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December, 2008:

Christmas Fun with Orphans

Everyone wanted to be the conductor and ring the bell

Everyone wanted to be the conductor and ring the bell

A quick guest-post by John.  If you follow Julie’s blog, you no doubt saw me featured as Uncle Sam for the Embassy’s election night party.  A total sucker, I was quickly convinced to dress up as Santa for the Ambassador’s annual orphan Christmas party.  About 150 kids from a number of orphanages attended, and it was really touching to play a small part in helping give them a fun afternoon.  

Race to the death

Race to the death

Everyone was remarkably well-behaved, except for about a dozen boys who Mark and I raced over the big slide…they damn near pulled my pants off trying to beat me!  I heard something rip, but fortunately didn’t discover any serious wardrobe malfunction. 

Just do that 15 more times!

Just do that 15 more times!

 Mark was a hit; the little girl at left was afraid of climbing up the slide, but he got the rowdy boys out of the way, put her on his shoulders, and carried her to the top so she could slide down – once one trip was completed he found himself busy for the next twenty minutes!  After lunch there were four different piñatas (so more kids could get a crack); one of the highlights was the candy-gathering tactics. 

Post-piñata mayhem!

Post-piñata mayhem!

Once the piñata burst, there was a HUGE dogpile; most kids opted for the “leap and sweep” method of diving into the pile, pulling candy under their body with a swoop of outstretched arms, and balling up like an armadillo until rescued by an adult with a bag in which to store your stash!

Santa delivers the goods under the watchful gaze of his elf, the Ambassador, and a nun

Santa delivers the goods under the watchful gaze of his elf, the Ambassador, and a nun

Next, each child got an age and gender-appropriate gift with their name on it.  They were called out by orphanage and each got to visit Santa in his sleigh (complete with six wicker reindeer, who got plowed over by an over-excited little boy).  All told, a great afternoon!
Waiting for your name to be called is tough!

Waiting for your name to be called is tough!

 

I got big hugs from most of the little ones; some even gave me a piece of candy or other small gift

I got big hugs from most of the little ones; some even gave me a piece of candy or other small gift

The Embassy crew and Ambassador post-party

The Embassy crew and Ambassador post-party

Back to Nebraska for Christmas!!

This past Saturday, John & I were alternatingly excited to return to the States to visit our family, and depressed to be leaving 72F weather for impending snow & windchills of -30F below zero. After another magical sub-30 minute trip to the airport at 7:30AM, we confirmed that American Airlines is the least organized airline at the Mexico City airport. On every Mexican airline flight I’ve taken, checking-in has taken roughly 10 minutes thanks to ~10 staffed windows. American had 3 people checking in the entire coach class of flights to Dallas, Miami and Chicago, so we stood in line for 60 minutes but still had time to spare. Note to self– fly Mexican airlines in/out of D.F., because they are more efficient and you get free food (actual food, not just pretzels) & booze on board.

As soon as we got to the U.S., John housed two glasses of tap-water-with-lemon just because he could.

As soon as we got to the U.S., John housed two glasses of tap-water-with-lemon just because he could.

Flying via Dallas (a wise choice, since every other hub in the US was slammed by snow/ice storms), we had a couple hours to kill during our layover. We seized the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with American-style dining, namely absolutely mammoth portions of food, but best of all, drinkable tap water!! And lemons!! 

Recounting this exciting fact to my mom later, she queried whether I had seen the recent filthy-lemons exposes. I confirmed yes, but I was fairly certain that no piddly lemon bacteria could rival that which my stomach was attempting to acquire in Mexico City.

Anyway, we actually made it into Omaha ON TIME!! (unlike my brother, stranded until 1.5 days later), and had a lovely dinner at my fav restaurant the Upstream Brewery with some friends & family before hitting the cooold cold roads with the aforementioned -30F windchill. Our first few days here in scenic Grand Island have not disappointed.

Is this business actually successful??

Is this business actually successful??

The illustrious Conestoga Mall has added a few gems to its collection of bustling stores, including some sort of John Deere souvenir store that was a prime spot for photos. The old movie theatre has been taken over by Glowgolf (what in the hell??), a hot new activity that my mom informs me is “very popular with the kids these days”.

Yes!! Farm Toys!!! Thank you!!!!

Yes!! Farm Toys!!! Thank you!!!!

 

Ahh, if only I had enough space in my luggage to bring this backhoe back to Mexico...

Ahh, if only I had enough space in my luggage to bring this backhoe back to Mexico...

 Luckily, our standby from junior high “drop us off at the mall on Saturday afternoon and we will spend 4 hours walking by 50 stores & hoping to see somebody cool” days is still kicking: The Incredible Bulk, a wittily named candy store.  There has been a lot of turnover at the Conestoga Mall, but apparently the demand for products to help you get fatter rarely dies down.

John applied for a job as Incredible Bulk security guard.

John applied for a job as Incredible Bulk security guard.

And finally, the mall also now has a trendy pet products store, so trendy that my mom was able to purchase a sweater for our dog Dave, the Jack Russell Terrier. Dave is getting a bit old & seems to get chilled easily, so she felt a sweater might be just the thing, and clearly what is better than a dog sweater? A MEXICAN FLAG dog sweater!!!

¡Viva México!, Dave seems to be saying

¡Viva México!, Dave seems to be saying

The only other highlight was my strange compulsion to visit one of the Mexican grocery stores in town last night, I guess to see if there would be any wacky ingredients that we now know how to use that we could surprise my parents with. And, I guess, the latent hope that here perhaps John & I speaking Spanish would be novel & perhaps we could impress someone (unlike in D.F., where we just look like morons). Unfortunately, our attempts to bond with the La Mexicana store employee didn’t go very smoothly, as she didn’t seem particularly comfortable with John’s repeated attempts to ask how long she’d been living in Grand Island.  Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

Mexico’s Monarch Migration: bazillions of butterflies

Monarchs enjoying a sunny Mexican winter day

Monarchs enjoying a sunny Mexican winter day

This weekend, John & I took advantage of the Friday I had off of work in honor of el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe to drive to Michoacán to see the annual monarch butterfly migration! In a nutshell, millions of butterflies migrate from the US & Canada each year starting in November to spend their winter in the oyamel fir tree forests in the mountains of central Mexico. This entire journey is a fascinating process, with the monarchs somehow knowing where to go every year despite multiple life cycles elapsing during the trip. The monarchs normally live for sub-2 months, but those that make the trip south live closer to ~9 months.

Nice job John on the artsy lone-butterfly shot

Nice job John on the artsy lone-butterfly shot

The other cool part is that the very first butterflies arrive in Mexico right around Dia de los Muertos (Nov 2), when Mexico welcomes the souls of the dead back to Earth. It is said that the monarchs’ arrival is the souls of the dead returning for their annual visit. Outside of that hypothesis, no one knows exactly why the monarchs come to Mexico, how they know to return here, or why they like this specific type of tree.

This creekbed was a fan-favorite butterfly hangout for socializing & drinking

This creekbed was a fan-favorite butterfly hangout for socializing & drinking

We visited the sanctuary called El Rosario, the most popular option of the three publicized spots. (You can find a decent map here.) For Spanish speakers, the WWF México website has some good background info; alternatively, About.com also provides an overview of the trek. (Note: Updated Sept 2012 to fix broken links) Logistics-wise, we left at the crack of dawn (6:30AM) to avoid Mexico City traffic, and it took us about 3 hours to get there (with no traffic). The only slightly confusing part was getting through Ocampo, but between following the signs for “Mariposa Monarca” & looking for the touristy road with 4 tracks of bricks interspersed with stones in concrete, we figured it out. Be prepared not to go more than about ~20mph on this road due to the omnipresent topes (speed bumps).

There is a random $30 peso “toll” on the touristy road to the sanctuary (read as: a few people draping a rope across the road), which we couldn’t be bothered to argue. The road leads directly to the parking lot of El Rosario, which helpfully has a $3 peso bathroom option before you start your trek. After running the gauntlet of a dozen shacks selling quesadillas & tacos, you reach the official entrance, pay your $35 pesos each, and follow your guide up the mountain.

We resisted the urge to try & simulate a scene from a Lifetime made-for-TV movie by sitting on this log & waiting for butterflies to perch us, causing us to suddenly realize how short life is & how we should dance like no one is watching

We resisted the urge to try & simulate a scene from a Lifetime made-for-TV movie by sitting on this log & waiting for butterflies to perch on us, causing us to suddenly realize how short life is & how we should dance like no one is watching

I feel like the old Lonely Planet may not sufficiently stress how steep the hike is, particularly given its ~3000m altitude (aka 2,300 feet higher than Mexico City’s ~7000 feet). It is marginally uphill for the 1.5km from the parking lot to the entrance, at which point you may start to think “Hmm I could be in better shape”. Once you start the 2.5km up the mountainside which progresses from stairs to just dirt, be prepared for a little huffing/puffing & possibly even some heavy glowing (for those of us who don’t sweat).  But it was all worth it once we arrived at the clearing with a very small stream running through the grass, where thousands of monarchs were out for a drink in the mid-morning sun.

The monarchs aren't particularly afraid of John, but they did dislike his shadow...

The monarchs aren't particularly afraid of John, but they did dislike his shadow...

I have never heard the sound of butterflies’ wings flapping (arguably as elusive as the sound of one hand clapping), but that is exactly what we heard as they fluttered all around us. Absolutely beautiful. We then hiked up a little farther to see a few of the fir trees where many more thousand were still napping. :) Unfortunately (but understandably) you can’t get too close to this section, but you could still see what looked like giant clumps of brownish feather-dusters attached to the branches. I can’t even imagine how many butterflies were perched on a single branch to give that visual effect from afar.

Behind John, you can see the bazillions of monarchs hanging in clumps on that tree.

Behind John, you can see the bazillions of monarchs hanging in clumps on that tree.

As many better photographers than me have pointed out, photographing butterflies flying around on a sunny day is a challenge at best, but hopefully these photo snippets have at least enticed you to schedule a visit to see for yourself! To that end, below is a brief video that may give a slightly better feel for how much monarch activity will be surrounding you! (May be more effective to watch the higher-res video on YouTube directly here. (Click “watch in high res” just to the lower right of the screen.)

Crazy black sheep on the loose: merely one of the hazards on the road down from the monarch sanctuary.

Crazy black sheep on the loose: merely one of the hazards on the road down from the monarch sanctuary.

In summary, the monarchs of Michoacán are definitely worth a visit if you are in the area between November and March. Just be prepared to work for the experience (my calves still hurt from walking down that many stairs three days later) and also to fend off a number of other vendors/children/parking lot attendants/people selling all-things-butterfly along the way. :)

And more road hazards on our trip down from the sanctuary.... ya herd of cows?

And more road hazards on our trip down from the sanctuary.... ya herd of cows?

Our first MEXPAT Christmas Party

One of the organizations that I had sussed out prior to moving to Mexico is MEXPAT, an organization for expats living in Mexico. I like this group because their purpose is simple: to hold monthly social events for foreigners living in Mexico City/Guadalajara/Monterrey, usually at a trendy bar/restaurant and usually involving a fair amount of social lubricant (known by some as “alcohol”).

I enjoy the MEXPAT events because they offer flexibility in accordance with your level of motivation on any given evening. Looking to expand your business & make some new contacts amongst Mexico City’s movers and shakers? Perfect– network away. Looking to have a few drinks with your friends but can’t be bothered to proactively interact with anyone new except for observing them awkwardly from afar? Perhaps not the goal of MEXPAT per se, but also perfectly acceptable– the people watching is always second to none.

Hot pink is the new red & green this Christmas!!

Hot pink is the new red & green this Christmas!!

Anyway, several of us decided to attend MEXPAT’s final event of the year, a Christmas Party promising snacks, an open bar, and entertainment, all within walking distance from our apartment. Sold!!  As we were heading there, some of us were hypothesizing on what exactly “entertainment” would entail. This question began to be answered for us as soon as we walked into Le Bouchon and saw 3 girls dressed in various neon colors like my friend “Dulce” to the right. :)

Everyone knows Gene Simmons was a sucked for neon orange hair

Everyone knows Gene Simmons was a sucker for neon orange hair

This was intriguing, but did not prepare us for the veritable who’s who of impersonators who joined us one-by-one during the remainder of the evening. In addition to the Neon Triplets, Gene Simmons made an appearance.

 

Elvis stretches out before doing a few laps, while KISS continues to hog the stage.

