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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Vox Duo Vox Nihilo

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I’d be tackling a little bit of politics and government, and this is that entry. I think it should be less pedantic than the last one. Time will tell.

Ecochavos got me thinking about both of these essays. Part of my group’s project, which is to clean up the river in Jalpan, includes the installation of twenty-five new trash cans along the riviera. This is crucial—and the only effective element of our endeavor—because there are no cans there. It’s the only place in town where you can walk fifty yards without hitting one. I mean, why bother; the river’s right there.

Signs are both the Sierra's only weapon for combating littering and the things most littered on

Signs are both the Sierra’s only weapon for combating littering and, except for the bodies of water they’re ‘protecting’, the things most littered on

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All Patrols Look Out!

This is going to be one of my more pedantic, academic ones, both because I’m following up on an earlier similar post and because I’ve got to synthesize two political-sciencey subjects. So, you know,

Bear With

There also won’t be many pictures

In The Grass Roots, I explained a bit about civil society, how it exists between government and private citizens, how it’s essential for a functioning democracy, how its traditional forms are ailing the world over (bowling leagues, knitting societies, clubs like the Masons and the Elks, etc.), and how many nations that fall outside the liberal-democratic range have created a kind of official or at least government-fomented simulacrum (work brigades in Cuba, official unions across the communist and fascist worlds, so on, so on). I may also have mentioned, though I don’t recall, that one of the reasons these governments create these pseudo civil societies is that they make it easier to interact with their populace.

That can be a bad thing. The Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación or SNTE (sen-tay) which counts on the mandatory membership of every schoolteacher makes it simple for the government to regulate teaching as a profession—they’ve just got to deal with the top few people at the union—and for the union to organize against said regulation—since those same few people can use the massive financial resources of the SNTE to pay rural teachers to occupy the Zócalo in Mexico City. The problem is that the union doesn’t do a whole lot for either students or all the teachers who don’t run in the higher circles of the organization.

Sometimes these constructed entities can be a good thing, or at least as good a thing as a part of a genuine civil society. Work brigades during the golden days in Cuba when Soviet money was still rolling in were a source of both mass community service and of intense social bonding, part of what knitted that country so closely together (and part of the source of the social fabric that helped to see it through the hard years after the fall of the USSR).

Those Cubans, thinking they can abolish illiteracy with joyful voluntary labor

Those Cubans, thinking they can abolish illiteracy with joyful, voluntary labor

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The Grass Roots

Early evening here and it’s been overcast all day. That doesn’t save us from the noon swelter, but it does mean that now, around seven, there’s a breeze and it’s blessedly cool. After all the quick nightfalls of the winter and the blackout precautions we have to take to keep our house from filling with bugs, the days are starting to feel miraculously long.



It’s depressing that we’ve almost hit the apex already—I’ve spent some time in Australia and I can tell you I wouldn’t mind seeing an eleven o’clock sunset again.

I want to talk a bit about movements, how they start and grow and how I’m witnessing one firsthand here in Mexico.

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Team Player

I’m out in broad, broad daylight today, typing on the back of my Peace Corps medical forms for want of paper. It’s only the middle of February and the sun already feels as hot as it ever did in DC. A volunteer named Danny in Xichú has been telling me about the heat in full summer, and it’s pure horrorshow. Weeks where it tops 125 every day, where people get heatstroke in the shade, and nights where everyone shows up to mill around the jardín because it’s over 90 in the dark and even the natives can’t rest easy. I’m pulling my normal shirtless routine but I might have to modify because it feels like I’m already lobstering up.

Hot as gooch

Hot as all get out

I played baseball for a long time. Every year from pre-k through ninth grade, all four years in China. I loved baseball, even if I was never really good enough to play past Freshman year. I still love it, and I miss playing. I loved being on a team, going to practice, playing catch and pepper with Dad, chewing sunflower seeds and shooting the shit in the dugout. But if I thought about it, I’d have to say that there were precious few times I enjoyed the game while I was in it. In the field or at bat I was too goddamned nervous. Dad used to say that you had to want the ball, to hope it was coming to you ever single play, to see it lined out to you and imagine yourself fielding it, pitched and hitting it. As far as I recall, it didn’t matter how well I was playing on the day. I always sweated it. I remember making a sprinting, diving catch in left to end and inning, and I remember that as soon as I trotted back out there I kept on praying not to see another ball for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until eighth grade that I got comfortable in the box, and that was only because I’d figured out that I could piss pitchers off by being slow as anything and toeing up to the plate, and between the two I could count on getting hit or winging a grounder between the third baseman’s legs a good bit of the time.

I’m bringing up baseball because it’s more or less the same way I feel about my kids.

I do it for them

These kids

I’ve got a group of Ecochavos for myself in the secondary school here (something like junior high, 12-15). I’m the same way about them as I was about baseball. I love having them, seeing them around town, doing the slap-bump that passes for a handshake among young people. I even love working with them when we’ve got a definite project to do.

Not the guy

Like this mural

But when I’m with Chava and he’s monologuing in his indefatigable way, I’m sitting four feet off third again, paying rapt attention and hoping like hell that he doesn’t hit it up the baseline. It’s all the same insecurities that it used to be. Worrying that my Spanish isn’t up to task, that I’m not well enough prepared, that if I fuck up I’m letting the whole team down.

There’s nothing for to exorcise my anxieties, as far as I can see. I’ve been playing with the same lineup since long before anybody’s supposed to think like Woody Allen talks. In the end I loved baseball and I’m glad that Dad didn’t hold with any of my fucking around and always got me out there. And that he went to all my games, even when some coaches with issues of their own benched me through fifth and sixth grade in Catholic school. I don’t know if that means the things that make me the most nervous also make me the most happy. The thesis checks out for girls and dancing. Ditto, so far, the Peace Corps.

Ten steps from buying a skydive ticket on a dirty sidestreet in Prague,  I decided that if I managed to do some cool stuff, I’d probably have made some kind of life, even if I went bug eyed and slippery palmed along the way. So far, maybe, so good.


The Good Shit’s at the End

So I’m sitting in my house again without any beautiful view to show you folks because I only manage to get down to this on weekdays when I get home from the office after dark. There’s just always stuff to do on the weekends and when there isn’t I tend to take naps and generally fart around or sometimes even get up to Peace Corps work, but in any case I just don’t sit down to write. And that’s a shame, because as Alex Guyton reminds me, the only cure for not writing is to write. That’ll come up again in a second.

I’m generally feeling pretty good nowadays that I’ve met some folks in town but especially because I’ve taken on a project. Everything you do for Peace Corps is a ‘project,’ somewhy, and unlike the Ecochavos, which irrevocably belong to Chava, this one is mine. Trey, the other guy volunteer in my site, and I are putting together an event for World Wetlands Day (it was the 2nd of February). I didn’t know there was one until a month ago, and we’re doing it for the Presa, the dam-created reservoir in town,  which doesn’t fall under what my understanding of what wetlands were, but it’s a Ramsar site, so it counts, and we’re providing the impetus for the event.

Here's a picture of a mural from the event because of course it's already happened

Here’s a picture of a mural from the event because of course it’s already happened

The first meeting we had was with the local juventud guy, the representative for the bit of the municipal government oriented at the youth. What he proposed, and what was the going plan for all of four days, was to have a rap contest. Hear me out. There are, apparently, in this town of ten-to-twelve thousand, four or five high school age rap groups, and we were thinking of inviting them and some others from the surrounding Sierra to come down and write songs about the Presa. For us to judge. As far as the juventud guy was concerned, this plan was not only plausible but easy.

These are the kids. They're who I do it for.

These are the kids. They’re who I do it for.

Chava wasn’t as enthused, and when I walked into the office the day after, the local turismo delegate was there with him coming up with an alternative plan. I was hesitant to bail on what already sounded like the Peace Corps’ most hilarious project, but they both started by yelling about how we’d put some more traditional bands on a floating platform in the lake and that just about sold me right off. I’m typing from the john now because, well, if you’re been following along you already know I spend a lot of time here. I always said that reading through these situations is what helped me kill my history syllabi in college, and I figure there’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to writing too.

So now we’ve got a floating concert, the expected participation of the municipal president, a mural series and a cleanup campaign all going on one day ahead of schedule so we can throw a Superbowl party with my host aunt the Sunday that’s the actual Wetlands Day.

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

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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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Three Weeks on Site

I’m writing from my room today, a tiny detached space with a desk, a bed, and precious little else. I closed my windows for the second time ever, and I’m hoping it saves my host folks from the noise of the machine I’m using. It’s pretty loud. My former roommates can attest. I’m also using a new ribbon, and while it’s mostly working OK, it’s a little sticky, and about a fourth of my letters are half black, half red.

I'm kicking Harry Potter's ass, anyway

Everything I’ve ever wanted

Life in Jalpan is going well, even if it’s more like a conventional job than I expected. I’m working from 9-6, Monday through Friday, and the time that I’m in the office is more or less spent like my time in my US jobs: writing, organizing, staring at Office programs longer than recommended. On Wednesdays, I head to Piedras Anchas to help prep the audio for Chava’s radio show, Sonidos de la Reserva (I also write his script for the program), and 2-3 of the remaining days I’m with him, driving around the Sierra and working in the schools of some of the 600 communities in the Reserve.

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Backlog 2: Still Really Old (My FSV)

So about six weeks ago, we went to visit our future sites. Peace Corps calls this a Future Site Visit (FSV). My future site is now my current site, but I think I’ve got some fun insight in here anyway. Who knows, I wrote it six weeks ago.

I’m back from site! I’m back, and I’m back on the same old patio, typing on the same old machine, and I’m happy as can be. Except for Maggie. She lives around here, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea—Maggie’s a great chick, but she stinks. I mean, she’s rank. So, Margarita, if you’re reading this, there was a reason I was ignoring you. It’s because you smell like butts, man.

The joke is that she's a dog

Yes you do, don’t you, don’t you

I was going to try to be clandestine about my site, because the Peace Corps recommends it, in case of any very specific-minded rape-murderers, but if I’m going to say anything about the place, any really determined murderaper from the region would know right away what I’m talking about, so I’m going to go ahead full steam. I’m living in Jalpan, a little town of 8-10,000 souls nestled up in the Sierra Gorda de Queretaro, and I’m frigging excited.


Almost as excited as Maggie here

We drove up, myself and two other volunteers, with our shared counterpart, who works for the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas, the equivalent to the National Parks Service at home. His name is Chava, short for Salvador. It’s a four hour drive if you’re booking it, and believe me, we were, taking hairpins with thousand-foot drops at a healthy and consistent 60mph. I’m not going to say that I was nervous, but I will admit that I was occasionally scared shitless. Chava, in what I would learn was his typically cavalier way, kept telling us to “count the curves!”


Sometimes it’s also cloudy

Chava is a man on a mission. He worked with a nonprofit in the Sierra for ten years, starting Ecoclubs of kids from first to twelfth grade, teaching them about the environment, taking them camping, all that jazz. But a couple of years ago, the relationship between the Reserve and the nonprofit broke down, and Chava was left clubless. He doesn’t begrudge them to his former colleagues, but they’re falling into disrepair and he’s got bigger ideas.

He's kind of a big deal

He’s also on Public Radio

Those ideas are Ecochavos, some mix of ecoclubs, the Boy Scouts, and a kind of political (ecological) youth movement. He wants uniformed chavos patrolling the Sierra teaching the people, singing environmental anthems, painting murals, cleaning the hills, united by his radio program in Piedras Anchas and setting the stage for a national blossoming of Ecochavos that will bring on a new environmentally conscious dawn in Mexico. Chava thinks big, and he’s got me convinced. I’m an Eagle Scout, so keep that in mind when I say: What if, imagine if, the Boy Scouts didn’t suck? And instead of the legitimately pretty lame projects they tend to take on in the US, they were a motivated little army of Eco-reformers, educators, and crusaders? I’m sold.

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