I Moved To Oaxaca

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

We're finally having what I would call, after almost nine months of residency, an ugly weather day. Monday morning I saw thunderheads over the mountains to the north and sure enough, that afternoon the wind kicked up real hard, and it thundered and flashed for about an hour, then we got a hard, brief soaker. By that evening the skies were clear. Typical Oaxacan rainstorm, only it happened during the dry season. Well, everyone says that February and March weather is crazy.

Tuesday, afternoon clouds moved in again. No thunder and lightening, but it sure did rain, enough to flood some of the streets and sidewalks and make the arroyo that runs through town flow. But the rain never really stopped, only tapered off to a drizzle for most of the night. And this morning was overcast and cold. It's still overcast and cold -- I'm wearing long pants, socks, and a wool sweater. (Now, if that's sounding a bit too dramatic, remember to frame that in the context of southern Mexico -- really, it's just a typical coastal California morning, overcast and cool. We'll survive.) I made myself a mug of tea to take with me to work, but ended up leaving it on the counter when I rushed off at 6:30. Well, without the mug I could jam my hands into my pockets to keep them warm. I crossed the Intersection of Death and got ready to say "Buenas dias!" to the friendlier of the two Hombres de Papel (brothers, or cousins maybe, that run a newsstand on the corner; we say hello every day), and after we greeted, my Hombre amigo handed me a styrofoam cup of atole to warm me up. How sweet!

(You know Oaxaqueños think it's cold when people start selling and drinking atole.)

One of the stories we heard from Jorge Friday was that when a person dies, their spirit rides up to heaven on the back of a frog and becomes a star. People's souls return to the earth with the rain. Guess some folks were keeping busy last night.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Well, it was a short-lived hope: I am back to being in a pissy, depressed mood. Why is this so hard?

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Biscuits, glorious biscuits!

Jeez, I just realized I'm pretty much down to one, maybe two postings a week. Will work on that. But back to the biscuits, or bisquets as I keep trying to spell it. (I'm also having trouble remembering whether it's virgin or virgen.) I made a batch this morning because I have been craving real buttermilk biscuits since Monday. Let me explain.

Two weeks or so ago, Greg screwed up his courage and went over to the center where we attended a demonstration ceremony put on by Jorge, Osvelia's brother (you remember -- the one who cleans houses). He's got a shamanic arts center near our school. Greg told him he wanted to learn more about local practices, so Jorge asked to have a breakfast meeting with him and I on Monday, so after class we went over and ate with Jorge, his wife Barbara (who knows some English) and Jorge's apprentice Oscar (who also knows English). I'm not a big breakfast nut -- I usually don't eat it at all -- but to be companionable I ordered coffee and biscuits with butter. What the fuck was I thinking? The "biscuit" -- let's just call it a bisquet -- was a roll of pan dulce pan-toasted in butter. Mexican butter. Ugh. Like eating Wonder Bread fried in Imperial margarine. So during the week I bought some flour, a tin of baking powder, and a box of baking soda. And a product Greg calls "animal shortening" -- commingled vegetable shortening and pig lard. Whatever. And I didn't find any buttermilk so I used some of the happy yogurt from the El Pochote tianguis and made 8 big biscuits, which we with some of that good New Zealand butter from Gigante. Mmm.

I've also been jonesing for tlayudas, and seeing how we're just around the corner from the Best Tlayudas in Oaxaca it shouldn't be that hard, but with a 7a class I just find it too difficult to wait until 10p to eat dinner, so I usually bail out well before Sra. Marta opens up. And El Chepil, the tlayuda place around the corner on Constitucion, hadn't been opened on the nights I checked. They also open fairly late for dinner, 8:30p, and it was either Wednesday or Thursday when we finally went down there and found them open. As it was 8:15 they were still setting up, so we went back up the street to the miscelanea and bought a six-pack of Modelo then walked back and sat down at a table to wait. We had just ordered our tlayudas con cecina enchilada y salsa pasilla when a guy walked by; looks of recognition all around. A week or so ago he'd been in our usual coffee shop while poor Greg was listening to me work out the last bits of insanity. (Well, we hope it's the last few bits.) We'd chatted briefly as we were deep in conversation and he was heading out to tour the botanical gardens. But here he was again, without any plans, so we invited him to join us. Henry from Montana had yet to have a tlayuda, so we handed him a beer, asked the cook for one more tlayuda, and found out a little about each other. He teaches architecture at the university in Boseman, and was down with his family and students studying the local architecture. He also paints watercolors, and had been working on some pieces while in town. (I often see people doing just that.) All in all, a very pleasant evening.

During that Monday breakfast meeting, Jorge asked if we wanted to go do some stuff out in the countryside to see whether we really were interested in doing stuff with him, and we said, sure! Friday's practically a day off since I only have that one, 7a - 8a class. So we made plans to meet at 9a. Greg had a class Thursday, and while I didn't I decided to go in and get my weekly dose of required lesson planning out of the way because we really weren't sure how long this little excursion would take on Friday. And when I get to school I find out from Greg and Cesar that I have two afternoon classes on Friday. So I immediately launched into a filth-laden tirade then with that out of my system marched into the directora's office to say, No Can Do and, Why Is It Impossible To Get A Weekly Schedule Around Here? No good answer to the latter question, though I did extract a verbal promise to provide on on request on Saturdays. And I got them to schedule the classes for another teacher. As a fat man once said, The sun don't rise and set on the corner grocery. And neither does it on that stupid daily schedule at Berlitz.

So Friday I hustled my students out of the classroom and hightailed it home to change, grab some water and a hat, and head back to Reforma to the center. Jorge and Oscar drove us out first to a town, which I will have to find on a map and update, to tell us the story behind a shrine to a rock, and to work with the rock. (If you want to know more about this, I suggest you check on Greg's weblog for details.) We then went across the dirt street to a house where the ladies of the house were making tortillas. It looked like a house, but Jorge talked to the oldest woman, and soon chairs and a table appeared and we sat down and were served amarillo tlayudas, and a couple of queso fresco quesadillas each. Oh. My. God. Fresh off the comal, and oh so tasty. I thought it was a bit on the early side for lonche, but then we were back into the car and off to Yagul, where Jorge showed us some more cool stuff, but that had us tramping up and all over the hill behind Yagul for several hours. Even with a hat I got pretty pinked. But on the way back to Oaxaca we stopped in at Santa Maria Tule and got fruit ices to perk ourselves up. And I know this seems awfully food-centric, and that was not the purpose of the day at all, but I will leave this for Greg to explain.

Hermit crab update: I was pretty tired after running around with Jorge and Oscar all day, but after we got home from our outing I dragged myself over to Conzatti tianguis to get my hermit crab. But the aquarium people didn't have any! So disappointing. So I walked over to El Pochote tianguis to buy some happy yogurt, and Emma was out! So disappointing. She said she'd be at the market Saturday, and after I told her I work Saturdays until 2p, she promised to hold me a couple of containers of strawberry yogurt. Yay! Slightly revitalized, I walked up the hill to the Chicken Place to get a roasted chicken for comida, but it was late enough in the afternoon that they were sold out and shut up. So disappointing. So I rolled back down the hill to the Internet cafe, and consoled myself by reading about hermit crabs. I'm glad now that the aquarium fonda didn't have any, as I see now that it takes more than a cute plastic habitat with plastic palm trees and colored gravel to satisfy a congrejo hermitano.

Monday, March 22, 2004

We had a triple play of festivals this weekend. Friday was Good Samaritan Day. Yeah, that's what I said -- Huh? It's all part of Mexico's Lent festivities. I don't know if it's a station of the cross, though it's in Mel's movie. Anyhoo, to commemorate when the woman gave Jesus a drink of water on his way to Golgotha, folks all over town hand out water and fruit juice, often from doorways and stands decorated with palm fronds, bouganville, and paper flowers. People even brought cups of juice onto the buses for the drivers and route callers. We personally had some horchata (rice) and jamaica (hibiscus) and chilacaota (squash).

Saturday was Primavera, or the first day of Spring. Big holiday in the US, right? Like Good Samaritan Day. The kids in my Saturday class demanded we do some Primavera arts and crafts, which took me by surprise, but I busted out the colored paper, stencils, and markers and we made Spring Day posters. After school -- all weekend really -- we saw a parade of little kids all dressed up as animals, flowers, and bugs. Mostly. A few kids stretched the meaning of springtime a bit by parading dressed as Snow White, a sailor, and Bob Esponja. (Click here to see and/or download the quicktime movie.)

So what could possibly be left for Sunday? Why, the birthday of Benito Juarez! Brass bands everywhere, and a half dozen dignataries giving a speech in the Llano Sunday morning. I couldn't tell if one of them was the governor or not. There certainly were a lot of police around.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

"It's like camping."

That's our new refrain, at least when we're enjoying the comforts of Moderate Shangri-La. Seriously, though, while the weather is warm like it has been, bathing out of a bucket is fine. But, I keep eyeing our cistern and thinking on the mosquitos which are becoming active again. Don't have to think too hard about why Mexico continues to have problems with mosquito-borne diseases, as most houses in the state have a container or two of standing water. So Friday at the Conzatti tianguis, after we'd gotten the week's veggies from Paco, we strolled past the two aquarium stands. The first one only had guppies, ciclids, and goldfish, but the second one had mollies, swordtails, puffer fish, and danios. We ended up getting a pair of orange swordtails instead of the cute-as-buttons danios. We didn't know the Mexican name for swordtails, so Greg asked, "May I?" and netted them himself -- fun to watch Mr. Aquarium Pro in action. We then grabbed half a grilled chicken (different stand!) and rushed home. Because It's Mexico, all we had to do was open the bag and drop the fish into the water, no treatment necessary! Greg says they're working fish, so they don't have names, but he did agree that next Friday we can go back and get a pet hermit crab. Cool.

While buying a phone card Greg struck up a conversation with an American that went something like this:

"Where you from?"
"San Francisco; and you?"
"Oh, I'm really from Albany."
"Me, too!"

Turns out Charlie (and his wife, Lucy) used to live on Carmel just off Solano, what, maybe 5 or 6 blocks from the House of Mystery on Ventura. We went out with them and Judy, our fellow St. Giles graduate, Friday night for a light dinner at a place near Charlie and Lucy's apartment. And speaking of remembrances of home, I got an e-mail from a guy whose done some desert hiking.

Oh, and somebody tried to asassinate the governor this week. We wondered what all the helicopters were about. It happened up the hill at the fancy Hotel El Fortin and not at his house, across the street from our old apartment but still only two blocks from our new place.

I have the McDonald's pictures; should be up soon. Speaking of Gringolandia, I borrowed Osvelia's Sam's Club card and bought some sheets. Ouch. Tweren't cheap, folks. Cost me almost as much as a month's rent for Little Jumbo. And I saw The Passion of the Christ. It opened in Oaxaca on Friday, and is playing at four screens at Cinepolis -- finally! something to knock The Haunted Mansion down a peg. And while I am a big fan of Jesus movies, I didn't think the Passion was so good. Which is too bad, but it looks like Cinepolis might show The Last Temptation of Christ. That would be awesome!

Sunday, March 14, 2004

It's been an odd weekend so far:

1) We moved;
2) We had three days off in a row;
3) It was our anniversary Saturday;
4) Little Jumbo's starter crapped out.

What those four little factoids add up to all together is, now we really get to test our Spanish as we look for a mechanic that can work on, and has access to parts for, a Subaru. The only Subarus we've seen in Oaxaca have had US plates. There's a mechanic down the street from us, so we'll ask Juan Carlos, our landlord, what he knows about them because down here it's all about who you know. So Jumbo being out of commission made it a little harder to move the three blocks (not too much -- Greg has a kick-ass luggage cart that is just about indestructible). Mostly, though, it pushed us over the edge of, Too Much Going On. So instead of driving like we'd planned, we talked about taking a bus somewhere for a little overnight trip, but in the end we just stayed home. We did go out and have a nice dinner at Los Pacos, but for the second year in a row we forwent our anniversary roadtrip, which is a shame. But I just couldn't muster the gumption to organize it; guess we'll see what happens next year.

We did take the bus out to Gringolandia, as Moderate Shangri-la is not fully stocked like the last apartment was. And Moderate Shangri-la is a bit more Mexican than the last apartment, too. Which we knew before we moved, but now we get to experience first-hand all the fun and adventure of a casita not built for tourists. Trash pickup MWF, but Osvelia says that if we do not want to get up to meet the garbage truck at 6:30am we can put it out late the night before. And technically we have running water. In reality, we have running water out of one tap every other day, but not in the kitchen or bathroom. Osvelia kindly left us one of her two 32-gallon trash cans. The procedure is, on the days the water is running, turn on the tap and let it fill up the cistern outside the bathroom, then use our newly-purchased plastic buckets to fill up the big trashcan of water and wheel it into the bathroom so the toilet can be flushed and "showers" can be taken. Juan Carlos is in the process of adding cisterns and a pump so that we can get water up onto the roof of the bathroom, where the marvels of a water heater and gravity will give us a shower every day. In the meantime, we have a couple more buckets for bathing. And we have our 5-gallon jug of drinking water in the kitchen, but Osvelia said she just did her dishes by the cistern and used the graywater on the plants, so we probably will, too. We're still trying to figure out cat gates so Izzy can enjoy some of the patio without supervision, but so far no luck. So when the people next door are gone (and their dog locked up) I let her out to explore. We are back to using the turkey roasting pan for a cat pan as the official cat box purchased two weeks ago is on the small side.

