Todos Santos, Mexico
I walk into the bedroom of the house we are currently caring for, home of a tri-lingual Blue Heeler (Spanish, English and French), a sleek savvy young cat, and a beautiful tiny white kitten with gray tipped ears and tail, blue eyes and huge attitude.
We only recently settled in yet now everything from the closet is on the bed, drawers are open, shirts and pants turned inside out, backpacks rifled through.
No. Sergio is looking for something.
This is a somewhat frequent occurrence. This time, his friend gave him 3000 pesos - about $150 - to take a computer in for repair. Sergio can’t remember where he put the money. It was almost 2 weeks ago and he’s just now remembering that he received the money, because today is the day to go pick up the computer.
Sergio does not have great short term memory, and he doesn’t do well with lots of details in general. It is not just a symptom of getting older. He has been like this his whole life.
His long term memory is pretty good. We were at a beach once and he recognized someone he met in the US years ago. He remembers almost every restaurant we’ve ever been to, but ask him where are the keys, what he did in town this morning, what time it is, or the name of anyone he just met, and he won’t know.
One thing that drew me to him in the first place was his radical way of living in the Now. He lived month to month for about 10 years in the US. He doesn’t like to be alone and he spent very little time in the room he rented with a family. He was always out and about.
He made enough money as a landscaper to pay his rent, send money to his sons, buy food, and spend his free time with his Danza group or the theater group where he was an actor, or in many other community activities.
He saved enough to go to Burning Man twice and take a month off to run with a group from Oregon to LA, but other than that his future planning was limited.
I now see his preference for the Now wasn’t some new age revelation, like it was for me (thank you Ekhart Tolle). For him it is partly a survival tactic built up over decades of realizing that future planning requires keeping track of details, and he’s not good at that. I don’t know if he has ADHD or something else.
I have some theories about how this happened. His nutrition was likely hit and miss as a child. He never had much stability or routine growing up - after his grandmother passed away when he was 5, he moved a lot with his dad, staying with different family members. Even after his dad remarried, Sergio never had his own “space” other than a box for his few things. He didn’t have his own bed until he was in his 20s, when he and his girlfriend moved in together.
He is a very physical, active, social man. He is intelligent but doesn’t learn from mindless repetition and words on a page. In today’s parlance, he likely has a “different learning style”. There was not (and as far as I know still is not) any slice and dice in the rote delivery of public education in Mexico, no enriched curriculum for children like Sergio when he was in school.
He was one of millions of little boys who could not sit still, talked too much in class and craved attention from the girl sitting in front of him. His school performance suffered. Notes were sent home.
Sergio’s father, Luis, finished middle school. He was a chauffer most of his life, and he wanted more for Sergio. He saw the value of education.
Sergio’s grades were a sore point for both of them - Luis thought Sergio simply wasn’t trying. Sergio, who craved his father’s approval more than anything, didn’t know how to improve. My heart aches when I think of how trapped Sergio must have felt, to be trying, failing and not know how to fix it.
There were some rough homework supervision sessions when he was younger. As the years passed, his father’s struggle with alcohol did not improve and Sergio avoided going home until late most evenings.
I didn’t know all of this about Sergio before we adopted this nomadic lifestyle. It wouldn’t have stopped me even if I had, as I don’t believe your past should dictate your lifestyle any more than your possessions should.
But it might have made me be a little more proactive about helping organize us both.
I think of my childhood, and that of most people I know - the gift to have a routine baked into our days, being nagged to clean up our room or make our bed. Arguing over who’s turn it is to set the table for the dinner that shows up every night. To have our own desk, our own bed, our own cubby and a closet to anchor our external world.
I lean on that perspective to help me understand what is going on today, as I look at the jumble of clothes on the bed.
I have never felt sorry for Sergio, pity is a dubious gift, it assumes too much, it is a bit self-serving and not empowering for the other person. But I do have compassion for him.
About a year before I met him, I had been asking the Universe to help me become more compassionate. My own life has been easy, and that has made me open, trusting and generous.
But when you don’t have much real struggle, you may have a hard time understanding the choices or actions of others who have struggled. It may surprise you, but full time travel, when you still have to work to pay your bills, is not easy, so I was drawn to the challenge of that as a way to sharpen my dull edges, too.
Before, I was often impatient with others, and myself, and I knew that becoming more compassionate was the key to growing patience. I believe part of the reason Sergio is in my life is to be a teacher in this sense. His stories, and the people and stories I am able to access just from being with him, are my compassion-building boot camp.
As I stand here looking at the room turned upside down, I am not thinking such enlightened thoughts, not at first. My reflex is to want to be annoyed. Another chaotic search? Another expensive loss?
I reach inside for the sarcastic comment, and I am surprised and happy to find that it is not there. In fact, the negative emotion is not there. I am not annoyed.
I look at his face and I feel, well, compassion for him. He is not yelling or frantic. In fact, he has a disconnected, worried expression, one that I’ve seen before. Probably a survival mode developed after long experience of looking for things that don’t materialize, knowing something took place but not being able to remember the details.
Mexicans can be very blunt with each other, and after years of criticism by family and friends in exactly moments such as this, he doesn’t want to meet my eye. I can only imagine the tape that has started playing in his mind. “Ai cabron, otra vez? Que estabas pensando? Eres tonto amigo.”
His face looks, well, kind of crumpled. He’s going through the motions and has no real expectation of finding the money.
So I think about diving in to help, and then something says,
No, not yet. Chiki needs to be walked.
I say to Sergio,
I’m going to walk la perra and I’ll help you when I get back, OK?
He nods. I take Chiki for her walk, and the calm of the desert expands to meet what is going on inside of me.
We return. The money is still missing. Now, he is beginning to look in places where it has no chance of being, because why would it turn up in my winter clothes suitcase when it has been over 90 degrees since we got here?
Stop, come with me.
I take his hand. We go outside. No matter what the problem is, going outside always helps, especially for him. He sits on the bench in the front porch. We have a plant with the flowers Hawaiians use to make leis. The flowers smell amazing.
Close your eyes.
Try not to think about anything for a couple minutes, just focus on the sounds around you.
The dog panting, the birds, the cicadas, the truck in the distance.
I put the flower under his nose, his face relaxes a bit. After a minute or so I start asking him to visualize when he got the money. You may know the technique - first you picture surrounding details, and then you zero in on thing you are trying to remember. He remembers the room but not much else. I don’t push him, I just accept it.
I can tell that the memory simply isn’t there, or we are pushing up against a broken synapse and he simply can’t access it.
Or can he? Watch what happens next.
I say, “OK, I will go look with fresh ojos” - even though looking is one of my least favorite activities. It is one of the many reasons I don’t want a bunch of random stuff ever again. I still misplace things, but the less you have, the less time you have to spend looking.
The logic of this escapes Sergio, who still hauls twice as much on car trips as we need. Thus the pile of stuff on the bed.
We go back to the room and now I’m wondering where to start. All the sudden he pauses, takes a pair of jeans down from the shelf. He has already checked them but this time he checks the smaller square pocket in the front pocket.
And guess what. He finds the money.
He looks almost stunned, like, what just happened?
Yay baby, that’s awesome!
We celebrate for a minute. I’m so happy for him, I feel like we have made a mighty dent in an old dark pattern.
I go off to take a shower. He comes to the doorway, he’s holding the flower and he says,
You know, I think this flower helped me.
Yes, I think so too.
The next morning as I’m making the bed, I see the flower in some water on his side table.
The situations in our lives are not random occurrences. Many spiritual teachers say that everyone and every moment holds a potential lesson.
Picture the alternate scenario - Sergio looking for something. I arrive and reflexively step into the role of annoyed critic, scolding him, grudgingly agreeing into “help” him look, bringing my own judgmental energy to the whole scene, tossing stuff around, sighing.
Would we have found the money? Maybe, but I don’t think he would have been led to recheck those jeans. I think he would have shut down further.
Much more important than the money, even if we found it, what would have been his emotional take-away? What would I have reinforced in him by bringing impatient irritation in to dance with his stress and worry?
In taking a moment to go outside, connect with the present moment, and then prod gently on the memories of the transaction, I was looking for the literal “Oh yes! I remember now” moment. A key learning for me was, when it didn’t come, I tuned into him, and rather than push for him to try “harder” to remember, I let it go.
So it goes with our life - we are usually looking for a specific, literal outcome. When it doesn’t come, do we let it go and return to our path without negativity - i.e. closing down?
Because look at what happened - something did bubble up for Sergio, an inkling about those jeans that he had already checked.
