Journal from Oaxaca

An account of adventures and mishaps in Oaxaca, Mexico

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Location: Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico

Monday, April 09, 2007

Greetings from Guatemala

Okay, I'm not actually in Guatemala at the moment, I just liked the
sound of the alliteration in my head so I went with it. I did go this
weekend, though, and had a grand adventure with-- who'd have guessed
it-- Tim. He is really enjoying living in San Cristobal, and as I'm
currently in the middle of two weeks' paid vacation for Semana Santa
and Easter, I've had the chance to check out the famous (infamous?)
city of San Cristobal de las Casas myself for a few days while he was
at work in addition to a little weekend trip over the border.

To put all this in context, I should mention that I have dreamed of
coming to San Cris since high school, as it has been pinpointed as the
heart of the organized Zapatista movement and is a hotbed for issues
like land ownership and indigenous rights. Tim has found his way into
a cool organization called CAPICE, for which he is doing miscellaneous
media work, and absolutely loves the place. So anyways, I hopped on a
bus and came down, to get a break from the constant work and white
noise of Orizaba. i brought Crackers the ferret with me in his little
traveling backpack, and the vacation got off on a bad foot when he was
stolen somewhere around Tuxtla (a horrible city, full of horrible
people)... simply disappeared off the bus. We searched when we got to
San Cris, but he was nowhere to be found... didn't respond to his
squeaky chicken leg toy, which he usually comes running to... nothing.
Just gone. I must say, was (am) really upset over the situation- he
was easily the best pet I ever had, we woke up at 5am together and
played before my roommate and her princess poodle woke up and took
over the house, and then again before I went to bed every day... I
only hope that whoever stole him resold him to a nice family
somewhere. That is the best thing I can do under present
circumstances. I have been trying not to think about it.

On the positive side... I must say, San Cristobal is incredible. A
tourist mecca, cultural center, and just a little bit of everything
else. Hundreds come here for the laid-back environment, from hippie
tourists to academics studying land reform and anthropology to
Mexicans just looking to get a change of scenery. All kinds of
artesania, just about every kind of food you could possibly imagine,
beautiful churches, and above all-- fabulous weather. I spent this
morning, in fact, suntanning on the patio of Tim's nice little
apartment, which includes all the best aspects of camping (namely, a
fire pit on his patio and a fireplace in his bedroom) and all the best
aspects of the real world (namely, a clean place to sleep and a hot
shower!)... we bought a grill to put over the firepit and have been
BBQing Mexico-style regularly.

I spent the better part of last week exploring local places, including
all the local cafes and markets, but also the market and church of
nearby Cholula and a private home in Zinacantan with home-brewed pox
(pronounced "poshe", essentially Mayan moonshine made of god only
knows what) where we tried plain, tamarind-flavor, orange-flavor, and
jamaica-flavored pox and I spent a whopping $60 (yikes! the single
most expensive purchase I have made in Mexico) on one of the most
beautiful hand-embroidered tapestries you have ever seen.

Tim's work, CAPICE, located in a cafe called TierrAdentro (earth
inside) is an amazing place: it features a number of stores, mostly
Mayan women cooperatives, which make amazing crafts and jewelry, all
centered around a good cafe with coffee so strong I think it tastes
like chalk half the time ("California strength" Tim and I call it
after our adventures in Utah with Don's class and the cranky parents
who needed their daily fix of caffeine to come both early and strong),
but it's a good kind of chalk, and it's free for Tim and sometimes me
if I smile broadly enough. They recently had a conference where a
number of Zap subcomandantes (including Marcos!) came and spoke about
social reform and the next phase of the Zapatista movement... and if I
can brag just a little bit here, MY boyfriend was the techie behind it
all! He is getting the awesome opportunity to meet with different
kinds of professors and researchers and social activists. We were
recently invited to dinner, for example, with a couple of professors
from UMass and some local professors to sip margaritas and talk
politics. It's certainly a good foothold for his own research
interests, and a great field experience that I'm happy to be able to
share at least while I'm on vacation.

Then, as if things couldn't get any better, we hopped aboard a bus
full of Canadian students (ey) and took a quick (well, 3 hour) trip to
the border directly down 195, got our passports and visas stamped,
changed buses, and took another quick (well, 5 hour) trip to Lago
Santiago, one of the most gorgeous lakes I've ever seen, really. Of
course it was raining when we got there, but even from our misty
vantage point descending down into the valley (the lake is surrounded
by three volcanoes), we could see that the view was absolutely
fabulous, something like on a postcard.

From the horrible tourist town we arrived in, we took a boat ride of
maybe half an hour across the lake to the smaller, more comfortable
Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, where we would stay for Thursday and
Friday nights to witness a Mayan-Christian costumbre (in this case,
translated not to mean "custom" but as a religious event stemming from
two distinct traditions which have blended together): namely, the
rebirth of Christ (in Mayan religions, the god of Maize) after the
ruling of Relaj-Mam, god of the underworld.

