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.

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2 Responses to “Ordinary Life”


  1. 1 Olivia May 9, 2012 at 10:00 am

    You are a Barron, your life will never be ordinary or routine.
    I love that city too, it was my 1st home and I still dream of it after 40 years.

  2. 2 zoebarron May 9, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Reckon it might be time to go back.


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