Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Photo Gallery: ¡Spring Break 09!

Finally: the full photo gallery, fully captioned, from Adam and Laura's visit last week!

Also, if you're on Facebook you should definitely check out Laura's photos, which are way better than mine because she's figured out how to take pictures of people, which is a technique I am still working on. Sigh.

Anyway, it was a great week and these photos show that, I think. Enjoy!

¡Spring Break 09!

Offtopic: U2. Vancouver. 'Nuff said.

I would like to announce to the world that I have just acquired two GENERAL ADMISSION FIELD tickets to the U2 360 tour stop in Vancouver, British Columbia on October 28, 2009. (I know you don't care, but hey, it's my blog and I'll cry happily if I want to. :) )

I have dear, dear friends (Adam & Laura!) and relatives (Val & Julie - hope you're still going!) attending the first show of the US leg of the tour in Chicago; fittingly, the stop in Vancouver - the closest one to Seattle - is the last show of the same leg of the tour. As much as I'll miss seeing them in my hometown, the poetry of this bookend makes me very happy indeed.

Also, this will mark the 4th city (after Chicago, New York, and South Bend, Indiana) that I will have seen my boys play in. Even more fun, it marks the 2nd country I'll have seen them play in. This also makes me very happy. If only they were coming to Mexico before we leave....

24 Hours in March

Woke up yesterday in a moody mood. Our friends left on Friday, and we're still readjusting to our solitary life here in the highlands. Combine a visit from friends with Adam's personality and - yep, it's kind of a come-down to readjust. So I tried stepping back into my routine, if I can be said to have one.

1. Make a quick iPod playlist for my morning run (Get On Your Boots/U2, Hot N Cold/Katy Perry, Brooklyn Go Hard/Jay-Z, Lost/Coldplay&Jay-Z, Paper Planes/M.I.A., Jai Ho/Slumdog Millionaire) and ran in circles around the little park by the dusty dried-up riverbed.

2. Practiced my guitar for an hour (trying to log at least an hour a day); worked a lot on picking my way through Springsteen's arrangement of "Erie Canal."

3. Wrote in my journal for awhile, but nothing seemed to go anywhere, so there's nada for the blog.

4. Made a grocery list, but then noticed I wouldn't have time to get to the store - I was due to meet Chris in a few minutes before lunch. Afterwards we went to the Internet cafe, and before we knew it it was time for dinner - grocery shopping wouldn't get done for another day, leaving our refrigerator in a sorry state...sigh. So it was quesadillas again.

5. We had to eat them fast, though, because there was a major free outdoor concert about to start just in front of the Cathedral. There are lots of special events these days, in honor of Lagos de Moreno's 446th anniversary. (That's right, it's twice as old as the United States. Jamestown, eat your heart out. Have I said that before? I think I probably have.) The concert was weird though, it was like the Mexican Sonny and Cher, super 70s-style pop, and somehow the performers hadn't updated their hairstyles in 30 years, either. There were giant video screens, but instead of showing the performance they showed old music videos from what I can only assume was the band's heyday. They were really, really cheesy - definitely needed the VH1 Pop-Up Video treatment.

Chris: I think it must be one of those things that people have an emotional connection to even though it's cheesy. You know, like Bon Jovi.

Matt: Did you just call Bon Jovi cheesy? I can't believe you just called Bon Jovi cheesy.

6. We wound down by reading aloud to each other - no TV and no Internet will do that to you. We're making our way through The Hobbit right now, which is a surprisingly perfect read for a journey in which you are having a great time but have little moments when you miss the comforts of home.

7. This morning I woke up earlier - I had to get down to the Internet cafe to buy U2 tickets! Special fan club presale and all. I set up shop in our little coffee place a half hour before the onsale time and waited...and waited...and waited...and then Luis showed up. We had a nice chat but I kept surreptitiously checking the time; I felt guilty about that but this is time sensitive stuff! He left 1 minute before the tickets went onsale, and then within five minutes BAM! I had them. This makes me unreasonably happy. :) (See the next post for more.)

And now it's on to the rest of the day, which I've yet to figure out what to do with. I've a feeling the April might end up going like this. The days stretch out before me like the plains stretch out in the view from my rooftop... What will I do with them?

I keep thinking of something I wrote a decade ago. On one of the applications for admission to Valparaiso University, a questionairre asked what I would do if I had one month to do whatever I wanted with. One month, no responsibilities, what would you do?

And get this. I was 18, and I said: "I would spend it in prayer and meditation with Scripture." Yep. I really said that. In writing. I had nearly forgotten it, and then just before graduation in '03 the admissions folks brought it back out for some graduation banquet thing and everyone got a good laugh out of it and I remembered that I had said it at all. Who was that kid? And why wasn't he entering a monastery?

In truth, though, I'd still love a month in prayer and meditation with Scripture, whether it sounds like a holy Joe thing to say or not. And so here's my month, ten years after I first asked for it. April 2009. But the reality is not so easy as writing it as some faraway wish. If only there were a monastery nearby. I mean, the monks had it easy - they had a community to keep them honest, with Rules and Hours and great holy spaces and all that jazz. Me, I'm flying solo here.

Solo in the sense that I've been totally disconnected from church and community life since January at least. Adam visits and talks about internship experiences and it sounds like some other universe. Kinda freaks me out a bit to think about re-entering a life that sounds so different from the one I'm living now. I tried staying more in rhythm with that life, I tried keeping up with the lectionary, and the church seasons... but it didn't work. I kept trying and failing and trying and failing and now it's Lent and God seems as far away as ever which is maybe appropriate for Lent but it's not of my doing so it still feels like I'm just failing to find God. O Lord, why don't you show up when I want you to?

At some point I wondered whether it might be like leaving that part of myself, that part that was so nurtured in seminary, leaving it fallow for a bit, like farmers used to leave fields fallow, to let the soil regenerate its nutrients for future plantings, future endeavors, future work in the garden of the Lord. I rather liked that idea. I am fallow, for the moment, and that is enough.

But somehow it doesn't always feel like enough. In Mexico we're experiencing the dry season, and the Highlands of Jalisco seem to be one of the dryest places in the whole country. My spirit feels dry, too, as if it were just mirroring the weather of the world around me. I don't know when the rains will come. Some say June, some as early as May. Whatever. I need some life-giving water whether the season wants to give it or not.

So come on, April. Bring your showers.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Poscards #5

On our last day together, we went to Tlaquepaque to wander the galleries, do a little shopping, admire the public art, and, as always, pose for pictures...

Since it was our last day, Adam and I had trouble deciding what to wear...

("Seriously guys, what's wrong with this? It's my African shirt! And my flower shorts!")

("Where is my guitar when I need it...")

But, no matter. By the end of the day we donned our Chicago Fire jerseys and brand-new lucha libre masks to do a little end-of-the-week wrestling. Adam describes lucha libre as "a graceful symphony of bodily movement" - and, as you can see, we are quite graceful.

And that's the end! We've had a unbelievably great, fun, adventurous week with our good friends Adam and Laura - and I hope to share a few more stories and photos next week, when I've got more time than I know what to do with again. We're truly sad to see them go, but so incredibly grateful that they were able to come and visit us here in Mexico. We hope to see them - and as many of you as we can - when the summer comes. Until then we bid them a fond Mexican farewell:

Adios, y que te vaya muy bien!
(Goodbye, and may you travel very well!)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Postcards #4

More fun in Mexico con nuestros amigos...

The Jose Cuervo plant in Tequila (known officially, no joke, as "El Mundo Cuervo") is fun for a number of reasons. You'd think the tequila samples and margarita at the end would be the best of them, but you'd be wrong. Hairnets. Hairnets are the highlight!

Still, Chris did enjoy her crushed-ice margarita...

...while I introduced myself to the Cuervo mascot, who, as it turns out, is quite large and scary.

Next up: A trip to the craft market in Tlaquepaque for nuestros amigos' last full day in Mexico!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Postcards #3

Still having fun in Mexico con nuestros amigos!

On Sunday, we went to Mass in the morning, then stumbled upon a couple of undersized bikes for rent and decided why not? Let's bike the streets of Guadalajara!

At night we went to lucha libre - well, the boys went; the girls opted out and ended up sipping smoothies instead of watching masked luchadores fake-fighting each other. (Which would you choose?) It was quite an experience, and led to Adam and I tackling and fake-fighting each other all the way home... I didn't bring my camera because they were disallowed, so we'll have to wait for Adam's clandestine photos. In the meantime, maybe this will give you an idea of what we experienced.

On Monday, we explored our current hometown of Lagos de Moreno, with an overnight stay in our humble abode.

In the evening, Adam gets a cooking lesson from Chris and then makes us all a round of quesadillas. For some reason, he uses a super-gigantic knife... but, in the end, proves himself master of the art of both making and serving quesadillas, with all the requisite flair you might expect from our friend Adam.

Tomorrow: Touring the town of Tequila! Our fun week continues...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Postcards #2

More fun in Guadalajara...

Atlas vs. Tecos fútbol match!

It's just like Cubs v. Brewers all over again!! Except that we've only been die-hard fans of our respective teams - Atlas (Adam) and Tecos (Matt) - for a total of 6 hours prior to the game...

In a reprise of our Nebraska "Brokeback" shot, here we are pondering the possibility of a tie game, un empate...which then actually happened. 0-0?! What kind of a score is that? (PS - This photo is courtesy of Laura's photographic skills - thanks Laura!)

Oh well, tie or no tie, there's always fun to be had at Estadio Jalisco - even if you're a spontaneous Tecos fan or the spouse of the spontaneous Tecos fan who decided to root for Atlas because she liked their style of play better. Boo!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Postcard #1

Having fun in Mexico... con nuestros amigos!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Our friends Adam and Laura arrive this weekend!

We leave early tomorrow to stay overnight in San Juan, then we'll pick them up at the airport in Guadalajara on Friday. Our anticipation cannot be put into words, so in lieu of lots of exclamation points I'll just post this photo for today.

This is Adam and I in Western Nebraska, January 2008. My favorite thing about this picture is that it looks as if someone had just spontaneously caught us gazing off into the distance and laughing as we sipped coffee amidst the bitter cold of the western plains. A beautiful image...

Of course, if you were actually there with us, you would have seen me set up my camera on a rock a few feet away, set the self-timer, then rush back to sit on the log as we turned our heads so that it would look as though we were looking at something off in the distance. A picture says a thousand words - just not necessarily true ones!

Also, this photo makes me laugh because nearly all of Adam's clothes in the picture are borrowed from his Nebraskan host family: the John Deere hat, the hooded flannel jacket, I think possibly the boots as well...(though I shouldn't talk, I had to borrow long underwear from my host family to guard against the sub-zero temperatures...)

Anyway, we had quite an experience in Nebraska, one I wrote about on the "Adventures in Rural Immersion" blog, which you can find here. (I also wrote about our baseball adventures in a post on this blog back in September, which you can find here.)

But we're hoping there will be no need for hooded flannel jackets on this adventure. Weather forecast for next week: High 80s and sunny...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Bed

Well, not really a new bed so much as a new blanket to cover the bed... but it makes the bed look so cool I'm calling it a new bed! My wonderful esposa came home from San Juan yesterday with a present for me...

That's right, it's a Chivas blanket!! With a charging Chivo (goat) mascot on it! Since the Chivas goat has little horns, I'm calling him Moses.

Hair Cut

Until today every one of my haircuts in Mexico was done by yours truly (with reluctant help from Chris, of course). I had this plan, you see, wherein I was going to avoid going to the barbershop in Mexico because (1) I couldn’t communicate in Spanish and (2) I thought I could save some money. So I bought one of those electric buzzer things and off I went.

My friend Adam helped me buzz my hair this way the first time back in July. When I told my dad, I could hear him shaking his head over the phone.

Dad: (shakes head) Boy, I cut my hair that short once and it never grew back.

Me: Whatever, Dad. That won’t happen to me…

3 months later…

Me: Dad, I think I’m going bald! My hair won’t grow back the way it used to!

Dad: (shakes head) What did I tell you, boy, what did I tell you…

Once my buzz cut began to reveal that my widow’s peak was getting a little more, er, extreme, I tried cutting it a little longer, but then it just started to look gross: The sides looked too long for the top, the back always looked too long for everything else…It was only a matter of time before I had an involuntary mullet. Frustrated, I just wore a hat for awhile.

Then one day I woke up and instead of a mullet I looked like Luke Skywalker from the original 1977 Star Wars. This was not going to work. There was only one option left. I had to get a real haircut.

So this afternoon, after lunch, I walked into a barbershop I had seen the day before. What followed was a perfectly fine haircut coupled with an extraordinarily awkward conversation.

When I walk in there’s just one dude sitting and reading a magazine. He’s wearing a French-style beret and has a thick moustache that seems to match it perfectly. When I walk in, he looks up from his magazine and directs his gaze at me blankly. I greet him, and he responds in kind, but he continues to look at me blankly, as if waiting for some cue. I say the only sentence I had prepared in my head before I walked in: “¿Uh, quisiera un corto de pelo?” (Uh, I would like a haircut?”)

It works! Si, pasale, he says, and directs me to a chair.

I sit down and he asks me what I want done. I try to demonstrate by moving my hands around my head like a mime. He starts asking me specifics about the length I want but at this point I get uncertain and decide it’s time to reach for a lifeline. I pull out a magazine I’ve been carrying around and point at a giant photo of Bono’s head. ¿Como este? I say. Ah, si, ok, he says. He needs no further instructions. I breathe a sigh of relief. Thank you, Bono…

It’s pretty obvious my Spanish is not native, so he asks me where I’m from. Chicago, I say. Ah, conozco Chicago. He knows Chicago. Nearly everyone we’ve met here either knows Chicago because they themselves have lived there or because they know someone who has lived there.

Then he starts asking me other questions, and the weirdest thing happens: My Spanish abilities seem to evaporate like the dusty riverbed that runs through this town during the dry season.

In retrospect, I can point to a couple of reasons why this might have happened. I was nervous. He spoke fast. He kind of mumbled. I think he contracted certain words and spoke colloquially. Whatever – all I know is, all of sudden I seemed to have lost all of my vocabulary other than “si” and “no.”

I think at some point I did manage to explain why we were living in Lagos, that my wife was working on her thesis. When he asked what I studied, I said theology. I told him that we used to live on the South Side of Chicago, and I understood him to say (I think) that he lived north of Madison in Wisconsin, near Wisconsin Dells, but visited Chicago for a week and liked it a lot.

I wanted to ask him why he was in Wisconsin – Did he have work there? What kind of work was it? How long was he there? But I asked none of these questions. It took all of my mental energy just to follow along and give an uncertain “si” whenever it seemed like that was the appropriate response. When he asked me when we came to Lagos, I said el primero de marzo, and didn’t bother to clarify that in fact we lived in Tepoztlan, Mexico City and Guadalajara before then. It seemed less embarrassing to have Spanish this poor after only three weeks than after an entire eight months.

When we were almost done, another guy walked into the shop – a businessman, probably in his forties, and he looked to be a regular. He started flipping through a newspaper. The barber told him about me – I’m from Chicago, just moved to Lagos a few weeks ago, etc. The regular looked up from his newspaper and asked something like “Why don’t you speak to him in English?” “No,” he responds, and looks at me with a mischievous grin. “¿Quieres hablar español, no?” Si, I say, quiero apprender – I want to learn. When he pulls off my cape, the customer notices my Pumas bag. “¿Pumas?” he says, laughing. “¡El aprende rapido – he learns fast!” I laugh, too, a little more nervously than he does. I want to leave before I’m drawn into any more impossible conversation.

On the way home, I construct Spanish sentences in my head – and now, of course, with a little extra time to think, I know how to say all kinds of things in Spanish. I remember translating an entire Bruce Springsteen song into Spanish only one week ago, with surprisingly little help from my dictionary. I’ve started reading a Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo, in the original Spanish. And yet today my new language completely deserted me!

The crazy thing, when it was all over, I was already thinking about the next time I would go into the same barbershop for another cut. Hopefully it would be the same guy, and maybe I would be able to speak and understand better next time – yes, yes, I was sure I’d be able to, I just need a little more practice, a little less nervousness…

So grow, hair, grow fast! Don’t go bald on me just yet. I need to learn Spanish first.


Update: More disappearing, reappearing Spanish abilities... I'm sitting in the internet cafe right now and my Spanish vanished again. The barista asked me if I needed the clave - password - for the internet. I wanted to say, "No, I already have it." But I couldn't think of "already," which was the crucial word. I tried "todavia," but immediately realized that todavia means "still," and I only thought of it because we learned it the same day as "already." The barista and I had a back-and-forth, in which I managed to both confuse and slightly annoy him. Two seconds after our conversation was over, I remembered: Ya. "Ya" is "already." Ya tengo la clave. Sigh. So I have reached the point where I have the Spanish knowledge somewhere in my head, I just can't recall it fast enough for normal conversation. Argh. Someday I'll get there... I just hope it's someday soon.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Photo Gallery: Lagos de Moreno

A few days ago my mom asked us to be careful in Mexico because of all of the crazy spring-break-timed news reports these days of violence and other such horrific senselessness going on south of the border.

And it's true, there are some awful problems in Mexico these days, but it's important to remember that (a) most of it is happening near the northern border, like in Ciudad Juarez, where things really are very bad, (b) most of the little of it that occurs in other areas is avoidable if you take common sense precautions, and (c) most people in Mexico are good, hardworking, super-hospitable people who are not happy their beautiful country is getting a bad reputation. (Do not get me started on what Sean Hannity has been saying about this place...)

Anyway, since the estadounidense news these days seems filled with negative (and in some cases grossly misleading - grrrr, don't get me started!) images of Mexico, I thought it might be helpful to post some photos from the town where we now live. Included in this photo gallery are many detailed pictures of our new apartment as well as images from around the town of Lagos de Moreno. If you click the link below, and then click on "Slideshow" in the upper left hand corner, you can see all of the photos closeup. There are explanatory captions under every image.

For all of our struggles, we really do like it here. It's a good place to live. And whatever you see on the news, know that when it comes to it, we are truly, truly grateful that God is giving us the experience of living here, for the last eight months, now, and for the final four months we still have ahead of us. We pray that God will continue to keep us safe, but with Jeremiah 29:7 in mind, we pray to God on behalf our new neighbors, too, for we know that only in their welfare will we find our own welfare.

Lagos de Moreno, Primeros Días

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Soccer Sunday

We're sitting in our little coffee shop, our home away from home, only there's something a little different today: The TV is on, showing the Guadalajara crosstown futbol match between the Chivas and Atlas.

This match, you might say, is the equivalent of a complete Cubs-White Sox series, so it's pretty exciting. And most of the excitement at the moment is coming from the table just behind us, where sits a group of four young die-hard Chivas fans. They've been jovially cheering and jeering since the game started.

A few minutes ago, things got really crazy. Only 25 minutes in, the goalie for Atlas was given a red card and ejected from the match. The goalie! Ejected! And our little coffee shop erupted with excitement...

It's at moments like this, on soccer Sunday, that I love Mexico.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pizza Estilo Chicago

Chris says: “For people not from Chicago, the above may have not have any particular meaning, but for us…”

That’s right, the above photo is Chicago deep-dish pizza. And no, it’s not an old photo from our days in Chicago. It’s a photo of what we ate last night!

Inside the mall near our apartment in Lagos de Moreno is a little pizza place called “Ed’s Chicago Pizza.” I admit, when I saw the sign I was skeptical. The Pizza Hut in Guadalajara also has a “Chicago pizza” but when we ordered it we ended up eating nothing more than a pizza with slightly thicker crust, nothing more than regular pan pizza, which is to say a pizza that was not by any stretch of the imagination worthy of the name “Chicago pizza.”

For the uninitiated: Chicago-style pizza has a crispy buttery crust. Upon this crust is piled a brick of far, far too much melty mozzarella cheese, with any number of ingredients (we especially like spinach in ours) stuffed into it. And this is all topped with a tangy, sometimes slightly spicy tomato pizza sauce. There are different varieties within Chicago, each with different emphases – the cheesiness of Giordano’s, the veggie-ness of Lou’s, the butteryness of Uno’s – but those are the basic ingredients. And outside of the ever-expanding chain wing of Uno’s (distinct from its two original North Loop locations, which are of a level of quality much higher than the chain), this kind of pizza is kind of hard to find outside of Chicago. So you can sympathize with my skepticism that a tiny restaurant in a dying mall in a small town in the middle of west-central Mexico would actually be serving real, authentic Chicago pizza.

Still, we wanted to give it a try – we do love pizza, after all. And when we walked in… Whoa.

It was like walking into another world. Old and cheaply framed 8 x 10 photos adorn the walls, photos that depict – wonder of wonders! – Chicago sports stadiums, scenes from the Loop, images of Lake Michigan. Nearly all of them seemed aged by a few decades, as if they were picked up in a souvenir shop back in the 80s – that is to say, they incited a rush of memories not only from the last two years but from my first twenty years growing up in the suburbs of that great city by the lake. Sitting there, in a metal chair, staring at the menu on a red checkerboard tablecloth, I got a little lump in my throat. We hadn’t even tasted the pizza yet, and already I could taste home.

(Above: That´s right - it´s the ¨Sears Tower Package.¨ Followed by the ¨Hancock Tower Package.¨)

We ordered a pizza with – no way, they have spinach?! – spinach filling. And oh was it ever indeed authentic Chicago pizza. The crispy buttery crust. The brick of melty mozzarella cheese. The slightly spicy red sauce covering it all. We could hardly believe what we were eating. And as usual with Chicago pizza, after two slices you feel like you can’t eat anything else for about a week, so we had plenty to take home.

As shocking as it was to find real Chicago pizza in rural Mexico, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. I have seen an inordinate number of White Sox and Cubs hats, jerseys, and t-shirts in this town, much more than you might expect. You’ll always see random sports apparel here – the other day I saw a beatup Phoenix Suns hat with the familiar 1995-era rectangular logo – but the percentage of Chicago stuff here is especially high, too high to be mere coincidence. I stood at a street corner earlier in the day and saw no fewer than three White Sox hats of different styles on three different people. Truth be told, White Sox gear outnumbers Cubs gear – I’m outnumbered again – but it still makes me unreasonably happy.

The thing is, I’m sure there’s a whole story of a people behind the Chicago pizza and the Chicago sports gear, a story that tells the history of migration to and from Jalisco and the Midwest, a story that Chris is telling a major part of with her research this year. (We’re still hoping she’ll write a bit about that soon!) But for now, epic stories aside, I’m just happy to have had a taste of home.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Photo Gallery: Aguascalientes

Last Sunday we took a bus two hours northwest to the city of Aguascalientes, capital of the neighboring state of Aguascalientes. It was sort of underwhelming, but did contain the incredibly sweet museum of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the incredible political cartoonist whose pioneeringly populist work inspired a generation of Mexican artists, most famous among them Diego Rivera.

In addition to JG Posada, the city of Aguascalientes was also the birthplace of a few photos I took, which you can see below.


Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Song

Just discovered this new song through (RED)Wire. It's called "Mexico City," and it's by Jolie Holland. There's a strong Day of the Dead reference throughout, and chorus repeats "the living and the dead" (which is the title of her new album) over and over... I think Jolie Holland was reading my blog in November.

Anyway, lovers of country-ish folk and/or the Day of the Dead, you'll want to check this one out.

Ajedrez Abroad

Yesterday around 10am Luis, my landlord/new Mexican friend, shows up at my door. (Chris is in San Juan again – she thinks she’ll commute there about three days a week now.) I was half-expecting him, but a little bit later in the morning. As it was, when he came in I was halfway through my bowl of yogurt-and-granola (never ate this before I came to Mexico, now I eat it every day) and had just started an episode of The Wire (which gets crazy-better in the second season) on my laptop.

But Luis comes in, and I drop what I’m doing. I’m starting to get used to that here. I’ll be in the coffee shop downtown, and Luis will walk by, and within a few seconds I’ll realize that I might as well give up on whatever I planned on doing that afternoon. I’m not complaining, really; it’s just not at all how I had envisioned this leg of our journey. I suppose I thought I’d have some kind of solitary, monk-like existence in this relatively isolated place while Chris did her work in a nearby town. The fact that it is not quite turning out that way, well… To paraphrase the introduction to this Mariano Azuela book I just started, I am neither annoyed nor elated, but simply surprised by a world I haven’t quite got a handle on yet.

Under his arm Luis carries a little wooden box. It takes a moment for me to register what it is. The day before, Luis had asked me if I played ajedrez. It took a few tries to figure out exactly what he was talking about, but eventually we both learned a new vocab word: ajedrez = chess. No, I said. No?! he repeats, as if shocked by my answer.

Luis was similarly shocked – and shocked is the best word here – that I was more interested in talking about Mexican soccer than American football (or futbol americano, as it’s known here). I am full of surprises for Luis. One thing that seems to continue to mystify Luis is the fact that I don’t seem to have any kind of observable work to do, while – wonder of wonders – my wife is out working all day instead of cooking and cleaning. I try to explain about what I’ll do when we get back to the States, but trying to explain the candidacy process in Spanish doesn’t exactly make it any simpler. For that matter, trying to explain Lutheranism in a context where you are either Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness is not very easy either. So we are extranjeros muy extraño.

Anyway, when Luis learns that I have never played chess, he promises to teach me. I nod happily, more to be nice than because I really want to learn about chess. I then promptly forget about my upcoming lesson. Luis, however, does not, and shows up with this chess board under his arm. Before I know it he has taken a seat and set up the pieces. I finish my breakfast and join him.

Speaking entirely in rapid-fire Spanish he explains how the pieces move around on the board. I try to pay close attention, understanding more from how he moves the pieces around on the board than from what he is actually saying.

(I vaguely remember some of the moves from a computer game we used to have when I was a kid called Battle Chess. You didn’t really need to know how to play chess, because the game would tell you exactly what your options were for moving this or that pawn. But the coolest thing about the game was that the pieces would graphically fight each other, like a precursor to the wizard’s chess match at the end of the first Harry Potter book. Anyway, you can see where my mind was wandering as Luis was trying to teach me.)

I keep thinking we are going to have a trial game, but instead Luis proceeds to explain about all kinds of different specialty moves you can make, about all these complex setups he reads of in books about chess, even a little about the history of chess. This is what always intimidates me about chess, why I never really wanted to learn it in the first place; it seems like you’d have to spend decades just trying to learn all the little secrets the obsessives already know about. Can’t we just stick with Scrabble?

Nope. Luis says he’ll leave the chessboard with me, so I can practice until we play for real. Sigh. But there’s no time to argue, because Luis looks at his watch and exclaims that we are going to be late. I throw on some shoes and we’re out the door.

We are on our way to an English conversation group at the local branch of the University of Guadalajara. These are held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Monday Chris and I were working at the café when Luis showed up out of the blue and asked us to come along to the evening conversation group so we could meet his classmates. We agreed, which meant that we were taken not only to the conversation group but also to meet another of Luis’s friends, a craftsman who makes beaded jewelry, braids dreadlocks, and does temporary Henna tattoos. Luis calls him one of “los hippies.”

Monday’s conversation group was presided over by a large man who looked to be in his late 30s. He had lived in Chicago for awhile (nearly everyone in Lagos, it seems, has lived either in Chicago, Los Angeles, or Texas), and he kept talking to us about the Chi and urging the younger and shyer students to ask us questions about our hometown. I thought it was kind of fun, even if it did make me a little homesick to remember that next week they’ll be dyeing the river green for St. Patrick’s Day. But when we got home, Chris said, “Well, that was quite a masculine atmosphere, wasn’t it?” And, of course, she was right – both of the women in the class hardly spoke at all, and Chris, understanding what the younger students were saying when they cracked jokes to each other, explained that the boys were making cracks at the girls’ expense.

So Luis and I show up to Wednesday morning’s session to find that it was led by a young woman probably in her 20s. Again, there were more male students than female students, and the two young women were really quiet. But, in contrast to Monday’s freestyle, joke-filled session, this time the group leader went around the circle systematically, making sure everyone shared something about their plans for Spring Break, their activities during the last break in December, that sort of thing. I enjoyed this little circle immensely, because it meant that I was not the center of attention. I was happy to attend these conversations if Luis wanted me to, but I didn’t want to take them over every time like we did on Monday. Today I was just one other student sharing my plans and past activities.

Until, that is, it was Luis’s turn to speak. He immediately critiqued the group leader for something I didn’t quite understand, explained that he needed more listening practice than speaking practice, and then, to my utter horror, declared that he wanted to hear the extranjero speak because they could all learn more from listening to me. If I could have sunk into the couch at that point, I would have. Fortunately, the group leader was having none of it, and calmly explained to Luis that that was not the group dynamic, that everyone needed to do both speaking and listening, and that everyone needed to be able to share. Thank goodness.

When it was my turn to speak, I tried to be self-deprecating, and deflected Luis’s call to speak on and on at length. Someone asked me how I liked Mexico, and I listed some things I had enjoyed learning about, including Mexican soccer.

“You play soccer?” someone asked.
“No, no, no – just watch.”
“You don’t play?”
“Well the thing is, I’m not very good at it, is all.”
“I’m not very good either. Maybe we should play sometime!”

If I learn how to play soccer from a Mexican college student, well…there are just no words for how cool that would be.

After class, Luis told me he liked Monday’s session a lot better than today's. He thought this one was just too rigid. I disagreed. It was true, Monday’s was more fun, but today everyone got a chance to speak, and that was good, too. So I liked both days, I told him. He smiled and nodded at me, then excused himself to go get a soda. I hadn’t taken much of strong stance, but then, I didn’t want to get into an argument with Luis, either. And I’m not entirely sure what my next move should be – I liked the class, but if Luis is going to use me to disrupt things, it might be best to avoid Wednesday conversation.

When I got home the chessboard was still sitting there on the table. For all of the Spanish-language explanations I received this morning, I’m still a bit apprehensive about it. It’s so much easier to feign ignorance and play something I’m better at. But there that chessboard sits, just waiting for Luis’s next visit. There’s nothing for it – I’m just going to have to learn how to play.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Unas Fotos

Just a few photos today.

This is me in our house, probably writing something for the blog. Or watching The Wire on pirate DVDs. Either way, it's a pretty sweet makeshift easy chair, no?

This is the view from our rooftop at dawn. It is absolutely impossible (I keep trying!) to capture the cool-ness of the 360 view, but I like this one for the colors and for the way you can really see just how much bigger the parroquia (parish church - nope, it's not even a cathedral or basilica) is compared to the rest of the town. You can click on the photo to see a larger image.

And finally, a food photo. This is a delicious sundae we had in San Juan de Los Lagos...I think that's coffee ice cream there, with crushed peanuts, magic shell chocolate syrup, a cherry on top, all in a waffle cup. Mmmmm....Mexican sundae....consider it a birthday sundae for our friend Hannah. Um, a birthday sundae you can only see but not taste. Wait, that doesn't sound very nice...Shoot. Oh well, happy birthday anyway!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Trabajando por un Sueño

Luis, our landlord, stopped by this morning to pick up some “furniture” that we weren’t using. I was deep in the ghostly weirdness of Pedro Páramo, so his rapid-fire knock at our metal door caught me off guard. (Chris was gone – in San Juan for the day.) I had to try both keys – still don’t have them figured out just yet – but I eventually got the door open, and he bounded inside.

Yes, “bounded” is probably the best way to describe his movement into our apartment. It’s difficult to describe Luis. In appearance he reminds me of a long-lost Mario brother, with an almost-but-not-quite-handlebar moustache – definitely more Italian than Zapatan.

And he loves hats. Loves them. Every time we see him – and we see him a lot, like when he suddenly appeared at our coffee shop table yesterday and whisked us off to an English conversation class at the University of Guadalajara (another story) – he’s wearing a different hat, never a baseball cap but always one with the brim all the way around, not wide like a sombrero but smaller, like something you might wear on a golf course or as a newspaper reporter in an old movie. Yesterday he even had on a leather motorcycle cap, like something Marlon Brando would wear way back in the day. (You might think I’m poking fun at him, but in reality I am very jealous. I love hats, too. I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a big white cowboy hat…don’t tell Chris.)

In personality he is uber-uber-uber extroverted. (What’s the Spanish word for extrovert? Extroverto? I have no idea.) He’s like my friend Adam, if Adam were a 54-year-old Mexican real estate broker with a Luigi moustache and a love for funny hats. (What do you think, Adam? Second career? Better start growing that moustache now…)

Anyway Luis knocks on our door this morning and bounds in, picks up half the stuff he came to pick up and I pick up the other half, and we take them downstairs to his beat-up red pickup. Then he turns to follow me back upstairs. “Uh,” I say, “Creo es todo…/I think that’s all of it…” “Si,” he nods and then blows past me, leading the way back up to the apartment. Okay…

He takes a seat and immediately begins to chat. Apparently he has an hour to kill before his next appointment, so he’s going to practice his English with me. He speaks (mostly) in English, and I respond (mostly) in Spanish, and we correct each other. It’s actually very helpful – makes me realize I’d be a much better Spanish-speaker if I had more Mexican friends.

(I actually thought about making Mexican friends by joining the basketball league in San Juan de Los Lagos (we found one in the newspaper), quickly making a name for myself by being taller than everyone else and earning the nickname El Gringo just before I retire at the top of my game, only to return just before the municipal playoffs with a simple three-word press release - Yo he vuetlo – and scoring a double-nickel in my first visit to our Eastside rivals…but now that we’re in Lagos I don’t think that will work. Goodbye, hoop dreams…)

Luis asks me about my family, do I have brothers or sisters, what do my parents do – standard Spanish-class stuff – and then tells me about his life. He’s worked many different jobs, and he likes his current real estate job better than anything else so far, but he’s still kind of dissatisfied because he doesn’t think he’s reached the end, the pinnacle of what he wants to do. Luis, you see, is working on a dream.

His sueño muy grande – his “big dream,” he says in English – is to move to Puerto Vallarta and start a real estate business there. He has this whole plan worked out where he sells English-language paperbacks to vacationing foreigners (he’s already collected a shelf full of them), then uses the transaction to start up a conversation, build trust… and then convince them to buy a house. Yep, Luis is a businessman. But every time he talks about his dream, he gets this wistful look in his eyes, and it’s hard not to absorb some of the happiness of his dream, far-off though it may be, that pours out of him whenever he starts talking about it.

Before he left Luis asked about the new collages – or posters, as he called them – that now adorn our walls. He spotted Bruce Springsteen immediately – Luis loves the music of the 70s and keeps asking me whether I, too, love Neil Diamond (“um, a little, sure!”) – and then started talking about Bruce’s famous song, “Born in the U.S.A.” The americanos, Luis says, are so patriotic! They must just love their country so much. Every time the national anthem is played during a sporting event the people go crazy! And so on.

At first I tried to interrupt so I could explain that, actually, “Born in the U.S.A.” is actually not that happy at all but is in fact a bitter, muy triste lament about a Vietnam veteran who is rejected when he comes back to the land of his birth, but once Luis got going I didn’t have the heart to bring him down. I’ll have to explain the complicatedness of Bruce Springsteen – and America – another time.

Or maybe I should introduce Luis to “Working on a Dream.” I was thinking of translating it into Spanish anyway…

Aqui las noches son larga y los dias son soltero
Yo pienso sobre ti y estoy trabajando por un sueño
Estoy trabajando por un sueño

Las cartas yo he tocado son una mano muy dificil, cariño
Yo recto mi espalda y estoy trabajando por un sueño
Estoy trabajando por un sueño

Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Aunque algunas veces lo siente muy lejos
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Y yo sé que lo estará mio un día

La lluvia esta vertiendo yo recogo mi martillo
Mis manos son brusco por trabajando por un sueño
Estoy trabajando por un sueño

Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Aunque dificultad puede sentir como es aqui por siempre
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Y nuestro amor cazará la dificultad por afuera

Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Aunque lo puede sentir muy lejos
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Y nuestro amor lo hará actual un día

Amanecer viene, yo trepo el escalera
El nuevo día está aqui y estoy trabajando por un sueño
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Estoy trabajando por un sueño

Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Aunque lo puede sentir muy lejos
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Y nuestro amor lo hará actual un día

Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Aunque lo puede sentir muy lejos
Estoy trabajando por un sueño
Y nuestro amor lo hará actual un día…

Ok, so as you Spanish-speakers can see, maybe I'll have to get Chris's help with this one. There's only so much you can do with six weeks of Spanish class and a traveler's dictionary...

Update: As I sat down to post this in the coffee shop (which serves as my Internet time for the day), Luis walked by, waved to me…and then before I could even so much as right-click on the computer he came in and sat down and ordered a coffee and talked to me for two hours. (For the record, Puerto Vallarta came up at least twice.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Celebramos Leyendo

¡Celebramos Leyendo!
(We Celebrate Reading!)

These words adorn a blue canvas shoulder bag of Chris’s. We picked it up at a bookstore chain in D.F. called Gandhi – something like the Mexican equivalent of a Borders Books and Music. And one of the great things about Gandhi – besides canvas bags that say “We Celebrate Reading” – is that, in addition to stacks and stacks of Spanish-language books, it carries a small but really good quality selection of English-language books.

Outside of Gandhi, we’ve acquired English-language books in used bookstores (mostly near Coyoacan in Mexico City), at the expat-oriented Sandi Books in Guadalajara (where you can sometimes find the latest Rolling Stone magazine in English – though at twice the price), at the best bookstore ever in Oaxaca City called Amate Books (hundreds upon hundreds of English translations of Mexican and Latin-American writers, fiction and non-fiction…incredible…we only wish they’d open a branch in Jalisco), at Borders Books in the Dulles Airport last month (in which I suddenly appreciated this new trend of turning airports into shopping malls), by receiving them as Christmas gifts (thanks Erica!) and, of course, by having relatives bring our Amazon.com orders to us in December and April (thanks Moms and Dads!). Yes, it means that we end up carting around a suitcase full of books that gets heavier and heavier, but what can we say? We love reading. (And really - did you actually think that a couple who used to go on dates at the local Barnes and Noble could go for a year without books? ☺)

Ademas, since the Mexico Semester Program ended, I’ve had a lot more time to read. I did manage to read a few non-school-related books during the fall semester, which I’ve blogged a bit about before – most especially Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (lyrical prose on the spirituality of nature in the Blue Ridge Mountains), The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (a high-suspense thriller about a priest on the run in 1920s Mexico that somehow also manages to be the most profound reflection on the sacraments I’ve yet read – don’t get me started about how good this one is – just thinking about it makes me want to read it again!!), and The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos (a fictionalized account of an indigenous uprising in 1930s Chiapas). Still, since December it’s been hard to catch me without a (again, non-school-related) book in hand.

First I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is a book I’ve always wanted to read and, since I suddenly have time, figured why not now? But I was totally unprepared for what lay within this one. I think I expected some lyrical meditation on the Dust Bowl. Instead what I got was a systematic attack on the horrifically exploitative changes taking place in the economic system of 1920s-1930s America (a system which, with only minor changes (thanks, FDR) remains largely the same today). There was lyrical prose, alright, but Steinbeck used it to tell the story of a family who takes an unrelenting beating until there’s hardly anything left of them. Chris, who read this one in high school and re-read it this year, was similarly blown away – which for Chris, who reads ten times as many books as I do in a year, is saying something.

Next I turned my attention to The Samurai, by the late Japanese author Shusaku Endo. I stumbled on this one in 57th Street Books in Hyde Park just before we moved last summer. I noticed the word “Mexico” on the back cover, and so I read the whole teaser. After reading it, I couldn’t not get this book. Here it is, in its entirety:

The Samurai, without doubt one of the late Shusaku Endo’s finest works, seamlessly combines historical fact with a novelist’s imaginings. Set in the period preceding the Christian persecutions in Japan, The Samurai traces the steps of some of the first Japanese to set foot on European soil. Rokuemon Hasekura, a low-ranking warrior, is chosen as one of Japan’s envoys to the Viceroy of Mexico and Pope Paul V. The emissaries set sail in 1613, accompanied by an ambitious Franciscan missionary who hopes to bargain trading privileges with the West for the right to head his order in Japan. The arduous journey lasts four years, and the Japanese travel from Mexico to Rome, where they are persuaded that the success of their mission depends on their conversion willy-nilly to Christianity. In fact, the enterprise has been futile from the start and the mission returns to Japan where the political tides have shifted: the authorities are pursuing an isolationist policy and a ruthless stamping out of all Western influences. In the face of disillusionment and death, samurai Rokuemon’s only support and solace come from the spiritual lord is not even sure he believes in.

Wow!!!!! Does that sound good or what?! In truth, the book started kind of slow (only re-reading the back of the book kept me going), but it soon picked up steam and by the end had earned a place next to The Power and The Glory on my soon-to-be-created bookshelf of “Great Novels About Christianity (Usually Written By Catholics).” Shockingly (for me), by the end the book dovetailed neatly with Greene’s work in that both became a meditation on martyrdom. I commend both for Lenten reading.

As you can see in the photo, I’ve also been reading plenty of anthologies about Mexico. In the pile above, Mexico in Mind and The Reader’s Companion to Mexico are both collections of short pieces and excerpts of English-language writing about Mexico. The Reader’s Companion is mostly travelogues, mostly by Brits and Americans from the first half of the twentieth century. There’s some truly great travel writing in it. Mexico in Mind is a more diverse collection that includes a fair amount of poetry and reflection by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, as well as some travelogue stuff. Another book, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, which is not pictured because we left it behind in Guadalajara (hey, you can’t carry everything!), is a collection of contemporary Mexican fiction, organized according to the Mexican state each piece comes from. It was a good one to read last month, now that I finally have a good sense of Mexican geography.

Below those two in the photo is the thickest and heaviest book we’re carrying, The Mexico Reader – but it’s worth its weight in the suitcase. Even Chris’s academic advisor, a research professor at Indiana University, says it’s really good - which should also tell you who it’s aimed at: Graduate students and high-level undergrads in Mexican history courses. It’s a collection of primary documents from the Aztecs to the Zapatistas, each document preceded by a fantastic introduction. You might think this would be boring, but – thanks in part to those fantastic introductions – it’s not at all. Either that or maybe I’ve inherited the history buff thing from my dad, who read a ton of Civil War books when we were growing up…either way, I’m loving it. I’ve read nearly all the introductions, and now I’m making my way through the primary documents. (Can I get course credit for this?)

You might be looking at the list and thinking: “One of these things is not like the others…” when your eyes hit Far Appalachia: Following the New River North by Noah Adams. I picked that one up in a local bookstore in Lewisburg, West Virginia. I try to pick up a book there every time I’m in town (which has now been precisely twice). I enjoyed it – it made me want to spend time in Appalachia again – but there was a bit too much on whitewater rafting. Still, a good read that made me want to go on a hike. Too bad there’s not really anywhere to do that around here…sigh.

Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads is in there, too. It’s the nonfiction account of his trip to southern Mexico in the 1920s, an experience he drew on to write The Power and The Glory. Greene hates Mexico with a vengeance, and yet he manages to write what is by far the most engaging, best-written travelogue I’ve ever read. Chris started reading it yesterday, and even she says Greene is a really, really good writer. Again, remember the rule – if Chris praises a book, it’s really saying something!

This morning I just finished Slumdog Millionaire (originally published under the title Q & A) by Vikas Swarup. I had picked this one up in the Dulles Airport for Chris. It’s very different from the movie – almost a completely different story, just with the similar gambit of kid-from-the-slums-goes-on-gameshow-and-knows-all-the-answers-through-life-experience. Sadly, the writing - especially the dialogue - is pretty terrible. The only thing it does better than the movie, I think, is to grapple a little harder with the problem of money. Other than that: See the movie, buy the soundtrack, read the book only if you’re in rural Mexico with nothing else to read.

Finally there are a few at the top of the pile. I read The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, by Dean Brackley, during the fall semester, and I’m re-reading it during Lent. It pulls together social justice/community service concerns with Ignatian contemplation – two of my own interests. I’ll write more about this one a little later.

The top three I’ve just started. First up, two books by early-twentieth-century Mexican authors that Chris picked up for me in Guadalajara (see earlier post). Then, if I can stay with it: Juan Rulfo’s work – Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain - in the original Spanish! I think I may need the Fulbright Scholar’s help for that one…

Well, that’s my reading list these days. (I wish they had a Book It! program here – anybody remember that?) How about you - what have you been reading? What do you want to read next?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Getting Unstuck

Editor´s note: Again, the following was written before reading any of your awesome comments. I hope to respond to them soon. Thanks for continuing to read! :)

I suppose it seems like there have been some ups and downs in the last week, and I suppose there’s some truth in that. But today’s up is a substantial one, more a step up the ladder than a sugar rush. And that, dear readers, is because the good vibrations seem to have arrived at the same time Chris did last night, from her day trip to Guadalajara.

(Real quick side note: One of these days I’m going to figure out how to blog about Chris’s research. It’s the whole reason we’re here, of course. A few weeks ago she wrote a revised proposal for her dissertation, one that took into account some of what she’s learned this year. Now, it’s true that I’m biased because she is my esposa, but I am also have the perspective of one who has read many of these proposals on this topic over the last few years, offering what little feedback I can. And I can tell you, this latest one – WOW. It’s REALLY good. Sadly, she is refusing to post it online, for various reasons – it’s still in process, she doesn’t want to publish her ideas without copyright just yet, and so on – but I hope that soon we can figure out a way to share something. Because seriously: It’s REALLY good. And getting better.)

Anyway, Chris gets back and suddenly she’s like a good luck charm. She pulls out English-language books she picked up for me in GDL: Pedro Paramo, a 1950s surrealist novel by Jalisco author Juan Rulfo, and The Underdogs, a 1915 novel of the Mexican revolution written by fellow Jalisco author Mariano Azuela. She knows this is one of my favorite things ever: Reading books – fiction or nonfiction – that are about or from the place where I am. It helps me warm up to that place, to enter deeper into it, to begin to feel more rooted. As we sit down for a dinner of bread, wine, and cheese (hey, there’s not much we can cook yet!), I notice some more good news: Running water is back.

In the morning she calls our landlord, and he comes over to exchange our old horrible mattress for two slightly wider but more importantly much thicker ones, which we’ve stacked on top of each other to create something resembling a real bed. Then I bought two extra pillows, and I think I might actually be able to sleep for more than an hour at a time tonight. (I know, I know: spoiled gringo…but what can I do?)

Our landlord dude also brings equipment to connect the gas tank we bought to (a) the shower) and (b) our parilla, a little two-burner range that sits on a tabletop. We haven’t tried either yet, but just having it sitting there, all plugged in, a real kitchen, humble though it may be, creates a feeling that very nearly amounts to bliss.

While he did the installing, Chris set to work on decorating the walls, whose barrenness was driving her nuts. First she cut up our 2008 Lonely Planet calendar to make a colorful global collage across our largest wall. Then she put up a whole bunch of 8 x 10 family photos Erica brought to us in January on one wall in the bedroom. Trying to be support the arts, I gave her a couple of old Rolling Stone magazines I’ve collected over the course of the year. She spent the afternoon cutting them up, and now she’s in the midst of using that collection to obliterate the boringness of our final empty wall. She says: “I don’t know, this one might be a bit riotous…” Rioutous, with RS portraits of Bruce and Kanye mixed in all over the place? This makes me unreasonably happy.

Some random photos of Chris´s artistic genius at work...

A final note: This post’s title comes from a mix CD I made for Chris something like 8 years ago. The mix takes off from the U2 song “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” and from there sets out to get the listener “unstuck,” through rhythm, lyrics, laughter. Some favorites from this playlist include:

Stuck in a Moment (acoustic version) – U2
Ooh Child – The Five Stairsteps
Lean on Me – dc Talk
You’ve Got a Friend – Randy Newman
Every Day is a Winding Road – Sheryl Crow
Scar Tissue – Red Hot Chili Peppers
I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
Dancing in the Dark – Bruce Springsteen
Elevation – U2

So those are some of the songs we listened to in 2001 and return to, every now and then, to get us unstuck when we need it. How about you? What are your most reliable feel-better songs?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Offtopic: A Joyful Noise

Adam, you were right. This is awesome. And Julie, seriously - they're going to kick off the American tour in CHICAGO?! Oh, man...I'd be there with you if I could. They'd better make it to the Pacific Northwest! :)


Editor's note: With our new setup here, I write most of my posts before I go to the internet cafe - that is, before I read any comments on the previous day's post. So this one does not reflect the grin on my face after reading all your fantastic notes. :) We miss you all, too, and we can't wait to see some of you very soon.

This morning we awoke an hour before dawn. Chris had to catch a 6am bus to Guadalajara; she has a monthly colloquy there at the Colegio de Jalisco.

I was actually surprised we were both able to wake up that early, but I can’t say it was difficult to get out of bed. Neither of us have been sleeping all that well. Maybe it’s the stress of moving. Maybe it’s the thin, child-size mattress we’re sleeping on. Maybe it’s the pendulum swing of temperatures in the night; we try to fall asleep in the stuffy heat, but by morning the single bed sheet we have in this apartment isn’t nearly enough to keep us warm. Maybe it’s the sounds: people coming home next door at 2am, dogs who begin yipping at 3am and never stop, church bells that ring every hour, all night long.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that yesterday morning we watched in horror as the lock on our front door begin to turn; someone was opening it with their own key. When I threw open the window a man gaped at me wide-eyed: He’s been doing construction work on the apartments, and no one had bothered to tell him that we had moved in the day before. (Well, this is what Chris told me he said - he kind of frantically chattered at me, half-apologetically, half-defensively, in Spanish too rapid for me to completely understand. It makes for an odd experience...)

But we made it through the night, and somehow made it up in the morning, too. On a morning like this I am reminded of my fledgling hypothesis that there is nothing better in the wee hours of a frigid morning than a hot cup of coffee. Sadly, we still lack any way to heat water. Including shower water. There’s no time to shower anyway; I drink some water out of a jug, throw on a sweatshirt and we’re out the door.

The lights of the city are still glowing, spread out before us like a blanket of blinking Christmas lights. The blue neon crosses that top the church spires are still radiating their Vegas-like lights, too – a strange nighttime opposite to the cathedrals’ Old World appearance in the daylight.

We walk down the hill, and cross over the massive arcing bridge, a bridge that seems to have grown like a great tail out of another huge church that sits on the edge of the dried-up river. One of our guidebooks says this church and its accompanying bridge were built centuries ago, during the colonial era, “when Lagos de Moreno was on the silver road between Zacatecas and Mexico City.” But no one is carrying silver across the bridge on this frigid morning. Only a handful of other people are making their way through the frigid darkness at this hour, some on foot, some on bikes, two or three in cars.

We step off the bridge to find the old bus station lit up brighter than anything for miles around. Chris buys her ticket; we made it just in time. I turn to go, and notice as I walk by one of those little coffee vending machines. I stop and walk back to it. My bleary eyes read the options; I put in 6 pesos for a “café americano.” Most of it spills all over my hand as I leave the bus station, but I manage to drink some of it anyway. It’s hot, which is all I needed.

As I cross back over the bridge, I hear a rooster crow. A rooster. I shake my head. I think of the people back home who ask about buses full of chickens in Mexico; maybe our experience is finally starting to conform to the stereotype…

When I get back home the water faucets were useless. No hay agua. As I write this in the afternoon it’s been several hours, and there’s still no running water. I don’t even know who to call. (Speaking of which, the gas connection still doesn't work, either - but don't worry, Dad, I haven't the slightest clue how to fix it so I'm not going to mess with it. As Chris says, "You don't mess with gas.") After trying all the faucets in the house (a total of five - the cold water knob in the shower doesn't work, ironically), I did the only thing I could think of: I went up to the roof and watched the sun come up.

The other day, a few hours after the strange man tried to get in our apartment, we were doing a morning devotional when Chris flipped open to the appointed verse in Genesis, chapter twelve. She started to read, then caught herself and had to stop. Sometimes Scripture cuts a little too deep.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

I’m not entirely certain, but I imagine that Abram took it one day at a time, too.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Offtopic: U2 Top Ten

I love coffee shops with wireless internet where I can while away the afternoon watching stuff like this on YouTube. :) :) :) :)

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Where do I begin?

So much has happened, it seems like, since my last post. To be honest, I half-expected to be staying in that hotel, with the wonderful wi-fi internet (with U2 on YouTube), for all our first week in Los Altos (the common name for this region of Jalisco state). But then, Tuesday morning, we got a phone call from our contact in Lagos de Moreno, and at the end of the day we were sleeping under a different roof in a different town with a very different to-do list for the rest of the week.

Even so, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to describe the situation in which we find ourselves. The paradoxes of our predicament are probably reflected in our energy levels, which go from psyched-up and relieved to have found a place to totally exhausted of dealing with a billion new things. But I should probably get down to specifics. So, without further ado: the Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.

The Good

Our Lagos contact offered to meet us at the bus station with his pick-up truck; this way we wouldn’t have to pay a taxi driver for carting around our montón de maletas (ton of luggage). He walked us through the contract form, and then handed us the keys. We have our own place!

(Above: Finally, no more carrying this around! At least until July. Sigh.)

Our new apartment is located in Lagos de Moreno, a neighboring town to San Juan de Los Lagos. It’ll mean an hour commute for Chris to get to her research site, but we opted to go with it anyway, in part because we kept finding the possibilities in San Juan drying up and this one in Lagos opening up. But we also opted for Lagos in part because Lagos seems to us a much more pleasant place to live. San Juan is fascinating in its way, of course, but it is a tourist town, and everything – from the overpriced restaurants to the lack of public parks aimed at locals – seems to revolve around that fact. Lagos, by contrast, has leafy green parks lining a river (dried up now, but overflowing during the rainy season, we’re told), a peaceful town square, and lots of small reasonably-priced restaurants clearly aimed at the local community. As an added bonus, Lagos has a coffee shop with free wireless internet. This makes me unreasonably happy.

Within Lagos, our apartment is located only a short walk from the bus station that Chris will need to use regularly. It’s in a working-class neighborhood, not nearly as pristine as the ritzy suburb we lived in during our time in Guadalajara. For some reason we like this. It’s hard to describe the little jumble of buildings that make up our “apartment complex,” so I’ll try to take some pictures later this week, but somehow we got an apartment on the top floor, which is nice. There are two bedrooms, a big common room, and an accessible rooftop where I am definitely going to place a big ol’ lawn chair and spend hours reading and playing my guitar this week. (An old Drifters song comes to mind…)

We won’t be able to fill the apartment space with stuff, of course – we’re not here nearly long enough to afford to buy a couch or a TV or any of the other things that quickly made our Chicago apartment seem small – but we did pull our little stereo out of the suitcase and soon our new space was full of the sounds of U2 and Patti Scialfa…in other words, the sounds of home.

The Bad

Our friend here in Lagos is quite a character. We genuinely like him, we think, but he’s kind of all over the place. He talks a mile a minute, usually in English – he’s very excited to be able to practice his English with us. Every once in a while he’ll run out of things to say and suddenly tell me to “Talk! Practice your Spanish!” and of course inevitably I can’t think of anything off the top of my head so I just respond with “uhhh….”

Anyway while we like him he seems to figure things out as he goes along, which is okay sometimes and sort of bewilderingly frustrating at other times. We knew our apartment would need some work when we moved in, but most essentially it lacks a stove or range or actually any way to heat water at all, because the connection to the gas tank is broken. We’ve never seen this particular kind of set up before, so we can’t really fix it ourselves. We think he’s going to fix it for us, but now we’re really not so sure. We also think he’s going to deliver us a stove, or a range, or some way to cook food (to be specific, we’re not sure exactly what he means by a parilla), but again – now we’re really not so sure. We’ll see what happens.

Besides lacking a gas connection, the apartment is totally unfurnished, which is a problem because for us because despite the montón de maletas that we’re carrying around we definitely forgot our mattress. We don’t need much, of course, but at a minimum, we need a bed (sleeping) and a table and chairs (eating), and probably some dishes and towels and hangars and cooking utensils and… somehow things start to add up very quickly.

So our friend tells us he may have some furniture to rent us. He’s very vague about what exactly this will cost, but we figure, hey, we’re way under budget with this apartment, and we really would rather rent the essentials than buy them. So he takes his truck and goes to pick some things up. When he comes back he has me help him unload the stuff.

There is a mattress – twin size, so we’ll be sleeping close. The rest of the stuff, well… it consists of a rickety table that needs to be assembled somehow (finally figured it out the next day), a metal folding chair with padding that has soaked up decades of dust like a sponge, and a very rickety wooden folding chair half the width of the metal one, some wooden boards, some plastic stools. Before we realize what is happening (we spent half the night trying to figure out exactly how things went wrong), he has charged us 700 pesos a month for his “furniture.” I keep looking at it and thinking, hey, people make do with less than this. We really will be fine. But we can’t help feeling like we just gave this guy a giant wad of cash for a bunch of stuff he pulled out of the trash heap. And so we keep reminding ourselves: We're still under budget, we'll consider it payment for all the genuinely helpful services he's providing us this week, it's ok, it'll be fine.

(Above: Sweet dreams. Of a bigger mattress.)

We spent Thursday cleaning. After hours and hours of scrubbing, Chris somehow made a grimey bathroom shine, and I tried to clean our new furniture and figure out how to put it together. I mopped the floors twice, but our feet are still black after walking on them, so there will definitely be more of that to do tomorrow. But this, I suppose, is just what it’s like to move to a new place. Good thing we’ll only have to do that, oh, one or two more times this year. (Sigh.)

(Above: He's working on a dream.)

(Above: She's working on a dream.)

The Beautiful

But my favorite, my absolutely favorite, the thing that makes it all worth it for me, is the view we have – from our roof, from our bedroom window, from our front door.

(Above: The view from our front door.)

Look out from any of these places and you can see the whole city of Lagos spread out in front of you, the cathedral towering over it all in the near distance. Beyond the last buildings is a leafy forest of trees, and beyond that lies an endless plain, as far as the eye can see. In one direction it’s dotted by these bizarre little hills that remind me of the photos I’ve seen of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and in another direction there are mountains. Mountains!

We have, truly, plunged ourselves into a world that is so different from any place we’ve ever lived before. It makes every place we’ve lived before in Mexico seem like easy street. We keep looking at each other and saying “Let’s never do this again.”

Yet I still can’t get over that view. It's like a constant reminder, whenever it's hard to believe, that it’s so beautiful… all of it, even when it’s harder than it’s ever been, and maybe especially then.

The adventure continues.