I just sank into a huge comfy brown leather chair, easily the most comfortable chair I’ve come across in Mexico. I find myself wishing for a waiter to place a beverage at my side while I watch a big screen with Iron Man or the whatever the most recent Robert Downey Jr. movie is these days.
Instead I’m staring at a poster advertising some blood lab analysis special deals. There is no waiter, definitely no Iron Man, just a nice young woman in teal blue hospital scrubs, tying a tourniquet around my upper arm.
I’m here at the lab to have my blood drawn as part of my midlife DIY one woman HMO strategy here in Mexico.
The simple version is this:
Our new cute apartment is right around the corner from a hospital. We walk by it as we go to the playground where we now work out most mornings.
Prior to our appearance, the playground was usually empty in the mornings. At first, the group of older jardineros (gardeners) in charge of the grounds were suspicious of us as we intruded on their morning break time, which seems to be about 30 minutes of shooting the bull, leaning on a rake. I say “break”, but from what I am not sure, as it seems to precede any work. Maybe warm-up is a better word?
Now that they realize we are not undercover productivity consultants working for Parks and Rec, we all exchange greetings before Sergio and I go off to our shaded corner to start our burpees while they resume their chat.
Sergio notices and admires their homemade dustbins with long handles, made from a corner of a plastic box cut off diagonally and attached to a wooden slat. They use them to gather the small bits of trash collected while raking the sand and gravel.
Sergio loves “repurposing”, which, to many Mexicans, is not a trendy eco-friendly activity, but a practical way to save some pesos. The minimum wage here is less than $5 per DAY, so a $15 Made in China dustbin from WalMart represents a big splurge for these guys, and likely might result in some good natured ribbing from your fellow jardineros.
However, like all Mexicans, the gardeners do have access to national health care, which brings me back to the theme of our story.
On our way to the park we also pass a big lab, sensibly located across from the hospital. It has excellent signage and big banners out front advertising the “paquetes” or special deals - the more tests of your blood you order, the more you save. Throw in a urine test and its quite the bargain.
We stopped by earlier this week to get some information.
Tip: In Mexico, it is still usually best to stop by, in person, for info.
A phone call is second. Relying on the website is a distant third. More like a last resort, really.
The muchacha at the desk told us that we didn’t need an appointment, and that if we came in the morning our results would be available by 4. Same day service! The front counter was strewn with several small flyers detailing each of the paquetes. Prices in pesos, obviously. 100 pesos is about $5 USD right now.
We both just had birthdays, we are due for our physicals, so we decided to have basic blood test done before we go in to see the doctor.
I got into this habit in the US of calling the doctor’s office before my appt. to ask them to order the lab work so I could get it done before hand, and actually discuss the results with my doctor during the appointment.
I don’t want to make time to go the office just to sit on a table and have la Doctora listen to my heart and then tell me to go get my blood tests and come back later.
Yesterday morning we skipped breakfast, my favorite meal, so for me, this is quite a sacrifice. We arrived at the lab. It is in an older building with a spotless waiting area, big windows and a fan blowing the air around.
We go up to the desk and choose our paquete - the basic blood work for glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides. It costs $15, which is probably a tad high to be honest. I have seen it advertised for $7.
I add on a thyroid test a la carte. This is an extra $40.
Sergio asks about the prostate blood test, and yes, there’s an app for that. With a bit of marketing flair, it is called the Paquete Padre.
However, his national insurance will cover the cost of that test, he just needs to make the appt and go in. So we decide to wait on that one for a couple of weeks.
There is a large, inviting waiting area with a fish tank in the corner. There are more of the comfy brown chairs here, but here is a moment of irony - I choose to sit in a hard plastic chair.
I’m thinking of germs, the proximity to the hospital, of who might frequent the lab, and how it’s probably easier to sanitize the white plastic chair than the big leather ones.
We wait about 2 minutes, and another young lady calls me into the room to draw the blood. In that room, I have no choice but to sit in the comfy chair, it looks clean enough, so I decide to make the best of it. It occurs to me that maybe the chair is a protection against the possibility of someone fainting and injuring themselves falling off a plastic chair with no arms.
She tells me to make a fist, my vein pops out, she draws the blood and that’s it.
Sergio is up next. He has great veins, too, so we are probably her easiest customers of the day. That and he makes her laugh by hamming it up and acting afraid.
After all the excitement, we decide to walk to breakfast at one of our favorite cafes in La Paz, Maria California.
It is a slow breakfast place, and I want to revisit it because the first time we came, we had an appointment, we had to rush and I felt shortchanged of the experience.
It’s a lovely spot, right across the street from the best AirBnB ever.
The restaurant is on a corner, they have leveraged their location and created a wraparound greenery filled patio of sidewalk seating, with lots of bougainvillea and shade. I took pictures for future reference. You can also see the marina just down the hill, with the blue bay peeking out from behind. They have live acoustic music on the weekends.
The menu starts with 2 pages of juices and includes excellent traditional Mexican breakfasts that emphasize the best of what that means - quality eggs and fresh salsas, and minimizes the less desirable version that usually involves too much grease, tasteless eggs, questionable chorizo, and fried tortillas.
We sit down. Sergio says we must order a juice that includes carrot, orange and beet juice, to help us replace the blood we gave for the test. He is very interested in health stuff like that and has a curious set of beliefs about health and treatment ideas inherited from his grandmother.
He would have made an amazing EMT or nurse in another life. He’s action oriented, not easily fazed and doesn’t need much sleep.
I am impressed with his juice counsel and I agree. Why not?
So, imagine my surprise when the waiter comes by and he orders our juice with a hot chocolate and sweet cornbread chaser.
I say, “That is your post-blood draw breakfast? Hot chocolate and pan de elote?”
He grins and says “Pero mi amor, it's corn!”
Corn, or Maiz, is indigenous to Mexico, and it is practically its own food group here. It was an important part of the pre-hispanic diet and tortillas still serve as basic sustenance in poorer areas.
Even so, corn isn’t exactly a superfood, even when it isn’t wrapped up in sweet batter at topped with caramel sauce and a cherry on top.
I laugh and feel angelic as I order a big salad with tuna for us to split. It’s not that I have anything against hot chocolate and pan de elote, it’s just that somewhere along the way I lost my tolerance for sugar. When I eat too much I don’t feel good at all within about 15 minutes, and the crash lasts for a couple of hours at least.
Later that afternoon, on our way back to our apartment, we stop by to get our results. Sergio looks at the numbers doubtfully and says, “Who is going to explain these to us?”
I say, “Google!”
When we get home, I pull up some search returns and we look at our results. The cholesterol number is not broken out into HDL and LDL, so that’s annoying.
But it also doesn’t matter because the total number is higher than it should be, for both of us. I’m surprised, I’ve never had high cholesterol and my eating habits are not that much different than they have been.
It is also ironic because when I lived in Northern California, I was eating much more meat than I do here; I knew the local producers there and the meat was incredible. In fact, I was eating bacon several times a week then! And now I don’t eat it at all. In general, Sergio is suspicious of eating too much meat and is almost a vegetarian.
But numbers don’t lie, unless they mixed up our results with the portly señor in front of us at the lab.
We discuss the likely suspects for saturated and trans fats in our diet here. A coconut crema paleta several times a week. Somehow fritos jump off the display at the store and insinuate themselves into our cupboard, too. The delicious fresh-made fried flour tortilla chips and / or french fries with a beer a few times a week. Lastly, and probably the biggest issue, is a suite of full fat dairy products, imbibed daily.
The truth hurts, because we found a local small dairy run by an energetic young woman and her family. You can swing buy and buy your fresh milk straight from Bessie in a repurposed plastic bottle. Can I tell you how delish this is?
Now it looks like we'll need to cut way back on la leche, especially this fresh fat bomb version.
In fact, Sergio announces gravely he is giving up butter, sweet breads, and milk.
I know this man, the first two items would be a stretch, the last would never happen.
I say to both of us, “It’s not about giving up. It’s about eating less of those items and replacing them with higher quality alternatives. So, those loaf cakes you buy as “bread” at Chedraui to save money (and have your cake and eat it too) for breakfast? My stash of lime and chile Fritos? No mas amigo.”
The Universe is conspiring to help us. Our first day in our apartment we went to the El Faro cafe and small art gallery, they just opened a new location near us. The owner has been a baker for 30 years. Her breads are some of the only in town, (indeed, in Mexico!) that we have found that don’t have sugar or refined flour.
She uses many ancient grains and bran, even in her treats, which are sweetened with honey or a Mexican version of a mild brown sugar called piloncillo.
She does not sell sweet corn cake with caramel sauce and a cherry on top.
Below are some shots from El Faro.
The woman who waited on us is a retired professor from UNAM in Mexico City. She told us when she arrived in La Paz a few years ago, she weighed about 260 lbs and had health issues. Since then, she has been eating better, including the healthy breads from El Faro, she is more active, lost about 100 lbs and looks and feels much better.
Wow. Do you ever consider how many amazing stories “everyday” people have to tell? With her story as inspiration, Sergio and I will keep tweaking our own habits for the better and keep you posted.
We’d love to hear more about your journey to a healthy balance, too! We are not a health and fitness blog (obviously) but I don't see how we can talk about living your best midlife without some conversation around how we treat our bodies, especially because what we do now really affects the next 20 or even 30 years.
Thank you for reading! I’ll be reporting from Texas and Montana and Tulum the next few weeks. I am not looking forward to leaving my Meximan for a month, but I am looking forward to seeing family - we are celebrating my awesome Dad’s 80th birthday near Houston.
Then I’m heading to Montana for more fam time with my Mom and Tios, including skiing in Whitefish, MT, followed by a trip to Tulum with Jessie before I come back to La Paz before Christmas.
All the while I'll be checking in with work. Is this a big spontaneous trip? No. I planned my November this way from the beginning of 2018.
This is what makes the tradeoffs of having a very simplified home base worth it - I can afford to integrate my dream circuit - mountains to beach and back again, family time, with an urban dose of Houston and Mexico City in the mix, into the last few weeks of the year.
Thanks again for reading, please pass it along if you enjoyed it.
All our best -
Kala and Sergio
In the US we distance ourselves from death as much as possible. In Mexico, people seem to be much more matter of fact about death. For them, accepting the inevitability of death is simply an extension of their earthy appreciation of life.
For the past few years, the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) is gaining popularity in the US, so much so that Disney took notice, ran the imagery and storyline through their finely tuned filter, and produced the extremely sappy movie called Coco, released last year. It is the most recent example of attempts on both sides of the border to smooth the sharper edges of the holiday.
The actual roots of the holiday are far more interesting and deeply entwined with our shadow side. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs had a very active relationship with mortality and life after death. The traditional Aztec Dia de Muertos festival honored Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of Mictlan, the underworld.
They also had a very superstitious, fierce warrior culture. It is the reason that a relatively small tribe was able to grow from a small, mosquito ridden island community (Mexico City originated in the middle of a large lake) to eventually dominate and rule a huge area of pre-Hispanic Mexico at their peak.
To accomplish this required some powerful gods and teachings, especially in the myths about the afterlife experience, which offered rewards to those who took risks in the service of their country.
In fact, if you died in a particularly difficult or scary way, such as getting struck by lightning, killed in battle, or even giving birth, you went straight to paradise, no questions asked.
If you died peacefully in your sleep, or from a random, unimpressive illness, you went to Mictlan, the Underworld for losers, where you had to undertake an arduous journey to get to paradise.
Not only that, but you had to run the gauntlet with Queen Mictecacihuatl, who ruled with her husband, the King of Mictlan, with an equally unpronounceable name Mictlāntēcutli
M & M were a fearsome pair. At at time when 5’ 5” was considered tall for Aztec men, the King is depicted with a height of 6 feet, with a skull face, blood spattered body, with arms raised, ready to devour newcomers to Mictlan.
Not to be outdone, his Queen gives new meaning to the word spooky.
According to legend, she was sacrificed as an infant. Aztec artists depicted her with a flayed body and open jaw to swallow the stars during the day. Why she would want to do that, I don’t know. Sergio has some contacts in the Danza world who have spent years studying this stuff, he is asking around for me. I will update you if I find out. Someone just sent us 6 pages of references in Spanish from a source at UNAM, I haven’t had a chance to run it through Google translate yet.
Between the two of them, they provided plenty of incentive to Aztec men to pick up a spear and join the nearest battle, and for women to continue to bear children in spite of the risks. Choosing a valiant death over a peaceful passing meant you received a Get Out of Mictlan Free card and enter paradise immediately, instead of being devoured by the Lord and Lady of Death. On top of that, your soul had to take another scary journey to reach a better level of heaven. Yikes.
Together the King and Queen were responsible for watching over the bones of the dead. This is what led to the popularity of the skull - or calavera - and the skeleton figures - called Catrinas - in the Dia de Muertos holiday symbolism.
In spite of the fierce aspect of the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, Wiki tells us that In the Aztec world, skeletal imagery was also a symbol of fertility, health and abundance, alluding to the close symbolic links between life and death.
The celebratory aspect of life and death, as part of the same creative cycle, is the perspective that Dia de Muertos helps to keep alive and kicking in Mexico.
M & M are just two of the equally quirky, often fierce, Aztec deities that confronted the Catholic missionary Padres after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. I find it fascinating that the Spanish are the people that invaded and conquered Mexico, because they had a lot in common with the mindset of the Aztec culture, given the two cultures never interacted prior to the conquest. For example, the Mictlan experience I outlined above is not too far fetched from Catholic concept of limbo and the afterlife journey through different levels of hell and heaven.
One reason the Catholic church was able to make significant progress in new lands was a combination of brute force domination and self-interested tolerance. (Centuries before, the Romans practiced the same good cop / bad cop tactics to solidify control over conquered lands and people.)
The Spanish tore down major temples to erect churches and cathedrals in their place. Well, I should say that the Spanish used the Aztecs as slave labor to tear down their own temples and reconstruct a new church from the very stones of the destroyed temples. One can imagine the psychological effect this had on the natives. (The Spanish also used the stones to fill in many canals, a move that quickly destroyed the urban ecosystem of the city at that time and resulted in significant decline in the standard of living for most inhabitants, but that is another story.)
The Templo Mayor, the most important temple in the Aztec world, located in the center of Mexico City, was so huge that the Spanish finally gave up trying to tear it all down. It's massive base was buried over the years and not rediscovered until 1978.
You can see stones from the Templo Mayor in the lower part of the exterior walls of the oldest part of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Latin America's largest and oldest cathedral. It is fascinating to visit the Zocalo and stand facing the Cathedral with the Templo Mayor behind you, literally in the space between the biggest clash of civilizations in the western hemisphere.
I often think of the time and money Americans spend on European tours, and wonder if that is partially because they don’t realize the depth of Euro-centric tourism that is available in Mexico. Yes, the beaches and margaritas are world class, but there is so much more here than that, at a fraction of the price of a European vacation.
At any rate, while the conquistadores were busy demoralizing the locals by razing their temples, the Spanish Padres took a more subtle approach and did their best to merge pagan celebrations into the church calendar.
The festival for Mictēcacihuātl was no exception - originally celebrated in the summer, the Spanish moved it to October to coincide with the trio of Catholic holidays honoring those who have died - All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day.
So there you have a brief overview of the Day of the Dead in all its gritty context.
Earlier I mentioned Coco, the Disney movie with the Day of the Dead theme. All things Disney are very popular in Mexico, and, as Disney knows, Extremely Sappy plays well in Mexico, so the movie is very popular here.
It’s like the sweet decorated sugar skulls that are for sale everywhere this time of year - they are meant to take all the bite out of the calavera imagery. Death is not final in the movie, we get to dance and sing with our loved ones who have died, receive direct counsel from them, all without having to come to terms with their absence.
But I have to say that the spirit of Coco is not so far from the modern observance of Dia de Muertos here. In many places, the party starts in the house at the beginning of October, when the family creates an altar honoring those who have passed. On Nov 1 and 2, families go to the cemetery, tidy up the graves, and set up camp. They bring candles, lights, food, music. Or, much like the Thanksgiving ideal, some families achieve that, but not all.
Sergio's family is not particularly close. His aunts and uncle are all in their 80's. His parents divorced when he was 3, and he lived with his father after that. He was never close to his mother, she now has Alzheimers and is cared for by her older sister. His father passed when Sergio was 19, and now both of his brothers have died as well. Last year we visited his family's grave; it was Sergio's first time to be back in many years.
We arrived close to dusk, a few minutes after closing, Sergio slipped the guard at the gate a few pesos to allow us in. The panteones (cemeteries) in Mexico City are huge - they don't allow visitors after dark anymore, especially this weekend, due the challenges of security and crowd control. We cleaned up the gravesite and then went to toast his father and brothers during the celebration in the Zocalo that night.
No matter what the venue, Mexicans celebrate death in a way that I never see happen in the US, where people visit cemeteries, often alone, for their hushed tranquility. We take pictures of old mute gravestones, think sad thoughts, and have no positive rituals, rooted in community, to process the emotions stirred up by the proof of mortality right in front or our eyes.
In truth, death is meant to be processed with others, not as something to run from our whole lives, but to use as incentive to take risk and live while we can, in community with others. At least that is the message I get from the King and Queen of Mictlan.
In the US, we don’t give our dead any chance to come out and play. I encourage you to create an altar next year to invite those you love and admire who have passed on. But you don’t have to wait. You can create a small space on a shelf or corner of your home, put a picture of those you miss, a memento or two, and be blessed by their energy every time you pass by.
Below I share some photos of last year in Mexico City, when Sergio visited his father's grave for the first time in years, and we celebrated that night with the crowds in the Zocalo.
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