The End

I completed my 2 years of Peace Corps service and returned to the US on June 22, 2010.  This will be my final entry but I plan for this blog to remain online.  Feel free to leave comments or questions and I will still respond for the foreseeable future.

My final day in the office was also my final full day in Mexico.  After wrapping things up with my work, my coworkers held a potluck lunch in the office patio.  The great food was followed by some tequila and a guitar sing-along (video here).

Mis Compañeros
Martín

I’ll mostly remember this as a fun adventure and happy period.  But it wasn’t completely.  There was an underlying uneasiness in almost every situation – a sense of not belonging there even if people went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  Unfortunately, after being away for 2 years I feel a little bit that way here in the US too.  I plan to spend the summer re-adjusting and taking in the things I’ve missed:  time with family & friends, public water fountains, live rock/blues, small talk, parks, and comfort foods.

There are many things that I didn’t write about over the course of the past 2 years but could have and probably should have:  a Mexican girlfriend and her family, canyoning at Matacanes, camping at timber line, drug violence and immigration, eating/drinking strange new things (ant eggs, pig skin tacos, grasshoppers, corn fungus, fermented maguey juice), black market animal trade, OLPC in Mexico, cross-cultural weddings and much more.

My Peace Corps experience started with a change of career, country, and culture.  It was not easy so I understand why a lot fewer people do it than think about doing it.  But, it has been a great experience and was absolutely worth it.  On the other hand, I admire and can even be jealous of the friends I left behind who settled down with new families.  Maybe the grass is always greener on the other side of the border fence.

How Much I’ve Gotten Accustomed to … (part 5)

  • 70% – Not driving. This is a policy of the US Peace Corps worldwide.  Back in the days when it started, they didn’t want volunteers using their money to live a lifestyle apart from the locals in the 3rd world countries where they were working.  That hardly applies to my case since nearly all of my coworkers and contemporaries have cars, but such is life in the Peace Corps.  It takes longer to get places by bus or by foot but the upside is that it’s cheaper and I don’t have to mess with horrid traffic.  Walking/biking to work or using public transportation will be a priority for my next job.
  • 100% – Walking in traffic. I quickly accepted a smaller margin of error than I was used to in the US.  Crossing highways or standing on the curb with traffic flying by doesn’t faze me as much as it probably should.  Some kids here grow up working or playing in traffic.

    Playing in Traffic

    Kids playing on a median while their mother(?) sells candy to drivers at a stoplight in Puebla.

