Archives for posts with tag: peace corps/mexico

I’m back in the US,  but I can’t go without saying….

While in Mexico for a year, I developed an addiction that will be hard to get out of my blood, and certainly out of my heart, and that is my addiction to Mexico City. I visited five times–about a three-hour bus ride from Queretaro– and I was trying to figure out a way to get back there before I left. It did not happen. (I will just have to save up and get Aeromex from O’Hare.) And I will be back. The electricty that runs through me at the thought of this second largest city in the world will need recharging.A summer storm rolls in over La Reforma

I first visited late into my PC service, and when I finally did, I followed the usual routine: Go to the main plaza and figure it out from there. I was headed to the Zocalo anyway, to the Maya exhibit at the National Palace. I had no idea what I woud see when I came out of Juarez, one of the many streets that radiate from the central plaza. The Zocalo is 10 acres, anchored by the Cathedral, the largest in the world, and it seemed that Mexico had shown up that day, or at least a good percentage of the 30 million who live there.  I never saw so many people in one place at one time. A boy pulling a tarp heaped with scarves almost knocked me over. Everyone was selling something, or going somewhere. Where? Crowd-control fences  help direct the hoards moving  in and out of the metro stop to the dozens of neighborhoods surrounding this city on the plateau.

In front of the cathedral...Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

In front of the cathedral…Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

I just stood there, out of the way, gawking, which is  not a good idea–especially in Mexico City. You have to look like a big-city person. But now I had seen the big-city mother of them all. I have wanted to write about it, but I feel like that little kid pouring the ocean into a hole in the sand. I’d just had to pour more and more…

The Maya exhibit, thousands of years of history written on stone, still grips me. The shophistication, the horror–the smiles and terror etched on the faces. The two laughing statues with their pets–some things do not change, even in thousands of years. I spent a whole afternoon there, after wandering into an architectural museum on Juarez where I meant to stay a minute. Right. Hours later after studying sketches, the work of Barragan and O’Gorman, the beginnings of the building of Mexico City, a city built on a Lake Texcoco that the Aztecs had accommodated with canals, boats, gardens and pyramids–which the Spanish promptly destroyed, filling in the lake, killing off the people.

The Aztec Empire--detail from Diego Rivera's vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

The Aztec Empire–detail from Diego Rivera’s vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

When Cortes saw Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) for the first time, he reported to the king that it outrivaled Babylon and all of the greatest cities of the world. They had to have it. As if in retribution, Mexico City is sinking. I can only hope that Moctezuma is smiling somewhere.

When excating next to the Zocalo, the Mexicans unearthed one of the grandest temples to the gods ever discovered: The Templo Mayor. To walk the paths through the ruins, to see the altar of sacrifice, the black lava rocks and statues, the serpents dug up, is, in a word, thrilling.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

The museum next to the dig is a treasure of pottery with painted stories, exhibits of gold, turquoise and obsidium, carved stone, including the great circle that shows the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui. The story goes that her mother, Coatlicue, was sweeping one day when she picked up a ball of feathers, held it close to her stomach, and later was born, fully grown, Huitzilopochtli. Coyo was so jealous, she plotted to kill her mother, but the brother vowed to protect her, dismembering his sister with a fiery serpent.

On my visits to the city, I  anchored each trip to one or more excursions to museums or exhibits. I saved the Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park until last. I took the bus down La Reforma and got off at the park–wear good shoes and rest up before the trek. It is a lovely walk along the tree lined Reforma, but you need stamina for this museum, elevated on a rise in the park with a large “shade”–a beautiful length of stone that seems suspended in the air.

Stone shade at the archeology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

Stone shade at the anthropology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

The museum appears to be deceptively manageable, with two levels, one wing on each side of a courtyard, but the interior is vast, and fascinating. On one level scenes of different parts of Mexico show the cooking, the costumes, music playing (of course).  One exhibit shows the history of the maguey plant that has been around for 10,000 years, its fibers, leaves, heart used  for blankets, clothing, medicine, shampoo, rope, shoes–and, of course, pulque and tequila (although tequila comes from the blue agave, a sister of maguey).

While the Zocalo was the center for these visits, the thread that held it together was La Reforma, a wide–we are talking wide–boulevard modeled on the Champ d’Elysses with grand monuments marking the roundabouts. The stretch between the Zocolo and Chapultepec park is a sort of embassy row, with  hotels, enormous shaded trees, plenty of space for leisurely strolling.

In Chicago, we have cows;    at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands--dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

In Chicago, we have cows; at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands–dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

On Sundays, from 8a to 2p, the central traffic lanes from the park to the Zocalo, a distance of some six miles, are closed for bikers, skateboarders, baby carriages, all sorts of wheeled Mexicans, hoards moving at their own pace in the glorious sunshine. I thought of my cousin, Kathy, and how I have to get her down here. I did not not get a chance to ride, mostly because I did not have the time, and the traffic in Mexico City is daunting. Crossing the street on uneven pavement requires full concentration while the cars and bikes come with amazing rapidity from all directions. In the rain, it is even more terrifying.

Terrifying and surprising. Isn’t that the essence of a memorable trip? Not too much, but just enough.  One thing about visiting a city this size is the number of surprises: the variety of street food, walking in off the street into a bakery that is a small village of treats, the colorful neighborhoods I barely got to visit (Coyoacan, you are next), the music at every turn–Garibaldi Plaza is dedicated to the mariachi with dozens of bands waiting for gigs, or standing around playing in the street. I may be a Chicagoan at heart, but I’m also a good bit Chilanga–a Mexico City aficionada!!

