Monday, April 30, 2012

The Prediction

My sister (Jen) told me a story the other day. She says she has told me this story before, but I don't remember. You'd think I would, since it's fairly amazing.

The reason she repeated it to me the other day is that I said to her, during a conversation about what the hell I was going to do with myself in Mexico for a year, that I have decided it would be an excellent time to buckle down and finally write the book I have been thinking about writing for a decade or so. The book about how Homero and I met and married, the book I call in my head "the ongoing saaaaaaga of a man, a woman, and the the INS: a romance spanning all of North America, two generations, and the third part of a decade." Cumbersome, I know.

Jen told me "Oh, you're going to write it all right. Remember the prediction?"

"No," I said, bewildered. "what prediction?"

"The palm reader! Remember?"

"Um, no," I said. "What's all this?"

She sighed and shook her head at my notoriously awful memory. Then she told me this story. When she and her now-husband had been going out for a very short time, like only a couple of weeks, they were at the Pike Place Market and on a whim, decided to step into Tenzing Momo (the most fabulous magical apothecary on the west coast) and see the palm reader.

They spent the next half hour writhing in an agony of embarrassment and awkwardness, as the first thing woman told them was that they would get married and have babies. After all, neither one of them was legally able to drink yet, and they had met each other less than a month before. But of course, the woman was right about that. She also said several other things which my sister says turned out to be true, and in retrospect Jen considers it one hell of an accurate reading.

One thing the palm reader told her was "you are going to go live in a Spanish speaking country, and you will write a book there that will be published."

Jen said "that sounds like my sister, not me! Could you be talking about my sister?"

"Sometimes that happens," the palm reader shrugged.

"So you see," Jen told me, "you are going to write the book."

I will take whatever encouragement I can get, and the word of some psychic lady I never met is as good as anybody's.

It is a great story - the one I plan to tell in the book, I mean, although my sister's story is good too. There's romance, sex, adventure, and the struggle of love against high odds and a monolithic bureaucracy. There's  the timely and controversial theme of illegal immigration, a couple of daring feats of illegal border crossing, and descriptions of the epic roadtrip from Vancouver B.C. to Oaxaca, Mexico by way of Atlanta  and Tucson. There's a young child (Rowan) trying to adapt to life in a foreign country. There's all of us, me, Homero, and our families, trying to understand each other and create a bicultural, blended family. There are humorous incidents and serious disappointments. Oh, and maybe some recipes.

Besides the fact that I've been wanting to write this book for a quarter of my life, and the curious supernatural compulsion of it having been foretold, there's another reason this would be a good time to finally write this book. One of my readers, Andy Brown of Anubis Bard  suggested that I give my Mexican relatives a convenient "hook" to hang me on. Meaning, a "thing" as in, "birdwatching is Andy's thing." This makes everybody more comfortable and gives him (or me) a nice easy explanation or excuse in all sorts of circumstances that gives no offense to anybody. "Come up with a hobby slash project that gives people a handle on what they should do with this alien in their midst," Andy suggested. " Whenever things are feeling crowded or hectic... I can just take my binoculars and have an excuse to clear out." 

This struck me as an excellent idea. I am a fairly private person, even here in America. In Mexico, my need for solitude borders on anti-social. If I don't get an hour or so of alone time every day, I start to go nuts. Here in my own house, I tend to get that time by taking a paperback book and disappearing into a long hot bath. That's not an option there - no bathtub for one thing, and one bathroom for seven people for another. Writing, however, is an inherently solitary activity. 

Two birds with one stone. Maybe even three. I get to take a stab at something I've always wanted to do - write an entire book - and I identify a discrete project and an explanation (for others and for myself) of what I plan to do with myself day. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I have a safety valve and a sanity protector in the form of a valid reason to lock myself up in a room alone once a day. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Monster Deck and Other Projects

On friday, I spoke to the property management company that will be looking after our house while we are gone. Back in January, I contacted them and told them about our situation. Regarding the house, I said "there are a lot of really nice things about the house, but there's no getting around the fact that it's an old farmhouse." I said we wanted to make some improvements before anyone looked at it. The man told me to contact him in May or thereabouts when we had the place in shape to rent. Friday, I made an appointment for two weeks hence.

I work better under a deadline. We have actually made fairly solid progress, but there is so much more yet to do. Here are some photos of projects which are currently underway.

Every photo in the deck series below shows a totally different part of the deck. There is no overlap: in fact, altogether, these four photos show only about 60% of the deck. It goes on. Mother of God, it goes on. I have no idea why anyone would want to build such an enormous deck in the first place. It must have cost a king's ransom in treated wood. The photo following (front deck) and the one below (backyard deck) show parts of the deck after pressure washing but before staining. 

The next two photos show the parts of the deck that have been stained. Behr Redwood number 502, $152 per five gallon bucket. Two buckets down, one (I think) to go. The entire railing has been stained, and about half the decking. Then we still have to do the planter boxes on the outside, which you can see below the rhododendron (lovely, isn't it?).

So far, between Homero, Phil, Rowan and myself, the deck has absorbed some 40 or so man hours. We might be more than half done now. We are praying for a stretch of nice weather, but none in sight. I feel like a sea captain in the days of exploration... "day 36... no land in sight... running out of supplies..."

The playroom. I cleaned it up and then Phil tore out the old carpet. That ugly yellow stuff is the carpet pad, which I think we will reuse. The new carpet I bought (cheapest avaialable indoor/outdoor option at Lowe's) is in a giant roll in the foreground. The playroom is also enormous - I guess the builders of this farmhouse - the grandparents of the people we bought from - really liked their elbow room. The playroom measure 33 by 22 feet, with a big bite taken out of one corner. It's nearly 700 square feet. That's a lot of carpet. Maybe this time we can keep the chickens out of the playroom so they don't crap on the new carpet.

Rowan and Phil washing the walls. Wall-washing and trim-scrubbing are NOT part of my regular housewifely routine. The high traffic areas were looking exceedingly grungy. I decided we needed to do some spot painting. Luckily, we have a gallon of the original blue paint leftover from five years ago. All I had to do is buy a quart of semi-gloss white and a couple of small brushes.

Phil, by the way, has been a Godsend. He deserves his own post, but I can't give him one because my husband has this weird Mexican Macho trip where he resents any other male doing any work in his house. He barely tolerates Phil helping out, even though he concedes that Phil is an excellent worker. Homero would be jealous and annoyed if I gave Phil his own post, so all I can do is say here, at the end of this post where Homero will likely never read it, that Phil ROCKS.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Short Term/Long Term Thinking

Bibi in front of Santo Domingo, 2006

As the time for our departure approaches, I get more and more anxious. Partly, this is because there is still so much to do to get ready, but more than that, I'm just afraid of being in Mexico for a year. I'm afraid of how difficult it is going to be - for me, for the children, for my husband - even for Ivory, our elderly dog.

As I was saying to my sister today, it is easier for me to imagine the ways in which it will be difficult than it is for me to imagine the ways in which it will be fun. We will be living in two rooms, at least for the first few months, with no private access to either a kitchen or a bathroom. It will, for a large part of the time, be horribly and unrelievedly hot. The children will be plunged into a world in which they speak the language only slightly, and into the completely foreign culture of the Mexican school system (the decision to send them to local public school was not made lightly; I will go into the decision making process in another post). I imagine, based on previous experience, that I will feel alone and somewhat abandoned as my husband dives joyfully back into his natal family and culture, leaving me to sink or swim without his support. Homero will have difficulty walking the line, shown by previous experience to be razor-thin, between pleasing his wife and his mother. 

Sometimes I feel that I have decided to plunge the entire family into short-term hell, in the hopes of a long-term payoff. It is all too easy to picture the ways in which the year will be difficult for all of us - and not just those of us who are going, but also for Rowan, my teenager, left behind and on her own for the first time in her life; for my mother and father, even for my sister, losing a confidante for a year. To balance this, I am actively trying to spend time imagining the benefits of going. After all, this sojourn was my idea, and I must have had some plusses in mind when I suggested it.

When I think of benefits, I imagine long-term benefits. I imagine my grown-up children in their twenties or thirties, easily bilingual and comfortable in two worlds. I imagine them appreciating the time spent in another country, acknowledging the wider perspective they developed as a result. I have known several people who spent significant amounts of time in foreign countries as children, and without exception, all of them regard the experience as incredibly valuable and have formed lasting bonds with those countries and their cultures. There is no reason to doubt that my children will feel the same way. 

For myself, I imagine the pride I will feel at overcoming my anxiety and doing something brave and interesting. I imagine that I will consider myself a stronger person for doing this, and that when I am old, this year living abroad will be one of my crowning achievements and a glowing memory.

