A Travellerspoint blog

Balkan Beats at the Circus in Cuernavaca

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I only went to the circus a few scant times in my childhood. I was awed mostly by the animals, and by anything that had to do with flexibility in high places. I also had the privilege of seeing Cirque du Soleil in Orlando a few years ago; but the real talent, in my opinion, lies in street artists. People that have taken on a random skill such as juggling knives or miming in roller skates, just because they can. The greatest physical talent I have is still being able to touch my toes in the morning…which is why I’ve become an enormous fan of Balkan music- one of the few genres that asks little of its followers in terms of dancing skills.

Like big, floppy shoes on clown feet, these two scenes came together last Saturday in a Balkan circus talent fest. Mexico has, in the past several years, become host to the movement of Balkan music, which you can read more about here: Balkan Music in Mexico. As Facebook has taught us, we’re all just one big community, so why not join one nomadic group with another? This evening was the inauguration of an independent circus, inspired by random talents around Cuernavaca. The group is planning a course to teach circus to children (and maybe even me). Abilities include the tightrope, juggling, somersaults, gymnastics and much more. Musical guests included Casa HOY’s very own DJ Gadjio, 2 other DJs, and other local bands. Along to the beat of DJ Gadjio, who was mixing rhythms from his grocery cart DJ booth, people spun fire, hung parallel to the floor from tent towers and swan dove to within a few inches of the floor with their partner catching them at that last moment before impact. It was a night of sharp inhalations as you stared mesmerized, sure that some poor soul was about to shatter their jaw. Or face. Or worst of all, possibly smudge their meticulously applied circus make-up.

Circus talent is one that many people secretly cultivate. Your neighbor, the restaurant owner, turns out to be an amazing dancer, or the guy that waits tables at the cafe you love to go to is the base for a human tower. A fellow, former teacher confessed to being a "fire slut," using her talents to carry her around the world: The tales of a "fire slut". My father, a fundraising executive, taught me how to juggle. All of these personalities come out in the twilight of the circus tent, under face paint and an encouraging environment of acceptance. This Balkan-Circus fusion encompasses the positive elements the two genres offer- creativity, physical training and appreciation, adrenaline, confidence, and release, with participants and audiences that bridge class and culture.

At the beginning of the party, I was quite flustered to realize that in this new combination of Balkan and circus that I could no longer jump around with no rhythm as I am normally wont to at DJ Gadjio’s parties. People took to the stage spinning, pirouetting, somersaulting, and I would have to have something more interesting to do besides standing like a flamingo on one leg if I was to step onto the dance floor. I was suddenly clunky and talentless again. Fortunately as the combination of beer and other circus “elements” slowly took hold, people succumbed to the frenzied trumpets and drums, and I could finally participate by kicking my wannabe combat boots in the air. I vowed to relearn my juggling abilities, ready to take on the next Balkan-Circus party as my own.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 10:40 Archived in Mexico Tagged travel mexico dance party circus balkan international volunteer fusion clown acrobats Comments (0)

What voluntourists do when they’re not volunteering

becoming a familiar in Cuernavaca

The purpose of voluntourism is to have a different kind of travel experience by spending part of the time working in the community with locals. Casa HOY offers its volunteers a variety of options. The most popular range from helping with childcare at homes for youngsters whose families have suffered some calamity or dislocation or who are orphaned to assisting in English classes at a school to working at organic gardens.

Many volunteers take Spanish classes during their free hours, either to improve their Spanish or to begin to learn it. Outside the classrooms and beyond volunteer work, there are plenty of ways for volunteers to exercise their language skills however great or modest they may be. At the hostel in Cuernavaca, there are other groups of volunteers living there, too, from different places and with different objectives, enriching the social mix. Having a beer at a bar often leads to conversation with a Cuernavacan. The basic model is Where are you from? Are you at university? In other words, not different from start-up conversations the world over while enjoying a drink. More energetic diversions are available at bars and cafes where there is also music on offer. Dancing shifts the barriers of language and culture. Some Casa HOY volunteers arrive with dual personal goals: do volunteer work and learn to salsa.

Volunteers are generally intrepid and independent sightseers. For the less confident volunteer, there are organized weekend trips available through the hostel or other organizations. Almost all Casa HOY visitors go to Mexico City for one or two weekends. Some do this on their own, finding hostel accommodations or staying with friends or friends-of-friends. Either way, volunteers are able to discover the pleasures of both the formal and informal cultures of Mexico. Others make a particular effort to sample Mexican food. Some become devoted food critics with specialist knowledge of all the taco stalls and shops in Cuernavaca’s center. Some visit one or another of the world-class water parks nearby. Others travel farther afield, to the temples of Teotihuacan or spend a weekend in Taxco or Puebla or Acapulco. Day trips closer to Cuernavaca are taken to Tepoztlan, Cuautla, the archaeological site at Xochicalco. Many of the towns surrounding Cuernavaca played an important role in the Mexican Revolution and are closely identified with Emiliano Zapata who led the fight for agrarian reform, and the area remains heavily agricultural.

When volunteers are working at their jobs, they are participating in Mexican life, right now, uncensored and various. The other part of Mexico is historical, its very complex past, and it is everywhere visible. The archaeological sites provide a glimpse of the institutional sophistication of prehispanic Mexico. The churches, cathedrals, ex-haciendas and ex-convents are physical remnants of three centuries of Spanish rule as are the wonderful colonial buildings still occupied in towns and cities. More recent history—and Mexico’s embrace of the modern—is visible everywhere, most strikingly at the national university campus in Mexico City.

It is virtually impossible to avoid sampling these different layers of Mexico. Most Casa HOY voluntourists leave with a bit of each one packed into their recollections. So much to do. So much to see. So little time!

Posted by UnMejorHOY 18:31 Archived in Mexico Tagged spanish historical_sites cuernavaca casa_hoy travel_in_morelos alternative_travel Comments (0)

What's in a Word?

knowing the local language is everything

So, what’s in a word? Well, I can tell you plenty is in a word, especially for anyone in Mexico who doesn’t speak Spanish. When you don’t know what that word means, what’s in a word can mean plenty of trouble, despair, danger, surprises, pleasure and pain. That is, if you are a linguistically challenged person (LCP), as I am. Being an LCP means a lot of negative things. Wanting not to be an LCP mostly means exercising the language center in your brain. Depending on your personal mental flexibility quotient, you will find transforming yourself from an LCP to an LPP (linguistically proficient person) difficult, infuriating, pleasurable, gratifying or transforming. Actually, regardless of success or failure, the experience is transforming. Volunteers at Casa HOY can testify to this. And knowing what’s in a word means you will not just be able to function while here but participate as well and the more words you know the greater your pleasure.

Most everyone dreams that it’s possible to become an LPP by simply being receptive to the culture, by becoming a part of its daily life for a time. But the fact is that just being in a culture that uses another language doesn’t do the job. This is why many Casa HOY LCPs opt to take Spanish classes for a couple of hours daily, reinforce their growing language skills at their volunteer jobs and then, as a reward, have a beer or salsa dance or even have a conversation with someone in the evening. Cuernavaca has a lively nightlife where the visitor who is barely a Spanish speaker can mingle and learn not just “what’s in a word” but what’s in all those words used in friendly encounters all the time and in all cultures.

Mexicans seem to have an endless supply of patience as a struggling LPP suffers temporary memory loss while tying to say something—even something as ordinary as “where is...?” or the expected reply (igualmente) to someone who says they are pleased to meet you or “I need...,” “I want...,” “I’m sick!” or “the cost?” Along with waiting for your halting Spanish to produce a question or statement, they will generously and politely try to supply a word or correct your errors.

Words are our connectors to each other and the world we live in. For anyone inclined toward participatory travel, two words in Spanish express this idea perfectly: convivio and intercambio So, what’s in a word? Everything, it seems.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 11:43 Archived in Mexico Tagged travel spanish language cultural voluntourism cuernavaca casa_hoy participatory convivio intercambio Comments (0)

More Secrets from Casa HOY's Kitchen

Pico de Gallo

Salsa is sauce. And Mexicans put salsa on most things. In fact, Mexican cuisine is more or less based on the assumption that the final taste will be added to any dish by the consumer; the dish, whatever it might be, provides the framework for its ultimate flavor, which comes from the salsa. This is why at Casa HOY the issue of salsas is important for both the cook and the consumer.

In general, salsas can be made at home. We have already described how to make absolutely excellent green salsa a la Casa HOY. Salsas are often quite smooth and a little runny. But my all-time favorite is pico de gallo, which could be considered a salad. Not smooth or runny, it’s tastefully chunky. In the U.S., pico de gallo is called salsa fresca because I suppose that’s what it is, but other salsas are also fresh (frescas). In Mexico, salsas can also be purchased in tortillerias, shops and supermarkets, freshly made and very good. The exception, in my opinion, would be pico de gallo, which I think poses freshness problems for any store making and storing it because it is at its very best when about an hour old. In addition, its taste is a very, very personal matter. Pico de gallo is good with almost anything except possibly corn flakes. Some folks roll it up in tortillas, even on a piece of crusty bread and eat it that way. Or dip fried tortillas into it. Some folks eat it plain, like a salad. It goes with meats, vegetables, rice, noodles and is especially good with fish.

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To make Casa HOY pico de gallo, sharpen a knife, wash and dry two nice red tomatoes, remove the stems and chop them fine—but not too fine—and put into a bowl. Next trim the ends off a serrano chile (or a jalapeño), remove the seeds and membranes (and don’t touch your face) and chop very fine; add to the tomatoes. Next, chop fine a medium onion and a bunch of cilantro leaves and add to the mixture. You should now stop chopping and wash your hands more than thoroughly with lots of soap and water to dissolve the chile oil on your skin; if you don’t and unthinkingly scratch an itch, let’s say, near your eyes, you’ll seriously regret it. Squeeze the juice of two limes (fresh, obviously, and hopefully the small Mexican sort) over the salsa and stir it. (Before disposing of the lime rinds, rub them on your hands as a further measure to get rid of that chile oil residue!) Taste and add more chile or lime or cilantro to make it the way you like it.

In case you absolutely have to know more, pico de gallo means the “cock’s beak.” There are many explanations of why it is so named, but honestly no one really knows. What is important is that it should look like the Mexican flag—green, red and white—and taste of Mexico as well, regardless of where you are when you eat it.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 14:07 Archived in Mexico Tagged food mexico cuisine cooking salsa casa_hoy pico_de_gallo Comments (0)

"I love to feel the rain in the summertime..."

Cuernavaca monsoon season

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As I write this, we’re enjoying a prelude to the rainy season at Casa Hoy. The rainy season is something to notice, partly because Casa Hoy is in the perfect place to fully experience what Nature has to offer, in the northern uplands of Cuernavaca. Our weather, most times a model of moderate temperatures, cooling breezes, warming sun and cloud-flecked clear-blue skies, during the rainy season exhibits all the characteristics of a rampaging child having a temper tantrum.

However, as I said, we are experiencing just a prelude to the main event soon to come. Tonight’s exercise seems rather tame. There is a breeze, but only enough of one to stir the bushes and trees. At this moment, it is not driving the rain horizontally into every cranny and unstopped gap or through the window and onto the computer. Tonight’s performance is well-tempered, almost calm. Except, of course, for the lightning and crashing, rolling thunder.

It is hard for the newcomer to understand Cuernavaca’s rainstorms. They sound furious enough, as if they might just uproot trees, fill the barrancas (ravines) to overflowing, rip apart the electric grid and generally keep us in a heightened state of excitement for hours. But they don’t. While non-rainy season storms often do turn off the electricity, they are short-lived, and what they do best is water the gardens and clean the streets.

When the real, daily, guaranteed-genuine rainy season rains come, there is no mistaking who they are. For one thing, they are consistent. They usually arrive late afternoon but sometimes in the evening. They are usually very big. They are extremely noisy. They are very wet. In short, they are spectacular entertainment when viewed from Cuernavaca’s heights. They are huge, high-energy cloud machines that blow down the hills and bring gigantic peals of thunder with them. Bolts of lightning shoot across the sky and are so intense, you instinctively duck for cover even though you know very well they will not reach you. That’s because you are a lucky person able to view the light show across the wide Cuernavaca sky from the comfort of (dry) Casa Hoy. And then there is the rain. Sheets of it. You wonder how so much water gets here. Will the pool overflow, you ask anxiously. For some reason, it doesn’t. The water courses down the avenue a block from Casa Hoy, taking all the day’s detritus along with it as it races down the hill and piles up at the narrow intersection on the way to the zocalo.

Surely, you say, there will be serious flooding. But you would be wrong. The fury lasts only a short time, all passion spent within an hour or two and usually less. Before you know it, you are back in the garden, thinking about taking a swim. The roads are nearly dry, the puddles have retreated, and the excitement has passed as the last remnants of the cascading thunder roll onward to another destination. For about four or five months, this is the daily routine. When you leave Casa Hoy, it is wise to carry an umbrella, but if you don’t, rest assured you’ll quickly dry off.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 08:19 Archived in Mexico Tagged rain mexico weather environment cuernavaca casa_hoy Comments (0)

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