Nancy Nau Sullivan, a former English specialist in the Peace Corps in Mexico, is the author of this blog and responsible for the content.

When I told Edson I’d gone to Guanajuato, he immediately had a story: Frida Kahlo once asked Diego Rivera if her paintings were good enough to sell. He replied, “Who cares if they sell? What matters is that you love painting, that you have a passion for it.” But Frida would not be put off–and, as legend would have it, that was part of Rivera’s attraction to her. “No,” she said. “I want to know if you think they will sell.” Rivera thought for less than a second: “Yes.”

The rest is art history. No one has the crazy, colorful creativity of Frida–and no one paints like Diego.

Detail from Diego Rivera's murals at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.

Detail from Diego Rivera’s murals at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.

The house where Diego Rivera was born is worth a trip, if not to the city, well, heck, to Mexico.  It is a vertical house, like most of Guanajuato, all bright, new white stucco and shiny railings in the stairwell, but polished and dark 19th century  on the first floor, then up and up, to the fabulous sketches and paintings of Diego Rivera. The last room at the top of the house is dim. At eye level are black-and-white photos of Rivera, from his toddler days in a white lace dress (He was born in 1886), then all around the room in small pieces of his life: the dignitaries (Trotsky was a friend), the Revolution, the generals, the painters and writers, and Frida, standing in a long full skirt, a shawl wrapped around her and a flower in her hair, leaning on Diego. Although he married four times (twice to Frida, the second time on his birthday, December 8), Frida Kahlo remained his passion. You see her in his paintings, and you see the passion and color of Mexico they shared together in all their work. I wonder what Frida would think, if she cruised by the shops today and saw her likeness as a mermaid and a punk rocker. She’d laugh. One photo in the Rivera gallery shows her painting in bed, a brush in her mouth, the canvas propped on her lap, a pack of cigarettes on the night table. Nothing stopped her, not the bus accident that damaged her spine and caused her excruciating pain the rest of her life, not the critics, nor Rivera’s straying. Nothing stopped her.

Guanajuato--cubist, colorful built on a maze of silver mines and tunnels.

Guanajuato–cubist, colorful built on a maze of silver mines and tunnels.

Guanajuato reflects the work of Rivera, a cubist city built on hills with colorful boxy houses. The streets do not follow convention, disappearing up stairways and between houses so close a person could share a kiss out the window–without crossing the street. Of course, there’s another story about one of those very streets, the Street of Kisses. It happened many years ago when a young Mexican girl fell in love with a man her father did not approve of. One thing led to another,  the lovers defying Dad, and one night, Dad went after him–only he stabbed his daughter by mistake. The romance of Guanajuato’s streets has many twists and turns….

Not so romantic was my trip up four flights of stairs to El  Zopilote Mojado–the wet vulture–lugging my suitcase. The taxi couldn’t enter  the narrow street, which ended abruptly and turned into stairs. El Zopilote is a hotel of sorts spread out over three buildings on the quiet Mexiamora Plaza. It has high ratings, a low rate ($70 a night), and it’s near the center of town–these are all prerequisites.  Pablo at the desk (he speaking English, me practicing Spanish) said, “You’ll like it.” Who wouldn’t? I had a whole house to myself, except for the two girls on the top floor who left early and came in late.  A roof terrace, a complete kitchen, dining room for eight, and a living room with a lion’s head over the fireplace and a small library.  My large room was a bright corner, quiet, except for the occasional barking and crowing. The first night I heard laughing until nearly the morning, but I don’t mind that; it’s the fighting I hate, and I haven’t heard any of that in the time I’ve been here. The laughter simply became part of my dreams, part of the story I will carry.

El Zopilote Mojado--the wet vulture, a comfortable place to stay on the quiet Plaza Mexiamora

El Zopilote Mojado–the wet vulture, a comfortable place to stay on the quiet Plaza Mexiamora

But then, the morning. I wandered to the small center, actually a garden where mariachi continues day into night. I walked to the market and browsed through the two tiers, stopping for a shrimp coctel (cocktail)–which was a unique experience–loads (too much? how can that  be?) of shrimp, in a sweet tomato sauce with chunks of avocado floating in it and a sprig of cilantro on top. For $4. I bought some leather and pottery (how am I going to get all this stuff home?).  For a grand view of the city, the cable car goes up to the monument to  Pipila (a hero of the independence from Spain). The outdoor restaurants offer people watching and music. All I could do was drink my Sol. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if the whole world had beer that was named Sol, or Sun, and tasted so good?

Music at the cafe en el jardin, the central plaza

Music at the cafe en el jardin, the central plaza

At the end of the day, after walking for hours, I was looking for a drink, specifically a martini. Somewhere in this large city there had to be such a bar for a Stoli straight up. Yes, there was, and, of course, I found it (my sisters are chuckling). The ONE hotel on the main plaza, modern, inviting, roof terrace, so I went up. The hostess was warm, as they are here, and she asked me if I was coming to the “event.” I almost laughed. Yes, everything is an event, but that is not what she meant. “No,” I said. That didn’t matter.  “Come right in,” she said. It was the start of a wedding party, Kiera and Topher, but certainly their Mexican dopplegangers, she in a short white silk shift with panels of lace, he in a gingham Polo shirt, and a parade of well-dressed gorgeous Mexicans! I’d walked into the other side of Mexico, for sure. “Bienvenido,”  they said. But, what the hell was I doing there, hardly dressed for the occasion? I drank my 85 peso martini and left. Now I know how the other half lives, and they are all thin.

In the exact opposite direction, I went to the Mummy Museum before I left. I wish I hadn’t. If someone wants to make a horror movie, the cast of characters is right there. All you have to do is wake them up. Room after room, in glass cases, the mud-colored dried remains of Mexicans stand in horror, their mouths agape, their clothes dried to their bodies. These mummies are not that old–most of them dug up from graves that are no longer supported by families, their bodies dried up from the salt, lead and minerals in the soil around Guanajuato–one of the richest silver mine deposits in the world. I quickly walked through the exhibits:  One man wears a sorry suit, another glass case shows the dead who were probably buried alive. A mother of 40 with her tiny baby, “the smallest mummy in the world,” is propped next to her, heartbreaking. Why don’t they put it in her arms? Mothers take pictures on their smartphones of these mummies next to their beautiful, glorious children.

It was a short trip, a memorable trip–a sad trip. I’ll be leaving Mexico soon. I’ll remember the wrinkled face of the old mariachi guitar player, happy I wanted to take his picture; the woman who ran after me when I forgot my jacket (again); the man in the shop who laughed when I wanted to buy an old dusty framed photo of the movie star Tony Aguilar, downing a bottle of tequila; the children, so shy and smiling at me, wondering at this crazy old lady with the white skin and blue eyes who speaks really weird Spanish. Yes, I will miss you, Guanajuato, that place in the middle of Mexico where the sun  shines. Right there in your Mexican middle, a colorful painting come to life.

Play us a tune, Senor Guitar Man

Play us a tune, Senor Guitar Man

The views expressed herein are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps.–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Mexico

I go to El Globo to buy a croissant for breakfast at 11 pesos, almost a dollar. (They’re on sale now for 9 pesos, as El Globo is celebrating 130 years.) This is a treat, and not a daily habit, but something has to make me spring out of bed in the morning. The pastry shop is high-end, a chain that has shops here in Queretaro, Mexico City, and other cities, with an array of cakes and rolls and cookies and breads that are enough to put pounds on just looking at them.

El Globo: A Mexican institution of sweetness for 130 years.

El Globo: A Mexican institution of sweetness for 130 years.

It’s a love-hate relationship I have with all that goodness, but in the end, I have to love it. Over the months I’ve lived here, I’ve tried the low-fat croissant (now there’s a concept–It doesn’t taste low-fat), the wheat croissant, the gooey, nut covered horn, and the absolutely delicious muffins.

And the bread, the country loaf that is dense and chewy, the French bread with sesame seeds (a favorite that does not make it home without a gouge at the end), the olive and cheese bread with a zing to it, the multi-grain that makes me think I am doing myself a favor. I do myself a favor if I don’t go to El Globo–or any of the bread and pastry shops that are on every other street. (The little shop down the street from El Globo is half the price, but at Globo, I can drink coffee in the corner and look out at Constitution Plaza.)  Mention must be made of La Dolche Vita at Cinco de Mayo and Najera in Queretaro, a shop that needs no explanation–and no sign on the front. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it opens, and before they can unload the racks, people are lined up at the counter for the cheese cupcakes, tiny crescents with coconut and nuts, and about another dozen or so sweet loaves and breads that are killer. I just left there with two croissants, a coco roll and the cupcake for 22  pesos (about $1.50).

At La Ideal in Mexico City,   the staff are smiling, and running, with trays of goodies to supply a bustling crowd.

At La Ideal in Mexico City, the staff are smiling, and running, with trays of goodies to supply a bustling crowd.

El Globo and La Dolche Vita  reflect the sweet tranquility of Queretaro. To see the real crazy passion for cakes and such,  I took a stroll through the Centro Historico in Mexico City and stopped in at La Ideal, a presence since the 1920’s with three locations in the city. It is a bakery experience like none other. One observer compared the lines going in and out to ants carrying goodies. On the sidewalks all around La Ideal, Mexicans carefully tote their boxes wrapped in the disitinctive Ideal paper and string. But inside the shop, the perfume of sugar, the smiles and bustle over baked goods and the obvious delight of the staff that serves their public are not to be missed in a visit to La Ciudad. I had to try a croissant, breakfast or not. Yum. And then I had to get out of there. Quick.

Mexico has a sweet tooth, and viva la fiesta. At the office, when someone has a birthday (including me), the staff sings “Las Mananitas” and brings out a huge cake (from El Globo). Mine, which was months ago, is unforgettable, a white cake with strawberries and fancy cream frosting, topped with curlicues of white chocolate shavings, not overly sweet, a treat that stayed with me all day–and forever. The famous Mexican Tres Leches is exactly that, a memorable layer cake with three kinds of milk poured into the baked layers, and then topped with nuts and creamy frosting for the chocolate variety and peaches for the vanilla.  It is a favorite that has made it across the border safe and sound, with much appreciation en el norte.

