Friday, April 29, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 10

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.

I heard Nolan’s alarm go off at some ungodly hour and saw him get up. I, however, quickly went back to sleep. My alarm went off at 6:30 and I was in the lobby by 7. The taxi showed up a few minutes later.

I didn’t have enough Mexican currency for the ride, so he charged me $20 American, which was probably highway robbery in that context, but I didn’t care. It was still way less than I would’ve paid for a taxi in the Twin Cities.

I made a little Spanish small talk with the guy. He had a nice, middle-class kind of compact car. He was also dressed in a middle-class style.

The Bloodhound Gang’s 1999 hit, “The Bad Touch,” came on the radio, which I found amusing. For the uninitiated, The Bloodhound Gang was the U.S.'s preeminent novelty band of the late 90’s. I probably hadn’t heard the song in 15 years.

The drive to the airport only took 15-20 minutes, giving me 2 ½ hours to catch my flight. The United ticketing area was white and futuristic. I negotiated the digital self-check-in with a little help from an agent and went through security, which was much less of a hassle than in the U.S. I took off my shoes without needing to, which is ironic, since I usually forget to take ‘em off at the TSA checkpoints.

I walked down some long halls. Near my gate there was, basically, a fancy department store. It was much different from the previous 10 days. I wasn’t disoriented, just unimpressed and uninterested, not to mention a bit contemptuous and pitying of the done-up ladies hocking these wares.

I sat and journaled by the gate, wearing my “Never Forget” dinosaur T-shirt (classic), when a bunch of Kardashian kopykats sat down next to me. I was judging them pretty hard, but then I wrote in my diary, “I don’t know what’s inside her. I don’t know what she’s made of.” That was in reference to the one next to me, the group’s Kim. She may’ve been judging me hard too. I was lookin’ pretty schlubby.

On my plane’s ascent from Mexico City, I saw terraces that acted as elevation contours around the hills. There was also a strange sight that I took as an omen. “PROMESAS” (“PROMISES”) was spelled out in huge letters near the top of a mountain. That really struck me. It sounded like “Promises, promises,” like I wasn’t gonna keep my promise to turn my life around, to set a new course of working for good. It felt accusatory, like the land itself was talking to me, or the disgruntled common people who’ve been visited by many well-meaning Gringos and still have nothing to show for it.

At the Houston airport, I indulged in some over-priced Panda Express. It tasted good, actually. My palate hadn’t been completely transformed by 10 days on a Third-World diet. I was still susceptible to the temptations of sugar, salt, MSG and the million artificial chemical combinations thereof.

There was a March Madness game on a TV nearby. That used to be one of the highlights of my year, but in the last decade I’ve cut way back on my TV sports spectatorship. I was kind of interested, but when I went over to watch it took forever to get through the commercial break, so I left.

At MSP, I saw Ernie Hudson (who will forever be known as “the Black Ghostbuster”) striding purposefully through the terminal with ear buds in, apparently talking to someone on the phone. That was kinda surreal.

I was unable to use the Uber account I’d opened in Houston. The MSP wifi was suspiciously hostile to that app, so I took a regular taxi. The cabbie looked and sounded East African. I chatted him up, no longer comfortable with the First-World silences between strangers. He was going to school to be a medical lab technician. I told him about the trip, and he raved about what hard workers Mexicans are.

He dropped me off in downtown Minneapolis at Kieran’s Irish Pub. I was only 15 minutes late to “The Encyclopedia Show,” which was the reason I’d taken a cab instead of the light rail. I wasn’t performing until after intermission, so I had plenty of time to prepare mentally.

I felt very odd being there. The anxiety was giving me a strong sense of detachment and disorientation. I did well, not quite comfortable enough to be in "the zone," but I got a bunch of laughs. One of the other performers complimented me afterward on his way out the door.

I caught another taxi to get home. The cabbie (another East African, I’m guessing) told me he was buying a house. He was on the phone with his realtor near the end of the ride. I still tipped him generously, even though he seemed to be in a better economic situation than I. The cab rides totaled $90 with tips. Freeway robbery!

My parents had left for vacation in Spain just a few days before, so I was home alone. The freedom was nice, but I was also very anxious about it. Since quitting my last corporate job 2 years ago, I’ve developed a fear of being alone for long stretches, like the 2 weeks I was looking down the barrel of now.

That night I ate too much and stayed up too late, despite my fatigue.

Here ends the account of my trip, but I’ll be writing an Epilogue to try and sum up the experience.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 9

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.

Mexico City
I slept in, skipping breakfast and indulging in a bit of TV, catching some soccer highlights. There was a flat screen welded high on the wall and a remote control affixed firmly to the opposite wall between the headboards. It carried quite a few channels, all over-the-air, some grainy.

I took my sweet time getting to the group activities across the street. I could see them through the window as I shaved. They were meeting in a library on the 3rd floor of the Casa de los Amigos (“House of the Friends,” in case you weren’t raised on Sesame Street), a Quaker community center. It was directly across the street from my room. I emerged from the bathroom in a state of undress and thought it best to close the curtains to avoid getting too intimate with my fellow delegates, visually speaking.
My group works on our picture.

My fears proved to be unjustified. Upon joining the delegation, I saw the motel windows across the street reflecting and allowing no view inside, so I probably could’ve danced the hokey-pokey naked without anyone being the wiser.

I joined the group midway through Reflection as each person talked about their “rose, thorn and blossom” from the trip. The rose was something you enjoyed about the trip. The thorn was something you struggled with. The blossom was an effect the trip had on you. It got emotional; there were a few tears shed.

Then we split into groups and drew visual representations of the trip, trying to depict the themes artistically. Some of them were rendered semi-professionally, while others resembled kids’ art. Our picture had a rainbow in the corner, which I found hilarious.
Hannah explains our group's picture.

The afternoon (all 2 hours of it) was left to us. One group went to the Zócalo with the cathedral and Aztec ruins. I thought of joining them, but it’s just as well that I didn’t. Upon returning, they said most of their time was spent waiting for their food order.

I was still tired and in need of a shower after 3 shower-less days. It wasn’t as satisfying as Maggie had promised it would be, but the water was adequately heated, so it was good enough.

While channel-surfing, I stumbled across a dubbed version of Star Wars Episodio IV: Una Nueva Esperanza (“Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” and, yes, I greatly enjoyed translating that). It was kinda funny, especially when Luke asks Obi-Wan about “La Fuerza” (“The Force”), and Obi-Wan replies, “Ah, la Fuerza,” in his sage tone.
Debra, Aaron, Alan and Sara work on their picture.

Obi-Wan’s voice sounded slightly off to me, probably due to my U.S.-bred bias against the Latin American intellect. It’s just hard to imagine Sir Alec Guinness in an all-white suit and a Panama hat, sitting outside a café in sub-tropical heat, sipping espresso and dispensing wisdom.

I tried to nap, but I’ve always been a terrible napper and failed miserably. Instead of sleeping, I worked up a comedy bit about the T-shirt I was wearing in case somebody asked about it. It’s a strange shirt. On the front are the international symbols for an elevator and stairs, under which it says, “Elevator? Stairs?”

Miraculously, when I joined the group in the lobby, Karissa almost immediately asked about the shirt. Thrilled by my luck, I launched into the freshly-minted routine. It didn’t get the reaction I was hoping for, but I’ve only recently emerged from a long period of comic dormancy. I’m still rusty.

Sara takes comments about their picture.
We went back to the Casa de los Amigos to talk about what we could and would do to support Witness for Peace and the people we met in Oaxaca. We talked about ways to spread the message through public presentations, articles, blogging (wink, wink) and lobbying.

Hannah led our closing ceremony, in which we passed a corn kernel around the circle and told the person to our right what we appreciated about them. Then we each took a kernel from a rug in the middle of the room and placed them back on the rug one at a time with an intention, spoken or not, for what we were going to do with this experience.

As one of the last to set my kernel back on the rug, I said, “I want to plant a new life for myself devoted to service to those who need it.” I was a bit choked up, but there were no tears. My voice only caught a bit on the emotion. I was on the verge of crying, but couldn’t quite tilt over into that abyss.
Andrew talks, and I'm amused for some reason.

As a fitting conclusion, we sang one more selection from Hannah's repertoire. This was followed by an orgy of hugging. Then we filled out evaluation forms for WFP and made a list of actions we would take to spread the message back home.

We weren’t hungry enough for dinner by then (7:30), so we went to an ice cream stand for some real Mexican ice cream. I had a cone with a double scoop. It was very good. The guy gave me samples of 2 flavors. But when I returned the small spoon from which I’d tasted the first, he stuck it right in the tub containing the second flavor and handed it back to me.

I’m not as squeamish as many Americans in our germophobic nation, but that gave me pause. It took a split second for my mind to say, “Well, when in Mexico…” I also threw gastrointestinal caution to the wind, not worrying about the consequences of this lactose-rich indulgence on my semi-tolerant GI tract.
Debi explains; Karissa holds.

Thence we repaired to the Revolution Monument, a huge tower that offered elevator rides to the top for a pittance (in U.S. terms). Only Liz, Alan and I took the ride up and gazed at the night city. One of the guides told us how it was originally meant to house the Mexican congress, but was abandoned when the money ran out during the revolution (1910-20). Construction was resumed in 1938 with a new, scaled-back design.

We came down after 20 minutes to find only Chris and Hannah waiting for us. Hannah wandered off while the rest of us went back to the hotel to meet up with the others. But, when we got there, they were nowhere to be found.
Unanswered questions on the floor

Chris and Alan turned in. Liz joined me as I tried to find a late dinner. Unfortunately, the only places open after 10pm were street vendors or half-street vendors, which were little diners with the front of the building removed and the grill where the front wall would’ve been, half on the street.

After the food poisoning, I wasn’t willing to risk street food or semi-street food. In response, Liz delivered a classic line: “Street food isn’t always safe, but it’s always good.” It felt like the ultimate wuss-out, but I ended up going to a 7-11 and buying a pre-packaged sandwich indistinguishable from what I could’ve gotten back home.

Next Steps
My emotional defenses were down by now, the lowest they’d been in years. I felt very open and close to the group. It’s too bad we got separated from the others, because I’d wanted to spend this time with them. Liz was a great companion though, and I wanted to share my secret shame with her, but I couldn’t quite get there in the short time afforded by our excursion.

Rick, Charlie and Sue were in the lobby when we returned. Charlie soon turned in, but Liz and I chatted with Rick and Sue for a while. Rick and I bonded over our village "mother," Petrona, whose struggles had touched us both deeply. He and Sue said I would always be welcome in their house in Ames, which might come in handy, since my mom grew up a half-hour from there.

Rug with kernels
After retiring to my room, I watched Mexican soccer in bed and slowly ate my sandwich. The bread was a bit damp, but otherwise OK. The match was between Cruz Azul and Atlas. I never knew Cruz Azul was a cement company. (I saw signs for Cruz Azul Cement on our travels.) I wasn’t into the game.

Nolan finally appeared to tell me what had happened to the lost tribe. They’d gone to a bar for tacos and ran into another group of delegates. From there, they all went to another place and listened to a band. It sounded like a good night.

Nolan had to get up at 4 to catch his flight. He turned in around midnight. I had the "luxury" of sleeping until 6:30, so I stayed up a little later and read some more of Bossypants.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 8

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.
Juan's sister holds up chocolate.

We awoke before dawn. (Another classic opener!) The stars were clearly visible, thanks to very little light pollution. Rick’s alarm went off at 4 or 4:30. I was awake maybe a half-hour before that, in my brain’s continuing quest to deprive me of sleep on days of early rising.

We rolled out of bed in stages until being invited to the kitchen for breakfast at 5:30. We had hot chocolate, a local specialty. They wrapped up a hunk of chocolate for each of us in maroon paper. It was hard to adequately express gratitude. There was the awkwardness of no-touch affection.

I read or heard something on the trip about Mexicans trying to be more affectionate with their kids. I didn’t know that was a problem. I just assumed all Latinos were affectionate.

We left the house at 6. There were already many bags piled up in the courtyard of the weaving cooperative when we arrived. Our 2 vans didn’t show up ‘til 7, but we loaded up pretty quickly and hit the road.
Leaving Teotitlán del Valle

I saw Petrona sitting alone as we hustled and bustled around her at the cooperative. She was smiling politely at the middle distance, without a part to play. But I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. I was afraid of crying or just getting “too” emotional.

We stopped at a gas station complete with convenience store and dining area, a strange, sudden return to the First World. There was a TV showing a Mexican morning show, one of those obnoxious “news” shows that annoy the fuck out of me, in which the hosts are absurdly, enragingly perky.
Mixteca region of Oaxaca

They were showing highlights of the basketball game between Real Madrid and Barcelona, 2 Spanish clubs that currently have the premier soccer rivalry in the world. Their meetings are called El Clásico in soccer and apparently in básquetbol too.

We picked up some food and water to replenish our ever-depleting snacks and water supplies. We all hit the restrooms too. Even in Mexico, ladies have to wait in line for the toilet while men can waltz right up to a urinal whenever it suits us.

I was sitting next to Aaron as we drove through the mountains, passing mouldering, abandoned cabins on the hillsides. To him, I unburdened myself of my secret shame: I’ve been living with my parents for 6 ½ years now, the last 2 mostly unemployed, having lost touch with my best friends and feeling horribly lonely for much of that time.

It’s not exactly a secret, since it’s in my blog profile, but I’m extremely reluctant to share those facts in the real world. I feel overwhelming shame about living with my parents at the age of 38, and being unemployed has magnified that feeling. I was hoping to share it with the whole delegation, but just telling one person was a good start.

We passed through an unidentified (as far as I recall) city. Then we headed up dirt roads into the mountains to visit a village that had been relocated after being destroyed by a natural disaster. It took about 90 minutes from the highway to get there.
Garden in mountain village

It was at the top of a mountain, just a few miles from the old village. Since moving there 3 years ago, they’d already built a school (complete with the requisite security fence and basketball court, which was sheltered). They showed us their gardens, including a large field of nopales. It was impressive how much they could grow in the thin, rocky soil.

We came back down from the mountains to the town of Nochixtlán and visited CEDICAM. As the delegation folder explains, “CEDICAM works primarily in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca state, one of the most eroded areas in the world ever since Spanish conquerors deforested the region over 400 years ago. CEDICAM’s projects include reforestation efforts, native seed use and the promotion of local markets, local food consumption and sustainable farming practices. One of their key models is farmer-to-farmer knowledge-sharing.”
Maggie with Jesús León Santos of CEDICAM

Our host was Jesús León Santos. Before beginning his presentation, he said he’d made a reservation for us at a local eatery. Maggie and many of the women in the group sounded very appreciative of and enthusiastic about his gesture.

At this point, I was pretty run-down and eager to hit the road for the 4 ½-to-6-hour drive (depending on your source) to Mexico City that still lay ahead of us that evening. (Also, I suck at sleeping in transit.)

To my deep relief and in a much friendlier tone than I could’ve mustered at that moment, Paul lodged a formal objection to delaying our departure. Maybe I was projecting, but this felt like a popular sentiment among the men.

It seemed that, under the strain of sleep deprivation, the long van ride, listening to lectures for hours every day, opening ourselves up to the plight of the downtrodden and all the other exhausting aspects of the trip, our camaraderie might be splintering along gender lines. (Drama! Tension! Suspense! Can you feel it?) I couldn’t help but think we were enacting a common gender stereotype about traveling: Women are in no hurry, while men just wanna get it over with.

Maggie delayed a decision on the matter until after the presentation. Rather than listen to the talk, I mostly stewed in the juices of my fatigue and resentment.

Señor León’s talk focused on CEDICAM’s new book, a thick, glossy coffee-table affair called ¡Milpa! As I mentioned in a previous post, milpa is the Mexican polyculture centered around the “Three Sisters” plant guild of corn, beans and squash. It includes edible plants that we would consider weeds, which they call quelites.

Most of us bought a copy of the book. I demurred, given my lack of agricultural experience and culinary daring to attempt the recipes included therein. Señor León signed everybody’s copy and then we headed to the local restaurant, as if Paul’s complaint had never been lodged. I went along with it, figuring acquiescence would yield a more pleasant outcome than resistance. (This is usually how my social calculus works out.)

Karissa eats shrimp in Nochixtlán.
The restaurant was a basic, no-frills sort of establishment with plastic table cloths and bargain-basement, yard-or-estate-sale chairs and tables. They had a long line of tables pushed together for us along the back wall. Many of us had beer, the Mexican brand of Victoria, as I recall. I opted for an orange soda to alleviate my sugar withdrawal.

Along with soup, there were appetizers served on plastic dishes with no garnish, including black beans and white rice. I dumped that into my soup. This was a DIY sort of place, displaying a punk aesthetic that I might’ve appreciated had I not been tired and cranky.

My entrée was the shrimp soup, which provided me with a new experience. I forked the many shrimp out of the unique crockery bowl and removed the heads, which still had the beady, black eyes attached.
Mairi enjoys the catch of the day!

The food was remarkably unremarkable. The only sauce was what you brought in your soul, and I had nothing left to season with, no spiritual condiments to speak of.

After finishing, Aaron, Nolan and I took a walk around the neighborhood. We got to a park and completed a circuit around the running track that encircled a dusty soccer field. There was a match going on. Most of one team had the same jersey; the other was a motley crew. A few dozen spectators watched from the stands.

Shortly after returning to the eatery, we hopped back in the vans and soon got stuck in a Catholic procession. It was the Friday before Holy Week. If I hadn’t “lapsed” in my Catholicism in high school, I might be able to tell you the significance of that day. (Unfortunately, Wikipedia was not up to the task.)
Lenten procession in Nochixtlán

There were a lot of plainly-dressed people walking and singing solemnly. We were only trapped in that mess for 5-10 minutes before we were finally able to escape Nochixtlán. (I don’t wanna give the town a bad name, but it had been a long day.) I noted the time that we got on the highway, so I’d know exactly how big a grudge to bear when we got to our hotel in Mexico City.

The light was dying by the time we got outta town. Maggie was sitting next to me in the back seat. It was a good time to hash it all out with her. I told her about my skepticism about Consensus and the Archdruid’s criticism. We talked politics. It was nice having a fellow Leftist to commiserate with.

But, as the shadows lengthened and the sun dipped below the horizon, the conversation died down and people started nodding off.
Lenten procession in Nochixtlán

This stretch of country was more like the U.S. with semi’s, rest stops and freeways. We passed through the expansive city of Puebla. There were fireworks over a couple of the smaller cities.

We stopped at 2 gas stations on the way. One had a guy selling stuffed animals off the top of his car.

Over the previous few days, Paul had built a spirited grassroots movement in the group in favor of stopping for ice cream on the way to Mexico City. It was rather remarkable how he could drum up such fervent enthusiasm over such an innocuous issue. His sociability and sense of humor give him a unique magnetism. He’d make a great cult leader.

Lenten procession in Nochixtlán
Unfortunately, the momentum for this insurgency had been blunted by delays and fatigue. The movement’s core (or “dead-enders,” if you will) settled for cheap ice cream treats at one of the rest stops.

‘Round about midnight, we got to the edge of the Valley of Mexico and gazed down into a sea of city lights. It took a while to descend into the capital. The clock in the hotel lobby said 12:30; Maggie would’ve won the bet on how long the drive was.

We’d finally arrived at El Gran Hotel Téxas (“The Grand Hotel Texas,” in case you were wondering), a much grander name than the accommodations warranted. Fate spared us from sharing beds again, a fact I wasn’t sure of until I opened the door to me and Nolan’s room and emitted a “Thank God” at the sight of separate beds.

I read Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, for a while after Nolan turned off his light, until I was ready to hit the sack.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 7

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.

Market in Teotitlán del Valle
I woke up before Rick’s alarm went off, so I was conscious much earlier than I wanted to be. The morning dawned bright and clear (I couldn't resist the cliché.), but I was a bit too bleary-eyed to drink it all in.

We ambled over to the kitchen for breakfast. There was lemongrass tea and conversation. The whole scene actually looked a lot better to me after a decent night’s sleep. I guess I thought, “If I can sleep here, it must not be that bad.”

I also remembered that luxury is only necessary in the absence of love. I was only bothered by their poverty because I hadn’t yet felt their warmth. Once I was able to receive their hospitality and generosity, I was much more comfortable.
Church in Teotitlán del Valle

But I did notice the dirty tablecloth. I wondered if the housekeeping had suffered since Petrona went blind. I’m quite sensitive to cleanliness, especially in this setting, because I take after my mom. She grew up on a farm, my grandpa’s aforementioned beef cattle (and corn) farm in Iowa.

After breakfast we went to the market, which filled 2 large warehouses and an outdoor pavilion. It took up almost half a city block. The place was bustling. We crossed paths with fellow delegates who were also following their host families around.
Church interior

Rick handed me a tamarind and told me how to eat it. It was pretty good, if a bit sour for my taste. There were conventional, industrial products alongside the locally-grown food. I commented to Aaron how the mass-produced shit looked so cheap next to the artisanal goods.

In that setting, the consumer products looked out-of-place, almost obscene, like a virus. I lamented how the global neoliberal economy had made these people (and us) dependent on boxes of lactose-free milk. Who could be so morally bankrupt as to believe that’s an improvement over milking your own cows or getting it in glass bottles from the milkman? For what monster does this represent Progress?

Next, we checked out the Catholic church next door. It was built in 1753 and had an amazing interior, especially considering the town only had a few thousand residents. (There were conflicting reports about the population. I heard both 3,000 and 7,000.)

My first trip to continental Europe was 2 years ago, and we saw so many magnificent cathedrals that I began to suffer from “cathedral fatigue.” But there was something extremely affecting about this shrine, a church on a more human scale without as much glitz and glamor. There were even carved stones from indigenous ruins haphazardly set in the façade’s stucco.
Church altar

We returned home with Petrona and Juan’s purchases and chilled. Juan showed Aaron and I their loom and examples of his work. The room was large and mostly empty, except for a radio, which had been playing a kids’ show that morning. The radio accompanied his weaving. There was a pile of textile scraps against the wall.

In the afternoon we reconnoitered with the other groups at the weaving cooperative to hear about their work and buy some rugs. Eric, Debi and Chris were there, having just made the trip from Oaxaca City. Eric completed our quartet of men staying with Juan and Petrona. This foiled my hope of getting a bed to myself that night, but I couldn’t very well resent Eric for feeling better. (Or could I? Don’t underestimate the power of passive-aggressive thinking.)

Over lunch, I had Aaron translate the story of my grandpa for Juan and Petrona. I’d wanted to tell them the first night, but it felt too emotional. I just told them (via Aaron) about how he’d had beef cattle that weren’t nearly as chill as the ones we’d seen on the road the day before. It was nice sharing that with them, although I wish my Spanish vocabulary had been big enough to tell them directly.
Vida Nueva Women's Weaving Cooperative

But the wall I’d felt between me and the Mexican people was coming down. The return of my Spanish comprehension seemed to have something to do with that.

That evening there would be a visit to a nearby farm. We walked to the edge of town and waited for the other groups. Our arrival was unintentionally early due to miscommunication, and we waited a half-hour to an hour for the others to show. Thence, we piled into some pickups and went to a farm to check out their chickens, large turkeys, nopales and other crops.

It was one of those great evenings in the country when the dusk slowly settles over a large gathering outside. I had my first encounter with a cat on the porch of the rustic farmhouse. There were 2 kittens on top of an old Coke machine mewing and cowering from all the people and dogs in the yard. I reached my hand out to them and, predictably, got clawed, albeit lightly.

Farm outside Teotitlán del Valle
We piled back into the pickups and returned to town. At the hacienda, we had some more lemongrass tea and chatted. Eric knew some Spanish, so Aaron and Rick didn’t need to translate much of what was said. Petrona, Juan and his sister could also slip into the local Zapotec (indigenous) dialect if they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. This gave both groups a private language, ours being English.

We were supposed to depart at 6:30 the next morning, so we went to bed around 10. I switched beds, no longer wanting to be trapped between Rick and the wall. This time I was in the bed under the window, a much less stuffy location. I still had to share the bed, with Eric this time, but I was more comfortable in this spot and more acclimated to bed-sharing.

The courtyard light and radio were turned off earlier than the night before, and the long, slow slide into unconsciousness was more pleasant.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 6

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.

Hostel atrium
In the morning, we gathered our backpacks, sleeping bags and food for our host families in the hostel atrium to take to the village of Teotitlán del Valle. Eric and Chris were still sick and stayed behind with Debi and our medical coordinator, Maria Elena.

Our first stop of the day was CAMPO (in English, “Support Center for Oaxaca’s Popular Movements”), where we gathered under a large tent to listen to 3 animated speakers. I guess the 3rd guy wasn’t as animated, but he was still entertaining, as I recall.

From the delegation folder: “CAMPO is a non-profit organization working for rural sustainable development. It works to promote human rights, community rights, women’s rights and indigenous rights, in addition to improving the environment and creating sustainable communities with a good quality of life.”

The speakers emphasized the futility of working through official government channels, given the corruption endemic to the system. This necessitates direct actions of resistance, local organizing and community self-government.

The sun was fierce that day as we toured the grounds, checking out the adobe buildings, the compost vermiculture, aquaculture and hoop houses.

Then it was off to the village. We cruised along the highway to the bone-dry boonies and got off at an exit with stores that looked like they were out of a western. I tried not to think of Speedy Gonzalez.

Liz, Charlie & Andrew in Teotitlán del Valle
The town was several miles off the highway. Concrete walls lined the streets, usually hiding the state of the homes within. Only the wealthy residences offered a peek inside through a barred gate. Our bus wormed its way into the center of the town until the streets became too narrow to allow deeper penetration.

We unloaded our things, and the bus backed out. We took everything to the Vida Nueva (“New Life”) weaving cooperative a block or two away. Every host family included a member of the cooperative. There we sorted the food. Each group brought eggs and produce to ease the burden of our visit. Then we split up to go to our hosts’ dwellings.

Aaron, Rick and I went with Petrona and her husband, Juan, a diminutive, middle-aged couple. Aaron and Rick were proficient in Spanish, so they led the conversation. I was able to pick up most of what was said, even though I hadn’t studied Spanish since high school 20 years ago.

They said their place wasn’t far, but it took 10-15 minutes to walk there. They had a courtyard behind their wall, but the homestead was of exceedingly meager means. It was like walking into a commercial for one of those Third-World charities, UNICEF or Feed the Children.
Aaron checks out Petrona and Juan's kitchen.

There were clotheslines occupying the same airspace as my head. There was an outdoor kitchen under a ramshackle roof. The ground was dirt, out of which grew several avocado trees, but that was the only apparent abundance. The bathroom was a toilet in an open room behind a curtain. The house was a concrete slab with 2 rooms. On the right was another building with one large room containing a loom and little else. A few chickens and 2 little, filthy dogs patrolled the grounds.

They showed us to our room: 12’ x 12’ with 2 beds, a bunch of luggage, a table and 2 chairs. The beds were covered with random blankets in decent shape, like you might find in a dorm room. The table had a power strip, incongruously sleek fax machine and a smattering of bric-a-brac. Amidst the detritus was a CD whose title, Morir de Amor (“Dying of Love”), cracked me up. The band on the cover was a bunch of guys in cowboy gear.
Rick, me, Aaron, Petrona & Juan.

They invited us to the dining room next door for lunch which, as Maggie told us, typically took place in the late afternoon, post-siesta. The table was on the left. In the front left corner was an oven. On the right was the fridge, a china hutch and the water jug. We sat down at the table, which was covered with a plastic, blue gingham-printed tablecloth.

It was only then I realized Petrona was blind. She’d navigated so naturally on Juan’s arm out on the street that I didn’t notice her disability. As we talked, they told us she had diabetes and went blind 5 years ago.

Juan’s sister joined us. We had tea and coffee, soup and tortillas. It was good. We chatted for a while, getting to know each other. Then we took a walk with them to the high school on the edge of town. Only later did we learn that Aaron threw up into his hand as we were leaving the house. Just another classic moment on a classic trip.
Mountains around Teotitlán del Valle

The mountains and fields were gorgeous in the late afternoon sun. Too bad I was still wrapped up in anxiety over the poverty of our surroundings. We passed a harvested cornfield. The dogs, a black-and-white spotted mutt aptly named Panda and a white one whose name I don’t recall, tagged along and occasionally ran afoul of other dogs.

Mexico is the Land of Stray Dogs and No Cats, which was disappointing for me as a cat person, although I thought about it and figured I’d rather deal with stray dogs than feral cats. Cats are less people-friendly than dogs though, so maybe they were hiding.

The high school was still partly under construction and surrounded by a fence that enclosed a wide expanse of athletic fields and a basketball court. One area was dug up in preparation for a garden. The dogs visited the chickens at a house nearby before we turned back.

It took about an hour to get there, so the sun was low by the time we headed back into town. We met up with a herd of cattle led by a young man. They were the chill-est cattle I’d ever seen, not at all bothered by the dogs or the people with whom they serenely shared the road. They were nothing like my Grandpa’s (now my Uncle’s) beef cattle in Iowa that spooked so easily and took a few helping hands and eyes to move from one pasture across the road to another.

Teenagers, kids and other folks moseyed into town with us, joining and leaving our free-floating flotilla as our paths crossed. Juan and Petrona talked to a few of them.

Upon returning, we chilled in our room for a while before reconvening for supper. The conversation lagged a bit to start with, but eventually picked up again. Their son, David, showed up around 9:30-10 and chatted for a while.

He was working in the office of a construction company. He’d been in the first semester of college when he had to drop out due to Petrona’s medical bills. Most would consider that a bad break, but the work experience could give him a leg up in the job market. (I haven’t found my liberal arts degree terribly useful.)

We retired to our by-now-sultry room for the night. Despite my discomfort in sharing a bed, I let Aaron take the solo bed since he was still under the weather. I have no complaints about him as a bedmate; I’m just not down with sharing a bed.

Rick put his sleeping bag between us, which I initially thought was meant to be a barrier, but later realized was just so we could both use it to cover up if we got cold. I didn’t think that would happen, but it was a little cool by morning.

Petrona and Juan mosey back into town.
There was a radio playing and a light on in the courtyard which, when combined with the heat and the sleeping arrangements, made it tough for me to fall asleep. Through the window, Juan asked a few times if we were sleeping. I finally answered, “No.”

He then offered us something. I couldn’t tell what he said. I had to wait for Rick to take his head out of the sleeping bag. Juan repeated the offer, and Rick declined. I asked Rick what Juan had offered. He said curtly, “Never mind,” and wrapped his head back up in the sleeping bag.

After an hour or so, the light and radio were turned off. It took me a long time to fall asleep, but I got there eventually.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 5

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.

En route to Monte Albán
That night I dreamt of home. (I’ve always wanted to start a piece with a sentence like that! Isn’t it wonderfully pretentious?! It doesn’t quite make sense, since it was really the morning of Day 5, but when God gives you a sentence like that, you can’t quibble. You just have to accept it and be grateful.)

In the dream, I was jogging near my old high school, which is near my parents’ house, where I’ve been living the last 6 ½ years. It was nighttime. There was a crowd on both sides of the street watching as a young Black man with a big ‘fro was wheeled off on a stretcher. He looked like a guy I went to college with.

He went into convulsions, and some old Black women, whom I took for his relatives, made noises of fright and despair. I thought they were overreacting. I kept walking or jogging down the hill. It was morning by then, and I realized I could just jog to the bus stop to go to work.

Aaron gazes upon Monte Albán.
Then I was in another neighborhood, and I jogged into someone’s backyard and lowered myself from their deck onto a rickety set of platform-steps, the kind Super Mario would use. I put my feet on the top step and managed to keep my balance. It was a steep backyard, far below the deck like my Aunt Betty and Uncle Pete’s old house in the suburbs of NYC. Then the dream ended.

Usually, in that dream scenario, I lose my balance and wake up to find my head has fallen off the pillow. The Black guy by my old high school was interesting, since it’s a private Catholic school in the suburbs. When I went there, we only had a few Black kids, and they were all recruited as athletes, basically.

I was able to eat a bit at breakfast. I took the chance despite some reservations. It ended up working out fine for me.

Overview of Monte Albán
We took the bus to the edge of town and up a mountain littered with shacks and old women, schoolgirls and -boys. At the top was Monte Albán, the center of Zapotec civilization around the time of Christ. Our tour guide was an entertaining, learned man who didn’t care for the Aztecs. He said they came from the north, like all bad things, which got a big laugh from our liberal-to-leftist group.

Monte Albán was the longest continually inhabited city in Mesoamerica. We had to climb a path winding around the summit to get to the ruins. Then we could see the grandeur of it. There were stepped pyramids surrounding and in the middle of the flattened mountaintop.

The steps were steep, and I was still weak from diarrhea and not eating the day before. I made it up the first, shortest pyramid and took a seat to rest. I also made it back down, which was the real concern. But my strength returned during the tour until I was almost fully revived.

Over the course of the trip, I gained a new perspective on the sun. Whereas before I had thought of it only as the source of all life, I now came to regard it also as a white hole sucking the life-force from my body. It felt much stronger down there. Not even my wide-brimmed Aussie-style hat could totally protect me from its death rays.

We tarried in the museum after the tour and returned to our bus in the parking lot below, negotiating what I told Eric was a “gauntlet of guilt” made up of people selling trinkets at the entrance.

The delegation folder says we visited a group called Ecochac next, but I have no memory of it. If any of my fellow delegates remember that, please let me know!

We had the afternoon off, which was nice. That must’ve been the day we ran across the red shoes laid out in a street as a reminder of domestic violence.

I was less adventurous in my culinary exploits after the brush with Montezuma. Initially, it was discouraging to be the first to get food poisoning. It made me wonder if I was the least healthy person in the group. But that inferiority complex was soon relieved as more delegates succumbed to the same symptoms that had befallen me. Ironically, my case seemed to be the mildest.

Ball court
People were droppin’ like flies that night. Aaron, Eric and Chris were among the casualties. Debi and I ran into each other at the convenience store closest to the hostel, both in search of remedies. I was picking up the magic elixir: Coke. I dropped 3 bottles off at the hostel and then began a long, tortuous journey for limes. I was desperate to repay the kindness that had been shown me upon falling ill and swore that I would not return empty-handed.

After 15-20 minutes of searching the neighborhood, I finally found some fruit stands and picked up seis limones (six limes). (Limón is the confusing Spanish word that means either “lime” or “lemon.” C’mon, Hispanophones! Make up your mind!) I returned full-handed and squeezed 3 lime halves into a bottle and took it to Aaron, who was lying in bed. Then I made one for me, just in case.

Local market
Sue Ellen, the chef, had prepared a meal for us. I filled my plate with an assortment of delicacies and joined the party on the roof. The group gave me a Norm-from-Cheers-like welcome, as they did for the other late arrivals. They were having a grand old time, as I’d heard from downstairs. The only illumination was provided by a few clip lights on the tables, shaded by pieces of paper.

Once enough people had arrived, and we’d achieved a nebulous sort of spiritual quorum, a loaf of bread was passed around, from which we each tore off a piece. Paul said a prayer as part of this “breaking bread” ceremony. For dessert there was a caramel cake (tortamiel, I guess?) that was quite good, served in coffee cups since we’d run out of plates.

We had a devil of a time getting the top off the bottle of Bailey’s-like liqueur Mairi and Sue Ellen had purchased. It was a poor showing of First-World ingenuity in the face of Third-World packaging. Alan cut himself trying to saw off the plastic cap with a knife. But eventually the liqueur flowed even more freely than Alan’s blood.

Our homemade dinner at the hostel
We actually cleaned up and did the dishes that night. (I wrote “actually” because I was so surprised and impressed by our conscientiousness.) The kitchen was full of helpers, so I bowed out early rather than get in the way. Everything was clean and back in place by the time I returned to check on their progress.

I was worried about the community visit the following day, because it had taken me about 2 days to get over my culture shock in Oaxaca City. We’d only be in the village for 2 nights, so I wasn’t sure if that was enough time for me to adjust to the peasant (campesino) lifestyle.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 4

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.

I was awakened at 2am by an upset tummy. (I use the term “tummy” purely for comic effect. It’s not a regular feature of my lexicon.) The rest of the night I was in and out of consciousness, sleeping only fitfully.

My stomach pain wasn’t that bad, just enough to keep me up. It didn’t get bad until I god have more of that sweet yogurt from the day before, but the closest I could find was some avocado sauce that didn’t help.

