Mexico’s Independence

This Friday, September 15, Mexico will begin her annual two day celebration of her independence as a nation. That’s because on September 15, 1810, it is believed that a priest, Miguel Hidalgo, called the people to rise up against their Spanish governors. Granted, it took eleven bloody years from that first cry until Spain finally came to the same grudging conclusion, but Mexico likes to celebrate the day when her people made the decision for themselves.

One reason I love Mexico so much is the positivity of people here in the direst of circumstances. There’s something pretty awe-inspiring in the optimism of deciding that one’s independence came eleven years before you finally rid yourself from your oppressors.

But I have a few questions about the actual revolution that maybe some historian could address. For example, how did people actually find the tenacity to fight in a war while dealing with thirty-three degrees that feels like forty-seven? Because I can’t even muster the motivation to deal with dishes in the drying rack these days.

Now, I do understand the way heat can create a certain amount of violence in people. I am certainly capable of throwing a carton of plastic wrap across the room after wrestling with it for seventeen minutes and managing to wrap exactly one slice of banana bread. But an entire war? For eleven years?

Regardless, that’s what happened, and it went on in spite of the fact that many of the original leaders of the war that led to independence never had the chance to see that dream realized. Miguel Hidalgo was executed along with Ignacio Allende, another leader in the movement.

But they didn’t die in vain, because now we have this Mexico that we know and love, a country that looks very little like a mini-Spain and very much like a country with a pretty solid self-identity.

The truth is, eleven years is a long time to fight against the odds, in the heat, against bigger, more sophisticated weaponry. But it’s probably good that it didn’t come easy. Because now Mexico is a country that is well-accustomed to the struggle, and when there’s trouble, the people dig in and fight for the long haul.

And even very recently, they’ve needed to fight. Two weeks ago, Tropical Storm Lidia hit Baja California, killing at least five and flooding the area, causing heaps of destruction.

Last week, southern Mexico was hit with the strongest earthquake it has experienced in over a century, with nearly one hundred people reported dead at this time, and devastation all over the region. The coast was placed on tsunami alert.

The very next day, Hurricane Katia made landfall in Veracruz, leaving more dead in mudslides, with more flooding and more destruction.

It’s been a bad month for Mexico and for her people, who have just begun to dig themselves up from under the rubble left by earthquakes and hurricanes.

But this is the country whose people pulled themselves up out of slavery in the mines of Guanajuato, who overturned a dictatorship in 1910 (which added on another ten years of revolutionary war, by the way), who decided eleven years of struggle was well worth the freedom of a nation.

So we will celebrate Mexico’s independence this week. But we also need to acknowledge that there are still tough battles ahead for her people as they grieve and begin to recover from these natural disasters. While we know they will rebuild, because that is who they are, the best way to celebrate Mexico this week is by pledging our own support today.

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Peace and Quiet

I like peace and quiet so much. This probably sounds like a tragic confession from a kindergarten teacher. Both peace and quiet are two things that are most elusive to someone in my line of work, and yet sometimes I crave them with my entire being.

You probably don’t have a lot of sympathy for me, because moving to a country like Mexico from one like Canada isn’t exactly a solitude-seeking life change. Mexico is a vibrant gal, she’s a mover and a shaker, she’s color and light, and she’s often planning a fiesta. Canada by comparison folds her hands in her lap, sits on her chesterfield (sofa) and doesn’t make a scene until the hockey game is on.

But I do need my quiet time every now and then, because it makes me feel less like slamming things and more like smiling gently at my children. And although my tweenager children are becoming more and more likely to go days without noticing me as long as food shows up regularly, I enjoy feeling like a benevolent motherly figure rather than a red-faced, twitchy one.

