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Nov 25, 2010

When people think Mexico they think palm trees and sand, tequila and limes, cervezas and sunscreen. Iconic tropicality, right? But let me tell you now, what I will always remember is that Mexico is really, really loud.

Things to keep in mind: The clement weather means that a lot of Mexico is outside. I’m not talking about balconies and patios, though they abound. A typical Mexican home might be completely open to the elements in one or more directions. A kitchen could be tucked under an eave but otherwise totally exposed. Light and fresh air frequently enter through a checkerboard pattern of missing bricks: windows. Servicios like telephone lines can be expensive, difficult to obtain, or excessive. Why engage Telcel in a battle of wits (a battle that you will lose) when you can just stand outside your amiga’s place and scream her name from the street?

It’s this practice that offends my Canadian sensibilities most, even after several months of living here. Maaaartaaaaa! The cry will rise up from the street and pierce the tranquil bubble I’ve constructed in my apartment by playing CBC podcasts at medium volume. (There’s nothing like the mosaic of culturally diverse voices chanting “here and now” to make me feel as relaxed as a ragdoll kitten.) But now there’s someone shattering my peace by hollering up at our bank of apartments from the cobblestone streets. So rude, I’ll sniff, and creep out onto the balcony to watch the goings-on.

Marta is my neighbour. Recently I described her to a friend, who sighed and said, “Marta, the one who’s been left on the shelf.” I get to observe a lot of Marta-on-the-shelf’s daily life because her balcony faces mine, and because she’s often in or around my building. I’ve helped her haul massive bags of laundry up to the third floor where there a secret washer/dryer set. I’m not supposed to know about it, but the lifers next-door let it slip.

Mickey and Linda are annuals from the States who’ve been wintering here for so long that they’ve renovated “their” apartment so it’s exactly how they like it. They’re friendly, odd, exuberant, and keen for me to join them for a beverage. (“That is, if you drink alcoholic beverages!” Mickey’d roared with joviality on our first meeting.) I’m also pretty sure that Mickey is trying to set me up with his niece (“She’s a journalist, and single like you!”), but that exchange was so disorientingly strange that I’m tempted to conclude that it was all a dream.

The neighbours’ friends bellow from below all day and night, and are answered from the balconies at correspondingly obscene volumes. Add the incessant barking dogs (Squeaky Bark, who I want to murder, always sets off the enormous mastiff across the street) and I might as well have moved into the jungle. I bristle at the bustle (it’s the Canadian way), but they do put on a really awfully good show. In fact, though cable TV is included in my rent, I’ve turned it on only a handful of times. I’ve no need for further entertainment. That, and the programming is all serial killers, all the time. I stopped watching when I realized that the only Spanish phrases I was picking up were things like ubicación secundaria (secondary location) and los patrones de manchas de sangre (blood spatter patterns).

Almost everything comes to you, here in Mexico, and how else would you know it has arrived than by an audio announcement? Agua Ciel! the water guys from Ciel drive their trucks up and down the streets, calling out the company name. When I need water I rush out onto my balcony and hold up however many fingers: uno or dos jugs please. And one of the guys will hoist however many bottles onto his broad shoulders and muscle them up my stairs and into my apartment. All the water guys wear back braces.

Stoves and hot water are gas-powered but there’s not a system of gas lines running through the neighbourhoods. Gas comes in cylinders that remind me of the ones used to fill helium balloons, but this being Mexico, the tanks here are always painted a cheerful yellow or blue. What a pain in the ass this system would be in Canada. You’d have to have a car, or borrow one, or take a taxi for twice the cost of the gas itself. Not so here. Your gas has arrived when you hear the earnest Soni Gas jingle blaring out of the gas truck.

I had that song stuck in my head for my entire vacation. I would’ve been furious except that it was a relief to have my regular earworm – Total Eclipse of the Heart – supplanted for the first time in three years.

Some places – like Marta-on-the-shelf’s, for example – have stairways so narrow that the gas guys can’t haul the tanks up to the apartment. In these cases, they grab a ladder off the side of the truck and lean it against the balcony. Then one guy climbs up holding a gas pump that unspools from the truck. Presumably, once he’s inside he refills her tanks directly.

Though the idea of a neighbourhood knife sharpener isn’t all that exotic, my neighbourhood knife sharpener ups the ante by signalling his arrival with pan flutes. I’ve only heard him come by once, which is a shame because my knives are so dull that – in the exceptionally weird phraseology of my mother – “you could ride them to town!”

There’s also a family of farmers that works the area, selling fruit out of the back of their truck. Every few days, they’ll career around the corner at the end of my street and stop abruptly. The entire family – mom, dad, kid – will jump out and busily begin hawking fruit. Mom starts weighing out fresas and naranjas on an olde tyme brass scale, dad takes orders from customers, and the kid handles the money.

The fruit truck

The fruit truck

They have a loudspeaker tied with nylon string to the top of the pickup cab that rattles off the day’s prices.

Initially, the fruit truck gave me paralyzing stage fright. The price list was too loud, too fast, too shotgun. Was that 5 pesos or 50 pesos? Is that per pound, per kilo, per bag? Yesterday, finally, I grabbed my money clip and ventured down. For the record, it cost about $1.60 for a big bag of strawberries and a big bag of oranges. I ran into my landlord at the side of the truck and we exchanged greetings. Buenas tardes. Good afternoon. Marta-on-the-shelf came out and bought two giant bags of oranges while a boy of 7 or so hollered Fresas! from her window. So, feeling like Jenny from the block, I tipped my chin up to Mickey and Linda’s balcony and yelled, “Mickey! Linda! Do you want any fruit from the truck?” Mickey dropped a 10-peso note down to the street below and I trumpeted back that I’d bring a bag by at happy hour.

*La gente de mi barrio
The people in my neighbourhood

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