Sunday, 1 August 2010

La Comida

(Sorry to post all of this at once. I was keeping up with the posts on my computer while there was unreliable internet). In any case, here is an overview of my culinary experience.

1)Corn and salt smoothies over ice.
2)Micheladas – beer mixed with chili powder and salsa (these are VERY popular).
3)Cow Tongue tacos. 'Nuff said.
4)Mexican potato salad – cold noodles in cold mayonnaise.
5)Agua de pepino – water with shredded cucumber and celery (ok) and... a lot of sugar.

1)Sopa Azteca – tomato soup with crunchy chips, chunks of beef, chunks of avocado, and cheese.
2)Tostadas – round chips topped with shredded meat, beans, lettuce and cheese.
3)Mango con chili – slices of mango with chili powder on them. I hated this at first, but now I love it so much that I think plain mango tastes like it's missing something.
4)Horchata – white rice pureed into a water with sugar and milk.
5)Chilakiles – a breakfast dish of tortilla chips fried in tomatillo salsa, mixed with eggs and sometimes chicken, then sprinkled with a tangy cheese that tastes like feta.

5 differences between here and there

1)Buses here rule the transportation world. Trains, planes, and cars are all less common, and you can usually get a bus to just about anywhere you could possibly want to go. There's a Mexican airline called “Aerobus.” The name hopes to advertise the airline as being so convenient and comfortable that it's almost like a bus!

2)Death is something people talk about here. In the US, you don't mention a death in the family to someone you're not close to if it doesn't come up in conversation somehow. Here, it's something that everyone shares openly about themselves. In fact, personal tragedy in general here just doesn't really seem to be all that personal.

3)They really CAN all dance. I saw an ad in Mexico city yesterday for a bank. It said that opening an account was “tan facil como bailar” - as easy as dancing. This would not be effective advertising at Haverford College, that's for sure.

4)Physical contact is on a totally different level. I've been guided across the street by strange women behind me who would set their hand on my hip to see me across. When you meet someone or say good-bye, you touch cheek to cheek, something that I still haven't gotten used to with strange men I know I'll never see again anyway. Public Display of Affection is also a totally different ballgame. I've had to move seats on a bus due to exceptionally loud kissing noises, for one thing. And finally (this is the best part), they give real hugs here. When I hugged Dona Chela and the girls from Casa Amiga good-bye, it seemed like they weren't ever going to let go. I would go all limp after what four seconds that I believe is standard for non-romantic hugs, but they were not having it. When Mexicans hug they squeeze, and rock back and forth. Like anything else, they like to do it right or not at all.

5)I should preface the following observation by saying that I only knew one demographic of young adults, from one University, one religion (Catholicism, like 90% of Mexico), one rural state. However, I thought from the way my host sisters talked that sex and drinking were more prevalent here. Everyone always seemed to be drinking a beer, and every other word is a sexual inuendo. However, when I got closer to individuals, I started to realize that the majority of my seemingly wild Mexican friends were all bark and no bite. In other words, I only met a handful of people all summer that get drunk for fun. Mexicans party exponentially harder than us, that's just an inarguable fact, but for them, “partying” isn't just a euphemism for drinking. Alcohol is a big part of a Mexican party, but so are dancing, music, and food. Secondly, almost everyone I met my age believes firmly in abstinence before marriage, an idea which is rather obsolete among the 20-something sector in most parts of the US. Last week, I confessed to my closest Mexican female friend that I thought I might have made a hasty judgment about the Mexican attitude toward sex. She laughed and said, “we have to do something to hold us over, so we talk about it.”

Saturday, 17 July 2010


At preschool I work with two boys, Antonio and Santos. Both have learning difficulties; Antonio also has a speech impediment, for which I am ludicrously underqualified to help with. Given that I rarely understand the spanish of the other children, my attempts to help him are an absolute fiasco. I wish I could get him to see a speech therapist. He´s quite a character - at some point i'll try to post a link to a video i took of him playing air guitar with a plantain leaf.

As for Santos, he can be chatty or standoffish, depending on the day. His teacher explained to me that his mother leaves for work at 5 am and doesn´t get home until 7 pm, so his main caretaker is a sister, sixteen years old and married with children. Also, she added, (not bothering to lower her voice, which is common among adult conversation in the classroom here and frankly makes me uncomfortable) the other mothers says she likes to have "mucho vino" at fiestas. All in all, it doesn´t sound like a great environment, so I try to be affectionate with him, though he doesn´t tend to take to it. I understand that not every kid can have a disposition like Olga, who ran two blocks after me one day because she´d forgotten to give me a goodbye kiss.

Anyway, on my third day Santos arrived with a wad of gum stuck in his hair. He kept his head permanently tilted as if someone was pulling it down, and whimpered. I asked if we could cut it out, the director said his mom would get mad. I asked if we could use some peanut butter and was told we´d have to go "all the way to the city for that." The next day he came to school with his head shaved, eager to tell me, as always, about what he´d seen on TV the night before. I worked with both him and Antonio on colors, which has been my project for the week. It´s feels futile that I looked up colorblindness online, having heard that it is common among boys, but the descriptions I found suggested that the mistakes colorblind children would make should have very specific patterns. This isn´t true for either of these boys, who after five days can still neither name any colors nor reliably match them.

On my final day of before preschool got out for summer, only Santos came to school. I was absolutely determined. I decided that the color palette had been a developmentally unreasonable goal and decided to focus the entire morning on green (verde). Towards the end of the period, he was still pointing to red and yellow when I asked him to find green. However, when I walked him back to his classroom, I halfheartedly asked ¨what color are the trees?¨´ I nearly fell over when he said "verde." On the other hand, it had only been five minutes since we reviewed. I probably won't see him again, since I never notice him out with the other kids in the central garden at dusk. So I guess I just have to hope he'll still remember tomorrow.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

La bandera

When I returned to preschool for my first day of volunteering, the children were practicing for something with which I was already familiar from my work in Queseria: La ceremonia de la bandera, or the flag ceremony. One of my first impressions of Mexico, partly in response to attending the Ceremonia de la bandera in Queseria, was that patriotism here is relatively cooler, if you will, than in the US. A love for Mexico among Mexicans seems to base its unconditionality on the understanding that governments are far too transient to create cultural identity. In other words, there doesn´t seem to be a link between the red white and green and a love for the Mexican federal government. This contrasts, to say the least, with the general American notion that American pride and the identity of the 18 to 24 liberal sector are completely mutually exclusive.

That glorious thursday morning when Mexico beat France in a world cup game, I tried to imagine my roommates and I at home with american flags painted on our cheeks. The idea was, of course, ludicrous. I don´t genuinely believe that the flag is exclusively for republicans, but I´m sure enough people do that I wouldn´t want to go around dressed in the stars and stripes. But for my friends in Mexico, patriotism is pride in a culture more generally, something older than politics and with no set definition or antagonism toward diversity. Now, I find myself wondering if maybe it´s this way everywhere but the United States. What would it be like if I could say I was proud to be American and not feel like I was claiming superiority or support for the less proud moments of my country´s foreign policy?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


On Tuesday morning, I got up resolved to make the best of my one hour in the Special Ed program. I waited for the bus in the central jardin of Cofradia. Most villages here are built around one or several of these ¨´gardens,´´ which are more like plazas where you´ll find a gazebo and park benches as well as street vendors when it´s sunny. Fifteen minutes after the bus was due to come, I began to worry. In my experience so far, transportation had been one of the few things that didn´t seem to adhere to ¨´Mexican time.´´ After eighteen minutes, I decided to walk across the street to ask in one of the convenient stores. Just as I walked past the cases of limes to the front counter, I heard the bus barrel by behind me. I hope none of the villagers saw me running after it.
It was 9:08 A.M. and I was alone for the fifth consecutive day in a town with no fellow english speakers (or for that matter, friends of any sort), restaurants, or things to do beyond standing on the side of the cobbled streets with a hibiscus flavored popsicle, waiting for the occasional cowboy to come trotting by on horseback. Guilt was as much a plague as boredom; I´m well aware that the CPGC isn´t paying for me to lie in bed in the hacienda struggling through my spanish preposition flashcard set and eating mangoes.
I realized with some chagrin that I was going to have to be proactive. I walked until I found a school, ignored the ¨´no trespassing´sign, and approached some women standing in the schoolyard. Hi, I said. I´m a volunteer with project amigo and my job got canceled this week (i know, I know) and I was hoping I could do something - anything - to help here. I really like kids.¨´
She ushered me so quickly into the room nearby that I was certain I´d committed some kind of serious faux pas. I prepared my excuse about not having understood the no trespassing sign. But it turned out she was taking me to see the director of the preschool, who suggested I return in the morning to work with two boys who could use some extra tutoring. She explained that preschool only lasts for three hours, but that the nearby elementary school is in session all day. I washed some dishes for them before leaving, and met Jorge and Luis, my tutorees. You know you´ve been bored when washing dishes feels good.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Free Time

Last week, I stayed in Casa Amiga to conduct English lessons with five students who were interested in extra practice. While there were some good moments, often involving bilingual karaoke, they all had a lot of work to do for their summer job with Project Amigo. For this reason I was only able to teach for two days instead of the planned four. I was already getting bored before I moved to Cofradia on Friday to spend a lazy weekend in the hacienda, where I've now moved permanently. Because Cofradia is near the volcano and at a higher elevation, the climate is much more suited for sleeping and existing in general. The villagers refer to the weather as "refresco,” which I've gathered means something along the lines of “cool” or “crisp.” I haven't been scared to sleep alone since I found out that those gunshots at four in the morning last month were just celebrating the Virgen de Guadalupe, but by Monday I was definitely ready to leave the hacienda for more than just a quick run to the store for more Manzana lift (my beloved Mexican sparkling apple soda).

On Monday morning I met Francis, a recent graduate from Project Amigo's scholarship program, in the nearby town of Suchitlan where she tutors children with special needs for credit towards her major in special education. My plans for the week were to shadow her and hopefully help out in whatever way I saw fit. What I hadn't been told was that the kids were all scattered in different schools and in this particular week she only had plans to work with one boy for forty-five minutes, three days a week. These sorts of miscommunications have been increasingly common throughout the last few weeks. (For example, I left Queseria last week with a sad good-bye because I'd been told the school year was over. in fact, it's still going on, and they didn't understand why I arbitrarily stopped coming and didn't tell anybody that I wasn't planning to return.) Anyway, it's hard to tell whether blame lies in the flawed workings of small non-profits (to which I'm no stranger) or in the slowly-shrinking language gap.

In any case, most of the damage was already done when I found out that this child was sick and probably wouldn't be coming all week. I parted ways rather awkwardly with Francis and headed straight up a nearby mountain as per the suggestion of a local store owner. Trying not to slip on the rotten mangoes and guayabas that littered the path, I made it to a mountaintop overlook with a perfect view of the volcanoes. Immediately below me was a charred sugar-cane field; at the end of the harvest season farmers burn the soil to clarify it for the next year's crop.

It looks like the excess free time might get to be a problem soon, but for today I won't complain.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Five Notable Mishaps in My Language-Learning Ventures

1)Beto, on my tendency to forget gendered articles: “Rose, you can't ever forget that here, objects always have sex. In the United States, they usually don't.”
2)Last weekend I went to Maeva, an inexpensive beach resort in the town of Manzanillo. The waves there are apparently great for surfing, which makes the otherwise unremarkable town a tourist destination for many Americans and Europeans. The signs at Maeva, like most of the other attractions in Manzanillo, were translated into English. Here are the rules for the waterslide: “One at the time,” “no upside down your head,” and “no value stuff." (I figured out from the Spanish sign that this last one was trying to warn against wearing your sunglasses on the slide).
3)After my impromptu samba lesson at Casa Amiga, I couldn't stop sweating. I exclaimed “estoy caliente!” which means “I am hot.” Apparently, caliente does mean hot - when you're describing a climate, a shower, or anything but yourself. When you use it to describe yourself, it is slang for "interested in having sex."
4)When trying to give directions to someone who was giving me a ride, I couldn't understand why he didn't know the famous landmark of the big yellow sculpture. Turns out I was telling him to drive to the big yellow artist.
5)And the finale. At the Mexican dollar store (it's called the “one price store,” which really just isn't as catchy) I decided to stock up on food for my impending stay alone in the hacienda. There are lots of fun flavors of yogurt here that don't exist in the United States. I always try to opt for food that's exclusive to Mexico when I have the option, so I decided to try some. I was particularly skeptical about raisin flavored drinkable yogurt, but I put one bottle into the cart along with some apple- and mango-flavored bottles. That night at Casa Amiga, I went into the living room to announce that I was trying a new flavor that we don't have in the united states. (People here tend to find these differences interesting, and I like to be commended for my bravery). I showed everyone my raisin-flavored yogurt. It tasted a little funny, so I decided to look up the full name of the flavor, “ciruela pasa.” Pasa means raisin, but I didn't know about this ciruela fruit. Maybe it was something unique to Mexico, like tamarind or guayaba? Turns out that it means plum, and here, prunes are literally called “plum raisins,” so the flavor, in fact, was prune. Taking a second look at the diagram on the bottle that I had thought was of a person losing weight from a healthy diet of low-fat yogurt, I realized that it was in fact a deflating intestine. I had bought a liquid for bowel regularity and shown it off to about ten people.
On the bright side, yesterday I successfully ordered a sandwich at subway in Spanish. Baby steps, I suppose.

Sunday, 6 June 2010


Queseria is the name of the village nearby where many migrant worker families live in the summer, while it's the season for harvesting sugar cane. For the first three weeks of my stay, I'm working each morning at the school in Queseria. School goes from 9:00 am to noon, and that includes breakfast, lunch, and recess. The kids only spend about an hour and forty five minutes a day doing schoolwork. Two kindergarten classes are housed in small but well-furnished classrooms which are a recent development for the school, a gift from a national non-profit. Most of the kindergarteners are children of year-round residents; a third "advanced" class consists of children aged seven to fourteen. My first thought when I arrived in Queseria was “but what if it rains?” The advanced class uses a cluster of desks beneath an orange tree in the schoolyard. When I was introduced to Tita, who runs the school, Beto pointed to the desks and said “when Tita started here, they didn't even have those.”
Despite the fact that the advanced class teacher (whom we call "Maestro") tends to have a different mix of students every day, he strives for continuity in his lessons. All the students use a second-grade workbook, regardless of age. The youngest students are often lost, and the oldest ones are often bored, which contributes to a generally high level of classroom pandemonium. The school seems to rely heavily on teaching materials from the state government. One day a representative brought every child a copy of the international declaration of human rights, another day someone showed up with a bag of toothbrushes, a third day with “What to do when” pamphlets instructing families on how to prepare for volcano eruptions, floods, and forest fires.
Maestro tends to structure class around these materials. Mexico is also conducting a census, and for two days we all worked our way through a “census for kids” workbook with lots of mazes and connect-the-dots games, as well as some gently-chiding cartoon dogs stressing how important it is that everybody be counted in the census. One dog explains that it's important to count the houses as well as the people in Mexico, and to find out which houses have running water and electricity. This led to a discussion about who does and does not have electricity (as far as I can tell, it seems common here to live without running water). Mariflor announced that she does not have any lights in her house, and that she was completely done with the entire census workbook already.
On the way back from school, I asked if Mariflor usually finished things earlier than anyone else. This was how I discovered that rather than being particularly precocious, she is fourteen, literally twice the age of some of her classmates. I asked Maestro if it might be helpful if I worked individually with Mariflor. So starting tomorrow, that's my new role.

Sunday, 30 May 2010


I eased into work slowly, with a few days to adjust and enjoy Colima. I was highly disappointed to find out that the famous Volcano here only produces lava in the winters, although I imagine my mother is pleased by this discovery. It does, however, randomly emit puffs of smoke throughout the day, and its snow-covered point is a spectacle in a place as hot (let me really stress how hot it is here) as Colima. It hasn't fully erupted in about ten years; earthquakes, while less exciting, are much more common here. The last major quake was in 2003, and it was breaking news (no pun intended) when many of the walls in older houses nearby crumbled to reveal stashes of gold.

On Wednesday I accompanied Beto to Tortilleria for a meeting, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. "Eria” or is a suffix here that can be used to denote a factory town, and many villages are named after the factory around which they have grown. In Tortilleria, they produce tortillas, in Queseria, they produce cheese, etc. It is amazing how quickly the landscape can shift here. It took less than 30 minutes for the steep mountains around Casa Amiga to flatten into forests of coconut trees. After Beto's meeting, we ate at an ocean-side restaurant with its own swimming pool, something apparently common in touristy areas. He asked me if there was anything about Mexico that surprised me. I told him that before arriving, I had been unsure whether to expect things to be similar to the United States, or to look like pictures I'd seen of Central America. In a way, both are true. Mexico City could have been a Spanish-speaking region of Los Angeles, but when we first drove through the rural areas here on the west coast I felt like I'd opted to spend my summer on another planet. This is less the case in Colima's (few) rich areas, where the big houses look much more like America's big houses than the housing projects here look like America's housing projects. It reminded me of Tolstoy's sentiment that “happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The more socioeconomic variety I witness here, the more strongly I feel that wealth seems all alike, but that there are infinite manifestations of poverty. Beto, who has visited the United States once, agreed with me. I also told him that I was struck by the tendency of such modest houses, which usually lack electricity and running water, to have such elegant decorations on their outsides. Many of the houses here have makeshift walls that look like patchwork quilts of scrap metal, but as often as not they're adorned with ornate mosaics. Similarly beautiful tiles are randomly embedded in the sidewalks here, too. Now that I've realized this, I tend to walk a little more slowly past unassuming places, in hopes of sighting whatever might be hidden there. I think it's good for me.


I arrived in Colima yesterday after a ten hour overnight bus ride from Mexico City. Getting my ticket had been more than a little stressful as I don't know most of the Spanish words common to financial transactions. Nor did my accent fare particularly well for spelling out loud: my ticket read “Ross Hoysse.” In any case I made it in one piece, no thanks to the prepackaged mayonnaise sandwich I was given for free at the bus station.

Beto, the administrator at Project Amigo, picked me up and told me that he was headed to a staff meeting, during which I could get some rest. I was confused about geography at first, given that all three towns in which I would be working are in the state of Colima, but the largest one is also called Colima. It's like a “New York, New York” sort of thing. We headed to Casa Amiga (not to be confused with Mexico City's Casa de Los Amigos), a boarding house for fifteen university students on scholarship from Project Amigo. The organization is currently paying for the college education of twelve girls and three boys from poor families in Colima (the state) at the University of Colima (the city). The only caveats are that the students maintain high GPAs and do community service; however, the rules in the house are strict. No outside visitors are allowed in any circumstances, and the curfew is 10:00 pm – even on Fridays. On Saturdays the students visit their families.

While I slept off my buslag (a word?) it was decided that my Spanish might benefit from spending a few weeks in Casa Amiga before moving to the Hacienda owned by Project Amigo in the nearby village of Cofradia, where I will be working for the summer. Once I'd tasted Dona Cella (the house mother)'s cooking, I was sold on the idea. Each day she makes a different flavor of agua fresca: water mixed with fruit pulp. It's simultaneously lighter and sweeter than juice, and in the case of some flavors (mango and lime), the fruit comes from trees in the backyard.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Arriving in Mexico

I woke up from my dramamine-induced sleep and looked out the window only to realize we hadn't yet left the United States; the first thing I saw was the Wal-Mart logo. I soon found out that I was wrong. The flight was indeed almost over, and the people of Mexico City love Wal-Mart. This was the first of several things I would see that I was surprised to recognize. Just like in New York, the incessant Starbucks sightings never ceased to amaze me. Of course, my favorite java chip frappucino is made with blended ice, so it's off limits here where I have been told not to trust ice that i can't confirm is made with bottled water.

Other things weren't so similar. In Chapultepec, a crowded green area which has parts just like central park but is also home to several famous museums, I came across a vendor selling fake feces. They were impeccably realistic, sans odor. I'm still not sure to whom he was marketing. Ivan and Amiliano, my newfound Mexican friends, seemed unfazed.

I met Ivan at breakfast in La Casa de Los Amigos, a Quaker service organization that put me up for the weekend. A recent divorcee, he was en route to pick up his three-year-old son from daycare and spend his allotted Saturday with him. When I told him where I was headed, he offered to escort me. As he was anxious to practice his English but slow to understand mine, we each spoke in the other's native language. I was relieved when little Amiliano joined us, as his linguistic skills in Spanish were much more on par with my own. I dodged Ivan's earnest questions regarding how Americans perceive Mexico and its people in favor of more politically neutral albeit interesting topics such as how the brandname on Amiliano's shoes – hush puppies – is also a regional food in the United States.

After a few frustrating minutes of trying to explain exactly what a hush puppy is, Ivan proclaimed that he understood. “Like a bagel.” I gave up then, but at least I learned the word for dough today. La masa.

We payed to ride a paddle boat in a small pond for which chapultepec is famous. I thought at first that Ivan was trying to tell me that he'd once had class on a boat, but eventually realized that he was explaining how the pond was the quintessential destination for high school students in the city who cut class. As Ivan is currently pursuing a Ph. D. in Computer Science at the local university (public universities are very academically prestigious in Mexico), it seems unlikely that he spent many of his days feeding the pelicans in Chapultepec. Amiliano and I got a joint lesson from Ivan in the spanish names for various water birds. He outperformed me, but I redeemed myself later that afternoon in the Chapultepec zoo, when we reviewed the noises that animals make. So overall, a good day.