Saturday, March 26, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 0

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.

When I told people about the trip, they talked about how cool it sounded and asked if I was excited. I gave them an ambivalent "yeah," but they insisted that I'd enjoy it. I wasn't so sure. I was more anxious, even terrified, than excited.

Even in my native habitat I'm often plagued by social anxiety. This trip meant spending 10 days in a Third-World country where I didn't speak (much of) the language, lodged in close quarters with 20 people I didn't know. Just thinking about it occasionally made me break out in a cold sweat.

I only read one of the articles on our reading list, despite my interest in the subjects covered therein: geopolitics, economics, human rights, immigration, agriculture. As the departure date approached, I realized I was practicing what one of my former therapists called "avoidance." I didn't wanna think about the trip and, therefore, avoided anything that brought it to mind. My denial didn't give way until the day before I was to leave.

I took care of the packing I'd been procrastinating on and got a decent night's sleep. Luckily, my flight didn't take off until 2pm, so I had plenty of time to take the bus from my parents' house in the 'burbs to downtown Minneapolis and, from there, take the light rail to the airport. It was after rush hour, and I didn't have to fight any crowds. In fact, when I got to MSP at 11, it was almost a ghost town.

There was literally no line at security, which left me with hours to wander the terminal and write. The flight to Houston matched my mind-state: bumpy. I fluctuated between hope and my trademark pessimism. We got there a little early, which was good, because I’d only allowed an hour to make my connection. I navigated the Houston airport fine without any previous experience and had some time to kill in a Texas-sized lounge with a Texas-sized window with a lot of other people killing time on their Texas-sized phones, laptops and other devices.

The plane to Oaxaca was small, so we got to walk across the tarmac to get on, which still provides me a little vestigial thrill left over from childhood. The flight was another bumpy one, with the added bonus of an aerial display. We flew by a thunderstorm and got to see patches of cloud light up from the lightning underneath. It was like watching a silent battle from a safe distance (or what I assumed was a safe distance). 

We deplaned onto the tarmac at Oaxaca into a warm, slightly humid evening. The airport’s exterior was white and brightly lit, with vividly green grass around it. The scene had a Mediterranean feel. The alien March weather triggered a sense of disorientation. My guard went up, and I hit the bathroom, not just to relieve gastrointestinal urgency, but to get some privacy. 

Unfortunately, my sphincter clamped shut harder at the sight of the slightly unfamiliar lavatory design. I conceded defeat and went to the end of the customs line, which was just outside the airport doors, next to the tarmac. While waiting, a youngish man asked me if I was with the LSP delegation. I don’t know how he picked me out, but this was Aaron, one of my fellow delegates. We later found out we were the same age (38). With his beard, glasses, train engineer’s cap, jeans and denim shirt, he looked like either an organic farmer or a hipster who admires organic farming from afar. 

We chatted with each other and the customs officials. Aaron was proficient in Spanish. Our bags were re-x-rayed before we were allowed into the terminal. It’s a small airport, and there were only a few people left at 9:30 on a Thursday night. A slim, petite woman with short, curly, brown hair was holding a sign. She seemed to be our contact, but she was oblivious to us. Aaron asked if she was Maggie, and she said yes, surprised that we were the people she’d been waiting for. (It reminds me of a button on my guitar case: “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!”)

The culture shock really kicked in during the taxi ride. There were some stray dogs in the road by the booth at the exit to the airport parking lot. The driver honked at them, but they barely moved. He zipped through the pack, barely missing one.

Most of the drive took place on a Third-World freeway pockmarked with decay and neglect. At seemingly random intervals, the taxi would slow to a crawl and negotiate a large speed bump. I didn't see any signs for the speed bumps, so I figured the driver had their placement memorized. Riding in the front seat was akin to being in one of those old arcade video games like Cruis'n USA or Pole Position that encouraged reckless driving. In automotive terms, it felt like the Wild West.

Our progress slowed considerably once we got off the freeway and began wending our way through the local streets. Eventually, we stopped on a narrow side street and took our luggage to our hostel, Hostal Don Miguel. The facade was brick with two arched doorways containing gates. Maggie rang the doorbell, but it took about 5 minutes for someone to let us in.

