In other news, homeschooling while traveling is not all glamorous and rock star like you might think. Sometimes you have days that are culturally stellar with meet-ups with real live Mexican residents and visits to beautifully unique coast lines and colonial towns, and other days you’re standing on a sidewalk, waiting for a bus that you hope beyond hope is the one that will take you to your destination, the sweat pouring off the tip of your nose, when a gang of teen girls walks by, one snickers, and the word gringo rolls off her tongue like a dirty word.
That’s why it’s important to appreciate the small, good moments as they come, recognizing they are really the great moments. And the only ones that matter.
Like, for instance, these very moments at the park outside the Santiago Catholic Church, where time has slowed to a measured pace.
The heat is a heavy, damp wind rushing through the park. Yes, the 90 degrees seems cooler now without the seriousness of the noonday sun, but still hot enough to make my breath come shallow and the sweat to trickle slickly between skin and clothing. The broiling wind blows dirt into my eyes so that I feel like closing them, as if I’m meditating, and also bends the leaves of the trees upward into the inky darkness.
I sit on a bench next to my family, watching our youngest one, who plays at a playground featuring a death-defying slide seemingly made out of a piece of painted plywood. We watch as she climbs the ladder, slides down abruptly, adopts a pained expression, and rubs her rear end, only to rush headlong back to the ladder to do it all over again. She jumps right into the fray of frolicking, squealing children. This play thing—it’s serious business.
Above the playground is the old Santiago church. Someone is sturdily yanking the ropes from below and the bell swings wildly in its glowing belltower. The rich tones of the bells signal something, but I don’t know what.
Motorcycles fly by on bricked streets surrounding the park, weaving in and out of larger vehicles, like the truck with a loudspeaker blaring like a 1930s military vehicle rounding up people for work camps. (Really, it’s only announcing sales at the local store.)
Mingled with the sounds of night is the deep, earthy scent of tortillas frying that wafts from the many food stalls lining the park. These food establishments are known as cocinas economicas, which I like to think of as “cheap eats.” Men armed with menus
accost the people walking by, cajoling them into sitting down for a couple of salbutes or at least a quick agua fresca. Street lamps flicker onto this scene as people either walk by, ignoring the waiters, or thank them for helping them decide they were, indeed, hungry.
As 8:30 p.m. nears, the park starts to come alive with people streaming in from all directions to hear the music. Men in blue collared shirts systematically set up folding metal chairs, while others start lining a stage with black cases, presumably holding instruments. We have learned that this event, “Musical Memories,” has been held every Tuesday night since Valentine’s Day, 1984. The Jaranera Orchestra is supposed to provide Big Band sounds from the 1940s and, apparently, we should expect people to jump up to dance the mambo or the chachacha under the stars.
Trees fly upward in the wind above groups of uniformed students walking slowly home, laughing and shoving each other, their backpacks slung nonchalantly over their shoulders. A man dressed all in black pauses from setting up the chairs and steps onto the stage with a flute, which he plays energetically for seemingly no reason at all.
Addy has finished hurting her rump on the death trap of a slide, so we stand and approach the cocina economica nearest the stage and don’t resist when a waiter coaxes us into six plastic, Coca Cola chairs grouped around a plastic table covered with a shiny, red vinyl tablecloth. He brings us menus and we slowly slide our eyes across the unfamiliar words, half-thinking about what we feel like eating and half-watching the groups of friends and families sitting, some smiling and laughing and others straight-faced, all looking as though they are in no hurry to leave. Small jars of green salsa dot every table. We’ve learned: the smaller the jar, the hotter the contents.
When the speakers are set up, the men switch on the typically blaring music so that we can feel its rhythm beat into our very bones, as the sense of place expands with smell and sound into one that cannot be mistaken with any other. This moment. This place. Right now, it’s all there is.
Returnable bottles of Orange Crush, straws floating, are placed in front of a couple of the kids, while the rest of us are served waters or juices. On a low wall between us and the stage, a cockroach the size of my fist scurries by craftily, unsure of his direction but sure of his pursuit: food. He notices us watching him, jaws slack, but doesn’t move away. Also in our view is a beautiful little girl, her brown skin glowing against an unadorned, white gauzy dress, who seems to be making pretend “soup” in a clear, plastic cup out of some leaves and twigs. Our eyes switch back and forth from one of the most engaging creatures in the world—a child—to one of the most contemptible—la cucaracha.
The men on the stage, faces glistening, start pulling lustrous brass horns and poised strings and violins from the black cases, reverently setting them up in front of chairs dedicated to members of the orchestra. These men seduce the instruments with rags until they gleam provocatively under the street lamps. Young women saunter by slowly under the rustling palms, Mayan blouses draped over their arms, indifferently calling out “Blusas. Blusas!” Young men pass by, too, holding a sloped wooden block, checking all the men’s shoes to see who might need a shine. Another man, wearing a button-popping white shirt and carrying ropes of plastic bags full of peanuts around his neck, drops something on our table—a sample of roasted nuts. We buy some. The salt and spice lingers on my tongue.
People continue to gather, expectant—local Mexicans in their going-out attire, pale tourists in shorts and flip-flops, and more sophisticated, white-skinned people who clearly are expats living here full-time.
Time has slowed down here. In the waiting, in the heat, in the sultry smells of the night. Even my blood has slowed. And my thoughts, typically gushing through my brain like a flooded river, have decelerated to a rivulet.
Suddenly, finally, the easy rhythm of the big band begins. As my ears take this in, I look up, watching the pure grace of the musicians as they move elegantly as one with their instruments, black-haired heads inclined deferentially.
My lazy eyes wander left to the dance floor and are surprised to see that fifty or more couples have already emerged from the crowd and are beginning to move, too. The lilting melody washes over people of all ages: wives and husbands who have been together so long that they look alike, in their facial expressions, in how they hold themselves, and how they relish this very moment together; young couples who smile and giggle as if they are still figuring out this whole thing called life; and tourists from up north who aren’t comfortable in their bodies and habitually think too much about how stupid they might look. They don’t. Some people are joyously gyrating, grinning like those little kids at the playground. Others maintain a more serious carriage, treating the dance like a most sacred weekly ritual: to practice their art, to bind together a tangled web of humanity, to celebrate life.
When the song ends, the MC announces something. As it’s in Spanish, I don’t much understand what he says. But it doesn’t matter. Me being foreign here in this place is part of this place. Me watching the dancers as I munch the most delicious quesadilla I’ve ever had in my life and snap crooked photos with my iPhone is part of this moment. The cockroach, and the little girl in the white dress, and the wildly dancing old man who seems to be staring right at us, song after song, these are all part of the spirit of the right now. As are the fears of the foreigners that I can feel wash over the evening as tangibly as the light-footed dignity of the locals.
So, no, life, no matter how or where lived, is not always glamorous. But paying attention to the tiny moments, those tiny yet great moments, means it’s always magical. And always real.