Pined, pining, pines

Weaning didn’t work. Gosh I miss my fluffy.

Darcey

This is:

A: Because I love her.

But B: Probably in large part because she symbolises home comforts and fondest memories of snuggling up in my dressing gown and slippers, cat on lap, sat on the sofa next to a roaring fire, a good book in one hand and a G & T in the other, in my cosy house with my lovely parents.

And C: Almost certainly exaggerated by the fact that, as a general rule, Mexicans don’t like cats.

This passage from C.M.Mayo’s Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California: the Other Mexico just sums it up perfectly:

“A small, white poodlelike mutt nuzzled our legs. Palomito was his name, the cook said. A calico cat slunk up as well, meowing loudly. And her name? “Gato,” she said. Cat. She broke out laughing at me, that I would ask.”

My host family have three dogs, also ‘poodlelike mutts’, called Gwendy, Cindy (after Lauper, no less!) and Lila. They have also ‘adopted’ a cat from some neighbours who moved away and left it, whom they feed but don’t let into the house. As far as I’m aware, it doesn’t have a name. I call it Gammy, because it’s got gammy eyes. Cute.

It’s a very strange feeling having been here over a month now and having eleven months left. I’m settled but not settled. The highly concentrated mix of unfamiliarity dragging along with the joys and continuous new experiences whizzing by make the passing of time feel very surreal. More than anything, I just keep forgetting it’s February. This is not February weather. After 25 years of highly changeable weather, the wall to wall sunshine and predictable heat plays havoc with my reckoning of time. Every morning my default thought  process is still to observe the weather as I would do in England, consider how it differs from the day before, how it compares with the forecast, and how typical it is of the month or season.

Every day here the weather is the same and, therefore, simply not worth mentioning. A month of 25 degree blue-sky scorchers. Not a drop of rain, nor hint of a breeze. Gone without comment…can you imagine??? They don’t even care! Nobody wears shorts or flip flops or mentions the GLORIOUS SUNSHINE. In the park, people flock to the shade; the complete reverse of what you’d find on a sunny day in England. Especially hearing about the awful weather and terrible misfortunes in the UK from the other side of the world, it’s so very strange not to discuss it at all. It’s just another daily reminder of how English I am, and at this point I feel like my enthusiasm for analysing culture probably exacerbates the differences. And so I vow, henceforth, to adore dogs, neglect cats, and ignore the weather.

My first slice of Kid Pie

One month in, and I’m embarrassed to say that time is still proving quite the little enigma. Since my last post discussing ‘ahora’ and ‘ahorita’, ‘un rato’, ‘un ratito’ and ‘ya’ have all been added to the equation, meaning that despite learning more Spanish vocabulary, discussing short term plans is in fact increasingly impossible! So ‘un rato’ is supposedly a short while and ‘un ratito’ a shorter while. And ‘ya’ is the closest thing to British right now, although it technically translates as ‘already’. Yep. What the…?! And this is a hurdle I face at least twice a day. It’s just something I never even thought about at home. “Lunch will be ready at 2.” “Ready to leave in 5 minutes?” “See you in 10.” It’s never vague. I try to stick to using this method of asserting specific times but I think it makes me seem very strange: why is this girl so moronically obsessed with exact timings?!

At least I know what time I need to be at work and what time to leave: a schedule, hurrah! What a relief to know where I’m supposed to be and when! I am working in a school and orphanage with the youngest class of six-year-olds. And while the debate in anthropology between cultural relativism and cultural universalism rolls on seemingly for ever more, one thing is undeniable: children are charming beyond words, everywhere. The adorability of the children is just one of many similarities between the school in Mexico and schools in the UK. The children are impeccably turned out upon arrival and leave grubby from head to toe; they’re eager to help and even more eager to please; they’re usually happier scrabbling around on the floor than in their seats; the girls have pretty bows in their hair and the boys are more inclined to push and shove; music lessons inevitably turn into a completely uncontrollable riot; and the classroom is frequently filled with the waft of little bottoms.

Despite my appalling lack of Spanish, I’ve found that being armed with an open pencil case has an international language of its own, which has absolutely saved my bacon!

I would like to share a classic teaching scenario that has had me laughing ever since:

¿Qué rima con Victoria?

“…zanahoria.”

Qué rima con Fernanda?

“…demanda.”

“¿Qué rima con Kevin?

“¡CACAHUATE!”

In English: the teacher asks for words that rhyme with the children’s names, only for a little girl to reply to “what rhymes with Kevin?” with “PEANUT!” No, Camila, peanut does not rhyme with Kevin!

Outside the classroom, I’m essentially an overgrown toy to play with, and can most often be found being tickled and poked with jabby little fingers, or yanked about along with cries of “¡es mía!” “¡no es mía!” I’d be lying if I said I minded.

Culture Shock: Traffic and Time

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty blasé about coming to Mexico. Not because I didn’t have any feelings about it, but because I made a conscious decision to suppress them. I was adamant that I wanted to come with an open mind and to minimise any preconceived ideas and expectations. One thing I was particularly unsure about was where Mexico lay conceptually in the continent of ‘America’. I’d always thought of Mexico as South America, but it’s actually geographically north of Central America, and is a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement – so did it technically count as North America? And what would it be like?

In all honesty, I had assumed Mexico to be far more US-influenced and Western than it is. Of course, there are coastal tourist hotspots that are full of North Americans, but residing in the ‘cultural and religious capital’ of Puebla as I do, European culture especially is largely unknown and irrelevant to most people here. From an anthropological point of view the Latin American culture is fantastic for me, but in terms of culture shock: it’s BIG! I spoke in my post ‘Participant Observation’ about my first impressions, but the food, climate and people are things that any tourist can learn about Mexico. Living with a local family allows me to experience real Mexican life, and the culture shock comes largely from the ‘comfortable chaos’ that is so characteristic of life here.

One thing that I learned about pretty quickly was the concept of time, or more accurately, lack of. When it comes to plans, schedules and organisation, time just doesn’t seem to be a consideration! I had learned that the Spanish for ‘now’ is ‘ahora’. In England, now means, err, now. And if you say now you mean now. Simple, surely? No no, in Mexico ahora is more like ‘maybe now but actually more likely at some unspecified time in the future’. If you mean right now, it’s ‘ahorita’. “Ok, got it” I thought to myself. In a couple of weeks, however, as I grew increasingly bewildered by my constant readiness and waiting, I realised that even ‘ahorita’ isn’t really right now either, but more like ‘slightly closer to now than ahora’. It’s funny, and confusing, but this is the Mexican way, and it certainly isn’t for those of a neurotic disposition!

If you think the Mexican notion of time would make you nervous, it’s probably best that you don’t read on: the traffic in Puebla is riotous at best and terrifying at worst. If you’re taking the bus, just try not to look out of the window. On my tenth day my taxi crashed with another car (don’t worry mum, I’m fine!) and full-on fisticuffs ensued between my taxi driver and the other driver and passenger involved.  A few days later, I was on a bus when another bus flew past and smashed the wing mirror. My friend Juliana who was sat next to me had glass in her lap. You ain’t seen potholes ’til you’ve been to Mexico. There are speed bumps at random intervals on the motorways. Most of the cars on the roads look like they haven’t have passed an MOT in the last twenty years. Seat belts aren’t compulsory for the back seats in Puebla, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of passengers any given car can carry. The list goes on, you get the idea.

Despite all this, however, getting the bus is worth the fear for the pure entertainment. Bus drivers are blessed with freedom of expression and you just never know what kind of experience you’re going to get: Mr Horn-Happy was my least favourite but I really warmed to the proper MexiLAD who likes to play Robbie Williams and has smothered his windows in Playboy stickers. One day a whole band got on the bus, the harpist parked himself next to me and they played a jolly little tune. The drivers tip a scraggly old guy for hopping on the bus to spray the aisles with air freshener and give the dashboard a quick wipe. Being six inches taller than the average Mexican woman, I can’t say the seats are spacious, but I use my hip to knee length advantage to wedge myself in and reduce the frequency with which my bum lifts off the seat. Sorted.

A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)
A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)

The chaos is fun: you’d honestly have to be the most miserly of gits not to have a good time here, it would be such hard work NOT to get swept up in the sunshine spirit and totally infectious zest for life. There’s no such thing as a party animal, it’s just a given. So what’s there to do but party on?!

Día de la Candelaría

My first Mexican celebration! February the 2nd: Día de la Candelaría. I had seen shops full of dolls in elaborate clothing and wondered what on earth they were, especially as towards the end of this week I saw people carrying them on the bus and tending to them as if they were real babies. But these were adults, what were they doing with these unusual dolls, stroking their faces and carrying them either in baskets or seated on chairs?! After discovering that Monday is a bank holiday here in Mexico called Día de la Candelaría I researched it on the internet and there popped up a vast array of images: niños Díos! It translates literally as God children but more acurately they are figures of baby Jesus. The dolls are traditionally laid into the Nativity scene in the home on Christmas Eve and then dressed in a new outfit and taken to church on the 2nd of February, the last day of the Christmas season, to be blessed. I didn’t take any photos because I was afraid of being perceived as some little gringa making a mockery of their customs, but it’s definitely worth googling if you’re intrigued.

The 2nd of February falls forty days after Christmas and is celebrated by Catholics as the feast of the purification of the Virgin. It is Jewish belief that a woman is unclean for forty days after giving birth, so it is thought that the baby Jesus would have been taken to a temple to be presented to priests on this day.  In Mexico, the religious origins of the festival have also been mixed with indigenous elements, and it is traditional to eat tamales at the celebrations. Tamales are a delicious Mexican food made with corn meal dough (like a dense sponge cake) that can be sweet or savoury, filled with pineapple, chicken, cheese, tomato or chilli. They are wrapped in sweetcorn sheath or banana leaves and steamed. ¡Muy ricos!

My Mexican family won’t be celebrating with their relatives until next weekend because my host mum is away at the minute, but my host dad took me to the Church of San Francisco today to see what was going on. The church was very busy with row upon row of Pueblans holding their niños Díos, waiting for Mass to begin. Most interesting, however, was the mummy of Friar Sebastian de Aparicio, encased in a very ornate silver…box?!  Born in 1502 in Galicia, he sailed to Mexico in 1533 and worked as a cattle herder. He soon realised the difficulty of transporting supplies across Mexico and conceived and promoted the idea of building roads from Puebla to Veracruz and an enormous highway from Zapatecas to Mexico. This of course had huge economic benefits for the communities involved. He also taught native people how to use ploughs, how to build wagons, and to domesticate horses and oxen. Consequently he became known as the ‘Angel of Mexico’. He continued to live a pious and modest life: in 1574 was accepted as a friar, and spent the next 26 years of his life travelling through the state of Puebla seeking food and alms for the friars and those they supported. He died from an entangled hernia at the grand old age of 98 and his body was beatified by the Catholic Church. He has since been residing at the San Francisco Church in Puebla. He is also a Patron Saint of Travellers, so I was happy to pay him a little visit!

So that was my first taste of Mexican festivities, and I’m looking forward to experiencing many more in my year here!