Friday, June 26, 2009

Goose Chase In Search of a Choir

OK, I used to sing in a men's choir when I was back in Phoenix.
I enjoyed it.
So I had this hair-brained idea that maybe I could sing in a choir here in Oaxaca. Goodness knows there's plenty of music and art in this city. I began by asking about the Municipal Chorus at a tourism office kiosk over in the zocalo. The lady there said, "Oh, you'll have to ask at the Casa de Cultura." That made sense.

Next day, I walked over to the Casa de Cultura, which is only about 3 blocks from my apartment. Nope, they only offer workshops. But they've got one for choral singing (I just might sign up). The Municipal Chorus is run out of the City of Oaxaca, office of culture and arts.

Never take never for an answer. Today, I walked 14 blocks over to the municipal building, went through security, up a flight of stairs, and to the city's office of culture and arts. Nope, not there. That particular function was run out of an office on Hidalgo Street. What luck! I live around the corner from Hidalgo Street.

So I walked over to the Hidalgo Street location. Nope. Closed. A notice on the door that they'd relocated to a new office closer to downtown. No problem. I walked BACK DOWNTOWN to the new offices.

There was no sign on the street indicating this was a municipal office building. I stuck my head inside and asked the girl at the front desk. "Yes, this is it, but we've just moved in and you can see we're still in a mess." She took me in and introduced me to the correct lady in charge of the culture office. "I'm sorry," she explained, "but we haven't even moved in the desks yet. Can you come back Monday and we can give you the contact information?" Sure. At this point, why give up the fun?

So Monday, I'll trek back over there, get the phone number for the chorus's director. All this, probably to no avail. They've never had a "furriner" in the group, only locals. But it never hurts to ask. And ask. And ask.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Smell This

I wish you could smell these. They are paperwhites (a type of flower for those of you non-horticulturally inclined). I bought them on the street tonight walking home. An Indian lady and her young daughter were selling them from a basket. I stuck my nose in....and a sale was made. If flowers could talk, you'd have to say these are SCREAMING. Their perfume is so incredibly strong, it's almost overpowering.

I but them in a carafe in the middle of the dining room table (where I am sitting now at the computer). The carafe was formerly home to some very bad red wine, which I banished to the inner reaches of my stomach. Had to get rid of it somehow, right? I really just wanted the carafe. They scent the entire apartment.

It's raining now, heavily. I've got my doors open on both ends of the house. I like listening to rain. On my way home from the movie tonight, I stumbled upon an open-air public band concert and dance. The were playing "danzon" music, and a good number of older couples took to the improvised dance floor, which was at the corner in front of Santo Domingo Church. I thought....if all those monks and nuns from centuries past could see the goings-on! They'd probably....hike up their habits and come out for a spin around the band.

An American Day

Sometimes you can't get around being an American.

Today was one of those days. This morning, I went to the American library just to hang around and chat with gringos. I find this very satisfying. And then I took the bus out to the modern shopping area, Plaza del Valle. I'm ashamed to say I had lunch at KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN, otherwise known as KFC. Yep, I did it. And I enjoyed every bite of greasy original recipe (here known as "secret recipe"), mashed potatoes and cole slaw. Can't get more American than that. Somehow the chicken didn't taste exactly the U.S. version....I know they're supposed to. One bit of culture shock: as I was seated at my table munching away on a chicken leg, I looked up at the service counter. There in line was a Zapotec woman, dressed in colorful headscarf and traditional Indian costume, holding a baby, and ordering the Colonel's special....make that with a Coke.
I think we get accused of American cultural imperialism for just such things.

And then I walked over to Sam's Club and bought a membership. I don't even have a membership back in the States. But they are the only game in town here in Oaxaca for a number of items you can't find elsewhere. And prescription meds are cheaper at Sam's than at the regular pharmacies in the center of the city.

And now I'm home watching "NBC Evening News" online. In an hour, I'll go up to Pochote Cine-Club (free movie place) to watch an American movie.

