Friday, March 4, 2011
Clash of the worlds
As you drive from our ranch, you'll go on a short stretch of dirt road, then take a right and travel for another three miles on a road that dead ends at a brand new highway. There you'll have a choice not only between turning right or left, or going to San Miguel or Queretaro, but also of visiting the First or the Third World.
Mexico's ambiguous place on the First World/Third World spectrum reminds me of the myth of Janus, the Roman god with two faces. He supposedly looked both toward the past and the future, and if you stretch the story just a bit, toward progress and modernity with one face, and backwardness and poverty with the other.
Mexico has enough ultra-modern razzle-dazzle to fool you into believing you're living in the First World or thereabouts. Queretaro just built an imposing boulevard with eight or ten lanes lanes--can't remember just how many--meticulously landscaped and with overpasses, lighting and expressway signage good enough for Los Angeles. The suburbs surrounding Queretaro have thousands of houses neatly laid out as far as the eye can see, with an occasional golf course or strip mall in between. Are we someplace in Nevada? If you don't like suburban living, billboards advertise high-rise condominiums, one of them called Central Park, closer to the center of the city. Yes, as you cruise down the city's impressive entrance you can spot one slummy-looking neighborhood on the left side, with rattletrap houses clinging precariously to the side of a hill. But which American or European city doesn't have its share of slums?
However, when you consider Mexico's history of epic political corruption, the national sport of tax evasion and its barely functional law enforcement system, somehow the place doesn't look like Canada or Finland anymore. Even less so if you factor in the narco wars which over the past five years have killed 35,000, and give some San Miguel gringos pause about quickie driving jaunts to McAllen or Laredo, Texas to do some shopping.
San Miguel could be the Third World face of Mexico, despite the continuous arrival of luxe hotels and restaurants and its lovingly maintained historic Centro that so enchants visitors and residents alike. Just step away from the Centro into the surrounding towns--where half of the population of the municipality of San Miguel lives--and it's light years away from the modernity of Queretaro, which is only 45 minutes away. It's not the asphyxiating squalor you find in Haiti, El Salvador or Honduras and other countries of the true Third World, but it's close enough.
(Sorry, putting Mexico in the Second World doesn't really work either. That label traditionally has been applied to Soviet satellites whose populations lived in an economic and political limbo that was a nasty mix of dictatorships and semi-retarded economies. Check out places like Turkmekistan, wherever the heck it is. Mexico is not Turkmekistan, a fact for which all of us who live here thank God every day.)
Last week we were exposed to the First and Third World sides of Mexico thanks to two carpentry projects for our house. For one we wanted an old set of doors that could be retrofitted into a room divider between the kitchen and the dining room. That search took us to the shop--a fanciful description of a workspace that looked more like a hovel--where a nervous middle-aged man carved crude designs on wood using a chewed-up chisel and a hammer with a metal stub in place of a handle. I can't vouch for his salary, but I bet it's less than $50 a week.
In the end we didn't buy the doors. We spoke to the shop owner and they were absurdly overpriced, particularly considering that the craftsmanship was two flights of stairs below even what local gringos would call "Mexican Rustic." I would refer to it as "Mexican Crap."
Then came Juventino, our carpenter from Queretaro, who brought us a headboard for our bed, whose Moorish-style design he had found on the Internet. The woodwork is intricate, borderline exquisite, with layers of different woods forming geometric patterns. I can't even fully explain the finished product: You'll have to come here and look at it. Stew and I were awed. After all, we're veterans of scores of half-assed carpentry projects where the pieces typically fit almost but not quite. We were doing Mexican Rustic before we even knew what it was.
How did you do that?, we asked Juventino.
Welcome to the world of digital carpentry. It wasn't that hard, Juventino calmly explained. The first thing you do is turn the original design into a computer-aided file that contains the exact dimensions of all the different layers (to get the concentric designs) and the location, shape (round, V-shaped or square), depth and width of each groove. Then toddle over to a laser-cutting shop with your AutoCAD file in hand, so that a machine can cut the layers, in this case three layers of 1/4-inch plywood, to your precise specifications. Laser cutters can be programmed to cut plastic, wood and even cloth, though not glass. After that you take the top layer of wood, and the AutoCAD file, to a shop with a digital router that will perfectly create all the intricate, interlocking grooves. Put everything together, apply some stain, install the fancy frame, spray a few coats of varnish the whole thing and you're set.
Or so Juventino tells me. Just thinking about creating an AutoCad design with tolerances and measurements in fractions of a millimeter gives me a migraine.
When Juventino left, Stew and I drove back to the rustic design shop selling the doors and instead bought a lawn ornament that represents a deer, more or less. It's about five feet high, made out of scraps of rusted metal, rebar and an old muffler. The hole for the tail pipe on the muffler coincides with the location of the deer's butt, which we thought was kind of clever. We put it in front of the house and we really like it. It's the kind of craftmanship we can understand.
For additional information about AutoCAD, laser woodcutting or digital routers, check out the following websites. Please seek adult supervision before attempting to build anything.