It seems like the next group of Peace Corps Mexico trainees are being assembled right now. Welcome to the program, Group 15ers!! To help ease your transition, I put together a quick how-to guide based on some of my lessons learned.
* If you are a soon-to-be PCV, please feel free to leave me a comment here. This will give me your email address. I am more than happy to answer any questions that you may have via email or skype to help you prepare yourself for the big move!
Anyhow, on to the how-to guide.
Leave a party in Mexico: As soon as you are invited to the party, start planning several exit strategies. About one-to-two hours before you want to leave, start subtly mentioning your best excuse to a variety of guests. Your fellow party-goers will not want to see you leave, thus they will try their darndest to counter any hint at your need to leave. They will offer to give you a bed for the night, tell you not to go to work tomorrow, put a new drink in your hand, or promise you a ride later. They may have been drinking, so be careful! Stay strong when countering their attempts to thwart your plan. This is why you need more than one excuse. This process will take about one hour. Once your excuse is deemed acceptable, start saying your goodbyes. Because you do not want to be rude, you must say your despididas with each and every party-goer. Be sure to give a half-hug and kiss on the cheek too! This will likely take 30 minutes. The last person that you encounter will invite you to stay the night and start taking your coat from you by force. Assure them that you have a safe way home and secure place to stay the night, and that the party was very fun. Because it was.
Endear yourself to a Mexican: Show a genuine interest in the culture, duh! Food, dance, music…whatever you like. Lately, I have been delving into the music. Whenever people ask me what kind of music I enjoy, they smile with great surprise when I mention that for Huapango, Guillermo Velazquez is my guy, that I am looking forward to the concert from Los Tigres del Norte, or that I enjoy dancing cumbia because the music is so lively, and that, like most people in Mexico, I will always keep a special place in my heart for Carla Morrison.
Ride in a car in Mexico: 1) Pack it to capacity with people and plenty of food; 2) Once the car is full, yell out of the window to get the attention of friends and family members who were not planning on going with you with a loud “¡Oye, ven aca!” and a hand gesture to get their attention. Peer pressure them to get in too; 3) When they start getting in, start playing car jig-saw puzzle; sit sideways/lay across/occupy any non-seat surface to accommodate everyone; 4) Sit parked for a while, inevitably an aunt or a cousin needs to grab something from the house. This gives plenty of time to allow sweat to accumulate on every skin surface; 5) Start driving, only to realize that everyone has a different, strong opinion on how to get there; 6) Turn on some cumbia and turn the radio up loud; 7) Talk and laugh and readjust bodies to accommodate knees lodged against thighs covered in babies, and of course the seatbelt buckles that are digging into your lower back; 8) Call people on cell phones to redirect the route…repeat steps 7 and 8 over and over, until you arrive at your destination.
Have fun in a social setting when you have noooooo idea what is going on: Let go. Smile. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes nor to apologize when you inevitably do.
Prevent public urination in Mexican cities: Add an image of the Virgin Mary to the wall. My landlord did this to the building and the problem stopped immediately.
Curse like a champ in Mexico: Add the word mother or mom to whatever you say. Or throw in a mention of eggs, farts, or domesticated male animals. Linguistically, this fascinates me.
Hand gesture “thanks” to someone: Hold your hand up flat, like you are trying to gesture for someone to stop. Now turn it around so that the back of your hand faces them. You are now ready to begin the gesture. Move your hand slightly forward to them, and if you are feeling particularly grateful, you may choose to dip your head a bit. To non-Mexican foreigners, you will look like you are cursing at them, but you are certainly not. This is how you say thanks in Mexico! It still feels awkward for me, so I add a little smile and sometimes mouth the word gracias to make myself feel better.
Say “no” gracefully to a salesman: Using the hand gesture mentioned above, say “gracias” with a smile. I know, it’s counter-intuitive to a US American. That would mean “thanks, I’ll take it.” But here in Mexico, it means something along the lines of “thank you for offering. I do not want it though.”
Make and drink coffee in Mexico: Never, never drink coffee on an empty stomach. Coffee comes after breakfast when your stomach is ready to accept it, or so they say. To make coffee, heat up milk. Get out your Nescafe granules of instant coffee and a huge container of sugar. Place fresh pastries on the table, but call them bread. Surround the “bread” plate goes with mugs and plastic spoons for each person. There should be many guests. Stir in a small amount of instant coffee and twice as much sugar to each mug. Don’t like Nescafe? Don’t worry! You can make Café de Olla, which is made in the biggest pot you can find, preferably one sufficiently large to accommodate an entire turkey. Or an entire person. Fill with water, ground coffee beans, about a pound of sugar, several cinnamon sticks, and maybe some anise seeds. Simmer like you’re one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, serving the cafe piping hot. Taste to see if you need to add more sugar; you probably do.
Cook and eat meat: This one is simple. First of all, you did not bring enough meat. You really should have brought more. Second of all, you brought warm tortillas, right? You can cook the meat anywhere, do not worry. Good, now we are ready to eat!
Love the maguey: This is also very simple. Maguey might be the most awesome plant in Mexico. And in a country with such incredible biodiversity, this says a lot. It is right up there with Amaranth in terms of awesomeness. You can eat the flowers in quesadillas – yum; you can ferment the sap for a strong home-brew; you can use the leaves to cook your barbecue meat (see above); you can eat the worm/larvae that live among the leaves; you can strip fibers out of the plant to make rope, yarn, woven sponges, and bags…the list goes on. Additionally, they live super long lives, have a cool Aztec goddess to represent them, and when they flower, they are super tall. See why they are easy to love?
Make a stranger smile: If you notice someone eating, and there is a lot of eating going on in Mexico, take a moment and say “buen provecho.” It means enjoy your meal. Say it while someone is eating, when entering or leaving a restaurant to each table, or when your friend just finished their meal. It works every time, instant smiles from strangers!
Dispose of your trash: This is a funny skill to learn. Most cities in Mexico do not have door-to-door trash collection services, and putting trash on the street is considered littering; it is illegal. So how do you take the trash out? You wait for the night when the city collects trash from public trash cans. You bring your trash out to a nearby can. Look around carefully for police. If you see one, keep walking. If not, gingerly put your trash down and walk away quickly. I am being serious here!
Walk on city sidewalks: As I have mentioned in other posts, people here tend to do things in family groups. They get to their destinations by walking on sidewalks with the whole group. But culturally, it seems that the in-group is more important than the individual stranger. This leaves many US Americans and Europeans thinking: “Mexicans are so rude on the sidewalks; they don’t make space for strangers to pass by!” My advice: use patience, be very aware of your surroundings, don’t take it personally, and move to the edge of the street when safe! Remember, you are living in/visiting their culture! This also means that you should always give space and assistance to older adults, and say a friendly “con permiso” if you bump into anyone. Also, you do NOT have the right of way with cars, so be careful.
Politely leave the room: Say con permiso along with your goodbye; “may I have your permission?” The response you will get should be propio, “it’s yours.”
Making me smile:
- Trying in vain to teach people that the middle part of the bread is the best part. Traditional practice is to tear bread in half, then to pick out the soft middle part and throw that part in the trash
- Moving into my new place, complete with internet. Ahhh Posh-Corps
- Currently packing to help out at a Science and Culture Fair in a small town, located at the base of the highest mountain/volcano in Mexico