Monday, May 25, 2009

Regresando a México

"This is the flight I was supposed to take two weeks ago..." I thought as my plane took off from San Francisco airport at 8am this morning. It was frustrating for me. I had spent the last three weeks traveling in California, attending my brother's track meet and my boyfriend's graduation. Overall it had been a good thing. But leaving Mexico City on such short notice and having to drop out of UNAM was devastating for me. It had taken me all of three weeks to establish a normal schedule, get my things organized, and start thinking clearly--I had completely spaced three leadership meetings. Now I was working on my final papers to get credit for my classes, spending time with Sean and his family, and even going out to dinner with the few friends I had who were still in Berkeley and not buried in finals. 

The Mexico I landed in little resembled the one I left but was once again much more like the one I loved. A few facemasks dotted the landscape but their had always been some people who wore them, usually incorrectly, because of the pollution. Besides that, subtle signs of the influenza porcina (swine flu) could be seen here and there: a thermal temperature reader at the airport, a new form to fill out at customs, signs on the metro indicating that the car would be thoroughly sanitized ever 72 hours. But Mexico seemed mostly healthy. Even the exchange rate was stabilizing around 13 pesos to the dollar. They did look at me funny though for flying into the city without any luggage except my laptop in a purse.

The city was comfortable familiar. I had been in the airport about half a dozen times now; the metro ride to and from I knew quite well. It wasn't until I was walking from the metro to "home" that I began to feel a little chocked up. I think it was recognizing the same advertisement that had been there for months that made it really hit home that I was here. 

The family welcomed me with open arms, even though I had been unable to notify them of my arrival until I landed at the airport. Most of my friends from the program have gone back to the states, and the few that remain are on vacation traveling throughout the republic. Tomorrow I will drop by UNAM to go to some of my old classes (this is the last week before finals for them) and hopefully to see some of my friends. I don't know what I'll say.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

15 Minutes

Over the last few days the news of swine flu has begun to disappear from the headlines. The death toll is no longer country in terms of the number infected but those who happen to be near car bombs or, for that matter, American bombs. The places are no longer the familiar streets of Mexico City but rather towns I've never been to, in countries that are altogether foreign to me: Tbilisi, Georgia; Garoowe, Somalia. Sometimes the names are all too familiar, another sign that life is returning to normal: Baghadad, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan. 

It is at this point that I start to wonder if it was all a dream. The facemasks, the hysteria, the drastic government measures (seven day quarantine of Mexican airline passengers in China, anyone?). Even the numbers seemed to have changed in the papers--while we were reading about hundreds of deaths and thousands of infections just over a week ago, now the papers have a much more demure count of total cases. And yet I still hear the words echoed in strange places. Waiting at a late-hour bus stop in San Jose I hear a man laugh into his self phone that maybe his ill friend has contracted. The kids at the middle school joke about. Even these mentions seem to belittle what I thought was a crisis. A World Health Organization Level 5 pandemic alert, to be exact.

So was it all an overreaction? Probably. But as the headlines shift back to the issues of foreign wars, international strategic talks and diplomatic meetings, I realize that swine flu is just one of the crises we have faced as man kind. With one week's crisis solved, we are on to the next. We'll see how we handle it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Waking Life

One of the favorite editing techniques of action movie producers is the rapid switch between scenes. In one shot, our main hero is firing a rocket launcher out of a helicopter as the city below him erupts in flames, and the next he is sitting quietly at home, sipping a cup of tea and listening to the quiet patter of rain out his double-paned window, reflecting on the suddenly far-away experience. In a very odd way, that's the feeling I've been getting about my life recently. I've been pulled out of my action scene, where I was exploring Mayan ruins, living in one of the biggest cities on earth, and fighting off the swine flu, and now I am sitting in Berkeley, watching the weather change and the faucet drip, all my clothes two thousand miles away.

I say to all my friends that I'm sad to have left Mexico but glad to be back. But the reality is that, in comparison, I was not yet ready to be here. As my days slowly fill with meetings and commitments, I am regaining my former life but with the full knowledge that I will never have my life in Mexico back. As I filled out my withdrawal forms the other night I began to cry, and I didn't stop until I fell asleep in Sean's arms. I guess coming back isn't all bad: sleeping in with Sean, dinners with Kyle and Sonya, and lunch times with my mentee at the middle school. And this weekend with the family :) But there is a lot I am missing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Changing Places, Changing Clothes

As a kid, going to the season-end banquet for Jr. Guards or Track was always an interesting event. Not so much because of all the awards given out or the yummy food, but mostly because you got to see the sweaty people you had worked out with for months all showered and dressed up in "real people" clothes. It was a similar thing visiting with my friend Aileen after we had returned from Mexico. While the weather down south had been a balmy eighty degrees everyday, here it was blustery and cold, and we were dressed accordingly. Aileen still wore her signature and lipstick, and I had was technically still wearing the same clothes I had been since I'd left Mexico (having left all my stuff behind before knowing the program was cancelled), but still, we looked different. Aileen was wrapped up in a scarf, a grey sweatshirt and pants. Long gone were her dresses and bright-pink party pants. 

Not only had our clothes changed, but so had the people on the Berkeley streets in comparison to those in our colonia in Mexico. My observation was that they looked a lot more polished. "They look like sluts!" was Aileen's analysis. It was true, people here have a lot more, let's call, body expression freedom. Despite the cold weather I saw a fair amount of skin. 

Like old men pining for the good old days, we discussed our time in Mexico over some sushi on Telegraph. It was all very frustrating. And over all we were worried about changing back to our old selves, leaving our Spanish and amazing experience behind. Our clothes showed that this process had already begun. But something makes me think we we'll never completely forget our time in Mexico. Heck, I'm going back at the end of May.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Another Crisis

Having been gone for four months, I had forgotten some of the realities of life at home. Indeed, on my trip back in to town from the airport my thoughts of swine flu were briefly overshadowed by another international crisis: the economic recession. Just as the swine flu had interrupted my day to day life in Mexico City, I quickly noticed how much the recession had hit here: every shop on College Ave had a big SALE sign in the window. Those that weren't actually selling the business or the building were offering deep discounts on what used to be high-end merchandise for the Berkeley elite. My trip to Safeway a few days later revealed more sales, this time to help the struggling family buying cereal and ice cream. Although I must that admit these price reductions made the transition to the higher-priced American food a little easier to bare.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Program Cancelled

Dear Spring 2009 Mexico Students (Bcc):

You are receiving this email if you were studying on the UNAM or Field Research Programs in Mexico and have recently returned to the U.S. Please read this message carefully, print all documents, and follow all instructions today.

Due to the recent Travel Health Warning issued by the CDC, your program in Mexico has been relocated to California for the remainder of the term. Academic arrangements will be made to complete EAP coursework, you will remain registered in EAP for the duration of the program, and your financial aid will not be impacted as long as you successfully complete the program.

Attached are several documents for you to review immediately and take action on:

1. Announcement of Temporary Relocation of Mexico Programs

2. Letter of instruction

3. CDC Travel Health Warning

4. 2008-09 Gap Insurance Form

5. Suspension Agreement – please sign and return to me today, by email.

6.& 7. Disposition Notice and Contract for Incomplete – Please complete these forms and return to Monica Rocha.

Kind regards,


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

San Francisco

So there I was on BART in the airport station in San Francisco, trying to gage the differences between here and Mexico. The train had been sitting here for over five minutes now, doors wide open, and so I had plenty of time for my own thoughts. The first difference, then, was that the Mexico City metro would NOT sit at a station for five minutes.

Finally, a voice came over the intercom to explain all of this particular train's destinations and to inform us that the doors would now be closing. I noticed that the voice was that of a new driver, as it had changed genders since the last informative announcement. A man who had been standing just outside the door talking loudly on his cellphone stalled another minute before finally stepping through the entrance. Of course, his bag got stuck between the closed doors. He tugged at it and the doors slid open again, a red light flashed and an automatic voice informed us that the door was blocked and to please stand clear of the doors. 

It's not that the metro doesn't have this mechanism; it even has an automatic voice, and I would know--it once got stuck on repeat as we sped down the tracks. But the doors in the metro would sooner drag you by the arm down the tunnel than open. The image sticks in my mind of my father having to pry them open once as our family got separated between them--me on one side, them on the other--somewhere beneath the busy metropolis. 

What struck me the most, though, was this man's confidence in the system. He almost had a sense of entitlement that his squished suitcase should stay intact no matter how long he wanted to pause before entering the car. When the doors slid open again he righted the bag and calmly walked to his seat. 

The seats are another thing about the metro. I'm pretty sure BART is wider to begin with, but it is also emptier. And much better ventilated. So I sat there in comfort as we rode along down the tunnel (although admittedly at a much slower pace than the metro). The conductor's voice narrated the whole time.

By the time we were in downtown San Francisco I had moved on to wondering about an advertisement showing a poor African woman. The metro has ads for organizations, too, but featuring Mexicans who have been helped rather than foreigners. What a weird culture, I thought, in which Americans don't like to look at or acknowledge their own poor. Poverty is something that can only happen somewhere else. I wonder if this is the same mindset for swine flu. I was still pondering this depressing thought when we passed through the Embarcadero station and a crowd of baseball fans came on.

A group of strangers all wearing Dodgers gear struck up a conversation, one man in his 30's using the phrase "Fuck yeah!" as a means of introduction, high fiving his fellow fanatics. The one Giants fan on the train stood by the door with a defeated smile on his face, his girlfriend trying to comfort him. It was at this point that I began to wonder why there were so many Dodgers fans in the Bay Area. 

I spent the rest of the time wondering if my fellow passengers would freak if they knew I was coming from Mexico City. My facemask still hung limply around me neck.