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
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.
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.
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.
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.