It wasn’t until Teri Anderson got to site a couple of weeks ago that I realized how much my enthusiasm has dropped off since my own arrival in Jalpan a year and six months ago. All of us in my group and those who remain from earlier classes know that we’ve traded some of our initial blind excitement for tempered experience. It happens with everything—the end of the honeymoon period with a new girlfriend, the fifth or sixth day visiting your parents as an adult and realizing that somebody’s going to go insane, or the moment when you realized Modern Family wasn’t cute so much as about three abusive couples who hate each other.

Boring people being awful to each other: The Show

Boring people being awful:  The Show


Service work is famous for enthusiasm burnout. Animal shelters (and hospitals) call it compassion fatigue, when you’ve seen so much puppy (or human, say) suffering that you just can’t feel bad about it anymore. Ditto for any part of the service field.


And for listening to Sarah McLachlan

Other types of work have tangible incentives—pay and pay raises, promotions, company cars—but service work relies of ‘fulfillment’ to make up for low ages, unlikely advancement and poor working conditions. More, it’s relatively rare that someone gets into service with a specific, achievable, realistic endgame in mind. You manage that aimlessness my setting your own goals, and Peace Corps is great at encouraging that, but the reality of virtually all service work is that you never get to win, never come to the end of it—there will always be more people in bad situations, always be more corporations and governments exploiting their populations, always be more work to do—and it’s hard to deal with that reality year in and year out.

Peace Corps is susceptible to fatigue and cynicism in part because of its open-ended structure. Once you get to site, you’re essentially on your own, and the work of rewarding, incentivizing, goal-setting, and progress-assessing falls to you alone. You hit the ground and you want to take on the world, and you’ve got carte blanche to try—we’re encouraged to think of our work day as twenty four hours long and our weeks as neverending.

Or as our stamp would lead you to believe

God we’re cool / have racist stamps

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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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Bury the Lede

Things decay in the campo. They break down, fall apart, succumb to the entropic forces of heat and wet and hard use. Shoe soles crack, fray, come to pieces, holes wear into socks and shirts and packs, mud and road dust creep into everything. Even cuts turn to scars more often out here.

In spite of it, I’m taking better care than I ever have before, better care of everything. The easy (because they’re self-motivating) things, like obsessive flossing and overuse of gauze and antibiotics to keep teeth and limbs from falling out and off. But the smaller and more tedious things too, cleaning where before I would have let lie, repairing and restoring where custom would have me replace.

I have an orange Jansport backpack. Dad brought it home to the house in Michigan more than six years ago expecting (I imagine) to use it himself. I stole it that same night (I think), and my first act of possession was to shear off half of its straps with a pocket knife because I didn’t like the way they looked. I’ve used that pack in the intervening years for school and every trip I’ve made under seven days, and it’s held up. But my laptop’s heavy and seventeen inches large, just a bit wider than the Jansport, and last October the seams around the shoulders finally blew out. I’ve sewn them back together twice now, black and white thread reaching further and further from the original stitching to find purchase.

I'm a natural

I’m a natural

I tore out the bottom of my hiking pack transporting hardwoods for my amateur-but-really-professional-carpenter father, and the dual color thread stands out even more brightly against its olive drab.

I brought twelve pairs of socks back to Mexico from the US the first time I went home and tore the heels out of all of them in three months of sweaty summer use. Then I darned them.

I darned them all!

Darned and in need of re-darning

Now I’m looking for a wooden mushroom and I’ve started pre-patching all my new pairs against the creeping serrano deterioration.

The highway that fronts my office is the only artery of communication through the mountains and half the day we can’t hear anything for all the engine-braking. Every morning we come in to another millimeter of road dust on our desks, and I’ve become intimate with the insides of my laptop, prising it apart and cleaning it and piecing it together again. I brought a keg of Oxi-Clean home from that same first trip, and the TSA opened and upended it in my pack after check-in. I spent two days tweezing the white particles out of my motherboard, blowing the detergent from each individual connection.

