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.


  1. I am loving your daily blogs, Mickey! You must have run upstairs to journal the minute we returned each day..... your keen observations and skill for remembering detail and interactions amongst us, truly captures the sense of care and community I believe we co-created in our delegation. Thank you and keep sharing!

  2. Thank you! I actually did very little journaling on the trip. This is mostly from memory. I finished my first draft of the full account a week ago so I wouldn't forget any more details.