This year I really didn't feel like doing anything special for my birthday. Like, 44 is just about the most meh number there is, right? Plus, my mind was busy with upcoming work trips... And yet, my colleagues didn't let my lack of birthday-interest get in the way and they got me a cake last week! a vegan one! I have to commend them for the effort! they even tried different slices to ensure they were buying a nice one! Aw... Plus, it was a complete surprise. Completely unexpected. One of them just said "Hey, we need you to come over here to review some documents" and up I went, walked into his office, and surprise! Cake and colleagues! Really cool and sweet.
Last Friday I had the honour of attending a ceremony at the presidential palace (Palacio Nacional) to recognize the work of the rescue teams that work so hard, day and night, to save people and recover bodies after the September 19 quake.
It was moving to be surrounded by so many people that were willing to risk their lives, that put aside everything and anything to help others. Sure, the president also acknowledged everybody that assisted in any capacity, but you cannot but feel small next to these real heroes.
Anyhow, bravo to them, and bravo to everybody that helped.
Mexico City has tons of markets of many kinds. You have markets for flowers (Mercado de Jamaica), for gourmet items (Mercado de San Juan), for traditional food (Mercado de Coyoacán), and so on. But what do you do if you need, you know, help with the supernatural? Then you go to the Mercado de Sonora!
This is one massive place. Really. Huge. Just getting to the witchcraft stands required us to traverse another market (when exiting Merced subway station), countless stands selling Halloween crap, twisting narrow corridors... But, we made it, and we immersed ourselvs in a very exotic cultural space...
You could buy herbs – well but of course! – for tons of stuff, like diabetes, losing weight, for your liver, asthma... How effective any of these were is anybody's guess (and I'm gonna guess very ineffective).
The Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, has quite a following in the market as well, and there are both altars to her and figures you can buy.
Need a figurine of a drug trafficker that gained a following by strategically giving money to some poor people? Then you can get a Malverde one and pray to him.
You can also have private sessions with those gifted with a closer link to the supernatural, like Lukzero, who can help you make deals with Satan and the Holy Death.
Obviously, there's plenty of oils, candles and drinks for sexual prowess, for getting someone to love you or to lust after you... You name it!
Need a rabbit's head for who knows what the hell is that for?!
And if you need something really powerful for protection, why stick to a single tradition? Nothing could beat a Star of David with a Virgen de Guadalupe or Jesus and (and!) magic stones!
It was a somewhat exhausting process getting in and out. But it was well worth it. And now we know where to get super powerful amulets magicked on by witches who are close to Satan, right?
Last week we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節), a Chinese celebration to get together with friends and family, gaze at the full moon of the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, and enjoy food and, especially, mooncakes – a most definitely acquired taste, and acquired it we have! LOL
We got our usual mooncakes (weighing exactly 888 grams, according to the very pretty box, a most fortunate number, according to Chinese tradition) from the nearby Chinese shop, prepared a pot of oolong tea (which pairs perfectly with traditional mooncakes) and we (well, mostly me, this happens to be another acquired taste) enjoyed a fine bottle of Erguotou, a Chinese spirit courtesy of a colleague. Oh, and we finally got to share some macadamia nuts I had brought from a work trip to Malawi! Yay!
Ideally, we would have got family and more friends together for this, but this was smack in the middle of the week and terribly complicated for most people in this bustling megalopolis. But we did manage to have as guests an anti-gentrification activist and artist we met here and who also lived in Beijing; a UNICEF officer I met back when I lived in Shanghai ages ago; the activist's partner, an information access and transparency officer as well as amateur linguist; and a fellow historian from Juchitán who's shared in plenty of our weird celebrations. Add my habib, the Butohka-photographer-poet, and you'll understand the conversation ran non-stop on plenty of interesting topics (as well as through our whole beer and mezcal reserves! whoa!).
My most recent posts all make reference to the September 19 quake, and how it impacted our city and country, our life, and all plans between Roysh haShune¹ (or Rosh Hashana ראש השנה – the Jewish New Year) and Yoym Kiper (or Yom Kippur יום כיפור – Day of Atonement). Fortunately, besides the numerous foreign rescue teams and the countless local heroes for the more pressing needs, there was also Moishe House for a different kind of need...
Moishe House is an international initiative gathering young Jews (or Jews with a young attitude, or else I'd be left out! LOL) for numerous activities, and there are Houses in many countries and cities. Moishe House Mexico City started around April this year (I think?), and it was exactly what I needed to feel linked to the Jewish community here – open, diverse, non-judgmental, even queer. That's where I attended my first Shobes (Shabbat, שבת) dinners. And I would have participated in many more things were it not for my crazy work schedule.
The quake damaged the Moishe House yet, despite that, and showing real commitment to the community, they decided to carry out one final event they had planned – a dinner and reflection on the night preceding Yoym Kiper. Like I said, I truly appreciate the work Moishe House does, but this event was even more special to me, because it provided me with the one and only moment I could actually sit down, take a breath, break away from all the quake and work madness for a moment, and reflect. And for that I was indescribably thankful.
We talked about what forgiveness meant. About forgiveness of oneself and of others. About the meaning, benefits, force and constraints of ritual, individuality and community. One of the organizers shared a fantastic Hasidic story about interpretation of the Toyreh (or Torah תורה) being very a human endeavour that leads, well, of course, to interpretation – on of the key elements of Judaism. We shared what we wanted to abstain from or do better in the coming year (me – cutting down on sarcasm, which will prove one tall order!). And we shared a delicious Japanese dinner, plus not-that-serious social chit chat. Sounds boring? It wasn't. Sure, it was no stand-up comedy show but, I mean, this was about slowing down and reflecting, remember?
On my previous posts I mentioned tzedukeh (doing justice and assisting others) and tshiveh (returning to your original nature). This event was my chance to perform tfilleh (or tefillah תפלה). Normally translated as "prayer", tfilleh's etymology is more similar to "to attach oneself" (to the spiritual). That is, we have material preoccupations that can distract us from our spiritual or emotional needs, and through tfilleh we reattach ourselves to our spiritual selves. I'm sure all this talk about spirituality shocks many of those who know me, but you can be a staunch atheist, have no belief in a soul, and still be spiritual and introspect undistracted by the ever urgent and present material world, eh?
And with that preparation – once again, thanks to Moishe House – I was more than ready for the 25-hour Yoym Kiper fast. Now, the habib may be no Jew, but he's one hell of an ally, and he managed to convince usually stingy me to try and splurge just a wee bit on a dinner that would be fit for the end of these too aptly called "Days of Awe" (Yumim Noruim, Yamim Noraim, or ימים נוראים). So, we broke fast at Merkavá, an Israeli restaurant in Colonia Condesa. We had liked their breakfasts, but their dinner menu? Impossibly good, abundant, delicious, and most definitely not bank-breaking.
All in all, a real fine way to truly begin a new year. Grateful to Moishe House, the habib, and Merkavá!
¹ You may have noticed multiple spellings for some words, like Rosh Hasahana and Roysh haShune, or tshiveh - tshuveh - teshuvah. Hebrew has many readings, but the one most commonly found is based on current Israeli pronunciation, followed by the American Jewish style. Since my Jewish ancestry came from the Ukraine, I've chosen to use the pronunciation from that region whenever possible, though that then poses the problem of how to transliterate it! Oy. In the end, how you pronounce any of these words is not that important, what matters is your relationship to the culture and its rituals, right?
And, if the whole quake-related stress and work were not enough, I had to leave for Lima on a work trip! Sure, it was nice to get out of the city, though I wasn't too excited about travelling to another quake-prone area, nor did I want to leave the habib by himself so soon after the quake... But duty calls in many ways, and in the end I decided it would send too bad a signal if I didn't go to my conference.
In the end, it was the right decision. To begin with, there were no more quakes, neither there in Lima nor back home! Whew! But also, it was good for me to be sharing info on triangular cooperation with colleagues from all over the continent as well as from Europe! And in the end I not only strengthened professional relationships in the conference room, but through the post-conference de rigueur socializing aided with some pisco sours, right?
As is always the case, of course, I used every single free moment I could to get to see a bit of the city! Since we visited Lima last year for our anniversary, I focused on a single neighbourhood we didn't visit back then – Miraflores!
I had a really nice long walk from the hotel towards the cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean, walking past parks with strangely knotted trees...
And fantastic views of the tall buildings rising on the sides of a ravine that lead to the ocean, as well as stunningly scenic pedestrian underpasses...
The views from the cliffs were gorgeous, especially under the afternoon light. Massive rocks in the distance, paragliders, bridges, parks with sculptures, a mall built on the face of the cliff... Sure, the ever present garúa (the local word for the city's fog) gave everything a slightly depressing air, but the sun's light puncturing briefly here and there through the garúa made for beautiful scenes...
And, of course, I got to try Peruvian cuisine once more! Though all my meals took place at the hotel where we held the conference, the very last night we did make an effort to have an outside meal – at Larcomar, that mall on the cliff wall. Local ceviche plus a local craft beer... so good! Crappy pic because of the bad light, but the food was every bit as delicious as the photo is bad!
