Monday, May 25, 2009

Regresando a México

"This is the flight I was supposed to take two weeks ago..." I thought as my plane took off from San Francisco airport at 8am this morning. It was frustrating for me. I had spent the last three weeks traveling in California, attending my brother's track meet and my boyfriend's graduation. Overall it had been a good thing. But leaving Mexico City on such short notice and having to drop out of UNAM was devastating for me. It had taken me all of three weeks to establish a normal schedule, get my things organized, and start thinking clearly--I had completely spaced three leadership meetings. Now I was working on my final papers to get credit for my classes, spending time with Sean and his family, and even going out to dinner with the few friends I had who were still in Berkeley and not buried in finals. 

The Mexico I landed in little resembled the one I left but was once again much more like the one I loved. A few facemasks dotted the landscape but their had always been some people who wore them, usually incorrectly, because of the pollution. Besides that, subtle signs of the influenza porcina (swine flu) could be seen here and there: a thermal temperature reader at the airport, a new form to fill out at customs, signs on the metro indicating that the car would be thoroughly sanitized ever 72 hours. But Mexico seemed mostly healthy. Even the exchange rate was stabilizing around 13 pesos to the dollar. They did look at me funny though for flying into the city without any luggage except my laptop in a purse.

The city was comfortable familiar. I had been in the airport about half a dozen times now; the metro ride to and from I knew quite well. It wasn't until I was walking from the metro to "home" that I began to feel a little chocked up. I think it was recognizing the same advertisement that had been there for months that made it really hit home that I was here. 

The family welcomed me with open arms, even though I had been unable to notify them of my arrival until I landed at the airport. Most of my friends from the program have gone back to the states, and the few that remain are on vacation traveling throughout the republic. Tomorrow I will drop by UNAM to go to some of my old classes (this is the last week before finals for them) and hopefully to see some of my friends. I don't know what I'll say.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

15 Minutes

Over the last few days the news of swine flu has begun to disappear from the headlines. The death toll is no longer country in terms of the number infected but those who happen to be near car bombs or, for that matter, American bombs. The places are no longer the familiar streets of Mexico City but rather towns I've never been to, in countries that are altogether foreign to me: Tbilisi, Georgia; Garoowe, Somalia. Sometimes the names are all too familiar, another sign that life is returning to normal: Baghadad, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan. 

It is at this point that I start to wonder if it was all a dream. The facemasks, the hysteria, the drastic government measures (seven day quarantine of Mexican airline passengers in China, anyone?). Even the numbers seemed to have changed in the papers--while we were reading about hundreds of deaths and thousands of infections just over a week ago, now the papers have a much more demure count of total cases. And yet I still hear the words echoed in strange places. Waiting at a late-hour bus stop in San Jose I hear a man laugh into his self phone that maybe his ill friend has contracted. The kids at the middle school joke about. Even these mentions seem to belittle what I thought was a crisis. A World Health Organization Level 5 pandemic alert, to be exact.

So was it all an overreaction? Probably. But as the headlines shift back to the issues of foreign wars, international strategic talks and diplomatic meetings, I realize that swine flu is just one of the crises we have faced as man kind. With one week's crisis solved, we are on to the next. We'll see how we handle it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Waking Life

One of the favorite editing techniques of action movie producers is the rapid switch between scenes. In one shot, our main hero is firing a rocket launcher out of a helicopter as the city below him erupts in flames, and the next he is sitting quietly at home, sipping a cup of tea and listening to the quiet patter of rain out his double-paned window, reflecting on the suddenly far-away experience. In a very odd way, that's the feeling I've been getting about my life recently. I've been pulled out of my action scene, where I was exploring Mayan ruins, living in one of the biggest cities on earth, and fighting off the swine flu, and now I am sitting in Berkeley, watching the weather change and the faucet drip, all my clothes two thousand miles away.

I say to all my friends that I'm sad to have left Mexico but glad to be back. But the reality is that, in comparison, I was not yet ready to be here. As my days slowly fill with meetings and commitments, I am regaining my former life but with the full knowledge that I will never have my life in Mexico back. As I filled out my withdrawal forms the other night I began to cry, and I didn't stop until I fell asleep in Sean's arms. I guess coming back isn't all bad: sleeping in with Sean, dinners with Kyle and Sonya, and lunch times with my mentee at the middle school. And this weekend with the family :) But there is a lot I am missing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Changing Places, Changing Clothes

As a kid, going to the season-end banquet for Jr. Guards or Track was always an interesting event. Not so much because of all the awards given out or the yummy food, but mostly because you got to see the sweaty people you had worked out with for months all showered and dressed up in "real people" clothes. It was a similar thing visiting with my friend Aileen after we had returned from Mexico. While the weather down south had been a balmy eighty degrees everyday, here it was blustery and cold, and we were dressed accordingly. Aileen still wore her signature and lipstick, and I had was technically still wearing the same clothes I had been since I'd left Mexico (having left all my stuff behind before knowing the program was cancelled), but still, we looked different. Aileen was wrapped up in a scarf, a grey sweatshirt and pants. Long gone were her dresses and bright-pink party pants. 

Not only had our clothes changed, but so had the people on the Berkeley streets in comparison to those in our colonia in Mexico. My observation was that they looked a lot more polished. "They look like sluts!" was Aileen's analysis. It was true, people here have a lot more, let's call, body expression freedom. Despite the cold weather I saw a fair amount of skin. 

Like old men pining for the good old days, we discussed our time in Mexico over some sushi on Telegraph. It was all very frustrating. And over all we were worried about changing back to our old selves, leaving our Spanish and amazing experience behind. Our clothes showed that this process had already begun. But something makes me think we we'll never completely forget our time in Mexico. Heck, I'm going back at the end of May.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Another Crisis

Having been gone for four months, I had forgotten some of the realities of life at home. Indeed, on my trip back in to town from the airport my thoughts of swine flu were briefly overshadowed by another international crisis: the economic recession. Just as the swine flu had interrupted my day to day life in Mexico City, I quickly noticed how much the recession had hit here: every shop on College Ave had a big SALE sign in the window. Those that weren't actually selling the business or the building were offering deep discounts on what used to be high-end merchandise for the Berkeley elite. My trip to Safeway a few days later revealed more sales, this time to help the struggling family buying cereal and ice cream. Although I must that admit these price reductions made the transition to the higher-priced American food a little easier to bare.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Program Cancelled

Dear Spring 2009 Mexico Students (Bcc):

You are receiving this email if you were studying on the UNAM or Field Research Programs in Mexico and have recently returned to the U.S. Please read this message carefully, print all documents, and follow all instructions today.

