Tuesday, January 17, 2006

One Last Time

Today is my last stroll through Coyoacán, my last time eating the scrumptious chicken fajitas at Mesón Santa Catarina and my last time going to the movies in Mexico. All of that is of course until my next time in Mexico and in D.F. I have such opposite sentiments flowing through me right now – excitement to go home and be with my friends and family and sadness for leaving the life I have made for myself in Mexico.

It’s a gorgeous day today, the sun is brilliant, the air is warm and there is an ever so slight breeze. It’ll be months before a day in Chicago is like this one. I walk a lot slower here, stroll around, observe and document and get to know all different parts of the city. Will I be able to walk this slowly in Chicago, or will those racing off to their mountain of responsibilities trample me? Since I left my school in Wilmette, little by little went my compulsive ways to have to be in control. Can I maintain that “hands off” attitude? I feel a healthier balance here – my work is not my life. I’m pretty sure my heart beats slower here; I don’t have anything to stress out about - no deadlines, no rush to be on time, no piles of paperwork. I have more than enough time to do whatever I want and still spend time with “family” and friends. Time – that is the essential difference between our cultures – as if the border is a “time warp”.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Back to Life, Back to Reality

After being on vacation for the past two weeks, and spending much of the time away from the city, today brought me right back to reality. In the hot and humid weather in Colima I couldn’t sleep without the fan on all night. Back in D.F. I can’t sleep in the cold without my electric blanket on all night. I had a nice break from the students for a couple of weeks, but today we picked up right where we left off. I was in Colima for four days and could probably use just one hand to count the number of beggars I saw. And now back in D.F., I would probably need two hands to count the number of beggars I see in an hour.

Today I woke up just after 6:00 a.m. to get ready for school, our first day back after winter vacation. It was 36º F outside and I could see my breath in the bathroom when I got out of the shower. I quickly blew my hair dry and downed two cups of hot tea. I left for school wearing two pairs of socks, a long underwear shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a fleece, a fall coat, earwarmers and gloves. When the metro arrived I was happy to see so many empty seats, but after sitting on the metal bench for a second, I shot right back up as it felt like I was sitting on ice. In the photo you can see two of my students all bundled up – not the image most people have of a Mexican winter.

School was pretty much as it was two and a half weeks ago – rough with Group 1A and, accordingly, Richi and Carlos have “citatorio” tomorrow - just as they had right before break.

This afternoon I went to El Ocho, the café with free wireless Internet in Condesa, as I was craving a final taste of their pizza. It’s enormous and baked in the shape of the number eight so I had half of it wrapped to go, knowing that I would easily be able to find a beggar to give it to. About 20% of the city population lives in poverty (according to www.economist.com), a reality of Mexico City with which one is confronted almost constantly. Sure enough, in less than five minutes from when I left the restaurant, a woman with one child strapped on her back and another by her side, approached me for money and was very happy to accept the food.

Just in case I hadn’t received enough “D.F. reality” for one day, my metro ride home provided an adventure. First, it was a tight squeeze to even get in a metro car when I got on at the Chapultepec stop. A young guy and I looked at each other as if we were both thinking, “This is crazy.” He might have been thinking something else, because all of a sudden I felt his hand on my butt! Immediately, I made my way through the crowd and stood at the next door in the car. When it was time to transfer at the Pino Suarez stop, it was tough to get out of the train as those waiting wouldn’t allow all of us to disembark before pushing their way in. I tried to ride the wave out, but before I could reach land, the current was dragging me back in. The guy exiting in front of me looked back and saw my plight. He stretched his arm back to me and when I took his hand he pulled me to safety before the high-pitched beep signaled the closing of the doors.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The One (Horse) That Got Away

To see photos from Saturday in Colima click on the title of today's entry or copy and paste the following address into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum62.html

For lunch today we went to a place about twenty minutes from the house, in the middle of nowhere. As soon as we got out of the car, we were surrounded by beautiful vistas, the Colima Volcano being one of them (it last erupted in 1991). Before lunch, Scarlett and Azul dared to fly by zip line (tirolesa) across the property, over a go-cart track and a pond. They kept prodding me to do the same, refusing to accept that I like to keep my feet on the ground. And while they each paid 300 pesos for the privilege of zipping along a thin rope line, I insisted they’d have to pay me 5000 pesos to get me to do that.

After that excitement, we sat down to a hearty lunch full of “borrego", goat meat, for the rest of the family and “arrachera”, skirt steak, for me. I tried a bite of the “borrego", it had been four years since I tasted it in Querétaro; I still found it to be pretty tasty but chewy and fatty. I placed my “arrachera” onto a heavenly thick homemade tortilla that I first coated in refried beans and topped off with a dousing of lime juice.

Once we finished lunch, the girls and I made our way to the horse – there was only one available so we took turns of about five minutes each. After Scarlett rode it all the way down the hill, it was my turn next. While Azul tried to take a picture of me on the horse, he seemed impatient, as if he had somewhere to be. Once upon the horse, I started off walking slowly, with Blanca walking alongside, holding a “leash”. When she realized that I knew how to steer with the reins, she dropped the “leash.” The horse took off when, with the heels of my gym shoes, I gave him the slightest jab (apparently the one that put him over the edge). We started into a trot that quickly became a cantor and whatever is faster than that, I wanted to stop so I pulled back on the reins and yelped “para” (stop) and “no” – but the horse had a plan of its own. Every time I pulled back on the reins, his head went up and back, he slowed momentarily and then took off even faster. I didn’t want him going up on his hind legs and knocking me off, so I didn’t pull too hard on the reins. So, instead of being bucked off, the horse continued flying along, but made its way off of the dirt road and to the right side, under the trees. What was under the trees for the horse was right at face level for me – while still going full speed ahead, and being smacked in the face by a couple of branches I managed to make the horse stop. At that point I sweared up a storm, calling the horse everything but “glue”. Then, I felt warm liquid trickling down my face and looked at my yellow collared shirt that was covered in blood and yelled out, “I’m bleeding!” Blanca Yazmin caught up and took the “leash” so I dismounted, and to add insult to injury, fell onto the ground and scraped my elbows.

As I walked back up the hill, first Scarlett and Azul met me, followed by their mom. Blanca had come down when she said she couldn’t see us anymore. When I looked up at the restaurant, I could see Pepe shaking his fists in the air, as if he were cheering, so I knew he wasn’t yet aware of the bloody mess. I walked back up the mountain and reached the restaurant where I washed off my face with bottled water and then pressed ice against my forehead that minimized the massive lump to what looked like a giant mosquito bite.

I’ve spent five months in “dangerous” Mexico City – no problem. I leave the city for a short weekend in Colima, go to lunch in the middle of nowhere, take a 30-second horseback ride and just like that - problem.

Friday, January 06, 2006

El Día de Reyes * Three Kings Day

Just before 9:00 p.m. we went to Blanca’s niece and nephew’s house to celebrate El Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day). January 6, the Epiphany, remembers when the Three Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem, arrived bearing their treasured gifts for the Baby Jesus. A couple of days earlier, children write letters to the Wise Men, asking for presents. Before going to bed on the night of January 5, children place their old shoes under their bed or in the living room, where the Wise Men then leave them their presents. All over the country bakeries (from the smallest stands on the street to Wall-Mart and Sam’s Club) sell Rosca de Reyes of all sizes, an oval sweetbread that’s decorated with candied fruit.

This tradition of celebrating the Epiphany comes from Spain and the contributions from the New World include the tradition of serving tamales and hot chocolate with the traditional pastry. At our festivity we had hot chocolate that was heavenly, but a bit difficult to drink as I was already sweating in Colima’s heat. The fun part of having a Rosca is that hidden inside are plastic figurines of the Baby Jesus – the number depending on the size of the bread, there were three hidden in ours. The figurine is hidden to symbolize the need to find a secure place where Jesus could be born, a place where King Herod would not find him.

Each person takes a turn slicing a piece, hoping not to get the figurine. At our festivities everyone kept teasing each other, “I see it,” “You got it.” The eleven-year-old kept saying, “That’s not true.” The slices are carefully inspected as whoever gets the baby figurine will be the host, and invite everyone present to the next celebration on February 2, Candelaria, or Candle mass day, and get a new dress for the Baby Jesus of the Nativity scene. Of course each family has its own traditions, so those who had a figurine in their piece - Blanca, Scarlett and Astrid’s husband – will bring food to the celebration, but none of these family members have a nativity scene in their home. February 2 concludes the Mexican Christmas season, when the nativity scene is put away and another family dinner, usually consisting of tamales and hot chocolate, is served.

We stayed together until almost midnight, some of us playing the eleven-year-old Aniela’s new game of Disney Monopoly, the Spanish edition. Others watched a “telenovela”(soap opera) and then the news and there was a group gathered outside as well.

