Monday, December 31, 2007

Family Visits and Colder Weather

Christmas is over and we are into the dead of winter in Mexico. Well, perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but it IS cold here least for the moment. OK, the temperature is not that the mid 40's at night and the low 60's during the day, but it SEEMS very cold. The houses are drafty and make of brick and if it's 45 degrees on the outside, it's 45 degrees on the inside too. We have been having small fires in our fireplace, and that warms it up a bit, but I'm still wearing my fleece in the house. Of course, when I think of the winter Maine is having I cannot complain, but I do hope this snap is short-lived.

We had wonderful visits with four of our six family house guests so far. Eric and Crystal and Cassie and Alana all were here over Christmas for two weeks. Sadly, they are now back in Muncie and Providence. They all had a chance to become familiar with Ajijic and enjoyed exploring the area on foot. It's about 1.25 miles from our casa in West Ajijic into the center of town, and the walk winds through a very Mexican area known as Six Corners. Cassie and Alana in particular enjoyed exploring some of the different tiendas and vendors throughout the village. We all had some wonderful very traditional Mexican food, especially at a restaurant in San Juan Cosala, Tia Lupita. Cassie, who had problems digesting wheat, found that the abundance of corn tortillas was a wonderful, as she could easily eat and digest them. We picked up buckets of raspberries and found lots of ways to use them. Crystal, in her pregnant condition, had some difficulty with some of the Mexican food, but she was able to find some palatable food nonetheless.

Here, Eric and Crystal accompanied us to a fiesta with a mariachi band shortly after their arrival.

We hosted a neighborhood fiesta the weekend before Christmas for our gringo neighbors and our Mexican friends. Here are Cassie and Alana enjoying day, and Cassie and Yoselin working on some drawings together. They became good amigas that day!

We all enjoyed experiencing Christmas in Mexico. We went to a Posada with Eric and Crystal. This is a traditional procession, usually for children, where they weave their way throughout their town reenacting the nativity story. As the children playing Mary and Joseph knock on doors looking for lodging, they are turned away from many homes before they find the stable with a manger. Many people follow the procession singing Christmas songs, sometimes holding candles. It's a very big community event which is repeated for the nine days before Christmas. People will pass out the traditional hot fruit punch to the revelers at the end of the Posada.

There are many Naciamientos throughout all villages in Mexico. These are nativity scenes, and some of them are very large. There was a big one with metal figures in the gazebo in the Ajijic plaza. Traditionally, they do not put the baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas morning. Cities like Guadalajara have huge naciamientos throughout the city, and many families have large ones in or in front of their homes.
Christmas eve is really the big event in Mexico. The plaza in front of the main church in Ajijic was a busy, festive place with many types of nativity scenes, music, and celebration.
Families were going in and out of the decorated church and attending Mass, happy to be together and enjoying "Navidad"

Later in the evening, after we had opened gifts and Cassie and Alana returned to their temporary digs at Fred and Mardele's house (Fred and Mardele are friends from our Fellowship who were away for the holidays and graciously allowed us to use their house for Cassie and Alana to stay at night while our guest room was occupied by Eric and Crystal), they went walking around town after midnight and found families sitting in front of their homes with bonfires, eating and drinking and enjoying each other. Christmas Day was quiet and everyone recovered from the revelry of the night before.

On Christmas Day, our Mexican friends, Daniel and Dora asked if they could "Borrow" our tree to give Jesus and Yoselin their gifts: new bicycles! Daniel had been teasing the kids telling them that since they had no tree, they could receive no gifts! "No arbor, no regalos!" So once he'd put the bikes under our little tree, he brought the kids over. Rather than squealing with delight, as we expected, they soberly smiled and took the bikes outside to try them. We think, culturally, they don't show their emotions as much as we do. In any event, this was a huge gift for children who have very little. It took many months for Daniel and Dora to pay for the bikes. We also gave the kids a pinata. When the extended family gathered here later in the day, we watched as the children whacked at the very durable Christmas-tree shaped object before the candy came pouring out.

We were invited across the lake to Rick and Leigh's house in San Luis Soyatlan for a big dinner. He had even hired a guitar trio to seranade us with romantic Mexican songs. Cassie sketched a picture of them which she gave to them before we left. They were very appreciative, and seranaded Cassie with a special song at our table. It was a lovely dinner with ham and turkey and salad and margaritas, and other pot-luck foods, but a very different experience form our "usual" Christmas dinners in Maine! Here is a photo of our host Santa Rick posing with Pixie.