While I'm feeling increasing bi-cultural and comfortable LIVING in the middle of Mexican they say, you can take the boy out of Missouri, but you can't take the Missouri out of the boy. And that's my American Day. Some days you just have to do it that way.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Friday means it's farmer's market day in Llano Park, about a 10 block walk from my apartment. I seem to have missed it on previous Fridays, so this last Friday, I made a special point of going. I headed out early, prepared with comfy walking shoes and my trusty sack. It's an ugly thing I bought in the regular market (building). Woven plastic or vinyl or something. It's got product nutrition information and weights stamped on one side, so it lived a previous life....maybe as a flour sack? I like it because it's strong as heck and I can load it down.

I stopped on the way and had a little breakfast, a ham and egg torta (sandwich) and a glass of fresh OJ. Never start a Mexican day without fresh-squeezed orange juice. Once I got to the park, there were dozens and dozens of vendors in little stands set up under plastic tarps (it's been rainy). I was in pig heaven! Every kind of fruit and vegetable you can name....and many I couldn't. There were bakery stands with fresh rolls and pastel pastries. The chicken lady with very yellow whole chickens, feet and all, hanging from the rafters. And the fish lady. I bought 2 unidentified fish from her and had her fillet them. I patronized 2 vegetable sellers. The stuff was SOOOOO fresh: green beans, whole garlic, onions, broccoli, red ripe tomatoes, carrots, and funny ROUND zucchini. I bought it all. I overloaded my shopping bag. Had to take a taxi home, no way I was walking. Once home, I spread it all out on the counter and it got a goood soak in MicroDyn (antiseptic wash whose main germ-killing ingredient is colloidal silver. Some people get colloidal silver at the health food store and use it to fight colds & flu).

I'm busy cooking up all the stuff. A big pot of vegetable soup is in order for tomorrow.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rolling Optician

Yesterday, I saw something I'd never seen before. Of course, that's a fairly common occurrence in Mexico.

Parked next to the curb about a block from my apartment was an old beat-up Dodge van. On the side was a homemade sign: "Eye Exams." And the tailgate was open and the optician lady had set up in the back a nice display of all the frames she carried, along with her measurement tools, a set of lenses of varying strengths, "which is better, one or two?" And funniest, in the front seat of the van, hanging over the rear-view mirror was the classic eye chart. I guess patients were supposed to try to decipher its lines standing at the back of the van.

She'd placed sheets of cardboard torn from cartons around the vehicle's windows. After all, paatients need a little privacy. And she sat perched on the back seat with the door open, waiting her next patient. The Mexican entrepreneurial spirit lives.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fungus for Lunch

Today, I was lucky enough to have been invited to the home of an American couple who've lived in Oaxaca for several years and are part of the expat community here. First, it was neat being able to see what they had done in remodeling the house. Spectacular! With a interior courtyard backed by a full length mural. An orchidarium on the roof. Mahogany staircase. And exceptional Mexican art. I love looking at other people's homes to see what they've done with them. I'm still at the rental stage in Mexico and probably will be for a very long time. But you can always dream....

My hosts' cook made a tasty and typically Oaxacan lunch for the group--chicken stuffed with huitlacoche. This is corn smut or a fungus that naturally grows on corn. In the U.S., it's considered a pest. In Mexico, it's a great delicacy. So I ate it. No complaints. Kind of looked like black spinach. Flavor, hard to say since there was a tomato salsa that went over the dish. Here's more info from Wikipedia on huitlacoche:
It could be worse. They eat grasshoppers and a type of ant here, too. For those, I'll pass, thanks.

This evening, I had plans to go see 2 movies at the free cine-club Pochote, "Dream Girls," and "Tommy." Both have terrific music. I walked the 16 blocks from my apartment to the movie place. Only once I got there, the projectionist told us that the movies never got delivered....sorry. (This is pretty typical for Mexico.) He was going to show an old Mexican movie instead. I wasn't interested, so I got up and left and walked the 16 blocks home. Back in my misspent youth, I would have been mad as hell. Tonight, I just chalked it up to a nice evening stroll.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Neither Fish Nor Foul

Friday, I tagged along on an excursion put on by the gringo library up to a trout farm/restaurant in the mountains outside of town. Wonderful views, cool mountain air. And grilled trout was mighty tasty, too.

