Archive for May, 2012

How to Leave a Country

Shirley collects Australians. On the Saturday night I meet her, she’s waiting for her current collection of them to turn up – it’s their last night in Guanajuato and when Chac closes and Shirley knocks off, everyone’s going to go out. I should come. But I’m feeling a bit sick, in the early stages of a cold,  and I’m weary of meeting new people and the routine of going out, so I sneak back to the hostel and pass out and never end up meeting them before they go. Except for Nina. I meet her a few days later.

Shirley is half-Menonite and half-Mexican, meaning that her mother was part of the strange, German and Dutch religious sect that fled to Mexico from Canada after the authorities suggested they should probably start putting their kids into proper schools. And her dad is the Mexican boy Shirley’s mum was not allowed to fall in love with. Shirley is also a lesbian, an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, a bit of a gypsy, and a collector of Australians. She has been working full time as the cook at Chac for 200 pesos a week ($17 or so) since Jerardo opened the place about two months ago.

Jerardo doesn’t earn much more. He is feminine, soft spoken and long-haired. He speaks next to no English so when Shirley doesn’t want to translate, communication is limited to gestures, facial expressions and my smattering of Spanish. When he gets upset, he gets as drunk as Shirley and becomes sinister and nasty, but these times are rare and most of the time he is all sleepy cool smiles and welcome.

I meet Nina a few days after meeting Shirley, when she comes back from wherever the other Australians have gone for good. She is kind of aloof when I first meet her, and on first impression she strikes me as the sort of younger-than-me that I find hard to take seriously, though the difference is only three years. Plus, meeting new people has become hard. But then I start talking to her more, and listen to her talk to Shirley. She has a sharp, energetic humour I understand. And she has my accent, is from where I’m from. Soon, she is quick and funny. She hangs out with Shirley in the kitchen and they play – with words, with plans, with stories. They have been teaching each other the slang of their respective languages and along with collecting Australians, Shirley has been collecting the Australian phrases Nina has been feeding her.

“Get fucked the lot ‘a yaz,” Nina tutors.

“Get fucked the lot of YOU,” Shirley commands.

“Bloody bogan!” Shirley accuses in her thick Mexican accent.

“Is he a booze hound, like me?” Shirley asks about a friend of mine who might be visiting the city. “Because if he’s not a booze hound, he can’t come!”

The three of us go for a hike up to a white cross up on one of the hills surrounding the city. It’s a significant hike and I’m the only one who brought water. From the top, the whole city spreads down the length of the valley like a stream of milk and fruitloops. On the way down, when we’re not so atrociously out of breath, we start talking more and Nina and Shirley tell me about their adventure up North. They and Shirley’s other Australians hitchhiked up there and went into the desert to eat peyote. Peyote and the desert, I’ve already learned, are important parts of Shirley’s personality. They tell me about how dirty they were, but how good it felt. They tell me about eating dinner with Shirley’s family in Chihuahua and about how they were caught in a gun fight outside a service station. I enjoy listening to Nina tell stories. They’re peppered with obscure observations and dry humour that makes you cough out laughter before you’ve even figure out what’s funny.


Nina has an apartment on Dead Dogs Lane and a little white kitten called Mecos de la Luna (Sperm of the Moon), or Meco for short. She says its because when she got him he had a little white body and a long white tale and he looked just like a sperm. She got him from a man on the street. The man  was standing in a doorway holding tiny Meco when Nina walked by. “Para mi?” Nina asked, mostly joking. The man handed her the kitten. “Sweet,” she said and took him home.

Nina sleeps in. During the day, after she finally gets up, we often sit around Chac and pretend to learn Spanish. Sometimes, in the morning, which is often the afternoon, we go down to Chac before Shirley starts work and make scrambled eggs with tortillas and guacamole and Shirley’s incredibly hot chilli sauce. Nina doesn’t like spicy stuff very much; Shirley and I have reached the point where things don’t taste like anything unless they have some sort of chilli on them. Most of Shirley’s food makes me sweat. It’s wonderful.

Somewhere amongst all this, I figure out what I had already figured out ages ago. I call Tim over a ratty Skype line and tell him I’m going to come home.
“Really?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“When?” he asks. The connection is bad and I’m not sure he can see me when I shrug in reply.

The decision makes me much happier, though impatient. I go to Quaretero, where Calvin (the guy I road-tripped down with) has followed his girlfriend to live and work for a year, and the trip is like the bottom of a yoyo throw. I’ll go back to Guanajuato after Quaretero, then back to Guadalajara to get my dental stuff done, then back to La Manzanilla, then back to Yuma for my car, then back up through the States, then to Canada, and then, finally, home.

The hostel, Casa San Gallito, is 150 pesos a night (roughly $12) and it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. They even have biodegradable toilet paper, so you can throw it in the toilet, rather than in a bin next to it like with almost every other toilet in Mexico. So simple, but such luxury. I have my first hot shower in over a week. I sleep on a real mattress under a blanket instead of  fully clothed on a deflating sleeping mat, under a poncho I’ve borrowed from Shirley. I do my laundry and soon I have socks that don’t smell like death. The hostel is chicken-themed and the keys are attached to little yellow rubber chickens. All of the signs around the place begin with, “San Gallito says,” and then there’s the picture of a saint with a chicken’s head. “San Gallito says… Please put your name on your personal food,” or “San Gallito says… Sloth is a terrible sin! Please wash your dishes.”

As for Quaretero, it’s a lovely, calm, and thoroughly monied city, colonial with clean and quiet streets. Calvin tells me it’s where all the drug cartel bosses stash their wives and families so there’s a sort of unspoken truce arrangement going on. As a result, it’s one of the safest cities in Mexico and international companies have taken to stashing their staff there, too. Calvin and his girlfriend, for example, work teaching English for Colgate.

When I get back to Guanajuato, there’s a clown festival on. It’s like the circus has taken over the city; strangely dressed performers commandeer almost every square, entertaining people with unicycles and juggling equipment. Nina doesn’t like it at all. She hides out in Chac and shakes her head vigorously when I ask her if she wants to come out with me to see some shows. So I watch them alone, trying to interpret what it is they’re saying in Spanish to make everyone else in the crowd laugh so much.

I’m getting ready to leave now. I think about Tim so often and with such intensity that his absence has almost become a sort of presence. Every day I wake up next to him, and then I wake up again and I’m on the other side of the world.

Fremantle takes on the proportions of the perfect city. It is a utopia in my head and I start describing it to people as such: sitting on the beach at 2am in summer in bathers and not being cold; standing chest-deep in the ocean at night and the water being the temperature of a bath you’ve fallen asleep in, and so clear you can see your feet; the electric blue sky, the dry heat. Home.

Ordinary Life

It’s somewhere around the beginning of January, when I’m still in La Manzanilla, that I take stock of my family and their respective whereabouts. Dad’s in Dubai or Cairo or one of those on a business trip; my brother’s on an oil rig somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, motoring slowly to port in Africa; my mother’s teaching English in some little village somewhere in East Timor; and I’m in Mexico.

“I’m sorry,” Mum tells me sometimes, “but you’re not going to have an ordinary life. We weren’t made that way. There will be amazing highs, and there will be the lows that come with them. But there won’t be many straight lines. ”

I get an email from her the day I arrive in Guanajuato. There are question marks where the apostrophes should be, and the paragraphs are all strange or mixed up, but it’s an email and news and it comes after more than a week of nothing. The village where she’s staying has limited electricity, let alone internet. I’m pretty sure she has to travel to another town somewhere to check her emails and send ones out.

It also sounds like she’s been busy. She talks about working in the clinic, helping the staff with their English: “Every morning, I sit with one of the Timorese staff members while they dispense drugs to the patients,” she writes. “They describe each patient?s situation in English and I correct them. In between patients, we talk about other things, but there isn?t much time for that. When I arrive, the verandah is overflowing with many, many people waiting to see the doctor, most of them children. I?ve seen an awful lot of paracetamol dispensed and a great deal of malnutrition…”

She describes the private lessons she has with some students and the classes she teaches with others. She is far, far away, in some tiny little village twelve or so hours of rudimentary road from Dili, and she’s feeling little overwhelmed by it all – the strangeness of the place. “Sometimes I feel exhilarated and want to stay forever, but often I?m nearly overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, wondering what the hell I?m doing here. It?s not the conditions, which could be considered quite primitive by our standards, but the awkwardness that comes with being so different and not knowing the language.”

After a few days, I write back. Guanajuato is an astounding city and I tell her that; how taken I am by the place. The street plan is like a bowl of spaghetti. None of the hotels or hostels have maps and after catching the bus into town, it takes a lot of directions and a lot of getting lost before I find the place where I’m staying.

I write: Wandering the city is a regular succession of getting lost and found again. Turn a corner, and you’re in a square. Turn another and there is a magnificent church. Another and there’s a fountain, some steps, the university, a mariachi band, someone selling churros or fruit or tacos from a stand.

The city centre is built along the length of the bottom of a valley, while the houses climb up the sides. They are all built to strict structural regulation – the houses – which stipulate they be rectangular and made of concrete. There are regulations for what colours they can be painted, as well, only this is Mexico, so the regulation colours are things like sky blue, apple green, magenta, crimson and canary yellow. The city is a dense, messy patchwork of vivid colour.

The receptionist at the hostel where I’m staying can’t speak English. I use my halting Spanish instead. ‘Casa del Angel’ says a sign at the entrance, House of the Angel, and there are statues of angels and pictures of angels and angel ornaments all the way up the narrow staircase and along most surfaces. My room has four bunk beds and six single beds in it, but all of them are neatly made and empty. I choose the one closest to the window, furthest from the door.

The place was built on a silver mine and when the mine shafts were exhausted they discovered that they could be used as a way to solve their traffic problem. So the cars are all underground, in a complicated maze of mineshafts turned roadways, leaving the streets for pedestrians.

That’s  not entirely true. There are still some cars above ground, but they are awkward on the cobblestones and hardly fit through the tiny streets.

In the common room, an older British man sits with expensive headphones over his ears and a laptop on his lap. He smiles briefly at me as I sit down with my own computer. Another guy, closer to my age, is sitting in one of the other sofas, also staring into his laptop. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else booked in. I will go on the internet for a bit, I tell myself, and then I will maybe go out and have dinner somewhere. Maybe  I’ll get some food and cook it here. I’ll go exploring. It’s a Friday night. There should be something happening. I’ll go explore and that should keep me busy until it’s time for bed, I think to myself, and I start my computer up and sign into my email account, check my Facebook for word from home.

On Saturday night, I wander into some cafe/bar called Chac and make friends with Shirley the cook and Jerardo the owner, and soon I’m staying with them in their little cold-water apartment somewhere up an alleyway behind Mercado Hildago. Some of the walls of the alleyways are barely a shoulder-width apart in this city.

This is when I write Mum the email, soon after moving my stuff out of the hostel and into the apartment.

Sometimes, Mum, I wonder exactly the same thing. What the hell am I doing here?

The apartment is furnished only with four empty bed frames and a fridge. There is no stove, no chairs, no mattresses, no tables.

What is so imperative about the other side of the world that I feel the need to be here all the time?

And then there’s the roof. From the roof, you can see the whole city; the curl of the valley, the colours of houses, the bleached blue of the semi-desert sky. Shirley likes it best up there at night. She likes the lights, but not the buildings.

So often now I wake up on a sofa or a floor or a mattress in someone else’s house and wonder, What’s wrong with just being home? What’s wrong with simple routine and people I know so well we have nothing left to talk about? What’s wrong with a job and a single place to live? What’s wrong with continuity?

A sort of a temporary routine begins to settle over me. By day I wander around the city, study Spanish, check my email. By night, I hang out at Chac and get slowly and pointlessly drunk with what little money I have left, smoking Shirley’s cigarettes, speaking in broken Spanish with whoever is there to speak it to.

This compulsion turned ideal or ideal turned compulsion and back into ideal, empty now of its novelty.

I love the city. I bide time. I miss Tim.

I’m tired, Mum. I’m surrounded by such incredible things. But I’m so tired.