She Drives Me Crazy

car and burro

The burro, perhaps a more suitable method of conveyance than a car on the roads of San Miguel.

If you plan to drive in Mexico, you should know that while they drive on the same side of the road as we do in the U.S., and the laws are basically the same, owning and operating a car in this country has its challenges. They don’t do things the way we do, and it seems that you’re just supposed to know that, as I have yet to come across any driving manuals in print in either English or Spanish. For better or worse, a driver’s license issued by an American state grants you the privilege of driving on Mexican roads.

Highway driving can be especially nerve-wracking here. There are many divided highways that you might compare to our interstate system, and which are in great shape and easy to drive on. These roads typically require the payment of tolls, but after a few hours of driving behind chicken trucks, tractors, and cars clearly suffering from some automotive malady you welcome the chance to pay someone to drive on a better road.

But sometimes the only option is a two-lane highway, and there are some things you’d better know before you set out. For starters, know that the shoulder is not a place for you to pull over to check your GPS or text your friend that you’re on your way. Mexican drivers boldly pass other cars on the highway, and it seems that the double lines down the middle of the road are mere suggestions. To that end, it’s expected that if you’re approaching a blind curve, or if a car is coming towards you in your lane in an attempt to overtake another car, you will pull your car onto the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. It’s perfectly fine, and again even expected, that you’ll continue on the shoulder at a high rate of speed. Knowing this, it might become apparent to you why road cycling is not a very popular sport in this country.

construction in the street

Just another construction project that extends well into the road.

You also don’t stop in the lane with your blinker on waiting to turn left across traffic when it’s clear, either. This would, after all, force those behind you to wait until you turned off the highway, and Mexican highway drivers don’t like to wait. So what do you do if you want to turn left? You get over onto the right shoulder and sit, with your left blinker on, until both lanes are clear and you can cross the road. I’ve heard it compared to the “jug-handle”, for you New Jersey drivers out there, without the helpful signage and actual road.

And while we’re on the subject of blinkers, know this: in many parts of Mexico, if you put your left blinker on while driving down the highway, it’s a message to the driver behind you that it’s safe to pass. You can imagine how THAT could get totally awkward if you thought you were signaling your intent to turn left and the guy behind you thought you were politely telling him to go around you, ON THE LEFT. Maybe disabling your blinkers in Mexico is an idea to consider.

this is a two way street

Two lanes, plus parked cars. Sometimes you have to smear a little lube on your car to get it past another one.

San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the central historic section is more than 500 years old. The streets are paved with stones, and are oftentimes not much wider than the average compact car. At some point someone decided that signs would clutter the look of the place, so there are none. When approaching an intersection, it’s expected that drivers will treat it as a four-way stop. While on the surface it might seem that this could be chaos-inducing, it works very well, and I have seen very few accidents since moving here.

Driving a car in Mexico is not only hard on the driver, it’s hard on the car. There are man-eating potholes and random rocks sticking out almost anywhere you drive. Roadways drop away without warning, one-way streets aren’t marked and streets are built with pitches that would never be considered in the U.S. I know, because I live on one. Our car, by no means pristine when we arrived but without noticeable body damage, is now like Courtney Love: she’s got a few marks on her.

In San Miguel there is a level of courtesy afforded by most drivers that I have not seen elsewhere. One time in Cairo I was standing on the concrete island in the middle of a divided roadway waiting to cross the other half of the road. Somehow I dropped my purse, and I bent over to pick it up. As I stood up again I felt the whoosh of a taxi cab as it sped by me at an alarming rate of speed, with horn blaring. If I had still been bent over, my head extending into the roadway, there is no doubt I would have been decapitated, and not in a clean way like Marie Antoinette got. In Egypt, a horn is more of a here-I-come-and-I-WILL-run-over-you warning device.

calle bonita

Beautiful, if narrow.

Here there is less of an urgency about getting somewhere it seems, which I realize may not always be a good thing. But when you live in a 500 year-old city, you have to accept that for the garbage truck to pick up your garbage, it has to lumber its way down your narrow, one-lane street. And inevitably a line of cars forms behind it, and no one lays on their horn or extends their fist out the window and shouts obscenities. You’ll get there when you get there.

But woe betide you if your car has a mechanical failure in Mexico. Just before the New Year, the clutch went out on our car. While not a simple repair in the U.S., getting our car fixed in Mexico took on new dimensions of difficulty when we were told that our model of car is typically sold in this country with a six-speed transmission, not the five-speed that we have. Shipping an entire clutch assembly from the U.S. was prohibitively expensive, we were told, but having someone pick it up in Texas and drive it down would not be. So we called Audi of Dallas (not exactly the low price leader, but dependable) and had the part driven to San Miguel by a guy named Carlos, who apparently makes a living doing things like that. Unfortunately this meant that our car was out of commission for several weeks while all this got sorted out.

trench and garage

Our garage tucked behind a wall of dirt and a trench.

And now, ironically, we are well into the second week of a public works improvement project on our street that involves removing the water main that runs down the center of our street (one of the oldest in town, I’m told) and replacing it with new pipe. Seems like a good idea, as a couple of months back we woke up on a Saturday morning to a raging flood in the street courtesy of a broken pipe. But digging up a cobblestone street and putting it back together is kind of a big deal, and there is currently a two foot-wide trench down the middle, which is keeping our car snug in its garage. Since this started last Monday I’m averaging walking a little over nine and a half miles a day. Even with the 10% margin of error claimed by FitBit, that’s some considerable ground. I asked the stone mason working one street this morning how many more days he thought this would take, and he gave me the classic Mexican “maybe tomorrow” response, which was accompanied by a look that let me know plainly that he thought there was no way in hell they’d be done tomorrow. From the looks of things, I doubt it, but maybe walking is easier than driving after all.

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Welcome to the Jungle

wiley 4 on horseback

Heading out for a day in the saddle near the archaeological dig at Canada de la Virgen. No, we don’t need no stinking helmets, and yes, you can gallop if you want.

Fourth of July fell only a few days after we moved into our house here last year. Not knowing anyone in town and in search of like-minded company on a uniquely American holiday, we piled into a cab with the dogs and the kid and went in search of a party we had seen advertised in the local gringo paper. When we got there things were winding down, so we got back into the same cab and had the driver take us to the main square.

Later in the evening, after a couple of margaritas and some sauntering about town, we headed home only to discover that I had lost my keys. So early in our stay here we had not yet put the house manager’s phone number or email address into our phones, and it took some wheeling and dealing to finally contact someone and get ourselves back into the house. I had no idea where I had lost my keys, the collection of which included not only the house key but also my key to our car and to the locks on the roof-top carrier. It seemed likely that I would never see them again.

the family on horses

The whole family on horseback. We do make a pretty bunch of horsemen, don’t we?

I was stunned when one day, at least two weeks later, a cab screeched to a halt on the street beside me and the driver leaned out of the window and dangled my keys. Apparently he had been keeping an eye out for me so that he could give me my keys back, and although I must have looked like Female Gringo #498, he recognized me on the street. Stunned, I whipped out 200 pesos and gave it to him as a reward, which he clearly didn’t expect but graciously accepted.

This experience set the tone for the level of honesty we came to expect in San Miguel. Of all the things people asked us when we told them we were moving to Mexico for a year, easily the most common one was a variation of, “Aren’t you worried it’s not safe there?”, to which we typically replied, well, it’s not safe almost anywhere, but no, we’re not that worried. In contrast, the mass shootings that occur in the U.S. with frightening regularity are far scarier than the threat of drug cartel kidnappings.

The truth is that I have never experienced even a moment of concern at any time of the day or night since moving here. True, we live in an upscale neighborhood and tend to stay in the tourist-filled areas of the Centro, or center of town, most of the time. And while we do hear of crime, especially in the more working-class neighborhoods, in general this town exudes an atmosphere of safety and well-being.

But those things do happen. I just finished a book that I highly recommend if you’re feeling particularly upbeat about life and need something to depress you and even the playing field. It’s called Prayers for the Stolen, and it’s about a group of pre-teen girls growing up in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, near Acapulco. The story takes place in modern times when drug lords routinely “steal” beautiful young girls from their families and turn them into sex slaves. Almost all of the men and fathers in the town have left for the United States and steady work, and the women are essentially defenseless, except when they can pass their girls off as ugly boys by cutting their hair short and blacking out their teeth with markers, or hiding them in holes when convoys of black SUV’s thunder into town to pluck up their next victim.

The book is a work of fiction by a Mexican writer who lives in Mexico City, but it doesn’t take more than a cursory examination of the headlines to see that the threat profound violence is a routine part of life every day in some parts of this country.

A Mexican woman from San Miguel was kidnapped last May, and was returned to her family this past November. No one seems to want to talk about the details, but her son was a student at Wiley’s school. Reportedly the family was wealthy and owned restaurants, and speculation was that sufficient “protection” money had not been paid. There will likely be no arrests, and the family has since moved to Europe.

concrete bamboo

Concrete bamboo in the surrealistic sculpture garden in Xilitla, San Luis Potosi

A couple of weeks back a few of us – and by a few I mean twenty-five grown-ups and kids – traveled a little over two hundred miles over winding mountain roads with switchbacks and hairpin curves to reach a little town in the state of San Luis Potosi known as Xilitla. Xilitla is the home of a very dear friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday. It’s also the nearest town to a bizarre sculpture garden hidden in the rainforest amongst banyan trees and waterfalls. The garden, created between 1947 and the 1980’s by an eccentric British semi-exile named Edward James, attracts an interesting mix of hippies, tourists, and art-lovers.

We had just arrived and headed out from our hotel, which was in the jungle near the sculpture garden. The group had spread out such that the leaders were about fifty yards ahead of the folks in the rear of the group, which included one of my friends and her two kids. I was just ahead of them by about fifteen yards, when I heard her yelling and saw and heard the foliage beside the road thrashing wildly. Two men wearing ski masks had jumped out of the jungle, torn my friend’s purse and camera from her shoulder, and plunged back into the jungle. One of them had a handgun, or at least something that looked like a handgun.

We ran ahead and herded the group back in and returned to the hotel, while the police were called and a search ensued for the perpetrators. The kids were understandably scared, and a place that had so recently seemed so friendly suddenly became sinister and potentially dangerous in the light afternoon drizzle. The pursuit turned up nothing except for Kim’s camera, which had been discarded and still functioned. The jungle was full of trails and groups of campers, any of whom may or may not have been the thieves; there was just no way of knowing at that point. The police took notes and wrote reports, but of course no arrests were made, and it is highly unlikely that any ever will be.

The incident shook everyone up, and for me I had to push down the urge to get my kid and get back on the road to San Miguel. But at the risk of sounding flippant you have to keep going; you have to get back on the proverbial horse and not give in to the bad guys. I don’t know if the adults communicated with something akin to telepathy that we needed to remain calm and normal for the kids, show them that we deal with these things through the proper channels, but then we move forward. But somehow we did just that, and soon enough we were making jokes about the incident in the way well-adjusted people do.

wiley 4 rappelling

Why yes, that is my son rappelling off a 150-foot cliff

In general there seems to be a slightly more fatalistic view of living life down here. Maybe that’s not the right word for it, and maybe that’s a completely inaccurate statement made by a casual observer. But lots of people here, gringos and Mexicans, ride motorcycles and ATV’s without helmets. Mexicans routinely pack a family of 3 or 4 onto a scooter. It’s very common to see babies riding behind the steering wheel in the lap of the driver.

You undertake a lot at your own risk in Mexico, and it’s also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pin liability on someone else for an injury you incurred pursuing an activity voluntarily. At the sculpture garden we visited in Xilitla, there were staircases leading two or three stories in the air with no handrails. We went horseback riding and rappelling back in January, and no helmets were provided, not even to rappel off a 150-foot cliff.

christie rappelling

And that’s me doing it, after him. He begged to go first.

On the other hand, you almost never see children under the age of 15 alone, or in unsupervised groups. Parents walk their kids to school every morning, and pick them up in the afternoon. And if you could protect your child from any possible outside threat by bundling them in blankets, hats, scarves, gloves, and ski masks when the mercury drops below 65 degrees, Mexican children would be the safest kids on the planet. This extends to small dogs as well.

christie and delicado

Gratuitous end-of-story picture of me and Delicato, my horse. He said I was the best rider he’d ever had.

I guess you never know what might happen, regardless of where you are. Sometimes you get your keys returned to you, and another time you might be a victim of (possibly) armed robbery. You can live in fear and stay at home, or you can flaunt your nose at potential dangers. Or you can try to be reasonable and educate yourself regarding your surroundings to the extent possible. You can trust your instincts and know that ultimately, you can’t mitigate every risk. There are typhoons and tidal waves, car crashes and crazed gun-toting maniacs in movie theaters, leaking nuclear reactors and life-threatening sicknesses. Where you go and what you do is a personal decision for each of us, but In the end, I make the choice to live life and embrace the beautiful experiences it promises.

My Big Fat Mexican Wedding

rings

Our most successful joint venture, our son, holding our wedding rings.

Somehow, Wiley and I have been married for twenty-five years. There was a time in my life when I thought only old people had been married that long. Long enough to struggle through those years of the banal giving of wood, paper, and clocks, to the promised land of silver. Silver is heavy, and it’s worth something. It holds its value, and it’s durable. It gets tarnished, but it polishes right back up again with a soft cloth and some effort.

Building a life with another person sounds romantic and poetic at the outset, but it’s damn hard work. Not to say that we’ve fought excessively during the last quarter century, although we have and certainly we’ve left tooth marks on each other that have faded over time. But being committed to another human being means that you go through life together. While that may seem like the most obvious of declarations, sharing your life with someone means that what they go through, you go through. Better or worse. No matter how badly you might want to shout, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” as the saying goes, and run far away, you stick around, you dig in your heels, and you deal with whatever comes your way. “Your”, in its plural form. Both of you, together.

kissing in parade

Stopping for a beso in the streets of San Miguel, under the watchful gaze of the mojigangas.

Wiley and I have gone through our share of upheaval and change, and through it all only thing I have known for certain is that he would continue to love me, no matter who or what I became. Well, short of becoming a serial killer, I suppose, although I wager that despite overwhelming DNA evidence and skeletal remains being exhumed from the backyard, Wiley would be still fighting for another appeal on my behalf.

In addition, there has been significant and undeniable chemistry between us since the moment we met that persists to this day. Lots of people have denied the importance of that aspect of a relationship, but they don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about, to put it bluntly. Or they’re lying to themselves.

Perhaps the most important reason we’re still together also sounds the most trite, but here it is: we have fun together. We love adventure and adrenaline. We love going places and doing things that most people wouldn’t consider. We love standing in the front row at concerts and singing along while raising our fists in the air. We love throwing big parties with lots of people and staying up late.

filemon

Filemon doesn’t think too much of marriage, apparently.

So it should come as no surprise that we decided to commemorate our twenty-fifth trip around the sun together with a Mexican wedding extravaganza. We had a personal celebration on the actual day, which was August 26th, here in San Miguel. We spent the entire day together, exploring parts of the town we had never seen, and eating and drinking our way right though the center of it.

A friend suggested a New Year’s Eve party, and to both of us that seemed the perfect idea. In fact, when we initially looked at the house we are living in, we stood on the roof and envisioned what a big party up there could be like, with a live band and fireworks exploding over the town square and the magnificent, Cinderella’s castle-like church known as the Parroquia. Turns out we got exactly what we wanted.

filemon in front of parroquia

The Parroquia and Filemon, ready for the party.

We invited a number of friends from back home, and were pleased when we started getting emails back with flight arrangements. San Miguel is not the easiest place to get to, nor the cheapest, so it was extremely gratifying to know that friends from home would want to make the trek to celebrate with us. Also in attendance were many of our new friends from San Miguel – ex-pats and Mexicans alike – which cemented a lot of our fledgling friendships.

Mexican weddings are legendary for their extravagance as well as their length. Not that we wanted to pretend that we were in our twenties again and have an honest-to-goodness wedding, but we did want to co-opt some of the more festive aspects of a boda into our celebration. Party-planning reached Olympic levels of difficulty as several of the vendors I dealt with had no English, and I had only my marginal Spanglish with which to arrange details. In addition, given the cash-based economy of this area, I had to max out my ATM withdrawal capacity over several days leading up to the event and walk around with envelopes full of pesos cryptically labeled “MARIACHIS”, “ARMANDO” and “MOJIGANGAS”.

christie and wiley and mojigangas

Parading through the streets.

I planned things in something of a flash-mob fashion, having everyone meet in front of the Parroquia at 5PM on New Year’s Eve. My stomach clenched in a sickening way as we stood there at ten until five and I entertained what-if-you-threw-a-big-fat-Mexican-wedding-and-no-one-came thoughts. I let out the breath I had been unconsciously holding as I started seeing familiar faces in the crowds of people on the square, along with mariachis, our friend Armando and his wedding burro Filemon (more on this later), and the traditional ten foot tall mojigangas, or wedding puppets. Let’s get this party started, y’all.

christie and wiley 3

Arriving at home, high over San Miguel, gang in tow.

It’s traditional in San Miguel for the wedding couple to parade through the streets following a burro festooned with flowers. They are accompanied by hoards of well-wishers and a mariachi band, along with the wedding puppets. Small ceramic cups with ribbons through the handles are passed out among the crowd and are filled with tequila, as it’s considered auspicious for the couple to receive toasts from the hordes of followers. Our party swelled in numbers as we passed through the streets of town on our way to our house for the party. Over sixty cups were passed out and we went through the better part of two large bottles of tequila in about 45 minutes. There’s no telling how many people were filming us and taking photos of the parade as we made our way home.

Once at our house we adjourned to the roof-top for cocktails. The bartender hadn’t shown up yet, but luckily our friend Lacy, who came all the way from New Zealand for the festivities, knows her way around a bar took charge of the situation. Then our friends Ann and Sam, who have been married even longer than we have, led us through our wedding vows for the third time.

mirador at dusk

View from the roof, shortly after sunset, New Year’s Eve 2014.

It could not have been a more perfect evening, with the sun setting behind the mountains as we finished, and dusk casting a soft orange glow over everything. After dinner we danced until the wee hours and then chowed down on pozole, the traditional Mexican soup of pork and hominy, before falling into bed near 3 AM.