Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bah Humbug en Español

In the morning the school down the street has its speakers on full blast and I am awakened to the tune of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas. It doesn't matter that this is Mexico, that we are in the desert in the dry season. The tinny speakers wail and croon, following up with Rumpa Pum Pum, which is more appropriate but equally annoying. 

Piñata stall
That evening I watch as a man perches precariously on a rickety ladder, twisting the  electrical wires of his house to a string of lights. Across the narrow cobblestone street another man stands on the rim of the bed of a pickup truck, reaching upwards with a large tinsel laden star attached to the string of lights in his hands, waiting for the signal to let go. On the street below a woman watches, surrounded by children. Mas para alla, she points, directing the operation from the advantage of her viewpoint. Move it over a little. The children hold their breath. A piñata strangled with blinking lights hangs above their heads from the neighboring house, where a door is propped open and warm light floods out, revealing a circle of people with hot mugs of ponche, singing and laughing, practicing for the posadas. A young girl dressed as an angel leans forward in her wooden chair so as not to damage her feathery white wings. 

Tonight the posadas will amble down the cobblestone streets, the virgin Mary propped against a paper mache burro, her accompanying angel in prayer pose, and a bored young Joseph, breathing in the fumes from the flatbed truck upon which they are so precariously perched. Piñatas will drop from balconies and children will pummel them with sticks until candy rains down and they scramble for the treats as the traffic backs up behind them.

Cool stuff for your personalized Nativity scene

Every year the markets become a Christmas Bazaar where you can buy clumps of moss and lichen and bromeliads and cactus and a myriad of plastic animals and figurines for your nativity scene.Piles of wise men, sheep, cows, palm trees. Marys and Josephs and angels and pigs, yellow
ducks and cherubs and flamingos. And of course, baby Jesus himself, in every color, shape and size.

Baby Jesus in Bondage
In the shops the  tinny sounds of Christmas songs emitting from strands of blinking lights adorn plastic Santas, which share the shelves with the baby Jesuses. Burros and reindeer eye each other suspiciously. Snowmen grin from glitter encrusted Christmas cards, and all is merry and bright, even though most of the people here have never seen snow, and most likely never will.

And who am I to say it should be any different? 

The Piñata Song

Dale, dale, dale,
no pierdas el tino;
Porque si lo pierdes
pierdes el camino. 
Ya le diste una,
Ya le diste dos;
Ya le diste tres,
y tu tiempo se acabó

Hit it, hit it, hit it
Don't lose your aim
Because if you lose it 
You will lose the path. 
You've already hit it once
You've already hit it twice
You've already hit it three times
And now your time is over

Rooftop Santa



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In Guad We Trust

"La Morena"

At the end of the tiny passageway of our street a crude Virgin of Guadalupe is painted on a brick wall. Here on a street called Refuge, between the roads called Hope and Treasure. 
What could be more auspicious?

You see her all over town; painted, carved,  baked onto tiles. Statues of her encaged in metal bars, peeking out from niches in the walls, adorning the marketplaces and churches, offerings of flowers and candles at her feet. Printed on T-shirts and shopping bags, keychains and tattoos. The blue robed goddess with golden rays, stars on her mantle, proudly perched on a crescent moon.

The theory is that if you have a Virgin of Guadalupe image on your house she will protect you from those who wish to do you harm, such as spray your walls with graffiti, leave their garbage on your doorstep, or rob your home. It is hoped that no Mexican vandal with an ounce of faith would commit a crime beneath her beseaching and compassionate gaze. The higher the fear of crime is in a neighborhood, the more Guadalupes you find. It seems that more and more of them are appearing on the walls and in the doorways of well built homes and pieced together shacks everywhere. In the richer areas she is carved and painted and decked out in all the glory money can buy. Outside the poorer houses she is painted crudely on the walls of unfinished brickwork with house paint. In all cases she carries the same message. I forgive you, she seems to say. But still, please don't tag my wall, break into my house or let your dog shit on my doorway.

And here, at the bottom of my alley, on the morning of December 12th, day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, someone has placed pots of blooming flowers and lit candles at her feet in a touching tribute to Our Lady. After all, no matter how she appears, how crudely or misshapen she is represented by well meaning artists, she still represents what we all long for; an all embracing and loving Mom who forgives us our flawed childish human ways and offers refuge from life's struggles and challenges. Someone who cares about us- who shares our suffering and offers mercy, who gives from the heart of hearts and shows us that there are indeed miracles in this life, whether you believe in them or not.


For more links to The Virgin of Guadalupe on this blog, 
click HERE


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Creative Solutions

The winner of this weeks 'most creative award' for electrical solution goes to the owners of a house on Calle Refugio where the typical front porch light bulb dangling from a hole in the wall, is transformed into an elegant statement of simplicity, functionality and pure thriftiness. Behold the beauty that blossoms from the simple desire to be illuminated.

Keepin' it real, people.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Survive the End of Time

Mayan Calendar
So the countdown to the end of the Mayan calendar has begun, and  with less than a month to go, there are more theories than days of the year to fire up our imaginations as to what this may mean for the planet and those that inhabit it. The Mayan calendar, designed around cycles of time, began on August 13th, 3114 BC, and ends on December 21st, 2012, completing a 5,200 year cycle. 
Everyone from astrologers to movie directors are telling us to  be prepared for anything from a doomsday apocalypse to cosmic paradigm shifts. 
But exactly how does one prepare for the possibility of a monumental change when we really have no idea what to expect?

Ixcacao, goddess of Chocolate
Well, I for one have a plan. And it has to do with eating enormous amounts of chocolate.
Here's my theory:

It is reported that the Mayans consumed copious amounts of chocolate in the form of a hot drink, derived from cacao beans called xocoatl (In fact, our word "chocolate" is believed to have come from this very word). 

It is a scientific fact that the effects of chocolate on the brain are positive ones, and that consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols, a major ingredient of dark chocolate, boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen,  helping to increase performance in specific tasks and boost general alertness. Not to mention helping to create a race of highly intelligent creative people.

Why was Mayan culture so much more advanced in scientific achievements  than other civilizations of its time? Aside from developing a complex calendar and one of the world's first written languages, they were adept at mathematics and were believed to have invented the number zero. They were also master astronomers and were able to predict solar eclipses, and built major cities without the use of the wheel. 

Could there be a connection? I'm betting that there is. 
As it turns out, the site of Izapa, the center of the ancient Mayan civilization that is considered to be the birthplace of the Mayan calendar, is the very same place where cacao was first cultivated, traded, and drunk by the gallon by thousands of Mayans. 

Classic Mayan vase painting 
depicting chocolate drink

What better reason could there be for indulging in my favorite food? So bring on the truffles, dark chocolate candy bars, hot cocoa, double chocolate fudge ice cream, chocolate mousse! Perhaps the increased blood flow to my brain will help me to survive the end of time and whatever cataclysmic changes that result from it. 
And if turns out not to be true, that December 21st is just another day like any other, then the worst thing that may happen is I'll gain a few pounds. Which, when put into perspective next to the possibility of an apocalypse, doesn't seem like such a bad thing, after all. 


Disclaimer: Please understand that this is only a theory based on my own imaginative and wishful musings...


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mark's Mexico

I'm not sure what I got myself into here. Late at night when I wake up in our temporary home and stare up at the cupola above our bed, my mind cranks out scenes of certain failure and a gruesome death. The gears turn and my confidence and the sense of unlimited possibilities that I felt during the day turn to nightmares of doom.

The inside of my head

I'm the type of person that likes routine and things I can count on, the familiar. For me, here in San Miguel, this is the antithesis of that idea. And though I know intellectually that overcoming my fear of the unfamiliar is an important personal challenge for me, one that I willingly accept and desire, it's still a huge struggle and conflicts with my overriding base interest to be comfortable and at peace.

So, I concentrate on the culture, observing the ways of the people. I learn the terrain and become very familiar with the map of the city memorizing as many street names as possible. I study my Spanish lessons with a clear focus and I do all of these things in the interest of fitting in and assimilating and ultimately replacing my old comforts and familiar routines with new. Reacquiring my sense of peace in a new land with new ways.

When you need it and where
Very accessible
While these late night feelings of terror soon dissipate with the morning sun and I resume my activities to pursue a permanent place to live and a new career, I can't help but occasionally be reminded of my late night fears for brief moments now and again. Especially when I struggle with my very poor Spanish to make myself understood. But here in San Miguel, I don't stay self centered for long as there is so much real life going on around me all the time. My objectivity is reinforced by marching bands with mojigangas that come out of nowhere, crowds of revelers trailing behind celebrating who knows what. Fireworks set off for no apparent reason light up the night and break through the normal noise of barking dogs, screaming kids and traffic, with startling percussive. As a handyman I'm also distracted and curious about the way the trades people apply their crafts, especially the electricians. Always interesting and usually amusing. For some reason, these things help keep me grounded and out of my head.


On the other hand, Mexico is the perfect place for my personality type. The surreal sense of place here allows for wakeful dreaming, a way to lose myself. I walk down the cobbled street back home into the glare of the sun and pass a teenage boy sitting at the step of the darkened doorway to his home, a fighting cock held on his lap. The sharp angle of the sun highlighting the colors of the golden bronze feathers with steel blue highlights. His white dog stands beside him following me as I pass with pale blue eyes. Further on an old drunk Mexican man resides at the curb nursing a home made drink in a plastic soda bottle. He calls to me as I pass, "Mijo!" and I don't understand the rest of his inebriated plead. My first impulse is to ignore him and carry on but something in his voice tells me to regard him with respect and I see he's pointing to the white plastic cap that goes to his bottle. It's somehow rolled to the center of the street. I turn back and get it for him, placing it in his weathered hand, and he acknowledges my sympathy with more unintelligible words. I move on and reflect on the exchange and feel glad I took the time to help. This is my Mexico.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Transitions 2

Autumn in Mexico

Welcome back to Gringado, where we hope to once again enlighten and entertain you with our adventures and observations in Mexico.
We have been back in San Miguel for a whole week, and it is as if we never left.
The sky is still blue as a dagger, the roof dogs greet us from every corner, happy to annoy us once again, and the cobblestones are littered with bougainvillea blossoms.

This year we are taking 'The Big Leap,' and are planning to stay in Mexico indefinitely (yikes!) 
So after selling most of our stuff and  cramming the rest into a 10X10 storage space, we packed our essentials into several overstuffed worn suitcases. Tubes of paint, canvases, yoga mat, thick soled shoes, and of course a mind boggling amount of beer  equipment, which to me could have easily passed for suspicious bomb making supplies. But as usual the customs guy just grinned with amusement. Home made cerveza??? ¡Que bueno!  And only then could I breathe easily and take the Mexican air into my lungs- that earthy, smoky, early morning desert air, and realize that we have finally done it. 
We have crossed over to the other side. 
Whatever that means. 
We will try to keep you posted.

Meanwhile, a prose poem, written after the flight...

Some Personal Items May Have Shifted During Flight

Some personal items may have shifted during flight,
during the time that your wheels left the ground
and you became suspended in a place
between the one you have grown tired of
and the one that you fear but must go towards.

It could be that your heart is not where you left it,
It may be jostled and nudged into a far corner or split open
From the pressure of the flight.

Open the overhead bin carefully, lest the loose ends of your life
find a foothold in someone else's luggage.
Lest you accidentally grab someone else's stories by mistake,
and forever lose your own, which have taken so long to collect.

Some items may have shifted during flight.
Perhaps your personal bits of ephemera
have been tossed and unsettled from unforeseen turbulence
and what you once held dear is only so much fluff in the wind.

You had best check the contents of your luggage
to see if it is lighter or heavier than you remember.
If it is the latter then be sure to toss out a few unnecessary items
so that you will have space for new ones.
If it is the former then lucky you, you may proceed with joy.

Some personal items may have shifted during flight.
Your memories, for instance, or your fear of death.
Worries and concerns may be lost and unfounded. 
It could be that your neatly organized opinions
have turned over or smashed into shards of broken glass

Perhaps you open your suitcase to discover
that all that has meaning is in fact invisible,
transparent as a ghost.
Syllables may have been added to your name
And your reflection might be of someone you hardly recognize

In the hollow space where you kept your fear
you may now find fragments of hope,
And perhaps few twinges of excitement,
And one lone crazy  red sock.

