24 January 2009

Money makes the world go around?

It all began with a party. A wonderful, beautiful party. It was not too hot, not too cold, visible half-moon and plenty of strangers. A lime tree, a fig tree, lots of Spanish. Fun, yes? Mix with slightly-naive-trusting-young-woman from a very different sort of Valley, and you get a Missing Purse. Yes, it’s true-I got my purse nabbed. Full responsibility is taken, and now I have learned from the mistake of leaving it behind an armchair as opposed to bringing it to someone’s room.

There are pros and cons to the situation. The only huge items of interest lost were my ATM card, phone, some cash. But from this slip-up I have entered a scary, frightening realm that is: talking with Bank of America on the telephone. It is hellish. It is awful. So here’s some advice:
Don’t lose your debit card.

But if you do...
1. IMMIDIATELY have it blocked. Don’t wait, do it as soon as humanly possible.
2. IMMIDIATELY ask them to send you cash, and lie about how much of an emergency it is. They will wire it to a Western Union, so something a super-prepared traveler would do is scope out the barrio for one while first getting acquainted. Alas, I have not earned my badge yet.
3. Make sure you are drinking during this entire process. This is something I have not been doing, but it sure would make talking to the majority of BoA people so much more fun and interesting. You know, just to take the edge off.

Please, learn from this kid’s mistakes.

And now that we’re on the topic, I have been gathering some other money-related advice through the richness of first-hand experience.

Always have spare cash tucked away in your abode. More than one currency, if possible. This will make you happy if something was to happen to an ATM card.
Remember, banks like Santander want a passport or other Federally-issued ID when selling pesos for a foreign currency. A State ID will not be recognized as official. Do yourself a favor and ask for small denominations. Some taxi drivers will not give change for large bills or simply will not have the change (not all taxi drivers deserve the vilification received), so 100 peso bills are probably the biggest you should be carrying around at one time.

Metrobuses and Microbuses also enjoy exact change (and pretty much require it at night) and there you will need 50 cent, 1, or 2 peso coins. The ‘taquillas’ (ticket booths) in metro stations will change 5 and 10 peso coins, but I have never tried anything beyond that. It probably depends on the line.

Also, banks will occasionally be willing to trade you clean, unmarked bills for any ripped ones that you have. Open-air markets, tiendas, and restaurants of all types will not take ripped bills. If the bank won’t take them, try passing them at a big store like a Mega or Wal-Mart. If you say that you got it from the bank or look clueless/fierce enough they usually will take them with not much of a problem. To paraphrase The People’s Guide, smaller business owners and artisans simply cannot afford to take questionable bills. When thinking about this, it makes sense. But as a traveler you can’t either-so if you are even in a position where you are receiving change and get some funky cash do not feel bad about asking for a different bill. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

Pricing of things:
I have found this is be variable and strange to the US mind. Here is a list to give you and idea of the way pricing is scaled. All following numbers signify amount in pesos!

Metro, one way-2
Pan Dulce-3 to 6
Sponge- 5.50
Used books- range from 7-60
‘Boing’ fruit juice in a glass bottle-10
Torta w/out meat-12
Torta w/ meat-17ish
Beer in a bar-15 per, maybe less
Box of juice-15
Corn with chili and lime-15
Museum Visit-15-45
Plants-on average 15, huge range
Coffee Americano (black coffee) from cafe-16ish
2 tlacoyos or quesedillas w/out meat -20
Coffee from SevenEleven-20
1.5 oz Indio-29 (with bottle return only 20!)
Cigarettes-around 25
Cappuchino- around 30
Magazine- in a supermarket 35ish, newsstand around 60
30 min. taxi ride-35-60 (10 pesos more after 10 pm)
Loaf of sliced bread-40
Good Flan-55-60
Olive oil-70
Blanket from Dept. Store-79
Bottle of Wine-80ish
Leather purses- 150, upwards from Ciudadela (where the locals shop)
Pitcher of beer -240 or less
Antique jewelry- range from 250-2000

Food from the market is a whole different story. You can manage to get a surprising amount for less than 150 pesos. This is totally a new experience from the Farmer’s Markets in Amherst/Hadley, where it is as if one must be either privileged or buying in bulk to buy produce from a stand. Supermarkets are markedly less fun and more expensive, this is a point that will be continually repeated!

The way things are priced also seems to differ from the way things in the US, particularly in the Valley, are. Here the things that are equal-access are good food, alcohol, and cigarettes-some for better, others for worse. And thinking about pricing makes me think about privilege in a new way. Privilege, pricing, and access are interlocked-this much can be said as true. What does it say about a culture that makes a loaf of bread from a supermarket more affordable than a pound of carrots from a local farmer, or a magazine less expensive than book? Or a bottle of wine less than a blanket? All three of these questions stem from actual prices assigned to stated discrete objects within the United States. I have little concrete idea how prices come to be assigned, but a guess would be that it has to do with production costs, availability, existence, and reach of industry within that particular locale. But that can’t be all of it, there’s got to be something else.

The downside of not having money is that for the moment my going-out-at-night has decreased. The upside is that I have been getting up earlier and utilizing the cheap public transport as a means to explore this amazing place! What a reward, and a wake up call, for getting ripped off.

So far I have explored the Zocalo and Centro Historico, Alameda, Juarez, Roma, Zona Rosa, Coyoacan, and the outskirts of Tlalpan. Yesterday and today have consisted of Centro de la Imagen, La Opera Bar (where Zapata used to go), Paseo de la Reforma, Plaza Rio de Janiero, and other charming little parks and green places. This city has so much to look at, there is so much more to do.

Tomorrow if all goes well it will be the Museo de Diego Rivera, Printmaking Museum, and the inside of Bella Artes (all free on Sunday!).

18 January 2009

And it’s true, you can’t put your arms around a memory.

Food review: Initial impressions
There are so many great foods that Mexicans regularly eat that people in the US have no knowledge about. Being someone who enjoys eating and trying new delicious delights, I have begun to try the local cuisine. Here are some reactions, in alphabetical order (of course).

Oh my goodness, yum. This is a sweet concoction not unlike caramel. It is made from sugar and goat’s or cow’s milk, with delicious results. People here mix it with tamarind paste and chili to make candies, or just spoon it warm on top of things. Cajeta crepes are especially divine. Goes really well with a nice dark beer like Indio, Bohemia, or Victoria.

-Frijoles Refritos
Admittedly, this is not so unique. Refried beans are common in the states, but here they are eaten for breakfast. This is a really good way to get some non-animal protein (but watch out, a lot of brands use animal lard as part of the canning process).

Hard to describe! This is a root, but is passed off as a ...fruit. It is beige, and has a skin that can be peeled off like an onion. Mexicans serve it with lime juice and chili powder, which is a really super way to flavor the otherwise bland taste. The texture is what gets me-like a juicy radish. Apparently it is seasonal.

-Mango Nectar
The brand Jumex makes it with the nectar, and the nectar only. Before coming here I had only had a small glassful one other time, acquired from the eclectic and hit-or-miss store in Northampton, MA called Steals and Deals.

Some would argue this has no place on the list. But hear me out: instead of drinking drip-coffee a fair amount of Mexicans heat up milk, milk and water, or just water, and spoon in this instant coffee. The taste is mild and sweet. A cultural phenomenon and a product of globalization. All the amazing Mexican coffee beans get shipped to the US and other countries, completely bypassing those that have grown it and are closest, physically, to it.

-Nieve de Tamarindo
This would translate to tamarind shaved ice. Slightly spicy and cool at the same time, this turns your mouth red and the corners upwards into a huge smile.

The sacred cactus! This kind of tastes like a slightly slippery broccoli stem. It is a lovely consistency, and really feels quite exotic to eat a cactus. This is tied in with the Aztec myth about the founding of what is now Mexico City, and is on the Mexican flag. I recently bought 11 leaves, de-spined, at the weekly market near my house. Very good boiled or fried.

Wow. This is my new favorite fruit, and a reason to love the color orange. Supposedly it aids digestion, typically eaten at breakfast before the rest of the meal. Soft as butter with a pleasant, mild flavor. The best papayas are bought at outdoor markets.

-Roasted Corn
This is a street food of slightly under-cooked corn kernels in corn and chicken broth, served with chili and lime on top. You can also have it with mayonnaise if that’s your thing. There is a traditional name for it in Spanish, but I don't remember and can't find it online-possibly idiomatic and Mexico-City related. First had it on a rainy day and it is warm, filling, and healthy. If only this was sold in the States, people would be all over it (especially in Amherst!).

The ancient Aztec food! I bought these pre-cooked at the grocery store instead of buying ravioli. With a tiny sliver of chicken inside, surrounded by corn dough (masa). These are heated by steaming or covering with a wet napkin and popping them in the microwave. Best with copious amounts of hot sauce. I am eager to try tamales served at an open-air market, as they are usually served hot.

This is a sandwich on soft, crusty bread. Bought at a little stand near the Taquilla station and served fresh. I bought one with salsa rojo and quesillo, another name for Queso tipo de Oaxaca (see below). The best part about buying street food is the unpretentious nature of the whole event. I ate this reading a book and sitting 5 inches away from the grill, separated by a small glass window. It was really nice being able to take in the Spanish, people watch, and support a local biz.

Like a hard tortilla, these are typically served at breakfast in a variety of ways. People can be seen eating them with sour cream, tomatoes, and avocado on top, or they are served to scoop up refried beans for breakfast. Also good with eggs.

-Queso tipo de Chihuahua
I bought this on a whim, and it was a great decision. Very sharp and tangy flavor, medium consistency. Great with a tart green apple, especially when you are ‘rushing’ (people don’t really rush here). Yellow in color.

-Queso tipo de Oaxaca (Oaxaca Cheese)
This is a Mexican mozzarella with a slightly different texture. I have bought it both from the Mega (grocery store across the street), and the tiangui. Much much better from the tianguis because you get to
a. practice Spanish
b. have a free sample of whatever cheese you want before buying
c. experience fresher and more nuanced flavor
d. support local merchants. Who says in a big city you have to support chains tied to NAFTA? Only the uncreative minds! I have a problem with this because I eat it every chance I get. It is served in a round ball ranging from a small fist to a small head in size. A good way to get your dairy. This also melts really well and will usually be a part of any quesadilla you buy on the street. White in color.

09 January 2009

Because I feel compelled to say something about this

Last semester I took an anthropology class. It was eye-opening because it gave me the words to discuss issues that had been floating around in my mind. I am a Comparative Literature major and although I love it, there are some facets of the discipline that are easily criticized. One of them is that we in Comparative Literature experience such an overview. It is sometimes impossible to find anything in common with someone in the same discipline. This can be good because you learn a lot of small details about niche subjects. But the downside is that unless you study it, a subject that is otherwise interesting to you will never be explored more than on the surface or other than what a colleague/peer knows about that subject. A good thing about comp lit is that there is a heavy focus, recently, on post-colonialism. For those of you who are lost, this means studying something after a culture has been colonized. In Comp Lit anything can be a text, but in the classes I have taken we have ‘read’ prose, poems, and films. With the idea of post-colonialism comes the essential notion of ‘othering’. In terms of Latin America this most notably occurred in the manuscripts that Cortes and Columbus sent to the Spanish crown, and even in what was written by the otherwise sympathetic Bernal Diaz about the indigenous people of Mexico. In the anthropology course that I took we did a lot of work concerning what othering meant in the world of anthropology. I did not now what cultural anthropologists did until I took this course, but it turns out that they go to a culture, ingratiate themselves best they can, live there, and write field notes every night. They also conduct interviews. Once they feel that they have answered the question they set out because of initially, they go back to wherever it is that they came from and hole up. Then, they produce an ethnography.

Enthnographic work involves writing about the experiences of a people. Within this text it is the duty of a conscientious anthropologist/ethnographer to identify their own biases, talk about the history of the region and specific subset of people they are studying, and cite previous enthnographic work that has been of influence. It is also common, especially these days, to quote every-people (and Comp Lit loves?) Edward Said, Slavoj Zizek, and Susan Sontag. A really stellar ethnography is Fear as a Way of Life by Linda Green-if you want to learn more about Guatemala and feel very sad (but oh so intelligent) check it out.

A problem, referred to as the ‘crisis in Anthropology’ is that this field relies on colonization. If a group of people has not been colonized in some way, then we would not know about them, and therefore would not be able to write an ethnography about them! Crazy, huh? Othering occurs inevitably in this field. This happens when someone says “The Mexicans are a kind people” or “It is their tradition to initially be shy around foreigners”. And if you really think about it, anthropological-style othering also happens when someone is a tourist. And in writing this blog and generally having plenty of time to think, I noticed that a part of this piece, to provide a highly biased guide for someone hoping to travel to Mexico City, involves a plentiful dash of othering. Why is this a problem?

Why not? It is impossible to categorize behaviors and common traits within a culture based off the interactions between individuals. With this comes judgment, which many disciplines would say is a fundamental problem. If I were not an American from the United States, would I be making these assumptions based on certain facets of behavior? Who would be wrong if they were to say that with a different background I would pay attention and give weight to other modes of behavior, and make judgments based on these attributes? The answer is, no one would be wrong. The criticism my extremely amateur brain can find within the discipline of anthropology is that it jumps from the concrete to the highly theoretical with little warning. And the notion of othering is one example of this. So, you may ask, why the enthnography overview? What is the point?

The truth is, it is my belief that we of North and South America are all Americans. Mexico is part of both Latin America and North America, and this is an interesting dichotomy that by being here I wish to explore further. The dichotomy is heightened even further by being reflected in my own life, by using both Spanish and English while living here. Remember, both languages are remnants of colonization! And tourism in another country is, in itself, a form of colonization. These are not my own claims, there are many cultural anthropologists that have made these assertions. Yes, I am aware of the problematics at hand. But these must be confronted directly, because it is only then that we can learn from them. With the othering of Mexicans that could possibly go on by being an observer also comes the 'othering' of myself by documenting my travels for those that are outside of the culture of Mexico City.

If any of these smaller details were eating at you, now your fears are (hopefully) assuaged.

In other news, yesterday the group of international students and the Mexican students that like to help us went to the Zocalo. This is the city center, where I had the privilege to explore a bit last week. Yesterday went to the Templo Mayor museum, which was well worth it. With a student ID/ISIC card you can get in for free. Do this! Right now there is also ice skating in the center because of January 6th. On the weekends there are Mayan raindancers, which is pretty exciting as well. Then we walked to Belles Artes, and ate at the Sanborns nearby...beware, owned by one of the richest men in the world (but the tacos de pollo con guacamole y frijoles refritos was pretty good).

More on the food as my palate expands...

06 January 2009

Get off that plane, baby.

My arrival to Mexico City was full of emotion. It is a new notion to plan something for so long, and then finally get there. Luckily my two planes were on time, and the skies were clear. The flight from Chicago to Mexico City was particularly beautiful. The green mountains, though turbulence-causing, were lovely to peer at through the window. Getting off of the plane and walking through the airport to immigration was completely surreal. The hazy light shafts coming through the windows only added to this. If arriving in the country with an FM3 (see previous entry for more info) then you will need to fill out a small slip, which someone at the immigration desk cangive you. They do not need the forms that the flight attendants give out-those are for residents, tourists, and business passengers. Because you have The Visa then you can bypass these papers. But, if you are bored on the plane it doesn’t hurt to fill them out. Forms are a bit fun that way.

From here, I went to the baggage carousel. After waiting around 30 minutes, my bag came down the line. Luckily it was in one piece. Most luggage seemed to be ok, although there was one bag on the carousel that had split open. A woman next to me got her suitcase and found there was a hole in it which apparently had not been there before, whether from wear and tear or something else. I have heard a story of a girl who got electronics stolen out of her checked luggage. However, this could just as easily happen in Los Angeles or Boston-so just use your noggin! Carry anything you really care about. Besides, if you are traveling the best advice is to leave things that you simply cannot bear to lose at home. It is for this reason you will never see me in Mexico photos wearing my Radiohead teeshirt. Lamentable, but the adult thing to do.

When you get off the plane, make sure to keep your ticket stub with you. You will need it after you claim your baggage. If you have ever been to a CostCo or BJ’s, then you will have already been well-trained. As I tried to walk away with my suitcase (maleta) a man in a bright yellow jacket asked for my ticket stub. I looked at him blankly, not knowing whether he worked for the airport or just liked neon. He looked at airline tag on my bag and checked it against my stub. They may also want to check your name on your passport, so be ready for this. This did not happen to me, but it did occur with someone else that was getting checked. After this, it is required to put your luggage through an X-ray scan. Before you can do this, someone else will ask to see your ticket stub once again-keep it out.

I arrived during the afternoon, which was absolutely one of the best decisions that has been made so far. I was not worried about taking a long time because there were hours left before night fell. If time of arrival will be a factor for you as well I cannot stress enough what a well-planned arrival time can do for relieving stress about the uncontrollable (customs, baggage, general post-plane malaise). If you are overwhelmed because of the polluted air, new place, or sheer excitement, take a breather. Go outside and stand in the open, sit with your back against a wall, or just walk about the airport. Although this may seem like the opposite of what you should do, there is no use trying to deny emotions that are strong. It has been said in certain guidebooks that it is best to not draw attention to yourself by walking without purpose. However, there are many times in my own hometown or even bigger cities like Boston and London that I have wandered aimlessly and stopped on the street paralyzed by thought. It has not failed me yet. Why try and stop something that will flood over you inevitably? As Alain de Botton has said in his remarkable book The Art of Travel, when you travel you always bring yourself. So do yourself good! For more tips on how to be self-aware and wonderful, may I suggest Succulent Wild Woman by SARK? (Men: this is for you too, but you must be comfortable with your fabulous female side to fully appreciate this work of art. If any repression goes on, the magic is totally lost.)

All of these notes about whelmed-ness are warranted simply because this city is very alive. With this comes a level of comfort between Mexicans that for people from ‘colder’ countries might find uncomfortable. This includes being called at or whistled to for attention. And this begins to happen as soon as you step out of the last customs bag X-ray. The taxi drivers will look at you and wave you over, asking if you need a cab. Men selling perfume will call you "Senorita". For someone on the brink of an overload this kind of beyond-cultural-norms behavior could really do some psychic damage later on. So remember to treat yourself well, always. If something doesn’t feel right to you think critically about why it does not. If you are in a situation to express this, I encourage you to do so. If not then, please bring a journal. Even jotting a few notes can take the pressure off. Because even though you are in a different country you are also a citizen of the world. It may be helpful to look at the stages of culture shock as well. However, like talking about poison ivy this could make you itch. These stages can be really helpful, but they are simply meant to be a guide as opposed to a rulebook. Your experience will be individual and your own! Everyone is different.

And when you manage to get out of the 'port, whether by radio taxi, kind Mexican friend, or some other way don’t forget to congratulate yourself. The waiting is over! It is my fourth day, and I am still buzzing with excitement. Tomorrow is my appointment to choose classes, and then I will spend the day running errands and hopefully exploring the district of Tlalpan further.

02 January 2009

Getting The Visa; or, There and Back Again

In preparation for my trek to Mexico City, I had to secure a visa. This type of visa I acquired is a Student Visa (also known as the FM3). It is necessary for anyone entering the country as a student. The pros are that you are legal, and it is a pleasant olive-green color to flash at customs with a wink and, if you are daring, a coquettish nod. The cons are that it requires waiting, unanswered questions, and fingerprint scans. For anyone not wanting to be entered in ‘the system’, bypass this route. I wouldn’t be able to offer you necessary advice to an alternative, but be tricky and you will probably think of something!

So, The Visa. Do be wise and learn from these mistakes: don’t ever listen to anyone else’s advice (except mine). If they have not gone through this experience themselves their advice will most likely be wrong. Every country’s consulate issues an FM3 differently. Senegal, for instance, allows you to apply for the visa through the mail and sets the visa’s active date as the date of your arrival into the country. Basically, from country to country the requirements vary. Mexico requires a student applying for an FM3 to go to the office two times. At least, the consulate in Boston needed this. The first time you must go and have the necessary documents in hand. They only allow students to apply for the visa during a three-hour period in the morning, so be aware. The active issue date of your visa starts WHEN YOU APPLY. But, is there anywhere on the visa website that says this? Of course not. For people planning on staying less than a year in the country, the year-long visa validity will not be a problem. But for those staying for a year (or the equivalent of 2 semesters) you will need to apply as close to your departure date as humanly possible. This will ensure that you will not have to re-apply for the FM3, pay the fee and deal with more Mexican bureaucracy than you need. The initial FM3 when applied for in the US is free, so why pay more?

The first time they will look at your paperwork, scan your index fingers, and take your picture. The second time, the next day, you arrive in a one-hour time slot in the late afternoon. In my case there was a line of slightly anxious Mexicans and gringa/os waiting outside the door. The consulate opened 15 minutes late, but no matter. To pick up your visa you just tell them your name and they give it over. They then take your thumbprint. If it helpful to pretend that you are a radical being booked for an almost successful coup-d’etat, please do so. By the way, you leave your passport with the consulate overnight. So, it is helpful to have a friend in the city, or not mind getting there two times in a two-day period.

The good news: The people are, at least the three times I was in the office, so nice. (In fact, a part of me hopes that Mexico is exactly like the consulate: a small office with a window and men wearing yellow alligator-skin boots. Ah well...) Do not be pushy with the staff as they are probably hampered with bigger issues than you applying for your student visa. Keep in mind that people going to this consulate could very well be illegal, or be trying to reach out to family across the border. With the pernicious immigrant raids that have occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Area and sections of Western and Central Mass one can only imagine the problems that people bring to this office. It is helpful to be mindful of all the unique and sensitive situations people could possibly be in to bring them to that office. As a privileged American student, you will be seen as a slight anomaly going to, as one friend of mine put it, “the big poison apple” that is Mexico City. While there I never felt that I was looked down upon or discriminated against for being a white person. In fact, trying out your Spanish or responding to the employees when they speak in Spanish was always met with good results. If you try, they will be nice. Wouldn’t you feel good if a Mexican at the US consulate in Mexico spoke to you in English? From this angle it doesn’t seem improper to give it the old college try. And if they are disturbed/offended then you will probably be able to tell. And if your heart is in the right place, isn’t that enough? Once you get The Visa, prepare to feel like $1000 dollars and an international traveler.

The next thing I would advise is to call your bank! If you have a debit card or other plastic money card with your name on it, you will need to let the proper establishments know that you are going to be in Mexico. This way they will not decline your purchases. For more old-fashioned, yet lovely, advice see The People’s Guide to Mexico under their bank/money section.

When calling the bank be prepared to be on hold. When they get to your call, they may ask you to verify your identity by asking seemingly non-sequitur questions. Don’t worry, this is fun and will only enhance the aforementioned feeling of your $1000/international traveler status. Be sure to ask your bank about which ATMs you can take money out of, and what charges could possibly be incurred for each withdrawal.

If you are a seasoned traveler, then you know what to do. I am lucky enough to have been carted around parts of Eastern Europe and have spent time in both the UK and the American West. Be sure to both pack light not underestimate minute creature comforts. If you know not packing something it will make a huge impact on your trip, just go for it and take it. But to paraphrase the sage advice from The People’s Guide, “do not pack anything that you are willing to trade, sell, lose, pack and unpack a countless amount of times, or explain the use of over and over again” (Franz, Havens 194). Honestly, my only vice is shoes (I am bringing four: running, hiking, black flats, tan flats). But know your limits. And the airline limit! Bags can only be 50 lbs or under to check, or else they charge a rather steep fee. Just be aware. And you don’t really want to cart a 75 lb. bag around the Benito Juarez International Airport, right?

Last tips: arrive with pesos, because the last thing you will want to do when you try to locate your baggage is worrying about exchanging money. Do yourself the favor, you deserve it. If you are a knitter, be aware that airline people are totally confused about the TSA rules about knitting needles. Err on the side of caution (this is advice you will hear from me over and over again) and opt for plastic or wooden needles no more than 6 or 7 inches in length. They still might confiscate them, so just be aware. I have heard of people bringing a print-out of the rules with them, which seems like a smart idea if you know that knitting on the plane will make that much of a difference.