Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dias de Los Muertos Preparations at Calpulli

The Days of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos) spans October 31st - November 2nd. It is a traditional holiday in Mexico that honors and celebrates the people in our lives that have died by creating feasts of their favorite foods and other sweets, decorating altars with local flora, and generally making merry. I am so excited that our time down here coincides with a holiday so rich in tradition, new and old. We have been able to witness the city get ready for the holidays and we look forward to some events that we will be attending in the next days. We will certainly be writing about them and taking lots of pictures with the nice camera. This post is about Calpulli, the preschool where I have been volunteering.

On Wednesday we began preparations for the traditional altar for the Days of the Dead. We took all the students from the 2nd and 3rd year preschool program out on a field trip to a valley near the school that was covered in small, yellow wild flowers. Thankfully the mothers, aunts, sisters and other family members also came along to help with the flower gathering and general safety of the students. The plan was to be gone for the whole morning, but with some many big and little hands helping out, we had mountains of flowers within an hour. After a brief picnic in some shade we carted them up the hill back to the school.

This is Jazmin, the lead teacher of the class that I was in. The giant next to her is yours truly. (We have gotten quiet accustomed to being at least a foot taller than pretty much everyone.)

I don't usually go to Calpulli on Thursdays, but Jazmin, asked that I come if I could. Once I arrived that morning I completely understood her desire for another set of hands. The project for the day was cutting the flowers down to a more manageable size so that they could be incorporated into the arches of the altar. Thus we gave each child a pair of scissors, an approximate length of flower and stem, and a mini-pile of flowers. The end result was about 20 fist sized bouquets of flowers, two sugar cane arches, a classroom floor COVERED in flower bits, and students covered in flowers, building nests out of flowers, pretending to die in the flowers, wrestling in the flowers, and sneezing because of allergies to the flowers. Quite a morning!

The end result was quite lovely and totally fascinating to the kids. You can see the traditional sugar skulls along with roasted peanuts, mandarin oranges, regular oranges, pan de muertos (special bread for Days of the Dead) and other candies on the altar that Jazmin put together.

Friday was another day of crafting for the holidays. Chocolate is a pretty big deal for Days of the Dead too, so after our usual Friday foray to the basketball court, we gave the students chocolate paste the consistency of playdough. I was actually surprised by how many of them crafted and made the cookie cut-out shapes with the chocolate, instead of just stuffing the chunk of goodness into their mouths. Of course there were some "browsers" who took their time getting lined up to wash their hands for lunch, picking up and enjoying the little pieces left behind by their friends (myself included, though I chose to eat from the extra chocolate unmolested by students). Daniela ended up with some especially well-done chocolates to take home.

The party and parade for the kids will be Monday and Rory and I will both be in attendance.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dan, Kevin and Mexico

We've been quite fortunate to have a number of visitors! Not long after Tony and Manoj left, our friends Dan and Kevin arrived for a six day visit. We did a lot, saw a lot and ate a lot - Tule for the tree, 20 de Noviembre market and Biznaga (among many others) for food, Monte Alban for the ruins, a distillery to learn about craft mezcal, and the Escalaras del Fortin for a little conditioning and great views of the city. We had a total of five cameras for the weekend, so maybe pictures is the best way to share it all.

A lot of the weekend was just hanging out . . .

and monkeying around . . .

We toured the city a bit: Kevin was impressed with the stairs. Dan actually ran them once with Erica.

We went out a few times, in a low key kind of way. Sunday night, we found out that Txalaparta has board games, including Jenga, as well as 10 peso beers. Dan had trouble sitting still long enough for a clear picture, but showed a steady hand with the game. We took enough pictures in a row, trying to catch him in a still moment, that if you scroll through them in sequence you can watch the tower of blocks rise.

We saw the tree in Tule and enjoyed a nice lunch there, although no soccer game this time. The town was really quiet, which makes sense for a weekday. We also, amazingly, got a ride out there from a collectivo driver who grew up in Milwaukee, WI. He ran a pizza place on State then moved back to Oaxaca a few months ago to take care of his parents. He suggested we come back sometime and look him up - we'll be able to tell his house from the others because parked in front is the only car in Mexico with a Wisconsin license plate. He's a big Brewers fan and said he's hoping to return soon, although he sold the pizzeria before he left. (Surprisingly, Wisconsin teams have a tiny bit of presence here - in the movie we saw with Jorge, one of the characters wore a UW hat, and we've also recently seen a local in a Packers jersey!)

You can get a pretty good sense of the size of the Tule tree here. The littler cypress just to the right of the church is actually a child of the main one, but it's only a few hundred years old (as opposed to a couple thousand).

Lunch was good, and coke in glass bottles is delicious...

We also tried out the swings at the playground near the tree. The sign in the background asks adults to kindly stay off the equipment. But you don't always have to act your age.

On our way back to the apartment we swept through Abastos and tried a new kind of fruit (whose name I can't remember). Pretty good if you wait until they're practically rotten-soft to eat them. Don't bite hard though, because most of size is just pit.

In addition to the mystery red and orange fruit, we found out that guayabas and guavas are the same thing. (This later inspired quite a few songs from Dan and Kevin.) These have many, many ridiculously hard seeds, but the seeds are embedded by a pretty tasty custard. Best method I found was just chew carefully and swallow it all.

Abastos also had tons of Halloween and Day of the Dead stuff on sale. The sugar skulls are pretty, although we didn't buy any. They also have them in amaranth and chocolate.

Later on, Dan made some new friends . . .

. . . and had a small Indian woman fall asleep on his shoulder. She's still awake in the photo.

We also visited Pensamientos Distillery for a tour. It's a small, family operation, with six employees that produces about 25,000 liters of mezcal a year. (Bigger places might produce over 1,000 liters a day.) We got great descriptions and a tour from the daughter of the founder, although, sadly, we had to go without demonstrations: the distillation pauses for the rainy season and doesn't start again until the dry months of February and March.

The process starts with the cores of agave (or "maguey") plants, called pinas - the giant leaves are useless and are simply thrown away - which are roasted in an open pit for three or four days. Afterwards, the soft, shrunken pinas are placed in a grinder (the big stone wheel in the picture below) that the lone horse operates. The resulting liquid is fermented in open vats for another five or six days, then distilled and aged in oak barrels for anywhere from 6 months to 12 years. You can also see the top of one of the distillers below.

To make the flavored blends, fruit is added to the barrels, then filtered out later. We tried quite a few - good thing we were catching a taxi home - including a special anniversary edition that not only had been aged for 12 years, but also used 12 year-old agaves. According to Norma, our guide, they select older agave for the mezcals that will be aged longer. For example, for joven (young) mezcal they might use three year-old maguey, but for reposado (rested), they might let the plants grow for eight years before harvesting. The plants themselves are somewhat susceptible to insects and infections and so require a good deal of tending. They also have to be grown in considerable bulk: it takes about 40 plants to make 20 liters or so of mezcal. (Which means they need a whole lot of land to grow it all.) As a final lesson, we learned that naturally produced mezcal - which is in the minority now - bubbles in a distinctive way when shaken. Norma seemed quite proud that they used no chemicals at all in their process.

And, finally, while Erica (sadly) went back to work on Wednesday, we went out to Monte Alban for some Indian Jones moments. We met a few farmers, but no treasure... Maybe next time - there were a lot of suspicious looking stones that we didn't have time to press.

Only a week left in the city, then down to the beach. Seems almost like home is around the corner.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Zaachila and Cuilapam

This Thursday our friend Sonia, my intercambio partner, took us to two of her favorite places just south of Oaxaca. We met her at the Catedral in the Zocalo at 9 am, which is early for us. Finally traveling with someone who lives here, we had no trouble picking up a colectivo (shared taxi) out to Zaachila. Along the way Sonia pointed out the neighborhood Xoxo (pronounced hoho) where she is starting an education consulting agency and where we will be joining her for a party October 31st. (Just a quick aside about Sonia: she is 22 and just finished her college degree. She comes from a village about 4 hours north with a population of 250 people. She is the first woman to leave and get her college degree and she is, she thinks, the oldest unmarried woman from her village. Among her many responsibilities she is the director of the Learning Center, overseeing the provision of services to over 80 students. She is pretty amazing.)

We arrived into the hubbub of Zaachila's big weekly market. As we have been to various markets at this point, and busy ones at that, we just took a leisurely stroll through some of the stalls. Sonia stopped to point out a couple different kinds of fruit that we didn't know the names of in English. What was most striking to us was the amount of live turkeys in the market. We literally walked down a narrow path for about 20 yards lined on both sides with people selling turkeys: turkeys in wheelbarrows, turkeys hanging upside down and slung over arms, turkeys sitting calmly on the ground. It was nuts. After with burst through the other side of turkey-row Sonia filled us in that the time was ripe for turkeys because many folks like to have turkey on the table for Dia de los Muertos, coming up October 31 - November 2.

Then we walked up past the church in the town toward an archeological site. One of the things that makes Zaachila special is that it is a Mixtec area while most of the surrounding indigenous groups in the valley are Zapotec. The tombs that we saw were apparently from a time when there was some Zapotec and Mixtec mixing going on. These tombs were a little more decorated than the ones that we had seen a Mitla. Also, from some of the pictures you can imagine why people set up around this area - it seems to be one of the only relatively high spots in the valley.

From Zaachila we caught the bus to Cuilapam, a small town a little closer in to Oaxaca, in order to see the ex-covent/one-time prison/roofless church. I have heard Sonia talk about this place before and how she loves how calm and quiet it is. As we approached the massive building she told me the legend of how there came to be this roofless church. According to the story a priest long ago wanted to build a ginormous church so he made a pact with the devil to get the work done. The devil said that he would work until the rooster crowed, and the priest would have his church. The priest got cold feet about the whole consorting with the devil so he got a rooster to crow early. The devil stopped his work, but it the construction was not complete - there wasn't a roof on a large part of the church. (Inside you learn that there were just lots of different stages of construction, money issues, leadership issues, etc.) Whichever story you believe, it is pretty breathtaking.

Sonia pointed out that there is an accessible pulpit so clearly we had to give that a try.

Sonia also directed us toward the part of the complex that does have a roof, and we proceeded to sit out on the roof for quite a bit. Rory used Sonia's hat for a bit of sun protection. Sonia told us that she likes to sit in the sun like a lizard, and we were quite pleased to join her. We headed home not long after our sun bath.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pintores Oaxaquenos

Today we ventured out to a local museum - El Museo de los Pintores Oaxaquenos. It is right down the street from us, across from the zocalo. For a mere 20 pesos (less than 2 bucks) we saw some beautiful paintings by Armando Guerrero, a retrospective on the work of Rodolfo Nieto, and an exhibit of work around the theme of Mexican independence and the revolution. (Having no art experience please forgive my meager descriptions.) Guerrero's work was primarily of dazzling trees, shedding leaves, almost all with a small circle in the background that we believed to be the sun or moon. Nieto's were everything from paintings of cats, to drawings with lots of different lines and repeating geometric patterns, to deconstructed animals and human figures - a little darker. The Arte y Libertad exhibit was prefaced with a different sort of retelling on the history of Mexican Independence and the Revolution, one that was a bit more critical of the iconic heroes (Morelos, Hidalgo and others) and brought attention to those who did most of the fighting, without really seeing benefits (all the rural farmers and indigenous peoples). The art itself was moving and provided more nuanced perspective on the national holidays that we have been and will be a part of - the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution is later in November.

After all that art and culture (and reading in Spanish) we were quite thirsty so we went to a coffee shop. I got a chai latte and Rory got a mocha milkshake kind of thing. So yummy. Then we got busy reading the second Harry Potter book in Spanish (me) and listening to patent bar review lectures (Rory).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Teotitlan del Valle

About 20 minutes southeast of town is the small village of Teotitlan del Valle, one of the weaving centers of the region. Seemed like it was about time to check it out, so we hopped a Tlacalula-bound bus, got off on the side of the highway, and then caught a colectivo the last two miles.

Teotitlan is one of the wealthier surrounding towns on account of its weaving products - they also have an interesting and apparently quite successful structure of communal land ownership - and it seemed like they were in the middle of some very tourist-targeted renovations of parts of the town square. All in all, very quaint, though, and filled to bursting with beautiful tapestries and rugs.

We wandered the streets a bit, looking at rugs in the temporary stalls that lined the major streets, and politely deferring purchases for the moment. (If you don't do this relatively soon in the discussion, the vendor, at the first sign of interest in any rug will immediately begin pulling and piling them by the dozens for your perusal. They're very friendly, but very persistent.) As we passed by the church and a disgorging tourist bus, a very short and very friendly woman in local clothes asked if we spoke Spanish and if we wanted to see a demonstration down the street. We said yes to the first, but no to the second, not wanting to follow the bus-load of people. This turned out to be a good move on our part, because she immediately invited us to her house to see the results of a recent session of wool dying. Her deeply blue-stained hands were proof enough of what she had been up to - she said that the blue dye in particular stays on you skin for a long time.

(Practically twins!)

It turns out her name was Eugenia and together with her husband Antonio, she runs a family weaving business. They are part of the older tradition, having learned the trade from their grandparents as teenagers, and continuing to use only manual processes and all-vegetable dyes.

Their home was a somewhat sprawling complex, with a spacious central courtyard full of plants and work-sheds, and an entire wall (at least) devoted to the weaving workshop. There were skeins of yarn hanging everywhere, in dozens of colors, as well as baskets of unprocessed wool, and the beginnings of several rugs.

Some of the plants growing in their courtyard were clearly food - for example, a vine of chayote had almost entirely covered one of the sheds - but others were for dye: the weavers simply boil the leaves in water to release their pigments, then combine the primary colors in as many ways as they can imagine. Eugenia talked later about how some of the plants were (at least locally) endangered and so she and Antonio had taken to growing them at their home to ensure a steady supply.

Here's Eugenia talking to Erica about some of the dyes. (She really was quite short...) Not surprisingly perhaps, the plants seen in the background here are used to dye the wool green. We also learned later - after traveling to their shop, where we were joined by a family from Guadalajara - how the red dye is made by grinding a type of fungus that grows on the surface of a certain cactus. Eugenia had just finished pulverizing the outwardly-white pellets on the flat pestle (which she said had been passed down through three generations), after which the powder was mixed with water and lime juice. The citric acid of the limes helps stabilize the color. That's Antonio on the stool, demonstrating the tedious process of combing the wool, before spinning it to make the yarn. They both agreed that combing wool was a great punishment for misbehaving children.

We also got to see a bit of the weaving technique, both at home, from Eugenia (below), and at the shop, where a young woman was also in the middle of a piece. Eugenia said that a rug with simpler patterns might require several days of weaving, while those with complicated designs - for example, animals, the tree of life, or copies of paintings by artists like Frida or Diego Rivera - might take months.

It was fun seeing pieces of the process from start to finish, and talking with the two weavers as well as the family from Guadalajara during the demonstrations. And once it was all done, we were excited to see more of the finished products. The colors and patterns are striking and if some seem reminiscent to you of Navajo works, well done! Antonio said that a lot of the patterns traditionally used are taken directly from those designs.

This is just the beginning of the rug display - there were probably thirty on the ground by the time we finished, and Eugenia only stopped pulling them out because we told her two or three times we had decided.

We ended up with a couple rugs - one big orange one and a smaller one with lots of blue - then thanked our hosts and caught a colectivo back to the highway so we could flag down a bus. Eugenia said that if want to come back and try our hand at dying we should just give her a call.

We're both very excited about this artwork that we've acquired, and Marta, the cat, was pretty excited too. For whatever reason - the smell of sheep or the dye, the color, who knows - she literally went crazy over the orange one. She was stretching and rolling, pouncing and scratching, flailing and biting, generally losing her mind over it. I eventually had to take it away because her frenzy, while not doing any damage to the rug, was starting to seriously threaten the couch. Her insanity instantly forgotten, she promptly fell asleep on an old blanket, under the table.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Educacion Fisica

Every Friday at the preschool where I volunteer we have educacion fisica (physical education). Calpulli itself doesn't have a very large play area for the kids so during the weekly exercise time we go down the dirt road to a basketball court. The routine begins in the classroom with all the students lining up and listening dutifully to empty threats that if students don't listen we will return from the court and do work. We all tramp down the road together, trying to avoid potholes and slipping on loose gravel. Upon arrival we get the kids lined up on the far end of the basketball court and we do random stretches. If you haven't worked with young kids you might not know that their coordination and fine motor skills required for balancing aren't so developed so this part of the day usually involves some funny tumbles or ridiculous interpretations of the shoulder stretches that Jazmin, the main teacher, or myself are trying to demonstrate. Squats seem to also be a preferred exercise so we do some of those. This week I threw in some downward dogs and planks. Once warmed up we proceed to march, skip, take giant steps, etc around the outside of the court, followed by animal movements. I wasn't quick enough to get a shot of all the little crab walkers coming towards me....

One of the favorite games of the kids is a chasing game that features a cucaracha (cockroach) on a patio that the students spray to kill, and then spray some more. The cockroach, a single student, topples over dead. When everyone draws closer to see if the cockroach is dead, low and behold, it springs back to life and chases everyone! This is made all the more fun with a little chant before we all run, and the fantastic shrieks as everyone tries to escape the cockroach.

Though it appears somewhat chaotic to me, the kids seem to totally enjoy the chance to run and climb around on the basketball court. This week's visit was a short one because we needed to get back to class to work on the feeling of the day - sadness.

Here we all are, trooping back up the hill.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

El Tule

Sadly we didn't have time to see as much as we would have liked with Tony, but Manoj was around for a couple extra days, so we decided to make the trek to Santa Maria del Tule - a small town about 8 miles away, the entire economy of which is based around the Tule tree.

Getting there itself was a learning experience. The guidebooks suggested catching a bus from the second class terminal, but the folks there suggested that we go wait by the bridge instead. As we were heading that way, crossing in front of Abastos where the collective taxis (colectivos) congregate, an El Tule taxi just happened to be pulling in. What luck!

Colectivos are taxis that drive regular circuits between Oaxaca City and specific outlying towns, and that will pick up, at any point along the way, as many people as can fit in the sedan - seems like six passengers is the usual limit, although we've heard it can reach seven. Having not taken one before, we felt pleased to have bargained our driver down from 60 pesos per person to 60 pesos in total. More on this later...

And when we arrived? What a tree! I'm not sure that words or even pictures can do justice to the enormity and majesty of this ancient cypress. The ruins we've seen were impressive, both in age and import, but they were, for me, outstripped by the Tule tree. It grows on the grounds of the central church (in what amounts to a very small town), and seems to be about as tall as it is wide. It's also roughly as big in circumference as it is tall - somewhere around 119 ft - giving it the largest girth of any tree in the world. Estimates of its age vary, but all make it over a thousand years old, and it is believed by Zapotecs to have been planted by an Aztec high priest on holy ground. This first picture shows maybe a third of the trunk's cross-section.

Not only is there a near tangible sense of peace beneath its branches, but the tree itself is fascinating to look at. The shafts of sunlight that penetrate the tangled limbs turned the darting of insects into an almost mystical, glowing spectacle, and birds flitted about contentedly high in its branches. Further, the heavily gnarled and divided shape offers the eye an endless supply of lines to trace.

After seeing the tree, we wandered, stopping to watch a weaver creating a tapestry from a Diego Rivera painting before passing in a long loop through the residential part of town. Thanks to a posted sign and some helpful locals, we ended up at the Tule soccer field to watch Club Manchester suffer a 2-0 loss to a team whose name we've forgotten. It was hot and sunny, so most fans watched from the trunks of SUVs and station wagons, using the tailgates for shade. We hunkered down in the shade of the sole scraggly tree with a man who seemed - based on the evaluation forms he was filling out - to be some sort of talent scout. It was a good time and a good game.

Getting back to Oaxaca was a cinch, although we learned that a colectivo ride home costs a fixed 8 pesos per person. Hmmm. Feeling that maybe we hadn't been such shrewd bargainers earlier on as we had thought, we decided to replenish our spirits with a visit to the Hotel de Chocolate (in the middle of what seems to be the Chocolate District) for truly delicious drinks. Manoj had his with cinnamon (chocolate con canela), mine came with honey (chocomiel) and Erica had simply chocolate and milk (chocolate con leche). We will absolutely be bringing some Oaxacan chocolate home to the States.

Much thanks to Manoj for all the pictures. Hopefully we haven't stolen too much of his Facebook thunder. Safe travels, buddy.

Alone again, together

Sadly, the house is quiet again! No more pitter-patter of little Indian and Korean feet. No more work-sponsored blackberries to guide our wanderings - back to my usually incomplete (or illegible) directions. No more sounds of laughter at night as Manoj and Tony fight over the guest-room bed - Tony slept under the mosquito net, Manoj didn't; Manoj likes lots of covers, Tony doesn't. No more help drinking all the mezcal that we've accumulated. Well, Manoj helped, at least. Tony does not like Mezcal.

Manoj already wrote about some of the visit, but I can give a few more highlights.

- Dinner with Omar and Adrian on Friday was a great time. Chipotle chicken again, in sandwich form, as well as chicharron (dried salted pig-skin that we stewed with tomatillos) that was a little piggy for the Americans, green beans, sauteed poblanos, plenty of salsa, agua de Jamaica, Mexican beer, and Scotch whiskey. Afterwards we hit the town, wandering for a bit before we ended up at a great and very local bar with live music and then DJ'd dancing.

- While watching the Yankees game at a bagel/coffee shop we seem to have made an impression on the barista, because for the next two days, everywhere we went he seemed to show up ten minutes later. Oaxaca seems to be small enough that once you do start to recognize faces, they turn up in quite a few other places.

- Our weekly soccer game fell through so we wandered over to a different park for some basketball instead. Erica ran around the soccer fields while Manoj and I played a reta with teams of three on three. Our teammate, Flor, was pretty good, making strong cuts to the basket off the ball, and we won (or thought we won) quite a few. My height was a pretty strong advantage, and we quickly learned that the notion of what constitutes a foul is a loose one, although everybody was smiling at the end. They play every weekday and Sunday, so I'll probably head back over from time to time: once Shaq retires, the Celtics will need another big man...

- After Tony left, Manoj, Erica and I went to Tule (see the post above), had some delicious hot chocolate at Hotel Chocolate (ditto), and then hit the 20 de Noviembre market for some semi-street food. This place is a raised and covered marketplace focused almost exclusively on food. There are dozens of mini-restaurants, bread and cake sellers, and drink vendors. It was one of the best meals we've had here, and we took a picture so we could remember the name of the booth where we ate: Candita's Tavern.

It was really great to have our friends here and we're looking forward to our next chance to play hosts. Looks like Kevin will be here towards the end of the month!