Friday, May 30, 2008

What's the Deal?

My faithful and handsome readers--I am sorry to have left you so unattended in these last weeks. It's been work. It's been the sad parting of friends. It's been my own malaise. But I'm back! I hope you're back. So let's get rolling...

First, what you missed:

Two dear friends of mine departed from Oaxaca for good.
Josh is a fellow Fulbright Fellow working on a poetry project. Lynn is his side kick in life, as well as a poet and artist in her own right.

It was extremely sad to see them go. So much so that after their departure, I slipped into a deep state of melancholy. "I am alone," I said to myself--or you know, said to my other friends..."I am alone here." To which they answered, "What the f*ck, Megan? I'm sitting right here." Ah yes.

Here are some shots from their last night in town. We'd try to do it right.

Tubo gettin' some love.

The gang, star gazin' while I try to get a cab

Chicu and Suzanne (an American, a Canadian, both poets. How do you get these two crazy cats together? You get them to fall in luv, of course! Doesn't that sound like some blockbuster romantic comedy starring...let's say starring Sarah Polley as Suzanne and this guy as Chicu?)

Josh and Lynn with Junko, at a performance piece that night in the old train station depot.


More dudes (Gustavo and Josh)

Goodbye, guys!

These images brought to you by Lynn. She has an amazing eye. Check out her flickr account here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Vacation Nirvana

Time for a couple days outside the city and her traffic, noise and general busyness. Vicki did a bit of research before arriving in Mexico and found the Pueblos Mancomunados--an organization of 7 communities nestled in the Sierra Juárez mountains north of the city. I'd traveled to the region a couple of times before, and heard some good reports about camping in the region--but hadn't yet visited this particular set of villages. Both of us game for something new, we made reservations earlier in the week at the PM's offices in the city. We rise and head for the second class bus terminal at 7 AM. Around ten-to-eight the clunky, blue-and-white, school-bus-like vehicle pulls into the terminal. We lug ourselves and our backpacks into the first two seats (great view of the drive!). We've packed the necessities, and a few extras to keep our tummies full and our brains amused.

It's about an hour drive out of town towards Tlacolula, where we veer north onto winding mountain roads that take us up up further into the green. Another 1 1/2 of twists will eventually deposit us into the small community of Cuajimoloyas (don't even ask me to give you the pronunciation, as I am just able to spit the name out myself). The drive is pretty. We pass through a few small towns along the way, the bus filling with those returning from market, carrying their purchases, or some even with farm tools. One guy boards, dumping his pick ax at Vicki's feet and stomping towards the back to find a seat. We pass flora and fauna, random goats and oxen munching at the grass hem along the gravel highway. We're even blessed with a rare treat as we jostle slowly around a bend--three donkeys huddled in the middle of the road, one a male, desperately trying to hump an unwilling friend. Vicki and my eyes bug out at the action through the front window. The bus driver doesn't even break his stride, shifting from one gear to the next, barreling through this impromptu love rendezvous. We're silent for a moment, and then, "Damn, Megan. I just didn't have enough time to get my camera out for that one!" But she does snap this handsome painting of Jesus plastered to the ceiling above our heads. Jesus is a soap star, apparently, from this rendering.

I tell the driver to let us out at the main information office once we enter Cuajimoloyas. A few minutes later, a representative from the eco-tourism group shows up and unlocks the office to attend to the small group of visitors that has arrived on the morning bus. We proffer up our reservation ticket, she signs us in, and then introduces us to our guide for the day, Evencio.

Evencio's a nice little fellow, around 40-something, I would guess. Dressed in simple khakis, a polo and a cap and armed with a walkie-talkie, he leads us directly out of town and up a path. The hike starts right away! We meander down a pebbled lane that crosses past farms and cabins, heading deeper into the woods surrounding the town. Along the 3-hour hike he guides our attention to various flora and fauna of the region, kindly answering the myriad of questions with which we pepper him along the route. He points to the long line of maguey cactus plants lining the lane along which we are trekking. Here they are used in lieu of barbed wire fences where possible (which makes one wonder if Frost was Mexican would his poem have continued, "Good maguey make for good neighbors...?" These big guys are huge. We comment that they're bigger, even, than Vicki's favorite guy Mike, who stands at a tall 6'5". This particular type of maguey are not used to make mezcal or tequilla like other varieties. But, Evencio tells us, the louter layers are cut off and sold at market for those who make barbacoa (the large leaves used to insulate the flavors and heat of the fire).

