Archive | June, 2014

The Whole-Family Honeymoon

29 Jun

It wasn’t supposed to be a honeymoon exactly, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled, either, when Conan invited his mom to go with us to the beach a couple months after we first moved to Juquila. She was sitting there with us when we started talking about going, and it didn’t occur to Conan to consult with me before suggesting she go with us. Not that I don’t enjoy her company; in fact, she and I get along fabulously, much better than she and Conan get along. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want her to go, particularly. And after pondering over it I realized it would’ve been extremely rude to not invite her. But I admit, if Conan hadn’t invited her I wouldn’t have; I don’t think it would’ve even occurred to me! Perhaps I was thinking that living together was already enough quality time and that Conan and Lucia and I needed some time to be alone as a little nuclear family. I am, after all, a product of that oh-so-individualist, privacy-obsessed, nuclear-family-making country called USA, where the only unity is in the name United States.

Sometimes Mexico feels like an alternate universe. There is no emphasis on individuals and individualism. Like in most other countries, many people live with their parents and often other extended family, usually until they are well beyond being “young adults”, and often until their parents pass away. It’s not about not growing up or just depending on your parents the way we would think of it in the U.S., but rather about an inter-dependency that goes on in families- because there’s a lot to do, because life is expensive, and because those are still the cultural values of most families around here.

Conan and I had agreed to live with his mom for at least a year, which was only fair since he hadn’t seen her in 10 years. And it was a huge help to us- having a place to live, totally furnished, totally free, with someone to help us out with all the things we didn’t understand or know, like where to get the cheap cleaning products, where the best tlayudas are, when to go get Conan’s ID.

Additionally, it was a fine and dandy situation because I really like his mom and we all help each other very well. I am eternally grateful that when Lucia was a baby I lived with someone (besides my partner) who loves and helped take care of my baby every day of the week. I could go exercise and shower without worrying about Lucia- big pot of gold luxuries that most moms in the U.S. don’t have. There was an extra person to share cooking and chores with, which was pretty fabulous as well. Conan and I, in turn, helped her with various other things around the house and in her store, in addition to just keeping each other company.

Mostly, it was a win-win situation. Occasionally, though, I wanted some “gringo” time- some time away from the family. I wanted to “get away from it all” on the beach. We had gone to the beach a week after we moved to Mexico, but it was a trip with my mom, and his mom, and his stepdad, and, well, it wasn’t exactly romantic.

My Dad and Karen (my stepmom) on another family vacation!

My Dad and Karen (my stepmom) talking with Paulina and Arturo (not pictured) on another family vacation!

My in-laws on another family vacation!

My in-laws on another family vacation!

Granted, with a four month old baby, nothing is very romantic for very long. But even beyond my longing for romance, there’s my longing for privacy. I got worried when Paulina mentioned those hotel rooms we had looked at with my mom, where you could put up to 3 people in a room for 250 pesos. I knew her idea was to be her extra-frugal self, not to invade my sense of privacy. But nonetheless I started plotting and planning for nice and polite ways to escape sharing a room with her. But how do you tell your well-meaning family to please go away? It is no easy task.

I still hadn’t figured it out by the time we got to Puerto. But I had enlisted Conan’s help and we were going to play it by ear (the only way to play anything down here, ever; even after a couple of months I was starting to learn that planning was a futile effort). Upon arriving in Puerto we went to visit Conan’s aunt Artemia who lives here. One of his cousins, Benja, his cousin’s wife, Luz, and their two kids also live there. Since Conan hadn’t seen them in 10 years, it was a big reunion, and also his first time meeting the wife and kids (and their first time meeting me and Lucia). They are lovely and wonderful people and I had a great time hanging out with them, that first time and a kajillion times since then.

But the gringo in me came out when they offered us a place to stay. I should have felt grateful for their generosity, which I’m sure would also include sacrifice of their own comfort (sharing beds to make room for us, sacrificing their privacy, etc.). But instead, I’m ashamed to say my immediate thought was “Shit! How can I communicate to Conan that I don’t want to stay here?! How can we get out of this politely?!”

See, I had this image of the 3 of us- me, Conan, and Lucia- in a little room or maybe a small cabin right by the beach. We’d wake up and walk on the beach. We’d lounge around together, enjoying the respite from washing diapers and cooking and cleaning, etc. We’d have dinner at some beachside restaurant, slowly, leisurely, enjoying our little nuclear family. We might even get to spend some adult time together after Lucia fell asleep.

None of that was going to happen if we stayed at his aunt’s house. But the offer was on the table, his mom and his aunt and everyone else all looking at us, awaiting our answer. Conan read my mumbled “I don’t know, what do you think?” correctly. “It’s just that we had talked about staying in a hotel room together.” He explained. “I’ve always wanted to stay in one of those places on the beach. Gotta take advantage while we have the money. It’s kind of like our honeymoon.” He added. Granted we were not married at this point, so I’m not sure where the honeymoon part came in, but it worked.

And everything else fell into place, like these things usually do. Paulina accepted the invitation to stay the night at their house, so she wasn’t bunking with us. And while it might’ve made us seem just a little snobby, rejecting their hospitality to stay in a hotel, at least we bowed out somewhat gracefully.