My whites are whiter than ever

My whites are whiter than ever though

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I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.

I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.

When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.

And Snapchats to my high school buddies

This means home to me

So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.

Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping.[1] Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.

It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.

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And in Mexico, We’re Merely Players

Awhile ago, I wrote about the drudgery of Peace Corps life and how it does little to improve you. That might have been less than true. Not here, but elsewhere.

The thing is that Mexico has a reputation as a post, a deserved one, as the ‘Posh Corps.’ It has to do with the way the organization set up the program. Mexico began with Tech Transfer, a program that exists only here and owes its conception to the circumstances in which the Peace Corps came to this country.

My city host family's courtyard, for example

My city host family’s courtyard, for example

A particular director of the organization wanted to expand to Mexico. Peace Corps requires that the host country sign a Bilateral Agreement which leaves us more or less free reign to involve ourselves wherever the regional desk and the country office see need. In whichever village or community best suits the methodology defined by the Peace Corps Act and developed by the organization over the last fifty-odd years.

In Mexico, we never signed the Bilateral Agreement. Instead, we formed partnerships with particular organs of the Mexican federal government. The first of which was CONACYT, the National Council for Science and Technology, whose purview is the research and development of technology, whether for academic or corporate application. TT, and by extension the Mexico program, took the well trained and educated, ten years’ worth of volunteer classes of doctors of this or that, middle-aged or older, nothing like what you might imagine of a body of Peace Corps recruits.

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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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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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In-service trainings are the highlights of the year for a lot of us, I think. We get to spend a full week with the people we have often come to love in-country. People we trained with, got sick with, worried with, learned Spanish with. Your class gets tight. Ours is especially well-knit, or at least the office has told us so.

It might have something to do with our ages. Previous groups in Mexico have been more focused on Technology Transfer and Natural Resources Management, two programs that in this country that in this country recruit volunteers who are more experienced and well-trained than what you might imagine to be the standard. The Mexico office is changing direction, though, and our class fit the archetype—young, eager, not far out of college.


Maybe we were more willing to goof around, or maybe it’s that are lives are short enough that they still have room for eighteen more close friends, or maybe we just happened to be compatible. When we get together after the isolation of the countryside, it’s a thing apart. To go from a second language back to your first is like learning how to speak again. I have a few good Mexican friends, and I wouldn’t trade them for gringo replacements, but there is so much lost communication even in my more-than-passable Spanish, so many small exchanges, so many inside jokes and asides that refuse to translate or grow up right in a foreign tongue. It is maybe not so obvious among friends, but I tried dating here for a few months and it drove the point home. It might even be that I have so little else to go on. I’m no sportsman, have no great hobbies outside of words. So much of my identity is wrapped up in English that I almost find myself without one in Spanish.

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I’m reading The Labyrinth of Solitude and I’m so wrapped up in holding the text steady that I don’t notice when the bus blows past El Lobo. We’re a half mile down the road by the time I stagger to the front and explain in panicked Spanish that I meant to get off, “You know, apenas,” just now. My permanent affect in Spanish is contrition, and I keep apologizing to the driver as I try to mime that he needs to stop the bus. I mumble disculpe and perdóname to sleeping Mexicans on my oh-so-long trip to the back to grab my pack. Off the bus, I huck my gear to the ground and try to take stock. I am immediately covered in ants. I curse and giggle and try to shimmy them down and out of my jeans. I sling all forty pounds of prep onto my back and start down the road towards Lobo.


I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the stubby mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre, and I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving. I live in Jalpan, the de facto capital of the region, and I’m traveling up into the hills to stay with the two other volunteers that the Peace Corps placed out here. James is tall, gangly, and fiercely blonde. He’s Michigan Dutch, Cortez reincarnate in the way he enchants the dusty campo girls. Danielle is a small and perpetually hungry environmental educator out of New York State. They both live in the mero campo, the real country, in pueblos that Jalpan dwarfs, far away from the Internet and bus-lines that keep me pretty well in touch with the world outside.

As I walk up to the misty intersection that leaves the highway and climbs into the mountains, I realize that—God knows why—I’ve worn a cardigan. Between it and my camera, I’ll look like what the grizzled men in this leg of the Sierra refer to as a mano caída, a fallen hand, letting their wrists go limp as they say it. Transit from here to where my friends live goes by way of improvised taxis and converted pickups, and I try to look at home as I sidle up to the group of drivers.


“Who’s going to Río Verdito?” I ask. One of them raises his hand. “Cuanto?

Eighty pesos,” he says, about six-fifty US.

“No manches,” I reply, don’t mess around. He laughs. “I live here,” I say, and light a cigarette for effect.

“Not right here”

“Down the road.” He laughs again. “Quince,” I say. Fifteen, less than a dollar.

“Then you’ll have to wait.” I pass him a cigarette and we talk about where he’s worked in the States. He’s been to pick apples near where I used to live in Michigan, but we don’t know any of the same people. One of those things. When a critical mass of travelers builds up and gets into his truck, he waves me towards the cab, but I beg off and sling my stuff into the bed. The ride is gorgeous and I’d rather not have to navigate small talk.


We climb up into the hills while the fog lifts and peaks and pastures dance into view. It’s a cut-rate Bavaria without the more impressive Alps, long narrow valleys blending into terraced farmland spotted with goats and mongrel zebu cattle. We make it to James’ pueblo without incident, and I’m not sure if I’m excited or afraid. We’ve got a turkey, but it’s not, you know, dead yet. Peace Corps is full of this kind of experience—things you want to say you’ve done but which you’re not so sure you want to do. James’ cabin clings to the hillside far up the valley wall, and I poke around for telltale feathers as I hike the muddy cow-path to his door. His kitchen is always unlocked and when I push inside, he’s just taking a pot of water off for coffee.

We do the slap-and-a-fist bump that passes for a handshake out here. “So uh, where is she?” I ask.

“Penelope? I had to do her yesterday. Didn’t want to lead her on.”

“Was she a hassle?”

“No, sweet bird. Calmer than I thought she’d be when I carried her over in the corn sack.”

“I should’ve told you I was gonna write about it.”

“You want to see her? She’s outside.”

James is an engineer, but he spent most of his time between college and the Peace Corps on organic farms, and him also being from Michigan, it’s not his first time to a turkey shoot.


“You use that same handle-less abomination on her?” He only has one knife.

“Yea. Had it so sharp it almost scared me. She went quiet.” He nods over the edge of his porch and I look down to see bloodstains and a mass of feathers in the trees below. “There’d be more down there, but chickens are notorious cannibals,” he says, and indicates the crowd that’s turned out to bawk at us. I look into the pot, and she’s tiny, just enough for four, with little black hairs clinging to the gaping pores where feathers used to be.

“Gross, man,” I say, prodding the little craters.


“Yea. Butterballs, the commercially grown ones, they’re bred to be pluckable. Ugly, all bald and patchy.”

Night’s closing in, so we take the coffee and huddle into his living room to talk. James and I have the best non-native Spanish of our class of volunteers, but we both find it difficult to connect emotionally outside of English, so we talk about the Mitten State for hours when we’re together. It’s not long before we have to bundle up, shaking spiders out of blankets and knit ponchos. It’s as cold as it ever gets up here, not less than thirty five degrees. But Mexico is all poured concrete, and the walls welcome the cold in, making sure that if it’s chilly outside, it’s just as bad in here.

