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? 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.