Saturday, September 11, 2010

Food, Glorious Food (Oaxaca Mexico)

Breakfast is oatmeal with quinoa and flax, mango and apple, prunes, raisins, cranberries, and slices of fresh ginger. We add nuts and thin rounds of banana. I want to eat this every morning of my life.

To market to buy a new harness for Lucky the burro. I purchase a kilo of addictive, salty peanuts with whole garlic cloves and chili peppers to replace the batch that I polished off at T's house. If I had a gas stove at home and room in my luggage, I would have bought a comal, a flat clay dish you set atop a stove-top flame to warm tortillas.

We stop off to visit a friend of T's who is providing a bag of corn for Lucky. The fellow lives in a town grown prosperous from the sale of naturally dyed rugs. A. buys four coasters, and I purchase a wool mat with asymmetrical geometric designs in shades of blue, red, orange and green. We drink mezcal and take photos with the young man, whose family has spent generations dying wool. They continue to work with all natural dyes -- with indigo to produce blue, of course; with cochinilla , which yields hues from burgundy to red to purple; and withpersimmons, which make yellow)-- and to weave and sell the beautiful results.

We lunch in Tule, home of an enormous and famous tree. We order two huge quesadillas each of quesillo, mushrooms, and squash blossoms. While we wait, A. goes to the aid of a woman with heart problems, who has passed out in her seat. A. advises the husband to take his wife, pale, clammy, and clutching her head, to the hospital. Half an hour later, they are still in the parking lot and a little while after, they return to the comedor and order lunch. I eat my food and down a huge glass of horchata and, although my stomach is stretching and hurting, I wonder why I didn't try the barbacoa that I see everyone else eating. The oven-roasted sheep is served with tortillas, whole spring onions, and cilantro to people who are licking their fingers with pleasure.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Party Time (Oaxaca, Mexico)

I sleep in one bedroom, with a fidgety dog at the foot of the bed. A. claims the living room couch. We wake up early, to the sounds of the animals braying, crowing, and barking.

We eat sweet bread with cinnamon and raisins and guzzle freshly brewed coffee. Breakfast, in an hour, will include the freshest of eggs made into an omelet with quesillo, the local string cheese (think mozzarella), and huge oyster mushrooms. There's fruit salad and more coffee.

We accompany T. to a birthday party for 4-year-old Carlitos, the spirited son of some of his friends. Some poor guy is dressed in a Buz Lightyear suit. A fast-talking clown and his cowboy sidekick (another guy costumed as a character from "Toy Story") draw all the children into fast-paced activities, from tug-o'-war to team competitions that involve lining up pairs of parents' shoes, to relay races with balloons carried between knees and deposited in baskets, to musical chairs and more. Food is plentiful: tamarind ice pops, snack foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, sandwiches, a to-die-for nut cake with mocha icing and bitter chocolate sauce, and a to-die-from orange and white gelatin, molded in the shape of guitars. Decorations include baskets of white carnations and other flowers, shaped into cute-as-a-button puppies. Pinatas expose the passive or violent natures of little children in the ways they swing the bat and swoop up the candies.

All the children, as well as we gringo guests, receive gift bags. T. gets a plastic container for his lunch, a Disney book from the movie Cars, and candy. I get a water bottle; donitos, a pale orange, fried dough junk food, especially tasty when doused in hot sauce, of which I am overly fond; a bag of Cheetos flavored with chili and lime; and tons of candy. A. gets lots of sweets, but I try not to taunt her too much with the fact that my bag is better than her bag.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Paradise Revisited (Oaxaca, Mexico)

In the year since I last visited T., he has lost one dog and acquired three, gained four cats and a burro, added a couple more hens to his flock (including one named Finger Lickin'), and added a young man to his household, who seems to be taking care of T. and the animals in a way that is good for all. T's garden has become lush -- herbs, flowers, trees, vines, cacti all maturing at a pace unheard of in more northern climes. The exterior of the house has been repainted in a rainbow of happy hues: purple, bright pink, blue,and orange, with green trim. It may sound garish, but it is delightful.

The mountains, in the not-so distance remain as I remember them: majestic, shrouded in mist, and blanketed by trees. Except for the early morning wake-up call of the rooster and the erratic, ear shattering brays of Lucky the Donkey, and the barking of Marcelo, India, and Mondy, this place is pleasure, this place is peace, this place is Paradise.

A Week in Oaxaca (Oaxaca)

A. wants the opportunity to speak Spanish, something she doesn't get to do often when we are together. We're either speaking in English or I'm doing the talking en espanol. Therefore, we have agreed to separate and meet up on the weekend to spend three days with our favorite expat anarchist American, T. In the meantime, A. is staying with a Mexican family and studying Spanish, while I take up residency in a hostel.

T. picks us up from the bus station. It is pouring, and there really isn't room in the front and only seat of the truck for four people and two people's luggage, even though the two people travel light. So we humans all scrunch into the cab while the luggage, for the most part, gets thrown into the open back, and as we bounce along, we squash each other into various shades of black and blue and, at least one of us realizes that she could afford to lose another 20 pounds in order to make this small section of the planet more comfortable.

We go to a health food restaurant, so A. and I can eat salad and whole grains, while T. and his young friend, O., indulge in chocolate pie a la mode, which also qualifies as healthful, given all the antioxidants and the happiness generated by eating what looks to be a lot tastier than our salads and grains.... At least one of us tries not to covet my neighbor's order.

Both A. and I are staying on the outskirts of the historic center of town. T. drops off A. first, me next. I am happy to arrive but cannot find my printed confirmation of my reservation, and there is no record of my arrival in the the hostel's reservation book. Lucky for me, there is a vacant room and a promise of an even nicer one the following night.


Breakfast is included in my room rental, so I tuck into huevos a la mexicana, refried beans, and tortillas. I make the mistake of adding chemical- substitute-for-cream to my coffee, so after gagging and dumping the vile beverage, I take my java straight.

The lovely owner of the hostel, Norma, tells me she is a masseuse and gives me a brief demonstration back rub. I may stay here forever.

But no, the call of the outside is strong. I spend the day roaming, re-acquainting myself with this charming city, inquiring about dance lessons and stopping into several galleries to view photographic exhibits of immigrants. The day passes quickly.

At 5:00 pm, I find myself back at a dance studio, talking to the instructor about classes. He's an award-winning salsero and, whether due to his fame, talent, or the scarcity of salsa lessons in Oaxaca, he charges near-US prices for each hour of class. There's a special deal for five hours, but I commit to only one this evening.

I end up staying for three, in part because there is no clear delineation between the end of one lesson and the start of another. I learn some new moves and that there is only one place to salsa in Oaxaca. And it is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I decide that I would not be able to live here.


I meet my young friend, Guillermo, at one of the cafes off the Zocalo. While we are talking, Gary -- the head of the Oaxaca Learning Center -- strolls by. As I had planned to catch up with him later in the day, I waylay and invite him to join us. I want to discuss the possibility of volunteering as an English conversation partner or tutor while I'm in town. I start tomorrow.

A few minutes after Gary says goodbye, I. and B., friends from my Mexico City hotel, happen by. They sit down for a while before they have to leave for their return to D.F. Our conversation about how small the world is takes place in English, German, and Spanish.

Guillermo and I meet his cousin's cousin, Lorena, and drive to a mall. I am looking for pants to replace the ones I brought with me, which are now two sizes too big. Lorena has to pick up some packages. Guillermo goes along for the ride. We ride and run around a bit. I decide that I will wear my pants as hiphuggers and hope that they don't slide off.

At 6:00, I meet Lazaro at the Oaxaca Learning Center. His English is excellent, and he really doesn't need my help.

When I return (in the pouring rain) to the hostel, I learn that A. has stopped by at least three times already. I ask Norma to tell her, should she come by again, that I will be eating tacos at a place around the corner.

And that's where A. finds me a little while later.


I wander around town again and meet A's host family. A. and I spend the afternoon touring the Convent and Museum of Santo Domingo. In the early evening I tutor Gerardo, a young man who's about to enter his first year of university, where he'll major in languages. He's already got English well under control.

A. and I meet again for a documentary film about migrant tobacco workers and their families, who are contaminated and often killed by the chemicals used on the crops. From the filmmaker, we learn that the problem has been mostly resolved; the tobacco fields have been converted to other purposes, and the workers (those that have survived) are now unemployed.

We go back to the taco place, where we meet a young Spanish documentary film maker and his Australian lady friend and one of A.'s classmates. The tacos really are tasty! The place is jammed, and I'm loving the killer quesadillas .


I'm trying to cover a lot of territory in a little time: I tour the Benito Juarez House Museum and the Rufino Tamayo Museum (featuring lots of impressive pre-Columbian artifacts), the Templo de San Felipe Neri (an ornate church), the Museo del Palacio, and two markets. I meet Gerardo for our last session, because by tomorrow afternoon, I'll be at T's place.

A. and I go to La Candela, Oaxaca's salsa venue, at 9:30 pm. The promised dance lesson never materializes. The club steadily fills with young foreigners, all women, and a handful of Mexican men. A. and I dance a few numbers together and leave early. No way I can live here.

My last day in the city, I am darting in and out of art galleries until lunchtime. In the restaurant's courtyard, I make a new friend, an elderly professor who insists on paying for my coffee and walking me back to my hostel.

T. calls to say that traffic is impossible and he'll be delayed. I walk over to A's house and tell her that he'll meet us at my hostel when he can get through.

We spend the evening touring T's garden and relaxing. And eating. We heat up rice, beans, deliciously herbed, roasted chicken. We throw together a salad of locally grown greens, carrots, spring onions, and tomatoes. We pick, chop, and add garlic chives, oregano, and basil from the garden. There are tortillas and other flat breads. We feast and catch up with a year's worth of stories.