Friday, December 25, 2015

Cojetes y Fuegos

I've been here before.

Last Christmas eve, I was peering down from the third floor of a house on the street, Calle de Cuba, as we've renamed it - for all the mechanics disassembling cars, the carpenters sanding boards, the babies crawling on the cobblestones that occur on this small block. I've lived here for a year. When I'm not living here, I'm still living here in some way.

This Christmas, I know the drill. I know the food won't start until midnight. I know the preparation of tables and fires on the cobblestones won't start until 11. I knew the piñatas won't start until 2am. I go to my friends' house to wait it out, snacking on beans before I leave and then eating a small meal at their house - jamon and sweet potato and tequila. This is first dinner. Their 25 year old guest, Carlos, the bartender at a local place, wants to go to Canada. He wants to see snow. He doesn't want to inherit his father's bar. Anywhere but here, he says, except to visit.

Bob, the husband of Sandy, and I amble down to Cuba and sit on white picnic chairs. My best friend Max is nowhere to be seen. We chat with the owner of the fire, built on the cobblestones. The fires occasionally cause the stones to crack and explode, sending shards to either side of the street. Above hangs a rope and a hook, meant for the piñatas. It is the first time I have seen all of the street since early September. Cookie-giving commences. Much kissing. Ana has saved me a scarf she says was 'Maleea.' I put it on. I am handed a styrofoam plate by the neighbours of Magda and Lupe. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, salsa picante, corn, rice. Second dinner. I gulp it down. I kiss the chef.

I am expected up the street again, where Ana and Fernando are cooking. My best friend Max shows up, unable to stand, he is so drunk. He doesn't want food. He's a scarecrow in a sweater I've brought him, already scuffed from his falls. We sit at Ana's table. Third dinner: turkey, rice, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, salsa, butter-grilled bread. It soaks up the tequila I've been drinking all evening. I forget the drunkenness, until "vete a la verga" escapes his mouth, because you don't talk to drunks when they can't form a sentence, when everyone else in the family averts their eyes and tucks their mouths and makes a gentle joke of something unrelated, and his brother says to me, his eyes kind, "he was fine two hours ago."

I advance to the piñata. We are there to watch, but the boy hands me the stick, saying, "girls do this too." And adults, apparently. "Arriba!" they yell. "Abajo!" I swing. I make contact. It is like a line of a poem zinging out of the wilderness. It has nothing to do with me. When the burro explodes, shattering greenware red clay over the stones, I am there picking out the tamarindo candies. Max operates the rope, until someone gently relieves him of it.

"Vete a la chingada," I say, as we part. And "nos vemos mañana," because I still love him, and alcohol for an almost purely indigenous carpenter is a fuck-up that has 300 years or more of colonial guilt attached. I walk home down the small cobblestone street I have walked 100 times before. A girl swings out of the next block in front of me. She wears a black shirt with a zipper up the back, a short, beautiful skirt. She looks back. She smiles. "I have gas," she says, hearing me insult my friend and hearing him call after me as I stalk away. She pulls out a canister. I smile. "Not at this point," I say. She must be visiting. She is too beautiful for words. She has a white dog that she walks perfectly while smoking a cigarette.

Now it is 4am. The neighbours in my friend Jeanne's barrio, where I am staying, break out another load of fireworks. The children scramble for the candy. Neighbours serve food to whoever passes. White plastic chairs shift and lodge into the dirt spaces between stones. Huapango, cumbia, ranchero, banda. A woman's raucous laughter. The courtly men. The lightest of touches on the perfectly imperfect world.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sitting up on the third floor terrace of this house on 5 de febrero (cuba), drinking a thimble of tequila at 10:45 in the morning, I´m watching the rain pour down over the village. The pearl surface of the lake stretches calm across to San Pedro, the volcano of Colima beyond, puffing up smoke as it regularly does each morning. To the north, the hills flank the village and all the other villages on this side of the lake. Chapala, the commercial centre. Mezcalá, where two seafood restaurants keep roving gangs of mariachis in pay and the boats head out to Alacrán island. Beyond Mezcalá to another San Pedro, where I´ve gone to swim twice now, despite the warnings from the foreigners that the lake is polluted. And east, where Jocotapéc straddles the west edge of the lake. Where the buses burned this spring thanks to the cartels. It´s not pouring enough that the cobblestones turn to river. It´s about 24 degrees. I can hear the two Marlenes whooping at their guest, David. I can hear the carpenters sanding, Magda shrieking playfully at her daughter. Her daughter at her wits end with a teething son, Gordito (everyone has forgotten his real name). The dozens of orioles. The occasional parrot. Dogs. Swallows. Drains clattering.

With four days left here now, I´m down to tricking my brain. You have a whole long weekend, I say. You have almost a week. Think of how many vacations you've taken that were only four days that seemed to last forever. For now I am truly, for this last week, on vacation. Today, a primo's birthday party. Tomorrow, a giant carne asada with the main family from this street, including the tias locas, at least four brothers, their wives and their childrens' new baby. Monday, a smaller affair down at the water´s edge, under the tree el Dictador calls his segunda arbol. He´s going to set up a hammock and some coals. All my favourite people will be there.

Sometimes a life changes, takes a 180 turn. This is the longest continuous period of time I've spent in this country since I was 20. My only thought now is that this is a drop in the bucket, compared to the time I want to (and will) spend here in the future.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mexico: Made for the Food Addict and the Shut-In

"I'm hungry," I thought to myself in Mexico, never.

Last Sunday, some friends and I went to eat comida casera, home made dishes complete with made-to-order corn tortillas, slap-slapped to round perfection by the side of the road by three generations of women and dropped into the basket on your table every three minutes or so in San Juan Cosalá. You use a half of the tortilla to scoop up little pockets of beans, tomatillo salsa, pieces of a chile relleno and bistek a la tomate, and deftly (if possible) deposit the whole thing in your mouth. The men use their tortillas as napkins. Each tortilla, placed on the comal heated by small pieces of mequite, goes down, gets flipped, blows up like a pufferfish, and gets tossed in your basket. You eat 10-15 during a meal. You're really, really not hungry when you leave. 

You're even less hungry when you stop at Pedro's on the way back, order a half kilo of carnitas (shaved pig meat that's been deep fried in giant chunks in vats of lard) and a piece of flan, an egg and cream cake with a topping of burnt sugar. The carnitas arrive with six different salsas, all hot. You begin to leak tears and sweat. The struggle to finish begins to seem like a kind of Iron Man of eating.

By the time you end up at your destination, a weekly family gathering of 54 immediate family members, it's just before comida, about 4pm. You can hear the taco meat sizzling before you even get through the door. Your stomach feels like a pufferfish's. The grandparents, their nine children, their nine children's spouses, their nine children's 31 children and their 3 grandchildren all greet you with cheers. "Sit down!" they say. "How many tacos do you want?" A rigorous game of poker continues. The grandparents clean house. The tequila arrives in a pop bottle from someone's back yard agave plantation. The kids run around screaming. A storm on the opposite side of the lake sends wind that knocks the flip flops and kids' socks across the lawn like confetti. There are 1940's Mexican movies playing on the giant screen TV. The vat of meat is the size of a beer fridge. Arm waving doesn't work; you can't refuse what they offer. "Only three tacos?" they ask in shock. "Are you sick?"

Later, when the various brothers and sisters are dragging one another across the lawn, one by one, and throwing one another in the pool, you think that when they finally turn on you, like a pack of happy wolves, and throw you in, fully clothed, you might actually sink. That thought is proven a reality at about 8pm. When you struggle to the surface, a little girl is staring at you, a green inflated tube sits around her waist. You look down. You have the same inflated tube around your waist. Except yours isn't made of air. "How old are you?" she asks. "One hundred and fifty-two," you answer. You're not sure if you mean years or pounds.

Of course, if you stay home, it's no better. Today, from my front door, I've been offered mangos, papayas, pinapples, apples, guavas, flour tortillas, corn tortillas, elotes, cacahuates, tamales, water, pop, tortas and cuts from a pig. If I wanted to, I could stay here all day and everything I need, including the knife-sharpener with his high-low whistle, would arrive pretty much as soon as I thought of needing it. Last week, someone offered me a clock and a hallway chandelier. The week before, electrical tape and a load of firewood.

Some of them ring the bell, but mostly they just scream or play a recording of themselves screaming as they come down the street. "Llévate para mangos, mangos, mangos, llévate, piñas!" "Eloooootes, cacahuaaaaaaates," croons the sombrero-wearing, bicycle-riding elote and cacahuate seller, in a baritone that sends thrills of pleasure down my spine. I take the two floors of stairs two at a time for the flan seller. Sometimes I miss him and a chill of almost hunger pangs me. It's such an unfamiliar feeling that I wonder if I might be ill. Then the ice cream bicycle turns the corner.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Axixic Life

"México, me dices cosas bonitas, y otras cosas no tan bonitas."

Yesterday evening, while a dog covered in confetti nosed up to me in the plaza while varying numbers of friends and I were listening to the live, free Cumbia band begin, at about 10:30pm, for all the kids and adults milling around playing with coloured, hollow eggs (which contain the confetti), eating tacos, promenading around the square, drinking tequila or cerveza, dancing or gossiping, I was trying to think how I would describe this life to people not living in Mexico. Like how you know when you leave the house on a Sunday, everyone’s (and my) day off, you can’t be sure where you’ll end up. Comida casera by the side of the road with four generations of women tortillerando turns into a visit to Kim’s house, who takes you to her husband’s daughter’s husband’s family for a second comida, at which point you feel like you may indeed be pregnant with taquitos, after eating so many tortillas, and the discussions around the table--while the kids are running around and following the grandmother back and forth to the kitchen – range from Franco to Obama to pardon rules for Mexicans trying to enter the US after being wrongfully convicted of crimes by the US justice system to the paintings that Jeanne has made over the last 20 years, many of them depicting the Mexican revolution in colours that defy your ability to categorize them. Then, someone she knows stops by the side of the road and gives you a ride from San Juan Cosalá, even though he’s going in the opposite direction, and you end up with the confetti dog at your feet, laughing about a dozen things at the same time, and it’s midnight and 22 degrees and the pool hall around the corner is waiting, as is the taco stand, and the lake at night, and the poem in your book not yet translated into the digital world, and all your readings for the PhD that seem to be leading toward a synthesis of body and ground and lyric and world.

The night after I wrote this first paragraph, however, the country gave me some gentle instruction on the art of not living in a dream world of pleasure without recognizing the hardship also in evidence on a daily basis. Standing in the square that same night that I described, my friend Max, out of work for the third time that spring, saw his three daughters pass by, whom he had recently relinquished to an American/Guadalajaran couple so that they would have a chance at a better life. Broke and heartbroken, the next night he went on an overnight drunk at our friend’s house and told me he was going to accept an offer to join the Sinaloa cartel. Three men had taken him to dinners in Guadalajara earlier this year. They paid for everything. They promised him $8000 pesos a week. Sinaloa is currently trying to protect its holdings as the Nueva Generacion Jalisco, Mexico’s newest cartel, tries to enlarge its territory. They prey on vulnerable members of a community. If he took the offer (he didn't), he would have likely received closer to $100 pesos a week to act as a halcon, or village lookout, or would have been used as a mule, ferrying cocaine, marijuana and meth over the border in a car.

In our friends’ inner patio he swayed along with the guitar players, singing off key and trying to fill everyone’s glasses with more tequila, an act badly seen in more educated circles. We were driven home in courteous silence. A request arrived through a friend the next week that he not attend their music events again. In the street that night, he fingered his cell phone, swearing that I’d never see him again if he made the call. He had less than 50 pesos to his name. I let him in, gave him a tranquilizer – the first he’d ever taken – and left him to sleep. The next morning he was a shell, but he walked out into the sun and found work building a kitchen for the man who had ferried us home the night before. Poverty here is immediate, and immediately reversible, if one knows the right people. Most of my friends live within days of destitution. In the ten years Max spent working in the United States as an ilegal he sent every penny home to his parents. He arrived home with less than $500 to his name.

Alcoholism is rampant. The week before I arrived to Ajijic in May, Fernando, Max’s brother, didn’t stop drinking on a Saturday night. He stumbled and cajoled in the street, asking his wife Ana for money to buy meth, which has found its way to this town through the cartels. The police arrived after Ana called them. Eventually, they took him away and he was gone for nearly two months, staying in a government centre for drug and alcohol abuse with its own psychiatrist, three outdoor toilets for 90 men and thirty bunks to a room with no fan. Don’t bring me money, he told us, his eyes wet, when we visited him in mid May. But I’d like some face cream. We were eating the roadside chicken we'd brought him, using tortillas as utensils, sitting on a fiberglass-roofed patio as a thunderstorm let loose around us. When the lightning and thunder were simultaneous, the men in the centre cheered and whistled from the doors of their bunkrooms. On the way home, Ana, Max, Angel and his wife Isa and I sat five to the cab up the dirt road to Santa Cruz, and used our legs to brace when we went over the topes so we wouldn’t crush the laps of the boys. We stopped at Suriana and bought a crib for Angel and Isa’s baby, who was born in July. The parents are 18; the crib is a quarter the size of their room.

It may be incidents with alcohol like these that spur the racism I’ve found in this town, by the white visitors (whether they are permanent residents or simply snowbirds) toward the Mexican population. Or it may simply be the differences in culture and way of life, or it may be the poverty. Or it may simply be the entitlement I feel radiating from so many foreigners, even when they profess to be open-minded. One couple from Canada I contacted told me I was welcome to stay as long as I didn’t let any of the local neighbours or their children enter the property. Their double house is the largest on the block. I was delighted to find out that when the Canadians leave for their six months in the north, the property’s pool is renamed the Community Pool.

Still, despite so many foreigners living in such close proximity to locals, the separation of gardener or housecleaner from friend seems mostly absolute. One American woman who lives with her husband in a spacious oasis of garden and ranch-style house in West Ajijic, holds parties for the locals, but only outside. A bathroom is available, as is the kitchen, but the rest of the house is never entered by people not of her race. Everyone, it seems, knows their place. Through it all, the Mexicans maintain a grace and equanimity I doubt Americans or Canadians could manage for more than five minutes. Working for four dollars an hour cleaning miradors and pools, they learn enough English to make their employers happy, and then go home to two pantry-sized rooms, shared sometimes by multiple families.

And so I try to navigate the unspoken rules and regulations of behaviour and relationships, and sometimes I fail and sometimes it goes well. The only thing I know for sure here is that no culture is a Disneyland of kindness and perfection. But neither is it acceptable for my race to arrive in another country, look around and say (true story), “this place is perfect, except for the Mexicans.”

Friday, June 5, 2015


There is a rumour amongst my friends here that PRI, one of the national political parties, are offering televisions to those families who agree to vote for them on June 7. After a week of election madness in the squares, each party giving its all to show the village a good time, complete with banda music, manic dancing, free food (or sometimes just a water container full of jugo de jamaica) I'm tempted to believe the talk. When each person in a family only has three t-shirts, the offer of a fourth, emblazoned with the party's slogans and candidate, can be deeply appealing. Wouldn't I wear a new t-shirt, if I only had three others? Of course I would. Meanwhile, the PRD, the party to the left, gets very little attention in the town - only 30 people or so showed up to its turn at madness. Is it because they don't have anything to give? Is the legacy of PAN and PRI too strong? My friend in the north of Mexico writes that people in his village are being offered food and promises of continued help for a poverty stricken area, in exchange for agreeing to vote a certain way. Meanwhile, the shootout which resulted in over 40 dead - the Mexican government claiming they are narco traficantes - is now being questioned as a possible massacre of civilians. The paradoxes of the country continue.

I am in Axixic (the traditional spelling of Ajijic, as it's now known) for the summer, trying valiantly to become fully fluent in Spanish and creating the list and then reading the list for my PhD comprehensive exams in geography and poetics. Outside, right now, the banda horns are gritando. The small park in front of the malecon has become a centre of festivities for the beginning of the weekend. They try to outdo one another in noise levels. I play boleros on the stereo of the house I'm sitting and try my hand at salsa-making, and wait for the light to lower so that it's cool enough to walk by the lake and write for an hour before the darkness sets in. My friend Antonio is probably wearing down the batteries of his giant speakers, a few minutes walk from the park, trying to educate the masses in the glories of Gil Biberto y Miles Davis, his car doors open, his saxophone in his hands. 

This choice, to spend extended time here, is one of the best I have ever made. I read and write by day; I walk to different taco stands at night. I know by name the entire street full of people that I used to live on, back in December, and to which I will return in July. I wait for the rains to begin in earnest. The temperature climbs to 30, the clouds move in, the lake rises and folds with wind, then smooths to glass in the morning. Adios, say the people I pass on the street, in a greeting, rather than a goodbye.