31 October 2008

The Living and the Dead

There is enough being written by others about the "El Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Mexico and the sugar skulls and the marigold-like cempasuchil flowers and the all night graveside vigils, etcetera. I really can't add anything new to what has already been written about and photographed many times over. However, I would like to say a few words about the relationship between the living and the dead. At this time of year everyone seems to focus on the Day of the Dead traditions and with good reason because they are so colorful, unique, and culturally distinct. The thing is that in Mexico people seem to visit the cemetery regularly and not just for the Day of the Dead. On any given day if you visit our local municipal cemetery here in Irapuato you will see quite a few living souls. I know people who visit the cemetery at least every two or three weeks, especially on the weekends. In Mexico, the dead, the living, and the yet unborn are all considered to be connected by the fact that they are contained in the mind and consciousness of God. They are just three separate forms of "being"… the past, the present, and the future.

When I was a little boy growing up in Chicago the 1950's it seemed as if, like Mexicans, we had a closer connection to the dead than Americans in general have now. The dead were a part of us. In those days our "Day of the Dead" was Memorial Day which was celebrated on May 30th. Up until the early 60's many people observed the holiday by visiting the cemetery either on or around this date in order to clean the graves, plant flowers, and pay respects to their loved ones who had already embarked on the next great adventure. Then things began to change. On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. By that time the Memorial Day tradition of going to the cemetery and decorating the graves slowly started to fall by the wayside. In the old days people used to visit the cemetery at least once a month during the spring, summer and early autumn. The grave sites usually included little garden-like areas either on top of or along side the graves where people planted flowers. Some of these little flower beds were very intricate, well tended, and beautiful to behold.

My mother had four children and I remember my mom taking the four of us on the Milwaukee Avenue bus in Chicago to the end of the line at Niles and then we would walk to Saint Adalbert's Cemetery. Saint Adalbert's is the largest Catholic Cemetery of the Archdiocese of Chicago (in number of burials). It was established in 1872 to serve Polish Catholics of Chicago's north side. Right near the cemetery there were several plant nurseries and my mom would buy some potted flowers for us to plant. She would also rent a trowel and a large battered green watering can for fifty cents. There was no deposit required. Everything was on the "honor" system back then. All of us kids were expected to carry something and we always brought our lunch with us in a wicker hamper. That was my job, carrying the lunch, because I was the oldest and the hamper was heavy. We always had a wonderful time and my mom enjoyed telling us stories about the people who were in the graves. In this way she kept them alive in our memories. Some of them I had already met before they passed on. Those were great little excursions and I will never forget them. It was a time of great innocence for us.

Fast forward to the present era. The flower beds in Saint Adalbert's are gone. The grass is planted right up to the monuments so the man who mows the lawn will have an easier time mowing. In some cases the monuments have been removed or sunken to ground level and in the new areas the grave markers have to be flush with the soil. The section where my mother took us was full of tall monuments interspersed with trees and flower beds and it was very beautiful. The monuments are still there but without the flowers they look like stark remnants of a lost civilization, and maybe that's exactly what they are. My father used to say that it looked like a "stone orchard". The place where my parents are buried is just a big open field. All of the gravestones are sunken down flush with the soil so the tractor that mows the lawn can pass right over them. There are no flowers to tend. There aren't many living people around either. Mostly there is just the man on the tractor who does the mowing, the man on the backhoe who digs the graves, and here and there a funeral.

This Sunday, November 2nd, is El Día de los Muertos and my wife Gina and I will go to the cemetery to bring flowers and clean the graves. It is always a happy time for me because it reminds me of those days long ago when my mother took us to the cemetery to do the same. The Day of the Dead in Mexico is like a "happening" and it brings the living and the dead together in spirit. There is no worry about making it easier for the man to cut the grass either. The graves are a hodge-podge of shapes and sizes. Some are brand new and some are very old and they all seem to fit together very well, just like the living and the dead. That's the way I think it should be, the past, the present, and the future fitting well together…like a nest of dishes…or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "an endless chain of countless rings".

29 October 2008


The word “calavera” means “skull” in Spanish but “calaveras” are also a type of ditty poem written at the season of “El Día de Los Muertos” or “The Day of the Dead” celebrations in Mexico which run from October 31st through November 2nd. Calaveras are imaginary obituaries announcing fake deaths of people or to poke fun at people who are very much alive. In fact, it is an honor to receive a calavera from a friend. However, the newspapers often publish calaveras about political figures that are very amusing but not always very flattering. Calaveras contain references to “calacas” which are cadavers or “skeleton people”.

Here is a calavera that my friend Benjamín wrote for me:

La Calavera

Se encontraba el Señor Bob trab
ajando en su oficina
Cuando llegó la calaca y dijo ¿Mira? ¿Mira?

La gente esta trabajando. ¡Que alegría! ¡Que alegría!
Pero no te creas de ellos, esas son sus fantasias
Mejor te llevo al panteón y trabajas día con día.

This sounds very cute in Spanish. It loses something when you translate it but I will do what I can:

The Skull

Mr. Bob was found working in his office
When a cadaver appeared and said "What's this? What's this?
The people are working.
What joy! ¡What joy!
But don't believe in them, these are your fantasies
I better take you down to the cemetery

To do your work day after day.

In effect Benha was chiding me for working too much and not paying more attention to the finer things in life and one day it will be too late and I will just be another dead one. However, two can play the same game. I happen to know that some of the guys will go nowhere near a cemetery to celebrate the Day of the Dead but rather to their favorite tavern and try to anesthetize themselves with cerveza instead so I wrote this poem back to Benha:

Identidad Equivocada

Benjamín toca la puerta y le abre la calaca

De cara larga, larga,

Con una bolsa de hielo en la c
Benjanín dijo “Perdón...¿Está Pedro?”
Y la calaca contestó
“No joven... No estoy pedo,
¡Estoy CRUDO!”

Mistaken Identity

Benjamín knocks on the door
And a cadaver with a long, long, face

With a bag of ice on his head opens it.

And Benjamín said,
“Pardon me...is Peter here?”
And the cadaver answered,
“No young man, I am not drunk.

Now, this one isn’t a particularly traditional calavera but nevertheless it is pretty funny. It is a play on words so I need to do some explaining. Benjamín says to the calaca with the ice bag on his head, “Is Pedro here?” but the skeleton thinks that he said “Are you drunk?”. The word “pedo” by itself means “fart” but when used in the phrase “estar en pedo” it means “really drunk”. The calaca thought that Benjamín said “¿Está en pedo?” instead of “Está Pedro?” and so he answered, “No young man, I am not drunk. I am HUNG OVER!”. The word “crudo” in Mexico means “hung over” when used with the verb “estar”. Everyone got a big laugh out of this one. Try it yourself but practice it first so that you don’t screw it up because if you do...the joke will be on you.

28 October 2008

Tradiciones y Costumbres – 001

My wife Gina thought it would be nice to write some short pieces about Mexican traditions and customs and I welcomed the idea. Not only will it allow her to participate with me in this blog but also provide some practice material for reading in Spanish. In addition, I will give the English translation. In this piece she writes about getting ready for both Halloween and “El Día de los Muertos” and about a cute little song that the preschoolers are learning:

En nuestra casa estamos preparando nuestro altar para el Día de Los Muertos por una parte y preparando para la fiesta de Halloween por otra parte. Durante el mes de Octubre hemos preparado gelatinas artísticas con colores de la temporada y arañas de goma de adorno. Estamos felices al preparar y comprar todo para nuestras fiestas. Los niños están muy emocionados de saber de que se van a disfrazar. A nuestro pequeño nieto de dos años, once meses, su maestra de preescolar le enseñó la siguiente canción:

“Caminando en Guanajuato una momia me encontré
Como no sabía su nombre, Pedro le llamé

Ay, Ay, Pedro ¿porqué estás tan feo?

Ay, Ay Pedro, ¿porqué estás tan feo?

Y así por cada miembro del grupo se canta la canción poniendo el nombre de cada uno.

La historia continúa...

In our house we are preparing our altar for the Day of the Dead on one hand and for Halloween on the other. During the month of October we have made artistic gelatin molds with the colors of the season and decorated them with gummy candy spiders. We are happy to prepare and purchase everything for our celebrations. The children are very excited to find out what disguise they will wear. Our grandson of two years and eleven months is being taught a cute little song by his preschool teacher:

Walking around in Guanajuato I encountered a Mummy

Since I didn’t know his name I called him Pedro

Oh, oh, Pedro. Why are you so ugly?
Oh, oh Pedro. Why are you so ugly?

And so it goes for every member of the group, singing the song and using the name of each one in turn.

To be continued...

Note: We live near the city of Guanajuato in the state that is also called Guanajuato. The city of Guanajuato is famous for its collection of mummies. The song is about walking in Guanajuato and meeting a “calaca” (humorous term for dead person) in the form of a mummy. It is a silly song but that is what it is supposed to be and the kids have lots of fun.

The photo below shows a cantaloupe melon (muskmelon) which here is called a Chinese melon or “melón chino”. In the center of the melon half there is gelatin and on top of the gelatin there is a gummy candy spider and his web is also made from gummy candy. This is typical of the surprises that I get in my lunch all the time depending upon the season and what crazy ideas Gina is cooking up.

26 October 2008

Dialog - Ordering a Pizza

In our last dialog, “Returning Home” we left our weary travelers blocked by a passing train as they were almost home. They finally arrived safe and sound, each to his own home. Our favorite character is greeted by his wife who has been waiting anxiously for his return. Let's listen in now as they discuss what they will eat for dinner:

¡Hola mi amor! Ya llegamos.
Hello my love, we're back!

¡Hola cariño. Gracias a Dios llegaste. Te extrañé mucho. ¿Porque tan tarde?
Hello dear. Thank God you're back. I missed you a lot. Why so late?

¿Qué crees? Estuvimos a punto de llegar cuando un tren paró en el crucero y nos hizo esperar casi una hora. ¿Cómo ves?
You'll never guess. We were almost home when a train stopped at the crossing and made us wait almost an hour. How about that?

¿Qué barbaridad! Pues..por lo menos ahora estás aqui sano y salvo.
How awful! Well...at least now you're home safe and sound.

¿Ya tienes lista la comida?
Do you have the food ready?

No mi amor. Estuve esperándote para saber que se antoja de comer.
o my love. I was waiting for you to know what food you have a taste for.

Bueno, pero ya estoy aquí y tengo mucha hambre. ¿Que piensas si ordenamos una pizza?
Okay, but now I am here and I am very hungry. What do you think if we order a pizza?

Sí cariño, estoy de acuerdo.
Yes dear, I´m all for it.

Bueno, entonces tu ordena la pizza mientras voy a duchar y cambiar mi ropa. Ordenas cualquier tipo de pizza que tu quieres.
Okay, then you order the pizza while I shower and change my clothes. Order whatever type of pizza that you want.

(La señora buscó el numero de telefono de una pizeria en el directorio y hizo una llamada. El teléfono sonó un señal de llamada en la pizeria y alguien constestó...)
The lady looked up the number in the telephone directory and made a call. The telefphone rang in the pizzaria and someone answered...)

Pizza Lupillos. Buenas tardes, le atiende Paulina.
Lupillos Pizza. Good afternoon, Pauline speaking and ready to take your order.

Gracias Paulina. ¿Qué promociones tiene?
Thank you, Pauline. What specials do you have?

Una pizza grande con cuatro ingredientes por solo doscientos catorce pesos o dos pizzas medianas por ciento noventa y nueve pesos o dos pizzas chicas por ciento treinta y cinco pesos.
A large pizza with four ingredients for only two hundred and fourteen pesos or two medium pizzas for one hundred and ninety-nine pesos or two small pizzas for one hundred and thirty-five pesos.

¿La mediana con cuantos ingredientes?
How many ingredients on the medium?

Con tres ingedientes. Además tenemos;
Three ingredients. Besides that we have;

Hamburguesa especial Lupillos, Lupillos hamburger special,
Espagueti al burro, Spaghetti with butter and parmesan,
Espagueti a la Boloñesa, Spaghetti with tomato and meat sauce
Consomé de pollo, Chicken soup,
Ensalada especial de la casa, Special house salad
Ensalada dulce y essalada césar, Sweet salad and Ceasar salad

Y de nuestra barra de postres ofrecemos;
And from our desert bar we offer;

Flan Napolitano, Neopolitan flan,
Pay de calabaza, Pumkin pie
Pay de manzana y pay de piña con queso, Apple pie and Pineapple/cheese pie
Fresas con crema chantillí, Strawberries with whipped cream,
y fresas con crema natural, and Strawberries with regular cream.

¡Ay! Paulina se te fue el aire al hablar tan rápido y decirme todas las opciones. Ordeno dos pizzas medianas, una de camarón y la otra de especial Lupillos y mándame doble salsa chimichurri.
Wow! Pauline you gave me all of those options so fast and all in one breath! I'll order two medium pizzas, one with shrimp and the other a Lupillos special and send me a double portion of chimichurri sauce.

¿Algo más para acompañar su pizza?
Anything else to go with your pizza?

Sí, un espagueti al burro y un consomé de pollo. Es todo.
Yes, a spaghetti al burro and a chicken soup. That's all.

Muy bien. En total son doscientos setenta y nueve pesos. Son las 4:15 por la tarde. En treinta minutos aproximadamente su pedido está en la puerta de su casa. Rectifico su domicilio: Calzada de los Chinacos No. 5054 en Residencial Eucaliptos. Teléfono 626-5036.
Very well. The total is two hundred seventy-nine pesos. It is 4:15 in the afternoon. In approximately thirty minutes your order will be at your front door. I am confirming your address. 5054 Calzada de los Chinacos Street in the Eucalyptus neighborhood. Telephone is 626-5036.

¿Cómo sabes mis datos?
How do you know my information?

Ya tenemos registrado sus datos en nuestro sistema. Cuando el cliente nos llama, su número de teléfono inmediatamtnte aparecen en la pantalla con los datos mientras lo atendemos telefonicamente. ¿Algo más?
It is already recorded in our system. When a customer calls, their telephone number immediately appears on a screen with their information while we are talking to them on the phone. Anything else?

No, gracias Paulina.
No, thanks Pauline.

Estamos para servirle, gracias por su preferencia.
We are at your service, thank you for your business.

(Pasa el tiempo hasta 4:55 y la señora de casa esta preocupada por que su esposo ya termino duchando y vistiendo y estuvo molesto que la pizza demora en llegar y el tiene mucha hambre. El dijo a su esposa, “Vuelve a llamar” y ella hizo una llamada otra vez.)
(The time goes by until 4:55 and the lady is worried because her husband already finished showering and dressing and was frustrated that the pizza was delayed in arriving and he was very hungry. He said to his wife, “Call again” and she made another call.)

Pizza Lupillos. Buenas tardes, le atiende Alejandra.
Lupillos Pizza. Good afternoon, Alexandra speaking and ready to take your order.

Gracias. ¡Oye Alejandra! Llamé hace cuarenta minutos y Paulina me atendió y me pedido aun no llega. Voy a cancelar.
Thank you. Listen Alexandra! I called forty minutes ago and Pauline took my order and it still hasn't arrived. I am going to cancel.

No, no por favor. Le damos una disculpa por la demora. Su pizza está por llegar.
No, please don't. We apologize for the delay. Your pizza is almost there.

Entonces mi pizza es gratis porque no la entregan dentro de los treinta minutos. ¿Verdad? Then my pizza is free because you didn't deliver it within thirty minutes. Right?

No. Disculpenos pero nosotros no tenemos esta promoción. Está pensando en Pizza Domino's, nuestra competencia.
No. Pardon us but we don't make that offer. You are thinking of Domino's Pizza, our competitor.

¿Entonces porque me dieron ustedes la hora de surtir y la hora de entregar? No entiendo y menos porque tengo mucha hambre.
Then why did you give me the exact time of the order and the time that it should arrive. I don't understand that and much less because I am so hungry.

(En éste momento se escuchan una moto y casi tira la puerta por tocar el timbre muy fuerte.)
(At this moment they heard a motorcycle and the doorbell was rung with such force that it nearly knocked down the door.)

Creo que la pizza llegó y voy a quedarme con ella, ya que tengo hambre y además la pizza de camarón es mi favorita.
I believe that the pizza has arrived and I am going to accept it because I am so hungry and besides that shrimp pizza is my favorite.

Muchas gracias señora.
Thank you very much ma'am.

Note: Some additional comments:

¿Qué crees?....¿Cómo ves? In Mexico, these two phrases either start and/or end many statements. You will hear them quite a bit during everyday conversations between people. The phrase “¿Qué crees?” means literally “What do you believe?” but in the sense that it is most often used it is the rough equivalent to the English “Guess what!” or “You're not going to believe this!” or “Get this!” or "Would you believe?". It normally is used in front of a narrative sentence but it can sometimes come at the end. On the other hand, the phrase, “Cómo ves?” generally comes after a narrative sentence and literally means “How do you see it?” but in the sense that it is normally used it is the roughly the equivalent of the English “How about that?” or “What do you think about that, eh?”.

se antoja de comer - Very comon phrase. It means " have a longing for" or "to have a craving for" or "a taste for".

Espagueti al burro - In Mexico, the word “burro” means “donkey” but this spaghetti has nothing to do with a donkey. In this case the word “burro” is Italian and in Italy the word “burro” means “butter”.

se te fue el aire al hablar tan rápido – This means that the person spoke very fast in rapid fire style all in one breath. It literally means that “You ran out of breath talking so fast and so much”.

chimichurri sauce – Just in case you don't know by now chimichurri sauce is about the best thing that you can put on pizza...much better than ketchup. It is made from garlic, oil, vinegar, chili, and various herbs and spices. Always order extra.

casi tira la puerta por tocar el timbre muy fuerte – This phrase means that the person who rang the bell or knocked on the door did so with great force as if to knock the door down. The verb "tirar" has many many menings. You should study it carefully.

Okay, there you have it. That would be a typical pizza order call. Talking on the telephone can be pretty intimidating for a beginner in Spanish because you can't see the other person's hand movements or facial expressions. It takes a little practice. For that reason I am giving you some homework. I want everyone to call and order a pizza!

22 October 2008

It's time to call a Rabbi

I learned recently from an article by the Associated Press that the U.S. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is going to open a field office in China later this year in the hope that a greater FDA presence in China will prevent unsafe food imports from gaining entry to the US. Wow! This revelation was a shocker...not because they are "going to open a field office in China" but because they haven't done so already. It seems to me that this FDA shortsightedness is just another symptom of the disorganization and lack of leadership on the part of the federal government. Supposedly the FDA staff that will be posted at the China office will inspect facilities, provide guidance on U.S. quality standards, and "eventually" train local experts to conduct inspections on behalf of the FDA. After giving this some thought I decided that it would be better to make a contract with a group of Jewish Rabbis to go to China to check the quality of the food exports instead of the FDA and I'll tell you why.

Not long ago my boss called me to his office and asked me what "Kashrut" meant. He said that we had to clean the interiors of some railroad tank cars and they had to be certified "Kashrut". I checked it out and I told him that "Kashrut" is the name for Jewish dietary law, food handling, and food preparation requirements, and that we needed to get the tank cars certified as "Kosher" by a special Jewish Rabbi who is trained for that purpose. The tank cars were going to carry cooking oil that would be used in making "Kosher" food and so the shipper needed to get the tank cars certified according to "Kashrut". To make a long story short we contacted an appropriate Rabbi and made arrangements for him to come and inspect the cars after we washed them out with soap and hot water.

Normally when someone comes to inspect the cars for cleanliness they more or less just open the top hatch and stick their head in to see that the interior appears clean. This was not how the Rabbi did it. He put on a special "clean" suit and went down into each car and went over the interior inch by inch to satisfy himself that all the surfaces were squeaky clean. This was no easy task because the cars were sitting in the warm sun and it was very uncomfortable down in those tanks to say the least. No only that but he went over our entire cleaning process even to the point of taking the temperature of the water that we used with his own thermometer to make sure that it was hot enough to meet the Kashrut requirements. We were very impressed. No, on second thought, "impressed" is not the right word. We were simply blown away with his dedication and thoroughness. The Rabbi was a very nice guy but he was also very firm and resolute. I realized that for him this was more than just a job. It was a moral and spiritual obligation. This was a man of great character. As a result of his visit in particular, I have the utmost respect for the Kosher label.

The Rabbi told us that he had been to many different countries including China and told us that for various reasons China had been a particular problem. He said that they had to work very hard with the Chinese before they could certify anything as Kosher. However, once the first companies to receive Kosher certifications on their food shipments realized how special that was and how good it was for their business then other companies decided that they should get Kosher certifications too. This posed a problem because the Rabbi started receiving requests for companies who made things like pots and pans and furniture to certify them as Kosher and of course these items don't fall under the laws of Kashrut. There were so many requests that soon there arose an acute shortage of Rabbis available to do the certification inspections. This is ironic because up until the 1930's there were plenty of Jews in China. When World War II ended, many Jews left China for Israel, America, or parts of Europe. Most of the remaining Jews left when the Communist regime began in 1949 and made it too difficult for them to remain. For a little over fifty years there was no significant Jewish life in China and now the Chinese want Jews to come back because the Chinese need their help.

Apart from the Jewish community, there is a large and growing group of consumers who purchase Kosher products for quality and sanitary reasons including hotels and restaurants. Also, many individuals in the Muslim community follow requirements called "Halal" which are similar to Kosher requirements which at times may be an acceptable substitute. If you want to make sure that the food you eat isn't contaminated or adulterated in some harmful way then you should buy products whenever possible that have a "Hechsher" mark on the label. A Hechsher is the special certification marking found on the packages of foods that have been certified as Kosher. You can see several examples below.

There is a new movement afoot in Jewish circles to include an additional form of certification called the "Hekhsher Tzedek". It is concerned with human rights. Hechsher Tzedek seals will be placed on certified Kosher foods that were produced in plants that operate within Jewish ethical standards. Kosher production facilities will be checked in six areas: fair wages and benefits, health and safety, training, corporate transparency, animal welfare, and environmental impact. This is another area in which Jewish Rabbis could help China gain (or regain) the confidence of their global customers. We don't need to spend millions of dollars creating a new FDA bureaucracy in China. All that congress needs to do is pass a law saying that food imported from China that has a Jewish Orthodox Kosher certification and a Hekhsher Tzedek will receive automatic approval for entry. Then the FDA can stay home and look for tainted tomatoes and mad cows and the Kashrut rabbis can take care of the Chinese tainted food problem.

That's why I think that if we want to ease our fears about food safety, instead of calling on the government to get more involved we should call a Rabbi.

20 October 2008

Ocote - What it is - What it does

The word “ocote” (oh-KOH-teh) comes from the Nahuatl word “ocotl”. This is the indigenous name for “pine tree” or “pine wood” as it is known to the native people of Mexico and Central America in the geographic range from Sinaloa, Mexico to central Nicaragua. There are several species of pine that are known collectively as “Ocote Pine”. They are Pinus Caribaea, Pinus Montezumae, Pinus Rudis and Pinus Oocarpa.The species that I will be talking about here is Pinus Oocarpa. From this species people collect and sell what we commonly just refer to as “ocote” which is a chip or stick of wood that is impregnated with resin. In the past these sticks of ocote had many uses but these days they are mostly used as a handy way to light charcoal fires.

The Pinus Oocarpa species of ocote pine is very resistant to fire. It's pine cones open at high temperatures to allow the liberation of large quantities of seeds. It is also resistant to insect damage because whenever the tree is damaged it exudes a resin in the damaged area to prevent insects from entering. When the trees blow down or are damaged by natural forest fires, the tree produces extra sap, saturating the damaged portion of the trunk with resin. The wood shards taken from this resinous section of the trunk are highly flammable. Under normal circumstances the tree is free from excessive resin and makes an excellent softwood lumber for furniture, fence posts, paper, and of course firewood. In the old days people used to light their streets with a handful of ocote resin impregnated sticks interspersed with dried ribs of the organ cactus and tied in a bundle. They would attach this to a post and it would burn for two or three hours with enough light for the people to see their way. They would also use a handful of burning ocote as an old time “flashlight” when walking down a dark path.

Ocote was also used by early miners to light the mines of Guanajuato. Every Mexican school child knows the story of the miner El Pipila (ehl PEE-pee-lah). During the first major battle for Mexican Independence he crawled up to the wooden doors of the Alhóndiga in Guanajuato with a big flat rock on his back to protect himself from the musket fire of the Spanish defenders and he set the wooden doors on fire with the help of some ocote. When the doors burned away the freedom fighters eventually gained entry and slaughtered all of the Spaniards within. El Pípila was the hero of the day and still retains a special place in the heart of every Mexican. He obtained the ocote from a shop just down the street from the Alhondiga. I wonder if the Spaniards ever considered that possibility. As he was defending his post to the bitter end the Spanish commander probably made a mental note to himself...“Don't ever again allow ocote to be sold withing a few yards of a fort with wooden doors” (Ooops! Too late on that one Carlos).

Even though the ocote pine is resistant to both fire and insects and grows in poor soil at high elevations without the need for a lot of rain, it has an Achilles heel called “el ocoteo”. In the old days people could collect enough ocote from trees damaged by wind and fire. When this source became insufficient they would scar one side of the base of a tree and harvest the ocote wood from time to time in thin layers as it became covered with resin. In this way, as one side of the tree became larger with growth, the other side of the tree became smaller from the ocote harvesting until the tree was so offset that it looked like it was standing on only one foot. If ocote harvesting is done slowly and carefully the tree can produce ocote shards for up to one hundred years as long as the rate of ocote harvesting does not overtake the rate of tree growth. Years ago people just took what they needed for domestic purposes. The desperate subsistence economy that we have today with a growing population and not enough jobs leads people to harvest ocote on a much bigger scale, often in a clandestine manner, and this practice has become known as “el ocoteo”. If you check on the Internet you will find vendors of ocote in the United States and Europe who market ocote at elevated prices as an exotic way to light their fireplaces on cold snowy romantic nights “just like the ancient Aztecs or Mayans”. This is all well and good but people should know where and how ocote is harvested and whether it is done legally or not. Ocote harvesting has not yet become a big problem but like anything else it has the potential to be headed that way without oversight. Fortunately there are plenty of ocote pines and ocote is a renewable resource. With proper management oversight and conservation it could be around for a long time to come.

I decided to write about ocote so that newcomers to Mexico will be familiar with it. Sometimes when you buy charcoal here there are a few pieces of ocote in the bag with the charcoal. It looks like a few dirty sticks of wood and some people may not know what it is for and think that it is just some junk wood. I noticed that more and more charcoal doesn't come with ocote anymore. I don't think that is because of scarcity either. I think it is because the charcoal companies found out they could get seven pesos for a little plastic bag containing eight little sticks of ocote. In the photos below I lit a charcoal fire in my grill with ocote. You really only need to use about three or four pieces but like any red blooded American male I used the whole bag because I was hungry and in a hurry. Hey! At least I am not as bad as my old Dad and his buddies who survived the Omaha Beach, Normandy Invasion of World War II. After four of five years in the army they were all in the bad habit of using gasoline to start a campfire. To their way of thinking, kindling was for sissies. I can still remember my Dad lighting our campfire on family camping trips with a cup of gasoline. He would toss a cup of gas on the wood and stand back a little bit and throw in a lit match and WHOOSH! We would all be blown backwards by the noise and the light and the heat that almost singed our eyebrows. Dad would always turn to us and say solemly, “Now don't you guys ever try that.” Don't you worry Dad. I won't. You cured me of that forever. (One more thing, Dad. May God bless you and may you rest in peace. I miss you.)

In the photos below I show a 38 peso bag of mesquite charcoal along with a little bag of supermarket ocote that was purchased for 6.9 pesos. Alongside there is a bundle of ocote that I purchased at a litttle country store for 10 pesos. If I use it wisely (ha, ha) the bundle should last me a year. Now you can see how there might be some nice profit in supermarket ocote. Most of the charcoal here is made from Encino Oak. Sometimes I think they put it in bags that say Mesquite for marketing purposes but I can't prove that. You must also be careful to make sure that the charcoal or “carbón” (cahr-BOHN) that you buy is “carbón duro” (cahr-BOHN DOO-roh) and not “carbón fofo” (cahr-BOHN FOH-foh). Carbón duro is charcoal from hardwood and carbón fofo is charcoal from softwood or in other words it is nearly useless. Sometimes ten to twenty pecent of your bagged charcoal will be carbón fofo. If you are ever in doubt you should go directly to a “carbonero” and buy your charcoal by the kilo. A word of caution is in order though...be prepared to get dirty.

18 October 2008

Dialog - Returning Home

In our last dialog, “The Hotel” we left our intrepid travelers checking into a cheap hotel in the city of Monterrey because one of them had failed to make reservations in advance for a good place to stay. They spent the night at the questionable hotel after going out on the town with one of their old friends whose name is Federico. Now let's listen in as they prepare to do what they had come to Monterrey to do on behalf of their employer and then head for home:

Buenos días amigo. ¿Cómo amaneciste?
Good morning my friend. How do you feel?

Buenos días. No me siento bien.
Good morning. I don't feel good.

¿Por qué? ¿Andas crudo?
Why? Are you hungover?

Un poco, además no dormí bien.
A little, and besides that I didn't sleep well.

Yo tampoco. Hubo tanto ruido, con gente gritando y puertas abriendo y cerrando que casi no pude dormir. No quiero regresar a este hotel nunca.
Me neither. There was so much noise, with people shouting and doors opening and closing that I almost couldn't sleep. I don't want to come back to this hotel ever again.

¡Tienes mucha razón! Yo se que tengo la culpa de no hacer reservaciones y te juro que no lo voy a repetir. Aprendí mi lección.
You got that right! I know that it is my fault for not making reservations and I swear that it won't happen again. I learned my lesson.

No te preocupes amigo, es agua pasada. Vamos a borrar y cuenta nueva. ¿Estás de acuerdo?
Don't worry about it pal. It's water under the bridge. Let's wipe the slate clean and start over. Agreed?

