Published: January 28th 2009January 28th 2009
Our three-day hotel
20: 34; 27 de Enero 2009
Libro: “First World, Ha Ha Ha!”
Seeing Mexico City from the air at night was like what I imagined as a child I would see walking across a rope bridge over a hidden tomb of gold with Indiana Jones. From the closest view I could squint at to the farthest reaches of the horizon: bright golden lights. I had never attempted to conceptualize how some 30 million people living together in one city would appear at night - but there it was.
Entering Oaxaca during the day, I was amazed most (more than the way a city center had somehow managed to cast and sprawl itself into every foothill and ridge it fancied touching) by the agricultural grids adorning the surrounding hills, as if in the face of rampant urbanization entire corn and sugar cane fields had tugged up all their roots in one great sweep and fled to the hilltops, pushing and shoving, squishing up against one another as best they could.
Immediately and characteristically, I placed myself into an awkward situation which tested the unrealistic idea I had held about the ease of slipping into a new country,
culture and language unnoticed. I walked right out of the airport without picking up my bags. Now, one quick look at my phrasebook would have easily told me that in fact recogida de equipaje
means “baggage claim” not “walk directly away from this helpful sign and straight out into the sunlight.” My big old American ego told me I could just turn around, explain myself and walk right back in, but it didn’t account for two security guards and one PM (MP) with a very large gun (“is that an AK-47??”) who didn’t speak English nor for my own idiocy in throwing away my baggage claim ticket. I welcomed myself to a ten minute bout of the first of many many sessions of hand gestures, pointing and dramatic facial expressions before defeatedly moving off to the corner to wait for the entire airport to clear. After a pat down and one of those handheld metal detector full-body swipes I was allowed to enter and speak with an interpreter who led me to customs where they preceded to open my bag, look into my toiletries….and let me go. And what about the rest of the huge bag? Apparently not a problem,
no need to check, but why is the PM staring at me through the window?(“Is it better to smile? Okay smile..no wait, don’t, that looks suspicious, he can see my cheeks shaking…just..look at him…oh oo bad idea…grab your bag.. go go go!”)
Everything calmed down once I was in the car with Jonathon, heading away from the airport. Calm, breathe, away away. Whisked straight into a busy street that quickly introduced me to tricycle vendors, awesome bicycles, three-wheeled Bajaj autos, intense Oaxacan drivers, police trucks casually patrolling- four to a truck bed each Federali openly holding/presenting/showing off AK-47s, street dogs and a whole lot of Spanish.. on the signs, the storefronts, the graffiti, and not a hint of English subtitles.
Apparently someone along the line didn’t have much humor about my hippie tendencies, ripping through my bags and pouring out half of my bottle of Camu-Camu vitamin C powder (hey immigration, couldn’t you throw me a $20?- that stuff is expensive!!). Everything smelled like tea tree oil and my recycled plastic razor has definitely been relocated.
This past week I have been walking, touring, climbing, sunbathing, drinking coffee five minutes after roasting, making friends of many nationalities and
eating lots of Oaxaca’s regional cheese, mole negro
. Yeah, Jon even got me to eat pork one evening. Like there is an easy alternative to complete disintegration of my veganism at this point? Like I want it? Have you even tried this food? It’s amazing!! Worried? Another Oaxacan specialty, Mezcal, especially from the local 90 year old cantina, has proven itself to produce potent sanitizing and clarifying effects.
I have found some favorite cafes, including Café La Brujula with their homemade whole wheat honey bread, banana bread and Americanos con leche de soya. Tonight I discovered a delicious and completely trustworthy salad at Café Los Cuiles- where I also met four dread-toting, Chaco-wearing, klean kanteen-sipping twenty-somethings from Vermont. These are definitely my two places of nostalgic comfort. Don’t get me wrong, I still order mi ensalada organic
en espanol. Other than my stay at a local hostel for the past four days, I have had some intense immersion.
