Tuesday, July 28, 2009

La Gran Aventura: Big Brother thinks you really ought to put down that Big Mac and go for a jog


I've noticed something interesting while watching TV with my host family. In a lot of commercials, there are messages from the government written in big block letters at the bottom of the screen. They usually pertain to health or taking care of the environment, but sometimes they're almost silly. Here are a few I've seen:

Play sports: Burger King and men's anti-perspirant.

Eat well: Kentucky Fried Chicken and mayonnaise.

Cleanliness is health: Greenworks cleaner and Axe body spray.

Health is beauty: razors.

Exercise: Pepsi.

Take care of the water: Laundry and dish detergent.

Feed them [your kids] milk: Ice cream.

My favorite one, however, considering that the Mexican diet is so carb heavy (Today at lunch we had rice, potatoes, and tortillas.)  is the one displayed during commercials for dry cereal, tortillas, pasta, and twinkie-esque snack cakes:

A source of energy to exercise 30 minutes every day.

At least the government is smart enough to realize that most people won't exercise 30 minutes every day, but that bowl of Frosted Flakes will give you the energy to do so, if you feel like it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

La Gran Aventura: Mexico City

Thursday morning at 6:30 am, we left Guadalajara, headed for Mexico City. After seven hours on the bus, we finally arrived at our hotel, which was modest, but clean and comfortable enough. After freshening up from the journey, we headed downtown.

Just in case we had all forgotten about the whole swine flu nonsense, we were greeted at the National Palace by a woman in a white coat squirting GermX on the hands of all who entered and a man with a heat-sensing camera making sure none of us brought a fever past the front gate. While we were there, we saw the beautiful murals by Diego Rivera:

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Afterwards, we went to the Templo Mayor, an Aztec site in downtown Mexico City, where we heard the tale of a goddess dismembered by her little brother because she had been very naughty:


And we saw the remains of the pyramids:


After our downtown tour, we walked through the rain to have dinner at the first Sanborns restaurant. I first heard of Sanborns in my high school Spanish textbook, because every time the characters ate out, it was at Sanborns. Our dinner was actually a little disappointing. The vegetarians in the group were unhappy because both "vegetarian" options contained meat, but even worse in my non-vegetarian book was that they were all out of flan.

Friday morning we started with Bosque de Chapultepec, a huge forest-turned-park in the middle of Mexico City's urban landscape.


We climbed "grasshopper hill" (the meaning of Chapultepec in Nahuatal) to see Chapultepec castle, which was originally built as a summer home for dignitaries, but became Mexico's version of West Point after the revolution. The castle was a beautiful example of colonial excess:

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Next stop, the National Museum of Anthropology, where I met the goddess of death:


After the information overload of Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Olmec, and so on and so forth, I bought a tasty treat from a street vendor in Chapultepec:


This actually looked much yummier before I ate the mango and papaya, but I was too hungry to remember to take a picture. I've never seen jicama served with fruit before, but it was a nice contrast.

Friday afternoon we went to the Diego Rivera Museum and Frida Kahlo's house.

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Friday night, my roommate Serena, a couple of other girls, and I went to VIPS, a restaurant chain owned by Wal-Mart of all things. Serena was halfway done with her dinner when Katia said the four words you never want to hear during dinner: "Is your lettuce moving?"

A little green worm was inching along Serena's enchilada, kind of like the little hungry caterpillar with a hankering for Mexican food. The poor manager was so flustered. He gave Serena all of her dinner free (I would hope so) and gave Katia her entree free because it had lettuce on it; then he gave us all free dessert. I guess we should have been more upset, but instead we got the giggles. Who would have thought that the food from street vendors would be more reliable than that from brick and mortar restaurants?

Saturday morning we hit the trail again. Our first stop was the church of the virgin of Guadalupe.


Next, we stopped by Acolman, an old monastery. Our professor was eager to point out that the indigenous people were not forced to construct the building, evidenced by the indigenous motifs, like the four-petaled flower seen both in the monastery and at the Aztec city of Teotihuacan.

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I don't know the truth, but the builders being "allowed" to include indigenous designs doesn't necessarily mean they weren't slaves. It may just mean that the monks had no idea the cute little flowers held greater meaning.

Our last stop was Teotihuacan, the archeological site I've been looking forward to for months. I was slightly disappointed, however, that there were hardly any informational plaques. Instead of an educational excursion, climbing the pyramids has become more of a Rocky-esque test of physical endurance, which I failed.

My right leg is crooked, and it gives me trouble from time to time. Climbing the hill to Chapultepec castle the day before caused a flare, so I was already in decent pain before we even got to the ruins. Still, I climbed the smaller Temple of the Moon.


And I got about two-thirds of the way up the Temple of the Sun, where the view was amazing.


I kind of wish I would have pushed through the pain, but at the same time, I'm still hurting enough today that I think I might have made the right choice. I just feel like a dork for not making it all the way to the top.


I guess the most important thing I learned at Teotihuacan is not to make eye contact with the countless vendors unless you want to be badgered. Instead, just keep repeating, "No, gracias," and plow on through. On the bright side, they did all call me "Señorita" instead of "Señora," which was kind of nice while I was feeling like a decrepit old lady with a bum leg.

After another seven hours on the bus--interrupted by a stop where I paid two pesos to use a toilet with no seat--I finally made it back home (at least my temporary home in Guadalajara) just before midnight.

Only two weeks to go. I really like Mexico, but I really miss my family!



Saturday, July 18, 2009

La Gran Aventura: What if your food stares you down?

I've had a busy week! Wednesday, I started cooking classes. I took pictures, but I didn't realize the flash card wasn't in, so they're trapped on my actual camera until I get home with my USB cable.

I hope Rhett isn't too upset, but I met someone here. My new boyfriend is cute and funny, and we always have fun when we're together.


Sebastien is actually my host-mom's four-year-old grandson. He's a real sweetie and a pretty good Spanish tutor, too. All of the things I'm studying so hard to master, like the subjunctive mood, he intuitively knows just because it's his native language. I'm really going to miss him when I leave.

Friday afternoon a group of us went to Lake Chapala, where there are so many American retirees that the real estate signs are in English and the properties are sold in U.S. dollars.

Our first stop was a beautiful spa.


Then we went to Jocotepec, which has a nice area to relax or take a stroll along the lake.

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Jocotepec has wonderful ice cream, too. I had a double-scoop cone of guayaba and guanábana flavors. Thank goodness we did a lot of walking to work it off!

For the tourists and American residents, a lot of the signs had English translations--some better than others.


Our last stop of the day was Chapala. We shopped an open-air market and ate in a lakeside restaurant where the waiter brought out some complimentary appetizers called charales.


I guess Goldfish crackers aren't the only snack that smiles back until you bite their heads off!

Saturday, we took another excursion. First stop, Hacienda El Carmen: a plantation constructed from the mid 1500's-1722 that is now a hotel and spa.


What a beautiful, tranquil setting! I would love to return there someday with Rhett.

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Next, we went to Guachimontones, where we saw round "pyramids". According to our guide, archaeologists still don't know a whole lot about the indigenous people who lived there, but they have discovered that some practices  thought to have originated with the Maya actually began in this region many years earlier.

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Finally, we went to Teuchitlan, where I got a taco, an enchilada, and a diet Coke for 22 pesos, which is a little less than $2. After a bumpy bus ride back to Guadalajara, we stopped by Applebee's because my housemate, Shanel, was craving American food. Even though I've liked 99% of the local food I've tried, I have to admit that a cheeseburger didn't taste bad at all. And at least my cheeseburger didn't blankly stare at me while I ate my french fries. 

Next weekend: Mexico City.  Stay tuned!







Tuesday, July 14, 2009

La Gran Aventura: Downtown Guadalajara

Every weekend we will be touring different sites: Lake Chapala, Teuchitlán, Mexico City, and Tonalá. Last Saturday, we started with downtown Guadalajara. We did a really good job of looking like tourists.


We had to be careful, though. We were actually warned not to take pictures of the people because they could have us arrested. Here are the only Mexicans I could freely take pictures of:


The architecture was full of little details.

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I was walking up the stairs of the municipal building when I was startled by a mural overhead.


José Clemente Orozco

We actually saw several interesting murals, but my pictures just don't do them justice. We toured a cathedral, too, and then we walked through the plazas where we saw spitting frogs...


Peeing boys...


And creepy benches...

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I didn't get to shop the big market, San Juan de Dios, because we stopped by a restaurant for fish tacos instead. (Well, I had fish tacos. My classmates from UALR ordered hamburgers and french fries. Silly Americans.)

Sunday, I walked to church. How is it that I lived in Utah for eleven years, but I have to go to Mexico to be able to walk to church?


I have to admit, church was oddly a combination of exhausting and comforting. The same format, songs, and lesson manuals were a little taste of my home routine, but listening in Spanish for three hours straight wore me out. Thank goodness for siestas!

More later! I'll try to take more pictures, but I'm usually so consumed by all the experiences that I don't even remember I have a camera. Classes are going well, and I start a Mexican cooking class tomorrow. ¡Hasta luego!

Friday, July 10, 2009

La Gran Aventura: The First Few Days

Leaving home was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. First came the hard part: leaving Rhett and the boys behind at the airport.

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I knew I would be sad to leave them, but I had no idea the heartbreaking sadness that would attack me. Even now, I am fighting off tears just thinking about them, so let's move on...

I tend to panic in new situations, so I was very nervous that I would have a total meltdown before I ate my first taco. I've surprised myself at how well I've adjusted, even with the few hiccups I've already had in my plans.

When we arrive in Guadalajara, going through immigration and customs was a breeze. We were picked up by Beto, a very nice man who works for la Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara (UAG).

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We learned quickly to hold on tight when riding with Mexican drivers. Later a taxi driver told us that in Guadalajara the cars are fast because life is fast. Maybe the cars weave in and out like wild-eyed squirrels because life is crazy. With the wind blowing through our hair, we got our first glimpse of México.  I tried to take pictures of the scenery but we were moving so fast, none of them were more than a blur. I did get pictures of my classmates from UALR, though.

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Lauren, Chantal, Kirby, and Jennie

My host family was our first stop. However, when we arrived, my potential host mom had no idea who I was or that I was coming. I had been in Mexico less than an hour and already I was homeless! We went to Lauren and Chantal's host family, and their host mom, Hilda,  said I could stay there for the night. Being homeless may have been better, though, because Hilda had two really big dogs; the entire house was covered in an inch-thick layer of dog hair and smelled like dog pee. I started to regret ever coming to Mexico, and within a couple of hours I was an itchy, watery-eyed ball of allergy mess. Thankfully, the next morning UAG arranged another host family for me--and Lauren and Chantal as well.

My new host mom, Guille, is absolutely wonderful!


I live two blocks from the church, so I'll be able to walk.  My new room is clean and completely free of dog hair. (Plus I have wi-fi!)

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Even though there is no air conditioning (my room is usually about 80 degrees), it seems like there is always a nice breeze, and I have a fan.

I took my placement exam today, and I placed at level 6 (there are 8 levels total). Most of the students placed around level 3 or 4, with just a few at the low or high end. I'm the only level 6 student, but there are two at level 7, so I may ask if I can move up and just study harder.

Tomorrow we tour downtown Guadalajara, and next week we are going to an archeological site not far from here. Classes start Monday.

That's all for now! I'll update more when I can, but I am trying to live in Spanish as much as possible, so I don't want to spend too much time writing in English.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

La Gran Aventura: Ready for Takeoff

After months of planning--and threatening to cancel at least 43 times--I am finally leaving for Guadalajara, Mexico in the morning. I've packed my bags, loaded Skype on my netbook so I can see the kids while I'm gone, called the bishop in Guadalajara to arrange a ride to church, and knitted a lace scarf as a hostess gift for my host-mom. I think I have just enough yarn left to knit something for a small lawn gnome.


Non-knitting friends may want to skip to the end, but I have to tell you how proud I am for finishing the lace scarf.  I've started this project four or five times, but I've always had to rip it out and start over because I made an error that was impossible to unknit with lace being so persnickety and all. I decided I would try using a lifeline (the knitting technique, not the phone-a-friend option on Who Wants to be a Millionaire), and it saved the day. I love seeing how blocking transforms lace from a fluffy, bumpy mess to a defined, delicate stitch pattern.

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We were told to take something that represented Arkansas or our personalities. Razorback gear and a Bill Clinton bobblehead just won't do, so hopefully over thirty hours of my time knitted up in a yarn the color of Arkansas woods will suffice. Worst-case scenario, the scarf will sit on a shelf with all the other hostess gifts brought from around the world.


Well, I guess I should be off to bed. I have lifelong dreams to fulfill in a just a few hours. I'll post updates when I can. In the meantime, I've got a passport to get stamped and pesos to spend.

passport and pesos