The short version of the (ridiculously complicated, totally unclear
even after a weekend of study and witnessing of reenactment) story is
that each year, Christ dies and for a time the god of the underworld,
Relaj-Mam (who is considered a necessary evil, and to whom one prays
so that bad things do NOT happen to one's friends and family) rules
the world. Each year, special fruits are brought from the coast and
wrapped in foil and draped over the central altar in the normal
church, representing the portal to the underworld and the web of the
universe above it which Relaj-Mam controls. A papier mache figure of
Christ is then prepared for a special night-long procession, where San
Juan pendejo (literally, Saint John the prick) carries his, um, semen
to the virgin Mary, who is a few streets away. I am not kidding about
this part. The men carrying the Saint John figure on their backs
literally run back and forth all night without stopping between Jesus
and Mary and do this funny little dance every time they reach a
terminal to represent the impregnation of Mary. While this is
happening, the Christ and Mary figures are moved slowly towards one
another until at dawn they are united in front of the church and
Christ is, well, immaculately reconceived from his own semen
somehow... or something. I know, it doesn't make much sense,
especially given the fact that according to legend, St. John is both
Mary's husband and Christ's brother before he dies. I don't reccommend
you try to figure that one out, it is nothing but a headache. We
stayed up until 2 watching, but nothing much happened except that most
of the women and children went to bed and the die hard males in the
community stayed awake either participating in the ceremony or getting
wasted off of pox and, as rumor had it, crack. So we went to bed for
the better part of the night, trusting that the beautiful ceremonious
part of the tradition had already been seen and that we didn't need to
see what ills lie awake at night.

The next day and night's ceremonies are a little bit easier to
understand, but they also last the entire 24 hour period (some elders
and religious personages stay awake for 72ish hours during the
ceremonies). Christ is put into an urna (sort of like a beautiful,
transparent form of a coffin) beginning at the beginning of the day,
and artists from the town over spend the day making a sort of carpet
of patterns made by multicolored sawdust (I am not doing it justice;
even as I write I realize that sounds kind of strange- better to look
at the pictures), and then at night Christ is placed in the
(ridiculously heavy) urna and a procession of perhaps 20 men spends
the entire night until dawn walking at a snail's pace (slower, even)
around maybe four blocks on the sawdust paintings, destroying them
with their feet and again arriving back at the doorstep of the church
at around 6am (dawn). The two days culminates in the raising of Christ
on his crucifix and a Catholic mass... unless I have that mixed up...
which I very well may... I have it all written down somewhere, but
every time I spoke to someone I found more questions than I found
answers. Anyways. That's the Short Version.

The whole thing was incredible, and a ton of fun. It was a weekend of
candles, ceremonies, four-hour naps, photographs, changed camera
lenses, and trips to the church and the few blocks surrounding it. We
even sat through almost all of a ridiculously long mass in Spanish and
the local dialect after the raising of the cross in the navel of the
world (supposedly, its centermost part) until our legs would not hold
out any longer and our feet fell asleep and we had to go eat. It was a
bit esoteric anyways: I understood most of the Spanish half, but that
was all, and Tim even less.

Unfortunately, I and a few other members of our expedition got
wickedly sick on our last day (monteczuma's revenge guatemala style),
and had no chance to check out the tourist mecca across the lake,
through which we again exited on our way back into Mexico. Tim walked
around a bit, but didn't find much of interest except for a delicious
street vendor which gave him babyback ribs. Instead, he finds himself
ill today. Fortunately, it seems to be a quickly-passing illness, and
when I spoke to him last before dragging his computer to TierrAdentro
to write, he looked much better and was about to take a nap.

So... that's pretty much it for the Mexico side of things. I plan on
staying out this week in San Cris and taking it easy. I found a
meditation center that I would like to check out, and there are as
always new hidden corners to explore in a new city, and of course more
free coffee at TierrAdentro, should I decide to start eating something
besides rice, beans and Gatorade in the next few days.

In other news, I am awaiting the official offer letter from the
Academy of Urban School Leadership (, but I
passed all of my tests (including physics, which I was sure I failed)
and it looks like in late June I will be moving to Chicago to become a
certified, master's degree-ified teacher in the Chicago Public Schools
system, and will therefore be much easier to keep track of, as it
requires a six year commitment. However, as Don always says, "the top
three reasons for becoming a teacher are June, July and August" and I
have promised myself to have a lot of international adventures in the
summers when I am not putting my nose to the grindstone teaching and
being taught to be an even bigger nerd than I already am.

Mostly I just wanted to check in and say hi, that yes I do still exist
and am still writing as much as ever, but that most of it hasn't made
it to a computer yet. I have mostly been journaling, and reading
Tolstoy, (Anna Karenina was recommended to me by a teacher friend I
have been spending most of my time with in Orizaba). I also uploaded
some new pictures at ... I
haven't quite gotten to all of the Guatemala ones yet, but there are a
few there... many were taken at night (I have several hundred to go
through) and I need to spend some more time sorting them before I put
them online, but I promise to do so soon...



Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Oaxaca

Hello, hello... as usual, my thoughts on a little bit of everything, sort of in the form of an email and sort of in the form of an internal monologue.

The tree was exactly what I wanted it to be. Not exactly a Charlie Brown tree, but nonetheless a little guy, barely taller than I was, and just a little lopsided in its branches. It was drizzling when I bought it, the kind of rain that they slangily call "chippy chippy" in Mexico, just enough to be ignored on a good day, just enough to be totally irritating on a bad day or when driving. The total cost was $130 in pesos, or just under thirteen American dollars. This fact in and of itself was a thing of immense pride for me, as the plastic ones in Chedraui and Gigante were at least twice as much, and obviously they didn't come with the authentic Christmas-tree smell. Cheeka and I had been looking for several days, but I knew the moment I saw the lot and was quoted a price that this would be where I bought the tree for my classroom. Never mind the house. Kate had already decorated it to the brim with kitchy decorations found in our downstairs storage closet (which is, incidentally, never ending- I even found a cappuccino maker in there the other day). No, I wanted something that people would see and enjoy every day, something that would liven up my classroom. So I bought a tree.
I coerced a taxi driver to load the bound tree into the back of his car, and he brought me, Cheeka and it home to our apartment. The tree was none the worse for the wear, though I couldn't say the same for the taxi's trunk, which suffered from inexplicable brown dirt stains on removal of the tree. I paid the driver and escaped into the house, dragging the tree behind me and onto our patio before he could scowl himself into charging an even higher faire. I would deal with getting the tree to the school later. I went to bed early, reasoning that I could think better in the early morning anyway. And sure enough the next day at five thirty am, right on schedule, I was hit with a stroke of particular genius and decided that the best way to get the tree to school was to tie it to my wheeling luggage, which I energetically rolled out from under my bed for the occasion, using the removable strap to tie the thing down so it didn't flop off the wheels. And so it was thus that I went to school a few weeks ago on a Tuesday morning, all prim and proper in my button down shirt and uniform, wheeling a Christmas tree behind me as though it were simply another bag of books. All in all, I didn't draw too many more stares than usual. My neighbors are now somewhat used to me toting bags of things for science experiments and showing up at the local miscellanea stores at six in the morning asking if they have, per chance, toothpicks or raisins or six small blocks of ice of identical size. A Christmas tree, I suppose, simply seemed the next logical step on my slow public parade into seeming insanity.
And so we decorated the tree. My students were absolutely thrilled, and brought in everything from lights to ornaments to window decorations to a can of spray-on window snow that didn't work. I had to let go a little bit of my compulsion to do things perfectly when it came to putting on the lights, something which in my family is usually done with meticulous care and attention, and let my students simply have at it. At the end, it looked beautiful, and it was with more than just a little pride that each day I walked into my classroom early to turn on the lights, and with more than just a little regret that I switched them off again at the end of the day. I have the habit of arriving a full hour early to work, when the middle school students are just beginning the day, just to sit in the sanctuary of my classroom, grade papers, and go over the things I want to do in the course of the day.
Exams were hectic. I lost my voice on day two, and sucked down an entire jar of Honey Loquat, my new preferred throat medicine, in the course of the week so that I could simply stay alive. The work of the teacher I had replaced was characterized with horrible bouts of laziness and forgetfulness at things such as recording grades in any way shape or form, so I more or less had to make up half of the bimester´s marks in the course of a week. I was sick with a stomach flu when my students performed "All I want for Christmas is you" by Mariah Carey at the annual "Jolly Christmas" event, but I heard they did well. We had choreographed an elaborate dance routine and spent hours practicing, and I am still waiting to see the recorded performance. But eventually, in the haze of the end of the bimester, the grades were miraculously handed in, a gift exchange successfully executed, and it seemed, at least, that my students had managed to show that they had learned a thing or two in the process. I even had a chance to read The Gift of the Magi, one of my favorite Christmas stories about the importance of giving presents which are meaningful rather than material, to my students. I had time to swim before the pool was closed for winter renovations until January, and I spent some little time at a new swimming spot outside the city at the site of a (very cold) natural spring.
After everything was said and done, and Cheeka and Kate had taken off for vacations, I surveyed the house, then a disaster zone, and decided to clean. The apartment I live in, aside from being paid for by the school, is quite nice, even though I had to fix the toilet flusher with a paper clip and we recently had a disaster with our ailing, ancient refrigerator when I tried to de-ice it with the hilt of a kitchen knife and accidentally removed the critical chunk which happened to be holding the coolant into the side of the refrigerator and Freon gas sprayed all over the kitchen. It had taken several weeks and a lot of spoilt food, but the school had eventually shelled out the money for a new fridge, which sat halfway wrapped in its cardboard box in the middle of the living room. Neither Kate nor Cheeka had dared touch it, but I was determined to deal with the situation before leaving for Christmas. Exhausted, and knowing all along that moving refrigerators by oneself is not generally a good idea, I broke a window moving our old refrigerator out into our own private enclosed alleyway, something which I have guiltily still not reported to the school. Somehow, dealing with a broken window (which, really, was quite a nonessential window, even for security purposes, and the current situation only adds to the house's ventilation) was something I could put off in my head until later, whereas the mess was not. However, the eventual result was that the house got clean and the kitchen looks much brighter, and I left on Saturday to come to Oaxaca knowing that when my roommates return they will be in for a pleasant surprise and a totally reorganized kitchen complete with new glassware and additional storage space.
I didn't pack much for vacation, my plan being to spend Christmas in Oaxaca and then as much time as possible at the beach swimming and playing in the water, but I did remember to bring the grocery bag brimming full of chocolates and other presents that my students excitedly unloaded on my desk on the last day of school. CEICO is certainly host to some of the wealthier people in Orizaba, and even as a new teacher I was showered with presents, including but not limited to a fancy black skirt, two purses, a wallet, a Christmas candle and mug, and an entire bag of chocolate, which I was sick off of for perhaps two days before I realized that even in my sugar-crazed delirium I was never going to get to the bottom of by myself.
And so on Friday I climbed aboard an ADO bus to Oaxaca with some clothes, a copy of Atlas Shrugged bookmarked by a drawing of the tattoo I (may) eventually get this break, and a bag of chocolate. It was an uneventful ride, which I spent mainly sleeping after such a frenzy of work, play, and chocolate-binging, and I arrived in Oaxaca without event. I knew that I was getting close when I saw a sign reading "Etla," a nearby town of whose existence I had known only from newspapers reporting troops stationed there during the political conflict, and a small piece of isolated graffiti on the back of a street sign which read, defiant in its smallness, "APPO."
