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After the water started recedingSeptember has really been a month of surprises – good and bad.

On September 4th I received an unexpected but much hoped for call from Emily Cervino, Director of the Certified Equity Professional Institute at Santa Clara University, advising me that I had been selected as the inaugural recipient of the Marilyn J. Perkins Claassen Memorial Scholarship. (I owe many thanks to Carine Schneider and Lauren Kahn for their recommendation letters.) The award includes full tuition for the remaining two levels of my CEP qualifying exams. In order to become a CEP designee, a candidate must pass three levels of exams on tax, accounting, securities law, and plan design and administration. I passed my Level 1 exam in June and am scheduled for the Level 2 exam in November. I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

Then we had a flash flood on Monday night, the 17th. At 8:20pm I was calling Miguel to comment on the heavy hail then 30 minutes later I looked out and my potted gardenias were floating in our flooded patio and a pond had snuck in through my back door and taken up residence under my couch. I walked through 10 inches of water to open the front gate – somehow thinking I could let the water out – and the street was a roiling river

When the water receded it left three inches of septic mud in my patio and acres of weeds wrapped around the axels of the motorhome. After two hours of sleep Monday night, we spent 14 hours Tuesday cleaning it all up.

The corner we live on is the low point of several neighborhoods. At the head of our street is a wide canal/walkway that was built to channel the water away from the upper neighborhood – at the point where it enters our street, the water was above my head. Here are some pictures http://www.box.net/shared/0v9tfzn7jr – they are all taken after the water level started subsiding because I was busy blocking the exterior doors to keep more water from coming in. All of the people-pointing-pictures are “water up to here” measures. The red Datsun was swept down our entire street and just missed being smashed into our motorhome. On the other side of the street, all of the cars were pushed together in one long line. One neighbor was home with her mother-in-law and they were so scared they just cried on the phone to her husband who was stuck in traffic. Tuesday they removed all of the furniture from their first floor living room – all the pieces were wet a good 12 inches high. Apparently this is the worst flood in 20 years. At the end of our street where there was a small canal excavated to direct the water to the river, there is now a huge gaping hole. The neighbors actually cooperated and signed a petition (getting them to sign anything is virtually impossible) – I printed out some of these photos to send to the municipal government with the petition.

And to top it all off, two weeks ago I accidentally dyed my hair pitch black. I used the same brand (L’Oreal) and same tone that I used to use in the States, but it turned out superGoth. So much for quality control on major brands sold in foreign countries. I went to the hairdresser the next day and she did something to it – stripped and then re-colored – and it’s still dark, but not BLACK, and at least it matches my eyebrows now. She says in another two weeks it will lighten even more and not to worry. I wouldn’t be worried at all except that I have this professional conference in San Francisco October 9-12 and I really don’t want to look like a vampire in street clothes. For goodness sake, these people just gave me a scholarship – I have an image to uphold!

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Achaessa at YaxchilanWe had a great time in Chiapas last month, traveling with a group of young, professional Catholics that Miguel’s youngest sister is associated with. It was a lively, international group of about 40 people that included a psychologist, a corporate attorney, a doctor in economics, a Spanish priest based in Mexico City, an Italian seminarist from Rome and regular folks like us. They were all very warm and welcoming and Miguel and I really enjoyed being part of the group.

Miguel, his sister and I flew in to the capital city Tuxtla-Gutierrez and stayed the first night at the Crown Plaza. It wasn’t a luxury – it was preparation for the 6+ hour drive the next day. Plus I haven’t sat in a bathtub since March, so I blissed out in the giant bathroom. (Note to travelers: The Crown Plaza Tuxtla is beautiful – nicer than it’s American counterparts and much less expensive. The only glitch – to get to the Crown’s private entry, you have to traverse the Holiday Inn lobby, pass through the shopping and restaurant plaza, and cross the pool and patio area, all on foot. Then the Crown valet will take your keys and park your car in their secure lot. Very strange, but worth the walk.)

