The Truth About Living Abroad

Reposted with permission from eleeadventure.com

 

“It is the corrosive daily frustration, the inability to communicate or to establish meaningful relationships that is so soul-shrinking.” – Edward T. Hall in Beyond Culture

Living abroad. The romantic idea of it-men with accents, learning a second language, lower cost of living, expanding your horizons-is often nothing compared to the messy reality. What’s living abroad really like? Here’s the truth, according to me and my three years of living in Saltillo, Mexico:

1. It’s exhausting. My Spanish is good and I don’t have to “translate in my head” anymore or formulate mental responses before I speak. However, speaking Spanish will never be second nature, like speaking English is. It will always cause some level of discomfort or nervousness or second-guessing, and that is precisely why living in Mexico is exhausting. At the end of a long day where I had little or no interaction in English, I can look back and tell you the conversations that caused me a considerable amount of stress.

One might be with someone new. I haven’t had enough interactions with them to determine  if they’re a fast/slow or clear/unclear speaker, if they use a lot of slang, what sort of accent they have, etc., so I’m kept on the edge of my seat and don’t let myself mentally relax at all. A second example of a conversation that causes me stress are those in more formal situations, like at the bank, at immigration, or the time when I had to file a police report over a stolen credit card. I often find myself begging Carlos to accompany to places like this when I know there might be lots of specialized vocabulary used in the transaction that I’m not very familiar with.

If I’ve had one or two of those conversations in the same day and also gone to work that day (100% Spanish), it leads to one tired Emily, which leads me to my next point…

2. It’s isolating. If I’ve had a mentally exhausting day, or worse, a mentally exhausting week, I try to avoid any unnecessary Spanish interactions (i.e. get-togethers with friends, parties, etc.) until I feel mentally prepared again. Sometimes it only takes me a few minutes to recharge, but sometimes it can take days. While I’m recharging, I like to exercise, go to Starbucks and HEB by myself, read, and hang out with Carlos. I know this feeling of needing to recharge stops me from hanging out with friends sometimes or taking as much initiative in my relationships as I otherwise might, and that makes me sad. Am I protecting myself and trying to prevent cross-cultural burnout? Yes. Is there a better way to do it that wouldn’t leave me feeling so alone? Probably, but I haven’t been able to find that balance yet.

3. Your “sense of belonging” is seriously skewed. It’s one thing to out of place in Mexico, but at the end of the day, I’m not Mexican and never will be. I feel out of place when I use my turn signals while driving, when I wear shorts to the gym, and when I defend Republican politicians. I feel out of place when I don’t wear make-up (so, 5-6 days a week), or heels to a wedding, and when I still have to recite the Lord’s prayer in English every week at church. Yes, it’s one thing to feel out of place in Mexico; perhaps it’s even expected. But what I wasn’t prepared for was feeling that I don’t belong anymore in Texas. I’m thankful that my immediate family and close friends “get it.” Some of them have seen where I live and where I work and they know how Mexico has changed me and why I love it. But it never fails that at least once when I’m in Texas for a visit, I have a conversation with someone who asks about my job and I tell them that I work with underprivileged kids at a community center, where we show them the love of God and try to give them the tools to stay in school. And then their response is something like, “Wow, cool. So did you know we’re getting a new Starbucks in Round Rock?”

I really don’t fault anyone who hasn’t experienced life in a developing country. It isn’t for everyone, and just because I’m doing it doesn’t make me a saint or martyr or cooler than you. My point is that sometimes, when trying to share from the heart about why living in Mexico has changed my life, I’m met with blank stares and responses like the above one. And that makes me wonder if I’ll ever completely belong anywhere again.

4. You miss out on a lot. I’m very fortunate that Saltillo is within driving distance of Austin. However, I’ve had a full-time job the whole time I’ve lived here, and pretty much the only holidays and long weekends that line up the same in both countries are Christmas and New Years. That means I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my family in 4 years, and Austin is just a couple of hours too far to drive home for a normal weekend or to celebrate a birthday.

I just gave you four reasons why living abroad is hard. So why do I do it?

Well, I live here by choice. No one made me come, and no one is forcing me to stay. I am married to a Mexican, own a house here, and have a job, yes, but I know that if I told Carlos, “I absolutely can’t do this anymore,” we would find a way to move to the U.S. ASAP. I stay because living in Mexico has made me better for four main reasons.

First, it has made my mind sharper by having to switch back and forth between Spanish and English on a daily basis. Secondly, it’s made me more confident socially; I tell myself that if people think I’m weird, overeager, or ask a lot of questions, they’ll probably just chalk it up to the fact that I’m American. Third, it has made me more observant: I have studied and subsequently learned Mexico’s social rules and customs enough to fit in. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it has broadened my worldview. The world and its wonders, problems, and triumphs is so much bigger than the U.S., and I see that now firsthand.

If you live abroad, you’re going to struggle, whether it be with the things I’ve found difficult or with others. It’s inevitable. It won’t be all foreign accents and cheap street food and “oh my gosh Spanish/Italian/French is so beautiful and romantic-sounding.” But if you can find a way to appreciate the foreign accents and, in my case, tacos, and the way you can express yourself better in said language than English on certain occasions, then you might just make it living abroad. And you might do more than make it-you might craft a life more beautiful and stretching and full than you could have ever imagined.

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Need a Coahuila Driver´s License?

I had to renew my driver´s license the other day.  When I got to the Department of Motor Vehicles, it turned out that they had changed addresses, and only listed “Torre Saltillo” as their new address.

I had no idea where Torre Saltillo was.

Fortunately, I had a few ideas, and they turned out to be pretty good ones.  So, to save others hours of aimless wandering, the new address for the License Office is on the north side of the Periferico Luis Echevarría Alvarez, between Torre Saltillo (a very tall building occupied by saltillo-dmvBanorte) and Starbucks–the Starbucks right next to Pour le France.  It´s a much better location than the previous one by the jail.

But, back to the original question–do you need a Coahuila driver´s license?  Permanent residents officially have one year after being issued permanent residency to apply for a Mexican driver´s license.

If one is not a permanent resident, one can´t get a Coahuila driver´s license.  No worries– any valid foreign driver´s license is valid here, too.

A driver´s license costs $599 pesos and is valid for 2 years.

What do you need for a first-time Coahuila license?

  • valid passport
  • document that says is residing legally in Mexico (also known as a visa)
  • proof of address (electric bill, phone bill, water bill, etc.)
  • driving certificate (valid foreign license will do.  Otherwise, the applicant will have to take a driving test.)
  • $599
  • as with all government documentation, it is wise to bring copies of everything

License Renewal Requirements?

  • expired license (my husband warned me that they might not renew the license before it was expired.  So I was uninsured for a week before I remembered to get myself to the License Office.)
  • visa (and copy)

When I went, there was someone standing by the door, eager to direct all applicants to the right window.  I brought my visa, but forgot to bring a copy of it.  Fortunately, there was a house across the street that happily made a copy for a peso.  DSCN0170

After I turned in the copy of my visa and expired license, they gave me the bill for the new license.  I headed across the street to the Banorte, stood in line to pay those $599, and brought the bill with the reciept attached back to the License Office.  (Be sure to pay at Banorte, and don´t waste your time standing in line at the place that looks like they accept payments for the city or state government next door.  They can´t accept payment for driver´s licenses.)

After turning in the proof of payment, I sat in front of the camera, and recorded my digital thumbprint and digital signature.  Five minutes later, the new license was hot off the press, and I was good to go!

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There is a parking lot in front of the License Office, but it looked like it was a paid lot, and the neighborhood doesn´t seem the least bit shady and doesn´t have heavy traffic, so the lot was empty while everyone parked on the street.

And that´s the skinny on getting a Coahuila driver´s license!

 

Back to School: in Mexico!

All around the world, it´s that time of year.  All of us who have school-aged children are battling the crowds, shopping for notebooks, pencils, and uniforms.  School is school the world over, right?

Yes it is.  However, when I first came to Mexico, there were a few customs that threw me through a loop, and life would gone more smoothly with prior warning.

 

So, without further ado, here´s my Mexican Back to School To Do List:

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Once kids are in elementary school, they have at least 5 notebooks and 5 textbooks (likely more) that all need to be covered.  The notebooks need to be color-coded, according to subject, and then sealed with contact paper.  The textbooks also need to be preserved for all time with the help of contact paper.

Has anyone else noticed how contact paper gets static electricity and takes on a mind of its own?  Yes it does.  It makes this never-ending job all the
more tedious.

On the bright side, I have heard that some papelerías offer book-covering services for $50 or less.  That´s $50 well spent.  They just need to advertise better on my side of town!

 

Stock up on newspapers

Homework  for kids in preschool and early elementary school often consists of bringing in magazine or newspaper cutouts.

  • Bring in cutouts of musical instruments.
  • Bring in 10 cutouts of people waving hello or goodbye.
  • Bring in 10 words that start with the letter C.
  • Bring in 5 cutout triangles.
  • Bring in 10 proper names.

Apparently, there is no end of things kids can be asked to cut out.  Now, if I were to let my 5-year-old use the scissors and look for all 10 of those letter Cs himself, we could easily spend hours and hours on kindergarten homework.  To facilitate things, I have him look for one (and sometimes help point it out) and he cuts out the first one (to work those fine-motor skills, of course).  Then I cut out a number of words, about a third of which start with C.  Out of the words I cut out, I ask him to identify which ones start with C, so then he can pick them out and glue them in his notebook.

And then he cuts words out here and there as he sees fit, as that boy loves scissors.

In the end, the homework gets done in a timely manner, and the kid works both his brain and his fingers a bit.  Win-win.

 

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In the list of school supplies that the teachers give out every year, there is always that odd addition:  4 rolls of toilet paper.

The following week, we are then hit up to donate some bleach and mop soap.  Maybe this is just a public school thing (but I doubt it).  See, for public schools in Mexico, the government builds the building and pays the teachers.  The parents are responsible for the rest–primarily, maintaining the school building.  That donation that they ask for every year for the Parents´ Association?  That money is very necessary, paying for the school´s telephone bill, ink for the printer, repairs that need to be made throughout the year, etc.

So every couple of months, kids go to school, armed with a package of toilet paper.  Hands-down, it´s one of the more essential school supplies.

 

Fingernail Checks

This doesn´t happen at my kids´ public schools, but I´ve heard that some private schools will write notes home, chastizing the parent if a child has very long fingernails.  If they´re long enough to gather dirt, they´re at risk for the Fingernail Note!

Once upon a time, I worked at a children´s home, taking care of elementary aged kids. Those kids were sent back home if their fingernails were too long!  Watch out!

 

Other Quirks

Last Friday of the Month

A few years ago, it was mandated by the Secretary of Public Education that the last Friday of every month be set aside for teacher inservice days.  So, all public school students (and I believe most private school students) have the last Friday of every month free.

End of School?

The last day of school in Mexico has always been a bit of an enigma.  Even when I was a
teacher, I had no set date when the last day of school would be, because it´s possible for private schools to be finished a week or two before the official last day of school set by the government.  However, each school needs an official visit from the SEP by the end of the year, for them to determine if the students reached their academic goals (and could therefore be done for the year).

Things get even trickier this year, because it appears that the SEP is giving schools the option of having a longer school day, and having a 185-day school year.  Or schools can stick to their regular hours and use the 200-day calendar.  So the last day of school is either June 27th OR July 18th–depending on your school.

Since my son´s school day has been extended, but my daughter´s hasn´t, it seems one kid will start summer vacation in June and the other in mid-July.  Awesome.

 

But we´ve got 190 more days of school to get through first, so let´s enjoy them!

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Sidenote:  I haven´t had any experience with Mexican junior high and high schools yet–is there anything else at those levels I should prepare myself for?  (Besides the whole, “I have a teenager” thing, of course.)

Is there anything else with the Back-to-School season that throws you for a loop?  Let me know in the comments section!

 

Moving To Saltillo

Hi! Let me introduce myself, my name is Lisa, and I will be guest blogging here once in a while about my experience moving to Mexico.

I have lived in Saltillo now for about a year and a half. I knew for most of a year before the actual move happened that I would be coming; so I had plenty of time to research, and thankfully I did. At the time, this wonderful site did not exist, however, I found Jill after weeks of searching. Thankfully she is a wonderfully  kind and patient person who answered all of my crazy questions!

My first question to Jill was basically “Where should I live?” At this time, I had never even been to Mexico. NEVER, not for spring break, not for vacation, never.  I had no actual intention of  coming to Mexico in my life, but when my husband called one day from work and mentioned he had been offered a position at the plant here in Mexico, that all changed.  This was also our first ex-pat assignment. We had moved from our home state of Michigan to North Carolina, not even two years before. Moving any time makes you think, where is the best place to live in that new area. Asking people’s opinions on where to live is always a great place to start.

 

My situation moving with a company could be different than yours, people move here for many different reasons, work, retirement, marriage, to name a few. When moving with a company usually they have some restrictions on where you can live, or what kind of allowance you have for housing. Also the location of your work could affect where you would want to live. Many expats live in the north of Saltillo, mostly because of proximity to work. There are a few that live in Centro (downtown), and a few that live in the south,but the greatest number of us live inthe north.068

That being said, my experience is based on living in the north end of town and renting a house. There are options here to live in a gated community or a house not in a gated community. Many houses on the street will have gated garages and entrances, so that someone can not just come and knock on your front door, they would need to ring a door bell, then you would have to let them in the gate and then into your house. In a gated community there are usually guards at the gate that will monitor who comes and goes, but once someone is in the community they can knock on your front door.

Another option are apartments.  There are few furnished apartments for rent. My husband lived in one of the furnished apartments while we were in the transition to full time in Mexico. The one he stayed in came with amaid service, as well as refilling of paper products, and clean sheets every few days.

Some companies have real estate agents they have a partnership with, other companies do not. One thing you need to remember is, the real estate agents will not show you every available house.  Usually, they will show you only the houses they have listed, or their connections have listed.

I really enjoyed looking at houses here in Saltillo, since they are so different than houses I had the chance to see before. I hope you enjoy them too! And best of luck finding the right fit for you.

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If you´re not currently in Saltillo, but want an idea of what houses for rent are like, click here.  Even if your Spanish is nonexistent, scroll through the pictures and enjoy the range of options available!

