Monday, October 31, 2005

Preparing for Day of the Dead

Click on the title of today’s entry or paste the following site into your browser:

Can I Have A Coke?

Andi and I met in the center of Coyoacán today and decided to have lunch at one of the stands set up for the Day of the Dead festivities. They are identical to the ones that were set up for Independence Day, just fewer of them now. We settled on one where an old lady was working along with probably her daughter and grandson. While we sat on the white, wooden benches we watched the older woman, short with leathered, tan skin, a fluff of grayish, whitish hair emerging from her nostrils and her grey hair pulled back, continuously chop white onions, without shedding a tear.

We each ordered a “sope.” These weren’t anything like traditional “sopes” that are usually a very small but thick circle of fried masa, curled up on the edges and topped with beans, cheese and other desired ingredients. The ones we received were more like tostadas and when I folded mine in half it then became more like a quesadilla.

Two young boys, wielding small plastic pumpkins approached Andi and me and asked, “¿Me da mi calavarita?” - the Mexico City version of “Trick or Treat.” I didn’t have any change but Andi tossed a couple of pesos into the bucket. Then the little guy, probably five or six years old, quietly asked, “Will you buy me a Pozole (bowl of soup)?” So, we bought a bowl of Pozole for him and another for his brother. When the little guy asked for a Coke, I asked, "Wouldn’t you like some juice?" The two boys devoured the Pozole and sucked down their bottles of orange drink.

After lunch, I wandered around the plaza and saw the “ofrenda” that the local artists were working on and another inside a school. Many children were in costume, toting pumpkins to collect pesos and candies. The area was full of life as the community was preparing to celebrate death.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Don’t Make Me Go

Just weeks ago I didn’t know how I was going to make it here for another three months. Now, I don’t know how I’m going to return home. During my other three programs in Mexico and on the various vacations here I have always felt comfortable, relaxed, welcome and at home; I finally feel that again. Therein lies the conflict – I feel at home here in Mexico and yet my home is Chicago, but I can’t imagine how I’ll readjust to my “home.”

I am in love with my apartment, its location to the metro and buses and its proximity to the center of Coyoacán. I have mastered the metro system; I hardly have to glance at the signs, if at all, to know my way around. I remember thinking that I’d never learn the bus systems, but now I can hop on and off without worrying too much if I’m on the right one. For the first month I detested having to “hop” off the back of the bus, as it never completely stops. Now, it’s instinctual to disembark this way. At first I feared for my life when crossing streets. Now, I cross confidently, however, still cautiously but I don’t even have to wait for a Mexican to shadow across the street.

I don’t want to give up my fresh squeezed orange juice on the way to school, getting fresh cut fruit from the “Fruit Lady” at recess, cheap movies on Wednesdays, two for one rentals on Tuesdays, a city that constantly offers exhibitions, theater, concerts, sports and anything else that one may be interested in.

Mostly, I don’t want to give up my students here. I have molded them for three months and they will continue to shape up for the next three. I don’t want to then walk out on them, leave them behind like so many others have done in their lives. I want to see the amazing results that they can achieve over an entire school year and I especially want them to understand what they are capable of.

I have spent the past three months getting accustomed to the Mexican (or better – Mexico City) culture. When the “Fruit Lady” asked me today, “¿Has acostumbrado?” (Are you used to everything now?) I didn’t hesitate before responding, “Sí.” After another three months I can’t imagine how much more integrated I will be. And then, I leave here on a Saturday in January and begin teaching in Wilmette on that Monday – I can’t even conceive of that frenzied change.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Fine Art

The day began with another scrumptious bagel, with its outside toasted to a crisp, the inside remaining soft, smothered with full fat cream cheese and washed down with a fresh glass of orange juice. Mom let me know that while she and dad have to leave at 7:40 AM tomorrow to make their flight, I can stay in the hotel room until 2:00 PM. I think I may have to be physically removed from the hotel tomorrow! The bed is entirely too comfortable and the wireless Internet entirely too convenient.

For the third day in a row, my parents bravely went two floors underground to board the metro’s orange line. Today, we disembarked at Barranca del Muerto, the last stop on the line’s south end, and continued by taxi to Plaza Jacinto, in the heart of San Angel. San Angel is very similar to Coyoacán for its colonial charm. On Saturdays, artists display their paintings, sculpture and other works throughout the plaza. I fell in love with one artist’s paintings of Mexican kitchens that are brightly colored and extremely detailed, even using miniature tiles to accent the counters – I bought two for $300 pesos total. Then I gravitated towards some vibrant oil paintings of vases full of flowers. I held off the first time I passed them by; I had a hard time picturing something so nice in an apartment. When I returned a bit later, I just couldn’t resist. The artist asked how much I wanted to pay, why do people ask that? He escorted me to the ATM to “protect” me and I forked over $1100 pesos and quickly owed an incredible piece of art – I don’t even currently have a home in which I can put it.

Next, we ventured over to an outdoor market area, with all of the stalls covered by white tents. At those stands you can find ANYTHING: flower pots, rock gardens, wood puzzles, jewelry, trinkets and items for The Day of the Dead and there’s even a stand with old cameras and an oxygen mask. I bought two flowerpots for my mom, to add to the two she bought the other day. They are magnificent, shiny royal blue ceramic pots with sunflowers on one and calla lilies on the other.

Next we were lured across the street from Plaza Jacinto, to the Bazar Sábado – one of the finest art and craft markets in Mexico set in a 17th-century red stone building. The two-story building is divided into little shop areas, with handcrafted items like jewelry, pottery, leather and clothing. The interior of the building is an open courtyard patio that looks like a relaxing spot for a snack.

Just before two o’clock we journeyed across the cobblestone streets to meet up with Andi and enjoy an exquisite lunch at San Angel Inn. This restaurant has one of the most interesting histories: built in the 17th century as a lavish Carmelite monastery, later home to Spanish viceroys – and, briefly, Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota. Guests of the Inn have included, during the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Today it’s a restaurant only, whose food is of the highest quality. Andi and I were probably most excited about the plate of vegetables on the table, carrots, celery, cucumbers, oh my! We don’t often have vegetables; rather, fruit is so readily available that we consume it multiple times a day. Besides the vegetables, we devoured lobster bisque, my dad had the sopa Azteca (tortilla soup), then both my mom and dad enjoyed whole red snappers, I had the Arrachera and Andi had an interesting shrimp dish.

After a truly enjoyable lunch, we crossed the street to go to the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera. This is where Rivera lived and worked and did so for a while with his wife Frida Kahlo. The first floor featured a temporary exhibit of the photography of a friend of Rivera’s, Beatrice Kolko. The photos are revealing and moving, showing daily life throughout Mexico, when they were taken during the 1960s. The upper floor is arranged as it might have looked when Rivera was still living there, complete with unfinished paintings on easels and his shirt lying on his bed. It was so cool remembering scenes from the movie Frida (staring Salma Hayek) that took place in this house. It was fascinating to see the walkway connecting Diego and Frida’s separate parts of the house. Most striking was the modernity of the house, built in 1928, set in a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and mansions dating back centuries.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Marathon Day

PHOTOS of my day with Mom and Dad at school and throughout the day can be viewed by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following address into your browser:

Mom and Dad came with me to school today. First they experienced the hour-plus daily commute on the metro. It was easy to get started from the Auditorio stop, a short walk from the hotel. After exiting at the Acatitla stop, we squeezed into a “bicitaxi” and I asked the driver to take it easy over the speed bumps – there are more than five along the five-minute route. I’ve come to expect feeling my brain hit the top of my skull each time we fly over the speed bump and then crash land.

At school I introduced mom and dad to many of the teachers and they became quite skilled at saying “mucho gusto” (nice to meet you). The principal invited us to sit, I declined as I needed to put my things away before recess began, and I wasn’t quite sure what we would talk about, or more precisely how we would talk – my parents don’t speak Spanish and the principal doesn’t speak English.

Recess was so much fun, the students swarmed around my parents. My dad was a big hit; I can’t stop smiling as I picture him encircled by a bunch of twelve year old boys who walked with his every step, trying to talk to him, not paying any attention to the language barrier. My mom told me of one boy who tried to get her phone number.

After recess, we went up to the theater where a number of students are working on an “ofrenda”. And then it was time for class. The first period was touch and go, I didn’t want to rock the boat so I didn’t even introduce my parents to them. Complete opposite situation with the next group. Everyone wanted to talk to my parents so I said that they would walk up and down the rows and stop at each student’s desk. My mom also helped by writing words on the board that I called out to her, when students would ask me how to say something in English. One student came up to me and asked how to say “pyramids,” she wrote it on her arm and returned to my dad and asked him, “Do you like pyramids?”

After school my mom, dad and I took the metro to the Zócalo, the center of the Historic Center and walked to have lunch at El Cardenal. Andi met us there, her roommate David is a manager there; it’s his family’s restaurant. David was awesome and had us seated right away, in a nice, quiet area. The restaurant has many floors in an elegant setting; the food is first-rate while its prices are very reasonable.

After a short rest back at the hotel, we took a taxi to Ada and Jane’s houses and enjoyed Shabbat dinner there. We all meshed so well, it was like being with old friends. It’s so cool to me the universality that Judaism is – regardless of where you are in the world; the blessings, traditions and foods (some) remain unchanged.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


PHOTOS of my day with Mom and Dad in Chapultepec Park. Click on the title of today’s entry or paste the following address into your browser:

We used the walkway to the Auditorio metro to cross below the main thoroughfare of Reforma and begin our stroll around Chapultepec Park. First we checked out the interesting sculptures in front of the Auditorio Nacional – a setting for concerts and shows of all types. I went to the box office to buy Ricky Martin tickets for the concert on November 15, but they were sold-out a week before.

By walking around the Auditorium and the street behind, we passed many small cultural centers for dance and theater and food vendors where the students gather to eat. Next to one vendor there was a baby girl in a warm pink outfit, holding a rattle, looking up, expressionless and sitting in a cardboard box, next to a basket full of dirty dishes. Down the sidewalk, there was a boy, about 3 or 4 years old, sitting against the wall, drinking a bottle of Coke and looking up at the older students eating around the nearby stand.

When we completed circling the Auditorium, and walked along one of the lakes, we soon stumbled upon one small gallery with string art, then another with a display of brilliantly colored photos of flowers. In the area in between the two, artists were assembling some papier-mache figures and an “ofrenda” for Day of the Dead.

The park is humungous, 2100 acres, and is divided into three sections; we took a miniature train ride around the first part. After bouncing along the route, our backs ached but we cautiously climbed the hill in another trolley to reach the national history museum, Castillo de Chapultepec that has an extensive 220-year history.

Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez built the neo-classic castle on top of a hill in 1785, clearly with defensive considerations. When the castle housed the nation’s military college, it was the last, but ultimately unsuccessful, stronghold of defense against the U.S. Army during its 1847 invasion of Mexico City. Later, Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota lived there in 1866 and tried to re-create a little corner of Europe by spending money on its luxurious salons, flowered terraces and rooftop garden. Soon after, after it became the presidential residence, beginning with President Porfirio Diaz in 1876. In 1939 the castle became a national history museum when President Lázaro Cárdenas disliked the elaborate palace and moved to the more modest residence of Los Pinos.

Today, visitors to the Castillo can view the former living quarters of Maximilian and Díaz, filled with 19th-century furniture, artwork and musical instruments. Another part of the castle houses a museum recounting the nation’s unstable history between conquest and Revolution. An extensive collection of artifacts, documents and paintings of modern Mexican history is displayed in 20 rooms on two floors. There are murals by Juan O’Gorman (of Mexican history), Davíd Alfaro Siquieros (of Revolutionary leaders) and José Clemente Orozco (of Benito Juárez).

We didn’t make it to the third section of the park that is the newest, added only in the 1970s as the city expanded to the west. Besides a few picnic tables by the roadside, it’s full of ravines, meadows, patches of forest and a few caves.

The second section is where we had lunch. From the Castillo, we walked back to the main street Reforma and took a taxi to the restaurant. This part of the park has a children’s museum, complete with an IMAX theater, an amusement park and two upscale restaurants. We ate lunch at Café del Bosque where we had a view of one of the lakes. While the lake is terribly dirty looking, with the soot sitting on top, swimming by are ducks with brilliant white feathers. I couldn’t help but think of these ducks as an example of how one can shine, no matter the environment in which it lives.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


PHOTOS can be viewed by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into your browser:

I awoke this morning in the world’s most comfortable bed, took a shower with HOT water and strong water pressure and then met mom and dad at the concierge breakfast buffet, that was the best one we’ve ever had. I was excited to have a bagel and cream cheese, not too common in Mexico. Then, we went to the lobby where I handed my parents off to Martha, one of Elisa’s good friends here in D.F. Martha acted as their tour guide and Elisa’s brother, Luis, was their driver.

Martha gave them a tour of the historical downtown area – El Centro Histórico has as its center the main plaza, (El Zócalo - the second-largest public plaza in the world after Red Square in Moscow), and the Templo Mayor (the holiest shrine in Tenochtitlán – now Mexico City - where the Aztecs did their ritual sacrifices) and the national palace (El Palacio Nacional – originally one of Hernán Cortés’ many residences, the bell that was rung in Guanajuato in 1810 by Father Miguel Hidalgo as he uttered his shout for Mexican independence from Spain, now hangs in the main entrance here).

My mom, an art major and lifelong student and fan of art, was excited to see the Diego Rivera murals in the government building. Between 1929 and 1935 Rivera painted one of his best-known murals on the walls above the palace’s central staircase. Divided into three parts, the mural is Rivera’s vision of Mexican history: Aztec life before the conquest, brutal conquest and colonial era, independence from Spain and the bloody revolution in 1910-20. In the second-floor hallway, the walls are painted with eight mural panels that Rivera worked on these from 1941 to 1952 to illustrate idealized aspects of Mexico’s life before the arrival of Cortés.

Luis then drove them south across town to Coyoacán to see the “ofrendas” on display at the National Cultural Museum. The “ofrendas”, altars for Day of the Dead, are representative of many of the states throughout the country. After school we met in one of my favorite restaurants in the quiet Santa Catarina Plaza in Coyoacán, Mesón Plaza Catarina Antigua. I love their chicken fajitas and after my school day, a nice, cool cerveza was the just the thing.

After lunch Luis took Martha to work, she’s the assistant principal at a secondary school in Coyoacán. Her school is “vespertino” an afternoon one, from 4 – 10 PM. The students’ age range is colossal, from teenagers to grandmothers. Some of these older students finally have the chance to go to school now that they are done raising their families and working to support them. Now they work by day and attend school at night.

After lunch, mom, dad and I squeezed into a bright green beetle taxi and, as the backseat seems to be nothing but cloth over springs, we bounced our way across Coyoacán to the Frida Kahlo museum. The museum is in her family’s famous blue house and now there is a temporary exhibit on Frida’s medical struggles. On display was all of the medicine she took each day – more than an arms’ full – and her crutches and even prosthetic leg.

