Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Ponies of Lienzo Charro

Many mornings Sam and I walk the trails in the campo behind the Deportiva, a gorgeous sports complex set against the mountains and the clear skies of San Miguel, about a mile from town.  In the early morning the smoke from squatters' campfires, curling up through acacia trees, tall maguey cacti, and now in mid-October, fields of foot-tall marigolds, pale pink anemones, and acres of yellow daisies, makes you feel like some settler, crossing the desert in search of civilization, centuries ago.  On the plateau, above the campo, and above the soccer fields, basketball court, and running track, closer to the main highway, there has always been a handful of shabby horses, tethered on rope, without shade, nosing through rubble and sand for a blade of grass.  These are the ponies of Lienzo Charro, a small-town rodeo with real-life cowboys.

The cowboy is a charro, lienzo translates as lovely, though I think there's a local idiom I'm missing here.  The rodeo events are somewhat stomach-churning, but the mariachi band and its 10-year-old boy singer were absolutely amazing, and the sights in the stands were worth the look.  Those horses who spend most of their time tied up at the Deportiva are the animals being roped, along with a couple of cows who have to be prodded to move, and the occasional bull.  The horses are chased by a pack of four fitter steeds, with some of the most experienced riders and ropers you'll ever see.  The entertainment comes when the horse, finally encouraged to gallop full speed around the ring, is roped by the legs and thrown up into the air, mid-charge.  Once he's untangled he has to get up and start running again, chased and whipped by the riders.  There are about five ponies that rotate out of the back pens into the ring.  Once the event is over and they're back on their tether, looking longingly out onto the fields and the mountains, I wonder where they'd rather be.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Salvatore and His Rootop Dream

One evening at a benefit for Patronata Pro Ninos, I was seated next to an older Mexican gentleman named Salvatore.  He is a notario, a very official role, a government position of great trust and responsibility.  Notarios legalize documents, certify property values, assess taxes, and have other complex other financial duties.  His wife, Shelley, came to Mexico forty years ago as a graduate student, from Brooklyn, New York.  Like most 20-year-olds studying abroad, she boarded with a local family, arriving one Friday in the late '60s.  By Saturday night, at a dance she attended with the daughter of her host family, she had met her future husband. 

Salvatore, this earnest actuarial, this serious notario, told me a story about his youth: "As a boy of fifteen or sixteen I would go up onto the rooftop of my house and lay there under the stars.  The sky was so clear in San Miguel I could see everything.  And I would dream about my wife, where would I find her, who would she be?  I would ask myself about my future wife when I was 15 years old.  And never, ever, did I think that I, a Catholic (cat-o-leek) from Mexico would ever marry a Jewish girl from New York City.  Who could ever dream that? At the dance, if I had known she didn't speak Spanish, I would never have asked her to dance.  I didn't know she was the woman I was dreaming about on the rooftop.  But here we are, married 40 years.  And I still love her."

A Tree Grows in La Huerta?

The first night we arrived in San Miguel a man named Alfredo took a napkin from the bar at Woolis Kaban and drew us a map.  It would lead us to one of the largest trees in the world, one that would take 35 people to circle its trunk.  The sketch was crude, a few lines here and there with a ballpoint pen, but we recognized the name of the town, La Huerta, from a green highway sign we see whenever we arrive on the highway from the airport.  La Huerta is just across from the dam at the presa, about 20 minutes outside of San Miguel. If we could find the town, follow the road over a bridge, make a right at the school, and go uphill, everyone, he said, would know the tree.

The kids arrived a week later.  We went out on a little sightseeing tour in our car, thinking we'd see the countryside and have some fun in the process.  The road into La Huerta was amazingly beautiful: silver-grey agaves, a range of mountains running along the west side, a sky the color of construction-paper blue.  We found the town after crossing the bridge, a remote little speck of a place down a dirt lane past the only school, with half-built cement and brick homes and one or two tiendas with their normal supply of chips, sodas, packs of gum, and basic comestibles.  The obligatory Pepsi truck passed us on its rounds.    Alas we found no tree.  But not for lack of trying.  We kept following what seemed to be the only road in town, even as it began to head straight uphill, past the last of the houses.  The hill became so steep and narrow I refused to drive on  it. Sam took over, careened up this path that turned out to probably be a walking path studded with broken pottery and then nearly got us stuck at the dead end top.   I wouldn't even let the kids get in the car to drive back down. I was afraid it would slip and go over the edge into the valley.  As he was making multiple turns to get the car facing the other direction, Sam nearly took out the town's water supply by driving over their water pipe.  There was a sickening crunch but no gush.

So we kept going on, asking every local where this magical tree was.  We ended up on another remote dirt road, only as wide as our car, and heard music playing somewhere among scrubby trees and cacti.  While Sam figured out how to turn the car around on this narrow valley pass, I decided to head down into the bush to ask for directions to the "grand arbol."  I could see an old woman downhill washing clothes.  Just another really bad idea to wander into someone's property in the campo unannounced: I nearly got attacked by two feral dogs who were guarding the old woman's house.  Later I laughed, but at that moment, as I was whispering, "good doggie", "hi there" and other inanities and backing slowly away, uphill, I wondered if I was a goner.  So we bought some Pepsis and some cheetos once we found our way out and headed home!  We have talked about going back but something else always comes up.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The PTA Meeting

Sam and I decide to get involve, help out the PTA, let Mason know we care, maybe feel a little kinship with the other parents at Mason's preschool.  The parents at the older kids' school already seem out of my league.  I went to a get-together for moms and kids in Redding's second-grade class.  While he had a ball jumping on a moonbounce in the yard, I sat for 10 minutes at a table of women speaking Spanish over and around me.  One asked me, "De quien es usted la madre?  Or something like that, which I figured was, "Which kid is yours?"  I spotted Reddy's blond head, pointed him out, said, "Reddy" and that pretty much ended the conversation.  I wasn't able to go any further and she either wasn't or wasn't willing.  I hardly blamed her.  So I picked at a plate of food, made myself an awful-tasting Paloma (sprite and tequila), which I had to dump in a cactus at the front door, and went home.  Redding got a ride with someone else.

Well, back to the PTA meeting, which is quite similar in tone to other meetings we've been to at both schools.  An administrator gets up in the front, starts going over rules and regulations, or a recycling campaign, or upcoming events, and I can understand about 20% of the words, mostly those that end in -cion, which sound a lot like their English counterparts that end in -tion: organizacion, administracion, funcion.  Often they remember about 30 minutes into it that there are a couple of non-native speakers in the audience (Sam and I, generally) and make some hapless parent sit next to us to translate.  By that time it's usually too late for me.

Sam gets a whole lot more than I do, but we've both realized once you've gone to one of these back-to-school nights, you've pretty much got the drill.  This PTA meeting was held in the courtyard of Colegio Carrusel, Mason's preschool, folding chairs set up inexplicably in the hottest part of the patio. The sun was beating down, we're shading our eyes, straining to hear, not understanding much, and Sam whispers to me, "Now I know how the kids feel all day."  And so did I.  I was gone, zoning out, not really hearing anything but the sound of the janitor's weed-whacker and marveling that that was the first power tool I'd seen any gardener wield.

From the "Only in Mexico" File

So, here's a little typed sheet that came home from school yesterday, preceding Friday's first of five exam periods. (I've already told the kids not to sweat it; we'll tell their future school in the States that they were home schooled and that there are no transcripts to send.)

Science: Study Chapter 1, Lessons, 1, 2, 3 4, 5 and 6.  Students will be asked questions about the topics from these Lessons.  We will also do a review in our notebooks this week for all students, especially those who don't have the Science workbook. [That would be mine.  We have gone to the school three afternoons, only to be told all the workbooks, for all the subjects, are sold out, or week.]

Grammar: Study the sections on Articles, Demonstratives, Possessives, Possessive Adjectives, Possessive Pronouns and ___________ in the Grammar Lab.  [Bo filled in the blank with "what?"].  We will also do a grammar review in our notebooks this week for all students, especially those who don't have the book.

*Students who do not have the books but would like to use them to study can ask to borrow books and take them home to study or make copies.  They can also arrange to study with a friend from the class who does have the books.  We have done quite a few pages since August, and they have been following along in class and learning the same topics as the students who do have books.  I will do whatever I can to help them go over this work again.  However, I want all the students, especially those who don't have the books, to understand that it is still their responsbiilty to prepare for the exams and to ask for any extra help they need.

What they need is for Mom and Dad to get on Amazon and just order the damn books.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

La Alborada: Dawn with the Sanmiguelenses

Even more than the Dia de Independencia, San Miguel celebrates the birthday of their patron saint, Miguel. For reasons I'm not sure of (the hour of his birth?) the town begins the ritual parade at 3am (with street parties and roaming hordes of people moving though centro well before then). Thousands line the jardin, cheering on the other thousands who march down side streets and around and around the jardin, carrying twenty-foot tall, tissue-paper stars on long poles. As the bearers dance the stars spin in the sky, some of them illuminated from within by candles or electric lights. Sam headed up around midnight, to meet Bill Dettering (San Francisco Bill) and Christopher Holtby (Dallas Chris) at the Jardin Burger (their nickname for it), a stand that comes out every night selling the most perfect, wafer-thin, well-cooked, fried hamburger with ham, queso, tocino, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes, ketchup, mayo and mustard. Bill and Chris had gone in on a gallon of homemade tequila, which they had decanted into Tupperware squirt bottles. (At 3:30am when I found Sam, he had one raised to his mouth, draining it, while dancing in the parade without about two thousand Mexicans and his two gringo buddies. But more on that later....)

Though they missed each other at Jardin Burger, and Sam wandered through the fiesta on his own for about two hours, the boys had found each other and had spent a good long while at a cantina, the kind with the swinging saloon doors and no women. There were bands everywhere--mariachis, school bands, guys with guitars, boys with French horns, kids with kazoos.

