Friday, March 26, 2010

I speak for the trees

Three more days, two more days...the week before Spring Break is so long. I remember when Alec and I arrived in Tijuana, we were struck by how environmentally unfriendly it is. You can see the smog hanging in the air and feel it in your lungs. "They need to plant some trees, build some parks!" we commented to each other, over and over again. Shopkeepers here will seriously put a toothpick in a plastic bag, as if you couldn't handle it without one. I was surprised to see that Mexico seems to be aware of the situation. My students are taking an ecology class where they learn better environmental practices. I was also assigned an environmental theme for my second unit this semester. As Spring Break got closer, I decided to show my students "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss. I always loved that video when I was a kid, the screaming mustached Lorax and his crazy town with the day-glow Truffula trees. We ate candy and watched it, the students liked the seventies style songs and the goofy animation.

Under the trees...in our Bar-ba-Loot suits!

I, on the other hand, was getting uncomfortable. The depicted town looked a lot like Tijuana. The Lorax screams about the destruction of trees while the Once-ler buildings factory after factory that belch black smoke into the clear skies of the former Truffula forest. People flock to the new town to get jobs in the factories and their houses eliminate all of the green spaces. I was squirming in my chair. The scene looked like the maquiladoras of Otay. A garbage truck dumps trash directly into a river. Oh no, like that river in the center of town that rarely actually has water and when it does, it is black and polluted. As the Bar-ba-Loots walk in a line out of the town, carrying some of their members because the forest is no longer sustainable, images of the lines of migrants I have seen in the desert in Arizona flashed through my mind. Hopefully I was reading too much into it. It was supposed to be a fun day, not a direct criticism of their town.

So I quit my job. No! Not my job here, my U.S. job. I declined my contract for next year. Yeah, it is a little nerve racking to quit a paying job during millennium style Great Depression II, but I did it anyway. What will you do? Stay in Mexico? Teach in some other school in Atlanta? People want to know! As would I....but I think I will just drive around Baja California for the next couple of weeks in my pre-millennium Mazda while I figure that out.

*The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bien nice

I have a car. My car. In Mexico. My parents, being the doll faces that they are, decided to take a drive, in my car, from Atlanta to San Diego. Before you say it, yes, I know that I am spoiled.

As I dropped my parents at the airport and drove down the streets of San Diego, I actually felt like I was at home for the first time. Down the highway I sped south, Spanish oldies on the radio via 102.9. I was a little nervous about crossing in San Ysidro. I don't have a copy of my car's registration and I didn't get stamped out of Mexico again on my work visa, mainly because there does not appear to be an office that does it on the Tijuana side. And, I had a bad experience with the American migra Saturday morning.

Long, slow moving line. I always pick the slowest one and I knew I was going to be late meeting my parents. I watched American morons stepping up to the agents with driver's licenses and birth certificates, which always slows things up. Is it really that hard to get a passport if you are going to cross regularly? They were searching bags at the passport check, instead of at the X-ray machine. Finally, it was my turn. I presented my passport. "What are you bringing back from Mexico?", "I live in Mexico, I'm bringing..." and was interrupted. "Why do you live in Mexico?" the agent demanded. "I am on a Fulbright grant...", "A full what?" he asked, incredulous. "It's a State Department administered grant" I answered. It's weird. I never mention the exchange when the agents question me about my presence in TJ. I feel like I am holding something back and finally decided to just tell them, only to clarify things, to let them know that I am legit. Not to brag, just to clarify. "Where do you live in Mexico?" he continued. The line was at a standstill. "Tijuana. Aren't the two questions up?" I asked and added a little laugh to soften my remark. "Whoever told you we could only ask two questions was wrong. We will ask as many questions as necessary!" he boomed. "I was just kidding" I said, attempting to diffuse the situation. I had no idea that I was Public Enemy Number One. "What do you do in Tijuana?". "I'm a teacher" I answered. "Why are you so nervous?" he demanded. Because, dude, you are kind of freaking me out. "I'm sick of being in the line" I responded. "Have you ever been arrested?", "Yes" I answered. "For what?". Yeah, I did something stupid in my early twenties. Something victimless and non-violent. And obviously, I have never been arrested again. After I explained, he sat and typed on his computer for at least three minutes. "That's not all you were arrested for!" he stated, mentioning another charge I received for the same incident. "That charge was dismissed. I wasn't convicted. Search my stuff. I am not doing anything wrong" I answered. "The State Department sent you to Mexico?" he asked, as if I were a bank robber. Actually, sir, that would be a presidentialy appointed board that sent me to Mexico. "Yup. And they paid me" I responded. He finally let me go. I feel as though our country is being protected from all possible threats, including smart ass, passport carrying teachers on Fulbright grants. We are the ones you really have to watch out for. We're tearing the place apart.

