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.