The Cruelest Month

After dark on the terrace, enjoying the cooling though not cool night breeze and the swarm of bugs around my light. We should be seeing less of those around now, but unseasonable rains have kept them in business. We went through what should have been the start of the dry season weeks ago, when trucks turned up seas of dust to wade through, eyes slitted and lips tight.

What your boot looks like after a dry season dance

What your boot looks like after a dry season dance

But each evening shower that’s damped the dust  has brought the bugs and the humidity. Jalpan sits at one end of a long valley of hot weather growing things. Which means that when they get rain, they hold onto it, dispensing it back into the air not over days but over weeks. Each drizzle pays back an hour of relief with half a month of swelter.

Heat is a common denominator for volunteers. There are some in Eastern Europe and others in more mountainous sites than mine that escape it, but for the rest of us, even those of us here in Posh Corps Mexico, heat is a constant. I arrived at the start of Jalpan’s only prolonged cool, between late November and early January. Even then, we only escaped under cloud cover. If the twelfth day of Christmas saw sun, it was a scorcher.  Our recent little rains have let us think that it might not be so bad, that claims might be exaggerated, that campesinos who aren’t pegged to weather.com might not have a great conception of what 115° is and just mean ‘real hot.’

But we’re getting into it now, the sun creeping across the bedsheets at six like the sand map from Raiders and the opening-the-ark light of the outside door at nine. We’re feeling the lingering ovenlike warmth of our apartments into the long hours of the night and the permanent dampness of a bed that won’t dry and a body that won’t stop sweating.

For him an ark, for us a laptop

For him an ark, for us a laptop

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Edward Said and Defining Mexico

The Mexican is lazy, is hardworking, is prone to violence, is hospitable. He is dirty, clean, like to other hispanics, unlike other latinos, shares racial strengths with the indians, has inherited cultural decadence from the Spanish. He lives in an old country with old values, he finds it hard to adapt to new ways of life, he is itinerant, moving to new locales to leech off other peoples. “The Mexican” and “Mexicans” are a lot of bullshit.

When I sit down and slam out a blog, beer in hand, I take on a responsibility. All Peace Corps volunteers and all the expats like us do the same. When we write about our host countries and peoples, we define them, to ourselves and to our audience.

There’s a book about it.

This book

This book

Said describes the way that “Orientalists,” scholars of the nearer and farther Easts, created a body of ideas, papers, art, and literature, that took on more reality than the physical East. When making policy or business decisions, Westerners responded to this constructed pseudo-Orient rather than the real. I’m simplifying. A lot. But I’ll use Mexico as an example of the same.

The parts of this country that I have seen—massive pine woods, cloud-forests, alpine streamlets and freezing waterfalls, the chic-as-fuck city of Querétaro and its eco-cafes and burgeoning urban-hippy scene—none of it has anything to do with the impression I had of Mexico before shipping out.

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you're Mexican and/or a liar

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you’re Mexican and/or a liar

Where did my previous impression of Mexico come from? From the great American collective unconscious. Flashes of Speedy Gonzales combine with lectures on the Mexican Revolution and vague images from a trip to the Alamo. Cormac McCarthy novels blend into the Man with No Name and The Magnificent Seven. It’s a powerful mental image of white linens and sombreros, now overlaid with narcos and beheadings.

Largely

We think of this

Almost none of that conception has anything to do with the “Real Mexico,” just like the way the rest of the world literally thinks we only eat hamburgers and hot dogs in the States has the tiniest bit of truth (we eat hamburgers sometimes) while missing everything else about us. “Mexicans eat tacos right?” “Well yea, but they’re different than ours and that’s not the point.”

The image, the pseudo-Mexico of The Three Amigos and shitty restaurants, it is the Mexico that we respond to, as voters, vacationers, businesspeople, and politicians. You have to go somewhere to start to know it. I don’t know Mexico. I don’t even know Querétaro, or Jalpan. But I’m a sight further along than I was beforehand, enough to know that what I thought I knew, I didn’t. What you have to realize is that the false American idea of Mexico is all the Mexico there is for the majority of Americans.

Perfect, right

Yes

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Salvador “Chava” Ortiz

Working with Chava starts with the drive. When it’s a long road waiting to some far flung secundaria on a mountain crag, we sail out of Jalpan at seven, when the last night’s fog is just surrendering to the sun in the valleys and the passes. Chava doesn’t drive so much as careen, upshifting into and out of turns, our little red Tsuru doing its best to pick two wheels off the centerline and pirouette over a precipice.

He sits like a latter day Hunter S, smoking and speaking with one hand while the other works the wheel and the shift in turns. Every curve in these mountains could be a hairpin and nowhere is there less respect for yellow paint. Freight traffic is constant and slow and each turn is blind. Passing is an engine-roaring test of nerves against the bastard oncoming who’s likely only half in his lane anyway.

The Reserve covers the most varied ground in Mexico and driving the length of it is like slow revelation. On the trip from Jalpan to the falsely-named Agua Fría the car temperature is ever-changing, first fiery and inescapable coming from the valley heat of my home, too much for open windows to spirit off, and on the climb to Pinal it plummets, tendrils of mist licking their way onto the road and into the car while Chava and I huddle in the pool of sunlight coming through the windshield.

