Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tamazulapan

I was travelling around the countyside the other day and passed briefly though the Mixteca town of Tamazulapan. They were having a big festival there, and as my passenger van sat idling in traffic, I noticed a big sign advertising an event at the bull ring. I couldn’t tell if it was a bull fight or a bull riding, but in any case, they had listed the names of all the bulls who would be participating. Most had pretty fearsome names, like El Ejecutor (the Executioner), El Luminoso (the lumnious one), or Tiburón (Shark). But one name that caught my eye was El Periodista, or the Journalist. I just kept picturing a bespectacled bull with a pencil and pad in one hoof and a tape recorder tucked in his back pocket hasseling the torero with question after question. He didn’t seem all that fearsome, actually, and I think I’d even be willing to get in the ring with that guy.

There is also a nice thermal spring in Tamazulapan, which is where my doctor said I got my infection last month that I had (before coming back to the United States). So don't dunk your ear underneath the water if you go to the springs.

couple of coins

I've always appreciated countries that use large-denomination coins, or at least in larger denominations than we do in the US. When I lived in Arizona, I would often make trips into Nogales, and part of the fun of those trips was that I got to use the the coins. It just feels more like "real" commerce when you're paying for stuff in coins rather than slips of paper.

Here in Mexico, we have a 10-peso (US$1) and 20-peso (US$2) coin, and I'm a big fan of both. Although I should tell you that the later is not as common as the former. Nevertheless, they are both in circulation and are used quite frequently. You will recall from previous posts that change in general is an important thing in Mexico, you need to carry change with you everywhere.

Last month, for example, I went out to pick up a large pizza, and I paid for it with just a couple of coins. When you come from a country where the quarter is essentially the largest coin in circulation, and the only purchases you make with all coins are for things like packs of gum, you really feel like you're getting a bargain when you pay only in coins. So when I got that pizza, I felt like,"Wow, I paid nothing for that!"

Of course, I didn't really pay nothing for the pizza, but it's nice to at least treat yourself to that sensation.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Memin Pinguin

















Last week, the Mexican postal service issued a stamp series commemorating "Memin Pinguin," a comic book character from the 1940s.

Black activists in the U.S., such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who were already sore at Mexico's government after President Fox made an insensitive remark about U.S. blacks last month, have condemned the stamps as racist and offensive. The White House also issued a statement condemning the stamps, and activists in the small black community on southern Mexico have expressed indignation as well.

The Mexican government and media, on the other hand, have leapt to the defense of the stamps. "Memin Penguin is part of our culture," is the basic argument, and so, since the stamps are merely celebrating a part of Mexican history and culture, they are acceptable. The Mexican people seem to agree, and have flocked to buy the stamps. They sold out in two days.

While you certainly have to question the wisdom of a government that would issue a stamp that clearly was going to cause a controversy, one thing this government is very adept at is exploiting disagreements with the United States. So this week, we saw Foreign Minister Luis Derbez, Presidential Spokesman Ruben Aguilar, and even President Fox, speaking passionately in defense of poor little Memin Pinguin. Complaints against the stamp from the U.S. are blatant attacks on our culture, they told the Mexican public.

For a government that has offered little to the Mexican people and, as a result, doesn't have a heck of a lot of support here, resentment against the U.S. is always rich material for rallying the common man to their cause. And in the week leading up to an event celebrating the 5-year celebration of Fox's election, what better way to get people on your side than to lash out at attacks from the U.S.? The "cultural " angle is a very good one as well, for as Mexicans find their country more and more overwhelmed with U.S. fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart stores and Hollywood movies, they are very sensitive to issues of cultural imperialism from the north.

But unfortunately, as the government and the Mexican media (which often tends toward sensationalism) have turned the controversy into a purely cultural conflict, the issue as to whether the stamp might actually be offensive to black people has been essentially ignored. People have been so quick to dig in their heels to defend Memin Penguin and their culture, they seem entirely unwilling to even consider that the image, while acceptable in the 1940s, is offensive to many in 2005. Even Elena Poniatowska, one of the nation's most acclaimed authors and left-leaning intellectuals, spoke out in defense of the stamp. I saw a quote from her this week saying that images like Memin and a popular folk song called something like "Little Black Watermelon Boy," are, in fact, demonstrations of the affection that Mexicans feel for black people. The only public condemnation I have seen of the stamps came from the leftist newspaper La Jornada, but they were criticizing the Fox government for causing an unnecessary diplomatic row rather than criticizing the wisdom of reproducing and celebrating outdated and insensitive imagery.

When I have talked to people I know about the stamp, the responses I get are: "Memin Pinguin is part of our culture," "He was created in the 1940s, and so he reflects the norms of that period," "Memin is an adorable character, not a villain in any way, so how is he offensive to blacks?" and, "Who are Americans to criticize us when they're the ones whose culture is racist?"

I've also seen a couple of TV news reports where they've interviewed people on the street or in line at the post office about the stamp controversy. "Of course the stamp isn't racist, Memin Pinguin is an adorable character that all Mexicans love," is the usual comment. Funny that I haven't seen any news reporters venturing into the black Mexican communities in Veracruz, Oaxaca or Guerrero to get their perspective.

And that's the argument I keep hearing here: "Memin Penguin doesn't offend me, so therefore he's not offensive. You who are offended are at fault for your misinterpretation." In fact, that's essentially the argument Fox made last month after his comment that Mexicans in the U.S. "do the jobs that not even blacks will do." No, said Fox, the statement was not racist, and it's really too bad that the African-American community interpreted it as such.

Mexicans laugh at Americans sometimes for their ultra-sensitivity. And yeah, extreme PC-ism deserves to made fun of. But I'm not sure if a total lack of concern for sensitivity -- like calling overweight people "fatty" or referring to handicapped people as "minusvalidos," or "less valids" -- is any better. Seems like there should be a happy medium out there somewhere.

And yeah, I can understand why Mexicans would get a kick out of something that winds up the gringos so much. But at the same time, they should remember that it's not just the U.S. that is viewing these stamps; the rest of the world is seeing them now thanks to this controversy. And I don't think that Memin Pinguin is going to do much to improve the world's view of Mexico.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

paying the bills and carlos slim

Much like when I was living in the States, here in Mexico, I'm regularly confronted with a pile of bills to pay. I've got my electric bill, my water bill, my phone bill; basically the only difference is that here I have no heating bill (like my bro in the east).

But there is also a difference in how I pay my bills here. In the States, I'd sit down each month, write out a separate check to each entity, put a stamp on each envelope, and drop them all in the mail. Here in Mexico, it's actually a bit simpler. Instead of writing checks and mailing my bills individually, I can pay them all at once at the bank. So when I go to deposit my paycheck at the bank, I grab whatever fistful of bills I have outstanding at the moment and pay them at the same time. It's a suprisingly easy and efficient way of doing things.

Of course, part of the reason for this efficient system of bill paying may be that the postal service is so unreliable. If you were to try to mail a check to the phone company here, it might not get there for weeks. In fact, it might not get there at all. And timeliness in paying your bills is crucial here -- you don't get the same grace period you do in the U.S. I was slow to pay my phone bill last month, and so one morning when I picked up my phone to call a friend, instead of a dial tone I got a recording from Telmex telling me: "Your service has been suspended until you pay your bill." Honestly, it had only been a few weeks since the bill had been issued. These guys don't mess around.

A funny thing I also found out recently about my water bill is that it has a statute of limitations for payment. I had temporarily misplaced the most recent water bill, then re-discovered it and brought it to the bank yesterday. The teller was trying to process it for me when she noted that the payment deadline had been May 31. "You can't pay this bill," she said. "It expired May 31 and today is June 3." I asked her what to do, and she said just to wait, that they'd probably send another one or something. But unlike the phone company, in the meantime they haven't turned off my water. Seems like they just should have let me pay the bill.

One somewhat creepy thing about the bill-paying system here is that in addition to banks, you can also pay most of your bills at Sanborn's restaurants. See, Sanborn's is owned by Carlos Slim, the world's fourth-richest man and the owner of just about everything in Mexico, it would seem. Since most of your money just ends up in his pocket anyway, he's developed his own bill payment network that allows you to pay him directly with no middleman. It's almost like we've got this one-man shadow oligarchy in Mexico, which is why, even though I know most of my money goes right to Carlos Slim, I feel a little bit more comfortable paying my bills at the bank rather than Sanborns.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

psschitt gel!

I've been seeing them now for eight or nine months, but the t.v. ads for Psschitt! Gel on Azteca 7 still crack me up every time. The product is a Mexican brand of hair-styling gel, but with the Spanish pronunciation, the woman announcer seems to be imploring you to spray some "pssschit" onto your head. There's nothing better for control, apparently.

Friday, May 20, 2005

reefer madness

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has new book out called Reefer Madness; a collection of three essays on the American underground. The topics covered are pot, illegal migrant labor, and porno. Most interesting to me was the essay on illegal labor in the strawberry farms of California, where the bulk of the illegals are Mixtec Indians from western Oaxaca (where I lived last year). Schlosser calls the Mixtecs "some of the poorest and most exploited people in the Western Hemisphere," and after reading about their treatment by the strawberry growers, it was easy to understand why the Mixtecs didn't seem to be all that crazy about Americans.

Some of my students at UTM once gave a presentation on NAFTA in which they claimed that 85% of Mixtecan men between the ages of 18 and 40 had worked at one time picking fruit in the states. I had thought that the number sounded high, but maybe they were right after all. Gives me second thoughts now on having flunked them on the presentation. (just kidding!)

mexico barbaro

This is a quote out of a book that I am reading about Mexico in the early 1900s (this is my rough translation)

"The real Mexico I found to be a country with a written constitution and written laws in general almost as fair and democratic as our own, but with neither constitution nor laws in operation. Mexico is a country without political freedom, without freedom of speech, without a free press, without a free ballot, without a jury system, without political parties, without any of our cherished guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico, 1910

The following excerpt is from the Oaxaca News from last week:

"In the Southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, most people agree that the Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz's term as governor will be even worse than the already repressive and corrupt regime of his predecessor, José Murat Casab, both members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a group that has ruled Oaxaca for eighty years. After just three tortured months of his reign, Ulises' government has been internationally condemned for its acts of political revenge; for its violent suppression of protests; for its imprisonment and murder of dissidents; for its attacks upon the press; for its manipulation of votes; for its miscarriages of justice; and for the numerous ways it has abused human rights, immiserating and terrorizing its indigenous population to serve the interests of foreign capital and PRI political bosses."

drug lords

There has been a recent wave of drug lords executing each other in Mexico. Just yesterday, 12 were found dead yesterday across the country. As I previously mentioned in my comment on Mexico Barbaro, I feel that Mexico's crime is increasing. The stats in the following articles note the increase of crime in Mexico, with respect to crime related to drugs.

On the one hand, it is horrible to see an increase in the rise of violence in Mexico, however on the other, they are killing each other off, people who would other wise be increasing the production of drugs.

News link on drug-related killings (English)
News link on drug-related killings(Spanish)

giant chain stores

I’ve been feeling a little guilty lately about the amount of business I’ve been doing with a couple of American chain stores here: Blockbuster and Starbucks.

Now, I realize that as far as giant chains go, Starbucks really isn’t all that evil: I’m told that they treat their workers well, they support good social causes, and that they buy a lot of Free Trade coffee. But they still use the unfair advantage of massive corporate strength to overwhelm and eliminate locally owned coffee shops, so I’ve always preferred to buy coffee from the little guy.

Here in Mexico, however, what draws me to Starbucks (other than the fact that it’s right down the street from my place of work) is that it’s one of the few places where I can get a cup of coffee just the way I like it: brewed and with milk added. You can order a ‘café americano’ just about anywhere, but it’s usually just an espresso shot with hot water, which has a slightly different taste than the brewed coffee that I’m used to. Starbucks not only serves brewed coffee, it’s just about the only place I’ve found that sets out pitchers of milk and half and half. When I ask for a ‘café Americano con leche’ at other coffee shops, I usually end up with a cappuchino, and when I try to explain to the clerk that I would like them to pour some plain-old cold milk into my coffee, they often look at me like I’ve just asked them to spit in it.

So yeah, I’m an ugly American when it comes to demanding my coffee be just-so. But old habits are hard to break, I guess.

Now let me try to justify Blockbuster.

Part of the reason that I’ve ended up with a Blockbuster membership is because they seem to be the only game in town. In Oaxaca and Queretaro, where I lived previously, there were plenty of small mom and pop video rental shops as well as a Mexican chain, Videocentro.

Another reason I do business with Blockbuster is that they rent Zone 1-formatted DVDs. See, movie distribution companies format DVDs differently for the various regions of the world, I suppose to make it difficult for people in a country like Mexico to watch a movie that hasn’t yet been officially released here. So for that reason, DVD players sold in each region of the world are set to play DVDs for that particular region. I watch DVDs on my laptop, which I bought in the States and is therefore formatted for Zone 1. Mexico is Zone 4 so most video shops here rent Zone 4-formatted discs. With a laptop, you can change your DVD zone preference, but only up to 4 or 5 times before it’s locked permanently. Since I have a fair collection of my own DVDs that I bought in the U.S., after a couple of changes I would have to choose between watching locally rented movies or those in my own collection. Since Blockbuster rents Zone 1 DVDs, I don’t have to make that choice. Seems like a giant corporate conspiracy, doesn’t it?


Also, Walmart is another huge chain in Mexico that has generated quite a big uproar with their decision to build near Tenochitlan, outside of Mexico City.

catch 22

When Vicente Fox ran for president of Mexico in the last election, he ran promising cambio (change). And now that he's in office, cambio continues to be the catchphrase for his domestic policy. Well, he certainly has the right idea on that point because if there's one thing this country (or at least Oaxaca) needs, it's a massive infusion of loose change. It's crazy - nobody ever has change, not even stores that have been doing business all day long. I swear, the phrase I've heard most during my stay in Mexico is "no traes cambio?" It's a real catch-22 too because the ATM's charge a fee for each transaction so you try to make fewer, but larger withdrawals, but then you end up with 200 peso bills (about 18 USD) that you can't use anywhere. Go into a store and drop a 200 to cover your purchase and the shopkeeper will look at it like you just took a crap on his counter. Then you'll have to wait for 10 minutes while they send some kid running all over town for change.

So Vicente, bring on that cambio, and quick!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

partido de la sociedad nacionalista



Now here's an intriguing option in the upcoming elections: the new PSN, or Partido de la Sociedad Nacionalista. What's their platform? I don't really know, other than it's nationalistic. Their posters and ads tell me nothing about their agenda. Who's their candidate? Beats me, though somehow I doubt it's the bare-shouldered young woman that appears in all their publicity. I figure the PSN must be a party founded by bigshots from the beer industry. It's a very nationalistic industry, for one (just try and find a Budweiser in Mexico!), but the PSN's advertising strategy seems remarkably similar to that of the beer industry. What does a pretty, 18 year-old Mexican girl wearing nothing but a loosely-draped blanket and oversized sombrero have to do with a political agenda? About as much as a beautiful, scantily-clad woman has to do with beer. But people sure do buy a lot of beer, so hey, maybe this kind of marketing will work in politics too.
The thing that worries me about the PSN's ad campaign, though, is the young woman's instruction to voters to remember her when voting. It seems like a better idea for voters to have corrupt old politician-types in mind during that time alone behind the curtain.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

mayor of los angeles elected

"Our purpose is to believe in our young people. Our purpose is to make a difference,"

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, recently elected governor of LA, is the first Hispanic governor and more than a century.

president vicente fox comment

President Vicente Fox last Friday got himself into some hot water over a comment that some have decried as racist. Instead of apologizing, however, the president and some of his buddies (Foreign Minister Derbez, Cardinal Norberto Rivera) have rationalized and even defended the comment (addendum: on Monday night, Fox finally issued a private apology after a phone conversation with Jesse Jackson).

Just last week, a conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington featuring Mexican scholars discussed the problems that confront this country's Afro-Mexican population. The consensus was that Afro-Mexicans are largely marginalized and ignored by the govenment and subjected to widespread discrimination by Mexican society as a whole.

You certainly do run into a lot of very cringeworthy expressions of what would certainly be deemed racism in the United States. For example, from an AP story: "One afternoon television program, Vida TV, regularly features a comedian in blackface chasing light-skinned actresses in skimpy outfits, while an advertisement for a small, chocolate pastry called the "negrito" - the little blackie - shows a white boy sprouting an afro as he eats the sweet." Even the world-reknowned Ballet Folklorico de Mexico relies regularly on a giant Sambo figurine in its performances.

Part of the issue is that Mexicans are just a lot more open when it comes to talking about skin color. I'm constantly being called "guero," or "whitey," and dark-skinned people get called "moreno," or "dark," with no malicious intent nor hurt feelings. But that still doesn't mean that there's no line that can't be crossed.

Sometimes it seems that there's only one form of racism that matters here in Mexico: racism against Mexicans by Americans. And certainly, racism against Mexicans in the U.S. exists in many, very ugly, forms. But man, the treatment of indigenous people here in Mexico, not to mention Afro-Mexicans and the Central American migrants who cross over the Guatemalan border, is pretty appalling in its own right.

So when Fox tries to decry racism in the U.S. by making a borderline racist remark of his own, he and his argument seem absurd. The government here really flipped out recently when an annual U.S. State Department human rights report criticized Mexico's record. "What hypocracy!" they shouted, and certainly with good reason. But maybe Mexico needs to do a bit of reflecting on its own attitudes towards race as it continues to contest discrimination in the United States.

More info

Sunday, May 15, 2005

estomago

Everyone’s familiar with the old maxim: “When in Mexico, don’t drink the water.” Well this goes not just for gringos but for Mexicans, too.

The fact is that nobody drinks the water here, not even the locals. You get your drinking water in big 20 liter jugs called garafons which are delivered door-to-door, and anytime you need to use water in a way that it’ll end up in your mouth – like cooking or brushing your teeth – you use the purified water from the garafon. This week in my Level 1 class we started learning the modal verbs can and should, and in one practice exercise the students wrote sentences advising tourists what they can do when visiting Mexico, what they should do, what they shouldn’t miss, etc. They had a little trouble coming up with things that tourists shouldn’t do, so I told them the classic advice: “you shouldn’t drink the water.” They looked at me in a baffled kind of way, as if I had told them that gringos tell each other that you shouldn’t drink out of the toilet in Mexico or that you shouldn’t eat the dog doo off the sidewalk. Well, of course you don’t drink the water, morons, was the generally bemused reaction. They were quite startled, then, when I told them that in the U.S. and Canada and Europe people can drink water from the tap without problem and that foreign tourists have to remember not to do the same in Mexico.

But as careful as people are with the tap water here, you still can’t avoid ingesting it on occasion. You might eat off a plate that hasn’t been completely dried, or if you go to a restaurant, who knows whether or not they’ve used the tap water in preparing your juice or your soup stock or whatever. So minor bouts of stomach trouble are quite common . If you call in to work and tell them that your having some stomach difficulty, there will be no questions asked, just “oh yeah, of course, better take the day off.” El estomago serves as a great excuse that way in that it’s never questioned and completely understood. A week ago I went to a surprise birthday party for a woman who works in the office at the Centro de Idiomas, and while we all lay in wait at her house, her husband went off to pick her up from a class and bring her back to the party. Problem was that she was dilly-dallying pretty badly after the class, chatting with friends, wanting to run some errands, things like that. He said he tried a number of excuses to get her to hurry home, but nothing worked until he said “you know, my stomach is starting to gurgle – I think I’m going to have some pretty severe diarhea real quick. We better get home to the bathroom.” And that worked like a charm – she got right in the car and they rushed home to the awaiting surprise.

(A brief afterward: at the party, like all Mexican celebrations, they served pozole, a traditional meat stew. Of course, I was pressured into eating it, despite my insistence that I was a vegetarian. And lo and behold, the next day, there were some pretty unpleasant estomago-related occurrences.)

mosquitos in mexico

I certainly have had a lot of experience with mosquitos in my life -- I spent several of my summers months in Cuernavaca and Guatemala, after all. But I have to say that the mosquitos here in Huajuapan are unlike any that I have ever encountered.

It's not their numbers that are the problem; in fact, it's usually only one or two of them that show up to make my life miserable every night. It's more their approach that makes them insufferable.

For one, unlike other mosquitos that I've encountered, the Mexico variety seems to only show up under the cover of night. And then, they only come out when the lights are off and I can't see them. I'll sit around all evening long without a problem, but as soon as I turn off the lights to go to bed or watch a movie, I've got one buzzing in my ear. But as soon as I switch on a light so I can locate and crush the little bastard, he's vanished again.

The other unusual thing for me about Mexico mosquitos is that they have a very lethal bite. I've never had much of an allergic reaction to mosquito bites -- mostly I just object to the initial sting. But here, I don't even notice when the mosquitos are biting me, I just start to feel an incredible itch a few moments afterward. I also get a large, swollen bump, which I never really got from mosquito bites before. Sometimes the itching is so bad that it wakes me up and keeps me from falling back asleep.

So I've had to adopt a couple of anti-mosquito measures, which seem to work to some degree. One thing I've done is buy a Raid plug-in device, where you insert a small pad that heats up and produces a smell that it supposed to keep mosquitos away. Of course, who knows what the chemicals are that produce the smell and what what they're doing to my health. So now I'm trying a more chemical-free approach: I've positioned an electric fan a few inches from my bed and have the thing going at full blast all night. It can be a little distracting to try to sleep in the midst of hurricane-force winds, but it seems to keep the bugs away, and it eliminates the need to breathe in Raid toxins all night.

Maybe it's time to look into a mosquito net.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

TELMEX problems

A day after I paid my rent, my telephone bill arrived. The telephone company here, TELMEX, was for a long time a state-owned enterprise until it was privatized back in the 90s under the administration of President Carlos Salinas. Carlos Salinas may well hold the distinction as the most sleazy and corrupt president in the history of Mexico (and that’s saying a lot!) He currently lives in Ireland, I believe, and quite comfortably after he was able to ‘accumulate’ millions of dollars during his presidency and stash it in offshore bank accounts. He has been implicated, though never charged, in the assassinations of two political rivals. His brother, however, has been convicted in those two murders and is currently serving time in prison. There is also a lot of suggestion that the Salinas brothers were connected to the drug cartels up along the border.

As president, Carlos Salinas also sold off TELMEX to his good buddy Carlos Slim, who is now the richest man in Latin America. I think I have some idea why he’s so rich after seeing how things work at TELMEX and one of his other holdings, Prodigy internet service.

Anyway, I got my bill from TELMEX the other day and was quite shocked to see that it included a 1,499 peso (US$135) charge for Prodigy internet service. The charge had never shown up on my previous bills, and I certainly hadn’t ordered it in the past month. So I called up TELMEX to straighten the deal out.

“We have it on record that an Enrique Madrigal ordered the service for this number on March 11,” the service rep. told me.

“Well, I do not have the faintest idea who Enrique Madrigal is,” I responded.

“But the record shows that he placed the order from your phone number.”

“No, he didn’t,” I responded, “because I don’t know him and I can guarantee that he was not in my apartment on September 11.”

“Very interesting,” she responded, followed by a pause and the sound of fingers tapping at a keyboard.

“Now that I look at it,” she eventually responded, “the order was placed on March 11, 2005. Somehow, our computer reactivated the request…”

“Well, please tell the computer to un-reactivate it and take the charge off my bill.”

“Oh, I can’t do that. You’ll have to call Prodigy and have them disconnect the service. Then I can credit your account.”

So after a little venting, I had to call Prodigy. I told them that there had been a mistake and that I needed to disconnect the service. “OK,” said the rep., “but I see that the account is in the name of Enrique Madrigal. Are you Enrique Madrigal?”

No, I said, I wasn’t, and furthermore I had no idea who he was.

Well, then, she asked, was I Francisco R.? (That’s my landlord – the TELMEX service is in his name.)

No, I responded.

“Sorry,” she replied, “but only the account holder or the owner of the phone service can cancel the account.”

“Well then,” I responded, “I misheard you. In fact, my name IS Francisco R.”

“But you just told me that it wasn’t,” she said. “Plus, you don’t sound like a Francisco R.”

Darn that accent (putting my fist in the air and waving it)!

So then I had to call my landlord to ask him to cancel the service. And although his phone line is back up and running, he isn’t answering. And neither is his assistant answering on the cell phone. So I went by the landlord’s place (he lives not very far from here) and he wasn’t home. Probably down in Acapulco. But I left a note with the doorman explaining the situation so hopefully it will get straightened out soon. But if it doesn’t, for those of you who have my phone number, if you try to call and get a message that the line is out of service, you’ll know why.

Friday, May 13, 2005

all-day breakfast

As far as I'm concerned, they really ought to pass a law saying that any restaurant that has breakfast items on their menu must serve those items during all hours that they are open. This "breakfast menu available until 11:00 a.m." business really must be stopped. It's just flat-out discrimination against that segment of the population that gets up at noon, I tell you.

When I go out looking for my first meal of the day at 1:00 p.m., my stomach is just not ready for tacos or tortas; I need huevos a la mexicana or hot cakes (yes, they're called that here, too). So when I sit down someplace, glance over the menu at all the delicious breakfast options only to be told by the waitperson that they stopped serving breakfast two hours ago, I feel that my basic human rights have been violated.

I'm not just talking about amending the Mexican constitution to protect the breakfast-eating rights of late risers; either. This is also a major problem in the U.S. and Canada, and probably in many other nations as well. So at the very least, the issue needs to be addressed during the next NAFTA meetings, and the WTO might want to start taking a look at it, too.

That said, if any of you find yourselves in Mexico, you'll do well to stop in to La Pagoda, formerly known as Cafe Popular, on Cinco de Mayo and Filomena Mata. The Pagoda is not only open 24 hours, 365 days a year, it also serves delicious and inexpensive breakfasts during every minute of those 24 hours and 365 days. What's more, they have one of the best cups of coffee you'll find at an all-night diner. And if you stop by around 1, you might just see me there.

dormir, encantarse, y manejar una bici

Bicicletas diarias

Hay cosas en nuestra vida que son peligrosas: dormir, encantar y manejar una bicicleta. Dormirse, encantarse, y manejar, son tres invitaciones a lo mismo. Tres modos de irse a otra parte, a un lugar, a lugares que no siempre entendemos, que nunca gobernamos, que cada noche son distintos, y cada mañana nos deslumbran y asustan como una tarde de granizo en Mayo.

Manejar una bicicleta, como dormirse, es un peligro siempre, y una promesa cada vez. Es lógico temer a los peligros; sin embargo me he dado cuenta de que manejar tiene mas regularidad que dormir. Si te duermes en tu cama, tienes el riesgo de tener un sueno, el cual no te esperabas cuando te dormiste. Manejar una bici es menos peligroso con respecto a el hecho de que puedes tener el control de hacer cosas, puedes escoger tu ruta, tu destino, y tus tipos de riesgo; ni siquiera encantar tiene tal oportunidad. Imagínate que tengas un novio/a, ¿Piensas que tendrías menos riesgo en esta relación como en una aventura en las montanas con una bici, mochila, y unos amigos? La repuesta debe de haber sido, no, estar enamorada es mas peligroso. Hay mucha gente en el mundo, mujeres y hombres, que tienen miedo de enamorarse. A pesar de este miedo, sobreviven. Pero el tema hoy es manejar. Al manejar, siento que todo en mi vida no me importa. ¿Has ido a el cine te diste cuenta que mientras estabas viendo la película, tus problemas, tus estudios, tus deudas, tus amigos, tu familia, tu deseos, etc. parecían como no existieran? Toma este sentido y aplícalo a mi aventura en mi bicicleta porque siento así siempre. Con todo el respecto se merece, manejar es ser olvidado, es esconder en las sombras de tu vida?????. Mientras manejo, olvido que estoy en México, que tengo un papel que entregar mañana y tres hijos (jejjej no es cierto!).

Todo es posible con una bicicleta

Durante cada fin de semana, me levanto de madrugada, mas temprano cuando tengo que irme a trabajar durante la semana, y me pongo feliz. ¿Por qué me preguntas? Porque en este momento, tengo todo lo que necesito para ir a un lugar en el que nadie ha estado. A menudo le pregunto a la gente, “¿has ido a ciudad X?” Se queda sorprendida. Al principio, pensé que mi acento era horrible. Pero la realidad es que la gente no viaja hasta los distritos donde siempre voy. (Por tanto quizás sea una combinación de los dos). Si manejas tu bici, corres el riesgo de caerte o peor, estar en medio de la nada con una cadena que se rompió (lo cual le pasó a mi amigo el pasado fin).

Nos reunimos temprano, tan temprano que los gallos no quieren cantar ni levantarse. La ciudad duerme en ese momento, después una noche larga.
La cosa mas bonita de Oaxaca es la gente. Pero, en el segundo lugar es el campo. Cuando sales de la ciudad, no es como las demás en México, porque es virgen. La gente me mira como si fuera de Saturno.
“Bueno Días”, les comento, pasando tan rápido que mi voz es como un murmullo. Me siento vivo bajando las colinas y montanas. Mi adrenalina aumenta e incrementa hasta los cielos, me quedo tenso y nervioso. Me alegra que la gente me salude en el campo. Me da mucho gusto que los habitantes vivan una vida así. O sea, siempre parecen muy felices.

No hay una mejor manera de ver un país que manejar o correr. ¿Has ido a la sierra gorda en Queretaro, o el chico de Pachuca, los campos de Oaxaca, o las dunas de Sonora? Son lugares que exclusivamente puedes ir si tienes una bicicleta.

Cheerios son como México

Mi Cheerios esta en la mesa ahora mismo y leo su lema: No importa el gusto con nuestra variedad seguro encontrarás uno para ti.

El lema de México (en mi opinión): No importa el gusto con nuestro país seguro encontrarás un hobby para ti.
Es la realidad, puedes escoger lo que sea y todo lo que pase bien. Te digo eso porque he visto a mucha gente que no hace nada durante el día. Debes hacer algo, lo que sea, algo que te convenga.
A mi me gusta manejar mi bicicleta y seguiré manejándola para que conozca el campo de Oaxaca. Ojala que un día tenga yo la oportunidad a ver las valles y santiago apoala. Hay una voz en todo de nosotros, y ahora mi voz me llama a mi cama.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

EFL/ESL

What I’m teaching is considered EFL, or English as a Foreign Language, as opposed to ESL, or English as a Second Language. The difference is in the context: English instruction outside of an English-speaking country is EFL, inside an English-speaking country it’s ESL. Both fall under the umbrella of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

The benefit of being a teacher of EFL is that you have the opportunity to live in another country and experience a different culture. But as far as the actual teaching goes, EFL is a tougher assignment. Generally, people who are learning English in an ESL setting are motivated to learn; they are either immigrants who know that they need English to have a better life, or they are students in an immersion environment in which they need English for their day-to-day survival. Another benefit of ESL is that you often get a mix of first languages in the classroom, so that in order to communicate with eachother, the students have no choice but to speak English. Therefore, the teachers expends less energy fighting to keep the class on task.

In the EFL situation, however, the majority of students do not have an internal motivation to learn English. They are in English class because their parents want them to be, because their school or university requires it, or because their employer thinks they need it. And this lack of internal motivation can translate into a lack of enthusiasm. Furthermore, they all speak the same first language, so since they often aren’t that motivated to practice English in the first place, they’ll retreat to the first language at every opportunity.

I think that foreign language learning brings out the worst in students this way because they’re required to be active learners in class. They might have to take Introduction to Astonomy to satisfy a requirement, but at least they can sit in the back of the lecture hall and doze off. In language class, however, they’ll have to actually do something, like practice a conversation with a partner, walk around and take a survey of their classmates, write something on the board, or perform a skit in front of the class. And they’ll be expected to do it all in a language that they can hardly speak, so they’re certainly not going to be looking very cool (or here in Mexico, very macho) in the process.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

grandmothers are beautiful people

The little closet in my apartment came stocked with clothes hangers, and pulling one out today I saw that it came from Weldon Cleaners in Medford, Oregon. I often see stuff like that, promotional items from obscure American businesses and wonder how it was that they ended up in this one little corner of Mexico. Most often it’s t-shirts, with logos like “Bob’s Towing and Auto Body, Sheboygan.” Those, I suppose, are easy enough to figure out, since Mexican immigrants are living and working in all corners of the U.S. and probably doing a lot of shopping at second-hand stores where you find t-shirts like that. But how about stuff like clothes hangers? Who would bother to bring a little clothes hanger all the way from Medford, Oregon? You also see a lot of logos, again especially on t-shirts, that are clear Mexican-made knockoffs of the kind of crap you’d find in the states. For example, my students will come to class with shirts that say things like: “Western Tennessee Superstar Championship Exciting Team,” which clearly have been generated domestically. And not only is the word choice often nonsensical on those things, grammatical and spelling mistakes are common, too. I had a student this semester at UTM who often wore a t-shirt reading: “Beverly Hills Yatch Club,” which messed with my head in so many ways that it was often difficult to concentrate on the lesson.

Of course, a lot of times people in developing countries buy or acquire these t-shirts without any understanding of what the English on them means. Once I was at a market in Queretaro and this obese drunk came careening down the sidewalk towards me, his fat belly bulging out from underneathe a filthy “Grandmothers Are Beautiful People” shirt. Boy, was I kicking myself for not having my camera on hand at that moment.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

el dia de las madres

Today, May 10, is Mother's Day in Mexico. Unlike in the States, where Mother's Day is always on Sunday, here it's always on the 10th. I guess the issue is that there are so many other special days in early May -- Labor Day is May 1, then there's Cinco de Mayo, and then something else, I think Teacher's Day, on the 15th -- that there's really no room to be moving Mother's Day around.

I guess the tradition in Ecuador had been that, at the stroke of midnight leading into Mother's Day, men would stand outside their mother's bedroom window and serenade them with love songs. But now what's happening is that more and more, men display their love for their moms by hiring the largest p.a. system they can find, mounting it on a flatbed truck, and parking the thing outside their mother's house. At the stroke of midnight, instead of singing and strumming a guitar, they blast out popular love ballads at unspeakable volume over mega-watt sound systems.

where are you from?

Since I spend a lot of time out and about by myself, I often get approached by curious locals. I guess Mexicans find us gringos less threatening alone. In any case, I’ve found that almost invariably, regardless of the intent of the person, the first question they’ll ask me is “where are you from?” When I first arrived in Mexico, I’d answer without hesitation that I was from the U.S. I soon learned, however, that in these situations, honesty isn’t always the best policy.

Now, the majority of people that approach me do so with friendly intent, and it’s pretty easy to identify these types. They’ll come up and ask politely in Spanish, or possibly in English, “Hey buddy, where are you from?” They might be studying English and want to practice, they might have lived in the U.S. for a bit and what to share their experiences, or they might just be curious as to what the heck you’re doing here. One time I was sitting at an outdoor café in Oaxaca on a Sunday morning and there was a very well-dressed family sitting at the table next to me, obviously just having come from church. I could see that the father was looking at me, and eventually he came over to my table and asked where I was from. I told him that I was from the U.S., and he invited me to come sit with his family. His two pre-teen daughters had just started learning English in school and he told me that they were very interested in practicing conversation with a native speaker. Of course, the last thing in the world these two girls wanted to do was speak English with an American and they were horried when their dad brought me over to meet them. I chatted with them a little in English, then we quickly switched to Spanish and I had quite a nice talk with a very pleasant family.

That’s an example of a positive “where are you from?” encounter. There have been others, however, that were not so fun. These are/were always initiated in Spanish and usually with an aggressive “Hey Gringo!” In these cases, the speaker is an 18-30 year-old man, often drunk. When I’d answer that was from the U.S., I’d have to listen to all kinds of abuse about Bush, Iraq, Afghanistan, U.S. immigration, and how we Americans think we’re hot. So I quickly learned that with these guys, it was best to lie. “I’m from England,” became my response. But this too turned out to be problematic. For one, if the person knew anything at all about current events, I’d still get crap about Iraq. But even if they didn’t, I’d be in trouble because they’d then want to talk all about English soccer, of which I know just enough to hold a 5 minute conversation. So I’ve switched to a new approach. Now I tell them: “I’m from Sweden!,” which has the effect of producing the most blank facial expression you could imagine, and at least 15 seconds of dumbfounded speechlessness. When they finally recover from this mindblow, they’ll mumble something like “yeah, umm, well … how about those %#$%^# Americans? and shuffle off.

Friday, May 06, 2005

public opinion

A Latin American public opinion poll that came out this week showed that in Mexico, only 41 percent of people have a good opinion of the United States. Of the 18 countries in the poll, Mexico was tied with Bolivia with the second lowest rating. Argentina had the lowest at 31 percent.

In terms of approval of the Iraq War, only 4 percent of Mexicans agree with U.S. actions. Again, that’s second lowest in the region, ahead of only Argentina.

In Mexico, the United States has lost more than 20 percentage points in positive opinion under Bush.

Personally, I think it stinks that on some occasions I feel the need to tell people that I’m from Denmark or Belgium in order to avoid getting crap for being an American.

Of course, the Bush Administration response to all this would be “Who cares what the rest of the world thinks?” But especially if you’re one of those millions of Americans who live side-by-side with the rest of the world, it seems like you should care.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

desafuero update

It looks like Fox is starting to realize he made a big mistake with this desafuero thing: he's just fired his Attorney General, obviously in an attempt to scapegoat the guy. Look for Foxy to cut a deal with the mayor sometime soon.

Don't feel too bad for the ex-AG, however. I'm sure that in exchange for taking the fall, he'll be given a cushy ambassadorship somewhere. Or else a few million bucks out of the national treasury and a house on a Carribbean island.

One thing to keep an eye on is this: it looks like the new AG is going to be a guy by the name of Caveza de Vaca, which literally translates as Cow's Head. Seems politically risky to me to have an attorney general by the name of Cow's Head -- as if anyone's going to take that guy seriously! So we'll see how that pans out for ol' Fox.

Happy Kid's Day

For all you kids out there, today is your day in Mexico. Mexico, like Mother's and Father's Day, has instituted a national day for kids. I would have moved down here earlier in my life if I had known about this great day. Anyways, Happy Kid Day!

desafuero down-low

I imagine by now that most everyone has heard about the ongoing situation here with Mexico City's mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. It's really quite a fascinating case, although I certainly realize that I can call it "fascinating" because I'm viewing the whole thing through the eye of a foreigner. If I were a Mexican citizen, I'd probably be more likely to characterize it as "horribly tragic" or as "absolutely infuriating and offensive" -- much the same way that I as a U.S. citizen might characterize, say, the nomination of Michael Bolton as the ambassador to the U.N.

Anyway, the long and short of it is this: Lopez Obrador, the highly popular leftist mayor has been stripped of his immunity from prosecution by the PAN and PRI party members of Congress (Lopez Obrador, known in Mexico as AMLO, is a member of the PRD) so that he can be charged for ignoring a court injunction to stop building an access road to a hospital. As a result, he may or may not still be the mayor of the city, and, more importantly, he likely will be disqualified from running for president in 2006. For the past year or so, he has been the front-runner in presidential preference polls.

Now, on the spectrum of wrongdoings by Mexican politicians, building an access road on disputed property is about as minor as it gets. Just to give one example, the current governor of Morelos state, a member of President Fox's PAN party, flies around in helicopters belonging to drug cartels; dated the daughter of a key cartel figure; and has been implicated in the drug-smuggling, kidnapping and murder charges filed against one of his top cabinet members. Yet efforts to impeach him from office have been unsuccessful.

In such context, everyone in the world can see the case against Lopez Obrador -- the desafuero by its Spanish legal name -- as a politically motivated effort to eliminate a popular member of an opposition party.

Of course, if you want to view this glass as half full, you might see the judicial-as-political approach as a step in the right direction, especially for the PRI, which in the past simply murdered rival politicans (and it did so even within its own party - check out a couple of guys named Colosio and Ruiz Massieu, both killed as recently as 1994).

Maybe the difference this time is that in the Lopez Obrador case, the PRI appears to following the lead of President Vicente Fox and his conservative PAN party. Left to their own devices, the PRI might just drop 'ol AMLO out of an airplane. The PAN, at least for now, seems to prefer slightly more subtle methods.

Still, the Fox/PAN-at-the-helm-angle leads to a pretty painful irony: when Fox was elected in 2000, ending the PRI's 71-year run of power, he ran on a platform of "change" and promised to lead the nation in a transition to real democracy. Now he's teamed up with his old rivals the PRI to make sure that Mexican voters don't have the opportunity to freely choose Lopez Obrador in a democratic election.

So why are these guys so terrified of Lopez Obrador as a presidential candidate anyway? Here are a couple of possible reasons:


AMLO has advocated greater government control over certain sectors of the economy. Liberalization has made a lot of PAN and PRI bigwigs very rich in recent years.
Many PAN and PRI politicians have some serious skeletons in their closet. They may fear that a President Lopez Obrador would prosecute them for stuff a lot more aggregious than building an access road.
The PAN and PRI higher-ups may have their differences, but they are still part of the same elite ruling class that has dominated Mexico for centuries. The last thing in the world they want to see is a candidate of the people running "their" country.
But what appears to be happening now is that the plan behind the desafuero has really backfired. See, what the PAN/PRI alliance didn't count on is that people are generally in favor of democratic government, and they get very angry when they feel that their democratic rights have been trod upon. They also are not so stupid that they can't see the difference between a political rub-out and the execution of justice. So, not surprisingly, AMLO's popularity has gone up since the desafuero started, and Fox's has gone down. There was a pro-AMLO march here on April 7 and several hundred thousand supporters turned out. There was a second march here last Sunday and an estimated 1.2 million showed up.

It really was a hare-brained scheme to begin with. Lopez Obrador is a master at self-promotion -- all of his public works projects are super high-profile, all of his food and voucher handouts are done in the central square with the full press corps on hand -- and so of course he was going to spin the case to his advantage. And it's not like he was such a sure-thing for the presidency that they had no other choice. Although he had been leading presidential preference polls, AMLO was ahead with only about 35% of the vote, which means 65% of the electorate wasn't yet planning to vote for him. And while Lopez Obrador's handouts have made him a hit with the elderly and the urban poor, many people that I had spoken with -- especially young people -- said they just don't trust the guy.

But now he's playing himself as a martyr and a victim of the power elite and the enemies of democracy, and it's resonating with the people.

And as the situation plays itself out, it sure is taking some interesting twists and turns. For example, here's one clever twist that I have to give the PAN/PRI credit for: Under Mexican law, Lopez Obrador would have to go to jail once he was formally charged. The mayor was all ready to turn that to his advantage as well, talking about running his campaign from behind bars and repeatedly conjuring up comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. But the day that the charges were filed, two PAN senators rushed down and posted Lopez Obrador's bail, and so he couldn't go to jail after all. Touche to you, AMLO!

Disappointed that he couldn't go to prison, AMLO has decided to go back to work. After all, the laws used to prosecute this case are so murky that no one has been able to definitively say that he can't continue being mayor, at least for the time being. So on Monday, the mayor returned to his office amidst swarms of cameras, throngs of followers, and huggable children. Fox's people say that he is breaking more laws by resuming his post, and so maybe they'll send the cops down to arrest him. I'm sure he'd love that.

So keep an eye on this story: it certainly promises to get even more fascinating before it's all over.

Friday, April 29, 2005

fork fees?

I had some friends down visiting recently, which provided me the opportunity to do something a little out-of-the-ordinary: eat at nice restaurants. Generally I'm on a pretty tight budget, which means either cooking at home or dining budget-style only. But since this was a special occasion, and since my friends came with their pockets stuffed with U.S. dollars, I got to dine in style for a few days.

But one thing that struck me about the fancy restaurants we visited here in the city was an unusual charge that a couple of places tacked on to our bill: a fee for cubiertas, or silverware.

Now, one of the places we ate at was so good that they could have charged me for salt and pepper use and I wouldn't have complained. But it still struck me funny that a restaurant would bill its customers for using their silverware (it was about US$1.50 per person in both cases). Or is that a fairly routine practice in fancy-schamntzy dining?

In any case, it got me to thinking that maybe the next time I go out for fine eating, I could save a few pesos by bringing my own knife and fork along. Think they'd take offense?

Monday, April 18, 2005

my paycheck and taxes

I finally got my first paycheck from UTM (things got hung up for a variety of visa- and stupidity-related reasons) and since I received 1 month pay in a single check, I got bumped up to a high tax bracket and lost over 50% of my gross pay. And the bummer about losing all that money in taxes on my paycheck is that I'll never see it again. If you lose money like that in the US, you know you'll get it back at the end of the year. But in Mexico, it's gone into the black hole. Which is why many Mexicans don't pay taxes. Right now is tax season in Mexico and the US. You constantly hear t.v. ads desperately pleading with Mexicans to file their income tax, almost suggesting that it was an optional activity that they should seriously considering undertaking.

In fact, just a few weeks ago in one of my classes we had an activity in which the students matched important days in the US (our textbook assumes that all English language learners live in the US and are deeply interested in American customs and practices) with their dates. One set was "Tax Day" and "April 15," so I asked my students what date tax day is in Mexico. They didn't have the foggiest idea.

I have a friend who spent a year on exchange in the US and she said to me: "Mexicans complain about paying taxes and Americans complain about paying taxes. But at least you can see where your taxes are going. Roads are in good repair, public spaces are kept clean, parks are generally well-cared-for, etc. But in Mexico, we pay taxes and we don't see any return. It goes right into corrupt politicians' pockets." I guess she has a point, though on the flip side, Americans also get to see how our tax dollars allow the U.S. invade Iraq and other imperialist acts that are so common in our history.

I will not go into the history of Latin America, but the US has a poor history with involving itself in affairs of other countries in L.A.

the gold juicer 2000

This weekend, I went to Oaxaca to get a few items, like shirts made for work, rare food, some paintings for my apartment, and the most important item, a juicer!

The juicer is called juguera de oro 2000 ("the gold juicer 2000".. if that does not grab your attention, nothing will). When I was searching for a proper juicer, I wanted one that had the proper handle and solid base. Remember when byying a juicer, the handle is what makes or breaks the juicer. The gold juicer 2000 has a solid handle, which is one of the reasons why I bought it. Another, it is has a solid base. When juicing, the proper juice position will sometimes causes the jucier to slip. A proper base fights this ongoing problem.

So I bought it, I bought the gold juicer 2000. And what a steal it was. As soon as I got off the van from Oaxaca, and went straight to the market to buy some oranges. I bought about 7 pounds for $1.75. Since then, I have been juicing regularly. Well that was yesterday, and I have juiced 3 times so far. It is some of the best juice I have ever had. Also, the juice inside the oranges are cold, so it is ready to drink after jucing.

Here is some juicing advice: make sure to change your routine. Putting all your weight on the handle by pulling down is just as good as putting all your weight by pusing down... so change it up a little and keep jucein'!

slacker!

It has been brought to my attention that I have been a total slacker lately at keeping up with my blog. For this, I apologize and promise to do better.

Generally, when you see long periods of non-posting like this, you can assume that it's due to one of two possibilities. The first is that my life has hit a stretch so dull that I couldn't possibly think of anything interesting to tell you. On the other hand, the second alternative is that my life has become so exciting, so astonishing and stimulating that I wouldn't dream of spelling out the salacious details here, since, after all, my mom is a regular reader of the blog.

I'll let you guess which has been the most recent case.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

videocentro

I've moved recently to Huajapan and one of my first orders of business upon arrival here was to try to get a video rental membership set up. There's a rental place just a few blocks from my house that has a pretty good selection, but before they'd let me check out one of their DVDs, I had to go through basically the same rigamarole that I did at Videocentro back in Queretaro: They wanted proof of residence (copies of water bills, an electric bill, rent receipt, etc.), I had to give them copies of my passport and visa, and I had to provide 2 local references who could vouch for me as video rental-worthy. Maybe I had to give them a urine sample as well, I can't really remember clearly now it was all so overwhelming...

So I managed to get all my paperwork in and waited anxiously for my references to come through - it was like waiting to hear on a college application or something. Finally, a few days later, I got the good news: I had been accepted for membership! I could come back later that evening when the owner was in and pick up my card.

I felt giddy all day, like the junior manager who's just found out he'll be getting the key to the executive washroom. Then, when the designated hour finally came, I rushed down to the shop and was handed this membership card that was an old cigarette carton.

The four-digit number crudely typed on the back of a piece of cigarette carton wasn't quite the golden key I was expecting. Still, it does the trick, and now I can rent cinematic classics like Oye, ¿Donde está mi auto? (Dude, where's my car?) and Señor Deeds with no problem. The funny thing is, as strict as they were about admitting me into their exclusive rental club, they're totally laid-back now that I'm in. In fact, when I rent a movie, they ask me when I'm planning to bring it back. Membership has its privileges, I guess.

Monday, March 28, 2005

forty ounces of family fun

Did you know that here in Mexico, you can buy beer in 'family size' containers? A friend mentioned this to me a while back and I confirmed it yesterday when the guy in front of me in the supermarket line made a purchase that showed up on the register monitor as cerveza - tamaño familiar (beer - family size).

my textbooks

In one of the lessons from this past week, the textbook for my beginner-level course presented a chart showing the top 10 most touristed countries. At the top of the list were the countries you’d expect: France, the USA, Spain, Italy, China, the UK. Then, at number 6, one step ahead of Mexico, was Hungary. Can that possibly be true? I’ve been to Hungary and it’s a beautiful country and all, but as far as I can tell it’s got one real tourist center: Budapest. I guess they’ve got that big lake, too, but it seemed to me that the lake was more of an attraction for Hungarians than foreign tourists. Mexico, on the other hand, has dozens of attractions luring foreign visitors. It’s got big beach resorts like Cancun, Acapulco, and Puerto Vallarta. It’s got beautiful colonial cities like Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and San Miguel. It’s got tons of historical sites like Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, and Palenque. And there are tons of tourists pouring across the border at places like Tijuana, Laredo and Juaraez to enjoy the low culture attractions offered there. There’s just no way in the world that more tourists go to Hungary than Mexico. So I told my students that the book was full of crap and they wholeheartedly agreed.

Another interesting suggestion that I came across in print this week was the opening to Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors, an interesting study of Mexicans and their attitude toward America and Americans. Anyway, Riding starts his book with the claim that nowhere in the world do two countries as different as the USA and Mexico share a border. Actually, he really hedged his argument by adding a bunch of ‘probablys’ and ‘perhpases’ (he would have flunked my Historical Thinking seminar, where were repeatedly instructed to ‘be bold!’). But he got me thinking as to whether or not this is true. I guess North and South Korea are pretty different these days, but that difference is largely political. Culturally and lingusitically they’re still pretty similar. Israel is the other example that immediately jumps to mind. Israel is really two countries within one, and the Palestinian part of the country is still quite similar to it’s neighbors in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. But Jewish Israel certainly doesn’t share a lot in common with its neighbors, and since the USA and Mexico have no immediate plans to destroy eachother, I think we’re runners-up. And using the guaranteed mutual destruction criterea, maybe India and Pakistan should be ahead of us as well. But in any case, Riding’s right that we sure are different and his book presents a lot of interesting ideas as to why. Maybe I’ll post a few later on.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

comet balls

One of the best features of having my nice apartment is a large picture window that looks out over a small plaza from six floors up. I’ve got a couple of comfortable chairs set up in the window and one of my favorite things to do is sit in the window with a newspaper and a cup of coffee and alternate between watching the action down in the plaza and catching up on the latest news. I can easily spend a couple of hours doing that.

Sunday is an especially fun day to check out the plaza because each week I watch as two women show up with two tiny little kids to set up a small table from which to sell comet balls.

The comet balls are rubber super balls with sparkly streamers glued to them. The two women set up a small plank on top of an overturned bucket, lay out the comet balls, and start bouncing them around in hopes of enticing passers-by to make a purchase. Meanwhile, the two little kids – probably about 3 and 4 years old – run all over, playing merrily with the balls, chasing pigeons and exploring every nook and cranny of the plaza.

I looked forward each Sunday to watching the women and children arrive and set up shop. And when someone would approach the comet ball table, I’d watch intently, rooting for them to make a sale. I’d also watch with sympathy as they occasionally dashed for cover from a sudden downpour or from unfriendly police presence.

After watching for a few weeks, I started to speculate a little about them. It became clear to me that one of the two women was the mother of the children, and it also looked like she might be expecting a third in the not-so-distant future. She wore a cleaning woman’s apron every week, so I wondered if maybe she supported her kids by cleaning houses during the week, then used Sunday’s comet ball sales to augment their income a little.

A few weeks ago when my friend Andrew was here visiting, we were passing through the plaza and I pointed the comet ball family out to him and explained who they were. Andrew was intrigued and wanted to support the cause by purchasing a couple of balls. So we went over, picked out a couple of balls, and I briefly introduced myself and told them that I enjoyed watching the children playing from my window.

Last week I was passing through the plaza again on Sunday and saw the family set up. They recognized me and I thought I might chat a bit to try to confirm some of my theories about them.

They were much more interested in trying to sell me a comet ball than telling me about their lives, but I did manage to get a little info out of them (and they managed to get me to buy a couple more comet balls). I was correct that the mother works as a cleaning woman. She commutes via public transportation every day to the center of the city from some neighborhood I hadn’t heard of, but that she said is about a 1 to 1.5 hour trip each way. She cleans houses in some residential neighborhoods a few miles south of where I live, then comes on Sunday to the plaza to sell the comet balls. Her husband went “to the other side,” i.e. the U.S., to look for work. The other woman who tags along on Sundays is her younger sister, who watches the kids for her while their mom’s out cleaning. From close up, mom still looked quite pregnant, but that wasn’t a question I felt comfortable asking. And the two little kids are even cuter close up than from my window.

I have the feeling I’m going to end up with a large collection of comet balls.

information

Somewhere out there in Mexico is a secret information network. Maybe it’s an internet site, or maybe a radio channel way off the end of the dial. It could also be a pay-per-view TV channel, or possibly even a newsletter published clandestinely in someone’s secret back room. But it’s out there somewhere, I know that, because there is vital information circulating among people that I have not been able to get my hands on in the 6 months I have been here.

For example, local bus information is obviously to be found only on the secret network. It sure is convenient when city transit authorities post bus route maps and schedules on the sides of bus shelters. It doesn’t happen in Mexico. Printed maps and schedules are also quite handy. Not in Mexico, though. Yet everybody knows exactly which bus to get on and at what hours the buses run. Everyone except me, that is, since I’m not part of the network.

You know what else is really convenient to know? The hours that local businesses are open. I’ve always been used to seeing signs posted on storefronts advertising the store hours. It’s not a common practice in Mexico, however. If you don’t want to walk all the way to your favorite internet café at an hour that you swear they’ve been open at before just to find the place closed solid, you’ve got to get on the network.


I’m wondering if membership in the secret information network comes for foreigners only after you’ve been here a while and proved your mettle. I’m hoping it comes at the one year mark because, man, I need to know some of this stuff.

Friday, March 25, 2005

thank you Jesus for finding me a place

I'm up in Huajuapan now, where I've been trying to find a place to live. So soon as I arrived here, I asked Jesus if he could help me in my search, and He delivered big time. Of course I'm talking about Jesus Lopez, the amiable septagenerian owner of the the hospedaje where I was staying temporarily. To say that Jesus is well-connected in Huajuapan would be a vast understatement, for as soon as he knew that I was looking for an apartment, there was a long line of locals ready to show me a place. Unfortunately, most of them were offering just a room within their house, which would be fun for a month or so but in the long-term, I really need my own space. So I did finally find a very small studio apartment with a shared bath, shared entry, and a shared kitchenette. It's a bit cheap (65 USD a month), but though small, it's very nice and very well-located.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

church and corruption

I met a guy yesterday – a graduate student at UNAM, the national university here – and we got to talking Mexican politics; a topic that invariably leads to a discussion of corruption. So once on that subject, I asked him to explain the apparent paradox of a country that is at once both intensely religious and completely rife with corruption. He had a pretty interesting answer; what he said was that Mexico is so corrupt precisely because it is so Catholic. He feels that a church that so easily forgives its followers of their sins – just so long as they go to mass, to confession and drop a little bit of cash in the donations basket – engenders a corrupt congregation. People can feel free to lie, cheat and steal, he says, because they know that their church and their God will forgive them in the end.

Furthermore, he said that the Mexican Catholic church itself has been such a model of corruption here that there’s really no way it could serve as any kind of deterrent. And because not many people actually read the Bible themselves, he said, the scripture itself doesn’t have nearly as much influence over people’s moral behavior as do the Church’s sermons, which he claims are heavily tilted towards forgiveness of sin rather than following the teachings of Jesus.

Interesting stuff, I thought, and this from a guy who himself claims to be Catholic.

On a related note, I read an article recently that said that in the 1990 national census, 99% of Mexicans declared their reliogion as Catholic. Today, 82% make that same claim.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

more on mexico transportation

A story in the Oaxaca paper that caught my eye today was one about a Mexico Secretary of Tourism survey of foreign visitors which asked them to rate different ascpects of their Mexican tourism experience. The highest rated area was "hospitality" and the two lowest were limpieza, or basically "cleanliness," and "public transportation." I can certainly agree with any complaints regarding litter in Mexico, but I really don't understand how public transportation could be rated so low, especially since Mexican public transportation is so much better than that in the US (from where the majority of Mexico's tourists come from).

There are buses, vans, and collective taxis everywhere providing service to even the tiniest hamlets, and the long-distance buses, especially if you're a tourist who can afford the luxury lines, are really comfortable and reliable (they're light years ahead of Greyhound). Maybe tourists just don't like sharing a city bus seat with an occasional squawking rooster, but personally I think it adds some nice local color to the whole experience.

dating in mexico

I think it’s revealing that while in English we have different words for the various roles one plays leading up to marriage – boyfriend/girlfriend, fiancee, and then bride/groom – in Spanish, they have one word for all those stages: novio. Here in Mexico then, it seems to be that when you start dating someone, you’re already just one step away from marriage. So for people like myself who are terrified by the concept of marriage, it’s a deal you’re a little hesitant to get involved in. It’s also a system that doesn’t really lend itself to casual dating, which is what you’re generally looking for when you’re in a place where you’re not sure you’ll be staying for too long.

It’s interesting to me how Mexican dating seems to work that way, in that the business of romance needs to be conducted out in public rather than behind closed doors. You walk around the plazas of any Mexican town or city and you’ll see young couples everywhere, extremities intertwined, smooching and groping for all to see. It’s o.k., apparently, to put on a show for the community. But to take it indoors would be a big no-no. And because romantic affairs are carried on out in the open, you don’t just get to see the passion, you see the pain as well. It’s not uncommon to pass by a couple sitting stiffly side-by-side on a bench, eyes red from tears from a recent spat. But then you might walk past 10 minutes later and they’ll be making out like crazy.

I don’t think there’s a big difference in dating habits for older couples, either. For as long as a woman remains unmarried, she’s responsible to the rules of her parents, and rules for daughters are often quite strict. I remember a situation where a group of professors at UTM were planning to go out to a disco. One of the teachers, a 38 year-old single woman, felt obliged to call her parents back in Puebla first to ask them if it was o.k.

