I have many fond memories of New Year’s Eve beginning in my childhood when our entire family would go to my Uncle Simon’s and Aunt Mari’s house. The party always involved eating a lot of Mexican food and real hard play among cousins. At midnight, everyone, I mean children, too, toasted with a glass of champagne. That was the only time of the year I drank alcohol–until I became an altar boy and my friend once talked me into taking a sip of altar wine before mass. But I only indulged that once because I felt so guilty and sinful afterwards.
Once, we were in Mexico for New Year’s Eve and we celebrated by making tamales and eating them. In Chicago, my mother made the masa during the day and then made buñuelos at midnight as a way of ringing in the new year. I think that New Year’s Eve wasn’t as exciting once we stopped going to my aunt’s and uncle’s house. I don’t really remember too many of those later celebrations now. When I was married, I was content to stay home with my wife and son and watch the festivities in Chicago on TV. When I lived in Bridgeport, I used to take my oldest son to the attic window at midnight where we could see the fireworks downtown. When the twins were born, we moved farther away from downtown, so we could no longer see the fireworks from the window. But we watched them on TV, although not quite as dramatic.
Later, after my divorce, my Mexicana girlfriend decided that we would make tamales for New Year’s Eve. She bought a giant pot for the tamales and lots and lots of masa. We would make tamales together, just the two of us. Actually, I enjoyed making the tamales. In Mexico, I only got to watch the women of the family make the tamales; males weren’t allowed to touch the masa. My girlfriend showed me how to mix the meat into the masa and stuff the masa into the corn husk. She had made tamales a few times and actually knew what she was doing. We even made some sweet tamales with raisins. We had about six different kinds of tamales. We literally did this for at least two hours and the giant pot was still only half-full. However, she insisted that we fill the pot all the way to the top. We filled the pot at about 3:00 a.m. And I was exhausted! But wait! She put a penny at the bottom of the pot where there was boiling water to steam the tamales. The flame underneath had to be at just the right temperature and you could tell if the temperature was just right because the penny would keep making noise as the boiling water moved it. The only time I really saw tamales made was in Mexico as a boy, but my mother and aunts cooked the tamales over a bonfire. Well, I went to bed about 6:00 a.m. because I couldn’t stay awake anymore. She stayed up to keep adding water and ensuring that the tamales cooked properly. I didn’t realize they would involve so much work. She woke me up a few hours later when they were done. She had stayed up the whole time! We then ate the tamales and they were so delicious! We ate them later that day. And the next day, too. There were so many tamales that she put some in her fridge and froze the some in her freezer. And there were still some tamales leftover! So I took some home and put them in my freezer. We ate tamales until the Fourth of July! And we never got tired of them. We loved them!
Driving in México has been my greatest, and perhaps most dangerous, accomplishment ever. I almost didn’t drive there after my cousin warned me that no driver obeys the rules of the road. However, I was due for an adventure since I do live a very boring life. As soon as I entered México, I noticed the driving difference immediately. In Nuevo Laredo, the streets were narrower and street venders were at every major intersection peddling their wares. Most lane markings were nonexistent. All the drivers accelerated quickly and stopped even faster when necessary. In Monterrey, I was fascinated by the different configuration of traffic signals. The green light flashes three times before it turns yellow. Then, there are two, count them, two red lights side by side. I honestly thought this meant that I should stop at the red light. Boy, was I wrong! All the cars behind me beeped at me until I drove through the red light.
As I was driving on the highway, I was fascinated by the road signs so much that I began to write them down as I drove. Of course, this made me swerve several times and once I almost drove off the edge of a cliff. I liked the fact that these white rectangular signs appeared on both sides of the road. In the U.S., whenever I need to read an important road sign, I usually can’t read it because it’s obstructed by a passing semi. Here are some of the signs that I saw while driving in México.
USE EL CINTURON
In México, it’s the law for front-seat passengers to wear seatbelts. I always wear my seatbelt anyway since I believe it has previously saved me from serious injury in my previous accidents.
GUARDE SU DISTANCIA
Don’t tailgate. However, if you’re in the fast lane and you’re not driving way over the speed limit, drivers will rapidly approach your rear bumper flashing their left turn signal (that means they want to pass you) and you better move into the right lane!
DISMINUYA SU VELOCIDAD
Reduce speed. This sign appears whenever approaching a town or tollbooth. However, no one actually slows down.
RESPETE LIMITE DE VELOCIDAD
Obey the speed limit. I’m not sure why someone posted this sign along all the highways. No one obeys the speed limit and traffic enforcement is virtually nonexistent.
RESPETE EL SEÑALAMIENTO
Obey road signs. Once again, I’m not sure why these signs are posted. I see these signs more as suggestions than anything else.
If you drink, don’t drive. In general, everone was afraid to drink and drive because of the consequences if arrested for drinking and driving. Besides, no driver can survive the driving habits of other Mexican drivers even if they’re only slightly impaired.
MANEJE CON PRECAUCION
Drive cautiously. That’s just a given for every driver. No one gets behind the wheel in México without dreading pulling into traffic. In fact, there are many Mexicans who don’t have a driver’s license simply because they’re afraid of the Mexican traffic.
OBEDEZCA LAS SEÑALES
Obey signals. I think this another one of those signs that is more of a recommendation than anything else.
NO DEJE PIEDRAS
SOBRE EL PAVIMIENTO
Do not leave rocks on pavement. I really didn’t understand this sign at all. As I drove, I attempted to decode this mysterious sign to no avail. I finally asked one of my cousins who told me that sometimes drivers use rocks to prevent the car from rolling when changing a flat tire and then leave the rocks on the shoulder.
Slower traffic, keep right. But be careful because the right lane sometimes contains traffic that is inexplicably at a complete standstill.
SOLO PARA REBAZAR
Left lane for passing only. Even if you’re passing another vehicle and a faster vehicle comes along, you better get out of the way!
LO MEJOR DE TUS VACACIONES
REGRESAR A TU CASA
The best thing about your vacation, returning home. Of course, they don’t mention what condition your mental state will be in after driving among countless reckless drivers, in the Mexican mountains, on roads with little or no road markings, no median protection, or the complete lack of guardrails on the edges of cliffs with precipitous drops.
Wet pavement. Luckily, the streets were dry the whole time I was in México. Driving was challenging enough without complicating things with wet pavement.
UTILICE EL CINTURON DE SEGURIDAD
Use your seatbelt. Most people put on their seatbelt willingly due to the driving conditions and risks involved rather than fear of the law.
DISMINUYA SU VELOCIDAD
Slow down in fog. I didn’t actually see any fog, but I’m sure drivers will slow down with zero visibility. At least, I hope so.
ENCIENDA SUS LUCES
Turn on lights in fog. I’ve driven in fog in California and I know that if you turn on your headlights you still can’t see what lies ahead. And if you turn on your high beams, you will be blinded. However, other drivers may see your taillights and avoid rear-ending you. At least, I always hoped so.
CONCEDA CAMBIO DE LUCES
Dim your lights if someone flashes their brights at you. Okay, their was enough traffic on both sides of the highway after dark that it was impossible to use your brights. Oh, yes, those drivers who want to pass you will flash their brights at you at night if you’re in the left lane and not going at least 40 KPH over the speed limit.
NO MALTRATE LAS SEÑALES
Do not damage the signs. All the road signs I saw were in good condition, unlike in America where some signs have shotgun pellet markings caused by some good ol’ boy.
NO DAÑE LAS SEÑALES
Do not damage the signs. Again, but with different wording. These signs must work because all the road signs I saw were intact.
NO PRENDA FUEGO
SOBRE EL PAVIMIENTO
Do not light fires on pavement. I’m not sure what this sign means, since I didn’t actually see any fires on the road, I did, however, see people living on the side of the highway in makeshift shelters with fires in front and people tirelessly waving down drivers for money. Some drivers actually stopped and contributed.
NO CIRCULAR POR
Do not drive on the shoulder. I find this sign incredibly amazing because on many sections of the highway there is no shoulder at all!
NO TIRE BASURA
Do not litter. In general, drivers didn’t litter. There are plenty of garbage cans along the highway that are well-marked in advance for you to stop in time and dispose of your garbage. I only wished that the gas stations were also marked as well. I missed one gas station because no signs announced its location and I didn’t see it because it was behind the side of a mountain.
NO MANEJE CANSADO
Do not drive tired. This sign is totally useless. If you drive for more than an hour in México, you will be tired. Most drivers were always alert.
TRAMO SINUOSO Winding road. This stretch of road was actually fun to drive if you didn’t look over the edge of the cliff for too long and imagine your horrific death.
Dangerous curves. Take this sign seriously. They really do mean dangerous curves, especially since chances there won’t be any shoulder or guardrails to save you if you veer off the road.
FRENE CON MOTOR
Brake with motor. In the U.S., the roads signs prohibit engine braking, but in México if you don’t, you’ll probably wear out your brakes before you get to your final destination.
VEHICULO SIN FRENOS
SIGA LA LINEA ROJA
Vehicles without brakes, follow the red line. So I’m driving in the lane with the red line go down a very steep incline and I’m constantly looking in the rearview mirror for runaway vehicles with no brakes. I felt safer when I drove in the other lane. The red line eventually leads the vehicle off the main highway to an adjacent road that rises sharply, presumably to slow the vehicle down, and ends with a steep cliff at the end. Pretty scary!
VIAJE CON SEGURIDAD
Drive safely. You must multi-task while driving. The only way to drive safely in México is to drive defensively AND offensively simultaneously.
CEDA EL PASO
Yield. You must always be prepared to yield–at any moment, on any stretch of the road. I thought I was about to run over a bicyclist who made a u-turn in front of me as I was driving 120 KPH. This only happened to me once since bicycles are prohibited on the highway.
NO CIRCULAR POR FAJA
Do not drive on the median strip. This sign is totally unnecessary. If anyone is foolish enough to drive on the median strip, they will total their car and/or kill themselves.
Approaching tunnel, turn on lights. And you better turn on your lights because the tunnel is very, very long if they actually post this sign. And, there are no lights in the tunnel other than your own!
To me the scariest part of driving through México was this godforsaken stretch of highway in the state of San Luis Potosí where not one single FM radio station was broadcast. The horror, the horror! In summary, you will never forget driving in México, even if just as a passenger. On the one hand, Mexican drivers are reckless and don’t respect the driving laws. On the other hand, I didn’t witness even one accident the whole time I was in México.
Click here if you would like to see more driving vocabulary in Spanish:
There are Doritos. You’ve eaten them before. Nacho flavored tortilla chips, which some people complain are too tangy or too hot.
And then, there are Mexican Doritos. In Spanish, they are totopos de maíz con queso y chile. They even have their own website: http://www.sabritas.com.mx/. These Mexican Doritos are more potent than American Doritos. You do not need to dip these tortilla chips into any kind of salsa. Mexicans added jalapeño peppers and other spices to the recipe, so these chips are very, very hot! Of course, a true Mexican would still add salsa and / or a whole jalapeño pepper.
As I was driving home from Mexico, I had to buy gas. So as long as I was in the gas station, I decided to buy some snacks. I naturally grabbed the familiar name brand of Doritos since they are based on the Mexican food of tortillas. But I was surprised to discover that Mexicans would sell an Americanized version of a Mexican food. So I’m driving in Mexico enjoying the scenery, looking at the cacti, watching for drivers who speed up to my rear bumper so I move out of there way, etcetera. I decide to eat some of these Mexican Doritos. Wow! What a surprise! They were spicy. However, since I had been eating so much hot stuff anyway, they tasted just right. But I have a feeling that I once I eat American Doritos, they will taste rather bland.
