Sunday, August 24, 2008

Up, that's where I'm headed

As a rule, ever since I've become an "adult" I gift myself something for my birthday. A good excuse to make an indulgent purchase? Perhaps. This year, I had to wait a couple of weeks for the gift I truly wanted. I think you'll agree that it was worth the wait...

A few months back I met a friend of my neighbor's at a dinner. His name is Sten; and Sten's passion is parapente, or in English, paragliding. It's not often that you meet someone who has a school in the sky, of sorts. So when my birthday rolled around I took the opportunity to call Sten and see if I could celebrate entry into a new decade in the sky. He agreed, it was a great idea.

We drove out southwest of Oaxaca toward Zaachila, a small community about 35-45 minutes from the city. There, we met with four of Sten's parapente pals, and former students (Sten and his buddy have a parapente school here in Oaxaca; I absolutely recommend it for anyone passing through town). We pile our gear into the back of the pick up and drive further up hill towards the take-off site.
We can only drive so far up hill before we have to ditch the car and hike it. I'm lucky, and only have to heft my helmet, water and camera. Whereas the other guys are toting an entire parachute, harness, radios, etc on their backs up windy dirt roads.

Uh huh, totally beautiful. It's almost a prerequisite for parapente, as the weather needs to be mostly, clear with wind to even bother. But I think we were blessed with a particularly gorgeous morning. I tell Sten that I made a call and ordered this sun and blue skies.

Sten, and nothin' but sky...

Sten readies the shoot on the hillside we will leap from. You can see the valley below. I should mention that I'm, of course, riding tandem with Sten; no solo flights just yet. I get a quick lesson about take-off; bend my knees, lean forward, stay with him (since we're harnessed together, it kind of essential), and run my butt off when he yells to do so.

Yo, I look hot!

I'm pretty bundled up, even though the sun is streaming; the temperature drops quite a bit once you are swimming in the clouds. Sten straps me into the harness--I'm riding in front of him. Luis helps lift the chute so the wind will inflate the silk. I feel the heavy tug, and get dragged back a bit, shuffling my feet as instructed. And then Sten yells, "Corre" and I take off running forward, straight off the hillside. But not three steps later, the earth pulls away from my soles, and I find myself bicycling my feet in the air. And then, this...

I have few words for the experience. It's hard to appropriately describe being 6,000 feet above sea level, legs dangling, cold air rushing past your face, riding thermals up into the clouds, Sten's music softly playing from a small radio. I hardly spoke for the hour we played in the sky; I was too overwhelmed with how beautiful. The others played around us, searching out their own pockets of hot air to take them further and higher. Sometimes they were close enough to toss a baseball. Other times they floated far off in the distance.

Sten knocked on my helmet, making sure I hadn't passed out. I told him I just couldn't talk. He seemed to understand exactly. Time came to land when we ran out of available thermals. Sten spotted a piece of field nearby that looked promising. So, my lesson on landing procedure came a few minutes before doing just that. It sounded similar, bend my knees, run once I hit the ground, stay with the chute. Unfortunately, as the ground raced towards us we found zero wind to help put the brakes on, and so we landed with considerable speed. However, the landing zone was well-picked, and mostly soft. The tall weeds came up to my arm pits where we hit done--so running was near impossible--and we both just flopped over instantly. Sten, ticked on my helmet, asking if I was okay, no twisted bones of joints due to impact. I felt great! Inside my helmet, the bumpy landing was more fun than anything else. It was sort of like the way you can throw yourself around in snow or sand without too much concern.

Our parapente makes a huge impression in the weeds. Sten compares it to crop circles supposedly left by aliens in the wheat fields of the States. We work to fold up the chute and re-pack it in the backpack. Sten calls out "Espere!" as he wants to get a shot of me, wading in the weeds with the chute. "A memory of your birthday," he says.

We hike it out of the field and toward the main road. Another key element to landing, is to try to end up somewhere near a highway or drive so that the person in charge of the truck can make it to you for pick-up. Sten tells me about a time he landed just off course of a forest and had to hike for 3 hours to make it to the nearest road. I can't imagine--these packs are huge!

When we make it to the truck, two other flyers are already there waiting (plus, Luis, who was in charge of driving the car from the hillside where we left, back down to the valley where we landed), and a few others who didn't fly today, but saw us in the air and came out for the after "party." Apparently, the best thing to chase a high altitude fly with is a couple of chelas (beers)!

The parapente guys

We retire to a nearby restaurant in towards Zaachila village. Now that the beers and mezcal are open, the parapente horror stories are coming out. It's really a pretty safe pastime, especially compared to things like driving a car, statistically-speaking. I think they avoided talks of this kind before I took off. But now that I'm safely back on ground with a huge smile on my face, the regale me with talks of people caught in storm clouds, or who's feet got tripped up under them on landing. I'm feeling lucky.

Eventually it's time to pack it up. Sten invites me to a casual party out in Etla at his ex-wife's place. I snack on cake, have a beer and chat with some fellow ex-pats. I play frisbee with their hoard of bilingual children, who freely exchange between Spanish and English throughout the game. And finally we watch the sun set over the valley and hillside. It's an unbelievable sky; I ordered well this morning. It's a birthday present to myself to rival all others...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sad news

I just got word that my fish died today. I got him with my friend, Frank back in September of 2006. We shared custody. So when it was time for me to leave NYC, Frank took him to his apartment in Queens. He was a beta fish, so they don't have that long of a life expectancy, I know. He really beat the odds, living as long as he did. But still...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ringing in a new decade

Welcome to old age.

I have to admit that the eve before my birthday I felt reluctant to leave my 20s behind. It's a curious feeling, since the 20s (at least mine) were filled with angsty self-doubt, plastic furniture and poverty. And yet, something in me felt sad that I would have to move on. As I am drifting off to sleep on August 10th, I rally myself from unconsciousness for a few extra minutes of 29 years old.

But 30 does arrive. Remarkably, it feels pretty much the same. However, I gift myself the day off of work, and To Do lists to celebrate myself.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air, Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same, I, now thirty-seven [or thirty] years old in perfect health begin, Hoping to cease not till death.

Thank you, Walt. That's a good one for 30.

First on the agenda for me are pancakes. They're not that common here in Oaxaca. But I think birthdays should start and end with cake. So...the hunt ensues. I eventually find myself at Naturel, one of my favorite breakfast spots in Oaxaca, up in Colonia Reforma. Pancakes alone won't suffice. I've got a craving for a bit of salt AND sweet. Since indulging oneself is tantamount to proper birthday etiquette, I order enough food for two: a creamy Oaxacan hot chocolate with milk, a freshly squeezed glass of OJ, pancakes topped with fruit and amaranth AND a quesadilla-type dish filled with ricotta cheese, herbs and topped with fresh guacamole and salsa roja.

I take my time noshing and reading a bit. I follow it up with a leisurely stroll through the tree-lined streets of Reforma, wandering back to my hood and home. My friend Itzel is due any moment. We're taking the afternoon to build a birthday picnic.

I hop into Itzel's 30 year-old white punch buggy, and we zip off to a few markets to pick up the necessary ingredients: charcoal for the grill, fresh veggies, mezcal, tasajo and chorizo links, and some fresh quesillo. The market is filled with interesting characters today. Our cheese vendor turns out to be a secret (or not-so-secret) poet. As he winds our long strand of smokey quesillo into a ball, he recites bawdy limmericks to passerby. And as we're filing out the front door, making our way to the car, a nieve vendor sings to us of our beauty, 'Hola, bonita! Qué tal, chula! No quieren un poco de nieve?" The sweet compliments inspire us to stop and purchase a bit of nieve (snow).

The "guest bedroom" at Itzel's; cozy up in a hammock

We zip along out towards the direction of Etla, to the village where Itzel lives, San Lorenzo Cacaotepec. She shares a beautiful home with her friend Luzbella, on a large piece of property, filled with citrus trees, avocado trees, and delicate cypress reaching up to the sky.

On the agenda is a Mexican barbecue, of sorts. Itzel slices up the nopales (flat cactus leaves), wraps the tasajo and chorizo links in foil, cleans the calabazas (small, wild squash) and green onions. I'm in charge of the salsa; after sautéing the jalapeños and tomatoes in a shallow pan, I grind them up to a fine pulp in the molcajete. Meanwhile, Luzbella gets the coal-fired barbecue going outside. This bbq is a bit different than Dad's Weber at home. It's really an open-mouthed square dish, lined with course chunks of charcoal. We place the calabazas, green onions and foiled-wrapped meats straight into the fire. The other munchies (like fresh tortillas with epazote leaves and quesillo, get sandwiched between metal grates, and held over the fire.

Look at that grinding action!
A small, shin-height table is pulled out onto the lawn. Our meal will overlook the green garden and empty pool out back of the house.

As the meal heats, we take turns making our own concoction of grilled nopales with tortilla and quesillo, or toasted calabazas with red salsa; I even take a bite of the whole white bulb of a green onion. Yum! We toast mezcal, sucking from fresh limes to chase the spicy Mexican liquor made from maguey plants.

As the sun starts to dip towards the horizon, Itzel and I hop back in her car and head for city center. I've got a phone date with Mom, and Itzel's got a coffee date in the Zócalo.

Mom and I share a nice chat. She calls this birthday a milestone--which I'm reluctant to agree with--as that makes me feel some extra pressure to make this one count. In fact, I think my birthday is better seen as an opportunity to take stock of the year, and also to honor what one has accomplished--something I think I often forget to do throughout the other 364 days.

It's dark now. 10 o'clock ticks off, and Alex comes by to take me out to a late dinner. I'm stuffed at this point, for sure. But there's always that extra birthday stomach we keep in reserve once a year. We head to Trastévere, an upscale Italian place not too far from my house. A bottle of wine, seafood ravioli in red Vodka sauce, and some reminiscing about what we were like 10 years ago caps the evening.

Truly it was a lovely birthday.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


This is what 30 looks like
Friends, I've got some news: I turned 30. Yo. As a gift to myself, I took a couple weeks off from the blog to enjoy the new decade. Here's what the celebrating looked like...

My natal day fell on a Monday--not the best day of the week for celebrating. Thus, the Sunday before, I headed out with the Corderos to Teotítlan de Valle. I'd read various reviews of a Zapotec restaurant nestled in a tiny community east of the city--it had gathered praise from both Gourmet Magazine and the local foodies--so it seemed worth a trip. And on your birthday (or the day before your birthday) you can obligate people to drive 35 minutes for food.

Tlamanalli is owned and run by the two Mendoza sisters. There's no menu; you just stroll in, take a seat next to the open air kitchen, and ask what your options are for the day. Then you can watch the dish come to fruition as its prepared in the colorfully-tiled kitchen at the back of the restaurant.
My chicken in a corn-based mole sauce, and Mau

The five of us (Rafael & Azucena, Mau and Alex, and me) feasted on moles, fresh corn tortillas, mezcal, guacamole served in tiny individual green pottery dishes, and flan. Yum!
Unusual, but delicious flan

I got a few little gifts--woohoo! We chatted and laughed--as is our custom when we get together for a meal. I handed my camera over to Alejandro--perhaps a mistake, as evidenced by these random photos of my face.

A simple celebration. A small group of my surrogate family. A good day.
Me holding up the building.
Some architect forgot to design the bottom half of this column.
Good thing I was there to save the day.
A little savin'-the-world on my birthday, no problem.

Random Events - Truly Random

Back by popular demand are some shots of the local "fauna" in the city--roof dogs. I long for the days when a crosstown hike with Suzanne and Chicu (and their dog, Tubo) would draw out all the pups hiding atop homes in the city. Just one whiff of Tubo's hide would get them scampering to roof's edge to bark their snouts off. Now I have to hunt them down like an intrepid reporter.

Also in addendum to earlier posts, I include another strange Oaxaca street sign. This one seems to say, "Would all crescent wrenches please deposit their Chinese stars in the trash bins?" Seems reasonable.

The other day two strange visitors appeared in my house. The first floated in from nowhere and planted itself in the upper left hand corner of my office. I imagine if I placed a ruler, or small object next to this moth you'd get a better idea of how large it is--but that would require me to get close, and perhaps shake hands with it. I can assure you I cannot palm this monster; he's that BIG. And then an hour later, his friend arrived, just as large. None of my windows or doors were open--so I can only think that these things can clone themselves in under 10 minutes. Equally strange is that the other night I locked one of them in my bathroom--and in the morning...he was gone! So apparently these guys can either swim (toilet exit) or crawl underneath doorways. Is that normal for moths? Someone Google "stealth commando moths" for me, eh? Perhaps they're some sort of omen or harbinger of death. Maybe they represent my 20s dying...

And for my final trick of random weirdness, ladies and gentlemen, I present "The Strangest Airbrushed Picture of Your Baby Ever." I was walking from the Abastos market into town when I passed this frame shop. They had a sample of posed photos in the front display, as well as framing options. And this little number was right out front. Definitely click on that image and get a closer look. I did a double take AND doubled back down the block later to snap a photo; I just couldn't get it out of my head.

Random Events - Shanananah shanananah, hey hey hey, good bye

My good friends Chicu and Suzanne departed Oaxaca a couple weeks ago--and I'm just recovering from the melancholy aftereffects to get around to blogging about it. I was lucky to squeeze in a couple fun adventures with the two the week before they departed--heading out to Atzompa with Suzanne to buy random green pottery; and a fun non-dinner dinner at their apartment following. However, for their final hoorah--a group of us met up at Biznaga to send them off.

An old radio friend was also in town briefly. Peijk, someone from my early days at The Next Big Thing, and I met up for drinks beforehand. However, once his chums and mine both arrived at 8, we decided to join forces and tables for one big gathering. So let's see, present were, Chicu and Suzanne (the guests of honor, he from the States, she a Canadian), Guillermo and Gustavo (Mexican brothers), Liliana from Colombia and Michael from the UK, my friend Peijk from Denmark, and his three friends, two from Spain and one from France. We were a mini-UN!

Suzanne and jicama stick (or is that kryptonite?)

We gabbed, we munched, we drank Chupacabra beer. Suzanne and Chicu's dog Tubo, neatly tucked underneath the table, licked our toes and ankles--seeing how much he could get away with. The night wore on. Peijk and his gang departed for the ADO station where they would head to the coast on an overnight bus. Reluctant to let Suzanne and Chicu leave, we all stayed on, chatting, lingering as the cold night air drifted in through the open courtyard roof. Eventually, as bus boys hauled drippy trash out past our table, and chairs were upturned into headstands on table tops nearby--we realized it was time to leave. I felt lucky; I knew I would be taking Suzanne, Chicu and Tubo to the airport in a day--so my goodbye need not be tearful, yet.
Guillermo, Gustavo and Chicu - why so giggly, men?

Suzanne and Lili share dog training horror stories

But the day did arrive. I unleashed the Giant Monster Van out onto the streets of Oaxaca again. We hoisted suitcases and dog carriers into the car; it's like it was made for this trip. I can't imagine another car having fit all of that stuff AND us. The three of us chirped away on the sunny ride out to Oaxaca's small landing strip. What I love about Suzanne and Chicu, and this ride was a good example of it, is how effortless and delightful our conversations seem to run. We can talk of books, movies, country customs or dog poop--easily down shifting into something random and sometimes, crass--all the time laughing, at least on my part. Some sentimental part of me wanted the ride out to the airport to be a somber moment--to mark the event, the sad departure. But it's just impossible to not laugh as Suzanne lets Tubo completely crawl up into her lap in the car. Tubo still thinks he's a tiny puppy--when in fact, he is a giant, almost German Shepperd-sized dog.

There you have it. We unload bags. There are hugs. Tubo, tied up to a street sign at the curb, gets a farewell nuzzle, of course. I give a tiny honk of the car horn as I drive away. And they are gone.

You are missed, friends. You are missed.

Random Events - The Visit

Uncle Sky and Dylan came barreling into town at the close of July. These guys travel in a unique manner all their own--and I love it! I learn so much watching how other people act as tourists. Everyone's got their own style. Some buy into the all-inclusive resorts. Others prefer backpacking and cheap beers. Others rent a car and let fate tell them where to pull over. And some, like Sky and Dylan, find enjoyment in the details.

I met up with them on their first morning in town--where we breakfasted at Itanoní, one of my favorite spots. I introduced them to tetelas (triangle-shaped corn tacos) and the drink to defeat all drinks, limonda con hierbabuena. Then we took a hike around town to give them the layout. And off they went on their own to explore the cloud forests of the Sierra Juárez mountains, and the tumbled ruins of the Zapotecs.

Inspired by Sky's interest in Oaxaca's flora, I snapped a bunch myself. I'm going to let my pictures tell the story...

I like this series of Dylan. It goes from totally unaware that I am snapping his photo to the end smile. It's like witnessing the show and the rehearsal for the show!

We took a trip out to CaSa in Vista Hermosa, San Agustín Etla. Though it was more of an overcast day than when I've visited before--it's still an amazing view.

There were all sorts of things that captured our fancy; again, the beauty is in the details when out with these guys. The cement-colored thorns on the bark of this tree were pretty riveting. Though, we all agreed it made the tree seem overly standoffish, and defensive.

This is a view from the tippy top of the CaSa museum. Doesn't the sky just reach forever in all directions? How does it do that?

So let's play a game...let's see who can guess what the following things are from the photos. We'll start easy.

What is shown this black and white photo? I feel like it looks like a mountain range on the moon...or icing on a marzipan cake. But really, it's the bark from that tree above, taken sideways.

Okay, next! Can you guess you gues what this picture at the right is? Bars of gold...or chocolate? A game board for "Mexican Chess"? No! It is a staircase. Yep.

Sky and Dylan really made me notice the patterns and shapes all around Oaxaca. It wasn't that they mentioned it--it's more that they showed interest in it--drawing, snapping photos, just noticing. It made me look anew at things I'd passed hundreds of times. And in turn, I made them notice the beauty of food--as I swatted Sky's fork away from his plate and pulled out my camera for a shot of their last meal in town. Tamarin mile with shrimp and white rice. Sky proclaimed, "Too much tamarind!" But his disappointment with his meal didn't stop us from enjoying memelas, cerro viejos and a couple copitas of mezcal!