Museum of Coahuilan Presidents

 

During Spring Break, I took my visitors through the Sarape Museum, and they were still game for more museums.  (My favorite kind of visitors!)  We were hanging out in the Plaza de Armas, so I suggested that we wander through the Museum of Coahuila’s Presidents, which is located in the back corner of the state government building.

Now, for years, I assumed that the state building was off-limits for the public.  Then one day, I was at the Plaza de Armas with a friend and her preschooler had to use the bathroom.  She just waltzed past the security guards at the entrance and that kid was able to use a beautiful, clean, free, public toilet!047

So don´t shy away from entering the state government building on the Plaza de Armas.  The metal detectors and guards are a little intimidating, but it´s well worth a visit.  One reason for visiting is the Museum of Coahuila’s Presidents, which occupies one corner.  Like most of Saltillo’s government-run museums, it´s tiny.  If one reads fast (or doesn’t have enough Spanish to read much), a visit can take 5-10 minutes.IMG_3819

However, if visitors do like to read, it´s a pleasant way to spend a small portion of an afternoon.

Despite the massive size of this state, Coahuila has never had a large population.  So there haven´t been many of presidents from this state.  I guessed that they´d have a lot of displays of Madero and Carranza, and I wasn’t wrong.  (Both were presidents during the Mexican revolution 100 years ago.  Essentially, Madero started the Mexican Revolution, and Carranza was instrumental in ending it.)  What Coahuila doesn’t have in population, it makes up for in larger-than-life leaders!

The second part of the museum seemed to go off on a tangent, singing the praises of
IMG_3821Coahuila’s governors.  Since the museum is called Museo de Presidentes Coahuilenses, does that mean that it focuses on Mexican presidents who were originally from Coahuila, or those who were “president” of the state of Coahuila?  (Otherwise called governors–and I´m not just getting lost in translation.  The word is the same in English and Spanish!)

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Whatever the case, for those who have ever wondered who Perez Treviño and Nazario Ortiz Garza were–major streets are now named after these men–look no further.  This museum will clue us in.

The museum has a third gallery, housing rotating exhibits.  At the moment, there are a collection of photographs and some costumes celebrating matachines.  No festival in Coahuila is complete without a group of matachines, so it was an appropriate exhibit in the state government building.

 

 

However, that which makes a visit inside the state government building most worthwhile isn’t even in the museum.  On entering the government palace, look up, or go up a flight of stairs.  On the second story is a fantastic mural highlighting key events in history and a few of Coahuila’s most famous citizens.

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That mural will bring me back inside the government building.  That, and the free restrooms.  But I’ll swing through the museum before or after, so they’ll continue to keep the restrooms open to the public.

Mexican Visas–the Nitty Gritty

I field a number of questions about visas–which to get, how to get them, how long they´re good for, etc.  I used to be good at answering these questions, but then Mexican immigration changed a lot of the parameters since I applied for my visa.

So now I´m basically clueless.  My apologies for my lack of solid information.

However, our friends over at Expats in Monterrey made a handy chart–in English!  So go over and check them out here.

Plus, they also give some great ideas for a weekend in Monterrey!

Parras de la Fuente

Parras.jpg When I´m itching to get out of town, Parras de la Fuente is my easy getaway of choice.  Only two hours from Saltillo, it makes for a great daytrip.  Sometimes it´s nice to stay for a whole weekend, too.

Parras is officially recognized as a Pueblo Magico by the federal government.  This means that the town is charming, has some attractions, is graffiti-free, and often gets crowded on weekends and during Holy Week.  Crowds do abound over Holy Week, particularly Easter weekend, but on average weekends it´s a quiet, charming place to visit.  However, if one plans to stay overnight, make reservations ahead of time, especially during the warmer months.   There are only 4 hotels in town, and they can fill up quickly.

What is there to do in Parras?376

  • Casa Madero–the oldest winery in the Americas.  Casa Madero is the main reason my family frequents Parras as often as we do.  Often we go all the way to Parras with the sole purpose of bringing home a case of wine.  While Casa Madero´s bodega doesn´t offer tastings, they do offer tours with very knowledgeable guides.  They explain the wine-making process, from growing the grapes, juicing them, and the fermentation process.  They also distill brandy on the property, and include the distillery on the tour.

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    Touring Casa Madero

As wine tastings are not provided at Casa Madero, which wines should one buy there?  (Given the expectation that everyone would want to take a bottle, or five, home with them, of course.)  Honestly, I haven´t had a bad wine from Casa Madero.  My favorite is their merlot.  The chardonnay and cabernet suavingnon are also very good.

 

  •   Estanquillo de la Luz–Parras boasts a number of reservoirs for 384public swimming.  This is the only one I´ve tried.  But I love it so much, I may never try another!  The 9-foot deep, crystal-clear, chemical-free pool would make a beautiful setting for the Olympic games, with the church on the hill, Santo Madero, towering majestically over the reservoir.

Entrance to the reservoir is 203insanely affordable, a mere $15 for adults.  We like to live it up and rent a palapa for the day, so we have some shade, benches to sit on, a table to use, and a grill.  That sets us back a whole $50 for the day.  They do charge for parking, but the lot is locked, and again, the price is negligable.  They also charge for bathrooms, but that´s also about $3.  Despite all the nickle-and-diming, it´s a very affordable day away!

They rent innertubes and life jackets, and, for those who don´t bring food to grill, there is a little store stocked with chips, candy, and gorditas.  Beer is permitted as long as it´s not in glass bottles.  For little kids who don´t swim well, there is a playground area and a kiddie pool with slides.  The kiddie pool can get very slippery, but even after some spectacular falls on the painted concrete, my kids still love it.

When I want to pretend that I´m at a resort, but not pay a resort price tag, this is the place to go!

  • La Casona–my favorite restaurant in Parras.  But, much like Estanquillo de la Luz, this is just about the only restaurant we´ve ever tried in Parras.  It´s such a winner, we feel no need to try anywhere else.

We go for their carne asadas.  They do have tables inside, but it´s much more enjoyable to sit outside in the patio, to listen to the sizzle of the grill and smell the smoke when the wind blows in the wrong direction.  Just order a package that includes various cuts of beef, frijoles charros, and guacamole.  They´ll happily provide as many tortillas as necessary.  My family has spent many delicious afternoons there.

 

More

While in Parras, stop at one of the many candy stores.  Parras is known for their pecan-based and milk based candies.  I stock up on canelones, a milk candy that´s covered in powdered cinnamon.  My sister-in-law is always in search of ate de membrillo.  Most candy stores also stock dessert licqueurs that are made in town or elsewhere in the region.

Most people also climb to the top of Santo Madero, the church that is on the top of the hill, which overlooks the whole town (it´s hard to miss!).  However, I tend to spend too much time letting the fish nibble on my toes at the reservoir, so I´ve never been to the top of Santo Madero.  One of these days . . .

Some weekends, people set up stalls in the Plaza del Reloj and sell handicrafts, candy, and hippie jewelry.  The tourism secretary also runs a sight-seeing trolley, which I believe leaves from that plaza, too.  The trolley is another one of those things that I´d like to do, but still haven´t done there.

Thank goodness Parras is so close!  Because I will certainly get back there and have the chance to check out all I´ve failed to do yet.

 

Casa Madero, Parras, Coahuila
Wine maturing at Casa Madero.

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Where is Parras?

Smack between Saltillo and Torreón.  Take the highway going to Torreón, and get off at the Parras exit.  Easy peasy.

Where is Casa Madero?

Once you´ve turned off the highway, you´ve got about 15 minutes to go to reach the town of Parras.  Casa Madero is about halfway between the highway and Parras.  As the road passes through some vineyards, you´ll see white walls with a white gate just before the road curves left.  That´s Casa Madero.

Where is Estanquillo de la Luz?

Upon entering Parras, the road all but dead ends.  The center of Parras is to the right.  Keep on that road until just about the end of town.  There should be some signs, but when it looks like you´re just about out of town, turn left.  The road should go pretty sharply uphill, and the Estanquillo de la Luz is at the top.  (I´ll get better directions the next time I go.)

Where is La Casona?

The main plaza is Plaza del Reloj.  Walk to the backside of the church on this plaza, and you should see another plaza, one with a kiosk.  Facing the kiosk with the church behind you (there will be another church on the left side of the plaza from this direction), turn right, walk down the street, and La Casona will be on the left.  A hotel is across the street from La Casona.  Sta. Isabel, I believe?

The Tools to Make It Through

Kids whose families are struggling face tremendous pressure to find a job, forcing far too many students to consider dropping out of school to work full-time, even before they´ve finished junior high.

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Many rally to that article in the Constitution that declares every Mexican child is entitled to a free education.  But the reality of public education is that the government pays the teachers´ salaries and the construction of the school building.  The parents are responsible for the maintenance of that building.  So when the school asks for supplies, they often ask for toilet paper and bleach more often than they ask for paper and pencils.

Every school has a registration fee, in the name of parents´ association dues, to maintain the building.  Then teachers ask for bleach, toilet paper, and sanitary napkins, and $10 to $20 pesos every few weeks to keep the school functioning.  Add in the cost of school supplies, uniforms, and backpacks, and this quickly becomes overwhelming!

How do parents who struggle to put food on the table manage?

Seeing the need of these struggling students, the Christian Relief Fund (CRF), founded the community center last year, with the help of a group of full-time volunters from Ft. Worth.  The Christian Relief Fund provides funds for sponsored students to pay their school fees and school supplies, taking some pressure off of parents and providing a safe and supportive place for students to spend their afternoons.

CRF Saltillo birthdays
Celebrating a birthday.

So the community center got the word out, sent around questionnaires for interested families, and those families in the most need now receive uniforms, school supplies, and school fees from the Christian Relief Fund, as well as enrollment at the community center on a regular basis for homework help and enrichment classes.  In Saltillo, the Christian Relief Fund currently sponsors 104 children.

The center is open every afternoon, Monday through Friday, and on Saturday mornings.  Kids can drop in to do their homework and use the computers.  They begin organized activities every afternoon with a short IMG_7628devotion and songs.  Then they offer English classes, grammar classes, reading workshops, a career exploration class, and–everyone´s favorite–a “trip around the world” class, exploring different countries.  A number of the moms like to join in for that one!  On Friday afternoons, they take it easier, playing games and watching movies.  Saturday mornings, they serve breakfast and make crafts, in addition to holding a solid class or two.

The children who attend the community center need to be sponsored by the Christian Relief Fund.  Sponsored students are required to keep up their grades, write letters to their sponsors, and must visit the center at least once a month.  However, many of the kids come just about every day.  A number of the kids´ moms help organize snacks, maintain the building, and participate in classes of their own.

In just over a year, they´ve already met with some sucess stories.  Brian was a bit of a troublemaker in the spring.  The community center offered a day camp program during the summer, and Brian–despite his tendency to cause trouble–came every day.  However, by the end of the summer he was volunteering to serve snacks to the other kids, possibly noticing that he got more attention by being helpful than by causing problems.

CRF Saltillo
A rock climbing field trip during summer camp in August at “La Maquinita”.

While the classes offered by the center are largely secular, the Christian Relief Fund does want this to be a place where participants can learn about God, so they begin the afternoon reading a Bible story and singing praise songs together.  Now, for those who have spent any time in “church-y” circles in Mexico, it´s abundantly clear that Catholics and Protestants mix like oil and water.   So, given the evangelical nature of this project, is the community center more welcoming to Protestant kids?  Not at all!  Of the current, full-time directors, one is Catholic, one is Protestant, and the third is at home in both camps.  It´s encouraging to know that the leadership within this organization is taking a step to stop this inter-religious polarization.  Thanks to the example of the directors, the kids who attend have the chance to learn about God together–regardless of their denomination.

Knowing that expats–particularly accompanying spouses–have a need to get out and get involved in the community, I asked if there were any volunteer opportunities at CRF Saltillo.  They have a real need for a psychologist on a regular basis.  Also, given the number of classes they offer every afternoon, they´d be happy to have volunteers to teach on a regular basis.  They already offer English, and anyone with any kind of passion might be welcome to share that passion with the kids.  For example, they used to have a dance teacher.  But she is no longer able to come.  Is anyone willing to fill that void?

CRF Saltillo
A visitor, talking about her job as a journalist (the kids are looking at samples of her articles that she passed around).

If one´s time is more limited, come and share for their career class.  This involves coming in once, for one afternoon, and talking about one´s chosen field of work.  It´s hard to convince kids to study engineering if they have no idea what an engineer does!

And, of course, the CRF community center would love to have more kids sponsored!  There are currently 14 kids on the community center´s waiting list, and they could easily find more.  To sponsor a child, check out the Christian Relief Fund´s webpage here.

For kids who are thinking about dropping out of school in junior high, and the fact that high school does become an even bigger financial burden, the CRF community center in Saltillo makes it possible for kids to stay in school, when they might otherwise drop out to look for a job.  A high school graduate is now able to continue her studies at the university level–an opportunity she would not likely have been able to take advantage of, without the help she received from the Christian Relief Fund.

The more education kids get, the more likely they are to break the cycle of poverty.  The Christian Relief Fund´s community center is Saltillo is making some serious strides to give these kids the means to a better life.

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photo credits:  Emily Garcia

 

 

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Day of the Dead at the Santiago Cemetery

The Day of the Dead–what is it all about?DayofDead

In many places throughout Saltillo, altars dedicated to deceased family
members or famous people are on display.  If interested in finding some, try the Secretary
of Culture building, on the corner of Juarez and Hidalgo, right across the street from the Casino de Saltillo.  Or Casa Purcell.  Or the art museum that´s on Juarez and General Cepeda, about 2 blocks behind the cathedral.  Museums in general are just a great place to find Day of the Dead altars.  In years past, many of the city high schools sent students to make altars at the Alameda during the last week of October.  I haven´t seen that in a few years, though.

The Katrina Museum draws in a 027huge crowd this time of year, and for good reason.  A visit there is a great way to get an understanding on the holiday.

However, a few years ago, to see how the holiday is really celebrated, I finally took a trip to a cemetery.  Now, I felt a little odd, not having any family members buried in this particular cemetery.  I didn´t want to be an obtrusive cultural observer, crashing a serious party.  But, at the same time, I was dying of curiosity about how families did celebrate the holiday.  My Mexican husband has more “gringo” attitudes than I do regarding the Day of the Dead (as in, it weirds him out), and my in-laws live018 to far away to join them.  (Then again, I don´t think they celebrate the day much, anyway.)

