Saturday, May 27, 2006

IDYLLIC COMMUNITY THREATENED

THURSDAY, MAY 25
This is a long blog. Be patient. It concerns a small Mexican village on The Pacific coast, a community in which the villagers take turns collecting the garbage, being police officer or whatever requires doing. The community is under threat.
I heard of the village at the Hotel Central, Oaxaca, from a charming young Irish traveler, Eoin Hennesy. Eoin was flying home from Mexico City after traveling thru much of South and Central America. He has a web site: www.slackpackers.org
Eoin was the first person with whom I had talked in English since boarding the bus in Dallas. He suffered my verbal diarrhea patiently, learnt of my interest in students and told me of a Korean-American teaching school on the Pacific coast: surely a curious and unique combination? I was tempted. True, it was out of my way. One hundred and forty Ks out of my way...

What a morning. Rain had fallen heavily in the night and you could taste a sharp fresh cleanliness to the air. An excellent highway unwound thru hills speckled with the white blossom of frangapani trees and of a tree that I think was a wild fig and sudden patches of a deep rose creeper and one of startling blue. Vultures and buzzards floated overhead on dawn patrol for whatever had been flattened by the night's traffic. The sea and miles of deserted beach appeared between the hills. I had rested the previous day. My bum had un-numbed. Biking at its best!!!
A newly concreted track led off the coastal highway. The concrete dipped over a hill and ended. I rode cautiously downhill on the dirt and discovered a small square. I stopped at a home opposite an obviously official building and enquired of a man seated in one of those bought-on-sale white plastic chairs whether the building was the school. He asked why and I related my search for a Korean-American teaching school.
"Sit a little," he invited and introduced himself as Eduardo. The Korean (no villager referred to him as the American, nor even as the Korean American) didn't teach at the school. He gave private lessons to children and adults. He lived in a house nearer the beach. Normally the Korean would be watching the sea thru his binoculars. Eduardo would show me his house. Eduardo would collect the village garbage later in the black Ford pickup he had brought back from El Norte. Then Eduardo would show me. Meanwhile I must give an account of myself and why did I wish to meet with the Korean.
Children surrounded us, a small tribe, the elders perhaps listening while the young ones giggled and pushed at each other. I was off the highway. There was no hurry, nor moving Eduardo from the slow course of his investigation.
I told of my journey and that I was a writer and an Ingles.
Inglaterra? Was that close to El Norte?
Not close, I said. In Europe. In the North of Europe.
Perhaps satisfied, Eduardo related a little of his own life, of the three years in Taos where he had worked as a roofer for a gringo, a good employer who had insured his workers, even the ilegales (fortunate, as Eduardo had injured two fingers while on a roof).
In turn, I spoke of my father-in-law, a fine, dearly-beloved Irishman; how he had come to England in search of work and who's arm was trapped in a cement mixer when he was working alone on the roof of a tall apartment building.
My father-in-law and two brothers came to England on the false promise of well-paid work. Eduardo paid a smuggler $1,500 US to lead him across the frontier. Later Eduardo saved enough to pay the same amount to have his wife brought across. A daughter had been born in El Norte and had papers.
Eduardo had intended returning to Taos in June. He was a good worker. His job waited. Now there were new laws and greater difficulties and dangers in crossing the frontier. Eduardo was unsure whether crossing was possible.
The economy of his family depended on his going. These were anxious times.
Did many villagers go to the North?
Many, Eduardo said. To Taos, alone, more than one hundred.
Did they return?
My question was stupid. Naturally people returned. This was their village. Though now - those that were away - they would be afraid to return home. The new conditions might force them to stay in the North to be sure of sending money home. How could families survive without money? Here in the village, there was no work.
Then, almost casually, Eduardo mentioned the torneo.
In June an international surfing tournament would be held on the village beach.
Outsiders were organizers of the tournament. The tournament would be on television and reported with photographs in magazines and newspapers. The village would be famous. Many people would visit.
"More money will come," I suggested.
"Yes," Eduardo said, though he seemed uncertain, hesitant.
"The value of property will rise,"
"Yes," Eduardo said. "Yes, many people would wish to buy lots."
I told him of the early days in Ibiza, the Fifties, and that all the young men were friends. We , the few foreigners, together with the Ibicencos, partied together, we went to the beach together, went fishing: that twenty years later my then wife, Cate, and I were dining in The Olive Tree in San Antonio. The owner was one of those young men.
"How is Paco Tuels?" we asked. "How is Juan Jesus? Antonio of the ferry?"
The restaurateur's replies were noncommittal. Later, when the rush had cleared, he sat at our table and we drank brandy together and he told us, sadly: "In the days you remember, we were all friends. Now we have become competitors."
I followed Eduardo thru the village and waited while he loaded garbage from other families. Many of the homes are in that, to us, curious and very Mexican state of waiting for more funds to be extended or finished or painted. It is a small village, few more than a hundred houses, and easily swallowed - a small mouthful to a rich, powerful investor with the right political links. This was the story of Ibiza.
The road to the beach is gated. The village charges visitors an admission of ten pesos.
Eduardo enquired for the Korean. Yes, he had gone thru the gate an hour or more ago.
Eduardo stopped me in my hunt for change. The gate was opened. Thus an obligation of friendship to the village was placed on me. This seemed to me to be quite deliberate. I am, of course, a writer, and possess a writer's imagination...
The dirt track to the beach has been graded. A rich huerto lies below the track to the left with papaya and other fruit trees. The huerto ends in a lagoon that fills at high tide and is flooded with fresh water when there is heavy rain. The track leads to a sand parking lot shaded up close by a few small trees. A small concrete building houses clean lavatories and showers, his and hers. A big palapa shades a bar and kitchen and a score of the standard white plastic tables and white plastic chairs. An adjoining palapa shades a few hammocks. A steep hill surrounds the right end of a gently curving mile of perfect sand. The hill jabs a point of massive boulders into the sea. The surf breaks at the point. The surf is vertical and forms a perfect barrel again and again and again...and again.
The palapas belongs to the community. Two young women tend bar. One is remarkably pretty. And there is an older woman who I presume is the cook. If so, she should be described as a chef. The snapper she grilled was perfect. But I get ahead of my story...
I drove into the parking lot and spotted the Korean crossing from the palapa toward a four-by-four. He was unmistakable. He has the perfect body of a movie Kung Fu warrior. He was wearing a towel draped over his head as if he were a monk striving to concentrate on his brievary - or merely exclude the distractions of the outside world. The villagers call him the Korean. I prefer the Monk - though I doubt that he is celibate.
I said, "I think I've come to see you."
Even monks can be surprised.
I explained my mission, that Eoin had told me of him and told me that he taught English at the village High school: that I had already learnt that this was incorrect, that he gave private lessons.
Much was happening in the village and my sudden appearance made the Monk anxious. He asked how I learnt of Eoin's mistake and how I knew where to find him. I replied that I had been told by Eduardo and added that this was a small village and that most villagers must know his movements - certainly those who were interested.
The Monk admitted this truth. However, he remained suspicious and excused himself. He had students in the afternoon and must prepare.
Perhaps later, I suggested.
Yes, perhaps later - though he was unenthusiastic.
I ordered a beer in the palapa and watched the surfers out at the point. Later, I noticed the Monk in conversation with a tall young blond woman under the second palapa, the palapa shading the hammocks. The towel was back protecting the Monk's privacy.
A loud confident voice heralded the entry of four men and a young, tall, good-looking woman, perhaps a gringa. The voice was a big burly man over-accustomed to dining people on a corporate expense account: black hair streaked with silver, clipped moustache, fleshily sensual ears. Confident of his power, he wore shorts and a T shirt while the other three men were uncomfotarbly warm in slacks. One wore a long sleeve shirt and wore glasses and carried a briefcase. The gofer, I thought as he crossed to the bar to order. I caught his attention. We spoke and found that we shared Cuba as an experience, he having studied tourism in Havana for two years. Now he was an official at the Tourism board.
"The torneo," I presumed - as if fluent in village happenings.
Yes, the torneo.
Mister Big represented the money, the sponsors. He laid out plans and papers and all the talking came from him. I was at the wrong end of a double table to overhear clearly. Frustrated, I ordered the grilled snapper at the bar, then returned to the end of my table closest to the money group. Now I could overhear much of what Mister Big said. He had plans for the torneo, where marquees must be sited, new palapas, judges' stands.
The gofer was a non-contributor - perhaps he held a watching brief. Of the remaining two men one was quiet, yet clearly necessary and in need of persuasion. Later I discovered that he was the President of the community. The other man I will call Mister Keen. He wore a shirt with no sleeves and a baseball cap and and, in eagerness, leant across the table towards Mister Big. The woman interjected on occasion and ordered water melon from the bar (was she with Mister Big? Perhaps the sponsors? Or a TV company?).
Listening, I wondered what Mister Big really wanted. Unbelievable that those behind him would fund, out of the goodness of their hearts, an international torneo on an unknown beach that possessed no infrastructure? I looked down the perfect beach with the perfect surf and saw the apartment blocks and the hotels and the swanky surf club at which the villagers would be servants. It seemed to me intolerably sad. Yet this was the perfect moment for the money men to make their move. The villagers were afraid of a future in which passage to the north was closed. How many would hold out against alternative blandishments? How many could hold out?
I imagined that Mister Keen must be already mounting the Yes campaign. And the President?
He seemed almost bewildered, and as much by the physical force of Mister Big as by Mister Big's fluent exercise of the language of persuasion.
The discussion ended. Mister Big passed my table. He had noticed my conversation with the gofer and was professional in his attention to detail. Could I be important in even the smallest way?
Am I being cruel, vindictive? Am I demeaning a decent man, a man who was naturally friendly (though friendliness was also his stock in trade)?
He delighted with the open warmth and charm of his greeting.
"How's it going?" I asked with equal warmth.
"Difficult, though we're giving them everything they ask for," he said - then dismissed the weight of difficulties with a lift of those powerful shoulders. "Though I've had easier tasks in the capital on a major project."
"In the capital you know who to pay," I said.
"Precisely." My understanding was proof that we were on the same side - what ever the side was. He was employed by a company of lobbyists, men who knew the right people to make things happen. He wrote down his address and his e:mail and we shook hands and I watched him walk toughly to his vehicle and thought, sadly, that the teeth were already here, the teeth of the mouth that would devour a community...
The staff of the palapa had watched Mister Big's and my conversation. Now they were watching me, perhaps waiting. I worried that I was arrogant in judging the best interests of a community of which I knew so little. A surfer's paradise could be a villager's purgatory. And yet...
So I ordered a fresh beer and sat facing the three women and with my back to the sea. The torneo, what did they think?
There were small shrugs of uncertainty. "We will see," the pretty one said and the others nodded. Yes, they would see. Yet it seemed to me obvious that they had no concept of what they might see. I recalled for them my first visit to a small town on a lake near the wondrous Maya site of Tikal in Guatemala. Thirty or more years ago the women of the town met at a different house each night to arrange the flowers and decorate the church. A mere ten years later, television had reached the town. I found only three women arranging the flowers. The rest were at home watching a screen. The companionship of those evenings was dead. The rich sense of community was dead. Nothing remained that would tempt their children to return.
The older woman, the chef, was the first to nod. I asked where I could stay and the women directed me to a row of small, wood-walled palapas by the entry gate. The owner had been the first of the village to reach Taos. In Taos, he was legal and had his own business. He had returned. What did he think of the torneo?
"We will see."
I unloaded the bike, showered, changed into shorts, and returned to the beach. The Monk was reading at the centre table beneath the palapa. The towel protected him.
Brave, I approached. I asked if he was free. Might I sit with him? So we began what quickly became a friendship to be treasured.
The Monk had come to the US when eleven-years-old. He told me of his schooling in the US: of scholarships to private school in California, to Berkeley and Grad school at Harvard. He interspersed his later studies with spells in the world of banking. He was respectable. He did the right thing. He wore the right suit and the right shoes and the right tie...And sometimes he surfed.
Harvard undid him. He was studying finance with grad students from similar money-management backgrounds. He discovered something missing in them. They had no fixed belief in right and wrong. These were the future leaders of Corporate America. The Monk saw an endless parade of Enrons, of small investors bankrupted or robbed of their pensions. At first he was merely uncomfortable in their company. Perhaps he became nervous of infection. Perhaps he became nervous of his father's judgment, his father a famously crusading and respected newspaper editor back in Korea, a poet, a writer of important books. So the Monk loaded his surfboards on his truck and drove south and discovered a beach with the perfect wave.
Only later, and bit by bit, did he discover a community that was self-protecting and to which each member contributed. The Monk taught English. This had seemed to him sufficient contribution until the torneo surfaced. He found remarkable that I understood the threat and that we shared a near apocalyptic vision. He suspected that I was an investigative journalist. He hoped that I was an investigative journalist.
Merely a mediocre novelist.
But I would write of this?
Certainly.
Would I write that Mister Big and his backers were paying the community 4,500 pesos for the use of the beach (approximately five thousand dollars US) - that the community was to provide a workforce of two hundred men to complement the three hundred men Mister Big would import?
That the community accepted so small a fee underlined the danger. Mister Big must be licking his lips.
For the moment no land could be sold to an outsider without the community's agreement. That could change. For the right people, political pressure is easily acquired - such is Mexico's history. A major tourist development must be in the nation's interest (the developers' interest being synonymous with the nation).
The Monk's nightmare is not the destruction of his perfect beach. It is that these people with small experience or understanding of the outside world, people who have welcomed him warmly, will lose the very special dignity that accompanies their independence, that they will be dispossessed and become servants in their own house. Already Mister Keen was working on their fears and tempting them with profit. Others had approached the Monk for advice. He was a banker. He knew the worth of holding a torneo. So he advised them and was summoned by the representative of those with power and warned that it was dangerous for him to interfere.
Threatening the Monk is an error. He is his father's son. He marshals his forces.
We shared a simple dinner of tortillas that evening on the terrace of a local store. We drank cold Corona beer and listened to the quiet anger of the store keeper: four thousand five hundred pesos - a town with no health centre, a town with so many children. At least, they should have demanded a health centre for the community.
We sensed, without looking, that other villagers listened, men and women in the background and hidden by the night.
I paid the princely sum of $37 Mexican for 6 beers and a plate of meat-stuffed tacos.
And I bore, with good humor, the belittling of my Honda by a chemically-recalibrated surf addict of LATE middle-age. Hah!
And later, in bed, I thought of the senators and congressman in Washington and of the decisions they make concerning the frontier that is not a frontier and of how little interest or understanding they have in the destructiveness of their decisions. Their snouts are in the pork-barrel. They wish to keep them there. A small community in Mexico? Let it die in the name of progress...

BAD TEETH PAY

WEDNESDAY, MAY 24
Tehuantepec is home to a tribe of Bodicaeas. For the ignorant, Bodicaea was a Brit queen reputed to have minced invading Roman soldiers beneat scythes attached to the wheels of her chariot. Tehuatenpec's Bodicaeas stand in the back of moto-caros - small three wheel trucks based on a motorcycle and always driven by men (I haven't seen these elsewhere in Mexico). The women wear long dresses and apear imposingly fierce. I avoid being minced and discover the Cafeteria Pearl on the street opposit the Oasis Hotel: excelent breakfast (eggs, ham, juice - $28).
I then hit lucky.
Idiot, I dropped my false teath my last morning in Oaxaca. Part of the gum shield snapped. The concierge at the Doraji directs me across the church square to an orthodontist - curious route to a fellow writer! Fifteen minutes later I am privileged to be seated across the desk from Fernando Villalobos Peto. I am reading a polemic. Here is deep anger at the PAN, its bosses and their servants in the media. Fernando has no expectations that the candidate of the PRD (centre left), Obrador, can cure the ills of Mexico. At least Obrador would try.
So much for politics. We progress to Fernando's first novel, almost complete. We discuss personal loves. Fernado recomends the Mexican realists (Jose Emilio Pacheco: Las batallas en el desierto). My teeth are fixed. Fernando drives me to his home. We drink beer. Fernando's wife, Elena, feeds us enough nibbles to feed an army. Their sons arrive, Juan Pablo (18) and young Fernando (almost sixteen). They have a band. They won a national youth competion with their rendition of Californication - Red Hot Chili Peppers - Josh's number one group. Josh has seen them live twice.
The sons' electronics possess the sitting room. We sit in the dinningroom. Out come electrical guitars. Juan Pablo sings Pink Floyd - Josh's other favourite. We drink more beer. Elena places more food on the table. Young Fernando fails to connect to my web site on their new computer already infected with whatever from downloading music (Fernando keeps his laptop locked in his office). The sons protest that they need a new computer. This one is six months old and already an antique. Where have I heard this conversation? Guess. We are in Old Home week!
Fernando insists that I must see a side to Tehuantepec no foreigner will find. Juan Pablo accompanies us. Young Fernando must be back at school. Elena has a business to run.
The side (I should have guessed from Fernando's girth) is a restaurant 10 K out of town. The family swim in the canal on Sundays before and after eating. Fernando orders. We are served the most massive shellfish cocktails I have ever seen: shrimp, pulpo, oysters, crab in a hot sauce. A dish of grilled crayfish follows. And we talk...
Juan Fernando is off to Mexico's top University to study history and intends to be a research historian. We discuss Bush and Blair and an ignorance of history that has led them into the Iraq war. We discuss the border which is not a border (they refer, as do many Mexicans, to El Norte rather than to the US).
Fernando has brought a bottle of Terry brandy. We discuss the European Union. Then racism...
My doctor friend from Oaxaca suffered from racism at medical school. So has Fernando. Fernando wonders at the Islamic ghetos created in English cities. He asks how he would be treated in an English taverna - a pub. Would he be mistaken for a Muslim and be in danger?
More probably a West Indian, I answer and, No, he wouldn't be in danger.
I am seated across the table from Fernando and his son. Beyond them I see the canal and the line of great trees that shade the water. I am eating one of the great meals of my life. We are enjoying great conversation. I am incredibly fortunate and deeply grateful.
Back in town I duck into Elena' shop to offer thanks for such hospitality. Elena gives me a medal of the Virgin of Guadelupe to watch over my travels. I leave her store. The steel security shutter isn't fully raised. My head crashes into its edge. Blood flows down my face. Rather than display the Virgin's failure, I stride off across the square. Elena must think me exceedingly rude for not turning back for a last goodbye...

TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN

TUESDAY P.M., MAY 23
I swoop back down the mountains and take the coast road to Tehuantepec. The road follows a river, the river escapes, the road recaptures it. The road surface is excellent. I make good time. The coastal heat beckons. Vast trucks creep upward or race passed on their way to the port at Salina del Cruz. Coaches gleam in the livery of the OCC company.
I stop for a juice at a roadside shack. The woman owner is thrilled that I am a Brit. Her daughter, Patti, is learning English at Highschool. Patti is shouted for. Patti has fled. She is captured and returned to a table in the shade at the side of the shack. She ius a shy gfirl, charming smile, remants of puppy fat fast disapearing.
The mother waits expectantly. Patti looks glum. I imagine doing the same with Jed should a Spaniard pass. Jed would kill both me and the Spaniard. Patti, thank God, is a pacifist.
A car stops and Mum leaves to serve the driver and passngers. Patti and I speak in Spanish. Patti tells me that she knows words and can write a little but has no practice in speaking. Jed and his friends would say the same of school French - though, as with Patti, they would succeed in conversing if left alone with someone of their own age.
Mum returns and I assure her that we have been speaking English.
Mum beems.
Patti looks grateful. I give her one of my visiting cards: EL VIEJO Y SU MOTO.
A further fifty Ks and we are finally on the flat and on a straight road. The Honda kicks its heels up, all 125 cc. We speed at 90 KPH. Hah! to Jed and his friends who mock that all I ever do back home at the wheel of our Honda Accord is creep and even delay other Oldies.
Tehuantepec is a small town, peaceful after Oaxaca. Few houses are more than a single story high. Good sighnposting leads me directly to the central square. A heavily built townman is parking a big Nissan. I ask directions to an economical hotel and find myself a block away at the Doraji. The hotel has a welcoming central patio and large cafe area. I take a spotless single room with fan and functional bathroom on the top floor. $175 pesos - the US dollar has fallen too far over the past weeks to make the ten for one conversion meaningful.
Late and most restaurants are closed. Fortunately the cafe round the corner at the Hotel Oasis is open I eat (yes, once again) camarones a el diablo - $70 and delicious. So to bed...

