learning culture ten lat pulls at a time

Besides my lonely unemployed “intern” winter in Anchorage, and Pete’s lonely unemployed “intern” summer in Bowling Green, Kentucky, neither Pete nor I have been particularly into working out in the gym.  For one, let’s face it: neither of us have been dealt genetic hands for being body builders.  For two: why would you move your body inside a dark, dank concrete cell when you could move it outside, where there’s fresh air, forest paths, babbling brooks, butterflies, and all that’s good in the world?  For three: weight-lifting gyms, in my limited experience, are generally unfriendly, even angry, macho places.  They are proof, in all the wrong ways, of Einstein’s theories of relativity: certain gyms are gravitational wells into which fell the late 80s and early 90s.  Think Baby Jessica except instead of a baby, it was a decade and a half, and instead of a well, it was weight-lifting gyms.  And no one has ever attempted to rescue the 90s from these gyms, it is quite clear.  It’s a bunch of dudes whose hair is from the 90s and clothes are from the 90s, who are staring at posters of scantily clad body-building ladies from the 90s.  These dudes sit around and literally lift things, insignificant, arbitrarily heavy things, and then set them back down.  And then they do it again, ad nauseum, day after day.  Maybe there’s some Linkin Park blasting through the muffled speakers to get their steroids raging.  Or maybe these dudes are just sitting around listening to the sounds of each others’ grunts and the klunk of the heavy things that they have lifted and set back down for the blippinzillionth time.

Which is why I’m so excited to tell you this news that I’m not even going to make you work for it by reading the rest of this blog post: Pete and I are lifting heavy things! In a real, honest-to-god weight-lifting, body-building gym.  While looking at posters of scantily-clad body-building ladies from the 90s, on whose shirts broadcast “Body by Torture!” And we even grunt sometimes while lifting and setting back down the heavy things!  But, of course, that’s not really the story.

So a month and a half ago, Pete and I moved to the city of Mérida, Yucatan.  We didn’t have any plans beside finding an apartment, Pete going to language school, me writing.  After the first few days of apartment hunting and ambiguously unfortunate hat purchases, we found our home on the third floor of a hotel named Pilar del Carmen in the downtown neighborhood of Santiago.  I promptly caught the influenza, appropriately called la gripa here, and so I lost the second week to delirium and ever-downward spirals of self-despair.  The upswing to getting sick, however, is the upswing, and Pete humored me as I demanded us to “take control of our lives.”

My proposed Life Control Strategy included each of the following in order of most essential to least: 1) routine, 2) excercise, 3) productivity, 4) daily, weekly, and winter-long goals.  The day must be seized! I swore to Peter, my brain  still fever-adled as indicated by its simultaneous hyper-focus and passive tense.

Routine is always item one on my life wish list and always the first I scratch out after an extra hour of being alive post-list.  As Pete and I grappled with item #2, we already knew that us attempting to run regularly through the busy cracked concrete and rebar streets of el centro was a non-start.  No parks large enough for running were within walking distance.  We weren’t brave enough for biking.  No lap pools that we had access to.  And so Pete suggested Bosco, the gymnasio just two buildings down the street.  We’d peaked in each time we’d walk by and joked, but I never thought it would go past that.  Peaking and joking.  Then complaining about how it was impossible to exercise in the city.

So, one Monday morning, we woke with the sun, put on our scanty running shorts and shirts, walked to our gate, woke the front desk guy so he could open the gate, walked the thirty yards down the sidewalk, and then, skinny and tall, (Pete skinnier than me, I taller than Pete, both of us skinnier and taller than most everybody else) we entered Bosco.  I noticed the stale sweat smell first.  Check. Then the walls plastered with the various portraits of classically greased and bulging Modern Hercules contestants.  Yup, about what I expected. Then I heard the music.  It wasn’t death rock or angry rock.  It wasn’t even rock.  It was latin dance pop.  It had a beat.  And that beat was up!

Even so, the first few days I bobbled about like a clown, tripping over the various legs of the old, greasy metal machines.  I avoided eye-contact; in fact, I avoided most any looks in the directions of the other weight lifters.  I reverted to middle school survival mode roving through the four sprawling rooms of the place looking for the most hidden back corners.  I jockeyed between the scattered bikes all meant for shorter folks, on which I kicked my chest as I pedaled.  The treadmills, bikes, stair-steppers all built-from-scratch, with bicycle gears and chains, hand-bent piping. Nothing required a cord, nothing monitored my heartbeat, or calculated my calorie consumption, or gauged my landspeed.  I couldn’t even change the resistance.  And yet, they all worked, every single one.  They were all oiled, tuned.  The benches were stained by a thousand-heaving-backs worth of sweat, but they functioned just as well too, sturdy and shiny.  A few old men, the nominal upkeep staff, sat around near the entrance window, sparring amiably with each other and a few of regulars lifting things and setting them down.  Most everybody ignored Pete and me just as I was avoiding them.  And I liked it that way because it was easier.

The spanky shorts might have been what first caught my eye.  They were impossible to miss, as Pete agreed.  One of the regulars who was lifting things when we showed up each day and still lifting things when we left, wore the tightest, whitest, spankiest shorts I’d ever seen.  And they wouldn’t have been so noticeable if he didn’t possess such spectacularly sculptured glutes.  Yes, that’s weight-lifter talk for butt.  The fact that he had a truly incredible butt wasn’t what surprised me, however.  What surprised me was that he was showing it off.  The whole time.  Whether he was doing backward leg lifts, or squats, or ab twists, or hip thrusts, he was clearly showing off his show-stopping butt.  And even more surprising, after I finally began bothering to notice what was going on, most of the other guys seemed to like it.  Spanky Shorts, as Pete and I dubbed him, was indeed the center of attention, and near the center of the social network that slowly emerged from Pete and my mutual ever-increasingly detailed observations of Bosco‘s going-ons.  These included younger duos of subdued buds coming in off the street, going to the locker room, and coming out in tight-fitting muscle shirts, snug, neon shorts, bright shoes.  Other pairs of men moved about together, smiling and staring, teasingly seductive.  And yet, somehow, all of this wasn’t quite gay.

What I’m trying to say is that I still don’t know what a look means here.  There are different rules of conduct.  Different codes and translation processes.  Are some of these men sexually attracted to each other?  Clearly.  Maybe even most of them.  Do some of those same men who are clearly attracted to each other have wives and girlfriends?  I would hazard to venture yes.  Does it mean something different here to be a man?  A woman?  Straight? Gay? Absolutely.  Many Yucateco people here in Merida are descendents of the Maya, and in fact identify as Mayan today.  The Maya culture possessed all of its own mores and traditions, stories and understandings of what living ethically, morally, healthily meant.  Over the past six centuries, that culture has mixed with the Española culture of the conquerors, through enslavement, wars, and now peace.  And now, the new, uniquely Mayan culture, like all cultures in this modern world, is shaping itself and being shaped by the greater waves of popular, global cultures.  All in all, it’s quite a tapestry or labyrinth or circus, depending on your point of view.

If I’ve made the gym seem seedy, I’ve failed.  It is gritty, but it’s not dirty, or unfriendly, or unsafe.   One morning recently, Pete saw one of the older men who mills about with a broom and a rag and a sly quip walk up behind the spankiest of the men, wave to one of the macho guys at a bench, and offer some air hip thrusts in the direction of Spanky Shorts.  Then he did it again, after getting attention of another man.  While a little rude, it didn’t seem homophobic–far from it, in fact.  There are a few women too, and the whole second floor, well-lit and aired out by a line of windows, has been set aside for women.  The gym has even devoted a whole room for women-only pole-dancing classes.  Our friend Megan flew down to live with us for the last few weeks, and she has taken to the gym too (though not to the pole-dancing).  She gets to enjoy the light and the fresh air of the second floor, while we are destined to live among the men and the happy, smiley, up-beat dinge of the first floor.  Most everybody is friendly, and if not friendly, then just not particularly interested in us or maybe anybody besides their own bodies, and the more Pete and I have offered our own smiles and holas, we’ve received more welcomes in response.

In the meantime, I’ve gotten stronger.  I’ve learned which machines my body likes, and I’ve gone from 60K to 80K with my lat pulls.  40K benches.  I added inclined benches too.  Curls.  I’m up to 80 inclined sit ups, and it feels good, instead of just being torture.  Even if my body weren’t feeling stronger and leaner, I think I’d still enjoy Bosco these days, and not just because Pete is looking so good.  I’m learning things about how men can interact; what it can mean to be a man.  I still know next-to-nothing about how people construct gender and sexuality here, but I do know that it is complicated and different than anything I’ve known.  We humans have bodies, and we can shape them and change them and use them in any incredible number of ways.  I like proving my prejudices wrong.  Especially when it involves getting fit and witnessing the spankiest of spanky shorts.  And while doing crunches the other day, I looked up to the ceiling to find a fabulously-colored butterfly, neon green lines set against deep black wings, resting next to the light bulb.  Here’s to surprises around every corner and past every assumption.

A letter to my parents in regards to their upcoming arrival to Merida

Dear Mom and Dad,

The streets smell here.  They are living smells of raw meat and oil and salt.  Panaderias with their sweet breads and baguettes, and the street vendors with their sizzling pile of roasting Al Pastor, and their fried hot dogs and their tacos and marquesitas.  As a warning, all the bread’s a little bland, but good with coffee.  Get churros from the couple who set up their stand next to the Cathedral on Sundays.  The couple doesn’t also cook french fries with the oil, just the one thing, the churros.

Watch where you walk.  There are holes, curbs, and rushing buses at any given moment.  No one turns right on reds, but they will run the last few seconds of a red light if nobody is coming.  Pedestrians don’t push their luck.  Most people seem to avoid drinking the tap water if they can, which is why we buy the garafon of water from the corner store.  Put your used toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet, folded, please.  Really, it makes more sense than our system, which leaves the job to the water treatment plant.