At the time, it wasn’t that I turned my nose up at their hospitality, but I was not thrilled at the prospects, either, of spending the night with the outside toilet you had to pour water down to “flush,” or the shower that was just a half-concrete, half-tin tiny rectangle at the entrance to their property, where you filled up the bucket to pour water over yourself. I was concerned, of course, about the ratio of beds-to-people and the amount of air that could circulate with a little floor fan in each of the two little rooms. I was worried about the mosquitos that had already started devouring my baby, and the lack of screens on the windows. Although it didn’t seem like a bad place by any means, and I had stayed in much less-luxurious circumstances before, it felt like “roughing it” too much with Lucia in tow, although her one-year-older cousin lived there. Plus, I really, really wanted a night or two of privacy, an after-baby, post-moving “honeymoon,” as Conan had put it.

So we got our hotel room “honeymoon,” which was neither the private nuclear-family-centered time I had envisioned nor the all-family-all-the-time affair that it would’ve been if we’d stayed at his aunts house, or shared a hotel room with Paulina.

We rejected his aunt’s hospitality that first visit, nicely and graciously, we hoped, without knowing that a year later we’d be living in a tent on their patio for weeks while we worked on our house. I didn’t realize then how much we would continue to depend on family and how they’d come to be the center of our social circle as well. I didn’t realize that depending on people doesn’t make you a dependent or needy person, but rather it helps you keep life in perspective and become a more dependable person yourself. It means you can’t say no when a cousin’s kid needs help with some homework because they’ve been recharging your lamps for months. It means you are racing to do the dishes when you’re invited over because they never let you do the dishes when they come to your house. It taught me to accept help without feeling like a failure, without looking for ways to pay it back, just knowing that the time and place will arise.

But at first, my appreciation was sometimes more theoretical than practical. Sometimes I felt grateful for what I had while simultaneously pining for a different situation. At the time, for example, I recognized how lucky I was to have my mother-in-law’s unconditional hospitality, good conversation and company, and her constant contribution to our child-rearing and childcare. But my independence-obsessed roots didn’t die, and sometimes I thought I’d lose my mind if I didn’t get my own space, if I couldn’t have a few days of throwing off my clothes and leaving them where they fell, of ignoring the dishes without worrying that I’d be judged lazy. Sometimes I went to our bedroom and fumed and stewed and cried and wrote my little heart out about the frustration of other people telling me what was best for my baby. I found a note in my journal the other day, something I wrote Conan and never gave him, about refusing to be kicked out of the kitchen, because I’d been told it was too cold for Lucia up there with the wind coming through. I remembered my bitterness, how some days our promised year in Juquila couldn’t go by fast enough, even though we had no definite plans for the future, nowhere to go afterwards.

But while you U.S. readers might be appalled at that kind of “meddling,” folks down here are shocked and appalled by what they see as the callousness and uncaring of families in the U.S., the lack of meddling that they see as indifference. For example, when a woman has a baby here, most of the time, someone or several people take care of the mother for 40 days after she gives birth, making sure she doesn’t have to do any washing or any other strenuous activity, making sure she gets enough rest and can focus on her baby and her recovery. Imagine what that kind of help is like! But of course there’s a trade-off. Life’s full of trade-offs, and I think we all just have to find the balance in whatever situations we have to work with. And yes, when we actually did get married we had some of that balance- a night in a hotel room that my awesome gringo side of the family sponsored us for, and the big after party the next afternoon, where everyone came to our house. While I was reeling from exhaustion and a bit taken aback at having guests the day after the wedding, it all worked out beautifully, with all the food prepped for us and almost all the cleanup taken care of for us by Conan’s family. And so continues the adventure in multi-cultural family building, a relationship in progress for the whole family on both sides.

Getting Back In Shape, One Snarky Comment at a Time

22 Jun

Although soap operas were prohibited from my childhood, it didn’t stop me from developing my own dramatic flair. I’ve spent years crafting what I hope are fabulously scathing responses to rudeness, whether it be yelling back at catcalls while I’m on my bike, smiling politely while I tell a business exactly why I’ll be conducting a smear campaign against them, or writing a perfectly understated resignation letter ‘appreciating the opportunity’, even though I’ve made it clear through other means that I’m finished dealing with the boss’s raging alcoholism. I’ve been refining my sarcasm since toddlerhood, dreaming up blithe and amusing come-backs in my spare time (admittedly I’m no comedian, but I amuse myself at least). Tragically, all my effort is for naught when the cultural definitions of rudeness change and I have to think up new snarky responses to damn near everything.
For example, if someone in the U.S. insisted I tell them how much money I make, I might ask if they need to see my bank statements, or if they’re trying to figure out if I’m good marriage material. But it’s never happened to me there before so I was thrown for a loop when my friend here asked about my new salary. I simply said, “It’s a good salary,” leaving the peso value to the imagination. “No, but really, how much?” she asked. And again I told her something vague. I even used Conan’s favorite line from when he was in the U.S., telling her that “In my country,” (theoretically putting up a barrier I could blame on our cultural differences,) “we never say how much money we make.” She didn’t get the blatant hint, though, and said, “But I want to know!” Finally a family member told her to let it go, although I think they wanted to know, too. I imagined that this was just my friend’s personality, since she is one of those brutally honest, say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head types. But then several other people asked me the same thing, also not accepting my non-exact descriptions. Chalk it up to yet another instance of my basic social norms being ground up and remade into something barely recognizable.

