21 January 2008

December 2007: Aztecas on Ice...

[As part of my backlog catch-up series, this is an excerpt from a recent email]

…So read the headlines of all the papers the day after the massive, outdoor ice rink in the historic city center opened for the winter holidays. Imagine a bunch of tropical Mexicans, many of who have never even seen ice or snow before, on figure skates for the first time, and that was the photo that accompanied the headline. One Sunday after buying at least one of every kind of artisan good (for Christmas gifts) at this new market I discovered, friends and I went to the Zócalo to check out the ice rink. The ice was packed with people of all ages, most wearing thick winter coats, gloves, hats, scarves and probably thermal underwear. I sat in the bleachers (yes, you had to wait in line just to see this spectacle!) with my short-sleeve t-shirt and enjoyed a 60ºF Christmas celebration.

The rest of the Zócalo, as well as every other place in the city, was covered in ornate Christmas lights and decorations, many of them tacky but all of them welcoming a cheerful mood. Streets were lined with vendors selling hot ponche, some kind of punch concoction that I think is made of apples, sugarcane and christmasy spices, but I could be wrong. Star-like piñatas were sold in bulk for the posadas, 12 celebrations leading up to Christmas. My office had our Christmas party at one of our manager’s golf house in the country, and we spent the day outside without jackets on, and the evening around the outdoor fireplace sipping fine tequila. It was wonderful, but it just didn’t feel like the Christmas season to me until my plane landed in the frozen tundra that was Bradley International Airport on December 15 between ice storms. Ahhhh, New England winters…

November 24, 2007: Música en México

[As part of my backlog catch-up series, here is an excerpt from a recent email]

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I attended a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (POA) at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, for which my office purchased tickets. Sitting in the 5th row, I was able to see the faces of the performers and recognized one of the trumpet players. A quick glance at the program confirmed that it was my 3rd cousin, Chris, who joined the orchestra for their No Borders tour! Neither he nor I knew that each other would be in Mexico, so it was a great surprise!

The Orchestra was on its first official homecoming tour to Mexico. The conductor is a young Mexican woman who is creating a new wave of interest in modern classical music from the Americas. I got to meet the conductor and the solo pianist while I was hanging out with my cousin, as well as many of the young, brilliant musicians. One late Monday night, I took a bunch of my new musician friends to Plaza Garibaldi (after promising the conductor that I would not lose any of them before their early morning flight the next day) to chill with the mariachi bands. Between my cousin who had lived in Mexico, a Mexican-American from Texas, and a handful of brass instrument players, we had sufficient requests for traditional mariachi music. Of course, I love all mariachis after they saved the day when our car got stuck in Guanajuato (you’ll have to read my October blog for that story). It was a fun time all around that led to a really great opportunity for me to become involved with the POA. I’m sure you will be hearing more on that a little later…

The following weekend, Fulbright organized a group trip to the Sala Nezahualcoyotl (try saying that ten times fast) in the University City to see the Orquesta Filharmónica de la Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México (OFUNAM). The concert hall is acoustically perfect and very unique, with seating behind the stage so that audience members can watch the conductor from a musician’s perspective. We heard brilliant performances of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Ravel’s Bolero among other pieces. I can’t wait to go back for some of the major performances coming up this spring!

Thanksgiving 2007, Mexican-Uruguayan Style

[As part of my backlog catch-up series, this excerpt is taken from a recent email]

Thanksgiving 2007 was the first I have spent away from my family. It was also the first Thanksgiving I decided to host the feast, for 30 people. Being that large, frozen turkeys are seasonal things, and that Mexico doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, you can imagine the process I had to go through to track down an early-Christmas bird. Trusty Wal-Mart came through for me with a huge frozen turkey and 4 cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Several of us scoured the city in search of pre-made pumpkin pie, canned pumpkin or even fresh pumpkin in vain, but soon realized our Thanksgiving desserts would have to feature apples instead.

I took the day off from work and went shopping that morning for all the fresh fixings I would need to prepare a feast. That was when I realized that Mexico has a serious lack of prepared foods, so my roommate, Jess, and friend, Neeti, helped prepare cornbread, candied yams, and stuffing from scratch. We weren’t sure if we could count on our gas supply to cook the turkey for the whole day in the oven, so we had a bit of a dilemma. Some of my Mexican friends informed me that it was typical practice for bakeries to offer to cook a Christmas turkey for a small fee since many people don’t have large enough ovens. Given that it was neither Christmas nor are there bakeries near my apartment, I had to get creative. I asked the Uruguayan restaurant below my apartment if they would do me the honor of cooking my turkey for the Día de acción de gracias, and offered to pay them. They agreed, told me that their oven was hot enough to cook my 19-pound bird in 2 hours, and sent me on my way. Good thing I didn’t listen to a word they said, because the turkey was ready about 7 hours later, just in time. The nice señores meseros talked their boss into lending us two tables and sets of chairs from the restaurant when we also realized that we didn’t have enough space to put 30 people for a sit-down Thanksgiving feast. Fulbrighters, friends, family and coworkers we wanted to introduce to our tradition showed up in full force.

The whole thing went off without a hitch (barring the piñata in the stairwell incident) and it was truly a Thanksgiving for which to be thankful.

November 1-4, 2007: Día de los muertos

[In an attempt to backdate a whole pile of entries, in chronological order, I have taken this excerpt from the following article I wrote for Lafayette]

...As American Halloween infiltrated the country, we traveled to Morelia and Pátzcuaro for the Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2. The offerings and cemetery vigils to remember passed loved ones was something I had learned about in class for years, but never really grasped the concept of until I experienced it first hand. During the day on Nov. 1, offerings are created in the form of small altars or large public displays. Orange flowers and candles decorate the ofrendas, surrounding life-size images of passed loved one, along with all of the food, drinks, and usually cigarettes that the person enjoyed during their life, so that they could indulge once again on the night their spirit returns. The offerings could be found anywhere – in a public square, a restaurant, a hotel, or the entrance to a department store.

That evening, we went to the cemetery on the island of Janitzio near Pátzcuaro for the vigils that people kept at the tombs of their loved ones. More elaborate altars were created including guitars, sugar candy skulls and games, and people from all walks of life were wrapped in wool blankets, waiting for the spirits of the deceased to return that night. It was an overwhelming experience, and I tried to understand how the indigenous pagan practices melded so perfectly with the traditional Catholic beliefs brought to this country centuries ago...

The rest of this article can be found here.

28 October 2007

Festival Cervantino

Guanajuato is an old colonial city nestled in the crevices of the rolling hills about 370 km northwest of Mexico City. From October 3rd to October 21st, it is host to one of the largest arts festivals in the world, the Festival Cervantino - a celebration of Miguel de Cervantes (of Don Quijote acclaim) and a tribute to theatre, dance, music, and culture from all corners of the world and dating back several centuries.

The festival coincided with our día cultural for the month of October (one Friday per month we get a free day off from work to participate in a cultural event), so all of the business Fulbrights, many of the research Fulbrights, and friends we met along the way made a long weekend out of it. For me, the weekend started off on a positive note. Others weren't so lucky.

I left work early on Thursday, hopped on a luxury first class bus (seats extra wide, plenty of leg room, reclining all the way, foot rest, pillows, "free" lunch, the works...)
and made my way to Guanajuato to meet up with friends. Unfortunately, I didn't have tickets to a show that evening like the two other groups of people that I was hoping to meet up with. Coincidentally, Femke, Neeti and Veyom bought tickets to the Ballet Folklórico de Amalia Hernandez (which my sister had just seen performed 2 days earlier at the University of Connecticut, go figure!) and had one extra ticket. Without knowing it, however, the show was performing that evening in León, about an hour away. With the grace of a little good luck, we all met up at the bus station, perfectly synchronized, caught a bus leaving 3 minutes later, got to Guanajuato 15 minutes before the show started, picked up our tickets, and were seated just as the curtain went up. It was an amazing show filled with beautiful indigenous dances from all regions of Mexico. To the right is one of the scenes at the end of the first act. I wish it could convey all of the emotion it evoked in me.

So, as previously mentioned, others didn't have quite such luck. The theme of arrivals was: accidents. One group's taxi got in an accident when a truck was attempting a multiple-point turn in the middle of a one-way-street (not surprising at all) and the taxista lost his patience (also not surprising). They were ok, and hailed another passing taxi hoping for better luck. Two other girls who were driving from D.F. were in one of the subterranean tunnels for which Guanajuato is famous, when a bunch of young, idiot chilangos with a massive dent already in the front of their car tried to brush up alongside of my friends to try to blame them for an obviously previous accident. After a long chase through and around the city by the boy and all of his chummy friends in several cars, my friends stopped, denied the accident which never actually happened and refused to pay them or get the police involved. Igniting teenage rage, the boys followed them through the city and found them on 3 occasions. The terrified girls sought refuge up a one-way hill in front of a church, left their lights on by accident, and waited 30 minutes for the rest of the Fulbright posse to arrive. Once we calmed the shaken girls, we all piled into the car to head for the hotel. Except it didn't start. Long story short, with the help of a nice viejo who opened up his garage for us to try turning around, a tall British ex-pat, and the Fulbright force, we attempted to manually maneuver the facing downwards. Just when it looked like there was no hope, a 10-piece mariachi band came rushing out from behind the church, granted themselves permission to help, tucked their instruments under their arms, and with sheer brute force, all 16 or so of us got the car up over the sidewalk, turned around facing downwards and in perfect position to pop the clutch. To the sound of a trumpet proclaiming our triumph, another mariachi thrust his violin at Zac, jumped in the car, and executed a perfect downhill start. This threw the mariachis into a frenzy and us into happy gratitude, as we earned a quick serenade, a no hay de que, and a few hugs from our new friends. I love Mexico.

Thankfully everyone was safe and the rest of the weekend was uneventful in this sense. We went to several other espectáculos, including a Brazilian modern dance troupe called Rota, and an American brass quintet, Meridian Arts, at the Ex-Hacienda de San Gabriel de Barrera. Afterwards, we walked around the gardens of the ex-hacienda, before going back into town for lunch in the Plaza Mayor and a ride up the mountain in the funicular to the Monumento al Pípila and a great view of the city. The city itself was completely full of young and old alike, families, teenagers, and enterprising individuals who were selling whatever they had for a peso or two (one of my friends got involved in a "toka mis nalgas, $1 peso" (touch my butt for a peso) venture, and he walked away with a pretty penny).

On our way home, three of us passed through Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende (at right). We had a late lunch in the Plaza at San Miguel and left 2 hours later. It was not nearly a long enough stay and I can't wait to go back! It ended up being a fun and beautiful weekend.

22 October 2007

El Grito de la Independencia

[This post has been in the works for over a month. I am catching up on my blog so I thought I would post what I have written so far, so just pretend it's September 16 and not a month later...]

When I arrived in Mexico City over a month ago, I thought that the patriotic decorations hanging in the Zócalo and along some of the main avenues in the Centro Histórico were standard. As the weeks passed, more and more decorations went up – massive Mexican flags hanging from buildings, green, white and red lights all the way up the Torre Mayor, paper cutouts in the same colors hanging in every restaurante and taquería. And then, last week, several taxistas had asked me if I had seen how beautiful they made the city center, and I finally realized that it was all in preparation for La Independencia, the celebration of Mexican Independence.

