Friday, March 23, 2012

Life and work

Three among a phalanx of workers policing the beach  for litter.

Cancun, Mexico —

No task is too menial for the resort maintenance crew. Maids wipe the the railings on the balconies. There are hundreds of them. The balusters are beyond counting. At night young men with snorkels and scrub brushes clean the pools. Other youthful workers are stationed on the steps from the beach to sweep away the sand borne by wind and gringo sandals. If Sisyphus were given this chore, he’d ask if he couldn't have his boulder, hill and stick back.

The other day on our walk we saw two men with push mowers cutting the vast lawn at a hotel along the boulevard. (Not many years ago they would have been bent over with shears.) At Pemex stations there is no such thing as self-service. The pump jockeys stand on the end of each island waving at cars. At night the stations are not especially well lit, but the attendants are out there, waiting to pump your gas. Drive slow.

All of this is a function of cheap labor. But in some places labor is cheaper still. Sunday we drove to Valladolid, about halfway across the Yucatan Peninsula. Coming home the back way we saw subsistence economy at work.

People live in what Americans call shotgun shacks, which is to say they have a door in the front and one in the back and you can stand outside and look (or fire a shotgun) through to the backyard. In some homes shadows dance by the light of color TV, but in others there is no electricity, Antonio tells me. "If they want to have something fresh, they have to go and buy the ice," he says. The doors are open, even at night, gasping for a breeze. Also, the doorways frame the hammocks in which people sleep in the Yucatan.

Children play outside well after dark to to stay out of the super-heated dwellings as long as they can. Scrawny dogs are also out and about everywhere. The settlements are dotted with small stores that sell soda, beer, and whatever. Two hundred square feet would be a big one. There might be a plastic table or two outside. "Everybody sells Coca Cola," Antonio says.

There are small churches as well, and they look just like the stores and the houses, which if nothing else means they come in all colors. On this Sunday night they were full of life and light and music, and my friend J.C., who has a clothing store in Cancun, says the people are happy. He says if they have little by way of material goods they miss even less.

How can this be? How will these people acquire time-share villas, golf club memberships and air-conditioned pickup trucks with back seats at this rate? Perhaps I should quit my job, learn Spanish and lecture the locals about the importance of education and save the next generation.

Perhaps not. Antonio agrees that the people are as happy as any. They raise grapefruit and oranges and their kids go to school. "They have the land," he says.

It is hard to think of Antonio as being paternalistic. He is from Merida and has spent quite some time in the United States. He now lives in El Centro, where he sews for a living and sleeps in a hammock.

Americans tend to think that everyone wants the same things we want. Perhaps that's because so many of us want what the other guy has.

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