Monday, September 19, 2011

In Search of English Books -- Puebla

(Note: this should have been posted around September 16, 2011.)

Puebla, Mexico
After checking into Casa de Palma and having a rest, we headed out into the drizzly night in search of English books. We've been dying for them, feeling like nomadic people lost in a desert without water. The desk clerk stopped us and offered us a paragua (umbrella), which is such a sensible word; literally "for water."

With paragua in hand, we marched up the cobblestone streets, admiring the 16th, 17th, and 18th century architecture. With the celebration of Miguel Hidalgo's fiery revolutionary speech set to take place at midnight, the streets were alight with glittery banners and the happy faces of thousands of Mexicans ready to honor the forefathers who helped liberate their country from Spain.

We were on a high, with all the happy expectations of at last refreshing our small library! Alas, the store was closed. We asked directions and trekked off to the next possible store. It too was closed, but there was another a half block away, just outside the security zone. We didn't hesitate. Doors locked. Drat! One more ... we trekked another half mile. Although it was closed, we'd left our bread crumbs so we'd know how to find the stores in the morning.

We headed back towards the zocalo (town square in colonial towns, usually green parks bordered by the cathedral and city hall or government palace). Oops! No paraguas allowed past the security scanners when returning to the town center. Chagrined, we both knew we had to make the best effort to return the hotel's generously loaned umbrella. Off we went, hiking the extra mile or so to skirt the security perimeter so we would come up next to the entrance point closest to our hotel. (You may recall there was a battalion of armed officers parked under the windows just outside our hotel.) We figured if we got that far, one of us could go through the checkpoint and get the hotel desk clerk, who could plead the case for their umbrella.

It worked! It only took us about an extra 90 minutes, but we restored the paragua and established goodwill. Then, hungry, we headed off for a late dinner at a recommended restaurant bordering the zocalo.

Exhausted and satisfied by a simple, Mexican (delicious, or riccissimo) dinner, we collapsed into our comfortable bed long before the midnight celebrations began. We awoke, though, to fireworks and revelry. All across the country, Mexicans were celebrating El Grito de Dolores, the speech of Miguel Hidalgo, which served as a spark for revolution in 1810. (More here:

Refreshed by sleep, we set forth in the morning hoping for books the way a fisherman hopes for results. Alas, the only English books we could find were language instruction texts, and those, while tempting for Celeste, were very expensive. Books generally are, in Mexico; something Celeste hopes will change with the digital book revolution.

Fortunately, we had something else to look forward to: a trip to Cholula, which boasts the world's second largest pyramid. Undaunted, we headed for the bus terminal to continue the adventure.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Wedding Anniversary in Puebla

Our 4th wedding anniversary arrived on August 31, but George and I celebrated it in style this weekend with a 3-day stay in Puebla. The city of Puebla is 2 hours west of Orizaba by bus and is the fourth-largest city in Mexico.

We scheduled our celebration to coincide with the 3-day weekend honoring Miguel Hidalgo's call for independence from Spain. This is the 100th anniversary of that event, and big celebrations were happening all over the country. At CEICO, the school where I'm teaching, the fiesta included reenactments of Hidalgo's declaration and the serving of much food to parents and students alike. Thankfully, I was granted permission to leave before 7pm, so George and I could catch the 3pm bus.

After a short but typically exhausting work week, it was a relief to sit aboard a comfortable bus and watch the road pass by. We saw several shepherds, and a horse-drawn hay cart along the way. Those pastoral sites provided great contrast to the traffic jam that held us up ...

At last we arrived. Puebla's bus terminal is the largest we have ever seen, with hundreds of buses arriving and departing. Our terminal was well-organized, though, and we easily rolled our luggage to the booth for a prepaid, secure taxi. The prepaid fare to our hotel was 55 pesos (about $5.00 U.S.) Within 5 minutes we were underway, traveling through depressed neighborhoods covered with graffiti. The driver had to detour several times due to street closures, consequences of the holiday, but eventually wound his way into the historical district.

The phenomenal 17th and 18th century architecture moved us instantly from fatigue to anticipation. Towering stone and tile buildings with "gingerbread" facades drew our eyes hither and thither. Mine stopped on a machine-gun wielding figure atop the hotel two blocks ahead of us. The taxi stopped at about the same time, the driver explaining (in Spanish) that he could go no further due to the security. We would have to roll our luggage the rest of the way, past the barricades.

Fortunately, we had wheels. (We had packed light, but our hiking boots had required a separate bag.) We hauled our things from the cab to the nearby checkpoint, where we passed through a metal detector and police in bulletproof vests had us open our items for inspection. After about 10 minutes we were on our way with an amiable thanks from them. We rolled our luggage over the cobblestones, past media trucks and over their cables, to the zocalo -- the name for the central square in most Mexican towns, which typically hosts the main cathedral and the government palace. This was no exception. The municipal palace was decked out in spangles and flags, and the central square (a spacious greenbelt with fountain and benches) was home to a large, temporary, tented performance area equipped to seat about 100 people. Everyone else would have to see events via one of several large screens set up along the perimeter. Fortunately, the crowds had not arrived and we were able to wheel our luggage the short block to our hotel without bumping or elbowing others.

The Casa de la Palma is a converted 18th century mansion with a modest entrance. We might have missed it except for the parking signs just in front, because its door was blocked by twenty police officers in riot gear. It turns out our hotel was adjacent to another security checkpoint. Stepping past the officers with a quiet "Buenes tardes," we entered a different world.

George had booked us a spacious suite with balcony. The English-speaking clerk provided us brochures and a map, and helped us up the curved stone stairway to our room "The Persian Suite." Decorated with prints and statuettes from India (think "Kama Sutra") the room is naturally lit through glass doors that lead onto the balcony, and comfortably furnished. It has a massive bathroom with modern plumbing (which means that you can place tp in the toilet) and twenty-foot ceilings throughout. George had outdone himself!

(... more to come tomorrow)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The View from Up Here

We made it!

Saturdays are becoming great fitness days. The hike up Cerro de Borrego takes us about an hour, which includes a few good rests and a bottle of water.

You can see that the rains have washed out part of the slope, but maintenance crews have cleared the stairs. (The hike is partly on steps, partly on dirt, and partly on rock.)

Once we reach the top, we spend an hour or more exploring the ruined fortress and the trails that lead around the hilltop. We still have quite a few left to explore, which leaves us looking forward to many more Saturdays.

This week, a rarely trodden path gave me the chance to photograph butterflies which have remained elusive at lower elevations.

And, we saw some butterflies-to-be.

It's beautiful up there! Happy trails.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Climb Every Mountain?

George and I are living near the base of Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico and third highest in North America, which peaks at 18,491 feet. Now that's a mountain!

Having lived in the glorious Pacific Northwest we are accustomed to the comfort of a mountain's glory. By that I mean that "it is there." A mountain is dependable. You walk outside and it is there. It is big, and beautiful, and usually snow-capped. It is also inspiring. And one of the things it asks you to do is climb it.

George and I ARE NOT going to climb Pico de Orizaba. But, we have begun hiking up a smaller slope. About 15 minutes from our home is the base of a path that leads up a hillside to a historic battle site.

The path starts with wide stairs and transitions to dirt. There are peekaboo views and vistas, and sunny patches where butterflies flit among the flower-bearing trees. There are resting places along the way, and several shrines to The Virgin Mary.

Each week we are pushing ourselves a little further along. Eventually, we'll reach the cannons and flagpole at the top. When we do, we'll give a whoop! and hope that you can hear it (and we'll post to the blog.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Saturday in the Park

We live about a block from Bicentennial Plaza, a compact sunken park with playground, coffee kiosk, ping pong tables, and stages. It's one of our favorite places to spend an afternoon, or even an hour in the morning playing frisbee. This Saturday we stopped in our tracks when we saw tribal dancers preparing for a ceremony.

We can't tell you much about them, but it appeared this was a ceremony of thanksgiving. They laid out flowers and foodstuffs on cloths, then two women used smudge pots to draw smokey circles above those items, which remained at the center of their group dance.

The dancing commenced with the sound of a conch shell being blown, around which they then danced, to drumbeats. Periodically, a leader would recite a long string of words, which we took to be thanks.

One of our favorite aspects of this was the involvement of all ages: from one-year to seventy-something.

And, of course, the costumes were spectacular!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Floods & Fire

Phew! We've just finished moving things from the temporary apartment to our new abode. It's been an adventure preparing this new place for living.

Orizaba is a wet place. We're near Pico de Orizaba, which has snow on it even now, and its runoff stokes a river that winds through town. It's the rainy season now, and there have been a lot of tropical storms fueling the clouds. The sky splits open, lightning strikes and makes the lights blink, thunder rolls through the air -- 4 or 5 seconds after the light. The delay surprises us; it seems the lightning is much nearer. Water pours from the sky as from a bucket, usually for about two hours, swelling the river and causing mudslides upstream. We see the results in the river, which looks like a it's full of melted chocolate. (If only!)

All that wet had taken a toll on the walls and plumbing of our new abode. We sanded, spackled, and painted every wall we could reach (some of the ceilings go about 30 feet -- those we half-painted). It looks great!

The plumbing is still problematic. We've replaced the faulty PVC that leads from faucets to drains in two locations, with success. A third still needs replacing, but first we have to figure out how to secure the sink to the wall. It fell off while we were painting, the plaster that had been behind it having dried and fallen away. (A re-reading of our rental contract confirmed what we already thought--that we are on the hook for all these repairs.) But ... after two floodings of the kitchen, we have the water under control (except for the upstairs bathroom. At least we have an alternate.)

Then there is the odor. I won't go into it. Suffice it to say that this must be a result of both aged plumbing and a very wet environment. But, we're getting that under control as well.

Don't let this deter you from coming! It's really quite a cozy home. It just has been an adventure getting it ready. We had two floods in the kitchen before we finally tracked down the right parts and got that system working. And the day the electrician was coming to install light fixtures, we had a flame come shooting out of the kitchen bulb! Thankfully, Angel took it in stride.

So ... no more bare bulbs (except for in the upper hall, where, again, we cannot reach), and a pretty dry interior (except for the utility area, which we'll be working on tomorrow) (oh, and that upstairs bathroom).

Good thing we're young ...

Our Neighbor, George

There is an elderly man living one door down from the temporary apartment we've had in Orizaba, though he spends much of each day outdoors, seated in a plastic chair, watching the townsfolk go by. He is a short man--maybe five-feet tall--although that may be complicated by the sway he appears to have in his right hip, so that his body is slightly S-shaped. His name is George. He is as brown as a nut, except where his eyes have begun to cloud, which makes me imagine that he is slowly setting the world to "fade." And he is as friendly as anyone I've ever known. Although he has a speech impediment--a slur, possibly the result of a stroke--his volume is good, and his greetings always hardy. Of course, combine his speech impediment with our mutual language impediments, and we barely get past, "Hi, how are you?" And "very well, thank you." But we always have a kiss on the cheek, or the hand in his case, and I receive an extra pat on the shoulder when we part. Something makes me think he is a retired priest, living just half a block from his former church, San Juan de Dios. (Come to think of it, that cathedral may have parallel marks of age.) He has been a light for me, here in Orizaba. Where so many things feel a bit strange, his vigil at the porch rail is constant, and his smile and words, warm. One day I had an "aha" moment, realizing who he reminds me of most: Yoda!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Visiting Cordoba

George and I made the bus trip to Cordoba (about 12 miles) with Nathan, the English Coordinator and my extraordinary boss. Our mission: apply for my FM-3 visa, to allow me to work in Mexico.

Cordoba is a historic town. Originally a Spanish colony, this is also where the treaty ending the Mexican War of Independence was signed. There are many monuments and references to the glorious date of May 21, 1812. The beautiful Municipal Palace has 21 arches; a visual reminder of that date's importance, and a tribute to the citizens of Cordoba who fought so hard for independence from Spain. (I'm sorry I didn't get a good photo of the Municipal Palace's facade.) The mural inside the MP is worth the trip itself!

The most powerful image in the mural is the prisoner breaking his chains. The one that intrigued me the most shows a beautiful mixed-race woman who escaped imprisonment through magic. She asked the guard for a piece of chalk and drew a magnificent sailing vessel. "What is it missing?" she asked the guard. "Nothing, it is perfect," he said. "No," she said. "It is missing someone to sail it." And she disappeared from the cell.

One of the things I find fascinating about Mexican culture is the mix of orthodoxy and magic woven into society. Many native tribes here were enslaved and horribly damaged, but their cultures also became integrated into the Spanish/Catholic culture--far moreso (in my opinion) than did native cultures in the U.S. (Admitted ignorance of many details, here. I'd love to hear from those of you with further information.)

And the most whimsical piece of the mural is this little guy:

George and I were able to spend a few hours enjoying these sites, as well as a portion of the local museum (image below), while Nathan ran himself ragged getting the documents required for my visa. In classic fashion, he had to return to Orizaba for more paperwork, and we had to then race against the clock ... finally getting approval just AFTER they closed the door for the day. Below is a link to my favorite short movie spoofing the typical process. It's not far from the mark!

Click here for YouTube video.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Life Ashore

After six months in La Paz, big changes.

I (Celeste) was volunteering with two charitable organizations--FANLAP (Fundacion Ayudar los Ninos de La Paz) and Care For Kids--but having no good fortune finding a paying teaching job. At last, I received a good offer from a school clear across the country. At first, we didn't even consider it, but then ...

Circumstances combined, and we made the decision to move ashore.

Our budget and our bodies are getting a bit weak for crossing an ocean, and that is what Nereid is built and outfitted to do. We have said goodbye to her, and left her in La Paz. She is on the hard, and listed for sale with La Paz Yachts.

La Paz is a great place to sell a boat, except in the summer. No one wants to go there in the summertime heat! We think it's likely she will sell in the fall.

Meanwhile, we managed to pack and ship ALL our belongings to the mountain town of Orizaba. Orizaba (or Oz, as I affectionately call it) is in the state of Veracruz, near its eastern border. It is very near the third highest mountain in the northern hemisphere, Pico de Orizaba. The climate is temperate. We've arrived for the start of the rainy season ... and find it both refreshing and familiar. Although it's often sunny during most of the days, when it rains, it pours, and reminds us of the Pacific Northwet.

Mimi made the trip with us. Wolfgang's health was failing, and we made the difficult decision to put her down. In hindsight, I may have held on a little long. She was a wonderful companion to me for nearly twenty years. Mimi seems to be happy as the new center of attention. She did remarkably well with the travel, which involved a flight to Mexico City, and a 4-hour bus trip. (It's only a 2-hour bus trip from the city of Veracruz, if you are planning a visit.)

We are installed in a temporary apartment, but last week we found a place to rent for the year. I have signed a contract to teach Middle School and High School English at Centro Educativo Integral de Orizaba (CEICO). The English Coordinator is wonderful, and he has already introduced me to many of the students I will have next year.

And so, we are on the threshold of a new adventure. We will maintain this blog, loosely interpreting the "voyages" so as to include our life ashore.

Buen dia, y Salud!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Everyday Life in La Paz, Mexico

George and I are settling into a pretty quiet routine here in La Paz.

Nereid is anchored near The Magote -- a strip of land extending half-way around the main harbor of La Paz. We have a 5-minute dinghy ride (with outboard motor) to and from the dock at Marina La Paz. George drops me ashore each morning, and I walk to town, glad for the exercise and the time it gives me to listen to "Coffee Break Spanish."

Today, I helped a couple of expatriates from Skagit find their way to a coffee shop with computers and printers, so they could complete their FM-3 visa application process. It's good to have some local knowledge. It always feels good to be able to contribute.

Typically, George spends the day aboard Nereid, where he can use the generator and our cellular modem to write articles on Wagner and reach out to more people interested in his work. I spend the day at coffee shops, plugging into shore electrical and getting a little exposure to local people, in between working on various manuscripts and applying for jobs. Around 5pm I walk back to the dinghy dock, and we have a nice ride back to the anchorage.

The anchorage is pretty quiet, with a few dozen boats spread throughout and dolphins regularly passing through. The daily temperatures on land are in the mid- to high-80's, but the boat is a good 5-10 degrees cooler thanks to the breeze. Nothing special to report - just a day in the life.