Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Fashionable floor-cleaners

Street vendors in Mexico have an uncanny ability to show up with just the right product at the right time. They walk between cars stuck in traffic selling snacks. In a rainstorm they appear with umbrellas. Vendors at Teotihuacan have that knack too—they show up with rain ponchos as storm clouds approach.  

I was at Teotihuacan last month with a group from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio.  The seminarians and their dean thought they could make it to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and back before the rain started.  They miscalculated.  Those without rain gear returned to our bus drenched. Seminarian Mark Simpson arrived wearing a brand new hooded pullover. He'd bought it from one of the vendors he encountered on his way back to the bus.  When I complimented him for being dry he told me how inexpensive it had been and added "but people are sure looking at me differently."

"Of course they are," I said. "You are wearing a mop!"  Yes it was a perfectly fine and attractive sweatshirt, but it was made of a thick cotton cloth known in Mexico as "jerga"  (pronounced "hare-ga"). Its telltale design is an off-white base with orange and black stripes. Teotihuacan's vendors keep the sweatshirts in stock to sell right after rainstorms knowing all the while that only their foreign clientele will buy them.  Every Mexican recognizes the cloth as that used for mopping floors or as a doormat to wipe their feet upon entering a house or building.   

You’ll find the cloth for sale in hardware stores right next to brooms and mops.  It comes in 25-meter bolts, 50 centimeters (20 inches) wide, and is priced by the meter.  Take a one-meter-long piece of jerga, poke a hole in the center, drape it over the handle of a floor squeegee (called a "jalador" in Mexico) and it becomes a 50 by 50 centimeter mop.

A less and less frequent scene in Mexico is of long -- sometimes 4-meter (12 feet) piece of jerga folded in half and attached to a jalador. The user then swooshes the mop in a figure-8 motion, mopping a wide expanse of tiled floors. If you get a chance to see that happening, perhaps in an airport terminal, a hotel lobby or a hallway in a government building, stop and take it in. It’s like watching a well-rehearsed dance on the part of the cleaning-staff person.

You also see people cleaning a wide swath in Mexico with a broom. This is common when sweeping or raking leaves in gardens, on pavement, or on cobblestones.  The broom is known as an "escoba de varas", literally a broom of sticks. It is made of dried meter-long weeds the consistency of tumbleweed but straight.  These weeds are frequently sold door-to-door in upper-scale neighborhoods. That’s the part of town with gardens large enough to make use of escobas de varas. 

The stiff weeds are tightly tied to a broomstick to make a two-meter long broom.  These brooms are held almost parallel to the ground, allowing a large area to be swept. 

Perhaps the grandest performance of sweeping I've ever seen was in Guanajuato's Jardin de la Unión one morning while breakfasting in an open-air restaurant. I watched the park's caretaker line a circular depression in the pavement with several sheets of newsprint. He moistened the edges of the paper to form a tight seal between the paper and the paving stones.  He then picked up a palm frond he kept hidden behind a hedge and used it the same way a gardener would use an escoba de varas.  With a single pass around the parks' walkway he swept every fallen leaf onto the newsprint. I watched how he flicked even the smallest and most delicate blades of the frond to move the leaves. When he finished sweeping he returned the frond to its hiding place, folded the newsprint and contents into a tight package, tucked it under his arm, and departed.  It was a show of skill, grace, and humility deserving to be performed across the street in the Juarez Theater.

Escobas de varas and jergas are giving way to manufactured mops, brooms, and rakes.  Recently I saw one glimmer of hope for the escoba de varas on a street-sweeper's cart in Mexico City's Alameda Park.  It looked just like the classic broom made of sticks, but each length of "twig" was made of plastic. I asked her where I could find one.  Her answer was it was given to her along with her cart by the city government.

I've looked for such a plastic broom in stores but haven't found one. If among the readers of the Digs there is a plastic products designer, you now have an idea for a sure-sale item.  Just say "thanks to Charlie for passing along the idea." 

And fashion designers -- jerga is probably one of the cheapest types of cloth around.  Warm too.  Just don't try to sell your jerga-based creations in Mexico.

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