14 May 2008

And what a backyard it is!

Phew! Back from the Caribbean and gee howdy is my skin dried out -- twenty percent more leathery in just ten days!

I came home not thinking so much as I expected about the various highlights of the trip -- Jacques' condo, the daily blender drinks, the not-so-ominous "swimming with the fishes," the "ferrocarril" test, the mocking taxi driver ("Osiris?" which was quite hilarious, our interaction in retrospect almost the same kind of thing we'd experienced with the monkeys at the Jungle Place a couple of days earlier -- more on that in the next post), nor even all my favorite words (Chemuyil, semidescremada, malvaviscos, Xcacelito, and pretty much any word with the letter X in the Mayan language), but instead found myself dwelling on class and cultural divides that had been shown to me in a new light.

When I'd been in India, I had seen a kind of serenity in people that I now see led me to delude myself that there is less class envy among the people there, as do the book's characters Lola and Noni, who are for a time indulged when they put on all kinds of airs simply by virtue of being able to fly to London for a fresh stock of Marks & Spencer underwear every two years and convince themselves that their sherpa maid has less depth of feeling, that people in the servant classes arrange their affairs in a more economically based fashion and attachments are less profound there, only to find out that they're the ones who've been left behind on the banks without ever having been swept away by the currents of true love.

In Mexico I didn't feel any of that delusion whatsoever -- there were lots of people scrapping for all our bits of chump change and there's plenty of envy all over the place, everywhere you turn.

To read, I had brought a chewy detective book (Michael Connelly's Lost Light, which I started on the plane and thoroughly enjoyed, as I do all of 'em, all the way to the ending that I should have seen coming and made me cry) and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Of the mountain of amazing Indian literature out there I have read only a tiny fraction of authors, and my favorite among them is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I have also retained the near-physical sensation of oppressiveness of the weight of India's society and class consciousness from the stories of Rohinton Mistry. And Salman Rushdie paints marvelous tapestries, setting whirling tops of humanity aspin (yet I find there's always a remove, a layer of literary trickery that keeps me from feeling his characters' dilemmas as excruciatingly as other authors have made me do).

Now I have read another astonishing story, a horrifying and romantic tragedy about two products of their cultures' collective desires to leap across chasms of race and class, in Desai's book. I could not help of course thinking of all the people we rode the shuttle van to Tulum with, who go to work at all the resorts -- there are vans that zip up and down the coast all the way, air-conditioned to help keep the commuting workers cool in their polyester-blend uniforms. They also happen to be comfortable and interesting to use alongside the locals. (You don't get that exposure to other people's experience, I am guessing, when you are staying at the all-inclusive resorts with their continual watersports and multiple swim-up bars. (My favorite colectivo van was "Bety Y Paty's," the one with the little rubber chicken swinging from the rearview mirror and the driver's reflective sunglasses in the rear-view mirror. It was interesting in the same way to be in a place where using taxis is ordinary and part of daily life again. Like New York, it helps you mix things up more, thrust yourselves among each other.

The New York of the movies would have you think that everyone has a Lincoln Continental Town Car with tinted windows waiting for them on the street below; don't get me started on the stereotypes of Mexicans in SUVs in film. Seriously, I couldn't help noticing too on this trip my own astonishment at how many Mexicans drive their American-made SUVs to Akumal and vacation at the shore as we did. There is a thriving middle class in Mexico. And some of the people we met seemed genuinely interested in hospitality along the way -- and what a great place for those folks to be guides and charm the dollars out of the tourists at the same time by being a guide or a waiter or running a restaurant or hotel.

And reading of Biju's fictional adventures as an alien in New York and reading the story about the girls rescued from trafficking in The New Yorker are the things that really stay with me. It's kind of a quaint position to be: the big spender. But I haven't done anything in that culture that makes me matter. I've barely scratched the surface of their culture by going there myself and using my twenty phrases of Spanish that remain after all those years of schooling and then all those years without practice.

So a story read on a sojourn to a tropical place reminded me that I do shudder to think of life for the cleaners of hotels and restaurants in Cancun who every spring mop up a tide of what the college kids can't quite handle before they disappear home again with their legendary hangovers. I can't help thinking of the girls dancing in roadside strip joints who would rather not have been bars and worse in dens ruled by guns and money.

But perhaps it does help to spread this country's wealth around. Had a good laugh at taking our windfall that is Bush's lame-o attempt at a feel-good ending and lavishing them on the folks across the southern border. I had the same impulse before we went when I got some help with our yard. And it's one of the reasons I like going out to dinner, too. Gotta keep the flow going.

The oddness of thrusting yourself partway across the planet to see other people and generally never quite feel totally comfortable was in great evidence on this journey, but that is I suppose the sensation that makes travel so memorable.

That and the pictures.

More soon...

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