The Trees and the Buildings

“The difference between a language and a dialect,” said Nick, my new class- and room-mate, “is that a language has a navy backing it up.” Having been taught that all language is dialect in my literary theory course last year, I was pleased to find someone with a similar angle on things, even if our approaches to learning are different. “I love grammar!” Profa Rosa had beamed in the first week of Level Seven. Semester one had ended and semester two brought two new classes and two new teachers.  After the inauspicious start, Level Seven has improved, although the commitment to an a posteriori method still feels to me like switching the ends and the means. Level Eight is, happily, the polar opposite, where Profa Mercedes chatters away to us about GDA’s social divides, the varying offensiveness of street slang or the best places to buy Chinese. We occasionally do half an exercise in the workbook, but Mercedes inevitably remembers a funny story or has to ask someone a question about their home culture and half an hour later we have learned a lot about Shanghai’s marriage trends but not much about the subjunctive.

The end of my first five-week term conincided with an appointment with the Immigration Office over my student visa. Having had a bad first experience of Latin American bureaucracy I was preparing for long-term conflict but, in the end, the paperwork and fees were not overly stressful and with two trips to various offices in the city centre I was presented with my laminate student card, which allows me to stay in the country continuously for twelve months but does not fit in the card slots in my wallet.

Shortly after the visa episode, the more pressing issue of moving house kicked in. Living with Ruth and Juarez was taking too much of a toll both on my finances and my sanity, and after much searching and tapping what fragile networks I had formed here, I found an apartment with a couple of Mexican students within walking distance of my school. The process of searching a foreign city for accomodation on my own had not been fun and I was grateful not to have to move to a different colonia completely, which would have meant starting from scratch with bus routes, landmarks, names and junctions of major streets and shops. My final week with Ruth and Juarez was hard, as Ruth was dramatically unwell and left her bed only to be carried to an ambulance. “I wish they would just tell me if I had cancer,” she sighed several times that evening. I judged it would not be politic to suggest that the fact all three doctors she had been to see had told her she did not, in fact, have cancer, probably meant that she did not have cancer. The following day, after much ritual with the medecine box, Ruth was in fine form, dancing to swing hits from her youth and cracking jokes about not having washed for too long. The next day the illness that had been in her throat and stomach had somehow spread to her knees, and she returned to horizontality. The following day the knees were no longer giving her pain but the right foot was thickly bandaged. Illness is not, in general, a laughing matter, but my sympathy grew increasingly limited as the sighed comments about not being able to afford medicine after I deprived them of my rent became more pointed.

The weekends flew by, with nights out in the bars of Chapultepec, the local football derby in a 70,000 seater stadium, and DJ Shadow fresh from California. Shadow was so late getting on to stage that the crowd got restless and began heckling the techies. When Mexicans start taking issue with your punctuality, you know you’re pushing it.

The lady who owned the apartment we were to move into postponed. Six more days with Ruth and Juarez. The Day of the Dead arrived early in November, and altars and marigolds burst up overnight into all the public spaces in the city. We tried to get into a cemetary that night, but after a long queue we were told the event had sold out days before. What the tour would have involved still intrigues me; I am to this day still slightly unsure of what El Día de los Muertos actually constitutes.

On Thursday at midday I finally received a text from Jony saying the apartment was ready and we could move in that afternoon. After classes finished at 1pm, I went home, ate lunch, explained what was happening to Ruth and Juarez, and packed. By 2pm I was sitting in an empty room, everything I had brought with me to Mexico in a my backpack and a smaller rucksack. Mexican time usually runs roughly an hour and a half later than the given time, and this time I didn’t have a given time. 3pm. 4pm. “Still here?” laughed Juarez. It was a curiously vulnerable moment, sitting there, having said my goodbyes and with not even a photo on the wall for encouragement. 5, 6pm. At 7 my phone buzzed again: there’d been a mix-up, we’d have to move tomorrow. I felt embarrassed, confused, hungry. I knew about urban loneliness only from books and films, but I have experienced it here: there are five million people right here, I remember thinking, and I have not one of them I can talk to.

The move the next day, in the end, went fine. Jony rolled up in a car with his cousin and we cruised downtown to pick up Nick. We moved in, three between two bedrooms, with the promise of a bigger apartment “soon” keeping humour good. At around five in the afternoon we were sitting in the living room/kitchen and we looked at each other. “Anyone fancy a beer?” said Nick. That was a turning point: no more having to plan days in advance when I wanted to go out for a drink, no more having to wait for Ruth’s (quite literal) blessing before leaving the house. The bigger apartment has not emerged but I don’t mind. Jony was great with practicalities, his rapid Spanish sorting out the rent and the utensils the flat was missing before he settled into the sagging armchair in front of his TV and got on with the real work of browsing the hundred-or-so cable channels for cleavage. A couple of nights ago, we got back from a bar at around 11pm. “I can smell gas,” warned his cousin immediately as we walked in. “I don’t think so,” assured Jony, thrusting his nose into the hob and flicking the ignition a couple of times to make sure.

My friend Greg organised a trip to a canyon just outside the city that weekend, so for the first time in six weeks I escaped the metropolis and could see no buildings or roads in any direction. I was reminded of Spud’s miserable cry in Trainspotting when he leaves Edinburgh for the highlands: “It’s not natural, Tommy!” The path down the canyon was steep and rocky, but when we arrived at perhaps 9.30am there was already a stream of Mexicans returning from the floor. The morning sun tickled my eyes and I sneezed loudly. “Bless you,” wheezed the nearest jogger. Rambo ran past us at the bottom, wearing denim hotpants and weights attached to his wrists. We admired the river with the horses in the distance, drank some lukewarm water and ate sandwiches. Got our breath back. Rambo began to do press-ups.

I run now for half an hour, which is perhaps not directly impressive, but  at around twice the time I could manage when I started I feel is definite progress. Between 5 and  6pm is the best time, when the sun has dipped low enough to cast shadows over all the streets but still makes the tops of the trees and the buildings glow. The days are noticeably shorter now; the clocks went back at the same time as Britain’s. October brought the end of the rainy season, which had dragged on unusually late this year, with the hurricanes on both the Atlantic and Pacific coast contributing. GDA is too far inland to be affected directly, but the storm that hit Puerto Vallarta, the beach town on the west coast, sent three days of ceaseless rain to the city. Now the “winter” is here, temparatures in the morning and evening are enough to set the tapatios grumbling for their jackets and sweaters, although the heat of the day still reaches 25° comfortably.

I visited Tequila, birthplace of the licor, and was surprised to like the town itself as well as the tour of a distillery. Maddy and I got on the wrong bus on the way back and it took an hour to get back to where we started; I missed the first half an hour of an independent film from DF I’d agreed to see with Greg. That was my last sociable act for a week as I went underground to write my first essay for Warwick. I ended it with a paragraph on the plasticity of time in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which seemed appropriate as I now feel time is passing about twice as fast as it was two weeks ago. I find myself with a pleasing balance of being busy but also having lots of free time. I have two weeks of school left and one more essay to send back to Warwick, and then I have a whole month to myself… the rural south of Mexico beckons.

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2 thoughts on “The Trees and the Buildings

  1. Hey, this is totally random, but I thought you might like it.

    I actually lived with Ruth and Senior Juarez. I was recalling an especially grizzly episode I had with them back when I was in GDL in 2003. I thought, surely those guys kept hosting, and someone has to have had something to say on the subject.

    Ridiculous to be going out of my way to point out something so negative, but it is true, living with those two was a real trial. I was there for a few months and it just sucked the life out of me – your description was really apt. Other than a couple of major incidents, it was mostly just a light and constant bashing of insensitivity and bitterness from Ruth.

    Its a bit twisted, but I was sort of glad to see you did not have a positive experience, because the guy who was there before me seemed to love the place and I always wondered if I am just a fundamentally nasty person or something.

    • Wow, that’s amazing you lived with them as well! I was living with one other student at the time and he found it pretty hard as well, so it’s definitely not just you. What were you doing out there? And how did you come across this blog?!

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