Friday, December 12, 2008


The last day of the Guadalupe festivities seems to be fairly calm so far, and we were able to sleep in until 6:00 this morning. We also were able to miss some of the noise last weekend when we headed to Campanario to attend the quiceañera (15th birthday party) of the oldest daughter of my host family.

Quinceañeras are a big deal throughout Mexico, maybe something like a debutante ball. There are stores which specialize in quiceañera gowns–which look basically like little wedding dresses–and there are reality TV shows dedicated to the outrageous 15th birthday parties of the super rich. In rural poorer Mexico, families might have a small church service and invite family and friends over for a meal and maybe a cake.
our god-daughter, María de Jesús, and her cake (we didn't choose the blonde-haired Cinderella decoration)

At this party, Jess and I were the padrinos (god-parents) of the cake. Basically, this means we buy the cake and are recognized as guests of honor during the party, which involved some delicious turkey mole. Being god-parents is pretty exciting, but is different from the idea of god-parents in the U.S.

In Mexico (or at least in Chiapas), by the time you are an adult, you have not just one set, but probably between 5 and 10 sets of god-parents. You get god-parents at your baptism, your first communion, school graduations (kindergarden up through highschool), and maybe your 15th birthday (only for girls). At weddings there might be a god-parent of the rings, a god-parent of the cake, a god-parent of the band, and even a god-parent of the rented tables and chairs. Basically this is a good way to do some social networking and to spread out the cost of these events (as a school graduation god-parent, for example, you might by the school uniform for the next year).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Everything we don't know about the morning

I woke up at 4:30 this morning. I woke up at 4:15 yesterday. So did Jessica. It's the Virgen de Guadalupe festival here, and all over Mexico – while the Iglesia Real de Guadalupe (prominently featured in many pictures out our front windows) in San Cristóbal is among the more important such churches in Mexico, it is by no means the biggest and baddest (we've heard tell of pilgrims crawling on hands and knees for miles this week to beg miracles at the Iglesia de Guadalupe in Mexico City).

Thing about parties here is that everybody knows it's a party only because there are fireworks (small airborne bombs) exploding every 10-30 minutes, 21 hours a day. I mean, how else are you going to let everybody know? You can also manage that, at least in part, by posting a live band at the church, beginning each morning at 6, and playing until early afternoon, sure, but that's going to get you only so far. Better to be safe, and do both. And processions: hundreds (literally hundreds) of small processions of barefoot youths, bearing torches and drums, running through the streets in the pre-dawn hours, beating those drums and chanting (yelling), so to be heard up in heaven, as well as by those of us still in this earthly realm. Yes, now I know there's a party on. Oh, and yesterday everyone was painting mustaches on their infants.

Where is the church? Is it foggy? No, that's just smoke from the cuetes.

If this 13-day party sounds like enough to send you on something of a tirade, let me share with you the experience of one of our American friends here, also suffering through his first festival de Guadalupe. Dan (our friend) was hanging out with his three Mexican roommates – all cool people, tolerant and relaxed – and he was venting a little of his frustration at the early city-wide wake-up calls and such, as follows:

"Pinche antorchas (fucking processions). Pinche cuetes (fireworks). Pinche fiestas."

At this, the roommates are smiling and nodding in commiseration with their clearly frazzled friend.

"Pinche puta de Guadalupe!" (pretty much: Fucking whore of Guadalupe)

Suddenly the smiles are gone. No one is nodding. Dan notices the change, and looks around at his roommates in the thick silence. No one is looking at him. After a minute, the very kindest of the roommates, still looking away, tells him, "It's ok, because we're all friends here. But you won't say that again."

So don't get too worked up. More than the Virgin Mother, Guadalupe is probably the most salient, internally-appreciated symbol of Mexico and her people. Now and again, somebody notices some natural phenomenon that has taken the shape of the Virgin, and people come from all over to look on the milagro, such as happened just a couple of years ago in Mexico City, when construction work in a subway station led to a water leak that created a peculiarly-shaped stain. Pilgrims came from all over the country to see this subway-station stain. Just to illustrate, this is serious business here.

Anyway, let's get on to some lighter fare. Ephraim was in town for almost 10 days, and my parents were here for Thanksgiving weekend, and a great time was had by all. Ephraim's trip began with a trip to Palenque and the Panchan. We were greeted there by a troupe of howler monkeys, climbing and jumping and howling, all in plain sight, up in a big jungle tree. Thanksgiving was lots of fun, and some of our American friends here in S.C. came over for dinner, so it was a bit of a crowd. The next day we drove a couple of hours to see the ruin site of Toniná, which was awesome. Not as sprawling as Palenque, Toniná is a whole complex of temples and towers climbing up a hill, from which you can look out on a wide rolling charmingly cow-populated valley. We took a picnic.

Now we're by ourselves again, but not for long. It's back to Oregon in just one week, and we are getting a little excited. Not so much excited to leave (though leaving these early-moring cuetes will be quite a thing), as excited to get back to people and places that we really like to see.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

a big hill

Today Jess and I climbed up a big hill to visit one of my Chol-teachers, Nicolas, and his family. (This is the same hill Gillian and I climbed up a few weeks ago when we took nice pictures of Nico and his wife, but this time my computer didn't break afterwards.)

Tomorrow I'm off to Campanario for a quick visit, and then will meet up with Jess and Ephraim in Palenque on Tuesday. Then back here to get ready for our Día de Gracias. We'll miss all of you Cambridge-Thanksgiving revelers this year and hope you have good ones (but that you miss us a little too).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

back from el norte

After five days in Hermosillo I'm happy to be back in the south. I went with a group from CIESAS and presented at a linguistics conference at the Universidad de Sonora. The conference was great, and it was exciting to see a different kind of Mexico. Hermosillo is in the desert and I didn't see a cloud, or much in the way of greenery, for days. Everything was very flat, except for a hill near the center of town. I went up with a group of linguists (left) to check out the views.

Despite the name, Hermosillo is not especially hermoso. The downtown area is, in urban planning speak, rather blighted (if Jess did have to stay in Mexico for a job, there would be plenty of work to do here). Not very pedestrian friendly, not much going on in the streets, and a lot of run-down or closed businesses. People in Hermosillo apparently do not walk (they looked at us in horror when we told them we were thinking of walking to the top of the hill above). One person attributed this to the fact that if you walk very far in the summer, you die. Last week it was in the mid-90's most of the time. This is November, which is their winter too. We were told in the summer highs can reach 54 celsius. I just plugged that into a converter and it tells me that means 129 degrees fahrenheit. Despite the heat, people in Hermosillo were extremely friendly and had very nice Norteño accents.

On the last day of the conference, the organizers took a group of about 50 linguists to a small beach town called San Carlos (below). I'd never been to such a desert-y beach before, but the cactus-covered hills in the background were lovely, as was the turquoise blue water. You can see by the hotels in the background that San Carlos is growing, and I felt the need to apologize on behalf Gringolandia for the drunken American teenagers screaming as they drove ATVs through groups of sun-bathers and their jetskis through groups of swimmers.

A very nice trip but it's good to be home, though we only have about half of the fahrenheit degrees here in San Cristóbal as they did in Hermosillo and I think I am getting a cold.

Finally, here is our city in the news (thanks David!). We're looking forward to showing it off during visits from Ephraim and the Burgesses next week.

'Stay in Mexico'

Why'd you do it? Why did you break the economy?

Suddenly, everybody I talk to about jobs back home – which used to swim like a school of tuna – tells me to prepare for a "long, hard search". I've also heard "just stay in Mexico", that from my current employer, the guy I was most hoping for job-search help from.

What is this? What have you done?

Whatever it was, I'm none too happy about it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Our dogs and their business

We've got a lot of dogs in our neighborhood, and the way they go about their business deserves a little explanation. First of all, most dogs here are kept out in the street, at least during the day, and often at night as well. Our neighborhood doesn't get a lot of car traffic, and that which it does is forced to move pretty slow – we're on a narrowish gravel street – so it's not all that hazardous for them around here.

These half-street/half-pet dogs do things in a way that is almost totally unlike dogs back home. I feel like in the U.S., dogs are in one of 2 modes: "hang-out", which involves lazy sleeping, or play, or ambling about a closed space, be it a house or a yard; "out-and-about", in which the dog follows its human companion for a walk about the world. There really isn't much else.

But these dogs in our neighborhood live their lives outside, and just don't seem to have these same categories for behavior. They hang out plenty, and they go on walks, and do all manner of other things, as well. But everything these dogs do is almost entirely self-directed. When the dog is hanging out, it's not because it doesn't have anywhere to be. It could be anywhere – seriously, several of these dogs have a foraging radius (think of the way that wildlife biologists talk about wolves and bears in their natural habitat) of 8-10 blocks. Others keep pretty close to home – Nacho, pictured at left and one of our favorites, only ranges up and down one block, always on the same street, and can often be found on this same doorstep (thanks Peter for the photo).

But when these dogs are going somewhere, they are going. Another of our favorites, a Chow mix we've named Guapo, has an especially wide range. I have seen him 10-12 blocks from here, down the hill, in another neighborhood entirely. And when this dog is going somewhere, as he often his, there really isn't much going to stop him. He's not asocial about it; he will stop to sniff and tussle with groups of other dogs, and will look up at us as he goes past, but his very directed, trotting pace can't really be made to stop. It is a pace that says "I've got somewhere to be." And this is not especially uncommon among these animals. They go places, and not because anyone tells them to, or drags them from a leash. They've got business, and they're going to see it done.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

dangerous not to swim

Here is an example of an especially badly translated English sign, at the waterfalls in Agua Azul. Jess heeded the sign, while Liz, Walker, and I risked it on the shore.
I've also finally posted more pictures on our Picasa page.