The Truth About Montana

IMG_2036At the end of a year of hot sun, great surf, huge bugs, street tacos and mariachi bands, it was time to be reunited with vertical, alpine terrain and snow (glorious snow!).  After months of research and heehawing, we finally settled on Bozeman, Montana for its proximity to amazing skiing (Big Sky and Bridger Bowl), the free-thinking mentality that accompanies most state universities, and general accessibility.  Though my piecemeal assortment of education related part-time jobs here is making me feel a little scattered, I couldn’t be happier with our choice of location.

Here are some things I’ve learned about Montana so far:

  1.  There are no strangers.  

Anywhere you go here, people talk to you as though you were their next-door neighbor.  In the grocery store, a woman commented on how the contents of my basket inspired her to buy zucchini, too, and then proceeded to make small-talk with me as we happened to follow converging loops through the aisles.  

More recently, at the grassland disc golf course near our house, the pair playing behind us soon caught up to us and joined right in on our search for a lost disk among the knee-high, swampland grass (worst environment to build a disc golf course, ever).  They searched as though it was their frisbee that was lost and eventually found it for us ten yards from the area we had been scouring.

  1.  People have time for you.

On several occasions, cars have stopped and allowed us to cross the street without even a cross-walk.  On one such occasion, a woman stopped for us and then waited at least five minutes for the rest of the passing traffic to follow suit.  I certainly would have given up and driven on at that point.IMG_2049

  1.  You don’t have to drive longer than twenty minutes to experience the wonders of nature.

Here we are surrounded by mountains and canyons that seem to have endless options for hiking, biking, boating or camping.  Whatever flavor of outdoor adventure you desire, the only things standing between you are a few miles and the right gear.

  1.  Montana is where rednecks and outdoor enthusiasts converge.

It never occurred to me before how much these groups have in common but now that I’m here, it seems pretty obvious.  Rednecks love huntin’, dirt bikin’, and beer.  Outdoorsy folks love camping, mountain biking, and beer.  Later reports will detail if and how these groups conflict but current observations indicate peaceful, if sometimes only semi-tolerant coexistence.

On the whole, I’m pleased and impressed with what Montana has to offer and the snow hasn’t even come yet!  I hope that time will reveal still greater wonders as snow opens up the world of winter.

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Leaving Mexico Behind

The Punta de Mita bay from Monkey Mountain

The Punta de Mita bay from Monkey Mountain

Mexico is far behind me now. It’s been almost a month since I’ve stood on the shore, eyeing the waves, gauging whether they would take me for a ride or not. Now the only waves to surf are those of my emotions, their crests peaking with every anxious fear of the great unknown that is my life.

Hitching a ride on Punta de Mita highway

Hitching a ride on Punta de Mita highway

I’m in upstate New York and the water flows here, too. Here the rocks break and move by the steady trickle of streams old as the glaciers. Waterfalls cascade in paths hidden in every bit of thick forest that surrounds us. The rocks here were made to be broken; they form and break in layers, sheet upon sheet so that when you stand in the path of a river or stream you see the rock slats stacked up like all of Mother Nature’s newspapers that she treasured too much to throw away.

Watkins Glen Falls

Watkins Glen Falls

In this moment, I have no home to call my own, no vocation, no set plans for the future. It comes in many kinds, but what I have now could be called freedom. I have the freedom to take a step and walk into a whole new lifetime. I’m trying to think of what I know now, some lesson I have learned that could make this moment significant.

I’ve learned that love can sneak up on you.  Possibilities jump in– right when you think it’s hopeless but you can’t bear to give up– and those possibilities are devils because you never can control them or predict them or say that you own them. I learned that things don’t always pan out with a perfect beginning; you don’t always know what they are but real things last through a few bumps and holes in the road. Real things hold on until the going is good again.

Watkins Glen Heart Pool

Watkins Glen Heart Pool

I learned that I can make it through more than I thought but not without a meltdown, not without asking for help, and not without a considerable degree of support from those around me. I pushed through with perseverance that I didn’t think I have or didn’t really want to give. It was no real strength of my own, it was just showing up, day after day, doing what I could to adapt and change.  There were a lot of small giving ups and a lot of energy drained but these didn’t add up to the whole. The whole was me–struggling to keep my head above water and then friends giving advice and bearing the load.

I learned that travel and moving keeps you ripe in a way. I became a fruit, dangling from the tree, ready to be set free at any given moment because I had seen that there was nothing really to fear but a little bit of insecurity. It’s not so hard to move, the people you meet are as beautiful as anywhere, the landscape makes its imprint on you in just a little time and soon you become new. Still you as always, but you know the truth: that you are just temporary here and your life is made up of infinite intricately woven variables that can be transformed by one sweeping gesture.

I learned that I don’t want to aim for stability but for evolution. Jobs and places and people all wrap themselves around you in such a way that you begin to feel rooted and stable and the feeling is rich as you sink your roots deep into the soil. It’s beautiful but it can happen anywhere, at anytime; it’s our nature to find stability. So rather than strive for that feeling, I want to strive for self-knowing. I want a knowledge that grows and breaks down and drives me into deeper existence and belonging.

The ideal I had of “me” has broken up a bit with this last turn. Now I am not a teacher, I am something else, yet to be assembled. The pieces are scattered all around me, but there is nothing to be done with them just yet, instead I am given the space to peer inside and examine what is left when my names and identities fall off for a while.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

Growing Up When You’re a Grown Up

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My time here is inching to a close and I can feel the weight of it bearing down on me. I can feel my mind compressing with the pressure to begin to forget, begin to say goodbye, make room for the next reality.

Six weeks left here and I’ve got this feeling like I’m standing still, waiting for my life to begin. I am a sail without wind, formless and flat. But I’ve been here before and I know that it’s no way to live; life is here, it has begun. I’ve claimed it as my own, bent it to my will, made it what I want and I can’t stop now. It’s the same for all of us. Everyday you’ve got to do it again, stake your claim, say “I am here” and that is the most important thing—you showed up. We’ve got to remember that our skin is our home and that is the first place we’ve got to be comfortable; the first place we can shape and develop to meet our needs.

All this standing still, anticipating moving forward, got me thinking about what it means to grow as an adult. Does growth really even exist or is it just something we imagine to give us some sense of meaning to hold onto? If it does exist, how do we know it’s happening? If it is real, I can think of a few ways I would hope to grow.
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I want to be more loving and accepting toward others and myself and more enthusiastic about things that bring joy. I want to hold high standards for human conduct but see people the way I would on their funeral day. I want to greet people the way dogs do. I want to be proud of my accomplishments. I want to be creatively active and learn new skills.

I am who I want to be but to believe in growth, I have to believe in betterness. Better meaning you can act more on the motives that are true and good and genuine and throw out those that you have created in self-defense, malice, or destructive desires.
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Yes, I believe in growth. Let mine lead me to greater purity, wholeness, and strength.

I hope some of my reading friends will humor me here with some contributions. Do you believe in growth? If so, how do you want to grow and how do you measure it?

All my love from south of the border.
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Selling Out for Instant Coffee

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I realized that Mexico had done a number on me the other morning when I found myself with a craving for Nescafe instant coffee. If that doesn’t strike you as strange, you might not understand what it’s like to grow up in the Pacific Northwest where you learn to cope with the ever-present blanket of clouds early; you stay inside, curl yourself into a book or lose yourself in writing or drawing to the patter of slow raindrops on the windowsill. It’s a coming of age to learn to recognize a good shot of espresso by the golden layer of crema on its surface and the smell of roasted beans on your clothing is a welcome marker of a café worth its weight. In the Pacific Northwest coffee is our liquid sunshine and we drink it in as gratefully as iguanas in the afternoon light.
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That said, Nescafe with its grainy crystals can barely be considered worthy to deliver our precious caffeine. It is always thin and only delivers a weak nudge, no matter how many extra spoonfuls you add. But, herein may lie the beauty of it; Nescafe gives only a meager push into your day, it delivers no dramatic spark in heart rate, my eyes are never open any wider when I finish. My craving for instant coffee can only mean that I have fallen under Mexico’s languid spell.
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Mexico isn’t a place of black and white but a land painted in vivid color. This is no child’s coloring book where one must color inside the lines or it all becomes a mess; there are no lines to color in, all the vibrancy can only blend together. I was stopped in my tracks one day as I walked around the hills of my neighborhood and heard what I thought must be some crowd or celebration happening below. I paused curiously and tuned into the sound. From the valley came a roar, but as I listened, I was able to distinguish the sounds: five or more dogs barking in defense or in conversation, roosters crowing, at least three different sources of up-tempo music blasting, motorcycles growling into the distance.

There is no time when silence claims this place; the din is constant. If it isn’t roosters and barking dogs, it’s birds playing their flutes to one another and palm fronds bouncing out percussion in the breeze. When the jingles advertising truck beds full of goods (the fruit, the gas, the mattresses, the baked goods) fade away, the ocean calls out to fill the space. She pounds her waves harder into the sand, sending her echoes through the cobblestones and over the hills. In the deepest dark the stars wink and the bugs hum their buzzing orchestra.
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With sound waves always surrounding me, maybe it’s that I never really stop. I don’t need the strong caffeine jolt to jerk me back to life because I’ve been on the move. I’ve been rolling on the vibrations all around me, falling in step with their easy pace. It wouldn’t be right to stand in line, tapping my foot anxiously as I wait for my espresso. Instead I’ll add to the tapestry of sound with the clank of my spoon against the mug as I slowly stir in my spoonful of Nescafé.

Crabby

Crabby

Better Than Crack

It’s 3 am and I shouldn’t be awake but I am.  My body is hotter than it should be with the fan on full blast and my mind is already in the classroom.  Teaching anxiety.  I can’t pinpoint when it began, but it grabbed ahold of me not long after starting this career.

I’m into my second year now and while its gotten better I still associate my job with acute inner turmoil: I feel anxious, under qualified, underappreciated and unsupported.  And now, as I’m am in the process of figuring out what’s next, I want to pull apart those feelings and see if they house anything real.

If you care at all about what you do, some degree of anxiety is unavoidable and can even be healthy at times.  I think it comes from knowing that you’re responsible for something important and having a fear of screwing it up.  The fear part is what makes it dangerous.  If left unchecked, it can gnaw at your heart into the wee hours of the night and leave you with sleep deprivation and a lack of confidence. 

I think I’ve tamed my anxiety a bit, mostly because I’ve been able to dismiss my fears.  But the teaching fears were harsh: I was afraid of what my principal thought of my performance, I was afraid I wasn’t teaching my students anything, I was afraid because I knew I couldn’t measure up to the skills of master teachers, I was afraid that the parents would realize that I was clueless and revolt.

When you start teaching, you realize that you are working with a bunch of humans who are all very different and the permutations of their unique needs and abilities can be both infinite and opaque.  Here is where “under qualified” comes into play.  I have my masters in elementary education but in my actual practice of teaching, I have tasted just how far I really am from mastery.  I don’t know how to remove the scars of sexual abuse in order to pull a fourth grader up past a second grade reading level, I don’t know how to give a kid who sleeps in a chair at home the rest he needs to be able to focus, I don’t know how to get a classroom full of Spanish speakers living in Mexico to start speaking English.

And then, the big picture, societal piece of teaching is that teachers have become the whipping boys of our crumbling education system.  Since there has been public education, teachers have been second class citizens (e.g. the rule from 1915 that banned us from loitering in any downtown ice cream shops. Really, the nerve!).  These days, people feel so entitled to free education that they feel it should meet their every need.  Teachers are expected to be parents, counselors, psychologists, and tutors.  My first year of teaching, I made less than your average McDonald’s store manager, but at least didn’t come home smelling like french fries.

Despite all of this, there is some small part of me that is still considering coming back for more.  Maybe it’s that weird psychological phenomenon where the more you sacrifice for something the more value it holds for you.  Certainly it’s my students and the unbreakable bond that develops after spending one hundred and eighty days trapped in the same room together for eight hours straight.  And even when you spend day after day wondering if your students are really learning, all it takes is that one student to surprise you and suddenly read a whole paragraph in English, or the kid with ADHD and writer’s block to come out with a beautiful story, or the fourth graders who can suddenly do long division, or the heartfelt hug from a seven year old after you’ve missed two days of work to make it all seem worthwhile.

I don’t know.  Teaching is a strange kind of drug.  I’m not sure what road to take: keep on taking it, even if I suspect that its bad for my heath, or sign myself up for the nearest rehab program.

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My students performing in our interactive zoo production.

First Grade Robot

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My Classroom

Every morning in my class we sit around in a circle to greet one another.  We pat and clap a pattern with our hands and chant a little song. 

“This is Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.  This is Teresa, who are you?”

Each child must say their name and then we repeat it and introduce them.  The two seconds it takes each child to say their name is usually a good indicator of their mood and the kind of day they’ll have.

They must have gotten bored of their names because lately they’ve gotten more creative with the insertions they put into the few seconds after we ask, “who are you?” Now, on a typical morning we greet Robot, Froggy, Dolphin, of course Piggy (they have some weird obsession with Piggy and will start singing some super piggy song if anyone so much as whispers the word), and sometimes if they’re feeling really daring we’ll get a Pompies (little kid Spanish word for booty) or a Poopy in the mix.  I like it.

I’m pretty sure it was Nick* who first started the trend, which is one of the reasons why he is my favorite.  He is usually Robot.  There are other reasons why he is my favorite and they all revolve around his unbridled creativity and imagination.

He is the most engaged nonreader I have ever seen.  I teach my kids that they don’t always have to read the words to a story, they can also read the pictures and tell themselves a story from what they see.  When Nick “reads” to himself he is generally the loudest kid in the room.  While looking at picture books, he makes noises as though he is playing with a toy car set, motors revving, explosions, and people screaming, jumping out of burning cars.

He can’t write yet, but when my class is working on writing, he’ll draw four pictures and use them to tell the most epic adventure story full of good guys and bad guys and ingenious escapes.  I’m really proud of him now because he’s started to string together letters to make words that go with his pictures.  For example, when (by force) he wrote a real story, he indicated that he went to the moobies (movies) with the word “MOBX.”

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The Outside of My Classroom

His dance moves and sense of humor so closely resemble my own, it’s hard to tease apart which one makes me like him more.  Given any opportunity to dance you can always count on Nick to bust out the pony accompanied by vigorous pompies slapping (his own of course).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve won dance offs with that move.

He’s also the king of fart jokes.  Once I was playing a game with my English language learners where one kid would say something they liked and all the other kids would step forward if they agreed or stand still if they didn’t.  When it came to one little girl, she couldn’t think of what to say and Nick urged, “Say I like farts!” The poor girl listened, not knowing what she was saying and the rest of the group stepped forward (they just liked getting to step forward).  I know I’m not supposed to, but I couldn’t contain myself either as Nick broke into a bad case of the giggles.

He also has a real cute squeaky voice when he asks questions.  Every morning my kids do the exact same thing: sign in, put their backpack away and sit down to read.  But some mornings he comes in starry-eyed and wanders around with his backpack on before asking me in that raspy little voice, “What I do?”

Yep, he’s a darling, with all the qualities a kid should have: spontaneity, creativity, and great comedic timing with fart jokes.

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School Playground

*Name changed to protect the real little guy from baddies.

20 Questions to Ask Your Lover (in case you’re running out)

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1.  What do I make you feel?
2.  What do you see when you look at me?
3.  What do you want me to see when I look at you?
4.  When you were a kid, what do you remember wanting most?
5.  What’s your favorite smell?
6.  What’s the best dream you can remember?
7.  How can we make the honeymoon last forever?
8.  What do you need?
9.  What do you think I need?
10.  Where do you want to live next?

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11.  When was the last time I hurt your feelings?
12.  When was the last time I made you feel loved?
13.  What’s one thing you want to experience in your life before you die?
14.  What would your life be like if we had never met?
15.  How has your life changed since you met me?
16.  Why do you think it worked between us?
17.  Who do you want to be?
18.  How do you want to live?
19.  What kind of life do you want when you get old?
20.  What do you think is beautiful?

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What Stray Dogs Know About Love

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve attempted to adopt two dogs, one cat and bonded with countless others on the streets and in the plaza. They follow us home or show up at the door looking haggard, lonely, and needy and we welcome them in, gleeful at the opportunity to love a poor solitary animal.  They stay for a short time until the streets call them back again and then we are left lonely.  Weeks go by before we run into them again, they pass us by on the street barely glancing our way.  It feels like running into an ex who pretends not to notice you.

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“Was that Toochie?”

“Toochie!  Toochie!”

Toochie has moved on.

Dopey was the first.  He was a basset hound with those droopey eyes and short little legs, belly barely clearing the floor.  He showed up at the door on a Friday night as we were getting ready to go out.  Reaching through the welded iron door to pet him vigorously, Matt had given him a name within 30 seconds.

He followed us downtown and hung around as we swallowed our first rounds of beer.  He laid down while we bounced lazily to the blend of three bands from neighboring bars competing for airwaves in the street.  After a while he wandered off unnoticed and we were sad when we realized his absence.

Later on, at the Cumbia beach bar, we saw dopey leaving with a group of button-down-shirted dudes.  I guess he found other friends.

Its hard having these animals come into our lives only to leave just as suddenly.  We don’t seem to matter to them half as much as they matter to us.

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Yesterday after school we went to the beach, just to watch the waves roll in and the surfers do their thing.  We had tired of our pitiful hacky sack volleys and were taking our last sips of beer.  Without thinking, I turned around to pet the dog laying just off the edge of our towel.

At my touch, she gave a start but then immediately moved closer, onto the towel and exposed her belly for some good rubbing.  I crooned to her in dog/baby talk and rubbed her hips and belly.

Matt turned to look.

“Is that Toochie?”

“Nah, of course not.  This isn’t Toochie,” I said, thinking how Matt thinks (or wishes) that every black dog is Toochie.

“It is Toochie, look at her feet!” He was right, there were the sandy markings of lighter hair around her paws.

Toochie got comfy on the towel and when we tossed her the hacky sack she eagerly pounced on it and held it as a treasure. I taught her to sit and “drop it.”  When we drifted off to play without her, she shooed another dog away from our towel as if protecting her territory.  When we came back, she snuggled up to us again.  And then finally, when we left, she went to leave, too.  She followed us all the way to the edge of the beach and then split right, taking a different road back into town.

You could argue that Toochie went her separate way to avoid being seen with us in front of her friends.  You might be right.  But I think the truth about Toochie is that she has something to teach us about love: you give it all you’ve got while it’s there and then graciously say goodbye when it leaves.
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A New Year in Mexico

I’ve been guilty of not living my own life.

I don’t know how else to put it, it’s as though I’m standing in the center of a wheel spinning all around me and all I see is the blur of events passing me by.  I engage with them, but only to fret and worry and wonder why I can’t do a better job.

I’m living in Mexico but with the way I’ve been living, I could be anywhere.

But now its almost the New Year and I have time to reflect, confess, and repent.  It’s time to reclaim what’s mine; time to recognize its precious worth, time to celebrate imperfection and accept all that comes with the present.

I’m in my second year of teaching and not liking it most of the time.  I’m charged with the responsibility of teaching twenty-eight first and second graders to be readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and lovers of learning.  That is enough of a challenge without the added caveats that at least sixty percent of my students either don’t speak English or are learning it as a second language and I’ve never taught anyone to read and write before. 

Anxiety and fear of failure follow me night and day.  They have been stealing my presence and I have been letting them.  So, before its too late, I’m going to capture the Mexico that I want to remember.

