Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tap water and horses--they both kill

I awake nestled in wool blankets, surrounded by powdered dish soap and soda. It's dawn and a construction crew has arrived to install a laminate roof to the house where I am staying. Don't they know this party time??? What's this get-up-early-and-work business?

Eva and her sister-in-law start making a bit of breakfast. And as they do, I realize that it will kill me. They cook using water from the tap in this house. In fact, last time I was here they were drinking straight from it, too. Perhaps the water this far out is a bit cleaner than what's in the city. But as I go out back and start to wash some dishes to help out--I look down into a small well where you draw the dish water from and it's dark gray. This can't be good. I try to think if there's a way I can excuse myself and run into town for a snack. I supposed I could just explain that while the water in the food won't touch them at all--it will wreak havoc on my innards. But instead, I pour drops of Nutri-biotic (a grapefruit extract I use to kill germs on my veggies and fruit at home) into my Nalgene bottle and start downing the water as a preemptive strike. Turns out, nothing happens. Maybe it's because they boiled the soup for like an hour over a high flame. I think they do it for taste--but it has a two-fold consequence. Or else I have a stomach of IRON. Whew! American nerves calmed.

Eva and I decide to take a walk--as the day's festivities won't get rolling until the later afternoon. We end up at a local high school called the CBTA. We talked ages ago about collaborating with CBTA's director to get our youth radio project up and running. But some sort of political struggle was happening within the school--so we backed away. But as we crest the hill leading up to the school I ask Eva if we shouldn't just stop in and see if we can have a casual chat with the director; take advantage of the time we're there, eh? She waffles back-and-forth until I finally physically push her towards the school's administration office. It turns out the director is quite interested. He's got lots of ideas about how to integrate into their program. He even gathers two or three classes together in one room so we can pitch the idea to the students. We'll meet in a week to collect questionnaires from the students.

We decide to take our luck for a roll and head out to Santa Cruz, a nearby rancho that has it's own community station. I've heard from others that it is connected to the high school there. It's worth taking a gander and talking to those who maintain it. At the least we may be able to garner some airtime on their station for the kids' projects. We hop in a taxi--it's a quick 20-minute drive north deeper into the mountains. We struggle a bit in town trying to locate the place--but eventually head uphill to a small two-room cement structure with a tiny antenna. We hear music coming from inside--but no one answers the door. Eva hoists me up into the window so I can peer in. No one. Looks like it's just pre-recorded music. THESE people know it's party day! Thus, we head back in the same taxi to Mixtepec.

It's time for the horse races. I don't know what to imagine here. I'm keeping my imagination at bay since yesterday's chicken slaughter was so surprising. We jump out at a neighborhood on the Northwest side of town, Colonia de las Rosas. A long white road stretches out before us--flatter than any I've seen in Mixtepec. Groups of people are huddled against one-story houses and storefronts--trying to escape the blazing rays of the sun. Some have scaled to rooftops for a better view. We pass the race starting line where men are feverishly constructing the starting gates from which the horses will catapult. All over town horses are tucked behind trucks or amidst corn fields, lassoed to trees, awaiting the upcoming race. I suggest to Eva that we pick winners and bet to make the race more interesting.

We end up taking shelter against a building, sitting with some friends of Eva's--two couples, a few grandmothers and two young kids--one with some pretty impressive geographical knowledge. He practices his English a bit with me. Me: You speak some English, then? Him: Yes. Me: Uh. So have you spent some time in the U.S.? Him: Yes.


Finally the gates have been dug and set. Twice as many people now line the narrow road. Two horses begin their warm-up, jogging up and down in front of us. The jockeys instead of sitting atop lightweight saddles are actually strapped to the horse, their legs lashed around the horse's midsection. Only one of them wears a helmet. Yikes! A few police troll the sidelines, instructing people to back up more behind the thin twine cord that has been set up to delineate racetrack from "bleachers." And without much pomp and circumstance the horses throw themselves from the gate. A wave of yelps ripples through the crowd as the horses pass by. I'm trying to get my camera up for a pic--the wind knocked from me as they zip pass so close. A clod of dirt flies up from a hoof and thwacks me on the chin. Woah. So exciting! This is nothing like Arlington's staid racetrack back home in Chicago.

The crowd settles again as we wait for the next duo of horses to warm-up and get into place. A friend of Eva's and a cameraman, waltzes by and shoots the breeze. He excuses himself to get down to the end of the road to film the next round. And again, without much of an announcement the next to steeds break from the starting gate and leap into action. I can't even get my hands up for a picture. And then, all of a sudden the crowd around me pushes more at the cord holding them back to see the end of the race--necks craned north. A friend across the road yells to his wife and she takes off running down the road towards the finish line. Something's not right. There's been an accident. The woman who took off, turns out, is a doctor. About 3/4 of the crowd follows down the road. They all must see what has happened.
It turns out that cameraman, the one who just moments before had been talking with Eva, was standing inside the racetrack confines trying to get just the right shot. He was just too close inside. One of the horses ran straight into him. What could he have been thinking? I can't imagine. Apparently, the jockey tried to break, but there just wasn't enough time--and the horse threw the cameraman aside like a piece of trash, cracking his forehead open in the front. It then fell, taking the jockey with him. It seems to take forever for the ambulance to finally pull down the road. It's so sad. And even though there are still a dozen other horses still tied to trees and trucks waiting to have their go at the track--the event can't go on. It's not so much of an official decision--the crowd just doesn't have a heart in it any more. Everyone drags their feet, heading back towards town center, all mumbling and whispering about the race, and the two poor men now racing towards Tlaxiaco's hospital in an ambulance.

The event clearly changes the remainder of the day for everyone who was there to witness it. Eva and I make our down towards the river's edge and see that the second despescuazada is already in motion. She gets up close to record some sound. I just can't take it today. Another 40 chickens down.

We head towards the Municipio to catch another band playing. Masked revelers jut and stomp to the rhythms. The "dance floor" is ringed by observers. Someone standing behind me asks Eva to introduce us. He's from Mixtepec, but has been working in Miami, Florida for years. His English is pretty good. He tells me he's just down for the festival--but will head back up north once it's over. He also tells me he likes the color of my skin. I look down at my sunburnt shoulders and think he's joking. Uh huh.

This guy's yellow cape above says "Show only for the ladies"

We grab a quick taco--tasajo--not chicken, I'll have you know. Then there's a search for a collectivo to get us back to Tlaxiaco. Eva's got a piece to finish for air tomorrow--and I need to head back to Oaxaca. We eventually discover her brother in the road--he and his wife are heading back. So we squeeze four to the front seat and start off--the hustle of street vendors, the screech of roller coasters, scurrying stray dogs snaking underfoot for scraps, the Lucha Libre just gathering its crowd in the Plaza, and of course the thump thump of a bass--all falling away as we head up hill and out of town.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Party, pueblo-style

Today, I awake in Oaxaca, ready to set off for the Mixteca. Unlike most trips to the region, I do not pack my recording gear--not even my computer. This is not a trip for work, no. This is a trip to party, pueblo-style.

View from my place in Tlaxiaco

Around 10:30 I hoist the duffel on my back and make my way in a taxi to the suburban terminal downtown. The taxi driver cannot change my 100-peso bill. This city is truly in crisis--no one has change. I mean yes, yes--let's fix poverty and education--but first, could we get some change into the hands of store owners, please? You try to drop your big bills at restaurants or pharmacies. But sometimes you're still left holding a hundred bucks (which is only $10 USD, mind you) with nowhere to spend it. I have to race inside the suburban terminal, pay for my ticket with the hundred, then rush back out to the street to pay the taxista.

I score the front seat in the van; I can already tell this is going to be a good trip. We wind and snake our way back and forth up North and then West off the main highway. The hillside turns from green to yellow grain to red earth, back to green again. I forgo my book and iPod to simply sit and stare out the window. Since the rain has begun the vista is strikingly different. Where once there were neat, long dirt rows--seeds waiting to sprout--there now climb corn stalks green and slender, stretching to skyline.

I land in Tlaxiaco. It's mid-week, so the streets are fairly quiet; the bustle that builds towards Tianguis throughout the week hasn't found its momentum yet. I drop a few things at my little rental place, and then head out for yet another road trip. The collectivo to Mixtepec isn't yet full. I steal a couple of minutes to dash to the Plaza for a quick ice cream cone before we depart. Gotta get all the food groups in for Party Week. We pile 7 into a 4-door pick-up and head out the back gravel road towards Mixtepec. I strike up a conversation with the young guy next to me. He turns out to be a filmmaker. He's just produced a documentary about San Juan Mixtepec, in fact. So I get a kind invite to the next showing in Oaxaca City.

As we descend into town there's a notable difference in the landscape. Green fields and rolling hills are dotted by bright yellow tents (lonas). These are Mayordomías--spots where families host on-going breakfast, lunch and dinner for their neighborhoods. Town bands cycle between the tented sites playing traditional chilenas for diners, as well as escorting local dancers and neighborhood "princessas" to activities in town.

Okay, the rest of this story will be in a kind of stream-of-consciousness format because I spend the remainder of the day oscillating between taking in the event and searching for my radio colleague, Eva. We thought it would be easy to find each other in town. But a mixture of her very late arrival, and a giant throng of people, made it surprisingly difficult.

Normally lazy dirt roads are crowded with stalls and people today. Hundreds of small women, wrapped in blue shawls bob through the activity. Not only have ciudadanos from neighboring ranchos flocked to Mixtepec for the party, but many who live and work in the States have made the long journey home to celebrate. And of course, every kind of vendor imaginable has followed the crowd to these dusty roads. The people must be fed! My ears fills with the consonant sound of Mixteco, or the softer nasal whistle of Spanish. I swivel my head around every time I hear English--which is pretty frequent.

The main road to the Municipio is jammed full with small amusement park rides. A tiny dragon roller coaster screeches and roars, towering over a band of traditional dancers shuffling to a chilena. Soda and hot dogs vendors sit next to old men with clay jarras offering tepache. Old and new juxtaposed. The main Plaza is blocked off by tall blue fences. Tomorrow my friend Anderson is sponsoring a Lucha Libre fight; they've cordoned off the area, I suppose, for that reason.

I bump into my Fulbright adviser who is escorting a group visiting through San Diego State University, in Oaxaca to take an intensive Mixteco language course. Juan Julian is happily buzzed on mezcal, hugging a small palm chotchkey to his chest, recently purchased. As I meet the rest of the group, we bob our way around town, following the crowd towards the river. The riverbank is peopled densely; two long lines form of dancers facing one another; men on one side, women on the other. Each is dressed in some version of traditional garb: women with long braids, twined with ribbons, dark skirts stretching to the dirt, shawls wrapping their shoulders; the men vary, some in button down white shirts, and jeans, others bedecked in ponchos and neck scarves--but all crowned with cowboy hats. Each dancer (and they range from teenaged to ancient) carries a chicken in his/her arms. The neck and feet are trussed in colorful ribbons. They are surprisingly calm, sitting there, jutting up and down as the dancers rotate around each other for an hour, an hour! It occurs to me that Mexican people are infinitely more patient than Americans. I can't think of a single American custom in which a crowd of people will sit calmly, or even excitedly, and watch something repeat over and over again for an hour. And yet, that's exactly what we're doing on this riverbank. I'm a bit dazed.

Men meander through the crowd offering little cups of home bred mezcal, tepache and tequila. Perhaps that's what anesthetizes the crowd. I spot a few guys clutching their beers, taking a fall into the mud; they started early! Almost every other person is holding a camera. There'll be no shortage of footage for those who could not make it to the party. Every second is being documented.

Eventually it's time. The main event is here. We're all dancing, and watching--the throng growing by the minute. People climbing up on the bridge nearby to pop a squat with a good vantage point. It's time for the despescuazada. I have no idea, truthfully, if that's how you spell it. I just barely learned to pronounce it before the week was out. This is the oldest, and perhaps most distinct, tradition of Mixtepec's town party--the mass public beheading of almost 80 chickens.

Pobre Gallo

Ok, I want to be clear and fair here. I want to describe what I saw. But I also don't want to tinge too much of this account with horrified foreigner judgment. I feel like this is the kind of tradition that may be difficult for any outsider to hear about--and appreciate, or comprehend. And perhaps this is what some, some who have never visited Mexico, imagine when they think of a far-off place. I don't know. I have definitely seen chickens killed before here--either for sustenance, or for religious purposes. But humanely, to be sure. This is a different story. This event traces its roots, according to many I spoke with, back to the time when Spaniards colonized the countryside. It is their tradition, actually. It's meaning is the reenactment, or representation of the beheading of John the Baptist. This is, after all, SAN JUAN Mixtepec...San Juan, Saint get it. And June 24th is John the Baptist's birthday.

How that reenactment manifests itself here is that people from all over town donate their chickens, and some turkeys and ducks, to the festivity--dancing them into quiet tranquility. The two lines of dancers part, and three or four of the birds are strung up over the crowd by their feet. Enter the men on horseback. There are about 6--all volunteers. They ride down the riverbank and jockey to get underneath the dangling birds, reaching up from their saddles and grabbing ahold of colorful ribbons and feathers, possibly getting a grip on their necks, and then, and then pulling with all their might. It's a difficult task to wrench the head off of a chicken in this manner. It's not the quick snap you would imagine. It's long and arduous. There's squawking, screaming even, the flap of panicked wings. The men elbow each other, nudging their horses for a better spot. They stretch and pull and yank. I can't help but scrunch my face into a pained expression as I watch a neck stretched to a foot in length. This is when I accept my first little glass of mezcal. I need it.

But as I scan the crowd, I don't see anyone with the wrinkled horror that sits on my face. They're all there, lining the muddy banks, many with cameras. No one is really cheering, either. There's no bloodthirsty cry from the throng. They're just sort of calmly craning their necks, watching the event, and event that has transpired like this for decades in their town. They just want to be there, to be a part of the tradition, I think.

It goes on like this for some time. There's about 40 birds to be sacrificed today. Each one takes a while. In between batches the men on horseback ride downriver, the winners tossing the chicken heads behind them into the air. Some are spotted in blood, others covered from head to waist with it, tufts of feathers wreathing their heads. It is considered an honor the more stained you become. And he who pulls the most heads from bodies is awarded a prize. No one I talk to can agree on what the prize is; some say money, others say a big bowl of chicken soup (no kidding).

When I can take no more, I make my way uphill to track down Eva. Along the way I bump into Señora Bautista, a woman I've met in town before on my many trips to record stories.

The river bank post-despescuazada

She won't let me past without first accompanying her for a beer. I say no, no. She says, yes, yes. We waltz around like this until I relent. So there I find myself hunched on a tiny stool in a bodega, drinking a beer with this old woman. And can I tell you--this woman can chug a beer. She says "otra!" But I waggle my finger "no" insistently. We part so I can hunt for Eva.

Where I was supposed to stay the night.
Notice the windows are all boarded up. Uh oh.

I'm going to confess my least favorite thing about being here--and it's not the mass slaughter, you may be surprised. I stick out...a LOT. When I was walking around with the group from San Diego it wasn't a big deal--we were a pack of whities. But by this point they have departed back to Oaxaca and I am wandering around alone. Night has fallen--the crowd has multiplied. And it seems to me that it's like 65% men. I feel a bit on guard from the imbalance. I can't ignore the whispered "Güera, güera!" in my direction. I don't think I'm unsafe; I mean, there's TONS of people about. But I can't track down the aunt of a friend who is supposed to give me a place to stay tonight. And the last collectivos back to Tlaxiaco have departed. So without Eva, I'm a bit stranded. People are kind. Many come up to me and inquire who I am, where I'm from, why I'm here. They invite me for a soda or a taco--asking me to set my backpack down to enjoy some conversation. I even bump into a few guys that I met from earlier trips. They're hunched over plastic tables, clutching a cerveza, set for the night. A few try out their English on me. A guy in a mask (lots of people dress up in costume) calls out to me in English, "Hey! Where are you going, güera! I want to get to KNOW you!" I answer in Spanish, "Sorry, I don't speak English." Thus, he repeats the same in Mixteco, which makes me laugh.

Eventually, and thankfully, I find Eva on the main road, accompanying her mom and cousins. Whew! We laugh that she couldn't track down the one white person in all this crowd. Her cousin, a 12 year-old visiting for his first time from New Jersey, prods us to take our turn on this pirate ride. It's one of those boats that swings back and forth like a pendulum, each time a bit higher. I like rides. I'm game. But as we lock ourselves into the seat--and the ride operator does not at all check the latch-I think, "I'm not totally sure this is safe." I mean, Mexico isn't the litigious world that America is. So there's not that real or false sense of security one gets from knowing that if the ride were faulty the company would be penalized severely. So as the pirate ship climbs higher and higher, as I slide and bump around inside the metal seat, I let a slew of expletives and giggles slip from my teeth.

The party continues all night long. Bands take the stage. Dancing ensues. I hear most of it, the bass thump thump and the treble trill from the hillside where Eva lives. We're both kind of exhausted. I find myself nestling under blankets on a beat-up mattress in the storeroom of Eva's family home. The night air is chill now. I think of the lonely pig I passed on a back road earlier who was lassoed to a tree, sitting knee deep in mud. During the sun's high point of the day, it seemed an ideal place to be. But now that I can see my breath, I worry for that surely cold, forlorn fellow. Ni modos, it's time to sleep.

I leave the lights and action behind me. Time for bed!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What else? There IS else.

Life is filled with other, somewhat insignificant moments. And frankly, I'd rather share them with you than the various stages of my Fulbright project. How many of us can really tolerate the minutiae of sound design? Hmmm?

In my continuing effort to document the sky here--let's add this to the album. A photographer just told me that early morning and late afternoon (around 6, just before the clouds open up and flood the city) are the best times to snap photos. The light is like no other. Likewise, a filmmaker friend said that October/November are the best months for light. Though I would wager that this June morning could challenge any November dawn.

Some mornings there is time for a stroll down to Sanchez Pascuas for a quick licuado from my friends Lupita and Jorge. I have my favorites, make no mistake. But this particular day I branch out for a smoothy of orange, apple, lemon and beet. Mmmm, beets, turns the pee pink. What a delight (or a horror if you don't know it's from the beets)!

Some mornings I'm lucky to have an invite from friends for Sunday brunch. As I await outside their apartment I spot this little treasure left behind in the sidewalk.

That's a bag of bread, friends. The other day when I was musing with a neighbor about how I would make it financially viable to remain in Oaxaca past my grant period, she patted me on the shoulder and said, "You'll never starve here, Megan." So, I may be homeless, but never starve. Cool. This bag of bread seems to confirm that point. There's food just SPROUTING from the sidewalks here.

To pick up the brunch fare we take a walk along the empty streets towards Suzanne and Chicu's favorite Sunday market, Merced.
Look at these Oaxacan treasures. Some same deterioration; others say beauty! Weekend mornings are the best for trekking round the city. The markets are full. But the streets are quiet and vast. A Oaxaca without a swarming population. So lovely!

Other days there's time to take a break to make something slowly. There's an art to slow cooking. Shit, there's even a movement. Jeannie, my NY roommate used to joke that I am a four-burners-going kind of gal. Today's no exception as I prep white beans for a tomato-based stew, garbanzo beans for future use and a veggie stock for all-around use.

And finally, here is the first in a series I am trying to prepare on Roof Dogs. I'll have to collect a bunch to properly tell the story of this far-too-common breed of pooch.

**Listening to The Spoon as I type this.