I’ve heard that the pick-up scene is alive and well in the clubs here. But I guess I’m not really into that. So I guess what I'm saying is you probably shouldn’t expect to read much more dating news on this page for a while.

mexican driving

Mexicans are famous for their laid-back attitude, and rightfully so. There’s not often a lot of urgency here in getting things done or getting places on time (like English class!), and the “mañana, mañana” approach is both widely practiced and widely tolerated.

Something seems to happen to that laid-back attitude, however, when Mexicans get behind the wheel of a car. Suddenly, they’re transformed into impatient drivers, speeding and passing recklessly on the highways, honking aggressively in town the second a light turns green or making angry gestures at other drivers or pedestrians who slow them down. It’s really a remarkable change, especially when you compare Mexican drivers to Mexican pedestrians, who generally amble along quite slowly, casually taking in the sights around them, waiting patiently to cross a street.

I guess there just must be something about the automobile that makes people, regardless of culture, aggressive and impatient. Of course, that doesn’t go for old folks, who in any culture seem to approach driving with the careful patience of Mexican pedestrians. It’s a strange machine, the car, and it does strange things to us. Someone should do a study or something.

Also, the driving here is quite different, which might explain some of the Mexicans that drive in the states. When you pass someone, the left turn blinker is used to signal that you are passing in the same manner that we use it. But on the frequently traveled backroads that have only two lanes, the left blinker also signals: "Look, I have a slow VW, and you can pass me, there is no one coming." After the person passes, he honks his horn, a slight honk. If you are passing, you can also signal to people behind you that it is okay to pass by leaving your left blinker on and staying in the other lane. This is quite useful on those windy roads here in Oaxaca.

Things in the car that are used more here: the horn and the hazards. The horn is the most important part of the car here; while the hazards are used when going over the million speed bumps that exist on the roads (roads apart from the toll roads). You can be speeding along, and without any notice, a speed bumb appears from nowhere. Now there are instances where there are too many signs. Every 100 meters there will be a sign to remind you that one is coming.

Every city or town has at least a speed bumb (tope in spanish)every 400 meters. Between Mexico City and Huajuapan, a 6 hour drive, there must be at least 60 speed bumbs. But of course, there are several differ types of speed bumbs that I have seen and classified: the vibrator; the ripple-type;, the over-the-easy (which is not really a bumb, more a hump); the typical speed bumb; the table-top speed bumb, which can range and size, but has a slope, then is straight for a meter or two, then drops off; the ball, which is a line of metal balls; my favorit is a pile of dirt that someone has placed in the road, then has written tope next to it,then there is a curb-like bumb that is very dangerous; finally the u shaped, which is actually more like a pothole.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

bichos

I've been having the most horrible, nightmarish experience this past week with bugs. Every evening when I'm in my apartment, basically as soon as the sun sets, I start to feel a tickling sensation on my legs. I'll look quickly at the spot that tickles and there's nothing there. I'll continue what I'm doing, then suddenly the tickling comes back, then a sharp bite. Once again, upon examination, there's nothing there but a small, red mark.

Then, shortly after I get into bed, the same thing starts up, but all over my body. Tickling sensations, a quick shine of the flashlight, but nothing to see. Then a sharp bite. It happens over and over, all night long. I lie in a disturbed half sleep, feeling like I've somehow been transformed into a character in a Poe story. I can't fully sleep until the sun starts to come up at 5 or 6 and the invisible bugs finally leave me in peace, but just until the next sunset.

My friend Sam thinks I've got the DT's. And maybe that's the case. It has, after all, been 4 months since baseball season ended and I've been experiencing some serious withdrawl. But still, the read bites all over my body make me think that there's something more to this than an active imagination.

So I've spent all week spraying Raid all over my apartment and scattering this horrible insecticide powder that my landlady gave me. I'm sure I've taken 5 or 6 years off my life just by breathing all this crap in. Unfortunately, these poisons seem to have had absolutely no effect as far as shortening the lives of my invisible roommates.

After 3 or 4 consecutive nightmarish, sleepless nights, I decided to track down a fumigator. Asking around, I was directed to a guy who is supposedly the best in town at the trade. Happily, he doesn't think I'm going insane. The perpetrator, he thinks, is a microscopic bug called an acaro. It's a bug that lives normally on human skin -- he says we've all got them living on us all the time (yuck!). But there's a strand of acaro that is specific to animals, and when it attaches itself to humans, it causes a lot of irritation. It doesn't actually move into our skin like its cousin, but it lives in our blankets, mattresses, and rugs, and comes out at night to harass us and eat our dead, flaking skin. So I guess that's what I get for sleeping with burros.

Anyway, the fumigator affirmed the fact that these bugs are immune to traditional insecticides, but he's got a special potion that he thinks will take care of them. He's promised to come by today and cover my apartment in it, so stay tuned and we'll see what happens...

mañana, mañana

Mexicans are famous for their laid-back attitude, and rightfully so. There’s not often a lot of urgency here in getting things done or getting places on time (like English class!), and the “mañana, mañana” approach is both widely practiced and widely tolerated.

Something seems to happen to that laid-back attitude, however, when Mexicans get behind the wheel of a car. Suddenly, they’re transformed into impatient New Yorkers or Bostonians, speeding and passing recklessly on the highways, honking aggressively in town the second a light turns green or making angry gestures at other drivers or pedestrians who slow them down. It’s really a remarkable change, especially when you compare Mexican drivers to Mexican pedestrians, who generally amble along quite slowly, casually taking in the sights around them, waiting patiently to cross a street.

I guess there just must be something about the automobile that makes people, regardless of culture, aggressive and impatient. Of course, that doesn’t go for old folks, who in any culture seem to approach driving with the careful patience of Mexican pedestrians. It’s a strange machine, the car, and it does strange things to us. Someone should do a study or something.

Chad + Laundry= Rain

Ok, there's really no way to explain this by coincidence anymore. Without fail, when I do my laundry and hang it out to dry, it rains. I'm not kidding. When I was up in Queretaro, my landlady had a washing machine that she let me use on Tuesdays. So every Tuesday, I'd do my wash in the morning, hang it out to dry under a bright blue sky, then got to school and watch from my classroom as the black clouds rolled in. It got to be a big joke with me and the landlady: "Oh, it's Tuesday, I guess we'll get a shower this afternoon!"

Lately I've been travelling around and haven't had much opportunity to do wash. I'm in Oaxaca now where I've taken a temporary room in a shared house, so today I finally had a chance to wash those stinky jeans and t-shirts I've been wearing all around. Here in Oaxaca, they're in the height of their dry season - it hasn't rained in months and there are severe water shortages everywhere. In fact, the house that I'm living in now only gets water every other day (which is another story that I'll get to later). We had water today, so I seized the opportunity to do the wash, then hung my stuff up on the line to dry. No lie, within 30 minutes, the black clouds rolled in and opened up a real downpour. Unbelievable.

I think that the UN or CARE or some relief agency needs to start sending me and my dirty clothes around the world to draught-stricken lands. Really, I think it would work.

Monday, March 14, 2005

history of mexico

One of the really cool things about where I live now – in the historic center of Mexico City – is that live in and walk around the same piece of land that was once the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. I’m literally just down the street from where the wandering Aztec tribe saw an eagle standing on a cactus eating a snake – a sign from the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl that this was the center of the universe and where they should build their city. So it’s really fun to think of what my neighborhood looked like 650 years ago as they built the highly organized city of some 200,000 people.

It’s also fun to think of all the wild stuff that used to go on around here back in the Aztec days. For example, I was reading recently about the dedication of the Templo Mayor, a shrine built for the god Huizilopochitli back in the late 15th century. See, Huizilopochitli was a pretty demanding sort who required a steady stream of sacrificial victims if he was expected to keep the sun rising every day. So for the Templo Mayor dedication, the Aztecs lined up 20,000 prisoners of war – the queue stretched for 3 miles – and sacrificed them all one after another over a period of four days. Now that’s what I call a grand opening!

Here’s another amusing anecdote from Aztec history: Back when they were working as mercenaries for Coxcox, ruler of Culhuacan, the Aztecs conquered the nearby civilization of Xochimilco and sent Coxcox 8,000 human ears as proof of their victory. Coxcox was so happy, he agreed to their request to make his daughter an Aztec goddess. Imagine his surprise when he showed up at a banquet in his honor and the entertainment included an Aztec dancer dressed in his daughter’s skin!

So as you can see, those Aztecs were pretty hard-core. Which helps, in part, to explain why Hernan Cortes and his small band of Spaniards were able to overthrow Tenochtitlan relatively easily. The Aztecs had pissed off so many of their neighbors in their endless quest for sacrificial victims that Cortes had little trouble finding allies to take them on.

Stories like these make me chuckle when I think of the Neal Young song “Cortez the Killer,” in which he sings of the Aztecs: “Hate was only a legend, war was never known...”

Neal Young writes some good songs, but his Mesoamerican scholarship leaves a little to be desired.

A quick tip

Here's a tip for you if you're a foreign guy in Mexico and you want to impress the local ladies:

When you're walking down the street with a woman here, be sure to position yourself on the outside, between her and the traffic. The idea, I guess, is that your body is somehow protecting her from the impact of any vehicle that might suddenly come careening onto the sidewalk.

When I was first told about this practice I didn't give it much thought, since I figured it was just something left over from the golden days of Mexican machismo. But then later I was talking to a woman friend here who is very much a hater of all that is macho and even she admitted that when she's walking in the company of a guy, she likes to have him an walk between her and the traffic.

"If he doesn't make that effort," she said, "it kind of shows him to be thoughtless."

My response to that: Ooops.

Since then, I've been making a real effort to walk on the traffic side.

Friday, March 11, 2005

secretary rice

Yesterday, there was a press conference on the occasion of Condoleezza Rice's 7-hour diplomatic visit to Mexico City - her first trip to Latin America as secretary of state. Neither Rice nor her Mexican counterpart Luis Derbez had much of great interest to say at the conference, since really this was just a prep trip for an upcoming U.S.-Canada-Mexico summit, so for me, the tightly controlled Q&A session turned out to be the most revealing aspect of the event.

The way it worked was that pre-selected members of the Mexican and traveling English-speaking press (local correspondants seemed to have been excluded) took turns asking questions of Secretary Rice, and on one occasion, Foreign Minister Derbez. And what happened was this: A member of the Mexican press would ask Rice about, say, migration issues and the question of civilian vigilante groups opearting on the Arizona border. Then, a reporter from Reuters would follow with a question about a Pakistani official's statement on al Quaeda activity. Back to the Mexican side and a question about Mexicans facing the death penalty in the U.S. And then it would be Fox News' turn to ask a question about Lebanon.

Seriously, for much of the English-speaking press, this event may as well have been in Washington, or Munich, or Tokyo, or anywhere else in world, really. Sad as it is, it didn't make any difference what country they were in at that moment because the only part of the globe that has any importance in terms of U.S. foreign policy right now is the Middle East.

The questioning certainly generated some grumbling among the Mexican press corps, I'll tell you that. Mexico has been complaining about how badly Washington has pushed it aside in favor of events related to terrorism and the Middle East, and the fact that the U.S. press expressed no interest in talking about U.S.-Mexico relations even at a press conference in Mexico City seemed to be rubbing everyone's noses in it.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Ethical Problem

So here's my latest ethical dilemma.

Somehow or other, I have come into the possession of a counterfeit 100 peso bill (100 pesos is about US$9). I discovered this late the other night when I went to a nearby Oxxo (convenience store chain) and was denied a purchase of a box of Raisin Bran when the clerk, after subjecting my bill to a piece of hi-tech detection equipment, revealed the thing to be a phony.

The guy was quite nice about about it, and patiently showed me how his machine reacted differently to my bill and authenic currency. But as it was the only money I had on me at the time, and so I left without the Raisin Bran.

But even more problematic is that now I've got this phony 100 peso bill to deal with.

It's really quite a nice copy, and in fact, everyone I've showed it to has said that they can't believe it's not real. So if it can't be detected by the naked eye, couldn't I just pass it off on someone who doesn't have a hi-tech counterfeit-bill-detecting machine?

Of course, the people who don't have the technology to detect the bill are likely to be the independent, small-scale entrepreneurs. Conversely, the people to whom I'd love to tender my funny money -- the big chain stores -- are exactly those who can afford the detection equipment.

So what do I do: hang the thing up on my bulleting board as a souvenir, or try to pass it off on mom and pop? After all, they'll most likely be able to pass it along to someone else without problem, right? Right?

Monday, March 07, 2005

bathroom

I was out with some friends at a restaurant the other night, and after my third or fourth water, I needed to use the bathroom pretty badly. So I got up and found the restrooms at the back of the place easily enough, but instead of the traditional "damas" and "caballeros" labels on the two doors (ladies and gentlemen, respectively), or even the very helpful man and woman silhouettes, they were labelled simply with the letters 'M' and 'H.'

Seemed easy enough at first: 'M' for "mujeres" (women) and 'H' for "hombres" (men), right? But then, just as I was about to turn the knob and enter the 'H' room, it suddenly occurred to me: In Spanish, 'hembra' means female and 'macho' means male.

That was enough to give me pause, though I was fairly ceratin that hembra and macho are really only used for plants and slugs and the like. Still, I didn't want to take any chances, so I decided I'd just wait for someone to come out of one of the doors and that would give me a clue as to their designations.

But nobody came out.

Then finally, a waiter rushed by and sensing my distress, said "Use either one, it doesn't matter." So I did, and while my immediate physical needs were certainly satisfied, my intellectual curiosity wasn't, for it was a single-person facility with no real distinguishing features to let me know whether or not I was in the right place.

Either way, I left the seat down.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Starbucks in Mexico

As I've mentioned before, I have very mixed feelings about Starbucks Coffee. On one hand, I have a very positive feeling about the close proximity of a Starbucks in Mexico City. On the other hand, even though I know they play themselves up as a supporter of Fair Trade products and a promoter of sound envirnomental policy, they are still a giant mega-corporation which makes me suspicious that in the end, it's really just about making a ton of cash.

I was thinking about that a few days ago when I bought a cup of joe to go and was noticing the cardboard band they put around the cup that says, in English: "caution: the contents of this cup may be extremely hot." Now, if they were really concerned about people burning their tongues, you'd think that they could make up bands with the warning printed in Spanish, right? The way it is now, it certainly looks like their motivation is nothing more than covering their asses against lawsuits in the U.S.

So now I'm considering a temporary boycott until Starbucks can prove that it truly cares about all of the tongues of the world (no pun intended). Problem is, I imagine I'd only be able to carry out the boycott until the next time I start dozing off at work and recall the beverage abomination served up by the automatic Nescafe machine down in the employee lounge.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Volkswagen Poptop Camper

Whenever I get good and fed up with the intransigent bureaucracy and general inefficiency that is so much a part of life in Mexico, I find myself falling into the trap of romanticizing American efficiency. Back home, I’ll think, I’d never have to deal with this kind of hassle just to get a library card. Or I’ll find myself thinking, man, in the USA, if the plumber says he’s coming by at eleven, he comes by at eleven!

Once I get back on US soil, however, nothing will cure me of these idealized misconceptions faster than a trip to the local DMV. That’s what I’ve been dealing with lately as I’m back in the States for a long enough spell to warrant putting my new 1973 Volkswagen Poptop Camper on the road. And man, wasn’t I wishing that I was back in Mexico during the whole infuriating procedure. Auto insurance, registration, title, plates, and inspection – not to mention all the line-standing and telephone key code punching that goes with it. And of course through the whole thing I kept thinking, if I were in Mexico, I’d just slip this guy 200 pesos and I’d have my VW legal and on the road in no time.

So yeah, Americans can make morning coffee with water straight from the tap, we can flush toilet paper down virtually any commode we find, and we can bet on slightly better than 50/50 odds of delivery when we drop a letter in the mailbox. But it’s not all a bed of roses – we still can’t top Mexico when it comes to getting a perfectly fit vehicle on the road in a reasonable amount of time.

I leave tomorrow to Oaxaca, driving my new 1973 VW from Tucson...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

la historia de mexico

There was an interesting commentary in yesterday's Herald which reflected on a rather alarming Secretaria de Educacion Publica plan to eliminate pre-Hispanic history from Mexican middle school textbooks. Apparently, they're presentaing the plan as part of a program to re-orient the history curriculum away from rote memorization of facts to more analysis-based learning. That's fine, but it's hard to understand why that change in approach couldn't be applied to the study of what to many is the most fascinating part of Mexican history.

One supporter of the plan, a history graduate student at UNAM, was quoted in the article as saying that Mexicans spend too much time blaming the pre-Hispanic period for the problems of today. He thinks that the "we are conquered people" mentality cripples modern Mexico and so it's best to de-emphasize that part of the country's history. Personally, I see this proposal as a manifestation of a widespread attitude in mainstream Mexican culture toward indigenous culture in general. What I've noticed is that a fair number of Mexicans seem to view their indigenous countrymen as backwards and therefore prefer to downplay or even ignore their own indigenous heritage.

When I was teaching up in Queretaro, one day soon after Dia de la Raza ("Day of the Race," a holiday that commemorates the birth of the Mexican mestizo race), I though I might be able to get a good discussion going on the students' mixed racial heritage. So I presented them with discussion questions like: Was it a good thing that the Spanish came here? How would Mexico be different today if the Spanish had never come? and so forth. The general answer to the first question was Duh, of course it was! and that was about as far into discussion as we got. It sure didn't seem like these were topics that they had considered much before and they certainly weren't interested in considering them at that time in any depth.I also noticed while I was living in that part of the country that when I asked people if they knew anything about which indigenous group they had descended from, they often just shrugged their shoulders.

I had one friend in Guanajuato who went on in great length to tell me the history of each of her family names and what region of Spain each came from, but when I asked her what she knew about her indigenous ancestry, she said "I have none - I'm of 100% European descent." Her physical characteristics, however, strongly suggested otherwise. In Oaxaca, it's a slightly different situation since most people have grandparents or parents who speak an indigenous dialect, so they're quite aware of their heritage. When I met a friend, one of the very first things I remember her saying was: "You want to know something interesting about me? I'm 100% Zapotec!" I was pretty impressed. But unfortunately, I've also met a number of other young Oaxacans who seemed less eager to show off their indigenous roots. And who can blame them? In a country where the mainsteam culture uses the word Indio (Indian) as an insult word and where the national Secretary of Education wants to eliminate pre-Hispanic history from the textbooks, why would people feel especially proud of their indigenous roots? Well, they should, darn it, and Mexican culture and government should be doing everything to make that possible.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

sociable

One thing that I really admire about the students I've had here in Mexico is the way that they get along so easily with one another. Of course, they also drive me crazy at times when they're getting along together in Spanish while I'm talking to the class or when they're supposed to be completing an English conversation activity. But for the most part, it really impresses me how they can just immediately connect with one another with really no trace of awkwardness. I like to mix the students up in class and have them work with different partners every day, and I really like how they get excited to find out who their partner is and how easily they'll start working with someone they might not already know. I guess it's because Mexican society is so social -- people are always out walking around, hanging out in public parks, or going to a social event -- so it doesn't freak them out at all to meet new people. In fact, they love it. And the students don't seem to form cliques like they do in the States, so anyone can make friends with anyone else, regardless of how jock-ish or dorky they are.

I thought of this today when I walked to my classroom and one of my students was sitting on the bench outside the room eating a chocolate bar. She said 'hi' to me and offered me a bit of chocolate so I sat down on the bench for a moment. Another student in the class then walked by and she stopped him and asked: "Hey, companero, want some chocolate?" So he said "sure," sat down, and the two of them just started chatting away like old friends. "I've seen you in class -- what's your name, anyway? Where do you live? Oh yeah? Do you know so-and-so?" And they went on like that until it was time to start class. I thought it was pretty cool.

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