Arriving at the ADO bus station, I felt inexplicably at home at the same instant that I inexplicably realized that I didn't have anywhere of my own to go and deposit my bag of chocolate, which was undoubtedly melting in the 80-degree, perfect-for-a-trip-to-the-beach weather. And so I sat down, a guest in my own city, made a few phonecalls before and set off to my former apartment to simply sit and await Brittany, who is now living in my room.
My landlords and their family welcomed me with open arms, ushering me, despite my keylessness, into their backyard, a show of typical Mexican hospitality in spite of what must surely have seemed to them an abrupt departure exactly five weeks before, and renewed an old offer for me to join them for Christmas dinner the next night, which I gratefully accepted.
From there I eventually met Brittany's parents, down in Mexico to visit for the holidays, and accompanied them to their hotel, not two doors down from my original Oaxaca homestay. From there, I met Emily, and we chatted for an hour while walking round in a large circle the size of the zocalo looking at radishes.
Wait… radishes?
December 23rd, aside from being my mom's birthday, is also Noche de los Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes, in Oaxaca, a celebrated event for which artisans bring in incredibly detailed sculptures of traditional Oaxacan people and events, as well as nativity scenes, made entirely out of radishes. Grated radishes, peeled radishes, carved radishes… figurines averaging a foot high, though some scenes were far more complex, guarded off. Beautiful artwork… made of radishes. Brittany and her family even apparently saw Ulysses, Oaxaca's bastard governor, ushered quickly through with a necessarily large entourage of police and reporters, an all-too-obvious attempt to show that the city is now "safe." And then, at maybe ten at night, the work is all taken down and families are let to roam around the zocalo, a big orchestra playing Christmas music in the background, a dream come true, happy families and tourists united in smiles and laughter in front of a backdrop of fresh colonial architecture.
If you know me at all, you know that last sentence was more than a little facetious. Let´s go back and talk about the city of Oaxaca for just a minute. It makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. I would even go so far as to say that, in the context of the way I knew it earlier, I don't like it. It is quite artfully repainted, something rumored to have been funded not by the state but by the feds, all traces of earlier graffiti and suffering and pain buried under layer upon layer of new, brilliant colors and seemingly industrious storefronts. Ice cream vendors at every corner, new cobblestones where cars were once burned, new faces to old stores recently reopened, new everything. A giant Christmas tree lights the zocalo from above, and a nativity scene made from tin is on display amidst thousands of recently planted red poinsettia flowers. People frolic and bask in the sun with their children. Restaurants are occupied. `The economy is fine´, the city seems to be screaming with all its might. `We have recovered.´ A façade, I say.
Contrary to the idea that it is supposed to look better this way, that this is what Oaxaca really is and that it is happy, I don't much like it. It is as though one is in the presence of someone who is wearing far, far too much makeup, trying to be naturally cheerful but somehow just managing to look posed and premeditated. Tim asked me as I explained my discomfort today, "Is it that you like a city in conflict better than a city in peace?" No, I resolutely answer. After all, Orizaba is peaceful to the point of being boring, on many levels. There isn't much to do in the name of touristy attractions. And yet I love it. And, too, from this end I can see that this holiday season is one very large hope for the revitalization of Oaxaca, a very important time that I gladly contribute to on my vacation by posing as the average tourist in expensive restaurants sipping my overpriced coffee. It is simply that I enjoyed living in a city where there were no tourists, where I was not simply one in a crowd of ignorant sheep speaking every language but Spanish putzing around the zocalo for a photo op and awkwardly bargaining for shawls and pottery and t-shirts they do not know the value of. It all seems so fake, so horrendously fake. And yet, while I know that I will probably not ever be able to return to the Oaxaca I know to live the way I used to, I suppose I begrudgingly appreciate the changes which have occurred at lightning speed over the past five weeks because they mean happiness, of a sort, to a previously tortured city.
I only hope that this happiness is a permanent one. The teacher strikes are an annual event; or at least, they have been for the past six years. Who knows what will happen in May of 2007, whether the teachers will be allowed to return in their traditional way of protesting the ills of public education and the countrywide problem with under representation of traditional cultures and impoverished communities, or whether the reign of Ulyses, in all of his ridiculousness, will be allowed to continue unchecked until 2008, the next year for state elections. Calderon, thus far, seems to have proved himself an able president, in fact taking up some of the quite reasonable improvements suggested by his more liberal competitor Obrador, calling for recognition and support of communities such as those who spilled their souls in the form of sweat and tears into the streets of Oaxaca for six months while waiting for their voices to be acknowledged. Perhaps things will change. I cannot claim to know.
I spent Christmas eve day journaling by myself and later with Emily in the zocalo, talking and thinking about everything and nothing at once before retiring to our families for Christmas eve. I ate dinner with my already large family and perhaps fifteen guests, a truly multicultural mix as Javier and Enrique both seem to prefer girlfriends of the European persuasion and had them and their families over for the occasion as well. I sat next to a mildly boring electrical engineer (or something, I can't remember) named Adam (or something, I can't remember) from New Zealand (that much, at least, I remember), periodically exchanging jokes with Javier's girlfriend who was quite pleasant. After dinner, as if Christmas could be placed any more out of context than it already was in 80 degree weather with such a comical group, we hoised up two piñatas, and busted them open. I, the only American in the group, had the honor of being the one to break open the piñata that the women hit, after jokingly saluting in a general northward direction towards home and saying in Spanish, "United States, I apologize in advance if I represent you poorly." An old man from the Danish crowd broke open the second, which they had reserved, for some reason, for the men.
Today, Christmas, has passed without much event. I went down to the zocalo and enjoyed another leisurely breakfast, reading, taking it easy, and sitting in the sun listening to Christmas music. I called home. I didn't do anything. It was nice. Not exactly what I pictured a year ago when I first decided to move to Mexico and made the vow not to return for a year, coaxing myself into the idea of Christmas in Oaxaca. But nonetheless, things have been very nice. I have realized in the past two days that I haven't been on vacation in a full year, what with school, a nonexistent (by choice) graduation, working frantically to pay come down here, TESOL certification, and then work work work with my kiddies, even when it was only part time a draining job… summer simply did not exist for me this year. And yet here I am, seeing Mexico as perhaps it should be seen, with two weeks and a bundle full of cash marked "paid vacation" burning a hole into my pocket, while the sun shines and the wind whispers invitingly into my ear, "time to get a tan."
Thinking of you all on this Christmas day in sunny Mexico. I hope that everyone received at least one Magi Christmas gift, and had the opportunity to give one in return. Mine has been that I have all of you at home to think of, even three thousand miles away.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Greetings from... Orizaba?

