Moving to Mexico: Animals in the murals and on the sidewalks

I wrote last month about visiting Oaxaca and taking a week-long Spanish class. It actually reminded me of ballet class as a kid, in which I typically needed about five more choreography run-throughs than my classmates. In both instances I fell back on some trusty coping mechanisms – namely smiling and playing along until things got desperate, at which point it was necessary to engage in a little hushed whispering with a neighbor to fill in the holes.

My one respite from the discomfort was a 20-minute stretch of class where we fell into a casual conversation about animals. My Spanish vocabulary for animals outpaces any other category, which is pretty unfortunate for the purposes of daily conversation but not entirely unexpected. The first word I ever said as a baby was “duck”, the only Swahili word I recall from two weeks in Kenya a decade ago is “ndovu” (elephant), and even 8 months pregnant I am far more likely to notice every dog within a 50 ft. radius than a baby passing me in a stroller.

Mexican dog
Happily for me, the past few months have been filled with animals. First there are the murals that R. is studying. We’ve visited 20+ convents from the 16th century and photographed the 400-year old murals, some in their original form and others that are restored. There are a lot of religious figures – Jesus, Mary, saints, friars – and scrolling scripting borders with flowers and symbols for the various mendicant orders. But tucked between are critters: birds, jaguars, snakes, rabbits, fish. After R. photographs his stuff I photograph all of the animals. Here are some of my favorites…


Mexican muralanimals1

And of course as anyone who’s visited Mexico knows, the place is teeming with actual dogs. Our neighborhood is no different, starting with the abundance of roof-dwellers. When you wash your hands in our bathroom you can say hi to a boxer and her two puppies who live on the roof across the alley.
DSCN6574The roof dogs monitor passersby, which include a large number of street dogs. In Thailand the street dogs were more feral and traveled in packs, but here they work solo and I suspect have owners. Many wear collars or bandanas, and I’ll see the same dogs outside the same gates or businesses. Most can’t be bothered or distracted from the mission at hand, but at this point there are a few who recognize me as a friend and appreciate an ear scratch.

This is Ruby, who lives near the pyramid and sleeps in the sun from 7-9am before moving inside her house gate. She’s filthy and usually has to interrupt getting petted to scratch an itch.
RubyDogs like Ruby don’t make me sad because I know they have homes and owners. But sometimes it’s not so clear. A few weeks ago this puppy followed me home from the market, came through the gate, and then slept on our steps for hours. It was excruciating…

Street puppy

We’ve passed more than one dog at a taco stand or bus stop, only to have it bolt awake and escort us home, sometimes for a half mile or more. “They read the neighborhood newsletter,” R. says, “about the gringa in 104A who hands out affection.” He has concerns, not unfounded, that it will be hard to get out of this country without an adopted dog. I mean c’mon…look at that sleeping puppy. But for all of our sakes I’ll continue to try and get by with only a rotating cast of street dogs, supplemented by daily visits from Fantasmon the landlord’s cat.

Mexican pets

Other posts in the “Moving to Mexico” series:
At home in Cholula
Transporting a pet to another country
What to pack for a year abroad

Lining a knit blanket with fleece

We’re seeing less of the horrendous Laura-Ashley-esque flowered cushions on our two rental couches. One has been wearing the mini-quilt and the second is now draped with this big squishy knit blanket. Both irrefutable improvements to the look of the living room.
Big knit blanketI started with Purl Soho’s pattern for Fluffy Brioche Baby Blanket and a bag of closeout Yearling by Juniper Moon Farms. The pattern was easy and mindless, a welcome respite after the cables upon cables in Stonecutter.

Big knit blanketI added a 7-stitch icord border with some stashed thick/thin cotton, which  helped hold the blanket’s shape and provided nice contrast.

Then I blocked the blanket and was surprised at how much it grew. And draped. And became something not nearly as thick and squishy, which was the original appeal of the project. So I decided to attach a fleece backing. If there’s one thing you can find oodles of at Mexican fabric stores it’s fleece, so I had my pick of about 99 different colors and patterns. Bears? Roses? Apples? Bears holding roses and eating apples? Good or bad, I ended up with just a nice deep blue.

TECHknitting provides (no surprise) a great post on how to attach fleece to knits, complete with illustrations of the right type of hand-stitch to use. The only change I made was to fold the fleece under 1/2″, since I mistakenly chose a type that, while soft as a baby bunny, was prone to fraying along the cut edge (don’t make the same mistake…one of the biggest benefits to lining a blanket with fleece is that you shouldn’t have to treat the edges like you do with woven fabric).

Big knit blanketI sewed the fleece not to the blanket, but to the i-cord (see below). Once the thread was pulled snug, the lining tucked right against the i-cord edge. It looks very nice and the fleece layer definitely replaces whatever “big and squishy” properties were lost in blocking.

Big knit blanket
Big knit blanket

The mini-quilt

UntitledThe little quilt is done! And I love it. The rainy season in Mexico is about over and we can start using the clothesline with more confidence, so here it is drying amongst the bedsheets on our rooftop.

Pattern: Double-trouble block, machine-pieced and hand-quilted
Fabric: cotton scraps and a bedsheet for the back
Batting: Heirloom Cotton
Size: 32.5″ by 35.5″
Recipient: the back of our ugly rental couch

The project started purely as a way to de-stash – there’s a few dresses in there, a previous quilt, and some of my grandma’s fabric. I was making good progress last spring, but then things stalled out and this became a mini-quilt. Made for easier suitcase-packing anyway. It took a few weeks, but I finally figured out how I wanted to arrange the quilting stitches.

PicMonkey CollageWhile home in Ohio last week the goal was to finish the hand-quilting so that I could use my mom’s machine to attach the edging. I finished quilting around 7pm the night before my early morning flight. Oops. Never one to shy away from a project, my wonderful mother helped me pin, stitch, and press well into the evening. When the sewing machine wouldn’t behave she coaxed a back-up machine to life (it’s one of those inside-the-wooden-table White machines) and off we went.

UntitledI again pulled up this tutorial as a reminder on how to finish the edging. Highly recommended. I finished the hand-sewing part of the edge during two airport layovers the next day. And then voila! Now I’ll shift efforts to the knit blanket.



Dyeing fiber from a photograph

PicMonkey CollageI’ve been spinning up 8 oz. of merino and am loving the colors. All artistic credits go to Skeinnydipping, who dyed the fiber for me using this photo of the Oregon coast as inspiration. Isn’t it gorgeous?
UntitledI think I’ll probably end up with something close to 300 yards of light worsted. I wrote once before about my fondness for stripes and handspun, and I could see that working again here. But not necessarily. It’s such a playful colorway. Maybe the Summit scarf again?

What do you think the yarn wants to be? Any favorite handspun patterns that you’d like to share?


Stonecutters Cardigan

Stonecutters cardigan

LOVE this cardigan. I can’t button it over my big belly, but I think it will fit my non-pregnant self quite well. My parents visited Mexico a couple of weeks ago and my mom modeled for these photos before trying to steal the cardigan. While home in Ohio my Grandma tried to steal it too…so its appeal is at least universal with the women in my family.
Stonecutters cardigan
Stonecutters cardiganI bought two big hanks of undyed 100% merino yarn at Reinbeck years ago because it was soft and extremely affordable ($13.50 for 1322 yards). It sat undyed for a long while until skeinnydipping turned it into a gorgeous green/gray/blue.
Stonecutters cardigan
Here’s the link to its ravelry page
and below are some notes on construction:

Needle, Gauge, and Sizing: The yarn was thinner than that suggested by the pattern, so I used sz. 6 & 4 needles instead of 7 & 5. After checking gauge and doing the math, it looked like I should knit a Large to get something more like a finished Small. However, I noticed that most of the FOs in the photos were on the fitted side. Some users commented on how their FO turned out smaller than expected, and I wanted more of a menswear fit, so I ended up knitting the XL.

Shaping: My (nonpregnant) hips and waist sizes are about the same, so I omitted the waist shaping entirely.

Pockets: I thought the pocket size was a little tiny, especially with my smaller needle size. I wanted something functional, not just decorative, so mine are 28 sts wide (not 19) and 24 rows tall.

Collar: The pattern calls for attaching the front button bands and then knitting the collar. This creates a visible seam if your collar is lying open. I chose to knit the button bands with a provisional cast-on, attach them to the front, and then integrate their cast-on stitches into the picked-up collar stitches. You can see in the photos that this results in an invisible seam…definitely worth the effort I think.

Sleeves: Before knitting your sleeves, run the numbers and compare against your own measurements. Several other knitters have said their sleeves were too snug, and when I did the calculations I could see that they would’ve been too small for me too (I’d say my arms are normal size). For my reworked sleeves:
CO 48 sts
increased 2 sts every 12 rows until 56 total sts
increased 2 sts every 6 rows until 72 total sts
increased 2 sts every 12 rows until 78 total sts
BO 13 each side
decrease each side of every RS row until 33 sts
decrease every row until 13 total sts
BO remaining

Moving to Mexico: What to pack for a year abroad

“What to pack for a year abroad” was one of the phrases crowding my Google search last summer, and after a couple of months I can share some reflections on how our packing has held up to day-to-day life in another country. photo 2(1)As I posted last month, the thing I’ve missed the most is this elderly gentleman who unfortunately must stay behind with my parents. Right now I’m finishing up a fall visit home to see him. Here he is wearing a cutoff toddler t-shirt. It started as a way to keep him from licking a sore, but my mom noticed he enjoyed being dressed and bought a few more. Isn’t his neck roll adorable? Oh Sam. I’m not looking forward to telling him goodbye again.

P1080028Others who move internationally sometimes do so with financial help from the military or their employer, which makes it possible to ship furniture, housewares, etc. In this case any shipping costs would have come out of our pocket, so we found a furnished apartment through airbnb and were limited to one carry-on and two checked bags each (approximately 300 lbs. for the two of us). Above is what it all looked like at the ticket counter:

Both of us started with essentials/basics. This was not much different than what you’d pack for a long vacation. The one wrinkle was that I was 5 months pregnant and not sure what size I’d be in month 7 or 8, but the fact that I wouldn’t be working in Mexico (and could therefore resort to t-shirts and sweats if needed) helped. For this category I packed:
- 4 pairs of shoes (2 sandals, 1 converse, 1 running)
- underwear/socks/swimsuit
- 6 stretchy skirts/dresses
- 3 sweaters
- 12 tank/shortsleeve shirts
- 5 pairs of pants (2 jeans, 1 khaki, 1 legging, 1 yoga)
- toiletries/vitamins
- hair straightener
- laptop
- ipod
- camera
- passport/credit cards/copies of medical records


Next we focused on items that make a place feel like home. While it’s true that Mexico, like most countries, has all kinds of retailers and all kinds of options for making a furnished apartment liveable, I wanted the place to have some familiar everyday objects in it. I also didn’t want to be taking taxis and buses all over town, buying things that could have fit in our suitcases. So we started sorting the contents of our Boston apartment and asking: Do we use this item nearly every day? Is having it around worth the space and weight it will take up in our luggage? Here’s what made the cut:
- fitted sheets, mattress pad, pillow
- lightweight down comforter with cover
- 3 multipurpose tapestries (wall decoration, tablecloth, etc.)
- 3 kitchen towels
- 1 wall calendar
- 4 reusable cloth shopping bags
- a handful of hangers
- espresso pot/coffee grinder/5 lbs. of our favorite coffee
- my favorite mug
- my favorite big mason jar (that I use for drinking)
-  3 good knives (1 butcher, 1 paring, 1 serrated)
- small cast iron skillet
- kitchen shears
- 1 favorite metal spatula
**right before leaving we made a giant photo collage poster of our pets at Walgreens and I think it was the best $30 we spent making the place feel like home. We hung it up in the kitchen.**

And finally, we thought about leisure and hobbies. Most hobbies are specialized enough that it will be hard to recreate them in another place without some advanced planning. R. enjoys working out, but obviously his free weights couldn’t make the trip, so he invested in some high-quality resistance bands. In my case, it was all about the fiber and knitting. A friend was kind enough to lend me her portable spinning wheel for the year, and in addition to that I brought:
- 5 packs of fiber to spin
- 1 knitting noddy
- yarn stash for 1 sweater, 1 blanket, 2 cowls, 1 shawl
- knitting needles/yarn gauge/knitting notebook
- measuring tape
- 1 small quilt, pieced and pinned
- quilting needles/thread
- a Kindle (for easy access to plenty of reading material)fiber

So…how’d we do?
All in all, pretty well. Both of us had visited the area before, so we had a sense for the weather and the sort of things that are available at major stores. For example, R. knew that nobody in Mexico carries shoes for his giant feet so he’d need to pack a year’s worth of footwear. And I knew that cast iron pans just can’t be found in Puebla, so if I wanted one for my morning eggs it was worth the poundage to pack one.

If you’re not able to scout your new home ahead of time, I recommend searching the chatboards of your particular country on this expat site. Most have a thread about items that are difficult for Americans to find and/or things that expats wish they had packed. I’d read on the Mexico chatboard that people were disappointed in the selection (and prices) of bedding, so I decided to basically pack up all but our mattress. I’m so glad we did this. It meant that the very day we moved in to our apartment we could make up the bed just like we had it in Boston, and with the cool evening temperatures it’s been great having a down comforter.

What do we wish we’d packed?
Besides Samson and the cats? Well, I don’t think we could have fit anything more in our overstuffed suitcases, but there are certainly things I’m excited to pick up this week in Ohio. We also keep a little running list of things family members who visit can bring. Most are food related, and I think that just comes from getting tired of local flavor profiles and/or craving random items from home that we can’t find in Mexico. Among the things I’m bringing back are:
- 2 boxes of Trader Joe’s pumpkin pancake mix
- real maple syrup
- 1 jar molassas (for molassas cookies and for adding it to white sugar to make brown sugar, which you just can’t find)
- 2 packages Sour Patch Kids
- 1 bag peanut butter M&Ms
- Asian spice packets for stir-fry and fried rice
- 2 bottles Asian marinade
- A bigger cast iron pan (I just really don’t like the pots and pans in Mexico…they’re all aluminum or non-stick and nothing is very heavy)
- more yarn
- baby clothes…but that’s the start of an entirely different post about “minimalism and infant care” that I’ll write sometime in the spring…

Other posts in this series
- At home in Cholula
- Moving to Mexico: Transporting a pet to another country

A week in Oaxaca

Hierve El AguaOur week in Oaxaca was more a trip for me than for R’s research. Oaxaca has affordable intensive language schools and a strong fiber arts economy. I took advantage of both, and then together we capitalized on some unexpected Oaxaca perks, including strong coffee and really good french chocolate croissants (evidently we’re a little tired of tacos and mole), and some excellent mountain-top swimming at Hierve El Agua. Hierve El AguaLanguage school was that type of mental discomfort that you know is good for you. I think there’s like a graph-able enjoyment/pain curve that goes with tackling a big new skill. It shows up when teaching people to knit. In the very beginning you feel child-like joy (“I can list a whole bunch of nouns!” or “I’m actually knitting a washcloth!”) and that’s eventually replaced with equal parts determination and frustration once you learn just how far the road extends into the distance. Language school taught me a lot, but it also placed me squarely on the road where I got to see how far I am from Passably Mediocre.

Thankfully there was fiber stuff (plus those chocolate croissants) to help soothe the pain. I took a tour from a local nonprofit that gives microloans to women, and was able to visit the home workshops of local weavers. They hand-card the wool, handspin it, hand-dye it with indigo or plants, and then turn it into rugs and shawls on these big wooden floor looms. Obviously I asked all kinds of nerdy-fiber-loving questions during the Q & A sessions. R had the camera that day for a site visit, so I had to pull this photo off the internet, but it’s a good representation of what I got to see. teotitlan-magic-oaxaca-weaver

I bought one rug on the tour, although if I’d had more pesos I would’ve bought a few. This one was more expensive than others its size, but that’s because the pattern lines are more intricate. And I loved all of the undyed colors of wool. UntitledLater on the street in Oaxaca I bought a second rug, similar to the first in pattern but with this great dark green color and some reddish browns. The green, I was told, is from dyeing with alfalfa. UntitledYou will notice that a certain apartment cat is using the new rug for napping. Fantasmon is most definitely our adopted Mexican cat now…jumping in and out of the kitchen window as she pleases and meowing for scraps of chicken. She’s using as a pillow my latest knitting project, a big squishy cotton/wool blanket that’s almost done except for the attached i-cord border. Here’s a link to ravelry with the details. big squishy baby blanket Attached i-cord edge for baby blanket