It’s That Time Again … (Es eso tiempo otra vez … )

We all have our habits and rhythms. As much a part of us as the color of our eyes and the timbre of our voices. It’s January and time to pack for Mexico. It’s part of my annual rhythm. Friends and acquaintances are asking, ‘When are you leaving?’ I say, ‘Friday.’

Todos nosotros tenemos nuestros hábitos y ritmos anuales. Tanta una parte de nosotros mismos como el color de nuestros ojos y el timbre de nuestras voces. Es enero y para mí, es tiempo para empacar para México. Lo es una parte de mi ritmo anual. Amigos y conocidos me piden ‘¿Cuándo te vas?’ Digo, ‘viernes.’

Some parts of Mexico are as familiar as my North Woods cabin, Minneapolis and the farm where I grew up. I return to certain places annually, like a monarch butterfly or migratory warbler. Each year, I’m met with something new—a place, a friend an experience. Why return there if they’re familiar? Why not strike out in new directions?

All paths lead to adventures. Todos caminos guiarte a una aventura.

Hay algunas partes de México que están tan conocido a mí como mi cabaña de bosque, Minneapolis y la finca donde crecí. Vuelvo a ciertos lugares de México anualmente como una mariposa monarca o un pájaro migratorio. Cada año, me encuentro con algo nuevo—un sitio, un amigo, una experiencia. ¿Por qué regreso a estos lugares cuando están tan conocidos? ¿Por qué no lanzo yo mismo hacía unos nuevos rumbos?

It’s a good question and I’ve considered it many times but I return because I haven’t yet experienced everything possible in those places. They are like good friends, there is always a new revelation, an aspect that expands my sense of them and my sense of self.

Es una buena pregunta y muchas veces en la he pensado. Regreso porque no he visto ni experimentado aún todo lo que es posible en estos lugares. Ellos son como amigos buenos, hay siempre una nueva revelación, un aspecto de les que expanda mi sentido de ellos y de yo mismo.

I am most satisfied going deep.
Estoy el más contento cuando buceando profundamente.

With limited time, my choices are to spread myself thin across the country or dive deep in a few places. Both are legitimate ways to travel. A deep dive limits some options but expands others. As in most things, I’m most satisfied going deep.

Con tiempo limitado, mis opciones son entre extiende yo mismo delgado de través el país o buceo profundamente en pocos lugares. Los dos son legítimas maneras de viajar. Ir profundo me limite en ciertas maneras, pero la profundidad me expandirá en otras maneras. Estoy el más contento cuando buceando profundamente.

Present in the Moment: Priceless

Mexicans have a phrase: Dónde hay vida hay lucha y dónde hay lucha hay vida (Where there is life there is struggle; where there is struggle there is life.) For many, begging is a part of life and a part of its struggle. In Mexico, beggars are a part of every city’s social fabric and live in a world alien to the one I inhabit.

Even children beg.

Beggars come in many guises and, after living in Oaxaca for several winters, I recognize the small family that claims a spot along a shady wall near Santo Domingo. The man plays the accordion (poorly) and his wife or a child hold up a bowl for coins. Among the open-air café tables, the same woman cruises about seeking hand-outs from tourists year after year. Are their lives so difficult and opportunities so few they must beg? Or do they choose to depend on the kindness of strangers? How should I regard them—if at all?

My Yankee rearing stressed a personal responsibility to support myself and not burden others. It’s a good precept and I try to avoid judging beggars. But the act of begging makes me squeamish because I feel like an unwilling participant in an act of public humiliation. In the moment, my heart and mind pull in contrary directions. I clench up inside when I see listless, old woman, her skin like corn-husks, slumped on the steps of a church. At my approach, she looks down and lifts a cupped hand in silent supplication. This isn’t right, conscience compels me to do something but it seems futile. What good are a few pesos today? What about tomorrow?

I’ve seen affluent tourists and Mexicans walk past the beggars as if they didn’t exist, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid them or hastily drop a peso in their hand as impersonally as plugging a parking meter. I’ve done those things too but never felt good afterward. Why do I dislike begging? It isn’t the money. Giving money is easy if I think it will do some good. Nothing I do or can ever do will materially change a beggar’s life beyond an hour’s time or the meal 10 or 20 pesos will buy. So why do anything?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe I see it with the American expectation of a visible return on investment, expecting a beggar to lift herself by the bootstraps as a validation of charity. Why should I do anything if there’s no visible return? It’s not my place to reform a beggar’s life or be his savior. How can I change the equation? The answer came one weekend when I went to the mountain town of Huajuapan: I could be fully present to the beggar as one human to another. Well, that looked simple—except it wasn’t.

In Huajuapan, went to the weekly tianguis or regional market for common household goods and groceries. I arrived early, the sun had barely cleared the ridges and the air was still cool. While the vendors erected their stalls and laid out their wares, I ate breakfast at a comedor or informal diner in the company of a couple working men. We chatted over our orders of chicken with mole coloradito, tortillas and café de olla or boiled coffee. Few Americans visit Huajuapan and the men asked why I had come. To see the nearby Zapotec ruins of Cerro de Minas.

I had nearly finished eating when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny woman approaching. The frail anciana shuffled toward me with slow, crab-like steps. Deep furrows seamed her parchment face and her white hair was knotted behind her head. She inched with her cane along the other side of the table. A few steps more and I knew she would slide a hand from beneath the robe and make a begging gesture. Already, I felt my stomach clench at the thought. I didn’t want her to do that. What will happen if I’m truly present to her?

“¿Quiere usted algo de comer?” Do you want something to eat? I asked before she could beg.

She stopped, surprised by my question. Then she blinked and nodded.

Joven!” I called to the waiter. “Darle lo que ella quiere. Voy a pagar.” Give her whatever she wants, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

The man who owned the comedor stared at me and then smiled as did the waiter. The woman sat sideways on a chair across the table but didn’t look at me so I saw only the side of her face. In a barely audible voice, she ordered a single tamale with chicken and then lapsed into silence while she waited. I sensed she wanted privacy, especially with a foreigner. The tamale arrived and she ate ravenously and wiped the plate with the last morsel. Setting the plate aside, she buried her face in the robe, sniffled and wiped her eyes. Then she whispered “gracias” and shuffled away.

What had I done? I thought a long time about what had happened. Handing her some pesos was the easiest course—a transaction without an interaction. But I invited her to join me, instead. When she accepted it, it was as if we reached across an invisible social barrier. I saw her as a person, not as a beggar. Though I saw tears and heard a sniffle, I don’t know how she felt or what she thought. However, I know it changed how I see and respond to the poor. God knows the woman needed money but I believe she also needed the affirmation of her humanity as much as she needed a meal. Sometimes the smallest things are the most valuable. And being present in the moment is something money can’t buy. It’s priceless.


Recognition and a Sense of Place

The Virgin appeared at an Aztec sacred site.

There is no landscape like Mexico

I have been in Mexico for two weeks, and once more feel a deep sense of place; of fitting in, of belonging to a locale. How can I feel this way when I’m in another country, culture, and language? It comes from traveling IN a country rather than traveling THROUGH a country. What do I mean?

When I travel THROUGH a country, I cover many miles, shoot hundreds of photos, check items on the bucket-list yet these places make no lasting impact on me. These are external experiences where I’m a bird of passage, a spectator, a tourist, standing aside and watching others live their lives. I know about the place, but don’t feel I’m a part of it.

When I travel IN a country, I take time, travel fewer miles, take fewer photos, and live without a check-list ‘must do’ items. Traveling IN a country is an inner journey wherein I participate in the community life around me, engaged in the lives of others. It is the shared experience that gives me a sense of the place as my own.

Humility is the avenue to self acceptance.

Rosita’s house, six doors down.

On Sunday, I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a volunteer English teacher and the sense of place returned immediately. It began with Rosita, whose home laundry is six doors down the cobbled street. Spotting me through her wrought iron gate, I saw the light of recognition bloom in her eyes. “Ah, ¡buenos días!” she said, her voice rising. And, before we did business, we exchanged snippets of our personal news that passed during the last nine months.

With our relationship reset, I walked to El Mercado Merced, one of the small local grocery markets. The tortilla vendor on her stool glanced up at my approach, and I saw that she recognized me. Although I bought her tortillas many times last year, we never introduced ourselves. After I bought memelas, we talked for a few minutes—everyone here has time for a few words. She speaks Spanish and Zapotea, the local language. She knew all about Teotitlán, where I teach, and told me the town’s name in Zapotea, a tongue-twister for me. We will talk again when I buy tortillas next week. From vendor to vendor, I was heartened by seeing the expression that says, ‘he looks familiar.’

Years of friendship.

Years of friendship.

A sense of places goes with a sense of belonging. I’m also completely at home in Puebla where I learned Spanish have a circle of friends. Without friends, as in Guadalajara, I feel no sense of connection. It’s simply a large city. I return to Puebla annually, but not for it’s marvelous colonial buildings, historic and anthropological sites. My love of the city is woven into the love of friends who live there, with whom we share a personal history. The sense of belonging, the ‘hometown feeling,’ arises from knowing I occupy a place (however small) in the lives of friends; that my life matters to them as theirs does to me. My sense of place grows out of loving and being loved by the people who live there.

Why slow down and invest in distant friendships? For the past 10 years I have returned to Puebla at least annually, and the circle of friendships has widened each time. Friends introduce me to friends and families. I go to dinners, birthdays, Sunday excursions, and parties. My circle has great grandparents, adults, youths, and infants. Last week, nine of us ate dinner, talked about our children, grandchildren, health, work, and the state of politics in Mexico and the United States. Jokes went around, a bottle of tequila died in the cause, and we exchanged many expressions of love and cariño. Despite miles and months apart, we picked up where we left off as if we met yesterday. What is the value of this? It widens my sense of myself as a human. It is a way of expanding the possibilities of the brief life we’ve been given.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

I am fortunate to have spent enough time in several places to put down emotional roots. My friend Lorena moved from Puebla to Cuetzalán, an indigenous Nahua town in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. She was my Spanish coach in 2009, and is now an intercultural teacher. Our friendship began in a museum, looking at artifacts of pre-hispanic cultures and grew through the interplay of personalities. A form of miracle. Eager to share the indigenous culture with me, she introduced me to her friend, a poet who writes in Totonaco. He and I now communicate. The circle of connections ripples outward, adding another cultural thread, another occupation, another perspective on the country.

As you can see, a sense of place comes when I let daily life take me where it will. Here, in Mexico, people I don’t know acknowledge everyone with a nod, a ‘buenos días,’ a way of saying ‘I see you, I affirm or accept your presence as a fellow being.’ Their simple human courtesy acknowledges their humanity in me and vice versa. Recognition by others gets to the root of a sense of place. Remembrance, however shaky, confirms my place at the table, however distant from its head. When I occupy at least a small part in someone’s life, I know I also exist in that place even when I’m not physically present. My life expands exponentially by any small recognitions .

In the end, a sense of place is also a sense of oneself. This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of learning another language and culture. Our formal or factual knowledge of a place is less important than our emotional knowledge of who we are within that place. Sometimes, it may be best to forget what the guidebook says about a place and rely on what your heart tells you.

Tianguis – being comfortable among strangers

One day during my second immersion, a Mexican couple surprised me by asking for directions to a street in Puebla.  I knew the street and gave directions.  ‘Can’t they tell I’m a foreigner?’ I wondered afterwards.  Why did they ask me?  And it’s happened many times more.  I suppose the couple saw me dressed like other men in Puebla, walking confidently, the way a resident walks to a destination. They saw me as part of the social context.

Social context is our environment of the moment. Becoming comfortable in it is one key to “feeling” the language. If we’re comfortable in our social context, then we’re less likely to feel self-conscious, and more likely to act confidently.  And speak confidently.

Becoming confident in a new social context may take some practice, but the skills can be mastered quickly, if you haven’t mastered them already.  This exercise is about finding confidence and expanding the social  “comfort zone.”

Try this:  Spend a day or two watching people:  Notice how they greet each other, their gestures, inclinations of the head, tone of voice.  Notice how they dress (or look at photos of your desstination).  Make a habit of observation, and then dress and act to ‘blend in’ as best your can.  This may feel like acting, and to some degree it is.  But you are the actor and primary audience.  After the performance, you will  feel more comfortable and speak more confidently.

Along the way, try to pick up clues to the “mentality” of the culture.   English and Spanish languages operate according to different mentalities.  You may notice that Mexican Spanish is very physical; people talk with hands, gestures, and expressions more than many Americans do.  As I learned in my second immersion, Mexican conversations seem more ‘circular’ in nature than ‘linear.’  That is, in Mexico there is a fuller expression of each speaker’s personal or inner reality and opinion; whereas in American English the conversation as a more exterior reality with a focus on the ‘facts’ and analysis of the subject.

To a degree, these differences are somewhat ‘hard-wired’ from experience.  I co-chair the parish council of a Hispanic congregation. There are time during our meetings when the conversation goes round and round, and I’m impatient to reach a conclusion.  That’s when I realize I’ve drifted outside the cultural context and I’m subconsciously thinking like an American, and not a Mexican.  Then I need to sit back, relax, and rejoin the culture.  Everyone is exploring the subject from their personal point of view, perhaps through a series of overlapping expressions that reaches a consensus.

Try this: Listen closely to English conversations to notice whether the focus is on the speaker’s inner realities or is the forcus principally on facts, data, and analysis.  If its the latter, can you think of a way to convey the same information more subjectively, in story form?  And would anyone believe you if you did?

