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
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.
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.
The damp gloom outside tells me it’s getting to be Christmastime, and that makes this the moment to talk about cultural imperialism. Because without the Spanish Empire we wouldn’t have the holiday at all in Mexico and because of the way it’s so easy to see American cultural influence in this season.
First, the term. One of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of dominant cultures. The colonial age imposed western socio-political forms on the rest of the world by force. Most every country on Earth now runs on a western model, be it socialism, communism, or some form of constitutional republic, because of colonial expansion.
Pretty good coverage
Today, that diffusion continues through economic, rather (or largely rather) than physical, domination. The United States’ dominion over world markets allows its goods (and by extension, its culture) to penetrate every one of its trade partners. It’s no surprise that you can get Marlboro Reds and a Coke in the remotest corners of the globe. The result of our flooding of the world with our production is the seep of our culture into every other, often to the exclusion of the original.
Not such a bad thing, proud Americans might think. The foreigners could use a little of our gumption, et cetera. Problem being that we usually export the worst parts of us—soft drinks, fast food, discount beers, shitty consumer goods, the endless drivel of our network TV. It’s part of why much of the world has so low an opinion of our culture (“You don’t have a culture” crops up). And what we might take to be passive diffusion often aggressively displaces the traditions and practices of other countries. Which brings us back to this season in Mexico.
Mexico is a cacophony. It is everywhere and at all times noisy, riotous, polluted, and beautiful. My buddy James and I went to breakfast at Reina del Sur today. It’s a homely little place, four wobbly tables out front of a dingy kitchen. The wait staff is surly and slow, the coffee is terrible, and the juice is usually Tang. But the food is delicious and quick and there’s just enough quiet for a hangover. It’s great.
When we made it down to the main street across from Reina, the place was gone and some kind of fiesta was going on instead. Balloons hung in chains from every railing and cornice and masses of junk food had been unwrapped and set out as a buffet with a ten-dollar plastic chocolate fountain. Two girls, the worse for wear, were out stopping all traffic on what’s also the only highway through the Sierra, passing out fliers for a restaurant that has nowhere to park. Bachata music was blasting out at around lawnmower volume, and they had one of Mexico’s ubiquitous emcees belting a never-ending stream of gibberish. My boss has this ability and it’s fascinating—they can yell into the mic for hours without saying a thing, calling on passersby, cracking jokes, and selling whatever they’re selling, all of it just loud enough to be understood over the music.
We stood in the street for five minutes just looking at the train wreck. We ended up walking in but wishing there was some way to indicate with body language that everything they were doing was dissuading rather than persuading. When we made it into what used to be the cave of a kitchen, we saw that it had been turned into a dining room, new, light, clean. Slow renovations to the stove and overflowing sinks over the past year had exploded in two days. New floor, new walls, new paint, level tables, all approaching an actual restaurant. As we sat down, the guy with the mic dropped Reina del Sur into his monologue and James and I looked at each other. Only in Mexico can you have a grand opening a year after opening.
Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey
It’s strange, how far away everything can be. Mexico seems smaller than it has any right to—it’s a large country, and not an easy one to travel over the longer distances. The roads and the highways are what do it, I think. They don’t branch and flower and whorl like in the States. They point singly and unerringly towards where they’re going. Through their simplicity they impart this false closeness. In a very real sense, Querétaro is just down the road, as is San Luis Potosí, and, with one turn, Mexico City.
So it’s always odd, off-putting, when in Jalpan our distance, our backwater position, and our parochial society come back into focus. People here have smartphones and the Internet, Hollister clothes and fair knockoffs of designer everything. It makes them seem like they’re in touch with the world, but it’s just pretend, and if it has any substance, any real connection, it’s directed northward to the States, not down and into the center of this Republic.
I’m told that the rest of Mexico is exploding. As best we know, they massacred some kids in Guerrero weeks ago, disappeared and then murdered and burned forty-three ‘activist’ students in the kind of collaboration between police, local government, and narcotraficantes that can define Mexican life in the further rural stretches. Killings like this are more commonplace than we could fathom or anyone would like to admit, but something about this one—how blatantly the police took part, how crude and incautious it was—something about it has touched a very raw nerve.
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
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
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.
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.