Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For the love of God...

I'm a little cranky today.

My sour mood might have something to do with the fact that, for two consecutive mornings, I've woken up at 5:30 am to fireworks being launched right outside my bedroom window.

Literally. I hear them hissing out of their tubes, see a flash of white through my still-closed eyes, and then -- one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi -- there's the giant boom overhead.

I have the rest of the scenario memorized. It doesn't change much day-to-day: The fireworks set off the alarms of seemingly every car parked up and down my block. Then the neighborhood dogs begin to bark and howl in response. The car-and-dog ruckus is soon drowned out by a single white truck that drives down the street with a giant loudspeaker attached to the roof. Then come the lines of musicians belting out live music. (Tuesday's musical stylings were performed by a mariachi band, and this morning's entertainment was acoustic.) There's another lap with the truck. And then, to wrap things up, there's more fireworks. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes. By 6am, I'm able to fall asleep again, only to have my alarm go off an hour later.

(The shoe store across the street, the one with the fantastically annoying talking car, opens up shortly thereafter, making for a peaceful, relaxing start to the day.)

This morning, upon hearing the first firework being launched, I groaned and stirred, sat straight up in my bed, kicked my sheets away in a mini-tantrum, and exclaimed out loud:


The ironic thing is, that's exactly the point of this whole crazy sleepless procession.

The fireworks are launched by church folks to make sure everyone's up and at 'em. The truck with the loudspeaker makes laps around the city's downtown district, belting out a prayer, pre-recorded by a woman with what possibly is the most monotone, annoying voice on the planet. (The thing is, the volume's cranked up so loud on the speaker that her voice gets distorted, nixing any possibility of actually understanding the prayer even if you weren't half-asleep and Spanish-impaired.) The musicians sing hymns. There's more prayer via loudspeaker. At the end, there are a few additional rockets, thrown in for good measure.

Now, I've blogged on these types of crack-of-dawn religious progressions before. There was the 4:30 am revelry that marked a celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe in December. I guess I should consider myself "blessed" that they've decided to push things back an hour this time. But you'll recall that I've since moved, and now I'm a block closer to the "celebration." The noise is so deafening that I hear it even through the hermetically-sealed windows of my new apartment. Yesterday, I even had the foresight to purchase earplugs. But they were no match for the rockets and car alarms and loudspeakers this morning.

Perhaps I'd be more tolerant and understanding if I understood the "point" behind this sudden religious fervor in the streets. But I've been too tired and cranky to muster the interest to ask which saint or virgin or whatever is being celebrated. My equally tired and cranky Mexican roommates are of no help, brushing the celebration off as the work of "crazy Catholics." (For the record, I don't think that Catholics are crazy. But I tend to think that anyone who shoots off fireworks at 5:30 am, regardless of religious affiliation, has a few issues.) And, again, I'll argue that the religious figure in question would likely be just as honored by a procession that takes place AFTER the sun has come up.

Rumor has it that the 5:30 am ruckus will go on every day until July 25. Luckily, I'm heading out of town tomorrow night, home to Chicago for a visit. I have just one more mornings of fireworks to look forward to. After that, it will be back to the Windy City, back to the soothing sounds of garbage trucks, police sirens and drunken Cubs fans fighting outside my window.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ants in My Pants, Vol. 2

As I spent the last weekend of June without shoes, it seems only appropriate that I would spend the first weekend of July without pants.

Let me explain. Shortly before heading to our would-be dry expat Fourth of July Party on Saturday, a friend and I paid a visit to Huajuapan's very own archaeological site, called Cerro de las Minas. The cerro (that's "hill" in Spanish) was once home to a Mixtec pyramid. (What better way to celebrate 'Merica's birthday than by tromping about on the 500-year-old ruins of a once-powerful indigenous culture? I'll let you sort out the irony.) Today that pyramid is really just a glorified pile of rocks on a pretty green hill, but, really, how many of you can say you live down the road from a former pyramid?

That's what I thought.

At any rate, we cheerily began our ascent up the hill on that sunny Saturday afternoon. Clad in flip-flops and jeans, we didn't exactly take the climb seriously. That is, until, my cerro companion, a local guy with a knack for all things Mixteco, spotted some ants marching along the grass.

"Be careful with those, they really sting," he warned me.

Now, where I come from, ants are little more than nuisances, invading the occasional picnic or unkempt kitchen. They're rarely cause for alarm. Little did I know that these Mexican ants, known as hormiga arriera, apparently emerge from the ground -- the depths of hell, as far as I'm concerned -- when the temperatures go up in the summer. Hormiga arriera translates to "leaf-cutter ants" in English (as per Wikipedia), which would imply that they're peaceful, plant-eating types of critters. Vegetarians, if you will. However, I quickly found that this was not the case: perhaps Wikipedia should replace "leaf" with "flesh" in the translation.

Flesh-cutting ants.

I apparently placed my flip-flop clad foot right in the middle of an hormiga arriera colony while attempting to take a picture of the piles of rocks on the pretty green hill (posted above). And, apparently, an ant climbed onto my flip-flop clad foot and right up my leg. And then, apparently, it got mad.

AGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!!! (I might have said something a bit stronger here, but this, after all, is a family-friendly blog.)

Fire pulsed from the back of my left thigh and quickly spread through my entire leg. I flounced around on my remaining good leg, howling in pain, tears stinging my eyes. I thrashed about at my jeans, attempting to kill the culprit, but instead, managed to merely scare it, causing that damn flesh-cutter to scurry further up my thigh and sting me twice more.

"For the love of God, Sara, take off your pants!" my hiking companion pleaded, doing a good job of feigning concern while smirking ever so slightly.

I quickly de-pantsed, leaving me standing at the top of Cerro de las Minas in my pink underwear, whimpering as my friend carefully turned my pants inside out, shook out the now-dead ant, and mustered his sternest face to keep himself from laughing out loud at me.

Never had I been so grateful that Huajuapan isn't exactly a tourist hotspot: We were the only souls on Cerro de las Minas that afternoon, so nobody saw me in my undies, except maybe for a groundskeeper who appeared about five minutes after the ant attack, presumably to see what the commotion was all about.

I'm still not convinced that the culprit was a hormiga arriera. Perhaps my cerro companion was simply pulling my (now-welt-covered) leg. However, if his story is true, avid Gringa Culichi readers will note that this is the second time that ants have attacked my pants in recent months.

It's a conspiracy, I tell you. And now I have the battle wounds to prove it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Booze and Politics

"Uh, we drink a lot. And then we light some fireworks."

That was my answer to Mexican friends' queries about how we gringos usually celebrate the Fourth of July up in El Norte. I was fielding these important cultural questions at an impromptu Independence Day party held this past Saturday held (indoors, due to lack o' yard space) by a fellow gringo for our little Huajuapan-based expat community. No better way to celebrate the United States' independence from England by chowing on potato salad and lighting sparklers (thus violating indoor fire codes -- you'll notice my terror above) with a handful of British a Russian, a Scot, an Irish guy and all of the Mexicans who love us.

But back to the booze. If I sound cynical, I'm not alone. An article I read recently on Slate summed up Independence Day as celebrating Americans' "freedom to drink outside during daylight hours," adding:

"Some of us will fish Bud tallboys out of an Igloo on the National Mall; others will knock back rosé on picnic blankets and applejack at backyard barbecues; still others will sip on a pint bottle of Cutty Sark on the same park bench as always. We are a diverse nation."

True that, true that. During my State-side tenure, I usually celebrated 'Merica by putting back a $12 bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz in Chicago's Grant Park.

But this year, in a very interesting juxtaposition, I celebrated one of America's drunkest days in a nation where a Ley Seca (dry law) was temporarily in effect. What's more, in another very interesting juxtaposition, this Ley Seca was in effect precisely for the reason we're supposedly so darn proud to be Americans in the first place: Democracy.

July 5 is Election Day here in Mexico. And, in efforts to make an infamously-corrupt election process a little less so, folks aren't supposed to drink. That means that no booze gets sold from midnight on July 3 through midnight on July 5. Ley Seca encourages corrupt poltiticans to be a little more creative in their vote-buying: A can of beer just won't do. Show the people the cash!

There's that cynicism again. But it's hard not to roll my eyes at the brand of "democracy" that is pushed down the throats of people here in Oaxaca. And I'm not implying that the US' brand is the solution for everyone, either. (We've got our own problems: Remember Florida and Ohio?) I'm here as an observer, not a prescriptivist, folks.

But again, I'm not alone in my cynicism. While media in the United States talked about boozing on Independence Day, the Mexican press has been a-chatter with fears that people won't even bother to vote. And that those do show up to their polling places will simply tear up their ballots in an act of defiance. For some, there's no point in "voting for the least worst candidate."

I live in one of the most marginalized areas in one of the most marginalized states of what most would call a "developing" country. Politics here is a heated topic. Three main parties -- the PRD, the PRI, and the PAN -- jockey for power. You'll usually have no trouble finding someone who will readily complain about one of those three parties; however, historically, the "most worst" has been the PRI -- the party that kept itself in power through little more than changing the name on the ballot for 70 years. Since 2000, the PAN has successfully put two men -- Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006 -- in power as president, and the PRD has developed strongholds in several Mexican states . However, Oaxaca remains "PRI Territory," at least if you believe all of the billboards that have cropped up in honor of this year's local elections.

And, if you believe the word on the street, Oaxaca is still "PRI Territory" because the politicians are extremely adept at manipulating all of the poor folks in this state. Friends say that votes are bought for as little as a can of beer, or -- slightly more optimistically -- sometimes for $50 pesos, which would buy approximately two beers.

