Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You Know You're Mexican When...

when you hear a dog barking, and you immediately look UP to the nearest roof.

Roof dogs are a true Mexican phenomenon. They live up there, and their job is to bark at anyone approaching the building. Today, walking down the street, I found myself jerking my head up to see from which rooftop the dog was announcing his presence. It adds to the cacophony that is Mexico. Guess I'm getting used to it.

One thing you see all the time in Mexico are "motorcycle families." It's not uncommon at all to see Papa driving, Momma sitting behind, and a couple of kids sitting between Papa's legs. Today I saw a motorcyclist tooling down the road with his son, about 6 or 7, standing up, between dad's legs. And helmets? Hah! I know helmet laws for motorcyclists have been hotly debated in many U.S. states. But here in Mexico, there's no debate: they just don't wear them (oftentimes). Now, I believe in any adult's absolute right to break his own stupid neck flying off his motorcycle after hitting one of the ubiquitous Mexican "topes" (speed bumps). But I vigorously disagree with his right to kill his passenger children.

When was the last time you saw a gas station attendant? In the U.S., they're as scarce as the last passenger pidgeon. Here in Oaxca, the Pemex service station (the government-owned petroleum monopoly) has a uniformed attendant at each pump island who'll wash your windows, clean your wipers, check your oil, and air up your tires. How's that for a blast from the past?

Another thing you never see in the U.S.: an "escritorio publico." I saw one of these guys today in the 20th of November Market. What he does is write correspondence....and read documents...for illiterate folk, or those who speak an indigenous language rather than Spanish.
Foreign Intrigue:
It's curious how an object's "foreignness" adds to its sex appeal. And also curious how that foreign attribution gets all screwed up. Cases in point: In the U.S. we call those slatted window coverings "VENETIAN blinds" (as in from Venice). Here in Mexico, the same thing is a "Persiana" (or Persian blinds). In the U.S. and Germany, when we have a cut of meat pounded thin, breaded and fried, we call it "Weiner schnitzel" (as in Wein or Vienna). Here in Mexico, the same thing is called "Milanesa" (or from Milan). Go figure. They sound exotic either way.
A Little Tart
One of my great delights here in Mexico is to make myself fresh-squeezed limeade every day. I never buy or drink soda pop. Why should you when the fruits here are plentiful, cheap, and wonderful? I buy a bag of fresh green limes each Sunday at the market. When I want a cool drink during the day, I cut a lime in half, squeeze it in a little hand press right into a glass of purified water, add a teaspoon of sugar and, voila! limeade. It's tasty and good for you, too.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Anniversary

One year.

It's been one year today since I retired from the college. And how does that feel?
Incredible! Marvelous. Wonderful. Fantastic. Better than a hot chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream on top (and THAT'S hard to beat).

I wish I'd done it 20 years ago. But, of course, I couldn't have afforded to do it then. One of my favorite Bible verses is Ecclesiastes 3:1, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." When it's time to retire, you just know it. Things simply came to a point where it felt like it was time to leave work and start something new. So, I did.

I've fooled most of my friends back in the States who said, "You're going to be so bored! You're a Type A personality. You'll be crawling the walls looking for something to do." Wrong. What happens is you find new things to do. In my case, volunteer work, teaching, writing, and art. The difference is that YOU, not your company or boss, largely control the nature, content, and timing of your activities. And that's a delightful difference.

As human beings, we all fall naturally into patterns. Those grooves get deeper and harder to crawl out of as we get older. After many years in the same job, there is a creeping dulling of the senses. Retirement is always an act of courage (can I make it without a regular paycheck?) and a exploration into the unknown. My own early retirement and move to Mexico was even more leap of faith. But it's all worked out even better than I'd hoped for. It's a different culture, a different way of life. Because of that, I see things with new eyes every day. And--for me, at least--there is a great joy in that. Not only are the things around me different, the things inside are different, too. Every journey we take is also an interior journey. And sometimes the new things we find there are even more remarkable than the travel snapshots of our physical, external surroundings.

