NOTE The following is a chapter from the book I'm writing about my time in Mexico, lessons learned, etc. Honest comments are invited...
I’ve been learning about people’s languages. Israel’s, I’ve decided, is mental telepathy.
Israel never has minutes on his cellphone, or it’s broken or buried in his mochilla. He emails me through Facebook from his son’s laptop to ask me if I’m busy, but he’s never around to get my reply. We make a date to see each other the following day, but then he doesn’t show up. When I finally hear from him, he says, “I try no to bother you when you are workeen.” Then I tell him, “Israel, we agreed that you were coming over this evening. I waited for you.”
The other night we agreed that he would bring the fixings for dinner at my apartment and that he would arrive before sunset so we could walk on the Malecon. But at 7 pm, long past sunset, he called me and said, “Dahleen, are you coming to pick me up?” “Israel,” I said, “I don’t want to drive all the way to Pitillal right now.” “Okay.” He said, “I jump-een the shower and be there right away.” I hung up, and immediately felt a pang of guilt that he would have to pack up our dinner and ride the bus all the way to my apartment. So I tried to call him back. The call went to voicemail. Okay, I thought, I will go pick him up. He dawdles a lot so maybe I can catch him before he leaves his apartment.
I hopped in the van with both dogs, drove down the hill, winding past the street vendors on Via Carranza, over to Insurgentes and the Rio Cuale bridge, rattling over the cobblestones to Calle Juarez, which wound around and dumped me out on Francisco Villa Blvd. Two miles down, I missed the turn-off to the lateral road and had to drive all the way to Wal-Mart to make a right, and then got stuck behind a creeping Camaro that came to a full stop every time it approached a tope. I finally got to the turn for Fluvial and backtracked to the apartment complex where Israel lives. I pulled into the parking lot and looked up at his window. The lights were off. He’d already left. Shit. I could feel the dogs staring at me in the dark. Are we there yet? Their eyes were pleading: I have to pee. “In a minute,” I said. “We’re almost there.” I tore out of the parking lot and barreled out to the main road, making my way back to Francisco Villa, and finally onto Paseo Diaz Ordaz, the street that fronts the busy Malecon. I was halfway down when my cell phone rang.
“Hola, Roberta, this is Israel. Where are you, dahleen?”
“I’m driving on the Malecon. Where are you?”
“I’m at Senor Frog’s.”
“I tried to pick you up in Pitillal.”
“Dahleen, I look for you. Tell me where you are on the Malecon.”
“I’m approaching the black and white light house.”
“I am in the park. I will find you.”
I pulled up just past the park behind a tour bus, stopping in the middle of the road as cars honked behind us. Israel showed up out of nowhere and slid in with his backpack and a bag crammed with Tupperware full of hot soup. I was getting stressed. Actually I had been stressed for an hour already.
“Dahleen,” he said, “I make you a good deener.” I immediately went into lecture mode. “I thought you were going to be at my apartment so we could watch the sunset. What happened?” I could hear the nagging, girlfriend-from-hell tone in my voice, but couldn’t seem to moderate it. He launched into a saga about trying to collect from all the people who owed him money. I knew this would be a conversational black hole. “I drove all the way over to Pitillal to pick you up.” “Oh, nooo…” he said, the words trailing off. It would do no good to belabor it. The dogs restlessly pacing over his lap crushing his genitals pretty much drove home the point.
Learning people’s languages, as most of us should know by now, is not nearly as much about nouns and verbs and tenses, as it is about grasping people’s values, and the emotions, intentions and history that drive their behavior.
Some Mexican customs make perfect sense to me, such as letting dogs have entrée to restaurants and being able to park a car on either side of the street facing in any direction. We have so many anal-retentive regulations in the US, we’ve taken all the wildwooliness out of our heritage. Mexicans have the right idea: if you fall into that gaping hole in the sidewalk, it’s your own damn fault for not paying attention. If you get impaled on rebar after falling off a hotel balcony with no railing, sorry amigo, it was just your time to go. We’ll be sure to have a picnic on your grave come Dia de Los Muertos and leave some quesadillas and a liter of Coke on the sarcophagus for you.
I try so hard not to be an ugly American. I walk around hyper-vigilant that I don’t come across as imperious, condescending or callous to Mexican sensibilities – in particular working class people, who by virtue of living in a tourist town, are mostly relegated to serving Americans. Even worse, Americans in leisure mode. What must it be like having to schmooz with, wait on, fawn over and clean up after a bunch of spoiled foreigners, day after day, for probably half of what the average American teen earns at McDonald’s. And in your own country, no less.
I am as ingratiating as anyone who has yet to master more than the most rudimentary aspects of Spanish grammar. I don’t flash designer labels or expensive jewelry. I avoid shi-shi restaurants and any place in Puerto Vallarta with snob appeal. My biggest luxuries are 20 peso mocha frappes from OXXO and the forty liters of gas I put in my old Windstar van every two weeks. I try to blend in as much as is possible for a woman with fair skin and blonde hair, realizing that even though I’m only a couple of freelance jobs away from homelessness, I still have more options than the average Mexican. At least I can leave.
Lately, however, I’ve found myself bumping up against some Mexican customs that quite frankly, chap my hide, and test the limits of my ability to remain cheerfully detached. I find the indifference to the suffering of animals to be . . . okay, I’ll say it: unevolved. I also deem Mexican machismo to be an asinine remnant of a mindset that should have been bred out of the Mexican DNA by the turn of the millennium. Someone told me recently that the reason people don’t neuter their dogs in Mexico is that Mexican men don’t want to rob their mutts, however malnourished and tick-ridden, of their “manhood.” To that, all I can say in my phonetically practiced Español is: sheesh.
And then there was Christmas eve. Something happened that night that revealed aspects of a malevolent, intolerant, yankee bruja I didn’t know lived inside me. What happened is now common knowledge on Pilitas, where the event has probably now been circulated, hashed, rehashed and embellished by the neighbors . . . Did you hear what that crazy gringa did? She ruined our Navidad…
I’d been fighting the flu. Israel was sick, too. We made our way home after dinner on Christmas eve, both exhausted and ready to be rendered comatose by heavy-duty nighttime cold medicine. The Christmas posadas were in full swing. It was about 10 pm.
Like lovers in a suicide pact, we downed our Theraflu and collapsed into bed. But by some cruel twist of cosmic timing, just as our heads hit the pillow, the people in the house next door cranked up the stereo, which just happened to be perched on the balcony directly beneath the open concrete blocks above our heads. It was banda music -- Mexican country music that features tremulous tenors, accordions, trumpets and tubas with every song in the same repetitive “oompah” time signature. IMHO, it’s a hundred times worse than Bill Murray waking up to “I Got You Babe,” over and over in “Groundhog Day.”
We tried earplugs. I tried stereo headphones placed over the earplugs. I tried folded mini-pads over the earplugs, under the headphones. Nothing worked. 11 pm. 12 am. At 1 am, I put on my robe and went out on the balcony to observe. Someone saw me there and cranked the music up louder. I went back into the bedroom and paced around like a cornered animal. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. It felt like aural rape.
My carefully cultivated UN Goodwill Ambassador façade cracked and crumbled. This was war. I went into the kitchen and started flipping through my CD Collection. I pulled Joe Cocker’s Greatest Hits from the sleeve, got my Cambridge Soundworks CD player and went back to the bedroom. I stuck the CD in, cranked the radio up as loud as it would go and stood on the bed with the radio over my head like John Cusack in “Say Anything.” But I was really in full “Scarface” mode, wielding my badass stereo like a submachine gun, classic rock spraying the neighborhood like bullets. “The Letter” blasted out of the stereo speakers, filling the room and obliterating the sound of the banda music. Israel was laughing and punching the air with his fist. The dogs cowered under the bed. I decided to sing along. Bah…bah…bah..baba…babah. BAH...BAH…BAH…BABA-BABAH. I stood there with my knees buckling and my mouth dry as one song after another erupted from the radio…”Cry Me a River….” “Delta Lady”… “A Little Help from My Friends.” Yep, I smirked. My speakers are definitely bigger than yours. Take THAT you macho Mexican Neanderthals!
But, after 30 minutes, I was spent. I lowered the radio and the banda music continued. I may have won the battle, but they had won the war.
At 3 a.m., the four drunks on the balcony started singing along with the music. Sometime after 4 a.m., silence finally descended. One by one, they all passed out. By that time, I was past caring. It was the Alamo on Pilitas Street. And I was just another dead Texan.
When I mentioned the incident in an email to my landlord who had gone to the States for the holiday, she vociferously defended the behavior of my neighbors, suggesting that their carrying on was just another quaint Mexican custom, a part of the local color of Christmas in Mexico. Shame on ME, insensitive, spoiled, politically incorrect gringa. Instead of fighting them, we should have joined them – in a sort of secular, narco-oompah-country music version of that famous story about American and German soldiers on Christmas Eve in WWI laying down their weapons to sing “Silent Night” together. I countered that joining in with four drunk jerks singing banda at the top of their lungs was not my idea of détente. Or even Christmas for that matter.
What I realized from the episode is that learning people’s languages is much harder than I once thought. So much gets in the way. Class. Ethnicity. Your conviction about an absolutely non-negotiable tradition vs. my uncompromisable need for adequate shut-eye. Even our notions of time come into play – is an hour really an hour? Or is it something more elastic? Maybe even a political statement? It’s a wonder people can communicate at all across the deep gorge of their differences.
This morning I let the dogs out for their morning constitution. We headed for the dusty, rocky lot at the end of the street that’s being cleared for another condo. My two favorite neighborhood kids were waiting there, Monty and little Consuelo, with her big brown eyes and sweet Cabbage Patch face. I don’t speak much Spanish and they don’t speak English. But they know my dogs’ names. Consuelo patted Rocky’s head and Monty swiped his hand over the funny “lion” tassel at the end of Bo’s tail. We hiked up the rock pile to the plateau overlooking a little arroyo. Monty smiled at me, picked up a rock and pitched it at a tree. “Good arm!” I said, making a pitching motion with my hand. “You should be a baseball player!” He grinned. I picked up a small rock and pitched it into the polluted stream below. Soon all three of us were having a grand time picking up rocks and tossing them into the water. I didn’t stress myself out trying to turn the moment into a Spanish lesson. Somehow words weren’t all that important. Mainly, we just smiled at each other and laughed a lot. Eventually, Monty took Consuelo’s hand and the three of us, plus the two dogs, picked our way back over the rocks and down to the street. “See you later, alligator,” I said to Monty as the two disappeared into their house. Well, I thought. Two down and an entire neighborhood to go…
Tomorrow’s another day in Paradise. And New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. Guess I oughta’ brush up on my banda.