Saturday, I and an Australian girl I volunteer with at the children's shelter took a small group of kiddies to a baseball game. Two boys, two girls, all around 10-11 years old. They'd never been to a ball game before. I considered that deprived of basic summer fun. They were super well behaved, more so than American kids, I think. One little girl got a nosebleed. But kids do that. We had pizza, drank soda pop, a made a lot of noise when Oaxaca scored a run. Oh yeah, the Oaxaca team lost. By a point. But, who cares? A good time was had by all.

Ashes to Ashes

Well, today was the third anniversary of the 2006 Oaxaca riots. That year, there were deaths and injuries. In 2009, like 2006, the militants are the state teachers union, along with a political group, APPO. They postered and graffitied most building in the central part of the city, including the historic landmark old canterra stone churches and monuments.

This year, the groups have been encamped in the zocalo (town square) since I arrived in mid-May. There is a long banner stringed between two trees with the images of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and (a real hero?) Stalin. There are loud speakers blasting the demands of the teachers/APPO. And, in solidarity, they've invited in the "ambulantes" or street vendors. These folks have set up shop on every square inch of the pretty square, selling teeshirts, sweet corn, pirated CD's, tacos, and almost everything you can imagine. Somehow, it doesn't quite make sense. Teachers' strike....selling mango on a stick? Go figure.

So this morning (the anniversary), the downtown residents were awakened at 5:00 a.m. with a series of blasts every 3-5 minutes or so. Firecrackers, bottle rockets, or something more sinister? Don't know. In fact, as I'm writing this, there are more explosions outside. I have to admit, it gets your attention, though. And while I prudently decided to stay inside all day and miss the multi-thousand marches through the city, and the traffic blockades, I got bored. So around 5 p.m. I went out for a little stroll....toward the zocalo just to see what I missed. And that was the remains of burned-out tires--mounds of black stinking ashes. My allergies were most unhappy.

For the citizens of Oaxaca, I hope the two sides get this resolved soon. After the swine flu scare, the lousy economy, and news of narco-wars, tourism couldn't be worse.
And tourism is, overwhelmingly, the economic engine of Oaxaca. It feeds tens of thousands of families. The annual folkloric festival, the Guelaguetza, is coming up in July. It would be a pity if this political disturbance kills the golden goose and all they wind up with is....a pile of ashes.

Kinky Oaxaca

This statue sits in an alcove on top of a commercial building (NOT a church, surprisingly) in downtown Oaxaca. If you can't tell, he doesn't look too happy. It's of a Catholic penitent stripped half naked, scourging himself with a whip. These flagellants were common in the Middle Ages in Europe. Looks like some of the fun spread to Latin America. Here's a link to Wikipedia if you want to know more--

It still looks kinky to me.

Oaxaca Lending Library

Also known as the "gringo library" here in Oaxaca. It's the center of expat social life and offers a large collection of books and DVDs in English. It's a great place just to hang out and have a cup of coffee and chat with new friends.

I always take advantage of the "intercambio" on Saturday mornings, in which local Mexican folk are paired up with gringos for a language practice--1 hour in Spanish, 1 hour in English. That way everyone learns!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Shape of Our Lives

I'm not sure if it's living in Mexico or being retired.

The rhythm of my life has change noticeably. I'm voting for the Mexico thing, since when I've been back in the States, briefly, during the last 7 months, I fall right back into my old patterns. Like list-making. I don't do that here, since I would have nothing to put on the list. Back in Phoenix it was: doctor's appointment, pick up new charger for cell phone, take car in for service, stop at the store for groceries, go to the bank, etc., etc. It was endless.

A startling reality--at least for me: Here, I don't have much to do. Being a Type A personality in total recovery, I've had to slow down. Folks who know me thought I'd be bored to death. On the contrary. With less to do, you savor those things you do do. It's quite a lot like the "slow foods" movement (in reaction against fast foods). Shop for foods carefully. Be conscientious about your selections. Cook things slowly to capture all the flavor. And then savor them in the eating.