So I made myself a little to-do list for the spring break:

  • Make a bed angel every day (like a snow angel, but with pajamas and warm blankets)
  • Spend time sitting in the sun while the children find their own entertainment (that doesn’t involve asking me what they should DO when there’s NOTHING to DO)
  • Go somewhere where I rediscover the Sound of Silence

Finding a quiet place in the sun during Mexico’s celebrated Semana Santa is always going to be a challenge. Plus, we are saving money for our trip to Canada this summer, so we didn’t want to travel far.

But staying at home was not a silent option because, two days before Easter, our neighbor pulled up IN A TOURIST BUS with his entire extended family and probably several extra people who looked like they needed a vacation. They trooped out of the bus, set up two tents on the front yard, and packed roughly twenty-five people inside of their four bedroom home (which, unfortunately, shares a wall with our home).

Understand that I don’t begrudge our neighbor one bit of his family fun, because he’s so incredibly friendly and lends us his ladder whenever we ask for it. Also because I really do love that, in Mexico, family is always welcome, even if (especially if) there’s lots and lots of them.

And I’m actually grateful for this occurrence; because it became clear that it was time to put some effort into my search for silence. And I am here to tell you that silence can be had in an hour and a half drive out of town and into the mountains. It resides in a tiny, pop. 600 town called San Sebastian del Oeste.

Now, I’m not going to go into the history of this town because today that’s not my point. I LOVE history and I find Mexico’s history fascinating. And I think you should go to San Sebastian and discover its mining roots and colonial architecture. It’s going to knock your boots off.

But what I want to tell you is that, in San Sebastian, silence really does have a sound. It’s so quiet that my children were the loudest sound-producing items in the entire village. It’s so quiet that I heard the page turn in my e-reader.

We stayed at the Hotel Mansion Real. This mansion was originally built in 1750 and was renovated just over a decade ago, so the romance is real. It has a central patio where you can read or just enjoy the view of the mountains, surrounded by original eighteenth century architecture and citrus trees. Inside the rooms there is satellite TV, so once you hike for a couple of hours and take in a whole bunch of calories at the Café El Fortin in the plaza, you can plop the kids there and enjoy the tranquility on the patio for a sec.

The hotel is located just behind the central plaza, backed against a walking trail that leads you through these little orchards and parts of the village itself, winding around the white bricked homes and cobbled streets. You will need a floppy straw hat, a flowery journal and flowing cotton clothing in order to fully fantasize that you are living inside an eighteenth century novel.

Gil and I plan to go back there without kids one day, because it’s hard to do the eighteenth century romance when the kids keep asking where to charge their IPods. But I’m glad we took them to do some exploring and to enjoy some family time far from the busy Easter crowds. And making bed angels in an eighteenth century mansion makes it an almost dignified holiday pastime.

Christmas Wishes

Well, it’s that most wonderful time of the year again, known to some people as “Christmas” and know to me as “The First Day of My Winter Break”. I celebrate this time of the year by a) staying in my yoga pants for at least twenty-four hours while never once doing yoga b) baking chocolate chip mint cookies “for the children” while conveniently forgetting that I’m the only one who likes mint in the cookies and c) trying to avoid leaving the house under any circumstances.

While I love having these two weeks as a break from my job and, more importantly, a break from making school lunches, I find it difficult to really decompress those first few days. I become aware that a huge chunk of my identity, or at least the chunk that is organized and somewhat logical, is tied into my career. I become listless, a little short-tempered and a lot impatient with everyone around me. I lose at table games like Clue. I burn dinner or salt it to the point of inedibility. I pull all the clothing out of the closets in order to organize them, but lose interest halfway through folding The Boy’s t-shirt collection.

It’s important to get into the happy holiday groove as quickly as possible, because the break is short and the kids will remember vividly and forever the Christmases that you ruin. Our family has certain holiday traditions that help us maintain the happy memories even when there are piles of clothing on the floor and we’ve gone out for pizza for the third night in a row. These include:

  • Long, intricate fabrications about why Santa can’t bring an Xbox One to our house, but does indeed bring them to a few of our friends’ houses. This year there will be an extra chapter on why Santa’s gifts are late this year that has to do with some of Santa’s elves who went rogue and are now spreading mischief all along the Mexican/American border.
  • Baking and decorating Santa’s favorite cookies which coincidentally are also Mom’s favorite cookies. column-christmas-2016
  • Vegetarian Christmas dinner which my parents always say they enjoy very much. Oddly, this year they couldn’t find a single flight before Christmas Eve, so they’ll be having the turkey with my brother this year. They were able to sound upbeat about it, though, the troopers.
  • Beach day on Christmas day, partly to escape our now trash-littered home, and also because I like to send photos to our Canadian relatives who are all housebound due to the -42 wind chill.
  • A family photo with Santa Claus at Galerias, which is now almost impossible to achieve. This is because The Boy and The Girl are at a stage of emotional development where it’s very uncool to be seen photographed with either Santa Claus or parents. Someday it will work out again, once they are old enough to find it ironically stylish. At that point I am hoping to find matching ugly Christmas sweaters.
  • Christmas movies that are now overwhelmingly chosen based on hilarity rather than sentimentality. I want to get all nostalgic and teary over The Polar Express, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (what’s more Christmas than Dickens, for heaven’s sake?), and the rest of the crew out-votes me for National Lampoon’s Christmas, Elf and Home Alone. By the way, did you know there’s an even more violently painful sequel to Home Alone? Don’t worry, I won’t tell your kids.

However you spend your holiday season, I hope it’s happy. From my family to all of you and yours, I wish you a very happy holiday and the warmest of season’s greetings. I wish you a Christmas movie marathon that is free of swinging paint cans and people falling heavily from ladders. I wish you a beach day next to a palm tree, watching Santa parasail. I wish you a family photo where at least 60% of the people are actually looking at the camera.

I wish you all the light of this holiday season. May you avoid stepping on the Christmas Lego, may your eggnog be Kirkland and may your heart be full of the love of those who surround you.

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Families of Mexico

If you asked me what I love most about Mexico, I would put on my finest pair of pink spectacles and roll out a list longer than the world’s longest churro. Which, by the way, was 252.62 feet (these are things I enjoy knowing), so that’s a lot of love. I won’t lie and say Mexico is problem-free, because if you are a person on planet Earth and you sometimes read a bit, you know that is not true. But I chose (and continue to choose) to live here, because for me and my family, the problems are outweighed by that churro-beating list. One of the items on that list is Mexican Independence Day.

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If you’ve ever been in Mexico at 11pm on September 15, you would remember it well. Your gaze can’t avoid (even if it wanted to) the bright combinations of red, white and green on public buildings, souvenir carts, and people. Crowds fill every available public space. There are spicy, delicious smells wafting out from all the food carts lining the streets and plazas. Children are running about, wildly over stimulated and covered with streaky paint that originally began on their faces. People on every street corner are attempting to outdo Miguel Hidalgo’s cry of independence that originated on the steps of his church in Dolores. It is loud and glorious. It is Mexico at its most Mexico. In other words, it is absolutely magnificent.

Our family loves to go to the celebrations. Well, in theory. The problem is, unfortunately, that my son and I are both a bit claustrophobic, so the crowds sometimes make the idea of celebrating a great deal more attractive than the actual celebrating. The other problem is that most celebratory days require music, and therefore my husband is often required to work on these days.

If he isn’t, and if The Boy and I can work up the courage, we find ourselves a spot on which to view the fireworks and join in on El Grito. Everywhere you look, you will find other families doing the same.

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Nobody here but us burros. A less crowded Malecon, well before dark.

And here we arrive at what is number one on my list: the emphasis on family life in Mexico. One of the things I love about being married to a Mexican man is that, to him, Sunday is Family Day and it is top priority. He turns down gigs if he feels it will interfere with Family Day.

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If you go out on a Sunday in Vallarta, you will look around at the beach and realize that many Mexican families have gathered themselves up and set themselves down under a giant, temporary gazebo with abuelos, sobrinos, tios, and a whole lot of ceviche.