Now, this flurry of activity (quake-relief efforts, the conference...) meant that all the reflection and meditation I was planning on doing between Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) went out the window. I mean, I didn't have the head or the time for that! So I focused on simple symbolic gestures, like asking for a kosher meal for my flight back home. A meal I enjoyed while watching "Secret Life of Walter Mitty".
But why's this film worth mentioning here? Well, one of the things you're supposed to do in that period leading to Yom Kippur is tshiveh (or teshuvah תשובה) which, religiously, means "repentance", but in a more humanistic interpretation means "to return" (to your original nature). You may or may not like the film, but it has a personal meaning for me, related to a search for adventure and putting yourself out there and braving your fears. And so, I watched the film while reflecting on tshiveh and having my kosher meal.
One trip to remember on so many levels, honestly – professionally, travel-wise, and spiritually.
One of those post-quake nights, showing our city to a dear friend I met when in Shanghai eons ago, we arrived to the Ángel de la Independencia, lit red, white and green – our flags' colours. Moving. And despite all the terrible shaking – still standing. Yeah.
In a sense, I'm glad to be posting this plenty of days after it happened. It's easier and less stressful to look at the days following the September 19 quake now, you know? We're almost – almost! – back to going to bed in a relaxed mood...
Anyhow. Right after the quake, numerous countries immediately offered assistance with rescue operations and, as my duties and those of my colleagues required, we accompanied the foreign delegations from the moment they landed until the very moment they boarded their planes back home, as well as offered support in various capacities.
As luck would have it, I was assigned to the Israeli rescue team! Or, maybe, it was more like "Hey, he's a Jew, he should be with the Israelis!" LOL. In any case, it was an honour serving as liaison for the Israeli team, if maybe a bit of a complex tax, as Israel sent – on the very eve of the Jewish New Year no less – a 72 person team that spread over multiple sites during their stay!
It seemed like everybody in the city was helping one way or another. And I just felt extremely lucky to be able to contribute in a very specific way and according to my specific capacities – which seemed rather small, insignificant and worthless when these men and women were doing real brave work by trying to rescue people at the various collapsed buildings, like at the Multifamiliar Tlalpan buildings.
As well, I got to meet people from Cadena, a Mexican Jewish NGO that also specializes in rescues and travels all over the world offering their services. Wow.
It was moving to see the massive teamwork in place – civil society, the navy, Israel, Japan... The Japanese team – another extremely seriously devoted group – pulled out a body while I was there. We all kept quiet, helmets off, in respect to the victim.
As it happened, that day was Shabbat. And not just any Shabbat, but a Shabbat within the 10 day period between New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), known as days of Awe (Yamim Noraim). I'm an atheist. I find the notion that the good deeds you perform during these days count towards your inscription in god's book for a good year ahead is nice, but if you don't believe in gods... And yet, it did mean something. All these people, working so hard, day and night, to help others...
I came back with the Israeli team to their base at the Centro Deportivo Israelita, a Jewish sports and community centre. And we arrived just in time to welcome the Shabbat and enjoy a meal prepared by one of the Jewish community groups!
At some point, I also had to spend a night and a day at the CENAPRED, the National Centre for Disaster Prevention. This is where the National Emergency Committee, with representatives from different institutions and government offices, gathered to keep the flow of information running smoothly and to monitor different quake-relief-related activities.
Being there was fascinating! Despite the long hours and that everybody was most definitely still suffering from quake-related stress, the atmosphere was welcoming, friendly and relaxed. And that despite that there was a screen in the room which showed in real time any quakes taking place, whatever their magnitude. It took some steel nerves to see a dot light up and a "ping" sound and not to stress out! Smaller quakes kept happening all the time, and being constantly aware of them? Yikes.
I powered through the night with a couple of sandwiches the habib prepared for me in a rush. I don't know, it could seem like a very simple thing. But it was a bit of love tucked in my bag to help me through the potentially stressful night. Team work through and through.
The September 19th quake was a true tragedy. Thankfully it wasn't as devastating as the 1985 one. Yet people still died, people still lost their homes, people still lost livelihoods. But we also showed resilience, preparedness, unity, hope... To put it under the lens of the Yamim Noraim, the city's citizens and its foreign benefactors performed an overwhelming amount of tzedukeh (or tzedakah, צדקה), which though commonly translated as "charity", its original meaning is closer to "justice" or to "giving to others as an act of duty". A duty we performed as human beings in support of our fellow human beings, because that's the right thing to do.
We'll no doubt emerge stronger from this.
And yes, there were some awfully good-looking people in the Israeli team. I was asked that, and I can totally bet at least one reader also did wonder.