Oaxaca

How to even start with Oaxaca? Ben and Alex and I spent ten days there, and the trip feels too big to distill. I know I’d never thought about staying down here after service until I went. I know that I’d never seen a place as interesting or socially conscious or politically alert in this Republic.

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I’ve got no coherent narrative or explanation, but I can piece together some vignettes.


 

Ben and I are sitting in a gloomy bar called La Cantina that will on following days evade us like the Room of Requirement. The air is close and the place is crowded for a football match. Every other table is twenty beers deep, bottles crowding empty cases underneath. Brews are ten pesos until six, but we’ll manage to pay more all three times we stop in.

A local, clearly plastered, bellies up to the bar and orders us two beers in jailhouse English. This is unwritten code—he’s bought twelve ounces worth of time to practice speaking with us. It’s always a bit of a press-gang situation, but he’s on Ben’s side, so I let him handle it and keep watching the game. After five minutes, the guy’s still there, and Ben and I pointedly empty our bottles and pay for the next two.

I try to get the attention of the guy’s friend, and I notice the first guy’s touching Ben. A lot. All over his pechos. He’s going on and on about his wife, which usually means he wants to make the gringo he’s hanging on his husband. After another sweaty five minutes, he ambles back to his table, shaking my hand through six or seven false starts before he goes. Ben and I get a few minutes of peace before he starts whistling from his stool. “That’s for us, isn’t it?” Ben asks.

“It’s for you, hombre.”

“Fuck.”

“He’s coming over.”

“No, come on, he isn’t right?”

“Hey guys,” he slurs, his hand sliding back onto Ben’s chest. He’s trying to make it look normal, like a hand on a shoulder, but it’s not. “You should come over, talk English, we practice.” He tries to look into Ben’s eyes, but my friend’s staring resolutely my way. “Bring a stool,” he says. “One stool,” he adds, caressing Ben’s tit again. He stumbles away. We look over at his table. There’s a very small gap between two sets of knees and sweaty dicks.

“Just one stool, Ben.” We pay our check.

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Are You Wearing Socks?

Adam on SM 1 by SK

“Are you wearing socks?” Ulises asks me. I look down at my leather boots.

“Yea. Why?”

“To walk in the river, dude. I’m not wearing any,” and he elbows me across the gearshift and winks. I think about it for a minute. Calzados. No, right, calzados means underwear. Calcetínes means socks. Always fuck that one up.

Am I wearing underwear? I’m always wearing underwear. But what underwear? Right, the knock-off Gucci spandex boyshorts-for-men Mom picked up last Christmas. Perfect. They cling like socks from the dryer out of the water; as soon as I hit the river they’ll be as revealing as Saran Wrap. Even better.

Ulises parks the truck in the shade and as I take a minute to check out the sapphire-blue ribbon in front of us, he hustles out and starts stripping. At least his going commando comment was a joke. He asks me if I’m coming. I look out my window and what seems to be the caretaker for the small group of tourist cabins a hundred yards to our right is leaning on his shovel and staring at me.

“Yea, sure,” I say to Ulises, and step out. It’s been a hot ride here and my jeans drag my briefs half off, exposing what I imagine is a piercingly white bit of waxing gibbous. Let’s go catch some fucking bugs.

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Bury the Lede

Things decay in the campo. They break down, fall apart, succumb to the entropic forces of heat and wet and hard use. Shoe soles crack, fray, come to pieces, holes wear into socks and shirts and packs, mud and road dust creep into everything. Even cuts turn to scars more often out here.

In spite of it, I’m taking better care than I ever have before, better care of everything. The easy (because they’re self-motivating) things, like obsessive flossing and overuse of gauze and antibiotics to keep teeth and limbs from falling out and off. But the smaller and more tedious things too, cleaning where before I would have let lie, repairing and restoring where custom would have me replace.

I have an orange Jansport backpack. Dad brought it home to the house in Michigan more than six years ago expecting (I imagine) to use it himself. I stole it that same night (I think), and my first act of possession was to shear off half of its straps with a pocket knife because I didn’t like the way they looked. I’ve used that pack in the intervening years for school and every trip I’ve made under seven days, and it’s held up. But my laptop’s heavy and seventeen inches large, just a bit wider than the Jansport, and last October the seams around the shoulders finally blew out. I’ve sewn them back together twice now, black and white thread reaching further and further from the original stitching to find purchase.

