I have been back in the house in Salem Oregon nearly a month now…a house I lived in for 35 years while raising the children…after traveling for over four years. Re-entry…always the most difficult part of traveling.
In Mexico, as in Asia, people practically live outdoors which offers great opportunities for interaction and friend-making. Here in Salem, I am savoring the fresh clean air and the QUIET! I can actually choose whether to listen to TV or not. Even the massage parlors in Thailand and the “comida corridas” (luncheon cafes) in Mexico were blaring with afternoon soaps. And driving here is heavenly! I totally understand why some people are objecting to Mexican trucks driving in the States! But I have to make an appointment to see old friends…no place to go to mix with people. I loved the Zocalo in Oaxaca…when I wanted to be with people I could just walk a couple blocks and always see someone I knew and could sit and talk for hours over a coffee. Even with my Mexican friends. I think though, even for Mexico, the layout of Oaxaca City, with the Zocalo and even the Centro as a whole, is a unique place and one of the reasons people love it there. I do miss it.
And then of course there is the shock of coming face to face again with a consumer society even though I am relishing the efficiency and customer service that comes with it. But the shock will never be as devastating as it was when I returned from Europe in 1965…a very radicalizing experience that shook me to my core. There is so much I could say about this… In the states we generally keep ourselves so insulated from death. I just groan and roll my eyes when I listen to people here complain about the most minute inconsequential things.
In Mexico you hear a lot of vitriol about global trade and NAFTA. The price of corn, the staple food for the poor in Oaxaca (the birthplace of corn), has risen and tortillas are 7% more expensive this year…a huge increase for people whose minimum wage is 50 cents an hour…even if they qualify. What’s worse, the people favor criollo (heirloom corn) which has a wonderful taste and the hand-made tortillas are delicious and moist…unlike those horrible sawdust-tasting things made by machine that you get in the states. The imported corn is cheaper than the criollo corn now and most people can’t afford the good stuff. And even worse, it is putting criollo corn farmers out of business which will cause the price of it to rise even more.
Yes, many people in Mexico are mad…except for the ones whose jobs and perks are tied to the power structure and benefit from the favors and the money creamed off the top by the government…money that never trickles down to the most destitute. With little rule of law, separation of powers, corruption and no transparency, the poor feel they have little choice other than to openly rebel. The middle class (many of whom are actually lower class by our standards) feel they have little choice other than to hold onto the status quo by it’s finger tips and was the most threatened by the 2006 uprising. It’s short term thinking, I thought to myself. If they only realized that if they were in solidarity with the calls for reform, justice and the end of corruption they too would benefit in the long term. But I also understand their desire to keep their distance from the internal disputes that have arisen within the rebellion because of the pursuit of personal and political agendas. The political and social implications are incredibly complicated and after a year in Oaxaca I felt I knew and understood little more than when I arrived.
And many expats in Oaxaca suspect that the CIA was afoot during the teacher strike last year…it is in the interest of the US and the Mexican governments to keep uprisings down because of the fear it could spread all over Mexico and to other leftist-leaning Latin American countries. And that is another story entirely!
For the moment I am occupied with tree trimming, pruning an overgrown yard, moss on the roof, resealing the deck, utility bills, auto maintenance. The housing market is in the tank right now so no time to sell. I am sorting through boxes and boxes of ___t that have been stored in the basement…stuff that I never needed in the first place and am now wondering what to keep and what to throw out…or give away. Four years living out of a backpack..a few t-shirts, couple pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes…taught me we certainly can live just fine without a lot of stuff in our lives although I do admit that half of what I carried was tangled computer and camera parts. Life was people centered those four years… I am struggling with incorporating perspective.
While traveling I got my news over the internet. After years of no TV I am now aghast at the trivia that is called news. I am noticing that almost every single maddeningly repetitious ad takes place in million dollar homes. “Average” families in the movies are filmed in million dollar homes. No wonder many people in the whole world, most of whom have never been out of their neighborhoods much less their countries, have a skewed view of beyond rich Americans! Even though by their standards we ARE rich. But when I told my motorcycle taxi driver in Viet Nam that one of my jobs here before retiring was managing a homeless program he was shocked. “Why they no work?” I didn’t even know where to begin. And “retirement?” Incomprehensible to most people in the world. “Jubilado” is the word in Spanish…I certainly didn’t have to live off the local economy where the minimum wage is 50 cents an hour and 68% of the people live on less than $90 a month.
In the zocalo in Oaxaca one day, I brazenly told an older Mexican man that I was amazed that the poorest of people living in squalid conditions all over the world could still laugh and be joyful. He just looked at me with incomprehension. That one look told me about all the preconceptions I was still unknowingly harboring about what is necessary for a person to be happy. This moment I will never forget.