Being a Peace Corps Volunteer means getting sick. No matter the strength of your stomach, illness will strike early—at the least, and I mean the very least, you’ll have traveler’s. It’s your body’s way of announcing that you’re into a new gut biome and an in-country delicacy has brought a batch of local bacteria to roost. Traveler’s Diarrhea is mandatory and the slate of gastrointestinals explodes from there.

Mexico has what even Mexicans call Moctezuma’s Revenge, a catch-all for waterborne stomach ailments. We’re told that the source isn’t inadequate water treatment, as you might expect, but improperly sealed pipes that let in ground germs. Depending on where you live and how you get your water, it might be totally safe or liable to give you an amoeba infestation—hard to detect and dangerous—or giardia—usually from drawing your water downhill of someone else’s latrine, identifiable by crystal clear water jetting from where it oughtn’t. My potables seem safe here, so far, but anyone near standing bodies of the stuff is at risk for worms and other, larger gut parasites.

You know the kind

You know the kind

The Mega down in the city has a whole aisle for anti-parasitics, so I assume one or two volunteers have had to tangle with them. Beyond the named afflictions, all of us are familiar with the two-day bouts of crippling chorro that come and go like cramped and unwelcome ghosts in the night.

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I’ve eaten almost nothing but beans since the start of the month. An egg here and there, some cheese earlier along, tortillas to scoop them up with. But every meal, black beans. Hot beans, cold beans, mashed and refried beans. It’s been a long three weeks.


I keep a pretty Spartan larder in the best of times—with a small fridge and no storage space, it’s easier to pick up whatever I’m eating at the corner grocery on the way home.  And while my settling-in allowance served to furnish my unfurnished apartment (and mine came with neither sink nor toilet seat), it wasn’t large enough to buy an oven or a countertop or a decent knife once I’d gotten a bed and a fridge and a stove and all that. I made a kind of cupboard from old planks and crates from the market and I cut my vegetables on top of my refrigerator, but it’s not the same. I’d like to be baking the kind of fresh bread you can’t get here, but that’s out of my price range.

And tin cups without holes in them

As are mirrors

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Slice of Life

Mexico is a cacophony. It is everywhere and at all times noisy, riotous, polluted, and beautiful. My buddy James and I went to breakfast at Reina del Sur today. It’s a homely little place, four wobbly tables out front of a dingy kitchen. The wait staff is surly and slow, the coffee is terrible, and the juice is usually Tang. But the food is delicious and quick and there’s just enough quiet for a hangover. It’s great.

When we made it down to the main street across from Reina, the place was gone and some kind of fiesta was going on instead. Balloons hung in chains from every railing and cornice and masses of junk food had been unwrapped and set out as a buffet with a ten-dollar plastic chocolate fountain. Two girls, the worse for wear, were out stopping all traffic on what’s also the only highway through the Sierra, passing out fliers for a restaurant that has nowhere to park. Bachata music was blasting out at around lawnmower volume, and they had one of Mexico’s ubiquitous emcees belting a never-ending stream of gibberish. My boss has this ability and it’s fascinating—they can yell into the mic for hours without saying a thing, calling on passersby, cracking jokes, and selling whatever they’re selling, all of it just loud enough to be understood over the music.

We stood in the street for five minutes just looking at the train wreck. We ended up walking in but wishing there was some way to indicate with body language that everything they were doing was dissuading rather than persuading. When we made it into what used to be the cave of a kitchen, we saw that it had been turned into a dining room, new, light, clean. Slow renovations to the stove and overflowing sinks over the past year had exploded in two days. New floor, new walls, new paint, level tables, all approaching an actual restaurant. As we sat down, the guy with the mic dropped Reina del Sur into his monologue and James and I looked at each other. Only in Mexico can you have a grand opening a year after opening.

Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey

Except, you know, in fictional New Jersey

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Wedding Crashers

Well holy hell let’s talk about updates. I’m on the terrace today. I’m actually not sure what you’d call this in English, but in Spanish it’s terrace, so we’ll go with that. I’d be on the roof but it’s not sunny and the two wooden ladders we drunkenly nailed together have a hard enough time when I’m not carrying forty pounds of seat and West German engineering.



A lot’s been happening in the past week (it’d only been a week when I wrote this) or I guess since whenever I posted last. It’s Christmas Day as I’m writing this, by the way, and we’re right in the middle of our first extended cold spell. Also probably the longest-running low-grade hangover I’ve ever had. The folks in Jalpan don’t go insane on any one night over break, but they always go late and they’ve got some kind of endurance.

Let’s start with the wedding. I think I mentioned that my host family here in town is great but not all that into me, and I know it can’t just be my fault because between my folks in Querétaro and the Beyer family, I’m pretty sure I’ve edged at least one natural born child out of the favorite-kid slot. So as a consequence I spend time hanging out with the host family of the married volunteers in site.

These jokers

These jokers

They also  live literally directly below me. The Peace Corps tells us to try to avoid the impression that we’re a unit and to establish our own separate identities, but that boat’s long sailed, looks like. The town knows there’s three of us and that someone’s  married to the other or we’re participating in some kind of godforsaken gringo bigamy but it’ll work itself out.

Anyway, so some friends of their mom, Lupe, were getting married last Saturday, and I’d had a standing invitation from before Lupe’d actually met me. Nowhere in the world is as welcoming as small town Mexico. So I got suited up in the usual campo going-out gear, tight jeans and a plaid shirt, which is a style that worked out pretty well for me on the whole, given that on average everything I’ve worn for the last three years was a plaid flannel. It was only as I was walking up to the church that I thought I might have wanted to, you know, not look like an asshole. But I turned out to be only slightly underdressed and once the reception got started all that mattered was how danceable your clothes were.

Let me be clear. I’d never met the bride or the groom before, and neither had Trey or Janessa, the other volunteers (Fun fact, “Janessa” is almost impossible for someone who hasn’t learned English. Here she’s Yanay, Jeena, and, best of all, Jimmy). But given that Lupe’s a spirited and pushy introducer of friends, she ushered us up at the end of the service to take a picture with our awkwardly wrapped around the happy couple. Or in my case awkwardly retracted and defiantly crossed over my chest for no reason.

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On Site

Well, after months and months of failing to blog, here I am writing from site. I should have a bit more unstructured time from here on out, and a shorter walk home, so we can all hope this’ll be a regular gig going forward.
Like I said awhile ago, I’m in Jalpan de Serra, nestled in a valley of the Sierra Gorda, in the Viosphere Reserve that occupies the top third of Queretaro state. Serra isn’t a sad historical misspelling of Sierra, but the name of Fray Junípero Serra, who founded the five Franciscan missions in my mountains and all the famous ones in California.
This is mine

This is mine

This is another mission. And two Volunteer asses

This is another mission. And two Volunteer asses

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Some Stay Dry and Others Feel the Pain

Writing in class today, so no photo. Sorry folks.

Let’s talk about Mexican food. I love Mexican food. Who doesn’t. In the US we’ve got more Tex Mex than pure Mex, but that’s at least a good starting point. Tacos, tortillas, tamales, we’ve got here. Burritos, we don’t. Our salsas are spicier, in general everything’s simpler (though that’s because Queretaro’s at the northern edge of the Mesoamerican zone. Further south gets more complicated, further north more American), and all the growing things are different. Maiz is the rule, and wheat flour, in tortillas or otherwise, is comparatively rare. Fruit holds a central role that you’ll never see north of the border, and the vegetables are all cactus bits and squash and flowers. It’s all a helluvalot healthier than the cheese-heavy stuff slung back home (though I’d be the last to cast aspersions on the American take).

To be fair, this is the epitome of food

Tequila and Corona we’ve got, but by and large the fluid situation’s got nothing to do with Mountain Dew Baja Fresh. I’ve been sucking down hot chocolate made from corn on the daily, local coffee to no end, water from those big blue bottles, and any number of ‘aguas frescas,’ which they squeeze out of every fruit and melon and vegetable that you can think of.

Jamaica or jicama, who knows

I usually don’t know what I’m drinking

There is, of course, a dark side, and you’d be surprised to know that they say ‘Venganza de Moctezuma’ down here too. For me, it started with the mole.

The Black Mole

Mole (mole-ayy) is an incredibly complicated little sauce you make by dicing and frying up peanuts and garlic and onions and three to four dozen other strong, spicy, chemically potent ingredients and then pureeing them all together for a couple hours. Afterwards, you submerge something like chicken in it, cook it a little more, and pour the meat and a gallon or so of the mole onto a plate. Let me be clear, mole is good. My mom’s mole is real good. And while there’s a certain nonchalance with which street venders treat concepts like cooking thoroughly, storing safely, and not transferring guttersludge directly from hand to taco, Natalia’s living at worst in the cleaner half of the last century, and I’ve got zero worries on that front. Like I said, it only started with the mole.

Natalia, mixed-message-sending sweetheart that she is, told me how good this mole was and how hard she worked on it right before she advised me that mole is ‘real heavy’ and ‘not good before bed.’ I gave her an “está bien” and an ‘I’m easy’ face, and she plunked down the fateful chicken breast and attendant deluge. There’s some artful foreshadowing.

The situation was clear by morning. I woke up nine and a half months pregnant with the feeling that the newborn’d be coming that day, but not before a good long labor. My dad took ill with kidney stones on a slow hospital night once, and while he was doped up and moaning, every doctor in the place stopped by to tell me he was as close to childbearing as a man could get. They might have been right painwise, but I’m sure his stones weren’t shadowboxing and crawling around the place. I’ll spare you the entire aftermath, but my similarly afflicted buddy B. invented the term lluvia negra, and it’s become common parlance in our little corner of the Corps.

THIS guy

This guy

My first bout with the Aztec emperor left me a week later and five pounds lighter but no less eager to be out and eating. When Natalia bought the first round of extra paper, she cut me off from anything that might ‘trouble the stomach,’ but I got back on the spice train as soon as I could. If we want to dig the street food, we’ve got to go a few rounds with the old king. Until then, we’ll be waltzing in the black rain.