Friday, July 31, 2009

The most important meals of the day (Mexico City)

It's 10:00 a.m. Do you know where your breakfast is?

Mine is around the corner, across the street from one pharmacy, next door to another, at the place where 100 chickens are crisping as they ride the Ferris wheel of a huge rotisserie. And I'm hungry.

This is what 30 pesos (about $2.75, including tip) buys me:
Fruit salad: fresh chunks of watermelon, papaya, cantaloupe, and pineapple.
Soup: Chicken broth with (my five daily servings of vegetables) onions, carrots, cauliflower, kale, tomato. Plus some grains of rice, a coupla beans, perhaps a chicken wing, an occasional bit of seafood, ham, or fatback. Just add a squeeze of lime and a piece of hot, pickled jalapeño pepper, and you've got a huge bowl of deliciousness.
Although I occasionally have a quarter of a roasted chicken (yes, and at home I like cold pizza for breakfast), my usual order is Huevos a la mexicana, two or three eggs, scrambled with chopped onions, green bell peppers, and tomatoes, with a side of chilaquiles, tortilla strips sauteed with onions, mixed with green salsa and cream and topped with crumbled white cheese. A pool of smokey, spicy, red salsa to go with.
Potato chips. I always skip 'em. Who needs the calories?
A bolillo, an airy white roll that's big enough to seat two.
Cafe con leche.

If I'm not so hungry, I'll go to a nearby hole-in-the-wall for a simple dish of yogurt with honey, granola, and fresh fruit, and a cup of not-strong-enough black coffee.

When I go for breakfast lite, I'll indulge in a multi-course lunch (comida corrida, $2.50-5.00, plus tip). Usually it's soup (ex: lentil, cream of some vegetable, chicken with some kind of squash), rice, and main dish (empanadas, chicken in mole or green sauce, crepes stuffed with huitlacoche and bathed in a creamy mushroom sauce), agua (sweetened, fruit-flavored water), and dessert (jello, flan, cookies...). Sometimes, when I'm in the mood for lots of vegetables, I'll splurge on an all-I-can-eat Chinese buffet ($6.50).

If I've done breakfast hevy, I might not eat anything for the rest of the day. Or, at some point, I'll pay 80 cents for a chile relleno or cauliflower/broccoli "pancake", rice, and two tortillas at a stand near one of the metro stops. I add beans, cucumbers, nopales (pickled cactus), and green/red salsa and I'm good to go. Or I'll go to another stand for quesadillas of huitlacoche (corn fungus). Or I'll buy a big cup of mango and papaya chunks that the vendor will drench in lime and sprinkle with chili powder and salt. Sometimes I purchase little bags of big, crunchy corn kernels dusted in cheese; big beans fried and smothered in hot chili powder, salt, and lime; and dried, salted and spiced mango and munch as I walk about. Or I'll pick up a quarter of a roasted chicken from another rotisserie, spirit it up to my room, and feast, while watching CNN.

Despite all my gourmandising, I'm losing weight. The pants that hugged my thighs before I left the States are baggy and saggy. A skirt that pinched my waist now barely hangs onto my hips. I guess I better go eat something....

Femme Fatale (Mexico City)

Friday night. I'm going dancing. None of my Mexican friends is able to accompany me, but they've all assured me that it's safe to go by myself -- as long as I don't stay out past midnight, dress too provocatively, or ask anyone to dance.

Dressed in a cute (but unprovocative) skirt, with beads dangling from the hem, and a short-sleeved top that would be immodest, were it not for the camisole underneath, I head to the subway. In the few minutes that I wait for the train, I recognize one of the dance instructors from whom I've taken a lesson in the park, and he recognizes me.

He looks more like a bodybuilder than a dancer, but he might be both. I don't intend to ask, as he might misinterpret my intentions. He asks if I'm on my way to the park and explains that he's about to teach a class there. When I say that I'm going to put into practice what I've learned from him, at Salon Hidalgo, he tells me that there's another place I should go, with a better crowd, better music, and better dancing. He offers to take me there, himself, another day and requests my phone number. I tell him that I don't have one and suggest that we get a group together to go. We part ways, as I change trains and he leaves the station.

It's about 6:15 when I arrive at the dance hall. I've got a subway ticket and 170 pesos in my pocket -- more than enough for what I anticipate will be a $6.00 admission charge, a soft drink or two, and cab fare, should I need it. I quickly discover, however, that a well-known group is performing, and the entry fee is 130 pesos, leaving me with barely enough to buy a bottle of water and tip the waiter. I ask the guy at the door if it's really 130 pesos to get in (when on Wednesday night, it cost me 10), and he says yes. I ask if the band will be playing salsa and he says yes. I weigh my options: should I spend it all and hope to get my money's worth of dancing or should I return to the hotel, watch CNN, and munch the rest of the spicy fried beans in my room?

I pay and enter.

I walk up the stairs and into the huge room. The dance floor is already crowded with couples cumbia-ing to the live music. I look for people I know but don't find any. What I do find are lots of reserved tables. A waiter ushers me to the last row, last seat of a table already occupied by two women and a couple. I sit through three dances, and the possibility dawns and dusks on me that nobody will ask me to dance.

The bar is right behind me, and I smile at the bartender. He looks like a gentleman and a scholar, well, mostly like a scholar, so I get up and ask if it's true that I shouldn't ask anyone to dance. He confirms that men would think I was a brazen hussy for doing so. (He doesn't exactly say "brazen hussy," but I know what he means.)

Aloud, I bemoan my fate. "I might not get to dance at all!"

"Don't worry," my new best bartender beassures me. "I've got a friend who'll dance with you."

Three dances later, I'm stepping on the toes of his friend. Ten minutes afterwards, I'm being churned around the dance floor by one of his relatives. One dance each is apparently enough for both of these guys; I never see them again. I figure that, at the present rate, I'll dance twice more during the evening -- if the bartender hasn't already run out of friends, relatives, and acquaintances.

The bartender calls me over. "Look," he says, "the crowd is just filtering in. Before you know it, there will be so many men asking you to dance, you won't have a chance to catch your breath."

I catch my breath so many times and for so long that I think it'll never escape.

The temperature ratchets up. My table's empty seats fill up with a bunch of women, who are being whisked onto the dance floor. The band plays on, its catchy rhythms making me all but bounce in my chair. Lots of men are just standing around, for Pete's (or should I say Pedro's) sake, and I'm seriously considering breaking the Don't ask them taboo.... I really want to dance!

Suddenly, an overweight, elderly señor taps me on the shoulder and leads me onto the dance floor. We have roughly eight inches to maneuver in, and I still get stepped on and elbowed by the couples surrounding us. When the song ends, my partner requests the favor of another dance. I grant it, but when he starts gazing at me as if he were a bloodhound and I were the scent he was following, I thank him and return to my table.

My next partner is a sweaty, polyester-suited 50-ish fellow, who keeps being reminded by the waiters that we're dancing "outside the lines." Unfortunately, every time we move into the dance zone, we are batted about like sparrows in a tornado by the dancers on all sides. When the number ends, my partner escorts me back to the table, pulls out my chair, and thanks me.

The bloodhound returns. I keep inserting my arm between us to keep him at a distance. The press of other bodies makes this rather difficult. I feel like the filling in a human sandwich.

Bloodhound wants to keep dancing. I refuse. He asks when I'll dance with him again. It's 8pm, and I tell him 9:45. He looks at me with bloodshot, older-dog eyes and promises he'll be back.

It's time to make friends, with the aim of gaining protection. I've already told my dance partners that I came with a group of girlfriends, so now I have to make it so. I've been chatting with one or another of the women at my table whenever we've not been dancing. We've shared partial life stories and recipes. We've commented on the unbearable heat, referred to the weight reduction brought on by dancing and enhanced by profuse perspiration, parsed out the little napkins on the table to mop our sweaty brows, and taken turns trying to cool each other down with the fans they've been smart enough to bring with them. I confess that I'm using them as human shields, and they tell me to go right ahead. They'll even make sure I get to the metro safely and accompany me to the station where we'll switch trains.

By the time my lovely new friends and I leave (10:30), I've danced more than my money's worth. I've also been propositioned by my three steady partners -- each of whom insisted that he would be perfectly willing to give up his wonderful life as a truck driver, taco-maker, and embalmer (respectively) to follow me to the US, if only I were willing.

I weren't and I amn't.

All I Wanna Do Is Dance! (Mexico City)

I've never been athletic. Throughout my school years (k-12), I developed my mind by trying to figure out ways to avoid physical education (PE) class. Why? Well, here are some examples:
Rope climbing: a downer.
Calisthenics: catastrophic.
Square dancing: embarrassing, square, and you call this dancing?
Dodgeball: ouch.

The only things I performed well in were the annual President's Fitness Test (I'm great at sit-ups -- although the days following the test were always painful) and running.

As a matter of fact, I loved to run and was quite fast. In grade school, I was one hell of a sprinter. I even competed, that is until the other girls' leg length outstripped my total height.

The height of PH (physical horror) for me were the requirements at my Alma mater. Colgate University had just gone co-ed the year before I attended, and I saw those years of PE classes as the revenge of the faculty and students who had always planned for the school to remain all-male.

I signed up for bowling as many times as I could. I'd start out each semester with a score of 50-60 and, by the end of the course, I'd sometimes bowl a 110. Once I even made 150!

I also took a class in running, which should have been listed in the course catalog as Let's Get Rid of the Girls, Fat Kids, and Wimps Quick 101. Turns out that running five miles at a clip (fast or slow) was only part of the torture. We had to lift weights, too. It also turns out that, although I'm no athlete, I am competitive, and there's no way I wasn't going to complete those runs or lift those dumbbells (and I am not referring to the jerks in my class). I made it through and went back to bowling (a 59).

The worst part for me, however, was the swimming requirement. A woman, whose son had drowned, had donated a large amount of moolah to Colgate with one proviso: In order to graduate, everyone had to tread water for five minutes; swim umpteen (or maybe four) laps across the Olympic-sized swimming pool, using two or more different strokes; and float on his or her back for what seemed like forever.

Now, although I'm an Aquarius, I'm no water baby. I grew up with not-so-fond memories of almost drowning in a swimming pool one summer vacation and of almost drowning in the ocean on another summer vacation. I think water is great in bottles when you're thirsty and in showers when you're dirty. Waterfalls are beautiful to view from a distance, even better in a photo! So, imagine my dismay when I found out that what was standing in the way of me and my diploma was a pool of water that my stream of consciousness was telling me I didn't want to jump into.

I had to dedicate many a semester to learning to swim. Floating was no problem. As a person of the female persuasion, I have built-in life savers that keep me uplifted (at least in a pool). I learned to dog paddle until I was dog-tired. I conquered the sidestroke, too, with relative ease, if not grace. The real rub was that I needed another stroke to keep me afloat. As I really don't like putting my face in the water and, as I was unable to coordinate my kicks with my arm movements, the butterfly and breast strokes were unmanageable. I got by on my backstroke (although those of you who've ever walked with me have the good sense to know that you should always be on the inside if we're on a cliff because, otherwise, I will end up forcing you off, although I certainly don't mean to do so, can imagine how I swam my laps -- sort of on the diagonal).

After graduation, life in Manhattan gave me no PE requirements, however, as anti-exercise as I was, I joined a gym. I lifted weights (Take that, Colgate guys!), did calisthenics(!), and swam(!). I even took a yoga class, which I really hated because it made me so tense.

For some inexplicable reason, I started racewalking. Racewalking, for those in the no-know, is a way to walk faster than slow runners run, while looking totally ridiculous. You always keep one foot (or maybe two?) on the ground, sort of rolling from the ball to the heel, and you swing your arms in a fashion that makes you look like a lunatic and makes people get out of your way, so it works out quite well in the end.

I racewalked until I broke out into a run again. I started jogging around an indoor track at lunchtime with some of my coworkers. I also started running outside with the guy I would eventually marry. Unfortunately, I matched my strides to his. As he is 6'2" tall and I am 5'1" small, I ended up blowing out my knees.

Over the years I've tried other forms of exercise, joining gyms and taking low-impact aerobics classes, following home exercise tapes, riding stationary bikes, and so on. Basically hating it all and making it my mission to avoid the E-word.

Only within the last four years, and thanks to my previous trips to Mexico, have I discovered the only type of E that I really love: dancing. And I've become addicted.

At home I take two classes a week and try to spend an hour or two, afterwards, actually dancing. In Mexico, I've been taking classes and/or dancing nearly every day.

Okay, I'll never be great. I'm only as good as my partner makes me look. But here's the thing. When I dance, I'm not thinking about what I did or didn't do 15 minutes ago, yesterday, last month, last year, or in a previous lifetime. I'm not planning for the future. I'm not stressed out, not done in. I'm in the moment. I'm in the zone. I don't think, therefore I am. And it's really the only time I am what I am: light, floating, high on life, completely happy.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Snapshots (Cuernavaca)

Two weeks in Cuernavaca have gone by in a blink of an eye, a shrug of a shoulder, a tick of a lip, a slip of a tongue. This is the fourth time (9 weeks total) I've been here to study, and I've been to just about every tourist attraction at least thrice. So, I spend my weekday mornings in class with my favorite teacher, Gregorio (nickname: Goyo), and a small group of Spanish teachers or others whose Spanish is as good as or better than mine.