If you cut it too close to your flight time when flying domestically, you will find yourself biting your nails behind families of ten, traveling to DF to see a sick hermano who needs some support and some caldo de pollo.

People here work hard, but they know when it’s time to rest, and they also know that the rest they need is always better when it’s con la familia. And many families here know what it means to be there for each other when there’s trouble.

Nowadays, families around the world don’t always look the way they did fifty years ago. My constant refrain to my children is “Every family’s different.” No one knows this better than they do, members of a bicultural family with a half brother and sister living in Canada with their mom. They have friends whose parents are divorced, friends who were adopted, friends with no children, friends who have two dads. They know how different families can be. But they also know that every family loves, and every family celebrates, and every family matters. Most of all, they know how wonderful it is when we can all do that together.

So this year, let’s celebrate the Mexico that welcomes us all to her family table, from those who were born here to those who came across her borders, wide-eyed with wonder.

Let’s celebrate the Mexico who will proudly gather her diverse, beloved families together on September 15 in every plaza all over this great country.

Viva la familia, of every beautiful kind. And Viva Mexico.

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Viva!

 

Celebrating Teachers

On May 15, Mexico celebrates its teachers. Unfortunately, this year the date falls on a Sunday, so teachers will have to be appreciated without a day off. Instead, they may have classroom parties. But allow me to share a secret with you: classroom parties to celebrate teachers are really sweet and really kind. And we will always tell you that we love them. Actually we will always sort of love it, because it makes us feel like you appreciate what we do every day. But just take the following into consideration before you decide to take it up a notch and make it a surprise:

Pretend that your job involves working with twenty very excitable people who not only feel passionate about cake, but also for tipping their chairs back until they are in danger of striking their heads on the only available corner in the room. Pretend also, that if they DO strike their heads on that corner, it will be entirely your responsibility. Then imagine ten other people walking unannounced into that situation with a cake full of sugar and red dye, smiling and offering everyone a slice.

Sounds awesome, right? But a spa gift certificate might also sound good too.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, or that I don’t enjoy teaching. Teaching is something I get excited about, cake or no cake. Teachers get to see miracles happen. Teachers get to light fires. Teachers get to put out fires, too, but it’s worth it.

I am a teacher of a very particular genre. I am an early childhood educator. I’ve taught all the ages from three to six, but most of the time I teach Kindergarten. It’s a tricky time to be an ECE, because there is a lot of pressure on schools now to forget all we know about how children truly learn, and push down the curriculum to get children to pass standardized tests at an age where no one should have to worry about failing an exam.

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With a colleague… ECE’s are a rare, specialized bunch with a well-developed sense of humor and very little shame

The interesting thing is, if you look at the research, you can see that children learn best by being engaged in hands-on, intentional play. They are also as successful and often more successful than their peers who were placed in academic preschools where abstract learning and worksheets were emphasized. Plus, they are usually a lot happier and know how to build an x-ray machine for pets out of two boxes, paint and lots of tape.

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A vet clinic that one of my kindergarten groups built after a trip to the local veterinarian. Lots of boxes, paint and tape were used, and it’s highly functional.

I’ve stayed for almost sixteen years at the American School here in Puerto Vallarta for many reasons, but one of the big ones is that the administration has a deep respect for childhood and teachers who use developmentally appropriate methods, because they have seen the amazing results. But there are other things I love about my job too. As an early childhood educator, I get to:

  • Turn the most mundane chores into songs. I ask my kids to line up, and they really don’t care. Because, quite frankly, lining up is boring. But if I sing “Come line up, come line up, it’s time for art! It’s time for art!” to the tune of Frere Jaques, it’s sort of like starting up the electric can opener when you have a house full of cats.
  • Decode important documents. Do you know what IWTTUDSTRNBTFD says? Because I do (I went to the store and bought food).
  • Be called “mom” at least twice a day. Now I answer without even blinking. Yes, I will be your mom, or your dad, or even your Aunt Bea. Just finish your group work.
  • Get the straight scoop on everyone’s personal lives. Here’s a handy hint, parents. If you have any skeletons chittering around in your closets, you might consider keeping that fact from your preschoolers. If you don’t, understand that we heard about it yesterday at circle time, along with seventeen other five-year-olds.
  • Hear someone tell me that they love me while I’m on the job. And know that it’s absolutely true.

Happy Children’s Day!

Every year on April 30th Mexico celebrates children. This is a wonderful day to be eighteen and under because everywhere you go people smile at you and let you pretty much do whatever you want. It’s less enjoyable if any of the following applies to you:

  • You hate crowds
  • You fear clowns
  • You are over eighteen

And that’s pretty much where I’m at. I’m sure some of you think it’s ridiculous to be over forty and afraid of clowns. If you do, it means you’ve never picked up a Stephen King novel or ridden a Vallarta bus with a comical entertainer who enjoyed working the cheap laugh off the only guera passenger.

But clowns are unavoidable on Children’s Day. Children love them because they aren’t old enough to have seen Stephen King’s made-for-TV movie  “It”, and so we hire them at our school every year. And every year one of them singles out the Early Childhood Director because blonde people turn red very easily, and that’s really hilarious to point out in front of 45 preschool-aged children.

As a parent and a teacher, I have no choice but to celebrate all the children in my life. And really I might as well, because I spend about 364 other days in the year helping them become people who deserve to be celebrated.

But truthfully, all children have a lot of qualities worth celebrating. There’s no way I’d be a teacher if they didn’t, although the salary almost keeps teachers above the poverty line, and nap time is sometimes actually quiet. If you have children, and you will take them out on Children’s Day to meet a clown who will make fun of your hair, here are some reasons why you should smile with all your teeth and chuckle in agreement.

  • Children take you seriously. When I ask my students simple questions like “Where do carrots come from”, they get these frown-y, grave, impassioned faces like These Are Things That Matter and say “From the farm with all the other cows” or “I think from my birthday cake, because it made me puke a lot of orange”.
  • Children know how to turn anything into a party. Once when my children were preschool age, I put them to bed and put together a romantic dinner for myself and my husband, because three and four year olds would never permit such selfish behavior when they are awake. In the middle of the dinner, they started asking for water, one more hug, and any other stalling tactic that follows the mind-warping call, “MoMEEEEE”. I brought them down and whipped up some ramen. They called it their Favorite Soup Party, where some of us ate vegetable bisque and others ate mushroom-flavored, sodium-glutted Maruchan. They still talk about it.
  • Children change quickly. This is almost always great if you are a teacher. I get to see magic every year. For me, students begin to read and write incredible things like “I LOF YU MIS LEZZZZZZA”; the same students who didn’t take any interest in Z’s at the beginning of the school year. I admit that children changing can be heart wrenching if you are a parent. But look at this way, you can be assured that the stuff that drives you nuts is usually not permanent. If they insist that they can’t be alone in the bathroom now, I guarantee you that your future thirteen-year-old is not going to want you in there. Actually, your future thirteen-year-old isn’t going to want you anywhere. So maybe that’s a poor example.

I love all of the children that surround me every day. I love my own offspring and I love my students. I love my students-to-be who almost run me over on the playground, not knowing or caring that they will soon be in my class. I love the students-who-were, the grown up ones who come to visit me or friend me on Facebook, all successful and cool.

On April 30, celebrate all the children in your life, including the one that still lives inside you somewhere, demanding ramen soup.

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My Kind of Crowd

If you want to get away from the multitudes during Semana Santa, which is a popular time for Mexicans to travel, I don’t really have much to recommend. A lot of people have told me that if I travel ANYWHERE in Mexico other than a coastal town, I will be able to avoid the crowds, because everyone goes to the beaches in Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, and Mazatlan.