This political mess is played out in the graffiti tagged all over of Oaxaca City, the state capital, a place I had the pleasure to visit on Sunday, election day. (Ironically, my mission in Oaxaca City was to purchase mezcal for an uncle who I will visit when I'm back home for a vacation later this month. The tourism-starved* woman at the mezcal store was more than happy to sell the booze to me, carefully coating the bottles in bubble wrap before placing them in an discreet black plastic bag. Take that, Ley Seca!)

Anyway, angry protestors (you may have heard a little something about the conflicts between the government and the teachers here in Oaxaca state, unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past, um, three years), in response to a recent bout of troubles, have decorated the walls of churches, offices and historic buildings with such uplifting messages as "¡PRI asesino!" (PRI murders) or "¡Ulises asesino!" (a crack at Oaxaca's governor, a member of the PRI party, whom I had the dubious honor of meeting in March).

Despite the all of that anger and graffiti, today -- the day after election day -- Oaxaca still remains "PRI Territory." The PRI took 11 of the state's 18 districts yesterday. In some areas, however, the PRI victory wasn't due to people tearing up their ballots or exchanging their votes for cans of beer. According to a national newspaper, " menos nueve mil 547 ciudadanos se quedaron sin votar debido a que no se instalaron 19 casillas en localidades que la autoridad electoral tenía señaladas como 'altamente conflictivas'" ( least 9,547 citizens remained without [the right] to vote because voting booths were not installed in 19 communities that electoral authorities had deemed 'highly conflictive'"). Several of those communities were right here in the Mixteca region where I live. Oaxaca's versions of Florida and Ohio, if you will.

So much for democracy. Depressing news like that kind of makes you want to knock back a cold one, right?

*Thank you, swine flu, drug war, civil unrest, and recession, for scaring away all tourists.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shoe Story

Up until last Saturday, I was the proud owner of a pair of amazing black sandals, known as chanclas here in Mexico. They were the perfect traveling shoes -- compact for packing purposes, comfortable for walking purposes, and flat for height-control purposes (I already tower over about 75 percent of the Mexicans I meet, so there's no need for high heels to exacerbate the issue).

Those shoes toured the streets of Culiacán. They climbed the pyramids of Teotihuacán. They crossed the border into Guatemala. So it only seemed natural that they'd accompany me to Vive Latino, a two-day music festival I checked out in Mexico City this past weekend.

So what if the shoes had gotten a little old? A little scuffed? So what if the soles had started to fall off? It gave them personality, man.

And that's precisely what made 'em famous.

So my fellow rockeros and I were sitting on a lawn, taking a breather between bands. Boredom must've set in (or maybe it was the beer), because my amigos started to invent a dialog about the concert, with the soles of my shoes doing the talking. This bout of maturity is perhaps best illustrated by photo 1, above.

One amigo -- we'll call him Miguel -- spotted a concert camera crew on the other side of the lawn and made a beeline for the videographer. His pitch, reported to me later, made this ex-PR girl proud:

"Hey guys, guess what? There's a funny gringa over there, and she has talking shoes!"

Imagine my horror when Miguel turned around, grinning mischieviously, and started walking back to our patch of lawn, accompanied by the camera crew. Given my protests about not speaking Spanish, the crew proceeded to interview not me, but my shoes about their Vive Latino experience.

Where were they from? What was their favorite band? Why had they come to the festival?

I giggled most of the way through the interview, picturing the reaction of my students back in Oaxaca upon seeing their ridiculous English teacher's shoes live on TeleHit. So my friends supplied most of the dialog, including the part about how the poor English prof couldn't afford new shoes because she'd bought concert tickets instead. Not so far from the truth. See photo 2, above.

The interview complete and my shoes' 15 minutes of fame firmly sealed, we headed over to the main stage to take in another band. We manuevered our way toward the front of throng of 19-year-olds surrounding the stage.

The music started.

Then the jumping started.

Then the pushing started.

And then I lost my shoes. My famous, talking shoes.

The chanclas fell off my feet with all the jumping, and then the crowd pushed me away from them. I couldn't bend down to search the ground for them for fear of being trampled. I was getting stepped on. I was in pain. I turned around to retreat, pushing my way out of the crowd. I emerged, sweaty, my bare feet black from all the dirt and who-knows-what-else on the ground.


Ever-helpful, my resourceful friends constructed shoe subsitutes (photo 3, above) using two styrofoam plates from a generous taco vendor and bits of trash found on the ground. My new shoes caused quite a stir: People pointed and laughed. Passerby smiled as they figured out what had happened. A couple stopped and asked to take a photo with me.

The new shoes were perhaps even more (in)famous that the chanclas had been.

We patrolled around the concert venue for about an hour, asking various vendors if there was a booth that might sell shoes. My friends motioned toward my feet and gravely explained the situation, attempting to stifle their laughter. Their funny gringa friend was again the focus of attention.

After much effort, I was able to score some Bob Marley-themed sandals for $120 pesos (photo 4, above). They'll never replace my chanclas, though.

Chanclas, 2008-2009, RIP.
Sacrificed to the gods of rock.