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.

Tucson and Idiocy Translates

So I’ve been bad about updating since I got back from Guadalajara. Truth is, nothing terribly interesting has happened. I’ve mostly

A really big cactus in Tucson

been trying to weed my way through learning how to adjudicate immigrant visas, and taking on some additional responsibilities at work. I spent Columbus Day weekend with the fabulous 148th ladies of Juarez and Guatemala City in Tucson. Cross another state off the big list of states to get to! Tucson was a good break though. We mostly hung out at the resort, lounged by the pool, and drank copious quantities of margaritas. Until recently, I tragically hadn’t had a good margarita in the El Paso/Juarez area. The really sad part is that the margaritas in Juarez are just not that good. The best one is at the airport, so you have to be getting out to get the good stuff. I prefer my margaritas a bit tart… Mexico seems to like them doused in sugar. However, the resort in Tucson was able to put out a very good margarita. The other highlight of the Tucson trip was the sunset trail ride I did with one of my friends. I now feel like I have been to the old west, since I have ridden off into the sunset on a horse. My horse, though, was not the most well-behaved and liked to stop every 5 feet to munch on cacti. Who knew they were so tasty?

I have also discovered that I seem to have a knack for making a royal idiot out of myself with the guards. The first time I met the roving patrols was when my garage was flooding last July and they came over to verify, yep, it was flooded. Of course, I was in my pajamas and looking like a royal mess. Since then they have periodically knocked on my door to inform me I’ve done something insanely dumb like leave the front gate open (that one has been a few times unfortunately), or like my latest endeavor, leave the garage door wide open. Of course every time they do this I have added insult to injury. During the front gate incident they rang the bell right after I had dumped ketchup on myself (yes, I’m a professional klutz).  Most everyone else never even knows they are there, me… well when they see me around the consulate they don’t even try to hide the chuckle anymore. At least I add a little entertainment to their lives.

Anyway, next up my sister is the first and probably only member of my family to work up the courage to come and visit me in Juarez! We’re going to be in Oaxaca for most of her visit but I’m excited. Finally we shall be off to the land of the tasty grasshoppers!

Home Sweet Juarez

It’s good to be home after living out of a suitcase for three weeks. To celebrate the end of the week a group of us went out to deep fried Sushi on Friday night, nothing says welcome home like clogging your arteries with deep-fried fish. It was also great to spend time with Juarez buddies, after 3 weeks of being in Guadalajara. Not that the people there weren’t fantastic, but I missed my fellow Juarezidents. Unfortunately I made the mistake of letting the Sushi place staff know where we work. I asked for a factura at the end (receipt to get the tax back) and you have to present your factura card to get it, the card says where we work. Personally I though the jig was already up, I couldn’t imagine any other reason for a group of Americans to be in Juarez other than working at the consulate. Apparently though, they used to think we worked for a maquiladora. Opps, hopefully we won’t start getting a slew of visa questions every time we go in for sushi now. I already get them when I get the red light at the bridge. Sigh, the joys of consular work. Speaking of which, my return to Juarez was also celebrated with my exile from NIV. I got kicked out of the nest and sent over to the immigrant visa unit this morning. Just when I finally figured out what was going on with NIV. Oh well, despite being exiled it is good to be home!

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!

Lost in Translation

This menu only looks like it is in English, it is really a cleverly designed trap to lure the hapless English-speaking traveler into a false sense of security.

I was recounting to a friend that one of the most annoying things about life in Mexico is American restaurants that have been imported and only partially translated their menu. Meaning that the descriptions are in Spanish but the title of the dish is in English… or so you think! For example at Starbucks I always try to order “Helado Shaken Lemon Tea” which is how it it is listed on the menu and in the end I have to go back to “te negro con hielo, por favor.” The worst is Chili’s. The other night when I tried to order my turkey sandwich it took several tries. I should have said it in Spanish, but I was tired. Finally the girl on the phone said oh “the Smhack-ed Toorkee.” I think my response was something along the lines of “yes, that’s fine you can smack it around a bit first, just put it on a plate.” From now on, I think I will stick with translating the English into Spanish when I order, it seems a lot simpler than having my English translated in well.. something else entirely.

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!’

Traveling with Pets

Miss Zoey

Zoey hiding as usual

I had a request to write up a blog about traveling with pets so here is the little wisdom I’ve acquired over the last few months. Since I am at a border post I had the option of throwing the cats in the car with me. About a week before I left I took the cats to the vet and decided that since they couldn’t deal with a 20 minute ride to the vet, a cross country car ride wasn’t going to happen. Yes, I said cats. As a few of my colleagues have pointed out the name of my blog is technically inaccurate. Last March I went to the pet store to get a cat carrier for Belize for the trip down. I did get the carrier but they were having an adoption event for a local shelter, so it came out with a cat in it. Apparently though having 2 cats in the foreign service brands you as a bona fide  “crazy cat lady.” I suppose though since  “cat” is in the name of my blog title, that probably qualifies me as a crazy cat lady regardless of the number of cats I have. I jokingly call Zoey my shame kitty since she hasn’t appeared on my blog yet and she always hides when I have company, but she is a fabulous kitty (that’s her tail peaking out from under the couch).
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