Similar to our July 4th, September 15th and 16th are dedicated to the patriotic celebration. The Mexicans spend the better part of a month preparing their city to commemorate the day on which they gained their independence. The beauty of this celebration is that it last for two days. September 15th is the Grito de Independencia, followed by the actual Día de Independencia on the 16th. The grito might be the most visceral way to proclaim patriotic pride that I have ever witnessed - the word itself means "shout." From the balcony of my friends' apartment overlooking the main plaza in Coyoacán, we observed the pre-independence day festivities with awe. Contrary to my expectations (an outdoor party scene of drunken fools shooting off guns into the air from the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts movie, "The Mexican" comes to mind), it was actually a very well-planned. We observed from above the festival going on down below, listened to the many musical acts ranging from opera to pop to mariachi, and watched fireworks shoot up over our heads. The mayor of the delegación proclaimed the Grito, and everyone responded with a heartfelt enthusiasm that I haven't quite experienced before, "¡VIVA MÉXICO!" I have a video of it below:

Youtube also has a version of the Grito as proclaimed by the President in the Zócalo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkSErOBJpto. Needless to say, it's a little more than some flags and a barbeque; it's actually quite similar to New Year's Eve in Times Square...

There is also a parade the following morning in the city center. In a fine display of military force, every uniformed service person of the what seemed like the whole country marched through the Zócalo for about 2 1/2 hours, with frequent fly-bys of the air divisions. We had been asking the resident Mexicans what time the desfile militar began for the better part of a week. In true Mexican fashion, we got answers ranging from 8 AM to 11:30 AM, and decided to err on the side of caution, waking up at 6:30 the morning after the Grito to get a prime spot in the Zócalo to watch everyone pass by. The parade ended up starting around 10:00, so from that point forward, we began taking the average answer to any question about time or distance, because although one person may not be correct, the masses are. It ranged from military engineering cadets to the special armed forces, followed by a finale of the finest traditional dancing horses. An elderly couple standing next to us graciously shared some tomales, both spicy and sweet, and a 5-gallon bucket to stand on to gain a better perspective. It was a very cool experience, and there will be photos on my website, which you can check out at the link up top on the right.

09 September 2007

fridays on the metro

Ah, the Mexico City metro. When you look at a map of the metro system, it seems like a pretty comprehensive system with plenty of stops and good coverage of the city. Then when you look at a map of the city with the metro stops marked on it, you realize just how spread out it really is. However, when compared to the cost per ride ($2 pesos, or about 20 cents US), you are tempted to take it everywhere, no matter how far you have to walk to actually arrive at your destination. As an alternative to morning rush hour traffic on the main roads that I take to work in a taxi, I've been giving the metro a test drive. The down side is that I have to go southwest for two stops, switch lines, and then go north for two more stops. There is no hypotenuse in the Condesa - Polanco commuting line.

Monday, at 8:15 am, it was dead quiet. Got to work in record time. Tuesday, same time, it was a little busier, but not overwhelming. Although the train did sit in the last two stations for 5 minutes a piece. Wednesday, everyone was late for work, I swear. People were sprinting through the station, piling onto the train and smushing like sardines, myself included. 2 stops, a line change, 2 more stops and 50 minutes later, I peeled my hip off the bar and shoved my way out the door, begging permiso (excuse me) from everyone. Then I observed a very interesting dichotomy. Men in business suits sprinting to the salida (exit) to be the first one on the escalator. Then, they just rode it all the way up, shoulder to shoulder, so that no one could pass. If this was the London Tube, surely there would have been a riot, lest you stand in the walking lane for even a split second. I think they really just wanted to be first on the escalator, and really weren't late for anything. Besides, a late Mexican is an on-time Mexican, so that whole tardiness theory is flawed...

Thursday, I needed a break from public transportation, so I took a taxi to work. A quick 10 minutes later I was at my office 30 minutes early. No traffic. Friday, I decided to save my $48 pesos in taxi fare and take the metro once more. No one! I was later than usual, but apparently so were all the Mexicans. The fastest I had ever gotten to work in the metro, hands down. The metro car wasn't even hot and sweaty yet, and I didn't have to race anyone to the escalator.

It is very interesting being the only gringa on the metro. Generally, Mexicans who have cars prefer to drive to work (part of the traffic problem), so that leaves everyone else taking public transport. However, there are still many different types of people on the metro. I have been lucky (or not) to be considered a fresa, which is kind of like "yuppie," or, if you're ignoring the men on the street cat-calling at you - snobby, rich girl. However, a fresa is still Mexican, so in that sense, the color of my skin only seems to indicate that I've spent more time in a library than out in the Mexican sun (if it ever comes out again), and I'm almost equal to all of them. I still keep my jewelry in my bag and wear good walking shoes instead of good high heels,
until I get to work, por si a caso.