I have found this advice to be profoundly misleading. I’ve spent several Easter vacations unsuccessfully asserting my children’s right to experience such things as the panda bears at the Mexico City Zoo while being elbowed out of the way by more experienced local parents.

 

When I first moved to Mexico, my colleagues and I figured we’d be these crazy backpacking fools and go to new, exciting places on Easter break so we could get away from the crowds. We tasted tequila in Tequila, did some tile-shopping in Puebla, and camped on the black sand beaches in Cuyultlan, Colima. Without fail, everyone else in Mexico got there first, buying up the coffee-flavored raicilla and drinking all the Coco Locos on the beach.

We even traveled 70km outside of Oaxaca City to a tiny mountain hotsprings called Hierve el Agua, meeting precisely zero human persons on the gravel switchbacks. When we got to the top I jumped out of the car, excited to breathe some lonely air and jump in a natural springs-fed basin.

I think I squashed some poor kid’s floatie and spilled his dad’s beer when I jumped into a throng of bathers. So much for The Road Less Travelled.

So at this point in my life, I have decided that my goal is not to avoid the multitudes of Semana Santa. My purpose is only to relax, by whatever means necessary (and with the hope that the means are also relaxing).

One of my husband’s hermanos en la musica, Edgar Farid Barik, is a manager at his family’s resort, Hotel Balneario San Juan Cosala, located in a town by the same name along the beautiful Lake Chapala. Hot springs well up from the ground there, and the family has been using the mineral-rich waters to create a lovely oasis for the last fifty years.

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Parents: You need to read this part carefully. You must come here with either a) another family or b) grandparents (and be as lucky as we are to travel with grandparents who love exploring as much as we do!) Because this hotel also has a spa that contains several soak tubs with the following ingredients: apple cider vinegar, coffee, red wine, flowers, jamaica water, oatmeal, soy milk, among others. Imagine this! You can SOAK in the very things that give you the most pleasure in your life (Edgar wisely reminded me beforehand that the coffee and red wine was for soaking purposes only).

The spa also contains a “temascal” (natural steam room), aromatherapy, massage rooms, and a mud bath area. For 155 pesos each, you will be able to enjoy a two hours and forty minute tour of the different soaking tubs, mud treatment and steam room and KIDS ARE NOT ALLOWED!

Not only that, there are several thermal pools all over the grounds where children ARE allowed, and one of them includes a diving board and water slides. The rooms were spacious and bright, and they have silent-after-10pm rule that is actually enforced! Yes friends, I have the phone number!

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About fifteen minutes away is the picturesque town of Ajiic where you can stroll along a calm, family-friendly malecon along the lake. My kids got a gentle horse ride along the shore for 50 pesos each, led by a young, cheerful cowboy who clearly doted on his animals.

Did we escape the crowds on this year’s Easter vacation? Absolutely not. There were many people at Lake Chapala, and most of them were national tourists. But at the Hotel Balneario San Juan Cosala, the family environment wrapped us up like a warm blanket. Whether we were relaxing in the soaking tubs, flying down the water slides, or sitting on our outside deck, we were among people who, like us, were finally getting a chance to reconnect with the people that they loved.

And that’s my kind of crowd.

New Year’s Resolutions 2015

I love the idea of being a responsible adult person even while procrastinating. What I should be doing is preparing for my parents’ arrival, and what I am doing is writing this article so I can meet my deadline. This is the more pleasant responsibility and I’ll tell you why. My parents’ room has become the place where important receipts, broken kites, and used schoolbooks have gone to die. There is a layer eight months thick, and it’s all got to go before 4:30pm on December 31.

I have been reflecting on 2014 and I’ve got lots of great things to say about it, but I am ready for 2015. I looked back on my New Year’s resolution article from one year ago. I wrote a list of resolutions for my children, some of which were: learning some decent knock knock jokes, not asking me for things when I am in the bathroom, and saying hi to their own mother at school, no matter how embarrassing it might be.

I have to tell you that we didn’t find a lot of success with any of these things, even with the purchase of a knock knock joke book and a fashionable update to my school wardrobe. I’ve decided to let my children choose their own resolutions (sigh) and make my own.

I started the list last night but realized I was setting the bar a bit low with resolutions such as “eat one cup of peanut butter-chocolate ice cream from Devil’s Ice Cream each week (can be substituted for one cup salted caramel ice cream from Xocodiva)”. This is probably too easy. Plus, I’m already doing that. So, here are my resolutions/challenges for 2015:

  • Separate my laundry into colors and whites (my mom is crying happy tears).
  • Never use any social media acronyms, because a) they are turning us into an illiterate, lazy society and b) I can’t decode any of them after “lol”
  • Change up my vocabulary to make things more interesting and myself more intelligent, like referring to raw vegetables as “crudités” instead of “vegetables”.
  • Learn to pronounce “crudités”.
  • Stop writing “2014” on everything.
  • Lose the five pounds that stops me from wearing my favorite jeans (OR)
  • Decide the jeans aren’t really my favorite and buy a bigger size
  • Watch less TV (because, Netflix)
  • Learn actual verb conjugations in Spanish so that I am not constantly saying things like “Yesterday, I eat too much cake”.
  • Stop feeling guilty about not spending enough time with my children
  • Stop feeling guilty about not giving my children enough space and opportunities to be independent
  • Find things to feel guilty about the children that don’t contradict each other
  • Be vigilant of children using my purse to dump their refuse or keep their personal items. No more hauling out old mushy sandwiches or lid-less Hello Kitty Lip Balm tubes on a romantic outing with my husband. Well, unless it’s MY lid-less Hello Kitty Lip Balm.
  • And, finally, continue to order my own ice cream. The kids won’t let me “help” them lick off the drips on their cones anymore, and they never order chocolate peanut butter anyway.

Happy New Year to you all! May you find your own resolutions just as delicious

Holiday Happenings

The children and I have begun our Christmas vacation after a very busy school term, and we have reached an unspoken agreement to engage ourselves in activities that require no more brain power than it takes to fill a bucket with sand. Yesterday we did just that, along with a few half-hearted tries at a game of frozen tag on the beach.

We are following Gilberto around, because sometimes he plays at beautiful beach restaurants where we can possibly get a musician’s discount, and because then we don’t have to make any sort of decision beyond deciding what flavor of frozen yogurt we want after lunch. He’s being good-natured about the enforced Drag Your Family to Work Week. But then again, he wasn’t given much choice.

If you would like to see him play some good classic rock and oldies while his family sits in beach chairs and orders frozen limonadas on his account, come down to El Rio BBQ on Friday from 4 to 6. If you’d like to see more of him and less of us, you can catch him at Paradise Burger at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and Nacho Daddy at 8pm on Tuesdays with Chris Kenny.

Since we are on the subject of holiday joy and giving (more or less), I wanted to bring my readers’ attention to an amazing organization in Puerto Vallarta that is in great need of our support. I became aware of the Orquestra Escuela de Puerto Vallarta (OEPV) when my son’s violin teacher, Mary McLachlan, suggested it to me for those months when she is not in Vallarta. It’s set in the heart of Pitillal, cobblestone streets and tiny shops surrounding the white school building.

What we found when we arrived for a tour was a busy school, with the sounds of brass, wood, and strings floating out of every classroom. But what we also experienced was a community, teachers greeting shy students by name, children and teens laughing and chatting in the common area.  Everyone had an instrument and a smile.

And a community was exactly the goal of the founders of OEPV. This program’s purpose involves developing “musicians with the intention of expanding their outlook and forming a better community within the city”. Just like a single instrument becomes an integral part of an orchestra, so do children at OEPV learn to become integral, active parts of the greater community.

