Monday, November 29, 2010

Adios Mexico, Hola Peru!

A whirlwind of travel for us over the past two and a half days. We left Puerto Escondido early in the morning on Saturday for another roller-coaster ride through the Sierras. Played a last soccer game in el Llano, ate one last Tlayuda on Calle de los Libres, one last lunch in 20 de Noviembre and one last bakery-quality churro. Then off the airport and our flight to Lima.

We got in late (or early, rather) to the welcome sight of Fredy and Eduardo, enjoyed a long ride to their home - Lima, according to Eduardo, takes about 2 hours to drive across (it's home to somewhere around 10 million people) - and then hit the sack. Not sure yet what our plans here will be, but we're sure they'll be fun.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Just a short little post to wish everyone (belatedly) a Happy Thanksgiving. We had hoped to find ourselves a little turkey, but fell short. Seems like the only time you can reliably find it is around Day of the Dead. No big loss, though.

We spent the day like most down here - relaxing and reading on the beach, body-surfing a little. For dinner we put together some pizza to go with our standard bottle of Victoria. One with poblanos, queso, onions, dorado (mahi mahi) and an ancho chile sauce, and another with mole coloradito, quesillo, avocado, broccoli, and tasajo. Not bad, not bad. Still, we did miss two excellent dinners back home, one of which featured oreo turkeys. Erica misses oreos.

Just one more day at the beach, then a quick stop in Ciudad de Oaxaca before we're off to Lima. It'll be fun to go, but hard to leave...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Torneo de Surf

As part of the Fiestas de Noviembre here in Puerto, there was a surf tournament that stretched over three days this weekend. You have to get up early to see it, because the waves die down later in the day, but nobody seemed to mind. We had fun watching the surfers and the spectators, and listening to the announcer switch between English and Spanish. His favorite English phrases were "Sh**, brother" and "Shake it, but don't break it." Funny, with an announcer's cadence and a thick accent...

The waves weren't all that big, especially Saturday and Sunday, and some of the heats had really long stretches without much at all, so the better surfers seemed to switch tactics and ride smaller waves with more show-boating.

June and July are the best months, with waves reaching 20 ft., according to our downstairs neighbor - a tranplanted Australian surfer. Still, some were big enough to be intimidating.

Once the contest was done and we had enjoyed a snack of pescadillas (salted-fish tacos) we caught a collective-truck downtown to what was supposed to be some sort of dance, at least according to the events calendar we had found. No dancing unfortunately (maybe we'll find it tonight), but there was a vibrant soccer game between the Puerto Escondido Pumas and Barro something-or-other.

I think that the teams in Tule were better, but it was still entertaining, with a spectacular corner-kick-header goal just at the end of the second half to tie the game. One of the spectators on our side (Pumas, of course) was so excited that he ran out on the field to celebrate. (He had been drinking quite a bit, to be fair, and, as the game got a little out of control, also taught us - and all the kids within earshot - quite a lot of dirty words in Spanish.) Here he is congratulating one of the Pumas after the game. If only he knew what his daughter had just been listening to.

Just one more week in Mexico, then off to Peru. It goes by so quickly!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Motocross in Mexico

In honor of Mary's (my mom) birthday yesterday we went to take in our first motocross race. We had heard from various sources about the event, with varying start dates and times - Saturday morning, Sunday at 10:00, Sunday at 12:00. (Receiving completely accurate information about the start times of things has been tricky for us in Puerto.) We tried Saturday but there was just some set-up happening. Although disappointed we managed to walk around town a little, force down some amazing agua de jamaica (ha-my-kah, not the country, Jamaica), and pick up a few supplies at the grocery store.

We tried again Sunday at 10:00, but found out upon our arrival that the races didn't begin until 12:00. We clearly had some time to kill so we went to check out the two beaches out of the five local beaches that we hadn't seen - Playa Angelito and Playa Manzanillo. They too were gorgeous with some rocks separating the beaches, rocks that we obviously climbed on for a bit. These seemed more family beaches because you can actually swim in the water without fear of being pulled out to sea. Also there were lots of boats parked in the waters, waiting to take families and tourists out to see the sights - turtles, dolphins, even whales.

What am I pointing at? Crabs!!

We grabbed a quick bite to eat in town and then headed back to the motocross races. What a spectacular event! We were there in time to see the warm up for the intermediate, veterans, and expert groups - some of those guys can really get some air! Rory says he sort of figured out the race track after watching this practice, but I never got a sense of the hairpin turns, loops, and hills/jumps. There was a momentary pause in the action as the Sexi Chicas Corona and other dignitaries made their way to the commentator's mound of dirt by the track to call the official start of the event. The first race is what made it all worth it for me! With the help of adults, maybe fathers, a group of fully decked-out 6 year olds made their way onto the course. Their little bikes were ridiculous compared to the larger ones we had just seen. All the parts of the course that older racers jumped over and caught crazy air remained hills for the kids, their bikes never leaving the dirt. One kid even swerved off the designated course onto a different part of the track. No injuries, so I was free to laugh about it all.

Next up were the more experienced racers. They were from all over Mexico and even a few from Guatemala. It was neat to watch them do the jumps and jockey for position. And did I mention that the Pacific Ocean was the backdrop for all of this?

Friday, November 12, 2010

New Rides, New Supplies, New Views

As we have gotten adjusted to life in Puerto Escondido we have noticed some key differences between the coast and the city. The first is transportation. The streets are still filled with colectivos and buses (urbanos) that pass by with great regularity. The newest form of transport are the truck/mini buses. Little did we know that a standard truck could be turned into a ride that seats at least a dozen. The trick is adding benches to the back and constructing a covered-wagon-esque roof over it. There are no seat belts so we recommend holding on to the metal supports to make the highway traveling, speed bump maneuvering a little less precarious. All for 4 pesos each (30 cents).

Another big difference here is also the manner by which you can obtain fruits and vegetables. Our neighborhood is frequented by mostly men driving trucks or other cars, blaring announcements of their wares. We hear lots of announcements during the day. On Monday, before our big market trip, I was able to scurry downstairs fast enough to get some mandarin oranges, white onions, and small yellow apples from the back of a nice gentleman's truck. We have since noticed announcements for Tortilleria Gaby (he comes by ALL the time with an especially catchy song), more oranges and onions, tomatoes, peanuts, chayote, among other things. Sure makes shopping easier when the produce comes to you!

The vistas we get to take in are also quite different here. Here are some photos to give a better sense of the scenes. The first two are from our roof, the final one is a little beach called Carrizalillo where we are going return to today to try out surfing....

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Puerto Escondido

Hello from the sunny, beach town of Puerto Escondido. This is a very different feeling town - lots of English, lots of surfers, and the Pacific Ocean a short walk from our apartment. We have been getting settled the last couple of days, getting to know what is around us and in town, trying to get acquainted with the different tourist culture here. Our apartment is not quite everything we had hoped with the dozens of roosters crowing at dawn and non-functioning internet. We have already figured out some solutions to these small issues. Rory bought some ear plugs yesterday and we are planning on making use of the many internet cafes and restaurants the line the beach.

Now on the the good stuff. We have a stunning view of the ocean from the roof of our apartment. The roof is covered with a palapa, a dried palm frond roof, and has two hammocks. The sunsets are gorgeous from this vantage point. I am hoping to take a picture of the sunset each day.

In the last days we have traveled into town to the market to get food, enjoyed some reading, walking and running along the beach, read in the hammocks, enjoyed beers in beachfront bars. If we didn't do much in Oaxaca it appears that we will be doing even less here. We hope to do some surfing and exploring of other nearby beaches, national parks and lagoons. The big surf competition is November 19 - 21.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Beach!

It was a windy, bumpy ride, but we made it to Puerto Escondido no problem. The ocean is beautiful and very close by. Our neighborhood also seems nice, although also apparently filled with roosters.

Our internet seems to be pretty slow and intermittent, so there might not be a lot of posting/skyping, but who knows...

Off to the market.....

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Jardin Etnobotanico

After quite a few aborted attempts - there always seemed to be maintenance, or a wedding, or some other thing that closed the place down - we finally managed to visit the inside of the ethno-botanical garden in downtown Oaxaca. Thanks to the recommendation of our landlord, we timed this visit to coincide with the start of a tour that explained many of the plants and their place in history, folk-medicine, etc. (The tour is made even more useful by the fact that there are no placards or labels anywhere in the garden. The rumor we heard was that the a key artist-benefactor of the garden is emphatically opposed to such distractions.)

Even aside from the plants, the history of the garden is interesting in and of itself. Originally, the land was used by the monks of Santo Domingo to grow food for themselves and the surrounding area. There are various remnants of their presence still (aside, of course, from the enormous monastery and cathedral), including the original irrigation troughs (the flowers are new) . . .

. . . and the laundry/baths. The tile-lined basin is the foot-bath. (The tiles aren't original, but have been reconstructed based on evidence from other sites. The army filled in much of this area with dirt and garbage, much to its detriment.)

Still standing as well are the giant limestone ovens (behind the nameless spiny plants below) which were essential to pre-industrial construction. Roaring fires were stoked in enormous brick-lined pits, to which blocks of limestone were added. Once the limestone were hot enough, gates to adjacent reservoirs were opened, allowing cool water to flood into the oven pits. The water caused the hot limestone to explode (reportedly, with sometimes dangerous effects) after which the powder could be collected to serve as binder/mortar for stone buildings.

In the early 1900s, because the monks had gradually abandoned the monastery for other parts of Mexico, the Mexican army took control of the complex, converting it to a general barracks, firing range, prison, and soccer field. But, when most of the soldiers were transferred to the state of Chiapas in 1993 due to serious unrest there, the site reverted to the city of Oaxaca. Originally, the plan was to sell the land to American developers, who would have converted the space into Oaxaca's most expensive hotel, complete with a shopping mall and enormous parking lot. Fortunately for everyone, however, a coalition of influential Oaxacan artists gathered sufficient political support to block the sale and turn the land, instead, into a beautiful museum and botanical garden.

As an aside, one artist in particular - Francisco Toledo - has been instrumental in a number of other distinctive improvements of the city. For example, his hunger strike prevented the city from cutting down the majestic trees in the Zocalo and thus, thankfully, saved the shade there for everyone. And when MacDonald's planned to put up a restaurant there, complete with towering golden arches, his protest, complete with free tamales for all comers, pushed the company to relocate far to the edge of town. One of his sculptures graces the new entryway. It's carved from a sycamore of the same type as the Tule tree, which had become diseased and had to be cut down, the coated in mica and wax.

In the picture below you can (just) see that the water flowing over the sculpture has been dyed with red dye from the cactus parasite, cochineal. This is the same parasite that the weavers at Teotitlan del Valle still use to color their yarn. When the conquistadors arrived, they quickly identified the cochineal as a valuable export, because, until that point, Europe lacked a permanent red dye - beet juice was commonly available, but faded with washing. In fact, this is why nopal cactus are found in Old World areas, despite originating in America - they were transplanted by the Europeans to facilitate easier harvesting of the parasite. The water in the sculpture has been dyed to represent the cost in blood and lives of the Europeans search for wealth in the Americas.

The garden itself is set up with zig-zagging paths of light green stone that mimic the designs of the carvings at Mitla (as well as various other important pre-Hispanic sites), and is intended not just to showcase the diverse flora of the entire Oaxacan state, but also to educate the public generally about the importance of many of the plants.

On our tour, we finally saw several strains of amaranth, a leafy chipil bush (used to flavor rice and other concoctions) and dozens of other plants with medicinal, culinary and cultural importance. We learned that when an agave flowers, which happens with characteristically unpredictable timing, this indicates the the plant will die within months, but will be surrounded by dozens of miniature offspring.

You can see the baby agave if you look closely around the feet of the bigger guys below.

Here is a growth of horse-tail plants, which have become invasive in some areas, but are also used as a traditional remedy for kidney stones. Because of the diversity of the Oaxacan climate and geography, the garden is divided into wet/shaded and dry/sunny sections. Many of the plants there require irrigation during the dry season, but a catchment system on the roof of the church and convent and an enormous subterranean cistern allow this to occur without use of any municipal water.

We also saw several copal trees (used to create the famous alebrijes) as well as a thorny kapok tree, whose pods yield a resilient, fluffy, and buoyant down that's useful in pillows and WWI-era life-vests. The kapok (or pochote) was considered the tree of life by many pre-Hispanic cultures and although its soft, light wood was useful for artifacts like canoes, priests would need to determine that the tree had granted permission to the people before it could be cut down.

Many of the plants were rescued. For example, some endangered agaves were confiscated from a market where they were being illegally sold and are now being propagated by garden workers. And this 1000-year old barrel cactus ("biznaga") was saved from a freeway construction site just before it would have been crushed. To give a sense of size: it's a little bit taller than me.

We also saw what's known as the Marriage Tree ("el arbol de matrimonio").

Kind of a pessimistic view, if you ask me, but I guess it follows a quasi-universal line of humor. (La biznaga is also known as silla de suegra, or mother-in-law's seat.)

In addition to its nasty spines, the marriage tree is notable for being one of the direct precursors of all cactus species. As local climates dried, leaves became a liability and spines became more and more useful for protecting stored water. The marriage tree is a key link in the transition from leafy to spiny, leafless plants.

The garden really seems to be quite well run and our tour was filled with far more information than we could hope to remember. (Some of the other tourists were even taking notes!) It is also in the middle of a significant renovation that includes a dual-zone greenhouse for orchids and a beautiful new entryway. Within two years, they even plan to offer self-guided audio tours, although our guide, Diego, would be hard to beat. He's in the hat, talking to Erica...


Many of you have probably seen those fanciful wooden carvings of animals, painted with brilliant colors and fantastic designs. They are locally known as alebrijes (ah-lay-bri-hays) and we took our last trip outside of the city, and our first in a southerly direction, to the small town that specializes in them, San Martin Tilcajete. In true Oaxacan style we walked down to the main market and caught a colectivo with the town Ocotlan emblazoned on the windshield. (Ocotlan is a bigger town farther south than San Martin.) We told the driver where we wanted to go and after picking up 2 more passengers we were off. About 20 minutes later we were dropped off on the side of the highway, at a road leading to San Martin Tilcajete.

As many of the towns that specialize in one of the crafts, doors on the streets were opened to reveal the artisan workshops all filled with the same thing - in this case these wonderful wooden creations. We stopped in a few of the shops and were able to discern some of the differences in styles and paint used. From the questions we asked we learned that the pieces are carved from a wood called Copal - it is light weight wood from trees that grow locally. There has been an effort in the last years to reforest this type of tree. The alebrijes are made from one or many pieces of copal. Next comes a base layer of paint and then the more detailed work on top of that. The artisans actually don't have to treat the wood before they paint, which may be one reason this type of wood is so popular. It can take weeks to months to finish a piece.

Some of the more high quality stuff we saw came from a workshop whose artists have done some traveling and artist exchanges in the U.S. - some near us in Boston. Here is a look at some of what they had in their shop.

You'll have to come visit us in Boston to see the ones that we ended up purchasing. They are too carefully wrapped right now to reveal....

I have to be honest now. I was totally taken by the beauty and intricacy and craziness of these alebrijes, but there was another highlight of this little excursion. On our way back to the highway we were able to catch a motorized tricycle/rickshaw kind of thing, called a mototaxi. They are a common form of transport in areas on the outskirts of cities (saw a lot of them near Calpulli going up the dirt hill). I had been excited to try one out for quite some time so we hopped in with all our goodies. Had I been more with-it I would have gotten a shot of the whole thing or one with me while we were driving - I had a huge grin on my face for the entirety of the 300 yard journey. Here's a view out of the front.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Running Man, Running Dan

We've mentioned the running man on the walk/don't-walk lights here a few times. Well, finally, we made a video of one of them. Unfortunately, the red lights around us don't last very long, so the figure doesn't have much time to accelerate - on the way from the airport there's a really long light where the little guy is just flying by the end - but you can get the picture hopefully.

Dan was impressed enough to try it out himself...

Dia de Muertos

Dia de Muertos is a celebration that actually spans two days, starting on Nov. 1 and continuing through Nov. 2. Apparently, Halloween is becoming more and more festive here, but the main days, when the traditional Day of the Dead activities take place, are still the two in November. In a way, this is a strange holiday to be a tourist for. Clearly, this a touristy time to visit - all week, as the holiday approached, there were more and more visitors in the city - and the economy benefits from the draw of the various showy aspects of these special days. But it is also an intensely personal and family-centered holiday, the most important aspects of which, for many Oaxacans, takes place behind closed doors.

The basis of the celebration, is the belief of many Mexicans that the souls of departed friends and relatives return to their homes and graves on November 2. In order to welcome these spirits and encourage them to resume their path towards heaven, families construct altars with food, drink, flowers and keepsakes and photos of the deceased. Traditionally, altars have three levels - a lower for earth, a middle for Purgatory, and an upper for heaven - although the altars we saw often had only two, or even just one, level. Still, the elements of food, photos and flowers were common to almost every one, with oranges, the small orange flowers Erica picked at Calpulli, and Pan de los Muertos having great prominence. Turkey is also, according to Sonia, a near essential element for many families' altars, which is why so many were being sold in the Zaachila market we visited together.

Here's a very fancy altar in one of the artisan shops.

Some altars are constructed in cemeteries, and others in public places - a soccer player was honored, for example, in the plaza behind us (pictured below) - but most are inside homes, and this is where the heart of Dia de Muertos seems to take place.

Family and friends gather together to remember their lost loved ones, to laugh and cry and simply be together for a day in honor of those who have died. So, again, it was interesting to be here for these days, but also, what we did see was perhaps not entirely indicative of the true meaning of the holiday.

We did, however, enjoy the sights, sounds and tastes of the celebration. On Sunday, along with an ever-growing crowd, we joined a battle-of-the-bands parade that was passing by our front door. There were two brass bands, who took turns playing lively tunes, with lengthy stops at every street corner.

We followed the party as far as the Zocalo, where it stopped again for a time, then watched the revelers wind away to the south. The music was great, and leading the pack were two very entertaining goblins who danced until they were tired, then hitched piggy-back rides until they were ready to dance again. They were moving so much and the crowd was so big, it was really hard to snap a good photo...

In the Zocalo itself, various teams - most seemed to be made up of teenagers - had spent the better part of two days constructing enormous sand sculptures of skeletons, demons and variuos other scary creatures. Very neat. Usually the Zocalo also features an enormous altar in front of the Palacio de Gobierno, but that spot is currently occupied by protestors from the 2006 APO uprising, so no altar was built this year.

On Monday, we wandered over to the Centro de Aprendizaje to meet up with Jorge and another guest staying there, before joining our second impromptu parade. This procession was a bit older with only a single band, and the leader was both determined and serious.

We stayed with them for a few blocks before veering north towards the Panteon General, the main cemetery in Oaxaca. Here, the surrounding streets were packed with vendors, food stands and even some carnival rides. And inside, the entire cemetery was lit with candles. It was crowded but also peaceful. The picture below shows the crypts lining the entirety of the outer walls, each of which had at least one votive, and which provided the only light in an otherwise dark night.

On Tuesday (Nov. 2) we ventured back to the Panteon General to try some of the food and get a glimpse of the cemetery during the day. Outside the atmosphere was as festive as the night before and the food was great - molotes, a fried pocket of chorizo and potato, are a new favorite for me - but inside the cemetery was comparatively empty and many of the altars and displays from the night before had already been taken down. Still, we did see some families gathered around graves and the miniature mausoleums that fill the cemetery to bursting, which gave us a nice sense of the more intimate aspects of the holiday.

Aside from the many temporary vendors that have sprung up in unusual places, a final striking aspect of the festival has been the skulls on Alcala. Something akin to Cows on Parade in Chicago or the orcas in Vancouver, the tourist walkway has been lined with enormous papier mache skulls, each decorated uniquely by a local artist.