Feb 21, 2008

The Outer Limits

(Note: cross-posted at The Line Is Here. But you slackers are too lazy to outclick...)


Once upon a time, we lived outside the U.S. for almost five years. As a family, we fully adopted our alien land, learned its language, loved its people, hated its traffic, but always understood that we were guests in an amazing, overcrowded, ancient city. We also learned about the sort of strength it takes to live without your normal and almost invisible underpinnings of culture and familiarity.

Where There Is No Doctor was a required manual before moving South of the Border. It’s not that Mexico has no doctors, it’s that you wouldn’t know how to tell them what is wrong. And even if you could, would you understand his reply? At any rate, it’s an excellent handbook for every family, regardless of where you live, and especially if you go on long camping trips. It may be hard to imagine, children, but some places really don’t have Internet. Even now.

Anyway, when my son was but seven years old and adjusting to the Grade A smog in Mexico City, he came down with bronchitis. Really bad. Fortunately, penicillin is cheap and plentiful, so I went around the corner and bought a 10-day supply and some decongestant. Late that night, the poor child’s rasping brought me to my knees to pray, and to my handbook for insight. A steaming pot of water was place on the floor by his bed, I woke him and turned him onto his tum, with his face down below his chest, breathing in the vapors and steam. And then I pounded his little back. Out popped the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen from that day to this: black-green-yellow mucus, a big as a large egg. He cried, I cried, and then he could breathe again. Slept sound. Woke better.

You have no idea what that kind of relief feels like, so far from home.

We hadn’t lived there a month before the transmission gave out on our Blazer. Right near Chapultapec Park. On the on-ramp of the Loop. I had to sit and wait for the Jolly Roger to find a “grua”. Hours pass. No cell phones. No idea if I’ll ever see him again, or how we’ll get home or when, or if I’ll ever see the States again, while my hungry son and I rejoice to find peanut brittle in the glove box. Twilight approaches and hard-looking men come up to the truck saying, “don’t be here after dark, Senora, it’s not safe.” I nod and blink back tears, but my young son has picked up on the fear.

Like some gallant knight, Roger soon arrives with a tow truck, and with his heart in his throat commits us to a taxi driver to take us home while he rides with the tow truck. Fortunately, I was a good navigator early on, recognized landmarks, out loud, just to let the driver know I knew where we were in that sea of city inhabitants. We made it home without incident. All three of us. And the truck.

You have no idea what that kind of relief feels like, unless you’ve tested your courage outside its limits, called upon your wits, and stood your ground politely, while inside you weren’t even sure you could ever hope your Stateside family could recover your remains should some fell evil strike you down.

Politically, it’s a dicey thing, being from the Imperialist Nation to the North. Everyone wants to know you, talk with you, and hopes that you know their cousin in Los Angeles. Even in a city of 20 million people, one’s world is very small, to the point of hoping that yours is, too, and maybe we’ve got something in common. It was a charming and amusing occurrence, every time.

However, when the U.S. went to Panama to wrest power from Noriega (in order to allow the Chinese to run the place, apparently), we lost some good friends who took extreme umbrage at the act. They weren’t alone. What a strange sense of alienation, to see anti-American graffiti near our apartment,to feel the sense of betrayal and suspicion some felt at having an “invasion” so close to their back door.

No wonder some Mexicans in Arizona are headed back home. Intimidation is a real motivator to someone who is at a cultural disadvantage.

The papers and magazines loved a good murder and would splay the bloody scenes on the front page, like some demented Tarantino story board. You shield young eyes from that and all the girlie mags on every corner.

And people worked hard,there. All 20 million of them. Beggars only existed in the tourist zones, go figure! But little wizened old men could work your young American lard-butt into the ground, make no mistake.

And hardworking friends always wanted to abandon Mexico and move North, where there was hope long before the Obamas cheapened it. And what would you say, what could you say? You can’t say anything because you see what real hopelessness looks like. It looks like unpainted cinder blocks and dirt yards and endless need. Not easy to say no, don’t go north.

