Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Final Hurrah in Queretaro y Taco Chon's

It starts with a reverent sunset parade at Plaza Independencia, catching my final dose of patriotic pomp and circumstance – the operatic national anthem, the lowering and folding of the flag, the torch-led march out of the square, thus officially closing the day – and my three months’ stay in this beautiful historic pueblo before heading to the boonies of Rioverde.

I capture some grainy shots with my Blackberry, then head to Neblina Café. I’ve been invited by the owner, the lettuce man, to a celebration of Dia dos Muertos. I sit and wait and nurse my beer as they setup – smells of incense and goiaba fill the air. They are disorganized, having troubles with the sound system – wonder if I should have come. Sparse crowd, people gradually trickle in. They are an hour behind schedule, right on Mexican time, as the show opens with Chichimeca chants and a cacophony of bird calls and a man with broken chords in his throat, beautiful and piercing. Then a dance of the dead to synthesized samples, moody dark, spare, as an old hag wrapped in black gauze gradually unravels herself, slicing through layers of oppression, they drop to the ground, revealing a smile, skin, the person within.

From the cosmic to the social, I head to Aleph Bar for a final hurrah with my PC09 compañeros – liter tall beers and spicy michaladas, smoke-filled courtyard, cold enough to see my breath. I shiver and listen to the banter, miss the jokes, even in English, and sip my giant Victoria. We are all going our separate ways tomorrow after three months of training and bonding – and a sense of the unknown hangs in the air. Each of us off to different sites to fulfill our Peace Corps duty; PST is not the Peace Corps, we’re told. We are about to find out what is.

It’s time. I’m tired of speaking English and pondering my Mexican future, but not diving in, instead hovering at the edge of youthful cliques clinging to each other, concocting plans to be together, zip lines from one community to the other, smoke and laughter bubbling out of them, masking fear and loneliness and there purpose for being here. We will surely learn soon, or not, it’s about something bigger than us, or not. Everyone has their own story – and in two years it’s certain to change.

I leave my pesos on the table, slide my half-drunk beer over to one of the boys, and slip out into the night, down the dark cobblestone street, toward the beconing lights of Garibaldi Street. It's late, no early, the wee hours and the place is cleared out, no problem finding a stool at Chon’s. Dos con res, por favor.

Chon nods, recognizing the gringa, tosses and slings beef and onions on the hot griddle, and piles two double-layered corn tortillas high with steamy meat. I take the plate from over the counter; it’s a real plate covered in a plastic baggie – a unique and ecological system of reuse that I’ve come to appreciate. The girls behind the counter with silver eye shadow smile shyly, wondering…I smile back, wondering. I snap some photos with my cell through the greasy glass. The senoritas giggle and sip hot pulche from Styrofoam cups.

I dress my tacos with green sauce, red sauce, chopped cilantro and onion, pickled radish, a squirt of lime – salty, sweet, spicy, tangy, crunchy, chewy rolls of wonder. Until my first time at Chon’s, I thought a taco was a taco was a taco. But I’ve learned.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Embracing Hacer

Today is the day I embrace the verb hacer – to do, to make, done, did, made. It’s the most irregular verb in the book; I talk around it as best I can – but sometimes there’s no handy alternative.

Puede hacerlo, yes you can, I tell myself, deftly utilizing the infinitive. Meandering through the Marista school yard on the way home from another day of PST, the shadows long, my head full of lessons, I decide it will be my homework…to construct a table, fill it in, practice aloud, use in a sentence, rinse, repeat, hope something sticks…































Lo hizo! I did it! Now if I can just remember which is which in context, in a real conversation.

Note in Spanish how the direct object comes before the verb – the indirect object too sometimes. So aside from having 25 conjugation possibilities to choose from for every darn verb, gotta pause and remember where to stick your objects.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dio dos Muertos Celebrates Life

It’s a quiet and reverent morning in Queretaro. Here, and in every city and pueblo across Mexico today, the people are washing the tombs of their dead loved ones and preparing to feast with them in the graveyards. Anything but morbid, Dia dos Muertos seems to me a celebration of life. If you can’t make it to the grave site, you setup an altar in your home to honor your loved ones and invite their spirits back to visit you.

The altars can be as simple as that of Ramon and Irma, my neighbors in Colonia San Javier who run the little fruit and vegetable tienda I visit each morning on my way to school. Yesterday they invited me into their apartment behind the store to see their altar. Muy sensillo, very simple, they insisted, as they bid me in, down a narrow hallway, past the inventory of refrescos, and into a cramped kitchen space where, on the round dining table sat a pair of framed black and white photos of their parents, a bottle of Nicaraguan rum for the dad, along with his favorite shot glass, and a cup and saucer for the mom’s daily café con leche. The candle was lit, as Irma explained, to help the spirits find their way back.

You can make an alter too, the couple insisted. I had in my mind something much more elaborate, like the towering and sprawling altars I’d seen in the Centro, embellished with marigolds or cenpasuchil, bright orange bursts of color symbolizing the harvest and attracting and guiding the souls; altars arranged with hundreds of candles, paper mache skulls, piles of fruits, limes, oranges and goiabas, cakes and cookies and delicate sugar-spun candies, bottles of tequila and wine…homages to heroes and governors and writers.

Or, like our Peace Corps alter, a homage to John F. Kennedy and Elvis, that we volunteer trainees decorated yesterday after class, with colorful tissue paper cutouts and and the special paper mache calavera made by Nancy Ho, who had to leave Mexico and return home to tend to sick family.

No, mine didn’t need to be so elaborate; Irma and Ramon were right. So I bought a candle from them, and a few provisions, and rushed home to setup my simple altar to the dead, in my little quarto, in my host family’s house. My candle is lit and is flickering in the morning breeze…reminding me of Dad and Grandma Lena, Grandma Copp, and the Grandpas that I hardly knew. Aunt Mary and Millie and Jenny. Then there are the young men recently gone from my life, that some child or grandchild will never know: Jeff Kellogg, Jonny Copp, Brent Hurd. Here’s to all of you!

I will make a trip to the Marcado de la Cruz today for a few more offerings for my altar. Feed the dead what they love and they will come visit. I need a pepper for my Grandpa John Copp because Mom said he loved peppers of all kinds, especially stuffed ones. (But has he ever tried Habenaros?) I’ll buy garlic for Grandma and Dad, the Italian cooks, and an apple for Grandma Apalona Copp, and for Jeff Kellogg…I think of grilled cheese sandwiches when I think of Jeff and of course the violin, the Bach Double. With my cousin Jonny, the climber, I have a carabiner on the…and for my yogi friend Brent, my meditation beads.

What I love most about this holiday is that it is a mix, una mezcla of the Catholic and Indigenous that, therefore, transcends the boundaries of organized religion and becomes something spiritual and cultural and also very personal. I love too how it creates the space to invite the memories of the dead back in an open and reverent and celebratory way – and how its making me think of these people in my life, in my past, and how they are still with me in their way – in my way – and what I’ve gotten from them – life, in some cases, lessons, stories, recipes, values, inspiration.

What do I think of when I think of these people? My grandpa the coal miner, my dad the hard-driving chemist and drinker, my grandma the earnest cook and care-taker, my Aunt Millie and Aunt Mary, women who loved a fiesta, and the young men, a climber, a musician, a film-maker. I think of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, intelligence, creativity, gusto.

I'll try to reflect on these qualities today, while on my trip to the cemetery to visit strangers’ graves – and perhaps over the next week, as Peace Corps training winds down and I get ready to take my pledge. Come to think of it, these qualities could come in pretty handy in the field, in Rio Verde, where my real work as a volunteer begins.

Meanwhile, back at home in the good ole USA, it’s Election Day. While I can’t be there in person, I am there in spirit, and I pray that those elected embody the same values as my deceased loved ones – putting politics aside to help the country recover. The Mexicans are watching out too for, in the words of Professor Edgardo Lopez Manon, when the US sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia.