How To Avoid Catching The Common Aneurism: A Treatise
To fully understand of how things work in Mexico, consider this:
My friends were planning an overnight stay in the small city of San Miguel de Allende; a colonial gem inundated with cobblestoned streets, sleepy plazas, and enough dramatic artwork to fill the Met in New York City. So they called a well-regarded boutique hotel and asked to make reservations for the evening.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t take reservations.”
“Oh, so do you have a lot of rooms available?”
“Usually. But it’s the weekend, and we tend to fill up fast.”
“Right…which is why we want to make reservations.”
“Come early and we’ll see what we can do.”
My friend bit his tongue and acquiesced, and his family arrived early enough to be the only ones in the lobby waiting. When they approached the front desk and inquired about availability, they were told the hotel was all booked up, but not to worry: it was close to check-out, and some guests would “probably” be leaving that day. Maybe.
They stuck it out and finally landed a well-appointed suite for a very reasonable price. And that tends to be the Mexican philosophy summed up in one word: Tranquilo, which, roughly translated, means: Don’t sweat it, things will work out. And, lack of reasoning notwithstanding, they’re usually right. When the same friends asked the front desk how to connect their laptop to the free wifi, management said they weren’t really sure, but added: “There’s an American staying on the third floor. Ask him, he knows.” Sure enough, my friends knocked on the guy’s door, explained their trouble, and he was more than happy to explain the process.
American novelist Paul Auster noted in his memoir Winter Journal that no one exceeds the French in the art of cutting you off. For example, Auster noted that when a crowd of like-minded French citizens begins to form, they refuse to get in a line or impose order of any sort—and this coming from the people responsible for the Foreign Legion. Anyway, Auster described a kind of incongruous slam-dance of shoving arms, waving hands, and flying spittle. In fact, he grew so flummoxed and stress-worn that he almost got into a fistfight with a taxi driver over the lack of order and fair play. After banging my skull against the phrase Laissez-faire in high school all those years ago, Auster’s definition finally shed a little light.
In Mexico, it’s relatively the same thing, minus all that annoying violence. People don’t naturally queue up, and bodies just move forward in an awkward crush like a game of Tetris that you’re always losing. At the supermarket, shoppers must first hand over any bags they have before entering the store. When you finish buying your avocados and milk or whatever, you wander up to the front of this tiny counter manned by a 16-year-old boy who is both returning bags to those who finished shopping and retrieving bags from those who are entering.
It’s seeming madness.
All you have in your hand is a wrinkly laminated card with a number on it; presumably the same number of the cubbyhole where they stashed your bag to begin with. Old people, couples, skater-kids, etc. are plopping down various backpacks and briefcases, trash bags bulging until shiny, and even little sandwich bags filled with soft drinks and ice, straws sticking precariously out of the tops.
They all are given cards and their bags are quickly whisked away.
Meanwhile, finished shoppers are turning in their cards and getting back their bags, but not in any discernible order; people just keep stepping up, pushing forward, and waving their cards to the left and right. And as the crowd builds and babel increases, a creeping sense that I’m about to get screwed grows increasingly pronounced.
Yet after standing briefly in this hot press of 20 strangers, the smiling kid snaps up my card, and I have my knapsack and am back outside in a matter of 45 seconds, a minute tops. It makes no sense, and shouldn’t have work. How did that just happen? I wonder as I slide my pack over my shoulders and step into the flow of a busy sidewalk.
Drivers are the same way. While in a cab in my temporary hometown of Guanajuato, (a city, it should be noted, with no discernible traffic lights or stop signs), I watch drivers take turns entering and turning off one blind street after another. No one freaks out, flips the bird, or explodes in a terrifying fit of road rage involving tire irons or crossbows. Traffic moves, and backups are rare, (unless behind a funeral, which is common on the road I live as the cemetery is nearby.) As an American all too familiar with furious drivers, the order and fluidity of these cars and motorists, including their patience with and care for each other, is refreshingly bewildering; because there they are, one after the other, turning on and off crowded throughways and avenues, and nary a fender-bender in sight. Go ahead—try and picture this in Manhattan. Or even Scranton.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Another mystifying conundrum is that light sockets spin helplessly in a circle when you try and screw in a bulb with one hand; be it in desk lamps, or when ensconced on the wall, or when hanging dangerously above your glass dining room table. What this means is that you get to live out your own version of one of the world’s oldest joke: exactly how many gringos does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter that the switch is turned off; the fact you need to hold the inner socket with one hand as you twist in a new 75 watt bulb with the other would make any American cringe as he or she waited for the inevitable zap to blow them off their feet, smoke their clothes and fry their hair. Yet…nothing. Despite one of the world’s worst engineering designs, you uneventfully change the light, the room grows brighter, and you get back to making some black bean stew or finishing your watercolor of the neighbor’s bougainvillea falling lustfully down that wooden fence across the street.
I talked to my friend Hector about this strange truth regarding Mexico and he just laughed. Hector and I like to hang out occasionally at some of the sidewalk cafes and drink coffee, shoot the bull, and trade stories. A Mexican national, he lives in town with his wife and together they own the best bakery in all of Guanajuato, maybe Mexico itself: Calle del Sol, (‘Sun Street’).
“Well, things work out eventually because they’re supposed to work out; it’s destined to work out, and you don’t want to break a sweat making it happen,” he said matter-of-factly. I love Hector’s directness, his honesty, and the fact he’s a spitting image of Frank Zappa. Seriously. It’s borderline spooky.
“Mexicans are simply more relaxed,” he said. “Cool. Facial expressions are almost nonexistent. Body language mimics a kind of "You’re in good hands," vibe, and at the same time it’s also "Look at us—we are keeping calm". No panic. No pandemonium. No widening of the eyes. No eyebrow raising. No weird facial twitches or stiffening of the neck.
“I was brought up with this mentality: You can’t get angry cuz this may be cause for personal injury or death. The cop is gonna come and get you, or at least that’s what you were taught as a child in an intrinsic, silent kind of way. This behavior is historical. It’s…cultural? Ultimately, yes.” But then adds, almost as an afterthought and into his coffee cup, “Maybe…”
There it was again. Just when I thought I got it, the rug was pulled out from under. We talked some more, then the light started to drop behind the hills, pulling the streetlamp shadows like taffy across the road and onto the sidewalk. Hector and I stretched and yawned. I looked for the waiter, asking aloud why he hadn’t brought the bill as we’d been there over an hour and ate nothing. Hector reminded me: “You gotta ask the waiter directly for the bill, dude. Otherwise you’ll be sitting here all day.”
Of course. Another Mexican truth. And one I could easily grow used to.
Christopher Locke's essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such magazines as The Sun; Parents; Nowhere; Maine Home+Design; Exquisite Corpse; Adbusters; The American Spectator; The Rambler; and as a prize-winner in Georgetown Review. Chris has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New Hampshire Council on the Arts, and Fundacion Valparaiso (Spain). His first full-length collection of poems, End of American Magic, is currently available from Salmon Poetry. His second full-length, Waiting for Grace and Other Poems (Turning Point) was recently released. The memoir Can I Say (Kattywompus Press) is forthcoming at the end of 2013.