Thursday, August 21, 2014

High Hopes

 The view from my office in Santa Fe

 There are two Mexicos. And there are two United States of America and two of every other country. But there are certain moments when the other Mexico stares at you so intensely that you have no idea how the world seems to ignore it.

Mercados. They are EVERYWHERE in Mexico. My roommate and I agreed that Mexico is probably the country with the most food sold in the street because you honestly can’t take more than a few steps without encountering a stand of tamales or tamarindos or tostadas or palanquetas or tunas or….the list is endless.


But what shocked me more than the sheer volume of markets was the stark differences between them. My roommate and I went to the Bazar del Barrio in the hipster Condesa neighborhood where vendors sold artisanal cookies and boutique apparel and other expensive crafts, protected by a white tent and illuminated with tiny plastic bauble light bulbs.

Compare that to a cozy park in Coyoacán where artists sold paintings and sculptors and a DJ played salsa music while elderly couples dressed in their Sunday best danced the day away to the clapping and cheering crowd of spectators. There I bought a small book made by a jovial old man. He shared with us that he started making books when he started writing music. Naturally we got to talking about music, guitars and rock and roll. When I asked him what artists he liked to listen to, he abruptly stopped the flow of conversation, looked me in the eye, and said,

“Escuchas a High Hopes por Pink Floyd. Me puso llorar.”
“Listen to High Hopes by Pink Floyd. It made me cry.”

                                                Dancing at the outdoor market on Sunday

And then there was another market in Coyoacán, a labyrinth of stands protected from the sun by sheets and plastic tarps forming narrow passageways crowded with people. Here they sold everything: piñatas, tacos and toys; fresh fruit and dried fruit; clothing and curtains; homeopathic remedies and Cheetos. Navigating the winding maze of stands and goods, you have no idea what you’ll find when you turn the next corner.

As we returned home via the metro, the market never completely ended: people even sold things in the subway cars. Every time the car stopped a new vendor would get on, replacing the one who had just left, filling the car with their sing-song chanting of prices, goods and deals. Once again there was a strange combination of goods represented: from candy to electronics to bubbles.

One bubble vendor in particular caught my attention.

We were two stops away from home, exhausted, and eager to sit down to dinner and rest our legs after a day spent exploring markets. I was fading in and out of daydreams to the sing-song voice of each salesperson in our subway car when suddenly the doors closed and a raspy child’s voice cut through the car’s silence like a knife. 

“¡Buenas tardes, damas y caballeros!”

A boy no older than ten carrying a large box filled with tiny containers of bubbles stumbled into the car, fumbling with the box in his efforts to keep it upright. He took no time starting his chant, delivering it mechanically, phrase after phrase spewing out into the car, forced and rehearsed and shouted. He plowed through, determined to get to the end before the next stop, only taking a second between phrases for a short, gasping breath before continuing.

“¡Hay burbujas!”
”¡de diferentes colores!”
“¡Se valen 5 pesos!”
“¡5 pesos se cuestan!”

By the end of the chant his voice was worse off than when he began, cracking and squeaking in the middle of words, sore from a long day’s work. His gaze was fixed on a point at the far end of the car as he mechanically opened one of the containers, took a long, deep breath that made his small shoulders heave with the effort and blew into the bubble wand. A stream of soap circles billowed into the car, pressing against the doors and windows, bouncing off faces and shoes and backpacks, landing in laps and on heads. One by one the bubbles dispersed, inevitably popping on the hard surfaces of the subway car. One tiny bubble tapped against a cracked window, curious as to what lay beyond the cracked glass, before it was sucked out into the dark abyss.

His chant and demonstration finished, the boy lugged the box of bubbles through the car, glancing at the people seated around him, waiting for someone to acknowledge him and indicate their interest in making a purchase. But no one did.

After his short parade through our car, the boy leaned against the far door. He rested the box of bubbles on one raised knee for a moment before the subway car doors opened with a ding and he continued his mission into the following car.

Having glimpsed a reminder of the other Mexico, I was painfully aware that the exhaustion I was feeling was the result of a day of leisure and shopping.

Before I went to sleep that night I decided to take the old craftsman/musician’s advice and listen to High Hopes. And I cried, too.

 Graffiti along the road on my commute from work every day.

High Hopes by Pink Floyd:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Algo Más

My Aunt Charin on her birthday

I should have blogged ages ago. But I’ve been avoiding it for weeks. I suppose the truth is that I’m finding it difficult to synthesize everything into cohesive pieces. 

Life in Mexico City is essentially what I like to call organized chaos. Cars whiz through four way intersections without stop signs or traffic lights while motorcycles weave between them. Restaurants prepare delicious food, but rely on truckloads of bottled water each week so their customers won’t get sick. And even the weather is simultaneously chaotic and orderly – nearly every evening it pours and thunders like the apocalypse, only to return to peaceful night skies in a few hours.

I’ve spent over three weeks here now, and I just realized this marks the first time that I’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country communicating in solely Spanish every day (my independent project in the highlands of rural Panama only lasted for three weeks and throughout the rest of my 4 months there I was able to speak English regularly with my classmates). It’s exciting to cross a new threshold! But I am surprised by how much more difficult it has been to switch between Spanish and English that I thought. I find my tongue doesn’t know what shape to make sometimes when I switch languages abruptly. Just like when I switch between languages while texting on my phone and I forget to change the keypad’s default language, my brain starts generating Frankenstein words, as if my newly acquired Spanish autocorrect  is searching for meaning among English syllables. 

The difficulty of this process makes me feel strangely American. My roommate from Morroco can speak 4 languages fluently. People in Mexico are often very well-versed in English or another language. So why do I (someone who has excelled in our American school system, graduated from a university with an excellent reputation, and earned this fellowship) struggle with just two languages, and I don’t even claim to have truly mastered fluency in one of them? I’m led to conclude it is a cultural barrier, one that comes from growing up in a culture deeply rooted in one language, with very little necessity to attempt others.

There are other subtle things that remind me of how much I have to learn about the rest of the world. The people begging on the streets for instance. There are hundreds of them, far more than I’ve ever seen in New York City. And they don’t sit idly, sign in hand, hoping someone will read it and donate something. They come straight up to you, look you in the eye, tell you what a good morning/evening/night it is, and ask if you will buy a wooden spoon or a piece of candy. And sometimes they are children. And I find myself overwhelmed at the paradox that if I don’t buy anything, what will this little girl think of foreigners like me living in bohemian areas of Mexico City, but then again if I do buy something, would it really change that?

I’m also shocked that certain things here simply don’t exist: smoke detectors, ant traps (but as you may have gathered from my last post, I don’t really want those anymore)…things that you take for granted that you can buy at any CVS or Walmart that aren’t on every corner like in New York. At the pharmacy on my corner I buy band aids one at a time, and this week they ran out. It’s these little things that make me realize just how naïve I have been, living in New York and Philadelphia my whole life. When I went to Panama, I noticed similar things. But that trip was more of an exploratory one, I never stayed in one place for long, and I was always a foreigner. But here, trying to live like a local is showing me that the reality of living in the largest urban center in Mexico is very different from living in a similarly urban city in the US. 

All of this makes me appreciate the entrepreneurs that I meet every day at work so much more. They are creating new businesses and new technology in a city where resources are limited and opportunity is accessible to few. Yes, many of them were born into that opportunity, but what they do with it, how many jobs they create, and how they influence the way of life here in Mexico, is pretty inspiring. Whether it be developing water treatment systems or creating the first social media app to originate in Latin America, they are moving Mexico into a new age. And it is incredibly exciting to be a part of that.

I will close with one observation that really hit home for me. I was at my great aunt’s 101st birthday. Yup, that’s right, not a Spanish-to-English keyboard translation type-o: 101 years old! My Aunt Charin is a truly incredible woman, and my whole family shared a lovely afternoon of food, music, and conversation in her honor. What truly struck me about this fiesta however, was one song in particular. My uncle had been playing guitar and inviting cousins, aunts, and uncles alike to sing with him. Then, my cousin started singing a song in Spanish that I knew. By heart. Why? Because I had memorized the lyrics in high school Spanish class.

Hearing that song, sung in person (and expertly I might add) by my cousin brought me back to the hours I had spent listening to it in my room in high school, determined to commit the foreign words to memory, playing it over and over with the lyric sheet in hand. It suddenly occurred to me that this moment, being able to appreciate this music with my family, was what I had studied so hard to achieve. I didn’t know it at the time – I mean, if you had told high school Michelle that she would be living in Mexico in 5 years she would have thought you were crazy. But I suppose my yearning to understand Spanish in school carried me to this moment, where I can say that I know and love my family here in Mexico, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend more time with them and better understand this country that raised my grandfather.

Here is the song for those of you who are curious: