Homecoming

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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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 weather.com 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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Dance like there’s People Around

Well, inside today. The winter I mentioned a couple of posts ago has lasted through vacation and I can more than see my breath in my house, even after running the stove for 90 minutes making stew. When the sun’s out in Jalpan, it’s obnoxiously hot and when it’s cloudy it’s goddamned frigid. I haven’t seen the sun in three weeks. Like I think I’ve mentioned, there’s no indoor heating here, so it’s cold everywhere when it’s cold anywhere. Trey and I have taken to wearing our hobo cutoff gloves at work because it’s the only way we can keep our hands warm enough to type. Anyway, let’s keep catching up on Christmas.

This would be the view if I were outside and there was blessed warming light

This would be the view if I were outside and there was blessed warming light

The day itself here isn’t quite as important as back home; the general sense of festivity starts on the 12th, which is the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and it continues all the way to yesterday (at the time I wrote this), the 6th of January, the Day of Kings (specifically the three of the nativity story). Christmas Eve is the bigger date, at least in Jalpan, and it was definitely more eventful for us volunteers. I spent most of the day running around trying to get presents for Trey and Janessa (a bottle of Jack and a coffee-maker, respectively) and pecans to make pie with later in the week. Pecans are one of the few things in Mexico that would qualify as expensive in the United States, but both Trey and I felt like since we hadn’t made one for Thanksgiving, I’d have to put one together this time around.

After that was all done, I went to a rosary prayer service at Trey and Janessa’s Mom (Lupe)’s house for her more-or-less recently deceased mother. After that was mass and then we got down to the spiked ponche (pretty much like our punch with different fruit), spiked coffee, spiked fruit tea, and an asada, which is like any American cookout if you had it on the 24th of December.

Lupe introduced (and shoved me bodily into) her daughter Monica, back from college, earlier in the day, and we ended up getting tapped to rock the infant Jesus for awhile in a ritual I wasn’t curious enough to inquire after (when we did later, we got the answer we should have expected—’you rock him because he’s a baby, obviously‘).

Right, of course, why'd I even ask

Right, of course, why’d I even ask

After the meat and tortillas ran out, we headed for the plaza for what was supposed to be all night huapango.

I spent most of my time during this bit running around with Monica getting more punch and meeting her friends and just generally getting dragged by the wrist (in the friendliest of ways). She’s just as excited and energetic as her mom (although Lupe says ‘loca’ for them both), and I think it would be pretty fair to say that after two weeks, she’s one of my better friends here, for all that she’s back in Toluca in Mexico State now. Which I’m all the more happy about because she’s got virtually no English.

Friend!

Top left. Moving on up.

Anyway, after a bit of running around, we abandoned the other Americans to go hang out on top of a hill with a few of her friends, and when it got too absolutely frigidly cold, we headed back to listen to Zeppelin and Macklemore in her older friend’s psychology consultorium. You know, how people do.

A few days later there was a town dance for the paisanos. Paisano can mean a few different things, but in Jalpan it refers to all the guys who work in the States and come back for the holidays. They all meet up at the border and they caravan down with a government escort through the rougher northern states, and when they get here, the town throws three different parties. The 28th is the Día del Paisano and there’s a parade where all the caravaners drive through town in their trucks and that night we have a big old dance.

These are the kinds of things that Northerners imagine they have in small town West Texas. Everybody shows up in cowboy hats and their best Levis and plaid with giant belt buckles and rodeo boots, and they all crowd into the giant basketball court outside the auditorium and dance and buy six-packs and carouse until four or five in the morning. As long as I’ve got some local friends to go with, I’m in love with these things. Huapango’s easy enough to fake, and banda and cumbia are simple enough to dance if you don’t get too ambitious with the spins, and either I’ve gotten to be a better dancer than I remember or folks are just happy to have a turn with the newer gringo in town, so I’ve no problem finding partners inside of our high-school-style dance circle or out.

So Monica and the friends and the other volunteers and I went over to her house and got the culturally appropriate amount of lit and then we headed for the dance, plaid and all. We danced, those of you who know me won’t believe, until five in the morning, turning and stepping and jigging and trading partners and spinning and even knocking down a square dance to the tune of Achey Breakey Heart that’s as obligatory as the Cupid Shuffle used to be.

Friends, these people are as warmhearted and welcoming as everyone in the South pretends to be, and I’m having one hell of a time.

Still sitting on this bucket though.

Wedding Crashers

Well holy hell let’s talk about updates. I’m on the terrace today. I’m actually not sure what you’d call this in English, but in Spanish it’s terrace, so we’ll go with that. I’d be on the roof but it’s not sunny and the two wooden ladders we drunkenly nailed together have a hard enough time when I’m not carrying forty pounds of seat and West German engineering.

Sexual

Sexual

A lot’s been happening in the past week (it’d only been a week when I wrote this) or I guess since whenever I posted last. It’s Christmas Day as I’m writing this, by the way, and we’re right in the middle of our first extended cold spell. Also probably the longest-running low-grade hangover I’ve ever had. The folks in Jalpan don’t go insane on any one night over break, but they always go late and they’ve got some kind of endurance.

Let’s start with the wedding. I think I mentioned that my host family here in town is great but not all that into me, and I know it can’t just be my fault because between my folks in Querétaro and the Beyer family, I’m pretty sure I’ve edged at least one natural born child out of the favorite-kid slot. So as a consequence I spend time hanging out with the host family of the married volunteers in site.

These jokers

These jokers

They also  live literally directly below me. The Peace Corps tells us to try to avoid the impression that we’re a unit and to establish our own separate identities, but that boat’s long sailed, looks like. The town knows there’s three of us and that someone’s  married to the other or we’re participating in some kind of godforsaken gringo bigamy but it’ll work itself out.

Anyway, so some friends of their mom, Lupe, were getting married last Saturday, and I’d had a standing invitation from before Lupe’d actually met me. Nowhere in the world is as welcoming as small town Mexico. So I got suited up in the usual campo going-out gear, tight jeans and a plaid shirt, which is a style that worked out pretty well for me on the whole, given that on average everything I’ve worn for the last three years was a plaid flannel. It was only as I was walking up to the church that I thought I might have wanted to, you know, not look like an asshole. But I turned out to be only slightly underdressed and once the reception got started all that mattered was how danceable your clothes were.

Let me be clear. I’d never met the bride or the groom before, and neither had Trey or Janessa, the other volunteers (Fun fact, “Janessa” is almost impossible for someone who hasn’t learned English. Here she’s Yanay, Jeena, and, best of all, Jimmy). But given that Lupe’s a spirited and pushy introducer of friends, she ushered us up at the end of the service to take a picture with our awkwardly wrapped around the happy couple. Or in my case awkwardly retracted and defiantly crossed over my chest for no reason.

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Where Have all the Good Friends Gone?

Writing from the new house today, on the terrace, in the dark, wearing hobo finger gloves because Jalpan’s rustled up a bit of a winter. Low forties isn’t that cold in the States, but here it means that my office is low forties, my shower’s low forties, there’s not much relief all around. Trey and I actually first cut these gloves up so we could work on our computers. In the sun at midday it still feels tropical, but in the permanent shade of our office, the temperature never rises. It’s incredibly weird feeling, and as far as I know it’s only available when you start climbing stuff nearer the belt of the world.

Georgetown doesn't count

Georgetown doesn’t count

Volunteer friends I’ve got in abundance—we’ve been told we were an exceptionally close volunteer group for Mexico and given what I’ve seen, not too much smoke was being blown. I’m in touch with a few volunteers out of site, and there are two up in the hills hereabouts if I ever went absolutely stir-lonely and had to see somebody from the outside.

I’m friendly with everyone from the office, and I’d like to think I fall on them well, as the Mexicans kind-of say, but we’re not having sleepovers or anything. When we go out for an office function, like our corporate-80s-in-the-States-level Christmas party last Thursday, I get on as well as any of my native colleagues, but it’s just not developing into the kind of day to day amistad that you look for as a, you know, human, let alone a Peace Corps Volunteer desperate to integrate into his small town community.

That’s certainly a big part of the worry I’m feeling. Based on what I’m hearing from other volunteers, they’re all killing it on site, meeting tons of people, and I’m personally and professionally jealous, given that the two get kind of mixed when you’re a volunteer. Same deal as when an ex goes off and more or less lives your dream of becoming an internationally acclaimed journalist living in a Mediterranean metropolis. Super proud, happy for them, steamingly envious and angry at yourself. Some of them have an advantage there. Jalpan’s a small town but not quite small enough. For at least the few folks I’m talking to, just walking around and being a gringo is enough to get people to come up to you and start a conversation. Jalpan’s a tourist spot, though, so they’re not quite like that. And cold-calling conversations with folks in the street doesn’t get quite the same reception.

