Friday, October 31, 2008

Fish Story

The sign above roughly translates to "En Yosocuta, we taste better, okay!"

I snapped the picture in Yosocuta (of course), a village located about an hour from the ever-cosmopolitan Huajuapan. Yosocuta is headquarters for a large dam, and thusly its claim to fame is a 'beautiful' lake and wildlife area. I went to check out the place last weekend with a group of new Huajuapeño friends. It was their first time visiting Yosocuta, too.

Turns out there was a reason for that.

We piled into a collectivo taxi that carried us to our 10-peso-away destination: The 'resort' of Yosocuta, which turned out to be a few lakeside restaurants connected by a dusty road, the latter of which was littered with broken-down, rusted-out cars and random chickens.

(The chickens gave the place a kind of Key West feel, but that's where any comparison ends...)

Needless to say, this was not exactly the spot we had in mind for our little Saturday rendezvous.

However, the aforementioned fish billboard inspired us to at least have lunch, seeing as how we'd made the trip all the way out, and seeing as how the fish is supposed to be so 'tasty' in Yosocuta and all.

We piled into the closest of Yosocuta's three restaurants and, despite the fact that there were only two other people in the entire place, enthusiastically ordered: fried fish for a Mexican friend, garlic-crusted fish for my Idahoian co-worker, and foil-wrapped fish por moi. We sat inpatiently, mouths watering, anxiously awaiting the infamous sabroso Yosocutan fish.

The fish was delivered. And by 'the fish,' I mean all of it. Head, eyeballs, fins. Mine, by virtue of being grilled in foil, still had all of the slimy scales in tact. Yum. I thought that my year in Japan had made me quite intimate with all things aquatic, but my reaction in the picture above says it all.

(Insert 'Fish Heads' song here: fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads, eat them up, yum...)

But after I got past the head and the eyeballs and the fins and the scales, and then past the exactly 1,567 microscopic bones contained therein, the fish actually tasted pretty good. Had a unique -- what's the word?-- tasty flavor. Especially when accompanied when fresh tortillas and salsa and a few swigs of mezcal.

Our bellies full, we decided to check out the 'beautiful' lake that had apparently spawned our 'tasty' fish. The Idahoian negotiated a killer rental rate (40 pesos/hour) on a wooden rowboat, and we paddled out into the crystal blue water...

...which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be more of a greenish-grey color and was suspiciously foggy. And it had a strange odor. Did we seriously just eat fish from here?

The punch line is this: The 'beautiful' lake is actually super polluted. It's basically a giant toilet bowl for the dozens of Mixtec communities that live in the surrounding mountains. Their sewage ('greywater,' I think it's called, in polite speak) flows downhill and ends up right there in Lake Yosocuta. Guess that explained the unique, 'tasty' flavor of the fish.

Radioactvity. Or something like that.

The good news is that my stomach has officially adjusted to Mexico: I didn't get sick. And neither did either of my fish-eatin' dining companions. The bad news is that that was my first -- and last-- experience with the infamous "tasty" Yosocuta fish.

Don't believe the hype. Stick to the quesadillas.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bugs à la Oaxaca

There are two kinds of insects here in Oaxaca.

There's the picture-perfect pretty variety. And then there's the nightmare-inducing kind. I've included photos of both for your reference.

I snapped the picture of the former while camping at a canyon called El Boquerón a couple of weekends ago. The canyon's just a quick hour-long drive from my apartment, and comes complete with calendar-ready views of gurgling rivers, rolling green mountains, dramatic cacti....and butterflies. Lots and lots of butterflies. It's a beautiful place that I plan to return to regularly.

The picture of the latter comes courtesy of Google, but I could just as easily have taken it in my apartment. Every night, when the sun goes down and the lights go off, the creepy crawlers emerge from the hidden crevices of my home. Larger-than-life cockroaches. Hairy spiders. Huge furry centipedes.

They hide behind my shampoo bottles when I take a shower. They scurry out when I open a door. They hang out on walls and ceilings, just out of my reach. They mock me. It's like they know I'm so scared that I won't kill them. And I swear that they surround my bed at night, watching me sleep. I wake up in the morning, sit straight up, and look around before I'll tentatively put my bare foot on the floor, for fear of stepping on something creepy.


I could go on and on about the creepy bugs here. Oaxaca seems to be a breeding ground for over-the-top insects. So much so that the local folks have figured out a way to capitalize on the surplus of critters here: They actually EAT the bugs.

So I guess there are actually three kinds of bugs: the beautiful, the creepy, and the edible. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are a local delicacy. They're hawked all over the streets of Huajuapan, sold right alongside the tomatoes and tortillas and doorknobs and God-knows-what-else in the road-side markets and food stalls. Apparently, chapulines are "harvested" in the summer, stock-piled, roasted with salt, lemon and garlic, and then consumed by oaxaqueños and the daring gringo looking for the photo opp.

Um, yum?

I apparently don't fall into the category of "daring gringo," at least not gastronomically speaking. I tried chapulines once -- by accident -- back in 2001 when I was visiting Oaxaca City with a friend. The little grasshoppers adorned a salad I'd ordered, and I'd mistaken them for croutons. It took just one bite for me to realize that there was something awry with the "crouton," namely that it was an insect. I tried to slyly brush the chapulines off my salad. I remember the waiter shooting me a knowing look when he came to collect my otherwise-clean plate.

It's not that I'm against trying the local fare. It's just that Oaxaca has so many more delicious-to-me things to eat. Like to-die-for chocolate. And cheese. And mole (no, people, not "mole," the rodent, but mole, a sauce painstakingly made with dozens and dozens of different ingredients). I'm definitely eating well here, even if I am keeping insects of out my day-to-day diet.

But, my peso salary only stretches so far, and I will be needing some holiday cash here in a few weeks. Looks like I may have to start collecting some of those insects that share my apartment and set up shop in the food market. I'd make a killing, if only I could bring myself to kill them...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dance Lessons

Sometimes I think I'm little too gringa for a little place like Huajuapan de León.

And by gringa, I mean American female -- specifically the stubborn-as-hell, raised-to-be-independent-and speak-her-mind, grew-up-playing-in-the-mud-and-building-tree-forts, drinks-tequilla-straight-from-the-bottle, likes-to-outrun-boys-and-laugh-about-it kind of American female that I consider myself to be.

Gals like me are a dime a dozen back in the States. We're sometimes a lot to handle, but we're usually (albeit sometimes begrudgingly) accepted. But it ain't that way in the rest of the world. Gender roles are still a bit more traditional in other places. And here in Mexico, especially here in small-town Mexico, where machismo is alive and well in some aspects of society, most women are raised to be more quiet, reserved, and -- let's face it -- well behaved.

I'm different. I stick out. And it gets me in trouble sometimes.

The kind of things that I wouldn't think twice about doing at home -- for example, going on my morning run in shorts (not short-shorts, mind you, just regular old shorts), dancing a little too close to a good friend at a wedding reception (it was hip-hop, come on people), and speaking my mind (or just forgetting to keep my mouth shut) -- have drawn some rather unwanted attention here in my new digs South of the Border.

Cat calls in the street and some dirty looks. Nothing I can't handle.

But I want to nip this stuff in the proverbial bud. The way I see it, living abroad is a two-way street. You've got to give a little to get a little. That means I've got to respect the local culture and act right, but at the same time, nobody's asking me to compromise so much of myself that I lose my identity. I'm here to learn about my host country and culture -- and to offer whatever I can from my own country and culture. We're different, but we're also more alike that we realize. Blah blah blah.

But lately, I feel like I've been a little too gringa. Maybe it's because, for the most part, I feel pretty comfortable in Mexico. I've lived here before. It's a helluva lot closer to Chicago -- geographically and culturally and linguistically -- than Japan was. I -- despite what my Mexican friends might say to me in jest -- do speak the language. It feels so much like home that sometimes I forget I'm not home.

