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Friday, December 18, 2009

A Way of Life

Yes, I know I don’t exactly post on this thing often, but in my defense, it was only my intention to have 1-2 posts a month, depending on time and material to write about. With that said, in this post there are some long-overdue photos from my time here.

Dia De Los Muertos with a katrina in the background. All on the ground are the stamen and pistils of thousands of flowers.

Almost the same shot, a little blurry, but I included it because you can better see what's going on in the background.

More katrinas.

Monkeying around with some friends on the "biggest" (i.e. widest) tree in the state of Jalisco. I don't think we were supposed to climb it. Mexicans need to go to California if they want to see some big trees.

With some relatives. The two nuns hadn't been back to Mexico (from Europe) for twenty years.

The Primos Hermanos--"first cousins." Actually this is only a handful of the guys. There are around 60 total, including women. (I'm back row, 3rd from left)

A pool hall here in Zapotlanejo we went to for my birthday. In this picture are my coworkers from the school.

Here are a couple hands making sure I participate in the birthday tradition of smushing one's face into the birthday cake. You can see that I'm smiling.

My 24th birthday passed here in Mexico—yet another first time experience: a birthday outside of the country. And whaddayaknow, I didn’t have any friends out of town on holiday for Thanksgiving (my b-day is always that week). Actually I was quite surprised how the day turned out. My coworkers at the school all paused from their schedules to eat lunch and birthday cake with me. And then, in an (to me) unexpected tradition, they all went around in a circle and each said something for me. One of my coworkers told me that at a job, your coworkers are your family, and I am now part of a new family, and if there is anything I need, all I need do is ask. For having only worked there for 2 and a half months, this was quite surprising and humbling—the openness and welcoming familial nature of relationships here.

An example to illustrate this was that I was on an errand and I needed the translating abilities of a friend of mine, and without a second thought he came along. I was under the impression that my errand would take no longer than 5 minutes, and I told him so; but it turned into an 1 ½ endeavor—taking us all over town—before it was finished. I asked if I could buy my friend lunch or something for helping me out and he politely declined. I said I really appreciated it and he said that’s all that mattered.

This same kind of openness and willingness to help out a friend or family member is something that I’m still unused to as of yet. For the most part, in the States, I’m used to people hesitating, or there are at least strings attached to favors. Here, if you’re friend or family, and there is something needed, those around you offer themselves or their services up without a second thought. Of course, the idea is that you won’t take advantage of them. If you do, their assistance is summarily cut off. So I suppose there would be very loose strings attached to favors and such here—the understanding is that everyone is the same way, and has the same attitude toward it. All this to say, is this generosity and willingness to give is a way of life down here, a kind of circle of giving, and is open to you even if you haven’t been here long.

I almost abstained from preparing a turkey hotdog for myself on Thanksgiving as a nod to the millions of perished Native Americans and their nonexistent descendants unable to do so. ("Oh here he goes again with the Native Americans...). But there was nothing else to eat in the fridge, so I ate it. So passed Thanksgiving here—without so much as a blink from my countrymen. It was a kind of realization—that the experience of a holiday/holiday weekend for an entire nation (Thanksgiving) is essentially nonexistent as soon as you cross the imaginary lines in the dirt that separate countries. “Black Friday?” Nonexistent. I know it may seem obvious that the traditions of one nation aren’t celebrated in a different country…but like I’ve said before, it was a new experience.

But that’s what this blog is about—my new experiences of a land and a place that is very different than where I come from.

I hope all of your past and upcoming holiday celebrations were and are filled with family and merriment! I’ll see you in the New Year with the scoop on what things were like down here!

Friday, November 20, 2009

El Nino Que Esta Aprendiendo (The Learning Boy)

So, as one might imagine, there’s been many a first time for things since I’ve been here:

-my first time driving a quatrimoto (an ATV or 4-wheeler)
-my first time to a Latin American indigenous culture site
-my first time gambling in Mexico
-my first time ice-skating in at least 15 years, and the second time I’ve ever done it
-my first time washing my laundry by hand—jeans are the worst
-my first time driving a motorcycle on my own. (I think I’m addicted now)
-my first time kissing a beautiful woman in Mexico. (I think I'm addicted now)
-my first time experiencing Dia de los Muertos in Mexico

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is truly a beautiful celebration in Mexico. I’d seen pictures of the event and read about it previously, but it is a completely different experience once you’re in Mexico. It harkens back to a pre-Columbian tradition of the native peoples, that has changed and adapted with religion, culture, and other forces that mold traditions as they do. There are so many colors present in the flowers and decorations of the art and figurines, and it is such a compelling mixture of images of death and beauty, art, and culture, that I was very much taken aback by it all.

In a circular formation, there were about 6 or 7 skeletons arranged in front of the ancient church, each with different garments and accessories. They were cartoon-ish type skeleton figurines draped in robes of purple, black, white, red, and yellow, and are called “Katrinas.” These Katrinas weren’t the horror-movie type either, but rather, smiling cartoon-like depictions, enjoying themselves on their holiday. Surrounding all of this were flowers and the pistils and stamens of flowers for coloring—weaving around in paths and forming artistic patterns of their own. (I regret not having pictures of any this for you…I’ll try and get pictures of some things up on here soon!)

As I stood there at night, taking in all of the culture, history, and reality behind the event, I stumbled across this opinion: any event which is a celebration of human life is a beautiful tradition. Now, let me explain. In front of the church, on the stairs leading up to the building, were pictures of deceased people, surrounded by food, sweets, and flowers, all blending into create the holiday’s esthetic. As I looked at the faces of these dead, I was reminded how short life is, and how incredibly fortunate enough we are to be things which recognize their own existence, the breaths they take, and thoughts they have. And in a glimpse, the entire life of a person is swallowed by Time, which envelops everything that surrounds us, and surpasses it all. For we only have but a short little window of existence to acknowledge and enjoy before its gone, and we’re remembered on days like Dia de los Muertos. So as I took it all in, and thought these thoughts, I said to myself, “this is a beautiful tradition, a celebration of life and a longing for those who we miss who are no longer among us…I’m fortunate to be here.”

So, this is an encouragement to all who read this (all 13): if you haven’t yet had the experience of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, you definitely should have it. Come on down next year and soak in the holiday. You won’t be disappointed.

So right now I am in the process or learning one language, and teaching a separate one. First: some signs I know I’m learning another language:

1) I’m having increasing difficulty finding the words I want to say in English—only Spanish comes to mind
2) example: it took me a while to write that last sentence, and I’m still not sure it’s right.
3) People are frequently laughing when I talk not because I said something wrong, but because I said something right. And it was funny!
4) People are frequently staring at me with a searching expression, utterly without a clue as to what I’m attempting to communicate.
5) I wish there was a Thumbelina-sized translator I could have stuffed in my pocket at all times.

Overall, my Spanish is improving bit-by-bit, but I still have a long way to go. I’ve got a couple of dictionaries for both languages, as well as grammar and usage books, but it’s just a matter of time: studying and practice. Hah I get practice every day whether I want to or not, it’s the studying that’s hard to find time for.

Teaching a different language has got my gears all mixed up in my brain, but on the whole, I’m learning a lot. My job requires an in-depth knowledge of the English language, not just simply the ability to speak it. For example, I’ve had to learn what gerunds, past participles, and infinitive clauses are, and the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. But ironically I still can’t tell you why you should say “lie” instead of “lay” or vice versa. Back to the books…

I’ll try and get some pictures up on here soon…I gotta prove to you that I’m actually down here, ya know? Take care all! Until next time…

Friday, November 6, 2009

Realizing Mexico

Haha so I said I’d try and get this post up by “the end of the week,” almost a month ago! Well…lots has been going on and let me try to fill ya in…

Guachimontones. An ancient, pre-Columbian site about a half hour West of Guadalajara. It has some of the world’s only round pyramids—most have a square-base shape like the Egyptians, Sumerians, Mayans, etc. Here, they are rounded, with a stepped-formation to the top. There actually isn’t a name for the people that lived there, because the whole site is such a recent discovery (10 years ago) that not much is known about them. Unfortunately, when the highway was built some years back, it was reported that there were “stepped” formations in the ground, but it was paved over due to haste and a lack of knowledge of the site. So, another of the pyramids is probably under the highway, not to be recovered. Anyhow, it was a beautiful site, and a great time, and since I didn’t take any pictures, you can check it out on wikipedia ( or just do a google image search.

Family is central down here. And I knew that before coming down here, but I hadn’t experienced that, you know? It’s almost as if my aunts and uncles are surrogate parents, my first cousins as big brothers and sisters, and my “nieces and nephews” (2nd cousins) are like the little brothers and sisters I never had. Really. It’s very different, but very homey. And I never would have anticipated it would change me like I feel it has. My family really has “grown” down here, and I feel as though I’ve grown in proportion to it—each new brother and sister, each new parent, each new niece/nephew has become a part of who I am.

The fiestas here. The days of last month are referred to as “las fiestas de Octubre.” (I’m not going to translate that…because…all you do is switch the “r” and “e” in Octubre.) There are different holidays for different towns, different saints that are celebrated, combined with regional and national celebrations during October. Monday the 16th was Columbus Day, and man do they celebrate the heck out of the day. The day that marked the beginning of the genocide of native peoples on two continents, their subsequent rape, exploitation of their land, death by foreign disease, and enslavement. I asked my Tia where are the Native Americans to “celebrate” this day. She pointed to the small group of Indians on the TV, and I responded by joking the government paid them off. Columbus was a product of his times, in part: the age of imperialism. He was following the model of his predecessors in other parts of the world: enslave and exploit the locals. Anyway, this where you tune out because the “college boy” is going on a rant borrowed from authors and professors, so I’ll stop myself.

Back to the fiestas. Here in Zapotlanejo, the whole town turns out for them. The other week was 9 straight days of fiestas, where a bunch of taco and snack stands were out, “Banda” bands walking around playing for whoever pays them, and fireworks. All this takes place mostly at night, centered around “the plaza” here: the open space downtown, with a little gazebo where everyone congregates. I’ve already started to see people I know from school or mutual friends when I go to the plaza at night—it’s a fairly small town. All in all, it was pretty fun. Except for the fireworks at 5am each morning. That was enough to make me want to walk outside my house with a bat in search of the culprits.

What’s also been good is the realization of the world that travel brings. Being a sheltered American not having been to Mexico for 10 years before moving here, I had stereotypes and preconceptions about this place before coming here. I’ll confess: I thought it would be a bigger version of East LA with its whole aesthetic: the cars, the fashion, the language, the culture—but I am glad to say my na├»ve understanding was utterly proven wrong. Those are just aspects and products of Mexican-American culture. Once I travel I remember/realize that the cultures I’m used seeing, and the view of the world I’m used to having is obsolete, for the reason that it is uninformed.

Here, this place is a completely different culture from those in the U.S.—it is a separate country. It is a different Mexican culture than any Mexican culture I was familiar with in the States. And I have loved realizing this; it has been a similar awakening experience as when I lived in Ethiopia. The world is bigger than our preconceived ideas and limited experiences. (Or at least mine.) One reason why I bother talking about any of this at all, is that I’m hoping it’ll inspire some of you to travel, and realize that some assumptions are off-base until those experiences are had for ourselves.

Just a warning: I might get a little soap-boxy, or rambling sometimes (one of the meanings behind The Rambling Nomad) about my opinions…but if you know me, then you know that that’s how I get sometimes.

I do have much more written, just not “published” yet…so I’ll try and be more prompt about getting that up on here soon! Coming soon: Day of the Dead, Learning a language and teaching a separate one, and a list of "First-Time" Experiences in Mexico!!

I’ll wrap up with two quotes I really like right now:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” –Mark Twain

“Deje el mundo cambiarle y usted puede cambiar el mundo.” (“Let the world change you, and you can change the world.”) –Ernesto Guevarra

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

An Expat in the Making

The busy sounds of the street in my small town swarmed around me, entering my ears and my eyes. All of us characters in this scene were bathed in the orange-yellow glow of the streetlights. The cobbled road, at some times paved, other times patched, wove around me, toward and away from me all at the once. The swimmers of these avenues blazed by on their 100cc motorpeds, the cars barged through as if no one was there. Somehow they always managed to avoid each other. I saw it—a gasp there, an exhale there—the scene breathed like the entity it is. The late hour didn’t discourage the other figures from playing their roles in this scene, the sidewalks were well traveled and the streets busy. Shops were open—come in, come in!! It was late, and I was tired from a day of work, so after playing my role in the night, I left the stage and headed home.

But what is home? Cause it sure feels like this place and these people are becoming my new home. Is “home” just a place that shifts around, depending on our experiences? Is it that people that make the place special? Cause I know of a lot of special people in certain cities in the U.S., but there’s a lot of special people here in Zapotlanejo.

I guess you don’t feel like an outsider when you’re home. Or at least, as much. Or maybe you do feel like an outsider because you’re estranged from your ‘home.’ I don’t know. I still feel like an outsider here. The language barrier is the most noticeable aspect of this estrangement…but I really like living here, and with these people. Everyone should try it. Go somewhere new and different and fall in love with the place. Or at least with the local form of alcohol (cause let’s be honest, no matter where they are, humans the world over since time immemorial have discovered ways of creating the stuff).

I guess I was ready to go, ready to move, ready to be a part of the world in one of its small corners, in a small way that means something to me.

A friend recently asked me if I’ve gotten a different perspective on life yet since I’ve been out of SB. I guess you could say: yes, definitely. Santa Barbara can be a bubble (for those of you Santa Barbarians: I’m saying it can be, not that it has to be). And I felt as much while I was still there, but it doesn’t sink into the reality of your life until you leave. I’ve just been reminded how it’s a small town, and how there’s so much more going on out in the world; and while in Santa Barbara for an extended period of time, it’s easy to forget about that. Since being here in Mexico, and starting work at this school, I’ve been all the more reminded of what I’ve wanted to do for so long, and I feel this is the first (big) step in a series that will take me where I’m headed, wherever that is. You gotta jump off and dive-in sometime, and I feel as though I have finally done that. I have know idea where this will ultimately lead me, but I like where it’s going. I know that much. And I know it’ll be a windy road, unpredictable, adventurous, fun, perilous—but that is exactly why it must be taken. I’ve got no other choice. This is my one shot.

And, I’m beginning to get the feeling that it will probably be a long time before I return. Yes, OF COURSE I’ll visit and stuff, but I’m talking about moving back. I’ve got the feeling that I’ll come back for grad school. Yes—there, I said it. Grad school. I know I want to go now. But I need more time to figure out things first, and I think that can only happen while I’m “away.” Like I was trying to articulate above, living abroad is just something I’ve got to do right now.

I misspelled “pageant” in my last post. That irritates me.

I mentioned getting a job at a school…well I have and it’s been going really well. It’s a private language school, and the students I work with range from high-schoolers to working professionals in their 30s & 40s. Class sizes range from 2-7 people at most, so it’s a pretty intimate working environment with with the students. There is also a computer lab which supplements their learning with a surprisingly comprehensive language program. I’m starting off teaching conversational English classes, which are aimed at getting the more advanced students to practice the English they’ve learned, using everyday topics. I only teach a couple hours a day, but I spend my rest of the time at the school working on a manual for the teachers to use to teach the various grammar topics, which I will start teaching in about a week or two. It’s been a bit of a learning process for me, as I’ve had to brush up on and re-learn a lot about grammar and the English language. I really like working with the students, and I get along great with the other teachers. While there are other teachers from the U.S. there, I’m definitely the “whitest” one in the sense that I am the one most recently arrived from the States. As such, they’re in the process of coming up with a nickname for me.

I’ve got another entry in the works that I’ll probably post up before the week is finished. It’s about the family, fiestas calling out into the night (every night this month), and the super-ancient pre-Columbian culture site I visited. Until next time!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Learning to Fly (but I ain't got wings)

This coming Tuesday marks three weeks since my arrival! Time flies when you fly in an airplane to a country with lots of flies that fly by in the night in a land of flying time.

A few insightful observations I’ve made so far about Mexico:

-everyone my age is already married and has kids (or is WELL on their way)

-just about everyone speaks Spanish

-mosquitoes love nightly servings of O+ (my blood type)

-emergency blinkers are flashed instead of the brights

-the driver and passengers can be drinking beer in the car while driving without wearing seatbelts

-such drivers ignore flashing emergency blinkers

-your family will always be there. Always. Whether it’s your boisterous 3-year-old “niece” outside your door at 7:30am, or your aunt and cousins to make you a delicious dinner and then sit around convivially and chat for the next 3 hours, they’ll always be there.

-they eat a lot of Mexican food. It’s not just tamale Tuesdays here, or enchilada Mondays, but they actually eat this stuff daily. Three times a day. And it’s really good.

-things here generally aren’t made for people that are/are over six feet tall. One of these days I’m gonna lose an eye or wake up on the ground with a concussion.

-old ladies in line at the store taking their sweet time will be old ladies in line at the store taking their sweet time, whatever country you’re in. Count those pennies. Er, uh, pesos.

For Mexico’s birthday celebrations, everyone actually started fiesta-ing the night before, and counted down until midnight (12:01am of Sep. 16th) and kept the party going. I headed down to the plaza with my cousins and family to watch the festivities having to do with Mexico’s independence: a beauty pagent, and a medieval-genre folk band. The fireworks igniting the night sky was pretty awesome. Right before the final beauty (and last year’s winner) walked the stage, the clouds opened up and down-poured on us. Within less than A minute everyone and everything was soaking wet, and those wanting to keep the party going headed inside, while I stood under a centuries-old church’s awning with my family, trying to keep dry and thinking the rain might lift.

It didn’t.

So I proceeded to walk back to the house with my cousin to get the car, and got the most soaking wet I’ve ever been, and it couldn’t have been better. Soaked to the skin, in the pouring rain, on Mexico’s Independence Day (it was past midnight by now). Call me Ishma…uh…Mexican.

I had my first margarita(s) in Mexico…and man they were delicious. Holy crap it was like an addiction in a glass. And, they were free! It was the opening night of some bar/restaurant, and I went with my cousin, and he is friends with the owner, and so somehow through those connections I didn’t have to pay. I also had buffalo wings which I’m pretty sure permanently removed skin from my lips and tongue they were so spicy. Note to self: downing a margarita attempting to quench the fire in your mouth is not a strategy for (digestive) success.

So I know that these two entries have been largely “this is what I did, here is where I went,” etc., but I promise more reflective-type stuff in the future. It’s just that there’s so much that’s happened, and so little space I’m entitled before I bore you out. But maybe I should write like I don’t care about such things. Ooops, that sounded too close to a reflection. Time to sign off.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The Adventures Begin!

On the airplane, it hadn’t really sunk in yet. I watched as we soared up out of the smog that is LA, and saw California recede into the distance, and into the past.

Within less than 24 hours of being in Mexico, I was already on a bus on my way to a small little paradise, Rincon de Guayabitos, with three cousins I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years. We got to stay for free in a charming little paint-chipping-off-the-walls bungalow because of a distant relative my cousins had. It was a beautiful place, and the beaches were virtually empty, save the strolling peddlers selling anything from fresh barbecued fish and shrimp to inflatable whales. Two small islands lay just a 15-minute boat ride away, where small pieces of white coral washed up onto the sands from clear, salty waters. At night we had us a good ol’-fashioned thunder and lightning storm that lasted till daybreak. The Coronas here cost more than I thought they would.

These three cousins I keep mentioning are actually considered to be my nieces here. That’s right. I’m an uncle while my only brother remains single and childless. And not just an ‘uncle’ of a few, but of myriads. There are 62 or so other fellow ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles,’ and if their children are my nieces and nephews…you can do the math. Viva la Mexico, baby!

I also found out how desperately I need to be fluent in Spanish. This became immediately apparent to me the second I stepped off the plane and started to walk past the customs official without getting my bags checked. I found out that I didn’t know as much Spanish as I thought I did, and that I remembered more than I thought I would, if that makes sense. Pero voy a estudiar mucho!

I live in a room in my aunt’s house in this small rancher-town of about 70,000 people, called Zapotlanejo (it’s about a half-hour east of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco). My Tia is a sweet lady with a very giving heart, and always willing to feed me, even after I say I’m full. It’s kind of funny, it’s like “living at home” again. If I’m going somewhere or if I’ll be back late, I have to inform her. It’s just kind of funny to have this again after years of independence.

Within a week of being here, I also landed a job as an English teacher!! I’m in training now, but I start the 1st of October! It’s at a private language school right here in Zapotlanejo, so I don’t have to commute or anything. I’m really excited that I get to mis-educate people this quickly!

Ok, this is long enough for a first entry—I don’t want to bore-out my audience this early in the game! Stay tuned, and we’ll be in touch. Also, feel free to come down to Mexico some time. The weather is warm, the food is good, and the people are nice. Viva la, baby!