How I Learned the Pump

This is the continuing story of one expat living in Oaxaca Mexico, my takes on life, Mexico, retirement and anything else that comes to mind

Name:
Location: Tlalixtac, Oaxaca, Mexico

I am retired, living in Mexico and enjoying it. It took me a while to adjust to a whole new reality. In my previous life I taught psychology at 13 different colleges and universities throughout the US. I began and ended every job - fired with enthusiasm. Prior to that, I was a researcher during my years in the military and did research on hallucinogenic compounds which sparked my lifelong interest in drugs and how they affect the brain.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Sunset on a beautiful day Posted by Picasa


Paradise?  Posted by Picasa


Not a self portrait Posted by Picasa


I could have danced all night Posted by Picasa


Why women live longer than men Posted by Picasa

Time moves in its petty place from day to day....


Time has many different meanings in many different contexts and different cultures see time differently. In my former life, I was a college professor and until my retirement had spent all but three years of my life between 5 and 60 in an academic setting of one kind or another. Academia is a very time oriented culture. You have classes between 9 and 9:50 or 10:00 and 11:15. At 9:45 or 11:10 students and the teacher begin to glance at the clock and each class is expected to end on time. Semesters are typically 15 weeks long and the vacation periods are published years in advance. I knew with certainty when I was going to teaching what at least three years out. By the time I had been teaching for 10 years or so, you could put me in a room without a clock or a watch and I could give a 50 minute or 1 hour and 15 minute lecture within a couple of minutes accuracy.
I had a good sense of what is called “clock time”. Every moment of my teaching day, I was aware of how many more minutes I had until my next class and how much longer each class would last. Academics also have a sense of seasonal time. For us, the year begins in late August or September and ends in May or June. When talking about years we often say: “ X happened in 1990-91”. After a while, your seasonal clock adjusts. Just as actors have bad dreams in which they find themselves on stage in a play they don’t recognize but are expected to perform in, teachers have “teaching mares”, which involve not being able to find your classroom as “time” runs out for the beginning of class. We run frantically from room to room or building to building looking for our classroom. My teaching mares would begin about two weeks before the beginning of each semester.
The three years hiatus in my unrelenting stint of academia was when I was in the military. The Army is an extreme example of clock time. The day begins exactly with the raising of the flag and ends unfailingly when the flag is lowered and there are ceremonies to honor both of these events. I had little trouble with clock time in the military although I was somewhat put out by the concept that I was to be doing research, which means being creative, or at least, busy, between 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening, five days a week. It was considered a breach of discipline to arrive late or leave early no matter how much or little had to be done.
My biggest problem was with seasonal time. The year no longer began in September and didn’t end in June. Vacation was three weeks leave sometime during the year and another week for days off. In September I remember feeling like a fish out of water since the new year was beginning and no one else noticed. Similarly, it felt strange to schedule a trip in early February and work all summer.
In other cultures clock time is replaced by event time. Here in Mexico, someone will say: “I will come over after comida”, or the main meal of the day. In our culture, we would normally ask: “When will that be?”, expecting a time in response. The answer is always: “After the comida”, which could be 3:00 or 5:30. No one can predict how long comida will last. A friend could drop by or a conversation could linger over coffee for an hour. The standard joke is that there are two times, hora gringa, and hora mexicana, but that is not strictly correct, since time is measured by events not by a clock. No one is ever late, and frequently people who are expected don’t show up at all. I find it fascinating that this concept is embedded in the language. “Esperar” means to wait, to expect and to hope. I hope, I expect, and I am waiting, are all expressed as “espero”.

Similarly in Mexico, it is perfectly acceptable to drop by at any time for a visit. In all my adult life in the US I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone dropped by my house unannounced. Here in Mexico, it happens almost every day and often happens multiple times. Knowing full well that we normally eat our main meal about 8:30 or 9:00, the couple from whom we rented our house, would show up a couple of times a month in the evening. There was no purpose to the visit (except that they noticed every change we had made, from a different book on the reading table to a different vase on the dining table). The visit would last anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half. If I was preparing a meal, they would expect that I put aside what I was doing, until they left.
We now have a new owner. We were told by the sales agent that he would give us a six month lease, but at that point we would have to move out. We met him at the lawyer’s office to sign the lease (which was not ready, of course) and he told us that we could stay as long as we liked. He said he would drop by with a lease for us to sign in a few days. He also said he would drop by to pick up the rent. This meeting took place in the middle of December and it is now the middle of January and we neither have a lease nor have we paid this month’s rent. We called his office but the secretary said he was busy and would get back to us. Do we worry about not paying the rent? Not really, he will come by some day.
Another division of time is between monochronic and polychronic time. The culture of the US is strictly monochronic. We do one thing at a time and in a particular order. In Mexico, time is polychronic, a person may beginning doing one thing and then start another or a third without finishing the first. In the US when we enter a store we almost unconsciously notice who is there ahead of us and who arrives later and we expect to be waited on in that order. When we sit in a restaurant we notice the order in which our table is waited upon and the order in which the food arrives. We get upset if someone is served out of turn or if someone’s meal arrives before ours when we have ordered first. One woman I met here complained that the waiter ignored her at a restaurant, serving the Mexican man who arrived later before he took her order. She felt the waiter was biased against her. I doubt the waiter knew or cared that she had arrived first.
In polychronic time you are waited upon in no recognizable order. Whoever gets the attention of the clerk gets waited on first and clerk may take another order right after and fill the second order first. As you slowly adapt to this way of measuring time it becomes apparent that it all averages out. Sometimes you will be waited upon before others and sometimes you will be the last. When I go to the corner store, I have learned that it is not at all impolite to give my money to the storeowner while she is chatting with another customer or taking the other customer’s order. By now it doesn’t even seem unusual or strange.
Cueing is a relatively new concept here. In large stores like Gigante, WalMart or Sam’s Club there are the same checkout lines we see in the US. People in the US stand patiently in line and expect to be waited upon in the order they arrive. Breaking into a cue in the US would be met with hostility and indignation. It happens frequently here and no one seems to notice or care. Drivers even slip into a line ahead of others at a gas station. Such a tactic in the US would result in physical assault and worse.
Robert Levine, a social psychologist, has tried to describe what he calls the geography of time. He has developed methods to quantify how people in live in time. Studying time patterns in the US, he found that the pace of life was fastest in Boston and slowest in Los Angeles. He measured walking speed, the time required for a bank teller to make change, talking speed and the percentage of people who wore watches. Generally cities in the Northeast had a faster pace of life than cities in the South and West.
My favorite example was talking speed. He measure the number of syllables uttered divided by the time it took mail room clerks to describe a common transaction. I grew up in New Jersey which rates high in talking speed and I lived for many years near Sacramento, which measured dead last in talking speed, something I had long known but was delighted to find confirmed. When I first arrived, to my New Jersey ear, it took forever for someone to complete a sentence. Perhaps surprisingly six of the slowest 13 cities were in California and none rated higher than 14th out of 36. The only city in California that ranked in the top half was Bakersfield and many Californians would claim that Bakersfield neither is, nor should be, considered part of California. One interesting difference he found was that you dial “Popcorn” to find the time in California and “Nervous” to find the time in Boston.
When he shifted his studies from cities to countries, he had to account for economic and linguistic differences. Watches are a luxury item in many parts of the world and phonological differences between languages required altering the speaking rate measure. In Spanish all syllables are uttered in the same amount of time. In English many vowels are spoken as dipthongs. The vowel “A” in English in often pronounced as “aaeee”, “I” often sounds like ‘Ieee” I once heard someone in Mississippi make three syllables out of the word “red”, pronouncing it as “Ray-uh-duh” This is never done in Spanish unless the dipthong is specifically written. To the English speaking ear, Spanish speakers appear to be spoken very rapidly.
Instead, Levine measured walking speed, the accuracy of public clocks and the amount of time it took a postal clerk to fill a written request for a standard stamp offering the equivalent of a $5 bill for payment.
Of the thirty one countries in his sample, Switzerland came in first and Mexico last . His Mexico sample was collected in Mexico City. I expect Mexico would have trailed even further if he had sampled Oaxaca. The joke here is that in Oaxaca, mañana has the same meaning as it does in the rest of Mexico but without the same sense of urgency. Interestingly the US ranked only in the middle and New York was the sample city!
There were some interesting anomalies that altered the outcomes of the study. Japan, the fourth fasted ranked country, would have ranked even higher had not the postal clerk carefully wrapped the requested stamp in a meticulously folded piece of paper. The US measurement was contaminated by the fact that the postal clerk held up the note and yelled slowly: “YOU MEAN TO TELL ME THAT YOU WANT ONE LOUSY STAMP AND YOU ARE GIVING ME A (very slowly) FIVE DOLLAR BILL? GOD, HOW I HATE THIS CITY.” The experimenter was so embarrassed he walked away without completing the transaction.
Of course measuring time by different criteria can yield different results. One researcher suggests “honktime” as a measure of pace of life. Honktime is the time it takes for a motorist to honk his horn after the light turns green. If this measure were included, Mexico would move up considerably. Absolutely no one could be faster than a Mexican driver in honking his horn as the traffic light changes and some start before the light even turns. Furthermore, when traffic is stopped for some reason, every driver feels it is his/her constitutional right to honk loudly and often. Drivers often start into the intersection before the light changes to green on the assumption that the signal in the cross street is turning yellow.
Along with my increased language skills, my understanding of the differences in the concept of time helps considerably in adjusting. Without even being aware of it, I am becoming part of a new culture. I even honk as the red light changes.


Hardy was right: you can't go home again
I went back to the US a couple of weeks ago to attend a memorial service for my sister. I left my hometown for good forty years ago and have been back only for quick visits and for the funerals of my parents. This time I returned after two years of living in Mexico and felt even more like a fish out of water. While I was driving around town in my rented car, the radio station played a Doors set. When they got to the lyrics “When you are strange, people come out of the range, when you’re strange” I realized it described my feelings perfectly.
My sister lived for thirty five years one block from my parents’ house. When my parents died my sister’s daughter bought the house and she now lives one block from her parents. Nobody in my family finds anything strange in the situation. My niece lived with her parents until she got married at the age of 34. She moved into my parents’ house a few years after that. This means that my niece has lived for forty four years in exactly the same place. Even the floor plan of the two houses is identical.
At the memorial service the family stood in line to receive the mourners. I stood next to the daughter of my nephew. She was about 14 and many of the mourners said some theme or variation of “I remember you when you were this high”. Nobody said that to me although I was waiting for it. I met one man who looked to be about 65 with grey hair and a grey mustache. I recognized his name and asked him if he had taught science at my old junior high school, thinking he might have been my teacher. He said that I was referring to his father. Only then did I realize that he was about my age.
After a forty year absence I expected that my home town would have been unrecognizable. What I found disconcerting was that so little had changed. With the exception of the intrusion of a few new big stores and a couple of new freeways, everything seemed the same. The exteriors of the houses were as I remembered them, the park I used to go to was still there and the main shopping street was almost exactly the same. As I walked into a café on the main shopping street one afternoon, I felt as if I could be just getting out of my last class in high school.
What seemed most strange to me was that every house looked roughly the same. My family moved to this town when I was 14 and I really only spent my high school years there. It wasn’t a subdivision or a development. Houses varied subtly from block to block but the change was gradual. The houses ten blocks from my old house were larger and more expensive, the houses five blocks away were in between in size and value. Within each block the houses were different in design but basically the same. What struck me was the homogeneity of it all. I realize, looking back, that all the people I had spent those years with were virtually identical in social class, not to mention that all were Caucasian. In my neighborhood here in Oaxaca, the exact opposite applies. Two blocks away is the house of a major government official, complete with barbed wire fence atop a brick wall and round the clock bodyguards. I can only guess at the size of the house but it is huge. The houses in between vary from middle class pretentious to working class struggling. In Mexico it is very common to have this mixture of poverty and wealth on the same block. I think that one reason why Mexico is still a developing country is that in Mexico the ideal is to have enough to live on: enough food, a place to live, a car. Not too much, but enough. Once this is obtained there is little incentive to achieve more. Since most Mexicans have these necessities, there is not much upward pressure to do better. Our competitiveness and the idea of keeping up with the Joneses is just not seen here. Who is to say which is correct?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

How did I learn the bomb? When we first moved into our rental house in Oaxaca, we had problems with the water. In Oaxaca, water is always in short supply. Houses have cisterns that hold water and a tinaco, or water tank, on the roof. The water is pumped up to the tinaco from the cistern by a pump. Gravity flow provides the pressure for the water in the house. The plumber was installing an automatic device which would trigger the pump to fill the tinaco when the water level fell below a certain point. After he installed the system he came downstairs and spoke to me from the kitchen. He said: “Voy a prender la bomba”.
My Spanish at that time was rudimentary. I knew basic grammar and had a vocabulary limited to words learned from textbooks. What I heard him say was one long word: “voyaprenderlabomba” Now, I knew “aprender” very well as it means “to learn”, but “prender” was buried deep in my limited vocabulary. I knew that “bomba” meant pump and not bomb, at least in the context of a plumber standing in front of me. So I heard him say he was “going to learn the pump” (I made it “bomb” in the title to catch your attention.
Here is what happens from the standpoint of language processing. The native speaker hears the same thing I do, but interprets it differently. It goes something like: plumber, problem, pump, water. With those contextual cues and a vocabulary in which “prender” is as common as “aprender”, the brain of the native speaker interprets the sentence correctly: I am going to turn on the pump. Because for me, “aprender” was more common than “prender” I heard him say he was going to learn the pump. Grammatically, of course, if one were going to “learn” a pump, one would say: “Voy a aprender la bomba”, but the speaker would meld the second and third word to make this unlikely sentence. Of course, to the native speaker, you can’t “learn a pump (or a bomb)” so there would be no miscommunication.
Inspired by my misunderstanding I hired a Spanish tutor and I discovered the source of another confusion. I have always loved Mercedes Sosa’s singing and have a bunch of her CDs. One of the songs is a well known song with a lovely melody that I listened to often, but could never quite understand. I heard her clearly sing about “sin cosirenes” which I translated as: sin=without and cosirenes as: ???? To the native speaker there was no problem as she is singing about five (cinco) sirens (sirenes). “Sirenes” is not a common word and I probably had never learned it, so my brain insisted on the one word I did know “sin” and blanked at “cosirenes”. Once my tutor told me what the lyrics actually were, I understood it immediately. Now when I hear it, I hear her signing about cinco sirenes and have to work to hear my former misinterpretation.
A similar situation happens in reverse now that I am more fluent. Every trip to the pharmacy is a new adventure. I purchase Laxoberon which is a laxative. It is a commonly used drug here, believe it or not, so the kid behind the counter should be familiar with it. I practice the word as I walk to the pharmacy and have worked with the pronunciation with my tutor who assures me I am saying it correctly, with the accent on the last syllable. She has even gone with me to assure me that I am saying it correctly. The clerk never understands me the first time I ask. Several have even given me a piece of paper and pen to write down the name. When they read it out loud they pronounce it exactly as I do, so says my tutor. Yet they never hear me correctly the first two or three times.My interpretation is that he sees a tall gringo in front of him and thinks "English" so he doesn't expect to hear Spanish spoken properly. It takes a while to process the fact that the customer is speaking Spanish. My wife who has near native fluency runs into this problem all the time. She will say something in perfectly colloquial Spanish with a good accent and there is a pause as the hearer tries to integrate the image tall gringa (obviously English speaker) who is speaking with the words in Spanish.

Tradition, Tradition, Tradition
It is kind of sad to see old traditions erode. Navidad in Mexico used to be a less commercial event, with the main, although subdued, gift giving on Three Kings. Christmas day was a religious event. Noche Buena was a large family comida and a cena after mass. The colossus to the North, the US, has exerted its inevitable influence and now the families of my acquaintance celebrate on Xmas day with gift giving and the stores like Gigante and Pitico are full of the same commercial hype that we see in the US. The waning influence of the Catholic church plays a role as many more Mexicans are evangelicals and Mormons. I noticed that my Xmas tree lights I purchased were made in China. Sigh..... Of course the Aztecs and the Maya imposed their religion and customs on the surrounding polities as did the Spanish when they came here to Mexico. Someone called it "nostagie de la bou" (my French is terrible) but it means nostalgia for the mud, a desire to return to a past that only exists in the minds of the perceiver. Time smooths off the edges of the past and we look back to a simpler and more "genuine" past which was neither. Remember the mornings you awoke as a child to a white Christmas, hurried down the stairs and opened your presents to the smell of frying bacon and the beginnings of the ham/turkey baking in the oven. Probably didn't happen that way. You didn't get the present you really wanted, your big sister hogged your nicest toy and your parents were not too secretly nursing a hangover and residual anger over the nasty fight they had the night before trimming the ....inche Xmas tree. I love my CD of Mercedes Sosa singing "Cambia, todo cambia" and I think I will go listen to it. Remember you can't swim upstream and the good old days weren't really good, just old. No reason for this post, but I am the first one up this Christmas morning and when the family gets up I will go to open my presents, fry the bacon and start the ham in the oven. -------------------------Manana in Oaxaca has the same meaning it does in the rest of Mexico but without the same sense of urgency

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


A day of the dead altar in Oaxaca Posted by Picasa


Some mornings are more difficult than others Posted by Picasa