office – there’s no escape. And in my Jimenez Hovel, the heat is at its intolerable worst between 8 pm and 4 am when the cinderblock walls release all the days’ buildup and I walk-in off the relatively cool nighttime streets into a sauna.

God knows I try everything in my power to control my environment – I kick into my nightly process, positioning my fan in my entry way to expel the hot air for the first 30 minutes, while I’m stripping down to take my third cold shower of the day. Then I reposition the fan facing inward, trying to draw some cool air in while I sip a cold Corona Light on ice, standing naked in front of the fridge for a few luxurious moments before I start to feel guilty about electricity consumption and global warming. At this hour the walls are hot to the touch – and so is my bed – hot white cotton sheets that are prickly against the skin - so I spray them with cold water too, bring my fan over and perch it on a stool, and plop down onto my mattress like a fly splatting a windshield, and direct the air at my inert body.

There have been many nights, especially in the last couple weeks, where I have turned all night long like a tortilla frying on a hot komal, until that magic hour of 5 am when the apartment and my body have simultaneously cooled and a tiny breeze drifts in through the window (with curtain tucked between security bars the breeze can actually reach me) and I’m finally catching zzzzzs.

And that’s just about when my bartender neighbor arrives home from work at the Micha bar and begins making his breakfast. The sound of clanging pots and pans on ceramic counter-tops, cinder-block walls like an echo chamber, the smell of burned toast and frying eggs awakens me in a daze. I fumble in the dawn light for my earplugs, jam them in my ears, cover my face with a pillow, and pray for a few more winks before the sun comes up over the horizon and shines right into bedroom window, and the tiendas down below start throwing their metal garage doors open, and the whirring Herbalife blender starts-up.

Yes, the opportunity to learn tolerance, acceptance, and adaptation is certainly available to me in Mexico.

Sarah Dos has scorpions crawling up the walls of her casita in the campo.

It’s thunder storming on the laundry I just finished pinning to the line. The SECOND rain in 9 months. My clothes will get a second cleansing from heaven.

There are good moments and rough ones in Peace Corps Mexico – hopefully they get equal play in my mind, and on my blog.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Anneseye on Rioverde Part II - Let them Eat Cake!

I got a huge cake – and the people did not stay home. Just as Neyda had promised, the Semillas of Esperanza turned out in numbers, in there tacones and flowing vestidas, their niños in tow with gelled hair and polite gallery comportment. The duena from Yogurlandia, my landlord and her daughters, my yoga students from Gim Atletica, the Amore café mujeres Paty and Vicky, and ciudadanos who’d heard about the show through the intimate grapevine of conversation that connects a small pueblo. Antonio the artist was there and Samantha the librarian and a Doctor I’d never met who came to record the event on his new Ipad!

I was relieved to see them arriving at the IMAC, taking seats in the courtyard in familial clumps, waiting patiently, as Mexicans are used to doing, for the festivities to begin. Copeland’s El Salon Mexico, the American composer’s homage to the Mexicans, floated into the still night air from my Ipod. And behind the scenes I was sweatin’ it. Kriya and I were still scrambling to get the space ready, attaching photo tags to the walls corresponding to the correct images – functioning on tiempo Mexicano, adapting a little bit too well. Despite a full day of harried preparations – picking up Peace Corps posters from the printers, buying ice, cups, snacks, hanging the collection of 50 photos in a sequence to create balance and flow, making sure in the 100-degree heat the adhesive would hold – we still weren’t ready.

But what really had me perspiring in my black party dress was the formal panel table and microphones they had setup in a courtyard. Apparently, I was meant to give a speech, but had been given no notice –and the Regiadora and Director were waiting for me to take my place to open the ceremony.

‘Can’t they just peruse the gallery and enjoy the photos without all the pomp and circumstance?’ I wondered aloud as I jammed bottles of white wine into the cooler of ice. ‘The art should really speak for itself.’

‘But this is the way we do it,’ said Kuko, a painter and gallery assistant who’d been a huge help in the setup process – and with a decent English vocabulary he’d also become our cultural interpreter. ‘All the openings go like this, official process.’

‘It’ll be fun, just go with the flow,’ Kriya affirmed in her perky, positive Americana manner, a manner I realized I’d been missing, living amidst the demure verguenza of small-town central Mexico.

She was right, I’d given lots of intro speeches in Mexico already, I’ll improvise, speak from the heart, mind my conjugations, I told myself, as I rummaged through our bags and realized we’d forgotten the bottle opener. I motioned to Adoracion’s son, Alejandro, in the courtyard and handed him 50 pesos to run to Waldo’s for an ‘abrabotella.’

The final photo tag hung, the registration table setup, the wine on ice, we took a step back to gaze at the gallery, the amber light, the regal cake ready to be sliced, the space in beautiful, calm order. Listo,’ we agreed, exhaling. Then I took a breath and rushed into courtyard to take a seat at the head table before an audience of familiar, smiling faces. And in this sudden quiet moment under the stars I remembered what I was here for – promover la paz y amistad mundial.

So proud to (attempt to) uphold this mission, I took the microphone and let it flow – told the audience how appreciative I was for their presence and excited to share my perspective of their pueblo with them. And I hoped, in turn, they would share with me their reactions, impressions, questions – because that’s the purpose of art, to create dialogue. Well, I hoped that’s what I said – that across the language barrier they got the gist.

After some light applause we filed toward the gallery behind the Regiadora and the Art Director who carried three pairs of scissors on a red velvet pillow. Just go with the flow, Anne, I told myself, as we paused at the door before the giant orange ribbon. (I’d wondered what that secretary was doing all day long making a giant bow as we rushed to get the gallery ready! Now I knew.)

‘This is the first time I’ve done this,’ I admitted aloud, giddily, selecting a pair of scissors, pausing to pose for the cameras. Then simultaneously we cut the ribbon and the guests filed in, filling the gallery with their energy and curiosity.

The thing I love most about putting on a show is watching the people take-in the images and wonder what’s going on in their heads. Many loved the Flying Nina because she just made them smile, and my elote man, Serapio, who Kuko told me is as funny as his picture and an expert in bird calls. Others loved Sombreros Eschuchando – Hats Listening – I’m not sure why, a different way of looking as such a common scene, perhaps. The Garcias, who run the best beauty salon in town, discovered their sons in my Palm Sunday photo and stood there pointing and marveling.

We snapped photos – photos of photos and us in front of the fotos – around the urns – a chorus line of the mujeres of Puente. We made a toast and reluctantly cut into the beautiful cake, made by Sophia, a piece of art itself, decorated with the Mexican and American flags and the Peace Corps seal, and oozing with chocolate, strawberries and cream. The guests lined up to buy 10 peso postcards of the photos which I signed with personal notes, small recuerdos they could take home – and the proceeds helped pay for the big pastel.

Then suddenly, in typical Mexican style, we were all informed we had to leave. The funcionarios had removed the food and shut-down the music. It was 9 pm and there was no guard on duty and apparently they had to close. Of course there hadn’t been a guard there all day – Cesar had not shown up for work. Daniel and the ladies in the office were simply ready to go home. But they could not get the conversations to stop and the people out the door – so they gave-up and just left us there in the gallery to continue our chatter and finish off the last of the wine. As the crowd dwindled down to just a few of us, the diehards, we started getting silly, hanging out the barred windows of this former prison, pleading for freedom, snapping more photos for posterity. Eventually Kuko and Kriya and I closed and locked up, then wandered the streets giving out leftover cake.

A few days later, after all the excitement had died down and Peace Corps life was getting back to normal, I was walking the sweltering streets of Rioverde and feeling the slightest bit of post-show depression. None of my co-workers at SEMARNAT or the Municipio had shown-up, and I wondered why. Did I even have an impact, was it all worth it? What does art matter anyway, in the work of development?

Oh well, I was onto my next initiative, and a meeting with the jueza from Puente about our EcoFeria plan. Rushing past the storefronts on Madero, heads-down, going my usual Americana pace, I heard my name called-out. ‘Anna, I want to talk to you.’ It was the pharmacist where I sometimes stop for a Gatorade and a chat.