Do you know what it’s like to watch the Super Bowl in Spanish, and yet hear Whitney Houston sing the National Anthem and watch the fly-over, only to burst out in tears? No one was more surprised than I, for I loved Mexico as my own, learned its dirgeful anthem, its pledge, and recited them daily in our charter school. But, oh! My Country ‘Tis of Thee was the song in my young and non-political heart. Sweet land of liberty, I missed her so!

And then the Space Shuttle has its first successful mission since Challenger, and you see it on television while staying in the jungled heart of the Yucatan, and you just blub and blub until your sinuses become painfully impacted.

One morning we came home to our apartment after breakfast, only to be surprised by the concussive sound of our next door neighbor, a Federal, firing his semi-automatic rifle into the park. The other neighbor ladies all run to our apartment where Roger is the only other man around during the day, seeking some sense of security. Our son, half a block away was held in the school house for safety, and we couldn’t get to him. We peered through the service windows into the other apartment only to see the Fed with his baby on one hip and his rifle on the other. The local SWAT team arrives and leaves just as quickly once they find out he’s a Federal. Peace resumes, but we move two days later.

We survived flash floods, smog, earthquakes, sickness, disorientation, panic attacks, measles, mumps and dengue fever. We endured public frottage on the Bruta Cien bus lines and subways. We went camping, ate corn fungus, were politely robbed by a gas station attendant, saw primordial cave paintings, hiked jungle trails, fired off a gun in church, and were pulled over numerous times by the cops. Never paid more than a few bucks of “mordida” fines, while other Americans paid hundreds of dollars. That’s because Roger knew one of the simplest forms of foreign survival: how to smile. He really is irresistible when he smiles!

So, we smiled and smiled, laughed and learned good jokes, gained the best friends, and sometimes didn’t have the best plans for our adventures, but always knew we could make it happen. It was terrifying and reassuring most of the time and all at once!

If you ever get the chance, pull the rug out from under your life just once, before life does it to you first. Test yourself. Test your real nerve, your real sense of survival, your real sense of place and time and how you’re going to fit into the circumstances… or if not, how you’re gonna call the shots.

Best to have Tequila handy. And a smile.

11 comments:

Erica said...

A most outstanding piece of writing. You are what I would call Just Plain Freaking Awesome.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Aw, Eri. Nobody comes close to you, unless it's Rosie. She rocks the mountains, you rock Brooklyn!

Erica said...

I cannot possibly EVER compare to you or Rosie...believe me...and, I'm almost embarrassed to be mentioned in the same sentence as her...she is a fine writer! I, OTOH, am a bullshit arteest.

Erica said...

...but, thank you.

Becca said...

Panic attacks happens to me once in a while and it's pretty scary everytime it happens. You just loose control of yourself. I've tried http://www.whatcausespanicattacks.com for help.I can see an improvement in my condition already.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Thanks and welcome, Becca.

Panic attacks were with me before we went to Mexico. (Yee-haw! Can't let 'em get in the way of, you know, life and all.)

They ended there, however, 17 years ago. The cure was miraculous, instantaneous, and permanent-- which isn't typical.

So, I'm afraid I'm not much use to talk to about it except to say that I wish the best for you in your journey.

LauraB said...

What a fabulous essay! Loved it. Of course, I grew up with the rug pulled out so the temptation now is - nonexistent.

And the poison was Sloe Gin.

No, I do not know how I am still alive.

Lovely piece, Joan...

Joan of Argghh! said...

You know, I grew up without a net, too. No adult backup for when things got... very bad. But I never really let it inside me until I was 30! All the chickens came home to roost.

I don't understand
the Grace
that held me in place.

Gecko said...

You said.
"I don't understand
the Grace
that held me in place."
When I think of the youthful nerve I used to have I know now that it was grace that got me through. I don't really get it either. Neat piece!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Superbly written, Joan!
It takes a lot of courage and fortitude to live in another country like Mexico, where there is far less liberty and rights then the US has.

And, as you mentioned, a very different culture, a different language, lack of infrastructure and technology, etc.

Lot's of good folks too, sometimes in places and situations you would least expect.

I look foreward to hearing more of your past adventures, as well as your current ones! :^)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

And you're right, smiling helps tremendously. Even here in the US.