Sí, estoy de acuerdo. Pero ahora nececito dos aspirinas y un café. Siempre es divertido convivir con nuestro amigo Federico pero cuando estamos con él siempre tomamos demasiado. El problema es que Federico canta y toca la guitarra tan bien, que todo el mundo siempre nos invita unos tragos.
Yes, I agree. But now I need two aspirins and a coffee. It is always nice to get together with our friend Federico but when we are with him we always drink too much. The problem is that Federico sings and plays the guitar so well that everybody always invites us to have drinks.

Sí, pero ¿sabes que? Ya está haciendo tarde y no hay tiempo para café. Vamos directamente a la planta para no llegar tarde para la cita. Probablemente ellos van a ofrecernos café y donas.
Yeah, but you know what? It's already getting late and there is no time for coffee. We're going right to the plant so we won't be late for the appointment. They will probably offer us coffee and donuts.

(Los dos hombres fueron a la planta de su cliente e hicieron una presentación de sus productos en la sala de juntas. Pasaron dos horas y ellos salieron de la planta con misión cumplida rumbo a casa.)
(The two men went to their customer's plant and made a presentation of their products in the conference room. After two hours they left the plant with mission accomplished and headed home.)

¿Qué piensas de la presentación? ¿Fue buena o mala?
What did you think of the presentation? Was it good or bad?

Fue muy buena, hasta el pez gordo me felicitó. Creo que ellos van a comprar mucho producto y nuestro jefe va a estar muy contento. Nosotros también por la buena comisión que vamos a ganar.
It was very good, even the big boss congratulated me. I think that they are going to buy a lot of products and our chief will be very pleased. We will too for the nice comission that we are going to earn.

¡Qué bueno! Me da gusto. !Ya vamos a comprar un pato al orange y depués a casa!
That's great! That makes me feel good. Now let's grab some snacks to eat and head for home.

(Pasaron unas horas en la carretera y casi para llegar se encontraron un tren de carga.)
(Several hours passed on the highway and just as they were almost home they encountered a freight train.)

Oh, mira un tren.
Oh, look there's a train.

¡Híjole! A ver si llegamos primero al crucero para ganarle al tren.
Oh, no! Let's see if we can get to the crossing first and beat the train.

¡No! Es muy peligroso. Mejor esperamos hasta que pase el tren.
No! It's very dangerous. It's best to wait until the train passes.

Pero el tren tiene tres locomotoras. Probablemente está muy largo y va a tardar mucho en pasar.
But the train has three locomotives. It is probably very long and it will take a long time to pass by.

Ni modo, más vale prevenir que lamentar.
That doesn't matter, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Pues...está bien. Tienes razón, pero va a ser muy aburrido esperar.
Well...okay. You are right, but waiting is going to be very boring.

Bueno, entonces nos vamos a entretener contando cuantos furgones, cuantos tanques, y cuantas tolvas lleva el tren.
Well, then let's entertain ourselves by counting how many boxcars, how many tank cars, and how many hopper cars there are.

¡No manches! El tren está parando. Ahora vamos a tardar más.
Don't tell me! The train is stopping. Now we are going to be even later.

No te preocupes amigo. El tren no se va a quedar parado siempre. Tarde o temprano tiene que avanzar.
Don't worry my friend. The train isn't going to be stopped forever. Sooner or later it will move on.

Está bien. Después de todo es mejor perder un poco más de tiempo que perder la vida.
It's okay. In the end it is better to lose a little time than to lose a life.

Note: Some additional comments:

¿Cómo amaneciste? - Literally "How did you dawn your day?". In English we say "How are you feeling this morning?". Sometimes when people say "¿Cómo amaneciste?" the other person will say something playful like "Acostado y en ayunas" which means "I awoke lying down and fasting".

¿Por qué, andas crudo? - The phrase "¿Andas crudo?" means more or less "Are you wandering around with a hang over?". You could also say "¿Estás crudo?" which means about the same..."Are you hung over?".

No te preocupes amigo, es agua pasada. - The phrase "agua pasada" means water that has already gone by like water under a bridge. There is another use of "agua pasada" that goes "Agua pasada no mueve molino"... "Water gone past won't move the mill" which means the equivalent of the English "There is no crying over spilled milk".

borrar y cuenta nueva. - Literally to erase and start counting again. This is a very common phrase and a good way to end an argument.

que todo el mundo siempre nos invita unos tragos. - The word "trago" means a "swallow" or a "gulp". Be careful and never invite your friends for "un ultimo trago" or "one last drink" because in superstitious Mexico the "ultimo trago" is the last one you take before you die.

Probablemente ellos van a ofrecernos café y donas. - The word "donas" is not a misspelling. That is how the word "donuts" was transliterated from English to Spanish. You will often see the "donas" form of the word in Mexican bakeries.

Los dos hombres fueron a la planta de su cliente e hicieron una presentación - The letter "e" in front of the word "hicieron" (EE-see-eh-rohn) or "they made" means "and". The letter "y" is usually used for the word "and" but in this case the "y" (pronounced EE) would precede "hicieron" and since the letter "h" in "hicieron" is silent there would be two letters pronounced "ee" close together so in this case we use the letter "e" instead.

Fue muy buena, hasta el pez gordo me felicitó. The phrase "pez gordo" meaning "big fish" is often used to describe a big boss, bigshot, or VIP. Somehow people have the idea that important people are fat. I don't know why. I am fat but they don't think I'm very important. Hey, that isn't fair!

!Ya vamos a comprar un pato al orange y depués a casa! The phrase "pato al orange" is Mexican schoolboy slang for a "Gansito" snack cake and an orange soda. It means that they will probably stop at a "Oxxo" convenience store and buy some junk food to eat on the road. You can read about "Gansito" in my post entitled "El Gansito".

más vale prevenir que lamentar - Very common saying. It literally means "It is worth more to prevent than to lament".

¡No manches! - The verb "manchar" means to make dirty, to stain, smear, or defile. In English someone might say "You gotta be shittin me". There is a similar phrase to "No manches" which is "No mames". It is quite common (unfortunately) to hear someone say to another "No me mames güey". The word "mames" comes from the verb "mamar" which means "to suckle" or to breast feed". The phrase "No me mames güey" is more or less the equivalent of the English "Hey man, don't be feeding me that line of crap".

14 October 2008

Me and Fodder Rudi

Success in learning another language like Spanish can often depend upon how well one can maintain clarity of thought during particularly difficult situations. I learned my first important lesson in thinking on my feet during my freshman year of high school in Father Rudolph Mueller's Latin grammar class. Back in those days Latin was still a required subject, especially in Catholic prep schools for boys like the school that I attended. It was run by Catholic priests of the Vincentian Order and they were stern taskmasters indeed. Father Rudolph Mueller, our Latin teacher, whom we called "Fodder Rudi" amongst ourselves wasn't a mean man, oh no, not at all. It was just that he was such a big, strong, no nonsense kind of guy who had little room for levity in his busy schedule and who truly believed in corporal punishment. I am forever ready to testify in the courts of priestly justice that the good Father should never be accused of "sparing the rod" in the discharge of his teaching responsibilities. In Fodder Rudi's case, however, it wasn't the "rod" as such, it was his hand. It was a big hand. He did have a sense of humor but it was very dry, sarcastic, and brittle from not being used much. He was a very serious scholar. His favorite pastime, for example, was studying and memorizing obscure German verbs and he was a recognized expert in that language.

On the day that I was to learn my lesson we were assembled in Fodder Rudi's class to conjugate. Now conjugating, especially in this day and age, sounds like some real "earthy" activity but all that it really means is putting verb forms in their proper inflectional order as in "I love, you love, she loves" etc. In Latin, just as in Spanish, the pronouns are combined with the verb into one word and as the subject changes number and form, the verb changes accordingly. Thus the "I love, you love, he or she loves" of English becomes simply "amo, amas, amat" in Latin (or amo, amas, ama" in Spanish). The majority of Latin verbs are regular and to a certain extent they take the same pronoun endings over and over again. However, just as in Spanish, there are also some irregular verbs that change randomly (to trip you up) and it takes a lot of study and practice to be able to use the correct form.

That is what we were doing one memorable day in Latin class, conjugating our verbs. Fodder Rudi would call out a verb and whoever was seated next in the row had to stand up and conjugate it correctly. I emphasize "correctly" because in Fodder Rudi's life there was no room for "incorrectly". You either knew the material or you didn't and if you didn't you were condemned automatically to a purgatory of after school activity that was appropriately nicknamed "The Jug". One after another my classmates took turns standing up before Fodder Rudi to conjugate a verb. Over and over again we conjugated in earnest, " amo, amas, amat; I love, you love, he or she loves". In fact, it was making us all rather drowsy. The sun was shining and the windows were open and we could see the leaves on the trees changing colors.

The session dragged on an on. The clock stood still or so it seemed to us...amo, amas, amat. Finally it was my turn and I began to perk up in preparation. It was no time to be caught napping. Fodder Rudi had been slowly pacing the aisles and browsing through a book of German verbs while he idly tossed out Latin verbs to us. He was quite an amazing fellow. Suddenly he stopped directly in front of me and called out the word "scire", which is the infinitive form of the verb, "to know". As I slowly stood up to take my turn a sense of real panic began to overtake me but not because I didn't know the verb. Oh, no! The problem was that I did know the verb. I knew it all too well and so did my classmates and they were all ready to see me roast. In regular usage the Latin word scire is a perfectly respectable word but when you isolate it and conjugate it in front of an English speaking audience like my goofy buddies the situation can really get out of hand. My fellow students were well aware of the problem and were planning to have a good time at my expense.

The first person singular form of the verb scire is "scio", or "I know", and it is no problem at all. The second person singular of the verb is "scis" or, "you know", and again it is no problem. The third person singular form which corresponds to the English pronouns "he, she, or it" is the real problem. The Latin form is "scit" and is pronounced almost the same as a common vulgar four letter word in English. It is the "S" word, so to speak. The task that I faced had to be pulled off with military precision and a clear and steady voice in order to escape the blow from Fodder Rudi's large hand and a late afternoon session in "The Jug". My audience was grateful not only because they were about to witness a good show but also because it was me and not them. They were interested in seeing if I would suffer which is only fair, I guess, since I would have been thinking the same way if one of them had been called instead. My seat was near the back of the room and as I stood I could see the neck muscles of those in front of me quiver from the pressure of repressed laughter. The few that could not possibly control their visage sufficiently to escape Fodder Rudi's gaze had twisted around in their seats to look the other way and I could see in their contorted torsos the mighty struggle they were having to keep from bursting forth in riotous glee.

It was very tense. I could feel my body bunch up as if I were a cat about to leap. My breath came fast and shallow and my mouth was paper dry. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears and I knew by the hot flush at the back of my neck that my face was slowly turning beet red. I took a deep breath and as slowly and as solemnly as I could I intoned the first word. "Scio", I said in a loud, clear, and steady voice. The clock stood still. A fly idly buzzed by the nearby window. My classmates were frozen in the dead silence of anticipation. I had completed the first of three parts successfully. "Don't give up now", I told myself, "press on". I gathered my courage for the second word. "Scis", I said without much hesitation. The first two words had taken only a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity to me.

I was now standing in front of a large and serious Catholic priest who had slowly moved as close as he could to where I stood. I was staring into the clear, steel grey eyes of Fodder Rudi. This was it, my first true test of concentration and control. I opened my mouth and with an air of confident authority I crisply pronounced the third and final word. "Scit" (SHIT), I said, and followed quickly with the plural forms. Nothing happened and no one moved a muscle for several seconds. There we were eyeball to eyeball as the seconds ticked. The world was absolutely still until Fodder Rudi finally spoke. "Correct", he said, "sit down...next!". I don't know much about what happened after that. Just short of fainting from relief I sank back into my chair in triumph. In the last few seconds I had risen from a mediocre plebe to the rank of a class legend and I was an instant hero in my little universe. I must say that it felt good. I had actually done it. I had faced down Father Rudolph Mueller on his own turf and emerged unscathed to gloat about it. It could have easily gone the other way and I could have faltered and suffered the consequences but I didn't and I am glad. Too bad for you, Fodder Rudi, ha-ha, better luck next time, eh?

Now...there IS a moral to this story. If you want to learn to speak another language with confidence and clarity and feel sure of yourself in any situation you must buckle down and study. Soooo, what are you waiting for? Get busy!...or do you want me to call Fodder Rudi?

12 October 2008

My new epitaph...

I am going to be sixty-one at the end of this month (boo-hoo). I am still a young man but I am now on the downward leg of life's curve and it won't be all that long before I begin the inevitable willy-nilly slide toward the finish line. In light of that fact I have been thinking about my epitaph...again. I used to have a darn good epitaph but I outlasted it. I am an old fan of the Chicago Cubs. When I was younger there were no lights for nighttime baseball at Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs. Sometimes the games would go into extra innings but when the sun went down, the game had to end and the game was "called" on account of darkness. We used to have a saying in Chicago relating to night baseball that denoted a negative sentiment. In my old Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square, for example, people might say “I'll vote Republican when the lights go on at Wrigley field”. In those days that meant “NEVER!”. Times have changed, however, and the lights go on at Wrigley Field these days and so much for that. Nevertheless, many Chicago folks still won't vote Republican no matter if the lights go on or not. In the old “daytime baseball only” days I always wanted my epitaph to be “Game called on account of darkness” but then they went and put up those doggone lights and left me bereft of a suitable epitaph.

Last year when Gina and I went to the Irapuato cemetery to clean off the graves of relatives for the Day of the Dead and leave the traditional marigold-like cempasúchil (sem-pah-SOO-cheel) flowers I wandered around taking note of other people's epitaphs:

“La misma muerte que hoy nos separa, nos reunirá algún día. Hasta entonces, Papá.”
The same death that separates us today will reunite us again someday. Until then, Dad.

“Si una vida de mártir llevaron en la tierra, que una vida de gloria le dé Dios en el cielo.”
“If one lives the life of a martyr on Earth, may God will give them a life of glory in Heaven.”

“Que Dios te dé en el cielo la dicha que en la tierra se te negó.”
May God give you the joy in Heaven that you were denied on Earth.

“Queridos míos, estoy en casa, todo el dolor y sufrimiento han terminado, ahora estoy en paz para siempre, tranquila en casa, en el cielo por fin.”
My dear ones, I am home. All of the pain and suffering has ended. I am now at peace forever, tranquilly at home in Heaven at last.

“Nos dejó por herencia el más preciado tesoro, el recuerdo de sus consejos, la imagen de la bondad y el ejemplo de su vida en la tierra.”
He left us an inheritance of the most precious treasure, the memory of his counsel, the image of his goodness, and the example of his life on Earth.

“Vos nos lo disteis Señor para ser nuestra dicha, vos nos lo pedisteis y os lo damos con corazón destrozado.”
(Note: The above Spanish is that of a Spaniard. A Mexican would say: “Tú nos lo diste Señor para nuestra dicha y Tú nos lo pides y Te lo damos con el corazón detrozado”.)
You gave us life oh Lord for our happiness and You ask for it back and we give it to You with a broken heart.

“Viviste, padeciste, y sufriste con la virtud de un buen cristiano, y con el año viejo te fuiste para gozar el reino de Dios.”
You lived, you endured, and you suffered with the virtue of a good Christian, and bidding farewell to all of your troubles you went to enjoy the fruits of the Kindom of God. (Note: “El año viejo” is a tradition in Latin America where all of the troubles of the old year are bid farewell and burned in effigy. There is no way to translate this epitaph simply and directly word for word.)

Thinking of epitaphs and the Cubs and Chicago politics I started to wonder about the epitaphs that might be suitable for the current crop of U.S. presidential politicians. I put on my thinking cap and came up with the following:

George W. Bush

John McCain

Sarah Palen

Barack Obama

Joe Biden

Hillary Clinton

Bill Clinton

I was ruminating on these epitaphs when my wife Gina's little three year old grandson came into the living room and headed for the front door. I said to him, “Oye, amigo, ¿adonde vas?” - “Hey pal, where are you going?”. He drew himself up to his full height, pointed out the door, and with a solemn look on his face and in his best imitation of Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story” he intoned:

To infinity and beyond!

That's it!!!! That's my new epitaph! Like they say...“Out of the mouth of babes".

Now all I have to decide is whether it should be in English or in Spanish.

I know! I'll make it bilingual and do both.

09 October 2008

Dialog - The Hotel

In our last dialog “The Road Trip”, we left our two travelers headed for Monterrey, Nuevo León, hoping that they would find a place to stay because one of them forgot to make reservations. Let's listen in now and see how they are doing:

Te dije que debiste hacer reservaciones antes de salir de viaje. Tu nunca me escuchas. Ahora que hay tantas exposiciones en Monterrey probablemente necesitamos dormir en el coche. Ya fuimos a seis hoteles buscando habitaciones y todos están llenos.
I told you that you should make reservations before we left on the trip. You never listen. Now that there are so many conventions in Monterrey we will probably need to sleep in the car. We already went to six hotels looking for rooms and they are all full.

¡Relájate amigo! Despreocúpate. Tengo todo bajo control. Vamos al hotel que mencionó el gasolinero que nos dijo que su cuñado es el gerente. Está muy cerca. Mira, ya llegamos.
Relax, pal. Stop worrying. I have everything under control. Let's go to the hotel that the gas station attendant mentioned where his brother-in-law is the manager. It is very close by. Look, we are already here.

¡Oye! A mi no parece bien ese hotel. Es feo y el barrio no me gusta. ¿Como sabemos que no es peligroso?
Hey! This hotel doesn't look good to me. It is ugly and I don't like the neighborhood. How do we know that it isn't dangerous?

Es solo para una noche. No pasa nada. Vamos adentro y ver si hay unas habitaciones.
It's only for one night. Nothing is going to happen. Let's go inside and see if there are any vacant rooms.

Bueno, pero no me gusta.
Okay, but I don't like it.

(Ellos bajaron del coche y entraron el hotel con precaución.)
(They get out of the car and enter the hotel with caution.)

Buenas tardes.
Good afternoon.

Buenas tardes, caballeros. ¿En qué puedo servirles?
Good afternoon gentlemen. How may I help you?

¿Hay habitaciones disponibles? Queremos dos habitaciones sencillas.
Are there rooms available. We want two singles.

Si señor, hay dos disponibles.
Yes sir, there are two vacancies.

¿Cuánto cuesta cada habitación?
How much does each room cost?

¿Quieren ustedes habitaciones por horas o por toda la noche?
Do you want the rooms by the hour or for the entire night?

Por toda la noche ¡por supuesto!
For the entire night of course!

Cientoveinte pesos señor.
One hundred twenty pesos sir.

¿Incluye desayuno?
Does it include breakfast?

No, señor, solo incluye un baño en cada habitación. Nada más.
No sir, it only includes a private bath in each room. Nothing else.

Nos permite ver los cuartos.
Can you let us see the rooms?

Si, cómo no. Primer piso los dos cuartos a la derecha el 101 y 103. Aquí están las llaves.
Sure, why not. First floor, the two rooms to the right number 101 and 103. Here are the keys.

(Los viajeros subieron las escaleras ante el asombro de ver tantos huéspedes subir y bajar en compañía de algunas chicas.)
The travellers climb the stairs and are surprised to find so many guests going up and down accompanied by young ladies.

Oye mi amigo, hay mucho tráfico aquí ¿ no?
Listen my friend, there's a lot of activity here isn't there?

Ya vez, no es para tanto. Aparentemente el hotel es muy popular.
You see, it's not so bad. Aparently this hotel is very popular.

¿Qué te parece la habitación?
What do you think of the room?

Es muy sencilla pero por lo menos está limpia y no tenemos otra opción.
It is very plain but at least it is clean and we don't have another option.

Bueno, vamos a pagar la noche, y a ver que pasa.
Okay, let's pay for the night and see what happens.

Note: Some additional comments:

¡Oye! A mi no parece bien ese hotel. Es feo y el barrio no me gusta. - The reason that the hotel looked ugly and was in a bad neighborhood is because our two innocent travelers stumbled upon a “hotel de paso” which we might call in English a “no-tell motel”. In other words, it is a hotel that rents rooms by the hour to men and their escorts for “amorous encounters”. That is why the clerk asked them if they wanted rooms by the hour or for the entire night.

Primer piso los dos cuartos a la derecha el 101 y 103. - In Mexico the ground floor is called the “planta baja” and is even labeled in elevators with the letters PB. The “first floor” is the floor directly above the “planta baja” and is what we might call the “second floor” in English.

Los viajeros subieron las escaleras ante el asombro de ver – The phrase “ante el asombro de ver” generally carries the meaning “surprised to find” or “amazed to see”. Our innocents were happy to see that the hotel was popular but they didn't realize why. Perhaps they thought it was because of the room rate is pretty cheap by any standards, especially for Monterrey.

Note the twin peaks of Cerro de la Silla in the photo below. This mountain is a famous symbol of Monterrey.

07 October 2008

Festival Internacional Cervantino

October 8th marks the beginning of the 36th world famous Festival Internacional Cervantino (FIC) in the City of Guanajuato which will run through October 26th. There is much more than normal concern about security this year after the awful terrorist attack on innocent bystanders in the City of Morelia on the night of September 15th as reported by my friend Cristina of “Mexico Cooks!” in her excellent post entitled “Fiestas Patrias Mexicanas”. Yesterday there was a contingent of special federal police who arrived in Guanajuato to augment the 400 police officers from surrounding municipalities who will work in shifts to keep both the populace and the visitors safe from harm. In order to do this effectively they are asking for cooperation from all of the people who attend the event. They are going to strictly enforce rules about not drinking in the streets and try to keep boisterous behavior to a minimum. I think this is a good thing in general for the festival because in the last few years the revelers have become quite boisterous indeed. I thought I might help out by putting together a little Spanish lesson for those international visitors who insist on ignoring the authorities in order that the miscreants might feel less bewildered and more comfortable during their subsequent arrest and confinement. Here are some things that they might want to consider memorizing although I must make a disclaimer. Many of these will invoke little action other than smiles and peals of laughter.

¡Oye oficial! No me apuntes con esa ametralladora por favor.
Hey officer! Please don't point that machine gun at me.

Note: If the policeman carries a rifle instead of a machine gun then use the following:

¡Oye oficial! No me apuntes con ese cuerno de chivo por favor.
Hey officer! Please don't point that AK-47 at me.

Las esposas están demasiado apretadas. ¿Puedes aflójarlas por favor?
The handcuffs are too tight. Can you loosen them please?

¿Oye! No me pegues con esa macana.
Hey! Don't hit me with that nightstick.

¡Socorro! Tengo herida. Estoy sangrando.
Help! I am wounded. I am bleeding.

¡Fúchila! Esa patrulla huele mal.
Phew! This patrol car smells awful.

Esta jaula está muy sucia. Quiero cambiarme a una que esté limpia.
This jail cell is very dirty. I want to move to one that is clean.

Esta jaula es muy abarrotada. Estamos como sardinas en lata.
This jail cell is very crowded. We are packed in like sardines.

¡Guácala! El excusado no sirve.
Yuck! The toilet doesn't work.

¿Hay papel sanitario?
Is there any toilet paper?

¿Hay aspirina?
Is there any aspirin?

Tengo frio. Me presta una cobija?
I'm cold. Can you lend me a blanket?

¿Me prestas una almohada también?
Can you, lend me a pillow also?

¿A qué hora nos dan de comer?
When are they going to feed us?

¿Hay café?
Is there any coffee?

¿Cómo puedo tener liberdad bajo fianza?
How can I make bail?

Creo que necesito un abogado. Puedes recomendar a alguien?
I believe I need a lawyer. Can you recommend someone?

Me permites hacer una llamada por teléfono?
Can you let me make a phone call?

¿Oficial, cuanto tiempo tarda este proceso? Mi avión sale en dos horas.
Officer, how long is this going to take? My plane leaves in two hours.

Oye oficial. ¿No hay una otra manera que podemos resolver esta situación?
Listen officer. Isn't there another way that we can work this out?

¿Aceptas American Express?
Do you take American Express?

04 October 2008

Dialog - The Road Trip

In our last dialog, Moctezuma's Revenge, we listened in on two companions who were starting off on a road trip to another city but had to stop and postpone the trip for a few days because one of them had a bad case of diarrhea. We now encounter them both in good health and fine spirits and ready to set forth once more.

Buenos días amigo. ¿Como te sientes?
Good morning my friend. How do you feel?

Buenos días. Estoy bien. No te preocupes. Mi problema de chorillo ya pasó.
Good morning. I am okay. Don't worry. My problem with the runs is completely gone.

¿Ya listo para salir?
Are you all ready to go?

Espérame tantito. Necesito arreglar bien el equipaje. ¡Ya vámanos!
Just a second. I need to stow the luggage. Okay, let's go!

¿Almorzaste bien o vamos a comer en la carretera?
Did you eat a good breakfast or are we going to eat on the road.

Vamos y cuando nos de hambre paramos a comer. ¿Cuánto tiempo tardamos en ver el Cerro de la Silla?
Let's go and when we get hungry we can stop for something to eat. How long is it going to take before we see Saddle Mountain?

Si todo sale bien llegaremos en Monterrey en la tarde como a tiempo de comida.
If everything goes okay we will arrive in Monterrey around dinner time.

¡Que bueno! Entonces, mejor llamar a Federico e invítalo a comer.
That's great! Then it would be good to call Federico and invite him to dinner.

Buen idea. ¿Qué se te antoja comer?
Good idea. What kind of food are you thinking you would like to eat?

Si vamos a Monterrey es natural que pedimos cabrito, ¿No?
If we are going to Monterrey then it is a sure bet that we order kid goat. Right?

Tienes razón. ¡Se me hace agua la boca!
You're right. It sure makes my mouth water!

¿Qué tipo de cabrito le gusta?
What kind of goat do you like?

A mi me gusta cabrito al pastor ¿y tù?
I really like roast goat, and you?

A mi me gusta más cabrito al horno porque es más jugoso.
I like baked goat better because it is jucier.

Oye, ¿has una vez probado cabrito en sangre?
Hey, have you ever tried goat in blood sauce?

¡Guácala! ¿Qué feo! No me gusta comida cocida en sangre.
Yuck! How ugly! I don't like anything cooked in blood.

No es tan fea como la cabeza de cabrito. ¿Has probado?
It's not as bad as roast goat's head. Have you tried that?

Sí, es muy buena. Sabe màs deliciosa de lo que aparece.
Yes, it's very good. It tastes much better than it looks.

¡Oye! ¿Hiciste reservaciones en el hotel? ¿Recuerdas que te dije que hay dos exposiciones en Monterrey, una de zapatos y la otra de herramientas?
Hey! Did you make reservations at the hotel? Remember that I told you there were two conventions in Monterrey, one for shoes and the other for tools?

Oh, oh. Olvidé. Préstame tu celular, porfa.
Oh, oh. I forgot. Let me have your cell phone.

Ojalá no tengamos problemas para hospedar.
I sure hope that we don't have problems finding a place to stay.

No te apures, amigo. Tengo todo bajo control.
Don't worry about a thing, pal. I have everything under control.

Note: Some additional comments:

¿Cuánto tiempo tardamos en ver el Cerro de la Silla? - Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain) refers to the signature mountain of Monterrey, Nuevo León. The word “silla” (SEE-yuh) means “chair” but it can also mean saddle. The “cerro” ( SEHR-roh) or “mountain” has twin peaks that look like the high pommel and cantle of an old style Spanish saddle. You can see an outline of Cerro de Silla in the picture below.

A mi me gusta cabrito al pastor - Cabrito al Pastor (kah-BREE-toh ahl pahs-TOHR) is the signature dish of Monterrey. It is a kid goat that has been spread open and roasted whole in the style of a “pastor” (shepherd) by propping it up in front of glowing coals. You can see an example in the photo below.

A mi me gusta más cabrito al horno – Cabrito al Horno (ahl OHR-noh) is oven roasted kid goat. It is cooked in a pot in the oven and not in front of an open fire and it is a lot jucier than Cabrito al Pastor.

Oye, ¿has una vez probado cabrito en sangre? - Cabrito en Sangre (ehn SAHN-gray) is kid goat cooked in blood sauce and sounds much worse than it is. It is quite good actually. The blood and some of the internal organs are made into a sauce that the goat is cooked in. It is dark brown in color and very flavorful. You should try it. Who knows? You might like it. Besides that it will look very good on your “been there, done that” list.

¡Guácala! ¿Qué feo! - You may not find the word guácala (yuck) in your Spanish / English dictionary but in Mexico it is quite common. The "g" is pronounced in the back of the throat. Sometimes the word it is accompanied by a gesture of opening one's mouth wide and bending over slightly while poining one's index figure into one's mouth as if to provoke regurgitation.

No tan fea como cabeza de cabrito. - Not to completely gross you out or anything but Cabeza (cah-BAY-zuh) de Cabrito is the roast head of a kid goat that generally is split from front to back and is served in halves skull down on the plate with the skull forming a sort of bowl. It includes the jaws and the tongue and you can see the little teeth in the jaws. Again, the tongue and the brains are very tasty but like the Cabrito en Sangre this dish might not be for everyone.

Additional note:

Here is some inside information for you. In Dialog #7, Bírria de Cabrito, we talked about kid goat that had been steamed. In this form of cooking, the goat head is also eaten and it is considered a favorite delicacy by many people. The cheeks, the tongue and the brain are really delicious. Unlike the style of goat head served in Monterrey which is split open front to back and served in halves, the cabeza de bírria (deh BEE-rree-uh) is served whole. The goat heads are generally cheap and plentiful so there is usually not much of a problem with availability. My friends tell me that when I go to a place that I have never been before that I should ask if they have bírria de cabeza no matter what kind of bírria I want to order. It the vendor says that they don't have any cabeza then one should be very careful. Sometimes an unscrupulous vendor will cook a dog that was killed in the highway and pass it off as goat and the reason that they don't show you the head is because the canine teeth on a dog are a dead giveaway that what they are selling isn't goat. I have never had this experience and so what I am telling you is only hearsay but nevertheless it makes for one of those juicy urban legends that make people either laugh or shudder.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.