So, off I went to the cemetery, to be a fly on the wall.

First of all, getting to any cemetary on the 1st or 2ed of November is easier said th
an done.  Many bus routes forgo their normal routes and instead, list the cemeteries on their windshields where they´ll leave passengers.  Fortunately, the Santiago Cem014etery (just past the Universitary Hospital on Calz. Francisco I. Madero) is within walking distance for me.  If one wants to drive–good luck.  From what I have seen, parking is nearly impossible.  And the traffic is horrible on these days past any cemetary, so when at all possible, rearrange  normal routes to avoid driving past cemeteries on the way to work, the store, etc.  Outside of every cemetery are numerous flower vendors, further blocking traffic.

Unless, one is looking to buy flowers.  Then they´re a boon.

The cemetery was crowded.  Through some aisles we inched along, rather processional-like.  However, the mood was not terribly solemn.  Families were simply there to clean up their family members´ graves, put some flowers on them, and to say a prayer for their dearly departed.019

Despite my hesitation to intrude on strangers´ solemnities, it turned out to be an afternoon well spent.  Even though I didn´t know anyone buried in the Santiago Cemetery, that afternoon provided me some precious time to reflect on people I´ve lost–healthy reflections that we tend to run away from in US culture.

In fact, this annual national remembrance for those who´ve passed away is no doubt hugely beneficial for most families, providing a regular time to remember those we´ve lost, reflect on our grief, and to heal.  015When I joined total strangers in the Santiago Cemetery, the experience turned out to be more than a cultural observation.  The experience gave me a chance to participate in a healthy time of reflection.  Having learned the value of such a holiday, it´s now a day that I´ll continue to set aside in my calendar from here on out.

Thanks, Mexico!

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Looking for Day of the Dead activities?  The Katrina Museum is sponsoring a few ghost story tours throughout the city, and the museum will be open for most of the Halloween/Day of the Dead weekend.  Check out the calendar for dates, times, and locations.

And if you´re out by the Katrina Museum, get hungry, and want to keep to the Halloween/Day of the Dead theme, stop in at Monster Café, on the corner of Allende and Mariano Escobedo.  The owners are some of our most enthusiastic followers!

An InLinkz Link Up

Exploring Monterrey with Kids

 

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In Mexico, all schools take a two week vacation on Holy Week and the week following. Those with jobs—apart from the tourism industry—have vacation the Thursday and Friday before Easter. All over Mexico, everyone who can heads to the beach. Or the mountains, or the ranches—anywhere to get away.774b

Like everyone else, my family wanted a vacation. However, we hate
fighting crowds. Where is the best place to go
when everyone flocks to the beach? The cities. Over the course of these few days, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey suddenly become uncongested, smog-free, cultural wonderlands.

While planning our Monterrey getaway, we had to keep in mind four different vacation styles. My husband hates crowds. I love to wander, preferably around a museum. My six-year-old daughter hates wandering. In her ideal vacation, she would never leave the     hotel´s pool. My three-year-old is usually up for anything, but (even though he doesn´t think so) he often needs a nap.

Given these realities, our choice of hotel was crucial. We chose the Holiday Inn at Parque Fundidora. It is within the gates of the park, which is an attraction in itself. So if the rest of my family wanted to be pool lizards, I could be free to wander. For a city that gets plenty of sun, Monterrey´s hotels have shockingly few outdoor pools. According to the internet, this hotel´s outdoor pool was the prettiest, and that sealed the deal for us.

Now, once there, what to do?

Parque Fundidora

IMG_2118Monterrey is fiercely proud of its industry, and this park showcases that industrial pride well. Parque Fundidora (Foundry Park, in English) is built on the site of a former steel foundry. Part of the original foundry has been converted into a museum. It´s a sight when lit up at night. Take advantage of their nighttime tours!

This park comes alive when the sun goes down. Each of the three evenings we were there, we spent about an hour wandering the park. Watch out for bicyclists—just $30 pesos rents a bike for an hour, and hundreds of people prefer to tour the park by bike. There are playgrounds for the kids spread throughout the park, bounce houses aplenty, a giant ferris wheel, and a small lake that rents paddle boats. As if Parque Fundidora didn´t have enough attractions of its own, the entrance to Plaza Sesamo, a Sesame Street-themed amusement park, borders Parque Fundidora. Plaza Sesamo would have taken the better part of a day itself, and was unfortunately not on our agenda this time around.

Paseo Santa Lucía

IMG_2004The Paseo Santa Lucía connects     Monterrey´s downtown with Fundidora Park, thanks to a blue canal, wide sidewalks, and grassy embankments. From one end to the other, it stretches for about 2km, with fountains and playgrounds interspersed. Closer to downtown, restaurants have tables right on the canal.

