Saturday, July 26, 2008

Random Events - Hillside Graduation

I should note that all of these "random events" have transpired over the last month. I'm too lazy to try and trace what happened exactly when in order to give you dates or proper chronology. Lethargy is setting in, folks. That's what happens when there's over a month of straight rain. Just ask anyone you know in Portland, OR.

The morning of the day I leave the Mixteca I get roped into traveling out to San Andres Chicahuaxtla. I'm in town center happily eating a sope when Rene from the station walks by. He tells me that he and the boss are heading out there for the clasura (graduation ceremony) of the local school. I need to drop off a CD of a radio piece I made to a woman in the town. I feel like I should take advantage of the free ride out there. I'm also anxious to get Daniel, the boss, to talk to Eva and I about our radio project. I keep asking Eva to make an appointment with Daniel so that we can sit down and pitch our project, ask his advice, get him on board to offer us some air time; she's told me thus far that he hasn't been around at the station to ask...for the entire month. Really? So when Rene and I arrive at the station, I call Eva (it's her day off), and ask her to come quickly to meet with the boss man, he's finally made an appearance.

Thus, the morning finds all four of us crammed into the front of Daniel's truck, heading out the winding road to Chicahuaxtla. There's a ton of construction along the route. I quip that it appears they are digging up dirt from one part of the road and merely moving it to another part. They laugh, adding that that's probably not too far off from the truth.

Forty-five minutes later we roll down the pocked gravel road into Chicahuaxtla. No one's quite sure where the clasura is taking place. I jump out at the Plaza to head over to Epifami's chicken shop to drop her a CD. She's surprised to see me--and embarrassed that I put a picture of her on the cover of the CD case. We make introductions all around--and then get directions to the school graduation.

The truck climbs another hill, breaking through clouds to the lona (bright yellow tent) hunched on the side of a green ridge. Today marks the end of the term for the Primary school--that's grades kindergarten through 6th grade. So a number of officials have been invited to the event to watch the kids present poems, dance, play guitar and sing. It's quite a showing, which shocks me. I'm trying to think if I remember such a large graduation ceremony from my primary school days. I don't think so. The girls and boys are all decked out in traditional garb. This is a Triqui community--so apart from the costumes for the occasion are dozens of women wearing the huipil that is customary here. It takes them up to 6 months to hand weave these beautiful gowns. Each row is a different symbol (the basket, the soldier, the little bird). The older you are, the more white in you huilpil, to reflect the white in your hair. The younger, the more red. The costumes are also quite something to look at. I'm dazzled by the long, trailing braids threaded with colorful ribbon. They are not braids of their real hair, too thick and long. it is actually dark, thick yarn.

The older kids perform a dance representing a wedding (there's a bride, a groom, parents). Each dance representing a different ritual of the wedding ceremony. Some of the younger kids collectively recite a poem, complete with adorable hand gestures to represent cloud, or the rain falling down down.

I snap a shot of the most adorable little pair dancing to a waltz. They are pretty loudly counting out their timing (1-2-3) as they point toes, reaching forward to take the next step. The girl is definitely leading the pair, telling her partner just when he is messing up, snapping him to attention with a strong glare. A group plays a couple local songs with guitar and tambourine. We are told they have only been practicing it for two weeks. An impressive display.

The whole event is taking place in both Spanish and the Triqui language. And it's long, really long. I am continually surprised by how patient Mexican people are. I'm having a hard time imagining Americans watching, raptly, an event transpire over the course of hours without getting restless. I need to get going, however. So after a quick tour of the community radio station (a tiny room complete with one mic, a CD player and mixing board), we all pile back into the truck to make our way back to Tlaxiaco.

I grab a quick pastry at the bakery, my bag and head for the suburban station where I'll pick the most uncomfortable seat in the van to head back into Oaxaca.

Random Events - Wallflowers, the party

I returned to the Mixteca briefly for a meeting. My youth radio cohort, the director of the station in Tlaxiaco and I had scheduled a meeting with the Municipal President of San Juan Mixtepec to talk about our plans. I arrived late the night before on the last van leaving from Oaxaca for the Mixteca. We're in the midst of the rainy season, as I've mentioned, which makes the road up to the mountains an obstacle course of boulders, rubble and potholes. All of which you can't see in the darkness until you are right on top of them. I suppose you could drive slowly, giving yourself time enough to brake--but not this driver. I was seated next to him with a front seat view of the action. But frankly--mid-way through the voyage, when addition to collapsed bridges and large boulders, fog descended, making it impossible to see further than 2 feet in front of us--I had to close my eyes; I couldn't watch any more. If I was going to die, I wanted it to be a surprise.

A lengthy meeting followed in the morning. The result of which clarified for Eva and I how complicated small village politics can be--and how they thwart even the most altruistic intentions. More on that later...

That evening I headed to a birthday party with Araceli and Eva. It was the strangest birthday celebration I've been to to date. Imagine a large, open courtyard, partly lined with long tables and folding chairs. The other half is dotted with small, ornate tables, crowned in crocheted doilies and small plates of crackers and cheese. The guests, instead of peppered throughout in groups chatting, sat bordering the perimeter of the room, wall-flower-style. And as is customary at most parties here, there was a giant sound system, blasting music for us AND the neighbors to enjoy--as if to say, please, please, nobody talk at all. We ate dinner at 11 PM. And as everyone settled back into their wall seats following dinner, the birthday boy and a professor of his from law school took over the electric synthesizer and mic, respectively, to dazzle us with some song. Awesome.

Despite of all this, or because of it, we had a great time laughing through the whole night. We followed up the birthday party with a few drinks at a local bar. Araceli's boyfriend would be celebrating HIS birthday the following day. So they were determined to wait out the night in a bar until they could celebrate him officially at midnight.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Random Events - City Construction + Rain = Off-road Adventures

The city is under some major construction right now. It might have something to do with the Guelaguetza, the city's biggest tourist draw. Dancers from all over the state come to present the traditional dance of their region in the hillside amphitheater overlooking the valley. Often times the municipal and state authorities will plan construction renovations for the couple of months proceeding the Guelaguetza to demonstrate some kind of make-the-city-beautiful inclination. This year is no exception. Bus routes have to wind around huge swaths of road that are blocked off for traffic. Quaint neighborhoods are crowded with rubble and bulldozers, making it impossible to get around easily. And of course, it doesn't help that rainy season is officially in full swing now. So all that freshly dug-up dirt is now mushy, globby mud.

Simple errands around down become adventures. Everything piece of clothing I own is covered in rust-colored mud.

And yet the overcast days, while a damper on the spirit, do make the colors of the buildings around town pop. Ambers, aquas, pinks--all glow against the gray sky. It's something, something, to hold onto as we ride out the wet days and nights.

I wish I could demonstrate how heavy the rainfall is here. I've tried to snap pictures--but it really doesn't come out well. Here's my latest attempt--a traffic build-up. All cars on this three-lane road are making a beeline for the lane furthest away from the giant lake growing on the right. Sewer drainage here--not the greatest.

Random Events - Lessons on the Road

I've been away for a while, friends. Shame on me. Things have happened. Time has rolled on. Here's a quick update, in no particular order, randomly separated into blog posts...

My neighbor has fled town with his two young sons for a 7-week vacation in the States. My neighbor is an American--but has been living in Oaxaca for the last 5 years with his family. In fact, this is the first time his sons have returned to the U.S. in the last two years. I agreed to "house sit" in their absence. The work is pretty minimal; I really shouldn't even call it work. I basically just look in every-so-often to make sure the cat is still alive (he's being fed by someone else), and that the furniture is still there. In exchange, my neighbor has generously offered to loan me his car for the 7-week period.

I balk, at first. I remember the last time I borrowed a friend's car, having to return it with a not-so-slight scrape along the side. I vowed, then, not to borrow a car again until I could afford to properly repair any damage I might inflict. I explain this to my neighbor--but he insists, "No, no, don't worry. It's a junker of a car anyways. And here, it's really just so cheap to fix things."

Obviously, this ends in disaster. I wouldn't be telling this if it was a beautiful story of my driving prowess. So I won't pretend like you don't know where this is going. But in my defense, I should explain this car to you. It is described by my landlord as a monstruo (monster). But I would better describe it as the maroon version of the A-Team van. The inside comes equipped with mood lighting (the car's actual label for it, not mine), and a TV with DVD player. Yo.

My first trip is simple--the movies. Normally I spring for a taxi, or take a 45-minute bus out to the "mall" to catch a flick. But I feel it's a good, sensible field trip to take the van out with two friends to see a film. I arrange mirrors. I navigate the giant thing down my narrow driveway. I negotiate Mexican traffic (which is a beast all in its own right). We make it back unscathed. I feel triumphant. But oh, oh, how the mighty fall.

The next trip is a longer journey. My good friend Suzanne has a visitor in town from Montreal. She's interested in getting a look at a village market. So we plan to trek out one Friday to Tlacolula for their tianguis. Two-thirds of the way out there (it's about a 45-minute drive outside the city), we pull over at a gas station to fill the tank. Once full, and paid for, suddenly the car won't start. We try several times, until finally we put the car in neutral and roll it to a parking space nearby. Flash to two hours later, five "helpers," two jumps and two mechanics later--and the thing still won't start. Mind you, nothing odd has happened to the car thus far. No bumps, no run-ins with other cars, no weird jostling--but the engine doesn't turn over at all. It just doesn't want to start. The two mechanics (who just happen to have driven by and offered to take a look) both agree that I need to tow it to a mechanic's shop; it's an electrical problem, they say. I try my neighbor in the States from my cell phone--just to see if there's something odd about his car that I'm not aware of. He doesn't answer. So what to do?

I can't leave it there. It'll get stolen, or be ticketed. There seems no hope at this point that it will just start. So I call a tow truck, and we make the long and tricky trip back to my place to leave the car. As I've mentioned this car is huge. So the truck--it must be huge, as well. It's a flatbed truck--and the whole process of hoisting onto the "bed," weaving in and out of traffic in the city, and then nudging the thing onto the muddy, hilly terrain of my house--was a nail biting experience. And expensive.

This house sitting deal is putting me in the hole, it turns out.

Want to know the sick, funny end to the story? When we finally nose the car into a parking place back at my house, the son of my landlords asks if he can fiddle with the key to give the engine a listen. And instantly, I mean instantly, it starts. Turns out, an alarm was engaged that disconnects the engine from the battery. Probably something good to know about a car--but not in the "car tour" I received a week ago from my neighbor. Later, that same neighbor sends me an email to respond to my nervous voicemail, checking in about the car. I explain the alarm, the tow, etc. He explains he's never heard of the alarm, nor had that happened to him. A pricey lesson for a non-car-owner.

Flash to a week later, a work up the courage to take the beast out again--this time a short trip again. I don't want to press my luck. But after spending the money to tow this thing--I'm considering like a rental. And I want to get my money's worth. Plus, my friend sunk $50 into filling the tank. So I want her to get her money's worth, too. The trip goes off just fine. And thus, I take the car out a few more times for local trips to the supermarket that's way out, the movies, a village market.

Fate would have it when you are finally feeling a bit comfortable again, you get slapped down. Last night I took the beast out for the first time in a week to get some groceries. It's been raining like crazy. So having a car to do a few errands is helpful. As I pull into the drive, the main gate that leads to my house is closed. It's nighttime--so this is pretty standard. I jump down to open the doors and encounter my landlord's son departing with his lady. And as I'm heading back to the car to get in, the driver-side door starts to shut. No. Oh, god. No. No. No.

I reach for it as it's closing, all this in slow motion. My hands grasping, reaching. This is like an action movie, in which a key, which defuses the bomb, starts sliding down the roof, and everyone makes a move to rescue it from the eventual fall. But as the tips of my fingers reach the handle and try to hook around the latch, the whole handle breaks off into my hand. No. Oh, god. No. No. No.

You see, this car does not open on the driver's side. When you unlock it, you have to enter from the shotgun door. The car also, when running, automatically locks all the doors of the car. So while the driver side door is unlocked--it is impossible to open. And every other door is locked. The car is running. The lights are on. And this monster is sitting there--blocking the entire drive, my neighbor unable to leave. Shit.

We try screwdrivers, hangers, attempting to push the window down, pushing and pulling at every door. Nothing works. My landlord calls their friend who is a locksmith. He'll come over--but it'll be $70. God! Could "borrowing" this car cost me more money, please??!!! I run up to ask the sub-letters in my neighbor's place to see if they have his number and can let me borrow their phone (my cell is locked in the car with my purse and all of my groceries). And in the midst of dialing the States, my landlord's son gets the driver-side door open. Thank, God.

I'm done here. I'm done with this borrowing-car-business. It's bunk--especially when the car is somewhat dysfunctional. Who knows if my neighbor will return and demand payment for the broken door handle (which is totally useless anyways, since he enters from the shotgun side door anyways), or the bits of pant chip scrapings around the door where the son attempted to open the door. I'll pay, of course. It was my choice to take it out. It was my responsibility to return it in tact. But man...Cars suck. And I am done with them until I am rich.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Help a sister out...

Who's in need of some good karma? You? I knew you were.

My radio doc school in Maine has offered to donate four backpacks of equipment to a youth radio project I'm working on in a village called San Juan Mixtepec. It's the same town where I attended the annual party just weeks ago. The radio gear is a huge gift for these guys, as we're starting with nothing. My colleague, Eva, and I are donating our time to teach the classes, some villagers are donating space and a computer, and local stations are donating time for us to broadcast. All the incidentals, like power cords, paper and the like--fall to us to cover in the end. As we are not yet an official non-profit, or what here is called an AsociaciĆ³n Civil, we are not set up yet with the ability to seek funding from foundations (that's a future step).

So, here's where we need help: I need to send the equipment from Maine to a few people in the States who are traveling to Mexico, and can kind of mule-in the recorders and mics (it's a bit tricky here to get electronics in the country--they're not very free speech friendly!) Very honestly, I don't have the money to just fund the shipping myself, sadly (imagine a very meager U.S. government stipend quickly dripping away). I'm turning to YOU. If a swath of people donate something nominal ($5-10) then I'm sure I could get all of this equipment shipped safely and quickly. Those who have a few spare dollars, and would be willing to help out, below is a donate button which will lead you to a secure page to make that donation using a credit card, or transferring funds from a bank account.

Needless-to-say, this equipment will be a big asset to our program. And for a village, and a set of kids, who have little--it will make a very big impact.

Thank you. Truly.

(Those who want more information on the youth radio project, shoot me a line, and I'm happy to supply)