This is how creativity works, too - we have to trust enough to take breaks, even sometimes at the most irrational moments, and then stay open to what comes up. We expect the answer (or inspiration) will come walking in the front door wearing a sensible blue skirt, and she actually blows in through the sunny window in the next room, in a hot pink sundress.
So that is our Sunday story. If you are considering traveling full time, I hope this list will make traveling with a partner more fun and / or handling different cultures easier:
Check your reflexes
Step back and take a break if something is not working
Check in with nature and the Now
Return to your path with positivity
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Link to Xochimilco photo album
My sweet #mexican is making yogurt from scratch. The Mexican word for yogurt starter is Bulgaros - which is also the word for Bulgarian people. (There must be a pocket of descendants of Bulgarian emigrees in Mexico someplace - go figure.)
He makes Kombucha with the absolute minimum of sugar because the commercial brands are too sweet for me, and he also makes our nut butters with a non-electric hand grinder. Unfortunately for Mexico's obesity rate, US food and beverage brands export gigatons of processed products down south. You can buy sugary Skippy and Jif by the jumbo-jar; nut butters without added sugar are hard to find.
Living with Sergio is like a #fieldtrip every day for my #innergypsy 😍 He grew up in Mexico City, raised by his dad, often staying with family in small shared apartments with tiny kitchens.
He likes cooking and he likes attention from women, so he hung out in the kitchen alot. His tias (aunts) and abuela taught him about fermentation, food preservation, and how to stretch a whole chicken to feed a family for a week. He also learned waste = sin. He used to run errands to the mercado for his aunt, bargain with the vendors and pocket the spare pesos. Arbitrage starts early in Mexico.
Our #Airbnb kitchens are usually tiny, but you don't need a huge kitchen and lots of gadgets to eat really well in Mexico. I think of it as urban camping - the stoves are always gas, and often they are just countertop models.
The markets here are filled with a mix of products, if you ask around and pay attention to the produce, you can tell which are small local farmers who are more likely to grow their produce naturally.
Often, but not always, the vendors with the local / freshest produce are more indigenous in appearance and they are often, but not always, women. #Xochimilco, for example, has a gorgeous market filled with produce from the surrounding area where people have been raising food for thousands of years. Now thats some #SlowFood Mexico.
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I’m 53 years old and for the first time in my life, I’m heating water on a stove to take a bath.
The water heater for the apartment is tiny; the old bathtub, big, cast iron and chilly. Sergio helped me fill the biggest pots we have with water, they now crowd the tiny gas stove whose size matches the miniature water heater. Add to that the half size cute fridge and I feel like I’m playing in a grown-up dollhouse kitchen.
We are staying for a month near the city center. The apartment is in a pretty remodeled Art Deco building, built in the 1930s when the Colonia Juarez was the bees knees and home to many upper class Mexicans.
The area suffered heavy damage in the 1985 earthquake; you can still see some of the old abandoned buildings that were too expensive to repair. Now the area is experiencing a renewal and is home to a growing number of trendy restaurants and apartments for young people. This apartment is part of that renewal, and retains a lot of charm - tiled floors (which I love), a small patio, original hardware, rounded doorways, big windows, folding french doors, and a real rarity in Mexico City apartments - a bath tub. I have stayed in dozens of places in Mexico, this is one of 2 bathtubs I have come across in all that time.
Well, make that 3. In reading about Mexico City right before the Spanish came, I learn that water has been on the city agenda for thousands of years. Even though the ancient city was built in the middle of a lake, apparently that water wasn’t great for drinking. The Aztecs built aqueducts to bring water from the mountains. The water flowed through elaborate pipe systems to hundreds of public fountains. Some of the upper classes had running water in their homes.
The famous Aztec king Nezahualcoyotl piped water through elaborate gardens and ended in filling an outdoor bathtub positioned to give the him an incredible view of the countryside, his domain. You can visit the tub today, where the view is still available even though the water is not.
Today in Mexico City, drinking water filtering systems in homes are expensive and rare. Most of the populace buys their drinking water and carts it home; we are no exception. A 5 gallon garrafon costs 35 pesos - about $1.80 - and lasts us about 3 days.
I notice every glass of water in a way I never did living in the US. The garrafon weighs about 45 lbs. This building has no elevator; Sergio carries every ounce we drink from the corner store and lugs it up 3 flights of stairs.
Sergio doesn’t like to waste water, even if its not for drinking. He takes short showers in even shorter bursts, turning off the water to soap up and rinsing off as quickly as possible. Before he gets out, he brushes the excess water from his body in sharp motions with the flat of his hand. I asked him why once. He laughed as he said, "Force of habit - you dry off faster this way if you don’t have a towel, and sometimes there was no towel."
I am a child of U.S. suburbs, to me this all seems as primitive and exotic as the Little House on the Prairie stories I read in my room in a tract house built on a prairie outside of Houston. Laura Ingalls Wilder described the weekly bath routine that started by heating water on the stove and ended with taking turns in a wooden tub in the kitchen.
In our 70’s house growing up, the hot water seemed to flow endlessly; well, as long as my older brother didn’t get the shower first. When that happened, I would give up and go to bed because he would drain the jumbo sized water heater for sure, even though his long showers sent my dad through the roof on a regular basis.
The tub in this apartment reminds me of one in my mom’s childhood home in a small town in Iowa. Her parents lived in the family home of my grandfather, built by his father. By small town standards, it was a big Victorian with fancy details you might expect in a home for the family that owned one of the town’s two lumberyards.
Family lore maintains that the house had the first fully plumbed bathroom in the county. I still remember that bathroom; the size of a small bedroom. The tub was cast iron with claw feet, similar to this one.
There were also two freestanding sinks, one of which often had a glass of water where, much to the shock of my cousins and I, my grandfather’s teeth spent the night. I never saw my Grandpa Buck without his teeth, but I did see his teeth without him.
My Dad grew up in an even smaller Iowa town on a tiny rented farmstead. He is the youngest of 9 children born to loving, strict, and likely fatigued Methodist parents who themselves had married in their teens. They were intelligent and worked harder than most of us today can imagine. There was never much money in the mix. I think their main obstacles in life were a lack of advancing social connections and a surplus of children at all times.
My dad remembers, with his older brother, helping their mom on laundry day, which started with heating water on the stove early in the morning. Indoor plumbing was finally installed in the 1950’s when my father was in high school and all the other kids had moved on.
I’m thinking about my dad’s mother, very far away in time and distance, staring out her kitchen window at the flat Iowa landscape, waiting for water boil.
I can’t relate at all to my grandmother’s life, the reality of raising 9 children in a tiny cold water house. With this bath I’m looking for a shred of common experience with her and countless other women in the world, some in Mexico City today, that raise families without hot running water. But let's face it, one bath from water heated on a stove is more like a tourist experience than a real hardship.
I leave the kitchen to check on the bathroom. The recent remodel did not include running power to the bathroom. I run an extension cord from the bedroom across the hall and put a small space heater in the dry tub to take the chill off of the cast iron.
Sergio has some superstitions about electricity. When he was growing up, it was not a given that wiring was correct, or safe, or that there would always be “luz” (lights) available 24/7. No one left anything plugged in all night (see first point of “safe” wiring). When we were first together, I had to get used to finding everything in the kitchen unplugged in the morning.
True to form, after several minutes I come back into the bathroom to find he has unplugged the heater and relocated it to a safe distance under the sink. I plug it back in to build warmth in the room where air seeps in around a large single pane glass window.
The cleaning lady who works for the people that live here has recently come. She is a very sweet older lady, and her employment seems to be more a form of trickle down economics than an actual cleaning arrangement.
Her first chore each time she arrives is to make herself a coffee. I would, too, if I were her. She brings the bus in from a colonia about 2 hours from here. The lure of a 300 peso ($15) gig once a week makes the trip worth it. I wonder how many children she has raised; I imagine she and my grandmother could swap some stories over that cup of coffee.
However, her customary cafecito doesn’t seem to have inspired much gusto with tub scrubbing. I clean the tub, rinse it out, plug the drain and open the hot water tap all the way. The water spills out nonchalantly for about 4 minutes before it turns tepid.
Sergio brings in the first, and then the second, pan of steaming hot water and empties it into the tub. This gives me about 3 inches of hot water. It is my first hot bath in weeks; I’ve been taking hurried tepid showers to avoid a final chilly rinse as the hot water runs out. I’m also fighting off a cold and the hot water is like steam therapy. Its heaven for about 10 minutes.
Even though I pre-warmed the tub, the tiny heater fan was no match for the cast iron and the metal quickly leeches out the warmth. This first batch of water cools quickly.