I've simplified my life. I truly like it better this way. No car (I'll be selling it when I return to Phoenix in a month). No home ownership down here (I'll always rent). No job. No meetings. No responsibilities. The contradiction inherent in the maxim "Less is More" is sweet. Surprisingly, it really works like that. I don't NEED a fancy stereo system or a jumbo-screen TV (don't even WANT them any more).
I don't NEED fancy clothing (no one here cares or notices). So you learn to be happy with what you have, even if that's not a lot. And to value time....free time, without the pressures of "I have to..." It's been a great year.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Niños de la Luna

I've mentioned before the shelter where I volunteer on Saturday afternoons. It's a home for young kids whose mothers are prostitutes, hence the name of the place which means "Chidren of the Moon." (moms work at night...)

Unlike the children at Estancia Infantil where I work during the week on Tuesdays and Thursdays...these kids don't really have much of a home. Many live at the shelter, having been abandoned by their moms. That's not the case at Estancia Infantil (which is a state agency) and whose kids have homes. The kids at Niños de la Luna have had tough lives. Their stories make you cry. Here are two:

Eight-year-old Carlos was abandoned by his mom and now lives at the shelter. He calls the lady who runs the place, Coco, "Mom." I've heard that occasionally a relative comes and spends an hour or so with him. He is a smart little boy and learns quickly. A sweet personality, too. A couple of weeks ago we were working on a craft project. First we made valentine hearts out of red construction paper. Carlos said, "what do we do with THAT?" Placing it on his shirt, I said "It shows someone loves you." He said, "Really? Who? Do you think someone loves ME?" There's a question a child should NEVER have to ask. Later we were all making masks out of paper plates....always popular. Carlos carefully cut out the eyes, nose, and ears. I said "Let's make the mouth." So he cut out a U-shaped mouth and was ready to paste it on. I laid it on smile side up. He turned it upside down. I asked, "What's that, Carlos? A mustache?" He told me, "No, the mask is sad because he doesn't have a mother."

Today, we had a new kid at the shelter, Luis. Luis is about 5 and autistic. We suppose autistic, although none of us is a professional to diagnose it. He is very timid and doesn't speak. He has trouble interacting with the other kids and spending much time on any one activity. At the end of the afternoon, I could see he was warming to me just a bit. I want to work with him some more in the coming weeks and see if his condition is only situational and not permanent. I asked Janet, one of the ladies I work with, what Luis's story was. "When he came to the shelter, he had spent most of his life tied to a chair while his mother 'worked,'" she told me.

They make our own problems look pretty insignificant, don't they?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cranky Me

Tonight I'm cranky as hell.

First, let me explain where I live. It is a Mexican family compound with an entry off the street. In front, opening onto the sidewalk is the family "tienda de abarrotes" or corner store. Think 7-11 with a limited line of merchandise. In fact, we used to have these in most major U.S. cities up until the 1960s. I know Chicago did.

I digress. There is an extended family living here. A rock solid, hard-assed matriarchy. Grandma lives in the front apartment....just a room and bath, really. She has 6 daughters, known as the "tias" (aunties). The eldest lives in the nice apartment behind the store. The other aunties live in varying units scattered around the courtyard. There are no men. Let me repeat that....THERE ARE NO MEN. Clearly, there HAVE BEEN men given the presence of children (that's how it works as I recall). But they ain't none now. Drove 'em off, in my opinion. Each Sunday afternoon, they all get together for a big family supper.

My problem is with Paulina, the teenaged daughter of one of the aunties. I would guess she's around 14...a difficult age. She has 2 tones of voice: screeching and whining. I'm so sick of hearing, "Mommmmmmmyyyyyyyyy!!!!" Do you still call your mother "Mommy" at 14? When she says (whines) it, the word lasts about 3 minutes. When she has some of her little girlfriends over, it's as though you took a chicken house full of hens and SHOOK IT....hard. Screech. Giggle. Scream. Screech. And a couple of annoying long whines, for good measure.

Now I realize that I am a cranky old man (or at least well on my way to that esteemed categorization). Noise bothers me (the first sign of aging....badly). Key note to consider here: Mexico is a very noisy place. Unlike anything you might be accustomed to in the U.S. Kids, dogs, and fireworks almost every day (and an occasional brass band marching down your street). And I also appreciate the Mexican culture in which little girls are all PRINCESSES. They lavish money and material goods on the little darlings in a ceremony that all young ladies go through called "Quiceañera" or "Sweet 15." There are fancy gowns, even tiaras, etc. You get the idea. So our sweet little Paulina is fast approaching Quiceañera age. And she's spoiled. By everyone, mom and aunties alike.

The very last straw is that today she came home with a new toy....a musical recorder (like a plastic clarinet). And she has played it from 2 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. For those of you how don't know, that encompasses my NAP TIME. All of us in the courtyard have been entertained with the tune "New York, New York" over and over and over and over and over and over again. About 200 times by my reckoning. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Complete with lots of WRONG NOTES. I left for my drawing class (1.5 hours). Came home. Guess what? Darling Paulina is still playing the damned recorder in the courtyard.

I've become homicidal. I'm fantasizing about what a recorder would look like shoved down her throat and out the other end.... Hmmmm, that's an unusual mental picture, isn't it? But in self defense I think I'll go buy myself a cheap little recorder tomorrow and every time we are treated to a little concert by Paulina, I'll walk out onto my front step and BLOW my damned instrument for all its worth.....Every sour note I can muster.

Perhaps that will send a message? I doubt it. Mexican kids can do no wrong. Best I can do is talk with my landlady (another auntie). I'll politely put it like this: "your choice....daily concerts by Paulina or 5,000 pesos hard cash every month from me. You pick."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Craft Project for the Kids

This is the craft project I did with the kids this last week to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. It's paper weaving, which I discovered on the Internet. First, I cut down placemat sized pieces of white construction paper. Then, I sliced horizontal strips, leaving them attached on each side. Then, we cut out the vertical strips of red and green construction paper. The kids "wove" the red and green strips through the white base. Then they colored the circular "escudo" (national shield from the Mexican flag), cut it out and pasted it on top of the weaving. To finish, we enclosed the project in clear contact paper. Voila! Instant patriotic placemat. The kids were thrilled. We did it for 3 volunteer sites, the street kids program at DIF, at the American Library for their Saturday morning kids program, and at the shelter, Niños de la Luna. In total, some 60 units. That's a lot of slicing. I'm grateful for the help of my compañeras, Eva, and Holly.

Sartorial Cool

The second is my new Panama hat. It's not from Panama, but actually was made in Ecuador of very fine palm fibers. They make them here in Mexico, in the Yucatan....inside caves where it's cool and they can bend the fibers more easily. But mine is imported, completely first class. And...if I do say so myself...very cool.

The first is my Guadalajara Chivas soccer jersey. I bought it a couple of years ago when I was in Guad. I like it because of the name of the team sponsor emblazoned across the chest: BIMBO. I've always wanted to be a Bimbo, and now I am one. To the Mexicans, the shirt is perfectly common. To Americans, it causes double-takes. My Bimbo shirt is, sadly, NOT COOL.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Happy 199th

Today is Mexican Independence Day. Last night the governor gave the "grito" (Viva Mexico!) from the government palace in the zocalo. Huge crowds of revelers (think New Year's Eve) plus hundreds of federal, state, and municipal police along with military. I stayed home. I don't do crowds and all that law enforcement makes me nervous. But at our place 6 blocks away, we could here the amplified sound. Music loud enough to make you deaf.

It's now just one year until the Mexican Bicentennial. Electronic clock displays in every state capital show the time counting down to the big event. Folks around here are a bit nervous, though. They say every 100 years is a revolution here: 1810, Independence from Spain; 1910, Revolution (Poncho Villa, Zapata, et al). And in 2010? Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

History Lesson: The Significance of Sept. 13

I literally stumbled onto this bit of Mexican history. Of course, I knew about Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16. It's when the president of Mexico and all the state governors walk out onto the balconies of their government palaces and give the iconic "Grito" which is "Viva Mexico!" That commemorates Father Hidalgo's call for independence from Spain in 1810.

Here in Oaxaca, we have street vendors selling flags, banners, shields, drums, anything you can think of in the national colors of red, white, and green. Today, I noticed the huge Mexican flag in the zocalo flying at half staff. "Wonder why?" I thought. At the noon Oaxaca State Band concert, the announcer spoke of the honoring the Boy Heroes and of the North American invaders. Hmmm.

This evening, at another patriotic ceremony in the zocalo, a drum & bugle corps performed and there were a series of speeches by local dignitaries (in Mexico, there are ALWAYS speeches, and speeches, and speeches....) Listening carefully, I learned that Sept. 13 is the day commemorating the fall of Mexico City at the battle of Chapultapec Castle during the Mexican-American War (Mexicans call it the North American Intervention). That was the battle in which the
boy cadets of the national military academy were martyred. All over Mexico streets, plazas and public spaces are named "Ninos Heroes" (Boy Heroes) or "Martyrs of Chapultapec." It's very much part of the Mexican national identity.

Here's an explanation from
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chapultepec

During the battle, six Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when General Bravo finally ordered retreat and fought to the death against superior U.S. forces. Their names were: teniente (lieutenant) Juan de la Barrera, and cadets Agustin Melgar, Juan Escutia, Vicente Suarez, Francisco Marquez and Fernando Montes de Oca. One by one they fell; when one was left (Juan Escutia), and the U.S. forces were about to kill him, he grabbed the Mexican flag, wrapped it around himself and jumped off the castle point. It is said that the American commander saluted the body of Escutia wrapped in the Mexican flag.

This was the same war in which the U.S. took from Mexico the present states of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and part of Colorado...about half of their pre-war territory. Remember that Mexico had only been independent from Spain for about 25 years at that point and was a politically weak and financially struggling young nation.

So, today, listening to speeches about "the American invaders" and "those at whose hands the boys cadets were martyred" and about the U.S. taking so much Mexican territory, I wanted to be somewhere...anywhere...else. It was uncomfortable. But I'm glad I was there. It helped me understand why there is still a lingering ambivalence about the U.S. Yes,their economy is highly linked to our own. Most Mexican exports go to the States. And, of course, remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S. form the #4 or #5 greatest source of revenue in Mexico. But, at times, we've been less than a genial neighbor.

So, if Mexicans are still pissed off...I can understand why.

Male Dominated Mexico

"Machismo" is alive and well in Mexico. You can see one example of that in the language: the very trendy, very popular use to express when something is "cool" or "awesome" is "Que padre!," which translates exactly as "how FATHER."

So in other words, when something has positive attributes, it's FATHER. I, for one, try to avoid using the expression. Instead I used "Que genial!" which has the same idea of "how cool!"

To my American ears, saying that something is "very FATHER" sounds absurd. But, of course our saying that "it's raining cats & dogs" sounds ridiculous to just about everyone else in the world. The use of language is weird, isn't it?

Sign of the Times

Some day in the distant future, cultural anthropologists will dig around for announcement signs to learn about our society in 2009. I saw a sign in a shop yesterday that gave me pause. This was in a local quick-print computer shop (think Kinko's but mom & pop Mexican style). I went in to have some copies made off my portable USB memory stick. Pasted in big letters on the back of the cash register was this sign:

"If you didn't bring correct change with you, BEFORE you request any service, ask us if we have change to break your bill."

"Wow!" I thought. So now it's the CUSTOMER'S responsibility to A) always have correct change and if not, B) make sure the shop owner has sufficiently stocked his coin drawer to operate his business. Huh? When did it become the responsibility shift from the shop owner to the CUSTOMER to have the proper resources to do business?

It struck me as something that you'd never see in the States. But here...nobody minds. In fact, the lack of change is endemic here. If you give a shop owner a 200 peso note (about $15US), they roll their eyes and plead, "don't you have anything SMALLER?" A 500 peso note (about $35US) causes major alarm. The manager has to be called over. They hold the note up to the light to look for that watermark. They turn the note over and over as though desperately trying to find a reason to reject it. It's as if--in the States--you present the cashier with a $1,000 note. Same skepticism. But we're talking $35 here.

My own uninformed guess is that the Mexicans have never quite gotten comfortable with the idea of paper money. Give me that good old fashioned gold doubloon or a few solid silver pieces of eight. After all, for three centuries the mines of Latin American produced most of the world's two precious metals, silver and gold. A paper bill just doesn't have the same intrinsic "heft." And, of course, after numerous currency devaluations (most recent in 1994), why would they trust it?

Another indicator of Mexican's distrust of paper money is their reluctance to accept notes that are damaged in any way. Say for example you go to the vegetable market to buy some tomatoes. The lady who runs the stand gives you change by pulling a ragged, grayed, and sweaty 20 peso note out of her brassiere. If you then try to pass that note you're going to be S.O.L. A torn corner, a piece of Scotch tape, any raggedy-assed looking bill simply will not be accepted. Then it's a game of trying to find some shop to pass the nasty note onto. Try Burger King. For some reason, they take all bills without too much fuss.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Earthshaking News

The earth shook. Really. Last night we had an earthquake. I wasn't sure until one of the ladies I volunteer with mentioned it this morning. I had been sound asleep last night...around 12:30 a.m. I thought I was dreaming. I thought I felt the bed move. Beds don't usually move when you're in them ALONE. So I just rolled over. But sure enough, it was a tremor. In Mexico, depending on where you are, you have the option of either: earthquakes, hurricanes (on the coast), flooding (in Chiapas and Tabasco state), or organized crime violence (mostly in the north). Your choice.

My other earthshaking news is that I had an accident. Last night while slicing veggies for dinner, my finger ran into a carving knife. The carving knife won. Blood everywhere (NEVER a good ingredient in stir-fry). So: what do you do when you're all alone in the house, in a foreign country, no car, and have an emergency? I had the presence of mind to wrap the finger tightly and walk around the corner to the medical office. Since it was 8 p.m., no doc was in. The nice lady in the waiting room, though, asked if I had transportation. "No." She called the clinic about 6 blocks away and off we went in her car. I was thoughtful enough to refrain from bleeding all over her front seat. The doc there cleaned and bandaged the wound. Couldn't do stitches since it was though the nail. I went back today for her to change the dressing. It still hurts like hell. I go back again on Friday. But I was pleased with the medical attention.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I'm Living in the Navel of the Moon

The other day I stumbled across the meaning of the word "Mexico."
It comes from the Nahuatl language. The Nahuatl culture is also known as "Aztec." One of the foremost modern Nahuatl translators said that "Mexico" comes from 2 words in Nahuatl: "metatli" (moon) and "xictli" (navel). Put them together, and you get "navel of the moon."

There is a little disagreement over the first section of the word, and...instead of "moon" it may be "maguey plant" (from which tequila are mescal are made). So, depending on how you look at it I'm either living in the Navel of the Moon (nice and poetic) or the navel of the maguey cactus (sort of pre-alcoholic). I prefer the Moon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chupacabra Found

This, from the news reports today, makes my day.

For those skeptics among you who poo-pooed its existence, hah! You probably don't believe in the Abdominal Snowman and the Tooth Fairy either....or even the Great Pumpkin. Bah! Humbug!

Here's a link to the news report from San Antonio:
http://www.koco.com/news/20661717/detail.html Supposedly this student at a Texas taxidermy school brought in the corpse of this unknown beastie. His story was that it was raising hell in his cousin's barn and they put out some poison. What they got themselves was a dead chupacabra.

The chupacabra was a formerly mythical beast who was making the rounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, sucking the blood of domestic animals, especially goats.

I'm holding my breath for the first Big Foot.