I Moved To Oaxaca

Monday, September 27, 2004

Well, one decent movie this week at Cinepolis, so I saw it Saturday afternoon. The Terminal. Judging from how the Office of Homeland Security comes across, I'd say ol' Steven Spielberg is one of those Hollywood liberals. Or maybe he's just controlled by Hollywood liberals. Or liberal space aliens. I don't remember how that's supposed to work.

And, as is often the case with subtitled movies, The Terminal, the Spanish-speaking audience, and I had a bad case of outofsyncitis, especially noticeable during the Star Trek references. It pretty much went like this:

Joke lead-in
Suzanne laughing
Silence from audience

I am a hard-core Star Trek: The Original Show fan -- have you ever played a home-made Star Trek: Trivial Pursuit game? -- and big-time geek. I'm used to us Trekkies and gamers being mocked in the media. We bring most of it on ourselves, true, but man it was nice to see a pretty gamer who was not the butt of jokes! Live long and prosper, Officer!

Frankly, it was the best thing about the movie, though I did enjoy Tom Hank's EFL speech.

As far as Sunday Drives go, it was pretty tame – at first. I played with the kitten; G-man worked on his book. “Should we go somewhere?” “Sure, where?” “I don’t know...” and so on. By 2pm it was pretty clear we weren’t going up to the Mixteca or in search of a red triangle mystery.

As dinnertime rolled around – American dinner time, that is – we chose to let our stomachs do the deciding, and went off in search of Casa Blanca, supposedly the best Chinese restaurant in Oaxaca.

We didn’t have an address or a phone number, or a phone book, but G remembered seeing an ad for it on the way to Ceviarem. Yes, there was the ad, phone number only and “Servicio a Domicilio!” Okay. But G thought it was up near the fountain of the seven women (each one representing a region of Oaxaca; it’s cool). So off we went, and we spotted a sign, Casa Blanca, with an arrow. We zoomed up the street in the direction of the arrow. Another sign, another arrow. And another. And another. Good thing, too, because we were in a colonia we hadn’t been in before. I felt like we were driving through the twisty, narrow roads of the Berkeley Hills, and the streets were lined with houses, but we kept seeing signs so we kept going.

And there it was, tucked between houses on a clearly residential street (zoning? ha!). We parked and took a look. Two levels, the top full of people eating and the bottom full of kids playing on plastic jungle gyms in the patio. We went upstairs but were told it was full, “but downstairs is the same.”

Well if chatting over gleefully screaming kids versus chatting while looking out the windows at the cityscape is the same, yeah, it was. But this is Mexico, not France, and children are always included in family events, especially on Sundays. There’s a saying: Friday for friends, Saturday for sex, Sunday for family. If Friday and Saturday nights are the big nights for movie theatres in the States, here it’s Sunday, and the whole family comes.

But back to Casa Blanca. Our waiter came over and started setting the table. He looked to be a teenager, and shyly asked, “Do you speak English? French?” “Hablamos ingles y espanol!” He asked if he could speak English “to practice” and G said, Okay, you speak English and we’ll answer in Spanish – we need to practice too!

He asked us if we wanted the buffet, but we said no thanks. He handed us two menus and went off to bring us our drinks. We took a look and got pretty excited. Now, when G and our friend Dale tried the Chinese restaurant near Santo Domingo, it was so bad that G couldn’t eat any of it. And in Tehuacan, The Pagoda restaurant had more Mexican dishes than Chinese on its menu. Casa Blanca’s menu didn’t list a single Mexican food entree! The dishes were divided roughly into sauce types: oyster sauce, lobster sauce, frijol cantones – “Frijol Cantones?” “Black-bean sauce!” – sweet and sour sauce. Plus broccoli dishes, chop suey, chow mein, and chau fan. Chow fun?, I thought. Then I saw chau fan con cha siu, and thought, No way! Chinese-style bbq pork chow fun?! I picked that for my dish, and G chose black-bean sauce pork.

Our waiter came back, poured the beers, and took our order. Greg ordered frijol cantonés con cerdo, then I asked about the chow fan. He said that chau fan was a rice dish – bummer! – so I switched to chop suey cha siu. We also picked a California roll from the Maki Rollos section. I pointed out to G that, technically speaking, California rolls and chop suey are American food. Then we tried to order steamed rice, but the waiter said no! Too much food, he said, but if you decide later you want the rice, I’ll bring it. Okay. Chinese and Japanese food by way of California eaten in Oaxaca, who needs rice?

So how was the food? It was ... okay! I had specifically gotten a California roll instead of a Philadelphia roll to avoid cream cheese, but that’s not the way sushi works in this town. And we couldn’t distinguish between the black-bean sauce pork and the bbq beef chop suey. At all. But the vegetables were fresh, and cooked just right. If I hadn’t lived almost my entire life in major metropolitan coastal areas or married a guy who’s half Chinese*, I probably would’ve thought it was great. I’m sure it’s better than all those Chinese buffets I saw sprinkled across the U.S. And what better way to end the meal than by splitting an order of fried ice cream?

We weren’t ready to end the evening, so we hopped in Little Jumbo and took a joyride around the city. We ended up somewhere south of Sta. Lucia, the colonia where Oaxaca International’s Independence Day party was. It’s fun to explore the city, especially when we run across fun signs and pretty buildings, but Col. Ramona seemed to have none of these things. We followed a dirt road along the river – yeah, even the capital has lots of dirt roads and shanties. We crossed a bridge and headed uphill. The road dead-ended near a large crumbling ediface: an old school? a factory? a hacienda? No clue. We turned around and headed back vaguely in the direction we’d come.

I turned onto another dirt road and followed it downhill. It had rained that afternoon, so the roads were wet, and the large potholes were filled with water. We passed some goats. The potholes got larger and the mud deeper and I started worrying about getting stuck. Nothing like a little on-road off-roading as an after-dinner treat. I stepped on the gas, figuring a little speed would help us slide through any tricky spots. And slide we did! Little Jumbo started fish-tailing down the wide, muddy street as I howled with laughter. Where were we? That’s right! The capital of the poorest state in the country, swerving along looking for pavement.

We got through the mud, and I swung the car onto the asphalt and headed for home.

*Greg does not have a Chinese parent. But his first wife's parents were Chinese, and that's what he learned to cook. So now he says that he's half Chinese -- his stomach. The ladies at dim sum love it.

So, apparently there’s something in the water in D.F. I don’t mean the usual pathogens swimming in Mexico’s tap water. I mean like some kind of mind-control substance. Because that's where the school's supervisory personnel go for "training."

A couple of months ago at work Manuel got demoted from Instructional Supervisor to a regular ol’ grunt of a teacher, and Jonathan got promoted in his place. One of Jonathan’s beefs was Manuel’s surprise observations of classes, and after he got promoted Jonathan promised to end that practice. Not like it bothered me, but I thought, ah, maybe he’ll clean house of some of the school’s more asinine practices. Like no weekly schedule, or fruitless and boring (mandatory) teacher development sessions. But, no, things continued pretty much as they had under Manuel.

Then little things started cropping up. A post-it note asking me to please indicate which book I was referring to in my kid’s lesson plan. (There is only one kid’s book.) Or progress report templates that wouldn’t accept the current date. It’s not like I haven’t worked in countless offices filled with their own petty requirements and snafus, so for the most part I just let it roll off my back.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Jonathan came up to me and said, “What are you wearing Saturday?” Huh? “Oh, Patricia wanted me to remind you that you’re supposed to wear jeans on Saturday.” Oh, really. Last year the rule was, absolutely no denim or sneakers of any color or style, ever, to this spring when Patricia (the director of the school) said we could wear jeans and sneakers during Saturday classes because of the heat. Though I am still unclear how jeans and sneakers are cooler than any other kind of pant and shoe, but whatever. To now, apparently, that we had to wear jeans on Saturday. Again, whatever. Jeans aren’t great pants to bike or hike in, so even in San Francisco I only had one pair. I brought them with me to Oaxaca, but usually it's too warm to wear them, and after losing so much weight last year they don't fit that great. But hey, if the director wants us to wear jeans on Saturday, I’ll wear jeans.

Then this last Thursday, Jonathan says, Can I talk to you a minute? It seems that Patricia wanted him to tell me that I wasn’t following the dress code for the school on Saturdays. But I wore jeans, I said. Yes, but not blue jeans. You have to wear blue jeans. I started to lose my patience. I don’t have blue jeans, I said, I’m wearing the only jeans I have. Well, Jonathan said, Patricia said that if it was a problem she would help teachers buy the clothes they need. ! That’s not the problem, I said. If Patricia knows of any place in this city of midgets where a 5-foot-10 woman can find a pair of blue jeans, I’ll be happy to buy them. I wanted to say “of midgets” but I didn’t. Well, ah, then you should wear what you wear during the week, he said. Fine, and fuck you, I thought.

To be continued.

Friday, September 24, 2004

God's irritation with Florida means I got this notice from my ISP:

Folks - it's been one heck of a week. Monday, as you know, was not a very good day. Explosions and fire took our network center off the grid for nearly half a day. And now on Friday of the same week, we find ourselves facing yet another hurricane. This time, it's headed straight for our area. (See: www.nhc.noaa.gov, www.floridatoday.com).

In other news, our neighbors have a dog, Coco. She's fine as dogs go, although she barks at us like we're invaders every time we come in the front gate. To help keep her entertained while the kids are in school, they often chop up a coconut for her to play with. It's sorta like a tropical Kong toy for dogs: she spends hours digging out the coconut meat, then tossing the husk around the patio.

Today, though, the entertainment was definitely the kitten in my lap. Oh, Coco stared! and when Buixa (Boo-EE-sha), the middle daughter, came over and fawned over the kitten, Coco went nuts. She kept coming over to me (which she never does) to sniff the kitten and look it over closely. And when her doggy face would get too close the kitten gave her swipes, which only added to the insult and set her off barking petulantly.

Yeah, I brought home a little bag of bones in a cat suit this morning, after giving it a couple of "dog bombs" last night on the way home from work. Miraculously, it was still there this morning, hiding behind the newsstand at the Intersection of Death.

I have seen so many starving, sore-riddled dogs over the past fourteen months. Excruciatingly pathetic, wobbling down the street, trying to stay out of kicking range. And the lost kitten that our handy-man mercifully killed -- if unfortunately in front of me, the starving kitten hiding in the stump near work, etc etc etc. I can't believe it's wrong to try to save one little life from a short, crappy existence. My beloved Miss Izzy Vasquez, the queen of piss and vinegar, died two months ago today, too. I know she wouldn't mind.

But G is pissed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

And the milestones keep comin'. Despite my desires for a Roja or a Gigante, my Mexican nickname is definitely Guera (Lighty). You shouldn't take nicknames personally down here; everybody gets one, and it's usually based on a physical characteristic. Like Fatty, Slanty-eyes, Skinny, or Lazy. It seems as if the same dozen or so epithets are used again and again, which makes me think there must be a d12 or d20 table around somewhere. Maybe it's part of your citizen pack. Yesterday I stopped by Donut Lady's car to see what she had in her trunk for lunch. Mmm, pollo enchilada, frijoles, and espagueti. While she's packing it up on a little styrofoam plate, she turns to me and asks, Como se llama? Suzanne, I tell her. Ah, like my daughter, she says. And your name, I ask her. Irma. So know she's Irma the Donut Lady, folks. And it only took her, oh, about 10 months to ask me!

Here's the information you requested! Before I forget: spamshirt. It's a little pricey at $25pounds but maybe you can take the idea to your local printer for less.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

My 200th post! It's a slow and boring week for such a milepost, I'm sad to say. No movies, no excitement, no work hardly (though that changes tomorrow when I get a 7a-8a class to go with my 8p-9p students). However, G stopped by at Ceviarem today to chat with Jorge. After 14 months in Oaxaca we are friendly and sometimes socialize with one family: Marcos and his wife Osvelia and her brother Jorge and his wife Barbara. So whaddya know but that Osvelia and Jorge used to live in San Juan del Rio! Yeah, when they were kids their dad was the town doctor. Jorge was pretty surprised we'd been there, and had seen the for want of a better term I'll call the town's offering stone. This morning he told G some stories about San Juan that had us shaking our heads in disbelief -- but I'll let him tell the story. Keep checking his blog.

Monday, September 20, 2004

A pretty quiet Sunday; just drove out to Santa Ana del Valle, near Teposcolula, to see their fine community museum. On the way back G and I stopped at some intriguing caves and did a little exploring. Pottery sherds galore, many inscribed and colored. You can click here to see the quicktime movie of the day's exploration if you want. Now I'm off to the bank -- ATM, fortunately. The banks are crazy crowded here! -- and the supermarket for some of that DIY lamination stuff.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Earlier this week I found myself with two consecutive days off in a row. Wow! Even better, Greg also had the same two days off. Unheard of! We looked at our maps and books for a good overnight destination, and quickly settled on Tehuacan, up in Puebla state.

Now, why Tehuacan? It’s not on the tourist track, its local craft industry is carved onyx which I have seen a lifetime of courtesy of Tijuana, and it’s not even in Oaxaca, a state with many corners still left to explore.

This is why: it’s got a regional archeology museum, the valley is one of the possible birthplaces of corn cultivation in the Americas, it’s far enough away to be a roadtrip but close enough not to exhaust us getting there and back, and we like it. Or we thought we liked it. We’d passed through once before on our way home at the end of Roadtrip Verano 2004, and even though we’d ended up on the edge of town in a Love Motel, the town piqued our curiosity. It’s tidy and has a nice bustle to it. And it’s got more pet shops and aquariums than I think we’ve seen in all the rest of Mexico. We wanted to get a closer look at these pet-loving people.

Tehuacan is only 2.5 hours away via the toll road, but I figured we’d likely take the cuota back to Oaxaca, so I wanted to take a free but slow way up. The only problem was, Wednesday night had been El Grito, the shout for Independence Day, and we had been up late watching fireworks, drinking mezcal, and making party talk in Spanglish with the staff and students at Oaxaca International. I consider it a victory that we were able to leave as early as we did, which was 2pm Thursday. Ouch! Half the day gone.

And we took the free way anyway, even though we knew it would get us into Tehuacan late in the afternoon. But we didn’t care; we were excited to be on the road and taking what we thought was a new road for us. It wasn’t until we descended out of the mountains and into the awfully hot and dry Canada that we remembered, Hey, we’ve been here before. That little valley’s climate is unmistakable.

Someday I’d like to drive through there again when I’m not on my way to somewhere else. Cuicatlan is supposed to put on an interesting tianguis, when the mountain folk come down to market, and twice now I’ve noticed a sign for Santa Maria Ixcatlan, just outside Santiago Quiotepec, indicating a noteworthy church 46km up a dirt road. Looking at my atlas I see the dirt road goes through the mountains and out to the cuota at Tequixtepec. Looks like fun.

We passed Teotitlan de Flores Magon and crossed the border into Puebla, leaving the Canada and entering the valley of Tehuacan. Immediately Hwy 135, twisty and narrow but otherwise fine, degraded into a potholed mess, with cars and trucks in both directions frantically swerving to avoid the worst of the bumps and voids. Mario Cart!

Somewhere in the valley, Zinacatepec or maybe Ajalpan, we passed a roadside restaurant with I can only think of as Revenge of the Happy Foods. The iron “hot tub” and wood paddle the pig is wielding are the tools used to cook carnitas Michoacan style.

As we got closer to Tehuacan, near San Diego Chalma, we noticed people lining the sides of the highway, whole families. What’s going on? We drove up on an ambulance with its lights on and its back door opened and I wondered, is there an accident? Are all these people looky-lous? No way! I eventually got around the ambulance, which wasn’t going very fast at all, and saw a trio of bikes and a runner with a race number pinned to his t-shirt. Ah, road race! I punched my hazards on and crept up the highway, passing strings of runners, support guys on bikes, and what seemed like everyone living along Hwy 135 sitting and standing along the side of the road, clapping and cheering each runner as they passed – and sometimes clapping and cheering the passing gueros, too. Some families were handing out bags of water and sports drink. And this went on for miles, all the way into Tehuacan! It was incredibly sweet to see all the pueblos turn out, enjoying the race and encouraging all the runners.

The finish line was in Tehuacan; that, and coming into town from a new direction got us lost pretty quick. It’s a little city, though, and as soon as we found the zocalo we knew where we were and how to get to where we were going. Zooming up Heroes de Independencia, we saw a corner building decorated like a pagoda – and it was called The Pagoda, and advertised Chinese food. Hmm! Then driving down Reforma we passed a place advertising Japanese food. Whoa! And a couple of American “western-style” restaurants. What was going on?

We checked into a hotel out of our Sanborn’s guide, the Hotel Monroy, and got a huge room. Spotlessly clean. Fluffy white cotton towels. Polyester pillows (that’s a good thing; the cotton ones are like bricks). A showerhead positioned above head height. Cable TV! And to remind us that we were still in Mexico, mirrors and a bathroom door well below head height.

We were a bit tired of being in the car, since it had taken us about six hours via the free way, so instead of hopping back in the car and driving down to The Pagoda, we walked up the street a few doors to the Japanese restaurant, Susushi. We both adore Asian food, and have had almost none since moving to Oaxaca 14 months ago. Oh, except for the Chinese food so bad G couldn’t even eat it, or the “sushi” we’d had with Tony at Kyoto – and had never even wanted to go back to. Thai? Indian? Cambodian? Forget it! Not even possible.

So I was practically trembling with excitement when the chef/owner came out ... in a little Japanese work jacket (a yukuta?) and handed us our menus. And the menus featured Japanese food! (Once burned by Kyoto, twice shy.) We picked gyoza, some mixed tempura, and two maki rolls to share. I think they gyoza were frozen, but I didn’t care ‘cause he cooked them up in a soy sauce glaze. The tempura was fresh but I must remember that there is no tempura batter mix anywhere in Mexico, so it comes out more like a, geez, like what? Like the batter on a Mrs. Paul’s fish stick, thick and chewy. And I was a little disappointed that the tempura did not come with any battered jalapenos.

But the maki, oh the maki! They were not cream-cheese-and-rice rolls as we’d previously experienced, covered with mystery sprinkles a la the “crunchy roll.” We tried the narco roll, with a little cream cheese, true, but also mushrooms, avocado, and crab. Tasty. G had been dubious about the second roll, but I wanted to try it, and it was fantastic. Banana maki! It could have been awful. Our sushi chef used fried bananas inside the rice, coated it with breadcrumbs and fried it crisp, and served it with a dipping sauce of condensed milk – the usual topping for fried bananas in Oaxaca. We also added a little wasabi/soy sauce and mmm, fantastic! I was in seventh heaven.

We told the guy he had better sushi than anywhere in Oaxaca, which pleased him, and that we’d be back. That must have made him happy, too, as we were his only dinner customers that night.

After dinner we took a walk around town, scouting out stuff to do tomorrow. We saw an open aquarium and went in. Israel, the owner, knew some English from his school days and was eager to practice because, he said, none of his friends would speak English with him and there weren’t a lot of native speakers in town. His store actually had aquarium supplies, and some nice bowfront tanks, and he had a tank of beautiful angel fish, so I half-participated in the conversation while I watched the fishies.

Friday morning we strolled down to the zocalo because from our last visit we knew we’d be able to get an early breakfast there. We went back to Sabores and sat at the same table as last time. The zocalo was filled with swept-up piles of leaves and confetti, and it was pleasant to sit there and watch people on their way to work.

We walked up to the Complejo Cultural el Carmen, a pretty plaza near our hotel, and played string games on the steps while we waited for the museum to open. I was excited to see some books for sale, but they were all in Spanish, so I took a pass. The building and museum look new, with new displays for the artifacts, but somebody forgot to put up signs that actually give details and facts about the stuff. It was all very cursory. So we gawked at the painted pottery pieces, something we haven’t seen much of in other museums. Like yellow-and-white-and-blue-painted flutes with animal and human faces. And molds used to make mass-production ceramics. And strange, jester-looking articulated clay figures with hats that looked like half-peeled bananas. And carved wood pieces covered with turquoise and shell mosaics. Beautiful.

And, of course, corn cobs, from little things no bigger than the end of your thumb to later, full-size cobs. Archeologists have found cultivated corn cobs thousands of years old; some say 7,000 years or older. But they were just cobs, and I found myself underwhelmed. Americans are so difficult to entertain!

The museum also had a display on local palm and cane weaving, and some of the baskets had really interesting starts. And a room on the ecology of the valley, with some stuffed animals and birds, and pictures of others. Whoever skinned and mounted the specimens didn’t do too good a job; all the animals looked pissed off. Or maybe the unknown taxidermist had managed to capture their last expression in life, who knows?

And that was pretty much it for the museum. We were there maybe an hour, an hour and a half. So we went over to check out The Pagoda; G went in while I double-parked, but he soon came back out with a discouraged air. No menu, and the guy inside said they had some Chinese dishes, but mostly Mexican. Um.

And then it was back on the road, the toll road, to head home.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Oh, it was festive last night! I didn't have very many students in my classes, either. My guess is that most of them were preparing to party with their friends and families in the evening, along with the rest of Mexico. I did ask my students about traditional foods for Independence Day; turns out it's pozole, though nobody could explain why. Nor could anybody tell me why the hotcake stands at the ferias are allways named Exquisite Hotcakes.

G and I had been invited to an Independence Day party by our Spanish school, Oaxaca International. I say "Independence Day" loosely because all the parties are in the evening, so really it's Independence Night. Leticia told us the party would start around 9pm Mexican time, her emphasis, so we made plans to show up around 10. Neither of us wanted to show up at the party hungry, or wait until late, late, late to eat dinner, so we browsed in the Llano -- cecina enchilada tacos! garnachas! exquisite hotcakes! -- watched some BBC, then drove out to Col. Sta Lucia for the festivities, whatever they'd be. We weren't really sure what would go on.

Leticia had given us a map -- useless, but we remembered how to get there from our bus trip to the area to make tortillas as part of a school activity. The party place was close to a pretty blue church with a mini-feria of its own, lots of music, crowds, and of course fireworks. We do have some similarities between U.S. and Mexican Independence days. We walked through the building to the patio in the center to see a big table of folks from the school, all chowing down on tamales. Well, so much for the rule about never showing up for a party hungry! So it was crazy Spanish conversation among Oaxacans, Americans, and Japanese lubricated with beer and mezcal. Everybody's kids -- little kids, too -- were there, and when they started to poop out beyond the point where another cup of soda would help, the adults whipped out little bolsas de dormir: sleeping bags, or in Spanglish, just "sleepings". It was very, very fun and we were out very, very late.

Today we're off to Tehuacan, up in Puebla, to check out their fine museum and see what we see along the way.

Happy 16th, everybody!

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Groups at school are supposed to be named after cities, so a group learning German might be named Hamburg, a Japanese class Osaka, and an English class Kentucky. Wait -- that's a state. Okay, now we'll call the group Charlotte. So I gave Gilo, who names the groups, a list of American city names. After Gilo said, no Spanish American city names, I scratched off San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Gabriel, but places like Wichita and Paducah made it through okay. Plus some others.

We just got a brand new English class named Riverdale.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

In Spanish, falling bodies go "pum!" not splat. That's how it gets translated at the movies, anyway.

Back in May, when I left to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I was bummed thinking I would miss my patio tree's fruit season. When I left in early May the green fruits were already full-sized. Well, I got back and they were still on the tree, still green. They were still green when we left on our summer roadtrips, they were greeen we we returned. They were green when school started. Nor were they any bigger. I've seen (and tasted) in the market, with orange skin and tasty pulp, so I know that eventually something will change.

About two weeks ago the fruits at the top of the tree started ripening ... then dropping half-eaten onto our patio. I figured it was the birds pigging out, but then lizards started dropping out of the tree and onto the patio, pum!, before running up the trunk and disappearing into the crown. G thinks that maybe the fruits are fermenting. I don't know. But there continues to be a lot of lizard activity around the tree. Oh! and a lizard hitting bricks sounds more like a plop than a pum.

In other news, our FM3 renewal paperwork was accepted on the first try! Amazing. Maybe they figure if you can get through the process the first time, and actually live here long enough to renew, they can cut you some slack.

Monday, September 13, 2004

I keep meaning to go out to the new Chicken Place, down near the river, but somehow Sunday rolls around and it doesn't work out. For instance, this Sunday for a change we took our Sunday Drive into the southern arm of the Oaxaca valley, toward a little town called Santa Maria A-something. One of my maps shows a little blue pyramid next to it. The drive was nice, and on a piece of highway we haven't yet driven on -- the road to Puerto Escondido. On the map it looks even more twisty through the mountains than Hwy 175, which is why I've avoided it so far. But we were strictly on the flats this trip.

We pulled into the center of town, just off the highway, intending to ask about "las ruinas" to whoever was around the palacio municipal, but there must've been twenty or thirty guys in the plaza! We drove around it and headed back to the highway. We didn't go too far, though, before stopping and giving ourselves a pep-talk, and with courage restored, we drove back into Santa Maria determined to suck it up and ask someone in the crowd about any possible ruins.

Only this time there were closer to fifty campesinos in the plaza, and then we realized, it must be the town meeting. We didn't want to interrupt, so we drove out -- at least this time our tails were held high. G saw a well-dressed guy walking in the street in the direction of the plaza and asked him about the ruins. He answered too fast for G to catch, but I understood him to give us directions to the caves in San Sebastian, a big attraction listed in the guidebooks. Not quite what we wanted, so we thanked him and drove off toward our second target destination: an unnamed map marker between the towns of Santiago Apostol and San Pedro Huixtepec. [update: our fellow diners in this post were from S.P. Huixtepec, and were astounded that we not only knew where it was but had been there!]

Well, San Pedro was easy enough to find, as it too is on the highway, and it looked easy enough to get to Santiago Apostol, as there appeared to be only one road to it, but what none of the maps showed was the maze of streets in and around San Pedro leading to homes and fields. We cruised through town a couple of times, not finding our way, then asked an old guy who spoke English for directions. He told us there weren't any ruins, but the church in Santiago Apostol had some carved stones in the foundation. He gave us directions, though the little town of Santa Ines, and we were off.

I don't think we quite got his instructions right, but we did finally (after asking again) find the road out of town and to Santa Ines, a dirt road but in good repair, and busy with horse and donkey-carts going to and from the fields. Quite a bit of traffic for a Sunday! We reached Santa Ines -- Santa Ines Yatzeche in full -- and cruised through that town, too. We weren't exactly sure which way to go to continue on to Santiago Apostol; most of the roads were dirt and drifted around in random directions. We found the center of town, with the plaza, the mercado, and the church when I spied out of the corner of my eye a big stone outside the church. We pulled over and took a look. It was carved with some guy kneeling down, in profile, with a big headdress and other stuff we couldn't quite make out. Unlike the sweet little plaza in Yucuita, this plaza was pretty run down and only had the one carved stone.

[Update: anonymous commenter Crescencio, who is from Santiago Apostol, says "I lived not to far away from that church that was closed at that time, and I don't know if you know the name of that town with the carved stone, but it's name is San Lucas, it had population once upon a time but some desease killed every body..." Wow! Thank you for the update, Crescencio!]

While I tried photographing the stone in the overhead light, Greg took a walk around the pretty plain church to see if he could spot more stones. He did, but of a different kind: behind the modern church, on a little rise, were the ruins of a much older church, looking like they'd tumbled down in a quake. We clambered through the ruins, took some photos, admired the view of the valley and the Rio Atoyac from the bluff, then got back in the car and tried to find our way to Santiago Apostol and the promise of more carved stones.

We did find our way to the correct dirt road, and it was a short ride before we pulled into S.A. and parked outside the church plaza. What a church! The facade was painted three or four colors, with banners and a big Jesus on top like a birthday cake candle. The church was closed, but an old guy came out to talk with us: he and the other men in town were getting ready to eat lunch after prepping for a calenda, or parade, scheduled for sometime that afternoon. Everybody was happy for us to take photos, and I could hear "gringo!" and "photografia!" every so often as I snapped away at the flower- and saint-decorated baskets the ladies would carry in the parade. He invited us to stay, but since "en la tarde" could have meant anything from "right after lunch" to anytime before dark, and we didn't want to crash lunch, we regretfully begged off.

Oh, and no carved stones, just an old brick oven in front of the church. So on to the next town, Ocotlan, where we'd turn off the dirt road and get back on the paved highway back to Oax-town. Well, we were surprised at how pretty the church in Ocotlan was, so we got out to take a look. The inside was just as beautiful as the outside, and reminded me even more of a cake, only this one looked like a fancy wedding cake. Yummy! And next to the church, on the plaza, we found a little gallery completely covered, walls and ceiling, with a beautiful mural depicting Ocotlan-regional trades. Marvellous!

Back in the car. Wait, what's this? We passed a signed turnoff to one of the many artisan villages in the area, Santo Tomas Jalieza. Only this signed turnoff also had a big blue pyramid sign! We took the turn and drove into the center of town. Now, none of my maps or books mention anything about ruins around Santo Tomas, so I had no idea why the sign would be there, but again, there were carved stones -- two this time -- in the plaza. One, badly worn, had a guy's face with a headdress. The other had some symbols we couldn't quite recognize, and a very recognizable jaguar head in profile. Cool. We asked about ruins and were told, nope, but there's a "tourist attraction" five minutes up the road. Hmm. We gave it a try, but didn't find anything other than dirt fields untouched by car tires, so we gave up and headed back home. Maybe the tourist office knows something.

Oh! But back to Chicken Place. By the time we got home it was 4 o'clock and we were starving for lunch, but as it's almost Independence Day and the feria is back in the Llano, we headed across the street to the park for tacos, tacos from the guy who remembered us from Guelaguetza back in July. I'm sorry, Chicken Place! Maybe next week.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Independence Day is rolling around -- it's ... Wednesday? Thursday? I'm not sure. The shout, or El Grito, that began the independence move will be reenacted in squares, plazas, and zocalos across Mexico this Wednesday at midnight. So you could say it's Wednesday. But we get Thursday off. And while I enjoyed watching el grito in the drizzle last September, with hundreds of people shouting "Viva Hidalgo! Viva Guerrero! Viva Mexico!" and so on, what I really remember with fondness was the fair in the zocalo. (Until I add the link: kiddie rides whizzing dangerously close to gringo head height; exotic foods and drinks like tejate, the squash drink, and the chunks of roasted maguey heart; not so exotic foods like tacos and macro paletas, kettle chips, and cup o' noodles; and more pirate cd/dvd booths than at Ashby flea market the Saturday after checks come out.) So for the past week I've been buzzing the zocalo checking on its return, only nada.

But this morning on my way to school, I saw that booths popped up overnight in the Llano, right by Moderate Shangri-la. I walked through it on the way home; they're still setting up, but the garnacha ladies said they'll be open for business tonight. Yes! Garnachas. I can't wait to eat myself silly.

So I'm happy about the fair. I'm happy I just had a huge Donut Lady lunch: macaroni and beans and six huge tortillas and cecina enchilada and a bag of lemonade, for $20. And sitting on the curb eating it reminded me of eating at the taco truck by Fruitvale BART, which in turn reminded me of Tom and Janina.

I'm happy because my Saturday classes are over for the week, and I can be unperky for a couple of hours before reverting to type.

I'm not happy my Banamex card still isn't functioning; in fact, I'm not happy even thinking about Banamex, which is every shitty thing a big bank can be. I'm not happy that for some unholy reason, Cinepolis (and Multimax -- two chains that show the exact same movies every week. Why?!) is still playing Catwoman, A Day Without Mexicans, Dodgeball, Around The World In 80 Days, Anaconda 2, House of a Thousand Corpses, AND Yu-gi-oh. I thought it was funny that Yu-gi-oh only has a 2 percent "fresh" rating on rotten tomatoes, then I saw Superbabies has a zero! So why isn't that playing this week?

But mostly I'm unhappy because I really, really miss my friends. I thought I might be making progress with the rugby guys, but now that school is back in session that's a goner. If Oaxaca weren't so completely charming it'd be a no-brainer. But it is, and it's just damn frustrating, is all.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

I don't think I ever reported back on the Great Mattress Search that ended, pretty quickly, with us purchasing an air mattress at Sam's Club.

We are all about style.

At first I wasn't too impressed, but a set of fresh D batteries and a wood frame to get it off the concrete floor helped a LOT. As did the two vinyl-and-foam pads Jorge lent us. It's no Sapphire Ultra Plush, but it's not bad! Only ... well. I don't know if the air mattress really isn't queen size or if the bed frame isn't really queen size, but the two don't quite fit together. The frame's a little small from side to side. Normally, it's nothing: we just center the air mattress on the frame so that there's maybe 4 inches of overhang on each side. No problem. But sometimes we forget to check, and vinyl on vinyl is pretty slippery. So the other day the air mattress was NOT centered over the bed frame, and when Greg reached over for a magazine on the chair ... it was like a boat capsizing. Pretty slow at first; we weren't sure what was going on, just that things were somehow not right. Then really not right, then BAM! we're on the floor with the air mattress sitting on top of us. Concrete's hard.

Monday, September 06, 2004

And see it he did: we went back to Danguilac this Sunday.

I'd arranged to meet Francisco, our guide, between 8 and 9am, but we didn't get there until closer to 10a. Turns out they don't change their clocks in San Juan, however, so we were right on time. Now, when I'd been in San Juan earlier in the week, Francisco said that the ruins were about 3km outside of town. He just didn't mean San Juan, so we collected Francisco's friend Cesar and drove maybe five minutes up a steep dirt road to a tiny little pueblo called El Porvenir Quiatoni, where it seemed that nobody spoke Spanish. All the town's kids collected in a knot and gawked at us.

We walked through town and started down the hill through corn and maguey fields. The ruins are on an isolated ridge about halfway between Quiatoni and San Juan. Lots of pottery sherds, although nothing fantastic like at Pueblo Viejo, adobe walls, plazas, some mortarless stone walls. And a pile of rocks in the middle of a plaza with a ... well, it sure looks like a Shiva lingum, with a face and red coloring around the mouth. Clearly recently put there, and clearly still being worshipped. Greg asked Francisco about it, and he said yeah, the campesinos come here. We both got the feeling, too, that Francisco and Cesar were scoping us out, making sure we were okay. Francisco also mentioned that, while the site is unexplored, the Saturday before we showed up, a party from INAH, the Mexican archeological folks, had come out to see the ruins as well. Pretty curious timing if you ask me.

Well, after exploring the ruins we had to go back up the hill to get the car. Poor Greg! (I suggest you read his blog to get his side of it, too.) While Greg sat in the car and recovered under the curious gaze of about 20 kids, Francisco, Cesar, and I set off to get some more water and some sodas. I hadn't see any on our drive in, but that's because Quiatoni isn't at all set up for visitors: we squeezed between houses, cut through people's yards and across patios before stopping in a little patio while some guy opened up what looked like a shed but turned out to be the town abarrotes, or corner grocery. We sat down and Francisco popped open a trio of ice-cold cokes -- damn! they're awfully bad for you but they taste so, so good -- while Francisco explained to the woman behind the counter who I was and why were here. In Zapotec, and when I tried to talk to her in Spanish I got no response so I don't think she speaks it. During our little ruins exploration, Greg and I chatted in English and Francisco and Cesar chatted in Zapotec. We finished the cokes and I grabbed a couple of waters for Greg.

We dropped Francisco and Cesar off at the Palacio in San Juan, and thanked them for spending half their Sunday tromping around with us. They asked when we would come back, inviting us to come back out and visit. We asked Francisco if we could pay him for his services, but he said no. Then Greg asked if we could make a donation for the town, and he agreed that would be good. Yay.

We then took off to get some lunch in San Bartolo as it was about 4pm and we were famished, and San Juan doesn't have any restaurants. We ended up at Restaurant Mary, which has a bit of a gnat problem, but the food was good and the sodas also ice-cold, and after we finished lunch the entire family came out to chat with us about why we were there. "To visit San Juan?! Why? Ruins -- oh, in Mitla? In San Juan?! Really? I've never heard of ruins there." was a pretty typical conversation. We had the map with us and showed everybody the mark that lead us there in the first place. It ended up being a very long lunch as we chatted with people, who all seemed to speak Spanish and NOT Zapotec -- strange, as we were only ten miles away from where the opposite was true. But they also invited us to come back and visit, and the kids all practiced their three or four English words on us as they waved goodbye.