GOODBYE OAXACA

TUESDAY, MAY 23
Oaxaca has been good to me. The Hotel Central, its staff, and its lovely patio, provided a home from home. Doris and her husband were immensely kind and hospitable and both informative and intelectually provocative. All but four of the students at Blaise Pascal were courteous and patient with the fat old toad. The kids at the orphanage were loving and should be much loved.
The church congregation blessed me with their companionship. Now back on the bike...
I take the road to Mitla. Describing archeological sites is for guide books. However I am anxious to reach Guatemala and discuss with Eugenio a difference I perceive between the treetment meeted to the indigenes by the Spanish Conquistadors and by the largely British Conquistadors of what is now the USA.
Out of cussedness, I head north east from Mitla towards Zapetec. Why? Because the road is bipassed in the guide books. The road climbs for eighty kilometres. The cimb is far more gradual than the ascent from Tuxtepec. I feel fine. However experience of Tuxtepec has taught me the Honda's responses and I know that we are above the 2,000 metre mark.
This is dry country and the mountains seem endless. Cactus forest gives way to a forest of strange (to me) conifers with needles midway between a bright green lavatory brush and the grass skirt of a whirling ballet dancer.
For the traveller, the views are preposterous. I stop often to admire and photograph. However real people inhabit the scattering of villages that cling to the mountain side. I fail in imagining an existance of such harshness.
I pass thru a small town. Election time and an obvious politician (white, naturally) waves and wastes on me a dentifrice smile as I bump over a sleeping policeman. One of the boys for the day, he stands beside a gleaming double-cab pickup in pearl grey. I stop for a bottle of water and watch a while as he glad-hands the townsfolk.
A vast building is under construction above the town. It might be mistaken for an aircaft hanger but for its site and the arched window spaces. I ask a middle-aged male passer-by and he tells me it is a conference centre. Here? Up a mountain? A conference centre? The entire population of these barren mountains might fill half of it.
The man grins and says, "Algo politico." Something political - magnificently visible proof of a politician's interest in his electorate - what North Americans refer to as Pork Barrel Politics.
I ask how people survive and am told that every family has members in El Norte.
"Ilegales?" I ask.
"Claro," he replies.

APOLOGY FOR A SMALL DOSE OF POLITICS

TUESDAY, MAY 23
7 a.m. and the ten central city blocks together with half the Zorcalo are blocked by the teacher encampment. Starting to smell! Imagine if the strike continues for a week, or even a month - as it has in the past.
This strike is an anual afair and coincides with the run up to final exams. The exams are cancelled with all students given a fictitious pass grade into University. Universities then have no idea as to the true achievements of their entry students. Meanwhile hotels and small shopkeepers are in despair at the certain loss of tourist income.
How will the strike, as represented by TV comentators (white and right) effect the June 2ndPresidential election? In the polls, over the past few weeks, a vituperative press and TV campaign (financed by the oligarchy) has put the PAN (Conservative) candidate marginally ahead of the Centre left.
Mexico's TV comentators are invariably white and right.
Interesting to learn in what way their portrayal of this strike effects the outcome of the election.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

PROFESSOR TOAD

MONDAY, MAY 22
I have been a scab. I appologise to my eldest son, Antony, an elected official in the Transport and Maritime Union and someone for whom I have great love and admiration - also the father of my three grandsons to whom I dedicate this journey in hope that they will learn a little, both of Hispanic America, and of who their grandfather is.
Two teachers had called in sick. The head of the English department, an Englishman, was delighted to inflict me on his students. This was her first day at the school for a young Mexican-American teacher charged with my first group.
These are classes in English and I have been told to speak in English. I relate a little of my background as a writer and the purposes of my journey. I search faces for irritation, boredom, contempt. I ask, in Spanish, if they understand more or less. More ? Or less? This raises a small laugh. I ask for questions. Teenagers? Stand out from the group? Am I crazy? They will keep their questions for out of class - great if it raises a discussion.
So I ask the questions. How many have relatives in the North (the US)? Four raise their hands. What do they think of Bush's intention to build a wall?
"Stupid," a girl says and the class nods.
They know Condeleeza Rice? Yes. She made a speach in Europe stating that Americans never torture: Do they agree? Nobody moves. Have they understood? I rephrase the question: "How many of you believe that the Americans torture?"
They look at each other. One raises his hand, then another, than all together - these are teenagers; outside their own circle serious stuff is embarassing, so not high, more shoulder height.
I ask what differences exist between their parents' generation and their own.
"The way we think," a girl answers to general agreement.
"Think in what way," I ask.
"You know," accompanied by a teenage shrug that I recognise from home as definite full stop.
I try a different track. "I have sons. Jed is sixteen, Josh, twenty. I asked them and they would say that I wouldn't understand - end of conversation. That's what you tell your parents, right?"
Laughter.
A boy/man asks, "What do you think the differences are?"
This seems of general interest - or it gets them off the hook of needing to supply answers themselves.
I say that that I don't recall on my first trip thru Mexico ever seeing young people kiss on the street. Now it is moderately commonplace.
"What else?" a girl asks.
I think to myself, What the hell, go for it, and tell them of my previous day's conversation with the doctor and that I had been watching them at the canteen.
They wait.
I say, "I'm a foreigner. I can't tell. I don't know how to look - though it seems to me that, if racism does exist, it is less in your generation."
Will they discuss this amongst themselves after class? Or dismiss me as a silly old foreign fool?
I take two more groups, the last on the approach to the next break with everyone keen to get out of class. I slow them by relating, as a lone travel, that I recharge my batteries in shaking hands after mass. They have a natural generosity and all smile as I take their hands.
After break, I have one more group for a full fifty minutes. I see at once that I am in trouble. Three of the male students make clear that I am a nobody and talk instead to their girlfriends. One of the girls asks to go to the bathroom. I say that I am not a teacher - that whether she goes to the bathroom or not is her decision. A second girl asks and I give her the same answer.
Three girls in the front ask me about writing and what books I read and what I know of Latin Aerican writers. Great. We make a foursome and leave the rest to their own devices. I love that they only discuss Hispanic Amercan writers. I have just read Sweet Water And Choclate, first novel by a Mexican woman so I earn a little street cred. Two of them are admirers of the Marquez/Allende brand of fantasy/mysticism. I suggest Sulman Rushdi as Marqez' equal and more directly political. The third girl is more taken by reality and politics. Fun.
I end by telling all that remain in the classroom, the conversationlists (those that haven't gone to the bathroom and stayed there or wherever they stayed), that I had been asked by the first class what changes I saw between them and their parents. I had seen four male students enter the Head Mistress' office wearing base ball caps. None of their parents would have been so ill mannered....

TOAD, THE SCAB

MONDAY, MAY 22
A day of expectations - due to talk to students at two public High schools. Rose early, brushed, showered and shaved. Clean shirt. Clean pants. Shoes were polished the previous evening. Breakfast in the patio and watch a hummingbird beaking the red hybiscus. Wheel the bike out to the road. The road is blocked. The entire centre of Oaxaca is blocked. Teachers are out on strike. Every teacher in Oaxaca State is heading for the city. They stretch tarpaulins across the streets, make beds of flattened cardboard boxes on the sidewalks. By nightful I am reminded of a refugee camp. Hundreds of the disposessed sleep on the sidewalks and in the centre of the street. They lie curled and they lie on their backs and some, used to good matresses, can't sleep. On each street and square, small groups of district Union officials gather in conclave. Tourists duck under the tarpaulins as they wend their way back to their hotels from the cafes on the Zocalo. I introduce myself as the father of a Union official. I should introduce myself as a traitor: with the public schools closed by the strike, I have spent the day talking to (or talking at) students at the city's top private school. While waiting to be interviewed by the Head Mistreess, I sit in the shade of a jacaranda tree outside the school cafeteria. Mid morning break heralds the any-school-in-the-world charge for toasted buns and sodas. Stuffed tortillas make the only change from Bishops or John Masefield.and the dress is less formal: jeans, trainers, school sweatshirts. Yesterday I was asked by a friend, a Mexican doctor, a specialist, whether I found Mexico racist. I replied that it was difficult for a foreigner to be sure, that I believed that it was less so amongst the younger generation. Now I watched the younger generation in their break. At my age, so much is a reminder of the past and I immediately spotted one splendidly sulky heavy-joweled Catalan matron of fifty going on seventeen. A mixed group at a table were identical in gesture and in the way they laughed to my son, Josh, and his friends. I could see no demarcation by colour in the groups. Racism was a deep concern to my friend of the previous day, something he had suffered at University and in his first years of practice.
Did I know how to look?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