Eric and I climbed up to the Chapel in the mountain behind Ajijic one morning for a wonderful view of the lake and the village. Eric and Pixie and I took a trip to Teuchitlan to see the recently discovered round pyramids which date back to 400 BC. Cassie and Alana took the overnight bus to Mexico City to see Frieda's house and enjoy the atmosphere of that huge city. But mostly we hung around and enjoyed much warmer weather than we have now and had good family time.

Wendy and Troy arrive on Monday and plan to stay in Mexico for a month visiting us and doing some traveling on their own. We are looking forward to that! Pixie is planning a pagan service for the Fellowship on January 13, and I'll be getting back to teaching and taking Spanish after the Christmas break.

Happy New Year to all our friends and family!

(Despite what the header on this post suggests, this was actually posted on January 5, 2008!)

Friday, December 7, 2007

Feliz Navidad!

It is indeed a strange feeling. For the first time in my life, we are going through a winter season in a climate which never freezes. The flowers are out, the days are sunny and warm, the skies are bright blue, and there is ne'er a wisp of frost in the air, let alone the white stuff. We hear Christmas music in the air; in fact, we're going to a Christmas concert on Monday, yet it hardly seems like the holiday season. Of course we are going to see all of our children and their partners over the next few weeks, so that will seem more like Christmas. We do have our house decorated, pictured here, a Mexican pine, and Pixie's nutcrackers on the mantle:

We had a very interesting trip to a 130 year-old hacienda in the mountains near Mazamitla. We have a small dinner club with our good friends Paul and Jeanne and Steve and Sue, who accompanied us on this trip for two days. We hiked a bit in the mountains and ate authenic rural Mexican food on a Mexican schedule: Breakfast (desayuno) at 10:00 AM, lunch (comida, the large meal of the day) at 3:00 PM, and a smaller dinner (cena) at 8:00 PM. Since the hacienda is a working farm, we enjoyed butter, cheese, and "crema" made on the premesis. Paul and I, awaking early one morning, had a unique "hot chocolate" made from chocolate, corn alcohol, and warm milk directly from the cow's udder into the glass, a traditional Mexican eye opener!

My English students are making great progress, and we are continuing to have a wonderful time. We laugh and I have my usual good time hamming it up. Next Thursday, our last day of class before the Christmas break, they told me they wanted to have a "Posada" with me. Now, this seemed a very strange request to my gringo mind. A posada, you see, is the Spanish word for hotel. It also refers to the ritualistic reenactment of the nativity scenes which are popular around this time of year in Mexico. Puzzled, I replied, "Una posada? Con Virgin Maria y Christo?" They thought my ignorant response was hilarious. "No teacher, a fiesta por Navidad!" I had images of them wanting me to play Joseph or something. I was greatly relieved. So on Thursday, we are all bringing food and small gifts. I tried suggesting a Chinese auction, but gave up. They were looking at me like I was crazy, so we'll do a simple gift swap. I'll try to remember to add photos to this blog entry after the party, in this space. [Here are a couple of photos of the party, with at least some of my students. Notice the guy in the back row with the Yankees' cap. That's Jose Antonio, and he loves to wear that cap to tease me.]

Tomorrow we go to our first Quinceneara, for the 15 year old girlfriend the son of our Mexican friends. After the church service at 6:00, I guess there is quite a fiesta....we'll see. I'll take some photos, and add them here. [OK. Below are the photos of the church service and the Banda band at the fiesta. It was a great event. By my count, there were over 250 people at the fiesta, and we were the only gringos. But we felt most welcome and had a good time. We had goat stew and beans for dinner, and enjoyed the music and dancing, lubricated by cerveza and tequila!]

Next week life gets a bit hectic for us as the kids start to arrive. I may not post much over the holidays, but I'll post photos after.

Feliz Navidad to everyone!

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Our big news is not from Mexico but from Indiana: Eric and Crystal's baby girl, Isabelle, will arrive in early April. I will officially be an abuelo and Pixie will be an abuela. I have to say, the prospect of having a granddaughter lends some legitimacy to our early retirement. Baby and the happy parents are all doing fine. In fact they are getting ready to head down here on December 14. We have bought our tickets for Pixie to travel to Muncie on April 8, followed by me on April 22. Grand news! We will be sure to post photos once Isabelle makes her appearance.

We have also bought tickets to fly to Philadelphia on April 29, then to Providence to visit the New England contingent on May 6, returning to Mexico on May 20, in time to renew our visas in June and move to a new rental house.

We are beginning to notice signs of an upcoming Mexican winter. The evenings and mornings are a bit chilly, although hardly by Maine standards. The temperatures are probably in the high 50's or low 60's overnight, but since we are right on the lake, the wind makes it seem colder. Because the houses here are so leaky, and because our house does not have a lot of light coming in, inside the house is often cooler than outside. Pixie and I often think it is cool and dress accordingly. Once we get into town, it is considerably warmer. The Mexicans, of course, think it's frigid. I might wear a flannel shirt in the evening, but I routinely see Mexicans wearing winter coats in the middle of the day. I guess it's all relative. Even in Maine, 40 degrees would seem frigid if it came in early September, but absolutely balmy in February. It seems to me like we should be bringing our beautiful potted plants inside. Old habits die hard.

We haven't made it into town for the big fiesta as of yet. Pixie has to keep her cast on for another week, and it's hard for her to walk long distances or stand for any length of time. Going to the fiesta at the plaza means parking a distance away and standing around unless we're lucky enough to find a bench. We'll try one of these nights before it's over. We are hearing LOTS of fireworks in the morning, in the evening, and in between. Mexicans appear to love noise.

We also went to the parade to celebrate Revolution Day, to commemorate the 1910 revolution which deposed the long-time dictator, Porfirio Diaz, and established the legends of leaders like Benito Juarez, Poncho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. The parade was mostly schoolchildren marching with thier schools. Some of the smaller kids were dressed up as Mexican ladies in rebozos and bandidos. It would have been considered terribly politically incorrect in the US, but it was very cute, I have to say.

We have been checking out some different venues to hear some music. Mostly what we've been finding is gringo dance music..ugh. We've seen mariachis at public events, but not in night spots. I know there is some traditional Mexican guitar music, but you have to look for it. There is usually some fairly good jazz, but trying to find out who's playing on a particular night around town is not easy. We're working on that. Last night we went to the "Old" Posada. This is an historic hotel in Ajijic where Tennessee Williams and Somerset Maugham stayed years ago. I hear that both Elizabeth Taylor and Erroll Flynn also stayed there. It's a terrific old building, although the music, billed as "Ricardo," (I, of course imagined a guy on a stool playing acoustic Mexican traditional music) turned out to be a loud band playing old gringo tunes by the Everley Brothers and the Lettermen. We had fun with our friends Jean and Paul anyway. We will continue with our search for the perfect nightspot.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with about 30 other UU's at Lew and Trudy's beautiful house on their terrace overlooking the village and the lake. They cooked two turkeys, and the rest was more or less pot luck. We had lots of great food, although no squash or turnip...difficult to find here. Pixie's cranberry sauce was a big hit, though.

As I mentioned before, I have been doing some writing since I've been here and am having some poetry published in the local magazines. I submitted a column on at topic near and dear to my heart: how to become a better thinker, to the editor of one of the magazines, El Ojo del Lago, The Eye of the Lake. He has asked me to submit a monthly column entitled Uncommon Common Sense. That will be an interesting challenge: having to come up with a monthly column. I am looking forward to that.

Pixie and I had an interesting experience yesterday. We volunteered to lead a conversation group for a group of Mexicans studying English who want to improve their speaking skills in English. It meets every Saturday with different discussion leaders. Most of the participants are hoping to improve their careers with a better mastery of English. Yesterday, we had a homeopath, an architect, a clothing manufacturer and shop owner, a computer technician, a furniture salesperson, and a political activist. We had a great time discussing the difference between the Mexican and US culture in a number of ways: gender, family, drug use, and working life. They were very anxious to learn to speak English well and had a lot of interesting things to say. I must say, their English is more advanced than my Spanish. Although I continue to pick up new vocabulary and participate in my Spanish lessons, any real fluency is still a ways away. I am able to communicate well enough, but I can see it will be a long process, and I admire the progress these students have made.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

As we prepare to spend our first Thanksgiving in Mexico, we are indeed grateful to be here in this beautiful country among new friends, and also grateful that all of our children and their respective partners will be joining us over the next couple of months. It is hard to be away from our family for Thanksgiving. We have already decided that next year we will plan to come home for the holidays.

We are actually also planning a trip back to the US in April and May. Since our first grandchild is scheduled to arrive in early April, Pixie is panning to fly to Muncie to help Eric and Crystal with the new baby the second well in April. After two weeks, I will join her in Muncie and we will spend another week with the new family. We will then fly to Phildelphia to visit some of my extended family there, including my dad and stepmom. Then, we'll probably fly into Providence to visit Cassie and Alana, then drive north to spend some time in Maine, returning to Mexico around May 20. That's how it looks now. We are looking forward to seeing everyone!

