Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading Public Trans

I’m slowly learning how to read this city. I'm becoming more and more confident with the language Spanish, but learning how to be and live and read this place-this land of Spanish speaking people- seems to be a whole other language to learn. It seemed like complete chaos at first, familiar images and symbols placed in unfamiliar orders and appearance- Like a painted numbers project where someone gets all the colors messed up and all the number 1’s were supposed to be green, but someone switched them to purple polka dots: it’s confusing at first. But I’m slowly learning what it has to say.

For example- I’ve been riding public transportation for seven years now in the states. I’ve gotten pretty used to looking up schedules and routes and estimating my time to get places. And I knew inside out the routes that I took often: the beach-bound 733 , the 207 would take me to the heart of south la or to the heart of Hollywood, and the 740 the bus that would take me everywhere when I lived in Inglewood- work, the mall, downtown, the library, etc. Riding these routes was second nature. I hardly had to look out the window to know where I was. I had an inner GPS as some mechanism inside of me linked up with the rhythm of the stopping and starting. And on unfamiliar routes- locating the clearly marked stops was really no problem. Since January with the technology of my iphone, I enjoyed special ease in planning my public trans adventures and routes.

All that was out the window here in DF with transporte público.

The buses at first seem a complete mess. There are no schedules or routes you can look up online. There are barely even set stops. Any corner convenient for congregating and accessible to buses is where the stops are. There is no expectation the buses will stop, you have to wave down based on the names of destinations scratched in chalk on the windshield. Plus there are different types of buses, with different fares. City run buses with set fares. Mini microbuses that have different rates depending on how far you are going. And women-only buses. It just seemed impossible at first- a whole consciousness within chaos that I would have to learn.

But- would you believe- they may not have a schedule or a map posted on line but the chicken scratch means something and they’ve been functioning for me as transportation for the past four weeks- never taking me somewhere that chicken scratch didn’t say it would!

It’s like seeing a repetition in a decimal- realizing its not one of those imaginary ones that go on forever and forever with no rhyme or reason at all. Indecipherable images and messaging, deciphered. Like the names of streets, bus stops, and land marks: once all just a mess of impossible to pronounce names made up of completely unfamiliar combinations of consonants and vowels- a lot of them with their root in the Aztec language Nahuatl- I can now tell you the difference between Taxquena or Tacubaya, Chapultapec or Constuyentes, Coyocán or Copilco, Periferico or Pedregal.

It’s like finding your way in a maze. Forging a path through a thicket of confusing signs and unfamiliar people. It’s like a messy drawer that you start to make sense out of as you see “Oh it’s not just a mess, there’s actually useful things here- its receipts and rubber bands and pens”- and yeah there are a few loose screws and pieces of plastic that I have no idea what they are supposed to be used for or who they belong to or what purpose they have- but hey they are part of the experience so I won’t completely disregard them either. They probably have a meaning that I just don’t know yet, and eventually I hope to embrace and LOVE them too.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Last weekend I ventured to the historic city of Puebla with my friends Stephanie and Alina. Puebla is the fourth largest city in Mexico, just about 80 miles from Mexico City. It is known for the Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo (1862), its beautiful churches, its talvera pottery, and its food! We stayed with a French couchsurfing friend Benjamin who has an internship in Puebla and an apartment in the city center- near all the best museums, churches, and restaurants. Our brief tour of the city- about a day and a half- revolved around food (no problem with that!)- and the highlights are below.

Chile En Nogada- this famous dish originated in Puebla- supposedly created by some Spanish nuns for the visit of an emporer of Mexico in the early 1800s. It looks very patriotic with white sauce specked by red pomegranates and green flecks of cilantro. The taste is like nothing I’ve ever tasted- a stuffed chile with peaches, apples and some kind of meat, smothered in a creamy nut sauce. I thought it was too sweet and rich to be a main dish- I couldn’t finish it!

Pipían Verde- This dish revolves around this amazing sauce called “mole” (rhymes with “Óle!”) Mole is said to be Mexico’s national dish. There are tons of versions of it from all around México- but the first is also said to have come from a convent in Puebla- this time in the late 1600s. The Poblano version is called Pipían, it is green, and it has a strong pumpkin seed base. Here you see my friend Steph finishing her chicken leg with remnants of the green poblano mole.

Tacos Arabes- In terms of history, this is one of the more recent dishes that has become popular in Puebla. The most important part of this dish is the meat- which is pork cooked on a coal-fueled vertical spit. We ordered our meat by the kilo and then made our own tacos with either corn tortillas or “pan arabe” which is pita bread. Condiments included sour cream, onions, and chiles.

La Pasita- La Pasita is a term of endearment for pasa or raisin. It is also the name of a famous Poblano bar that serves a creamyraisin liquor of various varieties- it is all very well described at the link above. I took all the same pictures that are included on the site and here I include one more of a very interesting sign which translates as: "So that you don't contract AIDS, drink pasita as soon as you can." As much as we tried, we just couldn't quite figure out the reasoning on that one.

