Saturday, November 18, 2006

A HUGE new telescope in Mexico

I originally learned about Smith’s program here in Puebla through my astronomy major advisor, James. We were discussing Junior Year Abroad and summer astronomy research possibilities. He told me that UMass was working with an astrophysics institute in Mexico to build a telescope about 2.5 hours away from Puebla and that he thought Smith had a study abroad program in Puebla. This got me looking and I found my program. I decided that since the program seemed to be a good match as far as what I wanted in a program and it just happened to be near a strong astrophysics institute, it was the right program for me. I hoped that being close to astronomy action would at least give me a chance to go to talks or see the new telescope, even though I probably wouldn’t be able to study astronomy, because the BUAP doesn’t have astronomy for undergraduates.

This past week, my astronomy hopes were filled. The engineering and main building stage of the new telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope, is now finished and this week was the inauguration. All week there were astronomy talks at the INAOE (Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica) and visits to the telescope, which is located on a dormant volcano in the Sierra Negra, about 2.5 hours away from the city of Puebla. I couldn’t go to the talks everyday because I still had class, but I did manage to go to one day of talks and to visit the telescope (thanks to arrangements made by my advisor).

On Tuesday, I went to the INAOE for the first day of talks. I caught the INAOE bus from the center of Puebla to Tonantzintla, where the institute is located. The bus arrived about halfway through the first talk, so I unfortunately didn't really understand what it was about. I did however, have a pleasant bus ride with two astronomers, a Cuban and an Italian. After the first talk, I met a representative from the Washington DC center of NASA as well as two UMass professors, one of which is the scientific director of the telescope for UMass. The other remembered that my professors had mentioned I am here and was very friendly. When he discovered I didn't have an invitation to the inauguration dinner Wednesday night (a formal, invitation-only event hosted by the govenor of Puebla), he made it his business to get one for me!

The UMass head of the project gave the next talk about the scientific capabilities of the telescope. I really enjoyed it and it was exciting to hear about what it's going to be able to do!! After the talk, I spoke again with the Cuban astronomer. Earlier in the bus, we had been talking about how much I like Puebla, my hope to stay in Mexico this summer to do astronomy research, and plans to network during the events. With all this in mind, he introduced me to the director of the INAOE and the Mexican director of the telescope project. The director of the INAOE was really excited about the idea of me working on research there this summer and introduced me to the director of astrophysics. Apparently they have some sort of undergraduate program with a specific school so at least they are used to the idea of having undergrads work there. The director of astrophysics said he would talk to some of the researchers to see what he can recommend and then will get back to me with their names. I'll then have to set up appointments with them to see if I like any of the projects and if I can be incorporated. I hope something works out!

After lunch, I went on a tour of the INAOE labs with quite the eclectic group: two Russians, one of whom spoke English and the other I'm not sure about, the Cuban, who spoke Spanish and Russian, the NASA representative, who only spoke English, and me. The first stop on the tour was at the observatory there at INAOE. The technician there only spoke Spanish. I was translating to English for the NASA rep. I thought the Cuban was also translating to English for the Russians, but then I realized I didn't understand what he was saying: he was speaking Russian! It was quite the trip! Fortunately, at the other stops on the tour, the guides spoke English so there weren't so many languages going on at once.

Our touring group, two Americans on the left, two Russians in the center, and a Cuban, all getting along perfectly, of course, despite our governments' policies.

We also got to see the semi-conducting and circuit lab and two projects the INAOE is working on for the Mexican Navy. We couldn't believe they just let us in and explained the navy projects to us! I don't think that would ever happen in the US. One of the projects is an observation and tracking instrument to mount on boats. It was pretty neat to see the actual instrument swiveling all around and then to see the control board and see what the instrument was seeing, track an object, zoom in and out, and measure the distance to the pyramid in Cholula from there. It's sad to think what the project will be used for, but the science was neat to see. The other project was a system for guided missiles. Both projects will be the first of their type to be produced here in Mexico. Apparently the projects themselves are not secret, only the software behind them.

The spy device for the Navy boats.

Our final stop was to see the huge measuring device they have for measuring the plates for the main mirror of the telescope, a machine for polishing the mirrors, a mold for the secondary mirror, and one of the sheets for the main mirror. Unfortunately we were pressed for time so we didn't get much of an explanation on how the measuring device works or details of the other things.

