Sunday, August 31, 2008

Photo Gallery: Best of the Centro Historico

More pictures, as promised... These are from the week we stayed downtown, in the Centro Historico. Hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed exploring!

Best of the Centro Historico

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Photo Gallery: Best of Tepoztlan

Hola faithful readers! In response to a couple of requests for more photos, I'm going to try uploading some albums and then linking to them from the blog. I have roughly 8 hundred bazillion pictures, so I'm trying to pick the best (and stay within Google's storage limit). The first gallery is from a month ago, but we'll go from there. Please let me know if the link doesn't work, or if y'all have any other requests!

Que tengan buen fin de semana!

Best of Tepoztlan

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Roommate

Tomorrow my roommate-in-Cuernavaca leaves for home. He’s leaving a day earlier than everyone else because of some screwy scheduling by an airline that is not United. Tonight he said his goodbyes by making us all bananas foster – a dessert I’ve had only once before, with equally fond memories of friendship and laughter.

Anyway, after dessert David (en espanol pronounced Dahv-EED, which is how I pronounce it every time I write it here) gave each of us a little goodbye, and I even got a hat out of the deal! The hat was from a mission trip he’d taken a youth group on in New Orleans. I was moved, but, as usual, had no decent reply ready. Which is where a blog comes in handy. What I write here doesn’t say everything – it isn’t possible – it does amount of my feeble attempt to say something about what my time with David has meant to me.

While this is, obviously, sort of a public thank you to one person, I hope it gives everybody else a window into a major slice of my experience these last three weeks. It is but one example of the people you meet for only a brief moment in time but who impact you in ways far beyond your expectations.


I have to be honest. When my roommate first arrived in Cuernavaca, I was skeptical. Here I am, the classic introvert, sitting in my new room taking a few minutes to adjust to my new surroundings, when I hear this guy coming up the stairs, talking nonstop to our host and dragging the biggest suitcase you’ve ever seen (or heard coming up the stairs, for that matter). Dude comes in and immediately tells me his life story and all I can do is inwardly shake my head in wonder at how these two opposite personalities have been placed together for two weeks. O Lord, You have got the weirdest sense of humor.

Within ten minutes David had told me his call story and then asked me about mine. My call story?! I’d been wandering around Mexico for two weeks; my call story seemed like something from another life. Deer-in-the-headlights, anyone? I babbled something for five minutes straight and I can’t remember anything coherent that I said. But what I do remember is that every time I looked over to this new roommate of mine, he was listening intently, no matter how incoherent I was being. By the end of the night, I knew I liked this guy. By the end of the week I wasn’t just laughing (though, gracias a Dios, I was still doing that) I was thanking God we had been placed together.

Here’s the first thing I liked about rooming with David: He’s got a great sense of humor. As y’all reading this probably already know, that’s pretty much the first requirement for being my friend: you gotta be able to laugh easy. And David definitely laughs easy. (Need I mention huaraches?!) My personal favorite story in this strain occurred when I learned David's least favorite song ever and then immediately realized I had it on my computer. Within minutes of his telling me the story of why he hated it, the gentle 70s sounds of Seals and Crofts' "Summer Breeze" were gently wafting out of my little laptop. (As Chris put it, "That is almost exactly the kind of thing that Matt and his roommate would do to each other in college. I mean, it really falls into the long Matt Keadle tradition of roommate torture...") We had a lot of laughter in that little upstairs room, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through those two weeks in Cuernavaca without it.

Here’s the second thing I liked about rooming with David: He’s a great pastor. It was truly a gift to learn under his shadow these last few weeks. As thrown off as I was by the sudden call for call stories, I was struck by the way David put practicing hospitality near the core of his calling as a pastor. And then I heard story after story from David about his life’s work and his many experiences, and many of those stories will stick with me as I prepare for the next steps in my own vocational journey. But most of all, I learned from his example. So often in our visits to Mexican homes or charlas (chats) with local residents or Bible studies with local groups (see especially the blog post Altavista from August 19 or The Face of God from August 23) lots of us – mostly myself – would be left speechless by the power of the experience. But after this brief moment of quiet, David nearly always had a well-formed affirmative word to say. I still remember how moved I was when he told Elena her house, physically made only of thick concrete and corrugated metal was “strong, very strong.” He said it in English but you knew she got the message, both in its physical and metaphorical truth. And then in the Bible study I was totally reduced to nothing, but all of a sudden here comes David’s voice using the words of the New Testament to affirm what these people were doing in this little Bible study. Here was the voice of the pastor, speaking loud and clear and speaking a blessing in a place the other religious leaders had abandoned (the current church leadership in Cuernavaca is opposed to these small-group Bible studies), and as he spoke the people nodded in agreement and I thought this, this is what the pastor can do, amid all that is wrong with the world, this is what the pastor can do, this is a role for the pastor. We joke about me having a future internship with David, but in truth I’ve already had one. As ridiculous as it sounds, for these few weeks, I had a mentor.

Here’s the third thing I liked about rooming with David, which is personal and only works because of the strange twists of fate God uses to change us: David has got exactly the right personality to draw me out of myself quickly. Those of you who know me well know how hard this can be, how hard it can be to draw me out, the introvert who is often so very guarded and cautious around new people (as Hannah put it once, "It took Matt awhile to decide if he wanted to be friends with us...") How can I put this better? Here is one example: David and I were both here in this program in part to learn Spanish, and as part of the program we were placed in a homestay so we could practice. My approach to this practicing is to go into my head, think of some Spanish vocab, conjugate the verbs, rearrange the nouns and adjectives, then try to construct a sentence and see if our host will understand. David’s approach is to gesticulate wildly, acting out what he’s trying say as if he were a mime, speaking mostly English but very clear English, and throwing in Spanish words whenever he can think of them (at least, David, this is what it seems like to me). And here’s the thing: what David did to communicate almost always seemed to work! So by the end of the week, here I am, certainly using what Spanish I know but also when I can’t think of a word throwing in a little miming action, like driving an invisible steering wheel for the verb to drive… I have to be careful, because I really am trying to learn Spanish carefully and systematically during this long year abroad, but I think David’s influence has drawn me out of my shell a bit, made me a bit braver about trying to communicate with people even if I don't have the language figured out perfectly just yet. It's made me a bit more willing, despite all of my inner self-doubts and worries, to just give it a try and go for it.

Anyway, these kinds of experiences like this immersive language program are supposed to be “transformative,” right? Well, I can tell you this much right now: the first way in which I was transformed on this particular trip was through the time I spent with David.

Gracias, David.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tarea 8/22 - Translation

In response to several requests for a translation, including one from "From Michigan with Love," an anonymous poster (ahem, Adam) who has managed to blitz my comments section in the last few days (thanks dude - I am laughing out loud, both at your comments and at the Cards' chances for catching up). The following is my Tarea (Homework) from last week, which was, of course, originally done in Spanish. It's much more fun in Spanish - these are uber-simple sentences, people. Scroll down to the earlier post to see what it would look like en Espanol. (But even in Spanish, no one seemed to get No. 9...)

Question: How is your love for God?


1. My love for God is like the love of a Cub for his mother.

2. My love for God is like the love of a guitar for its guitarist.

3. My love for God is like the love of a color for its painter.

4. My love for God is like the love of a citizen for his country.

5. My love for God is like the love of a ball for its player.

6. My love for God is like the love of corn for its farmer.

7. My love for God is like the love of chocolate for coffee.

8. My love for God is like the love of a drunk for a cantina (bar).

9. My love for God is like the love of a mosquito for a man.

10. My love for God is not like the love of God for me.


The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I am back in D.F. (i.e. Mexico City), and for a few days Chris and I were back together. Chris came with my class on our weekend excursions to Plaza San Jacinto and the Zocalo downtown, and she joined us for all of our meals. It was great to have her as part of the group: I certainly felt more complete, and I think she enjoyed being able to interact with a friendly group of people after living in a big house by herself for two weeks. (Plus, she got to show off some of her knowledge of Mexican history on our tours – my wife is so cool. ☺)

But now Chris has left for a hotel downtown, where she’ll stay for a few days with other Fulbright grantees as a sort of orientation to the program, etc. So now I am all alone in a big house by myself. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But of course, it’s not really that bad. My companeros are staying in the house right next door, which is where we share meals, etc. For the last three days we have had full days of language classes. On the positive side, my beginner class has learned lots of new forms and tenses at a faster pace than before, but on the negative side we’re no longer in homestays with Mexican families, so we’re not practicing as much Spanish in real situations as much as we were the last two weeks. I am really looking forward to being done with these particular classes, just so I can get out of the little compound of the Lutheran Center, because it’s starting to make me claustrophobic: y’all know how I need my exploring time…

One item of note from the weekend: On Sunday evening we went to a worship service at San Pedro Martir, a progressive Roman Catholic church just south of here (to anticipate your question, Lutheran churches are hard to come by in Mexico…). San Pedro Martir is, like most iglesias barrios (neighborhood churches) here, set within a low-walled courtyard. There is a small older building, probably hundreds of years old (such a thing is quite possible in Mexico, where it seems like most of the old churches are older than the United States), and then there is a newer building, also small and very simple but with walls almost entirely of glass, so that the service seems to be almost outdoors.

Inside the sanctuary of San Pedro off to one side there is a sort of wax-figure of San Pedro Martir – Saint Peter the Martyr. I don’t know much about this particular San Pedro’s martyrdom, other than that he was killed by an axe to the head. I know this because in the wax-figure statue, the axe is still there, in his head. San Pedro’s eyes are still open, and he is holding a Bible…he looks pretty much like a normal saint, except for the, um, axe-in-the-head. Kim, our leader at the Lutheran Center, finds it amazing that his eyes continue to remain so serene-looking, despite the fact that he has had an axe in his head for decades.

San Pedro Martir is also very welcoming of visitors, including the many visitors Kim brings there as part of the Lutheran Center programs. As part of their warm welcome, they will typically invite the visitors to sing a song for the congregation. Yep. If your visiting group feels the need to be a choir for the day, San Pedro is the place to go. Following a group reflection on a related Bible story the previous evening, our group opted to sing "Pescador de Hombres," known in English as "You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore." (It’s in the ELW hymnal in both English and Spanish.) At some point someone got the impression that I was a musician, and so I was asked to accompany the group with my guitar. (I hadn’t played in a month, so I tried to dampen expectations, but of course one of the reasons I took guitar lessons was for just this sort of occasion, so…) David, my roommate in Cuernavaca, also plays the guitar, so we worked out the chords (which were written in a different notation in our Spanish songbooks – who knew chords had to be translated too?) and practiced for the half-hour or so before it was time to leave.

When it came time to perform, our song went over well, but the best part was that, once they realized what song it was, the whole congregation joined in, singing a song they knew by heart. It reminds me of what Zach told me about Pete Seeger, that he didn’t do concerts to hear himself sing, he did them to hear the audience sing along together. It was a communal event, truly.

So I am glad I brought my guitar. You never know when you're going to need it...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gracias, Senora Roselia.

Gracias, Senora Roselia. Gracias for welcoming us into your casa, giving us so many comforts of home at a time when we were so far from home - homes both near and far. Every morning and afternoon and evening you served us the most delicious comida, prepared with care and served with pride. You had unbelievable patience with my fledgling Spanish and helped me learn in conversation. As we prepared to say goodbye this morning I saw your eyes grow watery, though we have only been here for two weeks. This morning we gave you small gifts of thanks, and to our surprise you had gifts for us! This has been the greatest surprise of Mexico: Arriving with expectations and having them obliterated with unpredictable, unbelievable gifts.

Por su hospitalidad, Senora Roselia, gracias.

The Face of God

On Saturday my language class and I go to Mexico City. Nobody here calls it Mexico City, or even la Ciudad de Mexico; instead the monster of MEX is known invariably as either simply Mexico (pronounced Me-hee-ko) or as the initials D.F. (which is pronounced Day-Effay and stands for the Distrito Federal, in the same way that D.C. stands for the District of Columbia). So, to summarize: On Saturday we go to D.F.

More importantly, on Saturday, Chris and I get to live together again. (I’m reminded of a Box Tops song: “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane…ain’t got time to take a fast train…lonely days are gone, I’m a goin home…”)

But CETLALIC (our language and culture school) had saved one last experience for us before leaving Cuernavaca. On Friday en la tarde (generally, the time between lunch and sundown) we were invited to join in a meeting of a Christian Base Community in the Altavista neighborhood.

The community meets once a week in the home of one of its members to discuss the events of the previous week, to sing a song, to read the Bible, to connect the Bible readings to the events of their lives, to sing another song, and then, always, to celebrate with food and drink.

I am ashamed to say that I was not particularly looking forward to this. I was tired. Well, I suppose I was not physically tired, just tired of sitting and listening to people talk. That the meeting would be in the late afternoon, the sleepiest time of day, was not helping. But that afternoon, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I was surprised by grace.

We arrived, for the second time that week, in an poor neighborhood where the road is crumbling, where the houses seem patched together with slabs of concrete and corrugated metal, and where dogs and chickens roam the alleyways, squawking or staring or both. We walk down the road a few paces and are ushered into a…convenience store? Yes, it is one of those hole-in-the-wall places that are everywhere in Mexico where you can buy a Coke or a bag of chips, and behind the counter of this store lies a door that leads to the three very, very small rooms where the family lives. Past these rooms there is a small outdoor patio, lined with green plants of all kinds and today encircled with a ring of wooden chairs and plastic stools.

We fit ourselves in like sardines with those who have already gathered but we are not the least bit uncomfortable because already we realize that we have entered – nay, have been welcomed to someplace special. In the middle of the room is a table on which there is a vase of red roses, a lit candle, a coffee can for an offering, and a visible offering of canned goods that will later be distributed to those in the neighborhood who have even less than the people here (the poor giving to the poorer…).

The itinerary of the meeting is explained to us – in Spanish with some translation – and at some point I am handed a Bible. I am not sure what to do with it. Find the verse, ok, should I read it? No, not yet. I can follow the basics of what is going on but the details fly past me in a language I haven’t mastered yet. Suddenly we are standing and singing a song, twenty-some people sharing three tattered songbooks. Now someone is praying, now it is the Lord’s prayer, I recognize it, now we are crossing ourselves – at least, the Catholics are and a few of us Lutherans join in. The teacher’s strike is discussed. It has closed the public schools for this, the first week of classes. There seems to be some disagreement – some lament that the children are not learning, but others point out that they were not learning much to begin with because of the corrosive corruption in the school system and the resulting lack of adequate classrooms and qualified teachers.

Without much warning the discussion of local events is brought to a close. A story from Acts is read. Someone speaks up to point out a correlation between the Biblical story and the situation of the striking teachers. After a few minutes a story from Philippians is read, and a few minutes after that a story from the Gospel of Matthew. After each story someone in the group makes a connection between the Scriptural witness and the life of the community. Every once in awhile someone says something to make everyone else nod in agreement or says something to make everyone laugh.

Finally things seem to draw to a close, and we are standing again, and singing another hymn. I cannot see any of the three songbooks so I just listen. We sit down again, and now comes a giant tray of Styrofoam cups. There is a hot, milky substance in them – atole, a drink made from cornflour and milk and sugar and usually a few other ingredients, in this case rice. I don’t like the look of the congealed skin on the top of the milky drink but I take a cup anyway: this is hospitality, invited participation in this community, and I am not about to refuse it. Out comes another tray, this time full of sugary empanadas that turn out to be filled with something like rice pudding. They are delicious. As we eat we are told: This is the celebration part of the meeting, and it is very, very important. Later I realize just how close it is to the Sunday liturgy of Word and Meal.

As we prepare to leave one of the pastors in our group speaks up to affirm the work of the community out loud. He explains something about the book of Acts and cites another Scripture in a clear affirmation of the work of this community, and something about the way he says it moves me and reminds me of why I felt called to be a pastor in the first place. Later I learn that priests and even the local Bishop used to attend and encourage these meetings, but no more. Now the church leadership is trying to stamp out these little groups. I still am unable to get a satisfying answer why.

We stand and file out, shaking hands and thanking everyone profusely, making quite a racket but once we are back on the street we are quieter than usual again, reflective, I suppose, each in our own way.

All of us have reactions to experiences like this and some of those reactions are wildly different. On the way home I learned that one of our number reacted with anger – she was furious, really, not at the people but at the fact of their poverty. The experience of the disparity between our life experience and theirs left her with the righteous anger of the Hebrew prophets and psalmists. She was right, I think – someone should be angry at how much harder things can be for those who have so little in the way of economic resources, at how inexcusably those in charge – in government, in business, and yes, in the church – have abandoned their charges and abdicated their responsibilities.

Lord knows I’ve been bitterly angry about just this sort of thing on too many occasions. And yet on this day her anger was still jarring to me because it had no place in my own reaction. It’s surprising, really, considering the bitter rage I’ve felt about injustice at other times in my life. But this time I simply felt moved, deeply, rumblingly moved, as if a San Andreas fault inside of me had shifted and shaken away all of the excesses that had been slowly crystallizing around my heart. God opened my heart, as Bono suggests, by breaking it. And then God opened my eyes.

