I Moved To Oaxaca

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I went to the movies today with Jason. You can see what we thought of "Paycheck" in the links bar. And because it's New Year's Eve public transit getting back to The City was slow and crowded, but most people on the bus know the score and it's okay. When I got on the 6 Parnassus I headed to the back where there were empty seats and, with a soiled window seat as an opener, this pretty scruffy-looking lady and I started talking and she said, "It's going to be a better year next year, even if we have to fight and die for it" which I guess could sound ominous coming from a woman with a leathery face and worn clothes with a heavy tobacco-smoke smell sitting in the back of a Haight Street bus but to me sounded very uplifting and reassuring.

One of the ceremonies my medicine community cohorts love is the visionquest. Nothing like praying for clarity in the beautiful, open desert. But with a conventional job it's difficult to take a week or ten days off and go sit fasting in the dirt. I always liked to go on San Francisco visionquests: just wander around San Francisco with a bunch of cigarettes and spare change and see what comes up. If you let it happen, all sorts of people will say all sorts of things to you. Mostly garbage, but sometimes I'd get something that rang a bell, like that lady on the bus today. My friend Steve Lee once said to me that he thought hiking the Appalachian Trail ruined him for life, and if he meant living a normal life then he's right. The Trail ruins people all the time. I don't feel the same, and I'm just plugging away at it bit by bit. One subject we come back to repeatedly is, why are we here, what's the purpose of our lives. Sometimes I think I must be a retard that I didn't get those kind of sophmoric questions out of my system when I was 20, along with binge drinking and casual sex.

And I suppose the reason I'm thinking about it now isn't just because of a bad Dick adaptation or a random conversation with a stranger, but because in a few days I am again leaving the city I love so dearly. I was sad to leave San Francisco in April, I was sad to leave it again in June, and I'm sad to go now. And this time I don't have a 3-week hiking extravaganza and a jaunt through Europe ahead of me, or the excitement of wondering where in Mexico I'll end up. I know exactly where I'm going back to, and yeah I like living and working in Oaxaca a lot, but I also know exactly what Oaxaca is not, and it ain't San Francisco. And I'm worried that when I figure out what it is I'm doing with my life it will be something that doesn't have a place here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Today was the first day of three of our school's end-of-year wrap-up. It's called Kids Fest, and each class has to do something in front of the assembled school and camera-toting parents. We had some songs, some Christmas carols, a My-Name-Is-(insert name her)-I-Like.... which was cuter than it sounds, and my group's limericks. I twisted their non-compliant teenage arms into writing their own. For instance:

There was a young lady from Peru
Every day she went to the zoo.
But when she took her car,
She went straight to the bar,
And never saw anything gnu.

(Way to go, Elvia!)

I also had to physically push them into the center of the stage from their hiding place next to the water cooler. Then hold them there while they recited their ditties. But they did okay.

We're gearing up for the trip north. Three days to go. I'm a procrastinator as it is, and in typical fashion put off a lot of errands for last weekend. Yeah, the weekend I slept and coughed by way through. Yesterday I took Greg down to the Soledad chocolate factory on JP Garcia to get some gifts. We had just finished brunch at Marcos and Osvelia's, and when Marcos heard what we were up to he said, "Oh, no. Don't buy the stuff in the box. Get them to grind you up a batch." I must have looked dubious, because he then told me how (and what) to request: un kilo chocolate primero sin cascara con un kilo azucar, 30 gramas canela y 20 gramas alamendros. Or, just over two pounds of premium-quality chocolate without the hull, and equal amount of sugar, and some cinnamon and almonds, all ground up on the spot and handed to me in big plastic bag, still warm and soft from the molido. I took it back to the cafe and Marcos showed me how to make it into patties. We let the chocolate get too hard before we started, so they're ugly patties, but Marcos was right -- how much more fun to have custom-ground chocolate. And all for 60 pesos. Yeah, about $3 a pound. Mmm, it's good.

Today, we went back down JP Garcia past the zocalo, past the market to a big artesanias warehouse full of individual stalls -- a good place to go for rugs, woven goods like tablecloths, and embroidered clothing. It's good stuff, and far fewer tourists go there so the prices are better. But, they still know their English. I was looking at a mighty fine blouse, the first one where I actually stopped, took the blouse down and really scrutinized it. The woman quoted me her price, and while I was thinking about it Greg said, "You know, you should look around at the other booths, and if you still want this one you can come back." Well, next thing we know the price is 25 percent off. Good enough -- sold! We've still got a couple of things to pick up and do before we go, but I think we've mostly got it wrapped up. Ha.

Oh! I almost hate to jinx it by saying anything, but ... we might have a new place lined up. We sure as hell are hoping so. We already decided we're moving because of the bus fumes, which I am sure do not help even when I'm not sick, sometime soon after we get back. And as luck would have it, Marcos and Osvelia's neighbors have to move. I checked the place out,a nd I like it alot. Everybody please keep your fingers crossed!

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The fever finally went away yesterday, but the wracking cough remains. Today's the first day that I woke up and felt like doing something other than going back to sleep.

Walking over here we passed Marcos and friends up on the rooftop, practicing their yoga. Greg and I are going down to the cafe after our half-hour of Internetting to have some coffee and sit in a non-fume-infested environment for awhile.

But before I go ... beans. A staple around here. Mostly people eat black beans, and mostly refried and fixed a little soupier than I'm used to, but good. I'm partial to lighter-colored beans, though, so I've been trying some other varieties like flor de mayo and bayo. They're fine, but what puzzles me is, in a country where almost everyone buys and prepares beans at home, why are there always rocks and sticks in the bag with the beans? Cheap brands, expensive brands, still I get rocks. So instead of just rinsing off the beans and leaving them to soak, I have to hand-pick through them in small batches to remove the rocks. Sometimes I miss one or two and let me tell you how unpleasant it is to be eating a tasty breakfast of huevos rancheros and bite into a rock. Pah! In disgust I even sorted out the contents of a cup of dry beans. In addition to the beans that went into the crockpot, I found: 67 pieces and reject beans, 12 rocks, and 8 pieces of sticks, leaves, and miscelaneous organic, non-bean bits. In one cup of beans.

So yesterday at school I asked Jonathan about this. He said he had the same woeful experience, but suggested buying mantequilla beans, a type of black bean, and one he claims is rock-free. I will let you know.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

One week to go until I taste the fog.

It’s only Saturday night but I foresee a very quiet weekend. Why? In yoga during the meditation period everybody bundles up in sweatshirts, socks, and rebozos or shawls – except me; I just stretch out in my t-shirt and bare feet. Well, yeah, and my pants. Only Thursday night I was cold. I was also coughing a bit. By Friday it was clear that I had come down with something. Again. For those of you keeping score I believe that puts me up to four illnesses since mid-July. Oh, and too bad I had three classes Friday. I dragged my hacking, feverish ass to school, did my lessons (ah, thank you DVD! the sick teacher’s helper) and stumbled home, shivering and chattering my teeth in the bold Oaxacan-winter sun. I felt slightly better this morning, but that didn’t last after three hours of cajoling small children into memorizing their Amazing Animal Facts for the big end-of-school hoopla next week.

I guess it goes without saying that Greg didn’t sleep too well last night, what with me coughing and fussing all night. So he took a nap as soon as we got home, and when he woke up … headache and tingling skin. Uh-oh. Could be a sad, sad week coming up. If I get out to the Internet café tomorrow to post this I will consider it a major accomplishment.

I guess it also goes without saying that because of my cold I missed the big day at the fiesta in the llano. Bummer. No pink flamingo nativity ornament, no spray-painted poster, no taquitos, memelitos, tlayudas. No more chocolate atole or crazy-looking dulces regionales.

But I did get an unexpected taste of Oaxaca yesterday and today. Earlier in the week Manuel was feeling just terrible, but because of all the make-up classes, had dragged his ass to work instead of staying home where he belonged. I think he felt worse than I did. But he was looking his usual perky self Thursday, and when he saw me Friday, he said that Patricia hold him to mix coffee and vapo-rub and apply it to the bottoms of his feet, behind his knees, and in the crease of his elbows, and that Liz had recommended a tea of garlic and cinnamon, strongly brewed. Fixed him right up, he said. I asked Greg to stop at the farmacia and get some vapo-rub, and he slathered the soles of my feet with it and some coffee – a nice, warm sensation. I didn’t dare try it on my knees or elbows for fear of setting off one hellacious eczema reaction, but I put some on my chest and collapsed back into bed. I’m not sure it helped, but it didn’t hurt.

Today we tried the garlic and cinnamon tea. It was … interesting. Not as horrible as I expected, at least when drunk hot. Will it help? Probably more helpful are the regular infusions of Tylenol, and fixing a bowl of macaroni and cheese today. Other than some cookies at work and a couple of wheat tortillas at home, it’s the first real food I’ve had since Thursday. If someone had told me back in April that I’d have far more trouble with upper-respiratory infections than with GI upset, I wouldn’t have believed them.

So we’ve been sitting here, G-man and I, watching DVDs: Lilo & Stitch, Malcolm In The Middle. I’m just going to wait for the latest dose of Tylenol to kick in then go back to sleep.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

I met Greg after his last class last night and we strolled around the llano to see what there was to see. Not much action going on last night; Adam says Friday will be the big night. Not surprisingly. As it was, we listened to some Mexican rap blaring from one of the upteen pirate CD stalls -- Hoy! 10 Pesos! -- looked at the incredibly ugly statues of dogs and cartoon characters offered as prizes at the games of chance stalls, watched a guy make incredibly ugly but in a black-velvet-painting sort of way pretty spray-painted religious and romantic pictures. Remember the German guy or the skinny guy with the 'fro with their painting shows on PBS? Start with that, add a dollop of black-velvet art, then picture apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe or a thorn-crowned visage of Christ floating above outdoor scenes featuring trees, waterfalls, and moonlit oceans with leaping dolphins and orcas or howling wolves -- all done with spray paint -- and you will have some idea. I'll try to get a picture of it today. He had quite a crowd watching him.

I want one.

And because it's a saint's day, and nearly Christmas, quite a few of the stalls were sporting religious iconography. I plan to go back to the stall with the clay nativity figures -- mix 'n' match -- to get another addition to my little nativity set: Santa praying over the baby Jesus (thanks, Greg!), and two out of the three Wise Men, a rubber Mr. Natural from my brother-in-law Andy, and a Gray dressed up like a shepherd Christmas ornament from the Little Al'e'inn in Rachel, NV. And a wood chicken from Gathering Tribes in Berkeley. I thought I might get the third Wise Man this year, but I'm tempted by the flamingo and palm tree combo.

We munched on toffee peanuts, sipped chocolate atole, and had a couple of quesadillas (chicken for Greg and mushroom and quesillo for me) then headed home. I plan on doing a lot of munching during this fiesta. We'll see how busy it is tonight.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Fiesta time is here!

December 8 was the fiesta day for Our Lady of Juquila, the most popular Mary in Oaxaca. December 12 is the fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the 18th it's La Soledad. As I was walking to work people were already busy at 6:30a setting up fondas and gamebooths and kiddie rides. Should be hopping this afternoon.

Monday, December 08, 2003

The Cinepolis flyer at work said the theater is showing 21 Grams and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 this week. It’s also showing Gigli, Spy Kids 3D, and Loony Toons, but I don’t want to spend my pesos on that crap. I’d rather spend it on The Deadly Viper Assassin Squad crap. Now, Greg’s not too keen on some genres of movies, and I thought Kill Bill might fall in his Do Not See Under Penalty of Depression category, so on Sunday I left him working on his novel to drive out to Gringolandia. I planned to get to Cinepolis on the early side, because the printed show times never match the actual showtimes. So I looked at the Barbies on sale at the department store next to the theater for an hour, then went in to see the movie. I walked in the theater and heard “hey teacher!” float down out of the darkness. “Hey there … is that you, Elvia?” And it was: one of my students from my MW class. She even came down to chat with me while we waited for the movie to start.

I think I’m going to have to see Kill Bill a second time, because I’m not sure if it’s a B or a C. And, was that the theme to the TV show Police Woman that played whenever The Bride was getting in killing mode? And, if I may slip deeper into geek mode a moment, the Klingons never said “revenge is a dish best served cold,” that was Khan. Did I miss the joke?

I’ve given up on Walden. If somebody has anything positive to say about it, I’d sure like to hear it.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

After those extra, superfluous classes Friday, Greg and I went to the home of one of his students. Alberto had suggested coming over for a glass of wine since before the holidays, and Friday was the agreed-upon day, dragging asses or no. So off we went, bouquet of flowers in hand. Not surprisingly, almost all of our social events are tied to people we know from school. I guess the surprise is that they all aren’t. Alberto’s invitation was different in that we weren’t sure what “a glass of wine” means in Mexico. And when Alberto opened the door and we saw the set table, we were glad we kept our nicer work clothes on instead of changing into our usual grubby American attire.

Alberto, his wife Alma, a lady friend whose name we never did catch and since we couldn’t remember if it was “como se llama” or “como te llamas” we didn’t dare ask, and Alberto and Alma’s toddler Alberto Jr. were all very sweet and willing to chat in English or Spanish so we plunged right in. Dinner was a typical light Mexican dinner, pasta, cheese, and peanuts. And the promised wine. Alberto likes good wine, and made up for the thin wines we’d had at Manuel’s house (that was more of a beer bash anyway). The first bottle he brought out was a Rhone. The second was a Burgundy, rich and complex, very tasty. And no, Alberto doesn’t know why California wines don’t make it to Oaxaca, either.

I gave Greg The Eye just after 10 o’clock, and we made our excuses, thanked them for a fine evening, etc etc. The friend whose name we didn’t catch gave us a ride home. Nice people. I hope we catch a little more exposure to behind-the-doors Mexico.

Alberto and his family live south of the zocalo, in an area much-less frequented by tourists or gringos, who accumulate in the Centro and San Felipe neighborhoods. It’s a pretty quick change from the relatively ritzy “historical zone” to the “this is what it’s really like” zone. As we walked down Calle Bustamante we passed a pair of guys with a potato chip cart. Ooh! I haven’t seen one of these since El Grito. But we had a place to be and passed the cart by. However, Saturday night Greg and I went out strolling, trolling for eats, and we looked at each other and headed toward Bustamante. When we saw the cart the line was about eight or nine people long. We queued up and discussed what to get: papas a la francesa – French fries – or papas fritas chica, mediana, grande, o familiar. We decided on one French fries, one grande bag of potato chips, con todo. Which you should know by now means with salsa and lime juice, and a squirt of mayonnaise for the fries as well. We had to wait a minute while the fries cooked, and stood clustered around one end of the cart with two other families doing the same. We got some good-natured teasing about our accents, but people seemed pretty happy despite the frigid (for Oaxaca) air. Then I realized: oh, people are out doing their Christmas shopping. Duh. And I looked around and along with the papas cart and the taco carts were a fair number of carts selling Christmas lights, decorations, wrapping paper, ribbons and bows, ornaments, the works. And what I take to be a seasonal speciality: tacos and soup of smoked pig’s head. Later, when we went looking for a taco stand, we mostly saw stands with piles of chopped-up pig head pieces on display instead of the metal bubble-grill of the taco vendors.

So, the chips and fries were delicious, as you’d expect from chips and fries made right on the spot, one guy slicing and the other guy stirring them in his big kettle of hot oil. Delicious. We wandered around, ate our tacos, then headed home. Four meat tacos with cabbage, guacamole, and a lovely salsa verde, 16 pesos. One bolsa grande of papas fritas, 12 pesos. One styrofoam plate of fries, 13 pesos. So, what’s that? Dinner for two, 41 pesos. Eating dinner on a stoop surrounded by Christmas shoppers: priceless.

Friday, December 05, 2003

The December issue of Harpers magazine has a bit on Langston Hughes and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The issue just came out, so all the content isn't yet online, but it's worth checking back for, or even going out and buying the issue.

When I was in fifth grade, Mr. Beatty had us all do a report on a American author, picked from a list. Or it might have been Mr. Wassen in the sixth grade; I don't remember. My best friend and I sat in the corner diametrically opposite Mr. Beatty, so we picked last, and the pickings seemed slim. I chose T.S. Elliott and Pam took Langston Hughes. I thought I'd struck gold with a guy who wrote a book all about cats, but it didn't take me long to realize Pam was the one who lucked out. I had to force myself to read even the one book, and a couple of his poems I found in the dreaded Alhambra Public Library. I mostly remember thinking I didn't like the person of Mr. Elliott, much less his poetry. And I don't remember any of the bits of Hughes I read over my friend's shoulder, but I have a warm feeling when I think of him. I never went back and read any of his work, though. Maybe it's time.

Thanks to my good friend Jim Feeley for this link; some of you may know my desire to someday work for the Weekly World News.

Friday, monster Friday, and instead of having the day off like I try, I had that 7a - 9a class this morning -- good thing I like the people in that class a lot -- and two make-up classes at 4:30p - 6:00p and 6:00p - 7:30p. Although I don't exactly know what day we're making up. But the powers that be at Berlitz decided to combine my two make-up classes with two other make-up classes, figuring that make-up classes get a lower turnout anyway, so two partial classes should just about equal one. Only, only one student showed up for my 4:30p class. Jose, a class clown and all-around bright guy. So we chatted about San Diego and San Francisco and American football and baseball for half an hour, then I sent him off to entertain himself until his brother comes to pick him up at 6. I might get a memo for that, but I don't mind. I like Jose.

Hey, all you code-monkeys: Greg's webmaster tweaked www.weareallus.com to an easier-to-read font, and reorganized it a bit. Go take a look.

Haven't heard nor seen our neighbors in #3 since the other night.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

What with Jonathan and Manuel gone this week, scheduling at work got a little crazy. Like me having a 7:30 - 9:00p class MTuW, and a 7:00a - 9:00a MW. Ew. I haven't even looked at Friday yet, except to know that I have a couple of classes; all week I had my eye on today, Thursday, because I only have one class, and at 6:00p. Sweet. An evening to stay up late and sleep in the next day. A chance to go to yoga class. Get some errands done. Only in the middle of last night I woke up to someone pounding on the building's front doors. The doors right outside my bedroom window. It wasn't stopping so I got up, threw on some pants and went outside to see what was up.

The thing about those front doors is, you must turn the key to the left. If you turn it to the right you slip a bolt that cannot be unlocked with a key from the outside. Which my drunk neighbors in #3 had done. And I couldn't get the bolt to slip back from the inside, either. Nor could Elizabeth, the woman who took over for Carlos as the building's handyperson. Greg got in on it, too, and finally figured it out: open the left door and pull in, and the doors open and you can then push the bolt in with your fingers. Our neighbors introduced themselves as Jessica and Brian and, on seeing my t-shirt but apparently not my expression, said "You're from Berkeley? Us, too! We'll cook you dinner." Jessica kept repeating the part about dinner even after my snarled "Or something."

I finally got myself back to sleep, and barely remember Greg getting up at 7:00a for his class. I got up at nine when the jackhammers on the sidewalk out front started up. I'm getting a coffee down at Marcos and Osvelia's after this.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

I did indeed go bike-riding Sunday, with a local outfit called Bicicletas Bravo, where it's about touring than touristing. The trip I went on was billed as a 45km mountain-bike ride from Oaxaca to Atzompa (green-glaze pottery) to Arrazola (figuras de madera) to Cuilapan (lovely old, unfinished church) and back to Oaxaca. I've been to all three villages via car, but thought it'd be fun to see them on bike. And it was -- we rode on everything from major highways (Hwy 175) to local blacktop to dirt road to single-track trails. And I must say, mountain-biking is fun, especially on these haphazard Mexican backroads! But we didn't actually see any of the sights, because Christian, our tour leader, only stopped long enough for the eight of us to regroup or get a drink of water. We rode around the backside of the ridge on which Monte Alban sits, very pretty to see the mounds atop the hills, and I finally pointed it out to the others in the group. (I also pointed out what to do with the dogs that would occasionally come racing out of some yard, barking and snapping at us: kick 'em!)

What there was to see was this: people walking to town or church; families with their truck shucking corn by the side of the road; fields of drying brown corn stalks and yellow flowers as high as my shoulder; cows and bulls and goats and chickens and turkeys grazing in fields and people's yards; kids playing in dusty yards; donkeys stacked with enormous piles of firewood or brush, walking down the road; farms and houses scattered across the low hills.

I don't know if the others were disappointed at the lack of snack and bathroom stops or traditional sight-seeing. But as it was, I was so thrilled to be out in the air and getting some exercise that I hardly minded not really being able to look around a lot because, just like driving in a car, the driver really needs to keep his or her eyes on the road constantly and on bike it's not much different. At one point, coming out of Arrazola and heading uphill, I finally broke ranks and stopped at a tin-shack miscellanea and bought a handful of horrible fake-chocolate-covered wafer bars to tide me over to Cuilapan, where I supposed we'd have lunch. We didn't, so I bought a soda at one of the tiendas in the parking lot. Christian actually got off his bike outside the church, but made no motion about going in. Someone asked him about a bathroom and he shrugged his shoulders. Having recently been here myself, I led a small expedition to the operational second-floor bathrooms. So mostly we sat around for half an hour and chatted while one or two people took quick looks inside the unfinished building. Everybody but me was visiting for a week or two or three, some enrolled in intensive Spanish programs, some just relaxing away from work, and everyone except the woman from Vermont wondering where to get a decent cup of coffee in the city before 9am.

I got home about 2pm, thoroughly tired out. Just what I wanted.