I reluctantly paused and turned around. ‘Mande? I asked, looking at my watch impatiently. I really didn't have time today for a chat, but I ducked under the awning for a break from the sun and a quickie greeting. That's when the senor went into a diatribe, apologizing for missing my opening, explaining that he’d visited the gallery on Sunday night with his family, and he wanted me to know how appreciative he was.

‘Si, gracias, no problema, glad you enjoyed it.’

But he continued on: his wife loved Birds on a Wire, and his son loved the Flying Nina, and he loved La Planta and Serapio too. He buys his elotes from Serapio. And his son speaks a little English and would like to talk with me someday. He told me he hadn’t really understood why I was here, and now he did. Then he came from behind his counter, in his white pharmacist coat, and contrary to distant Rioverdenses style, he gave me a hug. ‘Thank you for being here in our pueblo,’ he said, ‘for leaving your country to do this work. Thank you.’

I was so surprised I felt my face redden; I ducked out before he could see, thanking him as I continued on my route, but this time going at a slower pace, replaying what he’d told me, trying to remind myself to remember that I may never know the impact I’m having – all I can do is plant some seeds and years later, with some water and light and luck, they may become trees.

And then there’s the impact they are having on me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Marketing and Maria Luisas - Countdown to the Photo Opening

The director of the Cultural Institute says people will stay home – watch television and drink beer – their usual Rioverde Friday night routine. Falta de education, ni modo, what can you do, he tells me. Get a small cake, he advises.

But I’ve ordered a huge cake from my friend Sofia, chocolate with strawberries and cream inside, and decorated with the US and Mexico flags and Peace Corps seal. Let them eat cake, I say. I have to believe that if people have access to culture, if they are invited and treated with respect and elegance, they will be respectful and elegant. Or, in the words of my late Grandma Lena, ‘Ya just put it…[and they will eat].’ We’ll see how her Italian-American sentiment translates in Mexico.

To be sure, my publicity machine is in action. The announcements are up on the bulletin boards and shop windows all around town. They feature my first-place photo, Por, Para y Con La Gente, my fellow PCV Christian reaching out to an ‘ancieanita’ at one of the Agenda 21 foros, looking like he’s about to propose. I hope it will make as much of impression on the Rioverdenses as it did on the judges.

I’ve also gone virtual with my invites, posting to Facebook and Gmail, so my north of the border friends and family know they are welcome. But in this high-touch, high-context environment, personal conversations and word of mouth are key. So I wander around town handing-out half-page flyers, talking to shop owners and vendors – to Juan my papas man (who sells the best hand-made chips in town), Pearla the cheese lady (who makes and sells a smoked provolone my Uncle Vinnie would die fo'), my favorite cop, the one that crosses me every day at the corner of Montezcuma y Martinez. But Enrique tells me he has verguenza, which I look up and discover means shame. I have read about the Mexican shame in Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude. It is complex and crippling. This show is about pride - mine and theirs. The next day I find Enrique guarding the entrance to the Ayuntamiento and insist he come as my guest. I hand him a flyer. He nods and smiles shyly, looking at Christian's photo. A lo mejor, I’ll do my best, he says, which I've learned is a polite way of saying no.

I invite the senoritas at the Yogurlandia and the owners at Amore Café where I go for peace and quiet and cold cappuccinos a few days a week. I invite the students in my yoga class at Gim Atletica, my Semarnat countarparts, and of course, and especially, my new crew of mujeres of Puente del Carmen. Nereyda the jueza promises she will turn-out a crowd.

I make an announcement at the Tuesday directors’ meeting in the mayor’s office; then gaie a spontaneous press conference with Comunicacion Social and various small town TV and newspaper reporters about who I am, why I am here, what the peace corps 50 means to me…and what my photography’s got to do with it. Luckily it wasn’t truly spontaneous; I’d been warned, and I had my Powerpoint pitch ready to go.

