Oaxaca

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.

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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.”

“Fuck.”

“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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Halfway

It’s some small irony that when you hit Mid-Service Training it means you’re more than halfway through. The timing varies by post and by class and by year, but at the end of MST, we of PCM-15 were only eleven months out, ten if you want to take the standing offer to leave thirty days early.

It’s a cliché to say that the time has flown, and it wouldn’t be right, either, not all the way. The days haven’t gone inasmuch as my perception of time has grown confused—I can barely account for the last thirteen months and definitely not for their order.

The ten weeks of training back in September and October 2013 seemed to stretch on forever, longer than all the months that have passed since June lumped together. I keep thinking that we celebrated Mexican independence in late July instead of September, and I can’t make anything that’s happened since stick in my mind apart from the All-Volunteer Conference, Día de Muertos, and Thanksgiving. All one-hundred-twenty odd days apart from those? Can’t account for them.

Maybe I just blocked it all out after this

Maybe I just blocked it all out after this

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Fiat Lengua

Approaching fluency in a second language is magical. Not the Buzzfeed, Tumblr sense of the word, where learning to put an egg in ramen is ‘magical,’ but something extra-human, something out-of-the-ordinary, something that leaves you feeling powerful as you navigate what used to be an impenetrable country, people, culture. And it’s crushing to have that taken away from you.

I walked into a store the other day and rattled off the standard Buenos días, ¿cómo está usted? And was met with Merhaba and a string of nonsense syllables, and the shock was acute. I knew in some part of me that I was in Turkey, but after a year living in Mexico, the assumption that I could speak with foreigners was so integral to my day-to-day that losing it was like having an arm torn off.

Plus Turks look angrier than Mexicans when they're confused

Plus Turks look angrier than Mexicans when they’re confused

As a traveler and as a Volunteer, I can go anywhere and do anything in Mexico. Today I went down to the river and asked homeowners to let me paint murals on their walls and strolled into the offices of the National Teachers’ Union and of the Municipal Presidency to do the same—I’m not fluent and a I’ll probably never be able to breeze through Marquez, but I speak with fluency and I can understand anybody in this country without a serious speech impediment. Being unable to intuit that I couldn’t afford both juice and gum and being unable to tell the clerk that I’d just take the juice, that was crippling.

For a while, that feeling almost dominated my time in Istanbul. My deficit left me painfully reliant on Alex Guyton. Ever action, every simmit purchase, drink order, direction, metro ticket, whatever, I had to have her do it, and I got to be scared, petrified of going out without her.

Honestly I'm afraid every moment I'm not with Alex

Honestly I’m afraid every moment I’m not with Alex

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That One Thing

There are perfect travelers.

Alex Guyton is one

Alex Guyton is one

People who cross borders and languages in a way that makes you angry. Alex taught in Sardinia for a month on what I think was two semesters of Italian and used the thousand Euros to travel the Continent and the UK for four months. She was a family cook in Germany and a goatherd in Switzerland. She missed crew and snuck into the employees-only bit of the boathouse in Florence, and when they found her she ended up with an appointment to scull under the Ponte Vecchio. Which cut short her impromptu rendezvous with a beautiful Australian who had to catch a train for the Himalayas in the morning.

Then there are graceful travelers. Here am I.

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This might have something to do with it

 

Airport waits don’t bother us and we’d let the TSA stare at our tackle for free if it gave the sweaty masses an excuse to stumble through the security line faster. Strange food and strange people and strange languages don’t put us off; we feel more or less at home wherever. Which might be, in my case, because I’ve got no real home.

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