Mexican politics

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.


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.

Toluca Cop CarWell, I’m back on line and with a high speed internet connection at that.  Here’s a photo of the Toluca cop car from that scary night in July – unfortunately Miguel did not get a shot of the faces of the corrupt cops that were driving it.

It’s been a fast three months since my last post.  On September 23, we packed up the moving truck and headed south.  The truck was enormous, 36 ft., 17,899 lbs., and had an over-speed buzzer that screamed like a giant bee anytime I went too fast or too slow for the gear I was in.  After an exhaust pipe disconnected itself as we were pulling into the inspection station on the California-Oregon border, we also figured out that the buzzer was activated by low compression, so we ended up stopping for the night to get it fixed.  Many thanks to a young truck driver from Southern California driving for Far West Trucking out of Sumner, Washington, in a red semi with Hot Stuff printed on the door, for selflessly lying on his back on the side of Interstate 5 to reconnect our fallen exhaust pipe.  Also many thanks to the Corning Truck and Radiator shop (I think that’s the name – they’re just off I-5, right around the corner south from PetroTruck stop) for refusing payment for tightening up the exhaust clamps the next morning. We really were blessed to meet many helpful people along the way.

We spent about 10 days in San Francisco with my sister and then drove off to Las Vegas for the NASPP conference October 10-13.  The first day out we just drove a few hours and stopped at Anderson Split Pea for soup.  We decided to stay the night at the hotel next door and spent the afternoon swimming in our cutoffs and t-shirts.  The water was heavenly and we played for hours in the fading afternoon light.  The downside was that we spent the rest of the trip looking for hotels that had swimming pools and being disappointed at every turn.  Even when we got to Las Vegas, the pool at the Summerfield Resort condos was so cold we could never get the courage up to go in.

The highlight of Vegas was the show at Wynn Las Vegas – Le Reve.  I can’t even begin to describe it except to say that I was gape-jawed with awe almost the entire time.  I’ve searched online and couldn’t find one professional theater-reporting journalist that did a decent description either.  Here’s the hotel’s website description with a couple of photos  It’s not even close, but it gives the dimensions of the pool (yes, it was staged in a million gallon pool with platforms variously ascending and descending and people falling out of the roof and giant lizards swimming around and amazing aerobatics).  It was the most spectacular performance of any type that I’ve ever seen.  I would fly to Las Vegas just to see the show again and fly out immediately thereafter – it is that much worth it.

I’ve posted our trip and our current adventures as separate pages here.  Take a look at the page tabs – Crossing the Border and November 2006.  I’ll add more pages as our life in Mexico unfolds.

Take care and keep in touch.  Missing you all lots.  Love, Achaessa


11/2006-Home in Mexico

November 19 – Sunday

It is so bizarre living here.  The house we rent has a few leaks in the roof.  The landlady claims that she had the roof fixed before we moved in but, complaining about being ripped off, said she would call someone else – “el enginero.”  This morning (Sunday morning, mind you) we walked to another neighborhood to breakfast on the best consomme I’ve ever had.  When we got back, a big voice from above and behind us said, “Buenos dias.”  I must be getting accustomed to the unexpected because I didn’t even flinch and in Seattle I would have jumped out of my skin.  Anyway, we looked up and there was this man and a teenage boy on our roof – the engineer called by the landlady, three weeks ago.  I asked how he got on the roof since the house is connected to a fence that encloses the entire grounds.  “We climbed up on the windows” – using the wrought iron bars.  And then he asked to use our ladder that he’d seen in the yard.  And a broom.  And a dust pan.  And the hose.  Oh, and… 

Well, I was pissed.  Really pissed.  But I’ve learned to temper my tongue.

“So, can I ask you a favor?” 

“Of, course.” 

“If you ever come back here, do me the favor of not climbing up on our windows.  It gives other people ideas.  If you want to be sure that we’re here when you arrive, call us first to let us know you’re coming.” 

My husband let his breath out slowly in relief.  He’s heard me rip a new one before.  I just don’t have patience for idiots.

“He doesn’t have our number

“No, but the landlady does and he has her number. They just don’t think

“I’ll give him our number before he leaves

That really has been the hardest part of being in Mexico for me.  The people who are supposed to be professional service providers just don’t Think.  The other day the electric company installers came to put in an electric meter.  When they hooked the line back up to the fuse box, they draped it across the copper water pipes.  We didn’t find out until that night when I was naked and dripping wet in the shower and tried to adjust the water temperature.  Remember Bill the Cat from Bloom County?  I’m just glad it was me instead of Miguel’s daughter – she’s never known a shower with knobs and if she’d been shocked on her first shower she may never have trusted it again.  What a loss that would be – to never trust luscious running hot water

November 20 – Monday

Yes, the Distrito Federal is vibrant – and vibrating.  Today is the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution and though all the shops are closed for the holiday, people in the outlying areas, like us, would normally go to the Zocalo downtown.  This year they are staying home and indoors.  Miguel and his brother were planning last night to go downtown, but his sisters all protested with a rarely unified voice

The rumor is that there will be protests and confrontations and likely armed forces – all touched off by the July election problems.  Miguel was explaining to me this morning that this particular Revolution was in the same vein as our Civil War, fighting for human rights against the abuses of the hacienda system (think plantation system). I said how paradoxical it is that the US doesn’t celebrate its Civil War.  His comment, “Maybe they don’t want to have another one. I think it’s time for another revolution in Mexico.”

Against the female opinion of the family, they’re going downtown anyway.  Not out of any strong desire to be politically active, mind you.  They’re both Sonideros (specialized DF-style dj’s) and the only shops that cater to their profession are just off the central plaza downtown and, because of the holiday, Miguel’s brother has a rare day off work.  Miguel’s pallative to me, “Don’t worry, we’re going on Metro.”  Like that helps.  We don’t have TV at our house, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad when one wants to keep abreast of local unrest. I will be glad when today is finished.

November 21 – Tuesday

So much for unrest, the response of the Mexican people to their stolen election is somewhere in between the US response in 2000 and the Orange Revolution in 2004. They haven’t just given up because the corrupt media convinced them to, but they will never be triumphant either. The presence of a corrupt and/or incourageous judiciary in both the US and Mexico has been key in keeping our respective corrupt political systems humming right along. That combined with the extremely stratified economic classes will keep Mexico in political bondage. In the US we’re so rich we become lazy and take as truth whatever the media tells us because it’s more convenient than disrupting our lives with continued protest. In Mexico, the people who support Obrador (and who most need political change) are so poor that even when they continue to protest by the millions all over the country it makes no difference because the economically powerful segment of the country doesn’t care, even if the media report it truthfully (which they rarely do). At the symbolic swearing in of Lopez-Obrador yesterday, the entire central district was so full that transport came to a standstill. It took Miguel four hours to get home on Metro – usually a one hour trip

Well, today is back to normal – however you define normal these days – and I’ve got a zillion things to do. Don’t want to get out of bed, though, it’s so dang cold. It was in the low 40’s last night and in our room it was 57 degrees even though we had the electric heater on all night. Fortunately I have stacks of luscious blankets, so we don’t notice while we’re sleeping – but throwing back the covers to greet the day is definitely a challenge!

I had to go to OfficeMax today to get the upgrade software to WindowsXP Pro.  We left at 9:30am and got back to our neighborhood at 2:00pm.  Miguel and I were sitting having a bowl of soup before going back to the house (because we still don’t have a kitchen) and I found myself in a horribly cynical mood.  I plucked the whole chicken leg, with its slimy skin, out of my bowl and laid it on a tortilla; there was not one surface in the entire mercado that wasn’t chipped, broken, cracked, or covered in grimy dust webs; I considered becoming a vegetarian. I looked out the window and even from the second floor there was not one wedge of beauty in the entire vista; not one smooth surface; not one finished building; not one well-paved street; not one flat sidewalk; not one clean car; not one well-groomed person; not one unlittered patch of open ground. And on top of it all, the chicken roasting place gave us a fake $50 peso bill for change last night.  Miguel is semi-psychic where I’m concerned and asked me what was wrong.  All I could say was that it would take more than one coat of paint to make this place beautiful.

I feel sick at heart and want to cry – but I know it’s just me, really. Many of my relatives live on reservations in extreme poverty, but it is clean and the air is fresh and there is no trash on the ground or diesel grime on the walls. I spent my senior year in high school in East Oakland (California), one of the most dangerous ghettos in the Bay Area at the time and it was hell-poor, but it was clean and I could find beauty even if it meant I had to go downtown to the park. But here there is no escape from ugly, at least not using my eyes.

My husband is happy here with his daughter and I am thrilled they are together.  My mother-in-law walked 10 minutes to my house yesterday to bring me lunch while I was working all day. My neighbor is a little old herbal healer and has invited me to coffee with a promise to show me her plants. The lady that makes tacos on the corner has asked me to go up on the hill to catch grasshoppers with her (she’s already shown me how to clean and fry them). I am just so visually spoiled that learning to see with other eyes, when forced upon me like this, has become an unexpected challenge.

I am actually pretty fortunate; the little rental house Miguel found us is just a block away from a heavily-treed path that leads up into the hills and back to a dam. I can see the giant trees from my front door and window . . .

when I remember to look up 😉 

November 24 – Friday

It was a lovely sunny day and I just couldn’t stay inside and work, so we ended up getting on the bus and going for an adventure. We ate squid tostadas and fish filetes, bought an amazing carved wood horse statue from a furniture maker. Found a rural “vivero” (nursery) and bought a small lime tree and pot, plus two more big shade plants and one large house plant (all for about $60). We had a great time

November 25 – Saturday

We’re not even close to being in a small town – on the outskirts of Mexico City is like living on the outskirts of Washington DC. We’re just an extra part of the 26+/- million population of Mexico City.  Nevertheless, we can drive not very far and be in the forest and hills – kind of like Northern California.  Except that we don’t have a car, so we take the buses out to wherever they go and pretty quickly they get to a less populated, more rural area.  Like where we bought the horse and the lime tree.  It’s been so cold at night, down to freezing, that the lime tree’s leaves appear to have been a little frost burnt since we got it home, so I’m going to have to start covering it at night.  I also have three gardenia plants that are doing really well with lots of buds and two begonias, one in full flower, and one a frost burnt angel wing that I bought from a street vendor and am trying to save.  From the same vendor I also bought a small aromatic lavender plant and a small but full mint plant

Our neighborhood is actually okay.  Most of the houses are painted and not just the unfinished grey cement of the rest of the area. The streets are relatively quiet, in the morning we hear the horses going by early and in the afternoon the man who sells bags of dirt (partially decomposed leaves and pine needles) comes by with his two burros. Throughout the day trucks and carts and footborne vendors pass by announcing their wares – a boy with a handheld bell walks about two blocks in front of the garbage truck so that you have time to put the garbage out (and the dogs don’t have time to get into it); two different propane trucks from competing companies cruise by only about an hour apart, their drivers yelling “GAAAAAAAS,” but you have to look out the window to see whether their bringing the cylinders or a single big re-fueling tank; the “camote” man opens a vapor vent to a hammered together woodstove on wheels to announce his sweet potatoes with a deep pitched piercing whistle; tamales come in a pushcart with a grating amplified voice chanting “tamales – ricos y calientes” (rich and hot) and I sing back “seco, sin carne” (dry and without meat – I’ve bought from this fellow before); the ballon man walks by blowing on the endpiece of a popped globe, giving the entire neighborhood the raspberry.

Despite being in the middle of a fast and noisy city, we can walk 2 blocks and be on a dirt road that follows a river back up into the hills to a dam. Except for along the river bank, and the coffee and milk colored river, it’s a beautiful area.  Fifteen years ago our neighborhood was a completely forested valley and hills and Miguel and his friends used to go hiking back up in the shadow of the big trees out to a wide meadow where the river ran over big flat rocks and they would swim in crystal clean water.  The meadow is still there, as are the big flat rocks, and the river still rushes over them, but you can’t trust the water now even though the closer you get to the dam the clearer it gets.  There are open drain pipes all along the river from the houses that have been built up and over the hills where the forest used to be.  The bushes that remain along the river bank are draped with plastic bags, marking the high water level like streamers of small ghosts at halloween. A few of the big trees remain along the bank, but most have been cut down.  When I look up from my back yard I can see some of them towering above the roofs of the houses on the other block.

Most of the city, though, is grey cinderblock and cement buildings with re-bar sticking up from each unfinished roof. I remember asking Miguel the first time we came to Mexico why all the re-bar spikes everywhere and he said that the re-bar is so that you can add another floor to the building.  Everybody here builds their houses room by room, expanding into the new rooms as soon as they’re built and saving up to build the next room.  Everybody dreams that someday they will add another floor to the building – the lots are narrow and deep and there’s no room to grow out, only up. So, as Miguel says, the re-bar represents dreams.  Dreams of living in comfort. Dreams of earning enough money to eat AND build.

I’m surprised to report that I adopted a cat.  One boney calico cat – Sola Huesos (Lonely Bones) – we rescued her yesterday. I told Miguel yesterday morning that I wanted a cat and he said the last time he went to our empty property it was full of brand new kittens from the the neighboring house. So we went there yesterday afternoon and the house was sealed up and dark except for a wailing cat at the window trying to get out.  Below the window was a toppled crate and some rags and tiny dead kittens.  We pushed the cardboard out of the window over the door and Miguel stuck in a pushbroom and unlatched the front window.  She crawled out through the ironwork bars straight into my arms. Just a skeleton with fur. So I took her.  Miguel’s sister says the family at that house hasn’t been seen for over two weeks.  Miguel went back today and buried the kittens. 

Sola ate last night until she looked like she’d swallowed a grapefruit whole – bad things, but it was all we had at hand, milk, tuna, dry dog food. When I got her home, I went and bought dry cat food (Whiskas of all things!) until I can either transition her to raw food or find a good brand of packaged food.  Anyway, the cat food made her thirsty so she finally started drinking water – I was most worried about her kidneys.  It seems to have worked out just fine.  This morning her box was full to the brim with pee clumps and poop, none of it bad diarrhea – and she never vomited.  So I’m taking it all as a good sign.  She likes to follow me around and lay in the sun, so I moved an old towl around the yard all day to catch the sun so she wouldn’t have to lay on the sharp rocks (we just finished filling the yard with large gravel because I got tired of it turning into a mud pool every time it rained). 

She’s a very clean cat and immediately used the box, so I’m guessing she was accustomed to being cared for. She’s very well behaved and when I snap my fingers and tell her No, she stops immediately and doesn’t try again.  She slept last night in front of the electric heater – I don’t think she has any fat for insulation.  Her fur is clean and I only found one flea trying to climb into her coat while she lay just inside the door in the sun.  I squished it with my nail and looked for more, but haven’t found any – and she hasn’t been scratching, so I’m hoping she’s flea-free because I’m afraid to use any chemicals around her with her being so skinny.  She looks like she’s only about 6-8 months old, probably got pregnant during her first heat.  We’re going to take her to the vet and get her fixed once she’s got some meat on her bones.  I don’t think she could withstand the anesthesia with so little body weight right now.  At first she went around looking for her kittens and crying, but now the only time she cries is when she thinks she’s alone in the house – probably afraid of being locked in again.

November 26 – Sunday

Last night I locked myself out of the house – well, out of the house and the yard. I was hurrying through the front gate so that Sola wouldn’t follow me and I thought I’d pushed the safety up so it wouldn’t lock, but when I closed the gate behind me it latched with a hard click and I knew I was screwed. Sola started crying immediately and I felt awful. Thank god for cellphones – I called Miguel to come home quickly and then parked myself in front of the gate to wait for him.

Much to my surprise, the neighborhood dogs that know me during the day and that we pass quietly while walking in the night, did not like me standing there like an unwanted stranger. The red Retriever and the Black lab with the cropped tail stood across the street barking until I realized it was me they were barking at and I shooed them off. The dynamic changed rapidly when I sat down to comfort Sola with my hand under the gate (you can’t see through the gate because the interior side is covered with black plastic). When I couldn’t feel her, I squatted down to look under the gate and reached in to swat at her foot with my fingers. I stood up suddenly at a scratchy sound and the black Lab had snuck around a parked car to creep up behind me. Fortunately I’d come upright fast enough that it scared him off, but he’d been only about 8 feet away. So I sat down facing the street and wiggling my fingers under the gate at my back. Sola quieted down, but the two dogs kept barking and soon the entire neighborhood was barking. Every few minutes I had to stand up to shoo the dogs back to their side of the street.

So, the good news is that the neighborhood has good watch dogs.