Monday, September 29, 2008

Disk Warrior does the job, or All & every thanks to Omer

I don't know if it comes across to you out there, but right here this feels different. Different because I am writing again from my own Apple Macbook laptop computer. After two-and-a-half weeks without this my best-non-animate-friend, we are reunited, thanks in no small part (in fact in every part) to Omer, who on hearing of our plight immediately sent us disk-repair manna. This is such an excellent development. The tequila is open, and it's only 4:30.

On another note entirely: there's something interesting about Mexico, that I think isn't limited to just this place, but which I've only ever witnessed here, is the ubiquitous presence of the army, in particular, and heavy firearms, in general. Walking around town, it is hard not to notice the private security forces in their bullet-proof vests, and carrying shotguns and smaller automatic weapons (folding-stock sub-machine guns are most common, but I've also seen machine pistols and something that looked like an Uzi). Police often appear similarly outfitted. Driving between cities, one is almost sure to encounter – if not be stopped and searched by – military personnel with really big full-automatic rifles, usually out and in-hand.

And it isn't just the presence of the military, and their weapons, that is notable. I think that really it comes down to a different idea of what that military and those weapons are for. Where we come from the army and such are an uncommon sight, and not unwelcome or unfriendly, as their function is to protect all of us (sure, but we're talking about the idea of the army, for now) from threats from elsewhere. But in Mexico the army's role is instead to protect some the citizens from other parts of the citizenry. It isn't probably coincidence that this division (protected vs. protected against) typically breaks down along lines of wealth and race. Maybe this really isn't so different from how things work at home, but here the guns are lots bigger.

The breakdancers we watched in the Mexico City zócalo, however, looked unbothered:
(You can see more pictures by clicking on the "Jessica's pictures" link on the right.)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

the sky is back

After three days in Mexico City, we are back in San Cristóbal and it is very nice to see the sky again. Sometimes it might have just been actually cloudy, but a lot of the time the clouds were sort of a dull gray-brown color and really too low to be actual clouds. Basically, the air was disgusting.

But we saw a lot of good stuff: the National Museum of Anthropology, the Modern Art Museum, Diego Rivera and Orozco murals in the Palacio Nacional (the men with guns did eventually let us in) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and some very beautiful neighborhoods. We also enjoyed some exciting Mexican food, including tostadas with chapulines (grasshoppers) and some excellent stuffed chilis.

One of the more striking experiences was riding the metro during rush hour. On one regular non-rush hour trip we walked toward a far end of the platform. Just after I passed by, some men with guns (there are lots of these around) suggested that Jess should not follow me. We then noticed the signs above that said "women and children only". The first three or so cars are reserved for women and small children, and we understood why when we tried to catch a train that evening around 6:00 at one of the busiest terminals downtown.

The station was packed when we arrived and when a full train pulled up, we decided to just wait for the next one. The next one came probably less than a minute later and by then the station was again completely full. On the scarier trains, people were being violently shoved in by mostly teenaged guys. At the far end of the platform it wasn't much better, except that the shoving was less violent. We watched four trains go by before we even had a chance to get in. Again though, it wasn't that the city wasn't running enough trains. They were arriving full, back to back. And for 2 pesos (20 cents), and otherwise pretty excellent service, it was hard to complain.

Finally, after two days of hard walking, we decided it was time for a break, and caught a ride on the Turibus, which took us around the city and conveyed to us via headphones lots of silly information in a very strangely accented English. This is how much fun we had:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cars, guns -- yeah, it's Mexico City

We are in rainy and big Mexico City, taking a big-city vacation from our small-town living. We are staying with my former classmate and wonderful host Rodrigo, which has been super. Last night we actually had our first tequila since coming to Mexico, nearly a month ago. We liked it. Might get some more, to start keeping at home. Rodrigo told us that Tequila really isn't just for tourists and MTV Spring Break, but that it is common to have a shot each night before dinner. It's more for sipping than for slamming (that and body shots are just for Spring Break), and goes nicely with this spicy tomato-chili-lime juice stuff that you drink along with it.

Mexico City has a lot of people in it, and a lot of cars. Walking around means taking your life in your hands at every street crossing (if any moms are reading this, we are exaggerating slightly on this point). It does also have a great subway system though, that I'd take over about any other transit system I've used. Now we've got to run, and see if the really ornery military guys with the big guns are going to let us into the Palacio Nacional to look at the murals this time.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

you thought the ocelot was cute...

Four combis and six hours later, we are back in our home in San Cristóbal. All told, a great trip. I recorded a few good stories, discovered a Chol construction I have never seen or read about before, and photographed a number of baptisms, first communions, and confirmations. Here is what the new church looks like. It is now the tallest and fanciest building in Campanario by far, much to the dismay of the Pentacostals down the road.

As Jess wrote in the last post, Wednesday night was spent with the padre from Tila (the county seat) doing baptisms in the old church. Two cows were killed and lots of tortillas were made and we were served a beef stew that involved delicious potatoes and carrots flavored with some parts that we didn't eat that we think definitely included lungs.

Thursday morning the bishop arrived from San Cristóbal. This is a very big deal. It's a very long trip and no bishop has ever set
foot in Campanario before. A couple of hours before his arrival the Catholic icons (virgin Mary statues, crucifixes, etc.) were moved from the small old church in a procession involving incense and music and some singing. The procession waited at the road, the bishop arrived, and the new church was consecrated and the idols were put inside.

The consecration involved dipping flowers in holy water and sprinkling the water around the church and also–this is something I don't remember from my Catholic upbringing, though I only made it as far as first communion–burying meat and lighting a candle at each of the four corners of the church.
Then the mass began (half in Chol, half in Spanish), first communions and confirmations took place, and I was invited by the padre to give a Chol grammar lesson to a group of nuns in Tila.

After mass, we were invited to eat mole in a neighbor's home. This was an excellent surprise, as often the meal for the invitados is pollo en caldo, which basically means a whole chicken (head and feet included) cut into parts and boiled with some vegetables and seasoning thrown in. Eaten with tortillas. Everybody else seems to love it, but I haven't managed to develop a taste for it. Later in the afternoon many of the visitors started to leave and everything sort of calmed down after that.

But, let's get to the point: what could be cuter than the ocelot? Last night we went over to Don Jesus' for a visit and as we were sitting on the porch heard something like a whinny coming from inside the house. We peaked in, and there stood a baby cow. Its mother is sick and so it has been living around the house and drinking from a bottle. It was too dark to take a picture then (the electricity was out), but we went back this morning to bid farewell. It's not quite as cute tied up outside as it was standing alone in the living room, but here it is.

(Can we really check "no" on the customs form box that asks if we have been in close proximity with livestock?)

Friday, September 19, 2008

La vida agricultura

We have been in Campanario since Wednesday, taking in some good Chol and just basically doing the rural thing. It's really pretty fun having chickens in the house with you sometimes, and if that's never happened for you, well how would you know? We will make our way back to San Cristóbal tomorrow, and will have pictures from this trip to post.

Wednesday and Thursday the community celebrated the opening and consecration of the new Catholic church there, with the arrival of a priest from Tila, a couple hours away, on Thursday night to do baptisms, and the bishop all the way from San Cristóbal, to consecrate the new church, as well as perform first communions and confirmations. So we got 2 masses, and about 9 hours of church time, in our first day and a half here. Jessica was a pretty huge hit with the digital camera, and the next time we're back we will have about a hundred pictures to go door-to-door handing out.

We're in Salto de Agua now, a larger community about 30 minutes away by combi (pickup truck cum taxi-bus), using the internet, visiting friends and getting some groceries. Tonight Virginia is going to make empanadas, which will be a treat. We're looking forward to those, but also to our return to San Cristóbal, and our own kitchen and the plethora of nice little restaurants there. And to sleeping where there aren't quite so many roosters, quite so close by, to wake us every morning at 4:30.

Monday, September 15, 2008

two of our favorite ladies

Eating Argentine, and a pretty kitty

So about 2 weeks ago we went to dinner at a small Argentinian restaurant here in San Cristóbal. Initially, there was some confusion about what menu items were available that evening, and how much any of the three bottles of wine we were shown would cost us. Finally, though, the owner showed up, and the rubber really hit the road. We got our wine, placed our orders, and the food came back amazing. Jessica and I both call it maybe the best chicken of our lives (and we had different dishes).

On the basis of this past success, last night we decided to go back to our little Argentinian restaurant, with our new English-teacher friend, Peter. Actually, we were kind of corralled into the place, as it was dumping down rain, and we were going door-to-door, trying to find a place to take us in. The first two places we ducked into were closed, so we ended up Argentine.