The measuring device

A sheet for the main mirror. The knobs below it are for hand tuning of its position, which I think means its curvature. The guide said they first position it with the knobs and then they use the measuring machine to do the final tuning.

Wednesday night I went to the official inauguration dinner for the LMT. It was quite the elegant affair. It was in the covered patio of a museum in Puebla and there were tons of people. The attire varied from men in black suits and women in gala dresses to men in simple button down shirts and women in suit pants and blouses. The Mexican director of the project, the Chancellor of UMass, the director of the INAOE, and the governor of Puebla all spoke. I thought the chancellor’s speech was the most interesting. He spoke in Spanish, which impressed all the Mexicans at my table. Since, as he said, he's not a scientist, his speech focused on the more human aspects of the project. The speech was very well written and was more of a literary work than a "pat on the back, let's all cheer and recognize how great Mexico is" type of speech, which is what the rest of them (appropriately) were. The chancellor's speech was delightful to the ear, full of description and emotion, and rather poetic. I really enjoyed it.

In addition to the speeches, we watched some videos about the project, some more informational than others. The least informational and most patriotic of the videos was one fireworks being shot off all around the telescope. It was a bit strange, but quite festive. The dinner was elegant and I sat at a table with a man from the Mexican Marines and several scientists who work at the INAOE.

Yesterday (Friday) was the most exciting day of inauguration events for me because I went to see the telescope! When we arrived in the little town at the base of the mountain, the top of the mountain was totally covered in clouds. Before we started our ascent we stopped at a school and got to look at a drawing contest the elementary school had had of pictures of the telescope. It was neat to see the children's drawings. The school apparently took them up to the site to see it up close.

One of my favorite drawings; it shows two concepts of astronomy in Mexican history.

After charging up on coffee, we got into the 4-wheel drive vans and started up the switchbacks, rising from about 10,000 feet to the top at a little over 15,000 feet. We quickly entered into the clouds. Upon our arrival at the summit, we could hardly make out the telescope the clouds were so thick. The workers distributed hard hats to everyone and we waited to get the "ok" to enter the telescope.

The telescope, barely visible through the clouds when we arrived.

Once we received the “ok”, we entered into the base of the LMT, into the subterranean level. Inside we saw the tertiary mirror, all wrapped up in protective materials, the secondary mirror, not so protected and the dormitory rooms.

The convex, secondary mirror. This mirror, once mounted, will be able to move to allow astronomers to point at different parts of the sky without having to move the entire telescope.

The dorm rooms can be closed off from the rest of the rooms and they will eventually be oxygen-controlled. The idea isn't that scientists will be up there long enough to need the rooms, a 10 hour shift is the maximum people are allowed because of the altitude, but in case there is a storm and it's not safe to come down or if someone isn't doing well because of the lack of oxygen, the rooms are there where they can sleep, make food, etc. The dormitory consisted of two bedrooms, each with several beds and bathrooms, a nice large kitchen, and a couple conference or multipurpose rooms.

I asked the guide about how the workers manage now with the lack of oxygen. I was happy to hear that many of the construction workers come from the towns around the mountain, where the people are already adapted to high altitudes. They received training to be able to do the specialized construction work at that altitude. It was nice to hear how the project has benefited the communities in the area, providing jobs and skills that will hopefully help the people find better jobs in the future.

After looking at the living spaces, we got to go up the second floor, which is even with the ground outside.

Me inside the telescope with the stairs behind me.

There we saw the motors and track to move the telescope in 360 degrees azimuth.

Motors and track.

Our guide told us that the whole structure is so well engineered that a single person can move the entire telescope around, just by attaching a rope and pulling. The UMass project director was there and informed us that earlier that morning they had successfully moved the scope around 360 degrees in both directions for the first time. They were doing the final preparations to test the altitude movement after we left. Exciting!

Because the astronomers were working in the control room, we didn't get to go up any higher inside the telescope. We went back outside and we saw one of the model panels they were installing in the primary mirror so they could test the movement without actually having the real panels in place. From what I understood, the interior two rows of panels for the primary mirror are the real ones. Outside of that, they are installing model panels of similar weight so they can do tests of motion. They were also pouring, or had already poured, I wasn't sure which, a special, super heavy concrete, into the area directly below the primary mirror to act as a counterweight to the huge disk. President Fox is going to the telescope next Wednesday and they are hoping to be able to make an observation for him. They have a camera rigged up where the secondary mirror will eventually be.

