Friday, June 13, 2008

Wherever I am....

The jail in Compostela is very old, but it doesn’t smell like urine. That’s a huge plus. It’s clean and the people, both jailers and inmates, are very nice. Two more big plusses. Our friend, though, burst into tears when she saw the five of us, bearing books, groceries, bedding, and blessings. Mexican jails provide nada zero zilch to the people they keep inside. It is up to friends and family, or the good graces of local charities, to provide for every daily necessity. That is every necessity. The first thing this woman wanted was a toilet seat.

She’s received a lot more, as she’s well-loved in the community. Local lips curl in derision when speaking her ex-husband’s name, “the guy who put her there.” Through his issuing a demanda, making very serious charges, the police are obligated to get the dangerous supposed criminal off the streets and put her in jail until she can either post bail or prove there’s no reason for her to be there. Proof can take a long, long time. The potential for quick protection, but also unfair abuse is obvious. We’ve all been getting civics lessons: Magna Carta-derived English Common Law which Brits, Americans and Canadians hold dear (innocent until proven guilty), and the Napoleonic Code which basically says “prove it ain’t so.”

But I’m not writing to take one side or the other, just to record the facts. There are a lot of people who might be interested in just what one can expect in a Mexican jail. Those who know me from my former life know I’ve seen the insides of plenty of detention facilities. The last time I counted it was running about 65-70. Among those were an ever-growing number of state-of-the-art sensory-deprivation centers along the lines of Pelican Bay – where inmates are confined to “pods,” and are totally separated from the rest of humanity, rarely having the chance to interact with anyone inside or outside. Very sterile, but very, very scary. There were also turn of the last century institutions such as Marysville, Ohio, or Elmira, NY, where crenellated towers rise high above formidable red brick walls. There were dirt-floored, low-ceilinged centers for substance abusers in San Felipe, Mexico; a park-like federal women’s prison in southern Ontario, and a women’s federal prison filled with rose beds and children’s playgrounds outside of Guadalajara. I’ve been in juvenile detention centers from Oakland to Jacksonville, Iowa City to Austin, and one on the banks of the Mississippi River. I’ve learned to not wear an underwire bra or carry car keys in order to enter sprawling and sterile desert compounds up and down California’s central valley, gray-faced downtown highrises, lower-security honor farms, as well as the famous Los Angeles Twin Towers temporary home to celebrities who trangress. Let me tell you, there’s where I smelled urine.

The central yard at the jail in Compostela is paved with gray concrete and smells like Clorox. It is vigorously cleaned early each morning by the inmates themselves. It measures about 40’ x 40’. The walls are painted mint green for about the first ten feet, then change to apricot and fade upward another ten feet or so into that mossy, drippy melange you can always find near roof lines in the tropics. On one side is a row of four cells where the seven men inmates sleep. All have barred doors. There is a “W.C. Baños” which has a swinging panel with space above and below. There is one toilet there which works.

The two women, my friend and a much younger woman, are assigned to a storage room directly behind the jailer’s office. There are two concrete pads which serve as beds, and a tankless toilet bowl. A bucket of water sits beside it for flushing. It is the public restroom for the jail during the day. There are bicycles and bullet proof vests which take up a lot of the space, but it’s safe there, and my friend and her cellmate can pull their chairs up to the bars of the door and watch CSI Miami reruns every night over the jailer’s shoulder. There is a desk, a chair, a table and a filing cabinet in the little front office, and the television sits on the desk. It is angled so that it is also visible to any inmates standing at the barred window which looks out on the central yard.

Standing, that’s the key word. Lengthy TV watching can be very tiring. Better to sit under the corrugated metal roof which defines the all-purpose area used for eating, church services and general visiting. Here the house rules are hand-painted on the wall, black on white, for all to see. There is no excuse for either inmate or visitor to say, "Sorry, I didn't know." A space toward the rear of the covered patio serves as a kitchen: a small free-standing gas range, a shelf for cooking equipment, and a rust-encrusted refrigerator. The refrigerator functions a lot more efficiently after my friend defrosted it last week. There is a big concrete sink/trough with fresh water located between the entry door and the covered area. Pelón, a young man from Chiapas, stands in the rain washing pots, pans and serving dishes. It is he who has woven the volleyball net which stretches and shimmers across the central yard. It is made out of raspberry colored nylon raffia. He has also made a hamaca from the same material, though it is draped over a rod in the ceiling, up and out of the way of today’s visitors.

Hospitality is hard. There are four molded plastic chairs and a variety of Comex paint cubetas. One of the chairs has a broken seat which has been sewn together with nylon raffia cord, again the work of Pelón, the Chiapas craftsman. If a church service is offered by a local priest or clergyman, as there was yesterday when we were there, they must bring their own chairs. But they also take the chairs away when they leave.

Thursdays and Sundays are visiting days. Families come, bringing children and comida. Everyone shares. We were invited to join a buffet which featured pots of stewed macaroni, rice heavy with garlic and onions, shrimp cooked with chilis and onion, hearty beef birria, pulled chicken and lots of corn tortillas. There were stacks of styrofoam plates, paper napkins and plastic cutlery. Antonia, housekeeper for Hacienda La Peñita, travelled with us and brought nopalitos, strips of prickly-pear cactus leaves mixed with tomatoes, onions and chilis. It was the only green dish on the table.

Our friend needs her veggies. She’s sixty-five years old and diabetic. Her cellmate, an amply-proportioned young woman named Sylvia, has taken it on herself to watch over my friend’s diet and medication, as the nature of her illness is to droop sluggishly down and look drunk when she doesn’t eat right. On hearing detailed instructions as to what could be eaten and what couldn’t be eaten, the jail authorities threw up their hands. Not their responsibility. The jails don’t provide food, anyway. Sylvia asks us to go shopping before we leave town for broccoli, cauliflower and chayote. We didn’t find any of it. But we took in plenty of bananas, pears and papaya. Also a batch of chocolate chip cookies to reward our friend’s companions for the care they take with her.

And they do care for her very tenderly. Because she doesn’t have access to her cell during the day, one of the cells opening onto the central yard has been set aside for her, a futon placed on one of the three concrete benches inside where she can lie down and put her feet up. Her legs and ankles are swollen, and she’s not able to tie her shoes. But she makes the effort to walk around the yard for twenty minutes each day, and to join in a volleyball game later in the afternoon across the raspberry-colored raffia net. But for the most part this little cell, a blanket draped over the bars for a bit of privacy, is her little world. Here she does her morning situps, reads one or two books a day, and contemplates the artwork and writing on the walls. Yes, there’s a naked woman. Is there a jail cell wall anywhere without one? There’s a drawing of a man playing a guitar, a drawing of the Virgin of Guadalupe above the broken toilet. And a prayer scrawled across the less-than-white wall above my friend's head, a remembrance from someone who's been there before….

La luz de Dios me rodea,
El amor de Dios me envuelve,
El poder de Dios me protege….
doquiera estoy, Dios está conmigo.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I'm still here, and it's raining.

The rains have started and the streets are starting to green up -- cobblestones black with moisture and fresh green mossy little plants poking up in between. There are scarlet-colored scatter rugs of fallen ponciana blossoms here and there, and the ecological park is alive with the screes and scrawks of various winged creatures. Some not so winged, maybe. Nancy and Danny swear that the deep electronic digiridoo racket coming from the guayaba tree beside their gate is a tree frog, not a bird. I thought it was a very loud radio on an alternative rock station.

In June there’s hardly a gringo left in La Zona. Most have fled north to escape the heat. Ha. Ha. Fooled them. It’s been fresh and cool here. I even wore long pants and long sleeves when we went out last night to celebrate Agneta’s birthday. OK, it’s DAMP, but when we turn on the AC to dry things out, we freeze!

My walk has been getting longer and longer, since there’s no one to talk to. I do it early. Highway 200 pulses with the sound of traffic long before dawn. Fishermen from La Peñita gun their engines through the estero and hit the sandbar with a resounding thwack. It’s a team effort shoving each ponga up on a loose axle and pushing it over the last few meters of sand into the ocean beyond. The Thursday market continues, minus the colorful crafts that tourists like. “Tupperware Alley” is still full of vendors offering every conceivable everyday need. Life goes on even when no white people are watching.

In fact, life gets a little more colorful and bawdy. Construction workers making an early morning start on projects to be completed before the return migration are more likely to crank up the volume on la música, and more likely still to break into song themselves. Even Harry Beckner’s parrot – a gawdy multi-hued, multi-lingual macaw – entertains himself and anyone within earshot by imitating the sounds of construction noise. One bird alone sounds like an entire work crew, from the the chink, chink repetition of hammer and chisel to the high-pitched whirrrr of an electric drill.

And speaking of work – that’s what is keeping us here in Mexico for longer than we planned. Larry and Danny are knee deep in paperwork and meetings, forming a Mexican corporation. They’re putting in an RV condominium project -- a place for people with big RVs who aren’t inclined to shuttle them north and south anymore and would like someplace permanent to put them. Larry and Dan have a nice walled lot where they’ll build a pool and clubhouse, a casita for a year-round caretaker, and individual concrete pads with tiled roof patios and some other amenities. It’s walking distance to everything. Fourteen slots. Highly restricted. Very nice. And a LOT of interest.

But we’ll head north, maybe this coming week. Hopefully the triple digits in Texas will have subsided by the time we get there. Larry wants to pick up his motorcycle, I’ve got a talk in Los Angeles. We’ve got Mom and Dad to see in Lubbock, a niece’s wedding down in the Texas desert near Big Bend, friends and family all over the southwest to meet and greet and give hugs to.

Sorry not to have been blogging. I HAVE been writing otherwise. Rain tends to bring out that urge. It’s the best excuse to cozy down with the keyboard on the verandah, listen to the water flow through the palm leaves and out through the downspouts and pound away at the keys. Shades of Somerset Maugham. Well maybe.

I hope there's someone who gets that reference to Somerset Maugham. My little friend Lucy, English lit major that she was, is sure to. I miss her! She's off for a month in Mexico City with a temporary office job, wearing high heels and translating reams and reams of instruction manuals for a personal care/pharmaceutical company. Their major products are hair removal creams and condoms. Well, that sets the imagination running, doesn't it? Ah, dear Lucy. Come back to Guayabitos!

So I'm off to jail today in Compostela to visit a friend of a friend. Sixty-five year old woman. Gringo. Well, actually, African-American. It's a story.....I'll share it another day.