One of my first days here we, Jonathon, Brett, and new friends Beatriz and Marcela, drove up to the center of the arts at San Augustine- an old textile factory overlooking the city where artists of many
Our four-days of hostel livin'
mediums have come together to create a museum, a living space, a place of communal gathering among bogumbillas and cacti, fountains and austerity. We watched the sunset from the mountaintop, snapping photos and laughing together. I felt very lucky to be taken along on the journey without speaking more than a single word (“Gracias
”) in Spanish to our accommodating driver (“Que nada
We met with Beatriz later at a local nightspot: Café Bar Central. The most Bohemian haunt I’ve come across: Here Luis told me: “You know, Kaitlin, Art…she is a Prostitute.”
A Danish film was playing with Spanish subtitles, a curtain was drawn to dissect the movie from the bar, and a waiter went between the two to whisk drinks and pesos back and forth. It was all very comfortable, very familiar, and yet new, I was drawn into the space and immediately snuggled into my seat. After the film, I had a discussion with a Swedish traveler about the film’s purpose- and surprisingly we had similar ideas, although he could read the subtitles. He told me a story about being robbed by some “friends” in northern Mexico, and his relaxed attitude and positive outlook about
the happenings immediately calmed my nerves. I chose to stay alone in the bar with Beatriz and the jazz band as my friends left. I held conversations of broken Spanish and English with strangers, and felt completely confident and content.
My first day walking into the Zócalo
(main city square) a hunger strike was taking place. Several members of local villagers had come together to protest the inequalities rampant in their communities as well as the city of Oaxaca. They had signs in English, Spanish and French hung all around and hundreds of neon paper hands with short passionate phrases scrawled across them. The hands were stuck in cut halves of plastic water bottles filled with dirt and sand. The wind repeatedly knocked over the hands in front of the quiet, calm, blanketed protesters - a few men stood by picking each one up over and over. The next day they had upgraded to sandbags. The following day the hands extended all the way into the plaza center, some 25 or 30 feet. One what would have been the 7th day, I walked into the center to find it cleared out, swept up. No trace left of
Iglesias de Santo Domingo
anyone having ever expressed their grievances. A friend of mine says “For Mexico, that is nothing."
Jon and I visited the ruins on Monte Alban- just outside of the City. We took a taxi to make the last hour before they close. The ruins are impressive, as I had expected, the tombs excavated, as I might have guessed, and the far harsher and air more dry than I had anticipated. Within a half an hour, whistles were blown and security guards came to sweep us out. Jon made a quick decision- and here is the part that I assume may cause worry- I acquiesced excitedly- to walk out the side of the mountain and down a small trail through the brush. It was a choice that could have turned out terrible consequences or a worthwhile adventure. Luckily, we found the latter. We descended the mountain hiding away watches and memory cards, picking up large rocks, and figuring out the proper way to diffuse tense situations. We had been told men would be cutting wood with machetes, Jon had been told, although he neglected to share it with me, that there may be wild dogs and drunk men…and we might get robbed.
The first people we came across were two middle-aged women drugging through and climbing over the brush carrying large bundles of sticks. One had a bundle in her arms, the other had created a cloth basket with a rope and second piece of cloth attached. The second cloth sat atop her head with her palm placed over it solidly, the rope pulling the cloth basket behind on her back. She also carried a separate basket in her left hand. I had been complaining about my calves getting scraped up in the bush. They had to travel far up the hill to actually find wood. Jon and I discussed the ever ongoing discussion of the difficulties in mitigating environmental destruction in the face of adverse poverty (destruction, most of the accepted scientific community agrees, is perpetuated by mass consumption in the face of industrialized wealth).
We entered a village much like my stepmom had described to me before leaving LA, one with concrete walls and JugoMex and Coca-Cola prints stamped across tin rooftops. “Welcome to how the other 2/3rds of Mexico lives, Kaitlin.” We made our way as discretely (Ha!) as possible through the narrow town roads; simply smiling a “Buenos Tardes” to everyone we passed. Groups closely watched us pass by, but waving generously with smiles. Dogs snarled and continued to lay out in the sun. One boy tripped over his own foot with a dropped mouth while looking straight at me (“Ha, Kaitlin…it’s as those he’s seen a ghost”). A reminder that children don’t try hard to carry any facades. We came across a road at the exact moment a taxi driver was leaving home, heading into town, he took us for a dirt road tour through bamboo tunnels and past modest ranches back around the mountain and into the city. He dropped us off in the middle of a 16 block market where we found our bearings and strolled back to our hostel, dirty and calm.
And now? Now I’ve cut off my hair. I filled a one-gallon Ziploc with that hair. And even in my capricious mood full of desperation for a symbol of my change, I did a pretty good job!
Now I am sitting in my own room in my new homestay, quite literally on the other side of the railroad tracks from the hostels and hotels, in a neighborhood full of cheap, delicious street food: uno peso sweet bread, dos pesos mangos, bananas, and papayas, tres pesos steamed chyote (think peelable artichoke heart), and cuartro pesos tamales. Today I learned to navigate the local grocery store - $2 USD for 1.5 Kilo Papaya- what dreams are made of.
I am sitting at my desk in front of my window pulling in cool evening air. My lighting is generous in this little room, three of four walls holding some sort of well designed, large window and optional curtains. My twin bed has precious moments scenes on it and I have a direct view of both the mountains and the front door downstairs. The backyard is behind a towering gate and cement walls and holds a Clementine tree, a papaya tree, shaded grass, tables, chairs, an amiable little dog (“Su-su” for Suzanna) and clothing lines.
Outside, a loudspeaker booming from a car navigating the grid streets, is calling out “Tamales…tamales..tamales…” just in time for la cena.
When I came in tonight, I couldn’t figure out the key to the key and I locked myself in the bathroom. Both entryways are confusing (in fact I’m limiting my bathroom use for the embarrassment of being locked in). Don Ramiro just laughed and showed me how things worked and knew I only kind of understood and laughed. At first I don’t think he knew what to make of me giggling my through “Gracias for la comida” and every other Spanish sentence out of my mouth, but now he just smiles with me and we giggle. Dona Gude is amazing. Already she was teaching me Spanish at the lunch table, making me repeat everything until I said it right. She served me amazing sopa de cebolla and giggled at my mispronunciations.
My thoughts have recently returned constructively to society, the world at large, my analysis, my role. Both in writing to my old professor for guidance and in debating heatedly with Jon in the sun on our hostel’s inner lawn, I have presented myself with two daunting questions:
Hello global food system, let’s begin: What happens to the coffee bean and its profit, exactly, as it travels its route, whether it be fair-trade, organic, shade-grown, or conventional, small-scale or large, from Oaxaca, Mexico to Humboldt County, California, U.S.A. (and to the shelves of our Northcoast Co-Op)?
And a seemingly unrelated and yet completely intertwined question: Hello Simi Valley, California, my hometown, my angst, my current inspiration:
What will these vast, endemic suburbs do in the face of gradually dwindling resources and rapidly expanding populations? How will the ‘burbs adapt?
Tomorrow morning I plan to wake at 7:30 to join my housemate Melanie, in our morning walk to Becari language school where I will take a class and see how I feel, what I think, and find my best options.
I plan on looking for a bicycle. There are so many here! And they are mostly adorable single-speed city cruisers with fat, reliable tires and moustache handlebars.
I’ve received an offer to teach English to two students from the local University. We may trade lessons. They offered me a free living space, but this residence is too good for now, too warm and like a home.
Tomorrow I am also going to spend time with my two new friends and study buddies. One a writer, producer, director of various documentaries who is involved with a non-profit, “Witness for Peace,” here to teach a documentary class to some U.S.
and Canadian students. The other a young man who this past fall walked from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border along the pacific crest trail in 5 months, with Crone’s disease.
For Greg. Dear BFF: the mission continues south of the border.
I’m prepared for inspiration, completely open to accept a wide range of opportunities without feeling forced to make an immediate decision. I’m wading in the river, letting it guide me gently, letting go of self-imposed struggle and pushing towards whatever direction may most completely sway me.
“Oh baby, I was bound for Mexico.”
There are more photos below