Mexico Day 7

Saturday morning went just like Friday morning, except our guide was different. His name was Ignacio, but he prefers Nacho, which of course amused the kids. He was really great too, very friendly and loved to tell stories. I was less confident in his facts, but we were all more entertained by his charisma. We spent the day at Teotihuacan, a place I’m struggling to summarize. We started out at a small museum where we learned from the museum guide about the many uses of the various parts of the Mexican agave plant.

We were the first to arrive at the small museum close to the Teotihuacan site. In fact, while we were having our tour I watched a man come out and paint white lines in this dirt parking lot. It was so quiet and pleasant, and still nice and cool outside.
The amazing plant.

We also learned about making silver and weaving, but the kids really became obsessed with the obsidian, which you can look through to see the sun directly, like the special glasses used during an eclipse.

We did a little shopping in the museum shop where Eli bought an obsidian disc and Simon got an obsidian keychain. (Which he lost a couple days later and has been grieving ever since.) I bought a pair of silver earings and a couple really cute dresses for Miriam and Amirah.

I let Amirah be unbuckled as we made the short drive from the museum to the Teotihuacan parking lot, and she was thrilled to look out the window.
The murals in Teotihuacan are thousands of years old, from around 100BC – 500AD.

I won’t write much about Teotihuacan as a civilization. For me the ruins were the kind of place where imagination wins the day, there’s just so much we don’t know. It was really impressive though, and places like this and Machu Picchu and Mesa Verde cliff dwellings all really captivate me. I love to speculate and romanticize, but I also love to hear what archaeologists have learned and what hey speculate.

I’m probably not unusual in this way, but I’m always curious which parts of the ruins have been restored and what stands just as it did 2000 years ago. The archaeologists at Teotihuacan have a trick for this- you can see small black stones in the “mortar” of all the areas that have been restored, where there are no small stones, you can tell it’s original structure.
It was a hot day and there isn’t much reprieve from the sun. The kids did a great job of listening to Nacho at the beginning, but as the day wore on, and we hiked some pyramid steps, they’re enthusiasm and interest waned.
The Pyramid of the Moon. The steps were steep and the sun was hot but we convinced all the kids to climb this one, at least part of the way. (Amirah stayed behind with Baca.)
The view of the Avenue of the Dead from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is in the distance.
Taking a break between hiking pyramids to listen to Nacho.
The Pyramid of the Sun, much bigger than the Pyramid of the Moon. Cameron and Eli bravely hiked most of the way, but only Richard, my dad and I made it all the way to the top.
The view of the Pyramid of the Moon from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Pretty awesome.
Eli carefully working his way down the steep steps.

By the time we finished hiking the Pyramid of the Sun the kids were hot and hungry and tired so we took a lunch break. Nacho picked another buffet for us, which the kids loved, and this one had a seperate taco bar. It was so yummy. There was also a lot of Mexican singing and dancing in costumes and we ate outside under the shade of big trees.

Tacos tacos tacos!

After lunch, with renewed energy we went back to Teotihuacan to explore the rest of the site.

It was an exhausting day, probably the toughest of our excursions for the kids. But it is a pretty fascinating place and I was really glad to experience it. We had a nice quiet and relaxing drive back to Mexico City and the CCM.

Mexico Day 5 & 6

Thursday was Thanksgiving, so we spent the day with my parents at the CCM. Despite the late night Wednesday, we woke up early enough to get dressed in church clothes for a Thanksgiving broadcast for all missionaries at the training centers around the world. It was in the auditorium and the speakers were the Uchtdorfs. The messages were really good, but our kids were the only kids in the audience, so any sounds they made were really noticeable, and I ended up taking Amirah outside. But it was so sunny and pleasant out on the grass that I didn’t mind. After the broadcast we did a little shopping in la tienda, took a little walk, and just killed time until we could eat our Thanksgiving meal in the comedor.

Of course the meal lacked the sentimental and traditional foods that we usually have, but our Thanksgivings in recent years have all been unique since we moved away from Boise. Cameron was probably the most disappointed with the circumstances, but even he was happy they served gravy with the turkey and mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. It was really great being surrounded by all the missionaries, many of whom were also feeling homesick and longing for their family’s home-cooked dishes.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, resting, exploring the CCM and meeting my parent’s friends. It was a nice day to recuperate and re-energize for the next few days.

Our Lady of Remedies Church, which sits on top of a hill that is actually the largest pyramid in Mexico, and possibly the largest in the world.

Friday my parents arranged for a guide to pick us up at the CCM in a “big car” (think 15 passenger van) as Amirah kept referring to it. It was so nice, it was spacious, the kids got to sit next to Baca and Grandpa, and Richard and I got to relax because we didn’t have to drive or navigate. Our guide, Daniel, was also really knowledgeable and as we worked our way out of the city he answered questions and filled our minds with historical trivia and context. Our first stop was the town of Cholula and it was about a two hour drive.

Our guide took us to the museum and tunnels of the Great Pyramid of Cholula. The history of this site was so interesting! I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and how hard it is to look back in hindsight and understand what was happening and how such a massive structure essentially disappeared into the earth. I love this kind of stuff.

The pyramid was begun before 100 BC and was constructed over a period of hundreds of years, adding layers and layers. But by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1520s it was already covered by dirt and overgrown. Because they were oblivious to its existence, it was spared from destruction and in 1594, the Spanish simply built a church, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. From Wikipedia-

According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is in fact the largest pyramid as well as the largest monument ever constructed anywhere in the world, with a total volume estimated at over 4.45 million cubic metres, even larger than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, which is about 2.5 million cubic metres. However the Great Pyramid of Giza is higher at 138.8 metres.

Before climbing the hill to see the church and the surrounding views of Cholula, we took a tour of the tunnel system that goes through the pyramid. Stepping back in time that far, thousands of years, is so mind blowing.

It was quite a hike to the top of the hill, but had a nice diversion when we stopped to snack on dried insects…

The church was so beautiful, with bright colors and ubiquitous flowers. The aroma was overwhelming when you walked in, it was glorious.
Oh Cholula! You are so lovely!

Our driver and guide picked us up back down at the bottom of the hill and we drove to Puebla, a town not too far away, where the first order of business was lunch! The lunch was in a sunny buffet style restaurant that our guide picked for us. The food was good, and there were plenty of choices for the kids to pick something new to try and something reliable to fill their bellies.

I think my brain was already jam-packed with new information from the drive out of Mexico City and our time in Cholula, not to mention the after-lunch fog that sets in, so as we toured Puebla I found that I was more interested in seeing and less able to absorb information. So I’ll mostly post pictures of Puebla, which was beautiful- and the weather was so perfect.

My NYC concrete jungle mindset was thrilled by all the green-space, and when I say green I mean GREEN.

We did lots of walking and saw churches, parks, shops and lots of talavera- which is a Spanish/Mexican kind of ceramic pottery and tile. It’s really pretty and totally my kind of art in architecture and kitchenware.

Talavera in the building walls.

The kids were pretty well worn out by the late afternoon, and we had a long drive back to the city so we finished up with churros, which were sooooo yummy. Everyone tried a different kind; caramel, dulce de leche, chocolate, strawberry, and others I don’t recall.

We drove back to the CCM, made some dinner for the kids, and then my parents and Richard and I went to dinner at a sushi restaurant in a shopping mall, which was it’s own great experience. You haven’t seen a country unless you’ve seen a shopping mall in that country. (I’m kidding about that last part, but the food and the adult conversation was fantastic.)

Mexico Day 4

Wednesday morning we packed up out stuff, checked out of the hotel and walked a couple blocks down the street to McDonald’s to eat breakfast and occupy the kids (Playplace) while Richard took a business call. I won’t lie, we eat at McDonald’s sometimes when we travel. It’s so cheap and easy. When Richard was finished with his call we climbed back into our noisy rental van and began the drive back to Mexico City. I knew that getting back would take longer than we thought, (this is true everywhere but especially in Mexico) and so I started off the day feeling a little stressed because there were a lot of things I wanted to stop and see and do.

Our first stop was La Antigua, the town where Hernan Cortez built his home after invading Mexico.

We had a great tour guide in La Antigua. He told us all about la casa de Cortes, gave us a walking tour of the town, and gave us some interesting historical background about the local people before and after Cortes. His English wasn’t perfect but Richard could fill in the gaps for the rest of us.

Our guide giving us a tour of the ruins of the house of Cortez, and describing the materials they used to build it.
Our guide told us that these tree roots and branches are actually keeping the structure up, without them the walls would be too weak, and the building would collapse.
They used coral from the sea to build the walls of the house.
Ruins of the buildings around Cortes’s mansion.
The banks of the Huitzilapan River used to come up to this tree, and this is where Cortes is said to have tied his boats. He built his house and two churches around 1519, and the town was inhabited by 200 Spaniards and over 600 African slaves.
Ermita del Rosario.
This small church is believed to be the first Christian church built in the Americas,
around 1523.

The town of Antigua was quiet and friendly. It was hot so we stopped for cold drinks at a little bodega, and then as we finished up our tour an old man sold us all ice cream that he scooped from tubs he pulled on a cart with his bicycle. I’m so sad I can’t remember the flavor but it was something none of us had ever had before, and it was delicious.

We stayed longer than we should have because our guide was eager to teach us, but we didn’t even have time to walk down to the river. There are never enough hours in the day to see and do all the things.

Our next stop was Orizaba, which was just a couple hours away, but it was up in the mountains and a completely different climate. We had tickets that night to see Mexican dancing with my mom, so we needed to be back to the CCM on time to pick her up and leave Amirah with the babysitter. When we got there I could see that we were really short on time, we still had a four hours left to Mexico City, but I really wanted to ride the tram up to the top of the mountain so we decided to go for it. We decided we had one hour to get some lunch and ride the tram.

We ate tacos and crepes for lunch and watched some animals while we waited for the food. Cameron isn’t a fan of heights and begged us not to go up the tram, so we let him stay behind.

The views inside the tram were amazing, it went high and it went fast. The lush green mountain was surrounded by fog and it was such a contrast to the hot and sunny desert where we’d spent the morning.

We only had a few minutes to spend at the top because we were in a hurry to catch the tram back down the mountain, but it was worth it. So beautiful.

It was hard not to let my stress get in the way of enjoying the experience. (This can probably be said of all parents while traveling with children.) But I’m glad we went. We rode the tram back down, reunited with Cameron, and got back on the road to Mexico City. I was nervous about traffic but the GPS was telling us we would get there in time.

On our way back we spotted a mountain with steam coming from the top of it, my first thought was that there was a fire but the kids insisted it was a volcano. I didn’t believe them. Ha! I was wrong. It was Popocateptl, an active volcano.

I started to get really stressed on the way back to Mexico City because my mom had gone to a lot of effort to coordinate the tickets and babysitting for Amirah and I knew she really wanted to come with us. Richard tried to reassure me, but then when we turned off the GPS to conserve phone battery we missed a turn-off that added 30 minutes to our already delayed arrival. At that point I was inconsolable. My mom decided the best chance we had to get there on time was if she stayed behind with Amirah and we left as soon as we dropped Amirah off. Moms are the best, and we made it to the ballet at the last possible moment before they closed the doors.

Palacio de Bellas Artes
Ballet de Folklorico de Mexico

The dancing was incredible. I couldn’t stop smiling, and after each performance I thought to myself “That was my favorite.” I wish I had handled the day differently, I wish my mom could have come with us. She had seen it before but it’s always fun to experience things together. Fortunately by the time we got back to the CCM and back to bed my heart rate had returned to normal.

Mexico Day 3

Tuesday morning was cloudy but warm, so we walked down la playa to the Acuario de Veracruz.  The kids loved the aquarium in Boston, and we weren’t sure what the weather was going to be so we opted for something indoors.  It was a hit, I was pleasantly surprised by the exhibits.  As we approached the dolphinarium Richard started chatting with a museum employee who told him about how you could pay for the kids to get in the pool with a trainer and the dolphins.  We’ve never done this before, it’s always crazy expensive and I have mixed feelings about these kinds of schemes. But Miriam really wanted to, and Cameron was also interested so we went for it.  Cameron played it cool, but Miriam loved every second of it.

Eli loves exotic birds, this was the highlight of the aquarium for him

 

It was a really nice benefit to have Richard’s Spanish skills. I sometimes felt like I was missing out on people and experiences because I didn’t understand what was being said. It’s not a fun feeling.

When we were finished we were all really hungry so we just went straight to the cafeteria in the shopping center next to the aquarium. Tacos tacos tacos. I gave each of the kids a few pesos on the condition that they had to make their purchases without any help from Richard or me. They mostly bought Chiclets, with the exception of Cameron who opted for soda.

After lunch we walked back to the hotel, it was warm but still overcast and the kids were dying to swim in the pool. Amirah went down for a nap and the other kids had the pool to themselves. Richard stayed up in the room with Amirah and I read a book by the pool, which was just fine with me.

Once they had their fix, they got dressed again and we drove into the old-town part of Veracruz to do some exploring. We walked around, found a few notable attractions, and just marveled at the juxtaposition of really nice streets and structures, and really neglected and abandoned homes and buildings.

As I was taking this photo, much to my surprise a man stepped into the frame of the doorway, (sans door) and I could see him sweeping the floor. It struck me as so odd, the building is in need of so much repair and yet he devotedly swept the floor, to what end is a mystery to me.
The Bastion of Santiago, the only remaining of seven bastions that formed the defense around the city of Veracruz. It was built in 1635 to protect the city in attacks from the Gulf coast.
The neighborhood of la Huaca was originally home to African slaves, and was located outside the city walls until 1790. It has obvious historic value, and attracts tourists because of its reputation for being friendly and festive. We found this to be true. people sat outside their homes chatting and kids played in the streets and everyone (well mostly) smiled at us as we walked by.
el barrio de la Huaca

We didn’t have any real plan, we just meandered around for a little while but kids can sense when you’re winging it and they got restless and eventually hungry. We went back to our car and decided to drive up to another part of Veracruz, further up the coast, called Boca del Rio.

The drive to Boca del Rio was so strange. One minute we were among all these old, colonial Spanish buildings and then a few minutes later we were in an area that felt just like suburban U.S. It was American businesses everywhere- everything from Anytime Fitness to HomeGoods, and Starbucks and IHOP, naturally. Then just another few minutes and we were back in Mexico, blocks of brightly colored houses, some well-maintained and some not, and old-style architecture. We parked by the water and the kids played in a park until the sun went down and we ate dinner on an old ship, docked where the Jamapa River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

I tried octopus for the first time, Cameron had a seafood platter, and Richard had some tuna that he loved. But tres leches cake for desert was the highlight. We were literally the only people in the restaurant and the staff was so kind and accommodating, making a big fuss about how we had so many kids. With full bellies again, we drove back to our hotel and slept.

Mexico Day 1/2

We left New York City on a Sunday afternoon and getting sorted out at the airport with all five kids and checking bags and going through security brought back lots of memories.  I forgot what a circus it can be.  It has been a long time since we’ve taken an international flight with the kids and we were a bit rusty.  The five hour flight went relatively smoothly,  we have no rules about screen time on airplanes and the kids just watched movies and ate snacks the entire time.  Amirah was pretty thrilled to sit in a big seat like the other kids and I had a hard time getting her to take a nap and understand some basic airplane courtesy, but otherwise it was uneventful.

Arriving at the Mexico City airport also went relatively smoothly, if not a bit tedious and tiring after a long flight.  When we arrived it was well past the kids bedtimes, and they were not very helpful.  But once we gathered our suitcases and car seats and met up with my parents the kids had a burst of energy – which was good because procuring the rental car took another two hours.  We arrived past midnight and exhausted at the MTC (CCM) and put the kids straight to bed.  Richard and I stayed up for a little while chatting with my parents and then called it a night.

