Monday, April 25, 2011

Mexico's Mennonites and Irma Voth

Since my first trip to Mexico in the early 1980s I've been fascinated by the Mennonites. I knew many migrated from the Canadian prairies, where Mennonites continue to have a strong presence. It was thrilling to encounter one in Merida for the first time a few years ago, a tall blond man in overalls selling cheese from table to table in the Alameda restaurant. For some reason I assumed he'd speak English and would know stories about life in Canada - perhaps I felt a connection between their history and my own farming relatives who settled in Manitoba. But no, he was from Campeche state, period; there were no stories of Canadian or any other foreign roots. He was puzzled by my questions. The cheese was excellent, though.

I've seen Mexican Mennonites occasionally since then. Most recently in a group at a building supply store in the Mejorada neighborhood: the men dressed in formal black overalls, the women covered in their long dark printed dresses. First time I'd seen Mennonite women in town. A small boy, maybe aged three or four, perched on a crate in his wee black overalls, white shirt and hat. I started to go for my camera, then hesitated, realizing that taking a photo might violate their cultural and religious rules.

So I was excited to discover Canadian writer Miriam Toews' new novel, Irma Voth, about a young Mennonite woman and her family in Mexico. Toews is of Mennonite background herself, and happened upon the subject matter after she was inveigled to play the role of a Mennonite wife in the art film, Stellet Licht (Silent Light), by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

I don't know how closely Irma Voth reflects the Mennonite experience in Mexico, or even Chihuahua state where it is mostly set. There are narcos and violence, and a deep, oppressive unhappiness. I loved the book anyway. The story line  includes the making of a film involving the Mennonites and a foreign actress. Beyond the drama, it gives a view into the sensibility of this tribe who, as the fictional Irma says in the book, "live like ghosts", and "move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese."

Here's an article  from the Globe and Mail if you'd like to read more about Toews and Irma Voth . Now I can't wait to see the film, Stellet Licht, if I can track it down.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Changes in the 'hood

Our house wasn't the only thing undergoing a transformation in our neighborhood in the time between my visits.

This time, right away, I noticed  new paint colors on some of the houses on our block. One end of the block had been anchored by two empty storefronts for at least the year and a half that I had been haunting the area. Now one of those
storefronts was occupied by a sharp new Dunosusa grocery/drygoods store, a nice complement to all the fresh produce and meat available at the Chem Bech market on the next block. The other storefront, while still empty, was freshly painted and looking much nicer - who knows what could be there by the time we return?

Other changes were less obvious but hinted at a changing mood or sensibility in the area. I went to the tendejon at the other end of the street to get water and cokes for the workers at our house. The shop owner is very friendly. On my first visit he informed me that there were many Canadian paysanos in the neighborhood, to my great surprise. I thought our area was a bit beyond the encroachment zone, where one charming neighborhood is so populated with American and Canadian expats it's sometimes referred to as "Gringo Gulch".

Dunosusa: Your full range of votive candles
This time, with my change for the drinks, the tendejon owner surprised me with a sales pitch: Did I want to buy his building? He listed off the features, opened the door to show me the living space in behind the shop area, divulged the asking price. I wasn't sure what to say, as I already have a house and wasn't thinking of going into the corner-store business. I told him I'd certainly let people know about the property. Then I left with my purchases and lingering questions about the exchange. Was he feeling pressured by the well-stocked new Dunosusa at the other end of the block? Is there a sense of a land rush in the neighborhood after a couple of (I was told) very slow years in the local real estate market? Or do random foreigners get these kinds of offers all the time?

My curiosity intensified a couple of days later at the local lavanderia. After I dropped off my clothes, out of the blue, the operator's husband approached me with his card and started to tell me how he could find me beach property at very good prices. Now I admit I am a bit of a real-estate weenie. Endlessly fascinated with the market, the prices, the opportunities, the hidden potential of even the sorriest wreck of a place. I've enjoyed buying and renovating a few places over the years, and would have done more if money wasn't such darned hard stuff to get. But I've never been approached repeatedly by total strangers who assumed I was "in the market".

I wonder what it means.

Dunosusa: I don't know what these are but I think you eat them.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Early retirement


This old bike has been my trusty steed and daily transportation for the better part of the last two decades. Got it second-hand from a bike-mechanic friend. It's the best bike I ever owned, but also the only one that was never stolen. I am sure that's because it's so ugly and usually also could use a bit of cleaning. That, and a good lock.

When I rented a house in Merida, before we bought our own, there was a bike available for guests and I took it out once or twice a day, exploring neighborhoods, checking out the street vibes after dark, pushing beyond the places my feet could take me. Getting lost on a bike isn't so bad because it doesn't take long to get un-lost.

With no plans to get a car, I wanted a bike in Merida to get around. The ones I saw in stores seemed big and heavy. My old bike is light, responsive and so familiar after all these years that it feels like an extension of myself. When the mechanics told me it might be getting too old to find replacement parts, I figured it had earned a good retirement home.

So I had it dissembled and packed in a shipping box for the trip to Merida. Cost $30 for the box and packing, around $50 more, I think, to get it on the plane. Once in Merida, I humped it down to the local BiciMaya store and they charged me 80 pesos (about $6.60) to put it back together.

Cycling in Merida is something that seems best approached with some caution. The streets are narrow and uneven, traffic is packed in, and drivers can be somewhat aggressive. I've been told the licensing process for drivers is not what you'd call rigorous. The tabloid papers frequently feature gory accident pictures.

Still, you've got to appreciate a city that closes its main north/south artery to traffic every Sunday and turns it into a dedicated bike route. When I got my wheels put back together and started riding, I began to notice the other cyclists. No one else wears a helmet; all seem to be workers or elderly men.

After I got the bike back to the house I decided to head to the nearby mall for household supplies. Arriving there, the parking lot seemed to have nowhere to lock up. Then I saw a cluster of bikes near the main doors. Getting closer, I realized they were unlocked, with a man keeping watch over them. A bike valet. This bike was retiring in style.


At many parking lots around Merida you see similar parking helpers and minders, a sort of unofficial and often unwanted service. They who wave a red rag and direct drivers into their parking spots, then expect a propino for keeping watch while you shop or whatever. I had no idea a similar informal economy existed around bike-minding, but I was happy to leave it with my valet and accept a little wooden token with a number so I could claim it back.

When I returned, laden with pillows and a curtain rod, it was a bit of a comic scene trying to jam everything onto the bike rack. I discovered the rack was missing a spring and suddenly stuff was all over the pavement. Maybe it wasn't put back together quite right after the flight. But we made it back through the zig-zag neighborhood streets, me no doubt looking like a gringa nut, all laden with pillows and other bulky items, weaving around on the old bike.

The next day I forswore the beast-of-burden routine, but took a city map and made an excursion to an obscure (to me) location in a semi-distant neighborhood on a furniture scouting mission. Felt a sense of accomplishment actually finding it, and making it back. On the way I discovered a sign advertising a public cenote not far from our house, something to check out another time, and something I would not have seen taking the main road.

It's going to take a bit of fine-tuning to get the bike and the routes sorted out. But even now, back in Victoria, it's comforting to think of my familiar friend leaning against the wall, ready for adventure.