Added is that I spent 9-5 and often more in the office, so I’m not actually out and about meeting the people as much as I’d like to be.

I'm writing radio shows, alright

For example, here’s me typing this post at 7:40pm with the last few hangers-on

Most other volunteers are doing exactly that, just presenting themselves for the odd encounter. And for the first three months or so, that’s more or less our job—just getting to know the community. The idea is that you’ll find the projects the community most needs by becoming somewhat a part of it. Not I. I’m happy to have work to do right off the bat, but I’m looking for a little more,especially since Christmas vacation is just days away.

I want to be clear that I’m not worried about my ability to make friends. I’m confident enough in my Spanish, and I can converse pretty freely about anything as long as hasn’t got too specialized a vocabulary. I was at a Corn Fair the office put on the other weekend, and as I was standing around talking to a co-worker, a guy walks up to me and asks, in English, “So where’re you from?” After I complimented him on the language skills, he let me know that he’d grown up in Lansing and that he’d decided to go to college down here. He and some friends were doing their yearly two weeks of social service in the town down the road and they were looking for something to do.

So I hung out with those folks all afternoon, drove back to town with them, got a beer with them. Seemed like I hit it off pretty well with the first guy and one of the two girls, him because we were both from Michigan and her because she was an International Relations major and I’m one of the Arsenault cabalistas from Georgetown. I mean we sat there for two hours and talked about Morgenthau and structural realism and the virtues of democracy versus benevolent dictatorship and the Roman Republic and the state of philosophical education—I mean I really discoursed with this girl.

I'm waiting

Ladies

When we got up to go, he got my number and she and I traded Facebook info, all excited to hang out the next day, and the next day came…and I never got the call. I don’t know why. Maybe they were busy or maybe something else. Personally, I think maybe it was that, as far as I could see, none of the five guys were with these two very nice girls and maybe didn’t like it that I got off so well with one of them. I mean we were talking about Kenneth Waltz for heaven’s sake, but maybe I’d feel the same way in the States. Who knows. The point is that it was a little crushing, for two reasons.

First, their social service is only going to last eleven days, so last Sunday was probably the only other chance I was going to have to hang out with them. Second, this is the only group of people my age that I’ve met here. When I say ‘my age,’ I’m speaking literally, but I’m also excluding folks that are either married or have kids, and that’s important. I’ve met a bunch of cool high school kids in my work, folks that I’d like to hang out with four years in the future, once they’ve got some life under their belts. The problem, though, is that this is small town Mexico, and it’s like small towns everywhere—kids turn eighteen and they get married and have kids.  Those of them that go to college, when they go, don’t come back and loiter around the town looking to meet a foreigner.

The other day I was at the birthday party of another volunteer’s host mom, and I met a guy, unmarried, twenty one years old. We had a couple beers, struck up a conversation, all going well and me ecstatic to have found somebody my ageish. Buuut then it came out that he’s engaged with his girlfriend because they’re expecting and it’s his second marriage. I’ve got no beef with folks that want to get married and have kids, it’s just that life, rightly, takes on a different perspective once you’ve procreated, and all these parents aren’t quite as down with friend-making and slumber-partying as they once were, since I’m making that my friendship metric, apparently.

I’m worried about how I’m going to spend the just-over-two-weekds of Christmas break, and I think that’s a legitimate preocupation now that I’m out of my host-mom’s house and living alone. It’s definitely a situation in which a volunteer could enter into the wrong kind of mindset, which is something we’re all watching ourselves for in these first three precarious months. But the whole friend thing is also serious business. Once I’ve got the office stuff nailed down, I’m supposed to be and I want to be getting myself involved with all sorts of secondary endeavors. For my own sanity and because it’s a big part of what I’m doing here.

More than that, personal relationships are a big part of navigating this society. Firstly because the best way to get to know someone is by knowing someone else. If there’s some other polisci nerd or whatever living across town, the only way I’m gonna find that out is to meet somebody who knows about him. No subreddits here (though who’d get into that anyway). Secondly, the luxury that is googling places to go, things to do, where to buy, that does not exist here. Not even in the city, for the most part. Even before the internet in the States, I assume the Yellow Pages were good for something once.

phone-book-dump-615_3

 

Here, if I want to find a carpenter or who’s got a desk for sale, I’ve just got to ask, and if the people I know don’t know (the ones I know don’t know where to find a good desk), then I’m shit out of luck. Today for example I’m sitting on an upturned PVC bucket because I’ve gone to the three furniture stores that my folks know about and nobody has a simple wooden chair. So here I am.

So I’m worried. I’m worried about not making friends and about not having anything to do over what could be two very lonely holiday weeks, I’m worried about being mortified at early in service training when everyone’s waxing about their wonderful new compadres, I’m worried about never being a journalist, and I’m worried that I’ll be sitting on this bucket forever.

I’m going inside. It’s fucking cold out.

 

 

Strain Like Nobody’s Watching

Today I’m writing in the middle of our office planning meeting for 2014, so I won’t have a picture of the process live, but I’ll see if I can get a photo of the office I’m in because, well, it’s wicked.

I'm not using a typewriter

I’m not using a typewriter

 

I want to talk about shitting in Mexico. I’m going to be blunt here because nobody actually likes those cutsey litanies of euphemisms and because I already used some the last time I wrote on this subject. What, except for the time I spent eating in Leo J. O’Donovan Hall at Georgetown University, is normally a numbingly quotidian process has become a constant struggle.

There are a few facts that help explain. One—public bathrooms here are few and often very far between. Usually the best bet is inside a restaurant or a store, but often as not whichever little store you’ve picked doesn’t have its own john and you’ve bought a preemptive pack of gum for nothing.

Two—sure, there’s a bathroom at my house. It’s inside (I live in a detached bedroom), through the kitchen and somebody else’s bedroom, possessed of a lock that doesn’t. The door’s far enough from the seat of power that you can’t hold on when you’re sweating and struggling through what’s got to be done.

Three—there are no toilet seats in the Sierra; maybe in your house, but at work or anywhere else, you’ll be dealing with bare bowls. Since it’s always hot here, it will always be slippery, and unless you’ve got a truly expansive grip, you’ll be fighting a constant battle against the elements of buttsweat and gravity.

Hold on tight, baby

Hold on tight, baby

Four—there is a bathroom I can use in security, but only at night. It’s the neighbors’ and I’m allowed in when Doña Mari locks the house at ten pee em.

Five—in Mexico, you don’t throw the paper in the toilet. The pipes and the pressure aren’t up to it, so all sanitary paraphernalia head to the wastebasket. Which presents two dilemmas in public shitteries: if there’s no paper, you’re up a certain creek unless you’re packing (you should be packing), and if there is paper but not basket, you’ve got to decide if you’ve found the fabled full-powered porcelain or whether you’re one flush from dishonoring your host family, the Peace Corps, and the government of the United States.

These Ancien Regime folks, am I right

Courtesy of undocumentedfacts.blogspot.com

Some of this is my fault. I could man up, ignore how crowded my house is, get over my stage fright and the way that every one of the many toddlers around loves ripping that door open, no warning, and shit in my own house. Some of it, like the way that Doña Mari serves me so much food that it leaves me with sickness in the morning and labor in the afternoon, is not.

So I rely on the office. Sure there’s no seat and the window leaves it sweltering; sure the maintenance lady uses the Men’s like it’s her daytime lounge; sure, every once in a while we’re out of paper and I’ve got to buy; sure, sometimes there’s a rag in the bowl for God knows why, sitting there, inexplicable, unflushable, irretrievable, daring me, and I’ve got to run to the municipal shithouse behind the ATM which doesn’t have paper because of course it doesn’t have paper, just a basket full of brown journalism, so I’ve got to waddlerun back to the office and skip from foot to foot while I wait for Lolita to get through napping in there or whatever she does and I throw open the stall and I look that fucking rag right in the eye before I reach in and pluck it and find some stability in the slime and start to fight the fight I was born to.

 

On Site

Well, after months and months of failing to blog, here I am writing from site. I should have a bit more unstructured time from here on out, and a shorter walk home, so we can all hope this’ll be a regular gig going forward.
Like I said awhile ago, I’m in Jalpan de Serra, nestled in a valley of the Sierra Gorda, in the Viosphere Reserve that occupies the top third of Queretaro state. Serra isn’t a sad historical misspelling of Sierra, but the name of Fray Junípero Serra, who founded the five Franciscan missions in my mountains and all the famous ones in California.
This is mine

This is mine

This is another mission. And two Volunteer asses

This is another mission. And two Volunteer asses

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