In the morning the kids couldn’t get enough of the huge green space just outside our front door.  My mom also took the them on a little tour of the CCM, where my parents are serving their mission.  Richard and I got organized and ready to hit the road, but it was hard to drag the kids away from my parents after being freshly reunited.  So we took our time and then headed out of the comfort of the CCM to see some of the great country of Mexico!

Of course we had to make our first stop at Walmart because I forgot to pack underwear for Simon. But Walmart in another country is always a cultural experience and I didn’t leave without grabbing some Mexican snacks and drinks to try.

It was a long drive to our destination in Veracruz, but that was part of the point. I wanted to see Mexico outside of the city and although I didn’t take any pictures I enjoyed the scenery. The kids not so much, they are not accustomed to long car rides since moving to NYC.  But we stopped for lunch at a place that felt like the middle of nowhere in hot Mexican desert.  We were the only people in the “restaurant” and they served us whatever they happened to be cooking. Which was soup, warm homemade tortillas and ham in a verde sauce.  There was something for everyone and it hit the spot.

The restaurant was also a tire shop.

This picture is not a great picture for many reasons, but I love it because it captures the Mexican Spirit. We saw so many altars and shrines dedicated to Mary and other saints. They were all similar in general ways but so unique too. I find expressions of faith to be touching and never felt it was appropriate to take a picture just for the sake of the picture, but happened to get this one in the landscape of my hangry children.

The second half of the drive to Veracruz was a completely different climate than the first half. It was foggy and wet and jungle-like. We made a serious climb in elevation and then a quick descent back down to sea-level. Our ears were popping like crazy.  Then the earth beneath us got flat and I knew we were close to the ocean!

Veracruz sits right on the Gulf Coast.

We drove to our hotel, which turned out to be a little disappointing, but the view on the balcony was major consolation.  We walked down to the beach and played around until it started to get dark and then we walked up along the boardwalk until we found  a place to eat.  We ordered way too much food in our eagerness to try everything, and then went back to our hotel to sleep.  All seven of us in one room, which was not ideal but we survived.

Boston – Day One

Boston Freedom Trail

We decided to extend our Memorial Day weekend a day or two, and planned a trip to Boston.  Neither Richard or I had ever been, so there was a lot we wanted to see.  My friend Holly gave us some inside tips, and on Thursday evening we hit the road.  We got to our hotel in the Boston suburbs late that night, so we took it easy Friday morning.  We drove downtown and decided to just get right to it with the Freedom Trail.  It turned out to be pretty hot that day, but we were still able to cover a lot of ground. Continue reading

Boston – Day Two

The kids really wanted to swim in the hotel pool, so we did that Saturday morning.  It wasn’t as hot on Saturday of course, but that didn’t stop them. (Especially Miriam.)  The hotel also had a basketball court and a cornhole set, so they played around with those for awhile.  We let Amirah have a nap in her bed, Richard went out and picked up some food for lunch, and we ate it in our hotel room.  Our first stop was the Boston Museum of Science, but by the time we parked and got tickets it was late afternoon.  The museum was amazing and we stayed until it closed, and still would have stayed longer if we could have. Continue reading

Boston – Day Three, Cambridge

All our kids ever really want from a vacation is a hotel with a swimming pool and a continental breakfast.  And I gotta admit, I still get excited about a continental breakfast.  It’s more than just the convenience of having breakfast all ready to go without any effort or clean-up on my part, it’s that I guess I have fond memories of continental breakfasts from when I was a kid.  So whether or not the food is any good, I always enjoy it.

