Learning to Distinguish Bicycles from Refrigerators: A Letter From Tehuantepec

by Wendy Call

“I have been accepting all
These lands you call one country.
Sometimes I have had to say dream,”

—Stephen Corey
“Li Po Enters New York City,”

It has been seven months since I came to southern Mexico, to the thin sliver of land called the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to live and to write. Recently a friend came to visit me – the first one to make the trip from the United States. There isn’t much to do here in small-town Matías Romero, so Sue decided to take Spanish lessons during the two weeks she spent with me. Foreigners don’t come to this town much, so I had a hard time finding a Spanish teacher for her. The only person willing wasn’t a teacher at all, but my friend Mirna, who had some time to spare.

“Today, I asked Mirna if we could review the difference between ser and estar,” Sue told me one day, when
I asked about her morning lesson.

Both words mean, more or less, “to be.” Native English speakers mix them up constantly. Grammar books say that estar is used to describe physical location, as well as “temporary” conditions like temperature or mood. Ser is used with “permanent” conditions like size or color. The shades of difference can be tricky for foreigners: a person is (estar) married, but is (ser) a teacher.

“Mirna looked at me as if I had asked her the difference between a refrigerator and a bicycle!”

I laughed. Then it occurred to me: from the perspective of my new friends and neighbors in Matías Romero, for the last seven months I have been learning to discern the differences between things and ideas that, to them, seem as dissimilar as refrigerators and bicycles.

Like the noises. In spite of being a town of just twenty-five thousand people, Matías Romero – like most of Mexico – is filled with noise. I go to sleep with earphones on, music humming vainly over the neighbors’ thumping party music, the amplified sermons from the evangelical church across the street, and the incessant clucking and crowing of the chickens in the yard. During the day, I concentrate on my computer screen’s cursor until the sound of my fingers tapping the keyboard is the only thing I hear. I have learned to block out the distractions, but I miss the important sounds, too. When the gas tank that feeds my stove is empty, I don’t hear the clanging of metal on metal that means the gas vendor’s truck is in front of my house. When there are just a few drops of drinking water left in my five-gallon jug, I don’t hear the plaintive “¡Aguuaaaaa!” cry from the water vendor on his tricycle cart. Because I refuse to burn my trash, the bags stack up outside my front door. I miss the jingling bells that mean the garbage truck will pass by in a few minutes. The bags remain for weeks, growing fetid. More than once, the neighbor’s boy has tapped on my window to tell me the garbage truck is out front, as his mother burns piles of plastic bottles in our shared front yard.

Wendycall1 A few months ago, I went to a nearby community that I had visited once before. Two villages, Pueblo Viejo and Pueblo Nuevo (“Old Town” and “New Town”) make up San Francisco del Mar, a fishing community on the Pacific coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The indigenous Huave people have lived in Pueblo Viejo for at least one thousand years. Thirty years ago, shifting sand dunes and erosion threatened to bury their old town. Most of the residents moved inland to more solid ground, founding Pueblo Nuevo. In the new town, the houses are made from cement and many of the streets are paved. In Pueblo Viejo, the houses are mostly wood and palm fronds. The floors and roads are mostly sand.

The two villages are connected by a rope. For twenty pesos, one of the fishing boats that docks a few miles from Pueblo Nuevo will load the people, watermelons, tamales, and whatever else needs to get to Pueblo Viejo. One of the fishermen lifts a rope, rotting and hung with moss, from the water. He pulls hand over hand, tugging the boat across the shallow channel between the old and new towns.  Once across the channel, it is a half-hour walk around a small mountain to Pueblo Viejo. I went there to visit the nearby fishing grounds. Pounding rain left me waiting, all day, in the village center.

One way to know a community is to spend an afternoon at the tortillería, where fresh tortillas are made. In a town like Pueblo Viejo, where there is only one tortillería, a representative from nearly every family who lives there will stop by. Usually, it is a young child or a man, someone who is not otherwise useful in meal preparation. Under the porch awning in front of the Pueblo Viejo tortillería (which also serves as the community video theater and cantina), sits a dusty nixtamal machine, a large grinder that turns lime-soaked corn kernels into masa dough.

Five years ago, when I visited an indigenous village in another part of southern Mexico, the women there spoke about how much they wished for a nixtamal grinder. They still spent four hours every day preparing corn kernels, grinding them, then patting out tortillas. All by hand. With a grinder, the job would take only one hour each day. In Pueblo Viejo, preparing nixtamal and using the grinder is the old-fashioned way of doing things. During the three hours that I spent in front of the tortillería, only three women brought their prepared corn to be ground into masa. For most everyone else, the tortilla machine spews out identical disks from mass-produced masa, pushes them along a conveyor belt through an oven, and drops them through a pair of metal cylinders into steaming stacks. One worker gathers them and places them in a cooler, to keep them warm, then doles them out one kilogram at a time to the men and children who come with pesos and squares of cloth for carrying their tortillas home.

The first time I came to San Francisco del Mar, I thought of it as a cash-poor town. Now, I realize howWendycall3  prosperous it is. I’ve finally begun to recognize the local trappings of wealth.

I visited the Pueblo Viejo tortillería as part of a two-week tour of San Francisco del Mar and the surrounding towns. One of the people I traveled with was an eighteen-year-old from San Francisco del Mar. On an evening late in the trip, the teenager turned to me and said, “How many gringos does it take to change a light bulb?”

I had no idea.

“Ten. One to change the light bulb and nine to watch everything he does.”

The joke was perfect. I had been following them around all day, every day, watching what they said and did.

I settled relatively quickly into my role as observer: writing down what people say and do, weaving the bits and pieces into stories about these lands. I was a little less quick to understand that I was also being observed. Late one afternoon, about a month after I returned from San Francisco del Mar, I went to buy some soda at a pharmacy. The first time I had visited that particular store was in 1998, during a brief visit to Matías Romero. I had brought in more than five hundred pages of documents to be copied on their rattling, tabletop photocopier. This time, as I bought my soda, the pharmacist mentioned those documents from my first visit (two years earlier, almost to the week). I couldn’t believe he remembered me.

At the end of our conversation, I finally asked his name. I started to tell him mine. He interrupted me.

“I already know,” he said, looking puzzled by my surprise. “Of course I know.”

I did not understand rain until I spent a rainy season in Matías Romero – which is in a region called the “Humid Zone.” In July and August, during the most intense rains, I slept until the alarm clock pulled me from deep dreams. Even hours after sunrise, it was so dark that my body thought it was still night. During the ceaseless rains, entire days came and went with hardly a whisper. At times, pounding water even drowned out the incessant noise. I stopped looking up at the sky – blank, without color, motionless – because it seemed filled with bad omens. It only poured down rain. As I looked out my window, the riot of green plants in my garden turned fuzzy and dull behind a translucent wall of water.

I grew tired of smelling the mold that crept into my clothes as they hung for days on the line, waiting for a ray of sun. I decided to pay someone else to do my laundry. This made me feel a little more at home. Odd, since it was something I never would have done at home. I gladly handed my basket of clothes and sixty pesos to the woman who runs the only laundry in town equipped with washing machines and electric dryers. Most of her clients are unmarried men and soldiers from the nearby military base. I have never seen another woman in her shop. I go anyway.

In general, the men of Matías Romero are much more visible than the women. Most of the people I pass on the street are men: selling things, loading trucks, standing idly and talking in front of stores, offices, and bars. Where are all the women? I wondered to myself for months. Could it really be that public space is still men’s space in small-town Mexico? I resisted that idea for a long time. Now, after living in Matías Romero for seven months and talking with many women about this, I have come to believe that, yes, to a large degree, public space – except for the church and the market – is still men’s space.

