Friday, July 30, 2010

Festivals and Fever Dreams

I have felt better than I did on Monday, sitting in a bright orange chair (courtesy of the good people at Fanta) outside the Guelaguetza stadium in a Coca-Cola red haze. From within the stadium came the blaring band music that had been tormenting me for hours (and has been haunting me ever since). On my list of things I don't want to do on day four of a fever, let's add talking to strangers under a scorching sun and the merciless loudspeakers blasting festive brass music.

The Guelaguetza is an enormous cultural festival in Oaxaca, and the subject of my current research project. I've been reading up on it and conducting interviews with locals and tourists to get their take on the festival and its attendants. It's interesting stuff -- but once my temperature climbs above 99, I find my patience for anything decreases significantly. Fortunately, the rest of the week I've been much healthier and my interviews, for the most part, are going well.

The Guelaguetza is rooted in a pre-Colombian celebration and its name comes from a Zapotec word that refers to the act of reciprocal gift-giving. It's evolved over the centuries, influenced by Spanish Christian colonialists and modern tourism policies. Today it consists of representatives from several of Oaxaca's indigenous communities demonstrating traditional dress, dance and music. At the end of each performance, the dancers throw gifts into the crowd: sombreros, nuts, produce -- generally something representative of their region ... at one performance I narrowly ducked a cucumber.

The Guelaguetza performances take place during two Mondays in July, and the Official Guelaguetza occurs on a stage at a soccer stadium. (There actually is an official Guelaguetza stadium on the hill above town, but there have been some issues with roof construction this year, so it's at the stadium instead.)

In addition to the Official Guelaguetza, there's the "popular" or people's Guelaguetza, at the Technological Institute. It's organized by the teachers (the wonderful people who brought you the protests in June) and has the same activities, with more political slogans.

I'm attaching pictures of both Guelaguetza festivities for your perusal. Please enjoy!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Final Research Project

I don't know about any of the others in the group but I find that running on Mexico time is not conducive to a well planned out research project. This whole non-existent concept of time is killing me and I really just want a daily plan. I want to have a schedule of when things are going to happen and what hours of the day I am going to use as reflection periods and when I am going to find more articles online. Then again... in less than two weeks I will be complaining about all of the stuff that I have packed into every week of my life and I will reminisce about Mexico time and how relaxed life seemed here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Church in a Lake

Below are some photos (courtesy of Brenk!) from our trip to the church in the lake that used to be Jalapa de Marques:

This is our first view of the church, as we approached by boat:

Here, Ian, Brent, Vanna and I swim through the church. Mike is already ahead of us. The center of the roof has collapsed, so you can actually see into the interior.

Here's the American University group on the roof of the church. We're kind of tiny, but I think that's Jackie, Holly, Vanna, Kelly and Mike in the back row, with me, Amelia and Jamie in the front.

And here's the entire group, channeling our favorite Oaxacan political poster by pointing meaningfully to the future.

El viaje -- part II

We spent the second two days of our trip in Juchitan and Ixtepec. One of the things Juchitan is known for is its muxe population. A muxe is something like a Zapotec transexual, except the Zapotecs actually recognize the muxes as a third gender. We met with Mistica (right), who spoke with us about being muxe and how the meaning of the word has changed over time.

Mistica drew several distinctions between muxes and homosexuals (for example, she considers her current boyfriend to be "on loan" from the heterosexual community and expects him to marry a woman). To be honest, I was a little confused by a lot of her talk -- whether due to the Spanish or the topic or my own perceptions about hetero- and homosexuality, I'm not sure -- but I did think it was interesting that the muxes are considered a unique (and valuable) gender.

The next day we went to a migrant center near the train tracks. The center, run by a Catholic priest, houses and feeds Central American migrants who ride northward-bound trains through Mexico en route to the United States. There was a little anxiety at our approach (we discovered later that we had inadvertently arrived in a van rented by the same company favored by la migra) but once they realized we were just students, they were happy to usher us in.

The space reminded me of the center the Joads travel to in The Grapes of Wrath. There were dorms and bathrooms and areas to cook and do laundry and lift weights. We met in an open room with a concrete floor and tin roof, with folding tables and chairs and a television set. A half dozen cabbage heads sat on a shelf along one wall, and a handful of migrants peaked over another wall to see what we were up to.

