Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Random Adventures

These past couple of weeks have been really crazy. We've taken two major trips the past couple weekends (each deserving their own post, so photos of that will come later), but a lot has happened during the week and in between as well. Here are a bunch of pictures, in no particular order of some of our random adventures.

So we went to a soccer game a few weekends ago, and that was a VERY cultural experience. The local team here is called "los gallos" which translates as "the roosters." A bunch of people from our group went together, but there were 4 of us that decided we wanted to go with Pedro, one of our crazy Mexican friends. While all of our friends were sitting up in the regular seats watching, we were standing/jumping/chanting in the "fan section," right in the middle of the most passionate of fans. For starters, we were the only ones in the section not wearing Gallos jerseys, and who didn't know every word to every chant. There were drums and a band that played throughout the entire game, keeping the section very energized. As the game went on, we caught on to the words of a few of the chants...and let's just say that chanting those same words at a football game would probably get you ejected pretty quickly. Oh, and...our chairs didn't have backs on them because no one sits down during the entire game...the seats are merely platforms on which to stand so your presence can be more visibly felt. At various points in the game, people threw things into the crowd, like thunder sticks, which empowered the crowd to become even more enthusiastic than they were with just their voices and the band. My favorite part about the experience was when the Gallos scored. We had to literally jump onto the fence that separated the field from the stands (because we were in the front row of course) and hold on for dear life. The entire section rushes forward and yells "goooooaaaaalllll" for about 2 minutes straight, all while it is raining beer and people are going insane. For this reason, you aren't allowed into the section with a belt because people have a tendency to whip them around out of excitement. I think I am starting to understand why people die at World Cup games...people are very passionate about their teams. Luckily, the crowd left happy because the Gallos won 2-1 over Monterrey. It was an effective use of a Saturday afternoon to say the least. 

One day, we got invited by some of the professors at our school to go to a festival (fería) in a very small pueblito called Bolle. There really isn't a whole lot going on in Bolle. Actually, it's only an hour away, and my señora hasn't ever heard of it before, so there's pretty much nothing going on in Bolle. Once a year, they have a festival devoted entirely to barbocoa, which is the only reason anyone would ever go there. In America, barbocoa is a marinated shredded beef, and it's really tasty. However, in Mexico, it's a marinated sheep that cooks in a hole in the ground overnight - much like a Hawaiian luau - only you're eating sheep. Surprisingly, it was really tasty, so we went back for seconds. There's an ancient method to cooking the meat using specific spices and agave leaves (the plant that is used to make taquila) as insulation for the fire. The people of Bolle are really proud of their barbocoa, and they love to tell you all about it. Additionally, we learned that there is a drink you're supposed to have with it called Pulka. It dates back from the indigenous times, and is what Moctezuma is said to have drunk with the Spanish. We tried it, and it tasted awful...silly indigenous people had such bad alcohol! Luckily, it's never very difficult to find a beer at a Mexican festival, so we washed that kurtled milk flavor right out. I love to make fun of Bolle just because it is so tiny, but it was fun to get to see a different part of Mexico than just the city. It was a good half day adventure for sure. 
Another weekend, we went to Tequisquiapan - a small town about an hour from Querétaro. The town consisted of a lot of stores that sold your stereotypical Mexican crap that you get home and wonder why you ever bought it, but it was a pretty town and we got free food. After spending the morning in the town (and being forced to go to a basket factory by our professor who thought it would be fun), we went to a pool. It was super fun to get to play..and they had a REALLY tall REALLY unsafe water slide that was the highlight of the day. You seriously could feel the G forces as you went down because it was that fast. 
The chapel in Tequisquiapan. Like I said, it's a pretty place to visit. There isn't a lot going on, but it's super mellow.

So the Tequisquiapan trip was supposed to be a day trip, but a few of us got invited by someone's family to spend the night. We didn't have anything going the next day, so we wound up staying in Tequis and going to the vineyards just outside of the town the next morning. It was fun to get to meet some more Mexican friends, and hang out with them for the night. Then, the next day, we went to breakfast with the whole family (about 12 people) in the mercado. That was some of the best food we've eaten in Mexico, and it cost a whopping 3 dollars. It's funny how the locals really do know where to go. We're learning more and more to just hop in the car with our Mexican friends and hope it works out. Usually, things turn out so much better than we could have planned them, and we have entirely different experiences than people who stick with the bigger group, or let Westmont plan everything. The vineyard was really pretty, and it was a good chance to see something different in Mexico that came up unexpectedly. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Independence Week

In America we celebrate the Fourth of July for one day, have a barbecue, watch some fireworks and call it good. I love the Fourth of July...the weather, the activities, the fireworks...it's all great. However, Independence Day in Mexico looks a little different than Independence Day in America. Ok...it's completely different. Actually, it's pretty much one giant party from Tuesday through Friday, or whenever the 13-16 of September come around every year. Before I left for Mexico, the people who went on the program last year told me to be excited for the week of Independencia, and they tried to explain why but I just couldn't figure out how a glorified Fourth of July could be so cool. Well, they were right. I was completely underestimating how great the week could be. Here's the rundown from the week. Just as you start to think you're imagining something that would never happen in real life, think crazier and you'll be close to what we experienced that week. 