Just before we left, the clouds cleared just enough around the telescope that we could actually see the whole thing, clearly for a couple minutes, though we still couldn't see anything around the mountain except clouds.

Part of the telescope. You can see a person on the balcony on the right side, which gives a nice size comparison.

Me in front of the telescope.

Workers going up to work on installing the plates to the primary mirror in the “elevator,” ie the crane.

A sketch of my understanding of the inside of the telescope. If you "click" on this image you should be able to see a larger version in which you can actually see and read it.

We drove back down the mountain, through the clouds, feeling the air get thicker with ever turn.

The switchbacks as we headed down the mountain in the clouds.

I had a wonderful time at each event and it was such an honor to be present during the celebration of such a huge scientific project taken on by Mexico. It was great to meet so many scientists from around the world and to talk astronomy with them. And, to top it all off, I didn't even get altitude sickness (I think living and running at over 7,000 feet probably helped with that)!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

First Track Meet

This week I had my first track meet. October was the month of the Universiada, sports competitions between facultades at the university. I’m officially in the facultad of mathematical and physical sciences. I don’t think we had a team in any sport except in track. Four of us, three girls and a guy, competed for math and physics in track. The competition was two days; the first day I ran the 100-meter dash and the second day I ran the 200-meter dash and the 4x400-meter relay. I have never run the 100-meter dash in a race before. I don’t think I’m probably capable of running fast enough to ever be one of the best 100-meter racers. There were 6 runners in the race and I came in 4th. I didn’t have a chance at first, second, or third, but I think I was well placed in 4th. I didn’t come in last, which meant I accomplished my goal in that race.

The 100-meter dash.

In the 200-meter race, I was up against three runners I knew were very fast, I’d seen them run in the 400-meter dash, and another girl who I’d never seen run. I figured I’d come in way behind the top three and just hoped to come in before the other girl. The race started and one, then two girls flew past me. The third one passed me at the end of the curve, but I managed to stay with her and almost pass her before we crossed the line. She got third, but I think had we had another 10 feet in the race, I would have caught her. I was disappointed, but felt good to have come so close when I thought I didn’t have a chance.

A teammate and I watching the races.

After finishing this race, the other two physics girls approached me to see if I’d be willing to stay and run the 4x400 relay if we could find a fourth person to complete our physics team. I agreed (the 4x400 relay has always been my favorite race). I was skeptical that I’d be able to run well, since I expected the altitude would affect me more in this race than the 100 or 200 (the 100 and 200 are short enough that my body didn’t really have time to realize it didn’t have oxygen). The time for the race came and we decided I would run first. They wanted me to run last because they thought I’d be the fastest (which I was positive I wouldn’t be, even though the rest of them run 800 meters and above), but I convinced them to let me go first. I was also the only one who knew (sort of) how to start with blocks, so that made sense.

Me starting the 4x400 meter dash.

I was running against a high school girl who was running for the other relay (the rest of the girls were in college, but they needed a fourth and the high school girl is fast; she ran her 400 meter dash in 1:03 minutes!). There were only two teams running, so we were guaranteed at least second place. That was nice because I didn’t feel like there was any pressure. One of my quads hurt a little, so I figured I would just run as hard as I wanted without worrying too much about whether or not I stayed with the other girl, something I thought I had no chance of since she ran a 1:03 400 the day before.

The gun went off and I started running at a nice pace. The girl passed me and I thought, “oh well, there she goes.” Then I realized she wasn’t actually running that much faster than me. I actually had a chance of staying with her! I picked it up a bit and managed to stay with her pretty much the whole time. She handed off the baton a second before me: she ran a 1:04 and I a 1:05!! I was so surprised when my teammate told me my split. I practically started jumping up and down. Running a 400 in 1:05 was what I ran in high school (my best time was a 1:04) and it’s what I ran at the one meet I ran at Smith. I couldn’t believe that I managed to run that time here. I’ve been feeling totally out of shape and unable to run in practice because of the altitude. It was amazing to run that despite the lack of oxygen! I think I’m probably dying in practice because I’m running for a lot longer. I must have reached a point where a single 400 is now within my abilities while running three or four of them in practice is still out of my range. I guess there’s hope for me after all!

After my leg of the race, the next girl came in neck to neck with the other team’s runner. In the hand off of the baton, my team dropped the baton, so we lost about 100 meters on the other team. Needless to say, after that we got second place (which probably would have happened anyway because the last two runners on the other team won first and second in the college 400 meter dash). Still, we got medals and got to climb up onto the podium to receive them in the name of math and physics. It was pretty exciting! I now have a silver track medal from Mexico hanging on my wall. ☺

The first and second place teams on the podium.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Day of the Dead celebrations

The week before last was the height of the Day of the Dead celebrations here. We didn't have classes on Wednesday and Thursday and, though Friday classes were officially in session, there weren't any classes Friday either. We had a program-organized trip to Morelia, the capital of the state, Michoacan, from Tuesday night until Friday night. Morelia, and the surrounding area, is known for its beautiful offerings for Day of the Dead.

We left Tuesday afternoon (October 31) and traveled until about 1 am. The trip took about nine hours, about two of which were spent passing through Mexico City. It really is incredible. To go almost anywhere in Mexico north of Puebla, you have to pass through Mexico City, literally. There is no highway that goes around the city, nor is there one that goes through it. To pass the DF you have to drive through the city, on the city streets with all the cars of people going to and from work or wherever. It's crazy! Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world and it takes a LONG time to pass though. You feel like you're moving about 2 meters every 10 minutes. We watched an entire movie on the bus passing through the city, in both directions, coming and going.

Anyway, once we got to Morelia, we naturally slept until fairly late in the morning. We had most of the day free to wander the city. We visited a craft market and went to the cultural center to see an exhibit they had with artsy Day of the Dead offerings. Some of them were social commentaries and others were more poetic. It was neat to see alternative interpretations of the offerings.

A group of us next to the cathedral in Morelia.

Huge, public offering in the center of Morelia.

One of the artsier offerings. It was called "Victoria's Secret"

At about five o'clock in the afternoon, we boarded a bus to begin our grand tour of Day of the Dead festivities. The biggest time for Day of the Dead celebrations is November 2 and the night before. The weeks leading up to the 2nd, families make altars in their houses to honor the family members who have died. The belief is that the family members' spirits will come back to spend a night and day with the family. There are different days for different types of deaths; children come back one day, people who died in an accident another, (there are more special days, but I don't know what they are), and then everyone else comes back the night between the 1st and 2nd and stay until 3 pm on the 2nd. The altars usually have three or four levels and each level is for a different thing. I think on the top level they put a cross, the second has a photo of the deceased person and traditional foods (day of the dead bread, mole, fruits, etc), and the bottom level has things the person liked, maybe more foods, tequila, cigarettes, toys, and such. Everything that's on the altar has a meaning and a purpose. I wish I could say I knew what they all were. All around and on the altar there are candles and yellow Day of the Dead flowers. The flowers are pretty strong smelling, so that combined with incense, which is often present, and the food, fill the whole house with a pretty interesting scent. The day the departed member is supposed to return, the living family spread petals between the altar and the front door, making a path for the spirit to follow.

The first Day of the Dead after someone dies is especially important. The family sets up the altar and then opens up their house for anyone in the community to come and share in the festivities. The night before the 2nd everyone stays up all night waiting, either in their houses or in the cemetery (where they also decorate the tombs with tons of flowers and candles). In the open houses, the women make tamales and a hot, corn, milk drink called atole, for everyone who comes to visit. The men also sometimes make a warm, alcoholic punch to share. It's amazing how the families can have so little money and yet can manage to make food and drink for anyone and everyone who comes to their house!

We started our excursion by visiting a small town to see the central altar in the small plaza. They were having an atole contest. All these women had pots of their best recipe there and judges were going around trying them and rating them. They had atole of pineapple, of corn from two different stages of its life, and others that I can't remember now. Paying 5 pesos (50 cents of the US dollar) we could try the atole and for 5 pesos more we could keep the beautiful, little painted pottery mugs it came in. We each got one and tried some of everyone’s. It's so delicious!!!

Next we went to a different village where the tourism company has some sort of agreement with the families. We saw the altars in the center of town and then got to visit houses and go inside to see the celebrations there. People were sitting around either in silence or chatting quietly in the room with the altar. In one house someone was playing the guitar. We got to try the warm punch in one house and in the other were given tamales and atole. It was really neat to see the women and girls all working around the huge stainless steel tubs of the corn mass for the tamales and stirring the huge tub of atole. It felt like something out of a movie, but it was real life.

Woman stirring atole.

Woman making tamales.

After visiting the villages we went out to eat in a horrible restaurant. We were quite hungry, so it was disappointing. The food hardly tasted like anything and they kept running out of things. They say that when the family spirits come to a house to spend time with the family, they take the essence out of the food that the family has left for them. Some families don't eat the altar food after the Day of the Dead and some do, but those who do, say it doesn't taste the same. We decided that the reason the food in the restaurant had no taste was because all the dead who no longer have families in the area came to the restaurant and sucked all the essence out of the food; all we were left with was the form. So, in spite of the bad meal, we managed to have a good time making up stories and laughing a lot.

After dinner, we went to a cemetery to see how the offerings are done there. It was beautiful and surreal to be in a cemetery filled with candles, flickering fires, tons of flowers, and groups of people talking in hushed voices after midnight.

Cemetery filled with candles and flowers.

A tomb absolutely covered in flowers, with candles.

A large, elaborate offering at a tomb.

From there we went on to the most surreal part of our tour. We arrived at the lake of Patzcuaro, an enormous lake known for its Day of the Dead celebrations on its islands. We boarded a boat and set out for an island. After 40 minutes in the boat, moving through water covered with a few feet of fog, we arrived at the island. We briefly visited the altar in the church for all the people without families to decorate their graves and then we walked to the cemetery. The island and surrounding area are still filled with indigenous populations. In the cemetery we heard people talking purépecha, the indigenous language of the region. It was beautiful to be there. For me, what made the island so much more of a treat was that it was dark and I could see lots of stars. I walked most of the time with my eyes to the sky. It was fun trying to remember and pick out the constellations, sharing them with a couple friends on the trip.

People sleeping in the cemetery next to the tomb of their family.

At about 5:30 am we re-boarded the boats and started our long trek home. We arrived at the hotel after daybreak, at about 7 am. It was quite the night!

The next day we visited the ruins of Tzintzantzun, the capital of the Purépecha Empire. The purépechas lived at the same time as the Aztec empire. They were one of the only groups the Aztecs couldn't conquer. They were strong warriors and knew how to work silver and copper into weapons. Some historians say that if the Aztecs and Purépechas had united against the Spaniards, the history of Mexico might have been much different. However, they didn't unite and the Purépechas were defeated after the Aztecs. The ruins of their capital sit on top of a mountain next to a huge lake (possibly the same lake we were on the night before, but I'm not sure because the area is filled with lakes) surrounded by similar mountains. From there the leaders could see rest of the villages in their domain.

We also went to a small village where the people are known for their woodwork. We saw lots of furniture and other wooden objects. It wasn't a super interesting town, but I did buy quite a few picture frames so I could finally frame pictures to put around my room. It's nice to have more smiling faces of friends and family to look at each day now. I hope you are all well!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

My usual weekday (this is for you, Mom)

So, a while ago my mom asked for pictures of everyday things here in Mexico. At first I thought, "My everyday, weekday life isn't really all that interesting, what does she want to see?" But then, when I got to thinking of things I could take pictures of, I realized that it isn't that the daily things here are uninteresting but that I've just gotten used to them. They are in fact, quite different from daily life things in the US! I hope this picture-filled description of "a weekday in the life of Rouwenna" will help you all get a look into my "ordinary" life.

On an ordinary day, I wake up at about 7 a.m. if I have homework to finish or 8 a.m. if I don’t, and eat a breakfast of fruit, often fresh pineapple (yummy!), cornflakes, and yogurt. After breakfast I walk about 10 minutes to catch the bus to go to the University City, the larger, more concentrated campus of the university. I don’t go to a bus stop, though a few do exist. I just stand on the street corner and raise my hand when the bus I want approaches. Unless the bus driver is being grumpy, the bus usually stops just long enough for me to hop aboard before bolting off again as I try to keep my balance to pay the driver and find a seat.

Sometimes the bus I catch is a fairly ordinary looking, large, city bus, like the ones in the US, only often older looking.
Other times the bus looks more like a minivan or VW bus:

At first we were a bit hesitant to climb aboard these intimate vehicles, as they looked less official to us, but now we’ve grown accustomed to squeezing in with a bunch of strangers. And even the large buses are anything but “ordinary” on the inside. Some have plastic seats, others fabric, cushioned seats with most cushions in tact. Others look like tour buses with plush head high seats. Each bus has its own character and decorations. Usually a rosary and painting of Jesus’ face are present somewhere. Music at varying volumes is also almost a necessity. Cartoon characters, fuzzy mirrors, black lights, Christmas lights, family photos, and other trinkets are all common additions.

Upon arriving at the university, I either tell the bus driver where I want to get off or ring the buzzer (each bus buzzer has a different sound) and quickly hop off. The university buildings are quite varied and from different time periods. My morning classes at the CU (ciudad universitaria, or university city) are in the math and physics facultad and are either in a new, modern looking building:

Or in one of the older, half rundown looking ones:

(The building looks better in this picture than in real life)

If I have calculus that day, my professor usually arrives on time along with a fair number of students. His teaching style is comparable to that of math professors at Smith. He explains things in a fairly intuitive way and is open to any questions. Though most students arrive on time for this class or at least within the first ten minutes of class, there are those who continue to trickle in through most of the class.

If Math Methods is on the menu for the day, it’s not unusual for my professor to arrive up to 30 minutes late. We all hang around looking at our watches and wondering if it’s safe to go until either someone sees him coming up the stairs or there’s only a half hour left to the 2-hour class and we decide we can head home. When he does arrive (which, actually, is usually the case) he gives a decent class, which usually lasts until the scheduled end of class.

In the mornings I also go train for track, either before or after class. The trainers are there from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. so each team member just goes when he/she has time. It’s a great system. I head to the pool where I tell the grumpy guard woman that I’m going to change (I do this everyday and yet I still have to check in with her in order to get her grim nod of permission). I often meet my friend Lauren who also is on the team. After changing, we head out to our “track.” However, the university track isn’t one of those beautiful, rubber tracks with the white lines marking lanes and distances. Apparently one of those exists at the university, but about 5 years ago, the university decided to take it away and build a stadium around it. The stadium remains half built; I believe with the track still inside, but inaccessible to the track team. However, not having a track doesn’t stop the team and we still practice, running around a baseball field that is usually in disuse by baseball teams. It is approximately 400 meters around and now that we have left the rainy season, is relatively mud-less, though the varying lengths of grass and dry bumpy ground do make sprinting a bit more of a challenge (not to mention the fact that the city is at over 2,000 meters above sea level).

Still the team and trainers are great people and are patient with our slow progress. I still don’t know everyone on the team because we all go at different times, but the folks that go between 10 am and 3 pm are fun.

After completely covering ourselves in sweat from running (or jogging depending on our endurance that day) in the blazing sun (which it seems like there is every day here between 10 and 3), Lauren and I return to the pool to get the smile-less permission from our favorite pool guard to change. I then rush off to class, hoping it’s a day my math methods teacher is late, so I’ll be on time, or, if I had class before running, I head home to eat.

The view of the university coming back from the athletic fields.

My house.

The little garden in front of the house.

The living room

I arrive home around 2:30 or 3 pm. If it's a clear afternoon, which at least up until now has been rare, usually it's clear in the morning and then clouds up around 1:30 or 2 pm, I like to climb up onto our roof to see the view of the volcanoes that border the Puebla valley.

The volcano Popocatepetl as seen from the roof of my house.

I visit our dogs, Corina, the Pointer, and Kiriku, the Chihuahua, on the way up and down. They live on the balcony patio off the second floor of the house.

Corina and Kiriku.

The patio and part of the dogs' balcony (on the left) seen from the roof.

Lunch here is the biggest meal of the day, so it’s no sandwich and fruit for me. My host mother is an excellent cook. The meal usually consists of some sort of soup, vegetables, or rice as the first item. Afterwards is the main course of a meat, usually chicken, but also sometimes beef or fish, delicious beans, either refried or soup beans, perhaps a vegetable or salad, or rice if that wasn’t the first part of the meal. Water, either plain or with fruit, not quite a juice because it’s made with water and the fresh squeezed fruit juice or pureed fruit instead of just the juice, is the drink with lunch. After assuring Rosa, my host mom, I’ve eaten enough and I couldn’t possibly eat more, I pack up my backpack and head to the center of town for dance or guitar class.

Taking the bus to the center of town is always a bit of an adventure because it’s a longer ride and we go on busier streets than when I go to the CU. After boarding at my street corner, and hopefully finding a seat so I don’t have to try to hang onto my guitar with one hand and the bus with another, we begin our Harry-Potter-night-bus-like ride through the city. We go whizzing through the streets, starting and stopping, accelerating, changing lanes, stopping suddenly for people on corners with raised hands who want to board, honking, pulling in front of other buses, slamming on the breaks to avoid hitting other cars driving in a similar manner, and generally driving in what seems to be a totally dangerous, reckless manner (though I must note I’ve only seen one wreck involving a bus since I’ve been here and the position of the car made me believe the driver was doing something absolutely ridiculous like trying to drive over a median or something so it probably wasn’t the bus driver’s fault). When the corner I want comes up, I squeeze through the often packed bus to reach the door and exit onto stable ground.

My classes in the center of town are in old colonial buildings, quite different from the CU buildings. Folkloric dance is held in the gym in the central administrative building, I think the oldest building of the university.

El Carolino, the central administrative building.

The tower on the chapel of the Carolino.

It’s a huge class of about 40 students. The dances are interesting, but extremely tiring (lots of hopping up and down) and the dance instructor isn’t exactly the positive feedback kind of guy. There is a lot of yelling and little actual teaching of how to do the moves. We do our best to follow the experienced dancers in the group. Wednesday classes are better because they are private, with just us Americans and the instructor. He’s actually a pretty nice guy in those classes: he teaches us how to do the moves, we work on trouble spots (or at least on the most obvious ones), and we are actually allowed to talk, joke, and laugh at ourselves, things which are strictly prohibited in the general class. Last week we even got him talking about the history of the dances and music and where they come from, what the names mean, the costumes, etc. It was great!

Guitar is in the music school, in a building typical of the downtown university buildings. It doesn’t look like anything from the street, just a huge wooden door, but inside the classrooms are on two levels surrounding connected patios.

My guitar and I in the music school building downtown.

I have guitar with two other students from our program. None of us have taken lessons before and our instructor is very patient. We’re just finishing a Mexican folk song with three parts; I play the melody and the other two the harmonies. The class is a lot of fun!

After guitar on Monday nights I either go home or to a coffee shop to study, depending on how tired I am (if I’m tired I go to the café to drink coffee and stay awake as I study). On Tuesdays and Thursdays after dance I have to head back to the CU for my anthropology class from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Anthropology can be a frustrating class. The professor isn’t very clear with his questions, assigns a ridiculous amount of reading, and doesn’t really teach anything in class, and only about half the class seems to actually does the reading. Fortunately though it’s only an hour and a half and I have good friends in the class, both Americans and Mexicans. If nothing else, it gives us a good 10 minutes walking to the bus at the end and then about a 15-minute bus ride to chat with our Mexican buddies. And it’s the only class for which I have to read a lot, write essays and have discussions in class, so it’s helpful for my Spanish, even if I don’t feel like I learn much during the class itself.

Upon arriving home around 9 or 9:30, I usually chat/goof off with my host brother, Moises for a while, and eat a light dinner of quesadillas or a warm sandwich with Rosa, Moises, and sometimes the older brother, Fito.

Moises and I. We were "modeling" one weekend night before going out.

Fito and Kiriku.

The rest of the family that live in or close to Puebla: Macrina, our housekeeper who has been with the family on and off for years, Rosa (host mother), Adolfo (host father who works in Cuernavaca during the week and is home on the weekends), Anuar (host brother in law, husband of Minerva) and Minerva (host sister, who lives with Anuar in Cholula, about 20 minutes from Puebla).

Sometimes chatting and joking after dinner lasts for a while, depending on the amount of homework Moises and I have or how tired Fito and Rosa are. Before going to bed I do homework in my room.

My bedroom.

Doing homework here doesn’t consist of taking out my text books to read or find problems, but rather of taking out a binder filled with copies of pages of books and working from that. The copyright laws here are very lax so rather than have students buy books for classes, the professors leave the book or copies of the necessary pages at the copy store (each facultad has one) and we go make the copies we need. I finish my work or decide I’m too tired to do more sometime between 11 pm and 1 am. Then it’s off to bed to sleep for 6 to 9 hours to recharge for another day.

And that's a wrap: an ordinary weekday in the life of Rouwenna. I hope you enjoyed it. Sorry it took me so long to do this entry, Mom.