How to even start with Oaxaca? Ben and Alex and I spent ten days there, and the trip feels too big to distill. I know I’d never thought about staying down here after service until I went. I know that I’d never seen a place as interesting or socially conscious or politically alert in this Republic.


I’ve got no coherent narrative or explanation, but I can piece together some vignettes.


Ben and I are sitting in a gloomy bar called La Cantina that will on following days evade us like the Room of Requirement. The air is close and the place is crowded for a football match. Every other table is twenty beers deep, bottles crowding empty cases underneath. Brews are ten pesos until six, but we’ll manage to pay more all three times we stop in.

A local, clearly plastered, bellies up to the bar and orders us two beers in jailhouse English. This is unwritten code—he’s bought twelve ounces worth of time to practice speaking with us. It’s always a bit of a press-gang situation, but he’s on Ben’s side, so I let him handle it and keep watching the game. After five minutes, the guy’s still there, and Ben and I pointedly empty our bottles and pay for the next two.

I try to get the attention of the guy’s friend, and I notice the first guy’s touching Ben. A lot. All over his pechos. He’s going on and on about his wife, which usually means he wants to make the gringo he’s hanging on his husband. After another sweaty five minutes, he ambles back to his table, shaking my hand through six or seven false starts before he goes. Ben and I get a few minutes of peace before he starts whistling from his stool. “That’s for us, isn’t it?” Ben asks.

“It’s for you, hombre.”


“He’s coming over.”

“No, come on, he isn’t right?”

“Hey guys,” he slurs, his hand sliding back onto Ben’s chest. He’s trying to make it look normal, like a hand on a shoulder, but it’s not. “You should come over, talk English, we practice.” He tries to look into Ben’s eyes, but my friend’s staring resolutely my way. “Bring a stool,” he says. “One stool,” he adds, caressing Ben’s tit again. He stumbles away. We look over at his table. There’s a very small gap between two sets of knees and sweaty dicks.

“Just one stool, Ben.” We pay our check.


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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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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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Between a Cock and a Hard Place

Everyone thinks I’m gay. Here in town, that is. I’ve been told that before—most of the volunteer girls in our group thought so—and it doesn’t particularly bother me. My set of guys in the States wouldn’t mind, girls I’m interested in quickly find out it’s not true, and in any case I’m pretty comfortable with my sexuality and my 2.5 or so on the Kinsey Scale. The problem is that this is rural Mexico and the guys here do mind. A visit from a Jalpense girl who goes to college out of town confirmed that the gente definitely think I’m batting lefty and that it probably explains my paucity of straight male friends. As in, outside of coworkers and family, I have none.

The first glance thing isn’t the issue here—most young men dress way gayer than I do, and I know that sounds insensitive, but for the trendier Mexican set, gay or straight, spray-on jeans, tight-ass shirts and pastel colors are the uniform.

I couldn't find a picture of dudes wearing these after a ten second search. So yea these

I couldn’t find a picture of dudes wearing these after a ten second search. So yea these

A plaid palette and a relaxed leg-to-pant-width ratio put me in a more conservative sartorial cohort. The issue is that my best friend in town is gay. And since Jalpan is chockablock with ‘closeted’ young gay men, our association has branded me what seems like indelibly.

Mexico has a peculiar culture for gay people at the moment. Coming out hasn’t been, among friends, much of an issue for anyone I’ve known (with exceptions, given I went to a Catholic University) since the early years of high school. In parts of Mexico City, like the Zona Rosa, it’s weird to see anyone holding hands who isn’t gay, while Querétaro, the biggest city in my state and the place where Peace Corps Mexico is headquartered, is one of the more conservative urban areas in the country. It has a thriving urban hippy culture and what seems to be a healthy gay population (although without the handholding of the capital it’s harder to tell). At the same time, when I was headed to Mexico City and told my host mom I’d be staying in the same Zona Rosa, she opined about how beautiful it used to be. It’s still architecturally beautiful and full of municipal art and statuary…it’s just also full of gay folks.

This is pretty representative

This is pretty representative

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Contact Hangover

A new desk can’t help that it’s gloomy here at home.

This is a crummy cell photo

The six o’clock rain has come on schedule and it’s starting to fill the hall.

Today is the seventh of July. Yesterday the last of the volunteers who showed up for Independence Day made their way to the bus station and back to site. The weather, true to Faulkner, has obliged to fit my mood. Of all the hardships and frustrations that Peace Corps manages to work into our cushy post, leaving volunteers has to be the worst.

We’re like a family here in country and not in the sense of the usual platitudes. If this were high school or college or any other normal stage of life, we would most of us not know each other, and if we did would not be friends. We’re disparate people, more so than anyone’s ideas of the Peace Corps would lead them to believe. We have teachers and organic farmers, but also marine biologists, computer scientists, graduates of psychology and criminal justice, writers failing to aspire. I don’t know the new kids that well, but as of May we can count on at least one fracking engineer.

We should not fit together, but training and service push us into an artificial closeness. For three months we share everything, every day, and then we lead the same lives for two years. Just like in families, that closeness breeds love and friendship. Along with annoyance, constant frustration, grudging tolerance and occasional enmity.

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I thought that coming back from the States was going to be hard. Returning to site after Early in-Service Training (EIST) was a nightmare. For all of us, I think. A full week of depression, malaise. Couldn’t get work done, couldn’t write, couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to see people in town. But the States has been easy. Leaving friends and folks was tough. Both times, riding the metro out to Reagan from DC and letting my parents go and checking in at Detroit International, all the way through to getting on the bus in the city to come back here, like I was toting a sackful of rocks behind my navel. But once I hit my house, my stifling room, and my sopping bed, not a pang.

It might be that during EIST you’re with people who so well understand your situation, or that you’re still it Mexico when it happens, that it’s part of service and so more keenly felt when you’re back in site, in service. Being in the US was another world. Something apart enough that it couldn’t touch me here. Not in the sense of reverse culture shock. The Peace Corps and volunteers will go on about that, and maybe when I haven’t been back for more than a year it will hit me too. But Mexico is too developed, too unlike a regular site for service to present a totally different culture. What I felt there was something subtler.

Part of it was coming back to college for a little while. I stayed with my uncle and aunt in Virginia for a spell, like I did every weekend the summer before I shipped out, and I stayed with all the guys I lived with that summer too. The people I saw in DC were all college friends, from the year before, my year, and the one after. Because my buddy Eric’s dating a year younger, I ended up going to her awards ceremony and through their largesse (and that Brian Baum had a spare suit) I went to Senior Ball a second time.

They've gotten prettier since I left

They’ve gotten prettier since I left

So a real repeat of what should have been an uncapturable past.


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Men Without Women

I’ve got pictures of my legs today. I went on a water-quality-monitoring expedition with some other volunteers and guys from the office this weekend. We checked on the quantity and physical characteristics of water salamanders, which over time give us a picture of how bad or good the water is. We did this in beautiful Pinal in a couple of spring-fed, barely-above freezing rivers, and as soon as I’ve got photos or video of me and Trey and Ulises jumping in and cussing our lungs out, I’ll put them up. What the river also had were black flies. The kind that bite people when they’re trying to measure salamanders.

Scratching is better than sex

The kind that bite you sixty or seventy times on each leg

They also carry, shit you not, parasites that cause river blindness. Trey and I have been scratching ourselves raw for days, but as long as we don’t end up with a disease you diagnose by spotting worms in your own eyes, we’ll be alright.

Getting to the point of the post, Hemingway’s got a collection of short stories called Men without Women. The book explores the titular condition and finds that we (and given the book, the premise of the post, and my own orientation, I’m gonna be talking about hetero men) are worse off. That the women in our lives fill some void, lend some balance, that without them, whether by virtue of something intrinsic to them or projected on them by us, our rougher edges, worse natures, insecurities and failings emerge.



It's a good book

I might be reading into things

I’d have to agree.

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