Due to the recent Travel Health Warning issued by the CDC, your program in Mexico has been relocated to California for the remainder of the term. Academic arrangements will be made to complete EAP coursework, you will remain registered in EAP for the duration of the program, and your financial aid will not be impacted as long as you successfully complete the program.

Attached are several documents for you to review immediately and take action on:

1. Announcement of Temporary Relocation of Mexico Programs

2. Letter of instruction

3. CDC Travel Health Warning

4. 2008-09 Gap Insurance Form

5. Suspension Agreement – please sign and return to me today, by email.

6.& 7. Disposition Notice and Contract for Incomplete – Please complete these forms and return to Monica Rocha.

Kind regards,


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

San Francisco

So there I was on BART in the airport station in San Francisco, trying to gage the differences between here and Mexico. The train had been sitting here for over five minutes now, doors wide open, and so I had plenty of time for my own thoughts. The first difference, then, was that the Mexico City metro would NOT sit at a station for five minutes.

Finally, a voice came over the intercom to explain all of this particular train's destinations and to inform us that the doors would now be closing. I noticed that the voice was that of a new driver, as it had changed genders since the last informative announcement. A man who had been standing just outside the door talking loudly on his cellphone stalled another minute before finally stepping through the entrance. Of course, his bag got stuck between the closed doors. He tugged at it and the doors slid open again, a red light flashed and an automatic voice informed us that the door was blocked and to please stand clear of the doors. 

It's not that the metro doesn't have this mechanism; it even has an automatic voice, and I would know--it once got stuck on repeat as we sped down the tracks. But the doors in the metro would sooner drag you by the arm down the tunnel than open. The image sticks in my mind of my father having to pry them open once as our family got separated between them--me on one side, them on the other--somewhere beneath the busy metropolis. 

What struck me the most, though, was this man's confidence in the system. He almost had a sense of entitlement that his squished suitcase should stay intact no matter how long he wanted to pause before entering the car. When the doors slid open again he righted the bag and calmly walked to his seat. 

The seats are another thing about the metro. I'm pretty sure BART is wider to begin with, but it is also emptier. And much better ventilated. So I sat there in comfort as we rode along down the tunnel (although admittedly at a much slower pace than the metro). The conductor's voice narrated the whole time.

By the time we were in downtown San Francisco I had moved on to wondering about an advertisement showing a poor African woman. The metro has ads for organizations, too, but featuring Mexicans who have been helped rather than foreigners. What a weird culture, I thought, in which Americans don't like to look at or acknowledge their own poor. Poverty is something that can only happen somewhere else. I wonder if this is the same mindset for swine flu. I was still pondering this depressing thought when we passed through the Embarcadero station and a crowd of baseball fans came on.

A group of strangers all wearing Dodgers gear struck up a conversation, one man in his 30's using the phrase "Fuck yeah!" as a means of introduction, high fiving his fellow fanatics. The one Giants fan on the train stood by the door with a defeated smile on his face, his girlfriend trying to comfort him. It was at this point that I began to wonder why there were so many Dodgers fans in the Bay Area. 

I spent the rest of the time wondering if my fellow passengers would freak if they knew I was coming from Mexico City. My facemask still hung limply around me neck.

I'm Going Home

I got interviewed by the BBC today as I walked through the airport. Being a celebrity only in my own mind, I am not used to explaining my movements to the international press. But having so adamantly defended my initial decision to stay in the city, I suppose I owe an explanation for my flight, because I’m going home.

The reporter wanted to know where I was from, and I responded that I was born in California but was currently living in the city. “That’s perfect,” she cooed. When the cameras were rolling she asked my opinion on the influenza, and if that was why I was leaving. It is not necessarily obligatory to leave the city because of the flu, I said, but there is a lack of information about the situation and so it is a good time to take a little vacation back to California. She wanted to know, in my own words, how I was feeling about the situation. It’s scary, I admitted. But mostly because we don’t have enough information about how the flu spreads, and how many are infected.

And that is why I am leaving: I’m scared.

At the airport fewer people are wearing masks than on the streets. There are also fewer people at the airport. Most of those without masks seem to be tourists. (This is probably because many countries have closed their visa offices in Mexico.) Maybe some have cut their vacation short because of the swine flu, but for them they don’t belong to this city, and the disease is not theirs. They will return to their countries, safe again in their own worlds, where swine flu is just a headline in a newspaper and a few cases at a hospital.

But for one week I will be a tourist in my own country. I am not going home, because I am coming back. All my belongings are still on Calle Malintzin. I wear my mask because I lived here, breathed here, for four months. I take ownership of this city in my small little way, even though I am still a newcomer and forever an outsider. And for this reason I don’t feel removed from the disease nor those infected, no matter how far away I plan to get.

We felt like cop outs for leaving. Like the homesick kids who can’t stay out of their countries for too long. Like wealthy Americans who flee at the first sign of trouble. But perhaps our fear is so real because we are a part of the city, share it’s same troubles and worries. We wear our masks. We did not watch the masked masses from the windows of our hotel but rather went to the grocery store to buy water and canned food with the rest of the colonia. We watched as the restaurants we had eaten at every day closed, and how the streets emptied of traffic. While everything feels new and strange to a tourist, the normalcy of our lives was interrupted in a terrifying way.

Today they closed all the schools across the country. Restaurants in the DF have been ordered to shut down, only opening their doors to take-out orders. The rush on the supermarkets has already begun, although store owners assure the public they will remain open. The metro has enacted an emergency plan, dispatching all of its trains to try to avoid crowding. There are even rumors that the airport will close, despite my present case to the contrary. And while I say I am only leaving for a week, the truth is that we don’t know what will happen with the disease. They may shut the city down for longer. We may loose the semester.  

So with a small suitcase and my blue facemask, I head to California. Happy to be arriving but sad to be going. And I am still scared. Of my program, six of us are leaving, four are staying, and three have fled (or remain outside of) the state. Catch you on the flip side. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

Las tapa bocas estan muy de moda

“Las tapa bocas siguen agotadas,” said the woman at the pharmacy in response to my request for facemasks. Newsreels were filled with pictures of the National Guard handing out the appropriate headgear, but this was only in crowded public places. Better to stay at home without a mask than to frequent the metro or the Zócalo looking for one. But one cannot stay inside all day, especially when trying to figure out what the fuck is going on around here. So I made my own.

