The Need to Breathe Fresh Air (And Where to Find It When You Need It)

There comes a moment amidst all the inconveniences, all of the stimulation, all the many beautiful and startling encounters with humanity provoked by living in the center of the almost-largest city in the world, that the glimpses of green between buildings or slivers of sky out the window just don’t cut it. It’s that smog-induced claustrophobia that causes you to realize you haven’t exhaled in over 20 seconds. It’s that empty feeling when you realize you’ve been chopping vegetables in silence for a long time, and all of a sudden you’re regurgitated out of a lonely mind-space onto the kitchen floor. You pick yourself up startled and wondering where you are.

These sensations have hit me abruptly a few times since I’ve been living in Mexico City, with an occasional burst of dismay at the agitation of hyper-urban life. The need for air and space has led me to some unrivaled scenery and some of the most mystifying and glorious terrain I’ve ever seen in my life.This has become important, especially as the climate shifts away from the rainy season into the drier colder months, which means the dust and pollution will continue to hang more intensely over the city.

This past weekend, Cassandra, Emma, Mara (all Casa volunteers) and I went to Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones. It is a gorgeous tall pine forest nestled in the southwestern corner of the city. Despite our attempt to get there solely on public transportation, we ended up taking a cab for the second half of the journey. After over two hours, and a series of winding, mountainous roads through Mexico City’s periphery, we wound us up at the doorstep of a convent in a misty, tranquil bliss. I donned my hat and gloves and let the frigid humidity sink into my skin. It felt so amazing to breath fresh, chill air, to eat tlacoyos not doused in exhaust from Puente del Alvardo (the highway that borders our neighborhood), and get some divine silence while wondering through the ancient stone walls of the convent and its impeccably maintained gardens. By far a highlight of my time here so far, and a much needed break from the city.

Convent at Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones

Convent at Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones

Another couple of my favorite refuges so far in the city are only a metro ride away. This park is in Coyoacan, about 45 minutes South of the Casa on public transportation.

Parque Viveros

Parque Viveros

This is Parque Bicentenario, a industrial wasteland turned park/skatepark/playground. It has great running trails and space to play soccer.

Parque Bicentenario

Parque Bicentenario

A few weekends ago, I also had the chance to visit Puebla, a beautiful colonial town only 2 hours outside of Mexico City. There we visited the Great Pyramid at Cholula.

Great Pyramid

Great Pyramid

Finally, I have the little bit of life I have brought to my own room. My very own bonsai!

Bonsai

Bonsai

 

Mexico City’s Corn Universe

Enough of the heavy stuff. Well, emotionally heavy stuff. This post is about corn. I eat corn every day here. Often multiple times a day. Whatever thickness, color, texture or fat content it may have, I am eating it regularly. And I’m proud to say I’m even starting to think corn isn’t corn without chiles. (Before I’d hardly go near them.)

Let’s start with the tlacoyo, a personal favorite because it’s one of the few foods you will find on the street that is not deep fried in oil. It is a simple, delectable blue corn dough, stuffed with mashed beans, either black or fava, grilled and then topped with cheese, chile, cactus, mushroom, etc. You can find them on the street or at the outdoor markets. Once I tried them I was hooked for eternity. They are also a food specific to Mexico City/Estado de Mexico, the state surrounding the capital.

Tlacoyo

Tlacoyo

Next is the sope. Below are the sopes that Sara, Blanca and Paola made for the rest of the Casa staff to celebrate Nico’s birthday. It’s a round tortilla folded up on the sides with mashed beans, cheese and chile on top (noticing a pattern?). Also incredibly delicious.

Sopessss

Sopes

The last feature is the tamal. The most elusive of its corn counterparts, the tamal is only found at early hours of the morning or at night. The tamal man with his barrel of steaming tamales oaxaqueñas comes riding through our neighborhood and stations himself at the nieghboring Edison Bakery. They are made of a corn dough which is steamed inside the corn husk and filled with chicken, pork, mole, green/red salsa, etc. There are also sweet ones that taste like strawberry corn bread to break the sweat after te enchiles (a verb literally meaning to get burned by chile).

Tamales Club

Tamales Club

As with all agriculture today in a corporation dominated market of produce, there are raging debates in Mexico currently about the introduction of GMO corn into Mexican agriculture.

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This flier advocating against GMO corn says,

“Corn has been a part of the life of Mexican pueblos for more than 7,000 years. Since then, small men and women farmers have been responsible for the cultivation of the plant, which includes more than 60 types of maíz.

GMO corn and patents for seeds threaten the biodiversity of corn and the work of thousands of years of farmers in Mexico. Its use risks the end of maíz criollo and the cause of damaging health effects.

Corn is the most important part of Mexican life and table.

¡For the life, health and economies of our Mexican pueblo, fight against the use of GMO seeds!”

The social justice element of corn is similar to the emphasis of local food movements in the U.S., and the rejection of monopolies such as Monsanto over the production of our crops. This image, taken from estudiosecumenicos.org.mx exhibits this point succinctly. In Mexico there is also an annual “World Day Against Monsanto,” which Mexico City celebrates with a march ending at our very own Monument of the Revolution.

¡Rechazamos Monsanto!

¡Rechazamos Monsanto!

Last Week in Brief

The Breakfast Table

When asked about the Casa experience, guests often recall one time/place during Casa stay that stands out above all others: breakfast. Monday through Friday 8-10am and Saturday, 9-11am, a Casa volunteer makes breakfast for other volunteers, program coordinators, guests, solidarity hospitality lodging guests (refugees that stay at the Casa free of charge), and miscellaneous members of the Casa community.  On any given morning it’s an interesting and diverse mix of people–and therein lies the impact. It’s the opportunity to meet and talk with new people who are each learning about and experiencing Mexico often in a deep and meaningful way.

Lately, it’s been dark when I wake up to make breakfast. The house is still, and my first mission is to by bread at La Universal, a bakery just around the corner. On my way to pick up the breakfast rolls, I pass a steady stream of morning commuters and the bare bones of street stalls that are in the process of being set up. In that moment I’m thankful that the donut man is just barely rolling out the dough–still, I look away to resist the temptation.

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Breakfast Granola

Breakfast Granola

So far for breakfast I’ve made chilaquiles, latkes, home fries, carrots, and dozens upon donzens of eggs. Other volunteers have made pancakes, sopes, molletes, vegetables, and many other (simply) delicious breakfasts. Volunteers typically cook once a week, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of the week. I get to put on music and cook as the sun rises, while look forward to serving the house it’s first meal of the day.

“La Bestia”

Standing by the train tracks at Tultitlán on Friday, we waited in the hot sun for “La Bestia” to pass by. Looking south, we searched for any sign of an oncoming train, the infamous passage for thousands of migrants traveling through Mexico from Southern Mexico and Central America. The cargo train passes every few hours in the small town just North of Mexico City, carrying up to hundreds of people at a time. This time when the train passed we scanned carefully for signs of life. We spotted three or four sleeping people, as the train rattled by accompanied by the haunting sounds of steel against steel.

We went to the train route accompanied by two Hondurans, both who originally came to Mexico with the intention of continuing on to the U.S. Due to the escalating situation of violence in the migration route in Northern Mexico, both were halted in Mexico City unsure of their next step. The rise in cartel violence in Mexico has been accompanied by an exploding economy of extortion, kidnapping and robbery of migrants. The train, which was once the only cheap way to get across Mexico is now under surveillance by competing forces of private train security details (with the job of forceably shoving people off the train), cartels, coyotes, and any number of other dangers which make the trip perilous at best.

bestia

bestia2

It was difficult to take in this horrifying reality of mistreatment and abuse, in what seemed (in the moments before the train passed) to otherwise be a quiet Mexican town. Just miles down the tracks the areas of Lechería and Huehuetoca have become overrun by gang activity which has forced shelters and food pantries for migrants to shut down. It seems unbelievable that so many would risk their lives so perilously on a train hurtling into the unfamiliar and impossible geography of life as an undocumented person (either in Mexico or the United States). But what is made clear by these patterns of migration is that for those that choose to attempt the trip from Central America, especially Honduras, even the threats of migration beat the hunger and violence faced back home.