The topic at hand is water.
Which is actually doing some fun tricks on my mind whenever I now turn on the faucet in my sweet rental cabin in the village. We are on both "city" water and using a roof tenaco. As long as Jose, my landlord, keeps the tenaco full, we always have water for the shower, outdoor kitchen sink and bathroom. Now when it comes to watering the garden, it gets a bit more fun as we are then using the city water ... which gets turned off at night! So, many times I have tried to water the garden to realize that hey, someone has not turned it on yet. For some reason, I like this. I like all these reminders of the backstage of life. Kinda like going into the kitchen or linen closet of a fancy hotel. No, stuff does not appear by magic, There are knobs and carts and people behind all of it. It feels more connected to me, more human. And now that I think about it, that's a lot of what I like about living in Mexico.
All this to say, when I turn on a faucet these days, I feel differently.
So there I was, watering the lush little tropical garden that has enchanted me for over a year now when the young man I mentioned earlier was about to walk out of the gate, lunch in hand, ready for his day of building at the land. Alberto (YES! I found out his name through a tiny bit of trickery) temporarily lives with his friend my landlord right behind me and also is building a house on the same land as I am. Double vecinos we are, which is kind of fun. Because he was witness to a slightly heated exchange between me and his amigo a few weeks back, his natural friendliness has been a bit tentative but I think we both like waving at each other across the field and then parking our dusty cars together in the village in the evening. Over the weeks, he has shared a few things with me and our talk about getting electricity has been good.
As he was getting ready to leave for the day, I asked him if he had gone to the office to submit his own request, per the suggestion of the CFE inspector, on Monday. "Not yet," was his answer - which was hard for me to hear and exactly the kind of opportunity I keep being presented with in order to hone the patience I need to live here. "I need to get there," he said. "I will soon." Since I was asked to go back to the office on Monday to receive The Decision and since I believe that the more of us request electricity by then, the better our chances of receiving it (at possibly a better price), all of me got on "WHAT THE HECK, DUDE???" mode. Alberto reiterated how great it was that the guy had come by after all these months of nothing happening, how much we could all get done together this way, too. Our next community effort, he said, was to try to get the big trucks who cross "our" rivers on their way to building the new highway, to use the main road. "We'll get together as a community and try to make this happen," he said. As I briefly envisioned what such a gathering would look like - not your regular HOA - I wanted to come up with all kinds of excited gestures to convince him to make a right turn instead of a left one this morning and GET HIS BUTT TO THE OFFICE. But I knew better, so I wished him a great day, said that I would see him "over there" soon and continued watering the banana trees.
Reaching my fence and about to walk out, he asked me what was going on with the water. Did I manage to get it? To which I was happy to be able to answer that yes, I had come to an agreement with Juliano and would be using his water.
Alberto winced. "Be careful with him" he said. Oh dear. Please go away and let me water my hibiscus and keep this little box neatly tied. It's not even 8 am.
I sighed. "Okay, tell me." "Well, I know him well. He'll do anything to get money out of someone. He's not really a good guy." "But he looks so good!" I wanted to say. Because, well, he does. Handsome, smiling, fast talking and super vivacious. Great eye contact. Really white teeth. Honest should come along with these attributes, no? As if I didn't know better.
And then, right there as I turned off my hose to hear better, I was served a complimentary, unrequested breakfast of "gringa lesson 101."
Us Mexicans are trained to make money from foreigners. It's not always a bad thing at all. It's just what we do. Some do it with restaurants, hotels. Some do it by being "in betweeners," helping gringos navigate our world and charging for it, some do it by selling needed things and some do it by overcharging and being less transparent. Some do it because they are addicts, too. He paused on that one.
He went on.
This guy you are talking about, he is worse than the the other one who took your 2000 pesos. Because he looks so good. And that's the thing, he added: the really good ones will morph to look and act the way the foreigners feel most comfortable with. Again, I know how this works.
Just be careful, he said again.
Listen, I don't want to piss off my neighbors, I said to him. And I need water. And man, this is not easy. Feeling a bit vulnerable, there in my pink robe with not much underneath it, I shared with him that as he knew, I was the only white woman out there. There was much I didn't know. I was learning as fast as I could and again ... man, this is not easy.
I know he said. And as if this was going to make me feel better, he added: They are going to eat you.
Seeing my face freeze, he added: not for real. As an image, I mean.
Yes, I had gotten that. I wasn't thinking quite cannibalism. Still. Powerful image.
So, what do I do?
You get strong, he tells me. You let them know you're the boss. You don't get intimidated and you keep going.
And then, just as I thought I had a clear plan - and a mentor - he adds: and you keep getting water from me and we go halfsies.
I had forgotten that my crew had indeed be getting our water from Alberto, for the past couple of weeks. A super long hose running from his property to mine across the dusty field, he had allowed us to fill our tenaco several times. Quietly, without mentioning it to me in the evenings in the village, and without charging us. That was nice of him, and now he was talking about making it official.
Did that make him "one of them?" I guess so. Was being open about it making it better? I think so.
You can split it with me, he tells me. I paid 2000 pesos and you can pay half of that, get a hose hooked up to mine and we both have water forever. Done.
1000 pesos is better than 2,500 pesos, says my mind. Shortly followed by dang, how am I going to tell Juliano?
Ok, let me think about it and I'll see you over there, was the best I could come up with, ready to start watering again, relishing that nice, abundant city water flowing out of my hose.
Sounds good, he said. And hey, it's all going to be okay, he added.
As he walked into the street, a question popped in my head: Alberto, where do YOU get your water?
From the guy who took your 2000 pesos was the answer.