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no room for hipsters

the occupation of Ashley and Levon

(by Levon)

I’ve had in mind to describe a typical day in Mexico.  I’ve waited because it could require a lot of explanation, and secondly, because Mexico outdoes itself often.  A few weeks ago I assumed urban Mexico was going to be like El Barrio and Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, and that rural Mexico was something I should experience only through a bus window.  I have only a few experiences, and can attest to the facts that they don’t bring chips and salsa, the showers are cold, and pesos go farther than dollars.  But yesterday was a day full of everyday-differing Mexico and it will be the day that I describe.

the park by our neighborhood

Our roommate, Katy, asked us to come to her school for cultural week.  At the bilingual private school of the city, the parent drop off circle had two performing Americans: Ashley at an easel with a brush, and me on a bench with a guitar.  It was our first gig here, and a safe audience.  Preschoolers getting out of Chevy Tahoes and Toyota minivans.  This entire situation may seem rather lame to write home about, unless you’ve seen its contrast with the rest of Chiapas.  I don’t know how to begin a fair description of this contrast, actually.  One could be as likely to stand by an intersection everyday, selling mangos in a bag, while holding their baby brother in a blanket and their father sells sodas to stopped cars; as a preschooler in Chiapas.

The American School of Chiapas

The school was nice to us.  Kids stopped and watched, the teachers spoke to us in English, and only one high school kid hit me in the back with a basketball.  We gave the painting and some music to the language arts department and we were served a free breakfast.  It felt good to have been educational.

On Tuesdays the zoo is free, but if you can’t interpret the list of stops on a combi bus windshield, you have to take a cab.  I told myself that cab drivers in Mexico are like cab drivers anywhere, and we’re ex New Yorkers anyhow.  We walked to the corner and asked “how much to the Zoologico” and he said “50 pesos.”  Deal.  We got in, ready to make note of every direction because we would be walking back.  As he sped in the opposite direction, away from the main avenue and into the narrow streets of Tuxtla, I realized I had overlooked him taking shortcuts.  We battled through about seven one way streets, climbing the hillside, and darting out of the congestion onto a highway overlooking the city.  After construction zones, detours, and climbing a mountain, I was thinking that seeing a zoo in a natural jungle is worth two cab fares easy, but not two days walking home.  Once I asked him a directional question, but decided not to do it again.  We were fun for him.

After seeing the zoologico sign, we climbed higher up the mountain until we stopped at a closed gate behind another taxi.  After some honking, the two drivers rolled down their windows and discussed what the guard had said.  “No servicio.”  Maybe it was full, I don’t know.  He pulled over and looked at me, explaining something.  I said the word for “please repeat” twice before I realized he was probably just wanting to know what to do with us now.  My Spanish is not even rudimentary at best, and when I know I’m going to get fleeced by a cab driver it doesn’t improve.  I may as well have said KFC or McDonalds, but instead I said “Sears,” which I meant to be the downtown mall.  All the way back we listened to Mexican dance music in the blown speakers that sounded like it could be Cher somehow.  Ashley grabbed my hand and said we were having a nice drive.

Who thought that the Mexican cab driver should feel sorry for the two American tourists who couldn’t have their Tuesday at the zoo?  Not me.  I had a hundred pesos in my hand, already kissed, and it felt good to be educational.

In Mexico Sears has more than Craftsman

I should have had him take us home where we had work to do, but I guess it was unbearable to buy a round trip ticket to go nowhere.  Instead, we were downtown with our day’s budget spent at nearly noon.  The ordeal had led me to finalize some conclusions I had been making all morning while performing for parents handing out kids’ lunch money.  Why not do this?  Not for the lunch money, but downtown in the park.  I have a guitar and some CDs to sell back at the house, and speaking English draws attention around us everyday.  Since I was downtown I decided to go to a music store and ask a question about a capo I had bought a few days before.

The capo (or neck clamp) had been very cheap, and contained a styrofoam component which I had assumed to be packaging.  When I tore it off, I found out too late that it had been glued on.  Now the capo was too loose for the guitar, but I hoped the store knew something that I didn’t.  As it turned out, capos aren’t complicated and Mexico appreciates styrofoam components for their permanent nature.  What they didn’t appreciate was my nervous explanation using the word “garbage” instead of a better choice which could have been “packaging.”  Who knows if I called the styrofoam trash or the capo itself, but the guy went in the back and got me some more “espuma.”  I showed the lady at the counter that I not only had a spanish dictionary in my backpack, but a spanish textbook and said that I was trying very hard to learn spanish.  She said I was doing a good job.

I kept getting shook up yesterday.  Ashley made me feel better with my new styrofoam because we needed a project with all the yarn we had collected on the ground at the indigenous markets in San Cristobal.  We spent the rest of the afternoon in the park or walking around markets and shops.  Ashley bought plastic flags and took a nap.  I looked up words in the dictionary to say to people if I’m going to be a street performer in Mexico.

San Cristobal market and Ashley's new flags

Ashley’s valentines day present to me was an enrollment in dance classes.  We are learning latin dance in a school that offers four hours of classes every night in various steps and difficulties.  There is no limit to how much we can go, so we stay all night.  The instructors know us and are patient, but don’t speak English.  The music is of course not in English, neither are the commands, the names of steps, or the explanations of feet and spins.  I know left, right, and hand motions.  A guy dressed in all black with boots, sunglasses, and hair to his waist yells “uno dos tres!… cinco seis siete!”  Most steps I can’t spell, but I do know what they mean for my feet.

Every few minutes partners are rotated, which is instuctional but terrifying.  Guys easily spin Ashley around the floor while each girl must be patient with my blundering leads or take me back to the basic step, holding my hands and speaking rapid spanish that is meant to be helpful.  I like “basico” just fine.

With weary legs we opted to ride the Conejo home, which means rabbit and is the new modern bus, unlike the combis which are tall vans with benches going longways.  I can’t tell you the first thing about the combi system except that they have stops listed down one side of the windshield and they honk when they pass you on the sidewalk.  How you would know the direction of a combi stop, I think, is a Chiapas secret.

Okay.  I’m packing up my guitar and heading downtown.

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