Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Speaking Mexican

"Oh, so you must speak really good Mexican."

That phrase -- usually uttered by a well-intentioned family member/neighbor/co-worker/acquaintance/would-be friend after learning that I was traveling to/living in/coming back from/moving to somewhere in Mexico -- used to make me cringe.

"Mexican" is NOT a language, people.

At least that's what I used to think.

Spanish is the official language of Mexico. (Nerdy linguist note: There are hundreds of deliciously fascinating indigenous languages spoken here, too.) However, español's "official" status doesn't mean that the Spanish spoken in Mexico is the same as the Spanish spoken in, say, Cuba or Argentina or Nicaragua or even Spain.

(Perhaps English speakers can best appreciate this phenomenon when comparing the very-different brands of inglés spoken in the USA, England, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. To be "pissed" or to put something in a "boot" or to ask for a "rubber" mean very different things, you know, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're doing the talking.)

Anyway, the possibility of "Mexican" as its own language became very clear to be this past weekend, when I found myself in a bar in Oaxaca with a friend we'll call "V." V is from Madrid and is my next-door neighbor here in Huajuapan. She works at the same university as I do, doing research for her thesis. She's a smart, funny girl, and we've become fast friends.

V is endlessly delighted by the "mexicanismos" she's learned while living here in Oaxaca. Mexican slang, it turns out, is very very very different from Spanish slang. And because I learned to speak Spanish in Mexico, I don't appreciate all of the differences because, well, I just don't know any better.

So, V and I are in the bar, accompanied by three other friends of V's, also from Spain. We're laughing and chatting and drinking lots of beer. Some live music starts (trova, for all of you acoustic fans) and the guitarist announces that we should all give a round of applause to Leticia, seated at the next table, who was celebrating her birthday that night.

So we all clap for Leticia. We're all so happy for Leticia. Birthdays are so exciting, Leticia.

Just as the applause starts to die down, V shouts out, "¡GUÁCALA, LETICIA!"

Now, it is important to note here that "guácala" roughly translates to "disgusting" in Mexican Spanish, meaning that V had essentially screamed:


So, of course, all heads in the crowded bar turn toward the direction of this bizarre insult, to our table. Who said that to Leticia? And on her birthday? What had Leticia done to deserve this? Poor Leticia!

Of course, such a stupid comment could have only come from a gringa, and I, the only blonde-haired person seated at the table full of Spaniards, was the likely culprit. I was beet red, partially out of embarrassment, but mostly because I was laughing so hard at V.

Me: Why the [insert choice curse word en español here] did you say that?!?

V: What?!? Doesn't 'guácala' mean 'congratulations'?

Me: No! It means 'disgusting.' Didn't you know that?

V: No! I've heard you say it before. I could've sworn it meant 'congratulations.'

The idea that I -- an Illinois-born, blonde-haired, freckle-faced gringa -- could possibly teach any kind of español to a native speaker of the language is mysterious enough. But the idea that V would have thought that 'guácala' was a good thing -- especially when I'd used the word in reaction to seeing dog poop or eating nasty-to-me food or walking through the bloody meat aisle at the market -- is even more mysterious. And kinda funny.

We apologized to Leticia. We cleared up the misunderstanding. We all had a good laugh. But the next time someone remarks on my ability to speak really good "Mexican," I'll probably accept the compliment with a smile. ¡Guácala!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The early bird makes lots of noise

Back when I was living in Chicago, I sometimes had trouble getting to sleep at night. My old neighborhood, Wrigleyville, was what some people might call acoustically interesting. The neighborhood surrounds Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and thusly is a mecca for late-night baseball, crowded post-game bars, screeching sirens, big buses, and, of course, the occasional pair of drunk Cubbie fans engaged in a rowdy rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the street. It's noisy.

During my stay in Wrigleyville, I was going to grad school and working a full-time job, so I wasn't getting that much sleep anyway. I was already awake at 3 am, studying or working or otherwise stressing myself out, so what was the bother in a little extra noise? I kind of liked the company, the thought of someone else awake at that God-forsaken hour.

Now I live in Huajuapan, a city that seems to go to sleep by about 8:30 pm. Long gone are the days of police sirens and drunken serenades. The place is dead quiet at night, save the chirping of crickets or the occasional dog bark.

Mornings, however, are a different story. On my first Sunday in Huajuapan, I woke up at about 6am to the sound of what I thought were gunshots. Big, explosive gunshots fired off at five-minute intervals. Given the fact that I'd moved to Huajuapan to escape a drug war in my former home of Culiacán, I was less than thrilled with the notion that the narcotrafficantes had followed me to Oaxaca. I lay stiffly in my bed, paralyzed by fear, anxiously waiting for the shooting to subside. Later that morning, when I worked up the courage to leave my apartment, I asked my neighbors about the noise.

Turns out it was coming from the church.

Wait, gunshots at the church?

Nope. It's actually fireworks. At 6 am. The folks running the show at the cathedral here in Huajuapan use fireworks (called cohetes -- rockets -- in Spanish) to call people to Sunday services. Something about the tradition dating back to the Spanish conquest, when the conquistadores used 'em to call folks down from the indigenous villages in the mountains.

Okay. But c'mon people. It's 2008, and the Spanish conquest wrapped about four centuries ago. Don't we have church bells to do that job now? Or maybe a simple, quiet announcement that church services start at 6am? But I'm here as an outsider. I'm here to learn, not to judge, so whatever. Fireworks at dawn is just dandy. At least it's the weekend, so I can roll over and fall asleep again when the fireworks wrap.

But lately, there's been more: Following the fireworks, there's now a full hour of loud organ music, singing and clapping at the church. Hymns at 100 decibels. Every Sunday for the past five weeks or so. So much for sleeping in on Sunday morning, but still, I can't judge.

This week, however, brought on the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. December 12 marks the celebration of Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexico's Virgin Mary), so now there's a fair going on in the street, building up to the big day. Normally, I'd be pleased with the prospect of a street fair -- it'd add some excitement to this little city. But the thing is, the fair starts up every morning with fireworks, a parade, and singing.

And by 'every,' I mean every day until December 12.

And by 'morning,' I mean 4:30 am.

Now I'm all for people celebrating their faith. I'm happy that they're happy, singing in the streets and banging drums and shooting off fireworks and whatnot. I'll even ignore the irony that all of this noise is coming from a religious celebration, instead of from drunken revelry like it was back in Chicago.

But 4:30 am?!? It's not even light outside, folks. And the drums wake up every damn dog in Huajuapan, so you have barking and howling on top of the parade noise. Wouldn't the Virgin be just as honored by a celebration at a more civilized hour, like 9:30 am? Or better yet, noon?

As the cliché goes, the early bird gets the worm. But not if you've made so much damn noise that you've scared all the worms away. La güera needs her beauty sleep, y'all.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Photo Opp

There was the time when I was in the back of a limo with John Leguizamo. And the time I ran into Tommy Hilfiger at what used to be Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago. And then there was the time when I met Michelle Kwan in the press room at a Champions on Ice event.

Those were times when I really wished I had my camera. Yes, even the most jaded, cynical ex-PR gal is sometimes a sucker for the token photo opp.

But these lame celebrity run-ins pale to the time when, two years ago, I was doing an interview at a little storefront church on the west side of Chicago. The interview subject was Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who, defying deportation orders, took up sanctuary in a church instead of reporting to INS. She wanted to stay in the United States to care for her then-7-year-old, US-born son, Saul. After all, deporting her would mean deporting him, because she wasn't leaving without him.

I really, really, really wanted my camera. But I'd forgotten it.

Arellano's not a celebrity, per se, but her story inspired me. No matter how you feel about the United States' immigration policy (or lack thereof), you have to admire Arellano's courage to stand up -- as an individual, as a worker, as a mother -- against what she thought was unjust.

I decided to do my M.A. thesis on Elvira Arellano's story, and how it was covered in the media in Chicago. Writing a thesis is kind of like having a baby -- it takes about 9 months, it makes you emotional, it keeps you awake at weird hours and it makes you gain weight. And then, when it's all over, there's this strange letdown. Postpartum depression, if you will.

Anyway, the thesis began (and, thus, my 'normal life' ended) at that little church, back in October 2006. By the time May 2007 rolled around, I'd written 170 pages on the woman. I'd darted all over Chicago collecting interviews and data. The walls of my tiny studio apartment were covered with newspaper clippings. My fingers were permanently black from newsprint. My back and wrists ached from being hunched over my little laptop. I'd developed a slight twitch in my left eye from staring at a computer screen.

At that point, I'd thought more about Elvira Arellano than can probably be considered healthy (as a friend so delicately put it, I am "neurotically obsessed" with the poor woman) . But I'd missed the photo opp.

Fast forward two years, to this week, and I'm attending an immigration conference in Mexico City. I'd heard that Arellano -- who has since been deported, despite her very public struggles -- was also going to be there. Arellano is still on my mind because I'm working on an article for a journal. And I'm still jumping through hoops to interview her: This time, instead of taking a bus across Chicago to meet her at a church, I've taken a bus across four Mexican states -- a 13-hour-round trip from Oaxaca -- to talk to her.

But I met Arellano. Again. We had lunch. We talked about her son. We shared a few laughs. She gave me her email address. And, two years, 170 pages, and 13 hours on a bus later, I finally got my photo. Woo-woo!

Thanks for everything, Elvira.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Magic Pills

What blog entry on a trip to the beach would be complete without (1) envy-inducing pictures of beautiful oceanside sunsets and (2) thinly-veiled references to drugs?

I've included the requisite sunset pics here in all of their golden-hued glory, snapped surfside from the almost-virgin oaxaqueña beaches of Zipolite and Mazunte this weekend. Both beaches are located on Oaxaca's coast, so some friends and I decided to take advantage of our long holiday weekend (November 20 is Revolution Day here in Mexico) to soak up some sun. We did all of the lovely things you do on the beach. Namely, we did nothing. It was wonderful.

Now, onto the drugs.

Zipolite is famous for two things: (1) nudity and (2) marijuana. Given that my grandmother will be reading this blog entry, I need to clarify that I did not participate in either activity. There were plenty of other things -- sand, sun, snorkeling, and, well, beer -- to keep me occupied.

But I did take drugs of another kind: Vomisin is amaaaaaaaaaaazing, man.

Vomisin is a magic little pill that I popped on the way home from Zipolite. It's an aptly-named motion sickness medicine that was absolutely essential for the trip. You see, standing between Huajuapan and the beach is a tiny little obstacle (read: sarcasm): the Sierra Madres, a mountain range that turns a would-be easy 300-km trip into a vomit-inducing, six-hour odyssey through switchbacks and dangerous curves and bumpy roads.

I braved the trip sans-Vomisin on the way down to Zipolite and literally wanted to die. This, coming from a girl who drives with a lead foot and jumps out of planes and dances herself dizzy -- namely, a girl who generally does not have a problem with motion -- should illustrate the intensity of the journey.

My travel companions and I, having learned our lesson, popped the happy little pills right before our return trip on Monday morning and enjoyed drug-induced, drool-dripping, head-bobbing slumber all the way back to Oaxaca City.

Vomisin, I heart you.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

¡Viva la Muerte!

All week I've been meaning to write about my very first über-Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, but a history-making U.S. presidential election and a quasi-stalker incident involving a taxi driver-slash-television news producer have gotten in the way. You know, just another busy week here in thrill-a-minute Huajuapan.

But I digress. The title of this entry translates to "Long Live Death," which would be a pretty morbid sentiment if I were anywhere in the world except Mexico. Last weekend, I celebrated death as part of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Oaxaca City. Though I've visited Mexico more times than I can remember, ironically I've never actually been in the country in the fall, or more specifically, on November 1 and 2, when DDLM is celebrated. And Oaxaca is to DDLM as Las Vegas is to Sin and Chicago is to President-Elects...it's where you go for the crème de la crème. So you can imagine my delight at having the opportunity to pass the holiday here locally.

Some equate DDLM with Halloween, but they're oh-so wrong. DDLM has a bit more meaning behind it than the American squeeze-yourself-into-a-costume-and-stuff-your-face-with-candy holiday. The 'day' is actually two days, set aside to honor, well, the dead. November 1 has traditionally been reserved for children, while November 2 is for adults. Mexican families honor deceased family members by building amazing altars -- stocked with food, flowers, photos, beer, anything that the deceased enjoyed during his or her lifetime -- in their homes. Then, at night, they go to the cemetary to clean and decorate graves. Some families even have a meal there. The idea is to celebrate death as a part of life, so it's a really festive holiday.

I spent most of Saturday wandering through Oaxaca's amazing markets, taking in the sights: row after row of altar-buildin' goodies. Sugar skulls. Wooden skeletons. Flowers. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead). Candles in every shape and size imaginable. And then, when night fell, our group sojourned over to Oaxaca's General Cemetery, where local families had gathered to decorate loved ones' graves, eat a giant meal, and pray together. The presence of something like 4,000 camera-wielding, Lonely Planet-reading gringo tourists detracted from the experience somewhat, but that's part of the deal when you celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City, I suppose...

Sunday, however, couldn't have contrasted more with Saturday's tourism overload. We took a bus out of the city to a tiny village called Teotitlán, home to a textile-weaving industry and the former host family of one of my friends and co-workers. The bus dropped us off on the side of the dusty highway, far, far away from the village itself, so we were faced with two options: We could either hoof the 15 kilometers into "civilization," or hitchhike our way there. Opting for the latter, we stuck our thumbs out and managed to snag a ride in the back of a passing truck.

The journey was worthwhile. Upon our arrival, our gracious hosts treated us to a shot of home-brewed mezcal, a tour of their weaving facilities, homemade tamales and traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate and pan. Their hospitality was very generous, especially considering we weren't the family's only visitors that day: They'd constructed a giant altar in their dining room, full of flowers and bread and photographs and even a few bottles of beer. They left the door open all afternoon so the spirits could enter the room easily. And, as we gringos gorged ourselves on tamales, they discretely stepped away to place two heaping plates of food on the altar.

When the dead come to visit, they bring their appetites.

After lunch, we made our way back to the dusty highway, only to find that city-bound buses had stopped running because of the holiday. Giddy from all of the sugar we'd eaten in Teotitlán (or maybe it was the mezcal?), we hitchhiked our way back into town, reflecting on death with smiles on our faces.

Translation (gracias, Pato) of the pic above, taken at the gate of the General Cemetery in Oaxaca:

"Postraos: Aquí la eternidad empieza, y es polvo aquí la mundanal grandeza."
"Kneel: Here eternity starts, and dust is here all wordly greatness."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

¡Arriba Obama!

My generation saw its proverbial man walk on the moon last night.

Just as folks from my parents' generation will never forget where they were when Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind," I'll never forget where I was on November 4, 2008. I watched my country elect its first black president -- in a sense, also a "giant leap" -- via CNN on a slightly-delayed cable connection in a tiny bar in Huajuapan de León, Mexico.

Our little expat community -- which included seven Americans, a couple of Brits, a girl from Spain and the local Mexicans who love us -- gathered in Sagrario's Bar -- the only place with cable TV in all of Huajuapan -- after work to watch the election returns. When we walked in the door, Sagrario's staff graciously flipped the channel from a soccer game to CNN en inglés and brought over some complimentary nachos.

They must've sensed that it was going to be a long night.

We hunkered down for our four-hour political fix. There was lively banter around the table as we watched states turn blue and red. The Americans in the group attempted to explain our country's hard-to-explain electoral college system -- a daunting task in one's native language, let alone in broken Spanish. The Brits in the group balked at CNN's audacity to spin their exit-poll projections as gospel. And the women in the group admired Anderson Cooper's, well, everything.

It was a great way to watch the election. And, personally, having observed the campaign unfold from overseas (including, of all places, in Obama, Japan), I couldn't have imagined a more appropriate way for me to witness American history in the making: far, far away from home, in the company of folks who aren't, as they say in Spanish, estadounidense.

It's this mish-mash of countries, languages and people that has shaped my political views. I've spent the last 18 months traveling, meeting folks of sorts of political persuasions, engaging in long, passionate, late-night discussions and, frankly, doing a lot of apologizing on behalf of my country for our dismal foreign affairs record. I've been asked -- by Japanese junior high students and Cambodian taxi drivers and Korean bartenders and Mexican supermarket clerks -- how I planned to cast my vote (how's that for a sense of responsibility to make sure I sent my absentee ballot on time?). I've been the recipient of verbal assault when folks in far-away lands have taken their political frustrations out on me, the only American in the room. And, sadly, because of the latter, I've done my fair share of claiming to be Canadian -- or Irish or Argentine or French, or, well, anything but American to avoid potentially heated situations.

And after all of these conversations and lessons and observations, what's my take on the whole thing? The watered-down, blog-compliant, 50-words-or-less version is this: For the USA to have any chance to be respected internationally, to have any hope of salvaging diplomatic relations, to truly show that we've learned from the last eight years of failed leadership, we'd have to put Obama in the White House.

And that's exactly what we did last night. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of my country. So proud.

I got chills when I watched the crowd erupt into cheers in Grant Park in Chicago (I wanted to be there with y'all, Chi-Town!). I thought of Kenyan friends when CNN coverage panned to images of celebration in Kongelo. I smiled as Mexican pals sent me text messages, offering me congratulations for my country's smart choice for president. And I got misty when I heard Obama thank his family, remember his grandmother, speak about how far we've come as a nation, give us hope for the long road ahead, and, most importantly, talk about change.

Change is a good thing.

So, ¡arriba Obama!, and thank you, my fellow Americans, for giving me a reason to be proud, even if it is from thousands of miles away.

Monday, November 3, 2008


His name is Yamasaki.

Yamasaki is a Japanese name (it means "mountain top," more or less), but the guy's Mexican.

But that's not the only interesting duality in Yamasaki's life: He's a taxi driver, and he's also a TV news producer. Go figure.

I met Yamasaki this morning. I was running and he was driving his cab. The first time Yamasaki waved at me, I turned up the music on my iPod and ignored him. I've had enough less-than-desirable incidents involving Mexican men yelling at me from vehicles to know better. Just ask my friends in Querétaro.

But Yamasaki was persistent. He followed me in his cab. He kept waving. I thought that perhaps he needed directions, but then thought better: Why the hell would a taxi driver need directions? From a freckle-faced, blonde-ponytailed gringa gal who is so obviously not a local? At 7 a.m.?

I ran faster.

Finally, curiosity and Yamasaki's persistence got the best of me. I stopped, paused my watch, and pulled out my earbuds. I was sweaty, out of breath and irritated. You don't stop me in the middle of a run for no good reason.

"Good morning. Sorry to bother you," he said pleasantly, getting out of the cab to cross the street, presumably to be able to talk to me without yelling. "Maybe you're in a hurry? I just want to ask you a quick question."

"I AM kind of in a hurry," I said shortly. The skeptical Chicagoan in me was rearing her ugly head. What, exactly, did this guy want from me? He'd better talk fast.

Yamasaki explained that when he isn't moonlighting as a cab driver, he actually reports for a local TV news channel. He's been working on a segment on physical activity. He sees me running in the mornings and wonders if jog daily...

My eyes widened. This guy has been following me every morning. What a creep.

Sensing my alarm, Yamasaki quickly backpedaled.

"It's just that my taxi route seems to be your running route..."

Okay, yes, I run every morning. So what? I made a mental note to change my running route. STAT.

"So I'm working on this segment. I've already interviewed a cyclist, a soccer player, a gymnast...but I'm missing a runner."

Oh God, did he want me to be The Runner?

He gave me his card. "It's just that people here in Oaxaca don't really exercise, and the station is trying to put together this public awareness campaign about health and fitness, and we'd really love it if you could give us a hand..."

He didn't just pull the "give us a hand" line, did he? My mind drifted back to my PR days with the American Heart Association, putting together similar public awareness campaigns, and to all of the people -- our volunteers -- that I'd desperately suckered into doing crack-of-dawn TV interviews with Chicago news stations, using that exact same line. What goes around comes around...it's called karma, baby.

"Will the interview be in Spanish? It's just that my Spanish isn't so good..." I said, laying on the thickest gringa accent I could, my last hope for possibly getting out of this.

"Yes, but I love the North American accent. And your Spanish is very good."

Ah, linguistic flattery. He got me there. I gave him my email address, figuring if the guy was making the whole thing up, I'd still give him major points for creativity.

So it looks like I'm going to be on Huajuapeño TV, folks. Will keep you posted on the segment shoot and air date. If you tune in, we can double Huajuapan's market rating in one night.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fish Story

The sign above roughly translates to "En Yosocuta, we taste better, okay!"

I snapped the picture in Yosocuta (of course), a village located about an hour from the ever-cosmopolitan Huajuapan. Yosocuta is headquarters for a large dam, and thusly its claim to fame is a 'beautiful' lake and wildlife area. I went to check out the place last weekend with a group of new Huajuapeño friends. It was their first time visiting Yosocuta, too.

Turns out there was a reason for that.

We piled into a collectivo taxi that carried us to our 10-peso-away destination: The 'resort' of Yosocuta, which turned out to be a few lakeside restaurants connected by a dusty road, the latter of which was littered with broken-down, rusted-out cars and random chickens.

(The chickens gave the place a kind of Key West feel, but that's where any comparison ends...)

Needless to say, this was not exactly the spot we had in mind for our little Saturday rendezvous.

However, the aforementioned fish billboard inspired us to at least have lunch, seeing as how we'd made the trip all the way out, and seeing as how the fish is supposed to be so 'tasty' in Yosocuta and all.

We piled into the closest of Yosocuta's three restaurants and, despite the fact that there were only two other people in the entire place, enthusiastically ordered: fried fish for a Mexican friend, garlic-crusted fish for my Idahoian co-worker, and foil-wrapped fish por moi. We sat inpatiently, mouths watering, anxiously awaiting the infamous sabroso Yosocutan fish.

The fish was delivered. And by 'the fish,' I mean all of it. Head, eyeballs, fins. Mine, by virtue of being grilled in foil, still had all of the slimy scales in tact. Yum. I thought that my year in Japan had made me quite intimate with all things aquatic, but my reaction in the picture above says it all.

(Insert 'Fish Heads' song here: fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads, eat them up, yum...)

But after I got past the head and the eyeballs and the fins and the scales, and then past the exactly 1,567 microscopic bones contained therein, the fish actually tasted pretty good. Had a unique -- what's the word?-- tasty flavor. Especially when accompanied when fresh tortillas and salsa and a few swigs of mezcal.

Our bellies full, we decided to check out the 'beautiful' lake that had apparently spawned our 'tasty' fish. The Idahoian negotiated a killer rental rate (40 pesos/hour) on a wooden rowboat, and we paddled out into the crystal blue water...

...which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be more of a greenish-grey color and was suspiciously foggy. And it had a strange odor. Did we seriously just eat fish from here?

The punch line is this: The 'beautiful' lake is actually super polluted. It's basically a giant toilet bowl for the dozens of Mixtec communities that live in the surrounding mountains. Their sewage ('greywater,' I think it's called, in polite speak) flows downhill and ends up right there in Lake Yosocuta. Guess that explained the unique, 'tasty' flavor of the fish.

Radioactvity. Or something like that.

The good news is that my stomach has officially adjusted to Mexico: I didn't get sick. And neither did either of my fish-eatin' dining companions. The bad news is that that was my first -- and last-- experience with the infamous "tasty" Yosocuta fish.

Don't believe the hype. Stick to the quesadillas.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bugs à la Oaxaca

There are two kinds of insects here in Oaxaca.

There's the picture-perfect pretty variety. And then there's the nightmare-inducing kind. I've included photos of both for your reference.

I snapped the picture of the former while camping at a canyon called El Boquerón a couple of weekends ago. The canyon's just a quick hour-long drive from my apartment, and comes complete with calendar-ready views of gurgling rivers, rolling green mountains, dramatic cacti....and butterflies. Lots and lots of butterflies. It's a beautiful place that I plan to return to regularly.

The picture of the latter comes courtesy of Google, but I could just as easily have taken it in my apartment. Every night, when the sun goes down and the lights go off, the creepy crawlers emerge from the hidden crevices of my home. Larger-than-life cockroaches. Hairy spiders. Huge furry centipedes.

They hide behind my shampoo bottles when I take a shower. They scurry out when I open a door. They hang out on walls and ceilings, just out of my reach. They mock me. It's like they know I'm so scared that I won't kill them. And I swear that they surround my bed at night, watching me sleep. I wake up in the morning, sit straight up, and look around before I'll tentatively put my bare foot on the floor, for fear of stepping on something creepy.


I could go on and on about the creepy bugs here. Oaxaca seems to be a breeding ground for over-the-top insects. So much so that the local folks have figured out a way to capitalize on the surplus of critters here: They actually EAT the bugs.

So I guess there are actually three kinds of bugs: the beautiful, the creepy, and the edible. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are a local delicacy. They're hawked all over the streets of Huajuapan, sold right alongside the tomatoes and tortillas and doorknobs and God-knows-what-else in the road-side markets and food stalls. Apparently, chapulines are "harvested" in the summer, stock-piled, roasted with salt, lemon and garlic, and then consumed by oaxaqueños and the daring gringo looking for the photo opp.

Um, yum?

I apparently don't fall into the category of "daring gringo," at least not gastronomically speaking. I tried chapulines once -- by accident -- back in 2001 when I was visiting Oaxaca City with a friend. The little grasshoppers adorned a salad I'd ordered, and I'd mistaken them for croutons. It took just one bite for me to realize that there was something awry with the "crouton," namely that it was an insect. I tried to slyly brush the chapulines off my salad. I remember the waiter shooting me a knowing look when he came to collect my otherwise-clean plate.

It's not that I'm against trying the local fare. It's just that Oaxaca has so many more delicious-to-me things to eat. Like to-die-for chocolate. And cheese. And mole (no, people, not "mole," the rodent, but mole, a sauce painstakingly made with dozens and dozens of different ingredients). I'm definitely eating well here, even if I am keeping insects of out my day-to-day diet.

But, my peso salary only stretches so far, and I will be needing some holiday cash here in a few weeks. Looks like I may have to start collecting some of those insects that share my apartment and set up shop in the food market. I'd make a killing, if only I could bring myself to kill them...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dance Lessons

Sometimes I think I'm little too gringa for a little place like Huajuapan de León.

And by gringa, I mean American female -- specifically the stubborn-as-hell, raised-to-be-independent-and speak-her-mind, grew-up-playing-in-the-mud-and-building-tree-forts, drinks-tequilla-straight-from-the-bottle, likes-to-outrun-boys-and-laugh-about-it kind of American female that I consider myself to be.

Gals like me are a dime a dozen back in the States. We're sometimes a lot to handle, but we're usually (albeit sometimes begrudgingly) accepted. But it ain't that way in the rest of the world. Gender roles are still a bit more traditional in other places. And here in Mexico, especially here in small-town Mexico, where machismo is alive and well in some aspects of society, most women are raised to be more quiet, reserved, and -- let's face it -- well behaved.

I'm different. I stick out. And it gets me in trouble sometimes.

The kind of things that I wouldn't think twice about doing at home -- for example, going on my morning run in shorts (not short-shorts, mind you, just regular old shorts), dancing a little too close to a good friend at a wedding reception (it was hip-hop, come on people), and speaking my mind (or just forgetting to keep my mouth shut) -- have drawn some rather unwanted attention here in my new digs South of the Border.

Cat calls in the street and some dirty looks. Nothing I can't handle.

But I want to nip this stuff in the proverbial bud. The way I see it, living abroad is a two-way street. You've got to give a little to get a little. That means I've got to respect the local culture and act right, but at the same time, nobody's asking me to compromise so much of myself that I lose my identity. I'm here to learn about my host country and culture -- and to offer whatever I can from my own country and culture. We're different, but we're also more alike that we realize. Blah blah blah.

But lately, I feel like I've been a little too gringa. Maybe it's because, for the most part, I feel pretty comfortable in Mexico. I've lived here before. It's a helluva lot closer to Chicago -- geographically and culturally and linguistically -- than Japan was. I -- despite what my Mexican friends might say to me in jest -- do speak the language. It feels so much like home that sometimes I forget I'm not home.

And that's where the problem begins.

This struggle -- between being my gringa self and trying to fit in a little bit -- came to a head last night at salsa class. A lovely man named Moises has become my regular dance partner, God bless him: He's either a glutton for punishment or extremely charitable. Moises started classes just a week before I did, so we're both technically still beginners. But, being Mexican and, apparently, having the ability to dance pre-programmed into his DNA, Moises has a leg up on me.

(This stereotype goes both ways. A Mexican friend of mine recently remarked on his observation of the Caucasian American's inability to dance, prompting what eventually led to the aforementioned hip hop showdown at the wedding reception, but I digress...)

Moises has threatened to start charging me 10 pesos for every time I step on his toes. At this point, three weeks into the class, I basically owe him my next paycheck. But, overall, he's a good sport. We laugh a lot at what are usually my mistakes. He's patient when I ask him to drill the same three moves over and over because I can't seem to get them right.

But even laid-back Moises draws the line somewhere: I can't try to lead.

No! No! No! No! No! The female lead is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of salsa dancing. If you think about it, dance is kind of a microcosm of the macho aspect of Mexican society: Gender roles are strictly defined here. Black and white. I'm the girl. I'm supposed to smile and look pretty and spin a lot. Moises is the boy. He gets to tell me what to do. Period.

As might be expected, the stubborn, shorts-wearing gringa in me struggles with this concept a bit. And it's not just because I'm a crappy dancer -- I mean, all that spinning makes me dizzy! (Read: Sarcasm.) It got so bad last night that Moises stopped me mid-dip last night to deliver a stern reminder:

Acuérdate. Yo manejo la orquesta. (Remember. I conduct the orchestra.)

Touché. Point taken. I need to loosen up. I need to go with Moises' flow. We'll both dance better.

And I need to go with the flow. Period. No more mouthing off -- in English or in Spanish. No more running in shorts. No more swilling tequilla from the bottle (I'll use a glass!). We'll all get along better. I'll be happier here. And Huajuapan will be happier with me.

I'll let the man drive (or lead or conduct or whatever). No problem. Now, I just need to prove that I'm not so gringa that I can't learn how to salsa...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Friends in Unlikely Places

The bells in Huajuapan's cathedral (see above -- it's cute) ring every quarter-hour, marking the s-l-o-w passage of time in this little city that has become my new home. I've been here for just over two weeks -- unemployed for more than half of that time (I finally started work late last week, but that's a blog for another time) -- so I've had plenty of opportunities to embrace the relaxed pace of life here. I've settled into a little routine, surrounded by an unlikely cast of characters that have become my new friends.

There's the tamal vendors that are out on the street in the mornings. They've jerry-rigged three-wheeled bicycles to accomodate big pots of steaming tamales, which they sell for 6 pesos (60 cents) a pop. Sometimes they'll cycle past me when I'm out on my morning jog, prompting lots of shouts of the word "güera." "Güera" translates roughly to "white girl," lest I forget that I am a freckled, blonde-haird anomoly in a sea of short, dark-haired, Mixtec-descended Mexicans. Depsite the catcalling, they're always happy to sell their treats to the sweaty, iPod-clad gringa who approaches them right after her run for her breakfast each morning. De-lish.

There's a woman named Sonia who sells me delicious Oaxaca-cheese-filled quesadillas for lunch at the market. Sonia's quesadillas are made with lots of love -- and cooking with love takes a lot of time. She painstakingly makes her tortillas by hand, adds cheese and veggies (extra 'shrooms for the gringa) and grills them up slowly. We've had lots of time to chat about my work visa woes, and Sonia has suggested that perhaps it would just be easier for me to marry a Mexican and get my visa that way. She thinks that her 26-year-old brother would be a viable option. We'll see.

There's Leo, the guy who runs the local hardware store. I've bought some odds and ends from his shop and he's curiously asked me what a big-city girl like me is doing in a little place like Huajuapan. Leo's brother lives in Chicago, so we've chatted all about the Windy City. I hit Leo up for help when my water heater busted last week. He spent his lunch hour dismantling the contraption, a labor for which he refused to take any money. Instead, I paid him with a six pack of Indio beer. We've been best pals ever since.

There's Carmen, my landlord, who keeps a pristine garden in the middle of our apartment complex. She's up with the sun -- and coos of caged doves that live amongst the plants -- raking and weeding and pruning and potting. The garden boasts lime and pomegranate trees, tons of ferns and flowers, and, most recently, Halloween decorations which she's ostensibly added to help her American tenants feel more at home as the all-important holiday approaches.

There's the crew that assembles for the salsa dance class at the community center on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At first they weren't sure what to make of the gangly, uncoordinated gringa who clearly had never danced a (sober) step of salsa in her life. During our first classes together, I felt like proverbial last pick for the dodgeball team, standing lonely on the sidelines as guys and gals paired off to perfect their dance moves. But now, two weeks into the course, I'm a popular pick as men seem to like to practice their, ahem, English with me.

There's the octogenarian couple who sells chile-powder-covered corn on the cob in the evenings on the zócalo. The elotes really hit the spot after I've worked up an appetite with salsa dancing. They're impressed with my ability to tolerate all of the spice that the señora sprinkles on the corn. Not too shabby for a gringa -- or a güera, as it were.

So the Gringa Culichi has made a home for herself in the tiny, sleepy little town of Huajuapan de León. Who knew that unemployment could be such fun? Lemons to lemonade, as the saying goes.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Pinche Migra

Those who know me best know that I've had an interest in the United States' immigration policy for some time now. I've worked with immigrants -- of all shades of the "legal" spectrum -- as an English teacher back in Chicago. I spent nine very painful months writing my MA thesis on immigration. Since I've been in Mexico, I've heard stories from dozens of brilliant people who, for lack of other options, came to the United States without the proper papers and were unceremoniously deported. Artists. Doctors. Lawyers. Students. So I continue to follow the headlines on US immigration policy with hopes that someday, maybe in the not-so-distant future, my country's government will be able to work out a way for folks who want to come to the United States to make an honest living will be able to do so without having to put their lives on the line to cross the border "illegally."

But I digress.