And that's where the problem begins.

This struggle -- between being my gringa self and trying to fit in a little bit -- came to a head last night at salsa class. A lovely man named Moises has become my regular dance partner, God bless him: He's either a glutton for punishment or extremely charitable. Moises started classes just a week before I did, so we're both technically still beginners. But, being Mexican and, apparently, having the ability to dance pre-programmed into his DNA, Moises has a leg up on me.

(This stereotype goes both ways. A Mexican friend of mine recently remarked on his observation of the Caucasian American's inability to dance, prompting what eventually led to the aforementioned hip hop showdown at the wedding reception, but I digress...)

Moises has threatened to start charging me 10 pesos for every time I step on his toes. At this point, three weeks into the class, I basically owe him my next paycheck. But, overall, he's a good sport. We laugh a lot at what are usually my mistakes. He's patient when I ask him to drill the same three moves over and over because I can't seem to get them right.

But even laid-back Moises draws the line somewhere: I can't try to lead.

No! No! No! No! No! The female lead is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of salsa dancing. If you think about it, dance is kind of a microcosm of the macho aspect of Mexican society: Gender roles are strictly defined here. Black and white. I'm the girl. I'm supposed to smile and look pretty and spin a lot. Moises is the boy. He gets to tell me what to do. Period.

As might be expected, the stubborn, shorts-wearing gringa in me struggles with this concept a bit. And it's not just because I'm a crappy dancer -- I mean, all that spinning makes me dizzy! (Read: Sarcasm.) It got so bad last night that Moises stopped me mid-dip last night to deliver a stern reminder:

Acuérdate. Yo manejo la orquesta. (Remember. I conduct the orchestra.)

Touché. Point taken. I need to loosen up. I need to go with Moises' flow. We'll both dance better.

And I need to go with the flow. Period. No more mouthing off -- in English or in Spanish. No more running in shorts. No more swilling tequilla from the bottle (I'll use a glass!). We'll all get along better. I'll be happier here. And Huajuapan will be happier with me.

I'll let the man drive (or lead or conduct or whatever). No problem. Now, I just need to prove that I'm not so gringa that I can't learn how to salsa...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Friends in Unlikely Places

The bells in Huajuapan's cathedral (see above -- it's cute) ring every quarter-hour, marking the s-l-o-w passage of time in this little city that has become my new home. I've been here for just over two weeks -- unemployed for more than half of that time (I finally started work late last week, but that's a blog for another time) -- so I've had plenty of opportunities to embrace the relaxed pace of life here. I've settled into a little routine, surrounded by an unlikely cast of characters that have become my new friends.

There's the tamal vendors that are out on the street in the mornings. They've jerry-rigged three-wheeled bicycles to accomodate big pots of steaming tamales, which they sell for 6 pesos (60 cents) a pop. Sometimes they'll cycle past me when I'm out on my morning jog, prompting lots of shouts of the word "güera." "Güera" translates roughly to "white girl," lest I forget that I am a freckled, blonde-haird anomoly in a sea of short, dark-haired, Mixtec-descended Mexicans. Depsite the catcalling, they're always happy to sell their treats to the sweaty, iPod-clad gringa who approaches them right after her run for her breakfast each morning. De-lish.

There's a woman named Sonia who sells me delicious Oaxaca-cheese-filled quesadillas for lunch at the market. Sonia's quesadillas are made with lots of love -- and cooking with love takes a lot of time. She painstakingly makes her tortillas by hand, adds cheese and veggies (extra 'shrooms for the gringa) and grills them up slowly. We've had lots of time to chat about my work visa woes, and Sonia has suggested that perhaps it would just be easier for me to marry a Mexican and get my visa that way. She thinks that her 26-year-old brother would be a viable option. We'll see.