NEW FRIENDS MAKE A GREAT DAY

SUNDAY, MAY 20
I was taken today to a small orphanage run by two nuns, one Mexican and the other from Chile. We arrived at the children´s midday meal. The We is a pediatrician who gives his time to the orphanage, his architect wife, their few-months-old daughter and the Toad. The children ranged from six to eighteen. Not all if them are true orphans, some have only one parent deceased. However all come from a background of crippling poverty. Some have been permanently damaged by protein deficiency. Some are extremely intelligent.

I congratuated the Chilean nun, a woman in her early sixties, on the extraordinary peace that reigned in the refrectory. "La lucha," she replied. "La lucha." A daily struggle...
So would answer any Cuban.

A six-year-old held out her arms to me to be lifted, then buried her face in my shoulder. Later, a small boy installed himself on my lap as I talked to a fourteen-year-old Teadora who has ambitions to be a secretary and, as she admitted shyly, a writer. These kids have acess to computers and the internet. Come on, you Spanish students back in England, blog a message to them. Use my other Blog site: EL VIEJO Y SU MOTO - HABLAMOS.

Boys, four to a room, sleep on the ground floor, girls upstairs. The older girls share with the younger, mother substitutes. Oddly what I found most revealing were the rows of toy rubber and plastic animals aranged on the dividing walls between the girls´ showers. This is a gentle place for kids to grow up. Unlike those erstwhile Irish hellholes...

OAXACA

WEEKEND, MAY 19/20
Oaxaca, city of churches. Sunday evening I went to mass at the first church built in Oaxaca, San Juan de Dios; very simple in decor, white altar piece decorated with eight big vases of white dhalias. Away on my solitary travels, I recharge my batteries in shaking hands with neighbours at the end of the service.

The exteriors of Oaxaca´s churches are uniformly beautiful. As to the interiors, my predjudices are in good shape. The cathedral is awful. Gates close off the side chapels. The central aisle is seperated from the laity by railings. All that magnificent space chopped into tiny pens.

The vast altar piece at San Filipe Neri reminds me of the worst excess of Ukraine´s Orthodox decor. Yet, loving simplicity, why am I overwhelmed by the interior beauty of San Domingo? All that gold leaf on white...Yet to see this one great church alone is worth the trip to Mexico.

However, most touching to me is the church of the Society of Jesus. Here in Oaxaca, Mexico, on the wall of a side chapel, names familiar from my Catholic childhood welcomed me: Edmund Campion, Hugh Walpole, Edmund Arrowsmith, Hugh Morse. Such English names amongst the saints of the Jesuit Communiy and I sat in the peace and quiet of the chapel as if amongst old friends. High above the arched entrance to the chapel was this simple inscription: Companeros de Jesus, amigos en el SeƱor. And in the Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary is written in thirteen Mexican languages and in Spanish and English: Am I not here for I am your mother...

The Catholic church may be disgraced for its protection of sexual predators in the USA and in Ireland and England. Here it lives. These churches are the temples of today´s Mexico. Services are full. You will find a scattering of people at private prayer at any hour. Watch people cross themselves as they pass on the sidewalk.

Only beware that a reactionary Pope may force the Latin American church´s withdrawal from leadership in the struggle for social justice.