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:

Friday, September 14, 2007

Update on Mudslides

The good news is that the early reports of deaths may have been wrong. It appears that the early reports were of people missing who have since turned up. It appears as though there are no confirmed deaths, but one child may be missing.

There is terrible damage, as the photos show, but the community effort to help the victims is huge, and coming from everyone.

Many people have been displaced from their homes, but slowly trucks are moving the huge boulders and rivers of mud which have poured into San Juan Cosala. Electricity and phone service are being fixed, although water seems to be a problem.

I had my class last night, and four students from the affected areas were not there, but other students were there and reported that they had been contacted and were ok. One sustained heavy damage to her house, and another lost a car.

The Mexicans are very good at pulling together to solve problems for themselves. People don't wait for help from outside, although that too is coming. As I write this early Friday morning, it is pouring outside, just what the area does NOT need now.

I'll post again soon. Here are some of the latest photos from other blogs and webboards:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tragic Mudslides at Lake Chapala

There has been a tragic turn of events here. The next town to the west of Ajijic, San Juan Cosala, has suffered devastating mudslides. Apparently, early yesterday morning, there was a waterspout, which resembles a tornado, which sucked water out of the lake and dumped much of it high in the mountain above San Juan Cosala (SJC) This area is quite vulnerable to mudslides, for some reason, and the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that people have been building homes high up in the mountains, even though scientists have warned against this. There is a very upscale development called the Racquet Club above SJC.

Initial reports are incomplete and not confirmed, but it appears as though many homes in the Racquet Club area have been completely destroyed or heavily damaged by mud and huge boulders which came down from the mountain. Homes in the lower village have been damaged by the mud and rocks from the mountain. About 25 cars have been swept away by the water. There have been some deaths, and other people are missing. The road into SJC has been completely blocked and is unpassable, so many people are stranded in their homes. They have set up shelters for people; the military and Cruz Roja (the Red Cross) is using helcopters to evacuate people.

We are fine in Ajijic. Some streets have had minor flooding, but this is common in the rainy season. SJC is especially vulnerable to this type of damage; a similar problem occurred about eight years ago. The community is pulling together to collect money, food, and other needs for our neighbors in SJC. I have at least three students in my class who live in SJC, and I am concerned about them.

I did not take these photos. They were provided from news reports and another local blog. Photos of the worst areas won't be available until people can get into the area.

This is all I know now. I don't know if any of this is being reported by the US press, but if you see anything, don't worry about us; we're fine. I'll post more information as it becomes available.

Friday, September 7, 2007

September, and Life is Busy

September brings the end of summer and the beginning of fall activities. Although, we won't be gearing up for a new year of teaching, feeling that snap in the air I used to love about fall Maine evenings, and picking Macintosh apples up on Perkins Ridge Road, we are getting busier here on a number of fronts.

First, I'd like to add a bit to the post I last did about the Huichol family which we are trying give a hand to. A group of us went to meet HTeo in Chapala last week to take a look at the house that he has been offered rent-free for five years. It is basically a rough building with a partial cement floor, two metal windows. It is about five times the size of their present home, but it is very rough by any standards.
Of course, heat is not needed in homes here, so that's not a problem. There is a toilet hooked up to the city sewer system, but no other piping.

Roberto (left), who is a friend of ours who knows about local construction methods, talks here with HTeo about what renovations he would need to make the house livable. HTeo can do the labor, and he has a friend who can help him hook up piping to the toilet and a sink. So his primary need would be for materials to fix the floor, do something about the roof to deflect the heat (it's a metal roof now), and get a metal door for security. We are hoping to put together a fund to help this family get established. We also found out that one of HTeo's brothers was attending a local school, but could not afford a uniform. The other students were making fun of him because of the uniform, and because he speaks very poor Spanish (he grew up speaking the Huichol language.) We had a special collection at church last week to raise some extra money to help with the uniform money immediately. SO, we're making progress.

September in Mexico, besides being the beginning of the end of the rainy season, is devoted to two weeks of celebrations leading up to Mexican independence Day on 16 Septiembre. The Mexican people are very proud of their country and enjoy patriotic displays, which are often accompanied by the declaration, "Viva Mexico!" Overt patriotism here seems different than it does in the United States, for some reason. I think it's partly because Mexico is not a powerful country. Many Mexicans are not happy with their politicians and the corruption in their country, but they absolutely love Mexico. I think it used to be more like this in the US, but lately, such overt flag waving is usually used by right wing conservatives to justify their xenophobic, "we are the best because God is on our side" politics. (It's my blog, so I'll add my opinions!) But here, it's a simple expression of pride, especially in the face of the racism and humiliation coming from north of the border. Many of the Mexicans we meet are very happy to meet Americans who also value their country.

One of the events we went to was a free concert by the waterfront in Chapala to lead up to the Independence Day celebration. There is a Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara this week, and this event was part of the festival. Mexican folkloric dancers from several towns appeared, along with an excellent Mariachi band. I was surprised at the Mariachis. This band, which was actually from Tuscon, Arizona, had a large complement of women who played fiddles and sang solos. the music, although clearly Mexican, was very emotional, sometimes even reminding me of opera.

We are also busier now because our Spanish classes have started. Pixie is taking an intro course in addition to a level one class, and I am taking a level two class on a different day. I also started teaching my ESL class, which is wonderful. The students are highly motivated, and it's all about learning. I can tell I will behaving fun with this group. So far I have sixteen students aging in age form 13 to 48. It still makes me the old man in the room. I am glad that Mexico has a strong culture of respecting their elders! It shows in class.

We have been having some extremely heavy rainstorms recently, always at night. We, and many others, had some rain get in the house; thank God for tile floors! A bit messy, but no harm done. It's my own fault. We have an outside patio within our house, with a drain in the floor and surrounded by four walls. The drain was plugged with leaves and the water had nowhere to go but into the guest room. Anyway, they tell us the rainy season will start winding down this month.