Archive | January, 2014

Down the Drain: Cultural Contrasts via What We Waste

8 Jan

I was watching the steaming hot water swirl down the drain, over the gobs of ice cubes and plastic straws and lemon wedges. I was still in that day-dreamy state that results from the incongruence of transitioning- from facetime-ing Conan (with him in Mexico) and being in my Mama’s kitchen in Louisville with my daughter, and then to work in a corporate restaurant. I was at the 3 month mark of being in the U.S., thinking about how I was supposed to be headed back by then, when a more pressing thought invaded my head: “Paulina would be soooo pissed.”


<A wonderful convenience! A baby seat in the airport restroom! I took a picture so that people in Oaxaca would believe that it exists. The U.S. is so wasteful, but so damn convenient and sometimes luxuriously useful!>

Way before I lived in Mexico, working in a restaurant disgusted me with the extreme wastefulness, and now that I’m back to it after 11 months in small-town Mexico, it’s even more horrific. When you live in the U.S., it’s optional to try to waste less- it’s something maybe you do if you’re a hippie, or maybe because you want to pay less on your electric bill, or maybe because you don’t have a car these days, etc. It’s not something that’s part of the culture, to say the least. You have to really think outside of the box to even realize how much you’re wasting just by breathing in the U.S. (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit on the breathing part, but the excessive use of resources is so ingrained that it might as well be breathing.)

My mother-in-law, Paulina, is the queen of thrift and what my Nonna called “waste not, want not.” Paulina puts my thrifty-ness and ability to save to shame. Many people in Mexico, and especially in the money- poor state of Oaxaca, are used to the type of conservation and repurposing that comes with not having money. But Paulina would quickly get over the shock of the wastefulness and scold everyone to death about it.


<Paulina and Lucia in the kitchen in Juquila>

Because in Mexico*, you conserve because there may be no water tomorrow, and you’ll just be standing there with shampoo in your hair, shit out of luck.

In Mexico you conserve because if you live in a hot place you don’t need any more heat so you don’t buy gas for hot water.

In Mexico you conserve because the garbage truck picks up different elements of the trash on different days, and they don’t even come every week, and you can earn a few pesos for a kilo of tin cans, and that organic waste can help feed the chickens anyway.

In Mexico you don’t drive everywhere because you probably don’t have a car for each person in the household, if you have one for the family at all.

In Mexico you take reusable bags on your shopping errands because the woman with fresh eggs doesn’t have a bag to give you, because even some stores don’t stock plastic bags, because carrying your errand bag is a way of life.

In Mexico you don’t turn on the light until nighttime, because “you should be ashamed of yourself” if you waste it like that during the day, and regardless you’re grateful because your friend who lives down the road can’t get any electricity because they haven’t set it up in his neighborhood yet.

In Mexico you do your part to put less waste in the landfill because maybe they don’t even sell things like baby wipes in your town.

In Mexico the food that women sell on the street is organic, although you won’t find any labels on  it, because “who can afford chemicals?”.
In Mexico people take great care of their clothes and shoes so that they last, because sometimes there’s no money to just buy more; in Mexico people often wear some form of sandals or flip-flops even to work construction or to go to fancy events, and they still consider themselves better off than the folks who go around barefoot.

In Mexico (especially among the older generation) you don’t need to buy fancy care products like deodorant because limes are cheap and plentiful and just as effective.

In Mexico if you’re a little gringa who wants weights to lift during her exercises, you (or your partner) ask your neighbor for a little bit of concrete when they’re working on their house and fill soda bottles with it.

In small-town Mexico there’s no Walmart or Target or Staples or FedEx or Kroger or a million other conveniences with their entire aisles (entire aisles! like practically a whole store in Mexico) dedicated to semi-useless extravagances like “party decorations” or “bathroom accessories”. In Mexico you have to get creative if you want to decorate, you have to be dedicated and patient and resourceful if you really want to buy something that’s not a basic necessity; you can’t just get in your car and go to the store and find your aisle. In Mexico there are no tacks to hang stuff the wall because the walls are made of concrete probably, or maybe plywood, or hopefully not tin. In Mexico you reuse and repurpose and recycle and refuse to buy stuff because it’s a way of life. Period.

And I have to say, in a lot of ways it’s a way of life I really like. Okay, so sometimes it’s extremely inconvenient, like when you have to go to the locksmith 3 days in a row to get a copy of a key because every time you go it’s closed and there are no official hours. It’s frustrating when you have to pay through the nose and/or go to a bigger town for something that is fairly basic (like, say, sealable plastic bags, which hell yes we wash and reuse.) It bums me out to leave lights off when it’s a gloomy day, even though I technically have enough light to see just fine. There are days that I pine for enough hot water for a 20 minute steaming shower, which will just never happen in Paulina’s house with the hot water heater we have (at least we have one!).

That’s not to say that Oaxaca is great for the environment, either. People often burn their toxic trash right outside their house. Many rivers are full of sewage thanks to lack of good town planning. People mostly use a ton of (albeit reusable) plastic products (mugs, plates, etc.- instead of porcelain like many folks in the US use). It’s not perfect, by any stretch. But it’s a refreshing change from the excess of the U.S.

In just a few days** I’ll be back in Juquila, our small town in the mountains. It will be a shock, I’m sure, after having internet capabilities on my cell phone, after having a washer and dryer and dishwasher all the time, after, well, all these outrageous and wonderful and excessive and time-saving conveniences. Yes, Juquila will be a slight shock this time, but I’m sure it won’t be anything like the shock that’s gonna come in a few weeks when we move to our new house. With no electricity. Which means washing diapers and clothes by hand. Which means no refrigerator (by far my biggest worry). No blender for soups and smoothies. No light at night. I can’t think too long or hard about the changes or it seems too impossible.

Meanwhile, I think about the hot running water wasting away, the Mexican dishwasher who turned it on and whether he must have felt the same outrage and disbelief I felt the first time they told him this was how to do his job. I think about all these clashes and juxtapositions that come from our modern globalization, for better or for worse. At the end of the day, I’m happy to be a witness to it all, trying to learn to take it all in stride, one little moment at a time.

*My use of “in Mexico” here really means in the two small towns in Oaxaca that I know intimately. I don’t pretend to speak to Mexican culture as a whole, since Mexico is gigantic and diverse, much like the U.S.

**When I wrote this I was packing to go back to Oaxaca. I’ve been back a while now.