Thursday, December 25, 2008

Celebrating Christmas Where the 1960's Never End

After the all night bus ride from Oaxaca City to the Oaxacan Coast at Puerto Angel, we went in search of beach camping and found a spot at Shambala. A groovy enclave on the clothing optional end of the beach, the sign pledging to "always welcome flower children" also proclaims it is a place "where the 60's never end." And yes, there are folks doing early morning nude yoga on the beach.

We started camping under a palapa (palm-thatched roof) at beach level, but after a few nights moved up, literally, to about forty feet above the beach for a fantastic view, more shade, and a quieter spot. Now we alternate days boogie boarding at Zipolite with days snorkeling at Playa Panteon, the next beach south.  I think the fish with electric blue mascara was saying hello to me yesterday. There are also bright yellow sunfish the size of dinner plates schooling around, tiger striped fish, pipefish, and lots of types with glowing shades of blue. I think there's another family poem in our snorkeling experience (see last blog) but we haven't captured it yet.
We got to spend a day with a Canadian family who had similar aged kids which was fun for all, and plan to head north a little ways to visit a turtle sanctuary before we return to Oaxaca City in the last days of December. Meanwhile, we're trying a different restaurant every day, getting fruit and snacks at the local market, wandering the area on foot, and trying to stay out of the sun during the burning rays hours of 10-2.

On Christmas eve, Shambala's owner hosted a unity dinner for all, and even gave out gifts. Dana received earrings and a beaded necklace and Noah got a shark's tooth necklace.  With his blond longish hair and boogie boarding prowess, he very much looks like a surfer guy here. Christmas was small things in the tent's gear loft, a stroll down the beach, and a plan to go skinny dipping tonight. 
Wishing you health, peace, and new adventures this holiday season.  Take care.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Feathery Flutters and Volcano Breath

Our week of travel in the state of Michoacan gave us the experiences of meeting wonderful people, feeling thousands of monarch butterflies in the air around us, and climbing the steaming volcano Paricutin.  We alternated camping and hoteling, as it was a bit chilly.  Camping the first night involved setting up our tent in an unfinished house and a meal of fresh steamed trout in a family home, in a beautiful little mountain town.  Near Patzcuaro we awoke to ice coating the tent, so the next night in Angahuan we rented a little trojecito, a tiny cabin with just enough space for four horizontal humans.  Here we'll share our first tries at family poetry, with each person contributing lines, to describe our time with the butterflies and the volcano.

Sanctuario de Monarcas

A rocky worn scrabbly trail
A bushwacking traverse
Finding wings on the ground
Hours of up
then clouds of butterflies windtunneling towards us
like gems
Feathery flutters of fire orange explosion
The swishing of small wings
Or clinging quietly in clusters to individual pine needles
and decorating Dana


Butt-bumbling wood saddles on fuzzy horses
or shoe-filling ash walking
past peach and avocado fields
and troje pointed roof wood houses
then hot and open lava fields
Sounds of Purepecha language
between the guide and his son
Smooth cone suddenly steep
volcano breath steam on our hands
ear to earth engine sounds
ancient smell of creation
Circling the crater
singed buns while innocently eating sandwiches
Knee high ash clouds steep dune
running sliding down
Lava hugging the church steeple of the town no more

Saturday, December 6, 2008

School Daze

Tom and I concluded 12 weeks of Spanish language school. That's us pictured below with three of our teachers, and Rolando has the pumpkin pie we brought to share. We've had three hours a day of grammar, practice, and conversation, five days a week for twelve weeks, plus two classes of cooking or dance each week. While I definitely need time for what I've been taught to sink in, I will surely miss my teachers and classmates at Escuela Mexicana. I feel accomplished to have finished the trimester and humbled by how much more exposure and study it will take know this new language.
Meanwhile, Tom and I have been volunteering in local schools, for another view of education in Mexico. I have been working in English classes with teachers Miriam and Celeste at Instituto Ignacio Montes de Oca. The students call it "Emo" due to the acronym being IIMO.  With over 40 fifteen-year-olds of mixed previous English experience per class period and a whiteboard in a battered classroom, these women have a tough job. I found the kids to be friendly and enthusiastic, the teachers dedicated, the classroom structure rather loose, and looming state exams to stress teachers and students just like they do in my
 school back in Washington State, USA.

Tom has been teaching 5th and 6th graders English at Juan B. Diosdado school in a very technology-based curriculum, involving videos and a smartboard. There are similarly forty students per class, and his students wear uniforms, which is very common here.  Now we're running into our students all over town. Tom's are usually with their parents, which necessitates introductions.  Mine are usually hanging out with their friends being cool teenagers.
Dana and Noah are managing school changes as well, concluding at Colegio Yeccan Waldorf (did you spy it in the photo where they are walking to school?) as we ready for our month of travel before returning to the USA. Just as for Tom and I, it is bittersweet. They have made friends and like school and our adventures here, and that's makes it hard to leave, even though we look forward to seeing friends and family at home.

We expected to be a little dazed by the school transitions, it's the price for getting to live here for the fall semester, but saying good-bye at the kids' school was hard.  Both Dana and I shed tears.  I'm consoling myself by thinking we'll come back. I want to learn more Spanish, I want the kids to learn more Spanish and stay connected to friends here, and I want to visit again the wonderful people we have met. Plus I love Guanajuato!  Next though, we're heading into our month of travel, starting with the monarch butterfly sanctuary and the 10,400 foot volcano Paricutin. Then it will be off to Oaxaca City and the Oaxacan Coast. Feeling dazed, but oh so thankful to be here.     

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Love Those Avocados and Limons

"So what do you eat down there?" my mother asked recently.  While our guide book says the average Mexican eats almost a pound of tortillas a day, we are nowhere close to that.  I eat tortillas every day after school with beans, cheese, salsa, and avocado, and some days every meal, but I'd say everyone else in the family is eating them more like every other day.  Although after Tom learned in cooking class to make homemade chips out of them, the kids have been clamoring for that way of eating tortillas.

Tortillas are available everywhere, from the smallest tiendita to fresh-made on the street to the that's-all-they-make tortillarias.  We've spent time at a huge open market here that has a second floor where you can hang over the railing and watch the tortilla-makers work.  We're also enjoying the produce, which is most fun to purchase in open-air market stalls.  I love the avocados, we buy lots of bananas for smoothies, fresh strawberries and watermelon are available, and we recently discovered the joys of homemade limonada.  
Squeeze six limons, which look like small limes but are actually lemons, add sugar and water, and you've got a pitcher of refreshing drink.  Tom plans to bring the limon squeezer he bought home so he can make it in the states.  If we can find limons there.

The family tradition of breakfast dinner once a week survives.  The mix says it is for "hotcakes," and we buy syrup and jam and nutella to put on them.  One major change is that we've eaten very little pasta here.  It's available, but maybe we burned out on it a little after the summer bicycle tour where we made one-pot pasta every third night for six weeks.

Before school, breakfasts are toast or cereal.  A slight wrinkle in the make-your-own-toast routine is that the casita's toaster oven is affixed too high for the kids to reach; Noah can just do it using long barbeque tongs.  Then the kids pack lunches (some kind of sandwich, yogurt, fruit), Tom and I pack snacks (we get out of school earlier than they do) and we're off for the day.

On Sundays, two of us hike down to the Mega, a supermarket that's at a mall, to stock up for the week.  In the photo, the mall is the complex of white buildings.  
We procure several kinds of juice (my favorite is nectarine) and fresh breads from the bakery, which you use tongs to select and place on a metal tray you carry around the bakery area.  Then you bring the load up to the counter and they bag and price the lot for you.  It is the same routine in the panadarias (bakeries).  During the week, we get barbecued chicken from Carlos, fruits from the market stalls, and shaved ice after school from the gentleman with the red ice chest bungied onto a dolly who always has two flavors but they vary every day.  Noah's been adventurous (limon with chile), and Dana and I like mantecado (vanilla with nuts and raisins).

We've been out to eat at an open air taco place that also does baked potatoes, a teeny-tiny Japanese restaurant, and a cafe where the tables are on a bridge over a pedestrian walkway.  We also had an excellent Thanksgiving feast which included cranberry margaritas, turkey with mole instead of gravy, and cornbread stuffing with chipotle peppers. When we are out on the coast in a few weeks, we understand seafood and tropical fruits will be standard fare, but we're certainly enjoying the food here.  And I who love those avocados and limons, am trying not to worry about having to give them up in January.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Visiting 100 b.c.

With our weekend Nissan Tsuru rental, camping gear in the trunk, and a sort-of-accurate road map, we headed towards our first pyramids at Tula.  Three hours later we presented our student cards at the Zona Archeologia sign, and were waved through with no charge.  Turns out kids and students are given free entrance to not just museums, but archeological sites.  What a great country.

Tom read from the Archeological Mexico guidebook about the ancient ball courts and Toltec warriors, we clambered around the pyramids with Mexican families, and Dana picked out a ceramic whistle or flauta to bring home.  Then it was on to the town of San Juan Teotihuacan to locate the campground Tom found on the Internet.  With one missed toll road junction we got there a little after dark, but campground owner Mina was happy to see us.  And we were happy to see a huge section of thick green grass - very unusual in Mexico, at least in our experience.

Sunday morning was chilly, but we got going by 9am, with only a slight delay due to Tom being pulled over for going the wrong way on a one-way street.  The policeman checked our documents with a severe expression, but then waved us off.  We were car #5 in the parking lot at Teotihuacan, gained free entrance again, and were up Piramide del Sol shortly after.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the ruins, talking about what the city might have been like when it was thriving back in 100 b.c. to 700 a.d., climbing the pyramids, and taking direction from Noah, who was getting footage for his next film.  I'm sure it will be posted soon on  Yes, he talked me into getting him a URL of his own.
Teotihuacan was amazing.  Until you can catch a glimpse of it in a future Fringlerfilm, you can check out our photos.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Volcanic Hiking This Week, Pyramids Next

We continue to hike the Guanajuato area, and when our volcanologist friend Dave Tucker visited, we learned a lot more about the volcanic nature of our surroundings.  Now the kids know breccia from ignimbrite, and we see a little more of the geologic story in the mix of rocks.

Last weekend, with Noah at home recovering from a cold, we hiked with Dana and her friend Danae to a feature on our horizon that we call the Balanced Rocks.  The uphill was rather pokey from spiny plants, but once we cleared the ridge it was a wide open traverse to the rocks.

A highlight on the last uphill section was a scattering of bleached white cow bones.  The girls were very scientific in their explorations of them, and very impressed with the thickness and depth of bovine teeth.
Once at the rocks, there were some scrambling opportunities, peanut butter and jelly roll-ups (on tortillas) and a symphony of burro voices discussing who knows what across the hills.  We
 admired more wacky rocks and wished we had Dave with us to explain, then wandered down via a different route which brought us into town and
 our favorite shaved ice vendor before heading home.

Next weekend we're going to climb the pyramids of Teotihuacan north of Mexico City.  The guidebook says the Pyramid of the Sun there is the third tallest pyramid in the world.  With our almost weekly hiking here, we hope we'll have the stamina for that pyramid, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent as well.  Noah has checked them out on Google Earth, Tom has rented a car and found a campground there, and the kids have Monday off school, so it will be a long weekend of adventure in a new area for us.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the Dead meets Halloween

Goodbye Pink Bathroom, Hello Fish Sink

Our apartment with the colorful city view has been exchanged for a two-room casita that looks out towards La Bufa, our neighborhood cross atop a rocky hill.  The apartment was a great place to land in Guanajuato, and helped us get acclimated.  I remember on our very first day when I looked at the microwave, and realized that I really was in a new land.  Of course the start button would say "inicio" and the stop/pause button would say "borrar/parar."  I just didn't know those words yet.

Similarly, the apartment taught us that the sink knob labeled "C" gets you hot water, not cold, because "C" is for caliente (hot).  Retooling other habits sometimes took a little longer.  Dana ended up making signs for the bathrooms that said, "Don't drink the water" and "Put the toilet paper in the waste basket."  And still we would forget sometimes.

But now we've got it, and we also got used to the apartment's restroom choices: the pink bathroom or the blue bathroom. The former might well be named Queen Barbie's Beauty Palace, just as a character named her room in Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos, which Tom and I just read.  The blue bathroom became Noah's domain, after Dana was grossed out by the way he left the sink and jumped ship to the pink bathroom off the adults' bedroom.

In the new house, we're sharing one bathroom, and it has an amazing fish sink, so I'm sure Noah won't leave it toothpaste streaked.  The casita of the amazing view has outdoor space to play in, Internet service, a loft bed for Dana, is quiet, and is in the same neighborhood - just over the hill from the apartment.  We're enjoying the change, yet glad that the kids' school is still close, and we can still see the neighborhood folks like Carlos, Tom's buddy who sells barbecued chicken in the afternoons.  So if you asked us what's new for November, I might just have to say that it's goodbye pink bathroom and hello fish sink.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sir Knight of the Rueful Countenance

"There once was a man who read so much he went crazy."  So begins a children's version of Don Quixote that Noah picked up in Donkey Jote, the English language bookstore here.  Originally published in 1605, Quixote is the man who read of knights and chivalry, then decided to style himself as a knight and go adventuring with his "squire" Sancho Panza.  It is Sancho who dubs Quixote "Sir Knight of the Rueful Countenance."

With a museum here dedicated to all things Don Quixote, Guanajuato began celebrating Quixote and author Miguel de Cervantes in the 1950's.  The festival called Cervantino has become a three-week celebration of the arts, and some of the venues offer free seats, so we are sampling music and dance, particularly at the Alhondiga outdoor stage - that's where Dana is in the photo.

Noah's favorite event so far, The Aluminum Show, was a modern dance extravaganza from Israel involving, yes, aluminum.  Dancers variously moved a metallic-looking two-story tall robot through the audience, shot space blanket looking material through a cannon out into the audience, and gyrated energetically. We've also seen several folkloricos, two focusing on traditional Mexican dances and another a Mexican dance group doing a tribute to Israeli folk music, and a ballet/modern dance mix.

We joined the young and hip of Guanajuato at Instituto del Sonido's techno-funk concert.  Tom caught Makossa & Megablast from Austria, and we all liked La Troba Kung Fu because they had a lead accordionist and ska beats. We have also heard a costumed punk band playing on a street stage, various folk guitar groups, and the ubiquitous Peruvian panpipe group.  They were playing Simon & Garfunkel's "I'd Rather Be a Hammer Than a Nail."  Or did Simon & Garfunkel steal a traditional song?
Cervantino means lots of people and vendors wandering the city.  If you suddenly need a Don Quixote fake moustache, you'll find sellers of them on every corner.  There are plenty of street performers as well, from the Insectos (see photo) to various mimes.  Dana's favorite mime is the guy in cowboy attire who is spray-painted silver.  Completely.  He even wears mirrored shades so you can't see any hint of unpainted skin around his eyes.  This type of street performer reminds us of Hollywood Boulevard, except here they stand on a soapbox and don't speak a word.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to read, in English, Cervantes' epic tome.  My copy of Don Quiote is 1142 pages of Three Stooges humor and the longest sentences I've tried since Faulkner in college.  This means it will be finished long after the Cervantino festival concludes.  I decided it is better to read leisurely than have a rueful countenance myself.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Language Envy

Many Mexican people we meet here have studied English in preparatoria (high school) or college, our Escuela Mexicana European classmates are studying Spanigh as their third or fourth language, and Noah's and Dana's classmates are often bi- or tri-lingual as well.

We have Swiss friends, who lived three years in Costa Rica before coming to Guanajuato, that speak German at home, Spanish everywhere, and English as well.  I am envious of six-year-old Florian and ten-year-old Maura's facility in three languages.  And their parents are not just conversational in several languages, but operate professionally in them as well. Wow.

While I wish I had gotten started as a kid, or gone abroad in college, I didn't.  Instead, I am struggling post forty to learn Spanish.  When I start feeling depressed thinking about Dana's friend Danae who is bilingual in Spanish and English and strong in German, or Noah's classmate Eyal, who is bilingual in Spanish and Hebrew and coming on well in English, I try and remember there are folks in my Spanish classes who are in their sixties.  Then I get out my books, study verb conjugations, and feel very thankful that I get this time to learn as much as I can.  Working to learn another language is difficult, but amazing and fascinating as well.  I hope with time and study I'll get there.  Maybe by fifty I'll know something of what Florian knows at six.

Actually, he just turned seven.  We hiked up one of the mountains encircling Guanajuato with his family, and another who have four kids, to celebrate his birthday/cumpleanos/geburtstag. There was a fire for cooking hot dogs and banana boats (chocolate tucked into a banana and heated in not-too-hot coals), birthday cake and singing in several languages, and much running around of children.  Florian speaks to me in Spanish, his sister addresses me in English, and I toss a few German words back to them when some pop into my head leftover from language in classes in college almost 25 years ago.

With our neighbors or people that we see traversing the callejones, at least I know enough Spanish now to be friendly.  I can understand the woman who suggested I not let Noah and Dana slide down the handrail in a steep callejon, greet the shopkeepers we pass each morning
 taking Noah and Dana to school, and even gave the right info when I was asked for directions from some out-of-town Mexicans.  I have to admit it was a shock that they believed I would understand their question and know the info they needed.  I guess there's hope after all.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dragons, Costumes, and an aside on Rice Crispie Treats

Collegio Yeccan Waldorf students put on a San Micael play where Jorge defeated the dragon in a perfect stone grotto at a park in the hills above Guanajuato.  Costumed first through eighth graders played the threatened farmers, the king and his court (including Noah as one of the guards), and of course the dragon (Dana was one of four fifth graders in the dragon costume).  The kids variously sang and spoke the story to recorder accompaniment - all in Spanish, of course.  It was a great show.

Afterwards, we participated in an intercambio, an exchange of homemade goods as a celebration of the fall harvest.  Our rice crispie treats were not very indicative of autumn, but were certainly a hit.  Regular rice crisp cereal wasn't in the store this week, so we made them with cocoa rice crisp cereal ("Arroz Inflado Sabor Chocolate" the box says, for those interested in the Spanish). Marshmallows here come with various colors in one bag, so there was some debate about whether to use both the strawberry and vanilla marshmallows with the chocolate cereal, creating a neapolitan sort of dessert.  We ended up sorting out the pink marshmallows this time, but Dana's classmates (yes, we've already corrupted them, she has shared at lunch) are familiar with rice crispie treats in several variations.
That's Dana's class taking their post-play bow, with friends Maura and Danae on the left and Dana on the right in the dragon.  The dragoneers moved well together, with one little kid yelling out as they approached, "Will it breathe fire and eat children?"

Our first experience seeing a costumed event however, was when Noah and I hiked through the mountain village of al Mineral del Monte de San Nicolas during a religious festival.  The parade included some fifty people on horseback, like the woman in the photo.  No dragon, but a noisy event with church bells ringing, fireworks going off, and drums and brass instruments playing.

Then there was the weekend we were in San Miguel de Allende, about an hour from Guanajuato, and wandered past costumed dancers with huge headdresses.  Also on that trip, we were in the village of Atotonilco, site of the church where Father Hidalgo led the revolutionaries after his September 16, 1810 speech, and picked up the banner of the Virgin of
 Guadalupe for the group to march under.  The market there was very focused on religious items, such as crosses, rosaries, "Pope trading cards" as Noah said, saint medals, and even latigos for self-flagellation.  The part I liked best was watching the Purepecha women from the countryside.  I practiced taking photos holding the camera down by my side instead of up to my face, so as to be less intrusive.

All these costumes and we're not even to Halloween and Dios de los Muertos yet.  We hear the kids' school assigns a category of costume to each class.  Dana thinks the fifth graders are supposed to be vegetables.  Ah, so much to look forward to.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Learning from Salsa

I knew I would be eating salsa in Mexico, but I hadn't expected to be dancing salsa.  Then we discovered the trimester program for Tom and I includes two extra cultural classes a week, and while Tom is eagerly anticipating cooking, it is salsa dance class right now.  On week four, we're into more complicated steps, occasionally at hyper-speed, depending on the song our teacher selects. I tell Tom to think of it as just a series of moves, like the football plays of his high school years.  And that it's good for him that an activity is easier for me than him, for once.

Maestro Herardo (or Suave to his friends) is an amazing dancer and teacher, with a quick sense of humor.  And don't he and Ester from Norway look good together in the photo? He has reinforced our directional vocabulary as he calls out in Spanish to turn left or right, and as he directs us in the warm-ups before class ("arriba, abajo, arriba, abajo, " as we're to look up and down to warm up our neck and head).  When we went to buy Dana a shoulder bag for school, Tom could describe what we were looking for because he learned the word for shoulder from dance class.

I can hum a few of the salsa tunes now, because we have the cd of the ones used in class.  We also listen to the University of Guanajuato radio station in the apartment, and of course they sometimes play salsa.  The U of Guanajuato station is also like student stations everywhere - it has classical shows and quite a few eclectic time slots where you might hear Mexican heavy metal and then a Spanish folk song.  In other eclectic music notes, Tom got the scoop on Mexican ska from some local folks and has a list of bands to purchase, we heard a five-piece Dixieland group and went to the symphony (they had a super dramatic guest conductor that the kids loved, and Smetner's Ciclo was very engaging), plus there is always street music here.  Now we wish we had our saxes and some of Tom's drums with us.

While we're in salsa class on the terrace at Escuela Mexicana for an hour in the evening a couple times a week, the kids are on site in a classroom trading off reading and using the computer.  Though they have been invited, they haven't ventured onto the dance class with us.  They would do great if they were up for dancing with the adults, such as dance and Spanish classmates Esther and Andrea from New Zealand, with me after class in the photo.  Esther says dancing salsa is not of her culture.  We joke that she is getting in touch with her inner Latina.

The next jump in our salsa education would be to go out to one of the dance clubs and practice our moves.  Tom and  I haven't yet, but we'll have to get brave (and a babysitter) at some point.  New moves and learning from salsa are all part of the adventure.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hiking Guanajuato

We live on Panoramica, the road that rings the city of Guanajuato, and the mountains seem very close.  Now we know just how close, as last weekend we were off the road in ten minutes of walking, and headed up, up, up, to a landmark chapel and cross known as La Bufa.

We paused to look at horses and cows wandering by, admire the cactus, discuss the rock formations and red earth (we needed our friend Liz the geologist to help us know what we were seeing), wonder about the chapel carved into the base of a rocky band, and slowed to scramble a rock chute that led up to the saddle.  
From there the city looked so much smaller and contained, and the wide open green and rock mountains
stretched out in every direction.  We resolved to camp up top another time.

Noah said he saw a scorpion, we cringed at a party of gringos loudly repelling, and picked our way up the rock to the white cross at the top edge.  In some places steps had been chiseled into the pinkish rock, and we saw can lanterns (a candle and sand in a paint can) that people
had used to light evening climbs. 

It looks like we can head out in almost any
direction hiking here, since the city is surrounded by the mountains, although the 
terrain then flattens going west towards Leon (which is what you see behind us in the photo where Dana is snacking).  So much hiking available, and yet 
there isn't exactly a word for it in Spanish.  One can go walking in the mountains, but not hiking.  Interesting.