Friday, November 26, 2010

Noticeable Exchanges Around Town

Each day there are small exchanges, observations, and interactions that remind me of the vast differences between our life in Baltimore and our life here that are sometimes overlooked.

The doorbell rang.  Mason was very excited, thinking it was his friend, Manuel, coming to play.  He ran to open it, then returned.  "It was a just guy selling wood. On a donkey."

I went to the local gourmet shop, La Cava, to order our Thanksgiving turkey.  The owner asked if I could come back the next day, because the birds were coming on a truck from Chihuahua and he didn't know what sizes he would be getting.  The next day I forgot to go.  Later though, when I arrived back home, Luzma, our maid told me a girl had been by from La Cava, and they had a turkey waiting for me.

There is tapiceria (upholstery shop) out my back door that makes cushions and pillows and reupholsters furniture (beautifully).  I dropped by to ask the owner, Jose Luis, if he could come to the house of a friend to measure some windows for curtains.  Sure, he said, happily.  "Get on the back of my bike."  And the two of us roared off, that instant, through centro, to Hidalgo where Jose Luis spent a while measuring for window treatments and bench covers.  A friend of Bo's from school was walking down the street with his dad.  They spotted me on the back of a motorcycle with a strange man; they stared for a little bit, wondering with whom Mrs. Hillers was cavorting.

I went to a taco stand for breakfast that I had never been to before.  Two tacos (puerco con papas y huevitos con frijoles) were 14 pesos. I tried to pay with a 100-peso note but they had no change.  (No one in Mexico ever has change.  Where does it all go?)   The lady waved me off, and just told me to come back tomorrow and pay.  Which I did.

Twice this fall a note has come home in the kids' backpacks explaining that school is cancelled for the next day.  The school apologizes for the late notice but the government has declared a day off because of "all the festivities" associated with the bicentennial (the first time) and Day of the Dead (the second time).  A second notice is taped to the side of the bus in case you didn't get the word.

New Masonisms

"If someoone shouts in your dream, do you wake up?" -- November 2010

Mason at Moo Duk Kwan, Redding's karate studio:  Redding takes karate classes at a studio five doors down from our back door. At 5:00pm he walks out for his 5:30pm class so that he can get there early and watch the older group before him.  At 6:30pm he walks back to the house down 20 de enero, lets himself in the back door, and sometimes I don't even realize he's gone.  This is my kind of extracurricular.

Mason I went last Wednesday to see him practice.  The instructor, a tall, lean, elegant Mexican, was calling out all kinds of commands, in Spanish.  Uno, dos, grito.  Cambie de mano y cruza. Dos golpeas y patata de frente, un pie arriba, and a whole bunch of other rapid-fire stuff that I couldn't understand.  I asked Mason, "Do you understand all this?"  "Yes."  "Really?"  And then rather disdainfully he said, "He's not speaking Chinese." -- November 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Slumber of the Haves

San Miguel is shaped like a pasta bowl with its low wide valley and hills sloping up around the sides.  I'm down in the base; from my terrace on the second floor I can see 180 degrees around me: centro, with its church spires and the grand dome of the old convent, is to the north, in front of me.  To the left is my immediate neighbor: Colonia San Antonio, a mix of Mexican families and American artists.  Beyond that, on the western edge of the bowl are the less developed colonias of Independencia, San Rafael, and Guadalupe and farther out the unnamed fraccionamientos of colorless, one-story, unfinished cinderblock homes, rebar poles still rising from the roof.  (As long as a building is under construction, no tax is due.  Thus, a huge concentration of half-built houses.) 

At dawn, and earlier, the hillside to the west is lit up across its wide swath. Every household is awake, with lights blazing, and I'm sure, televisions on, fires lit, tortillas on the comal, beans in a battered pan on a makeshift stove.  In these neighborhoods are all the domestics who work in the houses in San Miguel for the ex-pats and wealthy Mexicans, and in the restaurants, businesses, shops and banks.  And their day starts early, when the bus can take an hour to make its away through all the barrios, picking up the women to bring them to town.

On the east side all is quiet. Up on the high hill are the neighbhorhoods of Balcones, Atascadero and Ojo de Agua, with their million-dollar views at night over the valley, and the sunsets that fall down over San Miguel every night with an awed hush.  Here on the eastern slope are houses with five bedrooms and seven baths, infinity-edge pools, and walls of glass that separate the gorgeous colonial living rooms with boveda ceilings from the long terraces with their beautiful iron patio furniture.

In the morning, all is dark on the eastern slope, the slumber of the haves still undisturbed and ongoing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who's Getting Married Tonight?

On a gorgeous, warm November afternoon I stepped out of the door of a hardware store and into the middle of a 10-piece mariachi band, the guys with the crisp white suits and brass horns, who differ from the fellows in black who line the four squares of the jardin at night.  With their cream velvet sombreros safely fastened to their heads, they led a group of well-dressed (though not well-heeled) guests. Each of the male wedding guests wore a sober black suit, a true rarity in San Miguel, and the women were dressed in long, backless gowns and the most ridiculous shoes you can imagine.  Each had a pair of four-inch stilettos, some in that wide-toed, boxy shape with the thick heel that seems to be popular now.  One poor teen had to walk up on the sidewalk hanging onto her father's shoulder below, unable to handle the street.  Her shoes looked like Mother Hubbard's, laced up and black, on a spike that must have been six inches.  

