Tuesday, March 10

Conspiracy Theory

On the long bus ride from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, I sat next to a chatty Mexican musician on his way to Huatulco to play a few gigs. The conversation went the usual route: where we were from, family, job, Mexico, and finally US politics. At which point, Jose Luis (that was his name) busted out with an insane conspiracy theory he read on the internet and swore was true because the daring journalist who reported it had been fired and black-listed by the government from working at any other news outlet. Here's the theory:

Beginning with the George W. Bush administration and continuing with Obama, the government has been planning to replace the dollar with a new currency called the "amero" or something like that. The plan is to replace US dollars (along with Canadian dollars and Mexican pesos) with the amero overnight, so that someone who has $1 million when they go to bed one night will wake up with effectively $250,000, or 1 million ameros. This is somehow supposed to help with the national deficit, make government officials rich, and also, of course, anger every single American with any money, not to mention the Canadians and Mexicans. Obviously there will be a giant uprising with rioting, looting, etc. And that's why Obama is planning to withdraw troops from Iraq: he needs them at home to quell any uprising.

Here's what wikipedia has to say on the topic.

Sunday, March 8

Break Dancing

On Wed night I went to see a free break dancing show near Santo Domingo (apparently March is dance month in the state of Oaxaca, and there are free and paid shows all over the city). For the break dancing, an outdoor stage complete with colored lights and strobes had been set up on the cobblestones, with folding chairs on 3 sides filled with tourists and Mexicans alike, lots of young kids, and a few grandmothers.

The show was exactly what you'd expect from a break dancing show. There were two groups, one from Oaxaca and one from Mexico City. They each went on and did a choreographed group performance and then their own individual stunts. Some of them were quite good, doing one-armed handstands, hopping and balancing on one hand, head spins, the whole deal. Then, after both groups had performed, they had a dance-off, complete with taunts and joking imitations of their competitors. I went with my student, L, and we had a great time. Of course, the pictures don't really capture the dancers' movements.

Puerto Escondido

For my last official weekend in Mexico, I went to Puerto Escondido with 6 students. Me and 2 others took the first class bus, while the rest took the second class bus, which is much cheaper and faster because it takes an alternate route, but also stops to pick up travelers on the side of the road. All this stopping and starting on windy mountain roads is too much for my motion sickness, so I always take first class, load up on dramamine, and sleep the whole way.

At 3:30 in the morning, when we should have been a little over halfway there, the bus stopped. And stayed stopped. At 4, the bus driver made the announcement that there had been an accident, traffic was blocked going both ways on the highway, and it would be hours before we could move again. A few people got off the bus and stood and chatted on the side of the road with the passengers from the other 20 or so buses that were in the same situation. Eventually they got back on the bus and dozed until it started to get light around 6:30 am.

In the light, we could see masses of people walking, or in the backs of trucks, riding to work in Tehuantepec, the nearest town down the road. We also began to see bus passengers hauling their luggage down the road, climbing in collective taxis when possible. After some discussion, P, A and I decided to try our luck walking down the road, since the driver thought it would be at least 5 or 6 hours before we'd be moving. Two German girls on our bus who spoke no Spanish requested to go along with us. So the 5 of us set off down the road, much to the surprise of the bus drivers and other Mexicans we passed, who obviously thought us 5 gueros would never make it.

After about 15 minutes of walking we happened upon the accident. The gas tanker was on its side spanning the entire road, and the gas was being pumped out. Surprisingly, there was only one ambulance, two tanker trucks waiting to receive the gas, and a few officials standing around. In the US there would have been about 3 fire trucks, 5 ambulances, and a troop of police officers. There was no sign that the wreck would be cleared away any time soon.

On the other side of the tanker, we could see cars taking a dirt road detour through the mountains (it was too narrow for buses). We luckily caught the first taxi we saw, and endured the 20 minute, 5 people crammed into an economy-car-ride to Tehuantepec. The driver, who spoke so quickly and mumbled so badly we could barely understand him, dropped us off on the side of the road on the outskirts of town with the instructions to catch the bus to Salina Cruz. We felt kind of lost, but the bus came right away, and we hopped on and rode it to the end of the line. The fare collector was nice enough to point us in the direction of the bus station, where we bought bus tickets from Salina to Puerto Escondido. And luckily, the bus was just leaving. We finally arrived in Puerto at 2 pm, only 7 hours behind schedule!

It was an interesting adventure. At the time we weren't scared that we were walking through the middle of nowhere, had no idea exactly where we were going or how to get there. We were just annoyed at losing time on the beach. But I feel like now that I've experienced that, I can pretty much survive anything in Mexico.

The beach was totally worth it. It was beautiful, the water was warm and clear, the waves were perfect for body boarding, the food was delicious, the weather was warm and sunny. Puerto was great because, at least at Playa Zicatela where we were, the coastline hasn't been overtaken by giant resorts. Instead, it's lined by cute little hotels, shops and restaurants. You can lie on the beach or on deck chairs (provided you buy food and drinks from the restaurants that own the chairs), and be served margaritas all day. And since it is off-season, it wasn't crowded, just pleasantly populated.

Our ride back, thankfully, was unevenful.

San Antonio Cuajimoloyas

Last week we went on an excursion to San Antonio Cuajimoloyas, a small Zapotec town in the mountains near Oaxaca de Juarez, knowing nothing about the excursion plans other than that it would take about an hour to get there via windy, mostly unpaved roads through the mountains. Bonine saved me from puking my guts out in the back of a 15 person conversion van. And the views were amazing.

When we got there, we learned that we would be spending the morning talking to the students, ages 13-15, of the local preparatory school. As we stood uncertainly in a clump in the middle of the giant cement basketball/volleyball court, the students timidly came out of their classrooms and formed a line behind their English teacher. After some insistent prodding by professors on both sides, we formed little groups with the students and started talking to them about their lives, answering questions about Chicago, the US, and exchanging jokes. At one point M and I sang our national anthem at the request of some Mexican students and in exchange for them singing theirs to us. M also jokingly introduced a female Mexican student to all 3 boys in our program after learning that she wanted to move to LA and was in search of an American boyfriend.

After a lunch break, we broke into informal games of soccer and volleyball, and then basketball. It was really fun playing against the students, even though they seriously kicked our butts. Height apparently does not make up for practice, age, and being used to the high altitude.

After the sports matches, we took a guided hike through the mountains. The town, which is still governed collectively according to Zapotec custom, had built cabins using citizens' collective labor and materials, in order to build up an ecotourism industry. So we hiked up to the cabins and then through the mountain pastures, meanwhile learning about a tree worm problem that was decimating the forest, local plants and animals, etc. Of course, we had no idea we would be enduring a vigorous hike, so many students were wearing extremely inappropriate outfits (flip-flops, shorts, etc.). But luckily no one broke an ankle.

At the end of the hike we were treated to a talk by Omar, a guy who runs an NGO called Ollin Tlahtoalli (Zapotec term for oral stories). He has been collecting and videotaping village elders from around Oaxaca, recording their oral histories. But his organization also offers courses on English, sports, literacy, etc. to help improve village life. It was a really inspiring presentation (even if his video editing skills needed serious work).

Thursday, February 26

Regaderas and plomeros

The problem with my bathroom in Oaxaca is that the shower head (regadera) is so corroded that the water goes almost everywhere but straight down. This causes several difficulties, the two main ones being that I get shampoo in my eyes a lot because I try to suds up outside the water stream, but there's no such thing in my shower stall, so the little spritzes make the suds run into my eyes; and that the water escapes the shower walls and soaks the entire bathroom floor, door, and wall next to my towel. If I'm not careful to push my towel to one side, I will in fact be forced to dry off with a soaking towel.

But I had discovered that if I aimed the shower head just right and only turned the water on just a little, the bathroom wouldn't get wet. I briefly considered asking the 2 women (both named Rosa) who take care of the building if I could get a new shower head. But I figured that since they clean my place twice a week, they were fully aware of the issue and chose not to deal with it.

However, once my parents came to visit, my dad decided that something HAD to be done. It was such an easy problem, he had changed shower heads many times. So he talked to the Rosas in his broken Spanish and managed to communicate his idea to them and ask for directions to the nearest hardware store. They were fully willing to let him go ahead with the project as long as he was paying for it.

Before leaving for the hardware store, my dad told me his plan. I begged him not to do it because I thought something was bound to go wrong, but he insisted that it was a simple process. I couldn't stop him, so I went off to meet a friend. While I was gone, he hit up 3 hardware stores, bought a shower head and pipe, and a wrench. But while trying to unscrew the extremely corroded shower head, he accidentally also turned the pipe coming out of the wall. And when he turned on the water, it came out of the new shower head, but also straight out of the wall.

So he decided to try to unscrew the pipe from the wall and change it out for the new pipe that came with the shower head. Of course the pipe broke off and left a chunk inside the wall. At this point he realized he was screwed, and went and talked to the Rosas, who decided to call a plumber (plomero. There's a lot of English influence on Mexican Spanish). Luckily, the plumber arrived on his bicycle in less than 15 minutes on a Saturday, and was able to get the remainder of the pipe out of the wall and install the new pipe and shower head. All for the ridiculously low price of 200 pesos (about $18).

I came home when the plumber was leaving the building on his bike and Rosa was collecting the 200 pesos from my dad in the door of my apartment. She immediately recounted the whole history to me, and my reaction was, of course, "Que sorpresa!". As soon as the door closed, I let out quite satisfying and emphatic, "I TOLD YOU SO" to my dad, and then thanked God that I hadn't been here for the whole process.

I admit the new shower works quite well, and it was cheap. But if the plumber hadn't been able to extract the broken pipe segment, they would have had to take apart the entire tiled wall of the shower stall and redone it with new tile, since they no longer sell the tile it's made with. And this would have cost much more and probably left us without a shower or possibly running water for several days.

Since then, my dad has defered to my judgment on (ridiculous) ideas or projects that he has come up with while in Mexico. Much to my relief.

CaSa in San Agustín Etla

On Tuesday my parents and I went to San Agustín Etla, a small mountain town to the northeast of Oaxaca where CaSa makes its home. CaSa (Centro de las Artes de San Agustín) is a paper-making collective started by a group of Finnish paper makers (and yes, they even have a Facebook group). Its goal is to create an artistic center that not only foments artistic innovation, but also creates many layers of permanent jobs in the region, including artists in residence, farmers who cultivate the fibers used to make paper, paper makers who can sell their professional-quality products in mass quantities, professors and instructors, etc. Their entire operation is designed to have as little impact as possible on the environment; in fact, their paper-making process does not pollute the water in any way, and they are able to recycle the water directly into the municipal system.

CaSa is located in an old electricity plant and textile mill, La Soledad, that was donated to the organization by CFE (the Mexican energy company), and the Mexican government. In addition to the classrooms and exhibit space in La Soledad, there is a shop down the hill where they sell books, paper, jewelry, boxes and other paper art made from the paper made on site; the paper workshop itself; and a bookbinding studio.

The entire campus is truly gorgeous. It's large, clean, rustic, industrial and modern all at the same time. It's located on the side of a mountain with a great panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, with pools, fountains and waterfalls tucked in among buildings. Enjoy the pictures, although they don't do full justice to the place.

Saturday, February 14

The Streets (it was supposed to be so eaaaaasy)

A couple people have asked me what it's like to walk around the city, and what the landscape is like, so I'll try to describe it and post some links to pictures.

The landscape isn't quite desert, but it's very arid. Oaxaca de Juarez is located in a large valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The soil is a dusty brown color and very rocky, and the greenery is mostly a dusty green, with scrub brush, small, often flowering trees, and cacti. When there's grass, it's usually because someone is cultivating it, like in parks or small private yards. It's thicker and stiffer than grass in the US. I'm assuming the color of the greenery deepens during the wet season.

The center of the city has a very colonial feel. Buildings are mostly only one or two stories, with the occasional 3 story. They are painted very bright colors, yellow, turquoise, pink, etc., or made from a greenish volcanic stone. And almost always covered with graffiti. The streets are paved to look like cobblestones, with squares in diagonal and perpendicular patterns. Some streets are paved with asphalt, and some are actually paved in real cobblestones (really hard to walk on in flip flops), but these are usually pedestrian only streets. Sidewalks are often extremely narrow and have huge holes and cracks in them, so it's best to look where you're going and not up at the buildings. You might fall into an open drain filled with garbage like empty pop bottles, candy wrappers, and rubble, and break your ankle.

The streets are also narrow, since the city was built before cars. This usually means that the streets are one way. Kind of like Chicago in that way. Stoplights are few and far between, only on the busiest of streets, and often they are attached to building corners rather than suspended on metal arms across the intersection. This means that they're pretty hard to spot unless you're looking for them. If there's no stoplights, then usually there's no traffic signs at all. Cars head full speed toward intersections and honk the horn when they cross through it to warn any cars coming from the right or left that they are crossing the intersection first.

Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way. If you don't pay attention you'll probably get plastered by a car. There's no such thing as jaywalking; you cross the street anywhere and any time you want. But you better be careful not to get run over. Once in a blue moon, a car will stop and motion you across the street, but this is very rare and usually only happens for old women and mothers with young children.


Water is scarce in Oaxaca, especially now since it's the dry season. From what I can tell not every building is on the plumbing grid, which means that these places have water delivered in giant tank trucks that say "Agua para uso humano" on the side. These trucks pump water through a hose and into a tank buried in the ground. So sometimes houses run out of water. I'm not sure if this is because they literally run out, or if the government rations consumption, because I hear the water usually comes back on within half a day. While I've never run out, I have some friends and students have stories about running out in the middle of a shower, with soap all over and shampoo running into their eyes. Also, homestay families often limit their guest students to 1 shower per day, and many even limit the amount of time spent in the shower, turning off the water after 5 minutes.

Nobody in Oaxaca drinks the tap water, only bottled water. Most families buy purified drinking/cooking water in big blue 5 gallon (or whatever liter equivalent) jugs. These jugs are available at your local convenience store, or you can buy a full jug and then every time it's empty, you can exchange it for a full one from street vendors. These street vendors drive around the neighborhood in trucks filled with jugs, or ride large tricycles (2 wheels in front, one in back, a huge platform/basket in front for the bottles) and shout, "Aguaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa". And anyone who needs a refill goes running to the door for a full jug. Most mornings I wake up to the sound of a vendor who has a particularly deep voice and distinctive call. This morning I actually met him because I was here when they brought in the new jug. He was deceptively small for such a loud yell.

Wednesday, February 11

Taxi colectivo

One of the major forms of transportation around here are collective taxis. To and from the airport, they are usually large white vans. But around town and to and from Oaxaca de Juarez and the tiny surrounding pueblos, they are early 90s-era 4 door economy sedans with manual transmissions, a la Toyota Corollas or equivalent Nissans. The cars are pretty old and feel a bit rickety, with springs poking through worn-out seats and spent shocks doing little to soften the huge speed bumps and potholes common on Mexican roads. Taxis are red and white, and usually have large lettering on the top of the windshield with their destination: Atzompa, San Agustín, etc. A ride costs 10 pesos (about 60 cents). But the real kicker with these taxis is that they cram them to the gills: 4 people in back and 2 people in the one front seat.

On my first ride, I was lucky enough to get the front seat, since the back was crammed with 4 males. But after we had gone about 400 feet, the taxi driver suddenly pulled over for a stout woman standing at the side of the road. I could hardly believe it when she opened the front door and climbed in beside me. I scooted over as far as I could until I was sitting on the emergency brake, with my left leg resting against the stick shift and my left shoulder against the driver's seat. I had to concentrate on keeping my left leg pushed as far to the right as possible so the driver had room to shift gears. Luckily it was only a 10 minute ride and the woman was the first person to get out (you tell the driver where you want to be dropped off).

It was a weirdly awesome experience. I'll definitely be doing it again, since you really can't beat the price, and the discomfort only lasts a short time.

Nueva Babel

Last Tues night, a couple of my students invited me out to a poetry slam at a small bar called Nueva Babel, located near the Zócalo. Nueva Babel is a small two-room bar. The first room has the bar and 5-6 small tables. The second room, reached through a door to the left of the bar at the back of the room, has a flight of stairs going up to the left, a tiny stage in one corner, and tables and benches around the edges of the room, leaving space for a very small dance area.

By the time I arrived at 10:30, my students, along with Professor K and his wife, had staked out a table in the corner of the second room under the stairs. At first I couldn't see them because the stairs blocked the way, but they quickly found me, got me a chair, a paloma (tequila and Squirt, delicous), and settled me in.

Apparently there had been some major drama before I arrived. When L got there and more of her friends started arriving, a 40-something American woman offered to give up her large table and sit on a bench so L and company could have the table. L accepted thankfully, and the table began to fill up with a chatty U of C crowd. I guess it got so chatty that the American woman leaned over and said to L that she regretted giving up the table because L and co. were so obnoxious. At this point Professor K stepped in and went crazy on her, saying things like, this is a bar and we can talk; he bet she didn't even speak Spanish, but that he was from Peru, so don't fuck with him! L said that everyone's jaw dropped, and the woman shut up and left them alone for the rest of the night. I wish I hadn't missed the drama.

I also must have missed the poetry slam, because when I got there it was just music. Great, incredible music consisting of a guy playing the box (a wooden box about the size of a stool, he sits on it and drums on it), a guy wearing awesome 70s glasses with the bar across the top playing acoustic guitar and singing, and a few other musicians playing anything from electric guitar to accordion. The music was a combination of folk rock in Spanish and traditional songs. I believe they even did a Manu Chao cover at one point.

Everyone was talking, clapping, singing along, even dancing at some point. Different singers and musicians took turns on stage, including an American woman who sang amazing French songs, and two American girls who did a duet of what I think was a Janis Joplin song. Space was tight but it didn't matter with everyone singing and dancing along to the music.

We finally left at around 1 am, and even then the party was still going on. I'll definitely be back to Nueva Babel.

Sunday, February 8


This weekend I went to the beach at Santa Cruz de Huatulco with 4 students. We took the night bus Thurs at 11 pm and arrived at our hotel Fri morning at 6 am. After napping until about 11, we had a leisurely brunch on the beach and spent the day relaxing in the sun, swimming, and drinking Corona. Then dinner in Crucecita and drinks at a rastafarian bar. Repeat Sat. We caught the night bus back to Oaxaca on Sat.

T had recommended our hotel and made reservations for us. It was cheap, about $30 per person, pretty comfortable and overall satisfactory. Except that a horrible smell emanated from the bathroom sink drain (at least we think that's where it was coming from, it stank of sewer). Keeping the bathroom door closed helped. Our patio looked out on the marina. A quick walk around the marina and we arrived at the small beach, which was populated by about 6 seafood restaurants and 80 people trying to braid our hair, sell us jewelry, roasted peanuts, flor de jamaica, or rides on jet skis.

It was a great trip because we all got along well. Everyone was easygoing and laid back. The only thing that slightly got on my nerves was that I emerged as the automatic leader, dealing with the hotel, the waiter at restaurants, etc. Their Spanish is good enough that they can do these things for themselves, and in fact could use the practice. But I've definitely noticed that I understand much more than they do. For instance, we had bought sodas from a bar so we could use their beach chairs, but then we left them for an hour and had lunch at another bar. When we returned to the chairs, a waitress came up and said that she had to charge them for the chairs, and not a one understood her. I had to translate for them. Weird.

Also, the bus ride was killer. Wind-y switch-back roads taken full speed at night in a large bus are not fun. Dramamine saved me for sure, but the groggy, tired, other-worldly feeling of arriving somewhere at 6 am after napping all night being tossed from side to side on switchbacks is not great. It's worth it for the beach, but next trip I think I'd stay longer to make the bus ride really worth the pain.

Wednesday, February 4

WTF, Mexico?

WTF, Mexico? is an on-going commentary on the weird things I see that make me think, "WTF?". Kind of like the odd dental work I described in the "Bush should go to jail" post.

This installment of WTF, Mexico? deals with the vacant lot across the street from my apartment. It's surrounded by a chain link fence on two sides and a corrugated metal fence on the third. 3 walls and the second floor of an old cinder block building stand on the south end against the corrugated metal fence, while the rest of the lot is filled with dry, dusty brown scrub and random pieces of garbage.

On Monday, I noticed a lone man with a machete chopping down the patchy knee-high brush. He's been working there for the past three days, clearing a rather pathetic patch in the brush near the decrepit building. He's not there today. I have no clue why anyone would bother to clear this lot except to begin a massive construction project that would require heavy machinery and certainly more than one person. It's prime real estate, so that wouldn't surprise me. But the one guy, apparently hacking away for no reason at all? WTF?

Tuesday, February 3

Impressions of Mexico City

The idea of Mexico City scared me. I had heard so many things about how dangerous, large and polluted it was. Dragging 21 students from one historic site to another in a crowded city full of potential pickpockets sounded like an insane headache.

Much to my surprise, therefore, I LOVED the trip. Granted, we stayed mostly in the historic center, which felt relatively safe, colonial, and almost European. There was also much better shopping than in Oaxaca; a Zara and Pull & Bear right near our hotel, as well as an amazing ice cream place, and the main archeological sites. But I found the city to be relatively clean, the pollution didn't bother me, and I never felt threatened or unsafe, although I was very careful with my things.

While the U of C had very restrictive rules stating that students were not allowed to go outside the hotel without me or T to accompany them, in reality we were given a few hours of free time per day, which we used to shop, wander, sleep, and eat, all on our own or in small groups.

Trip highlights include seeing the Templo Mayor where Moctezuma lived and crazy sacrifices took place; Tlatelolco where Sahagun worked with his informants to write the Florentine Codex; and going out to a bar called Guadalajara de Noche to see a folkloric dance performance with the two professors who accompanied us on the trip. Professor K bought his table drinks and got talkative, while Professor W howled like a wolf several times in accompaniment to the mariachi music, and danced salsa with several students. M tried to get Professor K to dance with her and he kind of freaked out and ducked away into his wife's lap. Turns out he doesn't know how to dance and refuses to do so until M, A or V give him and his wife some lessons.

I also found 5 books I need for my thesis. They are all hard-cover editions from reputable editorials, and the best part is that I bought them for a total of for about 400 pesos, or about $35. In the US I would pay $35 for ONE book. The only drawback is that I ended up with volume II of several authors, but still lack volume I for the sets. My plan is to go to the educational bookstore here in Oaxaca and ask if they can order them for me.

Silly side note: There was a chicken restaurant, kind of like a Mexican KFC, kitty corner from our hotel, called Gili Pollos (explanation: in Spanish from Spain, a gilipollAs is someone who's a real jerk, basically the biggest jerk on the planet. Pollos means chicken. Get it?).

More Mexico City pics here: Teotihuacan, Anthropology Museum, Castillo de Chapultepec, Templo Mayor and Tlatelolco).

Ethnobotanical Gardens

Attached to the Ex-Convent of Santo Domingo is a large ethnobotanical garden. Spanish tours are 3 times daily and cost 50 pesos. English tours are 3 times a week and cost 100 pesos. Of course I took the Spanish tour, and it was one of my favorite sites in Oaxaca so far. Pictures here.

The gardens surround the convent and are blocked off from the street by a high, green-tinted volcanic stone wall. 11 years ago, the space that now contains the gardens was in danger of becoming a huge parking lot for downtown Oaxaca, but when they discovered some ruins underneath, the government stepped in and began to rehabilitate the gardens. The guide, a 20-something guy wearing pumas, an adidas hoodie, jeans, and an intensely gelled faux-hawk, was amazingly well-informed, and told us many interesting things about the garden. The zig-zag paths, made of crushed green volcanic rock, are modeled after the patterns carved into the Zapotec temple at Mitla. Part of the garden is used to grow edible and medicinal plants such as chiles, herbs, and maguey. The rest is used to help bring back endangered plant species from extinction. The most interesting plants included a 1000-year-old cactus, the tree from which amate (paper used to make indigenous codexes) is made, and the gringa quemada, a tree that sheds its bark much like a sun-burned gringo sheds his skin.

The guide also explained the irrigation system for the garden. Throughout the site are small channels and large pools used to aerate and collect water. Spouts coming from the roof shoot rainwater into rock filters and from there the water trickles down into cisterns.

