Archive | January, 2016

Toto, We’re Not in Kentucky Anymore

31 Jan

You know you’re not in Kentucky anymore when you wake up to find your coffeemaker colonized by some tiny species of ant. It had been ant-free the night before, and, as usual, I’d put in the water and coffee so I could press the button and go back to bed while my magical elixir brewed itself (oh happy day, this electricity thing!). Alas, dead ants were swimming in my coffee. Live ants were swarming the machine. Ants were struggling to survive in the water part in the back. It was just another day in Puerto Escondido. These things just didn’t happen to me in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lots of other havoc and mini-disasters did happen in Kentucky, though (like when I moved into an apartment with fleas. Bleck!) There’s no perfect place, just like there’s no perfect relationship, no perfect person. Here, I don’t worry about tornadoes every time it storms (and it rarely even storms), which is a great relief. There are no watches and warnings to keep updated on, no tornado sirens to fuel a panic attack. Instead, however, I keep abreast of the hurricane forecast from May to November (the rainy season). Earthquakes are also more frequent here than in my hometown, and don’t even talk to me about the possibility of tsunamis (terrifying!).

Mostly I love the two-season system (rainy and dry), although I miss the leaves changing in the fall. I miss the excitement of taking the plastic off of my windows in the spring (cheap insulation), but you don’t have to get excited about a warmish day when you haven’t been bummed out and trapped inside for 3 or 4 months.

What’s funny, though, is how some countries’ seasonal status quo becomes the dominant, normalized thing worldwide, even when it’s not the slightest bit relevant. Take snow on Christmas as an example. Pretty much every single image about Christmas shows snow or snowflakes or Santa in his winter outfit or whatever. Yet snow is only even possible in half of the world, since the other half is in the hemisphere where it’s summer in December. Then there are all the other places without those kinds of seasons- like here. Whenever things like spring come up in my classroom activities I have to not only translate it but also describe what it actually means, because the four seasons mean diddly squat to my students. Needless to say, it’s never going to snow here for Christmas. There are no chimneys, either, so I guess Santa just has to break in. Perhaps that’s why so few people get excited about Christmas around here.

It got me to thinking about all the things that are and will be so different for my kids growing up here, different from how things were for me in Kentucky. Not just seasonal things, but cultural and political things, like the lack of emergency vehicles. The only time we hear sirens is when some religious pilgrim group has taken charge of an ambulance and is using it to parade through the town.

I knew my kids were living a totally different reality when I rode a wild-ish ride at a fair with a 7 year old. Not only are there no official rules about how tall you have to be to ride rides, there is essentially no regard for safety (which, you know, tends to be more fun, until someone gets seriously injured). We were on this ride pictured below and the apparently teenaged boys controlling the ride are jumping up onto the ride and manually spinning us around so we go faster. It was fantastically fun, and it would never, ever, ever happen in Louisville, Kentucky. If it did there’d be a big public outcry and possibly lawsuits and everything would get shut down after the first time it happened.


I rode this ride with a 7 year old who was not at all impressed.

Or there’s the way people in Kentucky assume that we must live out in the country (we don’t!). Perhaps it’s because all the animals in our “farm animals” book roam around our neighborhood (except pigs). Really, different neighbors boast sheep, goats, tons of chickens, and now a couple cows, in addition to the mean old dogs. And yet we live right behind the biggest public university in town, inside what’s more or less a small city.

Of course, it doesn’t help convince people we live in a city when I tell them about the lack of sidewalks, and the dirt road we live on. And yes, I hate that Lucia can’t just go outside to the sidewalk to practice on her roller skates or her bike. I hate that using a stroller is an extreme sport. It’s not like that in all neighborhoods in Puerto; lots of areas have at least paved roads if not sidewalks, but it is part of our family’s reality.

Then there’s much more stuff that’s neither good nor bad, just different from how I grew up. Like not leaving the house without mosquito repellant, but shoes being optional. Yes, I know, there’s that image of us Kentucky folks with no shoes, and indeed, I spent summers running around barefoot sometimes. But you can’t go inside ANYWHERE without shoes in Louisville. Here, it’s no problem if your flip flop blows out or your heel comes unglued from the heat or you just didn’t feel like fighting with the kid to get their shoes on. You can go to restaurants, supermarkets, just about any damn where without shoes and nobody cares.

Here, we check our shoes for scorpions before we put them on. We take showers with cold water (so much better for your skin!). Fresh coconut is a routine part of our diet. There’s no fast food but there are lots of street vendors with bicycle carts to sell you all kinds of junk food. There are so many differences that seem so normal to me now, three and a half years since our move. I’m looking forward to comparing notes with my kids when they’re older- their childhood versus mine. Assuming, that is, that we don’t get blown away by any hurricanes or devoured by ants before then!


Ice cream carts like these even make it to the most remote neighborhoods, to the beach, wherever! All kinds of junk food vendors LOVE to post up outside of schools, of course.

image street vendor bici

These kinds of carts are the common (and cool, in my humble opinion). 

images street food vendors

Homemade street food can include healthy options like fruit, jicama, popcorn, or super fried (and yummy) crap like chicharrines or pork rinds

6pm Playground Duty

25 Jan

My Zootecnia (Animal Husbandry) class is like a class full of 12 year olds, most of whom have seem to have unmedicated Attention Deficit Disorder. Supposedly I teach adults (it is a university), thus avoiding the whole discipline situation. Tragically, that is far from the case at 6pm. I’m more likely to find these students shooting spitballs at each other than doing anything productive. Every evening at 5:57 I square my shoulders and prepare for battle.


Okay, mostly I just shrug my shoulders, reminding myself that after this I get to go home to my real children. “Hello! Good evening! How are you all?” I ask, radiating enthusiasm and positivity.  Why not? I love my job, and I even like these students. They make me laugh maniacally even when they stubbornly refuse to learn anything.


For example, the other day one of my bright goody-two-shoes biology students at noon was holding the class ball. It’s a soft little ball I use when I want everyone to participate. Students read a line from the passage, or answer a question, or whatever it is that we’re doing, then they pick the “next victim” to read aloud or answer the next question or what have you by throwing the ball to that person. I like to think it magically converts a dreaded task into something more fun, although I’m not sure my students really agree.


“Teacher, who is Alex?” this bright little level one girl asked out of the blue (name changed to protect the guilty). “I have a student named Alex in another class. Why?” I asked her. She showed me the ball, where my oddball 6pm student had indeed written his name on my class ball. I remembered that the last time we’d used it in his class he’d asked me to give it to him. “Regalemelo” he repeated about 5 times, and every time I clearly said no. “Why not?” he asked me then, as if I’d denied him something legitimate, like, I dunno, instruction in English. “Because it’s my ball for class activities. No and no. Give me back the ball.” I didn’t notice then that he’d already marked it. The audacity!


I wasn’t particularly worried about damage to my ball, but I took advantage to give my student a hard time. “Alex, my daughter is 3 years old,” I told my student, speaking slowly in English, making gestures to make sure he got it. “And she likes to color on everything. I constantly tell her, ‘We only color on paper. We don’t color on walls. We don’t color on the baby’s head. We only color on paper.’  It’s a problem because she is three years old. But you are not three years old! So why did you color on my ball?” I’m smiling but shaking my finger at him. I’m much more bemused than angry, but my entire 6pm class seems to love me scolding them.


Is it silly to find them shooting spitballs at each other and smacking each other upside the head, taking each other’s books so they get their friend in trouble for not having a book? Yes. Is it absurd that my party girl student uses her phone dictionary to look up every single word in a reading, then tries to ask me every other word during exams? Yep. Do they sometimes sidetrack me by asking totally irrelevant questions or making me repeat something that I’m pretty sure they already got? Yes and yes. But it’s also my only class where some students come to my office for extra help, including two that just want to practice more in their spare time. I love that in this class my sharpest student never gives her boyfriend the answers, making him work for it instead. I love that my party girl comes up with hysterically incorrect translations. I love that every once in a while they prove that they’ve learned something, because it feels like a much bigger success than my other classes’ learning.



Is this class full of smart asses? Yes, but luckily I appreciate smart-asses.

Sure, sometimes it irritates me to spend half of class saying things like, “Put away your cell phone!” “Please stop talking while someone else is talking!” “In English, please,” “Focus! Concentrate! We’re reading!” “Listen to so-and-so. I can’t hear because everyone else is talking.” “Do I need to separate you two?” I feel like a broken record, but some of them have some good come-backs, and they usually have the decency to look abashed when I call them out. They’re not purposely rude, they just can’t seem to hold that thought the entire class hour.


Many of them can’t stay in class the whole time, either. They “go to the bathroom” for long periods of time, sometimes multiple times in a class. (Did I mention it’s only an hour-long class?)  Nothing deters them. Even embarrassing questions about their stomach or bladder problems just make them smile and shake their heads. If all my classes were like this, I’d take it personally and assume I’m a horrendously boring teacher, but thankfully 6pm is the only one who behaves like this.


Inevitably, before class even begins, some wise-ass or the other asks if we are getting out of class early tonight. Mostly I tell them it’s up to them. “Get to work and we might get to leave early,” I say, dangling my carrot in the hopes that it’ll motivate them to stay on task. “Teacher,” they whine, making it sound like teeeeecher. I believe it might be the only word some of them know in English, despite this being a level two class.


After our exchange of greetings, I tell them our objective and then notice that only about 20 percent of them have something out on their desk. “Where’s your book?” I ask several students. Some of them take it out of their bags. Others frown sheepishly or tell me they forgot it, yet again. “Where’s your notebook?” I ask several other students. Usually they take it out of their bag, even if it’s not really their English notebook. Good enough if they have something to write on. “Guys, come on, let’s go! Let’s at least get out some kind of tool for learning, even if you don’t have plans to learn tonight! You’re in college, guys!” There’s my opening pep talk for Zootecnia. Apparently they love this routine, because we have to go through it every night. They’re like attention-starved children, and they can’t seem to figure out how this education routine goes exactly.


Just because I make them put things on their desk, though, doesn’t mean that they’re going to do anything with those items. We can spend the entire class learning our 10 new target vocabulary words and some of them still won’t have them written down. One night I made each student show me their notes in order to leave class. But that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll bring those notes in order to apply their vocabulary the next day. Sigh.



Even this level of note taking often doesn’t happen for some. Alas. 

Other creative tactics have included taking roll at the end of class instead of at the beginning, so the students who have been out roaming campus for the past twenty minutes of class are thus marked absent. Really I’m not bothered by those students leaving class, because it’s preferable to them disrupting everyone around them. Mostly I’m a natural consequences type of parent/teacher anyway, and I figure if they don’t spend time in class they probably won’t pass, and I won’t feel guilty about it.


Aside from waiting for my I-told-you-so moment of truth when they see their grades, my number one discipline tactic is rampant scolding and finger-wagging. Occasionally I have to implement rules with the consequence of being asked to leave class. (For example, “Whoever doesn’t bring their book tomorrow can’t stay for class.” “Whoever talks while other students are presenting will be asked to leave.”) For some reason, even though many of them leave class on their own for half an hour, being asked to leave class by the teacher is not cool, so it’s a pretty effective tactic, as long as I don’t use it too often.


I also get my revenge in various ways. For instance, it was quiz night and several of them wanted class time to study. “Teacher, 5 minutes!” they hollered. “No! We want to get out early!” I imitated them, cackling away about using their own complaint against them. Bwahahaha! Then, when they got the quiz, they all freaked out because they couldn’t remember how to do the grammar section. “But teacher, we didn’t practice this yesterday!” Ummm, no, but we learned it last week, and practiced it for 2 days, plus I told them they needed to study it for the quiz. And yet several of them asked me things like, “What do I put if it’s superlative again?” or “Is this right?” even though they know I never give them answers to the stuff they’re supposed to be studying. Hope springs eternal, right? So I keep hoping that my next semester’s Zootecnia class will be a little less like being a playground monitor and more like being a teacher- although it might not be quite as entertaining. We’ll see.



Duct Tape & Therapy Techniques To the Rescue

10 Jan

It was all fun and games until water burst forth from the wall. Our household improvements and  reorganizing was going swimmingly, brilliantly even, in the few days since we’d been back from Juquila on my winter vacation. I’d gone through three years worth of kid clothes and organized the sales/giveaway clothes, plus reorganized the kid chest of drawers. I did laundry and put away all the clean clothes. I reorganized all the toys. I finished cleaning out my closet (I’d mostly gotten it done over a 3 day weekend but there was one little section left). Conan put up new shelves in the kid room and the kitchen. He did a ton of cleaning. We bought thrilling new gadgets, such as a napkin holder. It was feeling like a sensational vacation.



Behold! A napkin holder! On our new kitchen table!!!!! We’ve moved so far beyond our piece of plywood on saw horses….


My new spice rack!


Okay, so I haven’t gotten to the kid books yet. But the kid toys are organized by type of toy, whether you can tell by the picture or not. It’s a miracle!


New kitchen shelves and a new faucet to replace the leaky one!

We were a cheery and energetic bunch. It really was how I wanted to spend my vacation- at least part of it. For one thing, it felt like claiming my space, making this house even more into a home. Conan and I desperately needed the sanity from more organization. The constant clutter from not having a place for everything was driving us crazy, even though we’re not exactly super organized types.


Khalil was the other motivating factor. He is suddenly not a little baby- he’s a giant and active baby who can’t be contained to a small space in the living room. It was totally unsafe for him anywhere else in the house, which was frustrating for everyone. So once I reorganized and he was suddenly able to go into the kid room and play with all the big toys, it changed his whole outlook. He was ecstatic, and we were pleased as punch to watch him crawl and semi-walk around and play like the 10 month old he is. It’s so satisfying to see the toys getting used at age-appropriate times. For example, Khalil can play with all the shape shifter things and the blocks because they’re all accessible to him now. Lucia can play with her puzzles because they’re properly stored where she has to be supervised to play them so we don’t lose half the pieces. It’s earth-shatteringly wonderful, even if it may not sound like it to you (in which case you must not be the parent of small children- you don’t have an existence based around total family chaos!).


It was my second to last night of vacation, and most of our projects were completed when Conan started drilling to put up the last new kitchen shelf. He dropped the f-bomb, which he doesn’t do nearly as often or as easily as I do. I rushed over to see a little fountain raining down out of the wall. Yikes. “How can I help?” I asked, calm because there’s always something to do in the midst of an emergency. “Hold here,” he said, and I put my fingers over the hole in the wall (only partially effective) while Conan turned off the water.


Once the flooding of our house was safely averted, the black rain cloud of doom came out. I asked Conan what we’d need to do to fix it. “Bust open the concrete wall and change the pipe,” he said. Immediately, tears welled up in my eyes. My doom cloud of worst-case-scenario hovered over me. Panic squeezed my chest. I envisioned the last little bit of my Christmas bonus money, the money we were using on home repairs and some upcoming needed dentistry, going to this disaster instead. I imagined that it would send us into more debt. I lamented that all of this fabulous, life-improving repair and organization we’d done was all for naught, that this instant of miscalculated drilling had ruined everything. Not that I blamed Conan; it was the fault of bad luck, miserly fate, etc. Fault or no, though, it felt like the end of the freaking world.


Because I’ve now had many years of practice with these end-of-the-world moments, and thus far the world has yet to come to an end, I managed to refrain from real crying. Bless my little heart, I was even able to tell myself that yes, it felt like the worst thing ever, but it really wasn’t. It wasn’t even the worst thing this month! Plus it wasn’t even certain that all the horrible consequences that I could imagine would come to fruition from this. Thank you very much, these three decades of having a therapist for a mother is totally paying off. I finally took advantage and continued breathing. The world continued to revolve on its axis, and continues to this very day, believe it or not.


But welcome to Oaxaca, where two different plumbers have stood us up for days on end (and those are the recommended plumbers!). Despite this, thanks to Conan’s craftiness, we’ve had water this whole time. Even that first night, we just let the water spray out into Khalil’s plastic bathtub so we could take showers quickly (always a necessity in my tropical paradise) and then Conan turned the water off again. The next day, Conan knocked out part of the wall. But it wasn’t as much of the wall as I had imagined. Then he rigged up a fix for the pipe until a plumber deigns to visit us. And it’s the dry season, so we’ve got some time before we need to fix our wall. It definitely doesn’t negate the wonders of our other home improvements and the joy that they continue to bring to our whole family.



The original quick fix for drilling into the pipe. Crafty and stylish.


Getting even craftier as the days go by without a reliable plumber. Welcome to Oaxaca!


The duct tape that Conan used to fix the pipe gets the gold star award for most useful thing on the planet, by the way (brought down from Kentucky by my mom- way to go, Mama! Everyone here is jealous of my duct tape). It has not only saved the day in our renovations, but it is also my go-to fix for nearly everything. I’ve used it to cover holes in our window screens, like the hole some stray cat made trying to get at an empty can of tuna. I use it to make these cheap cloth boxes more durable and less likely to be eaten by moths and ants. I use it to put Lucia’s name on her lunchbox and other school stuff. I use it to hold my cell phone together- my oft-dropped, two-year-old, cell phone, the one I used as a flashlight at night for the year and a half we were without electricity. Now when I drop it or a child throws it to the ground, the battery doesn’t come out. And it looks cool (according to me)! We all knew duct tape was useful, but this tape with multicolored designs on it is the bee’s knees, for sure. And now we are using it to tape up the hole in our piping. It’s the most stylish house-flood-prevention ever!



My too-cool-for-school cloth boxes, remade with cardboard and rockin duct tape

Thus, I’m continuing to bask in the glory of an organized and clean house. I feel all smug and satisfied every time I walk in the door, like a cat that’s just presented you with the innards of his recent kill. When I told my students that I spent 5 days of vacation binge cleaning my house and that it was fantastic, they all just kind of looked at me in disbelief. Indeed, 20 year old me would never have believed it possible, either.


I’m exceedingly proud of Conan and myself for getting all this done with two mini-hurricane children under foot. But I’m also still patting myself on the back about not having a major breakdown over this plumbing disaster. It was like my little rational mind made a nice cup of chamomile tea for my little emotional mind in the midst of disappointment and panic, and it was a lovely little tear-free moment for everyone. I wouldn’t exactly call it wisdom, but it’s close enough for me. So thanks again, Mama, for all these years of free therapy, and the duct tape to boot.

Cigarette Christmas Trees, and Other Oaxacan Christmas Magic

3 Jan

This is Christmas #4 for us here in the lovely state of Oaxaca, and it just keeps getting more fun and more us, that special combo of gringo / my family traditions / Mexican / Conan’s family traditions / the stuff that we invent. I’m officially no longer a grinch!

Unbecoming a grinch has involved 1) not working in a restaurant or otherwise being exposed to excessive amounts of Christmas music, 2) having a very excitable three year old, 3) not being cold, 4) living somewhere where no one really expects a gift, and even the kids (who do kind of expect a gift) are stoked with just about anything. In these circumstances, who wouldn’t love Christmas?!

Here are some examples of our great cultural mix of Christmas excitement.

Christmas trees
Nobody has a real, live Christmas tree, partially because there aren’t that many pines, and partially because it’s not very cool to cut them down. So you either buy a fake tree, make a fake tree, or you cut down some other bare branched tree and decorate it. In Juquila, in the plaza, there’s a giant Christmas tree, which looks great at night. During daylight, however, you can see that it’s just a bunch of rows of green paper and some lights. It’s certainly more sustainable than cutting down live trees every year.


Lucia was stoked about this dress and spinning around in it.


Not looking at the camera, but still very festive in Juqulia’s plaza


Khalil in his candy cane pants


Also in Juquila, there’s a parade every year of “Christmas trees” that are just bare branched trees decorated in different ways. As far as I can tell it has nothing to do with the kind of Christmas decorations that people are accustomed to in the U.S. I am a big fan. Here’s an example of the weirdness/creativity:



decorated with paper flowers


more “Christmas trees” (and a mototaxi in the background- Lucia’s obsession in Juquila)


looking cute in front of some weird tree


decorated with orange slices- yum!


My favorite- a Marlboro-warning -themed Christmas tree. Hohoho!

At Paulina’s house in Juquila, we have a little fake tree, and our first Christmas here I bought decorations. Unfortunately nobody knows where those decorations are. Lucia was dying for a Christmas tree at our house, meanwhile, so while I was at work one day, Paulina had Conan cut down a sad little tree that was dying. They decorated it with cotton balls, some fake grapes, and the string of lights I’d bought that were previously hanging on our bookshelf. Then pieces of cotton started falling off onto the floor where the baby plays and I decided that was too much of a choking hazard, so Lucia and I strung up marshmallows and candy canes instead. But the real finishing touch came from Lucia eating the marshmallows. As 3 year olds are apt to do, she tattled on herself shortly afterward, but I couldn’t figure out which ones she had eaten because it looked like the decorations were still intact. I looked more closely and realized that every marshmallow within her reach had little bite marks in it. I love that she didn’t let her desire for marshmallows totally ruin the decorations.

xmas tree

our amazing Christmas tree at home in Puerto

xmas marshmallows

Lucia’s bites out of the marshmallows- the finishing touch!

Other Christmas highlights include:

Lucia got a mini-tent from her Abuela, which I’m talking her into using to sleep in, with the hopes of getting her out of our bed. She put herself down for a nap in it already so far, so it’s looking good. We’ll see when we get home.

Paulina invented kid gates to put up all around the roof (where the kitchen is) so the kids don’t die / seriously injure themselves. She used these wire things that had been up in her store before. I’m always impressed by her level of creative ingeniousness! Plus I am appreciative because it helped me relax and not need to be with the kids 24/7.


improvised baby gates! yipee!!!!


Lucia napping in her tent

On xmas eve a ton of family came by for family dinner, including our friend Argelia visiting from Oaxaca. We had a delicious dinner, the kids broke a piñata, and afterwards Conan, Argelia, her friend Magali and I went next door to the rooftop pool hall and played pool till the wee hours of the morning. (Ok, maybe not that late, but much later than my normal bedtime.)

xmas arge

friends and family on Christmas Eve!

xmas piñata

Lucia tries to break the piñata


Lucia’s favorite Mexican cousin, Jose Manuel, trying to break the piñata


family love

The thing that made me most love Christmas this year, though, was the anticipation, the excitement that Lucia and I were emanating. For one, I really realized that we get to mold our kids’ ideas about Christmas in most ways, since down here Christmas is not a huge deal. She doesn’t know about snow or reindeer or malls or anything else that’s typical in the U.S. for Christmas time. I don’t know how long this clean slate of expectations will last, so we’re taking advantage now.

Plus, having kids to get excited with and about makes things so, so different. I had a blast getting all the gifts. Even though most of the gifts were just little things- a new pack of crayons, some bubbles, a second hand morocco for 5 pesos- our kids loved them. Santa’s elves, those bringers of so many practical brought Lucia a new bath sponge, and she was so pleased. “Mommy, it’s a yellow sponge!” She declared, wide-eyed with pleasure. “I don’t have to use the pink one anymore. Now I can have my favorite color sponge!”

Lucia and I started new traditions this year, too, now that she’s three and a half and can do so much more, understand so much more. We made cookies to give to family, and she was so impressed that the mix of ingredients we stirred up and put on a baking tray turned into cookies (baking is pretty magical). We didn’t get to the gingerbread cookies (that recipe was a bit ambitious for our first try, with a 9 month old under foot), but we made sugar cookies, chocolate oatmeal no bake cookies, and easy peanut butter cookies. It was hectic, but so much fun! We also made ornaments to put on people’s cookie tins (okay, they were plastic things, not tins, but still). We glued tongue depressors together and decorated with pasta and paint and glitter.


happily making ornaments with Mommy


our amazing ornament presents


this one is for Nonna!

I’ve already got the cookie cutters for next year’s cookies. We don’t have a chimney and there won’t ever be snow on the ground here, but I’m enjoying these Christmas traditions way more than I could ever have imagined! Hohoho from Mexico, y’all!