Well... it certainly has been a while, and I have promised time and time again to send an update email home, but somehow haven´t gotten around to it. Three weeks ago, I got fed up with the ongoing low level stress of never knowing whether I would actually have work on a given day in Oaxaca and, of my own volition, decided to leave. I had been browsing job listings online for quite some time with my roommates, more for fun than anything else, daydreaming about making big bucks in Asian countries or the Middle East where the salaries are higher. It was a bit of a game to us, but deep down we all privately knew that we could, potentially, have to leave if the school shut down. Emily (who would eventually take my place teaching at Cambridge) was out of work because the school I got my TESOL certification at was closed, and Cambridge director James kept closing John´s classes one by one without notice. Infuriated at how little control we had over the situation and the sheer ridiculousness of our daily existance, we rebelled by banding together and thinking out other options.

I was the first to really go crazy. I submitted my resume everywhere, and had incredibly good success- everyone, it seemed, wanted a teacher who had had the patience of living in Oaxaca so long and with such patience. I had mad dreams of teaching to Cairo, where I found a job listing which had excellent pay and a free airplane ticket both to and from Egypt. John talked more and more of China. Brittany decided after much ado to return home after Christmas to get an internship and then apply to grad school in the fall. Emily bought a ticket to go to Puebla and then stayed at the last minute in the hopes of staying for just a little longer and finding a new job.

When things happened, thought, they happened fast. I found a job and decided to leave on a Wednesday, told my director and my students on Thursday, packed Friday, and left on Saturday. Where I landed was CEICO elementary school, in a city called Orizaba in Veracruz state, and where they urgently needed an English teacher. The old teacher, it seems, was a former Peace Corps volunteer whose heart had been left behind in Kirgistan and who wanted desperately to leave Mexico and return to her students there. Few questions were asked; they needed a teacher, I needed a job. The political situation excused my abrupt departure from Oaxaca and I was able to obtain the job without the recommendation of my director (who certainly, given my position as one of the key leaders of the mini-revolution occuring at Cambridge Academy, would have been loathe to actually say anything positive about anything at all).

Orizaba is situated conveniently half way between Puebla and Veracruz City along a major highway, two and a half hours from each. It is also about a four and a half hour bus ride from Mexico City. Pico de Orizaba, the city´s main geographic feature, is one of many mountains (it is, indeed, already quite cold here) in the area. It is the third highest in North America after, of course, McKinley in Alaska and another mountain (Logan) in Canada of slightly lesser fame. I can see Pico de Orizaba from my schoolyard while I play basketball with my kids, shrouded in fog and covered with, yes, you named it: snow. Thrill-seeking backpackers have a total of perhaps five months out of the year to camp out and scale the peak while it is thusly covered, while the rest of the year it fades into the backdrop of the other, greener mountains.

