Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Be Prepared

I am not one of those ladies who hauls around a purse the size of a hefty garbage bag. I prefer to travel light, and my purse is just big enough for the essentials. My essentials are wallet and keys, cellphone and hairbrush, a paperback book and a notepad. I don't wear makeup and I've passed the stage of needing to stash a few diapers in there, so my purse is medium-sized.

In Oaxaca, however, I find that my list of essentials has expanded. Here is a quick run-down of the items that I have found, through trial and error, make a well-stocked Mexican purse:

1) Sunscreen. Although the weather has been pleasant here, it does get hot for at least a few hours a day, and I notice that when the sun is out, I burn much quicker than I do at home. I think the reason is that I come from far northern climes - even at the same temperature (say, 80 degrees) the sun's rays are hitting me at a much more oblique angle at the 49th parallel then they do here at the 17th.

2) Bugspray. Just do not go anywhere without bugspray, including to bed at night or out to a fancy restaurant. Must have bugspray. Reapply bugspray at least four times a day.

3) Cortisone cream. For the bugbites you will get anyway.

4) Bandaids. For the bleeding holes in your skin where you scratched the bugbites because you forgot your cortisone cream.

5) Toilet paper. Things may be changing in the wealthier, more touristy parts of Mexico (or maybe not) but here in Oaxaca, no bathrooms provide toilet paper. Not for free at least - Oaxaca is the only place I have seen a coin-operated toilet paper dispenser. Bring your own, you'll be glad you did.

6) Hand sanitizer. Many bathrooms also lack soap and even running water. If there's no running water, and hence no flush, there will usually be a big barrel of water and a small bucket, for manually flushing the toilet. But obviously you don't want to wash your hands in that.

7) Lots of small change. So you can buy toilet paper, of course, but also so you can hand out limosna. 
Alms. The price you pay for being in lovely, historical downtown Oaxaca (patrimonio de la humanidad) is dozens of people either selling small items like postcards or gum; or busking; or outright begging. And believe you me, street people in Oaxaca are not like street people you see in your home town. You almost never see an inebriate. You never see an able bodied teenager with a clever sign. You do see ancient, wrinkled old ladies in native dress, mothers with babies at the breast and small children hiding behind their skirts, and plenty of sick people holding out the prescriptions they can't afford to get filled. Almost everyone offers something in exchange for your 5 pesos - a song, a flower, a  blessing.

It's always 5 pesos well spent. Bring plenty.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Goat Feast in the Mixteca Baja

A long anticipated party happened yesterday in our friend Crecencio's village. For years, he's been speaking of the day when we would all be together eating barbecued goat in his house. Yesterday was the day. Here are the men gathered around the pit oven, uncovering it with shovels.

Layers of plastic were removed, and the innermost layers  are made of roasted maguey leaves.

Inside, there are three barbecued goats, steamed to falling-apart perfection after twelve hours in the pit.
The goat was served as is with hot fresh handmade tortillas - made from local blue corn, I think they were the best part of the feast - and several salsas, chopped onion, cilantro, lime wedges, and guacamole.

There was enough goat to go around and around, and even the dogs got their fair share.

In the late afternoon, the local wood seller came by with a delivery. He brought it on donkey-back, and his beast of burden has a baby with her, a three month old baby burro, just about the cutest creature God ever created. All the children (and me) jumped up and chased after it, grabbing and hugging unmercifully.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Evening in the Alameda

Oaxaca's cathedral. The large plaza fronting it is called the Alameda, and it adjoins the Zocalo, or main square. Together, the two plazas create a wonderful public space, which is filled in the evenings with musicians and vendors. It's a wonderful place to get some street food... do a little surreptitious smooching... a balloon or cheap chinese toy for your kids from somebody else's kids....

...get your shoes shined....

...or catch a performance. Last evening there was a band playing Danzon and dozens of couples dancing. There were several strolling musicians, a marimba band, and this clown. An hour spent people-watching in the Alameda on a fine Oaxaca evening is pleasant indeed. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Attack of the Killer Mosquitos

Much as I love living in Oaxaca, my skin does not. Between sunburn and bugs, I look like a boiled spot prawn. Of all the uncomfortable aspects of the Mexican way of life (and there are many) I hate bugs the most. Mosquitos are actually only one of several biting insects around here. There are hordes of mosquitos, and their bite is potentially dangerous because of the prevalence of dengue fever. Here in the city, we don't have to worry about malaria or yellow fever, but in the coastal areas you do. 

Even more annoying, however, are the tiny biting flies that you seldom or never see. I happen to be especially allergic to these bites, and the wheals that they leave cause the most intense itching I've ever experienced. Also there is some other bug - I have no idea what - that attacks the feet and ankles exclusively. These feel like flea bites, but as all the floors are polished concrete I doubt that they actually are. 

paloma's legs

Ants. There are more varieties of ant than you can shake a stick at, and every one of them hungers for human flesh. Hope sat down in the wrong place and a couple of big black and red ants got into her underwear. That kind gives you a nasty, painful bite that leaves a welt that lasts days. Out walking in the countryside the other day, I suddenly felt as though I had walked through a patch of stinging nettle. Looking down, I saw swarms of tiny, nearly invisible red ants on my lower legs. The dance I did and the sounds I made during the next twenty seconds have never before been heard on this earth, and I fervently hope they never will be again. My legs stung for hours. 

My poor children look like victims of a nasty form of child abuse. They have literally scores of bites, and they scratch the tops off again and again, leaving bleeding sores and, eventually, small unpigmented scars. I hope they won't be permanently spotted like leopards, but I just don't know. 

The mosquito net is a wonderful invention and it saves many thousands of lives  (for less than ten bucks you can donate a mosquito net to a family in a malaria ravaged part of the world and quite likely spare a child years of pain and disability  here ). However it is of limited usefulness to us here. Yes, it definitely helps us get a better  night's sleep. But it doesn't guard against the daytime throng. For that, you need Deep Woods Off, 25% DEET. Yeah, I'm aware that it's poison, but I don't care. I'd bathe in the stuff if I could. My kids hate being sprayed, but I sneak up on them and spray them in their sleep. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Few Things About Food

I plan to do a lot of writing about food here in Oaxaca. It's not that the food is so fantastic (though much of it is), or so awful (though some of it is that, too) but rather that I am very interested in food in general. Anyone who knows me can attest that I like to eat - in fact you don't have to know me, you just have to look at me. I also love to cook, and I am fascinated by edible and medicinal plants that I haven't seen before. 

There are a zillion such plants here. A short walk through the market turns up several varieties of fruit for which I have no names. My children sometimes come up with cool names: they call this the "Cat Brain Fruit." 

In actual fact it is a Maracuya, known in English as the passionfruit. I'd never seen one before. The Maracuya might just take the prize for having the widest discrepancy between deliciousness and hideousness. It's gelatinous insides do indeed look very much like a brain, and the texture is slimy and bouncy at the same time. It completely does NOT look like anything you would want to eat. But it tastes amazing. It is citrusy and refreshing, tart and bracing. The seeds are light and crunchy and have a delicate taste of their own. You can eat these out of hand, but the nicest thing to do with them as far as I am concerned is to scoop the insides of six or eight of these into a blender, seeds and all, add sugar to taste, and blend. Pour a few ounces into a tall glass with ice, add a jigger of rum, and top with seltzer. 

The children making tamales with their abuelita. Making tamales from scratch is a labor of love, and an art form ( see How to Make Real Tamales  from my old blog). Not only are my kids having a great time getting their hands all sticky and spending time with their abuelita, they are, whether they know it or not, being indoctrinated in an ancient tradition of Mexican feminine kitchen witchery. When, someday, they learn to make kosher dills from me, or sourdough rye, I will be teaching them my European kitchen magic, such as it is. It makes me happy to know that they also will learn how to make nixtamal from their Native American ancestors. 

As far as I am concerned, the delicious treat pictured above is reason enough to come to Oaxaca. This is a cup of Vuelve a la Vida, or "return to life," the famous Mexican hangover cure. You do not, however, need to overindulge to enjoy this amazing restorative. Anyone with six bucks in their pocket who happens to be lounging around the parque de los tortolos in lovely downtown Oaxaca would be well advised to stop into the seafood joint on the south side of the plaza and ask for one of these (with the cold Corona pictured alongside). 

Vuelve a la Vida is a a mixture of fresh, quick boiled shrimp, raw shucked oysters, calamari, baby octopus, and marinated conch smothered in a sweetish, spicy tomato based broth and topped with cubed avocado. It is served with lime wedges, stingingly hot red salsa, tostadas, and saltine crackers. In my opinion, it is the quintessential Mexican snack, and one of my favorite things to eat in the whole world. The only thing that could improve this experience would be to transport the whole restaurant to the beach at Mazatlan, but we can't have everything, now can we?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Street Scenes

Most of downtown Oaxaca is a named World Heritage Site ( UNESCO World Heritage Centre - World Heritage List). With good reason: large segments of the downtown area - many, many square blocks - are original sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century buildings, laid out on the original streets. Downtown Oaxaca is a testament to the durability of adobe as a building material, and also to the beauty of the fusion of Spanish and Indigenous architecture. 

As in Rome, Marrakech, Jerusalem, and scores of other very old cities, it is evident that the streets are wholly inadequate to accommodating modern vehicle traffic. What the following pictures cannot portray is the horrific din that results from squeezing twenty-first century lifestyles into sixteenth century spaces. My camera, like my eye, seeks tranquility, but in fact the backdrop for all of these scenes is truck horns, jackhammers, peddlers' yodeling, loudspeakers announcing sales, music blasting from storefronts and automobiles, and the infernal echo of all that noise off of the unbroken two-story stone walls. 

A wall downtown near my sister-in-law's house. As far as I can tell there is no reason to plant these columnar cacti here except for the striking visual they provide. In the countryside, these cacti are often used as fences. 

A door in the wall of Santo Domingo, sixteenth century Dominican monastery. The lovely greenish stone is called "cantera" which I believe means limestone, and is locally quarried. Most of the oldest buildings in Oaxaca, and even the oldest sidewalks and street surfaces, are made of cantera.

Soon, I will post a whole series of saints and icons. One sees them everywhere downtown - exquisitely carved in limestone and rendered in spray paint. Or, as here, painted even on the trees! This is a downtown park, and presumably this lovely little virgin was left here by someone who didn't want the lovers who frequent the benches to be totally unsupervised.

This is what an ancient adobe wall looks like. Today, on my walk, I observed two little boys, about four or five years old, gleefully breaking off hunks of plaster and throwing it down on the street to explode in puffs of dust. I wanted, simultaneously, to laugh and to spank their little heinies.

You can never tell what is behind a wall in Mexico. A wall like the one above might easily hide a heartbreakingly lovely little courtyard like this one. I will write more about this in my book, but Mexicans are obsessed with privacy - walls are incredibly important in Mexican life. It's very odd, because it's an entirely different species of privacy than the American kind. Mexicans hide from strangers, from the street. They build fourteen foot walls and top them with razor wire so that nobody can look in - but inside of those walls they have no privacy from family at all. Mexican lovers have no place to kiss inside those walls because Grandma is always watching them. That's why they have to smooch in the parks.

I am writing too much - I've been told not to write on this blog things I might want to include in the book because publishers won't look at a manuscript if any of it has already been exposed to evil internet rays (or something like that). Therefore I am keeping this blog restricted to mostly photos and quick descriptions.

Goodnight all.