The Afterlife According to Aztecs

So part of the elaborate display in downtown Mexico City devoted to Dia de los Muertos is an exhibit on the afterlife as perceived by the Aztecs and smaller tribes who lived in peace with them or were eventually conquered by them. Last night, I was in the Zocalo with a friend, Jesica, who is a tour guide and Mexican art history expert. She explained it all to me. It is truly lovely hearing about a different concept of the afterlife — it’s intentional that I don’t use terms like “heaven” and “hell” because many of the traditional groups in Mexico did not perceive life after death as a place where you go either to be punished or revered. It had more to do with how you died and what your social status was, than what sort of moralistic-based “sins” you committed on earth. As an agnostic, I appreciate that.

Here are four layers of afterlife (there are roughly about 13), as followed by the Nahuatl speaking Aztecs (many, if not most, modern-day Mexico City residents are descended from this group; Nahuatl is still spoken here in outlying areas). Mexico City was originally a great Aztec city as late as the 1500s.

This is a depiction of where the majority of people went after they died. It’s crowded and you’re anonymous, but there are gods nearby.

A close-up of what the afterlife was like for most people.

If you died a water-related death, you went to this layer, which was presided over by the god Tlaloc, who you can see there in the back. As you can imagine, water played an important role in the valley of Mexico: Tenochtitlan, the former city, was surrounded by water.

A special layer of the afterlife was reserved for two heroic groups of people: Aztec warriors and women who died in childbirth. She is giving birth here. I especially love how warriors are grouped with women giving birth. Beautiful.

Babies and children also had their own layer.

When the babies died, they were surrounded by fruit trees that had fruit shaped like breasts that they could eat. Maternal figures watched.

Dia de los Muertos for City Commuters

Getting around Mexico City is complicated — there’s subways, buses, taxis, cars and more. The average Chilango spends a lot of time just trying to get somewhere, so it’s no surprise that the transit department sponsored a few altars and exhibitions at this week’s Dia de los Muertos Mexico City festivities. As a resident, it’s fun to see a subway car or bus turned into a makeshift altar/cemetery.

(I think the underground trains make for great symbolism — much of the great ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan is still remaining to be unburied, and during excavations for subway expansion, more ruins are often found. The Aztecs believed in nine circles of an underworld (not the same as hell — people didn’t go there to suffer after they died) and several layers in the sky too (more on their concepts of “afterworld” in a post later today).)

Also, because this is a big and chaotic city, it’s not unusual for someone to die because of commuting. Bus accidents are common, and I’ve lost count of the taxi accidents I’ve seen.

This guy's had a long day at the road construction site!

This guy's had a long day at the road construction site!

Where this one stops, nobody knows.

Where this subway car stops, nobody knows.

A very patient lady waits for the light to change.

A very patient lady waits for the light to change.

I board the bus to....the afterlife.

I board the bus to....the afterlife.

Friends Jesica and Erik are not so sure about the bus driver.

Friends Jesica and Erik are not so sure about the bus driver.

A straphanger holds on.

A straphanger holds on.

Not your typical bus ride.

Not your typical bus ride.

Oh, I Love Shopping in Mexico: Recent Bargain Aquisitions

It’s been awhile since I posted the cool stuff I buy in Mexico. Here ya go, with a noticeable “Dia de los Muertos” theme to it…

This is a reproduction of a Mexican Colima dog. The real ones are housed only in museums and by savvy collectors. I found this guy in Queretaro, Mexico. He cost around $7 bucks, I think. He’s holding an ear of corn in his mouth – ’cause they like their corn down here, you know?

This is a hand-blown glass heart. I bought it in Tlaxcala, Mexico. It’s from the state of Jalisco. It cost $120 pesos, or about $10.50 in U.S. dollars. I still haven’t figured out where (or how) to hang it, but I know I want the light to hit it — it really sparkles beautifully. In Tlaxcala, the store that sells these created an entire tree out of these, which I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

This is a skeleton driving a donkey cart that’s carrying a coffin. It cost about a dollar. From Toluca.

The Virgin de Guadalupe with tons of glitter surrounding her. Also about a dollar and from Toluca.

I keep this little lady under my computer monitor to remind myself to not spend too much time at the computer. To see a squirrel/veterinarian version of this, go here. She was cheap ($1.50) and from Toluca.

I found this glass candle votive at a little flea sale at the beauty salon right by my apartment. I now own about 5 pieces of blue glass, and I plan to keep collecting more. This cost $1 as well.

Photos: Into the Valley of Fire, Nevada

Brendan crosses the endless waves of sandstone.

Brendan crosses the endless waves of sandstone.

During our brief trip to Las Vegas, we decided to go hiking at the nearby Valley of Fire State Park. The place is gorgeous, in the way that the moon is gorgeous: eerie, sparse, oozing and hostile. I loved it, but even in late October, the heat was a bit like walking into an oven with the broil setting on.

The thing I like best about the Western U.S. is the geology. Millions of years ago, were these fantastic shapes created in only a few days’ time? The globular simplicity of the land against the sky is also disorienting: Some of these photos below are of giant rock structures, but without a human or other recognizable object, it’s hard to assess the scale of them. What looks like a mile may be only a few feet, and vice versa.

Layers of shades of orange.

Layers of shades of orange.

It is easy to anthropomorphize the rock. Do you see the skull?

It is easy to anthropomorphize the rock. Do you see a side view of a skull in here? I do.

It's similar to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but with far less vegetation.

It's similar to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but with far less vegetation and a lot more grilling heat.

Strange vertical lines crisscross with the more typical horizontal lines in the sandstone.

Strange dual-vertical lines crisscross with the more typical horizontal lines in the sandstone.

While hot, standing out in the desert is cooler than standing out in a parking lot in Las Vegas, where the asphalt radiates heat.

While hot, standing out in the desert is cooler than standing out in a parking lot in Las Vegas, where the asphalt radiates heat. Note the small state park road in the middle of this photo.

Do You Like My Sugar Skulls?

Sugar skulls for sale in Toluca, Mexico.

Sugar skulls for sale in Toluca, Mexico.

For the second year in a row, I visited the fantabulous Alfenique (sugar skull market) in Toluca, Mexico. This weekend I had the pleasure of going with a great group of friends — all of whom we’ve met only in the past year! Because of my extensive *cough* experience with Alfenique (I went for four hours last year), I played Tour Guide to Toluca. It’s a job I could get into, especially this time of year.

Enough about us, though, the market is the true star. Candy vendors from all over Central Mexico set up booths for Dia de los Muertos goodies, from ornate sugar skulls to chocolate lollipops. You can get high blood sugar just by walking the aisles of the mercado. I, of course, heard the call of the sweet tooth and started snacking while shopping.  It was all over when my friend Dyana convinced me to try a coffee-cup-sized marshmallow dipped in milk chocolate and nuts: Death never seemed so tasty.

Ah, Mexico. Never fails to make for a good set of photographs. Let’s take a look!

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Pros and Cons of Working at Home in Mexico City


The home office is still an office.

“How do you like working at home?” …”in Mexico City?”

Like everything in life, it has its pros and cons.

– No commute, except the 8-second walk from bedroom to home office. (8 with coffee, 20 without).
– Dog is always available for petting.
– I can listen to music and sing along very loudly.
– I can control the room temperature to my exact needs. No more frozen toes.
– No one can see the faces I make at them.
– I am learning amazing self-discipline skills because I want to keep receiving a paycheck.
– I can wear PJs and not brush my teeth (*see cons).
– I can run errands relatively easy (*see cons).
– I can talk to myself (*see cons) and no one thinks it’s crazy.

Pros (Mostly) Exclusive to Working at Home in Mexico City

– This is one of the quirkiest and kookiest places on earth, so it’s never boring, even when I’m just watching la gente from my desk in my 5th-floor apartment.
– I can watch hummingbirds year-round.
– My view consists of palm trees, many entertaining pedestrians and hot pink, orange and royal blue houses.
– I can eat tacos al pastor and tortas for lunch.
– Year-round highs of 70-75 degrees and lows of 55-60 degrees (for the most part except the winter).
– Several cafes in my neighborhood have wireless, if I get tired of the home office.
– I am just a few steps from a very well-maintained park.
– I can afford domestic help to clean up the mess (*see cons exclusive to Mexico)
– Occasionally there are marimba musicians who know more songs than “Cielito Lindo” (*see cons exclusive to Mexico)


– No lunches or happy hours with co-workers.
– I don’t really control my own schedule, since I have to keep the schedule of both my co-workers in NYC and my husband (no escape from the alarm clock — I really think “working at home” should come with an obligatory policy of no alarm clocks).
– If I am not careful, I can easily miss out on learning new work concepts/tasks that can’t easily be conveyed over the phone or online.
– It feeds an addiction to Facebook and email, since they’re sometimes my only human interaction.
– Meaning, at times, working at home is incredibly lonely. Some workdays I only leave the house to walk the dog and take out the trash.
– But those workdays are better than the workdays I have to buy groceries (I hate small, cramped grocery stores like hell-on-earth Superama in Condesa).
– The dog sometimes wants more attention than I want to give
– I still get carpal tunnel
– I don’t have peer pressure to keep me from doing things I normally wouldn’t do in an office, like drink from the milk carton
– *I worry I now talk to myself too much when people are around
– *Because I’m at home, I get “honey-do’s” that I normally wouldn’t get asked to do.
– *I have no real need to shower, meaning sometimes I don’t.

Cons (Mostly) Exclusive to Working at Home in Mexico City

– Car alarms randomly going off all day that make me contemplate the limits of my sanity, and propensity for criminal behavior.
– “No solicitation” is not a concept here. People ring the doorbell for random, bullshit reasons at least four times a day.
– Working in English all day is incredibly counter-productive to learning Spanish.
– Hard to order office supplies when you don’t know the words for them.  Or the needed words to make phone calls to complain about crappy internet wirless service (I’m talking to you, Cablevision).
– *I end up worrying my domestic help thinks I’m crazy when I laugh at a funny IM or email from a co-worker. Or when I’m editing something particularly graphic (I edit health information). Or when I use Skype and look like I’m talking to my computer.
– *Hearing “Cielito Lindo” everyday because most of the street musicians refuse to play anything else.