For Rowan, I imagine that having successfully navigated her first year away from her parents, as well as her first year in University (something I do not doubt will happen), will give her a sense of accomplishment and of independence. I hope that she will find her general anxiety level less as she accumulates the little day-to-day victories of doing well in school and taking care of herself living alone. I assume I will be coming home to a very different, more grown-up young lady, and I look forward to meeting her.

These are all long term benefits, and I really don't doubt any of them. But I need to spend more time visualizing the ways we will enjoy ourselves while we are there. Our recent trips to Oaxaca have been wonderful, especially the most recent one this past winter. Homero and I didn't fight at all, and there was little or no tension between the families. The weather was pleasant. We traveled and saw beautiful and interesting places. Certainly, during the course of our year there will be opportunities to do many of the things I love to do in Mexico - swim in the ocean, travel to new places, go to festivals and fairs. I will probably enjoy making a home for my family, even though it will have some frustrating limitations (such as being in my mother-in-law's house). If I try, I am sure I can see it as an exciting challenge to create a comfy nest in our little upstairs nook.

Homero will enjoy spending lots of time with his mother and siblings, and renewing his relationships with his other relatives and old friends. He will enjoy starting a new business venture (which he will certainly do - the idea of Homero not working for a year is rediculous). Just being in his home country will be a pleasure for him, speaking his native language all the time, having access to books and news in Spanish, and generally relaxing into his cradle-culture.

The children will surely go through a period of difficulty until they become more comfortable in the language, but I don't expect that to take very long - a couple of months, perhaps. After that, I am certain they will make friends at school and in the neighborhood. They adore their abuelita and she adores them. The deepening of that relationship will be a pleasure on both sides, I am sure. As will the deepening relationships with their Aunt Temy and their cousins. The children will enjoy many of the same things I do, travel, food, festivals.

I love the pageantry and richness of daily life in Mexico. I love the color and the exuberance of the landscape. I love the many occasions for festivities. I will keep thinking about the many things I like about Mexican life, and try to avoid thinking about the hardships.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Has to Happen (Updated)

I wrote this post back in January. There has been a little forward progress on some of the items in this list. I'll update in bold in the text.

As I wrote a few days ago, we are moving to Mexico this coming year (The Big Reveal (What We Want)). We are hoping to be there by September, when the new school year starts. That would be great, but when I start to think seriously about all the things that need to happen before we go, I just can't see it.

1) Rowan needs to be enrolled in University. My oldest daughter, Rowan, will not be coming with us. Unless, that is, she doesn't get her ass in gear and get herself accepted to a decent program. If she doesn't get in anywhere (which will only happen if she doesn't apply, because she is a freakishly talented artist and a grade A student), then she will have to come with us because there is no way I'm leaving her here with nothing to do all day.

No material progress. Rowan, who is in the Running Start program and taking her last 2 years of high school at the community college, got a little bit behind in her schedule and has to take classes summer quarter in order to graduate on time. She had a heavy schedule winter quarter, and now she has a heavy schedule spring quarter. The poor thing worried herself into a tizzy about applying to Western on time for a fall start - she didn't have enough pieces for her portfolio. She was so stressed out it was affecting her ability to do her actual school work for the classes she was taking. So she talked to me and to a counselor, and decided to apply to Western for winter quarter instead of fall. She can do that because she's applying as a transfer student with an AA. That gives her - theoretically - until October to apply, but I told her she doesn't actually have that long because she has to be IN A PROGRAM before we leave.

2) Assuming she does get in to her first choice, which is WWU's graphic design program right here in Bellingham, then we need to convert the computer room into an apartment for her. It's mostly ready already: the previous owners converted a two car garage into a master bedroom suite with it's own entrance and bathroom. All we will need to do now is create some sort of cooking area and then Rowan will be set. That, of course, makes it sound easier than it actually is. For one thing, we need to clean out approximately two tons of crap from the walk-in closet/cum food storage area in the way-back. Alas, this isn't something I can do on my own. One example of the crap is a full set of racing tires for a Lamborghini Diablo, which my husband bought for the kit car which he is never going to build.

No material progress. Homero won't let anyone start cleaning out the closet because he has to decide what gets kept and where it should be put. I'm not optimistic.

3) Somehow make the house presentable to potential renters. This is such a sweeping generality that I haven't even the faintest idea how to go about describing the particulars. The list of jobs that absolutely must be completed before we can even hold our heads up if potential renters come to visit includes:
a) Remove and replace all the carpets in all three bedrooms. The off-white carpet that was here when we moved in has, let's say gently, outlived it's usefulness (When the Cat's Away (the Mice Will Get Some Work Done)). Not so gently, I can say it is thoroughly disgusting, no longer remotely off-white, and smells strongly of cat pee.

b) Repaint two of the three bedrooms. The master bedroom, where Homero and I reside, may not be exactly house beautiful material, but at least it isn't embarrassing. The little girl's bedroom, on the other hand, has been lavishly decorated with sharpie (Oh I wish I had photos to show you right now. None of you can possibly believe the level of sharpie desecration unless you have seen it.). Homero and I had a very intense discussion about whether or not the girls should be allowed to sharpie their walls (can you guess whether I took the "yea" or the "nay" position?) and the end result is sharpie from here to hell and gone. The other bedroom in question is Rowan's, which most closely resembles a landfill.

When the painter-guy showed up today to give me an estimate, he looked into Rowan's room and said, "so, you'll be ready in like, two weeks?" Yeah - if I go in there with a bulldozer. Otherwise, never.

All three bedrooms carpeted and painted. Now I wonder if we shouldn't have waited to do it closer to the time we will actually leave - now we're going to have to steam clean.

c) So many outdoor repairs. Probably the main one is the porch. This house enjoys a commanding view of the Canadian Cascades and takes advantage of it with a wrap-around deck that is something like 1,000 square feet. We have totally ignored any maintenance on this deck since we moved in five years ago. Given that we live in the wettest, moldiest, windiest, nastiest part of the state, the deck needs serious attention. There is also the playroom (new carpet) and the main bathroom (new vinyl flooring). There is the situation under the kitchen sink. Oh my God. Hyperventilating right now.

The porch is underway. So far it has been fully pressure washed and the railings about halfway around stained. That equals approximately 18 man hours and about 10% of the work. It's going to take all summer - a large part of that spent waiting for sunshine. Meanwhile, the chickens shit on the newly washed porch.

d) forgot the "landscaping" situation. Once upon a time there was actual landscaping: now I just have to hire a strong man, equip him with some serious weed-eating technology and ask him to chop everything down to an even four inches. It'll
be green, right?

One of the really nice things about having a teenage daughter is that they sometimes have boyfriends of the exact right age and energy level to do manual labor. P., Riwan's boyfriend, is a really good worker. He works hard, fast, and he doesn't need constant instruction. He has done a lot to make the yard more presentable. I'd say it's more than half done. Yay, P.!

4) figuring out what to do with the animals. I told Homero that I was willing to sell all of the animals except the dogs and the horses. Rosie was a rescue and she can't be re-homed due to behavioral problems. The only way to get rid of her is to send her to the auction, and I won't. And Poppy, of course, is our pride and joy, our delight and the equine apple of our eye. She's not going anywhere.

However, boarding horses is crazy expensive. Going rate around here is approximately $200/month/horse for full care board. That is just not do-able. I've been looking around and I may have struck a deal with a guy - a rich, retired, Redmond fellow - who has five acres and wants to set up a petting zoo in his old age. We talked about my giving him my small herd of (gorgeous) dairy goats and my large flock of chickens in exchange for care of the two ponies for a year.

By the way - if it works out, that is a smokin' deal. At $200/month/horse, a year's board would cost me nearly than $5,000, not even counting farrier service or any vet care they might need. On the other had, a very good price for an in-milk Nubian goat is about $300. A VERY good price. I have four of them, plus their offspring. If I count optimistically, I might be able to convince myself that the whole herd is worth something like $2,000. Therefore, it's totally obvious that the above deal is smokin', right?

My husband, when I told him about it, said "You aren't going to give him ALL the goats, are you?" Seeing as how he hadn't done any research and didn't know the relative prices of goats vs. horse care. I told him, "Yes, I am, plus all thirty laying hens. Look on Craigslist at least before you judge." He clearly thought I was making a terrible deal and he could have done much better.

Precious little progress. I think I have a home for Rosie, pony from hell, but it's going to cost me more than I had hoped. And Poppy has no home as of yet. My sister says I can choose my favorite goat and she will take it for the year, but she's not interested in a herd. I'm thinking of a creative Craigslist ad I m ight put up, along the lines of "so, you think you want to be a small farmer...?"

5) Renting out this house. After some thought, I decided it might be worth the expense to hire a property management company. There's one in town, and I stopped by to ask about their general rates and if this kind of specialty arrangement (one year lease; teenager in residence) is even something they do. I expected that a management company would charge about 15% (Don't know how that figure got in my head) and was delighted to find that they actually charge 8%. Of course, they charge separately for advertising the property, for the background check on applicants, and for any repairs needed. The fellow I spoke to (extremely nice) answered all my questions and inspired confidence. He said "Have the place ready for us to check out by May; we will tell you what we think it will rent for."

May is only four months away. Holy Crap. There's not even enough time to do half of making it presentable. I did say to the man "There are a lot of nice things about this property, but it is an old farmhouse. There's no getting around that."

Maybe I should stop focusing on things like slow drains and slippery porches, Maybe I should focus on the best freaking view on the entire county. Ok - here's my mantra. Practice this, Aimee. When he says "Your Jacuzzi tub doesn't work" you say "have you SEEN Mt. Baker?"
When he says "there's a draft around the front door" you say "They don't call it Grandview for nothing, y'know!

No movement yet. The house should be ready to show in another month, godwilling and the creek don't rise. I did one thing not on the original list - I spoke to the children's principle and explained our situation, let him know I just wasn't sure what their schooling was going to be like for next year and I wanted to make sure that when we came back they'd be able to go into the next grades. He told me to let that be the least of my worries - both my girls are well ahead of the game academically and he was sure whatever I managed to work out would suit fine.

Oh there's still so much to do.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Love/Hate Relationship with Mexico

These three posts were written in July of 2010, while we were in Oaxaca for three weeks over the fourth of July. They go a fair way towards illustrating my complex and ambivalent feelings about Mexico. Of course there is much more history to tell. I'd like to start writing out the entire story of how Homero and I met and pursued our relationship despite the obstacle presented by his undocumented status. That, however, is a story that spanned three years, three countries, and many miles of red tape. I'm saving it for another day.

My love/Hate Relationship with Mexico, Part 1

I blame it all on a natural aptitude for languages. Way back in second grade, my school started a twice-a-week Spanish class, and my seven year old self loved it. I was GOOD at Spanish - I quickly outstripped my classmates and impressed my teacher. Being the obnoxious little show off that I was, I absolutely adored being told I was amazing and basked in praise, so I looked forward to Spanish every day and worked hard to be the best.

Spanish class didn't outlast second grade, but I did have a good memory for words, and I simply never forgot anything I had learned. So when it came time to choose a language to study in seventh grade, naturally I chose Spanish over French or German. I don't remember but most likely I looked forward to an easy A and more praise. Both of which were in fact forthcoming. I worked ahead in my book and memorized vocabulary lists like a brown-nosed demon. Everyone else in the class naturally hated my guts. I didn't care.

At the age of 19, I decided I was going to travel to Mexico, alone. I'm not sure why - I wasn't, at that point in time, particularly interested in Mexican culture or history, I think I just wanted to immerse myself in the language and see how I did. In preparation I took a few intensive courses at the Seattle Academy of Languages (great school - pioneer square) and set off into the unknown. I flew to Cancun (this was 1991, not the same place it is now at ALL) and from there took a bus down the coast to a small town called Tulum. I rented a palapa for $12/night and swam in the ocean until I was exaughsted every day. I learned to snorkel.

Well, one of the first things I learned is that I LOVED to snorkel and swim in the Caribbean. I loved truly authentic Mexican food, I loved Mexican folk art and Mexican music .... and I loved Mexican boys. Oh how I loved Mexican boys. At 19, I was a very hot little number, and I didn't lack a single minute for the company of slim, dark-eyed, quick-moving, laughing Mexican boys.

Just because I eventually went home to rainy Seattle didn't mean I had the slightest intention of giving up the sweet attention of Mexican boys I had so quickly become accustomed to. After a long interval in which I dated Americans, almost got married, and had a kid, I found myself a twenty-five year old single mother, still pretty hot, who was sick of American men. Clearly it was time to go back to my first love, Mexican boys, but how?

The answer I came up with was salsa dancing. The salsa craze had barely begun and when I went out to the clubs I found hordes of Latin men of all nationalities, and many fewer women, mostly American. Although I am a natural born klutz, there was no shortage of young men who were willing to have their toes repeatedly trampled in exchange for the chance to chat up an attractive, blonde, blue-eyed chick who actually spoke pretty good Spanish. After a couple of years I morphed into a decent dancer. Eventually, this is how I met Homero. The rest is history (or at least, a story for another day). Fast forward twelve years and here I am in Oaxaca with two new children, alternately blessing and cursing my luck.

There are so many things I love about Mexico. There are so many things I hate about Mexico.

Things I love about Mexico:

1) The food is terrific and cheap. Today I bought a gigantic bunch of bananas (Mexican bananas blow U.S. grocery store bananas all to hell), three big ripe mangoes, a few onions, some zuchinni and tomatoes all for the equivalent of $1.75. If you like fruit, this place is paradise.
If you are brave enough to eat at the Mercado, you can get a truly amazing meal for something under $3

2) Oh the Mercados! I could get lost in the Mercado (and I have) and not come out for days. The piles of spices, chiles, medicinal herbs, raw meat, flowers, fish, plastic woven bags, beautiful ceramics and gorgeous hand woven textiles! Oh the endless pirated DVDs! Oh the old ladies in colorful aprons selling weird bugs and unheard of vegetables! Oh the smell of copal and rotting garbage! The tiny children selling tortillas and the skinny lame dogs! The mixed up horror and wonder and pity and joy.

3) Baby donkeys. 'Nuff said.

4) I brought a pair of broken glasses with me that the optician at home said were beyond repair. I knew that was crap: in Mexico, NOTHING is beyond repair. The first place I walked into here fixed them for me in five minutes. They charged me a dollar.

5) Homero can get all four of his wisdom teeth removed for under $400. The little girls and I can get all of our cavities filled for less than $100. Rowan can be fitted with braces for about $200. All of these things together in the states would cost us more than a year's income, and I am not lying.

6) I believe I mentioned something about fireworks (Remote Post, 7/4/10 (Mexican Fireworks)?

7) My Mexican relatives. They are a really terrific bunch of people who would gnaw their own arms off and sell them on the black market just to be able to buy a chicken to cook for you when you come to visit. There just isn't anything they wouldn't do for me and my kids. They are fun loving, hardworking, friendly, welcoming folks and I'm very proud they have accepted me as one of their own.

This is by no means an exhaustive list: I haven't yet mentioned ruined cities in the jungle or sudden, warm downpours but those thins, along with "Things I hate about Mexico" is going to have to wait for tomorrow, because it's time for me to go downstairs and eat some more food. Homero's grandmother is making hand-formed sopes with tassajo and salsa de guajillo.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Mexico, Part 2

Well, actually all I have time to do is list off a few more things I love, then we are off to the cheap dentist. But the hate is coming, I promise!

Stuff I love:

- houses painted bright orange, shocking pink, royal blue, emerald green, daffodil yellow.... sometimes all of the above

- warm rain.

- the street carts. Here, street arts are not just for street food (though oh my gosh the street food deserves it's own post - forthcoming) but also for things like drinking water and garbage collection. Each type of merchant has his own special kind of call - either a voice call or more often a bell, a steam whistle (in the case of the cart that sells steamed yams), or a horn. Everyone recognizes all the different calls, so for example, when the garbage bell rings, you jump up - even from the dinner table - and grab the garbage and run as fast as you can to catch up. This is garbage collection in Oaxaca (See: things I hate about Mexico, forthcoming). The carts are actually giant tricycles, and it is quite a sight to see an old man peddling a giant tricycle loaded down with full water containers. It must weigh a ton.

- old people. Old people in Mexico are so strong and so healthy, generally speaking, even though they look about a thousand years old. Homero's grandmother is so old she doesn't even know how old she is, but her younger sister is 81 and Grandma remembers when she was born. She goes out to the market and carries her own groceries home, up and down these incredibly steep hills. Old ladies in the market selling chapulines (grasshoppers) from a straw basket on top of their heads, toothless and wizened and smiling. Old men in straw hats and homespun cotton trousers pulling handcarts loaded to the brim with flowers or pottery. Our guide yesterday at the mineral springs was an old man, and he was running up and down the steep path like a goat. The rest of us were puffing like freight trains.

