Veracruz Chronicles

Saturday, October 29, 2005

La Cuidad de Veracruz

We traveled to the port city of Veracruz to pick Mark up after his return from Singapore. It was good to get him back and to see the city. We felt that in the interest of all you who promised to visit, we should check out the city and find the best places to show there was the matter of the best coffee house in Mexico and you all know about our family and coffee!

Willa describes the trip below. Also, you can go to our flickr photoalbum by clicking on a photo in this entry.
San Juan (the fort)

Veracruz is great! We did all sorts of stuff, we went to a castille. Since they didn't have stone, they used coral to build the fort. The fort is on the ocean, so it was easier to get the coral. Then we went to the wax museum. It was hard to tell if the person was fake or real. My favorite part was the Disney display with Harry Potter and the Seven Dwarfs and Snow White. They had a tunnel. When you went through it, the walls spin and you feel like you are spinning even though the bridge is stable. My dad felt sick, but me and my brothers did it over and over. Then you walk through the scary room. It is scary, becuase they look real, but if you remember that they are real you can make it through.

Then we went to the aquarium. They have a lot of fish there because the aquarium is close to the ocean too. When you go outside, you are right on the beach.

I had my first cup of coffee in the best coffee house in Mexico. I had the lechero, it comes in a cup and then they pour the milk in. The milk makes a long stream and fills the cup. I loved it.


The funny thing that happened this week was that it got cold. Last night it rained so my soccer game got canceled this morning. Now everyone in town is preparing for todos santos (Day of the Dead). The streets are full of flowers and palm crowns. In school on Monday, we will make an altar. Austin and I are going to do a presentation on Halloween in the United States, so we are making posters this weekend. Then we get to learn how to make the chocolate candies. They take the cacao seeds (that's how chocolate is from the plant), they roast them and then grind up the seeds with sugar and cinnamon. I can't wait to learn about it. They are also making tamales, mole and dead bread. We are going to go to the cemetary, but I might not go. My mom said I don't have to, but I haven't decided yet.

That's all for now. We'll put lots of pictures on next week.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why Mexico: Part II

Why Mexico?

The obvious: after three years of coursework and not much sleep, I am able to bring all the work together in research. Our reason for being here, specifically Papantla, has to do with my dissertation. Three years ago, when I decided to start a PhD I knew I wanted to focus on economic development and I knew I wanted to do work in Mexico. A professor/friend mentioned that no one has done anything with vanilla and that I should check out a little town called Papantla in the state of Veracruz. First, after learning to spell Papantla, I did some searches to see what had been done. He was right, database searches did not turn up much (though I have since learned that there is quite a bit of work done here by Mexican agronomists, anthropologists and historians. Their work does not register on U.S. academic databases. A problem.) So I started with a visit to Papantla with the whole family the summer before I began my coursework. Papantla was the Mexico I thought I was traveling to the first time I visited with Mark in the late 80s (instead I got Mexico City and Cuernavaca). The streets were steep, at times cobblestone, the people open and kind. We returned to the U.S. and for three years planned to return with the whole family for a year of research. I will pontificate at a later date about this research, but for now I’d like to talk about the other reasons for coming to Mexico. I think of this year in many ways as a return to essentials. Is that possible?

The essential: What is essential in our lives today? For me, at this stage, as a mother, a partner, a student, sometimes what is essential gets lost in the everyday-ness of getting bodies to places on time, getting obligations taken care of in time, keeping little humans alive and well, doing, getting, time…what’s lost? So this year was like a chance to start over.
A chance to pack up (both the house and too many suitcases) and start over.
How often do you get the chance to do that?
As I packed the house, I asked myself about everything I put into boxes destined for the attic. Is this something essential? Will I miss it? Would someone else be able to use it now? It felt good to pack less and send more boxes to charity. I wonder how much of the items I deemed essential will seem so as we unpack in one year. In June I traveled to Papantla with a dear friend and looked for a school for the children and a house to rent. I wanted to be able to return to the children and talk up the school and tell them about the town and describe activities they would participate in and fun they could look forward to: I needed them to feel assured that life would be similar and safe. So I also found a sports club with a pool and asked about soccer teams and found a music teacher…
When we arrived, they started school the very next day. I couldn’t believe they took their little bodies to school and went to class where they did not understand a thing. I don’t know if I expected revolt, I don’t know that I would be so brave. I have to force myself to make meetings and ask questions. (I don’t enjoy that, but I want to know the answers and want information and data, so I do it.) And we found soccer teams for them to play with and set up extra Spanish lessons with a teacher from school (yes, the shoemakers children not only do not have shoes, but they are buying shoes elsewhere…) The kids asked, “Where is the pool, let’s go to the pool” and “When are we going to take music lessons and we want to start tennis lessons”…I started to wonder if we were merely replicating our life up there…
So I started a conversation with them about the essentials. Why are we here, what do we have to learn…what is our life like in Norman and what should our life be like here? I waxed poetic about how we had a chance to really slow down this year, spend more time reading, doing art projects, not having to be somewhere on time. They listened. They nodded their heads. I exhaled. Austin said, “Yeah, but when am I going to start guitar?”

Why Mexico?
The material and the immaterial. Packing for a year away makes you think about needs and wants. Of course, we are not in an isolated village without access to the market, but I wanted to strike a balance between bringing things we would need and had extra of already, thus reducing our expenses once we arrived and not bringing too much. Making a home: household stuff, sheets, blankets, pillows, and kitchen gadgetry. Can I live a year with only the basic pots and pans, utensils and dishes? If we do, what of all the lovely items packed away in the attic? Do I need those when I return? I did decide that the garlic press and veggie peeler were much needed and of course we packed the coffee filter that has been there for Mark every morning for the last 15 years.
Books: though I was advised not to read theory in the field, I did bring along way too many books. This happened the last time Mark and I lived in Mexico. But we do get through them (Mark is reading aloud to the children as I write this) and I do need to read more history and as much of Bourdieu I can handle (sorry Peter). And then there are cookbooks? At first I settled on a book of Southwest Vegetarian cooking, the Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless, The Bread Book by Laurel’s Kitchen and the Joy of Cooking. When bags got too heavy, I took out the Joy, surmising I could look up most recipes on the web if need be. I am happy with the other choices now that we are here, as vegetarian cooking starts at home we’ve learned (diets here heavy on meat and corn masa). I am making my way through Bayless’ 14 essential Mexican flavors, something I’ve always wanted to do. Now the bread book may have been a poor choice. First, I don’t know how yeast will react to this heat and the oven in this house doesn’t seem to the least, this book will provide late night reading and dreaming for bread to come.
Art supplies and sport equipment: I think there must have been a suitcase full for each of these. I have to say, we play soccer five days a week and the children have had paint projects out everyday. Good use of space.
Items not packed: television and car…two items we just assumed were not involved in this year away. What can be said of the television? It’s not the kids actually, if we had one, I’d waste time in front of CNN. The children have not even missed it. We do have a DVD player and they watch a movie on the weekend. So essential if you have it but forgotten if you do not. The car, much to Mark’s and my relief will not be an issue this year. Mark and I, not being car-minded do not miss it. Especially, given the state of energy consumption today, the recent surge in gas prices, we do not miss the opportunity to drive our car (or fix our car, or clean our car, or insure our car…). Public transportation in Mexico is great and walking to most our appointments/activities has to be good for us.
That covers the material in this adventure. What about the unseen, unpacked? What will we take back with us, but not in a suitcase?
Perspective: It’s always been our dream to have the children immersed in Spanish. So learning a language is important but learning that language and living in a different culture is really about perspective. How can we expect our children to think broadly about the world if they only experience suburban lifestyles in air conditioned houses with fast food and television. Even the act of choosing essential material objects to carry with them for a year gives them a different perspective (they each have a small suitcase they packed with whatever they decided they needed to have for the year).
How do other people live, how do they eat, make a living, celebrate, what makes them happy, sad, angry? What makes us different and what makes us the same?

Several times since I’ve arrived, people have stopped me to talk in order to practice their English. Two questions they always ask are “Do you like Mexico?” and “Do you like Mexicans?” These questions are hard to answer, because they ask me to essentialize a country and a people. It is like asking if I like America or Americans. Are there essential differences between Mexicans and Americans? Besides the contemporary placement in the global economy and the differences between our access to resources? If you take one Mexican and one American, spend the day with them, share meals, talk about family, are they different? Maybe in how they make a living, what food they put on the table, but are the people different?

And yet, there are real differences between life here and life at our home of the last ten years. Obviously, here we are outsiders, learning the language, learning where to get our groceries, how to pay bills and what time to show up at parties (6pm means 7pm or thereafter). And what about the gaps between the rich and poor? Papantla seems to be a relatively middle class town, without the shanty towns of larger industrial towns, but still, there are signs. During school hours one day, we saw some children working in a stall with their mother. Willa asked about that and I had to tell her that not all children get to go to school, that their families need them to work during school hours. A new perspective for these children of a core nation. Though the U.S. is now experiencing the largest gap between the rich and the poor since 1929, we don’t really see that on a daily basis in our lives. My children hear their parents complaining about these inequities, but now they have images in their heads. When we travel through Mexico City, which we will several times this year, they will see shanty towns, with homes made of cardboard and children without shoes. Several days after seeing the unschooled children, Willa sought me out to talk about it. She is very uncomfortable with children that do not get to go to school, she wants to know why they have to work during the day. I have the same feelings of discomfort and the same questions about their childhood, but not only here in Mexico, in the United States, in many other nations where a communal support for the common good is no longer a shared value.

The essential this year comes down to very few things and mostly time. Time as a family, time as individuals, time in community. The people we meet this year, the world we witness, similar and different from the one we have known, these are the essentials of life that get lost when the calendar is full and the momentum of our lives dominate.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


I am a bit behind on the blog, but thought I'd let folks know that we are fine. The rains arrived after the hurricane hit about 200 miles to the south. The kids got a week off school, as the state canceled all schools. Papantla is a bit higher than many communities, so there were no problems here with flooding.

For now, the rain has stopped and the intense heat is back.

Anyone know the exact nutritional content of ants and wheavils?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Why Mexico? Part I

We've planned this year for three years and here is it. Steinbeck describes some of what led us here: (From Travels with Charley: In Search of America)
'Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.'

So plan we did but really, the trip took us. And here we are, one month into it and we are living...each day the same, each day completely new.