Participant Observation

How on earth do I begin writing a blog on ‘first impressions’ from 10 days that have rendered me dumbfounded and  speechless (quite literally – my spanish is still embarrassingly bad)? And especially without bowing to the extensive range of cliches available for those travelling/on a ‘journey’ – ‘rollercoaster’ anyone? Well I don’t know really, but I’m going to give it a go because I know I’ll hugely regret it if I don’t document these precious firsts.

As an aspiring anthropologist, I suppose I’ve been indulging in/attempting a very loose and untechnical kind of participant observation. For those not well versed in anthropological theory it’s essentially trying to learn as much as possible from paying close attention to what’s going on around you, getting involved, asking questions, adopting behaviours, and above all attempting to proceed without causing offence or making a complete idiot of yourself. In other words, mere mortals: ‘watch and learn’. Well for anyone who’s fascinated by different people and ways of life it’s a lot of fun and incredibly interesting, so most of my time is spent feeling slightly bemused and LAPPING IT ALL UP!

It would be the most abhorrent of insults to my host nation not to place food at the very top of my initial observations. And when it comes to food I have been taking a very active approach to participant observation! To say it’s an experience doesn’t do it justice; the food is INSANE. I’ve always been a bit of a food devil but there honestly aren’t words to describe it. From our first few meals in Mexico my fellow English friend Tom and I noted that mealtimes were proving ‘success after success’ and it has since become a bit of a catchphrase for us. Every day I try something new that is absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before. It’s no wonder that the Mexicans are incredibly proud of their cuisine, it is amazing and simply inimitable. And it’s also no wonder they’re all so happy, as theirs is the ultimate comfort food. Chilli is truly addictive, and after a mere ten days in this country I honestly don’t know how I went for twenty five years without adding it to every meal. (Having said that, I still take my pineapple as it comes rather than the Mexican way of adding salt, lime juice and chilli powder!) There are British sweet treats that I crave (banoffee pie first and foremost), but my preferences in savoury grub have been indelibly altered. Just in case you aren’t drooling yet, I promise a blog dedicated to food with details and pictures soon!

Second to food has to be the climate. The past ten days have been like British summer – a good one: blue sky and sunshine from dawn until dusk, averaging 18 degrees in the day but with chilly evenings. The Mexicans, however, believe this to be awful. Wrapped up in layer upon layer of winter woollies (including the dogs), I am the only person walking the streets in a sleeveless top. When I explain that this is what we spend all year wishing for all in England, I am met with cries of “¡pobrecita!” For example, milk is never served straight from the fridge but heated so that it’s not hot, nor warm, but just not-cold! This is very strange to me, but with temperatures set to soar in the next few months I can only be grateful for the gentle warm-up.

Thirdly, los mexicanos. The Mexicans are great fun, generous, humble, expressive and very well-mannered. They’re very polite like the Brits but in a totally different way. Our politeness is modest and reserved whereas theirs is very exaggerated. This can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for someone whose ability to get involved is limited at best and I live in constant fear of offending someone because I’ve said ‘no thank you’ rather than ‘thank you ever so much for the offer but I can’t because of a, b and c, but I will take you up on your very kind offer another day’. The concept of insisting can be very confusing and I often don’t know whether I’m supposed to say yes or no, but by the time I can string more than three words together I’ll no doubt be performing with all the pasión displayed in their telenovelas.

My host family are incredibly gracious and patient with me, and the scope of human kindness often leaves me feeling very emotional. They know next to nothing about me but are willing to take me into their family and treat me like one of their own. And they signed up to host me for a whole year! It’s very frustrating not to be able to express my gratitude, and ‘muchas gracias’ feels like it loses its meaning after the twentieth uttering each day. What’s so poignant for me is that this generosity and warmth isn’t only offered to international volunteers on contracts of a fixed period but on a widespread scale. Mexican relationships aren’t just the odd act of kindness and ‘good deeds’ that we encourage in the UK but lifelong commitments to look after those around them and even adopt them into their extended families. We are so choosy in the UK, everything is carefully considered, articulated and ordered: the Mexican approach is one of comfortable chaos, which can be difficult to embrace but I endeavour to do so!

Weaned, weaning, weans

Weaning. Such a funny word.

So in just over a week I’m leaving the dreary storm-battered land of In-ger-land to live and work in Mexico. For a year. Some days it feels like a big deal, some days it doesn’t at all. I’m sure there are lots of serious and sensible things I ought to be doing in preparation, but for the minute there seem to be only two important factors to consider: missing tea and missing my cat.

Twinings English Breakfast is the diuretic equivalent of a soundtrack to my life. It’s been there through good times, dark times, hard times, fun times, bored times and busy times, lonely times and social times, and quite honestly I’m dreading living without it. So this is my first weaning programme: drink less tea. There is simply nothing as glorious as a warm milky brew (I don’t care what you say, you’re wrong), therefore, the weaning programme must commence tomorrow. I don’t want to (won’t cope to) go cold turkey so I’m going to cut down to one cup every hour as opposed to every half hour. And upon my arrival in Mexico, I intend to replace my love of tea with a love of tequila.

Second weaning programme: cut affection from pet cat. It’s only fair…on me. I totally sympathise with people who don’t like my cat, but she’s not (quite) as evil as she looks. Named Darcey after Darcey Bussell because of her little white ballet shoes, aka paws, she’s the complete personification of every anti-cat joke ever to adorn a tea towel. She’s not that nice, and she’s not that friendly, but she is incredibly fluffy. After all, isn’t that what pets are for? If it isn’t fluffy, I just don’t get the point. Anyway, enough of the description, you either like cats or you don’t, the point is, she won’t even remember me. The more I love her, the more she hates me (who says cats aren’t clever?) so maybe my premature detachment will be best for the both of us. From tomorrow, the aloofness/aloftity/aloofaying is mutual. On my return from Mexico we can start afresh, she might even fall in love with me…

So there you go – a life without tea or the fluffy sheep-cat, that’s about as far as my thoughts about moving abroad have gotten so far.  Oh and also, “yippee, I’m going to Mexico!”.

P.S. I wrote the whole of this with the spelling ‘ween’ before checking it. I’m no writer, please forgive and feel free to laugh at my expense, you’ll find no pretence here.