Cemitas- This is the poblano version of a Torta (and a torta is the Mexican version of a sandwhich). Cemitas are distinct from other tortas due to its bread which has sesame seeds. We had asked some locals where to buy the best cemita bread late on a Sunday afternoon and we were directed to a market that wasn’t too far from the city center, but far enough that you could tell it was definitely a market for the locals. In the picture to the left, Alina has found the corner of the market with the cemita bread. Later, we found a little stand to buy our cemita sandwiches and watched a little assembly line put it all together: milanesa (breaded beef), yummy Oaxacan shredded cheese, chipotle sauce, very thin slices of avocado, and an amazing green leafy herb called pápalo .

As we were leaving Puebla, we decided we must return soon- there was just too much more to expereince- talvera pottery factory, great pyramid of nearby Cholula, Container City, more food, etc! As I write about all this yummy food- I can't help but noticing a lot of it was created by Spanish nuns or other immigrants to the area. It makes me wonder what parts, if any, of the modern day quintessential poblano cuisine were influenced by the indigenous cuisines and is there anything that has remained fairly unchanged since pre-hispanic times? My next trip to Puebla will certainly seek answer to this question. Hasta Luego Puebla!- until next time!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


My eighth full day here in Mexico City (Distrito Federal) and my third day of work at Amextra. My first week was full of making appointments to visit apartments, which was followed by apartment-visiting. I visited three and settled on one- I have given the deposit, I have the keys, I have shared tacos with a future roomie, and I plan to move in this weekend!

I write from my office which I believe may actually be bigger than my new room in my new apartment. Its my first few hours sitting in here. It is in the same building where my temporary dormitory is- The Lutheran Center- but it is the first day it has been opened to me. And there is better internet down here so I figured I just stay here “after hours.” There is a huge beautiful wooden desk in here with a lot of beautiful woody tones. It almost takes up the width of the room- maybe four-five feet long! My chair is equally impressive- the wooden straightback reaching taller than my head when I sit. It seems to me to be very Harry Potter-ish. I am currenty imagining how to “feng shui” the office- and other articles I might want to bring to make everything more home-y: a bookcase with a small library for the travelers that come through , a comfy couch, some cool pieces of art, a coffee maker? (so far I've only seen instant coffee at the office!).

This morning the whole staff here at Dirección GeneralAmextra headquarters- made a trek to one of the regions it works in- Tultitlan -on the outskirts of Mexico City. Amextra runs a community center on the outskirts of Tultitlan where there is a huge trash dump and people in the community make a living from scrounging materials- plastics, metals, paper, computer parts- anything that can be somehow recycled or resold. At the commuity center, local staff run English classes, a dining hall, peace education classes, a dentist's office, and nutrition classes throughout the year. The staff there needed our help this morning because a special visit was being made by a notary who needed for some reason see all the activities happening at once. So we were all appointed to do things we don't normally do. I was appointed to help lead an English class for eight 9-11 year olds for 1.5 hours or so with my co-worker Erik, who usually works with microfinances. One of the accountants was leading recreation activities, our human resources manager was leading a peace education class, etc.

My fellow teacher, Erik, and I met yesterday to prepare a little bit for our joint class. I had the idea that we would begin class teaching some vocabulary and then do some games based on the vocabulary. The potential vocab words I had jotted down in my journal before we met included- grocery store, park, airport, pool, mall, college, beach, forest, doctor’s office. HA! Well I soon changed my mindset when Erik suggested we have vocabulary of places and things that they are familiar with. A good idea right!?

He suggested vocab like:
El basurero - Trash Dump/Mountain of Trash
El Camión de la basura -Garbage Truck (This one the kids already knew the English word!)
La bascúela -The weighing station where they take trash
Pepinador -The name for someone who collects trash and who is not a "garbage man" (I couldn’t think of an English translation)
Comedor -Dininghall
Centro Comunitario -Community Center
Estacionmiento -Parking lot
Cajas de cartón -Cardboard box

I guess it made more sense to teach words like “dining hall” and “cardboard box” than “airport” and “beach”- places the kids may never have been or may not go anytime soon. Erik also thought we should teach a song- I jokingly mentioned the 80s band “Garbage” has plenty of songs, but we settled on London Bridge is Falling Down. Overall everyone thought the important visit from the notary went well.

When we first got there I asked Erik- where is el basurero , the mountain of trash, you told me about? He pointed to what seemed to me to just be a regular mountain in the distance. But then I looked closer and I saw paths all around and up and down the hill with garbage trucks and people going up and down.

While I will not be normally teaching english in Tulti- it was a great experience to see how everyone at my new place of employment worked as a team and came together on this special occasion. I also felt honored to peek into the lives of the people in Tulti and how much all the work at the Amextra-run community center meant to them.