At daybreak, the clouds are gone and the temperature shoots up as we hitchhike to Agua Zarca, where our other volunteer Danielle lives. We catch a ride straight off, and for all that I rip the ashtray out of the car door trying to pull it closed, the guy seems happy for company. He drops us just outside of Danielle’s place, some thirty minutes down the road. When we step out, she calls down from her balcony that there’s no running water, hasn’t been all morning. James and I look at each other. Neither of us has showered much since the cold rolled in, and we’re both pouring sweat now. “Ni modo,” he says, something like ‘Nor a way,’ the national anthem of amiable resignation.

Danielle has to run out to pick up our fourth, Janessa, the other volunteer from down where I live. James visits the neighbors to see if they’ve got water while I unload pie supplies from my backpack. It turns out they have got some, in a rain cistern, and he begins the first of dozens of runs for water, carrying it back in six-liter plastic bottles and dumping it into tubs. Between his frame and the chore, he looks like a broomstick from the Sorceror’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia.

I busy myself with the pies. Danielle hasn’t got bowls, so I make dough in the massive 12-inch cake pans I’ve brought along. Closest I could find to pie tins. James is on a personal crusade against the Coca Cola that’s singlehandedly giving diabetes to rural Mexico, so I’m cutting all refined sugars from the recipes this year. Pecan is easy since honey subs in fine for Karo syrup, but I’m more dubious about the apple. The jar broke in my pack on the way, and I spend much of the time scooping honey out of the bag I wrapped it in.

“You think you’ll have enough water for me to wash anytime soon?” I ask James as he stumbles in puffing from the stairs.

“Screw you,” he laughs, putting his bottles down. I waggle sticky fingers at him. “How’re the pies going?”

“Fucked if I know. I’m going to have to shave some piloncillo for the topping.”

“Good luck with that,” he says, and heads for more water. Piloncillo is solid molasses, boiled and poured into diamond-hard cones. I picked up ten pounds of it on the corner for just under a dollar. I’m willing to do my Mom’s Dutch apple without the sugar, but I don’t feel like I can get away without crumb topping. When Janessa arrives I get her to promise to do me a favor and then leave her scraping a butter knife against the big brown lump.

Janessa’s a middle-height brunette, at turns mothering and full-on partier, and she’s liable to bite your shoulder in times of high excitement. Peace Corps was her dream, and her husband Trey gamely brought his southern Georgia charm down to Mexico along with her. This past October, though, he got the job he’d been waiting for, inspecting operations and developing best practices for California weed farming outfits, and she’s out here alone until he comes down for Christmas.

James and I head out back to consider Penelope. We’ve got a brining recipe written down, but it’s the container that’s holding us up. The pot we brought her over in is too shallow to submerge her, and Danielle’s plastic washtub is larger than her fridge. We’ve heard you’re supposed to keep the bird cool.

“I murdered her, I didn’t nick the bowel, and I’m sure she’s clean.”

“Been out in the sun for a while though.”


“Weather kind of let us down.”

“It’s a long way from Michigan.” He looks at Penelope. Turns her from side to side. “Wait,” he says, and runs into the house. He comes back with the crisper drawer from the fridge.

“No fucking way,” I say, but he waves me off, and when he lowers her into the plastic, it looks like she’s striking a pose for my camera. Perfect fit. “Maybe that’s what it’s always been for,” I say as we pour salt brine and a table of Danielle’s precious American molasses in with her.

“Guy who invented the refrigerator wondering all his life why we’re putting vegetables in the turkey drawer.”


The pies go into the oven and the girls start on dinner. Pastries aside, we’ve fallen further into gender roles out here, some kind of cultural osmosis. We take out the first bottle of wine. After the luxury of daily Safeway runs, it’s a sweet rarity, way outside of our normal price range for bottom shelf tequila. For this weekend, though, we’ve got four bottles and it feels like a bounty. We’ve got no corkscrew, and I paint most of my shirt a deep violet ramming the cork down.

“Hey, I think there’s eggs in the pasta,” says Janessa. Danielle walks over and looks into the pot.

