I Moved To Oaxaca

Monday, June 28, 2004

I have four adult classes this month at school, all around the same level -- high enough to have some fun, at least. So this month's Real Live American English examples are:

  • What the heck?!

  • way

  • Howdy!

Yeah, I know: I can't believe they don't know those yet! But I love it when they get confused about something -- say, when to use present perfect versus present perfect progressive. Like any of us know! -- and I hear somebody say, What the heck?!

Saturday, June 26, 2004

G-man is still in Ohio, whooping it up at Origins with the assorted tribe of geeks, nerds, and pear-shaped mouth-breathers that make up the gaming community. Wish I was there! And this year they're having a blow-out Hall of Famer reunion, too. And, he's running a Pendragon game! Damn! Although I'm sure he won't find any decent Mexican food in Columbus, he says he's having a blast.

I was thinking today how lucky he is: not only is he a self-taught expert in the esoteric language of mythology, he gets to use it in his chosen profession, gaming. And not only does he get to use his favorite themes in his profession, but he's one of those rare individuals who actually had a hand in shaping his industry. That's my guy!

Well, that's over.

I just finished my Saturday classes -- my last ones until August. And you know what? Despite all the whining about having to wake up before dawn on a Saturday and be up, up, up for six hours of perky English instruction, I'm gonna miss my students!

Yesterday after my afternoon class I hurriedly did today's lesson plans, then scooted off to Manuel's house for a little English-polishing work: Manuel's wife, Carla, is working with a mezcal exporter that wants to clean up its marketing materials. Manuel took a look at it and decided it needed a professional hand, so he asked me over. We sat down in his lovely grass-covered patio and I took a look while he popped over to the miscellanea for a 940'er to split and some Cheetos for his 6-yr-old daughter, also named Carla. Well. That was some fun English. The brochures weren't too bad, mostly some unobtrusive misspellings and "this sounds translated" klunkiness, though I'm still chuckling over the Reserve mezcal in the collectible, "punking"-shaped bottle. The Pun King, indeed. I'll have to get one for my friend Gus.

The worst was the tag placed around the neck of the bottles. Oh my hell, that was some fractured English. I was often at a loss as to what they were trying to convey. Manuel said they've been using the tag for awhile now, but somebody wrote them a note saying that the company needed to get its act together, so they passed it along to Carla. I'll try to snag one and post it here.

After we finished, Manuel went to pick up Carla from work while little Carla and I did cartwheels on the lawn and played with her naked Barbie. Little Carla's English is about as good as my Spanish, so it's fortunate that the language of play is universal. Then off we all went to get tlayudas. Manuel suggested the stands on Libres -- the best tlayudas in Oaxaca -- but I pointed out that it was still about an hour too early for them to be open, so I suggested El Chepil, my usual place around the corner from my house. It was awfully nice to go out and do something even quasi social, and it was positively giddy to be able to show them a new place in town, and be in the know about going to the miscellanea down the street to buy beers to drink with dinner, but by the time we were all done and Manuel had draped little Carla in the backseat of his car and we all said our goodbyes, it was awfully late.

I was pretty keyed up, so I watched an episode of Xena on my laptop, and finally turned out the lights about 11:30. I was planning on getting up at 6am for class, but Christ on crutches, I woke up at 4am! So my ass was dragging even more than usual this a.m., but I got in and started to prep for my first class. Now, if I may, I'd like to put my cranky pants on for a minute. The support staff at school just can't seem to get it together enough to do more than unlock the door and turn on the lights when they open the school in the morning. They don't turn on the computers in the computer lab, they don't start the coffee or tea, they don't unlock the bodega or at least pull out the cd players we're supposed to use in every stinkin' class ... what is the problem? Nor could they make the copies I'd requested yesterday. It's reception: how hard is it? (and before you get on my case, I've done reception work; it's not challenging)

Okay, pants off. So I'm upstairs, writing out my gapfill exercises, getting Chapter Review Jeopardy ready to go, when I go downstairs to make another pass for a cd player, when Gilberto says something about ... something. I stopped and said, what? and he explained again, in English, but I swear I couldn't understand what the hell he was saying. So I asked him to repeat it again, and this time Andrea, a fellow teacher, joined in. It turns out that they ("they"? they who?) had arranged for the three adult classes to work on a presentation then all three classes would get together and each student would give their presentation in front of everybody. This was news to me. So much for the lesson plan! But it actually went well, and if I were teaching next Saturday I'd already have my lesson plan done since I didn't use it today; ah, well. It was fun, and the class ended half an hour early, so Adam, Andrea, and I scooted off down the street to grab some breakfast before the next set of classes.

We talked about doing more of this kind of activity at the school -- presentations, not last-minute changes -- while waiting for our food, then Adam looked down at his watch. Oops! Almost time to get back. I wolfed my chilaquiles con pollo y pan down with my cafe, then we ran back. Now, teachers have been preparing for weeks for this Kids Fest thing, where all the kids and teens perform in front of the parents. However, I have also been operating under another directive: Finish The Level. So we haven't really done any prep in my class. Gulp. Better get to it. We actually ended up making big "My Favorit Things" flowers, then presenting our favorite things huddled together in a group on the makeshift stage. I literally had my knee in one kid's back and my hand clamped on his shoulder to keep him from fleeing; I didn't make him speak -- just repeat the level! Yeah, I flunked kids. I'm so cruel. Then we handed out the diplomas and I told the parents what I really thought of their kids, the parents asked me questions ... and they requested that I teach their kids the next level in the next school session. Aw!

Now, I could go home and crash ... or I could skip off to the movies to see American Splendor, and of course I'm going to the movies. I pulled my movie reviews out of the sidebar 'cause I got tired of it, but if you haven't seen Mean Girls yet I found it pretty darn funny, so color me surprised because not only is it a teen movie but an SNL movie too. Guess their drought's over.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

I’ve been adding links to some personal Oaxaca milestones, and while going over my blog archives I realized some things. Like, I’ve lived in Oaxaca for almost a year now – Guelaguetza next month will make it a year ago that Greg and I flew down, procured jobs, then flew back to Texas, loaded up the car and drove here. Also, that I’m still unhappy. More on that in a bit. And finally, when I think of my favorite places to eat in Oaxaca, all my favorites are streetcorner stands. Eating street food – unrefrigerated mayonnaise! mystery chorizo! is “res” beef, ‘cause I can’t tell! – used to be such an adventure; now eating inside a restaurtant, especially one that caters to tourists, is the adventure.

Why am I unhappy? People give me props all the time for having the balls to pick up and move practically sight-unseen to another country, and usually I can say, yeah, that was ballsy, and be glad I’ve got that in me. But sometimes it is so hard looking back at what I miss, and while I miss a lot of things – Jason, other family being within a day’s drive or short BART-ride away, so many restaurants, my house and garden, friends, the dojo – what I really miss the most is all the physical activity. I remember Manuel giving us this test during our training to see what kind of learners we were, and it was really no surprise to see that among other things I am a physical learner. I’ve always thought of myself as kind of a lazy person, what with that feline influence and all, but I did a lot of running around in the Bay Area, what between all the karate, the biking, the hiking and backpacking, and the general walking around The City and East Bay. And it’s making me crazy that I don’t do that here. When I came back from DC after my section hike this year I returned with the resolution to just accept being a Californian and not try to be a Mexican, and if that means hiking from pueblo to pueblo instead of taking the bus, then that’s what I’m fucking going to do. Only, I have to say, I am a little nervous about it. My Spanish is better, though that’s not always a help out in the sticks where a lot of folks do not speak Spanish. And I wish I had some hiking buddies like the fabulous folks in BayAreaHiking. Maybe I’ll find them, I don’t know. But I have to either get out and hike or get out of Mexico. I just can’t sit still.

If only it were that easy.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Saturday night, and what am I doing? Sitting at a fucking computer at the Internet cafe. Loser.

Part -- only part -- of the problem is that it is Saturday, which this month means my getting up at 6am and stumbling into Berlitz by 7:30a for the first of two classes and many mugs of second- and/or third-rate coffee on the patio. By 2pm I'm tired from having been "on" for six hours, yet wired from all the caffeine. And since Manuel got demoted, no one brought fruit today so yes, I ate hydrogenated palm oil-laden cookies and candies to counter any off-putting coffee breath. So I got home and scooped up G and off we went in search of a rotiseria, and again came up empty, but we did find some okay carnitas for our vitamin T. Which I then topped off with a pineapple raspado. Totally stuffed, I rolled back home and took a nap; G woke me up at 5pm before he left for a temescal at Ceviarem. So not only is it 9pm and I'm not tired and I'm not hungry so I won't be eating dinner or going to bed anytime soon, this week is not a good movie week. But, gee, I guess I am a little cranky, huh kids?