So the festivities all started on Tuesday afternoon with a parade from one end of the Centro to another. The people who were participating are called Concheros. Basically, they are these people who get together every year to learn a very specific indigenous dance that is said to have come from Pre-hispanic Mexico. On Tuesday, they paraded all through the centro and ended up in the Templo de la Cruz, where the ceremonies officially began. They brought with them incense, alters to indigenous and Christian gods, their children, animals, masks, anything you can imagine that could ever be considered emotionally significant found its way into the parade. Church bells were ringing, fireworks were going off, and drums were echoing through the cobblestone streets for the rest of the week non-stop starting on Tuesday. People brought all sorts of birds, crafts, and food to offer at the beginning of the celebration. At one point, there were hundreds of bird cages in front of the church, and they were being set free as offerings to the church. It was interesting to see the indigenous type of offerings against a very Catholic backdrop. In America, this contrast would cause a concern because people would not feel wholly allegiant to one religion, but the festivities seek to emphasize the hybrid of the two that is very prevalent in Mexico. After the parade, hundreds of vendors filled the plaza, and it was a time of celebration. We left around midnight, and the party had just barely gotten going. The Concheros all went into the church to conduct an all night vigil before they started their dancing the next day. 

On Wednesday morning, the dancing began. The dance and all its elements are a very interesting fusion of indigenous and Catholic tradition. For example, the actual dance moves are said to be ancient, but the dancers dance with their varying troops in a circle around Catholic alters. Also, they are all dressed up in body paint, elaborate headdreses and indigenous type clothing. It's quite the spectacle. The best part of the dance is the incredible unity that can be felt among the dancers. They all wear shells that rattle around their ankles, and there are moments when the shells all start and stop rattling in unison. There are at least 30 different troops consisting of anywhere between 20-50 dancers all around one of the major plazas in the city. The whole Centro is shut down to traffic for a few days because people are dancing anywhere they can find a space (when the plaza fills up they typically opt for the street). Each troop recognizes a different tradition, or has a different interpretation of what the dance means to them. We got to interview a few of the Concheros, and each one of them was dancing for a different reason. Some claimed it was a peaceful way to fight for indigenous rights, others claimed to be participating in a tradition that their family had always been a part of, and still others claimed that it was an important representation of the syncretism that exists in Mexico between the indigenous and European worlds and religions. The reasons for the dancing seemed to come in secondary to the spirit of celebration and unity that was very tangible. The Concheros continued dancing straight through Thursday night. That's more than 48 hours of dancing in the streets. Some of them went home at various points, but the festivities never completely stopped until Thursday evening.

One of my favorite parts of the week was the "Castillo" on Wednesday night. On our way home from a concert in the Plaza, we walked straight into an enormous crowd standing around what looked like a giant scaffolding in the dark. One of the people in our group took one look at it and said, "that would be so much cooler if they lit it on fire and the whole thing just blew up..." Of course, he was totally kidding and we were trying to figure out what the crowd was so excited for. After staring at it for 10 minutes, all the sudden we hear what sounds like a firecracker and the whole thing lights up and starts shooting fireworks into the sky. We were maybe 10 meters from the actual structure...and it wasn't the safest experience of my life, but the spectacle of it all put any fireworks display at Disneyland to shame. They lit each of the four sides on fire over the course of 20 minutes, and different sides would start sparking, spinning, launching into the sky, or shooting rays of fire straight into the crowd. At one point, the very top didn't light how it was supposed to, so some crazy Mexican climbed the ignited scaffolding to light it by hand and ensure that the show must go on. Mexicans certainly do love their fireworks! After that experience, we could understand why. It was super exhilarating to watch because you feel like your life is in danger, but at the same time you don't want to leave because it is so cool. We all went home smelling like fireworks, but it was well worth a dirty sweater. 

On Thursday morning, we made it to the Centro around 11am, and the Concheros were just starting up their dancing again after a long night of vigils and little rest. We got to watch how they start their dance, through a very structured system of prayers, offerings and chants. They essentially re-construct the alter every time they start dancing, or at the start of a new day. The tradition of it all was impressive. After watching the dancing for a little while, we headed home to catch a nap before the evening festivities. Some people do not attend or pay attention to the Concheros because they choose not to acknowledge their indigenous backgrounds (typically the upper class who are very proud to be European and not mestizo), but everyone celebrates on the 15th and 16th because it is the actual Independencia. Technically, Independence Day is the 16th, but everyone parties hard on the 15th, so the actual Independence Day has become more of a recovery day. It's kind of like New Years Eve and New Years Day. 

Thursday night, we met a few of our friends downtown. There were all kinds of street vendors selling traditional Mexican food, sugary treats, and of course, cotton candy. The crowd was all decked out in their red, white, and green (the colors of the flag). Some people were especially festive and wore enormous sombreros and fake mustaches to get the full effect of their patriotism. After eating some tacos and sweets, we had to make our way to the Plaza de Armas to stake out our spot for the Grito. The Grito is the primary event of Mexican Independence Day, and was originally given by Dolores Hidalgo at a church in the town that is now named after him. Grito translates as "shout." When Hidalgo gave the first Grito, it was kind of like a declaration of independence from the European dominance. It started the fight for "Mexico for the Mexicans."At the end of his speech, Hidalgo yelled "¡Viva México!" and a whole bunch of provinces in the country, and the crowd responded "¡Viva!" Basically, the Grito today reenacts this original act of defiance, and is a chance for Mexicans to celebrate their country. The President gives a Grito that is televised in Mexico City, standing on a balcony that overlooks the big plaza in the city. Additionally, each governor gives a similar Grito in their state. The Grito that we attended was a crazy experience. We were all packed into the plaza (fuller than any concert I've ever been to), and just had to wait for a couple of hours. The actual Grito is given at 11pm, but if you want a spot in the plaza, you have to get there early. There was live mariachi music on the stage up front, and the crowd anxiously awaited the emergence of the Governor from his house. The actual Grito lasted about 5 minutes, he rang the bell, and there were fireworks on all sides of us. They shot off all the buildings surrounding the plaza, and again, it was raining ash. It was quite the spectacle to say the least. Oh! And people spray foam everywhere after the Grito. It's just like silly string, only more bubbly. It really was just one giant block party. Mexicans certainly know how to party. 

After the Grito, almost no one goes home. An evening full of festivities was just the beginning. A few of us went to a club with a few Mexican friends. All night long, they were giving out free shots of tequila, people would yell "¡Viva México!" at will, and everyone would take a shot. Even in the club, the camaraderie was impressive that night, and clubs are usually places of great social tension. Of course, there were more sparklers and fireworks all night long inside, and the party was just getting going when we went home around 2:30 in the morning. When I got home, my family (who had refrained from attending the Grito) was sitting around the table chatting it up. I joined them, and an hour later, we all decided it would be a really good idea to paint our faces and take a picture. I don't really know why this sounded like such a great idea at the time, but the picture turned out fantastic! Who knew it was possible to be so patriotic for another country? Oh well...¡viva México!

All in all, I would say Independencia was a success. It was a giant party, but there was definitely meaning behind all the partying. When I sat down to write some reflections from the event, I realized that I learned a ton about how Mexicans see themselves, and how the interesting combination of indigenous and European life construct something that is uniquely Mexican. Before the events, we read a bunch about what it means to be Mexican, but the academic attempts of really smart people didn't do it justice. I have started to gain a very elementary understanding of how Mexican society works, and I'm realizing just how complex culture can be. It's really interesting to see how much I learn on accident, even thought it doesn't feel like I am doing hardly any school work. 

The castillo during the day

the castillo exploding!

typical conchero

the beginnings of an alter of the Concheros. the guitar is called a "concha" and is made from the shell of an armadillo

more concheros

the governor giving the Grito

a photo of the plaza during the grito

they're pretty patriotic...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Daily life is finally pretty normal...but here are some highlights

Hi everyone! Sorry it has taken so long to fill you all in on what I've been up to here in Querétaro. Some crazy things have happened, but the problem is that everything is becoming so normal. Before, I wanted to tell every story and give you a play by play because it was so radically different from what we consider to be normal or acceptable. Now, what happens on a daily basis is pretty typical...which is a really weird experience, especially as I go back and read my journals from the first couple weeks. So...I think I'm just going to to post pictures of some highlights to catch you all up, and tell the story of each photo as they come to mind. It will be less of a play by play, but you'll still get some pretty great laughs out of it all. :)

Another picture of Carmen and I. This just showed up from the first week we were here. 
Yep...that's a dog on the roof. It's the Mexican approach to birth control. When the dog is in heat, they put it on the roof so it doesn't have puppies. We all thought this was hilarious, so we took a picture. There are dogs on the roof almost everywhere we go. 

I stole these pictures from google image search, but they are pictures of the club we went to one night. At one point, the roof opened up and we were dancing under the stars. There were choreographed fire guns inside and out, and the fountains all danced to the music. It was really impressive. When I pictured Mexican clubs, I never pictured something that would fit in alongside any club in Vegas. Granted, this one was the most expensive one in the city (as we later figured out), but the others are still pretty nice. They just don't have the stunning view of the city and the dancing fire. Over the past couple of weeks, we have made several Mexican friends, and they all know someone who can get is un without having to pay a cover, which is nice. We've learned just to follow them because they know how to do things. It's just like the saying "when in Rome, do as the Romans..." truer words have never been spoken. Surprisingly, only 5 or 6 of us have caught on to this, so the rest of the group kind of watches Mexican culture from a distance. We just kind of dive in and it always works out better. Trust me...our stories are way more interesting. 

Contrary to popular belief, I do go to school here too. In this picture, our professor from Westmont (who kind of sucks the fun out of everything) has her face covered by a mask that we made of her face. We all had to use the same material that they make casts out of, put it on our face, and let it dry. For some reason, our art professor thought buying regular masks was insufficient. It was super fun...just a little sticky, and my clothes are still covered in remnants of plaster. After we all made our masks, we got to decorate them using all sorts of beans, dried peppers, and colorful things. I don't really know what we learned from the experience, but it beats sitting in a classroom memorizing dates for Art History...and I'm getting the same credit here for making masks (like a second grader) that i would in Art History at Westmont. Reason number 1001 why I love study abroad. 

These two pictures that look like a palace are actually of the courtyard that is inside the history museum in Querétaro. It is a gorgeous building. Unfortunately...the contents of the museum are a little boring. Ok, they're really boring. Our history professor decided to have class there one day...but it all looked like a bunch of stone figures and boring paragraphs explaining the history to me. So what did I learn from the experience? Not much, but the buildings are all really pretty. This one is right in the Centro, and almost all of the buildings are built with this 16th century Spanish architecture. What we all picture as Mexico, the run down concrete huts and dirt roads, are very common outside of the city. But where we are, it's gorgeous. The streets are all cobblestone (more than 500 years old), and the buildings are colorful and very pretty. 

One day, we went to the house of a former Westmont professor for Comida. Unfortunately, she made paella, which none of us were really keen on. The shrim and shellfish inside still had eyes...and it was super gnarly. Very traditional, and people get really excited about it, but it was awful. Never again will I eat paella. It was a really nice house though. And we made some friends that we go out with a bunch, so that was fun. It was nice to get to meet people who are our age.

Yep...that's a pyramid. And it's only 10 minutes outside of the Centro. We went one day for our art class, and it was super interesting to learn about the history behind it. They actually just realized that there was a pyramid about 30 years ago because the hills had grown over it, and the Spanish built a house on top of it. So it's still in the process of being excavated and restored on the other three sides. It was really interesting to see something so ancient and giant that had just been discovered. I could give you a big history lesson about it all, but basically they think this pyramid was built by the Toltecs, who were here before the Aztecs were in power. Bottom line...it's really old. We all thought it was enormous, but apparently it pales in comparison to the pyramids in the Yucatan (of the Mayas) and they pyramids that we will get to see just outside of Mexico City. If this one is small, I can't wait to see a giant one. 

There are some train tracks by our house, and one day a train was stopped...so we climbed it and took a picture. Then it started moving...so we rode it for about a half a mile. And then we jumped off the ladder on the side...while it was still moving...that hurt a little. But what a great story! And...it's super interesting because there are Guatemalans on the freight trains hitching rides through Mexico to arrive in the US. Totally illegal...but it's super interesting that they are able to get through that way. They always wave at us when a train passes and we're by the tracks. Mexicans don't like them at all, so it's a really interesting social dynamic. Hopefully, we can get Laura to tell us some more about it in the near future. Thus far, it's only been dropped in conversation. 

Last week, we went to a bullfight. Going into the event, I was kind of morally opposed to the idea of a bullfight because the bull always dies, but it was definitely a cultural experience that would be dumb to pass up while we are here in Mexico. It isn't bullfighting season, but they had this one because it was the week of Independence. It reminded me a lot of ice-skating. The matadors wear sparkly costumes, and there is a very set list of steps that are followed in the process. After each bull (there were 6) the sand is replaced, and the lines are repainted. It was a little bit bloody, but it wasn't just gory for the sake of blood. There was an artistry to it that none of us expected before we arrived. It was also interesting because the people that attend the bullfights are from a very small upper class. They looked like the people you would expect to find at a polo match, or a horse race. We made friends with one guy in front of us and he explained what was going on to us. It was nice because we were able to start to understand the way the scoring system works, and why people cheered only at certain times. 
One of the bars that we like to go to had an open mic session, and Matt (on bass) and Jordan (on drums) made friends with the band, so they let them play for a while. It was a Wednesday night, and we had no intention of going out, but who can turn down an open mic night?

Ok, well that about does it for the catch up. Last week was Independencia, and I have a bunch of quality pictures and stories to share from that. So I'll put it in a separate post. ¡Hasta luego!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dance classes, train tracks, and a circus (August 26,2011)

So this week has been a little bit different from the first two because Carmen, my señora had to leave unexpectedly on Monday to go to Cuernavaca to care for her youngest sister who is currently fighting breast cancer. From what I understand, the sister usually lives in Mexico City and had to go to Cuernavaca to receive treatment. So, the other sisters are taking turns caring for her while she is there. Unfortunately, that's all I really know about the situation, so I've just been praying and hoping for the best. What that means for me is I am lacking a señora for an unknown period of time. Luckily, Hugo and other Carmen live here with their 14 month old baby girl, so I haven't been left out to dry. Things have just been happening a little bit differently than they would normally. We still have Comida every day, and they still won't let me go anywhere near the sink when I try to help out and do the dishes, it's just different because there are many times when Hugo and Carmen are upstairs, and the house is quiet, and there's no one to ask about what I did after school or tell random stories about the crazy things they have done.

Although it has been a different week, and felt a little more lonely at times, I have appreciated the opportunity to get to know Carmen and Hugo a little more in the process. Hearing about how each one of them wound up here, and the places they have seen is really interesting. Also, after hearing more about their stories, the random things they do make a little bit more sense. For example, Hugo is looking for a job because his last one ended suddenly. For the first two weeks, I couldn't figure out for the life of me how sitting on the couch and watching Mexican soap-operas counted as looking for a job...but no one seemed to mind. All the sudden, the other day he came back from an interview and seemed fairly confident that he was going to land a great job working for a company that sells typical Mexican crap to giftshops all over Mexico and America. Today, I asked him how he found out about the job, and he said that when he was at home, he would read the classifieds and call the places while I was at school. He also said that they had just moved in a few days before I arrived, so it's not like he's been freeloading for a long time. It's just funny how "actively" looking for a job can be so different here. I guess it works in the context of this culture. Also, Carmen decided to go out and look for a job, and had an interview this week. Pretty soon they will both be working individuals. In some ways, Hugo was just proving the stereotype that Mexicans don't make work a priority. However, he was doing it within the context of his culture, which is the part we frequently forget to do when we look at other cultures. Once I asked him about it and saw how relieved he was to hear that he got a job today, his approach made more sense within this context.

After class on Wednesday, four of us wanted to go out for an hour or so, so we stumbled into this restaurant on the second floor of one of the buildings on a corner in the centro. Excited to see the little balconies overlooking the plaza, we ran in the door, saw MTV on the tv at the foot of the stairs, and ran up...not realizing what we were signing up for. The linoleum floor that looked like it belonged in a rundown Walmart, the metal patio chairs (inside and out) were lacking cushions, and the 50 something year old man singing Mexican love songs into a karaoke machine with the words on the screen should have been signs that this was NOT the place for us. However, by the time we put the pieces together, it was too late. We had a table on one of the balconies (meant for two people) around which we crowded all 4 because we wanted to be as far away from the blaring music as possible. The tacky blacklights were  a flashback to glow-in-the-dark mini golf from 1998, and the singer seriously reminded me of Ramón from The Proposal. His expressions, enthusiasm, and overall lack of tallent were equal to the scene in the movie when she has her bachelorette party. Only this was real life...not even kidding...After we had ordered our drinks, I couldn't take it anymore, so I sent one of the girls to go ask the singer if he knew any American songs. Everyone here does. Actually, they probably know more American songs than Mexican love songs. Unfortunately, he said no...so she came back and sat down. A few minutes later, he did manage to find one. So he came running up to our table and asked her if she knew it. We all thought it was a common song so she said yes. Next thing we knew, she was handed the mic, and rushed up to the front to sing for everyone! Unfortunately, she didn't know the song. Actually, I'm pretty sure no one knew that song. So she just stood there...staring at the TV, mumbling the words while we laughed uncontrollably. In America, the singer would have taken over after a verse and covered for her...but no...she stayed up front for the duration of the song. Poor Esther. But it was great. What a great story! After that...we just left. It was too painful to even order more than one drink. A poor choice of location on a Wednesday night, but at least there was Esther's steller singing skills to lighten the mood.

As told by the title of this post, one of the highlights of the week was our dance class which started on Thursday evening. The class started, and we stood up and did these ridiculous warmups...for dance class. We were pointing our toes and stretching in so many ways that the professionals tell you NOT to stretch...but the instructor seemed to think it was the best way to warm up. So we went with it. Then the real class started. We learned some variety of dance that originated in Guanajuato. The only thing I learned that class was what a terrible dancer I am. Can you say born with two left feet??? I have NEVER been so legitimately confused in my life. We would be turning one way, shuffling another and then we were supposed to march in place? What did that even mean? What's worse...it was all in Spanish. So sometimes, I didn't know what was going to happen next, and she would start counting. Literally a tenth of a second later, people would all be moving in one direction, and I would be the awkward tall kid with the blank stare on my face. It was not a rewarding experience. I don't know if I have a vindetta against learning traditional dance (aka I don't care about it), or if I was tired, or what happened...but it was not a successful hour and a half experience. Ironically, everyone else LOVED that class. They all left saying how fun it was and how they can't wait til next week...I wish I could say the same. I think it may be time to say "bye-bye" to dance and enjoy a quiet hour in a cafe while everyone else is subjected to that torture next week, and every Thursday from now on. So it looks like I may only be doing 16 units in Mexico...which I'm totally ok with. Especially because I am already dreading the "performance" at the end of the semester. And I am not afraid of the stage...just the dancing.

Moving on...

After that class from you know where we were walking home and decided to venture up to the train tracks we walk under everyday on our way to school. It was really cool because there was a spectacular view of the sunset and the city in the distance. There were some concrete barriers covered in graffiti that made perfect seats, and we just sat there and hung out for a solid hour and a half. Twilight gave way to dark, which revealed incredible lightning in the distance, lighting up the clouds. For me, it was a good chance to breathe after an incredibly frustrating experience, and be reminded that it was going to be ok, even if being in Mexico can be frustrating at times. Someone busted out a guitar, and we just hung out up there, talking about the experience thus far. That was definitely one of my favorite moments of the trip thus far.

Friday is always in interesting day because we only have class until 12:30, and then we are free to do whatever we want. We knew at some point we were all going to go out and celebrate a birthday, but people look at you funny if you show up to any bar or club before 11pm, so we had a lot of time to kill. We all went into the centro for a while, seriously lacking a purpose. Random things would happen, like we would go to a shoe store and want to try something on, but the sizes are completely different. Keeping in mind, we are speaking another language, we tried to figure out the way the rest of the world measures shoe sizes.  30 minutes later, we have a vague idea of what may work, but the store only sells a select few shoes in that size because most Mexicans are TINY. A half hour only to figure out we don't fit in...I could have told you that from the stares we get everyday on the bus, but hey...it is a whole new level of being aware of just how gringo we really are. Needless to say, wandering around the centro without a purpose sounds completely dreadful, but it is always an experience. Even figuring out what the ATM is saying is remarkably challenging. Someone accidentally donated 5 pesos to a random charity because at the end of a transaction, it asks if you would like to donate, and we just clicked through it without realizing what was going on. Several hours later, we'd had enough wandering and decided to start to find a place to eat before we went out. Along the way, we encountered several clowns and a man on stilts...

Turns out, there is a circus in town, and they were giving out flyers inviting people in the centro to come and see. At the bottom of the flyer, it says "suggested donation: 50 pesos." In America, that's code for "this is for charity and we aren't really that talented, but take pity on us." But, having nothing better to do, we figured it was worth a shot. We found where they were having the circus and stood in line to get in the door. As we approached, we saw a very small stage with a curtain pulled across the back. Through the gap in the curtain you could see some of the props...namely a large metal hoop. Across from the stage, was a section of very unstable bleachers, with about 7 rows of seating. Off to the sides were some more chairs and benches (apparently they were expecting a full crowd). In my mind, I was terrified that this was going to be the biggest joke ever, and definitely not worth a 50 peso donation. Then the show started. There were clowns, magicians, a mime, men who twirled things, women hanging from the ceiling, unicycles, and a lot of flashy lights and music. Surprisingly, we were all genuinely entertained. The people were very talented, and even the clowns were funny (and I am usually super bored when a clown takes the spotlight). It was so tiny and pathetic looking, but so genuinely fun. There were no exotic animals, and very few flashy costumes, but the slapstick humor completely carried the show. We were all very impressed by the end and more than willing to donate to whatever the cause was. I'm starting to think we are magnets for charity...running 5k's for the peace (we still don't know what that means), accidentally agreeing to support something at the ATM, and the circus fund. The funny thing is, it all happens on accident and with the exception of the ATM, it is a rewarding experience.

After the circus, we wandered into a bar where we celebrated a 21st birthday the way it is meant to be celebrated  Lots of friends, fun, and shots all around. We encountered the group studying in the same university from Oregon (some of them are in our classes), so they joined the party too. It was super low key, but a good way to end the week. There was a pool table in the back of the bar, and plenty of good music, so everyone was happy, even the few in the group who have made it very clear that they have no intention of experiencing the nightlife of Querétaro...I guess we broke down that barrier in the first month.

chinese yo-yo's at the circus...note the party pants he's rocking on the right

waiting to get in to the circus...skeptical

painting her nails on a vespa! and he was moving!

dance class = epic fail. note how i am not even kind of in step with everyone else...

view from the train tracks - the city is where the clouds are, but you can't see it well 

we look so hipster - typical westmont shot

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

BERNAL!!!, Parties, Food, and Friends (August 21, 2011)

Well...these past few days have been a fantastic attempt to gain a sense of normality as I become more comfortable in Querétaro. The major event of the week was the start of our classes. It is really interesting because I usually have a class at 9 or 10 in the morning until around 12. Then we come home for Comida, and return to school from 4:30 to 6:30 or 7 every day except for Friday. While this sounds like a completely dreadful schedule, I think it makes sense in the context of the Mexican lifestyle. We don't have to wake up too early, which is good because EVERYONE stays up until at least midnight, and we are the loser Americans who choose to go to bed around 10 or 10:30, if we can. Usually I get roped into sitting at the table with my family for a few hours in the evenings, so I am lucky to be asleep by 11 on a school night. I love them so much, so it's ok. Later in the evenings is usually when I get the scoop on where good places to go to eat or study, so it is time well spent. Then, coming back home in the middle of the day is so nice. It gives me a few hours to do my homework before Comida, or take a nap (usually a combination of both). What starts out as homework time, usually evolves into ciesta. But it's ok, because as previously mentioned, evenings are quite late here. It is nice to get my work done before the evening so we can just stay out after school and hang out in the centro, which is my favorite part of the day. Class itself doesn't seem like it is going to be that hard. My two classes at the UAQ (the big university) are phenomenal. I am going to learn so much about the language and how it relates directly to the culture of today. The professors speak clearly and are easy to understand. The history and art classes are a little more difficult because the professors talk really fast, and they both talked straight through the full hour and a half, so three hours later my brain was a little fried. But I think that is largely because it was the intro day, and especially the art class will have us doing projects almost every time we meet. History is infamously the hard class of the semester, and that is largely because the book is written in very complex Spanish. So, once we figure out what it is about and how much we actually have to read, it should be ok. 

That's enough about school. So many things that are WAY more interesting have been happening. On Wednesday night, I went out with Marcia, a Mexican student who is studying as an exchange student at the UAQ. Her room is right next to mine. We didn't even leave the house until 8 or 8:30, and took a Taxi to the Centro. There, we met one of her friends and 2 students studying here from Finland. Yeah...I made friends from Finland. It was pretty cool. So we started out at an Irish pub, where they had the soccer game on TV. Soccer is SUCH a huge deal here, and I'm pretty sure that the entire city (maybe even the entire country) stops to watch a game. Sadly, Mexico lost in the last 15 minutes of the game, which was a bigger deal than usual because they were playing their rival, Brazil. So, after the game, 85% of the people left the bar and a band started playing. It was a rock band, and they were pretty good. They played covers of popular American songs, which I thought was interesting. My favorite was their impressive repertoire of Maroon 5 and Black Eyed Peas songs. Of course, these two groups are very different, but here they know it all; and are not afraid to cover every genre, and give it a rock spin. Then we went to a restaurant called Harry's and sat on the patio for a few hours just talking and passing the time. Some more of her friends met us along the way, and we wound up having a group of 10 or so. Let me tell you...Mexicans can drink, and drink, and drink some more. I have never seen so much booze on every single table in a restaurant.  We didn't return home until 1:30 in the morning. 

I don't have class on Tues or Thurs until the afternoon, so it was nice to be able to sleep in after a late night adventure. After we got done with school on Thursday, we went to the centro to watch what we thought was going to be a dance show in the park. It turned out to just be an open space for people to come and dance if they wanted to. Some were taking lessons while "performing," others were just there dancing for enjoyment. The people who danced were mostly older (from late 40s to wayyy too old to walk...let alone dance). There were a couple younger couples there, but the majority were older. People gathered around the plaza to watch as the night went on. By the time we got there, quite the crowd had developed. Families, teenagers, anyone who was around just stopped by for a few songs to watch. Towards the end of the event, two men came up to us and asked a couple of the girls if they would dance. Of course, they accepted and twirled around the floor for a few songs.

It's funny how nice the people are here. It is very easy to point us out in a crowd. People here don't typically have blonde hair, blue eyes, and are usually a head shorter than people at home. Needless to say, we attract a lot of attention, though not necessarily in a bad way. People are more intrigued by us, and want to ask us a bunch of questions about anything and everything. I've had multiple kids come up to me and ask me how to say something in English. Most of the students take English starting in elementary school, so they like the practice. They are fascinated by our accents (in Spanish and English both), and want to know what we think about Mexico. They are very proud of their city and country, so they want to ensure that we are having a good time. At the end of almost every encounter with a stranger, we get invited to parties or asked if we want to meet them somewhere later on in the week. It's really interesting to go sit with a book in the centro and wait and see how long it takes for someone, usually a student, to approach you and start a conversation. Usually, it doesn't take much more than a few minutes before you have a new friend. While this makes it nearly impossible to do homework in public, I really like this element of the culture because it makes us more comfortable with approaching other people when we have a question or need directions. People here don't seem bothered when you approach them, like they do at home. Everyone wants to be your friend, if only for 5 minutes. And those 5 minutes can prove invaluable because it is the best way to learn about where to go for certain foods, or what store sells the best version of whatever we are looking for. The past few days, I started to realize how those random encounters have been some of my favorite moments of the whole semester thus far. So, I am making it a point not to be constantly surrounded by a group of Americans. Of course, sometimes this is not practical and we are going to stand out as the group of 15 white kids wandering around and standing in a giant circle. But during down time, I love to go out and just see what happens. Querétaro never fails to provide an interesting interaction of some sort. 

Friday night was interesting because we got roped into attending another dance performance. I wasn't too stoked to be seeing more dancing...I was kinda danced out from the previous evening. Luckily, once we arrived it became apparent we wouldn't wind up being a part of the performance again because there was a legitimate theater and stage with performers in costumes. So, I was relieved not to have to participate in the event. Unfortunately, that was where my luck ran out. It turned out to be a dance recital for a local company. The dancers weren't professionals of any sort. Actually...there were a few girls that weren't much more than 8 or 9 years old. So...it was one of those events that parents love because they get to see their kids perform, and everyone else dreads because it is just plain awful. Although it was not the ideal way to spend a Friday night, there were a few interesting elements. Very few of the numbers were set to Mexican music and were traditional dance genres. Instead, we were all surprised when the opening numbers contained dancers in very flashy and scandalous attire, dancing in traditional Bollywood style with the little bells in their hands and everything. This was more than 80% of the recital...Bollywood. Who knew that Mexicans liked Asian things too? It looked like something we would see in Santa Barbara, but never would have expected in Mexico. But wait...it gets better. There was a dubstep number. Yep...they blacked out the theater and twirled lights for an entire song. Like the rest of the concert, there was a lack of talent, but I didn't fall asleep, so that was good. Right? So, even though none of us had much use for the event, it was interesting to see that people here have interests in things other than just traditional Mexican culture. 

Saturday was one of my favorite days thus far. We went as a group to Bernal, about an hour away from Querétaro. It is basically this giant rock that sticks out of the ground in the middle of nowhere. They told is it is the 2nd largest and 3rd tallest monolith in the world. I know...who cares about the technicality, but a monolith is a single consecutive rock top to bottom. There's a fairly well defined trail that goes about 3/4 of the way up the rock. I guess it is illegal to climb the top part without ropes and proper gear and licences. It must be harder than it looks, because several of us agree that it would be TOTALLY doable to go all the way up. Maybe one time we will return without a professor and hike it all the way. :) What's the law in Mexico, right? It's all up for debate here. We were talking the other day about how we can't decide whether to be afraid of the police or thankful to see them roaming around the neighborhood at night in their car (lights flashing...no matter what, even if they have nowhere to go). They just don't have the same upstanding reputation like they do in America. Anyways...back to Bernal...it was awesome. The plants that naturally grow are very similar to what you would see in a desert mountain range in Arizona or California. Things manage to stay pretty green, despite a serious lack of water most of the year. And...the flowers are gorgeous. There aren't many, but they stand out because they are so bright and colorful amidst the dust that covers everything else. The rock is mostly shale, and is covered in a fine white powder, making it slick to climb in places. So, after we hiked in the morning, we went into town for Comida at a local restaurant and to explore. It is more of a puebla (village), which was interesting to see after spending the week in Querétaro. They have one plaza that is in the centro, and the various shops and restaurants surround the plaza. There is also, of course, an elaborate church (painted bright orange). The shops are less influenced by modern cities, and are more local arts and crafts. Blown glass and lace were the most common. Bernal is known for their gorditas, mole, and apple beer. So, we tried mole and apple beer. An interesting combination to say the least, but people were right, it was good. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough room to try a gordita. Oh! And...people there eat grasshoppers. Like fried grasshoppers. It's the grossest thing ever. We got an order of them, and some people tried them. I had no intention of ever touching one...but they made for some good pictures. I loved our outing to Bernal. It's a slower pace than being in the big city here, and more indigenous, so it was totally different in what people appreciate. I want to return and stay in the hostel, built in the old castle below the monolith. If for no other reason than to say I spent a night in a castle in Mexico (and summitted the rock). Again...who knew that was possible? 

After returning from Bernal, we had an hour or two just to relax and shower after a long day in the sun. Then, we all met up at Dr. Montgomery's house to celebrate a birthday. It was a great way to end a long day, just hanging out, laughing, and looking at pictures. Of course, the brownies and ice cream were pretty magical too. :) It was only a couple of hours long because we all had to get back home and sleep because Sunday was going to be an early morning.

At 5:45 Sunday morning, my alarm woke me up. I threw on some running clothes and rushed out the door. Outside, I met 3 other people and we hopped in a taxi that took us to a race that we all decided to run. One of our señoras has a son who coordinated a 5k/10k race "por la paz" (for the peace). None of us know what exactly the cause is beyond the Paz, but we all ran for it! And...150 pesos (just under 15 dollars) later, we all got metals, t-shirts, and a great (though early) workout. It actually turned out to be really fun. We ran in a couple of bigger groups, and just laughed and talked through the whole thing. It was really funny to see 1500 Mexicans and 15 white kids running a race through the streets of Querétaro as the sun came up. It was actually quite pretty. And who knew that many Mexicans liked to run? They are certainly almost all stalky to say the least, so we were surprised to see that many enter a race. Maybe "the paz" was just such a valiant cause that they couldn't resist. We may never know. After the race, we all came home and just took it easy after such an eventful morning. 

It was my intention to take it easy for the rest of the day...however...intentions in Mexico are always just ideas, never plans. When I came downstairs for Comida around 2, I was surprised to see 3 of Hugo's (Carmen's son) friends crowded around the table waiting to eat as well. It caught me off guard because the last thing I asked Carmen before my extended ciesta was "are people coming over today?" And she was like "nope...just us." So, I was a little surprised to walk into a fiesta after my ciesta. They were super nice, and the party just kept going after Comida. After successfully polishing off a few liters of beer, Hugo ran to the store and returned with not one, or even two, but THREE bottles of Jose Cuervo. Yep. Three. I was surprised too. Remember how Mexicans don't buy things to save them for later? The same is true with their booze. Those three bottles were all empty by the end of the evening. We hung out in the kitchen from about 3:00 until at least midnight. Needless to say, as time went on, the friends got funner and funner to talk to. ;) 

That's about it for now. Now that school started, my week should look kind of similar to last week, which is good. Routine is good. But I can also assure you that the stories will remain plentiful. The best ones come from the most unlikely of situations, like when I sit on a bench in the park and open a book, or when I walk into a fiesta instead of just a meal. One thing is for certain, I have no idea what crazy things will happen. But I can assure you it will not be a boring week. :) Here are some pictures so you can see what we've been up to. 

Group shot at the base of Bernal

One of the stores in Bernal

view of the monolith from town

from the top of Bernal, the view of the city was awesome...

and this is what we were subjected to instead of professionals...

birthday partyyy!!!

birthday girl

grasshoppers??? eww.

another group shot from Bernal

after the race...

before the race...it was still dark