Aaron and I were the last delegates to arrive. We walked through the lobby into an atrium of wrought-iron tables and chairs. Our room was right off the atrium. We went in and set our things down to make introductions, which were typical, no-frills, Midwestern affairs. All 11 men were in the same room with 6 bunk beds, so I was a bit uncomfortable, and there were only top bunks available. 

I don't remember much else about the first night, just hopping up on my bunk and taking a long time to fall asleep. There was talk of a snorer in the following days, but the (light) snoring wasn't enough to keep me awake or keep waking me up. That was the anxiety talking.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Condiment Empires of the Eurasian Steppe

Author's Note: I performed this piece in The Encyclopedia Show on Sunday, March 20, at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. This month's theme was "Condiments."

While the Tartars were spreading a mixture of violence and terror across the steppes of Central Asia, they were also spreading a mixture of mayonnaise and green sweet relish on their fish. Their namesake sauce is just one of many condiments invented by the nomadic peoples of the steppes. But this truth has been buried by the “lame-stream” media at the behest of Big Catsup. The Powers That Be are afraid if people knew the exotic origins of their favorite condiments, it would rend the social fabric asunder, and the nation would be engulfed in an orgy of violence. Thankfully, I have no such qualms. Therefore, I will now correct this oversight, and may God help us all.

We know them merely as nomads or barbarians, savage brutes who subdued most of Eurasia through their superior use of the horse as a military vehicle. But the historians of previous eras called these groups the “Condiment Peoples” and referred to their period of preeminence as the age of the “Condiment Empires.” The nomads had a long-established tradition of flavoring their food after it had been cooked, and they imparted this knowledge to their vassals, who were equally terrified by their conquerors’ ferocity and intrigued by their seasonings. 

The administration of the Condiment Empires was lax in every area except condiment application. That was the one sphere in which the regimes had no tolerance for foreign traditions. As wave after wave of Condiment Peoples overwhelmed the civilized realms of China, India, the Middle East and Europe, they swept aside the old order and imposed their seasonings on the beleaguered citizens.

The variety of their condiments encompassed the full width and breadth of the human palate, but it was often their subjects who found new uses for them. The fishmongers of Persia were actually the first to apply Tartar sauce to seafood. What the Tartars lacked in culinary imagination though, they more than made up for on the battlefield. They are generally considered the fiercest of the Condiment Peoples, far outstripping the Worcestershires and the Grey Poupons in both archery and horsemanship. 

Many of our favorite condiments were championed by history’s greatest warriors. While establishing the largest contiguous land empire of all time, Genghis Khan simultaneously launched the world-conquering phenomenon of ranch dressing. His grandson, Kublai Khan, is credited with developing the formula still used in A-1 steak sauce. It is also believed that Marco Polo stole a jar of honey mustard from his court. And, despite its name, no one has done more for the popularity of Buffalo wing sauce than Attila the Hun.

The nomadic lifestyle lent itself to condiments and what we know today as “fast food.” Most contemporary fast-food franchises offer menus that would be startlingly familiar to the descendants of the Condiment Peoples. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Double Down” sandwich is actually a modern interpretation of the Seljuk Turks’ signature dish, “oghuz,” which means, literally, “I’ve given up.”

But the Condiment Peoples’ reign of tasty terror came to an end in the 15th Century. Condiment penetration had achieved maximum saturation in the Asian market, and Europe had recently rediscovered flavor after the bland, tasteless misery of the Dark Ages. The invention of the condiment-dispensing station by Giacomo Boiardi in 1471 brought flavor to the masses. This democratization of taste broke the monopoly of the Condiment Empires, and they soon faded from the scene.

They were succeeded by the Furniture Empires, foremost among these being the Ottoman Turks’, whose sole proviso was that their subjects place a cushioned stool in front of their chairs and rest their feet on it every once in a while, in the interest of “taking a load off.” The so-called “Edict of Relaxation” was naturally popular and contributed to the longevity of their empire. 

Some would say that the diffusion of condiment knowledge came at too great a cost. To them I would say, “Eh. Whatta ya gonna do?” Perhaps too many had to die, too many were orphaned or emotionally scarred for life so that we may know the joy of wolfing down a McRib, slathered in what I assume is barbeque sauce. But I fear to contemplate the alternative. What substandard, uninspiring fast food and condiments might we have inherited from our timid ancestors if not for the nomads’ bloodlust? The mind reels at the possibilities.