Remember the first sunset on the water?  You were on your surfboard, content because you had caught a few waves without an extra push and had a few good rides.  The water rolled deep blue with cotton candy pink pools reflecting the slow fading light.  It felt good just to be on the water near a few newfound friends.
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Or remember the first time you happened upon the turtle release?  The sun had just gone down and you watched as the volunteer retrieved a hatch of babies from the nest.  She poked a pile of sand with a stick and it all caved in to reveal a sleepy bunch of blackish newborn turtles.  You held one in your palm as he helplessly flapped his little fins and you stood behind the line in the sand, waiting for permission to set him free.  When the moment came you set him in the sand next to the fifty-some others newly hatched and watched as he made those waddling imprints, moving in spurts and then resting.  When he finally reached the shoreline, the waves pushed him back another two feet but he would persist until he found his home.

Or the first time you met your students and they were a blur of untamed childhood?  These are children who run free in the plaza, bouncing soccer balls off of walls and tourists alike.  Kids who roam unsupervised at parties, forming tribes and allegiances.  These are kids who are their parents’ joy, who brought new light to the home they helped to fill.
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I want to remember walks on the beach, leaving behind footprints that would be washed away again and again by relentless tides.  I want to remember the way the stars looked from the lifeguard tower and the hushed voices of lovers down below.  I want to remember the amber light of the plaza in the evening, sitting on a bench watching everyone else just passing time.  I want to remember dancing to Cumbia in the sand and the swing that takes you out in a long arc beneath the palm tree.
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I think its okay if my life is colored by my struggles with teaching.  I’ll grapple with the challenge of teaching and let it stretch me beyond the comfortable ideal I had hoped for.  I’ll struggle and I’ll fail and I’ll learn and stand up again.  But I won’t rob myself of the joy of being here now.  I’ll frame my struggles in the beauty that surrounds me.
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Mexican Party Scrooge

There’s a party in the square that I’m told will last twelve days.  It’s the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe or some such thing.  If I were a good expat, I might do some research into the cultural roots but all it means to me is shitty Mexican music blaring, fireworks blasting at all hours of the night, and a more diverse selection of street snacks.  On any normal evening you can find taco stands, the “cake lady” with her assortment of homemade slices, and bacon wrapped hot dogs.  The Virgin of Guadalupe brings us white tents hovering above fully occupied plastic chairs and tables.  The occupants overflow into the plaza and feast on all the goods from vendors who line the walkway.  There’s a reason Mexico ranks second in the world for obesity: within a one block radius are the famed bacon wrapped hot dogs, tamales, tacos, crepes, and deep fried bananas topped with sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips.  Wash it all down with the Mexican beer of your choice sold for twice as much as the store across the street.

Call me a cynic or hard to please, but this festival also highlighted the depravity of the Mexican music scene.  The traditional dancers on stage were beautiful with bright red lips and embroidered dresses soaring through the air like butterfly wings.  Unfortunately, when the dancers finished, we were left with yet another karaoke singer gone public.  It seems to me that Mexico is stuck in a tar pit of music.  I’m not sure if it has changed much in the last three decades; with the exception of delicious classical guitar, all I’ve heard here are permutations of Mariachi or Kumbia.  Last night was no better. 
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We followed our noses to a nearby bar that had been advertising live music all week.  They offered us free beer and assaulting shots of mescal.  Not the best business plan for them but an easy win for us. 

It started out well and good.  The musicians were lively and played danceable original melodies.  A few songs in, however, our senses were accosted by the neighboring bar, Don Pato’s.  It was as though someone gave a four year old some drumsticks and a microphone and then turned the volume way up.  The sound of band just in front of us was swept away by the tinny blare of the Don Pato balcony.

Our band gave in and took a break.  Not long after, we watched them head to Don Pato’s.  If you can’t beat em, join em.  We followed suit.

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We got there just in time for a karaoke style rendition of “Venus” followed by “Rock and Roll All Nite.” The crowd was loving it.  Among them was a sweaty parent of one of my students and every other person I’ve seen or talked to in town.  We halfheartedly bounced around a bit to avoid earning the party pooper stamp, but when the band stopped, we called it a night.

So there you have it.  I’m in Sayulita, Mexico’s mecca for beginning surfers and beach bums.  The street dogs are healthy and the music is bad.  If it wasn’t for me and my Mexican belly affliction from all the street snacks, I might have something nicer to say about it.
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