Archive for the 'Mexico' Category

Cancun and Braving Juarez

Since I seem to have caught the plague that has been circulating around the consulate and I’m home sick at the moment, it seems like as good a time as any to get caught up on the blogging. It’s hard to believe I’ve been back from Cancun for a month and haven’t actually gone anywhere since! A whole month in Juarez/El Paso, this is kind of a new record for me.  Last weekend was spent getting out of my 2 square miles of Juarez. A small intrepid group of us trekked down to the main market in Juarez. We had been there before on a CLO tour, but since it is the holiday season the market seems to have expanded and taken over the streets outside the normal market building. I’ve also never been so happy to see a parqueo before, because without a parqueo we seriously might have circled the streets for hours. Bless the parqueos (words I never thought I’d utter)! I’ve been to lots of markets in Mexico by now. Most of them sell things like handicrafts and sculptures, or artisan works. Not the Juarez market. Pretty much what you find there is love potions, vodoo dolls, and herbal medicines. Ah, gotta love Juarez, it has a character all its own.

Cancun was beautiful though. It doesn’t quite feel like Mexico since I think I heard more English spoken there than I do in El

Chichen Itza

Paso, but the beaches are gorgeous. The highlight of the trip was heading to Chichen Itza to check out the ruins. I’d never been to a ruin when this year started, but in the last 9 months I’ve been to Tikal, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, and Chichen Itza. Not bad, now if I can just get out to visit my friend in Peru and check out Machu Picchu, I’ll be set. The main temple at Chichen Izta, is pretty amazing. If you stand in the right spot and clap it sounds like a bird call echoing out of the building. Also on the solstice the sunlight forms a serpent on the side of the building, tragically we were not there at the solstice. I was also able to meet up with my friend from the Merida consulate, and spend a night out experiencing Cancun nightlife, which is insane. I thought Oaxaca was wild at Day of the Dead time, Cancun is just crazy all the time.

Since then I’ve spent most of my weekends around El Paso battling border traffic. I’ve never seen anything as insane as the shops and the bridge crossing in El Paso around Christmas time. I’d also thought until recently that the scariest thing I’d seen in El Paso/Juarez was the cow I saw tied in the back of a chevy a few months back, until I started seeing all these cars with reindeer antlers and Rudolph noses tied on them. It is a strange, strange world down here sometimes.

Day of the Dead

Decor around Oaxaca is heavy on the Skeleton theme.

Decor around Oaxaca is heavy on the Skeleton theme.

High on my list of things to do while in Mexico has been to visit Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead. I recruited my sister to come down for this one, since we are both bona fide foodies and Oaxaca is the land of the tasty grasshoppers and moles. After a few mishaps with changing flights we arrived in Oaxaca to find our hotel is literally right in the heart of Oaxaca. We are right on the Zocalo, which is great… until about 1 am when you really want to go to sleep and the party is still raging. And here the party does rage! It is like being in the middle of mardi gras. I’ve reached the point where I am so high on mole and sleep dep that I’ve embraced it and have just been enjoying the front row seat to the endless concerts and parades that are going on right outside our balcony. I will be glad I think when we get back to Juarez for the peace and quiet (words that were probably never before uttered about Juarez I am sure).

Oaxaca, though is absolutely amazing, we’ve visited a bunch of the markets, unleashed my Spanish upon the world, trekked all through the historic area, and attended a cooking class. In the cooking class we

Learning how to make salsa for the tamales.

learned to cook a bunch of different types of tamales including a red mole tamale. Tragically the one thing we have not yet found is the grasshoppers, they appear to be out of season. The plethora of delicious moles does make up for that somewhat. The decorations around town are amazing, we haven’t made it out to the cemeteries yet but almost every restaurant, hotel, or shop has an alter up in honor of their deceased relatives. I’m rather fond of this tradition. When I go, I would like my ancestors to leave me gifts of chocolate, and sugar skulls, and beer (take note future descendants–bring me annual tributes of booze and sugar please).  The whole city smells of incense, and pretty much around every corner is some sort of music performance or a parade. The actual Day of the Dead is today

Sugar skulls, one of the staples of the Day of the Dead, on an altar.

