Archive for March, 2009

My poor ears

Life in Mexico is a noisy, relentless business. In my quaint little pueblo alone, the peace of the day can feasibly be interrupted by the exploding of fireworks to celebrate the movement of one of the innumerable saints from one house to another in the town, the howling sexual frustrations of the resident cats and dogs that prowl the streets, cries of salesmen proclaiming the existance of everything from cheese to knife sharpening services (the rear wheel of a bicycle turned upside down affixed to a rotary grinding stone; a fantastic contraption of Heath Robinson proportions) and the roving ice cream vendors, their mobile freezers supplimented with dynamo driven sound systems that play rag time piano classics at a variety of pitches depending on the gradient of the hill that they are trying to ascend, are but a few disturbances of the peace available.

In tribune to this rather wearying nuance of mexican life, I offer my top three least favourite noises since arrival, in no particular order:

1) The gas trucks

The lifeblood of CDC, gas is a commodity worth attaining a monopoly over. This mindset is executed with gusto by the numerous service providers about town. Competing for business, trucks bearing gas canisters roll through the streets and alert the townfolk to their presence by dragging a metal chain behind them, exacting the kind of effect expected by ice cream vans, only on a much more industrial level.

magic captured courtesy of Ann Hadley; thanks awfully old bean.

2) Dolly the Dog

Appearing cute and worthy of lavish affection, this dimiuative incarnation of the dark lord himself wakes me up at any given hour of the night with ear splitting and relentless barking. This trick is also repeated with avid devotion any time that anything (man, beast or inanimate object blown by the wind) passes within fifteen feet of the house. Unfortunate, therefore, that passing traffic is prolific. Other quirks of the behaviour of this entity of aural destruction include stealing the dirty socks from my laundry to line her bedding, chewing on the toes of my bare feet under the table during mealtimes and attempting to escape the house every time I try to leave through the wafer thin crack of the open door.

3) Those bloody rug salesmen

It would not be appropriate to discourse on the nature of Chiapan noise without a hearty mention of the Fiesta de Enero, after which all other noise seems akin to whispers. For a whole month, pillows were pressed to ears as the relentless racket of festivity continued morning, noon and night. At the very pinnacle of this heap of sound lie the rug salesmen, thankfully long gone from town who, at first, impressed us with their relentless amplified sales patter and then eventually cased us to wish for their rapid and painful demise. Established on vast booths containing mountains of rugs and carpets, teams of fast talking carnival folk would work around the clock with microphones strapped under their noses to allow their hands to remain free in order to point at rugs and demonstrate them (surely a rug foregoes the need for demonstration?). The placement of the mic removed all bass from the sound of their endless and apparently mindless rug-related nonsense and this, combined with the offensively loud volume perpetrated by unecessary amplification, created one of the most “character building” experiences of Fiesta de Enero.

Chiapa de Corzo
29th March 2009


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The End of The Road, by Accident

Last weekend saw an escape from the rigors of teaching and learning Spanish up into the hills, rattling in a colectivo in the advancing dusk to San Cristobal De Las Casas where the evening was spent in various bars, steeped in live music and a carefully and very effectively cultivated ambiance. I was delighted to find that my Spanish had advanced an inordinate amount since my last outing some weeks ago, and celebrated by gleefully berating anyone who was willing to engage in conversation with me. Waking up the next day with my first sore head in months, I formulated a complete absence of plan with fellow teacher Willow to head to nearby Comitan, following notable recommendations from almost everyone that i´d spoken to about it. Once again, we piled onto an enthusiastically driven colectivo and shot across the rugged landscape, characterized by dry pine forests that were ready to ignite at the strike of a match.

Cometan was a peaceful place, it’s subtle demeanor occasionally interrupted by houses of violent colour, or one of the infrequent trees with deep purple blossom that seemed to punch out between the buildings, littering the roads with a carpet of petals. The local market was the expected cacophony of noise, smells and bizarre sights, but with the interesting difference that the people seemed to regard us with a benign interest instead of the pushy entrepreneurial optimism that seemed to be a characteristic of daily life in Chiapa de Corzo.

Recommended by a local Italian resteraunteur who was in posession of one of the most magnificent noses that I`ve ever seen to the nearby national park which contained numerous lakes, we made the decision to leave sleepy Comitan beind and head further away, towards the border of Guatemala. Valleys and hills gave way to sweeping agricultural plains and villages surrounded by corn fields swaying in the breeze as we sank slowly into the feeling of increasing distance and remoteness.

Reaching the park, we were dropped beside a deep green lake in the middle of a silent and dense alpine forest. After refusing offers of horseback and truck tours in favour of stretching our legs, we wandered along roads and tracks through the forest with no particlar plan, occasionally stumbling across lakes of a fantastic range of hues, pinned in by dense woodland. The rustle of the wind through the trees served to exaggerate the quietness that settled over the place, and it made me realise how noisy and relentless life in Chiapa de Corzo is.

After walking for a couple of hours, with tired grumpiness starting to set in, we wandered down a track that suddenly opened out into a lakeside fronted by a range of dusty, dilapidated huts that fortunately included a restaurant of sorts presided over by a woman with a warm smile and incredible food to match, cooked over a wood fire that brought back memories of camping trips and outdoor adventures. With full bellies and hot chocolate in hand we sat by the side of the lake and watched as the wind pushed cloud shadows over the lush shoreline on the distant banks and gusts sent patches of ripples racing across the face of the deep blue water.

Eventually, with growing curiosity we scurried around the edge of the lake investigating the strange and deserted collection of buildings. The desolate feeling of our surroundings and the eerieness of the abandoned buildings did eveything to suggest that, almost entirely by accident, we had somehow reached the end of the road. With a strange heaviness, we turned around and began the walk back up the track, leaving dusty footprints on the first part of the long path back towards Chiapa de Corzo.

Chiapa de Corzo
22nd March 2009

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Meanwhile, in the rest of the world…

I´ve been subscribing to all manner of blogs and websites over the last couple of months to see just what the most crazy types of this world up to at the moment. Two fine items crossed my inbox over the last week, demonstrating wonderful examples of what can happen if you are prepared to do things a bit differently.

The first was a great find from The Adventure Blog, one of my favourite daily digests. It´s a video of some crazy and very entertaining French chaps (are there any other type?) climbing a peak in far flung Pakistan. The film is about 20 minutes long but I´d recommend watching every second. I have no idea how you build up to having the skill and insanity to do this kind of thing, but I’d love to give it a bash some day…

Elsewhere, the Bristol based loonies known as the Adventurists have opened entries for their latest race, from Peru to Paraguay. In typical Adventurist style, racers are permitted only to carve their route in a motor taxi of the poorest quality. Well worth your attention if you are chewing your arm off with boredom at your desk and are looking to opportunities to get away…

Image courtesy of The League of Adventurists International Ltd.

Chiapa de Corzo
13th March 2009

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Messin´about on the river

This weekend, in the vague pursuit of physical activity and a taste of the outdoors (I´ve been cowering inside avoiding the heat of the day for weeks now), I decided to take up the offer of a friend/brother/cousin of my family (as far as I can tell everyone in this town has a connection of some kind with everyone else) to use his canoe to explore the wide river that flows past the southern edge of the town and into the Sumidero Canyon.

I managed to procure a kayak of a most modern design with relative ease, and within a short space of time hopped over the malodourous bank to the river and launched into the water.  It was a great experience, paddling solo alongside the banks; as it was a Sunday, all the families and mobs of kids were out in force, splashing around and generally deriving a great deal of amusement from an inquisitive foreigner paddling past them.  As I got futher down the river and the only signs of life were the occasional tourist motorboat hurtling past and causing near capsize inducing wake, I got one of my first feelings of proper solitude since I arrived; a welcome break from the relentless noise and attention that awaits me every day in town.

It transpired at roughly the furthest point from my intital location on the whole trip, that I was sharing the boat with a squad of very sociable ants.  When these friendly beasts decided to put in a appearance, I can only imagine the sense of value for money that a boatload of passing tourists must have felt, watching me suddenly and inexplicably paddle furiously for the bank and leap from my craft, slapping myself repeatedly all over my body whilst hopping around frantically.  The ants and I eventually reached a truce mostly instigated, I assume, by the act of ant genocide that I committed, dragging the boat out into the river and giving it a bloody thorough washing, inside and out.
Chiapa de Corzo
9th March 2009

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Evil has a name, and that name is….Nimsy?

With the successful completion of my first month of teaching combining unexpectedly with a clean sheet of mental and physical injury, I though it an opportune moment to share with you the rogues galleries that are my classes before the possibility of a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario rears its ugly head.

So, Introducing my 4pm class, from the left; Emannuel, Alexan, Paola, Nimsy and Romina (Maria Fernanda, Ana Jose and Vareli sadly absent). This photo somehow manages to perfectly encapsulate the personalities of all the students. Pay special attention to Nimsy; he´s going to be an evil genius or a Broadway musical star when he´s older. I haven´t yet ascertained which is most likely.

Next are my 5pm lot, sufficiently old enough to be more inhibited in a photography situation. From the left; Carlos, Fernando, Marcos, Sergio, Jose Manuel, Citlali, Rocio, Nohemi, Mara, Jessica and Eduardo (Manuel sadly absent). This lot veer between childish excitement at the prospect of playing pictionary and being too achingly cool to practise speaking exercises.

Sadly lacking in presence from my synopsis are my 6pm unit. Due to the behemoth task that is behaviour management with a bunch of hormonally confused teenagers, I spend my lessons either exerting my limited authority with an iron fist or ecstatically riding the brief wave of cooperation and good will. In either case capturing them on film during lesson times seems like as distant a possibility as apprehending Bigfoot and engaging in a tea party with it and the Loch Ness monster. I live in hope that one day I´ll be able to distract them with candy and Britney Spears songs long enough to bag a snap without them destroying the rest of the lesson.

Last, but not least is my Saturday Bunch. Unable to engage in weekday frivolities because of working commitments and/or abject fear of my other students, they foster a more mature approach to learning until, that is, I unleash Guess Who. From the left; Laura, Amada, Carolina, Jessica, Cristina, Xavier, Manuel and Alexander.

As an epilogue, an action shot of the Girls Team from lessons this morning; as you can probably tell, they crushed the Boys without mercy.

Chiapa de Corzo
7th March 2009

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Challenge Clarke pt 2: Shoes of Doom

Refreshing once again, if I may, the iron clad gauntlet laid down to me by my good friend back in the UK, Ms. Polly Williams;

1) Ride something not of the equine world (i.e. no horses allowed)
2) Find out about Mexicans before the Mexicans, as it were
3) Purchase, and enjoy parading in, some handmade footwear

One of these now lies defeated, as those who have seen my childlike screaming captured on video will no doubt testify. Owing to reasons of impending need to pertain more appropriate footwear or risk social exclusion and utter bone idleness to research the anthropoligical history of Mexico, I´ve prioritised the third part of the quest.

Owing to the helpful comments of fellow teacher Martin that, in cirumstances of purchase of any one of the multitude of beautiful pairs of leather sandals adorning the tourist shops around the central plaza, my shoes would, in a short space of time “Smell like ass”, I decided to consider other options. My feet have always exhibited a propensity for excessive perspiration, and I needed a more rigourous solution.

Combing the back streets away from the tourist strip, I happened upon a hole in the wall enterprise, similar to the countless alternatives dotted around the town and propiented by two small boys. This one, however, contained a pair of sandals that I deemed fit for purpose and after a laborious and drawn out exchange with the two “assistants” I managed to walk away with my toes singing songs of freedom to the open air. All was well until I noticed that that one of the straps was torn almost to point of breaking; the two miniature entrepreneurs had just sold me a dud.

Flip flopping back to the same hole feeling somewhat aggreived, I confronted the salesmen with my sandals and asked in my abysmal spanish for a replacement pair. This request was gleefully denied and it was at this point that my language aptitude left me high and dry; I could request a replacement, but had no hope for understanding the reasons for a rebuttal. An old lady sauntered onto the scene as the intensity of the discourse between the boys and I increased, but unfortunately she proved to be no better at communicating a solution; my admission of lack of comprehension was only met with a different slice of rapid fire language, and with the cackling and shouting at me by the pint sized fiends I had the feeling that my incomprehension was greatly at my expense. Despite trying everything from trying different routes of explanation to issuing threats to rubbish their reputation about town, the best that I could do was explain that I would return with a translator within 5 minutes to develop a more productive discourse. Returning shortly afterwards with Padre Javier I was almost unsurprised to find the shutter pulled down over the lot and not a sign of life to be found.

Anecdotes about fighting children for shoes aside, this serves to illustrate one of the greatest challenges that I struggle with every day, that I never comprehended before I arrived and still struggle to articulate now. I´m surrounded by people and circumstances that operate on a completely different language and this, to a huge extent, strips me of the familiarities, securities and comfort that I took for granted in a place where I was in command of communication, and able to articule and play with the spoken medium. For the first time abroad, Im not cocooned with the comfort of an english speaking populus in tourist routes and locations, or the knowledge that I´ll be moving on from somewhere within days as part of a trip. I´m here to learn the language, so I have to force myself to confront my inability to communicate every day, and at a teeth grindingly slow pace start, little by little, to circumnavigate those barriers.

Not understanding a language that I live amongst is, without doubt, one of the hardest things I have experienced. Some days, every laugh or joke seems to be at my expense, every comment made seems impatient or condescending. On those days my Spanish lessons seem to achieve nothing when I try and instigate a simple conversation with anyone, or understand a kindly comment put my way. Other days, I can feel the fragments of understand align for just long enough to give me a glimmer of hope that somehow, in the coming months, all this chaos and incomprehension will being to make sense to me. There have been times where I´ve managed to raise a smile or a laugh from somebody with a joke that I´ve tried to make; the connection between us, however brief, forges a link that buries itself deep into my conciousness. For that moment, I can understand that despite all the stuggle, confusion, embarrassment and frustration, it´s going to be worth it.

For the benefit of Ms. Williams, I can confirm that I did manage to claw back a replacement from that shop, but even with Javier´s explanation I was still no clearer as to any justification beyond bloody minded stubborness as to the original refusal. For the benefit of all those due to meet up with me at some point during the future tenure of my sandals, I can also comfirm that they do not (as of yet) smell like ass.

Chiapa de Corzo
28th February 2009

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