Teach Your Children Well

I may have mentioned that I work with kids. It’s a third of my job, along with writing (now speaking on!) a radio show and helping my counterpart run this region’s groups of kids (trips to the campo, presentations, grants, plans, etc).

For all that they’re a third of my time, the kids constitute one hundred percent of my stress, along with the ten minutes before I speak on air. The situation is backwards, because nothing my students and I do together is particularly ambitious or out of hand. This semester we’re installing a worm compost in the high school, planting trees in the same, and painting eight or nine murals and banners. ‘We’re’ also organizing a couple of community cleanups and a big event in March, but I’ll be doing almost all of that.

My kids

My kids love my camera but they’re not so hot with the autofocus

We had practicums during training led by our talented erstwhile environmental ed. Coordinator, Nicole Salgado, and they were tops. We prepared subject mini-classes for middle school kids in the city, taught then and then led them in small projects. On our trip to camp in small-town Mexico State—Field Based Training in our parlance—we put together an eco-fair for the primary school, teaching the kids grade by grade. It was all dynamite. Learned how to do short lesson plans, integrate activities, all of it. The kind of stuff you’d have to practice to be good at, sure, but the PC gave us a great base.

The thing is, none of that’s the hard part. This isn’t a commentary on Peace Corps training. They’ve got ten weeks to train us, split between a dozen subject areas, along with Spanish and admin and medical and safety and security. There isn’t enough time or opportunity to get to the hard part, which was setting all those practicums up.

Never have kids.

It’s something like the difference between having a kid and watching a kid for an afternoon. You know, levels

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On Its Head

It’s a Peace Corps cliche, but we have to remember that everyone comes to site with pre-existing norms and expectations, ‘filters’ back in training. It’s stuff that they encourage us to strip away, so that we can see deeper and more clearly. The cliche of the cliche here is to talk about Mexican perceptions of time and punctuality. We’re supposed to stop being mad about people showing up late and to start examining why that’s the norm here (and in most of the world never colonized by a northern European). I’m not going to go into it because I already have and because it’s not the point of the post. The point is that everybody everywhere shows up to site expecting tardiness and expecting people to have different views on washing produce or on refrigerating eggs or on the acceptability of hiking your shirt up in public and rubbing your keg-stomach to aid your digestion. But there are things there that will blindside you, that you never would have thought of until they smack you head on.

Pic courtesy of "Hobo Eats"

Like ‘Dori-lokos’

First is the stuff that you probably could have figured out on your own if you’d set yourself to it. Our volunteer leader stressed the other day how careful we have to be out in the country, because if we get hurt on the road, that’s more or less that. There might be an ambulance somewhere, but it will not be rapid response. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place that’s got a sightline on a cell tower, which is rare enough here in the mountains, you’re still going to be in for a helluva wait. Which means that while back in the States you might rubberneck response workers at a scene, here you either hope out and start triage or drive by knowing that the guys leaking onto the asphalt are probably going to die.

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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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