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.