Friday, October 30, 2009

Veraqcruz - Fri., Oct. 30, '09

After five days of increasingly hot, humid weather, the close atmosphere has finally started to consume me. After class this morning, we took the bus to the centro to visit another of the "city museums", this one with some very interesting and well-done historical exhibits. But with no A/C and only a few fans placed here and there, the heat sapped my concentration. I had little interest in discussing the exhibits or anything in English, not to mention Spanish. Sweat poured down my body; every step I made was checked by the sticking of my pants to my thighs. Just as I was about to rush out of the building for some breezy shade, a museum guide, recognizing Nancy and me as easy victims, grabbed us to use as models in her explanation of early 20th century social niceties to a group of elementary school kids. The poor woman and the other adults taking in her tour tried to make us feel part of the whole thing, but I must have looked as pre-occupied as I felt.

This afternoon, finally, relief! As the norte blew in, the sky clouded up, a fierce wind rattled windows and signs, wind-blown whitecaps shredded the Gulf, and by 4:00 the temperature had dropped to a refreshing 80 degrees.

Tonight, Jorge (the wonderful young charlante I'd met my first day at school) was back on duty in the student lounge. While I waited for Eric and Linda to return from their daily constitution and let me into my room (in which I'd locked my key) Jorge and I had a wonderful conversation on a wide range of topics. (While some of my sentences are still a bit halting for lack of the right word or tense, I'm really proud of the way my speaking and listening skills have been shaping up!) Then Jorge picked up the guitar Eric keeps in the lounge and quietly played several more of the gorgeous classical pieces he's mastered.

Tomorrow, I try to find my way up to Naolinco de Victoria, a couple of hours and a couple of bus legs north of here. I'd come across information about the mountain village on the web, saying that its Dia de los Muertos celebrations are unusually rich and welcoming to visitors. Luckily, I and Genny, who decided she'd like to join me, were able to secure, several weeks ago, the last two hotel rooms in town. It should be a real adventure— we might be welcomed with open arms into people's homes to see their elaborate, tradition-steeped altars honoring their difuntos (deceased loved ones). Or we might feel we're intruding, hold back and wish we'd not devoted our weekend to the effort. As the Mexicans say, sea como sea, we'll see.
Around here in Puerto Veracruz, we've already seen quite a few altars being built and decorated, pan de muerto (bread made only for this occasion), skull and skeleton costumes and trinkets, and of course the flor de muerto, the special marigolds (zempasuchitl in Náhuatl, language of the Aztecs) always used for decoration.

NOTE: I'll not be able to post for the next two days, since I've decided not to take my computer on what might be a pretty rough ride. But I promise to share whatever impressions and photos I come up with in my weekend in Naolinco.

By the way, Happy Halloween to all you norteamericanos!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Veracruz - Thur., 10/28 '09

For some reason, I wasn't among the rest of the students and staff who were awakened at 4:30 AM by an earthquake. Some said they were nearly shaken out of their beds. News reports placed the epicenter of the 5.5- magnitude temblor 45 miles south of here in Las Tuxtlas. Luckily, we've heard of no major damage or injuries.

Thursdays are all-day field trips. Of the four destinations offered, I was the only student to opt for Zempoala and La Antigua trip. So I had Rebeca, who's becoming one of my favorite teachers/guides, all to myself. During the 45-minute bus ride, and throughout the day, we chatted almost constantly— about things we were seeing, about the finer points of the language, and about our respective lives in countries at once very similar and worlds apart.

During our transfer from highway bus to local "chicken" bus, we sat down on the bus stop bench next to a pair of 10- or 12- year- old boys. They noticed this "older", very tall, very white guy and this attractive young Mexicana together and practically jumped in our laps in their curiosity and eagerness to hear my attempts at their language. When they realized I was for real, the shorter, more jovial Luís asked me if I could translate into Spanish for him the huge pop culture anthem that was hot five or more years ago in a U.S. beer commercial: "Wha's ah-h-h-p? Only after about 20 minutes chatting with them, did we learn that Carlos (he insisted we call him Charlie) was selling pan de muertos, the special sweet bread traditionally made only for Day of the Dead. He seemed delighted when I bought one, and proudly pulled it out of the bag on his lap and placed it into a smaller bolsita.

While the rest of this week has been quite hot and humid, today the heat was oppressive. There was little escape, as we were outside with little shelter from the sun for much of the day.

Zempoala is the site of a small, but well-restored, Totonaca ruins. It was here that, in the early 16th century, Hernán Cortés brought his trusty, tri-lingual (and beloved) Indian translator La Malinche to help form the conquerer's first key alliance with the cacique, or local warlord.

We strolled around the grounds among the several small pyramids, the gladiators' ring and the sacrifical altar, taking frequent breaks under the few scattered trees. Aside from a couple of school groups and a pair of women who looked like Americans, we were the only visitors. On our way, several people who work at the site and live in the pueblo of Zempoala, stopped what they were doing and, as if they had nothing better to do, took 10 or 20 minutes to explain layers of the history we hadn't read on the signs. (I'm finding this generosity of spirit to be the rule among many Mexicans I've met, but it seems especially prevalent here in Veracruz.)

On our way back south to La Antigua, we stopped at a restaurant perched on bank of the Rio Huatzilapan and enjoyed sharing tastes of each other's delicious fish dishes. Mine was my first taste (at least in Veracruz) of Pescado a la Veracruzana, one of the signature dishes of this state. Rebeca had moharra, another very tasty local fish.

La Antigua is where Cortés first landed in Mexico and built his home and offices. What remains of the walls is crumbling here and there and blotched with moss and black mold. Huge Banyan-type trees have nearly consumed the structure, their roots flowing like hot wax over the brick and coral head surfaces. There was very little guidance— personal or through signage— at this site, so we just strolled around, took a few pictures and enjoyed the lovely shade.

On the bus ride back to school, Rebecca and I got to know each other better and worked more on my pronunciation (and a bit on hers, in the few words of English she's picking up from students). The word she's having the most trouble with: return. Turns out it has several sounds and combinations of sounds that are quite foreign to an hispanohablante.

Tonight, Laurie (from Kansas) and I grabbed the bus for downtown and enjoyed a nice dinner in the zocalo, getting back to school before ten.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Veracruz - Wed., 10/28 '09

It's late. I've just gotten back from a very pleasant night with a few of my compadres, so I'll try to make today's post a quick one. (We'll see...)

As my classes— and especially my informal conversations with my teachers, charlantes and fellow students— continue, I'm getting flashes of the realization that I'm well on my way to my goal of becoming fluent (whatever that means) in Spanish.

For this morning's outing after class teacher/charlante Margot (I have to remember that here it's pronounced Mar-goat') took a couple of us once again to the central historic district. We climbed up into the Baluarte Santiago, which we've driven by nearly every day. There are historical exhibits inside, but we decided it wasn't worth the admission price and opted to just walk around the perimiter and see the dozen or so cannon poking through the parapet. As we passed a non-descript doorway we noticed a couple of young men inside working on a Day of the Dead altar. Margot struck up a conversation and the next thing we knew, we were inside the little room getting a very generous description from one of the young men of some of the traditions of this intriguing holiday.

Our next stop was the IBEC, a college-level school of the arts. The place was alive with students dancing here, singing there, strumming guitars in the hallways and, in the distance someone was playing the piano, the music seeming to create its own space . We were invited into one room full of music students learning the basics of rhythm, clapping and stomping their feet to the direction of their maestra. There was a small art gallery with some very nice work. We also ran into a man whom Margot introduced as the teacher of the classes in Afro-Carribean dance she takes there three evenings a week.

We ventured out into the school's inviting central courtyard, filled with lush vegitation, a fountain and echos of all the sounds I've described. In one corner was a table with three indigenous women preparing the traditional ceremonial tamales for the school's Day of the Dead altar. They explained what they were doing and its significance. The tamales were huge, with the corn masa (dough) spread over several broad leaves (not the usual platano leaf, but one from a plant they could only describe in their main language, Náhuatl). When it came time to add the chicken— usually sprinkled rather sparcely in a tamale— , they reached in, with bare hands, to a large metal pot and placed whole- chicken- sized piles of the pieces onto each bed of masa, along with the thick dark red sauce in which it had been cooked. I was especially enamored of the lovely face of one of the middle-aged women, whose generous smile and gentle manners made us feel like family.

Afternoon class and after-class time were pretty uneventful, but tonight six of us, including staffer Rebeca, took the bus south for a few miles to Giro's, a restaurant well known for its tacos. They did not disappoint. Of the ten or twelve varieties, I tried the local specialty, tacos al pastor (shepherd's tacos), another style and a little tequila to wash them down. The food was wonderful, the company was great and the staff was very attentive and nice. (It was interesting and timely that the cooks and some of the waiters were wearing surgical masks and each waiter offered his customers a squirt of hand sanitizer before they received their food.)

After dinner, we headed for a hall where there was to be a performance of works by famous Veracruzano composer and pianist Augustín Lara. When we got there, the door was locked and the only people to be seen were a local TV cameraman with big camera and another man. As we tried the door and waited for a while, we struck up a conversation with both men and discovered the latter is a poet. He and I discussed a bit of philosophy (his view of the world and life is a cosmic one in which everything is related and everything exists within everything else—much like my Querétaro painter friend Fernando Garrido's outlook). Finally, the cameraman knocked on the door and the person who answered told us the performance had been postponed until tomorrow night.
Before we left, I asked the poet if he had any of his work on paper that he could share with us. He said no, but, with a little pressure, he recited a poem in which the wisdom of the ages comes down to the poet from the cosmos, enters his head, flows down his arm like golden honey and spills onto the paper as his poetry. It was one of those moments that seldom happen when everything goes the way you'd planned.

A few of us were able to ease the disappointment of missing the concert by buying a sixpack of Modelo and drinking it on the school's outdoor patio, where we had a great conversation (much of it in Spanish, but not all) and learned a bit more about each other. For example, I found out the Mike is a retired therapist and that Laurie once was an Alaskan bush pilot!

I have not done as I said I would; this is too long. But if you've born with me this far, thanks for your interest and patience!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Veracruz - Tues., 10/27 '09

Aside from the usual schedule of morning class, field trip and afternoon class, and the steady gains I'm making in my Spanish, there's not much to report.
Today's outing was to what's called the city museum. The building itself and a large statue at the head of the exhibit hall are dedicated to and named for Benito Juarez, the Zapotec Amerindian who served five terms as president from 1858 til 1872. The contents of the building were a great disappointment for what's supposedly a showcase of all that's great and historical about this city. There were only a few more statues of statesmen, a small exhibit of photos documenting the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a sampling of paintings by Veracruzano painter, Carlos Lozano.

This morning two of our maestras showed up for work not feeling well. One said she had alergies; the other—with a sore throat—thinks she just got a chill from her other job, as a greeter at Costco, standing directly under the constant cold draft of the air door. The latter, Anna, is my teacher in the mornings, so I'm trying to tactfully (making it look facetious) keep my distance and avoid touching things she tries to hand me. (Turns out everyone was fine.)

Again today I found chances to converse with the charlantes and, after PM class, with a fisherman I met along the seawall just down the block. We chatted— along with a few other passers- by for a few minutes about fishing before it came out that he'd lived all over the U.S. for almost 20 years while working for Ringling Bros. & Barnam & Bailey Circus. When the other guys left, my new friend asked me, despite his not looking the least bit disheveled, if I had any extra clothes I could give him. I explained that I'd had to pack very light, but that I'd see if I could find something for him. Maybe I'll buy something for him— small price to pay for making a new friend, no?

Tonight, beginning to dread eating dinner alone again, I asked fellow student Mike (Miguel) if he had plans for dinner. He told me he did, but, with no hint of an invitation, I figured he'd rather be alone. So I headed down our street a couple of blocks to Restaurant Suriana, which comes highly recommended by our hosts. On the way, I ran into Christine, a student I hadn't yet met because she'd been in the capital city, Xalapa, a few hours northwest of here, doing research on ancient women. She was nice enough to turn around and chat with me (in English) as I ate (at the same place she'd just left). Anyway, the conversation was good and the pechuga empanizada (pounded, breaded chicken breast) was excellent.

A special hello to you, Cris and all our students. I hope you are all feeling well and continuing to work hard in class. I wanted to post this message tonight (Tuesday) because I know class begins at 5:00 PM tomorrow, and I probably won't be able to post tomorrow's report before then.
Anyway, I hope you're enjoying my reports and that they're giving you a chance to practice your growing skills in reading and speaking (that is, if you ask Cris and me lots of questions!!)
Isn't it nice to know that your teacher volunteer is now also a student?
I miss you guys and am sorry I can't be in class with you tomorrow!! Take care until I see you all again. Best wishes to all -- Jeff

Monday, October 26, 2009

Veracruz-Mon. 10/26 '09

You'll notice that I've been able to add some photos to my Sunday post and a few today. Many thanks to our host, Eric for the use of his cable, which fits my needs just fine. Yeah-h-h!

I was up in time for a simple breakfast of rolls, fruit, coffee and the peach yogurt I'd bought yesterday to help keep my digestive system in shape. We students were joined in the open-roofed courtyard by about the same number of teachers—all young women.

Weekday morning classes begin at 8:15 and run until about 10:00 when the daily "out & about lab" (i.e field trip) heads out. (Actually, it's many field trips since each student chooses his/her area of interest for their stay and the program tries to accommodate them as much as possible. Like everything else at the school, the groups seldom comprise more than two students each, along with a charlante—roughly translated as "someone who chats a lot.") Then lunch, afternoon classes from 1:15 to 3:15 and free time the rest of the day to seek out further help from the charlantes, venture out exploring or just unwind. We students tend to spend a fair bit of late afternoon time in our air-conditioned rooms because they're the only refuge, inside or out, from the cloying heat and humidity.

My one-on-one teacher this morning was Anna, who spent the first half hour or so trying to size up my skills so she could plan what we'd work on. Most helpful of all was just getting to talk with her about the language, her family and whatever else came up.

For the field trip, fellow student Nancy (from Prescott AZ) joined me and charlante Margot for a blue-bus ride downtown to el centro, where we headed for the central market. It's the usual huge building packed with hundreds of puestos, or little booths, selling everything from cheap trinkets to medicinal herbs to cow stomachs. A seasonal touch was the smattering of masks, costumes and decorations for Day of the Dead, starting this weekend. I'd heard that some of the U.S.'s Halloween customs have been infiltrating the centuries-old Dia de los Muertos traditions, and this appeared to be the case here.

After lunch, Nancy and I shared a teacher, Rebeca, for our afternoon class. She did a nice job of finding a middle ground between our respective abilities and injecting fun into the exercises— including barking out very big numbers very fast to see if we could write them on our little 10"x12" dry-marker boards. Nancy did a great job of drawing on her obviously good, but out of practice, skills.

Tonight, having missed a few students who'd already left for dinner by 6:45, I again headed out on my own, hailing a taxi for el centro and the zocalo. On the way I had another of my by- now- expected wonderful chats with the driver— this hombre coaching me, rather surprisingly, on the finer points of departure between marked and unmarked (which he called prosaic) accents.

The zocalo was beginning to hum with its nightly activities. Even an hour after dark, the air was thick and still. People of all stripes were sitting here and there on stone and wrought iron benches. The open-air restaurants' pitch people (mostly attractive young women) started collaring passers-by. And about a dozen musical groups were warming up on side streets just off of the plaza. In some places they were so close together that their competing tones and rhythms clashed raucously.

I picked the restaurant of the Hotel Imperial and enjoyed a seafood-stuffed fish dish and a cheap glass of wine. Between one bite and the next, I experimented with different ways of showing my disinterest in the nearly-unbroken column of vendors and beggars that wove its way among the tables.

I'd have loved to stay later and experience the even- greater array of bands and people that supposedly shows up later some nights. But, wanting to finish this entry and get a better night's sleep than last night's on my jury- rigged bed, I headed home for my cozy, cool room.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Veracruz - Sun. 10/25 '09

This morning six of us met in the school's small living room to go out for breakfast and an informal city tour with Jorge. He's a smart, well-spoken 18-year-old in his first year of universidad, studying civil engineering.

My fellow students are from just about everywhere: Mike, from Houston; Inez, from Kentucky—formerly of Michigan; Jenny, from North Carolina; and Laurie, from Kansas. (I'm still working on remembering the other names and hometowns.)

Walking to the nearest bus stop, we grabbed a blue bus (six pesos -- about 50 cents -- for a ride without air conditioning versus the yellow ones with air for $7.50 Mex.) headed for el centro.
Our destination was El Gran Café de la Parróquia a landmark in the city for 200 years. (The city was founded in 1513 by none other than Hernando Cortes as the first Spanish conquest in Mexico.) The restaurant is famous for the favorite local rendition of coffee, the lechero, consisting of a few tablespoonsful of strong coffee with lots of steaming milk poured in from great silver kettles held about a foot above a glass. I ordered the stronger cafe Americano with inverse proportions of coffee and milk, and the tortilla de la Parroquia, an egg, potato and onion omelett served swimming in a bowl of savory broth.

After breakfast we strolled along the seawall, overlooking the very busy port of Veracruz (Mexico's first, second or third busiest seaport, depending on whom you ask). Across the harbor mammoth container ships and the hefty cranes to load and unload them intimidate every other boat and everything else in view.
Along the promenade of small shops strolled a number of young sailors, dashing in their crisp, snow-white, dress uniforms, some of them even sporting sheathed sabers. One group of young women commandeered a pair of sailors to pose with them for a photo.

On our way to the zocalo—the main city plaza—we walked past the Baluarte Santiago, one of what once were many small fortifications that surrounded the city, connected by walls.

The zocalo, smaller than those I've seen in many other cities, is flanked by the usual government buildings and the cathedral, a crumbling, dismal building caked in black and gray blotches from air pollution and/or mold. Posters indicated that a fundraising effort's underway to clean it up and make the most-needed repairs.

We hopped another blue bus for Boca del Rio, a smaller and somewhat more modern city that sort of blends into Veracruz to the south. There we got off at the small park where the muddy river (name?) actually spills into the Gulf. Kids lined the seawall, not trying very hard to escape the explosions of spray that shot up with each surge of the sea as it butted heads with the river's current.

Back at the school, Jorge—who'd told me of his interest in playing guitar—picked up the guitar on display in the lounge and softly played a couple of very polished classical pieces -- ¡Muy impresionante!

I struck out on my own and went to the aquarium—advertised as the biggest and best in Latin America—just a few blocks from school. It is not spectacular like Boston's, but decent, especially for the few humongous specimens of jewfish—some of them looking to be seven or eight feet long and at least 400 pounds. Another exhibit that caught my fancy was that of some four- to six-inch fish with no eyes— apparently evolved away for lack of use in their total-darkness cave habitat.

Walking back, I met a nice young woman by asking her about her dog (an "eschnauzer"), a sort of cream-colored variety I've never seen before. She knew all about the immersion school and seemed very anxious to practice (what else?) her English!! If I don't hook up with other students for dinner during the week, I may give her a call -- she offered to show me around a bit and take me to a good restaurant. If so, we agreed to talk English/Spanish half & half.

I'm feeling pretty competent in my Spanish so far and already have siezed many opportunities to chat with school staff members and other locals. I look forward to a bit more structure tomorrow and during the week.

When I was ready for dinner, no one was around, so I went out to Che Tango, an Argentine restaurant I'd passed while exploring this afternoon. Though I knew beef would be the place's forte, I'd hoped for a potato and some veggies along with my meat. I had to settle for a medley of fried onions and jalapeños, but my small steak (for some reason called vacío—which means "empty") was superb, as was the wine I ordered to accompany it.

Veracruz-Sat. 10/24 '09

NOTE: The one thing I seem to have forgotten to pack is the little cord which allows me to download my photos from camera to computer. Unless I can find one that fits my camera, I guess I'll just have to make my writing that much more descriptive. I hope you get the picture!

After an uneventful trip via Houston in planes with only three rows of seats and too small for me to stand up in, we landed at about midnight through staccato lightning and one of the heavy downpours Mexicans call chubascos. I was met at the plane's exit door with a warm washcloth of sultry, southern-Gulf air, and dodged the continuing rain as I found my way to Customs & Immigration. Luck was with me as I got the green light (literally) from the Mexican "every nth person" baggage inspection lottery.

Linda and Eric Ladner -- owners of the Language Immersion School of Veracruz -- were there to meet me, as promised, with a little 3x5 card saying Jeff. We hailed a cab and got to know each other a little during the half-hour ride to the school, where I, along with the other eight or so students here this weekend, would have my room and two meals a day for the next two weeks.

We pulled up to an inconspicuous, completely unmarked building on a side street about half a block from the malecon along the Gulf of Mexico. My hosts gave me a quick tour of the spacious facility and then showed me to my room overlooking an alley. The room is simple, but big enough, apparently, to accommodate three students if necessary—in one single and one bunk bed. There's a small couch, a bureau, a table and an ample bathroom with shower. And thank God it's air conditioned!

As I've found so many places in Mexico, my bed is about four inches too short for a six-footer. So once more I engineered an extension using one of the drawers from my bureau and the pillows from the bunk beds. I was glad to learn that daylight savings time ends here tonight, so I'd have an unexpected extra hour of sleep. And, after the confused, mournful cries of the drunk staggering in the street outside subsided, I conked out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Alone/Abandoned in Zihua.

As Sally and I have fallen in love with Zihuatanejo, we've asked ourselves how, given that we're not really residents, we can contribute something of value and meaning to the town and the area.
One great idea has come to our attention through ZihuaRob's Message Board, the very active "nerve center" of the worldwide community of Zihua lovers. A young woman named Alysa Duncan set out from Zihua. on an epic bike ride to raise funds for a new shelter for alone and abandoned senior citizens in Zihua. She left Aug. 29, rode 2,000 miles (across two thirds of Mexico and a nearly a third of the U.S.) and arrived in Oklahoma City Sept. 30.
You can read Alysa's blog about the adventure at and contribute (by buying miles at $25 each) at (where her ride is referred to as "Z to OKC")