Friday, May 3, 2013

Adios, Muchachos!

Bet you thought I was gone for good, didn't you?

Almost! The last few weeks have been crazy busy, as we try to pack and get ready to go amid all the obligatory family get togethers and despedidas. We made a trip to Puebla, which is a terrific city that I will write more about later, and a trip out to the coast.

The idea of the coast trip was to meet the cruise ship carrying my Dad and his wife in Huatulco and spend the day with them. My exceedingly generous brother-in-law Ulises and his exceedingly generous wife Lorena decided to invite the all three families (ours, their own, and sister-in-law Temy's) to stay a couple of nights in a sprawling, five star resort on the beach. We'd all go together, one big happy family. Who's going to say no to that?

As we were caravanning out, I drove over a speed bump too fast and broke the oil pan on the jetta. Staying and fixing it wasn't an option in the one-horse town we were in, up in the mountains, so we left it there and squeezed into the other two cars. Every child on a lap for a six hour drive. Good thing we had decided not to bring the dog.

The trip was lovely, and the hotel was terrific, and I got to swim in the ocean until I was exhausted. We are left with terrific sunburns. Dad and his wife got off the ship and we tooled around town for a few hours, looking at pretty churches and more touristy merchandise than we really cared about. It was Bibi's birthday, so we bought a giant cake and found a restaurant accommodating enough to let fifteen people troop in and have a birthday party. They loaned us plates and forks and provided the soda pop and beer.

On the way back, we picked up the jetta and dumped oil into it continuously until we got home. Homero was able to solder the oil pan. He also replaced the suspension, which was long overdue. With all of us driving home together in a jetta (plus the dog) there is precious little room for our stuff. The trunk will be taken up entirely with Homero's tools. The kids get a backpack each, as do I. All of our clothes have to fit into a single suitcase, which will go on the roof. I had hoped to bring home more - a few tapetes, some art, perhaps. Instead I am leaving behind many beautiful gifts given to me by my family.

Assuming all goes according to plan, we will be arriving in Seattle on wednesday or thursday. Unfortunately, we aren't really going HOME homer for another couple of months. There's a long story here, which I have no time to write right now, but it involves the tenant in our rental house getting kicked out for non-payment of rent. We are going home broke. There's possibly going to be an ugly scuffle when we get there, and we might be coming home to a trashed house. I sure hope not. Even in the best case scenario, we will be coming home to an empty house, with not even an air mattress to sleep on or a pot to cook in.

That, however, is a story for another day. Now, I want to express my deep gratitude to my amazing family. It blows my mind that my mother-in-law was sincerely happy to share her house with us for an entire year. She has done everything imaginable to make us comfortable and welcome. My other in-laws have been equally welcoming and generous. There just isn't anything they wouldn't do for us. I am humbled and grateful to be a part of this family.

Wish us luck!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Photos

Luis with the eggs he found

I haven't missed out on dyeing easter eggs any easter in my memory. Certainly we've done it every year since Rowan was born nineteen years ago. I wasn't about to miss it this year, either, even though there is no tradition of dyeing eggs here. Nobody really even knew what I was talking about, my sister-in-law thought I meant painting eggs with acrylic paints. We almost had to; I couldn't find any egg dye anywhere. Digging around in all the drawers, I found blue and green food coloring. The internet provided recipes for red (beets) and yellow (turmeric).

Paloma and the neighbors dyeing eggs

Hope and her love-egg

The girls invited their cousins and the neighbor kids over to dye eggs too, and they all enjoyed it thoroughly. After all the eggs were dyed and dried, we had a quick egg-hunt. The kids liked hunting eggs so much that we hid them again. The eggs themselves served as the prize - try THAT on your American kids next year!

Tonight we are having an Easter dinner - also not a tradition here, but I wanted to cook one. I had no luck finding a ham, or a roast of lamb, which would have been my first choices. Mama wanted a turkey, but I couldn't find one of those either. I settled for a fresh ham - basically an enormous pork roast. I marinated it in chipotle chile, garlic, cumin, and orange juice and then seared it all over and put it in a slow oven for three hours. It was delicious.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Daytripping- Hierve el Agua

"Hierve el agua" means "the water boils." These natural mineral springs, about 2 hours from Oaxaca, are not hot, however. They are cool and lovely, a perfect temperature for bathing on a hot Mexican afternoon.

High on a mountaintop in the Sierra, for the past several million years, a sulfurous spring has been bubbling over, running down the limestone cliffs below, and creating an amazing stone waterfall some 1,000 feet high. As far as I know, this formation is unique in the world. It is stunningly beautiful. 

I do not think the bathing pool is natural; I think it was carved out of the rock. Either way, it is the most gorgeous infinity-pool you ever saw. In this mineral rich water, one almost floats, as in seawater. Lounging in the water by the lip of the pool and staring off into an infinity of blue mountains is an experience I will personally never forget. 

It is a nice bonus that the sulfur in the water is curative. Every time I go, all my pimples and blemishes disappear for weeks afterwards. I've been to Hierve el agua three times now, in different seasons, and I have yet to find it too crowded. It helps that the road to get there is pretty scary - four by four recommended. In the off season, you might find you have the place to yourself. 

Last time we went, we took a folding grill and a cooler full of food and had a cookout. It was lovely. Every time we got too hot, we simply plunged back in for another swim. Be aware - the pool is filled with the water just as it comes out of the earth - it is not supplemented or treated in any way. The pool does grow some algae, and in the dry season it can get pretty murky. That doesn't bother me, however. There are showers to wash off after you are done bathing. 

Hope and Paloma enjoying the sunshine. 

Me, loving the water. I can't wait to bring my mom and my sister here when they come to visit next week. Oaxaca is a wonderful place to visit - there is something for everybody, from ancient ruins to world class modern museums. from colonial architecture to crazy nightlife. But Hierve el Agua is really something special. If you ever get to Oaxaca, don't miss it for the world. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Heat is On!

I have never been able to tolerate heat well. Even when I was young and thin, I would much rather have been too cold than too hot. Now that I am fat, it's like walking around with a snowsuit that I can't take off. 

Normally, I live in a part of the world that seldom exceeds 75 degrees. The days warmer than 80 in any given year can be counted on the fingers of both hands, and I like it that way. Here in Oaxaca, the days UNDER 80 degrees can be counted - well, ok, on fingers and toes. The last two weeks, daytime highs have hovered in the high nineties. 

Our room is on the southwest corner of the house. The concrete walls absorb heat all the livelong day and radiate it to the interior. It's an absolute oven up here. Homero put in a small air conditioning unit that we brought with us from home, but even if I leave it running from sunup to sundown, it can only bring the temperature in the room down to the low eighties. And of course I don't leave it running all the time, because I live in dread that it will break down. 

Yesterday we went to the waterpark. There is a wonderful waterslide park about 40 minutes away, and entrance is very affordable at 70 pesos apiece. On a day like yesterday, I would have paid five times that amount and been glad. The water in the pools is cool, even cold in the deepest pool. The slides are fun, and they sell beer. What's not to like?

This picture was taken back in October, when it was really too cold for swimming for long. See the thunderclouds? We were the only ones there. Yesterday the park was packed. They recently opened a new slide - it's five stories high and you go down on a kind of styrofoam blanket. Homero and Hopie did it, but Paloma and I decided we'd be just fine watching from the pool, thanks. 

Between our house and the waterpark is the town of Tlacolula. Normally a rather sleepy burg (worth a visit for it's amazing 17th century church), the town comes alive in a big way on sundays,. which is market day. Booths line the streets of the entire downtown, and farmers come in from all over the countryside to offer their wares. You can get anything you need there - if it's available in Oaxaca at all, it will be available in Tlacolula on market day. We went in search of a big wicker basket to serve as a clothes hamper (found - 80 pesos) and a present for my niece, who's birthday is tomorrow. 

We bought her one of these gorgeous colorful aprons, which is the traditional dress of women in Tlacolula, along with an equally colorful headscarf. I want one of these for myself, I'll get one before I go home. 

It being nearly Easter, the market was also offering brightly dyed baby chicks. The girls pestered us and pestered us but we said no. The chicks only cost 10 pesos apiece, which would be a smoking deal if they had a snowball's chance of hell of living to adulthood. Not likely, the poor little things. The girls had to settle for a photo.

It wasn't until evening that I realized I had myself a raging sunburn. That's the way of sunburns, they never show themselves until the sun goes down and it's too late. I've learned, too that the sun at 17 degrees of latitude is not the same as the sun at 49 degrees, even when the temperatures are equal. So at 85 degrees, for example, I am still going to burn faster down here than I would at 85 degrees back home, because the rays are more direct. With my skin, I can stay outside for about 5 minutes before I start to burn. Yesterday we were swimming and playing for several hours. I used sunscreen, but like the air conditioner, it just can't keep up.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Back and Forth

Homero is back in Oaxaca, and so is our silver Jetta. Last thursday, I flew to Ciudad Juarez to meet Homero at the border. He had gone to Seattle, after a week and a half with his brother in Atlanta, to pick up our car and bring it back to Oaxaca.

This served two purposes - most importantly, time is rolling by and we still hadn't solved the problem of how we were going to get us and our stuff back home in July. The van we drove down in is staying here, a present to Homero's sister. The Jetta isn't big enough for four people, a dog, and all our shit (the van was barely big enough) but it is big enough for Homero and all our shit. The kids, Ivory, and I will fly home. 

The second reason for bringing the Jetta down here was to reduce tensions surrounding the use of Mama's car. Mama doesn't actually drive (and has no interest in learning), but Estalin - Homero's youngest brother - does. After six months, it was beginning to become clear that all four adults sharing a single car was just not going to work. 

Homero has driven from Seattle to Oaxaca alone before, and he can do it in six or seven days, even in these latter days when it is inadvisable to travel at night. He could have done it again. I could have waited a few more days to see him. Except that I couldn't. 

We left Juarez at about 11:00 am on friday, after a frustrating hour at customs trying to explain that the tools Homero was bringing were NOT for import, and we had every intention of bringing them back with us in just a few months. The customs people didn't care, and we paid a forty dollar fee. Not unlikely, we will have to do the same thing again when we haul that generator back into the states. 

That night we stayed in Saltillo - the same city we spent a couple of days in on our trip down, when both cars broke down at the same time (Have Mechanic, Will Travel). I remembered my way to the same hotel, the one with the spreading pecan tree under which the children played and gathered pecans as we watched Homero work on the cars. The neon sign was lit and there was a man in the office, but when we asked about a room, he said "sorry, we have no rooms."

I looked around the nearly empty parking lot. Two cars snuggled up at the far end and the rest of the lot was empty. One room had a light on behind the drawn curtains. 

"doesn't look full to me," I said, before I felt Homero's elbow press gently into my ribcage and a light dawned in my slow, travel-addled brain. 

"Is there another hotel nearby?" Homero asked, and the man pointed us up the road. We spent the night a very serviceable econo-motel with a nice continental breakfast. 

By eight a.m. we were on the road again and pulled into Oaxaca at just about 11:30 p.m. Two days alone with Homero was a treat, even if it was spent behind the wheel. We ate road food and drank lots of coffee and had long conversations about stuff we heard on talk radio. We caught up on all our gossip and generally enjoyed each other's company. 

I can't wait to be old and have nowhere to go, and to go there with Homero. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Rough Week (Expectations)

It's been a tough week. My husband up and told me, with literally no warning, that he was going to go to the states for an undefined period of time to help his brother with a construction project. Those of you who have followed me here from my old blog, , know that sudden announcements of this kind are one of my husband's specialties. See, for example, When the Cat's Away (the Mice Will Get Some Work Done).

Homero taking off to Mexico on short notice for unspecified lengths of time is a long-running theme of our marriage, and while I can't say I like it, I have become resigned to it. It never occurred to me, however, that while we were living here in Oaxaca, he would do the same thing in reverse. I was seriously non-plussed to hear that his disappearing act isn't just a US phenomenon, but apparently a permanent part of his personality. Oh, the things you learn about your partner, even after fourteen years together.

He is willing to negotiate, up to a point, and so we came to the agreement that he would be gone for no more than three weeks. That's as long as I've ever been on my own with the kids in our married life, and I was doing it in my own home, not in a foreign country where I have no standing apart from that of Homero's wife.

Oh that sounds crazy? Surely, after giving the family two grandchildren and celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary - surely after bestowing American citizenship on Homero and after inviting various members of his family into my home for lengths of time up to seven months, surely I have some individual status? Well, no.

It took less than twenty-four hours for my brother-in-law to make it clear that the respect with which he had been treating me (such as he perceived it) was a show put on for his brother. I'm not going to get into a bunch of nitty-gritty details, but we got into a screaming argument which culminated with him telling me I should shut up because this wasn't my house and I had no right to be here.

So I left. I took the kids, the car (source of friction), and the dog, and I went and spent the night at this glorious little hotel, less than a mile from our house. It's called the Casa de Adobe, in San Felipe del Agua, and it is lovely and reasonably priced. The rooms are spacious and tasteful; the pool is clear and clean and cool; the service is adequate, and I lament that I only had enough money to spend a single night there. I can't really recommend this hotel to the casual visitor, because it is too far from downtown. Unless what you really like in a vacation is lounging by the pool with a book, in which case it's perfect.

Homero will not be home for another two weeks. Since I got back to the house, I haven't seen my brother-in-law, and if I do I'm going to ignore him as completely as possible. I am also looking into the possibility of renting my own car. I'd love to have an apartment of our own, but I'm morally certain that the mere mention of this desire will get me shunned by all members of the family, husband included. Apparently in this communal culture, a desire for independence and privacy is tantamount to insulting the family hospitality.

My mother-in-law's hospitality is not in question. The fact that she would invite all four of us to spend an entire year in her house - and apparently be genuinely delighted about it - is simply amazing to me. A few years ago, when my husband unexpectedly brought home four of his relatives to spend six weeks or so in our house ("surprise!"). I made it through, but with considerably less grace than my mother-in-law has shown in ten times the amount of time. I tell myself that it's not comparable, because Mexicans are raised to expect this sort of thing, whereas Americans like me are raised in hermetically sealed bubbles and never expected to tolerate the least breach of privacy.

The fact is, I fairly often congratulate myself on dealing with situations that my American relatives and friends would consider extreme, but which are merely routine for most Mexicans. This can be pulled off among Americans - three hours notice of hosting four relatives for an unknown length of time not less than a month? Wow, Aimee, you're a hero! The same situation told to a group of Mexicans? Yawn, it's tuesday.

When we first began seriously talking about spending a year in Oaxaca, we agreed we would rent a house. But financial realities intruded, and Homero's mother expressed real hurt at the idea that we wouldn't want to stay in her house. So we bent, and decided we would stay in this house, but I said I needed a kitchen of my own, be it as humble as a hot plate and a five gallon jug of water, upstairs. That didn't happen either. We thought we would have our own car - and then that idea went by the wayside as well. Homero assured me that none of these things would be issues, but I knew better.

I'm a woman, and I've been the mistress of my own home (and the pilot of my own car) for more than twenty years. I knew for damn certain that there was going to be tension around these issues. But what could I say that didn't make me sound like a spoiled American princess? If I demand that Homero take my side on certain issues, it comes out sounding like an ultimatum: "tell me you love me more than you love your own family." Clearly, that's a steaming pile of bullshit, and deserves to be treated as such.

I've sat here for ten minutes thinking this over. I think that perhaps the best course is to be proactive right now, while Homero is still in the states. I'll buy a table, haul it up the spiral staircase (never mind how; one thing at a time) and make myself a little kitchen on top of it. I really don't need much: a one burner hot plate, a shelf for plates and cups, and maybe a styrofoam cooler to keep a few fresh ingredients in along with a bag of ice.

The car is a little harder. That's a problem for another day.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Tianguis - Food Budget

A tianguis (I'm guessing at the spelling) is a kind of farmer's market. It's a local mercado held weekly in a given neighborhood, with a more or less fixed slate of vendors selling fresh produce, meat and fish, cooked food to order, clothing, household goods, and handicrafts.

In Volcanes, the neighborhood where I live, the tianguis happens on fridays. It's about six blocks from here, which would be a nice walk if it weren't a) up a super steep hill, and b) 95 degrees out. Luckily, colonia Volcanes has a fleet of mototaxis, which are basically motorized tricycles enclosed in canvass. For 5 pesos, they will take you anywhere within the bounds of the colonia. It is well worth 40 cents to get a ride six blocks up the hill in the noonday heat.

I adore the tianguis. While the prices are about the same as at the local grocery store, the quality is usually much higher. I never, for example, buy fish at the grocery store, because it invariably looks like something that I would throw away if I found it in my fridge. At the tianguis, however, the fish is brought fresh from the coast on ice, and it looks better than most of the fish at home in Seattle does. Today, for example, there were enormous Red Snappers, nearly two feet long, bright red and slippery, with shiny yellow eyes and bloody gills. I almost always buy the shrimp from Tehuantepec. These gorgeous shrimp have their heads on still, and are tightly curled and shiny pearly grey. Nearly as long as my hand, I'm guessing they are about 14 to the pound. A kilo goes for 140 pesos, which translates to just about $5.50 a pound. The only time I have EVER found comparable shrimp in the US was straight off the boat at the bellingham harbor, and they wanted $20 a pound. Or, for a kilo, about $44.

Food in general is much cheaper here. Not cheaper proportionate to the prevailing wage - it's much more expensive if you measure it that way - but cheaper in absolute terms. Today I took notes when I went to the tianguis, and this is what I got for 145 pesos, or just about $11.00:

- two pounds of tiny, tart delicious purple plums from the mountains.
-6 ears of fresh corn
-2 large bunches of mustard greens (about 1 pound)
-2 large bunches of swiss chard (ditto)
- 1 lb carrots
-1 lb green beans
- 1 kilo apples - nothing like the apples I could get at home right now (oh how I miss fresh apples) but         small, hard striped apples from the mountains. They are okay for juice.
- 1 kilo sweet yellow mangoes
- 1/2 lb dried hibiscus flowers, for making iced tea
- a small bottle of artisanal mezcal.

Even if you discount the mezcal, the rest of that produce would run me easily three times that amount at home. Again, I realize that it is a privilege for me to even think this way - in terms of dollars, in terms of  my American income.

Homero is paying the chalan who is helping him build the retaining wall at our property 200 pesos a day, or 1000 pesos a week. That's the prevailing wage for unskilled labor. He is a 20 year old single guy, and he can support himself on that money, barely. However, if I man were trying to support a family of five on $1000 a week, it would be flat out impossible.

Everything I bought at the tianguis today (with the exception of the mezcal) was fresh produce. Let's put the 25 pesos the mezcal cost towards more produce - say, a kilo of onions, a kilo of chiles, and a kilo of tomatoes. Now let's call that 145 pesos produce for the week. It's skimpy, but it could stretch, in the hand of a skilled housewife.

The staple of the Mexican diet, today as in times past, is the tortilla. Nobody makes their own tortillas anymore, it's simply not cost effective. Every morning, we send Hope up the street to buy tortillas from the neighbor lady at a peso apiece. A family of five could absolutely not live off less than 15 tortillas a day, so add 105 pesos to the weekly budget. More basic starches would include, at a minimum, 2 kilos of rice and two kilos of dried beans. That would add about 60 more pesos.

Protein foods - give every person in the family 2 eggs a week. a dozen eggs, 25 pesos. a single pound of cheese? 35 pesos. What are we up to? 365 pesos, with no meat and some seriously skimpy helpings.
That's already two full days work out of a five day week. If you'd like to give each person in the family a half-pound of meat a week, we'd be all the way up to 500 pesos, or half the week's income.

Coffee? Hot chocolate? A loaf of bread? Milk?

Rent? A new pair of shoes for the kids? Notebooks, pencils? Haircut? Trip to the doctor? Medicine?
Shit. Suddenly I feel bad about my weekly kilo of fresh shrimp.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Corn Harvest

Last week, we all went out to visit a family friend in a nearby pueblo. There was a rodeo going on, called a jarapeo around here, and this was the last, biggest night. Bull-riding night. Our family friends have a small ranchito where they raise corn and alfalfa and cows and chickens. They are old time Oaxacan farmers, living a nearly self-sufficient life as subsistence farmers. 

This time of year is the corn harvest, so while we visited before the rodeo, we sat around a long table drinking beers and processing corn. The corn had already been picked and stored in the corn crib to dry. The little girls decided the best job for them would be to crawl into the corncrib and find the best, fattest cobs and pass them out to us. 

I and Abuelita stripped the husks from the cobs and shoved them into a large basket for the cows. We put the naked cobs into a bucket and passed them along to the men, who used their hands to twist off the kernels. I tried to do this twisting, but it takes stronger hands than mine. 

In about a half hour, we collectively filled a five gallon bucket with kernels. I asked how long that bucket would last the family as food, and was told it would serve for two or three batches of nixtamal. Nixtamal is the process of boiling the kernels with lime so they swell and get soft for grinding. It also releases B vitamins which exist in the corn but which are not available for absorption without this process. People who depend heavily on corn as a staple but who do not process it into nixtamal are vulnerable to pellagra, a deficiency disease. How the ancient Mexicans figured this out is a mystery to me. 

Two batches of Nixtamal will serve the family tortillas for about a week, maybe a week and a half. So you can see how very labor-intensive it is to rely on corn. Just this one stage of processing cost some 3 man-hours (6 people working for a half hour each), and it represents only a tiny fraction of all the work involved, from planting to reaping to grinding and cooking. However, it was a pleasant half hour spent chatting with friends and family.

And the girls had a fantastic time. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Daytripping: Ixtlan (Eco-tourism adventure)

My husband took me up into the Sierra for a birthday getaway. Although we spent the night in some cabins in the woods, I put this into the "day tripping" file because one could easily make the trip to Ixtlan and back from Oaxaca in a single day.

Oaxaca is in a valley ringed by stupendous mountains. Oaxaca itself is pretty high, being at a little over a mile elevation, higher than Denver. The surrounding mountains tower another three quarters of a mile above that. While Oaxaca City has a tropical feel, with banana and coconut trees, mangoes and avocados and nopales, you don't have to head uphill very far before you find yourself in a pine forest. There are a mix of trees, but the main species (in this area) is Ocote, an amazing tree which has so much flammable sap that it's timber can be lit to blazing with an ordinary kitchen match. The dry, open woodlands remind me very much of those of Eastern Washington, near my home. The fauna is reminiscent of home as well, with deer, puma, raccoons, and grey squirrels. 

These hills are well inhabited, with small villages appearing wherever there is a broad, flat area to build on. Most are of considerable antiquity. On our route, we passed the hamlet of San Pablo Guelatao, birthplace of Benito Juarez , the great Mexican president of the 19th century. He was the first indigenous Latin American head of state, and one of the few extant to this day (Hi, Evo Morales!). He is associated with the famous quote "Respeto por el derecho ajeno es la paz," which means something like "Peace is respect for the other guy's rights."Benito Juarez is sort of like the Abraham Lincoln of  Mexico. Of course, he was a contemporary of Lincoln's, but also, like Lincoln, he is associated with the  emancipation of an oppressed minority. Except that, in Mexico's case it was an oppressed majority. 

Guelatao is a cute little town, with a small alpine lake to walk around. There is a community museum dedicated to Benito Juarez but we didn't get to visit it as it was closed for restoration. Just a couple of miles up the road is the town of Ixtlan. Ixtlan is a little bit bigger, but that's still pretty small. The main attraction here is the amazing eighteenth century church. I don't know which demonination this church belongs to - it is not on the Dominican trail - but it is one of the loveliest medium sized churches I have visited, and has the most complete and well-preserved collection of retablos I have seen. The statuary is first rate, and the paintings are clean and bright. I assume they must have been restored, but I don't know. 

main altar of Ixtlan church

View of Ixtlan. Church is at middle right.

The population of Ixtlan has created a collective ecotourism business. A few miles outside of the village, higher up in the mountains, they have built a resort, with lovely rustic cabins, a restaurant, and various "extreme" activities. You can rent a mountain bike and bike over hundreds of kilometers of trails, or don a harness and try to navigate their ariel obstacle course. There is a cave to visit - although guides are NOT available - and there are trout raised in the cool mountain stream to eat. There is also a zipline. It runs about 300 meters through the forest canopy, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to try it.

I don't tend to post many photos of myself here, so y'all might not be aware of this fact, but I am fat. Without getting into too many specifics, I am perfectly mobile and can hike a trail, but I am fat enough that activities like horseback riding or -ahem- ziplines give me pause and make me do some mental calculations in my head. I really wanted to ride the zipline, but I knew I had to make sure that there wasn't a weight limit that excluded me (a few years ago when I looked into skydiving I learned that there is, and it does). That was an embarrassing enquiry, because all the people who run this place are slim teenage boys. It isn't any fun, I tell you, trying to stuff your fat ass into a zipline harness in front of a half a dozen teenage boys.

Even so. My fat ass fit. Then I and my husband (whose slim ass presented no problem), climbed a hill and a rickety six-floor tower to a platform some 200 feet above the ground. For my old Bainbridge Island friends, it reminded me of climbing the Fort Ward tower. Homero went first, to provide me with courage. As he sailed away from me at an incredible rate of speed, I had a moment when I thought I just wouldn't be able to do it. "Will you please check my straps?" I asked the slim teenage boy next to me. "Are you absolutely certain that people fatter than me have done this before?"

"No pasa nada," he said, and shoved me off the platform.

When I wriggled out of the harness on the other side, I was trembling like a child. It was thrilling, and I'm so glad I did it. If I had gone back down the mountain without throwing myself (okay, being pushed) off that platform, I would have regretted it for a long time.

I highly reccomend "Eco-turIxtlan," as they call it. The prices are very reasonable and the setting can't be beat. There are eco-tourism retreats all through these hills, and I'm sure there are many others worth a visit. It would be easy to spend, say, a week traveling from Oaxaca to Veracruz along this highway, stopping at dozens of attractions along the way. I hope I get the chance to do just that someday.

mountain stream.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Things I Miss

I have been feeling a bit more homesick lately. Oaxaca has a great deal to offer the visitor, and it took us several months to run through the easily available places to see. Lately, we've been doing a lot less traveling and a lot more staying at home. Homeschooling the children is my main daily activity, along with housework and cooking. I'm still a housewife, I'm just in a different place now, and the tasks have changed in nature. More on that later.

Homero has (finally) begun the work of site preparation on our little plot downtown. Hopefully before we leave he will have the retention wall built, and the water, drain, and electricity installed. I think that's probably the best we can hope for. The pace of progress is painfully slow, but it keeps him busy all day, just about every day. I have more time on my hands, and it's making me miss so many things....

- My family and friends. I can make phone calls from the computer here, but the sound quality sucks, it frequently hangs up on me for no reason, and nobody answers the phone anymore when their screen says "caller unknown." Yes, I do have skype, but many of my family and friends do not. The people I used to speak to daily - Rowan, my sister - I might speak to twice a month, and those I used to speak to weekly - my girlfriends - I have spoken to two or three times since I left town. I am not by nature a super-chatty person, but I am definitely feeling the lack of long, deep conversations with many of my favorite people.

- My house. This is pretty all encompassing. I miss my king sized bed, I miss my hardwood floors, but mostly I miss being surrounded by my own art and the things I picked out because they please me aesthetically. We are pretty comfortable here, but it isn't our environment, not the one we created for ourselves in our own house back home. I am in someone else's consciously created environment now, and while it's a nice one, it wears on my psychically after a while. 

- Being the mistress of my own kitchen. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and I like mine. Señora Maura's kitchen is pretty well appointed, but there are so many people using it. Her kitchen organization makes no sense to me and everyone uses everyone else's stuff. Almost every time I want to cook, I have to start by cleaning up someone else's mess. Of course, it is true that at home I also start by cleaning up the last mess, but that mess was mine. 

- Hot baths. There are no bathtubs in Mexico, period. I have seen them in shiny showrooms, but I have never, ever seen a bathtub in a private home, nor even in a hotel. When I get home, I'm getting into a hot bath and I'm not coming out for a week. 

- Work. As mentioned above, I am a housewife. But back home, I am a housewife who supplements with volunteer work. Most of the time, I am volunteering three or four hours a week for one organization or another. I've been an interpreter for several outfits, and I've worked at the food bank, and so forth. Occasionally I even get paid gigs as an interpreter. It's a small but (as I've found out by not doing it) important part of my life, and I miss it. 

- Decent grocery stores. Yes, yes, the mercados here are amazing. Sensory overload, and dozens of fruits and vegetables you've never tried before and can't even name. Very exciting. But on the other hand, the mercados are not so great when you go looking for a specific item. Thanksgiving was case in point. I went everywhere looking for russet potatoes - plain old boring idahoe potatoes for mashed spuds. Nothing doing. In all of Oaxaca, there is only one kind of potato - round white. Sage? Nope. Garnet yams? Nope. Cranberries? Nope. Sometimes, you find what you are looking for, but if it isn't as frequently used item in Mexico it is quite likely to be spoiled. This happened to me with both dates and walnuts.

There are also big chain grocery stores (nearly all of them Wal-Mart subsidiaries, I've discovered) but the selection is even worse than in the mercados. It's odd, because in terms of sheer square footage they are just as big as a Wal-Mart back home. But whereas that store back home would have about 50,000 different items, this one has perhaps 2,000. Let's take a look at the bean aisle. At my favorite store in Seattle, I can probably find 20 different types of legumes, at least. There are four kinds of lentils, alone! Here, a fifty foot section of shelves is packs floor to ceiling with one pound packages of black beans. The other side of the aisle is equally packed with pinto beans. Down at the end somewhere you can usually find lentils and chickpeas. That's it. Rice? White long grain. One kind of lettuce. One kind of apple. One kind of cooking oil. 

-While we are on the subject of monotony, I miss ethnic restaurants. There is only one kind of ethnic restaurant in Oaxaca (not counting different styles of traditional Oaxacan cooking, of which there are many), and it's a piss-poor version of Chinese. Apparently, my husband was not the only Mexican who developed a taste for the ubiquitous Chinese Buffet while in the states. In fact, if you ever go to those places, you will find that most of the time they are filled with Latinos. Mexicans love the all-you-can-eat concept. But they sure haven't done a great job of importing Chinese food to Oaxaca. Hunger for variety drove us into a few Chine Buffets here. Limp, oversalted fried food and watery canned vegetables drove us right back out. 

Even in my smallish home town in Washington, there are very good restaurants providing fare from nearly all over the Asia. China, Japan, Vietnam, India, Korea... I miss all of it. 

- Books. Books are so expensive here, and for some reason nearly all of them are in Spanish. There's one English-language bookstore downtown, and they even carry some secondhand books. It's a great place to browse, but I hardly ever buy anything because even a used paperback costs ten dollars or so. I do a lot of my reading online, but I miss having a book in my hands.

Especially in the bathtub. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Graffiti (Treat on the Street)

Oaxaca has a vibrant tradition of what I like to call "street art." That's the catch all term that I used when Paloma, who is seven, asked me to explain the difference between graffiti and murals.

Mural for a local business

Most businesses here advertise with a mural - a sign painted directly on the wall, rather than on a board affixed to the wall. Murals are bought and paid for, and some people make their living painting them.

Well, some murals, anyway. Other murals are just art.... or kind of polite graffiti. High class graffiti?

mural downtown during the 2010 general strike

Then again, what's graffiti, anyway? Sure, some of it is just gang tags, scrawls legible only to insiders. The lowest common denominator of graffiti- it's information, but it isn't art. Even fervent defenders of graffiti can probably agree that some of it has no redeeming artistic value. 

But then there's also other kinds of graffiti that surely are art but which don't rise to the level of the mural. Little stencils, here and there. There's a particular artist who cruises certain areas of town spray painting amazing birds. That's all he does, birds. They all look pretty much alike, and they are all awesome.

There's a lot of political graffiti in Oaxaca, and it runs the gamut from the banal to the sublime. After the recent elections there was a lot of black, spray painted slogans denouncing the PRI around town; that all got painted over pretty quick. On the other end of the spectrum, during the great teacher strike of 2010 amazing full-scale murals depicting protestor/police battles sprouted up all over town.

sign for a downtown business called "the house of the angel."

a recent addition: imported graffiti

Shadow Cat - or is it a Chihuahua? 

Skulls on the sidewalk. It's a little disconcerting to walk over them. 

You can see why Paloma's question became more vexing the more I considered it. Finally I told her that murals and graffiti were both a kind of street art. There's lots of art on the streets, I said, and some of it is official and permitted, and some of it is unofficial and gets painted over. But it's all people expressing themselves through paint, so it's all art.

Monday, January 7, 2013

New Years' Festival in the Pueblo

Homero's father is from a small village high in the mountains, in a region of Oaxaca known as the Mixteca Alta. Homero himself has never lived there, but his parents did as newlyweds, and his older siblings were born there. Although no-one in the immediate family has lived in the pueblo in some twenty-five or thirty years, there are still strong ties that bind the family to the "home place."

Homero's father was a teacher, a position of great respect in a small town, especially thirty years ago, when he was one of the first teachers in the newly opened village elementary school. He was a land-owner  (or really, a land-holder, since nobody "owns" land in rural Mexico. More on that in the book) and his widow, my mother-in-law, still hold several pieces of property in town. Being one of the "first families," so to speak, implies certain responsibilities, and Señora Maura visits the pueblo several times a year to meet those obligations and of course to visit family.

Homero's father was one of seven - or eight? - siblings, and they and their numerous descendants make up a large proportion of the population. Myself, I can barely keep my own cousins straight (my dad was also one of seven), and so I have no hope whatsoever of keeping track of Homero's kin. Luckily, there is a sweet old fashioned Mexican tradition of addressing all elders as "Tio" or "Tia" and all age-mates as "primo," so that served me in good stead when addressing people. This wasn't my first visit to the pueblo - I went there once some twelve years ago, and again about five years ago. As one of the VERY few gringos to ever show their face in town, obviously everyone remembers me. I, however, recognized almost no-one and spent a great deal of time smiling and nodding and saying "Oh yes, of course." I am used to this. Anyone who knows me at all knows I can't remember a person's face until we've spent time as roommates or have progeny together.

Every little pueblo in Mexico has a special feast day. Usually, it's the saint day of the saint after whom the pueblo is named. A pueblo named, for example, San Tomas would have it's feast day on January 28th. This village, however, is named Santa Cruz, or the sacred cross, and therefore has no appointed saint day. The biggest festival of the year there is New Year's. Every family in the village participates, providing some needed aspect of the three-day party. This is called being a "patron." This year, our family was asked to be the patron of the lona - we were asked to provide an enormous tarp to cover the basketball court, where the dance would take place. We did, sharing out the considerable cost between us. One family every year - an important family - is chosen to host the Mayordomia. That means to provide a feast for every single person in the village, along with any and all guests they might bring with them. The menu is unvarying: beef in mole, beans, tortillas, and beverages. But the expense and logistics of providing this simple menu to some 300 or 400 people - maybe more - is considerable, and so being the host of the Mayordomia is both a privilege and a burden.

I am being called upon. Every time I sit down for fifteen minutes, it seems, someone yells up at me to do something. I'll wrap this up as quick as possible: the drive to the village takes six and a half hours, over some of the most rough road imaginable. The scenery is amazing, and in places eerie.

All the children in the village are spectacularly gorgeous. The little girls have their hair elaborately braided in dozens of different patterns. I wish I knew how to do even one.

 A couple of Toritos - paper mache bulls fitted with complex armatures loaded with fireworks. These are worn over the head by a brave or drunk soul who dances around to the delight of the watching crowd.

Señora Maura (in red) talking to one of her many comadres. This beautiful old woman is the grandmother of Señora Maura's goddaughter.