Sunday, March 22, 2009

A quick round up of days gone by...

It's been a time--can you blame me, faithful readers, that I've been remiss in posting? Here's a quick round up of the days gone by...

March 22
Woke up, felt like I needed a change in my life to produce some much-needed momentum. And thus, I painted the ceiling in my office tangerine.
My face, post life-changing-paint-job

March 29
Feeling like we needed a short trip to a place outside our normal haunts, Alejandro and I headed out to CaSa, an old textile factory-turned organic paper workshop and library. Alejandro took the reins of the camera. So here are some rare shots of me doing nothing-remarkable-at-all (Alejandro said my parents would be happy to finally see some pictures of me--instead of just the places I go--on my blog):

Me walking up a stairway of cheese blocks.

Me laughing while overlooking the textile factory.

Me making a tiny "boat" out of a flower and setting it "out to sea" in the reflecting pool.

April 9
Laura, Caitlin, Alejandro and I head to a baseball game. The Oaxaca Guerrero's vs. the Campeche Piratas. The game: so-so. The stadium food and mildly-coordinated cheerleaders: FANTASTIC!

April 11
It was Semana Santa, the week proceeding Easter. Basically, the whole of Mexico shuts down to enjoy a little assassination and ascension of their main man. Since most offices are closed, there's nothing to do but join the fun. Thursday night, a small group of people in my neighbor hood observed the stations of the cross--marching from home to home, each marked by purple flowers and a tiny shrine to Jesus. When I left to go to the gym they were down near the cheese vendor's shop. And an hour later, on my return from spinning class, they had only reached a home four doors down.

Friday's the big day. From what I've observed the death of Christ seems to resonate a lot more with Mexicans than the ascension. Thus, Friday sees a giant parade down the main streets in town. See my pictures and commentary from last year for a detailed account. I even saw this article about an even more elaborate parade in Mexico City.

April 11
On Saturday, Laura, Caitlin and I headed up to a small town called Cuajimaloyas. Some of you might recall Cuajimaloyas from my hiking trip with Vicki last year. When Laura, Caitlin and I decided to abandon our attempts at making it the beach this weekend, we opted for a day trip to the mountains two hours outside of Oaxaca. It seemed a good idea to get a break from the heat, and push our muscles around a bit.

We hopped the early bus (8 AM) out of town, landing in Cuajimaloyas around 10.

Here's our late breakfast of enfrijoladas.

And here's what I did to it. Megan- 1, Enfrijoladas-0

It occurred to me as I was gripping my handle bars with immense fear, letting out small squeaks every time my back tire fish tailed, that this was my first time truly mountain biking. Down is scary! And while I firmly believe that scary is fun--I was happy when we hit some uphill. "Happy," you question. Yes, happy for uphill chugging. That's how scary the downhill was for me. (Case in point, when going to sleep that night, I drifted off in bed and found myself instantly on a bike in my dreams, where I hit a divot, vered off road, and woke myself by falling out of my bed. I am a powerful dreamer.)

We stopped for water breaks, and lung breaks. I fell twice (biking scars!). We took a spell in the shade of some trees beside a creek to eat apples and cookies. And when we finally made the long loop back to town, we hunkered down in a tiny comedor for some local river trout. Did I mention we found time to watch a basketball tournament between neighboring villages? There was a pretty stark difference between teams; the difference being, some could play well, and others had clearly just learned to dribble the ball. The day was capped by consuming four packages of cookies--there's nothing like eating junk food after exercise--and a dizzying and packed bus ride back into the city.

That seems like a fair summary of all things extracurricular. And what have you been up to?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tireless and Magical

I am at home, utterly exhausted and with a deep, smoker's cough (despite the fact I don't smoke). Curse you, Flu! The exhaustion and respiratory challenges make tomorrow seem challenging. However, I thought I'd take a moment to jot down a few notes about how I spent the last three days.

Through a bit of friendly networking, I was recently contracted by a non-profit organization to act as a facilitator/translator for a field project in Oaxaca. The non-profit, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing), runs a social policy dialogue every year. This year the conversation happened between Mexican researchers, policy makers and civil society on the one hand, and a group of international researchers and activists on the other, on the topic of social policy, informality and poverty. Before the actual dialogue, the program sends the participants mentioned above, along with their accompanying translators, to stay with host families in order to live and experience the lives and conditions of the working poor.

What does that mean? What does that look like? Well, Monday morning I found myself in the midst of a long lecture held at a luxury hotel. Around the table were various economists and academics, a smattering of people like myself who are foreigners doing work in Oaxaca, and several women from very humble homes, working in and around the city, trying to scratch out a living. When the lumbering Power Point presentations finally ended, and we were sectioned off into field groups, the real work began. I was paired with a French-born, West-African raised researcher who now lives and works outside of Boston, an Indian-born economist and now Head of the Comparative Economics Department at Cornell University in NY and a young Mexican woman, living and working at Harvard University for the WIEGO organization. We headed out to Teotitlán de Valle (very close to Yagul, in fact) to live and observe a family of rug makers.

It's hard to summarize all that I saw or thought in the last two days. And I'll admit that I was in the midst of recovering from a fever and cold--so some of it is a bit hazy, as well. Thus, I will share a few of the tidbits, in no specific order.

  • Our group plods the seven blocks from the hotel to the bus stop just south of the baseball field. Ana Berta is desperately trying to keep her two girls (Daniella-9, Ana Cristina-7) within grasp so they won't run out into the loads of traffic they are unaccustomed to finding in their own village. Kaushik and Françiose struggle with their rolling suitcases and duffel, respectively; I'm wondering if someone armed with a rolling suitcase is prepared to sleep the night on cement floors.
  • Conversation peters off as the city finally fades behind us, rows of maguey plants and tire shops whiz by.
  • The López home is a long, rectangular swath of land, cut in two by a partially-finished cement block wall; Orlando and his cousin get along well enough to share a bit of space between their homes--the wall uncompleted so that the women can pass back and forth to gather water from Constantino's side of the property; but signs of family distress reveal themselves, as today two men are shoulder deep in the earth, digging and fortifying a new well squat in the middle of Orlando's home.
  • The three young girls quickly dart their eyes between the strange visitors, casting their gaze down at the floor if someone takes notice of them. Their chin-length braids are cinched at the bottom with tiny, colorful rubberbands--one of them featuring the upright, jumping, Tigger.
  • Ana Berta nervously laughs as we ask how we can help with her daily work. The truth is we can't. We're clumsy and awkward at everything she does. And though she is supposed to treat us not as guests, but as helpers (giving the visitors a chance to experience how her work is done), it is hard for her to supplant 34 years of acculturation that instructs her to treat a guest with kid gloves.
  • Marcelina, Orlando's mother, wide and weathered, waddles back and forth between comal and basket--making large, bright yellow dough into Tlayudas for us to eat. She waddles back and forth between kitchen and loom-waddles back and forth between Castellano and Zapotec.
  • Gathered around tall, straw baskets we break open dried ears of corn. The kernels are bright yellow, like Marcelina's Tlayudas. We crack them from their husks and toss them into a clean basket. We're preparing the kernels for tomorrow's batch of fresh tortillas. I shuck an ear from the leaves and a burst of fine, white powder covers my hands and forearms. "That one, that one," Marcelina points, "has gone bad." It must go into another pile. The spoiled corn will be fed to the chickens. Nothing goes to waste. The shucked leaves will go to the cattle and goats. The kernel-picked ears go to the donkeys. Pulling the hard, shiny kernels from the ears is near impossible when they're hard like this--and yet there is Ana Berta flying through the task with speed.
  • It's time to card the wool. We each take the wooden paddles in our hands, the metal teeth facing opposite directions, clumps of red wool held gingerly between. Oh, this is hard. A few swipes and I've already cut myself on the knuckles. Back and forth, we rake the combs over the wool, trying to disentangle the fibers before spinning. My wrists hurt. My fingers sting. My legs are covered in tiny hairs. I sneeze. The tiny stool under my bum isn't big enough to offer much support. How do they do this every day?
  • The girls hover around whatever we are doing. They giggle as we gracelessly shovel beans and tortilla into our mouths. They toss each other looks as we marvel at the two huge oxen brought back from the pasture that afternoon. We are strange--but interesting. They let us struggle through with Spanish. They let us pull some English words from them. They are the first (except for the tinniest one, Naiyeli) to feel comfortable around us.
  • We lay three wide mats down on the cement floor in a spare room. We four strangers lie side by side for the night. I spend the bulk of the first evening concentrating on not coughing. I don't want to keep my "bunk mates" awake. So I stiffle the bursts and gasps from my lungs, swallowing, swallowing, swallowing all night long to keep my throat lubricated. I listen to the muffled sounds of Paola, Françiose and Kaushik each taking their turns at snoring. I suppose I'll catch up on sleep later.
  • It's time to make soup. We separate leaves from chepil stems, tossing the herbs into a pot. The squash sits in water boiling as we saw the kernels from young ears of corn. Ana Berta takes them in a dish out to the kitchen with the earthen floor. She must grind them into a smooth paste on her metate--a long stone base with heavy stone rolling pin. When she wipes the sweat from her brow, embarrased at us watching her work, I ask if I can take a go at it. She hands me the heavy stone rolling pin. I studied her doing it. This time I will make an educated attempt. Oh, this is hard. She instructs me to keep the pin on the stone, not to lift and waste energy. The corn doesn't seem to be emulsifying at all. Kaushnik has a go. Then Françiose, then Paola. We're utter failures--and yet still high five each other. Ana Berta resumes. She's like a dancer--her short arms and squat, little hands gripping the stone. She sways back and forth over the task--her movements never a waste. Each pass is graceful. Each pass turns more kernels into a pale, smooth cream. She sloshes the water from a waiting bucket onto the metate then back into the bucket in one move--cleaning the stone service without losing much liquid. This is her ballet.
  • Roberto, Orlando's unmarried brother, makes his way out in the late morning with a small army of goats and cattle. Kaushik and I trail in their dust. We each try our hand at Roberto's sling shot-like tool--used to hurl rocks at straying members of the herd. I release too late and end up spooking the tiny cow walking in front of me with the end of the sling. They leave us in their wake, at the edge of a river. The rest of the journey is another 2 hours to a distant grazing field. Kaushik and I opt to return to the house to spend the remainder of the day there--unsure our legs can make it in this heat.
  • We're gathered around a tableclothed table at the luxury hotel again, with the our group of foreigners and the family. This is such a strange juxtaposition of people and place. The waiters seem flumuxed to have to serve this combination of visitors and humble families. The grandmother notes the service isn't so good--remembering they have forgotten to bring Paola her lunch. Roberto adds, "What a strange combination of foods on this plate." It's beans and bistec steak with a salsa; an oatmeal water to drink; the hotel's efforts at a "traditional" meal, that is also tourist-friendly, seems to fall short. We talk about earlier that day, when Ana Berta, stiffling tears, was asked to stand and speak in front of the group about what she thought of this strange experiment. She'd never spoken in front of people before; it overwhelms. The girls float between the nearby playground and the table. They reach up and touch our faces, testing that we are still there. Françoise, foresaking the translation, stumbles through, linking nouns and verbs awkwardly in Spanish and without fear--the family now experts at deciphering her sentences.
This family is tireless and magical. There is not one moment in which they are not moving and working. They start at 5, stumbling straight out of bed and to the loom to pass the shuttle between threads. They don't stop for breakfast--but hunch over a fire to flip corn disks into crispy Tlayudas. They shuffle to the school. They shuffle back home. They shuffle to the market to sell tortillas, and then again to buy produce. They shuffle to the bus to ride it into town to sell tapestries on the street all day to tourists, tourists who sometimes never come. They shuffle home--and take up the shuttle again, though it is 9 or 10. They spin thread from tufts of wool. They grind colored dyes from plants and berries. They sweep. They wash. They stir. They heft. By the end of the second day my knuckles are split, my lips are chapped, my brow is heavy with exhaustion. And they, they are cheerful--easy to laugh at our simple jokes. A smile breaks across each of their faces as we attempt to play a version of Duck-Duck-Goose with the children and their cousins. The smallest, and shyest talks easily with herself as she rocks back and forth on a hammock slung between two close-set trees.

This has been an exercise in meditation, much of it silent. Each task, and there are a million that fill their day, is a lesson in how to do something well and happily. When Paola futilely asks, "How would you like to spend your day, if you could choose," Roberto jokingly says "Laying around." But the true answer, the one we hear echoed over and over by each of them for the three days we are there is, "What else is there to do but work? What else is there for us? This is what we do. This is who we are."

I am at home, utterly exhausted and with a deep, smoker's cough (despite the fact I don't smoke). The exhaustion and respiratory challenges make tomorrow seem challenging. The reality of this family--and the days stretching before them make my challenges seem silly--and yet somehow, heavier. I feel heavier today. I'm not sure why.

I don't want to forget this happy family and the unselfconscious way they keep their heads down, and move forward, one task at a time. I don't want to forget their combination of joy and tirelessness. I don't want to forget their grace and generosity. But I feel heavier today.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Yagul: sun, suguaro, climb, hike

I am taking part in this 12-week workshop called The Artist's Way. I'm a little past the halfway mark in the journey. The author of the book that charts the course of the workshop instructs that we should find a time to devote a whole day trying something new--giving your creative brain space to soak in new material. So this past Monday I headed out of town toward the archaeological ruins of Yagul. I made a quick movie of my journey--which took me on a long bus ride, despositing me beside the highway for a couple miles' walk to the site. The weather was perfect, if a little hot. I shared the site with a couple of dozing construction workers, and no one else. When the sun was starting to fade to the west, and the wind picked up-- I knew it was time to return to the city. So begging off the ride offered to me from a van load of tourists who were turned away from the entrance (it was closing time) I hiked the 2 kilometers back to the highway and hitched a ride home (I know, I know, Mom & Dad. Don't worry, I don't hitchhike very often). It was an inspiring day!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Vuelta México

Back...and hard at work!

How about a quick recap of the month's events for those still linked to my RSS feed (oh you loyal followers)?!

It's been a busy month. While others may have been celebrating dead presidents, or enjoying the Oscars, I was in the midst of a month of meetings. The project I've been working on with my neighbor took more tangible shape in February, as members of The Hub in London came to Oaxaca for several weeks to conduct an analysis of the city as a site for a future Hub. The study was sponsored by Halloran Philanthropies, for which Mark (the neighbor in question) works. My role as node began.

Apparently, I got on a kick introducing people to one another, as in addition to connecting the London "Hubbers" to those I know in town (media people, NGO's, government henchmen), I also started formally setting up meetings between my government contacts in Oaxaca with some pretty stellar private companies that have social missions (like this one). If I can't offer something concrete myself to shape the betterment of Oaxaca--the least I can do is get the right people in the room together to see if they can! There's an exciting convergence of events taking place in Oaxaca right now. Here's a quick two for the list:

1. A small groups that works closely with the government have grand ideas about instilling proper urban planning to the city and state, fomenting sustainable markets in the greater Oaxacan valley, offering dignified employment and education to citizens. They are calling it Plan 2032--in honor of the year Oaxaca will turn 500. It's almost unheard of in México (especially southern México) for there to be any kind of long-term planning, let alone thoughts to sustainability.

2. There's private interest in encouraging social entreprenuers and innovators here in México. Halloran Philanthropies is just one of several organizations that have their eyes towards the emerging markets of Latin America. So the question is can those who are here get connected to those reserves and support?

So it's hard to explain my role in this--and how that fills my day. I guess "meetings & research" is what seems the most concise. You see, media will play a big part in getting people connected, communicating ideas, and trasnmitting and measuring progress. That's where I come in! I'm trying to prepare myself to expand my expertise and experience beyond merely radio. There's a real move in the world now to use narrative in interesting ways to educate, fund raise and inform. That can manifest itself in a number of ways--multi-media slideshows, regular podcasts, media mapping. The sky's the limit!

A têt-a-têt amongst friends.
Can you pick out my feet?

On that note, let me briefly explain a few of the personal projects I'm working on. The first is a youth radio course. It feels like I've had my head buried in this project for years. I was working with a colleague in Tlaxiaco on developing a youth radio course for kids in her village in the Mixteca. But when things got a little challenging, and we had some negative feedback from a local authority, my cohort lost interest. The project stalled--and I was feeling like I was back at zero again. So lots of February has been spent jumpstarting the project again by looking for other potential collaborators. I've met with Unitierra (an alternative education "university"), with the Red de Radios Comunitarios, with people from Casa Chapulin, with Radio Plantón, with volunteers through Amigos de las Américas, with Ojo de Agua (an indigenous media org), with media grad students...the list goes on. I've adapted a radio course curriculum that I wrote last year to fit with various incarnations of the project. I've applied for grants to support the ideas. And I've stared at my computer screen for more hours than I'd like to admit.

The second project is a media mapping idea I've been floating around in my head. Have you guys seen Google Earth? Perhaps you've gone and plugged in your own address so that you can zoom in from space, all the way down to a bird's eye view of your house? Well, Google Earth also offers some pretty amazing software that allows you to plot pinpoints on a map, and attach those pinpoints to media of any kind. I've thought for a while that I'd like to make some audio about the people who live in my own neighborhood--a pretext to knock on their doors with wild abandon, if you will. And then I became aware of some NGO's that are using Google Earth's mapping function to the tell the stories of the work they do. Here are a few I've taken a look at recently: charity:water, open sound new orleans and saving the sierra. The first stage of the work will be simple: map my neighborhood. I'll use Xochimilco as the ground for a pilot of the mapping project. I'm currently looking for a few photographers with whom to collaborate, perhaps a web/animator person, as well. Then we'll be begin telling the stories of my hood using photo essays, audio, mixing them both in slide shows, essays. What we learn from the pilot will serve us to launch a broader project in Oaxaca. One idea is to develop a class in different neighborhoods and communities in Oaxaca. Teach youth and adults alike to do the same in their areas. Another idea is to use the same mapping tools for the future Hub here in Oaxaca. It would be like an interactive database of Hub members. You could do a search under theme/topic and then watch 1-minute audio slide shows of said member. Or once the data was laid out geographically on a map of the city and state, you could hover over pinpoints to "get to know" the groups working in your area. The members themselves could use the media capsules (if they are audio or visual) to repurpose for their own internal use. Make sense? So first do the pilot; then pitch it to the Hub!

In other news, I've been keeping busy creatively. I painted my living room at the close of January, which was a true test in upper body strength. I've taken to playing my ukelele again. A composer friend of mine has been giving me some "lessons" over the last weeks. I can already say that I play with much more facility than when I took up the ukelele 6 years ago and attempted to teach myself over the summer. Now I can pluck and strum with a bit more agility. I have no idea of the chords still--so I can't actually place you a veritable song. But oh boy, could I wow you with some scales and finger picking! And of course, I've continued marking the days with delicious food and good company. I leave you with three recent culinary delights!

A Hub dinner "meeting" Colorful and delicious!

A nostalgic meal: peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich, with bread from the local Italian baker.

And my first crack at making the traditional dish of Entomatadas.