Translation Please

There is no doubt about it, learning another language is hard (unless, maybe,  you learn as a kid.)

Spanish, being a romance language, shares many Latin root words with English that are the same or very similar in both languages (university is universidad). From there on, though, Spanish is pretty much opposite in structure (aka grammar) from English.

To give you a few examples, adjectives follow nouns rather than precede them (the boy small or the house beautiful) and when you say you do not want… or something is not…, the negative is added to the front of words and phrases (No want… or I no go…) and there are two words for to be (is, are, etc.) that have two distinctly different meanings, though both meanings translate to the same word in English.

So like my great grandmother who might have said, “Throw me down the stairs a hankie,” I have to learn to think and speak backwards. Like I said, it is not easy.

Blue Bear & Friend, Taxco, MexicoI have found though, that if I am having trouble making myself understood, I should speak with a woman — preferably one who has raised children.

I was relating a story in Spanish and was pretty sure that I was using the correct words and even phrases. Though the women were smiling and nodding, one hombre in particular kept shouting, “Speak Spanish,” to which I replied, “I thought I was.” He turned to his wife, and said, “Do you understand her?” And she replied, “Yes.” He said, “Only a few words here and there, right?” to which she replied, “No, every word.” He, of course, was dumbfounded.

As my hostess Irma, likes to say, “Many words fly into the air,” however due to their experience in raising little ones learning to talk, mothers will most likely catch most of those words, fill in the blanks, and understand what you are saying no matter how badly you mangle the language.

Here are just a few of the women who understand me.

Good Morning Sunshine

I heard from home, and the sun finally came out. Many thanks to me for sending some sunshine their way.

Here in Taxco and the surrounding area though, we paid the price, but after several days of this —

Clouds over Taxco, MexicoHeavy clouds and the cold rain that comes with it, the sun came back.

Living in cement block and tile houses, without central heat and often without hot water, a “cold snap” can be quite trying. Those walls just suck the heat out of your body. Even I was “freezing” at night.

But, given a few days, as usual, the sun has returned and warmed our homes and hearts.

Good morning sunshine!

Sunrise, Taxco, Mexico Sunrise, Taxco, Mexico Sunrise over the mountains, Taxcp, Mexico


So yesterday, I sent some of our ever present sunshine to the folks back home who haven’t seen the sun for three weeks. Perhaps that was a mistake, for this is what I woke up to this morning–

Magnificent Clouds, Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoThose clouds in the valley are pretty magnificent aren’t they?

The accompanying all day drenching was highly unusual. Even with our “paraguas” (umbrellas, though literally “for water”) eventually my feet were wet and I was “mas frio” (very cold.)

But as Annie liked to sing, “The sun will come out, tomorrow.” And if not, probably the next day.

Good Morning Sunshine

Without getting out of bed, I can watch the sunrise over the mountains. Usually the sky is clear and sunrise is just a matter of the sky fading from black, to indigo, to violet, fuchsia, coral, golden, and then the blaze of the sun over the blackness of the landscape. Lately though, we have had a lot of clouds, making for some spectacular sunrises.

For my friends back home who are discouraged because they  have not seen the sun for three weeks now, this one is for you!

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Palabra del Dia – Word of the Day

I live with a Mexican family, that other than the usual pleasantries (Good morning, good night, etc.) do not speak English, and though my vocabulary is growing my ability to truly communicate is vastly limited. I try though.

I am told that I am learning quickly, although I do not feel so confident in my abilities. My head literally hurts some days as I try to understand. And, there are times my brain absolutely refuses to speak Spanish no matter how hard I might try.

Tools for learning SpanishTo over come my inadequacies, I have downloaded two language apps that unlike Google translation, work offline. One is an English-Spanish dictionary, just like the book form only handily kept on your Smartphone where it is easy to reference and less likely to be left behind somewhere. The other is a translation program, Jibbigo, that translates phrases or sentences in a number of  languages, so if you and the person you are trying to communicate with can both read and type, you can actually have a simple two-way conversation. The phone will even do the talking for you, in case your pronunciation is horrible.

As we were sitting around the dinner table recently, Irma’s granddaughters were curious about my translation app so we played around – translating and pronouncing different words. It all started because I wanted to say something was funny, so I looked it up – co’mico  (pronounced CO mee co). When I was trying to help them pronounce funny, which proved to be difficult for them (Spanish does not have a short u sound). I said it was similar to the name of Irma’s daughter, and the girls’ mother, Fanny (pronounced Fahn ee). We made ” funny” the word of the day and went on comparing other words in Spanish and English.

Later when I asked Carlita (Fanny’s youngest daughter) what the word of the day was. She thought for a moment and said, “Mama?” So much for word association! Yet, we all got a big kick out of her answer.

The following morning Irma questioned me about “good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good night,” and tested out all the other English words she thought she knew. (Quite a few actually!) Despite her initial objection that she was too old to learn English, she just might learn after all.

In fact, we (the whole family) will all learn together. Much more fun than studying a book for hours on end; more practical too because you learn the words you will actually use.

Our word for today is amiga/amigo – friend.

My Mexican family

Irma (R) and some of her family.



I have been here several weeks now without the ability to call my friends and family back home. You thought Verizon was bad???? Try dealing with a phone company that has no real competition!!! (Well perhaps that is the same). And customer service people who each tell you something different and either put you on hold forever until you hang up or outright hang up on you if they don’t want to answer or do not know the answer to your question.

My first two years coming to Mexico, I just used my Verizon phone with a Mexican-American plan; that gave me the ability to call home and to text local friends. However, in the push to get everyone off of their unlimited data plans and start charging by the usage, as of last year,Verizon no longer offers that plan. Well, actually you can get it but for no more than a 2 week vacation, not for longer term visits like mine.

So what to do? How to stay in touch when calling home is roaming at 99 cents a minute? Ouch!

cellphoneSolution: A Mexican smartphone.
For about $200, I was able to get a full feature Samsung smartphone (yep, just like the $600 ones back home) which allows me to text everyone here (their preferred, aka cheapest, mode of communication) and call home for the whopping sum of 1 or maybe 2 cents a minute. And if I have wi-fi and the right app, calling home is FREE!

The only trouble is that Mexico operates on a prepay system and for some reason if you do not use your phone for a period of time, they lock the phone and eventually reclaim your number and your credit. Such a deal!!!! ($100 pesos may not be much for me to lose but to someone living in Mexico, that is a lot of money.)

We knew of this usage requirement, of course, so to keep it active, my phone was used for visitors. And, when Vanessa’s family visited, they used it to keep in touch. Vanessa dutifully swapped out the chips (hers and mine) every few months (as required) and used my phone but apparently, somewhere along the line, the phone company changed the rules (again) shortening the time limit for not using the phone and unknowingly my phone number was locked and lost.

After at least 5 long phone calls to the company and several in person visits, I can reclaim my really cool number (111-8855) for a fee, or oh wait I cannot. Like most everything in Mexico, one is at the whim of the powers to be.

As it turned out, I had to start all over with a new number and trying to figure out how to keep it alive when I go home. I’d ask for suggestions but since the rules change constantly, who really knows?!!! I will just put credit on it every month and hope.

With my new Mexican phone in hand and my Internet calling app installed and tested (don’t try this on your Verizon phone unless you want to be rudely surprised with a REALLY big bill, as I was last year), I am ready to make phone calls. Family and friends I will be in touch soon.

And my Verizon phone? Well, it takes very nice pictures. And with the two phones together, I do not have to keep switching between different translation apps; I just consult a different one on each phone  — having the best of both instantly available.

Oh the challenges of international living! But it sure beats smoke signals.

Excuse me, there is a banana in my soup!

When you enter another culture, there are bound to be differences in customs, ways of doing things, clothing, and, of course, food.

img_0419-qprIn Mexico, once you get used to “chili” (aka hot peppers) and salsa in or on everything and drinks that come in bags, there are unusual foods, such as:



Mamey – A large orange fruit resembling a small oval cantalope with orange fruit that tastes a little like sweet potato.

ZapoteSapote – White – a strange slimy, somewhat acidic fruit (which I do not care for) and black – which I dubbed the chocolate pudding fruit because, when ripe, the flesh is deep brown, almost black, with the consistency of pudding and a somewhat chocolatey taste.



Nopales – Cactus, served a variety of ways cooked and raw.



Jicama – A starchy tuber, like a potato but sweeter and juicier. Imagine a potato crossed with an apple. Eaten raw, often with chili.



Plantains – Like a  banana only starchier. You may be accustomed to them, as I am, fried.



Imagine my surprise when I took a bite of my lentil soup and what appeared to be potato turned out to be a plantain.

Variety is the spice of life right?!!!

Mexican Traditions — Las Posadas

With a few days rest after the 12 day observance of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, culminating December 12th, December 16th marks the beginning of Las Posadas. For 9 nights, the barrios (neighborhoods) and callejons (small streets) around my house are filled with children singing and shouting, pinatas breaking, and of course, fireworks.

With roots in Catholicism, possibly started by Spanish friars who combined the December Aztec celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli (seen as the sun) into the celebration of Christmas, December 16, marks the start of 9 days (possibly representing the 9 months of the virgin Mary’s pregnancy) of nightly visits to the homes of friends and neighbors.

Las Posadas procession, Taxco, MexicoA little like carolers going from house to house in the US, Las Posadas include a procession with participants representing Mary and Joseph and other characters from the nativity scene, visiting the house of a neighbor. They sing a song asking for entry into the “inn”. The resident sings a song acknowledging the travelers and eventually invites the party, into the “inn” where everyone gathers around the nativity scene, prays, and feasts. Individuals may actually act out the parts — Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds — with the person playing Mary actually riding a donkey (or burro).

Breaking the pinata, Las Posadas, Taxco, MexicoChildren may carry poinsettas. Usually a star shaped pinata ,with candy and fruit hidden inside, is broken as a symbol of faith overcoming the seven deadly sins as represented by the points on the star.

Pinatas, Taxco, Mexico






In my observance, though I am sure there are many who are devout in their observance, it appears, as in many cultures and many observances, that Las Posadas, for most, is just another reason to for a fiesta.

pinatas for sale, Taxco, Mexico


Mexican Traditions — Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today is the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, probably the biggest religious festival in all of Mexico. Hundreds of thousands travel to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City where supposedly the virgin Mary appeared to a simple peasant, named Juan Diego, on December 9 and December 12, 1531.

As the legend goes, Mary told Juan to ask the bishop to build a church on Tepeyac Hill but the bishop needed proof of Juan’s encounter and asked for a miracle. Juan returned to the hill to find roses where previously only cacti had grown. Juan Diego showed the roses to the archbishop and revealed an image of the Lady of Guadalupe she emblazoned on his cloak (this cloak is on display at the Basilica), convincing the bishop of the miracle so the church was built. An little detail I find interesting is that Mary supposedly spoke in the indigenous Nauatl language, causing many indigenous people to convert to Catholicism.

The festival actually starts on December 1st when ardent believers begin their pilgrimage, often by foot, bicycle, burro, or as I saw today, horseback to Mexico City or any town (like Taxco)with a church in honor of Guadalupe. Some show their devotion by arriving to the church on their knees. Children often wear authentic costumes, while adults wear clothing imprinted with images of the virgin and carry candles and icons. Cars and trucks are decorated with images, three-dimensional icons, or mini altars honoring Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Click here for pictures.

The main celebration, as I noted in yesterday’s post, begins the night before the feast day (December 12) with bands marching solemnly through town playing pretty much the same song (maybe two)over and over. Gathering a crowd as they march, the processions eventually lead to the Church of Guadalupe far up the mountain beneath the Cristo statue. There the music continues with fireworks and airworks (fireworks with only the boom)adding to the cacophony. Often, conchero dancers (the name probably comes from the word concha, meaning “shell,” suggested by their mandolin-shaped instruments made of armadillo shells) often in colorful traditional dress (blending indigenous traditions with the Catholic celebration), offer their art to the virgin by furiously dancing to the endlessly repeated accompaniment. The celebration continues into the wee hours of the morning, with a midnight mass, church bells pealing and more fireworks and booms, ending about 1 am.

The following day, December 12, the festival continues from morning to night with more music, dancing, feasting, and of course, fireworks.

I wandered downtown to, as a Mexican friend puts it, “see the show,” but other than a good sized band of cabello hombres (men on horses) carrying their Guadalupe pennant and saying something over a loud speaker (which I could not understand) I did not see anything unusual. It just seemed a little like the day after Thanksgiving back home, with lots of people wandering around and shopping. Of course I did not go to the top of the mountain where the church is located either.

Now that the sun is going down, the bands and fireworks are becoming more prominent again.


Any excuse for a parade

Taxco, like Madison, is considered by outsiders to be a party town. Perhaps that has something to do with the frequent celebrations often including marching bands, parades, and fireworks.

At least once a week, if not more often, a parade goes by my house, filling the main street in town with children, balloons, queens, kings, costumed characters, and of course, marching bands, bringing traffic to a screeching halt and pedestrians, trying to get to their destination, weaving in and out of marchers, dancers, and balloon waving participants.

Today is December 11th, the night before the Festival of Guadalupe (the Mexican Virgin) and official kick-off of the holiday season in Mexico. So far, at least 4 drum and bugle corps have marched by. The streets are filled with processions carrying icons of the virgin followed by the reverent often carrying candles and smaller icons of their own (click here for pictures). The drums echo through the streets and off the mountains. Every so often, “air works” (fireworks without the fire, only the boom) add to the cacophony.

1211141956c-qprI think this is one of those nights when “there is no rest for the wicked.”