I’ve learned over the years, with ten-plus art events under my belt, it’s not just about being out in the field, seeing, framing, shooting the fotos; nor is it the processing and printing, nor naming and hanging them to create the visual experience. Perhaps if I were a REAL artist I would stop there. But you have to get people in the gallery – it’s their participation, reaction, discussion, mere presence in the room that makes the difference – that makes it art.

I want to show them all the complexities I see in this place – see if they see the same - the live and the abstract, the old and young, the wistful and content, the serene and the chaotic, el bonito y feo – la comida, la natureza, la pobreza. Much harder for me than the marketing is the selecting, the excluding. I feel like I can’t trust myself to choose. What will they like? What will make them stop and think? What embodies the truth?

Kuko, an artist from the Casa Cultura, has volunteered to lend his eye to hep me narrow the field. Why the window, he asks, as I scroll thru the semi-finals folder in Photoshop. I don’t know, the color, the light. He's perplexed, he comes back to it, my favorite, he says. Such a common site – people will wonder. I keep that one in. The pile of corn draws his attention too, never saw it up that close. It’s in. So is Serapio my elote man with his wry smile – Kuko knows him and says he’s as funny as his picture. He’s in – and so is Flying Niña. Kuko smiles when he sees her.

I’ve been referred to Galvan to do the printing – I use his automated Kodak system to do the final cropping and sizing; it’s computer-prompted in Spanish, and I lose my portfolio of edits twice and have to start all over. But it’s worth it – his colors pop, the contrast are good, and his prices are a fraction of what I pay in DC. A good thing too, because I am already three-times over my $100 Peace Corps budget; the rest, an investment, I will happily pay out of pocket.

Mary at the Casa de Marcos is my final step – the framing shop. She’s an attentive business woman with a slightly reckless hand – I cringe as she thumbs through the prints – luckily they are matt finish and will not smear. She orders the matt board on the spot, over the phone – and promises they will be mounted and matted to my specs and ready Wednesday. I confirm that it will be beveled, acid-free, loose-mounted. She nods like she knows what I’m saying – we draw pictures and use samples to confirm. I can’t afford surprises two days before the show must be hung.

In this dusty shop littered with prints of the pope, Jesus, and Virgincita, wedding photos and Mexican dicho plaques, we get to talking. Mary and her husband have been in business 35 years. They admire my shot of La Planta, wonder why I am here in Rioverde, get up the nerve to ask me. And then the floodgates open: they invite me on a tour of some other favorite historic spots, San Sabastian and the baroque church in Pastora. I learn from them that matts are called Maria Luisias in Spanish - I ask why, but I don't understand the answer - I'm not sure they know either.

As I walk out, into the quiet Comida-time streets of Rioverde, relieved I'm one step closer to my goal, I stop, realize I’m learning a whole new vocabulary in this process. In all the rushing I almost forgot - the point of was all the learning, the connecting, not just the result, the images that will be on the walls in a few days’ time.

Luckily, I keep having the opportunity to re-learn this lesson in Mexico.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anneseye on Rioverde – Reflections After 6 Months of Service

Felicidades to those of us in PCM09 for reaching the 6-month mark in our sites and 9 months overall in our service as Peace Corps volunteers. For me, it seems like a turning point – a moment in which I am feeling more comfortable, more confident about my abilities, more discerning about where I can and should focus my energy, what I can and can’t eat (Vitamina T in its proper dosages), with whom I should and shouldn’t associate. It’s just like my friend, an RPVC and former country director in Africa, warned me: Don’t do anything for the first 6 months; if you do, you are likely to do the wrong thing for the wrong people, at the wrong time.

I can’t say I abided his advice completely. Partially due to the momentum of the Agenda 21 project to which I was assigned (and which was well underway when I arrived), and partially due to my own Norte Americana drive to be useful, I dove into the work from Day 1. I surveyed the needs of the community, analyzed the data, then organized, translated, and delivered 70 hours of team-building workshops across the language and culture divide to the Citizens board on sustainability. I was willing to spend nights and weekends to work around their schedules, if it meant creating good things for the people of Rioverde.

