Bugs

My house is full of bugs. Brown beetles that arrive in droves to nest in my clothes and die, sluggish and noisy cicadas that bumble screaming along the walls before they give up the ghost. Flies that alight on any drop of water and streams of ants to attend the piling dead.

The horror, etc

The horror, etc

We’re in the canícula now, a period I don’t remember from last year but which is somehow even worse than the thirty-day low-pressure heat-migraine that bloats above the month of May. We’re in the drought that shouldn’t be, the pause between the rains, already forgetting the climactic, cooling downpours of June and looking forward to the weeklong torrents of September that will take us into autumn and the blessed cool after the Day of the Dead.

The canícula is a bad time. A dead time. Cuts are slow to heal, animals fall sick, hair cut in these weeks will not grow until they end. Every day feels like the choking humid build to a thunderstorm that never comes, the temperatures of each tomorrow building on yesterday’s high. These are strange, malportentious days for beasts and men.

But not for the bugs.

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Mexican Courtship Rituals

I went out with my first girlfriend for a long time. From my freshman year of high school through the summer after my freshman year of college. Long enough that when we (she, wisely) broke it off, I’d gone through adolescence and into young adulthood without ever having been single. There are important things you learn during those years: how to flirt, how to ask someone out, how to tell if there’s interest in the first place. And one that my generation pioneered—how to work smartphones and social media into it.

Whereas our parents pioneered carrying the phone into the next room and shouting at other people to get off the line

Whereas our parents made important strides carrying the phone into the next room and shouting at other people to get off the line

I’d never texted anyone before I started dating her, and because of my limited message plan, hadn’t much texted anyone else until after we broke up. There is a strict texting etiquette at the beginnings of things, and I only got an inkling of it with her. I was a bit of a social failure that first year at university. She was not, and the feeling of slow, torturous knotting in my stomach as I piled text on text trying to check up on her at 2am on a Friday night from my darkened dorm room is the reason why we have a code of communication in the US.

If you’re following the rules to a letter as a guy, you never text twice in a row. Inasmuch as you can, you never text first. You use emoticons rarely or not at all. Generally, you wait until the next day with a number—if she was that excited about you, you’d be with her and not wondering when to fire off a message. Most people don’t call. It’s an intricate dance between young people in the States, often enough both parties wanting to get together and both trying not to give off too much the impression that they do.

Right up until the point we start sending each other pictures of wangs

Right up until the point we start sending each other pictures of our wangs

Saying “I love you” too early has been a trope in popular culture forever, and that reticence is now an integral part of the opening salvos of a relationship. The whole ‘we don’t want to put labels on it’ thing, too, is now less something that douchebags say on sitcoms and more part of the fabric of American dating. As I’ve explained it to Mexican friends: you ask somebody to go out, and if it goes well, you keep going out, and after long enough you kind of fall into the boyfriend/girlfriend thing; no formalization anymore, no giving out jackets and rings and asking folks to go steady.

All this is second nature to young people back home. You don’t worry about it because you just know, go about it automatically. The point is that Mexicans are in a different place. And it’s a problem for us volunteers.

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Darjeeling

The heat is settled in now, has been settled and settling since early April. It’s drier and wetter than last year at turns, but when it’s wetter it’s much wetter and when it’s drier it’s not much drier. The days dawn cool, a low cloud-cover promising protection and blazing off by ten am.

Our office is the best-sheltered place in town. It’s the second floor of an old hotel built into the side of the hill on which the Franciscans first put up the Mission, the Plaza Mayor, and the town. The floors above shade it so the heat of the sun can’t filter down, and the double-doored balconies along one side let the breeze in.

Hill Station-1-2

The office makes it so the season creeps up on us—we leave our houses earlier and earlier to catch the foggy pre-dawn and come back to them long after the sun’s gone down. The rest of Jalpan bakes for weeks while we can still hunker at our desks. So when it gets to the office, we know the heat has really come. It seems to seep out from inside you, meet the cushions of your chair and the wood of your desk, rebound onto your thighs and hands and forearms until you are all-over seating and you can’t touch your papers without soaking through. A girl I know down south told me, “The horror here in Oaxaca is the same; we are like gum, we stick to everything.”

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The Feria

The feria is on here in Jalpan, and it’s the best one there’s been in a while. This is an election year, and it’s the last chance for the outgoing municipal government to do things up big—whether or not the pesos could have been better spent elsewhere.

It’s something like what I imagine a small-town fair might have been in yesteryear in the US. Carnival rides, music venues, and half a hundred small eateries and bars cover our big soccer field-rodeo complex (my favorite bar name so far is Alcoholegio, something like Alcohollege; they’re ersatz establishments and they get to re-do the nomenclature every year).

I’m told the musical lineup is great, and there’s a concert every night, from older-timey Recodo:

Feria 4

Through stoner-rap band Cartel de Santa:

Feria 7

To the huge banda act Kommander:

Feria

To the lucha libre fight than ends proceedings this Sunday.

Feria 3

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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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And Then There Was One

I roll out of bed at three, having woken up hours earlier and given into my malaise, drifting in and out of sleep before the final plunge off the mattress. I eyeball my kettle, full of old grounds, and tiptoe through a week’s worth of webs and spider husks, wondering if I’ll get up the ganas to sweep. Typical Sunday. My phone rings and the number’s too long to be domestic, so I know it’s Trey, and that cheers me up as I wait for him to call again. I saw the guy just enough over Christmas to remember how much I’ve missed him since he took a job with the state of California.

