Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Land That Forgot Time

Everything in the United States of America mostly happens on time, at least timely in relative terms for any expected sequences of events that might occur or would have otherwise been planned. The trolleys and busses, trains and airplanes, businesses and sporting events, and so on, mostly always start and end or open and close punctually. People on the other side of the big metal fence are forever watching their watches, marking their calendars and appointment books, or otherwise meeting and beating deadlines.

I dance to that same tune, most Mondays through Fridays, from early in the morning until late at night. Except for today, which is Memorial Day in the United States of America, a holiday that falls on the last Monday in May. Most holidays in the United States of America are placed for convenience, with very few exceptions. I find this to be ironic coming from a culture where people are expected to make appointments exactly on time. Except for Independence Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, holidays fall on whatever day is convenient in order to extend a weekend or have a family experience.

Working in the United States of America and living in the United States of Mexico, I have no choice than to compare. Most people here in Mexico are at work right now. Yet, here I am with a Tecate and a small glass of Chivas Regal on ice, typing away, I haven’t been able to do this very often lately. Rocio also has the day off, she brought me some tacos de birria on the way down after dropping Anna off at school. Thankfully, Mexico has no need to celebrate a Memorial Day.

In Mexico, holidays are entirely the opposite of how they are in the United States of America. Mother’s Day, for example, is on the tenth of May, regardless if it is a Sunday. Labor Day in Mexico is the first of May, always, and only falls on Monday an average of once every seven years. Even local celebrations, like Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes are fixed to a certain day. (On the twenty-third of December, the local Oaxacans carve nativity scenes from large radishes and display them in the center of town. There is even a parade. Go figure.)

Here is some more irony: Ask ten different Mexicans what time it is, and you’ll get eight different answers. Appointments are rarely kept on time, varying up to hours late. Often, both parties arrive an hour or more apart, and are both late – albeit at different times; they miss each other, and at their next chance meeting they both claim that the other never showed up. I have seen this happen, countless times. Any misconception about Mexicans being perpetually late can be directly attributed to examples like these. Try throwing a party in Mexico, plan for the guests to arrive at three in the afternoon, and they’ll start to arrive between six and seven, and continue to arrive up until nine in the evening. And know this up front: Mexican parties end whenever your guests want them to end. Plan on missing a night of sleep. Even if the party is on a Thursday.

Yet, Mexican holidays are held on a specific day and cannot be moved, even by an act of congress. Election Day is the only floating holiday, held sometime in August. Otherwise, this beautiful Country That Forgot Time takes its holidays so seriously as to prohibit them from floating, no matter any convenience to do otherwise.

* * * *

Pick your poison, as they say, choose a place where the important thing is what happens next, or a place where the important thing is what is happening now.

I have made my choice. I understand that, here in Mexico, when someone shows up two hours late to a rendezvous, it is because they are dealing with what is happening now. I am not so important to them because I am what is happening next. If I ever took being stood up personally, here in Mexico, I certainly don’t worry about it anymore.

I have learned that I have a lot less control over what happens next than I have control over what is happening now. Mexico has taught me this. Mexico is a constant reminder that life is nothing more than a series of moments, and the more time one spends concerned about what happens next, the less time that one spends noticing what is happening right now.

Patience. Sweet, simple, patience.

* * * *

Work has been offering very little free time, save for the occasional five-minute break.

Last week, I smoked a cigarette and watched the freeway from out of the bay door at work. A car slowed and stopped on the right shoulder of interstate-five south and a chubby young Mexican girl, perhaps Anna’s age, carefully got out of that vehicle and cautiously walked down on the shoulder of the freeway, retrieving a shirt. She clutched it like a doll, inhaling some familiar odor from the cloth, and slowly returned to the car to continue to wherever it was she was supposed to go.

To meet some deadline, I reckon.

The shirt must have meant a great deal to her, enough to get mom to turn around, get back on the freeway, and pull over. The way that she held it, once retrieved, I wonder why it meant so much to her. It was more than the relief of having recovered a wayward piece of clothing. That shirt was a part of her life, I thought about the sweatshirt that Juan gave me for Christmas and wondered how I would feel were I to recover it from the shoulder of a freeway.

The car sped off, joining thousands of people who were busy chasing what happens next.

I went back to work - a place with a backlog that only reaches twenty-four days into the future. In the business world, twenty-four days is not very much of any part of what happens next. Yet, we will probably manage to gross five million dollars this year, or close to it. How’s that for a company that spends the majority of time dealing with what is happening right now?

* * * *

When I cross the border into Mexico, I try and leave the other side behind me. I try to concentrate on what is happening right now and forget about what will happen next. It isn’t easy sometimes.

I reached Centro and noticed that she was certainly Chinese - I cannot say whether she spoke Spanish or even English - and she seemed quite pleased as she walked purposefully up Calle Madera in downtown Tijuana holding two freshly-killed chickens by their feet, one in each hand. The upside-down heads of the dead chickens danced like puppets on string, bobbing chaotically as the Chinese lady hurried to wherever it was that she was going. The chickens were probably killed by the simple and violent act of breaking their necks, an uninformed empirical observation, thus the bobbing. Otherwise, I imagine, the dead chickens might have well been made from rubber. Except for the feathers on the dead chickens and the blissful smile on the face of the Chinese lady, I probably wouldn’t have remembered any of it, I was thinking about a beer in the Dandy Del Sur. I had caught myself thinking about what would happen next.

Crossing calle Quinta, two Mexicans who spoke English tried to recruit me to drive undocumented human beings into a foreign country.

"Sorry. Heck, I don’t even have a license anymore," I told them.

We were waiting for the traffic light to change.

"We can fix that," he said.

He looked about thirty in Mexican years and his English was excellent. Mexican years are like American years except that in Mexican years he could have been forty, no one could have guessed either way. Regardless, nothing about him would have led anyone to suspect that he was a coyote.

"We have resources that you wouldn’t believe."

"I know," I replied. "I’ve lived here for thirteen years, se como corre la agua."

Como corre la agua literally means how the water runs, a euphemism for understanding how things work, either in a general or specific way, or both.

We switched to Spanish.

"Your Spanish is good," he said.

"It has to be, imagine a gringo living out near La Presa and not speaking Spanish."

He laughed. I wanted the light to change. He was going to offer me a lot of money.

"Look," I told him, not wishing to give him another opportunity at a sales pitch, "I can’t cross illegals, I don’t care what you offer me. If it was my world, there would be no fence, no border, but it isn’t. I can’t do that for money, and I can’t do it for nothing."

The light changed, and he will find a driver and the driver will be paid handsomely. Coyotes cross pollos, or chickens so they are called, the illegals that somehow come up with just enough money for a shot in the land of gold, tierra del oro, the United States of America, land of the free and home of the minimum wage.

And the Chinese lady with her dead, head-bobbing chickens became the poster-child for my Polaroid moment as I entered the Dandy del Sur.

* * * *

Time is just a snapshot, a moment captured here and there as this planet spins irrespective of humankind’s notion of her nature. Or else, time is simply a picture frame for a moment in humanity. I suppose that it depends on which side of the big metal fence it is lived through.

As I gulped down my first Tecate in the Dandy del Sur, I thought about some little girl’s shirt blown out the back of a truck on a California freeway, a truck packed tight with undocumented Mexicans. I thought about a shirt never to be recovered and eventually being washed out to the Pacific Ocean to join other memories lost from the Land That Forgot Time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice blog enjoyed it :)

Keep up the excellent work! and i bookmarked u!

so cant wait for ur next post! :)


4:25 AM, October 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice blog enjoyed it :)

Keep up the excellent work! and i bookmarked u!

so cant wait for ur next post! :)


4:25 AM, October 30, 2005  

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