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September, 2008:

Almost as much corn as in Nebraska!

One of the favorite street foods here is corn (or elote), prepared in a variety of methods. I may have mentioned in my Taxco post that we tried it there for the first time. There, we experienced what seemed to be corn boiled in its husks with the full treatment, which included:

  • a wooden stick shoved into one end of the ear
  • a rub-down with a slice of lime
  • a light slathering of mayo (room-temp preferred, naturally)
  • rolling in some kind of shredded white cheese, possibly Oaxacan?
  • and sprinkling with powered cayenne pepper (or the like)

To be honest, while it was interesting, I personally did not find it as rewarding as a fresh ear of Nebraska sweet corn dripping with a little butter, salt & pepper. :)

Anyway, the corn vendor in Alameda Central shown below opted for the simpler approach of straight-up roasting on a slightly-unstable grill. I felt she merited a posting, as I was impressed with her efforts to color coordinate her outfit with her product. Not only her yellow shirt and apron, but also her black pants/shoes which tie in well with the charred areas of kernels.

Corn: a fan favorite with Nebraskans and Mexicans alike

Corn: a fan favorite with Nebraskans and Mexicans alike

Below, you’ll find my second favorite vendor that we came across at Alameda Central. This enterprising gent not only has a seemingly flourishing business based around tin foil, but also seems to have actual potential customers. I enjoyed his dual-pronged and obviously complementary theme of a) dragons and b) roses, with the odd grim reaper thrown in. The combination of seeing this start-up + my current MBA program has me seriously considering a rubber band-based enterprise.
One of Mexico City's many unique street vendor niches: tin foil dragons.

One of Mexico City's many unique street vendor niches: tin foil dragons.

P.S. This post may or may not be a stalling mechanism as I am too tired to create a more ambitious post about our trip to Acapulco the other weekend. I am confident you will all await it with bated breath. 

A sad day for Mexican circus lovers

I seriously debated whether to post this breaking-news item, out of concern for offending the sensibilties of my more delicate readers… In the end, however, I decided that since I may be your only set of eyes and ears here in Mexico, I am obligated to be the bearer of anything that falls into the “News You Will Only Hear in Mexico” category.

Just before dawn yesterday on a highway near the pyramids northeast of Mexico City, one man and one elephant both died. The man was a bus driver, who had the unfortunate bad luck of driving his bus full of passengers into the path of an oncoming elephant. “I didn’t know elephants were native to Mexico,” you might be thinking at this juncture. And indeed they are not.

In this case, the elephant was a 40-year-old female named either Hilda or Indra  (accounts vary) who decided late Tuesday night that she’d had enough of peanuts, and “broke free as her keeper arrived to feed her,” according to the Telegraph.co.uk.  She ran at least two kilometers through various communities in search, I would like to think, of a better life than the one offered in your average Mexican circus.

Some of you may find the below photo a bit disturbing, as I did when encountering it on the front page of the local newspaper over lunch yesterday. To put it in perspective, however, the newspapers here are generally chock-full of graphic photos of the countries latest drug war slayings– with a bias towards corpses that may or may not still have heads. So perhaps from the editors’ perspective, this was lightening things up a bit.

Hilda/Indra after her unfortunate meeting with a bus on the dark highways of Mexico. :(

Hilda/Indra after her unfortunate meeting with a bus on the dark highways of Mexico. :(

Anyway, according to the Elephants Encyclopedia, Hilda/Indra was the Grand Union Circus’s last elephant. It may be worth noting they do not appear to have a particularly good track record for elephant care (Lucy, a prior performer, died in when a truck went over a cliff in Guadalajara). Given this, my hope is that Hildra/Indra had wisely & carefully plotted her escape, took advantage of the element of surprise that elephants are known for, and although her venture did not go completely according to plan, she is now in a better place that will involve fewer interactions with the freak show circus personnel.

And for the rest of us– if you needed another reason not to drive in Mexico after dark, please add this to your file.

Mario Kart D.F.

Last night, I left my safety blanket in the glove box. In a burst of confidence, I drove home in Mexico City without using my GPS, and I didn’t get lost.  Yes, so maybe it was less than 10 miles, and it was from the school that I had already been to 2 times, but you will just have to trust me that it merited a feeling of pride.

As I was driving, the thought of my high-school friends Todd & Matt leapt into my mind, and how they probably have no idea of the part they played in preparing me for this point in my life. And how did they help prepare me? Many hours of playing Mario Kart on Nintendo (or Super Nintendo, or whatever derivative it was in the mid-90’s).

A graphical representation of your average Mexico City traffic interaction

A graphical representation of your average Mexico City traffic interaction

To highlight the parallels:

  • Incredibly narrow lanes of traffic through which one must tightly maneuver. The ‘main’ road I take through neighborhoods out towards my school in the burbs has 3 lanes, but, as one of my friends commented, if you had 3 cars stopped abreast, I don’t think you could open any of the car doors.
  • Numerous sharp curves requiring rapid steering-wheel spins, with various obstacles ranging from traffic barrels in your lane, to people selling gum and/or phone cards, to mammoth buses.
  • Exciting off-roading options like navigating potholes the size of a small goat, to speed bumps (a.k.a. topes) that seem to be formed from only-partially-submerged watermelons.
  • I fit in amongst these drivers (with my blonde hair & Virginia license plates) about as much as the Princess fits in with the other Mario Kart contestants. Initially I thought there was a greater similarity, but after a few weeks of driving now, I realize that Princess Peach was NEVER able to drive as aggressively as I have already learned how to do here.
  • Bumping other drivers was always a favorite Mario Kart move for the lower-skilled players (i.e. if I can’t win, I’m at least going to make it as hard for you as possible). While I have yet to be sideswiped here, I figure it is only a matter of time.
  • The best way to drive here is to closely tailgate another local driver. This a) lends towards your credibility as an aggressive, crazy driver who other drivers should not mess with, and b) since they invariably know the roads better than you, they will know when to swerve to miss the goat-sized potholes, so you can mirror them & do the same. Conveniently, most of my Mario Kart time was spent in 2nd place (or lower), driving behind someone else’s car, so I am well-prepared for this.

Anyway, let me take this opportunity to officially thank Todd & Matt for the hours they spent mocking me because I am so crap at video games. Although their words seemed harsh at the time, without that training period, today I would clearly lack the nerve to fight erratic taxis, intimidating buses, and your average truck whose bed is filled with dead chickens on ice:

 

To me, this screams "we have mastered the concepts of proper poultry refrigeration"

To me, this screams "we have mastered the concepts of proper poultry refrigeration"

Xochicalco, our first archaeological venture

On our way back from Taxco the other weekend, we decided that our first Mexican road trip wouldn’t really be complete without hitting a historically-significant archaeological site. Conveniently, Xochicalco was (more or less) on our way back, a site that was in its prime around 650 AD. It was around this time that the better-known site of Teotihuacan (~30 miles northeast of D.F.) began its decline as a center of politics & economics in the central region of Mexico.  Xochicalco means “place of the house of flowers” in Nahuatl.

The site has impressive terracing & precise lines, along with amazing views of the countryside

Xochicalco has impressive terracing & precise lines, along with amazing views of the countryside

We were there on a Monday and there were almost no other people visiting, which afforded a nice, private exploration of the amazing site & its stunning views of the surrounding valley. Logistically– Xochicalco site admission was $48 pesos (pay in the museum before walking to the site), and the audio-guide system in English was $60 pesos. I recommend driving, as although books like Lonely Planet indicate there are buses that access the site, it was unclear to me whether they actually bring you to the entrance directly, or simply drop you off at the nearest intersection, which is at the bottom of a looong, uphill walk that I would have been displeased about doing in the hot sun.  

A few of the unique highlights of these ruins were a) an extensive systems of water drainage & storage cisterns to accomodate for the 6-7 months of dry season here in Mexico, b) 3 ball courts with “rings” mounted on opposite sides of a long field, and c) a really interesting Astronomers Cave, with a 13-foot long shaft (21″ in diameter) through which the movement of the sun was tracked. The most famous part of the site is the “Pyramid of the Feathered Serpents” (Piramide de Quetzalcoatl), with impressive decorative reliefs all around the outside.

Anyway, needless to say our crap photos cannot truly capture the scale & views of Xochicalco, but you’ll just have to trust me that it was worth a visit, as you can wander around & climb on/up/over almost everything (which surprised me coming from the USA, land of ropes, barricades & restrictions). As we bag more hot Mexican archaeology, I will attempt to offer comparative insights of which are the must-sees… For now, I will rank it as a “Visit if you’re traveling within a 30 mile radius”.

Here I am as we enter the site, facing the Great Pyramid

Here I am as we enter the site, facing the Great Pyramid

John stands in the East Temple, with the Great Pyramid in the background

John stands in the East Temple, with the Great Pyramid in the background

You can see one of the ball courts on the right, with its 2 rings still in place

You can see one of the ball courts on the right, with its 2 rings still in place

Woah! John totally almost fell off the Temple of the Stelae

Woah! John totally almost fell off the Temple of the Stelae

A new Spanish student’s worst nightmare…but no longer mine!

I have to share a couple brief anecdotes from my new employee orientation these past two days in Aguascalientes. But first, I must comment on how friendly everyone that I have met was. Everyone has been extremely kind, helpful, and patient with mi espanol. One highlight was the tour they gave me of the innards of our semiconductor assembly site, where I got to see the fastest machines ever connecting **real gold** bond wires that are thinner than hair from our semiconductors to bond pads. (And while I realize that many of you might not put that on your highlights list, you will just have to trust me that watching pick-and-place machines is wicked cool.) Needless to say, I had many opportunities to practice/improve my “technical Spanish”…

The main highlight was how I almost had to laugh several times when I found myself in the following scenarios that probably would have given me a panic attack/heart palpitations, had you told me 6 months ago that I might ever experience them:

  1. My second appointment after I arrived on Monday was with the site doctor for a simple medical history discussion. In reality, though, it was basically a test of my medical Spanish, an area which I have not studied extensively (shock). I was quite proud of myself because I managed to answer all of the questions except one or two without needing her to rephrase them (just into different Spanish, mind you). Anyway, you have to appreciate kicking off your new job with the relaxing process of talking about your sexual history and, uh, “women’s stuff”…in a different language…with a stranger…who happens to work for your employer. Sweet.
  2. This morning, I had a meeting with a really nice engineer who described to me the role of the mold compound in the packaging process. In Spanish. And then another meeting with an engineer who told me about how we put the labels on the semiconductor packages & separate their pins. In Spanish. And then another meeting about Environment, Safety, & Health with another engineer who was really passionate about his work and told me all about what his job entails–ranging from making sure people are not using chemicals that could kill everyone in the immediate vicinity to teaching people why it’s worth recycling. In Spanish. 
    BUT the weird thing was– a) I actually found all of the meetings really interesting (VERIFCATION: I’m a dork), and b) I actually understood the majority of them & was able to ask semi-relevant questions (VERIFICATION: maybe I am actually making progress learning Spanish)!!!

Of course, if you asked the all the people I met with, they may beg to differ regarding my Spanish skill level, but that’s ok. For at least today, instead of a common Mexican second-grader, I am feeling like maybe a Mexican third grader who attends the technology-focused elementary school. And that, mis amigos, is muy bien.

Pandastico?

I felt like this photo merited its own post. I am going to try & start a push to really get the term “pandastico” introduced to Mexican culture. It appears I have the support of HP’s advertising agency. Will keep you updated on my progress.

that timeless character from Mexican folklore...the kung-fu panda...

that timeless character from Mexican folklore...the kung-fu panda...

Potential definition:
   a feeling of being filled with the fighting spirit of a panda
Alternate potential definition:
   the sensation of rolling around in piles of bamboo

Taxco, home of silver galore!

Having officially lived in Mexico City for a whopping seven weeks, we decided it was time for our first excursion into the countryside. Much internet-searching & advice-gathering lead us to Taxco, a former silver mining town of ~50,000 people located about 2.5 hours to the south of D.F. Originally founded by the Aztecs, this town was built on the side of a mountain with records of silver mines dating back to the 1500’s from the Spanish and Cortes. 

the pretty pink Santa Prisca Cathedral in Taxco

the pretty pink Santa Prisca Cathedral in Taxco

More hot activity ramped up in 1716 when Don Jose de la Borda rediscovered silver there, building an amazing church (Santa Prisca Cathedral) of pink stone on the site where his horse stumbled and unearthed the first sign of a new silver vein. Just goes to show that you shouldn’t make fun of people who fall a lot.

Anyway, I was feeling quite proud because Saturday was my first day of driving in Mexico City, and I managed to make it out of town w/o any unwanted interactions with the police. We rolled into Taxco about 11:30AM and progressed sloooowly to our B&B through the narrow streets.

the slightly narrow two-way road up to our B&B...

the slightly narrow two-way road & pedestrian thoroughfare up to our B&B...

I began having second thoughts about driving John’s seemingly-mammoth car after going up a steep, one-lane but “two-way” street & having to execute a four-point turn around a sharp corner under the watchful eye of an elderly man who, instead of offering any directional assistance, simply stood directly in front of the part of his store I was most likely to hit. Luckily, I managed to get us to the driveway of Casa de las Palmas without mashing into any of the omnipresent white VW bug taxis that briskly navigate the tight roadways.

After a slightly awkward interaction at the front gate wherein we thought the innkeeper’s son was trying to sell us flowers & repeatedly declined them, he escorted us in to the amazing villa we were staying at for the next two nights. We had reserved the main house at Casa de las Palmas after reading positive reviews on Trip Advisor (despite the fact that it could sleep up to 7 people, arguably slightly more space then we needed), and it did not disappoint in either interior decorations or exterior views!! It also filled the bill by being far enough up the mountainside, away from the Zocalo, that we didn’t hear the clubs that allegedly continue on til 5AM in the heart of the town.

view of our villa, Casa de las Palmas

view of our villa, Casa de las Palmas...

 

...and part of the view from our private deck

...and part of the view from our private deck

an interior view of our massive weekend house!

an interior view of our massive weekend house!

John contemplates our next move, while his friend Zeb lies loyally at his feet

John contemplates our next move, while his friend Zeb lies loyally at his feet

 

To summarize our trip take-aways of Taxco:

  • It’s a good weekend/overnight trip from Mexico City, and you can fill a two-night trip if you like low-key, wandering around the city/market (and especially if you like hitting the couple hundred silver vendors/shops!).  Get up early on Saturday & drive down (about $166 pesos in tolls on the 95-D cuota road), arriving in Taxco before lunch. Consider stopping at Xochicalco on your way back (as we did), if you finish up early in Taxco on Sunday (but beware the traffic back from Cuernavaca).

    my favorite shot of sleeping dogs in a churchyard in the Guadalupe neighborhood, overlooking Santa Prisca

    my favorite shot of sleeping dogs in a churchyard in the Guadalupe neighborhood, overlooking Santa Prisca

  • Wearing hiking boots is not a bad idea, as the roads are STEEP and full of uneven cobblestones. Bring tennis shoes or rugged sandals at a min; ladies, leave your heels at home. :) Also, though the weather seemed quite temperate & accompanied by a nice breeze, be prepared to get sweaty when you are hiking around the town (unless you are in better shape then me). 
    Heading down into the depths of Taxco's mercado

    Heading down into the depths of Taxco's mercado

     

  • The market was a fascinating multi-level rabbit’s warren of stalls, stairs & winding pathways. You could easily get lost looking at unidentifiable fruits for 30 minutes.
  • There are silver shops on every street & silver vendors every 15 feet with cheap silver a-go-go, but I it didn’t seem THAT easy to find interesting/unique pieces at bargain-basement prices. That said, I found one shop I was very excited about, Taxco Disena, which I recommend checking out especially if you’re looking for more modern-y jewelry. (address: Calle Benito Juarez & Exrastro No. 1) 
    The front interior wall of Santa Prisca

    The front interior wall of Santa Prisca

     

  • This is a no brainer, but check out the inside of the Santa Prisca Cathedral. Holy ornate, batman.

 

 

 

a view of Taxco up the mountain-- we walked almost all the way to the statue!

a view of Taxco up the mountain-- we walked almost all the way to the statue!

  • Take some time to explore up some of the side streets, up the mountainside towards what we referred to as the “fake Christo Redentor statue” near the top of the town. If you follow Calle Guadalupe up from the Zocalo, that will take you by Casa de las Palmas as well as two additional churches with great views (if you make it far enough vertically)! Intriguing to walk the narrow, neighborhood streets, with regular respites of mini-convenience stores & ‘restaurants’ that seem to consist of an oven & a counter. :)
  • For eating & drinking, we recommend Bar Berta on the Zocalo (drinks only) with miniature seating on its balcony that has great people-watching. Order a “Berta”, which is tequila, lime, honey, and soda water. Gooood stuff.  Hotel Agua Escondida has a nice rooftop terrace restaurant with some tasty enchilada & good cathedral views (also on the Zocalo). If you max out on Mexican food, we found a great pizza spot with almost every seat full & operating a wicked takeout business, called Pizza Estelar located on Calle Hidalgo.

    needless to say, we did not attend

    needless to say, we did not attend

  • Also, don’t forget about the hot nightlife options. Especially for teens…

 

 

 

 

Two of our favorite street vendors, Corn Mama and Angel Wearer
Two of our favorite street vendors, Corn Mama and Angel Wearer
  • My only regret was not purchasing more from the bazillions of wandering vendors, ranging from the men & women with a thousand hats, to a guy draped in ceramic angel figurines, to these crazy wicker-pig-purse sellers. We did, however, boldly purchase an ear of “corn on a stick”, rubbed with lime, swabbed with mayo, dredged through cheese, and sprinkled with red pepper! As John said, anything with mayo is a no brainer. 
    some blossoming PRD (Mexico's Party of the Democratic Revolution) members talking shop in the Zocalo

    some blossoming PRD (Mexico's Party of the Democratic Revolution) members talking shop in the Zocalo

     

  • Hanging out in the Zocalo (the town square) offered loads of entertainment, with great local people-watching. Great spot to grab a bench, watch all the little kids run around, and observe the street vendors from a safe distance.   

 

 

 

 

  • And finally, a gratuitous pork photo for my friend Bruce in MD.

     

    Meat-licious?

    Meat-licious?

     

     

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