Lessons learned: one year in Mexico

With the exception of my trip to Washington (blog post about the trip coming soon) I have spent every day of the last year living in Mexico.

On my flight to Mexico City yesterday, I was on the plane with the new group of Peace Corps Mexico volunteers. They peppered me with questions the whole way, despite their sleep deprivation. It was so nice to meet so many excited people, and to share what I had learned during the past year.

The experience got me thinking about where I was mentally, when I was in their shoes. I dug back in my blog archives to find my very first blog entry, titled Preconceived Notions. It was about my thoughts about Mexico back in May 2012. What better way to celebrate one year than to reflect on how much I have learned.

To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.
-Aldous Huxley

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Original thought in italics. Current thought in regular text.

Mexico is hot and dry in most places. My site is wet and cold; that shows me for generalizing! What I have learned is that Mexico has so many different climates, making it the 5th most biodiverse country in the world.

Mexico’s main climate zones, as posted my geo-mexico.com

The bus system rocks. Completely true. Travelers can get just about anywhere via bus, with regional buses being extraordinarily comfortable. Local transit is less luxurious and can be unpredictable, but it is still possible to get just about anywhere with patience, flexibility, and a sense of adventure, sin carro.

You can buy almost anything on the street. Agreed. If you have a few pesos, you will never go hungry or thirsty no matter where you go. Just about anything that can be transported is sold on the streets. And in the metro. And inside your office. And on boats. And in tourist sites. Anywhere, really! See my friend’s Making me smile edition for more on this topic.

Tropical fruits wheeling by on the beach

Tropical fruits wheeling by on the beach

Hats and vests for sale at a parade

Hats and vests for sale at a parade

Eating lettuce – or anything that water touches – can give you the runs. Discovered this one too. My system is now acclimated thank goodness! After December 2012, only the occasional stomach upset happens, and it is well-worth the ability to eat fresh produce.

There are lots of roaming chickens. In the countryside, yes; in cities, much less so. This is not to say that you cannot find chickens in cities though; I see them at the market regularly.

In my former neighbor's yard, crossing the road, wandering into open doors; chickens are prevalent in the countryside

In my former neighbor’s yard, crossing the road, wandering into open doors; chickens are prevalent in the countryside

The food is spicy, lots of beans and meat. Also, chili powder is added to most food, including fruit and candy. Point 1: yes. Point 2: I think I was exaggerating a bit when I wrote this. Little did I know at the time to the extent of chili’s influence in Mexican cuisine. I have seen people put salsa on watermelon! I now add salsa into my soup and sprinkle powdered chili on cucumber and carrots. Snacks are considered a vehicle for salsa, ranging from popcorn to potato chips, from peanuts to fried bananas. I once asked a friend if there was a food item that should not be paired with salsa or chili. He thought for a while before saying “milk.” This, of course, does not extend to milk-products such as cheese or ice cream.

Chili-covered gummy worms. Verdict: couldn't taste much beyond the chili

Chili-covered gummy worms. Verdict: couldn’t taste much beyond the chili

Siestas happen after big lunches. Woefully wrong! In fact, Mexico has recently been evaluated as the hardest-working nation in the world. I can say that, while people take their time to have long lunches with professional contacts, many offices have long hours, many people have multiple jobs, and everyone still maintains household management tasks while balancing many family responsibilities.

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The people

Due to machismo, men are totally chauvinistic compared with what I am accustomed to. I am so glad that I was wrong about this. Yes, machismo exists in Mexico. Yes, I am patently aware of my gender when in public. Yes, I get hit-on and honked-at. But the majority of my experiences with men are very positive, and I forgot about the flip-side of machismo: gentlemanliness.

Mariachis, dancing, and fiestas in the park are all evidence that this is a fun-loving people. Yes, yes, and yes. Never have I partied so much as my year in Mexico.

Mariachi dancer in movement

Mariachi dancer in movement

They speak Spanish super-fast. Nope, now I speak Spanish super-fast. Maybe it is not perfect, but it gets the job done. And my conversation partners’ speech no longer seems fast at all! It is incredible how much you can learn in one year.

They are more ethnically diverse than you’d think. I was right! With 62 spoken languages and 10 million residents claiming indigenous backgrounds, Mexico extends beyond its homogeneous-at-first-glance image.

An Otomi woman wraps up home-made paper that had been drying in the sun

An Otomi woman wraps up home-made paper that had been drying in the sun

They’re big on Catholicism. Yes. What I did not expect is that it is perfectly acceptable for them to ask complete strangers about their Catholicism while talking about their own religious affiliation. I never quite know the best way to break the news that I am not Catholic. My landlord was hurt when she saw that all of her carefully displayed crucifixes and portraits of Jesus were packed away when I moved my things into the house. Another time, my neighbor was so horrified when I broke the news that he actually started asking the Lord to bless me in the street, his hand pressed to my forehead the whole time. Eventually, I just started saying that I am religious to strangers to save myself from similar awkwardness. There are other things that I prefer to focus on, conversationally.

Catholic items boxed up for safe-keeping in my house, not on display

Catholic items boxed up for safe-keeping in my house, no longer on display

They’re even bigger on family. This includes fierce loyalty, fierce feuds, and tons of cousins. Family comes before everything, period.  I once asked a young woman who is about to become a pilot how she planned on maintaining her close connection with family while having a job that required so much travel. “Family is THE most important thing in my life, I will find a way,” was the passionate response to my question.

Family first

Family first

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 The politics

It’s violent and scary in places. I would not know because I do not go to those places. From what I see, the majority of Mexico is safer than many places in the United States.

It’s pretty corrupt with lots of bribery. Corruption exists. I have heard many stories about money “going missing.” I also know that the younger generation is demanding transparency within the government. Mexico is changing, rapidly.

They have an elected President and are also called the United States. Yup, I was right. And now I can list all 31 states and the Federal District without trouble and know most of the according state capitols! I know that Mexico has a multi-party political system with a legislature and a [poorly functioning] judicial system. Now if I could only understand how exactly this tangle of politics actually functions.

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Relationship with El Norte (USA)

The relationship is LOADED! Many Americans are suspicious of Mexicans, and vice versa. I still agree with this statement, and it is one of the reasons that I enjoy my job. Part of what I do is target these misconceptions and showcase my experiences on both sides of the border as examples of how we might be different, but we are all human. We all value so many overlapping things, and we are all so much more complex than media headlines could ever capture.

Mexico is, both directly and indirectly, the homeland of many of our cooks, dishwashers, day laborers, housekeepers, farm workers, etc. and the American economy could not function in its current capacity without these tough toilers. But it’s also the origins of many of our other coworkers, friends, lovers, and yes, our neighbors. And now I am able to play a deeper role in this diaspora, how cool!

The whole American “spring break in Mexico” thing can be pretty obnoxious, but brings in some money for Mexico I guess. I have stayed far away from this part of Mexico. It is not really my scene.

This is where a good percentage of our illegal drugs come from. I am certainly no expert on this topic, but in looking at maps of where the drugs come from, I would rather amend my statement to say “it is where a good percentage comes through.” And that is a product of being neighbors. I would also point out that Mexico is where a high percentage of our machinery, vehicles, oil, medical instruments, and produce comes from. We imported more than $277.7 billion in goods in 2012 alone!

Drug trafficking is extraordinarily complex. It is too simple to say “drugs come from Mexico.”

This is where, in the 1990s, many of our manufacturing jobs went. And many still exist. And many are being created. There has been a manufacturing boom going on in Mexico that still persists.

Not everyone approves of where the border lies, how it came to be, and how it is currently managed. True on both sides of the border.

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To my fellow volunteers: happy one-year anniversary.

¡Ya ha sido una experiencia inolvidable; ojalá que tengamos muchos éxitos en el año que viene!

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Making me smile, year-long edition!

I have:

Torro! A festival favorite: men with fireworks strapped to their backs

Torro! A festival favorite: men with fireworks strapped to their backs

  • Danced bachata after midnight, after eating ant-larvae gorditas and before eating skunk and squirrel tacos
  • Danced on-stage in front of hundreds of strangers
  • Had someone with flaming fireworks strapped to their backs run directly at me on 5 different occasions
  • Conducted 3 completely impromptu interviews on microphone, one of them for TV
  • Given 1 formal presentation with no advanced notice
  • Become a certified tour guide and given interpretive tours in a second language
  • Drank hundreds of mugs full of tea, enjoyed hundreds of bowls of soup, and eaten somewhere between 500-1000 tortillas as a conservative guess
  • Prepared American-style turkey twice. Once it was turned into tacos with salsa
  • Made delicious tamales that received the local stamp of approval
  • Watched 4 plants die quickly, poisoned by the tap water
  • Gone entire days without turning on the tap of water through conservation practices
  • Become completely adjusted to cold tap water
  • Star-gazed in hammocks, completely bundled up with blankets and wearing most of my clothing
  • Listened to more than 30 podcasts of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and 30 podcasts of This American Life while hiking and/or crafting
  • Ran more than 30 kilometers per week on average, getting stared at/honked an average of 3 times per run
  • Learned (in Spanish, mind you) to: speak functional Spanish, dance countless Latin dances, rock climb, and navigate Mexican bureaucracy
  • On rooftops: Did yoga, watched sunsets, shared beverages and gossip, pet dogs, hung laundry, cried, and attended parties
  • Weekend vacations: Hopped over volcanically heated rivers with water near boiling temperatures, relaxed in hot springs and under hot waterfalls located inside a cave, rock-climbed in the shadow of ancient pyramids, released an endangered sea turtle into the Gulf of Mexico, visited Spanish haciendas inside basalt canyons, and ground my own recipe of chocolate the traditional way
  • At community fairs: Taught children about comet-science and re-purposing plastic bags to make friendship bracelets
  • Had visitors to my blog from 42 different countries
  • Hosted 5 visitors from other countries, all of whom fell in love with Mexico
  • Left the country for 5 days, and in that time gossip surfaced that I had run away with a German man to become one of his six wives. Even better, according to the gossip, the former volunteer who left as I arrived last year is wife #5.
  • Read 3 novels in Spanish
  • Gone through 6 bottles of sunscreen
  • Checked floors, walls, and ceilings for scorpions
  • Hiked more than 300 kilometers through my 5 square kilometer national park, chasing lizards, photographing flowers, rock climbing peaks, hopping barbed wire fences, and paying respect to the Virgin of Guadalupe in various locations
  • Seen at least 15 faces shoved into cake for birthday celebrations, had my face shoved twice, and personally pushed 2 faces
  • Pet a German Shepard named Gadafi while waiting for meat cooked in a pit, before a man rode up on a donkey wearing a wool pancho

Above all, I have fallen in love with Mexico in the past year. Yesterday, when I stepped off of that plane from the United States I felt like I had returned home. And the mariachi band was waiting on my doorstep when I arrived.

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