On a side note, the most recent hurricane that passed through was no match for the Mexican taxista who brought me home from work that day. Flash flooding, 6 or 8 inches of rain on the main street, Avenida de la Reforma, dime-size hail, zero visibility. But everyone else drove in the middle lane, the high ground, leaving the left and right lanes free for a daring taxi to pass. A perfect opportunity to beat the traffic, get me home quickly, and return to pick up the next investment banker looking to get home in the monsoon. Time is money, and water on the roadway is no obstacle. For $38 pesos (about $3.80 US), I just have one request - Seat belt, please!

More to come, hopefully sooner than later. Qué les vayan super bien!


02 September 2007

"super padre," "nada más," and "para servirle"

To most of us, even those who don't speak Spanish, "super padre" has a pretty straightforward meaning: super dad. To the mexicans, however, "super padre" is the equivalent of the New Englander's "wicked cool," the southern CA surfer's "totally awesome," or any other representation of something that just rocks your world. As with any culture, even sub-cultures, there are certain idiomatic expressions that just don't make sense until you live them. "Super padre" is quickly creeping into my regular daily vocabulary, to describe such things as the free zoo and butterfly sanctuary in the Bosque de Chapultepec (think: Central Park x5), the skyline view with the mountain backdrop from the rooftop of our apartment, and the chic artist fair right down the road in the upscale Parque de Mexico surrounded by posh coffee shops that make you forget you're even south of the border.

I've come to realize that speaking Spanish and speaking Mexican are almost two completely different things. A waiter will hover at your table, after taking your drink, appetizer and main course orders, until that key moment when you declare "nada más" (no more) with a gracious smile. And then he will nod, equally amicably, responding "para servirle" (in order to serve you) right before he runs off to fetch your drinks (which arrive 10 minutes later if you're lucky). It seems weird, and it even feels weird, but it's part of the innate formality that is so charming about this country. On the surface it all seems so formal, Usted and Ustedes always (for all the Spanish grammar geeks reading this) and taxi drivers parking their cars, jumping out in traffic and rushing around curbside to open your door, lest a lady have to expend energy. But then your freshest produce comes from the man who rides past every 45 minutes, announcing "aguacates, tomales, chileeeeees" over the loudspeaker bungeed to the roof of his pickup, and your 10-gallon fresh water from the "aguaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" man on a bicycle. Gas comes in a tank that you have to lean out the window to light when you want hot water. The beauty of Mexico is the clash and coexistence of these two norms, which I am continually trying to navigate each day.

Similarly, every expectation or preconception I previously held about Mexico and Mexicans has either been completely destroyed or validated, with no middle ground. Take music as an example. Mexican music = mariachi, true or false? It's at every party, in every cantina, on signs and billboards every couple blocks advertising the neighborhood mariachi band for hire. But right down the road is the Sala de Chopin, and my landlady is a professional opera singer. Today, as the aguacate man drove beneath my window, Beethoven wafted up from downstairs. And in a few weeks, I'm going to one of the main universities here to see Canadian pianist extraordinaire, Angela Hewitt, perform Bach in the classical music series. And the jazz festival at the National Auditorium just recently wrapped up. So, true that mariachi is practically the national anthem, but false that it's the only music valued here. Very, very, VERY true: ALL Mexican men can dance ALL Latin dances and will not hesitate to do so at any moment, opportune or not. I love Mexico.

As you all celebrate Labor Day, and your three-day-weekend (well, not if you're at Lafayette, of course), I will be thinking of you from the Mexican stock exchange where I will undoubtedly be one of the only women, not to mention the youngest, on the floor at 9 AM. Work is going well - fast pace and challenging, just the way I like it. But I do have to wake up in 7 hours to be there, so unfortunately this is adios for now. Stay tuned for more musings on such topics as: the food, the metro, and urban "planning."

un beso,