Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Smallest of Small Worlds

I'm back in Phoenix now for a while.

Let me share with you one last story of serendipity from Mexico:
Sunday morning, I got up early, packed, and left for the bus station to catch a bus for Mexico City. As I was lugging my suitcase, my backpack, and my carry-on through the station, headed for the ticket window, I hear, "Excuse me, aren't you from Phoenix?"
"Well, yes."
"You were my English teacher at Paradise Valley Community College."
The guy's name was Arellano and he was one of my ESL (English as a Second Language) students about 5 years ago at PVCC. He finished his 2-year Associate's degree in Business, perfected his English, and came back to Mexico. Today, he has a good job as a supervisor in a manufacturing plant (where English skills are required). He'd just gotten married and was seeing his parents off at the bus station. He's not from Queretaro, but moved there for the job.

Now, what's the likelihood of running into a former student in such a remote corner of the world?

Don't know the odds,but it was an amazing moment. How rewarding to know that my teaching helped him in some small way get a better job and have a better life! Arellano said he is happy and that Queretaro is a wonderful place to live.

I couldn't have asked for a nicer finish to 3 months in Mexico.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hasta La Vista, Queretaro

Tomorrow, I get up early and take a 3 hour bus ride to the Mexico City airport, jump on a plane and take a 3 hour flight to Phoenix. I'll be exhausted by the time I get in.
But I'll be back.

Note I didn't say "home." I'm not quite sure where home is these days, Phoenix or Mexico. It's like the first few years after I moved to Phoenix, I had a recurring dream in which I was lost, floating somewhere between Chicago and Phoenix. I was in one city, then another, never quite clear where I was supposed to be. Maybe I'm just a gypsy.

I feel a little ambivalent right now--sorry to be leaving Queretaro, which I've enjoyed enormously, but happy to be going back to Phoenix and seeing old friends. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that having a little dose of America will be nice. There is a certain comfort in speaking your native language and operating in your native currency, in not worrying about cultural differences. That said, I'm pretty comfortable with the Mexican culture at this point.

Today, in the way of cultural "decompression," I went to the mall here in Queretaro. I walked through Sears (it's a high class store here), stopped in a Radio Shack and The Body Shop, and had Chinese food in the food court. I could have been in any mall in the U.S. Except for the guards at the mall entrance in full military garb and serious arms. That, I'll never be able to get used to.

How I got to the mall demonstrates the manner in which I've learned to sort of step off the cliff. I asked the desk clerk how to get there. "Oh, it's a long way away. Too far to walk. You need to take a cab." "Can I catch a bus?" "Yeah, over on Zaragoza." So I walked over to the bus stop on Zaragoza. About 10 went by. Then I asked one driver if he went to the mall. "Liverpool? (the major department store)" "Yes, the mall with Liverpool." So I got on. So far, so easy. But, of course, I've never been to that part of town and have no idea of where to get off. So, I'm watching like a hawk. After about 20 minutes, as we turn, the driver tells me, "it's around the corner." "Do I get off here or the next stop?" He doesn't answer. So, I assume it's the next stop....until the bus pulls away and I see the big shining Liverpool store and the mall off to our right. The bus then goes up, onto a big spaghetti bowl of interstate highway underpasses and overpasses, cloverleaves, etc. I'm thinking I'll end up in Cleveland. Finally, the bus doubles back, and I can see the mall off in the distance. Don't have to ask me twice, I jump off the bus. So, I slog across a big empty parking lot (for the bull ring), across a residential street, and then.......an 8-lane freeway between me and the mall.

OK, now your thinking, "he didn't, he wouldn't." Yep, I did. Inspired by a Mexican guy with an armload of something who crossed in front of me, I found a gap in the chain link fence, waited until traffic cleared and ran out to the median island. Waited some more, and crossed 4 more lanes of traffic as I made it to the other side and the mall. There's a spirit of adventure! (and a certain level of stupidity, I suppose). I set off for the mall with a high level of uncertainty about how I was going to get there, and no idea of how I'd get back. Luckily, there was a taxi waiting outside the mall, and I jumped in to get back home. But this story illustrates how "loosey-goosey" you get down here. If at first you don't succeed, try another way.
Some things I'll remember about my time in Queretaro:
1. a little monkey named "Rodrigo" (that's also my name, translated into Spanish) who was staying at the shelter for abused kids. About 6 years old. Always looking to get into trouble, and a wicked sense of humor. The whole group would sit down for lunch, say a unison prayer, then Rodrigo would take a deep gulp of air and let out a spectacular belch that could be heard across the cafeteria. You gotta love a kid like that. He'll go far it life.

2. the counter lady at the gazpacho shop. She was the one who chopped all the fresh fruit that went into the mixed fruit and juice cup. She asked where I was from. "Phoenix." "Me, too," she said. She'd crossed the border illegally to work and still has a son and daughter-in-law over there. She told me of how she'd crossed the Arizona desert to get to Phoenix (hundreds die every year doing the same). "Can you help me get a work visa?," she asked, "I want to see my son. I need to make some more money." I don't know how I could help.

3. kind little courtesies. For example, when folks leave a restaurant, they say, "Buen provecho" (enjoy your meal) to the other diners (who they don't know), as they walk out. Nice. Or clerks in shops who, when you say "gracias," respond, "para servirle" (I'm here to serve you).

