A Little Bit of Nothing with a Touch of Everything (Perspectives on Having and Not)

20 Jul

“We don’t have a vehicle, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything,” (“no tenemos nada” because you get to double your negatives in Spanish) I announced, pouting like my two year old, and was immediately ashamed of myself. I was in my great big house (well, big for most Mexican families in Puerto) with my daughter and my husband and my gas stove that had plenty of gas, wearing clothes with more hanging on the rack, in my house with a kajillion toys for Lucia, and a bicycle, me with my full time job with benefits, in a safe and secure environment (except for those pesky neighborhood dogs, maybe) and, well, you get the idea. It could hardly be said that we’ve got nothing. 


Plus I was ashamed because I was saying it to one of Conan’s aunts who I happen to know had it a million times rougher when she was my age. She didn’t have electricity or running water. She took her four kids to the river every day to bathe and wash clothes and diapers. She cooked with firewood she brought home. Her husband drank all the extra money, and sometimes the money that was for food, too. And I’m pretty sure she still didn’t go around pouting about not having anything. 


But it was too late to unsay my words, and I was still too frustrated and flustered about the trash situation to fix my blunder. While it’s not true that we don’t have anything, we are living with a lack of goods and services that is sometimes overwhelming, especially because it’s so much more expensive to be poor in this way. 


What had me crazy for the moment was our having taken our trash out for a ride twice without being able to dump it. There’s no trash pickup on our block, so we’ve been accumulating trash in our garage for too long now. It’s difficult to convince somebody we know with a truck to come by and take our trash to the dump, but we’ve done it recently, twice in fact. To no avail. The first time the dump was closed because it was Sunday (although sometimes they’re open on Sundays). This time there was no reason for it to not get taken care of. Except I forgot where we are, and that it’s always possible for something to not be taken care of. So this time the dump was blocked due to protests- no, not the ever-striking teachers this time- some other group for some other political reason. All I know is that two or three months of trash (not food, thank goodness; we compost) returned to my garage, much to my dismay. I felt helpless, unable to accomplish what should be such a simple thing. But nothing is simple here, and even though I’m usually thrilled to be here anyway, sometimes it’s maddening.


People on our block mostly burn their trash, which is not only bad for the environment and our health, but only partially effective. You still end up with a big black pile of stuff that doesn’t disappear, like the aerosol cans of mosquito spray, a pile which attracts more mosquitos and is unsightly, among other things. Burning all that plastic and diapers and- ugh, the smell, and some nights it seems half of Puerto is aflame, big clouds of smoke billowing from all four directions. But what do we do? I’m sure we are attracting rats and all kinds of other pests with this ever-growing pile of trash, but where can we go with it, with no vehicle and some bad luck on our last two attempts?


And the trash is only one of our struggles for basic things that you probably take for granted, that I used to take for granted. Of course without electricity we don’t have lights at night, but that is not one of our biggest issues. We’ve got a couple battery-powered lamps and a couple more rechargeable lamps we recharge at friends’ or family’s houses when we can. The really big deals for me are 1) the refrigerator, and 2) the washing machine, or the lack thereof. 

With the fridge, we get around it more or less with a lot of extra work and a lot of extra money. We buy ice and put it in a broken fridge that we use as a cooler. Just to buy bags of ice is really expensive, plus it only lasts a day, if that. We can buy a huge bag that half fills our fridge for 30 pesos (less than 3 USD, but remember we don’t earn dollars) but because we have no car, going to get it involves getting a ride or borrowing somebody’s car, usually putting gas in it, etc. It is time-consuming, expensive, and totally inconvenient. We spend more on ice every month than an entire normal electric bill. 


The laundry situation is pretty similar. We can wash for free by hand here at the house, but it’s very labor-intensive and very time-consuming, with clothes and sheets and towels and all that for the three of us. We can take the clothes to a family member’s house and use their washing machine, but by the time we transport it there and transport the wet clothes back it’s about as much time and a little more money than washing by hand at home. We can take the clothes to a laundromat (where they wash them for you- that’s how it’s done around here) but it’s pretty expensive and there’s still the issue of getting the clothes there and back. And the worst part is we already own a wonderful washing machine in Juqulia, that would take a really large generator to run, which we don’t have. 


And then there are all these other annoyingly inconvenient things. Like the total inability to iron something I need to wear to work. Don’t get me wrong, I passionately hate ironing. But when it’s iron versus rewash and rehang something, give me the damn iron. Nope, not an option. 


The lack of fans is really killer when it’s crazy hot and humid and the wind decides to die completely. I love hot weather, especially because I can’t stand the cold, so I try very hard to not complain about it. But some moments I am convinced that all I want out of life is a fan in my face. 


And why don’t we have electricity? Let me be clear: we are not those folks who set out to build a log cabin and live away from all civilization, off the grid, sticking it to the man, or whatever. No, thank you. I want at-home internet! And ceiling fans (or any fans), and ice for my tea that I get straight from a freezer inside my very own house. And no, we don’t live out in the country by any stretch. We live in a large town, in a neighborhood right behind the big public university (which does have electricity, of course.) All around us there is electricity. Just not on our block. 


We don’t have electricity because we live in an alternate universe from the U.S., and the electric company just doesn’t work the same. Instead of going ahead and setting things up for electricity in areas that are developing, knowing they will profit from folks using the electricity sooner or later, they wait and wait and wait and make the now-desperate inhabitants of those areas pay for the set-up of electricity. So our block is in that process- getting quotes for how much they will charge us, rejecting them, trying to set up deals, asking for help from the government. It sure is a slow process. At the moment, there is no electricity date in sight for our house. 


Meanwhile, we have a survival plan, a plan to try to be a bit more like those folks sticking it to the man, a plan that doesn’t involve waiting around for the electric company. The fridge situation is half-taken care of (okay, still not convenient at all, but less expensive.) Paulina sent down her extra fridge which we’ve got running at one of Conan’s cousin’s houses (about a 15 minute walk away) so we can fill big water bottles with water to make ice for our “fridge”. We’re going to buy a large generator to run our washing machine and other odds and ends which are too much for solar energy. And we’re going to buy a solar panel which can hopefully help us run a fan and some other necessities that aren’t all the time. (It’s nearly impossible, unfortunately, to run a regular refrigerator on solar power). But all of these things take lots of money, and time to see where to buy them. If we want budget-priced solar panels we need to get them from Mexico City, for example. We don’t even know about the generator yet. I haven’t been at my job for long, so saving is also it’s own slow process. Like always, our life is a work-in-progress. 


I know it’s going to get better, to get simpler, and cheaper, and easier. And I know our life is far from all-bad at this point, even as things stand. I know I’ll never take basic services like trash pick-up and electricity for granted, ever again. I know I have a lot to be grateful for already. 


But I also think that it’s okay to feel whatever we feel, and that I need to give myself permission to feel overwhelmed, or desperate, or angry when that’s what I feel. I don’t think that has to negate all my other moments of happiness, of gratitude, of optimism. Maybe the way I expressed it the other day made me look like a tantrum-y brat, but I hope that Conan’s family knows me well enough by now to know that’s only a moment, that it’s not the whole Julia-package. And I think it’s important even to stay a little angry about the way the system is set up, the way the system screws over people that are already at a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean I have to walk around pissed off all the time; I think we can feel a full range of emotions in different moments and it doesn’t have to define us. Maybe what we tell ourselves about those emotions is more important than the feeling in itself. Maybe it’s okay for me to pout and complain from time to time, and it doesn’t have to mean I’m a spoiled brat. I can stop myself and recognize the wonderful things we have, once I’m finished pouting, that is. I can appreciate the best gift of all: allowing myself to be a complete, imperfect person, someone who can feel pessimistic and remain an optimist, who can cry and moan and smile and laugh in the same day, who can keep in mind the whole package deal, which might mean I have everything


4 Responses to “A Little Bit of Nothing with a Touch of Everything (Perspectives on Having and Not)”

  1. Kelly Piatt July 20, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    Julia, i love your honesty, and your point of view. This post hit home for me in many ways. I enjoy your blog so very much. Thank you.

    • exiletomexico July 20, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Writing sure is helpful in being honest with yourself. Take care!

  2. juliainman July 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    You are so wise beyond your years! Everyone should be able to have their moments to complain, rant, get angry and/or be depressed. If not, then we accept the inequities and learn to not rail against them. Just wanting to get stuff done shouldn’t be so freaking hard…and yet… Miss you all, as always!

    • exiletomexico July 21, 2014 at 9:11 am #

      Yeah, but funny how it’s been a long process for me to not feel bad about feeling bad (it’s still a mental fight to feel bad guilt-free), even though I totally allow it in other people. Growing up is hard! ; )
      Miss you, too!

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