The drive to Palenque took us over the mountains where we were actually above the clouds. When the clouds opened up, the view of the jungle below was vast and densely green. I had imagined a suffocating mass of tropical plants, but it was just the opposite – and impossible to judge how far away the eye could see. I had run a map on Microsoft Streets & Trips, but it was no help. The roads were so poorly marked that we never knew where we were. In some places, there were signs right next to each other for two different highways – Mexico 99, Palenque 84 km – Mexico 98, Palenque 91km – but there was only one road. We were in a rented Tsuru – economy 4-door – not really that low, but the road bumps were often so high they scraped our underside.

Palenque was a beautiful torture. Trees, vines and plants of enormous proportions. Flowers and birds of unexplainable colors. But the humidity and the heat were at times unbearable. Thank goodness we opted for the expensive room – it not only had a private bathroom, but had air conditioning as well. It wasn’t a sealed room, in fact, the windows on one side didn’t even close, but the air conditioning box mounted high on the wall was quiet and kept the room fresh enough to sleep.

In Mexico most houses don’t have doorbells and the front door is not on the street, so the customary manner to raise the house is to knock on the front metal gate or the front window with a coin. It is an unmistakable sound. The first night at La Aldea I spent waiting for whoever was knocking on all the windows to get to our door to see what he wanted. Every 15 minutes he would knock on another window, then quiet. In the exhausted morning, I discovered that there is a small transparent lizard that makes the coin-tapping sound.

We found a knowledgeable and humorous guide the first day at the ruins in Palenque and persuaded him to be our guide the next day, too. A 30-something shaven-head Mayan – do not think small here, he was almost as tall as Miguel and more sturdily built – named Salvador. His bright green eyes were shocking in his tan face. He carried a back pack full of reference materials about the area – National Geographic articles, Mexican archaeology magazines, photos and maps. I didn’t like Salvador at first sight because of his eyes. They scared me. But after a short while his humor and professional manner won me over. By the end of the second day I even hugged him when we all said goodbye.

So the first day we went to Palenque, where the well-kept grounds and signage gave it the feel of a museum. We ended the day swimming at a waterfall called Misol-Ha. The second day we took a boat ride on the Usumacinta River, with Mexico on the eastern shore and Guatemala on the western shore, to tour the island ruins of Yaxchilan. The ruins here were wilder than those at Palenque and the air was full of jaguar screams, monkey howls and bird screeches. Then we raced to get to Bonampak before the site closed. Bonampak is the only site with well-preserved paintings (as opposed to carvings). According to Salvador, about 10 years ago the Mexican government had agreed to flood this river valley, covering these spectacular ruins, to create a hydroelectric power plant for Guatemala. Fortunately, the global community supporting the indigenous populations stepped in and persuaded them to abandon the project.

The climbing and hiking were strenuous at points. The photos you’ve seen of ruins with stairs that appear to go straight up depict the truth. In all of the sites we visited, though, there were only a few roped off ruins, and never any “do not walk” signs, so the tourists spread out and walked anywhere they wanted. From the look of the undergrowth I think the open areas rely on human traffic to keep the jungle growth from taking over again.

The last day we drove back to Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Everyone in our group had been appalled that we’d driven so many hours – most had flown into Villahermosa in Tabasco, just two hours from Palenque. They assured us there was a better driving route back to Tuxtla – still six hours, but real highway with no road bumps. Well, we got to Villahermosa just fine, and had the most marvelous lunch. A local river lobster called a Pigua, roasted with crunchy pieces of garlic. My mouth is watering at the memory of it. After Villahermosa, we immediatelly got lost. Or at least I think we did. There were no roadbumps, but it was definitely not highway and it took us seven more hours without even stopping to eat. We got to the outskirts of Tuxtla, on the other side of the city from the airport, about 10 minutes before our plane was set to take off. So we decided to stay another night.

After 9 hours of driving I was ready for another night at the Crown Plaza. Bathtub from heaven. Bed of clouds. Real air conditioning. But driving down the main avenue, we saw a fancy-looking steakhouse on a corner and Miguel decided we should stay in the hotel above it. It was an older hotel with a large modern lobby in marble. The rooms, however, were sad and dark. What the heck, we left our bags and went downstairs for steak.

Balam Steak House Restaurante turned out to be exceptional and more than made up for Miguel’s bad hotel choice.  Mexican steaks are generally paper thin, unaged beef. We were surprised by the American style thick cuts and even more surprised that the chefs knew how to cook them properly. Best rib eye I’ve had in ages. Equally stunning was the presence of salads on the menu and we were pleased to receive a variety of fresh greens and not one leaf of iceberg lettuce. After dinner we walked down to the local plaza, Jardin de la Marinba, which was still overflowing with people and vendors and mariachis at 10 o’clock.

The next day we took a boat tour up the Sumidero Canyon. A famous mountain pass flooded to build a hydroelectric dam that opened in 1981. We saw crocodiles and monkeys and white cranes. And garbage. Fortunately, the garbage was just in one football field size area and there was a work crew trying to scoop it up, but it was just another reminder of how this society truly fails to connect their personal actions with the ultimate environmental impact.

I’ve posted our photos on Box.Net at http://www.box.net/shared/0v9tfzn7jr. (Don’t worry, it’s a straight link with nothing to sign up for.) There are three subfolders – Chiapas-Ruins, Chiapas-Sumidero, and Chiapas-Vacaciones. Open the first photo in each folder and then just select Next Picture so you can scroll them all full-size. Unfortunately, my camera died half-way through the Sumidero boat tour, so that folder is sparse. The last folder, Vacaciones, is miscellaneous shots that closes with a 4-photo summary of the only form of mass transit we saw while in Chiapas (outside of the capital city).

The day after I wrote that last post I found an essay I’d written for the 50th anniversary of the “This I Believe” project.  It’s called “The Rock and The Hard Place: An Essay on Faith and Change.”  I never submitted it because it’s about three times too long.  But, it was just what I needed to find the day after my last post because it made me remember what it is that I truly believe. 

“I believe that there are only two motivators in life – fear and love.”

That’s what I wrote in 2005 and that’s what I believe today.  In 1991 I saw a movie called “Defending Your Life.” The premise is that life on planet Earth is dominated by fear and the goal is to live beyond your fears. If, after death, your life shows that you overcame your fear then you get to “move on” to become a member of the greater universal community. If not, you repeatedly return to Earth until you become suitable material for universal citizenship

In the movie, Rip Torn plays Bob Diamond, the defense advocate for a person who had died, Daniel Miller, played by Albert Brooks. Bob explains the situation to Daniel: “Being from Earth as you are, and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.” Daniel still doesn’t believe it until Bob makes it personal.

Bob Diamond – “Did you ever have friends whose stomachs hurt?”

Daniel Miller – “Every one of them.”

Bob Diamond – “It’s fear. Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything. Real feeling, true happiness, real joy, they can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy you’re in for the ride of your life.”

I’ve decided to step out of the fog and onto the rollercoaster and ride Mexico for all it’s worth.

The question we’re struggling with right now is how safe do we feel in Mexico.

A neighbor of Miguel’s best friend was in a car accident in late June and the wife asked Miguel’s friend, Adrian, to take her to the hospital. Adrian was so upset by the news he couldn’t drive. So Miguel drove Adrian and the neighbor’s wife to the hospital.

The neighbor and his adult son and another fellow were coming back from work; driving on what passes for highway here. It was just about sundown, 7:30 p.m. or so, and the roads were wet from heavy rains. My guess is everyone was driving at their usual crazy speed. The father was driving in the right hand lane, the son was in the backseat, the passenger in the front seat just happened to be looking backwards and saw another car approaching even faster. As the driver of the second car pulled out to pass the father’s car, she clipped the left rear corner. Yes, it was close enough that the passenger saw it was a woman driving. The neighbor’s car went into a spin, jumped the center divide, and slid into the opposite lanes of traffic – facing in the correct direction for their new lanes, but directly in front of an oncoming vehicle. The impact collapsed the rear of the car, crushing the son inside.

The son was trapped for 30 minutes before the rescue workers could get him out. At the hospital, he was in grave condition – internal injuries, a broken thigh and a foot severed at the arch. The first surgery, after waiting for the mother to arrive with proof of medical insurance, was to put his intestines back together.

Yet, those issues, alone, are not the main reasons for us to rethink living in Mexico. Here are the details as they have been explained to me by Miguel; each an individual assault to my sense of justice and, taken together, one big question mark about what my expectations are for living here.

While in the hospital, the father was arrested for attempted suicide. Apparently there is a law that any driver must be arrested for attempted suicide for intentionally driving fast enough to be potentially life threatening. I think it’s an interesting law and would almost be inclined to support it, except that the arrest was made before the investigation was even begun and the father has to stay in jail until the investigation is completed (weeks/months) or until he pays $150,000 pesos in bail. There is no system of posting bonds for bail. Imagine being stuck in jail, with a family to support, unable to work, and obligated to pay in cash the equivalent of about six years wages. And, even if he is ultimately found innocent, the $150,000 pesos will stay with the police.

I asked, “What about the driver that clipped them?” The father’s attorney says that even if the police located the other driver at the time of the accident (because they won’t likely go looking for her later), the police would simply say, “Pay us $100,000 pesos and we’ll pretend we’ve never seen you.” The obvious question to me was, “Who has that kind of cash on hand?” Apparently, corruption is so institutionalized in Mexico that the police officer will accept whatever cash you have on hand and give you a loan for the rest – secured by your car or your house. If you default on the loan, they take your car or house. If you raise any questions about the propriety of the bribe, it’s just a promissory note between you and a cop – nothing out of the ordinary in the court’s opinion.

Now let me step back to the question of medical care in Mexico…think about this detail and the young man with intestinal surgery. According to Miguel’s mother and sisters, all surgery done on Mexico is done under a local anesthetic. No one is put to sleep for any reason. Ever. Miriam’s appendix ruptured last year, she had to wait a number of hours before they operated, she was awake for the entire operation, the resulting infection required three more surgeries to clean up the poisons that spilled into her body with the rupture – all done with eyes wide open, she was off work more than four months, and was left with a wide and winding ten-inch scar down the middle of her abdomen.

So, whether it is true that surgery is never done under a general anesthesia in Mexico, or whether it is only the local hospitals that are not equipped for procedures that require general anesthesia, medical care is on our list of concerns next to traffic safety and corruption. (And I have a new understanding of and appreciation for the road-bump-cursed surface streets.)

On the other hand, apart from being charged an occasional premium for green eyes, we have not experienced racism in Mexico like we did in the US. Just as in Mexico I am concerned each day about corruption, when we lived in Seattle I was concerned every day about Miguel’s well being in the context of racism.

I can hear you saying, “Racism? In Seattle?” But, yes, Racism. In Seattle. And across the US. And even worse today with immigration conflicts. The subtle and not so subtle racist activities I encountered in the Pacific Northwest included things like

  • The popular “Save the Whale, Kill an Indian” bumper sticker during the 1999 Makah whale hunt (what other cultural group could be so blatantly menaced and no cry of outrage heard in the national press?)
  • The day before our wedding in 2000 my brown-skinned husband was refused a key to the Pike Place Starbuck’s bathroom while I was ordering coffee for our party of four – “You have to buy something” the barista snapped at him, while at the same moment I watched a white man walk in off the street, ask for and was given the key, and then left without ordering a thing (and, even worse, when I complained to the company’s corporate offices they didn’t even bother to respond)
  • After a day spent fishing the far side of a Montana lake in the summer of 1992, my “Red Power” bumper sticker had been pounded into the steel of my bumper with a ball peen hammer
  • The unlikely coincidence that all of my husband’s Mexican coworkers who drive down the same small-town street past the police station to cash their paychecks have been stopped for speeding when they were obeying the speed limit, and the fact that the former city attorney for that same small-town admitted to me that racial profiling for false traffic violations was a city policy because it almost always resulted in large fines from citations to drivers without a license or insurance.

And, yes, I agree that everyone should obey the law and always carry a valid driver’s license and appropriate insurance, but racial profiling is not the way to enforce the law. Miguel’s co-worker who actually produced a valid license and insurance was then charged with drunk driving, even though he wasn’t, and even though many other details of the arrest were questionable, and he had to pay a lot of money to get his record cleared up so as not to jeopardize his legal immigration status. And the terror I saw on their faces when I went to translate for him and his wife with their attorney was, I am certain, what I would have felt had it been me and Miguel.

So, our predicament is this: Which is more difficult to endure? Racism? Or corruption? Both happen every moment of every day. We have experienced both in the past. Either could happen at any moment in the future. Which is more traumatic? Which is easier to put out of my mind as I go through my daily activities?

The end of April already and I’ve been delinquent in posting news. Apologies if you’ve come back more than once to nothing new.

I was in Seattle and San Francisco the first week of March with a really bad attitude. Mexico was ugly. Dirty. Dangerous. Did I mention Ugly? I was quite distressed. Most of my friends were also distressed after hearing my travails – all true enough, but perhaps taking on an importance in the telling that they did not merit.

Either that or, as my sister will confirm, I am fully capable of now convincing myself that all is well in fantasyland.

In any event, I stayed away long enough (three weeks) to miss Miguel and when I returned, Mexico had also changed. The new municipal president of Villa Nicolas Romero had implemented a clean up program and the streets had been swept clean of garbage. The clogged riverbanks had been scoured by cleanup crews. Cavernous potholes on main avenues were filled and traffic lanes were defined with bright white lines.

Spring thunderstorms now freshen the afternoon air and in the mornings the tall eucalyptus along the river are filled with white cranes spreading their feathers in amazing postures. From the hill above the neighborhood, the trees look to be in full bloom. My patio is edged with bright ceramic pots of blooming gardenias and fuschia. In the evening the streets are brushed with aromas of honeysuckle and the distinctive sharp mint of the eucalyptus. All the smells of my childhood in Northern California.

Unfortunately, the riverbanks have returned to their former disgusting state. We were walking home one afternoon through our shortcut that crosses the river. The people on the street were all busy sweeping and prettying up the neighborhood for Semana Santa – the traditional spring cleaning during the weeks preceding Passover/Easter. At the end of the street, the family that lives next to the river had swept its garbage into a neat pile and the young son was dutifully picking it up, walking to the edge of the property, tossing it over and watching it float away. Adios garbage. His dad was doing the same.

This time last year we went to visit the Virgin of Juquila in the state of Oaxaca. Another one of my mother-in-law’s annual pilgrimages. The Virgin of Juquila is very powerful and has granted many prayerful requests. People come from all across Mexico to ask for miracles. Health. Wealth. Happiness. The usual.

When the miracles have been granted, the petitioners have to come back to leave an offering of thanks. The grounds are covered with crosses and banners and clay figurines and flowers thanking the Virgin from The Family SoAndSo for the new business, for the father’s recovery, for the healthy new baby.

They leave their garbage, too. For miles surrounding the sanctuary, El Pedimento, and within the chapel grounds, too, there are mountains of garbage. In fact, by the time we got to Juquila last year, I had seen so much garbage along the roadway that I was ready to explode. When we walked into the chapel I had no idea what I wanted to ask for, I was just so angry at the getting there, and when I saw an empty candy wrapper left on a windowsill I was immediately brought to tears of rage. All I could do was sit in the back of the chapel and cry with frustration.

At this point I have to say, for those who don’t know me, that I am not a religious person and I have never been a Catholic. Nor am I the type of person that angers easily. But I was so struck by the hypocrisy of the people coming here to ask for their miracles and then trashing the place that my anger just came of its own and I could feel the heat rising from my feet to my hips to my chest, up my throat and into my face, burning my cheeks and my eyes and the tips of my ears. The hairs were stiff on my head and my arms, and my tears wet the entire front of my shirt.

Fortunately, Miguel was the only one who noticed. He tried to console me, but I couldn’t talk. I just sat there, gratefully unnoticed, raining quietly into my lap.

Miguel went up to the altar with his mother and then came back for me. People were crowded four and five deep in the small apse. Everybody was taking pictures of the Virgin; a black stone, maybe the size of an open hand, maybe larger, so completely adorned that the only part of the stone exposed is what appears to be a fist-sized face, topped by a crown and dressed in a shimmering robe covered in small gold and brass amulets representing the asked-for miracles. They’re called Milagros – hands, feet, babies, dollar signs, hearts, houses, symbols of the desired.

“I don’t know why everyone takes pictures,” his mother said, “the face never comes out.” She and I stood at the back of the crowd, watching the flashbulbs. Miguel worked his way to the front and took some pictures, too. “They say that only the pure at heart will have the face show up in their photos. I’ve never known anyone whose pictures turned out.” I squeezed the abandoned candy wrapper in my pocket and knew why.

My mother-in-law looked at me; I must have been a sight. Her forehead wrinkled, “Don’t be sad,” she said, “Ask the Virgin for what you want. She’ll give it to you.”

I had been thinking about this all the way there. I would be living in Mexico and my own people say that the gods and the power belong to the land no matter what religion adopts them. Would I be a hypocrite to ask a Catholic saint to help with my transition to her land?

On my first visit to meet Miguel’s family on the first day of Y2K, we’d gone to La Villa – where the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the Mexican Indian Juan Diego. We’d all thrown a coin into the fountain on the stairs to the old chapel. Mine had landed right in the center of one of the small volcanic stone bowls in the fountain. Miguel’s sister had exclaimed that I must have great luck because the coins rarely land in the bowls – “Quick, ask for what you want!”

Everything I asked for that day has come true and I have felt a certain affection for La Virgincita since that time.

So, during the trip to Juquila, I was wondering – with La Guadalupana, it was an accident, like luck, a response to a thrown coin, maybe by throwing the coin I had taken the action and the Universe had responded. In any event, I wondered, would it be wrong for me to specifically ask for something . . . okay, for a safe move from Seattle to Mexico, for the financial ability to live in Mexico . . . would it be hypocritical for me to intentionally ask, even if I was not a “believer” like the rest of these people?

But, by the time I was standing in front of the Virgin of Juquila, those questions were moot. My mind’s eye was full of garbage and anger. “Just make the garbage go away. Just make the people clean up their f***ing act!”

When Miguel’s mother found out later why I was so angry, her response was not comforting. “It’s like that at the places of all the saints. It’s like that all over Mexico where the foreign tourists don’t go.” And I knew it was true. I had traveled like a Mexican and seen the Mexico tourists don’t see.

A campaign formed in my mind in that moment. Santos en Huelga . . . Saints on Strike. I’d send a petition to the national newspaper, signed by all the Saints in Mexico, saying they’d be granting no more miracles until the Mexican people stopped with the garbage.

“What hypocrites you are, asking us for miracles,” it would say, “and trashing our sacred lands.” It would promise complete and sacred silence until the mountains of garbage were no more.

It would be followed up with a television ad campaign. Images of cherished Mexican icons – the pyramids, the memorials, the works of great art with a caption and voiceover “El orgullo de Mexico,” the pride of Mexico – followed by images of the mountains of garbage and the spoiled sacred places with a caption and voiceover “La verguenza de Mexico,” the shame of Mexico – closed with a cartoon of a little pig running across the bottom of the screen trailing garbage in its wake and the words “Que Cochinito,” what a pig!

Miguel thought my idea might be a little extreme for a foreigner. It could work, but it could also piss people off. He was right, of course, but I’ve thought of Santos en Huelga every day since then. I collected articles on people who’ve made a difference in modern Mexico, like Juan Carlos Cantu who has been the moving force behind multiple successful national campaigns to protect Mexico’s whales, dolphins, sea turtles and mangrove forests (Defenders of Wildlife, Feb. 2007 newsletter). In March I met a writer in Seattle who promised to introduce me to Leslie Iwerks, who had just received an Academy Award nomination for her film “Recycled Life,” a documentary on the inhabitants of the Guatemala City garbage dump (Recycled Life – a Documentary). I wanted to know how they’ve done it. How does one person tackle a problem bigger than a mountain? Bigger than a country? As big as humankind?

This week, Miguel’s mother got back from the annual pilgrimage to Juquila. The garbage is gone. The Mexican government has apparently, finally, taken an interest in public health and natural resources and the people are responding.

They’ve also cleaned up Acapulco – the Mexican tourist side of Acapulco. Last year it was repulsive – streets and beaches covered in plastic cups, Styrofoam plates, disposable forks, beer cans, soda bottles, food waste. The state government has invested $35 million pesos in the cleanup of Acapulco and ordered all of the street vendors to clean up after themselves – and wear black pants and white shirts for a clean appearance.

So, it looks like Miguel and I will go back Juquila to give thanks. Next time I’ll ask for clean rivers. And that the cleanups last. And that the people take personal responsibility for where they drop their trash and don’t depend on government campaigns.

Did I tell you that the pictures Miguel took of the Virgin show her face? Yes, my pure-of-heart husband.

I got sick just after Christmas. My first encounter with healthcare in Mexico. Everybody here has a favorite cure, recommended without hesitation. For my violent stomach flu while traveling, I was sent to the pharmacy to buy various prescription drugs over the counter – without a prescription. Medications that say things on the side like “don’t use this for more than five days because it can cause liver damage.” In Spanish, of course.

The pharmacist just handed over whatever I asked for without question. Depending on the product, the prices ranged from $3 pesos to $45 pesos for anywhere from 1 day of treatment to 5 days of treatment. Even considering the economics of the peso, these prices are comparable to what I’d pay in the US for prescription medication – that doesn’t mean I think they’re reasonable prices (don’t get me started on US drug pricing), just that they’re proportionate prices.

Returning home, the intestinal malady had run its course but I came down with a respiratory bug. Worse, for me, because of my history of pneumonia. Again, more remedies than I could possibly use were offered – my favorite was the recipe for some kind of poison from my mother-in-law:  Nescafe, lime and honey. I told her I’d drink it if she did, too. She just laughed, so I still don’t know if it tastes as vile as it sounds.

After six days of various pills (again, the potential-liver-damage-warning kind), the older couple that runs our favorite taco stand heard me coughing and insisted that I go to the pharmacy right that minute and get an injection. Injection is the most favored treatment in Mexico for “la grippa” and, in fact, is usually recommended even before any proffered home-remedy. (Yes, my mother-in-law offered to give me an injection before she offered to poison me. Of course I declined. Would you want your mother-in-law anywhere near your butt with a needle?)

The taqueros, Mari and Poli, are truly dear people, celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary next week, so I figured if they’re that nice and have managed to be married to the same person that long, they must also be wise beyond my years. So we went over and asked the pharmacist for the name of the drug they recommended. I expected another controlled substance freely passed to me over the counter but, not this time. The package contained a syringe and two vials, one of which contained eucalyptus oil. Hmm, a commercially packaged home remedy.

The next problem was to find someone to actually do the injecting. My husband is as freaked out by needles as I am, so that was one candidate down. The only other person I know in the neighborhood is the thirty-something woman that lives across the street and sells us sopes and pambasos in the mornings out of her carport – really delicious sopes and pambasos. She is also going to school to be a hair stylist. Neither of those career choices particularly qualify her to stick a needle in my butt. Nevertheless, she is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, so I trusted that she wouldn’t hurt me intentionally or send someone to rob our house later.

It was embarrassing to ask, but Faviola acted like it was no big deal. It turns out that she actually has several neighbors to whom she gives injections on a regular basis, including a fellow in his 50’s that has cancer from working in a paper mill without breathing protection. When her children were babies Faviola took nursing classes because she couldn’t afford to take them to the doctor every time they needed injections. Fortunately, the injecting classes came before the wound dressing classes because she passed out at the sight of blood and never went back.

Faviola came to our house with her teenage daughter. She explained that the injection would probably hurt a lot because of the eucalyptus oil and because the needle was not the best brand. She prophetically recommended that in the future we ask for the needles with the yellow top because they are thinner and less inclined to form bubbles. She also recommended that I go see the doctora in the green building on the corner at the end of the short cut we take to the taco stand. She insisted that I go the next morning.

Faviola took her time preparing the injection, mixing a little bit of the clear liquid, then a little bit of the eucalyptus oil, then shaking. Back and forth, slowly filling the syringe and mixing the potion. After leaning me over the kitchen table, she refused to take any money for stabbing me in the hip – and I would have been pleased to pay her because it didn’t hurt at all. So I gave her a grapefruit-sized juicy orange that we’d bought at the street market that day and she accepted it with a warm smile and a hug.

I did not awake feeling better, but my hip didn’t hurt so I was thankful. Miguel and I walked to the doctor’s office and waited to be seen. There were only three people ahead of us, so the wait wasn’t long, just time enough for me to read each and every maxim handwritten on florescent posterboard and taped to the whitewashed cement wall. Floor to ceiling. Before I entered the doctor’s office, I felt well-reminded that God loves me and hasn’t forgotten me even if I may have forgotten Him, and knew that if God didn’t love me enough to cure me immediately a house call would only cost the equivalent of $23 US dollars. My spirits were lifted.

The doctor was efficient and kind and asked the right questions. I felt reassured. She said I would need antibiotics – would I prefer an injection or pills? By now my cough had moved from my throat to my chest and I was all for avoiding bronchitis – which would be the quicker treatment? An injection, of course. She wrote out the prescription for the injection and some capsules for my congestion.

I stepped through the door back into the reception area where her assistant (and mother) sold me the recommended treatments. The consultation and medication cost a total of $100 pesos. Yep, $9 dollars to see my new doctor plus a five day supply of prescription drugs.

Miguel and I went in search of the good quality needles. Only when the first pharmacist opened the package of medicine did I realize that I had just agreed to FIVE days of injections. Oh, yes, I was going to need those thin needles.

Unfortunately, none of the neighborhood pharmacies had the treasured prize. Faviola and her husband were standing in their restaurant carport when we stepped onto our street from the shortcut. We asked her where to go to find the yellow-topped syringes. She said, “Oh, don’t worry, my husband is going on errands and I’ll have him pick them up. How many do you need?” And then wouldn’t take any money for them. Did I say that she is gracious as well as kind?

Faviola showed up that evening after she got back from hairdressing classes, syringes in hand. This prescription was for real antibiotics and she reassured me that it wouldn’t hurt like the other mixture because it had no oil. She lied. It burned like a small fire – even after she removed the needle.

Over the next four evenings, we got into a nice routine of tea and talk before the inevitable poke. An odd way to get to know one’s neighbor, but it worked out just fine, and we’ve even had a few visits since the nursing services ended. She’s quite a lovely young woman with a strong spirit. In fact, I like Faviola so much I’ve even forgiven her deception (my rump still hurts even after three weeks) because I know it had nothing to do with her fine skill or kindly intentions.

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.

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