I'm a natural

I’m a natural

I tore out the bottom of my hiking pack transporting hardwoods for my amateur-but-really-professional-carpenter father, and the dual color thread stands out even more brightly against its olive drab.

I brought twelve pairs of socks back to Mexico from the US the first time I went home and tore the heels out of all of them in three months of sweaty summer use. Then I darned them.

I darned them all!

Darned and in need of re-darning

Now I’m looking for a wooden mushroom and I’ve started pre-patching all my new pairs against the creeping serrano deterioration.

The highway that fronts my office is the only artery of communication through the mountains and half the day we can’t hear anything for all the engine-braking. Every morning we come in to another millimeter of road dust on our desks, and I’ve become intimate with the insides of my laptop, prising it apart and cleaning it and piecing it together again. I brought a keg of Oxi-Clean home from that same first trip, and the TSA opened and upended it in my pack after check-in. I spent two days tweezing the white particles out of my motherboard, blowing the detergent from each individual connection.

My whites are whiter than ever

My whites are whiter than ever though

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Thanksgiving

I’m reading The Labyrinth of Solitude and I’m so wrapped up in holding the text steady that I don’t notice when the bus blows past El Lobo. We’re a half mile down the road by the time I stagger to the front and explain in panicked Spanish that I meant to get off, “You know, apenas,” just now. My permanent affect in Spanish is contrition, and I keep apologizing to the driver as I try to mime that he needs to stop the bus. I mumble disculpe and perdóname to sleeping Mexicans on my oh-so-long trip to the back to grab my pack. Off the bus, I huck my gear to the ground and try to take stock. I am immediately covered in ants. I curse and giggle and try to shimmy them down and out of my jeans. I sling all forty pounds of prep onto my back and start down the road towards Lobo.

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I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the stubby mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre, and I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving. I live in Jalpan, the de facto capital of the region, and I’m traveling up into the hills to stay with the two other volunteers that the Peace Corps placed out here. James is tall, gangly, and fiercely blonde. He’s Michigan Dutch, Cortez reincarnate in the way he enchants the dusty campo girls. Danielle is a small and perpetually hungry environmental educator out of New York State. They both live in the mero campo, the real country, in pueblos that Jalpan dwarfs, far away from the Internet and bus-lines that keep me pretty well in touch with the world outside.

As I walk up to the misty intersection that leaves the highway and climbs into the mountains, I realize that—God knows why—I’ve worn a cardigan. Between it and my camera, I’ll look like what the grizzled men in this leg of the Sierra refer to as a mano caída, a fallen hand, letting their wrists go limp as they say it. Transit from here to where my friends live goes by way of improvised taxis and converted pickups, and I try to look at home as I sidle up to the group of drivers.

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“Who’s going to Río Verdito?” I ask. One of them raises his hand. “Cuanto?

Eighty pesos,” he says, about six-fifty US.

“No manches,” I reply, don’t mess around. He laughs. “I live here,” I say, and light a cigarette for effect.

“Not right here”

“Down the road.” He laughs again. “Quince,” I say. Fifteen, less than a dollar.

“Then you’ll have to wait.” I pass him a cigarette and we talk about where he’s worked in the States. He’s been to pick apples near where I used to live in Michigan, but we don’t know any of the same people. One of those things. When a critical mass of travelers builds up and gets into his truck, he waves me towards the cab, but I beg off and sling my stuff into the bed. The ride is gorgeous and I’d rather not have to navigate small talk.

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We climb up into the hills while the fog lifts and peaks and pastures dance into view. It’s a cut-rate Bavaria without the more impressive Alps, long narrow valleys blending into terraced farmland spotted with goats and mongrel zebu cattle. We make it to James’ pueblo without incident, and I’m not sure if I’m excited or afraid. We’ve got a turkey, but it’s not, you know, dead yet. Peace Corps is full of this kind of experience—things you want to say you’ve done but which you’re not so sure you want to do. James’ cabin clings to the hillside far up the valley wall, and I poke around for telltale feathers as I hike the muddy cow-path to his door. His kitchen is always unlocked and when I push inside, he’s just taking a pot of water off for coffee.

We do the slap-and-a-fist bump that passes for a handshake out here. “So uh, where is she?” I ask.

“Penelope? I had to do her yesterday. Didn’t want to lead her on.”

“Was she a hassle?”

“No, sweet bird. Calmer than I thought she’d be when I carried her over in the corn sack.”

“I should’ve told you I was gonna write about it.”

“You want to see her? She’s outside.”

James is an engineer, but he spent most of his time between college and the Peace Corps on organic farms, and him also being from Michigan, it’s not his first time to a turkey shoot.

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“You use that same handle-less abomination on her?” He only has one knife.

“Yea. Had it so sharp it almost scared me. She went quiet.” He nods over the edge of his porch and I look down to see bloodstains and a mass of feathers in the trees below. “There’d be more down there, but chickens are notorious cannibals,” he says, and indicates the crowd that’s turned out to bawk at us. I look into the pot, and she’s tiny, just enough for four, with little black hairs clinging to the gaping pores where feathers used to be.

“Gross, man,” I say, prodding the little craters.

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“Yea. Butterballs, the commercially grown ones, they’re bred to be pluckable. Ugly, all bald and patchy.”

Night’s closing in, so we take the coffee and huddle into his living room to talk. James and I have the best non-native Spanish of our class of volunteers, but we both find it difficult to connect emotionally outside of English, so we talk about the Mitten State for hours when we’re together. It’s not long before we have to bundle up, shaking spiders out of blankets and knit ponchos. It’s as cold as it ever gets up here, not less than thirty five degrees. But Mexico is all poured concrete, and the walls welcome the cold in, making sure that if it’s chilly outside, it’s just as bad in here.

At daybreak, the clouds are gone and the temperature shoots up as we hitchhike to Agua Zarca, where our other volunteer Danielle lives. We catch a ride straight off, and for all that I rip the ashtray out of the car door trying to pull it closed, the guy seems happy for company. He drops us just outside of Danielle’s place, some thirty minutes down the road. When we step out, she calls down from her balcony that there’s no running water, hasn’t been all morning. James and I look at each other. Neither of us has showered much since the cold rolled in, and we’re both pouring sweat now. “Ni modo,” he says, something like ‘Nor a way,’ the national anthem of amiable resignation.

Danielle has to run out to pick up our fourth, Janessa, the other volunteer from down where I live. James visits the neighbors to see if they’ve got water while I unload pie supplies from my backpack. It turns out they have got some, in a rain cistern, and he begins the first of dozens of runs for water, carrying it back in six-liter plastic bottles and dumping it into tubs. Between his frame and the chore, he looks like a broomstick from the Sorceror’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia.

I busy myself with the pies. Danielle hasn’t got bowls, so I make dough in the massive 12-inch cake pans I’ve brought along. Closest I could find to pie tins. James is on a personal crusade against the Coca Cola that’s singlehandedly giving diabetes to rural Mexico, so I’m cutting all refined sugars from the recipes this year. Pecan is easy since honey subs in fine for Karo syrup, but I’m more dubious about the apple. The jar broke in my pack on the way, and I spend much of the time scooping honey out of the bag I wrapped it in.

“You think you’ll have enough water for me to wash anytime soon?” I ask James as he stumbles in puffing from the stairs.

“Screw you,” he laughs, putting his bottles down. I waggle sticky fingers at him. “How’re the pies going?”

“Fucked if I know. I’m going to have to shave some piloncillo for the topping.”

“Good luck with that,” he says, and heads for more water. Piloncillo is solid molasses, boiled and poured into diamond-hard cones. I picked up ten pounds of it on the corner for just under a dollar. I’m willing to do my Mom’s Dutch apple without the sugar, but I don’t feel like I can get away without crumb topping. When Janessa arrives I get her to promise to do me a favor and then leave her scraping a butter knife against the big brown lump.

Janessa’s a middle-height brunette, at turns mothering and full-on partier, and she’s liable to bite your shoulder in times of high excitement. Peace Corps was her dream, and her husband Trey gamely brought his southern Georgia charm down to Mexico along with her. This past October, though, he got the job he’d been waiting for, inspecting operations and developing best practices for California weed farming outfits, and she’s out here alone until he comes down for Christmas.

James and I head out back to consider Penelope. We’ve got a brining recipe written down, but it’s the container that’s holding us up. The pot we brought her over in is too shallow to submerge her, and Danielle’s plastic washtub is larger than her fridge. We’ve heard you’re supposed to keep the bird cool.

“I murdered her, I didn’t nick the bowel, and I’m sure she’s clean.”

“Been out in the sun for a while though.”

“Yea.”

“Weather kind of let us down.”

“It’s a long way from Michigan.” He looks at Penelope. Turns her from side to side. “Wait,” he says, and runs into the house. He comes back with the crisper drawer from the fridge.

“No fucking way,” I say, but he waves me off, and when he lowers her into the plastic, it looks like she’s striking a pose for my camera. Perfect fit. “Maybe that’s what it’s always been for,” I say as we pour salt brine and a table of Danielle’s precious American molasses in with her.

“Guy who invented the refrigerator wondering all his life why we’re putting vegetables in the turkey drawer.”

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The pies go into the oven and the girls start on dinner. Pastries aside, we’ve fallen further into gender roles out here, some kind of cultural osmosis. We take out the first bottle of wine. After the luxury of daily Safeway runs, it’s a sweet rarity, way outside of our normal price range for bottom shelf tequila. For this weekend, though, we’ve got four bottles and it feels like a bounty. We’ve got no corkscrew, and I paint most of my shirt a deep violet ramming the cork down.

“Hey, I think there’s eggs in the pasta,” says Janessa. Danielle walks over and looks into the pot.

“And weevils. Could have come in the water, too,” she offers. “You know they eat them here. Some kind of diet.” James nods.

“They say it forms some kind of colony inside of you. You know, in your stomach acid.”

“Protein is protein,” Janessa says, and we all gather round to fish the bugs out with a tiny colander.

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Dinner goes well until music starts pouring in the front from the dingy cantina across the way. Banda is hard to listen to in the best of times. Its swaggering imitation of mid-nineties rap values is set to country guitar and a polka bass-line, and when the ridiculous tuba-plus-accordion begins to blare, we shut the door.

Part of Peace Corps, maybe the only part that matters, is opening yourself to your host country and sharing with it in return. But when we get together for American holidays, we guiltily close ourselves off, trying to create a warm little bubble of home. All weekend we’ll leave huapango and ranchero and even Vicente Fernandez to one side for Macklemore and The Shins, Patsy Cline and the Avett Brothers. I’ll try to start in with Christmas, She & Him and Bing Crosby and Vince Guaraldi playing Charlie Brown, but Danielle will nix it.

“Not until Thanksgiving, and that’s not until Thursday.”

Rules are rules, and as long as we’re pretending that this is the States, we’ve got to respect them. Mexico goes from Día de Muertos on the first of November straight into Christmas, and I walked past the fifty foot iron-and-plastic fir tree in my town square on the first of November with a mix of familiarity and deep confusion.

In the morning, we can’t remember how long we ought to roast a turkey, so we take the campo attitude and wing it, packing her sideways into a stew pot and deciding that three hours or so ought to do it. The dial eschews degrees for an inscrutable I to V range, and we figure that somewhere between II and III is a good bet. The bird safely in the oven, James and Janessa head to the terrace for yoga. We’ve all gotten more New Age since joining up, but Danielle and I draw the line at sugarless pies. She and I turn on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and sing along to ‘Eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.’ We’re together but we’re not together, each of us lost remembering the mothers that first played it for us.

When the chorus comes around, we fall back into the kitchen and yell, ‘Can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in, singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement,’ before laughing to each other and sighing.

“Time for tequila?”

“Yea.”

When the cooking gets into full swing, it becomes clear that we’ll have far too much food, each of us trying to make all the tastes of home. I’ve got the two pies and a pseudo-casserole of green beans, bacon, and slivered almonds. Slap Chops absent, only dull knives and patience get them thin enough. Janessa’s making cooked carrots and her grandmother’s Jell-O chutney, its myriad fruits replaced by three sad pears and a cup of dusty craisins. Danielle makes stuffing from Bimbo bread, two steps down in substance from Wonder. The most American ingredient is a family-size box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, scrounged at great cost from the Walmart down in the city. We pour it into a baking pan and crumble stuffing over top in lieu of breadcrumbs. It crisps up under Penelope. All of us have given up on the way we smell, and we pack the mashed potatoes with garlic, the white starches yellowing under the onslaught of cloves. For all that we’ve tried to make things as healthy as we preach, we’ve somehow gone through a good twenty sticks of butter before we’re done.

Dishwashing becomes laborious, one of us having to pour from our bottled reserves while another scrubs. Before long, the tub that collects from the basin is full and Danielle starts grilling us on the state of our bowels.

“Somebody take a dump already. We’ve got to flush with the dishwater so I can keep washing.” I go first, and James turns up the music. Danielle’s bathroom is separated from her kitchen by the thinnest plastic and tin—we’re lucky if only the sound makes it through. Shit-shy in the States, I’m not worried. I think it must be true in every country that the first vanity to die in the Peace Corps dies on the toilet. Training is an endless seminar on amoebas and food poisoning, and few meals went by without our speculating on how soon we’d be seeing what we were eating and how it would look when we did. Unwashed vegetables and home-slaughtered turkey long-eaten by time of publication, it looks like we got out scot free this time.

The weather’s still good once Penelope’s out, so we pull Danielle’s small kitchen table outside. The towns here hug the highways as they skirt round the mountains, and when you head to the back of the house, the ground falls away. It’s a five story drop from the edge of her terrace, pine trees rolling out into woodland and a valley that flows as far as you can see. She’s got the best view in all of Mexico, maybe all of Peace Corps, and we use it as the backdrop for a few Last Supper timer photos before we lose patience and fall on the food.

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It’s an orgy and we make ourselves sick trying to eat our way back home. By the time we make it to the pies, we’re moaning and cussing with each bite. Only the firmest pain signals from our bellies induce us to quit. We have to stop, and when we do, not even the last three bottles of wine and a good deal of tequila can keep us from seeing what we’ve put off with mad cooking and manic conversation. There’s nothing left to hide that it’s Sunday afternoon and Janessa and I will have to be on the bus back to site at six in the morning. We fall into a melancholy silence, collapsing onto blankets in the last of the sunlight and trying to accommodate our swollen stomachs.

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The hills lift the horizon high into the sky, and sunset always comes as a surprise in the Sierra. We were all nodding or napping, and the stars stole out before we knew it, Orion peeking over the hills to our east.

“Do you miss your family?” Janessa asks.

“I dunno. I mean, my folks are in China,” I reply, “So there’s not much of a home for me to go back to for things like this. Plus, you’re married and everything, but for me, every holiday away is a kind of growing-up. Every one a little more adult.”

“You want to be an adult?”

“I don’t feel like one,” I say, but I figure this must be what it’s like for everyone when they’re first out on their own, whether it’s in Mexico or Michigan. Trying to recapture bits of what they’ve left behind.

We stay out until we can’t keep our eyes open, pulling on sweaters and scarves as the wind turns. It rushes around the valley in waves, building to a waterfall roar as it comes to the house and tousles our hair. Dozens of shooting starts streak over us and we put off bedtime, wishing our private wishes.

In the morning, we blow on fingers and chafe our palms together. We pack stuffing and pies into shopping bags and snug them in the spare pockets of our backpacks. We turn and hug Danielle at the door.

“You’ll have to make that apple pie again for Christmas,” she says as we pull away from each other.

And she’s right. I will.

Liberal Arts

When I first got here, the volunteers of the group before mine called me ‘Georgetown.’ I hadn’t meant to mention my university so much. I’ve gotten less snobby about school with every passing year, and in my experience GU doesn’t impress much outside of the foreign policy crowd anyway. But I came to Mexico straight out of college, and it was my major touchstone for the last four years.

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Having, as it did, a lot of stones

A friend brought it to my attention and I’ve tried to stop using the name so much, even here on the blog. But with all the debates that have been cycling through the navel-gazing loop of Slate and Atlantic and New Yorker comment pieces about the nature of college, I’ve been thinking about it more. I disliked old money at Georgetown and the extent to which everyone in DC fetishized the northeast; how fashion went off the deep end my sophomore year and everyone in the city started dressing like they were about to go sailing with the Kennedys in Nantucket, all boat shoes and pastel pants and little anchors and sailboats peppering everything. But it’s an idiosyncrasy of mine that I look back to the hoary old campuses of the East Coast and the glory days of an American aristocracy growing up in prep schools, heading to the Ivy League, and then entering civil service or elected government.