“And weevils. Could have come in the water, too,” she offers. “You know they eat them here. Some kind of diet.” James nods.

“They say it forms some kind of colony inside of you. You know, in your stomach acid.”

“Protein is protein,” Janessa says, and we all gather round to fish the bugs out with a tiny colander.


Dinner goes well until music starts pouring in the front from the dingy cantina across the way. Banda is hard to listen to in the best of times. Its swaggering imitation of mid-nineties rap values is set to country guitar and a polka bass-line, and when the ridiculous tuba-plus-accordion begins to blare, we shut the door.

Part of Peace Corps, maybe the only part that matters, is opening yourself to your host country and sharing with it in return. But when we get together for American holidays, we guiltily close ourselves off, trying to create a warm little bubble of home. All weekend we’ll leave huapango and ranchero and even Vicente Fernandez to one side for Macklemore and The Shins, Patsy Cline and the Avett Brothers. I’ll try to start in with Christmas, She & Him and Bing Crosby and Vince Guaraldi playing Charlie Brown, but Danielle will nix it.

“Not until Thanksgiving, and that’s not until Thursday.”

Rules are rules, and as long as we’re pretending that this is the States, we’ve got to respect them. Mexico goes from Día de Muertos on the first of November straight into Christmas, and I walked past the fifty foot iron-and-plastic fir tree in my town square on the first of November with a mix of familiarity and deep confusion.

In the morning, we can’t remember how long we ought to roast a turkey, so we take the campo attitude and wing it, packing her sideways into a stew pot and deciding that three hours or so ought to do it. The dial eschews degrees for an inscrutable I to V range, and we figure that somewhere between II and III is a good bet. The bird safely in the oven, James and Janessa head to the terrace for yoga. We’ve all gotten more New Age since joining up, but Danielle and I draw the line at sugarless pies. She and I turn on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and sing along to ‘Eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.’ We’re together but we’re not together, each of us lost remembering the mothers that first played it for us.

When the chorus comes around, we fall back into the kitchen and yell, ‘Can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in, singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement,’ before laughing to each other and sighing.

“Time for tequila?”


When the cooking gets into full swing, it becomes clear that we’ll have far too much food, each of us trying to make all the tastes of home. I’ve got the two pies and a pseudo-casserole of green beans, bacon, and slivered almonds. Slap Chops absent, only dull knives and patience get them thin enough. Janessa’s making cooked carrots and her grandmother’s Jell-O chutney, its myriad fruits replaced by three sad pears and a cup of dusty craisins. Danielle makes stuffing from Bimbo bread, two steps down in substance from Wonder. The most American ingredient is a family-size box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, scrounged at great cost from the Walmart down in the city. We pour it into a baking pan and crumble stuffing over top in lieu of breadcrumbs. It crisps up under Penelope. All of us have given up on the way we smell, and we pack the mashed potatoes with garlic, the white starches yellowing under the onslaught of cloves. For all that we’ve tried to make things as healthy as we preach, we’ve somehow gone through a good twenty sticks of butter before we’re done.

Dishwashing becomes laborious, one of us having to pour from our bottled reserves while another scrubs. Before long, the tub that collects from the basin is full and Danielle starts grilling us on the state of our bowels.

“Somebody take a dump already. We’ve got to flush with the dishwater so I can keep washing.” I go first, and James turns up the music. Danielle’s bathroom is separated from her kitchen by the thinnest plastic and tin—we’re lucky if only the sound makes it through. Shit-shy in the States, I’m not worried. I think it must be true in every country that the first vanity to die in the Peace Corps dies on the toilet. Training is an endless seminar on amoebas and food poisoning, and few meals went by without our speculating on how soon we’d be seeing what we were eating and how it would look when we did. Unwashed vegetables and home-slaughtered turkey long-eaten by time of publication, it looks like we got out scot free this time.

