Category Archives: Latin america
This past weekend I took a walk downtown to the Zocalo. Past the modern and the Art Deco buildings. Past all the nice cafés with open seating and small patios. Past the weekend market and Alameda Central Park. Past the castles, churches and mansions. And into the main town square.
The weekend crowd was large and bustling. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looms over the Zocalo the way most of the churches I’ve run into in Europe can’t seem to impose themselves upon their square. The structure is massive and covers an area at least as large as the huge open area in front of it. Imposing buildings flanked the square, one monolith per side, making the space feel entombing for its openness. And the church here seems to be the center of gravity and attention, with the majority of the action and vibrance drawn towards it and a lesser amount of action orbiting the outline of the square.
There was a stage set up in the square this weekend. The site is often used for political demonstrations and protests so this was no surprise. But this weekend the stage was occupied by dancers and pop music. As I got closer I heard the distinct Psy style. Gangnam Style. Closer still, I saw t-shirts and posters in Korean. The song shifted to Psy’s more recent song, Gentleman. After a minute or so, back to Gangnam Style. The songs swapped back and forth with the people on stage apparently learning the different dance moves for each. Eventually it came to an end and the crowd, mostly Chilangitas (young women from Mexico City), cheered loudly. I’m not sure what this was but it’s clear that there’s a great love of K-Pop in Mexico City.
I continued walking around near the church, through the crowd. And through the buskers with their wares spread on tarps, pushed in carts and hawked with calls about the quality and cost of what was on offer. Hungry and curious I tried a snack I’d seen others eating. Onto a crispy blue corn tortilla was smothered refried beans, cilantro, sautéed peppers, queso fresco and some picante sauce. You eat it by breaking the chip-like tortilla and scooping some of the topping into your mouth. Kind of like nachos you can hold in your hand!
After finishing the snack I went inside the main entrance of the Zocalo church. (The church has many side chapels which seem to be for specific purposes: confession, baptism, etc.) It is as large inside as you would expect. But another difference between it and Northern European churches struck me. This is a pragmatic place, set to be used not just toured. Chairs were set up around the popular altars; a portrait of the Pope who had visited many years ago was an active area; a mass was being conducted. I was a visitor, and even in this touristic area, I was the exception. So I stopped being in the way and walked back into the bright sunlight.
I leaned in the shade and checked where to go next. Quickly I was set upon by a group of teenage girls. Likely many of the same from the K-Pop show. The lead one asked me in Spanish if I spoke English and if I wouldn’t mind answering some questions. I didn’t. So a quick scripted and recorded interview later I was on my way. Kids practicing English often want to speak with a native speaker so it’s not out of the ordinary.
But I was stopped several other times for interviews. At one point there was a line of groups of kids waiting to interview me. They all seemed to be doing this for the same school (I asked several groups)band were all about the same age. I can imagine the giggles as every student realizes that they spoke with me. And the stifled chuckles of the professor imagining how I’d spent my day at the Zocalo speaking with his/her class about my favorite sports, my name, age, favorite Mexican food, and whether I’d like to come back to Mexico some time.
Of all the interviews I gave today one stand out. The boy was alone, except for his videographer mother, in contrast to the groups of girls as most were. He had his questions printed out and carried a pen, rather than written long hand as others. He wore thick glasses and looked like McLovin’s younger Mexican brother. He also asked the most intelligent questions and noted everything on his script as it was being documented. I have the feeling he is going to be either a scientist or a reporter and I wish him luck in either endeavor (or in whatever he chooses).
As the sun dipped below the clouds in the afternoon I walked away. I realized my skin stayed warm even in the shade and that brought back the realization that Mexico City was close to the equator and high in altitude, making sunburn virtually guaranteed on my unscreened skin. So staying in the shade I walked to find a little cafe overlooking the Alameda Central Park. It was hard to find because you have to go through the nine-story Sears to get there. But it was worth it for the view and the coffee frappe. Sitting there (in the shade) overlooking the park and the Architecture Museum while the sun set was beyond just pleasant. The drink was emptied too quickly, as was my energy.
I headed back to the hotel tired but full of appreciation for the things I’d seen and the experiences I’d had. I told all the kids that I had Liked Mexico and would return. That wasn’t just a nicety for their sake, I meant it. Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis with many different sides. It feels both Latin and European at times, which is not surprising given its geography and history. But the two work well together, matching culture and insanity the way a merengue mixes a gas into a liquid with the help of a little sugar and lime juice. A pleasant treat.
“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair
I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.
While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.
I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.
And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.
Talk at you soon!
Back in Nicaragua again. But a slightly different itinerary this time around. Spending a day or two on either side of the humanitarian work to see more of the country.
First stop was a town called Granada, east of the capital Managua and located on a volcanic lake where freshwater sharks play. I’d never heard of them either, apparently this is the only place they live. Swimming up the rivers like salmon. Interesting.
We caught a luxury taxi ride from the airport – meaning it had air conditioning – and were there about 45 minutes later. Stayed at a nice place called Hotel Patio del Malinche, a couple of blocks off the main square towards the lake.
Granada herself is much more touristy and appropriate for expat living than is Chinandega. But yet still much less touristy than most places I’ve been. There is a central area where tourists comply with the obligatory invitation of any centralized market to go see what life is about in the local area. Booths targeting tourists don’t quite clog the square but they impede the way with large tents, tables and other accoutrements.
But it all seems a bit staged. Several identical vendors sell things but to no crowds in the off season. No fewer than three ice cream bike vendors pedal over each others’ tracks in concentric circles. It’s like walking into a fair where all the rides are going but nobody is on them. A little off putting.
But when the town realizes that it’s Saturday night and the tourist crowds (such that they are) flock to the many restaurants and bars catering to their tastes, the streets and local establishments shine. Side streets close to the tourist areas even have vibrant local venues. And you’re as likely to run into a group of college kids as not. Tourists have their havens but the places where they’re not really typify this town.
So when the taxi came this morning to haul us off I left with a feeling that I hadn’t really seen the town. I certainly hadn’t done the many local activities available like kayaking and ziplining, but I had also missed out on the real treats like the lake itself and the real life functioning of the city. It’s not a place to spend a lot of a limited amount of time but as a couple of day layover you could do worse.
Back in Chinandega now and glad it’s off the beaten path. True, there’s not a luxury accommodation like we had in Granada but then again I’m not tarred as a tourist. The local places smile at the novelty rather than smirk at the gouging. Happy to be here.
I went to Brazil and didn’t tell you for too long. Sorry, Internets. Here’s a short catchup.
Flew into Sao Paolo to do a presentation for work. Getting a Visa to go was an expensive hassle but got it done by shipping my passport and a pile of cash to some dude in New York who carried it to the consulate the next day, waited around to get it approved and added, then shipped it back. I’m not sure how he got it done, but nobody at the immigrations office seemed to have any problems with it so I was good to go.
Met up with a colleague, then went and got checked into the hotel. He is fluent in Spanish and passable in Brazilian Portuguese so we got around OK. Next day we went into the local office and met a bunch more folks. Ended going out with them for dinner that night and a couple of drinks after. We went by a very interesting place called Hotel Unique, which is shaped like a giant wooden boat. Then we went to a rooftop bar from which we could see a large portion of the skyscrapers in the city of 20+ million.
After the work event I headed down to the small city of Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Another colleague lives there and I met up with him. He had a day of activities planned, including a tour around the corporate and university campus, lunch in the eclectic cafeteria and hanging out with friends. Over the weekend he invited me and a lot of friends over to his place to do a traditional Brazilian barbecue (barbacoa). Their way is different because they set the meat far away from the fire and do a slow roast. They use wood, rather than charcoal, so the meat takes on a smokier flavor too. It was absolutely delicious!
Porto Alegre, POA to those who fly in, is a great little city. About 3 million people so not really a metropolis. Rolling hills for a backdrop and gaucho culture similar to that of Argentina. Lots of beef. Churrascorias and things. Some slow roast the meat for a dozen hours or more so it’s very tender and delicious. No sauce or rubs except a sprinkling of salt so it’s just the flavor of the meat. There’s a really fantastic little place called Costela no Rolete you should ask about if you go! There are some hills overlooking the city and they give a magnificent view of the city, river, rolling hills and plains off in the distance. Very nice city. Great weather the whole time I was there.
Some other notes on Brazil:
- A sweetened, carbonated guarana juice is a popular drink here. It’s easy to see why – tasty and refreshing. There seem to be several regional favorites with slightly different flavors.
- In Rio Grande do Sul they’ve got a traditional drink that’s like a chilled yerba mate. It’s pretty tasty.
- Everything is really expensive. A value meal from McDonalds is over $10, and drinks range from $7-8 for a cheap beer to $30 for a draft in a nice bar. Outrageous!
- Lots of local beers. Fine German and Italian beer tradition. One of the best I had was Bohemia. Classic pilsner taste – very clean. I’m not a big pilsner fan but this one was good and great on a hot day at a cookout.
- At the airport the security line goes very fast. Mainly because a strip search isn’t involved but also because they’re well staffed. Don’t have to take off your shoes. Don’t have to remove your laptop. Don’t have to remove liquids. I don’t know what the rules are for size etc. because I didn’t run into any of the limits. And nobody checks your documents when getting on the plane.
- The grocery store has a whole aisle of meat. It’s fascinating.
I had great fun in Nicaragua. Despite all the hard work and heat, it was quite an experience. The people there were great – friendly and polite. And at the end of the day you felt like you’d accomplished something tangible to help real people.
And working that closely with people you normally see in a much different capacity was also great. I learned a lot about my coworkers and we definitely formed bonds that will last a long time. We learned that we can trust one another to pull just as hard during just as trying circumstances. I wouldn’t hesitate to lean on one of those folks in the future and would hope they’d feel alright leaning on me if they need it.
Some notes that haven’t found themselves elsewhere in my descriptions:
- There are geckos all over the walls. At night they hang out by the lights and catch moths.
- In Nicaragua the ‘S’ is silent and the ‘C’ is pronounced like they do in Barcelona – that is, with a “TH” sound.
- The long-timers here say that you don’t get sore after a hard day’s work because you don’t ever get cooled down like you do in the US. Sure enough, after I got back and hit the cool weather I got sore. Funny, that.
- Most of the folks didn’t speak much, if any English. But I got much more confident speaking Spanish with them and wasn’t ever really stuck for communication.
Well, back to the real world….
Yesterday was hard work. Really hard work. So hard, in fact that I couldn’t even bother to post anything.
We dug a trench in a dry gully so we could lay a pipe to transport water to a small town. The gully typically fills up in the wet season so we had to go deep. 4-4.5 feet deep. And being a gully we hit lots of rocks. Big rocks. 1,000 pound rocks. One of our guys broke his toe. One got hit in the face with a giant steel pole. And it was the hottest day yet with no breeze and no shade. Until it started raining and caving in our trench. And lightning was striking so close we could feel it in the metal pipe we were putting in the ground. Man, it sucked.
But we stuck it out and got most of the pipe put in. The biggest rock out there is still there and we don’t yet know how we’re going to get rid of it. But that’s a problem for another day.
When we got home we ate and showered and then went to a local bar to celebrate one of our guy’s birthday. The place was called Restaurant El Paraiso. We had a few drinks and chatted about the day and the trip. Then we got serenaded by a couple of not quite mariachis. It was great.
This morning we got to sleep in a bit – breakfast at 9 instead of 7. Then we sat around for a bit. At 1–ish we headed out to an orphanage for disabled children. Most are physically and mentally disabled, primarily due to malnutrition when they’re in utero or very young we were told. We hung out there for about an hour or so with them, reading, playing, and just interacting with them as best we could.
Then we headed out to the city during the day for lunch and to just hang out. It was good fun exploring the city. Some places were pretty seedy but nothing felt too unsafe. I managed to navigate the sales processes pretty well in my broken Spanish – few people here speak English. After lunch and everything we piled back onto the bus and headed to the house.
We got changed, loaded up the truck and jumped in the back. Headed out to the farm, unloaded our digging equipment again and headed out to the plantain fields. Today we were going to be digging an irrigation ditch. More freaking digging.
But this time the soil was nice, rich topsoil instead of sandy, rocky wash debris. We were all full of energy. The weather was a bit cooler. The ditch needed to be shallower. We had an easier time of it. We had some tunes to motivate us. The work went much faster. In fact, we got through it probably faster than the folks here expected because the pipe wasn’t due to arrive until tomorrow. One of our guys even found an arrow or spear head!
Today’s work was a huge success and morale builder. We’re now back at the house telling stories, playing cards, having beers and in general loving things. It’s a great feeling.
Some of the folks are headed home tomorrow, some on Friday. I’m trying to round up a group who might want to stay until Sunday and see more of the countryside.