Just a word of warning if you go to Mexico. Don’t expect comfort seating in the bathroom if you stray far from the traditional tourist areas. If you don’t have regular bowel movements, the typical Mexican diet will have you visiting the sanitorio regularly. But make sure you always carry loose change because you need two pesos to use most sanitorios. And only after you pay will someone hand you toilet paper if you really need it. What I noticed in most bathrooms, since I am a regular guy, was that most toilet seats were either broken or missing. Missing, I assume, because someone stole it, or, broken, I assume, because someone caught the perpetrator in the act of stealing it. Of course, this wouldn’t pose any problems for the average woman, since I understand that their buttocks have never actually touched the toilet seat of any public bathroom. And all public bathrooms have a wastebasket next to the toilet for you to dispose of your used toilet paper. If you put the toilet paper in the toilet and flush it, the toilet will back up. However, most people fold the used toilet paper and all you see is white in the wastebasket. Of course, in some homes, you can actually flush the toilet paper.
As gross as all this may sound, this is actually an improvement in sanitation from when I went to Mexico as a boy. I remember having to cut newspapers into small squares that would be placed on a nail near the toilet bowl and the accompanying wastebasket. I really hated wiping myself with newspaper because you had to use extreme caution not to scrape yourself. However, once I spent a week on a farm in Mexico, I stopped complaining about the newspaper. On el rancho, I had to go really bad. I mean I held it as long as I could, until I thought I would burst. You see, we had to go to the pig sty to do our duty and then wipe ourselves with a corn husk. As a nine-year-old boy, this terrified me, especially after the first time. I entered the pig sty, dropped my pants to my knees, and squatted. A few pigs gathered round to watch me. Before my feces even hit the ground, the pigs had gobbled them up! Ditto for the soiled corn husks!
So, if you go to Mexico, be thankful for the improvements in the sanitation system.
When we went to Mexico when I was little, I remember that Mexicans didn’t really celebrate Christmas. The day for giving gifts to children was January 6, el Día de los Reyes. Occasionally, small gifts were given for Christmas, but the big gifts were given on January 6.
So I was surprised to see that many Mexicans were Christmas shopping when I was in Mexico before Christmas. I asked my cousin about all the Mexicans Christmas shopping and she told me that more and more people were giving the big gifts on Christmas and the smaller ones on January 6.
I attribute this to American cultural imperialism and capitalism. Mexico as a country that is adapting to better function in a global economy. And of course, when Mexicans watch television, they get to see all of the American Christmas movies that stress gift-giving on Christmas Day, especially by Santa Claus.
While in Mexico City, I noticed the traditional Christmas decorations featuring a Nacimiento (Nativity Scene), but I also saw other Christmas decorations like Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman, which was ironic since it hardly ever snows in México City. The street vendors even sold reindeer antlers and noses to attach to your car. I was surprised to see that people actually drove around in these “reindeer” cars.
Meanwhile, my family in Celaya celebrated Christmas in the traditional way by gathering on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), going to mass at the catedral, and then eating a big dinner. We went to mass and my cousin took a baby Jesus surrounded by candy on a tray that she placed near the altar for the priest to bless during the mass. After mass, we walked back home with baby Jesus and then ate dinner. Then we took baby Jesus to the Nativity Scene and everyone prayed and sang songs to him. Everyone then kissed baby Jesus and took a piece of candy from the tray. After this, I placed baby Jesus in the Nacimiento. My cousin later started a bonfire that the children enjoyed because they placed inflated baloons over the flames and watched the baloons fly away. No one received gifts on Christmas morning because in Celaya the children still receive their gifts el Día de los Reyes.
One thing I noticed about México was that everyone puts peppers and/or salsa on everything! Even small children put hot sauce on everything. Would you believe even the lolly pops are spicy? Last night, I went to a fair and had a Michelada, which consisted of dark Victoria beer, lime, pimento, and a bunch of other cosas that I now forget. Not only was it spicy, but it came in one liter portions! I wanted a small one, the smallest one they had was one liter. Needless to say, that I didn’t finish it. I had about three gulps left. I would have finished it, but my cousin asked me if I wanted papas (potato chips) and I foolishly said yes. That’s right, even the potato chips had salsa. I almost OD’d on salsa last night.