The information on Día de Reyes comes from: http://www.inside-mexico.com/featurereyes.htm

Take Me Down to the Paradise City

To see photos from my day at the beach and celebrating Three Kings Day, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum61.html
I woke up at 9:30 a.m. and was happy to find that the water had been restored so that I could take a shower before we left for the beach at 10:00 a.m. Blanca’s niece Astrid with her 15-month old, Diego, in tow came to pick us up. We left promptly at 10:30 a.m. with Astrid driving, Blanca in the front seat while Blanca Yazmin, Azul, Diego and I squeezed in the back of the 2004 black Toyota of a model I haven’t seen in the U.S.

Forty-five minutes later we arrived at Paradise Beach and drove to the end of the twenty or so restaurant locales. They all look the same: white plastic chairs and tables, a thatched roof supported by white painted wooden poles with the dark sand serving as the floor. They also all have essentially the same menu consisting of seafood and fish and bottles of pop or beer. We sat at a table at Pancho’s and the server greeted us personally, even asking if José was coming and what time he got off of work. I had fried shrimp for lunch, doused with lime, of course.

The area looked exactly the same from when I was here five years ago. Even then I thought that calling the place “Paradise” Beach was a bit of a stretch. Its dark grey sand, a shade off of black, makes the area appear dirty. But when you’re escaping from Chicago’s brutal winter and Mexico City’s cold weather, this sure seems like “paradise”. While the others played cards, I played in the sand and basked in the sun until it was too hot.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

¡Qué viva la siesta! * Long Live the Siesta

To see photos from my visit to Colima, click on the title of today's entry or copy and paste the following address into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum63.html

After awakening very late in the morning, I had some scrambled eggs, orange juice and coffee cake from Sam’s Club. Azul took the first shower this morning and when she was done, Blanca went to take a look at the water heater out back. She then announced that my shower had been “canceled” since there was no hot water – not a drip coming out of the faucets. She and Blanca Yazmin walked up and down the block and found that we weren’t alone; none of the neighbors had hot water either. It was supposed to come back on around 6:00 p.m., but by then instead of the hot water being restored, the cold water had been cut off too. No water – no toilets to be flushed, and still no shower to be taken.

After breakfast and then sitting and watching TV for a couple of hours, at 1:30 I summoned the energy to go get a hair cut and a pedicure. I stopped in the tiny shopping mall, Plaza Country, but forged on when, because of the fumes, I couldn’t breathe in either of the two locales. I then checked out the place where I had gone when I lived in Colima and where another student of the Master’s program went for a massage every morning before class. Unfortunately, the hours posted on the door indicated that they are closed from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. So I forged on in search of a suitable salon. I walked down the street, towards the McDonald’s and then turned towards Colima’s center. A giant banner that said “uñas” (nails) hung from a salon’s window, so I climbed the stairs, slid the door open and asked if they do manicures or pedicures. The 20 year old, dirty-blond sitting behind the desk said they didn’t do either. I left wondering what it is then that they do to nails. When I walked in the next place around 2:15 p.m., there was a receptionist and two beauticians hanging out in the waiting area. There I was told that they work by appointments and that I could have one at 3:00. I left there a little taken aback since there were two workers sitting around and no other clients in sight. Still hopeful that I could at least get my hair cut and return to the house for lunch around 3:30 p.m., I continued down the street. The next beauty salon had three employees sitting around and they said that I could have an appointment at 4:00 p.m. I finally clued in and gave up, acknowledging the fact that I was in a small town that still honors the tradition of the “siesta” when businesses are closed during the lunch hours, generally from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The climate dictates the way a town goes about daily life. It is so hot and humid here, even now in the winter, that it seems people need a break in the middle of the day. By the time I made my way back home, my capri khakis were weighted down by the humidity. I began to notice that even girls and women wear shorts here in Colima – I had forgotten that it’s perfectly fine, since in Mexico City it’s almost never seen, even in health clubs.

It was even warm tonight in the movie theater, to which Scarlett, Azul and I each brought a sweater. Scarlett’s boyfriend Enrique also came with and we saw “Más Barato por la Docena 2” (Cheaper By the Dozen 2). It’s a light, funny, predictable movie that was unfortunately dubbed, as Steve Martin and Eugene Levy have distinctive voices that add a lot to their characters’ emotions and personalities. This was the most comfortable movie theater I remember being in since the “old,” or original, theaters of Old Orchard whose seats were broken, allowing viewers to rock all the way back and relax their feet up on the seat in front.

When we came back home, Scarlett and Enrique took me to see a giant nativity scene in front of a house decorated with bright lights for Christmas. Unfortunately, it had all been taken down and there was nothing to show for except a pretty, brightly painted house. We drove around for a bit and saw a couple of other houses with lights and nativity scenes. When returning to the house, Blanca then took us to the center to see the giant Christmas tree all lit up and the decorations on the government building and down the main street. From there, we drove for a bit and I saw so many of the new housing developments and the land that is cleared to put in a big department store, Liverpool, and probably a Sanborn’s too.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hola Colima

Getting to the bus station was a voyage in itself – switching from the blue line to the olive green one at the Hidalgo stop and then from the olive green to the yellow at the La Raza stop only to disembark one stop later at Autobuses del Norte. For such a modern and efficient metro system, I can’t figure out for the life of me why there are escalators at some stations, but NOT at the one that connects to the bus station. As I emerged from the metro, my jaw lowered in astonishment of the crowd ahead. At 8:20 p.m. on a Tuesday night I hadn’t expected such a mob. I found the ETN counter and was further surprised that there wasn’t a bus for Colima at 9:30, as is shown on their website, but instead one at 9:45 and one at 9:55. When the attendant asked which one I wanted, I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question so I waited a moment before uttering “9:30” and wanted to follow it by saying, “duh”- until I saw that the only three seats remaining were in the last rows, right by the toilet. So, I opted for the 9:55 where I had a single seat right up front.

It was the perfect start to the trip when I was able to move to two empty seats and have room to lie down. I was lulled to sleep by the desperate cries from the little girl behind me, begging her grandma to unbuckle her seatbelt even though her grandma insisted that she would fall. I woke up several times during the ten-hour ride, including when we reached Guadalajara, about 7 hours from Mexico City, to change drivers. I was pretty awake at that point so I listened to the rest of my audio book, Naked, by David Sedaris. The book is made up of such funny stories that I went to sleep with a smile on my face for another couple of hours.

When I next awoke we were pulling into the extremely tranquil Colima bus station, another world from big city station from which we had left. Blanca and Blanca Yazmin met me there and they looked so much the same, just a bit older, and were driving the same dark brown square shaped car that I remember from four years ago.

Blanca had told me on the phone that they had moved just a couple blocks away from the three bedroom, one bathroom apartment that I had known. I was really surprised when we stopped in front of a nice sized purple house and then was quite impressed upon seeing all of its space and two bathrooms, three bedrooms and a large patio area in back.

After I had some scrambled eggs and orange juice I slept until one o’clock. By then Scarlett had taken off with her boyfriend Enrique and Blanca, Yazmin, Azul and I sat around talking until 3:00 p.m. when we went to lunch at my favorite restaurant, Mi Ranchito. There I had my usual, chicken fajitas. Nostalgia often plays with one’s mind, making memories sweeter than reality, but in this case everything was better, except for the slow service. The tortillas were home made and the thickest and freshest I’ve ever had.

From there we drove to Colima’s center, just about a five-minute drive from the house. Along the way Blanca pointed out all of the new stores, of which there are many. Much has been added across from the small shopping center, Plaza Country. Now there is the bakery El Globo, a bank, a cell phone, Burger King and Waldo’s (a dollar store) and then, like the sign of the apocalypse, sits Sam’s Club.

The new stores have spurred more traffic and life into Colima. The center is also much livelier and prettier than I remembered. As we walked around, I was reminded of Colima’s humidity and thankful that at least it was a cloudy day. In this coldest month of January, Colima’s weather averages highs in the 80s Farenheit and lows in the upper 50s with humidity being more than 50%. On our way back home, we stopped at Sam’s Club, which sits on the main street that led to where Carrie had lived. We spent the night relaxing in front of the TV, watching The OC, Reunion and Related. When Pepe came back from work, it was just like old times with the whole family spending the evening relaxing in the living room.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A 10-Hour Bus Ride – AAAH!

Tonight I leave Mexico City on an ETN bus (the best there is in Mexico) from the Northern Bus Station at 9:30 p.m. and at 7:15 a.m. tomorrow morning I will arrive in Colima (the capital town in the state of Colima that is due west of D.F.). I’m headed to Colima to visit my “Mexican Family” – my mom and dad, Blanca and Pepe, and my little sisters, Blanca, Scarlett and Azul. I lived with them five years ago when I was studying for my Master’s during the summer of 2000. The last time I saw them was four years ago when I took this same 10-hour ride from D.F. I was studying that summer in Querétaro and came to D.F. for just a day and a night. I remember going to the zoo with Scarlett, Azul and their aunt after spending the night in Mexico City.

Last time the bus ride didn’t go too well, I stayed in bed sick for the first day in Colima. So this time I searched the Internet for airfares. I had always heard that it’s more expensive to fly within Mexico than to travel outside the country – and my search sure confirmed that with a whopping price of $620 USD for the less than 2-hour flight. ETN wins out with its $150 USD round trip price. Armed with Ambien to help me sleep through the night, I am sure it will go much better this time around.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

A New Year Recipe: Grapes, Suitcases, Sweeping and Red or Yellow Colored Underwear

New Year’s Eve traditions abound in Mexico. At the strike of midnight twelve church bells ring at which time you are to eat twelve grapes (one for each month of the year) and make a wish, grab your suitcases and take a symbolic walk out the door so that you will travel in the new year, sweep around the house to make a “clean start” all while wearing either red underwear for love in the new year or yellow for money. There’s so much to do it’s no wonder the festivities last until well into the morning, at least after 5 a.m.
I toasted in the New Year at Karina’s house and just after midnight we took a taxi to Tania’s. As we walked in, Karina and I were given a bag with 12 grapes. I tried to remember to make a wish as I popped each into my mouth. Tania said that at midnight she ran out of the house with her suitcases – she really wants to travel this year and has an appointment in a couple of months at the U.S. Embassy to hopefully get her visa. We sat around a big oval table with her whole family, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and her grandma. We and enjoyed a fantastic festive meal with tasty meat, pasta, bread, salad and plenty of tequila and other beverages to go around. Around 2:30 I was ready to call it a night, but as there weren’t any taxis available, I went with Karina and Tania to another party.

This party was under a big white tent and music blasted from the speakers while videos played. I was then ready to leave around 5 a.m. and a taxi picked me up sometime before 5:30 a.m. I had a great time and look forward to incorporating some of the Mexican New Year’s Eve traditions into my celebration next year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Winter Break with Carrie Day 3: Tepoztlán to D.F.

Details to be posted ASAP. To see photos from our day, click on the title of today's entry or copy and paste the following into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum64.html

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Winter Break with Carrie Day 2: Taxco to Cuernavaca to Tepoztlán

To see photos from Day 2 of winter break with Carrie, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser:http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum60.html

Details of the day to be posted ASAP.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Winter Break with Carrie Day 1: Taxco

To see photos from Day 1 of winter break in Taxco, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum59.html

Details to be posted ASAP.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

If I May Say So, “Feliz Navidad”

To see photos from Christmas in Mexico City click on the title of today’s entry or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum58.html

At the risk of being “un-PC”, I’ve used the term “Merry Christmas” in today’s title. I’m mystified by the news from the States that people are in an uproar about the presidential “holiday” cards that don’t show a Christmas tree (or is it “holiday tree”) and that say “Seasons Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas”. Doesn’t it make sense that since the cards are sent to people of all denominations they have a general greeting? Our society is so sensitive that now Christmas trees are being called “Holiday” trees. What holiday besides Christmas involves a tree? Trees have no place in Hanukkah, and I don’t think with Kwanza either. At the same time, I was pretty satisfied that for the five hours that I was out today, not one person said “Merry Christmas” to me.

Not knowing what was open or closed on Christmas day in Mexico City, this afternoon I ventured to the Historical Center, to the big park Alameda that is right in the middle of the city. I had read that some of the cows from CowParade were displayed around there, so I was on the hunt. I found a few along Avenida Juarez, across from the park, and took photos of the two that I liked. After capturing the couple of cows, my Jewish stomach sensed that it was Christmas and directed me to Chinatown, which is actually more like ChinaBLOCK. The couple of Chinese restaurants are just by Alameda Park. There I bought an egg roll, rice and vegetables and took it to go – I had more exploring to do.

I walked to the main plaza, the Zócalo, and found where Christmas was being celebrated – until then I hadn’t seen any signs that it was Christmas. The plaza was full of people, each surrounding building was covered in lights and there were vendors and traffic everywhere I looked. All over the square were stands with hot dogs, hamburgers, corn and cotton candy. The cotton candy floated in the air and kids of all ages jumped to catch the escaping treat. Covering the ground were vendors selling sweaters, hats and scarves and toys like giant balloons, sparklers and action figures attached to parachutes.

On my way home my American heart was beating nostalgically so I stopped at Wal-Mart and was surprised to find how crowded it was on Christmas night. Continuing with the American theme, I watched some NFL football broadcast on ESPN en español. I was shocked when the announcers wished the audience a “Feliz Navidad” AND “Feliz Januká.” Has being PC crossed the border?!? I hope not.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Couple More Cows - Across from the Parque Alameda

Alameda Park, right in the middle of Mexico City, attracts families, couples, strollers, food vendors and seemingly anyone who wants an audience like clowns and preachers. When the Aztecs were in Mexico City (then called Tenochitlán), the site was a marketplace. In 1592, the governor of New Spain converted it to a public park.

The first cow is titled VACA PICADA – named for the cut tissue paper that is often used as a decoration in Mexico.

The second photo is of VACA PICADA with the Torre Latinoamericana in the background.
From this skyscraper, the Latin American Tower, you can observe the whole city from the 42nd floor observation deck.

The third photo is of VACA PICADA in front of the monument Juárez Hemiciclo, built to honor President Benito Juarez. The Juárez Monument, also referred to as the Hemiciclo (hemicycle, or half-circle), faces Avenida Juárez. This monument commemorates the dead heroes of Mexico, with Juárez taking center stage.

The last photo is of VACA MARIACHI.

Mariachi is a type of musical group, originally from Mexico, consisting of at least two violins, two trumpets, one Spanish guitar, one vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar) and one guitarrón (a small-scaled acoustic bass), but sometimes featuring more than twenty musicians. Mariachi music as we know it today originated in the 19th century.
Mariachis often wear a “charro” suit, a waist-length jacket and tightly fitted wool pants that open slightly at the ankle to fit over a boot. Both pants and jacket are often ornamented with embroidery, intricately cut leather designs, or silver buttons in a variety of shapes. A large bowtie, a wide belt and a large sombrero also often are part of a Mariachi outfit. http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Mexicoweb/factfile/Unique-facts-Mexico17.htm

Polanco’s Cows and Condesa’s Too

To see photos of the cows around Polanco’s parks and in Condesa, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser:

Holy Cow!

To see photos of the cows roaming Reforma, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum52.html

There are about 250 cows in Mexico City – fiberglass cows that is, as part of CowParade. The first exhibit of CowParade took place in Switzerland in 1998, it mooved on to more than 19 cities around the world, including Chicago in 1999 (I still remember the Eli’s Cheescake Cow). As the majority of the cows in Chicago were displayed along Michigan Avenue and the surrounding areas, here in D.F. the majority of the cows roam along the main road of Reforma, while some graze the parks in Polanco, Condesa and the Historical Center. They will remain until February 2006, when they will be auctioned off to raise funds for local charities. Mexico City met the requirements to host CowParade as it has a large population (about 20 million in the metropolitan area), a “cosmopolitan” character and highly developed visual arts traditions.

CowParade works by commissioning artists to decorate the fiberglass cows which are publicly displayed in one city and later auctioned off internationally to benefit charitable organizations in the host city. Grupo Lala, (a milk company) is sponsoring the Mexico City exposition.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Winter Break Is ALMOST Here!

Students gather by groups to enjoy some food.

A rock band played in the patio.

After the students left for the day, the teachers gathered to share a meal. That's the principal to my left.

To see more photos from the students' gatherings, the concert and the teachers' gathering on last day of school before winter vacation, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum57.html

GOL - The Student Soccer Tourney

To see photos from the soccer tournament on the last day of school before winter vacation, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser:http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum56.html

Last Day of School Before Winter Break

To see photos of the last day of school before winter vacation, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum55.html

Following the special schedule that was set last Friday, school began with the Pastorela (telling of the Christmas story) just before 8:30 a.m. From the first bell at 7:30 until then, students chatted, flirted, chased, grabbed and hit each other and were then arranged in a semi-circle in the patio area to watch the show. The performers passed the microphone among themselves as they raced through their lines and the background scene changed once, from “heaven” to “hell”.

Afterwards, the soccer tournament ensued; the fierce competition began on Monday and continued Tuesday. The school spirit was fantastic – students surrounded the field and cheered on their counterparts. Each team was made up of four players and, thanks to donations made to the school from the link on this website, there were prizes for the winners of the boys and girls’ divisions. Each winning team received an authentic Nike soccer ball and each player on those teams collected a water bottle and a chocolate candy cane. The winner of each game was the first to score and if at the end of ten minutes no goal had yet been kicked, penalty kicks broke the tie. While the games took place on the concrete field at one end of the school, on the patio one student beautifully played an electronic keyboard while another sang along.

As the soccer games ended, students gathered in their “homerooms” to enjoy a snack. When I saw the two gigantic boxes of Benedetti’s pizza, cartons of ice cream and liters of refreshments, I thought I was so lucky to have been assigned to be with Group 1C – rather than one that was enjoying ham and cheese sandwiches. The feeling didn’t last long as I spent a lot of energy trying to tame the wild animals of the group. Students wandered in and out of the classrooms and then were drawn back to the patio area by the noise coming from the “stage area.” While a band played, I hung back, as far from the monster speakers as possible, while others gathered in front of the stage. When the students left around noon, the teachers gathered in the kitchen to enjoy a meal together – there was a carrot salad with apples and walnuts, a pasta dish and meat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

Check back soon to read the entry "The Early Bird Catches the Worm"!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Friday, December 16, 2005

One Full Friday

At 6:23 a.m. I left my apartment and reached the metro at 6:30 a.m. When I exited the metro in Iztapalapa I hopped in a “bicitaxi” and continued to school. The ride was a cool one, as it’s only about 40º F, or maybe even lower, in the mornings.

When I entered school it was a bit eerie, I had never heard it so quiet. The patio was dotted with groups of students huddled in circles, sharing some gossip and talking before the school day began. The bell rang three times at 7:30 a.m. - and no one flinched.

I settled into the teacher’s room in the office and gathered my belongings for a 7:30 “citatorio” (disciplinary meeting) set with the principal, three students who had caused problems the day before and throughout most of the year, and their parents or guardians. I made a great effort to arrive at school before 7:30, only hitting snooze two times today. In Mexico, time is not so rigid (clearly as students are still gathered in the courtyard at 7:38) – so a 7:30 meeting could begin anytime before 8:30. The earliest I ever have to arrive to school is on Mondays at 8:00 a.m. “Citatorio” is always arranged according to what time the teacher enters school, which for me would be at 10:00 a.m. on Fridays. When the time was set Richi became quite frustrated, saying that his mother was at work then. I did have a hard time doing a favor for Richi, as he hasn’t made this experience easy for me, but I would have a harder time living with his mom having problems at work just because I wouldn’t come in before 10:00 a.m.

So, just after 7:40, Richi appeared with his mom. I showed her his card that is covered in negative points for standing without permission, talking out of turn, making noises and bothering and distracting classmates. During our meeting, Richi sat in his chair solemn and contemplative the whole time. His mother lifted his chin with her finger more than once, guiding him to look at the principal or at me while we spoke. We talked about his great opportunities, aided by the fact that he has U.S. citizenship, as he was born in San Diego and lived there until he was four years old. To take full advantage of his opportunities, he needs to learn English and most importantly, become disciplined and respectful. We’ll see on Monday if this conversation made the slightest impact.

When the meeting ended, the principal asked me to have the “prefecto” see if the other two boys were in school. Since Group 1A was just down the hall in P.E. I took a look myself. It was about 8:00 and the teacher hadn’t arrived yet and those boys were not present either. The group was alone, bouncing balls inside the classroom that smelled of body odor. I visited with the students for a bit and completed a survey for Sharon that asked about reading preferences and frequency. I sent those who were bouncing the basketballs outside of the classroom and engaged the few remaining students in conversation about what they want to do when they grow up. As they told me of their desired professions, I had them come up with a question that they could use if an English-speaker came to their workplace. Susan, the future lawyer, said, “¿Qué hiciste?” and I wrote that on the board with its translation, “What did you do?” Denisse and Karla, who plan to become flight attendants, said “¿Le ofrece algo?” and in addition to that question, I wrote in English, “Would you like something?” Dayami, who wants to be a chef, said “¿Qué le ofrece?” and I also wrote, “What would you like?” Sharon, the future pediatrician came up with the question, “¿Qué tienes?” and “¿Qué te duele?” so I wrote, “What’s wrong?” and “What hurts you?” Mari would like to be a veterinarian and said, “¿Qué tiene tu animal?” and I wrote, “What’s wrong with your pet?” When the bell rang at 8:20 Group 1A took off for their next class and I returned to the office.

Later, one of the maintenance men came to let me know that a mother was here for “citatorio.” I walked with Miguel’s mom to the principal’s office; she said that Miguel was home sick. When I explained that yesterday Miguel had imitated me, my mannerisms and instructions, his mother was not taken aback at all since she said that he often does that to her. I continued that in the past month Miguel had started talking a lot during class, and across the room to a girl, who was probably the negative influence. Again, his mom wasn’t surprised since she said that he never stops talking and has been that way since kindergarten. The principal and mother discussed the importance of associating with the “right people,” especially given the area in which Miguel lives. The mom described their neighborhood with drug dealers and users living all around them. Then they talked about a sixteen-year-old who had just been killed there by drug dealers on Monday. The session abruptly concluded as the principal asked the mom to speak with Miguel about being respectful.

The bell rang at 10:30, twenty minutes before “descanso” begins, so the teachers could have a meeting about Wednesday’s schedule, the last day of school before winter break begins. After more than an hour, it was decided: 7:30-8:30 Pastorela (acting out the Christmas story), then soccer tournament finals and finally a rock band will play.

My first of two classes began at 12:00 where we met in the computer lab to continue working on a PowerPoint project. Thalia asked to work with Ana, after already having worked with Luis for two days. About ten minutes later, she asked to work with Grecia, her THIRD partner in two days. When at the end of class I announced the Stars of the Week, Luis came at me to show me his card and ask why with eight points he hadn’t won. I told the class that these Stars of the Week had at least fourteen points. While the Stars rummaged through the prize bag, I had to ask Luis four times to stay in his seat.

After school I returned home, quickly changed into workout clothes and proceeded to Café Spacio that serves “comida corrida” – a four course, main meal of the day for $40 pesos – and has Internet. Then I walked a couple of minutes to my gym where I used an Elliptical Trainer while watching Scrubs on the TV.

My day was still in full swing when I hopped aboard a “pesero” just after 7:30 p.m. to make my way to Ada and Jane’s houses for Shabbat Dinner. It takes almost an hour to get to their houses (not because of distance, but because of traffic), which makes it hard to get motivated for the journey, but the effort is always worth it - I still can’t get over how much I feel a part of their family. I love playing with Ariela and Daniela, Ada and Enrique’s four-year-old twin girls, who are at the “silly stage” now. I always leave Shabbat much more knowledgeable than when I arrived since they all, especially Moishe and Enrique, love teaching me new vocabulary, expressions and jokes. They are all extremely thoughtful and patient, taking the time to explain their jokes since the meaning often gets lost in the translation. This Friday was truly a Mexican Jewish experience as we sang the blessings with traditional Mexican music blasting in the background, coming from the houses next door. Later, in true Mexico City fashion, as the traffic had already dissipated when I left at 10:50 p.m. I zipped on home in less than fifteen minutes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Risky Business

To see photos from my bowling outing, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum51.html

I ate a hog dog from a stand on the street! It’s late and I’m still up – I think I’m afraid to see what kind of effect it will have, hopefully it will go unnoticed by my digestive system. Miriam, one of the Fulbright grantees, has raved about how tasty the “street hot dogs” are, but I have remained skeptical as a life-long lover of a kosher hot dog. At these street corner stands, the dogs sit on a hot plate, wrapped in a thin, fatty slice of bacon. The bun gets heated for a couple of seconds before joining the hot dog to be served on a napkin. The condiments include ketchup, salsa, tomatoes and mayonnaise – not exactly a Chicago Dog. I don’t even know how to describe the flavor since I don’t think I tasted it; I was too scared of what I was eating to be able to pay attention to its taste. I was so anxious that I even had mine with ketchup, even though I always have mine plain. The upside of the experience – each dog costs only 10 pesos.
* The attached photos are not from the actual event, as I was too grossed out at that time to take a photo of the experience.

The night started well enough. On COMEXUS’ new roof garden, I enjoyed wine and cheese with Karina and some of her co-workers. Through the eternally hazy polluted sky we could see the Mexico City skyline – not exactly Chicago’s, but it was still nice up there.

From there, Karina, her friend Tania and I went to bowl. As the three of us are going to the Luis Miguel concert in January, it’s pretty strange that his music was playing over the sound system the whole time. With our neon green bowling shoes on and a bucket of Pacífico on our table, we were ready to begin. Each of the four games we played cost 25 pesos, a special for playing during the week. I came in second three times and figure it has to be because Tania must secretly practice in her spare time.

Monday, December 12, 2005

And the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that Guadalupe was there . . .

To see more photos, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum49.html

Since Saturday evening, the air has been bursting with what sounds like bombs at worst and booming thunder at best, but are actually “fuegos pirotécnicos” – fireworks. “Bombs bursted through the air” all day Sunday, then all throughout this afternoon and into this evening too. Besides the intermittent booming, last night music and singing began around midnight with the neighborhood dogs howling along. Why all the excitement? Well, it’s December 12 – Virgin of Guadalupe Day, Mexico's most important religious holiday.
On this day, people from all over Mexico and beyond make the pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe, on the Cerro of Tepeyac, outside of Mexico City, to pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some arrive by bike and others walk. Our Lady of Guadalupe (La Virgen de Guadalupe), a Roman Catholic icon, was the title given to the Virgin Mary after appearing to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec convert to Catholicism, at that location in 1531.
Mary told Juan to go to the bishop and ask that a church be built on the hill so she could be close to her people. The bishop, needing proof of this vision, asked Juan to have a miracle performed by Mary. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from a hill, even though it was winter and the area was scattered with cacti. He found roses and presented these to the bishop. When the roses fell from his cloak, an icon of the Virgin remained imprinted on the cloth. The apron containing her image has been hung in the church built on that spot. From then on, Spanish missionaries used the story of her appearance to help convert millions of indigenous people in what had been the Aztec Empire. Guadalupe.http://www.crystalinks.com/ladyguadalupeday.html

Thursday, December 08, 2005

What a Cheesy Weekend!

Thursday, December 8 – Sunday, December 11, 2005

To see photos from my weekend with Sward, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum48.html

It’s all too appropriate that my “Cheesy Weekend” was spent with Sward (Sarah is her given name), one of the biggest Cheeseheads I know. It all started Thursday afternoon when we checked into the Marriott hotel (thanks mom and dad for having extra nights that you had to use before the end of the year) and received a complimentary cheese platter. We stuffed our faces full of soft, scrumptious Brie.

Later on that evening we met up with Andi and Karina to go to the David Copperfield show. Copperfield’s illusions are amazing, I can’t stop wondering how he “transported” an audience member to the Philippines to be with his father; made a car “appear” on stage even while there were audience members surrounding the area; and predicted a “lottery number” – the same one that his father had played every week – that about five different audience members contributed to making. But I also can’t stop thinking about the sentimental, touching and sweet moments that I thought came off quite cheesy. Besides all of those “moments,” Copperfield also took the art of “play on words” (of which I am a huge fan) and pushed it over the edge, often taking away the funny and leaving behind a lot of cheese.

The next day, the cheese was entirely my fault. Irving Berlin’s song “Heaven, I’m in Heaven” looped around my head all day. Sward and I began the day with the Marriott’s incredible concierge breakfast, full of cream cheese and bagels and more Brie. Then, we worked out and enjoyed the whirlpool and pool. It was a “heavenly” day, but no need to go so far as to sing a Berlin song all day – and unfortunately for Sward, out loud a bunch of times. At 3:00, however, it was time to check out, leave Fantasyland and head back out to the real world.

From the hotel, I had the cab take a spin down Masaryk, not exactly the “real world” as we passed all of the disgustingly overpriced stores; that are empty every time I pass by. We spent the night in Coyoacán, much more my style, “down to earth”, enjoying dinner at my favorite restaurant, El Mesón Santa Catarina.

Saturday’s Tae Bo workout with Colorado was cheesier than all of the previous events put together. First, he was wearing face paint, as if he were in combat or something. After each of the ten “rounds” he stopped, talked and had someone kick or punch the Styrofoam on which was written the round’s number. A couple of times he said, “We are family” and even gave out towels on which that phrase was stitched.

Later that morning, we finally made it to Sanborn’s where the “molletes” – a “bolillo” (roll) with beans and cheese melted on top – were as incredible as Sward remembered from when she was here four years ago. From there we walked all over San Angel’s cobblestone streets, browsed the markets and Sward found a beautiful blue and white ceramic serving bowl for her mom. We had appetizers at San Angel Inn and returned to Coyoacán where we had “queso fundido” (melted cheese) and cervezas.

That evening we walked around Coyoacán’s weekend market area and made it to the quesadilla stand area for “elote,” corn that was barbequed, cut in a cup and topped with lime, salt, mayonnaise, cheese and a little chile powder. Then, we bought a giant cup of “horchata,” rice water that was made with oats and cinnamon; it was the tastiest I have ever had.

Sunday morning we had breakfast at Las Lupitas where Sward had another version of molletes. We returned to the quesadilla stands for another round of “horchata,” unfortunately it only tasted like chocolate milk this time around. Unfortunately, when 12:00 rolled around it was time to redirect to the airport; at least the Traffic Gods were looking out for us as we zoomed the whole way there, avoiding any traffic – quite unusual for Mexico City.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Making Your Way in the World Today Takes Everything You Got

To see photos from the Wednesday tianguis in Iztapalapa, click on the title of today's entry, or copy and paste the following site into your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum50.html
On Wednesdays, while on the metro approaching the Acatitla station, where I disembark for school, I can see the action stirring all along the main road, Ignacio Zaragoza. The commotion is because of the Wednesday “tianguis” – the stands that make up a vast outdoors market. When the train comes to a stop, I clamber up the yellow, steel stairs and while looking straight forward, walk across the bridge that lies above the busy street below. When I reach the other side, before going down the stairs, I look out and locate the “bicitaxis” that I have quickly learned I have to place before making it to street-level. Once I am sucked into the market it’s hard to tell in which way I am walking, as if I’m stuck in a maze and then am pushed and pulled and turned around like I’m trying to make my way through a car wash.

The first time that I left school on a Wednesday I attempted to reach the metro by penetrating the market. After walking for about a half hour I realized I had no idea where I was. I looked towards the sky to try and find the metro’s yellow platform; but I couldn’t see it. Once I emerged from the grasp of the market, I found a “bicitaxi” that I took all the way (around the corner) back to the metro.

Now I know that if I want to make it to school on time on a Wednesday, I need to leave home a bit earlier than usual. In the “tianguis” today, I encountered a new obstacle – a parrot. In a spot that was difficult to pass by, the bird was sitting on a man’s shoulder. A lady approached them and asked if the bird bites. The man said, “Yes, he does.” With that, the lady reached her hand out to the bird, which in turn went berserk. It started flying overhead, fluttering in circles, then back and forth, all while squawking relentlessly. A couple of feet ahead I saw the light, the outskirts of the market, and with the force of a lineman pushed my way towards safety.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Boy with the Golden Smile

Last week was a disaster for Luis; he made it into the blog a couple of times. The week started well enough, but the second day, as you may recall, I didn’t allow him to enter class. Then, on the third day, he didn’t last very long after entering class.

Today, the first class of the week for Luis, was very different. He didn’t speak in the hallway and, once in the classroom, he worked diligently. He seemed very motivated to finish his pen-pal letter today – the last day that I would accept them. He was excited to tell his pen pal about his favorite musical group, Queen, and have me write the titles of his favorite songs from the group.

At the end of class, Luis was one of the last students to leave. His pen-pal letter was complete, but he wanted to take it home to add drawings. As he stood by my desk waiting for the letter, I commented, “Your behavior was perfect today.” Instantly, he was beaming. His smile was so genuine and joyful. When I close my eyes and picture Luis at that moment, the corners of my mouth instinctively curl upwards as I think about how he looked so proud and full of confidence.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

It’s a Good To Be Alive Day

On bright, sunny days, when the sky was blue and she was enjoying her company, my Grandma Ruth used to exclaim, “It’s a good to be alive day!” All day today I kept saying that to myself.

Beginning with springing out of bed (after hitting the snooze button about five times) at 9:15, eating a bowl of cereal – Banana Nut Crunch – and a cup of hot green tea and fast walking over to the health club. I made it there for the THIRD time this week! Today’s Tae Bo class was quite challenging, much harder than the video. After twenty minutes I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it an hour. One guy did leave early, and I told myself I had to make it thirty minutes. I stayed the whole hour and felt great afterwards; it’s always that way.

When I left the health club I walked a couple of feet and ordered a cup of mandarin juice. The guy sliced open a bunch of mandarins and squeezed them using an industrial size, steel juicer that took both hands to operate. I walked around for over an hour, and bought many games of “lotería” (bingo) for my students back in Chicago, my favorite chocolate covered mini-marshmallows and a bunch of DVDs.

I walked to the center of Coyoacán and bought a bolillo at the bakery and next door some Manchego cheese. I hopped in a cab and once I arrived home, I settled in on my sunny patio, in the swing chair. “The Green Mile” was playing on my laptop as I consumed my bread and cheese.

I just dropped off every dry-cleanable piece of clothing I own and a suitcase full of wash and walked back to the center of Coyoacán. I’m sitting in the small restaurant Café Grifaldo, tucked in a corner off of the main plaza and enjoying a tasty, satisfying and refreshing salad – green, crisp lettuce, tomatoes, walnuts and goat cheese.

It has been an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable day – “A Good to Be Alive Day.”

Friday, December 02, 2005

No Means No

TGIF since it’s time for a couple days off, as class was pretty unsatisfying today. The same students who always disturb class were just as trying today, and the handful that work hard each day persevered despite the turmoil. While working to finish her pen pal letter, Maribel asked me how to say, “Soy güera, delgada y alta.” She couldn’t hear my answer, however, with students whistling, making noises that sound like animals and talking. I had to sit down next to her so she could hear me say, “I’m light-skinned, skinny and tall.”

As the students entered the room, Luis pushed Thalia – not very smart, since just yesterday I didn’t let him into class after he couldn’t behave or follow the initial instructions I give in the hallway. So today, I called Luis back out to the hallway to let him know that his pushing was unacceptable and that he already had one strike. Within a couple of minutes, he was pushing Vicki’s desk forward with his feet. And, not long after that, he was doing it again and I sent Vicki to find a “prefecto”.

When the “prefecta” arrived, Luis began pleading with me for another chance. He swore to me that he’d be good, if I just let him stay. He has had a hard time with impulse control so many times before that I can’t allow him to stay, he seemingly can’t seem to stop his bothersome behavior. The purpose of “three strikes and you’re out” is so that the students do have warning before they have to leave the classroom. Many of the students have learned that pleading with me doesn’t make a difference; when I say “no” it means “no” and I don’t change my mind.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Class with Group 1A today was, well, not dull.
* Gerardo was absent today and when I passed his desk to make that note on his card, I couldn’t find his card. I asked the students nearby where it was and a couple tried to say that it was never there. Many don’t seem to understand that the cards are on each student’s desk before class because I put them there and am thus aware of any missing cards. The card reappeared on the desk before the end of the period, but it was vandalized with a permanent black marker. Gerardo’s name was scratched out and replaced with “Pig” and there was an accompanying drawing. On the side with points and comments, it was written “Good job, keep it up you pig.”

At the end of class, when most students had already left, a girl came up to me and told me who the guilty one was. That student caught wind of what she was up to and called out, “______ tu madre.” Well, that earned the student a direct pass, accompanied by me, to talk with the principal. In front of the principal I explained that besides damaging the card, the remark he made to a classmate was cruel. I told him that he had no right to make a classmate feel uncomfortable, and now she surely would be with him in the group. The principal escorted him into the office to call his mother and set up a “citatorio” – discipline meeting with administrator, teacher, student and parent or guardian.

* Miguel and Jissett couldn’t stop looking at and talking to each other during class. I’ve already worked on a seating change for Monday.

* Anllelo must have had ants in his pants, as he couldn’t stay seated.

* Richi, as always, had a bad case of diarrhea of the mouth.

* With ten minutes left in class, I was reviewing one student’s pen-pal letter (yes, we’re STILL working on them) when he let me know that two students were fighting on the other side of the room. I don’t know exactly what happened, but as soon I reached José Francisco (small for his age) he was on his feet with Carlos (quite large for his size) standing behind him. They each predictably accused the other of causing the problem. It became a bit more serious when I saw that José Francisco had a gash in the top of his hand. It was a small puncture wound and there was blood. I went to my desk and found some paper to scribble a note to the principle that read as follows:
José Francisco and Carlos were fighting in class and now José Francisco’s hand is bleeding.
I signed the note and made a line on which the principle was to sign – if the boys decided to bring it to him. I talked with them outside and gave them the note to look over, leaving them the alternative that they could work it out on their own. A couple of minutes later they slipped back in the classroom saying that they were fine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Addicted to Vitamin T

I have become quite fond of, in fact too fond of, Mexico’s Vitamin T: Tacos, Tortas, Tamales and Tostadas. While Kelly and Kelsey were here we enjoyed the best foods that Mexico has to offer, without holding back – deep fried empanadas, cream based soup, churros, chocolate covered marshmallows, ice cream, oh my. After a couple of meals I felt sick after eating too much. Yesterday I could hardly bring myself to eat anything at all and today I enjoyed a big plate of grilled vegetables for lunch. Like Kelly said, I could probably make the next “Supersize Me” movie about what happens after spending six months in Mexico and consuming nothing but Vitamin T. At the end of four months, my pants are tighter and instead of the McGurgles, I’ve got the Turgles.

On the way home today I passed a gym and stopped in to get a schedule and price list. I don’t know why exercising costs so much in Mexico City, but this modest gym costs up to $90 a month – it costs me only a bit more for an entire year at Bally’s! But since I don’t want my heart to completely clog up before I make it home, I will publish my modest commitment right here. It’s said that if you tell someone your goal or write it down that it’s a lot more likely that you will accomplish it. So, I’ll double my odds and write it down and thus share it with who knows how many people. Tomorrow morning, before school, I will go register at the gym and attend the Spinning class from 7-8 a.m. I will then go to the gym at least three days a week until I leave Mexico on January 21.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


When I’ve administered tests here in Mexico it seems almost impossible for the students to take it without talking to someone. Today I had to administer a math test to one of my groups and I can’t even take a guess at how many times I had to tell them to stop talking. A bunch told me that they didn’t know what something meant, I think expecting me to help them, even though I let them know before they began that I had no idea how to do what was on the exam. I took away from one student a pencil with multiplication tables all over it. I took away two exams from students who couldn’t stop talking to each other; one of those students said that she was just explaining something to her classmate.

I had thought that this “cheating phenomenon” was due to my students’ lack of understanding of what cheating is and the lack of academic integrity the school exerts. I don’t know if the “cheating phenomenon” is more pervasive than I would have hoped or thought, but Andi has told me that the students at the university where she teaches here also talk while taking tests.

I am not so naïve to think that cheating doesn’t occur in the States – I know that it is just as prevalent there; it’s just different. In the States, I have the students face forward when taking tests, so that I can see that their eyes only look at their own exam. I walk around and make sure there aren’t any inappropriate papers on their desks or on the floor or writing on hands, arms, shoes or wherever else they can think of to conceal answers. In the States, I often have to give different versions of tests since the students tell each other what’s on the exam. Academic integrity is a grey line for students on both sides of the border, and beyond. While the offense is the same, the motives differ: The pressure to succeed drives students to cheat in Wilmette, while in Iztapalapa, it’s more likely that a lack of understanding what is on an exam pushes students to ask one another for help while taking a test. The difference of motives goes far beyond cheating, this is a great cultural difference. In the U.S. people are fixated on the future, while in Mexico, people are more stuck on the immediate.

The Long Goodbye

It was actually a short goodbye this morning to Kelly and Kelsey, since I felt like I was still asleep until about an hour after I left them at the airport. I couldn’t remain in my fatigued state for long; I had a full day ahead of me. Upon leaving the airport I first boarded the yellow line of the metro, took it one stop and transferred to the green line, took that for three stops and changed over to the pink line that I took to the final exit, Observatorio. I then took a “pesero” for about 5 minutes to the ABC Hospital that is right next to The American School, my final destination.

At the Fulbright anniversary party I was invited to play softball on Sunday mornings at The American School. I entered the campus and walked across the well-groomed bright green baseball field, dropped my things in the dugout, ran to the outfield and promptly began fielding batting practice. I soon had a great catch to let the guys know that I can play – I was one of two girls there today. It was a completely enjoyable morning, the sun was shining and the players were very friendly, especially since the game was just played for fun during this bye-week. All morning though I felt like my jaw hung, in awe of the school grounds that remind me of privileged, exclusive ones in Chicago like Walter Payton College Prep, Northside, New Trier and Lake Forrest. One team, The Yankees are made up of workers from the U.S. Embassy and its various departments like the DEA (Drug Enforcement), ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and ICE (Immigration and Customs). A couple players from other teams also took part, they work for the Canadian Embassy, two are Fulbrighters, one guy from Madison is in Mexico City teaching third grade and there were more. I was satisfied with my performance, going 2-5 with an RBI and pretty solid defense – minus the one inning I played catcher and the mask slid all the way down and hung around my neck, with my head poking through the straps that are supposed to sit on top of and behind the head. After the game we enjoyed 10 peso beers and cheap tacos at a small, local market.

In the afternoon I went to see a movie, “Camina Sin Mi” (Go Without Me – the original French title is “Va, vis et deviens”), that is part of the Mexico-France Film Festival. The film is based on the Israel and U.S. initiative in 1985, to transport thousands of Ethiopian Jews (Falashas) to Israel. The movie tells the story of a mother who has her son declare that he is Jewish to save him from dying of hunger. A Sephardic French family that lives in Tel-Aviv adopts the boy. He fears that his double secret will be found out: that he is neither Jewish nor an orphan. The movie spans about 10 years, during which the boy truly “becomes” Jewish and finds love, but also faces racism and war in the occupied territories – but he never forgets his mother. The subtitles were in Spanish and the audio shifted between French, Hebrew and an African language. The movie, one of the best I have ever seen, is a fascinating true story and the fictional one is well developed and also captivating.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Another Full Day

PHOTOS of our day can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum46.html

We began the day with a breakfast buffet in San Angel. The restaurant is called Bazar Sábado, it’s in a plaza in the center of a square building that houses the Bazar Sábado, tons of tiny “locales” that each sell a type of art – jewelry and ceramics are most common. The buffet had all Mexican specialties like chilaquiles, sopes, quesadillas, pan dulce, tamales, hot cakes. I enjoyed the fruit and cottage cheese and to drink there was atole, café de olla and fresh waters – we all had the Jamaica (hibiscus). Kelsey and I enjoyed the breakfast so much that we suffered for a while afterwards.

Despite our stomach pains, we pushed on, exploring the outdoor market full of jewelry and all types of art. Finally we explored the art on display throughout the Plaza San Jacinto. It’s top quality art that would cost much more outside the country.

We found a 20 year-old self-trained artist with amazing works on display. His art is decoupage and he uses both acrylic and oil paints and varnish for a glossy finish. Kelsey fell in love with one and after negotiating for a while, leaving and then returning we had the price lowered by $100 U.S. dollars. The work is beautiful and unique - you can see it in the attached photo.

Later, we crept along in the metro to the southernmost part of Mexico City, Xochimilco. Without a doubt, our efforts were worth it. The last time I had been to Xochimilco, with the Fulbright group, we went during the day and took off from a very busy pier. From the time that Kelly, Kelsey and I exited the metro there were people on the sidewalks directing us to the boating dock, little man on a bicycle appeared every couple of minutes to tell us where we should turn and there were signs posted too. The man on the bike even showed up after we stopped at a little store to buy some cokes and after we stopped to use the bathroom. The bathrooms were very close to the pier, in a neighboring home – more correctly, outside of the home. There was an older woman in the entrance, collecting two pesos and distributing toilet paper, while her husband watched television on the patio. The five toilets, three for women and two for men, had shower curtains for doors.

The dock from which we set off was very quiet, but there are nine different ones that are spread throughout the area. It was a great time and going at night gave a distinct feeling of tranquility. As Karina had warned would be present going later in the day, there were many of boats full of drunken teenagers; one was even puking over the side. But those boats weren’t bothersome, too frequent or too loud. Many boats passed by with vendors aboard. For 10 pesos we bought a candle, a long white one in a plastic bottle – it helped a lot when we later ate, so that we could see our food that would otherwise be hidden in the pitch black. We had a boat with a mariachi band aboard play three songs for us for 200 pesos. First, I requested “Mariachi Loco” – I love how they turn around and shake their butts. Then they played “La Bamba” and finally, “Guadalajara.”

As soon as the mariachis drifted away, I flagged down a boat with a couple and their eleven-year old daughter who would cook dinner for us for 100 pesos each. Kelly and Kelsey had enchiladas and I had skirt steak, all accompanied by rice, beans and tortillas. We washed our meal down with cervezas, also bought from a vendor floating by. Kelsey liked the Christmas edition beer, Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). The hour and a half ride (450 pesos, plus 50 more for our oarsman’s tip) was so much fun and full of music and food.

We inched back to Coyoacán in a “pesero,” but made it back to the central area in time to see the weekend market. Most of the stands stay open until 10 PM and sell t-shirts, jewelry, purses, journals, toys, incense and much more.

In just three days, Kelly and Kelsey saw so much of what Mexico City has to offer – plenty remains, however, for their next visit.

Friday, November 25, 2005

To the Moon!

PHOTOS of our day can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser:

PHOTOS of our day can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser:
Since we were headed to the moon (Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacán) this afternoon, we first enjoyed a hearty breakfast at El Cardenal, in the Historical Center. I started with grapefruit juice, Kelsey had orange and Kelly had celery/pineapple that she thought tasted like a Waldorf salad, in a good way. Kelly and I had their infamous hot chocolate and Kelsey had some coffee. After pouring the hot beverages, the waiter served sweet bread that was soft, hot and fresh from the oven. I enjoyed sunny-side up eggs and tortilla chips with amazing refried beans. Kelly was adventurous ordering an omelet with “flor de calabaza” (pumpkin flower). Kelsey had a traditional Mexican breakfast dish, Chilaquiles that is tortilla chips in a chile gravy with cheese on top and this one had chicken. The service was fantastic as always - Andi’s roommate David is a manager there and the restaurant is his family’s; his grandma’s face is on the menu and chocolates.

With our bellies bloated, we wobbled back to the metro. Along the way we checked out the Christmas decorations on the buildings in the main plaza (it’s hard to tell exactly what their made of, maybe sequins). The expedition through the metro took awhile, transferring from the blue line to the yellow line to the olive green line where we disembarked at the North Central Bus Station. From there we bought tickets, 25 pesos each, to Teotihuacán and slept for the next hour.

I awoke instantly and jumped to my feet when Kelsey smacked my shoulder and exclaimed, “We’re here!” The rest of the passengers were still seated, so I kept asking, to no one in particular, “¿Las pirámides?” We exited the bus onto a dirt road in the middle of nowhere just as a mass of sheep was herded by. Then the bus driver told us to get into a cab, I’m not even sure if it was marked, and there was already a young French couple in the back seat, but it took only a couple of minutes to reach the pyramids. Once we passed through the main gate and walked across the parking lot, we were lured to the tiny stores that stretch to the visitors’ center, where the ruins then lie on the other side. The stores are full of jewelry, books, t-shirts and trinkets - each of us found something to buy. Kelly came across a cool ring, as did I, along with a set of earrings and a bracelet; I bought the same set for Faye for Hanukkah. Kelsey bought a cool silver bracelet that looks like little skulls – it’s much more beautiful than I can describe.

As we passed through the visitors’ center, we stepped centuries back in time - the structures were built between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250, housed more than 200,000 people and made up the biggest and most advanced city in the Western Hemisphere. I think it’s eerie that no one knows exactly who built the city of Teotihuacán or who lived there during those hundreds of years. The area was deserted and set afire around A.D. 750. No one moved back into the neighborhood until A.D. 1200 when the Aztecs used Teotihuacán as a pilgrimage center; they believed that the sun, moon and universe were created here. The Aztecs gave the place its name, Teotihuacán, “place were gods are born.”

This is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico and is among the world’s most researched and excavated archaeological sites. It is a national icon and major center of tourism, but government backing has been wavering and commercial exploitation of Teotihuacán has been ongoing. The ruins are a World Heritage Site and are on the list of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments.

Our journey began on the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) that stretches from the visitors’ center to the Pyramid of the Moon – about two miles long, and it’s actually about half the length of when the city was in its prime. The Aztecs gave the walkway its name, evidently thinking that the structures lining the walkway held the graves of giants who had died and become gods. Along the way we passed the Pyramid of the Sun, one of the biggest, most impressive pyramids in the world. It now measures 740 feet on each side and almost 230 feet in height.

At the end of the Avenue of the Dead lays the Pyramid of the Moon, which was one of the main ritual parts of the city. This pyramid was built later than the other important monuments in the city, it’s 151 feet high and not as steep a climb as the Pyramid of the Sun. When you’re trying to descend the Pyramid of the Moon, it’s hard to imagine one even steeper.

After our major hiking, we returned to Coyoacán starving and headed straight for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Mesón Santa Catarina; I took mom and dad there too. We shared fantastic sopes and I had the Sopa Azteca (tortilla soup), with a bunch of limes. I was skeptical when Kelsey ordered a shrimp dish, but it was amazing! Kelly enjoyed the carne asada and I had steak tacos. After dinner, we walked to the main plaza and took advantage of the restrooms in Sanborns. While there, I picked out some chocolates to have Kelly and Kelsey bring back to the teachers at WJHS – I hope they made it to the teachers’ lounge as Kelly and Kelsey were eyeing the chocolate covered marzipan. Then, I bought some chocolate covered marshmallows there and Kelly and Kelsey had freshly made churros from a cart on the sidewalk.

We ended the night at El Jarocho's, a café that's been around for over 50 years! They have the world's best hot chocolate, it has a perfect touch of cinnamon. It was so good, but put us over the edge so that we all felt sick by the time we got home.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

We Did All That in One Day!

PHOTOS of our epic day can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser:

To visit my school this morning, Kelly and Kelsey endured the three different line metro trip to school. From the final metro stop to school, they enjoyed the short ride in the bicitaxi. It was a tremendous help having them in my classroom given that they helped students correct their pen-pal letters. It’s obviously overwhelming when twenty-seven students need constant help and attention and reassurance; it was such a relief to be able to delegate the responsibility.

The students were very excited to meet Kelly and Kelsey, and many of them asked if we were sisters. This seemed really strange to us since we don’t look alike at all – unless you only notice our light-colored skin.

During “descanso” we purchased cups of jicama from the Fruit Lady and she doused them with lime. Kelsey was brave enough to have chile powder sprinkled on the top on her cup. Once students returned to class, with the assistant principal’s permission, we went across the street to buy some Cokes. The lady who sells tacos each day, Taco Lady, was still in the courtyard when we returned, so we helped lessen her load for the way home. Then, we walked over to the P.E. class and Kelsey schooled some students in the art of shooting a basket.

After school we hopped on the metro and took it west to Condesa to the Russian empanada stand. I introduced Kelly and Kelsey to the tastiest, fluffiest empanadas that exist. We each had two “meal” ones and then a sweet one for dessert. Kelly had one filled with “flor de calabaza” (pumpkin/squash flower), Kelsey enjoyed the “tinga de pollo,” strips of spicy chicken strips and I ate one with mushrooms and cheese. For dessert, Kelly savored an empanada filled with blackberry and cream cheese, while Kelsey and I relished our empanadas that were filled with chocolate and cream cheese. These empanadas are so heavenly, but just as fatty, so I’ll steer clear of that street corner for a while.

From Condesa, we continued northwest on the metro to Polanco, where we took a necessary walk after our decadent lunch. We strolled along the avenue Masaryk, the richest street in Mexico that is often compared to Rodeo Drive. Off of Masaryk we found an Italian restaurant, Capri, with an outdoor terrace on the second floor. Kelly and Kelsey enjoyed the best margaritas they’ve ever had, while I refreshed with a cold Negra Modelo.

On the way to hail a cab back to my apartment, we passed a bunch of cows – from the art exhibit Cows on Parade. While in the taxi, we saw even more of the sculptures all along the road Reforma and even saw where the official opening was taking place in front of the Anthropology Museum.

Later on we went to San Angel Inn for dinner, where they interestingly had a special meal for Thanksgiving. We took a seat on a couch in the courtyard and had a drink while waiting for our table. Not long after, we were invited to join a guy and a bunch of his friends, who all spoke English pretty well. Besides drinks, they treated us to delicious duck, scrumptious steak tacos and delectable crepes stuffed with huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn). When our table was finally ready, we just had the menus brought to us. Kelsey had the Sopa Azteca (tortilla soup) and Kelly and I had the lobster bisque. We had a great time and enjoyed the food and drinks, especially since we didn’t pay a single centavo.

Our long day ended at Mamá Rumba, a Cuban salsa club in Condesa (I forgot there’s one right in San Angel). While Kelsey and I took salsa dance lessons in Chicago back in June, I dropped out after a couple of weeks and therefore was perfectly happy tonight to just watch Kelsey dance the night away.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


PHOTOS from the field trip can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser: http://homepage.mac.com/rachelsair/fulbright/PhotoAlbum47.html

At 9:20 AM I stood below one of the largest Mexican flags in the country, right in the middle of the Zócalo (main plaza) in the Centro Histórico. There I waited for Luis, the art teacher who was taking his classes on a field trip to see the murals at the Museum that is the former Colegio San Ildefonso. As soon as Luis appeared, we walked back to where the busload of 80 students was sitting outside of the museum. Considering the ride from school took about an hour and a half and the students then had to wait another half hour inside of the museum before the tour began, they were extremely well behaved. There was a change in plans, however, as the guides didn’t spend time showing the murals, instead leading us through the temporary exhibit on the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta.

Everything happens for a reason, and this tour turned out to be a fantastic experience.
Legoretta, born in Mexico City in 1931, has enjoyed a 50-year career and on display was a selection of 72 projects in 16 exhibition halls. All illustrated Legorreta's genuine passion for his profession and his profound love for Mexican life and culture. As was my experience, even those who do not recognize his name will recognize his work, many of which were completed abroad, including housing at the University of Illinois Chicago. Legoretta used colors to emphasize different planes, manipulating light to make changes at different times of the day, and is known for his use of water, walls and light-filled spaces.

After the tour the students took part in a workshop to design their own space using foam sheets and a cardboard base. I was quite impressed with how unique each looked and the creativity and effort the students applied to the project.

Besides learning about Legoretta’s architectural prowess, I hope that the students noticed some of his quotes posted on walls throughout the exhibit. One reads, "In the midst of everything, awards and recognition, the true satisfaction of the architect is to go to a building and see that the people are happy. What good is it if you created something that doesn't work?" Legoretta believed in designing his buildings and living his life with passion.

Additional information about this exhibit can be found at: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/miami/15710.html

Monday, November 21, 2005

What Would You Do For a Bag of Candy Corn?

I’ve written about Robby before, he has been a difficult student since the beginning of the year. Just two weeks ago during class he was hanging from the door and pressing his face against the window. If he attended a school in Wilmette, the ease with which he learns and his curiosity would probably have landed him the “gifted” label years ago. Here, he’s known as an instigator and a distracter, someone who constantly calls out and bothers classmates.

For Halloween I brought in candy corn for the students to enjoy. I dumped it in a plastic pumpkin and stuck in a plastic spoon to aid portion control – it didn’t work out too well. Some students, like Robby, horded the candy in their shirts and pockets while others just threw it across the room. As a result, I was stuck with five extra bags of candy since I didn’t want to risk the same results with the other groups. A couple of weeks after that incident, Robby stopped to talk with me after class. He asked where I had bought the candy and how much it cost. He asked if I could buy it for him and said he would pay me for it.

Last week I brought one of the leftover bags of candy to school. That day I asked Robby to stay after class and let him know that I noticed that he had had a good day and hadn’t lost a single point. I continued that if he could go a whole week without losing a single point, I would give him the whole bag of candy corn. I’m sure some will be disappointed and disillusioned (since so many expect teachers to believe wholeheartedly in every single student) to find out that I really doubted that he could do it; I was ecstatic to be proved wrong.

At the end of class today Robby came up to my desk with a proud smile and politely reminded me of our deal: He testified that a week had passed and he hadn’t lost a point. I gladly handed over the bag of candy and asked him to keep it our little secret. It says “Great Value” on the bag of candy corn – who knew how “great” the value really was! If someone had told me that if I bought a bag of candy for $3, I could have a week of calm in class, of course I would do it! When I was reviewing the students’ point cards this afternoon, I was further astounded that Robby is a “Star of the Week,” having improved since last week by an unprecedented 14 points.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Tortilla Soup and Teaching, What Are They Missing?

Tortilla soup: Its sweet, spicy broth and crunchy tortilla chips always have a good flavor. It’s missing something though, that it could be a lot better and it hits me – I need limes! As soon as the lime’s juice hits the broth and I mix them together, the taste becomes, as it should be. Limes make everything taste better – beer, soup, meat, chicken, potatoes (in all forms – fries, chips), peanuts . . .

As my teaching experience continues to improve, on multiple occasions now I have had good classes and good days. While this is uplifting, it’s not good enough – it’s tortilla soup without the lime.

At Wilmette Junior High I feel alive when I’m teaching, full of energy and at the top of my game. Here, at best, I have felt in control and in command. Here, it’s almost impossible to get the students back on track when I do try to have fun, make my students laugh, get them involved and engage them beyond copying information or looking it up in a dictionary. Today, it all clicked. I didn’t even realize I had been missing “the fun” until after school, when I was going to meet Andi and was excited to tell her about how great my day was.

Class was so enjoyable for me today because my students saw me in a new light, that I want to take the time to find out about them and that we can joke around. I referred to the small U.S. map that’s posted on the wall and pointed out where their family members live; almost all have a relative in the States. On my way back to the front of the room I spotted one student’s backpack sprawled in the middle of the aisle. Rather than just ask him to move it to the side, I used my superb physical comedy skills and acted as if I tripped over it. It seems like it’s taken a while to get to this point, but it could never have been accomplished without discipline in place first. Now that the basics are taken care of, the fun can begin.