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.

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