Unfortunately, much of my teachings on collaboration and participation fell on deaf ears. With an election year coming up in 2012 in Mexico, the contenders and their minions are already moving into position. And objectivity, transparency, shared leadership, working por, para y con la gente…these are not exactly topics of profound interest at the moment. I was told candidly, by two different members (who shall remain unnamed), that once I'd completed my formal sessions and transitioned the leadership to the group's defacto leaders (who shall also remain unnamed), they tossed all the decisions the Consejo had collaboratively made into the trash.

Ni modo, what can I do? I am beginning to integrate that Mexican dicho into my vocabulary and being. As disappointing as resistance can be, I know my job as a change agent has its limits – the drive for change must come from within – I cannot force it. Put in the effort, let go of the result.

Now, with some important lessons-learned under my belt, a folder-full of organizational training (translated and tested in the Mexican context), and a bit of Huapango rhythm in my step, I am readjusting my course. I am tapping into the right side of my brain, my artistic sensibilities, to connect with the people of Rioverde through my photography.

I’m planning a Peace Corp 50th celebration and photo exhibition at the Casa de Cultura in mid-June - Anneseye on Rioverde . I’ll serve wine and cake, play a mix of Mexican and American music, and open the doors to the kind people I’ve met during the first six disorienting months of service – the crossing-guards and bakers on my street, the neighbors in my apartment building and new colleagues in Semarnat and the Ayuntamiento, students in my yoga classes and the women of Puente del Carmen. And as they walk the gallery and gaze at the images, I hope they see a clearer picture of me (and the Peace Corps) than perhaps I have been able to communicate via words, across the language and culture divide.

Five years ago I embarked on my own personal ‘peace corps’ in Northeast Brazil, in a small, humble coastal city of fishermen, fortunately not on the tourist map, but so stunningly beautiful in its contrasts and contradictions – I was inspired to start shooting photography again. I shot thousands of pictures in my 6 months there, and my final act before my visa expired and I had to leave Brazil and the people of Paraiba behind, was to organize a photography exhibition. It was a ton of work, especially the process of getting commitments from printers, framers, the gallery owner, in order to actually pull-off the event – when Brazilians are on their own kind of samba time. But on opening night I knew it was worth the trouble, vale la pena, when I saw the people gathered in hives of conversation, marveling at the images on the walls – a view of the bustling centro, Ponto do Cem Reis, from above, a shower on Praia Maneira blowing in the wind, the line of palms down a rainy Avenida Vargas.

‘This is my city?’ I could hear the wonder and pride in their voices, a renewed appreciation for the riches of their place – the beauty we often take for granted or simply can’t see until someone else points it out.

I hope this Rioverde show has the same impact – connecting me to the people and the people to their pueblo. I want the Rioverdenses to have pride in their city, in the communities, in their culture, work and lives here – instead of romanticizing ‘el otro lado’ and all things consumer Americana – Aeropostale, Lady Gaga, Coke, The Cowboys. I want them to seem me not as a spy or a passerby, but as someone here to stay, to work with them, invest in them, and create positive things together.

Luckily, thanks to this Peace Corps Mexico 50-anniversary fund, and the initiative of a few folks at PCHQ, this door has opened 6-months into my service – and I will have a chance to share my annesye perspective with my new fellow-Rioverdenses. Who knows what doors will open from there? Perhaps a project with the youth to document their truth, their environment, lo bonito y feo – and envision the future. But I will give this time. Hopefully I’ve learned, in my first six months, to take it easy and trust the organic unfolding – if not give it a bit of a push when the time is right.

For more images of both Mexico and Brazil visit my flicker page at or my foto site (which is in dire need of an update) at The above photo, by the way, is a pan de nata, a traditional Mexican bread made from whipped cream, chewy, not too sweet, and rico. This one from the local fair is the size of a frying pan, and it says, essentially, Take me home to a good Rioverde family.

Note: This article appeared in Peace Corps Mexico's Publication, La Pinata, Number 13, Junio 2011.