- kids playing soccer in the streets. On every side street is a group of mixed age kids, playing soccer using bricks or chunks of rock as goalposts. Whenever you have to pass, you lean out the window and shout "move the rock!" and the kids haul off the big rocks and you drive through and then they put them back and keep playing.

okay more later

My Love/Hate Relationship with Mexico, Part 3

Here comes the hate, in a big uncontrollable stream of consciousness flood:

I hate the same things about Mexico that most Americans hate - the squalor, the dirt, the garbage in the streets, the ubiquitous artless graffiti, the lack of toilet paper or bathrooms that resemble in the slightest a bathroom in the states. I hate the fact that there is not, apparently, a single bathtub in the entire country, nor could I take a bath in one if there were, because I'd be sitting in a pathogenic stew of evil latin american organisms, each capable of causing me many many hours of misery shitting myself blind. I hate diarrhea. I hate puking. I hate sick children burning up with fever, and tiny, disgusting doctor's waiting rooms with flies in the air and water on the floor. I hate never ever being physically comfortable, always either too hot or too squished or too wet or too covered in mosquito bites. I hate mosquitos. I hate gnats. I hate big, weird, lumbering rhinoceros beetles. I hate not knowing which bugs are dangerous and which are not - the kids pick up a fuzzy caterpillar and everyone goes apeshit, but I go apeshit because a wasp the size of a kaiser roll is in my hair and everyone says "oh it won't hurt you!" I hate sunburn. I hate driving - I hate the way people drive, as if it were a contest to see how many pedestrians you can make shit their pants. I hate sitting eight to a volkswagen beetle. I hate the roads, rutted, washing away visibly in the rain right in front of your eyes, twisting and turning in hairpin curves over 1,000 foot cliffs with no guardrail or even pavement. I hate hyperventilating on those roads. I hate imagining us all plummeting to our gruesome deaths and my relatives erecting a stupid little cross where I died and once a year putting plastic flowers on it. I hate the way people treat animals here. I hate seeing dogs stuck up on rooftops who have probably never been down in their lives, half-crazy with loneliness and rage, and even worse I hate the hordes, the army, the crowds, the legions of street dogs - starving, limping, mangy, blind. I hate that the knee-jerk Mexican response to these animals is to throw a rock at them. I hate seeing tiny children, no more than four years old, selling flowers barefoot and grubby faced along the highway. I hate seeing a family in the median, holding up a sick baby and a slip of paper to the cars passing by. That slip of paper is a prescription that they don't have money to get filled. I hate seeing twelve year old fire-eaters performing at busy intersections for pesos. I hate seeing old people beg on the streets, elderly indigenous women for the most part, who I can only imagine were once proud mothers living traditional lives in their ancestral pueblos and now, through some circumstance or another are reduced to holding out their wrinkled old hands to tourists. I hate feeling rich and guilty. I hate having to weigh, a dozen times a day, my need to buy my kids a popsicle against some abuelita's need to eat today. Most of all, more than anything else, I hate not knowing what the hell is going on from minute to minute. My relatives act like a flock of sparrows - they all act communally, nobody ever does anything by themselves, or even in a nuclear family group. To go anywhere - the store, say, or out to lunch - might take four hours because it requires getting thirty people to move in unison. First so-and-so has to take a shower, then another person decides they have time to go to the corner pharmacy, and then the next guy decides they may as well take their kids to the shoe store while they wait... WHY in the name of God everyone has to do everything together I don't know. Today we were all going to the same restaurant, but we had to all meet up in the centro first - three different families - and then caravan in three different cars. We all made it to the restaurant a full two hours late. I hate being late, I truly do. It's my biggest pet peeve. I hate not knowing what is going to offend people, and I hate that apparently it is anything I want to do. I hate not having any say whatsoever in what to do or when to do it, and I hate that anytime I express a preference I piss somebody off - my husband, mostly. I hate that we always fight when we come here. I hate that he puts my needs last, after his third cousin's sister-in-law. I hate feeling helpless and needy and weepy. I hate that I don't know my way around and that even if I did can't go anywhere on my own because my relatives would be shocked and offended for reasons I don't understand. I hate that my normal desire for a little privacy and alone time is seen as anti-social. I hate that we haven't been able to make love and won't for the length of the trip, because we are sharing a room with all of our kids. Plus neither of us even feels like it, what with being mad at each other all the time. I hate biting my lip and walking on eggshells. I hate the feeling that I am just being tolerated, that everyone sees me as a soft, whinging, spoiled American who just can't hack life in the real world.

I hate thinking that just might be true.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Welcome, friends and neighbors, to this journal of my family's year in Oaxaca. Most of you probably already know me, either in real life or from my blog, New To Farm Life. In either of those cases, you will already know that I, my husband Homero, and our two little girls Hope and Paloma are leaving our little farm at the end of the summer, and moving to Homero's hometown of Oaxaca for a year.

Preparations are underway, and since preparations are part of the story, I figured it was time to begin writing. As background, and because I am lazy, I am going to post earlier entries from New To Farm Life about Mexico. These will answer the first question that everybody asks ("Why are you doing this?") and give you my personal history as it relates to the large and strange, beautiful and menacing land to the south of us, Mexico, with which my family's future is forever entwined.

