Arrugadas de tortilla – tortilla wrinkles. That’s what I’ve decided is the correct name for the cute little deposits of fat developing up and around the side from each pelvic bone on my body. The tortillas blandas (as distinguished from the larger, crispy tlayudas) are frighteningly good here, and difficult to quit.
In fact, last week, when I couldn’t shake a very American craving for peanut butter and jelly, I utilized fresh tortillas, roasted peanuts, strawberry jelly and some hanger-arounder rose petals to satisfy the voices in my head. Worked beautifully. Better than average PBJ produced.
My kitchen continues to be my laboratory, with flambe leeks (in rum, chicken stock and balsamic vinegar), pina colada panna cotta topped by guava sauce and daily breakfasts centered around chorizo and poblano peppers, organic eggs and goat cheese. Sunday night Zach and I made ribs in a tomato – chile – garlic sauce and chayote (boiled instead of roasted because I lack a functioning oven unless the sun’s out.)
With each week that passes, I grow more familiar and comfortable with the culture and language here. The longer I’m here, the more I’m convinced it was the right starting point for this trip. Oaxaca has turned out to be an ideal place to shed the pre-conceptions about this trip and get past the overwhelming foreignness of being in a new country before launching into the even more unknown and nomadic South American phase.
There was a day this past week – Monday or Tuesday I think – when I noticed a startling lack of loud explosions and roving street music that are present day and night, non-stop, here. Apparently even Mexican people have to rest sometimes, maybe every three weeks or so. Not to worry, the loud noises of tubas blaring, fireworks and backfiring cars here (which don’t even cause Mexicans to blink) resumed the next day at 6 a.m. The following day I returned to my little street to find that the party (celebrating the lightning saint Señor del Rayo) had arrived directly outside my gate, with a small crowd encircling the band, and plastic cups of who-knows-what being cast wildly about. Nothing to do but join the party until it moved on.
The Señor del Rayo festival celebrates the miraculous fortitude of a carved figure of a man. The figure was the only thing untouched after a lightning strike burned the surrounding church to the ground. During this festival, Senor Rayo is moved from a side chapel in the cathedral adjacent to the zocalo (town square) into the main church. The cathedral is decked out in pillars and arches constructed of thousands upon thousands of fresh lilies. People flock to droning services there, while women and men in brilliant, traditional dresses and giant puppets whirl and stomp down the street with religious symbols of dried flowers and illuminated cellophane shapes in baskets borne above on the dancers’ heads.
I’ve been warned by locals, however, that the lightning saint party is merely a warmup for the Día De Muertos festivities that are already ramping up, and culminate this weekend. Sugar skulls, breads and other altar decorations abound in markets and street corners. Kids parade around in devil, vampire and skeleton costumes in the streets, with proud parents in tow. The Katrina personaje appears frequently in the ebb and flow of cultural happenings this time of year – she’s the calavera that all others are modeled from in Mexican culture. You may get the sense from reading this blog that Oaxaca, by its nature, tends to be a high energy place. So it is all the more remarkable to feel the energy level rising here now. In the afternoons, many of us at the ICO are making masks to wear in the parades through the streets and cemeteries this weekend.
To the surprise of no one, my mask has a fishy theme. On Thursday, we sanded our masks so they would be more liso (smooth) and the surface of the mask would be easier to paint. Then we started laying down paint – first the base layer and then the details. When I quit I had the outline of three fish skeletons and a looming fish hook fleshed out. Now I’m at the crucial point of deciding whether to add more in the negative space on the mask. To do so is risky, I feel, but potentially rewarding and important for getting the artistic vision out of my head and onto the face of my alter ego for the rest of the world to see. This process is making me think about what it must be like to be an artist, to get so attached to your work and regularly let it go, to accept the truth that usually the first go is the best art and to cope with the less is more phenomenon effectively.
Back to Day of the Dead. When I have asked host families of friends, Ita, and our intercambios about their plans for the holiday, their answer is simple and consistent: eat. Food coma doesn’t even begin to describe it, with each family preparing the favorite food of dead relatives using the choicest ingredients to offer at graves, they have said.
This week I had the opportunity to get out of the city and look back at the neighborhood I live in from the surrounding hills.
First, I ventured 25 minutes north east to the school Ita attends. I talked for some 20 minutes in English (at the request of Ita and her teacher) about Klamath River issues and the work of Klamath Riverkeeper, and my audience of 16 year old Spanish speakers looked blankly back. I worked off a powerpoint engineered by Ita, and tried to frame the whole thing in terms of the right to fishable, swimmable, drinkable water bodies. The students said they don’t often swim here. Lots of nods when I suggested that may be because the water isn’t clean enough or deep enough to swim in. In other words, we shouldn’t have to worry about whether we can jump in the river, swallow a gulp on accident or eat the fish we pull out. I am still keeping an eye/ear open for people groups working on water protection in communities here, or interested in doing that kind of work.
Then yesterday I looked back at where I live from the other side of the valley where the Monte Alban Zapotec/Mixtec ruins sit. Lily and I hitched a shuttle ride up the mountain, self-toured our way through the mostly angular remains of the rectangular plaza. For native groups that constructed the city there several hundred years B.C. and inhabited it for almost 1,000 years, it was a place of governance, scientific inquiries and religious worship. At one point in our wanderings through the rambling ruins, I came to the foot of a rock pillar that must have been about 6 or 7 feet diameter at breast height. The relic broke off some 4 or 5 feet above the ground, but gave a mind-blowing clue about the awesome scale of the place in its heyday.
One of the more interesting historical factoids gleaned from an explanatory plaque sited near a ball-court to the east of the main plaza described the game that was once played there. Essentially, the athletic competition of playing this ballgame was a way of settling disputes in a sort of winner-take-all system. The astrological calculations being made by the city’s inhabitants using large, carefully positioned rock slabs to study the daily path and zenith of the sun were also fascinating to learn about.
Monte Alban offers sweeping views to the Valley floor in all directions, and in the mountains past urban Oaxaca, curtains of rain moved across the watersheds. We are keeping a close eye on weather fronts, hoping that the weekend after Dia de Muertos, we’ll get a hurricane-free window to travel to Puerto Escondido on the coast.
We can sleep when we’re dead, we’ve decided amongst our ICO companeros from the U.S., Australia, England, Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Japan. We’re in Oaxaca now…