“Plans? What Plans?”

7 Dec

This is what my mom said to show me how “go with the flow” she was going to be on this trip. It’s all fun and games until groups are blocking the airport when you’re supposed to leave, though. Then we can talk about the importance of not making plans as a resident of Oaxaca (unless you’re prepared to constantly have them derailed).

A year ago, our house was “almost finished,” which was an extremely loose definition. Here people who aren’t rich build something to put a roof over their head and then slowly improve it over the course of their lives. In the U.S. you just make mortgage payments; here you make sacrifices and you wait patiently and keep working, and you still might or might not have a nice house before you die (but there’s no mortgage payment, at least). I was only vaguely aware of this, in that way where you’ve noticed a phenomenon but not yet applied it, when we made a plan for Lucia and me coming down to Puerto to “finish the house” last December.

Plans, like owning a house, are also a horse of a different color down here. Many people don’t bother to try to make life plans, because what’s the point? Life is so blatantly not in your control. Not that I believe it’s in your control in the U.S., either, but many things there are indeed much more predictable and reliable than things here.

Our plans to finish the house in a couple of weeks quickly got reduced to “just get the bathroom up and running and then we’ll move our tent from your aunt’s house to our house.” That was after we had changed our plan of me just cooking food in Juquila and taking it down to Puerto and spending a couple of days a week there. As soon as we got here it was obvious that much more help than that was needed; my presence and domestic help just a couple days a week was not going to cut it. Another nice-sounding, well-intentioned plan down the drain- welcome back to Oaxaca, Julia.
My to-do list here is a cross between a cruel joke and my saving grace. It’s helpful and harmful all at once. Without it I’d go crazy, but I know it will never, ever all get done (and daily, probably not even half of it happens). For instance, flu shots have been on my list of things to do for a solid month now, and it still hasn’t happened. Not that I haven’t tried. But all the students at the university were renewing their insurance in November, causing day-long lines in the Preventative Medicine office, so I waited for that to calm down. Then, of course, they were out of the vaccine. So I wait and cross my fingers. I keep multiple lists on paper (the long-term to-do, this week’s necessities, to-do before work today, etc.), so that these dozens of pending to-dos are not all being juggled in my head, stressing me out constantly.

When my mom and Dee were visiting, for the first couple of days, I had that illusion (delusion?) again that you can control your life. We made plans to eat lunch in x restaurant, for example, and then we carried out those plans. We made plans like, “we’ll go swimming in the hotel pool, then take showers, then go for a walk,” and sure enough, we were able to fulfill these plans. Granted, much of this illusion of control was due to money (my mom and Dee’s money, not ours, that allowed us to make those kinds of easy plans). If I had enough money a much larger portion of my plans could happen in a timely manner, too. Like I could probably find a private doctor to give us all the flu shot and go ahead and cross it off my list (although I’d still have to find out who- vaccines are mostly reserved for public institutions, who never have enough, probably because some of it goes to the private sector). But some of the lack of control is also just a cultural difference.

I witnessed this culture clash in action the day my mother-in-law came into town. She had told me she was going to cook some food and bring it down and arrive during my lunch break so we could eat together (my lunch break is about 2 and 1/2 hours long). It sounded like a really great plan. But last time she planned to arrive during my lunch break there was some protest happening with people blocking the road from Rio Grande to here, so she was delayed by having to get out of the van and walk a ways before finding another van for the rest of the route. People around here (my beloved mother in law included) are not famous for their punctuality to begin with, and when you add in all these other common possibilities for delays and cancellations, it’s almost more reliable to count on someone showing up late or not at all than on plans happening as scheduled.

Sure enough, when Conan came to get me on my lunch break his mom was just leaving Rio Grande, a 40-60 minute trip, depending on the circumstances. And even once she arrived, she had other plans and things to do before arriving at the hotel to eat with us- dropping off a chicken at her sister’s house, talk of going to buy some disposable plates, etc. Meanwhile, the gringo faction had made new plans, deciding that we would go to a restaurant instead, and have Paulina’s food for dinner. The logic was that then I could potentially start eating even if Paulina arrived very late, so I had time to eat before returning to work. This logical plan, however, was not destined to be, as is so often the case once there are plans involving more than one person (every single day of the week). There were a couple irritated phone calls between Conan and I, being the go-betweens between my mother, who didn’t know why we were still waiting for Paulina when we’d already changed the plans to accommodate the time changes happening, and Paulina, who absolutely wouldn’t hear of us going to a restaurant when she was bringing delicious home-cooked food. So the minutes of my lunch break ticked away, and once Paulina arrived it was not the leisurely, pleasant lunch it was planned to be- partially because I was running out of time, and partially because I think everyone except Lucia was then irritated and out of sorts. Welcome to Oaxaca, where plans are subject to change 15 times before anything happens.

So I can see why people don’t bother making plans. It’s excessively frustrating. Here you can only count on not being able to count on things. There are the unexpected things that come up, like the airport being blockaded by protesters the day my mom was supposed to fly out (they let passengers in anyway, but we weren’t sure it would happen until we got there). Then there are expected “unexpected” things, like teachers being on strike (which is practically constant here in Oaxaca). Then there’s the institutional lack of commitment. Like when there’s some big construction or remodeling happening, for example, they don’t give an estimated completion date until it’s finished. Most businesses don’t post their hours of operation anywhere, because who wants to be held accountable for that strict of a schedule? The doctor at my insurance company still won’t even give me an official due date on my pregnancy, despite being in my third trimester. (Try planning your students’ exam dates when you’re not sure when your maternity leave actually starts!) It’s a constant adventure.

A year into our move to Puerto, our house is 100 million times more livable than it was (finished, though, it is not). And I’ve accepted that it’ll probably never actually be finished, but hopefully will continue improving through the years. I haven’t lost all hope of being able to make and carry out plans, but I’ve learned to take my own plans and ambitions with a big old grain of salt, a raised eyebrow, and a shrug-it-off-and-have-a-beer attitude, at least on a good day, if not every day. Maybe you’ll come visit and experience it for yourself- just leave your plans at the airport, please.

2 Responses to ““Plans? What Plans?””

  1. Peg Leeco December 7, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    Great piece. My Dad shipped bananas for years and spent a lot of time in ports all over South America.I can recall his phrase borrowed from those trips…manana…. manana, manana…..a decidedly non Boston attitude!!

    • exiletomexico December 8, 2014 at 8:53 am #

      Yes, very non-U.S. attitude- but I think it exists in more places than our constantly-hurried attitude!

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