Reina and I were speaking of Paris Hilton and I mentioned that in English a child of the rich is said to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Around here, she said, the equivalent is to be “born with a sandwich under your arm”.
Most of the villagers here believe in all manner of supernatural happenings, ghosts and bruhas, witches, who cast black magic spells and can change into animals at will. There seems little point in asking for real-world evidence for almost all are religious – believing in an invisible, omnipresent, omnipotent uber-fairy without any supporting evidence whatsoever (faith – a common but serious neurological disorder) but when I do ask for evidence it is always the usual dubious anecdotes and hearsay:
- A unnamed man waits in the night to elope with his unnamed lover. She is late (surprise!). Suddenly she appears but walks clear through the wall beside them and is gone. She was killed earlier that day.
- So-and-so saw a witch floating over his house, and the house shook.
- So-and-so was riding a burro home in the dark and a strange animal appeared on the road ahead. The burro reacted with fear. The creature ran off laughing like a human.
- An unnamed poor man who never works always has food in his house. His neighbors are missing food but can never catch the culprit. It is thought that the poor man changes into an animal at night to steal the food.
It is always difficult to know how to react to these stories. Clearly anyone trying to teach critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning here has a lot of work to do. I can only say “I have no way to check that any of this is true, so it seems foolish to believe it”.
I am reminded of the late great Indian rationalist Basava Premenand who exposed over 500 of the miracles of Indian holy men – every single one that he encountered – for the conjuring tricks that they are. Humans are unreliable witnesses and with the supernatural, things are never as they are presented.
ATTACK OF THE ANGRY CHRIS
On my way through Veracruz a young man cut me up so badly and dangerously in traffic I could barely believe it. Even for Mexico it was unusually outrageous. For a change he wasn’t a taxi driver – the very worst in a land of people so many of whom should never be allowed to drive a car. He then did it again to somebody else, so at the next stoplight I got out, went over to his car, reached in and slapped him hard in the face. I did not bother to explain why; he knew.
Never before in my life have I assaulted anybody; I am not a violent person, but hey, this felt pretty good. Maybe he will think twice about endangering others next time, if not out of conscience then at least out of fear.
Three days ago Gringo Jack was on his lawn watching his dog playing with two others on the beach. a car came speeding down the beach, without even slowing down it creamed one of the dogs and sped on. The dog has a broken hip but will live, and Jack is on the warpath. The last two mornings he has been on the beach with his caretakers waiting, armed with rocks and ready to throw. Gringos either end up as fatalistic as the Mexicans or they make a stand; Jack is a decent fellow with a strong sense of moral outrage, and he knows that the rule here is that you can do anything you want here unless somebody stops you. He plans to stop this speedster and recover veterinary costs and make sure he doesn’t do it again, but I myself have come to despair of teaching most Mexicans much in the way of what we gringos think of as normal ethics. Though by the way I have noticed that many gringos start driving like Mexicans as soon as they cross the border.
Oh dear I feel a rant coming on. From where you sit I doubt you can imagine how huge a part inconsideration, inconvenience and endangerment play it the daily lives of people in a place like Mexico. Mostly it is things like the garbage everywhere and the fumes from burning it, or noise pollution, or people who simply stop their car in front of you so they can chat with someone, or completely obstruct the sidewalk or a pedestrian crossing or any of a thousand other nuisances whose obliviousness, entitlement and selfishness I find simply staggering. Often it is more serious – land encroachment, corruption, theft, endangerment, fraud, pollution. Most Mexicans accept this to their great cost, every day, and at the same time most are part of the problem. I simply do not understand. Consideration for others and a little honesty is not rocket science. This is no part of the better world I would like to live in.
Reina and Jacinto at least have stopped capturing the marvelous and endangered great blue crabs, at least whilst I am around. Poco a poco.
Chris Grill, CIA Agent.
Mexicans working in the US are entitled to claim dependents on their tax returns, just as citizens may, and the more dependents one has the less tax one pays. (? So those without children pay for those that have. This seems entirely unjust to me. Surely children should be had entirely on one’s own dime and not forcibly subsidized by the childless) These dependents do not have to be citizens, and the only requirement is that proof of their existence be produced, but not proof that they actually are dependents or ever receive a penny. So certain people here go around to families and offer around US $40 for copies of the birth certificates of Mexican children, which they send off to the US to be divided amongst Mexican workers in return for hefty fees. It is said that a large percentage of the village of El Bayo down the road lives from this organized racket; certainly it is hard to see that legal money alone (of which there is a good deal being sent back by Mexicans in the States) can account for all the nice new houses going up in El Bayo or the recent influx of many big American cars which roar up and down the beach and have necessitated five new speed bumps in Playa Zapote. Popular vehicles include the Chrysler Enormous, Chevrolet Consumer, Dodge Psychopath, Ford Ego, Cadillac Delusion and of course the Hummer Nowthat’sjustplainstupid.
It is thought locally that I myself might be an agent of the American Government here to spy upon both the scammers and the narcotraficantes in the area. I have had a few funny looks but feel no serious bad vibes. Though decapitation is a real threat for US agents in Mexico, and kidnap a possibility for all foreigners or anyone who might have money, the feeling in Mexico is just so unaggressive and harmless that I am not going to let worry about these things ruin my stay. I am in my sixteenth month here without incident.
Now it is hot season, and with a vengeance. The houses are like ovens – they have thin metal or asbestos cement roofs which heat up under the sun rendering indoors almost intolerable. Outside is preferable to all, under the trees or rude structures made of bendy timbers with roofs of knackered sheet metal, also hot but there are no walls which helps. At night the roofs cool but since the houses were roasting all day their concrete walls have stored the heat and radiate it back mercilessly all night. The other type of roof is the 10cm- thick concrete slab which heats up to egg-frying temperatures all day and radiates all night, so it may be even worse. Before these new materials were introduced roofs were made of thatched palm leaves laid few inches thick and there are still some of these around though generally only on the wall-less structures. They had the big advantage that the ceilings did not heat up, but the bigger disadvantages of being time-consuming to make, short-lived and highly combustible. I ask why not throw a few palm branches up on the sheet roofs to shade them? Jacinto says “We haven’t invented that here”.
There may be something wrong with this idea that I am not seeing, but in general I do notice a peculiar absence of inventiveness in this culture. Well, I guess that in any culture invention is the province of just a few and the rest follow on. There are a few houses imaginatively built using ferrocement (chicken wire, cement) and occasion examples of bold and imaginative art seen in Veracruz but for the most part things things are done either the way they have always been done but with whatever help can be gotten with inexpensive off-the-shelf technology or according to the American model, with few embellishments (the other day I saw Philadelphia cheese, chile chipotle flavor). An exception to this is the food, which is unique and imaginative, for some reason far better than anything I ever ate in Central or South America. Perhaps the inventors here are the women.
Or perhaps people just need a little nudge. This appeared on the water the other day.
It is a very crummy dinghy very crummily rigged with a very crummy sail. It could not possibly beat upwind – many people here are surprised to hear that a sailboat can do that (I guess it is pretty counterintuitive) – he would need a centerboard and a flatter sail. .
I like to think I am leading a sailing renaissance in Playa Zapote. I have made a mast and sail for Ruben the Sorbet Guy’s pedal-cart, but we have yet to test it. Rodrigo, who was my crewman at the regatta, now plans to build some kind of a sailing boat so he can rent it out on the packed beaches in Veracruz and live the blessed life of a beach bum. I think it is a good plan.
Life is so different here. Unlike gringos every Mexican knows all of his neighbors and there are few if any people in his whole village or town that he cannot name and is not legally or genetically related to. Extended families are a huge part of daily existence, work, help, land and housing are found through them, skills, food, animals and property are shared and bartered and held in trust within them, and it is always somebody’s birthday or baptism or wedding so one is never short of a party to go to. Amazing the money that somehow gets spent on fiestas here, where money is scarce. There’s an obsession with cakes too, which seem unnecessary and expensive to me. I see cakes everywhere and am occasionally dispatched to Veracruz to pick them up (such a relief to hand over the cake intact. I cannot bear such responsibility).
Work, if there is work, is generally done by 2pm; it is too brutally hot for most to continue unless the work is well paid or essential. There is a breeze from the sea, so youths play football on the beach, but only the males. What the girls here do with their time is a mystery; they are mostly sequestered in the home though I do see them walking on the beach under sunbrellas or carrying infants about. I know they do some fine embroidery work and of course all the food preparation and domestic chores. I do not think they are encouraged to study. Schoolgirls must wear skirts. Why the hell shouldn’t girls wear trousers to school? I think the answer is to reinforce gender roles and help keep them in the home, but it might be that they would wear very, very tight trousers, as Mexican girls do. Oh it’s so objectionable.
In the evening there is fishing from the beach with nets hauled about in the surf by small family groups, they don’t seem to catch much more than supper. It is dark by 8ish. Those that are to fish at dawn might go to bed but many others, especially the young, have nothing better to do than socialize in the streets. The curse of village life, of rural life, is boredom. It leads to so much evil, drink, drugs, thieving, pregnancy amongst folk who would do none of the above if they had anything else to do The temptations must be terrible when night after night is the same as ever. I wonder if the introduction of electric lights helps or hinders.
Kids play in the dusty streets until very late. I am not sure if there is a concept of “bedtime”. Older folks sit in deckchairs at the roadside and chat and drink beers if they are not Evangelists (In this village most are, the village shop does not even sell beer). They watch tv soaps and movies with doors and windows open and folk wander in and out and from house to house. Houses are open and mostly, incredibly, without screen doors or windows even in mosquito season so the bugs are free to enter, as are most people, with little formality. To the best of my knowledge only one person in the village plays an instrument. There are no books, other than the bible. I mean no books; in all this time here I have never seen one. In Anton Lizardo, a town as sleazy as it sounds not far off, things are a little more sophisticated and a teenager might be able to cadge the ten pesos (85 cents) needed to go and use the internet for an hour (they Facebook and play games). In this village and Mata de Uva everyone is friendly and inviting towards me which I find heartwarming, but I rarely go out at night, there is not much for me on the village street, and the chamacas, teenage girls, have been getting increasingly saucy with me lately so I find it politic to avoid them altogether. I go to bed early and sweat out the night with no clothing at all and no coverings. I have a little fan which is a godsend. If I get kidnapped I hope they will let me take it with me.
Still I wait for the boat’s registration, as philosophically as I can. The delay has literally taken the wind out of my sails. So far I have made 6 trips to Veracruz and three to Alvarado. There are more to come. I could not register the boat myself as I am not a Mexican citizen, Santiago kindly volunteered to help and has been to much trouble. Just to start with we had to produce a notarized document, witnessed by three testigos, saying that the boat was such-and -such and made here in Mexico. This six-page document took a month to obtain and cost $85. We took it to Alvarado along with two copies each of: Identification of the owner, birth certificate, form filled with particulars of the boat, 2 pictures of the boat, letter to the Captain of the Port declaring wish to register, map of the area of intended sailing… They gave us a list of four separate payments that have to be made into a bank in another town, receipts for which have to be returned to Alvarado triggering another wait of a few days before I get my registration number. THEN the boat has to change ownership, into my hands, and I’ll be done except that the boat will really only be legal to sail near the coast and maybe not far from home but Santiago says “These are just pieces of paper, nobody pays them any heed, don’t worry” And I trust his wisdom, because he can do calculus and has a beard.
[Later: I sailed the boat to Veracruz in the hope of renting it out for a bit of needed cash, but I failed in this for I was immediately approached on the beach by two oficials of the Port of Veracruz. They forbade me to rent out my boat without a permiso (though this was clearly just preamble for a bribe, but said I might obtain one from the Capitania del Puerto in Alvarado. Oh, I said, I was there just yesterday registering the boat. But you don't need to register a boat that has no motor, they said, that is the law.
This is exactly the information I suspected might exist but have been unable to obtain all these frustrating weeks, including by asking the port Administration in Veracruz. The knowing of it would have saved 6 weeks, now 7 trips to Veracruz, 4 to Alvarado, plenty of money, and I would have been able to start the trip much earlier and probably be done by now but now I must drive all he way to Texas and back because my visa is a bout to expire. Sigh. Welcome to Mexico, says Victor.]
Alvarado is such a bustling place, a fishing port on the ocean entrance to a vast brackish lagoon which itself is at the confluence of three major rivers and an enormous area of lakes, wetlands and agricultural lowlands with townships of folk hardened to mosquitos. There are small shipyards and docks here, fish and shellfish farming in the lagoon, a fleet of shrimpers and tuna boats. I have never seen another foreigner in Alvarado. Santiago was born there and knows everybody, so we weave our way along the busy streets past the docks crowded with appallingly rusty fishing boats from fish stall to welding shop to Aunty’s house to the barber’s where we are treated like royalty by wizened genial old men and plied with various mysterious and potent brews, sometimes sugary or otherwise the pure stuff distilled clandestinely from sugar cane and served from a coke bottle. Neither of us need to be plied very hard. There are beers to be had if all else fails. Mopeds like scattering cockroaches blatter in all directions, shagged-out pickups with loudhailers on their roofs scream for scrap metal, a man sells pineapples from a sack, or shrimp from a bucket, or a bunch of crabs tied up alive with grass,
every third vehicle pumps out music as does the cd stall across the road. Men greet each other with obscenities (Alvarado is famous for groserias, that’s the only thing I could find out about it on the internet), taxis honk and the pinking of hammers chipping rust comes continually from the boats. I can’t help liking Alvarado. Then it rains, the first of the season, and months of accumulated filth runs down the steep streets and overloads the drains, lifting off a manhole cover in the road in front of our barber’s to flood the area, and inundation of stench. I guess it all ends up in the lagoon which is where much of the fish come from but that is all the cycle of life and the fish look pretty good to me. Alvarado was left cleaner and even more likable.
Watch where you put your feet when walking about a Mexican town. It is not like the USA where you can sue the local authority if you twist your ankle in a pothole. A typical Mexican sidewalk is constructed thus: The driver of a cement truck has a heart attack and gouges open the side of the vehicle against some obstacle. Gushing cement, the vehicle careers out of control down the street. From out of nowhere a small army of girl scouts appears wielding rakes and shovels which are too big and heavy for them but together they valiantly attempt to push the mess together to form some semblance of a pavement, but it is heavy and starts to go hard and they are just little girls so they give up and go home to watch Buffy la Matadora des Vampiros which has been horribly dubbed into Spanish so that all the nuance is lost. The public is left to pick their way along a route which would have shamed even London after The Blitz, over crumbled slabs, cracks, gaping holes, mismatches in height and pieces of rebar sticking out here and there, and in Alvarado after the first rain of the season, pools of rancid ooze. I am not say that this is a bad thing, it just is. A walk down a Mexican street is more interesting than any similar perambulation in the USA. I do not exactly look forward to returning to the USA. I think that the greatest threat we have there is not economic, not the Chinese nor the gasoline running out nor terrorism, it is that by our zeal to perfect our world we will bore ourselves to death.
Here’s a handy way to make some money which just wouldn’t fly in the States. You’ll need a bag of cement, a piece of string, a tin can, a borrowed shovel and wheelbarrow and cheapest of all, a boy. Wheelbarrow the cement out to the edge of town and find a place along the road to the next village with a couple of potholes, preferably with a stream not too far away.
Tie the string to a bush on one side of the road and have the boy stand on the other side pulling the string and holding the cup. It helps to tie a piece of garbage to the middle of the string so it bounces up and down. Meanwhile, using a bottle or two you found by the roadside by walking maybe ten feet, you fetch some water and start mixing cement which you then use to fix a pothole. Draw this process out. You want to make it look like you are doing some work but if you do it too quickly you will soon run out of cement and you will have nothing to do and people will think you are a shyster. Using the string the boy brings every vehicle to a halt and extracts a few pesos into the can, and why shouldn’t they pay you something, haven’t you fixed two potholes today? Soon you have paid off the cement and in a couple more hours the cement will be hard and you’ll be laughing all the way to the minisupermarket where they sell cane liquor real cheap.
By this ingenious scheme which I am sure by what they get out of me must net a small fortune the entire five kilometers of bad road between Anton Lizardo and El Zapote has been fixed by private enterprise!
I drove all the way to Texas for a new visa. 600 miles just to the border then another couple of hundred to Houston. I spent a couple of nights sweating in the desert but was then put up by friends of friends, the lovely Krishnan family, as fine people as I have ever met and very hospitable, not to mention physically beautiful, all of them. The change from Playa Zapote to immensely prosperous Houston, from the poverty to affluence, from a garbaged environment to a clean one, from my hovel to the Krishnan’s beautiful home is so drastic I am still a bit dizzy. I know it is another country, but it seems more like another planet.
Since my hitchhiking days I have always been impressed by Texans – I never had to wait more than five minutes for a ride in this state in contrast to the East where I used to wait hours which shows the friendliness of people and their comfort with each other. And how heavily armed they are. They are polite and helpful and they continue to be so from behind the wheels of cars when they don’t have to look you in the eye, so Texans I salute you.
I also visited the King of the Proas (as I call him, but it makes him uncomfortable) Kevin O’Neill, another man who can do calculus and his lovely wife Joy who is also no slouch in the cerebral department. Kevin runs the wikiproa site and has two proas, one with rudders so ingenious I kind of kicked myself. We yakked about boats and ate some very good curry and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. There hasn’t been anyone else at all I could talk to about proas in the whole three years this obsession has run. Thank you Kevin and Joy, we will meet again.
I finish this entry from a Starbucks in Corpus Christi – it beats the free wifi in the parking lot at McDonalds, where I can’t charge the computer. I have been driving around buying up used sewing machines and some other items for myself and my Mexican family, sleeping under bridges, you know, the usual. The bridges are ok but the only accessible ones go over water so the mosquitoes are trying to get into the car before I can get out. You never saw a tent go up so fast. (By the way Americans have you noticed that you have fenced off almost your entire enormous “land of the free” to such an extent that it is damned near impossible to find even 15 square feet to pitch a tent for the night. How free are you, exactly?). I should be heading south again within a day or two. I would much have preferred to have made this trip by ‘plane, but it is expensive, and sadly I was only born with a doughnut on my foot.