In any case, on Sunday morning after indulging ourselves with cereal, waffles and soggy eggs, we dressed up and went to church near the temple.  The chapel was so full though that there was literally no place to sit.  We hung out in the hallway with a few other families for the sacrament, and then decided to bail.  We walked up around the temple but it was pretty chilly outside so we went back to our hotel and changed our clothes.  Once we were more suitably dressed we drove to Cambridge to check out the Harvard campus.  But the first order of business was lunch. Continue reading

Boston – Day Four, Memorial Day

Monday morning we made quick work of breakfast and packing up our stuff so that we could get a tour at Fenway Park.  We got there and lined up and were able to get the morning tour. (Because there was a game that afternoon the morning tour was the only option.)  It was cool and drizzly but nothing we couldn’t handle.  The tour itself was fun, there is so much interesting history in that old stadium.  I’m not a professional baseball fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I still really enjoyed all the sports and non-sports related trivia. Continue reading

Falling Out of Love With America

I grew up as patriotic as the next kid. I said the pledge of allegiance, I got goose-bumps while Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” blared through speakers during a firework show, and I earnestly and genuinely poured my heart into “America the Beautiful” every year at church on the Sunday before July 4th.  I still do.  I really DID love America and I really DID believe it was the best country in the world. 

I became slightly disillusioned while living in London and feeling like the U.K. is also a pretty great country, and many of the countries we visited in Europe seemed also marvelous and wonderful. I even began to think that in their long histories they had sorted out a few things America was still grappling with.  

Then, in one day, last week, it felt as if all the love for ‘Merica that I still had in my heart unraveled. 

Now before you start to tell me all that is great about the chosen land, put your hearts at ease because I believe there is a lot of greatness in my country.  But this post is not about that, this post is about how I saw America as a land that is not only made up of flawed people, but is in itself flawed in systemic and structural ways.  And of course it’s going to make people uncomfortable for me to say this, watching any kind of admired, even worshipped, person or thing fall from its pedestal is deeply painful.  Nonetheless, if I’m going to reconcile my own messy, inadequate life with the ideals I’ve been fed all my life, I also need to reconcile my messy and inadequate country with the ideals I’ve been fed all my life. 
 
Thursday morning I got an email from a friend of mine, who was born and raised in Europe but has lived in the United States.  She shared with me her despair while living in San Francisco and trying to make sense of the dramatic and indisputable wealth gap she observed daily.  She felt confused and heartbroken at the epidemic of homelessness in contrast with fancy hotels she visited for conferences related to her business.  She said to me,  
“I mean…I can’t comprehend why rich people wouldn’t want to pay more taxes and welfare contributions and be just a little less rich, if nothing else just so that they wouldn’t have to step over sleeping/dying homeless people (some with kids) on their way home from a fancy job at Google with their $20 poke bowl dinner in their hand.”
 
Thursday afternoon, while eating my lunch I skimmed news headlines and came across an article written as a frustrated follow-up to a story President Trump told in his State of the Union speech.  The story was a warm and fuzzy feel good anecdote about a police officer adopting the infant of a drug-addicted mother.  From the article I read, by Christina Cauterucci:
“The story Trump told ought to illustrate the threadbare state of America’s social safety net, the cruelty of an unimaginably wealthy nation that lets pregnant women sleep on the street.”
Doesn’t the story really just “illustrate our need for a humane drug policy, better addiction treatment, more affordable housing, or better access to contraception and maternal health care”?
 
Thursday evening Richard and I attended a speaking event at Riverside church in Manhattan.  This month marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Riverside Church, and to celebrate, the church is hosting events to commemorate his work.  Less than two weeks before, we as a nation collectively celebrated the life and work of Doctor King.   And yet during this event, I listened to a young black teacher, one of America’s finest, describe being dragged by his ankles out of a police station after being arrested at a protest in Ferguson.  He was doing the same thing Martin Luther King Jr did fifty years ago, for the same cause, a more equitable and just system in America. 

Thursday night on our way home from the event, as Richard and I made a subway transfer we walked through the underground tunnels of NYC and passed a disabled boy (he couldn’t have been more than 20 years old) making music for money.  He had limb differences, and sat on a plastic milk crate, with two prosthetics beneath his knees and was missing both hands.  Where I would usually feel profound sadness, I instead felt a hot anger and spitefully lamented to Richard
“Seriously America? This is the best we can do for this kid?”
 
I’m too hurt and disappointed to offer disclaimers describing what I love about this nation. I reserve the right to simultaneously love and criticize my country.  We can do better.  We have to do better.