Today, the sixth of January, is a special day for me. Today I celebrate my 12th anniversary of coming to Mexico. I had only intended to stay for a few months to help a friend named Federico Chio, but one thing led to another and I am still in Mexico. On the first few days of January back in 1999 a powerful winter storm had blasted the Chicago area from whence I came. All across Northern Illinois the storm had raged, dumping anywhere from nine to twenty-two inches of snow on the holiday traffic. The wind blew out of the northeast and it gusted well over thirty miles per hour causing considerable drifting. The storm set a Chicago record for the most snowfall in a single calendar day. Almost nineteen inches were recorded by the official weather reporting station at O'Hare Airport on Saturday, January the second. As if the snow and the wind weren't bad enough the temperature began to fall steadily. By Tuesday the fifth, the day I was hoping to leave for sunny Mexico, the temperature fell to more than ten below zero (Fahrenheit). It felt even colder because of the wind chill. My flight wasn't scheduled to leave until six thirty in the evening. During the blizzard everything came to a halt and many travelers had been stranded at the airport over the weekend.
By noon on Tuesday some semblance of order had been restored but the main problems were the cold and the wind. The unfortunate but valiant men and women of American Airlines, whose job it was to service the planes, were suffering terribly and could only remain outdoors for short periods. The airplanes had to be sprayed with de-icing solution before they could take off and the people who had to spray them with de-icer must have been super human. Once we finally took off about ten thirty, the three hour flight to Monterrey was relatively uneventful. I alternately read and dozed my way through the flight and as we made our approach to the Monterrey airport our pilot announced that the outside temperature was in the mid sixties. What a relief! I realized how miraculous it was that in just three hours I had been able to change my environment by going to a place where the air temperature was seventy five degrees higher than at the place I had left. It was a vivid reminder of the technology that we sometimes take for granted. I had never appreciated modern air travel more than I did that night.
I didn't get to bed until sometime after 2:am on the January 6th after arriving at the airport well after midnight. The next day I went to the shop where I would spend the next year working to help them obtain an international quality assurance certification. On the way to the shop we stopped to buy a couple "roscas" to share with the workers. I am referring to "la rosca de los reyes" or king's bread. It is an oval shaped loaf of sweet, twisted, fruit studded bread. Baked inside is a small ceramic or plastic figurine in the shape of a baby. The baby, of course, represents the Baby Jesus. It is a tradition for families, friends, class mates, or co-workers to gather together in mid to late afternoon for "la merienda" or afternoon snack to partake of the rosca on January 6th. My friend Federico called the workers together for the partaking of the rosca and took that opportunity to introduce me.
Before I left home I had asked Federico for a list of names of all of his workers, about thirty names in all. It is the custom in Mexico to use the father's last name followed by the mother's last name so including their first name, everyone has at least three segments to their full name and often four or sometimes even five. During the time that my plane sat on the ground in Chicago awaiting take off and later during the three hour flight to Monterrey I took it upon myself to memorize all of the names. This turned out to be a great idea which I realized soon after we reached the shop. I asked my friend to introduce me to his men using their first name only and I would fill in the rest of it. The result was magical. It produced instant smiles all around. The men were very impressed and I had a lot of fun breaking the ice that way. I discovered right then that names are very important in Mexico and it is a sign of great respect to remember them in full. From that point on I made it a habit to write down a person's name in a little notebook whenever I am being introduced to them. People don't seem seem to mind at all and because I meet so many people the help that this gives me later on is immeasurable.
It is customary for the person who receives the piece of rosca with the baby to give a party for everyone else on February second, the feast of "The Presentation of the Lord". As I was soon to find out, getting the piece of rosca with the baby hidden inside is not always considered good luck. Parties are expensive and despite the feeling of good fortune one might experience from discovering the baby more often than not the joy is partially canceled out by the realization that a party requires the expenditure of hard earned cash. It is natural for people to hang back, especially the males until someone else finds the baby. I was a little shocked that some of the more macho types referred to it as the "mono" or monkey. Once somebody finds the baby the rest are not so reluctant to dig in. For this reason people sometimes ask the baker to put two or more babies in the rosca. It catches some of those who have avoided having to give a party over the years and it is also a little easier on the pocketbook if there is more than one person to bear the cost of the party.
By the time the rosca ceremony was over I was completely exhausted and felt a sense of being overwhelmed by everything. However, before I drifted off to sleep later that night I reflected on all that had happened in the twenty four hours since I had left Chicago. I was dizzy with wonder of it all for it felt as if I had journeyed through a kaleidoscope. Little did I know that my adventures in Mexico had barely begun and the things to come in the next few weeks and months would make this first day seem average. That is one reason why the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, "Los Reyes Magos" is a very special day for me. That, and realizing so vividly how time flies when you are having fun. I love Mexico and I am very grateful to the Mexican people for all of their kindness to me.
¡ Viva México !
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