I was riding waves of nausea during the Check-In, which was too bad, since it involved one of the highlights of the trip. Eric, the avid birder, admitted to falling in love with Graciela, our guide at the mezcal distillery, within 10 minutes of meeting her. (Full disclosure: I thought she was pretty darn cute too.) That broke up the crowd. He went over and gave his wife, Debi, a hug. Then she admitted to falling in love with her too, and the circle was complete.

I didn’t think my stomach could handle the visit to the Center for the Orientation of Migrants (COMI), a migrant shelter, so I told Maggie I’d be staying behind. She understood and gave me directions to COMI in case I felt better.

Once people knew I was sick, they leapt into action. Nolan started rifling through his bag of drugs; it looked like he was prepared for any malady. He found an anti-nausea medication, but I opted for Charlie’s recommendation of Coke with lime juice. (This should not be confused with Coca-Cola with Lime, which, according to Wikipedia, was “introduced in North America in the first quarter of 2005 before being quietly discontinued in 2006.” You may not find that tidbit edifying, but I’d been wondering what happened to that flavor.)

Charlie went to the guy at the front desk, Felix, who did a lot of our cooking, and asked him to get the Coke and lime for me. Felix came back after the group left, went to the kitchen and squeezed 3 lime halves into a little plastic bottle of Coke (smaller than I’d seen in the U.S.). He flipped it upside-down (slowly) and handed it to me.

I paid him 10 pesos, insisting he keep the extra 3 pesos for his troung, inconvenient habit of using the dollar sign for peso amounts. I wonder if they call it “the peso sign.”)

Almost immediately, I felt better. This Mexican magic had an immediate effect. I was very touched by my fellow delegates’ concern for my health and wanted to thank them at the next Check-In. Unfortunately, our next official Check-In wasn’t for 6 days, and I lacked the initiative to do it on my own, so my formal expression of gratitude to the group was delayed.

I was chillin’ in the atrium, looking up the news on Democracy Now! and getting a little freaked-out about the violence at the Trump rallies in Chicago and Kansas City. It felt like things were coming apart in the U.S. in our absence, to the point that I wondered if we’d be safer in Oaxaca than back home in a few months.

I kept sipping the Coke with lime and letting it work its healing magic on me. I wasn’t sure when Charlie suggested Coke with lime if he knew about its medicinal properties or if he’d just seen Reservoir Dogs. (After googling that song, I can confirm that it goes, “You put the lime in the coconut,” not in the Coke. I wasn’t sure. Also, I didn’t know that was Harry Nilsson!)

I wrote some true Morning Pages (the stream-of-consciousness exercise) in my diary. By the afternoon, I was feeling well enough to take a cab to COMI. I tried out some español on Felix at the front desk: “¿Puedo llamar un taxi en esta calle?” (“Can I hail a cab on this street?” I think.)

He assured me I could, so I caught one with a friendly cabbie who tried to help me decipher Maggie’s directions. We got the basics and were most of the way there when I finally decoded the final word that unlocked the secret. We had a nice chat about the relative climates of our respective homes. He charged me 50 pesos, which may’ve been exorbitant for the ride, but that came to about $3, and I enjoyed practicing my Spanish with him. I told him about my upset stomach, thanks to some vocab I’d just picked up from Maggie (tener nacios = to be nauseous).

I was let into COMI through a substantial gate. The courtyard was dirt. Next door was a construction site or a building in a late stage of collapse. Everyone was chatting over the remains of lunch at folding tables outside. I met the most casually dressed priest I’ve ever seen, like no one I’d encountered in my Catholic Lite upbringing.

Maggie had warned us the day before that listening to the migrant’s stories tends to be emotionally intense, but only one person was crying, so they seemed to have weathered the storm. I snuck into the group picture before we piled into a bus and went out to the country.

Our destination was an amaranth farm run by Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (“Bridge to Community Health”). Amaranth was a staple in pre-Hispanic times but was outlawed by the Spaniards. It’s being encouraged now as a substitute for corn and beans, traditional crops that are no longer profitable.

We listened to the farmers near a big bush, which offered some much-needed shade. But I was feeling a bit weak and dizzy and seeing tracers, so I sat on the ground. The others went out to inspect the fields, while I stayed behind, lacking the energy or interest level to pursue such knowledge.

City hall (?)
Thence, we drove into the local town to see a museum of indigenous artifacts and rituals. It was quite stuffy in there, almost stifling. I slipped out before the tour was over and joined the folks chillin’ in front of the town’s lovely, classic city hall with a basketball court in front.

Paul talked a big game about hoopin’ it up and taking on all comers whenever we came across a basketball court, but he never seemed to have a ball handy. (For the record, I would’ve gladly had his back in such a scenario. I think he would’ve been quite pleased with my Larry Bird-esque game.)

Liz and I bought some water and Coke for the ride home from an old man running a tiny, hole-in-the-wall store near the steps to the city hall. We sang some random pop hits on the ride back into Oaxaca City: John Denver, Milli Vanilli, that one Buffalo Springfield song no one could remember the name of. You know, the standards. It was a smaller, hotter bus than our usual ride; that may’ve encouraged a greater esprit de corps.

For the first time in what must be years, I went a whole day without eating. (Unless you count the avocado sauce, which I don’t.) But eating held no appeal for me that day, so I turned in early and slept very well.