Friday, September 3, 2004

Travels with Maggie

Travels with Maggie
Adrienne Moore

It’s been exactly one month, two days since I traded the disinfected halls of the Seattle International Airport for the crumbling ruins, scabies infected street children, and soft southern Mexican sun. On that first day, walking out on the distinctly American tarmac, recognizable as such by its near perfect newness, the smell of the early sun warming up the black tar felt like a bittersweet farewell. It was a hopeful smell, like the feeling you got when your grade school teacher told you that ‘in America you could be anything you wanted to be’. And because in my head concrete and America often felt like interchangeable ideas, my subconscious was grasping at that sense of hope. There was something in the utter foolishness of embarking on an open-ended trip, alone with my toddling daughter to a country with a language I couldn’t speak and water I couldn’t drink, that instilled in me a sense of wonder in my own possibilities.

But now here we are, this adventure at its end. We are waiting for the overnight bus to Mexico City, which leaves in 15 minutes. I have: a sleepy one year old, a backpack, a stroller, a car seat, and a fifty pound suitcase that the taxi driver can’t extract from his trunk. In one great motion of disgust, I stuff the baby in the car seat on the ground, the backpack on the roof, and the stroller precariously against the side door. With a foot shielding the baby, I grab the handle of the suitcase and use all the mother strength I have to extract its bulging mass from the car. The taxi driver sheepishly accepts my twenty pesos, slams the car door, and takes off without another glance. Catching the air born backpack and tumbling stroller, I yell the meanest sounding Spanish I can think of at the already out of sight Nissan. For the third time in under an hour, the tears begin to well up in my eyes as I arrange the baby in the sling, the backpack on my back, the car seat in the stroller, and pull the suitcase slowly up the crumbling steps of the bus station. Pulling out my frayed Spanish dictionary I set to work on the poor woman looking nervously up at me from behind the counter.

Amidst the chaos of buses releasing great clouds of grey smoke into the frosty Oaxacan night and travelers comparing destinations with reader boards announcing schedule changes, I stand outside the bus, my eyes disobeying my strict orders to stop their crying; each tear feeling like a personal betrayal. The driver of the bus is sweating in his polyester uniform and conveniently can’t understand my appeals to bring my car seat aboard the nearly empty bus. The words “triste” “bebe” and “todo el noche” catch the attention of the man loading the great metal undercarriage; he motions for me to wait while he finds a “muchacho.”

I stand there awkwardly avoiding the stares of other passengers already settling in for the night ride. A tall man in a suit and tie, who is easily the only person in the station that reaches my chin, makes his way over to me. A placating look on his face, he informs me that the seats are too small for the “American” car seat. I infer that he’s suggesting something about my own American stature, but I simply offer to show him that my seat fits perfectly in the spacious first class seats. As he struggles in English, I mumble off my entire Spanish vocabulary. He breaks down and attempts an explanation in Spanish I cannot begin to understand. I take this as a cue to smile weakly back and nod as I ascend the bus stairs, car seat in hand, ignoring the increasingly more anxious yet incomprehensible words streaming behind me.

Maggie falls quickly asleep despite the incessant Mariachi music blaring across overhead speakers and the clucking of shrunken older women and chickens bound for markets and family dinners. I thank the goddess for small blessings, pull out my second hand novel and turn on the overhead light. While sleep escapes me, the overwhelming anxiousness over the twenty-four hours of travel ahead is slowly eclipsed by my own exhaustion that seems to rise and fall to the beat of the music. Ahead of the six more hours of bus lies an attempt to get from the overcrowded bus station through the streets of one of the most dangerous and interesting cities in the world and into the relative calm of the international airport. All while staying attached to my child and luggage. The fact that I have no idea how to do this strikes me as sign of my ineptitude as a mother.

As the bus plunges through the night, I wonder at the naivety that led me here a month before. As we took off into the dawn off that smooth tarmac, the rattling of the tiny aircraft - like those old foot massagers at the county fairs - had soothed us both to sleep. Worries of crime and confusion slipped my mind and I felt utterly ready for whatever lay ahead. Three flights and a death defying taxi ride through the poverty stricken streets of a capitol city later, I began to wonder if it wasn’t strength I was working with, but something that fell just short of stupidity. The twenty story Mexico City hotel I’d pre-booked online – the only arrangements I’d made ahead of time at a price I’d hoped would last me a week – offered views from the twelve floor – our floor –that looked over a busy, bubbling lobby. Rails that barely reached my thighs invited my toddler’s awed gaze as she tried to squeeze her body through for a better look. I hugged the walls, pulling along my reluctant daughter and locked the room door behind me.

I collapsed in the clean hotel bed, nursing Maggie to sleep at the ripe hour of seven thirty. Repeatedly I prayed my hopelessly late sister had managed to make all her connections and would soon relieve my budding sense of dread by walking through that locked hotel door. An hour later I was contemplating taking myself and sleeping daughter straight back to the airport in a deluxe style cab. Two hours later a call from the front desk informs me that a Senorita Moore is waiting in the lobby. Like a good narcotic, the knowledge drains what’s left of the feeling in my body. After a glimpse of her travel worn body, I promptly fall asleep.

We attempt to leave early the next morning. A cab drops us at one of four bus stations in Mexico City. We are, of course, at the wrong station, which doesn’t become evident until an impatient clerk breaks through the Mexican formality – which insists that one nod kindly despite not having understood anything the other person is saying – and tells us that we in fact will not be able to buy a bus ticket to Oaxaca City from any booth, ticket counter, or person at our current location. In order to go south, she informs us gently, we should, in fact, be at the southern bus station. A cab ride, a six hour bus ride from hell that winds its way south into the hills of Oaxaca - while blasting an American movie from the 80’s about the trials of a childhood star - a shabby hotel, and a good amount of pavement pounding later, we manage to set ourselves up with a beautiful one bedroom apartment just north of the heart of Oaxaca City.

It amazes me that our paltry Spanish has yielded such a sweet return in providing us with twelve-inch thick muted peach stucco walls and wooden shuttered windows that keep the warm sun from heating our oasis. A small courtyard with a twenty-foot tall arched gate and a tropical tree that winds its way up past the two story building and drops vibrant flowers onto our doorstep keeps the harried street out of view. We settle in and let out our breath, unpack our suitcases, and disinfect the floors. Maggie explores the corners and closets, and finds a place for her toys on the lower shelf of a bookcase; it makes a perfectly sized cubby for her little body and a backpack of toys.

At two a.m. I’ve still barely slept a wink during our first night in our apartment. My toes find my slippers and I make my way across the cool tile floors towards the kitchen. In search of a drink of water, I flip on the kitchen light and stop cold. On every surface of the kitchen cockroaches are scurrying away; their big bodies propelled by a collection of spindly legs carry them at unnatural speeds towards the shadows and cracks of the walls. One, a three inch giant we come to call “King,” stands chalk center on the counter, antenna’s dead still, staring me down, daring me to make the first move. I turn out the light and back out. My dreams become filled with cockroaches, like scenes from bad horror movies. I wake up sweaty, sensing their presence, my skin crawling like they themselves were making their way across my body. I begin shaking drawers before I open them and closing my eyes before I turn on a light – praying, begging them to just be out of sight. We double, triple bag the food and rewash the dishes and counters every morning. Our no-food-out rule becomes law. I formally declare war when I stuff poison in a hole in the wall. I obsess every time my daughter picks something up off the floor, every time her hand goes towards her mouth. One time I scare her badly when I jump at her as I see her picking up a glass from the floor that was trapping not one, but two, of our enemies. Yet as week one turns into week two I find myself talking to them as I prepare food in the kitchen. I callously inquire which food they managed to find their way into, which crumb they’d prefer I miss. We form a wary truce, significant in the ridiculous idea that I begin to believe they play their part. I invest in them an intelligence that they may or may not have, yet is necessary to my belief that they are attempting to hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet cockroaches and buses begin to pale in significance to more immediate issues. Within in a week I’m so tired that my parenting skills have plummeted and my ability to reason is gone. My sister, invited on the trip for bonding, but also for the all important childcare support, is unable to accustom herself to living with a toddler. She becomes resentful when I attempt to leave a room without Maggie. Her interactions with Maggie consist of playing with her for a few minutes until she gets bored at which point I’m expected to be there ready to swoop in and relieve her. I’m always supposed to be available. She offers to take her in the morning so I can get an extra hour of sleep, but by the time she showers, makes coffee, and gets herself together, I’m fully awake. It seems strange and uncomfortable to reason with her, to explain that I don’t get a shower and coffee until she says I can. I feel uncomfortable even asking her to entertain Maggie for a minute while I grab something from the other room; I wonder how every request will affect the few minutes I now get away. I’m sinking in a land in which I have no allies, no one to run to, no one that I can even communicate with. It’s like a new reality TV show: Extreme Single Mothering. So Maggie and I begin taking long walks in the afternoon to give my sister time to study Spanish, which she insists she can’t do amongst the noise and bustle of a café or with the distractions of a toddler. We wander, Maggie in her little hippie-made cloth backpack, in and out of shops and cafés and markets, watching children run freely across the town zocalo until we find a quiet stall to buy a midday snack. Sometimes in the afternoons the clouds roll in and one of those torrential downpours I associate with the tropics drops fat, heavy rain straight down from the sky. I run along the slick streets towards a covered café, explaining to Maggie that we’ll be out of the downpour soon enough. Sopping wet we find a seat and order a cup of coffee, noticing that only other tourists were caught in the shower. Maggie invariably grows discontent in our confined space and begs to make her way out into the rain. Smiling back at the sympathetic patrons, I attempt to entertain her for the length of the downpour. As it turns to a trickle and stops, that image comes to me of a big hand slowly turning off a faucet. I load Maggie back in the pack and head back to the house. Tourists point out rainbows and find their footing on the slick cobblestones, shocked looks shining from under their dripping hair. These walks save me, provide me structure for our day, release some of the tension that’s built up in the tiny thick-walled apartment.

Still most days I find myself crazed with boredom in a city filled with beautiful markets and fading churches waiting to be explored. Feeling half asleep from sleepless nights, my daughter keeps me bound to the house for much of the day. Her naps, punctuated with constant wake-ups, are little relief. Yet there are nights in which the miracle of sleep occurs and I’m able to pull ourselves together enough the next day to venture out beyond our daily walks. On those days I feel as though I become initiated into the secrets of the city. Our favorite destination becomes the Santa Domingo Cathedral which is connected to a magnificent convent that holds one of Mexico’s finer museums. The open windows show walls that are thicker than my arm is long. The artwork hangs out of Maggie’s reach as she toddles through the ancient rooms, fingers leaving marks on the smooth, cool walls. I secretly love the place not because of the art but because of the lack of chaos. No one begs for money, no one tries to pick Maggie up despite her protests, no one attempts to speak to me. My guilt at not knowing the language, at having nice things while so many have nothing, at not appreciating the constant friendliness and attention fades as I sit beside a cool stone wall. Some days I find an empty room and cry. Other days I marvel at my own strength and at the gift this adventure has been.

As the hot days fades into evening, my sister and our friend often accompany Maggie and me on an evening walk. It’s my favorite time of day in Oaxaca. Everyone is out on the streets, socializing and eating, making music and dancing. It seems as though every night there’s a celebration. The zocalo is always filled with venders tugging at their big bouquets of balloons inviting Maggie’s dirty baby hands. She’s often seen making a clean run towards a pile of downed balloons. She grooves to the music and dancing that can be heard and see everywhere. The local market, with its small dirty isles and colorful booths becomes our dinner stop. Our favorites are the simple specialties of the region: large flat tortillas topped with beans, lettuce, and the famous oaxaquen cheese; fried tortillas in a spicy bean sauce; cactus or garlic soup; tamales stuffed with peppers; and always the cinnamon hot chocolate for desert. After the stalls begin to close their metal shutters, we aimlessly wander the pedestrian streets. Maggie invariably begs for a paletta, the frozen fruit popsicles sold most anywhere made of pineapple, mango, kiwi, coconut, and every other tropical fruit one can imagine. The end of the day feels like a sweet success. I made it; we’re still OK.

Other nights when we’re without company, I indulge in pizza from the Italian immigrants who have set up shop. Eating pizza on the steps of a Latin American church feels sweet yet slightly shameful. On other nights without my sister, who is always haggling to take the cheaper option, I take Maggie to one of the many nicer Oaxacan restaurants. Despite the overwhelming kid-friendly air of Mexico, these establishments are decidedly less than pleased to see me dragging in a restless child. I ignore their stares as I order dishes tasting as though they come from a cherished grandmother’s kitchen. Like a reward for my trials I allow myself the sweetness that money sometimes buys: I don’t smile at the waiter, I make silly requests, I eat until I’m bursting, I allow Maggie free reign in the carefully cleaned fountains and floors of the restaurants.

At the end of October we’ve been in Oaxaca for over two weeks when we start to see preparations for the Day of the Dead festival. Friday night the streets are lined in memorials – quiet political protests of candles and pictures for those killed without justice and sweet remembrances of children gone. Each day of the week there are parades in the streets of religious or carnival-like intent. On the big night a procession from the Santa Domingo following a service in Latin is marked by very un-Catholic projections of Mayan gods onto the church walls. I’m struck by the amazing way the two religions still co-exist. Groups of girls and women perform dances in the public squares, their full colorful embroidered skirts pieces of art themselves. Maggie runs in between the people, pleased to be amidst such a joyful air. She moves her little hips in time to the music, fitting right in to the party.

That evening we make our way to the huge city graveyard on the outskirts of town. I hold Maggie in my lap as the cab driver negotiates the madness of cars all headed in the same direction. He tells us that we’ll be amazed at what we see. When we finally fight our way inside the huge walls that surround the cemetery we take in the ornate graves that strike me as impressive even for a Catholic cemetery. But on this night each grave is wildly decorated in flowers and candles and gifts; the walls which are graves in themselves have candles marking each body. Hundreds of these candles light the space. On many graves families are celebrating. It strikes me how foreign this scene would seem in an American graveyard, really even in an American park. Everything is spontaneous, created by families and individuals in a communal celebration of life and death. There’s music and beer and children running around; it truly is one of the more amazing celebrations I’ve been witness too. Traditional sand sculptures of dyed sand depict the last supper, famous paintings of saints, or dead relatives. Outside of the graveyard walls is a true carnival with rides and food and even cotton candy. I buy a big bag of freshly made churros – deep fried dough with cinnamon and sugar – and wander happily, slowly through the madness. Maggie licks each churro off carefully and stares wide-eyed at the beauty and madness around us. We eat fresh tortillas stuffed with squash flowers and cheese; they are amazing despite my worry that I’ll end up on the toilet all night from all the bacteria that’s surely present.

About three weeks into the trip I begin to settle in. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that soon I’ll be leaving that makes me feel OK. A mix-up when I bought tickets necessitates that we leave a weak earlier than expected, and I feel a mix of relief and heartache. My sister is heading farther south, and I feel similarly over leaving her as I do Mexico. The night before we leave we walk down once more to the Santa Domingo. It’s Friday night and the local upper-class teens are socializing on the church plaza, mingling and chatting with coffees and cigarettes in hand. It strikes me how sad and lonely these teens would be amongst the isolation of modern American high school life. What a gift the tradition and quiet of the city is that honors these youth enough to allow them this public venue to enjoy freely. I recognize that this only happens for a select group of them, but even that seems like such an improvement on our system. Maggie charms them all as she vies for attention and I sit down on the steps in the darkness of an evening near the equator. I know I’m happy to be leaving, happy to be going to a place that I feel comfortable letting Maggie roll on the ground, despite knowing that what lies there and what lies here are probably similar in their unhealthiness. Like all those couples that move back to hometowns with the birth of their first child, I admit that the familiar is inviting. But for tonight I savor the sweetness of old stones instead of new pavement.

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