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Note No. 54

February 25, 2010

Sometimes it is easier to look at the past than it is to be in the present or the future.

At the moment, I am a tad unclear on what will be happening between now and the next six months, which is when I start trying to live somewhere other than the island, so it’s probably no accident that a few days ago, I started reading my old diary entries from my early days here.

The memories are comforting, because they are a lot more tumultuous than my current reality, reminding me of how far I have come and how lucky I am now, really. They are also a flashback to what I have been doing these past two years, because it’s all been a blur, to be honest.

Mainly, it seems I have been taming an inner beast. Read this from June 8, 2008, for example:

I have officially crashed through my first five months, feeling through most of it like a mad dog, continually sinking my teeth into frustrations like they are small rabbits, destroying them by viciously shaking my head from side to side, tears and sweat flying off of me and sizzling as they land on the parched, dirty Earth, where they evaporate into dry salt balls under the hot sun.

I came here expecting some hardships, as it is always a challenge to move to a new place, especially when you are single and only know three people upon arrival, all of them gay men. Add to that an entirely different culture from anything I had ever experienced, and a job I had never tried to do.

But despite the fact that I had never expected this to be paradise, as so many other friends and acquaintances thought it would be, I did not know exactly how much it was going to test me. My family back home was always rooting for me; they did what they could to help out, trying to provide what I needed and calling me and writing me often. My three friends here were also a support system but I was still on a rollercoaster most of the time, plunging down to the lowest lows before the wheels would catch and something uplifting would be taking me back up, out of the doldrums.

Take this experience, for example:

We turn onto the peninsula and begin making the final approach to the club, slowing several blocks early for a guy who is flagging down the driver, while a large group stands on the other side of the road.
“The port?”
He is a native Spanish speaker but dressed in city clothes and seemingly in a hurry, as if on his way out, almost opening the door a few times but stopping himself each time.
“Yeah,” says the driver, “but I’m going this way.” He points ahead, away from the port.
“Is the port that way?” The man points to where we are headed.
“No, it’s that way.” The driver points behind us. “But is it just you?”
The guy nods.
“Get in. I’ll take you there after I go up the road.”
But the guy looks over at the group of people, about 16 of them all wearing red T-shirts for some reason, and he begins shouting something and gesturing for them to come with him.
The driver lets off the brake and begins rolling away, telling him he’ll pick everyone up on his way back.
I laugh from my vantage point in the backseat. “He says it’s just him and then calls the entire group to come over.”
The driver chuckles and then lets out a staccato laugh as the situation sinks in. “You understood that!” he says, delighted, before shooting off a stream of sentences I don’t quite understand but assume to be a good-natured rail about his incredulousness at the weird little man we have just encountered.
I sink back into my seat, satisfied at the inside joke we have just shared, smiling at the payoff for being in this foreign land where I still walk around feeling strange most of the time.

Regardless of nice moments like that, I was pretty angry most of that first year, of which I am reminded while reading my writing from that time. There were days when I questioned coming here, days when I would have left immediately, had I not made a commitment to stay two years. Repeatedly, in multiple entries, I asked myself, “Why am I here?”

I will never forget my dad coming to visit me four months into my move, and taking me out to the south end of the island for a day at the beach. I happened to be in the middle of my first-ever bout with kidney stones and I was also battling to find good housekeeping, sometimes finding myself stuck holding the broom. The paperwork for the business was also still being processed, so I was a nervous wreck about the government coming to check us out and finding things were not quite right. So, then my dad goes, “Are you happy?”

Just like that.

I was stunned. I had no idea what to say. Of course I was not happy. But why would I be? Would anyone be happy in this situation? And that was before I got typhoid fever and stayed in bed for about three weeks, followed by another two months of fatigue and upset tummy.

Reading my journal, it all comes back: climbing up on the roof to fix pipes that were spraying water in six different directions; the adventures with Carlos from Mexico City, with whom things just did not work out; the hiring and firing of housekeeper after housekeeper, until we finally found the two fantastic girls we have now. Here is an excerpt from one gal we had for about a week that first summer:

“There is more laundry, though,” I say. “I want you to finish it today. It’s only one o’clock.”
All last week, she was getting away with leaving at noon, because I had other things to do and could not stick around beyond that to show her the other things she needed to learn to do, such as laundry. Starting this week, I want her to get used to leaving later.
“What happened is, City Hall called me to work again. I have to be there at 2:30.”
“But you have an agreement with us. We’re paying you for a full day. You can’t have two jobs.”
She says something about how they called her back and she is going to do that.
I tell her this seems like a problem to me. At times we are going to need someone to stay the full eight hours.
She says she will get her daughter to fill in.
“But we need one person to come. We can’t be switching from person to person. That’s confusing.”
“No, she’ll come instead of me.”
I let this sink in. “Does she have experience cleaning?”
“Oh, yes. She’s good—better than me at following directions.”
We are talking while she is taking the load from the washer and putting it in the dryer before starting a final load.
A few minutes later, I find the dryer has stopped working, because she has put about two and a half loads in it. I freak out.
“What happened?” I keep asking, as I stare at the pool of water that has collected under the machine, pulling dripping towels from inside. “Everything’s so wet.”
“I know. It’s all so wet; right?”
“Yes, right!”
I am completely exasperated, not a good way to be with the Mayan people, but I truly don’t understand how this happened; I really don’t. Last I was aware, she and I put five sheets and 10 pillowcases in the washing machine. Now there are an inexplicable amount of towels, sheets and mattress covers shoved in here. I told her six sheets, or five with the cases. The towels I was vague about but I showed her how to separate everything. There should not be this hodgepodge of things. I told her no fabric softener on anything but sheets, either.

Housekeeping was just one headache but everything was so much harder then, back when I was still learning how to go about finding people to actually show up for jobs. Not that I have completely mastered that one now but I am better at it than I was in the beginning, when I was still doing half the jobs myself and spending the rest of the time finding people to call, then waiting on them to show up just for an initial visit, and then praying they would actually come back to do the work. Take this example:

I decide to put sealant on the doors of my room, as we are going to hire someone to do the ones on the other four and I need to have an idea of how hard it is.
Very hard, I decide after two hours of using every puny muscle in my arms to squeeze the blasted stuff out, only to have to use my fingers to smoosh it into the cracks, thereby ending up dizzy and covered in goo, with only one of the two doors finished.
I am just sitting down to lunch when there is some powerful knocking on the kitchen door. I open it, half-expecting to see the government making their long-awaited call to find out where the hell my license is. If I am going to be seen with large amounts of towels and sheets going in and out of my door, and pasty white people arriving in straw cowboy hats, lugging suitcases behind them, then I’d better have some documentation.
Two men stand on my doorstep but they are not wearing the telltale green shirts of the federal agents.
“The Pharmacist told us there’s some work here,” says the older of the two. He is referring to Carlos, as they all use these military man expressions at the navy base to address each other.
“Um, yeah. We need someone to paint.”
I take them back to show them all there is to be done. Then I ask them how much it is going to be just to paint. They look at each other and make little noises, speaking as run together and quietly as possible so as not to let me hear them. I consider leaving to give them privacy and then think better of it. They can leave, if they want to.
“Is one thousand, five hundred a lot?” asks the younger one. He is speaking in pesos, the equivalent of $150 USD.
“No,” I say. “Actually, it’s not. How much then to put the sealant on?”
I’ll be damned if I spend any more time with that cursed stuff.
More noises and head nodding and gesturing takes place. “Two thousand,” says the older man.
“OK.”
We go up front to get a business card for them to have.
“So are you guys going to sand, as well?”
“Well, that would be more,” says the younger one.
“That’s why I’m asking you now.”
More dolphin communication ensues. “For all the doors?”
“Yes.”
“That’s a lot of work. It would be another fifteen hundred.”
We finally agree that they will sand the door frames after they put the sealant on but that the backs of the doors are fine and don’t need sanding, so that the total bill will be 2,700 pesos. I write this on the back of my business card, and enter the younger one’s name and number into my phone.
As they are leaving, with the agreement that they will come back at 9am the next morning, the older one says, “Two thousand, seven hundred.”
“Yes.” I can only smile. “That’s what I wrote on the back of my card.”

For as many painful learning experiences as there were, there were also a lot of funny moments, like the time that Jimmy, the water delivery guy, asked me to heat up his breakfast in my oven. When I told this story to my friend Steve, he laughed and said “That’s not all he wanted you to heat up,” adding in Spanish: “Can you warm my eggs?”

Or there was the time that I received a piece of mail that everyone, from the mailman to housekeeping, thought was mine, simply because it had American stamps on it, the logic being: naturally, if it was not actually my letter, I knew whose it was, because, well, I’m an American; we all know each other. It turned out, when I finally found the girl’s home number in the States and called her, that she had not even stayed near here but had lived hours away on a street that had Isla Mujeres in the name. I still don’t know how the card got to me.

Or the time that a guy came to see about a job here and had the music blaring from his cell phone the entire time he was talking to me, just laughing when I asked him to turn it off, because I could not hear him.

Or the time a gal came to see about a job here and I locked myself out of the house just as she got here, so that I had to fetch a screwdriver to take off the screen and climb into my house through the window just to get a pen and paper to write down her contact information.

There were also the funny moments that were not so funny at the time, like this one from one of the gazillion visits I had to make to the immigration office, back when I was getting my work visa the first time around. Just to give you a little background on what was going on here, I had to legitimize the hotel with immigration, before I could get permission to be here myself:

At the window where you check the progress of your documents, I get a smile of recognition from the woman. She takes my document and a moment later, her head reappears as her eyes scan the room looking for me, thereby skipping the labored pronunciation of our corporate name.
“You can pick this up at the first window,” she says, referring to the approved business plan that I finally get to hold in my hands.
Once I have it, I take it to the information guy, who is being fast-tracked to No. 1 on my list of least favorite people in the world. I have to ask him exactly how many copies of everything I will need to make, before I come back here and submit it all to be processed.
“And then the extension paperwork?” I ask.
On Friday, against my better judgment, I had left with him a formal request to have more time to get my paperwork turned in, because otherwise I did not think I was going to make the deadline for turnaround on the latest round of requirements they had given me. He had assured me that day that he would make sure it got properly signed and that I could just come get it from him on Monday.
Right.
“What’s the number on it?”
“I don’t know. You took all my copies and the original and said to come get it from you.”
He walks to the back and for about five minutes, I can see his little head bobbing from station to station. He comes back with nothing.
“You can go pick it up in a minute.”
I wait a few minutes, then notice he is not going anywhere. “Do I get it from you?”
“No. Go to the window.”
Back at the window, I explain my situation.
“What’s the number?”
“I don’t know. He said I could come get it; that’s all.” I point over at him.
“Well, I can’t do anything without a number.”
I go back to the little rug rat and wait in his stupid line, the Spanish word for ineffective running through my mind over and over again. Finally, it’s my turn.
“She says you have the number.”
“No. You can go get your form. Just explain your situation.”
“I did. And she says you have the number.”
He gives me a look like I am not understanding the situation. “Just go up there and tell her.”
“I did and she says you have the number. I don’t have anything because you took it all on Friday and told me I could come here and pick it up and now I need a number.”
My voice must have risen, because I see the woman behind him look up at me from whatever she is doing.
“You just need to go up and get it from her.”
“She says you have the number.”
“She’s crazy.”
“Can you go explain to her?”
“You just need to go up there and get it.”
“Can you explain that to her?”
“Fine.”
He takes care of a few more customers, stamping their documents with the official Received seal using what seems to be more force than usual, before getting up in a flurry of fury and gliding to the back again, where I see his head bob around another few moments.
I think back to the week before, when I was here with Steve and asked him, “Do you think anyone has ever just lost it in here, just gone crazy?”
He had laughed. “I almost have a few times.”
Now I understand what he meant.

And there was this random moment, when people on the island apparently started connecting me to the hotel, whose name, Casa El Pío, translates to House of the Chirp, as in chirp, chirp:

Coming back from the grocery, I hear a guy behind me whistle, like a bird chirping. I turn to see if he knows me and he looks away. This is the second time this has happened today.
Then, yesterday, on the way to Steve’s for the going-away party, the little American-looking Mexican kid across the street starting running after a truck, flapping his arms and chirping pío, pío, pío pío, pío, pío, pío as I walked by.
Am I crazy or are people doing this on purpose?

The same day I wrote that, I accidentally made friends with some tourists, who ended up taking me out for my birthday later that week:

Swimming later, at last immersed back in the cool, calming Caribbean, I get down to the far end of the beach, where the tourists stake out beach chairs and occupy them by buying two-for-one drinks and piles of nachos. There are two gringo guys and I begin to maneuver around them.
Hola,” says one of them.
Hola,” I say, with uncertainty in my voice.
“Where are you from?”
“Georgia.”
“Georgia! How long are you here?”
“I live here.”
“You live here!”
I’ve said too much. The sea is carrying me away but it’s too late to just keep on swimming, especially since I will just turn around a few meters later, only to be held in the same place for about ten minutes as I battle the current to get back up the beach. I can just see me as I try to get by a second time, my head held above the water like a Labrador, futilely paddling with eyes fixed ahead as they watch me, a bizarre animal who for some reason does not want to talk to them.
My feet hit the sand as I give in to this conversation. “Where are you guys from?”
“Seattle.”
Thirty minutes later, I have warmed to them like the Gulf Stream and they have told me all about their last few days in fairly innocuous Cancun, which they have managed to turn into a dangerous border town: packs of women who will grab men’s crotches to rob them; federales, who will bust them for peeing in public, threatening them with jail and only letting them go on a 750-peso bribe; taxi drivers who will lock the doors and speed around the parking lot as they demand to be paid 350 pesos for a 70-peso cab ride.
That’s what happens when you are binge drinking in the Hotel Zone, I suppose.
They are looking for authentic tacos, they say, and do I know anywhere to get them? I know exactly the place: Deysy and Raul’s, sometimes called The Greenhouse, never called its real name, Loncheria El Charco. It is hands down the best Mexican food I have ever had, with empanadas that will make you weep and prices that will make you wonder how anyone is making any money.
I tell them how to get there using the Comex paint store as a landmark, as there is no sign on the unassuming green building that looks like an ordinary house until 7:30, when tables and chairs appear on the sidewalk and Raul can be seen at the far end inside, working at the grill and preparing the condiment bar with bowls of tender potatoes, savory beans and wicked habanero sauce.
“What are you doing tonight?” asks Taylor, the more gregarious of the two. “Do you want to come with us?”
“Nothing,” I say, pondering the thought. “Yeah. I’ll come.”

There were sweet moments, too, like this text message exchange between Carlos and I, when he was trying to find a painter for me but in the end, got stood up by the guy, just like I always did, so that the two of us suddenly found ourselves with a few free hours:

“So what are you in the mood for today then?” I write.
“I’m in the mood for a big kiss and lots of hugs and I would love to eat fried fish and drink beer and tell me; what are you in the mood for, my love?”
I smile. I think I’ll have what he’s having.

And ultimately, no matter how grueling those first 12 months were, I did seem to manage to remember where I was, like when I was returning to the island on the ferry:

Whatever mood I may be in to start, whatever kind of day I’ve had so far, or whatever fabulous trip I may be returning from, this ride back never fails to warm my heart toward my new home.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jennifer
    Oct 28 2010

    El Pio! That’s the small hotel you worked on/at for your family? We rode bikes around that area & along the sea wall in Sept… I’m putting 2 & 2 together like a game of Clue…I bet “Blackie” is the dog in the small kennel I saw at about eye-level when I was cruising along. (Which, by the way, was a tad startling to see as I came around a bend like a maniac on wheels!)

    Reply
    • Oct 29 2010

      Good work, Sherlock. : ) I don’t know if that was Blackie or not, though. When I was walking him, he was on a small balcony with stars cut out of it and he used to scare everyone with his bark and the way he would lunge over the top railing, as if he was going to come after you. He was really a sweetheart, though, and never got enough love and walks. Poor guy.

      Reply

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