Some personal items - your agenda, your state of mind,
may be altered beyond recognition
as you find yourself disembarking
on a new land that feels strangely familiar
yet foreboding all at once.

Perhaps the sequence of things seems a little scrambled.
Suddenly there is no longer a forward or a backward, 
Only this: A gentle expansion and contraction,
the simple tug and pull of muscle and desire,
pulsing to a beat so universal, so primal,
it becomes your own simple heart beating
to a rhythm you recall 
from a time before wings.

-Susan Dorf


Sunday, April 8, 2012


Blooming Jacaranda
It's a bittersweet sign when the Jacarandas bloom in March and the bursts of purple trees appear all over town, accompanied by frantic birdsong and the delicious scent of orange blossoms. Spring is here, and that means it is time to leave Mexico and head back to the cool foggy coast of Santa Cruz.

After a long trip home I spend the day in bed, waiting for my guts to unclench after the flight, listening to the cool swish of cars on the clean asphalt road outside the window and the odd silence of a roosterless morning, while Mark scurries about like an excited kid, happy to be back with his guitars and brewing gizmos. I can hear him in the shower marveling at the water pressure, beside himself when his car starts on the first try after 4 months, strangely eager to go shopping for all the little food items he has missed, like peanut butter and frozen pizzas. 

Slowly I make the transition from one reality to another, from the noise and chaos and color of Mexico to the muted orderly life in the US. Instead of magenta bougainvillea there are daisies and irises. Instead of processions of bloody Jesuses there are happy Easter Bunnies and baskets of pastel colored eggs. Both equally puzzling.

I'm glad to be back at sea level breathing coastal air and taking  long walks on the beach and seeing old friends. And  I am filled with a sense of contentment and gratitude for the diversity and gifts of both worlds. In the back of my mind, however, I can feel the familiar the longing to return that has already begun...

Mexico City

-posted by Susan

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Sacred and the Profane

The solemn pilgrims bearing the bloody "Lord of the Column"
arrived at dawn in San Miguel to church bells and fireworks
after an all night pilgrimage from the sanctuary of Atotonilco.

Later the same day, a parade of costumed "locos" dance and march down our street
to the lively blaring of a brass band to celebrate who knows what.

Easter is coming and the suffering of Christ is celebrated with elaborate ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims carry the bloodied and beaten image of Jesus several miles through the desert arriving at dawn in San Miguel to fireworks, the clanging of church bells and beautiful carpets of scented flowers releasing the scent of chamomile, fennel and oranges as the dusty feet of the pilgrims trample them on their journey to the church. Clusters of shawled grandmothers sing hymns and battered trumpets play a sad and mournful tune as the hunched figure of the 'Lord of the Column' wobbles by above the dark heads of the faithful.
We sip chocolate atole and munch tamales from the sidelines as the sun rises into the lightening sky, casting macabre shadows on the nearby crumbling walls.

In the afternoon I run out of my house to the sound of oompa music, only to see doorways opening up and down the street from which dozens of costumed people emerge wearing masks and feathers, dancing and wiggling down the street followed by a brass band. Old ladies and children dressed as birds, aliens, rabbits and devils. The 'Locos' bumping and grinding and twirling down the cobblestones under plastic banners, surrounded by clouds of dust and crazy joy.

In Mexico, everything is a contradiction. Or maybe it just appears that way to those of us who are accustomed to a logical order to things and a predictable, insulated life. In order to maintain one must learn to be in the moment and remind oneself over and over that everything changes constantly. Because it does.
Not only in the external world, but in the emotional world as well. Moods swing from elation to sadness to frustration to tenderness in a heartbeat.


posted by Susan (reposted from Notes from the Island blog- 2010)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Packing Mescal

I was invited by friend and fellow Mexican homebrewer Barry to go on a little road trip the other day. A 90 mile excursion north to the 'Valley of the Kings' near the city of San Luis Potosi located in the Free and Sovereign State of San Luis Potosi. Our goal? Cheap but delicious mezcal.