(I’m still awake thanks to the endless revelry outside my window), so I’m anticipating it being a bit more low key. As always we have met some really interesting people while traveling through Mexico. Though I really need to learn not to mention what I do for a living until I know for sure no one in the room needs a visa. Ah well, fortunately this couple was very nice about the whole thing… not like when the girl caught me at the bridge on the red light and used the fact that I was a captive audience to ask me about all about her cousins visas. Tomorrow we’re off to see some ruins outside of the city, and search for a vegetable since between all the mole and a the Oaxaca chocolate we really haven’t seen anything green in the last few days.

Adventures in Tequila and Puerto Vallarta

Blue agave plants, waiting to be distilled into tasty Tequila

So I have been bad about updating for 2 reasons. I’ve been out enjoying Jalisco the last two weekends and I caught a monster cold. My first weekend here I decided to take the Tequila express since this is the land of Tequila. I did get to see a lot of the country side (it was beautiful) from the train, but the train doesn’t actually go to Tequila. It goes to Amatitlan. I did get to tour a tequila factory which was the goal, but the main point of the Tequila express seems to be to get as rip-roaring drunk as humanly possible in 6 hours. I’m sorry to say that in this respect, I did not represent the U.S. well. I and my liver were not up to the challenge, despite the copious quantities of free-flowing tequila available. I think I had a total of 2 tequila drinks the whole day. My seat-mates however, sure were up to the task! I made friends with some very drunk Mexican military auditors that were TDY like me. Unlike me they only had one day off during their entire trip. Ouch. I think they really enjoyed their day off though. Between their slurred Spanish and my not-so good Spanish, it did make for interesting conversation… Amazingly we seemed to make it work and it was quite a fun day.
Continue reading ‘Adventures in Tequila and Puerto Vallarta’

Tlaquepaque

I decided to spend the second of my days off shopping. I have come to the right place! I heard that Tlaquepaque was one of the

A small school group playing near the Parian in Tlaquepaque in honor of independence day.

best places to go shopping for artisan items. Wow! I finally had to come home because I couldn’t carry anymore. The glassware is absolutely beautiful… I may have to go back to get more. I was limiting myself because my suitecase was just barely below the 25 kilogram limit (thank you scuba gear), but my hotel is next to Fedex and there is a DHL in downtown Tlaquepaque… so I am figuring I can buy what I want and just ship it back. Of course this will involve some crossing of fingers to make sure it gets there safely, since most of what I am planning on buying for gifts is glassware. I bought an entire set of 6 classes and a pitcher for $23, I really can’t complain!

The first shop I stopped in I wound up chatting with the owners for a good long while. They asked me where I was from… like I said Juarez is a sure fire conversation starter! The shopkeeper was pretty quick, he asked me if I was with the consulate. He seemed to use the logic that there was no other reason for an American to be working in Juarez. Apparently his brother was the architect who designed the Mexican consulate in El Paso, which unfortunately I have yet to see. I gave a mental sigh of relief when they

One of the statues outside of the gallery that I fell in love with.

mentioned that they already had their visas, apparently the rest of their family is already Amcits and live in El Paso. Since they had their visas, I figured I could admit what I actually do. We had a very nice little chat about life on the border since they visit frequently. More chance to practice Spanish! After that I continued my epic shopping. I completely fell in love with this one little art gallery that sells bronze statues. I briefly contemplated giving the visa a work out and getting one of the smaller statues, but I decided that since I had no way to bring it back and that it would look vaguely ridiculous in my weed-overgrown garden, that it really wasn’t a very practical idea. Sorry visa, perhaps another day!

Happy Birthday Mexico!

