December 2006


Life in Mexico has given me a whole new perspective on consumerism.  We’ve been here almost two months and have had to make a few large purchases.  In US dollars, here is what we’ve spent:

$674 – new flooring, interior paint, bathroom sink/faucet/cabinet
$530 – new refrigerator (my christmas present from Miguel yesterday)
$138 – used dishwasher, half-sized for service for 5
               (Miguel got tired of washing dishes in the tiny motorhome sink)
$218 – hand made dishware and complete serving set, 75 pieces, service for 6
$1339 – 1980 VW bus, old hippie-style
$184 – monthly rent

We’ve been window shopping, too.  A brand new VW CrossFox fully-equipped costs $13,758 and there’s a new construction home in our neighborhood with granite tile inside and out, tri-level, 4 bedrooms, double-lot, huge fenced patios front and back, garage with fenced driveway for only $92,343.

 Wow, it’s all so cheap!!  Right? 

The minimum wage in Mexico is $500 pesos per week, about $46 USD, and most of the people who have a job make only the minimum wage, about $184 USD per month.

Miguel’s family is lucky.  Of the three sisters and one brother who are working age, all but the middle sister is employed.  His eldest sister has been at her job for 14 years and makes $4500 pesos per month, about $415 USD.  His brother, with a wife, a son, and two step-children makes $800 pesos per week, about $218 USD per month.  The middle sister runs a small store which she rents from her mother for $800 pesos per month – they don’t keep accounts, so who knows how much they make selling snacks and canned goods. 

With 15 people in the household, it’s a good thing they own their own home.  Why?  Well, the house we rent for $2000 pesos per month has one large bedroom, one large everything-else room, one completed bathroom off the bedroom, and one incomplete bathroom next to the front entry that we use for a pantry.  (Miguel just installed a cabinet and sink on the patio so that I have somewhere to cook – and, bonus, the dishwasher fits inside the cabinet.)  It would take three or four buildings this size to house 15 people – at a cost greater than they all earn in a month.  Their neighbor rents out rooms about 8ft x 7ft for $800 pesos per month!

Let’s take another look at those prices again in pesos, keeping in mind that the average person here makes $2000 pesos per month and a working couple makes maybe $4000 pesos per month:

$7,300 – new flooring, interior paint, bathroom sink/faucet/cabinet
$5,749 – new refrigerator
$1,500 – used dishwasher
$14,500 – 1980 VW bus
$2,000 – monthly rent
$144,900 – VW CrossFox
$1,000,000 – 4bedroom house

So my brain starts thinking, if I made $4,000 per month, how could I ever afford a $144,900 vehicle?  Or even a $5,749 refrigerator?  And, yet, these businesses are thriving.

I go to the local Gigante, kind of like Fred Meyer, and while I’m paying $6 for a 6 oz. bottle of drinkable mango yogurt (which, by the way is delicious) I think, “If I were in Seattle I would never pay the equivalent of $6 USD for a 6 oz. bottle of yogurt, but that’s what the ratio works out to be in local wages.”  And then I see a pair of shapeless polyester pants priced at $160 and my mind is blown.  Cheap shoes are $230.  The small store in the basement of the house on the corner sells K-Mart quality sweaters for $150 each.  A lady sells nice winter coats from the trunk of her car, albeit synthetic pile, $240 each.  Even the used clothing and shoes being sold from a blanket laying on the sidewalk cost $50-$100 pesos per piece.  Where do these prices come from?  I would be glad to pay $24 USD for a coat or $23 USD for shoes, but not if I were only making $50 USD per week – and especially not if I had to pay $200 USD per month in rent !!

And, yet, a doctor visit costs $20 pesos.  Yes, $2 USD to see the doctor.  And the medicine is equally inexpensive.  Unless it’s for a pet – I paid $20 pesos for one (1) de-worming pill for the cat, which I split into 4 doses because she’s so tiny.  I pay $17/week per kilo of cat food and $100/week for kitty litter.  At $1.50 USD for food and $9 USD for litter my cat is not high maintenace, but in comparison to the local wage earner I feel like I’m spending like a crazy rich person.  

The weirdest part is that the local people pay these bizarrely disproportionate prices.  I can’t figure it out; I can’t even find any justification or harebrained theory to understand it.   So, instead, I’ll just leave you with another strange story:

A water pipe burst in the street in front of our house last week.  The municipal workers came to fix it, but they didn’t have any tools or parts.  They whacked the street open with rusty picks and shovels.  Miguel was watching and noticed that they were trying to patch the pipes back together with tape and used chicken wire.  He went and bought compression bands for them.  They were very grateful.  They left big holes in the street – so the people won’t drive over the pipes and break them again.  Someone put the chunks of asphalt back in the biggest hole today.  So Miguel took the chunks out and put up two 3ft metal rods, one on each side of the hole, wrapped and joined together with black and yellow warning tape, so folks would have to drive around the hole. 

I asked Miguel why he was doing all of this on his own; aren’t the workers going to come back and make a permanent fix to the pipes?  No.  The municipal government doesn’t have any money for tools or supplies.  What?  They steal the money, so there isn’t any for repairs.  Besides, these pipes carry clean water, we can’t just let it gush like that for days; the people on the other side of the city only have water four days a week.

The last weekend in November we went on one of the numerous annual pilgrimages my husband’s Mexican family takes.  A quick 24-hour run to a small town in the state of Michoacan, north and west of Mexico City, five to six hours’ drive depending on how fast the tour bus driver goes. As passengers, we are torn about the issue of speed – for safety we prefer slow, but for comfort we prefer speed. The ancient tour bus has no heat and those who’ve taken this particular trip before warn us to bring as many blankets as we can carry.

We boarded the tour bus about 9pm and arrived in the village at 2:30am.  Our bus was the 8th to arrive of over 100 buses that packed into the small town before dawn.  As soon as we arrived our family and extended family – 16 of us altogether – debarked and went in search of food and a good leg stretch. 

The central plaza was packed with vendor stalls, all covered with tarps for the night. The sellers cocooned in woven cotton blankets atop reed mats, modern tents sprinkled here and there.  The plaza in front of the church was filled with sleeping people, too; bundled and clustered like grapes on patches of dirt under precisely box-shaped trees; all awaiting the morning bell to wake them for mass.

The altar was set up on a giant cement table in the church garden because there would be too many people to hold the mass inside the chapel.  On the far side of the surrounding plaza, the main street was closed off and filled with food stalls.  A few large makeshift kitchens had their own large spaces behind the cooking areas crammed cafe-style with wobbly metal tables and chairs. Even at this early hour, many of the food vendors were crouched beside their pots and fires, pitching their hot breakfast offerings – tamales, atole (hot corn milk), chocolate, coffee, rice with mole.  We stopped at one of the large kitchens – the same one the family stops at every year – for tamales and atole and coffee.  Miguel’s godmother was thrilled to hear that later they would serve the turkey head soup she’d been craving all year.

They call the hours between midnight and sunup La Madrugada and except for the food vendors, all was quiet and empty like these silk dark hours should be. We wandered around the plaza marveling at the broad streets, now converted into a labyrinth of narrow walkways winding among vendor stalls.  Every open entry we passed led to a tiled and flower-filled walkway or patio and the side streets were full of orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit.  We located the public restrooms in a jungled courtyard inside a castle-gated wall complete with an imposing iron-studded wooden entry gate the size of double barn doors.

We sat for awhile on the curb in front of the gate and watched as more tour buses flowed in, directed through the winding streets by fires built on the pavement to block the roads they should not enter.  If the bus is very big, or the driver not very experienced, the men huddled around the fires get up to guide them around the tight corners, their sharp whistles the go-forward signal: beep-beep  beep-beep  beep-beep. Their silence and the thump of a flat hand on metal bus siding a warning to stop.  Safely around the corner, the driver hands pesos out the window into an open handed whistle-blower and the web of Mexican commerce is woven. 

There are open hands and pesos for every service in Mexico. On the street where the buses park, every third or fourth house has its entry gate opened wide, lights casting a friendly glow onto the sidewalk, with a scribbled “baño” sign hung nearby. You pay two pesos at the entry and are handed a small folded packet of toilet paper. Passing into the courtyard you find a small, cement or tar paper building, with two or three toilet stalls with wooden doors. There is usually a large cement sink nearby with a cold water spigot.  The families in this town have installed these structures specifically to service the pilgrims that come to see the town’s Cristo milagroso during one of the 11 festival days each year.  And, at least economically speaking, their Christ is miraculous because it brings so much money in through the pilgrims’ pockets.

I went back to the bus alone, hoping to get some sleep.  In our absence, though, the narrow street had filled with two rows of parked buses and I often had to turn sideways to fit between.  I couldn’t picture where I was on the street until I came to a patch of eroding adobe wall with wide windows and a small cramped door where tall tropical bushes with platter-sized leaves spilled out of every opening and filled every space on the roofless lot, rising up and over the walls like giant green heads watching and nodding.  Our bus would be just a bit further up the hill on the right, with an open space and fire on the street in front of the coach. 

Stumbling along the dark uneven sidewalk and unable to identify the multi-colored logos, I recognized the window configuration of the bus door and stepped up into the entry.  I did not recognize the person in my seat behind the driver, however, and immediately knew I’d been deceived by appearances.  The next open space I could see in the street was three buses further up at the peak of the hill.  I looked closer at the exterior markings this time and, though the spot was again occupied, I knew the face of the lady sitting in Miguel’s seat, next to my niece in my seat.  Desperate with sleep, but not related to the ancient woman in Miguel’s seat, I couldn’t figure out how to ask her to move.  In this grandmother’s absence, the tour director took the emptied front row seat across the aisle and was now deeply asleep or at least pretending to be (she’s quite the conniver).  So the grandmother had taken my seat and though she was awake I knew her to be very hard of hearing (or at least pretending to be) and very loud of voice, and I knew she would not understand my request (or would loudly pretend not to) and, well, the anticipated commotion was just not worth it.  So I turned back and wended my way through the ratpaths between and around the buses and the rest of the pilgrims coming and going, and met Miguel and the family halfway down the hill. 

I explained my presence and my mother-in-law led the way back to the bus. She had no problem confronting the woman in my seat.  The grandmother got up and stood with her cane in the entry of the bus while our family settled back in and, much to my chagrin, remained standing there talking loudly to herself as Miguel and I pulled up our blankets and tried to sleep.  I was mortified, having evicted this bent and withered woman, but would insult my mother-in-law if I relinquished my seat and would subject my husband to an ammonia-perfumed seat-mate.  My brain chewed on my embarrassment, but eventually my eyelids won and my sleep was a strong, pulling anchor.

Four hours later, we woke to an almost empty bus.  It was eight o’clock and mass had started at seven. 

Despite the morning chill, the village was bursting at the seams. The church courtyard was standing room only and beyond its wrought iron gates the city plaza was also at a standstill, people craning to see the miraculous Christ now positioned on the cement altar.

To see this crucifix inside the church, it appears small, child-sized.  But out in the open the Christ’s arms stretch to superhuman size and the crucifix commands attention from high above the heads of the crowd.  It is the oldest such figure in
Mexico – over 500 years, and made of bamboo, put in place by the Franciscan’s who arrived first in Michoacan to convert the Indians.  The miracle is that this Christ sweats.  The caretakers of the Christ gather the sweat on cottonballs and it is said that a touch of one of these can cure any ailment.  To move the Christ, the caretakers wear gloves so that their human oils don’t damage the wooden figure.  Also because it is bamboo and because it is so beloved, the people cannot touch the figure as they do the marble saints and sacred statues.  So they throw articles of clothing – a scarf, a glove, a shirt, a bandana, a baby’s blanket – to the caretakers who carefully touch the item to the bamboo Christ and toss it back into the crowd.

We tediously push through the crowds in between the vendor booths heading toward the turkey head soup kitchen.  I see stalls of wooden toys, with little logging trucks like the one I received three years ago from my mother-in-law.  There are tables overflowing with the sweet potato, coconut, and sesame candies she sends me every year. I recognize stacks of the curly-edged ceramic bowls in her kitchen.  We arrive at the food street, but there is still no sign of family anywhere. 

We circle away to the far side of the plaza, to the street the buses entered through, and it is now also filled with vendors.  Tarps in the middle of the street are covered with tropical nuts – mounds of pecans in their shells, burlap bags overspilling with roasted natural pistachios. Sixteen pesos a kilo – $1.50 USD for 2.2 pounds of pecans.  The sidewalk tables are stacked with bottles and jars of bright preserves and liqueurs and tequilas.

And there are towers of bird cages everywhere. Small wire cages and tall whitewashed slat cages stacked higher than a man can reach.  Filled with singing and squawking feathered beings the likes of which I’ve never seen even in my dreams.  An eight inch compact parrot-green body is topped with a surprising iridescent black-blue raven head.  A foot-long black body balances a screeching magpie head crowned with a spray of six three-inch feathers, black with white spots, and draped behind with a loose wedding train tail of thin black feathers with white edges.  Soft gray balls whistled complicated meadow-bird songs.  Tawny coral-beaked finches fill up the spaces between the feathered scandals. All the vendors have small falcons tethered to their hands. 

“These are not birds to be caged,” I say to Miguel, and later his mother tells me, “They are wild and many of them are on the verge of extinction.  Don’t buy them. They will die before you get home.”

Eventually, we found Miguel’s godmother at the appointed place.  The turkey head was an unrecognizable black lump.  A delicious lump by the way she sucked and savored its bones.  But she was the only one that went away happy from that meal.  The tables were so crowded that the service lagged – 15-20 minutes just to place an order with a distracted waiter, another 15-20 for the food to arrive in the hands of a harried waitress – tepid chicken leg soup, a plate of whipped and watery rice, boiled chicken thigh covered in cold overly sweet mole.  The rest of the family wandered up in twos and threes.  No one got better service. 

Half of us moved, en masse, to the next kitchen over.  From a sunny open space on the patio, we commandeered tables and seats as they became available and dragged them over to our corner.  Rather than wait for service, Miguel went to the cooks and ordered for us all – and stood there hovering while they cooked.  Pambasos – large football-shaped rolls split in two, dipped in a light chile sauce, toasted on the grill, and then spread with refried beans and cream and filled with chicken or potatoes or whatever is available. Not the best I’ve had, but significantly better than cold rice and slimy-skinned chicken.

Then we were off to the aguas thermicas; the hot springs.  The road up to the springs is where I found what I’d been looking for – painted ceramic pots for my garden.  But I was tired and just wanted to rest, and who wants to lug pots up and back, so I looked as we walked but did not buy.  Here is where we also found the fruit vendors.  20 oz. plastic cups of every tropical fruit you can imagine.  And vegetables, too.  I settled on a cup layered with shredded beets, cucumber, carrots and jicama, topped with salt and fresh-squeezed lime juice.  I’ve developed a thing for fruits and vegetables with lime and salt.  The carrots prepared this way were the best surprise.

At the hot springs, we paid 40 pesos per person entry fee, about $4 USD.  After passing through the entry gate, we were confronted with the reality that is Mexico. There were pools with water slides and wading pools and pools with fountains, but there were so many people not one more person could squeeze in and the water that was visible between bodies looked like tea. The few patches of grass were equally crowded.  So we walked to the far side of the park and arrived just as a cement table under a big roof was being vacated – a miracle of the bamboo Christ in my opinion; I just wanted to nap.  We settled in, the kids changed into their swimsuits, and I gratefully laid my head on the pillow of my coat on my corner of the table and slept.

A few hours later, rested, recreated, and fed, we left to head back to the bus.  Departure was scheduled for 4:30p and we had about 90 minutes.  I bought some lovely pots on the way, $5-$8 USD each, painted with sunflowers and calla lilies.  And then, just short of the road up to the buses, Miguel spotted a vajilla – a set of dishware, full service for six; 75 pieces in all, hand-painted ceramic in cobalt blue and white and orange with sunflowers and lilies.  Miguel negotiated the sellers down from $3,000 pesos to $2,400 pesos.  I reminded him that we already had two big bags and a box to carry.  I told him that if I’d had to turn sideways to get through, there was no way a box of dishes could fit up the strangled path to the buses, and I left him there.  He followed me.  I reminded him that our rental house doesn’t even have a kitchen to put the dishes in. 

“You know you’ve been looking at dishes like this for years.  You know you’ll never find a set like this for $200 dollars.”  He wouldn’t stop.  So I gave in.

With time running short, the entire set was packed into two boxes and I insisted we pay two young men to carry them. So we hurried back to the bus – me in the lead, the box boys in the middle, Miguel and his daughter bringing up the rear.  Miguel told me we looked like an expedition from an Indiana Jones movie, tall people hurrying through a crowd with string-tied boxes on their shoulders.

We met the rest of the family half way up the hill and proceeded together.  We were late, but we weren’t the last ones to arrive.  Again, the old lady had taken my seat because the tour director had moved her two rows back from the front.  My mother-in-law was fearless on my behalf and finally the lady stood up saying, “Well, then I guess you’re right,” and moved back to her reassigned seat.

It isn’t even my fault that they always put me in the front; the first time I went on one of these excursions, we sat in the back and the diesel fumes made me so sick I turned green (really) and had a bad episode at the first town we stopped in.  So now I have to sit up front and take the insinuations that it’s my fault that the old ladies can’t sit up front.  Truth is they couldn’t handle it anyway – behind the driver there is a wall that prevents me from stretching my legs out, so however many hours we spend on the road are hours spent with my knees at a 90 degree angle.  Sometimes I can hardly walk when the bus stops.

The trip home was uneventful except for two new passengers – the wife and infant daughter of the bus driver who had made the outbound trip sleeping in a converted storage bay in the belly of the bus!  Which is why the tour guide couldn’t sit in the fold-down seat by the door, which is why the old lady got moved, which is why . . . well, you get the picture.  Life in Mexico is an intricate web of whys and answers that often escape logic.