I also feel a little silly sitting in this big tub alone, so I call Sergio and say, “How about you bring the rest of the hot water and yourself and join me?”
He says, “Really? "
I say, “Yes, of course, baby.”
This is how he is - cheerfully enabling my high maintenance bath without any promise of participation, his generous willingness to give me my space, even though the concept of needing personal space is foreign to him.
Growing up in Mexico City in the 60s and 70s, he did not have bathtubs, or abundant hot water, or personal space, for that matter. He lived with his dad and they moved frequently, often staying with family. Some houses had a shower, but often he grew up bathing, and later bathing his sons, standing or squatting in a round plastic tub.
One day we were in the Colonia San Felipe, where he lived for a bit as a teenager. We passed some public baths; not fancy, but respectable, where they provide towels, soap and other toiletries. Sergio said, “Look - I used to go those baths sometimes!” He is fastidious about his appearance; I smile as I imagine him as a young man, spending his hard earned pesos on a hot bath on Friday afternoon before heading out for the evening.
Back in this tub, the water heater has recovered enough to contribute another dose of hot water. Between that and the rest of the hot water Sergio brings, the bathroom finally starts to feel warm and a bit steamy.
He joins me, sitting behind me, sponging water over my shoulders, rubbing my back and chatting in Spanish. I’m feeling almost too warm now and start to sweat; a core of tension I’ve been holding on for a few weeks loosens up and dissolves. Its a sweat lodge mini- reaction - there are a few tears in the release, I just let them come, melting into the steam and heat.
My thoughts float like steam - undefined and foggy. I’m reminded how much I value this current lifestyle of few possessions and easy mobility, learning life lessons from new spaces, this time, about the precious resource of water in a city that rests on the ghosts of ancient lakes.
YouTube Video about Tetzcotzingo, The King's Bath (Baños de Nezahualcóyotl)
article about Colonia Juarez revival
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“Recuerdas a mi amigo, Juan?” Sergio asked me yesterday.
Remember my friend, Juan?
I’m thinking, yes, which one, baby? You know at least 5 men named Juan. I respond with a simple “Sí” because I know he’s going to tell me which Juan, anyway.
He says, “He invited us to dinner tomorrow; he told me last week to let him know a day ahead of time if we can come.”
What? This Juan plans ahead? I’m intrigued. Dinner plans among Mexicans often come together 5 minutes before comida is served. I have learned to like this way of planning via not planning, especially for social time.
Yet when he says, “Do you want to go?”, my inner gringa winces. This will mean we now have three nights in a row of social obligations, we are cooking for at least 10 people on the 24th, we still need to shop for all of it, and I wasn’t intending to take the whole week off.
But my inner latina, who got me into this crazy new life in the first place, points out it’s a little late to shut 'er down now, and says “Si, por qué no?“ Sure, why not?
I ask, “Should we take some beer?”
He says, “No I don’t think so, I don’t know if they drink. They are from a different religion, this is why they are having their special dinner on the 23 and not the 24th”. I think to myself, hmmm, Jehovah’s Witness?
“OK, we’ll take a poinsettia.”
When we arrive (late as usual), I am surprised as we walk into a home decorated in blue and silver for Hanukah. Mexican decoration preferences are often from the “less is a bore” school of thought. More is better, especially during the holidays, and this home is no exception.
A collection of menorahs covers a side table. Glittery Stars of David hang from the ceiling in the dining area, where two homemade banners celebrating hanukkah flank the loaded sideboard full of crystal and dishes. Two lit candles of Shabbat are on another decorated side table.
Juan greets us, a large smiling bearded man wearing a yarmulke. He and his family are prepared to share a beautiful traditional Jewish Shabbat meal with us. I didn't see that one coming in a country where the 98% of the populace is Catholic, the official state religion.
The table is already set with pottery with a beautiful bird pattern. Juan invites us to sit down. The relaxed “prologue chatter” of Mexican acquaintances ensues - How is everyone? And I mean everyone. They go through the list - status of relationships, health, work and general chismes (light gossip) about family, friends, distant acquaintances, complete strangers.
Juan’s lovely wife Blanca appears from upstairs and joins us. Their youngest son, who was born prematurely, is 7 months old. I peek under the blanket covering his stroller; he’s a tiny holiday cherub bundled up and snoozing.
The other “son” is a young teenager, actually a nephew who appears to have adopted his aunt and uncle. He joins us at the table, also wearing a yarmulke. Blanca rests her hand on his shoulder as she explains he is the same to her as un hijo de mi sangre - a son of my own blood.
Among many Mexican families, the boundaries of parenting are fluid; you may end up spending more time at your cousin’s or grandparent’s house than you do your own. In Mexico, “who you know” is taken to a whole different level, and it starts with your family. Cousin relationships are leveraged heavily, and tios (uncles and aunts) are expected to try to help their nieces and nephews.
There are exceptions of course; just as everywhere in the world, not all families are truly close. Lack of resources can strain family ties. Requests for help from family can add up to a lot of pressure on uncles and aunts who have their own children to feed, clothe and launch into the world.
Sergio is the middle son of three boys, his parents divorced when he was three years old. His father’s name is his middle name - Sergio Luis.
His father, Luis Zavala, left the house and returned a few weeks later, but only for Sergio. The dramatic story is that he bundled Sergio up and whisked him away into the night on a motorcycle. Sergio saw his mother from time to time but never returned to her house.
He was never close to his mother, Josefina. He tells me she was unhappy, bitter and favored her oldest son. This was the early 60’s in Mexico City, a decade of change; I don't know, but perhaps Josefina had dreams of doing something different than raising a big family in limited economic circumstances. She did not want more than one or two children; this caused friction with Luis, who, like the Catholic church and most traditional Mexican men at that time, wanted as many hijos as they could create together, regardless of practical considerations.
Luis eventually remarried, but not before raising Sergio as a single father for a few years. He was a loving father - Sergio has a collection of dichos, or sayings, that he learned from his dad and I gather he inherited his sense of humor and general positive outlook from his father.
Luis was also strict, teaching Sergio how to take care of himself from an early age: wash his own clothes, cook his own meals, run errands in the mercado.
Luis walked Sergio to school every day when he was a young boy, and he supervised homework sessions, at times with a severity that some might judge to be abusive. His father wanted more for Sergio, and he knew education was the key to a better life in Mexico.
He held a series of jobs as a chauffeur and bus driver. Unfortunately, he was fighting a losing battle with alcoholism as Sergio grew up. At times they had very little money and lived with extended family that also didn’t have much extra. Some of family did what they could to be helpful, others were abusive, and, in what must have been very confusing to a small child, some were both.
Luis died in a tragic accident when Sergio was 19. This is a critical age for a young man coming of age in a city crowded with other young people. Sergio stayed with family and friends for a few years, yet always felt like he was in the way and moved on frequently. The first time in his life Sergio had his own bed was in his early 20s, living on his own with his girlfriend.
Those early years were very hard, and to be honest life didn't smooth out much for Sergio later, either. I often wonder how is it he is so positive and kind today? How is it he didn't break and succumb to cynicism, drug abuse, or crime as a way to get by?
I believe the main thing that kept him strong and hopeful during those years of moving around, changing schools, watching his father diminish; and even later, while struggling to raise his own sons as a single father - is the knowledge that his father chose him.
In the absence of the love of a mother (which is a tragic loss in the life of a Mexican man, or at least this Mexican man), Sergio knows at his core he was wanted by his father. It is a powerful lodestone.
These thoughts run through my head as I sit at the table across from Juan and Blanca’s older son/nephew. I think, well, at least this earnest young man has won the Tio Lottery!
Before we start dinner, he chants beautiful verses in Hebrew with a facility that shows he’s been breaking bread at this table for a long time. I ask him later about his plans for his Christmas break. His answer surprises me - he says he has a lot of studying to do for an online class he and Juan are working on together. Maybe he’s getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah; I wish I had thought to ask.
Juan gives the father’s blessing to both of his sons. It is a brief, ancient hands on ritual that will carves his love into the lives of his children over many years.
I ask Juan about the nearest temple. He says, yes, there is only one and its in Polanco (the wealthiest colonia in Mexico City, an hour away) so they usually have services in their home. Sergio asks if they ever go out to eat for Shabbat. Juan looks a little shocked and says, no, Shabbat is for the house, and proceeds to show us why.
We finish with the prelude chatter, its time to start the observance. Blanca wheels the stroller over to the table and Juan begins the chanting. The 7 month old, who had been sleeping peacefully, of course decides now is the time to wake up. The chanting pauses to get him settled to his satisfaction. He’s tiny yet he exhibits keen intelligence - his current favorite lap is his father’s and he’s quick to tell the difference as he’s passed around. After a bit of fussing, he is seated in Papa’s lap, Juan’s big hand supporting the baby's tiny tummy as he faces us with his small hands resting on the table. He looks like a tiny rabbi in training. His father resumes the chanting.
Juan is also jiggling the baby slightly with his knee, and pretty soon the baby proceeds to punctuate the chanting with a prolonged bout of unselfconscious gas. After a couple of minutes Blanca interrupts the chanting again, saying “Ai perdoname” and gives into a fit of giggling. We all join in as we were holding back our own snickering as well.
Obviously feeling better and happy to be the center of attention once again, the baby smiles back at all of us from his perch at the head of the table.
We recover what is left of our dignity and continue. The first observance is with the wine - Juan pours a cup for his family and one for Sergio and I to share. It tastes just like communion wine. More chanting. Sergio, who loves music of all kinds, starts to connect with the ritual, it reminds him a bit of the circle chanting they perform in the Aztec danza rituals.
The we proceed with the most important ritual - washing the hands. The men go first into the kitchen and wash hands. Then Blanca and I take our turn - she says, normally, washing hands is done in silence as a form of prayer, but since I’m her guest she explains how to do it and chants for me. It involves cold water, no soap and a specific way of turning your hands under the water.
Hands washed, we return to the table. I’m feeling woozy and I realize I’m starving. It’s almost 10:00 p.m., we were up until 4 the night before at a Posada. I grabbed a quick nap earlier, but I’ve never been a night owl and now my body is reminding of that.
We start with delicious Challah with salt and honey for dipping. Sergio asks if they bought the bread someplace. Juan proudly says, no, my wife made it.
I want to eat the whole braid myself, even though I don’t eat much bread in general. It's still warm, made from a traditional recipe, and it tastes like a big soft pretzel with sesame seeds on the top. Dipped in the salt it is literally manna from heaven to me.
In Mexico almost all the bread is white and sweet, even the pan integral here has more sugar in it than I am used to. One of my concessions to being an expat is that I pay $6 for a loaf of Ezekiel bread at an organic grocery in Coyoacan.
After the challah there are no more chants. Blanca serves a delicious meal of chicken and green salad. She apologizes - she had planned to make a special spaghetti but the gas ran out that afternoon.
Natural gas is plentiful and cheap in Mexico, electricity is expensive. Consequently, almost all stoves (and water heaters) are gas. Most houses like this one maintain a gas tank outside their home. Juan had recently had the tank filled; he and Sergio agree on the likelihood that the gas vendor is unethical and shorted him on the last refill.
I think about how these nice people spent their whole day getting ready for us to come to dinner, with a baby and a last minute menu change in the mix, and I feel humbled. Blanca refuses to let me help serve or clean up, even as they juggle plates, food and the baby, who is now hungry and demanding.
Blanca asks us about our plans, we are still figuring things out, and it’s nice because she doesn’t react with the quizzical look we so often get when we depart from our scripted delivery of “what’s next”. Instead she talks about the importance of living in the moment, which obviously resonates with me. Her inspiration seems to come from the teachings of her faith, reinforced by the life-sharpening experience of having a baby who spent the first 6 month of his life in the hospital.
As the meal comes to an end, I am shutting down a bit - this happens when I’m tired and have spent the entire day speaking spanish. My brain short circuits, half of my spanish leaves me; I have trouble following the conversation, let alone participating.
I nudge Sergio and ask him to order an Uber as we get ready to leave. My phone doesn’t have service yet. He orders an Uber on his phone, which has 8% charge left.
I try one last time to clear a couple of plates. Juan says, “No no! there is one last prayer of thanks for the end of the meal.”
Said prayer ensues, it is beautiful but by this time it’s about 11:30. I can barely keep my eyes open. I confess I spent the prayer time wondering if the Uber will wait for us, and if not, will Sergio’s phone have enough charge to call another?
After the prayer, we make what in Mexico is considered a hurried exit - less than 5 minutes spent on goodbyes and getting out the door - to find that yes, the Uber is still in the street waiting for us. Thank goodness.
We arrive at our apartment and my sweet man offers me a massage. I’m almost comatose as I drift off into sleep with his warm strong hands on my back, warm challah in my tummy and the blessings of the Shabbat heaped upon my head.
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