Tuesday, February 24, 2009

C is for Cookie

Despite six-plus months of salsa lessons, unfortunately, I’m (still) not much of a dancer. Though I've improved a lot -- I’m at the point where I can twirl and dip my way through a 10-minute Ricardo Arjona song -- my “gringa” DNA works against me. I don’t seem to have the coordination in my shoulders, hips, and, um, rear area that allows my Mexicana classmates to move so gracefully.

I usually blame my lack of coordination on the “gringa” factor. But this weekend, at a Carnaval celebration in the tiny town of Putla, Oaxaca, Mexico, I had a better excuse for not having rhytm:

I was wearing a glorified Cookie Monster costume. (See the very flattering pic above.)

Yessir. I was weighed down by about 30 meters of bright blue fabric, cut into strips and sewn into a button-up shirt and pair of second-hand pants that were too big for me. I was crammed into a tiny plaza with hundreds of similarly-dressed folks (decked out in bright yellow, green and red fabrics that made them look like Big Bird, Oscar and Elmo…the Sesame Street comparisons continue). We all wore cotton masks and straw hats. Some had strapped pillows onto their backs for a hunchback effect.

When I asked about the origin of these very unique Carnaval costumes, nobody seemed to know, happily brushing off the subject by pouring me another shot of tequila.

Putla's usually-sleepy, tiny streets were flooded with tourists who had flocked to town for the Carnaval celebration. An unexpected rainstorm had cut the town's power supply. And the throngs of cell-phone wielding revelers overloaded the circuits in the area, paralyzing phone service.

So we paraded through the pitch-black streets, following the sound of drums and guitars and trumpets, sweating bullets (the heavy costumes, coupled with Putla's sticky tropical climate and, well, all the booze, had kind of an oven effect).

It was Mardi Gras à la Sesame Street. It was chaos. And it was hella fun.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A picture is worth...

Most of my blog entries describe experiences instead of single pictures. But these pics, in my humble opinion, deserve their own entry. After lazy waterfall gazing in Apoala this weekend, my travel companion and I rented bikes and trekked a hellish 45 minutes up the side of a very steep mountain to a mirador (not sure how to translate this one -- my English is failing me -- maybe viewing spot?) from which we could see all of the valley.

Being "city folk" (yes, Huajuapan would like New York City next to Apoala) we'd underestimated the demanding bike ride and had failed to pack enough water. Once we'd reached the top of the mountain we were dead thirsty and were happy to spy a house on the side of the dusty road.

We biked up, pulled off our helmets and shook out our sweaty hair, and were greeted by a family -- five women (all sisters) and a man -- who were sitting around a picnic table, drinking bottled beer and homemade pulque (a liquor made from the maguey plant). We asked if they'd sell us some water -- but they did even better, offering us free pulque, guiding us up to the mirador, and chatting us up with lots of quirky conversation. (One woman told me I looked like a Barbie doll -- a very sweaty, smelly Barbie doll, perhaps. But I digress.)

I asked if I could take their pictures. These are the results. The woman in green is my favorite.

She wouldn't put her beer bottle down long enough to smile in the first picture, but I think I've caught her "essence" in the second picture. She was a character. She didn't speak Spanish (just Mixtec), but she giggled all the way through our conversation with the others. She stayed behind when the other sisters guided us out to the mirador. When made our way back to the house, the woman in green had curled up on the ground, beer bottle at her side.

She was snoring.

I have a thousand words, but I'll let the pictures do their own talking.

Eden à la Oaxaca

Santiago Apoala Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico has a pretty big name, considering it's home to only 230 people.

But what it lacks in census data, Apoala more than makes up for in importance. The area is known as the cuna (birthplace) of the Mixtec culture. It's an oasis of green -- a lush, cool valley criss-crossed by a clear river -- hidden away between the peaks of the dry, brown Oaxacan sierra. As the story goes, two trees growing along the side of the river fell in love and linked their roots and branches, thus producing the first Mixtec man and woman. In this sense, it's not unlike the proverbial Garden of Eden, a breathtakingly beautiful place from whence a people supposedly came.

Apoala is, like most things in this part of Oaxaca, "un poco retirado" (a little far) from, well, civilization. Apoala got electricity the year I was born: 1980. Today, the town has, like, one car, one store and a few stray turkeys running along its dusty roads. I guess that's what makes it special. But the "retirado" factor also makes it a pain in the a** to get to. My seven-hour journey to (and from) Apoala this weekend included a suburban van, a runaway taxi, and a bumpy, two-hour ride in the back of a converted cattle truck.

But the cliché about the journey being more fun that the destination doesn't hold here: The highlight of the weekend was, hands down, Apoala itself. More specifically, the highlight of the weekend was La Cola de Serpiente (The Serpent's Tail), a words-and-pictures-can't-do-its-beauty-justice kind of waterfall that I slept about 50 meters from on Saturday night.

After a bout of car trouble on Saturday, we arrived in Apoala late and trekked into the woods with the help of a local guide and a few flashlights. We stumbled to the place where we thought the waterfall was (we could hear it and smell it, but couldn't see much of it) set up our tent using the lights from our (signal-less) cell phones, the moon, and a zillion stars. Falling asleep to the sound of cascading water was better than the best lullaby and made sleeping on the rocky ground almost bearable.

Unzipping the tent in the morning, I felt a bit like a kid on Christmas Day: I knew a surprise was waiting for me. The crystal-clear water from La Cola glittered in the morning light as it cascaded from a 60-foot peak just above our campsite. I felt like I was dreaming, but the mist from the fall hit my face and slowly woke me up. I stared at the waterfall, sunned myself on a rock, stared at the waterfall some more, stretched a bit, took approximately 3,000 pictures, and then stared at the waterfall again. And, thusly, passed an entire morning.

Beautiful. The stuff of fairy tales and soap commercials. I'll definitely be braving the suburban and renegade taxis and glorified cattle trucks to visit Apoala again.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

You can't miss it...

I visited a friend in his hometown of Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca this weekend. Juxtlahuaca is even smaller than Huajuapan -- it’s a sleepy little village tucked away in the Oaxacan sierra. But what Juxtlahuaca lacks in cosmopolitanism, it makes up for in unspoiled nature. We spent most of the weekend biking, running and hiking through breathtaking mountain vistas.

But when we weren’t doing that, we were lost in the car, looking for fish.

Let me explain: My friend had heard about a new restaurant in town. The restaurant supposedly sold fresh fish. Yum. We inquired with a friend of a friend of a cousin of the alleged restaurant owner (such is Juxtlahuaca) and were told that the restaurant was about 60 minutes away, straight up the side of a nearby mountain.

“It’s near the radio antenna on the top of the mountain. You can’t miss it.”

You can’t miss it. Famous last words.

Already hungry in anticipation of a delish fish dinner, my friend, myself, his parents, and his brother all piled into a tiny car and began the journey up the mountain. We were optimistic that we'd eat fairly quickly. After all, we could see the radio antenna from the town below –- how long could the journey really take?

But the dirt roads were awful and multiple switchbacks made our ascent slow. At the 60-minute mark, we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dust and trees and rocks.

At the 80-minute mark, we were still in the middle of nowhere, but spotted another car pulled over on the side of the road. We stopped to ask for directions. The driver was asleep.

After about 90 minutes, we were still in the middle of nowhere, but had finally reached the radio antenna. Unfortuantely, there was no restaurant in sight.

At this point, there was discussion about turning the car around. We were really really really hungry. There was obviously no restaurant there. And where, exactly, were we going to find fresh fish on top of a mountain, anyway?

But we pushed forward, finally arriving in a tiny, dusty mountaintop town called El Mesón. We continued creeping along the dirt road, slowing to allow a woman with her herd of sheep to pass in front of us. We rolled down the window to ask for directions.

“Do you know of a restaurant that sells fish around here?”

She looked at us as if we all had two heads. What a crazy question. There were no restaurants around here, she said. We’d have to keep driving, she said. Past a church, she said. We should ask a guy named Fidel, she said.

It took us another 10 minutes to find the church. It was deserted. No Fidel.

We kept going, eventually crawling up to a house with a couple of women standing outside.

Buenas tardes. Does Fidel live here?”

Fidel wasn’t around. However, the women thought they had heard about a fish farm about 10 minutes up the road. But the fish were sold fresh, not cooked.

No Fidel. No restaurant. No dinner. Bummer.

We piled back into the car, hungry enough to contemplate eating the fish raw. (Had I learned how to make sushi in Japan?) We kept driving. 10 minutes turned into 20 minutes. 20 minutes turned into 30. After taking a wrong turn, we finally saw tarps and people and smoke in the distance.


The road was too muddy and bumpy to continue driving, so we abandoned the car and walked about 800 meters to where the people were standing. They were Mixtec, members of an indigenous community whose ancestors were part of a pre-Columbian civilization that stretched through Oaxaca and several neighboring states.

We walked up to the crowd. The lively banter in Mixtec stopped. Wide-eyed children hid behind their mothers, not knowing what to think of the motley crew before them. But two Mixtec men stepped forward and offered handshakes and friendly greetings in Spanish.

Then they saw me, the green-eyed gringa.

“Ummmm…you’re not from here, right?” They asked in Spanish.

“No, I live in Huajuapan,” I answered in Spanish.

They looked at me, confused. "But you're not Mexican, right?"

"No, I'm from the United States. I'm gringa." I smiled.

“Ah, I know the United States well. I lived there for about twelve years,” a woman replied in perfect English with almost no accent. She leaned over to explain who I was to an older woman, switching between English and Spanish and Mixtec flawlessly.

The men led us up to four large pools that they'd constructed out of cinder blocks. They threw some feed into one of the pools, and hundreds of hungry grey fish swarmed to the surface. They’d been raising truchas (trout) here for the last two years, they said. The land had belonged to the Mixtec people for generations, they said. They’d tapped a fresh-water mountain stream to fill the tanks, they said. Everything was clean and natural, they said. They’d be happy to make us some dinner, they said.

And would we like a beer while we waited?

¡Si, por favor!

They handed us bottles of Corona and set up a makeshift table -– two big planks of wood suspended across four tree stumps. They pulled about a dozen big fish out of the tank, cleaned them right before us, and fried them up in a big metal pot over a campfire. They cooked potatoes and warmed handmade tortillas and chopped tomatoes and chiles and onions for fresh pico de gallo. We all chatted away -– in English and Spanish and Mixtec –- through this process.

Turns out the English-speaking woman had worked in the U.S. as a coyote. She helped undocumented Oaxacans cross the U.S.-Mexican border to find work. As she related her stories to us, one of the Mixtec men looked at me.

“Please don’t judge us,” he said. “Now that you know Oaxaca, you can see that we face a desperate situation here. We want to work, but we have nothing except for these fish.”

I assured him that I understood completely. While almost any gringo is aware of the 12 million Mexican immigrants living in the United States, many don't know that about half a million of those folks are indigenous Mexicans -- and that the latter usually have a pretty rough time in los Estados Unidos, considering that many don't speak Spanish, let alone English. But this gringa was informed. He was preaching to the proverbial choir.

“Let’s see how el negrito (the black man) will welcome us in your country,” he said, affectionately referring to Obama.

I found myself at a loss for words. But I assured him that many estadounidenses were also ready for big change, and that our election of Obama was a sign of that.

“And let’s make sure that we take a picture with you. Nobody will ever believe that a güera (white girl) was on top of this mountain with us!”

I could barely believe that I was there myself, having been lost on winding dirt roads for the better part of 2.5 hours. Sure, we could take a picture, I assured him. (You can see the results above. I'm only 5'6," pretty average by U.S. standards, but I literally towered over the tiny Mixtec women.)

Dinner was amazing, but the conversation was even better. When it was time to go, we packed up gifts of extra fish and tortillas and mountain herbs and reluctantly said our goodbyes.

"Please come back soon. But come earlier next time."

You can’t miss it. I’m glad I didn’t.