A fancy Tres Leches: Here, the best of both worlds, chocolate and vanilla

A fancy Tres Leches: Here, the best of both worlds, chocolate and vanilla

For most of my life, I’ve been brainwashed that sweets are bad, but by now, my brain is washed of that notion. Too much of anything is bad. I usually look but don’t touch all that cake, but I do eat some of it, sparingly. At lunch yesterday, after a chef salad and my disappointment over Argentina’s loss in the World Cup, I studied the tray the waiter brought to the table next to me: a brownie (in any language), tiramisu, flan, coconut cake, a spongy two-toned chocolate, cheesecake, and several other things, including tres leches. The cheesecake was very good at stamping out the bitterness of defeat. And it was Sunday, after all. Once a month, maybe twice, I go to the Gramlich coffee shop to get a cappuccino and a piece of cheesecake with raspberries on top. It is a wicked thing. I can hear my mother: “A minute on the lip and a year on the hip.” So, I run home. Not.

To go with all that cake, Mexicans don’t hold back on the sweet drinks. They are number one in the world in the consumption of sugary drinks (sodas, fruit juice, energy drinks), according to a new study by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Mexicans consume a staggering per capita 43 gallons a year. This study, and others, have been published in tune with the Mexican government’s new tax on soft drinks. The tax only amounts to a few pesos, but that is a lot when you are counting pesos. My student, Jose Angel, lamented that the children are getting fat. But, he said, “They will buy the drinks anyway.” A United Nations report says the number one reason for obesity in Mexico is its overwhelming consumption of these drinks.

Well, cakes be spared. And rolls with sugar all over them. In the evening, many children eat a soft roll, often toasted on the stovetop, with sugar on it–you can purchase rolls like this in the bakeries, too. (They don’t keep….I’ve tried them, and I feel like I’m eating a dinner roll with sugar on it.) You can’t get away from it here, sugar on everything. It’s a sweet place, Mexico! So we will stop and smell the sweets, and then eat them, but, like my dad used to say, in moderation. Somewhere in the middle (with a donut in your hand) stands virtue.

The views expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Mexico.


One recent Friday afternoon found me in the auditorium of the Instituto Tecnologico de Queretaro where engineering students were presenting their projects. Some of them had been my students before they went to the University of West Virginia for a semester in January. I wanted to see how they did.

Student engineers from Mexico: Santiago, Gabriel, Odette,     and Sara spent a semester at  the University of West Virginia.

Student engineers from Mexico: Santiago, Gabriel, Odette, and Sara spent a semester at the University of West Virginia.

They did just fine. Gabriel was not fluent in English before he left for the US, but he said he did everything I told him. Well, let him be the first.  I was still amazed at what immersion in the language could do. And “hambre.” Hunger. Gabriel is highly motivated, and that’s all anyone needs.

During his power point, he had no difficulty explaining–in English– his project concerning the  refrigerator damper for the Mexican company, Mabe, while his partner, Juan, talked about making the part move like a gate. They got frustrated at one point. Then Juan said they fixed it when they came up with “a funky thing made of trash.”

Finally, I understood something they were talking about. But we’re not talking trash here. More like treasure. Carlos, an electrical engineering student and his partner, Will, a native of Ivory Coast and engineering student at WVU, were working on an innovation for a pellet machine for Brose. They figured out a way to save the company $5078 a day! A collective cheer arose from the group. That’s enough to run two Mexican households for a month.

Gonzalo, an engineering professor and mentor for the group, calmly told all the students assembled: Figure out how your projects are saving money and incorporate that into your presentations.

On Fridays, the students from Mexico and West Virginia meet to discuss the projects they are working on in the local businesses in Queretaro.

On Fridays, the students from Mexico and West Virginia meet to discuss the projects they are working on in the local businesses in Queretaro.

This is the 18th year of the exchange program. Victor Mucino, a Mexican professor at WVU for 29 years, started it in Guanajuato, Mexico, when he brought several engineering students  to work in businesses in Queretaro. After two summers of driving for two hours, Mucino and his students were invited to move the program to Queretaro.  CONCYTEQ, where I am a volunteer, has been a sponsor of the program for the past 16 years. Every January they provide scholarships to Mexican students who vie for a semester at WVU.  Mucino said this year half the students in the top ten of a most difficult automation class of 96 were Mexican students.

There was little interest on the part of business here, at first. But Mucino was persistent. He has a direct gaze, an upbeat attitude  and it is hard to imagine turning him  down. “It was a fortunate accident,” he said. “If I hadn’t taken that crazy risk, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

Representatives from the US embassy, the University of  Nevada and other universities are going to visit the program at the end of the month to see how they might replicate Mucino’s efforts. It is the only such exchange program in Mexico. Students who have graduated are now working in the businesses and teaching. President Obama’s relatively new “100,000 Strong,” which emanates from Latin American countries toward student exchange, provides support for the group.

WVU engineering students Temi and Mofe of Nigeria and Will of Ivory Coast present their project updates in Spanish.

WVU engineering students Temi and Mofe of Nigeria and Will of Ivory Coast present their project updates in Spanish.

Before I start sounding like Mary Poppins, I must add that “tech transfer” from Mexico, and back again, has not been easy. An article in Scientific American, “Why Can’t Mexico Make Science Pay Off?,” published  shortly after I arrived last September, has been boiling in my brain ever since.  It talks of a country that is the “antithesis of the open-minded, meritocratic Silicon Valley way of operating” and of the “schizophrenic quality of Mexican innovation–at once dynamic and bogged down.”  This has been the antithesis of qualities I’ve seen in my “classroom,” the conference room, at CONCYTEQ. They have their work cut out, and they are doing it.  My students, all in engineering and the  sciences, are swimming upstream with a government that is  trying to help, but they are not wholly successful because of all the  red tape.  In addition, the notion that universities should help industry either in research or in start-ups is “new and not terribly popular” in Mexico.

Then there are those glitches on the ground, like the year a tall, blond and blue-eyed student of Mucino’s came to Queretaro and macked on a mexicana in a bar. Her boy friend hit the Americano over the head with a bottle.  I observed that this could happen, and does, in Chicago. But such small things here  become large, fast, and do nothing to improve Mexico’s image.

Another problem is “the plan,” and I have heard this often when referring to Mexican business. My student, Arnulfo, claims that Mexicans have a tendency to skip steps. “We don’t follow the plan. If there are six steps, Mexicans want to go to five and six before doing three and four.” This sounds more like an impatient Americano, but Arnulfo has a basis for comparison. An industrial engineer for more than 20 years, he worked for Electrolux in the US for six months. “In the US, you do the plan.”

We are left to hope for the “green shoots.” President Pena Nieto claims to be behind innovation. Mexicans are increasingly getting away from the government as the model and looking for new paths for ideas. NAFTA has opened some doors, and despite criticism, open is better than closed. Neighbors share.  Where would the US be without all those ideas that have walked in our door on two legs for hundreds of years?

The Dutch treat proved too much for the Mexican heat. In an exciting rout, the orange managed to out-score the green at the end of the second half. But they had to fight for it. It also helped that the drama queen, Robben, Number 11, threw himself on the ground a couple of times–the last successfully putting the Dutch in a position to score.

Very small fan not watching the game, Sunday, in the Plaza de Constituyentes

Very small fan not watching the game, Sunday, in the Plaza de Constituyentes

The atmosphere here in Queretaro was charged, but tentative. The cuetes (fireworks) started going off early on a rainy Sunday morning, and the day broke sunny. I started out for Hank’s to watch the game, and hardly a person was on the street, or in their cars (in a town of 3 million). Green Mexican jerseys hung in shop windows, selling anywhere from 70 pesos ($5.50) to 300 pesos ($23). Faces were painted with the red, white and green. People carried radios if they weren’t inside. All ears and eyes were on the game, mine included.

Noise is an important element in Mexico, especially for something so world-shaking as the World Cup. Every TV seemed to blare from behind gates and walls, in small restaurants and in the Plaza de Constituyentes where hundreds of Mexican watched the game on screens set up under a huge white tent. A couple of bands played. At Hank’s, a waiter beat on a tray for lack of a drum.

At Hank's, fans cheered when Dos Santos scored

At Hank’s, fans cheered when Dos Santos scored

The first half of the game lifted all of Mexico. They seemed to hold their breath. “Classico,” said the Mexican standing next to me when Dos Santos scored. Ochoa, the goalkeeper from Mexico City should be cloned, a player who throws himself, arms and legs, into the game. I wish he’d had a couple more legs at the end of the second half. He didn’t anticipate the give-away kick that tied the game.
Everyone was in a tortaria (sandwich shop) on Corregidora all eyes are on the screen

Everyone was watching…here in a tortaria (sandwich shop) on Corregidora all eyes are on the screen

At the half, El Piojo, the coach, was seen advertising Melox, the antacid. He’s probably drinking a bottle of it now. But what a joy to watch him with his team! His nickname, The Louse, pokes fun at his wide physique, his less than stylish demeanor. So what. Eveyone loves him, a third-string coach who no one believed in except himself, and his team. And now all of Mexico. When the Dutch scored, he waved: “Bring it on.” At the end of the game, in the face of defeat, he was pale and cool.

Mexico should have had better defense, they said in the plaza…

Still, I like to see Mexico up and running. They often sell themselves short. But they have heart and spirit. They are winners, as far as I’m concerned. My four sons all played soccer. When they lost, their Dad would say, it’s how you play the game. “Yeah, to win,” they would say. Maybe. Winners come in all colors, sometimes orange, or red. And sometimes green. If you don’t have heart, and spirit, what’s the point?

I have to agree with Francisco Goldman, a writer for The New York Times who writes about Mexico and says the style of a soccer team often shows national character. Of Mexico, he says, “I see a team without stars–gritty, hard-working, pretty humble, resourceful, creative, disciplined, joyous, friendly-seeming players … These are values that we see enacted and re-enacted all over Mexico and in Mexican communities elsewhere, everyday.”

They played the game. They are an inspiration.

The views expressed are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps.–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Mexico

It’s inevitable, the falling apart. First a tooth, then the hip and the knee. Pretty soon you can’t remember what you had for breakfast. I suppose we’re all doomed, and it can begin with an innocent bowl of popcorn. I was chomping on a tasty kernel at the bottom of the bowl (we love that part) when I realized it wasn’t popcorn I was trying to crunch away. It was my tooth. Horrors! All those bad dreams coming true, of my teeth falling out, or melting, followed by dreams I was flying over Cancun looking for my children….but that’s another story.

The tooth breaking didn’t hurt a bit, except in my brain. Now I had to visit the dentist. In Mexico. I dreaded it, but it was nowhere near the dread I felt later when he recommended I have an extraction and an implant. My poor sister went through this procedure, and it was awful. She was bilked for thousands, the crowns kept falling off, or she got infections. One time she marched back to the dentist to have repairs done, but his office was closed for good. Gone Dentist. I had dreams of yanking and hammering, and eventually, my head coming off at the foot of the Mexican torturer.

Well, it all turned out differently than expected.

The fear and not knowing how this was going to go down were the worst, and I was not in the habit. I’ve had very few visits to the dentist, except for cleaning. When I went for a check-up one time, I was summarily dismissed: He looked in my mouth and said, “You’re boring. Go home.”

On the occasion of the popcorn tooth, I had to do something. I did not want an implant, but the alternative was to have another hole in my head, or down the road, be that really old person, putting my teeth in the glass at the bedside. Yuk.

I insisted on visiting Dr. Izaguirre here in Querétaro for a consult; the alternate dentist was available, but he had done Saint Virginia wrong, practically immobilized her with pain and suffering, so I waited to see Dr. A. He told me that Mexico City and Miami are pioneers, in the forefront, the best, really up there, when it comes to implants. He got out the dentistry books to show me what an implant looks like, and after leafing through a decent number of photos of open, bloody and fleshy-pink mouths with implants sticking out of the gums, I closed the book. OK. Do me. How bad could it be? After all, I had five babies, two of them C-section, which believe me, is not exactly like a tooth extraction.

The Peace Corps is nothing if not thorough. One might be a poor volunteer, a teacher, no less, but one is treated like royalty in matters of healthcare. Dr. A took a number of photos, the report was sent to the PC doctor and on to Washington for more consulting and approval. This took a month of back and forth, but I wasn’t complaining. One does not look one’s gift horse in the mouth.

The appointment was set for June 4th at noon in Mexico City, about a three hour drive. Dr. Ines, the Peace Corps physician, said she was going with me, and we were going to have a driver. I thought that was an excessive waste of a doctor’s time, and then I thought, maybe she’s going to be there to save me from the heart attack or revive me after anesthesia. Like I said, the not knowing is always the worst part. I really didn’t want to bug her for more details; the emails were already in the numbers, and, at all costs, I wanted to appear cool. Just like a teen-anger with ratted hair and a full felt skirt with a poodle on it.

Armando, behind the wheel of a brand new, spic and span, white SUV, drove tear-ass out of Querétaro down 57. We were an hour early. The clinic is at Pyramid No. 1, a high rise in the city, and the irrational thought of Aztec human sacrifice went through my mind. Doctor Ines went up to the clinic with me, filled out the paper work, chatted about her native Honduras, which took my mind off the on-coming procedure. She is a lovely woman, a thorough, caring person, and reminds me again of Latin America in general. I just love it. She was dressed in a hand-made Oaxacan top with embroidered birds and carried a Chanel bag.

Dr. Blanco is short, muscular, with cropped grey-ginger hair. He graduated from Columbia in New York in 1985, right before my daughter was born, one of the C-sections. He speaks in a soothing, reassuring tone that dentists use when they are about to shoot you up, pull, pound, stretch, and, generally, do all the steps necessary to perform an extraction and implant. The whole procedure, from implant to crown, normally takes 2 to 4 months. The bone has to grow around the implant/post before one is crowned. I told him I needed it done in 2 months because I was leaving. To where, he asked. Chicago, I said. Well, you could fly back here and have the crown done and it would be less than it would cost up there. No, I was thinking, my son’s birthday is August 21, and I am going to be there, eating cake, with or without a tooth.

My heart was pounding so hard I was sure my shirt was jumping off my chest. First, the Novocain. Then on to another chair. The chair. A box of metal posts. Tools. An extremely quick, small technician who spoke only Spanish, so I practiced. She asked for permission to put a bib on me, to give me a glass of mouthwash, excusing herself for this or that. Mexicans are so courteous, even before torture, that you just have to love it. Dr. B appeared from time to time to administer more Novocain and say something in that soothing dentist-speak.

Then, ramma-lamma-dingdong. It began, and talk about pulling and pounding. It reminded me of the C-section. Pulling, with no sense of pain. Just tugging and pulling, then the pounding, way down there into the jaw. I was his third that day before noon. “This is good. You have a smaller tongue than my other patient,” he said. “And very good bone.” Thank you, Gene Fairy, for the bones. I have other problems, but bones is not one of them.

The whole procedure took less than an hour. I came into the waiting room, and Dr. Ines was counting out 200 peso bills–90 of them altogether, about $1400 for the extraction and post. The crown would come later, in August, before I leave.

I sat in the back of the SUV leaning on the glass, watching the red, rocky Mexican hills roll by out of Mexico City, the clouds touching the mountains in the background. So beautiful. So done with the implant thing. My jaw looked like a baseball was stuffed into it. In the front, Armando was eating a cupcake and Dr. Ines was snoozing. I felt like I was six years old, not 69, carried along by people who care, granted, doing their jobs, but caring about what they are doing.

I was very tired. No Tecate for four days. Bummer. I went to bed, and now I await my crowning.

The opinion expressed herewith is mine and does not necessarily reflect that of the Peace Corps–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Querétaro, Mexico

Las chavas  mexicanas...Judith, Pat, Mari and Evelina

Las chavas mexicanas…Judith, Pat, Mari and Evelina

Like most Mexican meetings, this one did not start on time. I arrived at the office at 12:58, panting, ready to go at 1 as advertised. I don’t go to many meetings with the agency where I volunteer, and besides, it was Friday. I normally give myself Friday afternoon off: After 18 hours a week of teaching, I’m entitled. But who’s complaining? I teach 9 to 11 most days, and then for two hours at 4. I have a very long lunch hour, and if I’ve been up reading a novel all night, I’m tired and I want to take a nap.

I didn’t really want to go to this meeting, but Ingeniero said it would be “special.” When he says “special,” I listen.

We were going to caravan to the meeting out in the country at a state cultural center. At 1:45, the train had not left. I waited at my desk looking over the various letters, resumes and practice essays my students send me from time to time for editing. Now I was looking forward to the meeting.

At 2:45, Mauricio came to get me: “Listo?” I had moved on to Facebook and was figuring the plot to a novel by then, but we got in the car, headed out of Querétaro, down the crammed highway of semi’s and dusty cars (a little like the Chicago Dan Ryan), passing fields of cactus and mesquite–those low round trees reminding me of thin women with short feathery hair–past the broken and black soil ready for planting. If I didn’t know where I was, I’d swear it was Argentina. As always when I’m on one of these treks, I pump the driver for info: What are your favorite places in Mexico (Cancun, Guanajuato, the place where the hot river meets the cold river in the Sierra near Jalapan). Music? Mauricio wanted to know my favorite music. The guitar, when my sons play it and sing–the blues from my youngest son, Letter in September from the eldest, Cádiz played by my third son, lullabies from my second son to the babies, Yesterday when the Beatles sing it, anything Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nora Jones. I don’t know. I like it all, but I don’t care much for rap, except for when Eminem sings it. Mauricio likes balladas, rancheros, salsa, danzon (a mix of dance and Cuban influence from Veracruz).

After my meeting with Mauricio during the 25-minute drive, the special meeting started at 3:25. Ingeniero is funny, but I don’t understand half of the jokes. His sentences run together, and he uses colloquialisms that everyone laughs at uproariously. I got the general idea that the agency was doing very well, in fact, the secretary of education was there to say the “results are impressive in all areas with advances in science and technology… congratulations on your work. Angel Ramirez (Ingeniero) is an excellent leader.” The agency supported almost 40 students on scholarships in 10 countries–9 in the US. Many of them had been my students, and Ingeniero said so, and how happy he was I was there helping and teaching. That certainly made me perk up at the meeting.

Marco tends the chorizo, marinated beef and tortillas on the grill (the anafre).

Marco tends the chorizo, marinated beef and tortillas on the grill (the anafre).

The smell of smoke, of chorizo and arranchero (marinated beef), wafted into the meeting room. Time for comida. Wendy brought tubs of cooked meat, nopal (cactus), quesadillas, volcanoes, and the cake. The rondalla arrived: six men in black suits with guitars, their hair slicked back, ties knotted. One was Ingeniero’s son. Ingeniero sang, too. Evelina kept urging him to do a solo, but he declined–his throat, he didn’t have his guitar. Well, he sang along. He dedicated one song to the women–something lyrical that sang the praises of “divine” women and song and the bottle:

pudieramos morir en las cantinas
y nunca lograriamos olvidarlas
mujeres…o…mujeres tan divinas
no queda otro camino que adorarlas

Which translates something like this: We could die in the cantinas and never find ourselves forgetting them, women, o women, so divine. No other way remains then to adore them.

The Rondalla: Singing ballads mixes nicely with business.

The Rondalla: Singing ballads mixes nicely with business.

All of this sounds like the Mexicans aren’t serious about business. Al contrario. I think they understand the necessary balance of it, at least the ones I work with, my dozen or so comrades at HQ in Querétaro. They are on time for work, they grab the phones when Coco can’t, they stay long hours, they laugh, they share, they stop and have cake and sing for each and every birthday. They are courteous, and always concerned, but never intrusive. They have ideas. They seem to love my never-ending, annoying questions all the while I’m trying to be a large fly on the wall. I’ve never heard a cross word in nearly nine months. But when it’s time to mix the arranchero and tortilla with the meeting, it’s on.

This was a business meeting?

Sometimes people just know how to do business.

The views herewith are mine and not necessarily those of the Peace Corps–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Queretaro, Mexico

Travel is a little like sex: It’s a good idea but there are complications.You never know what to expect until you open the door.

I like the anonymity of traveling alone, arriving at the bus terminal or airport, everyone running around, with purpose, and supposedly, direction. I like to be in this diverse group that is all together, yet alone, like ants on the sidewalk. As one travel writer put it, “Alone one becomes acutely aware…” Really, we are always alone, when it gets down to it, from beginning to end, in birth and in death. It’s a short trip.

I went to Puerto Vallarta from Queretaro by bus to the Mexico City airport. I got off at the airport terminal, which looked like a warehouse, a cavernous, dark, grey space where there was not a clue about what to do next. If I’d yelled, hey!, it would have echoed from the taco stands to the announcement boards in blinking lights. Ah, the confusion of being in a new place. I love it.

From the window on the airplane, Puerto Vallarta floated into view behind the Sierra–not a straight neat ridge of mountains, but soft mossy hills with vanilla-colored roads winding among them, hinting at the nearness of sand. I was longing for water. Queretaro is semi-desert, dry, dust on everything, on the stones of the sidewalk, the plazas, the cactus and geranium leaves on my porch. My alligator skin couldn’t get enough moisture. I splashed water on my face three times a day, drank gallons of water. I just wanted to be in the water, and not under the one drip that is the shower in my tiny three-room apartment in San Francisquito in the middle of dusty Queretaro, directly in middle of Mexico. It’s rained really hard twice since November.

I bought a plane ticket to the beach. Of course, I waited too long to do it and paid hundreds for the one and a half hour flight when I could have paid half. But that’s part of the adventure of traveling alone: Go when you want to go.

I’d never been to Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco, one of the many doors to Mexico. I did my research. I wanted to be close to the airport and in a safe, comfortable place on the beach — with a bathtub in my room. With the Internet and Trip Advisor and the multiple, picky reviews one can read online, it is possible to winnow out the very bad (5.8) from the “fabulous” and “wonderful,” those hovering above and beyond the 8.5 ratings. I chose the Westin, partly for sentimental reasons–my little sister was married at a Westin in Chicago, the reviews raved about the beach and pool, and the room rate was excellent, around $129 a night. I don’t go for those inclusives, with all you can eat, standing in line with your plate at a buffet, gulping watered-down Mai Tai’s. Another reason I like to travel alone. I can eat, once a day, when and where I want to, after I’ve gotten up too late and then wandered aimlessly for most of the day into late afternoon, at which time I’m hungry. Just in time for the senior special, in Puerto Vallarta.

The first day did not begin well, although I arrived at the hotel with dispatch, the front of the great pink building engaging with a waterfall against a black marble wall.The taxi climbed the hill to the white-tiled entrance behind a stand of ubiquitous bougainvillea and palm trees. Many hands and smiling Mexicans in white jackets, opening doors, grabbing bags, many “bienvenidos a Westin.” Nice.

My room was 626 with a balcony overlooking Banderas Bay, a wide scoop of blue on a lovely stretch of beach and jetties of rocky platforms between hotel properties so you can walk out above the water. I threw the doors open to the balcony. The wonderful, humid–not dry–air! A bit like Miami, yes. The sound of water! The sound of jackhammers!! No one was around to hear my swearing, and I will spare you that. I marched down to the desk and asked to have my room changed. I had work to do (sort of) and the jackhammers would not do. I went higher. No dice. I marched down to the desk again. By now, miraculously, Josefina was still smiling when she saw me. She moved me to the highest floor, so sorry for the jackhammers. Yes, so sorry. The property abutting the Westin was putting in a new pool, and the jackhammers were due to continue for two months, 10a to 6p. Well, it was a little better on the 14th floor, my third room choice, all of my rooms wonderfully comfortable, large, great soft bed and linens, and a bathtub and separate shower. With sound-proof doors.

I went down to the beach, picked out a lounge chair under an umbrella and ordered a Mai Tai with an extra float of rum on top, please. If you’re going to drink syrupy drinks, you might as well taste the booze. The jackhammers feint, well off to my left. I stared at the water. Drank it all in, ordered another. I couldn’t move, I didn’t want to. Complications aside. At night, I floated in the warm pool, a curving series of connected pools with islands of palm trees, a slice of moon in the sky.

The center of Puerto Vallarta is 20 minutes away from the Westin by taxi. I’d read about the Malecon. I was not even sure what it was, because, like most descriptions from Mexicans, there is always a different story, a different twist to each description. I like surprises, so I would see for myself. I usually head to the center of wherever I go, and then fan out from there, open to discovery, not swayed by a travel writer at Frommers.

The Malecon reminds me of Malibu, or the boardwalk in Barcelona upon which it is modeled. A hint of Oak Street beach. It is a wide curving walkway with restaurants, stores, street vendors, outdoor bars and cafes on one side and the bay on the other. Sculptures are interspersed along the Malecon, the first and most famous, the child riding the seahorse, installed in 1978 after a couple of hurricanes took out the first Malecons. It is a long walk, and in the sun, after visiting an opal factory store, a display of indigenous Huichol beaded figures, more hats and tops and dresses than I ever care to look at again, I was thirsty, so I sat down at a bar outside, Johnny Cash blaring that he killed a man just to watch him die. The Bahama Mama looked good, with a float. I got out the notebook, but I was much more interested in the people: The family of 10 or so, surrounding, perhaps, the father, a street vendor selling silver jewelry, the tray angled out from a strap around his neck. All eyes were on him, the women cuddling babies, small ones hanging on to skirts, the mothers’ hands absently stroking the children. The vendor looked worried, earnest. He set off on another round and his family waited, huddled quietly. I felt guilty that I’d talked one of the silver vendors down to 400 pesos (about $35 dollars) for a silver bracelet, a beauty with links of cut-out discs. At the table next to me, a very small old man, elegant in a white cowboy hat and plaid shirt, held a guitar high on his chest and played to a table of older folks, all of them laughing and singing, despite the Beatles who had replaced Johnny Cash. They drank Pacificos and J&B out of a can (yech) and carried on with their party. I thought the guitar player was part of their crew, but after a couple of cielito lindos and some other Mexican fare, he wandered off, still smiling, the guitar cradled lovingly under his arm.

The second Bahama Mama was taking hold. This is where I would end my days. Right here. On the Malecon, watching Mexicans, listening to Rock and Roll, floating off on a sea of rum over the bay. Oh, sunny day. Oh reality. I missed my little family huddling around me. Loudly.

The views expressed here are my views and not necessarily those of the Peace Corps — Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Peace Corps Response, Mexico