I Moved To Oaxaca

Monday, February 02, 2004

Okay, this is a long one.

So yesterday it was the Pats and the Panthers, and while Greg and I really didn’t care to root for either team, we thought, you know, as Americans, that we should at least watch the Super Bowl.

We saw that Chester’s Bar had posted a hand-lettered sign advertising the fact that this pinnacle of American culture would be shown on their TV but even though it’s close to our apartment we were lukewarm on the idea of patronizing the skuzzy-looking Chester’s. Maybe we’d walk down to the zocalo and see if any of the bars there were showing the game on their big-screen TVs.

But we had another event on Sunday to plan around, too: the arrival in Oaxaca of Judy, a graduate of the punishing St. Giles CELTA course. After passing the class and expressing an interest in working in Mexico she’d been given our names by the staff. She and I had e-mailed a couple of times about local working conditions, and the city in general, and she’d decided to give it a try. Her last e-mail said she was scheduled to arrive Friday, have an orientation with her Spanish study class Saturday, free on Sunday. So we’d made arrangements to meet at her posada and play it by ear.

Greg and I strolled over to her posada in Jalatlaco – the colonia I would love to live in if anything ever opened up there, which it seems never happens – and sat down with her and her classmate Ida to chat and get acquainted. Judy lived in San Carlos, Calif., and was an HR director before getting dot-bombed and deciding to lead a life of adventure as an English teacher errant. As she explained it, her plan was to study Spanish for a month while sending out some resumes and seeing if she liked Oaxaca enough to stay. Her friend Ida is taking a break from her job as a marketer promoting the exciting world of professional teaching to the UK’s career undecided in order to study Spanish in beautiful Oaxaca before proceeding on a Central American-and-Carribean tour and eventually heading back to London.

Oh, and as it turned out, we’d sort of inadvertently met Ida and Judy the day before: as Greg and I left our Internet café to scrounge up some dinner, we saw a young student of mine (who did a double-take on seeing my tattoos), and maybe a dozen school kids posing around a woman while another woman took their picture in front of Santo Domingo. At first we thought it was a tour group stopping for a Kodak moment, but as soon as the picture was snapped the kids took off and left the woman we assumed was their teacher/guide. Then we thought, oh! the kids just wanted their picture taken with a black woman, a rarity around here. I’m sure you’re following this, but the curiosity-sparking woman and the picture-taker turned out to be Ida and Judy.

About 11:30 we decided to take a stroll downtown so we could show Judy and Ida where to get Oaxacan chocolate, which they’d been unable to find on their explorations Saturday. We set off under a beautiful blue Oaxaca sky, stopped by the apartment briefly to drop off the two jars of Patak’s Indian spice paste that Judy so kindly brought from the Bay Area, then headed toward Santo Domingo. Ida was due to meet a friend at Santo Domingo for church services, but we had a bit of time to kill so we stopped in at El Viejo Shaman to chat with Osvelia. Osvelia was chatting with a guy, and as people milled and swirled around, Greg ended up talking to the guy, Tony, while Osvelia told Judy, Ida, and I about her son and his friend cleaning their house.* After a few minutes of conversation, a very excited Greg bursts out with, “Are you ready to go?” Huh, what? Where? He and Tony have been talking, and have made plans for a day trip. Right now. I look at Judy and Ida. Well, Ida says, I’m going to church in a couple of minutes so don’t worry about me. Judy, who’s been half listening to what the guys were up to, says, Sounds good. Well, okay then.

So who is this guy and what is this road trip? Tony, introduced as a friend of Osvelia’s, turns out to be a guy from Oregon whom Osvelia met Saturday, when he turned up and her shop and stayed to chat for several hours. Tony is in town with his friend Ron, a guy who he knows from back home. Ron works in Oaxaca as an archeologist, and has spent enough time in Mexico that he’s completely on Mexican time. As a result, Tony, who does not seem like an uptight guy by any means, has been left at loose ends for most of the three weeks he’s been in town, waiting for Ron to show up and do stuff with him, but mostly getting irritated when Ron does his disappearing act. Usually, Tony explains, Ron has had Tony shuttle him to a site north of the city which Ron is getting ready to excavate. Ron has blown off their appointment yet again, so Tony’s got nothing to do but has a desire to get out of the city, so Tony agrees to take us to this site, and Greg offers Little Jumbo as conveyance.

So us ladies scoot over to the roast chicken shop to score some lunches – plus, I feel like I should show Ida and Judy at least one good-to-know local establishment today, since that was kinda the original plan – we buy some bottled water, grab hats and cameras and off we go. I’m driving and Tony’s navigating as he’s been there before. An hour up the toll-road toward Puebla, then another 45 minutes or so on a secondary road heading toward Huajuapan, then a local road to Teposcolula. We pull up by what to me looks like a Lutheran or Methodist church, circa 1975, and park. Tony shows us a little footpath going up a hill, and off we go.

As Tony explained on the drive up, in addition to being incredibly flaky, Ron is this old guy who’s been working on Oaxaca Valley archeological sites for about 40 years. This particular site, Pueblo Viejo, is his next project, due to start in a couple of weeks. It’s a completely unrestored, pre-Classical-to-post-Classical site. It covers about two square miles of hilltop, and appears to contain a ballcourt, pyramids, and perhaps a tomb under what Ron and Co. have been calling “the church.”

The hill was covered in what I’m taking to thinking of as typical, mixed-up Oaxacan vegetation: willows and ferns right intermingled with tanoak-looking shrubs, salvias, and cacti. At the top the path paralleled a low stone wall; beyond that the rock-strewn hilltop stretched away. We took a branching path toward the high point, through the rock-strewn area. Very quickly we saw not just rocks (parts of fallen walls and pre-Columbian buildings) but potsherds, flaked tools, and metates. All over. Everwhere. As we walked through the site, our eyes started picking out not just potsherds, but painted and incised shards, some of the pieces quite big. Tony pointed out the remains of original walls and floors, something that could be a tomb partially blocked with a big stone disk, and deep holes Tony called storage areas. There was no one but us around.

I made a QuickTime movie of the better pictures I took of the site; click here to download it, and here to play it over the Internet if you have broadband.

We had to cut short our exploration as it was getting late and I really don’t like being on the roads after dark. Even so, we were out past sundown, but most of the night driving was on the toll-road. On the way back Tony mentioned that he was supposed to meet another friend of Ron’s to see some jaguar masks the guy carves. Their meeting place was Kyoto’s, one of the very, very few Japanese restaurants in town. We couldn’t resist, and Tony seemed amenable, so we invited ourselves along to dinner. It’s just down Reforma from our old place at Luis and Rosa’s, but still, we’d never noticed it before. It was completely empty except for the four of us and Angelo, the owner/sushi chef.

I’m having a hard time putting into words how strange it was to read a sushi menu in Spanish. I have spent a lot of time pooh-poohing the Asian offerings in Oaxaca, but Tony assured us this was good. He said Angelo trained three years in Japan as a sushi chef. Well, okay then. We are six hours from the ocean, but I didn’t say that to Tony. Who wants to eat with a wet blanket?

California rolls, Philly rolls, tekka maki, cucumber rolls, too – pretty basic stuff, seemingly heavy on the mayonnaise and cream cheese, plus teriyaki, udon, and tempura. And, inexplicably, chow mein and chop suey. Ah, and also some Oaxaca-style rolls. We ordered some vegetable and shrimp tempura – Tempura Mix, which we all for some reason pronounced local-style, “tempura meex” – a Tampico roll, a Cronchy roll, and a Frito maki. I can’t tell you what was in the Tampico roll other than mayonnaise and jalapenos – the Tampico Roll Especial came with a light dusting of orange roe – and the Cronchy roll had some crunchy things stuck to the outside of the rice. I don’t think they were chicharrones, but I can’t be sure. Frito maki, a specialty of the house, had (I think) some salmon in the cream cheese inside the rice and was battered and fried. Sorry, no corn chips involved in the preparation.

I think if I ever go again – a big if, considering the price – I’ll stick to the sushi. Remember the fiberglass-like batter on frozen fish sticks? The batter on our tempura meex was about the same. Oh! And in the Bay Area at least I’m used to a big, fat dollop of wasabi and pickled ginger, but at Kyoto’s it looked like a pigeon turd next to a pink, glistening half-eaten throat lozenge. Guess that stuff’s hard to come by down here.

I don’t want you to come away from this blog with a bad impression of our dinner. We had a great time giggling over the rolls, sipping some excellent Oaxacan sake (home-brew mescal poured into an empty sake bottle), and telling funny stories. And all the result of a couple of chance meetings. I love it when life works out that way.

*Okay. As you may or may not know, Oaxaca city is old – founded in the mid-16th century by the Spanish, but inhabited by Zapotecs and Mixtecs for thousands of years before Cortez. The oldest cob of domesticated corn was found in Oaxaca valley, and Monte Alban might be the oldest city in North America. Just so you know. And, like a lot of areas with a long history of habitation, a lot of ghosts hang around. So last Sunday when we went to Osvelia’s for chicken dinner, one of her sons was there, and we were all hanging out, having dinner and chatting and generally just kicking back enjoying the company and the day. We met Marcos, Osvelia’s husband, through our old friend Timothy, the editor of Shaman’s Drum magazine and Greg’s medicine teacher. So it’s really no surprise that Osvelia’s brother and this son practice shamanism; in particular, cleaning houses that have ghost problems. Which, because this is an old, old place, happens a lot. So her son, whose name we could never quite catch, regaled us with stories of weird cleanings, then Osvelia said the duplex where she lives, which sits on an old streambed, has some ghostly action going on – their neighbors with the dog nobody likes won’t use one of their rooms because somebody’s still in it – but nothing major, just stuff like lights turning on and off, the washing machine starting on its own, the bed wiggling like someone’s sitting down on it. No big.

Well, Saturday afternoon we'd ran into Lluvia, Osvelia’s 19-year-old daughter, on her way to the store and she said the ghosts had kept her up until 5am, messing with her, so Osvelia said, that’s it, and called her son to come on over. Saturday her son and a cohort of his did a big cleaning (which Tony got to sit in on, as it turns out) to make them go away. And maybe you believe in ghosts and maybe you don't but either way it sure is handy to know people who can clean ghosts out of a house.