Tag Archives: Mexico

Coming Home

22 Aug

I think this is going to be my last entry.  I’ve been back in the States for over a month, but between visiting Ana and other folks in Portland, Seattle, and New York and hosting my Guadalajaran friend Oscar here for two weeks, this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to to think back over the last 10 months in Mexico and Guatemala.  Now that I’m alone, it’s really tempting to try to sum everything up, to take stock.  I want to try to figure out what it all meant, how I’ve changed, what I’ve accomplished.  Plus, I’m gonna need a pat answer when someone asks me, “So, how was your trip?”  And I think I want that answer for myself, too.

But I don’t think things work that way.  We don’t experience new things — different as they may be from our past experiences or our routines — in discrete, digestible chunks, ready to be processed and turned into a list of triumphs.  Life is less linear, less intentional than that, even in hindsight.   Now that I’ve finally got the time and space to think about the last 10 months, I still have a hard time holding the whole thing in my head.  It’s the classic participant-observer paradox: you have no fixed point from which to view an experience that changes you profoundly, because you’re moving too.  It’s like hopping on a bullet train in a place you’ve never been to  in your life, catching wind with your huge grin as you lean out the window and love the ride, and then trying to sit down afterwords and draw a map of the strange country you’ve crossed.  There’s no way your map does justice to the actual ride.  It’s more like a cliff-notes guide that, if you’re not careful, eventually takes the place of the original novel in your mind.


Maybe it’s best to just think of this trip as a series of moments.  Insane moments —  “what am I doing here, on top of this very tall Aztec pyramid in the middle of a lightning storm” moments.  Self-congratulatory, “here I am with these two Dutch tourists in the middle of the jaguar and snake-filled Guatemalan jungle, bribing these machine-gun-toting security guards to get into the country’s most treasured archeological site at 4am to watch the sun rise from that temple that’s in the first Star Wars!” moments.  Moments of self-doubt.  Scared moments.  And, of course, bored moments (which never make it into the stories I tell my friends, though they’re no less a part of the experience than that crap-my-pants ”is that guy following me?” moment on a dark street in Xela at 4:00am, or the “that’s the most beautiful sunset of my life!” moments on the roof of old apartment building in Guadalajara).

I guess that’s what this blog, and the personal journal I’ve been keeping along side it, are for; a place to go to relive the disparate, discombobulated, juicy collection of moments that, when squashed together, made up the last ten months of my life.  My gambit is that that collection, well-preserved, will last a lifetime.  I owe it to myself to hang on to them because, ultimately, they’re worth far more than any Cliff Notes version I could come up with.   So how was my trip?  It’s complicated…

Getting high outside Mexico City

3 Jun slipperyslopeofmalinche

Last weekend, I was the highest I´ve ever been in my life.  La Malinche (a.k.a Matlalcuéyetl, Matlalcueitl and Malintzin) is a huge dormant volcano in Puebla and Tlaxacala states, east of Mexico City.  The summit´s 14,641 ft—almost exactly half as tall as Everest—and very pointy.

don´t fall dano!

Me, Kisiev, and his friend (now my friend!) Daniel bussed down to Puebla, where we met Miguel(ito) and Iris.  Spent the night at Miguel´s mom´s house and then rocked la Malinche the next day.  Slippery, loose-rock -strewn, steep slope for the last few miles (and hours)…fun, and definitely worth the altitude sickness!

steep steep steep!

we found him on top of the mountain like this, zenned-out

Spent the next few days hanging out in and around Puebla with the banda…Miguel´s mom fed us some great meals, including a breakfast feast of chiliquiles con pollo and pirrian, sort of spicy, light orange mole type dish.  Also got to visit Miguel`s god-mother`s homemade temescal (traditional steam room), where we steamed the soreness out of our post-Malinche muscles, rubbed ourselves with salt and honey, received expert (and spine-cracking) massages from his godmother, and chatted about politics.  Lush! (sorry for stealing your word, Andy).

Then, a few days convalescing in my hostel in DF, a few days staying with Daniel and his parents in southern Mexico City, and back to the mountains!  Dan, Kies, and I bussed down to Tepotzlán, a gorgeous little colonial town with a street market filled with excellent food.

Fried fish, long, veggie-stuffed quesadillas made with tortillas from blue corn, and super-refreshing micheladas (beer with lime juice and tons of spicy chili powder on the rim of the glass…too bad i was on antibiotics the whole time, so didn´t down one on my own).

Also, Tepoz is surrounded by cliffy mountains, and there´s a cool, old stone temple halfway up one of them.  So, we hiked up to the temple, farted around a bit, and then continued scaling up to the top of the mountain.

Fun times with the banda, and once again, a sad goodbye as I continued on to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Journey to the Bottom of the Continent

20 May view from the train

Just rolled into Mexico City (after a 20 hour bus ride from Chihuahua), and I wanna get out and explore!   Still, got to get this off my chest before the next adventure—hiking a volcano with my friend Kisiev this Saturday (still don´t know which one) .

So, I spent the last week at the bottom of the deepest canyon system in North America, the Barranca del Cobre (a.k.a ¨ The Copper Canyon¨…apparently Spanish Conquistadors overzealously mistook pale green vegetation for copper lining the canyon´s walls.)  I met Cici and Vincent, a Belgian couple on a month-long tour of Mexico, on the awesome Ferrocarril del Barranca del Cobre…a pretty impressive train that runs along the canyon and stops at a number of tiny villages perched along the rim.


From Bahuichivo (one such village), we took an aging converted American school bus, piloted by our fearless captain Eugenio, down the twisting, narrow road to the canyon floor (see video on upper right). We were all getting over some stomach issues, so the ride was an exercise in, well, self-restraint, so to speak. Luckily, I was scared sh&t-less.

Spent four relaaaaaaxing days at a sorta home-made ecohomestead/hostel in Urique on the canyon floor called Entre Amigos.  Composting toilets (stocked with Mother Earth catalogs from the 70´s), solar-heated hot water, and papaya, mango, and grapefruit trees abounded! Also, right by the river…key for chilling out after day hikes in the hot canyon.

Keith, the owner wasn´t there, but I still got to take tortilla-making lessons from Maruca, a family friend and employee who was watching over the place. A lady in town (who loaned me a bag of flour when the abarrotes were all out) said I learned from the best. They were definitely delicious, and Maruca definitely got a kick out of the lumpy, mishapen tortilla freaks that emerged from my first few attempts (pictured below is one of the less-freaky tortilla freaks).


Some great day hikes to isolated indigenous communities on the canyon floor, and then a less-freaky bus ride back up and a train to Creel.

There, me and the Belgians rented bikes for the day and pedalled through a series of valleys with interesting rock formations (the Valley of the Frogs, the Valley of the Mushrooms, and the Valley of the Monks, which was (no joke) actually originally called Valley of the Erect Penises by its indigenous inhabitants, because…well, you´ll see).

Then, burnt crispy from the all-day bike ride, I said goodbye to the Vincent and Cici and bussed it up to Chihuahua with Daniel, a German army vet, Antonio, a diction and Literature instructor from Mexico City, and Francesca, a French business consultant. Chihuahua was kind of a rough town, although not without its jokes. Me and Daniel were assailed (in a repeat of earlier events in Guadalajara) but camera-phone bearing schoolgirls while taking a tour of a historical mural at the Palacio de Gobierno. We finally escaped and finished our tour, only to be whistled at by the prostitutes (at least one of who sounded, but didn´t look like, a dude) stalking the streets outside the run-down guesthouse where we were staying.

Later, me and Daniel had a great time at a dive cantina populated by two puckered old guys with canes, three surly waitresses, and another prostitute who kept checking out the window for clients. The jukebox was banging out Norteño love ballads for the first few shots of tequila, but then suddenly ran out of credit and went silent.    Seizing the opportunity, I flipped through the catalog of discs and found treasure: Creedence Clearwater Revival´s Greatest Hits. So, I put on Bad Moon Rising, not sure if we´d be kicked out, and went back to my bar stool while the song loaded.

Then the familiar tune burst out of the speakers at full volume, and to everyone´s surprise, one of the seniors put down his cane and started dancing this great unselfconscious kind of salsa dance, arms upraised and fingers snapping, sashaying around the bar floor. We all of course started clapping and yelling ¨EY EY EY EY¨ (like they do here), and I rushed over to the jukebox to keep the tunes flowing. A half-hour later, after great success with more Creedence and some Daddy Yankee (he loved ¨Gasolina¨), we slapped on some Cumbia (good dancin´music) and all got out on the floor.   Good times!

Hostel-bound here in Mexico City for now, due to surprise streetfood poisoning, but stoked for the upcoming volano summiting!

The Streets Part II: The Noble Tamale

17 Apr tamales from a basket-toting abuela

Tamale from a Oaxacan abuela. She traded us a bag of red salsa for half of my pb & j sandwich.

For folks here because of the East Montpelier Signpost article, here´s a direct link to the cross-continent bus trip story:  Bus-a-thon 2010.
OK, maybe calling a tamale “noble“ is an exaggeration. But they are irresistable, inscrutably hidden away in their corn-husk wrappings like a steamed, juicy Christmas present.  It is, I hear, foolish to attempt to make them on your own except under the strict supervision of a tamale expert.  The fact that they`re nearly always served up by craggy, hunched, tongs-wielding abuelas who preside over their steaming, stainless-steel tamale tubs like magicians conjuring something stupendous from an overturned hat, only adds to the tamale mystique.  They`re all the more impressive because they fit perfectly in your hand, can be munched on without utensils, and can be had for one of the 10 peso coins that seem to multiply in my pocket during the course of the day.
Of course, tamales are only the princes (or princesses) of a street-food kingdom that encompasses the entire pocked-asphalt expanse of Guadalajara, from St. Andres to Zapopan.  Also presiding in court are a million variations of tacos in puffy flour tortillas, crunchy fried corn tortillas, or steamed as “tacos al vapor.“ They`re filled with juicy chopped steak, picante chorizo, and meat from parts of animal anatomy that I`ve never heard of before, even in English.  Everything from the rotating kebob-style pork in tacos “ al pastor“ to the stewed, tangy lamb or fish stew in tacos cazuelas, the “lengua,“ “cabeza,“ and “cerebro“ tacos (which need no introduction), to my personal favorite, chicharron (tacos stuffed with fried pork skins), gets stuffed between two tortillas, piled with chopped onions and cilantro, and handed out 24/7 at puestos, taquerias, and cocinas economicas around the city.  (Check out a great guide to Mexican street tacos by Karen Graber here).
Street food is a huge part of what makes life in Mexico so vibrant, and is going to be a huge part of what I miss when I come back home.  Food here is both sacred and carnal; sacred in the sense that tourist-oriented theme restaurants are thought of as not only ridiculous and expensive, but as betrayal of nationally adored dishes, and a rejection of the generational cooking know-how curated by moms and grandmas across the country.   It seems that everyone gets real pleasure out of the food they eat, and that the men and women cooking up tacos and tortas at Guadalajara`s thousands of street food stands are hugely proud of their food.
I think this is something a lot of us crave, but never really experience, in the U.S.  When I was interning in D.C. last summer,  my co-workers (and most of my friends) were absolutely obsessed with sandwiches from PotBelly, classier version of Subway.  Lines snaked around the block every day as people spent their lunch hour waiting in line for a sandwich of packaged meat and bulk-order bread, served up by an assembly line of gum-chewing, blasé employees.  They eat it not because it gives real pleasure but because it`s something to crave in a city, and a country, that thinks of food either as fuel for your body, or worse, as untouchable avante-garde art.  In Mexico, food is a life-long love affair.  Deliciousness, and people unselfconsciously enjoying it, is all around you, all the time. It adds a dimension to life that I think I`ve always missed back home without realizing it.
OK, enough musing for now! Here are some photos of my favorite Mexican street food, and the home-cooking inspired by it! Provecho!

Springtime in Guadalajara

16 Mar last light from the roof

Things are getting beautiful here.  Trees of all different colors are sprouting all over the place…at least it feels that way, since I never paid them much attention before they were bright purple or yellow.  Baking hot at mid-day, but warm breezes all night.  Deep purple sunsets.  Ants diligently at work dismantling leaves from the highest branches of the tree in front of our apartment and trucking them the millions of ant-miles down the trunk and into the hole in the tile under our front steps.

Had a great visit with Sam; we`ve known each other since we were talking about Warcraft in the back of Eric Weis`s 7th-grade algebra class.  There`s something really cool about being with someone you know really well in an environment that`s completely foreign to your relationship…like two kids from central Vermont hanging out in Guadalajara, Mexico.  It`s calming, in a way…kind of reassures you that, even though you may only know a few people here and don`t understand half of what everyone says, you`re a real person, with a history and a home town.

Anyways, Ana`s coming to visit this week.  Stoked for that!  And in the meantime, here are some photos I took over the last few weeks when spring started happening.

Giving Gracias on the Border

4 Feb agua prieta, mx

I was looking through some old stuff on my computer, and found my application for the fellowship that brought me here last year.  It reminded me why I`m here, and why learning Spanish is both a huge opportunity and responsibility.

When I first decided to learn Spanish, it was because I wanted to say “thank you.” I had arrived, sleeping bag in hand, at Blanca’s door just moments earlier.  I would be staying in the cinder-block house of this family of maquiladora workers in Nogales, Mexico, as part of a trip for a college course on the U.S./Mexico border, and I couldn’t even say thank you.  I had, of course, said gracias as Blanca, the mother of the household, began serving dinner that first night, but that garbled attempt seemed inadequate coming from a privileged American student who had literally just been airlifted into the lives of this struggling Mexican family.

I still remember the pregnant silence that descended over the table arrayed with bean stew, meats, homemade tortillas and guacamole; so many conflicting emotions and thoughts roiled in my head, but I was deaf and mute, unable to communicate with my hosts.  Unable, that is, until Blanca’s sister Carmen joined us.

Carmen could speak some English, and upon learning I was in Nogales to learn about the border, she began recounting painful stories of migrants attempting to flee poverty and hunger in Mexico.  She told me of children drowning in the moat-like canals lining the border as they tried to cross with their parents, of old women being abducted and robbed by smugglers, then left to die in the swaths of desert engulfing much of the border, and of cesarean sections performed with kitchen knives in Chiapan homes due to the lack of basic health services in rural Mexico.  She told me that Carlos, her son, had lived in the U.S. since age two, but was expelled by the INS just after being accepted to a visual arts school when he was 18; he now earns less than two-hundred dollars each month driving a forklift at a landfill in Nogales.  She told me it was too painful for her to go to the side of town where a twenty-foot corrugated metal wall separates it from Nogales, Arizona, and by the silent watchfulness of the rest of the family, I could tell she was speaking for them, too.

As the meal ended, Carmen, in tears now, thanked me for coming to Nogales and listening to her stories.  Sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears myself, I found some small piece of redemption in her gratitude.  Blanca’s family had given me so much and I had so little to offer in return, but maybe, for an American to travel to Mexico, to listen to the humanizing, heart-breaking stories of the people many Americans dismiss as “illegals,” was an offering in its own right.

you can see the border wall bisecting the neighborhood in the background

Bus-a-thon 2010: Vermont to Guadalajara

29 Jan zacatecas

Being such a big advocate of responsible travel, I decided to try taking the most carbon-efficient mode of travel to get back to GDL from Vermont after xmas: long-distance bus.  More than anything, I wanted to prove that it`s doable, if not enjoyable. I was tired of the hypocritical dissonance between my climate idealism and my penchant for flying.  And, admittedly, I didn`t want to wuss out on my former roommate Andy`s challenge to travel the 3,000 miles by  bus.  So off I went!

I cheated from the start, taking a train from Montpelier to New York City to save a few bucks and 5 hours.   After 3 great days catching up with friends in NYC (thanks for the futon Fergy!), I woke up at 4am on a freezing Thursday morning to make it to the Port Authority terminal for my 6am bus.  Got my ticket, an accordion of perforated glossy sheets for each of the stops on the my trip.  It read like a band`s reunion tour through the south: New York, Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Winston Salem, Charlotte, Duncan, Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, Monroe, Shreveport, Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo, and finally Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, Mexico.

The next week and half was a bumpy ride of travel highs and lows. There was a great conversation with a young Iraq vet-turned pacifist on the bus from San Antonio to Nuevo Laredo. There was the anxiety-inducing run from the bus station to my hostel in the freezing early-morning darkness  of Zacatecas, a city I`d never visited, using only a  hand-drawn, un-labeled map I`d picked up at another hostel and a bumpy commuter bus.  There was the quiet wonder of hiking lone in the mountains in Chinpinque park, outside Monterrey.

But there were there were also the drivers`terse, early-morning wake up calls blasting from scratchy loudspeakers as we rolled into depressed Southern towns in our fluorescent-lit, jam-packed buses.  The physical discomfort of days without a shower, or real food.   There were the desperate-looking riders waiting, sleeping, or sometimes just swaying in place in shabby greyhound terminals.  And there was the sobering moment when I crossed the border into Mexico with just my passport and a signature, while hundreds of people die every year trying to do the exact same thing, but in the other direction, in the surrounding deserts.

Coming back to Guadalajara was like coming home after a long trip.  The warmth of rekindling memories and friendships from last year was great.  But the let-down of not being on the road anymore, of not being in motion, in emotional and geographic flux, made me feel idle and impatient.  Living life on such a wide emotional spectrum is addictive.   Even if you`ve just spent a whole week on cramped buses and dirty terminals,  sometimes coming home can be the most uncomfortable part of traveling.

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