30 August 2010

Don't be a grinch!

One of the best Spanish teachers that I have besides my wife Gina and my "compañeros de trabajo" (fellow workers) is my friend Benjamin Arredondo from Salamanca and the author of the blog, "El Bable". Today Benja (BEHN-hah), as I call him, came up with a great sentence:

Ni hablar, ¡festejemos el Bicentenario, para que nos hacemos garras el hígado!
It goes without saying, let's celebrate the Bicentennial. What for we claw at our liver!

He was talking about all the things that have been going wrong lately. It is difficult to translate this sentence directly into English. It means that there are bad things not worth mentioning and we should celebrate the bicentennial and not let the bad stuff eat away at us. In Spanish the phrase "garras el hígado" means claw the liver which is considered to be the most delicate body organ. In other words the phrase "hacemos garras el hígado" means "let it eat away at our guts".

You might go to a party and later say to a friend:

En la fiesta hubo gente no grata pero decidí divertirme y no me hice garras el hígado.
At the party there were some unwelcome people but I decided to have fun and not let it bother me.

Another example would be:

Fuimos de paseo al lago con los niños y llegó mi tio aguafiestas. No me hice garras el hígado y disfruté el paseo.
We made an outing to the lake with the kids and my uncle the grinch arrived. I didn't let it bother me and I enjoyed the outing.

There is a bonus word here. The word "aguafiestas" is someone who always throws cold water (or a wet blanket) on a party like a grinch.

So, like my blogger friend Gloria of the blog "Viva la Vida" always says, the word for the day is "aguafiestas" as in:

¡No seas un aguafiestas!
Don't be a grinch!

28 August 2010

The Evil Eye

At some time during you stay in Mexico, and especially if you live here permanently, you may hear the term "limpia de huevo" or in other words a "cleansing by egg". This cleansing is part of the cure for a number of infirmities that can be generally catergorized as either a "mal de ojo", an "espanto", an "empacho", or a "caída de mollera". The first three can relate to anybody but the last one, la "caída de mollera" is related to children under two years of age. I will try to explain them one at a time.

El Mal de Ojo literally means "bad eye," but in a broader sense it is the cross-cultural belief in evil eye. Mal de ojo occurs when someone who is weak, or an infant or a child, is stared at by a person with a piercing glance especially if the stare is a result of jealousy or envy. The stare is said to make the affected person's spirit sick. The symptoms of mal de ojo include headaches, high fever, fretfulness, and in the case of children, weeping and a refusal to eat or sleep.

El Espanto is an illness that can affect anyone at any age. It usually originates when someone receives a sudden fright and is terrified. The person becomes listless and depressed, doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to eat, can't sleep, is feverish, and wants to remain in bed. It is also called "La pérdida de la sombra" or "Loss of the shadow" meaning that a person's shadow, symbolizing his or her soul, has separated from their body. It is said that the person suffers from "tired blood". To hear people talk about it the symptoms of the most serious cases sound like what we might call "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" in English. The mildest cases and probably most frequent are children who wake up from a nightmare crying for their mommy, trembling, and bathed in sweat who don't want to go back asleep again.

El Empacho is usually caused by some dietary problem such as a lump of food that sticks to the walls of the intestines or the stomach often caused by a sudden change in infant formula. Other causes of empacho include eating improperly cooked foods or swallowing hard to digest items such as chewing gum. All age groups are potentially susceptible to an empacho with infants being at the highest risk followed by children. Symptoms of an empacho can be bloating, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, and lethargy in general.

La Caída de Mollera is a bit more complicated and can be a very serious matter mainly because it occurs in infants. The Spanish word "mollera" in this case means "fontanelle" in English and it is the diamond shaped area in the front part of the top of the skull in infants where the bones of the skull take up to two years to fully close from the time of birth. A "caída de mollera" is when this area becomes sunken in, due in most cases to dehydration. The dehydration can come from a disease that causes vomiting or dysentery or any number of situations where the tiny body of the infant lacks sufficient fluids. There is sometimes a lot of guilt associated with a caída de mollera and a young mother thinking that it his her fault for handling the baby too roughly or removing the baby's mouth from her breast too rapidly, then takes the baby to a "curandero" or "healer". Some curaderos are quite knowledgeable but there are others who are merely quacks. The bad curandero may turn the baby upside down and hold it by its feet or put his finger in the baby's mouth and push up on the roof of the mouth trying to get the mollera to pop up again. The real culprit, however, is the dehydration and if the baby isn't re-hydrated within a few hours it will die. When this happens there is much shame attached to the mother. Nowadays, thanks to modern education and access to proper medical care this is becoming a thing of the past in Mexico but in some rural areas it can still happen.

Now, this is where the "limpia de huevo" comes in to play. All of the above conditions are candidates for the egg cleansing in conjunction with other treatment. In the case of the first three it is amazingly effective although I would attribute most of the cure if not all, not to the egg, but to love and faith. In the case of children most of the problem usually stems from some kind of stomach ailment. Someone, usually a grandmother, will take an egg (preferably from a black feathered chicken if available) and pass the unbroken egg all over the body of the child while reciting either the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles Creed (whichever is the local custom). Depending upon the specific situation sometimes they will use a bundle of an herb called "epazote" (Dysphania ambrosioides) instead of an egg. Afterward passing the egg over the body they crack open the egg and put it in a glass jar and set it under the bed (same with the epazote) and in the morning the egg will have become darker and one should be able to see one or more bubble-like "ojos" or "eyes". The epazote has no visible changes. The mother or grandmother then takes the egg (or the epazote) away from the house and throws it in a ditch over her shoulder and returns to the house being careful not to look back lest the "mal de ojo" return. In the case of a child having stomach troubles the grandma also gently rubs their tummy with lard or cooking oil in a soothing manner and whispers prayers and lullabies until the child falls asleep. She also gives them a powder called "Estomaquil" mixed with a little water or oil. The Estomaquil is available in all farmacias and is the Mexican variety of "Milk of Magnesia". Yes, the cure does have its superstitious element but in my opinion the common sense, the experience, and the love of the grandma is the real basis for the "cure".

I have a variation of the cure that works the best for me. Instead of the Estomaquil I substitute a wee dram of Jack Daniels (or two or three). Hey! Stop clucking your tongue. It works for me!

23 August 2010

It's a Hummdinger!

The video below is a real eye opener. It was produced for PBS by a filmmaker named Ann Johnson Prum. It is a behind-the-scenes look at how she captured some amazing pictures of hummingbirds. I thought I knew a lot about hummingbirds but I just threw all that I thought I knew out the window. You will too after you watch this video.

17 August 2010

The Gates of Hell

The other day I wrote a piece called Ramadan Kareem about the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan which began on August 11th, just a few days ago. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and it moves around the solar based Gregorian calendar a little bit each year until it begins a new cycle again every thirty-three years. It just so happens that this year the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar began at almost the same time as the start of Ramadan. This Chinese month is called the "Ghost Month" and the highlight is on the 15th day of the lunar month which this year is Tuesday, August 24 on the Gregorian calendar. On that day the Chinese will celebrate a special festival called the "Hungry Ghost Festival" during which which all spirits and ghosts from the nether world are allowed to roam the land once again in search for food to appease their hunger. In a similar manner to Mexicans on the Day of the Dead here in in Mexico, the living Chinese relatives leave offerings of food and other items for the spirits their dearly departed.

So, what's the problem? Well, I'll tell you. During the month of Ramadan the Muslims believe that the gates of Hell are slammed shut and the Chinese Taoists and Buddhists believe that during Ghost Month the gates of Hell are flung wide open. Just imagine the frustration that this must cause the Devil when the two different ethnic lunar months coincide like this. Should he plan to close Hell for remodeling or should he beef up security for the extra traffic? It makes me realize that every day some religious entity somewhere is celebrating something. How can anyone be expected or even willing to keep track of it all? Don't worry...there is an answer to that too. Like just about everything else these days the market will track it. One only need follow the money. The people who raise and sell goats seem to have a handle on it better than anyone else. The fact is that goat meat is eaten by more people on earth than any other meat and much of it is used for religious feasts. Approximately sixty-three percent of the world’s total meat consumption can be credited to goat meat and it is estimated that eighty percent of the world’s population eats goat as a staple in their diet. Your neighborhood goat seller has to know when the religious feasts are held so that he or she can meet the market demand. We eat a lot of goat meat in Mexico. I wrote about it in a piece called "Got Goat?" and another piece called "Birria de Cabrito" and one called "The Road Trip".

There seem to be quite a few religious celebrations this year in August and September. In the Catholic culture we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven on August 15th and her birth on September 8th. Our Jewish brethren celebrate Rosh Hashanah on Thursday, September 9, through Friday, September 10th and then Yom Kippur on Saturday, September 18, Sukkot on September 23rd, and Shemini Atzeret on September 30th. The Muslims celebrate Lailat Ul Qadr (Night of Power) on September 5th and Eid-Al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) on September 10th . There are no doubt many more diverse religious holidays that I failed to mention out of ignorance and for that I apologize but it is worth noting that each of these feasts is dear to some culture's heart and we should be aware of that and respectful. So, if you want to know who is celebrating what in your neck of the woods just ask your friendly neighborhood goat guy. In the meantime, the more you know about what other people believe the more you will be contributing to world peace. Everyone should have the right to worship freely. In the famous words of Mexican President Benito Juárez:

"Entre los individuos, como entre las Naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz".
Among individuals as among nations, peace is the respect for the rights of others.

11 August 2010

Ramadan Kareem!

Today is the start of "Ramadan", the holiest month in the realm of Islam. Devout Muslims all over the world begin thirty days of fasting during which they will refrain from eating, drinking,and sexual activity from dawn until dusk. The intent of the fasting is to learn patience and humility, and to offer prayers for the forgiveness of sin. It is a time of reflection when Muslims seek a deeper awareness and association with God. It is said that during Ramadan that the gates of Heaven are flung wide open, the gates of Hell are slammed shut, and the Devil is chained up for the duration.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and it is the month when the Holy Qur'an was given to the Prophet Muhammad according to the tenets of Islam. Fasting during Ramadan is also part of the Five Pillars of Islam, the other four being Testimony of Faith, Multiple Daily Prayers, Charity, and Pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca). Since the lunar Islamic calendar is out of sync with the solar calendar by eleven or twelve days Ramadan does not begin on the same date each year but the Ramadan cycle does repeat itself every thirty-three years.

"Okay", I hear you asking, "So why would a Christian, or a Jew, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Confucian, etc., concern himself or herself about a Pillar of Islam and why would a Muslim care to know about other religious rites?". Well, almost two years before the fight for independence in Mexico began, a man named Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā'irī was born on September 6th, 1808 in the land of Algeria. Like Miguel Hidalgo, the first hero of Mexican independence, Abd al-Qādir (or Abd el Kader as he is also known) became the first hero of Algerian independence. He became very famous during his lifetime and gained the respect of many world leaders including Abraham Lincoln. In fact, a group of farmers in Iowa named their town "Elkader" Iowa, a name which it still proudly bears today. Abd el Kader was a conciliator and earned the name "Prince of Brotherhood" for his efforts in bringing Christians and Muslims together in peace and understanding. He said that all religions brought to us by the prophets from Adam until Muhammad rest on two principles, praise for God, and compassion for all His creatures. He discovered that as human beings there are more things that unite us than divide us and a mutual understanding of each others religion and culture is essential for universal peace on Earth.

I believe that many of the problems between Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity (not to mention the sects that divide each religion) are born out of ignorance and fear and not actual fact and the solution is education and dialog. President Barack Obama put it this way. He said "All of us must remember that the world we want to build and the changes that we want to make begin in our own hearts and in our own communities". The traditional Muslim salutation at the beginning of Ramadan is "Ramadan Kareem" meaning "Ramadan is Generous" and the reply is "Allahu Akram" meaning "God is more Generous". On this day I want to reach out to every Muslim in every part of the world and say;

Ramadan Kareem! May Allah bless you in this holy month and accept all your prayers and good deeds. Āmīn.

03 August 2010

Let me hear a little melody

I learned today that Mitch Miller just died at the ripe old age of 99. He is known as the Father of Karaoke. Those of you who are under the age of 55 probably won't remember him but when I was a kid he was very popular in the early 1960's. He had a television show on NBC called "Sing Along with Mitch" and it was a great favorite with my family, especially the older generation. Each week we would tune in and sing along with Mitch and his gang. The program would generally start out with a theme song about a melody. It went something like this:

Let me hear a little melody,
A simple singing song
And I sing along.
Get me here a melody
A simple singing song
And I'll sing along
Loud and strong,
I want to sing along.
Get me here a singing song
And I'll sing along.

I wrote the words to the song from memory so someone please correct me if I'm wrong. I've had that bottled up inside me like a lost fart for almost fifty years.

Mitch Miller's sign-off theme that always ended abruptly just before the credits was an adaptation of the chorus of a song recorded in 1954 by Henry D. Haynes and Kenneth C. Burns who were otherwise known as "Homer & Jethro". Their song was called "The Crazy Mixed-Up Song" and it was sung to the music of John Phillip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". The Mitch Miller version went like this:

Be kind to your web-footed friends
For a duck may be somebody's mother
Be kind to your friends in the swamp
Where the weather is very, very damp
("damp" rhymes with "swamp")
Now, you may think that this is the end...

I think that either knowingly or unwittingly Mitch Miller encapsulated the last two lines as his epitaph:

Now you may think that this is the end...

When he got to Heaven I am sure that everyone was "all smiles", as Mitch used to say, and ready for a sing-along.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.