Stranded in Mexico City and the Kindness of Strangers

First and foremost, let me just state that there is no perfect place in the world – not to visit, not to make your home. You just have to decide what you are willing to deal with in order to have the life that you want. Tornadoes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, deserts, snow and ice. These are just some of the things to consider.

I loved living in New York. Grew up there, lived there all my life, but as retirement approached, I decided that I would buy a house somewhere else. For years, I had no idea where, but it had to be someplace where I would never see snow again, except, perhaps, on top of faraway mountains. And here I am in Colima, Mexico with my preferred “what I’m willing to deal with” things being earthquakes and volcanoes.

The first half of this month I was on a long-planned trip to Puebla, to see a friend, and to the U.S. to visit my family. The first stop was the state of Puebla, the city of Atlixco, in the foothills of the volcano Popocatépetl. Fittingly, its name in the Nahuatl language means “smoking mountain,” and smoke it did every day that I was there.

Map showing the locations of Mexico City, Puebla and Popocatépetl.

I had picked the first half of May to visit Puebla because Puebla is where the battles of May 3rd, 4th and 5th (Cinco de Mayo) took place, and therefore I could witness any celebrations. The first half of May was also a convenient time for my family.

Every day, my friend Martha and I hoped that the ash level would be low enough so that flights out would not be affected. I recall when I was still working, one of my co-workers visited family in Ireland. The volcano in Iceland erupted before his return flight and so he had an extended stay with his family.

My flight was scheduled to leave Mexico City Airport on May 6th. After a half-hour ride to the bus station and a two-hour bus ride to the airport, I was finally waiting to board when the announcement came – flight delayed – flight delayed – then flight cancelled. There were various reasons given for the delays and then the cancellations – first they said that weather in Houston was bad, but other people were going to other cities, so that didn’t make sense. Finally, they said it was because Popo was spewing ash into the air and the planes could not fly.

We were then directed to go to another part of the airport to have our flights re-booked. The next flight they gave me was for 4:40 am in two days – on May 8th. OK – so one problem solved and two more to go. I sought out people to try to find a place to stay for two days. My friend lived 2½ hours away, and already had other guests staying with her. I was finally told to find “Manuel the supervisor” and so I went back to the United Airlines area and found Manuel.

He explained that since it was not the airline’s fault, I would have to pay for a room. I explained that I didn’t care, but just needed a place to stay for two nights, and even joked around that I COULD hang out at the airport, but after two days with no shower, the passengers next to me on the flight probably would pass out from the smell from my unwashed self.

God Bless Manuel – he made some calls and got me a room at the Camino Real hotel, attached to the airport, for two nights at the employee discount.

Final problem – my hotel in Houston. In order to not stress about missing connections on an international flight, I like to stay in a hotel at the port of entry and continue my journey the following day. I had made a reservation at the hotel at the Houston Airport, and it was pre-paid, non-refundable. Two considerations regarding this reservation:

  1. Because my son worked in hospitality years ago, I knew that the employees at hotels want to be informed if you will be arriving after midnight for your reservation. This will save them a major headache, as I believe they close their books at midnight and then start a new day with their bookkeeping. Another tip from my son – when at a restaurant, it is better to tip the waitstaff in cash.
  2. Because it was a volcano and not a whim that I would not be arriving in Houston, I would throw myself on their mercy while explaining why I would not be there. The worst they could say is “No refund.” So, when I finally arrived in my beautiful hotel room in Mexico City, I immediately called the Houston hotel and explained the situation. I even tried to soften the blow by saying I would agree to a credit for a future stay if they couldn’t refund my money. The woman discussed it with her supervisor, and they agreed to give me a full refund. Yaaaaayyyyy!!!!!

Problems solved, I had a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep, and a full day to relax the next day.

THIS happened after I left Mexico. I have not heard of any injuries from the lava, but people need to wear masks when outdoors. While I was there, it was just ash falling from the sky, no flying, glowing hot rocks nor any lava.

Monday morning comes, and I board my plane for the flight to Houston knowing that I have to make a connecting flight a little less than two hours after landing. Now, when you enter the United States from a flight from a foreign country, you pass through immigration, then collect your checked bags, re-check your bags and go through security again to reach your connecting flight.

OK, no problem. Until after I had checked my large suitcase and went through security with my carry-on suitcase. I already knew my back brace would set off the alarm in the walk-through metal detector. Familiar with the drill, I let them know what I was wearing and that it would set off the alarm. When the alarm went off, they called over a female officer who patted me down, and I did lift my shirt a bit to show it to them (I wear double layers of clothing, one under the brace and one covering it).

Then – they decided to check my carry-on bag, which had 14 bags of my home-grown coffee complete with my own label.

They swiped a bag with some kind of cloth, stuck the cloth in a machine and BINGO ! – it came back positive for explosive residue. Huh??? What??? Immediately I thought, that just can’t be. Second thought – Oh, NO – they are NOT confiscating my coffee that I spent months growing, de-pulping, drying in the sun and then having it roasted.

Visions of spices that were confiscated from my son’s luggage at an airport in Cameroon, and a tiny violin-shaped glass bottle of blackberry brandy ALMOST confiscated at an airport in Vienna (at which time I swore I would drink every drop of the contents before allowing them to take the bottle) swirled through my brain. PS – they took pity on me and let me keep the bottle AND the brandy.

Anyhow, back to Houston. They called over a female agent, and I explained that there shouldn’t even be a hint of fertilizer on the bags. She was very nice, explained what they would do, and then swiped every one of the 14 bags individually, then my suitcase, then me and everything came back negative. Yaaaaayyyyy!!!!! Oh, and they did open ONE bag just to make sure it actually contained coffee.

Fortunately, it did not take much time, I did not miss my connection, and landed on time at the BWI airport where my sister collected me and my luggage.

I was so fortunate in many ways that, for me, while a bit stressed from straightening things out, I could still consider it an interesting adventure. I didn’t have a boss waiting for me to return to my job, I didn’t have young children with me who might not understand what was going on, and I speak English and Spanish, so I wasn’t stranded in a place where I didn’t know the language. I was able to turn lemons into lemonade and have a pleasant and interesting experience that I certainly wasn’t expecting.

All I can say right now is – Wow. Just the traveling part of my 16 days away from home took up a whole blog post. Soon I will write about my stay in Atlixco, Puebla, including Cinco de Mayo celebrations, climbing into the world’s smallest extinct volcano and a visit to a Talavera factory.

So take care, stay safe and I hope that in your life, you will also be able to turn lemons into a delightful lemonade. ¡ Nos vemos !


Why do we have so many rocks and boulders here in Colima – The Colima Volcanic Complex (CVC)

One of the first things, if not THE first thing, that one thinks of when they live in Colima or has heard of Colima is our volcano. Actually, there are three current volcanos in the CVC – Colima Volcanic Complex. The most obvious is the Volcán de Fuego, or Fire Volcano which sits on the border of Colima and Jalisco states. Further north is the Volcán Nevado, the inactive snow volcano. A third volcano, north of Nevado is El Cántaro, the existence of which I was unaware until I was researching the internet for this post. El Cántaro is the oldest, is inactive and eroded.

More than 38,500 years ago, the Paleofuego volcano began to form out of lava flows. This volcano collapsed at least 5 times, producing debris avalanches and pyroclastic-flow deposits. The last collapse happened 2505 years ago, producing a 5-km-wide caldera, inside of which grew the Colima Volcán de Fuego.

Throughout Colima you can see photographs and paintings of our Colima Volcano, businesses named after the volcano and tourism around Fuego and Nevada.

Here are a few views of Nevado and Fuego taken during various times of day and temperatures. Nevado is on the left and appears smaller than Fuego because it is farther away, but it is actually taller. We do not have snowfall here in Colima, but because of its height, Nevado does have snow when the temperature drops here. The coldest I have experienced here is around 50ºF (10ºC).

You can’t help but notice all the rocks within Colima State – cobblestone roads, rock walls, and a famous tourist attraction the Piedra Lisa, which translates to smooth rock. It is in a park in Colima, and legend is that if you slide down the Piedra, you will never leave Colima, or maybe you will return.

Photo of the Piedra Lisa

My driveway on the left and my street on the right. Some of the stones are obscured by gravel in the street being used for construction.

In the past, I’ve only thought about all these rocks in passing, but since I have started construction of a small guest house on my property, I have come face to face with the extent and enormity of these rocks and began to wonder about their origins. On Long Island, New York, where I grew up, we learned that Long Island was formed by glaciers pushing the rocks as they advanced. When the glaciers retreated, Long Island was left behind. I always hated how rocky the beaches were there, compared to the nice sandy beaches we would read about in the Caribbean, for instance.

One of the large rocks (boulders?) and a rock wall which illustrate the terrain of many parts of Colima.

The first obstacle to the construction was a large, dense rock sticking up out of the ground which would block one side of the building if it was not moved. I had hoped that it was shallow underground and would be easy to move, but it turned out that, like an iceberg, 90% of its mass WAS underground. It was nearly impossible to move, a jackhammer did almost nothing to break it up, and it was decided that if the workers were unable to move it, we would need to blast it apart.

Actually, I was curious to see the blasting activity, having heard from my civil engineer father stories about having to blast things apart by drilling small holes, inserting the blasting material and then setting it off.

Anyway, they were able to construct and use a lever to move it out of the way, though they may have to move it a little further as the construction progresses.

As the foundation was being dug, there were even more rocks, but fortunately, we could use them as part of the foundation, leaving them in place and pouring cement around them.

Meanwhile, my search for the source of Colima’s geology continued. Now, I am not a geologist, so if anyone is more knowledgeable about this, please leave a comment.

It seems as if these conditions ARE a result of our Volcanic Complex. From debris flows to debris avalanches, to pyroclastic-flow deposits, as well as lahars, we are blessed with more rocks and boulders than we know what to do with. To clarify, a lahar is a destructive mudflow on the slopes of a volcano, which continues to happen to this day.

So right now that is about all I have to say about the geology of Colima. For me, when I see something curious, I love to research it to find out more and then share what I have discovered. It was also why I loved helping my son with his homework, even up through high school when he took courses such as geology. No one knows everything and there is always something new to learn, so we family members can learn alongside our younger members. Lifelong learning is a joy for me.

And so, I will conclude this post with a famous photograph of our Volcán de Fuego erupting with lightning bolts inside the ash cloud. We can all decide what climate conditions with which we prefer to live and no matter where you go, there are benefits and downsides – tornadoes, droughts, floods, heat, snow, etc. For me, I decided that I would rather deal with volcanoes and earthquakes than snow, ice and cold, and in the seven years I have been living here, I have never regretted it for a minute.

Día de Los Inocentes and April Fool’s Day

April 1st has just passed – April Fool’s Day in the United States – and this reminded me that Mexico also has a day in which pranks are played, but that day occurs on December 28th and is called Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents). While the custom on both days is to play pranks, the origins of the two holidays are dramatically different.

The origin of the Mexican day is more straightforward, so I will begin with that.

Mexico is a very Catholic country, and according to the Catholic religion, when the baby Jesus was born the Sacred Family was visited by the Three Magi. On the way to visit the family, the Magi informed King Herod of the birth of Jesus. King Herod asked the Magi to return to him after the visit and inform him of where he could find the child, so that he might also worship him. However, King Herod’s true intentions were to find and kill the child because he thought Jesus would depose him from his throne and become a king himself.

After the Magi visited the family, they were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod and so they returned to their homeland by a different route. When he realized that he had been tricked, King Herod ordered that every male child under the age of two years to be murdered, thinking that one of the murdered children would be Jesus, thus securing the safety of his position as king.

While there have been many paintings depicting the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (the innocent children murdered by King Herod) the current practice here in Mexico is to play pranks on people – a reminder of the deception of the Magi with regard to King Herod and how they fooled him by returning home without giving him the information he requested.

One of the few non-gory paintings of the Día de los Inocentes

Unlike the Día de los Inocentes, the origin of April Fool’s Day is still a mystery, although there are many differing theories. One theory posits that the origin was in 1582 in France, when that country switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar, implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, miscalculated the length of the solar year by 11 minutes. While eleven minutes doesn’t seem like such a big deal, over the years it results in the seasons becoming disconnected from their traditional months at the rate of 1 day every 128 years.

In France, the New Year began with the spring equinox, around April 1st. With the implementation of the new Gregorian calendar, the New Year began on January 1st, thus people who inadvertently celebrated the new year during the last week of March through April 1st became “April fools” and the recipients of jokes.

Other theories are that the tradition began with the festival of Hilaria (Festival of Joy) in Ancient Rome or began with the celebration of the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, when Mother Nature fools people with changing, unpredictable weather.

While the actual origin has been lost in the mists of time, the tradition of jokes and pranks continues to this day in many countries.

Celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe – post-pandemic 2022

Covid is still making its presence known, and some offices still require masks and distancing, but after 2 vaccine doses and 2 booster shots have been available, life is somewhat back to normal. December 12th is the Celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we here in Cofradía were able to go out and have our traditional festival.

It was held for our village and several other villages in the surrounding area in a large open area owned by a local restaurant. In this area is what is called a plazuela – on one side are cement stadium-style seats across from a platform. While the festivities did not last as long as in previous years, it was still a great day.

Women and children dressed in traditional red-and-white clothing and pilgrims and traditional dancers marched into the venue from the road. Police cars protected the pilgrims and dancers from oncoming traffic. After entering, a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe along with roses was placed at the bottom of the platform.

Of course, no celebration is complete here without firecrackers (cohetitos). Like clockwork, in anticipation of every event that needs a “bang” the vendor sets up shop on the highway at the entrance to Cofradía.

Singing “La Guadalupana”
Playing “La Mañanita” which is the Mexican birthday song as they enter.

According to tradition, Mary, described in the history as a young woman with black hair and dark skin, appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Christianity on December 9th and December 12th, 1531. She requested that a shrine be built at Tepeyac Hill, where she appeared to him. He told the bishop after he had his first vision. The bishop didn’t believe him and asked for proof. Mary told Juan Diego to collect flowers at the top of the hill and bring them to the bishop wrapped in his cloak. Since it was December, it was a miracle that flowers were there. He wrapped them in his cloak and when he opened the cloak in front of the bishop, there was imprinted on the material the image of the virgin. Upon seeing this, the bishop ordered the building of the Basilica in what is now Mexico City. There is a frame that is said to contain the cloak of Juan Diego in the new Basilica in Mexico City.

Image on the cloak of Juan Diego in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City

The traditional dancers in our area are called the Danza Azteca, and their headdresses reflect a combination of traditional clothing and Christianity – it is a headdress of feathers with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the center.

Banner of the Aztec Dancers

And so I’ve come to the end of this post, with more to follow. I wish you all the blessings of the season for whichever holidays you celebrate. Until next time – ¡ Nos vemos !

Learning Spanish/Teaching English

There’s nothing like practicing conversations with a native speaker when you are learning a foreign language. For many years, I took Spanish classes and came to the realization that, while I could read and write just fine, I still had trouble speaking the language. I had been practicing my Spanish with a neighbor who was originally from Mexico City, but that still wasn’t enough.

I realized that I had to be surrounded by people who didn’t speak any English for me to be forced to learn to converse in that language. I explained this to my friend, who suggested that I spend time with her family, as none of them spoke English – so I did just that. I spent two weeks with her family in Mexico City. My mini dictionary was glued to my hands, and I managed to get by.

Since I moved here in January 2016, my Spanish has greatly improved and aids to speaking have also improved. Google translate is so much better now than it was then. I can look up words and phrases that I do not know, which eliminates having to carry around a bulky paper dictionary. And – I am still taking Spanish lessons, but my needs have changed. Rather than rote classroom learning, I have online conversations with a friend in Puebla, and she can then see from our conversations where my needs are. Sometimes I need to learn more vocabulary and sometimes I need to work on sentence structure. Other times I need to learn colloquial expressions. There are so many areas where there might be a need to improve, and these are detected through normal conversations.

Meanwhile, just by looking at me you can see that I am a gringa, and there are many people who want to practice their English with me. In addition, the students in my village are also studying English in school. So now, three days per week, I am helping 3 primary school students and two adults learn and practice English.

But before this happened – I was using my printer to print out their homework during the pandemic. During the pandemic, teachers would send lessons and homework to the families electronically, and one of the families didn’t have a printer. Sometimes, upon realizing there were words and phrases in these papers that I wasn’t familiar with, I would make extra copies for myself. Here is one example:

The Teacher Shulte was sitting in a seat when suddenly a skull arrived and poked him in his butt.

So now I am learning about several things from this boy’s homework:

1 – A literary style called Calaverita literaria corta (literally “short literary skull”), similar to limericks.

2 – Learning new words specific to this geographical area – “petacas” for buttocks, which would also be called pompis or nalgas, butaca for seat and calaca for skull.

Now it has progressed from the families wanting me to help their children with their English to two adults also wanting to learn. With the children, I use their textbooks and homework as a guide, but with the adults, it became apparent that first they would need to learn the alphabet in English, as the pronunciation is so very different that they would have great difficulty pronouncing the written words correctly. So, I got out my white board, wrote out the alphabet and one of the women wrote how to sound out the letters as Mexicans would pronounce them:

There is no “W” sound, nor a sound for “Z” in Mexican Spanish, nor is there normally the “th” sound and words don’t normally begin with an “s” sound (school, student) but rather with an “es” sound (escuela, estudiante). So, there is a lot of work to be done with pronunciation, which is why I need to begin with the alphabet for the adults.

One thing I do let them know is that they will be learning to speak English with a New York accent as they are learning from me. My accent is not as strong as it used to be, but I still pronounce walk, talk and coffee with my NY accent (as in “wawk” “tawk” and “kawfee” with a strong “W”). As far as accents, there is more – Tuesday can be pronounced “tooz-day” or as the Canadians and some British pronounce it “chooz-day”, so I think that there might still be problems for the students when it comes to completely understanding English. Hopefully with time, it will all work out.

Meanwhile, the two brothers that I am helping have a baby sister, and the girl I am helping has a baby brother, so I am only speaking English to the babies, which hopefully will help them to be bilingual once they begin talking. I also try to make the lessons fun, using various methods – songs, etc. At first, the children were hesitant and somewhat withdrawn, but have gotten used to me now. They are more relaxed, realizing that I am not their teacher in school, not going to give them grades, and they are having individual attention.

So, all in all, this has become a wonderful new chapter in my life, bringing me closer to my neighbors, helping me with my Spanish as I help them with their English, and keeping my mind active and improving life in general.

Another word I learned from one of the children – Tazon for bowl. Normally, I would just hear them called platos, for plates.

Day of the Dead – 2022

It is now towards the end of 2022, and while some restrictions are still in place – masking in some areas and stores, for example – village life has basically returned to normal. It has been time to celebrate the Day of the Dead/ AKA Día de los Muertos, and for this year I have decided to stay in the village to celebrate.

The week before, many of us went to the cemetery to clean the graves and then place flowers and wreaths there. Some of the larger tombs have been re-painted or broken tiles replaced. The cemetery is also becoming very crowded, and I imagine that before very long will run out of space. I heard that they will be building a columbarium with niches for cremated remains to deal with this lack of space.

Halloween comes a few days before Day of the Dead, and that even has not really caught on here. There were a few children who did Trick-or-Treating, but not many. I heard from a neighbor that some of the children had come to my property, but I didn’t hear them, as my house is at the back of my garden, far from my gate. This is the opposite of most properties here, where you first enter the house from the street and the garden begins at the back of the house.

Anyway, a few days before November 2nd, some college students set up a nice display of Catrinas in our village square and fortunately my neighbor took photos, since the display was taken down the next day.

Enjoying a cappucino and toasted bread during this season

On November 2nd, we all went to the cemetery, where the priest said Mass, people placed more flowers and wreaths on the newly cleaned graves and in general, people gathered with each other to remember their loved ones who have passed on.

Catrinas on display as you enter the cemetery, called the Panteón

Outside the cemetery gates, vendors were selling beverages and snacks. The weather cooperated, and so it was a very nice afternoon and evening honoring our loved ones and acquaintances. As the papel picado says: “Recordarlos es darles vida” – Remembering them is giving them life.

The Death Café – Advance Care Directives

In previous posts, I have described my journey through the Mexican legal system in my hunt to discover the documents needed if someone should die while in Mexico. This included obtaining an official replacement for my birth certificate, obtaining an apostille, presenting those two documents along with my marriage and divorce decrees and then having all of them translated into Spanish by a certified legal translator.

Following that, taking all of the documents to a justice and having a certificate drawn up and witnessed. The certificate states that the person listed on the birth certificate, and the person (me) holding my current legal name are the same person.

All of these efforts are required to ensure that my death certificate will be valid in both Mexico and the United States, saving my family and beneficiaries a mountain of grief when dealing with the insurance and other companies in order to obtain their benefits.

Only one document remained, and after much time investigating, along with many false leads, I finally have my Mexican Advance Care Directive, also known here as my Voluntad Anticipada.

Various states in Mexico have their own forms, just as it is in the United States of America. I was finding forms for other states, but not for Colima. Eventually, a friend found one for Colima, yet there was not much space for me to clarify my wishes. First, I filled out the Colima form in addition to a form from the U.S., thinking that the lawyer would combine the two into one form. What resulted was a translation of both stapled together which was totally inadequate, confusing and cost a lot of pesos for their trouble.

At that point, the lawyer explained that it would be best if I just created my own document, which I did with the help of a bilingual friend. We then took it back to the lawyer, along with my passport and another form of ID, which she photocopied to prove that I am who I said I was.

Now comes another twist to the story – specific to Colima State, where I live. With the final document prepared, the lawyer signed it to make it a legal document. However, no witnesses were needed. While it is a legal document, designating who can legally make healthcare decisions for me if I become mentally unable to do so, the document is not entered into the nationwide system, which is why no witnesses were required.

For other documents, such as my Mexican will, they are entered into a nationwide database. So, if I should die in another state, authorities would be able to enter my information into the system, and they can access my will. For a Voluntad Anticipada, that is not true. While Colima State has a document, the health department of Colima was supposed to also have a document prepared to be a part of the V.A. However, the health department has not yet created this document, so my V.A., while legal, cannot be registered with the government.

So for those of you living outside the U.S., or visiting other countries, please be aware that your documents such as Last Will and Testament and Advance Care Directive (also known as Healthcare Proxy) will probably not be valid outside of your home country. It is important to make sure you have accurate information and correct documents for your country of residence, so that there will be no problems for you or your loved ones if those unfortunate events come to pass.

If you wish to see a copy of my Directive (minus my personal information, of course) to use as a template, please write a comment with your request. My next post will be general education about Advance Care Directives, what they are, why they are important, and points to consider when creating one for yourself. I and some colleagues have created a presentation, which I can give on ZOOM, to educate the public on this topic, with possible modifications depending on your country of residence.

Or maybe way too much more than you want. If you don’t make your own decisions and put those decisions in the hands of someone you trust, those decisions will be put in the hands of an arbitrary person who may not share your values.

Until then, stay safe and have a great day……

The Season of Lent in Mexico

Greetings once again from Colima, Mexico. My subscribers have probably noticed that there are longer and longer stretches between each post. When I first moved here 6 years ago, everything was new and I had so much to talk about and many experiences to share. Now there are fewer and fewer new experiences, so fewer things I can think of to share. Therefore, if any of you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to send me a message.

Meanwhile, the season of Lent (called Cuaresma here) has started. The activities leading up to Ash Wednesday is called Paspaque. It is an ancient custom in this area of Mexico which began as an agricultural festival among the Nahuat indigenous people, but in modern times it lasts for nine days ending on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Men walk the streets singing a song welcoming people to Cuaresma. Here in Cofradía de Suchitlán they carry an effigy of a bull and throw flour at the people they pass. This year I either saw them down the street or I was in my house when they passed by, so I avoided receiving a face full of flour.

Paspaque from 2017

The day after Paspaque was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There were 4 Masses held in the village Catholic church and distribution of ashes. Mass was said several times in each village, with a notice going out ahead of time with the necessary information regarding all the villages.

Different cultures have different foods they prepare for special occasions and here it is no different. During Cuaresma, there is a dish called Capirotada – a type of bread pudding. Lourdes taught me how to make it, and now I will teach you, so get ready for this wonderful cooking lesson.

The first thing to do is gather the ingredients, which are:

4 bolillos – you can use a hero or sub sandwich bread –

A bag of bolillos

1.5 liters (6 cups) of milk

1 can of Nestle Lechera (condensed milk) – 14 oz

4 whole cloves

2 TBS vanilla

1 handful of raisins

1 large stick of cinnamon

1/2 cup of sugar

almonds and walnuts to taste – chopped

Queso seco – a type of dry cheese – optional

Tortillas – enough to cover the bottom and sides of the cooking pot

Note that the capirotada will be in layers, as if you were making lasagna. Okay, now first line the bottom and sides of the cooking bowl with the tortillas. Cut up the bolillos into thick slices.

Toast them and line the bottom of the cooking pot.

In a separate large pot on the stove, boil the milk, Lechera, cloves, vanilla, raisins, cinnamon stick and sugar. While it is boiling, chop up almonds and walnuts. After boiling for a while, the raisins should be more plump than when you put them in. Pour some of the milk mixture over the bread through a strainer, then pick out the raisins and also put them on the bread. The slices of bread should be saturated with the milk.

Straining the milk mixture over the bread. Make sure you only add the strained milk and the raisins to the pot – not the cloves or cinnamon.

Sprinkle some of the almonds and walnuts over the layer, and also sprinkle the crumbled cheese if you desire.

Sprinkling nuts and cheese over the layer of bread, milk and raisins

Repeat the process until the baking pot is almost full and you are ready for the final layer at the top.

Lightly fry the remaining pieces of bread in some oil in a frying pan, and then layer them at the top.

Pour the remainder of the strained milk on top and sprinkle the raisins, almonds, walnuts and cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees Centigrade (392 F.) for 10 minutes, then 180-160 C. (356 – 320 F.) for about 30 minutes.

And then – enjoy !!!!!

Capirotada – ready to eat !

Don’t forget you can modify this to meet your dietary needs or flavor preferences. Instead of white or morena sugar, you can add a delightful, different cane sugar called piloncillo – brown compressed cones of sugar that melt easily when heated. It is made by compressing the sugar cane, then heating the liquid until it is brown with a thick consistency, then putting it in molds to dry.

Here is a photo of small cones of piloncillo, and they also come already granulated or in large cones.

Here is a short video you might enjoy showing how it is made, beginning with squeezing out the cane juice. Don’t forget, Colima is an agricultural state, with, among other produce, many miles of sugar cane fields.

Unfortunately, the best video I could find is in Spanish, but you can understand what they are doing even if you don’t speak Spanish – from cutting the cane, putting it into a mill to squeeze out the juice, boiling the juice, putting it into a mold, and finally wrapping the finished cones.

Well, this is a curious thing that just happened. I wanted to link a Facebook video about making the piloncillo, and it said they cannot play this video in my country (Mexico). Perhaps if you are watching this in another country, you can see it. Otherwise, you will still be able to see the Mexican Kitchen video about it. Please let me know if you can see the Facebook video – I’d appreciate it.

And last but not least, I would like to add a few thoughts. This blog was never meant to be political, and I am not about to begin doing so. It has always been meant to introduce people to life in Mexico and anticipate situations in which visitors might find themselves and how I handled those situations. You don’t always know what you don’t know.

With the war in Ukraine and many other horrible things going on in the world, I’ve been hesitant to write cheery posts about what has been a normal life, so I am doing my best to strike a balance. I would just like to end this post with the same suggestion at the end of the previous one – be kind. There are all kinds of situations happening in the world far away, but also in our communities.

Even if you can’t physically help, investigate organizations to which you can donate – Charity Navigator and Global Giving are two examples which vet charities. Visit a neighbor who might need some help, or might only need some company. Remember, we can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.

So, until next time, stay safe and remember to take care of yourselves….

Speaking Spanish in Mexico

Pop quiz – This is a:

a) sub

b) hoagie

c) grinder

d) hero

e) all of the above

This is:

a) soda

b) pop

c) both a and b

The correct answers are “e) all of the above” and “c) both a and b.” For English-speakers in the United States, all the answers are correct, but which term you use depends on where in the country you live. If you live near Canada and ask for a soda, you might end up with sodium bicarbonate. If you live in a state where that sandwich is called a hero and you ask for a hoagie, you might be on the receiving end of a blank stare. And yet, you are all speaking English. The same can be said for any language in any country – German, French, Spanish, Swedish – words, pronunciation and expressions change depending on your location, but I will focus on Mexican Spanish because I live in Mexico.

In high school I studied languages – 4 years of Latin and 2 years of German, plus my mother brought a teacher into our home to teach us girls some Ukrainian, since her parents emigrated from Ukraine. When I reached my 50’s, I decided to begin studying Spanish. At least in New York, general Latin American Spanish is taught, and I have had native speakers from different Latin American countries as teachers.

After moving to Mexico, I realized that I would have to unlearn some of what I had been taught. The first example that comes to mind is the word for beans. I was taught habichuelas, but here they are called frijoles. For a long time, I had to stop and think and pull that word out of my brain when I wanted to say something about beans. Part of the difference between Mexican Spanish and other Latin American countries is that we have 63 indigenous languages here and many of our words descend from Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the region in which I live. A few of the multitude of examples are:

Spanish — Nahuatl — English

Chapulín – chapolin – grasshopper

Aguacate – ahuacatl – avocado

Cacahuate – cacáhuatl – peanut

Chile – chilli – chili pepper

When I first arrived in Mexico, I was able to read and write quite well, and could understand speakers if they spoke slowly, simply and added some visual cues. My spoken language was not very adequate. For reading and writing, you can recognize words from memory and use a dictionary with plenty of time to make sure what you are writing has exactly the meaning you wish to convey.

However, with spoken language, time is of the essence and you have to pull the words and sentence structure out of your memory bank – not to mention correct pronunciation, which can mean the difference between a normal conversation and an embarrassment or insult.

So what was I to do????? First thing, I hired a university student named Tatiana to help me improve my spoken Spanish. Then, once I bought and moved into my house, I had my neighbor Lourdes help me with Spanish grammar. She is a retired primary school teacher, so I was back in a classroom, except the classroom was her house.

I can tell you from experience that being surrounded by native speakers, most of whom speak little or no English, forces you to learn to speak their language. Keep a little notebook with you to write down new phrases or words. If they can’t explain sufficiently to you the meaning, there is always Google dictionary which has improved its accuracy 1000% since I started using it 6 years ago. But keep in mind that dictionaries, whatever their form, still have their limitations. And when translating letters from English to Spanish, I need to use several dictionaries and a thesaurus to get the exact meaning. When translating our students’ letters to their English-speaking sponsors, I sometimes have to ask for help from the directors of the literacy project here.

One example of the latter was being unable to translate “que padre” in my student’s letter. Literally it means “what father” which made absolutely no sense in any context and paper and online dictionaries were no help. I asked one of the directors and he told me it means “cool” as in “wow, that’s cool.” That also illustrates that wherever you live, young people make up expressions of their own (and then change them again when adults start to take over the expression).

Same thing happened when my son was 19. I said something to him and he said, “Mom, that’s sick.” I replied that I thought it was a nice thing and he told me “sick” means “nice.” Some behaviors are universal, I guess…..

Another tip is to describe what you want to say if you can’t think of the word. In the beginning, I still remembered a lot of my German and when I couldn’t think of the Spanish word for something, I would automatically say it in German. Now I force myself to simply describe the object or activity, many times using hand gestures.

Slightly veering off the subject, one of my sisters and I took German in high school from the same teacher. He was originally from Czechoslovakia. It wasn’t until one of my sister’s classmates went to Germany that we discovered we were speaking German with a Czech accent.

Anyway, currently I have weekly conversations with a young lady who lives in the village to improve my spoken Spanish – I say it’s to make my Spanish sound more like that of an adult and less like a child. I continue to write in my little book, and am also reading a children’s book (for age 8 and up) that has more advanced vocabulary, tenses, etc. Some of you may know the Judy Moody books – well, I’m reading Judy Moody is in a Bad Mood (Judy Moody está de Mal Humor). I’ve underlined the more advanced grammar and written in pencil translations of words I don’t know.

I am also practicing what I did when first learning Spanish – making use of Post-It sticky notes. Putting them up in places to commit words to memory. For instance:

As you see from the third photo, pronunciation is very important, plus awareness that different countries use different words for the same thing. Lourdes had never heard of the word “cojones” and had no idea what I was talking about until I explained it to her in detail. So perhaps that word is used in other Latin countries, but not here.

So, to begin to wrap this all up, learning a language is as fun an activity as you make it. Post-Its are great, because you go directly from seeing the object to the word in the desired language without going through English first. Before I ever took my first Spanish class, I bought DVD’s from “Standard Deviants” to get a head start (DVD’s – definitely showing my age). The company still sells instruction in a variety of topics, and for the Spanish, I refer to them as a cross between Monty Python and Sesame Street for adults. If this tells you anything about my philosophy, it is that even if something seems childish to others, as long as it helps you learn, it works, so you should at least try it.

So – Post-Its, children’s books, educational entertainment, and definitely speak with native speakers. Visit the country where the language is spoken if you get the chance (keeping in mind health and safety – Covid, etc.). When I was living in New York, I realized that I would never begin to speak well until I was surrounded by people who didn’t speak English. One of my friends was from Mexico City. She told her family about me, and I stayed with them for two weeks. It was a really good experience, staying with a family, having to learn normal daily conversations, and learn about life in that country.

And lastly, always be kind. If you come into contact with a non-native English-speaker, and they make grammatical errors or don’t know a word, maybe you can repeat what they are saying, but say it correctly. It is a nice way of helping them out. I am grateful that here, I have never – not a single time – had someone be nasty to me for my imperfect Spanish. The people I am close to will simply repeat something I have said with proper Spanish, or fill in the blank with the correct word or phrase if I am unable to think of the correct word or phrase.

So, please, be kind, and if you only speak one language, consider learning another, even just for fun. It opens a whole new world once you begin.

Change of seasons, Creatures changing places

While many countries have 4 seasons – Summer, Autumn (or Fall), Winter and Spring, we here in Colima have two official seasons; we have the rainy season, which lasts from the middle of June through October, and the dry season, which lasts from November through the middle of June. This year, the rainy season fought the good fight, raining for a day or two, followed by several days with no rain, followed by another few days of rain and so on. Eventually the final rains were very light and brief, and now we are definitely into the dry season.

With the change of seasons and various plants alternately blooming and remaining relatively dormant, you can see various little creatures coming and going if you know where to look. During the rainy season, the sapos/cane toads come out at night. Especially when it is raining, they sit outside, not moving, apparently enjoying the rain as if taking a shower. During the day, they sit among the foliage waiting for a tasty insect to pass by. The dry season has now begun, yet I did see one lone sapo the other night sitting on my cobblestones. I wonder why he didn’t follow his fellow toads to wherever they go when the ground dries up.

They also seem to like cat food, or even just sitting in the cats’ food dish, whether there is food in there or not, so I have learned to take the dishes in at night. And, for the first time in the 5 years that I have lived in my house, I saw a baby sapo. It was so tiny, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, but a close look told me it was a baby toad sitting by my cats’ food dish.

For scale, each tile is roughly one square foot.

Also for the very first time, I saw a little green frog on my patio. I know the cats avoid the sapos because they secrete poison through their skin, and if the cats should ingest any of it, they will get sick and probably die. However, I didn’t know what they would do with the frog, so I tried to shoo it away to safety. When I approached, it jumped up onto my 8-foot ladder. I managed to snap a photo of it before it jumped in spurts all the way to the top and settled in on a brush that was lying against the top of the ladder. The cats didn’t seem to notice, so I assume it got away with its life.

The frog isn’t in the photo. I just wanted to show where it hid the night before.

Speaking of cats, they are really good hunters and when they seem to be staring intently at something, I have learned to investigate. One day I found one of them staring intently behind a small table in my living room. I found she was staring at a gecko that had entered my house, so I shooed her away, got a paper towel and brought the gecko to safety.

Another day, I saw one of them staring at an oregano leaf in the garden. I looked under the leaf and saw a praying mantis eating a dragonfly.

Originally, I had not thought of having pets on my property, but a neighbor’s cat had just had kittens and her brother did not want to keep them, so I adopted two of the kittens and am glad I did. In the beginning, they killed 3 rats and 2 snakes, and I have not had that problem since.

The end of the rainy season also brings spiders and butterflies, though not the monarchs that travel between Canada, U.S. and Mexico migrating back and forth. As I said in a previous post, when I leave my house, I bring a stick and wave it up and down, so I don’t get a face full of spider web since you can’t always see the web.

Still during the rainy season, I saw a creature on my coffee plants that I had not seen before. At first glance, I thought it was flowering again, but looking closer I thought I was looking at a caterpillar. I asked around and was told it was a mealy bug. My gardener said to spray soapy water on it. A neighbor whose parents grow coffee came over with some kind of spray and sprayed my plants. Haven’t seen the creature since. And yes, I hired a gardener. Living my whole life in New York, I had no idea about caring for a garden here in the middle of Mexico. There is so much I did not know, but I am learning little by little.

One thing I also never saw before was this 4″ caterpillar in my ficus tree. There were two of them actually, and I didn’t know if they were good or bad, so I called a local farmer. She told me they were bad and to kill them, so I did.

To diverge a little bit, I love to experiment with all varieties of plants, trees and herbs that I would never have a chance with in New York, such as banana trees. About a year or two ago, I bought pitted dates and decided to plant the seeds. Out of all the seeds I planted, one sprouted, so now I have the beginning of a date palm tree in a flower pot on my porch. I read that it takes about 8-10 years for it to grow and bear fruit, or maybe it won’t. It might be a case of planting something under whose shade I will never sit, but it is fun to live among nature and imagine people in the future owning my house and enjoying what I have planted. Anyway……….

Currently it is cool enough at night and early morning for a sweater, but sunny, hot and dry during the day. And that means I am now watching out for scorpions. And wasps. I opened my mailbox yesterday, and out flew a wasp. It had not begun to build a nest yet, fortunately, so I got out my can of Raid and sprayed the inside of my mailbox. I get mail maybe once per year, but still diligently check the mailbox to see what might have decided to build a home there.

As for the alacránes – a tiny but more venemous type of scorpion – they like to hide to keep warm when the temperatures vacillate between hot and cool. My friend from whom I bought my house told me that the hollow in my gate, where you grab to close it, had an alacrán hiding inside one day and she got stung when she went to close the gate, so I usually grab the edge of the door and just quickly slam it shut now.

So that’s about all I have to say for now. To those of you in the United States and fellow U.S. expats, have a great Thanksgiving, and for everyone, have a great week !

Nos vemos……….