Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Missing my boy: kidwatching in Mexico
I’m missing my boy. I talked to him on Skype the other day, for the first time since I left him at Melbourne airport.
‘I miss your house’ he said.
‘Yeah, DON’T TELL DAD, but the Exoforce [Lego] is much better at your house.’
‘Oh. That’s nice. Okay, I won’t.’
The good news is that he is doing just fine without me. He is doing well at school – his teacher says that he has tested the boundaries a bit but there are NO SERIOUS PROBLEMS. This is an achievement. It’s the first time since he’s entered institutionalised care that a teacher or carer has begun the year with ‘no serious problems’. He won a Best Listener award in assembly last week. Two children in the whole school get one of these awards each Friday. My child, the dreamer, is not generally known for his listening skills. When he was four, his teacher insisted we have his hearing tested, despite my reservations that this was the source of his problems. (His hearing, of course, was excellent. It’s his ability/willingness to concentrate on the world outside his own head that has always been a source of classroom consternation.) So, Best Listener is quite something.
He has two regular playdates a week at friends’ houses (though, reading between the lines, one of the parents in question is not exactly loving it). His father has always been good at enthusiastically grasping any offer of childcare, to the extent that he once employed a semi-retarded woman he met in a playground as F’s weekly babysitter. (‘I make sure she comes at bedtime, when all she has to do is sit there and see to him if he gets up,’ he explained when I stumbled upon the arrangement and complained. For the record, he fired her soon afterwards for stealing.)
ANYWAY, F is doing well. In my absence, he has formed a lunchtime football team, started music lessons and lost his first tooth (sniff!), which he accidentally swallowed.
In his absence, I find myself mooning fondly at small children on the street, noticing their eccentricities or typical childhood mannerisms.
The day before I was due to speak to F on Skype, I was walking through a small plaza in my neighbourhood, an oversized traffic roundabout with a fountain, when a small boy came tottering towards me, arms outstretched. He was wailing: ‘Ma-miii, Ma-miii’. I glanced over to see a woman with two other small children smiling over at me, and presumed she was his mother. I figured he had walked the wrong way around the roundabout and gotten lost. I smiled at the boy over my shoulder. He continued to toddle my way, still wailing plaintively for his mother. I gave him a little wave, as the woman said something to me in Spanish. I smiled and waved at her, too. As we crossed the road, The Husband told me what she had said.
‘He thought you were his mother.’
‘WHAT?! But his mother was there.’
‘No, she was his carer, I think. She told you that he thought you were his mother. That’s why he was following you.’
I burst into tears, right there by the side of the main road, in the midst of the traffic and the shops and restaurants of Chapalita. The idea that the little boy had thought that his mother was walking away from him, while he stretched his arms out to her and pleaded, haunted me for the rest of the day - and part of the next. I guess it epitomised my worst fears about leaving my own son on the other side of the world, where I can’t reach him.
I was surprised, too. From what I’d seen of the children bagging groceries beside their mothers at supermarkets and sleeping in bassinets among clothes racks, I had developed the romantic view that in Mexico, children come to work with their parents. This, I thought, was a society where children are welcome, seen as an inevitable part of life, not lifestyle impediments. Why, I’d castigated myself, did I think that I couldn’t have my child at work with me? That, I’d decided, was one area where Australia could learn from Mexico.
While I’m sure that’s true to some extent, on reflection, I don’t suppose women on the production lines (which employ mostly women) are allowed to bring their children to work. And I don’t think that professional women would bring children to law firms or newspaper offices or hospitals.
I noticed a grandmother walking a toddler in a stroller the next day, on the same street where the child had mistaken me for its mother. There goes my idyllic fantasy.
Perhaps it’s when women (or families) own their own businesses that the child/work combination works?
In a tourist shop in Melaque, babies slept in bassinets among the racks. I saw one baby asleep by a table stacked with t-shirts as I stepped carefully around it, but was surprised by another at my feet as I approached the back wall to finger the fabric of a hanging dress. I gave a start, grateful I hadn’t stepped on the small figure. When I returned to buy the dress the next day, the young mother held one of the babies at her shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. Once again, it slept peacefully. The fabric of her t-shirt was visibly damp around the breasts. I asked The Husband to ask how old the baby was. Just a few weeks. I couldn’t help an admiring double-take at the mother as I took my plastic bag and left. The second baby was nowhere to be seen. Most likely, it belonged to someone else.
Buying a newspaper on the way back to the hotel after an evening in the town plaza, I stepped over pre-schoolers on the pavement, playing with an elderly man, possibly their grandfather. Behind the counter, a pony-tailed young woman watched in admiration as a small girl in a pretty dress teetered towards the doorway on oversized party heels.
‘That’s my daughter’ she told us (in Spanish). ‘Look at her.’
We duly admired her as she joined the young throng on the pavement.
‘She’s three.’ She shook her head and laughed fondly.
‘Bonita’ I managed. (Beautiful)
A five-year-old girl, solemn beneath her black braids, delivered my Coca Cola Light with my dinner at the Melaque beachside restaurant beside our hotel. When I thanked her (equally solemnly), she shot me the shy smile of a child, even as she uttered the practised riposte of her profession, obviously imitating her parents: ‘de nada’ (‘it’s nothing’). The next morning, as we ate hotcakes under umbrellas on the sand, I watched the same girl delivering cutlery to the couple a few tables away. She took pride in helping, in doing such a grown-up thing. And later she was in her bathers, playing in the sand at the foot of the restaurant. It wasn’t a particularly busy place. Her work seemed to be as much about making her a part of the family business (and perhaps occupying her time) as anything.
Down the sands at Barra de Navidad, The Husband and I were luxuriating on the fringes of a restaurant that boasted ‘THE BEST SUNSET ON THE BEACH’. Sucked in by the sign, we were stretched out in the ebbing sun, sipping sangria and Mexican beer, watching the light change over the water. At Barra, Melaque’s slightly busier neighbour, the beach vendors stop by more frequently – sometimes every few minutes – with their hammocks, jewellery and temporary tattoos. The instinctual reaction is to wave them off like insects, with a polite but firm ‘no gracias’. A woman in the unofficial uniform of her counterparts - a modest, brightly coloured traditional dress with a frilled apron in a contrasting colour over it – lopes by under the weight of a large cardboard folder hung with beaded jewellery. She thrusts it hopefully under our umbrella.
Behind her, comes a girl of about ten or twelve, in a similar dress. A long black braid hangs down her back. She shows us her armfuls of painted ceramic knick-knacks. This time, it’s hard to say no, but we repeat ourselves.
Next, without much hope but obviously duty-bound to try, an even smaller girl. She wears a mini-backpack over her pink t-shirt and shorts. Twin braids hang over her shoulders, over tiny pierced ears. Her face is solemn, unsmiling, as she tentatively pushes her wares, a painted ceramic fish in each hand, towards us. She and I look at each other. The Husband looks at me, waiting. I finger one of the fish.
‘Quanta questa?’ (How much?)
She tells me, still solemn. Her mother appears over her shoulder, turning back from her path down the beach. She unzips the backpack and lays out an array of ceramic shapes on the table. They are salt-and-pepper shakers. The sister stands quietly to my right side, looking out to sea.
‘I think my mother would like one of these’ I tell The Husband. He agrees.
‘How old are you?’ he asks the girl (in Spanish). She is four.
‘Gracias’ I say, as I count the money into her tiny hand.
‘De nada’ she whispers, as The Husband talks to the mother in Spanish about where they are from. Like most of the indigenous people working the beach, they are here from Guerrero, a poorer state in the south of the country. Acapulco, one of the glitziest resorts in Mexico, is located there, and we have wondered why they travel here instead. Now, The Husband asks her. Too much competition in Acapulco. They will return to Guerrero in Holy Week (Easter).
I want to give the girls something, not just a tip but something for them. As The Husband talks, I rifle through my bag and find a small hoard of wrapped sweets, collected from various hotels. Hurriedly, before they move on, I separate out two sweets and hold them out to the four-year-old. A smile appears as she takes them and murmurs ‘gracias’. I need to tap the older girl on the shoulder to get her attention, but she, too is pleased. I know it’s not much, and they could probably get sweets themselves, but it’s a gesture. I don’t know how to talk to them, or to tell their mother that her girls are lovely, so I hope the sweets say it for me, at least a little.
‘Adios, mi amigos’ (Goodbye, friends) waves the mother as she moves on to the next table of tourists, who I see pause to ponder her jewellery.
‘I couldn’t say no to that face,’ I whisper across the table.
‘I know’ says The Husband.
I wonder how long the girls have wandered up and down the beach in the hot sun, and if they long to play in the water like the holidaying children in bathers and towels, or calmly accept their lot - as my own child certainly would not.
Sunday is family day in Guadalajara. Children and parents throng in the vast paved plazas of the city. Ice cream shops are crowded with customers as we pass. An animal market - rows of caged birds (mostly pigeons) - is lined with curious small faces. That particular plaza is usually thick with (free flying) pigeons, but not today.
‘Do you think they captured the pigeons who are usually here and they’re in the cages?’ I ask The Husband.
‘Oh, probably.’ He is joking. So am I; I think.
You can’t walk far in the centre of Guadalajara without coming across a fountain. It’s strange that a city with no public swimming pools (or none that I can find) is so obsessed with fountains. Maybe it’s the lack of places to swim that accounts for the absolute fascination of the children here with the fountains.
Or maybe not. I recall always wanting to immerse myself in the (now defunct) fountain in front of the South Australian Museum as a child. In fact, until it disappeared, really. And F, aged four, once broke away from me in Rundle Mall to climb into the fountain there. I was so sympathetic to his motivations that all I could do was laugh, I’m afraid. (In between half-heartedly telling him off.) The Husband quite rightly told ME off for my lack of parental composure.
It’s not just the small children who like the fountains, either. Couples walk around the edges hand-in-hand. During the week, uniformed schoolgirls stage squealing water fights. Today, teenage girls in tight t-shirts above inches of exposed tummy do the same.
We walk around the city all day, from late morning to nightfall. We pass many, many fountains. At each one, children (mostly small) splash at the edges, or stand awestruck in the spray. In the shallower fountains, they wade triumphantly through the chlorinated water in their good Sunday clothes - parents permitting. Those who are not allowed in sit longingly at the edges. One small girl in a frilly, starchy floral dress perches mournfully at the far corner of a fountain that leads down into a narrow hallway of water where children noisily indulge themselves, her expression constrained.
As evening falls, we sit in a busy plaza lined with benches to drink bottled water and ponder our next move. An enormous fountain lies a few metres away. I sit with my camera trained on it, my lens zoomed in close, and contentedly take snaps of the action. The highlight is an older boy playfully pretending to hurl in his brother. Until a father and son walk by, and the father turns his son upside down, dashes back to the fountain, and dips him carefully into the water, just wetting his hair. The son is laughing admiringly up at his dad as they pass back in our direction.
The girls in particular are dressed in their best for the day. My head swivels to follow one junior primary school aged girl in a puffy dress sporting the biggest bow I have seen in my life at the back of her waist. Another similarly aged girl prances proudly beneath a tree for the camera lens of her adoring father, daintily pinching the hems of her green satin dress at either side. Other young girls wear denim mini-skirts and high knee-moccasin boots. Their hips and ponytails swing together as they walk, mini fashionistas in the making. One such girl, in a snug red t-shirt and knee-length denim skirt, walks in front of us awhile. Emblazoned across the tight-fitting behind of her dress is the slogan ‘SEXY’. She must be about eight years old.
On my first day in Guadalajara (over two weeks ago now), a uniformed schoolgirl approached our café table in the plaza and plonked a small illustrated card on our napkin holder with practised efficiency. I watched in bemusement as she moved on to the next table and did the same. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. I peered at my card. It had a pretty, beribboned dog on it.
‘What is she doing?’ I hissed at The Husband. ‘Does she want money?’
‘I don’t know.’
The Husband had already filled me in on how to deal with the plentiful beggars and street vendors dealing in knick-knacks - ‘no necessito’ (not necessary) being more effective than ‘no gracias’. He had warned me that parents often recruit their children to help them.
But everything about this girl screamed good care and perfectly adequate wealth. Her uniform was spotless and neat. Her glossy hair literally shone in the sunlight. And her light skin, hazel eyes and pale amber locks bespoke privilege in a country where poverty and skin colour are more often related than not. The girl appeared back at the table while The Husband was in the toilet. She said something incomprehensible in Spanish and gestured at the card. It was obvious she wanted money, after all.
She scooped up the card and disappeared, without so much as a wasted look.
Half an hour later, I spotted the girl again. She was sitting in another plaza, at the edge of a fountain, gleefully tucking into an elaborate ice cream sundae.