Because fireworks (more like cannons without the pyrotechnics) were going off all night down by Parque Juarez, I was up and awake at 2am. I kept debating whether to get dressed and go out; I decided it was my first alborada, the kids were sound asleep, and I was going to head up to find the guys. The streets were pretty empty around the park; the first people I saw were five guys, heading towards me on Sollano, identically dressed in black from head to combat boot, all swigging from bottles. There was a moment of panic, but I kept walking towards them under the sole streetlight on that block, until I realized they were cops, and the bottles swinging in their hands were diet Coke. I wasn't going to be mugged after all.

The jardin was a scene. Thousands of people were out up there, even at 3am, with their babies, their little kids, their college friends and girlfriends, grandpops with grandmoms, street vendors and musicians. The only thing you didn't see were Americans. With the exception of the three I knew, I spotted about eight. Because this is their saint and their day, and this is a celebration specific to San Miguel, it's a very local event. I scanned the crowd for the guys for about a half an hour, making a lap around the crowds filling the plaza, and was about to head home, waiting at the southeast corner of the jardin to find an opening to get through and go back down the empty streets. And lo and behold, because Sam and I have always been lucky, there he is, right in front of me, marching with the parade, spinning and dancing and sipping tequila, with Bill and Christopher.

Like the Dia de Independencia, the fireworks started right on time--4am--and it's a show like nothing you've ever seen. There was one installation coming from behind the jardin, probably from Mesones or farther back behind the library. These were the high-in-the-sky, streamers of red, green and white that race up into the night and explode like huge flowers. No real danger there, even though they were exploding over our heads. The other, more staggering, sight, were the orange snakes coming from the plaza inside the gates of the Parroquoia. For close to an hour, huge sparklers arced from the church, through the black wrought-iron gates or over and above them, landing on a crowd of mostly young men dancing in the street in front of the Parroquoia. Sparks, flames, embers, ashes, and blown up bits of newspaper came cascading down. The men had shirts they waved around their heads to shoo away the debris. The smoke started to get thick around the church and some started landing our way. Castillos, the spinning fireworks that turn into images, started lighting up the front gates. When my face was dusted with grit and my eyes were beyond stinging I decided it was time to go home. I left Sam, Christopher and Bill in the jardin and worked my way through the crowds to head down Cuna de Allende. On the sidewalks were the women and their kids who sell the corn-husk dolls, the sponge maps of Mexico, the beaded necklaces, and trays of Chiclets. In long black skirts and shawls, they were huddled together on the curb in sleepy bundles, some with a couple of kids in their arms. In two doorways were little boys, flat out on their backs, sound asleep on the sidewalk, in spite of the noise and the smoke.

I start to walk downhill to the park. It is almost five in the morning. The thunder of fireworks rolls down the canyon of narrow streets, like a force behind me, a hand at my back, pushing me home. All my boys are sound asleep, the Alborada just a story they will hear about, and the real dawn waiting to wake them in an hour.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

School Days

School is so funny here. Today is October 1 (first day was August 24) and we still don't have most of the textbooks for Bo and Redd's classes. We went up yesterday to buy them--told that the Houghton Mifflin rep would be on hand between 12 and 3. So we naturally tried to be efficient and went at 2:30pm when they get picked up for the day. Too late! We were told that the books were sold out, and that you really need to get here closer to noon if you want them. So, no more books. But we've been told they are ordering more. Next time we'll show up early. But for now, homework is really not an option for the boys if you've got no books!

Mason's uniform just showed up last week, though the funny polyester sweater which goes with the god-awful polyester blue pants is too small and needs to be exchanged. That will probably arrive around Christmas, which is, happily, probably the first time he will need it. None of our kids has adopted the Mexican cold mentality (yet). First day under 70 degrees, it seems, and all local children are heading to school in fleece coats, heavy school jackets, and scarves wrapped across their faces. Babies are swaddled year-round in thick wool blankets, with no features showing at all. It's a wonder they are still alive under there. It can be 85 degrees and the moms and dads are walking around town with these bundles of flesh completely covered and held close to their chests. But I digress. It's the completely relaxed nature of the school system here that I was actually writing about.

I had to write a paragraph to Bo's teacher yesterday (typed on the computer and translated by a handy online translation service) telling him it was impossible for Bo to do his homework because he had no idea what the instructions were. He came home with some questions which had been dictated in Spanish by Prof. Jose Luis Mario. Bo gave it a good shot, but as it was his phonetic interpretation of the teacher's oral presentation, things were a little lacking. Both Sam and I tried to interpret it ourselves but we were kind of at a loss. And this was no ordinary, "What did you eat for breakfast?" kind of question. As best I could tell, Bo was being asked to write some paragraphs about the difference between the Aztecs and the Toltecs in Mesoamerican civilization. Huh? I gave Bo the note to give to Prof. Mario (telling him Bo would need to see these questions written down, rather than dictated). And until then, I told Bo, let's not worry about your old homework. It's all so relaxed around here after school....