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.