Sunday, February 13, 2011

10 Things I Learned About Mexico

1. Mexico is misunderstood.

When I found out I would be taking a trip with Compassion International to Mexico City, to be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed.  I have co-workers who have gone with Compassion to some pretty exotic places, like India and Ethiopia.  Besides, I've been to Guatemala several times already, and I wondered how much different Mexico could possibly be.  
When I told people I was going to Mexico, I got very few “oohs and aahs” and quite a few raised eyebrows and expressions of concern for my safety.  And, of course, I was advised by everyone not to drink the water and to order my drinks without ice.  

Drug wars, kidnappings, crooked Federales, this is the Mexico we in the States know and fear.  Yes, Mexico has perhaps more than its' fair share of crime, violence and corruption.  But, if those are the only places in Mexico that your imagination will take you, then you are missing a much bigger and more beautiful picture. There are many, many places in this diverse nation that are relatively safe to visit, as long as you pack some common sense in your suitcase.  To say Mexico exceeded my expectations would be a gross understatement.

2. There are plenty of things to eat in Mexico that will not burn a hole in your tongue.

As someone who cannot handle spicy food, I was worried that I wouldn’t find anything good to eat on my trip.  I was pleasantly surprised by the many menu items that a sissy-tongued gal like me can to choose from.  Honestly, I experienced some of the best cuisine I've ever eaten in Mexico!  Some of my favorites:

  • Chile Rellenos- poblano peppers that are stuffed with cheese and then breaded and fried (I'm told these may be hot if all the seeds and membranes are not removed).
    Chiles Rellenos

  • Achiote-a seasoning made from spices and annato seeds that is made into a sauce used to flavor meats.
    Chicken in achiote sauce
  • Tamales-Cornmeal made into a dough and filled with a variety of different meats, cheeses or seasonings and then wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.
  • Mole Poblano-a rich sauce made from peppers, seasonings and chocolate, often served over chicken and or as dip for tortilla chips.
  • Jicama- a root vegetable, similar to a potato, but sweeter and crisper.  I enjoyed raw and cubed with a light vingarette dressing and lime juice.
Jicama Salad
Beef Tampiquena, Chicken with Mole, Tamale
  • Beef Tampiquena-Thinly sliced sirloin steak glazed with a seasoned sauce.
  • Tacos-cooked in a huge pan over an open fire filled with chorizo, veggies & cactus (napalitos)

3. At times, visiting Mexico city feels like visiting Rome.

Really.  I’m not kidding.  

The main "touristy" area of Mexico city is divided into two sections: New Mexico and Old Mexico.  New Mexico reminded me of almost any large, cosmopolitan city in Europe or Latin America- boutique hotels, trendy shops and restaurants and crazy traffic on wide avenues and roundabouts.  Mexico city even has a modern Metro system. 

Old Mexico has a quaint European flair and at times took me back to my trip to Italy. It’s absolutely charming with narrow, cobblestone streets, exquisite architecture and many statues and monuments.  

4. The people of Mexico are warm, welcoming and extremely gracious

This is, of course, a vast generalization.  There are plenty of jerks in every corner of the world.  But, as a whole, I found Mexicans to be absolutely delightful people. Almost everyone I encountered was friendly, helpful and gracious. They also have a great degree of national pride. They are not elitists, but they are proud of their heritage and the colorful history of their country which dates back well over 2,000 years.

5. Mexicans have an uncanny ability to remain content in all things.
I met and observed Mexican people from many different backgrounds and walks of life, from white collar businessmen to people living in the deepest poverty I've ever experienced. But even in the midst of incredible trials, the people I met were content, even happy.

6. The poverty in Mexico can be extreme and inescapable.

I've heard the term “oppressive poverty” before, but I've never seen it so visibly and on such an enormous scale until my trip to Mexico. Outside the cosmopolitan center of Mexico City miles and miles of slums extend in every direction. Over 21 million people live in and around Mexico city, making it the largest metropolitan area in the Americas, the 5th largest in the world. The disparity of wealth among it's inhabitants is enormous. While Mexico City is the 8th largest city in the world, about half of it's inhabitants are classified as moderately or extremely poor. Poverty in rural Mexico is even more extensive.

In a town called Neza, one of the poorest areas of Mexico City, I met a family living in the kind of oppressive poverty that so many Mexicans face. This family of five lives in a room that is roughly 12' x 12' in size. Mom, Dad and three children share a bunk bed which has a full sized bed below and a twin bed above. Their home is one of several small buildings on a plot of land that they share with 3 other families...all part of their extended family. The four families share one bathroom and the garden/green area. Dad drives a motorcycle taxi for a living, however the bike broke down and he doesn't have the money to fix it. So, for the time being, he works as a gardener when there is work to be found. Mom works as a housekeeper whenever possible. However, one of the family members who share their living area is a drug and alcohol addict, so one parent must stay home with the kids at all times to protect them from him. 

How can this family escape? What could they possibly do to get out of poverty?

7. A colored ball determines the military fate of 18 year old boys.

Mexico has a fascinating lottery drafting system for military enlistment. After going through a registration process, every 18 year old boy then participates in a lottery where they have to draw a “ball” to determine if they'll have to serve (this used to an actual it's all computerized, although it's still referred to as a ball). If he draws a white ball, he is required to serve for one year in the Mexican Army. If he draws a blue ball, he will serve for a year in the Navy. If he draws a black ball, he is not required to serve at all. Service in the Army or Navy is similar to service in the US National Guard. Unless there is a crisis, their service is limited to a training exercise one Saturday each month. Unlike the National Guard, there is no pay in exchange for this service.

He got a "White Ball" so in a few weeks he'll have to cut his hair and begin his service in the Army.
8. The expression "I was stepping on frogs" means I got up very early.

I had fun conversation with our Mexican friends about the many idioms used in our languages. While they thought it was a bit weird that we say things like “keep your eyes peeled” and “put your money where your mouth is”, we were equally amused by some expressions unique to Mexicans. For example, if you had to get up so early it was still dark outside, you'd say “It was so early when I left the house today I was stepping on frogs”. If an elderly person, like your abuelita (grandmother), saw something amazing and wanted to emphasize that she was sure she saw it, she might say “I tell you I saw it with these two eyes that worms will one day eat.”

9. You don't have to travel to Egypt to see the Pyramids.

Of the three largest pyramids in the world, two are in Mexico. The ancient Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs and unknown civilizations before these have left their mark all over and under Mexico's terrain, making it an archaeologist's dream come true. Many of these sites, (including Teotihuacan, the one I was fortunate enough to visit) are open to the public.

10. Waiters will not make fun of you even if you ask them not to put ice cream in your lemonade. Not in front of you, anyway.

Mexicans are extremely patient with people who at least try to speak to them in their native tongue. The truth is, my Spanish is really, really bad. To make matters worse, I studied Italian in college, which is really close to Spanish and I get them confused. So, I am fluent in broken “spitalian”. But, the people I met were so patient with me and seemed to really appreciate that I was at least making the attempt. Even when I did, in fact, ask a waiter to bring me lemonade but to hold the ice cream.

A Few of the Many Faces of Mexico

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I have three extremely cute kids-Andrew is 14, Carley is 12 and Laura is 9. My husband, Alton, is a delivery driver by day with dreams of one day publishing his own comic book. Yes, he is a geek, but I love him anyway. I have been working at WBFJ since September 2004 when God threw me out of the boat I was riding in and set me on a new and wonderful course. I love co-hosting the morning show, although the lack of sleep does make me a bit loopy at times.