The wheel that crushed the agave
Barry drove us North East for most of the ninety miles through the wide open spaces of the high desert. Vast expanses of beautiful Mexican countryside flew past us as he swerved around the slow moving farm tractors and autobuses until we reach a rugged unpaved road off the highway leading us to the mescaleria slash dairy farm. A couple of farm hands (possibly armed guards) removed the padlock from the chained gate allowing us to enter. They didn't question our motives, our thirst for alcohol obviously evident on our parched faces.

 Secret door to the mezcal

Another couple hundred yards of driveway and we came to an adobe building as old as the hills and the same color with the exception of the printed sign claiming to be the "Fabrica de Mezcal San Francisco". The excitement was building as we entered the compound. Nobody was around and I took the opportunity to get a couple of photographs of the antique machinery. This was at one time a large scale operation judging by the enormous grinding wheel and press used to process the agave pina for it's sugars, but most of this equipment obviously hadn't been used in many years.

You may ask what the difference is between mescal and tequila? Mainly, in any product distilled from the maguey, it's the type of plant. There are numerous plants that fall into this family. The blue agave that grows within the state of Jalisco is considered and sanctioned by Mexico as 'True' tequila. But, generally speaking, it can be considered tequila if it is produced using only the blue agave plant no matter the region. Mescal (spelled with a z in Spanish) can be made with a variety of plants and raicilla is made with an entirely different plant. In other words, the plant type is the main difference.

Barrels of fun
Plasticos de mezcal

It wasn't long before a farmhand met us and then disappeared through a pair of ancient wooden doors into the darkness of the earthen building. The new equipment somewhere deep within was kept hidden from prying eyes, like mine. We were not allowed into the facility to see their operation and I was disappointed about this but it didn't stop me from shoving my camera into the doorway to get of shot of a wooden barrel used for aging the mescal. I could also see our attendant pouring mescal through a funnel from large plastic drums into our smaller containers. But, that was about it.

He brought the filled containers back out and we paid the 35 peso per liter fee and thanked him for his efforts. 35 pesos by the way, at today's rate, is the equivalent of about $2.50 a liter. For good home distilled mescal, that's an amazing cost. I was anxious to sample some and just outside I took a sip from my bottle. Smooth and dry with a mild smokey flavor. In the wrong hands (mine) I could tell this could get you into trouble. Easy to drink and flavorful with none of the burn or bite in the back of the throat. Barry suggested it be drunk chilled with lime. I'll be taking his suggestion very soon. This is a lot different than the mescal I brought back from the Palomas Mensajeras distillery in Patzcuaro a couple of years ago. It is far less smokey and judging from the taste and burn I'd say it has a lower percentage of alcohol too but I can't determine that at this time.As we posed for a picture outside I experienced a bit a container envy as I held one of my two 600 milliliter water bottles and compared it to Barry's five (count them 5) full gallon jugs set at our feet.

Packing for home

But, I was preparing to leave San Miguel in a few days and I needed to consider how much I could pack into my checked baggage. I hear you're only allowed 2 liters of alcohol at the most. I've also got some raicilla and a bottle of tequila infused beer that needed to be packed, so this was the most mescal I dared take.
I'm excited to share this mescal with my homebrew club when I return to Santa Cruz and maybe do a taste comparison with the raicilla but for now I need to get busy, I've got a few homebrews to drink before we leave San Miguel. Cheers!


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Gifts of San Antonio

San Antonio
We wake up every morning to the sound of sweeping, and something that sounds like a cross between a monkey and a rooster. It's the grandmother, the Abue', sweeping up the leaves and bougainvillea blossoms in the garden below with Picotes, her pet crow hopping beside her, chuckling and cawing in what appears to be a vain attempt to mimic the human language and the roosters next door. She shuffles along in her pink bedroom slippers, a long silver braid down her back. He picks up a magenta flower in his beak from the swept pile and the Abue' knocks him  aside with her broom and he squawks and flutters his blunted wings at her. It is an endless game they play together, and is becoming as familiar to us as the church bells, the tap tapping of metal at the nearby herraduria, and the ceaseless coo of palomas in the nearby tree branches.

The Abue' never smiles or says buenos dias to us, unlike the old woman in the shop on the corner, who sits day after day in her dark empty store before a table of dried pomegranates, nodding and mumbling to everyone who walks by. One day I went inside and offered her a mango from my bolsa full of produce. Is it dulce? She asked me, and I said that I hoped that it was very sweet. Good, she said, then I will save it for my postre. Her eyes twinkled in that way of old Mexican women who look ancient beyond their years, and I wanted to ask her who she was and what happened to her shop. Intead I just stood there with my bag of fruit and vegetables and then just left, somehow realizing that one mango is not enough to win such confidence. These things take time.

Maneuvering over the broken concrete steps outside, I stumble past a pile of used dog-eared books laid in neat rows on the cobblestones. Poetry books, pulp fiction and philosophy, dusty old encyclopedias, a stack of ancient National geographic magazines. Felipe sits in the doorway of his house, the one with the roosters and puppies and plants in rusty coffee cans vying for space in a tiny dirt courtyard that I can see from my rooftop. He dreams of owning a bookstore one day, but can not afford the rent, because most of his earnings go to medical bills for his six year old daughter who suffers from a kidney disorder. I buy a Mexican cookbook and a Spanish grammar book for Mark, which he will open only once. Why don't you advertise? I ask him. Put a few flyers around, get the word out, rather than depend on the randomness of passersby? But he just shrugs. Poco a poco, he says. Little by little. He is in no hurry, he can wait for the world to find him. There is plenty of time for dreams to come true. I smile as I bite my capitalist tongue, and open the door to my apartment. Wait, says Felipe, holding up a thin, yellow-paged book of Spanish short stories titled Los Angelos Blancos del Delirio- The White Angels of Delirium. You will like this one, he says, and hands it to me, smiling. A gift.

The street where we live

Sometimes I feel a little guilty about my own personal struggles, which at times seem to pale in comparison to my neighbors here in la colonia San Antonio, who struggle on a daily basis with health and poverty and yet seem to manage playfulness and dignity and an inner strength that I could only hope to achieve. And yet I see us all sharing a similar human need for purpose and meaning in our lives, whatever form that takes. Even if it is only for ourselves. 

A statue of San Antonio himself watches over us from the corner of the church down the street. He rises up above a dry fountain, clutching a pink plastic lily. I used to think it was real, and that the people replaced it with a fresh one every day. It was Mark who quelled my romantic notions and gave me a harsh reality check. In his gentle down to earth manner, and with much rolling of eyes, by telling me 'It's plastic, for godsakes!' And of course he's right. Nevertheless, San Antonio, patron saint of lost and stolen articles, has helped me find my heart, which I perhaps didn't even know I had lost until now. My heart, that stubborn and fearful beast, is being pried open, poco a poco, by every person I meet here in the broken streets of my neighborhood.

Picotes the crow takes the bright bougainvillea blossom to a corner of the garden and buries it beneath a pile of debris. Who knows why he does this? Perhaps in his own feathered way he is finding a purpose, a way of holding on to something beautiful and precious. Or perhaps he is just following an ancient crow ritual or instinct that even he does not understand.

-posted by Susan

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pages From Mark's Journal

O.K. I get it. Writing is hard. Sometimes you're just not inspired even when immersed in a unique and exciting culture like here in San Miquel, where anything can happen. What to do? You could dig deep into your psyche and dredge up a little creative poetry that captures the essence of a moment or that tells a story about your Mexican experience. Some creative writing that inspires, repels or just plane lays out the truth of the matter.

Getting ready to throw a treat to the landlords dog below
our balcony. Maybe he'll stop

That's one option, or as some (who shall remain nameless Susan) might do, you could simply take the easy way out and post a few drawings of the local scenes that you've captured over the weeks. Maybe add a caption below each with a single sentence that sums up the poignant moment.

Just as I was about to enjoy a cup of coffee
at Juan's Cafe, an elderly man begins to
explain to his hard of hearing friend, the
complications of his recent colonoscopy.
Evidently, there was some sort of vein
perforation involved.
"Who's hungry for breakfast?"
While walking the path at the Charco desert
park we came upon what appeared to
be some kind of strange fox/racoon half breed.
Oh yeah, and a bird.

Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander as they say so I submit in like manner these drawings that I hope will accurately convey my recent activities here in the Corazon de Mexico.

- Posted by Mark