We began by talking to the priest, but he quickly invited the migrants near the wall to join us and by the end of our coversation we'd expanded the circle to include several dozen migrants. We asked them questions, and they had a few for us as well. The majority were from Guatemala, then Honduras and El Salvador, with a few from Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. Only a few were women.

They talked about the dangers of travel (assault, robbery, kidnapping, rape, falling off the trains...) and their reasons for migrating (job opportunities, personal security, natural disasters, escaping violence...). We asked how long they planned to stay in the United States, and most of them said a few years at most, although one admitted he planned to stay permanently. Only a few were making the journey for the first time. Some had been deported and some had left by choice.

After the official talk we broke into smaller groups. Some people toured the grounds, some helped serve lunch (beans and tortillas) and some tried lifting the weights and dancing salsa with the migrants. Many of us continued smaller side conversations. At one point, a train rolled into town with a dozen migrants on top, and several of the men grabbed sacks and left to catch it.

It was a hot, sunny day, and by the end of the afternoon we were all tired, so Oliver mercifully cancelled our afternoon session on windpower and we went to the ojo de agua, a public swimming hole near the town. So, a bit of culture, a bit of education and a bit of fun. All in all, a good trip through the Isthmus.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Oaxaca List

Things I will NOT miss about Oaxaca:
- Heat with no hope of air conditioning respites anywhere.
- The mosquitoes.
- The flies.
- Lack of toilet seats.
- Fearing death every time I step off the curb and into the street, regardless of the color of the traffic light or the walk signal (when there is one).

Things I WILL miss about Oaxaca:
- Laurentina, my awesome host mom, and her awesome family.
- Cajeta paletas from Popeyes.
- Fresh fruit juices everywhere.
- Amazing salsas.
- Quesillo.
- Tacos al pastor (con pina!).
- Frijoles that just taste so much better than any other versions I've had in the States.
- Cheap buses that take me everywhere I need to go.
- Cheap taxis to supplement the cheap buses.
- Cheap everything.
- Small tiendas on every block. Sure, Soriana (aka Mexican Walmart) is easy and convenient, but it's also nice to know that I can just go to the corner papeleria for 1 or 2 envelopes, to the corner store for a bottle of water, or to the corner pharmacy for some contact lens solution.
- The fun-loving, hilarious, brilliant people of this Oaxaca seminar who made the past five weeks an amazing experience that I no doubt will be talking about for years to come.

El viaje

We spent four hours on a windy road through the mountains before arriving in Jalapa de Marques on Monday, then split into two groups, each of which was put up in a "house" within the town. In my case, that meant a large concrete storage shed with three beds, a poster of Marilyn Monroe, a sack of baseballs and a half dozen logs/chairs. Turning three beds into nine turned into a NASA-esque team-building exercise, but by putting a few people on mattress pads and me on a hammock, we managed to find a spot for everyone.

Granted, one of the cots had a rusty spring jabbing into the air in a jaunty sort of salute, and another had, until very recently, been hosting an enormous roach; and my hammock, due to old age, exhibited a peculiar reverse curve, meaning that a thin strip directly beneath my spine was taut, while the sides sloped flabbily downward. But nobody was sleeping on the floor. Our group, in general, is fairly relaxed and many of us have had worse accomodations, but there was a general consensus that it would have been nice to have some preparation, a basic, "Hey, have you ever seen a movie about POWs and examined their sleeping accomodations?" Something along those lines.

Nonetheless, we had a lovely time in Jalapa de Marques. On Tuesday we visited the lake that marks where the town used to stand before the government decide it would benefit the common good to replace the area with a manmade lake. We took a boat out to the town's church, the only landmark high enough to rise above the water level, even this early in the rainy season.

The church was built in the 1500s and was flooded about fifty years ago. We were actually able to climb on top of the church and a few of us dove into the water and swam through the windows. The water was cloudy and green and full of debris, but it was cool and calm, and the interior of the church was incredible. (This picture shows the church with the water level much lower.)

I, alas, inhaled a snort of water when I dove in, and returned to town with an ear ache. Fortunately for me, our house mothers had some hydrogen peroxide, and they offered helpful advice while I tried to treat myself. Eventually, the abuelita (discouraged by my inefficient attempts to cure myself) ordered me to jump and started smacking my head to try to dislodge the water. I'm not sure how effective her efforts were, but at the very least my roommates were amused.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Unplanned Travels

This past week has been an experience... to say the least. From what we knew of the trip there were two towns we were staying in before going to the beach for a luxurious vacation before returning to Oaxaca to get back to work on research projects and what not. However, there are just some things that one cannot prepare for. When we arrived in Jalapa de Marquez we were all a little worn from the four hour ride through the mountains. I cannot speak for half of the group, but my digs were less than luxurious. Not that I was expecting a 5-star hotel, but I was expecting a real bed, not the defatable air mattress that was my sleeping arrangement for two nights. I would also like to say that I fully expecting a bathroom with a light and a toilet seat. I don't usually expect toilet seats in public places but in a home I do. The Jalapa accomodations had neither. And the "number 2" bathroom was outside. I should add that it was raining most of the time we were in Jalapa. This bathroom was concealed by a curtain and an umbrella was used as a roof against the rain. I cannot explain how excited I was to find a real hotel awaiting us in Ixtepec/Juchitan (they are mixed in my mind now).
Now aside from the accomodations and their inability to reach my expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by our activities. In Jalapa we visited the old location of the city that is now underwater due to the dam that was built about 50 years ago. It was bizarre standing on top of a submerged church. Some were even brave enough to swim through it. Unfortunately, services are no longer offered there. We also took the boat over to the actual dam which was large and beautifully made. After this journey there was quality time spent in hammocks. We also got to chat with a lady who ran a local radio station and she even had some to say on the Zapatista movement. We also got to learn about the local culture as we stood atop the municipal building. I find is so interesting how in Mexico all parts of the building are functional places to meet.
During the Ixtepec/Juchitan days we learned about the Muxhes, who are men dressed as women. We also visited the migrant house, which was slightly unreal since the train came as we were there and half the group jumped on board. We even visited the local swimming locale. Ojo de Agua was a natural pool of water that was absolutely clear and quite warm. It was a lovely time swimming around since it had gotten so hot outside.
At last we made our way toward the Oaxacan coast. The vacation time had finally arrived and them plop... we were there, dropped off, and left behind. We trekked down a road until we found some hotels next to each other and made best of the situation. It only had to be for one night, right? The beach was beautiful but the waves were a little strong. It was the nighttime, however, that ruined that location for most. There were crabs in rooms and wild dogs patrolling the streets. So the next morning we bolted to Puerto Angel, where we found luxurious rooms with A/C and single beds and warm water. The Playa de Panteon had nice calm waves and lounge chairs with umbrellas. We all had a blast on that beach. Unfortunately for me, that night was the beginning to my nightmare. That's right... Montezuma struck again. I spent the entire next day wallowing in self pity with intestines that continually voiced their opinions on my life choices. After a full day of recovery my team and I were prepared for the overnight bus back to Oaxaca. The only problem was that there weren't any seats left for us. In comes panic mode. We considered a second class bus, but it was raining. So once again we shacked up in a shady hotel and took the bus home first thing in the morning. Now in order to have a bus with A/C and a toilet one must take the long bus, which lasted 11 hours, instead of the 7 hour direct drive. At 7pm today I finally arrived at my Oaxaca home. After such trials and tribulations, I actually considered kissing the ground. It's good to be home!

Friday, July 16, 2010

On the road

Greetings to this blog's loyal followers, and an advanced apology for any bizarre spelling or punctuation, which must be blamed on the Mexican keyboard at the cybercafe.

After a week on the road, most of us have settled in for the weekend at a beach near Puerto Angel, on the southern coast. Though some of us are warmer than we would prefer, and though I personally suspect that I'm developing gout, we are all having a lovely time. Travelling through the state of Oaxaca has put a lot of things into perspective for me. When I first arrived in the city, for example, I regarded our bathroom situation (one toilet, no toilet seat, in the shower with a sink, two cisterns of standing water and an exposed lighbulb) as rustic, but bearable, the sort of accomodations I'd expect in a developing country. But this week I've come to regard them as deluxe. Our toilet at home, for example, flushes--without a bucket. And our bathroom has light. These are pretty posh digs.

This keyboard is driving me up the wall, so I'll keep the post short and advise you to stay posted for longer blogs (or personal correspondence from my classmates) about some of the other trip highlights, like our trip yesterday to a migrant camp, where we spoke to a group of central american migrants heading north, or the church we swam through on Tuesday, or the old woman who beat my head and ordered me to jump later that day, or our night swimming excursion on Wednesday, or the armadillo. So many stories, and such a sticky keyboard. Sorry to leave you with a teaser, but I need to sign off and find a vegetable ... if that's possible. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Animal Abuse

There are a lot of things I'll miss when I leave Oaxaca -- fresh tortillas, salsa music, the daily rains -- but there are a few aspects of the culture that I haven't fully embraced, and one of those is the local attitude toward animals. I know Americans are notorious for anthropomorphising their pets, and I've tried to keep an open mind about what occasionally seems like a cavalier attitude towards animal treatment, but today I witnessed a horrifying spectacle in which a sloth was tied up and beaten with sticks by my own classmates while others laughed and sang. The faces of the perpetrators are partially obscured in the videos below, but their outrageous actions must be exposed:

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Salsa Piquante

Some of us started taking dance lessons yesterday, and as you've probably guessed we are already practically professional, and when I say "professional" I mean awkward, uncoordinated and hilarious. You'll probably notice I haven't included a photo in this week's post. That's deliberate.

Today I lucked out and got paired with the instructor. Last Friday, we missed the lesson when the instructor moved it up in order to go out in the evening. We weren't entirely clear on why he required four hours of preparation, although some of the boys suggested it might take him that long to peel his pants off, as his sartorial tastes lean towards a tighter fit than our boys are used to. Trousers notwithstanding, the man is an incredible dancer and I actually felt graceful tonight, and when I say "graceful" I mean marginally less likely to maim any of the couples dancing near me.

So I'm making progress. At this rate, I'll be channelling Ginger Rogers by the end of the week.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Today will see elections play out for various levels of local government. In particular, of the 31 states in Mexico, 12--including Oaxaca--will vote for new governors. The current climate is a big deal for several reasons.

Brief history lesson to contextualize this:

Shortly after the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution, a political party called the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI... Partido Revoluciario Insitucional) came to dominate Mexican politics. From the late 20s till 2000, in fact, it held a Chicago-style, political-machine stanglehold on the country, and Mexico was considered an authoritarian state (not a democracy... by name only) during this time. Some may recall the name Vicente Fox (2000-6), and, more recently, Felipe Calderón (2006--). Fox became the 1st non-PRI president in Mexico, and Calderón is the 2nd. It is pretty much agreed that, although these two men are non-PRI, they were and are at the mercy of a PRI-dominated Congress ... kind of like a Democratic US president facing a Republican-dominated Cogress, or vice versa... though worse. So a president's initiatives can be easily struck down if not in line with PRI ideology.

The state of Oaxaca has never seen rule outside of the PRI. Today will be the first opportunity ever that a non-PRI governor has the opportunity to unseat the PRI political machine here. He's leading in several polls. This is both exciting and unsettling.

If you guys think the Fox News-MSNBC bickering is bad, it's peanuts to bickering around here. Some might have heard that, last week, a PRI gubernatorial candidate was killed in the northern state of Tamaulipas. A few days before this incident, a pro-PRI rally in the state of Chiapas (Oaxaca's neighbor to the east... the last state before entering Guatemala ) saw an eruption of violence and a few bodies fall cold to the ground. Just this past Wednesday, a mayor in a municipality close to Oaxaca city was murdered, and around that day, in the state of Puebla (just northeast of Oaxaca), two journalists lost their lives.

Thus there is a concern that if this non-PRI front-runner doesn't win today (via election fraud), some stuff could go down, as many Oaxacans despise the PRI leadership. Some may recall some violence that occurred in 2006 here between teachers and the government... well, the PRI leadership eventually attacked the peaceful protest (that was demanding more pay, resources...) from helicopters, and this incident is ingrained in many minds here.

Anyways, the city of Oaxaca is made up of "colonias" with our house, the university, and all the other homestays in "Colonia Reforma," which is one of the wealthier sections of the city. As is the case in the States, where there is wealth, there tends to be little threat of violence. Thus, the real threat of violence in this neighborhood is low. However, we're going to watch and wait to see how the elections play out tomorrow. If it turns ugly, then obviously AU will pull the plug and fly us home.
Politics is ugly, especially here, so I'm going to turn to different news.

