Mexican economy

Today is the last day of Blog Action Day 2008 and I just heard about it so I have to write fast.  The topic this year is poverty, something near and dear to my heart as I spend my days (and nights) here in Mexico City.

My husband and I had planned this move for 6 years, so that he could be with his family, and I thought I was ready.  But the truth is that when we got here it was the poverty that put me into shock.  Even moreso than the garbage – which is just an outgrowth of the poverty really.

I posted here last December about A Lesson in Economics when we bought a new refrigerator, but today is the perfect time to dig out my digital photo album.  Here is a photo of a menu at a restaurant the equivalent of Denny’s.  It shows chicken breast with mushrooms $83 pesos, breaded chicken filet with macaroni salad $91 pesos, and filet of fish in the style of Veracruz $91 pesos. 

Menu at Denny's equivalent in Mexico

Menu at Denny

 I know, you’re immediately calculating in your head “Well, that would be about $9 USD, that’s not so bad.”  The trick is this – that $91 pesos is just a little over what an average Mexican working for minimum wage makes in one day.  That’s right.  The minimum wage here is $400 pesos per week – and they have to work six days in a week to get that, $80 pesos per day.  And yet the prices in the metropolitan area are like what’s shown in this photo.  Needless to say, not many of those folks eat at this restaurant. 

I’m not saying there’s no money in Mexico – far from it.  The restaurants are full.  The malls are full.  The cinemas are full.  But there are no closed sewer systems anywhere and there are serious floods every year.  The roads are a mess and commercial transportation runs at about 30% efficiency.  Uncountable people live in shacks cobbled together from pieces of corrugated plastic and tarpaper.  And little old ladies peddle home-made jello in plastic cups door to door just so they can eat a meat taco once a week, while they live on beans and rice the other 6 days.

Well, I have to run.  My husband just got home and we’ve got errands to run now that the traffic has died down (it’s 8:30pm).  I just had to put in my two cents on this topic and will try to blog more about it this week.  Poverty is a complicated subject, but just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand it.

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Too much going on to write about today, but here’s a prose piece I wrote last year that tells the whole story . . .


There is dog shit in the gravel yard. I am surprised that I even have a dog to leave me these small gifts, a spunky, throw-away pawned off on my husband by an old friend.

Tomorrow, Miguel will tear off pieces of plastic bag and collect the digestive offerings with hospital care. They go into a small, lidded trash bin, also plastic-lined, which will later be neatly tied and, to prevent punctures, placed gingerly into the 32 gallon garbage can we brought from The North.

When the boy walks down the street ringing a bell, Miguel will roll the can out and pay 10 pesos to the brown man walking behind the unmarked, open box waste truck who will hand it up and in to the king of that unthinkable hill, then return it to my husband, empty as a plundered vault.

But for now I watch the flies settling, probing, taking a short walking tour, practicing liftoff and landing on this canine wasteland.

Across the street our neighbor precisely fills a folding metal table with chicken, flayed, filleted, and whole, proud of the convenience and variety he provides the neighborhood cooks. He moves in ritual, white alb, bloody vestment, swipes the knife, wipes his fingers, pulls the next yellow corpse from the boxes stacked precisely on the sidewalk.

The amateur butcher’s wife calls him inside. He untucks the greasy towel from his apron front, smoothes it across the processed parts, centers the knife just so on the chopping block, turns to answer matrimony’s call. The pilots in my yard liftoff.

They won’t list my blog on BlogHer – yet – seems I don’t post often enough for them, but that’s changing.  In the meantime, I wish they’d do a check every once in awhile on the blogs they do have listed – I tried several and they all came back “Page Not Found.”  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, y’know.

Last week we took four days and went to Michoacan for a wedding.  Miguel’s friend from childhood – the youngest in his family and the last to marry at 33.  They actually got married in December, in a civil service just for the family, and then they lived apart in different cities until the church wedding this weekend.

