Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Life as an Oaxaca Receptionist

As I write in the depths of this dark room that one day I shall call a cyber-center, the sound from my fingers is not a detectivesque typewriter –ripping the night ever so sharpy–, but the clunky plastic of a keyboard timewarped from the late nineties. Yes, much of this equipment is painfully dated, but I can say that ten years of desktop headaches have made me intimately familiar with these 2004 machines. From a room full of lost cables, dirt and dinosaur technology I have raised a clean office space soon to be used by businessmen and tourists; neatly organized in four fully operational stations, one of which I am using right now, as I am about to narrate the course of events here in Oaxaca.

Life is fantastic with hot showers, unlimited internet and delicious food all around!
The few days following my business proposal I not only familiarized myself with the hostel and Javier, its attentive caretaker, but washed away some of my nomadic grit. My luggage soon moved into my new room, and hot morning showers became every day's blessing. Each night during that first week I spent some time wondering in my bed, looking out into the void, asking myself how this kind of lucky circumstances keep happening around me. Mister Mooney, back in Petaluma, described these miracles as "Migueluck" back then when I landed an affordable cottage in Woodside, found a rare '87 Mercedes 300TD locally, and created my dream job at Burlingame Motors. This string of Migueluck kept going with the opportunity to host an online car show from Kansas, and now, despite the unfortunate exile from the US, the last-minute vehicle discovery and preparations for the long PanAmerican journey.

My life is slowly falling into a comfortable routine. Every day I wake up at 7am, allowing for a few minutes to prepare myself mentally before I spring into the shower. Between 7.30am and 9am I guard the place, sometimes browsing my computer at the reception desk, sometimes staring at the huge potential of the future ciber-room and making lists with equipment and prices. At 8.55am one of the cleaning ladies arrives, and that allows me to walk to the Children's Center.

Main patio at the Centro de Esperanza Infantil "Oxaca Streetchildren Grassroots".
The whole crowd at the Children's Center; Yesenia (manager) is the third one on the left.
Two out of my three hours I spend in the kitchen with a 5-foot-tall Mixtecan woman called Juanita. Together we prepare traditional Mexican lunches for more than 30 children, which entails dicing dozens of vegetables, and stirring close to three gallons of natural flavor water. Juanita mainly speaks Mixtecan; sometimes Spanish when she needs to give directions –however, she never learned to write or read in her village. Somehow, given my Castilian accent and my pale skin, she still believes I am an American, so she does a lot of hand gestures to describe the precise duties of the day. Together we have a blast telling jokes about tomatoes running away from us, lemonade being sour enough for adults only, or cooking misbehaving children in the large pots. My shift usually ends with a cup of freshly stirred flavored water –lemon, melon, watermelon, horchata, jamaica– and a broad, thankful smile from Juanita and her other helpers.

Juanita in her natural habitat: a deliciously-smelling cavalcade of pots, pans and buckets.

Yours Truly! The big pot above my head is 30-40 people's servings of fresh lemonade.
Ground chile to spice up the mole rojo (meat and corn stew). The resulting goo is filtered and added to the pot!

Somewhere in between my two hours in the kitchen I get out to tutor my student, Evaristo, in English. Evaristo is a 16-year-old kid with bright black eyes, crooked teeth and neatly gelled hair; and much like myself when I was 16, he seems pretty clueless. His personality is quiet and reserved, quite mumbly actually; and he, just like the children in the Mexican educational system, has been taught to be quiet in class and not ask questions. Evaristo's English teacher is just plain awful: not only he blurts out the lesson at too fast of a pace, but does not bother to correct each kid's assignments on their textbook. All I see, exercise by exercise, is a big tick on top of each question to prove that they have laid their pencil on the paper, that they have written something, anything, right or wrong. Evaristo is one of the many victims of these careless teachers and textbooks full of mistakes, so I do my best to give him lists of useful vocabulary and practical examples, often using colorful metaphors that he remembers better than words like lexicon, attributive or adverbial. I am proud to see his curiosity spark back to life when he realizes he can identify words in a popular song, or when he discovers little details about other volunteers through questions he asks in English. It will be a long road for him with a lot to learn together, but it will be a rich and fruitful one, and I sincerely hope he continues it after I leave to resume my travels.

Evaristo learns what the words "Tomato" and "Potato" mean, and giggles in the process.
Once I am out of the center I go back to my desk and wait to report my progress to Don Lino, the man who hired me. I tell him about the software updates, the materials I need and the neat distribution of the equipment. After checking the hostel, sometimes we drive up to his four-star resort and I help him with the computers over there; and very often talk for a good while. He loves remembering the days in which he was involved in Oaxaca politics in the Department of Education, Public Works, Agriculture, Tourism and Public Order. He fondly tells me about his days in Brussels, the New York UN, and Israel, where he took note on their advanced methods of farming. He originally studied industrial enginering and was given a scholarship for UC San Diego, from there he worked part time as a teacher and began to become involved in local politics and business. "Politics are there to be enjoyed, not to bring affliction", he says with a calm pace, along with one of the most memorable sentences I have heard in a good, good while: "Life gives you the tools, college gives you the language. Don't let them tell you otherwise". We discuss life, our experiences abroad and general business ethics. Every time we talk I become quiet because he has a lot to say, and I want to hear all of it without interruption: I learn, I am inspired, and relate to much to what he has been through. In these last weeks we have been growing very close: to me he no longer feels like a boss, as to him I no longer feel like an employee. I have been to his house several times and he has invited to the baptism of his grandson. The long evenings that I spend fixing computers are no longer about honoring our deal, but about honoring our friendship and genuinely wanting his hostel to thrive.

A very Almodovar-eque scene in this traditionally Catholic ceremony, a child's baptism.
Don Roberto (left), secretary to Don Lino (right). Good people in a happy setting!
I made these cupcakes WITH MY BARE HANDS.
Mini-Lino, the life of the party!

When it's time to return to the hostel, I hop into the wagon, turn the key without hesitation and roll down the cobblestone hill, overlooking downtown and its glimmering lights. I wheel slowly past the pothole-filled streets that cram with buses during the day, and arrive to the hostel, where Javier has reserved my parking spot with two folding chairs. I take the rest of the shift and close the doors, proud of what I have done that day, and the excellent people who have let me into their life.

In the middle of September I had a very special visit: Bernard and Scott from Central America Overland Expeditions, a professional offroading company touring the middle of the Continent. They caught me lunching in the kitchen, but not without enthusiasm, nevertheless. "Are you Miguel?", asked Bernard to the tall guy with half a taco in his mouth. The second day of their stay we toured the historic district of Oaxaca looking for an early dinner, and we had an empanada seller hit on Bernard. We settled for some empanada, 1/3 of a tamal, fries, pig head tacos, and it was all good. The next morning I introduced these two brave expeditionaries to Garmin open-source maps and waved them goodbye on their way to Tuxtepec.

Careful, we got three dangers over here! Scott (left), Yours Truly (center) and Bernard (right).
I know, no colonial church shots in this entry. There will be time to walk around Oaxaca and take some beautiful shots of this monumental diamond in the rough, but for now my camera, my writing and my energies are with all these remarkable human beings. Anyone can take pictures with little effort, but it takes dedication to build friendships this meaningful and inspiring. It is this kind of company –rich or poor, well-traveled or illiterate, young and old– that truly makes you feel like part of the big brotherhood of Man, that truly taps into the common thread that links us all. This is the kind of experiences one lives for, and my pen will tell more than a thousand photographs.

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