The weather’s still good once Penelope’s out, so we pull Danielle’s small kitchen table outside. The towns here hug the highways as they skirt round the mountains, and when you head to the back of the house, the ground falls away. It’s a five story drop from the edge of her terrace, pine trees rolling out into woodland and a valley that flows as far as you can see. She’s got the best view in all of Mexico, maybe all of Peace Corps, and we use it as the backdrop for a few Last Supper timer photos before we lose patience and fall on the food.


It’s an orgy and we make ourselves sick trying to eat our way back home. By the time we make it to the pies, we’re moaning and cussing with each bite. Only the firmest pain signals from our bellies induce us to quit. We have to stop, and when we do, not even the last three bottles of wine and a good deal of tequila can keep us from seeing what we’ve put off with mad cooking and manic conversation. There’s nothing left to hide that it’s Sunday afternoon and Janessa and I will have to be on the bus back to site at six in the morning. We fall into a melancholy silence, collapsing onto blankets in the last of the sunlight and trying to accommodate our swollen stomachs.


The hills lift the horizon high into the sky, and sunset always comes as a surprise in the Sierra. We were all nodding or napping, and the stars stole out before we knew it, Orion peeking over the hills to our east.

“Do you miss your family?” Janessa asks.

“I dunno. I mean, my folks are in China,” I reply, “So there’s not much of a home for me to go back to for things like this. Plus, you’re married and everything, but for me, every holiday away is a kind of growing-up. Every one a little more adult.”

“You want to be an adult?”

“I don’t feel like one,” I say, but I figure this must be what it’s like for everyone when they’re first out on their own, whether it’s in Mexico or Michigan. Trying to recapture bits of what they’ve left behind.

We stay out until we can’t keep our eyes open, pulling on sweaters and scarves as the wind turns. It rushes around the valley in waves, building to a waterfall roar as it comes to the house and tousles our hair. Dozens of shooting starts streak over us and we put off bedtime, wishing our private wishes.

In the morning, we blow on fingers and chafe our palms together. We pack stuffing and pies into shopping bags and snug them in the spare pockets of our backpacks. We turn and hug Danielle at the door.

“You’ll have to make that apple pie again for Christmas,” she says as we pull away from each other.

And she’s right. I will.

Slice of Life

Mexico is a cacophony. It is everywhere and at all times noisy, riotous, polluted, and beautiful. My buddy James and I went to breakfast at Reina del Sur today. It’s a homely little place, four wobbly tables out front of a dingy kitchen. The wait staff is surly and slow, the coffee is terrible, and the juice is usually Tang. But the food is delicious and quick and there’s just enough quiet for a hangover. It’s great.

When we made it down to the main street across from Reina, the place was gone and some kind of fiesta was going on instead. Balloons hung in chains from every railing and cornice and masses of junk food had been unwrapped and set out as a buffet with a ten-dollar plastic chocolate fountain. Two girls, the worse for wear, were out stopping all traffic on what’s also the only highway through the Sierra, passing out fliers for a restaurant that has nowhere to park. Bachata music was blasting out at around lawnmower volume, and they had one of Mexico’s ubiquitous emcees belting a never-ending stream of gibberish. My boss has this ability and it’s fascinating—they can yell into the mic for hours without saying a thing, calling on passersby, cracking jokes, and selling whatever they’re selling, all of it just loud enough to be understood over the music.

We stood in the street for five minutes just looking at the train wreck. We ended up walking in but wishing there was some way to indicate with body language that everything they were doing was dissuading rather than persuading. When we made it into what used to be the cave of a kitchen, we saw that it had been turned into a dining room, new, light, clean. Slow renovations to the stove and overflowing sinks over the past year had exploded in two days. New floor, new walls, new paint, level tables, all approaching an actual restaurant. As we sat down, the guy with the mic dropped Reina del Sur into his monologue and James and I looked at each other. Only in Mexico can you have a grand opening a year after opening.

Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey

Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey

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