Saturday, February 28, 2009

Packing Up

Yep, it's that time of year again... packing to make a major move for the 3rd time this year.

It's not fun.

I told my friend Zach yesterday that I thought it'd be easier - more fun and adventurous - if we had less stuff, if we could carry it all on our backs like some of the European tourists wandering around Guadalajara. But that is so much easier said than done...

Anyway, part of the problem is that we really don't know what to expect in the next place. We visited San Juan de Los Lagos at the beginning of February, but because it was in the midst of a massive religious festival it wasn't exactly easy to find an apartment and get everything set up for our arrival on March 1st.

We did try stopping in the tourist office when we were there to ask about apartments. The guy working there kind of looked at us like we were weird, then hemmed and hawed about whether there were really apartments for rent in San Juan, then said, "Look, I live in a pretty big house. You could stay there." We thought this was kind of weird, but without other options at that point we decided to go with him to look at his place. It's true, it was kind of big and modern, and he did have a very small bedroom where we could live. But we'd have to share a bathroom with him and the three yipping chihuahas he kept out back...

So, that's one option, I guess. But we've been frantically emailing other people - friends of friends of random contacts, other tourism officials, even priests at the basilica in the hopes of finding a more private place for ourselves. At this point we'll stay in a hotel probably for all of the first week and hope we'll find a more permanent place ASAP.

In between checking our email every five minutes for news of where we might live, we've also spent time soaking up everything we can of city life here in Guadalajara. We even went to the mall the last two nights, which we hardly ever do, but we figured this might be the last time for awhile that we could find a good old-fashioned American hamburger at Chili's. (Yep, Chili's - and yep, it is EXACTLY the same as the Chili's back home, right down to the southwestern tiles on the tabletops. Globalization is real, my friends...)

We also went to the movies, to see Slumdog Millionaire, here called Quisiera Ser Un Millonario, which just arrived in Mexican movie theatres last Friday. I'm hoping to blog a bit next week about watching Slumdog Millionaire in a fancy Mexican mall, an experience that raises a couple of extra questions about class and poverty in cities with 20 million people, but at the moment these open suitcases are staring me in the face...

So in short, the last week has kind of felt like running headlong toward a cliff - which, come to think of it, is kind of what it felt like when we were getting ready to leave for Mexico back in July. It's always another adventure...

Graduation Day

For non-Spanish speakers:

Program of Spanish in Guadalajara, Mexico

Certification of Participation

Presented to

Matthew Keadle

For having completed an intensive program of Spanish of 120 hours at an Intermediate level, equivalent to the Common European Reference Level B1, in a period of 6 weeks, demonstrating dedication and having acquired a better fluency in the Spanish language.

Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico 27 de Febrero del año 2009.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Miercoles de Ceniza // Ash Wednesday


Acuérdate de que eres polvo y al povlo has de volver.


We woke up early this morning, hoping to make it to 8am mass at the cathedral downtown before our respective workdays began. We weren't really sure what to expect; I had checked the day before for special Lenten or Ash Wednesday services, but there was nothing, just the usual information about hourly daily masses.

It's been one of my greatest frustrations here, not really having a church home and not really being able to figure out what is going on in the churches we visit. I bought a "misal," which is kind of sort of a little like a hymnal in that it has the basic liturgy in it. And the liturgy is quite similar to traditional Lutheran liturgies, so that's not really a great problem. But in the churches we've been to here, there isn't any congregational singing, no hymns or songs; the congregation just sits and stands and kneels and listens to other people talk and sing. I do enjoy hearing the appointed Bible texts read, and it's always exciting when I recognize the story even though it's in Spanish. But then it comes time for communion, and I always feel a bit (or a lot) forlorn. At least half of the people in the pews don't take communion anyway, so we don't look all that strange staying in our seats, but if I could, man, I'd be up there in a heartbeat. I miss the Meal.

(Some of you have asked me if I'm going to become Catholic as a result of our time in Mexico. The answer is still no, for many and deep reasons. But the only time it tempts me is when I long to receive the Sacraments. I am human - I long to belong.)

So, even though I really, really wanted to go to Ash Wednesday mass in the morning, I was starting to feel a little bitter as we approached the cathedral. At that moment I really missed St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Indiana, where Chris and I first started going to church together. I missed Reformation Lutheran Church in the Roseland neighborhood in Chicago, where I worked last year. I even missed Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park, where we often went for the sole reason that it was a block away from our apartment. How strange to miss church in a land of churches!

(Above: Inside the Templo Expiatorio, my favorite church building in Guadalajara.)

And that, my dear friends, is why it was so earth-shakingly powerful to receive the imposition of ashes this morning. We walked into the cathedral to find a line already formed leading to the altar. The priest was marking the sign of the cross on foreheads already, much to our surprise, and so we immediately got in line with the rest of the faithful. The priest didn't ask me if I was Catholic. He didn't ask me if I spoke Spanish. He just put his thumb on my forehead and marked the sign of the cross with black ash, saying what I think were the Spanish words at the top of this post: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Later someone noticed my ashes and asked me if I was Catholic. "No," I said, "I'm Lutheran," which always results in a puzzled look, so I explain in my limited Spanish that it's a type of Christian. "The same God," I always say. But today I added, "and the same cross."

I still miss the Meal. But somehow this morning, through a very simple act, I realized that Christ has followed me all the way to Mexico, planting his cross right into my forehead. I cannot escape that cross, no matter how far I travel, no matter how many Sundays pass without a sacrament. Forgive me Lord. I had forgotten.

For more on how Miercoles de Ceniza looks around the world, check out these pictures.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Martes 2x1

Un caballo entra en un bar y el mesero le dice: "Por que la cara larga?"

We're learning how to retell chistes (jokes) in Spanish class. Always horrible at recalling jokes, I told the one above about the horse with the long face, expecting it to get no reaction in Spanish - jokes rarely translate, especially when they involve figures of speech like this one. Except that mine actually got the loudest laugh! It was the only one that did translate, because apparently una cara larga (a long face) is also a phrase en español meaning the same thing it does in English. Que suerte!

I also formed a theory today that my "Mexican accent" was in fact not an accent from the country of Mexico but an accent from the city of Mexico. People living in Mexico City and close to it (like in Cuernavaca) tend to call it "D.F." but here it's nearly always referred to simply as "México" - the ciudad being assumed, like sometimes we refer to New York City as simply New York.

Anyway, apparently tapatíos (people who live in Jalisco) make fun of chilangos (people who live in Mexico City) for their acento mexicano, which our teacher described as kind of sing-songy, which is how I was unwittingly reading the spanish dialogue out of the book last week. So I think it actually sounded like I was impersonating a resident of Mexico City. Thus, in the last week I've reclaimed my Pumas fandom and my chilango accent. Makes me wish I had bought that t-shirt I saw in Coyoacan months ago: "I (heart) D.F."