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Mexican Independence, President Calderon declared Wednesday and Friday to be national

This was the rotunda next to the Cathedral where I was supposed to catch the tour bus, alas the tour was canceled.

holidays (Thursday was already a holiday). Mission Mexico decided to follow suit… so here I am on TDY in Guadalajara and I have the rest of the week off! Pity I already planned my trek to Puerto Vallarta for next weekend, or this would have been the perfect time to go. I’m sure we will pay the price next week when we are slammed with applicants, (we already felt the brunt of the first wave yesterday as some of the appointments were already rescheduled) but in the mean time I’m certainly trying to enjoy the extra time off. I thought I would start the day by going down to the center of town and taking the Tapatio Tour bus which stops at the most popular tourist spots all over Guadalajara and goes to the shopping district of Tlaquepaque. It was a good idea in theory but the roads were all blocked off and most of the museums closed… so no bus. Instead I spent several hours hiking downtown and walking through the various plazas. Since I have a love all things kitchy, I figured the Plaza de los Mariachis would be a good bet. I attempted to navigate by my moon guide map which didn’t seem to have all the streets labeled quite right. Luckily I spotted a

A torta aghogada, and a pretty tasty one I might add!

tourist information booth. Armed with my brightly colored map I headed in the direction of the Mariachis.

On the way I spotted a Torta Ahogada stand. The literal translation is basically drowned sandwich. It is a Jalisco specialty, a pork filled sandwich drowned in spicy tomato sauce. After a quick lunch I continued my walk through downtown Guadalajara towards the plaza. It took me a while to figure out I had made it because once I got there all I saw were people sitting around and a few street sellers hawking

The only mariachis I saw in the Plaza de los Mariachis

t-shirts. The only “musician” I saw was a really drunk guy singing tunelessly into a bullhorn and the only mariachis were the ones painted on a wall and a few statues on a building. Apparently there was a shoot-out in the plaza a few years ago which scared a lot of them off. Maybe they are still there on the weekends, but tragically there was not a mariachi in sight there today. Given that all of the tourist sites were pretty much closed or roped off, I figured I would head back to the Plaza del Sol and do some shopping. I stopped in the local Starbucks on the way back because I was in need of caffeine, I also remembered that my friend in Nuevo Laredo said she has been hanging out in Starbucks as a part of her plan to make friends. Since I had been trekking around alone all I day, I figured chilling out in Starbucks in the hopes of having a conversation couldn’t hurt either. Jackpot! The barrista came over and struck up a conversation with me after a few minutes, asking me where I am from (I guess my thick accent gives me away pretty quickly). I have found that telling people even though I am from the DC area, that I live in Juarez is a sure fire conversation starter. All in all, a very successful tourist outing despite the number of closures. I managed to see a pretty good section of the downtown area and had a lovely chat in Spanish. He claimed that my spanish was very good, how kindly he lied. I shall have to remember the Starbucks tip in the future, something about coffee seems to make people social. Being here has certainly been a good opportunity to practice my Spanish. Tomorrow hopefully I’ll be off to Tequila or Tlaquepaque depending on the road closures.

Pasear y Conocer

A group singing in the plaza del Sol.

So if you ask 80% of our visa applicants why they want to go to the U.S. you get “Para pasear y conocer,” (best literal translation is to walk and to learn) I have to admit until now I’ve sort of mentally grimaced every time someone says that. Really? Can’t we be a little more specific? But after 2 hours in Guadalajara I’ve decided that is a totally valid answer. I spent most of my little hour walk doing what could only be described as “pasear-ing and conocer-ing”. I just sort of strolled down the street from my hotel room and gawked. Guadalajara is for starters incredibly cool a the moment, and by cool I mean a delightful low 80’s. After the soul-searing heat of Juarez, it is positively wonderful to just be able to walk outside without feeling like I need a shower 30 seconds later. Like Mexico city there are also trees and people on the streets. I walked through shopping center next to the hotel, Plaza del Sol, and there was a group singing in the middle of the plaza for independence day. It is nice to experience a Mexican city with a bit more of a city life. These are kinds of things I love about New York. You never know what you are going to find around the next corner. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the city in the next few weeks. Not to be down on Juarez, I really am enjoying my tour there and if I had to bid again knowing what I know now I would probably have put it as a high on my list, but still it is nice to see another side of Mexico!

I’ve found in my limited experiences traveling in Mexico that I have pretty good window Spanish at this point and pretty good tourist Spanish. Meaning I can adjudicate a visa without too much of a problem and I can make a reservation, order food, call a taxi, ect. with a minimum of mishaps. Where I completely fall down is when people actually try to have a conversation with me. Thursday night there was a representational event at the CG’s house which was a good way to actually talk with people from the community and even with my limited Spanish I did manage to have a few good conversations and meet new people, but those types of situations make me realize how limited I am. Also when the guy next to me on the plane tried to talk to me, it really didn’t happen. I guess it is a work in progress. Now off to pasear and conocer the Chili’s that obligingly just arrived at my room. Yes, I realize I am lame for ordering in from one of the most American restaurants out there, but I’m using the excuse that I’m old and tired from my flight. Never mind that it was three hours. 😉

Viva Mexico!

A flower market in Mexico City

So I have to admit that I haven’t quite felt like I have been in Mexico. Juarez is definitely not the U.S. but it isn’t quite Mexico either. It is a bit of an amalgam so although I have lived in Mexico for almost 4 months now (where does the time go?!!), I still haven’t felt like I have really experienced Mexico. Part of that also has to do with the fact that Mexico is big, really big, and so I imagine that it is pretty diverse in terms of culture much like the U.S. Last weekend though I finally trekked down with one of my fellow Juarezident’s and A-100 classmate to Mexico City for a sort of a 148th Team Mexico reunion. We had a pretty good representation of the 148th’s team Mexico. Our class sent people to every post except Nogales and we had 148thers from Juarez, Mexico City, Merida, Nuevo Laredo, and Hermosillo rthis weekend! Mexico City was fantastic and incredibly different from Juarez. For starters our sushi was not deep fried and there were people out walking around the city. It was also a little disconcerting to see the Federales just being ordinary police, meaning wandering around in much smaller numbers and without their semi-automatic weapons out and ready at all times. Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying my time in Juarez but I’d forgotten how nice it was to just be able to walk around a normal city.

We started our weekend by walking around the Zocalo and tromping through a few of the markets in the city. Since the Mexican

Chile en nogada in honor of independence day

Independence day is next week the whole city was decorated for the celebration. Juarez unfortunately had to cancel the festivities because of the violence, though I have seen a few of the commerciantes out on the street corners selling flags and mustaches regardless. Interestingly enough I found that in Mexico City it was a lot easier to get by with English than in Juarez; I would have thought there would be more English speakers here given the proximity. I also saw my first mariachis! The two drunk guys with guitars that “serenaded” us at the local burrito shop last week in Juarez didn’t quite count for me. Since the city was decked out for the upcoming holiday I decided to embrace the spirit and try Chile en Nogada which is a seasonal specialty in honor of Independence day. It is a poblano pepper stuffed with beef mixed with raisins, apples, and walnuts and then covered with a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. The dish is has all the colors of the Mexican flag. It is an incredibly sweet dish. It was actually a little too sweet for me and I have a pretty healthy sweet tooth, but I was glad I tried it! Continue reading ‘Viva Mexico!’

The Hazards of Juarez

Like any city, Juarez has its hazards.  Most of Juarez’s issues are well covered by the news media. There are however a few little gems that go unnoticed… those would be parqueos, speed bumps, window washers and car buffers. Yep, every day it’s like a little game to see how many of these Juarez hazards I can avoid while getting all my business done in the city.  My friend and fellow Juarezident has already done a great job describing the perils of Juarez speed mountains bumps, so I’ll skip that little delight and go straight to parqueos. These industrious fellows lie in wait in ordinary parking lots, ready to direct the hapless driver into a “space” and then later back out again. I put space in quotes because sometimes their idea of an open spot seems to be up on a sidewalk or on top of another car. There seem to be 2 types of parqueos, those  that eagerly try to help you in and out and then those just magically appear right when you are about to pull out, and manage to stand right in your blind spot waving madly to “assist” you out. Of course, they all manage to appear by the window at tip time.  I’ve heard of parqueos directing people in to cement barriers and other cars, so unfortunately my recommendation to any future Juarezidents doing battle with this particular hazard is have a few pesos ready and proceed with caution.

Window washers and buffers, both work the same territory. These gentlemen hangout by traffic lights waiting to catch those unfortunate enough to get the red light. It doesn’t matter if you got attacked by the window washer at the last light and there isn’t a speck of dirt on your windows, they’re ready to wash again if the intrepid Juarez driver isn’t fast enough with the “no, gracias.” Sometimes they don’t even take no for an answer. I will say that for the most part they do a pretty good job. I must have given a heck of a tip the other day because the one who washed my windshield then proceeded to wash all my windows, my headlights, and my side mirrors. My car was pretty dirty, I will give him that, but I didn’t think it was that amazing of a tip. The most insidious of all these hazards is “the buffer.” They are the hardest to spot. You think it is just some nice guy crossing at the red light when all the sudden you hear a thump on the roof of your car and you realize you are getting buffed. They carry rags around for the purpose of well, rubbing the dirt around on your car in the name of shining it. But the problem is, it doesn’t actually do anything other than move the Chihuahua dust from one spot on the car to another. Lest you think I deprive these industrious gentlemen of their tips, I will admit I do carry a small cache of coins for when I “lose the game” and don’t manage to wave them off quick enough. I figure it’s my tax for failing to be quick enough on the “no, gracias.” Thus far, I’ve only been caught by the buffers and washers 5 times in 3 months and most of those were in the first month; I’m getting better…

Inundación

Flooding seems to be a recurring theme in my life lately. Last week I was buried under a flood of boxes. I’d say that they are fully unpacked… but well, that would be a complete lie. I still have about 8 boxes left to be unpacked. I’m amazed at how much junk I brought. I forgot that I had about 3 junk drawers which were basically dumped straight into boxes and I think the time to deal with them has finally come. I’ve been attempting to sort and throw away as I go through them so it has been a slow process.

The second flood was of the more typical kind. Saturday morning I was awoken at 4am by my community’s guard telling me that there was massive quantities of water leaking out of my garage. It’s amazing how much Spanish I don’t speak at 4am, so it took me a few minutes to figure out what the heck was going on when he rang my bell. Sure enough though, massive quantities of water were flooding out of my garage on to the street. With the help of the guard I managed to get the top off water tank and turn off the water to the house so it would stop flooding. Apparently one of the pipes broke. Thankfully the consulate facilities maintenance people rigged it so I had a little water for Sunday and had the system fixed by Monday night. Which is when the next flood came! After weeks of seeing some terrific “thunderstorms” where the wind blows and two drops fall, it was kind of a surprise to see a massive deluge of rain fall last night. This morning the streets were so flooded I wasn’t sure I was going to make it in my little honda civic. I hear that this is normal during the rainy season, which means I might need to get an inflatable raft to make it work.

The Cathedral of Guadalupe in downtown Juarez

The weekend after my HHE arrived I also finally got out into Juarez. The CLO arranged a city tour, so we were able to get out and see the center of the city and one of the markets. The city itself isn’t that bad actually. My biggest complaint about El Paso is that it is a very flat city. Being used to cities like Baltimore and New York, I don’t feel like I’m in a city until I see tall buildings and dirty, gritty streets. Juarez feels more like a real city to me. Work itself has also been interesting. I’m actually enjoying working on the visa line, which is a good thing since I’m consular coned and there will be a lot of visas in my future.

Life in Juarez

I have been very, very bad about updating. I can’t even blame it all on the lack of internet because thanks to my amazing sponsor I had internet after a few days. It’s hard to believe that I arrived at post exactly a month ago! I haven’t been out much in Juarez because I live about 10 minutes from the border and thanks to the SENTRI pass it is just so easy to cross and go shopping in El Paso. Next weekend the CLO is organizing a city tour of Juarez and I am hoping once I get a better feel for where things are in the city I will start doing more in Juarez other than basic grocery shopping. Continue reading ‘Life in Juarez’