Shrek 2 opened in Oaxaca, but only in Spanish! And three weeks of language class helped a lot but not that much. Calendar Girls and The Ladykillers are both playing, but only matinee times. And there's still Troy, which G has already seen twice, so I think it'll be difficult to get him to commit to another three hours of Brad.

But, I want to end this on a good note, so ... next Saturday is my last two-class Saturday! And my second class will be a puff class since it's Kid's Fest, which is the school's "Hey Parents Come Watch Your Kids Parrot Some English!" performance. Then June 30, I am outta there! The school finally breaks for summer, and I won't have to think about English verb tenses until the middle of August.

Shit! I forgot the biggest news of all: Moderate Shangri-la now has hot water! Hoo-wee, a couple of days ago our landlord Juan Carlos came by and said he had the part to hook up the gas tank to the water heater. Turned out he was still shy a part, so G gave him the 40 pesos or so and he got some metal bit, attached everything ... then said, not enough pressure in the gas tank. Hey, no kidding -- the next day while heating up some water for tea the stove went out. Dry gas tank. So I used my alcohol backpacking stove while G grumbled and stumbled around waiting for either a gas truck to go by or for the local coffee shops to open. Well, he ended up going to a coffee shop, then sitting out on the sidewalk in front of the house waiting for a truck to go by. Hey! Know we know why people hang out in front of their houses -- they're waiting for services to go rolling by. The gas truck finally came around, Juan Carlos hooked up the full tank, and voila, a hot-water shower. Wow.

Friday, June 18, 2004

No biscuits this morning. English class until 9pm Thursday squashed that but good. But we have a full tank of gas, so I could have made them if I'd wanted to.

Instead, I sat on the patio this morning, reading Harper's and drinking my tea and listening to the squeals of children playing before the start of school. Moderate Shangri-la backs up onto a primary school, and every school morning G and I are treated to the sounds of playground fun, or recitations en masse of who knows what -- pledges of allegience? Multiplication tables? The morning's news? -- songs, speeches, and so on. This morning, after some contemporary Mexican music, the raucus shouting morphed into a rhythmic chant, that only slowly penetrated our consciousnesses: b ... b ... ba ... bas ... bas ... bas..ll ... basket...ll ... basketball ... basketball ... basketball! Only down here it comes out bahskeetbowl, bahskeetbowl!

Also, today was the end of my three weeks of Spanish class. Ahora, practicar!

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Every Friday at Spanish school Leticia and Iliana take us on a little field trip, like the outing to the house of a woman who makes tortillas. Because of my Berlitz work schedule, I haven't been able to go since I actually signed up for classes! So last Friday, as a way of participating, I busted out the corn meal G brought back from the States and whipped up a batch of corn bread, one for Spanish school and one for Ceviarem. I was late for class as the stove has no numbers on the temperature dial so I had to guess at the temperature then watch the cornbread like a hawk. Well, I finally got to class, set up the corn bread, butter, and honey, and stood back. Oh -- apparently they don't eat corn bread in Mexico. Here, in the heartland of corn cultivation and consumption, it is as mysterious as an organic burrito with a spinach-flavored wrap. Leticia and Iliana pronounced the corn bread "good ... interesting ..." but Jerry, the English teacher, and William, a fellow student, are both from the south and they pounced on the corn bread, and were two very happy guys.

If I wake up early enough, I'm gonna bring biscuits tomorrow.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Yesterday after work I had a real hankering for meat, and the fried eggs and reheated tamal I ate for lunch did not fill the bill, so after the movie and a trip through Gigante, G and I went downtown looking for the next-best thing, tacos. Pig head, cow head, tripe ... ah, yes! plain ol' res. Three beef tacos and half a Fanta later I was satisfied -- but only for the moment, because G mentioned carnitas.

Oaxaca has a lot of mighty fine food, especially the local Vitamin T: tacos, tamales, tlayudas. However, it does not have, in addition to the bevy of Asian cuisines we urban Californians take for granted, any burritos, fish tacos, or carnitas. Yeah, yeah, it's possible to find a fish taco -- I hear you can get 'em down in Huatulco -- and every so often a carnitas sign pops out, but the folks here like their pork sliced thin and covered with chili. Aka cecina enchilada.

We'd had some rockin' good carnitas out at El Tule with Ian and Caroline, so we decided that as part of our Sunday Morning Drive we'd go to El Tule and get a carnitas lunch. El Tule's out Hwy 175, as are a couple of sites that our little Oaxaca guidebook treats as afterthoughts. But still, we decided to see Dainzu. It's not far.

