The most refreshing experience you can have on Planet Earth is to dive into a cenote. In the blistering heat of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly amidst the mega-scale tourism and traffic of the Mayan Riviera, to hurl yourself into ice-cold crystalline waters is to be reborn into a much more exhilarating universe. If you happen to belong to one of those denominations which still baptise their congregations by dunking them in water, get your budding new believers on a plane and there’ll be yours in this life and the next.
95% of tourists who visit Mexico go no further than the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. You can see why, but it shows. On our visit to Cancun we bypass the city entirely, but we do get a sense of the over-development around it, with its mammoth hotels and trumpian golf resorts. We go straight to Playa del Carmen. The bit where we’re staying is surprisingly pleasant: lowrise, backpacky. The following day we get to see the real, authentic Playa del Carmen, which is basically a gringo shopping mall with warehouse-sized discount souvenir outlets piled high with Chinese-made tat. I’m not sure how this works at the level of meaningful present-giving:
-Hey man, thanks for the gift!
– F*ck you. It only cost 20 cents.
I buy some fake Crocs, and then ten minutes later fall over and nearly break my ankle. Pinche fayuca de la chingada! I exclaim, feeling pretty sure I’m getting the swearing right. I hobble back to the sea where we get chatting to some Americans from the Midwest who are affable, chatty, and very big. I get the impression that if I ask them about the election later in the year I might start to hate them, so I don’t.
Just off the beach there’s a huge amount of commerce but on it there are, unusually for Mexico, no vendedores ambulantes. It’s quite a contrast from when we went to Playa Condesa in Acapulco in February, where we were approached by vendors every ten seconds. It was rather like the metro in Mexico City. They were selling beach gear, clothes, cold drinks, full meals, massages, and an hour with a massive bass-heavy speaker (thankfully there were no takers for that one). They were unceasingly polite and not particularly insistent. We know that they were taking a risk. Two weeks after our visit one was shot dead on the same stretch of sand*. The fact that there were heavily-armed (and, bizarrely, jungle-camouflaged) squadrons of soldiers running around the promenade was hard to tally with the whole lying-on-the-beach thing. A useful tip for visiting Acapulco is: Don’t talk to taxi drivers if you want to enjoy your visit, but do ask them questions if you’re at all interested in getting some sense of how f*cking dangerous the place is if you’re not a tourist.
The fact that on the beach in PDC there are no vendors means it’s actually hard to get hold of a beer or a bottle of water. Along the beach there are chain hotels where you can’t get anything to eat or drink unless you’re a guest. Entire stretches of beach are wholly-owned. Everybody we talk to agrees that it’s a safe place to visit. It is, for tourists, mostly. The fact that the locals are absent suggests that it’s not so for everybody. They depend on tourists for their economic survival, but have limited access to them. The situation puts me in mind of promotional photos of the alcoholic folk-punk band The Pogues in the late 1980s, where all bottles, glasses, spliffs, crack pipes, etc would be removed from the scene. (I see that in relation to cigarettes this phenomenon is known as ‘tobacco bowdlerisation’.) Frantz Fanon wrote about the ‘invisibility of the colonial subject’, but he could just as well have been talking about tourism. Most holiday brochures feature no images of the local people, except those in a servile capacity, pouring drinks or dancing their wacky dances. The roots of modern tourism do, after all, lie in colonialism, in taking possession of what we see, which is why John Urry called his classic study of the field ‘The Tourist Gaze’. This partly explain why we spend so much time on holiday taking photos, like the ones I’m showing off here.
To travel down the coast we hire a small car, a Volkswagen. I can offset this from my personal carbon budget because I’m not the one who’s driving. My wife drives it to another cenote, while I sit in the passenger seat tutting and shaking my head.
There are hundreds of sinkholes and caves connected to underground rivers all across the region. They allowed the Mayan civilisation to survive for several thousand years, given that the northern part of the peninsula has no rivers or major lakes. Their existence is now threatened by urban expansion and the direct commodification of the cenotes themselves, which means we’ll be to blame should they get poisoned or dry up. For the Mayans they had a sacred and symbolic role, representing the entrance to a mythical underworld (they probably didn’t call it a ‘mythical underworld’). After the Spanish arrived they were also used to hide sacred objects and other items that Catholic priests forbade, like first-generation ipods.We drive on to Akumal. The people selling snorkelling tours and turtle visitations are numerous and quite insistent. As we drive in, pass the tourist kiosk, get out and walk across the car park, walk onto the beach, and sit down, we are badgered (or perhaps, under the circumstances, turtled) by nine or ten touts. There are snakes of pink and orange lifejackets all round the turquoise bay. I start to apply suncream but a friendly person comes along immediately and tells me not to as it damages the coral. There are kindergartens of fish in the shallows of the water, and feeling a bit sun-addled I try to compensate them for our intrusion on their habitat by giving them some money, but there’s a translation problem. The setting reminds my wife of the Comoros Islands, which are nonetheless undeveloped and very poor. We are all here to see an unspoiled environment while trying not to think too hard about the fact that in doing so we are ourselves spoiling it.
The beaches in Tulum are similarly paradisical; in fact, they are even more lovely because they have bits of a ruined city hanging over them. Tulum is also, thanks to people exactly like us, overdeveloped, but on a different scale. Beachside bungalows cover every square inch for about ten miles. They’re called things like Shalom, Ecochic, and Happy Hour. I see the word ‘spa’ so many times I start to feel like I need to lie down, shut my eyes, listen to the waves and forget about the word ‘spa’. As for the prefix ‘eco’, it loses a bit of meaning when followed by the term ‘quad bikes’. There’s also a bungalow resort called My Way, which to me makes it sound a bit like Dignitas, and actually it might be, given that this would not be a bad place at all to die.We avoid the suggestively-named Azulik, which is ‘clothing optional‘. Once again my brain is bothering me for words to describe the colour of the water, so I trick it by taking this photo:
In the evening we go to a friendly German-run bar and I pick up the local newspaper. In addition to gruesome images and macabre details of those who’ve been shot dead for selling drugs to tourists, there’s an article about Akumal. A group of ecologists has reported that the coral reef is on the brink of collapse. Officially the site is only allowed to receive 250 visitors a day; it’s currently welcoming around 5,000 of us. On the other side of the main street of Tulum there’s a party taking place in the headquarters of a taxi sindicate called Tiburones del Caribe (Caribbean Sharks). The building is festooned in PRI banners and balloons and there is reggaeton blasting out. Like any Mexican town there’s a lot of competition for customers, but the notion that competition automatically leads to better efficiency is once again disproven by the fact that at the end of the night it takes our taxi driver 25 minutes to find our hotel, which is five minutes’ walk away. Later I read about a number of assaults on tourists, and the smashing-up of cars from opposition companies. Mexico provides a lot of support for the argument that war is a continuation of capitalism by other means.
In Tulum we find it hard to track down anywhere interesting to eat. Being British in Mexico and complaining about the food is perhaps a bit incongruous, but we are, after all, kind of double foreigners here in that we live in Mexico City and the range of restaurants on offer in Tulum doesn’t begin to compare. The first question people ask us about DF (as everyone refers to the capital) is ‘is it dangerous’. Not for us it’s not, we say, smugly. Not in terms of crime, at least, although in environmental terms the city is some ways hanging por un fío. Mexico abounds in confirmation that cities can collapse, whether thanks to invasion or a range of factors. The Mayans in Yucatan were nearly wiped out by a massive prolonged drought. Although it’s not politically correct to say so, their climate changed and so their civilisation collapsed**. That can happen. In Mexico the term ecocidio is increasingly being used to describe events like that in Cancun, when an entire Mangrove forest was destroyed to make way for more tourist developments. Jared Diamond dedicates a substantial portion of ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’ to the fate of the Mayans, who hung on for several centuries when the natural resources they had relied for millennia could barely sustain them any longer. The lifespan of their civilisation may have been shorter had they had millions of Volkswagen-driving hypocrites like us to provide for.
*I don’t know if it was the guy walking up and down with the speaker.
**Yes, I’m aware that I’m challenging the notion of ‘politically correct’ is. Here’s an experiment: ask the next human being you see ”How worried are you about climate change?’. They’ll almost certainly change the subject very, very quickly.
If you ever want to stay in a discreet nudist hotel, look out on Tripadvisor for codewords like ‘broadminded’, ‘especially for adults’ and ‘not child-friendly’. If you choose judiciously you may, upon walking through the door, be delighted – just like we weren’t – to see two French tourists splayed out in all their flaccid glory in the alfresco bar/reception area, umbrellas in their drinks and gallic pudenda making the most of the warm sea breeze*.
Conversely, if for some bizarre reason you don’t want to stay in such a place, do not choose places which are described as such. I.e: don’t make the same mistake that we did in Zipolite.
Like most tourist hotels and guesthouses we stay at in Mexico, the nudist colony happens to be foreign-owned. In Puerto Escondido itself we stay at a place owned by a Swiss couple, and when we move on to Mazunte the proprietors turn out to be French. The actually quite charming nudist place belongs to an Italian who got halfway to learning Spanish and then got stranded out of his depth. He flounders between the two languages in a way that’s distressing to witness. I would happily dive in and save him, but then he isn’t wearing a swimming costume. Italians love this bit of the Oaxacan coast, because it was the setting (and ‘Puerto Escondido’ was the title) of a 1989 film about a guy from Milan who looks like a young Silvio Berlusconi getting mixed up in drug smuggling, partly because of a series of misunderstandings. It’s therefore possible that the owner of the hotel didn’t know he was starting a naturist colony. It’s also possible I misunderstood the film as I was watching it in Italian and at this point, after three months in Mexico with my Italian wife, Itañol is rapidly becoming my best second language.
It’s certainly warm enough to strip off. We’re at the top of a cliff and the heat and wind are immense. I have to keep covered up, I tell everyone, because I’m scared of getting badly sunburnt. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you really want to know just how painful excessive exposure to the sun can be, go to Tioman Island in Malaysia at the hottest time of the year and spend five straight hours in the sun, dismissing every attempt by your sister to get you to put some suncream on. It hit me three or so days later on the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: I was seized by an extremely insistent itching deep beneath my skin all over my chest, back and shoulders. Fearing that I might be having a heart attack brought on by excessive exposure to all the spiciest foods that Asia has to offer, I looked up the health bit of the Lonely Planet and learnt it was probably something called ‘prickly heat’, and that I should apply talcum powder asap. When I got to KL I ran like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, where to my relief I saw that they also sold something called ‘tiger balm’. The word ‘balm’ sounded soothing, like ‘calm’. Or ‘balsam’. Or ‘balsamico’. It doesn’t matter. It made it (at a generous estimate) about thirty times worse, and I spent my entire first, last and only evening in the Malaysian capital showering my torso with cold water. Which, in turned out, also made it worse. Over the next three days I became a gibbering monkey, incapable of more than ten seconds of conversation before I would have to go back to grimacing, scratching and at some points actually screeching. I never got to the point of stealing cameras and throwing my excrement at tourists, but I can tell you it was a pretty close shave.
It was such a traumatic experience that I’ve never made such mistake again, unless you count once in Spain, the first few days in Thailand and pretty much any time I’ve been anywhere really hot where the prospect of getting a fabulous suntan really quickly was just too good to pass up on. That’s why, on the second beachday in Zipolite, having magically overcome my aversion to exposing myself as soon as we left the hotel complex, upon feeling a familiar deeply-buried itch in my chest I run like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, desperately garbling some nonsense about cream-of-after-the-sunshine**. Luckily they do have some, so I down it in a single gulp, give a satisfying burp of relief and go back to working on that tan.
It’s blisteringly hot but we can’t cool down in the sea. It’s just too wild. It was actually on this beach that the wife of the Mexican-American writer Francisco Goldman was killed by a wave about three years ago, an event he describes in the heartbreaking memoir ‘Say Her Name’. We move on to another village in search of calmer waves, less violent winds and the Perfect Beach Hut, and luckily soon come across a collection of round bungalows on stilts with bamboo walls. This is perfect, I murmur as we lay back on the bed. Sorry? mouths Chiara. I say it again, this time MUCH LOUDER, but it’s no good. It sounds like we’re at the top of Mount Popocatépetl in a Force 12 gale. Using sign language I manage to communicate that we should go downstairs and change our booking from three nights to one. The Parisean owner is thankfully very obliging once I’ve explained that we have to leave earlier than expected to look for my aunt’s favourite pen, which has got blown away PAR LE VENT.
The wind might be annoying to tourists, but it’s being put to good use a little further down the coast. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (quite a challenging name for a Spanish Spanish speaker to pronounce, I’d imagine) hosts most of the country’s wind farms. Although it obviously sounds laudable (and god knows Mexico desperately needs to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels) it’s more problematic than it might first appear. Objections have come from local indigenous people, who say that the resultant encroachment on their land and fishing resources has been accompanied by threats and attempts at bribery. Although in Europe campaigns against wind power are often fuelled and funded by fossil fuel companies or their self-appointed defenders (as this clip from the documentary ‘Age of Stupid’ demonstrates), in Mexico mitigating the effects of the changing climate will be, like so much else, riven by conflict between rapacious commercial interests and people whose land is their only livelihood.
Not that this level of wind is normal, even for the Oaxacan coast. The following day we witness our, and apparently Mazunte’s, first ever tornado. It twirls inland a mere 200 metres down the beach and whips off a few roofs, but luckily no-one is hurt. For the second time in two months I narrowly avoid becoming a victim of climate change. Over the next few days no boats can go out to sea. On the last night of our holiday there’s a power cut, but the Italian restaurant next door is on hand with candles, lukewarm white wine and burnt pizza served up to a passionate soundtrack of Neapolitan swearwords. We move on to an open-air bar where they’re playing Electrocumbia (my new favourite kind of music). It takes a while to get going but then some French-Canadian crusties turn up with their dogs and take over the dancefloor. Maybe it’s the music, maybe the mezcal cocktails or maybe just the fact of being so far from home, but the dogs just can’t contain their romantic impulses. It adds another dimension to the phrase c’est une vie de chien, but it’s nice to know that it’s not only we humans who do slightly embarrassing things when we’re on holiday.
* Apparently the French phrase for ‘wedding tackle’ is ‘bijoux de famille’ (lit: family jewels).
** Which I’ve learnt over the years is the product specifically designed for such situations.
One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.
The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.
Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.
There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.
Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.
Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name.
There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.
The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.
I myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.
This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.
I would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:
1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.
2. Tip number 1. implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.
3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences. This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.
4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.
5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.
These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.
It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admittedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.
Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That, to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.
* In some cases, very many very close friends.
** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.
*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.
**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.
***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.
In Puebla I have my first ever attack of coulrophobia. The Zócalo (the main town square) plays permanent venue to a group of local clowns, and although I can’t understand everything they’re saying I can just about get the gist and it is uproariously obscene. It’s night time and we are part of a small, appreciative and apparently unoffendable crowd, some older and some very young. Behind us there’s what appears to be a genuinely spontaneous outbreak of live music and dancing. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We stand and laugh for a while and then go to a nearby bar where a succession of singers entertain us with trova classics, some of which even I’m able to recognise.Puebla is only about two hours from DF (Mexico City). The Zócalo itself is well worth a visit, with its gargantuan cathedral (the second largest in the country) and a vast range of human activities taking place at any given moment. The city centre also has a number of local street markets. My observations in the UK have taught me that one of the functions of the global ‘market’ is to displace and replace such places; it’s always a tragedy to see a well-established one close or go upmarket, because a city should give local people the opportunity to sell things, not just to buy them. Luckily some of Puebla’s markets deal in much more than just the usual Frida-related tourist tat. There are puestos selling books, vinyl records, coins, and ornamientos, which is apparently the Spanish word for nick-nacks. I have an entertaining conversation with one stall-holder about the relative merits of various Iron Maiden live albums. He’s a fan of Rock in Rio, while I’m sticking with Live After Death. To be fair he may have a point, because I haven’t actually listened to Live After Death since I was about fourteen, and I’ve never even heard Rock in Rio. Nor would I want to. Iron Maiden are terrible, but heavy metal never ceases to be kind of funny, especially when you’re conversing about it in another language.
We take a turibus ride around the city, and when we disembark and go to pay it turns out to have been free because the machine isn’t working. Then, just as we walk away from the bus we see and hear an extremely loud and colourful demonstration coming down the street towards us.
I’m surprised to see people holding parasoles promoting the Partido Acción Nacional. For anyone out there interested in analogies between Mexican and Irish politics (er…), this is the Fine Gael of Mexico, the substitute party, the one that proved, when in power between 2000 and 2012, to be just as corrupt and violent as the ruling (and staggeringly corrupt and violent) Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Like Fine Gael it allegedly has fascist roots. That’s why it’s surprising to see it mixed up in this protest led by a peasant movement known as the Antorchistas. I’ve seen graffiti advertising their events while travelling down the autopista from Mexico City, usually promoting huge demonstrations on which they promise to take 100,000 of their number to Mexico City. Most of the participants look to me to be indigenous and I see at least one carrying a huge crucifix.The march culminates on a stage in the Zócalo, where they have some speeches calling for justice for Don Manuel Serrano Vallejo, the father of a local PRI politician, who was kidnapped and murdered two years ago. This being Mexico, no-one has been arrested for the crime. There then follows a cultural extravaganza which in its colourfulness, display of dancing skills and juggling of actual machetes far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen the Socialist Worker’s Party put on. In fact, it’s best not to imagine the British Left playing with knives. They would probably end up in other people’s backs even before Mark Thomas turned up to do his turn.
Later I read up on the Antorchistas and find that for some time they have formally been part of the PRI, and are therefore a lot less radical than their posturing might suggest. Hence today’s demonstration may have been another example of the phenomenon of acarreando (corralling, i.e paying) people to come to major political shows of strength. Estimating just how many people from out of town have been herded onto buses on the promise of a free meal is part of the fun surrounding Mexican Independence Day in September.It’s an idyllic scene. All around us the square is packed with people of all ages walking around with beaming smiles, holding balloons, selling balloons, popping balloons, eating ice-cream, playing music, listening to music, dancing and eating. Which suddenly seems like a good idea. After lunch we wander over to watch the clowns. I have my hood up and I’m hiding because something about them makes me nervous. And sure enough within a few seconds the thing I dreaded, the thing I dread most in the world, actually happens: They see me. Possibly because I’m trying to accomplish the difficult task of hiding while taking decent photos. Immediately the question comes, in English: “Hey gringo, where are you from?”. Dozens of people are now looking at me, laughing and pointing and laughing some more. I hate being exposed as an English speaker, so just doing the blindingly obvious thing and making myself part of the show is, tragically, not an option. I feel ashamed that other people will think I don’t speak Spanish and am thus some sort of unsophisticated monolingual oaf. I feel challenged. Such situations touch upon a very raw nerve, which is particularly close to the surface when, as now, I’m living in another country. In insisting on speaking other languages I’m making a claim on another identity while trying to shake mine off. I want to join another club, not my own, and I’m scared of being rejected. I feel objectified, seen as a representative of my own culture and country, which is awkward because even at the age of 40 or so I’m still not very clear what my relationship to that country and culture is. But I’m also aware that this ridicule I’m faced with is (apart from the damage I’m letting it do to my ego) harmless. Although these clowns have presumably seized on my presence as a chance to go into a tried-and-tested (and probably merciless) routine about foreigners, I’m very rarely greeted with hostility. I’m not the victim of negative stereotyping and I don’t face any threat of violence. Normally when people address my evident out-of-placeness it’s a friendly, good-natured, genuine interest. Besides, people want to use English. They, like me, want to be accepted as part of another community, in their case the global English-speaking one. The fact that this anxiety is such a constant theme in my life is an irony beyond all measure. I teach English. I examine people on their English. In a very important sense that is why I am here. I am not unaware of these things, but for some reason my subconscious self refuses to accept reality. One of Jacques Lacan’s key insights is that the unconscious is structured like a language. He might also have mentioned that it can sometimes behave like an absolute f*cking idiot.
Fortunately, these feelings do wear off a little when I’ve lived somewhere for a while and my brain starts to accept that I’m just another person among millions who happens to have a silly accent which indicates that they come from another place. In Mexico my claim on a local identity is particularly absurd given that in my life here I’m relatively immune to social and economic pressures and benefit from a level of mobility denied to others, purely by virtue of my language and my passport. I have come to understand that my fear and anticipated resentment at not being accepted and my terror of being ridiculed are partly related to my national and personal histories. I recognise those feelings when reading Orwell’s story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ – it’s partly a legacy of colonial arrogance/insecurity. At a family level, my father left his own country (Germany) immediately after school and went to live in the UK, eventually serving as a conscript in the British Army. He then went on to work as a chef in countries around the world. Hence my anxiety over being from somewhere else and wanting to be accepted has deep roots. Even in conversation the border between languages is tense – I often get resentful when someone tries to switch into English. Thus, as is often the case, a kind of shyness turns into a type of rudeness.
Hence, when the ‘natural’ thing to do would be to play along with the clowns and to accept the role of the dumb foreigner, I stonewall, refusing to participate in the game. I pretend to be German. I make out that I don’t understand English. This is almost psychotic. English is effectively a national language in Mexico. It has more status and more people speak it than the other 64 indigenous languages. The problem is that if I respond in Spanish people will know I’m a foreigner anyway because of my accent, and there aren’t any foreigners in Mexico who don’t speak English. It would be like a Mexican who doesn’t understand Spanish. There are some of those, but I clearly do not look like one of them. This is excrutiating. There is only one thing left to do: huir, and spend the rest of the weekend steering well clear of The Clowns.
We head away from the centre towards the train graveyard, also known as the National Railway Musem. It has dozens of passenger and freight wagons, mostly from Mexico but also the US. There is a photo exhibition in one of the carriages on some of the now-despondent towns which the train line from Puebla to Veracruz used to pass through. The city of Puebla was created to secure the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, so the train line was of vital importance when it was opened in 1873, particularly for the transport of goods. Then, after decades of neglect, in the early 1990s the entire network was broken into four and privatised. The line from Puebla to Veracruz closed, and now Puebla focuses on producing cars. On the way here from Mexico City you pass a huge Volkswagen plant; in the centre of town several street signs have been sponsored by the company. As for trains, the only surviving long-distance passenger line crosses Chihuahua state in the north. It is hugely popular with tourists.
Then there is La Bestia. This is not a single train but a network of freight trains used by Central American immigrants to get from the south to the north of the country on their way to the US. It is so dangerous that it is also known as el tren de la muerte, the train of death. Since 2014 passengers have been banned from travelling on top of the train, partly thanks to an Obama-inspired crackdown by the Mexican authorities on immigration across the southern Mexican border. The subsequent treatment of those who still try explains the fact that in June 2015 an Amnesty International report called Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for migrants. In the main building of the museum is another exhibition dedicated to the work done by Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who runs an organisation providing Central American immigrants with humanitarian aid and education. In return for his efforts his life has been threatened on several occasions.It puts my fear of clowns into some perspective.
I don’t know how many German-speaking branches of Neurotics Anonymous there are outside the Bundesrepublik. There’s probably a couple in Austria, and possibly a Geriaticneurotikenanonymous in Paraguay, but that’s beside the Punkt. We were surprised to find one in Oaxaca, Mexico. For a moment I was tempted to go entlag to one of their meetings, but I was visiting the city on holiday with my wife, herein known as Ch, who, despite my very best efforts, does not sprechen sie Deutsch, and in any case mein Volkabeln isn’t quite up to the Mark. Plus I’m not neurotic. Wirklich.Everybody loves Oaxaca. The first thing that Mexicans talk about whenever the place is mentioned is the food, which is indeed delicious and hard to find good versions of elsewhere. Mole is the most iconic dish – it’s actually a family of dishes of immense complexity. Coloradito, the one most associated with Oaxaca and also the most picante, is made with 36 ingredients, including chocolate, chillies, fruit, nuts, spices of various kinds, pumpkin seeds and about, er, 28 other things. Vanesa, a Oaxacan friend of Ch’s who we met up with in Mexico City shortly after we arrived, got very excited when telling us about all the eating we’d be able to do on our holiday, and then very angry when she moved on to tell us about los maestros – the teachers. Of whom more later.
Oaxaca (pronounced waHAca) is the name of both the city and the state. The latter is vast, and cut in half by mountains. After we leave the city it takes us 12 hours by bus to get to Puerto Escondido on the coast and it’s only 85 miles mientras el cuervo vuela. The rugged terrain isolates communities, which means that Oaxaca is the country’s most ethnically diverse state, with an indigenous population of 48% (mostly Zapotec and Mistec), the second highest in Mexico after the Mayan Peninsula, where most of the population are…Welsh (just testing). A wander around the Museum of Culture testifies to this. ‘Oaxacan’ culture unifies all sorts of traditions with their own belief systems, cultural artifacts and artisan technologies. The many local markets and the makeshift stalls spread on the ground in the town’s squares by people from often distant villages show off handcrafted and painted wooden sculptures called alebrijes, and intricately woven and brightly dyed tapetes, huipiles, sarapes and the ubiquitous rebozos. Some of these artefacts we have seen elsewhere in Mexico, but we get something of a surprise on entering the adjacent church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán when we see an image of someone we recognise from home (see photo). It’s by no means the only connection Jeremy Corbyn has with Mexico. His wife, Laura Álvarez, is a human rights lawyer who also runs a business importing chocolate made by indigenous communities. Little else is known about her (except, presumably, by him), so it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that she did some sort of deal over local produce and insisted that a stained-glass window image of her husband be installed as part of the agreement. Certainly there is no shortage of chocolate and chocolate products on sale in the UNESCO-approved colonial centre, along with hundreds of varieties of mezcal, of which I sadly only get to try about half.
In the Zócalo (the main town square) most of the people selling things seem to be of indigenous origin, and so do most of the people protesting. The centre of the plaza has been turned into an Occupy-style camp. These are the famous teachers. I’m still trying to clarify what the situation is with them as their activities inspire a considerable amount of revulsion and rage amongst Mexicans I’ve met elsewhere. Reading their banners and the sheets they’ve hung up setting out their case and briefly chatting with some of them helps to make things clearer. Their movement, led by the dissident teachers’ union CNTE, has been fighting for decades for decent wages and proper schools and over the years their struggle has to some extent become instituionalised, particularly under the leadership of the phenomenally controversial Elba Esther Gordillo. One key date in the long history (detailed here) was May 2006, when police fired on striking teachers in Oaxaca. This led to a seven-month state of siege in the city. State forces unleashed massive repression, which to some extent continues – police vehicles armed with enormous machine guns are a regular sight around the city centre – and was stepped up in response to furious protests after 43 poor indigenous students from the neighbouring state of Guerrero were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the army in September 2014. More recently teachers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas have been striking and protesting against President Peña Nieto’s asinine education reforms, which seem partly designed to provoke and destroy the unions; they also attempt to sabotage the carrying-out of elections by attacking and burning polling stations, and very regularly sequester road-toll booths and block major highways. It is this kind of action which enrages locals like Vanesa, who are simply unable to go about their daily lives as a result. I sympathise with the frustration of people like her – I have never had to live with such massive and constant disruption. But I also grew up in a country with a decent school system where there were properly-remunerated teachers, plentiful materials and classrooms with roofs. Plus I’m aware that at least some of the opprobrium towards the teachers is at least related to racism; that certainly has been the case among members and supporters of successive national governments. This is one of those issues on which I have to bow to the greater wisdom of people who properly live in Mexico.So, Oaxaca is a complex place. Maybe a third eye would help make sense of things. In the market I buy a t-shirt featuring an image of Maria Sabina, the Queen of Mushrooms. She became an international celebity in the 1960s, attracting seekers of ancestral cosmic wisdom such as (it was rumoured) Dylan, Lennon, Jagger and Richards. She herself wasn’t impressed by the hordes of new arrivals. She was a curandera, for whom the point of taking psilocybins was not to find the divine but to heal sickness. Although we don’t visit her village, it is still on the tourist trail – every time I wear the t-shirt over the next few months, from Havana to Angkor Wat, I receive masonic nods and winks from those who share my apparent knowledge of arcane hallucinogenic rituals. We do, however, end up taking a trip: a bus excursion to Monte Albán to look at Some More Pyramids. We are lucky to be assigned a tourguide with some alternative theories to explain why some of the stone carvings depict people with deformed limbs, the upshot of which is that archeologists are all liars, historians are full of shit and we ourselves are a bit thick and should go to infowars.com if we can bear to learn the real Truth about the world. We also visit the jaw-dropping petrified waterfall and the hot springs at Hierve l’Água. Afterwards we share a collective taxi with some other tourists in order to rejoin the main bus. Halfway along an otherwise deserted track, the truck comes to an unexpected stop, and a representative of a small contingent of men requests that we all get out of the vehicle and into another one with no immediate explanation. Some of us start to suspect that something a bit kidnappy might be underway, but thankfully the new driver reassures us, explaining that the place where we got out marks the boundary between two taxi concessions, and that there have been ‘problems’ in the past when drivers from one village have encroached on the other’s territory. This makes me wonder if the preponderance of recovery groups in Mexico might be somewhere related; perhaps one cartel controls all the Narcotics Anonymous groups in a given town and another armed gang rakes in the income from the meetings in the adjacent pueblo. I can’t imagine that such a situation would be particularly good for anyone’s sense of serenity.After we’ve tromped up and a fair few pyramids in the 40 degree heat, taken more photos than we will ever have time to look at and visited enough artisanal workshops to last the lifetimes of several Aztec gods, we are all keen to get back to Oaxaca, sink a couple of mechiladas and echar una siesta. So we’re delighted to hear we’ll be taking in one more attraction: we’re going to see some black pots being made. The black pots turn out to be useless, at least for their primary purpose of containing liquids. If you put water in them, it apparently goes all murky and you can’t drink it. They are nonetheless very pretty decorative objects, with their black sheen achieved by polishing them before firing them. Oh. It turns out that I am the only person in the world who finds pottery boring*. Everyone else wanders round the shop cooing at the crockery on display, or at least they do until the heavens intervene. Unfortunately the shop is open to the elements, which is a shame because the elements are in a very bad mood; like us, they’re probably a bit tired and just want to be driven back to the hotel. They descend on the place and smash bits of it to pieces while we cower in the corners and try to avoid getting lacerated by shards of falling pottery. In fact the weather gods have done us a major favour, because as soon as the torrent ceases we wade across the car park and get back in the van.
There’s a limit to what we can see in and around the city in three or so days. You could easily spend a month in Oaxaca State and not even get round to a third of the places you are recommended to visit. It is the fourth most visited state in the country, and also happens to be the second poorest, with 76% of the population living in extreme poverty. In my English language examining job I often pose this conundrum to candidates when the topic of tourism arises. It suggests to me that tourism is not a good or fair strategy for developing a region. Oaxaca does not suffer from a lack of promotion or even a shortage of visitors, and it’s rich in terms of both natural and cultural resources. It has a range of outstanding natural landscapes and no shortage of well-preserved ruins reflecting its historical complexity, the range of civilisations that have existed there. However, while most images of Oaxaca depict things of indigenous origin, whether archaeological sites or local products, in tourism-related jobs indigenous people themselves are rarely seen. This must be partly because of racism, but it is also clearly related to education. People whose schools do not have books and roofs are far less likely to acquire the skills necessary to obtain such jobs. Compared to a national average of 26%, only 5% of Oaxaca’s indigenous population reaches middle or higher education.There is also the question of who has money to invest to take advantage of all the visitors. Most mid-range places we stay in happen to be owned by foreigners, and at the level of higher-end tourism, it’s international money that dominates – indeed it often physically displaces both local investment in addition to causing the eviction of local people and the destruction of natural environments. A recent and spectacular example of the latter were the mangroves in Cancun. Where tourism does create jobs for local people, they tend to be of poor quality – short-term, badly-paid and often very exploitative. Betting on tourism as a development strategy also has an opportunity cost. It replaces other forms of development and means that everything is valued in terms of its potential appeal to visitors. This is something I hear all the time in IELTS exams, regardless of the topic: parks are good because tourists like them. National cinema is useful because it promotes the country and might encourage tourists to visit. Museums and galleries are important because tourists seem to like them. The success of this ideology is demonstrated by the fact that to many people it seems to be a natural way of thinking, a common sense point of view. Drawing people’s attention to the fallacy of it (not exactly my job, but what the hey) is like the joke about one fish remarking to another on the temperature of the water. It’s an ideology which lends itself to exploitation by private interests. In ‘The Shock Doctrine’ Naomi Klein detailed how after the Asian tsunami of 2004 fishermen along the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand were displaced by hotel developments. In the case of Mexico, we learn of a similar situation towards the end of the film ‘Y Tu Mama También’: the young family who the three main characters have become friends with on the beach (filmed in Huatulco, Oaxaca) will soon be forced to leave their beachside home because of a new holiday resort. The same dynamic is in operation around the world, and not just along coastlines, but also in major cities, as the urban geographer (and my personal friend) David Harvey explores in some detail here. As he explains, tourism is a great product for capitalists to invest in because, unlike a vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone, it is instantly and infinitely consumable, with no product cycle. There is no limit to the amount that tourists can consume. Meanwhile local people are locked outside this endless festival of superfluous consumption, and in many situations are left with no other available means of survival but to sit on the pavement and try to sell whatever they have to the tourists. As for how people excluded in this way feel, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze tries to put herself in their huaraches in her brilliant poem ‘Third World Girl‘:
The poem also addresses cultural appropriation. Oaxaca is important to Mexico in a similar way to how the Northeast is important to Brazil. In both cases the region provides symbols and icons which are central to national identity, and in both cases the people of the region are amongst the most deprived in the country. One such Mexican national emblem is the rebozo. In summer 2015 the Franz Mayer Museum held a special exhibition on Frida Kahlo’s use of the garment, titled, revealingly in English, Made in Mexico**. (The same exhibition had been held in London a year earlier). We learn from the information on display that this outfit is “one of the feminine Mexican garments par excellence … it has (much) meaning in the creation of the identity of women and the country.” The text that introduces the exhibition does not speak mainly of the rebozo, but of national identity:
‘Mexico is a rich tapestry in which multiple threads are interwoven. Its long and tumultuous history, from the ancient pre-Hispanic towns to the modernity of its urban culture, has brought many influences and ideas to the country, adapting to a cosmovision and way of life singularly Mexican. The decorative arts, an integral part of Mexican culture, reflect the intersection of traditional culture, colonial legacy and contemporary and political life. The rebozo has been – and continues to be – a resistant emblem of Mexican identity.’
In the words of Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, what the Mexican state and its elite values is not its indigenous population, but an image of it. It then sells Mexico on the global market using images of indigenous people and indigenous products, but denies the people themselves the education that would give them the chance to exploit those things for themselves if they chose to do so. It’s comforting and flattering to think that our visit to Oaxaca helped develop the region in some small way. We certainly found it a deeply enriching experience. But I don’t believe that tourism is a equitable or sustainable way to develop a region or a city. Social and economic policies should focus on improving the living standards and human potential of the people who live in a particular place, and not the experience of those who are merely there on holiday. To which I suppose the only logical corollary is: if I ever go back to Oaxaca, I very much hope that I have a worse time than I did on my first visit.
* José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ (which I also mentioned yesterday, oddly enough) is partly an essay In Praise of Pottery. Those bits of it are profoundly dull.
** I wrote a piece in Spanish about it in Spanish here (it’s in Spanish).
Across the doors of the lift in my hotel in Guadalajara there is a huge peel-and-stick painting of someone’s idea of a blue-sky palm-tree paradise, but where you might expect to see golden sands and sunlounges, what greets your eyes instead is a Burger King concession next to a huge line of cars. The good people of Guadalajara, it seems, enjoy their traffic jams. They are also fond of shopping centres, and of the car parks that must therefore surround and lie underneath them, which is why in search of an actual bar it takes me about half an hour of hard work to find one amidst the Walmarts and VIPs and Chili’s and VIPS and Chili’s and VIPs and drive-in Walmarts Walmarts Walmarts. The entire landscape in the area where I happen to be hotelled is composed of shopping centres, megamarts, car showrooms and names of stores in six-foot writing designed to be read by people speeding past or more realistically biding time in embotellamientos. It’s on another scale from where we live in Mexico City. The city is effectively unwalkable and the only places I can find to eat without giving up and joining the traffic are restaurants rated for their parking rather than their food. It doesn’t help that Guadalajara is immense and it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere fun even by car – it feels strangely much larger than DF. It’s the kind of hyperalienating environment which José Saramago deplores in ‘The Cave’, a place which is, in the words of Frederick Jameson, ‘useless as a conduit of psychic energy’. It puts me in mind of Cabot Circus, that huge alien spaceship which has obliterated the centre of Bristol. There’s nothing new about such an environment and there is little to say about it that authors such as JG Ballard, William Gibson and Will Self haven’t already written. But my individual experience of it is inevitably physically and spiritually exhausting. 20th Century modernity became fixated on the private motor vehicle and the 21st Century shows no signs of moving on despite its own terminal obsession with the smartphone. Who cares about a three-hour bottleneck when you can sit in your car and text. It takes me three attempts to get to the centre using public transport and my feet; eventually I give up and take a taxi.I always learn a lot from Mexican taxi-drivers, about politics and the ins-and-outs of gang wars. Asking about who controls the city (and which politicians they are in league with) starts to feel a bit like asking how the local football teams are faring. In Guadalajara there has recently been a low-level war between two mafia groups and now things are (ostensibly) relatively calm because one of the sides won. For taxi drivers in Guadalajara the theme of violence and politics is intimately connected to their jobs and to the increasing dominance of one particular cartel known as…Uber.
The transition to the post-human economic model is not proving to be smooth one anywhere you look, and in Mexico like so many social and economic changes it is mediated by violence. There have been physical attacks on and kidnappings of Uber drivers, and it is hard to tell whether this is inspired more by traditional drivers struggling to survive or by cartels not wanting to lose their share of the market. The situation is unsustainable both from the point of view of taxi drivers and from the perspective of those who drive for Uber. On the part of the normal taxi drivers there is outrage at the corruption involved. The governor of the city recently changed the terms of their licenses; he also introduced an unsustainable level of competition into the trade by buying dozens of cars and putting them to work for Uber. Hence, like in many other cities, many people working ‘for’ Uber are not the owners of the cars they drive. In any case the amount that drivers earn from Uber is not enough to maintain a car to the standard the company demands and certainly not enough to replace it after a few years. Over time, as competition intensifies, individual drivers don’t earn enough and they lose their ‘jobs’. In the meantime they have to cope with sudden increases in how much they (or their bosses) have to pay the company – in mid-2015 they were faced with an overnight 20% to 25% increase. The clients of course won’t notice when drivers drop out, because as the traditional taxi service disappears there will always be new ones, who will then in turn fade away – indeed, who will literally disappear given the amount that Uber is investing in the development of driverless cars. And although Uber is not yet profitable it has bottomless pools of capital to draw upon, given that companies such as Goldman Sachs are involved. The drivers are just place-holders, stand-ins for robots who haven’t quite made it out of the factory yet. I realise when talking to the driver on the way back to the hotel from work that this happens to resemble my own situation. I’m here to administer international English exams, speaking ones that are conducted in person and which take about 14 minutes each. The students also do written exams, which take considerably less time to grade (I currently hold the secret world record), and so are the much more lucrative part of the deal. However, it is rumoured that the written exams will soon be conducted online, and then it is safe to assume that the spoken exams will follow, as already happens with the competitor exam.In addition to the damage it does to the livelihoods of working people, there are several reasons why using Uber makes me so uncomfortable despite its obvious advantages in terms of convenience and (ironically) comfort. It’s useful to take the name seriously. Uber provides a comforting and flattering sensation of belonging to the elite – in Pynchonian terms, to the elect rather than the preterite. In the case of any danger or discomfort we can be whisked away in and to safety. The fact that it is cash-free feeds the fantasy. The phrase “there will be a car waiting for us” is a very seductive one; silently, magically, someone turns up; there’s machinery behind the scenes taking care of our needs. The way Uber operates means that we are effectively being driven round on the internet; just like we can now choose to mentally absent ourselves from awkward social situations with less than a digital click of the fingers, Uber gives us the opportunity to slip away physically. Although Uber drivers I have encountered have been unfailingly courteous the system works to abstract relations and frees me from potentially perilous social obligations: I’m not forced to listen to obnoxious phone-ins on the radio, or (even worse) having to listen to Smooth FM; I obviously don’t have to stress about possibly not having enough cash. I also learn a lot less from drivers in Uber cars; interaction feels more stilted, more like I’m talking to a tourist guide than a taxi driver. The service serves to cushion us from daily frustrations and curtain us off from awkward personal engagement with the service provider; our relation with him or her is more remote, so he or she is interchangable. As such the whole experience puts me in mind of the scene in ‘Cloud Atlas’ which depicts a future in which only a tiny number of superconsumers have the right to shop and are served by a sub-race of interchangeable and immediately disposable replicants.When we pay for special treatment what we are paying for is an enhanced image of ourselves. This is the ‘added value’ that companies are desperate to add to their products. This cultural tendency to fantasise ourselves as superconsumers partly explains the appeal of figures like Trump and the Kardashians. Trump in particular lives a fantasy life of a fantasy billionaire, and by taking Uber we also partake in this roleplay. This aspiration-as-pure-fantasy is what capitalism is increasingly betting on. An article in the Financial Times in 2013 urged its readers to shift their investments into luxury items, “many of which have been outperforming peddlers of more humdrum goods in recent years”. Uber stitches privilege seamlessly into the fabric of our lives and helps us pretend that we are not paying for it. In the back of an Uber car I can stretch back and mentally flick through the latest edition of How to Spend It; I certainly find that I am much more likely to ignore the driver altogether and pretend I need to do stuff on my phone. I can be driven round like the billionaire in ‘Cosmopolis’, seemingly detached from the social and economic pressures exerted on the driver. Uber drivers rarely complain: about other customers, about their job, about the city they live in. They are after all more dependent on the person paying them, who can, if they are in any way displeased, jeopardise the driver’s future income at a safe distance with a tiny gesture of the thumb. They are our servants in a way that taxi drivers are not. Uber is all about strategy, about accomplishing total control over the field in which they operate. Normal cab drivers have tactics to evade total control and exploitation; this might consist in ripping off the customer, talking back, or taking detours. They know the cities in a way Uber drivers generally don’t, dependent as they are on GPS. Tl;dr: I think it’s wrong to use Uber.When I do at long last get to the centro histórico of Guadalajara its beauty and charm stupefy me; I’m glad that on this third and final visit I finally made the effort. The colonial heart of the city was designed, set out and built specifically in order to ridicule any humble attempts I might make at describing it. Jalisco es Mexico is the slogan used to promote the region and the symbols and bright colours you see emblazoned all around insist on this, as do the ubiquitous mariachi music and the incessant invitations to try out the local tequilas. In a tiny sundrenched plaza called Nueve Esquinas I gorge on birria, the ingredients of which are one entire dead goat boiled in its own blood, four different kinds of chilli, and about two litres of my own sweat, as the local beer and a shot of the regional moonshine sieve right through my hair back into the bowl and so I promptly grab some more tortillas, dive in and perform a perfectly executed Mexican version of La Scarpetta. Afterwards I walk around in a daze in the blistering heat and take a hypnogogic doze on a bench. It’s all too much to take in, and I don’t want to have to deal with the tedium of rush hour, so I take a taxi back to the hotel with a driver called Alberto who comes from Monterrey and whose girlfriend is scheduled to give birth to twins any day now. It’s a high-speed, bumpy but convivial experience soundtracked by norteño music a un volumen ensorcedor. Addled as I am with goodwill, goat and agave I offer to do a deal over the price so I will pay double the pittance I am charged and then claim it back from my employer. I try to explain the phrase stick it to the man, for which I’m sure Mexican Spanish must have range of equivalents, but only confusion results and I decide it’s probably about time for another siesta.
Guanajuato is the kind of place where you spend most of your time hoping you can come back one day. The term Pueblo Mágico is somewhat overused in a Mexican context – you’d be hard pressed to find a reasonably attractive town of a certain size to which that classification hasn’t been applied – but the charms of this place are plentiful and immediately apparent: an undulating landscape of colourful roofs and baroque churches spread over several hills, from which a bird’s eye view swoops down to tight-knit labyinths of alleyways which put me in mind of Alfama in Lisbon or the Ribeiro in Porto, these twisting callejones opening suddenly upon laurel-lined colonial squares laid out in their own haphazard maze. Its effect was such that even though we have now left Mexico I still have the vague but somewhat vain hope that we will go back before we leave. Somehow.
We happen to be there during the Day of the Dead celebrations and there couldn’t really be a more appropriate place to visit. Many of the streets are carpeted in intricate tapestries in colours which surpass my vocabulary in any language, composed of various flora and foodstuffs depicting calaveras and other catrinas or commenting slyly but wittily on political events.
Although the notion that Death is more present or more acknowledged in everyday life in Mexico can be challenged on various fronts*, this is a city built on the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of silver miners. We descend to one of those mines and learn about the horrendous conditions endured (or not) by countless generations of mostly indigenous workers, and then we climb back up into the baroque ornateness of a church resplendent in the produce of all that toil. The whole of Guanajuato, it seems, was developed because the owners of the mines had nothing better to do with their money than build shrines to themselves. In the words of Walter Benjamin, there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
It wasn’t just indigenous workers who broke their backs digging up precious metals. A caption in the local museum alludes coyly to the ‘presence’ of African ‘workers’ who were brought in to complement the Nahuas, Michoacanos, Otomis, and Chichimecas commandeered from other parts of Mesoamerica. Nowadays there is a glut of workers for a far smaller pool of jobs in tourism and the culture industry, with something of an an oversupply of hotels. We are certainly well catered for. The owner of our rambling hillside guesthouse turns out to be a gringo, one who typifies a certain kind of voluble effusiveness particular to North Americans, a characteristic which I personally find very endearing. He is full of stories about how he and a small team of in-laws hewed the place out of raw rock. It is a genuinely staggering achievement, involving hauling hunks of stone up and down the hill and hacking out waterways where there were none. Talking to him I am reminded of Fitzcarraldo, or any number of mad semi-mythical geniuses who headed south, grabbed machetes and gouged out their visions in the tropics. The sprawling establishment has a lot in common with the local churches in that there is silver and steel everywhere, but the decorations do not depict angels or edenic scenes, instead they consist of rather macabre, twisted metal sculptures. It looks like a workshop where the stage set for the new Iron Maiden world tour is being welded and hammered together.Fittingly, my less-than-elaborate costume for the Day of the Dead itself is a Slayer t-shirt I buy for 100 pesos. Here you can see a photo of me in all my gothic grandeur.
Even more of a frightening sight are the mummies which have long been one of Guanajuato’s main tourist attrations. The corpses were perfectly preserved but a century or so of morbid gawping has worn them out a bit. It strikes me that so much of the histrionic shrieking and visceral iconography of heavy metal music are in part an unwitting parody of certain aspects of the Catholic Church. While most metal bands would probably describe themselves as nihilistic, they are actually for the most part deeply moralistic, albeit more id than superego, a celebration of all the sadistic and grisly elements that priests pretend not to enjoy. There are few passages as gothic and rich in potential death metal imagery as the description of the sermon on the eternal tortures that await the damned in hell in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’.
A clue to what lies behind all these representations of gore is on display throughout the city: many churches are covered with huge images of fetuses reminding anyone who needed reminding of the fervent desire of the medieval and neomedieval church to control women’s sexualities at all costs. The museum where the mummies are housed also houses a few preserved examples of desiccated embryos. It may be that the historic treatment of women by the church and the state has contributed to the development of a culture in which men feel free to seize and dispose of women’s bodies with impunity. After all, certain still-dominant elements of the church hierarchy do not regard women’s bodies as their own property, but rather as mere vessels for the next generation of male heirs and child-carriers. Just a few hundred miles south of here the Church is having women locked up for decades for the mortal sin of having a miscarriage.
It comes as something of a shock to discover several weeks after visiting Guanajuato that I had already, in a sense, visited the place before. Rewatching a documentary about Thomas Pynchon I learn that he fled here when running away from a journalist who had tracked him down in Mexico City after his first novel became an overnight success. Subsequently while rereading ‘About the Day’ I notice with a start that he even visited and described the mummies in some detail. It gives me an curious insight into how he composes his immensely complex and often encyclopedic novels, because while he was here in 1963, the novel didn’t emerge til 2006. He gives the impression that he writes down absolutely everything that he learns and experiences and it all goes into his books.
A far more bloodless place is only an hour away from Guanajuato on the bus: San Miguel de Allende. This is Mexicoland, the kind of place which someone like Bill Gates probably finds pleasant and safe to wander round in his polo shirt and chinos. It is awash with serious tourist money and the effect is somewhat bland, like a golf course whch just happens to be covered in colonial buildings. Nowadays the rich don’t build palaces, they acquire cultural capital instead. The streets are teeming with vapid art galleries selling tasteful but meaningless decoration. We are very glad that we reversed our original plan of staying here for five days and nipping over to Guanajuato for one. Está bien aburrido, guey! Guanajuato, por otro lado, es una maravilla macabra.
*On the last night in Guanajuato we met someone dressed as a ghoul, an American artist who has defeated death and now openly and joyously taunts it.
** All but three of the photos in this piece were taken by the author. Anyone who can guess which three stands to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the bathroom.
*** This is part of an ongoing occasional series of reflections inspired by cities I have been to recently. Other entries can be found tagged below under Cities.
I’m trying to write a novel, one set in Condesa, a nice, quiet, leafy suburb of Mexico City, in mid-2015. A number of things make this difficult, not the least of which is that it’s now 2016 and not only are events quickly moving way ahead of me, they are also, conversely, getting closer to home. Last Saturday night two people were shot within around fifty metres from our front door. I know this because a journalist from Proceso magazine was brave enough to write about it several days later:
“Last weekend, in the middle of Calle Saltillo in Condesa, outside the bar Dussel, which only opens in the early morning and closes when the sun hits its peak, a man on a motorcycle killed two people. Approximately seven months ago, on the same street corner with Alfonso Reyes the owner of a bar known as LIFE was executed.
“The Roma-Condesa area is not just one of the trendy zones of Mexico city because of its bars, restaurants, galleries and parks and because it’s inhabited by middle-class hipsters or by the millennial generation. It’s also an area which has for some time been under the control of the first chilango (Mexico City) organised crime gang known as La Unión.
“The boom in restaurants, bars, pubs and nightclubs in Roma and Condesa, as well as the real estate boom that has attracted the capital’s young population, has attracted the attention of La Unión because it is a natural market for adulterated alcohol and all sorts of drugs.
“The authorities of Cuauhtemoc, the most economically and politically important district in the Federal-District, have detected people from La Unión operating in the fashionable colonies Roma-Condesa, carrying out the transfer and sale of drugs in the central streets of Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Alfonso Reyes, Saltillo, Alvaro Obregon, Orizaba, Colima and others where the bars and clubs that are being subject to extorsion but do not want to officially recognize it are concentrated.
“Violence has become increasingly present in these two colonies where there have been invasions of land and buildings, assaults on passers-by, armed robberies at some restaurants and executions outside of some clubs.”
…which reminds me that on Sunday morning we walked past the spot where the double murder must have happened, because the road right in front of the bar in question was closed off by police tape. At the time we dismissed it as not much, because there was no media in sight, but I understand better now that just because some people have been violently killed doesn’t mean that the mainstream media can or will report on it. Ironic, of course, that I only learnt about the details of what happened on our doorstep when a friend in London sent me the article via the internet. This part of the city is mostly populated by transient funseekers and youngish expats like ourselves, with few restaurants and cafes that don’t turn out to be chains, so there is less of a sense of community than I initially assumed. The murders fit into a pattern of recent events which we read about when we were thousands of miles away just before Christmas. Not just read about, in fact — a neighbour of ours filmed this video out of his window, a couple of hundred metres away. This was apparently followed by an incident where twenty armed men burst into an apartment building on Avenida Amsterdam, held up the residents at gunpoint and ransacked the place. Stories, not all apocryphal, of raids on bars and restaurants in Condesa and the adjoining barrio of Roma abound, as well as reports of extortion (‘derecho de piso’) of bar and restaurant owners in the neighbourhood.
Although we, as people entirely remote from the tit-for-tat battles between drug gangs, are little more likely to fall victim to violent crime than we were in Hackney, it’s made us nervous. All the time we’ve been here the fact that we live in a nice, safe part of town has been a major opening conversational gambit. So many people in Italy and the UK asked us ‘How’s Mexico?’ that some part of my brain started to assume it was a new greeting that had taken off in our absence, so after I while I found myself asking friends and family the same question. But the automatic answer we’d happily been trotting out over the previous few months no longer rang true. An uncomfortable aspect of this is that we had come to assume we had some sort of privileged immunity to the violence that simultaneously destablises and sustains this society. In my novel I’d like to explore the ways in which this is also true on a wider and deeper level, explore its myriad contradictions and try to come to terms with the manifold hypocrisies it entails. For the time being it means we need to watch our steps. After all, as the Proceso article mentions, the reason there are so many vibrant and pulsating bars in this district is drugs, and those who take them have obviously obtained them somewhere hereabouts. There is a huge nighttime economy, and violence is a powerful currency.
All this connects with the novel I’m trying to write in a way which if I attempted to pass it off as mere fiction would make anyone who read it dismiss as profoundly implausible. You would not get away with making this shit up. It is possible, for example, that recent events are somehow to do with the poisoning of several dogs in two nearby parks last summer. In my novel it will be 43 dogs, for fairly obvious, but hopefully not too trite, reasons. Certain aspects of the plot I stole from someone who shall remain anonymous, because I have no idea who connected the events in the first place. Try this on for size:
In about early December last year I popped into an internet cafe on Insurgentes in order to print something as part of my ongoing battle with the tax authorities. This involved cutting and pasting some details from my email, but when I clicked paste what appeared in the word doc was not what I expected. Instead what popped up was a closely-worded text in capital letters which must have been some sort of letter-to-the-editor. Although I was too slow and in too much of a hurry to understand more than the gist of it, in essence it set out a bad-tempered conspiracy theory arguing that the deaths of the dogs in Condesa was part of a political strategy by the authorities to manufacture a sense of paranoia which would somehow lead to a positive result in the referendum (to be held later that week) on the future of the Corredor Chapultepec. This is a huge scheme to turn a neglected thoroughfare in the centre of the city into a version of Dubai. The text alleged that the police and political authorities were engaged in a complex plot to destabilise an emblematically tranquil part of the city in order to achieve their political and commercial aims.
So far, so mindbendingly odd. Or possibly just mad. There’s little reason to believe it wasn’t written by a local nutcase, and I don’t want to assume that goings-on here are any more wacky than in, say, London. But then I did know from the US-born DF-based writer Francisco Goldman, and from various other informants, that in very much the same way as criminal gangs compete and kill over the drug trade in Condesa, the national ruling party (Peña Nieto’s PRI) do have a long-term plan to take over DF. Ever since the mayoral system was introduced nearly twenty years ago, it has been won by someone (at least nominally) on the left. Listen to the local radio here and you are sure to hear an advert from the PRI boasting of their ability to run the city. According to Goldman and his friend the former mayor Marcelo Ebrard, the PRI will stop at nothing to get their hands on the prize. The current mayor (Miguel Mancera) was elected in 2012 as an independent, but his brutally repressive/staggeringly incompetent actions since have led very many people to suspect that he is doing a job for the PRI. His claim that there is no organised crime in Mexico City is endlessly ridiculed as there is countless evidence that it is a straight-up lie, not least the hugely increased police presence in the more salubrious parts of the city over the last few months. What may well be happening on a city-wide scale is what the drug gangs are apparently offering to bar owners in Condesa — the PRI may be roughing things up so that it can then offer ‘protection’. When the left-wing former and future presidential candidate Lopez Obrador (‘the Pike’) talks about the ‘mafia of power’ it is more than just an attention-seeking metaphor.
Ultimately in my novel I might end up taking a leaf out of one of Martin Amis’s better novels and having a character with my own name drifting in and out of the action (but hopefully not getting shot dead on page 16). At least for all of my extremely limited understanding of the dynamics of life in this city, there’s no way on earth I would do DF as much of a disservice as Amis has done in every novel he’s written about London in the last thirty years. The more I pick up on what’s going on around us, I start to suspect that capturing even the vaguest sense of it all might just be beyond my powers. I think even Thomas Pynchon himself would balk at some of the outlandish plot twists devices that reality comes up with in Mexico, DF. At least one other novelist, Roberto Bolaño, had a term he used to classify the level of surrealism inherent to this place: infrarrealismo. If I now proceed to get arrested for researching how to poison dogs online, it will fall into that category.