Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Mexico City Christmas Story

We had tickets to hear Tony Bennett in concert at the Teatro Metropolitan last Monday and our friends Stan and Bill came down from San Miguel de Allende to join us.
The most recent success of the 86-year old singer, an album of duets with the likes of Lady Gaga, ranks in the top 20, so we were curious to hear him live and wondered about the audience--I'd never heard his name mentioned in Mexico.
After warming up at home with a few tequilas, we planned to grab a cab to our favorite Chinese restaurant in the centro--just around the corner from the theater.
But I forgot about the traffic.
Everybody's on the move in Mexico City during December, so the caos vial is even worse than usual. At 7PM the traffic at Insurgentes and San Luis Potosí was melding toward gridlock. Lots of people were waiting for cabs, which all passed by full or off-duty.
Despair was imminent when Nick called out to me, "Do you know this guy?"
He was pointing to a large sliver grey SUV. In the driver's seat a doughy faced, middle aged man was gesturing energetically for us to come to him. I'd never seen him before in my life.
"Where are you going? Get in, I'll take you!" he called out in Spanish.
Nick and I looked at each other bewildered.
"Are you a car service?"Nick asked.
"No, I'm just on my way home from work and I have some time to kill. Get in."
Stan and Bill drew near. Taking one more scan of the taxi-less street, we did a quick calculation--four against one--and got into the car. It was a very comfortable vehicle.
Our samaritan clearly knew the city well and made a few crafty detours to avoid traffic. We talked about his family (his son in La Jolla sells vacuum cleaners), about Chinese food, about Tony Bennett ("Of course I know him!").
He insisted on taking us directly to the door of the restaurant.
"Can we offer you something for your services?"
"Nada más un saludo," he replied.
The four of us got out of the car feeling remarkably happy.
We shook his hand and thanked him for the first present of Christmas.
The Chinese food was excellent, and Tony Bennett knocked our stockings off.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


If you live in Mexico and have employees, it's time to start thinking about paying the aguinaldo, the annual Christmas bonus that is required by Mexican law. The aguinaldo must equal 15 days of salary, and must be paid on or before the 20th of December. It must be paid in cash--gifts,Christmas baskets, and other presents do not fulfill the requirement. To calculate the amount for a part-time employee, divide the number of days worked during the year past by 365. Multiply that figure by 15 x the daily salary to determine the amount of the aguinaldo.

My friend Veronica's father is severly ill, but the doctors have said there is nothing more they can do. So she took him home from the hospital and hired someone from an agency (not a professional nurse) to care for him. His chores include bathing, grooming, feeding, changing diapers, and moving him every 15 minutes to avoid bed sores. He works from 8am to 8pm. The fee for all this is 350 pesos a day, but while talking to the worker, Veronica discovered that he only gets 100 pesos a day--the agency gets the rest. 

The minimum wage for Mexico City is under 63 pesos a day. Happy Holidays

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

English Language Books

I posted a while ago about Under the Volcano Books, an English language bookstore in Colonia Roma. The store was great, but the location left something to be desired.

I just got the following email and am happy to learn they've moved right around the corner from where I live in Colonia Condesa. The new location is inside the American Legion headquarters--an old private home which still retains much of its original (now faded) splendor. Be sure to check out all the elaborate molding and woodwork--and the upstairs bathroom fixtures. It's a trip back to the Condesa of yesteryear. And while you're there--buy a book or two and help support this much needed addition to the culture life of Mexico City.


I am extremely happy to announce the re-opening of Under the Volcano
Books in the heart of the loveliest neighborhood in North America.

On Saturday, November 24th, from 1 PM to midnight, we will celebrate
the opening of our new location at Celaya 25, Col. Hipodromo Condesa
with an all-day, all-night party timed to coincide with the Corredor
Cultural Roma Condesa.

We are now located in the American Legion, where we can take advantage
of their cozy bar, stage and cineclub facilities, and their big
downstairs lounge (serving, by all who try them, the best burgers in

Come take advantage of a one-time 50% discount on hundreds of selected
items from our inventory, including nearly ALL of our Politics and
Architecture sections, and join us for coffee and/or drinks downstairs
all afternoon and evening. Musical entertainment and drink specials
TBA, admission free.

If you use Facebook, please log into our invite list here and tell us
and others you are coming, and invite your friends:

We look forward to seeing you, and serving you as a community from our
splendid new location.


Thursday, November 1, 2012


I rode my bike to work for the first time today!

As part of the expansion of the popular Eco-Bici program, there are now bike stations in Colonia Roma as well as Polanco and Colonia Doctores. This one is about 100 feet from my studio door. 

When I first heard about the eco-bicis I thought you'd have to be nuts to ride one. Being a pedestrian in this city is challenging enough. 

But one day Nick came home with a card for me and I reluctantly began with short rides in my home neighborhood, La Condesa, where you can actually find a few streets without traffic. Now I'm sold on the idea. I use the bikes several times a week, often in connection with the metro or metrobus. Gliding down Reforma on Sunday mornings (traffic free) gives you the feeling that you own the city. All in all, it's a liberating, expanding and fun addition to life here in Mexico City.

This is a program for city residents only--tourists are out of luck. But there is another free bike program here which requires leaving a passport or other major form of ID and a 200 peso deposit. I do not recommend using a bike here if you don't know the city well--except on Sundays, when you should head to Reforma. On the last Sunday of each month a much longer (30+ km) route is closed to traffic and you can bike around the whole city. Click HERE to see a map of bike stations.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


I stumbled across a blog a few days ago from an English language bookstore in Colonia Roma which I'd never heard of--and with its somewhat hidden location at the end of a small cerrada it's easily overlooked. Given the dirth of good reading material in English available here, 'Under the Volcano Books' is a welcome addition.  They had two copies of the book I was looking for (Graham Greene's 'The Power and the Glory')!  It will celebrate its first anniversary in October.

Their address is Cerrada Chiapas 40-C (between Córdoba and Mérida) in Colonia Roma Norte.

Opening Hours:

Weekdays from noon to 7PM
Weekends from noon to 5PM
Closed Wednesdays.  

Click HERE to see the website.

View Larger Map ('A' on the map is the entrance of the cerrada--it's at the end).

Most of the books are used.  They are seeking donations of books, so please consider cleaning out your bookshelves and help this place stay around.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


I was interviewed recently for the NPR program 'On The Media' about the problems of
presenting Mexico's image to the world.
Click HERE to listen to the segment.

Click HERE for access to the entire show about media in Mexico.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I've been travelling in Europe since May 1, visiting some old favorites (Paris, Lisbon, Barcelona) and some new discoveries (Krakow, Budapest, Pamplona). I'm currently in Madrid, a city I once dreamed about calling home. I've visited almost annually for the past 15 years and once lived here for 3 months. The ornate and elegant architecture, lively night life, great food, and the presence of one of my favorite paintings in the world (Rogier Van der Weyden's 'Deposition') in the Prado all seduced me. It always struck me as a place where grace and gusto went hand in hand, where respect for culture and tradition was a given.

But something has changed here.

Since it was too late for the metro, we decided to walk home from a midnight flamenco performance on Saturday. The route back to our rented apartment took us through the center of Madrid--Plaza Santa Ana, the Puerta del Sol, the Gran Via. I felt as though I had stumbled into a vast fraternity party, spring break of the apocolypse. A young man lay passed out in a doorway, drooling yellow bile. A couple stood next to a vast garbage container, bent over, vomiting in tandem. Young Filipino men carrying plastic bags full of warm beer hawked their wares to underaged clients. The grafitti-lined streets reeked of urine.

The availability of cheap flights in Europe (we spent all of 30 euros to get from Budapest to Barcelona) means weekend visitors flock from other countries to join in the all night party, the famed 'Movida Madrileña'.  But we heard mostly Spanish among the mix of other languages. Reading that the unemployment rate for people under 30 here is around 50%, we wondered where the money for beer is coming from. Are they fiddling as Rome burns and just throwing caution to the wind?

The next day we had lunch with our old friends Luis and Elena. We'd met them more than a dozen years ago when Luis' business was thriving and their son was just a toddler. Now his company is down from 40 to 7 employees. They're feeling crushed by mortgage payments on thier large suburban home, an apartment in Ibiza, and a boat moored in Murcia--all bought during brighter days. Their son is planning to move to Berlin upon graduation from film school next year. Luis and Elena have a back-up plan, of sorts, to move to Chile if the roof caves in. Both of them are taking anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

A walk down the tree-lined Castellano this morning restored my spirits, but the sense of what, up until now, had only been newspaper stories about the economic crisis in Europe, stays with me.

I think Mexico will look different to me when I get back next week.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


(Photo: My friend Ruth's kitchen after yesterday's earthquake)

I had just arrived at my studio and was putting the key in the door when I had a strong feeling of wooziness, like a sudden onset of the flu. It only took a few seconds to realize that it was an earthquake. I stood back from the building and saw that the sidewalks were filled with people, all looking up at the slender concrete pylons that support a mass of tangled electrical wires above our heads, gently swaying like stalks of wheat in the wind. I found a spot where I could see the sky clearly, and tried to move in sync with the rhythm. The crowd was eerily calm and quiet. My first thought was to call Nick, and somehow my cellphone worked, so my anxiety for him was allayed (power and phone service were out for hours just after that).

I've experienced four or five earthquakes here, but this was the strongest. Reports ranged from 7.4. to 7.9 on the Richter scale. My immediate reaction included something akin to pleasure, like the joy of riding a horse or a sailboat, mixed with awe at the realization that the earth under my feet--for hundreds of miles around--was on the move. The fear and churning in the pit of my stomach arrived a few hours later when I went out for lunch. Although there was no damage in either my home or workplace, the awareness of what a tiny speck of life I am when faced with Mother Nature's whims was deeply unsettling.

Last night, after a couple of tequilas, I had the urge to see the trashy 1974 disaster thriller 'Earthquake' starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in one of her last screen appearances. It's pure garbage, but it seemed to work as a 'hair of the dog' cure for the unreleased tensions of the day.

Here's a clip for anyone who needs it:

(you can skip to 2:15 unless you're a fan of Ava Gardner)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why I love Mexico City: Reason no. 9

Sometimes it's the little things that make life in the big city so pleasurable. I'd written a previous post (click here) about some of those perks, and this week I encountered a new one: aside from buying the usual fruits and vegetables at my weekly tianguis, I was able to get the hems on a new pair of pants shortened while I shopped.

Daniel is an itinerant tailor whose business consists of a sewing machine, a box of supplies, his sign and a dolly to move everything to a different market each day--another example of the ingenious ways Mexicans find to make a living.

He hadn't quite finished by the time I'd done my shopping, so I had lunch at the market stall below while I waited.

People often talk about the difficulties of living in a metropolis the size of Mexico City. But it's moments like this that make me feel I'm in a laid-back pueblo.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Understanding Mexico's Political Parties

With the presidential elections upon us in both the U.S. and Mexico, I thought this piece by author/blogger Daniel Hernandez about Mexico's political parties was worth sharing.

Click the link below:

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


The first time I saw a painting of Dr. Atl was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when they mounted their massive show of Mexican art in 1990. The large canvas depicted an erupting volcano in brilliant, almost lurid, colors.

Over the years I've seen a few of his paintings in museums here and they all exhibit his flair for iconic images of nature (mostly volcanoes), his use of intense colors (he invented his own paints, a mix of pastel and oil, which he called 'Atl color'), lively brush technique, and an almost surreal use of perspective.

A show of more than 200 of his works (paintings and drawings) is currently on display at the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco here in Mexico City. It's one of the best painting shows I've seen here in years--don't miss it.

José Gerardo Murillo was born in Mexico to Spanish immigrants in 1875. He travelled to Europe and was influenced by Impressionist painters and others there. One early portrait in the show could be by Degas, and he surely saw the pointillist works of Suerat and his followers. At age 36, after a traumatic sea voyage, he changed his name to Dr. Atl (Atl is the Nahuatl word for water). He continued to paint, travel the world, write literature, became involved in leftist politics--at one point plotting to assasinate Mexican president Huerta. He conducted a famously scandalous love affair with artist/muse Carmen Mondragón (to whom he gave the Nahuatl name 'Nahui Olin' which she kept for the rest of her life).

Most of the paintings in the current show display his passion for volcanos. He concentrated on those in the Valley of Mexico and Paracutín, the volcano which suddenly erupted in a cornfield in Michoacán in 1943. He spent much time out of doors where he made elaborate studies, in both visual and literary forms. Spending so much time in the fumes and gases eventually led to health problems that resulted in his leg being amputated. He died in 1964 at age 89.

The museum complex at Tlatelolco also includes an exhibition on the 1968 student masacre on the site as well as two new collections of pre-Hispanic art.
Click HERE to see Lynda Martinez del Campo's excellent blog about the museum.

Portrait of Nahui Ollin

Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco
Ave. Ricardo Flores Magón N. 1
across from the Plaza de las Tres Culturas – “Square of the Three Cultures”
Col. Nonoalco-Tlatelolco
Cost is only $20.00 pesos
How to get there

Ver mapa más grande

Thanks to Jesus Chairez for some of this information.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Mexico City's Metrobus service, which began in 2005, has carried millions of chilangos around the city--and it keeps growing. If you live here you probably already have your metrocard and use the metrobus reguarly. But tourists may be a bit confused by it all.

The first metrobus line (there are now 4, with more in the works) runs north-south along Insurgentes, and this is the line mostly likely to be used by tourists. It's often the fastest way to reach Coyoacán and San Angel in the southern part of the city. It has it's own lane and keeps moving even when other traffic is at a standstill.

A few tips: It can get pretty crowded during rush hours--I usually watch to see how full the buses going by are before I enter the station. Be careful of the badly designed doors! They close inside the bus so stand clear.
Station signs can be hard to read from inside a crowded bus, so I suggest you check the map first, and count the number of stations until your stop.

How to buy a Metrobus card:

1. Look for the machine at the station entrance that looks like the photo above.

2. Press the button marked COMPRA (BUY)

3. Deposit money. The card costs 15 pesos--10 for the card and five for your first ride. You need exact change to buy a cardd---NO DA CAMBIO means no change.

4. Take your card from the slot at the bottom.

After getting your card you may want to add more money to it right away--it only comes with enough for one ride.

How to recharge your metrobus card:

1. Put your card where it says INSERTAR TARJETA

2. Press the button RECARGAR

3. Put in the amount you want. The machine accepts all coins, and bills up to 200 pesos--but remember if gives NO change.

4. When you see the amount verified on the screen, take out your card.

How to use your metrobus card:

Just swipe your card at the turnstile and enter. One card can serve for any number of people, but be aware that it's often cheaper for a group to take a taxi.

If you are under 5 years old, over 70 (with proper ID: INAPAN, INSEN, GDF, or IFE), or are disabled you can ride for free.

Click HERE to see a bigger map of the metrobus system.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

January 19-Happy Birthday José Alfredo

The great Mexican singer/songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez would be 86 years old today. If his name isn't familiar to you, his music likely is. If you live in Mexico you encounter it everywhere--cantinas, taxis, the metro. His music is the standard fare of mariachis. The whole country can sing along with many of his songs. It goes well with tequila.

Listen to THIS CLIP from Youtube where you can hear the man himself singing his great paean to Mexican machismo. His music adds just a touch of mocking irony to the swagger of the lyrics:


El Rey

Yo sé bien que estoy afuera
pero el dia en que yo me muera
sé que tendras que llorar

Llorar y llorar
llorar y llorar

Diras que no me quisiste
pero vas a estar muy triste
y asi te vas a quedar

Con dinero y sin dinero
hago siempre lo que quiero
y mi palabra es la ley
no tengo trono ni reina
ni nadie que me comprenda
pero sigo siendo el rey

Una piedra del camino
me enseñó que mi destino
era rodar y rodar

Rodar y rodar
rodar y rodar

Después me dijo un arriero
que no hay que llegar primero
pero hay que saber llegar

Con dinero y sin dinero
hago siempre lo que quiero
y mi palabra es la ley
no tengo trono ni reina
ni nadie que me comprenda
pero sigo siendo el rey.


The king

I know very well that I'm out (of your life)
but the day I die
I know you'll have to cry

to cry and cry
to cry and cry

You may say you never loved me
but you're going to be really sad
and that's how you're going to stay

With or without money
I always do what I want
and my words are the law
I don't have neither a throne nor a queen
nor anyone that understand me
but I keep being the king

A stone in the journey
taught me that my destiny
was to roll and roll

to roll and roll
to roll and roll

Then an arriero told me
that you don't have to arrive first
but you have to know how to arrive

With or without money
I always do what I want
and my words are the law
I don't have neither a throne nor a queen
nor anyone that understand me
but I keep being the king.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy New Year

I'm having trouble accepting the fact that it's 2012 and I'm in Mexico.

I returned from six weeks of travel, mostly in India, on December 15, and part of
my brain, and a piece of my heart, are still stuck somewhere between Varanasi and Calcutta. (Click HERE to see photos of our trip).

So before looking forward I'll look back a bit at the five most popular blog posts of 2011.
Here's the list:

It all makes sense to me, except number 3, which I wrote in 2008. For some reason this post gets a lot of hits every year (many of them spam from escort services in places like Romania), but I've yet to get a report back from anyone who has actually cooked an armadillo.

I'll be writing soon about what's happening in Mexico City--art exhibits, concerts, etc. Stayed tuned.

Best wishes for 2012. JPJ