Thursday, February 3, 2000
We've been here three weeks today. Time enough for a second chapter. (Umm… well, it took awhile to find time to write … so Thursday has slipped into Saturday. I hope to post this on Monday.)
It is uplifting and wonderful to enjoy the treat of sunshine, all day, everyday. During the occasional cold wave, the nighttime temperatures might get down to 50. Ordinarily, just to 60. Daytime highs seem to never vary: 75 to 80. There is promise that it will be a little warmer in April. The hottest month is May, then the rains come. We have windows open at night, except during the cold spells. It can be difficult to detect them. The skies are always clear and blue. We have nice views of the city below, from the neighborhood of our house. Particularly if we walk 3 blocks up the hill to the church, we can see valleys and mountains on all sides. There is enough gunk in the air that the mountains appear slightly obscure. And we can't see Popocatepetl, which one used to be able to see from here -- too much pollution. But even so, the air is clear enough to see mountains all around.
We are gradually getting more oriented. The first week, we were getting connected, introduced, and generally plugged in on campus. Gathering information and resources to understand how things work. There is a reluctance to push us, which is partly just gracious hosting and partly the easy-going Mexican approach to life. After three weeks, our energy level seems to be finally up to normal. We were very aware of being exhausted all the time when we were here for two weeks in 1990. We attributed that to the strain of 5 hours a day of intensive Spanish language classes, plus studying, plus struggling painfully to communicate with very little language skill. Now it appears that the altitude may have been a more critical factor than we realized. At least that is what we're blaming for the lengthy acclimatization this time around. Anyway, we're feeling great now.
Another energy factor for me is regaining the use of my teeth. The toothache I mentioned from the first weekend here required me to eat only very soft stuff for awhile. Then the next weekend, I ventured to chew a piece of toast, and that finished off the tooth. My only remaining lower left molar was now split vertically in two. Clearly the problems of the past months were the result of a fracture, gradually worsening, until the final break. The good news was that once it finally split, there was no more pain (as long as I didn't wiggle the loose piece). We got recommendations for two local dentists, and made an appointment for Wednesday. With the help of Bob Delaney, I exchanged email with Dr. Stuart Fass, my dentist for many years. Good advice and good service all around. The following Monday, I had a brand new porcelain crown installed on the part of the tooth that had not split off. As usual, it is taking some time to get used to a different shape in my mouth, but all is now well. I figure I am now 0.05% Mexican.
During the second week, I got rolling with some of the faculty and courses and tools that are involved in new technology on campus. The entire Tec (28 campuses) is committed, through a "Mission 2005" plan, to a "redesign" process. There are serious goals for interactivity, teamwork, values and attitudes and skills, which are clearly set out in the plan. In practice, two developments are most obvious: (a) laptops everywhere, and (b) courses using Lotus Learning Space. There are hundreds of network connections, with a jack for an Ethernet cable and a power outlet, spread all over campus. You can see some of these, with students using them (which they do continuously) in the photos at http://donporter.net. The climate and the delightful campus architecture encourages computing al fresco at the many tables all around campus. Clusters of students working (and playing of course, it must be admitted) at these tables from 8am to at least 8pm (we've not stayed later than that -- and things do close down at 10pm or so) are fun to watch.
But the place I'm concentrating on is the use of Learning Space in the redesigned courses. This process started a couple of years ago, and already well over half the courses on this campus use Learning Space. I've been studying a few sample courses to see how they work. I was given 3 manuals -- locally produced guides to using Learning Space to develop course materials. I got Notes installed on my laptop with ID and password for the server. I started taking a short course on the use of Learning Space, given by Marisa Cabrera, who is one of the two faculty leaders of the redesign effort on this campus. Marisa is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and very helpful. She is also very busy. She helped me carry out my first "replication", which is how Lotus manages the synchronization of a local laptop copy of the course with the copy on the server. Tricky. She also helped me with authorizations -- during the second week I was blissfully peeking in on any course I wanted to, but at the end of that week, I found myself blocked from them all. Turned out the practice is to leave them open for the start of the semester, then close them up when the class lists stabilize. So now I'm permitted to be a student in several courses. I plan to add more over time.
My other responsibility is to give a few talks. I had proposed several topics to Ricardo before we arrived. Experience since has suggested a couple more. Eduardo, the member of the Computación Dept. who plans the seminar series, signed me up to give a talk Feb. 24, so that will be my first. Since I couldn't decide what topic would be appropriate for that audience, he just put me down for "Computation in Education". I now plan to use that opportunity to give a standard RPI pitch on "Interactive Learning". I've worked up brief outlines for several proposed talks, and sent them to Ricardo. We're planning to meet next week to firm up a schedule. Meanwhile, I attended the first of the Computación seminar series this Thursday, given by a faculty member (Jose Liñan) in the department on the topic of "security in networks for business". The audience was mostly students. He was full of war stories from years as a systems administrator. His main point seemed to be: this is very tough, you need all the specialized expertise you can get, and still there is really no way to secure a network. I'm pleased and excited about giving the talks -- and also uptight about public speaking in Spanish.