  • 100% – Ignoring police lights. They don’t mean anything other than the car belongs to the police and they like lights.
  • 84% – Ignoring noise (but not sirens – those mark a real situation … or at least a cop running a red light).  During the day there’s a constant background noise in the cities formed by honking, stores blaring cumbia or banda music, whistling, barking roof dogs overhead (very startling sometimes), hot rod city buses with overpowered engines, screeching brakes, etc.   Honking can mean a number of things and it took me a while to ignore it.  Buses mean “get out of my way” and they say it with ridiculously loud designed-for-highway-speed horns … actually I think those horns can effectively move the smaller Renault and Smart cars.  Taxis honk at pedestrians to tell you they’re available.  Everyone honks in neighborhoods when approaching blind intersections.  It took me many months to stop looking around to see why anyone was honking.  Nights aren’t bad but I keep earplugs on hand in case I need to sleep on an overnight bus or block out neighbors, roosters, fiestas, or a rare moonlight mariachi serenade.
  • 43% – Whistling code. I haven’t cracked the code of the whistling done by traffic cops, parking attendants, etc.  They have these overused multi-pitch traffic whistles and they blast out different patterns.  I feel like they have some commonly understood meaning that I don’t get.  Or maybe they’re just struggling to make their presence known over all the other noise.  The average guy on the street can whistle to others in certain codes too.  One of those, as it was explained to me recently, represents an obscenity about your mom.
  • 50% – Hearing old pop songs & ballads from the US. The radio stations here love a certain type of old song.  Nothing too heavy or edgy … not necessarily good, either.  They almost always feature singers with distinctive voices:  Cindy Lauper, George Michael, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, The Cranberries, Aaron Neville, and others.  Since most people don’t get the English lyrics, the voice is just another instrument so it better be interesting.  I hear Unchained Melody about once a week.  It’s also funny to me that the radio culture here has picked some old English songs for airplay that I’ve never heard in my life, sometimes even from an artist I’ve never heard in my life.  I’ve had this conversation about old songs that a local has grown up hearing but I’ve NEVER heard even though they’re clearly by recognizable groups like The BeeGees or Queen.  There may even be some artists that were big in Mexico and never even knew it.  So tragic.
  • 98% – Hearing Spanish all the time. I’m not saying I understand it all of it, but I’m accustomed to hearing it.
  • 55% – Hearing and using diminutive and augmentative forms in Spanish. This still feels a little foreign to me.  I think these word modifications made Spanish harder to learn in the beginning and I wish I’d learned more about them 2 years ago.  There’s a much bigger vocabulary to recognize when you consider 3 or 4 forms of each noun and adjective (e.g. pez/pececito/pecezote, casita/casa/casota/casona).
  • 70% – Thinking in Spanish. It keeps the thoughts simple since I don’t have the full vocabulary.  I even caught myself struggling a bit once and thinking, “why don’t I just think this thought in English?  It would be so much easier.”
  • 62% – Speaking Spanish. I was pleasantly surprised by Peace Corps’ recent oral evaluation, but I feel like it’s a challenge and will always be a challenge.  It gets worse when I’m tired or when I’ve spent a lot of time reading and listening to podcasts in English.  I’m worried how quickly the cob webs will collect when I leave Mexico.
  • 80% – Different phone usage. Calls are expensive and texting is cheap.  I didn’t spring for a data connection on my phone, either. I miss that a lot when I want it … but that doesn’t happen that often anymore.
  • 90% – Losing touch. I’ve never touched an ebook reader and have barely touched an iPhone, iPad, or Android device.  I don’t shop the app stores. I don’t tweet nor follow … and I feel fine.  After losing a phone here last summer, I’m back to my trusty Nokia 6682 “wisephone” … that’s my new term for smartphones that are aging and scarred but still spry.  I will always respect and my dear Nokia, but I’m looking forward to picking up a sleek younger & smarter model this summer.

How Much I’ve Gotten Accustomed to … (part 4)

  • 100% – Comida corrida.  $3-$4 for a full homemade meal at a family restaurant with soup, rice, main dish, dessert and a fresh fruit drink.  I will miss lunch in Mexico.
  • 95% – Salsa & limes as the only condiments. Even for salad dressing.
  • 89% – Bones in meat. I chew more carefully here because I like my mouth.
  • 95% – Different fruits & veggies. Chayote, zapote, guanabana, mamay, nances, tejocote, nopal, ciruela amarilla, xoconostle, granadilla, chirimoya, platano pera, … oh, and jicama (thanks for the reminder, Theron)
  • 78% – Not drinking the water. I’m accustomed to using garafones (big water cooler jugs) and my old Nalgene, but the FIRST thing I do when I return to the US – even before clearing customs in the Houston airport – will be to drink from a public water fountain.
  • 100% – Cheese & blackberry flavored ice cream. Don’t wrinkle your nose.  You like cheesecake, right?
  • 93% – Corn tortillas. Being from Kansas, I was staunchly in the flour tortilla camp.  But, I now realize all the corn tortillas up north are flavorless or worse … when they need not be.  Fresh and made right they’re excellent.

  • 30% – Food contradictions. Sopa seca (dry soup) … quesadillas without cheese … these things exist!
  • 68% – Lack of concern / awareness / belief in food refrigeration. First, meat and dairy – they understand that it needs to be refrigerated to keep it for a longer time … which means meat that’s refrigerated could be older … and older = less fresh.  So, meat and cheese that’s never been frozen and is sitting out is a sign that it’s fresh (assuming it’s not detectably rotting).   I can see some logic in that.  Then there are the condiments – I see things like opened mayo sitting out unrefrigerated all the time … sometimes in the sun.  It says “Refrigerate After Opening” … in Spanish even.
  • 85% – Tacos. They’re ubiquitous so it’s best not to fight it.  I have a particularly soft spot (gut) for Puebla’s tacos arabes.  But if I ever want late night food that’s not just meat, I’m pretty much out of luck.

