Friday, February 22, 2008

Roof Dog Rant

Two doors down from our little row house in San Miguel a huge black Doberman perches on the edge of a flat concrete roof among the rusting rebar and dead potted plants, its dark ominous shape looming over the street below. Yellow eyes, a stray tooth poking out over its lower lip, one ear sticking straight up, the other bent at an odd angle. At any time of the day or night, motivated perhaps by a passing street dog, a running child, the gas man or the rising full moon, it lurches into a barking frenzy, overtaking any other activity such as conversation, reading or sleeping. It is a deep-throated explosion of sound, a thunderous dark bellowing, a bone racking howl and cry that echoes off of the walls and down the cobblestone streets below.

The Mexican roof dog. It is a phenomenon that is difficult to understand, especially by someone who comes from a culture where animal cruelty is frowned upon and peace and quiet revered. Aside from offering a sense of protection against crime, the roof dog owes its meager existence to a lack of space in a city where houses share walls and small patios and courtyards don’t allow for pets and the messes they make.
To complain to the dog’s owners would be futile, I am told. It would only invite bad relations and would not do anything to resolve the problem. What problem, gringo? So I have tried joking about it, forcing a laugh. I have tried listening to the barking without letting myself become irritated, attempted to hear it as mere sound without judgment. I have tried to feel love and compassion towards this poor wretched creature whose pathetic fate consists of several square feet of concrete under a hot sun. I will be like the Buddha, I say. I will practice acceptance and gratitude. But it isn’t long before my throat begins to tighten, my chest contracts, and I feel my jaw begin to twitch. Soon any semblance of spiritual progress I have made in my life shatters like a frail illusion as I envision myself shooting the dog in the head or tossing up a little meat injected with rat poison. ‘Just don’t listen to it,’ says my Mexican neighbor. But how? After all, you can’t close your ears as you can your eyes and mouth.

Years ago, I befriended a young Zapotec Indian man who invited me to spend a few days with his family in their village on the coast of Oaxaca. I spent the night in their one room house along with his parents, grandparents, children, cousins, and in-laws, all sleeping in hammocks strung across hooks in the walls. I remember lying awake for hours listening to the roosters crowing and dogs barking until I finally fell asleep from pure exhaustion, only to be jolted awake a few hours later by the sound of a screaming woman. I bolted upright in my hammock to see my friend’s ancient grandmother perched in front of a television set turned on full blast to a late night telenovela, in which an angry woman cursed and wailed through the worn speakers, mascara streaming down her face.
I must have shouted in my surprise because the old lady turned to me from across the room, smiling a toothless grin. “Que pasa, guera? She asked. “no puedes dormir?” “What’s the matter, blondie? Can’t sleep?”
Furious and confused, I looked around me at the dark room, illuminated by the dim blue light from the television. What I saw seemed impossible. Everyone was still fast asleep, snoring in their hammocks, sleeping children sprawled on a mattress on the floor at various angles, oblivious to the deafening noise. And that’s when I got it. It’s not that they learn to cope, because this is all they know. Raised in large noisy families in a cacophony of wailing radios, blaring televisions, clanging church bells, the barking and crowing and screeching of animals and honking of traffic, they learn to hear selectively, to listen only to what they need to hear.
Levels of tolerance to noise seem to be a learned thing that develops within a culture.
Once I met a man from Switzerland who told me that in his apartment building in Zurich a person could call the police on their neighbor if they took a shower after the 10:00 curfew, as the noise would be too disturbing.

When I lived in San Cristobal my friend Anie, a painter from Australia, rented an apartment above a restaurant in the center of town, where she would paint beautiful delicate gouache paintings of Buddhas and clouds. One day the restaurant began doing remodeling construction, and she was tormented every day by the sound of hammering and machinery below her feet. She would come over to my house in tears, unable to work or think. “Help me! She would cry. I’m losing my mind!” When she complained to the restaurant owner they told her not to worry, that it would be over in a few weeks. So she toughed it out, and after about a month the noise finally ceased. She was so grateful she spent the first day sobbing with relief. What she didn’t know was that what they had been building the whole time was a dance floor for their brand new discothèque.

And so it is. Mexico does not promise peace and quiet, only the incessant sound, color, and smells that constantly assault and entice the senses and remind you that you are never alone. The chaos of life is always present and abundant, buzzing and exploding with unpredictable energy.

Meanwhile the roof dog is at it again, and I wonder if I can possibly learn to find some semblance of peace amidst the discomfort I feel in the midst of its barking. If so, perhaps I can find peace anywhere. I practice “selective listening” as if it were yoga. And once in a great while I do succeed.
Meanwhile, I try to be thankful every day for the small miracles in my life. Like ear plugs, for instance.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Burdens We Bear

In the chill of the morning, a string of black Ibis wind their way across a rosy pink sky over the high desert plain. Under a scrawny mesquite tree by the reservoir, two men are scooping rich soil from the shore into flour sacks and loading them onto the backs of two waiting burros. The smells of animals and earth and wood smoke from the nearby village fill the air. They work silently, the burros shifting under the growing weight of their load, their ears twitching among the flies that buzz lazily around their heads.

Finally, the bags are tied onto the animals with rope, and men and beasts begin the long climb up the hillside toward the clanging church bells of San Miguel. They walk past the bright green alfalfa fields and the small adobe and brick houses, climbing over the railroad tracks by the old abandoned train station to where the dirt roads turn to pavement at the edge of town. They lead the animals uphill towards the center of town, passing children in school uniforms carrying day packs full of books, their hair slicked back and shoes freshly shined. They nod to the housewives and maids in aprons and rebozos carrying their plastic shopping bags down to the market. Gringos weave past them on the stone sidewalks carrying yoga mats, Spanish books, sketchpads and laptops. Early morning traffic grinds its way up the narrow streets.

A dusty golden light peeks over the tops of the buildings, slanting across the ochre and sienna walls and meandering up the cobblestone streets and into the courtyards and gardens as a new crescent moon fades into the lightening sky. The hot, yeasty fragrance from the local bakery mingles with the smell of diesel fumes and wet stones. Pigeons coo and flap from various niches in the old stone and brick buildings. Doorways open and young women with plastic buckets sprinkle water onto the dusty streets as if bestowing blessings.

The men lead their burros into the nicer neighborhoods at the top of the hill, wandering the streets from door to door and offering their bags of earth for sale as fertilizer for the gardens that lie hidden behind the high walls of the big houses. They wipe the sweat from their foreheads as they unload the bags, the shadows growing shorter as the sun rises higher in the endless sky.

By mid-afternoon, they pass by an outdoor café where tourists and locals are having lunch under colorful umbrellas. At one small table, a middle-aged couple sip lemonade, circling real estate ads in the local English language newspaper. Having recently sold their LA condo, they have come to seek refuge and a simpler life in Mexico, where they hope to buy a colonial house near the center of town. Already they have signed up for Spanish classes, joined a few local clubs and made several friends. They have fallen in love with the town and the people, surrounded by such heartbreaking beauty, and are happy to have discovered this charming little place they are now calling their home.

The men stop to rest next to the café to water their animals at a fountain built into the side of a building. Two brown-skinned men in stained clothes and straw hats; two burros carrying mounds of white sacks, casting russet colored shadows against a terra cotta wall.

Across the street a man in khaki shorts, pale legs planted into white socks and sandals, canvas safari hat perched on his balding head, raises his Nikon to eye level. Squinching up his face, he makes a few adjustments to the camera, zooming in on the men with the burros. He can’t believe his luck. Last year, his picture of a beggar woman carrying a small child in a shawl had won him second prize in the county fair in his hometown. And now here is this perfectly quaint scene, presenting itself to him like a gift.

At the click of the shutter, the men with the burros jerk their heads up toward the sound. They watch intently as the man re-adjusts the camera for a second shot. Their faces take on a sudden look of desperation, and they thrust their empty hands out towards him.

The man with the camera blinks, as if surprised that the men are actually alive and not just figurines placed there for his personal viewing pleasure. What now? He tips his hat nervously, uncertain as to what to do next, uncomfortable that he has to acknowledge them. He begins to back away, the heavy black camera twisting awkwardly around his neck.

The couple at the table have looked up from their newspaper to witness the scene. They see the poor Mexicans with the overburdened burros. They see the clueless tourist with the enormous lens, lurking away. Suddenly they are both on their feet, the man pointing an accusing finger at the Nikon.

“Hey!” He shouts. “For chrissakes, give them a few pesos, why dontcha?” The man with the camera stops and turns to see where the voice is coming from.

“You can’t just walk around taking pictures of people without their permission, you know,” says the woman. She is standing with the newspaper clenched in her hand. Perhaps she plans to hit him with it. Instead, she shoves it into a plastic shopping bag decorated with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and crosses her arms, glaring at him.

The man with the camera stares at them, then back to the Mexicans, who are still standing with their outstretched hands. Their desperate faces soften unwittingly into confused and mild amusement as they witness the drama unfolding before them. The man with the camera looks sheepish, as if he has been caught stealing. He tries to speak, but he can’t imagine what he should say, and so begins to fumble awkwardly in his pockets.

Dark moons of sweat reveal themselves beneath the armpits of his Banana Republic shirt as coins tumble and clatter onto the cobblestones. He crouches down to gather them up, then stands up and steadies himself. He sees the two men talking softly to each other, nodding their chins toward him. He sees the American couple turn and walk away, shaking their heads. Then he moves slowly, nervously towards the men and drops a few coins into each of the earth-brown hands. He can smell the stench of the animals, the dust and the sweat. The men tip their hats and offer him their crinkled smiles. He nods his head and manages a nervous grin. The men pocket the coins, and then one of them holds out his hand again, his palm turned sideways. The man with the camera reaches out and shakes the calloused hand with his own sweaty one, takes a full breath, then turns and slowly walks away, down the winding narrow streets to the cool safety of his hotel.

The burros, their loads somewhat lighter now, gratefully lap up the cool water from the fountain, then stand still and silent in the narrow shade of the overhanging Bougainvillea, momentarily protected from the heat of the afternoon sun. They close their eyes and rest. As far as they are concerned, this is as good as it gets.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Amor Espinado

Love is where you find it.

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day!