The best way to get downtown from Parque Fundidora (or vice versa) is to hop a ride on one of the boats that leave frequently from one end or the other. The ride each way takes about a half hour—so much easier than the hours it would take my kids´ legs to walk the same distance! At Parque Fundidora, the boats dock just behind the Holiday Inn. At the Macroplaza, take a flight of stairs underneath the Northeast Mexican history museum, and you can´t miss the dock—and the line that goes with it! Don´t worry, it moves fairly quickly.IMG_2095

Macroplaza

The boat ride ends at the Macroplaza. All Mexican cities have one main plaza, typically spanning one square city block. Monterrey´s Macroplaza is aptly named. While it is the standard one block wide, the Macroplaza is 5 blocks long. It boasts the Northeastern Mexican History Museum, the entrance to the Paseo Santa Lucía, the Government Palace (and connected museum), the City Theater, various courthouses, Monterrey´s cathedral, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
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We took about an hour to walk from one end of the Macroplaza to the other. While my husband and I thought this was a great way to pass an afternoon, the kids were not so amused. A little more than halfway to the cathedral, we stopped for popsicles, sat in the grass under a tree, and watched the traffic. This maneuver bought us a bit more patience on the kids´ part, so we could enjoy the cathedral and the Museum of Contemporary Art, relatively whine-free.

Cathedral

IMG_2076On the far side of the Macroplaza from the Paseo Santa Lucía is Monterrey´s cathedral. People from Monterrey have a tradition of visiting seven different churches during Holy Week. Despite our aversion to crowds, we joined the throngs pouring into the cathedral. The wooden latticework around the side doors give a nod to   Monterrey´s Lebanese population, and the murals around the altar manage to incorporate both Monterrey´s industrial pride and biblical Holy Week scenes—it´s odd, yet distinctive. To me, that mural seemed to sum up the city´s essence.

MARCOIMG_2080

Right next to the cathedral is Monterrey´s Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO). With
only three galleries, the MARCO was a great size for our kids to enjoy the museum without getting overwhelmed. With changing exhibits, there is something for everyone. The guys spent at least an hour in the Stanley Kubrick exhibit, while my daughter and I enjoyed Kati Horne´s photography, checked out the permanent display upstairs, and, of course, the gift shop while waiting for the guys.

Dinner

Almost opposite the cathedral, we spied a small franchise of our favorite restaurant in Monterrey—the Sierra Madre Brewing Company. They brew an extensive selection of quality beer. Microbrews are far and few in between in Mexico. Now that we´ve found one, we frequent it as often as possible. Despite labeling themselves a pub, they are family-friendly and offer a children´s menu.

Day Two

Hotel Pool

Day Two was dedicated entirely to swimming in the hotel´s pool. This was essential to our trip, because797

1) Mexicans believe that it is absolutely necessary to get wet at some point on the day before Easter.
2) after walking their legs off the day before, my kids would have gone on strike if we    didn´t spend a full day at the pool.

Once we had our fill of the pool (and the other children and their poorly-aimed squirt guns), we explored Parque Fundidora some more, in search of bounce houses and nachos.

Day Three

Planetario Alfa

050The Alfa Planetarium is Monterrey´s Children´s Museum. They boast four floors of exhibits for all age levels, plus a prehispanic sculpture garden (unusual this far north), and an IMAX screen, playing two different movies a day. While the kids were initially excited about the idea of a children´s museum, it took them awhile to warm up to the activities. The second floor had a Tinker-Toy exhibit, and they did have fun playing with the Tinker-Toys, although the exhibit wasn´t as hands-on as I would have hoped. Upstairs, they had a room dedicated to Clifford the Big Red Dog. I was afraid this would be too babyish for my six-year-old, but they jumped right in, and worked the store, drove a boat, fed Clifford enormous bones, and sat down a read a few books. They would have been content to spend all afternoon there.034

My husband got a little overwhelmed with the Easter crowds, so we met up with him again in the prehispanic sculpture garden. The Planetarium does have a cafeteria, but we brought a picnic lunch and ate outside on the picnic tables (which get hot in the sun!). After lunch, we braved a few more rooms, but they were geared for older kids, so we breezed through those. After paying one last visit to Clifford, we headed home.

Did we exhaust our options? Not even close. We´ll certainly be back, and on other visits, we may see:

  • Bioparque Estrella—a safari-style zoo about an hour outside of Monterrey. They also offer camping, either in tents or cabins!
  • KidZania—A kid-sized city. Children work various jobs, open a bank account, and spend the money they “earned” at those jobs. I´ve been told that it´s a lot of fun, but it´s on the pricy side, so be prepared!
  • Grutas de García—a system of glittering caves just northwest of Monterrey.
  • Cumbres National Park—full of hiking opportunities, plus some intense outdoor activities for families with older children.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Monterrey? Feel free to comment below!

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Furthermore, if anyone else in or near the Saltillo area would like to share their favorite places in or near Saltillo, send your reflections/thoughts/summary, along with pictures to saltilloexpats@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing others´ perspectives!