I Moved To Oaxaca

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

People joke about "Mexican time" all the time, same as they do about "Indian time" back in the US. It's not a punctual time.

Before we left for SF, Marcos said he'd gotten a better location for his store, El Viejo Shaman, and that he would be closing the cafe and moving around the 9th of January. We said we'd help, and my enthusiasm convinced him that we were sincere. Since we were off Thursday we cruised by his new place, but we only saw workmen and big piles of debris, and the old store was locked. Same deal on Friday, except Greg saw Marcos at one point, who mentioned that they were still packing up the old store, and that he wanted to paint the interior of the new one.

After classes on Saturday, and after the Internet beast was fed its 10 pesos, we went by again. It still wasn't ready so we just pitched in. Got the old cement bricks off the tiles, swept up, then grabbed some sacrificial clothes and got ready to paint.

[Any contractors among my readers may want to grab a comforting beverage and take a seat before reading on.]

I have only done a smidgen of painting and remodeling, just enough not to be a girly-girl. And even though I can't paint for shit and never made it out of the painter's closet the disorder disturbed me. Yeah, disturbed! I was already edgy after watching people stack and restack the crumbly cement bricks on the lovely floor tiles, and track the abrasive crumbs back and forth on their shoes. Our prep consisted of brushing the dust and cobwebs off the walls. Oh, and I used my knife to scrape off a couple of pieces of that tacky foam someone had used to stick paper to the wall. And from the look of things that was more than previous renovators had done.

When I came back in my shorts, henna-stained t-shirt, and bandanna, I found Paco already cutting in around the windows. Marcos had found two dropclothes, and both a tall and short ladder, which Paco had set up. The paintcan didn't have a wire bail - not that Marcos had any hooks - so Paco was dipping his brush, walking up the ladder, painting, climbing down the ladder ... rinse and repeat as necessary.

We also had two rollers, one rolling pan (or whatever they're called), and a long pole so we could roll from the ground. That was nice, but the short roller handle would not lock onto the pole, so if you as the roller weren't careful the paint-laden roller would swivel around and wipe out the floor, the fixtures, and your fellow painters.

Painting had commenced without the benefit of stir sticks, so even though I scrounged up a couple it seemed pointless. I just told myself, this is Marcos's place, he's happy with how it's going, that's fine. Even when we dipped our brushes and rollers into purple, black, and/or red streaks of pigment waiting at the bottom of the paintcans and had to swirl the color back together on the wall as best we could.

One of my very few construction exposures was to plaster work. I love plastering, and how the finished work looks, and Mexico - or at least, Oaxaca - is filled with it. The fancier buildings in town are stone, less fancy are the cinderblock. At the bottom of the construction hierarchy are the houses and tiendas made out of carrizo, a bamboo-like plant, planks or logs, corrugated metal, and tarps. The bulk, however, is adobe brick covered in plaster and painted. Like the building Marcos's new shop is in. I wouldn't know it looking at it from the outside, but inside I could see a patch of adobe where the workmen removed part of a wall.

So looking around at the plastered walls in this room, I could see places where someone had once stuck in and later removed a nail (which took a chunk of the plaster with it), places where the plaster was crumbly because of moisture, places where the old paint was pulling away from the plaster. There're ways to fix all those things, though they take some time, but here the solution was easy. Lots of paint! There's nothing can't be cured with an extra-heavy coat of streaky paint. Good thing it was thick.

Even so, with unmixed paint, minimal prep, little lighting, and lousy tools, we managed to turn Marcos's walls from apartment white (or is that Andy White?) to champaign with only a couple missed spots. Believe me, a triumph.

As thanks Marcos took us in our paint-spattered, bummy attire to "the best tlayuda place in town." They say it's the best, some of Greg's students say it's the best. I don't know, but they were pretty damn good tlayudas. And now we know where it is, which is even better. And a tlayuda, for those wondering, is a big ol' flour tortilla filled with stuff, folded in half and crisped on a comal. The trick is to constantly flip it so that it gets good and crunchy and the cheese inside melted without burning.

Sunday morning we went back for more, this time using el Diablo - a dolly to you and me, but it's so much more fun to use when it's called the devil - to move boxes and baskets of artwork and crafts from the old place around the corner to the new. The old location is in this beautifully-restored building, with a lovely courtyard and a patio that begs you to relax in its sunny, breezy embrace. And, it had a space for Marcos and Osvelia to run a little cafŽ, where they made some tasty Oaxacan food and West Coast-quality coffee drinks. But, it's in the back of this building, and on the second floor, so foot traffic was pretty low.

The new place is on a block sandwiched between the main pedestrian walkway on Alcala and the shop-heavy Cinco de Mayo, and across from Santo Domingo church. And right on the street. No cafe space, but we all think it's a much better location for walk-ins.

So back and forth we went all day, carting framed pictures of buddhas, shamans, and jesuses, masks and incense burners and tapetas, until we'd cleared out the old place. That night, Marcos bought us a roast chicken and tortilla dinner from a handful of shops a couple of blocks uphill from our place. Oh, that chicken was good! And it came with rice and tortillas, but we went next door and bought a package of fresh-made flour tortillas, too. Mmm, hot off the machine. Then across the street to a mercado where we picked up some avocados, tomatoes, and jalapenos. We then trooped back to Marcos's house and had lunch on the patio with his family, while his daughter Venisa quizzed Greg and me on the famous Americans in her history book. A very satisfying (and well-fed) weekend.

In Mexico, Christmas is the religious holiday, and Three Kings Day is the day for presents. I think it's Jan. 6. There's a brown one, a black one, and a white one, and everybody knows their names and what they came to town on. I don't know who's who or who rode what, but it's Kaspar, Melchor, and Balthazar on their horse, camel, and elephant. We went from working at the store right to the market, so we still had on our workclothes, Marcos with an East Indian-style headwrap (He lived in India for several years.) When we were in the market picking up the vegetables for dinner, small children started following us around. They thought we were the Three Kings, or at least One King and his gringo companions, because they kept coming up, introducing themselves, and politely notifying Marcos of what they'd like for Three Kings Day next year. So Marcos would listen carefully, nod, then remind them to be good and listen to their mother for the year.

We had a train of kids following us around the market, out the door and to the street before they waved goodbye to His Highness and went back inside.


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