I was waived into Mexico without even tapping on the brakes.

I decided to drive to school, give it a whirl. As I zig zagged over the road dodging potholes, I heard a walking student exclaim "La profe!". I seem so hapless most of the time that they probably think I don't know how to drive. I kind of like it. It's like off roading.

I am scrambling to get everything ready before our two weeks of Spring Break. As I sat in the teacher's workroom making lessons, I saw a teacher speaking to another teacher whom everyone says is a nurse. I believe she teaches one of the factory classes. I kept working, then noticed that the nurse teacher had inserted an IV in the other teachers arm, hanging the little bag on one of our lockers. The ill teacher sat for about fifteen minutes, while the contents of the bag emptied into her arm. People walked in and out, "Are you sick?" a few asked. When the bag was empty, I asked her if she was feeling better. "Bien nice," she answered "mejor".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Qué padre

"The flight is delayed about forty minutes" the Interjet clerk informed us. The Tijuana airport is not the worst place to be at 1:00am on a Friday night. Unfortunately, it is not the most useful airport. Most domestic flights have odd take-off times and our 11:55pm flight to Puebla finally made it into the sky around 1:15am.

It had been a long day. I ventured into a project with my three hundred students, something I have avoided in the past for fear of grading them. "Profe, how do you say light-skinned in English?" I was asked over and over again while the students attempted to describe themselves on their poster boards. I have entertained this question multiple times with my African-American students in my Spanish classes in Atlanta. I was surprised to learn that in Spanish, not only are there morenos and people with piel claro but that they also have skin that is moreno-claro, which apparently means dark-light. How could I tell them that they are a fine group of Mexican bobcats, no matter how dark or light they are?

I actually slept, only to be roused by wheels hitting the ground in Mexico City around 4:00am. Due to a two hour time difference, the sun was up and Saturday had already begun. We caught a bus to Puebla and I promptly went back to sleep. Alec jostled me awake to see a smoking volcano on the outskirts of Puebla.

Who knew Puebla was so nice? All cities should have at least one ash capped, smoking volcano that is visible from the depths of an attractive, colonial city. I was completely swept up. I could go there - I saw universities, what the hell am I doing in dirty old TJ when places like Puebla exist? I found myself plotting, contemplating. When I've pondered extended, expatriate style experiences, I always imagined going to attractive places. I'd trot around, exist in a lovely environment and live an exotic, culturally different life that would wow my friends and neighbors. "Oh yeah," I'd say, "my apartment is 500 years old. The Spanish built it! Feel like getting a coffee?" Something tugged at the back of my mind. Anyone would want to live in Puebla. Or Madrid. Or countless other attractive cities worldwide. But could I do my superwoman antics there? Though I am obviously attracted to the pretty places, something in me wants to stay in the ugly places. It makes me feel useful. Not that I am saving anyone in TJ, but I feel like maybe I could if I could ever get my shit together.

We met up with some other teachers from the exchange and got a pinche awesome tour from one of our fellow exchangers who is living in Puebla. We ended our day at what must be the smallest volcano in the world. Mexico specializes in odd things. When I studied in Guadalajara during my undergrad, I was privileged to see the smallest mummy in the world in Guanajuato. I have now also seen the smallest volcano. An impromptu carnaval celebration erupted in the street by the volcancito. Mexico is not so hot with time. Apparently, even something like carnaval can be celebrated, well, really late. An extremely friendly woman with a series of biblical names - Maria Magdalena Guadalupe de Jesus y Moises - or something like that, started chatting us up. Things got a little awkward when she mentioned that Haiti got hit by the hurricane because they are voodoo devil worshipers. I really wanted to ask her which biblical sin Mexico committed in the eighties in order to merit their devastating earthquake, but just kind of said mucho gusto and wandered away.

As we sat on top of the smallest volcano in the world, I heard the chirp of my crap ass amigo phone. "Hey..." my sister said "have you gotten any weird emails this weekend?" she asked. "Huh? I'm in Puebla, sitting on a really small volcano. What's up?" I answered. "Some consular workers were murdered in Juarez" she told me, "They are evacuating the families of the embassy staff in a bunch of border cities, including Tijuana". No matter where I go, TJ just can't keep it's paws off me. I could see where she was going with this. Was I going to get sent home?

We picked up a paper and saw some pretty grisly stuff splashed all over the front pages of all of them. "OBAMA INDIGNA" one screamed. "71 MUERTOS EN UN FIN DE SEMANA". Apparently, Mexico went crazy again this weekend. We hopped on Diego, our Volaris plane, and headed back to the border. Soldiers screened our luggage to see what we were bringing north. I actually don't think they were looking for fruit. We passed the federales and drove along side the border wall as we pulled out of the Tijuana airport and through the maquiladoras that line Otay.

I was tired this morning. I trotted into school at my regular hour, 1:15 in the afternoon. The streets were mysteriously devoid of walking students and there wasn't a line at the gate to get in. Profe Rafa was already teaching in his classroom. What the hell was he up to starting class fifteen minutes early? How did he get the kids in there? Few teachers were in our workroom. Finally, I asked...¿Qué hora es? "Two fifteen" one of them answered. What....? "Come with me" one of the teachers requested. "I'll go with you to the office to explain that you didn't know the hour changed". "It changed in the United States" the secretary told me. Yeah, but I live in Mexico. I don't have some heat seeking radar that just knows what happens in the U.S. "Don't you watch TV?" she asked. "No, yes" I stammered, "I wasn't in Tijuana this weekend. I was in Puebla. The time didn't change there!" "Ohh," she said. "The rest of Mexico didn't change. Baja California has decided for the first time to just change with the U.S. Having different time from San Diego really messed up all the people that cross to work". I felt pretty crafty. Down right clever.

It didn't really matter anyway, they went ahead and canceled a lot of the classes. One class was canceled for Día de la familia. Each group of students had to bring in food items and one lucky member of the group got to take the whole basket home. The students screamed and clapped while each winner walked up to collect a basket full of toilet paper, Corn Flakes, pasta packets and canned tomatoes. Kids in the U.S. probably wouldn't have even picked up the basket if they won. I found it weirdly touching when these kids smiled and grabbed their baskets with a look that said "Thanks. My family could really use this shit. I'm taking it".

I never got that email.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA

I just can't seem to get in the swing of things. I have less than four months left. And then it's back, back, back to the inevitable question: What am I going to do next? How have I pissed away so much time?

Almost every time someone gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.

My anxiety has been building. I haven't done half of the things I wanted to do here. I didn't do half of what I planned to do in Madrid either. Just when I might be getting it, it is time to go home. This happens to me on ordinary vacations too. I know the last day is going to come and I am going to be miserable to return to work. I tell myself everyday to make the most of it, ENJOY EVERY MINUTE. But it doesn't help. The last day is still miserable.

It has rained four Saturdays in a row, killing any hope of getting out of the house. Last Saturday, I was determined to do something. Tijuana may become unlivable in the rain but San Diego does not. We visited one of the museums in Balboa Park. Even though the trolley is full of creepy people, I like riding it. I like the yogurt advertisements at the 5th Avenue station. Big cones of strawberries and blueberries filled with brightly colored yogurt. I have no interest in trying their product, I just like the pictures. I like the trolley service area too. All those big barns where the trolleys go to sleep at night. I always sit up at those parts of the ride.

School can't get into the swing of things either. In addition to two sick days and the two days I had to spend in Mexicali, enough classes have been canceled to add up to an additional three days. Classes have been back in session for four weeks, minus seven random days of class suspensions. I never thought I would complain about something like this. But, I have come to love my students and I want to leave them with something. Every time I get some momentum going, we take a day off. Or two. Or fucking seven.

We have next Monday off and Alec and I are headed away from the border and off to Puebla. The weekend after that, my parents are coming to San Diego. After that, two weeks of Spring Break that I will spend all over the Baja California peninsula. I like the busy times, the travel times.

It's just the normal times when I get a little crazy.

*Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye.