Are You Wearing Socks?

Adam on SM 1 by SK

“Are you wearing socks?” Ulises asks me. I look down at my leather boots.

“Yea. Why?”

“To walk in the river, dude. I’m not wearing any,” and he elbows me across the gearshift and winks. I think about it for a minute. Calzados. No, right, calzados means underwear. Calcetínes means socks. Always fuck that one up.

Am I wearing underwear? I’m always wearing underwear. But what underwear? Right, the knock-off Gucci spandex boyshorts-for-men Mom picked up last Christmas. Perfect. They cling like socks from the dryer out of the water; as soon as I hit the river they’ll be as revealing as Saran Wrap. Even better.

Ulises parks the truck in the shade and as I take a minute to check out the sapphire-blue ribbon in front of us, he hustles out and starts stripping. At least his going commando comment was a joke. He asks me if I’m coming. I look out my window and what seems to be the caretaker for the small group of tourist cabins a hundred yards to our right is leaning on his shovel and staring at me.

“Yea, sure,” I say to Ulises, and step out. It’s been a hot ride here and my jeans drag my briefs half off, exposing what I imagine is a piercingly white bit of waxing gibbous. Let’s go catch some fucking bugs.

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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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Workshopping the Future

 Most of the pieces I’ve written for the Peace Corps Mexico internal newsletter The Piñata have been posts I’d already tapped out or had in mind for this blog. This time it’s reversed; I’ve changed all acronyms to words and explained where I think explaining was merited, but you folks are smart, you’ll get a long.

An ex-volunteer, between his Close of Service in November and his move to the Philippines for Peace Corps Response this past May, made a short tour of Mexico, and when he came by Jalpan, he left me a book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything from December of last year. Peace Corps Volunteers being what they are, I imagine some of you have read Klein and even her new work. But for everyone who hasn’t, I’ll give you the briefest summary and then we’ll get onto why it’s important.

Because it changes everything?

Because it changes everything?

As a species, we’ve spent the forty years we’ve known about the problem doing nothing; neither Río nor any later conference has made any real gains, and we’re maybe less than a decade out from releasing enough carbon to blow past 2C of warming into an all-the-more-apocalyptic future.[1] Our large multinational fossil fuel companies have, right now, reported reserves that, if extracted and burned, would easily bring us to 3 or 4C of warming.[2] Not only that, but the danger climate change presents isn’t imminent so much as it’s already here, and more than a few of us in Mexico have observed firsthand variations in climate that deviate from millennia of established patterns.

I assume we're all past this point if we're not experts

I assume we’re all past this

The causes we’re mostly familiar with. Dirty electricity production is foremost, followed by the burning of fossil fuel for transport, both personal and commercial, especially the diesel and gasoline used to power the ships and planes and trucks on which global trade depends. And industrialized agriculture, which has huge carbon outlays not just for shipping and the running of equipment and facilities but in the extraction and production of mineral fertilizers, all alongside the massive pollution and environmental destruction caused by runoff and the overuse of herb- and pesticides. Others, of course, but here you have the big three: power, transport (shipping), agriculture.

Naomi Klein’s solution to this disaster is appropriately drastic. She wants to overthrow the global capitalist system, not by violence but by mass democratic action. She wants to derail the neoliberal ‘Washington Consensus’ that has dominated global economics since the late 1980s and which, for a time, was the leading philosophy in development as well.

What has any of that got to do with us? Everything. Not in the overthrowing—it’s not within the ambit of a Peace Corps volunteer. We come in when Klein imagines the world afterwards.

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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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Time to Face the Change

There’s no such thing as climate change doubt here in Mexico, not the way we have it in the States. Part of that’s because the subject’s never been politicized and the Mexican curriculum is federal. Same goes for evolution, probably not coincidentally—no room for fourth grade teachers to start editorializing during science class (course, they’re Catholics here, not literalists, so there’s no religious problem either). But the other reason, I think, is that it’s become impossible to ignore the evidence.

In the US, in Europe, we enjoy largely stable climates, and the effects of the change are, to us, far off. The whole southwest of the United States is experiencing a prolonged drought, but it’s a drought-y kind of region and more importantly is dominated by climate change denial. Heat stress has weakened our national forests to the point that bark beetles are soon going to replace trees entirely, but unlike in Mexico, people don’t live in our parks, and the problem’s low-profile despite its unprecedented disastrousness. Big storms get play, Sandy and Katrina among them, but they come infrequently enough and are distributed enough that they don’t, to us, constitute a trend.

Here where I live, though, the climate is fucked up. Last year was the first in living memory with no dry season. This year is the second. We have three seasons, more or less. What you might call the winter lasts from November to mid-February, although the cold’s a function of cloud cover more than anything—a sunny day in December’s going to hit the high eighties at least. The hot, dry season lasts from mid-February til the start of June. Not a drop of rain and temperatures in May that crest 45C. They tell us we’re getting to 40 next week. June to November is the wet season. Hot but not hot as hell and torrential in the afternoons.



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Drudgery Distilled

As a rule, you come to the Peace Corps with illusions. Bad ones, some of them, the White Man’s Burden type. Harmless ones, others, about what country they might send you to, the kind of place you might end up, wild and exotic dreams. And a third kind, the necessary.

Joining Peace Corps is a leap of faith. The application’s been changed now, but for decades, you accepted placement with a minimum of information and put two years of your life into hands you’d never met. Two years is a long time, longer for the younger volunteers like me, to check out of the world. Years otherwise filled by budding careers and romances and the first steps of real adulthood. To sign them over is no small thing even if, like me, there weren’t many other positions waiting for you.

At this fine establishment with this upstanding citizen

Other than at this fine establishment with this upstanding citizen

The illusions, the preconceptions, they’re what let you do it, what convince you the trade might be worth making. Once you’re here there are a thousand reasons to stay, most of them different from what you’d imagined back in the States. Before you get here, though, all you’ve got is your imagination, ideas about how service will make you better, how you’ll help people. Whether or not you end up completing substantive work is entirely up to you, and that might not strike you beforehand—you come to think of your upcoming training as somehow transformative, that it’ll teach you, all of a sudden, how to Ghandi, to Florence Nightingale, take you from a college layabout to a God-given savior in the space of ten weeks. They give you the tools, sure, but if you were worthless before, you’ll be worthless after.

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When Streams Are Ripe and Swelled with Rain

The rains have begun in earnest. A pair of tormentas at the end of May seemed like they were heralding the onset of the season but little did we understand. This time of year means big storms, but it’s more about reliability. Rain, rain, every day. The temperature and humidity explode around noon when the sun peeks through, but by the later afternoon, grey, ponderous stormfronts break the banks of the neighboring valley and spill over into ours.


A pause between cloudbursts

We then have two options—a drizzle that begins as we leave work and never picks up enough to be fun but pours enough to soak us through and make sure nothing we own stays dry. The other possibility is a torrent, drops that feel like marbles, clouds blackening the sky, and the racket of falling water drowning speech and thought.

The first of the latter fell a week ago, and by the time we had trudged from the office to our house, the rain had cascaded into our tiled, open hallways from the terrace and the courtyard and the skylights and flowed into every corner of our homes. Water had never made it more than a foot into the hall and apart from a bed I own no furniture anyway, so everything I had on the floor (everything I had) was well wetted, and the inked half of my journal looks as though it may be lost.

We’ve been inundated each of the last three days, and while we’re getting better at anticipating and damming the tide, we’re despairing of ever drying our clothes and homes in the soggy air and incessant weather.

The streets in town are paved or cobbled and drain alright, but parts of the road out to our house are washing away every day. The impromptu river that’s turning it into a gully tears and carries off the sand and clay that hold its layer of stones in place. Try says it hasn’t been sloped, graded, or maintained; the road’s on the high edge of the arroyo out front and the rain should flow right down. He’s thinking of cutting side-channels to save the thing. If he does he’ll have a volunteer.

When it’s really coming down, the rain is a thing to watch—every ditch and path begins to gush, and when I picked my way down to that dry streambed it was full and coursing its way to the river proper. The serrated ridgelines compartmentalize the storms. They can change from a misting sky to biblical and back all evening as each front climbs up and into the valley. When it falls behind the hills, lightning is inaudible no matter how large or bright. But the strikes that fork into the valley thunder and echo for a minute or more.

In normal years, rains like this wreck the Sierra. They carve out the hills, bring down the highways, collapse roads, charge mudslides. The loss of vegetation and ground cover during the dry times combines with the massive opening salvos of the wet season to wash everything away. This year we had rain right through the normal months of drought, which ruined the mango crop but left the plants in place. We’ve not had one road blocked or broken by hillside or rockslide, a success like no-one’s seen after downpours like this.

We can’t know if this weather pattern will hold up, but if the Sierra Madre’s one of the few more developing, more equatorial places that won’t be totally fucked by the climate change that we and the rest of the best of the West have wrought, I’ll be happy about it.

UPDATE: Photos of the Storm

This one broke the day I put this post up. As I was walking home.

The horror

Casualties of wet

You can see what I’m talking about with the rain blowing right into the hall. My landlord just put in the concrete barrier you can see with the two-by-four in front of it. It’s five inches high and so is the water on the other side. There are about a dozen holes to let rain out of the balcony and it’s still five inches high. Nice.

Imagine this picture was also somehow really loud

Imagine this picture was also somehow really loud

It’s hard to exactly get you all an impression of how much water is coming down here. Our house is all concrete, and with the reverb, we had to scream to make ourselves heard over the din.



In the last photo I was standing on the landing above this, our ‘courtyard’. The tile is a good four inches higher than the concrete, and the water’s coming right over. Both the drains are overloaded and belching water back out. All of this is coming down the hall and heading right towards the other volunteers’ house.



I’m standing on the stairs going up and Janessa’s in the foreground. The door to her house is immediately to the back right, and those two inches of water streaming down the hallway are doing their best to get in under it. She’s using a squeegee to push some of it back. When I don’t have a camera, I’ve got a broom, which is more typical here than you’d think, waterwise. To the front left is another little ‘open to the sky’ space, and it’s overflowing even harder than the ‘courtyard’.

Me, me, ME

No modesty. I made this and it's fucking sweet

Here’s the other side

We put together a dam from plastic sheeting, all my wet clothes that will never dry, and anything we could fill with water to weigh it down. We managed to channel everything downstairs, where it eventually joins the river in the street, and after an hour got Janessa’s place acceptably dry.

It's still wet

My place stayed dry, but my sheet was a martyr to the cause

So this is what it’s like every time it rains.



The Cruelest Month

After dark on the terrace, enjoying the cooling though not cool night breeze and the swarm of bugs around my light. We should be seeing less of those around now, but unseasonable rains have kept them in business. We went through what should have been the start of the dry season weeks ago, when trucks turned up seas of dust to wade through, eyes slitted and lips tight.

What your boot looks like after a dry season dance

What your boot looks like after a dry season dance

But each evening shower that’s damped the dust  has brought the bugs and the humidity. Jalpan sits at one end of a long valley of hot weather growing things. Which means that when they get rain, they hold onto it, dispensing it back into the air not over days but over weeks. Each drizzle pays back an hour of relief with half a month of swelter.

Heat is a common denominator for volunteers. There are some in Eastern Europe and others in more mountainous sites than mine that escape it, but for the rest of us, even those of us here in Posh Corps Mexico, heat is a constant. I arrived at the start of Jalpan’s only prolonged cool, between late November and early January. Even then, we only escaped under cloud cover. If the twelfth day of Christmas saw sun, it was a scorcher.  Our recent little rains have let us think that it might not be so bad, that claims might be exaggerated, that campesinos who aren’t pegged to might not have a great conception of what 115° is and just mean ‘real hot.’

But we’re getting into it now, the sun creeping across the bedsheets at six like the sand map from Raiders and the opening-the-ark light of the outside door at nine. We’re feeling the lingering ovenlike warmth of our apartments into the long hours of the night and the permanent dampness of a bed that won’t dry and a body that won’t stop sweating.

For him an ark, for us a laptop

For him an ark, for us a laptop

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