dia de los muertos
the last day of our first workshop was upon us. linda was back, so she taught the last day of classes. by then, i had relinquished the idea that the students would get as much out of the workshop as i put into it. linda hadn’t prepared the materials. she hadn’t engrossed herself in the topic like i had. even though i had presented all of this information in our u.s. trial run, most of the details were glossed over, meaning that students missed out on a lot of the applicability and integration of the subject matter that i had built in to the “curriculum”.
thor didn’t seem to mind. he didn’t mention it; in fact, he said the presentation was great. i’m not sure why; there was so much missing, educationally. it felt like a sham.
i felt frustrated. i had spent so many hours working to make the course seamless. in the midst of the end of term clusterfuck, i still pulled together an awesome course with cross-referencing materials…the whole enchilada. i didn’t sleep a few nights, but i fucking pulled it off.
in other words, my work was going unrecognized and that pissed me off. i had set the bar high and met it, but clearly i could have done a lot less and it would have been just as well. i could have slept, maybe.
we called it a day early because the next day we were getting up bright and early to go visit some women in a poor town. these were abused women, which thor seemed to take lightly but i knew i wouldn’t be able to. after some reflection, i decided to tell him that the experience could upset me because of my early environment. i didn’t go into detail. he seemed surprised to find this out, but said it was fine and that i could leave if i wanted to. but that i should still go if i wanted to collect any data using this “sample”.
suit yourself, thor. i’ll give it a whirl.
we woke early and got ready. the mexicans were late to pick us up, as usual. the ride was long, over an hour. i wasn’t prepared for the level of despair i was about to see.
the town was, by far, the most dilapidated collection of “buildings” i’d ever seen. god had clearly abandoned this place long ago. it was like a ghost town. the people, like rats, scurried to and fro, quickly hiding within buildings. it was apparently not safe to remain outside long. old, worn, dejected faces stared without expression, eyes vacuous, as we rode by slowly in the van.
we arrived at some kind of compound. it was completely surrounded by a tall fence, completely covered by graffiti, and we had to wait for the gatekeepers to let us in. the little compound turned out to be some kind of school. young children in uniforms darted around. a few older women with painted on smiles greeted us. i accidentally used the informal “you” in my introduction. the smiles disappeared.
we walked into an old classroom, empty but for the group we’d been teaching and a few of the women. no abused women yet. i scouted out the joint for a seat with an easy exit, just in case. but when the old audio system was set up, i realized i wouldn’t be able to hear from the back of the room so i picked one in front, off to the side. slowly women trickled in. i felt my stomach turn. in each of them i felt and saw my own experience. there was nothing physical about their appearance that would cause this; i was merely projecting my experience on to them. i saw one man come in too, and thought, yikes, how many ways could this go wrong? i’d assumed he might be one of the abusers, coming in to see what ideas these outsiders were putting in the womens’ heads. i have no idea if that was actually the case, and i didn’t like that i’d thought that way about a perfect stranger. but i knew i was off center in this whole thing, so i let it slide.
finally thor began to speak. he asked first who’d been involved in an abusive relationship, or who’d had parents who were abusive. almost all of the hands shot up, and that’s when the tears started.
i tried to hold it together, but they came in a steady stream. i tried to stifle my sniffs and turn my face away. women in the room saw me crying and were expressionless. their glances passed over me without indication or acknowledgement. instead, they listened intently to my advisor’s questions, and were more than willing to share their own experiences, through tears. their voices were filled with so much desperation, so much need for help or guidance, plagued by pain and hopelessness.
but we weren’t there for help or guidance. we were there so we could put on our little scientist hats and collect data. what a fucking sham.
i made it 30, maybe 45 minutes, before i realized i was just sinking. i couldn’t stop the tears, and i’d felt myself leave the room and go into a void. i couldn’t process, i couldn’t translate. i could only hear pain. i left the room.
i went back to the van and sat and stared. my mind was blank; i felt empty. linda came out and sat with me. i didn’t feel like talking so i just didn’t. i didn’t care that she felt uncomfortable in the silence; her presence was more of a nuisance than anything, not of any fault of her own. i was just in a dark place. i went to the back of the van and laid down on my stomach, staring at the floor. linda got out of the van and started talking to some of the school children. i continued staring at the floor.