When we pick our way through a gap in the hills to Maguey Verde, the Pacific firs give way in an instant to high desert and badlands of scrubby matorral surround us, pygmy agaves and barrel cacti marking the boundary between the Sierra you come to see and the Sierra you cross to see it. Halfway into the desert we leave the pavement and double back onto a dirt track hewn from the cliffside, littered with old rockslides and every bit as precipitous as the tarmac we’ve left. We rumble through pueblo after pueblo named for water they never had, each a better match for Arroyo Seco than the town that bears the name. But even in the remotest collection of tin-roofed shacks, the kids know the little red sedan and they run up to call ¡profe! and shake his hand.

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Let’s Talk about Third Goal

From the room again today, although very soon I’ll have a porch that’s every bit as hot as the one in DC, and come summer, much, much hotter.

For now, this

For now, this

I mentioned the Peace Corps’ second and third goals in passing in my last post, but I’d like to look at them in depth this time. They are strangely difficult to find on the Internet, considering how prominent they are in training and in PC culture in general (talking about something as 2nd or 3rd goal is readily understood even before our myriad acronyms become second nature). In any case, here they are:

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

The number one reason we ought to pay attention to two and three is that we’ve really got them handled. They’re in our wheelhouse. Goal one, which concerns sending trained men and women to meet the needs of the developing world and to improve the quality of life of the people of hour host country, it’s important. Very much so. It consumes the vast majority of our two years on site, and when we’re evaluating our performance as volunteers against our country plan, it provides the tangible criteria that we use.

But you know and we know and everybody knows and nobody’s even pretending anymore that the best way to run an international development organization is with a bunch of two-year volunteers, the majority of whom come without a wealth of experience in the field. That’s not to say that everyone’s a history major like me (although some folks might argue, myself first, that having gone to the School of Foreign Service merits something). In fact, I’m the only non-scientist/statistician/engineer/professional educator here, and they only took me because my counterpart was looking specifically for somebody with my work history.

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Levantine Speculation

Anyone who’s following my Twitter, which Twitter informs me is ‘nobody,’ will know that all summer Maya and I have been having brief cynical discussion about current events, and there’s an idea that’s come up a few times now: Lebanon, conflict in. Maya put together a tight piece on the refugee population in that country (about one-third of the entire population, combination Palestinian and Syrian) and how they’re treated natives somewhere between inhospitably and with outright hostility, and that, since the populations are going to be there awhile (the Palestinians have been since the 1940s), the only sane thing to do would be to bring them into the socioeconomic fold of the Lebnen proper.

Thanks, David Roberts

Which, as I understand, looks like this

Her suggestion makes even more sense when you consider that unassimilated Palestinian refugees played a not-insignificant role in the Israeli invasion and subsequent civil war in the 1970s. Radicalized refugees got involved with Lebanese internal conflicts and made war on the Maronite Phalange, which yadda yadda simplification helped bring the Syrians in to ‘restore order,’ different refugees began launching attacks across the border into Israel, Israel invaded up to Beirut, dabbled in genocide under Sharon at Sabra and Chatila, more simplification, boom Civil War.

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The Old Lie

This is another one of those days when I was too insomniac the night before and too lazy the morning after to catch the sun. So while I’ve missed out on toasting myself, my time on the deck has been agreeably shady today. If anyone’s wondering why I keep updating you on the state of the deck, its because I hope that wherever I end up writing in Mexico will be a little more visually interesting, and the pictures will give you a better sense of my day-to-day.

This deck

Today I’m on the deck

I’m going to talk about saying goodbye again, but this time it’s about saying goodbye to places. You know, trying to give yourself a big send-off, really trying to live up to the last few days, see everyone and everything that makes a place your home. I’m bad at that too. For one, anyone who’s been to one of my parties knows how well they go. Ditto for bar nights, excursions, and outings. What’s more, with half the people that mean home to me out of the picture, it’s hard to really hold a get-together to say goodbye. With Gebeily, Martinez, Guyton, Rice, Lujan, and God knows how many others off in parts unknown, a farewell in DC can’t be complete.

I don’t have the cash, the fortitude, or the partying acumen to make my way to enough cool bars and clubs and venues to have a last real go-round in the city either. It’s never been my bag, as much as I would have liked it to be. But the real reason that wouldn’t work is that DC isn’t really my home. Not the whole city, anyway. Love or hate the fact of it, but since my folks left Detroit and Akron and moved to China, Georgetown is the only home I’ve got. Not the neighborhood, the school. And the last time it still had any chance of being home to me was graduation weekend, when the mass of familiar faces was making its final appearance. I find myself taking long unnecessary walks, constantly panning and scanning, ogling campus like the open-mouthed summer program kids and trying to catch a whiff of what the last four years smelled like.

And taking really bad photos

And taking really bad photos

Georgetown now is full of naïve and unbearable high school students that make you hate them and wish for just a second that you could be that dumb and that excited just to be here again. But you can’t, and they aren’t us, and their Georgetown isn’t mine, and my shot at saying goodbye is long gone.

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