(Above: VW bug and a flower-seller on a Guadalajara street. Tortas Mr. Paco is in the background.)

After class today Chris and I went to "Tortas Mr. Paco" to get some tortas ahogadas. "Tortas ahogadas" literally translates as "tortas that are drowning," and the term refers to pork sandwiches on crusty bread that are submerged in a tomatoey sauce and served in that sauce, as if you just put your sandwich inside a bowl of soup. They are a muy, muy tapatío food. To me they taste kind of like Italian beef, if you submerged an Italian beef sandwich in a soupy tomato sauce and then drizzled super-hot sauce over it. (But maybe that reference doesn't help many of you, because my Michigander esposa says she'd never heard of Italian beef before my mom served it once at my family's home in the Chicago suburbs.)

Anyway, on Tuesdays "Tortas Mr. Paco" has tortas ahogadas for half price, with two-for-one cervezas - an unbeatable deal in which we have two sandwiches, a Coke and a beer for less than $5. The only catch is that the hot sauce is really hot - our lips are still burning...

Lago de Chapala

Last weekend we went to Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico located about an hour south of Guadalajara.

Posters hanging from lamposts proclaimed the celebration of Carnaval, the pre-Lent celebrations that take place everywhere from New Orleans to Rio de Janeiro. Chapala, though, had far more tame celebrations - they seemed to consist of little more than an artisan craft sale and a raucous mariachi performance.

Still, Chapala was a beautiful place to visit - far cooler than I had imagined, with its mountains tumbling down into sandy beaches that opened up onto a glassy green lake. I suppose, growing up near the Great Lakes, I had assumed Lake Chapala would be similar. But because year-round temperatures are far warmer here, the feeling of Chapala was closer to Puerto Vallarta than the Indiana Dunes.

(Don't worry, though, Great Lakes: Conditioned by your vastness, I was still surprised to be able to see the other shore from the banks were we stood. I told Chris, "Wow - the Great Lakes must be really big." She said, "Uh, yeah." Chris finds this obvious - she's a Great Lakes girl. Which is why she was so happy to visit even this smaller body of water on a Sunday afternoon in February.)

As usual, I took plenty of pictures.

Lago de Chapala

Monday, February 23, 2009

If you are either

(a) Lutheran


(b) a U2 fan

you should read this short post by Chris Scharen. It explains one reason why I like U2 - and their new album - so much.

Last Lunes

It began as a Monday like any other Monday.

We woke up around 7, tearing ourselves away from our pillows with groggy eyes and weary bodies, still tired from our weekend. In theory weekends ought to be about rest, but we try to cram as much into them as we can; we know our time in Mexico is limited. Most Mexicans work on Saturday mornings, and Chris did the same, going downtown to the archives while I stayed home and cleaned house. Later we went to a very late football game, and then tried to watch a movie but fell asleep halfway through. On Sunday we hopped a bus for the hour-long ride to Lake Chapala, the largest lake in all of México, from which I'll post some pictures soon. We walked along the lakeshore and then wandered around town looking for various things our guidebooks recommended, but we couldn't find any of them and returned home to Guadalajara at dusk. We had a late dinner, finished our movie, and tumbled into bed late.

So on Monday morning, we were tired. I scarfed down my usual granola-and-yogurt and glass of guayaba juice and Chris made her usual peanut-butter toast to eat on the bumpy bus ride. The buses are seriously customized here, like something from that MTV show. The front of the bus and its railings are often covered in furry decor with vivid colors like purple or red. Blue nightclub lighting sometimes glows even in the daytime. And, because this is Mexico, there's nearly always a giant rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, plus a crucifix with a vivid crucified Christ on it, a large decal with a gothic (not much like that Warner Sallman one) face of Jesus that says "Dios me bendiga en mi camino" ("God bless me on my path") underneath. Chris always finds it interesting that there are fewer virgenes on the buses here - fewer images of Guadalupe and her sister images. But that doesn't mean there aren't any images of women. Sometimes next to the saintly/gothic image of Christ there's a decal of a cartoon scantily-clad woman. Or there will be decals of slang-filled phrases proclaiming the (always male) driver's prowess with the opposite sex. Charming.

On many mornings the bus driver will stop at the 7-11 to get himself a cup of coffee or stop at a tamale stand to grab some breakfast or even once we watched, with disbelieving eyes, as a bus driver stopped to buy himself a lottery ticket, all the while leaving his passengers patiently waiting for him to return. (This would never stand in Chicago. Never.) But today our chofer seems content to take us straight to our destination, delayed only by traffic and stoplights, in the rattly, bumpy old camion. We step off downtown and walk the eight blocks or so until we part ways, Matt off to class, Chris off to the archives.

I approach class today with mixed feelings. I am feeling pretty confident about my español, having finally regained my game after a couple of weeks of illness and then travel all restulting in spotty attendance and inconsistent immersion. But I'm back now, and feeling good. On the other hand, my beloved Pumas lost on Saturday night. They lost big-time. So, as you may recall, this meant that I owed my professor a coffee. Sigh.

It wasn't ten seconds after I walked in that she made a big show of exclaiming how hot it was and taking off her jacket to reveal, inevitably, her red-and-black Atlas jersey. ¡Dame un café! ¡Dame un café! she chanted, while my classmates laughed and I played along, shaking my head in mock shame. But hey, it's not like losing bragging rights is a strange experience for me - I'm a Cubs fan, after all.

Thus began my last week of Spanish class. I think we may even get to the subjunctive verb tense this week, which is especially surreal, since the subjunctive tense is what my more advanced colleagues were struggling through all the way back in August, when I started classes in Cuernavaca. But there's no time for basking in the glory of how far we've come - the increasingly confusing direct and indirect object sentence constructions are staring me in the face, and I can already see the homework piling up for the evening...time to get to work.

It began as a week like any other...

U2 Live: "Breathe"

One of my favorite songs on the new record. i LOVE the rapid-fire verses and Edge, Adam, and Larry's stormy instrumental backing. There's news out now that U2 have booked a weeklong residency on Letterman from Monday March 2nd to Friday March 6th. I'll bet they play this one.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Land of the Pigeons

We're entering our final week in Guadalajara. Oh, pigeons: We'll miss you most of all.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

First Listen Diary: No Line on the Horizon

Now playing: U2 - Magnificent
via FoxyTunes

I'm lying in my bed in an apartment in Guadalajara, somewhere in an increasingly hot and dry north-central Mexico, listening to the new U2 album through tinny laptop speakers. Bono and co. have made the songs available for streaming on their website or on their myspace page, though you can't buy it in stores for another ten days. Rather than write up a full review, I wrote a diary of my reactions to each song.

1. "No Line on the Horizon." Wow. Who is singing this song? It sounds like Bono, but it doesn’t, and then it does again! "I know a girl / she's like the sea / I watch her changing / every day for me..." I can't believe it: My boys are back, back to their old selves, which is to say, back to the future, back to pushing out into the deep and exploring the new and the numinous, with that old familiar feeling of cutting through the jungle with a machete, no turning back, map or no map, we are on the move.

2. "Magnificent." YES! This, this, THIS is why I fell in love with this band some ten years ago now (man, I'm getting old)... This album gets it in a way the last one didn’t (even though I loved many moments on the last album) was more of a surf along the surface, with great tunes and melody, but, as Chris says, this album is "spookier." Chris notices, with a sly smile, that Bono just sang “my first cry / it was a joyful noise…” Sly references to Bible verses? Check. (See? Chris gets it, too.) And why am I dancing? Oh right, it's because the underlying music shakes and shimmies like CRAZY...

3. "Moment of Surrender." “Playing with the fire till the fire played with me” – second image of reversal. “It’s not that I believe in love it’s that love believes in me” – third image of reversal. Is there a band that gets grace better than these guys? On the page, these lines sound clever, but Bono sings them in such a way that…oh, I don’t know. You’ll just have to hear them for yourself.

4. "Unknown Caller." There's a line from the best bio of U2 in which someone says of them, after their crazy Zoo TV period, that "they are soul singers now." It took a while, but they actually sound like soul singers on this album. I really didn't expect that... And this song - I read that it was about a guy "in an altered state whose phone suddenly starts giving him random text messages." Except that the song is less throwaway than that: the words start innocuously enough – “rise up, respect yourself” and then “force quit and move to trash.” Just like in ZooTV/Achtung, words fly at us until they lose meaning…and then, here, they begin to gain some again? We're definitely back in that uncertain territory again. I may have to write a sequel to my twenty-five-page essay I wrote as a freshman in college (again, some - it can't be, can it? - ten years ago now...)... This album really is the true follow-up to Achtung. (Adam, go get that album - it's the one you need to prepare for this album. Then maybe Zooropa. I'm just saying.)

5. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight." Ok, I thought this song would be like Elevation, but instead it’s a soul song! What?!?! “We’ll shout into the darkness…”

6. "Get On Your Boots. "“Let me in the sound!” We’ve been pushing through the darkness and come up against a glass wall. What do we do? Bust it open with a microphone stand!!!!

7. "Stand Up Comedy." Wait – did they just say “stop helping God across the street like a little old lady?” I love this album. And this song. “STAND UP FOR YOUR LOVE.” Heck yes.

8. "FEZ - Being Born." What is this, the Unforgettable Fire?

9. "White as Snow." I don’t like that this song is called “White as Snow.” We’ve all been trying to get away from the white=good, black=bad imagery lately, for obvious reasons. Although the image here actually appears to be about how the desert looks like snow (the Joshua Tree? the Middle East?). I think. And having clarified that, I will now say the coolest thing about this song: THE TUNE IS FROM “O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL.” MY FAVORITE ADVENT SONG AND MAYBE MY FAVORITE HYMN EVER!!! There’s also something about a crescent moon and boys going hunting in the woods…the images on this album are amazing.

10. "Breathe." Can we make a rule now that only Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois can produce U2 albums? My goodness, the production on this album is so much better than the last one. What is Bono singing? Are these verses and choruses or just random lines? There’s something about “St. John the Divine…” Freaking amazing. I love it.

11. "Cedars of Lebanon." What, no chit-chat with the divine? Nope, as Chris says, this album is "spookier." It’s like ending the album with Wake Up Dead Man. "Squeeze a complicated life into a simple headline…" Complexities and complicatedness....ah, how I've missed you in my U2 albums. ATYCLB didn't seem to need them, but HTDAAB needed just a bit more...and now this album has them in spades.

Time to play it again.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Return of the Pumas

Tomorrow our old team the Pumas invade Guadalajara, taking on the jugadores of Atlas.

What this means, of course, is that it was necessary for me to come to class today dressed in full Pumas regalia.

Turns out, however, that my teacher is an aficionado (fan) of Atlas. First she told me that anyone wearing a Pumas jersey would not be allowed in her class. (She was joking, of course.) Then she said something about an apuesta.

An apuesta? I didn't know what that meant, so I kind of smiled and nodded like I usually do when I don't understand until finally I broke down and asked her what she was saying. It only took a few examples before I understood.

She was offering to make a bet.

So, come Monday, either she or I are getting a free cup of coffee, courtesy of the fan of the losing team. Entonces....

¡¡¡¡¡Arriba las Pumas!!!!!


PS - I also had the greatest moment ever today in class. I read a couple of lines out of the book (**clarification, for Adam: a few lines in Spanish out of our Spanish-language textbook**), and all of a sudden everyone in the class looked at me, and my teacher exclaimed:

¡Ah, Mateo! ¡Tienes un acento mexicano!

I may not have understood what the checkout clerk at the grocery store kept trying to tell me yesterday, but I did perform a convincing Mexican accent in class today.

"I am king of the diamond. Let there be a grand clubhouse feast. Bring me the finest meats and cheeses in
all the land..."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Un Pequeño Viaje

Hey all -

I haven't posted for about a week here because I took a quick trip up to the States, to West Virginia to attend a memorial service for my aunt. Didn't think I was going to be able to go, then somehow it came together. It's hard to put the experience into words... especially now that I'm back in the alphabet soup of daily spanish classes and la vida cotidiana. But I'm very, very grateful to have been able to make the trip. Here's a photo of my brothers and I, together for the only time this (academic) year.

And here's some photos from the trip. I suppose they're posted here mainly for my family, unless you happen to be particularly interested in either Virginia Oeste or Keadle family lore. There's captions on some of them.

Viaje a West Virginia

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

La Guerra Fria... what the Mexican TV station here is calling today's Columbus, Ohio soccer match between the United States and Mexico. Weather reports speak of 35-mph winds and heavy rain, and there was a tornado watch right up until gametime. Hope you're watching it (I know Zach is)...

I want to send a quick and hopelessly inadequate thank you to everyone for their prayers, thoughts, and words this week. Your notes are beautiful, and my whole family deeply, deeply appreciates it.



Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Got Stripes

My friend Zach keeps sending me random items like this one and this one having to do with the U.S. vs Mexico soccer match coming up this Wednesday night. No, Zach, I haven't forgotten.

But I am thinking that Zach is the only person living on U.S. soil who actually cares about this match. I went to, clicked "Soccer" - nothing, just Euro teams. Ok, how about "World Cup" - nothing, just a big ol' cover story on Brazil. Really? This is what ESPN USA is offering us? No wonder soccer is less popular in the US than nearly everywhere else in the world.

(I also offer the possibility that I am incapable of navigating ESPN's website, what with its involuntarily-starting videos that never fail to startle and confuse me, but let's leave that aside for the moment.)

By contrast, this match is all over the Mexican papers. There was a slight break this weekend for coverage of Mexican league play, and then today we're back to the green jerseys on the front page of every paper. Not that they valorize their team; the pundits are always criticizing something or somebody. The NYC papers treat the Yankees with kid gloves compared with how the Mexican papers treat futbolistas Mexicanas.

Usually criticism lands on the coach of the team, whose name is Sven-Goran Eriksson. At the moment, all the pundits are angry with him for having called up a high number of naturalized (as in not Mexican born) citizens of Mexico to play for the national team. Chris thinks this debate is ridiculous, and she says there is no way we would have this debate in the U.S.

Poor Eriksson. As you may have guessed, Sr. Sven-Goran is not Mexican - he is from Sweden. Mexican national team coaches are rarely Mexican, though - usually they're Argentine, like Ricardo LaVolpe, who coached El Tri ("the tricolor," a popular nickname for the Mexican team) in the 2006 World Cup.

I only know about LaVolpe because the papers still seek him out for interviews nearly every day. Chris thinks the closest analogy might be Mike Ditka in the first years after he was fired from the Bears. Maybe she's right. But I still don't really get it - if they like this LaVolpe guy so much, why don't they just hire him back? Swedish coach, the papers checking for the old Argentine coach's opinion on every move - the whole thing is nuts.

And yet, and yet: I still find myself in a bit of a pickle for Wednesday's match. It's part of a qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup, so it's kind of a big deal. It'll be on American soil, in Columbus, Ohio. Every time the topic of this match comes up, Chris says: "I can't believe they're playing outside in Columbus in February. That is ridiculous." And without fail I shrug my shoulders and say, "Eh - homefield advantage!"

But let's be honest here: I have a Mexican national team jersey; I don't have a US national team jersey. I have been to two Major League Soccer matches in Chicago, but, as of Saturday, I've more than doubled that by attending a total of six matches (and counting) in the Primera División de México. I am the only person I know who wears a USA Olympics sweatshirt every 4th of July like a big nerd, but I am seriously thinking of - - - - I shouldn't say more, because I want the U.S. government to allow me back in the country someday (and you know they're always listening...)

Anyway, since the topic is futbol, this might be a good time to share photos from our recent Chivas match.

As you may recall, our last attempt to get inside Estadio Jalisco (seen above) was unsuccesful. (The match - a home opener against Cruz Azul, the national runner-up - was sold out.) We were going to try and buy tickets ahead of time for this go-round, but of course we weren't quite that on top of things and ended up at the stadium only about an hour earlier than the last time. But a mere three weeks into the season, the crowds were smaller, the lines were shorter, and we got our trusty cheap seats pretty easy.

Despite being high up in the stands, we had a pretty awesome futbol experience. The crazy section - complete with the loudest drums I've ever heard and near-constant chants from die-hard fans - was right below our section, which meant that we could feel the fun vibrating up through our feet the whole time. The section we sat in was a little less nutso, but it was still packed with fans waving flags and loudly leaping out of their seats at every goal attempt.

As you can see, the Chivas uniform is made up of red-and-white stripes. Because of this, they're known as El Rebaño, which means something like "the Stripes." (I learned this from reading a Mexican futbol magazine a few weeks back. Yep, I read most of a sports magazine en español. This is the real reason I'm learning Spanish.) On t-shirts etc, this gets lengthend to El Rebaño Sagrado - The Sacred Stripes. Yep, they're serious about soccer here.


Anyway, I wore my own Chivas jersey - found in the big downtown market on the cheap - and ended up with a Johnny Cash song in my head all night. You can watch this video to see how the song goes. It has nothing to do with futbol.

Speaking of stripes, the Chivas actually have their own soda, called Chivas Cola, which they serve instead of Coke or Pepsi at all Chivas matches. The cans are, of course, striped.

And just like their ultra-rivals, América of Mexico City, the Chivas have their own theme song. (Actually, if you do a search on youtube or iTunes, you'll find that the Chivas have several dozen theme songs, most of which are pretty funny.) Although we're still learning the words to the Chivas song, it's pretty hard to miss the one line they repeat over and over: ¡Somos puros Mexicanos! // "We're totally Mexican!" This is because the Chivas have historically only fielded Mexican-born players. To my knowledge, they're the only Mexican team with this kind of a policy, but it must be somewhat effective, because the Chivas have won more championships than any other Mexican soccer team.

This year, though, the Chivas are just fighting just to make the playoffs. In the match we attended they staged a dramatic comeback just to tie their opponents, Los Rayos de Necaxa.

But it was still a great time, and we look forward to our next Chivas match. Hopefully by then, Chris will have stripes, too...

Monday, February 9, 2009


I just read this article in the New York Times and I'm trying to wrap my head around it.

Even though I'm sort of viscerally weirded out by it, I think there must be some sane theological argument to be made on behalf of this resurgent practice, even if I still think I'd probably ultimately reject it. But I can't think straight enough at the moment to make that argument, so I'll just post the article by itself for now.

I'll say this much: I think it's important for understanding what I witnessed - and what Chris tells me she is discovering - about San Juan de Los Lagos.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Death and Distance.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:35, 37-39)

My aunt, my dad's sister, died on Friday morning.

This is the hardest part about our yearlong sojourn across the border: Being away from our families at the most important of times. So I've been thinking a lot about this passage in Romans, which seems to present death and distance as obstacles of a similar species. They threaten to separate us from many things, but maybe the thing we fear the most is that they will separate us from what we need the most:


God's great graceful glue, the love of Christ, and the way we receive that Love through the people around us. When those people are gone, through death or distance, Love can seem distant, too.

But over the course of seven months here, in the midst of so many discoveries, my most surprising discovery of all is that Love somehow remains. I think deep down I thought a lot of things would disappear forever when we left Chicago. Yet somehow the most important bonds are still there, stronger than ever.

And if Paul is right about distance being a false separator, then he must be right about death, too. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God, he says. Not distance. Not death.

Of course that's all easier said than believed, easier affirmed than trusted. So come, Lord Jesus. Shine that Epiphanal light on us all.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Review of Working on a Dream

Por fin! I'm thinking of starting a music review blog, more because I enjoy writing these than because I think anyone will actually read them... but, in the meantime, I'll post my reviews here. So, without further ado - and just for fun! - my, er, theological review of Working on a Dream, the 2009 album by Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, begins in a nightmare.

It hits the ground running with “Outlaw Pete,” a song that begins with a tall tale and music that recalls hooves running through open country, like one of the sprawling romps on the The Seeger Sessions studio and live discs. It's a sweeping, widescreen epic of an album opener, clocking in at over 8 minutes long.

But then, without warning, the story changes. Outlaw Pete has a vision of his own death and flees to the West, where he tries to settle down. It doesn’t work. A bounty hunter finds him and declares, eerily, the line that haunts Pete, and hunts him, all the way to his mysterious end: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done…”

It's a line, and a theme, reminiscent of Bruce's last album, Magic, an album full of dread, anger, and impending, almost inescapable doom, with song titles like "Your Own Worst Enemy," "You'll Be Comin' Down," and "Last to Die." But on this new disc, Springsteen responds to the gathering clouds with a rather different response. At first glance, it seems like maybe he's trying to disprove the line, to say that maybe, just maybe, we can undo the things we've done. Further spins, however, reveal something rather deeper shining up through the album's surface.

It's worth wondering, as a theological exercise if nothing else, whether Bruce believes we can undo the deepest brokenness with our own two hands. One of my favorite songs on 2007's Magic is a song chock-full of Biblical imagery – “the late afternoon sun fills the room with a mist like the garden before the fall / I watch your hands smooth the front of your blouse and seven drops of blood fall” – but the song’s chorus declares that “I’ll work for your love dear / what others may want for free / I’ll work for your love.”

It’s a gorgeously vivid song, with some kind of truth undeniably coursing through it, and yet - from a theological perspective, it's uncomfortably transactional for a Lutheran understanding of the deepest unmerited Love. (This may, I should mention, require some rethinking in light of a recent observation of the powerfully transactional nature of certain forms of religious pilgrimage.)

In light of this tendency of Springsteen’s – going all the way back to “Prove It All Night,” my least favorite Bruce song precisely for the amorous deficiencies it shares with “I’ll Work for Your Love” – it is not unreasonable to worry that the new disc, with "Working" so prominent in the title, would follow in a similar vein. The title track paints a landscape of human work, work, work as the singleminded path to achieving a far-off Dream: “Rain pourin’ down I swing my hammer / My hands are rough from working on a dream / Sunrise come I climb the ladder / The new day breaks and I’m working on a dream…” Later there are more images of doing, doing, doing, as if maybe Outlaw Pete really can undo those things he’s done, on his own, with his own two hands, as the track “What Love Can Do” repeats its title line over and over: “Let me show you what love can do / let me show you what love can do…”

These are gorgeous images, reflecting the way good work can feel. And yet there are those Lutherans who, sometimes rightly so, worry that this perhaps glorifies the work a bit too much, sanctifying our Babylonian towers and ultimately creating a kind of - ugh, I hate this term - works-righteousness. My own instincts tend to be less concerned about our ascribing righteousness to good work than about the tendency of our work, our achievements, our credentials becoming the whole of our lives, with nothing underneath and around us to catch us when our hands, when our ladders, when our love inevitably fails.

Yet a second listen – especially in Springsteen songs (see “USA, Born in the”) – sometimes reveals a surprise lying beneath a simple chorus. "What Love Can Do" begins: “There’s a pillar in the temple where I carved your name / There’s a soul sitting sad and blue / Now the remedies you’ve taken are all in vain / Let me show you what love can do…”

There it is - remedies taken in vain. Failure: So often the moment when we move into a deeper level of understanding... And so what kind of understanding do we move toward as the song weaves it course?

Here the last verse reveals the song’s – and the album’s secret: “Here we bear the mark of Cain / We’ll let the light shine through / Let me show you what love can do.” And there it is: “Let the light shine through.” A Source, a holy Flame that pours light through through the windows like a sunbeam, illuminating the work and the dreams of all of the characters in Bruce's new album, like an unmerited mark that the Creator gives even to Cain - or Outlaw Pete, for that matter.

This glittering truth about the world finds its way into every nook and cranny of a Springsteen album that opens itself up with the orchestral arrangements nearly every critic has noted, spreading its musical wings wide like a bird soaring overhead - or underneath. Look at the album’s liner notes: Every page is a photograph of a natural landscape in a vivid color: a golden wheat field at dawn; a forest illuminated by the deep blue of midnight. The truth conveyed in all this? It's rather simple, painfully so, really, as simple as what Chris calls the unabashed sentimentality of the title track:

Life is beautiful.

I know, I know, almost too simple, right? Except, that is, when it's illustrated by the poetry of music or the music of poetry. It’s like a rock and roll reverberation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem “God’s Grandeur,” which is what I keep thinking of as I listen to the album over and over (and here I'm indebted to Pastor Miller for pointing me in GMH's direction so many months ago):

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

This, this is heart of Working on a Dream. For me, the album’s centerpiece is “Queen of the Supermarket.” Sure, it’s a cheesy story of a guy with a crush on the girl working the checkout counter. And yet, and yet: The music swells with a love so full, a heart so melted, and the lyrics, well…just read them: “With my shopping cart I move through the heart / Of a sea of fools so blissfully unaware / That they’re in the presence of something wonderful and rare…”

The song blooms, and the album’s other songs bloom around it, with lyrics that lift up the Grace coursing through every molecule of creation: “A beauty in the neighborhood / This lonely planet never looked so good…” More: “I watch the sun as it rises and sets / I watch the moon trace its arc with no regrets…” And finally, just before the closing song, a benediction: “In the hollow of the evening / As you lay your head to rest / May the evening stars scatter a shining / Crown upon your breast / In the darkness of the morning as the sky / Struggles to light / May the rising sun caress and / Bless your soul for all your life.”

Return, for a moment, to Magic, an album whose muscular moodiness expressed a feeling about an America that was rapidly losing its soul: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done…”

Yet in the 15 months since Magic was released, Bruce’s beloved country actually seemed to take some pretty important steps down the “Long Walk Home” that concluded Magic, a long walk back toward an America where “nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.” Whenever the songs on Working on a Dream were composed, they sound now like the songs of a people surprised by joy, a people who have tried their hardest to tear down their world, only to find – wonder of all gracious wonders – that Hope, Faith, and Love still remain, that somehow the Spirit still broods over (and under) a bent and broken world with "warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

Never one to offer easy answers, Bruce no doubt chose his album title carefully, releasing a week after Inauguration Day an album whose title track reminds us that the long walk home is still going to be a long walk, that the dream, as the song says, will no doubt, feel so far away, that there will be lots of grassroots working on the way to any dream. There is, still, a very, very long way to go. We are still, as Oscar Romero said, prophets of a future not our own.

But the Truth embedded beneath every song on the album, from the title track on down, is the surprise of an unmerited and ever-present Grace, a Grace as relentless as anything that hunts Outlaw Pete, a Grace that fills and re-fills us with every breath we take in a still-wondrous creation, a Grace that fills us for the work we are empowered to do and draws us closer, ever closer to little dreams and big ones alike.

These are the fields we work in; and this is the work we do. Our lucky day, indeed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Photo Gallery: Candelária in San Juan de Los Lagos

Photos from our incredible weekend. Watch the slideshow, or click the link below to see the photos with captions alongside each one...


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reflections on San Juanita

Funny how a place can so quickly begin to seem like home.

We stayed in the Lagos Inn for four nights, and by the end of our time we were friendly with the hotel staff, used to the breakfast routine, adapted to the ringing of church bells outside our window day and night, and, perhaps most of all, addicted to the hot shower with awesome water pressure. (I will refrain from ranting about our current shower situation in Guadalajara. I know. I'm an ugly American. But if there's one luxury we miss most of all...)

Funny, too, how a different world can so quickly reveal its surprises, once you take that first step to enter it. Coming into Los Altos (translated as "the highlands," a largely rural ranch-land region of Jalisco state where we were and will be - I can't link to a Wikipedia page because there isn't one...yet) on Friday was a lot like entering a dark room. In those first few moments, you can't see anything at all, you're feeling your way around, maybe stumbling a bit but also extra careful so as not to knock anything over and wake everyone else up.

But then your eyes begin to adjust, and, gradually, you begin to perceive a little bit, even without your flashlight (flashlight=LonelyPlanet guidebook). "Surprise" #1: Los Altos, and San Juan de Los Lagos in particular, may not be a tourist destination in U.S. guidebooks, but it just may be the ultimate tourist destination for northern and central Mexico. Over 8 million people visit this town every year, and this past weekend alone, one of the biggest weekends, over 3 million people visited San Juan de Los Lagos, many of them - including an 88-year-old woman we read about in the newspaper - traveling on foot.

And, like in any tourist destination, enterprising locals adapt themselves accordingly. There are hotels galore in San Juan, though most of them jack up their prices on festival days, which is why we had to stay in the Lagos Inn in Lagos de Moreno an hour away. (Why half the towns have "Lagos" in their name is beyond us, because we have yet to stumble upon a single lago (lake) in the region.) And there are market stands. Market stands, market stands, market stands, like a massive outdoor mall. The most popular product being sold? Bed sheets, comfortors, blankets - it's like a Bed Bath and Beyond sidewalk sale, if a Bed Bath and Beyond sidewalk sale extended throughout an entire city. Unbelievable. (After watching me glue my eyes to them one too many times, Chris said that, yes, we could get a Chivas comforter when we move to San Juan de Los Lagos. I'm going to hold her to it!)

So it seems like the routine is, you go and you walk for three weeks to make your pilgrimage to the little virgen in the Basilica, and then you go shopping for some bed sheets, and then you go home. Nearly 8 million Mexicans come here to do this every year. And yet: not in the U.S. guidebook. The things we miss when we only take the tourist route... (Update: San Juan de Los Lagos has finally made it into the Fall 2008 edition of the Lonely Planet Mexico guide (which has an AWESOME cover photo, by the way). We bought the relevant chapter online (downloading chapters = great feature of, and the entry is about three paragraphs long, with no information on hotels or restaurants or anything. But it's a start.)

I remember trying to explain to people for most of spring 2008 where we were going. I got a lot of "San Juan de what now?" and I sympathized, because I would have had the same reaction, so I eventually just started saying "a small town north of Guadalajara." But once we got to San Juan de Los Lagos, "small, remote town" seemed like a really stupid description. Nobody'd heard of this place in the states, but with 3 million people streaming in it while we were there it suddenly seemed like the center of the world. And I realized for the 896th time how little we in the States understand Mexico.

And how little we understand Mexican religion, Mexican Christianity, Mexican Catholicism. I had an "ethics" class a few years back in which we read a book about Christian ethics through Latino eyes. It was really awful. The author went banally on about how important the family is in Latino culture and failed to mention Mary the Mother of God one time. Not once! (The author was a Protestant, of course - I love it when authors deal with thorny issues by ignoring them and pretending they don't exist.) Even I, with my limited knowledge of Mexico then, knew that the Virgen de Guadalupe was central to Mexican Catholicism. And, like a lot of Lutheran pastors and professors and seminarians, I patted myself on the back for having some passing knowledge of Guadalupe.

That's okay, I suppose - the Virgen of Guadalupe is important. She's the biggie, as much a symbol of Mexico as the red-white-and-green Mexican flag, and the Patroness of all of the Americas according to Roman Catholicism. We are finally beginning to see a good amount of theology written about her in Lutheran circles. During the Mexico Semester Program we had a few classes with Eliseo Perez-Alvarez, who teaches at the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest in Austin, and who has written some intriguing pieces about how the Virgen of Guadalupe can help us Lutherans recover a deeper respect for Mary (which, we forget, Luther had in droves) and, perhaps as importantly, help us recover the role of women and the critical elements of femininity in a Christian tradition that has too often been overwhelming patriarchal.

But focusing only on Guadalupe now seems like it distorts the theological challenge, making it much easier than it really is. With Guadalupe, it's hard enough. We have to almost completely rebuild our understanding of Mary from the bottom up. Might as well call it like it is: In terms of religious practice, for vast majorities of Mexican Catholics she is just as important as any member of the Trinity and she may just be the most important one. It's an observable fact here. So if you want to incorporate this understanding into your own, you either have to make room at that three-person divine table for Mary, or you can do what many Protestant theologians are doing and link up Mary with the Holy Spirit, building on the long tradition of understanding the Holy Spirit as feminine. (One begins to feel real sympathy for the teenage girl from Nazareth having all this divinity heaped upon her, but such are the initial abstractions of the systematic theologian.) It's not an easy task, but at least it's just one challenge.

Except that on Monday morning I flipped on the TV and found the Catholic channel, which was showing another Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos festival in August in which the virgen, which is physically a little doll you can hold in your hands, was brought out of the Basilica and shown to the hundreds of thousands of people waiting outside. This little doll is revered because she performs miracles (and you have to hear Chris tell the story of her first miracle - it involves circus performers. Seriously.). People travel thousands of miles on foot to visit a doll and say a prayer, often a prayer of thanksgiving for a miracle recieved. And on the way, they carry banners featuring both this doll and and image of the virgen of Guadalupe, side by side, so that after a while you get used to referring to "Guadalupe" and "San Juan" and "Zapopan" and "Soledad" and "Caridad" as if they are not just different appearances of the one Mary but different virgens, different entities entirely, because, for the people here in some very real sense, they are. It's enough to make even the most open-minded Lutheran a little uncomfortable.

Yet at the risk of offering a pat solution, I continue to believe that the best first step here for Lutherans is not to cry "IDOLATRY!" and run screaming out of the room. (I have nearly seen it happen in class once. Really.) No, I'm not advocating immediate acceptance of all beliefs and practices either. Rather, I need some strategy for entering into this new space, both treating the 8 million other Christians as equals worthy of respect while not doing a disservice to my own background either.

So, step one: Instead of first pointing out all of the areas where we disagree, why not first find all of the areas in which we share an understanding or a practice? I know: Obvious first principle of ecumenism. But it's easy to forget when we're confronted with something so incredibly different.

Next, we might look at those areas in which this new, "strange" religious practice might actually fill a need that we have in our own tradition. Watching people limp their way into town after a long walking journey, Chris remarked at how physical this understanding of spirituality is. That long walk for the virgen is like a physical prayer. I'm reminded of an earlier post about the physical, activity-based nature of Mexican religious celebrations - Posadas, Three Kings Day, etc - and this, it strikes me, is no different. I use my brain a lot in writing theology and composing prayers, but how often do I use my body in practicing my faith?

And then, yes, maybe the third step or better yet the three hundredth step will be saying no, I don't really agree with that particular point. I can't really agree, at this point, that Mary remained sinless from birth to (not death in this tradition but) ascension or that Mary remained a virgin even after she gave birth to Jesus. I'm not even sure, after convincing arguments from Biblical studies professors at seminary about the meaning of the Greek New Testament text, that the Mother of God should be called a virgin at all, but that one's still in the ecumenical creeds so I'm holding off making a decision on it for now. But even the fact that it's a live question in the theological circles I travel in back home shows just how different a place San Juan de Los Lagos is than LSTC. Or Seattle, for that matter.

Funny how a journey can begin anew when you least expect it.

Now playing: U2 - Flower Child (From All That You Can't Leave Behind Sessions)
via FoxyTunes

Monday, February 2, 2009

Scenes from San Juan

Today is Candelária, or Candlemas, the festival of the "Presentation of Jesus in the Temple," and - important for understanding why this is a day in which there are pilgrimages to an image of Maria - the festival of the "Purification of the Virgin," celebrating Mary's ritual purification. (We'll set aside for the moment all of the theological, moral, and gender questions that raises. Unfortunately.) It is celebrated 40 days after Christmas, on February 2. (Lo siento if I'm repeating things, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of it...)

Here's a one-minute audio history:

Anyway, here are some photos from our own pilgrimage this year. There are lots of people in these photos, illustrating the little-known-in-the-States fact that the Basilica of the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos is the second-most visited basilica in Mexico, after the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Pilgrims visit year round, but Candelária is the most popular weekend to visit her. From what we can tell, many, many people visit with their neighborhood parish or with a group of neighborhood parishes together, coming from as far away as Mexico City or Tamaulipas way up in the northeast.

Anyway, here are some photos...

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

My brother Kevin turns 22 today - ¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

Here in Mexico they don't sing our "Happy Birthday" song. Instead they sing "Las Mañanitas," which incidentally always makes it a little awkward when we find ourselves at a Mexican birthday party trying to sing along...

But here's the song.

Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David,
Hoy por ser día de tu santo, te las cantamos a ti,
Despierta, mi bien, despierta, mira que ya amaneció,
Ya los pajarillos cantan, la luna ya se metió.

Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte,
Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte,
Ya viene amaneciendo, ya la luz del día nos dio,
Levántate de mañana, mira que ya amaneció.


This is the morning song that King David sang
Because today is your saint's day we're singing it for you
Wake up, my dear, wake up, look it is already dawn
The birds are already singing and the moon has set

How lovely is the morning in which I come to greet you
We all came with joy and pleasure to congratulate you
The morning is coming now, the sun is giving us its light
Get up in the morning, look it is already dawn

This video gets a little crazy with the mariachis, but you get the idea...

And so, one more time...Happy Birthday! Wish we could be there...

El Gran Jefe

I want you to step away from the guacamole dip!
I want you to put down the chicken wings!
And I want you to turn your television all the way up!

Yep, we were able to catch the Super Bowl here, on the Televisa channel. All the game commentary was in Spanish, of course (and somehow Joe Montana was there too, and they were translating for him - was he there on your TV set, or did Televisa kidnap Joe for the game? Because he was in this room by himself, it was kind of weird...).

For a few tense moments I was afraid they wouldn't show the halftime show...but they started talking about El Gran Jefe - the great Boss - and then there it was.

And wow. Wow! Old-Time Preacher Bruce, Rocker Bruce, Gospel Bruce, and Party Bruce, all in 12 minutes. Wow. I was giddy the whole time! Wow. What else can I say? Wow. The Super Bowl halftime show was an E Street Band show in a tiny nutshell. Now I'm really hoping I can see them when I get back...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Beyond the Lonely Planet

On the bus to Lagos de Moreno Chris kept poking my arm to wake me up and point out the window. There! A line of pilgrims walked along the side of the road… There! A temporary makeshift campground of tents and food stands was set up next to the highway… There! A truck with a wildly-decorated replica of San Juan’s cathedral strapped onto it, San Juanita herself clearly visible inside the wooden replica…

We arrived in Lagos de Moreno just before dark. I wanted to pull out my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to see a map of the town, find a bus that would take us to the center of town, that sort of thing. But there was no map, because there is no entry for Lagos de Moreno in our guidebook. We took a taxi from the bus station to our hotel, then wandered out to choose one of the many unknown restaurants for food. Before going to bed, we gazed up at the massive, towering central church, larger and taller than even the cathedral in Guadalajara, and much, much too large for this town. I felt a feeling rivaling that of our first few days in Mexico, as if we had left familiarity and entered a foreign country again.

It had finally happened. We had left the tourist route. We were off the map. We were beyond the Lonely Planet.


The next morning we woke to hustle and bustle outside our window. This is a busy weekend for Lagos (Lagos, I’ve learned, is what everyone around here calls Lagos de Moreno), the time when pilgrims to nearby San Juan de Los Lagos come through in droves. Chris poked her head out our window, and looked out: A whole caravan of bicyclers, maybe 40 cyclists in all, had gathered in the central square to prepare for their ride to San Juan (and San Juan, I’ve learned, is what everyone around here calls San Juan de los Lagos). They wore identical cycling jerseys, red-white-and-green, that had an image of the Nuestra Señora de Juan de Los Lagos on it, the name of their church and where they were from, and in large block letters “1953-2003: 50th Peregrinacion.”

As the bikers prepared to finish their parish’s 56th pilgrimage from the state of Hidalgo (near Mexico City, some nine hours away by bus and who knows how long by bicycle) to San Juan de Los Lagos, we breakfast and asked the hotel receptionist for walking directions to the bus station. We’re staying in a business hotel, rather fancy for us, but it was the only one Chris could find online, so we went with it. It’s a curious thing: Just because Lagos de Moreno is not in the guidebook doesn’t mean it lacks for luxury goods. It’s a remote, dusty town without a Sanborns, but turn a corner and you might find a little boutique clothing shop or a Domino’s Pizza. It’s a wild mix of old (the enormous central church, built in the 1700s) and modern (lots of pizza places), rich (luxury business hotels) and poor (thin, sun-beaten elderly women huddled outside the church doors with outstretched arms and open hands), a rural image of Mexico to match Mexico City’s urban one.

We walked through town, surprised by more than one lush green city park, and found our way to the bus station. We bought a ticket for the half-hour ride to San Juan de Los Lagos and boarded the bus, which was so full we had to stand and hold onto the railing. Once on the road we watched as bikers passed us, some from the group we had seen earlier, others in groups from different places through Mexico, all wearing matching jerseys of blue or red or green. We passed large groups of people walking along the side of the road together, carrying a giant shadowbox of the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos in front of them, flags and balloons behind, and maybe a large crucifix somewhere in the midst of them. Once we saw a group of men and boys in indigenous headdresses, dancing in circles and drumming as they led their group along the road. Food-and-drink stands were set up, usually in clumps together at strategic points along the journey.

After forty-five minutes of what was supposed to be a half-hour ride, we came to a place with more food tents and market stands than we had seen anywhere else, and several people got up to get off the bus. So we got up, too, and left the bus, not bothering to ask anyone if we were in or even near San Juan. We just kind of thought we must be there; we had our doubts, but then we were probably pulled the rest of the way out by the mesmerizing scene outside our window. So we left the bus.

We wandered through the dusty market, noticing what was for sale – everything from fresh socks for tired feet to chicken grilling right under our noses – and watching the people. We saw a bridge over the road and made our way for it, thinking we’d have a great view of the pilgrimages making their way down the road. And we did. It was an amazing sight, the highway lined with pilgrims walking and biking their way along the 45 kilometer (about 30 miles) road from Lagos to San Juan in the hot sun.

And then, suddenly, it dawned on us: Outside of this bustling roadside market, there was no town anywhere in sight. We left the bridge and not far down the road we found a green road sign: SAN JUAN DE LOS LAGOS 20 KM.

Our bus was long gone. We remembered what we heard about how long it took pilgrims to make the trip on foot: about 9 hours. Of course, those people usually made the trip at night, when it was cooler. We, on the other hand, had an unexpected 4-hour walk ahead of us along this hot and dusty highway. So we did the only thing we could do: We joined the pilgrimage.
Before long the cyclists we had passed while on the bus passed us. Trucks passed by coming back from San Juan, and beeped us, waving and hollering, and we waved back. Every once in a while a blue semi would pass full, absolutely full, of squealing pigs, who left a lovely scent in their wake.

Intent on arriving in San Juan before dark, we walked more quickly than most everyone else (typical Americans, always in a hurry). We passed small families with children walking between them, and then whole congregations with their own traffic guard assigned to them. Most everyone had wide-brimmed hats or bandanas covering their necks, protecting themselves from the fiery red skin that I now have. Some people carried flowers they planned to give the virgen when they arrived. At least one woman walked along the hot asphalt descalzo – barefoot.

From our angle here on the ground we could see everything better. In places where the groups of people thinned out we gazed out over the rural landscape of Los Altos – “The Highlands,” the name for this area of northern Jalisco. There were lots of cows, the primary livestock of the region (surprising, given the number of hog-trucks we saw on the highway). As for the land, it was painted with lots of shades of brown; green space was scarce. This was the dry season, and the land here isn’t very arable anyway. But of course even here there is plant life that finds a way to survive: maguey and cacti and plenty of other strange plants that botanists could tell you about better than I.

After a while the market stands disappear but the food and drink don’t. Like water stands at a 5K run, people – usually church groups identified by identical t-shirts – stand along the side of the road and hand out cups of water and whole oranges. After you’ve been walking in the hot sun for hours, little tastes better than sucking on half a fresh orange.

Finally we begin to see the first signs of the city, first junkyards and warehouses, then fancy auto dealerships and hotels, all with “SAN JUAN DE LOS LAGOS” painted into their names. We walk further and further into town, until, almost suddenly, the streets become madly crowded with market stalls selling t-shirts and just-arrived pilgrims going in all directions. We wind our way around the corners and into the gates of the church courtyard. The Basilica of San Juan de Los Lagos is like something out of another world; it towers over the rest of the town like a lone mountain towering over molehills.

We walk in, and immediately the people next to us drop to their knees, and begin shuffling towards the altar. There are pews, but they line the sides of the church; the center aisle is wide and open for the pilgrims to make their way forward in whatever way they see fit. As we enter, the church is packed, and mass is beginning with its penitential opening: “…por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi gravisima culpa…

Making our way to the front, we move off toward a side room that Chris remembers from her last visit here in 2006. It is a multilevel space with walls covered in items left by pilgrims for the virgen in thanksgiving for miracles received. There are baseball hats and bike helmets that must have been worn on the journey, an actual bike propped up against the wall, three white wedding dresses hanging high up, acoustic guitars and mariachi hats, long braids of brown hair tied up in bows and pinned to the wall, report cards and graduation certificates in frames, an official photo of a young man in an U.S. Army uniform (someone’s son?), and of course, the famous retablo paintings, some made traditionally by hand and painted on tin, others printed our on white paper, made with Photoshop and clip-art. Every item has a note attached explaining the miracle performed by the Nuestra Señora de San Juan de Los Lagos and offering her thanks. It is overwhelming.

From there, what is left of the day seems like a tired blur. We sit down at the first place we see to eat food. We find our way to the bus station and buy a ticket back to Lagos de Moreno. The bus system is confusing, and it seems like a long time before we can finally board a bus back to Lagos. But we do. It is dark by the time we are on the road, and on the way back we can see the lights of campfires as we pass the groups of pilgrims stopping for the night. Back in Lagos, the dried-up riverbed is full of its own camps, and they are wide awake: live music pours out of the darkness as we pass.

On our way back to our hotel, we tell the taxi driver about our day, unintentionally joining the pilgrimage and walking half of the distance between Lagos and San Juan. We walked 20 kilometers! Chris tells him.

“Hmm,” he nods, unimpressed. “You missed 30 of them.”