We stroll further, fields of low-lying green leaves, crowned with white blossoms spreading out in neat lines around us. These are potato fields. Vicki and I are both surprised. We've never seen potato fields before, and are shocked at how pretty the resulting crop in mid-growth appears. This is the main product cultivated in the fields at this altitude. It's also what most often sits atop dinner plates in the community. We see a few small cornfields, but Evencio informs us, not until recently, with the change in climate, has corn been viable.

We eventually pull off the main road and dip onto a winding, narrow path. My feet sensing the soft give of pine needles underfoot; we all pick up our pace a bit. In between stories, or information--we all slip into that mesmerizing rhythm of hiking--where your ears fills only with the sound of your feet on ground and the quickening tempo of your breath. Little-by-little we've been ascending the hillside, winding back and forth. We stop for a moment to catch our breath, Evencio dips a jícara into a cold stream for a drink. He points out a tree where the bark has been shorn away by an ax.
People use the wax found inside this tree as an ointment for arthritis or other maladies of the joints. We stop near a bushy green plant, thin leaves with a potent odor. This is poleo, he tells us. I recognize this from the markets in Oaxaca. It's also called drunkard's herb--because when boiled into a tea, it's the perfect remedy for a hangover. It appears there are an abundance of cures and remedies hidden within the forest's depths. A bark here reduces fever; a plan over there strengthens teeth. We're walking in a veritable outdoor pharmacy!

The hike takes on a considerable incline--we're clearly headed for the top of this mountain. The trail now is narrow, peppered with a plant that induces comezón (itching)--so we have to watch where we place our hands for balance. We finally round the bend to the point called Cañon de Coyote--a narrow pass, nestled between two large boulders. Just before this pass was where the old trail used to end before the eco-tourism project began. They later trimmed away the foliage that wedged in between the rocks to make way for a longer hike. Before guided tours began, only a small family of coyotes climbed this route, making their way to a nearby den.

We wind around the boulder and make for another tricky summit--a narrow rock face called the Monte Caballo because those who are nervous about the climb usually straddle the rock and scoot up, Evencio says. The peak is near. It's two enormous boulders with a myriad of hand and foot holds. We hoist ourselves up, careful not to grab where camouflaged cacti lay low. Vicki and I scramble up to the very top; we want the best view from this lookout called El Calavario. Envencio won't follow; he says the very top scares him too much. He chuckles and mentions we are without fear. I think both Vic and I agree, it's scary--but the view is worth it.

We take in the air--so fresh and crisp this high up; it has a gentle hint of the pine scent that flavors this whole mountainside. Our heads are at the level of two enormous trees opposite from the boulders where we sit. They circle slowly, dancing together in the wind. A high trill cuts through the breeze. A whistle like none either Vicki or I has heard before. Envencio tells us that's the bird that wakes him every morning. Certainly a more beautiful way to lumber into consciousness than an alarm clock, I say. He tells me he gets up every morning with a smile; and falls asleep with that same grin to the sound of the moon bird. (which reminds me of this great Nina Simone song called "Feeling Good;" the lyrics go: Sleep in peace when day is done, that's what I mean...I'm feeling good.) Seems to me Evencio's got it down right!
Look, all three of us in one shot!
Vicki and I share a couple of plums we packed with us. Plums atop a rocky crag are the best! As the sweet juice and tart flavor of the skin fades on our tongues, we're reluctant to leave this peak. But we know we've got another one to summit before the afternoon is out. So eventually, we bear claw our way down and follow our guide through a wider path towards the next lookout point called Piedra Colorada. This climb is much simpler; even Evencio follows us to the flat top--where sitting and enjoying the view is made easy. I'm pacified by the persistent hum of the breeze against branches and leaves. It sounds almost like the ocean rolling in over the mountainside. Vicki notes the total absence of traffic sounds--telling me there are beautiful places to climb in Portland, but sometimes even there the sounds of the city arrive.

After a spell at the top of this lookout, we amble down to ground level and follow Evencio past two grazing horses, towards a path that will take us pack towards town. Have you ever noticed the smell of shade. It has a smell all it's own. And this forest is filled with the damp, thick, profoundly oxygenated air that fills a shady spot. I love it!

We finally lift out of the forest and the path wanders up to a series of small cabins that sit perched above town center. Wow! The best view in the house is saved for visitors. Our little cabin number 3 isn't quite ready yet; some women in town are cleaning out the room, exchanging old sheets for fresh ones (side note: today I lunched with two friends, Josh and Lynn--who had just gotten back from a trip to Cuajimoloyas, too--only a day before Vicki and I were there. Turns out we actually slept in their same cabin! Strange small world. Apparently they left two beers in the room, Vic. Did you drink those?) I should mention here a bit of what we learned from Evencio about how the eco-tourism project works. Apparently, a while back the state government approached the small community about a tourism project. However, after a little deliberation, the town decided it didn't want to participate; they never thought it would work. But after months of continuing to mull it over, a small group started convincing everyone that giving it a try wouldn't hurt. So, seven local communities, each run by its own assembly, combined to offer hikes, lodgings, guides and extras to visitors from near and far. They started by building two cabins. And then, when that worked and brought in money, the invested in six more. And just last year they built another eight deeper in the woods. The traffic of tourism brings money to local shops and restaurants, as well as offering employment to for guides and those working in administration of the project. We learned that many of the guides, and those who clean the cabins, start their work as their year of social service (every community member owes a year of free labor to the community every so often). But after the year is up, they can start to earn a wage if there are no other to rotate in and take over. During high-tourism season it is the same--many more guides are needed (it's a requirement for any long hike)--and so they pay the extra guides. The money from the tours and lodging goes all back to the assembly, which uses it for public works around town, like the piping of water into homes, or the maintenance of roads. But what tourism also does is acts as an incentive for the community to keep their village clean, clear of garbage, and safe. And of course, the consequence of that is that the community lives better--and perhaps even with more pride in their hometown.

To kill time while our room is prepared we decide to venture into town to one of the few comedores (small, family-owned restaurants). We climb to the second floor of a green building. There's no menu here--only a few tables, a small kitchen manned by two stout women. We're offered three choices--we both choose the breaded chicken. The meal begins first, of course, with garbanzo bean soup. The chicken arrives, breaded and so tender. It's friends, black beans and white rice crowded onto the plate, too. Vicki and I both coo over the flavor of the rice. We pop open two sodas; someone arrives with a plate of warmed tortillas and we dig in. We're hungry after the long trek. As you can see from the picture at right, we totally defeated that lunch. Take that! Not a morsel left to spare.

Evencio shows up as we're still sprawled in our plastic chairs, drumming our large bellies with sticky fingers. He's found two others to help put us through the Tirolesa. We signed up for the tirolesa back in Oaxaca days ago. It's a high ropes course. We were anxious earlier to get it out of the way today, so as to get an early start in the morning tomorrow. But now that we're stuffed to the gills, we have a hard time believing they'll have a harness strong enough to hold us. Or more likely, we're both slightly afraid we might puke. But there's a van waiting below--and three guys ready to go. So what can we do? We go!

The high ropes course is just up back from the cabins. There's a series of high-wire obstacles before you arrive to the final platform. There you hook on and descend the 75 yards, over a field, to a dude waiting on the other side atop a platform that is wrapped in Styrofoam. Not comforting at all. We get there and are pleased to see a few other people are going to try this as well; it seemed a bit uncomfortable to us both that these three guys would just watch us two girls fumble and squeal along this course.

They help us into our gear, and then start preparing their ropes and pulleys and such. Vicki and I scramble to sneak pictures of each other in these sexy harnesses. I'm pretty sure this will be a big fashion statement by the time Vicki gets home to Portland. I have to say, I was excited leading up to this. I like high ropes courses--or at least I have the other couple of times I've done it. Vicki, on the other hand, had never given it a whirl. When we trek up hill to the first obstacle, our "helper" explains how we hook both of our safety lines onto the overhanging cable before beginning. Then he just signals me to climb the ladder and get going. He doesn't go up with me. He doesn't have a lengthy safety exercise. "Just go! Adelante!" At first, I can't even see how to get from the top rung of the ladder onto the first platform. It's too far. Man, this is not going well already. I sort hoist my stomach up onto the thing and then drag the rest of my body up behind me. Oh, dude. This is high. And scary. I sort of mumble as much to Vicki as she snaps photos from below. I'm laughing in the picture at left, not because I'm lumbering around like an awkward bear (though I am), but because this is the physical manifestation of pure, unadulterated fear. Look at that platform! It's like two boards hammered together! Now I don't want to belittle this high ropes course. In retrospect, I think it was perfectly safe. I just wasn't prepared for how scared I would be. Once I managed to get on my feet, and latch my safety lines securely, I made my way across a moving, narrow beam. Did you get that? It MOVED--I mean really moved! And as it swerved and wobbled, I squealed and laughed. Next up was a series of small wooden steps, kind of like monkey bars for the feet. Frankly, they were too far apart for two gals that tower at 5'2" and 5'3" apiece. I waited on the final platform as Vicki climbed up the ladder for her turn. She was much more studied in her approach, learning from my wobbledy go at it. Yet, still she laughed and yelped a bit--both of us truly shocked by how frightening this turned out to be. Our helper awaited us on the final platform before the big plunge on the zip line. I ask if he's ever done this before and what he thinks. He hasn't. "No time," he says. I can't believe it. He's scared too! Vicki gets a couple good shots before each of her ventures above ground. She snaps one of me before I take off across the field. That's reluctance in those eyes.

As I'm headed down, my speed picks up quite a bit. I pass a narrow opening between two tall pines (yikes! will I fit with all this breaded chicken inside me?!). I'm coming up to the place where they put on the break. I try to prepare myself for a jolt. But honestly, and this is more frightening, there is no jolt. I don't really slow that much. I'm coming pretty darn fast straight into the final platform, where a guy awaits...and a large tree trunk. Miraculously I do not die. The guy kind of hugs me into zero mph. I scurry down the ladder, so I can be ready with my camera to await Vicki's descent. I'm sorry to say that I decided last minute to take a video instead of a photo. So I don't have anything to post here. Once I get the vid up on YouTube I can post it. But really, it's not the best view. What it is good for, is a good recording of Vicki screaming all the way down. She looks a bit shaken, eh? We DID it! And we didn't vomit!

We watch a few others come down the zip line; it's really a harrowing site--it doesn't seem like they'll stop. But these guys are pros. They've done this so many times. Evencio tells me he's even tried out the course. Before they were about to receive their first visitors (about 70 in a tour group) Evencio gave it a whirl to make sure it functioned. That's truly brave.

We schluff off our harnesses, get our bags from the van, and head up hill to the cabins. We're ready to take a load off. Number 3 is ready and waiting for us. And it's so cute! We can't believe how inexpensive this clean little room is, complete with hot water, private bath, towels, fire place and two fully blanketed bunk beds. We finally drop our backpacks down, and quickly decide to change into our nighttime gear--even though it's nowhere near night time. We just need fresh socks and comfy pants, is all.

Now that the adrenalin from tirolesa has worn off, we're both realizing it's quite cold. I mean, REALLY cold. I can't see my breath. But for a place without heat, or even sealed windows, we're feeling a bit on the frigid side. We both huddle under the blankets and put our hoodies to good use. And what's left to do, but start a fierce game of Phase 10--an easy-to-pack card game. Now, I'll give it to Vicki that she's never played this game before. I'll also admit that I was somehow touched by the luck-of-the-mountains this night. Because frankly, I dominated all ten phases. And I never knew how competitive Vicki is at games until I saw her lose Phase 10. By the way, V, final scores: Bicki-360, Megan-145 (low score wins) Hurts so bad, baby! (Please don't think me rude. That girl is a serious trash talker during cards.)

In order to shake off the cold, and Vicki's big loss, we don our "city pants" again and head out for a stroll. We need to find out a bit of information on how we begin tomorrow's hike; we also need chocolate. We find the eco-tour gang all huddled together in the office watching TV, trying to stay warm, as well. We pick up a bit of information, the key to our room (it was just open before) and head in search of snacks across the street. We stroll about town, to take it all in--which takes only 15 minutes. Small, modest homes, many with aluminum roofs, lines each street. At town center is a 2-story municipal building painted aqua, with its basketball court out front. We're dazzled by the plethora of flowers standing in plastic jugs in each open garden. I'm so impressed with the little wooden street signs around each corner (I mean, there aren't even that many streets. But I've never seen a small pueblo laid out so well before). They even have tied to almost every corner a small bucket with "basura" written on the side (garbage). Apparently, they have another group of fellows who fulfill their year-long community service by keeping vigil that no one litters. (Unheard of in Oaxaca City). Someone tells us that a few years back the guy who heads up the garbage watch suggested that they raise the ticket for littering from 50 pesos to 500--it being the only way to truly deter the "crime." And it worked! Another women's organization is in charge of emptying the trash bins. For the work they do, they receive federal aide to assist them in sending their kids to school. Kind of a win-win for the community--clean streets and educated kids!

We eventually return to the cabin to gorge on kinder chocolate, vanilla cookies and Doritos incognito (that's the name of the flavor). And yet again ensues a fierce game of cards--this time it's Spit. Okay. I won't gloat. I will just say I won. But at what cost, you may ask? Well, I had to go to bed that night fearing a bit for my life.

Here is Vicki with her game face on.

Here is Vicki with her I'm-going-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep face on.

Luckily, I made it through the night. And I think I can attest for us both and say we slept like logs. We slept like logs, that is, until about 7:30 AM, when some crazy public annoucement was being piped through a speaker system at full volume throughout the town, complete with accompanying music. I don't know about you--but 7:30 AM is not Mambo time for me. We use the early alarm to hip hop on cold tiles into the bathroom to pee. V let's out a loud yelp as but meets cold toilet seat. We huddle back under covers and laugh and grouse about this rude awakening. Luckily after a steady 30 minutes, though, the music finally ceases; the man stops yelling unintelligibly about something happening Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. So what do we do? We go back to sleep for another two hours. So much for an early start!

We we finally do wipe sleep from our eyes, brush our teeth and pack up--we head down to the information office--skipping breakfast, choosing Cliff bars over a sit-down meal; we want to get on the move. Our hike today will take us from Cuajimoloyas, to its neighboring community of Llano Grande. We're aiming to make it to Llano Grande in time to catch the 1 PM bus back into Oaxaca City. We refill our water bottles, scarf down a protein bar, and head out with our new guide, Michael.

I'm very fond of the second day's hike. There's no towering view, or harrowing climbs. The path merely twist and winds through meadows, pine forests and wild flowers. We criss cross over the main highway a few times. We pass by a cute little fish shack, where fresh trout is served daily. They catch the fish further downhill and then transport them to a large fresh water tank in front of the restaurant. Your meal will be killed moments after you order it.

Michael shows us the some of the felled trees in the area that have been infected by the beetle plague; Vicki speculates if this is the same plague affecting Colorado and much of the West in the States. Here they are very strict in controlling the problem--truly valuing the hills and forests that paper their region. Each community has members that are responsible to troll the woods looking for infected trees. Any tree with signs of plague is cut down, stripped of its bark (which if it contain beetles in worm form is left to dry out (the beetles dying from lack of energy sustenance from the tree) and then sent on to mills in the area for building material. The ones that have beetles that have the ability to fly, are chopped up instantly, and the bark is burned. It must work because the hillside, instead of being filled with brown, dead trees, is an array of green, with only small patches of brown.

As we trek up and down hill I notice that this altitude makes it tough to breath easily. Or I'm extremely out-of-shape. A couple of times Michael stops, hearing my loud inhale and exhale, knowing I need a break. He tells us a few local yarns about treasure in a haunted cave--and a kid who shot a wild puma. But mostly, we hike in quiet--enjoying the almost tobacco-smell of the earth beneath our feet, and the sun peeping through pine glades.

We pull out finally into Llano Grande. Even though the town name means Large Plain--this place is tiny in comparison to Cuajimoloyas. Their sign says inhabitants: 50. Wow. So when Michael asks if we want to see a little bit more of town center--we say yes! We walk about 50 meters down the road closer to the smattering of house we saw from a distance, and there we are, town center! We hike it back up to a roadside store to pop a squat on a bench and wait for the bus. It's 1 PM on the dot, so the wait shouldn't be long. However, on purchasing a couple bags of chips we find that the bus has already passed--a bit earlier than usual. Shit! The next bus isn't for another 4 hours. No! So there's nothing left to do but wait. We may luck out, says Michael, and a collective taxi will pass before then. So Michael stretches out in the sun to nap, while Vicki and I rip into some carrots and plums. Nothing like a juicy plum after a hike!

Eventually a collectivo does pass--but it only has room for one. We tell Michael to go, no need for him to babysit us. Vicki and I break out some cards and oscillate between playing and snacking, careful to watch the road for any oncoming taxis. Everything seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Everything going towards Oaxaca is either full or a lumber truck. We wait. The sun dips behind the trees and I hustle into my sweatshirt. We wait. The sun stretches out and shines; so I take my sweatshirt off. We wait. We watch the local kids get out of school and amble home. We watch a line of three lumber trucks come to a halt in front of us, each driver hopping out to grab a quick soda or snack at the shop. The kids of the owners scurry back-and-forth over the rocky yard in front of us on their bikes. A young girl, about 10, can't stop starring at Vicki. We wait.

We're almost certain we're going to have to wait all the way until 5 because nothing else is coming. But just then, an empty collectivo ambles by and pulls over. I ask what he charges to take us into Oaxaca City center. He doesn't know. He's never taken anyone all the way from Llano Grande to Oaxaca before. So he charges us the same as the bus, 25 pesos a piece. We're lucky and make the whole route through the mountains without picking up another passenger. So we can stretch out in back, starring out the window at the passing vista. I didn't realize how far up we were on our ascent-as the bus windows didn't allow for much perspective. On the way down, though, the altitude is clear--as my ears are popping, and the wind outside my passenger window turns from crisp and cool to warm and sticky.

As we pull into Tlacolula, three people hop in; we're a full car. As we glide closer into the city the sky opens and the rain spills over. Eventually it's raining too hard to even have the window open a crack to let the steam out, and the cool air in. We hop out at the baseball stadium. Luckily we came equipped with raincoats--which we desperately need since we're caught in a downpour with very little coverage under storefronts and trees nearby. We hike it across the busy intersection and quickly find a metro bus that will take us close to my house. Luck's on our side--because as we hop out the back of the bus in front of the hospital near my apartment, the rain lets up, and we can walk, hood-free the rest of the way.

We take time to shower, chill, shake off the creaky legs and joints from being smooshed in a car. But hunger overtakes us. And we're determined to give Vicki one last great meal before she leaves town in the morning. We head into town to La Olla, one of my favorites. It serves traditional Oaxaca fare with style in a cozy little restaurant. It's not very full when we arrive. And clearly this restaurant/gallery space/bed and breakfast is a mecca for foreigners--because almost every full table is occupied by tourists. Our stomachs order for us, instead of our brains or pocket books. It's like grocery shopping when you're hungry, says Vicki. Dangerous. We start with some guacamole and homemade totopos. We share a caramelized pear salad with leafy greens and balsamic vinegar. Yum! But we're just getting started here. Then the main dish comes. I order a Tlayuda (a large, thick corn tortilla) smothered in red mole sauce and topped with sautéed chicken, tomatoes, onions, avocado and melted quesillo. Double yum! Vicki goes for the meat. She's got a need for iron. She gets the most tender and savory steak, accompanied with blacks beans, plantains and sautéed nopal cactus and onions. Triple yum! We finish off, even though there is no room--but we must--with dessert. Vicki opts for a thick chocolate cake topped with almonds, while I order the flan.

Ugh. Heavy, heavy stomachs lead the way out the door, at last. We stroll up Reforma street and then over to get a look at Santo Domingo at night all lit up. It's Monday. The streets are so quiet it's almost eerie. I love Oaxaca like this--so peaceful!

Vicki defeated by her entrée. She just can't finish.

V packs. I clean up a bit. She gets to work on her guest blog (make sure to check it out!). The night winds down. I head to bed first--my brain just plain giving out. We rise in the morning, and huddle in my bed, lingering to chat before we begin the final morning--both, I think, reluctant to see the vacation end. I see Vicki off in a cab to the airport. I feel a bit reluctant to let her go in our final hug. It's been ages since we had so much time in one sitting together. And I wonder if it will be the last--now that she'll be getting married in the Fall. What a present--what a great, big, wonderful gift to get her all to myself for this last week.

Well, back to work; back to the grind!