Knowing how difficult and even unfair the United States' immigration system can be for many people, I feel a bit unjustified in blogging about my recent problems with the Mexican migra. But the last couple of days -- actually, every day since I've arrived at my new home here in Oaxaca -- have been a big lesson for me in what a headache the process can be, even on the other side of the border.

To make a very long story short, I don't have the proper papers to begin work at my new job in my new state. I have to wait for papers to come from my old state. And until I get the papers, I have to sit and wait. I can't begin work. I can't make money. I can't really do anything. And I have to keep going back and forth to Oaxaca City -- the state capitol and home of the immigration office -- until I get my 'em. It's a six-hour round trip to the city, one that involves sitting in the back of a suburban as it winds through mountain roads. Carsick, anyone?

I fully recognize that this is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what many of my Mexican counterparts must go through to be able to work in the United States. They'd most likely happily trade a bit of carsickness for what is often their only option, which involves paying coyotes obscene amounts of money to lead them across the border, into the desert, where some either starve or freeze to death. And while I'm allowed to wait here in Mexico -- with a place to stay, money to buy food, even access to internet -- for my papers to come through, many of my Mexican counterparts would have already been deported.

I know that I'll eventually get my visa if I wait long enough. The reverse isn't always the case.

In essence, I'm getting the royal treatment. I fully recognize this. So I'll sit here and wait as patiently as I can until my papers come through. And I'll be happy about it. I'm learning a valuable lesson. The best medicine doesn't always taste good.

Pinche migra.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Feels Like Home

In the past year, I have lived in three different countries. I have changed apartments four times. I have had three different jobs. And counting. The Spanish word for folks like me is vagabunda. My grandma calls me a gypsy. I like to think of myself as a traveler.

But even the most hard-core travelers get tired sometimes. They grow weary of packing and re-packing their few wordly possessions into backpacks/suitcases/garbage bags. They get tired of juggling bus schedules and plane tickets and waking up in different time zones and speaking different languages. They want a place to hang their proverbial hats.

In short, they want a home.

Up until last week, I thought that my home was going to be Culiacán. I arrived in the city in late July and did some serious nesting very quickly. In a matter of weeks, I rented an apartment. I bought a washing machine. I made fast friends with an amazing crew of 20-something Culichis. But, as you well know, my plans changed very quickly.

This week, I'm back on the road, suitcases and bus ticket in hand. The thought of starting over again (again) in a new city is exhausting. Learning the ropes at a new job. Looking for a new apartment. Buying a new washing machine. Making new friends.

So it was nice to get a little dose of home this weekend. On my way to Oaxaca, I stopped to visit some old friends in Mexico City. From Mexico City, we traveled together for another friend's wedding in Querétaro, the city that served as my home when I was an exchange student back in 1999. Despite the fact that nearly a decade has past since we all lived in the same city (or the same country, for that matter), we've been able to keep in tabs on each other. I've visited them here in Mexico. They've come to Chicago. And we've shared pictures, emails and the occasional international phone call.

I can't describe how nice it was to see everyone -- in person. How nice it was to be back in a familiar city. How nice it was to kiss and hug and laugh together. I'd forgotten how good it feels to be with old friends -- people that know your history and can appreciate all of the twists and turns of your path in life. It was just what my travel-weary soul needed. A little dose of familiarity in what has otherwise been a time of contstant flux. A little reminder that there are folks here in Mexico who really know me (and love me anyway). A little boost to get me through what will certainly be lonely and frustrating times ahead as I transition (yet again) into life in a new city.

It felt like home.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Coming Clean

Okay, I need to come clean: I haven't been exactly, um, forthcoming with all of the details of my life here in Culiacán. It's not that I've lied to you in past postings. It's just that I've omitted what some people might consider rather significant parts of what my day-to-day is like here in Sinaloa. The thing is that Culiacán isn't all cheery blog posts on Chihuahua dogs with pink nail polish and wacky city buses and raspado addictions. The truth is that Culiacán is actually kind of a dangerous place.

No -- scratch that -- it's a very dangerous place.

For years, Culiacán has been headquarters to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the biggest drug cartels in Mexico. They supply the US market with cocaine from Colombia, marijuana from Mexico, and opium from Asia. The boss, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán is one of the most wanted men in North America. Mr. Guzmán is a man of two faces, one part Al Capone -- infamous outlaw -- and one part Robin Hood -- responsible for much of the prosperity in this would-be-poor region.

It's this dichotomy, this two-faced nature of the drug trade, that causes the narcoculture here. It's ingrained in everyone, the regular people and drug bosses alike. It's the reason that many local folks worship a would-be saint called Jesus Malverde. He's an outlaw who died in the early 1900s, but people go to his shrine -- located by the cathedral here in the city -- to pray for safe travels, especially when taking, ahem, journeys "up north." It's the reason that Culiacán's streets are clogged with flashy Hummers with narcocorridos (kind of like gangsta rap en español) blaring out of the speaker systems. It's the reason that even honest folks speak of the narcotraficantes as "good people" who "do a lot for the community" and have "nice families."

For a long time, these two sides of the city co-existed in a delicate peace. Guzmán used to live right here in Culiacán. His kids were students at my school. The rumor mills churned with seemingly-benign stories about seeing Guzmán out and about in the city -- there's a famous tale about his bodyguards locking down a huge famous restaurant called Las Palmas this spring. Nobody was allowed to leave while "The Boss" and his family dined there, but at the end, he picked up the tab for everyone in the entire place that night.

So everything used to be fine in Culiacán. Regular folks went about their business, felt safe in their city, and turned a blind eye to the not-so-legitimate enterprise that fueled much of the local economy. But then the proverbial mierda hit the fan this May: One of Guzmán's sons got gunned down by a rival cartel at a shopping mall. So "El Chapo" himself went into hiding, the rest of the family fled to somewhere in Europe, and Sinaloa braced itself for Guzmán's revenge. At the same time, the new-ish Mexican President, in his ongoing plight to crack down on drugs throughout Mexico, sent the army here to weed out all the narcotraficantes.

These two events disrupted the illegal-but-peaceful status quo that previously existed here in Culiacán. Now, there's a three-way conflict between the two cartels and the federales. This means that big army trucks patrol the streets and a trip to the supermarket involves walking past armed soldiers with big machine guns while picking out your breakfast cereal. Newspapers are full of headlines about drug raids at homes in "nice" neighborhoods and cartel bosses being gunned down in the streets.

And this is the scene I arrived at in July. I knew a little bit about the violence before I came, but naïvely thought that if I went about my business, living my little English-teaching life -- full of past participles and verb conjugations and stacks of essays to grade -- that'd I'd be safe. That I could avoid the violence. That because I've traveled -- unscathed -- to places like war-ridden Nicaragua and landmine-filled Cambodia, I'd be just fine.

But two weeks ago, I found myself hiding under a table at a restaurant with $200 stuffed down my shirt as men with ski masks walked through with big guns, demanding that customers surrender their wallets, watches and cell phones. Terrifying. I'd gone out to dinner -- to a sushi restaurant of all places -- that night to celebrate a co-worker's birthday. Her 70-something-year-old mother had come with us. So the three of us hid our valuables and trembled together under that table, quietly reminding each other to breathe, trying to seem as inconspicuous as possible.

I'd never been so scared in my life. Upon hearing the men enter the restaurant and start screaming for us to get down and cooperate, I'd braced myself for bullets to start flying. I thought that a narco boss was in the restaurant, and that he -- and likely, the rest of us -- were going to unceremoniously meet our ends. So, in a sense, I was strangely relieved when it became apparent that the incident was "just" an armed robbery, probably prompted by the fact that drug trafficking isn't quite as lucrative as it used to be, given that the army's in town now. (Read: jaded sarcasm. Maybe I'm more Culichi than I realize.)

In the end, the three of us got very lucky. We weren't hurt, and the men left the restaurant before they got around to robbing our table. But the incident was a serious wake-up call. I'm not immune to the violence in this city. There is nowhere to hide from it -- especially not underneath a table in the back of a restaurant.

So now I'm acutely aware of the reality of life here in Culiacán: Armed soldiers patrol my neighborhood as choppers fly overhead. An acquaintance barely misses a stray bullet while driving down the street in his car. My Mexican friends speak of being involved in armed assaults like my pals in Chicago talk about yet another dismal baseball season for the Cubs. It's an everyday annoyance, just part of normal life.

So I'm throwing in the proverbial towel. Today was my last day at work. Early next week, I'm taking a bus 1500 kilometers across the country to Oaxaca, a state on the south Pacific coast that has offered me a new job and a new start. The decision was difficult and the transition has proven stressful -- I've had to break a work contract, wiggle out of my apartment lease, and scramble to sell all of my new furniture.

But what has proven most difficult is saying goodbye to all the amazing Culichi people I've met during my time here -- honest, hard-working folks who don't have the option to pack up and ship out like I do. People like Dora. My landlords. Maricruz and Fidel. Señora Cucqui. The folks in my kickboxing class. The members of the mariachi band that practices down the street. My students. My work colleagues. The steady stream of folks who have responded to the "Furniture For Sale" ad I put in the local paper, who come to my apartment and look at my things and ask why I'm leaving, and then shake their heads in frustration at my response.

They think I'm doing the right thing. They're supportive. They're embarrassed that this has been my impression of their city. They'd like to leave, too, they tell me, except their families are here. Their work is here. Their lives are here.

I will think about these people long after I leave their city. I will miss them, but more than that, I will worry about their safety.

And I will think hard about what drugs mean to this community. In a way, it's difficult for me to hate the drug trade. I see the opportunities it gives to people here, to better themselves, to have access to good healthcare, to afford to feed their families and to send their kids to school. Without drugs, this place's economy would just be tomatoes, and folks likely wouldn't be able to make ends meet. But at the same time, I can't condone the violence and death that the narco trade brings. An average of 100 people die each month in Culiacán as a result of drug-related violence. That's in a city of under 800,000 people. Culiacán is the most violent place in the whole country, a dubious honor when you consider that Mexico is home to crime-ridden communities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and, of course, Mexico City.

So, that's my been my life for the past two months. One part Hollywood action movie, one part terror flick. Now that I know that I am definitely leaving this place, I feel like I can come clean. A little piece of me will always be the Gringa Culichi, so I'm going to continue blogging at this web address, even from Oaxaca. Stay tuned for my next entry from my new home, but in the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the headlines from Culiacán.

And please keep my dear, dear Culichi friends in your thoughts.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

¡Viva México!

What better way to spend Mexican Independence Day than crammed into the back of a Nissan with your belly full of Japanese sushi?

There is no better way, at least in my opinion. That's exactly how I passed last night, the eve of Mexican Independence Day. Today, September 16, is the anniversary of Mexico's break from Spainish rule. It's kind of like the Fourth of July back in the good ol' USA.

Normally, celebrating independence goes down something like this: Folks gather in the streets and in bars on September 15 to partake in what is called the Grito de Dolores. The Mexican President leads the entire nation in yelling "¡Viva México!" at 11 p.m. The grito (shout) is followed by lots and lots of fireworks and mariachi music. Then, on September 16, families get together to barbecue outside and eat lots of food.

But it is raining today. And last night, as mentioned, I ate sushi and rode in the back of a Nissan.

Maricruz and I had planned to end our Copper Canyon adventures by celebrating the Grito with some of her friends in a town called Los Mochis last night. But, true to Mexican Time, the Chepe train was running behind schedule. So we ended up disembarking a bit early and snagging a ride with a family from Culiacán that we'd met aboard. A guy from Mexico City also joined the fun -- he needed to get back to Sinaloa to catch his flight home. So there were seven of us crammed into Señora Cucqui's tiny Nissan. I shared the front passenger seat with her 13-year-old daughter, while Maricruz squeezed into the back with her two sons and the guy from Mexico City.

The trip from Chihuahua back to Culiacán was supposed to take about three hours -- quite a long time to spend shoehorned into a car, arms and legs falling asleep because they're pinned in strange positions. But then it started to rain (read: pour, Noah's Arc style), which slowed us down even more. We opted to break up the trip by stopping for dinner. And being the eve of the most patriotic of Mexican holidays, Señora Cucqui's kids opted for the most Mexican of all cuisines: Sushi.

Cucqui's family admired my chopstick skills as we chowed on sushi a la mexicana. Red, green and white banners adorned the Japanese-themed restaurant, and a large sombrero provided by our waiter made for an interesting photo opportunity. Turns out Cucqui had visited Japan a couple of years ago to participate in a business conference, so we compared notes on Tokyo and all of the weird things that we'd eaten. Her kids practiced their English with me. We sucked down pitchers of Mexican-style green tea.

We may have missed El Grito, but we had a great time anyway.

Ever the generous hostess, Cucqui not only bought dinner for Maricruz and me, but also refused to take the gas money we offered her when she finally dropped us off at my front door at 1 a.m. I was absolutely humbled by her kindness. ¡Qué viva México!

Sheer Laziness in the Copper Canyon

'Twas Mexican Time at its finest. We'd biked just three kilometers in four hours. It was already 2 p.m. and we had about 19 kilometers left to go on the trail. We needed to return the bikes by 7 p.m. At least our bellies were full of peanut butter and tortillas. We'd need the energy.

A bit of a backstory is required here. We were in Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), a massive series of mountains and valleys that's about four times the size of the Grand Canyon up north. The "we" in this scenario is myself and Maricruz, one of my dearest Culichi friends (and the only other person I could convince to join me on this crazy adventure), along with two random-but-lovable backpackers from London that we'd met along the way.

Copper Canyon is located in Chihuahua, a state that's famous for little dogs and amazing cheese, which lies just to the east of Sinaloa. The canyons themselves are only about 200 kilometers away, but the only way to access them is via the Chepe, the Chihuahua-Pacífico train, a journey that takes about 12 hours each way. It was on this magical train that the Culichi, the Gringa, and the two Brits formed their unlikely friendship, cementing plans to tackle the Barranca together by bike the following day.

So the four of us found ourselves in the Barranca's infamous Mushroom Valley (Valle de los Hongos), victims to Mexican Time. We'd putzed around Creel, the little mountain town where we'd stayed the night before, spending a good part of the morning stocking up on essentials for our bike expedition: red wine, the aforementioned peanut butter, and the knockoff Notre Dame baseball caps to keep the sun out of our eyes. Finally on the bikes, we'd taken our sweet time getting to our first stop, a cave that was home to the Tarahumara, an indigenous community that's called the canyon home for hundreds of years. And then we leisurely peddled into the Arareko Valley, home to rocks that look like mushrooms, frogs, and, yes, even erect penises.

We paused for pictures approximately 546 times along the way.

We each took a turn falling off our respective bikes.

We stopped to eat bananas.

We climbed rocks and did yoga poses on top.

We giggled.

And then, shortly after our leisurely lunch of peanut butter and tortillas, we realized that it was 2 p.m., and we'd ridden the equivalent of about 1/4-inch on the full-page route map given to us by the bike company in Creel.


Maricruz, the only sane one of the group, opted to flag down a passing tour bus to get back into Creel. She'd hurt her knee in an Mushroom Rock-related incident and didn't think she'd be able to keep up with the breakneck clip that would be required of us to get back to Creel on time.

That left me with the two Brits. We peddled the 19 kilometers through the rest of the valley, past pine forests and Tarahumaras, across an old airstrip, and directly through rather large, water-filled potholes in the road that left us mud-speckled but refreshed. We reached Lake Arareko at about 6 p.m., just in time to cut our plastic water bottles into makeshift wine glasses, ready to share the Cabernet that one of the guys had been toting in his backpack the whole day.

We biked back to Creel -- muddy, sunburnt and buzzed off the red wine -- and somehow managed to turn in our bikes just 20 minutes late. Thus ended a wonderfully lazy day. Dear, dear Mexican Time, how I love thee...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Turning Japanese...in Mexico

I've been away from Japan for about six weeks now, but I don't really miss it.

Maybe it's because Japan is here with me in Mexico.

It shows up in the strangest of places.

For starters, sushi joints are to Culiacán as Starbucks are to Chicago. They're seemingly on every corner, and, despite what would seem like breakneak competition for business, they're all packed. But the only thing that Japanese sushi and Mexican zushi (as it's called here) have in common is rice. While the Japanese stuff has copious amounts of raw fish and minimal amounts of anything else, zushi a la Mexicana actually has very little fish. Instead, it's rice stuffed with cream cheese, avocado, cilantro and jalapeños, and the soy sauce you dip it in is spiked with lime juice and orange juice. I wouldn't exactly call it sushi, but I like it anyway. It's kind of like how Mexican food in Japan was actually nothing like Mexican food in Mexico (or anywhere else, for that matter). Last I checked, fajitas did not involve broccoli, corn or mayonnaise, but I digress....

Sushi/Zushi aside, one of my first culichi (as the local folks call themselves) friends was a guy named Fernando. Fernando is Mexican, but he teaches Japanese at a local language school. He's a pretty unasuming guy (I first met him when I went to inquire about classes at the school, and he was working at the registration desk, backwards baseball cap on his head and chile-tamarindo lollipop stuck in his mouth), but he speaks the language flawlessly. It puts me to shame. You see, Fernando's never actually been to Japan. I don't think he's actually ever been out of Culiacán. I lived in Japan for a year, and still muddle through basic vocabulary and grammar structures. But Fernando's patient with my crappy japonés. I may actually learn more Japanese in Mexico than I did in Japan.

I'm also enrolled in kickboxing classes. The teacher, Fidel, is about 4'6", which would put him in good company with the guys in Japan. He's also been doing martial arts since he could walk, and has a black belt in karate. I sweat through his class three times a week. What I lack in coordination and, well, skills I make up for in determination. I can't describe how cathartic it is to kick and punch and grit my teeth after a long day of dealing with chatty 15-year-olds. I'm hooked.

So, I'm finally turning Japanese. A year behind schedule, but whatever. ¡Que viva México!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mexican Time

I'm not the most, um, punctual person.

Those who know me best know that I'm usually about 30 minutes late to most social functions. In Chicago, my tardiness was usually met with a rolling of the eyes or a chuckle. In Japan, where "on time" actually means "10 minutes early", my relaxed sense of time didn't always go over so well. But here in Mexico, I usually fit right in. After all, they don't call it "Mexican Time" for nothing.

But, three weeks in to my new life here in Sinaloa, I'm noticing that "Mexican Time" takes many different forms. For example, upon signing my lease with my landlords about two weeks ago, I was told that I'd be able to settle into my apartment "in a couple of days." They wanted to paint the walls for me, they said. They wanted to replace a few broken panes in the windows, they said. Don't worry, mi vida, it will be ready, they said.

One week later, I went to check on the apartment and was welcomed with piles of rubble on the floor. Literally. Chunks of concrete. The little touch-ups that were supposed to take just a couple of days had turned into a full-on construction project. They were replacing ceilings. They were refinishing walls. They were basically destroying the place, and then building it back up again from scratch.

I finally moved in yesterday, about two weeks late.

Gotta love Mexican Time: A Friday deadline for the electric company to turn on the lights really means Wednesday of the following week. A promise to open a bank account on a Tuesday actually means Friday, two weeks later. Stopping by at 8 p.m. really means waking me up at 11 o'clock at night. I've learned to just laugh and roll with it. I think of it as payback for all of the times I've kept somebody else waiting. If that's the case, I've got a lot more "Mexican Time" coming my way.

But a curious thing happened today: Reverse Mexican Time. I'd ordered internet service for my apartment, and the company said they'd send the technician out to install it at 6 p.m. on Thursday. Now, never did I expect anyone to actually show up at that time -- I'd penciled in 8 p.m. into my schedule for Thursday, thinking that I was finally catching onto the way business is done around here.

So imagine my surprise when the technician knocked on my door at 2:30 this afternoon. It's Monday, y'all. He was four days early!

Of course, I was on my way out the door to head to work (I was at home for lunch, my blissful two-hour siesta time). I had to wait for him to complete the installation. It made me late for class. But I guess that's just Mexican Time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Guilt Trip

So I'm feeling a bit guilty after the slightly negative (yet extremely cathartic) blog entry I posted yesterday on my chatterbox students. Why?

Well, I just wrapped up my 7 a.m. class. Usually at that hour, when daylight has barely even broken here in Culiacán, the students are half-asleep and, thus, fairly quiet. I relish it.

Unfortunately, the "Friday Factor" cancelled out the usual tranquility today. Under normal circumstances, the noise would grate on my nerves. But this morning, one student presented me with an ice-cold bottle of Coca Light (the Mexican version of Diet Coke), ostensibly his version of the proverbial kiss-up apple for the teacher.

The kid knows me well, and I've only been his instructor for two weeks.

His little ploy worked: I nursed that bottle through our 90-minute class, and let all of Coca Light's goodness -- the artificial flavoring, aspartame, bubbles and caffiene -- take me to a happy place. A far away, quiet, happy place. There's nothing like a cold Coke at 7 a.m.: The class went off without a hitch.

But now, as I'm coming down from my caffiene buzz, I'm having second thoughts about yesterday's harsh blog entry. These students are not so bad. Just keep feeding me the Coca Light, kiddos, and we'll get along just fine.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shut up, por favor!

I am beginning to realize that, as a teacher, I was quite spoiled in Japan.

Now, the school itself didn’t present much in the way of luxury: the building looked like something out of Communist Eastern Europe, freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Each day, I joined my students for our requisite cleaning time, which involved me scrubbing the long hallways on my hands and knees. The classrooms weren’t wired for Internet. The facilities for extracurriculars were located out in a rice paddy. And I had to squat to pee.

Contrast that with the bells and whistles I have at my school here in Mexico -- air conditioned offices, technology-filled classrooms, well-manicured tennis and basketball courts, palm trees, and my very own laptop -- and one might think that I’d hit the jackpot, work-wise.

But that’s not quite the case: Let’s just say that my Mexican students are a little more, uh, verbose than my Japanese students were.

The Japanese kids were the epitome of politeness. They started off every class with a cheerful “Good Morning!” and a bow. They were absolutely silent during class, and always raised their hands when they wanted to talk. When granted permission to speak, they would stand up, push in their chairs, say their piece, pull out their chairs, and then sit back down. If students ever spoke out of turn, they suffered the wrath of their homeroom teachers’ castigation in rapid-fire Japanese. The verbal assault was enough to scare even me into silence, and I didn’t even understand most of what was said.

Now, I realize that, for a variety of reasons, the Japanese scenario could never exist here in the Americas – North, South or Central. But I’d certainly get a kick out of seeing how long my Mexican students would last in a Japanese school. I’d place my bet on about five minutes, because the kids here never seem to shut up.

I'm not having this problem because I'm the new kid on the block here. Even the school's veteran teachers complain about their chatty students. But I hate being that teacher, the one that is always crabby and yelling and shushing. So, this week, I took what I thought was the high road, a creative approach: I asked the students to write me a letter with advice about how they thought I should keep the class quiet.

Their responses were interesting, even chuckle-provoking: Several suggested that I bring tape to cover offending students' mouths, and some thought that I should make talkative students run laps around campus or do push-ups in front of the class. One even advised that I administer tranquilizers! Some apologized for being loud, and many seemed to sympatize with me, including one who closed her letter with this piece of advice:

“Take care, and patience, teacher, you are going to need it.”

Yikes. Guess I will have to bring some duct tape next week.

Friday, August 8, 2008

There's more than tomatoes in Culiacán

Google "Culiacán, Sinaloa" and you'll likely come up with an article on either tomato cultivation or drug trafficking. I've joked with my new Culichi friends that, upon arrival, I was expecting to be served nothing but 'maters by folks who were full-time narcotraficantes. And this has proved to be kind of half-correct. While I haven't met any narcos (yet -- fingers crossed that this remains the case), the city definitely embraces its tomatoes: Their picture graces the license plates here (it literally puts the 'o' in 'Sinaloa'), the local baseball team is named the 'Tomateros' (seriously), and grocery stores overflow with bright red bins of 'em at dirt-cheap prices.

But a visit last weekend to a little piece of heaven called Nuevo Altata proved all of this wrong: There's definitely more than tomatoes here. Nuevo Altata is a stretch of still-mostly-virgin beach located just an hour from the city. There's even a beach-front restaurant that serves up an absolutely divine fried fish, caught right from the Pacific, adorned with a delicious, um, tomato salsa.

So some stereotypes die hard. But the beach is beautiful. Just thought I'd post a picture in case you needed motivation to book your tickets to come visit me...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Public Relations

Turns out Dora and I have something in common besides our mutual love of raspados: we both used to work in Public Relations.

Except that my version of PR was the useless kind. Before I saw the proverbial light and became a full-time teacher, my job was to pitch (read: hawk) stories on products -- ranging from sausage to vodka to encyclopedias -- to TV news producers and newspaper journalists who had much better things to do than take my phone calls when they were on deadline. I spent most of my 60-plus-hour workweek beating my head against the wall.

Dora, on the other hand, worked in relaciones públicas, which I have learned is much different than my version of PR. Relaciones públicas is an art, and Dora is an artist. She worked as a receptionist at a bank, and later at an office for one of Mexico's political parties. In this capacity, her job was actually to relate to the public (read: navigate her way through Mexico's infamous bureaucracy on behalf of her customers). She has long since retired and made it her full-time job to spoil her three grandchildren (and me), but her PR skills are still sharp.

This afternoon, Dora called the light company on my behalf. I'm planning to move into my new apartment this weekend, and need to get my utilities up and running. I stood by while she made the phone call, so I can only speculate as to what really transpired on the other end of the line, but I imagine it went something like this:

Dora: Good afternoon, I need to open a new account please.
Light Company Guy: Okay, we need 48 hours to process your order.
D: But we need the lights for tomorrow.
LCG: I'm sorry, ma'am, but there's really nothing I can do.
D: Listen, honey, what is your name?
LCG: Julio.
D: Julio, sweetheart, here's the thing. The account is for a foreigner. From the United States. And you know we need to be nice to people from our neighboring country, don't you, dear?
LCG: (Long pause) Uh, yeah...
D: So how late do your crews work tomorrow?
LCG: Until 8 p.m.
D: Well, see? There's no problem then. That's almost 48 hours from now. So we'll have the lights for tomorrow, right?
LCG: But we need 48 hours...
D: Did I mention that this foreign girl is really cute? She's beautiful. You can't even imagine...
LCG: But we need 48...
D: Oh, Julio, she's really cute! And you haven't even seen her yet. Just imagine! So lights for tomorrow then? Perfect! Thanks so much, Julio, my dear!

Dora hung up and smiled at me.

"You'll have the lights for tomorrow, mi vida."

What can I say? The woman is good.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"...and you're (NOT) fat."

I've been in Mexico for just two weeks, and already I'm thinking that it's a better fit for me than Japan, which served as my home for the past year. Don't get me wrong; I loved my time in Japan and very much miss all of my friends there, but there's something about this place that just feels, well, right.

It's not just that I speak Spanish a heck of a lot better than I speak Japanese. Or that I like tortillas better than rice. Or that I can actually, you know, read here. Literacy is a good thing.

No, it's much more superficial than that: It's because I'm not fat here in Mexico.

A bit of a back story is required. In Japan, I was a giant, blonde, XL-sized-clothing-wearing gaijin woman who often induced open-mouthed gaping when I walked down the street. The fact that I am much bigger than the average Japanese woman (and, let's be honest, the average Japanese man as well) was once reinforced to me by, of all people, a rather large guy from Miami whom I met in Osaka. We'll call him "B." On that ever-memorable evening, B took me out for drinks, chatted me up, and showered me with compliments ("Sara, you're really cute, I like your personality, and you have a great sense of humor..."). I was eating it up.

And then B broke my heart.

"...and you're fat!" he said.

And then, realizing he'd really f*cked up, B tried to spin it as a good thing.

"...and I like that."

Dude had obviously been in Japan too long. Maybe he should come on down to Mexico to get a reality check. Here in Culiacán, I'm surrounded by curvy women and well-built men who actually weigh more than I do. It's fabulous.

And there are little esteem-boosters everywhere. Like on the bus.

The bus system here in Culiacán merits a blog entry of its own. As I don't have a car here, I rely on it to get around town, and each ride is an adventure. Buses here cost about 50 cents (USD) and are well worth the money in entertainment value alone. For example, on my way into work this morning, I boarded at 6 a.m. The sun wasn't even up yet, but there was a full-on party inside the bus. The interior was dark, lit by blacklights on the ceiling. The driver had installed a serious bass system, and had banda music blaring through the speakers. A strand of Christmas lights adorned the front of the bus, surrounding a spray-painted plaque that said "Martín" (I'm assuming this was the driver's homage to himself). The lights were wired to flash in time with the bass of the music.

It was absolutely hilarious.

I cursed myself for not bringing a camera to caputre the insanity. (Instead, I've stolen a picture of a Mexican bus from elsewhere on the web and have posted it here. It's more or less true to life.) And I cursed myself again this afternoon on my bus ride home from lunch. I wasn't on Martín's bus, so the spray-painted plaque was replaced with something else. It was a different sign, completely random, but seemingly a message made just for me:

"Ni eres gorda tú."

Translation: You're not even fat.

Ha! Take that, B! God, I love Culiacán.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

¡Locas por los raspados!

Those who know me best know that I have a slightly, um, addicitve personality. My vices mostly have to do with sweets: I am practically a walking billboard for Diet Coke. I am obsessed with gummy bears, gummy worms, gummy sharks...the list goes on. And I have been known to chew an entire pack of Wrigley Winterfresh gum in one sitting.

I am not alone in these seemingly-benign addictions. I once worked with an entire office of women who were also hooked on Diet Coke (and my sister calls it the "Nectar of Life"). I have developed fast friendships based on mutual love of gummy candy (you people know who you are). And, when I lived in Chicago, home of Wrigley, I often had trouble finding Winterfresh because it sold out so quickly. Addicts, unite!

As of this week, I can add a new addiciton to the list: Raspados.

And I can add a new kindred soul to my list of fellow addicts: Dorita.

Raspados are a kind of snowcone a la mexicana, made with fresh fruit, real fruit juice, tons of sugar, and, yes friends, ice cream. As luck would have it, some of Dora´s neighbors sell raspados from their front porch. They´re dirt cheap: 12 pesos (about $1 USD). And the stand is BYOC (Bring Your Own Container). The raspado boss, Irma, fills the container, provides a straw and spoon, and sits and chats with customers as they sit on her stoop and slurp away happily.

Dora introduced me to raspados on Tuesday. We walked over to Irma´s, armed with some small plastic containers. Irma filled our cups. I slurped and smiled as Dora presented me to the crew of neighbors assembled around the stand, thinking that a raspado could be a nice treat every once in a while.

But "once in a while" quickly turned into "everyday."

Dorita, who I now know to be a closet raspado addict, drew me right into her web of addiction. On Wednesday, she convinced me to go to Irma`s again. On Thursday, I suggested the trip. And by Friday, I had tried every raspado flavor on the menu. The cups we brought with us gradually grew from small to jumbo (yesterday, Dora busted out two liter-sized containers, which Irma still filled for 12 pesos). After a liter of sugary raspados, we were both completely wired, busting into fits of raspado-induced giggling late into the evening.

We had become addicts, and Irma was our enabler.

Thank God that Irma is going on vacation next week. The raspado stand will be closed until mid-August, and Dorita and I will begin to detox. And we have made a solemn pact to try to control ourselves when the stand does finally re-open. Only one per week. We`ll see how long that lasts.

In the meantime, there`s plenty of Diet Coke here in Mexico...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Forgotten Tips & Pink Toenails

My first six hours in Mexico were a little rough, the kind of rough that made me momentarily rethink my decision to leave my comfortable life in Japan (for those of you just stumbling onto my little blog, the back story is here) to start all over again in Mexico.

It started shortly after I touched down in Mexico City, when I was settling into my four-hour layover before my flight to my new hometown of Culiacán. I was walking half-asleep through the terminal and heard someone call out "SEÑORITA!!," and turned my head to see a security guard running down the hall in my direction.


A waitress was running right behind him. Fellow travelers stopped to gawk at the spectacle: Turns out I had forgotten to leave a tip after my lunch in the terminal restaurant. While tipping is not a custom in Japan, it is very much alive -- and apparently very much expected -- in Mexico. Having spent the last year NOT leaving tips in Japan, I had forgotten this small but important detail.

Flustered, I handed the angry waitress 20 pesos and apologized profusely. She looked at me funny, not because I hadn’t tipped, but because, in my embarrassed and exhausted state, I had said "I’m sorry" in Japanese.

Japanese continued to corrupt my Spanish throughout the day.

Then my suitcases got lost.

The guy who had agreed to meet me at the airport was 90 minutes late.

And, while I’m whining, let me add that Culiacán is hot as hell.

So the start of my Mexican life was a bit tough. But then I arrived at Dora’s house, and everything changed.

Dora answered the door, wearing a bright flowered dress and an even brighter smile, holding a tiny, quivering Chihuahua in her arms. She greeted me with a warm hug, thus squishing the dog between us, and kissed both of my cheeks, explaining that she had been waiting for me and that she was so happy to see me and that she was so excited to host me in her home (I’ll be staying with Dora until I find my own apartment here) and that I could call her ‘Dorita’ if I wanted to. She then introduced me to Miruña, the Chihuahua, asking if I liked the color of the bright pink nail polish she had meticulously painted on the dog’s toes.

"Lo encanto," I replied, using comprehensible Spanish for the first time that day. "I love it."

In that moment, staring at that dog’s ridiculous toenails, I remembered why I had decided to come to Mexico.

Dora gave me a glass of fresh-squeezed juice to drink as I unpacked my suitcases in my room, a comfortable bedroom that overlooks her plant-filled patio, and then treated me to a delicious dinner of tostadas at an open-air foodstall around the corner. She peppered our lively conversation with little expressions of affection, calling me ‘mamacita’ and ‘mi reina’ and ‘mi corazón,’ and ‘mi cielo,’ as she told me about the other teachers she’d hosted in the past. She took me to the market and together we bought fresh watermelon and papaya and mangos and avocados and chiles and cheese. Dora whipped these ingredients into an amazing batch of chiles rellenos, which she served me for lunch the next day.

"Creo que hemos empezado bien," she said to me during lunch. "I think we’re off to a great start."

I agree, Dorita. I agree.