Sunday, November 25, 2007

Photo Journal

Sunday's plan was to head out with Daniel, Cornelio and the new trainee, Pino, to visit Santa Cruz Tacahua where a local band and municipal garden were being inaugurated. The trip took most of the day--and in the end we weren't able to hear the band play, as 3 of the 11 musicians were in a car accident. However, the journey out there was unbelievably beautiful as I came to know the mountain pueblos south and east of Tlaxiaco. I will leave you then, with pictures from the trek. It's so frustrating when they can't capture the colors and scale that the eye perceives. At least you'll get an idea...

I started the early morning with a cup of hot atole with sugar and cinnamon, a bag full of fresh bread, and some light reading.

The road to Chilcatongo, the birthplace of the current, much-hated governor of Oaxaca.

The municipal building in Santa Cruz Tacahua, our final destination. Unfortunately, the band, nor the garden inauguration were present--but we did get a nice tour of the area, compete with ancient, crumbling-stone church.

Just when we crested one hill, the early morning clouds rolling down it like waves, the landscape opened up into this ocean of mountains. Woah, I think is the word.

The colors on this one turned out just right. If only the rest of the photos would conspire to come out the same!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

It is only one day. It is not forever.

I rise early for some unknown reason. Perhaps it's the cold air, the unusual quiet, the fact that I went to bed at 9. Who can say? But today is Market Day in Tlaxiaco. Vendors and consumers from all ovee the area come to take part in the "Tianguis." It's arouns 7:30a, and yet the Plaza is already full of merchants. They arrived in the night, like Santa, setting up stacks of bright treats in town center. Colored tarps drap the entirety of the square. I'm thankful I am a mere 5'2", and thus, can walk freely around; whereas, a taller individual would spend the morning hunched under low-hanging tarps, trekking from stall to stall. The market sprawls from the Plaza, to the adjoining streets, to the alleyways, to the square in front of the Municipal Building a few blocks away. If there is a vacant space, it has been filled by a tortillera, a vegetable seller, a child hawking chicle.

I do a lap to take in the whole experience. Different shapes and shades of chiles pile into mountains on the west side of the Plaza. The center square is a patchwork of fruit of vegetable vendors. Neat pyramids of tomatoes, tomatillos, onions and ciruelas pile around older women in traditional dress. The winding alley that snakes back from the southeast corner of the Plaza holds flower sellers. I follow the scents back to the indoor section of the market where bread merchants stand guard over sugared breads, pan yema in bags, or tiny buns dusted in sugar and filled with a dollop of cream. I meander further, to the northwast entrance of the Plaza where shoe sellers have carefully stacked hundreds of displays of shoes, from tennis wear to dress wingtips. One vendor hands a plastic bag to a customer, he places it over his naked foot to slip on the brown loafer.

The pace is very fast this morning, as vendors hurredly jimmy and rig their tents for the imminent rush in a few hours. Others who are already set up, busy themselves with preparations of nopales, or take a machete to sugar cane.

My stomach starts to grumble, So I know it's time to find a spot to eat. The east side of the Plaza holds a number of options. Families have set up sprawling tables and benches to serve moles, caldos (broths), arroz, tacos and frijoles. I take a seat where the cazuelas (clay pots) look the most inviting. "Qué te sirvo, Güerita," the Señora beckons. I point to the pot filled with mole amarillo, shrimp and nopales. The Señora hands me a plate laden with seasoned rice, beans and the main course. Once I've ordered other food vendors quickly descend to inquire if I need anything to accompnsy my meal (coke, coffee, chapulines (grasshoppers)). I order two fresh tortillas from a young woman and atole (a warm drink made with corn masa, cinnamon, brown sugar and milk) from another. As others take seats on the bench and inquire as to the spiciness of the nopales dish, the Señora shouts to me "Güerita, está picosa la tuya?" I've bcome the measure of what is spicy or not. It's a messy breakfast. As I shuck each shrimp, I try to sop up the juices with tortilla. I can't help but stain my fingertips with the thin, red sauce ( I know, why is it "yellow mole" when the sauce is red? Because, my friends, the red mole is REALLY red!) I finish up and the women flock to me to collect payment ($35 for the main dish, $5 for the atole, $2.50 for the tortillas). I'm stuffed for the day and it cost me $4.20 usd. woohoo!

I trek, slowly (mind you) out to the station; I'm carrying an army inside my stomach now. XETLA is virtually empty save for Cornelio, who is running the on-air program. Daniel arrives a bit later and tells me to sit in the studio to continue reading the materials he gave me yesterday "porque hay más paz allí." He comes in every 10 minutes to introduce me to someone new--the web desginer, Julio; the architect for the new building, Juan.

Finally he introduces me to Anderson and Señor Bautista (his father), who make up the musical group "Dueto Bautista," a chilena band from San Juan Mixtepec. They're here for the presentation of their first CD. The station produced it with sponsorship from a donor in Florida. The pair are hoping to preserve the traditional music of their pueblo, which in Mixteco is called Ya 'a sií (pronounced "Jazzy"). With time and migration, the return of so many from places outside SJ Mixtepec, the music has morphed and adapted new sounds. They're trying to conserve the original music as best as possible for future generations. Up until the recent donation, that was made totally impossible for a family of so little means. They have a conversation on air with Daniel in Mixteco and Spanish for about an hour. Then they invite us all back to their home for a feast of thanks for the making of the disk. We pile into trucks and drive the hour-and-a-half to get there.

The next part will be hard for me to impart. What transpired was somewhat overwhelming in how perfectly lovely, and surreal it was. At times I felt like I was living inside a photo drawn from the Fulbright Fellowship handbook. You know, I'm one of those smiling American faces, dropped into a colorful and foreign background, doing something so outside my own culture, being wholly welcomed into the festivities, and participating with open arms. I half expected the Fulbright Commission to jump out of the bushes and start filming me, asking "So Megan, tell America what you're doing with her hard earned taxes on this fellowship." To which I would have had to confess first, "America, I am getting very drunk."

We arrived at Anderson's house where a tarp was drapped over part of the yard to cover a long table split from one end to the other by a straight line of soft drinks, beer and tequila bottles. Anderson's entrire family is present, from cousins, to uncles to brothers. They welcome us, and begin to serve the shots of tequila, chased by cervezas. There is no refusing a drink--it is mandatory today. And the moment you finish your beer, another appears in it's place, full and ready to go. The abuelas (grandmothers), mothers, aunts and wives arrive now that they have completed cooking the main dish. I greet each one with a handshake. The final tia, the oldest at 70 some-odd-years of age and tiny (she'd probably come up to my armpit), her eyes glassy and blue from age, her wrinkles spreading out from her smile--she takes my hand, bends down and kisses it.

I'm...I'm totally without words.

I think she has mistaken me for someone else, like the man who sponsored the CD. Daniel leans in and whispers that the kiss is a demonstration of tremendous respect here. He makes me observe that she offers it to no one else. He says. "She has bestowed you the place of highest honor at the table, Megan." Honestly, is there anything in my life up until this point that I could hold in comparisson with this? How to measure the feeling? How to convery how my heart squeezed in my chest at this simple gesture? Why me?

We drink. We eat. The meal is a very traditional Mixteco feast--caldo de Pollo with rice, chile and clove. All is accompanied with fresh tortillas from red, blue and yellow corn; you have not eaten a tortilla until you have tried one that is made fresh from stalks of corn harvested that day. A bowl of crisp, sliced raddishes to munch is proffered. Seconds are served; the stomach must make room for more. Another round of drinks, of course! I suddenly downshift, getting my second wind, and pop the top of a Sol beer. Anderson and his father take up violin and guitar to play for those who have gathered. More arrive. Anderson's wife wanders in; much is made of their new baby at 1 1/2 months of age. "The güerita must hold him," they clamour. And suddenly the warm, little fellow is passed into my arms. Many pictures are taken of the "madrina," godmother, me! The music starts again and Anderson's mom compells all to dance. The abuelitas put down their beers (oh yea, they're throwing it back, too. Make no mistake) and join in. They play song to song without break, they say, "to warm our bodies for the cold return to Tlaxiaco."

The tarp is dismantled. A fire bursts to light--many gather around to warm backsides while filling mouth and throat with tequila. Someone backs up his car to shead the headlights on our gathering; their electricity is not working today. I tap the daughter-in-law on the shoulder to ask where the bathroom is. She leads me back through tall grass and wooden shacks to an outhouse. From inside the stall, I squat and look out through the crook in the door to the night sky with a million stars; I hear the sounds of strings being strummed, and the shuffling feet of dancers in the distance. I have to concentrate to pee; I'm made nervous by daughter-in-law guzzling a beer just a few feet away.

When I return, I try to take a sip from a bottle of water. Anderson's mother will have none of it. She stumbles through her Spanish (she mostly speaks Mixteco) and says, "It is only one day. It is not forever. Enjoy this one night!" And so, I rest the beer bottle against my lips, turn to the small crowd of merriment and let my feet shuffle back and forth to the music as the night wears on...

**More pictures (and perhaps video! to come)

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Man of Hands

-I rise early in my dirty, little hotel room (DLH). I'm hapy to report no bed bugs. It might be that the little suckers prefer warmer climates. It takes me a bit to discover that the hot and cold nozzles are reveresed here. I do, in fact, have hot water. YAY! That is cause for celebration. So I do a tiny naked dance in the shower to the song "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang. And suddenly, this little thing sets me to feeling as if the whole world is beautiful and that my trip is going extremely well.

-I trek back to the house Eva showed me to talk room rental with the Señora. She's there, as luck would have it. (..there's a party going on right here, a celebration to last throughout the year...) She tells me she's more than happy to rent me the room, complete with bed, blankets and hot shower for $52/month. (...everyone around the world, come on!) The world is looking good.

-I meander through the streets to find my way to El Encanto, a restaurant I read about in a guide book. Popping a squat at a table on the sunny back patio, I pull out my notebook to journal about the day before. A large cup of Oaxacan hot cholcolate with milk arrives. I chase it with a limey (the flavor, not the derogatory name for a Brit. I love the Brits!) version of Chilaquiles with pechuga de pollo and a plate of melon. I eventually cro-bar myself out of the chair and return to the lovely DLH for my gear. Me and the gear hike it on the dusty, people-filled road out to the station.

-It's Friday, so it's very quiet at XETLA. Since the 7-day-a-week schedule requires people to work over the weekend, many members of the production team have Friday off. I start by helping Rene fix some software that loads his sound from minidisc to computer. The instructions and pop-up windows are all in English. That tiny detail cost him all the sound he recorded yesterday when a pop-window announced he would erase all content if he proceeded; he hit "yes" not knowing what the window foretold.

-I sit in with Abraham, pronounced Ah-BRAM, as he conducts a show that sends greetings to those in the Mixtec Region from their loved ones farther afoot. For instance, a family will contact the station via phone from California hoping to let their sister in a far-off pueblo in Oaxaca know they'll call a certain payphone, next to that bank, in town, at 5 on Tuesday, for instance. It's really kind of incredible how the station serves as this thru-way for the region's communications. Abraham's worked at the station for just about 16 years. He started doing technical work--maintaining the antenna, fixing the components of the studio. But like everyone at XETLA, he now does a bit of everything. He tells me he's not a man of words; he doesn't express himself easily, he warns. It was "written into my contract" that he wouldn't have to be on air. Since this Avisos show is all written out in advance, he acquiesced to doing it in the end. Abraham is a man of hands, I say. I'm not totally sure this translates--or if he thinks I've just said something rather dirty about him. What I mean is, he composes and plays guitar. He's a painter who teaches classes at the Casa de Cultura in town. He sculpts, he tends to electronic equipment. You get the picture even if he might not have. I decide I will spare Abraham my microphone and ask if he'll let me trail him to the antenna one of these days. He agrees. I think he's relieved.

-I interview a few other employees of the station--Rene, the young news producer who's day-off it is, but who can't seem to stay away; Daniel, the station director, who practically threw me out of the station on my first visit. He now brings me research essays to read, CDs of groups they've recorded--shepherding me in to shake hands with someone, or to hop a ride with someone out to his pueblo. It's been a bit of a turnaround, I'm happy to report.

-I leave the station once it's already grown dark. A taxi is just pulling up for a day worker on the side of the road, so I yell, "Hey! You going to the Centro? We'll share, right?" At 4 pesos (40 cents) for a quick ride into town, it pays to be a bit aggressive.

-I dump my gear in my room, grab The Sun, and head for the "fancy" hotel/restaurant in town. I've decided I deserve a treat. (At $25/night it's not THAT fancy. But for Tlaxiaco this is the Ritz). The hotel Los Portales is right off the main Plaza. I snap a quick photo of the moon hiding behind some clouds and head inside. The restaurant sits in the courtyard of the hotel, with a vaulted ceiling, warm yellow lights and a fountain. I'm there at 7, somewhat early for Mexican dinner; every table is ripe for the picking. It's starting to get cold, now that the sun has said its adieus, so I'm hankering for something warm with a nice glass of red wine. Turns out they'll only serve me wine by the bottle, and I'm not willing to make it one of those slobbery, lonely nights in a far off land, so I get a Cuba Libre instead. The waitress seems confused by my order, I try to be really specific about how I like Cuba Libres (a 1/3 ice, pour in the dark rum about 2/3 up to the level of the ice, warm the glass by rocking the ice, squeeze half of one limon, the rest coke). When she comes back with a glass that I know is half full of lemon juice, I suddenly get a flash of my dad, who used to try over and over to order Old Fashions from restaurants when I was a kid. He'd map out in detail the amount of 7-up to bourbon to cherry juice--but inevitably it would come out too strong. He finally abandoned the project and now settles for the only bartender who makes it right, himself. Perhaps I should do the same with Cuba Libres...

A chicken breast with steamed veggies and a delicious tangy salad of greens with cilantro and avocado arrive. I eat every morsel and slurp up every word of English in my magazine. I leave with only a $15 dent in my pocket. Not bad.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Town of dust and vapor

I arrive early to Tlaxiaco on the 6am suburban. There was a last-minute dash to the station when I had a friend drop me off at one locale, and found that they would not be departing for another hour. Luckily their competitor was only two blocks away. Once we pulled into town center, I marched my belongings to the house that supposedly has a room for rent. The Señora is, unfortunately, not at home this morning. Her assistant lets me know that the room will not be vacant for 15 days, but that I should return to chitty-chat it up with the Señora later in the afternoon. I back track to town center and walk into the hotel off the main plaza to inquire about rooms. This is the "fancy" hotel in town, and they're charging $25/night. A bit out of my range if I stay the whole 6 days here. Plus, check-in isn't for another few hours--so I need to figure something else out. I trek downhill to a place I saw as I was walking the reverse, Hotel Colón. A room for the night costs a mere $13. SOLD. Do I ask to see the place? to test that there's hot water? Nope. I'm taking this one on faith. It's a dirty little room with two twin beds and a bathroom of its own (I paid more for this). It smells a bit like toilet; and I have my fears that there may be bed bugs. But as the woman running the place hands me my towel, a chocolate-sized bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper, I feel happy to have a place to drop my things.

Today Mexico celebrates the Day of the Musician. I've arrived early so I can observe the presentation of a CD to one of the local bands from a pueblo called San Agustín Tlacotepec. The group, "Clave del Sol" (literally, "Key to the Sun") is keeping alive the music that accompanies the Danza de la Conquista de México. I'm a bit early for the dedication, so I sit in on the current show "Vuela Vuela, Palomita" where people's greetings and news are read amidst the musical program. For instance, many who live in pueblos farther afoot will take advantage of Saturday's market day to drop by the station with a note for their family. Others call in from outside the station's signal reach to send news to those that are listening. The station acts as telephone or telegraph office (for those of you who are still sending telegraphs!).

Clave del Sol doesn't make it in time for their hour interview on the show. The rest of us make a few jokes about the Day of the Musician being spent "crudo"(hungover) in bed, instead of at the station. When they do finally show up, there is a semi-formal presentation of the CD, off-the-air, to the fellas. I ask them to each sign my CD so that "years from now people will know I have the original cut."

Afterwards, I dash out to meet up with Eva Hernandez, one of the producers at XETLA, as we are heading to San Juan Mixtepec for the town's annual party to celebrate, well, the town. SJ Mixtepec is about an hour-and-a-half's drive north and west of Tlaxiaco. We stand on a corner just west of the Plaza de Constitución waiting for Rene, another radio colleague. After twenty minutes we abandon Rene to his own fate and pay the 30 pesos to squeeze five into a truck to head northwest.

Three blocks from town the road turns to gravel and dust and doesn't let up until we're hovering over SJ Mixtepec. The drive is unbelievably gorgeous. We climb a mountainside, winding around small, wooden cabins, pines and small, snaking rivers. The dust clears at a bend in the road and opens a window onto a small lagoon. Just off the edge of the pond stands a tree straight out of a fairytale. The long, dry roots reach and stretch to find water, spreading their tentacles to the pond's edge. The tree is growing a beard, of sorts; soft tufts of gray matter dangle from the ends of each branch and leaf. If I close my eyes and let my mind soften I can open them, and suddenly I am in Colorado, it seems.

I'm sandwiched between the shotgun-side door and Eva Hernandez, one of the producers from XETLA. SJ Mixtepec is her hometown. When the truck crests the mountain, I get my first peek at SJ Mixtepec, Ciudad de Independencia. It's no two-road town, as I had wagered; it's a veritable city nestled into the well left by a glacier thousands of years ago, I imagine. As we descend into town, and as gravel turns to pavement, we pass some immense houses with giant glass windows and turrets; one even has grass! It's proof in cement and paint of the migratory pattern of these Mixtecos. This is U.S. dollar-bought and built. Eva tells me over half of the town has migrated north--some to Mexico City, others to Sonora or Veracruz; but the majority head across the desserts to enter the United States. Validation appears of this again when Eva and I hop out of the truck at her street. As we walk down the dusty road, most of the houses we pass look abandoned. Eva confirms that family members who remain behind check on the houses for their departed paisanos, opening windows and doors to disperse "dust and vapor," as she puts it.

Eva shimmies a ladder up to the roof of her house so she can break into it from above and unlock the back door for me. We fuel up with H2O, use the bathroom and head into town. "Tah-coo-nee, Shee Shee" she teaches me. My first Mixtec phrase. It's a greeting. "Shee Shee" means aunt, which they use out of respect to elders.

The Plaza is set up with three stages for bands in honor of the celebration. The party is set to begin at 1. When we arrive at 2 nothing is happening, as Eva predicted. Instead, we take a walk. Back through a small alleyway that serves as a market, we wind and trip. Blue and green tarps top each stall. Shoes are sold next to fruit, which is found next to tamales. We bump into Eva's aunt. One never knows in Mexico if someone is actually related to said "aunt" or "cousin." "Primo" seems to be a catch-all for a good friend. But in this case this is actually Eva's aunt. We greet one another by me shaking her wrist (her hands are dirty with masa). She invites us to sit and asks in Mixteco if the "gavacha (forgeigner) wants to try a barbecue taco." Of course!

And so we sit and I eat my first goat meat taco (borego or trey-gah-chee, depending what language you speak). The head and body sit under a clothe to protect it from flies. She peals the meat from the bone with machete and hands and spreads it in a large, fresh corn tortilla, sprinkling it with a bit of salt. She rose yesterday morn to butcher the calf. She prepares the meat in a light sauce with spices and roasts it slowly over the course of the day and night to bring it to market today. The meat is tender and fresh.

Eva suggests I interview her aunt. Shee Shee seems reluctant, but I choose to proceed and conduct, hands down, the most awkward and confusing interview of my short radio career. (No kidding, this beats even the quasi homeless man in Maine who in answer to my vox pop question "what is a guilty pleasure of yours," said, "people who ask me questions I don't want to answer.") Interviewing Eva's aunt was like trying to get a butterfly to perform a choreographed dance. This is in no way a comment on her aunt's intelligence. It is more a judgement of my interviewing prowess. First, I should say she was uncomfortable speaking Spanish; older generations mostly speak Mixteco. Thus, it was a small hurdle that a) I don't understand Spanish 100%, and b) neither does she. We'd get halfway through her response to a question before I'd realize that SHE didn't understand ME. I'd ask her for her name and her profession, and she'd answer with "Well, when I have time, when I'm not working, I'll listen. But since my kids are..." And then I'd realize she is answering a question I didn't ask: when do you listen to the radio. It goes on like this in loopy circles; mix in that she flips in and out of Mixteco frequently--so I have to guess from context what she's saying, a context that I hardly understand to begin with because she's answering mystery questions. I finally ask her to switch to Mixteco and have Eva translate--hoping that will clear things up. We try for a bit, but Eva keeps tuning out and saying, "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention." We wrap it up. Eva's aunt hands me a chayote, a kind of vegetable/fruit (no one can agree which), that you boil and peel, or peel and fry. It's got dangerous little throns, but apparently it is rico. Once I've scrubbed and peeled it, I'll let you know what I think.

As we mill about he Plaza, Eva tells me I'll encounter a lot of people in the Mixtec Region of an older generation that won't speak Spanish very well. This will take some more thought. I'll need a translator in some circumstances, it seems. Eva warns me that people will be shy about speaking. But later when I venture off on my own I don't find that to be true. Certainly people can be wary of strangers, especially ones with giant microphones. However, I think the people in San Juan Mixtepec were just as curious about me as I was about them. Perhaps it adds a bit of special-ness that someone from outside their community takes interest in the pueblos of the Mixtec region. Who can say?

I exit out the north end of the Plaza, through the tiny market and cross the street to escape the reach of the loud boom boom boom of the music. I approach a few people to inquire if they listen to the XETLA station. My third try gets a hit. A taco maker says she listens from 6 to 6, the hours the station operates. She invites me behind her stove for the interview. We talk of her sons in Florida, her daughter in NY. There is no station in NY--so unlike with her kin in Florida, she doesn't have a means to know how her daughter is doing. She fears the son-in-law may be treating her daughter poorly. She explains, "It's a mother's job to worry. And think how hard it is without knowing." When I probe a bit, she guesses aloud that if everyone who has emigrated north were to return, the pueblo would no longer hold them all.

At the same stand I meet a Mixtec man, his wife and small daughter. They also listen to XETLA. In his blue jeans and black cowboy hat, he tells me his wish that XETLA could expand its signal reach further so when he is working off the beaten path he could still listen. His wife prompts him to make a greeting to XETLA in Mixteco, which he does. He invites me to a refresco. I accept water, snap a photo and head back to the Plaza.

I grab a quick interview with the Mayordomo (Head Honcho) of the celebration. I also interview the emcee of the event, who speaks with great pride about Mixtec culture.

As the sun descends, the party really gets under way. I can't find Rene, who also hopes to return to Tlaxiaco tonight. Eva has decided to stay. She warns that there's virtually no hope in finding a car back this hour. We flag down a bunch of trucks, but all come loaded with passengers, here to attend the festitivities. From my vantage point I can see all the way uphill to the "highway" that snakes back and fort to Tlaxiaco. It is speckled with the white lights of cars arriving in hordes. No red brake lights; nothing is moving in the opposite direction. Just as I am giving up and cursing myself for already putting money down on a room in Tlaxiaco, a car arives to carry people back to Tlaxiaco. A cheese seller, a nuts vendor, Rene and I pile in. I have to be careful not to yawn, or my tongue will be coated in dust entering through the driver's window. Fireworks glow way in the distance. The cheese vendor is convinced they're "relámpagos," lightening.

Tlaxiaco is still awake when we arrive just before 9, though I can barely stand. I've been going since 5 this morning when I packed my bag for the 6am suburban up. I return to my dark, little hotel room. It's dirty and spare, still. Circling round the room like a dog trying to find just the right spot, I eventually settle on the end of one of the two twin beds, my feet dangling to the floor. Do I venture out for a bite? Or do I just go to sleep now? I unlace my shoes and slough off my backpack. Ah yes, rest it is! I change to pajamas and a scarf--the night air here is cold cold. I strip the blanket off the spare bed and move it to mine. Popping in my iPod headphones, I listen to a bit of English before I drift off to sleep.

**more pictures to come

Monday, November 19, 2007

Journaling from Guelatao

I'm going to take this post straight from my journal, as I took a lot of notes on this outing. Hope you don't mind the know, 'cause up until now this blog has been very black-tie, if you know what I mean.

-start the morn waiting for a city bus. Some guy tries to steal my mic whle I make an attempt to board. He siddles up and unclips a compartment of my bag. I catch him, so he saunters off without shame. Now I'm looking at everyone funky the rest of the morning. I feel terrible about that.

-hop out at El Monumento and a tortillera points me towards the taxi stand bound for Guelatao. A long line of people await to cram five to each taxi (not including the driver). Imagine a small Honda Civic. My turn arrives, and I get the middle seat up front--right where the stick shift sits. Yea.

-Guelatao is unbelievably beautiful. Conifers blanket the hills, hills that stretch until they meet azure skies. It's a tiny hamlet (perhaps the first true hamlet I've seen); a mere 500-person population. The town dips and ascends around the bends in the road. A small lagoon sits near city center. The people at first go are so friendly.

-I can't find the director of the station. He's instructed me to meet him at his office in the morning. I am late, I confess. I climb the hills from where the taxi let me off on the highway to the small station office. Not there. "He's down near the basketball court." I descend to the court. Nope. I meet a local man who tells me he lived in Michigan for 5 years. He invites me to coffee and, I think, later to marry him. Another guy sees that I am lost and walks me futher into town until we bump into some kid in a CDI truck (CDI is the commission that sponsors the radio station). The driver talks fast and winks at me a lot. A miniature player-in-waiting. He drives me to a street off the town center where a big green tarp has been hoisted over several long tables and chairs. The conversation goes like this:

Him: Are you hungry?
Me: No, not really.
Him: Sister?!? Look what I found...? She's hungry.
Me: No I'm not.
Her: Are you hungry?
Me: No, not really, but thank you.
Him: Yea, she needs something to eat.
Her: Get out and have a seat. We'll get you something.

I get out, of course, and get something to eat. It's hopeless to fight.

-lots of proposals. I've got three so far. 1. a guy stripping copper from a junk heap who lived in Grand Rapids for a spell working in an automotive factory. He's looking for an American wife so he can "arreglar" his papers. 2. Some young kid who studies business in Oaxaca City. He needs a dance partner with whom to pass the cool Oaxacan nights. 3. An old dude who passes me on the street. He wants a picture of a pretty girl, he tells me. Then he asks if I want to "learn Zapoteco." I think he means something else. When he asks for my phone number and I refuse, he tells me not to be so closed off. I pretend not to understand Spanish all of the sudden and walk away.

-it's night. It's cold. I'm sitting in the Food Tent. That's what I'll call it. I'm surrounded by families who have come to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the indigenous station based in town. Or perhaps they are families of the many musicians, dancers and stiltz walkers who have come to town to spread merriment. This little book and pen are my only companions at this point. I've roved; I've recorded. I've interviewed staff in the kitchen, bands, a stiltz walker. But now it is time to huddle and eat something warm. Bread and beans. Bread and beans. I can see my breath.

-the night takes a turn after dinner. I start to chat with a young man named Federico, a painter who is in town displaying his paintings at the local museum. On the corner coming up from the Food Tent I bump into Daniel and Cornelio from the Tlaxiaco station. We all pop a squat on the Plaza just as the Calenda arrives. A Calenda is a moving parade, normally set up to celebrate the festival day of a church. In this case it was to celebrate the station. Kids designed tissue paper "puppets" that are held high on 8-foot wooden poles. The band leads the way around the village streets as the kids and their tissue popsicles trail behind dancing. They pour into the Plaza last and continue to dance for an hour. Little plastic cups of mezcal are passed around to keep the crowd warm. They bring out a fireworks bull. How can I describe this...? It's like a bull suit that someone hoists on his shoulders. On top of the bull is an elaborate towers of fireworks. They set one ring off and as it explodes, the man carrying the bull dances around the Plaza, excitingly close to the crowd. I can't even begin to imagine this kind of thing taking place in our litigious, American society. It was fantastic!

-the youth band from Ptlapa is incredible. Not one of them can be older than 13. And according to the director of the station in Guelatao, they come from 10 hours away in the mountains, from one of the most marginalized and poverty-stricken towns in all of Oaxaca. I try to interview some of the girls in the band. They are shy, speaking mostly in Zapoteco to each other as I try to cajole them to tell me their names, or what instruments they play. One whispers answers to the other, one brave enough to speak into the microphone. They wear festival clothes today. Long, cotton dresses, white, with simple embroidery over deep pink underskirts.

-I spend the night in a room at someone's house, a short half-block from the Plaza. The small room has a non-operational sink that hovers over the bed. It sits off the courtyard of the house. It's simple and cheap. Just what I need. Though, as the temperature drops that night, I wish that I had just one more blanket. I bury my head under the one I've got so I don't have to think about the small fog collecting around my every exhale.

-had breakfast with another artist who is exhibiting at the museum. He grabbed my elbow at the Plaza this morning and said, "Vamos a tomar un café, no?" His drawings turn out to be beautiful and strange female figures, with small poem/inscriptions penciled in the corners.

-meet up with Cornelio and his son, from Tlaxiaco, after breakfast. We traverse the lagoon and follow the small cascade up to its source, and then decide to continue walking up and up to the next pueblo along the highway, Ixtlán. It's nice to stretch my legs and feel my heart and lungs pump a bit.

-we return to revisit the Food Tent for lunch. It's barbacoa. We separate and find each other again several times throughout the day. I search in vain for a small spot of shade to sit in while I listen to one of several bands play. The skin on my nose and upper cheeks is growing tight. My lips are chapped. I can tell I'll be burnt tomorrow. It feels good--like a physical manifestation of my trip--something to say I was away in another world this weekend, soaking up as much as I could, and it burned me a little.

-the sun starts to set. I know this means I have to begin packing up my gear and finding a way back to Oaxaca City. I shuffle down the main street to the foot of the village limits. A long line of people wait across the road for taxis heading to Oaxaca. One will arrive from Ixtlán, almost totally full, save one seat. I'll never get home at this rate; I'm at the back of the line. So instead, I cross the pavement and get in line for the taxis heading uphill to Ixtlán. It's 60 cents, so what the hell. I jump out at town center and get right into a cab headed back downhill for Oaxaca City. Sure beats waiting in the dark on the side of the road back in Guelatao! We weave back and forth, back and forth, up and over the Sierra Juarez heading back south to Oaxaca. I'm pressed between two people in the back seat. I let my head flop back to rest; I relax my legs and arms and let the back-and-forth sway of the car rock me against my seatmates. I doze a bit, catching snippets of headlights as they race past us uphill. I spot the tiny cluster of lights as we get close to Oaxaca, and smile at the return. Returning feels good.

-hop a bus for my apartment. Drop everything at my front door and start the shower so it will be steaming hot when I jump in. Slip into pajamas and read but two lines of a book before I am sound asleep.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Warning: This post is about my intestinal tract

Make no mistake, this post will be gross. But let it never be said that I do not respond to my very kind, very beautiful and very gross readers.

This past Friday morning I departed for a pueblo north of Oaxaca City called Guelatao (Gay-luh-TOWAH). I'll post in more detail later about my journey there. However, since some of you seem more interested (:)) in the comings and goings of my food--I'll post on that first.

I will open by saying that there has thankfully been little abnormal action in my digestive realm since arriving. That all came to an explosive stop at the tail end of my journey north (pun intended). I trekked up to Guelatao to witness the 26th anniversary of their indigenous radio station there. People from pueblos all over the Sierra Juarez came for the three-day event. The local station, with the help of the municipal government, throws a large soiree. Included in the festivities is round-the-clock dining. No joke. They set up a food tent of sorts, placed next to a wooden shack that serves as a make-shift kitchen. About 30 women and teenagers are hired from different pueblos to work 17-hour shifts, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to any and all who come into town for the festivities; that includes all the bands, performers, the municipal government, and tourists alike. It's pretty incredible.

I should start by saying the food was simple and good. It was totally free--and served with such generosity by the staff running the kitchen--it's hard to complain about any of it. And honestly, this isn't a complaint. My body just happened to not agree with something I ate on the final day. But prior to that moment, I happily and healthily ate beans, a kind of tomato soup, warm tortillas, atole, chicken, rice, beans, a very sweet agua de jamaica, locally made sesame sweet bread and more beans. I even drank my first true cup of coffee. It was served to me, and I found myself in a difficult situation in which to refuse the cup. So I drank. It was watery, and already sweetened with sugar; added ot that were ground almonds. It wasn't too bad. I'd earlier recorded some of the women in the kitchen talking about making the coffee. They stoke the fire all day long under the most enormous pot I have every witnessed--it's really more of a bathtub, than a pot. So it seemed appropriate now to try it.

Okay, let's get down to it then. On my final afternoon they served barbacoa--the big meal for the festival.
I'm almost positive this is what did it. I recorded the kitchen boss making the meal--flanks of meat saturated in spicy stew and then piled into a huge pot with avocado leaves layered throughout for flavor. Honestly, it was probably just too spicy for me. Plus, I haven't been eating a lot of meat down here. So perhaps it's the change that did it.

A few hours later I found myself nestled within a crowd of hundreds watching the 6 major bands that came into town play all together at once. It was a pretty incredible undertaking. Imagine 150 musicians, most of them under the age of 13, all playing the same, quick-tempo song without any rehearsal, or music. They played marches, waltzes--local music, really. But the songs are so beloved, and so traditional that they all know the tunes. So there I am, witnessing THE event of the festival, and a rumbling starts to brew down below. Uh oh. I breath deeply and tell my body to relax. "There will be time for that later," I say, "we're here to record this event now." Awards are given. Municipal leaders are presented. Rumble, rumble. It's not going away. I get a sharp pain in my lower abdomen. Uh oh, uh oh. This is when I know that it's more serious than I had thought. But you see, I'm sitting directly in the middle of the crowd. There is no clear path to escape. So I let it go another bit. Rumble, rumble, rumble--sharp pain--uh oh, yikes...That's when I start packing up my gear.

Have you ever had this happen to you--you have to pee, let's say. You know you do, but you've got a while before it's urgent. So you finish up your conversation, or finiag typing an email, whatever, and then you excuse yourself. But the minute that your body knows you're heading for the restroom the urgency triples in intensity. So now you're practically running. You see it in kids all the time. They tell you, "Hey, I've gotta go," and then the moment you take their hand to walk to the bathroom they start doing that pee-pee dance and their hands go instinctually to their crotches for added protection. You know what I mean?

Well, this is precisely what happened to me. As I trip, ungracefully through the crowd down to the plaza (which is the stage, incidentally), and veer quickly to the main road--my body tells me to start running. My pride tells me to just walk it. So I'm somwhere between a brisk walk and a jog at this point. The room I rented for the night in someone's home is just a half block down from the plaza. So it's not far to go. When I reach the front gate I'm happy to see there is no one in the courtyard with whom I will need to make polite chatter as I do my poo-poo dance, hand to bum for added protection. I practically sprint to my room, which of course is locked, and has a "tricky" lock, at that. But I HAVE to get in there to get some TP. I already know this is not gonna be the kind of visit to the bathroom that you can just jiggle off, pull up and go. Nope.

And this is precisely the moment that I attempt to find God.

No joke people, I was seconds away from Total Underpants Chernobyl. But something, and I'm gonna say it's God here, gave me the extra few seconds I needed to turn the lock, grab some kleenex from my bag, sprint it to the bathroom and squat. Whew. I'm sweating just in the retelling of this one.

I'm not going to describe what came next. I'm just not that kind of girl. Well, not today, at least (thank you, Matt Love). But I'm sure all of you can rally some kind of image for youselves. I WILL say this--you know what is my least favorite thing about Mexico...? The political corruption? no. The massive poverty? un uh. The fact that you can't flush your toilet paper here. I'll be honest, I flush it at my own house in Oaxaca--'cause the pipes are good, and I just wanna. But this was not that kind of bathroom. And I just hate that I can't wipe and drop, you know? So perhaps my number 1 reason at this point for loving America is the plumbing. It's awesome.

Well, there you have it! Please send your hearty thanks to 'Toria for the suggested topic.

Something a bit more "cerebral" about my trip to come...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Little Paris, kind of...

Yesterday I made my way up to Tlaxiaco, at last. I hopped a suburban heading out of Oaxaca City at 7am to arrive by 10 in mountains of the Mixteca. I toted tons of reading materials with me about indigneous media, Tlaxiaco, as well as the "essential" coat, hat and scarf. (Side bar: the #1 thing that people told me after learning I was heading up to Tlaxiaco was "it's REALLY cold up there. Make sure to dress warm.") Unfortunately, I could barely keep myself awake as we meandered up the major highway towards Mexico City and then off west on little roads to Tlaxiaco. So my memory of the ride is a disjointed glob of the sun breaking on pine tree-filled hills, small hub pueblos with miniature versions of the plaza back home in Oaxaca City and dust.

After inquiring at the bus station, I jumped in a taxi to head to the radio station. The taxista countered, "You want to go to The Poderosa?" Ah, the community station's commercial competition rears its ugly head. "No," I say, "The Voice of the Mixteca." And we barrel off for the small station on the outskirts of town.

First, I will say that it was a very productive day. It began, however, with some resistance. I first met with the station director. Uncertain whether he knew that I was coming or not (you can never be too sure that the Cultural Director at the Commission for Indigenous Peoples is actually making phone calls on your behalf), I was happy to find he recognized my name. After giving him a quick run down on the project he interrupted to let me know that they have a total aversion to researchers and producers coming in from outside of town to do projects. Apparently they have been burned pretty badly in the past. So it took another hour of cajoling and chatting and laying out my project plans to get a thumbs up. He then passed me over to Eva, the producer of the transnational program. I sat in as she edited a piece for air in the U.S. Each of the 5 stations around Mexico that are attached via satellite to stations in the U.S. are asked to produce one 5-minute cultural piece each week. They upload it to Radio Bilingüe's server so that RB can desseminate the pieces to stations around the country to air. Eva gave me a general tour. The rest of the day I spent wandering around the station introducing myself to the new faces (Faustino, Virgen Carmen, Maria Teresa...).

Around 4:30 Eva and departed to make our way towards the center of town. Tlaxiaco is teeny tiny. When I asked if there was a map I could look at they all laughed and said it was totally unnecessary. There is no way to get lost. The city is nestled amongst hills and mountains in Northwest Oaxaca state. The market is open air and small stalls with colored tarps wind off the main plaza, where a giant clock stands as a signpost and too where teenagers play music on huge speakers mounted on one side of the plaza. Just west is the town's government palace (a one-story, melon-colored building) and the main church. I'm including a picture of that church here (another beautiful sky peeks behind stone walls).

There's nothing too glorious about Tlaxiaco on first glance. It's definitely a commercial hub of sorts for the surrounding pueblos. Certainly it is a different place all together come Saturday's giant market, I hear. So I'll have to report on the great merits of Tlaxiaco on my return. But for now, I offer you a list of the many names for the city:

1. Roof of Oaxaca (for its altitude)
2. Grove of the Ball Game (?)
3. La Heroica Ciudad (official name)
4. Place of the Good View (given by the Mixtecs)
5. Little Paris (for its trade route in the early 1900s)

Afer the quick turn about town, Eva showed me up to her "casa humilde," where she graciuosly shared with me some warm tortillas and soup, as well as some conversation.

Here's the plan: travel to as many pueblos spreading out from Tlaxiaco as possible in the months ahead. Some are a quick taxi ride. Others are hours away, and would require that I spend the night. In some places I'll need a translator or cultural broker to smooth the way, others I will not. The purpose: to gather as much information as possible from people about the effect of the station and its programming. My intention: to deliver these testimonials in sound, and to do it as simply or beautifully, or creatively as possible. The director has a lot of interest in these pieces. He's said there has never been any kind of study accomplished about the effects of the station on its community--and they desperately need it. So it sounds like some of them might get some air time, as well. yipee!

I'm looking to accomplish some of the same in other stations around Oaxaca state, but to a lesser degree, as my focus is Tlaxiaco, and their relationship with those who have emigrated north. That means a lot of travel, of course. When I returned on the late suburban back to Oaxaca City, it made me smile to see the tiny dots of city lights as we crested the cero and broke into the valley. It's a nice home base, my home base. So I'll have to figure out in the weeks ahead how to juggle my field research with my editing work in the city. Yea, multi-tasking rocks!

Tomorrow I'm off for Guelatao, just north of Oaxaca by an hour. They are holding their station anniversary this weekend. So I'll take a trip up tomorrow to get to know the place. Then I'll record a bit of the festivities on Saturday. Daniel, the director from Tlaxiaco, said he'll meet me in Guelatao and we'll travel up further north to the station in San Luca Ojitlán Saturday afternoon, where they are also celebrating their anniversary. Hopefully by Sunday, I'll have visited three of the four indigenous stations in the state. I'm sure I'll have much to report on my return.

¡Buenas Noches!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

7 Years Old and 7 Dollars

Dudes! I just moved into my lil yellow house three nights ago. On closer examination I need to admit that it is actually not just yellow. It's also red, as well as white. And to some extent, a portion of the exterior is lime green, too. However, it will be so named "the Lil Yellow House" regardless from now to forever.

So I've been a bit preoccupied with getting settled. It's not as if I've never lived on my own before. So things like, a gas bill, or paying your rent on time are no new thing. However, I am quickly learning that the world of apartment rentals can be totally different here. For instance, gas doesn't arrive to my house through a friendly little tube. I have to hail down a gas truck when my tank is empty, and the gas dude gives me a quick refill. How does one know when the gas tank is empty? One's hot water stops working, or the oven turns off. And how does one hail a gas truck? Well, funny you should ask, one listens for a loud horn/siren alert that the gas man toots from his truck, then one runs out of one's house in one's pajamas and waves one's hands like a lunatic. That's how one does it!

Other things, like how to hook up my washer, how to light the pilot of my hot water heater, how to order potable water and not drop the water tank on the stone kitchen floor, thus breaking the tank--have all been part of my learning curve in the last few days. It feels a bit like I am a child learning how to do fairly basic things for the first time. I'm 29 in American years, but 7 in Mexican years (and 4 in dogs year, in case you're wondering) Fun!

Yesterday I ventured up to the neighborhood market to buy some staples. I am attaching a picture of what I purchased for the grand total of $7. As a follow-up I am attaching a photo of what I ate today for comida. It was my first real meal in my new lil yellow house. Black bean soup made with onions, garlic, dried avocado leaves, queso fresco and salt and a spinach salad. yum! I've been informed that I should give up eating fresh salads for a year because there's no getting away from diarrhea. But I'm rolling the dice on this one, kids. We'll see how it goes. And don't you worry I WILL update you if things go down wrong in the intestinal arena. Oh yea.

Monday, November 05, 2007

...For Spacious Skies

Okay. It's been a while since I've mentioned anything about my project. Right now I am waylaid in reading material. There've been some pereferral meetings with the Cultural Director of the Commission for Indigenous Peoples, and with a few people who are working on internet projects in indigenous radio. However, the bulk of my work has been sitting a reading for now.

Not very exciting to blog about. So...I have other observations to share.

The sky is different here. It's hard to explain. It's not just wider--it also holds clouds differently. I know, this sounds weird. Words are useless. And thus, I will begin my regular photo sky blog. You judge for yourself if it looks different.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I have the hands of a prize fighter. They're not lightening quick. They don't carry the force of a freight train. Nope. They're just really narly and chewed up. Have I started taking part in bar room brawls? Am I engaging in illegal Gringo Fighting? No. I participated in what is known here as Day of the Dead. And it took a toll on my poor, dainty hands.

Myth buster #1: Day of the Dead not really Halloween, people. Though, due to America's influence, some people do dress up in costumes. Most everyone seemed to be a devil or a dead bride. Lots of dead brides running around the city last week. Day of the Dead hopes to celebrate and commemorate those who have passed away. So perhaps it's better to call it a Mexican Memorial Day. Each household creates an altar full of marigolds, fruit, photos of those who have passed away, chocolates, mole, and any number of things that were favorites of the dead loved ones, like cigarettes, a certain kind of beer, etc. In addition, many people travel to the local cemetary to visit their loved ones, clean up their tombs and sit in vigil for the night.

I happily accompanied my friends to the cemetary on Friday to clean off their father's grave. I'd helped another friend the day before with his brothers' tomb, which was really interesting. But what escaped me was that not only would we be cleaning dad's tomb, but also mom's tomb, uncle's tomb, and some other guy who got a cleaning because, hey! why not?

I'm attaching some pictures of what some of the tombs look like once they are all pimped out. What you won't see is what these tombs looked like before. They are a total mess. We're talking a year of grime. The graves are packed so tightly next to each other that I found myself balancing my mop on Señor Cordero's neighboring grave for a spell while I scrubbed. I hope the vecino didn't mind!

The whole tradition is really quite lovely. Whilst you put a little elbow grease into cleaning, you can reflect on the person you've lost. I heard a lot of great stories about my friends' families. The downside is that these tombs are all made of stone, of course. So I have some bloody knuckles to show for all that hard work I put in.

Later on that Friday night I returned to the cemetary around midnight. The place was jumpin'. The city lights all of the niches where in days of yore, people's caskets were interred and cemented in for eternity. Local artesans created altars at the cemetary. The crumbling ruins of a chapel stand at the center of everything; a tree founds its way to life right in the center of the ruins. They light it in scarlet for the occassion. The place was packed. People crowded around tiny tombs, drinking and toasting their dead. Roving bands criss cross the cemetary offering a serenade for your muerto for a small fee. Some stay all night, sleeping next to the stone tombs.

I helped build the altar in the house of my friends the Cordero's. I nestled in a photo of Grandma and Grandpa Martin. If only I could have found some Scotch to leave for Granddad, or a Day of the Dead Old Fashioned. That would have been perfect!

**Blogspot is being grumpy about loading my pictures. I'll have to post them later.