Elvis stretches out before doing a few laps, while KISS continues to hog the stage.

We were also excited see a flurry of diverse activity from Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe all under one roof!! I sensed that Charlie felt perhaps a bit intimidated by the aura of sexiness emanating from The King, possibly due to the apparent platform heels that The King was wearing.

As you can see, I can't take John anywhere without him being attacked by women.

As you can see, I can't take John anywhere without him being attacked by women.

Towards the end of the evening, there was a drawing for actual quality prizes, and John was the big winner of some high-class brandy, as well as a lipstick-laden kiss on the cheek from Marilyn. He handled it with grace. 😉  We figured that would be the end of our luck for the evening, but NO!! 

KISS and I had a good talk about hairstyling tips after this photos was taken.

KISS and I had a good talk about hairstyling tips after this photos was taken.

Shortly thereafter, I was the big winner of a gift certificate for dinner for 2 + a bottle of wine at a trendy restaurant in Condesa called Litoral. Excitement is high to go check it out. Luckily, I was also presented my gift by a famous person– the illustrious Mr. Simmons.  However ironically unlike John, I did not receive a KISS.

 

Even for Madonna, super-high-cut leotards are a tough look to pull off.

Even for Madonna, super-high-cut leotards are a tough look to pull off.

After the prize announcements we feared things would start to wind now, but fear not!!! You can’t end a party when MADONNA and her HEAVILY-MADE UP TEEN BOY BACKUP DANCERS are on stage!! Score! I was particularly excited as they performed one of my favorite recent songs (Hung Up, whose video in which she actually wears said super-high-cut leotard).  I felt like this was basically tripled the value of my evening, since I missed the chance to buy  $100+++ tickets to either of the two ‘official’ Madonna concerts in DF the previous week. I decided the MEXPAT Christmas Party was a far better choice, since my much-cheaper ticket price included drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and Charlie Chaplin back from the grave.

In summary, two lessons learned: 1) I will definitely hit the MEXPAT Christmas festivities again next year, and 2) if you are ever planning an event & you’re just not sure what to do to keep your guests entertained and someone proposes the idea of having like 6 or 7 completely-unrelated celebrity impersonators do random things at the event & you are skeptical because on paper that just doesn’t make sense, JUST DO IT. It will all work out in the end. :)

Alternative Energy?

I wonder if these colorful pinwheels serve solely as a fundraising attention-grabber, or if they also have secret powers of energy generation for the car that lies below them. Perhaps Mexico has some secret alternative energy R&D going on that we are not aware of…?

I fear the donation-soliciting sign may impair the driver's vision...
I fear the donation-soliciting sign may impair the driver’s vision…

Pizza Hut México: Trailblazing paths to new levels of obesity

I walked to DHL in my neighborhood to mail something today, and on the way home decided to grab a quick personal pizza from Pizza Hut. Yes, it was against my better judgement, but I was in a hurry & we have virtually no food in our house. While waiting for my pizza, I was almost tempted to a) walk out and b) throw up after staring at the 10+ advertisements in the store for Pizza Hut’s new “Cheesy Pops Salchicha“.

Is this appealing to someone?

Is this appealing to someone? (image courtesy the Cheesy Pops website)

This is apparently the latest improvement on Pizza Hut’s previous gem of just plain “Cheesy Pops” (aka Cheese Bites for those of you in the US), wherein a circle of attached nuggets appear to excrete cheese onto the rest of the pizza. Only now, the cheese excretion is plugged up by the insertion of a dirty sausage (salchicha) into the mix. Blech.

This is disgusting, even for a girl who loves all things cheese.

This is disgusting, even for a girl who loves all things cheese.

I’m sure these are both probably old news by now in the US, but suffice it to say I was disturbed enough to feel that it merited a comment. I figure it is only a matter of time before they announce a pizza here that is ringed by multiple quesadillas welded onto the perimeter.  Here is an interpretation from someone with absolutely no graphic design tools at her disposal:

Microsoft Paint = not likely to be used by Pizza Hut for the advertising campgain for the new "Cheesy Quesadilla Gut-Bomb Pizza"

Microsoft Paint = not likely to be used by Pizza Hut for the advertising campaign for the new "Cheesy Quesadilla Gut-Bomb Pizza"

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