Many of you have asked, "So, what's your typical day like?" OK, here goes. Today. A very pleasant day. I got up around 8:30. I've been sleeping a TON. And enjoying in immensely. It may be because of the elevation here, my being outside all day in the fresh air and sunshine. I'm doing 9 hours a night + nap (more about that later). Then I make a simple little breakfast of home-cooked oatmeal with fresh bananas. I faithfully squeeze a big old glass of fresh orange juice. It's so good! And maybe a slice of toast. Interesting note--you can by pre-toasted bread in a package here. Don't need to own a toaster. I usually burn it when I'm doing it myself, anyway.

Then a shower and get dressed. Today, I had to be at the Estancia Infantil (Children's Shelter) for street kids at 10 a.m. There, I meet Eva, a girl from Australia, who twice a week brings in the most amazing craft projects for the kids. I just help with that, and do some individual tutoring and homework help. Also, I'm usually up for a bit of soccer with the boys. Now that's something funny to watch--a 50+ gringo and some 10-12-year-old Mexican kids playing soccer. Guess who's fastest?
I find working with the kids super rewarding. One boy, Osvaldo (about 11, I'd say), needs a lot of help with homework. We did math last week--long division and multiplication. He did surprisingly well, and enjoyed the positive feedback and individual attention I could give him. Today, we worked on spelling and reading (not so good). I asked him....begged read me a storybook. The center has a big collection. He flat out refused. I made funny faces until he acquiesced. We made it a 2-man project. He got to pick the book. Very short, with lots of pictures. About sea animals (manatees). Then I understood why he didn't want to read to me. He could barely read. So we sounded out words together, me pointing to the pictures. Or physically illustrating the problem words. (How do you show the word 'flippers' for example?)

I'm really aware of the kids' short concentration limits, so we break up learning with a bit of soccer or helping out over at the crafts table. And sometimes, we just talk. Osvaldo knew the name of the American president. And he knew the name of the Mexican president, too (they've got local elections coming up here in a month).

I'm trying to organize an outing for the kids--an excursion to a local baseball game with the Oaxaca team, the Guerreros. None of the kids have every been to a ballgame (my Dad would be rolling over in his grave!). Kids under 12 get in free. So one of the men who works there, and the lady doctor and I are going to be the 'chaperones' and herd off a flock of kiddies to the ballgame Saturday afternoon. I'm expecting it to be like herding cats. But, at a Mexican ballgame, no one will care.

After the volunteer stint, I walked back downtown with my Australian friend and we had lunch in a local cafeteria/diner place. I always go for the 'comida corrida,' or meal of the day. At Tito's, it's 38 pesons...about $2.75US...and that includes a soup, main course, dessert, and fruit drink. Such a deal! Eva and I had a nice chat about her dream of moving to Canada with her boyfriend.

After lunch, it was time for a nap. I did 2 hours. OK, I'm embarrassed. But it sure felt nice, and I awoke 100% recharged. Then, I watched the U.S. news online, and had a chat with an American lady student who lives across the way in one of the other departments here. I walked down to the Mercado to buy some bananas for breakfast tomorrow....just as an excuse to go for a walk. Then, I had a bowl of soup for supper at a restaurant on the zocalo. And I splurged and had a cantaloupe popsicle. I like this pattern of eating with the main meal midday (around 2-3 p.m.), and a light meal in the evening.

And now I'm back home writing to you. I'll read a bit a go to bed. So--as you can see--nothing earthshaking. But it was a sweet and pleasant day, and that's all that any of us could ask for.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

There's Something About a Clothesline

In this, my NEW new apartment, I have a washing machine out on the back patio. This is super common in Mexican homes, putting "Electro-Domesticos" outside. The water heater is found out there, too.

But I have no dryer. To my Americanized way of thinking, "what's with this? Where did the dryer go?" Duh. Clothesline. I haven't even seen one of those in probably 40 years. But here, I found the cord all rolled up, untied it, and strung it across the patio. I went out and bought clothespins (called "pinzas"...think 'pinchers'). So, my first foray into doing the wash Mexico style:

The washer filled with water, I added detergent & clothes. And then it sat there. No agitation, no spinning. "Damn!" I thought. Something's always busted in Mexico. So I went to ask (nicely, think you) my landlady if there was some trick with the washer I didn't wasn't spinning properly. And, trick there was. She came over (she lives 2 units down) and jammed a ballpoint pen into the slot where the lid latch normally goes. "The latch broke off," she explained, "but this works just the same." And it did.