From there, we walked a couple of blocks to the Coyoacán market, where products for Day of the Dead abounded. There were paper flowers that looked like cempasuchil ones, decorated sugar and chocolate ones and others coated with sesame seeds. There were miniature skeletal figurines dressed to represent people from all walks of life like teachers, doctors, and athletes; there was even one White Sox player.

For the display shelves in my Wilmette classroom, I bought a giant sugar skull, paper flowers, two papier machie figurines and also some popular Mexican dishes like chicken covered with mole sauce. One of the figurines is a puppeteer with his puppet that is also a skeleten, and the other is wearing a black dress and has a black umbrella, like the famous Day of the Dead symbol, La Catrina. José Guadalupe Posada created the Catrina to show that in the end, we all meet the same fate, even the wealthy. You can learn more about Posada at:

Finally, we visited my apartment and then took a taxi all the way back to Polanco. Our driver, Florencio, was very friendly and pointed out the cempasuchil flowers being planted all along Reforma. He said that in December they will be taken out and replaced with poinsettias.

The long day came to a perfect end as mom, dad and I watched the White Sox WIN the World Series!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Never-Ending Night


When I left my apartment to pick up my mom and dad from the airport, Game 3 of the World Series was in the fifth inning, the White Sox had a narrow lead, and I was hoping just to catch the score when we got back from the airport. Since mom and dad had some freakish luck with landing a half hour early, not having to wait for their luggage nor in a line to get checked through customs and finally got the “green light”, we actually arrived to the hotel when the game was in the 8th inning. There was no need to rush to catch the end of the game; it lasted until 1:30 AM and turned out to be the longest one in World Series history – all worthwhile with a White Sox win and playing tomorrow night to WIN the World Series!!!

What’s been going on at school


Grades were due on Friday; yesterday I received them back to redo them. The instructions that I was initially given were to only use whole numbers and that 5 is the lowest (on a scale to 10) that can be assigned. The only information that I have to write on the reports is the number of absences a student had during the marking period, and his grade, 5-10. First, I had to rewrite the grades using black ink, rather than the blue I had initially used. Then, any “5s” had to be written in red ink. The assistant principal gave me these additional directions and added that less than 10% of each group may have a “5” on the grade sheet. I asked what to do since those students had earned that grade based on participation and quiz grades; I was told I needed to find a way to pass them. I returned to my classroom and chose which two students in each group would receive the “5s” and I changed the other “5s” to “6s”.

During my last class of the day the doctor popped in to give the students a note to bring home stating that there would be no classes tomorrow, as it’s a meeting day for teachers. That was the first I heard of the meeting. But now I am in the meeting, with a packet of information and activities to complete today, as mandated by the local educational system of Iztapalapa.

We began the meeting by reading a story in which the main point was that no one takes responsibility, thinking someone else will do so. Discussion ensued, but none involved proposals for how to change this. For the next activity, a debate, the room was divided in two and one side argued that there is violence in the school, while the others had to argue that there isn’t. Time passed as teachers talked about the types of violence that do exist and the roots of these problems – no solutions were discussed.

Next, teachers scrambled to jot down the medical information for students that the doctor read out loud. These conditions include epilepsy, heart problems, asthma and hearing or vision deficits. One of my students also has a kidney condition and therefore needs to use the bathroom whenever he requests - this was the first time I found out about his situation and I almost never allow students to leave the room to use the bathroom.

Students with asthma are in quite the predicament at school – since they are quite expensive to replace, inhalers are left at home for safekeeping. If however a student needs to use an inhaler while at school, there is one in the doctor’s office in an unlocked cabinet. In case the doctor isn’t in his office, there are two others who have a key to his office.

The day concluded with the principal giving a PowerPoint on communication. His main points were that communication takes at least two people and focus. He concluded the 45-minute talk by saying that sometimes we say a lot but it doesn’t mean anything.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Preparing for a Visit to Mexico City

My parents arrive in Mexico City tomorrow evening, so the following is a last minute advisory for them. This will also serve my future guests and anyone who ever plans to visit Mexico City or just wants a little bit of insider info.

As you prepare to land at Mexico City International Benito Juárez Airport expect to receive a form to complete. The flight attendants should have these available in English; if they do not, you can wait until you are in the airport to complete the forms in English.

After disembarking, you will wait in a long line (it often takes up to an hour) and approach an immigration official who will review your passport and form and then give you a slip of paper. It is very important to keep this until you leave the country, otherwise you will have to pay a fee; I always keep it in my passport. As a side note, while in Mexico City you should not carry your passport with you; rather, keep it in a safe place. I do however carry a photocopy of it in my wallet -I assume (I hope correctly) this would help in case I lose the original.

Next, you will gather your luggage. As in most international terminals, carts are available free of charge. As you pass through sliding doors you will be met by another customs agent and a makeshift stoplight. You have to push a button on the light and wait to see if it turns green or red. If it is green, you are free to leave. If it is red your suitcases will be opened and the contents reviewed.

Finally, you will exit through sliding doors and beyond the barriers and rope there will be a mob of Mexicans waiting, waving hands and signs and yelling. At this point you will have to ditch your cart and lug your suitcases through the barriers.

Before leaving the airport, you should either exchange your dollars to pesos or if you didn’t bring much cash, use an ATM. The best exchange rates in the city are usually found in the airport - averaging just over 10.5 pesos to the dollar.

Wear comfortable shoes as you should expect to walk a great deal around the city. In the historical center and a few other places, you can find a “bicitaxi” to take you short distances. Otherwise, it’s a lot more efficient on foot than getting stuck in traffic in a taxi.

Dress in layers. The weather is rather predictable from day to day; however, it changes a great deal throughout the day. The mornings and evenings can be quite cool, while midday is hot in the sun, so be sure to apply sunscreen before leaving for the day. In the fall, the temperature ranges (in Fahrenheit) from the upper 40s to the mid 70s throughout the day. I wear pants each day and usually a long sleeve shirt and I begin and end the day wearing a sweater or jacket. Keep in mind that hardly anyone in D.F. wears shorts.

* Toilet paper
- While on the subject toilet paper, we should talk toilets too. Be aware that in Mexico, you almost always deposit your toilet paper in the waste basket and NOT into the toilet bowl. As strongly as some of you may be reacting right now, the students here in Mexico reacted the same way when I told them that we put the TOILET paper in the TOILET!
* Soap (the waterless kind that you can keep in your purse)
* Change: To make any purchase you should have coins and small bills, 20s or 50s. Most places (small stores or stands on the street) will not have enough change to accept a 200 bill or sometimes even a 100. Larger stores, supermarkets, chains, fast food places are where you can spend your larger bills. Cabbies are some of the worst at carrying change, or claiming that they don’t have any. Occasionally in public areas, like a grocery store, it costs about 3 pesos to use the washroom; however, when you have to pay you are almost always given toilet paper.
* Money: Carry what you think you will need for the day. I carry change and small bills in my pockets, if they are deep enough. Large bills I keep in my bra (others may prefer using a money belt) and I usually have a larger and smaller bill in my wallet. I like to keep the money distributed so in case anything should happen, I’ll still have money somewhere on me to get home.

- It is the fastest way to get around the city and according to many sources, it is the cheapest subway system in the world. A ticket costs 2 pesos, less than 20 cents. To estimate how long it will take to reach your destination, each stop takes about 2 minutes, at least 5 minutes should be allowed to transfer between stations. Finally add about 5 minutes, as trains are prone to stop for unknown reasons.
- Talking safety: Always be sure to have a good grip on the poles and maintain your balance as trains make unpredictable and abrupt stops. Depending on the line and direction, cars are often crammed full and it’s not unusual to see people outside of the cars “helping” to push passengers in so that the doors will close. When I am in the middle of a horde, I support my hand on my hip, leaving my elbow up to guard my space – we Americans are very concerned about maintaining our personal space. The least crowded cars are often the first and last ones. Finally, I hardly ever take the metro after dark.

* WALKING: The advantage to walking is the predictability of the time it takes to reach a destination. However, walking around Mexico City occasionally feels like trying to play a game of hopscotch while intoxicated. It’s important to intermittingly look down – sidewalks are uneven, full of cracks and holes and strewn with excrement from the dogs that wander the streets. I have fallen two times in three months, not too bad but not so comfortable afterwards. When crossing the street it’s wise to wait until you see a native and shadow them across the street. Be extremely attentive and aware of cars coming from any direction, regardless of what the stoplight indicates – pedestrians do NOT have the right of way in Mexico City. There also is no "right of way" on the sidewalks - there is no unwritten rule, like in the U.S., that you walk on the right side. Talk about FREEDOM - Walk where you want!

*TAXIS: Most people have heard or read horror stories of tourists getting in a taxi never to be seen again. I haven’t had a single bad experience with a taxi driver in Mexico City in the last three months. All have been extremely courteous and businesslike, but friendly.
Unlike commonly thought, the color and model don’t determine which taxi one should take – it’s all in the license plate. Look for the letter “L” or “S” at the beginning of the plate; and there should be a license plate on the front and back. “L” means that the taxi is “libre” free to pick up passengers from anywhere. “S” means that the taxi is “sitio” and usually only picks up passengers from an official taxi stand; so don’t be surprised if taxis with license plates beginning with an “S” pass you by. All of these taxis have meters so there is no negotiating on the price. The meters often start at up to 9 pesos. No tip is necessary or expected.

When it is late and/or there aren’t taxis around, you can call for one or have a restaurant or hotel call for one. When calling the dispatcher, you often provide your name and what you look like or what you are wearing. The dispatcher will tell you the color of the car and its number, since they are not marked with any taxi sign nor do they have license plates beginning with any special letters. When the taxi arrives, the driver confirms the passenger's name and then calls the dispatcher to report that they have picked up the customer. These taxis don't have meters, the prices are predetermined based on distance and they are considerably more expensive, often more than double the price of regular ones. Most importantly, however, your safety is just about guaranteed.

* DRIVING: There is no need to rent a car as transportation options abound. Also, Mexico City drivers are aggressive and the rules of the road by which you may abide at home, most likely don’t apply here.

To greet someone, or when walking in or exiting a store, restaurant, etc:
* Hola (o-lah) = Hello/Hi
* Buenos días (bwen-o-ss d-ahs) = Good morning – Use this until noon
* Buenas tardes (bwen-ahs tar-dehs) = Good afternoon – Use this until it’s dark or about 8 PM
* Buenas noches (bwen-ahs no-chays) = Good evening/night – Use this after it’s dark or after 8 PM
When making a purchase:
* Cuánto (kwan-toe) = How much?
* Por favor (pour fah-vore) = Please
* Gracias (grah-c-ahs) = Thank you
When meeting someone:
* Mucho gusto (mooch-o goose-toe) = Nice to meet you.

Finally, DIVIERTETE – Have fun! Mexico City is one of the greatest cities in the world, offering countless cultural activities, gastronomical delights and interesting and warm people to meet.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

I Chose Diego Rather Than the Mummies

After endulging in the hotel’s breakfast buffet, Miriam, Jeannie and Andi went to Guanajuato’s famous Mummy Musuem, while I decided to skip it, having already seen it during my prior visits. I instead went to Diego Rivera’s museum, which I had not previously seen. I was interested to see where he was born and lived his first six years, before moving to Mexico City. The art was fantastic, as I hadn’t seen such variety in Rivera’s work before. There are about 100 original works of Rivera’s art on display with examples of his distinct stages like cubism, and ones from his formative years and ones showing diverse techniques. One on display is called “Cabeza Clásica” (Classic Head), Rivera made this when he was 11 years old. There’s one room with his illustrations for a translation of the book Popul-Vuh (often called “The Maya Bible”, is the book of scripture of the Quiché, a Kingdom of the Maya civilization in Guatemala) - American writer John Weatherwax was working on an English translation of Popol Vuh, and asked Rivera if he would provide illustrations for the manuscript. Although the translation was never published, Rivera agreed and produced twenty-four watercolor illustrations for the text.

Andi and I returned to D.F., this time together. The trip takes 4 hours and 50 minutes, and we traveled in first-class style on ETN – the best bus line in Mexico, comfortable, roomy seats and they even play movies. From the north bus station, we took the metro and I arrived home in time to see one of the best baseball games that I’ve seen. With the Sox down by two runs, Konerko hit a grandslam to go up 6-4. The momentum seemed lost as the Astros tied it up in the top of the 9th, but in dramatic fashion, Podsednik hit a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the inning to win the second game of the World Series and provide a picture perfect ending to an awesome weekend.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Cervantes Festival

PHOTOS of the market in Guanajuato. Click on the title of today’s entry or paste the following address into your browser:

We all woke up when someone knocked on our door. I don’t know how she did it (as I’m usually in a comatose state for the first half hour after awakening), but Miriam answered the door and the hotel worker said, “I’m counting how many rooms are occupied.”

We went down the hill, towards the center in search of breakfast. We ate in a restaurant/bar where the service was horrible; Andi ordered a bottle of water that never arrived, but it did appear on the bill. I went to the store next door and bought us some water bottles. More importantly than the service is the food, which I really enjoyed – sunny-side up eggs and baguette bread to soak up the yolk.

Afterwards, we walked to the market where I took many photos and bought some toys for my classroom in Wilmette to replace those that are broken, after many years of wear and tear. I bought a “Jacob’s ladder” the wood blocks that are connected with a ribbon running down the middle, and they continually flip down when it’s held from the top. When I asked the old woman who had sold it to me what it’s called in Spanish, she began demonstrating how it works. Another vendor didn’t know what it was called but two others said it’s called a “tablita mágica” (magic tablet).

The four of us sat in a plaza and had a drink. It was perfect and a good rest away from the mass of people. At night we ate well at a restaurant called La Oreja de Van Gogh (Van Gogh’s Ear). We began with guacamole and chips and I also enjoyed a tasty hot bowl of Azteca soup (just another name for tortilla soup). The soup was a bit too spicy for me, my lips were beating and my throat burning for quite some time, but Miriam helped me out with finishing the soup. Both Miriam and Andi must have some Mexican blood (they don’t actually) as they can and in fact enjoy eating the hottest of foods topped with the spiciest of salsas.

In the plaza in which we were eating, there were circles of people around the clowns putting on performances. Against the wall of the restaurant, behind our table a line began to form. We asked a woman what it was for and she had to ask the person next to her in line. It turned out that it was for the theater that we were planning to attend. During the day I asked someone at an information booth about tickets and they said that we didn’t have to buy any. I walked around the side of the restaurant and saw the plaza where the theater was going to take place. When the usher found out that I am from Chicago, he said that I could enter, but said he couldn’t allow all four of us to enter. However, after finishing dinner, we went over there and he allowed us to enter.

It’s a good thing that we didn’t have to purchase tickets to enter as we could only stand to stay about 20 minutes since it was horrendous. It was an interpretation of Don Quijote. Most actors wore masks and none used a microphone while performing in the open-air plaza. There were some characters that looked like the white, puffy Michelin men, but these had private parts – extremely strange!

After we escaped the madness, we went to the Plaza Principal (main plaza), on the other side of the street from Teatro Juarez. There was an amazing amount of people there, so we sat in a restaurant that had a great view overlooking the plaza and enjoyed some drinks and later dessert, I had the “pay de limón” (key lime pie). The night couldn’t have ended better – we returned to the hotel, I flipped on the TV and saw on ESPN that the White Sox had won the first game of the World Series.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Getting to Guanajuato

This morning I went to the Internet Café down my street that opens early so I could by a plane ticket to go to Minneapolis the weekend of November 3-7. That weekend will be my nephew Jonathan’s Bris (the Jewish tradition of circumcising a baby eight days after being born – or, as in Jonathan’s case, when the baby’s healthy enough). I didn’t plan on returning to the U.S. before the exchange was over, but I don’t think that anyone in my family knew the profundity of emotions that we would feel for the baby and the desire for all of us to be together with him.

After getting my ticket, I went to the bakery at the end of the street for a little breakfast and a snack to bring on the bus ride to Guanajuato. I also decided to buy a sandwich – not knowing how long it would take, seriously, about 10 MINUTES! So to get to the bus station quickly I jumped in a taxi – what a mistake! I have to remember that it doesn’t matter how far a destination, the time of day, not even how much I have to lug – the metro is always the fastest option.

As soon as I saw that we were only at the Chilpancingo station, I jumped out, throwing the money at the driver and ran with my suitcase to the metro, and between stations. Andi and I were sending each other text messages so then she knew that I was arriving late, and, in the end, I missed the bus – by 10 minutes. I was horribly embarrassed but it all worked out fine, and at least I only had to pay half of the ticket’s original price of $30 to change the departure time.

It ended up that I was only an hour and a half behind Andi and we met up in Guanajuato. We relaxed that night, drinking and eating in one of the many plazas in Guanajuato. Jeannie arrived around 10 PM and we met up in a really relaxed bar where we could talk and enjoy some good Mexican cervezas. We returned to the hotel, a castle! Hotel Castillo Santa Cecilia officially opened in 1939. Later, Miriam arrived at almost 1 AM to complete the group.

I’ve been to Guanajuato two times before: The first time was seven years ago when I was volunteering in Guadalajara and my group of friends spent the weekend there. I vividly recall the cheap hotel room in which we stayed, just up the hill across the street from Alondigas. That weekend we also celebrated my birthday at a restaurant in the main plaza, by the Teatro Juarez. I still remember that my awesome meal of chateaubriand cost just $10 USD. The other time that I visited Guanajuato was five years ago on a trip with others from my Master’s program. It has always been one of my favorite places in Mexico – it’s beautiful with houses and buildings brightly painted in pastel colors with many of those homes poking out of the mountainside. The mountains surround the city and plazas are around almost every corner, filled with outdoor cafés. This visit is different however as it’s during the International Cervantes Festival, that is during the month of October. This site has a good summary explaining all about the festival:

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Raising the Stakes

As I leaned against the railing separating the soccer game from the rest of the courtyard, I gazed across the patio and commented to Rosalba, the teacher next to me, “There’s not too much garbage today.” I was awestruck – I didn’t see more than a couple scraps scattered around of shiny wrappings from cookies and chips and clear plastic wrappings from suckers. This was even the case in the usual garbage pit (an area between one barrier that runs around the patio area where some students play soccer and another barrier that runs parallel but sits about three feet apart).

Before becoming too satisfied, I have to now reach beyond this baseline of contentment with the students’ recess-time garbage pick-up behavior. The newly added dimension requires that for a student to receive a Kiss, he will have to pick up two pieces of trash. Then, if he wants another Kiss, he has to pick up three pieces of garbage and so on. Yesterday, José Pablo left recess with his pockets full with 5 chocolate Kisses – he picked up garbage FIVE times, the last time gathering SIX pieces of trash.

In addition to requiring MORE effort for MORE chocolate, the students also have to ask for the chocolate politely and in ENGLISH! I quickly grew tired of hands in my face, or a couple young voices demanding, “My chocolate.” I prompted them with “por . . . ” as in Spanish the word “please” is “por favor”. However, “por” also means “for” so when I began with “por . . .” (for) students often finished the thought with, “picking up the garbage.” Rather than having them continue to rack their brains, I have this little sign on the Ziploc bag full of chocolate Kisses that says, “May I have a chocolate please?” – probably a better idea than having them ask me, “May I have a ‘Kiss’ please?”

Saturday, October 15, 2005

You Gotta Have Faith

My situation at school has quickly improved since I hit rock bottom only three days ago. On Tuesday I left school feeling totally dejected as I doubted my abilities and my self-esteem was so low it felt like a cockroach smooched into the ground after already having been stepped on. Today on the other hand, I feel confident as I can see students reaching towards the high expectations I have for them. My classes finished much more work today than any other in the past two months. Now that the students are aware of the consequences that await them for poor behavior, they seem to understand better how to conduct themselves in the classroom.

I arrived at school this morning at 8:30 AM rather than the usual 10 AM since our school hosted a choral competition today and I was asked to take pictures. The choirs from six other “secundarias” came to participate. Our school’s classes continued while each of the choirs took their turn performing on the stage in the small theater, the size of any other classroom in the school. Three judges sat at one table, against the back wall, across from the stage. The principals of each school sat in chairs against another wall. I was extremely impressed with the quality of the singing and with the discipline that each choir exhibited. After each school had finished its performance, all of our students and each choir reunited in the courtyard to learn the results. When it was announced that first place went to Secundaria 117 “Gabriela Mistral” the students of that school immediately began a celebratory chant. It was the first time all day that the students from that school let loose. I have repeatedly heard that Secundaria 117 is the best in our area and the third best in all of Mexico City. It was easy to figure out which group was from Secundaria 117, they were the only group perfectly organized when all gathered at the beginning of the day and as they entered the theater not one uttered a word.

Later, during “descanso” I caught a couple of teachers observing the students helping me with “garbage clean up.” None of the garbage cans were out in the courtyard as they usually are, to make the school look nicer for the competition. I grabbed the small can from the computer lab and very quickly it was filled and was even overflowing. While I searched for a garbage bag a student helped take the full bag out of the can. Then, carrying the big, strong, black garbage bag around the courtyard, I made eye contact with students by raising my eyebrows while looking at some garbage, inviting them to help out. So many helped out today that I actually ran out of Kisses. When students still helped with the garbage after they knew I had run out of Kisses I knew I was on to something. (OK, one student later in the day said that I owed her chocolate for her having helped me.) Check out the attached photo to see how the “Ball of Hope” has grown - you can compare it with the one from September 21. I know these students are capable of anything, they just need more people to believe in them and then they can start to believe in themselves. This is extremely difficult to achieve when they attend a school known as a last resort for many students and as they come from neighborhoods known for being very poor and dangerous and where kidnappers and drug dealers live.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


I went to services this morning for Yom Kippur (Iom Kipur as it’s spelled in Spanish) at a synagogue right on my way to school – the same one I went to last week for Rosh Hashanah. It’s small and that’s why Ada, Enrique and the girls go there, as it feels like being among family. No tickets are necessary, one only needs to show ID and have their purse, or in my case, backpack inspected. The men sit downstairs and conduct the services while upstairs the women pray and observe the happenings below. I grew up in a reform synagogue where a woman could be involved in any part of the service, so this has been quite a different experience for me.

Last night for the evening service I went to Bet-El, Mexico City’s conservative synagogue – most are orthodox. This synagogue does require tickets to enter the High Holiday services, they need to be assured there are enough seats as still half have to go to another location in the Colonia Santa Fe. It was a lot of work for Jane to get a ticket for me but it was definitely worth it. Last Saturday I dropped off a passport photo of myself that she took on Tuesday to the synagogue to see if as a member she could get a ticket for me. It made it a little easier that another seat wasn’t needed, just an exchange since her son Eli was not coming. (He’s in Houston and given that he was just in town when he fled the hurricane, he couldn’t come back for the holidays too.) It took Jane an hour and a half just to get to the synagogue, there was a wicked electrical storm and the social security union has been protesting and blocking the street Tlalpan, backing traffic up across the city. All of Jane’s efforts paid off though and I arrived at her house last night to enjoy a fantastic meal – gefilte fish, chicken soup, vegetables, chicken and rice. Then Jane, Moishe and I headed for the synagogue on the street Masaryk (that has the most expensive stores in Mexico) in Polanco, one of the nicest, richest areas in Mexico City. The synagogue fits right in – it has an enormous Jewish star and menorah above the building and I’m sure it’s the biggest synagogue I’ve ever been in.

We entered the sanctuary and it was filled with chairs beyond the permanent ones, probably taking up the space of a football field (American or otherwise). Each seat had a sticker on it that said the person’s name, aisle and seat number – I sat in Eli’s, in between Jane and her sister, whose husband was next to her and Moishe sat next to Jane. As usual I’m reminded of the common roots that Jews share as I was awestruck at how the Jewish community here looks just like the one I’m a part of in the States. In fact, if you looked at each congregation, I think you’d be hard pressed to pick which was from which country.

I really enjoyed the lively service, even as it started a bit strangely, for me at least. The “notables” (the ones who had donated the most money) were called up and each was given a torah to hold. Quite the scene on the stage - or bimah - as twenty something men (even at this conservative synagogue women hardly participate but do sit with the men) stood across holding torahs that were dressed to the 9s – or whites for the High Holidays. Then those men paraded down the center aisle, still carrying a torah each. The congregants gathered towards the aisle, reaching to kiss each torah. I love Moishe and Jane’s sense of humor as she went back towards her seat after about ten had passed by and he asked sarcastically if she had had enough and she responded that yes, she was full.

I was in good spirits throughout the service, even though I missed my own temple and its traditions: Entering with my mom, dad and sister and sitting in our “usual” seats, in the middle of the section second to the left, then whispering with my sister, reading the temple bulletin, watching my Aunt Pearl sleep throughout the service, turning to the left to see if my uncle, aunt and cousin had come in yet, and then the predictable nod off by my mom and uncle as the sermon reaches its height. It’s an awesome feeling though knowing that as I sat in my service in Mexico City, my family was doing the same in Chicago and my extended family in St. Louis and Canada and all Jews throughout the world.

I enjoyed reading the Spanish translation of the service that was mostly conducted in Hebrew. The Rabbi’s sermon was enlightening, which he began by referring to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. As this is the time of the Jewish year to ask for forgiveness, he spoke of looking inwards, examining yourself if you want something to change something. My day came full circle at that point: On Tuesday, when I was despondent and didn’t want to nor know how I would face another day at school, I realized that I needed to do something to change the situation. I called in reinforcements, and Karina came to school on Wednesday. First thing on Wednesday I spoke with the principal and let him know exactly what I needed to make this experience more successful for everyone involved. Then I sat in the principal’s office, telling Robby and Cristian that their situation was not any teacher’s fault, but instead it was up to them to change and decide how they want to conduct themselves so that they don’t face the same fate with which Marco Antonio had been confronted.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


I walked into school today just as the principal was ushering Marco Antonio towards his final passage through the door; he was kicked out of school. This year he was repeating his first year, since he had failed the first time around and would have been kicked out of the school earlier because of his behavior, but this year was given a second. After about the first month of this school year, Marco Antonio was moved from Group 1B to 1C – thinking that would help – it didn’t. Instead, Group 1B became the best of the three first year groups and Group 1C became the worst. I do feel terribly for Marco Antonio but it wasn’t fair that the other twenty-five students in his group weren’t able to learn. Also, his experience will serve as an example to the other students of the serious consequences that do exist. As he left I shook his hand and wished him “Buena suerte” (good luck). I know that he will need luck now as he faces a neighborhood full of temptation to make money as a kidnapper or drug dealer.

Yesterday’s experience with Marco Antonio’s Group 1C was the worst I have had so far. I left their group in the classroom on the third floor to seek help to control the group. I looked out over the balcony and didn’t see anyone so I continued downstairs in search of a “prefecto”. I did see the “prefecta” in her office but decided I needed more help than she could offer; I was entirely sick of going through this same routine of having to search for help to control the six students who do nothing except for trip, hit, call out and interrupt the class or bother the others and then when I ask them to leave they refuse. So while I stood in the doorway to the principal’s office I exasperatingly said, “Tengo ganas de regresar a los Estados Unidos” (I feel like going back to the United States). I didn’t realize the extent to which that comment would be taken, but am enormously satisfied that it did make an impact that began today, Wednesday.

After Marco Antonio was escorted out of school, I sat with the principal and waited for two other students and their caretakers. I really felt exhausted, as if I had gone to battle yesterday. Subsequently, Robby entered with his mom and joined Cristian, who was already there and had come with his uncle; his dad isn’t in his life and his mom works. We spoke with them for quite a while and the boys said they would make a true effort to improve their classroom behavior. When they left, the principal told me that they will be suspended for three days the next time they cause a problem.

A bit later, Karina arrived and we sat and talked with the principal some time. Her support was extremely important and helped to drive home the point that my situation needs to change. I asked that the “prefectos” stop by my room every once in a while so that if I need them I don’t have to go searching. I explained that “servicio” is too much with having to manage (I won’t even venture to call it “teach”) another group during the day and especially students who I don’t know. So I no longer have “servicio,” instead I will use the time to observe other teachers’ classes, including their classroom management styles, so I can see what works or doesn’t work for them.

I began my two classes today by letting the students know one of their classmates had been kicked out of school. I emphasized that now they need to decide how they want to behave themselves or face the consequences.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Getting Personal

My first class today was with Group 1B in which I have two students named Jonathan. Thankfully the volatile one was absent and just as thankfully, the model student one was present. Once the class was miraculously working on their handouts, I took a big risk and decided to talk to them even while they were actually engaged. I told them that this had been a very exciting weekend as I had found out that I became an aunt, and continued that my nephew´s name is Jonathan. So, I explained that this name is very special to me, as is another student´s name, Luis, since my nephew´s middle name is Louis. Yesterday I tucked a photo of Jonathan into my desk drawer so everytime I open it and see his beautiful face I smile. When I took the photo out of the drawer to share with the students, I sensed they were about to pounce. I quickly said that I would walk up and down the rows, awarding points to those students who brought the handout they received the previous week, and show each the photo of Jonathan. I was entirely satisfied that I had captured the students´ attention and that they had focused on the work at hand and mostly that the 50 minute class transpired without incident.

And then the day took a 180 with Group 1C – as it has for the past three weeks. Without going into the details, as they are the same old, same old, I´ll summarize by saying that Karina, the coordinator of the Fulbright teacher program in Mexico, is coming to my school tomorrow. She and I will speak with my principal in hopes that we can all get on the same page. I need support at the school and have expressed this without seeing results. Now, as hard as it is to admit, I need help, I need someone else to be my advocate.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

There’s No Such Thing As A Free Meal

PHOTOS from Sunday in Chapultepec can be seen by clicking on the title of today´s entry or by pasting the following address into your browser:

The mid-term meeting officially concluded on Friday afternoon, but everyone stayed in D.F. through the weekend. Miriam and Jeannie stayed at my place Friday and Saturday night and met other Fulbrighters Saturday morning to go to the pyramids of Teotihuacán – about an hour outside of the city. I’ve been to the pyramids on a previous visit to D.F. so I decided to run some errands instead, but I was ecstatic that I stayed behind so that I could receive the phone call from my sister telling me that I became an aunt that morning.

Sunday morning Miriam, Jeannie and I took off early to meet Andi and “aprovechar” (make the most of) the day, since the Potosinas (Miriam & Jeannie are from San Luis Potosi) had a five-hour bus ride awaiting them. We met at a popular breakfast spot in Coyoacán, Las Lupitas. It’s decorated very brightly and traditionally; its food is also traditional, and exceptional.

From there, we took a taxi all the way northwest, crossing the city to reach Chapultepec Park and the Anthropology Museum. It was challenging getting close to the museum because of a race going on, but our driver was able to back down a runway and make a three point turn in the middle of the lane to redirect us.

The museum costs 38 pesos, but on Sundays it’s free and thus, teeming with visitors, making it difficult to see the artifacts close up or when you want to and the rooms are stifling. The museum is free at any time for teachers or those who have ID showing they live in D.F. or have an FM-3 visa. I paid for the audio guides, as my travel book suggested. Alas, it didn’t add anything to the experience except for carrying around a big, heavy phone-like object. In the first room we entered it was unbelievably stuffy, so we skipped over centuries of history and went right to one of the most important rooms, where an original Stone of the Sun (commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as the Aztec Calendar) is displayed. Then we took a look upstairs where one can learn about the traditions and customs, including food and dress, of groups from different states and regions within Mexico. I didn’t mind our quick visit; I think it’s better that way, in small portions, especially as a thorough visit of the two floors can take an entire day or more.

Once outside, Miriam and Jeannie found a taxi to take them to the northern bus terminal. Andi and I had fun watching the famous Voladores de Papantla (flyers of Papantla). While wearing traditional costumes (check out the photos) these men swing in circles, hanging by their feet from an incredibly high poles structure. For more info:

After watching for a couple of minutes, Andi’s friend Sergio appeared and then my cell phone rang. It was Arnie, calling to tell me about his one-day old baby, Jonathan. Once he said that he had posted photos online, I found the first taxi – easy to do along Reforma, in front of the Anthropology Museum and across the street from the zoo – and raced to the Office Depot about a mile away. The Internet wasn’t working there, so I proceeded to the one closer to home and finally saw my nephew Jonathan, the most beautiful, precious baby in the whole world. C’mon, you wouldn’t expect me to say anything less!

Saturday, October 08, 2005


I´m an AUNT, a tía! My brother and sister-in-law welcomed Jonathan Louis Sair into the world at 10:52 this morning. My sister, Aunt Faye, called this afternoon to let me know that we´re aunts and as soon as I heard the news, I stopped in my tracks, as I was perfectly situated outside of a huge mall, Plaza Universidad, and proceeded to hit the stores. I´ve been waiting months to buy gifts for the baby so I´m making up for lost time. I bought the first outfit at Ferrioni, while I was on the phone with my dad, Grandpa Ralph, and at the same time I told the sales lady that I just found out that I´m an aunt, she said, "Felicidades." Next I found a phone and called my bro to leave a congratulatory message for him and Kara, the new little mamá. Then I headed to Zara and found a cute baseball shirt and white sweats and lastly went to Campanita Bebe & Enfant. I´m overflowing with emotion, so excited, proud and joyful! You can see how excited I was - I took photos to document my first purchases for Jonathan.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

We began the day with a visit to the Benjamin Franklin Library, run by the U.S. Embassy and open to the general public. I was particularly impressed with their website and the countless resources that it offers, especially for teaching English.

From there we headed south where there still exists proof of Mexico City’s beginnings as a land built on water, in Xochimilco (zo-chee-meel-co). The “trajineras” (the boats) are brightly decorated with vivid colors and each has a long table with chairs on each side. We set off down the canals, spurred by two boatmen with long poles, like the gondolas and gondoliers of Venice. Within a few minutes there were two tubs on the table full of ice and one piled with an assortment of glass bottles of beer and the other with glass bottles of Pepsi, Fanta Naranja, and Manzana. Then a woman hawking jewelry was aboard and mariachi bands floated by followed by two men playing a xylophone. We were serenaded for a while by the mariachis and were approached by canoe vendors with souvenirs like models of the “trajineros” (Jeannie and I bought one each to put in our classrooms – to hold paperclips and the like), blankets and other trinkets like the rubber bats, that gave me the heeby geebies, but that Esther’s kids enjoyed. Boats with all types of food also abounded – you could buy a whole meal or candied apples even the ever-popular “elote” (corn) coated with mayonaisse, sprinkled with cheese, lime, salt and chile powder. It was a fun, relaxing ride and a great way to spend a Friday afternoon with friends.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Mid-Term Meeting

PHOTOS from the Mid-Term Meeting Weekend can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following address into your browser:

After breakfast at the hotel, all nine grantees and Karina walked over to the COMEXUS offices and gathered in a conference room where we shared presentations. Each was informative and entertaining, but especially fascinating is the variance among our experiences.
• Swimming, Swimming, In the Swimming Pool
Tim is with his wife and daughter in Durango where they seem to be flourishing as they integrate into the community; Talea is even taking swimming lessons there. Tim teaches in a “secundaria” and seems to really command the respect of the students and certainly appears to enjoy his position.
• Survivor the Family Edition
Esther is in Nayarit, and like Tim, is also with her family - FOUR children! Her experience sounds like a TV reality show: Each day when the family returns home, Esther has to bravely enter the house before the children and search for poisonous snakes and other unwanted guests. This location is a prime one since it’s next door to the beach. The downside however of being near a tourist spot is that imported goods that are already marked up throughout the country are even more so in Nayarit – a bottle of salad dressing costs $9 USD.
• Go Tell It on the Mountain
Gail is in the mountains of Oaxaca, so isolated that to receive a phone call she has to listen for her name over a loudspeaker that sits at the top of a pole right above her home. This doesn’t seem to help alert her, however, since the voice sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Even though Gail is teaching high school level, she has discipline problems similar to mine. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the luxury that I have of escaping to another world when the school day is over. When Gail does have the opportunity to flee the mountain life, she has to pay for an extra seat in the van if bringing luggage along and cope with unsafe road conditions.
• Hot Times in the City
Manya is surviving the heat in Sonora, it was 120º F when arrived at the beginning of August. The heat doesn’t slow her down for a second, as she has made a number of interesting “exchanges.” In return for English lessons, she has access to a car, another trade involves Manya teaching yoga and another has her discussing literature with a priest.
• Cool As a Cucumber
Lori is in a small town on the border of the state of Michoacan. Like Andi’s exchange, Lori’s seems relatively calm, or at the very least there’s no chasing snakes or students.
• The Potosinas
Miriam and Jeannie, both in San Luis Potosi, presented using a video. We were taken on a tour of their schools and were able to see the resources they have available or at least those that are around, like the computers in Miriam’s classroom. Miriam works with mostly adults, while Jeannie teaches in a university.
• Techno Geek
Lastly, I used the Mac program iMovie to give an idea about my school, by using photos and videoclips, with my narration recorded. I concluded by sharing my goals that I have set for the rest of my exchange.
- First, the students will learn enough English so that when I leave I can bring with me pen-pal letters for my students in Wilmette.
- I also want my school in Wilmette to raise money to help support the school here in Mexico, specifically to repaint the school. I hope to do the painting with students and their families so that they will value the school even more and take better care of it since they would have helped to improve it.

If you are interested in helping to improve the secondary school in Iztapalapa, Mexico, click the button on the upper right corner of this page that says, “Make A Donation.” Be assured that each cent received will be spent on resources for the school; I will update the list that appears below to let you know for what the money has been used.
Items that need to be purchased:
- Paint (high quality paint that will withstand the outdoor elements)
- Paintbrushes/rollers
- Tubs for the paint
- Toilet paper
- Soap
- Equipment (soccer balls) for use during physical education class and during recess.
- Tables and chairs to sit and eat during recess.
- Paper and poster board to post signs throughout the classroom.
- Spanish-English dictionaries and basic books in English for the classroom and school library.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Day Off

Perfect timing for a much needed break from school, as the Fulbirght grantees of the teacher exchange program meet this weekend for the mid-term meeting in D.F.. The day began with a refreshingly late wake-up. After enjoying some cereal (surprisingly not too expensive or overpriced here), I quickly took care of the ritualistic pre-cleanup before the cleaning lady comes; as Elba was scheduled to arrive between 10 and 11 AM. When she arrived at 11:15 and asked, “Am I late or am I good?” all I could squeak out was, “Oh, you’re fine.”

I left Elba to perform her magic and hailed a cab to take me to Andi’s, about 10 minutes and 25 pesos away. From there we went to try out the wood burning cooked pizza at La Posta, in Coyoacán. Since we read several reviews that highly touted La Posta, our mouths had been watering in anticipation of the tasty, gourmet pizza. We arrived to the restaurant at 12:30 PM and our stomachs growled as our eyes saw the black, steel gates bolted shut – the place opens at 1:30 PM. We drove around Coyoacán in search of a comparable spot that cooks its pizza in a wood-burning oven; none lived up to Andi’s standards, as a pizza connoisseur. So we returned to La Posta around 1:15 PM and we didn’t even have to wait to be seated. The location is a converted old house and there are various small rooms. We sat in an extremely relaxing one, due to its lightly colored painted walls and the art on the walls were of beach scenes. The service was impeccable and most importantly, the delectable pizzas more than lived up to the high expectations.

It’s a good thing we filled up before our voyage across the city. Our taxi crawled from Coyoacán to the Zona Rosa for an hour. We paid the 90 pesos and stumbled into the hotel, exhausted from the excursion. The hotel employees greeted us with, “Where did you just get in from?” We quietly muttered, “Coyoacán.”

Once Andi and I each stepped into our own room (each grantee had his own), our mouths dropped open and our eyes popped out – we had found our riches at the end of the journey. This isn’t any ordinary Holiday Inn, it’s quite new and so “lujoso” (luxurious). The room is divided into areas for work and sleep, there is free high-speed Internet connection available, remote controlled air-conditioning units and, best of all, there’s a shower with limitless hot water and water pressure so intense I had to fight my way towards the handles to adjust the temperature.

That evening at the COMEXUS office, there was a reception for the current grantees in Mexico from the U.S. and for past grantees from Mexico. It was fun to see everyone, especially as within this group you can find an audience or support group that will listen with interest and be able to relate and truly empathize. Of the past recipients, I met three who teach in Iztapalapa, the delegation in which my school is located. I’m excited to visit one of their schools and see the differences and similarities to my school.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Quitting Day

My first class went OK today with Group 1B, but Group 1C is another story. There were constant distractions and interruptions from the moment that the students started walking into the classroom that I never even had a chance to start class today. I was too busy trying to extinguish the fires erupting all over the room. Before I could put one out it just seemed to spread and then I had a bunch of little fires throughout the room and couldn’t get to all of them or even know where to start. When I felt that the class was turning into a five-alarm fire, I left in search of backup. When I ran into the assistant principal on the first floor and said that I needed help with the same group that she and the principal had talked to on Friday, she said that I should look for a “prefecto.” When we found the “prefecto” she asked him to go to my classroom with me. When I desperately said, “Can you tell me what to do? How can I do this better?” She responded, “Watch Aurelio, just watch him.”

So I returned to my classroom with Aurelio and then he asked me to give him a moment alone with the students. Today was the most frustrating day that I have had and not only because of the students’ complete lack of respect. I am tired of not feeling like I know what I’m doing or how to be successful here. Today was different because I felt like I had no support – the assistant principal passed my problems off to someone else and then a teacher just told me to be patient and to calm down. So I reached to my pocket for my cell phone so that I could send a text message to Karina, my program coordinator, asking, “How do I quit?” But strangely my cell wasn’t in my pocket, as I almost always have it on me. I walked out of school feeling down, as if I had been beaten. I was miserable, depressed and hopeless that this situation would change.

I still had to finish my presentation for the Fulbright mid-term meeting so I headed towards Jenny’s house to use her computer. I stopped at an ATM so that I could buy lunch. I was in shock when I received two $500 bills; I truly felt that Mexico was saying to me, “F*** you.” You can’t use or get change for a $500 bill anywhere in Mexico, except maybe McDonalds or WalMart, and I had two of them.

Now feeling even lower, as apparently the entire country was working against me, I took a “pesero” to Jenny’s house. When I got on I asked the driver to let me know when we reach the street, “Kappa.” After a bit, I looked out the window and realized we were about to reach the street Pacifico, which is well beyond where Jenny lives. I hopped off, holding back tears, and trudged across the street, got on another “pesero” in the opposite direction and backtracked to Jenny’s street.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Are you ready for some FUTBOL AMERICANO?

Check out the photos from the game by clicking on the title of this post, or by pasting the following address into your browser:

Tonight I was a part of history, attending the first regular season National Football League game played outside of the country – the San Francisco 49rs took on the Arizona Cardinals. I met Andy, a Fulbrighter on the research program, at the metro stop General Anaya that is right by my house, and we hopped on a “pesero” to Estadio Azteca (Azteca Stadium). Earlier that day Andy bought the $25 tickets at a Ticketmaster outlet, there was only one price level cheaper than that. I doubted that for that price and to see American football that the stadium would be too full, but by game time it was standing room only in the biggest stadium in the world with 103,000+ spectators.

When the game began, the crowd strongly supported San Francisco. It started as a horrible game between two horrible teams – on the very first play Arizona fumbled the ball and San Francisco recovered it for a touchdown. But when Arizona took the momentum before halftime the crowd seemed to follow. After halftime, the fans cheered for Arizona. The Cardinals ended up winning the game that turned out to be quite exciting, even if the offense wasn’t responsible for most of the touchdowns that were scored.

The halftime show, put on by the TV station Azteca, was Superbowl caliber. TV Azteca has a campaign right now with commercials that show different parts of the country while playing the song, “Somos México” (We Are Mexico). The song played throughout halftime while performers in elaborate costumes representing different parts of the country danced around the field.

I spent much of the game eyeing the stands, checking out the different foods available. There aren’t any concession stands in the stadium, which I think is awesome and makes perfect sense that you don’t have to miss part of a show or game to find food, it comes to you. In each section there are two men who stand by a tub full of ice and bottles of beers and refreshments waiting for someone to call out to them in need of quenching their thirst. I started by trying the Maruchan, the soup in a Styrofoam cup with the freeze-dried noodles that come to live with hot water. The air was a bit crisp that night so soup seemed like the perfect snack. “Seemed” being the key word, as the Maruchan was shrimp flavored and actually had some sad looking miniature shimp floating in the cup. Andy finished that off for me. Next, I tried “tacos de canasta,” tacos that are sold out of a basket, 5 for 30 pesos. After I took my first bite I realized why they keep them under a blanket in the basket, until you say you want to purchase them. They were tasteless and softer than any soft tacos I’ve ever had. Andy helped to eat one or two of those. Lastly, I called over the guy wearing the vest that said, “Botanas.” He was carrying different types of nuts and seeds, sesame and pumpkin. I bought salted nuts that came on a small Styrofoam plate tightly covered with plastic wrap. I definitely got my money’s worth - on the salt.

You can read about the background of this game and what else the NFL is doing for Hispanic Heritage Month at: