Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just Trying to Get By, Puebla

"TAMALES ATOLE TAMALEEEEES!!!" I hear in a low, gurgled voice over a loudspeaker. "TAMALES ATOLE TAMALEEEEES!!!" It’s coming from a salesman riding his tricycle down the street in front of my house, selling coffee-like drinks and breakfast tamales. He's there every day at the same time, so it must be 7am, time to get out of bed and get ready for work.

Over the next half hour I slowly wake myself up. I soon hear the song of the natural gas truck getting closer, selling cylinders of gas for 200 pesos, its tune still stuck in my head from the day before. Over its loudspeaker I hear "El Gaaas", the sound crescending upward. Its followed by "Hidrogas..." I eventually get the courage to put on some clothes, go into the cold courtyard behind our house, turn on our gas and light the water boiler. Luckily there's still gas and I don't have to flag the truck down as it roles by. And, thankfully, I didn’t have to fight off Fifi, the landlord’s screeching, biting, obnoxious white poodle.

At 9am I leave the house and start the journey to the office. The woman in the apartment on one side of my home is rolling up the white metal gate to the pharmacy that she runs from her front room. On the weekends, she sits at the register with her sister's ten year old daughter, helping her with her homework while her sister is at work somewhere else. On the other side of my house a grandmother sets up a table with homemade "jugos y gelatinas", selling them for ten pesos each. The front door is open to her living room where you can buy all sorts of salty and sugary snacks. The two women that usually sit at the corner under a tarp as they bake handmade blue corn tortillas, or if you ask, add cheese, beans, and crispy chicharon to make quesadillas, haven't yet arrived. It's still early and their food is more of a lunch than a breakfast.

I wait at the corner for the bus. I pick the first one going to the CAPU bus terminal because it will go by my office and it usually doesn't take more than two minutes before one comes by. The bus might be white, green, red, purple, or any number of other color combinations. This time, it's a bright yellow number 10. As it comes closer I wave and it slams on its breaks, pulling over near the sidewalk. I jump on quickly and hold on tight. I hand the bus driver ten pesos for a six peso ride. As the bus starts speeding forward, the driver collects my money, makes my change and hands me my bus ticket. He steers the bus back into traffic, closing in on 40 or 50 miles per hour, all the while shifting gears on the manual transmission. He is talking to the dispatcher on a cell phone held between his head and his shoulder. The amazing thing is that he only has one arm, and it’s his left arm, on the opposite side of the gear shift and the boarding passengers with money.

The bus driver isn't going to wait for me - or the eighty year old grandmother behind me - to get on and sit down before speeding back up. The bus driver isn't just some jerk though; he either owns the bus or rents it from the bus company. He is just one of maybe thirty bright yellow number 10s, and one of a hundred buses with the same route, all competing for customers. The money he makes is is spent on the licensing fee for renting the bus, the taxes paid to the municipality for operating the bus, and the gas that the bus burns to speed down crowded streets during traffic jams. The leftover money is the "profit." If he gets stuck behind another bus on his route, he gets no passengers. Sometimes, two buses line up side by side and race down the street, not stopping for new passengers until one gets far enough ahead to beat the other through stoplight as it turns red, stranding the loser.

After I get my change I struggle down the narrow aisle as the bus bounces down the poorly paved road at very high speeds. I finally find a seat somewhere near the back. It isn't long before someone gets on the bus offering to sell a CD of banda music or rancheros, burned on her computer from downloaded MP3s. She demonstrates the CDs with the stereo and speakers she has hooked up around her waist. It’s only twenty pesos, but I really don't need the CD, so I pass. Sometimes it’s live music; a teenage boy with a guitar, a two-piece mariachi band, or a blind person singing a hymn about the grace of god, asking for whatever change you have left from the bus ticket. Sometimes it’s a man trying sell "cacahuates", or even "papas", ready to add salsa and limón to your peanuts and potato chips if you ask. Or maybe it’s an old man, down on his luck, asking for two pesos, or five. Anything you can spare.

About 25 minutes later, after going past the round-a-bout at dangerously high speeds, I stand up, press the button above me to signal that I want to get off, hold on tight as the bus comes to a halt, then jump off as fast as I can as the bus never really comes to a complete stop.

As I walk down the road towards the office, a stray dog, a beautiful golden retriever, catches up and waits for the light to turn red with me at the corner. I wonder if it’s one of the same dogs that kept me up all night while they held their neighborhood watch meeting; apparently cats aren't welcomed on my block. The dog's obviously in a rush. He's panting heavily and his tongue is drooping out of his open mouth. He's got places to go, things to do, people to see. Maybe he's off to another important meeting, or getting home to his family after working the all-night shift at factory. I half expect it to turn to me and ask "Hey, need any CDs? How 'bout a cell phone? Sweet bread maybe? I have four puppies for sale..." But then, if he could talk, he probably wouldn’t speak English. It isn't scared; he glances up at me out of the corner of his eye but quickly looks back at the light. It's smart enough to know not to test traffic in Puebla and as soon as the light turns he takes off faster than me.

I reach the office and chat with the guard out front. I've been teaching him English. One of his first assignments was to write a brief story of his life in English. In his story he said that he was 33 years old, married and had two kids. It said that when he first got married, he and his wife were very poor. They often went many days without food and could never afford new clothes or medicine. However, he said that since he got the job as the office guard, everything changed. His wife is happy, his kids are healthy, and he built a new addition to his parent’s house that he now lives in.

One of the janitor ladies walks by and I say hello. I've been trying to find a time to help her learn English and teach her how to use a computer. She is really interested but hasn't been able to find a good day for a class. She cleans our office from 8am to 4pm, then goes to another office on the other side of the city and cleans it until 8pm. She tells me that a weekend day might be right, but she works Saturdays and takes care of her daughter's kids on Sundays; so far it hasn't worked out.

After work, I head to the "centro." The historic downtown of Puebla is beautiful; blocks and blocks of three to four-story buildings, all hundreds of years old and ornately decorated with blue "talavera" ceramic tiles made in one of the artisan workshops nearby. Massive chapels tower over zocalos and pedestrian walkways that are booming with all sorts of people looking for something to do, eat, or sell. Street performers attract crowds on every corner. Only a small number of the people are tourists, exploring an undiscovered, vibrant downtown filled with outdoor markets, museums and cafes that would be world famous if it were in one of the calm and "well-planned" cities in the United States.

At the markets, vendors shout out what they are selling and how much it costs. One woman yells "Dulces! Pasteles! Chocolates!" Another man nearby yells "Camotes!” and quickly repeats the price “a diez a diez a diez!" On the side streets, indigenous women in colorful dresses ask for money - or food - to help them support them and their infants that are hanging on their backs, wrapped tight in a bright red cloth tied around the mother's chest. Another man holds out a hat for change as his son plays the accordion for people walking by. A boy, no more than six years old, walks from table to table at a streetside restaurant asking if anyone would like to buy "chicles", or bubblegum. His younger brother is close at hand.

The streets of Puebla are full of life, sometimes heartbreakingly difficult life, but often persevering, beautiful and uplifting life. People are out walking, no matter what time of day. They are shopping, hanging out with their friends, or going to work. Kids play on the sidewalks. The sound of laughter and music is everywhere. Newspaper stands line the streets. The mouthwatering smell of grilled tacos, cemitas, and tortas fills the air. Roadside food stands are lit up at night, with steam billowing off the large soup cauldrons and smoke flowing off the orange flames. There are always lines for the best food. The people are all trying to run businesses, do their jobs, and feed their families. They're all just trying to get by.


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  2. Thanks for keeping us abreast of daily life in Mexico. (Andrew is lucky to have you as an "enabler" to support his lack of communication!)
    I especially enjoyed the bus ride escapades. Your description had tears running down my face.