The Big Reveal (What We Want)

I've been sitting on a major news item. My husband and I made a decision a few months ago, which we only revealed to our families recently. Making this decision and dealing with the ramifications has been sucking up an awful lot of my brainspace, which helps explain why I haven't been writing very much.

We are moving to Mexico. Not permanently: for about a year. Ever since we had children, we knew we would do this at some point. We want our children to know their family and their heritage more fully than they possibly could if annual two-week vacations are all we can give them. We want them to be truly bilingual, not just fluent in a a second language as I am and as their father is. We also want them to be bicultural.

That's a weird word, bicultural. Just as neither Homero nor I is truly bilingual, neither are we truly bicultural. Being bilingual means more than simply being able to converse fluently. It means understanding slang, and jokes. It means being able to speak to a toddler as well as a grandmother. It means hearing accents, and being able to infer something from them. It means being able to read poetry. Few people can do those things in a language that they learned as an adult.

Similarly, being bicultural means more than just being able to get along in another country without committing a bunch of ignorant mistakes all the time. Understanding gestures - just gestures! - is complicated. After ten years married to a Mexican and many trips to Mexico I still misinterpreted a simple "reverencia" on our last trip. Manners. Manners are tricky even in one's own culture, of course, and are a subject wide ranging and variable enough to spawn several books on the topic in any given year. Learning the right things to say and do in various contexts in another culture is a process that takes decades.

And - here's where it gets complicated - learning the assumptions and the realities on which those manners are based.... ah! Now we're getting somewhere. As with language - a person might be fluent enough to read the Spanish translation of the Mayan book the Popol Vuh, but still totally unable to comprehend it, because one has no grasp of the symbols, the references, and the feelings that suffuse it.

I remember visiting the Mexican Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City for the first time. Surrounded by art and artifacts that were wholly unfamiliar to me, I felt dumbfounded. I realized I could not appreciate this art - not because it wasn't beautiful - but because I was totally illiterate in the language of symbols it used. I realized that in just about every other museum I had ever visited, the art was based on a symbology - and even deeper, a cosmology - that is part of my heritage as a European. Even when looking at Indian art, or Middle Eastern Art, I can find the marks of Greek, Jewish, and Christian thought. Our shared history makes a path that is easily to follow. I recognize the pantheon of Gods, even if I don't know their names in Sanskrit or Aramaic. I know what the moon means, more or less, all across Europe and Asia Minor.

In Mexico, I knew nothing. Where art and cosmology is concerned, I was as an infant. The symbols slid right off my brain. Americans think of Mexico as a neighbor, and have no idea whatsoever how very different it really is. Even five hundred years of European rule have only left a familiar suit of clothes on the great brown body of Indigenous Mexico.

Octavio Paz calls Mexico a "non-Cartesian culture" and that is true, and also a very hard thing for a westerner to accept. We tend to see all non-Cartesian thinking as simply uneducated, rather than as part of a different tradition of knowledge. Mexico is a communal culture rather than an individualistic one, and that is a very hard thing for an American to accept. Americans who have spent time in other communal cultures such as Japan or the Arab countries will know what I mean when I say we see them as smothering and constricting, and they see us as cold and uncaring.

Necessarily, I am taking a bit of a leap of faith here. I am not Mexican, I am not bicultural, and it is too late for me to become so. I have found a great deal to admire in Mexican culture as I know it, and I love the Mexican land and I adore my Mexican relatives. I want my children to have real, deep relationships with their family, and I want them to be real Mexicans as well as real Americans. I want them to develop the typical thick, tangled web of kinship relationships. I want them to grow up with many comadres and compadres. I want them to grow up knowing deep in their bones that their family will do anything for them, anything... and to feel the equally deep obligations to help out to the best of their ability. I want them to laugh at dirty jokes and speak street slang in Spanish. I want them to be have that beautiful sparkle, that lovely Mexican ability to laugh at fate even as you accept its yoke, to bend in the wind and pop up dancing.

On one of my trips to Mexico, years ago, I had a dream. I dreamed that I was on a boat in a river, and that the a gaudy, gorgeous, colorful Mexican countryside was rolling by on the shore. There were people on land calling to me, inviting me to join them, but I couldn't get off the boat. I could only slide by and enjoy the view.

I want my children to be on the shore.