Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Preparations

Everything’s almost ready for Christmas Eve, the time most Mexican families celebrate Christmas. I’ve prepared a Red Pepper Soup, which tastes fantastic, and we’ve almost wrapped all the presents. I’m also completely exhausted, since we went for a few Christmas drinks with some friends last night and didn’t get home until the wee hours.

Still, it only happens once a year, so I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a speedy recovery. May your celebrations be happy ones!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

How (not) to Organise a Party in Mexico

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were chatting with some friends after a particularly good concert, and I suggested throwing a Christmas party for all our friends. ‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘You're going to lumber me with all the organising!’ I told her not to worry, and that it would be easy.

Well, I didn't do anything for the first couple of weeks, but eventually got around to sending an invitation to a load of people in my e-mail contacts. Nothing happened. Then I got a reply from someone cancelling. Meanwhile, my girlfriend, accustomed to my inefficiency, had already begun talking it up with her friends at work.

As I was leaving for work one morning, I noticed that someone had put up a notice about our building’s Christmas party, along with a list of things to bring. It was the same evening as ours; so much for us being neighbourly this year. A couple of days later, I called the office and found out that the school Christmas breakfast was going to be the day after the party; another year without seeing my colleagues.

Yesterday, I asked a friend who was coming to the party what music he’d like to hear at the party. ‘Don't worry,’ he said. ‘Just make sure there’s a hook-up for my iPod.’ I had to tell him that the idea of a party is talk to people, not end up hunched over the stereo. Maybe I’ll give them half an hour for an iPod contest, but I invite my friends to talk to them, not peer at their music collections over their shoulders.

So, we’re nearly there, and it seems that plenty of people (invited mainly by my girlfriend) are going to show up. I just have to figure out how to make the punch and burn a CD of MP3s. I was right; it wasn’t that hard at all.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Mobile Madness

Seeing as it’s coming up to Christmas, I’ve decided to buy myself a new phone. I shop around at the Plaza de la Tecnología and think I’ve found myself a real bargain at about five hundred pesos less than in Sanborn’s. If only it were true. I go back to the shop to ask if they give invoices, only to discover that the bargain price I was offered was for another phone, and that it costs the same here as everywhere else. I tell the shopkeeper I’ll take it anyway.

‘Excellent,’ he says. ‘Follow me.’ He pops out from under the counter and leads me to the shop opposite. ‘They'll attend to you here.’ With that, he goes back to his shop and leaves me in the care of a gawky kid who’s probably his son. I have a bad feeling about this, but am now committed to buying the thing. Slowly, laboriously, the kid begins to write out a sales receipt. ‘You are going to give me an invoice, aren't you?’ I say. He looks up with panic on his face and mumbles something which could be a yes.

The slow, handwritten pace of the youth continues, and I try not to think about how much quicker this could have been at Sanborn’s. At one point, he asks me how much they’re charging me for the phone, but sees my incredulous stare and shouts across the aisle to ask his dad instead. I can’t even hear the answer, but the kid mumbles to himself and writes down something that sounds like the right price.

When it finally comes to signing the purchase slip, I start checking the details. The kid taps the dotted line with an impatient finger. ‘You sign here,’ he says, as if I’m some kind of moron. ‘Thanks,’ I say, as sarcastically as possible, but he’s already pulling the phone out of its box to instruct this idiot customer on how to switch it on.

As his uncoordinated thumbs unsuccessfully mash down on the buttons, I observe that maybe the phone hasn’t been charged up yet. He ignores the remark, muttering that different phones sometimes use different buttons. Suddenly, as if the idea has just fallen on him from a great height, he pulls the charger out and plugs the phone in. ‘It might not have been charged up yet,’ he explains.

He charges the phone for about ten seconds, dials a number to check the credit on the phone and hands it to me. I hear: ‘...will expire on February the fifth, two thousand...’ before the phone dies. ‘Perfect,’ I say. By now, I just want to leave. The kid pulls out the forms for the invoice and painstakingly starts to fill them in. If nothing else, I will have given this teenager a chance to practise his penmanship. I’m sure he hasn’t considered this.

At last, the phone is mine and I’ve only lost half an hour of my life. I thank the kid and he shrugs off into the corner of the shop; I expect he’s got blisters. Now I just have to wait until Christmas before I can use the thing.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A New President

So now we have a new president. This is the second presidential ceremony I’ve seen here, as their terms last six years in Mexico. There was a show of resistance by the opposition, but Calderón took the presidency by sneaking in through the back door. His face was unreadable as he sang the national anthem, and he appears to be the greyest of politicians.

As I type these words, I hear there is the possibility of a confrontation between a march lead by López Obrador (the self-styled legitimate president of Mexico) and the Federal Preventive Police who are guarding a celebration ceremony at the National Auditorium. I didn’t see much to celebrate in the way Calderón came into the presidency, but I suppose he’s still trying to convince himself that he’s earned it.

Now it begins. Mexican society has been highly polarized since the elections, with a negative campaign on the part of Calderón and interference on the part of ex-president Fox in the electoral process. The results of the election were so close that Calderón’s legitimacy is highly compromised and many people suspect him of fraud. What happens from now on is up to him. Who knows if he’s up to the challenge?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Rush Hour

I’m late. I can tell because the queue on the platform is already backing up onto the stairs. I weave my way through those not yet brave enough to take the plunge and find a narrow gap between the wall and the mass of people waiting for the next train. I hang around at the back until it arrives. It takes its time.

Suddenly, the air whooshes and the train is here. People getting off have to force their way out of the doors and past those pushing to get in. It isn’t pretty. They are out and the first wave are in. There is a guy hanging out of the doorway with an enormous backpack. Slowly, he lifts it above his head and eases his way into the throng. I’m glad I'm not on his train.

The doors close, then open, then close, and a recorded woman tells the packed passengers to let the doors close freely. Eventually, after another dozen repetitions of her imprecations, the train shunts off. I’m in the next wave.

When the train arrives, I’m in the middle of the throng and propelled into one of the upright supports to the side of the door. My bag is somewhere behind me and it’s hard to breathe. I manoeuvre myself around the pole and feel the click of my mobile phone unclipping itself from my belt. Luckily, it’s trapped inside my jumper by the crush of fellow passengers. I breathe in and wiggle my hand round to push it back in place. The doors do their open/close thing a dozen times and then we’re off.

Taking advantage of the bumps and turns of the train, I slowly manage to turn further round the pole in my chest and pull my bag through the passengers behind me until it’s back at my side. It’s a bit more battered than before, but nothing’s fallen off yet. Every time the train comes into a station, there’s a build up of human pressure on my side, as the people by the doors have nothing to hang on to and are kept upright by their companions. We are the pillars of this establishment.

By the time we arrive at the end of the line, the train is emptier and I have found a seat, but because of all the times the train has had to open and close its doors, I’m really late. I sneak a glance at my watch: five past seven. The class started at seven and I still have a fifteen-minute walk ahead of me. What a way to start the week.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hobbits on the Metro

A strange thing happened to me a few weeks ago. As I was crossing Metro Hidalgo to catch my train, a tiny man running for his train crashed into me. He was wearing a dark red jumper, the kind of thing a hobbit might wear.

The strange thing, however, was his reaction to crashing into a complete stranger. Instead of attempting to avoid collision, he merely threw his arms around his face. He hadn’t been running terribly fast, so once he’d got over the business of crashing into me, he dodged around and was off into the crowd. He hadn’t said a single word.

I stood there for a moment, slightly shocked, and then carried on with my journey. I wondered where he was going and why he was in such a hurry. A lot of companies here close their doors to workers arriving late, so perhaps he was desperate not to lose a day’s pay. Under these circumstances, waiting for the next train or bus is not an option.

However, it did strike me as though this had happened to him before. His casual reaction to my pedestrian blip on his work rush radar seemed to show that he almost accepted it. There’s a lot to accept here: crowded trains, long waits for the driver to pull out of the station and heavy braking which regularly spills passengers all over each other. Maybe he thought I was just another of these everyday obstacles on his way to work.

You have to put up with a lot in order to get from A to B and it seems natural after a while. Whether running the red light or dodging traffic, you get used to it. Perhaps we’re all just hobbits on the Metro, flinging our arms in front of our faces at the first sign of danger. There we are, racing across the concourse in our little hobbit jumpers, arms out front, pulling the wool over our own eyes.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The State of Oaxaca

This is an e-mail I received a couple of weeks ago from a friend whose family lives in Oaxaca. What follows is my humble attempt at translation:

Dear Friends,

Surely by now you have all heard about the incursion/repression of the PFP [Federal Preventive Police] in Oaxaca. The reason I’m writing this e-mail is to tell you that it is not true that the PFP has returned peace to the state, as [President] Fox and some media are saying. My people are going through the worst moments of their lives. The conflict is not the fault of a few ‘louts, thugs or idlers’ (among other commonly used descriptions); the movement arose from perfectly valid motives such as better wages, living conditions, etcetera. This has now gone beyond any leader. Today, nobody wants to go outdoors and people are afraid of being killed. Meanwhile, Ulises [the governor of Oaxaca] maintains his refusal to stand down.

I want you to take a look at Oaxaca and judge what's happening objectively. Don’t be satisfied with what’s being said on television. Yesterday, for example, Denise Maerker interviewed the leaders of the APPO [Popular Assembly for the People of Oaxaca], the teachers and Abascal [the Home Secretary]. She questioned the former and asked nothing of the Home Secretary. Her duty, in my opinion, is to give information about how things happen, not point fingers or make accusations (it was obvious whose side she was on).

Please give this some thought. Why hasn’t Fox sent the PFP to places such as Chihuahua, Guerrero or Michoacán, where drug traffickers have free reign to instil fear in the citizens? Those are places where I believe a firm hand is necessary, not this intimidation of the people of Oaxaca.

Finally, my friends, I leave you to reflect. I feel that it is my civic duty to inform you (my family is living through this, I’m not making it up) and I ask for your moral support.


Translated by El Pinche Británico

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Electricity Company

I am here as victim of my own stupidity. Believing that the electricity company maybe wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be, I decided to pay my bill via Internet. Nobody shot me, so I did it again. Big mistake. This time, the bill is ten times greater than it ought to be, so I had to cancel my day and sit here in Purgatory.

Purgatory is full of people sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs. They are all clutching little tickets and glance at the turn counter now and again to check that it hasn’t changed. There is a forlorn little sign dangling over an unattended desk which marks the end of Purgatory. Apparently, it’s called Public Relations.

I occasionally see people who actually work here coming out to remonstrate with the customers. They are stern and hold out little hope of an early salvation. I could save myself by walking over to the fast-moving queue of customers to my left and paying my grossly inflated bill, but I have this perverse need to know why it’s so high.

I am not, of course, left alone with my thoughts; that could be dangerous. There is a large TV in one corner of the room, blaring out housewife television to a small group of unseated devotees. It is mind-numbing.

There is some excitement at one point, as a woman who has BEEN OUTSIDE returns to reclaim her place, despite having missed her turn. There is uproar. Even the old lady next to me, who not ten minutes ago was telling her son by mobile phone that she was thinking of leaving, is outraged. ‘What would happen if we all did that?’ she cries, ‘We'd be here all day!’ She seems to forget that we’ve already been here a hell of a long time. Eventually, howled down by a bum-weary crowd, the interloper retreats.

After nearly five hours of this, I get up, donate my ticket to the patient old lady with a son on the other end of her mobile, and pay through the nose. I just can’t bear the thought of sitting for another minute in Purgatory. I give up.