How Much I’ve Gotten Accustomed to … (part 3)

  • 0% – Shortage of public green space. This is a problem for me in the cities when I want to run or just relax in a park.  There are very few that are large enough for recreation and of those, most are security fenced and charge admission to cover the grounds keeping.  I prefer the American approach of using some taxes for the benefit of the community.
  • 19% - Very few trash cans in public & common places. Examples:  subway/train stations, fairgrounds, markets, and downtown streets (depending on the city).  Even Estadio Azteca, the huge soccer stadium in Mexico City, had zero trash cans in the concourses.  No wonder there’s a litter problem.
  • 35% – Cucarachas. They’re not omnipresent or anything.  In fact, they’re probably no worse than in densely populated places anywhere else in the world.  (Part of Sydney, Australia had by far the worst roach situation I’ve ever seen, by the way.)  But even if scarce … it’s not pleasant being awakened by one in the middle of the night.  That has happened once in a hotel (shoulder) and once in an apartment (neck).  Both died quickly thereafter but you just don’t sleep the same for a while.  Oh, and I had one crawl up my pant leg in a cantina … leading to some funny but functional jeans rolling.
  • 60% – Small apartments. Hosting guests is awkward but I actually like having everything nearby.  Forgetting something in another room is like leaving something on the other side of the same room back home.  Best of all, cleaning is so fast!
  • 59% – Taking a shower when the hot water runs out. Occasionally a gas tank runs out or a boiler won’t stay lit.  It’s a good reminder of how a lot of the world does it.
  • 21% – Taking a shower when the WATER runs out. Why would the water run out?  In many cities in Mexico, the water pressure can be too low for too long to keep a building’s cistern from going dry.  Or a pump that fills the water tank on the roof may fail.  In Querétaro, my gym membership saved me a few times.  Here in Puebla, I’ve had a bucket bath or two but my current apartment has the plus of being a managed by a family that also has a baños publicos – a steam sauna frequented by families who would use a traditional sweat lodge if they didn’t live in the city.  I haven’t gone for a steam detox, just a shower.

How Much I’ve Gotten Accustomed to … (part 2)

  • 100% – Being largely ignored in public. This didn’t take any adjustment at all but it was a pleasant surprise.  Despite being taller, whiter, and much more blonde than about 98% of the locals, I don’t feel like I receive many stares, comments, or questions that would remind me how out-of-place I am.  But once in a while I see a European or another American and WOW do they catch my attention.  Each time it makes me feel conspicuous when I would otherwise carry on obliviously.  Walking by a group of Mexican college guys or by a group of people drinking on a restaurant patio at night, I half expect to hear some comments directed my way.  I don’t expect outright intolerance like one might in the US (such as “go back where you came from”), but at least a “what are you doing here?” or “hey, do you speak English?”  But even that almost never happens.  The last time it did, a guy shouted across the street a thickly accented “hellooo, how are you?”  I said, “lo siento, soy alemán” (sorry, I’m German) just to play with him. It’s believable because of the Volkswagon factory and supporting businesses in Puebla.  Coincidentally, a few weeks later a tall, tattooed and very drunk German guy did start speaking German to me one night … and he was really skeptical when I said I was not in fact German (in Spanish).  He scowled and said something else that seemed to mean, “why are you messing with me, man?”
  • 85% – Very little eye contact from strangers. The exception to this is children.  I watched a boy of about 6 years get elbowed hard by his mom for staring at me while we rode in the back of truck taxi in rural Puebla.  Then she glanced up to see if I’d noticed his staring or her reprimand.  In my experience, strangers will not make eye contact on the street unless they’re selling something.  This is especially true for women who have mastered the lookaway game to stay aloof or respectable.  If one of them does look at me, I wonder … is she super-extroverted or nontraditional … or a foreigner like me … or selling something?
  • 100% – Women holding hands are just friends … or family
  • 100% – Interpersonal respect. This relates to the notes above, but goes beyond my direct interactions.  Between Mexicans, I don’t see the same kinds or degrees of disrespect shown to each other as I have seen in the US.  For example, despite the cities having very unruly traffic, I don’t think road rage is the kind of phenomenon it is in the US.  I have seen some exceptions to the respect, though, such as heckling at parades (mentioned previously) and sexist treatment of women.  And this respect apparently doesn’t extend to the criminal element, judging from what I’ve heard but fortunately never personally experienced.
  • 60% – A prevailing attitude of servitude. My only evidence for this is in the language and someone told me it all has colonial roots.  These are common phrases in Mexico:  mande / mándeme (order me, command me) – this is used like we would use “yes?”, “sorry?”, “come again?” in English; a sus órdenes / para servirle (at your service) – more formal but very commonly used in office introductions and by waiters or anyone else providing a service.  I think I understand the usage of these but it still feels foreign.
  • 110% – Well-behaved children. I don’t know the reasons, but they just are.  I don’t cringe when I walk into a family restaurant with many children in it.  They just don’t seem like the defiant, attention demanding American kids I’m used to.
  • 10% Lack of self-ordering queues. I don’t understand why this happens and I’m far from accepting it.  What happened to those well-behaved children when they grew up?  The problem is evident in disorderly traffic but also in blatant examples like approaching a cashier or ticket booth when there is no rope strung up to form a waiting line.  I don’t know if people approaching have no sense that I’m standing there for a reason … or if they don’t care.  Either way, the predictable result is that people will edge in front of me.  Sticking with my observations on respect above, maybe my American-sized personal space appears to them like a vacancy that they must fill.
  • 85% – Less personal space. Communities, houses, transportation – everything is compacted allowing for MUCH less personal space than I was used to in wide open Kansas.  I’m often crammed into a combi minivan taxi with a dozen strangers and since they’re ok with it, so am I.  I’m surprised that I’ve adapted to this so easily.  I would have said “100%” except for the queuing issue above.
  • 55% – Hugging near-strangers. There are some occasions that unmistakably call for this.  A birthday in my office is one of them.  Reaching a summit with a hiking group is another.  Seriously.
  • 75% – Cheek kiss greeting. Mexicans do the one-cheek air kiss (if one of them is a woman … men just shake hands, unless they’re family).  I’m fine with that except that I still don’t know exactly with whom to do it.  Some hesitate because they know I’m American and it’s not my custom … which makes me hesitate.  I need a lapel button that says, “Sí, salúdame” … and maybe with “Deja me en paz” on the back side of it so I can choose depending on my mood.

Oh in case you’re curious, all of the statistics given above and in the rest of this series of posts are accurate to within my blog’s strict margin of error.  Please don’t ask what that is lest I make up yet another number.

How Much I’ve Gotten Accustomed to … (part 1)

  • 90% – Different hand gestures.  There’s the gracias – raising a hand briefly to chest level with fingers toward you (almost as if threatening to backhand the other person).  There’s the ven (come here) – like the full-handed Nero/Morpheus Matrix taunt but with palm down instead of up.  There’s the sí, exactamente (exactly, you got it, on the nose) – index finger raised like E.T. phoning home and then curling it quickly twice like spritzing an invisible cologne bottle.  I recognize these gestures just fine but I’m not in the habit of using them.
  • 100% – Walking vendors.  I was initially leery of people strolling and selling churros, gum, peanuts, tacos de canasta, etc. but not anymore.  I suppose I just needed to adapt to unlabeled foodstuffs sold in a completely unregulated fashion.  Now I don’t stop to question the safety or quality … only whether or not I want what they’re selling and have the pesos to spare.
  • 80% – Walking musicians in buses & restaurants.  They’re street performers who don’t limit themselves to the street. 
  • Bus Ride

    Musician behind us in a bus from Tepic to San Blas. We’re sitting on a suitcase in the aisle because we jumped on mid-route. It's a touch blurry but not bad for being taken by the driver! (His idea, not mine.)

    Many city bus drivers and small restaurant managers will let musicians play a few songs for tips.  I almost never know the songs but have almost never been annoyed by horrible music, either … except for a recent lunch in a tiny restaurant with a flutist who was loud and BAD.  If they have any talent at all I usually tip about 5 pesos because at least they’re working at something.  Besides, my coworker Martín said that he used to play on the buses before he got his job at SEMARNAT.  Now he plays in bars or for private events just as a hobby.  When I saw him at the place pictured below he agreed to sing something in his native Zapoteco language if I sang a bit in English.