Life here has been fairly uneventful. Pixie's leg is healing well, and she is hoping to have the cast removed this week, just in time for the San Andreas fiesta scheduled in Ajijic for November 22-29. This is a 10-day event, of mixed religious and secular celebrations to celebrate the patron saint of Ajijic, St. Andrew. From what I hear, fireworks go off every morning at 5AM to awaken people for mass, religious processions weave throughout the village, and every night, music, foood, and fireworks fill the plaza. I have canceled my English classes during this period because because I am told no one tends to show up. This is apparently a BIG event in Ajijic.

Another event we are looking forward to is our first Quinceneria. This ia an event which is celebrated with a mass and a fiesta when a girl turns 15. It's kind of a cross between a coming out party and a Bas-Mitzfah, as far as I can tell. Daniel and Dora's oldest son's girlfriend is having her Quinceniera on December 8, and Dora and Daniel have asked us to accompany them as guests. I guess the party is similar to a big wedding: mariachi or banda music, dancing, food, tequila, etc. We may be the only gringos there, and we are looking forward to another authentic Mexican experience!

Pixie led our harvest communion service at our UU fellowship this morning with a sermon about Thanksgiving. She discussed how the pilgrims learned how to survive by the Native Americans who were already in the New World. To our congregation of expats living in Mexico she discussed how each of us are, in some ways pilgrims ourselves, and we find ourselves in a foreign land learning important lessons from the wonderful Mexican people we found here. She also talked about what our definition of "home" is. Is it where we came from, where we are now, or where our spirit is? Ultimately she concluded that home is where we are: not a particular place. We each need to bring a sense of "home" with us. The service was warmly received by everyone, as we broke bread together (Pixie's pumpkin bread and grape juice) in our typical UU fashion.

This year, we are going to share a big Thanksgiving dinner with our UU friends at Lew and Trudy's house. We're bringing fresh cranberry sauce. Fresh cranberries are NOT easy to find in Mexico, but Pixie, an intrepid New Englander, found them, albeit for a price. We will definitely enjoy our cranberry sauce this year!

We are thinking of everyone who we cannot be with this year, but please remember you are in our thoughts.

The photograph at the top was taken on the lake right behind our house. This fisherman who fishes every evening and morning uses the traditional method of casting a net for fish in Lake Chapala. This photograph is a bit grainy, but you can see his net if you look closely. (You can click on the image to enlarge it.) I love the photo because it captures, for me, the spirit of abundance we have found here and reflects the simple culture in which we are blessed to live.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)

The Day of the Dead celebration was much as I wrote about in the last blog. Pixie was unable to go into the graveyard because of her bad foot, but Daniel and I went and he walked around the graveyard with me. This was good, because I would have felt a bit awkward walking around by myself. Being with him gave me some credibility, so to speak. As it turns out, it would hardly have been a problem. The Day of the Dead is not a solemn event. As we walked around the graveyard, we saw families gathered around the garishly decorated graves laughing and presumably sharing memories of their dead relatives. Some had brought in Mariachi bands to play, which everyone enjoyed. In one part of the graveyard, they had set up a stage with a huge skeleton in the back, where they had a Ballet Folklorico performance, a particular type of Mexican folk dancing popular at all types of fiestas and celebrations. Outside the graveyard, vendors sold all types of candles, balloons for the kids, and many types of food, including the special sweet Dia de los Muertos Pan, or bread. I brought home a loaf for Pixie.

The next two photos were taken by Steve and Susan Barr on their recent trip to Morelia. The marigolds are the flowers used in the grave decorations and altars because they are believed to attract the spirits of the dead.

Overall my impressions are that Mexicans look at death differently than we do. The reason they decorate the graves and set up altars in the streets and in their homes to honor their dead is that they believe the spirits of the dead will remain alive and with them as long as they are remembered. So this annual rite is, to them, keeping the spirit of their dead relatives alive.

Death is not hidden away here. When a Mexican dies, they display the body in the living room of the home, while they set up chairs in the street in front and eat and drink and honor the person who died, not unlike an Irish wake. Then they put the body in a wooden coffin and carry it on their shoulders to the cemetery, while everybody walks behind. Sometimes Mariachis play music. It's kind of like a New Orleans funeral. We have been caught behind these funerals when driving in Ajijic.

We also shared a Day of the Dead service at our UU fellowship last week. Here one of our UU friends, Susan, remembers her husband who died shortly after they arrived in Mexico a number of years ago.

The other big event this week has been Pixie's birthday! And, the good news is, she was able to exchange her regular cast for a walking cast, so she's chucked the wheelchair for a simple cane. This was what she wanted most for her birthday. Her leg is healing well, and she will probably only need the cast on for another two weeks. In the meantime, she's able to get around much more easily. Here she is upright and dressed to kill!

My birthday shopping was made much more easy because the spectacular Feria Maestros del Arte just happened to be on Pixie's birthday. This annual exhibition has artisans from all over Mexico displaying their wares and, of course, selling them. It's rare to see so many of these fine Mexican craftspeople all in one place, this year at the yacht club in Chapala. The artisans are given the space free, so all the money they get goes directly to them, no middle man. Walking around there, you wish you had lots more money; the prices are reasonable but not really cheap, because there are some of the finest artists in Mexico. We saw everything from pre-Columbian sculpture replicas, to fine embroidery, to hand-crafted knives made by the same family for thirteen generations, to Mayan weavings, to incredible Huichol bead work, and more. It will definitely be an event we return to for Pixie's next birthday.

Here are a couple of photos of the craft work displayed at the event:

We went out for dinner at the Blue Agave Restaurant in Chapala with our friends Steve and Sue and toasted Pixie for her first birthday in our new home.

The weather has returned to a more seasonable temperature, with cool mornings and evenings, and warm and sunny afternoons. The huge white pelicans have returned to their winter home at Lake Chapala from Western Canada. We had never seen these birds which weigh 16-20 pounds each and have 100 inch wingspans. Pixie noticed that the fishermen on the lake take their cues from the pelicans and go to where they are congregating.

Here is a poem I wrote last week after visiting the graveyard on the Day of the Dead celebration:

Remember Me With Good Dark Beer

In Mexico, when people die

Their stay on earth does not expire,

Extending on in memory

As concrete offerings require.

Flowers, photos, food, tequila

All that they loved their families share

And gather o’er their loved ones’ bones

To eat, to weep, to laugh, to bear

The tragedy of human loss

A celebration of our fate

To breathe and love while briefly here

Aware it soon will be too late.

And as I watch this ritual

With skulls and food and special bread

I think of mother’s bare, cold grave

Unvisited, of course she’s dead;

She couldn’t know, nor could she care

If we brought her garlic bread,

Or beer, or shrimp, or needlepoint

Or tell her, “Mom, we’re all well fed!”

And as I wander through these graves

My eyes now sting with unshed tears

For soon my bones will lie here too.

Although I know, I still have fears

That no one will remember me

That I liked chips and good dark beer

And think of me when they indulge

And worse, not know what I held dear.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Webbers' Visit and Pixie's Ankle

Wildflowers on the road from Lake Chapala to Mazamitla last week

We have had a couple of busy weeks since my last post. In a nutshell, Pixie fell and broke her ankle, and Curt and Judy Webber visited us from Auburn.

The accident occurred Tuesday October 16. Pixie and I were returning from picking up some groceries and she needed to stop and order a birthday cake for our friends' (Donna and Trudy) birthday party. We were on the wrong side of the main drag, and Pixie suggested that I pull into a parking spot and she'd run across the street to the bakery. I had my Spanish book in the car and decided to work on my homework while I waited. The next thing I knew, a Mexican woman was knocking on my window saying something about "su esposa." I looked and saw a Mexican man helping Pixie hobble along towards the car. She had slipped on some sand on a pavement incline and landed on her ankle. In typical Mexican fashion, the woman insisted on massaging Pixie's ankle for several minutes, presumably to reduce the swelling: very kind. On the way home we picked up a cane, which was pretty much useless, and I had to carry Pixie into the house when we got home.

Now, I married a very stubborn woman, because she refused to go to the doctor for two days, claiming that it was "just a sprain," and that "he'll just tell me to do what I'm already doing." Finally, when she had an X-Ray on Friday, she learned she had fractured the leg bone just above the ankle. She'll be in a cast for at least three weeks, until November 9, at the earliest, the day before her birthday. She's now in a wheelchair and getting around okay by herself, but she'll be very glad to get back on her own two feet. She claims she's sick and tired of being "pushed around" by everyone else.

Here is a photo of both of us on our recent trip to the not-very-handicapped-accessible town of Mazamitla last week.
We have learned how difficult it can be to get around in a wheelchair in Mexico, where most buildings are without ramps. As Peggy Seegar said, we are each only "temporarily abled" anyway, so we should be mindful of those who struggle with mobility.

We were very anxious to have Curt And Judy Webber, our very dear friends from Maine and from our Auburn UU congregation, come and visit. They were the first visitors we have had from Maine since we made the decision to move down here, and we were looking forward to demonstrating that we were healthy and happy, and that we indeed we were not insane to move down here. As an additional benefit, we had the pleasure of watching the Red Sox win it all again with some fellow New Englanders to cheer them on (although "cheer" may be an exaggeration in Curt's case who, although raised in Maine, is, inexplicably a Baltimore Orioles fan.)

We were planning a trip to Guanajuato over last weekend, but, because Pixie cannot walk around, it didn't seem feasible. Guanajuato is basically a pedestrian city. But, as it turned out, we didn't mind not going because it gave us more time to have a leisurely visit, and Curt and Judy got to meet so many of our new friends. We visited Janice and Teo's house and studio, and they bought a beautiful weaving by Teo and got to see their very unique home. They saw the original wall art and mural at Steve and Sue's house and Bebe's beautiful village home. They had margaritas at Jeanne and Paul's home and saw the magnificent view from their mirador at sunset. They saw the beautiful Lake Chapala Society Gardens. We heard some great music at La Tasca with Bebe and our friends from church, and they came to Bob and Kathy's service on Sunday. I took them to Guadalajara yesterday before they left, and we had a chance to see the colonial architecture and many of Orosco's dramatic murals. We kept them very busy, but they got to see how we live and why this place is so special to us.

In the photo below, Pixie enjoys lunch with Curt and Judy, soaking up some sunshine.

The weather was colder than we had anticipated, but to these hardy Mainers, it didn't seem to be much of a problem. The temperatures have been dropping into the high 50's at night, but with the end of the rainy season, the sun is strong in blue skies every day.

Everyone in Mexico is getting ready for El Dia de Muertes (Day of the Dead) celebration this week. In Mexico, people celebrate the lives of their dead family members on November 1 and 2. November 1 is for children who have died, and November 2 is for adults. They decorate their graves with flowers and bring food and drink that their dead relatives liked when they were here with us. Many families stay in the graveyard all night with candles celebrating this annual rite. Here is a photograph from such a grave decoration in Oaxaca (Geri Anderson):

In addition to the celebrations in the graveyard, people make many crafts to commemorate this holiday. Here are a couple of photographs published in Judy King's magazine of such artistic expressions. On the left is a Catarina, a skeleton wearing Victorian clothing. Our friend Bebe has a collection of these Catarinas in her house. The other photograph is of a sugar skull which are made and sold at this time of year. Our friends Sue and Steve brought Pixie a sugar skull to cheer her up!

Now that we are almost in November, we are looking forward to our children, Eric and his wife Crystal and Cassie and her partner Alana visiting over Christmas. In January, our daughter Wendy and her boyfriend Troy will be spending two weeks with us and spending two additional weeks traveling around Mexico on their own. We can't wait to see them all!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Guadalajara Zoo and Other Matters

Last Thursday, we had a chance to visit the zoo in Guadalajara. We joined our Mexican friends, Dora and Daniel, their children Jesus and Yoselin, and Obert, their nephew. The zoo is excellent with many typical zoo animals and many not found in northern zoos because of the tropical climate here. Pictured here are giraffes, which we were able to feed carrots to on the African safari ride.

To the left, the kids are fascinated by the polar bear who was somewhat uncooperative and slept the entire time we looked at him. Below is a marvelous Toucan, native to the coastal areas of Mexico.

At the end of a long day, the kids were ready for more, while all the adults were exhausted!

We are enjoying the warm October weather, which ranges from the high 60's at night to the 80's during the day. It doesn't really feel like fall to us, except that I have been able to watch the Red Sox in the ACLS on our Canadian satellite TV. (They are losing to the Indians in game 3 tonight!) We are told it's been a beautiful fall in Maine, and we do miss the colors and the apple picking. We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Curt and Judy Webber who will arrive next week: our first visitors form Maine. We are looking forward to showing them around our new hometown and introducing them to some of our friends here. It will be a fun week!

Pixie has been involved in the Sunday Service Committee at church, and is planning to lead our Thanksgiving Service. She is planning another service in January as well. I finally read some of my poetry at the writer's group, which was a good experience. I will have some poetry published in a local magazine in November.

We have been looking at some real estate; last week we looked at seven houses, all in the Ajijic area, all in our price range. We are in no hurry to buy a house because we're not sure the market is as good as it will be later, and we will be able to find many rentals in the spring. It was interesting looking at the houses, though. Since all the homes here are behind walls, you can't really tell what they're like. Every house seems to be very different with different layouts, colorful tiles, gardens, and terraces. Here is a house we liked the best, but it had a few problems which made us decide it wasn't THE ONE.
We are finding the prices of houses in Ajijic to be quite high, and we're wondering whether we might get more house for the money if we rent. We might eventually decide to buy a house in another town, like Chapala or Riberas, but, for now, we like it in Ajijic. We'll see what turns up in the spring, when there are more houses available to rent after the snowbirds leave. We're also wondering if prices may decline as a result of the mortgage problems in the US. If people can't sell their houses there, they can't buy them here.

An update on the mudslides: the situation is much better. The people of San Juan Cosala have received much support, and most are back in their homes. They are having a big fund raiser fiesta this weekend with food, mariachi music, crafts, and other events. Many people will be going, including us.

I will probably do the next blog entry after our trip to Guanajuato with Curt and Judy. It is supposed to be gorgeous, so I should have some great photos.

Here's a short poem about Mexican houses:


Far from the hollow wood-frame walls

Whose siding I painted and caulked all those years,

These houses were built brick by brick

With cement mixed by boys with shovels,

Stand against the sun, thick with color.

Some grow back from walls and gates

Unseen garden spaces, stone, and water

Spilling over fountains. Iron, glass, and

Leather tables, chairs, sit inside, outside, inside

On covered terraces, quiet among succulent leaves

And rainbow blossoms.

Giddy tiles: mustard, indigo, crimson

Join in patterns like ceramic quilts

Cool and permanent.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fall is Here!

Fall is here, and the rains have just about stopped, leaving sunny days and pleasant evenings. Yesterday, we took a trip to Zapopan, just northwest of Guadalajara with our friends Steve and Sue, and Paul and Jeanne. We all drove into Guad. in our car, then took the subway and a city bus to the center of Zapopan. Pictured above is the Basilica built by the Franciscans in 1690. You can see the ornate interior of the basilica, with the virgin of the immaculate conception of Zapopan on the altar, gold leaf adornment, and beautiful fabric hanging throughout. We saw a number of Mexicans approaching the altar on their knees.

Zapopan is a fun place, with one of the largest public plazas in Mexico, lots of street vendors, and plenty of places to eat. They have an interesting museum about the Huichol Indians, and a famous mural in the municipal building which features portraits of socialist heroes, Ho Chi Min, Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, and Vladimir Lenin, along with a couple of obligatory naked people:

We finished off the day with dinner in a Greek Restaurant, then walked through the well-lit plaza and figured out our way back on public transportation.

Not too much of great excitement is occurring at the moment; we are in somewhat of a routine with our Spanish lessons and my ESL teaching twice a week. My students are working very hard, and are progressing rapidly. Most Mexicans know at least some English anyway, because they are exposed to English words frequently. But I am finding that their knowledge of English is random, and that they have a lot of trouble with pronunciation, as we do with Spanish. For example, there is no sound for our "V" in Spanish, which is undifferentiated from "B." They also have no sound for our "TH." In Spanish, the letters always are pronounced the same, so English drives them crazy. Many of the students are working in jobs which bring them in contact with English-speaking people, so they are motivated to improve their English to improve their careers.

I love getting to know them and learning about their lives. It's a very low-pressure environment, with no grades or graded homework. I give them homework, and some do it. I give them a quiz, but call it "practica," so they won't feel nervous. We play lots of dumb games I make up and we make quite a bit of noise. They laugh at my feeble Spanish pronunciation, but appreciate my efforts. I told them that my goal is to have them talking like gringos, which they find hilarious!

We are participating in a Great Books discussion group, which meets every two weeks and is very interesting. The people who are in this group are amazing, and the discussions are quite challenging. Their expertise is in many different fields, and they are able to teach us lots that we didn't know. Last week we read "The Great Inquisitor," by Dostoevsky, and had a wonderful discussion about faith vs. doubt. One of the group participants was a Catholic monk for ten years, and he brings a unique perspective. He and a Jewish friend have been recreating hypothetical dialogs between real Christian and Jewish thinkers to debate theology and the issues of the day. So far they've done dialogs in the first century AD, the fourth century, and, the one I saw, in the eleventh century, right after the first crusade. These guys are amazing, and are planning another dialog to take place around the time of the Protestant Reformation, then publish their dialogs.