Now, Gringolandia. Because we were on foot we saw it from a new perspective. So in a semi-random order ...

We took a shortcut through McDonalds and were transfixed by the drive-thru menu. Pictures coming! In the meantime, picture in your mind the McBurrito (in Oaxaca! Where half my classes haven't even heard of a burrito). Or a splop of refried beans Straight Outta Canpton, scrambled eggs, and tortillas on a styrofoam tray called Desayuno Mexicano (Mexican Breakfast). McPapas, or fries. Any hey, no Supersize option. We went through Sears, Gigante, a couple of local dept. stores, and Sorianas looking for cotton bedsheets. Not 50/50 cotton-poly (or 20/80!), and not for $80 american, either. No luck. Now I remember, when it looked like we might get down to Belize to visit our friend Dale, he asked us to please, please, please bring cotton sheets with us. The first local chain store we went into reminded me of ... those of you in Berkeley, you know the Goodwill on University just west of Shattuck Ave? The nice one? It was a lot like that, except the appliances were new. And if you don't want to buy a whole stove you can buy just the stove top -- that's right, just four burners. And if four are too many, you can buy little solo or dual electric plug-in burners. Which if you think about it is a pretty good idea, because how many people really use their oven a lot? But, the unrelenting wall of noise that is Gigante just about finished us off. Despite the noise and clutter, we are reevaluating Gigante's place in our hearts, because not only do they sell the only decent butter we've found in Oaxaca so far (imported from New Zealand), but yesterday we also found a jar of sweet pickles -- hello, home-made relish! -- but Crystal's Louisiana Hot Sauce. Rockin'! I know it sounds funny to buy hot sauce in Oaxaca, but I haven't found a Mexican brand yet that doesn't not use water and really, for proper hot sauce, it can be only three ingredients: peppers, vinegar, salt. Mmm, Inyo Firecrackers. So we took our culinary treasures and a soda out to the street and reenergized before hopping on a bus for home.

Oh, the buses. The buses aren't numbered like in the States. I suppose they have a route they follow, but since streets are often blocked for parades and whatnot, detours are pretty common. No, the buses have writing in the front window explaining where the bus goes: San Felipe Gigante ADO VW Llano B.Juarez Plaza del Valle CRIT. Which means that the bus starts in San Felipe, goes past the big Gigante in Reforma, then to the ADO first-class bus station then past the big VW dealership on Chapultepic then past the Llano park on Benito Juarez to Plaza del Valle (aka Gringolandia) and on to CRIT, a hospital south of town. There are not route maps. So going out we just waited for a bus with "Plaza del Valle" somewhere on the windshield, and on the way back "Llano." Piece of cake.

Oh, and I did find last week's People, and an Entertainment Weekly, at another newsstand a couple of blocks from Amate. Whee!

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Well, I got the keys Wednesday, so after work I decided to drive out to Gringolandia and get some cat litter and spare keys made. I've mentioned before that there seems to be a parade or celebration every day in Oaxaca. Sometimes it's a protest. Usually the protestors congregate in the llano or in the street between my apartment and the governor's house, and sit with their banners and signs, or give speeches. Sometimes they stage hunger strikes, or grafitti the area, or march down the street.

Yesterday the protestors, los communistas from the Mixteca (a part of the state between Oaxaca and Puebla) used their buses to block the intersection of death to thru-traffic. It made my walk to and from work quite pleasant: no traffic, no noise, no fumes. And they were very colorful with their red and yellow banners. Plus, it's trippy to walk through a sea of tiny farmers.

When I got home I changed and headed over to the lot to get Little Jumbo. I hadn't gotten too far down the periferico when a police blocade diverted traffic onto a side street. Apparently, los communistas were also blocking the intersection up ahead where the periferico and the highway to the coast intersect. I wasn't familar with the street I was diverted onto along with hordes of other cars, trucks, taxis, and buses, all trying to get somewhere in the crowded one-way streets. I didn't know where I was going, but I figured that sooner or later I'd see something I recognized and sure enough, 45 minutes later, I was back at an intersection close to my estacionamiento. I made a u-turn and got Jums back into the lot. I walked into my apartment about an hour after I'd left it, with no cat litter and only one set of keys. I think that if I hadn't driven like the Oaxaqueños do I'd still be out there. I thought about going today but los communistas are still in the Centro, so I decided to wait.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

I've been packing, and today my plan is to get the keys from Osvelia and make a couple of sets. Then I can start moving stuff over, emptying out the boxes, and bringing them back to load up again.

I like to name inanimate objects -- my car, my bike, my dwellings -- and I was leaning toward casita embrujada when I saw "Movin' On Up," a collection of Beijing housing development names in the March 2004 Harpers. Greg and I both like European Culture Park, Glamour International, Glory Vogue, and Latte Town. Minority Live, Wonderful Digital Jungle and Yuppie International Garden also have their charms. But to us the winner, and name of our new casita, is Moderate Shangri-La.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Where's Chippy?

Who's Jumbo?

Friday, March 05, 2004

No surprise really that I like some of my students more than others. Example? All of the teen groups are named after New York boroughs. One of them, Staten Island (not one I've ever taught) is renowned for being lazy so-and-so's, so all the teachers call them Static Island. Well, for the past month I've been teaching an adult-class equivalent. Garden City does not want to take notes, do anything fancy, or play with the material. Ever. I finally asked Manuel to talk to them to see if we can get them motivated. They said better music would help, and suggested I play rap; specifically, Eminem. When I told Manuel that the only rap cd I have doesn't have any tracks without cussing, and did he want me to use that, he deferred. So classes during the last week have been very quiet. Even though I did consider trying out some Sharkbait, pre-dance-beatz Coil, and a little Ministry -- I'm pretty sure they couldn't make out what THEY were saying.

But, every month or so all the teachers get rotated out into new classes. So the good news is, I don't have that 7:30am Garden City class anymore. But I do have a 7:00am class. Yikes! Good thing I like those people.

In another class -- the one composed primarily of well-to-do ladies who travel to Vegas and New York and Mexico City and Europe a lot -- we often end up spending half the class discussing topical events. They want to practice speaking, and you never know what will come up in one of these conversations. So far we've talked about the Bush dynasty and the Republican conspiracy to destroy the world; California's immigration policies; reproductive organ vocabulary and words for prostitute, both male and female; the names of the holidays associated with Easter and Holy Week, and why Holy Week isn't celebrated in the US, and why Domingo de Pascua in the US is celebrated by pagan gifts of flowers, eggs, and rabbit iconography as well as being named after a Scandanavian goddess; marriage rights in the US and Mexico; and all the different ways you can say "breaded-and-deep-fried-chicken" in the US, and why chicken-fried steak isn't really chicken.

During the instant-coffee-and-cookies break following our little talk about Lent and Ash Wednesday and all that, several of my students asked me what my religious leanings were. Hmm. Whip out my pocket dictionary and look up the word: pagano. Their eyes widened. I showed them the word in the dictionary because sometimes my accent flattens out a word so much they don't understand what I'm saying. Oh, no, they said. Are you sure? The paganos are against Christ; they are in conflict with Christ. They mentioned the martyrs down in the cathedral right off the zocalo. Uh, okay, backpedal. I'm not against Christ, I explained. (I left my feelings about the church and most Christians out of the discussion.) I believe in Christ -- and Buddha and all the cool Hindu gods and Mohammad, too. All of them. Ah, so do we, they chimed. You are politeo -- a polytheist. I borrowed Gaby's pen and updated my book. Wouldn't do to use the wrong word out in the pueblos.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Well, yesterday was magazine day, but when Greg got there last week's People was still on the shelf, and the new ones were still on the floor behind the register. So I went back today to pick it up, and the old one's are still on the shelf. I asked one of the clerks in my terrible Spanish, Where is this week's People? She pointed to the cover of the old one and said, This is it. I explained that I'd bought that issue last week. She looked at me like, well, whatcha gonna do? They have an awful lot of them left; are they trying to clear them out? Why am I denied my crass pop culture fix?!

Monday, March 01, 2004

Bruce Wayne is known as Bruno Diaz in Mexico.

I was wrong; I can get California wines in Mexico: Ernest & Julio Gallo. I've also seen Lancers and Boone's Farm. What I wouldn't give for a couple of bottles of Two-Buck Chuck.