Stick A Fork In Me . . .

Yep.  I’m done.  A little more than two months into my planned five month trip to Oaxaca, I’m heading home.

I love it here.  I like the people, the culture(s), the history, the art, the huge variety of everything and the strangeness of it all.  But that all flies out the window when you’re not well.

The agonizing symptoms of my gripa have waned since I saw the Doctor and started her medicine regimen.  I no longer double over with cramps and haven’t had a shaking fever in almost a week.  But I’m finding that I have no energy at all.  Yesterday, after a great class, I went to my favorite sandwich shop (La Hormiga) and had a chili relleno torta – delicious – then headed down Alcalá toward the Zocalo and the Mercado, feeling good, happy as a clam.

After almost two weeks of restricted activity, hanging out at home and in the near-neighborhood because I didn’t feel well, it was great to get back to the living. But in a matter of minutes I was tired and a little later I had to duck into a chocolate shop just to sit and rest.  I walked a little further but finally hailed a cab – something I almost never do – and headed home.  I was barely in the door when I was asleep on the couch.

That’s not like me, at all.

I’m ready to get back to the gym, to my yoga class, back to my self-prepared healthy diet, my own Doctor, my car(!), my English-speaking friends, my dog and my life.  Heck – it’s 8:11 am and I’m already tired!

So in a week, the day after my classes end, I’m on Volaris headed to Tijuana and the border.  I love you, Oaxaca, but we’ll have to continue our affair after I’m feeling better.  Ciao!

Clearing Out

My friend, Ivan Pacheco came by this morning.  We’d planned this meeting a week ago to work on his website and to do a kind of  ‘clearing’ exercise for me.  I was excited about the ‘clearing’ part because of my  recent problems with the Bruja.  The exercise was not about that but I figured, what the heck, it couldn’t hurt.

I saw Ivan a couple of days before my run-in with the Bruja.  We were talking about other things when he stopped and said, ‘You have a good strong heart but it is surrounded by rock.’   Of course, he was speaking in Spanish so I assumed this was a basic ‘you are a good guy’ type of compliment, laced in Spanish expression.

‘Funny, ‘I said, trying to make a joke, ‘My X-Wife claims I only have the rock!’

‘No,’ replied Ivan, ‘I mean it – you have rock around your heart.’ Hmm, I thought.  This guy is a brilliant artist but outside his studio you’d probably think he was an auto mechanic.  Now he’s talking like some kind of Shaman.  He went on . . .

‘We are going to take all of the good things in your heart, the love the creativity, the caring, the beauty, and we are going to make a tea of it for you to drink.’

‘Will that take care of my rock problem?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course.’

He grabbed a napkin and asked someone for a pen . . . ok, we were in a bar.  Then he interviewed me.  They were stupid high school questions about favorite colors, vegetables and fruits but also about favorite places and most prized possessions.  The interview was actually quite detailed and he took occasional brief notes.  Then he grabbed another napkin and made a list 1,2.3 . . .

‘This is your list,’he said, sliding it over toward me.  ‘You need to get all of these things and have them at your house when I come by next Saturday morning.’

It was most of the ‘favorite’ things I’d mentioned in the interview:  A beet, grapefruit, fig, pear, carrot juice and so on but also included red and blue paint, a box of 8 Crayolas, pictures of Homer and a couple of things I value (there really are only a couple . . . I’m not much of thing person), and 8 sheets of paper, of two different types and in a couple of specific sizes.  It was all very mysterious.

He showed up right on time: 10 am – a rarity for Ivan.  We got the website work out of the way and then got into the heart project.  I’d gotten everything including the fresh carrot juice, made just 30 minutes before he arrived.  (Carrot juice is always best within an hour or so of creation.  After that it’s pretty blah.)

He had me take a bite of the fig, and the pear . . . and then he had me cut them up into a bowl.  I also cut up the grapefruit and added some of it, then a few bits of beet.  He went over to the kitchen and added most of the mix to a pot of boiling water.  The balance he worked over good with a potato rasher.  He returned with that part in a bowl and told me to hold it close to my face and just breathe it, the aroma.

It was a wonderful scent dominated by the pear and the fig but brightened by the grapefruit.  It smelled like November in Pennsylvania to me, like it was when I was a kid.  Cold outside, grey, maybe even snowing, windows foggy and a fire in the fireplace.  Fall spices in the air from something baking in the kitchen.  I used to love to sit in the window seat on days like that coloring in my book.

Now Ivan was back with a tee shirt.  He put it over my head and positioned it so I could not see.  I imagined I looked like some kind of hostage sitting there at my table.  In a moment he was back with something . .. . that he put under my nose.  It was steaming hot and had the same kind of aroma but much stronger and more powerful with the added heat and steam.  It was the tea.  He had me inhale that for awhile and then, exposing my mouth, had me take a few sips.  It was delicious!  Really delicious!

He’d positioned one of the big pieces of paper in front of me and helped me find its edges by moving my left hand around it.  ‘This is North,’moving, ‘East,’ moving, ‘South’ moving, ‘And West.   Your left had will be your eyes.’ And he put it in the ‘East’ position, upper left corner.  Then he took my right hand and put two of the crayolas in it, the red and the blue – two of my favorite colors.

‘You are going to fill this page with whatever your heart tells you to do.  Use your left hand as your eyes, let it guide you.  Try not to run off the page.  Use big broad strokes, whatever you feel.’ Blindfolded, I couldn’t see, but I heard him walk away as I placed the two crayons in my right hand in what I thought was the center of the paper.

I moved my right hand around and across, up and down,  I imagined myself going almost to the edge on each side, my left hand poised in the upper left corner watching to make sure I didn’t.  I worked and worked . . .and then I stopped.  I was through.  Ivan was there to take the crayons from me.  Then he took the tee shirt off my head.  The light from the window over my table blasted through turning everything blistering white for a moment.  But then my drawing came into focus.

2The only word for it is meager.  It was SMALL.  Great bands of white space surrounded it on all sides.  And in the middle was this tangled mess of lines that seemed to go in every direction and then in no direction at all.  ‘It’s very constricted,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘You need to let go.  Quit trying to tell the crayons what to do.  They know.  And USE your eyes!’

Back on went the blindfold and once again I pushed an pulled and floated across the paper.  I was so bold that at one point I felt the crayon leave the page and go off on the table.  Ha!  this one would be bigger.  This one would be better.  But when the blindfold came off . . . it was almost identical to the one that went before:  great white gutters around a tight tangle of lines . . . with one line racing off the side of the paper and then coming back to the safety of the center.  Hmmmm.

Ivan took the red and blue crayons from me and this time gave me only one:  black. ‘Once more,’he said’,’But this time I want you to guide your right hand with your eyes.  Let your eyes, your left hand, lead your right around the page.’ That was new.  I’d kept the left hand in the ‘East’ position the previous two times and it had failed me miserably.  Now I was going to relax and let it lead me.  Very good.

P10803831When the blindfold came off, I saw a page filled with big, broad, lyrical stokes that almost hit the edge on all sides but somehow managed to stay in bounds.  There was a simplicity about this drawing that I liked a lot – very different from the tangle of lines in the previous two attempts.  We did two more drawings with just black, each just as interesting as the first.

Ivan took each of the three black drawings and put them, one at a time in front of me.  He started by orienting each one in the way it was painted:  up was up and down was down.  Then he’d rotate the piece 90 degrees and then 90 degrees more.  With each rotation he wanted to know what I saw.  People, objects and situations were there and were different with each orientation.  In each of the three pieces, there was something that called to me strongly, and that was the orientation we chose to use.

I did most of the talking at this point, mostly responding to Ivan’s questions.  But he did inject himself into the discussion a time or two, pointing out something I didn’t see or putting a different spin on what I did.  I won’t go into the details here; it was all pretty personal.  I will say that my drawings brought into focus issues I’ve dealt with all my life.  You know:  those kinds of things.

I was really into this project by this point and had entered the somewhat altered state that comes when you shut everything out and just focus.  It was time for the big paper and the paint.

Ivan had me sit on the floor in front of a large piece of paper.  He put the tube of red acrylic paint in my right hand and the tube of cerulean blue in my left.  ‘You are going to use the paint directly from the tube to make these next two drawings,’ he said.  ‘You can paint with your fingers, your fists, whatever, or you can just paint with what comes out of the tube. No brushes.’

The blindfold went back on and I took a minute to explore the surface of the page with the butts of my hands.  Then I started, first with blue.  I squeezed a line on the paper, on the left, in the middle then followed with several arcs to the right.  I emphasized each stroke with my fingers. Then I changed hands and colors and enveloped what I had done in red.  I worked quickly and pulled my hands up when they seemed to say ‘It’s Finished.’

The result was remarkable.  Flipped on end it had distinct people, faces and situations in it.  It was 4all there and it seemed to be telling a story.  There was a child’s face inside an adult’s face, one happy, one sad.  There was a person with wings.  And then there were my hands: absolutely covered with bright red and blue paint which was drying quickly.  I went to wash up before the final piece.

There’s not much more to say about that last one because it was much like the one that went before, only clearer, less sloppy.  Funny, though I paint all the time and even sometimes use the  ‘A’ word when describing myself (Artist), I had not finger painted since, oh, third grade or something.  It is wonderful to have that kind of contact with the media you are using, to feel your way through a painting.

Ivan handed me the original list.  It was full of things I love.  And then he asked me to tell him what I had learned.  Of course, there were a few heavy lessons, but what I was surprised to discover was that I felt normal for the first time in a week.  The pain and discomfort in my abdomen was gone.  And my head was clear, too.  Somehow this exercise seemed to take care of my Bruja problem at least for now.

Before we started, Ivan and I talked about the Comparsa, the parade, the party, the woman with the mezcal and its aftermath.  I showed him pictures of the Bruja.  First he was upset with me for having accepted food or drink from someone I didn’t know.  I guess he’s right.  But as he studied the woman’s picture he started talking about a good Bruja he knows in town.  He said she could counteract anything this other one did.  He would take me to her if I wanted.  In other words: he thought there might be something to this whole Bruja story.  ‘Let’s see how I feel in a day or so,’ I said.  And now that my exercise was over I was feeling pretty good.  Just hungry.

I remembered there was a big dance festival going on in Parque Llano a couple of blocks away and there were vendors set up selling food from some of the distant pueblos in the Sierras.  I remembered seeing a sign for Iguana Tacos.

‘Hey,’I said, ‘You ever eat Iguana?’

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Delicious!’

‘What does it taste like?’I asked.

He thought for a moment.  ‘Chicken.’

And so we left to see some dancing and eat an Iguana Taco.



Curse of the Bruja

I have been low level sick for six days.  At times I have been sicker than at others and sometimes I’ve felt pretty good. Bottom-line:  I’ve not been myself and I’ve not been well.

It’s stomach stuff:  cramping, discomfort, lots of acid and diarrhea . . . all the things you might attribute to Montezuma’s Revenge.  But it’s not that.  I am pretty careful about what I do with local, unpurified water and I’ve gotten enough in small doses that small doses don’t affect me.  No, it’s not the water.  And it’s not the flu.  It’s something else.


Last Saturday there was a big Comparsa in my Barrio of Jalatlaco.  A Comparsa is a celebration that is a parade and a party with a theme. This one was in celebration of women . . . though everyone dressed as if it were Day of the Dead!  Lots of skeleton people and zombies.

The party started in the churchyard with a skit about a dead woman being brought back to life.  Then the brass band cranked into high gear and the dancing began.  Soon, cohetones – rockets and other fireworks – heralded the start of the neighborhood crawl and the mass of people followed the band out of the churchyard and into the streets to prowl through Jalatlaco, partying into the night.

I joined in, as I often do.  Comparsas are a near weekly occurrence here and in other parts of Oaxaca as well.  I love my little Barrio and feel very much at home here, so I try to participate in anything going on.

As the night wore on I noticed that I was really the only gringo in the fray.  Oh, there were a few white people with Nikons and Cannons glued to their faces, but I seemed to be the only one who came to participate, not observe.  Tourists take photos – it is a form of detatchment that helps them feel safe in unfamiliar circumstances –  Travelers crank a few snaps and then join in. (See Are You A Tourist Or A Traveler?).  I love to take photos, too, but sometimes the best photos are the ones that are only seen on the screen in your head.

I fell in with a group of mostly women in full costume, dancing in the street to the blaring band.  At first they were a little indifferent to me, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But I smiled at the right moment at the right woman and suddenly I was their gringo mascot.

But after awhile, there was another woman, one I hadn’t noticed originally, standing next to me bumping into me with way too much regularity.  She was made up to be a country person risen from the dead, with rotting face and bad teeth.  She wore bib-overalls stuffed to make her appear very fat.  Her bumping turned into grabbing and rather quickly, she was all over me.  I began to wonder her intentions!  Her makeup was so convincing, though, that my own thoughts simply would not go there.

17She put her arm around me and pulled me close.  I didn’t have much of a choice.  She handed me a little cup, and then, from her bib overalls, she pulled a plastic Sprite bottle – a liter – and poured me a drink:  mezcal.  This is a normal part of a Comparsa.  Mezcal flows and colors the night.  It is usually provided by the homes the parade passes but sometimes participants bring their own.

Mezcal is a liquor made from the heart of the agave plant.  While it certainly is a liquor, it is considered somewhat sacred – a gift of the Gods – and is often used as medicine.  Tequila is a mezcal.  It is different, though, because it is made only from blue agave grown in Jalisco and it is made under strict government supervision.  Oaxaca mezcal is largey home-brew.  It is organic, subtly idiosyncratic and can be soo delicious.  There are a couple of commercial brands  but they are really awful.  The good stuff is made by families and often is sold in empty plastic soda bottles.  I knew this so I accepted and drank what was offered to me by my big ‘rotting’ friend.  We danced a bit and then she offered me another.  Thinking back, I don’t recall her having any herself or offering any to anyone else.

Let me take a break here to tell you about a game that is played here in Oaxaca.  Please understand, I love these people and this place.  Everything I am about to tell you is true . . but it’s not serious, really.  It’s something to be aware of and to laugh about.

First: this is a place where the car always has the right of way.  If you step into the street as a pedestrian, whether at a crosswalk or not, you are fair game.  It helps to cross at red lights, but this is not always fool-proof because the people turning right on red will just keep going whether you are in the crosswalk or not.


In this environment, a game has developed.  I call it ‘Whack-A-Gringo!’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started across the street with plenty of time before the next car, only to hear that car gun the engine and head straight for me. Of course, I do what you’d do:  I break into a run and make it to the opposite curb just as the racing car whooshes past.   It happens so often that  I think results of the days hunt may be posted on the back pages of the sports section of the local paper!

I mention this here because there is this understandable edge to the American visitor’s relationship with the people of Oaxaca.  They love our money and love to help us spend it.  Once we speak to them, hopefully in good or bad Spanish, they are warm, helpful and friendly, almost to a fault.  If you ask for directions they’ll probably tell you where to go, but then take you there.  It’s that kind of thing.

But as an anonymous white person?  You are the person who deported their uncle who crossed into the United States illegally a dozen years ago, who later died in the desert trying to get back.  You are the person who stole California and Texas from them.  So ‘Whack the (Anonymous) Gringo!’ is an almost understandable attitude.

Which brings me back to the smiling zombie with the plastic bottle of mezcal at the Jalatlaco Comparsa de Feminina.  Maybe she was playing a friendly game of gringo extermination when she handed me that cup and bid me drink.  I didn’t think a thing about it at the time because it has happened so many times before.  It’s just what happens during a Comparsa.  But I can’t help but wonder . . .

The next day I was just out of it.   I had a meeting scheduled with an artist friend to work on his website, but he didn’t show and didn’t show and finally called to say he would be late, which was good news to me.  ‘Would you like to do this another day?’I asked, hoping for a yes… which I got.   I spent the afternoon listlessly drifting around town, stopping here and there for a coffee or an ice cream.  I was in bed by 9, exhausted.

I woke in the middle of the night cramping.  I got to the bathroom and there began a three day Odyssey of diarrhea and gas.  I was able to deal with it well enough to not miss my Spanish class, but the nights were – and still are – pretty bad.  I’m in bed early – because I don’t feel well, sleep an hour or so, then the raw pain in my stomach begins.  It’s very acidy, like the mezcal the bruja gave me and I picture the inside of my stomach looking like the makeup she had on her face . . . but was it makeup?

I pull out all the heavy artillery:  Tums, Zantac,  baking soda and water (a last resort for me that, this time, has had little affect), and chamomile tea.  Usually three to four hours later I am able to go back to sleep, but my mornings have all started with heavy cramps and a toilet explosion.  I started in on probiotics a couple of days ago with little affect so far.

A bruja is a sorceress.  She has the ability to transform herself into various entities and has secret knowledge of the use of medicinal plants and herbs, often to evil ends.  Like Disney witches, brujas are crafty, and can be very powerful.  In the ‘Teachings of Don Juan’ books, Carlos Casteneda tells of a time when he and his mentor came to be at odds with a bruja so powerful that she almost killed them both.  Don Juan had to call in the help of another sorcerer to ward off her attacks.

17I keep looking back at that photo.  Was it really makeup?  It doesn’t look like makeup in the photo but I can’t remember ever questioning it in the street.  Is that playfulness or malevolence in her eyes?


She’s dressed more like a Hillbilly than a person from the countryside of Oaxaca – more like someone with whom I might be more familiar, more comfortable.   Was this her actual form or one she chose for the occasion?

I have laid low for the week, done my work, stayed in mostly and tried to mend.  I admit a little progress in the feeling better
department, but last night was just as awful as any of the previous 5.  My friend Daniel has offered to take me to his doctor and to act as translator and I will take him up on that if things aren’t better by Monday.  But right now I’m wondering if what I really need is a Priest.

Noises Off

One thing that takes a little getting used to in Oaxaca is the noise.  This is a loud place, full of garishly loud people and devices.  If you are used to peace and quiet . . . well, good luck.  It took a month for me to learn an immunity to it, but some never make it to that point.  Here’s why:

At 5:30 am, the church – which in my case is right next door – starts to chime every 15 minutes.  Now, between 5:30 and 6 am, the chiming is muted, the clapper only gently striking the bell.  But from 6 am on, it is loud and forceful, impelling the faithful to mass.

Also at six, a progression of vendors makes its way through the streets, each with its own unique sound to announce its presence.  By far the most obnoxious is the gas guy.  He sells tanks of propane gas, which everyone uses because there is no infrastructure for natural gas delivery, no pipeline.  He has a loudspeaker that plays 4 bars of salsa music (the same tune every time) followed by a booming voice saying ‘Gas! Oaxaca!’.  Over and over and over again.

The water guy has a sound, the trash guy, the knife sharpener, the guy selling steamed plantains (he’s really loud!), he tamale lady – though she just shrieks ‘Tamales!!’ at the top of her lungs – and on and on.

But vendors and churches are just the start to this symphony.  As the day works on there are dozens of new sounds.  It is amazing how many people rehearse dance steps (with music blasting), or practice for their tuba recital, day in and day out.  Plus, there is just the music in general.  Here, what is popular is everybody playing as loud as possible all at once!  Really, there is very little subtlety in he popular music of this Southern Mexican State..

Today I was in a collectivo taxi going to Arrazola.  Collectivos are a whole ‘nother thing, and I’ll write more about them in another post.   Like almost all collectivos, this was an old Nissan Sentra, into which the driver crammed 6 passengers.  As we made the 30 minute trip, he blasted Mexican ooom-pah music through the enhanced speaker system in the vehicle.  Nice!

But far and away, the loudest noises are from the fiestas and celebrations that go on here almost every week. They always include fireworks – rockets specifically.  Rockets, or cohetones, are a signal that an event is taking place.  An example would be the comparsa I saw a last month.  This one was in honor of the Virgin Mary and participants walked along carrying velas, or candles, beside a life-size wooden image of Mary, carried on the shoulders of six men.  One man preceded the group, stopping at every intersection to set off two coheotones.

On weekends, celebrations, fiestas and parades are nearly constant and they are not rare during the week.  The rockets can blast until the wee hours and sometimes start-up as early as 6 am.  Living next to the church in Jalatlaco, where many celebrations begin and end, it is at times as if my little apartment building is under siege.  I remember the first month I was here being incensed at the racket.  Where were the police?  When I went down to investigate . . . well, that’s exactly where they were: down in the church yard enjoying the party!  And that’s when I was reminded of the traveler’s prime directive:  Forget Home.  Don’t ever think how things ‘should‘ be and certainly never how they ought to be.  Things simply are:  adapt!

In a similar situation, the tourist gets all huffy, complains and whines and tells everyone what a horrible experience it was.  The traveler, on the other hand, comes to bathe in the culture.  The traveler is driven by curiosity and flexibility.  He studies, asks, gets clarification and understands.  And then he changes.

Today, like most Oaxaquenos,  I hardly notice the noise.  They are just part of the landscape.  Ok:  the rockets can still be a surprise, especially the ones that don’t whistle before they explode.  But the parrot in the courtyard that screams ‘HOLA!” for hours at a time?  I notice it like I notice that the sky is blue or that mass is going on next door.  And sometimes I answer:  ‘Hola.’

**I wrote about this difference between being a traveler and a tourist some months back.  That post is here.  And I got a tough lesson in this principal last week.  

I was in a collectivo headed to Cuilapam, home to an incredible temple and monestary, parts of which have no roof.  We were just leaving Oaxaca, were stopped at a red light where our street intersected with a six lane highway.  There, across the highway, on the other side, I saw a dog, a callejero – a street dog- sitting about four feet from the curb.  As I watched it was clear that he had lost use of his hind legs;  he’d been hit.  He kept looking around trying to get to the curb and safety, but couldn’t move.  There were people around, looking for their buses, talking on their cell phones.  The dog was right there in front of them but nobody seemed to notice at all.  I knew, when the light changed a big bus would eventually turn that corner, the driver wouldn’t see the dog and that would be it.  It nearly killed me.  And we were gone before I had to watch.

So what would I have done had I been on that corner, six lanes from my collectivo?  Of course, I’d have helped the dog to the sidewalk.  But then what?  He was done.  Finished.  There was no hope for that dog.  In the culture of Oaxaca, callejeros are tolerated.  They tend to be well fed and somewhat healthy because there is a lot of street food.  But the are street dogs.  They live in the street and they die in the street.  It is the natural order here.  As much as I’d like to tell you that my tourist stayed in check and the detached traveler took over, truth is I haven’t been able to shake the image of that big white dog in the street, taking what certainly were his last breaths.