After finding Juana Espinosa, our 1990 Cuernavaca hostess, and showing her some photos we had brought along, we decided to get a copy made of one photo of her and her husband, Abel, who passed away last year. We found a photo shop that did it in a week -- making a negative and a 4x6 print from the negative -- for a total cost of 17 pesos ($1.80). We have a date for lunch on Monday, and we'll take the photo to her in a very pretty frame that Lois bought in 3 de Mayo. That's the name of the local colonia: 3 de Mayo. There are shops there.
Lois has found a friend in Carmen, our neighbor across the courtyard. Our house is one of 9 in a condominium compound -- the swimming pool and party area you see in the photos are shared by the 9 houses. Carmen's family, and two other families and us, are the only fulltime residents. The other 5 houses are weekend places for Mexico City people. And a couple of the houses are vacant. Carmen and Lois have been taking long walks, mostly shopping in 3 de Mayo. Carmen is a great resource -- Lois has learned where to get fresh bread at 5pm daily, where to get laundry done, where to buy handmade ceramics for ridiculously cheap prices, and all about the local church. It is a spectacular modern structure, mostly open air, on top of the nearest hill. We've sat in on parts of two Wednesday evening vespers, with heartwarming music by the nuns. Carmen is fabulously sweet and generous. Another wonderful Mexican friend.
As soon as we arrived, Sonalika began mentioning the workshops that the Arts people offer to all students (and other official guests like us). Actually, she also pushed taking real Tec courses, but we weren't prepared to work that hard. So Lois took an interest in possible workshops in dance and ceramics. The administration and organization of these workshops has turned out to be haphazard. Nevertheless, she got started with the first dance workshop this Monday, 6pm-8pm. That looks promising. The teacher wants her to have dancing shoes. Fortunately, a friend from our church (Peg Reich) is coming to Cuernavaca on business in a couple of weeks, and it looks like she can bring Lois' dancing shoes along. The ceramics is shakier. The first workshop derailed when the teacher ignored the assembled students and chatted with the department head for the first half hour of the scheduled workshop. The students jumped ship en masse and switched to a workshop in "repujado". After two of those workshops, Lois has produced a lovely embossed Virgin of Guadalupe, now displayed on our dining room wall. She is playing along with the ceramics workshop, but that is still shaky. She had to buy 5 bottles of paint, at $2 a bottle. Not a problem in the USA, but that's out of line here.
We haven't figured out the local cinema yet. There are at least a dozen multiplex cinemas in Cuernavaca. We've seen a couple of them on bus routes. But they seem to be showing a grand total of about 5 movies. None of which are appealing. All Hollywood's worst. There must be better options. The only one we've found is a "cinema club" that shows a video movie for free every Thursday at the Robert Brady Museum. We've been to two of these - a 1971 Robert Altman stinker called "A Wedding" (avoid at any cost). And a very sweet Canadian Film Board picture by Cynthia Scott called "In the Company of Strangers". We've been hearing about a politically explosive film called "Todo el Poder" ("All the power") which we're interested in seeing, if possible.
The best thing about being in Mexico is our friends, new and old. Last weekend, we were invited to Cocoyoc by our old friends Enrique and Myrthala Rivera. They offered to take us anywhere we wanted to go. So Enrique picked us up Saturday morning and accompanied us to the local hippy/artsie village of Tepoztlan. We poked about the church (saw a wedding), the market, and a museum. Then to the spectacular Rivera house in Cocoyoc, where Myrthala had been cooking. We enjoyed a fabulous feast with the Riveras and their neighbors and relatives. The next day, after a peaceful stroll around the Cocoyoc hacienda, hotel, and golf course, and a delicious breakfast, Enrique and Myrthala drove us up to see the Lagunas de Zempoala, which had been suggested by some people at the Tec. This turned out to be a fairly remote park of volcanic craters, somewhat short on water as it is the dry season, but in a beautiful forest in the misty heights near 10,000 ft. A delightful weekend all around (see pictures at http://donporter.net).
This Saturday, Maria Gonzalez, who teaches math at the Tec and has an office adjacent to mine, invited us to go see the caves at Cacahuamilpa, near Taxco. She and her husband Pablo picked us up and we spent the day driving in the countryside and visiting the spectacular caves (see pictures at http://donporter.net). We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Maria and Pablo, and finding many common interests - in travel, literature, nature, dancing and language. As we were driving through a lush tropical fruit growing area, Maria was telling us about the mango trees, the mamey trees, and much more. She stopped at a fruit stand to buy a mamey so we could taste it. We're looking forward to going dancing with them sometime.