snapshots of mexico, literal and figurative

Febrero loco, Marzo otro poco
February 21, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: Photo, Short | Tags: , ,
Fallen Bugambilia

Fallen Bugambilia

Some trees are again losing their leaves (including the ficus that grows out of the stairway at our house), as well as bugambilia, jacaranda, and flowers of various other trees/bushes/vines/shrubs.  Apparently, this is because we are entering into the another season of sorts in Mexico–the change from “cold” December and January to “hot” April and May (though both of these terms are incredibly relative).  There is a noticeable difference in the weather, with warmer nights, hotter days, and occasional thunderstorms.  In Mexico, the variability in February and March weather is considered “crazy” and unpredictable, hence the common saying used as the post’s title.  In Chicago terms, however, we would probably call this weather “perfect”.


When ‘Yes’ Means ‘No
February 17, 2009, 9:00 am
Filed under: Photo, Update | Tags: , , ,

Mexicans are among the friendliest people in the world. Even in the busy metropolis of Mexico City it’s very common to have a complete stranger tell you “buen provecho” (the local equivalent of bon appetit) at a restaurant, help you with doors, or just greet you on the street. Basically, they want to be liked.

However, there is a downside to the Mexican desire to be seen as helpful and friendly, at least for us non-Mexicans unfamiliar with this custom. While Mexican will gladly tell you ‘yes’ when they are willing and able to help, they will rarely tell you ‘no’ when they are not. One example of this habit often occurs when asking for directions. It is almost certain that you will get detailed directions to your destination. Unfortunately, these directions are often completely fictitious and only serve to further confuse your path. In order to appear helpful, a Mexican would rather make up false directions to your destination than simply tell you they don’t know how to get there.

While providing false information to a stranger is one thing, dealing with friends or business associates is another. Instead of making up information on the spot, a Mexican will instead try to avoid having to provide any information at all.

How to say “no” in Mexican:

Step 1: Say yes.

Step 2: Avoid person who initially asked the question at all costs.

Step 3: If contact is unavoidable, assure the person that their request will be met “ahorita”.

Step 4: Repeat steps 2 and 3 as necessary until the other party gives up.

Where am I going with this? My project, of course. While I like to think of my project as moving along well, I am plagued by the Mexican “no”. There is undoubtedly a number of patients who I have and will interview who try to tell me what they think I want to hear. While frustrating, this is expected in survey research and not an overly grave concern.

The larger problem is instead the “Mexican No” I’m getting from the doctors who I’m looking to for help. I have called a doctor at the state health department of Michoacan nine times since I was initially put in touch with him last Monday, each day, and at different times. I have not been able to get him on the phone once yet, as he has always “just stepped out”. I left my phone number with a secretary Friday morning, but I have a hard time believing I’ll hear from him without making at least a few more calls. If this process has to be repeated with the four other state health departments I hope to meet with, I may go crazy.

Otherwise, the year continues to fly by. I’m starting to get to the point where I have brief moments of panic when I realize how much medical knowledge I’ve forgotten and that I’ll be back in the hospital in a few month’s time. For the most part, though, I’m content to just relax and enjoy Mexico City.

Fun Mexican Word: Maguey – Unlike several of Mexico’s other pre-Columbian agricultural products (corn, chiles, squash) that have become part of so many of the world’s cuisines, the versatile maguey is rarely grown outside of Mexico. Numerous species of maguey are heavily used in landscaping, and the plant’s fibers have long been used for in cloth-making. However, the most important products made from various maguey are all alcoholic—the frothy, fermented pulque; harsh, smoky mescal; and, above all, tequila, Mexico’s gift to the world of booze.

Picture: Eagle carving at the Monument to the Revolution. This fascinating dome was initiated during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, and was originally intended to be the new meeting chambers for the Senate. However, Diaz was forced from power before the building’s completion. Its shell was later repurposed into a monument celebrating the event.

La Aguila

La Aguila

Something I miss (aside from all of you, of course): Ethiopian food. Most food cravings can be at least partially satisfied one way or another in Mexico City. Within a short walk I can find Argentine, Chinese, Polish, Brazilian, and Japanese restaurants, and of course various Mexican options (plus American fast food, if for some inexplicable reason I feel like Subway or a Big Mac). Numerous other options are found throughout the city. While I have one lead on a possible “Indian/Ethiopian/Ghanian restaurant”—quite a combo—I think I’m probably just going to have to wait until I’m back in Chicago to fill this particular craving.

Something I like about DF: Cantinas, the traditional Mexican drinking hole. Have a few beers, get dinner free! Add dominos, live music, and a soccer game on TV and you are bound to have a good time.



Así es Mexico
December 16, 2008, 9:00 am
Filed under: Photo, Update | Tags: , ,

Así es México, meaning roughly “That’s Mexico,” has come to function as both my explanation and justification for the unusual, illogical, and often downright strange things that one witnesses and experiences while spending time here. Three different counters, four shop attendants, and two receipts required for the purchase of 75 cents worth of ribbon? Así es México. The morning scrubbing of sidewalks? Así es México. Microbusses with black lights and speaker systems that put most dance clubs to shame? Así es México.

These types of oddities jump out to foreigners, but when asked, even Mexicans often admit to being confused by there existence. What explanation can their possibly be for three-step checkout procedures at the pharmacy, or traffic circles where the traffic does not actually circle? They simply shrug, and tell you “Así es México.”

Like most things, these peculiarities become less noticeable with time, eventually becoming the rule rather than the standard. Why wouldn’t you sell giant novelty pencils on the metro? Of course they sell antidepressants over the counter! Clearly a giant plate of tacos should be carried around the beach on your head. And so on. Still, every once in a while you find yourself caught off-guard and standing on the sidewalk scratching your head, wondering what you just saw. It’s to be expected, of course, because así es México.

Life in Mexico continues to flow along smoothly. My project has started back up again as I’ve begun a second round of interviews, this time in one of the main public parks in Mexico City. I’ve also gone to the International Human Rights Film Festival (largely organized by a friend’s roommate), took a one night trip to central Mexico’s wine-cheese-empty-water-park-and-mystical-giant-rock country, and visited the Basilica de Guadalupe for the annual pilgrimage to the Virgin. Next up: a visit from my family, followed by another from Annie.

Hope everyone has a fantastic holiday season and a happy new year. Let me know about any “Así es México” experiences you’ve had, even if it wasn’t actually Mexico, because it’s always fun to hear about the strange things people see on their travels.

Fun Mexican Word: Ahorita (often accompanied by a hand signal holding the thumb and pointer finger slightly apart) is generally translated to mean “in a little bit” or “soon”, but accurate interpretation requires taking Mexican Time into account. In this sense, it means something closer to “eventually” or “don’t expect it any time soon”.

Picture: The New Basilica de Guadalupe.

Unique, if nothing else

Unique, if nothing else

The original basilica has become Mexico’s response to the Leaning Tower of Pisa as the massive, heavy stone structure has been sinking and tilting for hundreds of years into the soft, former lakebed on which it was built. The two basilicas, along with numerous other chapels, plazas, and gardens, make up what is probably the holiest site in all of Mexico: the location on Tepeyac hill where the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to San Juan Diego nearly 500 years ago.

Something I miss (aside from all of you, of course): Snow. Not the “three-day-old slush on the sidewalk” type, the “pristine, fluffy white snowflakes falling in the park” type. And even more so, the “compact, super fast sled-hill-covering” type.

Something I like about DF: The giant light displays that the Zocalo has for every major holiday–they are so huge and gaudy that they actually look good. I’ll make sure there are some more Christmas-in-the-Zocalo pictures soon.



Asi es Mexico
November 11, 2008, 11:18 am
Filed under: Photo, Short | Tags: , ,

The decade-old toll highway from Acapulco to Mexico City has practically halved the travel time between the two cities, and brought with it a massive boom in development as wealthy defeños (residents of Mexico City) come in large numbers to spend their weekends along the area’s stunning coastline. As I learned yesterday, however, the now heavily-used transportation route has also become an irresistible target for protesters hoping to draw attention to their cause. It’s basically the equivalent of protesters shutting down I-94 between Chicago and Milwaukee, only if there was no other conceivable way to get between the two points.

If they were going for my sympathy, they failed miserably

If they were going for my sympathy, they failed miserably

Just past the state capital of Chilpancingo, all traffic ground to a halt as the highway was taken over by the teachers of Guerrero state. Seven hours sitting on the dusty outskirts of Chilpancingo waiting for striking teachers to let traffic pass is not my idea of a good time.

Relatively early on, when it was still somewhat interesting

Relatively early on, when it was still somewhat interesting

As much as Acapulco’s beaches or DF’s big city vibe, this is Mexico.

Mexican Time
September 23, 2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: Photo, Update | Tags: , ,

I’m running on Mexican time now. This is basically just a nice way of saying that I take forever to do things, and expect the same from others. For example, I’m in the process of registering as a foreign national in Mexico. This needs to be done during the first month in the country, which for me means by Thursday. I finally got my forms completed yesterday; I’m going to be waiting all day for a copy of my host mom’s ID to prove I live with her, and then I expect all day tomorrow to be spent in various lines with other foreigners hoping to collect all the stamps necessary to be legal (I think something like 17% of the Mexican government’s annual budget is spent on rubber stamps. Yes, I just made that up, but it honestly feels like that could be true). I think in the US this same process would probably be completed in 15 minutes by filling out an online form, but then again I’d miss out on all the cool stamps.

I’m hoping to start my project in October, as well as spend the month rotating with Mexican medical students at one of the hospitals here in the city. I’ve gotten confirmation from the doctors I’m in contact with that both are in the works so theoretically there’s a good chance they’ll happen soon, but there’s an equally good chance I’ll spend another month waiting for both to actually get rolling. Mexican time strikes again.

My Chinese classes (my one productive-feeling activity) have been going well. I’m now able to say such useful phrases as “My little brother’s phone number is 815xxxxxxx”, “Do you want coffee?” and “I am not Mexican”. I think my host family probably thinks I’m a little nuts when they hear me sitting in my room mumbling things like “Wŏ shì mĕiguó rén”, and in their defense they would probably be right. It’s fun though, and gives me a scheduled activity at least 2 nights a week. And perhaps most importantly, as it’s run by Chinese and not Mexicans, it actually happens when it’s scheduled.

Fun Mexican word: Callejoneada – Imagine 25 young Mexicans (15-30 years old or so). Now imagine they are dressed in fancy medieval costumes and carrying a variety of unusual string instruments. Now, imagine that you are wandering around steep alleys and hidden plazas with 40 other people watching this group sing 500 year old ballads. All while drinking. Yeah, you don’t find that in the States…

Picture: From a march protesting several recent kidnappings and demanding the government take action. I’m not sure if anything concrete was accomplished, but it was an impressive and moving demonstration.

La Marcha en Blanca - Crowd gathers at the Angel

La Marcha en Blanca - Crowd gathers at the Angel

Something I miss (aside from all of you, of course): Lake Michigan. I miss the sudden change you get going from the skyscrapers of the city to the nothingness of the lake.

Something I like about DF: The plants. It’s amazing how things grow here. There are waist high impatiens, 12 foot tall poinsettias, Calla lilies that grow practically as roadside weeds, what might be coffee trees that scatter their beans all over the sidewalk, and more sculpted ficus trees than you can shake a stick at.

Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Allende! Viva México! Viva México! Viva México!

Hope all’s well back home.