Notes from Mexico Trip- Johnny Monsarrat Mexico Trip

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16TH, 1999 – OAXACA

Good morning. I order French toast for breakfast. I get smallish toast slices, cinnamon & sugar. There's butter in the egg batter. You can add honey. The French toast is a little under-cooked -- raw eggs, a nightmare for a traveler hoping not to get sick. I eat the crusty edges and avoid the center.

The Chichonal volcano erupted in 1981. It's part of the Chiapas highlands. The Zapatistas wear a black ski mask. They sell "Subcommandante Marcos" dolls in San Cristobal.

The bathrooms are labelled "damas" and "caballeros". "propina" means "tip".

I have an idea for the book. How about a Lord of the Flies thing. Remember how in that book, the boys were fighting, and then the adults fight World War II sort of the same way? Well, the Indians reacting to technology might mirror how society reacts to technology globally.

People here go to mass, 45 minute or 30 minutes every day. We're getting a tour of middle class areas from Nicolas, our tour guide. I've asked him to show us where one of my characters might live: a young woman who works in biotech. No zoning laws here, so residences are right next to marts and markets. Gates in cement walls. There are some apartments here. I see a "Rotoplus" water container on a roof. Most people cook for themselves. There's a dog on one roof we pass.

People dress better in this area, and the cars are OK, but not the houses. There's a line of laundry. The stucco is sometimes heavy and with much texture. There's a big difference between lower & middle class. But not so much difference between the middle & rich class culture. Poor people are really poor here: no car, no house. Rich houses have better paint jobs. Middle people don't want to appear poor.

I ask why the houses aren't better kept up. He says people don't have the extra money to spare for paint. They're probably working an extra part-time job and don't have time anyway. People usually focus first on clothing, then car, then house in that order.

Younger people may want to live with their family until they're married, even if they can afford a house. Even Nicolas is married and lives at home. He doesn't care about a house; what he really wants is a car. (It turns out our tour guides have been getting their car for the day only from their agency.)

Nicolas is younger, mid-20s? Beard & mustache, no sideburns. Tan baseball cap. Gold bracelet. t-shirt, no logo or small logo. Dressy pants & brown shoes.

We've asked Nicolas if we can visit some biotech labs here. I'm still trying to get a feel for biotech in Mexico for my book. He takes us to some laboratory. Ugh! The toilet doesn't flush; when Amy presses the lever it just makes a clicking noise, no force feedback. They just pour a pail of water into it. There's a hose for the sink that goes to a hole in the floor. There's a metal plate over the top of the toilet tank.

People are happy even though they don't have money here. There isn't the competitive drive of the US. Children enjoy going to school and hate vacation because their parents make them work.

This lab is a place for analyzing blood for a hospital. There's a small room with a midsize fridge for chemicals. A small 8'x8' room with shelves of chemicals. Old-looking. A centrifuge and a small office: 8'x6' with a computer. It's just this doctor and his female assistant. White stucco.

I interview the guy, but he's no use at all. He insists that science in Mexico is the same as the US. No difference at all. I think he's totally out of touch with reality. He went to California to study. "Unam" is the main school in Mexico City. "People from the US don't know about local viruses like we do."

We leave. Nicolas says they don't always have a meritocracy in Mexico. He was in the US working in a cannery as a packer and he became a forklift drive because he spoke English and worked hard. He earned more that way. But in Mexico, people who chat up the boss win.

There are unions: if you're in good, you get a promotion. Hard workers want to work and don't have time to talk. People who like to work don't like the ones who like to talk. Sometimes there are fights. If a manager has made a mistake, and you tell him that, he'll get angry. To get a job you must get a reference.

Now we go to the local University. There's a bus stop here, with students waiting. Two hug, like they're parting for Xmas break. One is holding a manila folder. The parking lot is filthy: trash all over, and two snack stands for selling things. The University has cement walkways. There are some new buildings here. There's a fresh wood frame with a cement foundation. Not completely built, and it's filled with students in chairs having class taught! I guess they need the space.

Trash on the ground. I ask Nicolas again about it, "It's just the culture to drop trash anywhere. People think, It's not my job to pick up garbage. Housekeeping service will do it." Students are proud to graduate from this university. They take entrance exams and must come from high school (3 yrs, grades 10-12). The school is closed for Xmas break, so we leave.

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