I'm very happy with how the study program is working out. We mix classroom classes with "field trips" made throughout the state. On thursday we made a trip to the mountains of the north (Sierra Norte) to take a tour through an indigenous town and learn about how they run things. The state of Oaxaca hosts 570 municipalities, with 418 of these being recognized as officially indigenous. That is, these indigenous communities are self-sustaining and have their own system of land tenure and politics. The idea is community ownership of resources and destiny. Thus, Oaxaca is unique in that it hosts formal democracy with 100s-of-years-old indigenous tradition, and this is a peaceful coexistence.

Week 3 in the bag (of 8). I'm crossing my fingers to see the end of it from here, and not Detroit.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Halfway done? Say it ain't so

With the blink of an eye, three weeks have passed, and while most of my compadres have another five weeks to look forward to in Oaxaca, I am officially more than halfway done with my trip. Indeed, as I write this, I'm realizing that we have but one week left in Oaxaca city, only one week left of Spanish classes and seminars and homestay, before we set off on a weeklong field trip down to the isthmus. L and I have been trying to explore as much as possible without getting too touristy, but even so, I feel like I've just barely cracked this city.

So far, highlights for me have included the field trip to the women's weaving cooperative in Teotitlan del Valle, baseball games rooting for the Oaxaca Guerreros, and, little by little, stringing together longer sentences in Spanish. Of course, on the food front, there have been too many highlights to document individually, but as I look over the pictures I've taken, I'm especially fondly remembering the posole and tlayuda of my first few days here, the abundance of quesillo and amazing salsas that accompany just about everything our host mom makes, the fresh salsa and tortillas (made by us!) at the women's weaving cooperative in Teotitlan del Valle, and the refreshing nieves from the mercado 20 de noviembre.

Sadly, I fear the next two weeks will be passing all too quickly; I only hope to cram as much as possible into my limited time remaining here.

A hop, zip and a jump

This Thursday we took another field trip to the Sierra Norte region, where we took a "half-hour hike" through the forest that somehow turned into a four-hour trek in the woods. Though lengthier than anticipated, it was a beautiful walk that gave us an opportunity to see new flora and fauna and learn about ecotourism and Oaxacan indigenous culture, none of which I intend to discuss here.

The bus ride was a grueling two-hour slog through switchback roads that required three separate stops for various classmates to scramble out for a kneeside view of the magnificent vistas and roadside ditches. I was slightly nervous about our plans to work up a sweat, stuff ourselves with trout and clamber back on the bus at the end of the day, but as most of the riders have doped themselves up on dramamine, the return trip was considerably less eventful.

Said trout was served at a restaurant in the mountains, which also boasted a zipline, which many of us--emboldened by dramamine and the recklessness of youth--decided to try. The zipline ran from one high rock to another across a wide expanse of grass and a creek. To get from the landing rock to the restaurant, you had to cross the kind of bridge which is sometimes referred to as a "suspension bridge" and sometimes as a "rickety collection of boards," although in my own house, it would more likely be called "that bridge Mom doesn't want us on."

That's it above and to the right, and in the picture, it actually looks pretty sturdy--which it was--although as I was preparing to cross it, our professor called out to me, "If you're walking across, you might want to bear in mind that it's missing a few boards." Noted.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rockin' in Mexico

So we had ourselves a wee little earthquake this week, but nothing to be too concerned about. In terms of bed-shaking ability, it ranked well below a Magic Fingers or a vigorous sneeze, and I doubt it would have awoken my roommate and me at all, had we not been sleeping poorly due to an ill-advised cactus-and-cilantro salad.

Ranking far higher on the Richter scale of our personal lives was the minor inundation that flooded our rooms the same evening. We'd left the door ajar for some desperately needed fresh air, but that (combined with a gutter overdue for cleaning) resulted in a massive puddle sweeping across our floor later in the afternoon. I threw three towels on top of it and watched them sink to the bottom of the creeping puddle. J, overwhelmed by salad-eater's remorse, crawled into her bed to "brainstorm" and I stared stupidly at the puddle until our host mother appeared, mop in hand, and heroically swept it out.

All in all, it was an adventurous day in Mexico. Note to self: Shut door during monsoon.

Images from Oaxaca