Thursday, March 28, 2013


This is my final post before completing my Peace Corps service and returning to the states in May. I have accomplished what I set out to do: to make a difference, however small, toward creating a better world. I have come to love the people here and feel incredibly blessed to have been given the neighbors, co-workers and friends I acquired along the way. Some will remain lifelong amigos. 

My center has implemented many of my recommendations for improving communication, and the Peace Corps Mexico office shared my work with Washington, D.C. as a success story. I painted wildflowers for a botanical garden to help them raise money. And I taught dozens of people English. One of my students just won a competition in Austin, TX for which I helped her prepare, and another student did well enough on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to be admitted to a PhD program. Oh yes, and I learned Spanish! I won't be joining a Spanish debate team any time soon, but I can communicate.

Just as important are the intangible successes. There was the neighbor who saw me hug my sons during a visit and was surprised that American families are affectionate.  And the children who stared at me in wide-eyed wonder, mouths agape at my fractured Spanish and alien face, who might remember the kind, smiling stranger from another place and find compassion in their hearts when they meet others like me some day.

I traveled throughout much of Mexico and visited beautiful cities and tiny pueblos, explored archeological sites, enjoyed beautiful beaches and marveled at the varied terrain, cuisine, art, history, culture and people. This truly is a magnificent country. 

I am packing up two years of souvenirs, but the most precious things I will bring home are the memories. This has been a life-changing experience and a true gift.  

Thank you for reading my blog. Safe travels, and may you walk in peace.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Tiempo vuela (time flies)!

Once again, a lot of time has passed between blog posts, an indication I’ve found the rhythm in my life here in Mexico. I’m amazed I have only eight months of service left. At one point I considered extending to complete some of the work I started, but I really, really want to be home with my family and resume a normal life, whatever shape that might take. I do know I want to continue to teach English as a second language when I return to the U.S. 

My counterpart has asked for another volunteer to replace me, hopefully before I leave. The center director has approved more of our recommendations and there is much to do. Mexican colleagues are enthusiastic about the opportunities in front of them, and I am giving them some project management skills to help them carry out the recommendations. 

I am halfway through the poster project for the botanical garden and expect to finish by the end of the year. I am also starting to create a series of business skill seminars with another volunteer, which will consume much of our time for the next few months. The Peace Corps Mexico office has approved a $5,000 grant proposal and we are finalizing the paperwork. I’m working with another volunteer on a fundraiser for a girls’ camp she’s coordinating and am recruiting artists and crew to create hand-painted furniture for a silent auction.  

I learned how to make one of Puebla’s most loved dishes at my counterpart’s home this weekend. Cliles en Nogada is available in restaurants from July to October. It was invented at a convent in Puebla in the early 1800s to honor the Mexican Emperor Agustín de Iturbide and is red, white and green to resemble the Mexican flag. In a nutshell (or more accurately, in a chile), it is a large, deep-fried poblana pepper stuffed with a meat/fruit/nut mixture and covered with a white walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds and parsley. It involves 20+ ingredients and takes some effort but is a nice combination of flavors, textures and colors. 

The country has elected a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who takes office in January. He’s the charismatic one who is married to a soap opera star. There were many claims of corruption during the election but everyone now seems resigned to the next six years under a different leadership, and the country is hopeful the drug-related violence will end. Meanwhile, I’m excited about the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. and received my absentee ballot by email. The volunteers at my center no longer discuss politics. Our two-party system is alive and well in the Peace Corps.

In reflecting on the successes I have had so far, if I were to end my Peace Corps service today I would know my efforts were worthwhile and I made a difference. My greatest satisfaction has come from the little things -- editing a paper in English for a student, then having it accepted by a scholarly journal; helping a student study for the English proficiency exam and pass with flying colors; having a man admit he was surprised to learn Americans are also close to their children; and hearing more than one person say we have given them a new appreciation for Americans and have helped them see the world differently. The Peace Corps is making a difference and I'm glad I'm part of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reflections on Mexico

Hola! I just celebrated my first anniversary in the Peace Corps. One year down and one to go. I thought I would share some reflections of my time here so far. But first, a brief wrap up of current events:

The Mexican presidential election is this Sunday, July 1. There are four candidates on the ticket, but the likely winner is just another pretty face. He's married to a soap opera star and promises to bring more soap operas to Mexico if he's elected. When asked by a reporter about his favorite books or what he's read lately, he was dumbstruck. Everyone is hoping whoever is elected will bring an end to the violence in Mexico.

I just returned from Mexico City where I volunteered at Robocup, an international competition for high school and college students. The goal is to hold a soccer match between humans and robots by 2050. I met bright young scientists and engineers from around the world, and looked up several American teams to say hi and wish them well. I helped during one competition by interacting with a life-sized robot -- lots of fun.

I had a very gratifying moment at work recently. We held the first meeting of a communication advisory council, which brings together department heads and areas that, until now, have been obstacles to effective communication. Now they are part of the process an have ownership in the outcome. That committee will do much to help create a collaborative atmosphere and change the culture here. I gave myself an "attagirl."

Reflections on Mexico

The other side
This blog fulfills one of the Peace Corps goals of helping Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries. But there are two sides to every story, and I have witnessed some heartbreaking ones of illegal immigrants who were deported back to Mexico, leaving their loved ones behind. There was the young woman waiting for her husband at the Mexico City Airport who told me they were able to see each other once or twice a year. A man on the bus told me in English he was deported last week, leaving his American wife and two young daughters behind after 13 years in the U.S. He said he was afraid to go back because if he was caught again he would spend time in jail. Then he said, “I used to earn $1,000 a week in the U.S. Now I earn $1,000, but it’s in pesos.” (about $75 U.S.) Obama’s “Dreamers” bill allowing young Mexicans living in the U.S. to apply for work permits and eventually earn citizenship was the right thing to do. But we could do more for these people, whose only crime is trying to make a better life for their families. If you haven’t seen the movie, “A better life,” add it to your list.

I have often wondered why buildings are constructed with beautiful fire-red brick and then covered with concrete. The current theory is the bricks are weak and the concrete is reinforcement. It’s a shame, since the bricks are so much more aesthetically pleasing. The concrete is soon covered in graffiti, and over time cracks and disintegrates. That plus razor wire and jagged glass imbedded along the rooflines makes quiet neighborhoods look like war zones.

As I walk down the streets of Cholula I sometimes pass foreboding wooden doors and metal gates and wonder what’s inside. It could as easily be a farmyard with chickens and cows as a gated community with manicured lawns and expensive vehicles parked next to the houses. Occasionally straw, manure and barnyard sounds spill out onto the sidewalk, leaving no doubt about what’s inside. Or a gate might swing open, allowing a glimpse of potted flowers, pruned shrubs and a BMW or Mercedes. This diversity exists side by side and is a microcosm of the “two Mexicos” we learned about in training.
Mexico is one of the most seismically active regions in the world, so it’s good to know what to do in case of an earthquake. The subject came up recently during Peace Corps training. One of the volunteers, who has experience with construction, pointed out that, although FEMA suggests staying inside during an earthquake and holding onto something sturdy, most buildings in Mexico aren’t reinforced. His advice, if we’re inside during an earthquake, was to get the hell out as fast as we can. Building construction is just one more thing we take for granted in the U.S.

I became a pack animal recently. As I was walking to my center I noticed seven neighborhood dogs forming a pack. My first thought was, “This is not good.” My second thought was, “It's OK. I was vaccinated against rabies during training.” My third thought was, “Join the people on the other side of the street and make our own pack.” I took some comfort in being in a pack of bigger, smarter animals. But I.Q. doesn’t matter much when you have a dog clamped to your ankle. At least now I can scream in two languages. I could just imagine what the dogs were saying: “Look at that stupid pack of humans. And check out the Gringo in the back. She looks kind of pasty, but I heard they taste like chicken.”

There’s a cute but scruffy little dog that hangs around the center, probably looking for food. She has walked up to me on several occasions, licking her chops. I’m not sure if she is anticipating a handout or imagining sinking her teeth into my nice, juicy calf. In either case, I don’t pet her. I haven’t been vaccinated against mange or heartworm and discovered recently I am allergic to fleas (I’ll spare you the details).

Most public toilets don’t have seats; toilet paper is a luxury, and some bathrooms don’t even have water. If you buy a toilet for your home, the seat is optional. Why is beyond me. My guess is the seats are stolen, as are garbage dumpsters, forcing people to put their garbage on the sidewalk and their “junk” on the porcelain.
Toilet paper probably goes the way of the toilet seats and dumpsters. If you’re lucky, you will find one enormous roll of paper mounted on the wall at the bathroom entrance. The trick is to remember to get the paper before you go to a stall. Sometimes the attendant will offer you a nicely folded piece of paper in exchange for 4 or 5 pesos (roughly 30 cents). I don’t poop roses but I don’t want my toilet paper handled by someone who just mopped up an overflowing toilet – or anyone, for that matter – so I carry and roll my own.   
Soap? What’s that?

I don’t bother asking anymore if a dish is “pica,” or picante (spicy). “Un poco” (just a little bit) means it will cause my stomach lining to shed and give me cramps rivaling childbirth. If the food is red, I don’t eat it. My favorite Mexican dish is chocolate tamales drizzled with buttery chocolate sauce. My second favorite dish is spaghetti with bolognese sauce. What? It’s not Mexican, you say? Exactamente! That’s one dish I know will be thoroughly cooked – bacteria and all -- and the red sauce won’t cause flames to shoot from my nostrils. Calabasa flower soup is not my friend. (See “toilets.”)

That’s all for now. I hope this entry helped you appreciate the little things that make life sweet, as well as the big, life-changing things we take for granted.

Hasta luego,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Flowers, volcanoes and Cinco de Mayo


The rainy season officially started today. It is raining at the moment and will continue to rain every afternoon or evening for the next six months. The plus side is it turns everything into a lush tropical paradise, with flowers everywhere – wrapped around trees, draped over fences and sprouting from every available inch of soil. It’s funny to see all the tropical plants we Northerners cultivate as house plants growing like shrubs everywhere. Even Birds of Paradise, which we use in exotic floral arrangements, are part of the landscaping along sidewalks and streets. 

Speaking of flowers, the botanical garden just approved my proposed treatment for painting the wildflowers of Cholula for a poster. They will do the layout and design and have a poster to raise money for the garden, and I will have a very cool souvenir to bring home. This was the second proposal; I used a watercolor wash for the first treatment with the color extending beyond the flower. That apparently put a bee in the “committee’s” bonnet. They didn’t like the fact that I colored outside the lines. That has to be one of the nicest things anyone has ever accused me of.

You may have read about Popocatepetl, or “Popo,” the volcano near Puebla that has been spewing gas and ash the last few weeks. I live too far away to worry about lava, but not too far to avoid the volcanic ash, which is a nuisance and a respiratory irritant, the amount depending on which way the wind blows. It’s difficult to clean up because it turns to concrete when mixed with water and must be swept and bagged so it doesn’t enter the plumbing. 

There is a beautiful legend about Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, or “Izta,” the extinct volcano next to Popo, which happens to resemble a reclining woman. (The names are from the Náhuatl language, which pre-dates the Aztecs and is still spoken in Mexico and Central America.) Like many cultures, Mexico has its own spin on the Romeo and Juliet theme. As the story goes, the great warrior, Popo, was in love with the beautiful princess, Izta. While Popo was away at war, Izta was told he was killed in battle, whereupon she died of a broken heart. Popo returned and, learning of his lover’s fate, vowed to stand watch over her body for eternity. 

The State of Puebla just celebrated the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Battle of Puebla, in which the Mexicans prevailed over the stronger, bigger French army. Puebla is the only place in the world where the event has some actual significance. Everywhere else, especially the U.S., it’s an excuse (for those who need one) to drink Mexican beer. Puebla celebrated with performances throughout the month and a huge parade and fireworks on the 5th.  Jacob, Jonas and Kristin were here for the occasion and now have bragging rights during every Cinco de Mayo for the rest of their lives.

I loved having my kids here to share my Mexican life; this was Jonas’s second visit, in fact. We took a day trip to Teotihuacan, the famous pyramids near Mexico City, spent time enjoying downtown Puebla, climbed the Pyramid of Cholula and sampled the local fare. The unanimous best thing to eat was freshly made blue corn tortillas at the China Poblana restaurant. A close second was chocolate tamales. Before Jonas and Kristin arrived, Jacob and I visited the beautiful little pueblo of Tlaxcala and the nearby ruins and explored Cholula. 

Everyone left shortly before Mother’s Day, but having them here was the best gift I could have ever received. I got to celebrate the day twice: Mother’s Day is celebrated in Mexico on the actual day. This year it fell on a Thursday, so all the mothers at my center were given the day off. I Skyped with my sons on Sunday when it was celebrated in the U.S.  

I have been able to see a little more of Mexico, and traveled to Oaxaca with a friend last month. I fell in love with the place. It’s a beautiful, clean city with wonderful galleries, restaurants and interesting architecture. We took a day trip to the archeological sites of Monte Alban and Mitla, saw the Tula tree, reported to be the largest in the world, and sampled mole negro. I painted a magnificent tree I saw at Monte Alban, which you can see on Flickr, along with the volcano (CNN photo), the 5 de Mayo parade, Teotihuacan, Monte Alban and the Tula tree.

Well, once again I have failed in my attempt to write a shorter blog entry. I really do try, but there’s just too much wonderful stuff to tell you about.

Until next time,
Hasta luego

Monday, March 26, 2012

Still feeling good

Wow! I just revisited my blog and realized it’s been almost three months since my last entry. I’ll try to stick to the highlights here, but it’s hard when there’s a highlight almost every day.

I’m still feeling good about my contributions here. We are implementing the recommendations for improving internal communication at my center and turning our sights on external communication. My counterpart wants another volunteer to replace me and continue my work when I leave in June 2013 because there’s enough work to keep someone busy for years.

My counterpart and I were invited by the Peace Corps Mexico office to speak to the new group of volunteers to talk about creating effective counterpart/volunteer relationships. I was honored and very proud to be a role model, and am very fortunate to be paired up with this intelligent, talented, dedicated woman.

I held a second workshop at the botanical garden on making planters from recycled materials. My center is adopting the workshop for a public event in April, and people are now bringing recyclables to my office for that workshop. It’s starting to resemble a landfill here and I fear methane is not far behind.

One of my fellow volunteers teaches English in a small mountain community not far from the center. She asked me to help paint a mural near the school and suggested the solar system because the center’s Large Millimeter Telescope is visible on a nearby mountain. I took some photos of the precious neighborhood children hanging over the wall watching the mural unfold. Another photo shows the school’s maintenance employees helping me paint the sun, which was too high to reach. The mural needs a little more work and Saturn’s rings could use some plumping up, but I’m happy with it for now.

The trip there was breathtaking. I passed an abandoned hacienda that was stunning in the afternoon sun. I also photographed a shepherd bringing in his flock and the volcano at sunset. You can see the photos on Flicker:

My brother, Chuck, visited me a few weeks ago. It was great to share my Mexican life with him. He kept me in smiles, as usual, and I thoroughly enjoyed his company. He brought a stack of English children’s books for my English classes that were donated by his local librarian. The classes have moved to the neighboring community, and the response to the free classes has been tremendous. We had 60 students at one point, ranging from 4 to adult. Five other volunteers are picking up the load.

Six bricks: I witnessed an amazing feat of strength and coordination recently. Several men were unloading bricks from the back of a truck up onto a roof. The man in the truck grabbed six bricks at a time with his bare hands and heaved them up to another man hanging over the roof, who caught them in midair -- without dropping a single brick. I can’t imagine picking up that many bricks at once, much less throwing or catching them.

Speaking of amazing strength, the new record for the number of people on a bike is 5 – the father at the helm, the mother behind him holding a baby, with two more children in between.

Don’t try this at home (or anywhere!): I saw a young woman driving a scooter with one hand while holding an infant in the other arm, the baby’s blanket clenched between her teeth to make a windshield. The wind is the least of that baby’s worries.

Every day is a beautiful day in my neighborhood: I enjoyed watching the field behind my house come ablaze with snapdragons (see photos). Flowers are an important industry here, and the neighboring fields around my house are usually draped in richly colored floral blankets, the crops changing with the season and holiday. The same flowers I pass every day eventually end up for sale in the Mercado not far from my house.

We felt the earthquake here last week but there was no damage. I was working on my computer when my office mates said my name. When I looked up they were all staring at me. I said, “What?” and they said, “It’s an earthquake.” A second later I felt the earth sway and we all walked outside. That was it. We didn’t feel the aftershocks either. It was obvious on everyone’s faces that the fear of earthquakes is a part of their existence, especially for those who lived through the devastating earthquake in Mexico City in 1985. Someone I know lives in an earthquake-proof apartment building in Mexico City. The building moves whenever a bus passes.

This weekend I went with friends to Mexico City for the Iberoamericano Music Festival. We were guests of Foster the People (a Grammy nominee) because the lead singer is related to one of the volunteers (also named Foster). We stood on the side of the stage and looked out at 70,000 people in the audience (see photos). We stayed in a beautiful part of the city called Condesa, which has wonderful restaurants, lovely B&Bs, and a great night scene. Yesterday we visited the Anthropological Museum and decided we are definitely coming back for more. Yes, crime is a factor there, as with any huge city -- L.A., N.Y., Chicago, etc. – but with proper precautions there is no reason not to enjoy all of the wonderful culture and beauty the city has to offer.

I am now part of my neighborhood and take great pleasure in being greeted warmly by my neighbors and friends -- the shoemaker down the street, the laundry employee on her way to work, and the owners of the many little shops along my route between the bus stop and home.

Adios for now