Sunday, March 27, 2011

Festive Weekend Part 2

Today we had another short day to ourselves as we were invited back to the house of Teri and Blanca for their brother’s 30th birthday party. So, I called forth every ounce of ambition I could muster and went for a run. It was glorious. I ran all the way to the pyramid and over to the track at the soccer fields. I did a couple laps and just slowed to a walk as these two gorgeous guys and their dogs walked by. I did a double take: “Jose Carlos? Do you remember me?” It was the doorman from the bar and his extremely handsome brother. Go figure. So, we exchanged numbers (the brother and I, as Jose Carlos has no phone) and I took another lap feeling pretty good about myself. I stopped by a Yoga center across the street and asked for information, where the nice girl at the desk told me that I could do chores in the center in exchange for classes, and there were a few open classes that were donation-based. Oh, you don’t have an organization to donate to this month? I have a suggestion for you – let me email you about Community Links, and what works I can perform at the yoga center, and who knows, maybe we can be friends! I left the yoga center smiling even more and popped over to watch some of the worst baseball I may have ever seen.  Very large grown men, no batting form and no idea how to field a grounder or a pop fly – I had a special appreciation for this experience, but could only stand to watch half an inning. Plus I had been inspired for a gift idea for Julián, and wanted to pass through a new market in our neighborhood before heading home. With a week’s worth of veggies( for $5 USD) now in the fridge, Cecilia and I made Julián a beautiful card, got ready, bought some cakes and headed to our third fiesta of the weekend.  Unfortunately passing up multiple opportunities to go out with Cecilia’s Cuban, Jose Carlos AND his equally attractive brother, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening at Julian’s birthday.
The meal was quite similar to the previous night, but the company was much more intimate. Julián and his sisters are my first and dearest local friends (actually, the only ones so far but the former adjectives sound nicer, no?). Their family is actually quite unique in this part of town. I get the impression that they are not very well-received socially because of their progressive values. Blanca and Teri work incredibly hard against cultural norms to teach their young daughters that a woman’s place is not just in the home; that you don’t have to ask your husband’s permission to leave the house or go out dancing; that your voice and thoughts are important.  Equally, Julián is a true gentleman and doesn’t seem to have much of the machismo attitude that is so prevalent in most of the men we’ve encountered here. They are very well-educated. Blanca has a background in law and medicine; Julián is a writer, historian and experienced climber; Teri can recall an astonishing amount of history of Cholula and Mexico, and is hilarious aside. They also have a great miniature schnauzer mix with huge bat ears that is a core member of their family, which gives me a strong sense of home.
 The family owns a party salon that people can rent out. When we had the siblings over for dinner one evening, they told us countless stories of wild patrons – mothers who fainted rather than having to pay, drug lords who put on cock fights in the back yard, a beautiful imposter photographer who came in and took pictures and people’s money and then slipped off into the night with thousands of pesos, Italian mafia who were incredibly warm and friendly. They’ve since stopped the salon aspect of their company and just focus on their pizza restaurant.  Julián learned how to make pizza while living in NYC. He returned, told his dad he no longer wanted to work on cars but rather to make pizzas, and the whole family threw themselves into this new endeavor.  He made nearly a thousand pizzas before opening up shop, and now they have a pretty lucrative business. As for the salon, they say it’s too exhausting trying to host hundreds of people all at once, and often times the details and payment and clients themselves are more trouble than its worth. But if for nothing but the stories… but this night we spoke of Mexico as a whole. I don’t understand why older generations want so badly to talk about all of the bad stuff in their country, and then speak so freely of hope. Talking to older family members here is like an emotional roller coaster. But these are the many details of my life I am reveling in. And so we continue, paso a paso…

Festive Weekend Part 1

So much has happened since I’ve written last. I have floated through loathing, ambivalence, frustration, acceptance and adoration for this place in the last week. Last Thursday we went to WalMart to get staples - jam without high fructose corn syrup, soap, etc. (alas, no peanut butter besides Skippy and Aladdin), and novelties such as hummus (woohoo!) and tequila. We made a night of it, and ate gigantic burritos at the brothers Mariachi, where I’d had the pleasure of dining late one Saturday night with my bosses. Early Friday morning, Karma decided to take a swing at me (deservedly so for my meat consumption and patronage at America’s keystone monstrosity), and I was either flat on my back or in the bathroom for the next 4 days.
 My housemate offered me antibiotics, which I begrudgingly started taking on Saturday night, and had to go to the doctor to purchase the rest of the treatment on Monday. The doctor was so pleasant and helpful – I was really surprised having paid the whopping 30 pesos ($3 USD) to get a checkup – but my friend didn’t understand the translation of my question: “­do you get what you pay for?”   And so, I entered blindly into the Mexican health system and managed to come out the other side alive, more educated, and with the proper medication, all for $9 USD (and the near collapse of our sewer drainage system).  
So after much recooperation and a long work week, we were very enthusiastic about the coming weekend...and rightly so.
We went to Saida (the woman around the corner with the AMAZING juices and  whose sopes (fried corn pizza crust thingies with beans, avocado, lettuce, cheese, mushrooms ) I had been craving since I got sick) and planned our adventure for the vacation time we have during Semana Santa (the week before Easter).  Then we walked to the center of town and climbed the pyramid. As we looked out across all of the night lights of Puebla, we discussed what it means to live in this moment. There is a Buddhist philosopher who says that you don’t need to indulge yourself in every novelty because if you close your eyes, you can taste the chocolate, hear your friends’ laughter, feel the course fur of your dog’s back or stand on the street corner in Asheville.  So what happens when you live too much in nostalgia? It’s not that I am sad or homesick even, but the feeling is one of reaching and reaching and not being able to grasp what I’m reaching for – like trying to remember a dream that’s just outside of my recollection. So we discussed this for a long time, and how to be fully present. 
Later that night we went to the Cuban salsa club, Mojito, with our friends Teri and Blanca. Aside from a few classes at the Y, this was my first experience, and it was so intuitive (and such a sexy dance!). Cecilia immediately zeroed in on a very attractive Cuban waiter, and I on the young Mexican doorman. We left four hours later with our ears ringing, with significantly fewer pesos than when we'd arrived, and with the telephone numbers of our respective interests. Well, mine didn’t have one so I told him I’d come back, but each of us perfectly satisfied with the evening.
Saturday we didn’t have much time to ourselves because we’d been invited to the birthday party of Teri and Blanca’s Aunt Conchita. I don’t know what you know of Mexican parties, but they last for anywhere from 12 to 18 hours. We arrived around 4pm, and the living rooms were filled with long tables of family members munching on deep fried tortilla chips and a salsa made of chipotle, cream and mayonnaise (sounds awful, but in reality it was frustratingly delicious). The next dish was a plate of rice cooked in spiced tomato water. This was followed by a vegetable and shrimp soup and finally the cake, which was similar to ours but very moist - nearly saturated like a pudding.  