Several fountains were commissioned for the gardens, both modeled again after the geometric patterns found at Mitla. The most striking fountain is made from mica chips, and the water running through it is died red with cochineal, an insect used from pre-columbian times onward to die cloth red. At one time an ounce of cochineal was worth more than an ounce of gold. The red water runs down the face of the fountain like blood; the blood of the many indigenous slaughtered during the Spanish conquest (according to the fountain's designer).

My tour companions were from all over the globe; none of them were native Spanish speakers. I overheard some of them saying they had understood about 40% of the tour. The fact that I had understood 100% made me very smugly satisfied.

Café Los Cuiles

It's hard to find good coffee in Oaxaca. My first attempt was the chain "Italian Coffee," and it was a weak, lukewarm, expensive latte. My second attempt was an organic café con leche at the Pochote market, and it was better but still a bit on the weak side for me. My third attempt, on the recommendation of my students, was a cappuccino from "Capuchino's" near my apartment, and it was cheap, strong, and delicious.

At this point, my friend R and I went on a chai quest. R is from the US but has been in Oaxaca since June, and she really misses chai. Our quest brought us to Los Cuiles, a small cafe (maybe 10 tables) in the Plaza de los Virgenes just south of Santo Domingo. Of course, they were out of chai, but we discovered their amazing chocolate oaxaqueño and their lattes. Add that to the fact that they have free internet and a mix of tourist and local patrons, and I've been back multiple times. For the drinks and the people watching. The music is also a good mix of American and Mexican. I've heard some surprising bands, including She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward), Dido, and Elvis.

Today I'm blogging from Los Cuiles, and it's been the best people watching so far. The young hippy lesbian couple in the window seat who obviously had no idea how cafes in Mexico work (they went to the kitchen to pay instead of asking for the check). The group of weathered-looking middle-aged American expat dudes, one with a large yellow lab at his feet. He's wearing the American uniform - crocs, cargo shorts, a flannel shirt and a horrible big ring. These guys remind me of the bums who hang around Fairfield and seemingly have no jobs, they just like to sit in cafes, talk, and ogle the young girls who come in. There's now an aging hipster couple in the window seat; the woman wearing high-top converse and wide-leg jeans that just seem a bit too young for her; the man wearing a hideous straw fedora, small hoop earrings, a gray blazer, white pants and off-white suede shoes with no socks. Several Mexican students typing away at their laptops, and a Mexican businessman who I've seen in here before, also working away at his computer.

The waitresses at the cafe are high school and college students. Under the glass on each table is a poster with a head shot and a bio (in English) of all the employees and owners of the bar. It's a cheesy, cute touch, and I think it helps them get better tips.


I finally tried chapulines. They're a Oaxacan snack/treat made of toasted grasshoppers and sometimes spiced with chiles, garlic, lime and other things. They are meant to be purchased in the market, but you can find (touristy) restaurants that serve them in tacos and other regional dishes. I went to the market to find mine. After wandering around the 20 de noviembre market for 5 minutes, I finally found a little stand in a corner where a woman was selling a variety of chapulines stored in little baskets. She let me try several flavors and sizes, and when I had made my decision she scooped them into plastic bags with a little ceramic plate.

After snacking my fill, I took the leftover chapulines to class. Out of the 12 students I offered them to, only about 2/3 of them tried any, and this only after I exerted as much peer pressure as I felt was morally acceptable. Various reasons for refusal included: "I'm afraid the legs will get stuck in my teeth," and "What are they? Um...no thanks." Among those who tried them, the reaction was pretty neutral. General consensus held that the texture is not crunchy, but more slightly crispy, flaky and light. They taste like extremely salty sundried tomatoes, and there's no significant difference between the plain and chili flavors. Neither one is picante (spicy).

The main difference lies in the size of the chapulines. You can get small or medium. Small is kind of like popping little flakes into your mouth. With medium, however, it is very clear that you are eating an insect: legs, abdomen, wings and head are all visible. I have a difficult time eating the large ones because of this, so I tend to just squint, pop it in my mouth and chew it really quickly. But really the texture is about the same as the small ones.

My student J, who is very interested in culinary anthropology, says they come in varying quality. The good quality chapulines are rather moist and crisp, while the lower quality chapulines are dry, crunchy, and tend to stick in your throat. She loves them, and after class she made a special trip all the way to the 20 de noviembre market just to buy more. I liked them all right, but I can't say I'd buy them again, unless I were offering them to a visitor.

Pictures soon. I need to offload them from my camera.

Sunday, January 25


A brief note on mole. According to the Moon guide, there are 7 kinds of mole in Oaxaca. So far I have tried 4: negro (black, chocolatey in a savory way), coloradito (kind of like Indian masala sauce with a tomato base and complex spices), amarillo (ground almonds, really more orange than yellow, also reminiscent of Indian spices), and verde (like tomatillo salsa). Coloradito is by far my favorite. It's brownish-red in color and has a much more complex flavor profile than negro, which is also good but tends to be more one-note.

You can buy mole in the grocery store in little bags and jars. In the bags, it's more of a paste, so I assume it's concentrated and you water it down with some sort of liquid. The jars look like a desperate, I-can't-cook-and-I-miss-mom's-cooking kind of thing, and only come in a few flavors. You can also buy mole in the markets, where it is kept in large jars and poured into plastic bags for individual sale. Restaurants with gift shops catering to tourists also sell high-quality mole in jars.

Saturday, January 24

Quesadillas, variations thereof

There are two very popular kinds of cheese in Oaxaca: quesillo and requeso. Quesillo is like string cheese, and it comes in long wide tape-like strips wrapped into a tight ball. Find the end of the strip and peel it away, then peel off smaller strips. It melts really well and is sort of like a firmer, chewier, stringier and much saltier fresh mozzarella. Requeso has the texture of ricotta, but almost no taste. It takes on the flavor of whatever you mix into it (jalapeños, cilantro, etc.). One, or both, of these cheeses is in pretty much every dish here.

There are many, many local dishes with both indigenous and Spanish names: quesadillas, enfrijoladas, tlayudas, tostadas, memelas, etc. But basically everything is a variation on a quesadilla: tortilla (crunchy or soft), cheese, black bean sauce (a pureed sauce with no actual bean chunks in it, unlike black beans in the US), maybe some hot sauce (green or red), maybe some tomatoes or avocados or lettuce, and some kind of meat or pork lard. Assume you're going to have tortilla, bean sauce and cheese, and you've got a pretty good picture of what you just ordered.

El Pochote Update

So they drained the beautiful pond in the title picture of my blog. I went to the Pochote market today and it was an empty 8-inch deep depression in the ground with rocks and rubble strewn about, and the giant reedy plant was gone. It was sad. But the water had been looking pretty green, and it was full of tadpoles and probably a breeding ground for malaria-bearing mosquitos. I can only hope they're cleaning it out and planning on refilling it.

Monday, January 19

"Bush should go to jail"

Yesterday I was strolling up Alcalá, a pedestrian street paved with cobblestones that forms the tourism backbone of Oaxaca City, when a random Mexican man stopped me and asked the time. When I told him it was a quarter to three (tres menos cuarto), he asked if I was from Argentina, because in Mexico (he claimed), they say cuarto para las tres. Today I verified this, although at the time I strongly suspected he was messing with me.

When I said that no, I was not Argentinian but from the US, he immediately started talking about Bush, and how didn't I think that Bush should be sent to jail? I was so surprised at the comment that I kind of laughed, and said that yes he should, but it was very unlikely to ever happen. After that the conversation died out and I made my escape. The whole conversation had been friendly, I didn't feel that this random Mexican blamed me for Bush's actions because I was American. But it was very odd. There is definitely strong anti-American sentiment regarding the recent conflict in Israel/Gaza, as evidenced by this graffitti on the American Consulate.

Also, what is up with the dental work in Mexico? Instead of doing porcelain or tooth-colored caps, they put gold or silver frames around individual teeth. It gives me the creeps, even though I realize it's much more common. It makes people seem older than they are, or dirty because they somehow don't take proper care of their teeth. I'm not talking about an entire gold tooth; I'm talking about just a very thin outline around the outer edge of the tooth. I've seen it on women and men, both, and I have a very hard time not staring.

Dainzú, Lambityeco, Mitla, Yagul

Last Tues we went on an excursion to four different Mixtec and Zapotec archeological sites around Oaxaca City: Dainzú, Lambityeco, Mitla and Yagul. It was a cool, almost chilly and windy day, but later the sun came out in time for a sweaty hike up to the fortaleza at Yagul. The professor is surprisingly spry and fast. He beat us all to the top of the rather steep hike, and barely seemed out of breath.

The sites were all pretty cool. Dainzú had carvings of ball players and danzantes similar to those at Monte Albán. Lambityeco was very small but had some neat face carvings of the rain god Cosijo. Mitla was huge, with temples and carvings intact, and a 16th century Spanish church built on top of the ruins. It even had some tombs we were allowed to crawl into. By the time we got Yagul, the fourth stop, it was 3 pm (we had left at 9) and everyone was tired. But it was probably the most interesting site, since enough walls remain for you to see the labyrinth-like structure. We also hiked up to the top of a hill and got an incredible panoramic view of the valley.

The 3 guys in our group decided to take an alternate overgrown path, in spite of the professor's warning that there were many plants that could cause allergic reactions. Of course one of them ended up with two cacti spines in his upper arm, and another with some sort of prickly thing in his hand. The third thoroughly enjoyed getting too close to the edge of huge drop-offs. That was the first day I lost my voice from so much shouting.

Professor W is a good tour guide. He has interesting anecdotes that start, "When I was excavating here in 1997..." He's also not afraid to say when he disagrees with one theory or another about what people did at said ruins. Makes for a more gossipy archeological history.

Saturday, January 17

A trip to the doctor

Been sick with a cold for over 2 weeks now, and it's showing no signs of getting better, so I broke down and went to the doctor this morning. I couldn't take the wet racking cough, constant runny nose, lost voice, and raw sore throat for one more day.

The doctor's office was a small hole in the wall in Colonia Reforma (a small suburb that's really just part of Oaxaca City). I almost missed it except for the small sign and open door. After descending 2 marble steps, I spoke with a receptionist, who had me write my name on a list (nobody can pronounce it, let alone spell it here). The room had 4 long vinyl pea-soup colored benches arranged in a square, with a blaring TV in the corner. It was almost full. I took a seat and read a crappy John Grisham while I waited for my turn, trying not to cough or blow my nose or otherwise act contagious.

After an hour in the waiting room, surrounded by very well-behaved 3-year-olds, their moms and grandmothers, a couple teenagers and their parents, it was finally my turn. The doctor was very nice and spoke very slow, clear Spanish (I knew he must speak English, since he was recommended to me by the Institute, and they only work with doctors who know English). I was grateful that he let me practice my Spanish. He looked at my throat, ears and nose, listened to my breathing, and asked some questions. In the end, he prescribed cough syrup and some sort of anti-flu medication. So my illness is not bacterial. His diagnosis was basically lack of sleep (I've been getting 10 hrs a night), and stress from work and change of scenery (duh). All of this took about 5 minutes, cost 300 pesos (about $25), and that was that.

I'm glad I don't have bronchitis or something worse, but I'm going to have to lick this on my own without antibiotics, and it's already been 2 weeks with no sign of improvement. It's really hard to teach when you have no voice and have to blow your nose constantly. The anti-flu medicine is already drying that up a bit, but not completely. Boo hoo.

My students better watch out. My temper is on a very short leash these days, especially since I can't afford to indulge in self-pity without running the risk of completely freaking out.

Friday, January 16


I have a tiny lizard living in my kitchen. Much like the smashed one I found on my bedroom floor on my third day here, except very much alive, if not well (it has no tail). Our first encounter happened one afternoon when I walked into the kitchen to get a drink and it scampered from the sink to behind the fridge. In our second encounter, it was hiding behind the bottle of dish soap and again ran away behind the fridge. The third time, it stayed by the dish soap so I ran and got my camera. That's when I discovered it had no tail.

At this point I had accumulated enough food in the kitchen (bananas, a jar of honey, some tomatoes) that I began to notice ants, which seemed to originate from behind the sink. I hoped the lizard was eating the ants, since it seemed to like to hang out there. However, he's not eating enough to make a dent in the ant population, so I'm going to get some traps. Something that will hopefully not poison the lizard.

Our closest encounter came when I had left a crumpled napkin used to smash ants on the counter by the sink. I came into the kitchen to make dinner and picked up the napkin to throw it out, when I felt something solid moving inside it. I immediately dropped the napkin back onto the counter and stifled a scream and a giant shudder. The lizard popped out and then darted back under the napkin. I decided to leave it there, cooked dinner, and hoped it would be gone soon.

A couple days later I went into the kitchen to make breakfast, and the lizard was in the sink drain. It didn't move. I poured a bowl of corn flakes, ate it, and left for yoga, hoping the lizard would be gone by the time I got back. I hated to leave unwashed dishes around because of the ants, but I was willing to make an exception in this case. It was still there when I got back. So I grabbed a fork and a knife and levered the drain out of the sink and dumped it upside down on the counter, allowing the lizard to dart behind the dish soap again. I concluded it must have been stuck in the sink.

I haven't seen the lizard in a few days. I accept that it lives there, especially since it's eating the ants (I think), but it's a wary coexistence. I wonder if it's the kind that can re-grow its tail.

Wednesday, January 14

Soriana - a cheaper, dingier Wal-Mart

My tiny kitchen came woefully under-furnished. Most of the cooking vessels are large shallow pots with nicks in the ceramic coating and mis-matched lids. They are so thin that it's impossible to saute anything without scorching it, especially since the "low" burner setting should really be labeled "medium high". I also lack hot pads, dish towels, a coffee maker, and a toaster. After about 4 days without coffee when I first arrived, I weened myself off caffeine and no longer really miss coffee. But I still needed everything else, and the general consensus among oaxaqueñas was that the items I needed were most readily available at the mall or at Soriana. So today I finally decided to make the trip to Soriana, which is much closer than the mall.

It was exactly as described: Wal-Mart, but much cheaper, and filled with a bizarre variety of items. I easily completed my grocery list and also got some workout pants into the bargain (they're a bit short, but tall in the US = giant in Mexico, so I was expecting them to be short).

I was definitely the only gringa in the store, given that I was obviously venturing into a non-tourist area of Oaxaca, although it did still have a colonial feel. Here are some interesting observations:

The older woman in front of me at the check-out bought a lottery ticket and scraped it off as she was standing there. I had to wait for her to finish playing before I could check out. The check-out girl did not seem to mind.

The check-out aisles are extremely narrow and would barely fit a heavy American.

Items on shelves are neatly organized but the store felt seedy and a bit old.

Although it had many of the same brands you see in the US, the actual products were slightly different, especially compared to the Super Wal-Mart in Cabo San Lucas, which basically offered exactly what you'd see in a US Wal-Mart.

Many items have labels in Spanish and English, especially electronic goods.

You can buy chocolate fountains there.

I cannot find white sugar in any stores around here. I must be looking for the wrong package. I've been using honey instead, which is just as good and better for the throat anyway.

When I got home, I googled Soriana and discovered that they deliver, kind of like Peapod. And their web interface looks suspiciously like Amazon, with tabs across the top and even the same color scheme, if not the same font. Anyway, the pictures make the produce look much more fresh and less dingy than it is in the store. Most people buy produce at markets around here anyway. It's cheaper and fresher.

Can't wait to make tortilla española in my new frying pan tonight! I'm definitely bringing this pan home with me. I hear purchased items from years past have mysteriously disappeared from this apartment (another frying pan, a coffee maker).

Sunday, January 11

Kinder Sorpresas, aka Kinder eggs

Kinder eggs are about the size of an extra large chicken egg. They are composed of 2 thin layers of chocolate, the outer layer milk chocolate, the inner layer white chocolate. Inside the hollow chocolate egg is a yellow plastic egg. Split open this egg and you will find a small toy that you (usually) must put together following simple diagram instructions (you'll occassionally get a toy that you don't have to put together. These toys are always lame). Also included is a picture of your toy, which is usually part of a larger themed set, of which there is also a drawing.

When I was in Spain in 2000 I bought one almost every day, and as a result I have a rather large collection, including a set of Halloween-themed mouse vampires dressed in tuxedos with purple skin and glow-in-the-dark fangs, and a crab and an octopus with legs that move when you push them across the table.

I discovered that they have Kinder eggs in Mexico when I was in a pharmacy helping a student buy a hair brush. She was talking with an employee, and I was examining the shelves to pass the time. And there they were, a whole tray sitting next to the Kinder Buenos (candy bars kind of like Kit-Kat, but hollow after the chocolate-coated crispy shell, with a fluffy hazelnut cream inside, They used to have them at the HP Co-op, but not sure if Treasure Island sells them). I got pretty excited, which amused the student, who had never even heard of them. I've since discovered that none of my students have heard of them, and am considering buying one for everyone and charging it to the U of C as "cultural materials."

Since then I've bought several, and discovered that the grocery store Piticó is the cheapest place to buy them; pharmacies sell them for much more ($14.50 vs. $10, or USD$1.50 vs. $1). You can see my toys here. I'll be adding more as I open them. Hopefully I'll collect a set!

Unfortunately, they're not available in the US because supposedly the small plastic toy parts inside pose as choking hazards to small children. But they are available in almost every other country, including Canada, Europe, and Mexico. Kinder even has a website where you can go play games, watch cartoons, and see different toy sets.

Friday, January 9

A note about change

The other day I bought an ice cream cone at La Michoacana, a chain that sells ice cream, popsicles, etc. There are 4 branches alone on the zócalo. I tried to pay for a 10 peso cone with a 50 peso bill, and the woman there actually refused to take it, claiming they didn't have any change (it was like paying for something that cost a dollar with a five dollar bill). So I dug through all my coins and came up with 9.50 pesos, 0.50 pesos short. I was about to leave in extremely annoyed defeat when the woman behind me in line offered me the 0.50 I needed.

This is a trend around here. Nobody likes to accept bills that are even slightly more than what you're paying for. And since you have to spend your small bills and coins all the time, you never have any change. It's a Catch-22. I currently have a few 500 peso bills (about $50), and I have no idea how I'm going to break them. Probably buy some books or something.

El Pochote

El Pochote is two things: a cineclub (it shows free movies Tues-Sun at 6 and 8 pm, Sat matinee) and an organic market (Fri and Sat). Like Estudio Dharma, which is a block away, it's located in the Arquitos neighborhood. The door is hidden under an archway of the aqueduct.

Immediately when you enter, there are stalls selling green leafy vegetables like lettuce, swiss chard, bok choy, and radishes. Continuing to the left are a stall selling homemade goat cheese (chevre covered in pecans, herbed chevre, and chevre covered in ashes, which sounds nasty but is actually delicious) and gouda of 3 different ages); 2 mezcal stands that are very free with samples; an organic shade-grown coffee stand; a chocolate stand; and a dairy stand that sells quesillo, requesón (quesillo is like fresh mozzarella but you can peel it away in fat strips a little like string cheese. Requeso is usually crumbled into tiny tiny curds that look almost like mashed tofu, and is usually flavored with herbs and spices since it's really mild). Some stands are there each week; others are only there sometimes.

This first row of stalls is on a walkway sunken below the level of the rest of the courtyard. On the right, at about shoulder height, is the base of the main courtyard, and stands selling shallots, vanilla (3 different kinds of bean and they smell incredible!), and sometimes a man selling baskets woven from pine needles. Continuing up a ramp to the main level of the courtyard is a stall selling tostadas and sandwiches. You get to choose what you put on your tostada: beans, 3 kinds of requeso spiced with cilantro, chile de arbol, jalapeno, or plain; 3 choices of green leafy stir-fried veggies, hot sauce (or not), and tomatoes. The tostadas are delicious and cost about $15 pesos (slightly more than a dollar, since the exchange rate is about 13 pesos to the dollar now). The woman making the tostadas is very friendly and calls everyone "mi reina".

Next to the tostadas is a stand selling baked goods, including varieties of pan dulce, bread, brownies, cookies, long thin pizzas, and rolls. I bought 3 panes dulces to try (one is stuffed with almond paste, one with chocolate, and one swirled with a mixture of raisins, chocolate, quesillo, cinnamon, and a ton of other spices).

To the right of this stand is another selling some sort of drink made of amaranth and requeso. I haven't tried it yet. There's a large tree growing out of the courtyard center. In the southwest corner is a pond with reeds growing out of it (my blog title picture). There is also a woman selling organic coffee and cafes con leche. Sometimes there's a honey stand and a natural remedy stand.

Many of the people shopping at the market are ex-pat Brits and Americans. Several of the people selling vegetables are also ex-pat Americans. There are also usually tourists from all over the world. Most of the stand owners are very friendly and love to answer your questions. I plan on going every week. Today I took M with me after yoga, and she loved it so much we made plans to come back tomorrow and have tostadas for lunch again, and this time bring L with us.

Filling the yoga void: Estudio Dharma

I discovered Estudio Dharma on Friday, my first day here. I was walking with some friends through the Arquitos neighborhood (a neighborhood built around a 17th century aqueduct whose arches now form entryways into people's private homes) when I saw a poster in the window of a cafe. After perusing the website, I decided with some trepidation to try the Asthanga class, my preferred style of yoga. I say trepidation because the instructor's biography on the site revealed that he was only 22 years old, and I wondered how someone so young could be a competent instructor.

Rufino Tamayo 810 is a tiny door (I have to duck) in a long plastered brick wall. Faded, water-stained signs proclaim that the yoga studio is inside. On my first visit, as I reached out to push open the door, a girl with white cream all over her face came out and saw me standing there. Figuring by my yoga mat that I was there for yoga, she showed me into the courtyard and pointed to the door of the studio.

The courtyard is roughly cobbled, overhung with flower-bearing vines, and bunches of bamboo or some type of reed stick up here and there from the cobblestones, forming paths. The door to the studio is glass covered with cane. The girl with white cream on her face showed me into the studio and left me there with a basket of magazines. I could here a class going on in the adjoining room. The instructor, Rosario, poked her head out of the room and said they'd be done in a minute.

Meanwhile, my Asthanga instructor arrived. His name is Cesar, and we chatted while we waited for Rosario's class to finish. I asked him how he got into yoga. He discovered it when he began to take dance classes as a way to train for triathlons. He was so good at it that after 5 years, his teacher said he was ready to become an instructor.

The studio itself is a rectangle bound on 3 sides by a crumbling brick wall. Candles are set in various holes in the wall. The long south wall is covered in wood panels. The long north wall, which gives onto the courtyard, is glass. The floor is pergo wood paneling. There is a heater for cold days, a stereo, a statue of what I think is Lakshmi, and a giant om poster on the wall. An om symbol is hung on both sides of the door into the studio.

Class consisted of me and Rosario. It was the first class after the Christmas holidays, which explains the low enrollment. Cesar took us through a set of vinyasa sun salutes, which left me completely breathless and panting (I blame it on the high altitude). During the poses he would come around and correct our postures by pulling and pushing and turning feet, legs, and arms this way or that. It was incredible, and I was sore for 3 days afterward.

In the second class on Wed, there were 2 other women for a total of 3 students. It was amazing again. Cesar puts great attention on correct form, and this makes the class extremely challenging. Today I took a student, M, along with me. She loved it as well, and is planning on getting her friend L to come with us tomorrow. What's not to like? Almost private yoga classes for $60 pesos/class (about $5)!

A note about cats: there are at least 5 cats living in the courtyard, if not more. It smells slightly of cat pee, but not enough to be gross. During my first class, a cat walked over the roof and along the edge of a wall. Another cat made loud mrowing noises. During my second class there were two loud cat fights, at least 3 trips over the roof, and 2 cats playing around the sun shades covering the glass wall. The cat fights provoked some laughter in class. During the third class there were no cat distractions to speak of.

So far I've seen a black and white cat (like Pixel but with longer hair), a skinny black cat, a grey-ish calico and her adolescent kitten, and a dark calico that's mostly black with some barely visible orange. They're pretty friendly. The black and white one was there when M and I got to the studio today, and it let us pet it. Then it followed us into the waiting room, jumped on a guy's lap and started purring and letting him pet it. When M opened the bathroom door, the cat ran in and she tripped over it. It got so scared it stayed in there and came out when she did. The kitten is still skittish and won't let you pet her.

I'll try to take some pictures and post them soon. I took my camera today and of course it ran out of batteries after 1 picture.