4. Concerts almost every night. Mostly free. The city really supports the arts here, and--as a result--everyone partakes. It seems to me that's the way it should be. Last night, I went to a medical fundraiser ($5.60 tickets) for a respected Maestro of the guitar, and elderly gentleman who had studied with Andres Segovia in Spain. Several of his musician friends did numbers, then he came out on stage--elderly, stooped, but with an amazing spirit. He did a flamenco number that made sparks fly from the guitar. And the audience gave him so much love. Nice.

So, Ill be taking a break from blogging for the next few weeks. But in the meanwhile, this thought from Mark Twain:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Friday, March 27, 2009


Our friends at Google Blogger are showing me that I've had 2,100 page views for this blog. Thank you, dear readers, for following my wanderings around Mexico. What started out as observations for family and friends, now has readers all around the U.S. and Mexico. I hope I've been able to interpret and reflect a little of the culture that I've experienced.

For anyone considering retiring to Mexico, I hope the blog is helpful. If you know someone considering living in Mexico, please share the link to this blog with them.

As for me, I've got one more day here in Queretaro before I head back to Phoenix on Sunday night. I'll be back in the states for about 3 weeks. I'll miss Mexico, but I look forward to visiting with family and friends back home.

Tonight, one last (guitar) concert. The sweet music of Mexico!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Too Cute for Words

Today was the day the kids' shelter takes a group to Equine Therapy. Cuter than a box of puppies--a group of 5-8-year-old kids riding around a ring on horseback. Nobody fell off, thank goodness. They all wore helmets. There was a riding instructor there showing them how to ride, although a number for the kids are from ranches around here, and riding was second nature for them.

One other adult (lady), the staff psychologist, and I escorted the group. We used the school van and school driver. This went way beyond fun.

Back at the shelter, I worked with a group on addition and subtraction using flash cards I had made last night. Then one kid, a 12-year-old and I sat down for a game of chess.
It's amazing. They are so open. I'm stumbling through with my less-than-perfect Spanish, and they with their less-than-perfect math. It all works out perfectly.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy & Sad

Today I was happy. I got a second opportunity to be a guest lecturer at the Queretaro Institute of Technology (in their foreign language department). I spoke to an advanced English class (level 6).

For a lesson plan, I chose a short fairytale by Danish children's writer, Hans Christian Anderson. Many of you may be familiar with it, "The Princess & The Pea." I did a dictation exercise, reading the short work line by line to the class. They had to listen, understand, and write what they heard. Later, we compared the original printed version (handout) to their own writing. Then, we read for pronunciation. Then did a oral translation. Then discussed new vocabulary words, and certain verb formations.

All in all, it was a delightful class. They all paid attention, and the department chair sat it. Genial!

But yesterday, I was sad. I've been volunteering every day at a local shelter for abused children. Tuesday was the day that many of them had parental visits at their former homes (some supervised, some not). After lunch there was a little girl who'd been on such a home visit who stood in the corner of the playground (outdoors), and slapped the wall, continuously, while sobbing. One of the ladies who works there tried to calm her down. No luck. I sat down on the ground next to her and tried to calm her down. No luck. So, it was the end of my shift, and I left. With the little dear still crying uncontrollably and hitting the wall. The image stays with me.

An Indian Curry in the Foot Court

If you get sick from eating in the mall's "Foot Court"....do you get foot & mouth disease? LOL

Today I went to a mall I'd never been in before, "Plaza Boulevares." Very pretty, lots of marble, quite upscale. It was lunch time, so I checked the directional kiosk, whose map showed me the "Foot Court" up on the 3rd level. Something just didn't smell right (groan). But I found a neat Indian fast food joint there. The owner told me she is one of only about 3 or 4 Indian families in Queretaro (there are many in Mexico City). Her husband is an engineer. She finds it difficult to get the spices she needs for her little restaurant. I told her the story of Puebla's "China Poblana," who was actually NOT Chinese, but Indian. This from Wikipedia on the real-life China Poblana: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Poblana

AIG souvenir: With all the scandal that's unfolded around bailouts and bonuses for troubled insurer American International Group (AIG), I was startled walking through the mall when, in the window of a athletic clothing/shoe store, I saw a mannequin with a soccer jersey on that read in big white letters on red: AIG. On closer inspection, I saw that AIG is team sponsor for the international favorite team Manchester United. Briefly, I thought to buy the shirt an bring it back to Phoenix just for fun. But I decided against it, for fear of being shot. Plus, I never got MY bonus.

Instead, I'll just wear the soccer team jersey that I already have in my closet. It reads in big letters: BIMBO. That's a bread company here, and they sponsor the Guadalajara team the Chivas. I like the idea of being a BIMBO.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Evening in Queretaro, Mexico

I love this traditional Sunday evening custom, dancing under the stars to the music of the Municipal Band. It strikes me as a sweet, nostalgic souvenir of, perhaps, the 1940's. You can see in the photo, the couples get dressed up for this weekly outing (including men in Panama hats). Whole families come out to sit in the park and enjoy the free entertainment. In my book, it beats lying on the sofa watching the Sunday night movie.

Snapshot: "Are you Brazilian?"
First time I've ever been asked THAT. I was in a shop, checking out at the register. The girl behind the counter is intrigued. Clearly, I'm speaking Spanish. But with a funny accent. Blond hair. Hmmm, must be....Brazilian?

Snapshot: I find it strange that when you go to a stand to buy a juice, they serve it to you not in a plastic cup--as you'd expect, but in a plastic bags. The vendor does a little slight-of-hand and ties a straw into the knot....and off you go, carrying a bag of liquid with a straw in it. For some reason, reminds me of an IV bag in the hospital.

Ecumenical: On Saturday, I got up early and went to the temporary exhibit of Buddha's Relics at the local art museum. A very long line. I got blessed by a Buddhist priest. Then I went over to my volunteer job at the shelter for abused kids. There we sat through Catholic catechism class. I figured I was doubly blessed that day.

Snapshot: Every time you order a hamburger here, it comes with a slice of HAM. Must be something lost in translation...after all, the word "hamburger" has "ham" in it, right? It's weird, but OK.

Snapshot: I was sitting in my favorite lunch restaurant. At another table, the husband gets up, walks over to the beverage cooler (can't wait), helps himself to a cold brewskie. Comes back to the table. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his keychain...WITH A BEER OPENER ATTACHED ON THE END! Like a Boy Scout, always prepared. The wife, totally unphased by it all. I bet she's seen it before.

Snapshot: in Spanish colonial times, the political chief in Queretaro wasn't a "governor," but was titled the "corregidor." An interesting word, it means "one who corrects or reprimands." So much for representative democracy. Spain ruled with an iron fist.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bandstand in the Park

Right in front of my hotel

Art in Former Mexican Convent

Queretaro Museum of Art--Courtyard

Young Man, I've Had Just About Enough of This

Six Hail Marys, and I'll wash your mouth out with soap!

Queretaro Museum of Art, Stone Heads

From the interior courtyard of the museum, which was built in 1723 as an Augustinian convent. I imagine the heads to be portraits of some of the nuns living there at the time.

Reefer Madness

A very happy nun with a big fat joint in her mouth. Hey, think they didn't kick back and enjoy themselves every now and then?

OK, I lied. It's a drain pipe for water coming off the roof. But it sure looks like...

Shit for Brains

Poor Vicente Guerrero. He was a hero of the Mexican independence movement (from Spain) in 1810. Here in Queretaro, he's memorialized in this bronze statue residing in Guerrero Park, a pretty place for strolling and enjoying the fountain.

Unfortunately,the local pigeons like him a lot, too, covering his face and head with white. It gives a whole new meaning to the term, "shithead."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Best Day Ever

Today, I filled out an application for volunteer work at a local kids' shelter, got 2 passport-sized photos, and marched down there with paper in hand. And they let me start right away. This is one of two local organizations recommended to my by the state office of family development. It's a residential home for abused kids. About 40 are in (temporary) residence, from infants to age 13. I was amazed at how little (none) training was required. Nor background check. In the U.S., it would be a mountain of paperwork and procedures. Not here. But the first question the lady asked me was, "Are you Catholic?" This, at a government-run agency. Separation of church and state...not so much. Especially in Queretaro, which is known for being ultra-religious and conservative. Crosses and pictures of Jesus throughout the building. Three other lady volunteers were there to teach the kids catechism. And this WAS NOT a church-run organization.

So... just like back in third grade, I started out on the playground, where I played ball with some of the kids, taught them a few English words, and translated their names into English (José = Joe). Then, one of the workers led me upstairs with a bunch and we did classroom work, completing math worksheets, etc. I tutored one kid who was having a devil of a time with addition. He actually counted on his fingers!

And then, a 2PM, we all went down to the cafeteria for lunch. The kids are seated, say a prayer, and then we volunteers serve them. I thought, "Rod....once a waiter, always a waiter." And I finished by spoon-feeding a handicapped boy. He seemed to think it was pretty OK, so I decided to not get all emotional. One of the workers told me, "we're not here to have pity on them. We're here to help them become strong kids." That's easier said than done. One boy, 11, was telling me why he was there--his stepfather beat him. You could see the scar on his mouth where he's had stitches.

But I'll be back tomorrow. And every day while I'm here for the next week. The kids were amazing. I can't believe their resilience. If I can help, I want to. It was the best day ever.

Elvis Lives!

A sock hop right here in Queretaro.

As I was (optimistically) trying to take my afternoon siesta (silly me!...not in this noisy hotel room above a retail store that blasts music all day long) I hear the jumpy refrain of "Jailhouse Rock" and "Rock around the Clock." Am I dreaming about my misspent youth? No, it's a city-sponsored high school dance performance out in the town square, just around the corner from my window. So, all the screeching young girls ISN'T my imagination. Giving up on any idea of sleep, I throw on some jeans and head down to watch. Up on the elevated stage, specially set up for the event, were girls in poodle skirts and boys in white tee shirts and black jeans. Wow! Flashback. And they were doing a pretty darned good rendition of classic rock & roll.
The town square was filled with their classmates and families, all vocalizing their support. The city's arts and culture department is really good about programming public events. Every weekend, you can count on at least 3 different things going on in Jardin Zenea (by my hotel), in the main Plaza de Armas, and the Jardin Guerrero. And the best part, they're all free.

I think that's the way the arts ought to be. Not confined to rich folks or upper class patrons who can pop for $60 for a ticket. Open the doors! Let everyone come on in!

My cultural calendar for this last week reads like this. I went to:

Last Friday: The Queretaro State Philharmonic Orchestra ($7). A good concert of Ravel, Debussy, and Ives.
Last Saturday: Municipal Band concert in the park (free)
Last Sunday: Vertige, a Cirque du Soleil-like circus/dance thing at the City Museum ($7). Just wonderful. And I met and chatted with the artistic director out in front. He'd been a clown with Cirque du Soleil in Montreal. Great experience, and it showed in this local performance.
Monday: Indigenous (Indian) Women documentary film series "Interweaving Stories" about making of handmade artisan paper....starting with peeling bark from trees. (free)
Tuesday: another in the Indigenous film series.
Wednesday: An open-air performance in the courtyard of a former convent (now an art museum) of "Music of the Vice-Regency" period in Mexico (1600-1700's). A small chamber group in period costumes. Plus a high school dance company. Completely filled. ($2.80)
Thursday: The Queretaro Municipal Chorus and Chamber Orchestra, performing an "Opera Gala" with selected opera arias. Three top caliber soloists. (free)
Friday: Elvis Presley & friends dancing in the park.

If you can't find something to do in Queretaro, it's your own lazy fault.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Call Me "Maestro," Please

Chalk gets in your blood.
Today, I did it. I went back to teaching (for a day).

I taught a group of English language learners at a university here in Queretaro. Last week, I stopped in, without an appointment, to meet with the head of the language department at the Queretaro Institute of Technology. It's a fine school, with a modern campus near downtown. Mr. Soto was gracious enough to take the time to meet with me. I offered to do a conversation class for free, or to tutor students. Today he took me up on my offer. I taught a 6th level English class, which is quite advanced. It was purely conversation, but I worked grammar and syntax into the discussion when it came up.

Usually, these conversations work best if the instructor plans a theme. Mine was: personality. What does "personality" mean? Does everyone have one? Can they be changed? Does birth order (oldest, middle child, youngest) affect personality? How are men's and women's personalities different? Describe your friends' personalities. If you could change one thing about yours, what would it be? Etc.....

It was fun. We got a lot of heated conversation going, with plenty of contributions from the group. The regular teacher and the department head sat in to observe (which is fine with me). I got invited back next Wednesday as guest lecturer for a combined group of 30 senior-level English language students. And I do like that "maestro" thing! (it simply means "teacher")

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reflections: How I Got to Be "Here"

Brad, a Phoenix reader of the blog asked a very apt question last week. I paraphrase his question here: “I would love to hear how your criteria of a place to live have changed as a result of your travels over the last several months.”

I asked Brad if I could reply here in a public forum, as I think the answer may be of interest to a number of you.

Brad continued, “I am fascinated by your comment that the places you thought you would like you haven't and the ones you thought you wouldn't like you have. I have read almost all of the existing books about retiring in Mexico. I don't think there is any one place that is perfect, and I also think we will be happy with a variety of places.”

First of all, Brad, thanks for following my perambulations across all of Mexico. Every day has brought fresh insights---both about the choice of a new hometown and about myself. In some respects, I blame myself for not being able to make a quicker decision. But “blame,” however, isn't really the correct word. I set out in October without any fixed definitions. I began with a short list of towns I found of interest. From that, I put together a notebook with information on each gathered from the Internet, travel books, and friends' experiences. And off I went with open eyes and an open mind--

1. Quality of Life was my prime consideration. That hasn't changed. I didn't want to move to Mexico to live less pleasantly than I was living in Phoenix. That doesn't mean having more STUFF. I made a conscious decision to simplify my life, and did so in selling most of my household belongings, storing my car, and leasing out my house. Many people come to Mexico for the allure of CHEAP. Consider: you could live here on a small rural rancho with NO services for pennies a day. I've met people who do. Do you want to? For that matter, you could find a small town in the U.S., live in a mobile home, or rent inexpensively. Do you want to? I've realized I like having high speed Internet available, excellent medical care, cable TV, even chain stores where I can buy some of the products I'm accustomed to. And since I have the ability to choose, I'm going to choose a place that's attractive: colonial architecture, green parks, and clean streets and sidewalks. That's my own personal comfort level. Yours may be different.

2. Culture. This relates to #1, quality of life. I've always enjoyed culture. I don't plan to give it up just because I've moved to a foreign country. That means bookstores, libraries, theaters, galleries, a university, concerts, dance, a symphony. As I get older, I make no apologies for enjoying these things. Therefore, I need a town which has them (and that--I've found--normally means not a small village). Plus my own cultural horizons are being expanded by participating in local Mexican cultural events that are new to me.

3. From my travels, I have become more resourceful. And from that resourcefulness have come greater coping skills. I think those are critical for anyone planning to living overseas. The smallest challenge can easily magnify under the lens of cultural differences, different attitudes, lack of supply, and limited resources. The Mexican Dream isn't for everyone. In fact many—if not most—wind up moving back to the States after a couple of years, tired of the challenges. The thrill of "new" morphs into nothing more than a daily hassle.

4. I wasn't sure if I wanted to live on the coast or in the mountains. I surely love the water. When I was in Chicago, I lived close to Lake Michigan and spent many happy hours along its shores. In Mexico, however, beach/coastal city usually implies "tourist trap." As fun as Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta are for a vacation, I've found I don't want to LIVE in a purely tourist town. Don't get me wrong: tourism is a respectable way to make a living, a important part of the economy. I just don't want to live around the constant go-go hustle. Plus, I'm not crazy about 100% humidity and hurricanes. Consider: even if you live in the mountains, you can get to a beach usually within a matter of a few hours. It's the best of both worlds.

5. An American community. This has weighed heavily in my decision. Oaxaca, Merida, Mazatlan, and San Miguel all have highly developed American/Canadian communities, an English-language library, and a busy calendar of social activities. That's still very seductive. Especially moving to a foreign country without a spouse. It's 100% on my own. Like the first time you rode a bike with the training wheels OFF. So having a group of Americans to hang out with is important. Where I am now, in Queretaro, there isn't such an organized community. But since I speak Spanish, it's not quite such a critical consideration. I just have to work harder at making local friends.

