Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Party Central

Somebody may have already made this observation at some point in the past, but I'm here to tell you that Mexicans like to party. From what I've been told, this is a Latin-America wide phenomenon, but Mexican parties are the only Latin American parties I have personal experience with. It doesn't really matter if the party in question is a birthday party, a baptism, a wedding, or a Christmas party, they all follow the same general format. Parties with a religious or ritual theme are more likely to be preceded by a Mass, that's all.

With the single exception of a bachelorette party I once attended, all parties are all-ages. Children are welcomed and included no matter the hour... nobody ever puts a Mexican child to bed. Not that I've ever seen. Babies fall asleep in arms and toddlers fall asleep on laps and school age children occasionally fall asleep on the floor and are carried out to the car. More often, they don't fall asleep and are running around like hyperactive wind-up toys, jacked on candy and Coca-Cola, until midnight.

Because all Mexican parties last until AT LEAST midnight. Even if they start at 11 a.m. The guests will be arriving in staggered waves over the course of several hours, and the hosts just keep clearing and resetting the table. Sometimes the food or the booze runs out but not usually because every guest will bring something, either to eat or to drink. A bakery cake; a case of Corona; a raft of multicolored jello parfaits in disposable cups. Non-edible gifts are also given (it's very poor form to be invited to a party and to show up without a gift, be it ever so humble), as are guitars and other musical instruments.

A little guitar music in the wee hours

At least at our house, cleaning up is left for the next day. If I start to bustle around picking up empties and wiping down surfaces, my mother-in-law or sister-in-law will come over and literally grab me by the arm back to the party. "We'll do that tomorrow," they say. And as the night wears on, the combination of fatigue and tequila really does make it advisable to avoid carrying armloads of glassware around. It's a tradeoff - liberating in the moment to remain completely oblivious of the mess, but an extra big drag the next morning, to face with a hangover a house that looks like it was sacked by Huns.

The week leading up to Christmas is a big party week everywhere, but it was especially big at our house because of our anniversary. For a while, Homero and I thought we would be getting married on our anniversary, the 22nd. Yes, we are already married, but we don't have a Mexican marriage license and as I try to get my Mexican citizenship, it would be good to have one. For complicated bureaucratic reasons that will be the subject of a later post, we didn't get Mexican-married and won't be. However, I'd already ordered three full-sides of pork ribs for the giant American style barbecue party I intended to throw. So we called it an anniversary party and went on with the show. Barbecue is easier to pull off here than traditional Thanksgiving dinner, that's for sure. It was a hit, although everyone called the barbecue sauce "mole."

That was Saturday. The next day, the family came back over for the "recalentada," or the leftovers. We ended up spending the whole day sitting around the table picking at ribs and finishing up the beers. No serious cleaning happened at all. Towards dark, I gathered up all the empties and scraped the plates and stacked them in the sink, but I had no energy for more. That was Sunday. The next day, Monday, was of course Christmas Eve (Noche Buena). Abuelita Adelina, Homero's grandmother, hosted that party, as she usually does. More family, more presents, more roast chicken, potato salad, tres leches cake, and more beer. Fireworks, dogs going crazy, church bells ringing. Another late night.

One of many pinatas
I told the girls that they could get up as early as they wanted to see what Santa put in their stockings, but they'd better not DARE touch the presents under the tree until we had woken up of our own accord and were seated on the couch with hot coffee in our hands. That turned out to be about 9 o'clock. A lovely hour was passed watching the girls open their gifts. This is the year of the chemistry set - one of the few decent options I was able to find at the local bog box stores. Mostly they are a wasteland of cheap, beeping plastic and TV themed synthetic fabrics. At the Mercado I was able to find some awesome bamboo pea-shooters, and those were a big hit. We had time for a brief nap before the whole family came over again for yet another carne asada.

The girls seem a bit perplexed by the chemistry set
Late in the afternoon I had had my fill and went upstairs to make a few phone calls to my family and friends. For the first time in a week I was alone in a room. I got fifteen minutes, then my daughter came in and said "Papa says come back downstairs."

"I'll be down in fifteen minutes," I told her.

Five minutes later, up comes Homero. "People are asking about you! Why aren't you downstairs?"

I was a little snappy, I'm afraid. "Because I'm ready for a freaking break!" I think is what I answered. Now, I have a break, for a few days. On the thirty-first, we are heading out into the mountains for a two-day New Year's party in the ancestral pueblo. I'm sure it'll be a blast.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Visiting Daughter (Temascal)

This is my oldest daughter, Rowan. She is nearly nineteen, and as you can see, utterly gorgeous. Rowan did not come with us to Mexico, because she is just starting university. A talented artist, she's planning on the design program at Western Washington. 

It wasn't easy leaving Rowan behind. I left her in a pretty good position; a free roof over her head, a closet full of dry goods, paid up health and car insurance, and a small monthly stipend. Objectively and rationally speaking, she is sitting fairly pretty. But still, when one sends one's firstborn child off into the world to fend for herself, one doesn't usually imagine that she will be five thousand miles away and that, should the unthinkable happen, one couldn't rush to her side in less than three days. 

Rowan has been coping on her own for five months now, and doing it handsomely. I am inordinately proud of her. We missed her so much, we decided to fly her down here for the week before Christmas, while she is on break. Rowan has been visiting Oaxaca with some regularity since she was 7 years old, and there isn't a whole lot around here she hasn't seen. One tradition which neither of us have experienced, however, is the temescal. 

The temescal is basically a steam bath. As in many other cultures, a steam bath is used to purify and purge the body of toxins. Always, a temascalero/a is in charge of the procedure/ceremony. That person - most often an elderly lady versed in herb lore - is in charge of building the fire and heating the temascal to the right temperature; of interviewing the clients and choosing the right herbs for their needs; and of actually conducting the ceremony, which involves joining the clients inside the temascal and singing and praying while gently cleansing them by beating them with bundled herbs, which are them thrown onto the hot rocks to produce fragrant, medicinal steam. 

This particular temascal is located quite near our house. It has a lovely garden, and a whole house with various rooms devoted to various parts of the temascal ritual. There is an antechamber with a gorgeous altar, where clients disrobe and may have a few minutes to themselves to meditate and ask the powers that be for help in their particular cases. I can't reveal my daughter's petition, but I asked to be relieved of my impatience, of my restlessness and discontent. 

After an hour in the temascal, which is all anyone could possibly stand, we were led into another room and laid down on white-draped mattresses for a massage. It was a very thorough and not particularly gentle massage. I asked what style it was, from what tradition, and was told "indigenous." Apparently that means being pummeled to within an inch of one's life by a well-muscled middle aged stout Indian lady. I loved every minute of it. As soon as we could move again, we were given warm herbal tea and released to dress ourselves and wander about in the garden until our taxi came. 

The entrance to the temascal. 

We were left as limp as rag dolls, relaxed nearly into insensibility. This particular temascal, as enjoyable as it was, was clearly run mostly for foreign tourists. The temascalera did a fine and serviceable job, but she wasn't a professional curandera. I still hope to experience a true old fashioned temascal run by a curandera - not as a spa experience but as a medical/spiritual treatment. Perhaps up in the pueblo, come new year's. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Party for the La Lupita

"Lupita" is the nickname for Guadalupe, and the twelfth of December is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas and beloved mother of Mexico. Festivities begin a week in advance and culminate in huge street parties and fireworks with marching bands and dancing giant puppets. These festivals are called "Candelas." 

We happen to live across the street from a small church dedicated to the V. of G., and so of course we attended the candela. Fireworks like these are not to be missed. 

I hope the above video works. It shows the last portion of the burning of the castillo - an amazing, sixty-to-seventy foot structure made of bamboo (I think). It had six separately rotating wheels with designs on them - doves, hearts, stars, and in this case, Mickey Mouse. A Giant wheel on the front rotates along a different axis, and this one was a spiral that was truly wonderful. And lastly, at the top, yet another rotating wheel spells out in words of fire "Viva La Lupita 2012." 

Compare the height of the castillo to the telephone pole on the right. It's easily four stories high. 

Alas, I didn't get any good pictures of the toritos ... the castillo is the main event, but before that, there are several toritos, which are paper mache and bamboo bulls decorated with fireworks and made to be worn over the head. Volunteers wear the bulls, set them alight, and dance around, charging the crowd and spinning. You can see the bull in the background to the left.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Little Fat Doggie Museum

Oaxaca has a museum with a stunning collection of pre-hispanic art, mostly ceramics. It's the Rufino Tamayo museum, named for a famous Oaxacan artist who amassed a truly impressive collection. There is also a Rufino Tamayo museum of pre-hispanic art in Mexico city, and although I have never visited it, I can only assume it is even more impressive. 

The Oaxacan museum is housed in Tamayo's former home, a beautiful colonial house which was once the headquarters of the Spanish inquisition in Oaxaca. I didn't realize the inquisition had branch colleges, so to speak, but apparently so. Of course it makes sense - why abandon a fully developed infrastructure and thousands of trained personnel with exactly the requisite skills to keep a large, untrustworthy subordinate population in hand?

The museum represents a large swath of regions and time periods, and so few generalizations can be made. However, I will say that one of the characteristics I noticed that seemed to be present in almost every epoch and region was a marvelous, playful sense of humor. Humor is perhaps the most subjective of characteristics, and it is possible, of course, that the ancients who created this art found it to be of the utmost gravity. But seriously. I dare you not to find the following pieces even a little bit funny. 

The first photo ought to adequately explain the title of this post: it is not the only little fat doggie in the place. In fact there is an entire room dedicated to little fat doggies, which Mexicans call "esquincles." The dog, along with the turkey, the duck, and the bee, was one of the very few domesticated animals the ancient Mexicans possessed. In pre-hispanic Mexico there were no beasts of burden, no milk animals, and precious few reliable sources of protein. The main one was the esquincle. These small dogs, of whom the Chihuahua is the modern descendent, were raised and fattened for meat. If the artistic evidence is to be taken as historical fact, they were fed corn and even breast-fed by women. My children named the museum the "little fat doggie museum" after those statues which most held their interest.

This goggly-eyed character above reminds me forcefully of a certain cartoon character, but I can't come up with it. Anybody?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bad News from Home

Last wednesday, our neighbor S., who is the technician for our water association, knocked on the door of our house back home to let the renters know that the meter was indicating a big leak somewhere. The renters called us down here in Oaxaca, and I called a local plumbing contractor to see if he could figure things out. 

In the week or so that has elapsed since, the situation has progressed from "you got a pretty big leak somewhere" to full on plumbing armageddon. The contractor walked the property and could see no signs of a leak (of course, it's the height of the wet season so telltale signs like boggy spots would be invisible). He concluded it was deep down somewhere and that they would need to deploy the big guns: heavy equipment that blows air through the pipes and "listens" for leaks. 

That was thousand dollars numero uno. And it brought us bad news. We had a big leak all right, in the water intake somewhere under our wraparound deck. We also had other significant leaks pretty much all along the old water lines running out to the animals and to the old RV hookups. Long and short of it is, all those old lines had long outlived their useful life, and it was time to cap them all off and replace the intake lines completely, from the road. That would be thousands of dollars numeros too many to think about. 

That's bad enough - but it gets so much worse. The sump pump had failed, and the crawlspace had flooded completely, ruining the insulation wrapping the ducts and destroying the air intake for the furnace. That sump pump was installed by my husband after it failed the last time. When the contractor said "it looks like it was more of handyman job," I kept my lip zipped. I expect my reward in heaven for that moment of restraint, I really do. 

The sump pump needs to be relocated in a different part of the crawlspace, a new drainrock basin dug, and lots of more contractor-speak that I can't remember. I was going into shock by then, I think. That job would be thousands of dollars numero "we don't have them." The sump pump is getting jimmy-rigged and we will address at some point in the future. At that point, whenever it should come to pass, the situation will be addressed by a professional. 

This isn't even the end of the saga. Because the old lines were laid down at different points in the house's seventy year history by several different people, they were laid all crazy and tied into the house line at all different points. The plumbers tried to run in a temporary patch so that the renters would have water while they worked on the issue, but as it turned out, the line they patched into only runs to the hot water heater. All they had was hot water, and no flushing toilets. They didn't actually tell me that for two days. By the time they called again, they had no water and no heat (duct work). I apologized, saying I had no idea it would be so disruptive and they should feel free to go to a hotel for a few days until it was all over and deduct it from the rent. 

Thank god for P., my daughter's boyfriend. He has been our eyes on the ground, taking pictures and sending to me via Facebook (that's how I got these). He asks the questions I send him and sends me the answers. According to Phil, the whole team has been on site since 8 am this morning and full restoration is expected by the end of the working day.

As hard as it has been to coordinate this from Oaxaca, I am really so glad I am here and not there. If I were at home, I'd be in a permanent tizzy and probably have to take a valium. Or six. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in Oaxaca

Thanksgiving was a few days ago for us. I wanted to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for my family, but since it isn't celebrated here (although Mexicans do know about "el dia del pavo," as they call it) we decided we might as well move it up a few days to coincide with my mother-in-law's birthday. Invitations were issued, and my husband took me out shopping to try to find as many ingredients as we could.

The first item on the list was, of course, the turkey. Here in the land where that bird was domesticated, it didn't occur to me that it would be difficult to find one, but it turned out to be almost impossible. The major grocery stores we visited had whole, frozen birds, but they were all smoked, pre-cooked. I didn't want one of those. For one thing  I had no idea what to do with it, and for another no idea what it would taste like. We went to specialty butchers - no luck. In desperation, I asked Homero if he would be willing to butcher a turkey for me, since I knew we could find a live one. He said he would, but first let's try one more place. The last place we tried (a major supermarket with no equivalent in the states) had a frozen, imported "natural" turkey, but it weighed 12 and a half kilos, or about 27 pounds. I'd never tackled a bird that size before, but I had no choice. We took it home, submerged it in warm water (which quickly became freezing cold water) in a large ice chest, and headed back out to find the other items on my list.

I wanted sage for the stuffing. I wanted russet potatoes - Idaho potatoes, the most common kind - for mashed potatoes. I wanted a sugar pie pumpkin, or something like it. I wanted orange sweet potatoes, the kind marketed as "garnet yams" at home. I couldn't find any of those things, even at the Mercado de Abastos, where you can find pirated DVDs even before the movies are out in theaters, or a brujo to put a curse on your lover's wife, or a chicken who tells your fortune. I went home with the local white fleshed sweet potatoes, with bundles of dried herbs, and with a giant bag of green beans. We decided on birthday cake instead of pumpkin pie. As I was cooking by myself, I wasn't really disappointed with not having to make pie crust on top of everything else.

Cranberries, strangely, were easy enough. I made the exact same cranberry relish I make at home: a bag of fresh berries boiled with sugar, grated ginger, and orange juice.

Anxiously we kept changing the water in the cooler, pouring out the cold water and pouring over boiling water, trying to thaw the turkey in time. Sunday morning, my alarm went of at 5 am, and I pulled a fully thawed bird out of the cooler and proceeded to stuff it with dressing - no sage but plenty of oregano, thyme, and rosemary, along with celery and onions. I rubbed garlicky herb butter under the skin and put it to bake in Mama's gas oven, which is calibrated in Celsius. I didn't feel like doing math that early in the morning (is it 5/9ths or 9/5ths?) so I just put it on the lowest setting and went back to sleep for another couple of hours.

Later that morning I went back to work. The sweet potatoes baked up nicely, but very dry, and absorbed a massive amount of butter and milk. I made the gravy with turkey drippings, flour, stock, and beer.  It came out fantastic. Mexicans have no such sauce as gravy, not being given to pan sauces or roasting of any kind except pit-roasting, which doesn't yield any drippings. Although a little mystified, everybody loved it and the gravy disappeared faster than anything else on the table. The green beans I simply boiled and dressed with olive oil and a balsamic vinegar I brought back with me from my last trip home. Mama brought storebought rolls.

The giant turkey emerged from the oven at four, after some eleven hours in the oven. It was perfect (see photo above). I don't think I've ever made a better turkey. It was deeply browned, done to a turn but not falling apart or dry. Cooked on a bed of rosemary and thyme and surrounded by roast onions and carrots, the smell was amazing. Homero did a very creditable job of carving, too.

As is customary, guests dribbled in over several hours. We started with one set of guests at about 5 pm, and a few hours later there was a whole different set of guests. The third, last contingent arrived around nine in the evening and found scant pickings, but that is understood to be a risk of arriving late - as are tipsy hosts. I, having got up so early,  staggered off to bed about ten o clock, but the party went on without me. Until the wee hours.

At my mother's house, back in the States, cleanup begins directly after dinner, and by the time the coffee is served, the kitchen is immaculate again. The morning after our Thanksgiving, I went downstairs to a scene that resembled the sack of Troy. Bones everywhere. Gravy smears on the tablecloth. The remains of an enormous cake that looked like it had been attacked by animals. Plates and cups scattered about the floor. Half empty beer bottles. Absolutely no effort whatsoever had been made to clean up, everyone has simply up and left, leaving it all for the next day.

And you know what? Nobody died. The house was not overrun by giant mutant rats. By the time I had put on a pot of coffee and - ok I admit - picked over the ruins of the cake a little bit, the family had slowly emerged from their rooms and everyone pitched in together. By ten o clock - allright, noon, say - the house was back to pre-party levels of cleanliness. I must say, I like this way better.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Walls (Photos)

Walls have a very important place in Mexican life, and I think, from what I have gathered, that they always have. The enclosed courtyard was a feature of Spanish (and before that, Moorish) architecture  and was handed down to colonial Mexico, of course, but I am looking into the meaning and importance of walls and private spaces in pre-hispanic life as well. 

On a purely aesthetic note, I find the walls of Oaxaca to be extremely beautiful, whether carefully catalogued and tended or gorgeously neglected. I especially like to take pictures of saints and icons set into the walls of public buildings: 

San Fransisco, I think

Jesus, in a gorgeous royal blue niche.

I love the archeological layers revealed by an ancient wall's weathering... This wall has lost it's stucco and reveals brick and stone underpinning. It is a parking garage.

Homero in front of a cliff wall painted with petrogylphs near his home village of Santa Maria Intundujia.

A catalogued wall downtown, losing its stucco. 

A wall made of cantera, with bricked up windows. 

A close up of an interior wall in Mitla, prehispanic site near Oaxaca. This was a priestly habitation, and the walls are of mosaic.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Beach (Puerto Angel, Huatulco, Mazunte)

 Last week, we took a quick three-day trip out to the coast. Oaxaca city is not on the coast, it is on a high plateau inside a giant ring of mountains in the middle of the state. To get to the coast, you have to drive about 250 kilometers through those mountains. The road, while a lot better paved than it was fifteen years ago, is still just as twisty as ever. The drive takes about six hours, and somebody usually throws up. Every time I make that drive, I wonder anew how much it would cost to fly.

Even so, the beach is worth the trip. On this trip, we visited a few old favorite places and a few places we had never seen before. Especially, the short stretch of beachfront road between Puerto Angel and Mazunte was wonderful. Mazunte is home to the Sea Turtle museum, which we arrived at a few minutes after closing time. Homero bribed the guard to let us take a quick run through. A couple miles further up the coast, we went to see the crocodile hatchery.

 In fact it's much more than a crocodile hatchery - it's a small animal sanctuary built and organized by the local villagers without government assistance. We took a rowboat through a mangrove swamp, where there were many crocodiles (actually I believe they are American Alligators, but I'm not sure.) and many colorful iguanas in the trees. On a small island in the swamp the locals have built a little zoo - here they bring injured wildlife, or animals confiscated from the illegal pet trade and nurse them back to health and rerelease them into the wild. A few animals cannot be rehabilitated and are on the island for life, like a very mischievous spider monkey. Other animals we saw here were a river otter, a coati (looks like a cross between a raccoon and an anteater), and several small, short haired deer. They call them white-tailed deer but they are actually a different, tropical species.

Whenever the locals come across a sea-turtle nest, they move it to the sanctuary to hatch in safety. There are still plenty of people in Mexico who hunt nests to eat the eggs, and of course there are the dangers of other predators, extreme high tides, and vehicles driving over the nests. We were lucky enough to arrive on a day that a nest had hatched. In the evening, an old man brought a milk crate full of 92 newborn baby gulf turtles down to the beach, and invited us all (about twelve tourists from four different countries) to take a handful of turtles and set them down facing the waves. Over the next hour, the little things made their way slowly into the water, repeatedly getting washed back up onto the beach, often upside down. It was heart-stopping. I couldn't stand the suspense - I wanted to pick them all up and chuck them into the water. As the sun went down, that's what we eventually did wuith the dozen or so who didn't make it on their own. 

Sunset on the beach near Mazunte. 

Ivory enjoys the sand.

On our last day, we went to our favorite beach for snorkeling, La Entrega in Hualtulco. The waters are clear and there is plenty of coral and many many colorful fish. The coral looks to have been through a pretty severe bleaching event since the last time I was there, though. I hope it recovers. Huatulco is the quintessential Mexican beach town, and offers all the things you expect to find on the beach, including strolling ladies who will braid your hair (or your children's hair) for 100 pesos. Paloma and Hope took advantage of this service. I did not. 

I hope we go back to the coast again while we are here. There is so much more to see than I was aware of. There are ruins, caves, jungle tours on horses, waterfalls, and much more. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca (Photos)

In Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead is a three day holiday, beginning on the 31st, which is the last day people have to get their altars set up, and continuing through the next two nights. It is pretty much a non-stop party. Everywhere you go, streets will be closed down for parades (comparsas) with marching bands and dancing children. Every single business, no matter how humble, has an altar set up with candles and fruit. There are endless exhibitions and public events. 

Today I went to Zaachila with a small group of families who were showing an international guest around town. I went as interpreter - pretty sweet gig. I get my entrance paid to events and archeological zones and I get invited to lunch and all I have to do is interpret everything as best I can. Along main street in Zaachila - a lovely little pueblo which will be the subject of a future "day tripping" column - people were setting up an exhibition of tapetes. Tapetes means "rugs" and my last column was about buying real rugs in Teotitlan, but these are sand rugs. We arrived early, which was a plus, as we were able to see how the tapetes were made. 

Hope and Paloma were invited to several comparsas - parades held by schools or community groups. Children are expected to go in costume, and almost everyone goes as a skeleton or a Caterina. Here is Bibi as the world's most adorable little dead person. 

My household altar, before the dog stole the bread off of it. This is really a very simple altar - many people put up amazingly complex and beautiful constructions. 

A few weeks ago, we visited the ruins of Huitzol, and to get there we had to drive right through this small, rural cemetery. I thought it was incredibly beautiful, and also very strange to an American. 

In contrast, here is the cemetery in Zaachila, decorated for the Day of the Dead. Tonight, this place will be filled to the brim with families, bringing food, drink, and music. The party will go on till dawn. 

The markets are full of flower sellers at this time of year. Marigolds are called cemptlasuchil in Zapotec, and their strong, astringent scent is everywhere. I loved this photo of a flower seller in the market at Zaachila. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Daytripping (Teotitlan del Valle)

About 45 minutes from Oaxaca, on the way to Mitla, is the beautiful little town of Teotitlan del Valle. Like other towns in the area, the people are mostly Zapotec, and Zapotec is spoken in the streets almost as much as Spanish. The town itself is attractive, nestled into the big green hills that line the valley of Oaxaca, with steep cobbled streets and a lovely if not particularly distinguished church. 

Teotitlan is mainly famous for one thing, and that is the beautiful weaving done here. For centuries or perhaps millenia the zapotec people have been accomplished spinners and weavers. Of course, there were no sheep in Mexico before the Spanish arrived, so they worked with cotton rather than wool. Today the best tappets and sarapes are made from the wool of local sheep. 

This handbuilt spinning wheel is in a museum (community museum of Santa Ana del Valle, a few miles away and worth a visit), but I saw many of the exact same design in the shops and home based businesses I visited. They are used standing up, and the wheel is turned by hand rather than with a pedal. I also saw some wheels ingeniously made from old bicycles. 

Most weavers also do their own dyeing, mostly with local plants. Traditionally no synthetic dyes are used. This señora is showing us the plants they use, and giving a demonstration of the many colors that can be extracted from the cochineal insect, native to Mexico and a great source of treasure for the Spanish, being the only colorfast natural dye in blood-red. 

It is highly recommended that serious buyers of textiles get out of Oaxaca City and head for Teotitlan or Santa Ana. Prices will be half of that in the tourist markets of Oaxaca, and you will have the chance to meet the artists and see them at work, not to mention enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and beautiful scenery of rural Oaxaca. I couldn't help myself - I bought this gorgeous blue tapete from the artist herself, pictured here with her creation. This is Dona Juana, who has been weaving tapetes for over fifty years and is a true master of her craft. It gives me great pleasure to be able to support a true family industry, and help in a small way to ensure that this traditional knowledge lasts for another generation. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Day-tripping (Mitla)

There are any number of places to visit within a few hours drive of Oaxaca de Juarez.  Los Valles Centrales, or the Central Valleys, are full of gorgeous scenery; myriad small towns with beautiful, ancient churches and zocalos to visit; and endless examples of fine craftsmanship in every medium from clay to textiles. There are pre-hispanic ruins and there are opulent buffets. 

I've been here many times and made many daytrips from Oaxaca, and I've barely scratched the surface of places to visit. In the coming posts, I'll try to lay out a few possible trips, with photos, depending on your interests. One of my favorite daytrips from Oaxaca is Mitla. 

Mitla is a world heritage site, and one of the largest and most interesting pre-hispanic archeological sites in Oaxaca. The entire modern day town of Mitla was built right beside and largely on top of the old town, and as was their habit, the Spanish built their church directly on the ruins of the ancient temple, and largely using its stone. 

Church of San Pablo, with ancient foundations in foreground

The archeological zone, which costs about $3.50 to visit, is directly adjacent to the church, and covers an area of perhaps 30 or 40 acres. It is well worth hiring a guide. They hang out in the shade under the largest tree in the upper plaza as you enter. Look for a guide with an official laminated card showing he is certified by the state historical society. Unless, of course, you are more interested in learning the local people's oral traditions regarding the site, which most likely do not square with the archeological record. 

The unique feature of Mitla is the marvelously preserved mosaics facing most of the buildings. These are not reconstructed; they are original. They are not bas relief, which is what I thought when I saw them, but true mosaics. That means that each of the tens of thousands of pieces were individually carved and then fitted together into the friezes that face the surviving buildings. I have not the slightest idea how it was done without metal tools, and neither does anybody else.

Mitla seems to be well excavated, and one would never imagine that there were still hidden treasures here, but there most certainly are. Only a few years ago - less than five - a German tourist visiting in the rainy season went off the marked path and literally tripped over a half-exposed skull. This is not a suggestion that one should bring along a shovel, of course, but it surely adds to the general mystique of the place. 

The town of Mitla is a wonderful place to explore. It is more touristy than other, similarly sized nearby towns (owing to the world-class ruins, of course) and therefore the prices of artisanal goods are a bit higher than they might be elsewhere. On the other hand, you do see the very best of the best, especially as regards textiles. This whole section of the Valle is renowned for its textiles. One of the things I enjoyed most in Mitla was entering a textile fabrica and watching a young man weaving a cotton tablecloth on a gigantic, handmade loom. I took a short video, but I can't get it to upload. 

Below, however, please see an example of the local ingenuity that makes me very happy indeed. It's a spinning wheel made out of an old bicycle. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

There and Back Again (Memory Lane)

Last week I was in Seattle and environs, visiting my family. Originally, I was going to take care of my mother after an operation. But the operation was postponed after the tickets were bought, and so I went anyway. Truth be told, I was ready for a little break from life in Oaxaca. Not that there are any major problems; on the contrary, things here are going better than I ever dared hope. Even so, I missed my family and friends, and I just wanted to be in a place where everything was "normal" for a little while.

A wonderful little break it was, too. Autumn is my favorite time of year in Washington, at least during those few precious weeks when the days are sunny and the evenings are crisp, and the leaves are bright against the sky and crunchy underfoot. The second week in October was just such a week, luckily.

In addition to spending time with my daughter,  mom, and sister, my girlfriend Sarah made a special trip up from Portland just to see me. We stayed in my mom's centrally located condo and walked all over town. I haven't lived in Seattle for years, and not downtown for many MANY years, but my entire youth was spent there, and everywhere we went I was overcome with memories. It was actually almost scary - the memories were coming up so thick and fast they were almost choking me.

On Capitol Hill we walked past Seattle Central Community College and Seattle University, where I jointly went to college. We stopped and ate in a couple of my old favorite restaurants, and passed by coffee shops where I wrote many a paper. For the most part, my Capitol Hill memories are good ones, from a time when I was young, strong, independent and happy, engaged in academia and writing a lot of good poems.

We walked down the hill to the Pike Place Market, and deeper into my past. My first legitimate job was at Market Spice, and I spent thousands of hours in the market, both working and getting into trouble. Before I was working, as a young teenager, I used to catch the ferry over from Bainbridge Island, climb the old steps, and hang out in the market listening to buskers and trying to get someone to buy me coffee or lunch. I was an incredibly lonely child at thirteen and fourteen, willing to go to just about any lengths to have a conversation with somebody. It was also a time when I was hungry, and passing the produce stalls I vividly remembered spending a dollar on an apple and a handful of nuts.

The train station is in Pioneer Square, the oldest part of the city and the place I spent the most difficult years of my life. I've visited many times since I left for good, and never felt the press of memories like I did this time. These are memories that I would just as soon stay put, but nothing doing. For more than two years, I lived with my father in a room in the Pioneer Square Hotel, which was then a skid-row flophouse for people one step away from the streets, either going up or coming down. Mostly the latter. Walking past, I remembered the fire. I remembered the stabbing. I remembered the rapes.

I'm certainly not making this sound like a good trip, but it was. It was very good for me to have these memories. None of it felt traumatic; it was all too long ago. My biggest concern was not boring my friend Sarah to death by blurting out all these private visions. "And this is where... oh my God, and this is where...."

Anyone who knows me will tell you I have a shocking memory. I am notorious for remembering nobody until I have met them six or eight times. Although I absorb anything I read from a book without difficulty, I can't remember anything about what I actually do. My life is pretty much a clean white sheet until the age of eight or nine, and my husband is constantly insulted that I can't remember details of our courtship or married life. My memory is so bad that is pretty much has to be a self-inflicted condition, my history of pot-smoking notwithstanding.

As a matter of fact, the idea of my trying to write a memoir is ludicrous. I recently read that Mick Jagger was once offered a large sum of money for his ghost-written memoir, but the deal fell through when it was discovered he could remember almost nothing about his own life. I laughed out loud. That could be me. It was, therefore, a bizarre and disorienting experience to get a kind of bum's rush through the disused passages of my own mind. If pressed, I could have given a narrative of those years, even one that included many of the details... but that would be a dispassionate recitation of events that might have happened to anyone. Very different to feel the memories as living experiences. I'm not entirely sure what to think about it. I guess I should write it all down before the curtain of amnesia falls again in

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit home, and returned to Oaxaca refreshed and eager to see my family. The weather turned while I was gone and the rainy season is over. It's been quite hot and sunny lately. We have no major plans or obligations for the next month, and it may be a good time to take a trip. Out to the coast, say. I'd love to get a little snorkeling in.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Birthday Parties Are Different Here

Again, I can't write too much, because I plan for "parties" to be the topic of an entire chapter in the book, but a few bullet points about children's birthday parties in Mexico:

1) There might be a hundred and fifty people or more.

2) They will not all be people you invited, at least not by name. They will be parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins, and maybe neighbors of the people you did invite. This is totally expected. It isn't bad manners to bring uninvited guests; on the contrary, it's bad manners to be so stingy that you don't provide enough refreshment for all the people who might show up.

3) Therefore, as you might expect, they cost a mint. A party held up the street from us (for a one year old!) involved a closed street; rented tents big enough for a mid-sized circus; clowns; and a catered meal. The goodie bags they gave out - to approximately 75 children! - were impressive.

4) Mezcal is provided. Very occasionally, I have seen beer and wine provided for the adults at a children's birthday in the states, but I think it's fair to say that the consensus opinion is that alcohol has no place in the same room with balloons or anywhere in the vicinity of a bouncy house. Here, a good host provides a bottle of mezcal at every table, as well as beer and soft drinks. No-one gets snookered at a children's party (it's rude) but no-one is expected to attend a party of any kind without a little booze.

5) If you don't let your kid eat sugar, or if s/he has some sort of food issue, it's all on you. I've never seen so much sugar in one place in all my life - cakes, coca-cola, jello, showers of candy from the piñata, ice cream, more candy, more cokes..... As far as I can tell, no-one restricts their children's diets in any way at all. And their behavior precious little.

6) Although children's parties don't get rowdy, there will be at least one incident of shocking gang violence, and somebody will get pummeled with a stick.

7) They might even lose their head entirely.