Some of the young orchestra members have already played with the Puerto Vallarta Chamber Orchestra as their skills and talents are developed in this marvelous school. My own son is currently taking weekly lessons with a caring, talented instructor with the goal of eventually becoming part of the orchestra.

I am thrilled because his confidence, enthusiasm and motivation for the violin are currently through the roof. He is thrilled because he can now play several bars of the themes of Star Wars, The Pink Panther, and The Hobbit. What more could a 10-year-old boy want out of the violin?

But here’s the thing.  When we went to fill out the forms, we were immediately and cheerfully informed by the office staff that no one is turned away because they have trouble paying tuition (before we even asked about the fees). And the reality is that we pay is a fraction of what we would pay for a program of the same quality in Canada.

In other words, the folks at OEPV aren’t just in it to make some music. They are in it to change some lives. And we can help.

If you want to know more, check out this link:  http://www.gofundme.com/orquestaescuelapv. You can also find them on Facebook under the name Orquesta Escuela de Puerto Vallarta.

La Guadalupana

If you have never been to Vallarta during the first twelve days in December, then you are missing a huge part of what it means to spend the holiday season in Mexico. Every evening for those twelve days there are peregrinaciones, or pilgrimages, to the Church of Guadalupe in El Centro, to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Many individuals and organizations create elaborate floats that recreate the moment that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to the Aztec Juan Diego. Aztec dancers also make processions to the cathedral and you will hear the song “La Guadalupana” sung by the hundreds of pilgrims that are walking in candlelit solidarity.

Some of you will tell me that you are leaving your home country at Christmas in order to get away from all of the holiday madness. You will say that you are tired of the materialism and selfishness that has begun to permeate the season. You will say that you came to lie on a beach and allow the sun to turn your brain into bread pudding for just seven blessed days.

You’ve chosen to travel during this time of year to escape something: stress, weather, numbing routine, the growing materialism. I challenge you to embrace that feeling of escape, and discover everything Mexico has to offer during our December celebrations.

For our family, Christmas cannot begin until we have spent one evening in El Centro during December 1 to 12. Here is my personal list of events for the evening:

  • Find parking
  • Find parking while asking the children to let daddy concentrate on driving
  • Find parking while discussing with the children which thing they may no longer be able to purchase unless we make some changes around here
  • Race to watch our favorite Aztec dancers
  • Find out that the Aztec dancers actually start in two hours, at the exact time that we will be (if there’s any justice in this world) climbing into bed
  • Watch a spectacular reenactment taking place on a float of The Virgin of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego
  • Look for the vendor selling the same glowing, blinking, twirling thing that that other kid has
  • Find all the other vendors selling glowing, blinking things but nothing twirls
  • Find the vendor selling the glowing, blinking, twirling thing, only to be told that they are sold out
  • Make a tough but unanimous group decision that twirling is way overrated and that glowing and blinking is where it’s at
  • Watch another spectacular reenactment on a float of The Virgin of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego
  • Begin the agonizing search for That Perfect Snack among the countless stalls of Perfect Snacks (all of which are available only once a year during La Guadalupana)
  • Finally settle on tamales for the grownups and elote con crema for the children. Sit down on a step in the main plaza and get ready to dig in
  • Buy more snacks after the dogs jump into our laps in order to spill and subsequently eat the first ones
  • Be informed by the children that their very survival depends on a crepa with nutella
  • Line up at the crepa stand
  •  Realize that, after the crepa line, we are just in time to see the Aztec dancers. How can it possibly have been two hours already?
  • Spend what is probably in the top ten of the most beautiful moments in our lives. The noise of the drum is actually beating inside us while we take in all the grace and reverence of the dancers. The lights shining from the Cathedral’s jeweled crown is bathing the whole scene in a light that we will be unable to describe to anyone else.

No one is angry; no one wants another snack or a glowing thing. We are just here, right now, part of a bigger family that is the community of Vallarta. Come and join us.

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