Look at him

Look at him

It rings a second time and we go through our how do you dos before he tells me Janessa’s had an accident in Panama, that she’s in the hospital down there, gone into surgery, leg full of pins. I’m doing the math as he’s talking—we’ve got forty-five days out of country to recuperate on medical leave, and two bones in the leg spell more than that.

Two down...

Two down…

Another volunteer got medically separated for a fucked up ankle, did it stepping off a bus. I ask Trey what it is with us volunteers and getting down from stuff. He laughs and tells me to be careful and we hang up.

I call Ben and break the news just this one time, to get it out of me. I keep thinking I left them both in a rush in the city, that it was the only time I haven’t said “take care” to another volunteer as they left for a trip. I pull out a cigarette, me who never smokes in daylight, and my hands shake through a cup of cold coffee. The next month bears out all our hurried calculations, and Peace Corps in DC medically separates her before the forty five are up. Not sufficiently ambulatory. After fourteen months, I am alone in site.

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Yo No Sé Qué

I went to visit Ben Weiss a couple of weekends ago.[1] It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the feeling I like another volunteer’s digs more than my own.

Case in picture

Case in picture

Ben lives in San José de Gracia outside of Aguascalientes, home of the (very, it turns out) locally famous Cristo Roto, a Statue of the Crucifixion they dropped during construction. Apparently it came alive to tell the townsfolk not to fix it. It’s now a strobe-lit tourist-trap.

The ride from the city skirts past the benighted Pabellón (sorry Kyle) and then climbs up into the foothills of the Sierra Fría until it arrives at a small plateau on which is a pueblo very much like the one in which I live. It’s not as old and it has wide avenues instead of Jalpan’s cramped colonial streets and alleys, but it’s close enough the same.

Ben pays less than me for a house that’s three times as large on the first floor and comes with a second and a yard. Housing prices have skyrocketed since Jalpan got provisional approval as a Pueblo Mágico.[2]. Ni modo, but there’s thing one. Thing two is that Ben has a family. Not the host family—I’ve seen his now, and as nice as his abuelos are, I’d take my own. No, Ben has made a family.

After a kind of trial period, he’s settled down into a comfortable domesticity with his Mexican girlfriend Mara, a biologist who does freelance work from her own small consultoría. A family up the road from him has eight kids and money for not quite that many, so the youngest two sell donuts around town every morning. I found this out when they rang the bell at seven and peeked in to see me pretending to sleep on the couch. He sent them whispering off, and when I was up to see them on their return at nine, I wished he hadn’t.

Karla, who’s nine, and Jonathan, who looks like he’s around there, are the two cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Here, there, anywhere, these are them.

Seriously they're real cute

These kids man, the photos don’t do them justice

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(In)efficiency

I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.

I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.

When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.

And Snapchats to my high school buddies

This means home to me

So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.

Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping.[1] Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.

It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.

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Sick

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer means getting sick. No matter the strength of your stomach, illness will strike early—at the least, and I mean the very least, you’ll have traveler’s. It’s your body’s way of announcing that you’re into a new gut biome and an in-country delicacy has brought a batch of local bacteria to roost. Traveler’s Diarrhea is mandatory and the slate of gastrointestinals explodes from there.

Mexico has what even Mexicans call Moctezuma’s Revenge, a catch-all for waterborne stomach ailments. We’re told that the source isn’t inadequate water treatment, as you might expect, but improperly sealed pipes that let in ground germs. Depending on where you live and how you get your water, it might be totally safe or liable to give you an amoeba infestation—hard to detect and dangerous—or giardia—usually from drawing your water downhill of someone else’s latrine, identifiable by crystal clear water jetting from where it oughtn’t. My potables seem safe here, so far, but anyone near standing bodies of the stuff is at risk for worms and other, larger gut parasites.

You know the kind

You know the kind

The Mega down in the city has a whole aisle for anti-parasitics, so I assume one or two volunteers have had to tangle with them. Beyond the named afflictions, all of us are familiar with the two-day bouts of crippling chorro that come and go like cramped and unwelcome ghosts in the night.

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Monoconsumption

I’ve eaten almost nothing but beans since the start of the month. An egg here and there, some cheese earlier along, tortillas to scoop them up with. But every meal, black beans. Hot beans, cold beans, mashed and refried beans. It’s been a long three weeks.

Bowl-of-dry-black-beans

I keep a pretty Spartan larder in the best of times—with a small fridge and no storage space, it’s easier to pick up whatever I’m eating at the corner grocery on the way home.  And while my settling-in allowance served to furnish my unfurnished apartment (and mine came with neither sink nor toilet seat), it wasn’t large enough to buy an oven or a countertop or a decent knife once I’d gotten a bed and a fridge and a stove and all that. I made a kind of cupboard from old planks and crates from the market and I cut my vegetables on top of my refrigerator, but it’s not the same. I’d like to be baking the kind of fresh bread you can’t get here, but that’s out of my price range.

And tin cups without holes in them

As are mirrors

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