[A writing project in gestation…]
My name is Hal, but there’s a lot more to the story. There’s always more to the story. My mother was in labor for a long time before setting me loose upon the world. She was so relieved that I finally came out, she yelled “Hallelujah!” at the top of her lungs. My parents were all set to name me Robert, after the late Robert Kennedy, whom they greatly admired. But my Dad thought it would be funny to tell everyone my name was “Hal, short for Hallelujah” and somehow that’s what ended up on my birth certificate. I guess the joke wore thin after a while, because I grew up as Bobby. At the age of twelve I shortened it to Bob, and it’s only today, at the age of 36, that I’m trying Hal on for size. Something in the scroll—a surprising little synchronicity that I’ll delve into once I finish the transcription—has inspired me to make the change. I’m hoping that by the end of these nine months I’ll have the guts to go all the way, to become who I’ve always been. Hallelujah!
Keep in mind that as far as everyone else is concerned, I’m still Bob. Like every guy on every radio commercial. Like the guy on TV with the perma-smile who just had his maleness enhanced. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many Bobs I truly admire. Dylan? Marley? I hear DeNiro’s friends call him Bob, but on the big screen he sticks with Robert. Here in the pueblo they call me “Bob Esponja,” in reference to the Sponge Bob cartoon, which mesmerizes kids here just like it does back home. My wife had visited the pueblo a few times prior to this extended period of fieldwork, so everyone knew my name long before my arrival. Had she told them my name was Hal, perhaps my nickname would be Jalapeño by now. As it stands, Hal’s public debut will have to wait for the next fresh start, the next incarnation. There’s always next time.
If all this seems a little willy-nilly, you have to understand I’m not sitting in a coffee shop in Cancún, sipping a latte and tapping this shit out on my laptop over free wi-fi. Whatever I write is scratched out feverishly while I have a moment of privacy, because there’s no telling when I might enjoy another one. Opportunities to then transcribe stuff onto my wife’s computer are few and far between, as she is muy ocupada (very busy) with her research. Access to the internet is anything but easy. The memory stick must be brought to town, to the one home/business (usually closed) with a dial-up connection, or to a town much further away. Given these hurdles, it’s hard to see the wisdom in documenting this adventure via a blog. I could keep this all to myself I suppose, locked away in my private journal. But talking to myself doesn’t inspire me to dig deep or to take risks. Journaling for me is like masturbation. The scripts are safe and familiar, but there’s no real contact, nothing really at stake. There’s also no romance, no passion, no communion, for nothing is truly given or received. I want to write as if my words might actually touch someone emotionally, as if someone might actually hear my voice in their head or see me in their mind’s eye. I want at least the possibility of human connection, so that I’ll be sure to give my best, to attend with the utmost care. I am like the protagonist in the scroll story (as you will soon see, I swear!) in that I need to imagine a dear reader in order to carry on. He needed one to stay sane. I need one, you, to get the creative current flowing, to complete the circuit as it were.
Hopefully the meaning of all this will become clearer, to you and me, as things unfold and I get more accustomed to life here in the pueblo. As I mentioned, for the time being I have very little privacy, as the room we expected to move into upon our arrival is not yet fully constructed (despite prior assurances to the contrary). Until the doors and windows are put in, we will continue to stay in the main part of the house with our host family. The room we’re in now is not quite like the honeymoon suite in Key West we stayed in a few months ago. Think back to the public restroom at the last campsite you visited. The one made entirely of untreated cement. Walls crumbling. Floor always dirty. And the bugs… And the unrelenting humidity… This is, for now, home.
This morning has brought only minor nuisances so far. I was dive-bombed by a flying cockroach while sitting on the toilet, but he met his fate on the bottom of my flip-flop, so all is well, for now. Yesterday was rough, though. I woke to news that one of the family dogs was dead. I understood only “perro” (dog) and “muerte” (dead). Later, Molly translated: One of the neighbors, an older woman who apparently is not fond of dogs, allegedly fed several of the local mutts some poison-laced table scraps. In one sense, it seems to me it was a mercy killing, as the dogs here are mangy, underfed if not starving, and they prowl the streets looking like dog-zombies. On the other hand, I find the matter-of-factness of it all to be a little unsettling. In the States, cruelty to animals—a la Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring—is criminal conduct met with public outrage, but here in the pueblo a mass execution of dogs by a neighbor is “No importa” (no big deal).