In a couple of weeks they’ll move back to the husband’s family home where the widowed father and several of the older brothers live (married and single).  According to Miguel’s mother and sister, Alejandro, Miguel’s friend, has been the bane of the daughters-in-law since adolescence.  The report is, he sits down at the kitchen table points at the woman and says, “You, serve my father and serve me.  Hurry up, we’re hungry.” 

Of the three married couples living in the family home, one died (shot by her suspicious husband who then shot himself and only ended up crippled), one left (divorced by her suspicious husband who kept the kids), and one that stayed and stood up to her husband, “Put your brother in his place or I’m outta here.”  Okay, she said it in Spanish, but with the same chutzpah.  She and I get along great.

So, now we’re all wondering what’s going to happen to Alejandro’s new wife.  She’s young, about 28, a psychologist who wants to set up her own clinic here in the big city.  She’s lived with her mother in a small rural town all her life and I don’t even think she knows how to cook.  Will she have to pay for her husband’s past arrogance?

The middle brother married a powerhouse.  She moved him out of the family home and it’s made for wonderful relations.  She and her sisters and all their husbands and kids travel everywhere together and the rest of Alejandro’s family just tags along.  There are about 30 of us when we travel together.

The wedding was in La Barca, Jalisco.  About five to six hours drive on the toll highways from the northwest edge of Mexico City, depending on who’s driving.  It’s a prosperous agricultural town spread out along the river that divides Jalisco from Michoacan.  They have beautiful flat roads and lots of bicyclists and even closed down the main road to host a bicycle race on Sunday.  It was the first time I’ve seen cyclists in helmets and riding gear since I got to Mexico.

Thirty minutes down the road from La Barca is Ixtlan de los Hervores, Michoacan.  Miguel’s father is from there.  Since we got to town two days before the wedding, we went straight to the geyser at Ixtlan the first afternoon to relax in the tepid pools and de-stress from the drive.  I won’t talk about hygiene – despite being old and run down, the geyser pools are relatively clean and you really don’t want the details.  Miguel’s family goes to Ixtlan every October as one of their pilgrimage trips.  The saint in Ixtlan is St. Francis of Assisi.  That’s for another story.

Next door to Ixtlan is Salitre, Michoacan.  The powerhouse bride and all of her sisters are from Salitre.  After the geyser, we went to visit in Salitre.  More beautifully flat roads.  (Are you getting the impression that where we live on the edge of Mexico City bike riding is akin to an extreme sport with rutted, broken pavement, hills so steep some cars can’t make it, and traffic that moves at the speed of loud?)  The pavement in Salitre is new.  Miguel thinks it is, anyway, but he hasn’t been there for 20 years.  The central plaza was also declared new, but a glance will tell you that the trees – currently painted the color of the Mexican flag, red and white trunks with leafy tops precisely trimmed to look like giant green cubes – have at least 15 years growth.  This time distortion probably has something to do with him not seeing me as 50 so I didn’t bother to point out the disparity between the growth and his definition of “new.”

We sat on the main plaza with some locals for a bit, watching a basketball game.  I commented to Miguel that it was all women playing – and such a broad age range of ages (late teens to early 40’s).

He said, “Don’t you notice anything strange about the people watching?”

There were no young men.  Except for our group, everyone on the plaza was either female, boys under 12, or men bent over walkers and canes.  And one loud, fat guy about 40.

“Their husbands are all in the North.”

Where we live is City.  There are jobs to be found.  It’s worthwhile to set up a taco stand in front of your house.  The local street markets are full of entrepreneurs selling everything from housewares to temporary tattoos.  Even the old lady that sells gelatin desserts in plastic cups door to door makes enough to get by.  But here in “the Provinces” the small towns can’t generate enough income to provide their families the basic necessities.  The men go in search of work and the women stay home and shoot hoops.