As I mentioned before, I have been attending a local writers group, and will be reading my poetry for the first time on Friday. Many of the other writers in the group have published extensively and know a lot about the craft of writing. We sign up to read, and have as much at ten minutes. The moderator then calls for comments, and we react to the piece which was read. Most people read fiction, although there are other poets and essayists as well. The comments are usually constructive, but very honest. I am planning to thicken my skin before Friday. I have never really worked on my poetry in this fashion, and I have never read any publicly. But, I hope to improve. Here is one of my poems I plan to read Friday:

Foreigner, Walking

Stepping out into the surprising heat

Whitening my skin, it seems

As I navigate the uneven stones

Of our Rio Zula

Past a dark-skinned boy

Drinking Coke and mixing sand

Into cement. “Hóla,” I offer,

And he responds more lyrically.

Mangos fallen to the street

In the overnight rain

A flat-faced, indigenous madre

Picks them up, bruised and unripe alike

Into a faded nylon mesh bag

Another beautiful “Buenos Días”

Enunciated slowly, carefully

With a slight smile.

Passing an arborreta, glancing into

The dark space

Lined with small packages of snacks,

A cooler with soda, juice

Milk and cerveza.

A small boy, ebon hair,

Busy red fingers dancing

Counts berries into small bags,

His grandmother cutting melon

At a white, plastic table,

Teen boys with greasy hair,

Gold chains, swagger by, ignoring.

A man with a leather lined face

Pushes an incongruously white

Straw hat up his forehead

As he leans intently, under

The open hood of a twenty year-old

Plymouth, proud but helpless.

He waves and smiles,

As I trudge past,


No place to be,

Plenty to eat,

Here by choice,

And grateful,

But foreign.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mexican Independence Day: "Viva Mexico!"

This has been a big week for celebrating. Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16, to commemorate the day Mexico became a nation independent from Spain in 1821. There are many events during the week leading up to the actual date, including concerts, parades, and, of course, all sorts of fiestas. As I pointed out earlier, Mexicans are very patriotic and proud of Mexico.

The main celebration occurs on the evening of September 15. Each town in Mexico has a tradition, starting at 11PM, of reading Mexico's Declaration of Independence from Spain, and then having the mayor hold the flag and read what they call "the Grito," a word which in Spanish means "shout." He shouts out the names of Hidalgo and his fellow patriots who gave their lives for Mexico, and the crowd replies with a loud "VIVA!" after each name. At the end he shouts "VIVA MEXICO!" and the crowd replies likewise. This final exchange is repeated a total of three times. Fireworks explode and the party continues...all night. The picture below shows the mayor performing his Grito duties, while the two photos above capture the spirit of the evening. It was very emotional to be there. We wimped out and left about 11:30.

We also were invited to a family fiesta to celebrate the "cumpleanos" or birthday, of Daniel, the caretaker of our housing complex here. Again, we were the only gringos invited to this very nice party. Dora, Daniel's wife made Pozole, a traditional Mexican stew made with corn, pork and chiles. It was delicious. We also had a traditional Mexican birthday cake, Tres Leches: made with three different types of milk. We witnessed the Mexican tradition of having the birthday person, Daniel in this case, put his face down to take a first bite from the cake, while his usually male amigos try to mash his face into the cake, to great hilarity all around. We are getting to know more and more Mexicans every day, and we really enjoyed being included in their family fiesta. One of the gifts we gave to Daniel was a new flag. You can see from the photo below, in which Obert, Daniel's nephew is holding their old flag, that he needed a new one. Jesus, Daniel's son, is holding the new flag. Yoselin is also posing coyly with the new flag.

The work to clean up form the mudslides in San Juan Cosala continues. There is progress being made, but it will be awhile before things return to normal there. The Guadalajara Reporter said that 1200 homes were evacuated, and 50 were totally destroyed, with 20% of the homes in SJC suffering "serious" damage. There have apparently been no deaths and few serious injuries. One woman was up to her chest in mud and rescued after about 48 hours. Our UU fellowship has donated supplies and money and has pledged to continue to help.

We are apparently nearing the end of the rainy season; we have not had rain in about five days. The weather is warm a beautiful during the day, and the evenings are pleasantly cool. Pixie has recovered from a bad cold. We are looking forward to Curt and Judy Webber's visit in late October. And the big news: Maggie just got another wonderful haircut from Jael, her new barber: