Hawai’i Journal: The kindness of strangers

According to Wikipedia, “the shaka sign is a common greeting gesture. It is often associated with Hawai’i. It consists of extending the thumb and smallest finger while keeping the three middle fingers curled, and raising the hand as in salutation with the back of the hand facing the person that is being greeted; sometimes the hand is rotated back and forth to emphasize the sign.?”

Hawaiian locals use the shaka to convey what locals in Hawai’i call the “Aloha Spirit,” a gesture of friendship and understanding between the various ethnic cultures that reside within Hawai’i, and thus it does not have a direct semantic to literal translation. Depending on context it can also be used to communicate notions such as “all right,” “cool,” “smooth,” and the like.

Theories about the origin, also from Wikipedia, “One theory according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, prevailing local lore credited the gesture to Hamana Kalili of Laie, who lost the three middle fingers of his right hand while working at the Kahuku Sugar Mill. Kalili was then shifted to guarding the sugar train, and his all-clear wave of thumb and pinkie is said to have evolved over the years into the shaka as children would imitate his unique hand “waaaave.”

Every time I have visited Hawai’i (about 30 times as of 2010), I have seen this gesture used by all people of all ages, economic groups and races.

The people of Hawai’i do embrace the ‘Aloha Sprint’ and I will discuss that in another post. Suffice to say that they are friendly and hospitable, and very connect with nature.

This was easily observable during my last visit to Oahu, in November 2010. Early in the morning, I set out to buy some pastries for breakfast. As it was a weekday, there was a lot of commuter traffic. As I was standing on a corner, waiting what seemed like hours for the light to change, I noticed a young man, obviously developmentally disabled, also standing on the corner selling newspapers.

Occasionally cars would stop and the driver would purchase a newspaper. Nothing new about that.

But what really touched my heart is that the drivers of ALL the cars passing by gave the ‘hang loose’ gesture to this young newspaper salesman. Some of the drivers would actually wait to be acknowledged by him.

This is the Hawai’i that I love.

Posted in Hawai'i Journal, Travel | Leave a comment

Mexico Journal: The charm of Mexico City

This is a gigantic city of over 20 million people. It was impossible for me to get my arms around it. My orientation was off but my logic had me correctly go right when I thought to go left, etc. so we really didn’t spend a lot of time being lost.

One afternoon, Manuel and I just started walking from our hotel in the colonia Zona Rosa. We ended up in the Mercado San Juan, a very non-touristy market several blocks south of the Zocalo. We enjoy markets for people watching and seeing the various local fruits and vegetables, always finding something new to us.


We both were craving fruit and we saw something that we have not seen before. Since we both speak Spanish, we asked one of the vendors, a short (about 4’10” or 137cm), middle-aged Mexican woman, who appeared to have worked hard all her life and was wearing a way too-big and somewhat soiled white smock, about the fruit. She told us that is called “mamey” and insisted that we purchase one because they are so good. We asked her to select one for us as we had no idea about ripeness, etc. We also asked her to cut it for us and she handed to the other person at the fruit stand, who turned out to be her bother, who cut it up and put it in a plastic bag in such a way that it would not leak onto our clothes. As we were hungry, we asked the woman if she could recommend a place to eat (there are many food stands in the mercado). She spoke with her brother, who asked us a few questions (yes, we wanted meat; yes, we were hungry; no it wasn’t important if the place did not cater to tourists).

After a lengthy conversation between them, the woman insisted that we follow her. We were kind of surprised that she left the market, and crossed a very busy street, dodging traffic – or more accurately – making traffic dodge her/us. While following her, I had a major deja vu moment: This was just like it was when I was child and following my very short but strong-willed grandmother. Nothing could get ever get in the way of something she wanted to accomplish.

Anyway, back to the story: She had us follow her into a small taqueria that had 4 or 5 seats along the grill and two tables in back. She then instructed the taqueria workers as follows, roughly translated: “My bother sent me here with these two men. You are to prepare good food with lots of vegetables and quality meats. Spare no expense in preparing something good and nutritious for them.”

It was so adorable that with her back to me, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. So did the taqueria workers and 6 people who were already seated and eating. She then turned around to face us and said that we would have a good meal. I tried to get a photo of her but she was too shy. She left in a hurry, looking back once and waving to us only after she crossed the street.

The taqueria workers invited us in. Both tables were occupied so we sat at the grill, with two other patrons. They were all talking and laughing about our entrance. We were treated like honored guests by all. It was obvious that we were among the first tourists to ever set foot in the place. It seemed like everyone in the taqueria had a hand in deciding what we should order. We finally focused on alambres, a house specialty, and a drink made from the mamey fruit and milk.

Two of the customers left saying “buen provecho” to us, freeing up a table and we were directed to move there.

The alambres were fantastic. The mamey drink was great, but a little too rich for me.

The camaraderie that continued through the meal was fun and touching. The warm feeling I got from this experience continues to bring me joy every time I think about it.

Posted in Mexico Journal, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Mexico Journal: The Tlatelolco Massacre

Monument in the Plaza de Tres Culturas (click to enlarge)

It’s October 2, 2009: Rio de Janeiro just won the completion to host the Olympic Games in 2016. I’m happy for Rio. This will be the second time in history that a Latin American country will host the Olympics.

Oddly enough, on this date in 1968, the government of the only other Latin American county selected to host the Olympics killed hundreds, maybe thousands, of students in an attempt to suppress any appearance of social disorder, just ten days before the Olympic Games began in Mexico City.

This occurred on the Plaza de Tres Culturas (three cultures), which is named so because it was the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tlatelolco, later becoming the site of the cathedral of Santiago (1524) which represents the colonial period. This is where the virgin Guadalupe appeared to the Indian Juan Diego, and is the most important miracle for Mexican Catholics, about 90% of the Mexican population. Finally it is a site where today, one can encounter modern Mexico.

The plaza is also the site of incredible bloodshed and sadness: It was the final conquest of the Spanish Conquistadores. Up until August 13, 1521, the Aztecs in Tlatelolco held their own against the Spanish. But on that day, the armies of Hernan Cortez overpowered the Aztecs and up to 40,000 were slaughtered by the end of the battle. Also, in 1985, a major earthquake caused an apartment building on the plaza to collapse, killing an estimated 2,000 inhabitants.

In 1968, there had been several years of student protests around the world. In Mexico, under the authoritarian President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, there had been many years of protests, including one peaceful march of 50,000 students on August 1st of that year.

On October 2nd, thousands of students met in the plaza to protest. This plaza was selected as the protest site as it was said that is would be a safe place. The exact history of what happened is not fully known as it was suppressed. What is known is that at 6:30pm, government snipers descended from helicopters to the roof of the revered cathedral and arrived in tanks on the streets. Some wore white gloves so they could be recognized to not shoot each other. The plaza’s two main exits were blocked and the killing began. Many bystanders,including children, were killed as well.

After the killing was done, trucks arrived in the dark of night to remove all to bodies. Workers toiled to mop-up every drop of blood. By daybreak on October 3rd, there was no indication that anything had occurred the previous evening. All news was suppressed. Eye witnesses were jailed.

It is because of this government suppression of the facts that the exact count of the dead is not known. Many believe that only 28 students were killed. Other accounts indicate about 300.

Today, I visited this site and found out it is widely believed that more than a thousand people were killed. It was a profoundly saddening experience.

Posted in Mexico Journal, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mexico Journal: San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato

Cathedral - San Miguel de Allende

Well, they do celebrate Michaelmas here in San Miguel de Allende. And this is on the heels of the Mexican Independence celebrations. San Miguel is where one of the heroes of the Mexican independence movement was born: Ignacio Allende. Hence the city fathers in San Miguel added ‘Allende’ to the city’s name to honor him.

We stayed with our friends Juan and Maria who live in San Miguel. They are wonderful hosts and excellent tour guides. I look forward to spending more time with them when we finally buy a place in Barcelona and also on the various trips around Mexico that are mere fantasies right now.

San Miguel de Allende is a charming city. It has one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever seen. We wandered the streets and saw many spectacular views. It has lured artists and lovers of arts from all over the world, from the famous Mexican actor and comedian Cantinflas to the beat generation’s Neal Cassidy, who died there in 1968.

University - Guanajuato

Yesterday, Juan and Maria took us to Guanajuato, an unbelievably beautiful city, where Ignacio and other insurjentes rang the church bell to begin the rebellion against the Spaniards. There was a big parade and President Calderon was the ‘Grand Marshall’ equivalent. For many Mexicans, a trip to Guanajauto is somewhat of a pilgrimage because it was the center of the independence moment.

As the city is built upon old mines, most of the traffic is below the surface in the old mining tunnels. It is a very European city in appearance, with great architecture, cobble-stone streets, and well-maintained gardens. As it is an “university town” there are lots of young people. Walking around we encountered at least 4 theaters, so drama and performances must be very important to the city’s inhabitants. Every year in October there is the Festival Internacional Cervantino, with lots of world-class performances, honoring Miguel de Cervantes. Unfortunately, the festival begins later in the month, after our return to the US.

Last night we ate at a great restaurant in San Miguel de Allende and had chiles en nogadas, a seasonal, patriotic (has all the colors of the Mexican flag) plate which has Aztec culinary origins. The meal was completed with a scoop of achiote and peanut ice cream, which was surprisingly good.

I highly recommend a visit to both San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato.

Thank you Juan and Maria for opening your home and your hearts to us.

Posted in Mexico Journal, Travel | Leave a comment