I saw God in the beauty of the people:

In the experienced wisdom of God, the cultivated memories of God, the faithful endurance of God that lies in the minds and hearts and faces of the older generation.

In the leap-of-faithful leadership of God that drives the middle generation to organize these gatherings week after week, even in the face of controversy from the powers that be.

In the eyes and ears and tongues of God in the inexplicable presence of children who sit among their parents and grandparents and make the most elegantly perfect contributions to the conversation and consolation that happens in this sacred place.

And finally, I saw God – nay, I tasted God in our holy communion of sugary, rice-filled empanadas and hot milky atole. It was sacramental. There was no other word for it.

At the end, an unexpected gift: A benediction, a blessing from the abuelo of the community, spoken in Spanish and translated for us by the lone Roman Catholic in our class, a gift, a gift, truly. This weathered child of God left us with these simple words:

May God and the virgin be with you on your way.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Tarea 8/22

Pregunta: Como es su amor hacia Dios?


1. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de un cachorro para su mama.

2. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de una guitarra para su guitarrista.

3. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de un color para su pintor.

4. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de un ciudadano para su patria.

5. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de un balon para su jugador.

6. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor del maiz para su granjero.

7. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor del chocolate para el cafe.

8. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de un borracho para una cantina.

9. Mi amor para Dios es como el amor de un mosquito para un hombre.

10. Mi amor para Dios no es como el amor de Dios para mi.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Month in the Land of Maria

Our days here are generally pretty full. We have desayuno (breakfast) at our homestay at 8:15am. Classes begin at 9:00am and go until 12:00pm. Then we have a lecture or excursion in which we learn about the culture and current events in Mexico, followed by comida (the main meal of the day) at 2pm. Then there is typically another lecture in the afternoon or evening before we go home to do our tarea (homework). At my homestay we have cena (a light evening meal) around 8pm, which usually consists of brewed coffee or atole (a thick, cornmeal-based hot chocolate-y kind of drink) and an assortment of sweet breads from the panaderia.

We’ll usually finish the day by watching the Juegos Olimpicos (Mexico just won another medalla de oro! – gold medal!) or futbol (the Mexican national team just beat Honduras in a Copa Mundial – World Cup – qualifying match!) or sometimes both at the same time (today they were running almost a split screen when the Mexican football team was playing at the same time that Mexican divers were competing in the Olympics). There are also an assortment of channels playing American movies and TV shows that are either dubbed into Spanish or in English with subtitles. This evening I especially enjoyed watching a 90s music nostalgia show on VH-1 – it’s pretty awesome to see Kriss Kross lyrics translated into Spanish.

My Spanish is coming along, but I feel like my language aircraft has stalled a bit this week. I suppose that feeling is to be expected: When you first start out it’s like blasting off; all of a sudden you know twice as much as you did the day before! By the second week you don’t feel that same sense of G-force progress – at least, I don’t. And for some reason I feel like my Spanish has gotten worse in the last few days; maybe my brain is tired. On the bright side, I did manage to get my laundry done yesterday without incident, so at least I’ve improved on my ability to make a successful trip to the lavanderia.

Today we went on an excursion to nearby Tepoztlan, which was old hat for me because, as you may recall, Chris and I spent our first week in Mexico there. I started thinking about the day Chris and I first arrived in Tepoztlan. Then I realized that day was ONE MONTH AGO. That’s right folks, we’ve been in Mexico for a month.

Yesterday we had a long day of classes and lectures that were all inside the school. By the end of the day, even though it was almost sundown, I needed to get outdoors and walk around. I figured I had about 30 minutes before Chris and I had a scheduled phone conversation (an event which amazingly involves local phone cards that don’t always work, pay phones on street corners that don’t always work, and much frustration). I decided to walk out for 15 minutes and then turn around.

I started down Avenida Morelos trying hard not to look like a tourist. There are lots of cars leaving work – the Mexican workday is often, roughly from 9am-2pm, then the main meal of the day, and then people return to work from 4-8pm or later. “Dancing in the Dark” is blasting its way out of one car; traditional ranchera music out of another. Little hole-in-the-wall restaurants line the streets, and each one is enticing customers to come in and try their tacos al pastor by cooking the meat, smothered in some kind of red spice, on a vertical spit that is right next to the sidewalk. Insert-item-here-erias are everywhere: Panaderias (Bakeries), Lavanderias (Laundromats), Papelerias (Copy shops), Zapaterias (Shoe stores), Tortillerias (Tortilla shops), Famaceria (Pharmacy), Hambuergeserias (Hamburgers), and even a Veterinaria (Veterinarian’s Office). We joke that the church – an iglesia – should be called a Dioseria, or a Graceria, or a Sacramenteria.

My time is up, so I look for a place to turn around. As if on cue, I find a peaceful little square I hadn’t noticed before. There is a statue of Mary at one end of it. I walk past the half-dozen shoe-shiners and the pairs of young people making out everywhere. In the U.S. teenagers go to secluded spots to make out. In Mexico they just go to the nearest public square. The serene statue of Mary watches over all of them here, even as she holds her baby in her arms. I take a few pictures, then take a closer look at the statue’s dedication plaque. Yep – this statute was definitely donated by the Lion’s Club. Lion’s Club or not, it’s time for cena, so I turn to head back. It is the end of a full day.

And a full month.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Often when we tell stories the original event becomes bigger in the retelling. Even when the stories are true, in the retelling we dress up nouns with fantastic adjectives and enhance verbs with dramatic pauses and accent everything with physical gestures and facial expressions; the process is not unlike like a painter recreating a scenic vista or a photographer framing a shot in order to capture a moment to remember later or to share with others who are not there.

And then there are times when no matter how you tell the story, no matter how many colors you use or how far back you pull your camera’s wide-angle lens you know that you will never be able to capture the experience in any recreated form. In the retelling of this kind of story the actual event cannot be enlarged but only, inevitably, inescapably diminished.

This evening we drove to a barranca (ravine) on the edge of town, and then walked for fifteen minutes down an almost vertical pathway to visit the home of a single mother in Cuernavaca. She and her four children live in a one-room house that is smaller than the one-room studio apartment Chris and I shared during our first year together in Bloomington. The house is made of cement and a corrugated metal roof. The corrugated metal roof is new; only a few months ago they lived under roof full of holes that leaked whenever it rained. It rains almost every day.

She was born in the neighboring state of Guerrero, one of the poorest states in a poor country. She married when she was sixteen and bore her first child shortly after that. Three more children followed, nearly one every year for the first four years of marriage.

During all this time her husband was physically and emotionally abusive. He threatened to kill her if she left him. She would cry in the night and the neighbors would ask her what was wrong and she would say “nothing, nothing.” One day she asked her husband if things could change. He told her that she was a woman and knew nothing, that she was a woman and was worthless, that she was a woman and was nothing without him. In that moment she realized that it was never going to change: he would continue to abuse her and she would continue to have more and more and more children. And so she decided to take her four children, one only three months old, and leave.

She could think of nowhere to go except to an aunt she had in Cuernavaca, a city far from her home. Her aunt did not have much to give – she did not have much herself – but she helped her niece find a job cleaning houses and found her a little patch of land near the bottom of the ravine on the edge of town. This neighborhood is Altavista, already relatively poor, but as you descend the ravine the economic level drops ever more precipitously. There is no mistaking it from the changing construction of the homes as you walk further and further down the steps.

And the lack of adequate money makes everything harder. In Mexico public education is free, but there is still a 500 peso (about 50 US dollars) registration fee for each child at the beginning of the school year, and children must arrive at school on the first day with not only notebooks and pencils but also uniforms and textbooks, none of which is provided by the school. The family’s income is 900 pesos (about 90 US dollars) a week. Back-to-school is one of the most difficult times of the year.

Yet despite the heavy burdens that the family carries there is something impossible here, something as impossible as remembering a baptism in the face of death, something as impossible as an empty tomb. Joy. More: faith, hope, dreams, laughter. Mostly: Love.

Do not allow me to portray this love as something you might find in a Hallmark movie. No. This is a burning fiery love, the kind of love that walks for miles with four very young children to rescue them from a life of death, the kind of love that forbids the children from cursing their abusive father for fear it will sow bitterness in their young hearts, the kind of love that burns away illusions to reveal the holiness inside this home.

The woman who spoke to us, today age thirty-two, was a little nervous and wiped away tears as she told us her story, but something inside of her must be made of steel for her to lead her family the way she has. And yet whatever is in her to make her as steely on the inside as she has had to be has also managed to create an atmosphere of breathe-able happiness inside this home. When we arrived the children lined up nervously, giggling as the oldest daughter, now high school age, explained that they needed to go because they were going to play with their cousins. Before they left our teacher asked them a few questions: What did they like to do, etc. They liked to read and listen to music, to watch movies and to dance, they told us with the biggest grins you’ve ever seen.

One of our group, who with his wife has brought two young children along on this language immersion trip, asked her if she had any advice for raising kids. Me?! she asked with a shocked laugh. Si, said our teacher, smiling, eres una persona con muchas experiencia! (you are a person with much experience!). She took a deep breath, and then talked for ten minutes straight barely stopping to take a breath. But all I can remember is this: You must make a home with love. When her children get home from school, she says, she makes sure that the family spends time talking to each other – and even writing to each other. She writes them notes telling them how much she loves them. And they write her notes, stuffing them in with her lunch where they know she will find them when she is at work, notes telling her how strong they think she is to be raising them all alone, and how much they look up to her, and how much they love her.

Another of our group asks where she finds her strength. Instead of answering in the abstract she talks about one of our teachers, her friend, who she met at church. Our teacher noticed that she always seemed so sad, that she would cry at mass, but that she cared for her children with such tenderness and love. They became friends, and our teacher, who has quite a life story herself, began to help her any way she could, sometimes watching the children, sometimes making sure the family got food, sometimes distributing notebooks and pencils at the beginning of the school year, and always with encouragement, encouragement, encouragement.

As we are preparing to leave, one of our teachers tells us why we are here. You have not been brought here, she said, to feel bad for this woman, to think what a sad story it is, what a hard life she has. You have been brought here to understand that she is not the only one, that her neighbors all have similar stories, that there are others throughout the country with stories like this, and that there are people in your community, too, who have stories just like this, people who are some of the hardest-working in the world but who still struggle to afford something as simple as notebooks and pencils for their children at the beginning of the school year. Remember them. You need them as much as they need you.

O God, be with your people. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


On Saturday we went to some thousand-year-old ruins about an hour south of Cuernavaca called Xochicalco. Xochicalco is not a Spanish word but comes from the indigenous language of Nahuatl; in Nahuatl it means “the place of the house of the flowers.”

Despite the name, there are not any flowers here, unless you count the flowery feathers growing out of the carved dragons that encircle the base of Xochicalco’s crown jewel piramide. This stone snake is Quetzacoatl, the Plumed Serpent, chiseled into rock over and over and once, many years ago, painted in bright colors of blood red and sun yellow and sky blue and sea green.

(Above: The Plumed Serpent.)

Legend had it that Quetzacoatl had left his people and had promised to return, and as he left he transformed into gleaming white (sound familiar?). Many years later this legend would rear its head again, as Cortes’ arrival sparked rumors that the arriving Europeans might just be the second coming of the long-lost serpent king. The rumors led to a devastating foreign policy in which Moctezuma welcomed Cortes with open arms. He met his demise soon after.

The legend of the Plumed Serpent haunts this place, to be sure, but it is overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape that surrounds Xochimilco.

(Above: The Xochimilco ballcourt. The winners of the game won the right to be sacrificed to the gods (or so the legend goes). Little known-fact: The Xochimilcoans were big University of Illinois fans - look at the picture-perfect "I" in that ballcourt.)

Mexico is full of pyramids – Egypt is only a lightweight contender in comparison. The pyramids at Chichen Itza, only hours from Cancun and recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, are hidden deep in the jungles of the Mayan Yucatan. The great temples of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan, a mere hour from Mexico City, were already ruins when the Aztecs found them crumbling in the desert.

But Xochimilco’s ancient ruins have a special place in the collection of pyramids that are scattered throughout Mexico. Xochicalco’s ruined city lies on a cropped hilltop amid misty green mountains, with a blue lagoon at its feet. When we arrived at the visitor’s center, located a small valley away from the pyramids, the thick morning mist seemed to give the grey ruins in the distance an otherworldly quality.

Our visit, much like the lifetime of Xochicalco, was short. I would have liked to have spent all day clambering over the pyramids or straining my eyes to take in as much of the landscape as the staggering mountain view allowed. Alas, it was not to be so. We walked through the ruins at a brisk pace, climbing one or two of the stone structures, walking through two ballcourts, and spending a few minutes inside a cave with a single light shaft that once served as an observatory for ancient astronomers.

On our way out we found a six-foot long strip of white scaly skin left behind by a molting rattlesnake. At least, we think it was a rattlesnake. White skin? Serpent shape?

It was definitely time to go.

"Es muy rica, no?"

I was walking back to my homestay on Friday night when I noticed the Cubs game on a television in a semi-outdoor bar. The Cubs game! So, naturally, I sat down at a table to watch it and to read a few more pages of my book during commercials. That’s right, I was won of those people drinking at a bar alone. But it was the Cubs game! In Mexico!

So anyway I decided to order a michelada. Have you seen and/or tried the new Miller Chill available in the States? That’s basically a bottled version of michelada. In Mexico you can order any beer michelada style and they'll bring you a glass about a quarter of the way full of fresh lime juice and salt all around the rim. At least, that’s what they usually bring you.

This time the barman brought me a glass with salt around the rim and goopy-looking black stuff in it. Seriously, it looks like someone has blended random garbage with molasses, put it in a blender, and poured into my glass. As the bartender proceeded to pour my Victoria (a Mexican brand of cerveza) into the goopy sludge, he says “Con limon y salsa, si?” (With lime and salsa, yes?)

Uhh…what? Limon y salsa? “Es muy rica, no?” (It’s very delicious, no?) Wanting to seem like I know what’s going on, I act like I get it: “Ahh, si” I say, nodding my head, as if bubbly black goop was exactly what I thought I was ordering. Well, it does sound interesting, doesn’t it? Salsa in beer? Ok, I’ll bite. I’ll just pretend it doesn’t look like black goop. I take a sip – HOLYCRAPTHATSDISGUSTING. I swallow hard to get it down and try not to throw up in my mouth.

But there’s no getting that black goop out of my beer now, and I am determined to watch this Cubs game! I take another drink – my taste buds are hurling obscenities at me and swearing they will get revenge. Ten minutes later, I take another drink. My taste buds have packed up and left town. Now I can begin to tell why they called it salsa – whatever chiles are in it have coated my throat in and have lit it on fire. To make matters worse, my Cubbies are losing. Maybe, I think, maybe if I finish this drink, they will win – like karma. I take another sip and swallow hard, hoping it will help Soriano hit one outta the park. He strikes out.

Half an hour later the man comes back and says, “Hoy, especial: dos por uno. Queires uno mas?” (Today, a special: 2 for 1. Would you like one more?) That’s not a special, I think, it’s a sick joke. “Ah,” I say, pretending to consider it before shaking my head. “No, no gracias. Estoy bien.

I nurse my single beer through the seventh inning. I want to stay and finish the game on the off chance they pull out the victory, but the sun has gone down and I can see lightning flashes in the distance. I have at least a half-hour walk home, so I decide I had better get going. “La cuenta, por favor?” (Check, please.)

As I escape the music of the bar, I can see the lightning was not alone: thunder has joined it and is rumbling ominously. I walk fast. Halfway home, it begins to drip. I walk faster. The sky grows louder, and now it is a full-fledged rain. I stuff my camera in a plastic bag and pull my jacket over my backpack and begin to run. By the time I reach my lodging I am in a torrential downpour. Cuernavaca is all steep hills and valleys, and as I run up the steep hill to my homestay the water is rushing down the hill as if it is a natural river. La tormenta, always la tormenta

Later I found out the Cubs actually came from behind to win in a late inning. Maybe the karma worked after all…. Which got me to thinking: How many bad micheladas does it take to win a World Series?


Friday was the celebration of the Asuncion de Maria. In Cuernavaca the name of the main catedral is Asuncion, so you know they are not going to let this one pass without a fiesta.

I wandered down to the cathedral in the early evening. The cathedral is walled in like a fortress, a testament to dangerous days long gone; the garrison-ready walls don’t keep people out anymore. I walk in under the main arched entrance. There is a full-blown market inside, and people are milling about everywhere. Music emanates from the cathedral – not from inside the cathedral but from outside it, from a sort of outdoor worship space the conquering Spaniards built for pagan worshippers who shied away from the dark high-ceilinged halls in which the Spaniards gathered, preferring to worship their ancient gods under the great blue sky of creation.

A fully-costumed mariachi band is playing religious songs in a folk-Mexican style with all manner of stringed instruments. There are a few rows of plastic chairs set out in front them, but most people are sitting on steps or leaning against walls or milling about or dancing or carrying their children around or buying tortas or selling tortas or simply passing the time until the indoor service starts. I watch the band for awhile, then sit down on some stone steps to read a few pages out of my book. Is it weird to read in the middle of a party in a church courtyard? Maybe, but I like being here, and there is so much going on that I doubt anyone would notice me. In Mexico it’s easy for me to be anonymous, even to pretend I’m an invisible observer. So I read: first, a travelogue about how coffee is harvested in Chiapas, then an excerpt of D.H. Lawrence describing the market in Oaxaca.

But I grow distracted: two boys are watching me. One looks to be about fifteen, the other maybe nine years old. They walk toward me, smiling nervously, stop, retreat a few feet, stop again, confer amongst themselves, laugh, then start toward me again. They repeat this pattern a few times; they want to say something to me but haven’t quite decided if they’re up to it. They see that I have noticed them, and now I feel awkward, so I put my head in my book to see if ignoring them will convince them to do what they intend to do.

Finally they resolve to do it: They walk up together, and the older boy hands me a sheet of paper. “Will you sign this please?” he says in broken English. The other boy is grinning widely. They have handed me a sheet of white printer paper on which someone has scrawled in black marker, in English: “Hello, my name is Roberto. What is your name? Do you like Mexico?” Underneath this someone else (presumably) has written: “Indeed, I like Mexico. Phillip.” I give the boys a half-confused smile and write “Yes, I like Mexico very much. Matt.” As I write two other boys, probably ten or eleven years old, huddle around me to see what I write.

When I am done the older boy thanks me and all of them run away quickly. I shake my head, trying to hide my smile, and watch the band for a few more minutes, and then I get up and leave, a little less invisible, it seems, than before.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere...

So one day after I write a post mentioning the weird attitudes about race in Mexico (squinty eyes, the Negrito), Chris discovers this just-published article on that goes into the phenomenon in much greater depth. It's written by a professor who attended the Tepoztlan conference with Chris just a few weeks ago!! How crazy is that?! Anyway, the article is called "Negrito Please" - check it out at

Friday, August 15, 2008

Los Juegos Olimpicos

Watching the Olympics in Mexico is a strange experience.

My first encounter with the Olympics here was at a lavanderia (Laundromat) last Friday. We don’t have a TV at the Lutheran Center, so I thought I was going to miss out on the opening ceremonies. But at the lavanderia there was a tv on, ostensibly so that the lone employee would have something to do in her otherwise empty store. The TV was broadcasting the ceremonial march of countries around the track. It’s not a whole lot to see, but I every once in a while I could understand an announcer saying the name of the country – in Spanish, of course. France, for example, is Francia; Germany is Alemania, Jamaica is spelled the same but pronounced Ha-mai-ka, and so on.

My second experience watching the Olympics was my first night in Cuernavaca. One of the first things my host mom offered mi companero and I was the remote for the TV. I think she told us the Juegos Olimpicos were on canal ochenta – channel 80. Then she left the house, I guess to go visit family. An hour later we decide to try and watch the Juegos Olimpicos. I try 80. No sports. 81 – no sports. No sports on any channel beginning with 8. Okay…so I keep flipping channels until finally I find one with an Olympic logo. Except it’s broadcasting Mexican soccer. Every five minutes or so, they flash “BEIJING TOTAL” (pronounced with the emphasis on the TAL) on the screen, but refrain from actually showing anything from Beijing. Finally the Mexican soccer match ends, and then begin the weirdest sports show I’ve ever seen. Granted, I don’t watch much sports analysis outside of PTI. But still. This “BEIJING TOTAL” prime-time coverage featured a yellow puppet with a Confucius beard (seriously), really cheesy Chinese music with gong sounds at totally random points, three male commentators each in a full suit and tie and one female commentator wearing hardly anything, and, finally, a “comic relief” guy that kept interrupting things with little skits in which he would pretend to cook a chicken but then be chased around the kitchen by the chicken (Chicagoans, think of the cartoon on a Harold’s Chicken sign; Dad, think of the Swedish chef) and then Mr. Comic Relief Guy would repeatedly pull the skin back from his eyes to make, yes, squinty eyes. Squinty eyes? Really? I remember like 15 years ago Harry Carey made some squinty eyes remark and almost got booted from WGN. Here they sell chocolate milk everywhere with a label that has a cartoon of a little African-American boy with a huge afro haircut on it and they call the drink “Negrito!” I don’t get it.

Anyway, this strange Juegos Olimpicos BEIJING TOTAL program had almost no visual sports coverage. Out of an hour, we maybe got five minutes of actual sports clips. I’m guess the announcers were talking about it, but of course I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and half the time instead of talking about the Olympics they were interacting with the strange racist skit guy. It was totally bizarre.

This program is repeated NIGHTLY. After a few days, we did find Olympics coverage in the mornings and daytime, but of course we have to go to school in the mornings and daytime. We would see beach volleyball being played on the TV at the local drugstore we passed on the way to school in the morning (there is a TV on in all of these little stores, which would totally not be allowed at my old Subway - there's something we should import), and I would gaze at it longingly. That’s right: I pined for the Olympics.

And then, all of a sudden, God heard my pining.

Still looking for a chance to actually watch some Olympic competitions, on Thursday night I decided to ask my host mom if we could watch los Juegos Olimpicos. Si, si, she said, and changed the channel. And that’s when I saw it: Actual sports being played! And not just any sport: Basketball. Basketball broadcast on a Mexican television station. Basketball in which American players were competing. Basketball, real basketball. I had hit the Olympic jackpot.

What followed was simultaneously the most awkward and the most enjoyable hour of time I have spent in my homestay. “Oh!” I exclaimed, “Basquet es mi deportivo favorito!” I sat down and immediately began drinking it in like it was water in the desert. There it was, a veritable NBA All-Star team, and the only commentary, which in English would just be annoying, were two Mexican announcers talking very fast and every once in awhile proclaiming a run-of-the-mill defensive play as “Excellente!” and peppering all of it with the recognizable names of players and teams in English (well, English with Mexican pronunciations – my favorite is the Utah Jazz – here called the Oo-tah Yazz).

I figured I would sit and watch it by myself; surely Mexicans don’t care much about basketball. Except then, lost in joy at having found basketball, I proceeded to ask a few random questions like “Estados Unidos y…Greece? Es Grecia? Grecia?” “Si, es Grecia…” she answers, and then sits down to watch the game with me!

Of course, I’m happy to have the company, but I’m thinking to myself, senora, if you don’t care much for basketball, you really don’t need to sit here with me, don’t feel obligated if there’s something else you’d rather be doing, I know this isn’t really a Mexican sport, and besides, you’ve never really shown interest in sports at all previously…

But of course, I didn’t know how to say anything quite that complicated, so I proceeded to say whatever I could think of to stave off the awkwardness of making my host mom watch the NBA versus Greece. “En el Equipo de Estados Unidos, no hay jugadores de el equpo de Chicago!” I say, and then I shake my head sadly. “No?” she says, genuinely surprised. And so on.

Then she asks me a question I can’t quite understand, and she repeats it and repeats it until finally I get that the question ends with “Yor-dan.” “Oh! Michael Jordan!” “Si,” she says, and then I think asks me if he’s on the team. How do I explain this? “No,” I say, “No ahora,” meaning not now. “Oh,” she says. Then does it again, asks me the same question a couple of different ways until I think I get that she’s telling me that in Mexico, they pick the best players from each team to be on the national team. Don’t they do this in the United States? “Si,” I say…but clearly there’s something still unresolved.

Then I realize that I know where all of these players are from – or at least, what city they currently play in. And today, in school, I learned how to say where people are from! Ha! I can practice my Spanish! I amuse myself for while by saying things like:

Dwayne Wade es el numero seis. El es de Miami.
Lebron James es el numero nueve. El es de Cleveland.

That’s right, doing my homework has suddenly transformed into watching basketball, as if lima beans had suddenly turned into ice cream! Deron Williams is playing, so I explain that he’s from the Universidad de Illinois and that he and mi hermano went to school together (ok, so Greg probably never had a class with Deron Williams, but I figured I didn’t really need to include that part). Then I talked some more about mis hermanos; because we were watching basketball, it was easy to point to people on the screen and explain that my brother is a basketball coach in the United States at an escuela segundaria (I think that’s right?).

After I explain where half a dozen players are from, she asks again about Yor-dan. Why isn’t he on the team? I have no idea how to say that he’s retired. As I pull out my Spanish-English dictionary, I try to explain: “Jordan no juego ahora,” I say, “Ahora, Jordan…Jordan es un golfo ahora.”

We continue chatting (sort of – I’m doing a ridiculous amount of guessing what she’s trying to say to me and grasping at verb tenses in my responses) throughout the second half. Later mi companero comes downstairs to join us just as the game is ending, and then there is, I don’t believe it, more sports coverage. When it rains, it pours.

We watch Michael Phelps cruise to victory, see a few track and field races, and witness a Mexican losing in archery. They show the medal count a few times. This is kind of awkward – the US is second to China, but Mexico…ranks at No. 43 with a single bronze medal, in synchronized diving (a sport I did not even know existed). But, the bronze medal is a HUGE deal – as well it should be, IS a medal – and the medalists are featured on the nightly news. They interview one of the medalists’ mom, who is surrounded by friends and family, and then they keep congratulating the medalist with graphics at every break. It reminds me of when Jennifer Hudson won the Oscar, and the local Chicago news media camped out on the South Side. Except that analogy bothers me, because the South Side of Chicago is one region of an American city, while Mexico is a whole gigantic country. Even in los Juegos Olimpicos, the two behemoths, China and the United States, are on the top of the heap, and I can't quite figure out, with all the coverage of Michael Phelps, how the success of the U.S. is all over the Mexican coverage.

So it’s a little topsy-turvey being an Estadounidense (the multisyllabic word for a citizen of the United States that we learned today – try to say it five times fast, or better yet, try to make a jingoistic song out of that one) in another country during the Olympics. Somewhere Yordan is smiling. I think.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Muchisimas gracias for all of the well-wishing after the downer post (Homesick Blues #1). I was a little hesitant about that one, but I´m trying to write (in an uber-detailed fashion, as you may have noticed over the last 3 weeks) about my experiences and I figured it would be dishonest to leave out the times that aren´t so hot. But I definitely did not expect to get so many responses to it through so many channels. I´m kind of overwhelmed by it... Anyway, we miss you all, and the support means a lot to both of us. Thanks. :)

La Paqueteria

Yesterday we learned a form of the verb hacer. The form is hay. Hay (roughly pronounced “I”) is great because you don’t have to conjugate it and you can use it with almost anything. From what I can gather it basically means “there is” or “there are” – either one, no conjugation! It’s like a gift from the language gods… (los dioses de linguas?)

Anyway our tarea (homework) was to make up a bunch of sentences with hay in them. So I pulled out the Wall-E notebook that Chris bought me and I began to write out sentences at my level, sentences that my 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Smith would have flagged immediately in her sing-songy voice as “first-grade sentences.”

En mi casa hay una ventilador. (In my house there is a ceiling fan.)
En mi casa hay uno plato de frutas. (In my house there is a plate of fruit.)

And so on. That was fun, but after finishing my tarea I went out exploring, to the Palacio de Cortes to check out the legendary murals Chris had told me about. The only problem was that I was afraid someone might say something to me about my backpack. You know how sometimes you have to check your bag, i.e. leave it with someone at a designated place when you enter a store or museum or something? Well, here in Mexico you have to do that all the time, in almost any decently sized tienda (store) or museo (museum). I’ve been tapped on the shoulder more than once by a security guard and been pointed to the paqueteria (place where you drop off your bags, or paquets?).

It’s not really a big deal, of course, but I wanted to avoid the dreaded shoulder-tap. So, armed with my new trusty hay, I decided to take the initiative: I marched into the museum, said a friendly buenas tardes to the clerk selling tickets, asked for my boleto (ticket), and then said, in a tone that made it sound like a question, Hay una paqueteria?

Si! said a voice a few feet away, and lo and behold, there was the paqueteria with a person smiling and waiting for me, clearly pleased I had asked about the paqueteria so she didn’t have to play the heavy. Success!

Okay, so clearly I’m not fluent yet. But when you’re a first-grader, you gotta soak up those small victories. Viva la victoria!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Homesick Blues #1

It is amazing the way that homesickness can wash over you when you least expect it.

On Tuesday afternoon I was wandering through the market in Cuernavaca, in the shadow of the Palacio de Cortes, when I saw some t-shirts with images of Emiliano Zapata on them. They reminded me of the Barack Obama t-shirts sold by tourist stores and roving salesmen in Grant Park. And then the pang of regret that I am not there, that I am no longer a part of something big that is going on back home, that I am no longer a part of that place, at least not in the same way, and then more as it all came rushing back:

The big blue of Lake Michigan, where we would go to breathe fresh air, the place where the city exhales, and how we would follow the bike path all the way up to downtown, pick up a Chipotle burrito or two and watch the kids playing in the fountains at the park and laugh and laugh and laugh and soak up the sunshine on a clear Chicago summer day.

And then it was gone, and I was back in the Cuernavaca market, alone, surrounded by a hundred people trying to sell me things, all the cacophonous noises of that place and not the cacophonous noises of my place. I sat down at the edge of the square and tried to read a book, but all the stories I read in it were tragic, which of course only made me more unhelpfully contemplative than before. I sat there and tried to find something to enjoy, but I kept coming back to the traffic, the traffic, even in this town that is a fraction of the size of Mexico City there is traffic, traffic that seems to strangle the zocalo it surrounds, traffic that seems to strangle everything. There is drumming in the distance, indigenous drumming, probably put on for the tourists, but the rock band on the other side of the square is louder…it doesn’t matter. Neither can overcome the continuously repeated sounds of a thousand cars driving two feet and stopping, driving two feet and stopping, the squeal of the tires, the smell of the exhaust – no, now of fresh coffee beans, the coffee shop nearby, hold on to that smell, close your eyes and forget the cars, imagine you are back in Bloomington, or Chicago, or anywhere that I have loved and been loved, anywhere, anywhere that I have called home.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sopa de Palabras

They call Cuernavaca “the land of the eternal spring” – la tierra de la enterna primavera. They ought to call it the land of the eternal summer, because right now it feels like Chicago in August. Whatever: I am convinced Cuernavaca came up with a fun-in-the-sun slogan to distract people from the fact that the word cuernavaca really means something about a cow – una vaca – which just doesn’t have the same vacationy ring to it.

I arrived here on Saturday in the late afternoon. Chris put me in a taxi and waved goodbye, and I was on my own. I didn’t understand everything the taxi driver and the bus ticket cashier said to me, but somehow I made it on the bus and down to Cuernavaca. When I got here I didn’t see the promised “official” taxi stand at the bus station, but I staved off a moment of panic and decided to take a chance on a taxi driver who seemed to have proper ID and an official-looking car. I don’t know whether he overcharged me or not (looking at the map later, I think he probably did) but I made it to the house of my homestay safely, and at that moment that was all that mattered. Language school task number 1: done.

My homestay “mom” is really nice. She’s an abuelita (grandma), with grandchildren in Arizona. Her house is very comfortable; there is a TV with cable on which we watch coverage of the Juegos Olimpicos (Olympic Games) nightly. The food is very good; there are few greater culinary pleasures than super-fresh tortillas from the tortilleria around the corner. Also, we have café con leche (coffee made with milk) every night with galletas (cookies) or pan de dulce (sweet bread). It’s not quite as good as the nightly helado (ice cream) that is the tradition in my family back home, but it’s a pretty great end to the day anyway.

Today was our second day of the language program, but only our first day of language classes. Yesterday we were taken on a tour of Cuernavaca. I’d been in Cuernavaca on a similar trip about a year and a half ago, but it was good to get my bearings again and see a few new things this time. Chris has been urging me to visit the Palacio de Cortes, which has even more Diego Rivera murals, something I had missed the last time I was here.

We took the tour as one big group – about eight of us, all citizens of the United States and all church workers or seminarians of some kind. It’s been good to have conversation with other Americans, some of whom are from Chicago and root for either the Cubs (yay) or the White Sox (boo). Still, it’s kind of surreal. These days I do check the baseball standings almost every day, but I’ve also been trying to keep track of the Mexican futbol (soccer) league: who plays where, who’s good, who’s not, etc…and none of my new classmates here is plugged into that at all. I also find myself explaining current issues in Mexican politics as we’re watching the political ads on TV… It’s really weird. The happenings of Mexico seem closer than the happenings of America…it only takes a visit from America to realize how much my world has changed in only three weeks.

And as for the language, well… I still wish I had a better command of it RIGHT NOW. But I’ve discovered that I have a slightly better command of it (with lots of mistakes, I’m sure) than my roommate here at my homestay, which means that I end up doing some translating for him with my homestay mom. I’m doing translating for someone else! How crazy is that?! I also know more vocab than the other students in my beginner Spanish class (so far at least), in part from Chris’s help over the years, but also just from living in Mexico and having come across things like salas (rooms) and nieves (snow…like Tepoznieves!). Again, I guess the point is that even though I have a really long way to go, I know more right now than I thought I did.

Finally, it is hard to describe the feeling of discovering a language when you are on that language’s home turf. My homestay mom doesn’t speak English – and nether does my teacher! So when I learn a new word, I have to test it out by using it in a sentence or phrase in Spanish, and then seeing if I get an understanding big smile and nod (it’s always a really BIG smile when my host mom or my teacher understands) or if I get a blank stare. And if I get a blank stare, I try to say it in a different way, with different words, until I get a reaction in the form of a facial expression that says “I understand!” followed by a bunch of other Spanish words in rapid-fire, which just starts the challenge all over again. It’s kind of fun, really. ☺

One step – one word, una palabra – at a time, the adventure continues.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Domingo Primera

(editor´s note: This is a post from Chris!)

It´s my first Sunday in our new home. Matt is off in Cuernavaca, learning Spanish and embarking on new adventures, while I hold down the fort in Mexico City for the next two weeks.

This morning, I woke up to the sounds of some of the Americans who arrived at the Lutheran Center yesterday getting organized to leave for church. Crap. I forgot to ask somebody about church services: is there a place they go to around here? Do they go up to the Lutheran church that is up north of here? How do they get there? What time are services? So I decided to get ready on time to leave the house by 10:30, and walk to one of the nearby Catholic churches. 11 o’clock is a universal church service starting time, right?

When I arrived, I found that the church courtyard was full of people, mostly families, seated on stone benches and ledges. There was a large group of people clustered around the door, too. But I couldn’t figure out if they were coming or going, if church was so full that it was standing room only, or what was happening. I sat down in the far corner of the courtyard to wait and see if I could figure it out. I watched kids play while grandmothers trailed slowly after them, and I heard a few strains of organ music. So they were probably in the middle of the service, though I couldn’t figure out why so many people were seated in the courtyard if there wasn’t another service starting soon. I gave it up, and decided I’d stop by the church in the middle of the week to see if I could find out when mass was.

I then headed to Ciudad Universitaria, literally “University City,” the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known around here as UNAM, which in the grand Latin American tradition is pronounced oo-nam. Perhaps this is common in English too, but it has always struck me as funny that acronyms in Spanish become words – they aren’t spelled out, unless you can’t help it, as with PRD (one of the major political parties in Mexico). Even PRD (pay-erray-day) is usually strung together as perrayday.

Anyway, I headed to the UNAM campus because I wanted to find the library. I’ve been feeling the need for a library since I got here. I’ve been working every day for the past week and a half in the National Archives of Mexico. Research in archives consists of going through piles and piles of old papers, trying to figure out what is significant, and retyping or photocopying the things you decide are important. In a few cases, a file folder will have all kinds of documents, so you can begin to get a sense for the context in which they were produced – one file, for example, had all kinds of newspaper clippings and correspondence about a particular election in the state of Sonora, in the north of Mexico. It contained information about who the candidates were, which politicians were recruiting which groups of the population, and particular concerns about a socialist candidate that the government saw as a rabble rouser. So then when I found the document I was looking for in the file – in which a governor was accusing braceros of disorder and theft – I could understand a bit of the political context, one in which the central government was worried about workers’ political power and the potential for disorder if the wrong candidate won the election. But other files may contain just one document, or fifty letters to the department of labor saying, “This person wrote my office, but his problem is in your jurisdiction. Here you go.” In these cases, it’s really helpful to have read all the books on the subject you’re researching – the books give you a broader context, remind you of the broad sweep of what’s going on, and will tell you that the document you just found so fascinating someone else already wrote an entire chapter about ten years ago. Of course, I have read many books about my research topic to prepare for this trip. But as I confronted an avalanche of paper in the archives this past week, it struck me that a refresher would be nice.

So I headed south from church, toward the Ciudad Universitaria, and I realized that I was joining a stream of other people headed in the same direction. First I noticed a family, father and son in full soccer uniform – jersey, shorts, socks, the whole deal – for the Pumas, the team that plays at the UNAM. Then a group of girls, one of whom had on a Pumas jersey. Then, at the intersection, a man standing in between the cars waving Pumas flags, and a little boy sitting at the bus stop with a couple smaller flags in his hands – both salesmen for the day. Today was game day! As I kept walking, we met up with men offering “boletos a bajo precio” (tickets at low prices) in low voices. A little further up the road, the tents popped up. White tents protected Pumas merchandise, anything you could think of – Puma stuffed animals, both realistic and cartoony, jerseys, t-shirts (some of them featuring Bob Marley smoking pot along with the Pumas logo, oddly enough), rally scarves, temporary tattoos and face paint. In between were people with carts equipped with bottles filled with various colored liquids and a giant block of ice – for making raspados, snow cones. And then I arrived at the stadium, more than half full already, with people waiting in long lines at the taquillas, ticket booths. It was a sea of blue and gold, with a few bright red jerseys (for the day’s opponent, the Toluca red devils) sprinkled in. I followed the fence to a pedestrian underpass that would lead me to the library, and found it lined with more white tents and Pumas merchandise, including some devoted to baby Puma gear – “I love my daddy’s team – the Pumas,” etc. I could kick myself for not bringing my camera to photograph the crowds, and the stadium, complete with a Diego Rivera fresco at one of the entrance.

I headed the wrong direction, away from the stadium, and to the library across the street. I found it open and found the electronic catalog. I hadn’t brought any paper for notes because I thought it was only open weekdays, but there will be books for me to read there, some other time. My mission accomplished, I picked my way back through the crowds and headed for home. As I opened the gate to the Lutheran Center, I recognized the distant roar of the crowd. I can hear the cheers from here. I can’t wait until Matt gets back and we can go to a game!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Woman on Donkey Beats Lion

That was the headline from a news story today. Here's the full text of the article, from Mexico's English-language daily, "The News:"

A woman claims that she fought a 500-pound lion with a machete near the Pacific resort city of Acapulco and scared him away.

Celsa Aleman said that she and her 7-year-old niece were riding a donkey on Monday along a road when the lion went after the animal's legs.

The 35-year-old woman said she found the courage to fight the lion because she thought it would attack her niece. She hit the animal with a machete until the beast ran away, she said. Both Aleman and her niece escaped unharmed.

The state government said in a statement that the lion had escaped from a private zoo owned by a former local congressman.

It said the animal killed two dogs and ate a pig before it was sedated and taken back to the zoo.

Ok, obviously a wacky news article. But,

1. Who has a private zoo?!
2. This woman just happened to have a machete with her?!

Chris is unsurprised by either point. People in rural areas use machetes for everything here. And a "former local congressman" having enough money to own his own private zoo? Welcome to Mexico....

Hablo Espanol Muy Poco. Muy, Muy Poco.

This morning I decided it was time to do laundry.

The washer and dryer in Casa C (the name of our house) are brand new, complete with instruction manuals on top of them, but…they’re not hooked up yet. In the States my next option would be a coin Laundromat, but those are not common in Mexico. Instead, they have full-service Lavanderias, where you drop your clothes off, you’re charged a price based on the weight of your clothes, and then you pick them up the next day, all folded neatly for you in a clear plastic bag. The price for this service always seems expensive to me – at least twice as much as it would cost to do the same amount of laundry at home.

Big Myth #34: “Mexico is cheap.” Mexico is not cheap – Mexico is sometimes cheap, but definitely not always cheap. For example, water – not free. Of course it’s not really free in the U.S. either, but we’re used to water fountains in the park, shopping malls, etc, and drinkable water running out of the tap, etc, etc. Not here. Water is more expensive than Coke here. Believe it.

Anyway, Chris and I walk to her Metro stop every morning, and I’ve noticed what looked like a self-service Laundromat on the way. So this morning I stuffed my largest backpack full of all the clothes I could stuff in there and brought it to the Laundromat.

(Above: The laundromat is near the shopping cart at the corner of Copilco and Universidad. We live on La Otra Banda, a tiny road that intersects with Revolucion. Notice that the streets are not, er, gridlike. Imagine trying to cross them every day. On a bright note, look how close the Estadio Olimpico is (the big circular thing)! That's where the Pumas, the closest futbol (i.e. soccer) team, plays.)

The laundromat was only sort-of self-service. There were definitely no coin slots. When I walked in, the woman working there said Hola and smiled, and I said Hola and smiled. Then she started talking really fast, presumably explaining how this Lavanderia worked. Not good. For a moment I considered bailing on the whole adventure, but those clothes weren’t getting clean on their own. Must… wash… clothes… “Um, como?” She smiled, and repeated everything much more slowly and simply. I understood soap – jabon – and colors – tinto – and I think ropa might mean clothes…and that’s about all I got. A few vocab words, but no idea how they fit together. She also did some pointing, which was helpful.

(Above: The earlier map is on our wall. We have other maps in our room, too. Mexico City, Mexico, the world... Next we need to find a map of the universe, or at least the galaxy.... They help with geography. But not language...)

Pointing can be very helpful. In Internet cafés, especially, I do a lot of pointing. I walk in, point at a computer, and say Si? And the person working there says Si and nods, and I sit down. It’s amazing how much you can communicate by pointing, Si, and Gracias.

But in the end, all I understood at the Laundromat was that I was supposed to divide my clothes into colors and whites. Great. Everything else was a lot of pointing, guessing, smiling sheepishly, and feeling like a really stupid gringo. Eventually I did get my clothes cleaned and dried, but I left feeling very frustrated about my ability to communicate with and understand the other 20 million people living in this city.

(Above: I think these are peaches. Duraznos = peaches. Got it.)

And the really frustrating part is that I do know lots of Spanish words that I’ve picked up here and there and with audio iPod lessons, but (a) I’m not very confident in using them and (b) those words are only a tiny fraction of the Spanish dictionary and (c) it’s surprisingly easy to avoid speaking Spanish by relying on your fluent spouse most of the time and doing lots of pointing and Gracias-ing the rest of the time. Until, of course, you want to wash your clothes.

(Above: These have been my textbooks so far. Desafortunadamente, Harry has not yet had to wash his wizard's robes at the Hogwarts Lavanderia. He probably just waves his wand anyway. Stupid magic.)

Over the last two weeks I’ve grown increasingly frustrated about not knowing the language. I wish there was some quick and easy way to get my language up to speed, but I think it’s just going to be a lot of hard work over these next twelve months.

The first step: Three weeks of intensive language training, including two weeks in Cuernavaca, a town about an hour south of Mexico City, and a final week back here at the Lutheran Center. The official name of the program is Spanish Language for Ministry, so there should be lots of relevant topics for the upcoming semester program.

Here’s some information I found about the program online, including a video (!):

They sent a schedule yesterday, and it's jam-packed. It's certainly enough to make me eager to begin, if a little (ok, a lot) nervous. But, as Pastor Collins once told me not too long ago, "We're in the faith business. Have a little!"

Tomorrow afternoon I leave for Cuernavaca to begin the program. Our first assignment? Find our way to our homestay (!) by taxi, bus and taxi again. Chris is not coming, of course; I'm on my own for this one. Have I mentioned how difficult the Laundromat was?

Anyway, there may not be as many blog posts from here on out, now that classes are starting. Fewer posts, but maybe more interesting ones....

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cuatro Anos

Today is our anniversary. We're a long way from the Grand Rapids church where we were married four - 4! - years ago...

Even Better Than The Field Museum (Almost)

As you may be aware, the Field Museum in Chicago is my favorite museum, ever, anywhere. There are parts of it that are a little weird and anachronistic (probably too many stuffed dead animals), but I always loved it when I visited as a kid, especially during the pre-teen years when I aspired to be a paleontologist. And then, when the Field acquired the largest T-Rex ever found and placed it right in the main hall to greet you as you walk in, well…that just made it a permanent lock for Matt’s Favorite Museum Ever.

So when I learned that Mexico City has its own Museum of Really Old Stuff with lots of myths, legends and history thrown in for good measure, I knew we had to check it out.

The Museo Nacional de Antropologia is universally acclaimed; it’s both popular with the kids and has a solid amount of street cred as the finest museum in a city filled with them. It has several things in common with Chicago’s Art Institute: it takes up several pages in tourist guidebooks, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one visit, and it’s located in the central city park. So, during the second half of our visit to Chapultapec Park, we made our way over to the Museo.

Just outside the museum there are people in traditional Aztec clothes hanging upside down and swinging around a pole. Another person stands on top of the pole, playing some kind of otherworldly flute. I’m entranced, but Chris has seen this before: she says they’re called voladores (pronounced vole-a-door-ays). The Lonely Planet guidebook says it was once an ancient indigenous ritual, but none of the flying people gives any explanation of what’s going on, so I think the point, for tourists at least, is to just be entranced. We sit, entranced, for a few minutes, then head into the museum.

Unlike our cold-weather Chicago museums, the main hall of the MNA is basically an outdoor courtyard, and is covered only by a massive slab of concrete that serves as a kind of tarp to keep out the rain. The slab of concrete is balanced on a giant emerald stone pillar carved with all sorts of ancient designs. Supposedly it’s the largest piece of concrete supported by a single pillar. It’s pretty impressive.

Standing just inside the entrance, there are exhibit salas (halls or rooms) to the right and left of the courtyard; these smaller exhibits cover ancient cultures and present indigenous cultures from different regions of Mexico. Straight head, at the far side of the courtyard from the entrance, is the museum’s largest exhibit hall, the Sala Mexica (pronounced meh-shee-ka). Mexica = Aztec.

The rooms feature placards that are hugely informative. There’s lots of text, some of it, according to Chris, who is familiar with contemporary anthropology, very up-to-date academic theory. It all stands in stark contrast to the Field Museum’s current emphasis on interactive, technology-driven exhibits, all of which I very much enjoy but which are not nearly as meaty as what we found at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

And, in addition to the brain food, there’s just a lot of OLD THINGS, big colorful overwhelming old things and little shiny intricate old things.

(Above: This is a sign saying this artifact has gone traveling. But look where it has traveled to!)

A few of the exhibits are life-size partial replicas of ruins that are found elsewhere in Mexico, and many of these are located outdoors, so that it feels like part of the museum is actually in a jungle (if you can ignore the sounds of screeching buses and honking taxis just outside the gates).

The Sala Mexica, or Aztec Hall, is the museum’s central hall. It’s sized like a warehouse, kind of a cathedral built to house these ancient sacred relics.

The Sala Mexica also features the museum’s crown jewel: a massive Aztec sun stone, sometimes called a calendar stone. Everyone and their tia (aunt) who has ever visited Mexico has seen one of these circular discs with a face in the middle and detailed carvings all around it; they’re for sale at every tourist stand everywhere. The ones you find at the tourist stands can be either small or pretty big, but the original is really, really big – 12 feet in diameter of solid stone. Here’s what my DK guidebook has to say about it:

“The Sun Stone. Often mistakenly referred to as the Calendar Stone, this basaltic disk was unearthed in the Zocalo in 1790. The carvings describe the beginning of the Aztec world and foretell its end. The Aztecs believed they were living in the fifth and final “creation” of the world. Each creation was called a sun. The central face could be the sun god Tonatiuh or the earth god Tlaltecuhtli. Four square panels around the center indicate that the previous suns (creations) were destroyed by jaguars, wind, rain, and water. The 20 days of the Aztec month are shown on the inner band. Two fire serpents run around the rim of the stone, their tails meeting at the date of creation.”

Also located in the big Sala Mexica is a 3-D map of Tenochtitlan (ten-osh-teet-LAN), the name of Mexico City before it was Mexico City. This is what the city looked like when the Spaniards arrived to conquer it – not merely pyramids, but pyramids on an island in the middle of a lake. As the Europeans rebuild the city to their own liking, they gradually filled in the lake. But the Aztecs are having a bit of revenge - many of the buildings in Mexico City, especially its great cathedrals and basilicas, are slowly sinking into the soft earth of what used to be a lake.

As you exit the Sala Mexica, there’s a single Christian cross on top of one of the ruins. When the Europeans arrived, they tore down the Aztec pyramids and build churches and later cathedrals on top of them. Now Mexico is a very Roman Catholic country. Visiting this museum, however, it’s easy to see why all the vestiges of Mexico’s ancient past haven’t been wiped away; those 2,000 years of pre-European, pre-Christian, pre-capitalist history run deep, like the roots of a very old tree.

As we leave the museum, it begins to rain. Then it begins to pour. Then it’s a monsoon. June through September is the rainy season here in Mexico, and by rainy season they mean it rains literally every day. Usually not all day, mind you, but only during those parts of the day when Chris and I happen to be out and about and far from shelter. Sigh.

We huddle under a tarp with the other families that have been caught in the rain. We’re at least a forty-five minute walk from our hotel, so we consider hopping on one of the green public transport buses, even though we don’t really know any of the routes yet. We take a look at the guidebook, roll the dice, and get on a bus heading north on the Paseo de la Reforma. (Public transport in Mexico City costs 2 pesos a ride – about 20 cents, compared with Chicago’s 2 dollars a ride.) Not knowing where this bus route ends, we jump off when things start to look familiar, and take shelter under the Monumento de la Revolucion.

When the rain lets up we walk the few blocks to our hotel, stopping at the 7-11 for coffee to warm our bones frigid from the cold high-altitude rain. Monuments, museums, and 7-11’s – it’s all just another day in Mexico City.