Spanish lessons make me feel stupid. I don't like feeling stupid. (7/30/96)
...if I wanted to be miserable, I could have stayed home and worked.
June 10 - July 26, 1996
An American died and arrived at Hell, and Satan said, "Which hell do you want to go to?"
The American said, "Well, what's available?"
Satan said, "Oh, there's many! We have German, English, French, American, Mexican, etc."
The American said, "What's the difference?"
Satan said, "Well, they're really all the same. In all of them, they apply the same tortures: youíre fried in oil three times a day, youíre placed in a boiling cauldron for two hours, and youíre poked with a fork the rest of the time. But I recommend that you choose the Mexican Hell."
"Why is that? Didn't you say they all have the same tortures?"
Satan said, "I did say that, but in the Mexican Hell, when the demons aren't on strike, they arrive late, or they forget to buy the oil, or they steal the forks, or the cauldron is broken."
One of my Spanish teachers gave us this joke to read in class, written in Spanish on a piece of paper. As I read it uncomprehendingly, I laughed heartily so as to make people think I understood at its deepest level. After finishing it, the teacher said, "Tell me what you think about the stereotypes that are discussed in the joke." Uh, oh. Backpedal. Somehow in my faulty Spanish I had to either discuss the dangers of stereotypes, how I donít believe in them, and then somehow explain why I laughed so hard at the joke, or I could just act like I didnít understand the question. As I recall, my expression became one like a toddler gets when he's doing his business in his diapers, and the teacher, fearing I'd burst a blood vessel, picked on someone else.
I think it's a physical impossibility to speak Spanish anyway. I don't mean just for me, I mean for anyone. When I go through a Spanish textbook and see the complexity of it all, I get the same feeling as when I look at my 952 page Volkswagen repair manual: so many things have to happen correctly and at the same time, with such precision, that it's impossible for my car to run. But when I compare my heartfelt theory to the apparent reality of my car running and people speaking Spanish, I get a headache and I'm forced to retreat to the relative comfort of a computer magazine. Ah, something I can understand.
Anyway, Spanish classes seem like they happened a long time ago. I'm starting this today in a little town about two hours south of Oaxaca, at 8,000 feet elevation, sitting in front of a fire in our $17 a night bungalow. Iím wearing my long-sleeved woolly shirt and jeans, and it's COLD! Who'd a thought? Tomorrow we're driving only 60 miles to the coast, where itís pushing 100 degrees, really humid, and sweltering. I expect the contrast to be something of a shock to our systems, because we haven't been in any heat or humidity to speak of since Puerto Vallarta, which was over two months ago. Since then weíve mostly been around 5,000 feet or so, and the weather has been beautiful. Itís the rainy season, but itís mountain weather, so it's usually clear in the morning, the clouds start gathering in the afternoon, and there's usually an afternoon rain shower, frequently accompanied by dramatic thunderstorms.
When we left Guanajuato, we headed due south for the little town of Patzcuaro. It was the first truly green area we'd come across in Mexico, and it was startlingly green. It was also the first place where we had a fireplace in our room, and we used it. The mountains and valleys and their verdantiousness (five points if you even know what I'm trying to say) were the real highlights of the area. We drove around the nearby Lake Patzcuaro and visited some impressive pyramids in the shape of old-fashioned keyholes.
We drove early one morning to the foot of the Paricutin volcano, which was only created in 1943. A farmer had been out plowing his field when he saw some steam coming up in his cornfield, and over the next four months it had overrun two towns of 6,000 people. They'd had time to basically remove everything in the town except for the 500 year-old massive stone church. (Almost every church here is 500 years old, massive and stone.) The lava came inside the church, knocking down the roof and side walls, but leaving the towers in front and the rear wall. We hiked to the top of the volcano, where there's lots of steam oozing out of the ground, and coming down was fun, running in the warm and humid scree, maybe 600 or 800 feet down. Lots of rocks in my underwear after that, but it was great. On the way back we walked up to the church, buried and with the towers sticking out of the lava, and it's a strange sight. I don't know if it has made it into the news at home, but the big volcano Popocatapetl near Mexico City has recently started throwing steam, ashes and even some boulders, so there is some fear of it erupting again.
After Patzcuaro, we headed east to Mexico City, population 22 million or something crazy like that. We sort of had mixed feelings about what to expect, but fortunately we had friends to stay with. Martirene, whom I'd known for three years or so when she lived in the Bay Area, is from Mexico City, and after we begged she invited us to stay with her and her mom, Irma, and her stepfather, Eduardo. In typical fashion, we underestimated how long it would take to get to the city, and were driving into the outskirts of the city at night. We had expected urban sprawl, and were slightly confused to be driving through thick forest, before it opened up to "suburbs" with homes on the edge of steep hills 1,000 feet above the valley floor, which was formerly the heart of the Aztec empire, and where the current city center lies.
Who wants to know something about the Aztecs? Okay, in a word, overrated. At least that's what some people think. Most of their fame comes from having been the guys who were in power when the Spaniards came in 1519. They were only in power for about 100 years out of the 3,000 years of history here. Most of the valley of Mexico had been a huge lake, and the ancient city center had been on an island with four roads leading to it. That former island is now the center of town, and there's no lake to be seen. As a result of building on a lake bed, however, you can see buildings that have settled dramatically and unevenly. The massive church (stone, 500 years old, etc.) right on the main square looks ready to topple any time, though it survived the big quake in 1985.
After winding our way along the edge of the hills on the way to Martirene's, we finally came to their house, and spent a week being overwhelmed by their generosity, thoughtfulness and creativity. Martirene is a photographer, Irma is an artist, and Eduardo is a musician. (Eduardo's father is the director of "Like Water For Chocolate".)
We were surprised how modern and attractive Mexico City is. We were fortunate in that the famous air pollution was non-existent during our stay. In spite of my intention to not drive in the city, I did a number of times and it wasn't too bad. We visited the big anthropological museum, some great art museums, and the Children's Museum, where I saw some exhibits undoubtedly purchased from the Exploratorium.
North-east of the city, we saw the amazing ruins of Teotihuacan. This city, built between 1-600 A.D. is famous for its huge pyramid, 730 feet on each side and 230 feet tall - the third largest pyramid in the world. It was built without metal tools, pack animals, or the wheel. In its heyday, the city had about 200,000 residents. When the Overrated Aztecs came into what is now the valley of Mexico around 1300 A.D., Teotihuacan had already been abandoned for about 700 years! The Aztecs thought the city could only have been built by the Gods, so it wasn't modified or destroyed. Not much is known about the people that built it.
There is an interesting legend that is supposed to explain the Aztecs penchant for human sacrifice. The Aztecs believed that they (and we) belong to the fifth "era" of life, each of the previous eras having come to an end. After the fourth era, there was no sun, and the gods decided that one of their own should sacrifice himself to become the sun. A young and arrogant god agreed to do this, and preparations were made. When the funeral pyre was lit, the arrogant god approached it, but was fearful and couldn't jump on it. An old and weak god saw what happened and threw himself on the fire. Seeing this, and embarrassed by his weakness, the arrogant god also flung himself onto the flames. As a result, two suns appeared in the sky, and the gods were angry that the weak and arrogant god should shine as brightly as the brave one, so the flames of the weak god's sun were blown out by the god of flatulence or something (I'm not positive about that part), and he became the moon. Human blood is the fuel that propels the sun to move across the sky, and a constant supply was needed.
