Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Trip – Part Six, The Fiesta

The big day is here. I awaken to what sounds like a live band outside our bedroom. I take a peek. Holy cow! It is a live band outside our bedroom! Or not far away. They’ve come from the path that leads from the road and they’re headed to the big tent on the other side of the house.

We have breakfast at about 8:30. Or they do. I don’t. Breakfast consists of more of the bread and a soup – a soup with meat. I drink a cup of hot chocolate made from freshly ground chocolate beans.

At about 11:00, mom and I walk to the church. We get there just before the Mass starts. People are standing at the doorway but we had no intention of attending. We’ve fallen deep into the abyss of the irretrievable Catholics. Or at least I have. I won’t speak for her. I’m just there to shoot video and photos.

While the service goes on we wait in a shady spot across the street. When the service ends, I shoot video of the musicians and our retreat back to the ranch.  In the video below, note the palm crowns fringing the doorway of the church.

Of all the songs the band played that day, the one in the video below is my favorite.  It's downright dour but creates an atmosphere that is both circus-like and funereal at the same time - not the most exciting video in the world, but atmospheric.  You don't have to watch the whole thing.  I have to take that tutorial on editing: 

The video below may be only of interest to my family.  No one else should feel obligated to watch.  But you do get a sense of walking through that territory.   And when I ask my mom if she wants a crown, I am referring to the stack of plastic tiaras that are for sale at the little stand.  Except, for some reason, I don't bother to focus the camera on the stack of tiaras.  This whole video thing is new to me . . .

Once we've returned to the ranch, we settle in at one of the long tables in the shade of the old Ash tree. Mom is greeted by cousin after cousin and a series of old friends from her past, none of whom she recognizes. This happens every time we visit but especially today.

The musicians, who have returned from the church, settle into their seats. I shoot more video.

We are brought a meal of quesadillas – made just for us. They are delicious and my first meal of the day. That’s at about 1:00. I take pictures of the many cousins.

At 2:15 Jorge offers tequila to the musicians. It seems they all decline. Musicians here must be different than the ones I know. I am the first seated behind the band. When Jorge comes my way, I happily accept the tequila. I don’t see anyone else drinking it. That’s ok. I drink it straight with lime and salt.

I wait for it to kick in but it never really does. Or maybe it does, but just a tiny bit.

 Jorge, offering a bottle of Corona this time, not tequila

At 3:30 the Mezcal comes around. Maybe this will hit.

That morning, I’m once again looking for a trash can to dispose of a paper napkin. I can’t find one and everyone is busy. I go into the kitchen where there’s always been a wastebasket under the sink. The room is dark, but I see them on the table – the chickens – headless and denuded, lying on their backs. I immediately leave, still clutching the napkin.

I see no chickens in the yard, only in the soup. So this is why the long car trip yesterday. It was a distraction from the slaughter of the chickens.

I appreciate their being sensitive to my sensibility. Who knows how I appear to them. Probably as too delicate. Probably as silly. Always reading something. Always writing something. Finicky. Afraid of spiders. Very afraid of spiders. They must think we’re a weak lot here in Los Estados Unidos.

I don’t judge them for eating chickens. I have less tolerance for those here who should know better. I have less tolerance for those who know the conditions of factory farming and still eat them. At least these chickens had some room to scratch around in. At least these chickens got to keep their beaks.

Years ago I was seated next to a woman who was with Doctors Without Borders. When my vegetarian meal was delivered she mentioned that it was a great luxury to choose to be a vegetarian. She said that most of the world didn’t have the choice of not eating meat – that they ate whatever they could.

I should have answered that it was a great luxury to choose to eat meat. I didn’t but I should have. I doubt most of the world has the choice and it seems to me that the choice to grow food animals uses up a lot resources that might otherwise have been spent creating plant foods that would have fed a lot more people with less environmental damage. I should have said that but I didn’t.

A side observation

In Mexico dogs are treated like animals. Where I live, dogs are treated like favored children. I once saw a woman in a store with a sling on her chest, maybe a Bjorn thing. As she approached, I wondered what breed of tiny dog she carried. I was shocked to see a baby in the sling, an actual human baby. It was only a second after that I realized how ridiculous, how perverse my shock was – but I just don’t see that many babies. My relatives here would be shocked to see the tiny dresses and jeweled collars sold for our dog children. If I had a dog, I’d be tempted to dress her (against K’s wishes).  I love that my cat once returned from the groomer wearing a pink bandana around her neck and a bow on her head.

I think my Mexican relatives regard it was a sin to elevate animals to human level. Maybe it’s a sin to degrade animals by dressing them in sailor suits and princess dresses. I can’t believe it’s a sin to love them as children.

I go for a walk

I can't take any more music.  I decide to walk back to where the vendors were.  My aunt wants picures of the winner of the jaripeo.  I don't really know if that's the word.  I've never seen it, never heard of it before today.  But it's a rodeo-like event where men ride on these poor bulls that don't want to be ridden. 

When I get there, I see that my cousin Hector is already shooting video:

Good, if I stay much longer, PETA will revoke my membership:

I can't take it here anymore.  I leave.  I go back to face the music.

Sunday still – and then we danced

The band that arrived at 8:30 in the morning was still there at 8:30 at night. And at 9:30. I’d gone off to my room a little after 10 when I’d received word that my aunt wanted me to takes pictures of the dancing. The band played on.

I danced with Hector and also with a man I was told was El Presidente. I don’t really know what he was the Presidente of, but he seemed like a nice man. He asked me to dance a second time but I had to decline. The songs are too long and I found the dancing tiring. Plus I didn’t get it. Not my thing. I actually received a few more invitations but declined all the rest. Who knew how popular I would be here? Must be the thrill of the exotic.

I saw my cousin Raquel watching from the kitchen. I went in to keep her company. We talked but I don’t remember what about.  With my spare Spanish skills, I'm sure it was nothing in depth.

Finally, the band packs up and leaves. It seems that I hear what is threatened to be the last song for about 5 songs in a row. It’s been a long night. I go to bed. My mother goes to bed. The rest of them stay up and do whatever it is that still needs to be done.

Next – We say our good-byes

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Trip - Part Five, We Go Sightseeing

It’s Saturday. We’ve been here a week now.

My cousin Hector took us (my mom, my uncle and me) for a ride. I’m told we’re going to Nochixtlan for breakfast followed by some local sightseeing.

Uh, not exactly. At some point we left the paved road for a grueling two-hour trip on an unpaved, hairpin turn, mountain road.

I thought we were going to die. It was one nasty road, covered with huge rocks and frequently with a steep drop-off on one side.

Finally, we have breakfast in the community of Santiago Apoala. The town is known for its local springs. After breakfast, we head for the cave.

 Uncle Urbano, Mom and Cousin Hector under the bougainvillea after breakfast in Santiago Apoala.

Once there, we park near a lovely river. There was a small hotel and a small sweet dog.

Then we hiked to the cave. At the time, I wasn’t sure what possessed Hector to take two elderly people on an adventure that included steep uphill climbing.

Upon entering the cave, one descended into darkness, while supporting oneself on a guide rope.

It is unclear how slippery the ground was but it certainly wasn’t something my mom wanted to do. I wasn’t keen on burning my hands on the rope and she didn’t want me to go anyway. So I didn’t.

Everyone survived the boulder-strewn hike back down to the river.

I headed back to the truck, assuming we were all ready to leave. We weren’t. Hector lay down along the riverbank, under a tree. He napped. Eventually, my mother stretched out in the grass, under the sun. She, too, napped.

My uncle struck up a conversation with a local goat herder.

I made friends with the small, sweet dog (of which I have no photo).

Finally, they were all ready to leave. We head back along the treacherous, rock-covered road for another two-hour drive. This time I’m a little less terrified.

At one point I check my watch. I haven’t changed it from Los Angeles time. I calculate that it will be 71 hours until touchdown at LAX.


On the way back, we stop in the city of Nochixtlan. My uncle runs off to a store to buy a bag of oranges. We wait outside a store that sells poultry, living or dead.

The city looks like Baghdad. Same cinder block buildings – flat facades with steel doors – wide-open fronts showing off wares. Same dusty, unpaved streets, same old trucks and cars rumbling through dusty streets. Above the city are the adobe homes. They too have steel doors. Or curtains. Doors are either steel or cloth. Nothing in between.

The city, the entire country, seems to have been abandoned by any governing authority except for rifle-toting police that are everywhere. The people seem to be on their own, left to fend for themselves. I’m not saying that’s the reality, just how it appears on the surface. But to look at the buildings, there appears to be no organization, no building codes, no urban planning. It looks like anyone can build a building just about anywhere. There are no architects. Sidewalks start and stop for no apparent reason. The whole place is one giant personal injury lawsuit waiting to happen.

There seems to be no middle-class here. At least there’s no middle-class that we would recognize. I cannot imagine where the “nice” homes are. Everything is either cinderblock or adobe. And square. There is no aesthetic. There is only square. And all doors open to the exterior. All of them.

I want to go back to my life. I want to read without appearing lazy and useless. I want temperature control. I want privacy. I want Internet.

Saturday still – The evening

Yesterday I read Wallace Shawn’s play THE FEVER. It is brilliant – a one-person theatre piece of 39 pages on (roughly) the subject of hollow liberal guilt and our relationship to the poor.  Among the points he makes: we offer the poor gradual change, which is no change at all.

The play, of course, is a slap in the face to me and to all my elite, liberal kind. We think we are artists out to effect social change. We are no more than poseurs. I really want to do this play. I want to do this play because yes, I am a poseuse, posing as an artist out to effect social change. If I perform this play or if I don't perform this play, there will be no change, no effect at all on the poor. But if I do it, I will feel as if I’ve done something. And that is part of Shawn’s message.

Saturday still – Later in the evening

When we return to the ranch, they’ve begun serving the meals as part of the festival celebration. Although the actual fiesta isn’t until Sunday, the meals start with tonight’s dinner. I don’t know why. I don’t know anything. All I know is that as soon as we arrive, we’re invited to take a seat at a long table and we’re given food. I’m not sure, but I think I was given black beans and eggs and the special fiesta bread. Didn’t write it down. I do remember that it wasn’t the tastiest meal I’ve had. Not as tasty as the quesadillas with the squash blossoms or even the quesadillas with the cactus – all accompanied by fiesta bread. I think others may have been given meat. I’m not sure. But they know I don’t eat meat of any kind and my aunt has been especially gracious about preparing non-meat meals for me. If I were vegan though, I’d just have to starve. Give up cheese here and there’s not much left.

After dinner, I have a paper napkin to dispose of. I start to go into the kitchen to toss it into the wastebasket. My cousin, Rosa, comes out, as I’m about to go in and she insists I not enter. “Too smoky” she says. Her urgency seems a bit over the top. I’ve sat in that smoky kitchen before. Hector offers me a plastic bag for my trash. There are only crushed Coke cans in the bag. “But this is for recycling, “ I say. He says it’s ok. I toss the napkins in.

I don’t think they want me in the kitchen.

Saturday still – Still later in the evening

Tomorrow there will be a Mass at 10 am. Will I go? If my mother goes I’ll go.

At 10 am tomorrow it will be 59 hours until touchdown.

Another cousin comes to greet me. I cannot keep track of them. There are so many of them and they are all too beautiful, like Mixtec dolls. I wish their lives could be easier.

Saturday still – Later still

Late in the evening, I’m alone in the room I share with my mom. She’s in with the others, having coffee. They all like to have a nice cup of coffee at about 10 pm every night. That would explain a lot about the scheduling here.

Anyway, I’m alone in the room, reading, when I first caught a glimpse of it in the corner of my eye. It was the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my life walking across the floor of the room where we sleep.

He disappeared under the other bed. Then reappeared out the other side. I think I might just pass out. Remember, I have a hard time dealing with things with 6 legs. Eight legs is out of the question.

The spider stands in front of the door. Now I have no escape (but at least he’s not hiding under the bed.) I grab a plastic cup from the shelf. I know I have one shot at this. If I try to cap him and he escapes, I am going to freak out. If I try to cap him but in doing so I catch one of his legs with the edge of the smallish cup, I am going to freak out.

Do not freak out. Do not freak out. Do not freak out.

I successfully cover him with the cup in one shot. Thank you, Jesus.

Fortunately, Hector is just outside the door. I call to him and I'm surprised when the word for “spider” comes to my lips. He rushes to my aid, scooping up the horrible beast and carrying him away with a promise that he won’t kill it.

How many hours until touchdown?

Next – the fiesta.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Trip – Part Four, Long, Long Days

We arrived at the ranch on a Monday. By Tuesday, I already need something to do. The stack of books and writing materials I brought are not enough.

I decide to wash laundry by hand. Our trip only started on Friday and I’m not a light packer so this hand-washing exercise was purely for its entertainment value, mind you. Yes, that’s how slow things were. See, it became like a little game. Hang clothes on the line. Rush to remove them when the light rain starts. Replace them on the line when the brief rain ends. Repeat.

We then decide to take a walk to the chapel. This was the chapel as I’d photographed it five years ago.

This is the chapel today.  It's been painted and given a new brick wall.  Simplicity scarred. No one consulted me. People are free to make decisions on their own. I often wish they weren’t.

That evening, Jorge’s  daughter, Aleli, celebrates her 8th birthday with cake.

Wednesday – El Noche de la Rana

I awake to the sounds of birds calling to the heavens.

Again, the day is long and unbroken. My words are useless here. I wish I had ice.

We watch Jorge make the coronas de palmas (crowns made from palms.) Later these crowns will decorate the chapel.

It is humid.

That night, my mom escorts a number of bugs out of our room. I am too citified to do well with 6-legged creatures. Then, as I opened the door to our room, a frog leaps in, between my feet and is quickly well into the room. I’m startled. At first I think it must be a lizard, it moved so quickly. Then, I see the rascal hiding against my suitcase. It’s not the biggest frog that I’ve seen here but it’s bigger than any frog U.S. I’ve seen. As it has only 4 legs and not 6, I pick it up and take it out, placing it on a large rock in a flowerbed across the way. My mother states that she is proud of me. Parental approval, at last.

The number of bugs here is tough to deal with.  Everywhere you go there's a bug, or many, in the room.  They're either crawling on the walls or flying around the lightbulbs. It's worst in the bathroom.  You don't want to be constantly on guard in the bathroom.

The upside to all this is that we also see a lot of butterflies, in all sizes and colors.  Why I can't have butterflies where I live is a great cruelty.  But maybe they know better.  That must be it.

Thursday – Our Trip to the Forest

My oldest cousin, Hector, drives us to the Bosque de Encinos, a forest of oak trees. My uncle, my mother’s brother, is with us as well. They talk politics and debate the legitimacy of the Mexican voting system. I walk. I touch the inside of a desiccated cactus blossom. I get a tiny little cactus spine in my pinky finger. Stupid me.

We drink cold Cokes from tiny cans. I walk again. I practice a newly learned Tai Chi move, Hands Moving Though Clouds. They keep talking. It is ungodly hot. I want to leave already. They keep talking.

That night, we try to sleep in our hot room. There is a pounding outside, well into the night. The men are working on something.

Friday – The Tenting

We awake on Friday morning to see that the big tent is already up.

They must have accomplished this during the night. That was the source of the pounding noise.

That night there is to be a calenda, a procession starting at the chapel that would proceed to various sites where dancing would take place. They love to dance here.

“What time will it start?” I ask. 10:00, I’m told. Seriously?

No, not seriously. We are to go with my cousin Patricia and her daughter in their car. At 10, Patricia announces she is going home first to take a bath. My mom is getting anxious, thinking by the time we get there, we’ll have missed it all.

Patricia knows better. We don’t leave until 11. When we get there, nothing has started. They’re all still at the church. Speeches are being given. That’s what we missed, speeches.  In Spanish.

If you’ve been reading my blog posts for long, you know I’m the biggest night owl ever, but eleven? Eleven pm! For a public event! Ay, caramba!

By the time we arrive at the first dancing station it’s exactly 11:50.

Saturday, the wee hours – Terror on the Church Steps

It must be around 1 am when we finally arrive back at the church. I slither through the crowd to be close to the front of the church where the band is assembled and it seems there might be something to shoot video of. There I see them. I see the crowns made of straw. They have places to hold firecrackers. Why I don’t have pictures of these things I’ll never know. But once the dancers placed the crowns on their heads, the crowd fled down the steps and away from the church. My mother had the good sense to stay far back to begin with. I’m like a crazy, panicked gringa, running away, holding the video camera up and pointed towards the action as I run.

Yes, people have placed hats made of straw and firecrackers on their heads and they are gathering in a circle to dance; all this while surrounded by a crowd on onlookers. Oh, those crazy Mexicans and their nonchalance about eye injuries or burns! Or lawsuits. This is what happens in a non-litigious society.

The firecracker dance was followed by three guys standing on the rooftop and tossing gifts to the crowd. They were things like Frisbees and plastic bowls. The first time I attended a Mexican calenda, in the ‘80s, the rooftop tossed prizes included Corelle. I kid you not. They threw plates of Corelle down to the excited crowd. My sister and I were terrified of either being hit by Corelle or being burned by the guy who wore spinning bull horns made from firecrackers.  Surprising that there aren’t more injuries here. Or maybe I’m just a big baby del norte.

Next – the trip to the cave.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Trip – Part Three, Out in the Country

In Oaxaca, our hotel room is hot. There’s a ceiling fan, no a/c. But the fan is too fast and too loud. The noise makes it hard to sleep.

Speaking of hard, that’s what the beds were. The hotel room itself is cute. Just cute, cute, cute. But hot and stuffy and the mattresses are inflexible.

But we manage to sleep, probably out of sheer exhaustion from the previous two days.

We spend a day here in the city. Right away we shop for gifts. We have our meals in the Zocalo.

We enjoy the city even though it’s hot and humid, and with only one exception, all the clothes I packed are black.  Stupid.

 These ladies must be hot too.

I’ve always liked Oaxaca City. But it seems less lively this time of year. The last time I was here it was November, when the weather was cooler and the city was packed with tourists for Day of the Dead.

We shop for gifts for friends and family back at home. For myself, I want to buy bracelets, lots of cheap, obsidian bracelets. Later, I would read in THE FEVER, Wallace Shawn’s explanation of Karl Marx’s Fetishism of Commodities -

“ . . . what really determines the value of a coat? What is it that determines the price of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people who were involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all of those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. . . . “

“A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph contains its history – the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code that describes the relationships between those people – the woman, the man, the publisher, the photographer – who commanded, who obeyed. The cup of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were kicked.”

I don’t buy or wear diamonds. I don’t shop at Walmart. Unlike most tourists, I don’t haggle with the vendors. If I want an item, I pay what they ask. But I can’t resist cheap bracelets. They are my own fetish commodity.

We wear ourselves out with walking. At the end of the day, Mom and I dine at our favorite restaurant and each drink two very, very strong margaritas.

We walk back to our hotel. It’s still hot. We are both drunk. I offer to sing her a song. She falls asleep. The fan is way, way, way too loud.

We go to The Ranch

The next day my uncle arrives with my cousin’s husband. The cousin’s husband has a taxi. They are there to take us to The Ranch. It’s a two-hour drive from the city of Oaxaca.

They all call it The Ranch though it’s really more like a farm. There are cornfields and bean fields but no herds of livestock. The land has been in the family for more than 100 years. Maybe close to 150 years. My uncle raised his 12 children here.

We came here to visit my 80-year-old uncle but we are here now because one of his sons is hosting the Festival of San Ysidro. It’s a big event. My cousin, Jorge, is one of the majordomos, in this sense, a long, funny word for host. Interesting, the word’s true meaning lies in the history of feudalism.

When we arrive, everyone is busy making bread. They have a wood-burning oven. They bake lots of bread.

We sit in the shade of an ancient ash tree. My mom and my uncle chat.  Jorge's daughter, Aleli, joins us.

His life has been hard but he does less work now. I think I overhear him say he no longer keeps chickens. I could be wrong. My Spanish is rusty and seldom used. But that’s what I think I overhear. Except it doesn’t make sense because I see clearly before me a flock of at least a couple dozen chickens and some roosters.

I like chickens. They’re nice birds. I wish I could have chickens of my own. But not really.

The breeze is calming. Birds sing. Chickens scratch. Sheep call out. We shed our anxieties. Life here is neurosis free. Life here is without email and blogging; without Facebook and YouTube and Hulu. Life here is without the constant need for connection, for affirmation of place on the planet. It is without the constant need for validation. It is without Tea Party vs. Coffee Party, without Palin vs. Clinton, without The Culture Wars, without the New York Times, the LA Times or BBC America or NPR.

I am cut off and my thoughts are my own.

Next – the days here are long.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Trip – Part Two, The Connection

We are up early for our flight to Mexico City. Remember, Mexico City is not our destination, only a place where we must change planes on our way to Oaxaca. Except, there’s only one hour to make our connection. I never should have accepted this option in Houston, but I was exhausted and desperate to get to Oaxaca as soon as possible.

In that hour, between our Continental flight and our Mexicana flight, we were expected to change terminals in a huge airport and go through immigration. Because I’ve been given no direction by the airline, I assume we are also expected to pull our bags and go through Customs. Only when we don’t find our bags do I discover they’ve been checked though to Oaxaca. One lucky break.

Now we have to race to find our gate. Our flight appears nowhere on the Departure schedule. I have to ask Information (after waiting for a very long-winded lady to end her conversation.) I’m told I have to go by train to another terminal, the Domestic terminal. But to get to that train, we have to walk the whole length of this terminal, the International terminal. Once at the Domestic terminal, I still can’t find our flight # on the board. Then, briefly, it flashes on and immediately disappears again. We are cutting it very close.

We’re directed to the Mexicana ticket counter. “You can’t catch this plane,” I’m told. “It’s impossible.” What! “There’s another flight to Oaxaca in 2 ½ hours,” I’m told.

Because it’s on another airline from the one we’d purchased from originally, we have to buy the tickets. Either that, or go back to the International terminal and fight with Continental. I’m pretty certain there are no other Continental flights available for two days. That was the impression I got in Houston. We buy the Mexicana tickets and wait. Then, the flight is delayed by an hour.

Twenty-six hours after our intended arrival, we land in Oaxaca City.

The humidity tries my thinned patience.

Next – going to the ranch.