This article is from the June 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Musings on Mexico

by Hank Duckman 

Hank Duckman lives in Morelia, Michoacan. He contributed an article on the Hermanos Mayar Circus for the October 2000 issue of Mexico File. 

Mexico is a land of surprises. The phenomenon of surprise derives from the unexpected - both a "giver" and a "receiver" being required.  As for the "giver," the multicultural nature of the country contributes to the vast number of permutations of unexpected daily events, and both the climate and the unique topography of the land have in return left their brand on the culture. I'm not sure why such occurrences and events have this effect on me in Mexico but they do.  

Without a "receiver," there is no surprise, much like the "flower that is borne to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air." [Elegy in a Country Churchyard...Gray, Thomas] The "receiver" is the person modified by being in Mexico. Living here leaves its imprint on you. Mexico molds and shapes you in its own inimical way. The imprint seems to fade with time if you depart to another place, almost as if these gifts must be taken back. Acceptance of imperfection, willingness to take a leap of faith, enabling one's internal clock to become synchronized with that of a different pace of life, and learning patience - these are a few of my gifts from Mexico, some of the things that have molded me.   

Vignettes of My Life in Mexico 

Two days before, we had left our life in New Jersey to make Mexico our home. When the customs inspector 15 miles south of Laredo told me to get out of the car and open the rear hatch, I anticipated  trouble. It appeared as if we were going to have to undo weeks of Lacey's meticulous packing and be hit with import duties or bribes to get through. From experience on our long drive I already knew that he who tried to extract even one solitary item from the back of that car might be maimed and buried in an avalanche. As luck would have it, I think the inspector thought  the 70-pound Primo, our rescued Greyhound, was a man-eating wolf. I wasn't about to dissuade him of this belief. With Primo staring at him through the open rear hatch, he quickly gestured for me to shut the door. "Do you have any weapons?" he inquired. Perhaps I hadn't heard of the new breed of rebel guerrillas traveling  with dogs in late model cars. I kept a straight face and answered his question seriously. "Do you have any drugs?" he said. Had the major drug cartels decided to reverse their operations and smuggle stuff back into Mexico? I was trying to suppress the grin creeping over my face. "No," I assured him. He started to smile too. "Andale," he barked and waved us on. He looked relieved as we sped away.   We swept into Morelia in a flourish. The car was big enough to carry our menagerie, but as we later found out, it was also perfect for flattening curbs when turning corners on colonial city streets. At every stoplight, people in other cars and pedestrians stared with wide-open eyes at Primo. I was starting to feel like a zoo-keeper.  

We were lucky to have learned of a hotel that welcomed people with pets. In such a context one naturally assumes the category "pets" to encompass dogs, cats, and perhaps birds. The hotel was in Santa Maria, the little town on the mountain bordering the city of Morelia to the south, about five minutes by car from the city. After a couple of days there, Piccolo, our fifteen-pound Italian Greyhound, calmed down from his traveling nerves and we were able to leave him with Primo in the hotel room so we could go house hunting.    That night, three vans pulled in front of our room, parking next to our car. Piccolo began to yelp and Primo was pacing nervously. I went out to see what was going on. Our new next door neighbors had arrived. They  were "pets" of a sort, fifteen fighting bantams to be exact, destined to battle in the cockfights at the Michoacan State Fair the next  day. They were kept in the room next to ours. They crowed all night. Maybe they weren't told there were people trying to sleep next door. The following afternoon, the owners of the birds returned from the fair. Every cage was empty. The roosters had not fared well at the fair. "Ni modo," said one of the handlers with a shrug, "more are coming by plane from Mexico City."  

We eventually were offered a cheap rental place to live in while we looked for a house to buy. "You'll be comfortable here," said the owner. "I fixed it up for my daughter." It had a paucity of windows and those that were there were too high to see out of, no hot water in the kitchen sink, and a roof that thought its destiny in life was to act like a sieve. The chairs around the small dining table were of the plastic garden variety. We called it "the Bombay Hideaway." We found a house we loved but which was going to need considerable renovating and we bought it. We were stuck in the Hideaway until the work on our house could be completed. Whenever it rained at night, we dared not touch any of the light switches. There were puddles of water all over the floor.   

Meanwhile, I had been keeping in touch with the International Mexican branch of our moving company by phone so I would know when our possessions would be arriving from New Jersey. I called their Guadalajara office from the hotel. "I think your things are at the border," a pleasant young lady told me in English. "What do you mean you think?" I retorted. Were my worst fears being realized? "Don't worry," she purred, "they should be arriving in Morelia in a week." A week later I called again. She didn't know where the truck was. "What do you mean you don't know where the truck is?" I shrieked, starting to lose control. A large moving van with all our worldly goods had become incommunicado in the wilds of northern Mexico. I could picture banditos scrambling out of the truck with my computer, our TV and Lacey's clothes. This ordeal ended two days later when the truck was located. They would arrive in two days. I was so relieved I didn't even ask about how it had been lost.  

The people we bought the house from maintained the right to stay there for a period of time until they could find another house. The renovations would start as soon as they left. However they kindly allowed us to store our things in the house when the moving van arrived.  

We began to take rides through Morelia to familiarize ourselves with the city. I noticed that our Ford Expedition  barely fit on some of the streets. This called forth a whole new set of driving skills which took a while to develop. One night we went for a drive in the city. We were enthralled by how clean and uncrowded the streets appeared. The colonial wrought iron street lamps threw a romantic glow over everything. There was no traffic; well, almost no traffic. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and saw a taxi about two blocks behind me. I was driving extra carefully because we were as yet unfamiliar with the streets. I started through an intersection and stopped when Lacey told me I should have turned left. I took another glimpse in my rear-view mirror, saw nothing, and started to back up. I felt a very slight crunching sensation like the breaking of a stale tortilla. I hardly thought anything of it and almost drove on, but I thought I'd better check. When I got out of the car, there was the taxi driver shaking his head and inspecting the damage to the front of his mini-taxi. He had driven up so close behind me that his car and mine could have become intimate. There was no way I could have seen his car in my mirror. I paid him what he thought the damages would cost. That was the first of a host of fender benders my car and I wrought while I became accustomed to driving a brobdingnagian car through lilliputian streets.  

We went to Sears Roebuck one afternoon to look at appliances. When I parked in the lot outside, I saw that my Ford Expedition barely fit within the lines demarcating the parking spot. The parking spots were always sized for cars smaller than mine. When we came out of the store, I started to back out of the space. Someone had parked their car at a weird angle in one of the diagonal spaces in the row behind me.  

Another crunch! We waited for the owner of the late-model Mercedes to come out of the store. We had neither pen, pencil nor paper. After a half-an-hour we timidly drove away, guilt-ridden, but laughing uncontrollably with tears running down our faces like two young children. We didn't know what else to do. We would never again be able to come back to Sears in this car for fear that our big, dark-blue Gringo-mobile would be spotted and we'd be put in jail.  

How do you find a dentist in a strange city? At the bank one day, I created a novel solution to this problem. I backed out of my parking place and elicited another crunch. The man who came running out of the bank to see what had happened to his car had left it in the middle of the parking lot right behind mine. He was yelling angrily at me. I hollered back and told him he had no right to leave his car in the middle of the lot. As is the custom in Mexico, those involved in accidents try to avoid police involvement. We decided to solve this peacefully. I gave him my card and invited him to come to my house to discuss this situation. He gave me his card. He was a dentist. Now, he is my dentist.  

Our time living in the Bombay Hideaway was not without incident. There was a sink in the bedroom. It had developed a slight leak. We asked the owner to get it fixed. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll send someone over to fix it right away." That afternoon a handyman showed up and went to work on the sink. When he finished, he assured us there would be no more problems with it. That night at around 4 am, a loud crash resounded through our little haven. When I got the light turned on, I saw the sink shattered in a million pieces on the floor. Poor Primo, who had been sleeping on the floor under the sink, narrowly escaped with his life. Already a bit neurotic, he stood there trembling, a dazed look on his sleek lupine face, his gentle eyes radiating fear. Fortunately, the water supply was connected to the sink by a malleable metal tube that survived intact. Otherwise, Primo might have drowned. The leak stayed fixed.  

One day after we had moved into our house, the doorbell rang. Standing there were a young man and an older woman. The young man was carrying a sack. They explained to my wife that they had bought a piece of property on the outskirts of Morelia to build a small house, and while they were digging to clear the property they found a number of small statues and figurines. "I think they are originals from the pre-Columbian tribes that inhabited this area centuries ago," said the woman earnestly. "But if you decide to buy any from us, please don't tell anyone because we could be in trouble with the authorities, being that there are laws forbidding the sale of authentic artifacts." My wife, knowing it was highly unlikely these were genuine, nevertheless fancied one of the figurines and bought it. The next day the two entrepreneurs were back. My wife looked through their "wares" again and didn't find any she liked. They looked disappointed. "But I did like the one I bought with the little horse pulling the wagon," said Lacey. The young  man and woman looked at each other, then smiled hopefully at my wife. "Ah, Senora, we can get a lot more of those."  

We never cease to be charmed over herds of cattle, horses, goats and other creatures sharing the roads with cars and trucks or stopping to feed in whatever empty lot is available. Some time after we moved into our house, there was a rainstorm. The sun came out when the rain stopped. Shortly thereafter, a group of horses was grazing in a small lot just to the left of our house and across an alleyway. The house is situated on the edge of a mountain overlooking Morelia. There was a loud crash and a commotion out front. Lacey went out to investigate. There was a group of people standing around looking at the back door of our car and shaking their heads. There was a sizeable dent in the door. Lacey asked them what happened. "Oh, Senora, it's nothing, just a horse who lost his footing on the slippery cement and crashed into your car." My wife was aghast. "But don't worry, he won't be back to do it again." "How do you know?" asked my wife, not sure she wanted to hear the answer. "Well," said the man shrugging his shoulders, "when he got up, he lost his balance, stumbled over the cliff and fell down the mountain." 

Only in Mexico.