The saddest part is the small number that return home.  Miguel and Alejandro are the exceptions.  Of Miguel’s circle of friends and family that have gone north, only he, Alé and Adrian have come home voluntarily to make their life in Mexico.  Even the ones that are legal Resident Aliens or have become U.S. citizens, like Miguel, rarely come home to visit their families.  They’re all waiting to put together a big pile of money and come back and start a business – but that never happens.  Life in the U.S. is about working and paying bills and taxes – no matter where you start from.  So, 5, 10, 15 years pass and you end up with a car, maybe, and money sent home on a regular basis, but never enough to go home yourself, and people are always waiting in line at Western Union to pick up what little you can send back every pay day. Yes, Western Union . . . it’s one of the hottest businesse in Mexico.

I wonder why the men in Salitre have to go all the way to the U.S. to find work when thirty minutes down the road the local Ford dealer is selling a lot of 2008 king-cab 4-door Lobos at $35k USD each.

The reality of it is that life will be a struggle wherever you choose to live it, if the struggle is what you’re focused on.  Take me, for example.  I have a good life here in Mexico – a loving husband, a comfortable home, welcoming in-laws, a good job that pays U.S. dollars – but what keeps me up at night is the struggle I have at work.  Change I’m accustomed to.  I’ve lived in almost as many different places as the number of years I’ve been alive.  I just have an inherent mistrust of new people who come in and start criticizing and changing things before they even bother to inform themselves enough to know what works and what doesn’t and why.  Arrogant change.  Change for the sake of aggrandizing oneself before proving oneself.  I whine to my CTO and he says, “Make them your customers.  Figure out how best to give them what they want without compromising your goals.”

My husband just says, “They must have problems at home, don’t take it personal.”  He says that in response to any weird people we encounter.  And I’ve found it to be the truest interpretation of every people problem I’ve ever had.  Happy people aren’t rude or arrogant or aggressive.  They don’t need to be, no matter how stressful life may get.  And people who have problems at home usually live under such a black cloud that they can’t escape it.  No matter where they go.

Almost two months since my last post. Credit my absence to 60 hour work weeks, unreasonable demands with no reward, and moving from a 347 sq.ft. two-room-no-kitchen rental to our very own self-designed 1,200+ sq.ft. third story apartment built atop my sister-in-law’s house. We’ve been here a month now and I finally got a stove and refrigerator last Tuesday. Okay, it’s still no real kitchen in the northern sense of the word, my cabinets are stainless steel racks from Costco with two giant IKEA bed canopy leaves sprouting from the corner posts, and my sink is a rustic wood cabinet on wheels – the one we had on the patio at the rental place – but I can cook indoors so it counts as a kitchen in my book.


Building on many levels


We call it a flat as a joke.  The first two storeys of the building were built in patchwork sections with varying roof height and pitch, bit by bit as my sister-in-law could afford to add on.  The only parts of our apartment actually on the same level are my bedroom and the adjoining closet, built over the first-phase construction, and the kitchen/dining room/patio, built over the fourth-phase construction.  These two sections are separated by a living room that is one or two steps up depending on which direction you’re approaching from.  My office is off the juncture of the living room and kitchen and is a half-step height in between the two, built over the third-phase construction.


A side effect of the up-and-down floor heights is that we also have varying ceiling heights, from 7.5 feet in the bedroom to 12 feet in the dining room, which we topped with a 4-sided pyramid hipped roof with clerestory windows on three sides.  The neighborhood joke was – is it a church or an observatory?  We just wanted some variation to the typical box-on-box construction.  So we topped the interior stairwell to the roof with a duplicate roofed structure about 7 feet higher than the dining room roof.  It looks so cool from the main road – and it makes a great landmark for the pizza delivery guys.