3 words: Worst Dinner Ever. Seriously. 2 weeks after a shockingly delicious meal, last night we were treated to the greatest restaurant disaster I've ever been witness to. We waited 3 order. At first they didn't have charcoal for the grill. Later there wasn't any chicken, salmon, or potatoes (critical ingredients to nearly everything on the menu). The oven exploded at one point – it had been on but unlit for some time, I guess – burning the cook's arms (we felt very bad about this). Finally, after 3 1/2 hours, our chicken – frozen, not fresh – was served with a 'tomato sauce', i.e. ketchup, and arrived 25 minutes before Peter's salmon. We had both finished everything on our plates, despite waiting as long as we could and eating slowly, before his dinner arrived.

How did this happen? Why did we stay? Well, the first 90 minutes was really pretty enjoyable, what with our wine, good conversation, yummy bread, and jokes about the uncertain fate of our meal. And, to be fair, when we ducked in from the rain, they told us it would be "20 minutes" until the kitchen was up and running. Then, as things got really dicey, they just kept running out and coming back with this or that, telling us that "any minute now", everything was going to slide into place. And we couldn't help but imagine, like last time, that the owner would at some point burst through the door, disappear into the kitchen, and emerge, moments later, with steaming platters of deliciousness. I guess by now you know that never happened.

On another point entirely, thanks to Ephraim for reminding us to get the Ocelot (actually a Margay, we think) up here. The pretty Brazilian kitty is below (thanks mom for the great picture).

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Now on our third weekend here in San Cristóbal and tonight we have plans to meet up with some local Americans I met on the colectivo to CIESAS. Today we went out to a nice breakfast and did some neighborhood picture-taking. Below are some streets near our house:
Wednesday morning we'll catch a bus to Campanario to join in the festivities for the inauguration of the new Catholic church there. It sounds like it is to be two days of baptisms, catechisms, and weddings. My plan is to do make some nice audio recording and to eat some good tamales.

But before we head to Campanario, there is celebrating to be done here. This Tuesday the 16th is Mexico's Independence Day. This is not the day Mexico gained independence from Spain, but rather the day in 1810 that Hidalgo–also known (really) as Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla Gallaga Mondarte Villaseñor–rang the bell in a chuch in Dolores calling everyone to fight for liberty. This was the Grito de la Independencia, which is reenacted every year, with the original bell, by the Mexican president in the zócalo of Mexico City.

So we are told that beginning the night of the 15th everyone will be out in the city wearing traditional Mexican garb and large sombreros and in the plaza we'll have live music, lots of foodstalls, and, given what goes on the rest of the time, probably a lot of noisy fireworks. We are already beginning to see flags everywhere, and there are lots of little carts like the one below selling red-white-and-green paraphenelia:

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Buenas gracias!

That's what I gave our taxi driver tonight, as we stepped out of the cab in front of our casita (it's raining, and we live a solid uphill mile from the center of town): "Buenas gracias". Muy bien hecho, hombre. And still, this is not the dumbest 'you ain't really from around here, are you?' kind of mistake I've heard tonight. As we were leaving La Casa del Pan, the nice bakery/restaurant where we'd just eaten dinner, we overheard a gentleman in amongst a big group of tourists ask the waiteress for "some watero". Faced with a dubious face from said waitress, this gent then went into a brief, gesture-thick description of this unusual thing he was asking for. Moments later, a truly prescient member of this same group suggested, "Agua, I think", and then they were off and running. Good for them.

A distressing event from yesterday afternoon: my computer ended. I could have asked for better timing, some 11 days into this trip, but so be it. I have actually come around to appreciating it all a little bit; insofar as it renders me really and completely without anything to do here (other than my Spanish homework), it forces me out of the house, to go make things happen for myself, and that's going to be a good thing in the end, I think. Insofar as I probably need a new and expensive computer, when I'm finally in a place, months and months from now, where I'm able to go get one: that aspect pleases me somewhat less (I nearly smashed to pieces my charmingly simple desk chair, before coming around to my more thorough understanding of things, above).

That's all for now. Buenas gracias!

Monday, September 8, 2008

what noisy trucks?

You comment, we respond. Apparently we never actually told you about the noisy San Cristóbal vehicles. There are, of course, the cars with the megaphones paid to drive around blaring ads, sometimes for political campaigns, sometimes announcing the next Lucha Libre. But these cars generally stay closer to the center and out of our neighborhood.

The noisy trucks we mentioned are important to us now that we are home-renters because they announce utilities: water, gas, and garbage collection. The city water in San Cristóbal, as in much of Latin America, is not for drinking. Instead, you need to buy drinking water in large 5-gallon jugs from the water trucks that drive slowly through the neighborhoods, playing their jingles. Imagine a very loud icecream truck playing Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head with lots of screaming on top (Señora! Señora! Ya llegamos, ya estamos aquí! Con la mejor agua...)

In addition to the water trucks, we also need to listen for the gas truck. The gas we use to heat our water and run our stove comes from two large canisters behind the house. When one is empty we wait to hear a really loud jangly sound outside. The gas truck announces itself by dragging a large chain with iron rings up the cobblestone streets. Some gas companies have also begun playing jingles. We run out, flag them down, they change the gas canisters.

Finally, there is garbage morning. This one really isn't so loud, but falls under the category of "important noises". About five minutes before garbage collection, a man walks up and down the street ringing a bell. Then we take our garbage and line up with our neighbors to pass it to the garbage truck. Garbage morning is something of a minor social event.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Droppin' bombs

Holy goodness Jemimah. It gets loud in San Cristóbal on a Sunday. Bells right now, from two churches, at least, or anyway I'm only picking up the two with unobstructed shots directly down into our living room (sounding chamber). A moment before, which inspired my rather unorthodox introduction, an explosive device of enormous auditory impact boomed its greetings across our back end of this high valley. These devices have been going, seemingly at random (sometimes 2-3 in one minute, sometimes you go an hour without hearing any), since ~4:30 this morning. Which brings me to the following:

It gets loud in San Cristóbal on Sunday, almost before it is even Sunday. The roosters, dogs, and noisemaker vehicles (I don't mean noisemaker as some associated aspect, but as the express purpose and design for their being; see previous posts for descriptions of some of our favorite example-vehicles) were joined by the explosive charge-cum-celebration implement – though who is celebrating, and what, at 4:30 in the morning, I dare not even guess.

Sunday does have its upsides: we ventured to the Walmart-esque supermercado at the edge of town this morning, to watch a movie and pick up a few things that we couldn't find in town (shower curtain, blender, baking sheet). Inside the store, we counted no fewer than 4 different instances of mic'd up individuals or entire supermarket bands, shouting their shopping suggestions, melodies, or invocations to enjoy the buffet in aisle 2 – I say this without jest or hyperbole.

Another plus for Sunday is the seeming running engagement our uphill neighbor has with a very enjoyable ranchera band, who've been playing throughout much of the afternoon and evening. We were treated to the same last week.

Jessica is quite sick with a very nasty little cold, and could use all of your well-wishes, hopefully in the form of comments (on that, and on how lovely we and our new home look) to this and other recent/future posts. We've missed hearing from you, this past week or so; if you're reading, and have anything to say to us, please put it out there. Otherwise this gets a little lonely and weird.

Finally, look forward, finally, to some really good pictures of the most exciting flora and fauna from our 8-day riverboat in Brazil. My parents and Derek (the passengers with the nicest photographic equipment) have posted their pictures in places where we can go get them and share them with you all. Yep: the ocelot is coming.

Friday, September 5, 2008

we're so high...

7000 feet high! Did we mention that it's cold here? It's not cot cold like February in Boston cold, but down in the 50's every night and there is no indoor heat besides our little fireplaces.

We bought a pretty standard bedspread our first day here at the local Chedraui, but it hasn't really been enough. So yesterday we got this beautiful quilt, made of
huipils and other Mexican/Guatemalan textiles. The Chedraui blanket will stay here when we head back home, but this quilt will come with us. (You can also see our nice little fireplace in the corner of the room.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

a trabajar!

After a lovely few days of cooking, shopping, and strolling the city, our first visitor, Robert, has left us for Guatemala. So now it is time to really get to work. Jess started taking intensive Spanish classes yesterday and I went to my first class at CIESAS-Sureste. CIESAS offers a Master's program in Lingüística Indoamericana. It is designed to train native speaker linguists to document and analyze their languages. This semester they are taking: semantics, methodology, morphosyntactic typology, sociolinguistics, and a survey of languages of Mesoamerica. I will sit in on most classes, and in two weeks I will teach a part of the morphosyntax class...en Español!

Today we have our first real San Crisóbal rain. It has been pouring pretty hard for the last couple of hours and looks like a perfect afternoon for typing.

Nuestra haciendita

Five days into our stay in Mexico, it is finally time to get a couple of pictures of our lovely new casa up for all to see. We are on a hillside, tucked back at the East end of town, facing out on the city and the Iglesia Guadalupe – right out our bedroom and living room windows, and from the patio/couryard (at left, with Jessica and Robert; uphill is the "hill house", where John's things live).

The view of Guadalupe, below, was taken from out our living room window.