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.