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.”