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.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Chiapas was full of an amazing natural beauty that I had not anticipated on my trip. In the brief time we were there we saw waterfalls, bright blue swimming holes, caves, lakes and a beautiful countryside. In the three days I managed to trek over almost half the state, seeing nothing but beauty along the way. Even long drives through the countryside revealed Zapatista villages, and on the Sunday we passed through you could see families along the road going to visit neighbors. Here are some highlights of the trip: