Wrapping up field work (for now)

The months of field work passed in a flash, and before I knew it I was back in the immigration line at JFK, crumpled documents in hand. After half a year in the endless spring of Mexico City, arriving back in New York during the swampiest month of the year was something of a shock. And of course, I felt that I was really just getting started in Mexico.

Perhaps I was just getting started, but I did return with a full database. Maybe even a complete one (how do you know when a database is complete enough?). Whether or not the base grows further, it swelled out to 6,180 messages over the course of my field work. Those many messages came from one national newspaper and nine regional ones, along with data from a leaked government dataset. There are a lot of holes in the data – I would like to track down more complete message transcriptions – but even as things are, I have plenty to analyse. The database is bigger, and was easier to assemble, than I had expected. I gave it three hours a day, every day while I was in Mexico.

Those three hours per day were an effective routine for building a database, but they do raise the question of what else I was doing with my time in Mexico. I certainly wasn’t conducting many interviews, although not for lack of wanting to. I arrived in Mexico City expecting at any moment an email stating that I had IRB approval to conduct interviews. While I waited, I got on with building the database. Six weeks later, and in response to a very belated and very timid email on my part, I learned that my IRB application had been lost in the bureaucratic interstices of my university the whole time. No on had read it. No one even knew that it had been submitted (or rather, the one person that knew left their job and didn’t pass the work on to anyone else). It took a further six weeks to finally get that long overdue approval email. Three months in the field had already passed.

This left me scrambling to recruit interviewees as Mexico was building up to a general election. Most of the journalists that I reached out to were busy, and none of the state officials were in the mood to talk. The activists I reached out to were, by contrast, ever ready for a chat. Still, most of my interviews were crammed into the weeks after the election and before my departure (Mexico’s elimination from the World Cup might have helped too).

That still leaves unanswered the question of what else I was doing, with all those hours not spent interviewing or databasing. I read a lot of newspapers – although I quickly learned not to read the nota roja over lunch – but these didn’t occupy that much of my time.

I did visit Mercado Medellín almost every day, buying up plants for my dinky patio and pots for my dinky kitchen. I hovered around the quesadilla stand on the corner outside the market, working my way through the entire unprinted menu. I sat in cafes without a Macbook in sight, sipping steaming glasses of cafe con leche, or tiny cappuccinos (at least compared to their voluminous cousins in the U.S.). I met old friends and made news ones over bulky caguamas of beer and clinking glasses of mescal. I lost all those hours in the ephemera, the daily life that doesn’t appear in research write-ups. The little gestures and routines that come to define a place, and through which you stop merely observing, and start living and loving.

The magic of Tecozautla

Mexico City is a great base for doing field work (and also for not getting any work done), but is very much its own bubble. I had to take at least a peek beyond the bubble, during my weeks here.

Tecozautla, in Hidalgo state, is a pueblo magico. Back when I first lived in Mexico, I vaguely remember there being a bit more than one pueblo magico per state – which in some cases seemed to mean that the Secretariat of Tourism had to really dig to find some magic worth advertising, especially in less romanticised states like Hidalgo. More and more magic must have been found, however, because now there are over 100 pueblos magicos scattered across the country.

In the case of Tecozautla, all of the advertised magic seems to take place outside of the pueblo itself. The town is a jumping-off point for the many hot springs scattered among the valleys and crags of the region. The magic of the hot springs – the curative properties of the waters are frequently touted – tends to locked away behind fences and ticket booths, and to be channelled through pipes, down waterslides, and among cement pools.

El Geiser is probably the premiere attraction in the region, and correspondingly, is part of the largest waterpark complex, which features a hotel, a bunch of cabins, a whole series of pools and spas, a zipline, as well as the geyser itself. Unlike other geysers, however, Geiser does not erupt sporadically, in a fountain of water and steam. Rather, Geiser has been tapped, and sends forth a constant billow of scalding vapour, into which brave bathers can plunge, and from which this researcher had to scamper.

The tapped, constantly-flowing magic of Geiser is barely accessible to the people of Tecozautla. Talking to people in the town, it is clear that most had been to the site once at the most, and even then, in much earlier days, before the water park was quite so developed. A strange kind of magic, then, attributed, but unavailable, to the town. A magic that flows at the turn of a crank, but never flows very far. That never overruns the fences and ticket booths and signs warning of the dangers of cholera (yep).

And while this particular regularised, privatised magic is available for the price of admission, there is other magic about Tecozautla, which costs nothing, and yet is barely noticed. Magic in the cobblestone streets and in the crooked windows, in the distinctive curve of the mysterious bovedas that occupy street corners throughout the town. Magic, too, in the pomegranate bushes that overrun fences and drop clusters of gems on the side of the road. Magic in the women presiding over mounds of figs and avocados at the market stalls in the town centre. Magic in the searing blue sky, the furious storms, and the hillsides covered in incongruous thickets of organ pipe cacti, eucalyptus, and cypress trees. Magic that can’t be tapped, or contained behind fences and ticket booths.