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.