But aside from the shoes, more interesting were the three trucks of federales, each carrying about five well-armed officers following the procession as it headed south down Aldama towards the park.  I was in the middle of the group, noticeable because I was in jeans, flip flops and a sleeveless white t-shirt.  Not wanting to cut in front and go around the mariachis, I carried on with the wedding party, and had time to look around at the crowd.  Next to me was a beefy dude with sunglasses and the curly plastic ear piece you see on bodyguards or secret servicemen.  What made him a little different was the black canvas bag he was carrying, shaped like a violin case, but clearly holding something else.  Next to him was another guy with the same bag.  And ahead of them two more on both sides of the sidewalk.

We walked together until I got to Ancho San Antonio, where they turned left, uphill, presumably headed to the Instituto Allende for the reception.  At the corner where we parted ways were six more trucks of Mexican police, with no less than two dozens cops, and a few guys posted among the jacaranda trees, guns, walkie talkies, and sunglasses at the ready.  Who was getting married tonight?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jenny on the Block

Jenny joyriding on her quadrimoto.
San Miguel has a lot of strong women.  Sam would tell you that I surround myself with them. It's not intentional. I guess it's just like gravitating toward like.  My friend, Jenny Hensley, who arrived in August with her husband, Pablo, and three sons, is just one of them.  Tonight, after bringing Bo home on her quadrimoto, and getting ready to head back with her son, Will, in tow in the dark, I asked her about driving these things at night.  Last Saturday night she was going to meet Janan for a drum concert in Centro (Janan, another one of these women: a former drummer herself and the financial brains and chief axe at her two Chicago restaurants, Webster's Bar and Grill and The Bluebird).

Janan and her new boyfriend, Benjamin Lara.
Ladies Night at Benjamin's.
Halfway to Tio Lucas Jenny was stopped by a San Miguel police officer with a loud whistle and a gesture to pull over to the sidewalk. Right now my heart would have halfway exploded.  I am terrified of the police; I don't know why.   I assume, always, that I have done something wrong.  In broken English he told her she was driving without lights and without her helmet.  (San Miguel instituted a helmet law about six months ago, much to the bewilderment of locals, who aren't used to any regulation of their driving styles.  It is not uncommon to see a small child on the driver's lap; up to 15 people in the back of a pickup truck; or a family of five on one motorcycle, including an infant on the mother's hip.)

On a completely different note, at this very moment I'm typing next to Bo, who as a special treat gets to sleep in my bed because Sam is out and I don't want him waking me up when he gets home.  And Bo wants to test out "the canoe" which is what Sam calls the huge divet on his side of the bed.  (Reddy already had his turn, when he announced, "It's Canoe Night for the Redster.")  So Bo just said, "Darn it, darn it, darn it.  I've got a boner."  "Why darn it?" I casually ask.  "Because it feels so weird."   To which I reply, even more casually, "You'll like it when you're older."  "Really?"  "Yeah."  "OK," he says, and goes to sleep. 

So after Jenny explains, in broken Spanish, that she didn't know there was a helmet law and that her model of quadrimoto (a little 4WD ATV contraption popular here because it's easier to park) doesn't even have lights, he tells her to pull it around the corner, off the main street.  She asks him what she can do because she doesn't want a ticket or to have to go to the police station.  "Put 100 pesos into a piece of paper for me," he tells her.  So she looks into her wallet but only has 70, which she offers to him and which he declines.  "Go the bank," he tells her, but leave your moto here.  So she walks up the street to the OXO, kind of alike a 7-11, with the same really bad hot dogs, and gets money out of the bank. But it comes out all in 500-peso notes, so she stands in a line of about 15 people and buys a bag of M&Ms to get some change.  Then she walks back to her moto to give the cop his bribe. She wasn't even nervous (until she saw that one of his buddies had arrived).  Was she supposed to give him the money in front of the other cop, because obviously they're all in on the game, or was it still supposed to be some clandestine transfer?  He walked away from his friend, and with his back to him, quickly took her paper, and without opening it, shoved it into his pocket.  Then he told her to walk to the bar and pick up her moto in the morning.  Which she did.  And she wasn't even scared.

(Sam and I had our one-and-so-far-only brush with the local cops when we parked illegally outside of a friend's house to unload some goods.  We weren't in long, but when we came out the cop had already removed our license plates with his handy wrench.   This was a Saturday of a holiday weekend; he told us they could impound our car and we could go to the municipal office to get our plates and pay a fine the following Tuesday.  So I asked him if we could pay him to put the plates back on.  He pretended to consider it, then  looked up and down the block, took his wrench back out, and put the plates on the car.  He too told us something about a piece of paper (guess it's just the thing here, this paper deal--does it make it less illegal if you wrap the mordida up in something else?).  So I gave 300 pesos to Sam, who told me this was no time to be cheap, and he added another 200 (or $40).  It's probably equivalent to a week's wage, which is why the cops are all on the take in the first place.