Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Step by Step

Now playing: U2 - Unknown Caller
via FoxyTunes

I just saw something that warmed my heart. As I usually do, I was staring at the soccer jerseys hanging from every other market stand as we walked the streets in San Juan when all of a sudden I saw it. Not one, not two, but a whole giant rack of flaming red Chicago Fire jerseys. Just hanging there, amid the Chivas and América (the two most popular teams in Mexico) and FC Barcelona and Manchester United (two of the most popular teams in the world) jerseys hanging around them. They’re all knockoffs, of course, usually of varying degrees of subpar quality but costing a fraction of the real thing. And there was the Chicago Fire among them!

I should mention that I did not see any jerseys of the L.A. Galaxy or the Columbus Crew (or, rather more unfortunately, the Seattle Sounders); the Fire were the only MLS team there. ¡Chicago represente!

I am convinced that the Fire’s strong presence here is because the Fire had the brilliant foresight a couple of years ago to sign one of the most popular players in all of Mexico: Cuauhtémoc Blanco. (This mirrors the brilliance of my brother the math teacher, who recently gave me a #10 Blanco jersey for Christmas. I gave him a Pumas jersey. This is what’s known as a “cultural exchange.”)

Chris, though, suggests that the availability of Fire jerseys may be due instead to a strong connection between Chicago and Jalisco, with migrants moving back and forth regularly. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Fulbright-winning Mexican historian is probably right about this one.

Well. Now that that’s out of my system, let me tell you a bit about our life.


We have been in San Juan de Los Lagos for two days now, not counting the day we arrived, and we are still living out of a hotel.

Some things about this arrangement are quite helpful. For one thing, there is wireless internet in the lobby of our hotel, which allows me to do these blog posts and, just as importantly, download the new U2 album (deluxe edition, of course) on iTunes. The internet is very slow and erratic, so it is taking a long time (especially to download the deluxe content!), but I remember my friend Jon, an equally dedicated U2 fanatic, telling me about the time that he was living abroad and had to wait weeks for his new album to arrive in Kyrgyzstan. (It was worth the wait, of course, he was quite clear about that.) So I am grateful to be able to hear my favorite band’s new sounds on the day they’re officially released, even if I have to sit in this hotel lobby with my MacBook for an awfully long time.

Some things about living out of a hotel, though, are a little more difficult. Food, for example. There are restaurants, of course, but because this is a tourist town (for Mexican religious pilgrims, not gringos) the food in these places is overpriced. (Overpriced is a relative term these days, though – the peso just fell to a15-1 exchange rate vs the dollar.) We ate our afternoon meal – the largest meal of the day – in these overpriced restaurants on Sunday and Monday, but for three meals a day it’s unsustainable.

On Monday morning we decided to try getting tamales and atole in the market for breakfast – surely these would be a cheaper option. They were, but not by much. It was ten pesos for each tamale dulce (sweet tamales, instantly recognizable by their pink masa filling) and another ten pesos for each cup of the inimitable chocolate-and-corn thickness of piping hot atole, for a total of sixty pesos. Again, not outrageous, but we’ve had a full breakfast of eggs, beans, coffee, juice, and sweet bread for the same price in downtown Guadalajara.

Still, I liked the tamales and atole – a delicious combination, made even better by the uber-Mexican experience of eating them under the tarp of a market stall – so we decided to get them again on Tuesday morning. We decided to try a different stall, just to mix things up; the product was exactly the same. This time, though, the cook charged us ninety pesos. Yesterday we had paid sixty pesos for the exact same thing. But this is the market: There are no posted prices, and we had neglected to ask the price before ordering. And so, our mistake made, we got the dreaded precio gringo, an exorbitant rate often charged to American tourists who venture into the market.

In situations like this, you try to remind yourself that people are only trying to make a living, they need to feed their families, and that yes, you can probably afford to pay them that higher rate. But it is still frustrating to feel taken advantage of. I can do without the extra thirty pesos; the bigger problem is feeling like you can’t trust anyone, that every person you meet is trying to get a little extra out of you, that everyone who looks at you for a few extra seconds is really seeing you as a rich foreigner with a giant dollar bill around your neck, that even though you’ve lived in Mexico for eight months you still, still, still don’t fit in.

And yet this is the paradox of Mexico: In the morning someone tries to take advantage of you in the market, and in the afternoon someone spends their day showing you around town and inviting you into his home to meet his wife and look at pictures of his kids.

After a frustrating fruitless day on Monday in which all of our San Juan de Los Lagos housing leads dried up, we decided to try another option. We took a bus an hour north to the town of Lagos de Moreno, where we were to meet with a friend of a friend of an acquaintance of a colleague of Chris’s in the hopes that he could find us a place to live.

Jose Luis met us in a downtown café in Lagos and immediately asked us if we spoke Spanish. Before we could explain that yes, Chris spoke fluently and that I could understand pretty well, he was already speaking in a rapid English that wasn’t perfect but was definitely better than my Spanish.

He is, we quickly gathered, a very enterprising businessman who, in addition to other jobs around town, brokers apartments and rents rooms. We explained what we were looking for, he explained what he had available. They didn’t match, exactly – the biggest problem is that we need a place with a kitchen, preferably furnished, but he has no places with a kitchen and the only place he has furnished is a tiny room on the top of his house where we could probably sleep fine but would have trouble doing much else (not to mention storing our giant suitcases). He’s going to call us tomorrow to let us know whether he’s found any other options, or whether he can modify any options he already has.

Still, after he took us around town – by foot, public bus, and his pickup truck – to look at various apartments and meet his family, we were feeling a little better about things. We’re still not sure if he’ll be able to find us what we need, and even if he does we can already see we’ll have a host of things to figure out (and quickly, since we only have a few months left here). Uncertainty still casts a huge, and unsettling, shadow over our immediate future.

But we are one step closer to a place to live, one step closer to getting our feet on more solid ground, one step closer to knowing, thanks to a guy we just met who spent all afternoon with us. Sure, it’s his business, and he’s a businessman. But he couldn’t have been friendlier. And sometimes, when you’re feeling more like a stranger in a strange land than you have in a long while, sometimes a genuine smile and a friendly handshake can make all the difference.

1 comment:

From Michigan with Love said...

Sounds like a U2 song it's self there Mateo!!! Are you trying to write for them!? Well if you make it 15 more days (I'm not counting...ok I am) You'll have a week where you know you have a place! :-) Good luck with your search! I hope you find your place! :-)