Saturday, December 20, 2014

I'll be home for Christmas...

 Hundreds of Christmas piñatas for sale at a market in Atlixco, Puebla

It is only fitting that my last day in Mexico before Christmas was a beautiful sunny day. I will definitely miss being able to stroll through outdoor markets all day without a coat while I am home for the next two weeks.

Despite not having Christmassy weather, Mexico is still aglow with holiday cheer. I had the opportunity to visit the small town of Atlixco in Puebla to see their annual holiday lights festival last weekend, which was very quaint and cozy. 

Sunset view from one of the prominent churches in Atlixco, Puebla

 Festival de luces en Atlixco, Puebla

Christmas piñatas dangle from ceilings in nearly every store in Mexico Cit, each of their seven points representing one of the 7 capital sins. When people break the piñatas during the holidays, they can be forgiven and start anew with a clean slate. 

All of the piñatas

I also saw a free Christmas concert at my church, featuring traditional Christmas songs from Mexico, the US and other Latin American countries. Even the Endeavor Mexico office put up a Christmas tree!

Christmas concert at the Santa Rosa de Lima parish in La Condesa
I am still in shock that Christmas has come so fast. I have lived in Mexico City 6 months now, but it feels simultaneously like an eternity and a split second.

While cleaning some files from my computer this week, I stumbled upon a video I recorded nearly a year ago while practicing for my oral Spanish major examination in college. I had recorded myself speaking in Spanish to practice before the oral exam. Visibly struggling for words, I paused a lot, hesitant to make mistakes, and sported an accent not quite American but not quite Spanish either. After watching this old video, I decided to try something. Out of curiosity, I opened up my webcam on the spot and decided to record another little Spanish tidbit to compare it to the one I had found. When I played it back I couldn’t stop a wide grin from spreading across my face: I sounded like a completely different person. This new Spanish-speaker spoke confidently and fluidly in a nearly-Mexican accent. I replayed the first video again and heard my past-self saying, “Quiero practicar para hablar español con fluidez…esto es mi meta…” and I couldn’t help but saying out-loud to myself, still grinning wildly from ear to ear ,“Ya lo lograste.” 

That unexpected glimpse from the past reminded me of how far I have come and all I have learned this year. I graduated college, earned a fellowship, moved to a foreign country on my own, met new friends, and created a life for myself here that is making me sad to leave, even for only 2 weeks.
I have learned more than I could ever have imagined about business strategy, entrepreneurship, translating, Mexican culture, and myself. Remembering the first company profiles I wrote when I arrived at Endeavor Mexico in July, I realize that previously foreign business plan concepts are now completely familiar to me. During my first interviews with entrepreneurs and mentors I was shy and quiet, whereas now I find myself comfortable talking with mentors and entrepreneurs alike. Every profile I write expands my Spanish vocabulary, the elation of discovering new words never getting old. And I have even begun offering private English lessons to a handful of professionals and children; seeing their interest in learning a new language and watching them slowly improve brings me great happiness to help others along a second-language journey similar to my own. I will probably end up saying things like “Buenos días” and “Provecho” to people in New York by accident, as those everyday phrases have become second nature to me. And I have finally found a routine yoga practice, something I had always been interested in but never had the time to explore before.

 Spontaneous dancing at Guadalajara de Noche in Plaza Garibaldi

Part of me can’t wait to be back home, enjoying Christmas traditions amidst everything safe and familiar, but there is another part that is eager for the further adventures and discoveries that await me upon my return to Mexico City in January. I look forward to more unexpected surprises, like yesterday when I stumbled across a bunch of alebrijes (traditional Mexican art taking the shape of imaginary animal creations) on display after the 8th annual alebrijes parade and competition from the Museo de arte popular on December 13th.

 Some of my favorite alebrijes

I wish everyone reading this a very Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year – thank you for all of your support from near and far! ¡Hasta luego, México - nos vemos pronto!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Walk Interrupted

The duck pond in Parque México in La Condesa

I decided to go for a walk, eager to finally find some grass and trees in Bosque de Chapultepec where I could sit and read in peace. But my idyllic plans were interrupted by the harsh reality that I have been avoiding since I arrived in Mexico: my path to the park was blocked by thousands of riot-gear-clad police officers.

I had forgotten to check if there would be any protests today. It just seemed like a normal sunny Monday afternoon. It wasn’t. Another march for the 43 students missing in Guerrero State would begin at 4pm, starting in the historic center at the Zócalo and ending at the statue of the Ángel de la Independencia. It was only 2pm and but Paseo de la Reforma, the main street of the soon-to-be march path, was already lined on either side by police vehicles and armed officers. They held their riot shields and masks loosely at their sides. The strong sun brought sweat to their foreheads as they leaned against their trucks, waiting. The air around the trucks felt charged. The officers stared like hawks as I walked past and I immediately felt uncomfortable.

After a quick u-turn I was back on my way towards La Condesa neighborhood, where no protests would take place that afternoon. Instead hipsters in thick-rimmed glasses skateboard the streets, cafes serve gourmet dishes with English names, and dogs are dressed in sweaters and booties for their afternoon walks. Back in the comfort of my cosmopolitan neighborhood, I felt sick. Just a 15 minute walk from my apartment, thousands of civilians would march in protest of President Enrique Peña Nieto´s government and the disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa.

Many Mexicans have expressed their frustration, disgust, and calls for justice in several marches since the students´ initial disappearance in September. These marches have been mostly peaceful, although ending in clashes between police and groups of protesters. Despite the potential dangers of arrest and violent confrontation, Mexicans continue to march again and again, determined to make Peña Nieto´s government accountable for this atrocity that occurred under its nose. Today´s march in particular also remembers the nearly 100 political prisoners originally arrested during a protest on December 1st, 2012 during Peña Nieto´s inauguration, of which only 60 have been freed while the others remain held under what protesters claim to be false charges. Yet I have also met Mexicans who are frustrated by the disruption and inconvenience that these recurring protests have caused. They believe protesting doesn´t achieve anything; people should just keep going to work and supporting the economy instead of derailing order through protests.

As a foreigner living in Mexico, I can only observe and try to gain a better understanding of what is going on in this city I have come to call home. But I feel helpless. I would like to think that my presence as a fellow at Endeavor Mexico is making a positive difference, but it sometimes feels that helping promote entrepreneurship is not enough in the face of social injustices.

I am increasingly aware of my privilege as a foreigner. While President Peña Nieto faces a rapidly declining approval rating (39% approval, 58% disapproval - an 11% drop since August) and calls for reform build, I am looking forward to going home for Christmas in a few weeks, where I will be able to leave behind the social unrest, pollution and insecurity of Mexico City for two whole weeks in exchange for reunions with family and friends. I feel like a hypocrite: I call myself an advocate for social justice, yet when I find myself in a city boiling with calls for social and governmental reform, I´m dreaming of Christmas vacation.

These thoughts haunt me while sitting around a man-made pond in a park in La Condesa watching ducks, surrounded by tourists, foreigners and pure-bred dogs. Everyone else in the park seems perfectly content to ignore the police preparations that are being made just blocks away and the protest scheduled for that evening. My eyes watch the ducks as they scramble for pieces of bread tossed by a child from the side of the pond, but my mind is back on Reforma, remembering the suffocating feeling of walking among all of those police officers and wondering what will happen to the thousands of protestors who will walk that same path later today, and, more importantly, if their efforts will make any difference.

I don´t know what to do, but I know that I can´t ignore it. I remain hopeful that peaceful reform is possible. I am aware that as a foreigner, there is little I can (or should) do here. It is up to Mexican citizens to demand government reform or not.  What I can do is continue to write thorough company profiles for Endeavor, supporting high impact entrepreneurs in the country, and remain an attentive, open-minded, and respectful foreign observer, sharing what is happening here with those who read my blog, and working to improve my own understanding of Mexico in the process.

Source, NPR Article:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My first Mexican Thanksgiving

I am so thankful. My first Thanksgiving away from home was absolutely incredible, thanks to the love and good company of people both far and near. Here is what I am thankful for:

 Hiking through the butterfly sanctuary (photo courtesy of Alicia)

Language: It never ceases to amaze me that here in Mexico City I have met and worked with so many people from different countries who I would have never crossed paths with nor even been able to talk to if we both had not learned a second language. Every day at work I collaborate with a French co-worker who speaks almost no English and with whom I would never have been able to communicate if we had both not learned a second language. Sometimes it feels as if the world is converging here in Mexico City, where I have met so many international visitors. When I went on a hike a few weekends ago to see the monarch butterfly migration in Michoacán, our guide abandoned us in the middle of the mountain, telling us to wait while he checked to make sure we were going the right way. We were four people, each from a different country, and we were essentially alone in a forest on the side of a hill, completely out of breath. Yet, since we all spoke Spanish, we joked around and laughed uncontrollably until the guide came back for us. Laughter is the ultimate unifier.

Butterfly sanctuary and Valle de Bravo
Nature: I have come to appreciate even the slightest remnants of nature while living in this bustling, polluted, concrete-laden city. Every crack in the pavement is full of green shoots. There is an entire flock of ducks and other water birds living in the lake in Parque México. And even though it’s November, sunlight still dances on the fronds of palms and the branches of birch trees in Parque España just a block from my house. But even noticing the little pieces of nature scattered amidst daily city life had not prepared me for the overwhelming joy and awe I felt when I went to Valle de Bravo. Trees and moss made a mirage of green across entire mountainsides. Billowing clouds, illuminated from behind by heavenly rays of sun, rested like footprints on a canvass of clear blue sky. Even when we were driving back to the city, my last glimpse of the lake in the distance, just a split second snapshot through the van window, left me feeling whole and at peace. I have been reminded recently how powerful nature can be and I am incredibly thankful for its endless gifts of healing and peace despite how we poorly we continue to treat it.

My family took me out to Thanksgiving dinner and my friends came to celebrate Friends-giving (photo courtesy of Alicia)

People: People are just amazing. My co-workers are patient and kind, giving advice about living in Mexico, while patiently helping me improve my Spanish. The entrepreneurs I work with are inspiring, hopeful, determined, and dedicated.  My Mexican family has shown me unconditional love and support that has helped me greatly in my adjustment to Mexico. One of my aunts, my uncle, and cousins took me out to Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday night and it was amazing! My family at home Skyped me in to Thanksgiving dinner and as I “sat” with them at the table, my computer screen showing me the familiar table surrounded by family, I could feel the love radiating out of the screen, dissolving the geographical distance between us and embracing me with open arms. I miss my friends from home on a daily basis. Yet their capacity for compassion and love even from miles away never ceases to amaze me. I can feel their support like a gentle breeze behind me, always encouraging me forward. The new friends I have met here have brought so much joy into my life. I have shared deep discussions as well as fits of hysterical laughter with these incredible people, locals and foreigners alike. It is mind-blowing to remember that I had no idea these people even existed just a few months earlier. My apartment was filled with over 20 people for Thanksgiving dinner, and it was one of the happiest moments I have had here.

The Thanksgiving dinner table

Good food: My first Thanksgiving away from home included more people and more types of food than I think I have ever had at a Thanksgiving dinner. We had people from 6 different countries and so. much. food. I have so many leftovers that I don’t think I’ll have to go food shopping for weeks!

Music: At some point during the dinner, a group of us were crowded around my roommate and her acoustic guitar, belting out the lyrics of pop, rock, and alternative songs alike. The music brought us all together and it was one of the moments where I have felt most at home here.
Health: While I have been dealing with stomach and back issues for what at times has felt like an eternity, I am grateful for my body and mind that have carried me up mountains, walked countless city blocks, done hours of yoga, swam laps in the pool, ate delicious Mexican food, held captivating conversations in two languages, translated documents, and continues to think critically about the big picture of my life and how it affects those around me.

Change: This Thanksgiving there were ominous clouds hovering over the festivities: protests continued for 43 students missing in Ayotzinapa, Mexico and the ruling of Michael Brown’s court case in Ferguson, Missouri sparked protests across the US. These events have jolted the world awake to the social problems we face today across the globe. At first this news depressed me; I thought we had made more progress than this. Yet as young people all over the world continue to demand change, I am hopeful that we will make a positive difference in this world in our future. And I am thankful to be a part of this generation of changemakers.

On the lake in Valle de Bravo

Opportunity: Every day I marvel at the fact that I was blessed with the opportunity to take this adventure. I learn something new every day, seeing beautiful sights and meeting extraordinary people along the way. I am even more excited for the rest of my fellowship here at Endeavor Mexico than I was when I started, eager to find out what more I have yet to learn and where it will lead me.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life

Our tour group outside the cemetery of Tzintzuntzan

I have been living in Mexico for about 4 months now and I am still amazed by how much I have learned and have yet to learn. Mexico has continually challenged and surprised me. Día de los Muertos was no exception.

Ever since I first arrived here I have noticed that Mexicans have a unique relationship with death compared to people in the United States. I have many relatives here and have attended a few family funerals since my arrival. While there was still much sadness at these funerals, I noticed that there was also much less of something that I was used to feeling at funerals in the US: fear. While we try to find comfort in religion and others when someone dies, there is still this hesitance to speak of death and an attempt to try and ignore it in US cultures. Mexican culture does the exact opposite and as a result, Mexicans are much more connected with and open to communicating with the spiritual world. On multiple occasions, conversations have led to talk of spiritual legends and many, many personal encounters with the spirits of deceased relatives. The culmination of this embracing of the spiritual world is the Day of the Dead. I had the opportunity to travel to several cities in the state of Michoacán, well-known for their traditional celebrations of the Day of the Dead: Patxcuaro, Janitzio, Morelia, Santa Clare de Cobre, and the pre-hispanic ruins of Tzintzuntzan. I was completely awestruck by what I saw. It was not a day of solemn remembrance, but rather a full-blown celebration of life. I walked through cemeteries glittering in bright orange with thousands of marigolds covering the ground, the headstones, and the entrances. I saw families sitting around the gravesites of relatives, laughing, chatting, singing, dancing, as comfortable as if they were in their own backyards. I saw people selling papas and pan de muerto (a traditional pastry with orange and anise flavor) among the gravestones, as if it were a stadium at a sporting event. I saw the devotion and dedication that went into making the intricately decorated ofrendas (offerings) at each headstone, with flowers, candles, fruits, breads, pastries, and cherished worldly possessions of the deceased. I was stuck by the fact that if I had traveled to a graveyard on a holiday in the United States, it would be a much more somber, and even slightly unsettling, experience. I am incredibly impressed by Mexico´s approach to remembering the dead and I hope to channel that same sense of joy, peace, and celebration into my own relationship with death.

Copper museum in Santa Clara de Cobre

 The view of Lake Patzcuaro from the ruins of Tzintzuntzan

Me in the pre-hispanic ruins of Tzintzuntzan

Ponche: apples + guanabana + peaches + cane sugar = best hot drink ever

Graveyard decorated for Day of the Dead

 View on the boat ride to the island of Janitzio at sunset

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"A joyous hurricane of nonsense"

I have been searching for a common unifying theme in my life right now and was having an impossible time…until my friend who has been like a sister to me since elementary school and who is always my go-to wordsmith unintentionally handed me the perfect phrase in a Facebook chat:

“Life is a joyous hurricane of nonsense.”

Thanks Em, that´s it exactly.

So I will do my best to describe this joyous nonsensical hurricane that I am living right now, but if these snapshots don´t do it justice, then at least you already have the perfect sentence to summarize my life right now.
"Hola, me llamo Busito!"
Leaving Mexico City was something I was looking forward to for a while, but I didn´t quite realize just how necessary it was until I was on the bus. My bus left at 5am on Saturday so naturally I slept for the first few hours of the bus ride. Suddenly I was awaked by the glow of the sun on my face, the gentle rocking of the bus, and a view of endless forested hills all around me. I cannot properly describe how rejuvenating and perfect that moment felt. Without realizing it, I had been slowly suffocating, surrounded by concrete and other man-made structures for so long. I felt like I could breathe deeply for the first time in months. I must have looked like a child: my nose pressed again the window, smiling like a maniac. This was probably the only time in my life where I felt the urge to jump out of a moving vehicle and just frolic in the tall grass or sit under a tree on a hill. But what was more amazing to me was not how profoundly I had missed natural habitats, but how just a glimpse of them through a bus window was enough to leave me feeling refreshed and inspired. That´s just the power of nature.

My cousins and me in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara
Pronounced “tlack-eh-pack-ay” Don´t worry, I had to take a picture of a sign with the name on it and memorize the spelling in order to pronounce it correctly. This neighborhood of Guadalajara is known for its unique art, delicious restaurants, and one-of-a-kind artisanal products. My aunt, uncle and cousins took me there on Saturday afternoon and it was incredible. The glassware and hand-painted crafts were so unique and beautiful it was all I could do to not spend all of the money I had brought with me. We also got to see the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) performed in the town center by a group of indigenous performers that was quite the spectacle. It was wonderful to be welcomed into the home of my aunt and uncle in Guadalajara and I had a blast spending time with my younger cousins, playing card games and sharing delicious food. That night when I went to bed, I cherished the complete and peaceful silence that embraced me as I closed my eyes. No car horns. No tamale vendor or “used mattress-buying” cart announcements. No neighbors´ television programs or opera singing drifting through my window (yes, my neighbor is a legitimate opera singer, or at least thinks he is and practices every other afternoon, even giving concerts in the middle of the night to a round a soft applause on some nights). No stray cat mewing from the staircase. Just silence. Blissful, beautiful silence.

Endeavor National Selection Panel
While visiting family and taking a break from big city life were amazing, the main reason I was in Guadalajara was for work. In a whirlwind of preparation and hours of interviews and deliberations, the national selection panel came and went. While neither of the entrepreneurs with whom I had worked were selected in the end, it was still an inspiring and eye-opening experience. The three other companies that did pass the panel truly showcased their innovation and preparedness to move onto the international panel and we are all routing for them. After the national panel came to an end, the Endeavor staff and panelists shared a casual lunch at a local burger joint. Friendly conversation flowed between business people and entrepreneurs from all walks of life. These panelists voluntarily gave up their weekend to travel to Guadalajara and evaluate the newest Endeavor candidates, and it is their commitment and dedication that truly makes the Endeavor network unique and valuable.

Rainbow before the rain

Sunset before the rain

The Hurricane
Well, it wasn´t a hurricane exactly, but it was certainly one hell of a thunderstorm. The return trip from Guadalajara was spent with my co-workers in a small van that was not designed to carry passengers based on its poor suspension and lack of functional seatbelts. But once again I felt completely relaxed and at home for two reasons: 1. I was once again surrounded by beautiful natural scenery and 2. I have traveled in a cramped sketchy van many, many times on various Villanova events and service break trips that being sandwiched between people and bounced up and down in a van for 7 hours was perhaps the most familiar thing I have done since arriving in Mexico. As we approached Mexico City, we could see the storm ahead. Just before the pounding rain hit the windshield and the van started hydroplaning on turns, we got a glimpse of this beautiful rainbow. A fragment of beauty before the chaos.

Social life
So guess what? After three months of living in Mexico – I have friends! Finally, I have broken my curse of only meeting guys older than me who are about to leave the city! It started very subtly and slowly, like all friendships do. A common interest. Seeing them a few times in a row at different group events. And then… it´s been two hours already and we´re still laughing and sharing life stories over dinner or coffee. I´ve finally had those moments where I just clicked with another person and shared my real self. Not the international traveler who has a prestigious fellowship and speaks Spanish and is doing just fine living on her own, thanks. But the idealistic, endlessly curious, nerdy, honest, self-critical, elaborate story-telling, loud-laughing, sometimes awkward, recent college graduate who is still just trying to figure it all out. When you know that the other person is willing to listen to that side of you and share their real selves with you as well, you know that this is someone worth getting to know more. So even though my co-workers still joke around affectionately calling me “abuela” because I don´t like partying much, I enjoy baking, I get excited about doing laundry, and I am a member of a monthly book club, I am finally finding my own group of friends from all different backgrounds and countries to share this amazing city with.

The most peaceful yoga room ever
While the rainy season should be ending soon, it is not (insert angry climate change comment here). But while the rain is unyielding, at least it is predictable. It comes nearly every night around 6pm or 7pm. And this is great if you are prepared. Which I thought I was. I had gone to yoga all decked out in my raincoat. No purse, just waterproof pockets and workout clothes that would dry easily. So I went to yoga and had an incredible class (as always). I left feeling refreshed and alive and strong. And then I stepped out onto the street and, as if on cue, lightning cracked and thunder shook the sidewalk. Then the raindrops started careening earthward, falling as if meeting the ground was of the utmost necessity. I still had a 20 minute walk ahead of me. No big deal, I thought. I have a raincoat, I thought. Hah. The raindrops also had an insatiable desire to find every single opening in my raincoat. Before I had walked two blocks I was soaked from head to toe. And then, I just stopped caring. I was completely alone on a wide pedestrian sidewalk in the island of the street (common walkways in La Roma and La Condesa neighborhoods) and the rain was so thick I could barely see in front of me. So I jumped in puddles. I skipped. I sang. I spun. And as the storm grew in strength, so did I, careening from puddle to puddle, foot to foot, note to note. By the time I reached my apartment I had a river of water running down my forehead and pouring off my nose like a faucet into my smiling mouth. The puddles in my shoes alone could have quenched my thirst for a week. But as I opened my door, giggling like a child, debating whether it was worthwhile to take another shower, I noticed that the inside of what was supposed to be a waterproof pocket was soaked. And, smile fading, I took out my phone (the inanimate object in my life that I depend on for a scary amount of things that I don´t like to think about often) to find that it too had taken a nice long bath. In a panic, I turned it off, disassembled all of the parts that I could, and rushed to find some dry rice to put them in. (Readers note: when people say to put your phone in rice if it gets wet to absorb the moisture, they mean normal white rice, not organic brown rice. Organic brown rice breaks apart and sticks to all of the little important delicate electronic inner parts of your phone and gives you a heart attack.) But my phone is a champ and despite all sorts of rice and rain related mistreatment, somehow it still works.

Tía Cecilia's birthday meal at Tía Charín's house

Gathering Round the Table
One of my aunts called me a few weekends ago inviting me to celebrate another aunt´s birthday. She had prepared a meal so that the birthday girl (who has always done so much to take care of other family members) wouldn´t have to lift a finger, and had invited a few family members to share it with. We all met at Tía Charín´s house, since it is difficult to leave home when you are 101 years old. Tía Charín welcomed us, birthday girl and all, into her small home, and was very accepting of various furniture re-arranging to accommodate everyone at one table. Sharing this meal with relatives from four different generations, everyone crowded around that one table, I realized that I was a part of something incredibly special. I treasured every last note of conversation and laughter. I cannot even begin to express in words how lucky I am to be able to call all of these incredible people family.

 My cousin Lau and I at Corona Capital

 Belle and Sebastian playing in a field of mud

Mud and Music
Last Sunday my cousin and I went to the Corona Capital music festival, or as some call it the “hipster capital.” The lineup was a dream come true: all of my favorite alternative electronic/rock bands in one day. And then before the first band I knew even came on, the sky opened up. And it poured. It poured that kind of rain that leaves you feeling soaked to the bone. The kind that pelts you sideways, mocking ponchos and raincoats. But then as quickly as it came, it stopped. It was one of those events that could have been a disaster in the perspective of some, but when shared with such an easy-going and upbeat person like Lau, it ended up being an incredible concert with some high-quality mud-dancing and cousin-bonding. Everyone I have told about the concert so far has asked me incredulously, “You stayed til the end?” Of course we did. We were young and mud-soaked and carefree. There is nothing more simultaneously invigorating and exhausting as spending all day on your feet at a concert, soaking in the music of your generation. And just so you don´t worry, our shoes did survive in the end (after a thorough washing).

So in this joyous, nonsensical, tempestuous new life of mine it is easy to miss the little things. Which I am trying hard not to do. And this Monday one of those things found me. I was walking to buy my weekly unavoidably necessary gigantic jug of bottled water (which always makes me cringe because plastic and the environment and ugh), which meant that needless to say I wasn’t in the greatest mood. And then suddenly I turn around and just look at my building and stop. The late afternoon light cast a warm glow on the whole building, and I felt a rush of affection. This was home. This crazy, bustling, welcoming, stressful, eye-opening, heartwarming, beautiful place.