Wednesday, August 29, 2012

From San Miguel de Allende to León

Vamos de mal en peor. We go from bad to worse. This is one of my favorite phrases that I have learned since arriving in Mexico and something that I used to toss around with Monica, one of the Foreign Service Nationals, before she ran off to have her happily ever after with on of the previously departed officers. She taught me the saying, and it always pops into the forefront of my mind anytime something irritating happens at work. But it's never been said over anything serious.

So...what do you do when you wake up on Sunday morning and find that things really have gone from bad to worse? In our case, learning that 22 narco bloqueos had occurred in the Guadalajara consular district within the past 24 hours (it was actually 28...the news agencies apparently lack math power), causing our peers to lock their doors and stay inside, simply meant continuing our getaway weekend as normal. Ah, the benefits of out-of-district travel! Our friends and colleagues were all safe and accounted for, so nothing to worry about there. A committee would be meeting later that morning to determine a course of action. We were planning to explore San Miguel de Allende for a couple of hours before heading back to Guadalajara anyway, so now we would just be exploring until we found out whether or not we could go home at all.

TJ, Ernesto and I began our day with a delicious breakfast at the Villa Rivera Hotel. TJ and I had chilaquiles, our old stand-by, while Ernesto tackled this massive pancake concoction that was curiously smothered in corn flakes and fruit preserves.

We then made our way over to Museo Casa de Allende, former home of town hero Ignacio Allende and current regional history museum...which I must say does a much better job of representing the town's roots than its Guadalajara counterpart.

The house features a number of "dressed up" rooms that give you a feel of what life was like back in the day. TJ commented that it reminded him of the Palacio Real de Madrid from our 2007 European excursion (alas, pre-blog days). Favorites included:

The Pulpería, a small store where products from the family's haciendas, ranches, and mills were sold;
The Apothecary, which provided medicines for the sick and wounded;

The Formal Drawing Room, where much conversing occurred;
and The Bed Chambers, which featured a scary wax boy playing marbles.

Through staged rooms, carefully preserved artifacts, video presentation and detailed text spaced thoughtfully throughout the house, Museo Casa de Allende does a wonderful job relaying the town's history and it's role in the Mexican War of Independence...through all the highs and lows. A plaque at the entrance introduces visitors to the house, which was built in 1764 to be the home of Ignacio, his parents, and six siblings. Ignacio was born on January 21, 1769. "Forty-one years later," the plaque states, "he became the main instigator of the 1810 insurrection. He sacrificed his life for the freedom and well-being of his country, after rebelling agains the government based in Mexico City, which he regards as illegitimate following the arrest of viceroy de Iturrigaray." Fearing that France would take over New Spain, Allende helped set in motion a series of events that would eventually see Mexico free of European control. Museum exhibits bounce forward and backward in time, simultaneously telling the story of the War of Independence and the older history of the town itself.

One final scene, depicting a captured Allende awaiting his fate, reminds us all that freedom comes at great cost, and that glory usually requires a death sentence. Below we see a defeated Allende. His side eventually won, but not before he lost his own life. This wax figure sits beside the very doors of the prison that held Allende in his final hours. A quote above loosely translates as "I was accused of high treason. I thought of myself as committing high loyalty."

After leaving the museum we dragged Ernesto around town for over an hour while we shamelessly shopped for souvenirs (we got coasters, a menorah, sun & moon wall art, a shirt and a coffee mug...he got nothing), before he quietly snuck off to shower and pack while I made a Starbucks run and TJ received an expected (and somewhat exciting) phone call: our security team had determined that the lock-down would continue at least until the following morning. This meant that our peers in Guadalajara were to remain behind closed doors and we were not to return to the state of Jalisco until otherwise instructed. In a stroke of tourist genius, we asked if we could travel to the town of León, reducing our travel time home once the ban was lifted. Located 221km east of Guadalajara, León lies in the state of Guanajuato and therefore out of the "danger zone." To our immense please, permission was granted.

Unfortuantely, Ernesto had to return to his hometown of
Tepatitlán, Jalisco. Not many employers are as security-focused as the US Government, you see, and business waits for no man. We packed our bags and immediately departed for León, where we placed Ernesto on a bus headed toward Guadalajara. There were no direct routes to Tepa and we wanted to get him home as quickly as possible, preferably before dark, when the narco blockades typically occur. That wasn't possible, but he thankfully made it home safe and sound all the same.

We felt absolutely horrible that we were unable to take him home. We apologized a million times and even offered to pay for the ticket, but he understood that it wasn't our fault and vehemently opposed the offer.

I adore my friends. Especially the friends I've made since this crazy life of ours started. There are so many things we can't talk many things we can't many things we can do today but maybe not tomorrow. Yet, for the most part, our friends take it all in stride. It's just the quirkiness that is Aaron and TJ, and they embrace it.

I'm sorry we had to part ways in such a fashion...but he had to return to work, and we had to stay behind.

It was Sunday afternoon and our Foreign Service peers were holed up in their houses. The consulate employees were probably looking forward to the following morning, as work was the only thing that would allow them the freedom to leave their homes.

But us? We had a new city to explore...

Monday, August 27, 2012

San Miguel de Allende...and Alarming News From Guadalajara

The small but charming town of San Miguel de Allende, located in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, is a scenic 367km east of Guadalajara. In our mission to see as much of Mexico as possible in the short time we have left, we planned a quick one-night excursion there for Saturday and Sunday of this past weekend. We invited our friend Ernesto from Tepatitlán along for the ride.

After many wrong turns (Thanks bunches, iPad), we arrived in San Miguel just before noon on Saturday morning. It was impossible to know at the time, but 24 hours later we would be preparing to put Ernesto on a bus back home and arranging extended lodging for ourselves.

But that came later.

Our room wasn't ready when we arrived so we set about exploring the downtown area which, like any good Mexican town, is full of beautiful old churches.

We busied ourselves with churches, Starbucks (why am I just discovering that I can get my Caramel Macchiato over ice?!?!), and window shopping while waiting for our room to be prepared. Hint for would-be travelers: You know how in the U.S., more often than not, you can do an early check-in? Yeah, not so much in Mexico. That's not a slight against this particular hotel; it's a common theme here.

The city of San Miguel de Allende and a nearby church, the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno De Atotonilco, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on July 7, 2008 because of both its colonial architecture and it's important role in the Mexican War of Independence. We did not have the opportunity to make the fourteen kilometer trek to Atotonilco, but we did see many gorgeous churches in the town proper.

Churches like (but not limited to) these:

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel

Templo de la Purísima Concepción, Oratorio de San Felipe Neri

Beautiful churches aside, one of the most interesting things we saw was the public library. Yes, you read that right. The Biblioteca Pública was founded by Canadian Helen Wale in an effort to reach out to local children. It is the largest privately funded, publicly accessible library in Mexico and serves as the community center for San Miguel's increasing foreigner population. Upon entering the library you are immediately greeted by an outdoor courtyard. Shelves of books line the four walls, protected by the elements by the second-stoy balcony. While walking through the library we encountered an American-run English study group. Sitting directly across from them, a middle-aged American woman was teaching a Mexican college student about the American class system. On the second floor we briefly listened in on a guitar lesson consisting of a dozen or so students.

Making our way to Plaza San Francisco, we encountered this daunting statue of the town's namesake, Ignacio Allende (1769-1811). Allende was a Mexican-born soldier serving as a captain in the Spanish army prior to the Mexican War of Independence. Attending secret meetings in which the possibility of an independent New Spain was discussed, Allende changed sides and fought side by side with Father Miguel Hidalgo, famously known as the "Father of Mexican Independence." The two were captured and executed during the summer of 1811 but the Revolution proved successful.

We (TJ) then declared it nap time. We returned to the Villa Rivera Hotel for check-in, and found ourselves in a room with a delicious courtyard view.

Between the long drive and the sweltering mid-day walk, we were all pretty beat and in need of showers and relaxation. For TJ and Ernesto, that took the form of long, snore-filled naps. For me, it consisted of doing internet research on things to do and see while in the city.

After the boys woke up, TJ made it clear that he only wanted to have dinner and then take a leisurely stroll. My "let's do it all" approach wasn't gonna fly this go around the block. I insisted that we at least eat at a restaurant I had discovered called 1826, which was named after the year that the town was renamed in honor of Ignacio Allende. The restaurant review claimed that one could find traditional Mexican cuisine as well as international fare on the menu. Imagine my disappointment when we found this hotel-based restaurant, which appeared immaculately new, to feature no more than tacos and salmon. Oh, and 38 peso limonada. Wayyy overpriced, completely unauthentic, and with a modern, pristine atmosphere that made it completely out of place in this historic town. Thanks, but no thanks. Leaving, I asked if we could at least go to Casa de Inquisidor, which we had passed along the way to 1826. I had read that this historic museum had once been the seat of the 18th century inquisition. What we found was a little tchotchke shop apparently managed by a 14 year old American girl. She told us the store got its name because her mom, the owner, once had a store located in the actual Casa de Inquisidor down the street. She told us it had once been a museum, but was nothing now. Who knows if that was true or not. I was irritated at having struck out twice and TJ was starving. Ernesto suggested a place he had seen near Plaza San Francisco earlier, and we all settled in for dinner and a discussion about some news that had come just prior to leaving the hotel.

Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm that day, 17 acts of drug-related violence had occurred in the state of Jalisco in and around Guadalajara, Tepatitlán and Puerto Vallarta. Roadblocks had been set up, with buses and cars being set on fire in the middle of roads and highways. No deaths had been reported, but our Regional Security Office was on full alert. Consulate employees were instructed to go home and stay home. Anyone currently outside the city was to stay put until further notice.

You may recall last year's tiff when narco bloqueos threatened my ability to attend a Ricky Martin concert. That is a good example of how these blockades usually occur. Typically, something will trigger a violent reaction from a drug cartel and they will set up barriers along roadways at odd hours of the night. There will be one or two, and then it stops...whether by their choice or by actions taken against them by rivals that don't want to rock the boat here in Guadalajara. The result of that for American employees of the consulate may be that we can no longer travel along certain roads at night. We've been fortunate in that security concerns here in Guadalajara have been much less severe than those our counterparts in other parts of the country have to face.

But this was the first time that it has happened during daylight hours...and in so many places at once.

None of the violence occurred in Guanajuato, so were free to enjoy the rest of our day. Our friends in Guadalajara, on the other hand, were on lockdown for the second time this year.

Our primary concern lay solely in the fact that travel into Jalisco was prohibited until further notice. We could do nothing but enjoy our night and hope for better news in the morning.

We awoke on Sunday morning to the news that five more blockades had been set up in the hours before dawn...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Guadalajara's Top 20, Number 10: Teatro Degollado (and the Ballet Folklórico)

Okay. So it has apparently taken me twenty-two months to make it to Number 10 on the Top 20 list. I leave Guadalajara in two months and still have the entire second half of the list to blog about. Yeah. I'll totally finish this. It'll be close, but you can count on it.

There’s no better topic with which to kick this into overdrive than Teatro Degollado, mentioned briefly in last Sunday's post about the Ballet Folklórico. Originally, I had planned to lump the two together, so I’m actually glad that I waited. That approach wouldn’t have done justice to either topic.

Teatro Degollado (Degollado Theater), located directly across from the Guadalajara Cathedral in Plaza de la Liberación, was born out of Mexico’s theatrical movement of the 1800’s, which brought with it an increased demand for a grand theater in Jalisco’s capitol city. The original 1855 proposal for the theater was that it be named after the classic dramatist Juan Ruiz de Alarcon.Governor José Santos Degollado Sánchez (1811-1861) signed the official construction decree on December 10th, 1855 and laid the first cornerstone in March of the following year.

Governor Pedro Amazon made the decision in November 1861 to change the name to “Teatro Degollado,” in honor of the ex-governor who had initially approved the project. A famed military leader, Degollado had been killed in battle the previous summer. In addition to the theater, a city in the highlands of Jalisco is named in his honor.

A lengthy war and a change of government resulted in numerous construction delays, but the theater’s first inauguration was finally held on September 13th, 1866. Opera soprano Angela Peralta performed “Lucia di Lammermoor” in a yet-to-be-completed theater. Numerous renovations and four more inaugurations would occur before the theater would be finally be deemed finished.

Today Degollado is considered to be one of the best preserved theaters in Latin American, and numerous renovations have been made throughout the years to improve upon the concert hall’s design by adding murals and sculptures, as well as giving the theater its current gold on red color scheme.

A gilded eagle sits perched on an interior arch directly above the stage, holding a Mexican flag in its talons. In its beak, a chain. Legend tell that the theater will stand until the day the eagle drops the chain. The eagle has stood vigil since the late 1870’s.

The exterior of the building features a mosaic of Apollo and the nine muses, supported by sixteen Corinthian columns. Accompanying the mosaic is the phrase “May we never get the rumor of discord.”

To the rear of the building you will find a beautiful piece of art that commemorates the founding of Guadalajara.

The theater is home to various programs, most famously the Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco and the aforementioned Folklore dance troupe from the University of Guadalajara. Last year we took in a rather...unusual showing of a play called “Mariachi con Tequila." I felt deceived by the play, a confusing tale about a mariachi player in love with a woman whose father disapproves, as going into it I thought it was going to be a tequila tasting with local music playing the background. In hindsight, that was a "duh" moment. The tickets were free, though, so I can't complain too terribly much. Of particular note is that nobody in my group, which consisted of semi-fluent Americans and completely fluent Mexicans, understood the plot. Oh, well. Did I mention the Folklore dancing?

Its central location and diverse programming makes Teatro Degollado one of those places that you can't help but stumble across during a visit to Guadalajara's historic El Centro. In reviewing my digital photo albums I am amazed at just how many visits I have made here in comparison to other downtown places of interest.

It's difficult coming to terms with the fact that, some day very soon, I won't be able to wake up Sunday morning and pop in for a show.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ballet Folklórico

Words cannot properly express that moment when a great dance routine invokes an emotional response.

For those lucky enough to have children, this moment may occur while watching a much rehearsed yet comically disastrous middle school ballet recital. For others, it could happen at the climax of a Broadway show. For most of us, it happens while watching an episode of So You Think You Can Dance.

Hey, I’m not judging. I love SYTYCD, and I’ve spent many an hour slack-jawed and/or crying over one routine or another. But for the last two years, such emotions have been reserved for Mexico’s native folk dances, known as the Ballet Folklórico.

These traditional dances are performed in a variety of locations and we have had the opportunity to see numerous shows while dining at restaurants such as El Abajeño, riding the Tequila Express, and enjoying resort stays in Nuevo Vallarta and Manzanillo. One of our favorite venues is Teatro Degollado, where every summer the University of Guadalajara hosts a professional dance series spotlighting traditional dances from selected states. The chosen states vary by season, but Jalisco always closes the show to great fanfare.

Mexico’s most popular troupe, the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, was founded in 1952 by Amalia Hernández and performs regularly at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. The troupe was named the official folk dance company of Mexico in 1970. Following her death in 2000, Amalia’s grandson Salvador López took over as group director. Alas, our 2011 trip to Mexico City did not allow for a viewing of this legendary dance company, though we did manage a quick peak at their beautiful performance venue.

At work we are honored to have two dancers with a strong background in Ballet Folklórico. In another life, Ricardo performed with the University of Guadalajara’s traveling troupe, where he danced in shows in the nearby cities of Puerto Vallarta and Ciudad Guzman, as well as at events such as Nuestra Belleza Jalisco, Aniversario de Guadalajara, and La Feria Internacional de Mariachi. Adriana has been performing with her dance troupe, Grupo Decanos Nueva Imagen, for the last seven years. Both performed a dance number for us at a farewell party for departing officers organized by TJ last summer, and Adriana invited us to the final show of her season last night, which was quite a treat: One, because it’s always fun to see someone you know shining in their element, and two, because the three hour show represented a greater number of dance styles than your typical Teatro Degollado show.

The beauty of these native dances cannot be captured in words or pictures, but I would like to share some of them with you all the same. What follows is not an all-inclusive list, but rather what I consider to be the highlights of Ballet Folklórico.

Danza de los Voladores (The Dance of the Flyers) can be observed on most weekends along the beachfront in Puerto Vallarta. The show is free, but as with most free services it is polite to tip. This ancient Mesoamerican ceremony consists of a dance followed by five participants climbing to the top of a 30 meter pole…from which four of the five launch themselves to the ground, tethered by ropes. The remaining dancer sits atop the pole playing a flute and/or drum. Legend tells that this ritual was an offering to the gods in exchange for the end of a severe drought. The ceremony is classified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

Danza de los Viejitos (The Dance of the Little Old Men) originated in the state of Michoacán. Participants in this dance disguise themselves as old men dressed in traditional clothing and walking with the assistance of canes. Wood-soled shoes help to accentuate the noises made while stomping around on stage.

In Veracruz, lovers dance "La Bamba," in which they must successfully tie a red scarf or shawl known as a rebozo into a bow, using only their feet, to prove the strength of their undying devotion to one another.

Another dance from Veracruz, The Dance of the Witch (La Bruja), is a beautiful yet haunting piece in which the lights are dimmed and female dancers place candles upon their heads as they glide softly across the stage. Through this dance we see life through the eyes of a woman in love, dazed and paralyzed, unable to go about her daily business. Alternatively, I’ve heard it told as the story of a witch that swoops down and steals women’s souls. Which I guess is kinda the same as falling in love.

The Jarabe Tapatio is undeniably the most famous of all folklore dances in the United States, where it is known as the “Mexican Hat Dance.“ The dance tells the story of the courtship of a woman by a man, and was banned by 19th century colonial authorities due to its implied sexual nature and challenges to Spanish rule inherent in the dance. The male will typically wear a charro suit, while the woman dons a “China Poblana” outfit that pays homage to a dress worn by an Asian woman famous in Puebla’s colonial period.

Many shows end with Jalisco’s Dance of the Snake (Baile de la Culebra), a fun follow-the leader affair in which male dancers form a line and weave a winding path around the women, slapping imaginary snakes on the ground with their sombreros. One male dancer will always throw himself at the women, who have knelt on the floor and joined hands to form a net with their dresses, at the song’s conclusion.

I will stop there for the sake of brevity, yet even as I do so other favorites come to mind.

Each of the dances above have, at some time or another, prompted an emotional response from me.

Danza de los Voladores makes me cringe with anticipation. Danza de los Viejitos makes me giggle. So does La Bamba, when the dancers have difficulty with the knot. La Bruja simultaneously upsets and calms me for reasons I can’t explain. Baile de la Culebra always makes me smile and reach for the camera. And Jarabe Tapatio makes me proud to live in Guadalajara.

Well, that and hearing an enthusiastic Mariachi belt out the words to "Guadalajara," or hearing that Chivas won another game, or watching the leaves change colors and the flowers blossom in Bosque los Colomos.

And many people on the outside don't understand it, but that’s why the U.S. government requires that we hop around every 2-3 years. We get so involved in our lives abroad that it becomes necessary to take a step back and remember our roots.

And that’s okay. When I look back on my life, music has always played a defining role, and by extension, dance. That won't be any different when I leave Mexico.

But the bar will be set that much higher for having lived here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cocula: The Cradle of Mariachi

With slightly more than two months left here in Guadalajara (two months and three days, to be precise) we are doing our best to hit any remaining highlights while also spending lots of time with our friends. Early last week I was cleaning my desk at work and came across an old, dusty Post-it note that said "Cocula - Birthplace of Mariachi" that I had apparently scribbled some months ago. Now, I can't remember who, but somebody at work must have suggested this as a place to visit. "Why not?" I thought, and we made plans to visit the town this weekend with our friend Alex, who recently returned to Guadalajara after a summer spent at home in Guanajuato.

Located approximately 35 miles southwest of Guadalajara is the little town known as "La Cuna de Mariachi," or "The Cradle of Mariachi" for us gringos. Visitors to Cocula are greeted by this statue that boasts the town's one claim to fame.

I'm glad it's a pretty statue. Because there's not much else to see. And the mysterious co-worker better hope I never remember his or her identity.

There was, of course, the standard town plaza with the church, gazebo and government building. Unfortunately for Cocula I've seen a ton of these over the last two years, and even the pretty ones get less impressive as time goes by. There was a mass going on, and from the crowd gathered at the door I can only assume that there isn't sufficient seating inside for the current number of sinners in town. Needless to say, we didn't get much of a view of the interior, but it seemed pretty enough. Downright beautiful considering the facade.

After checking out El Centro, we headed over to Museo del Mariachi, which is open Tuesday - Sunday from 10:00-2:00 and 4:00-6:00. Despite the free entry, I don't think it sees a high volume of visitors. The guard at the entrance had to get up and turn on all of the lights when he saw us coming.

The museum exhibition consists of two modest rooms containing a sparse collection of records, costumes, instruments, and newspaper clippings. We made the most of things and feigned excitement for the memory book.

It wasn't a total loss. One old photo provided irrefutable evidence that in conservative Mexico, even the most manly of Mariachi bands is accepting of homosexual bandmates.

Hint: He's in the middle.

All kidding aside, the museum did feature a fairly nice mural...

...whose beauty was summarily tarnished by the open drainage grate and unattended bucket of dirty mop water that sat directly below.

As we were leaving the museum, the security guard (as he was turning the lights back off) tried to advise us of other places of interest, using free public restrooms as his only points of reference.

In hindsight, we should have known this was only going to be a so-so adventure when, earlier that day, a wrong turn found us paying $232 MXP in tolls on a road we didn't even need to be on.

I didn't see one single Mariachi band in Cocula. So, yes. Mariachi came from there...but I think they left as quickly as they could.

On the bright side, we ate at P.F. Chang's and saw Katy Perry: Part of Me following our hasty return to Guadalajara. So it's not all bad, right?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday, Julia Child!

Julia Child will always be an important part of my life…and until today I had never even followed one of her recipes (I baked Julia's herb biscuits to accompany TJ's chili dinner...yum!).

Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born in Pasadena, California on August 15, 1912. She was the first of three children. Her father was a Princeton University graduate and a prominent land manager. Her mother was a paper company heiress.

She joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II after discovering that her towering 6’2” frame disqualified her from enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). She began her career as a research assistant in Washington, D.C., but in 1944 found herself posted in Kandy, Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and responsible for logging and channeling classified communications for the OSS’s secret stations in Asia. It was during this time that she met and fell in love with Paul Cushing Child, a fellow OSS employee. They tied the knot on September 1, 1946.

Paul joined the United States Foreign Service and the couple found themselves moving to Paris in 1948 when Paul was assigned as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency. Having left a career of her own, Julia now found herself lacking direction. That didn’t last long, though. A love of food and a passion for cooking provided Julia with the drive that she needed to pursue a new dream. Today she is one of the most recognized chefs in America, not to mention a beloved author and television personality. Julia passed away on August 13, 2004.

The 2009 movie Julie & Julia (Columbia Pictures) details her long and often disappointing journey as she sought a publisher for her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961), and simultaneously draws parallels to the life of Julie Powell, an internet blogger shamelessly attempting to replicate all of Child’s recipes through the course of one calendar year.

I saw this movie with our then-roommate Kris at an advance screening offered at one of Orlando’s many theatres on July 21, 2009. I knew nothing about Julia Child, or Julie Powell, going into it. I only knew that Julia was a famous chef, the previews looked cute, and the price of admission couldn’t be beat. I only had two tickets, so I offered one to Kris. TJ didn’t mind. He was out of town. Specifically, he was in Washington, D.C., where he would be taking the Oral Assessment portion of the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) the following day.

Sitting there, completely enthralled in the life of this charismatic woman (Julia, not Julie. Can’t stand her.) and her diplomat husband, I knew…I just knew…that TJ would get the job. I told him so that night when we spoke on the phone. He was incredibly nervous, and I’m not sure if my confidence inspired or terrified him. The following day, as I sat distractedly at my desk waiting for the words that would potentially shape our future and morning crawled into late after at a torturously slow rate, I began to realize that no news was good news. And it was. I can’t recall if I found out via hurried text message that said “I made it! Can’t talk now,” or a frantic phone call that said much the same, but July 22, 2009 changed our lives forever and for the better. Paul and Julia Child even gave me a sneak preview the day before.

At the time I saw it merely as a “TJ has Paul’s job, and we all get to travel the world.” Now, looking back, I realize how much like Julia Child I felt, and still feel. She left her job and followed her husband to parts unknown. Whether it was a satisfying career that she left behind, I don’t know. Mine surely wasn’t. But it was job security. It was comfort in knowing that I could support myself. In the two and a half years that have passed since we left Orlando, I have thankfully maintained employment for all but about three months during the transition between D.C. and Guadalajara. October 19th will be my last day of work. Due to language training in D.C., I do not expect to work again until sometime after August 2014. Sure, I’ll be busy with my studies, but not contributing to my household income for such an extended period will surely leave me feeling...”less than.” And our bank account will certainly lack a little something as well.

With that in mind, I do have projects. I’ve been gathering recipes here in Mexico. I hope to one day put them into a book. I’ve also discussed doing the same in Jerusalem with a friend whose husband will be serving simultaneously with TJ.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to have a Julie Powell breakdown and try to make my riches off of far greater minds than mine without their approval or blessing. If this dream happens, I’ll be using recipes learned from and inspired by friends overseas, not writing a diary about how mimicking someone else’s hard work has changed my life.

I wouldn’t even say the idea was inspired by Julie & Julia, the people or the film. I just recognize the importance of food to culture and understand that the ability to replicate food is but one way that we can take that culture with us and share it with others. Also, Mexico has RUINED Tex Mex for us, and I need to ensure that we can have the real deal when desired. Hmm. Perhaps Julia inspired me a bit after all.

I dream of writing a novel one day, too. People I know in the real world compliment this blog often enough, many (politely and/or sincerely) suggesting that I have writing chops. I certainly have ideas. I’ve just not put pen to paper.

Focusing more on the short term, TJ and I want to adopt, and sooner rather than later. With this in mind, we understand the importance of increasing our earnings to better support our future family. Therefore, I have decided to (try to) do something I’ve not seriously considered until now.

Last night, I began studying for the FSOT.

It’s a big, scary test that leads to a much-coveted career path. Many try, few are selected. Kind of like authorship. It will be interesting to see which goal materializes first.

Three years ago, Julia Child told me that TJ would become a Foreign Service Officer.

This morning, when I opened Internet Explorer and Google loaded, she reminded me that officers can have successful spouses, too.

Happy Birthday, Julia. And thanks for everything.

Monday, August 6, 2012


This past weekend, TJ and I were invited to the beach town known as Sayulita to celebrate the birthday of our friend Mick.

This small but bustling village located in the state of Nayarit was established when families arrived from the mountains of Jalisco to take ownership of the communal land in 1941, but this oceanfront paradise with its lush tropical surroundings wouldn’t become the beach destination it is today until its discovery by wandering surfers in the 1960s, following the construction of Mexican Highway 200.

Located a mere 25 miles north of downtown Puerto Vallarta, TJ and I have driven past the turn-off for Sayulita at least a half-dozen times on our way to and from various other adventures, but with less than three months left in Mexico and an invitation for a free stay at a house on the beach, there was no better time than the present to do a little exploring.

When discussing our impending trip with a coworker, he had three things to say about Sayulita: 1) The surfing is good; 2) The fish tacos are amazing; and 3) The smell of marijuana permeates the beach. “Gringos & guanja” is how he referred to this popular American hippie destination. I wasn’t enthused by the drug reference, but the rest sounded pretty good.

In preparation for our Friday morning departure, we decided to start the weekend off right with a relaxing massage on Thursday night followed by a wine & cheese dinner with our friends Sergio and Carlos. It sounded good in theory, but how were we to know that I would somehow manage to suffer the first allergic reaction of my life on the massage table? My eyes and lips swelled to ridiculous proportions thanks to who knows what. Current theories include the almond/ginger extract in the massage oils, some sort of cleaning agent used on the massage table, or perhaps the table itself. I took some Benadryl and hoped that would help. It did, somewhat, but I was feeling far too loopy at that point to engage in conversation and missed the dinner completely. Friday morning saw us departing for Sayulita an hour later than expected, thanks to a pit stop at our friendly neighborhood emergency room for a cortisone shot (Out of Pocket Cost: $80 USD...Mexico has its perks!). Skin tests are expected to take place in the near future.

I slept soundly while TJ made the arduous three-to-four hour drive through the mountains (thanks, hon!) and awoke just as we arrived in Sayulita’s downtown area, feeling refreshed but in need of a shower. We called Mick, who said he would head down from the house to meet us, which gave us twenty minutes to complete a cursory snoop of our surroundings. We discovered that Sayulita is a quaint little town full of delicious looking restaurants, art galleries filled with traditional Mexican sculptures and beadwork, surfboard rentals, and hippies. If the plethora of dreadlocks were any indication, our coworkers assessment of the scene had been correct.

Once Mick arrived, we made the five minute drive up the steep mountainside and learned that our Jeep Compass has more chutzpah than we gave it credit for. We arrived at a gorgeous pink house (dubbed "Casa Paz" by its owner), the highest at this particular vantage point, and were greeted with a beautiful ocean view. We were given a private room with a private bath (which ended up not being so private; an endless herd of people used it throughout our stay) and noticed immediately that there were no windows or doors present. To be clear, there were bolt and screw holes where windows and doors had been, but they were now gone. Curious, but it did allow one to completely absorb the surrounding environs. We settled in and I was pleased to discover that, post-shower, I felt like a million bucks. The swelling was totally gone.

People were milling about, eating tostadas de atún (a new favorite treat, and one that I had never even thought of before), watching a bootleg copy of Madagascar 3 and getting their pre-drink on. We hopped in the infinity pool and splashed around for a while before Cory, the generous homeowner that had offered his space for the festivities, arrived. After dispensing with the appropriate pleasantries, he announced that he wasn’t feeling well and retired for the evening, citing potential food poisoning.

Shortly after sunset, we showered and dressed, then headed back down the mountainside to pick up some refreshments and snacks for the party. We also picked up a can of OFF! Insect Repellent, having noticed that the bugs were a-swarmin’. That trip afforded me my one glimpse of Sayulita nightlife, and I must say I found it lively and inviting.

The party went well enough, with Mick’s family serving up delicious beef and rice burgers, fries, hash browns, and chocolate fondue. My Spanish is still mediocre, but we all understand the universal language of a good drinking game, right? Unfortunately when TJ and I retired for the evening, the party was still in full swing. At this point, not having doors or windows became a bit of a detriment, as there was no way to block out the sounds of drinking games, iPod playlists, and idyll chatter. Oh, and the heat. It got HOT that night.

The next day around 10am we decided to head down to the beach. Of course, Mick wasn’t ready. So we waited for him. Then his friend wasn’t ready. And then the other friend. So around 11:30 we finally arrived at the beach. We all wanted fish tacos, but the fish taco place wasn’t open yet. We settled in for a non-taco brunch at a place called ChocoBanana, a Sayulita landmark famous since 1991 for its chocolate dipped bananas. I was already feeling bitter, wanting a banana and knowing I probably shouldn’t, since they were covered in nuts, which thanks to my newfound allergies may or may not kill me, when our party of seven mutually agreed that we didn’t want a non-taco brunch, and that we would wrap things up with our initial round of beverages and enjoy some beach time while waiting for the taco place to open. That’s when another one of Mick’s friends arrived on the scene and proclaimed that his smart phone had been stolen at last night’s party. TJ and I shot each other a look of alarm, then headed to the car. We let the group know that we would be back just as soon as we had secured our computer and iPad.

It’s an embarrassing thing, having your hosts know that you are guarding your personal items against theft, and also knowing that they are on the suspect list. Still, fool me once, shame on you...and at this point in my time in Mexico, I've already been fooled twice. At this point, Mick’s father asked if we were going back to the beach, and if we would be able to take him. We said yes, we are leaving now, and yes, we can take you. He thanked us and then proceeded to sit down to eat breakfast (For future reference, when somebody says "Ahorita," they can mean anything from "right now" to "shortly after hell freezes over"). Maybe an hour later we were all in the car heading back to the beach. Oh, except for Mick’s father, who decided to go later. Um. Yeah...And to top it off, the taco place still wasn’t open. We were told they would finally open in about twenty minutes, so we headed to the beach.

On a positive note I will say that the weather was comfortably warm, and the water was refreshingly cool. The waves were choppy, but only in that fun, rocking to-and-fro way. There were plenty of swimmers, surfers, and paddleboarders, yet nobody ever appeared to be in anybody else’s way. In other words, nobody cracked their head open on any wooden or fiberglass projectiles.

We finally managed to have our fish tacos, landing at a place called Restaurant Carmelita that had been jumpin’jumpin’ the night before during our soda run. They offered up some excellent chips and salsa, and my Limonada was divine. But they screwed up my food order twice, and when all was said and done, I judged the fish tacos in Guadalajara to be much more enjoyable.

After another dip in the ocean, after which we finally spotted and quickly evaded a pot vendor (he gets credit for originality...he was selling hash donuts), we headed back to the house for a long siesta before sojourning into Vallarta for the evening. Or at least that was the plan.

TJ woke me up at 7:30 and proceeded to do the same for Mick, who had wanted to leave by 8pm. In the time it took me to wake up, shower, and dress, Mick was still picking out his outfit. Finally having accomplished that, he showered and was ready by 8:30. He then asked that we wait while a friend of his got ready. That friend was ready by 9:00. Then he asked if another friend could get ready. Said friend was still in the pool.

TJ and I busied ourselves playing dominoes with Mick’s parents and cousins. I suddenly realized that in my selfish absorption of the surroundings, I had only managed to take pictures of the house, the town, and the beach...but not of the party or the party guests the night before. I tried to rectify that now, and got a couple of pictures snapped...right before the storm hit.

Rain, lighting, torrential winds. Our door- and window-free room was soaked. The roads were much so that we could not risk leaving for the evening. There was no food in the house, as such an eventuality had not been prepared for. A half-cup of rice and two tortillas were rationed out to everyone, and that had to suffice until morning. What’s worse, in a situation of this magnitude, is that we were out of booze. And non-alcoholic beverages...but at this point, who wanted THOSE? Had we but left at 8:00 as planned, none of this would have mattered. But for the fourth time this weekend, we had found ourselves waiting for others.

Enough was enough, and TJ and I retired for the evening. With our room soaked, we were graciously given Cory’s room, the only room in the house with windows, doors, and protective screens in case said windows shattered in a storm such as this. You’re probably wondering what became of Cory. So was I. Well, unbeknownst to us, he had been hospitalized during the day. What he had thought of as potential food poisoning was actually Dengue fever. Yeah. Remember my comment about the bugs and the can of OFF! ?

Needless to say, sleep did not come easily or often Saturday night. If I wasn't worried about bug bites, I was worried about breaking windows or mudslides. And even the giant oscillating fan perched on the railing above the bed. It provided a nice breeze, but looked deadly, were it to fall. Yes, I realize that at this point I was simply looking for the next woe-is-me moment. We awoke early and, having packed our bags the night before, departed Sayulita shortly after sunrise.

I feel badly for Mick. He worked really hard to put this party together, and between accusations of theft, monstrous storms, and the very likely clear lack of amusement on my face toward the end, he must have felt that it all somehow fell short.

I won’t say that he’s wrong in that regard, but I am glad for having had the experience. I love exploring new places, even when all doesn’t go according to plan.

And besides, who doesn't enjoy a good old fashioned National Lampoon's style weekend every once in awhile?