And then there are the people who want to know when the baby is due. Granted, I was carrying around an extra 10 pounds for longer than I wanted after Lucia was born. And yes, it seems that anymore every half a pound I gain goes straight to my belly. But when I was actually pregnant in the U.S., people not-in-the-know didn’t ask me about pregnancy until my belly was practically basketball-sized. Here, on the other hand, I can even be out drinking a beer and still have someone ask me if it’s a boy or a girl. And I’m only 5 pounds heavier than normal right now! Hardly big enough to know the sex of a nonexistent baby.

Belly Bulge: A growing fetus or an excess of tortillas? Just ask! Or just keep your mouth shut.

Belly Bulge: A growing fetus or an excess of tortillas? Just ask! Or just keep your mouth shut.

Also, there is a version of customer service in some places here, but it only vaguely resembles the super kiss-ass, customer-is-always-right policy we have in the U.S. Restaurants, for example, resemble Europe more in that if they bring you food and drink sometime today and aren’t outright rude and ignoring you, that’s great service. It’s true that servers don’t live off of tips here, either, but that’s not the only place where our idea of service is seriously lacking.

There are three banks and a credit union here in Puerto, but you’d never know that by the service; there is certainly no competition in treating customers better to win them over from another bank. You are liable to wait in line for an hour or more (I’ve waited for more than 2 hours before on a day before a holiday) and nobody even apologizes. In fact, you’re lucky they got to you at all and you might as well be grateful that the bank exists.

I’ve heard that one of the banks is the most together, organized, and quickest in town, but it still took me three trips to finally be able to open my account there. Like in the U.S., the basic teller services are separate from the more complicated services, but still I waited over an hour and there were still people in line ahead of me, although I counted three cubicles and only four people ahead of me when I had walked in the door. The second time I went in I nearly threw a tantrum when some lady cut in line ahead of me, going straight back to one of the cubicles. The banker blew me off. I got seen in less than an hour that time but they couldn’t open my account with my water bill as proof of address; they needed an electric bill. I explained that we don’t have electricity, and the banker kindly assured me that, “oh, no, it doesn’t matter; just borrow any friend or relative’s electric bill.” So much for legitimate proof of address.

On my third visit to the bank, I was finally able to open my account, but only because I complained that it was my third visit in a week and my lunch break was going to be over soon. I magically got pushed ahead in the line, and didn’t even care that it was unfair. Once I was in a cubicle it still took an hour for the banker to fill out all the paperwork, for me to put my signature on a million sheets of paper. The copy of my immigration card didn’t look good enough as a copy, so he had to take a picture with his phone and email it to himself. Then there was a W-9 from the U.S. I had to fill out, supposedly to make sure my U.S. Social Security number is correct (why is this important to the U.S? or to Mexico? Who knows?), which the banker had no idea how to fill out. I was too relieved about getting it done to care.

A couple days later the same banker called me, informing me (not asking me) that I had to return the next day to correct a mistake. He said I’d abbreviated my name on one of the forms and that it had to be turned in correctly by the next day. I was starting to feel like I had a second home at the stupid bank, but at least he promised I could go right back to his cubicle and not have to wait in line. (Maybe something similar had happened with the woman I had complained about!)

Sure enough, I had “abbreviated” my name on the W-9, putting my middle initial instead of my whole middle name. I should have remembered about this cultural faux-paux because the first time I sent money to Conan I made this mistake and had to resend the transfer. Even though there are probably no other Conans in the entire country of Mexico, and even though he had the correct code number for the money transfer, they just couldn’t be convinced that “Conan Palacios Lopez” (the name I’d put on the transfer) was the same person as “Conan Rene Palacios Lopez” (the name on his ID). (Oh, my dear adopted land of arbitrary enforcement of banal rules, I love you even though you make no sense.)

And on and on it goes. Eventually I’ll quit being surprised by these things and will get it together to come up with new amusing and appropriately scathing responses to all this absurdity. Thus far I’ve been too busy refining my ability to laugh at myself and at the circumstances instead of inventing good come-backs. I just hope I can keep my brilliant sarcasm in shape and exercise my witty expositions of irony, at least in the retelling of my surprise and dismay. So bring it on, Oaxaca; I’m here for the long haul and there’s no TV to distract me from redeveloping my own dramatic flair.

never-ending amounts of fresh tortillas (and homemade salsa): not good for my waistline

never-ending amounts of fresh tortillas (and homemade salsa): not good for my waistline

I’m Still Cool- Whether I Have Purple or Gray Streaks in my Hair!

14 Jun

It was heartbreaking and shocking for me the first time a teenager treated me like a grown-up, like I was the enemy authority figure and couldn’t possibly understand them. I was working in a fabulous after-school program with my amazing mentor/ second mom, teaching about holistic sexuality, among other things. I kind of expected the kids to automatically think I was cool based on the content of the program, as I would have at that age. And I was only 18 at the time, still a teenager myself! Didn’t they get the memo that I’m anti-authoritarian? Didn’t my rebellious, alternative hairstyle (often with colors like purple) clue them in that I was (and am) young and vibrant and cool?!

I’m 30 now, but I still can’t really believe it when kids want to rebel against me. Luckily my daughter’s only two so I have a few more years to practice getting used to this. It was still a bit shocking to get the news a few weeks ago that I appear to be an authority figure to college students now. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that I finished college! And I still have cool, weird hair! Why don’t these kids get it?!

I have to hand it to them, though, their delivery of the news that I’m someone to rebel against was pretty amusing. I was substitute teaching a university-level English class and things seemed to be going well. They were working in small groups, using the imperative to write rules for a movie theater (which, by the way, doesn’t exist in Puerto. The closest one is 2 hours away.). I was walking around checking on groups, making sure they were on track and didn’t have any questions. I got to this one group, whom I suppose are some of the “cool kids,” all boys except for one girl. Their use of the imperative was on the mark, and they mostly had good rules. Except, “I think you need to change this one right here,” I said, and pointed clearly to the obvious culprit, the one that said “Don’t fuck!”

Now, don’t get me wrong; I myself am a user of the F word. I am my father’s daughter, and my dad is an expert at the F word, the S word, and the every-other-letter-of-the-alphabet word. He taught us that the creative and colorful use of “bad words” is an important skill in life. The F word, in particular, is so fabulously versatile, converting itself effortlessly from verb to adverb to noun to adjective and beyond. It is a curse word that an English teacher can appreciate.

But there’s a time and a place for everything. On top of that, their regular teacher had emphasized that there were strict class rules about being respectful, including not cursing in class, and that she throws students out of class for breaking the rules. So the situation had to be dealt with.
I wasn’t sure if they were trying to impress, or shock, or rebel, or if they just wanted to see what I would do.

Needless to say, I was not impressed. I was definitely not shocked or uncomfortable. “Shit,” I realized later, “I’ve been using this word for the same amount of time these kids have been alive.” Perhaps I am aging! But I am aging with pizzaz and style, if not grace, and really I was amused more than anything. Unfortunately, I had to be the one to enforce the idea that there’s still a time and a place for everything. So there I was, waiting for their reaction to my calling them out.

“Which one?” asked their little leader, casually, as if the problem might just as easily have been the one that said, “Be quiet.”

So I pointed again, smiling slightly. “This one,” I told him, not taking the bait.

“But it’s a good rule- don’t fuck,” he argued, all mock innocence, so pleased with himself for saying it out loud in front of all his friends and the substitute teacher.

I used my mom skills to keep a neutral face. “It is something people shouldn’t do in a movie theater,” I agreed, in English, “but I don’t think it’s something you will find written in the movie theater. Not in those exact words, anyway. It’s not appropriate. You’ll have to think of something better.” And I smiled again encouragingly for good measure.

After class, I approached their group and told them, in rapid-fire Spanish, “Look, it’s great that you know bad words in English! Congratulations. That’s an important thing to know, but its important to know when and where to use them. This class is not where you use them. You all already know that. You know that it’s disrespectful to your classmates and that your teacher would throw you out of class. So don’t do it again. This is your warning. Got it?” My tone of voice was that great mix that only parents and teachers can do, a mix of “I’m all business so you better pay attention” and that sympathetic “it hurts me more than it hurts you.” I started off smiling, then bored holes into them with my eyes as I spoke, then smiled again at the end, especially when they nodded, half open-mouthed, that yes, they got it.

I walked away feeling I had triumphed, getting my message across, although I also felt a little like a traitor, having to establish authority like that. Contrary to what younger people think, it’s not always easy or pleasant to be the one “in charge.” Surely there are folks who get a thrill out of bossing people around, keeping folks in line and the like, but I am not one of them. I’m more of a let’s-establish-ground-rules-based-on-mutual-respect sort of teacher. Thanks to teaching English in other contexts, where often students were older than I, I’ve had the luxury of not being that kind of authority figure, the one who has to, like, invent and enforce consequences for breaking the rules. This is also why I’m an ineffectual mess in large groups of small children. I expect people to just follow the rules because there should be rules that make sense, and if the rules don’t make sense then we can just change them.

Alas, I guess it doesn’t always work like that. I guess I can be forced to act like an authority figure, although I hope I do it the same way I am aging, with pizzaz and style and really cool hair, gray ones and all.

Rabid Dogs and Hypochondria and All

8 Jun

Now that I am pretty confident that I don’t have rabies, I think I’m ready to discuss the dog situation around here. If I turns out I do have rabies someday, then scratch this whole piece and go ahead and shoot me. Meanwhile, read on:


Like many countries without a giant budget for animal control, there are a lot of stray dogs. In fact, apparently only about 30% of dogs in Mexico have homes.* And since no country throws out food like the U.S., stray dogs are not fat little scoundrels roaming the streets. So even though we made fun of her a little, we all also understood when my stepmom Karen, an animal lover and protector by nature, freaked out at the massive amount of skin-and-bones canines as far as the eye can see.


First she tried to buy a (tourist-priced) hamburger for them. Instead we talked her into the more reasonably priced order of pescadillas (fried fish tacos) sold by one of the numerous women who walk around selling homemade food on the street. Then she insisted on buying actual dog food, so she could just carry it around in her purse and feed a little to every dog she sees. You can imagine what a process it was just to walk down the street with her and her dog-pity like this. Once we were eating at a beach-side restaurant, and the staff came and asked us to please quit feeding the dogs.


Once she came back from a jaunt to go feed a particularly skinny and sad-looking dog, and she was very disturbed. “I think he might be dehydrated or something because he didn’t want to eat the food. It took a long time to get him to take it.” And she told us all the details. Conan’s mom, Paulina, was there, patient although unimpressed by this care of all the strays. “I doubt he’s dehydrated. I think it’s much more likely it’s the first time he’s ever been offered anything but leftover tortilla! He’s never seen dog food before!” And we all had to laugh, even Karen.


The stray dog situation doesn’t really bother me much, probably because the majority of my sorrow-for-strangers goes to people; hunched-over grandmothers carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs so they can cook a meal, small kids out selling junky souvenirs late at night with no parent in sight, folks walking around barefoot because they can’t even afford a pair of flip-flops, not to mention the things you don’t see, like families who just had tortillas with salt as an entire meal.** (This is what it looks like, dear “conservative” U.S. citizens who complain about taxes, when there are not social programs to help vulnerable populations.)


So I can appreciate Karen’s concern for the dogs, because her heart is big enough to worry about all the people and all the animals, while mine just isn’t, apparently. Furthermore, I can’t worry about the wellbeing of all the dogs when some of the time what appears to be a stray dog is actually somebody’s pet. But don’t get confused, dear compatriots, by the term “pet” in the U.S. versus Mexico. While of course there are some folks with enough money and extravagance to treat their canine like children and/or royalty, for the most part you won’t find dogs with their own bed, their own hairstylist, eating gourmet food, having expensive surgery and the like. Of course, I know people here who love their dogs, take them on walks, have pictures of their dog on their cell phone, make their dog part of the family.


But in general, as a cultural norm here in Puerto Escondido, dogs have a much lower status and priority than in the U.S. My next door neighbor leaves his dog tied to a tree for long periods of time, sometimes for days on end. Some dogs never leave their yard. Many, many people here have dogs only as a form of protection for their house, and sometimes folks mistreat their dog to make it meaner, without anyone blinking an eye about it. (Of course there is mistreatment of dogs in the U.S., too, but there it’s a giant scandal and people raise a bunch of money for the publicized dog, which, sadly enough, they don’t usually do for mistreated people.)

Lucia playing with Nery's puppies, who are far from mistreated

Lucia playing with Nery’s puppies, who are far from mistreated (by Nery at least. by excited children, maybe)


As much as I hate the idea of people mistreating their animals, I think I am more pissed off by this general culture of dogs as guard dogs, when half the time they are not even fenced in with what they’re guarding. Sometimes I’m walking down the street and there’s a dog presumably protecting its territory, but there’s no dividing line between the dog’s territory and the public domain. And you don’t even know if the dog you’re about to approach is a furious guard dog or a lazy bum who won’t even glance as you pass. Meanwhile, Conan has taught me that often being more dominant than the creature will make it back off. So you pick up or rock and get ready to throw it, or at least yell at the dog and swat your hand. It’s not a 100% guarantee, but it has worked for me some in this crazy jungle of dogs in my neighborhood. Mostly I felt okay to walk around wherever in the daytime, although less so at night when mean dogs have even more free reign.


Until a couple months ago. I was buying tortillas from this woman a few blocks away. She has two or three dogs who seem nice enough, probably neither mistreated nor spoiled, like a lot of dogs around. There was a super skinny-scrawny stray dog hanging around as well that day, but for the most part strays are not threatening. They are usually caught up in their own dog drama, quests for food and pleasant naps, so while I don’t rush up to make friends, I don’t fear them, either. I got my tortillas and strutted right past this one, but when I went to throw my leg over my bike I felt a sudden sting in my leg.


It took me a second to realize the dog had bit me, I was so surprised. I put the bike between us and it started to go around the bike. “Me mordió!” It bit me, I think I said, aghast, and the lady who makes the tortillas started yelling at a little girl, who was also buying tortillas, to get her dog. “Go take your dog home!” She scolded the girl. “It’s not my dog, ok,” she assured me, in case the dog put me off from buying tortillas there. The little girl was holding onto the muzzle of the dog I was sure had been a stray. I just nodded, got on my bike and rode back home.


Once I was at home and completely free from danger I discovered I felt a little shaky from the surprise of being bit when I was so utterly not expecting it. I inspected my leg and discovered it was a very small spot where it had broken the skin. I cleaned it with peroxide. I sat down and told myself it was no big deal. When I was four, I’d gotten a dog bite on my face that needed 20 stitches (from the beloved pet of a dear family friend), so certainly this was nothing in comparison. I started to calm down. But then, like any good hypochondriac, I started to think about diseases. I was up on my tetanus shots, so that pretty much only left rabies as a possible danger.


‘Rabies, once symptoms are present, is incurable and almost always fatal’ I read on the blessed information superhighway.  I checked to see what “almost always” really meant- only a handful of cases of survival, mostly of people who had previously had a rabies vaccine after a bite. I read about the agony people suffer while dying from rabies- including being terrified of water, unable to swallow, with excessive saliva running down your chin. “Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site reassured me- although can you imagine passing whole days like that?! Not sounding good for the home team.


I sat at the internet cafe and read about the rabies vaccine and the timeframe for effective prevention. I started to panic that I had cleaned my tiny wound with peroxide instead of the copious amounts of soap and water recommended by the internet. Hours had passed, so it was probably already too late for soap and water to wash out the dog’s saliva. It was probably already traveling through my bloodstream, while I was there wasting time reading about it.


Although it was not on my agenda for the day, I decided to pursue a rabies vaccine. But where to go for such a thing? Who to even ask? You don’t just google things around here and get answers. So I went to one of those pharmacy doctors, where you can get a free or cheap consultation, usually with no waiting.


I explained what had happened and the doctor examined my wound while- I’m pretty sure- trying not to laugh in my face. I tried to explain that I just thought it was better to be safe than sorry; that no, I didn’t know if the dog had rabies or not but that not knowing was exactly why I’d prefer to go ahead and get the vaccine. He said the hospital probably didn’t have it, and even if they did they probably wouldn’t give it to me because it’s a very expensive and hard-to-get vaccine. I tried to pressure him for any other possibilities on where to get the vaccine, and he assured me that my chances (both of getting rabies and of getting the vaccine) were low. Then we had a nice statistical chat about the risk of getting rabies when you’re bit by a dog versus being bitten by, say, a raccoon. And he threw in that really if you’re in the kind of place where you get bit by those kind of wild animals then you probably deserve it (okay maybe those weren’t his exact words, but close enough.). I was not impressed by the statistics because I could be in that small percentage and then there will be 100% of me dying a horrendous death in the very near future. I did not feel like he really appreciated my angst and anxiety about this rabies thing, to say the least.


Meanwhile I had called Conan to come get me, so after the unhelpful doctor I went and found him. “I just need to freak out for a minute,” I warned him, and proceeded to cry like a baby. “I know it’s super unlikely that I have rabies,” I choked out between sobs, “but I might! And it’ll be too late!” I continued.


“Okay. We’ll go find the vaccine.” Conan tried to reason and assure me.


“I don’t want the stupid vaccine. I don’t think I’ll get rabies….but I might!” And then he tried to tell me again to at least go find out if they’d give me the vaccine, at least make an effort if I was going to be all weirded out and worried about it. But still I refused. And still I continued to be upset, to lay out all the facts I had learned, to throw out some statistics, to reason about my odds. Unfortunately, it started to make Conan upset, too. We went to a friend’s house close by so I could (rather belatedly) wash my leg correctly with copious amounts of soap and water. Then I called my mom, the expert at letting me freak out and talk through everything without getting upset herself (or at least not showing it…must be all that psychology training I used to bitch about).


Talking through it helped, and I didn’t further pursue the rabies vaccine. And here I am writing this, not frothing at the mouth, a couple months after the fact. But now I am more cautious than I’d like to be. I don’t like to walk and bike around in fight-or-flight mode every time I see a dog, because I see dogs like every 10-60 seconds. And I’m not even particularly worried about being bit in and of itself; I’m not scared of the pain of it. I feel like I just need to be prepared for it. Well, and I might still be scared of rabies.


I’ve tried to figure out why this rabies thing was so panic-inducing for me. I mean, sure, mortality is always a little scary, but I do things that are much more likely to cause death than passing by dogs on a regular basis, and it doesn’t phase me. A traffic accident is much more likely to kill me than maybe getting rabies from maybe being bit by a dog, yet I don’t get scared crossing the street or riding in vehicles. I don’t flinch when there’s turbulence on the airplane. I smoked cigarettes for years, with only a nod at the very likely possibility of that killing me, even after watching my paternal grandmother die from it. And I certainly enjoy other little risks, like roller coasters. In general, I know it’s senseless to walk around calculating and worrying about everything because of course I could die at any moment from just about anything, just like everybody else.


Maybe it’s the idea of days of frothing at the mouth, hallucinating, afraid to even calm my thirst. Or maybe it’s the fact that there is this life-saving vaccine that I may or may not have access to. Or the most likely possibility, knowing myself, is how much I know I would beat myself up for not spending the time and energy to get a vaccine if I actually did get rabies, however unlikely. It’s imagining that regret would eat me alive before the rabies, spending whatever hours or days there were, between realizing I had rabies and losing my mind, repeating all the what-ifs that would make it un-happen, being mad at myself for not seeing it coming and doing something to change the fates. Absurd, right?


I guess it’s not so much about rabies, but about getting comfortable with things that make me uncomfortable, for better and for worse. I don’t want to get comfortable, for example, with people’s poverty and misery. Or at least I don’t want to be complacent about it. But I also realize that I can’t go around, say, handing out nutritious meals the way Karen can hand out dog food. Nor does it help anybody for me to be in a constant state of distress.


But I do want to get comfortable with the dog situation, with the complete unpredictability that is their animal nature. They’re not going away. Sure, I can keep being pissed off about the percentage of people here who train their dogs to “protect the house” aka be aggressive to people. I can be nervous every day, the multiple times a day I walk or bike down the street, but it’s not going to change anything.


I’d like to get to the point where I can be just slightly cautious, be aware of the dogs around me, without my heart racing in preparation every 30 seconds. I’d like to get to the point where I wouldn’t waste time blaming myself if something did happen, where I could put just a little more faith in the universe, where I could keep in mind a little better that what’s going to happen is bound to happen. So there’s my message to myself for the week: work on getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, rabid dogs and hypochondria and all. But I still expect somebody to put me out of my misery if I suddenly start to salivate.



*according to statistics from the House of Representatives (la Cámara de Diputados), from this report:

**Almost 20% of the population in the state of Oaxaca suffer from malnutrition, according to a report published by Mexican governmental agencies, and that’s a bit lower than some statistics from other sources- link

More than half the population under age 15 (in the state of Oaxaca) is living in “multidimensional poverty,” defined as a situation in which a person is not guaranteed at least one of his/her basic rights and the household income is insufficient to acquire needed services and goods. (loosely translated from this report (which is a really eye-opening read if you can read Spanish):ño20.pdf


Let the Rains Begin! (And Wash Away this Perfectionist Streak)

1 Jun

As the wind picked up and lightning flashed across the sky, Conan tried to convince me to wait with him and get a ride with a friend. “You can leave your bike here at Nery’s.” he suggested. “Or do you just like to suffer?” he pouted, the same way I do when I think he’s being foolish and stubborn.

Admittedly, I was feeling stubborn, and absolutely thrilled at the prospect of rain. There’s something about going six months out of the year without a drop of rain that makes even the promise of rain feel beautiful and magical again. In Juquila, I had dreaded the start of rainy season, since it meant the promise of six months of dreariness. In Juquila during rainy season it rains every single day, often for the whole afternoon and most of the night, occasionally for days on end. In Juquila, it meant feeling even more trapped inside the house. It meant wasting all the nice morning’s dry hours rushing to do chores and errands before the rain (since washing dishes was an outside chore, and you had to try to hang your clothes out in the sun for a couple hours so maybe they’d dry in less than three days, for example.). In Juquila rainy season is six months of misery only to be followed by wind storm season and then very cold season. But here in Puerto, where it doesn’t rain every day, and it mostly rains at night, and where the rain cools things down but doesn’t make it cold, I was feeling positive and excited about the seasonal change.

I was determined to ride home, too, because we’d just bought the bike that afternoon before I went to work. My old bike, that we’d bought used, had started breaking down every couple of days- one thing after another- and it was getting ridiculous to keep putting money into it. Having a bike is really important to me, because it’s one of my favorite forms of exercise, and just about everywhere here is biking distance. Plus it usually ends up being faster than public transport, and it’s free! So the need for the bike was strong. Normally, I wouldn’t rush into a big purchase like a brand new not used bike on the spur of the moment, but the transportation strike that afternoon pushed me into a quick decision.

Conan and Lucia and I had walked to the spot where colectivos (collective taxis) pass by, only to be told by a man that there were no colectivos coming. I thought he meant they were all on their lunch hour, which does happen and means a long wait time sometimes. “We’ll go walk out to where the buses pass, then, so at least we have more options,” I told him. “No, there are no buses, either. No taxis, either. There’s a paro (strike/protest),” he informed us.

We found out later that all the transportation folks (taxis, colectivos and buses) had banned together to prevent a new taxi company from doing business. Apparently it was some group who had money and thus good connections and was already getting their paperwork. So all the drivers who have worked for 15, 20 years and had to work hard to get their papers were furious.* At least this is my limited understanding of the situation.

Whatever the case, all of us without cars or functioning bicycles were walking. When we got to the main road, on the outskirts of our neighborhood, we could see that the whole road was blocked off by a bunch of buses and taxis and colectivos. I was pleased it was farther down the road than our house, away from town. We ended up able to get a ride with one of Conan’s cousins and thus avoided walking another 40 minutes or so to the market. We rushed and bought the second-cheapest bike that was small enough for me, a fancy clean white mountain bike that I’m still anxious to decorate (Send me some cool bumper stickers, please!).

After buying the bike, I’d gone directly to teach an English class just a measly 3 blocks ride away, so I was looking forward to using it to ride home. And the darkening sky was like a childhood friend double-dog-daring me to go. “I’ll get home before the rain. And before you get home, too!” I told Conan smugly. “I’m going right now before the rain gets here! You take my bag, just in case.” I kissed him and Lucia and took off. It got darker and even windier as I got closer to home. The lightning alternated between long rays touching down somewhere over yonder in the mountains and those gorgeous yellow, orange and pink giant horizontal flashes that seem to light up the whole sky. I pedaled faster, even while going downhill. Since I’ve only lived here for dry season so far, I’d never been in the rain here in Puerto, and had no idea what to expect from this kind of storm. It also reminded me of my days working at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, my great friend Meg and I riding our bikes home together. Many times we chanced it with impending storms, racing home as fast as our legs would carry us, glancing at the sky, the adrenaline surging through us. I wished she were on this ride with me.

When I got to the entrance to my neighborhood, I thought, “Now I’ve almost made it.” Plus I knew that if the rain got crazy in the next couple minutes, there were two different places where I could stop and wait. But home would be better, so I kept up the pace, zooming past another guy on a bike. Unfortunately, it was dark and I’d forgotten about the speed bumps. I cursed in English going over the first one. The guy on the bike caught up to me just in time to hear my curse in Spanish flying/bumping over the second speed bump. I imagined, briefly, what it would be like riding my bike in the puddles of mud that my street would turn into once it started to rain.
But by the time I got to where the pavement ends I was more sure than ever that I would beat the rain. I flew over the big dirt speed bump that the arrogant neighborhood delegate had made in front of his house, cursing myself for not remembering. Almost there!

I almost slid in the sand that’s just around the curve going to my street, but righted myself in time. I saw my clothes hanging from the line and congratulated myself on getting home in time to keep my clothes dry, too, even though I’d forgotten about them. All labored breathing and sweat and electrifying heartbeats of adrenaline and triumph, I guzzled two cups of water. I sat down to slow myself down, to watch the storm roll in from the cozy nest that is my home, and to wait for Conan and Lucia to arrive.

Our friend brought Conan and Lucia, and the gorgeous displays of lightning kept up, with thunder sounding closer, but still the rain didn’t come. Eventually I went to bed, reluctantly, like an excited kid on Christmas Eve, telling myself I’d wake up when the rain started. But the land stayed dry.

The next night I did wake up, briefly but joyfully, to the sound of pounding rain. I reveled in the sound, in the smell, in the coolness, from the sweet shelter that is our bed in our lovely little house. A few evenings later, right at Lucia’s bedtime, we got to enjoy the rain together, our little family. We shined a flashlight outside so Lucia could see the drops come down. We stood in the doorway and let drops splash over us. I didn’t complain about delaying Lucia’s bedtime. I marveled at the cleansing sensation of moisture that’s not just humidity or my own sweat. We giggled in the novelty and freshness of it.

Image<Lucia with her Tia Artemia playing in her raincoat on a drizzly afternoon>


Like just about everything here, the rain didn’t happen when or how I expected it. Like so many things in Mexico, in life, I’d imagined and prepared for something, only to have bureaucrats or striking workers or inclement weather or other people’s whims or let’s call it destiny ruin my plans. I laughed at myself for having been so sure the rain was coming that night I raced on my bike. For buying a new bike in case the transportation strike kept up (it was over by the next day, although the bike is still important). For still fighting with myself all the time, my intense desire to plan for life and influence the outcomes butting up against my realistic if not heartfelt knowledge that I am not in charge. I am still daily trying to come to terms with the fact that my universe does not exist in a vacuum, that I can plan and prepare and wish for something till the cows come home, and the likelihood of that affecting the result is still about 50/50, on a good day.

I remember trying to give people updates about the house, or about other things we were doing or hoping to do since we moved here, and feeling foolish when they just didn’t get why it was taking so long. Things just happen here differently, or rather things don’t just happen; simple, everyday things are often more of a struggle than they are in the U.S. It took us like 5 days to get an extra key made in Juquila, for example. Just to get a house key! Every time we’d go to get it made, the place would be closed, and the first time we went and they were open we’d forgotten the key.

Or when we wanted to buy a bed for Lucia- for a reasonably priced bed, we had to get to Oaxaca City, 5 hours away, and figure out who could transport it back to Juquila for us. Not at all like driving down the road to Wal-Mart. Or you think you’re going to the grocery store one day but nope, you get there and it’s blocked by striking teachers again. Or just the other day, Conan was trying to deal with some tax situation for his grandmother who passed away over ten years ago. So he goes to the office, explains the situation. They say they can’t help him without an appointment. He asks if he can make an appointment. “No,” they say, “you have to make it online or over the phone at this 800 number.” He says he’s been trying to do it online and can’t get through. “Oh, yes,” they tell him casually, not an ounce of shame, “there’s a problem with the system, it’s over saturated and thus not working properly.” “Sooooo,” he says, and they’re like, “Just try in the early morning hours or late at night” which is especially tricky since we don’t have internet in our house, like most people around here. “Welcome to Oaxaca,” my mom would say (she’s got a really funny blog post if you want the back story on this inside joke: ).

Here, much more so than in the U.S., you have to plan for things to not go as planned. “Julia, I think you’re gonna have to relax and go with the flow a little more if you’re going to live here,” my mom tried to caution me politely a week after we’d moved down. Ha! Let me tell you, I want to be a go-with-the-flow kind of person, I really do. Nobody wants to be that guy who’s devastated and grumpy all day just because their perfect biscuit recipe didn’t work because there’s no temperature control on the stupid oven here. And no, of course it’s not really about the biscuits or the temperature control, but the feeling that you lack any and all control over your life. (This may or may not be an accurate description of me in August 2012, 8 weeks into motherhood, one week into our Mexican exile- er, um, move.) No, no, let’s not be like that; let’s roll with the punches, guys! Listen to Bob Marley. Do some yoga.

So far yoga has not defeated my Type A personality. Bob has failed to convince me not to cry. Since I was itty bitty I have been a perfectionist, anxiously revising my Plans A, B, and C before being able to sleep at night. I was that kid who told her Mommy in preschool that she’d never get in trouble and have to go to time out, and then never did. I was that kid who wanted to do fire drills in her own home after learning about them at school. I was that teenager who was reckless and rebellious, but only because I carefully calculated what things I wanted to rebel against, when and how I would be “reckless”. I was and am a damn good spur-of-the-moment traveller, going where the wind blows me, appreciating all the moments for what they are- but only because my very intentional plan is to not have a plan in those moments.

Slowly but surely, I am recovering from this perfectionism, from this desire to believe I have control over my life. This wondrous job of motherhood has helped a lot; for example, for a while I was too exhausted to even get through Plan A in my head before falling asleep at night. Almost two years into this mothering adventure now, my child has taught me that I can expect any rigid expectations to be peed or pooped on, spat up, and/or vomited on regularly, just to keep me in check. And the lovely state of Oaxaca is doing its part, too. Oaxaca’s lessons for me, much like Lucia’s lessons for me, are not always pleasant, but I think they’ve been good for me, and I’ve grown fond of Oaxaca all the same. I am often forced to blow off my own plans, to make to-do lists in pencil and not pen, to laugh wildly at my expectations of ten minutes ago, to rethink what I thought I knew, even about the rain. Sometimes all this just makes me angry and crazy and frustrated and helpless-feeling. But more and more, I really can relax and laugh it off, change my plans and beloved ideas at the drop of a hat and call it destiny. I can feel not-miserable when the rain doesn’t come when I think it has to, and not be shocked when it appears out of the blue. So let this year’s rains keep coming, and wash away a little more of this perfectionist thing that’s been weighing me down. Please and thank you. 

*Their protest was effective, by the way; the new group did not start driving taxis, at least not yet.