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.