Well! I hope you click on the link because it's a pretty little place and, other than the caretaker and the parking lot attendant, G and I were the only ones there. So after a thorough exploration we headed off to our carnitas lunch. And with G heading back to the States in a few days, we decided to pick up a few gifts there, too. It's small, and has a pretty church, a pretty pedestrian walkway, garden ... it's a nice little place to visit on a Sunday, and if you're in Oaxaca I recommend it. Lots of folks were strolling around today, sampling mezcal, eating helados and raspados and other summer-day snacks. And a fair number of small ladies were selling the local red pottery (I finally succumbed). We parked Little Jumbo, turned the corner onto the pedestrian walkway, and ... where the carnitas fonda had stood was a bare patch of dirt. No tarp, no grill, no plastic chairs and tables and cold beers. Most importantly, no carnitas. G asked a neighboring vendor, who said, yeah, they were unique in Tule and, yeah, they're gone. Damn! So we got tlayudas with chorizo and a couple of tuna helados and while it was good, it still wasn't the big old meal of meat I was craving. So acting on a memory, we drove back into town and down the Periferico toward Gringolandia, where Greg remembered seeing the word "carnitas" attached to one of the funny signs along the road. Turns out he was right! At the sign of an alarmed Porky Pig in a fiery cauldron, we did indeed see:

Los Michoacanos Carnitas

We parked, walked up, and asked, ah, can we get some carnitas to go? Sure can, how much you want? Quarter kilo enough? Here, try some while the muchacho bags up your order! Oh, my, yes! Carnitas, tortillas, pickled carrots, guacamole, salsa, a bag of chipotle peppers, we had everything we needed for some bang-up tacos. Except ... we got back in the car and drove a little past Gringolandia, to the drive-thru miscellanea in the shape of a giant Tecate six-pack. As we rolled up, G asked, what's Spanish for six-pack? I said, I don't know but the Spanglish word is six-pack, and since the guy in the Big Six understood Spanglish, pretty soon we were whizzing back to Moderate Shangri-la with a complete taco party.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Where to start? I was going to start by talking about The Day After Tomorrow but got sidetracked looking for a link for hoopdy. And then I got distracted thinking about a site dedicated to sites about people's cars, then by the mass of slang dictionaries with .uk and .edu addresses. I almost had to cut the cord! Which brings me back to ... The Day After Tomorrow. See it with someone who will makes jokes through the movie! My two favorite parts -- and I don't think I'm giving anything away -- were when the Fox News reporter was smashed by the Angelyne billboard, and when Greg shouted "¿¡Habla español!?" at the screen while the gringos were wading across the border into Mexico.

So, when Dale was here he told me why he uses majortom as his e-mail address. It's a scenario that'll be familiar to anyone who's ever lived in SF and then moved across the bay: you disappear from your friend's radar, unless of course you happen to go back into The City, in which case poing! you're back online socially. Only it was Dale's kids who pretty much didn't realize that living on a sandspit in Belize with a town connected to the mainland by a dirt road (or boat) and far, far, far from electricity or any blacktop makes it difficult to live according to American standards. So he'd ask them for emergency parts, and they'd forget to send or bring them, that kind of thing. And damn if my most excellent family doesn't come through not once but three times with goodie packages while he's here: magazines, letters, exotic foodstuffs. Oh, it warmed my little heart!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Greg got back from Atlanta yesterday, so after making kissy-faces we gorged on Indian food and California wine and cookies.

In other news ... another "Oaxaca's Great!" bubble burst, courtesy of my Spanish teacher, who says the throngs of campesinos protesting in the Llano, or in front of the governor's house, or in the zocalo aren't there demanding social justice. They're there because the Big Man in their pueblo paid them to stand around in order to increase his prestige and a chance at a lucrative government job. Crap.

And, how's this for Oaxaca-style comida corrida? Breaded cutlet with refried beans and spagetti with picante tomato salsa, and a bag of juice? Lovingly served out of the back of a hoopdy!

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

We had kind of planned to take Dale out to see Monte Alban Sunday, but Leticia, Greg's Spanish teacher, said there was a field trip out to a puebla on Sunday, so since Dale said he's seen plenty of ruins we decided to join the school on the excursion to Huamelulpan. We didn't know what was on the agenda, just that Huamelulpan is a traditional pueblo in the northern part of the state. Fine with us!

Aside from our trip down Hwy 175 to the coast, the only other trips we've taken outside the Valley of Oaxaca have been up the cuota and out Hwy 125, once to Pueblo Viejo and another time to see the big church in Yanhuitlan. So naturally it follows that the road to Huamelulpan is also along Hwy 125, which I'm growing very fond of, mostly because it travels through the Mixteca Baja, a part of Oaxaca state that I find very pretty and alluring. And this time we used one of the city's many servicios turisticos, or 16-passenger vans that run folks from point to point in the state for around 40 or 50 pesos. So I got to look out the window for the 2 1-2 hour trip instead of focusing on the road.

The van, which was full, dropped us off at Leticia's request where the road to the pueblo dead-ended at Hwy 125 so that we could walk the half-mile into the center of town. I immediately took off at my own pace instead of strolling along with everyone else, and got rewarded for my brisk pace with another caracara sighting, and a chance to sneak a few cookies while waiting in the zocalo for the rest of the party to show up. And lucky me, instead of going into the community museum right away we waltzed over to the woman selling tamales and atole and got some snacks. Mmm. While people ate a couple of us entertained ourselves feeding the stray dogs and puppies bits of tamal and atole. I don't know what the señora thought about that, but I'm thinking of Moonstruck while I write this.

Nice little community museum with artifacts from the ruins underneath the town, and a little section on community healers and medicinal plants. After the museum we started walking up the hill behind the zocalo but instead of going to the ruins, we went to a house. The house of one of the community healers! The señora was 87, and came up to Greg's elbow, but she invited us to sit down in front of her house while Leticia translated her explanation about what she does. She asked if anyone wanted a cleaning, and four of us said, sure!, so we followed her while she gathered herbs from the margins of her fields, and from her beautiful garden, then we sat down on her palm-front tapeta and plucked the leaves from the big pile of branches. Then we went inside her house -- adobe walls, dirt floor, a wood-framed roof holding up clay tiles, and a couple of pieces of furniture -- while she prepared the herbs by grabbing big handfuls and twisting them into pieces. It was like watching someone rip apart a phone book. She put the shredded herbs into a jar of cane alcohol, added some camphor, and started "cleaning." First William's knees -- his comment was how strong her hands were. Then Rebecca, who asked for a "find-me-a-boyfriend" cleaning. The señora told all the guys to sit outside, then had Rebecca strip down to her skivvies and lie down before rubbing her all over with the herbs and chanting. After she'd stuffed a big handful of herbs down the back of Rebecca's underwear she told her to get dressed, wrapped her in a patchwork blanket, and had her sit and keep warm. Then she cleaned me off but good to get rid of my sore throat -- my undies thankfully stayed herb-free -- wrapped me up and set me down, then had Marcos come in. She made poor Marcos, a 23-year-old from Manchester, strip to his skivvies, too, but in front of all us ladies before giving him the herb treatment. Poor guy -- it was his first experience ever with any kind of massage. Then she stuffed his shoes full of herbs so that he would find a girlfriend. Not something he requested, but something apparently the señora felt was necessary. In addition to the embarassment, of course. We then drank a nasty herbal tea, said our goodbyes, and off we went, this time up to the top of the hill to explore the ruins. Pretty fun, with a great view of the town and the countryside, and the local church. This one had a pyramid with tombs in the base connected by a passageway passing just behind the front stairs, so it was a fun tomb-crawl, especially since it was wasp-free. Wasp-free is always a good thing. Then it was down the hill, back through the pueblo and down the road to the main road to catch the mini-van back to Oaxaca.

Again, I was way out front only this time Dale was with me too as we were heading downhill. We were almost to the road when we saw a mini-van pull up, so I went racing down the road to flag it down. No luck, so Dale and I stood on the carless road ... then it started to rain. We ducked under the eaves of a house next to the intersection and waited. It really poured. Soon enough, Greg, Leticia, and the rest of the group came walking up, totally soaked, and stood under the eaves with Dale and I. Twenty minutes later a mini-van went by. And kept going; totally full. Then another one. The third one stopped but was pretty full, and it looked like only half of us would fit -- especially since William needed to sit in the front in order to avoid having to learn the Spanish word for "puke." But, no, people squeeze and scootched around until we all fit, even though Dale was sitting on the wheelwell.

By the time we got back to Oaxaca we were famished, since the last thing we'd eaten were the tamales in the morning and a couple of cookies each on the walk back to the road to await the van. So as we walked down the street toward the zocalo, when I saw a restaurant that had rotisserie chickens, in we went. Ah, yummy. I mean, it wasn't good enough that I would go again to get a chicken, but starving, yeah, it was great.

I think Dale passed out as soon as we got home.