On Sunday, after finishing my second sewing project, I decided I needed more supplies. So I headed down to the fabric store. As it turned out, the couple next to me was buying the same fabric as I was planning on using for the dress bodice, to make masks.

That night, as news kept pouring in and as I fielded worried messages from friends and family, I decided I needed a mask. I had already examined the basic design from the people I passed on the bus. It was fairly simple: a fabric square with elastic passing through at both ends, serving both to secure the mask to the head with two straps and to scrunch the ends securely around the mask and nose. But, because the mask is not meant as a particularly fashionable piece, I worried more about the function than the appearance: the design would be easy enough to replicate, but not necessarily the filtrative qualities.

A search online revealed mostly how to make beauty facemasks, the kind made from mud or avocado. While my skin is less than perfect, this was not the sort of treatment I currently needed. Using the words “respiratory” or “health” in my search yielded few fruitful results, so I decided to trust in my materials and give it a shot.

The result is pictured below:

On the streets, locals had thought of some other creative responses to the mask shortage. Bandanas over the mouth were the most popular alternative, and today Thore left with several around his head. To avoid touching contaminated surfaces a number of furry winter gloves appeared, although some had managed to get their hands on some sweaty surgical gloves. While the doctors’ mask is the most common version of facemask, others have dawned carpenter’s protective headwear, the kind you might use to seal a building or remove asbestos. I am still waiting to see gas masks.

We joked as I left the house that I had made myself a designer mask. Thore suggested I stitch G&B into the hem. Others have decorated theirs with fangs or slogans. Either way, Thore said, masks are very in style right now.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dear Mom and Dad (Why I Can't Go Home)

No one said it was a good idea for me to come to Mexico. In fact, almost everyone told me if I wanted to speak Spanish I should go to Spain. At the time we all thought the problem in Mexico would be drug violence (others just think it is a backwards, cultureless country). But I came anyway. Not because I am a sadist, but because I wanted to see how people live here, in a Third World country or whatever it is. So that I knew what I was talking about when I talked about my major. When I talked about life. Now the problem is the swine flu. And it's hard for me to run home just because my parents can afford to and leave this place behind. However stupid that might seem. I mean I have a unique opportunity to see how this country functions in a time of crisis. For the good and the bad. How people really live here, not just how my drink is served at a beachside resort. So even though it is hard, and I am scared, I am going to stay here for as long as is reasonable. I send my love.



Response from my brother:

You wanna prove that you're tough enough, and that the fact that you have money doesn't mean that you're a rich little American girl who doesn't face any real dangers. I know you want to try to get the experience, but to say "no, i want to stay down here to know what it's like to be poor like the rest of you," when many of those who would want to leave if they could can't, is an insult. You're trying to prove that the money you were born with doesn't define you, but you're kinda proving that it does by staying. Because what would happen if you did get sick? We'd fly you back to the states and get you the best treatment money can buy and you'd be spending more money than we would have spent beforehand.

I almost think you should come home just for Dad's sake, he's freaking out.

Just Saying...

............{28 Days Later}                                 {Mexico City, yesterday}

It's amazing how quickly a city of 22 million can disappear off the streets. What is usually a bustling, crowded metropolis today was sparse and hushed. Many of the shops were shuttered, the metro was at half capacity and, of those who ventured out, 50% were wearing masks. Things still functioned mostly as usual--I took a short metro ride to the fabric store--but even there the air was tense. The loudspeakers played Presidente Calderon's emergency address. The couple next to me was buying fabric to make face masks. On the way home it took the bus a few extra minutes to arrive because fewer are running. 

UNAM, in compliance with a federal order, officially announced today that it will remain shuttered until Wednesday, May 6th, which is over a week. So much for my presentation, my discussion section, my research proposal and my midterm. Everything is put on hold. My class partner can't even get into the library to get the reading. 

Normally a two week break from school would result in the sort of adventure I had embarked upon during Spring Break. But the word is the airports might be closed soon, and the thought of a stuffy bus ride in close quarters with the other residents of Mexico City is hard to fathom. At this point I don't even want to go to parties. 

For me, the week ahead will be filled with sewing, eating good food, trips to my friend's house for movie nights and maybe, if time permits, some homework.

Signing off for now...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Killer Pig Virus, Part 2

In the movie 28 Days Later, the main character wakes up in a hospital in London only to find that the city is deserted, victim of a mutated virus. While Mexico City today is hardly the scene of a horror film, the signs of a pandemic--on which movies like this are based--are starting to show. The inhabitants of Mexico have not yet been infected by an angry monkey virus as in the movie, but the mutated swine/avian flu that is now circulating is probably the next best thing in real life. And it is taking effect. Tomorrow, in a containment effort, the Pumas will play the Chivas in an empty Estadio Olímpico--no spectators allowed. Already this conjures up the image of the empty city landscape of the British movie. 

Unfortunately for me, the current situation in the city lacks the hilarity of a poorly-made horror film. There are no zombies to bash a la Sean of the Dead; just a lot of sick people who used to be young healthy adults. The newspaper La Jornada is saying that almost 18 new cases were diagnosed in the last 24 hours, with the World Health Organization claiming that over 1,000 are infected. Of course, in a city of 20 million, that is a very small number, but it has not stopped the government from cancelling all public events and closing many businesses. It seems now my school may be closed for the entirety of next week. 

But don't let my panic exaggerate reality. Life in the city goes on mostly as normal: people lounge on a sunny Saturday morning at the Jarocho café, joggers and bikers lace the roadways, and cars still speed by at the dangerous breakneck speeds that they always do. But when I sat down at my favorite breakfast place this morning the entire staff was wearing face masks. Another restaurant on the corner--the first place I had eaten at in Coyoacán--was shuttered completely. News reels and photographs have surfaced on CNN and the NYTimes of soldiers handing out masks in the streets. And it's these small things--that creep into our everyday lives and remind us that something has changed--that really scare me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Plague

It's been sunny and warm here for a few months now. So it surprised me this morning to receive an email from our program director warning us about influenza--usually a cold winter disease--in the D.F. Then my señora knocked on my door and told me there had been many reports on the news about it, and to make sure I washed my hands and maintained good hygiene. On my run through the park, more than the usual amount of people were wearing face masks, including a father and his young daughter. Finally, the NYTimes filled me in on the recent Mexican outbreak of swine flu, with 57 deaths in Mexico City in recent weeks. According to the paper, "the deaths have presented a worrisome pattern because seasonal flus typically kill infants and old people, while pandemic flus — like the 1918 Spanish flu, and the 1957 and 1968 pandemics — often strike young, healthy people the hardest." The virus is apparently a mutation from North American swine, and it is now being labeled a "respiratory epidemic" by the nation's health minister. While I am not overly alarmed, the idea of leaving my health in the hands of the national government here does seem to be a cause for worry.

