I Moved To Oaxaca

Sunday, October 31, 2004

You know the feeling American towns and cities give off during important national holidays? That ghost town feeling? Or maybe it's the "What am I doing on the street when I should be inside warm and cozy with my family" feeling. The kind of feeling you can experience Christmas, Thanksgiving, Superbowl Sunday. Oaxaca is feeling a little like that for Day of the Dead. Or, it would if the streets weren't crammed with tourists and the vendors catering to them.

Yesterday in Soriana, one of our supermarkets, people were loading up with groceries for the long weekend, and in the downtown mercado and in the Abastos, people were loading up with Day of the Dead supplies: flowers, candy, chocolate, and bread, sugar cane, candles, tissue paper flags. Tons of it. Because most people started building their family altars last night, or today, because tomorrow the dead start showing up and everybody wants to be ready. Me, too, only I built my a day early so that it would be ready today, Halloween, a holiday not really celebrated here -- though street kids don masks and plastic jack o'lanterns and ask for money -- but certainly celebrated in the U.S.

Mexicans say that the spirits of dead children show up around noon on the 1st, and that the adults and old people trickle in later in the day and on the 2nd; everybody goes home on the 3rd, unless it's Sunday in which case they wait until Monday. But I think that -- and here I am, showing my gringa excentrica nature again -- that the spirits of dead cats come back a day early, on Halloween night. Trust even a dead cat to cadge not one or two but three free meals. So the tins of tuna and Whiskas and chicken-flavored kibble are out, along with some fresh water and balled-up paper. Welcome back, kitties!

Packing boxes + 1 kitten x a fair amount of chaos = ... well, let's just say that I'm glad the bathroom has a door, and that Vivani's nest box is in the bathroom.

But after she exhausts herself attacking every moving thing, she crawls into the nearest lap, starts to purr, and goes to sleep. Yesterday, as I went to lift her out of my lap before leaving to see that crappy movie, I called her Evil-O, but G-man said, No, there was only one Evil-O, and he's right of course, so we decided that Trouble-O would work.

We're done with school, and as soon as the holiday is over the three of us will hit the road.

Miss Izzy--the original, the only Evil-O--was so good on car trips because not only was she deaf, but she really hated being left behind, so much so that riding in the car was to her preferable. However, tender young Vivani hears quite well, is highly excitable, teething, and doesn't have Izzy's old-age perspective. May the gods of car travel help us!

Saturday, October 30, 2004

I just saw what I'm pretty sure will be my last movie in Oaxaca. And what I'm pretty sure will end up being the worst movie I see in 2004. Yeah, Anchorman. G-man and I actually walked out, rating it (in my world) a true F -- unlike Paycheck, which I only wanted to walk out on. I think this synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes sums it up best:

"A coarse, one-joke affair; Ron Burgundy might not have actually been an SNL skit, but 'Anchorman' sure feels like a movie based on one."
-- Frank Swietek, ONE GUY'S OPINION

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Wasn't that eclipse beautiful? I hope you got to see it.

In the It's A Small World Afterall department, I've been e-mailing a couple of folks who saw my blog and sent me e-mail with vacation and living-here questions. Yesterday G decided on a whim to stop in at Oaxaca International and say goodbye to everyone, and when he got there the school was holding a presentation on traditional spirituality. While he's there at the presentation, G starts talking to this guy, who turns out to be a friend of one of the women I've been e-mailing. The guy says, "Oh, you're Greg!" which of course left G completely in the dark until the two of them came over to Moderate Shangri-la so I could explain what was going on and he could see the place and report back to his friend, who is moving here. Wow.

Tomorrow I go shopping for altar supplies and then I get to set up our Day of the Dead altar: flowers, candles, a loaf of dead bread, a can of tuna. I'm not sure what we're doing after our final class Saturday, or Sunday or that matter, but on Monday we're going out to Teotitlan to have lunch with Zacharias and his family. Mmm, turkey mole, here we come!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

You are kidding me:

"This is the first time a total eclipse of the Moon will be visible from a major league ballpark during a World Series game, and such a coincidence is not likely to happen again until the second half of this century," it said, quoting US astronomer Joe Rao.--AFP (Paris)

Monday, October 25, 2004

On Friday, while G and I were busy typing away at the internet cafe, we kept hearing sirens and zooming vehicles going down Alcala, right outside the door. Frankly, it sounded like a 9-1-1 call back in Albany. I'd say we heard rushing vehicles for a good 20 minutes before we finally logged out and took a look.

Road rally!

Now, Alcala is the cobbled tourist walkway leading from Heroes de Chapultepec -- aka Hwy 190, aka the Pan-American Hwy -- past Santo Domingo and down to the zocalo. It seems a little odd to funnel race cars down the city's one pedestrian walkway, but hey! It is Mexico. So we walked (carefully) down to the zocalo to check out the action.

Normally the zocalo is stuffed with couples, tourists, and families with kids out enjoying the afternoon and early evening. That Friday, it was thronged with men armed with video recorders and cameras, oohing and aahing over engines. I'm not sure why an engine needs to be videotaped, but hey, it's not my hobby. We noticed all the cars were vintage, from the 40s to about the 60s or 70s (as far as we could tell), and from just about all over Mexico, the U.S., and Europe! Fords, Chevys, Chryslers, Triumphs, Corvettes, Porsches, Mercedes Benzes, BMWs -- stuff we couldn't even tell what it was. And all the drivers swaggering through the crowd or standing around their race cars drinking beer.

We asked a pair of drivers about the race, and they told us it was the Pan American Highway Road Rally. They'd started in Tuxla Gutierrez, in Chiapas, were stopping for the night in Oax-town, and were heading out in the morning for Mexico City, and eventually Laredo, Texas. We talked about what it was like going down city streets, over topes, and driving on the generally crappy and full-of-surprises Mexican highways, and he agreed it was something to be zooming along through town at 140kmph, police escort or no. He said someone got nailed, too; one of my students on Saturday said it was a traffic cop! What do they call topes Down Under? Sleeping Policemen? Heh.

Friday, October 22, 2004

One week to go. We've been saying goodbye to our classes; sometimes their responses have been quite touching.

At home, the fruit tree -- ask me about that in a minute -- is dumping fruit like mad. Only now the fruit is rotten, so it really splats when it hits the bricks. We have to scoop it up several times a day and throw it in holes I dig in the garden to keep the bugs at bay. The other morning I counted: 154 pieces of fruit mushed onto the patio. Ugh.

So, our landlord Juan Carlos and my students say it's a ciruela tree. Ciruela means "plum," but the fruits are about as plumlike as apricots. Less, even, because these fruits aren't stone fruits. Oh, there's a pit, a big ropy thing, maybe 80 percent of the fruit's volume is pit. And they make good cat toys, or so Vivani says. So maybe ciruela means plum like miel means honey. Now, honey is miel. But so is pancake syrup, corn syrup, molassas, fructose sweetener. If it's sweet and syrupy, it's miel. Maybe if it's tasty and leafy-tree-grown, it's ciruela.

G-man found another lunch venue. It's across the street from Santo Domingo, next to the Oaxaqueño ice cream parlor. It's all take-out; the entire operation is, oh, about 6 feet across at the most. But she makes great comidas, and $20 pesos, just like Donut Lady's. But we feel guilty when we get comida at the new place, and try to scoot past Donut Lady without her seeing!

Today, though, on our way here to internet, I took a peek inside Donut Lady's trunk and saw she had pechuga and macaroni salad today, so we stopped and got two. She announced to her small crowd of family helpers, Hey! Guera wants two comidas! Donut Lady's daughter, sitting in the back seat on tortilla detail, said, Her name's Suzanne, remember? So Donut Lady says, Susi! Just like my daughter's name.

So there you have it: only two people in the world are allowed to call me Susi, my mom ... and Donut Lady.

Plus, lunch was only $35 today. The I-know-your-name discount?

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Nothing new to report. Haven't gone anywhere. Haven't decided on a course of action. Though I must say I love have a short-timer's attitude.

This morning on the way to school I gave my breakfast to a street dog; believe me, he needed it a lot more than I did.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I'll just cut the fat and say that yesterday G-man and I gave our notice at school; we'll finish out the month teaching, then do some driving to visit some places in the Mixteca we haven't yet visited. After that, I'm driving back to San Francisco, and G will follow as soon as he feels he has the materials he needs for his book.

That's right! I'm heading home.

Monday, October 11, 2004

G is working on a book about Oaxaca, so we have a little direction for our Sunday drives and various roadtrips. He wanted to head over to Mitla and look for some pre-Village sites (caves) behind town ... somewhere ... but as we didn't have our FM3s in the car, and often there's a military control point on the highway between Oax-town and Mitla, we headed the other way. (Our documents are at Migracion while they update our address and renew our visas for another year.)

Well, we didn't have much cash on us so we didn't want to blow it on tolls, so we drove to Huitzo on our way to Suchilquitongo, which has a community museum we have not yet seen.

We drove through Huitzo on the free road, keeping our eyes peeled. Huitzo has been inhabited a long time, and is supposed to have pre-Columbian ruins though they're closed to the public. But you never know, and we might spy some carved stones or whatnot meandering through town.

Well, we did not, but on the way out of town I swear I saw what looked like an unexcavated pyramid on a hill, so we turned around and tried to get there on the twisty, unpaved roads. I think we got near it, but we couldn't see the pyramid from the in-town roads, so after a bit of driving we gave up and recrossed the bridge heading out to Suchilquitongo.

Suchilquitongo, though it fails to appear on any of my Mexican maps or atlases (atlii?), has always struck me as a prosperous town: lots of people out and about, lots of shops with actual merchandise, cars, cement (not adobe or stick) houses, that sort of thing. But we got to the center of town, to the presidencia, and we saw that it was fenced off! What tha'...? I've never seen that before. The town had put up signs saying basically, the presidencia (and museum) closed until we get the money promised us to do X, Y, and Z. Strike two!

We decided to try Mitla after all, and I'm glad we did because the roadblock was absent, we saw a couple of smaller groups of ruins in town besides the main one with all the fancy greca stonework, and I remembered some caves I'd seen from the road on my way to San Juan del Rio ... which are kinda behind Mitla.

We left the pavement and crawled along a dirt farm road, until it got too rough for Little Jumbo. Then we parked and walked along a creek, through cornfields, toward a small canyon with said cliffs. G wasn't up to the scrambling, so I set off on a path I'd eyed from the road. Well, the only people using the caves now are cows and goats and swallows, judging by the poop. A few pottery sherds, but no construction, no corn, no fire-blackened walls or ceiling. But if people had been using the caves for a long time it'd be hard to tell because the ceiling of the cave -- to judge by the look of the cave floor -- keeps flaking off and crashing to the dirt below. But it was a fun scramble.

That was pretty much it for the day; not much. Certainly nothing like Yucuita! But this morning after classes we drove over to Migracion and picked up our FM3s with their shiny new stamps, so we are legal in Mexico for another year.

If we make it tha long.

In Pendragon terms, I am Suspicious 18, so naturally I think they're fucking with me at work. This last Saturday it was Greg who had to stumble around Moderate Shangri-la in the dark to get ready for early morning classes, not me. I got to sleep in. Only I'm so accustomed to getting up to the alarm that after he got up and I fell back asleep, I kept dreaming of the phone ringing -- yeah, we use our cell phone as our alarm clock.

So at 7:30 I got up to start my day, and while I'm putting my contacts in and fending off the kitten, I hear the phone ring, announcing an incoming call. It's 5:30a in California; who'd be calling at that hour? I grabbed the phone and it was G-man, telling me to get my ass to school pronto for my 8:00 class. My what? Yeah, the scheduled rotation got pushed back.

Well, I got there at five minutes to 8 -- late by school standards, but before any of my students arrived, so I had enough time to grab the books and put on a happy face.

Now, today during the second of my morning classes, I looked at my watch and said, Oh! time to go, do these exercises for homework and I'll see you Wednesday. My students looked at me and said, But we have another half hour of class! Huh? Apparently, to make up for some lost school days, my San Antonio group is going to be an hour and a half instead of an hour for the next three weeks.

"But didn't Gilo tell you?"

Mmm, no, he did not.

Friday, October 08, 2004

I've always found the schism between writers/editors and art/production people fascinating. Did you see this? It's a great example. This month one of the local free papers had another: all the articles across an inside spread had "the subhead goes here" and "the caption goes here."

"Don't you read the copy?!"

"Don't you look at the design?!"

And from what I've seen, the answers are no and no.

In other news, finally! Fahrenheit 9/11 has come to Oaxaca! Only ten months after it was in the States. Still waiting to see if Hero comes here, too. Then I could see it again, only instead of dubbed into German like the first time I saw it (Jet Li speaking German -- trippy), I could see it dubbed into Spanish. My own personal game of Around the World With Hero.

In other, other news, I know I've mentioned my brushes with tejate, that crazy YooHoo of a Oaxacan beverage. Here's an article from the Oaxaca Times about trying tejate. Too bad the picture's black and white.

Soon it'll be cold enough for atole, that watery hot corn drink. Mmm. Oh, and by "cold enough" I mean temperatures consistently in the 70s. Brrr!

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Sometimes my school schedule stinks, and sometimes it’s pretty darn good. In October I’d have to say it’s definitely the latter. I rotated out of my early Saturday morning class, so no more getting up at 6am on the weekend–though I still have to get up before the sun Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But I have no classes Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I’m going into exploration overdrive!

This last Sunday we drove out to the Mixteca to pick up Teposcolula; not a big day for Pre-hispanic artifacts, but a beautiful drive, and we had fun.

Tuesday we went back to the Mixteca for a third try at the community museum in Yucuita. On our previous visit we’d explored the ruins–including the bat-filled waterworks–and seen the carved stones in the town plaza, but it had been a Sunday and the museum was closed. We figured we’d have a much better shot at it on a Tuesday.

Well, we didn’t. It was again locked up tight, and the holder of the only key wasn’t around. A woman working in the presidencia directed us to a house up the street; the woman in the house up the street directed us back down the street to another house. As we hesitantly walked past the presidencia on our way to the second house, a man came over and asked us something we didn’t catch. We mentioned that we were in town to see the museum. He affirmed that it was closed, but asked us if we wanted to see the artifacts he had in his house.

I have to say, city girl that I am, my first reaction was suspicion: what, walk into a stranger’s house? To look at "artifacts"? It sounded like the set-up to a TV movie of the week, one involving ignorant gringos ending up in Mexican jail for antiquities theft. But then I came to my senses, and we said, Sure! Let’s go.

His name was Sr. Javier Ramos, and he lived just off the plaza. We walked into his house, and he invited us in to the living room and offered us a seat at the dining table. It was a typical middle-class village house, made out of concrete with rooms around an open courtyard. Only this house had a very motionless, very quiet, very old lady, head draped with a rebozo, holding a cane and sitting in a chair. She never looked at us or spoke to us, much less moved. (Turned out she wasn’t being stand-offish; she was blind and almost deaf.)

Sr. Ramos’s wife Sara came out and offered us something to drink. While she busied herself in the kitchen her husband brought out a small box filled with–wow. Sr. Ramos said that the museum was always closed because it wasn’t really a museum but a room in the presidencia the town used to store local finds. And apparently it either didn’t all fit in the presidencia, or people also brought stuff to Sr. Ramos. In the little box were several strings of beautiful polished jadeite, shell, and bone beads, delicate conch mother-of-pearl buttons and dangles, small pottery offering jars and human figurines, and lithic tools made from both the creamy-colored local chert and black obsidian imported from the Mexico City area: scrapers and a score or more of lovely arrowheads, and faceted obsidian points of some mysterious use.

The Sra. handed us our drinks and sat down to watch our reactions as Sr. Ramos brought out box and bag after box and bag of artifacts: a large incense burner. Rasps and polishers and metates. A gorgeous heart-shaped mortar. Polished stone labrets and pendants and other face and/or body jewelry. A beautiful bone sewing or basketry awl. Possum and eagle and jaguar and dog figurines. Stamps for making pottery. Small, incised pottery discs. Polychrome pottery bowls. What looked like a small stone dildo. Metal bells. A clay rattle. By the time the last box had been trotted out, the Ramoses not-small dining table was covered with Pre-hispanic artifacts. Artifacts that we got to handle and touch and scrutinize to our heart’s content!

While we were flipping through a pair of oversize books on Mixtec art and history, Sr. Ramos asked us if we wanted to see a piece found while the town was working on the road. We said sure, and the Sra. went off to retrieve it from her brother’s house. When she brought it in to the living room we were stunned. It was about a foot tall, and a lovely polished red and orange polychrome with a bird design around the rim. A major museum quality piece, which we also got to hold and admire close up.

We took so many pictures we filled a 256mb memory card and just about drained our camera battery. I’ll post a movie shortly so you can see what I mean. Finally, Sr. Ramos brought out several maps and talked to us about the next pueblo up, Santa Maria Yucuñdahui, which has a related set of ruins. He said, if we wanted to see it we should call him and he’d take us up there. So now I have his phone number and another reason to go back to Yucuita a fourth time. This town really sticks like glue.

Monday, October 04, 2004

As you I think know, I have two classes Saturdays: an adult class from 8a-11a, and a kids class from 11a-2p. Two adult classes wouldn't be so bad, but man those kids wear me out. Part of it is, the kids are anywhere from 8 years old to almost 12, so there's a huge scism between the older ones and the little kids. And the school has been trying out kids in all the Saturday classes, so sometimes I've had fourteen kids when I've planned for 8 or 10. It makes for a long three hours, and by the time I get home in the afternoon, I'm ready for a nap or a drink. Or both.

But this last Saturday I just took a nap, then played with the kitten, did some e-mail, saw a movie -- usual Saturday stuff. And by the time we were heading home it was late enough that El Chepil, our tlayuda restaurant around the corner, was open so we went there to get some dinner.

There was only one other diner when we sat down, but right after we ordered this huge group came in. The gods of restaurant timing were definitely on our side that night. We can see them sneaking peeks at us, then the kids started looking and making like they wanted to come over to our table but were too shy. Well, they finally worked up their courage just as our food arrived. They wanted to know our names. They wanted to know where we lived, and where we were from. Were we married? Did we have kids? What kind of food do we eat in the States? Is that a tattoo? Do you like Oaxaca? How do you say ... well, just about every word they could think of to ask. The kids, four girls, were seven and eight and eleven and twelve, two sets of sisters, all cousins.

When their little brains started to fill up, they went and got paper napkins and pens and started writing down what we said. Only through a kid Spanish filter. For instance, one kid asked me, "Como se dice 'verde' en ingles?" How do you say 'green' in English? I saw her write on her napkin, verde=ruin. Say "ruin" with a really fake-sounding Spanish accent and it kinda comes out as "green." Her napkin was full of that, but "ruin" is the only one I can remember.

Dinner lasted two hours! But it was the funnest thing we did all weekend.

I believe the kitten has a name. We have to try it out for a bit to see if it works, but so far, so good.

Vivani, which is a Zapotec name and means Dawn.

Who picked the name? G-man!

As Sunday Drives go, it didn't have much in the way of excitement: we didn't get lost, we never left paved roads, we ate no strange food or encounted any strange languages. We just drove out to Teposcolula to see the old church, community museum, and other odds and ends. Because after several trips to the area, we had managed not to see any of that.

We did try to spice it up by taking Hwy 190, the free road, the whole way there instead of taking the cuota to Nochixtlan. Which is what we've always done. And what we will go back to doing, because like most of Oaxaca's free roads the stretch of Hwy 190 between Oax-town and Nochixtlan is slow, twisty, and liable to have sudden washouts, landslides, and gargantuan potholes. Plus, it was raining so we didn't even have a view.

Poor us.

But I managed not to throw up, and G-man managed not to send us careening down the mountainside. And once we got to Nochixtlan the road was familiar and relatively fine. We took the turn to see if our random-encounter Tony or Ron had done any trenching or surveying work at Pueblo Viejo; nada. We drove into town looking for lunch, because driving the free road took forever and we were starving. We ate at the Moon guide-recommended Restaurant Eunice: chewy little beef steaks with gravy, beans, salad, and tortillas.

Now, the subject came up last week of just what the Spanish word for gravy is; our dictionaries all say salsa, which doesn't sound right and only puzzled my students. As did my explanation of "it's meat juice." So Greg asked the woman serving the food, who said it's jugito, or "little juice." So I was on the right track after all!

We ate then strolled through the plaza to the Casa de Cultura, which in this town also doubles as the community museum. A very fat, very bored-looking guard told us it was closed. Darn. Okay, down to the church, a big ol' 16th-century affair. It was open, and free on Sundays, so maybe it evened out. The church was interesting, but just, with some old paintings of the life of Santo Domingo, and some life-size wood statues of churchmen or saints or something. I didn't see any Pre-hispanic carved stones incorporated into the church as sometimes happens; too bad. Then we set off looking for the Casa de la Cacica.

Now, a cacique (or cacica for the ladies) is/was the local village leader back in Pre-hispanic times. And if you were a particularly good cacique your village would venerate your remains so you would intercede with the gods on behalf of the village. So back when the Spanish came through the area, they built the local cacica a fancy stone house to live in, hoping she'd settle there and her people would, too. I don't know if they ever did, or what happened to the cacica, but her house is still in town, and we wanted to see it. And it only took us asking directions, oh, three or four times in this tiny town to find it.

Well! They are renovating it, so there wasn't much to see other than your typical construction site stuff. But it's turning out to be a handsome-looking building, and I'm actually excited to see it when it's finished. It should make a kick-ass community museum, and who knows? Maybe it'll even be open Sundays.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

We often turn on our fan when we're home to foil the mosquitos, but for the past few days we've been tuning it on to drown our our neighbor's new Rod Stewart cd. They often play classic rock while they work in their haunted back room, but Rod Stewart is unsafe at any volume.

And I thought the Celine Dion the workmen next door listen to was bad.

In small furry animal news ... Greg was unable to resist, and has been absorbed into the Body. All hail Landru.

And this is my guess as to the still-unnamed kitten's brief history. It's not feral, and is quite used to being handled. It does not like the kids next door; whenever they come over to ooh and aah over it, and cart it around a bit, the kitten gets angry. It doesn't take it out on the kids, but waits until it's back with me. At some point in its young life its tail was broken. It was completely healed up when I brought it home, but the kitten's tail is L-shaped. So I think that while it was being handled by young kids its tail got broken, the family never had it set properly, and couldn't give away a kitten with an L-shaped tail, so after the rest of the litter was gone Dad took the unwanted kitten and chucked it in the dirt lot behind the Hombre de Papel newsstand. Or maybe he was aiming for the river and missed, which would make him an asshole and a poor shot. I first heard it crying Wednesday morning (I thought it was a bird), fed it Wednesday night, and scooped it up Thursday morning. I'm surprised it lasted that long, what with all the stray dogs in this city.

Since the kitten can't talk more than baby-talk, all I can do is guess, but I'd say I'm pretty close to the mark.