Time To Be a Tourist

When you live in a beautiful tropical paradise, it can be really fun to pretend you are a tourist for a few days. I mean, as long as you can go without the sunburn and dehydration issues. Also without the hotel buffet, because I have already gained at least three pounds based almost entirely on my current obsession with mint chocolate cookies.

We decided that during our Christmas vacation, we would enjoy some of what Vallarta has to offer our visitors. For one thing, my parents arrived on December 18th for their annual visit. To add to the fun, my brother and his wife found last minute flight deals which enabled them to come down for the first time in fifteen years and, for their three children, their first time ever.

I was determined that we would pack as much activity into one week as possible so that my nephews and niece could tell all their friends that their aunt was the coolest instead of the weirdest, which is what they normally tell people. We booked two trips ahead of time: a Vallarta Adventures tour to Las Marietas, and a zipline tour with Canopy Playa Grande.

The Vallarta Adventures tour company is probably the best known company in Vallarta. They have a wide variety of tour options for absolutely every type of traveler. As locals, we can request a locals price list, which ranges from around 25% to 30% off the original price, depending on the time of year. This is not a cheap tour, but it is incredibly professional and well worth the price.

We chose the Las Marietas tour because my brother’s family wanted to snorkel and experience a boat tour on the ocean. My own family and I have experienced boat tours many times, and my son and I have experienced seasickness exactly that many times. We avoided the misery with some Dramamine and kept them handy for my prairie-dwelling relatives.

The hosts of our boat were wonderfully friendly, casual and knowledgeable.  We had a chance to paddle board, snorkel and kayak while we were at Las Marietas, and we had a great tour of the islands, which collectively are a national park and bird preserve. The best part was spending time as an entire family with no distractions from cell phones or outside obligations of any kind.

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Two days later we were bumping along in a covered truck to Playa Grande Ecopark, a beautiful natural park along the river in the Ejido Playa Grande, where they are involved in conservation projects as well as tours. We were greeted by an enthusiastic staff with a lot of energy and passion for their work.

I have some personal issues with ziplines. The issue I have is that I despise being hundreds of feet off the ground, connected to a small pulley that is positively screaming along the metal cable,  hanging on with knuckles so white they could probably glow in the dark. But it’s not dark, so I can see exactly at what speed I’m definitely going to hit the tree at the end of my run.

I am happy to report, however, that I didn’t hit any tree, because there was always a confident staff member there to let me know when to slow down and, when I panicked slightly, to catch me before the tree abruptly interrupted my trip down the cable.

I highly recommend this new little company. If you join the website xplorapv.com, you can often find a coupon there that includes a canopy tour with transportation and a tequila tasting experience at the end of your tour. They offer lunch at their picturesque little restaurant, and there’s a beautiful river beach area where you can cool off in the crystal clear water.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you my mother. I am white-knuckling it the entire time, my mom is flying upside down.

Dear Vallartans, I’m so proud of you. Spending the week as a tourist I had the chance to understand again why our city is such a jewel. The spirit of Vallarta shines most brightly through all of her citizens. Thank you for spreading that passion, joy and goodwill to all who come to visit. Thank you for showing my family so clearly why, for so many of us, Vallarta is our cherished home.

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My beautiful crew

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Holiday Wishes

I feel like there’s a lot of pressure around the holidays. Things are Expected, like traditions and presents and happiness. I am here to tell you that, if you are feeling that extra load of responsibility, you are not alone. I am here to tell you that there are others around you, possibly me, who are attempting to do what you are doing and failing quite spectacularly. In my case, let’s just say things haven’t been going exactly as planned:

  • My festively decorated cookies look more like there was a tragic fire at the North Pole
  • My children caught a cold on the last day of school from the last kid to go home
  • I am supposed to be showing my family around Vallarta and I keep getting lost (I love Versalles almost the best out of all the neighborhoods, but tell me how the streets don’t all look exactly the same and also explain how they haven’t moved the Organic Select Store from Roma to Francia and back). My kids just roll their eyes and say “Ladies and Gentleman, I give you….. my mother!”
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It’s a gingerbread shack. What.

So, I figure it’s time to scrap the idea of perfection and look ahead to the future. A perfect way to do that is through some of the Mexican traditions on New Year’s Eve. For example, apparently there’s a New Year’s Eve underwear tradition. People who want love and passion in the next year wear red underwear. If they want happiness and prosperity they wear yellow. For health and well-being it’s green underwear. If you want love and friendship, wear pink. And if you are a good person and wish for hope and peace, wear white.  All I need to do is find myself a rainbow pair and I should be covered.

Also, I plan to take part in the tradition of eating twelve grapes as the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, and making a wish as I eat each one. This is absolutely amazing, although as a rule a good preschool teacher would not be so foolish as to shove a lot of uncut grapes in her mouth (choking hazard, folks), but I’m sure I’ll be ok as long as I remember to buy seedless ones.

I’ve already figured out my wishes too:

  • That milk chocolate becomes calorie-free
  • Better make that milk chocolate and Nutella
  • Throw in some of that peanut brittle you can get in the Thursday Night Marina Market
  • That they invent bathroom doors into which children’s voices cannot penetrate
  • That the Vallarta winter forgets to turn into summer again
  • That the party place across the street gets so loud that they finally break the sound barrier and I can get a decent night’s sleep one time this holiday season
  • That my husband gets a Pinterest account and suddenly becomes obsessed with packing our kids a perfect Bento Box lunch for school every day for the remaining eight years they have in their pre-med-school years
  • That my son will apply his video gaming skill and dexterity to other fun activities like keeping a clothing item or two folded and put away in his closet
  • That my daughter will suddenly find me unbelievably wise and not at all cringe-worthy, even when I dance in public
  • That I will be able to find my way to my dentist’s office on Francia without consulting Google Maps
  • That I won’t wear a single clothing item inside out to work this year
  • That love will always warm my heart, even when the dog jumps on the table and eats my homemade Christmas mint cookies that looked like melted witches. That I will always, always find a way to laugh about it.column, new year 2018

Looking For the Bright Side

I do genuinely try to be a positive person but I feel like it’s not my natural state of mind. However, it seems like kids constantly need to know that things are going to be okay. So I’ve tried to put a positive spin on situations from the time my children were very small:

“Wow, the electricity went off at 2am! Now we can have a cozy sleepover on mommy and daddy’s bed while telling desperate stories and sweating and praying for the fans to start up again!”

“Oh you spilled chocolate and ketchup and glue on your brand new t-shirt within the first ten minutes of putting it on? Well, you were going to grow out of it in six more months anyway!”

I don’t think this is my natural bent. I tend toward visualizing the very worst outcome of most things. Maybe my brain figures that if I visualize the worst and it happens, at least I won’t be surprised. And if something better happens, then it’s cool.

And the thing is, sometimes it seems like there’s no way to make things sound sunny. Like, at all. And that’s when you just have to zip it and wait out the chest pain that comes with severe stress.

My credit card information was stolen last week and somebody had about an hour of online bliss on my account. There’s definitely nothing good about that, because even if this somebody had exceptional taste in whatever they were purchasing, I’d almost certainly never benefit from it.

But it ended up that the experience kind of flipped over on its side and showed its silver underbelly.

  1. It was pretty easy to get the bank to cooperate with me, because I reported it immediately.
  2. I reported it immediately because a few months ago I let a bank employee talk me into getting a banking app on my cell phone, and thus I was notified of the charges on my account.
  3. I let the employee talk me into it because I didn’t have enough Spanish banking vocabulary to talk him out of it. However, by the time we went through the inexplicably long and intricate process of downloading and setting up the app, I had acquired the vocabulary I was missing.
  4. And that was pretty timely, because when I went on the phone to report the charges, I WAS COMPLETELY ABLE TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE CREDIT CARD COMPANY (don’t tell my husband. I have a near-phobic hatred of talking on the phone, and use my lack of Spanish as an excuse to have him make all my phone calls for me).

Do you see? It was a nasty situation, but there were things about it that were kind of ok. Certainly better than they could have been.

But I am still a struggling, somewhat dull student of optimism. Today we went to get the Christmas tree and as the store worker tied our brand new pine to our car roof, all I could visualize was our car stopped in the middle of the road by the airport, cars driving over our fallen tree and stamping it ever deeper into the asphalt. I was relieved when we arrived back at home. We unloaded the water jugs first that we had picked up at the same time (because multi-tasking was invented by parents of children who don’t like any of the same sports). The Boy carried in a jug and I followed, chuckling at my Negative Nelly self. He dropped the jug. It cracked. Water quickly spread itself all over my kitchen floor, burbling merrily from the crack at the bottom.

I yelled for Gil who was busy with the tree and couldn’t drop it because it had made it this far, and by Jorge, he wasn’t about to tempt fate. I yelled for my daughter to bring the mop and bucket and she said she didn’t know what that even was (and I registered this for later review under Ways I’m Failing as a Parent).

As we cleaned up the kitchen, all of us secretly fuming, I realized that sometimes the worst things we visualize might not come true, but then something else at least as bad probably would.

So I’m not cured of my pessimism quite yet. But at least life is amused by me. And at least we have a Christmas tree and two other water jugs.

Day of the Dead

One of my favorite holidays in Mexico takes place on November 1rst. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, found its roots in Mexico about 3,000 years ago. It is celebrated all over the country and especially in the central and southern regions.

Before the Spanish showed up in the sixteenth century, it was celebrated in the beginning of summer. Also, this holiday was a month long festival dedicated to the Lady of the Dead (who eventually became  known as La Calavera Catrina). But, like many festivals that are part of indigenous cultures all over the world, it was changed to fit into Christian holidays such as All Saints Eve.

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Lady Catrina

The main part of this holiday involves families and friends honoring the memory of loved ones who have passed on before them. At midnight on October 31, it is believed that the spirits of the children who died, los angelitos, come down to be reunited with their families for twenty-four hours. On November 2nd, the adults have the same opportunity. Many families go to the cemetery and spend time at their loved ones’ graves.

This sounds sad and solemn on paper and it’s hard to believe that Day of the Dead is one of the most lively, colorful celebrations you’ll see in Mexico. And that’s pretty impressive because, in Mexico, there is always a fiesta to be found.

The cemeteries, for example, are full of music, light, and chatter. Families are playing cards and cleaning up graves, reminiscing about family members. The streets are full of color, with dozens of altars and huge, decorated calaveras lining the streets posed in funny costumes and postures.

In many homes you will find ofrendas, or altars, dedicated to someone who has passed away. Some of the elements you may see on an ofrenda are:

  • Salt, a purifying element
  • Marigolds, (flor de cempasúchil), the scent of which will lead the deceased to the home
  • Photos of the deceased
  • Pan de muertos, a delicious, sugary sweet bread
  • Sugar skulls to decorate the altar and to represent the loved one
  • The favorite food of the deceased to feed them on their long journey
  • Candles to guide them on their way

Our family lost a dear friend to cancer nearly two years ago. She was very proud of her Mexican heritage and loved Dia de los Muertos most of all. She often spoke fondly of growing up in Mexico City and the magic of these special days. When she passed away, I knew our family would honor her memory in our home with an altar, because she would absolutely love that.

But that wasn’t the only reason.  Her sickness and eventual passing had been so shocking and so tragic for our family. We had known her for years, and she was an important person to all of us. After she passed away we would bring up some of the happy times we had with her, but they usually just made us feel badly that she was gone.

As we began to collect items for her altar, we were able to talk about her and feel good. We found the clay cup that she always used for her coffee. We dug up photos of her playing with our kids when they were tiny. We brought out the Spanish children’s books she gave them as gifts.

We thought of her favorite kinds of food (mole for sure). We bought marigolds and talked about her love for all kinds of plants and trees. We found sugar skulls and I told the children about how she laughed at the look on my face when she bought me one during my first year in Mexico.

Once we had all these items, we painted boxes and decorated them with the traditional papel picado (cut paper). We set them up and set out all the items we had gathered. We lit the candles and sat down in front of the ofrenda, silent for a moment. I realized then that we weren’t thinking about her loss so much as her memory.

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Our beloved friend came to us on Dia de los Muertos. She came to us in bright orange flowers, in chocolate, in delicious food, in laughter.

Mexico is a beautiful place with many fascinating secrets. If you listen closely, she will share one of her best: that death is never the end, and that our loved ones are never truly gone.

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My girl’s depiction of the way we remember our friend. Pretty lovely.

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.

me baby 001