Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mexico City: The Fulbright Orientation

We made our way from Querétaro to Mexico City on a “Primera Plus” Autobus… the buses are very fancy tour buses and it was very relaxing to be driven to our destination after a week of driving. When we got a taxi from the bus to our hotel, we knew immediately that we had made the right choice not to drive in Mexico City! First of all, it is the rainy season, and apparently Mexico City, much like Venice and Amsterdam, is built on swampy land and things are sinking, so there was flooding from the downpour.
Church en el Centro Histórico that is sinking.

But more importantly driving in Mexico City is perhaps the most challenging that I have seen… driving in India seemed the most unpredictable because the roads were filled with such a variety of … well I won’t say vehicles, because that would not include the cows! But the users of the road in India included huge semis, buses with people hanging onto the roof and windows to hitch a ride, cars, motorbikes piled high with up to five family members (including babies), people riding or leading animals along the road, pedestrians and the sacred cows. Mexico City’s traffic is more uniform (with the predictable buses, cars, taxis, motorbikes and trucks), but the streets themselves are confusing to say the least. A taxi driver told us that there are circular streets in addition to typical North-South, East-West and diagonal cut through streets. Intersections are awe-inspiring. Once we were driving down the left side of the street, watching the traffic move in the opposite direction on the right side and suddenly we reached mid block and the left lanes moved back over the right side and vice-versa. Certainly pedestrians are challenged by these intersections as well, but it was incredible to see the taxi drivers navigate the city.
City streets of Mexico.

One evening CoMexus (our Fulbright organization here in Mexico) arranged a taxi to take us to a small intercultural exchange dinner in our hosts’ home. Our taxi ride lasted 1.5 hours and what was striking was the tentative nature of our driver. He quickly handed navigation over to us and repeatedly complained that there are not signs marking street names. Using the penlight and map he gave us I was able to generally keep track of our route and make recommendations about where to go. However, the driver’s uncertainty led him to jump out of the car at least 8 times to ask locals for directions. Unfortunately, they didn’t know either! Our hosts were extremely gracious and completely unsurprised by our late arrival. When they drove us back to our hotel we saw that we had not actually traveled very far.
That’s a lot of info about transportation! Our week was very exciting and inspiring and also exhausting because of the non-stop schedule. It was wonderful to meet so many fantastic people in such a short time… and really hard to keep track of names, faces and Fulbright projects/locations because we were also inundated with information about Mexico and Mexico City. Plus, I was sometimes overstimulated (or maybe understimulated) by trying to follow lectures about history, politics, etc. en español! The days were long and packed full of activities. We were lucky to be able to visit pyramids, el centro histórico and view the murals of Diego Rivera.
Overlooking the pyramids at Teotihuacán

Naomi at Teotihuacán

I was awestruck by his murals in the Palacio Nacional and was happy to have a tour guide to pick out details for us to look at and learn about. In fact, I’ve often avoided tours in my life, but they are very informative and I really didn’t know where to start when looking at the murals because they were so full of images and meaning.
Inside the Palacio Nacional

Diego Rivera

Mexico City is really incredible. Before I left LA, my cousin Dan told me my Aunt Mary said Mexico City rivals Paris… and she is right! Beautiful architecture, endless museums and so much happening…
We had amazing food (of course) and heard great stories. One of the highlights for me was from a former Fulbrighter, was giving us tips for living in Mexico/Mexico City. He said he had two words for us: “Nasal irrigation.” Apparently he had sinus issues from the pollution and was sick approximately every 6 weeks until he discovered a Netty pot, which cleans out one’s sinuses. He reported that he has not been sick for 6 months!
One of the best parts of the orientation was making new friends, who are located all around Mexico… we’re planning on both hosting and touring to visit new friends.
We arranged ahead of time to stay an extra day in Mexico City we were so thankful that we did. It was really nice to hang out with our new friends Josh & Missy and meet some locals.
Arriving back in Querétaro it really felt like we were coming home. Our hotel is much more modest than the one in Mexico City (that was paid for by CoMexus) and we’re looking for an apartment, which is also exhausting, but this city is gorgeous and more my speed right now.

Hola a todos. It’s been a while since we last blogged, but for good reason. Naomi and I were having the best time of our lives in Mexico City D.F. There is too much to write about and the feeling we had in those 4 days can not be captured in words alone (we have pictures too ;-). So I’m just going to hit the highlights of the trip.

TUESDAY, August 26th
Our first day, we checked into the Hotel Geneve, a beautiful place, celebrating its hundred year anniversary. The rooms were incredible with lush comforters and plush pillows. The Comexus (the Mexican operation of the Fulbright-Garcias Robles) staff were great and had everything running like clockwork. We had a Get Acquainted reception that evening and met the 79 other Fulbrighters.
WEDNESDAY, August 27th
The second day of the orientation was filled with lectures and panels that talked about politics and cultural dos and don’ts. Lunch was served in the same building as the lectures. A tasty seasonal dish of chiles en nogados: green poblano chiles filled with walnuts, raisins, meat, pomegranate and other spices and then smothered in this delicious walnut creamy white sauce, mmmm. That night we were hosted by Fulbrighter alums, two Harvard lawyers practicing corporate law in D.F. We took a taxi from the hotel in the height of rush hour. Now if you’ve never been to Mexico City I have to stop here and explain the traffic. It makes Los Angeles traffic look like a speedy race track. We might as well have strapped onto a turtle). Our taxi driver was sweet and tried really hard to get us to our destination. And some might think he was trying to get more cab fare by ‘getting lost.’ But not the case. The price was set from the beginning. Naomi with her mad map skills was able to help navigate through the amazingly complicated streets (we warned by many not to drive to D.F. and now we knew why). The oddest part of our taxi ride was when the cab driver kept getting out of his taxi to get directions (about 8 times). At one point a police car rolled by and flashed his lights into the cab to make sure we were ok. Naomi smiled letting him know we were safe.
Our 'driverless' taxi

Anyway I was super nervous about being so late and even surprised that we made it all. But we FINALLY got there and our hosts were so gracious and were acting as if we were on time. Actually they were not acting; they told us that we were right on time and that dinner would be ready in a few. They told us that they knew we would be stuck in traffic for a while and that the cab driver might get a little lost. They offered us some stiff drinks before dinner, which we gladly accepted. Horacio and his wife Paula had a beautiful condo with a private elevator and a maid. Dinner was served and we had our second helping of chiles en nogados that day. We didn’t have the heart to tell them ;-).
Our hosts Horacio and Paula

THURSDAY, August 28th
The next day was less lecturing and more fun. We headed out to the temple ruins of the Teotihuacán (Lugar de los que tienen dioses). I’m not even going to pretend that I know the history or archeological facts about this place. Alls I do know is that it was a cultural site that dates backs to about 500 a.d. Oh and they had pyramids too. (We’ll let the pictures do the talking).
Walking to the big Pyramid in Teotihuacán

Naomi and I on top of the Pyramid (another pyramid over my right shoulder)

We had a tour guide that was very knowledgeable, but then again we were in the midst of some brilliant Fulbright archeologists who could’ve done this tour in their sleep. That said, we headed to a delicious lunch at the Villas Arqueológicas. By far the best meal we had on our trip. This was the first time we had salad on our trip. It was buffet style and the tacos were off the hook. I had chicken in a bag that melted off the bone in a spicy red sauce and bell pepper slices.
Back at the hotel we got ready for the US Embassy’s reception for the Fulbrighters. Leslie A. Bassett, Deputy Chief of Mission, was our host. The event was very classy and I didn’t recognize most of the Fulbrighters (they clean up well).
Some of our fellow Fulbrighters at the U.S. Embassy reception

We met Carlos Garcias de Alba, Director General of International Relations and Secretary of Public Education who has in many occasions been to Los Angeles and is aware of the conditions of our public school systems. He had loads of stories and was very hospitable, offering any help we might need in our host states.
Carlos Garcias del Alba, Naomi and me.

After the reception some of us headed back to the hotel to catch the last few minutes of the Obama speech.
FRIDAY, August 29
On the last day of the orientation we got a tour of el Centro Histórico de Mexico City.
Palacio de La Bella Artes

We started in el Zoculo the center square in the middle of the city. Then we headed towards El Palacio Nacional where we were treated to the amazing murals of Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico.
Interior of Palacio Nacional

Then we had an afternoon of Q&A with some panelists, group pictures and then a big farewell lunch at Hostería de Santo Domingo. Molé de pollo was the favorite all around and Agua de Jamaica was flowing sweetly.
This is a picture of the "dependientes." Most of us feel a little funny about that title, so we decided to call each other "Independientes." Naomi

That final day of the orientation, I was beginning to get what most of us refer to as the Monday blues (even though it was Friday). I say this because we were making fast and close friends with some of the best people you could possibly know; (smart, energetic, funny and so compassionate it would make Mother Teresa blush) and we would be leaving for our respective host states that day. Melissa and Josh were dear to us and we spent a good amount of time with them.
Melissa aka Missy, Josh and the back of Naomi's head

We also found Colleen to be of like mind and very dear. I would have loved to develop closer relationships with all of the Fulbrighters, but that would have been impossible. But we found those who crossed our paths and made us laugh and cry more than once. Thanks to all for the fun conversations and looking forward to meeting up for more adventures.

Our 2 hour drive to Mexico.

These are just some "real time" thoughts I had on the bus ride to Mexico City.
As I write this Naomi and I are on route from Queretaro to Mexico D.F. on Primera Plus, one of the premier bus lines with full on recliner chairs with room enough for a built-in ottoman, TV, a men’s and women’s bathroom and an online snack (sandwich and drink, more than most airlines do). I have long legs so it’s a treat to be able to stretch without kicking the person in front of me.
This morning we had a quick breakfast at a local café. The local radio station was crankin’ some great 80s tunes. Naomi got nostalgic when the theme song for “the Never Ending Story’ came on. I asked for butter for my toast and they gave me a small container of melted manteca. Who knew you could eat shrimp without the shrimp. I dipped away, better than spreading.
I just want to mention Naomi’s and my skills as therapists came in handy last night. We helped a woman who was staying at our hotel come down from a panic attack. We were able to normalize it for her and stayed with her until she felt better. She was from France along for a vacation with her partner/friend. Very nice people. BTW Naomi’s Spanish is getting better by the day. She fearlessly gets into conversations with people and is able to hold her own I’m tempted to help but I just stand back. Only when she turns to me and says “Como se dice…” She’s cute and she’s all mine.
Mexico is treating us very well and we’re able to get around very easily (of course it helps to hablar español.
Some have inquired what the bejeezus we’re doing moving to Mexico. Well let me give you the tight concise version. I won a Fulbright Scholarship for the academic year 2008-2009. Naomi and I are going to be working along side Mexican therapists, learning how things are done down here in the mental health field. If you want a more detailed version of the proposal click here to get a pdf version of my proposal.
The Fulbright orientation in Mexico is supposed to introduce us and welcome us to the Mexican Culture. I am so looking forward to it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Day 7: Our Adopted City, Querétaro

We awoke at Hotel Castilla y Leon en Guadalajara and breakfasted at their restaurant on the roof. Guadalajara’s rooftops are beautiful too. Our final leg of the journey was pretty quick… about 4 hours from Guadalajara to Queretaro and the landscape reminded me of the foothills near Zurich or maybe Wisconsin’s rolling hills if you ignored the mountains in the background.
Very green, lots of corn and blue agave growing in the fields, and lots of livestock. We saw a truck piled high with pigs stacked one on top of the other--that were still alive! I drove today, so I missed the photo opp… The driving was very exciting today because we had to stray from the Autopista (toll roads) and that was a bumpy ride. I felt like I was playing a video game called el camino peligroso—not really, but it kept me on my toes. We didn’t know what to expect driving into Queretaro and were so excited to see la architectura. We made our way around the periphery of the Centro Histórico looking for street names and finally made our way to La Mansión del Burro Azul.

They gave us a bargain when we said we’re here looking for a place to live. The décor is described as “Frida Kahlo-esque.” I will highly recommend it to visitors ;) Check out our sink:

We walked around el Centro Histórico and marveled at the beautiful façades.

The vibe here is also very energetic. It is Sunday, so we saw musicians performing in the town square’s gazebo and there were many, many people promenading and partaking of the many foods offered by vendors. We found an amazing restaurant, which we will take visitors to for sure!

Wow! We’ve finally reached our destination/home/host city Querétaro. Of course we only have one day to rest before we head out to Mexico City D.F. (think Washington D.C.) for our Fulbright Orientation.
But people, I got to tell you, this is one fine city. I mean beautiful, friendly and with an eclectic troupe that makes you think melting pot, at least a small one.
As Naomi mentioned, we stayed at the Burro Azul en el Centro Historíco.
A lot of the cities we’ve visited have a center with loads of history (you see a pattern here). I’m guessing Mexico has a 'few' more years in the history dept. than the USA and you don’t have to go to no steekin’ library to find out, just walk out into the streets.

What struck me more than anything was the large Indian statue that greeted us as we walked into the center of town. He was looking up into the sky over his left shoulder with the hope and future of Querétaro on his shoulders.

Of course food always fills our evenings so we looked around for the local eats and were lured by a round cheery woman with a warm smile and twinkling eyes. We of course couldn’t refuse and by the time you know it, we were stuffing our faces with some of the best authentic food we’ve had since Los Zarapes. We ordered our food a la carte and thinking they would be small portions because of the cheap prices, I ordered too much.

My only criticism is they didn’t have cerveza fria! I had 2 gorditas and 2 sopes with chicken guisao and Naomi had enchiladas Queretanas which were filled with cheese and piled high with chunks of carrots and potatoes, smothered in delicious cheese and jalapeños.

Eating like kings, we paid only 12 bucks including our ‘soft’ drinks. After dinner we walked around the Jardin Square getting acquainted with our home for the next year. I’m loving life. Next stop la capital de Mexico.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Lovely breakfast at La Cebolla Morada (see pic). A little meditation poolside, with the sound of waves. Felix, nuestra tortuga, pointed the way south/southeast and the terrain changed multiple times, from Oceanside to swampy, to lush green, to mountainous and lush, to mountainous and rocky/arid, to mountainous and jungle-esque, to mountainous and Euro style… to Guadalajara—a happening city with a wacky, energetic vibe. The peeps are super varied and styled… lots of emo/vampire looks. The city is gorgeous! Beautiful stone architecture, arcades, large promenades and squares full of people enjoying the ambiance, lots of public art in the form of fountains, statues and large modern sculptures, and incredible clouds overhead. We went to a bizarre restaurant for dinner… and wondered if it was haunted. As soon as we got inside our camera stopped working, which is a crying shame, because the building was so beautiful with classic chandeliers, arches, and frescoes. Jose will fill you in on all the gossip from that locale… but our camera worked again immediately after we left! (cue in Twilight Zone music)
Naomi and her Omelettes

Felix our guide tortuga

Leaving Mazatlan, we first had breakfast at the Purple Onion, a local eatery with live music and festive Mexican décor (for the tourists). Omelettes and coffee with the ever present salsa roja and verde. (Los Zarapes didn’t serve breakfast-heartache).
View from our room.

The roads back to the main autopista are usually slow going due to local traffic and businesses. But when we get on that stretch of 'paid' highway, its smooth sailing. If you’re ever thinking about driving down the coast here are two tips I highly recommended: drive on the toll roads and drive during the day, no lights at night. As ‘paid’ as these roads are you still have to be alert and your mind can’t go on autopilot like on most US Highways. You have be defensive. But still, the roads are really good. The was so much beautiful scenery on our way to Guadalajara, one of the major cities of Mexico, think Chicago, New York, LA, etc. Huge rambling metropolitan hub for those who want their urban fix.

The landscape again began transforming before our eyes. It became hillier, greener and somewhat junglier. We stopped in Tepic, a small city on the way to Guadalajara. We didn’t explore much just stopped at one of the million Pemex stations along the way. So far Pemex rules the gas market in Mexico, but I think its because the government subsidizes its gas (I think I mentioned before, gas is about $1 cheaper). The stations have gas attendants who check your oil and tires. Very modern and efficient.

Leaving Tepic the roads got even better (think Audubon). There are speed limits, but like the Audubon most people sail along at 90 to 100 or even faster. We were modest, going 75, 80. This stretch of highway was incredible because it began to go through the mountains. At points if felt like I was driving through New England/Vermont.
Changing Landscape

When we got to Guad., we were greeted to a very modern metropolitan city with splashes of green everywhere. We drove down avenida Vallarte to El Centro Historico. We found a clean and inexpensive hotel in the very heart. We walked around for a bit before dinner, exploring the bustling streets with the million plus people. There were so many historic buildings that I wouldn’t even know where to start (it really feels like you’ve been transported in time). The people on the streets were an eclectic bunch, lots of Goth but also punk, urban trendy, etc. And all different types coming in from the local areas to have a fun time in this part of town. Lots of businesses and traffic (small narrow streets where people will double park right in front of you to pick up their dry cleaning). But for the most part El Centro was festive and fun.
Jose among the Guadalajarans

More of Guadalajara

...even more!

Dinner was interesting because we entered a restaurant (I’d like to call the ‘ghost restaurant’) with some of the most beautiful décor (think Spanish castle). What we thought were other restauranteurs were actually the staff having cookies and milk and wrapping things.
The ceiling must have been 50 feet if not more with paned glass windows and marble floors. The food was nothing to write home about (so I won’t-sorry foodies) but the hospitality was wonderful. The clincher for me was the 6’4” piano player with the waxed moustache. He asked for requests. He played some Gershwin and Duke but the coup de grace was when he played the 70s hit ‘Gloria.’ Seemed like an oddball piece to throw in there. I walked over and asked him about the odd song seleciton. He said in a hoarse whisper that it was a serenade to the hostess Gloria. Madly in love he said looking longingly over my shoulder then biting his finger. I looked over and saw Gloria (a beauty) standing by the door trying to avoid looking over our way. This was literally Beauty and the Beast playing itself out. The piano player and I talked for about half an hour. Great guy but obsessed with unrequited love. I hope she loves him back.
Anyway, tomorrow we’re off to what we’ll call home for the next 10 months, QUERETARO!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Day 5: Los Mochis to Mazatlán

We just had the most incredible dinner: Molcajetes (chicken, shrimp, tomatoes, chiles, onions and queso de Chihuahua cooked in a bowl made of volcanic rock—like guacamole is made in, but HOT--the Aztecs used to cook like this) with handmade corn tortillas, and Teacapan (grilled fish, the best chile relleno I’ve ever had, and something like a shrimp quesadilla that was even more spectacular). Plus, we were served by the nicest people, Gladis and Jose, who recommended our yummy food.
Jose y Gladis

Jose made tasty salsa in a (cool) volcanic bowl at our table. Gladis was so kind and authentic to everyone who came in to the restaurant (the young boy selling roses, someone delivering a package, and all the customers). There were very cool dragonflies all around. Eventually we moved inside and were serenaded with Cielito Lindo by a full band.
Now we’re in our room and can hear the sound of the waves outside our window.
We saw an exit called “Piggy Back.” I promise I’m not lying!
These signs were visible all through Sinaloa: DeKalb “an angel in your earth.”

We also saw Monsanto and Asgrow and Pioneer (DuPont)… lots of genetic modification and pesticide action imported from the USA. But, it has been interesting as we drive south to watch the landscape become less arid and the residences become more finished and colorful. I drove all day and according to Jose I started seeing things. I swear there was a Vacero on horseback on the Autopista.
Also, we saw this fascinating sign:

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet the horses!

With a restful night sleep in Los Mochis it was time to get back on the 15 south to Mazatlan, one of the beach resort capitols of the world. I forgot to mention yesterday that we had crossed states from Sonora to Sinaloa. Los Mochis is the most northern city in Sinaloa. It’s a big deal to mention as there is a lot of pride within Mexican states. Imagine the western US coast starting from Washington state to California, Sonora being Washington, Sinaloa/Oregon and Nayarit-Jalisco/California. The western Mexican states along the coast are for the most part evenly divided (so what happened to sharing the west coast evenly, Cali?).

Naomi did most of the driving and with a couple of snacks in the car, we were good to go the whole way. However right off the bat, we were stuck on a 5 km stretch behind this double bed truck for one hour. Coño!

But there was consolation along the way. We were witness to some of the most beautiful skies you could possibly imagine. Naomi had me pull out the camera repeatedly as we wowed and oohed as the landscape and sky changed before our eyes. The 263 km we traveled became wetter and greener. The weather also cooled to a chilling 85 degrees.
The scenery gets wetter...

and greener.

By the time we got to Mazatlan we were ready for a room and some food. Naomi being the consummate traveler decided to take us to the end of the road into a pier where locals tend to fish, swim and eat.

We drove into the Zona Dorado of Mazatlan where some of the best hotels were supposed to be. We found a hotel on Avenida Camaron called Luna Palace. It was modest and very wet. Supposedly it rains everyday at about the same time. Our room’s decor was out of the 80s, so much so that i saw Crocket and Tubbs checking out. I guess we were two decades too late getting here. But the concierge made it up to us by recommending some of the best Mexican food on the planet. Los Zarapes restaurant served up some of the best tacos and Pacifico mixed with salt, chili and lime. Mmmm. Double mmmm (thanks Carmen). We had two waiters, Gladis and Jose (tocayo). Jose made the salsa in a big earthen bowl right in front of us adding fresh cilantro, roasted peppers and tomatoes and onions and crushing and mixing them lovingly with a stone mallet. We had him make it medium to hot. Jose also recommended his favorite dish Molcajetes which consists of shrimp, chicken and beef in a tomato sauce sizzling in an earthen bowl with local cheese melting into the broth.

Fresh and warm hand made corn tortillas came with the meal. We added an extra dish Teacapan which consisted of a chili relleno, a shrimp taco that’s to die for and a fish that I forgot the name of. Teacapan

By the end of the night the local mariachis talked us into letting them sing Cielito Lindo for Naomi. Nice and loud right in our laps.

Gladis was such a hit with us that we ended up inviting her to Queretaro. Thanks for making us feel welcome in Mazatlan. She definitely had state pride. I know this because she said so. Next stop Guadalajara 500km east.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 4: Los Mochis

We decided to relax at the beautiful hotel playa de cortés this morning. We set off unsure of our final destination for the day, and drove to the end of the road at Topolobampo (near Los Mochis, a major city along the coast), which unfortunately was not the beach we were looking for. Apparently it is a destination for people who want to “touch flipper's flipper.” I like dolphins, and would like to go swimming with them, but riding on a little boat on choppy waters to touch them is not my idea of fun. Instead we ended up returning to Los Mochis and found a sweet hotel here (check out the tiled staircase and tree photo). We walked in to Best Western (don't hate us, we were tired and hungry), but were turned off by many things including: Monsanto (genetic modifiers) trucks parked in the lot and the receptionist quoting us a price higher than on the sign. No thanks. :-) We treated ourselves to DQ and watched a storm come up over a beautiful cathedral.

So as we traverse along la costa on day 4, our lives continue to decompress and LA becomes a distant memory. SIKE, we haven’t forgotten you LA. But we sure aren’t hankerin’ to come back just yet. Some of the interesting things I found along the way to Los Mochis (Moh-chees) (our next stop 223 miles south) were the Tecate Beer stands that reminded me of Dominoes. “Yes, I’d like to order a case of beer and some crazy bread.” They were all along the roadside for miles. We stopped at a Wal-Mart for snacks and enjoyed the ride with Bachata playing on our iPod. On our maps we found a little town near the water called Topolobampo (a mouthful). However, it was not the Guaymas of our dreams. Like Naomi said, tourists go there for the dolphins, no real beach and very choppy waters. We made a u-turn and headed back to el centro de Los Mochis looking for a hotel. Best Western was acting like it was Le Mondrian. They were a bit stand-offish but it was all for the best. We found a great place across the street with a jacuzzi and internet called Corintios Hotel (Greek themed). So far everyone has been very friendly. I’ve been able to strike up a few conversations when people asked me where my accent is from. “Dominican,” I say. I equated my Dominican accent to the British version of English. Naomi said Dominican was more like the Aussie or New Zealander in comparison, which I think she might be right. Anyhoo, they love my accent. Who knew! We ended the night with a mouthful of Burger King and a scoop full of DQ. (how u like dem apples benny).
Tomorrow we drive further south 263 miles to Mazatlan.

Leaving the beautiful Hotel Playa de Cortés.

The Tecate aka Dominoes franchises.

Tompolobampo sans dolphins.

Coritinos Hotel courtyard.

Nuff' said.

Ahh! Le Sunset in Los Mochis.

A perfect way to end the day.