Once we finished eating, they moved all of the tables and the space became a dance floor. The aunt and her more extroverted daughter spent nearly the entire time making rounds about the room saluting the guests with cheers and chants, and any time our glasses were nearly empty they hastily took it and refilled it. (Lesson 14 of Mexico: adding "ito" to the end of nouns makes them smaller. By offering you a "tequilito", somehow the giant shot you are being handed is less of a challenge and you can consequently drink twice as many). I didn’t want to be rude so I continued obliging their offers; so from 4pm to nearly midnight I had a glass of tequila in my hand. Consequently, everything I recount about the evening may have a slightly more congenial perspective, but I’ll continue nonetheless. We started out in our own little corner by ourselves (Cecilia and myself with Teri and Blanca and their father). At one point when Patty (the extroverted sister) offered to get me yet another tequila, I asked if I could help. She led my by the hand down the line of men sitting at the table, introducing me and telling each of them that I wanted to dance. She then plopped me down in the corner with all of the aunt’s friends (all of whom she’s known since elementary school) and left me alone, forgetting my tequila drink for another twenty minutes. One of the friends has been a judge’s secretary for 33 years. The other is a teacher who has traveled all over the United States.   When I explained the organization for which I work and some of our challenges in the curriculum, she told me that she was just about to retire and would like to donate all of her books and materials to us!
Then we began to dance.* I'm going to change the names in my story.* First I danced with Fernando who is a friend of the family, a conspiracy theorist and in his last year of studies in gynecology in Mexico City (he seems dedicated to medicine, but to his particular field solely for the opportunity to investigate the vagina more closely). I am to call him for dinner if we wind up in the city. Humberto was very pleasant to dance with and had exceptional English. He was getting notably more intoxicated as his kisses on the cheeks of his aunts (and once my own) got more drawn out. I also had the pleasure of dancing with Conchita's son, who gave a profound speech about his mother that moved me to tears, and was the best dancer in the salon (having learned only by watching others).  I also danced with Sr. Manuel – the father of Teri and Blanca, but more enjoyed watching him dance with Conchita, the aunt. Her energy was sheer joy and it showed as she danced and saluted and chatted with each of us. She told me about her heart – where her deceased husband now resides, and the overwhelming appreciation she has for each of the guests who showed up to love her that night. So beautiful. The familial relationships of Mexico are one of the most beautiful aspects of this culture that I have encountered thus far. I also got to talk to Teri and Blanca’s aunt, Guadalupe, who is in her 50s with grown sons, but starting a new track of working in psychology. We chatted for a long time about the cycle of violence in families and where and how to interrupt it, the relationships within communities and the power of the small work of individuals.  She had a pure heart and a good vibe, and I left our conversation beaming.  Did I mention the mariachis? Two separate sets came a few hours apart, the first dressed in business suits and the second decked out in official mariachi attire. They sang beautifully, and the whole party knew all of the words to their folk songs. It was an incredible evening, only to be tampered by our witnessing (what seemed to be) a fatal accident on the way home from the party. Apparently driving is the second leading cause of fatalities in the nation. How quickly life twists and flows through elation and tragedy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Address in Mexico

I'm not sure if mail will actually get to me here, but my suggestion is to send it "registered," which I guess means get it tracked? There's also  DHL service in town, which is the closest thing to FedEx or UPS.
**Additionally, it was recommended to me to write my name in Spanish as it'd be more likely to get to me. So, you can send it to Raquel Ganadora, or Raquel Fernandez or Ardilla (squirrel :)) or something like that. (Thank you, Allie).

Calle 11 Poniente 1128-1
San Pedro Cholula
Puebla, Mexico

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Worlds

Last night I went out to "Container City." They've taken old shipping containers and turned them into bars and restaurants. It's very shi-shi. I went there this weekend with my bosses as well - lots of techno music, lots of college kids, lots of neon lights. I'm not entirely sure of the context of our trip, but we wound up doing a Mezcal tasting. The liquor is like a cross between tequila and whiskey with smokey undertones - it's made from organic agave and guaranteed to leave you hangover-free (fact). It was a very classy experience, except for the bartender himself who didn't seem to hold his mezcal as um, professionally as the rest of us...we ended the evening by driving over to the Mariachi brothers' taco stands on the side of the highway. With enormous greasy hands, Benjamin made us some of the most delicious burritos I've ever had (and more meat than I've eaten in the past 6 months combined). Like many others I've encountered, Benjamin recounted a story of his trip to the United States where he worked for less than he should have, saved every penny he could, shouldered difficult social situations and cultural barriers and brought money back to Mexico. I don't think I've met anyone who hasn't either gone to the States themselves or known someone who has.

As for my own experiences, I wake up every morning caught between two worlds. I open my eyes every morning and they focus on my rug - a blanket of bright pinks and greens, then on the tile below and the bunk bed above my head. I hear dogs barking (always with the dogs barking), the gas vendors who drive around all day selling propane (the small irony isn't lost on me) and the celebrators of Carnaval who've started early with their rockets and poppers.

But my mind doesn't immediately register these images. I open my eyes an see the pale lime of my bedroom in NC with one small window of early sun, not a flood of the day's greeting. I think of the sun coming in through the front door over the mountains as I climb the stairs, not immediately of the ever-puffing Popo volcano now with snow on top from yesterday's storm. I think of breakfast (always with the food) and my mind smells scrambled eggs, slices of bagel, my dad's first batch of coffee and laugther (after my mom's had a cup, otherwise the laughter is more like a growl). I don't automatically think of jicama and papaya with lime and chili powder, or an egg quesadilla and coffee with my housemate. I think of rolling grass at Barkwells, and my own dogs, not of Chalupa and other scruffy mutts that hang outside of our door to the alleyway. Terri and Bobbi pass through my vision and then if my snooze button hasn't gone off yet, my friends waft by, like smelling cookies baking far away.

Every day I am fully here once I get myself going. But the creeping demon of "What are you doing here?" and the one I know too well "What will you do next?" slithers up and hovers in the nape of my neck just behind my ear. I've gotten better about whacking it away and truly opening my eyes to this day. But it's like any exercise. But unlike karate or ultimate, there's no sore muscle or score to guage my progress.

Will I ever feel like I fit somewhere? Be calm enough not to be restless? What about the people who take jobs for indeterminate times - the administrators, sales reps or teachers? What do they think when they look far down the road? The thing is, there's traffic and you can't really see what's coming. So when people say "How's Mexico?" I say it's my adventure and I'm living every day as best I can. Some day soon, I'll know that to be the very truth.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

El Temazcal

Temazcal - a traditional sweat house from the La Cota population in the US and Canada.
We built the fire with Senora Patty, who was to be our guide for the two hour ceremony. We chugged water and nibbled on oranges as we waited for the rocks to heat up, and then lined up evenly dispersing guys and girls in a semicircle. She swirled smoke around each of us and handed us a pinch of tobacco - an herb that was traditionally seen as a sacred plant that helps bring our prayers to God (gods?). We said a quiet prayer of dedication and what we wanted cleansed and then threw our tobacco onto the fire. Patty said that the Temazcal represents a mother's womb - hot, damp and dark. So we were entering the womb of Mother Earth being heated by the fire, which was Father Sun. One by one we crawled clockwise into the circular temazcal and sat around the rim of the structure facing the small hole where the hot rocks go.

The first session wasn't so bad - it reminded me of the sauna at the YMCA or up at the lake in Minnesota - very refreshing, and only slightly uncomfortable. Each session was dedicated to a direction, and a phase of life. Childhood - why are we here? What do we want to gain from this experience? I said that I seek connection, purpose and patience.

In youth, with 5 more hot rocks, we are idealistic and hopeful, we are have the a fire within us. Each of the four sessions had a series of chants sometimes in Spanish, other times in indigenous languages: Earth is our body, water is our blood, wind is our food and fire is our spirit. With this phase Patty asked what we want to cleanse with this process. I asked for my fears to be replaced with trust. And I secretly hoped everyone would talk faster so could get to the next phase and open the door.
Now the mental game began. I thought of Mr. Pinner, my karate teacher from Florida. When we were practicing our splits, he used to pick us up by our belts and then slowly set us down deeper into the splits. If I fought it, my legs would shake and my insides would scream. Here, I began to rock and rub cool dirt on my legs, but as I focused on my breathing and eased into the heat, my tension eased. I realized there was no differentiation between my body and my sweat - I remember thinking that it felt like my body was raining.

When she opened the door a third time, some of the students stepped out. Many of us turned over and put our faces to the dirt. We had just spent Ash Wednesday up on a mountain at a hermitage. I attended mass with the group, but I was the only one who did not receive ashes on my forehead. I thought of this as I put my face on the earth. I inhaled the cooler air of the lowest possible level of the atmosphere - these are my ashes. I sat up as she added more hot rocks to begin the third phase of middle age: when we bear fruit and sometimes begin to take life too seriously in relation to the vivacity of our youth.  When we began to chant, and I found myself in sync with the rhythm and tones of some language I'd never heard before. As Patty asked us what we wanted to dedicate our energy to, I put everything I had in me towards my dad's mom; may she have the strength and courage to make this decision about surgery, and have faith and courage about whatever it brings. This time we were given herbal tea - warm water infused with rosemary - to pour over our heads. I started rocking back and forth and for some reason I wanted to cry. My face contorted, but I think all of my tears had poured out of me through my skin, and any moisture that wasn't leaving through my pores was coming out of my nose. I thought I had nothing left.

The final phase was old age - when our bodies often times can't keep up with our spirits. My head was starting to hurt. Almost everyone who hadn't stepped out was lying flat on their backs. We were almost there.What are we grateful for in this long journey? What do we want to pass along? I am grateful for the energy and all of the beings who have contributed to the character of my soul, may I be able to give just as much back both in this lifetime and after. Miss Patty threw cooler water on us after we spoke, and it hissed as it evaporated.  We sang another chant about coming from the goddess and returning to the ocean like a drop of water. I think that some of the group (a Catholic organization) struggled with this concept, and a lot of the language like this. But just as I could relate to some aspects of their mass service, I felt able to connect to the rituals and words that accompanied this ceremony. I am a walking limbo of spirituality.

When we emerged I felt naked in a way, like I was literally a (very gangly) baby emerging from a womb into the sunlight. We each crawled to an open space and laid resting in the sunshine until we felt strong enough to stand and rinse off. I don't think I'll do this every week like Ms Patty, or even every time that a group elects to participate in this ritual, but it was one of the most powerful experiences I've had in a very long time, and I'm glad to share it with you.

There were a lot of other cool things about this week - foods, people both Mexican and students from the colleges, Puebla (I'm truly in love with this city - we went there for the first time yesterday and I want to know how I can commute  the 45 minutes there in every free moment I have), and a silent retreat at a hermitage built on a mountaintop (10,000ft) by an old Spanish priest; many feelings and colors - hope and inspiration, serious frustration, fear, pink, green, yellow, white, but I will have to save them for another time. We are heading to a birthday party for the sister of one of our students in our afterschool program. And then I'm debating whether to go out or to compensate for the major dearth of sleep from this week. So, hoping that this finds you in peace and health, hasta pronto...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Would Said Say?

Virginia Tech and Michigan State arrived late last night, so we started the morning with a traditional Mexican breakfast - chilaquiles. Tortilla chips stewed in a red sauce and served under scrambled eggs, queso, avacado and a dallop of the freshest cream I've ever had (apparently there is a dairy vendor two blocks down with a small farm just behind the wall of his shop)...I ate broccoli for lunch to compensate. Father John is the leader of VT and, if I am not to insult his sacred role by calling him so, a total badass. This is his 19th trip to Mexico and could provide so much more information than I about pretty much anything. Before 8:30 this morning I got myself into a conversation with him regarding imperialism and "the Other" (he started it I swear). We were discussing his revolutionary initiatives to redefine service; both service and mission have connotations of entering another place in order to fix something. "I am coming to you to fix what is broken because I am better." He referred to an article in The Onion that said the top two reasons for service work are resume-building and feeling good about yourself. But true service is not about the servers - it's a mutually beneficial cultural connection and a learning for both parties involved. We may not change the world in a week or a year, but how are we improving our relationships with our immediate world? This is the question he asked his students to reflect upon during their time here.

This theme continued as we visited the pyramid. Arturo, the CommLinks director, explained that the repressed "Other" indigenous populations of this region are descendants from the creators of the pyramid in Cholula. The pyramid is the largest in the whole world by volume. It was started by the Olmecs, finished by the Aztecs, and now upon it sits an ornate Catholic chapel... Arturo spoke of the history of the builders and the site: they could determine precise calendars, directions and astrology, develop a mathematical system,  and interpret the information they gathered to maximize agricultural production. They believed the earth was reborn every 52 years, and consequently destroyed a part and rebuilt a layer every cycle. They deduced that in 2012 this present time cycle will end (not the world, just the cycle), but we have to make a choice about how we are to structure our consciousness and our relationships with one another if we are to survive another cycle. We are too much in ourselves and not aware of our connection with one anOther. Arturo says: Our problem is our necessity of imidiacy, and we are willing to protect it with guns. I thought that was a very powerful statement.

As for the rest of the cultural day, we took the group first to mass at the gold-laden traditional basilica where the Spaniards attended in the 18th century, then to the adjacent gray chapel with pictures to educate the illiterate where the native populations could worship in that time. We took them to a museum where they quickly read about the history of Cholula and spent most of the time doing a photo shoot  in the courtyard. We passed through a clown show whereupon noticing 30 gringos in the crowd the clown gave the audience a few laughs at our expense. We never did figure out why, but suddenly we were the "Others" among hundreds of people. We wandered through the market where they sell whatever you need on any given Sunday: bananas, socks, seeds, fish heads, batteries, the list goes on for hundreds of little booths and smells of boiling grease and cheese. I was stopped by a woman who asked where we were from. When I responded, she told me: I have a brother somewhere in Texas who had been caught by immigration. Perhaps there is a way to radio him a message. You are all so beautiful with all of these blondes and green and blue eyes. If I weren't so poor I would love to have all of you in my home. Go with God.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

First post from Mexico

This is the first post of my blog. Welcome. I always thought blogs were incredibly narcissistic...still do to a degree, but I ultimately think that this is a better option than sending a lengthy mass email every time I get around to updating you all on my life down here (in Mexico). And I really enjoy writing, so this way you can be as engaged or apathetic as you choose. Like voting. I guess I'll go ahead and post the email that I just sent out - I know it's redundant, but I feel like it's also fitting since it kick-started my communication back to you guys. But I did have an addendum to my first email in that I just discovered that there is rat poison in our oven. Apparently there was a nest inside a long time ago so the natural response was poison. Anyone know if a self-clean (post removal of said poison) will be sufficient, or should we stick to pan frying our dinners at the risk of doing our guests in with a casserole?

Anywho, here's the email...
Hiii. I'm alive and well. I got in late last night and was well cared for. We cooked a dinner of cactus, onion, avacado, tomato and lime salad, quesadillas with cheese, mushrooms and fresh salsa verde, and  fried scallions. So much for losing weight while I'm here. Today I bought a new cell phone (through which I can send int'l texts FYI PLEASE DO NOT CALL MY US CELL PHONE - it will charge me even if you just get the voicemail box) and changed some money, went to lunch (handmade sopes - little fried pizza crust things) with mushrooms, refried beans, cheese and avacado and a papaya-kiwi-orange juice....$3). Went out to my coordinator's house (all ecofriendly - cob house with solar panels, compost toilet, beautiful garden) to do the twice a week afterschool program with a bunch of little kids. It was really really nice - I tought a kindergarten girl named Margo about the letter L.

The first group comes Saturday, so we only have a couple more days of peace and quiet in this gorgeous home. All of the houses are behind huge steel doors and big walls down long alleyways and guarded by incredibly friendly stray puppies.Cecilia and I share a small room with a bunk bed in preparation for the service group, but eventually I'll have my own room. Cecilia and Olivier are the two other housemates (from Maine and France respectively) and I really feel at home. Outside, there are many strange smells (burning trash, burning weed, mystery livestock behind the wall a few blocks away) and the view from the 2nd floor is an immense puffing volcano named Popooadjiojnwo8ru32ncan - Popo for short.  THe town and lifestyle I still feel apprehensive about - it's a big change and very...rustic.  It is a huge adjustment and my spanish is really really rusty. I feel like I am easing into it but definitely still feel out of my element and slightly nauseus when stepping back and looking at what i've gotten myself into. Could I live here for more than 3 months? By myself after Olivier and Cecilia leave in April and May? For a year or more like I'd originally anticipated? But then I remember to take a breath (a large one - we're at something like 7000ft here) and take it one step at a time. One foot in front of the other. "Hay mas tiempo que vida" - there is more time than life is a local expression (and lifestyle). My new cell is 22 2135 3426. It only costs me $.08 to text you but I have no idea what it'll cost you to return the favor. my skype is winner.rachel just so you know. After I finish this email to alert you of the existence of my vitals I intend to figure out how the heck to start this blog so I don't have to send mass emails and you can engage in as much or as little of my saga as you choose. I will also unpack and set up my camera so that I can show you pictures of the burros and cacti and Popo. However, my alternative is to go get a beer with my handsome French roommate and his Mexican friends. So. until next time...