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Dermot's Mexican Diary

Turning 30 in Mexico
Dermot Sullivan

I am 30 years of age, and have been since the 13th February. I am ‘older’ since I last wrote. I am having some trouble adjusting to the altitude. Breathlessness is a part of my daily life at the moment. To try to get fit I have started playing football with some of the students on a Friday afternoon and but find myself gasping for air after only a few minutes!

Taxco - Mexico

Alas my stomach isn’t too fond of Mexico either, but the less said about that the better! One is never sure if it’s the altitude of maybe some nasty bug contracted from the food … let’s just say a lot of eateries do not measure up to European health and safety standards. At least I’m in better shape than some of the other gringo teachers who are always sick and are probably counting the days until they can return home.

I am happy to report that the weather is warm and sunny in Pachuca. The blossom came out on the trees in the last week of February, a marked contrast to whenever it arrives in England. I am told though that when Easter comes the weather here deteriorates and follows more of a tropical pattern with sudden downpours. In the meantime I am able to walk around in a t-shirt (though I wear a shirt and tie to work of course). The nights can be cold with a cold wind that descends from the mountains. Pachuca is indeed referred to in Mexico as ‘the windy city’.

I am unhappy to report that I have no tea! It’s very difficult to get a hold of here. Mexicans seem to regard it as something medicinal, so the few teas that are available are fruit teas and the such. I would have some sent (as I did when I was living in Chile) but the Mexican post office is so diabolically awful I doubt whether I would get it (more of which later). I asked at specific shop whether they would order some tea for me, but the distribution of goods here is not the best … I may find some in Mexico City.

Travel And A Bit Of History:
As my birthday fell upon a Tuesday I decided to do something the weekend before. My Canadian friend Rob suggested that we check out the town of Taxco in the state of Guerrero. The town’s architecture has been preserved by law in a similar way to Canterbury or Quebec City. There are new buildings but their facades must be in keeping with the rest of the town. The place’s buildings have a feeling of Mexico at the time of the Revolution. With it’s winding labyrinthine streets. They were similar to the south of Spain, so in turn quite like the Kasbah in Algeria or Morocco.

In fact, the streets were so labyrinthine that we spent a lot of our time lost! The town is on a hill and one wanders up and down and around, as if one were in an Escher painting, never finding one’s intended destination! Little VW Beetle taxi cabs drive around the town and no doubt make their money from rescuing tourists lost in the maze.

Some weeks beforehand the school took me to the pyramids of Teotihuacán. As a way of keeping us sweet they take all the new teachers there when they arrive to Mexico. As the school has such a high turnover of teachers this means the management ends up taking people all the time.

No-one is exactly sure who built the pyramids, it is supposed that it was the Mayans due the geometric preciseness of the constructions, and also how they mirror the stars above them (the Mayans were great astronomers, and rather worrying their calendar ran out in 21.12. 2012!). It could have also been the Toltecs, but when the Aztecs conquered the area they certainly left their mark. One can see some of their paintings there.

Teotihuacán is actually a very cool place. We had a guide who explained many things to us, such as how the Aztecs made their art and what it meant to them, plus the significance of the pyramids themselves. There is a lot of hippy junk talked about them but he provided a decent explanation about the mathematics involved and why they were built … he had some strange views though, such as saying the pyramids were about 4000 years older than they actually are. He also seemed to an apologist for Aztecan human sacrifice, claiming that they hadn’t killed as many people as historians say they had.

The truth of it though is that the Aztecs were phenomenally cruel, and when the Spanish arrived 80% of the smaller tribes welcomed Cortés as they thought the Spanish would save them from Aztecan cruelty. It is believed that the Aztecs kept themselves separate from the other indigenous tribes and used them as slaves. There was little or no inter-breeding. Human sacrifice was essential due to over-population on one occasion it is believed they killed 20,000 in four days. It’s hard to feel sorry for the destruction of the ‘civilization’, though those other indigenous tribes who sided with Cortés suffered terribly under the Spanish Conquistadors along with the former Aztecan masters.

My Birthday:
My birthday was actually a quiet day. I spoke to my family on the telephone at various intervals during the day. Fortunately many of my students had exams scheduled for the 13th of the month so I was able to watch them and enjoy the silence!

Before I left for Mexico my brother and sister gave me a very brightly coloured tie and a multi-coloured pair of socks which I saved for that day … it was quite interesting seeing the effect that they had on the students, mainly of whom seemed mesmerised by the tie’s magnificence. Despite Mexican art being rather colourful (as with the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo), most Mexicans dress rather drably. The clothes on offer in the shops are nothing special. I noticed the girls in my class transfixed by my orange flowery tie, their heads swaying as I moved around. One girl even jumped for joy when she saw my socks! The boys on the otherhand didn’t quite no what to make of it. The few with a sense of humour laughed, whereas some were worried that I might be batting for the other team as being scared of homosexuality is a Mexican pastime amongst Mexican men (despite them all growing moustaches).

Later that evening I had a few drinks and that was it … nobody, including me, fancied getting really drunk or doing anything big on a Tuesday night … and so, I was 30 in Mexico.

I have been insanely busy since then. I had to set exams before my birthday and then mark them within a very short period of time. There is so much marking to be done in this job! There are also weird rules that are peculiar to my school, such as only one specific person has access to the photocopying machine. The school employs a woman to do all the photocopying and everything has to be submitted at least twenty-four hours beforehand if you want to have your stuff back in time for your lesson … in reality that’s more like forty-eight hours as the Mexicans have a very laissez-faire attitude toward time-keeping. This woman is probably the least motivated woman in the country as she has to stay in a room and photocopy from 08:00 hrs to 15:00 hrs (the working day at the school) - and she doesn’t even do a very good job at that! However to fire her from her job and let people have access to the machine seems to be a step too far for the inefficient Soviet-style planners of Mexico.

Things don’t work properly in Mexico. That may seem to some like an obvious thing to say, but until you experience the reality of a malfunctioning state then it’s difficult to get your head around that fact. Practically all of main industries are owned by the state or are monopolies, similar to how Britain was prior to Thatcher. We had some pre-privatisation benefits and have had some post-privatisation benefits, but Mexico does not, has not and will never experience them in their own country! There are now no longer any passenger railways in Mexico - and I wouldn’t travel on them even if they did exist as they’d be criminally unsafe. The internet connection at the school is terrible, but when the phone company comes to ‘fix it’ they tell us nothing is wrong. It’s not as if we can change to another provider as there isn’t one!

The worst offender is Pemex, the state-run oil company. The corruption that this country has been involved in over the years has been stupendous – and now it’s broke. There’s a sea of oil buried under the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico but they haven’t the money to extract it. It’s not as if they would use the oil money to invest in the population of the country anyway (as Norway does). One wonders what purpose the State serves in this county as it certainly does little in the way of improving the quality of life for the people of Mexico. I imagine that if they did actually care then they wouldn’t have the wherewithal to do anything, as most things in Mexico are just left ‘unfixed’, similar to how they were in Greece before they joined the European Union. Just before my birthday I was without electricity and the school handyman came and fixed the light fittings by applying sticky-tape to them! He told me that if I had the problem again I should go out and buy more sticky-tape! When I have to change the light bulbs I shall be shutting of the power at the fuse-box … which by the way is situated outside the house and gets wet when it rains …

The telephone company is called Telmex and it is owned by Carlos Slim Helú, the richest man in Mexico and the third richest man in the world. According to Forbes Magazine his wealth increased in 2006 from $19 billion to $49 billion! Amongst his portfolio he owns a major department store chain here plus seems to own some sort of concrete company … as practically everything here is made from concrete then to own such a company is a license to print money. Concrete companies in this country are extremely powerful.

Bizarrely the government practically handed Slim control of Telmex and let him pay them back with the profits he made over the next three years … why didn’t they just offer it to me and I could have done the same thing? Obviously I didn’t know whom and whom not to bribe. Telmex is the only landline provider and Slim also owns Telcel, the major mobile phone network. There are others but Telcel is the largest.

My pet hate is the Mexican postal service, which simply defies belief. I am still waiting for my birthday cards! It seems that the stuff is delivered on time here from whatever country from which it was sent, and then it sits in a room … after that I don’t know! Some of the people have received post from home and opened – no doubt the Mexican postman was looking for cash. Maybe I will get my birthday cards in the end – it’s only been just over a month since they’ve been sent. My Canadian neighbour and colleague, Ryan, had a parcel arrive over two months after it was sent from Montreal.

It is shocking to me that a country that is on the doorstep of the U.S. is content to be third-rate and just shrug their shoulders. I often wonder what it is that is the glue that keeps this country together, and it’s the same Mexicans who shrug their shoulders at the problems. Mexicans are actually very hard working, just extraordinarily inefficient. It’s the poorest here who work the most and keep the country afloat.
There are no siestas in this country, as there are in Spain. People work long hours and are expected to accept their lot. I get it easy: even though my working day finishes at 15:00 hrs (in reality I’m doing stuff at the school until about 17:00 hrs) I could be stuck in an office working until dark or worse still in some field with the sun beating down on me working for a handful of pesos. The poorest here have little chance of escaping their poverty.

Cheesy And Weird:

I was taken to a nightclub here in Pachuca about a fortnight after I arrived. The nightclub was called ‘Circo’ (The Spanish word for ‘circus’) and was in a tent. Outside it was raining so water was seeping in … many of the waiters were dressed as clowns and they would dance a weird dance which made them seem like they were out of the ‘Red Triangle Gang’ from ‘Batman Returns’ … above a man dressed as Spiderman would climb around on pylons and stare at people … an American girl said to me:
"So, how do you find Circo"?
"Cheesy and weird!" I replied, clearly not enjoying myself.
"Welcome to Mexico!" She grinned back to me.

Mexico is indeed cheesy and weird. A popular phenomenon here is the luchador, or wrestler. These spandex wearing clowns wear ridiculous masks and mince around the ring just like WWF American wrestlers. My friend went to see a football match last year where the half-time entertainment was a ‘fight’ between luchadores. Just as with American wrestlers they take on stage names and phoney personas, this match had someone dressed in pink pretending to be gay! He was supposed to the villain of the piece and was roundly booed by the audience as he shook his arse at them. One can only presume that the audience cheered when the heterosexual hero kicked the fag villain’s aforementioned arse … As you can imagine, the wrestling thing is not my cup of tea.

Another phenomenally popular thing here, even more so than the wrestlers, is the clown! There are clowns everywhere: the street, on television, in political office (though without make-up) … As everyone knows, clowns are not funny (by ‘everyone’ I mean everyone who speaks English as their first language). In fact, clowns are just plain creepy. I don’t find them scary like lots of Americans do, but I do think that they suck. I hate slapstick and all of that shtick. Mexicans, on the otherhand, think that clowns are the bee’s knees when it comes to humour. Someone walking into a room and then a bucket of water falling on their head is really the funniest thing in existence for Mexicans. Anything more sophisticated than that will be misunderstood or taken literally by 90% of Mexicans. English humour can’t even begin to translate here.

There are few things more depressing than switching on the telly (I don’t have one here in my house) and seeing a clown presenting the news. It’s like being on some very bad drugs. The worst thing is that people watch it! A very popular character is El Chavo. I had actually come across him whilst I was living in Chile. The show has been on for around thirty years and features an old man (so he must have been thirty when it started) dressed up as a little boy. A colleague of mine at work believes that the show is in fact a metaphor for the immaturity of Mexicans in general. There’s also a character called Chabelo which is an eighty year old man dressed up like a small boy – he’s been doing the show for something like forty years! It’s bizarre … in fact, both shows are irredeemably awful, just like all Mexican television.

If there are things cheesier and weirder than Mexican television then I don’t ever want to come across them. They seemingly consist of endless gossip shows or ghastly soap-operas. I’ve passed many a Mexican front window and seen families transfixed by their television sets, reduced to the level of zombies. The shows feature plastic-looking ‘beautiful’ people (or Argentineans!), which is kind of weird as most Mexicans look nothing like them. A different work colleague described Mexican television as ‘a lot of ugly people watching beautiful people’. Well, I wouldn’t call the people on the telly here attractive, but then I wouldn’t describe the Mexican audience as a bunch of lookers either.

The day after my birthday was St. Valentine’s Day. Here it’s known as the Day of Love and Friendship and it was so cheesy it could produce calcium-enriched vomit. The Mexicans never miss an opportunity to skive off for some sort of ultra-kitsch fiesta. My classes were interrupted incessantly by girls bringing flowers to give to other students, all of them with a little a tag saying who gave them. Nothing was too girly in the way of decoration – even Liza Manelli’s most ardent fan would have found it too much.

The strangest thing for me though was receiving flowers, balloons and chocolates from 14 and 15 year old girls. This made me feel extremely uncomfortable, but the Mexican teachers seemed to think this was normal … they also didn’t seem to mind that zero teaching was being done either, but then I suppose that would have just have been to organised and professional for everyone … I did get some chocolates and a teddy from an eight year old girl though (I think they doubled as birthday presents for me). That was sweet.

© Dermot Sullivan March 18th 2007

The New 2007 Mexico Diary
Dermot Sullivan in Mexico
I am in Mexico. I often ask myself how on earth I ended up here, especially as I was set on going to Japan.

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