    Martín

  • 95% – 24-hour time format.  Times are commonly written that way (e.g. 15:00 instead of 3:00pm) but are usually spoken using am & pm.
  • 100% – Wearing a coat indoors on “cold” days. Yes, that’s necessary sometimes during the winter (or summer in the mountains) since indoor heating isn’t the norm.  But, to me it’s a minor nuisance compared to the brutal winters I missed back home.  Correction – I did NOT miss them.
  • 98% – Wearing jeans/pants in the blazing heat. Like the locals, I don’t wear shorts unless I’m out for a run or at a beach.  Shorts are seen as something for kids to wear, not adults.

A Bit About My Current Work

First, a clarification about where and with whom I work because of some questions I’ve gotten.  I’m not working with other Americans, although I do have frequent contact with the Peace Corps office and with volunteers in other locations.  As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re each assigned to a “host country agency” and in my case it’s the federal Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) – more or less like the US Dept of the Interior, I believe.  So, I work in a Mexican government office and the situation is a lot like being an on-site consultant where Peace Corps is the consulting group and SEMARNAT is the client.  I have supervisors and coworkers in both organizations, but my day-to-day work is with mis compadres in SEMARNAT’s Puebla state office.

I’ve had a change of work priorities as the end of my service nears.  Many months back I had shown my supervisor and coworkers some results of forest change analysis using satellite imagery.  I visually overlaid a slew of data showing particularly the areas where forestry permits had been issued over the past 10 years to help interpret some places with apparent forest loss.  My presentation showed some strengths and weaknesses of the analysis process, but what made a much bigger impression on them was seeing the collection of forestry management programs on a map.  It was a mess!  There were properties on top of properties inside of other properties….  The geographic data for those forestry programs was submitted by licensed contractors most of whom collected/approximated the coordinates in ways that were imprecise at best.  And the vast majority of that data was accepted by the office before it was using any mapping software (aka GIS) to verify that the data was accurate or at least sensible … like located in the right municipality or even state.  As a result, this collection of unverified geographic data was full of undiscovered errors.  It had sat on the shelves for years being completely unused before my predecessor, Christian, laboriously pulled it all from paper and put it into ArcGIS which allowed them to finally see it and use it.

The red in both images are "problems" - overlapping forest management data.

My coworkers urgently wanted to know what data was right and what was wrong.  You can imagine how alarming it would be to discover that some forestry programs are truly overlapped – 2  communities or land owners laying claim to the same forest and BOTH having permits from our office authorizing them to harvest it.  There are messy legal implications and there could even be violent conflict (not unheard of in Mexico).

Now that my time here is limited, my supervisor is keen on having me correct as many of these errors as possible in their budding GIS before I leave.  So, that has become my main focus over the past month and will be for at least the next couple weeks.  I fixed some errors on my own by reviewing the original documents and finding mistakes made by the contractors – a typo usually makes a coordinate muy muy incorrecto.  But the majority of cases require going back to the contractors for the correct data.   We met 3 weeks ago with a group of roughly 20 of the contractors to show them how bad the situation is.  I generated reports of the property conflicts for them and am now waiting on them to send corrections so I can incorporate them in the GIS.  Some corrections have come in already but we’ll need a LOT more before we can call this a success.

This task isn’t glamorous nor highly technical.  I could easily train someone else here to do it if there were someone available …  and in fact, we’ll need to do that soon one way or another.  But, it’s nice doing a project that has some immediate importance for my office.  My group really needs this and they will immediately benefit from it.

My forest change detection project (satellite image analysis) is idle right now due to this new activity but also because of a big limitation:  the imagery coverage available to our office through Landsat (L5 doesn’t have recent coverage here and gap-filled L7 SLC-off scenes aren’t usable) and SPOT don’t allow for a complete and ongoing study of Puebla’s forest.  It’s also pretty clear that there won’t be anyone available in my office to learn and repeat the process in the future, either.  Bummer.

In any case, I’m getting to know the lay of the land better via my maps of the state and I get to practice pronouncing local place names from Náhuatl.  (That’s Mexico’s most widely spoken pre-Hispanic language and which gave the world delicious words like “guacamole”, “jalapeño” “tomato”, “chocolate”, “mesquite” and … well, “México”.)  Try these out loud:  Ocoyohualulco,  Cuautelolulco, Mexcalcuautla, Xocotehuaxtla, Talpitzahuayan, Eloxochitlán, y Tepoxcuautla.