I arrived in Guadalajara (often written GDA for the sake of fingertips) after a seven hour journey from the capital. Mexico’s bus services continue to put the rest of Central America to shame and I was treated with leg rests, a bag of food – croissant filled with ham and jalapeño pepper – and Jim Carrey movies dubbed into Spanish. Partly because I consider myself to be hardcore, but more because I’m a cheapskate, I took the local bus from the station to the city centre rather than getting a taxi. My first glimpse of GDA was not promising: dishevelled, dirty streets covered in plastic litter and graffiti, few people, much traffic. The nearer I got to the centre though, the more things improved, and by the time the bus pulled up next to the cathedral, the afternoon sun bouncing off the towering spire, I was impressed. Two fountained, golden plazas on either side of the cathedral were criss-crossed with youths buying ice-creams and suited businessmen heading home for the day. Two sauntering girls spied me a taxi from between bus lanes and commuters and within a few minutes I was outside the gates of 2603-1 Garibaldi, the house of Señora Ruth Auroze Ortega.
Inside I was presented with my roommate James, aka Jaime, a friendly, laid-back American a couple of years older than me, Juarez, and Señora Ruth.
Husband Juarez is a small, unhurried man who must be pushing eighty, and has the voice of the Godfather which makes understanding him a matter of strict concentration. “Oh yeah,” said James when I admitted this to him, “I mostly lip-read.” Juarez may be a little frail but his mind still works fine, and he often quizzes me about the finer points of the British royal family or the value of the pound to the dollar.
The walls of the house are covered with photos, and an old black-and-white one from Ruth’s quinceañera caught my attention. The quinceañera is a teenage presentation tradition similar to the “debut”, as far as I can gather, and the photograph of Ruth shows her fifteen-year-old self to have been a rather beautiful sylph, which is an alarming statement to make given that presently she lacks several teeth and her circumference greatly exceeds her height. Ruth, which in Mexican is pronounced “Root”, is a strong Catholic grandmother with forthright opinions on everything from washing hands before meals to the climbing of volcanoes. She has the final say on most things in the house and is also in charge of feeding me and James. Fortunately she is a very good cook, even if all Mexican food is, with a few exceptions, variants of tortillas-with-something-spicy-in-the-middle. (The levels of spice, apart from at breakfast, are not as intimidating as I was expecting, and within a week I was taking part in the awkward silence when Ruth forgets to put a bowl of salsa verde on the table.)
As I headed towards bed on the first night, Ruth stopped me and solemnly inspected my necklace, the elastic bands around my wrist and the two old, very cheap, rings on the fingers of my right hand. “Nothing gold?” she asked. “Anything?” I said no, tired and off balance, and she looked me in the eye. “They will take it from you,” she said in a low voice, making a snatching motion across her throat. “If you wear gold in the street. They will take it.”
The socket lit up like a sparkler when I plugged my laptop in. I was grateful to have internet, contact with the rest of the world, in my bedroom.
Settling into life in GDA revolved mostly around CEPE, “Centre for Foreign Students,” the language school that the University of Warwick is partnered with. Returning to a school setting, where I sit at a desk in a classroom and copy down what the teacher tells me, has taken a bit of getting used to. After a mere three days of being in travelling mode in Mexico City, I was instinctively ready to move on after a couple of nights, but instead I found myself putting photos up on the wall, unpacking the last of my backpack , and completing the day’s homework.
The teaching is incomparably better than in the school at Warwick, which I increasingly think must have been some sort of practical joke, but nevertheless the mathematical approach to language still feels unnatural to me. Having learned my Spanish by filtering it out from the island english of Honduras’s bay islands, I have to bite my tongue at the frustration of now having to progress by memorising the specific rules for each conjugation, structure and form. “Es” + adjetivo + INFINITIVO = sujeto indefinido. Only the fact that I am actually learning a lot keeps me from getting too irritated by what feels to me the artifice of it all.
I get tired quicker here, and I am somehow drinking Coke on a regular basis. I no longer see prices in pesos and convert them into pounds in my head (which is a good thing, because it tended to take me a long time.) The mosquitos here are like teenagers outside corner shops pretending they aren’t aiming to get someone with ID to buy them cigarettes. They hang around in a harmless sort of way, trying to land a cheeky nibble. This is a big improvement on the mosquitos in the Caribbean who regard the islands as theirs and become aggravated if you try to hit them, or those up in the mountains of Central America, where they are actually relatively unused to humans and so will descend slowly in happy clouds onto climbers, who then slap themselves and kill four at a time.
I went to church last Sunday morning, Ruth’s mistrust (“but what are you Protestant against? God?”) allayed, and had to contend properly with the grid system on my own for the first time. I am still getting used to it. It’s great when I’m not entirely sure where I am and then I hit a street I know, because it’s then guaranteed to take me where I want to go. In the hodgepodge of Oxford city, street names are virtually useless and people work via the plentiful specific landmarks. However, if you get onto the wrong street here, or even the right street going the wrong way, it can take an awfully long time to get back to where you actually want to go. I have been lost more than once. There is also a one-way system to contend with: sometimes when I’m looking for traffic, I look right, which in Britain would be the wrong way but in Mexico is the right way, only to find I’m actually looking the wrong way because the right way is one way the other way. So it can be hard to tell.
If there is a knock on the door of the house, Ruth or Juarez will always shout “who is it?” before opening up. I couldn’t be sure if this was a culture thing or a security thing until one afternoon when James put his head outside the door to see if it was raining, then went to his room without shutting it properly. A few minutes later, the door had swung open perhaps a foot and there was a commotion in the kitchen. Ruth burst into my room without knocking, which has never happened before or since, hammered on James’s door and berated him for being so careless. “He left the door open!” she explained to me on her way back to the La-Z Boy, sounding as though he’d just drop-kicked a blind orphan into a rubbish bin. “I could be watching TV and anyone with a pistol could just walk in!” How the potential gunman would deal with the two sets of heavy steel gates before the door I don’t know, but Ruth departed shaking her head and muttering that it didn’t bear thinking about.
The house is located in one of GDA’s more affluent areas, so the streets are well lit and there are people wandering to and from restaurants until quite late. I have started running in the evenings just as it begins to get dark and cool, but having not run seriously for several years I can only manage about fifteen minutes around a few blocks. After the first exploratory effort I shambled back into the house, red-eyed and gasping, to find Juarez watching the news. “What happened?” he asked, eyes wide. “Did you get lost again?”