Monday, February 22, 2016

Cantinas, Swooning and the Fermented Fat of Endangered Species


My dad sent me to Mexico this weekend as an early birthday gift, to surprise my grandmother for her birthday. I haven't been to the ranch alone in years and I was thrilled. I'm near the end (at last! at last!) of my fantasy novel and was looking forward to calm days of writing on the patio. Ha. Ha ha.

Turns out grandma was in LA. I had the house to myself for a couple of days before she arrived Saturday. Perfect. Time to write, wander, allow myself the indulgence of true Mexican time, where a day lasts a week, punctuated by mealtimes and gossip. The first night I sat up late on the patio, writing, every cell in me thrumming with the joy of being in my ancestral homeland. In the morning I got up early (or late, by ranch determination, the sun was up, cows milked, cheese cooling. . ) and wrote some more. Went to town with a cousin. Spent time with an aunt and the former-arch nemesis of my grandmother. I discovered that my great-grandmother used to run a cantina in the village! There was no electricity back then so it was lit by gasoline lanterns. One of my great-uncles was in charge of the music, he changed the records on what sounded to me like a freaking Victrola. My uncle described it as a record player with a large horn attached to it, so yeah, Victrola. I must investigate more next trip down.

I spent only a little time in the fields. The weather is unseasonably hot for February so the men were frantic with the beans, trying to get them picked before they dry out. They were sucking the river dry to keep the chiles hydrated as well. I rode on a tractor a bit, just because, then stretched out in a rope hammock and spent the rest of the afternoon watching the leaves above me getting it on with the wind. We went home just before sunset.

Then I got sick. My lungs started aching, burning. My grandmother's former arch-nemesis insisted I needed just a couple of teaspoons of fermented sea turtle fat and I'd be fine; she knew a woman who knew a woman. . . What you do is take the fat from a sea turtle and pour it into an empty coconut. You bury the coconut for a week, don't bury it so deep the heat from the sun won't hit it, it needs the warmth to ferment. After seven days, dig it up, bottle it and cure everything that ails the lungs. I, of course, said no thank you. I can handle a cold but the guilt of sucking down the lipids of an endangered species? Not so much.

The next morning I woke up feeling like I'd been UFC fighting in my dreams. Add to that the lovely polyester sheets I was sleeping in, I was miserable. My cousin took me to town to see a doctor. Doctors in Mexico are so damn affordable. I paid 30 pesos, about $2 to see the doc. He listened to my lungs, symptoms and told me I had an upper respiratory infection. He gave me a syrup for the cough that would soon come and then told me to go to the pharmacy next door and get an injection, an anti-inflammatory injection.

I've been getting shots in the ass for years. When I lived in San Miguel de Allende 2003/4, we used to get vitamin b-12 shots before nights of partying, for energy and hangover prevention. My doctor here injects me with anti-inflammatory shots when I get sick too. No big deal, right? The nurse at the pharmacy had me lift my dress, swabbed me with alcohol and injected me. It hurt. I could feel the liquid seeping into the muscle, it ached. I shook my leg a bit to move the medicine then I got hot. Fever hot. Hot-flash hot. And dizzy. The world went fuzzy, I leaned on the counter and said Estoy mareada and then I fainted. I came-to in a chair, my cousin fanning me with a cardboard box while the nurse was trying to get me to sip pedialyte. I had never fainted before, it was very 19th century of me to do so, in a maxi dress, in another language.

The sickness took over anyway, despite the swooning injection and cough syrup. My grandmother arrived that afternoon and we had a party. I wasn't really a part of the "we" though. I was wrapped in polyester sheets, alternating between sweats and chills, coughing and fever-dreaming. Of course my family hired a band and they were set up right outside my window. Thus my fever-dreams had a soundtrack, featuring an accordion. All the aunts and cousins made a show of checking on me, coming in to touch whatever part of me wasn't wrapped in purple polyester to declare, ah, yes, she's sick. I was diagnosed with everything from mal aire, bad air, to pregnancy, to the dengue chikunkuya. I was told I'd be sick for months, or that it would pass if I just took a linty pill scrounged from the bottom of a purse. At one point I woke up the sound of a cat screaming from having it's claws ripped out but it turned out it was only a cousin, drunk on three bottles of Two-Buck-Chuck, serenading my grandmother with the help of the band.

Around midnight my grandmother came in and declared that my mother would forever hold her responsible if I died on her watch so I had to go home. Plane tickets were arranged and I got home last night. The sickness, of course, has now almost passed from my body. It was lovely to sleep in my own bed, Hari beside me. We took an hour to sit on our balcony and talk before bed, as we do. My happiest of places.

A few interesting threads I cannot right now weave into the longer narrative:

The village, normally tiny, has about doubled in population with migrant workers from Southern Mexico. They sleep in huts literally made from black garbage bags. Entire families going into the fields at dawn, returning after sunset. Many don't speak Spanish, they speak an indigenous language from their home. At night they play music, singing in their language, dancing. They don't interact much with the locals, sending their children to buy the few things they need from the women in town who sell eggs and slaughter chickens.

My grandmother's former arch-nemesis told me about giving birth to a breech baby. She figured out the baby was breech when she was washing clothes in the river and felt something odd between her legs. A baby foot. Hanging out of her vagina. She pushed it back in, kept washing clothes and resigned herself to a difficult birth later that night.

The cousin of a cousin died after receiving an injection at the same pharmacy where I received mine. They injected him and he fell to the ground immediately. The doctor came out, looked at him and said "He's dead."