Once the cycles were completed, to the clothesline with the clothes. I felt 1940's hanging out my laundry. I got everything hung up except for about 6 pair of underwear, which went onto the backs of dining room chairs to dry. And I'll leave you contemplating that pretty mental picture. It's definitely a look...

The News from Oaxaca

Advertising sign for local language school: "Learn Englis Here."
Hmmm. Problematic, wouldn't you say?

Snapshot: The ladies here can often be seen walking down the street with parasols to protect them from the sun. When was the last time you saw THAT in the States? It makes ultimate good sense to me. So now I don't feel so stupid walking down the street in my big floppy brimmed Indiana Jones hat. Shade at any cost.

Last night I went to the Pochote Cine-Club to see a free movie. This is an art house that plays 2 movies every single night FREE! I like free a lot. The building was formerly the home of contemporary Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, who is the patron of the Cine-Club. Here's a link for those of you who read Spanish:

The 8:00 showing was the 1979 American film, "Hair." about a blast from the past! My era! I was one of one about 6 people in the theater. I'll have to admit it was a bit weird watching this slice of 60/70's Hippiedom here in Mexico (with Spanish subtitles, even!).

I'm truly enjoying having a kitchen. You have to understand that after 7 months on the road, it feels good to sit down to a non-restaurant meal. Tonight, I made myself a salad. That's a luxury, since I never order them in restaurants here. Lots of vegetables and lettuce, right? All of which require washing, right? In what water? Purified? Or the nasty stuff that comes out of the tap (non-drinkable). Here at home, I was very careful to soak all my greens in MICRODYN, which is the liquid microbicide commonly used here for everything from washing veggies, to purifying drinking water, to washing dishes. Put a few drops in, let 'em soak.

The produce here is gorgeous. Red, ripe tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. Wow! Avocados cheap. Unusual squashes. The Mercado (market) is where most Mexicans go to buy their veg (NOT at the supermarket). This is because it is usually fresher (often you're buying direct from the farmer), and cheaper, since you can haggle. A lot of Americans are put off by having to haggle. problem. I guess 10 years selling real estate in Chicago made me lose my timidity in closing a deal.

Product plug: one beverage I'm crazy about here is called "Clight." Don't have any idea what that means...probably nothing at all. I'm guessing it's a riff on the popular bottled drink called "Be-Light." (next letter 'C'-light, get it?). This is a dry powdered drink mix. Think Kool-Aid. But oh so much more yummy. It's sugar free (made with Splenda) and comes in 100% natural fruit flavors like: Pear (my favorite), Mandarin/tangerine, Pineapple-Coconut, Mango, Peach, and Hibiscus Flower. Can you imagine the taste of PEAR Kool-Aid? Since they use natural flavorings and no preservatives, it's sure good.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pix of the NEW new place

This new place looks like "Grandma's House." Not MY grandma, mind you...but somebody's. Maybe it's the lace tablecloth on the dining room table. And the china cabinet. Or it could be the overstuffed plaid sofa and armchair. Whatever it is, this place is C-O-Z-Y. And I like it.

Apartment #2: My NEW new place

Yes, I know I'm a gypsy. In the space of one week, I had THREE residences. Surely that's a record for even me. I was living in a hotel room, a new apartment, and a completely different apartment.

Yep, the cute little place I wrote about in the posts below continued to flood. It's the rainy season here, so this was something I was going to be looking at on a daily (nightly) basis. The roof leaked like a sieve. The effect was sort of like living under the canopy of a tropical rain forest.

And then there was the MIRACLE OF THE GAS LEAK. Read on: As I wrote in the post below, the gas man came and installed the gas tank. So far, so good. Warm showers. Great. He even showed my how to use the gas burner stovetop.

Midafternoon, I lay down to take a nap. I was really sleepy (wonder why?, hmmm...) I awoke to the sound of a torrential rainstorm, and water dripping from the ceiling onto my leg. Once I was awake, I noticed the powerful smell of GAS. Checking out the gas stove, I found that one of the on/off knobs was broken. You couldn't turn it completely off, the knob just spun around without a hard stop. I turned off the gas intake valve below the cabinet and opened all the doors and windows.

And that was about enough of that. I called the landlady (on my nifty new cellphone) and told her I wanted my money back. Thankfully, she didn't kick. Well, she said she could get the roof fixed in 3-4 days if I'd stay. "No, gracias." The last night there, I 'camped out' in another unfinished (dry) apartment in the building (with no water of working bathroom).

Happily, I was able to get into a different apartment the very next morning. It was the place I had looked at about a week ago. Still available. What luck, huh? It's more expensive--5,000 pesos vs. 3,500 pesos. But that's still only about $380 US/month or $13/night. That's a lot cheaper than staying in any hotel. I love having my own complete kitchen. It's got 2 bedrooms (only need one). There are 3 other apartments in this new buidling occupied by long-term American residents. And the landlady here lives in the front. She's like a mother hen taking care of her tenants....very solicitous that everything is A-OK.

I'm posting some photos of the place above. I'm really taken with the apartment. It feels more like a home. The last place felt like a hotel suite. This feels lived in.

Tonight, I'm off to the baseball stadium for another game of the Oaxaca Guerreros.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The New Cell Phone

I had been putting it off for months, but decided it was time to get a Mexican cell phone.

I walked over to the market area and stopped into a cell phone store. This is an easy thing to do, since there are usually about 2 in every exaggeration. Not sure how they all stay in business. But it seems Mexico isn't a mature market like the U.S. where EVERYONE man, woman, and child has a cell phone. Most folks here do, too. But it appears they're still selling them to new customers.

It was quite a deal, too. $25 U.S. for a nice LG brand lightweight model. And that came with 100 pesos worth of airtime. When you run out, you just buy a TELCEL (the Mexican phone compay) card, for sale in every corner shop.

Now, I just need someone to call.

Should I Start Building the Ark now?

This is the rainy season in Oaxaca. So, it rains. Duh. Every day (actually every evening). Like clockwork, around 4-6 p.m. the skies open up. Monday we got socked really hard. As we used to call them in Missouri "gully washers." And I got caught up at the gringo library. I had only a small umbrella with which to venture out.

I ran into my upstairs neighbor lady, an Australian, at the library. All SHE had was a hooded rain jacket. So, ever the gentleman, I shared my umbrella and we ventured out together squeezed under its sheltering circumference. We didn't have far to go, just around the corner to a place called 100% Natural, a health-food restaurant. In the 2 blocks, we got SOAKED! But it was worth it. We both had a hot bowl of soup and waited out the rainstorm.

However, when we got back to the building, I found my pretty new apartment FLOODED. Not Katrina-level flooding, mind you, but a couple of inches half-way up the room. The ceiling leaks, water comes in under the gap in the door, and through the window frames. This is not a good thing.

Last night, it rained again. No surprise there. I only had small puddles this time. I sure hope the landlord gets around to fixing the leaks and gaps. A dry apartment in the rainy season is much valued.

I've Got Gas & It's a Good Thing

No, not the kind you get from a refried bean burrito.

The Oaxaca Gas Co. came today and delivered a big tank of gas. The thing looks like scuba gear, and the poor guy who delivered it lugs these things around all day. Off a truck with no lift gate, much less. Into the building up flights of stairs around half a dozen corners. And didn't break a sweat. He helped me light the pilot light on the water heater. And he helped me turn on the gas "stove." That's just a 4-burner gas thing that sits on top of the counter, unattached. Like a fancy hotplate. I can actually heat up a bowl of soup now! Woo-hoo!

And--luxury of luxuries--HOT SHOWERS! I was getting used to the cold shower routine every morning. Bracing, sort of. But THIS morning, I took a nice hot one. Felt terrific. So as you see, in Mexico you learn to be grateful for small things.