Thursday, July 31, 2008

La Ciudad

Amigas y Amigos,

Yesterday we awoke early, packed our things, had one last Tepoznieves (tequila con limon – um, basically margarita ice cream) and hopped a bus (literally hopped it at the highway tollbooth) out of Tepoztlan to Mexico City. The bus ride was only about an hour, but because of Mexico City traffic and crazy Mexico City streets, the taxi ride from the Mexico City bus station to our hotel near the Centro Historico took over two hours. El ciudad de Mexico es loco.

We had hoped to stay at the Casa de los Amigos, a hostel-type place run by Quakers, but it’s full due to an international HIV/AIDS conference. So the friendly Quakers recommended a place directly across the street, which they described as “safe,” “clean,” and “economical.” The Hotel Texas (pronounced Tay-has) does seem to fulfill those qualifications. When we arrived, however, we confess that we were less than thrilled.

Moving from one place to another can be difficult. You just begin to grow comfortable in one place and – bam! – you’re off to the next place. In this case we’re going from cobblestone rural to taxi-honking urban, which doesn’t help. When we first arrived here in Mexico City, it was that helpless feeling all over again. The taxi driver picks you up, drives you around in crazy traffic circles and hairpin turns through this this mad metropolis and drops you off in a place you really hope is the right one. Ok, look up at the sign. There’s the Hotel Texas, ok. But we have no idea where anything else is in this neighborhood. Look up the street - everything feels a bit sketchier, run-down buildings, cops on street corners with black sunglasses and uzis… ok, not uzis, but I don’t know what they’re called; I asked Chris what kind of guns they are and she said, “I don’t know, ‘Big Ones’?” Whatever they are, the policia carry big military-style weapons all the time. You just get used to it, I guess.

And the same can be said for the city. After settling in our room, we go across the street and ask the Quakers where to eat. They recommend a local place on the corner – in America, it would be like a diner, but I’m not sure what they’re called here… Chris suggests “fonda” or “comedor.” Whatever it’s called, we got a fixed-price meal that included agua de pina (pineapple juice), sopa (soup), ridiculously fresh and more ridiculously thick tortillas, arroz (rice), enchiladas in salsa verde, and a fruit cup for dessert, all for about 35 pesos (US $3.50) each. Then we walked around the neighborhood and found the massive Monument to the Revolution and the hidden Museo de San Carlos. There are a few 7-11’s and Oxxo’s (in Spanish it’s pronounce Osco – is it the same company?), so we stopped at one and picked up some chocolate-covered ice cream bars that Eva Longoria urged us to buy via her effective advertisements plastered everywhere. We took turns calling our families from the pay phone on the street corner, and then we went back to the room and watched TV until we fell asleep.

More detail than you needed, I know… but sometimes that’s just how you get acclimated to a new place.

Of course, that was yesterday. Today we put on our Dora and Diego explorer hats and headed out to have a ridiculous and rather unplanned adventure… but that’s another story, for another post. :)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Por los siglos de los siglos

It was late, yet the day still lingered, the long golden Mexican day which seems as thought it could never die. In the morning it lifts the spirit, but in the late afternoon, when the air is saturated with golden light and unmoving as if it had stopped breathing, one feels a great sadness – the weight of time, a premonition of eternity.

-- Gertude Diamant, from The Days of Ofelia, 1942

Today is our last full day in Tepoztlan. Intent on spending it well, last night I took out the map we were given when we arrived and looked for what I had missed. Of course, the map looks more familiar now than it did a week ago; I know the main roads and the city layout around the zocalo. But I had missed something critical.

No less than nine Roman Catholic churches lie within the city limits of little Tepoztlan, population 33,000. I had seen the biggest, Parroquia Nuestra Senora de la Natividad – Parish of Our Lady of the Nativity. Nuestra Senora is the centralized cathedral that lies at one end of the zocalo and has a former convent attached to it. And I had passed La Santisima every day, as it lay on the corner of the main road and the road we were staying on. At La Santisima, you turn one way to go to the zocalo and the market, turn the other way to climb the mountain to the pyramid. But now, looking at the map, I could see that La Santisima was one of eight parishes spread throughout town. Together, they form a circle of churches that ring the main parish like planets orbiting the sun.

These are the neighborhood churches, the Iglesias Barrios: Santo Domingo, La Santisima, Santa Cruz, San Pedro, Los Reyes, San Sebastian, San Miguel, and San Jose. I decided I had better try and see a few of them.

I began by walking toward Santo Domingo, which was the closest parish to our residence, though before today I had seen only its rounded steeples from blocks away.

Like the churches I had seen earlier in the week, Santo Domingo looked old, very old. Were all of these churches built in colonial times? I looked for a date on a cornerstone but found none, at least none on the outside stone wall that surrounded the parish. The iron gate was locked. I stood gazing over the stone wall for a few moments. A man walked toward me along the cobblestone road. As he passed the church, he slowed down, took off his hat, crossed himself, then returned his hat and kept on walking. I gazed a few more minutes, decided I had better make the sign of the cross myself, and then I started off again.

The next parish was Santa Cruz, an equal distance from the main road on the opposite side of it, and uphill quite a ways. I was dripping in sweat when I reached it. Over the road that leads to Santa Cruz’s main entrance is the wire frame of a canopy, but with no canopy currently on it. I guessed it must be there for celebrations, and imagined how glorious it must look with colorful paper decorations hanging from it, colorful paper decorations I’d seen hanging elsewhere in town.

Like Santo Domingo, Santa Cruz had that same old, colonial look to it – the buildings of these churches, if they really can be dated to the 1500s, must all have been built more than two hundred years before the Declaration of Independence. What made Santo Domingo different, however, was its steeples, which looked to me like the hull of a ship, with various clay and ceramic objects stuck to it like barnacles. The church as a ship, embarking from an old age into a new one; I rather like that.

On to La Santisima, the familiar parish which now deserved a closer look. La Santisima’s gate and front doors were wide open, offering any passerby a good look inside. If you look closely, you can see that Moses has horns. Ten points to the first seminarian who can post an explanation why in the blog comment section.

The outside of La Santisima has a few things in common with the other Iglesias Barrios. Besides the stone wall and wire frame canopy, there is a little covered outside seating area, like a stone gazebo, visible to the right in the picture below. People wander in and out of La Santisima, sitting for awhile, offering their prayers, and walking out again.

I continued on to the main Parroquia, in whose convent there was a museum I had read about but hadn’t yet visited. Nuestra Senora de la Natividad is surrounded by a massive courtyard in which you could probably fit all of the other neighborhood parishes. The bustling market surrounds the parish courtyard, but does not enter it.

An archway serves as the entry to the courtyard. All the guidebooks say this archway is decorated in a mural made of different colored seeds that changes every year (it´s like the Mitchell Corn Palace of Mexico), but I could find no mural of seeds. A walk into the courtyard showed why: this year’s mural was still being made. I took a photo of the part that was finished; it had an Aztec warrior raising some kind of weapon on one side, and an Aztec woman on the other with one curious detail: the Aztec woman was wearing a crown, holding a scepter and holding baby Jesus.

The Parroquia itself, the central church of Tepoztlan, towers over the courtyard; it is visible from almost anywhere in town. It dates from the late 1500s (thank you Lonely Planet Guidebook). Inside it looks much like you would expect from a cathedral, with towering walls, an arched ceiling, and fabulous artwork in the nave. This cathedral lacked the gaudy, over-the-top gold interiors I’d seen in other Mexican cathedrals, instead doing its cathedralesque-work of drawing the eye forward and upward with the simplicity of white marble.

But my favorite part of the Parroquia Nuestra Senora is the stone baptismal font, which is at the entrance of the church, and lies in a circle three steps lower than the rest of the floor. After watching a few other people do the same thing, I walked the few steps down into the metaphorical river and dipped my fingers into a baptismal font for the first time since I left LSTC.

I left the church and made my way over to its neighboring convent. The convent hasn’t been in use as a convent for centuries; it’s now more of a museum than anything. As I walked in, an attendant asked me to sign the guestbook: Matt Keadle, Chicago, IL, USA.

The first thing that strikes a visitor to these halls are the red lines that form abstract designs and images of animals and people all along the ceilings, walls, and archways. An interior square courtyard lets light in through the arches. From the guidebook, I learn that this former convent served as a fortress during the revolution. I believe it.

Eventually there is a room with friars painted on the walls. The friars (monks?) are holding crosses and books (presumably Bibles). The paint of these murals is peeling off the walls, yet they remain vivid; the monks look as though they could walk off the walls. It is their eyes that stick with me. One monk faces toward another, but his eyes seem to look back at something else. Another’s seem unfocused, and it is unclear whether he is lost in meditation or merely tired of living amid the ancient isolation of these mountains.

There is a stairway leading up a second level, and I follow it. There is not much in the way of artwork up here, but there is a museum telling the history of Tepoztlan.

Tepoztlan, I learn from the various museum displays, is divided into several barrios (neighborhoods), each named for its local neighborhood parish.

Yet there is another detail: each barrio has its own animal attached to it, like a mascot. Santo Domingo’s animale is a frog; Santa Cruz’s is a scorpion. Later, when I took Chris past Santo Domingo, we noticed something I hadn’t noticed earlier: subtle frog designs etched into the sides of the veranda.

This combination of Catholicism and animal imagery harkens back to Tepoztlan’s past. Earlier I mentioned the seed mural that is created by local artisans every year. There is a replica in the museum that features the entire scene, archway, market, and courtyard, all in a massive mural. In the mural, Mary stands atop the arch with Jesus in her arms. An Aztec warrior kneels beneath her, and a friar stands above him, smaller than Mary but standing over the Aztec. The friar appears to be baptizing him.

The museum displays also show the breakdown of Tepoztlan land ownership: 84% of Tepoz farmland is under communal ownership (!), just as it was, the museum tells me, in the prehispanic age. About ten years ago a private development company tried to buy up some of this communal land and make it into a golf course. NAFTA had just passed, and the developers had the support of the national and state governments. But the local Tepoztecos weren’t having any of it. They organized and staged protests that lasted over a year. The climax of the incident was when a 64-year-old leader of the resistance was shot to death, his body shoved in a burlap sack and deposited in a field miles away. In an earlier age these tactics might have ended the resistance, but this was the dawn of the information age. The development company got nervous at the bad publicity, and backed out of the project. Tepoztlan might look like a tourist town, but its community bonds are tight, and fierce.

By now it was almost lunchtime, but I thought I could find one more Iglesia Barrio before heading back. San Miguel lay on the outskirts of town, at the end of Av. 5 de Mayo. It was a bit of a hike, but well worth the trip, for San Miguel differs from any other iglesia in Tepoztlan. The parish itself looks as old as the others, but its stone wall and gazebo are splashed in vivid colors of gold-rush yellow, rustic red, and beach-sea blue. If God has a beachhouse, it looks like this.

Over the main arch there is a green lizard, the animal mascot, it seems, of San Miguel and its neighborhood.

Its iron gate – painted a bright yellow – was locked, so this would be the only glimpse I would get of San Miguel. I headed back for lunch, amazed that there were this many churches in one little town; equally amazed that they were so close together that I could visit half of them in one morning.

I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of Tepoztlan. But what a surface it has been. As we prepare to turn the page to a new adventure in Mexico City, I can think of no better way to close, after today, than with an Our Father.

Padre nuestro que estas en los cielos,
Santificado sea tu nombre;
Venga a nos tu reino;
Hagase tu voluntad, asi en la tierra como en el cielo;
El pan nuestro de cada dia, danoslo hoy;
Y perdonanos nuestras deudas asi como nosotros perdonamos a nuestros deudores;
Y no nos dejes caer en la tentacion;
Mas libranos del mal.
Porque tuyo el el reino,
El poder y la Gloria
Por los siglos de los siglos.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mercado Magico

A while back Kim Erno, our future host at the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, mentioned that Tepoztlan was one of Mexico’s “magical villages.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but of course it sounded inviting.

Turns out the phrase is meant to sound that way in an official sense. It’s all over the tourism brochures, chamber of commerce signs, and even the trash receptacles.

Since we got here I’ve been reading my way through some anthologies of travelogues from the late 1800s through the 1950s or so. From the reports of these writers, the towns south of Mexico City, like Taxco, Cuernavaca, Tepoztlan, and Puebla, to name a few – have been popular tourist spots for not merely decades but centuries.

Probably the majority, then and now, are weekenders from Mexico City, though on Saturday there were plenty of English-speaking gringos from faraway lands. (Dad, you’ll be happy to know that I spotted a West Virginia hat the other day – what’s a Mountaineer doing all the way down here?)

There is a market in the zocalo (town square) every day, but on weekends, when the turistas come, the market explodes into a sprawling mess that extends its wares up and down all the surrounding streets.

There are beautiful handicrafts and the usual souvenir t-shirts, of course, but there is also a sizable food section, with delicious-smelling taco fillings, cooked, and, er, uncooked (intact head of a pig, anyone?); lots of avocados, limes, and mangos, not to mention all the totally unrecognizable fruits and veggies. The seafood stand is particularly popular, which is odd, since we’re at least a day’s drive from any coast. Desafortunadamente (unfortunately, my favorite Spanish word to say) we’re reticent to eat any of it, since we´re still nervous about getting sick from street food. (Famous last words: How can anything that smells that good make you sick?)

Besides the street food, there are also displays of bootleg CDs and DVDs at cheap prices, a dude walking around with giant helium balloons, and then a few men standing not on either side but right in the middle of the crowd, one looking forlorn because no one seems to be buying his fresh-looking churros, another singing “Sombrero Sombrero!” every thirty seconds or so, like clockwork.

(above: Can you find the sombrero man?)

We watch the sombrero man, waiting for someone to buy his gleaming white wide-brimmed hats. After what seems like an eternity and at least fifty renditions of Sombrero Sombrero!, a well-heeled businessman from Mexico City (or so we´re guessing from his appearance) walks up and tries one on. He looks at his wife for approval, then tries another.

Finally he decides, and pulls a wad of cash out of his wallet. He hands the sombrero-seller a 500 peso bill (about 50 US dollars), far more than the hat actually costs. (Chris says this proves he is a Mexico City businessman, throwing around so much cash.) Surprisingly, the sombrero man has change, and the businessman walks away, his arm around his companion, his weekend outfit of dress slacks, dress shirt, dress shoes, and white sombrero now complete.

The sombrero-seller starts up again - Sombrero Sombrero! - but we are not in the mood for sombreros. We walk downstairs, down from the little balcony with the perfect view, and head for the nearest Tepoznieves.

The market, you see, satisfies all tastes.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Tepoznieves

Our life here is a little odd right now.

On the one hand, things have settled into a general rhythm: During the day, Chris attends her conference and I explore the town; in the evenings we usually walk into town to find something to eat, find an Internet café, and then head back to our room where both of us do some reading before bed.

On the other hand, it kind of feels like a weird vacation – not at all like we’ve really “settled” in Mexico yet. We’re only here in Tepoztlan for a week; both Chris´s conference and my wanderings are a temporary state of being. Only a week ago we moved our stuff into storage, uprooting ourselves, and we’re still not quite rooted yet. That’s not always an easy state to be in.

That’s not to say we haven’t had any fun being uprooted. I, for example, enjoyed my mountain climb / archaeological quest so much that I did it again the next day – and then Chris and I climbed it together on Sunday.

And then, of course, there is the food.

The conference provides our breakfasts and lunches, but if you get hungry for a snack, you might pick up, say, a bag of chips at one of the many local convenience stores. Chris is partial to jalepeno chips. She picked some up that looked just like Ms. Vickie’s jalepeno chips back in the States. Unlike Ms. Vickie’s, however, these come with a little package of hot sauce in the bag – because you wouldn’t want to eat your potato chips without hot sauce, would you?

Perhaps you’d like something a bit more substantial, so you go to a restaurant. Begin with an appetizer. Yesterday we ordered guacamole con totopos (chips). As seems typical here, the chips were stuck into the guacamole for a fancier presentation than our guac-on-the-side style.

For a main dish, I ordered my personal favorite Mexican meal: pollo en mole rojo (chicken in red mole sauce). Mole is a combination of chocolate, chilies, and nuts, all pureed together into a delicious sauce that goes perfectly with chicken. Chocolate with chicken?! Brilliant!

Of course, you’ll need something to wash all this food down. Coronas are plentiful, though most at the conference – myself included – seem to prefer Victoria, a somewhat darker brew. If you’re looking for a soft drink, Coca-Cola is inescapable. Coke flows more freely than water here, no joke. More on that later. (By the way, the strange writing on the can isn´t some indigenous Mexican language - it´s Mandarin, part of Coke´s Olympic campaign that you can find in the States, too.)

But perhaps you’re not in the mood for the thickness of a cola. How about a nice apple soda? Try Lift (a Coke product, of course), which you can now get in two varieties, “Classic” or a “+Manzana” version with “more juice and 25% less sugar!” It basically tastes like carbonated apple juice.

Finally, dessert! Here in Tepoztlan there are half a dozen branches of the nationally famous “Tepoznieves” (nieves = snow). Tepoznieves is basically an ice cream or sherbet, except that it comes in like 500 flavors, many of which are unique to Mexico. Yesterday I had a flavor that was made from some kind of strange fruit I’d never heard of drenched in mezcal, a drink related to tequila. This time I chose vainilla (vanilla), coco (coconut), and pina (pineapple) – going for kind of a pina colada thing. The coconut actually had stringy coconut pieces in it, and the vanilla was a deep yellow with the richest vanilla flavor I’ve ever had. Needless to say, we´ve been to Tepoznieves every night.

For her Tepoznieves, Chris chose a couple of funny-named combination concoctions, one of which tasted like raspberry yogurt and another like cheesecake. Chris says the cheese-flavored Tepoznieves is good except when she finds one of the chunks of real cheese in it. Yep, cheese-flavored ice cream – we’re definitely in Mexico.

Of course, not all food is that different. Today we tired of Mexican food and went out for pizza. Ah, pizza… just like in the United States, it’s served with parmesan cheese, cayenne pepper flakes, and, um, Worcestershire sauce. Yep, Worcestershire sauce. Sigh. Bienvenidos a Mexico!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

La Tormenta

(above: image from an colonial-era convent here in Tepoztlan)

It is difficult to describe the experience of being in our room when one of these frequent rainstorms begin.

It is usually in the evening or the dead of night that they come. There are the normal sounds of rain, of course: the pitter-patter on the roof and outside the window, the cracks of lightening visible even through the curtains, the loud cracks of thunder that make you sit up in your bed – the terrifyingly awesome act of nature that is the thunderstorm.

But here, in the room we occupy in this little posada - which, in the daytime, is impossibly beautiful and irrepressibly peaceful - in this little room the experience of these frequent thunderstorms is much nearer to the experience of a thunderstorm you might have, say, in a tent out in the woods. You don´t get wet - at least we haven´t yet - but your sensations are heightened exponentially because there are no heavily insulated walls to muffle the sounds of the lashing winds and the gushing water, and you seriously wonder whether at any moment the walls will simply fall away and you will be unprotected from this torrential downpour. Even though there is not a drop of water in this room I feel cold and clammy and I keep checking myself to make sure I am not wet. Right outside one of our windows there is a drainage area into which the water pours and pours and pours, and it sounds like the water is coming right inside and pouring onto our floor. Of course it is not, but I keep checking because it really does sound that way. And of course the water continues to pour down around the other windows, too, harder and harder, and I do not feel nearly as secure as I did during Midwestern thunderstorms that I experienced from the comfort of my third floor apartment in Chicago or in my parents’ well-insulated home in the Illinois suburbs. Another cannon-crack of thunder that sounds as if the angry sky above the mountains is being ripped apart. Is it the slightness of the shelter or the wildness of the uncontrollable storm that so unnerves me?

A few minutes more, and the storm has passed. I listen to the rumbling growls of thunder grow distant again, and I think about how different it is here. The same incomprehensible Creation, experienced from a radically different angle. Gracias a Dios.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My Indiana Jones Day

Last night at the Tepoztlan Institute reception a fellow conference spouse was telling me about this pyramid up in the mountains that’s just outside the village. And of course, once I heard about an archaeological site waiting at the end of a mountain hike, well… I knew I had to do it.

So this morning I head out right after breakfast to find this pyramid. Along Avenida Matamoros, our street, there is a blue sign with a picture of a pyramid on it and an arrow pointing off in a perpendicular direction. So I followed the sign. And when there was another sign pointing down another street, I followed it, too, and so on, until the little shops and sidewalks started to thin, and I was walking alongside more makeshift houses with fewer people alongside me. But the pyramid signs seemed to point in that direction, so I kept on walking.

Soon I came to a place with colorful tarps overhead, and people setting up little food and drink stands. I thought this was strange, because at this point I was far from the main town square, but after walking on a bit farther I found another, more detailed sign for the pyramid, and I realized that these roadside stand merchants were setting up where the tourists would soon be coming through in droves.

The road got steeper, and turned into cobblestone steps, then turned into an uphill trail with rocks meant for clambering up, sometimes on all fours. The air, at a higher-than-I’m-used-to altitude, grew thinner. Now I’m certainly no athlete, but I also don’t consider myself totally out of shape: I bike, I play basketball, and I even ran a 5K in the spring. But hiking almost straight uphill in high altitude made me breathe as heavy as I have in awhile, heavy breathing that continued unabated for a good forty-five minutes. I’ve been joking for awhile now that I’ll get to play Indiana Jones on this Mexico trip, but I didn’t realize how much Indiana Jones must have worked out in order to save the world so many times.

(above: the long and winding road)

Naturally, I kept wondering how far I was from the top, but I didn’t ask the handful of people coming down the path how much further it was. I didn’t know how. I thought of “cuanto,” and then “tiempo,” but I had no idea how to say “to the top”…so I just kept on walking and climbing, walking and climbing, stopping to take a picture or three, walking and climbing. (Later Chris suggested I could have just asked “Cuanto tiempo mas?” Sigh.)

At some point I realized I was probably not going to make it back for the scheduled lunch (included as part of the conference). My stomach considered turning back, but my feet could not be stopped. I’ve already hiked this far, no way am I going to turn around without reaching the top!

Finally I could see the pyramid. Just a one steep little rock stairway to go!

All of a sudden I hear this high-pitched barking and padded feet scurrying toward me. I look up, and there’s a pack of smallish animals that look like meerkats heading right for me! What?! I’ve made it this far only to be eaten by a wild pack of Mexican meerkats?!?! Noooo!!!

Then I see why the meerkats are scurrying: There is a man behind the animals, shooing them away – shooing them away towards me – with a broom. This makes the appearance of the pseudo-meerkats no less strange, but at least, I think, they must be harmless, and even if they’re not harmless hopefully the man with the broom will rescue me if they try to eat me. I escape through the meerkat pack unharmed.

(above: watch out kids, the meerkats are hungry!)

I see that the man with the broom works at a little refreshment stand, which is right across from a little table where two men sit playing cards and guarding what is clearly a money box. A sign appears to say (I’m inferring here) that there is an entrance fee to go all the way up to the pyramid. It’s 35 pesos (3.50 in dollars), so I pay it. As usual, the cashier seems annoyed that I don’t have change – cambio – but the ATMs spit out 200 peso bills, what can I do? I acquire my ticket – boleto – and make my way up to the pyramid.

(abovie: I wonder how many crystal skulls are in there)

Tepozteco is not a very big ruin, but the view from it is fantastic. There’s a jungle-covered cliff – it’s jungle all around, really – off to one side with large black birds flying around it, like something out of National Geographic or Planet Earth. You can look down and see the town of Tepoztlan, and you can think, no way did I really climb that high, no freaking way, but yes, yes you did climb that high, why don’t you pat yourself on the back and take a picture of yourself to prove you made it. So I did.

(above: me. Bring it, Indy.)

After taking a few million pictures, I sat on the ruins and read a book about Tepoztlan for a little while, then began to make my way back down the mountain. The way down was way easier, and faster – no surprise there.

When I made my way back to our posada, I found that yes, I had missed lunch, so I headed back into town, turning down a street in the opposite direction of the pyramid and walking until I came upon a lively market in what looked to be the zocalo (town square) of Tepoztlan. I looked at some of the items for sale, and I was tempted by the bootleg CDs. There was a large Putumayo selection, each priced at about 1 U.S. dollar, but ironically they didn’t have Putumayo Mexico. I ended up buying a fruit-punch flavored Jarritos drink, and sat on a bench, near some street musicians, to read my book – this time a story about Pancho Villa conquering villages in Northern Mexico.

Chris had had a rough day at her conference, so I felt a little guilty about how much fun I’d had exploring Tepoztlan all day long. I hope she’ll write some about her exploits when she gets a chance. She has lots of reading to do this week. I imagine once my program gets started, I’ll have lots of reading, too, so I suppose I’ll keep enjoying this freedom while I can. Tierra y libertad – land and liberty, the rallying cry of Morelos – indeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tepoztlan, Day One

Tepoztlan, "Land of Copper," el Pueblo Magico.

It took about an hour and a half to get here from Mexico City, traveling by bus. And not just any bus, mind you, but a “Pullman de Morelos” – Pullman, of course, being a reference to the luxury train cars based out of Chicago’s South Side a century ago. Last year I worked in a church near the Pullman Historic Site, so my jaw hit the floor on that little connection.

At the bus station Chris was asked how tall she was (seriously, it happened - Chris tells me this happens to her all the time in Mexico), and then we made our way to our assigned seats and settled in to ignore/distractedly watch the "in-flight" movie. It’s all rather like an airplane flight in the U.S., and not at all like the schoolbus-with-chickens image so many people have suggested to us back home.

South of Mexico City, the countryside is as peacefully gorgeous as the city is bustlingly crazy. Pastoral farms and jagged mountain cliffs with smoky clouds obscuring the higher peaks, just like they do sometimes in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia. These mountains are, hands down, one of my favorite parts of Mexico.

We arrive in Tepoztlan and immediately our bags are grabbed by a taxi driver, who throws them in his trunk and asks us if we’re going to la conferencia. Si, we tell him, and Chris explains where we’re staying. I’m a little tired of taxis by now – they’re more expensive than public transit is back home, the drivers insist on helping you with your luggage (presumably for a tip), and when you don’t know your way around it all feels a bit helpless, with someone you don’t know driving you down back alleys that you hope are the right ones. On the bright side, this particular taxi driver was quite chatty, and took us right through the market, literally, while explaining the sights to see in this little town.

Our lodgings for the next week unfold this way: We arrive at a gate in an alleylike cobblestone street. The gate is just a big slab of metal painted bright green. We walk through the tiny doorway. An unbelievable scene opens up before us – huge green lawns with little small buildings dotting the landscape, roosters squawking nearby and clucking around in the corner of the yard, all with a backdrop of mountains unlike any I’ve ever seen before, with jagged cliffs that seem to drop off like a frozen waterfall of khaki stone. We make our way to our casa, and find our assigned private room within. This is a posada, and it will be our home for the next seven days.
For lunch we wander up the cobblestone street toward the town, breathing heavily because of the altitude and the lack of water. In the states I drink a couple of Nalgene bottles worth of water a day; here I look for small bottles of water that have to suffice until I can find another place to buy a small bottle of water. In any case, after turning the wrong way down the street we were looking for, we finally find a place to eat lunch. The place is just about perfect, and we stuff ourselves on chicken tacos, guacamole, super-spicy salsa, and Esprite (Sprite).

When you order Esprite, or una Coca, or any other inevitably Coke-brand soft drink at a restaurant here, it comes in a glass bottle which the waiter pours into a small glass for you and then sticks a gigantic straw into the small glass. I’m fascinated by the size of these straws…But what’s probably more interesting is that restaurant pop is distributed so differently here than it is in the U.S. In the U.S., Coke arrives at restaurants in boxes containing bags of syrup that are hooked up to a C02 tank and a water supply. Here, they come in glass bottles that are returnable – which Chris tells me is not just recyclable but literally reusable, sent back to Coke and then refilled. The look of the bottles themselves tells the story; my bottle of Esprite had definitely been around the block. But the Esprite was no worse for the wear – I obeyed my thirst, and it was quenched, happily.

This evening there was a boisterous reception for the conference-goers where we made small-talk and met other scholars from the U.S. (the East Coast is way over-represented, as usual) and Latin America. Since it’s a transnational conference people are speaking in both English and Spanish, with a lot of Spanglish. I try to pick up what I can.

Now we’re back in our room, and Chris is reading to prepare for tomorrow’s presentations and discussions, and I’m writing and making sure she stays awake long enough to finish everything she needs to read. I imagine the rest of the week will go much like this. And I certainly can’t complain about that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Estamos en Mexico.

We’re here.

We arrived at O’Hare around 7:30am, were informed that our checked baggage was overweight, hurriedly repacked it, made our way to the gate, and successfully boarded United Flight 819 to Mexico City. Actually, I only successfully boarded Flight 819 thanks to my mom, who took a day and a half off of work to accompany us on the flight in order to make sure that I, as a standby passenger, made it onto the airplane. I’ve said it before here, but what our families have done for us these last few days has been way above and beyond.

Anyway, as we descended through the clouds down to Benito Juarez International Airport, a few familiar but forgotten Mexican sights were on display. The mountains, seemingly dotting the landscape at random, apart from any discernable range (though I’m sure there is one), not as green the Appalachians nor as numerous as the Rockies, yet with an air of ancientness and mystery all their own. Then, as you get closer to the ground, the buildings, so different from the steel and glass canyons of Chicago, with Chicago’s orderly grids and palettes in shades of silver and gray and black, no, here in Mexico the buildings are bright and boisterously colorful (even if those colors are a little faded, the paint peeling and cracked sometimes), looking like they were made out of clay and arranged in a sprawling mess of winding streets and alleys and avenidas that would make Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s grid planner, apopletic.

Our taxi ride through Mexico City bore this home, as our driver flew around turns of the winding streets at rollercoaster speed, honking at anyone who threatened to slow him down. We watched the city whiz past. The first thing that stands out at taxi level are the billboards. Imagine the billboards you might see on the highway. Now, multiply that by a billion. Chris says it always makes her think of the “city of the future,” like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, what those of us who have never been to Tokyo imagine Tokyo might be like. Some billboards are similar to those we’ve seen in the U.S. all summer, just slightly different; instead of “The Dark Knight,” ads here trumpet the return of “El Caballero de la Noche.”

[above: Look, it's a Mexican version of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption! (actually called here "Chronometro" i.e. "Stopwatch"). Can you tell which one is the Mexican Mike Wilbon?]

A half-hour taxi ride got us to the Lutheran Center, where Kim Erno, resident pastor and director of the center, greeted us, helped us get our excess luggage situated, chatted with us for awhile, and then saw us off to our next destination. We’ll return to the Lutheran Center in about two weeks.

Exhausted, mostly from the travel but ever so slightly from the much-increased altitude here in Mexico City, we opted to stay in a nice, midrange hotel, the first one we came upon, near the bus station that we’ll depart from tomorrow morning. The hotel has free and mostly reliable Wi-Fi, allowing us to check in with family and post this little report. We ate dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, where we felt a little too much like awkward tourists.

No matter. Today has been a good start to our adventure, and tomorrow… No, I think I’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow. It’s time, finally, for some rest.

I hope this finds everyone at home well. We miss you all.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Eight hours from now our airplane departs O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois, USA (population: 2.8 million people) for Ciudad Mexico, Distrito Federal, Mexico (population: 19.2 million people). Our bags are packed. Our last minute errands are done. Our visas are in order (HUGE sigh of relief). We're finally ready. I think.

[Above: What's with the watermelon?]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Obama in Mexico (No, not that one)

So I just found out that Barack Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, will be in Mexico City for a supporters' dinner on the same day that we arrive there.  Hmmm... we don't really have any commitments for our first night in Mexico... 

Alas, however, I don't have the necessary $250-$5,000 required to attend.  Get big money out of politics, anyone?

Less than 36 hours to go in the States....

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Moving Day

Today we packed up the truck, as planned, and moved all of our stuff into storage.  It rained the entire day.  And by rained, I mean poured.  And by poured, I mean it was a monsoon.  

The rain paused for the time it took to drive the truck over to the storage facility.  Then it started up again.  Fed up, we checked the weather report to see if the storm would pass through anytime soon.  The radar showed clear skies for the entire midwest... except for one little spot, bright red, which was right over us.  Sigh.

Tomorrow we pick up a few last minute things, and then attempt to winnow down our remaining belongings into a bundle small enough to pack into our luggage.  True, there are far fewer things than today's moving adventure, but if the giant pile of stuff we have here is any indication, tomorrow's activities will be as Tetris all over again.  Less than 72 hours to go...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Last Night on Earth (or at least, Chicago)

It's been a brutal day of packing.  The last time we moved, we found ourselves throwing things into boxes at the last minute after our moving help had already arrived.  This time, we were determined to have things more organized.  Progress!  

And, I think, we've succeeded, though at the cost of every ounce of energy we had left.  We're ready to sleep now...and awake in the morning to load up the truck; drive it to New Buffalo, Michigan; unload the truck into storage; return the truck and drive to Arlington Heights, Illinios, where we'll stay for a few days before we leave the U.S.A.  So that's the game plan.  More updates to follow.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Stranded in Schenectady

This is sort of unrelated to our Mexico trip, but since I'm blogging the road there as well, I figured I'd include this weekend's pothole.

On Friday morning we left for Vermont, where a friend was getting married.  We flew standby into Albany, NY, and then drove to Vermont for the wedding.  A wonderful time was had by all.  (If you've never been to Vermont, the Green Mountain State, you should go - great local ice cream, coffee, and cheese, soundtracked by Vermont Public Radio and tucked into Northern Appalachia...pretty much perfect.)

(above: The classic Vermontian car.)

On Sunday morning we woke up at 5:30am and drove to Albany to fly home.  Except that we missed the first flight and then spent the rest of the day in the Albany/Schenectady airport...not the most fun place to spend an entire day, especially if it knocks out one of your 9 days left of packing/moving/leaving the country preparations.  Fed up with Albany, we rented a car and drove to Hartford, Connecticut, where we spent five hours sleeping in a Days Inn before leaving on a 5:45am flight the next morning.

Finally back in Chicago,  we raced over to the Mexican Consulate to pick up our visas.  Unfortunately, someone somewhere had authorized our departure for August 15 instead of July 15, completely screwing up our plans to leave next week.  Since both Chris and I have programs starting between now and August 15, simply waiting until mid-August to leave is not an option...or at least not an easy, cost-free option.  We fumed our way home, made a few phone calls, and now we wait.  (A Tom Petty song comes to mind...anybody guess what it is?)

And that's where we find ourselves today, on my twenty-seventh birthday.  Despite the last few days, there's much to be thankful for.  For example, iTunes released brand new Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp recordings today - Springsteen, at least, being a huge and happy surprise.  This is silly, but makes me unreasonably giddy, and these days I'll take all the little giddies any way I can get them.  :)  

More importantly, we have lots of supportive family and friends.  Chris's sister, Erica, came to visit yesterday and joined us for a ludicrously large dinner, which helped take the edge off a frustrating 48 hours.  And on Sunday, my mom, who twenty-seven years ago gave me life, biked in downtown Chicago from midnight to sunrise for the L.A.T.E. ride, and then spent the entire rest of her day off on the phone and online trying to get us home from Albany.  Thanks, Mom.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Plan, Part 2: Matt

But wait, there's more!

I'll have a few things to do in Mexico as well.

In August, I'll take a "Spanish Language for Ministry" immersion course through CETLALIC, a language school located in Cuernavaca, a town about 50 miles south of Mexico City.  Apparently the first exam in the program is to get yourself, a non-Spanish-speaking gringo, from Mexico City to your host family's residence in Cuernavaca via bus and taxi (and meet and greet the host family and all that) without your fluent-in-Spanish wife's assistance.  Nice.

In September I'll begin taking four seminary courses at the ELCA's Lutheran Center in Mexico City as part of a Mexico Semester Program administered by Luther Seminary.  (But I'll miss the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago...  there, that should balance out the publicity.)  This is actually the first time they've done a full semester program at the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, so we're all interested to see what it'll be like.

I'll finish up this program in December, and then Chris and I will head to Guadalajara, where I've no idea what I'll do yet.  But it's kind of nice, actually, only having to think about six months ahead.  The spring will have enough troubles of its own....

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Plan, Part 1: Chris

Welcome to our blog! Here we’ll recount our raucous travels as we explore the land of our neighbors to the south from July 2008 to July 2009. If you've only heard bits and pieces of why we're going, here’s the 411:

Chris is working on a PhD in Latin American History at Indiana University. She has completed three years of classes (2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06). Then she took a break so that I could begin seminary classes in Chicago.

For the last two years she has worked full time, both at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science and the Lutheran School of the Theology at Chicago (yes, at the same time). Now she's ready to return to her program.

In the next two years she’ll do research in Mexico (2008-09) and then write her dissertation and defend it (2009-2010). And then, finally, she hopes to have her PhD.

That’s the big picture. Zooming in on the short-term...

In the next year, Chris plans to research how religious practices change when the faithful move from one country to another. To get at this idea, she’ll take a close look at devotion to the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos in central Mexico, and what happens when her devotees move from central Mexico to the U.S., and the Midwest of the U.S. in particular. She'll spend her time both in historical archives and in interviews with individual people.

And, lest we think enthusiasm for Chris's project lies only within our little circle, enthusiastic support - financial and otherwise - is already coming in: a few months ago, Chris was awarded a Fulbright-Hayes grant by the U.S. Department of Education.