I started the third immersion, knowing that to speak Spanish like a Mexican I had to think like a Mexican.  American and Mexican cultures differ in many respects, and these can subtly influence syntax and grammar.  Understanding if not acquiring something of the mentality can help you speak – if not like a native – with greater precision.  Relationships between things are expressed differently and sometimes indirectly.  It’s common to say (in Spanish)  “Me da mucho gusto recibir tu carta,” that is, It gave me much pleasure to receive your letter.  Recieving gave me the pleasure.  Whereas in English, I might say, “I was happy to get your letter.”  Notice the verb focuses on me,  The differences are subtle, but real.  If we came upon someone crying, we would probably say: “What happened?” in English.  But in Spanish, we might say: “Did something happen to you?”  The English version comes off more as interogation; the Spanish is more an indirect question.  Subtle but important.

Think of becoming comfortable in the context as an integral part of the language – which it is.  But – and there is always a but – but you can’t escape being obvious in every social situation. And in those situations, making yourself comfortable despite standing out, can work to advantage.

This weekend I took a bus to Tlaxiaco, a city of 60,000 in the mountains northwest of Oaxaca. This is a Mixteco region where many speak Spanish as their second language.  I went there to see the large Saturday market or “tianguis” that draws hundreds of vendors and buyers from the surrounding towns.  Tlaxiaco is a regional crossroads and economic hub.  Like mushrooms, temporary tiendas rose overnight, filling the streets and plaza around the town’s clock tower; merchants did brisk business all day with local residentss (few to no tourists), and vanished with the night.  I spent the day among the stalls and tents, visiting with vendors and artisans.

On Saturday, I seemed to be the only “guero” or white person in town; I knew I stood out, and there was no way to ‘blend in’ as do in Puebla.  Very quickly, I discovered that ‘standing out’ can work to advantage.  People are inherently curious and wanted to know where I lived, did I have family, did I like it in Tlaxiaco, etc.  In short, their curiosity is an open invitation to conversation.  It was a gift to you.  If offered to you:  Take it!

During the course of seven hours, I visited with dozen vendors for more than fifteen minutes at a time.  From vendors and artisans I learned things not found in guidebooks.  People told me bits about their personal history, a cousin who works in North Carolina, their own brief sojourn in the U.S.,  their family, their work.  Their openness make me comfortable because they were as interested in me as I was in them.  Each encounter made me more at home in Tlaxiaco.

Men do the heavy lifting of erecting the tiendas, but it’s the women who run the tianguis.  When I came upon two women smashing white rocks into small pieces, and bagging them for sale, I had to ask a question.  The older woman in a straw hat told me they were breaking up marl for cooking with the corn for tamales. “This is a special rock,” she said.  The rock is largely calcium and it dissolves when boiled with the corn used in making the masa or dough for tortillas. I left them knowing more than I had before.

Later, I sopped at a large stand of chilis in burlap bags, and took a deep breath to savor the scent. The woman asked what I wished to buy.   Nothing, I said, and added that I stopped to admire her wares and inhale the scent of chilis.  This led to questions and answers about the kinds of chilis and the dishes in which they’re the key ingredient.  As I turned to leave, she gave me a handful of chilis as a gift.

More conversations followed with a woman who sold barks, leaves, and seeds as homeopathic cures for practially anything.  Each box of product labeled with a list of physical conditions the bark or leaf relieved, from headaches to anxiety to diabites.   Several vendors invited me to taste the fruits and other foods, many knew to me.   And always, informal conversation, questions asked and answered, a reality explored.

I ended by day talking with two Mixteco women, mother and daughter, sitting on a mat cleaning ‘aho’ or garlic and twinning the stems together, six garlic to a bunch.   Their question whether I wished to buy led to conversation and questions.  Before long, I was sitting on the plaza with them, and we were talking about our respective lives, families, and experiences.  The older woman, who gave her age as 80, had a soft voice and warm smile.  She lived nearby, her family raised garlic and other fruits.   Her daughter worked with her.  She told me, with some sadness, that her grandchildren didn’t want to learn or speak Mixteco, which is her first language.   They wanted only Spanish.  Without her saying so, it begged the question: “Who will carry on the culture?”  Who will take a tongue and culture of several thousand years into the twenty-first century?

That’s Tlaxiaco.  The sights, the sounds, and the smells of the ‘tiagnuis’ are lovely and fascinating on the surface.  But richer still is the connection of the tianguis to the place itself, and to the people of Tlaxiaco.  It’s in the organic connections of people to the place, and the place to the tianguis that the culture and languages – Mixteco and Spanish – live and evolve.   The Spanish of Tlaxiaco isn’t textbook Spanish, its a working language of slang and jargon and Mixteco words rooted in time and place and, hopefully, a future.