Watch Your Step
By Marilyn P. Davis
Ajijic (Îah-hee-HEEKâ), a beautiful, friendly little town of cobbled streets and prettily painted houses… is how it’s described in the guidebooks. We come to this charming, picturesque pueblito, where strolling is the favored pastime, and notice Mexicans with Á11-fitting huaraches or worse yet high heels walking with friends, talking, often with children in tow, and bundles on their back.
Not only do they not have a problem maneuvering the cobblestones, they seem completely oblivious of them. This puts us at unawares. As foreigners we are observant and take our cues from what we see others doing, and we assume there is no problem. Of course the guidebook does not advise us to wear our sturdiest walking shoes, or warn us that even then, we can break our neck on those cobblestones. No, but it is something that any North American who has been here for two weeks can tell you. Most of us have had a near turn of the ankle and all know of someone who had a serious fall.
But why does this not happen to Mexicans? If it did, they would have paved the streets long ago. Is it that they have been walking on cobblestones all their lives or is it a genetic proclivity? Probably a little of both, but the real reason is fairly simple: negative reinforcement.
Years ago when the village I work in didn’t have electricity, hence no telenovelas (soaps), to occupy our afternoons, the women would sit outside and sew while the children played games in the street. One day a baby, just beginning to walk, was let loose. He would walk a few steps and fall, just like children everywhere, but here, at each kapoooom, all the women and children would laugh. He’d get up with a smile on his face and try again. And as it is with babies, in just a few days he was walking here and there; hardly ever falling.
Before the water was piped to each house, one of the joys of pueblo life was rainy season when the river was full. All the women and smaller children would all go up and wash clothes and bathe. We’d carry the big metal tubs on our heads filled with clothes and a variety of special soaps to take out any possible stain. I was fortunate in that I just had a family of three, so my load was fairly light. Some women had to wash for a family of eight or nine. We’d walk up the hillside in gullies trying to avoid the nopal, huisache, and all the other stickery growth that seemed to reach out and grab you. My tub would wobble back and forth as I’d tip my head to keep an eye on where I was going. I noticed that the other women walked with their heads held high. Being of a short, stocky build, they didn’t appear to be particularly graceful or agile, yet no one ever tripped or lost their footing.
As I walked along watching them, and trying to navigate the twists and turns, I would wish that the women from my fabric store in Berkeley could see this. In my store, I had one small step. Even though it was outlined with day-glo tape, every day someone would fall. I could never figure it out.
When we walked up the hill to the river, we would always be accompanied by Doña Irene, the most respected matriarch of the village. She would lend her authority and assurance to keep all members of the opposite sex at bay, and protect our standing as fine young women. At 70+ years, she was still in good walking form. Then it happened. She fell! She not only fell, but as she lost her footing she tumbled over and landed just short of the needle-sharp spines of a prickly cactus. Horrified, I immediately dropped my tub ran up the hill to help her.
By the time I reached her, she had gotten up, to the shrieking and laughter of all the other women. She started laughing too. We were all hysterical. It was hard to tell if the tears coming down were of pain or hilarity. Back in the pueblo it was a great story to be acted out and it kept everyone in stitches for days.
Well, I often thought that the next time someone fell down that step there in Berkeley, I’m going to laugh and see if that made a difference. But I never could. So just remember, as you walk through these quaint cobbled streets, to watch your step. You are at a distinct cultural disadvantage.
Ed. Note: Ms. Davis, a member of the Ajijic Writers Group, is one of our area’s most distinguished writers. Her book Mexican Voices, American Dreams was published by the prestigious Henry Holt & Son and recently went into its sixth printing.