My days start with a cold shower, then a few hours of writing. Here, behind the 10-foot wall that surrounds my home, is women’s space. Four households share the yard. Most mornings, all the women are at work. I type. My neighbor scrubs dishes at the cement sink in one corner of the yard. Another hangs wet clothes on the line. A four-year-old boy plays in front of my house, stopping frequently to stare or make faces at me as I sit in front of my glowing, L-shaped piece of plastic.

I enjoy the novelty and slight absurdity of being a writer in a place where most people can read, but rarely do. Occasionally, though, the novelties and absurdities momentarily overwhelm me. One morning last summer, I returned to Matías Romero after an all-night bus ride. I could not carry my heavy bags up the hill to the taxi stand. It was one more frustration in a string of too many. At that moment, the air was too hot, everything was too inconvenient, and I was too alone in the world.

I wanted to fold myself onto my pile of suitcases and cry. Of course, I did not. It was a ridiculous impulse. If even one person saw me, all of Matías Romero would know about it by nightfall. I let the tears slide silently and waited for calm and reason to return. As I waited, a small man with dirty clothes and a weathered face approached. He pushed a large, flatbed wooden wheelbarrow. He works carrying market vendors’ goods to and from their stalls. In Matías Romero, market vendors usually do not make a lot of money. The people who work for them earn even less. He wanted to help me. He pushed my stupidly heavy bags up the long, steep hill to the waiting taxis, found a taxi for me, and loaded all my suitcases into the trunk. He would not let me pay him.

In the following week, twice I passed my savior on the street. Both times, he called out “¡Güera!” (“Blondie!”) to me, as many men do every day. Both times, I ignored the call for a minute. Then, the voice sunk in, registered, and I looked up, almost too late. I caught myself just short of being rude.

Now, Don Victor Miguel always has story ideas for me. He finds it very interesting and strange that I am paid to write things. He has suggested I write about prickly pear cactus recipes, the magic powers of the local hot springs, and environmental crisis.

One afternoon, he said to me, “You know what you should write about?”

Not waiting for my response, he answered his own question: “UFOs!”

He told me how, many years ago when he lived in Veracruz, he saw a light. The light came down to the earth. “It was so brilliant!” Don Victor Miguel thinks the beings in the UFOs are trying to tell us something.

I wanted to know what their message is.

“Well, something about the chaos that we are living,” he said. “And whose fault do you think it is?”
I knew this was a test. I wasn’t sure of the correct answer. “The rich folks?” I ventured.

“Exactly!” he said, his face lighting up and breaking into a smile.

On a recent Sunday morning, I read an essay by a writer from Minnesota who lives in the tropics. She hates the heat. She can’t work. She needs winter to hibernate, to force her to write. She, Anne Panning, writes in her essay “Past the Bowling Alley: Stories of Place and Curve,”: “If you go someplace and your heart rejects it, or if you go some place and the place rejects you, it is better to listen than to pretend.”

Perhaps this was a sign.

Just before reading that line, I had been writing another letter, to a friend – a letter about loneliness and being out of place. I paused, opened a book at random, and the first thing my eyes landed on was a statement telling me, emphatically: go home.

But, where would that be? Last May I had left the city where I had lived for nearly nine years. I had not liked Boston much. Before Boston, I had called ten different cities in seven different states “home.”

My eyes rose from Anne Panning’s essay to a black curtain hanging in front of me. A mosquito with striped black and white legs rested on it. A dengue mosquito. For months I had seen the television commercials and billboard warnings about the awful disease carried by zebra-striped mosquitoes. All that time, I had wondered how you could possibly see something as tiny as the stripes on a mosquito’s legs. All the mosquitoes that I saw seemed the same. Suddenly, I could tell the difference.

I took it as a sign I should stay.

The book that Wendy Call wrote based on her time living and working on Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy, will be available from the University of Nebraska Press in June 2011. This essay originally appeared in the Blue Mesa Review. Wendy will be teaching six afternoon creative-nonfiction workshops as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. The book in which this essay appears, praised by such luminaries as Sandra Cisneros and Philip Lopate, will be available during the Conference.