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A friend circulated this video to remind us what risks the drivers of colectivos, town-to-town taxis in Oaxaca, take whenever they get behind the wheel. When we want to go to San Martín Tilcajete for the munchkin to learn woodcarving, or to Teotitlán del Valle to see the weaving, we usually get there in a Nissan Tsuru. This is what a 35-mph head-on collision does to the people in a Tsuru.
When we return home later this week, I’ll be glad to be back in the land of airbags and strong steel frames, but like my friend, I worry more about the drivers than us. They’re the ones who spend half their waking hours in one of these cars.
But why is it made with so many safety shortcuts? We could blame Nissan, but it’s no different than most automobile companies in making cars to the standards set by the country, and no higher. Airbags were required by legislators, who passed that regulation over the decades-long protests of the manufacturers’ lobby; anti-lock brakes ditto; you can’t drive in the U.S. without working windshield wipers, the frames can’t crumple like they do in that video, and you can’t disable the seatbelts.
The only reason we have these safety features is that our government requires them. With an incoming administration dedicated to “easing regulations,” I wonder how long it will take for the cars sold in the United States to match those sold in Mexico.
A funny thing about being in Mexico: although I’m not taking a class or working with a tutor at this time, just being here is giving a boost to a longtime project, that of reading Isabel Allende’s novel El Cuaderno de Maya in the original Spanish. I started reading it in 2013, I think, and I often joke that Allende has published three books in the time it’s taking me to work my way through this one. It’s the truth.
We own the English translation (Maya’s Notebook), and I could read it in a couple of days, but I worry that that would sap my motivation, and so I plod along in Spanish. Usually I read a couple pages at a time, once or twice a week, just enough to keep ahead of my weekly meeting with my Spanish teacher. Our hour is mostly spent in my reading a paragraph aloud in Spanish, then translating it into English, then our discussing any questions or mistranslations, and going off on various tangents of language, culture, or literature. Then we repeat. It is an excellent way to learn the language. Guillermo brought in a couple different novels; one by Junot Diaz was just confusing, but when I’d read the first couple of paragraphs of Maya (which you can read here, or in English here), I was so captivated by the character’s voice that I didn’t want to stop. So we knew that that was the one.
Last summer, I set myself the goal of finishing the novel by the end of 2015, but could not keep up the necessary pace of 2-3 pages per day. But here in Mexico, I am motoring through at a pace of 10-12 pages at a sitting and have read about 80 pages in the past couple of weeks. It’s just so much easier now. I love her writing, and I can’t wait to find out what happens. And I have time. And Allende’s language is all around me.
Homesickness for Mexico comes in waves, and for the past few weeks the tide has been high. As a remedy, I tried to list the things I don’t miss. The list is pretty short.
Making do with a makeshift kitchen. We bought some kitchen goods when we got there, and even brought a couple of items along that we didn’t think we’d be able to find (we may be the only people ever to carry a mushroom brush across an international border for purposes other than import), but it was still a pretty bare-necessity kitchen, which gets old when you love to cook and you’re there for six months.
Small gas tank / water tank. Neither gas nor hot water flowed in great quantities, so that it was hard to get the oven up to baking temperatures, and our gorgeous big bathtub filled to only 4 inches of depth before the hot water ran out.
Lack of good Chinese food. We made our own, but once in a while you just want a real Chinese dumpling made by an real Chinese person. There was good Chinese in Mexico City, but not in San Miguel. We went to dim sum several times in the week before we left for Mexico, and again in the week after our return.
The heat. Even in San Miguel, which is at about 6000′ and has weather not dissimilar to San Francisco’s, it can get pretty hot. May and June would have been more comfortable for me if I’d adjusted to the idea that I should just hunker down and stay inside for a few hours each midday.
Limited reading material. I didn’t come close to running through the English language collection at San Miguel’s impressive biblioteca, but still, I sometimes missed having easy access to books that, in the U.S., would have been no farther away than the main library.
Having a child under stress. There’s no question that living in Mexico was great for the munchkin, and she adjusted admirably to being uprooted from the places, people, and cats she knew for what must have seemed to her 3-year-old’s perceptions to be close to forever. Nevertheless, she showed signs of the strain. After all, as much as she liked school, she had no friends there or anywhere who spoke her language. Looking back, we realize that the high incidence of tantrums during those six months was probably not due purely to her developmental stage.
Being far from friends and family. We got a fair number of visitors from home, but there’s no substitute for seeing your mom every couple of months and your closest friends every week.
I can’t help noticing that most of these are not only trivial, but could be mitigated quite easily. Not to mention that they don’t outweigh the many things I do miss (see any entry from July 2010). I guess I’ll just have to wait for this particular wave of Mexico-missing to recede.
Here’s a good lead-in to my presentation at church tonight, “Journey to Mexico.” In my final few weeks in San Miguel I posted a series, “Twenty things I’ll miss about San Miguel,” except things got very busy the last few days there and I never did post #19 and #20. So here we go.
I grew up in a pretty typical suburban US town, and our house used outdoor space in a way typical of the single-family, stand-alone houses of such towns. You had a front yard, which you didn’t use much except to build snowmen on and to keep a little distance between your living-room windows and the street, and a back yard, which was a very nice little haven of outdoor private space. But the outdoors stayed out and indoors was for indoors. I was unduly amazed when my parents put a skylight in to our “back room” (a.k.a. “the den”) and you could see the sky right through the ceiling. I’ve always loved skylights.
Mexico’s architecture comes from Spain (especially in colonial towns like San Miguel) and Spain got it from the Arabs, and the Arabs know a thing or two about incorporating outdoor space into indoor spaces. So it is extremely common in San Miguel to have an inner courtyard, many skylights, and a roof that’s essentially another plant-filled courtyard. It’s such a humane and wise way to design one’s living space.
The photo above is of our patio, blessed by our neighbor Adriana (tenant of one of the three side-by-side apartments in our house) who’s a great gardener. She squeezes plants in everywhere until it’s like walking through a benevolent jungle.
From our second floor, in one of the glorious storms that June afternoons brought, it looks like this:
You’ll just be strolling up a street and peek through a house’s open gate and be treated to this:
And this is where we got our mail. In addition to the lovely flora, it has an abundance of fauna, lovely and less so: a cat, a dog, a bird in a cage, a fish in a bowl, three turtles in the fountain, and several rattlesnakes in glass cages, including babies. Somehow I can get my mind around someone’s having a pet rattlesnake, but not their breeding them. Rattlers aside, I love that a simple no-frills business like a mail delivery service considers it totally appropriate to have a gorgeous garden.
It’s such a gift to the spirit to be surrounded by nature’s beauty even when you’re indoors.
(#19 of 20 things I miss about San Miguel)
Hot water wells up from the earth in several locations close to San Miguel. Unlike some other hot springs, their water is perfectly clear and unladen with a lot of minerals, stinky or otherwise. We’ve been to two of the springs.
One is a real water park, very much for kids, so it’s the first one we went to, but the munchkin isn’t into going down water slides and so on, yet, so after her initial excitement about all the bells and whistles (giant mushrooms with water pouring off them, for example–the place is kind of like Disney on a budget), all she really wanted to do was hang out in the kiddie pool. It was barely warm enough for me to be happy spending hours submerged, so I had no real desire to return.
The second place we went to, La Gruta (the cave), by contrast, is more like a spa, with a pretty good restaurant, roving waiters who will bring you drinks poolside, little tables dotting the lawns, massages for an extra fee, and lush greenery. When I hear the term “spa” or “hot springs,” I think of dark little pools somewhere, and of course people covering themselves with mud. But La Gruta’s are just small swimming pools in familiar blue, meant for fun as well as relaxation. The munchkin adores the place and so do I, and even though we’re in the rainy season and it storms almost every afternoon (the last time we visited, we had to hop out of the pool because it started to rain), I was determined to bring her back there one more time. Today was the day.
Carless, we have to take a taxi there, and because it’s remote, we have to arrange with the taxista to come get us again at a set time. I guessed that three hours would be about right, and it was a good guess; the munchkin was just starting to get that glazed look and that grumpy attitude when the time came for us to get changed and meet the taxi. We bought a floatie ring on one visit, which allows her to “swim” with an adult’s guiding hand, and today a family visiting from Mexico City let her ride on the back of their inflatable dinosaur.
La Gruta has five pools, which vary in temperature from “a little cooler than I like my bath” to “too hot for me to stay in for more than a few minutes.” The hottest is in a cave that gives the spa its name, which you reach by wading or swimming (the water is about 3 1/2 feet deep) through a tunnel long enough to be good and dark. The first time we went, the munchkin was a little nervous of the tunnel, but she still wanted to go back to the cave, and does on each visit.
I don’t usually enjoy swimming much because I’m a complete wimp about the initial cold, and even though most water does feel warmer after a few minutes if you just take the plunge, I can’t stay too long in water that’s significantly below body temperature. Also, breathing the chlorine makes my lungs ache after an hour or two. In blessed contrast, a day at La Gruta, with its warm, chlorine-free waters, is like a day spent in the bath, except that my bathtub at home isn’t surrounded by tropical plants and stone walls, nor is it under a blue sky, and if I want to sip a limeade I’m expected to get out and make it myself.
At 100 pesos each way for the taxi, 90 pesos per adult for admission, and inevitably some money spent there on lunch–a total today of about $30 US–it’s a pricey day out by our Mexico standards, and in fact by our family outing standards, period. But worth every penny.
There are hot springs near the Bay Area, but I’m not really interested in going to Calistoga unless it has pools to play in, lots of kids, and fresh-squeezed limonada.
(#18 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)
San Miguel has been a magnet for artists for decades due to the presence of two art schools, Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende, but even if the schools weren’t here, painters and other artists would probably be drawn by the quality of light.
Evening light (top photo) and morning light (bottom photo) both take my breath away.
(#17 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)
I already wrote about how I’m going to miss the walls here, but I am specifically going to miss this one on Orizaba. It is the outer wall of a property that, when we peek through the gaps in the gates, seems to be just as quirky as the wall would lead you to expect, with partly-finished buildings, one of which appears to be a chapel. The whole kit and kaboodle is for sale. You get the feeling that if you called the US number that’s painted on the “for sale” sign, you might reach Simon Rodia.
I’ve gone by this wall many times, and, like any interesting sculpture, it always shows me something I didn’t see before.
(#16 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)
When Reynaldo came to see what was wrong with the DVD player we were leasing from him, he spent well over an hour here. He chatted, he said “buenas tardes, princesa” to the munchkin, he cleaned the DVD player and several disks; he wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. It was the same when he came to install it. It was as much a social visit as anything else. He asked us all about ourselves and how we were liking San Miguel. He showed us his pet lizard, whose leash goes around Reynaldo’s neck. He took his time.
A key ingredient of people’s friendliness here–and they are hands-down the friendliest people I’ve encountered in the dozen countries where I’ve traveled–is this expansive sense of time. Even in a simple exchange like at a store counter, there is seldom that feeling that the person is in a rush to get on to the next customer; there’s always time for a few friendly words, and often for a long chat.
This can be an exasperating trait when you’re on a schedule and still waiting for someone who is probably across town having a leisurely chat with another customer. But most of the time, for us, it’s been a reminder that there’s really no place more important we need to go, and nothing more important to do than talk to the person we’re with.
(#15 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)
El Charco del Ingenio is a botanical garden on the outskirts of San Miguel, out along the reservoir. This being the desert, it’s a desert garden. Mexico, one of its plaques informs us, has more cactus species than any other country (cactus are found almost exclusively in the Americas), and this garden tries to represent them as richly as possible. It also includes a conservatory with a tiny stream running through it to showcase some of the riparian life, plant and animal, that also exists on this harsh but exuberant terrain.
One section of the garden is devoted to agaves, a plant I have fallen in love with here, and who knew there were that many agaves in the world (many more, actually–it’s only a sampling)? What I love about them is the marks that each layer leaves on the layer within. Long after the layers have separated, the shadow of each blade’s teeth is left behind, precise as a photogram. I don’t seem to have taken a photo of any agave yet, and I’m too tired to photograph the drawing I did of one and upload the photo and all that, so thanks be to Wikimedia:
One small disappointment of our time in San Miguel has been the lack of lizards. I even told the munchkin there would be lots of lizards, and I’m glad she hasn’t put her hands to her hips and demanded to know what I was talking about. I don’t know, I just thought, desert climate, Mexico, there’ll be lizards everywhere. No doubt I was influenced by our trip to Joshua Tree last year (lizards galore!) and by my only previous visit to Mexico, which was to the Yucatan (very different terrain and climate), where we saw plenty of lizards and even, at Tulum, huge iguanas. Well, I’ve seen hardly hide nor tail of a lizard in these six months, but on my last trip to El Charco I saw two. I leave satisfied.
photos by AZM
(#14 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)