In high school cross country we once fit 21 people in the ice bath outside the training room. Twenty one sweaty kids stacked tight in our skimpy cross country attire. It’s a possibility that our touching legs created body heat that stole the frigid water’s purpose away. No matter. There was pride in that accomplishment. There was solidarity in the tactics to fit each person in.
This summer we fit two teams of day camp counselors, or eight people, in a car full of stuff with only 5 seats after doing the Incline in Colorado Springs. Eight sweaty, tired college kids, sitting on top of each other, singing loudly, “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you… But I love, but I love it!” There was solidarity in being that close to each other after sweating so much.
During in-country orientation this last month we gave a ride to the leaders and kids of Ayotzinapan’s biblioteca (Hannah’s site placement, it’s an indigenous town in Cuetzalan). This was after a walk in thick humidity, playing tag, and watching buckets of rain wash away the heat. We fit 18 people into a van with 11 seats. There was solidarity in sitting on laps, and on the floor, and simply breathing in the almost tangible joy those kids had for a few more minutes.
These are three examples I’ve experienced of squeezing sweaty people together in a limited space. They’re fond memories and I’m sure I could pick my brain for more but usually I have enough space. More often than not in my experience of the US, people abide by numbers and guidelines. People like their personal space and keep it that way. So far, in my experience of Mexico, this is not the case.
An easy example to start with is “that cheek kissing thing.” I’m grateful I’m a woman because I can greet anyone I meet with this cheek kissing thing and it’s expected, normal. You can shake hands too, but it’s all about your right cheeks touching. There’s something beautiful in allowing that much intimacy with people you just met. The same day I moved in to my familia Mexicana was El Grito, the fiesta before the Mexican Independence Day. In other words, I met the entire family plus extras. Without a doubt, greeting each person this way made me feel more part of the family. There was no way to be shy.
And then there’s the Mexico City metro, aka how I commute to work. At 9 am or 6pm, extra space doesn’t exist. I’ll try to make the picture as clear as possible for you, because it’s quite the experience.
It’s my first day of work and after my host sister and brother in law showed me one way to my office, my host mom switches it up and sends me off on a bus. I tried and tried to say I was more comfortable doing the route I succeed in the day before, but no. Here I am sitting on a little bus totally unsure of where I’m going, about to cry from nerves. I’m sure my face said it all because a woman next to me on the bus gave me the “oh, you poor thing, let me help you look” when I asked how much the bus cost and then if we were at the Moctezuma metro station.
I descend down the stairs past the venders shouting prices for various items— candy, chips, headphones—and enter into the depths of my fear. The night before my host mom, Georgina, one of the sweetest, hardworking women I’ve met, took the time to tell me many stories of the dangers of the metro and public transportation in general. I’ll spare you the details. Anyway I’m mostly nervous because my laptop is in my backpack since I have to use it at work. Getting robbed or held up would be awful. Losing years of photos, music, documents, etc. would be devastating as well.
I make my way to the section designated for women and children. I can tell immediately where the doors of the metro trains stop because there are clusters of about 15 women each pressed close to the edge. I get behind one and prepare myself by swinging my backpack to my front so I can cradle it like a baby. Then I wait. We wait. There’s dramatic music playing overhead. It reminds me of classical music used to end an action filled drama.
The rushing sound of metro train arriving overtakes the music about 2 minutes after I arrive. Between blurs of red sides, I see each car filled to the brim with people. At least you’d think it was full. The doors open. No one leaves the train yet two women begin pressing themselves on. The doors begin to close but can’t since there’s people sticking out still. Then each cluster begins to push and push and push the women and eventually force them fully on the train. Total strangers. Helping each other by pushing each other on.
About five more trains come and go before I’m up next. I began to help push a couple of people, making sure their arms or bags didn’t get caught in the doors. Another train comes and suddenly I feel hands pressing on my back and I’m sandwiched on a metro train with who even knows how many other women. It’s so tightly packed that despite the quick turns and fast stops, we can’t fall. There is nowhere to go. There is no such thing as personal space. My butt up against some person’s back. My chest pressed into some lady’s shoulder. Thirty minutes without airflow in this way, sweat is inevitable. I wasn’t sweaty before this and I’m sure the others weren’t either. Lindsay, my program coordinator, once called it “a Mexican sauna.”
Every stop a couple more people manage to “subir,” to get on. Finally people start to “bajar,” to get off. I imagine it’s like molecules of gas in a container. Anytime more space was to be had, we shift accordingly until we find equilibrium.
To ride the metro, you need to be aggressive. You need to be aggressive to get on and you need to be aggressive to get off. But within all this “aggression,” there still is solidarity. There’s camaraderie. People help you maneuver. They use their hands to get you to go where you need to. Sure, it has to be forceful, but I honestly believe it’s in good faith. No one’s face looks angered. Some look tired, some amused (like mine), and some seem determined. There is community within that fluorescent lit sweaty box of people, speeding away through dark tunnels under Mexico City.
I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the challenge of riding the metro during high tides. However, I’d also be lying if I said there was no silver lining, no God moments to be had there. These times will become memories eventually like that of my other experiences squeezing people together. There will be countless days were I join the team effort as we tactically brace ourselves and shove in order to get that one last person on. Mexico has stripped away my very US American assumption of a constant personal bubble. And that’s okay. It’s just one of the many new realities I live every day.