At the same time, of course, Berkeley is having a TB outbreak. You can't avoid all the diseases all of the time. I guess this is just a little reminder of how beholden to nature we still are. 

for more info see the NYTimes article

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spanish Conversation 101

Mexicans are big talkers. Darting from the shower to my room in the 15 minutes I give myself to get ready each morning I can often become trapped in a long conversation with Conchita about the anything and everything. It does not matter that I am half naked and dripping wet, she loves to talk.

Meals go on for hours this way. Halfway through the conversation you might need to eat again. While in the US dinner party guests may have moved on to coffee in the living room, here no one has even moved from the table.

Often stuck in these conversation myself, I try to think of an appropriate way too excuse myself. There is probably some polite remark that can be made to remove myself from the conversation, but usually it involves me slinking out of the room at the first change of subject. I return to my room only to find the AIM chat I had left to go to the toilet is now 2 hours old.

I do value face-to-face conversation. The long meal is something Americans should aspire to. Get to know your family. Check up on day-to-day events. Current news or social theories. But being an impatient American, I simply cannot sit still in my chair for three hours. Or in the hall. Or the kitchen. Or wherever conversation comes up and strikes me.

The other problem is probably more of a cultural one. I’m sure there must be some sign to excuse yourself from a conversation here, but certainly none of the ones I’m used to rings a bell for my Mexican conversationalists: Shifting in my chair. Gathering my dishes together. Glancing at my watch or towards the door. Even verbal signals like, “Well…,” or “Ok then…” go either unnoticed or unheeded.

I guess it’s just time to buckle in and practice my Spanish conversation skills. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Ricardo and Conchita got married when he was 22 years old and she a bit older. They moved in to their very own apartment right after their honeymoon. When their children were nine and seven they bought their first house outright, no mortgage, no down payment. They weren’t rich, but at that time nobody bought their house on credit. It was in the trendy center of Coyoacán at that. Ricardo had promised Conchita that they would live in the White House, and so he quickly got to work painting their yellow little fixer-upper white. It was here they lived for the next 27 years and counting. When their son got married, he lived there with his wife in the room where I am now, and when Claudia got pregnant the baby lived there too.

Ricardo Jr. eventually moved to his own place, but now it was a house bought on credit. Every month he pays double, trying to buy it off as quickly as possible, but it is a different world than his parents’.

Patti, Ricardo and Conchita’s daughter, also aspires to her own house. At 32, she must be anxious to leave. She has been saving for the past eight years, but even now the mortgage would be a heavy burden. To make extra money, she plans to rent out the rooms like her parents do.

Ten years ago credit was an unheard of concept in Mexico. Those who didn’t buy houses outright built their own, or lived with their parents. Today you can see advertisements for track homes along the freeway and banks market credit cards to university students. And debt is changing the face of Mexico. You may want to think of that next time you brag about the latest micro-credit scheme.

Still, in class the other day, as the professor was trying to explain the concept of national debt, he asked us how many of us had credit cards. Most of the class was asleep, so no one raised their hands. He prompted us a little more. Finally, my friend from California and I raised our hands. We were the only ones.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Whose World?

It is has long been the game of historians, geographers and politicians, among others, to divide the world up into pieces. They put up borders through Maya lands, break up rivers and seas, and generally try to fit things nicely into their categories. One of these classifications is between the First World and the Third. Mexico, it is generally considered, is part of the Third. But there are some, like neoliberal American military strategist Thomas Barnett, who argue that it is now part of the First. As I traveled through Mexico over the last week I wondered if you can really classify a country as one or the other, or even if you can classify it at all.

Originally the terms of First through Third Worlds came from the Cold War days, but now they are mainly used to label levels of development. Development is a very intangible thing, probably coined by the West and "First" World, so I will create my own definition. Development, and the First World, can be seen in Mexico City at the bus stations where ADO First Class buses come in always on time. It can be seen at the markets where the stalls are scrubbed in hygienic detergents and your food comes in plastic bags. It is in the restoration project of Coyoacan, in all the things that make an American comfortable living in a foreign country. It is part of that globalized city, with its own unique cultural flare but standard in its sense of orderliness that makes any foreigner feel at home. 

But don't start drawing dichotomies just yet. This "First World" aspect of Mexico does not mean that the "Third World" parts are irregular, dissorderly or generally backwards, although they may seem to be so at first glance. One thing is for certain though, the farther we got into the countryside of Veracruz and away from Mexico City, the more things changed. Here, my fast-paced, globalized world choked with a different sort of logic, one where we would arrive in towns where the single bus south leaves only once a day. A trip that takes 6 hours turns into a journey of two days in this world, but no one cared because we took the one bus east instead. And somehow, a trip that would have been logistical hell for someone expecting a globalized experience, was actually one of the most relaxing. It was a good thing we were late, too, because our friend who had access to the beach house, our final destination, was also a few days behind schedule.

Looking back on my  trip, I keep trying to explain the difference between my travels with Avicena, Igmar, Javier and Edgar from any traveling I had ever done before and planned myself. At the heart of this is discovering what was so Mexican about it. While parts of the First World are reaching a general standardized culture that makes traveling within it effortless and traveling without it quite frustrating, part of the local Mexican culture involves learning what its logic is. Certainly it can be characterized by scarcity: we bought the only grocery store in town out of all its bread and potatoes. But somehow this didn't seem to be a big deal; we survive just as the inhabitants survive. 

Maybe I can't quite explain what life is like in Third World Mexico. Sometimes things move more slowly but always they get done. Or sometimes they don't. It is not disorganized here, but it's a logic that an outsider can't immediately understand. And for the global citizen, it's certainly a way of life that takes some getting used to.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quetzalcoatl's Children

I don't think it is really socially acceptable for a Mexican lady to travel unaccompanied with male classmates for Spring Break. But I was not born a Mexican and early on in my exchange program I stopped trying to become one. The realization that I would never perfectly pronounce my r's or live at home until I was thirty liberated me in a lot of ways. So while my California compañeras enjoyed Semana Santa in Oaxaca or the city, I decided to set out on my own adventure with three friends from the Facultad de economía. The fact that they were all male was coincidental, but has its certain advantage in avoiding harassment from the general population.

The fact that I am white is also an interesting component. Seeing me with my friend Avicena, raised all his life in Mexico City, taxi drivers would start speaking to the both of us in English, figuring we were a foreign couple. A French girl at a bus station guessed that we were from Spain. Although the best way to some up the conversation came from my friend Igmar:

-Cortés arrived here around five hundred years ago, right?


-Then why do they still look at you as if they've never seen a white person before? Seriously, people stop what they're doing and stare.

While Mexico has its share of fair skinned natives, I am certainly no where close to blending in. But I think I'm OK with that.

Friday, April 10, 2009


In Xalapa we introduced Igmar to our version of urban camping, setting up our tent in a public park that had a lake, a jogging path and a carnival. Again we slept peacefully and undisturbed, packing up around 9am to explore the city before my 3pm bus ride to the D.F. Leaving our stuff at another supermarket bag check, we bought donuts and chocolate soy milk for breakfast and found a beautiful park on our way the university museum. Amongst its lush gardens and meandering streams, built in an ancient style, we ate our breakfast and contemplated the luck of our lifestyle. All this for less than $10 a day. 

The museum was yet another wonder, and we were captivated by a quote engraved in the wall:

"¡Mexicano detente: Esta es la raíz de tu historia, tu cuna y tu altar. Oirás la voz silenciosa de la cultura más antigua de tal vez, la civilización madre de nuestro continente. Los olmecas convirtieron la lluvia en cosechas, el sol en calendario, la piedra en escultura, el algodón en telas, las peregrinaciones en comercio, los montículos en tronos, los jaguares en religión y los hombres en dioses!" -Agustín Acosta Lagunes, 30-X-1986.

Mexicans halt: These are the roots of your history, your birthplace and your altar. You'll hear the silent voice of perhaps the most ancient culture, the mother civilization of our continent. The olmecas changed the rain into harvests, the sun into a calendar, rock into sculpture, cotton into fabric, pilgrimages into commerce, mounds into thrones, jaguars into religion and men into gods! -Agustín Acosta Lagunes, October 30, 1986.

When it was time for me to board my bus I was sad to go.

Living on a Commune

The next few days at the beach were spent much as the first. We napped now in the shade to avoid sunburn, and in the afternoons or mornings indulged ourselves with a few marvelous runs on the beach. Of the original travelers only Avicena (my original travel buddy), Igmar (the friend of the owner of the house) and I remained.

Although the weather, scenery, and shelter were perfect, we were low on money and the house lacked running water. Under these conditions we slowly became a sort of commune: the boys would pull up water by hand from the well in the front yard so we could wash the dishes, and we bathed each other outside in the grass. Our food we shared together, having bought out the entire stock of potatoes in the area's one store and making use of the tamale lady who walked from house to house selling her goods. Opening up one tamale at a time, we would all dig in with our hands. Somehow eating six together seemed like eating more than two by yourself. At night we all slept up in the one loft bedroom with its three twin beds and in the morning we ran on the beach and swam in the hotel pools to cool off. When the afternoon wind came up nap in the yard. 

Finally on Friday afternoon, after three lovely days at the beach, we purchased our bus tickets to Xalapa, a college town three hours to the south. I needed to start my trip back the city and Avicena had convinced Igmar to ditch classes for another week and explore the country. Either way, this time was much easier getting out than getting in: we found a bus hub down the street at a restaurant and climbed aboard at 5pm.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

¡La playa!

It is an interesting task to get food poisoning miles away from any running water or a roll of toilet paper. And there I was, at four in the morning, squatting under a palm tree and a full moon on a deserted beach in northern Veracruz. But there is a first for everything, and for all firsts there must also be a last: I no longer plan on eating cheap fish from street restaurants in the Caribbean.

By the time the sun rose (and trust me, with numerous early-morning trips outside I had seen its advance), a few chewable mint-flavored imodiums had cured me and I was ready for the days adventures. 

And our days were full of adventures. Mostly though, we lay on cots in the sun, taking in our luck at having arrived in such a beautiful place. When we got too hot (or too sunburned), we dived in the ocean, letting the current pull us toward the lagoon. The joke, of course, was that two of the guys I had come with had to return to the city. After all that travel one of them left in the morning. The other, however, missed his bus, and it would take him two days to get out of town. It was just as well--much better to be stuck at the beach that have Spring Break '09 in Tuxpan.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

¡Vamos a la playa!: Day Two

We got off the bus in Papantla, the town near the El Tajin ruins, at 1am. I think we were expecting to alight at the base of the pyramids, so we were a bit stuck on a place to camp when we realized we were in the middle of a small (modern day) city. Off in the distance, perhaps like a beacon of hope, was the Iglesia. We we wandered towards it through the maze of streets, and climbing the hill we reached the main plaza at its gates. Compermiso señor, my friend asked a passerby, do you know of a place we could camp? He replied that we mights as well set up in plaza, so we got to work pitching our tent on a patch of grass in the square's garden. It was certainly a comical picture. We slept soundly that night beneath the gaze of town drunks, and were awoken by the gardeners around 8am.

We packed up, snooped around the market for some breakfast, and were soon on our way to the ruins. It was a beautiful site. We spent most of the day there, watching the Danza de los voladores, exploring the pyramids, and napping in the shade. The most famous building of all is one with 365 niches, one for each day of the year. 

Around 3pm we headed back into town to catch our bus to Nautla and the beach house. Well, the bus didn't exactly go to Nautla, but it went somewhere near there, and then you can transfer. By now I was used to this kind of route. 

We ended up getting off at another windy, cold beach town. I ate a cheap fish plate while my friend scouted out the beach. After about a half an hour, as the sun neared the horizon, I was ready to get on our way again. Of course, the bus to Nautla didn't pass through here, so we had to retrace our route back to a town we had passed through earlier, and wait again at a miserable little bus station. At last, around 6pm, the Nautla bus arrived and we jumped on, afraid it would leave the station without us. I am pretty sure this is were I lost my camera, so sorry, no personal pics.

We arrived in Nautla as the sun set, and it seemed that tomorrow might be a little warmer. At least that's what we told ourselves. We waited for the friend of a friend whose friend owned the beach house--the beach house owner himself had yet to arrive--and watched the bus station children, who waited in the empty seats of the small terminal for new buses to arrive, selling their wares to the passengers. 

After 20 minutes our friend arrived, and I soon understood the logic of our two-day detour throughout the region. Even if we had arrived as planned, our friend hadn't gotten into town until this morning--we would have been stuck anyway without a house. I was slowly easing in to the Mexican way of doing things. It wasn't even until the end of our trip that we would find out the real owner of the house would never arrive. But nevertheless, our new friend had a key--or at least new the neighbors who had one--and so we headed on our way. To get there we had to take yet another bus (despite the remote location of the town of Nautla the beach was even farther--not located in a town but by a lagoon off the highway). 

By nightfall, however, we had finally arrived in La vigueta. The house lay on a bed of sand and weeds with palm trees, and making our way across the unkept yard we were on a sandy beach. After a night time swim we laid out a blanket and the five of us gazed up at the full moon. Tomorrow was totally free, and we were sure there would be sun.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

¡Vamos a la playa!: Day One

We left Mexico City at six in the afternoon on Sunday. Well, the plan was to leave that morning, but the bus tickets were for that afternoon. The plan was to meet at the TAPO station but it turns out we needed to leave from Terminal Norte. And the plan was to go to the beach, but the bus didn't go directly there. 

Once the four of us--myself, a friend from the facultad, and two of his buddies--finally united, we had but minutes to board the bus out of Mexico. Our intended trajectory was this: catch a bus to Poza Rica, Veracruz, a small oil city that would serve as our transportation hub into the east. From there, we would awake early the next morning and head to Nautla, a beach town where a friend had a house. I was promised lagoons, beautiful beaches, rivers with rapids and ancient ruins at the water's edge. None of us had explored much of the state of Veracruz except for my brief trip to the capitol for Carnival, and we were excited.

We arrived in Poza Rica around 11pm. Tent in hand, we descended into the muggy night ready for adventure. But the city was ugly and the hour was late. Buses for Nautla left at 5am and noon. A text came in from our Oaxaca-bound friends saying that they had not been able to catch a ride and were stuck miles from the beach in Puebla, where even fewer buses pass. We quickly scanned the list of destinations at the ADO terminal. There were various destinations, but one for Tuxpan left at 1am. What's in Tuxpan? I asked. My friend responded that it was a beach with a lagoon. Well, it fit our desires and after brief debate we bought student tickets at the discounted spring break price. 

We had two hours to spare, and after wandering the streets of Poza Rica we settled at some taco stands near the terminal. We talked about music, about how hot out it would be tomorrow, and about the beach we were all dreaming of. By 1am we were bumping along the road, sound asleep in our Tuxpan-bound bus. 

By 2am we stumbled out of the Tuxpan terminal, accosted suddenly by a loud salsa band that was performing live to a few drunken onlookers. What I thought was the shore of the beach was actually the jetty of the river--12 km away from the ocean. Realizing that for tonight the beach was not for us, we started to look for a place to set up camp. I don't think it was until this moment that I realized our true sleeping situation: we would not be pitching a tent at an ocean-side campground, we were in the middle of a jungle city. 

Like a troop of hobos, we wandered the streets for a few blocks until we came to a freeway overpass that spanned the river. Under the full moon we climbed up and across, serenaded the whole time by the salsa band. Reaching the other side we found ourselves on the south bank of the river, dotted by some garbage and a few houses but with grass and dirt instead of city streets. Vetoing the idea of sleeping under the bridge, we settled down by the trees on the riverbank and pitched our tent. 

Our tent, though quite roomy and over six feet tall, had no rain protection and nothing but a screen flap for a door. Around 4 in the morning the wind began to howl and clouds moved in, and we curled up even tighter--some of us in sleeping bags and me just with the blankets I had stolen from my host family's house. 

Luckily for us it did not rain, and despite the circumstances we managed to sleep until past eleven in the morning. We chuckled at our rag-tag ways and folded up our stuff, struggling a little to fold up our giant tent amongst all the wind. The day had started out cold and didn't improve much as we made our way back across the bridge. Our situation grew even more desperate once we learned that the only bus for the day to Nautla had already left, at ten in the morning. 

For a while we wandered the city, a small little affair with one main street and a few stoplights. We had bought tickets for tomorrow's but to Nautla but were quickly regretting another night in Tuxpan. Over breakfast (consisting of bread and canned beans from the supermarket), we decided we would have to go somewhere else--and today.

We decided, finally, on going to El Tajin, the site of ancient Veracruz culture.

Friday, March 27, 2009


The Castillo de Chapultepec was once the country house of the viceroy, then a military cadet academy during the American invasion, a throne, an observatory, a presidential residence, and, finally, a gift to the public by Lázaro Cárdenas, now a museum. 

When Emperor Maximilian I lived there (the "throne" era), the castle was still on the outskirts of the city. He thus ordered that a boulevard be built connecting it to the city center. It was named Paseo de la emperatriz (Promenade of the Empress) after who I'm sure was his lovely wife, Carlota (even the name sounds poetic, no?). After the emperor was defeated by Benito Juárez, the road was renamed Paseo de la reforma after the Reform War.

On this particular day we were mobbed my school children.

Chapultepec Park is also a good place to have fun. (And to rid yourself of technology by dropping your cellphone in the toxic lake if you so choose.)

Here, a great heron enjoys fishing in the toxic lake.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chichen Itza

{Bus Station in Piste, Yucatán}

{El Castillo}

..........{El Observatorio}                             {El Cenote Itza~Chichen Itza}

{El Juego de Pelota}

{El Castillo}

{El Templo de los Guerreros}

{The crowd awaiting the vernal equinox}

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Comfort Zone

There I was, sitting alone at night, knitting and starting my third season of Project Runway since I've arrived in Mexico. It's not that these aren't activities that I love--and while everyone else seems to be in the middle of midterms or finals I shouldn't be complaining at all--but I was slightly disappointed at my own boredom. It's my one semester abroad and I'm doing what I could be doing anywhere else in the world. But while I am frustrated with this, it makes me realize how hard it is to start my life anew in a foreign place.

Over the past few weeks I have been busy busy with emails, applications and interviews, setting things up for my year ahead in Berkeley. I wonder why I can't have that same commitment here: why don't I find a place to volunteer, take that salsa class, make some girlfriends? But I realized that all of the things I am setting up back home have taken a long time for me to establish. The leadership application is for the place where I have been volunteering since freshman year. My tutoring job is the result of a long history of working with children. Even my internship, which is an exciting new opportunity for me, was achieved through three years of work in my major.

The point, I am realizing, is that things don't come quickly for me. As my kindergarten teacher noted, I didn't speak at all until I could say whole sentences in Spanish. And I think I may like it better this way: my long-term, big decisions and goals are the result of years worth of labor.

But this slow nature of mine also makes it hard to simply pick up where I left off in a new place. I don't yet understand the school structure well enough to realize when I'll have time off. I am not the type of person to walk right up to someone and start a conversation. And after getting a student visa, the thought of pursuing a work permit makes my stomach churn (the process is so demanding that my friend literally threw up in the embassy). But above all, jumping right into a long-term commitment is just not in my nature.

Slowly, very slowly, I am starting to make some progress here in Mexico. Just last weekend I made my first Mexican friends who don't hit on me. I went to a futbol game. And I have been more liberated to get out of my house every other weekend and travel like never before. I have now officially been to more states in Mexico than I have in the United States, and I think for the first time, if only it were safe, I could travel alone. 

This process gives me a new appreciation for the immigrant families who have to just pick up and leave and settle in a new place. It was hard enough for me to say goodbye to all of my loved ones this January, and it's been quite a new experience to set up a life for myself in a completely unfamiliar environment. More so than finding the grocery store or learning how to debate agro-economics in Spanish, establishing myself socially has been a challenge. Because in the end, having a busy life full of good things is what I aim for.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Walking in to the Olympic Stadium for the Puma game, I was suprised to discover how similar it was to Cal footbal games (you know, the American type). There were fans decked out in jerseys, fight songs, the usual obscenities, and even the familiar blue and gold, which are also Puma colors. There were more police in riot gear, of course, and a barbed wire fence separates the hooligans--the student cheer section--from the rest of the spectators, but in all the experience was a relatively mild affair. We won handily 3 to 1, and before the game was over the hooligans were already chanting cheers against the Aves, who they will be playing next week. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bribing the Man

I don't think I would ever drive in Mexico City. At first glance the drivers are aggressive, don't signal, and for that matter don't even obey traffic lights. Sometimes the left hand turn lanes are at the right hand side of the road, and sometimes there aren't left hand turn lanes at all--the turn is accomplished by pulling perpendicular in front of the waiting cars going in your desired direction, and then turning to drive with them across the intersection when their light turns green. You soon learn, however, that driving in Mexico City has its own sort of logic. Everyone seems to be following some sort of rules, even if these aren't immediately apparent to an outsider (me). 

This brings me to the subject of traffic laws, which are certainly not the set of rules that everyone is obeying. But while no one seems to follow the laws, that's OK, because neither do the police. My friends, for example, were in a car when their driver was cited for drunk driving (don't worry Mom, I was not with them). While this is a serious offense in the United States, in this case the driver payed a bribe of 50 pesos (about $3) and went on his merry way. 

Many Mexicans decry the corruption of Mexico, and highway patrols are perhaps one of the most obvious signs of them. Yet when it is this easy to break the law and get away with it, why change anything at all? There is one person, however, whom I deeply admire, you refuses to play in to the corrupt system. When she is pulled over, instead of shelling out her fifty pesos and shaking the cop's hand, she pulls out her copy of the penal code--which she keeps handily stashed in her dashboard compartment--and demands that they point out the law which she is breaking. They of course, are unable to do so. Then, she insists that if she is breaking the law, that they write her a ticket. This is also an impossible task for a patrol man--he has never been forced to write a ticket in his life.

The third way of getting out of a ticket, I have learned, is to work for the government. The other night, we were heading back from the centro, four of us crammed in to the back seat of the car, when we were pulled over. Like riding without a seat belt, we were clearly in the wrong. But after allowing a short inspection of the car, all my friend had to do was show him his government ID and we were back on the road without further troubles. Cops cannot ask for a bribe from a government official--even if he was only 21--because of the danger that he will report them. So even though everyone knows that cops take bribes, at the federal level it is treated as if it simply doesn't happen.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How to Eat Like a Mexican

Rule #1: Lime goes on everything. Tacos, soup, peanuts... The Spanish word for lime is limón, the word for lemon is lima.

Rule #2: Chile goes on everything. Add to the above list: mangoes, ice cream, popcorn...

Rule #3: Your quesadilla may or may not have cheese in it, and same goes for your taco. I have yet to find a distinguishable difference between these two menu items, but your beer will come in two distinct varieties: clara (light) and oscura (dark).

Rule #4: You will get sick. But that's probably just because the street tacos are so damn good.

Rule #5: Ordering anything "a la mexicana" not only means that it will be in the national style but that it will literally be painted in green, white and red sauces. Alternately, inviting someone to eat "a la americana" means that you will each pay for your own meal. 

Rule #6: Eating Mexican food will not make you fat. Eating Mexican food made with over-processed American ingredients will.

Rule #7: Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Failing to eat soup, rice, beans, quesadillas, a main course and dessert all in one sitting means you don't like the food.

Rule #8: Corn is still very much a dietary staple. Beans, however, were just taken out of the basic basket of consumer goods and are now considered a luxury item. 

Rule #9: At Sanborn's, an Appleby's-type chain restaurant, you can not only order food but buy electronics, stuffed animals, porn and airline tickets in the accompanying store. 

Rule #10: When ordering sopa (soup) it may or may not have liquid. A sopa of arroz con pollo is just a regular chicken dish.

¡Buen provecho!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Mexican Poor

You go to Mexico expecting to see poor people. And you do. But there is so much more to it than I ever imagined. For every person I see begging on the street I see a hundred more ambulantes--mobile sellers--hustling their wares every day on street corners, peseros and metro stations across the city. I went to Chiapas, and where there are some of the poorest people in the country there are also communities of resistance: Zapatista villages but also indigenous ethnic groups with their own tribunals and support systems, battling for their own right to live.

Today I was reading the NYTimes (as always), and came across an article on malnourished children in India. The pictures were extreme. It made me feel guilty, as I usually do, about not doing my part to help out in situations like that. Here I am, living in a country with soaring poverty rates in the middle of a recession and I am having the time of my life, traveling, studying, eating good food. But Mexicans, as with the rest of the global poor, are not just the passive victims they are portrayed as in the news, in need of a conscientious white girl to help them out. While the article highlighted the voices of experts and NGO members, it failed to show the efforts of the mothers, fathers, and community members working in their own way to deal with these situations. Of course, the indigent cannot simply pull themselves out of poverty--saying so is much like analyzing the poor without looking at the causes of wealth. But that being said, no one I know is as hard-working as the Mexican poor. And maybe in all this work there are some solutions worth listening to.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Birds and the Bees

I learned a long time ago that I shouldn't open the door for male friends. It is not a rule that is voiced aloud, but it creates an awkward little shuffle where the man, who had been moving to do the same, must then walk around me and in to the building. This was also the first time that I noticed my distinct culture--the traditions of my society that indicate certain roles for certain people. I do not consider this sexist but rather an innocuous partition of roles that maintains order in society--there is little confusion about whose job it is to enter in a door first.

Some people may disagree with me, and they are probably right. Gender roles are often deeply rooted in a sexist division of labor--that the man is stronger and therefore carries the corresponding role (such as hauling open a door). But these were once very useful practices. In Latin America the man is supposed to walk on the outside of the sidewalk, a tradition that I believe is rooted in the outdated custom of emptying human waste onto the sidewalk (which would therefore fall on the man and spare the woman), but today the sidewalk order also serves to protect the woman from the crazy drivers that traffic the roadway.

It is hard to say, however, where these roles should begin and end. When does it go from being a matter of harmless protocol (door opening) to actual sexism in society? 

My mind goes to other circumstances of sexual differentiation. On the bus, seats are offered to the elderly and those with children, but a man is often much more likely to offer an empty seat to a woman before he takes it himself. This can't be the most comfortable custom for him to adhere to, but much like opening doors it makes him a gentleman, putting him in a favorable light in society.

I wonder, however, if men are expected to fill these roles then what is expected of women? Surely the foil to the strong, sacrificing gentleman is the docile lady, accepting her role in society as taking a back seat to the manly decision making. After all, it is he who decides to open the door, to give up his seat. But I find this line of thought is hard to agree with. I have no problem opening doors or standing up on a crowded bus, although in the metro these situations of independence are the ones in which I am most likely to get harassed by a fellow male rider, taking advantage of my unprotected status.

Part of this exploration of gender roles involves analysis of culture. Like opening doors, what roles do men and women play to make society run smoother? While Mexico and the US share many basic customs, I have yet to figure out the exact role of women here in the capitol. I have found many Mexican men to be overly aggressive, which many attribute to the macho nature of society. When I get harassed with comments, many tell me to say nothing. They say it will get better if I ignore it. But I wonder how many thousands, millions, of women in the city alone must deal with this as well, with no obvious changes in the behavior of these men to speak of. What are their reactions to this culture?

My struggle is to find when it is OK to accept the docile role and when I must speak up for myself, to demand to be treated like a person instead of just playing the role of a woman. Certainly I will not let them harass me.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mexico City Gives Me Boogers

While I cannot find a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, there are several "informal" sources of insight:

According to Urban Dictionary, "city snot" comes from when "you live in a densely urban area with lots of pollution. You come home and blow your nose and see black boogers from all the smog and pollution. City snot - gross!"

In his book Understanding, J. Maarten Troost writes that "Every single person in China excretes physically impossible quantities of spit, snot and phlegm in public every single minute of every single day."

In terms of the capitol city I call home, The New York Times claims that for children, living in D.F. is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. By 1999, residents of the capitol were already breathing in "tiny airborne particles of bus exhaust, industrial smoke, garbage and what the authorities refer to, with scientific detachment, as fecal matter."

While my snot isn't exactly black (and I hope my exposure to fecal matter is limited), there is certainly more of it. Running is particularly a problem because even though I do it in the city's nursery, if I do not spit out my accumulating mucous my ears will be plugged up for the rest of the day.

It is also not uncommon to see people wearing surgeon's masks to block out the contamination, but I have heard it is to no use. This makes me at least feel less guilty for not wearing one.

And yes, the picture above is my own, proving that esmog is not merely a scientifically measurable phenomenon but rather visible to the naked eye on any day descending by plane into Mexico City.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Emerging out of the jungle after a grueling 5 hour car ride from San Cristóbal, we found ourselves in Palenque, a Mayan city at the base of the foothills on the way to the Atlantic Coast. The place has long been overgrown by dense forest, so much so that when Cortés and his men passed through here in the 1500s they did no even register its existence. Today only 2% of the ruins have been uncovered, the rest lie under hills of jungle trees and vines.

The temple above hosts the tomb of the Mayan king Pakal, who was coronated at the age of 12 by his mother (an engraving of the ceremony is pictured at the right). Like most members of royal families from around the world, Pakal was inbred and carried a physical deformity because of it. Depicted on this stone carving to the left is the king with one leg bent and the other straight to compensate for the different lengths of his appendages. In Mayan culture, physical deformities like this were seen as a sign of nobility or giftedness.

In the adjacent temple lies the tomb of the Reina Roja, an unidentified woman who was probably the wife of Pakal and later the queen of Palenque. Her bones were found dyed red as a result of a post-mortem treatment with cinnabar.

Next door is the Templo de la Calavera, with an image of the god of death carved in to the base of one of the pillars.

The palace overlooking these buildings has a maze of interior courtyards, including bedrooms with stone blocks for beds and toilets with plumbing. The walls are lined with carvings depicting famous rulers and the ceilings are done in ornate architecture. The palace also boasts the astronomy tower, the top half of which was rebuilt by archaeologists after it was destroyed by tree roots during the time it was buried. The Maya were some of the great astronomers of their time.

My favorite temple, of course, is the Templo de Maíz, the house of corn, pictured above. Corn was the staple food for all the people of Mesoamerica, having been bred there, and is rightly honored with this homage. Beneath and behind the temple rise hills, probably still-buried ruins of more Palenque sites. 

At the end of days, however, the Maya abandoned Palenque because of a series of wars over resources. Not only were food and space short, but the surrounding forest had been depleted of wood and other resources used to keep the city running. Like Teotihuacan around the same time, the city could not sustain itself.