El Santuario



But the church joke got me thinking.  There are patron saints for everything here – taxi drivers and truckers (St. Christopher), people who have survived mortal accidents (La Santa Muerte/St. Death), lost causes (St. Jude), accountants (St. Matthew), so I suggested to Miguel that we top the dining room roof with a mirrored disco ball and call it the Santuario del Santo Sonidero – the Sanctuary of Saint DJ.  It would be a new saint.  Recognizable accessories would be headphones and microphone.  Miguel didn’t think the older members of the neighborhood would understand, though he agreed the idea would probably catch on – every young man under 20 wants to grow up and be a Sonidero, and a party just isn’t a party unless a Sonidero is present.  (Miguel became a Sonidero at 12, after spending 5 years working with a local Sonidero who was also the neighborhood butcher, and he’s been doing it for 23 years now.)


Okay, back to the apartment.  We have a total of two solid interior walls – one between the interior stairwell and the bedroom wing and one between the bedroom and bathroom.  Miguel also built a frame and sheetrock wall to separate the bathroom and closet, but those kind of walls don’t count as solid in Mexico where everything is brick or cement.


The look on the cement mason’s face when I said that I didn’t want the plumbing built into the cement floors was priceless.  On upper-floor construction like ours, the usual process is to lay the PVC pipes on top of the floor, then build forms around the area, then fill the forms with tezontli – the red lava rocks we use in the garden – because it weighs less than solid cement, then pour cement over the tezontli to seal in the plumbing and create a raised floor for the bathroom.  In my imagination I saw broken or badly sealed sewage pipes leaking into the tezontli and . . . well, you can take it from there.  I insisted that Miguel build a wood framed platform topped with plywood and vinyl flooring so that repairs would not require a jack hammer to look for the problem.  Having seen the ongoing plumbing disaster in my sister-in-law’s downstairs bathroom (because the tile layer somehow drove nails through various places in the cold water pipes in the walls – what the tile layer was doing with nails is beyond all of us), and having spent six years in Seattle with me, Miguel totally understood my logic and supported me despite the entire community thinking we are both loco.  So, our pipes are encased in sheetrocked walls and plywood platforms and I am content that any disasters will be easy to notice, easy to locate and easy to fix.  It helps me sleep at night.


The master bathroom is open on one side to the hall and a balcony, with the toilet given privacy by a structure that reminds me of a shower stall with blue translucent walls (no comment from me, it was Miguel’s idea).  In fact, we have only one exterior wall – north corner to east corner – that doesn’t have windows in it, because the house is built to the property line and the neighbor on that side might actually build up to our height someday.  The rest of the exterior walls are almost entirely waist to ceiling windows or sliding glass doors that look out over a few distant green foothills and adjacent neighbors who are less likely to make it to three storeys.  My budget for curtains was scandalous, especially in comparison to the cost of construction.


Our building is in an undocumented area.  There are no governmental deeds for the properties yet.  I know, that sounds weird.  In Mexico there is a law that if someone moves on to an undeveloped piece of property, puts up some construction – even just a tarpaper shack – and pays a utility bill for five years, then the owner loses all rights to the property.  So, if you own property that you don’t live on, you have to build something on it or watch it like a hawk to make sure that someone doesn’t move in, and if they do, you’ve got to get the police to throw them out right away.


Where we live used to be a hacienda.  At some point in time, the last heir died intestate and the land went ownerless.  Folks started moving in and carving out narrow streets and building shacks.  In 1999, we loaned Miguel’s sister $5,000 to buy a lot 8 meters by 16 meters, about 26 feet by 52 feet.  (The lot alone would now cost about $25,000.)  She bought it from an old fellow that had several lots in the area for sale, and the only proof of purchase that she has – like all of her neighbors – are the monthly payment receipts, a certified handwritten description of the property by the seller, and a municipal registration that she owns the unsurveyed property.  The municipal government was supposed to start “regularizing” the neighborhood this December, but so far, nothing formal has been done yet.


When we started building the apartment, the neighborhood president called the local municipal authorities and threatened to stop construction.  Not because there was any legal standing to do so, just because he is pissed off that he didn’t get the piece of land that we have back when it became available 8 years ago. (Though he did have his wife break into the property back then, before there was construction on it, on the day the property recorders were going through.  She pretended to be the owner and got a document in her name – and my sister-in-law had to go and fight to get the documentation corrected.)  So the municipal agents came by and told us they were going to stop the construction and my other sister-in-law said that she was just renting the storefront and that they’d have to come back to talk to the owner (Miguel’s oldest sister that works away from home).  That was on a Friday.  So we hurried the masons to put the roof on the front section over the weekend.  With the roof in place, the authorities couldn’t stop construction – which they do by putting a yellow tape around the rebar on the street side of the property.  If the tape is put on, you can’t remove it or build over it without serious penalties.  But if the roof is already on, there is no rebar exposed to tape.  And the agents can’t enter the property unless you invite them, which of course you never do.  So all construction is either built well back from the street and the property fenced in front, or, if you build out to the street, you start from the front, get the supporting beams up and the roof on first and then build toward the back of the lot.  All of this in order to avoid the spite of someone with a miniscule amount of power, a little bit of money, and a big grudge.


So, because the property is not surveyed and formally registered, there are no building permits required for our area.  Of course, up the street where the land is surveyed and deeded, the construction contractor just brings an old permit from a past job and hangs it on the worksite and no one ever actually comes to inspect it.  Anyway, between the lack of permitting and the lack of professional licensing, construction is inexpensive, with the added benefit that the contractors are always willing to take weekly payments because no one ever has enough money to pay all at once and you can’t get loans on undocumented property.  So from August to February we paid the cement mason $8,000 pesos a week, and paid on account with the building supply shop (after eight years of construction, my sister-in-law has good credit with the local supply shop) and from January through May we’ll pay the window-maker $2,000 pesos a week.  The plumber is Miguel’s daughter’s uncle, and the electrician is Miguel’s brother and his friend who also lays tile and does plumbing on the side, and they all have payment arrangements with Miguel.  (As an aside, it’s really important to have friends and family that you trust in the construction business – not because they do better work, but because if you hire a stranger you can never be sure they won’t send someone to rob you later.)


The whole house, masonry, windows, electrical, plumbing, and ironwork for the stairs to the roof and the balconies, will total out at about $35,000 USD.  And that will include $14,500 pesos for windows in my sister-in-law’s windowless two year old second floor apartment that I insisted on paying for because she has saved us at least double that by managing our contractors (the cement mason and window-maker thought the apartment was for her when they negotiated their prices) and buying supplies (can you believe there’s a high season and a low season for buying rebar and we saved about $800 USD by buying a ton and a half at once instead of as-needed during construction).  She agreed only after I allowed that she could pay me back half the cost of her windows.


But doesn’t it just kinda give you the willies – no permits, no licenses, no inspectors?  It does me, but, when in Rome . . .  I do know, though, that my sister-in-law laid enough rebar in the foundation to support a three-storey building because we made fun of her when she did it back in 2001.  And when we designed our flat, she insisted we keep all of the internal support posts in line with (and connected to) where they were from the floors below, plus the bearing wall in the bedroom wing because of the long span of the room and the weight of the water tank on the roof above the bathroom.  She may be a secretary at a small private school, but she’s a great construction project manager.


Of course, the houses around us are not quite as strictly constructed – joined brick corners on second and third storeys instead of rebar cast cement posts.  That kind of thing.  It’s easy to tell how much rebar is in a house because everyone leaves the rebar sticking up above the roofline so that they can “hook on” more rebar when they build the next storey.  The first time I travelled in Mexico with Miguel and saw all the rebar poking out of occupied buildings I asked him why is all that metal sticking up everywhere.  He said, “Those are people’s dreams.  They dream that someday they’ll have enough money to build on another storey.  As long as the rebar is there, they have a dream to reach for.”


Four is the minimum number of rebar rods for a support post.  My sister-in-law started with eight rods in the first floor, six in the second, and – surprise – we had four left for the third storey.  She recently confessed to me that the rebar in the foundation and the posts had a purpose – her dream has always been to have all her family living in the same house because they never had a house as kids.


In Mexico some dreams do come true.

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.

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.

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