Later on, after lunch, we all noticed a creature of unknown stripe scampering atop the wall. Straining to follow the ensuing conversation, I heard the word. It needed no translation. La rata. Molly and I, of course, were the only ones concerned. So it is with many things. Take the bathroom, for instance. There’s no mirror (I haven’t figured out how to shave yet). The floor is always a lake of mud. Bugs crawl and swoop at you constantly. Your towel never gets dry. You never get dry. At home, my bedtime routine is a chance to unwind, to be lulled into a nice pre-slumberous daze. Here, I get ramped up into a state of hyper-vigilance, like I’m getting ready for battle. Last night I laid awake for hours, waiting for la rata to come, waiting for the snoring to subside, waiting for the dogs (the ones still living) to stop howling. Waiting for my skin to thicken.
But I’m already adapting. Take nothing for granted mi amigo, and rely not on what you know. Habits must be deconstructed and formed anew. I’ve learned: Don’t look at the walls. If you do, you’ll see the lizards, the cockroaches, perhaps even la rata. So forget about reading or writing once the sun goes down. The price of turning the light bulb on—the attraction and/or revelation of several species—is too much to pay. Also, you’ll be well served by falling asleep as quickly as possible, as your hearing can be a liability as well. Last night, I heard too much. We were not alone in our dark, dank, windowless room. Before turning in for the night I pulled the bed frame about six inches from the wall, to provide a little buffer zone between human and non-human life forms. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I covered myself completely with the sheet so my face was the only thing exposed and vulnerable to attack. Just as I was about to fall asleep—you guessed it—something set up camp on my face. It turned out to be a praying mantis (mantis religioso). If it was praying to be frantically pummeled with a flip-flop, then it received a prompt answer from above. The whole family—all five of them piled onto two pushed-together beds in the next room—thought it hilarious I was so rattled by such a thing. Cockroaches, rats, lizards, scorpions—to them they’re all no importa. And here I am finding it almost unbearable that a thin curtain is all that separates me from the humans in the next room.
Juana, the mother of the family we’re staying with, has been ill. The bathroom is attached to the room Molly and I are staying in, so everyone must pass through in order to use it. This, in and of itself, has its obvious disadvantages. A few minutes ago Juana passed through to vomit in the toilet. Again. Yet, Juana continues to prepare the food for everyone. No importa! Last night they served us tamales that I had to choke down. The meat was gamey and every bite was full of tiny bones. I silently wondered if it was la rata, chopped up and fried, fur and all. I politely declined seconds and went to bed hungry.
Then there’s the water. Everybody knows you can’t drink the water in Mexico. This is trickier than it sounds. Rinse your toothbrush off in the sink just once, for old time’s sake, and you could pay a steep price. You have to rinse everything with bottled water, so your mouth never quite feels clean and your toothbrush never gets rinsed well. Yes, old habits can be hard to break. For instance, you can’t put any paper in the toilet, or else you’ll clog the works. So, everything goes in the trash basket next to the john, no matter how nasty. I find myself washing my hands constantly, although I keep thinking to myself, “If this water is poisonous, won’t it get in through my pores, or though my eyes or mouth when I shower?” In Mexico City, I heard someone refer to the toxic agent as “the amoeba.” Now, I imagine it everywhere, clinging to every glass, swimming on every surface.
Yep, I’m adapting every day, and my priorities are shifting. At this point—just a couple of weeks into the adventure—the main thing is to live. As in survive. As in not die. Privacy, writing, playing my guitar, mind-blowing personal transformation—for now, these things are no importa, gravy to be enjoyed later on, once we move into the new room. Yes, once we get into that room, things will start cookin’. Until then, there are bugs and old habits to kill, a language to learn, skin to thicken. And don’t worry, I won’t forget about the toilet paper. If there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far, it’s to never forget about the toilet paper.