And, last, Brad, you're correct that there is no completely perfect place to retire to. If there were, they'd call it Shangri-La. Mexico is no utopia. Like any country, including our own, there are monumental problems--crime and poverty among them. I've learned that this choice is a highly personal one. What's right for me may well NOT be right for you. An example: I was on a bus tour here a week or so ago, talking to an American I met. He said he's about 3 years from retiring to Puerto Vallarta. I noted that PV has the highest crime rate in Jalisco state. He said he didn't care. He was from New York City, a tough neighborhood....and that wasn't a factor for him. For me it is. Security is right at the top of my list.

Like you, I could be happy with a number of places. I'm so grateful for the opportunity I've had to travel the width and length of this incredible Republic. It is so rich in history, beauty, culture, and nature resources, the greatest of which is its people. For example, I found myself having a half-hour discussion with the desk clerk at my hotel. Would that happen at home? Likely not. The lost art of taking the time to chat and getting to know people is still in practice here. If/when I settle down I hope that I can make a personal contribution through teaching and volunteer work.

I hope that answers the question.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Night at the Symphony, A Night at the Mall

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Last night, I attended the weekly concert of the Queretaro State Philharmonic Orchestra, where they performed works by Debussy, Ravel, and Ives. Their home is the Theater of the Republic, which just happens to be a 2 block walk from my hotel. Sweet. It's an 1845 building in the ornate French style. Inside the auditorium is horseshoe-shaped with 3 balconies. I sat in the first balcony, and the musicians on stage were so close I felt I could almost reach down and grab a violinist (don't know why I'd want to!). It was in this theater that Mexican Emperor Maximilian (an Austrian import) and his two generals were condemned to death at the end of the French Intervention (1867). So, you get two-for-one: wonderful classical music and plenty of history at the same time.

Behind the orchestra on stage, the shell behind them is handsome wood paneling on which are recorded the names of the members of the 1916 Constitutional Convention, that was held in the theater. Representatives from every state. I couldn't help noticing what appeared to me to be non-Mexican names: O'Farril, Von Versen, Ross, Rouaix, Norman, Giffard, Palavicini, Praslow, Abreu. These were Mexican legislators.

What that tells me is that my own ethnocentrism led me to believe that all Mexican names should be Spanish. Not true! What the diversity of these names proves is that there was extensive immigration into Mexico from all parts of Europe (and the U.S....note the grandfather of Mexican President Vicente Fox...immigrated from the U.S. to Mexico) in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. German immigrants started some of the largest breweries. Lebanese immigrants became merchants...including the ancestors of Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico.

At the Mall
Tonight, I was hankering for a taste of the U.S.of A. So, like any good American on a Saturday night, I went to the mall and ate Chinese food. I also stopped in at Costco (just like the ones back home). They had the same pizza slices and hot dogs in the food court. The same huge packs of food. The same great bakery. And then I went to the Super Walmart...grocery store and department store all in one. Next door was Sam's Club. And across the parking lot--of course--McDonalds. American high culture all in one parking lot.

U.S. / Mexico Two-Step

It's become like the Rihanna/Chris Brown celebrity wife-beater case--he loves me, he hits me, I can't leave him, he's out of control, I can't live without him.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship at this moment seems a bit like that...with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduling a diplomatic visit to Mexico to try to patch things up. Our economies (yes, even drug economies) are so completely intertwined.

Mexican President Calderon even invoked the old saying once used by the former Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz around 1910 in an interview with an American reporter back then.

Diaz said, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

Check out this link from Bloomberg News to see what's been going on--


Friday, March 13, 2009

Jardin Zenea

This public park in front of my hotel is my "living room."

Bird Market

This is from the public Mercado de la Cruz. Outside is a vendor selling hundreds of birds: canaries, parakeets, and other noisy winged creatures.

The Alameda

The Alameda is Queretaro's Central Park. It's a full city block square, with grand entry arches on the north and south ends. On the weekends, local families hang out here, enjoying the cool shade. It reminds me of Chicago's city motto: "Urbs in hortis" (city in a garden).

There are a lot of parks and gardens throughout Queretaro. Several, including the one in front of my hotel, were taken from the Catholic monasteries when the Mexican government throughout the 1800s dispossessed much of the Church's assets. The park in front of my hotel used to belong to the convent across the street as an orchard and garden.

The Alameda is one of my favorite places in town, especially during the week when it's a quiet oasis. A linguistic footnote: "Alameda" originally meant "place of the alamos (poplar trees). The famous Alamo in San Antonio means "poplar tree." Curiously, Queretaro's Alamdea is filled with a variety of tree species...but not one popular!

The Jacarandas Are In Bloom in Queretaro

All over the city you see these beauties. Beneath their branches a carpet of fallen royal purple blossoms covers the ground.

Mexico and U.S. Locked in "Narco-Dance"

I hope my dear readers don't mind my translating a few interesting bits from the daily newspapers. My goal is to shine a little light on Mexican culture and current themes in Mexican social and political discourse. This, from Tuesday's headlines--

"(Mexican President) Calderón asks for Action from the U.S."

"President Felipe Calderón asked the United State on Monday to assume its part of the responsibility which it has in the combat against narco-trafficking with deeds (actions), even though he recognizes noticing a new sense of U.S. collaboration." The story continues to say that his government is disposed to take whatever technological assistance from the U.S., which doesn't--of course--imply any sort of military intervention whatsoever into Mexico.

I'm surprised that the course of events has come to the point where this (military intervention) would even be discussed.

Calderón continued in the article: "If the Mexican Army, federal and state police and risking their lives in this fight, and in the name of the HUNDREDS of Mexican police who have died, it is fundamental that the United States assume with deeds their corresponding responsiblity in this fight." He continued to say that the U.S. should share military and civilian intelligence and concerning Mexican criminal networks operating in the U.S.

The article concludes with statistics: 6,290 narco-related deaths in the country, and another 1,000 already in 2009. At the end of February, U.S. authorities captured 750 suspects across the United States, suspected of involvement with the Sinaloa drug cartel.

From reading other articles and from discussions, it's clear that many Mexicans lay a large part of the blame for the terrible state of affairs here at the feet of the Americans. There is a documented two-way flow: illicit drugs flow north from Mexico to the U.S. Americans are the consumers. If there were no American users buying this stuff, no market would exist. Conversely, flowing south are automatic weapons, acquired at U.S. gun shows and from disreputable gun dealers there (note recent case in Arizona). The Mexican authorities regularly show a "bust" on television with dozens of captured handguns, rifles, and high-powered weapons, all acquired from U.S. sources. Both countries are locked in this deadly two-step and it will take both to solve the problem.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More News from Queretaro

A telling article on immigration from the local newspaper:

"They leave their classrooms for the American Dream."
This story is from the small town of Salto de Vaquerias (near Queretaro). "The young people of this community wait anxiously to finish their studies in secondaria (grade school) or preparatoria (high school) to cross the frontier and obtain a better life even though the economic crisis is truncating their American dreams. They haven't stopped looking for a way to go to the United States. Here in El Salto, above all it's the boys that go over to the other side, however now it's been difficult. But the youths are awaiting the moment to leave and go look for work over there," said the vice-mayor of the town. The story went on to tell that the town even runs orientation programs so that the kids won't run risks in crossing over. They principally see the need to have a better life and not remain in town to be day laborers in a place that doesn't pay much. "One of the other things that motivates these kids to run the risks in crossing the frontier is due to they reports from the returning migrants they meet who have commented that in spite of the risks they will confront, and the very hard work they will do, they will have a better quality of life."
The story continues that the money sent back to their home towns ("remesas") has dropped in great measure and--as a result--economic conditions of the community have worsened, and many families want to leave.

They social implications of this are enormous. And extraordinarily sad.

News from Queretaro

In light of all the frightening news about violence in Mexico, I wanted to share headlines from a couple of stories that ran in the "Police Blotter" section of the local paper, Diario de Queretaro, on Tuesday:

a) Suspect arrested for urinating in a public street. This is big crime news? OK, the cops found he was carrying a bag of marijuana. For his violation, he merited a color mugshot in the paper....now he's a celebrity!!
b) Two suspects were arrested for stealing a car stereo, a cell phone, and a wallet with $90. Bad boys. But not major crime news.
c) A guy got drunk and broke into his aunt's house and threatened her with a knife. When the police arrived--according to the news report--they questioned the suspect about his reasons for breaking in and, "..he spoke incoherently, babbled words that no one could understand, and was hardly able to maintain his equilibrium."
d) A driver went the wrong way on a one-way street and caused an accident which left a young man in the hospital.
e) A subject was arrested for breaking the glass shop-front windows of a local convenience store.

And that's big crime news of the day in Queretaro.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Dancing the Tango in the Garden of the Arts

I like these shots I took Saturday night at an open-air dance held in the little vest-pocket park, "The Garden of the Arts" here in Queretaro. Since they were taken at night without flash, the images turned out sort of creamy and Impressionistic--appropriate to the evening, when couple and singles showed up to dance the "milonga" (a close cousin to the tango). The very nature of the dance made the evening magical. It involves lots of sexy, romantic steps and twists, with quick kicks between your partners feet and deep dips. The orange trees were in bloom with the sweet, exotic fragrance of orange blossom.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Stereo Smooches

I'm staying at The Plaza Hotel. No, not that one (although I did stay at the Plaza in New York back in my travel agency days). This one is in Queretaro and is right on the town square. I've got my French doors open to the little balcony, and there is music floating in.

Not the hatefully loud commercial pop, which is pumped out by the clothing store directly underneath my room. Two 6-ft. tall speakers spill out onto the sidewalk in front of the shop. The bass woofer literally vibrates the floor and walls of my room, interfering with my afternoon nap (crabby gringo). No, tonight's music is from the Municipal Band and is being performed around the corner in the square.

So, I ran downstairs and stood in front of the lobby's open doors to listen. The music filled the air. As I was enjoying the pleasant music and delicious weather, I noticed on both sides of me couples smooching--one right in the middle of the sidewalk, the other actually in the street, standing between parked cars. These weren't little pecks-on-the-cheek-type kisses. They were the butt-grabbing, get-a-room variety. Not to be a voyeur (OK, I am), I'm relating this story because it illustrates how openly demonstrative most Mexicans are. The rest of the public just walks right by, ignoring what's not a big deal for them. It's a cultural norm.

Mexico is a very traditional, Catholic country. But you see LOTS of smooching. Plus couples of all ages walk hand in hand. I've noticed dozens of times ladies taking their husbands' arms as they walk through the park. If you've ever by mistake tuned into a Mexican telenovela on TV, you've seen some of that open emotion on display: hysterical crying, screaming, lots of romance, guys slugging it out. It portrays the uncovered emotion that's part of being Mexican.

Tonight, the band concert was ringed by folding chairs, all filled and then some. The open space in front of the conductor was left open (this was at ground level, not on the bandstand, which is being restored). In that open space, dozens of couples of all ages spontaneously got up and danced. Very sweet. Old men in Panama hats. Ladies with fans.

It's been a busy cultural weekend. Yesterday, I attended 3 events: a panel discussion on religious diversity--part of a month-long diversity series-- which included outlines of indigenous Mexican Indian beliefs, paganism, metaphysics, and African beliefs. That was in the Museum of the City. And--in the same museum--I caught a violin duet concert performed by two girls who are attending the Eastman School of Music in New York. Both are Russian, but one lived in Queretaro since she was seven. And after that, I walked over to the Garden of the Arts and took in an open tango (actually "milonga") dance session. Anyone who wanted to could grab a partner and give it a try (not me, I validate the saying that white guys can't dance). Some were quite accomplished. This dance with Argentine roots is one of my all-time favorites, defined by legs kicking in and out between the partner's, and dramatic footwork. One young couple, in their twenties, I'd guess, were among the most dedicated. They hardly got off the dance floor, she in sensible shoes, and long skirt; and he sporting two dark hickies on the side of his neck! That Mexican display of affection, again. The evening was a treat for all the senses with a handful of orange trees within the walled corner garden, all in bloom and scenting the air with the sweet smell of orange blossom.

Snapshot: city traffic police removing license plates of illegally parked cars. The not-too-pleased owners then have to "go downtown" to ransom their plates. It's one way to get scofflaws to pay traffic fines.

Snapshot: lunch today. In a "ostioneria" (which means "oyster shop") that was really a fish restaurant. I had the Special No. 1 which included a shrimp cocktail (I LOVE shrimp cocktails), fried fish filet, rice, salad, and a soda for approx. $5 U.S. Have you priced shrimp cocktails back home lately?

Snapshot: an every-night addiction, a fruit "paleta." It's more than just a popsicle. Last night I tried melon, and there were big chunks of cantaloupe in it. Tonight, it was strawberry, with bits of the fruit. These are made without milk, just fruit, water, and sugar. And super tasty!

Snapshot: Indian ladies seated squat on the sidewalk again the wall of a building, wrapped head and shoulder in a shawl, some holding babies, with a hand outstretched, begging for coins. It's not terribly common, but each time you see it, it makes you feel bad....to give or not to give.....each time. But, of course, it's not about what the giver feels, but what the receiver can do with the money. Other charity seekers I've encountered are itinerant musicians who walk into restaurants and start performing, then stop by each table for coins. And blind musicians on street corners. And today I saw a horribly deformed man who was in a wooden box on wheels, like a wood-sided children's wagon. He had no limbs, but a very enlarged head. He was at ground level right in the middle of the sidewalk in front of a major department store, I didn't see him at first and almost tripped over him. I share this only because of how Mexicans deal with this. It's all part of life. And they don't hide people away who are different.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Of Things Past and Present

This morning I spent wandering around the historic central city of Queretaro. It's a gorgeous, European-style city. Not surprising, since it was founded by the Spanish. Strolling down one side street, I came upon a handsome colonial building. Its 16-foot carved wooden doors stood open, exposing a sunlit inner courtyard with balconies. "What's this?," I wondered. The tile sign on the exterior told the story: in this house, the peace treaty with the United States was signed in 1848 ending the Mexican-American war (editor's note: and giving the U.S. about half of Mexico's former territory). Now that's stumbling on a big chunk of history!

This afternoon, I went to the oddly named Museum of the Restoration of the Republic. "What's this?," I wondered. Well, the building started out as a Carmelite convent. And, during the French Intervention, it was where--after the defeat of the Imperialist forces--Mexican Emperor Maximilian was held prisoner before being taken out to the Hill of Bells, just outside town, and executed. With the French ousted and Maximilian dead, the Mexican Republic was restored (under Benito Juarez). Interesting old documents and images of the major players of the day--Napoleon III, Empress Carlottta, Queen Victoria, the principal generals on both the Republican and Imperialist sides. But the place gave me the creeps. Those stone walls surely saw their share of tragedy. Some curator with a warped sense of humor strategically placed a mannequin dressed in a somber black nun's habit in a dark, unlit nook, just as you round the corner to go upstairs to the second level. You hear little startled cries from each visitor. Creepy.

As I'm writing this in the lobby of my hotel, I hear the drums and bugles of a marching band. Looking out the front door, throngs of people are lining the sidewalk on both sides of the town square. It's a parade! This one is students from a local school. Everyone (especially Mexicans) loves a parade.

Feeding my belly in addition to my mind, I found my favorite restaurant, "Los Candiles"on Benito Juarez Street. It's a family restaurant. The lady owner waited on me. In front, a cook hand makes tortillas TO ORDER. Wow! What a world of difference from store-bought! They're warm right off the grill and you can taste the corn. The cook takes a handful of dough (masa) in one hand, selects the perfect amount, rolls it into a ball, and places it on a tortilla press between two sheets of waxed paper. With a level, she squashes it into a perfectly round tortilla, a bit thicker than we're used to. Yesterday's lunch began with the best lentel soup I've ever tasted. Today's entree was a stewed lamb in green tomatillo sauce. And dessert, surprisingly, is always plain lime jello (no shredded carrots or pineapple chunks). But that's fine with me. I like lime jello. I grew up in the Midwest. We know jello.panish

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hair of the Dog

First of all, I moved.

Yep, itchy feet again. After 4 very pleasant days with my buddies in Playa del Carmen, I'd had enough of the tourist thing and decided to get back to the business at hand (finding a town in Mexico to live in). As you faithful readers may have noticed, after 25 towns and counting, I'm fast running out of places.

Actually, I feel no pressure at all to "just pick one." I'm enjoying the process and the incredible opportunity to indulge in this odyssey. Yes, I do realize I'm lucky, and I'm grateful for it. What I'm doing now is going back to places I skipped on the first leg of the trip last fall. And that's how I now wound up in Queretaro (what's that? you ask). It's pronounced "kair-ET-a-roe." And it's back in the Mexican central highlands, only about 45 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, which I stopped in last fall. At that time, I skipped Queretaro. For what reason, I don't remember, other than it wasn't on my original list of places I wanted to see. Being my compulsive self, before I retired and headed south, I made a loose-leaf notebook with a page for each town I wanted to visit. In it, I entered things like population, altitude, geography, etc.

A short bit of Mexican history: Queretaro's claim to fame is that during the period of the French Intervention in Mexico (1862-1867), this city was the last stop for Emperor Maximilian. The Mexican Republican forces defeated the French and executed Maximilian (via firing squad) on a hill just outside Queretaro. (Maximillian thus became history's first recorded tourist to have a REALLY BAD Mexican vacation).
If you're a history nut like I am, Wikipedia has a good explanation of the French Intervention: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_intervention_in_Mexico

The hair of the dog title above is from my very first ever sighting of a Mexican hairless dog, known here by it's Aztec Indian name: Xoloitzcuintle. Yeah, I can't pronounce it, either. But, lordy, it's an UGLY animal. It looks like some kind of mutant dinosaur reptile. I was sitting out in the town square park tonight, along with dozens of local families, busily people watching (my favorite sport). And who comes along, but a guy with one of these hairless dogs. His, a puppy, full of energy and playful. It's bark was like one of those kiddy squeek toys, high pitched and loud. He said they're still fairly rare here. They almost went extinct in the early part of the last century, until around 1950 when there was a movement to protect them. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they were amazed at the hairless dogs the Aztecs raised. Xolos were so popular with the Aztecs, in fact, that they ATE THEM. Umm, umm, doggie for dinner.

Monday, March 2, 2009

View from the Balcony

This is a shot from the balcony of the hotel I'm staying at in Playa del Carmen. I look out over the beach and the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea (for those of you suffering late winter weather back in the States, sorry). Every time I come here, I'm freshly amazed at the intensity of the blue waters. Bluer than the Pacific, bluer than the Atlantic (or Lake Michigan). It's as though some heavenly painter spilled his paint pots with every pure shade of blue across the canvas of the sea and sky.

With this stop I've covered the complete length and breadth of Mexico: from Nogales, Sonora at the northernmost point, down to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas in the south. From La Paz, Baja California in the west (on the Pacific) now over to Playa del Carmen, Qunitana Roo at the easternmost point (on the Caribbean). Do I get an award now?

I've come to Playa del Carmen with my Chicago friends off and on for over 15 years, and it's changed substantially in that time. It used to be just one short pedestrian street (5th Avenue) with a few shops and hotels. It tapered off into unpaved path. Today, it's Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and Acapulco. Very glitzy. 5th Ave. has sprouted hundreds of shops, all seemingly selling the same sombreros, ponchos, Cuban cigars, blankets, onyx, and carved masks. Cruise ships dock here during the week, and the town fills up. You can look down the main drag of 5th Ave. and see throngs of people filling the street for as far as you can see. Wandering (weaving) around with yard-of-beer plastic beverage containers. Bright pink sunburns. Folks, both men and women, in unfortunate clothing choices which make them look like stuffed sausages. Please: No spandex after age 20! And nonstop NOISE-- It's like a great big frat party on steroids. Maybe these were spring breakers, but it's seems a little too early in the season for that. And a lot of the revelers were waaaaayyyyy past college age (but still acting silly).

As I write this, there is a mariachi band playing just outside the hotel lobby, in the middle of the pedestrian street. If I hear "La Bamba"or "Guantanamera" one more time, I'm going to shove a burrito down their throats. And there's also the guy with the whistle. Not a cop. But he just uses his whistle in short bursts, over and over. Perhaps a cleverly endearing sales technique to get shoppers into his store? Once again, I'm on the verge of putting his whistle somewhere whistles don't fit so well.

It's very clear there is a difference between Mexican towns that are real towns and those that are simply creations for the purpose of tourism. The contrast is clearest between Campeche and Merida and Playa del Carmen (all on the Yucatan Peninsula). Tourism is hardly a factor in Campeche (although they'd like it to be a more important factor in their economy). Folks largely leave you alone. Very few of what you'd call "tourist shops." Merida, a little more tourism. Of course I was there during Carnaval, so there were more tourists at that time. But it has been a town for 400 years, with real people going about their real lives. And then there is Playa. It's 100% tourism. Every single shop on the main drag sell tourist junk. It's not that that is so surprising to me. It's that people actually BUY it.


Teeshirt shops selling shirts with shameless witticisms. These were sighted:
"Take Me Drunk, I'm Home"
"Objects Inside Are Larger Than They Appear" (woman's section)
"Give a Man a Fish, and He'll Eat for a Day....
Teach a Man to Fish, and He'll Take a 6-Pack and Sit in a Boat for Day"
"I Love (heart) to FART"....(my personal favorite)
"FBI....female body inspector"