When we moved to Mexico two years ago, we brought one suitcase and one carry-on each. Those first few months I lived in a state of minimalist bliss. Who knew how much freedom I’d find in the utter absence of non-essential possessions? With hardly any clothes to launder, a kitchen outfitted with no more wares than would fit in its single-bowl sink and not one unfinished project silently guilting me into action, I quickly realized I had gained something I hadn’t tasted for many, many years…I had time on my hands. It was glorious, it was healing and it was short-lived.
It’s a bit of mystery, really…the speed at which we managed to accumulate a household full of both almost-essentials (blender, mixing bowls, towels, books) and all the sneaky non-essentials that creep out of the woodwork faster than insects in the night (toys, piles of papers and junk-we-may-never-use-but-can’t-bare-to-condemn-to-the-landfill).
So, my magical minimal memories still fairly recent, I was more than a little excited that our move to the beach would mean another serious picking through, paring down, prioritization and purging of our possessions.
It’s been bittersweet: the letting go, the moving on. But saying goodbye to the stuff? That spells sweet (if short-lived) freedom…
No more need for the woolens we scrambled to accumulate after our first months at high altitude with no heat source.
No more need for the baby jogger I logged hundreds of miles on with my last two babies, now 5 and 7.
No need for second-hand Uggs or REI sweats or Patagonia thrift scores from the local Ropa Americanas (you’d be amazed at what we’ve found at the mom and pop shops selling hand-me-down clothing from the states).
No space for tricycles or kites or the swiveling desk chair that supported me in my decision to be a writer.
So…we had a garage sale – or a courtyard sale as it were – and our craziest, most successful one yet (we have had many through the years).
First came the second-hand vendors themselves, just like in the states. They showed up early, bought the name brands and hard-to-find-in-Mexico items and handed me a business card in case I changed my mind and decided to part with my coveted cast iron (fat chance).
Then came the neighbors. “Our” tienda lady bought our washing machine for what we paid for it new (used items hold their value here), the guy from the Italian joint around the corner wondered what we had in the way of trastes (kitchen items) then told me — dreamily — of his property in Tulum and the crabby old lady from across the street acted offended by my (totally reasonable) prices. Ironically, the same lady came back at the end of the day offended that those same items had already sold (her type exists all over the world, I suppose).
There were expats from England, Italy, Germany, Canada and Spain with whom I began conversations in Spanish and sometimes switched to English mid-stream, and it’s always fun to meet someone from, say, Colorado with a comparable level of Spanish and restrain ourselves from speaking English until we’ve gone as deep as we can go and one of us finally breaks.
By far the most interesting patrons were the ones who just happened by and peaked in out of curiosity: the mamas selling baskets of empanadas and sticky-sweet candy made from boiled squash, the grandmas peddling giant bouquets of fresh-cut flowers and my garlic/peanut guy…
And once again I was humbled by an experience with a Mayan mama…
On the afternoon of the last day of the sale – eager to be rid of the remaining “junk” I’d have to unload one way or another – a tiny woman (with an incredible load strapped across her forehead) peeked her head inside my door. Dressed brightly in head-to-toe traditional woven garments, timid as a church mouse and accompanied by three shoeless kids, I invited them in for a look around. When it was obvious that she didn’t speak Spanish, I deferred to her 12-year-old daughter. “Ya casi hemos terminado. No necesitamos las cosas que todavia no hemos vendido. Pueden llevar qualquier cosa sin pagar.” There is probably a smoother way to communicate the same message but they got the gist of it, “The sale is almost over and I don’t need these things. You and your family may take whatever you want for free.” The daughter looked at me with big eyes and an even bigger (silver) grin. Translating in Tzotzil, she explained what I had said to her mother who stared at me like she’d just seen a ghost. “Seguro?” Yes, I was sure.
They proceeded to make a pile…rain boots, a down coat, long underwear and wool socks. A plastic Santa Clause plate, a dish rack, a stock pot with only a tiny spot of rust. So overwhelmed with excitement at the idea of our junk being used by people in true need, and giddy at that the thought of her toddler running around in Estella’s old Stride Rites, I lost my senses momentarily and made a selfish move…I asked if I could take their picture.
I know, big deal, right? But I knew better. Most of the indigenous here are very photo shy (and understandably distrusting of generous gifts). It is rumored that they believe that being photographed will steal their souls. At the very least, my offering no longer felt free – I had an ulterior motive. I had insulted her.
Like always, I was thinking of the story. I wanted so badly for you to see this stunning woman with her ornate dress, puppy-eyed children and heavy burden against the backdrop of my courtyard-turned-tienda. But the instant I asked, I knew I had crossed a cultural (and socio-economic) boundary of respect. The little girl gave me a confused look, then softly relayed my request to her mother who shook her head profusely, gathered only the items she came with and hurried her children out the door.
I tried to communicate an apology. “I’m sorry, I really don’t need a photo. Just take what you need. Here, take the boots, take the coat.” They walked away confused and still shoeless but (presumably) with their pride in tact. My heart sunk to that same gray place that the Mayans have taken me time and again. A place where means meet needs but like incompatible blood types, an exchange is simply not possible, no matter how great the necessity or willing the giver.
In the end, another family happened along who were equally excited by my offering. The mom sent the teenage boy away, who then returned with a dolly and some rope. They loaded up all they could take, thanked me profusely and strolled on down the road giggling and waving their goodbyes, glancing back to make sure their gratitude was understood.
My moving sale was sort of a microcosm of our time here: a cultural melting pot, an anthropological dream and a storyteller’s playground. It was also steeped in lessons, of which there have been no shortage these past two years.
Three lessons confirmed at my moving sale…
- “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is quite profound when applied to entire nations. The waste of affluence is really something (and we live simply by US standards).
- The chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the world is enormous. Tossing that around as if it were nothing (or giving as if there is no end to our “wealth”) risks adding insult to injury and deserves more consideration than we often give when what we’re seeking is a “do-gooder’s high.”
- Life is all about relationship. If I’m not first invested in someone, they have every reason to question my intentions. If I’ve not bothered to first understand the root of a set of needs or unfortunate set of circumstances, I have no business pretending I have answers for the “problems” I perceive. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving — just that things can actually obscure human connection, which is ultimately even more satisfying than shoes.
As for the story? I suppose photos are a bit of a cop out, anyway. If I can’t paint an idea with words, I’d sure as hell better brush up on my photography skills.
Lesson learned, madrecita. Keep ’em coming.