One day we drove with Martirene an hour or so out of Mexico City to a great regional market. Around mid-day a policeman coming the other direction flashed his lights at us, then turned around to pull us over for no apparent reason, other than that we had California license plates. I had forgotten my driver's license in the suitcase back home, so when he asked for a license, we gave him Martirene's and Whitney's. Surprisingly, he didn't think that was sufficient and said that I couldn't drive. Martirene drove for a while, but later I started driving again. We had a really nice day driving through the hills and visiting some small towns. We headed home later than expected, and it was dark as we headed back through the area where we were pulled over. I thought we'd be safe since the policeman was probably be off duty by now, but we passed another police car, and as soon as he saw us he turned on his flashing lights and whipped a u-turn to see who was driving. It was a different policeman, but his first question was whether we'd been pulled over earlier in the day. That's when it started getting interesting. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for Martirene, she got to do all the talking. Propelled by our success the first time, we gave the officer the other two licenses, and it didn't work this time either. He said we had to pay a fine of 104 pesos, about $13. He said we could go down to the station to pay it, or for our "convenience" we could just pay him. Call me stubborn, but I didn't want to pay a bribe, nor did I want to pay a fine then get stopped 20 minutes later and get nailed for something else. Given that the police station was only five miles away, we decided to go pay the fine there and get a receipt. I followed the police car with his lights flashing in my eyes the whole way, as cars came whizzing past us, including a car with no tail lights, into the town where the market had been. After a massive traffic jam, we finally pulled into a gas station, where the Good Guy/Bad Guy routine started. The young police chief, Bad Guy, came over and told us that the only place to pay the fine was in another town, and that the office there was closed. He then said he could impound the car. Martirene said show me the law the says you can impound the car. Bad Guy pulled out a manual that said if we didn't pay the fine, they could impound the car, and since the office was closed, we couldn't pay the fine, so he could impound the car. I was getting really angry about being forced to pay a bribe, and Whitney was getting angry at me that I was risking getting the car impounded, while Martirene was threatening to make a phone call, which made the police nervous. Bad Guy stormed off, commanding, "Impound the car!" After lots of negotiating by Martirene, eventually Good Guy said, "Look, you know what this is. This is about corruption, and I have to give some money to my boss." Martirene told Good Guy we were uptight Americans who insisted on doing things by the book, and she only had 50 pesos to give him. He agreed to escort us out of town, take the 50 pesos (seven dollars), and give us a code that would keep other police from giving us a ticket if we were stopped. Can you believe they even have such a code?
So after two hours, we saved seven dollars. Lest there be any confusion, my intention was not to keep from paying $13 for a legitimate offense. It was to not pay a bribe, or at the very least, make the process difficult for them. We just read about an older couple driving an RV who were stopped in Tijuana and accused of all kinds of ridiculous traffic violations. The police demanded a $200 "fine", and they paid $95!! My view is that by giving in to such ludicrous demands that just encourages them to stop someone else and extort money. Apparently most Mexicans don't agree with me. Back in Mexico City, Eduardo said when he gets stopped, he just pays the fine and moves on, because it's ridiculous to do anything else. He thinks, supported by lots of evidence, that corruption is so entrenched in Mexico that it will be generations before it gets any better. I hope some of you saw the "60 Minutes" segment on Raul Salinas, the brother of Carlos Salinas, the former president of Mexico. Raul, during the six years of his brother's rule, earned a maximum salary of around $200,000 a year, but managed to amass an estimated fortune of $300 MILLION dollars (that's equivalent to 1,500 years of his salary). This in a country where the average laborer's wage is $3 a day. Raul Salinas is now residing in a high-security prison outside of Mexico City, indicted for the murder of a politician, while ex-president Carlos lives in Ireland, which conveniently doesn't have an extradition treaty with Mexico. (Carlos says the extradition thing is irrelevant - he loves the Irish people.) He has consistently refused to make any comment about his brother's riches. It's widely suspected that Carlos Salinas was involved in the murder in Tijuana of another politician, a man named Colossio, hand-picked by Salinas to be the next president, and he would likely have been elected president. The investigation is bogged down by powerful forces, as you can imagine. An interesting aside is that when Carlos was a child, it was reported in newspapers that he shot and killed a servant, and bragged about it. The story goes that when he became president, all references to the incident were removed from the files of the newspapers.
On the way out of Mexico City, we spent two nights with Martirene and her father, Ernesto (also a well-known artist), at his vacation home in the mountains south of the city. There are three absolutely beautiful vacation homes on a hilltop, and it's been a 25 year tradition for the families to spend virtually every weekend there. It was fascinating to spend time with well-to-do Mexicans, most of whom spoke very good English. The children, especially, were fluent, and told us that virtually all private schools teach extensive English, some even teaching half of the classes in English.
We headed next to the hillside town of Taxco (pronounced Tahs-koe), and by "hillside", I mean on the side of a hill so steep that our van could literally barely make it up. If we'd had to stop on the hill, we wouldn't have had any choice but to back down to the bottom. The town's famous for its silver, but since I don't give a hoot about silver, let's talk more about the hills. They're steep.
From Taxco, we headed towards Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka, or waxy-coco if you're British), but stopped on the way for camping. We turned off the highway and followed a sign to a microwave station up a cobblestone road, climbing high above the highway. We found a flat spot on the top of a hill and camped for the night, sitting in front of a fire, baking a cake in the Dutch oven and watching a beautiful lightning storm in the distance. Although we expected someone to come by and at least ask what we were doing, the only people we saw were the goat herders on the nearby hills.
In Oaxaca, we celebrated some important events - my second 39th birthday (you could call it my 40th), and the one year anniversary of Whitney throwing herself at me on the rafting trip last year. I won't embarrass her by going into details. Anyway, it turns out that, in our honor, Oaxaca decided to throw its huge annual fiesta, the Gueleguetza, along with a number of smaller festivities. One of the small celebrations commemorating my birthday and secondarily honoring the patron saint of a massive, 500 year-old stone church involved fireworks, death-defying feats of bravery, and considerable lack of judgment. I'm talking about eating the street food. The main course of my birthday dinner was a hamburger made of half beef and half chorizo, a spicy pork sausage, with onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, topped off with a hot dog split down the middle, and finally a glop of Cheese Whiz! (Exactly how much whiz is in Cheese Whiz?) By the way, if you want a hot dog in Mexico, say "hot dog", don't translate it literally to "pero caliente", because that means you want a dog in heat. Similarly, order "huevos rancheros", not a "ranchero con dos huevos." That's different. In spite of all the street food, we're suffering from a complete lack of intestinal disorders and my weight shows it. My normal regimen of eating unsafe foods, having stomach problems, and thereby losing weight, is failing miserably here in Mexico. I suspect I'm not trying hard enough.
After the Belly Bomb Burger, we watched an amazing display of recklessness that really illustrated for us at least part of the difference between the U.S. and Mexico. In an annual celebration of some church (it wasn't REALLY about my birthday), they'd made up some animal characters out of bamboo and papier mache and strapped homemade fireworks to them. While the crowd formed a circle in the street, one of the guys, apparently nuttier than the rest, carried the ignited critter above his head, running in circles while streams of sparks are showering him and the crowd and huge explosions are deafening people for yards around. The gutsier boys in the crowd would run out so they could be chased by the exploding bull. One of the recurring fireworks was a pinwheel made out of bamboo with four rockets tied to it so it spins around at about 100 miles an hour. The pinwheel is attached ever so carelessly to a straight piece of bamboo, and when the pinwheel unintentionally by inevitably flies off, it tears off into the crowd, sending everyone scattering because it culminates in another deafening explosion. Similarly, powerful bottle rockets intended for the sky end up shooting horizontally and hitting someone, ensuring that person's continued attention. All of this is met by a gleeful tittering of the crowd, and as far as we can tell, no one would suggest that it's dangerous to have bottle rockets and mini hand-grenades fired into a group of people, many of them young children.
After several exploding animals and near brushes-with-death, a group of men raised up from horizontal a 25 foot bamboo tower, rigged to the gills with rockets, twirly things, explosions, flame throwers, poison gas... Okay, I got carried away. There was, of course, a strictly enforced 30 foot perimeter around the tower to protect the children... NOT. You could stand directly under it, if you were so inclined. I tried to gauge it so that we stood at a distance where if it fell over we wouldn't become part of the display. They'd done a good job of wiring it with timed fuses so that all the parts went off gradually, climbing the tower in a synchronized manner. And only a couple of things went shooting into the crowd, so it was less dangerous than the exploding animals part. But just as the finale of the tower was completed and the last spectator was trying to put out her hair, they set off a world class sky-born firework directly over the crowd, and simultaneously lit up a waterfall of sparks across the entrance of the church. When the sparks lit a garland on fire, they calmly went about trying to put out the fire as though nothing special had happened. You know the conclusion I draw from all this? The U.S. is way too safe. They take all the fun out of what would otherwise be an intensely dangerous experience.
Actually, what I really think is that U.S. society claims to know that you can never remove all risk, but when something happens, 98% of the emphasis is on assessing blame and finding a scapegoat. I read an editorial from a U.S. paper about how the FAA hasn't forced airports to install a one million dollar device that detects plastic explosives. The article ends by saying that if it had been installed in New York last week, it might have saved 230 lives! We don't even know for sure that it was a bomb, much less that it was plastic explosives. The article also made a dismissive statement saying that although airline travel is the safest mass transport in the world, that's not much consolation when 230 people die. I'd hate for reasonableness to creep into our assessment of blame. I'm inclined to favor concious choices assessing the risks, and an acceptance that things don't always go as you'd like.
Don't jump to the conclusion that I think Mexico has got it down. I am constantly stunned by what's accepted here. Cars passing on blind curves, huge holes in the sidewalk, passengers jumping onto moving buses, no shoulder on most roads, dangling electrical wires, narrow alleys with no sidewalks and speeding cars, the list just keeps going. I was walking in Guanajuato on a spacious one foot wide sidewalk right where a big bus was making a sharp turn from one really narrow alley to the next. As I squeezed against the wall, my friend saw the front bumper of this huge bus (did I mention it was huge?) miss my knees by about four inches. After the bus left and I stopped crying I saw big holes in the wall from more spatially challenged bus drivers. How did the driver know he was going to miss me? Did he know?
Whitney's parents came to visit us in Oaxaca for nine days, and we had a really nice time. Oaxaca is a great town for eating (excellent food) and people-watching, and we managed to do a lot of both. One of the local delicacies here is fried grasshoppers, which we tried, and which can't help but be better than they sound. As we go further south, we're seeing more of the Indian cultures, and they're apparent here. They're friendly and their clothes are spectacular and so colorful. In the main square of town, called the Zocalo, you're always being asked to buy stuff, but they leave you alone if you're just rude and condescending toward them. That was just a joke to see if you're paying attention. Actually, unlike most of Asia where you'd never survive trying to eat at a sidewalk cafe because of all the begging and pestering, here they usually accept it if you say you're not interested.
A lot of the attraction of Oaxaca for us were the beautiful surrounding valleys, strewn with market towns and ancient ruins. We love walking through the open air markets, which are frequently sprawling, always colorful, and a great place to stick out like a sore thumb and draw lots of attention to yourself. They sell just about everything you'd want and some things you wouldn't: fruits and vegetables, hardware, watches, pig faces, cooked food of all sorts, music, weavings, cosmetics, live chickens and turkeys, herbal remedies, pottery, plants, t-shirts. There are lots of fruits and vegetables we've never seen before. I was amazed to see in a store that there were 10 differents kinds of mangoes until we read in a book that there are over 500 different kinds! One day we bought a tamale that had a leaf in it, and didn't know if we were supposed to eat the leaf. We asked the guy next to us, and he said it's an avocado leaf, you don't eat it. Then he said to his wife, they don't know what an avocado leaf is, isn't that interesting. If he wrote newsletters he'd probably write about the gringoes he met who don't know what an avocado leaf is. It's really fun talking to the vendors at the market. Usually they're pretty chatty once you start talking to them.
It seems like there is a celebration for every possible occasion in Mexico, and we've recently come to the conclusion that the same things that make Mexico a great country to travel in are what doom it to be a third world country for a long time. The people are intensely family oriented, and seem very social and laid-back, and with a sincere interest in other people. I think it was Martirene who complained that when she lived in the States you had to make an appointment three weeks out to see a friend, and inevitably one of you would cancel. Mexico seems to be from a less hurried era, when people had time and made time for their friends and family and didn't live out of a Day-Timer.
That's the good part. The "doomed to third worldness" comes from daily siestas where business are closed typically from 1:00 to 4:00, inefficient business methods, and a pervasive "manana" attitude that keeps things from getting done. I read an ad in an English newspaper for a P.O. box service in Texas with daily courier service to Mexico City, the main advantage being reliable U.S. mail service. How bad would the Mexican mail service have to be to make that a profitable business? Sometime in the past someone once lost the key to our bungalow. Since management wasn't swift enough to have an extra copy, there was no key. Rather than getting a locksmith or buying a new lock, they rigged up a string that goes through the door jamb and pulls the latch to open the door. And rather than getting a bunch of duplicates made for the other rooms, they've now welded the room keys onto an iron contraption six inches across that weighs several pounds. The key thing isn't dramatic, but its indicative of the kind of silliness that keeps businesses from functioning smoothly. But the guy who delivers wood for our fireplace is really nice, and is happy to sit down and chat with us, and there's a lot to be said for that.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the U.S. passion for consumption and accumulation seems a bit out of balance, but Mexico has got to move at least a little that direction to get out of their economic slump. My friend Rick, who's lived in Singapore for most of the last five years, says that the Asia he and I traveled in five years ago is being bulldozed, and what motivates people there now is money and power. I'm afraid that some of the more wholesome and healthy values of those cultures are being replaced with the Morality of Profit (an oxymoron if I ever invented one).
We happened to be in Oaxaca during their big annual fiesta, the Guelaguetza. It gave us the opportunity to be ignored by pasty-faced French people (the town is overrun by them) and have our own private Most Inappropriately Dressed Frog Contest. I'm kidding about the French. I'm sure when they take showers and speak English they're just fine. I've heard, though, that they have terrible nasal problems from that phony accent they use, and I say, hey, it's their own fault.
Where were we? Oh, right, Gueleguetza. The main event is held in an outdoor auditorium, and brings together seven different regions of Oaxaca for a display of beautiful dance, brilliant costumes, and some of the worst brass bands you've ever heard. Not even a hint of exaggeration here. Some of the groups had rather plain costumes and sort of shuffled about without moving their arms, but others were wild, heel-stomping affairs, and their costumes were incredibly colorful and elaborate. Each of the performances ended with gifts being thrown into the audience. They started out as tortillas, and bags of candy and small stuff, but progressed to fruit hurled with velocity up to the higher rows. When one of the groups brought out coconuts, I thought, they can't possibly throw those. Well, think again, America-Boy. They were actually throwing both coconuts and pineapples into the audience. We heard that one guy got beaned twice by a pineapple. (Besides having a brain hemorrage, he was really sticky.) As if that wasn't enough, one group tossed some big clay pots into the audience.
Sorry to write such a long letter all in one shot. I'm sure that Whitney will write more promptly next time. Just for the record, we've driven about 7,200 miles so far, and the car's still running great. After the beach we're heading to San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, where we'll try to verify the rumour that Subcommandante Marcos is gay. (I'm not making that up, except for the verification part.) If you still haven't written, and you have a computer and e-mail, and can type, then what would be the problem?