Everybody says the police are corrupt, so try to avoid them as best you can.  But the cops don’t bother the gueros, gringos, extranjeros (all of those are us) because cops work for the government, and the government wants tourists.  Expect to see men in front of banks and consulates and other governmental buildings with semi-automatics.  It’s safe here, not because of the guns, but because people are out on the streets most day and night.  Because locals pride themselves on this city being tranquilo, calm, safe, friendly, familiar.  You are not as strange as you feel.

Locals tend not to refer to this place as Mexico.  Instead, this place is Mérida, in the state of Yucatan, what still is el mundo Maya.  Cancun is not in Yucatan, it is in Quintana Roo, an entirely different state.  When people ask you where you are from, de donde eres, you can reply, Soy de Chicago, and then ask them where they are from, too.

Expect parades at any moment.  Or a protest with tents set up in Plaza Grande.  Or most likely, in the evenings, there will be dancing, in Parque Santiago, or Santa Lucia, or Plaza Grande.  The government pays for free outdoor concerts daily, salsa and cumbia and more traditional music from elsewhere, like marimba or mariachi, and old couples dance in the closed off street or in the park. The couples stand and chat between songs and don’t begin dancing right at the first beat of the new song, but wait a few breaths, as if needing to learn the beat all over again.  Fireworks are probable too. Not the big showy ones like on the 4th of July, but just the quick and loud ones.  Sunday morning? Fireworks!  Tuesday night? Fireworks!  A soccer match? Fireworks.  And lots of cheering.  We know when there’s a match on television when, in any given location in the city, we hear shouts and squeals every three minutes.  There could be singing too, loud, balladeer singing, coming from around one corner or another.

There are the ubiquitous making-out couples in any given plaza.  That’s okay.  It’s okay to sit on a bench and stare at everyone walking by too.  Pete called the early evening in Plaza Grande a meat market, and I think it’s mostly just us creatures allowing ourselves to be fascinated by each others’ presence.  Kids stay up late, and they are allowed to chase pigeons or walk up to a performer during a public concert as she’s singing and dancing.  Lots of people are allowed to stay up late, and most indoor concerts or shows start at 9PM.

You will not shiver here, unless you get the flu or dengue.  It’s warm, by my standards, all of the time, so people leave their doors and windows open most of the time too. Movie theaters still perform the function of being an air-conditioned relief from the heat. The city really is quite green, it’s just that except for the plazas, most of the life is inside the high walls of the city blocks.  The walls offer protection from the sun, too, so mid-day, like the locals, walk on the shady side of the street so you don’t sweat as much.

Men don’t wear shorts in the city.  Younger men wear well-fitting jeans or bright-colored denim, the older men wear jeans or slacks.  Lots of women are currently killing it in those high heels that are just one, thick, fluted sole, though flats are fine if you don’t want to show off.  People aren’t afraid of being bright here.  Men can wear pink or purple or anything.  And of course women do.  Some locals own sweaters, hoodies, and even puff jackets, which they pull out the second it drops below 74.  Pete saw mittens the other day.

We live in an apartment building that is also a hotel.  We have front-desk staff who seem to be all 20-year-old nephews and sons of the owners, a couple that lives in the attached building next door.  They close the gate every night, and in the morning when Pete and I go to the gym, which is a whole other story, in order to get out, we have to wake the unlucky guy who has to spend the night (every night?) in the front office.  Harmless little ants are always on the rove in our kitchen, especially when it is warm, so every crumb must be caught.  We have a gecko, too.  And the lizards in the courtyard are quick to hide beneath the large waxy leaves of the vines.

Gracias is thank you, but when you are turning someone down who is asking something of you in the street, which will happen often, you can say disculpa or perdon. Excuse me, or pardon.  Same thing if you do something awkward, and want to apologize.  No one says lo siento on the street, it is a deeper, more significant apology.  If you need to pass by, you can say con permiso, a request, with permission.  Here people more often than not say hasta luego, until later, which is friendly, a hope and a wish.

The trash in the streets and the flaky-paint walls and the rebar and cinder blocks might make the streets look dirty and poor to you, but look past those things, like the people here do.  The surface of things here don’t seem as important as the heart of them.  The spectacular concert hall and symphony, the Pacheco murals, the new exhibitions, the music, the dance, the fresh joy of creating and being and loving, the quiet courtyards, the conversations.

This is just the beginning.  The briefest sketches of life here in Mérida.  Living is always so much more than explaining.  I will say that I do love it here, which might be the continuation of a running joke between the two of you.  Oh, Alex, loving yet another home.  And it’s true, I have loved every place, sooner or later.  Some places at first appear easy, but then become quite difficult to love.  Other places have shut me out at first, but then let me eke in, day by day.  This place is one of those.  Everyday, I am dumbfounded and tossed back.  And everyday, if I choose to go out, I am rewarded by the smallest secret.  Like the lone couple framed by the doorway, laughing and dancing to no music last night.  Or the moth fluttering around the chandelier in the concert hall during Tchaikovsky.  Or the lone ukulele player in Plaza Grande, finishing his haunting song and walking off.  Or a new word.

Hasta luego,