Taking dance lessons with the rubber-legged teacher who says that every series of steps he teaches us is easier than the one we just tried to learn. He lies.

Drinking hot chocolate in a cafe with Goyo. The walls feature paintings by a French artist whose "language is color." After I learn Arabic and Mandarin, I want to speak in colors...

Stopping in at the Brady Museum --my umpteenth visit. The former home of an eclectic, gay (although no one says so), American ex-pat, who acquired an impressive collection of artwork (a Frida Kahlo, several Diego Riveras, art by Toulouse Lautrec, and other famousisimo artists), crucifixes, folkart and antiques (from Mexico, Haiti, Africa, and Asia) and more, remains as it was when he lived there. One of the bedrooms was decorated for and used by Robert Brady's friend, Josephine Baker (the famous dancer-stripper). The talavera-tiled bathrooms were admired even by my then-16-year old son, when we first visited.

Spending time in the zocalo, the true town center. Bordered by the imposing Palacio de Cortes, with its Diego Rivera murals, at the rear; rung by cafes, restaurants and the municipal building. A towering statue of Morelos is a meeting spot for the tattooed and pierced and a landmark for tourists. There's a tremendous open space for concerts and performing clowns. Wrought iron benches, some shielded from the brutal sunlight by the branches of trees, are crammed with kissing couples. You can buy all sorts of fried stuff, from potato chips to thin, orange, pretzel-shaped or even orangier cheez-doodle-shaped dough and ask for a healthy spritz of lime and a hearty spray of spicy chili sauce. Vendors hawk handicrafts (colorful textiles and ceramics, clothing and mini plastic chickens, CDs and films, roses of unimaginable and highly unnatural colors). Older folks danzon with grace and dignity. A circle of younger people burns incense and dances the steps of their Aztec ancestors. Dreadlocked youngsters braid yarn into their clients' hair or apply temporary tattoos. Skateboarders skateboard; Mariachis mariach; breakdancers, well, try. Double-decker buses await tourists. Men play chess at two tables near stands selling how-to books and painters selling still lifes. Little street children, dusty and ragged, loudly scream obscenities as they chase each other through the greenery; tinier street children sell chiclets or jewelry. Three generations of families stroll along, eating: corn on the cob, speared on a stick and slathered with mayonnaise, chili, lime and salt, or custard cones from McDonald's, or sugar-dusted churros (long, thin doughnuts), or gelatin in pretty shapes and multi-colored layers, or shaved ices in flavors such as guayaba, mango, and tamarind. A thin man with high cheekbones, thin lipped and nosed, dressed in cowboy hat, plaid shirt and jeans, holds his head in his hands, as if the weight of the world rests on his hunched, knobby shoulders. Young men preen. Nose, eyebrow, lip, tongue and chin pierced teens laugh in twos, threes, and mores.

Eating food prepared by P., the señora with whom I stay whenever I'm in town: Chayotes (squash) stuffed with cheese, breaded, and sauteed. Huitzoncles (a kind of herb, maybe? You break off a branchlet and remove the leaves with your teeth). Chicken in mole or green sauce. Eggs scrambled with tortilla strips -- the Mexican taste equivalent of matzoh brei.

Dancing salsa outside of Los Arcos. My partner, overweight but light on his feet, turns to me after watching the dance teachers and professionals swivel and swirl. "They dance pretty," he says, "but you dance tasty."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Backlog: Queen of the Hill (Oaxaca)

A former student of mine, G., has asked me to visit his mother. She hasn't seen him in about 10 years, the time he's spent working his way from dishwasher to busboy to cook and part-owner of a well reviewed Mexican restaurant in Richmond. Reina (translation: Queen) runs her own eatery and would love to have me stop by, G. says. He'll call to let her know when I'll be in town.

T. looks up the address on a street map. The exact street (la prolongacion de whatever) isn't listed, but he knows, more or less, where it's located -- in the toniest section of Oaxaca. A., T, and I agree to eat lunch there.

We hop into T.'s truck and bounce along the road, careening over a million sleeping policemen, up and up, past beautiful old houses whose facades are only partially visible behind ivy- and flower-covered walls. We search for street names, but they're not always marked. We try to follow the street numbers, but they're often random: 325 follows ll, then 18, and 120.

Suddenly, we run into a less picturesque area. And we think we've found where the house should be. T. backs up, so I can ask a young man if we're on the right street. He stares at me blankly.

I get out of the truck to see if I can find the restaurant. T. will try to turn the truck around and return for me.

Finding an entryway in the outer wall, I follow a muddy path to a broken-down house that seems to crumble as I watch. The half-naked children playing nearby launch themselves, screeching, into the hovel. Within seconds, a broken-down woman emerges from the dark interior.

The conversation goes something like this (but in Spanish):

Me: Good afternoon. Are you Reina S.?

She: Who?

Me: Are you Reina, the mother of G.?

She: Who?

Me: I'm from the United States. I'm looking for Reina....

She: Who?

Me: Does Reina S. live here? Do you know her? Am I at the right address?

She: Who?

Me: Thank you. I'm sorry to disturb you. Bye now.

She: Who?

I slog my way back to the truck, a bit irritated that G. has given me what appears to be the wrong address. Part of me is also relieved that G.'s mom doesn't live and work in such a run-down spot.

T. suggests that we continue climbing the hill a bit farther, and A. and I say, "Sure. What the heck," (in English).

So, up and up we go, as the neighborhood becomes more and more run down. We reach the end of the bus line and spot the address we are looking for. We see a series of small buildings, all leaning in different directions, an amalgam of corrugated cardboard and sheet metal, seemingly slapped together with spit. I jump out of the truck and try to find a gate. There is none.

"Shout her name," T. instructs. "That's how we do it here. She'll come to let you in."

I shout. And shout. And SHOUT. No one responds.

People are passing in and out of a house a bit farther up the road, so I approach and ask them if they know Doña Reina. "She's at her restaurant," a man tells me and points back down the street. I am relieved that she doesn't live or work in such a place.

We backtrack and, right at the end of the line -- the bus turn around -- we notice a hole-in-no-wall, a dark and dreary place where a pack of snaggle-toothed, flea-bitten, lame, and mangy mutts one-eyes us warily. T. and A. four-eye me warily and say, "You go first."

I peek into the entryway, and a teenage girl greets me. "I'm looking for Doña Reina," I say.

"Come in," she responds. "Mama!" she calls.

I duck (a rare maneuver for someone as vertically challenged as I am), in order to avoid splitting open my skull, and step down onto the dirt floor. Three bus drivers occupy one of the two tables, digging into unappealing plates of some unidentifiable cut of unidentifiable meat. The place and the plates are swarming with flies.

A. and T. have followed me inside. I can feel their eyes boring into the back of my back. Their thoughts, the same as mine, are on the order of "Oh,my God. Get me out of here!"

I smile as Reina comes to hug me. "We've been waiting for you," she tells me. "Sit down and have lunch."

The woman is short and wide. Her smile is huge and lights up her pretty face. She looks a lot like G. Reina is attractive and warm and hospitable. The place is filthy. My friends are horrified.

"Thank you," I manage. "We're not very hungry, and we don't eat red (or gray) meat. " A. and I assent to Reina's offer of a bowl of soup, however.

G's sister is swatting flies. She whacks one of the diners in the head and giggles. "There was a fly on him," she tells me.

T. says he doesn't feel that great and can't eat a thing. A., good sport that she is, and I eat the thin broth, which is definitely tasty. Reina instructs her daughter to bring us some tortillas and cheese. Although the white cheese looks like it may have fallen on the floor (what are those black edges?), it is delicious with the wheat tortillas. We are brought bottles of water. She won't accept payment for anything.

Reina introduces me to the bus drivers who are finishing up their meal. She invites me to come back for her daughter's quinceañera in December. She tells me that she wants G. to come home, that she plans to build a bigger and better restaurant and that he could help her. I tell Reina about G.'s successes. In addition to his work, he's volunteering to teach an English as a second language class at a church. She is obviously proud of her only son.

"Will you take something to him?"

I tell her that I'd be happy to squeeze something small into my carry-on bag. She wants to send him some mole, the multi-ingredient blend of chilies, chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and more, that can be green, yellow, brown, or red. Although she probably makes it herself, I have visions of the extruded coils of brown paste, sold in the market, that can be delicious but bear a strong and disturbing resemblance to a pile of horse manure . I tell Reina that I won't be able to take it with me onto the airplane, due to the 3-ounce liquid-paste rule. We agree that she'll give me a t-shirt for G., instead.

Reina invites us back for lunch the next day. She'll make something with chicken. We thank her and tell her that we've already got plans (which we do), but we´ll return before I leave, to pick up the shirt. After picture-taking and hugs goodbye, A., T., and I get into the truck.

Before we take off, T. drives us around the back of the building to see the kitchen, which is hanging off the side of the hill. Supported by only by a wooden pole and additional pieces of wood that have been jammed into place, it would surprise no one if it collapsed during the next rain.

I'm upset with G. I'd assumed that, like all good Mexican sons working their assess off in the US, he'd been sending money back to his mother. When I voice my anger, T. points out that there was a pile of bricks inside the restaurant and that Reina is probably buying them, one at a time, as she receives remittances. When she amasses enough bricks, construction will start and stop and start, proceeding whenever she gets the money to pay for materials and manpower.

Perhaps on my next visit to Oaxaca, Reina will have built a restaurant suitable for a queen -- or for the bus drivers that frequent it. And even if she doesn't, I'll go back. For the warmth of the soup and the conversation, for some chicken, and for a hug from this generous and good woman.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Backlog: Faith, population control, and shortcut (Oaxaca)

They say that atheist soldiers in the trenches of war get religion. I say you need only travel a Mexican road to find faith.

Taking a cab from the Mexico City airport to your hotel is an exercise in faith, courage, and bravado. Your driver is a matador, the other vehicles, the players in a tragedy with an ending already proscribed. Someone must be maimed or killed.
The cab is small and the bus converging from the left comes at you at the speed of a cheetah in pursuit of prey. The driver of the SUV to your right appears obsessed with becoming one with your lap. One of the godzillions of crosses on the side of the road already bears your name. You start to believe in miracles each time you arrive, awash in perspiration but alive(!), at your destination.
I haven't met a single person in this country -- native or foreigner -- who doesn't have tales to tell of people dying in car accidents. Every family has lost at least one member in a crash. The country's population would surely be quadruple what it is, if every day thousands of people didn't meet a gruesome and fiery vehicular finale.

Being a pedestrian is not much easier than being a driver, however. The other day I waited 20 minutes to run like hell across a thoroughfare in Cuernavaca. The traffic never let up, much less stopped. There are probably thousands of people, who are believed to have been kidnapped because they never returned home from the grocery store, when in reality, they were unable to reach the other side of the road. Legions have no doubt died waiting for their chance to realize their dream of a pedestrian right of way. I have never heard a "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke here, because no chicken has ever done so.

It's hard enough to walk, but I can't imagine ever getting behind a steering wheel in this country. You've gotta be extremely aggressive, suicidal, homicidal, or just plain crazy (or any combination thereof) to feel comfortable driving here.

My friend T. doesn't appear to be any of the above, and yet he pilots his motorcycle and truck with confidence. Normally relaxed and mild mannered, he explains: "Stop signs are street ornaments. Turn signals are car ornaments. Stop lights are suggestions. Flash your left signal to indicate that someone can pass. Or to indicate a left turn. Let the other driver beware and be a good guesser. Drive fast but arrive late. Rules are flexible. He who gets wherever first, without dying, wins."

So, after a day of sightseeing (a humongous old tree, a deserted convent), T. tells us that he's taking us to say goodbye to Reina, the mother of one of my former students and the owner of a street eatery. He knows a shortcut.

We are somewhere among the unmarked streets of Oaxaca, careening downhill in a small white truck. There is an obvious roadblock: a series of rocks and boulders stretching from one side of the street to the other. Even with my eyes tightly closed, I can see the message:"DO NOT ENTER!!!!"

We enter.

A. and I are shrieking hysterically. T. is smiling like a madman. An anarchist, he is in his element: there are no rules.

Quick right turn, fast left. The road in front of us disappears abruptly. A cliff. A. and I are trembling, grabbing each other, howling with laughter and with fear. We know we are going to die.

Not yet. I believe.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How I found Jesus Part II (Mexico City)

You might be asking yourself, "Why on earth would Barbara spend an entire hour of her 6-week vacation searching for a guy who gave her the wrong telephone number?" Or you might not. But I'm going to tell you why, anyway.

In order to do so, however, I've got to take you back, to when a little girl (about 5 years old and knee high to a grasshopper's knee-hi's), donned leotards and tights for the first time, in the belief that being a ballerina was to be her calling.

Move quickly to view that same girl, 4 years later and only slightly taller, arriving at the realization that she lacked rhythm, grace, and any possibility of living life as a dancer -- something her instructor no doubt realized the first time she set toe on the dance floor.

