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.