Tuesday, June 26, 2007

De nuevo, escribo

It’s been a week, so I guess I ought to update.

Yesterday afternoon and then again last night there were horrible strong rainstorms here in Guadalajara, and the area of town where I live and go to school were the hardest hit. Power went out, streets were flooded (the paper reports it was a meter deep on López Mateos at the height of the storm), trees were uprooted, all of which resulted in traffic snarls and accidents. I haven’t seen rainstorms like this since hurricane season in Louisiana. Last night as La Argentina and I walked home from the movie theatre, the street lights were all out and those few blocks back to the Casa were dark and a little unnerving. We arrived safe and unmolested, though. The rain started up again about an hour later, stronger than in the afternoon, this time with lightning and lots of thunder, and the power in the Casa kept blinking on and off.

I went out dancing with friends a couple of times last week. We’re a small group—La Argentina, La Francesa, El Portero (a Mexican) y yo—but it’s easier to get a table that way, and easier to avoid drawing attention to ourselves as (mostly) foreigners. Speaking only Spanish also helps, and people tend to ignore our un-Mexican accents. We had a good time, minus the unfortunate distractions caused by my fellow countrywomen (see parenthetical rant below). The place where the Portero took us on Tuesday had good music, but there was an awesome show and live band at the Cuban club we found on Friday. Recorded salsa music is fine and I’ve never been one to complain about a good DJ, but nothing beats live music. The dance floor was packed so there wasn’t really room to do anything fancy, anyway I’m not especially good at those things. Spins are about as complicated as I get. If someone tries to lead me into anything more I start stepping on my feet.

(Parenthetically: I had a long rant prepared about the shocking and trashy behaviors of slutty norteamericanas who make a spectacle of themselves in dance clubs and other public places, but I’ll but it down to this: I deduce from your actions that you’re shy on self respect, so it’s a tall order but I wish you would think about how your actions reflect on the rest of us who do in fact respect ourselves and our sexuality. We are not all like you, you are just a minority, but we still have to deal with the reputation you construct for all of us, even when we’re just walking down the street. Crossing a border is not license to drink like Hemingway and dance like a cheap hooker. It reflects on all of us, and it’s your fault we have such a nasty reputation abroad, it’s your fault that “gringa” is synonymous with “cheap” and “exploitable”. I pity you and resent you.)

In further salsa news, dance lessons at school are moving along well, and I’ve got a regular partner and we’re learning to work together. He’s a nice German kid. Class went well until the storm cut the power (we have class in the basement theatre, with no windows or natural light). Also yesterday, Raúl (the instructor, and yes, he fits all the stereotypes you might have of a fruity latin dance instructor, we love him) let the cat out of the bag that we’ll be performing our routine for the rest of the students on the last day of school for those who want to participate. Amidst jokes about finding matching flowing red dresses, el alemán and I are wondering if we really want to do that. . . watch this space for updates.

Certainly the most exciting thing to happen this week is that I started the text of my novel (this is especially satisfying/consoling since my “preliminary research” isn’t coming together the way I’d hoped) I’ve only got a little so far, but I’m generally pleased with it. In my writing class (which isn’t really a creative writing class, by the way, it’s mostly mechanics and style) we went over Horacio Quiroga’s decalogue of rules for good writing, and I saw on that list the things that have been holding me up. A couple of the rules that stood out to me:

V. No empieces a escribir sin saber desde la primera palabra adónde vas. En un cuento bien logrado, las tres primeras líneas tienen casi la importancia de las tres últimas. (Don’t start writing without knowing from the first word where you’re headed. In a well-contsructed story, the first three lines are almost as important as the last three).

VIII. Toma a tus personajes de la mano y llévalos firmemente hasta el final, sin ver otra cosa que el camino que les trazaste. . . (Take your characters by the hand and lead them determinedly to the end, without being distracted by anything other than the path you’ve laid out for them. . .)

I realized I’d been trying to write without having fully developed the story line or the characters, thinking those things would magically take shape along the way. So, I spent the next several days really thinking about what I want this novel to say, and how to do that. I eliminated some elements and decided where in the tale I want to begin and end, and spent some time in character development. Yesterday I started writing the text. I’m pleased with it so far. It already needs some clean up, but I’ve started. I also realize this is going to be a longer process than I’d anticipated. It feels so good, though, to be using creative energy. I’ve missed writing. I’ve missed being creative. Yesterday between the storms I took a pause in my walk home (the streets were still somewhat flooded) to stop at a café, where I sat alone with my lunch and my laptop and wrote. I felt so good, so productive.

My husband is also astoundingly supportive of my writing. We’ve talked on the phone a couple of times about what I’m writing and the breakthroughs I’ve had, and I can hear in his voice how happy he is about it. I am the luckiest girl in the world. I miss him so much. Reva, I’m starting to get an inkling of how you felt when Jared was gone in Brazil. Of course, I’m the one who gets to go somewhere exciting and he’s the one left at home, and I’m not seven months pregnant and wondering if I’m going to get a visa in time to give birth, and that’s why I say “an inkling”. It’s an odd kind of missing someone. I miss him so much, and in ways I didn’t anticipate. The last several days I’ve been thinking about a conversation that Reva and I had more than a year ago, about being happily married. I think I’d been married just a few months at the time, and she was barely pregnant. We both had long years of single-hood with what I think was more than our fair share of disappointment, and are both surprised at how lucky we got in marriage. In that conversation she made the comment that some days she can’t believe it’s real, that maybe she’s not really allowed to be this content and blessed, that she keeps waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under her again. I agreed. Presently, I feel much more secure in my marriage (funny how time and even distance should have that effect) and I’m not anxious that it’s all going to fall apart just because everything else did, I’ve gotten over that. But, there are still many days that I find myself wondering how I possibly deserve him. I’m not saying I don’t deserve to be happy, but I am amazed by just how wonderful he is, and how good to me.

I’ll stop before I get too schmoopy. Suffice to say, it’s been a good, productive week, and the creative juices are flowing again. Here’s to waiting out nasty storms.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Instrucciones para pasar el tiempo

It’s been several days since my last post, and in lieu of a thoughtful entry I’m just going to enumerate some of the mildly interesting things that have happened since then (you’re all thrilled, I know).

1. Some friends and I went to a church festival at the local parish, dedicated to San Antonio. I learned only in the last few years that he’s the patron saint of single women seeking husbands, and I also learned some fun tricks that a woman can use, like hanging San Antonio upside down to coerce him into bringing her a husband. A friend told me a story about a woman, tired of waiting and praying in vain, who threw her San Antonio out the window. The statue hit a handsome and charming passerby in the head, who picked up the statue and went knocking doors to return the misplaced Saint to his rightful owner. Of course, when he knocked on the woman’s door they both fell in love at first sight and promptly married happily ever after, which just goes to show that San Antonio really was doing his job. Mexican women, at least in my neighborhood, go to the festival once a year and ask for a coin from three different men in the crowd. Once they’ve procured them, they get at the end of a line that wraps around the block so they can give their three-coin offering to the figure of San Antonio in the church and plead with him that this year he really will bring them a husband. I wasn’t able to get solid information from anyone there as to whether or not the new husband would be one of the three one who coughed up a coin, but there was a general non-committal agreement on that point. We also saw an anticlimactic fireworks display and ate some buñuelos that our friend Daniel bought. Daniel works at a bookstore and he’s going to hook me up.

2. My writing professor had us read some of Julio Cortazar’s “Instrucciones para. . .[varias cosas]”, which are absurd little descriptions of how to properly do really simple things, e.g., “Instrucciones para llorar” (“How to cry”). He then assigned us ridiculous instructions of our own. I thought I went a little over the top on mine (“Instrucciones para comer con palillos chinos”/”How to eat with chopsticks”) but then he told me I write well and asked if I’ve ever thought of it as a career. I was duly flattered.

3. I went to my denomination’s church meetings on Sunday morning (LDS) which lacked a carnival atmosphere but abounded in kind people. It’s a small congregation, so I met most everyone, and was pleasantly surprised that I understood everything that everyone said. Some days I feel better about this language than others. Sunday was a good day.

4. I started taking a salsa class. The class is mostly girls, and yet somehow I, the old married lady, ended up having a male partner (maybe it’s because I’m the old married lady—it’s non-threatening). It was hot in the room and I got very sweaty but I also learned some fun moves and refined a few as well. I’m going to be a dancing machine again here soon. . .

5. Speaking of sweaty, I also went to my very first capoeira class last night. I am very sore. It was fun but I have lots to learn.

And that, dear friends, is what Lola’s been doing the last few days. I am enjoying Guadalajara and might even take some more photos to share soon. Chau for now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

La comida que cura

Several years ago I took a wonderful anthropology class in my last semester at Metro, a medical anthropology class taught by a delightful professor who’d worked in health care in New Mexico and was well acquainted with the delicate and difficult task of blending western and traditional healing for the patients’ benefit. One of the major themes in the class was the concept of food as medicine/medicine as food, which harks back to earlier lessons in Anthropology 101 in which we learn that we don’t all perceive “food” the same way cross-culturally. Well sure, food is what you eat, what you ingest with the general idea that it will sustain life, while medicine (in its oral indications, anyway) is what you will ingest in the hopes it will restore or maintain vibrant life. Many cultures build grand rituals and subcultures around their gastronomy. Look at the French. Mmm, the pastries, ooh la la. . .but I digress. Food is what you eat, but what will you eat? What do you and your culture define as “food”, suitable for ingestion under quotidian circumstances? What would you ingest as medicine that you’d push away on a plate or in a chilled glass, and which foods’ “curative” powers would you doubt, because they’re only food?

Why do I bring up all the anthrobabble? Two days ago while walking past a taquería on the south side of downtown, beyond the well-scrubbed picturesque plazas between the cathedral and the opera house and into the gritty, sweaty, noisy, human neighborhoods, I spied a pile of pig snouts waiting to be chopped into fine pieces and shoveled into tortillas and laden with salsas and pickled carrots for a clientele who seem not bothered in the least by the origins of their fare. Anyway, the snouts were easily identifiable and in plain view, right behind the glass up again the sidewalk, so any Fulano who stops for a quick snort, I mean bite, knows what he’s buying, so I can only assume there’s no trickery here, except maybe a horrid sacrilegious joke on a blind, hungry Jew or Muslim who can’t see what’s they’re serving him. Yet another reason for me to avoid the pork tacos, at least in that neighborhood. I promise there’s a point to the pig snouts, I’m not just testing your stomach. Moving on: a few blocks later I walked past a market where, a few years ago while wandering the folk medicine/witchcraft section (I still don’t consider love spells “medicine”) I happened upon a serpentine mess of what appeared to be desiccated, skinned, and decapitated carcasses hanging down long and precariously from the edge of a stall. ¿Cascabeles?, I wondered. I verified the identity of the suspect remains with the proprietress and in our subsequent chat she swore to me that rattlesnake, ground up and served as a tea, alleviates the sufferings of cancer patients and in some cases even cures the disease itself. I was doubtful, but having seen loved ones bear the ravages of chemotherapy in hopes (often vain, I might add) of a cure or a respectable spell of remission, I promised myself at that moment that if it came down to it, I’d try a few swigs of her rattlesnake brew before submitting myself to chemo.

Am I really less disgusted by drinking reconstituted snake powder than the possibility of running across a pig booger in my taco? Honestly, yes. Ponder the swine mucous for a moment and you’ll come around. Would I eat the snout tacos if I thought they might cure cancer? Hmm. That’s a tougher decision. How much would I have to eat, and for how long? Here chemo might come out on top. On the flip side, I’d do snake as medicine, but I’d only eat it to be polite or if I were raving hungry and had no other options. Sure it’s “food”, it’s muscle tissue, and more appetizing than a pig’s septum, but don’t look for me to be ordering rattlesnake tenderloin (because snake have “loins”, don’t you know) at a Cowboy Old-West theme restaurant. I grew up in the mountain west eating wild game and I have nothing to prove.

Mexicans eat menudo, some because they like it and others only to stave off or diminish hangovers. Many people in the US don’t like Jägermeister strictly because it reminds them of NyQuil. My husband and other more easterly-bound travelers than myself tell me that Russians despise root beer, because their cough syrups have the same flavor. What would they think of Sonic’s recent promotion offering free root beer floats to kick off the summer? Who doesn’t like root beer floats? Go ahead, say it—“That’s just plain un-American”. Of course it is.

So back to the original point of this unappetizing reflection: food is what you eat, but what will you eat, and why do you eat it? Do you detest broccoli and salmon and dark chocolate but eat them anyway because your doctor told you to? What else would you eat if you thought it might cure or prevent illness? What would you eat to be polite? During study group or even in a less seasoned anthropology professor’s lecture, this topic can quickly degenerate into a gross-out-fest in which students compare the nastiest thing they’ve ever eaten. Even in that discussion, though, listen up, because everyone’s “worst food” is likely to be an animal product, and probably from an animal or body part that your culture doesn’t consider “food”, or in an unacceptable condition (raw, rotten). Sorry, but no one’s going much impressed by even the worst tofu burger, not when the other contestants are blood sausage, fish heads, and goat with the singed hair still attached.

Anyway, this morning I went back to that same crazy market, Mercado Libertad, with another seasoned Guadtrotter to show it to a newbie in the city, and she was duly amazed by it. (I also rode the subway for the first time here, which was fast but extremely crowded as one expects a subway to be). I looked around again for the rattlesnake hocker, and found her again in the same spot, but the rest of that brujería section of the market has sadly diminished since my last extended stay here, and most the area is now filled with DVD pirates. I also looked and looked for a pile of pig snouts to illustrate this entry, but alas, found none. I did, however, capture some pigs feet, and a creative use for limes and a defleshed goat skull (doesn’t it look like those drawings of El Chupacabras?). If you're interested, the going rate for pigs feet is 18pesos/kilo. That's about 80 cents a pound, guys, cheap animal protein! I’ve spared you the more graphic images like the skinned lambs’ heads and piles of hearts and tripas, but if you want to see them, you know where to go.

Eat up, friends. Lola’s having salad for dinner.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fiesta de Mariachi

Today was the first day of school, but not the first day of classes. We had orientation, placement testing, and a Mariachi Party out in the rear courtyard. Obviously the Mariachis were the best part of the school day. How often do you get that? I'm not always a big fan of the genre, and normally I can only take it in for short periods of time (read: a set of three songs, tops). These guys, though, were thoroughly entertaining, and they had a fun blend of the traditional with healthy doses references to pop music and culture thrown in, and lots of (sometimes coerced) audience participation. Throughout the set, they picked on about half a dozen unsuspecting souls and sang to them, danced with them, sat on the them, etc. Add tacos, salsa and horchata, and you've got a dang good party for the middle of the day.

It's odd to be back here, and stranger still to be here by myself. We were a group of twelve when I came before, and fairly tight by the time we got here, and closer still by the time we left. I feel much more like an observer this time around. The vast majority of the students are in large groups (between 25 and 60+) representing about six or seven universities in the US. Most appear to be quite a bit younger than me, and a few significantly older (My parents' age). They're already establishing their social groups, and I don't know whether I should lament that or not. The truth is that I'm not interested in hanging out with kids my students' age who will likely drink unsafe and astounding quantities of alcohol since they can do it legally here, in public, no fake ID required. I did that last time (hung out with them, not drank myself silly, that is). However, there's still this tiny part of me that wants to be liked. Oh well. Now that I've got a phone (!) I can get in touch with my old friends here and speak Spanish with real Mexicans instead of more students. Also, classes will start tomorrow and I'll meet more people, at least the ones in my class. I don't want to give the impression that people are unfriendly, because everyone seems pretty nice (espcially the group from Valdosta, bless their southern hearts). I should give myself some slack in my rate of adjustment-- I've still only been here three days. At least I speak the language already and I'm not concerned about trying to hook up with some young hunk, because I've got a nicely aged one at home and minimal drama in my life. Just in those two respects I've got it significantly easier than lots of these kids.

I'll sign off with a couple of little observations. First, Reva, there is an avocado tree in the courtyard here at the school. I never noticed it before because it was giving flowers rather than fruit when I was here in the spring. The tree is huge, big enough to climb, with fat fruits that will be the size of Solei's head when they're done (okay, maybe not that big, but they're huge).

Also, I while I kind of like Mariachi, I've always been more than a little creeped out by the pants. The worst ones I've ever seen were skin-tight leather. NOT sexy, just icky and awful. The ones from today weren't so bad, but they weren't so good, either. At left we observe an illustration of some mildly unnerving pants. Nothing quite like Mariachi-butt to spice up your day.

My man wears normal pants, and for that and many other reasons I love him.

Well, buenas nalgas, I mean noches, everyone. Enjoy!

A solas

As the plane was setting down on Friday, it occurred to me that this is my first solo trip abroad. I’ve managed to get alone time before when I’ve traveled, but this is the first time I’ve arrived alone. It feels strange and good and not nearly so liberating or empowering as I’d hoped. I’m a bit underwhelmed in already knowing I can get by just fine on my own here, that a solo trip to Guadalajara is nothing daring. Now Tunisia, that would have made me feel like a bigger woman, even traveling with a group of fellow lingua-nerds.

I perceive myself as a pretty solitary person. I always spent lots of time alone, even as a child (weird, nerdy little kids don’t always have friends), and as an adult I work and study alone a great deal of the time. This isn’t to say that I haven’t developed social skills, and I think I do well socially and am blessed with wonderful friends, but I also know that I start to go a little crazy when I don’t get a few hours of time alone every day. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a madrugadora, so that I can start the day out right by myself before anyone else is awake, like today. My best friend and I are opposites in this way; she needs a steady diet of interaction with people to keep from going crazy, and need a break from other people to maintain that sometimes delicate mental balance.

All that said, I can’t believe how much I missed my husband this weekend. Not that he isn’t miss-able—he’s wonderful company. I just didn’t think I’d miss him this much, this soon. We talked briefly on Saturday (when I called he was over at my parents’ house helping my Dad with some things, what a guy!) and I told him I missed him more than I thought I would, but that I figured things would feel socially normalized after the weekend when I get into a routine. The days aren’t so bad—I love walking through the city and getting my bearings and taking in all of this. There is so much to appreciate, like the faded red-and-white checkerboard sidewalks and the sounds of mass and singing coming out little corner churches in the morning, and how it’s so green and things grow everywhere, and oh, the people. Watching the people is the best of all. The nights are harder, though, and I realize that I’ve become accustomed to spending my evenings, even just the last few minutes before sleep, winding down with my husband, and to falling asleep curled up with him. I also miss my cell phone, and feel strangely disconnected without it (though I’m getting used to that, too). I’m one of those people in the habit of calling someone and making commentary when I see something funny. Usually it’s my brother or my best friend, or my husband if he’s not busy at work or in class. Countless times this weekend I saw something striking or amusing and wanted to tell someone, only to remember that I didn’t have a cellphone capable of calling the US. It occurs to me that maybe this is how I manage to spend so much time alone these days; I’m still just a ring away from the people I love most and who appreciate/share my twisted take on life’s little oddities.

On a humorous note, shortly after I left on Friday my husband locked himself out of the house, maybe because I couldn’t make him check for his keys as he left, and on Saturday I ate popcorn at the movies (yes, I went to the movies alone) and got stomach cramps because my husband wasn’t around to remind me not to eat movie popcorn. Funny how we otherwise “independent” people let ourselves slip into dependence when we marry.

Yesterday evening I made a friend. I was in the kitchen fixing a light dinner (I’ve moved into the University guest house) and there was a nice Argentine girl there. We started chatting and talked for a while. She’s also married, here alone without her husband, close to my age, and studying something different than the kids from the US. It’s good to make another friend. Of course, being Argentine, she’s totally useless from the standpoint of my improving my hypothesis-in-the-making about patterns of Mexican speech, and that’s nice. I can enjoy talking to her without trying to observe the little nuances of her word choices and intonation.

I have to get ready for school. I’m glad I already made friends with the Argentine because I’m not sure how much I’m going to have in common with the other students here. I’m kind of an old woman. More to come.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


I’m sitting at a window table in a favorite café in Guadalajara enjoying a deliciously spicy plate of chilaquiles, and outside there’s a tiny large-eyed girl in curly pigtails carrying her own little purse and wearing rainbow-striped shoes a little to big for her miniscule feet. She might be as old as three, but I doubt it. She’s smiling at me, trying to get my attention. I just smiled back and waved, and she acted coy. Little children can be charming when their numbers aren’t overwhelming. This solitary child, for example, who entertains herself by climbing around on the planters in front of the café while here mother peddles cheap jewelry from the sidewalk, is making me think I might want a coy little girl of my own.

You gather then, that I made it—I arrived in Guadalajara yesterday afternoon, not quite 24 hours ago. My hotel is an old colonial palace converted to a hotel, and the window of my room looks out on this rear interior courtyard. It's in the middle of downtown, but it's peaceful. I’ve been reorienting myself to the parts of the city that I do know and the little nuances of the culture that I forget about until I’m here again. I’m struck by how un-Mexican I am when I’m here. I may be a nice Hispanic girl, but I am definitely from another place and another culture. Mexico is so distinct. My little expectations, both good and bad, of how people around me will behave are constantly unmet and flouted. In general everyone is more friendly, polite and helpful than I’m used to, but it’s also common for men here to stare at women, to make flirtatious (and sometimes derogatary, to my North American sensibilities) comments to woman as they walk down the street, and sometimes to hiss at women as they walk past. Yes, hiss. I’ve only gotten the hiss twice since I got here, though. All this attention might border on flattering if it weren’t so demeaning, and it’s not like it makes me special. They do it to any girl or woman past the merest sign of puberty. Then there are the smells, the sounds, the way of talking to people, the way to cross the street and navigate traffic, the way to meet or not meet someone’s gaze, and remembering not to flush the toilet paper. So many things about me betray me as a foreigner, and more than anything I think it’s my carriage and body language. I don’t walk like a Mexican woman, and they don’t walk like me. I’m just different, I guess.

This is not to say I’m not enjoying the readjustment process. A large part of it is geography, and that’s kind of fun. I’m staying downtown for a couple of days until I move into my room at the university guest house, and so little has changed downtown. I bet it hasn’t changed in decades, and when it does I think those changes are small, piling up over the centuries into the embedded mess it is now. It can feel a little claustrophobic, but luckily for this western girl, Guadalajara is laid out more or less in a grid system and therefore relatively easy to learn and navigate, downtown being the simplest. El Centro is fascinating and lively but slightly sketchy, so yesterday afternoon I headed west to my old neighborhood to buy a phone with a local number at a US-style mall (officially Centro Magno, aka Centro Gringo and loaded with fresas). There’s also an amazing salad restaurant there, and I indulged in a massive plate of veggies and a bladder-buster-size, all-fruit smoothie. Traditional Mexican food has that nasty reputation as a major artery-clogger, but less publicized is the quantity and quality of the local produce. If you’ve never eaten a fresh Mexican avocado, you don’t know what you’re missing. I know that silly rule about not eating any produce you didn’t peel yourself while traveling abroad, blah blah blah, but this is Mexico, and urban Mexico at that, and anyway my system’s always done a good job of digesting whatever I throw at it. I know to avoid (some) taco stalls on rural roadsides. I’m not going to deny myself a big yummy salad when the place is clean.

And then there are the religious festivals. Last night as I made my way back downtown on the slow, jerky old streetcar, every church we passed east of Chapultepec was surrounded by crowds of people in matching-colored tees waving matching-colored balloons and singing hymns. I was confused. The crowds got bigger as we went east, eventually merging into a massive congregation lining the streets and filling the plazas downtown. In my curiosity I asked a police officer what was going on, and he unenthusiastically informed me that it was a religious processional carrying a statue from one church to another. He didn’t seem too religious himself. Sure enough, as I walked past the main cathedral, they were testing the sound system on a large stage on the front steps, and a rather important-looking cardinal-type was nodding approvingly. I entertained the idea of coming back to see the whole thing go down, but being rather sleepy and not a Catholic, I’d given it up by the time I got back to my hotel several blocks from the main plaza. I read and watched TV for a while before dozin off fully clothed in the middle of the bed, on top of the covers. I woke up later chilled and uncomfortable, and climbed into bed. Sleeping without my husband is going to be an adjustment process, as well.

I’m going to go to my old favorite bookstore here before I track down the place I’ll be living. Should you find yourself in a major city in Mexico, I recommend that you find local Librería Gandhi. It’s a happy place, especially if you are a reader. Lola has a day and a half to play before classes start.