There's Leo, the guy who runs the local hardware store. I've bought some odds and ends from his shop and he's curiously asked me what a big-city girl like me is doing in a little place like Huajuapan. Leo's brother lives in Chicago, so we've chatted all about the Windy City. I hit Leo up for help when my water heater busted last week. He spent his lunch hour dismantling the contraption, a labor for which he refused to take any money. Instead, I paid him with a six pack of Indio beer. We've been best pals ever since.

There's Carmen, my landlord, who keeps a pristine garden in the middle of our apartment complex. She's up with the sun -- and coos of caged doves that live amongst the plants -- raking and weeding and pruning and potting. The garden boasts lime and pomegranate trees, tons of ferns and flowers, and, most recently, Halloween decorations which she's ostensibly added to help her American tenants feel more at home as the all-important holiday approaches.

There's the crew that assembles for the salsa dance class at the community center on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At first they weren't sure what to make of the gangly, uncoordinated gringa who clearly had never danced a (sober) step of salsa in her life. During our first classes together, I felt like proverbial last pick for the dodgeball team, standing lonely on the sidelines as guys and gals paired off to perfect their dance moves. But now, two weeks into the course, I'm a popular pick as men seem to like to practice their, ahem, English with me.

There's the octogenarian couple who sells chile-powder-covered corn on the cob in the evenings on the zócalo. The elotes really hit the spot after I've worked up an appetite with salsa dancing. They're impressed with my ability to tolerate all of the spice that the señora sprinkles on the corn. Not too shabby for a gringa -- or a güera, as it were.

So the Gringa Culichi has made a home for herself in the tiny, sleepy little town of Huajuapan de León. Who knew that unemployment could be such fun? Lemons to lemonade, as the saying goes.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Pinche Migra

Those who know me best know that I've had an interest in the United States' immigration policy for some time now. I've worked with immigrants -- of all shades of the "legal" spectrum -- as an English teacher back in Chicago. I spent nine very painful months writing my MA thesis on immigration. Since I've been in Mexico, I've heard stories from dozens of brilliant people who, for lack of other options, came to the United States without the proper papers and were unceremoniously deported. Artists. Doctors. Lawyers. Students. So I continue to follow the headlines on US immigration policy with hopes that someday, maybe in the not-so-distant future, my country's government will be able to work out a way for folks who want to come to the United States to make an honest living will be able to do so without having to put their lives on the line to cross the border "illegally."

But I digress.

Knowing how difficult and even unfair the United States' immigration system can be for many people, I feel a bit unjustified in blogging about my recent problems with the Mexican migra. But the last couple of days -- actually, every day since I've arrived at my new home here in Oaxaca -- have been a big lesson for me in what a headache the process can be, even on the other side of the border.

To make a very long story short, I don't have the proper papers to begin work at my new job in my new state. I have to wait for papers to come from my old state. And until I get the papers, I have to sit and wait. I can't begin work. I can't make money. I can't really do anything. And I have to keep going back and forth to Oaxaca City -- the state capitol and home of the immigration office -- until I get my 'em. It's a six-hour round trip to the city, one that involves sitting in the back of a suburban as it winds through mountain roads. Carsick, anyone?

I fully recognize that this is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what many of my Mexican counterparts must go through to be able to work in the United States. They'd most likely happily trade a bit of carsickness for what is often their only option, which involves paying coyotes obscene amounts of money to lead them across the border, into the desert, where some either starve or freeze to death. And while I'm allowed to wait here in Mexico -- with a place to stay, money to buy food, even access to internet -- for my papers to come through, many of my Mexican counterparts would have already been deported.

I know that I'll eventually get my visa if I wait long enough. The reverse isn't always the case.

In essence, I'm getting the royal treatment. I fully recognize this. So I'll sit here and wait as patiently as I can until my papers come through. And I'll be happy about it. I'm learning a valuable lesson. The best medicine doesn't always taste good.

Pinche migra.