Fast forward to Mexico City in 2006, where this girl -- now a woman of a certain age (if she were a large dog, she might be dead by now) -- spends hours each day for nearly a week, waiting for her teenage son. As said son plays chess inside a large tent, the woman wanders about the park where the tent is situated. She watches children play soccer. Reads everything in and out of sight. Tries not to watch the young couples sprawled on benches or in the grass as they smooch. And finally, discovers that people are offering dance lessons to other people in the park.

For nearly a week, I watch the lessons, thinking, "Should I or shouldn´t I? Do I dare?" Finally, on our last day in Mexico, I do.

The students -- all older than me --are dancing salsa. What fun! I ask the teacher if I can join in. She says that the lesson is half over and that it will cost me the same $2.50 (yikes!) that it would have had I taken the full session. I tell her that´s fine, pay my fee, and line up. Just in time to change to the next dance, NOT salsa. For an hour we do cumbia and other dances with which I am not familiar. At one point, the teacher tells me, "It´s like riding a horse!"

"My horse is tired!" I respond.

My fellow students, not yet breaking a sweat, end the session with American line dancing, which I don´t even want to do in the US. I am trying to recuperate on a nearby bench and am panting like a horse.

Despite my fatigue, my two left feet, and my inability to follow simple instructions, I take at least one lesson from the same instructor each time I return to Mexico City in subsequent years. She recognizes me, as do some of the members of her class, because I am the only foreigner or, perhaps, because I am the worst dancer who has ever joined them.

The last Monday of my stay, in the summer of 2008, I take a dance class and, for the first time, am able to endure the entire two hours without feeling as if I were about to collapse. In addition, I am actually able to reproduce most of the steps that the teacher models. When I am paired with partners, I don't cause them excessive pain.

After the lesson, I retire for about an hour to an Internet cafe. I send off my emails and walk back towards the subway, passing through the park once more. It´s then that I notice that there are more teachers and more dancers, and that some of the classes are pure salsa. I stop to watch one group, and the assistant instructor beckons me to join them. I shake my head no; I'm already wiped. But I ask the instructor if he´ll be teaching the next day. "No," he says, "but you can learn now." I figure what the heck, and I jump in.

I´m immediately partnered with a young man who knows less than I do. Every couple of minutes, the assistant grabs me, shows the youngster what he´s supposed to do, and hands me back. The boy doesn´t get it, so I´m assigned to someone else. Jesus is my new partner.

You´ve got to understand that, even when I am at my dancing best, I´m not very good. I possess a complete lack of kinesthetic memory, which means that I have to relearn the basics every time I dance and cannot repeat what I´ve been doing for an hour, two hours later. I´ve taken lessons in Richmond, on and off for the last year or so, and I have improved a bit, but that's not saying much.

If I were any good, a lot younger or beautiful, men would be patient, would try to teach me a step or two, would keep me on the dance floor for more than one song. "That´s why I leave Richmond each year," I tell people, half jokingly. "Because the men who´ve danced with me once, realize how bad I am. When I return a month or two later, they´ve forgotten who I am and they make the mistake of asking me to dance once again."

So, when I danced with Jesus, was able to follow him, and things seemed to click, it was absolutely amazing! I really wanted to dance and dance well again and I was willing to go to some lengths to reunite with the perfect partner.

When I see Jesus, he explains that he´d lost his cell phone about a month after we met. I´ve arrived just in time to accompany him to a better dance lesson, and we spend an hour or so learning steps. Either I´ve improved or he hasn´t been practicing or something. Jesus is a mere mortal in my eyes....

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Backlog: Missing and presumed lost (Mexico City)

I had left A., typing away, at an Internet cafe, telling her that I was going back to the Hotel I. to use the bathroom. We had already agreed that we would meet at 5pm for a dance lesson. I would see her back at the hotel , perhaps, if I stopped off to change shoes before heading to the park.

After using the convenient facilities in the hotel lobby, I took a walk and ended up spending several hours in another of the zillion Internet cafes nearby. (No coffee, by the way, in most of these places.) When I returned to the hotel and requested the room key, the clerk womaning the front desk informed me that my friend was upstairs and had been checking all day to see if I'd returned.

"Uh oh," I thought. Something must be wrong. A's mom had fallen and broken a hip and she'd been expecting news. Or perhaps something else -- obviously grave -- had happened. I frantically pushed the elevator button and willed the conveyance to deliver me quickly to our room on the 2nd floor (3rd floor in US translation).

I ran to and knocked on the door and identified myself. A. let me in. "Where have you been?" she cried (without tears, but with a mixture of semi-raised voice, irritation, and relief).

Apparently, she had not heard my "See you later," and had thought that I was going to come right back to the place where she was sending and receiving emails. When I didn't return, she thought I'd gotten sick. She went to check on me, but I wasn't in the room and the clerks said that they'd not seen me. Was I in the hospital? Kidnapped? Murdered?

A. showed me the note that she had composed as she prepared to report my disappearance to the authorities. It is important to realize that A. started learning Spanish only last year and has made great strides. Despite them, she would have caused the police some confusion and hilarity when they read that "the Internet cafe left, but she didn't arrive at the hotel, never."

In a city of over 20 million people, it's not unusual to have things go awry or have people disappear. I didn't even know I was missing, but I guess that's the nature of lost objects and lost beings.

It's about time

When I'm out of the country, it's no surprise to find myself spatially disoriented. Far from my usual stomping grounds, my terrible sense of direction kicks into high drive, which is both a curse and a blessing. A curse, because getting from point A to point B can be frustrating, time-consuming, and stressful. A blessing, because getting from point A to point B can lead me to places unknown, to adventures more fascinating: to a hidden jewel of a building that doesn't appear in the guide books, to a short conversation with a street bookseller who kisses my hand when I take leave, to a tendril of a branch, heavily hung with vibrant orange blossoms that hint at the beauty hiding behind high stone walls.

When I've been somewhere multiple times (such as Mexico City), many streets and buildings seem and, indeed, are familiar, which creates problems of a different sort. I know that I've traced my way through this alley before, but in which direction? To what end? Shouldn't here lead to there?

But being lost in space or place isn't really so bad. Eventually I arrive where I aim to go.

Being lost in time, however, is a bit more serious. Should I wake up one morning in a hospital -- perhaps because I've been sucked dry of blood (see a previous entry) or because I've tripped over my own feet in a dance class -- and should someone ask me to identify the date or day of the week to determine my mental state, I will surely be committed to an institution.

There is the danger of missing an appointment with a friend or not realizing that tomorrow is the day to catch my flight home (although it isn't, is it?).

Despite keeping a calendar close at hand, I am unable to situate myself in time. That may explain why I am jumping from here to there in my blog entries, from last week to today and back to last month, from Oaxaca to Cuernavaca to Mexico City, without rhyme or reason. I hope you will forgive me for being out of order and, often, for running out of time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

How I found Jesus (Mexico City)

I have been going to this park almost every day to take dance lessons. Some days, I take two, especially if I make the mistake of participating in a cumbia class (translation: PE challenge) or if I've ended up with an hour and a half of danzon (translation: slow, but complicated dance favored by the elderly), followed by line dancing to the Spanish version of Achy Breaky Heart. What I want is salsa, pure and simple.

So, I've taken lots of lessons. In the process, I have acquired a series of partners. Ricardo is the 20-something, wife-beater-wearing, dark-skinned Steven Segal look-alike; Armando is the tall Zapotec from Oaxaca, a 40-ish government worker; Alvaro is the dapper older man, suave and graceful. Depending on which teacher I go to, there's always a fellow who seems happy to teach a gringa a couple of steps.

But I´ve been hoping to find Jesus, a guy I'd salsa'd inordinately well with on my penultimate day in Mexico last year. We went to a dance club for a couple of hours on my last night, and Jesus, whose intention was to teach salsa, proved to be my best-ever dance partner. So, each day I comb the park, before and after classes, looking for Jesus.

I'd already tried the phone number he gave me. The first day, I left a message. The second day, a man (not he) answered and told me that there was no Jesus (not at his house, anyway). Yesterday, I decided to look for him in the subway station where my Jesus had been working. If I didn't find him, no big deal, but it was worth a shot.

I rode the metro for half an hour to get to the end of the line, Indios Verdes. There, I asked a guard and a subway worker where I could find the office. "The office of what?" they inquired. Then they listed all the possibilities: security, cleaning, conductors, etc.

"I think he works in administration, " I said. They asked for his name, and when I told them, the one guy took a step back and said, "Oh, he's the boss."

When I found the right office, the men there informed me that Mr. V was at another station, one stop away from the one I'd traveled from. They gave me a number to call, but no one picked up. "Go to Niños Heroes," they directed me.

It was 5:30. I knew that Jesus had finished work at 6pm last year, so I was worried that I would miss him. I arrived at the station with two minutes to spare. Approaching the first policeman I saw, I asked for the office. The young man started to quiz me, and I was tempted to say that I was going to lodge a complaint; Jesus had given me a wrong number, after all. He asked me what the person I was looking for looked like; I couldn't describe Jesus, as I'd remembered only his excellent dancing and not his face. Saying that he had dark skin, straight black hair, and was somewhat taller than me would have described about 8 million Mexican men. Finally, the policeman said that the office was right outside the turnstile, but he didn't think that Mr. V. would be there. I turned towards the office and I saw Jesus, standing in front of and looking at me with a big smile on his face.

Now, isn't that how YOU would want to see Jesus?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Crazy buggers (Mexico City)

Have I mentioned that I do not stay at luxury hotels when I travel? The places I pick are easy on the wallet, if not on the eye. They are not rated with 3 stars, 2 stars, or even 1. They rarely rate at all. But in my own 4-scar system, the Hotel I. merits a strong 2.5. The bathrooms are clean (although the toilets sometimes leak). There is good security: A guard (armed with antibacterial lotion to spritz on your hands when you enter the lobby) protects against the spread of swine flu and the threat of strangers (maybe). The rooms are either bright or quiet, but not both. The ceilings of rooms on the fourth floor leak only when it rains (which is nearly every day or night, but only for an hour or two).

After A.'s return stateside, I change hotel rooms. No longer in the spacious, noisy, and relatively bright room we shared, I am now housed in what I shall henceforth not so fondly refer to as "the inner sanctum" (I.S.); its only window opens onto a hallway, with a view of the door of a room with an actual view. This unfortunate positioning allows the fumes from the cigarettes smoked by those I am henceforth referring to as "the other f____ing tourists" (or OFTs) to filter their way into my lungs.

The only other things that enter the room while I'm trying to breathe or sleep are mosquitoes. I am apparently hosting a swarm (a herd? colony? cartel? convention?) of them. I am their oasis in the desert, their all-night diner, the only room at the only inn -- a neon sign flickering "Welcome," beckoning on the way home to the other side of the(ir stagnant) pond.

I'm sure that there must be a series of very, very teeny-tiny signs posted high up on my door: OPEN HOUSE. ALL U CAN SUCK. CHILDREN FEED FOR FREE WITH PARENT! LIMITED TIME ONLY. FRESH FROM THE USA. TASTES LIKE CHICKEN!

Itchy and bumpy, I awaken in the mornings expecting to see paint-ball sized splatters on the walls, the bloody remains of those buggers so sated with my lifeblood that they were unable to make it out of the IS, much less to their meetings of Overfeeders Anonymous.

It is so dark in the IS that I don't open my eyes until what I think is a late wake up -- 9am. Turns out it 's noon. The good news is that despite smacking my head at least twice in an attempt to foil a dive bombing mosquito and banging my head at least twice on the shutters that open into the IS directly above my bed, I have awakened. There is the distinct possibility that later in the week someone (the maid? an OFT?) will find me, severely concussed, a bumpy, bloodless, and dessicated husk, in the smokey, murky shadows of my room.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Backlog: Trout on the Town (Oaxaca)

My ex-pat friend, T., has found his true home in Oaxaca. Not far off a highway headed toward mountain lakes is the tiny turnoff, an unbeaten path that wends its way past two lovely residences and one unlovely, unfinished, and uninhabited McMansion. A tall metal fence (soon to be covered by flowering vines, as everything grows fast here) shields T.'s tile-roofed, adobe house, workshop, and carport from view and prevents uninvited visits. The small, but charming, one-story house is ringed (rang?) by gardens: a chicken coop (housing three scrawny residents) and several raised vegetable beds in the back, flowers and a fish pond with marine plants outside of the kitchen door, newly planted flowers and trees around the front and other side.

We lounge on the porch. T., D., and A. down beers. I sip a bottle of water. Mountains and clouds create an ever-changing view. Birds (don't ask me what kind) fly by. A pit bull mix stretches and naps in the sun. A well-fed cat eyes me with interest, as I nervously try to ignore him. (I am highly allergic to and distrustful of cats, therefore, I am the equivalent of human catnip.)

Peace and beauty abound. I am so relaxed that I almost feel like accepting T.'s offer to stay here next time I visit Oaxaca. Except that I would probably go crazy. A city girl, I've always thought that nature is nice to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

We squeeze into the front (and only) seat of T.'s truck. Luckily, D. is skeleton-skinny, so he doesn't occupy a full adult-sized place. It starts to rain as we pull up to the trout farm where we will dine. The owner's son greets us and leads us to a pond. He nets the trout, gasping for water and flapping wildly, that will, within 15 minutes, be gutted, bathed in garlic, stuffed with chopped tomatoes, and enveloped in silver foil. Grilled, they will satisfy our hitherto unknown yearnings for fresh, tasty, and delicious fish.

As A. says, "Another day in Paradise!"

Backlog: Answered prayers (Mexico City)

It's Sunday and we're combing la Lagunilla (a market) for ex-votos. Ex-votos are images of an event and and the accompanying narrative, the successful outcome of a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe or to a saint. The paintings, executed on thin metal plaques, are somewhat primitive, the stories sometimes amusing. I'm not sure when (1800's, maybe) or where (Oaxaca, perhaps?) they became popular, but you can find some antique ones at a price I can't afford. Artists imagine, paint, and sell them today, and some will even take on commissions.

After wandering for over an hour through buildings and alleyways crammed with vendors displaying raw cow and pig innards and outards, new and used clothing, vintage furniture, and just about everything you can and cannot imagine, we locate our first contemporary painter of ex-votos. A. is really the one in the market for them, and she buys one of the young man's pieces. The story and image give thanks to the Virgin for having prevented the supplicant from being bitten by a dog.

We continue looking around, happening upon another artist with a wonderful sense of humor. A. buys my favorite ex-voto: I thank you Virgin of Guadalupe because after my husband left me for that hussy Amalia and came back to take the pig you gave me the courage to stand up to him. She purchases a second, as well, in which the (fictitious) writer thanks the Virgin for saving her two daughters from being bitten by wild animals while they were sitting on the banks of a river.

I convince A. that she should commission her own ex-voto, so we retire to a nearby plaza to brainstorm. We determine that it would be difficult to picture something to do with A's highly successful acupuncture practice; however, after less time than one would think necessary, she comes up with the following: I thank you Virgin of Guadalupe when after a dream I awakened able to speak perfect Spanish and dance salsa. The artist makes a rough sketch, and I suggest that he add in a handsome salsero for A. to dance with.

In Oaxaca, I find my own (mini) ex-voto, appropriate because of the knee problems that I've been having : I give thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe because when I fell , I only broke my leg.

A little over a week later, after we return to Mexico City, the artist and his wife meet us in our hotel lobby. A. is depicted lying in her bed. A bubble, indicating her dream, frames her saying, "¡Es un milagro!" (Translation: "It's a miracle!"), as she salsas in a daring red dress. The Virgin appears at the top right of the plaque, as she usually does in such works. The piece is wonderful, from the misspelled word (not atypical of antique ex-votos) down to the Tom Jones V-neck shirt that reveals the hairy (according to the painter -- "sexy") chest of A.'s dance partner.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Backlog: Geriatric Dance Club (Mexico City)

It's Saturday night. A. and I are getting dolled up. I'm dressed in black, with some sparkly blue and black bling to prevent me from looking as if I were in mourning. I loan A., wearing a red top, my dangling orange and coral earrings. "They don't match my outfit," she says.

"Don't worry," I tell her. "The lights are dim. No one will notice."

Candela is, I'm pretty sure, the dance club I went to last year with a friend. The place was huge and jumping; the crowd was lively; the salsa, when played by the live band and recorded, was hot. A. and I are looking forward to salsa-ing the night away.

I've checked with the guy at the hotel desk. He's not exactly sure where Candela is in relation to the metro stop, but he assures me that it's not far away and that it's safe for two gringas to walk to the club and back to the subway, as long as we're back by midnight. As neither of us has been known to stay awake past 11:30 in the last 20 years, we figure we'll be fine.

At my request, the young woman at the hotel desk calls the club for us. We want to know the price of admission, the price of a drink, when the club opens and closes. Just the basics, so we'll determine how much money to bring and what to expect. The answer she receives to every question is: "It depends."

A. shoots me a look that says, "This doesn't sound promising." I ignore her.

Sparkling and dangling, we head for Candela. When we emerge from the metro, we walk to a hotel and ask for directions at the desk. The clerk has never heard of the club. She asks her colleagues where it is. One says it's about 20 minutes away and we can walk. Another insists that we must take a cab, it's too far, and the neighborhood isn't safe. The bellman says we just have to cross over a couple of busy thoroughfares, and we'll find the club (somewhere) on the other side of the subway station.

We go with the bellman's directions, risking our lives to cross the streets. Once we reach the metro, we see CANDELA, a neon beacon a mere half block away. I don't remember the place being quite so close to the subway, but then there's an awful lot that I don't remember. And we're here!

A man slouching near the dark and eerie entryway instructs A. to slide our pesos through a narrow slit. The ticket booth is dark, and there's no telling if anyone is in there. A. shoots me a look that says, "Do we really want to go in here?" I ignore her. We have paid our money and we make our entrance.

It is immediately obvious that this is not the place I was before. It's smaller. It's much, much louder. It's blindingly bright. (A. shoots me another look, but misses.) Save for the one couple that seems to be the great-grandchildren of some of the folks who are there, we (women of a certain age that we are) are the youngest people present.

The dance floor is packed, and the elderly dancers are having a ball. Those who are not dancing appear to be decomposing. The trouble is, they are occupying every seat in the house. We walk around, searching in vain for an empty table. Finally, I spy a young (by comparison) man, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, leaning alertly by the bar. "Can you please show us to a table?" I shout to him. He complies, and we sit.

The dancers are rocking and rolling. They're shaking, spinning, twirling, turning, sliding, and gliding. But what we quickly realize is that they are not salsa-ing. They all seem to know the steps, but the dances are ones we have never before seen. That's when a man who could be my long-dead grandfather asks me to dance.

"What is this dance?" I yell.

"Cuban," he shouts.

Although they are all different, it turns out that every single dance is "Cuban" tonight. And I can't dance any of them.

I thank my dead grandfather for the dance and return to the table. Someone who obviously wasn't watching me, approaches and beckons me to the dance floor.

Another defunct ancestor-type, the semi-spry, pudgy, and avuncular L. soon discovers that he might lead but I can't follow. Still, he tells me, as I apologize repeatedly for stepping on his foot or elbowing him in the ear, that he likes "the way I am*." Over the grueling (for me, if not for him) course of the evening, he returns again and again for more torture.

At one point, before the music overwhelms all else, L. yells that he is a business owner, a tailor. "If I lose a button, I have to donate my clothes," I shout.

"I'll sew on your buttons," he screams back.

L. is not my only partner or glutton for punishment. The man I presumed to be a waiter asks me for a dance and returns later to see if I've learned anything. I haven't.

Meanwhile, A. has been alternating shooting looks at me and dances with L. Her success on the dance floor (about the same as mine) and the clash of red blouse and orange earrings (the colors really aren't that far apart on the color chart) are signalling that our evening must end.

I yell L. that I will be leaving town and that we will, most likely, never meet again. He recedes into the brightness, no doubt aching with desire and just plain, unadulterated pain.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Backlog: I don´t know a thing about it, officer (Mexico City).

Our second day in Mexico City, my travel companion asks me if I have any idea where she can buy a miner´s headlamp. As we have not scheduled any spelunking, I ask her if she is out of her mind. She replies that she needs a light to read by while I am sleeping and that her neighbor in Richmond has one of them. I tell her she is out of her mind and that there is no way we are going to find such a thing in Mexico City.

Twenty minutes later, we are ambling towards the metro when A. spies a shop selling camping equipment. We approach the counter, where a variety of miner´s headlamps is arrayed.

The saleswoman (hair spiked, arms tattooed) pulls out a selection of lamps for A. to admire, then turns to me. ¨You must be really sad about Michael Jackson,¨ she says, a look of great concern on her face.

I have never been sad about Michael Jackson. Surprised, yes. Appalled, yes. But sad, no. "Why should I be sad about him?" I ask.

She tells me that he is dead and, from that moment on, A. and I realize that we have been hearing "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" ever since we left the hotel. What we don't realize is that we will be hearing those songs for days on end. "This is the soundtrack for our trip," A. later comments.

In the meantime, A. chooses her headlamp. She turns down the offer of a plastic bag and sticks her purchase into her tote.

Before leaving, we are informed that Farah Fawcett has died. This is the first and last we hear of her passing.

Our day of sightseeing begins in earnest. The Palacio de Bellas Artes is an impressive monument to Art Deco, inside and out. The work of some of Mexico's most famous muralists (Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, among them) bedeck its walls. An exhibit of works by a Polish ex-pat, Tamara (last name to come) who lived and painted in Paris, Cuernavaca, Mexico City, and Los Angeles, echoes the influence of Caravaggio, with dramatic plays of light and shadow.

We admire the exterior and lobby of the post office -- the staircase and elevator could serve as models for gold guilders everywhere. So many of the buildings we pass are impressive, imposing, studded with sculptures, angeled and gargoyled.

We stop for tea at the Casa de Azulejos. A former residence, the blue and white tiled building is now a Sanborn's Department Store, part of Carlos Slim's empire (which includes Mexico's largest telephone and oil companies). We are shown to a table in the beautiful courtyard, where we admire the tiles (imported from China), the high ceiling (several stories), and the plants that surround us.

It is about this time when A. opens her tote bag and discovers not one, but two miner's headlights resting comfortably in its interior. "We've got to go back to that store," she tells me.

I had absolutely no idea that I was traveling with a kleptomaniac. I, myself, have this problem with pens, but I try not to klept them from anyone in countries where there are more armed police per square foot than there are roaches in Manhattan.

I immediately imagine the conversation that will condemn me to a squalid Mexican prison for the rest of my life. Spike-haired woman to police: "Those two gringas might look like semi-respectable and innocent women of a certain age, but they are, in fact, cool, accomplished crooks. The short-haired one stole the headlight, but (she raises her tattooed arm and points to me) it was the other one, her accomplice -- yes, that's her, alright -- who distracted me with all that talk about Michael Jackson."

Praying that the clerk has not yet reported the theft and hoping that the APB has not gone out throughout Mexico, A. and I practically racewalk back to the scene of the crime.

We enter the store, smiles plastered on our faces to hide our fear. Michael Jackson moonwalks across a television screen as we attempt to explain the error and make amends. The clerk smiles and returns the headlamp to its place under the counter. Michael Jackson croons, "Thriller, thriller...."

Backlog: Making an Entrance (Mexico City)

I have to play catch up, starting this blog when I´m already one week into my stay in Mexico. So, I take you back to my arrival in Mexico City´s airport, a suitcase bulging with clothes -- half of which I´ll probably never wear -- and a bag within my bag -- full of condoms.

Let me explain. You see, I´d never even seen a condom until about two months ago, when I was womaning a table at an event bringing services and food, clothing, and other items essential for the survival of some of the most desperate of economically deprived immigrant families in Richmond, VA. The representative of a health consortium seated directly across the way from me was displaying and giving away a wide array of condoms for every possible eventuality.

"Perfect," I thought. "Maybe I can ask her for a donation of condoms for when I return to Oaxaca." The woman told me she´d give me any left at the end of the day, but we never closed the deal; that´s why, feeling as if I were involved in some criminal endeavor, I ended up being handed a bag o´ rubbers on a Richmond street corner the day before I left town.

Obviously, I have to explain myself once again. My American expatriate friend, T. (name has been abbreviated to protect the innocent) had requested only three things from me when I asked what he would like me to take to him on my next visit to Oaxaca: a microphone or some other piece of equipment for use in a radio station, a block of cheddar cheese, and a load of condoms that he could distribute in his unpaid and unheralded work to fight the spread of AIDS.

A week before my departure, I´d informed T. that I wouldn´t be able to bring the cheese. It would have had to have lasted, without refrigeration, for 5 days. He told me that cheddar was now available and that we could skip the microphone. But the condoms would be exactly what the doctor ordered.

The rub was that, to avoid paying duty, I would have to tell customs that the condoms were for my personal use. As a woman of a certain age (i.e., at least a generation older than my 19-year-old son), I was dreading the embarrassment of being questioned, my suitcase opened for the world to see, while every customs agent in the place gawked at me and at the hundreds of condoms that I would be using during my 6-week stay in Mexico.

My friend, A., who was meeting me at the airport, had suggested various solutions to this condilemna. First, she offered to take the condoms off my hands and was concocting a rather elaborate story about delivering them to an artist who worked in that particular (and peculiar)medium. Before I could give them to her, however, she suggested that I bring a gift bag with me and tell a customs officer, if queried, that I was giving them to a recently divorced friend, as a gag gift. I´m a rotten liar, but I was willing to try....

So, there I was on Mexican soil, my suitcase rolling through the airport X-ray machine, plainly revealing the outline of a plastic bag containing hundreds of circles. The two guards assigned to watch for weaponry, drugs, illegal 4-ounce bottles of liquids, and duty-free condoms, were busy conversing with each other and didn´t notice anything.

The first hurdle hurdled, I faced the red button. If I pushed it, and the light turned green, I would be home-away-from-home free. If the light turned red, so would I. My suitcase would be opened, its contents -- and I -- exposed!

Green light!