Once you've climbed on John Carroll, you're practically there

Once you’ve climbed on John Carroll, you’re practically there

We play down how much our undergraduate institutions mean to us. We don’t call ourselves Harvard men or Georgetown men anymore, don’t get together and sing the alma mater for old times’ sake. I don’t know if it’s that they don’t leave as much a mark on us as they used to or if we’re determined not to be tied to something so solid and old in our eagerness to be young and restless and free. But I am a Georgetown man or an East Coast man and I want to be, because there’s something that lives in those ancient, ivy-obsessed ruins that’s fading away everywhere else.

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Monitoring, Reporting, and Devaluation

I want to talk about the Peace Corps, my little part of it, as I see it now.

To talk about now, though, I’ve got to go back and talk about then. The early sixties were (I understand) heady days for us as a country. We’d concluded what seemed like a successful police action in Korea under the auspices of the then-still-exciting United Nations, we were following our most charismatic president, and fears about the Soviet Union had (somewhat) diminished with his handling of the missile crisis and Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalin and Stalinism. We hadn’t yet come to know the horrors of Vietnam or the culture wars what would tear us apart.

We were on top of the world, and in that moment we still thought that we could save it. It speaks to the spirit of the times that an offhand remark on the steps of the Michigan Union during the campaign generated enough public excitement for Kennedy to create an entirely new and radical kind of development and diplomacy organization. The idea behind the Peace Corps is still appealing—we send bright, young all-American college graduates off to the poorest corners of the world and let them use their new-gotten know-how to improve lives abroad in the same way they’d soon be improving them at home. It’s a kind of beautiful optimism, a faith in forward progress that hadn’t yet been stymied by stagflation and internal surveillance and decades of proxy wars.

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The Long Goodbye

These are sad times. End times. Graduation has come and gone. We’re in the grey valedictory, suffering through the anticlimax as friends and lovers drift back to from where they came. The end of college was the death of a family for me, and I’m wading through a second aftermath already.

There is a bar in Georgetown called the Tombs.

They made a movie about it

They made a movie about it

It’s a block away from campus, and it’s the only bar for almost a mile in any direction. My university is notorious for fake IDs and DC bars are notorious for taking them. Police crackdowns switch up the underclassman bar of the moment every couple of weeks, and there’s a constant trade in buybacks from bouncers and licenses from similar-looking older siblings. But The Tombs is special. By tradition, the earliest drink you have there is on your 21st, and sneaking one beforehand is bad form. You walk in after midnight with as many drinks toward twenty-one as you could muster since morning, they stamp your forehead, and you try to hit the big two-one with the cascade of shots and beers that pours in afterward. You’re carried out, and you feel like dying for a couple days. It’s a rite of passage, it’s the way you do it.

I was away, so they caught me on the cheeks for my 22nd

I was away, so they caught me on the cheeks for my 22nd

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Deck Chairs

I write a radio show. I write it once a week to be broadcast on Wednesday at three in the afternoon. Each week I write it on a different broad and unexciting environmental topic. Unexciting not because there’s nothing interesting to be said on, say, Earth Day or cloud forests or the Reserve in which I work. But because the vagueness of the topics and the format of the show mean that each script is a little history and a lot of basic explainer. We’re trying to make the show more about debates and contests and citizen participation, but in the meantime it is what it is. And Piedras Anchas being a government station means that I can’t spice it up in its current format.

Which is just this guy talking for an hour

Which is just this guy talking for an hour

I discovered our self-censorship during the Earth Day show. I was writing the first half, all the background, its popular roots and how the UN incorporated it into their year-round calendar of official unobserved holidays. I wrote something that even then I’d written a dozen times already: that the ’92 Rio Conference was an environmental watershed, one of the most important moments in who gives a shit. Looking at what I’d written, I decided to change tack. There are breaks in the show, and the script after half-time read something like this:

I said something before the corte: that Rio was fundamentally important. I’ve said it before and I will probably say it again. In the sense that it was a conference that garnered mass international participation and recognition, it was important. But in the sense of achieving significant advances, it wasn’t, and neither was any other UN environmental gathering.

We have known since the 1970s that manmade climate change represents an existential threat to communities worldwide. We have known that the myriad activities of our commerce and industry are destroying the environment not in an academic sense but immediately and with consequences that will affect us and cripple the generations that follow.

And what have we done? What have we really achieved now we’ve been armed with that knowledge? The answer is nothing or almost nothing—there have been small victories in other fields, like the discontinuation of CFCs, but only when those victories presented minute economic hurdles for our governments and corporations and only when they had other techniques and chemicals at hand.

I want this Earth Day not to be another day during which we congratulate ourselves for those hollow successes but one in which we think on every time we have known what was right and failed to follow through, every time we had the opportunity to improve our environment or protect it and stood by instead.

When your failures combine...they can be totally depressing

When your failures combine…they can be totally depressing

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Cockfight

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We walk in with different attitudes. Trey is eager, I dubious, Alejandro, alert. He’s pretending to be an old hand. Trey has been talking about cockfights for months, and we’ve strolled in on his pesos—I planned not to have enough for this. We are tight from earlier and hoping not to sober up fast. We aren’t sure we have the money to stay this way, and at one-thirty in the morning, tomorrow’s workday looms. I spent last night with Lupe, so it’s two vigils in a row, though the focus is more on death tonight than what comes after.

Alejandro tells us we’ve missed the first set of fights and we keep our seats through a half-hour of arcane Mexican lotteries. Trey’s itching to put money on a bird, but he’ll wait until the raffle girls have finished. I expected a farmyard smell but it’s the same here as outside, the air untainted but as wet and heavy. The arena is tiered and while there are chairs around the broad flat top, most are sitting like us on the concentric concrete ledges that circle down to the pit in the center.

A pudgy campesino looks to be the referee, pacing in a sweatstained button-down open to his navel, stopwatch hanging like a narco medallion. Serious characters make the innermost ring, elbows propped on the retaining wall. They whisper to each other in confidence under black felt Stetsons wearing pressed jeans and entertaining girls who are either too old or much too young to be out this time of night. When the birds come out, they are thinner than I expected, looking more like young chickens than the roosters who strut through town. Svelte their whole length, most of their combs and dangling flesh has been shaved off.

The first is in the arms of a thin young man from the countryside, his plaid shirt tucked into too-light jeans that climb towards his armpits. It seems like his only bird, and he cradles it, talking and combing its feathers with one hand. The other owner’s is white, one of what seems like a big stable. The man looks drunk and his guayabera is open and discolored. A third man brings his contender into the ring to rile up the fighters. He shoves his bird at them, and then the owners hold them by the tail while they charge each other in place, feathered cartoon bulls.

The man and the kid turn and start to prep the birds. A slow process. Bandage from the lockbox, trim and cut, first one half on the leg and then the other. Their assistants open the knifeboxes and both owners consider one before taking another. They press them to the birds’ legs and start to bind them on with colored floss, green for the kid’s corner, red for the man’s. What the fuck, says Trey. They’re putting razors on ‘em. I shrug and nod.

It’s a bloodsport man. I expected some blood. Alejandro adds that without the knives, the fights would be too long.

Se necesitan las navajas.

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Easter

Courtesy of Incarnate Word Ministries

I walk to Lupe’s house at eight, happy that the weather’s cooled. Easter Vigil feels long enough playing American rules without worrying about pit stains. We start a half-hour late, but I don’t mind. Lupe has been talking about the procession and the Mass as if they’ve got no time limit, as though they only end when you give up and walk out. ¡A ver si nos aguanta! She screams at intervals.

We start the walk across town without our friend Elvia, who’s running even later than us. Women with canes and rebozos trundle alongside, candles at the ready. I ask Lupe if only women go to the procession. No, she tells me. It’s for everyone.

The fair starts tomorrow and half the town is already partying. The frantic one two one two polka sound of banda music pours out of trucks and houses. Stoops are full of young men drinking from forty-ounces and eyeing us in the wary way that young people have here.

We make it at eight forty for an eight thirty curtain, but the priest is nowhere to be seen and neither are most of the people. Don’t worry, Lupe says, they’ll be here. And see, guys come too, she adds, sweeping a hand at the few stooped and silent men. I nod and keep looking around when she taps me again. Esta vela se prenderá para la Pascua, she says, as if it were a secret.

I know, Lupe, I say. I’m Catholic, remember.

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