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‘Doing nothing’ involves a whole lot of ‘something’

Is reading the paper while waiting for a customer considered "work," or doing nothing?
Is reading the paper while waiting for a customer considered “work,” or doing nothing?

Of all the tasks I’ve added to my plate in the last year, none has caused me more psychic disruption than the simple act of doing nothing. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by “doing nothing.” The whole idea is oxymoronic. If I’m doing nothing — if I have turned it into a task — then I am doing something, that is, nothing.

Even when I find myself in a place where I feel as if I have stepped over the line into a state of nothingness, I know it’s not really what it seems. It’s just that I have created a space where I can do that which I seldom allow myself the time or luxury of doing in my normal life.

Context is everything. Exploring this notion (which, ironically, drove me to this keyboard and the act of composition, thereby turning nothing into something) became possible only through the complex process of planning and embarking on a two-month winter break to Oaxaca, Mexico.

In the run-up to this event, my wife, Kathy, would tell people, “No, it’s not a vacation. It’s just a relocation of our life.”

My wife is a bit of a work-a-holic type. It’s so much easier to see this trait in others, but standing back from the mirror, I realized that I have a lot of that in me, as well. It just plays out in different ways.

Kathy likes a good project. Meetings, phone calls, objectives, Gantt charts and deadlines. Like me, she welcomes the “ask,” and has little ability to say “no.” As a result, we find ourselves running from one thing to another, many of them volunteer commitments, doing research, shooting off e-mails, meeting with vendors, exploring funding sources for a new culinary school project, juggling pet-care duties and calls to daughters and siblings, taking overnight trips to meet and talk about travel information at freeway rest stops, and on, and on, and on.

Where did this come from? Nature, or nurture? Our work histories suggest the power of patterning. We both worked for years in journalism, with deadlines and the frenetic cross-currents of sources and editors and readers. Then, to acknowledge my wife’s lifelong passion, we side-shifted – upshifting wasn’t humanly possible, and downshifting it definitely wasn’t – into the restaurant business for 10 years.

Deadlines and vendors and customers, oh, my.

Selling the restaurant might well have opened a time of leisure and quiet contemplation. Nope, not in our natures, nor in our nurture.

At a time when most people are contemplating retirement, we found ourselves so looking forward to time away, in southern Mexico, with a chance to disconnect from all we had heaped on our lives.

“What are you going to do in Mexico?” people would ask.

“Nothing,” I found myself saying.

And then I would contradict myself. I would talk about how I never give myself time to just sit down with a good book and read, diving in and swimming across the lake until I hit the other shore.

Or I would talk about exploring the art and architecture, the cuisine in the land of the seven moles, the source and substance of tequila’s mysterious cousin, mezcal.
I realized that I was not describing a time of nothing. I was describing a lot of something, but not the same things that occupied our domestic (that is, U.S.) lives.

In college, my good friend Dan and my brother Pete and I developed a shorthand to describe our pot smoking. We thought ourselves so clever, hanging out with my parents, chortling incessantly, probably reeking like ripe bongwater and speaking in code about “doing something different.”

Inhaling the fumes from a bag of bad weed would have been different for my parents, but not for us. For us, it was the usual, normal, what we did at 19 and 20.

When I read about Americans’ reluctance to use their full allotment of vacation time — Project Time Off reports that 41 percent would not use their full vacation allotment in 2014 — I wonder how many of them could qualify for membership in the “cult of busy.”

Many of them tell researchers that they fear losing their jobs, or appearing non-essential in their absence. Others talk about the pile of work that demands their constant engagement or a belief that the pile will only grow if they take a break.
And two-thirds say they hear “nothing, negative or mixed messages” from their bosses when it comes to taking a vacation.

I’ve got my doubts. I worked busy, stressful, demanding jobs my entire life, but I always relished and took my vacation time. It made me a better person, even if it allowed me only the luxury of falling asleep on a beach.

I suspect too many Americans drink from the same fountain, the one that pumps out a constant stream of applause for those who are “most busy.”

Ask any American casually how it’s going, and note how many times they answer, “Oh, really busy.”

“Crazy.”

“It’s insane.”

“Can’t keep up.”

Then watch them. Often times, the people who effect this image of overload appear, even at work, as if they are sedated. Moving in slow motion, they struggle to move through a world of puddling molasses. It takes them forever to do anything, and not that well.

My wife and I constantly find ourselves noting how so-and-so takes forever to do what either of us can — and do — accomplish in minutes or hours.

We think they are deficient, or crippled by some genetic lassitude.

We seldom stop to think that perhaps we are the broken ones, afflicted by the rigid grid of deadlines that overlay our lives’ work hours.

Take a break like ours to Mexico, and we tend, then, to approach unscheduled time with a near pathological rigor.

“What are we doing today?”

It seems a betrayal of the unwritten rule of travel productivity to even contemplate answering, “Nothing.”

Yes, on one hand, we want to relax and downshift, so why are we charging out the door again with packs and maps and guidebooks to tick off another list of “must-see” monuments, “must-eat” diners, “must-get” trinket markets?

I say I hate the congested 12-countries-in-a-week, hop-off-the-bus approach to travel. Then I find myself creating my own sanctimonious variant.

This morning, three weeks into our stay, I found myself relaxing into yet another online news journal, going to a literary magazine’s web site and reading a great story by Maile Meloy, putting it all away for some time with a Carl Hiaasen novel, wandering outside to shop from the back of the battered VW van driven by the gentle veggie vendor, improvising a workout device from buckets and a broom handle, and returning to my reads.

And, all the while, fighting to ignore the voice in the back of my head that wants me to believe it’s all a huge waste of time that could be better spent …

Doing what? Perhaps, as in the Seinfeld sitcom, joining friends at a coffee shop for a good session of active nothingness. The show, famously celebrated as “about nothing,” was really a show about small things, in short, the acts and irritants of daily life.

Getting lost in a parking garage.

Resisting the allure of masturbation.

Inventing a product that, on one level, makes so much sense, but on another makes no sense at all (the “Bro,” aka Mansierre, a bra for men with gynecomastia).

Take the minutiae of daily life, ponder and debate and recast them into scale much greater than their true import, and you, too, might create something from nothing.

Frankly, the process of pondering the essence of nothingness is driving me a bit nuts. Even so, it has taken several hours, much thought, and a lot of typing to reach this point, so nothing could be finer.

Collectivos, buses provide cheap transit path to rich Oaxaca experience

Dueling for passengers, an urban bus and a collectivo in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Dueling for passengers, an urban bus and a collectivo in Oaxaca, Mexico.

With three weeks remaining on our two-month stay in Oaxaca, I took a collectivo out to the airport yesterday.

“A what?” you ask.

It’s a local transit option, a little bit taxi, a little bit bus, and a whole lot more.

The driver asked me where I was going after I reached the airport, on the assumption that I must be flying.

Nope, I told him, just picking up a rental car.

As I spoke with him, it struck me that I was probably speaking heresy. In essence, I was telling him that I was graduating to a more preferable mode of transit than the mode that provided his livelihood.

To his credit, he didn’t take offense, jam on the brakes and dump me by the side of the road.

On the way back into town, in the air-conditioned comfort of the VW Jetta, I found myself a bit wistful. I had gained flexibility and independence, at the cost of all that comes with going slow, on foot and stop by stop on public transit.

Collectivos are a marvelous option. I wondered why something similar hadn’t migrated north to the United States.

I can speculate. Maybe we’re too rich. Or too independent (gotta have our own rides). Maybe we’re too dispersed; it’s a model that wouldn’t work in the wide open spaces of the American west (neither do Uber and Lyft). Or maybe it’s just too capital intensive for anyone to launch it against the tide of U.S. auto-fixation.

As Uber and Lyft gain traction in urban areas, they offer a stark contrast. The business model is far less costly than the collectivo model. Just enlist a bunch of people who already own cars, to provide rides for people who don’t.

In our first six weeks in Oaxaca, when we found it inconvenient to walk, we turned to buses or collectivos. Both really get the job done. For my money, the collectivos are the better option, especially for trips outside the central part of town.

Oaxaca has taxis, too, but they’re a bit spendier, and offer less adventure for that higher price.

Why would any traveler looking for a novel experience pass on using a collectivos? Fear, maybe, or a pathological embrace of the familiar. Silly people.

Now that I’ve sung the collectivos’ praises, it’s time I explained how they work. First of all, they look like taxis. They even have the light on top with black type that says taxi. There are similarities to taxis, to be sure, and a rider can book a collectivo to work like a taxi, at a higher fare. If you want to do that, just take a taxi.

In their difference from taxis lies the genius of the collectivo.

The best transportation in Oaxaca.
The best transportation in Oaxaca.

Unlike the Uber model, they are not owner-operated. A company owns and operates the collectivos, hires and pays the drivers. The vehicles are typically small, Asian sedans — think Nissan. They are painted red and white. And they run specific routes, like buses, as indicated by the signs on their windshields indicating where they go.

Their fare structure is still a bit of a mystery. We grabbed one to deliver my wife and me to a town — San Bartolo de Cuyotepec — about 10 kilometers outside Oaxaca. The driver charged us 80 pesos (roughly $4.80). For the return trip, we flagged down a ride with a bunch of other riders, and paid 20 pesos ($1.20). My ride to the airport, maybe five miles outside town, cost 10 pesos (60 cents).

Just remember this: If you want to cut costs, you should welcome the chance to share a collectivo.

Here’s how that works. The cars can hold six or seven people. It’s to the company’s benefit to cram as many in as possible — three in the front, and three or four (depending on how big) in the back.

The first rider to sit in front with the driver should prepare to scoot over onto the console and brake handle when another rider hops in front.

Comfy? No.

Functional? Si.

If you want a ride, you stand alongside the road and hold up fingers for number of passengers. A driver with space will honk as he approaches loading zones, and hold a hand out with fingers showing how many he can take on (one hand, five spaces max).

As you wait for a ride, you may be able to read the destination signs on the windshields of approaching vehicles. If not, just confirm the destination with any driver that stops.

Then jump in, and enjoy the ride. It’s good form to have small change on hand, rather than handing the driver a 500-peso note when you disembark.

Half the traffic on local roads seems to be collectivos. Clearly, they work, and people love them. But be forewarned: Drivers have an incentive to churn passengers. So the quicker they can get to a destination — especially one outside the city — the quicker they can off-load and replace passengers.

To accomplish this, drivers will sometimes drive like maniacs.

You may enjoy the thrill as they push the speed limit and stretch the width of the road to include non-existent passing lanes.

You may also see your life pass in front of your eyes.

One longtime local advised against using collectivos, out of regard for personal survival.

You can catch a collectivo ride along any major boulevard leaving or returning to town. The collectivos have a number of pickup zones, such as on Calle Bustamante south of the Zocalo.

Collectivos also congregate in swarms near the massive, teeming and chaotic Abastos market. Collectivos going north and east — to the Etlas, or toward Atzompa — queue up north of the market. Collectivos heading south — San Bartolo, airport — or east — Teotitlan, Tule, Tlacolula, Mitla — queue up to the south of the market.

The whole collectivo scene can be a bit dizzying, like watching a swarm of bees on the comb. Don’t let it scare you. Just jump in, ask simple destination questions (“San Bartolo? Si? Cuanto (How much)?”)

Taking a bus is the other, safer and somewhat less flexible option.

That, however, implies waiting for a bus that is stuck to a schedule. There are numerous bus options. A second-class bus station sits north of the Abastos (Central) public market. There is also another bus station on the south end of downtown, that serves more southerly cities such as Ocotlan and Miahuatlan.

If you want to go, and go now, a collectivo is your best bet.

That said, the in-city buses are cool, too. Many are very tired, spewing diesel exhaust, screeching brake pads at every stop. But they keep on trucking, and it’s a good way to go native.

Cost (winter 2016) is just 7 pesos (42 cents) for a ride to wherever they go. They also sport signs in the windshield to help you pick the right bus.

The problem with all that? You need to know the shorthand for the various neighborhoods (colonias) or major landmark destinations, like hospitals, and boulevards. Otherwise, the signs mean nothing.

Get a map — tourist office on Benito Juarez just west of Llano Park — and familiarize yourself with the neighborhood names. Thus educated, you can generally ensure arrival somewhere near where you actually want to go.

A willingness to walk is critical. Taxis will take you door to door. Buses and collectivos require a bit of hoofing.

If the bus turns away from your desired path — their routes can be a mystery, too — just stand up and get off at the first opportunity.

The bus is also a great way to give yourself a self-guided tour to … somewhere. I like serendipity when traveling. I veer away from landmark tourist magnets, and guided tours. I prefer to amble, and veer impulsively off course down side streets, alleys, up stairways and down cobblestone paths that serve residential areas.

Which is why, for a lark, I like to just hop on a bus and see where it goes. We did that the other day, with the goal of just going in circles. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The bus took us to a big public market, then stopped. The driver told us if we wanted to continue we had to get off and get on a bus that somehow had materialized right behind the first bus.

In the U.S., we would get a transfer ticket. Not here. We figured, what the hell, then got off, got on the other bus (the driver didn’t ask for money, which is their way of providing a transfer), and began a ride that took us way out of town and up a rambling dirt road to the back of beyond.

It stopped next to a bunch of other battered buses near a little lunch stand. We had to get off and wait until one of the other buses started up, and pay for a return trip to town.

It was a hard wait. As we slowed down, I could see a couple of dogs competing for a chance to mount another. A pathetic-looking dog met me as I stepped from the bus, its protruding ribs telling more than I wanted to hear.

The lot was full of mangy mutts, thin, sick, starving. Traveling in a poor country — where many of the people live little better than their dogs — is still painful for dog
lovers used to providing their own pets everything but a college education.

Kathy dispensed the leftovers from her lunch to the pack, and left crying.

We had no idea where we would go or what we would see when we got on the bus. It delivered us to something sad, far from a picture postcard and barking with more questions than answers.

And it only cost $1.68.

Waiting on a shaky premise for the garbage man to come

Morning in Oaxaca, while some residents wait for the garbage truck.
Morning in Oaxaca, while some residents wait for the garbage truck.

Streaks of apricot light dance above the eastern horizon, a band plays somewhere down below, and fireworks pock the Oaxaca dawn as I haul the garbage can down free-form concrete pavement one block to the corner, and grab a seat on the curb.

It’s 6:30 a.m., 13 days before Christmas, and I’m waiting for the garbage truck. In pidgin conversations with our lovely neighbor, Celia, I’ve learned (I think) that the troca de basura will arrive at 6:30 this Saturday morning.

I think this is correct, but figuring out how things function in these parts is a work in progress. Our landlord’s mother-in-law, Isabel, speaks no English, but is lovely and charming and tolerant of my limited Spanish. When she was here four days earlier, to greet the truck that delivers water to the cistern that feeds the water tank on the roof of our rental casa, Isabel told me (I think) that the garbage truck would be here in the morning.

Cuando (when)?”

“7:30 … or later.” (I think).

She said she would return, all the way from her village near the airport, to help me figure it out. No, not necessary, I told her.

So, in anticipation of this marvelous first coming, I set my alarm for 6:15.
I keep reminding myself that the reason my wife and I have come to Mexico again is that I love how it blows my comfort level to pieces. Everything looks somewhat familiar, but nothing is the same.

The biggest hurdle is language. In the tourist zones along the coast, residents working in resort hotels and restaurants often speak English. If you choose to stay in these places, you merely extend your comfort zone to include a swim-up bar and umbrella drinks.

Step a bit off the beaten path, however, and you touch the hot wire. You can wander around all day, sightseeing, and feel somewhat at ease. But when you need to interact with people to achieve some basic need — food, water, directions — you can expect the shock of the unfamiliar.

“What did he say?” I ask my wife.

She laughs. She knows even less Spanish than I, and appreciates the absurdity of my turning to her for translation help.

Understanding is the biggest part of my language challenge, when the language comes at you like a handful of jacks tossed casually by someone who says “Catch!”

That’s why I’m sitting on a curb at 6:30 in the morning, next to my garbage can. That, and the fact that it was full when we arrived at our new, architecturally sweet rental house ($700 a month, kitchen-bed-bath-viewing patio on top floor) 10 days ago.

I’ve got to get rid of this stuff, because I’m not sure I can wait until the next alleged pickup day, on Tuesday.

Spanish is easy when all you have to do is toss out inane observations — “Bueno” — or ask questions, such as “Donde esta el bano?” when you have to go, really, really bad. Figuring out the spew of verbiage is mui dificil.

The fireworks continue, heralding the arrival of the day on which Mexicans celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. Fireworks and virgins? Now that you mention it, makes a lot of sense.

My watch advances toward 7. No garbage truck. Doors open and dogs emerge. A few cars pass. Voices up the hill, down the street. A honk a block over. The truck? I recall that Celia said I would hear a honk. But stare as I do down the block, no truck appears.

About 7:15, feeling the jilted lover, I leave the garbage can where the truck is alleged to appear, and begin the steep trudge back to my house. My wife greets me with a cup of coffee.

Celia and the dogs are out in the street, with some friends. We exchange greetings. I share my exasperation with my wife, and we climb to the top-floor patio. I can see my garbage can, down at the corner, waiting … for what?

“Nobody’s going to steal it,” I tell my wife. “Not with it full of garbage.”

“They’d just dump the trash in the street.”

We sit down, and I compose an e-mail to my landlord expressing mild befuddlement about this garbage situation. Well, mild may not be what I really feel, but I’m trying to go with the flow here.

Then, just before I can click “send,” Celia’s voice across the street, “Basura!”

My wife and I both hear it. I jump up, run downstairs, into the street and downhill toward my garbage. Another woman is dragging a bag of her own. I offer “ayuda (help)” to get it there.

She smiles. Well, loco gringo, if you insist.

Doors open, and other people emerge with their collected refuse. It’s as if they all sensed it at the same time. It’s a block party.

I reach the corner, just as the truck pulls to a stop near someone else’s pile. Inside the bin on the back, the garbage man takes what we hand him, sorting out recyclables, stashing the garbage in back.

And, if the garbage came to him in something more stout than a plastic bag, he hands it back.

Allelujah. To us this day is born a savior.

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