Sunday, May 31, 2009

I'm Not Homeless Any More

Since last October, when I began this journey, I've pretty much been 'on the road,' living out of a suitcase. Even during the two periods back in the States, I was staying with friends and family, without a place to call home (my own house is now rented out to tenants).

That's changed. Yesterday, Saturday, I rented an apartment in Oaxaca. My first apartment in a foreign country. Gosh, it makes you feel all grown up....sort of. In addition to the usual signing of papers (contracts in a foreign language--there's something to keep you up at night!), moving in hassles, cleaning the joint, there are things you wouldn't have to deal with at home. Like calling the company that supplies those big jugs of drinking water to set up a regular water delivery schedule (can't drink the tap water). And calling the gas company to come out with a big old tank thing that looks like scuba gear. That's what runs your cooking gas and hot water heater. Until they come, I'm taking cold showers. Fun!

I had to have a taxi transport me from the guest house where I was staying. Too much to lug down the street. I really liked the hotel and recommend it to anyone planning to visit Oaxaca. I spent a week there. It's called Posada Don Mario, and they have their own Web site at : The Posada is a family run place; you'll meet the mom and her daughters. It's super clean, breakfast and free WI-FI are included, and it's cheap. My kind of place.

But now I've actually made a commitment (OK, for a month). I don't do well with commitments. So we'll see how it goes. I went straight out and did a "stock up" trip to the grocery store. Like you do in a brand new house that has NOTHING in it. What's weird is that there are no closets, no cabinets, no shelves, no storage of any kind. So, after finally "lighting" in an apartment....I still can't unpack. Damn!

But I'll go out looking for some cheap stackable shelves this week. I'm liking it. No longer do I have to eat EVERY meal in a restaurant. I've stocked up the little fridg. And having my own bathroom is a treat. Out in front of the apartment (they call it a bungalow) there is an enclosed, private patio where I'm planning to spend lots of afternoons reading.

Photos of Oaxaca

Park Llano,

Park Conzatti,

Santo Domingo church, Oaxaca's most beautiful, and one of the grandest in all of Mexico.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Last night, I went to my first Mexican baseball game with the Oaxaca 'Guerreros' playing the Veracruz Eagles. The home town boys got creamed, 14-7. But, who cares? It was a spectacular night to be at the ballpark, just the right temps with a light breeze. I hung out with some other Americans from the gringo library.

They enjoyed fairly light attendance...not even a quarter of the seats filled. Which may be a hangover from the flu epidemic, folks being shy of large public gatherings. Or the horrible economy. Or the lousy team. The front page of the local paper's sports section carried the headline, "Guerreros ask for absolution."

Game play was the same as American baseball, in fact the team is an official Minor League Baseball team. They start the game with the announcer announcing, "play ball." Not in Spanish, in English. And "home run" gets translated into one word: "hon-ron." It makes me chuckle to hear it. The program/stats sheet they give you when you walk into the park is titled "HOME PLATE" (in English) and the headline was "now, to improve!" I gives you the idea right up front that this isn't going to be a burn-down-the-barn kind of ball game.

Of course, the main reason anyone goes to a ball game isn't to watch the game. Silly! It's an excuse to eat and drink. Mexican games are no different. Plenty of beer was flowing (Corona, NOT Budweiser). And instead of hot dogs, we had Lupe selling her famous homemade empanadas. A parallel here: what goes into an American hot don't want to know. What goes into Lupe's empandada...your guess is as good as mine. But they sure were "sabroso" (tasty). Then there was the guy walking around selling a tray-full of tacos on little plates, the guy selling peanuts (not shelled in bags, but scooped loose with hot sauce on top). Even a Domino's pizza guy made the rounds. Since I don't eat it in the U.S., decided to skip it in Mexico. Lupe's empanadas were a better choice. No heartburn.

Today, I got up and went over to the shelter for street kids, where I've been volunteering. Fun! We did little English learning games. Each day, there is at least one kid who really, really wants to learn. That's encouraging.

After volunteering, I went over to the American library and hung out, chatted. There I made a new friend, and we went out to lunch down on the town square. Terrific food, great company. Then I walked over to look at an apartment for rent. (Nice, but a bit expensive). At 5, I had a session with the college girl I'm tutoring. And at 6, I joined a meditation group (5) at a yoga studio in Conzatti Park.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Politics in the Town Square

Oaxaca's zocalo (town square) is known as perhaps the prettiest in all of Mexico--with a bandstand, cathedral, ringed by covered archways (portales), and lovely leafy shade trees. People spend hours on the park benches enjoying the world go by. Or seated at the cafes and bars under the portales.

Except now. The city is in the grips of another protest. Protests in Oaxaca are as common as showgirls in Las Vegas. This time it's the Popular Front and the teachers union. They've taken over the zocalo with a flea market. Yep, a flea market as protest. Go figure. But alongside the mounds of embroidered shirts and pirated CDs are booths distributing political literature. And (this is Mexico, of course) loud speakers. Lots of loud speakers broadcasting lists of demands, names of political prisoners. And a striking banner across the sidewalk with images of Stalin, Lenin, Marx, and Engels.

Now, as a foreigner and one on a tourist visa, I am forbidden by Mexican law to have a political opinion or become involved in Mexican politics. And that's fine with me. Mexican politics for Mexicans, U.S. politics for Americans. Makes perfect sense.

The analogy is: what would it be like if a Frenchman came on TV and told Americans who to vote for for president? We would be enraged. Find it ballsy. And we wouldn't stand for it. So...ditto here.

But, it seems to me that, since tourism is the overwhelming mainstay of the Oaxacan economy, covering walls and buildings with political graffiti and filling the centerpiece of the historic city with a flea market isn't a great way to attract tourists and put much-needed money into the ailing economy.

Another analogy--(I like analogies)--it's like peeing on your front lawn. Sure, you can. Just to prove the point that you can. But to what end? You get a brown yard and no one wants to come visit you.

OK, This is Gross

I've been around a lot--been there, done that, seen it all.

Except for my chance encounter today. That was new.
I walked out of my hotel (which is in a residential neighborhood) and almost ran into a mother and her young daughter. She was loudly addressing the child, standing over the squatting kid, holding the little girl's hands above her head.

I was at first confused and had no idea what was going on until I looked down to the sidewalk. And there, a little memento. The kiddie had pooped on the sidewalk.

Now, I don't much like it when I see a dog do that (doo-doo?). But a kid? Yuck!

A Mexican would call that behavior "mal educado" (badly educated). Or, translated into English, "you can't fix stupid."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oaxaca Social Schedule

Never a dull moment...

Saturday morning I went to the "intercambio" at the American library here. It's where local folks and gringos show up and are split off in small groups to practice conversation--first hour in English, second in Spanish. That way, everyone learns. It's fun. I had two ladies and a young man in my group, and we had a lively conversation (in both languages). It looks like I'll have plenty of opportunity to teach English here if I decide to do that.

Saturday night, I went to a FREE (free is good)showing of the film "Woodstock." In English with Spanish subtitles. That was a good way for me to HEAR my own language and READ the Spanish translations. Problem was that many of the translations weren't quite right. Especially the naughty bits. I found I was often the only one in the audience laughing (it was almost entirely Mexicans). But it was a funny, funny cross-cultural kind of evening. Sitting in the covered courtyard of a former convent, watching a hippie film from the 1960' era I lived a Mexican environment. It made me think just how much the world has changed. Especially my own world.

And then, for something entirely different (as Monty Python was wont to say)...Sunday morning I got up and went to the Episcopalian church service (in English). I stayed for a nice coffee and chat with the 6 or so expats who attended.

Sunday evening I went to a baseball game that wasn't. I found it scheduled on the Internet for 5 p.m. tonight (Sunday). I walked all the way over to the stadium....about half and hour. And...drum roll, please...NO GAME. It's scheduled for tomorrow, with subsequent games all next week. So, instead of saying a very bad word, I just turned around and took a bus back to the hotel. I'm getting into the Mexican way of life. As they say, "Ni modo."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Who Was That Masked Man?

No, not The Lone Ranger.

I expected to see almost everyone wearing surgical face masks here in Mexico. In fact, I bought 5 to bring with me and wear in the airports, on planes, etc. (haven't used them) Instead, their use is fairly uncommon. On the street, no one is really using masks. Where you do see it is in restaurants, where the servers wear them. But you can tell the enthusiasm for it is waning. You often see masks worn around the neck, under the chin, covering up....NOTHING. Well, at least they made an effort, right?

The pandemic fear hasn't slowed down the cultural tradition of the kiss (peck) on the cheek. You do this in greeting for those of your close friends. It's simply polite and what's done. Well, face masks, be damned! I saw a lady rush up to greet a male friend. Both had on face masks. Kiss, kiss. Behind the masks. Now that's cultural adaptation!

It's the time-honored Mexican spirit of the "work-around."

Snapshot: today, I got lost on the bus. I do that. Just get on a bus going in what appears to be the right direction. Surprise, surprise. I wound up....God knows where. I walked dozens of blocks to get to another bus that would take me back downtown. Funnily enough, I finished up on a street called "Martires de Chicago" (the martyrs of Chicago...what that refers to, have no idea). Having lived 20+ years in Chicago, maybe I am also a Chicago Martyr? There were some tough years up there.... But the bus driver was cool. He'd "personalized" his wheels--red velvet curtain with fringe blocked the sun on the top part of the windshield. The rear view mirror, encircled with a RED feather boa. A touch of class, I think. Got to respect a bus driver like that.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

It's seems like Mexico can't get a break. First it was the narco/ drug war violence that made frightening headlines all over the U.S. and Europe. Certain U.S. government types even characterized Mexico as a "failed state." (that pissed off Mexicans big time) Then the economic crisis hit the country hard. It's reported that 88% of Mexican exports go to the U.S. When the U.S. catches a cold, Mexico gets bronchitis. With the miserable economic conditions in the U.S., we haven't been on a foreign shopping spree lately(at least in Mexico, anyway). So folks here are suffering. Seriously suffering.

And just when they thought it couldn't get any worse, H1N1 Swine Flu came knocking. This little piggy went to the market, this little piggy stayed home (and contaminated thousands of people, evidently). Europe issued travel prohibitions to Mexico and banned flights. Of course it's serious, and the world's health authorities are correct to act quickly. But the economic impact in Mexico couldn't have come at a worse time, on top of one-two punch previously discussed. Tourism has been the #3 source of income in the country, after petroleum and remittances sent home from Mexican workers in the U.S. But no one wants to spend a vacation--no matter how beautiful the place--worrying about a pandemic virus strain with no known immunity. That tends to put a damper on your fun.

The local paper has had story after story about empty restaurants, hotels with just one or two rooms occupied, shops going out of business. As the old saying goes, "Ca-Ca rolls downhill." If tourists don't come to the restaurants, the restaurant owners can't employ waiters. If the waiters are without jobs, they can't afford to buy clothes for their kids. Which means the clothing store employees are hurting, and the clothing manufacturers, etc. The pain goes on and on.

The people of Mexico deserve a break.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hello Again, Old Friends. I'm Back in Mexico

How times flies. Seems like it was just yesterday I was here. Or was it Phoenix?

Now I understand what "culture shock" really means. My own "Tale of Two Cities" (OK, many cities in Mexico). Things are different in the U.S. and Mexico. And it takes a bit of time--on either end--getting used to things in whichever country you happen to be living in. For example, transportation. In Phoenix for ANYTHING, a loaf of bread, a carton of juice, you get in your car and DRIVE to a strip shopping center. Here in Mexico, I don't have a car. So I walk. Ergo, my back hurts. My knees hurt. It takes a while to get the old machinery lubed up and in good running order.

I arrived in Oaxaca last night, Thursday, to pouring rain. It's the rainy season now, and I can expect rainy any time, every day. But, gracias a Dios, this morning it's sunny and beautiful. I'll go for a little exploration around the town, even though I pretty much remember my way around from my visit around Christmastime 2007. I'm staying in a "posada" (guesthouse) which was the former home of Mexico's most renowned modern painter, Rufino Tamayo. He was born here. I'm paying about $17 for a nice room with two beds, a shared bath, a sunny French window, and it's own balcony to sit out and enjoy the day. Continental breakfast and free WI-FI Internet is included. What's not to like?

It's a short walk from Llano Park and the American Library, which is the center of the gringo expat culture in Oaxaca. It's a good place to hang out and meet other American residents and visitors. Another cool offering is Cinema Club Pochote. It's a free movie place that screens art films every evening, and is open to the public. I'll go tonight.