a long time passed. finally, the “meeting” was over, and the van door slid open and i could hear thor asking where i was. i mumbled something to indicate my location. people started loading into the van and i realized i had to get up. the kids we’d been teaching climbed in; i gave them the same vacuous expression offered by the townspeople. i didn’t speak and was only looking forward to returning to the hotel and hiding under a blanket for the rest of the day.
as it would turn out, we had a full day ahead of us before we’d return to the hotel. i came to understand this through bits and pieces of the conversation. they wanted to take us to some archaeological site nearby. i didn’t give a fuck, but we were over an hour away from the hotel, so i didn’t really have a choice. we went to the dig. i got out of the car just to get some fresh air, and walked around like an empty shell. i climbed the side of a pyramid and sat on a corner overlooking the town, which i discovered was actually an extremely large city spanning an entire valley and up a mountain across the way. i saw a lot of gilded domes. churches. these people were gonna need god to survive this mess.
finally, we got back in the van and i hoped we were returning to the hotel then. instead, we drove through the town and came upon a huge crowd of children filling the streets. school had gotten out. it was a sea of people, and we crawled through slowly. old merchants sold trinkets and candy to the kids. it must have been the most lucrative time to open up shop.
the sliding door opened again. a few people got out and i breathed easier for the space. but then, the students we’d been teaching started getting in. they filled the seats beyond capacity and loaded into the back and filled the floor. i was squeezed tight between the side of the van and another student. i started to feel claustrophobic, but again, i was an hour away from the hotel so i didn’t really have a choice.
i gathered from bits and pieces again that we were not returning to the hotel, but instead going to visit the city center. i placated myself by imagining the hotel room. i felt my pj’s on, lying on a pillow in cool air conditioned air with headphones on and some random show passing over my retinas. when i came back to, i was still a sardine and we were heading into traffic. so now i was a sardine in a van that was a sardine in traffic. i couldn’t breathe.
i don’t know if you’ve ever experienced traffic in mexico city but it is despicable. the van was old and the air conditioning couldn’t compete with the 15 hot bodies inside. it was so hot i wanted to peel my skin off. i started to sweat. now i was a sardine in a van in a microwave. i got very close to screaming and launching myself over four people to get out of the van. i closed my eyes and practiced my breathing exercises. this is temporary, this is transient. it won’t be this way forever.
finally we arrived at the city center. i had to get out of the van so we could walk around. i was suddenly in the middle of a huge metropolis. we passed by fancy restaurants and boutiques, filled with shiny and expensive things. i felt offended. the juxtaposition of such despair with such extravagance was painful and disgusting. we walked into a restaurant. i walked straight back into the bathroom and tried the door. it didn’t open. i stood there, mind blank, face empty for probably 7 minutes before someone came out and i realized i just hadn’t used the knob correctly. i walked in and saw in the mirror that my shirt was inside out. i don’t know when that happened. i was a mess.
i went out and sat at a large round table. there was a brief, few minute period of respite before a live musician began to play. the sound was disproportionately loud for the space. the music notes filled the empty space in my head and i couldn’t escape. maria sat near me and turned to me. she said, in her broken english, that she was so sorry for my experience. she said her students are trained for a full year before even getting to interact with these women and i’d gone in with no training and a history that made the experience hit too close to home and she felt terrible. she, too, had a similar experience growing up and she, too, leaves and cries for having seen it again. tears welled up in her eyes, and then tears welled up in my eyes and i felt her pain and she felt mine and we kind of cried there together in the middle of the table, surrounded by 15 other people going about their conversations. i decided to try to snap out of it on her behalf. so i put my fucking game face on and swept my dissociative state under the rug. i’d have to deal with that later.
the day continued. we walked around and i made conversation with the students; i think most of them had grown to like me, and that feeling congealed when i made some smart-ass comment in spanish in the giant church in the city center. i don’t remember what it was; i only remember them choking on laughter with looks that said “THIS gringa!”
i don’t recall much about the rest of the day. i was depleted. i went to bed, and awoke early again the next day for our visit to the giant pyramids an hour and a half away. it was our “play day” and by that time, we deserved one.