I quite literally didn´t speak more than one or two syllables for perhaps my first two hours in Orizaba, so overwhelmed was I by the abruptness of my arrival and the sustained speech of my coworker and temporary roommate Kelly, who told me pretty much everything there was to know about everyone and everything in Orizaba and at CEICO at such a pace that I, exhausted from the bus ride, could simply not keep pace. During this deluge of introductions and information I was, however, introduced to one of my favorite aspects of Orizaba thus far: the pambazo. Pambazos, a local staple, are sandwiches on soft rolls, filled with beans and cheese and mayonnaise and either chorizo sausage, beef, or chicken. They are, in a word, delicious, and so, so, simple to make. And so, on my first day in Orizaba, I buried myself in a pambazo and my michelada (light beer with pepper flakes, not for the faint of heart) and listened as best as I could to my coworker rattle on about herself and the other teachers at school.

Eventually, of course, I began teaching, and learned things for myself. I am, as it happens, at the reins of both the docile, 12-student sixth grade and the hellish, 22-student (4 with documented ADD) fifth grade at CEICO, where I teach ESL, phonics, science, and periodically handwriting. My instruction is all in English, and after nearly three weeks teaching I have managed to keep most of my students in the dark about whether or not I actually speak Spanish, although it is difficult at times to pretend when they see or overhear me talking to some of my Mexican coworkers who do not, in fact, speak any English. I get along well with all of the other teachers, and have struck up an unlikely friendship with the Religion y Valores teacher, who, much to my chagrin and embarrassment and just a little to my amusement, has a crush on me. Because CEICO, as I neglected to mention earlier, is a private, wealthy, Caltholic school, and yes, Anna Jolley not only has to enforce morning and noon prayer, she also has to wear a uniform of blue slacks and orange, white or blue polo shirts, depending on the day of the week.

But all in all, the poor, non-Catholic, public-school educated, California hippie in me has not had difficulty acclimating to this new, more austere style of education. My students are appropriately questioning and curious, and the English department director loves that I take them outside for science labs rather than having them sit in the stuffy classroom all day. We have done labs to measure temperature changes, explore the physical properties of metals, and explore the structure of water and the other materials in photosynthesis and respiration. My students run laps if they misbehave, but I am appropriately reconciliatory during recess, when I flagrantly flout the yard duty schedule by leaving my post and actually playing basketball and soccer with my students. I don´t think there is much of a precedent for foresaking yard duty in order to actually play with students, and there is certainly no history of punishment for such an obvious violation of the rules. I don´t think anyone really knows what to do; as a result, thus far no one has complained. No one seems to care that I wear sneakers under my slacks, either. I think, really, that they are sufficiently pleased that my kids spend most of their time with me smiling.

I live, now, in an apartment with two of the other (mellower) English teachers at CEICO, and while our refrigerator is currently nonoperational and I had to fix the toilet with a paperclip the other day, the apartment is all in all quite comfortable, far nicer than that I lived in in Oaxaca. It has a small kitchen and livingroom/dining room space with enough space for our circle of friends of CEICO teachers and a few others to eat dinner or have a beer together after work if we so desire, and the best part is that the only part I have to pay for is cable for the TV and the phone bill because the school owns the actual house.

Thus far I have spent my time in Orizaba peacefully. I have, during my free time now not absorbed by the horrendously long Saturday classes I used to have in Oaxaca, also taken the opportunity to travel throughout Mexico a little more, and spent one weekend in D.F (Mexico City) to bid John adieu with a few other friends before his inevitable return to the states, and spent this past weekend (three days this time) exploring Olmec and Mayan ruins in Tabasco and Chiapas states respectively. Mexico City was phenomenal, and in the center of all the dangerous, evil slums and pollution that everyone has heard so much about, was a beautiful, green, friendly, safe city, with an amazing anthropology museum I could have spent a week at. I could easily see myself living there in the future. Considering its bad reputation, it was beautiful, and while the metro was terrifying, it was easy to get around and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Tabasco and Chiapas (Palenque, specifically, in the latter) were a more rural adventure, hours upon hours of scenic green that I alternately slept through and wondered at through the steamy glass windows of ADO bus after ADO bus with my Canadian roommate Cheeka. All in all, traveling is not very expensive, and I have certainly realized that Mexican history is far more extensive and diverse than I ever could have imagined. Even just seeing the Palenque ruins was life changing- old stepped pyramids shrouded in romantic mist amidst an enchanting jungle backdrop. I was quite pleased to be able to take the time to see the waterfall where Predator was filmed on that same excursion, too. I could write pages about it all. One can easily see where the inspiration for so many playscripts comes from.

I periodically get phonecalls from my friends still working in Oaxaca, about riots or looting or small clashes between the PFP and the APPO. It seems so far away now, a tidbit in the newspapers I read while I sit at Cuahemaloya or Italian Coffee drinking cappuchinos with my friends, bundled up in long sleeves against the rain outside. December 1st, when Calderon was inaugurated and a key date politically, passed more or less without mishapand cities there, but after my abrupt departure, schools in other parts Mexico are on the minds of all of my friends. I think that after January the numbers of our old crew will have been reduced to one, while everyone else moves on to greener pastures and better jobs. In the meantime, I plan on spending Christmas in Oaxaca, partially because I feel that I owe it to that city to see it through its time of crisis, and partially because the friends I made in that situation have been absolutely irreplaceable in my experiences here in Mexico thus far.

So, to those of you at home who knew that I had moved on and were awaiting an update, or to those who didn´t and can finally breathe a sigh of relief, know that I am well. I love my students, and look forward to every day teaching- it is certainly nice to be able to have just two classes of students all week rather than six different classes for an hour at a time as I did in Oaxaca, and the support system that comes along with being a real teacher at a real colegio (elementary, middle, and ninth grade) is excellent. I feel like this, what I am doing every day here in Orizaba, is what I came here to do. My Spanish is finally fluid, and though I still maintain that I am something short of fluent, I am on my way. I have to say, I haven´t done justice to the incredible experiences I have had here in Orizaba thus far, haven´t even begun to explain how amazing and brilliant and frustrating all at once my students are, or how much I love the challenge of working with them. I haven´t even begun to get into the politics of my school, or the plans for the chapel they are building on school premises, and I haven´t even attempted to scratch the surface of the people who make my daily existance: my coworkers, my friends, my boss, even, and the puppy named Lulu who lives at my house and who we think is a French poodle but aren´t sure because we haven´t cut her hair for the first time yet. All that, I am sure, will come later. But for now, I guess I needed to at least give it a try.

Take care,

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Pictures of Dia de los Muertos and the current situation in Oaxaca are online at:

Monday, October 30, 2006

Since I wrote last...

I closed the computer. Ingredients were emerging from the kitchen for the construction of spaghetti sauce, and we all ran into the kitchen for the various stages of cutting, sautéing, and tasting the various stages of lunch. When that was finished, and our appetites properly sated, we settled down to watch a movie and perhaps take an afternoon nap in order to recuperate from the stress of the week’s events. Helicopters still circled the sky, but it became apparent that they were serving no real function other than recon and the shepherding ordinary people such as us back into their homes. We went to a local store and stocked up on candy and made popcorn.
As Emily washed the last few plates and John fussed over the wires to hook up the VCR, the sound of helicopters grew louder. At long last idle and somewhat restless, my ears instantly perked at the intensifying sound and I looked out of the window. The helicopters were circling lower—alarmingly so—and a billowing cloud of thick black smoke now emerged from the city below; from where, I could not see. The base of the plume was buried behind trees to the southwest of the city in the direction of the road from Etla where the troops were stationed. I ran to the roof, exasperated, a bowl of popcorn in one hand, straining my eyes to get a better glimpse. The city is in flames, I thought, scarcely believing my eyes. But what is burning?
The others joined me. We turned on the University radio station and listened as they announced the entry of the PFP (Policia Federal Preventativa) into the southern part of the city with full riot gear and tear gas. The Federales. The situation we had all been preparing for two weeks ago but which never happened. The APPO was standing firm, the radio announced, trying to prevent the military from removing the blockades, but this time they were up against seriously armed men, and what use are a few sticks and stones against assault rifles? Compañeros y Compañeras, the radio blared, La PFP esta entrando la ciudad. Este no es una esfuerza pacifica, pero no respondas en la misma manera. Urgimos que bloquean su paisaje fisicalmente por la calle si es necesario, usando los cuerpos. Asemblamos en el zocalo. (Companions, the PFP is entering the city. This is not a pacifist movement but do not respond in kind. We urge you to block their passage physically in the street if necessary, using your bodies. We assemble in the zocalo.). No shots were being fired, but the suggestion of tear gas and the presence of guns sent shivers up our spines.
“Cerro del Fortin,” I said. “We have to see what’s going on.” Cerro is the site where Guelaguetza (the traditional summer festival and tourist trap, cancelled for the first time in history this year because of political strife) is held, a giant auditorium at the top of a long, steep set of stairs on the same hill as the Crespo house. From the road surrounding the site, you can see the entire city. In all honesty, I had only been by the stadium twice, once during daylight in a car on the way to Monte Alban and a second time late at night with John taking loops around the neighborhood once after Jessica and I were robbed on our way home. That latter view of the site at night, a foreboding and markedly empty skeleton of a building, looking at that late hour like an ancient Roman coliseum lit only by moonlight, had given me the willies. But I knew even then that it was arguably the single best place from which see the entire city, and we needed a panoramic view.
At the moment, I was wearing a pair of Jessica’s overalls, so we packed up all our candy and the portable radio into my generous jean pockets and set out. I still carried the bowl of popcorn, piling handfuls of it into my mouth at a time, less because I was hungry and more because I needed something to do and eating seemed about as good as anything else to fill in the space that sanity had left when it fled.
As we mounted the stairs, we were joined by vecinos (neighbors) from all different directions, each looking as perplexed as the next. For a while, our view was hidden by trees, but when we finally stepped up the last of the cement steps to the road and the stadium behind, the sight was nearly too incredible to believe.
A giant plume of smoke came up from what we could only imagine to be the highway called Periferico in the southern part of the city. Smaller plumes rose up in a row behind it, marking what we would later gather to be the path of the troops as they entered the city from the southwest. The number of helicopters in the sky had increased to three, and they were circling in low swoops, guiding troop action below. John, ever the avid birdwatcher and a co-conspirator of mine in my scientific study of Mexican ants, had brought along a small pair of field glasses, and we took turns gazing at the city through the small lenses. We couldn’t see much, except the black smoke floating ever higher skyward, a stark contrast against the clear blue overhead. And when one fire seemed to go dim, another cloud of smoke could be seen farther north taking its place. We heard on the radio that the military had taken several churches and important buildings, and that the zocalo would be next. Sporadic groups came and went, eyes ever affixed on the city below. A woman waved a white flag back and forth at the circling helicopters. People from all areas of the city shined mirrors at them in household mirrors, trying everything they could to make it harder to navigate. I myself wished to be aboard one of the low flying craft, so I could see what on earth was really going on. My feet itched to find out, but better sense kept us rooted to our seats safe above the city.
The popcorn, the Snickers, the Milky Way, the marshmallow pop, and the two small bags of sour Mexican jellybean thingies were long since eaten. It was unanimously decided that I, as the chief addict, should continue to carry the empty popcorn bowl as we continued along the roadside wall from spot to spot watching the smoke dissipate into the sky. We compulsively stalked the helicopters, watching one land in Parque del Amor downtown, the place the radio said that people were being detained and arrested. I spent perhaps twenty minutes watching people on an overpass watching the helicopters as ominous looking men—or, at least, as ominous as men could be from several miles away and through field glasses—transported packages back and forth from a truck into a helicopter.
James arrived on his motorcycle. Ever the irresponsible employer, he had spent the morning looking for the “action”, and in spite of the grimness of the situation I could scarcely bite my tongue and refrain from chiding him for his error the night before in guessing it would come from the north. Anyways, he had eventually found his way into the thick of things, and indeed his first words as he walked towards the group were, “I got run over by a tank.” Indeed, he was limping a little, but I couldn’t see how a tank could have been involved in the incident: he was, at any rate, all in one piece.
The news was, on the whole, what we expected, but it was nice to hear a firsthand account of the situation. James had been taking pictures of everything, and his foot had been run over by one of the giant bulldozing truck/tanks which had spent the day moving literally inch by inch into the city through protesters and barricades. He had been sprayed with high powered water hoses from these tanks, though miraculously it did not seem that there had been any shooting, only the occasional rumor of teargas. The military trucks were moving men and supplies and the helicopters were coordinating movements from above. What we were witnessing from our lofty view of the city was the burning of buses and cars (a trademark statement/confusion tactic of the APPO), gas tanks and tires smudging black smoke across the sky.
James departed again to download pictures from his digital camera onto someone’s computer. After a while the sun sank lower and shone in our eyes; we shifted on our feet and realized that we were thirsty, sunburnt, and that everyone needed to pee. It was decided that nothing more was going to happen, at least for the time being, and that we should go home.
As made this decision and got up, a group of unfortunate tourists did the same, maybe fifteen of us in all standing and walking away from the sight of the city towards the stairs below. And perhaps because we were the ones who had had the foresight to carry the radio and field glasses, perhaps because we were foreigners and had a different intuitive sense of the situation, and perhaps simply because everyone was on edge and thinking the same thing we were, as we rose to go, everyone started to run. Someone shouted that the police were coming. People jumped into cars and sped away. Some looked seriously downhill at the prospect of jumping down the hill into hiding. It was sheer group mentality, and in reality, nothing had happened except for the fact that a number of us had all decided to leave at once. But everyone was on edge, and our instincts told us, unanimously, that being ready to run was a good thing in this situation.
Eventually, we got home. Nightfall brought a strange quiet to the city of Oaxaca. The smoke from the burning vehicles settled down on the city from above the way smog does in the valley of Los Angeles, and we could smell it as it settled. Finally, we watched our movie, something appropriately light and comedic so we could just sit and not think. Everyone was drained. My eyes were starting to hurt from wearing my contacts for three days in a row and we were all feeling dirty and exhausted from being in the sun by the road all day. John snuck down to the zocalo without telling anyone to take a look, and came back with the report that the PFP had taken the zocalo and were camping out there, asleep on their body shields. We watched the evening news, checked our emails, and tried to make sense of it all. Among the relentlessly circulating media were pictures of a man throwing a rat at the federal police and public health officials drawing blood from APPO members for artful protests in the form of bloodied T-shirts. Among the looping footage on TV were stills of a young boy, 15, killed by a tear gas canister exploded at close range. Depressed, we brushed our teeth and took showers, reluctant to go to bed but too tired and emotionally drained to be functional for anything else.
At some point, James came back and started typing furiously on Brittany’s computer, cursing in his quiet, understated voice that the newscasts were full of shit and that the newscasters were bendejos (more or less, dickheads or assholes, depending on who you ask, but in all cases negative). He brewed coffee. We slumped a little. Slowly, we filtered off to bed one by one. Three helicopters came and made quick rounds of the city, and I fell asleep on the couch, James in the background noiselessly plotting things on a map, slamming instant coffee, and typing.
This morning I again awoke early, and on first sight nothing was remiss in the city. A few cars cruised by on nearby Crespo street, though for the most part things were quiet. James was gone. On first inspection all our email boxes are full with worried messages, and we gather that headlines about Oaxaca have made the front page of the New York Times. I bury my head in my hands, not sure what to say, how to explain the situation, or even to begin to answer the questions that come at me from all quarters, and yet thankful that there are so many people at home who are following my misadventures and are willing to help get me home if need be.
Helicopters begin again at nine, but we know from the rumor mill that at least for now things are safe. Somehow, Britney and John have the motivation to make oatmeal for breakfast, and we eat and pack up for the trip to mine and Emily’s houses and the store for food and supplies and then inevitably by the zocalo to survey the damage.
In a group, wearing my own clothes and packing a camera, I feel much more secure than I would have yesterday were I to have ventured out into the city. My family here, as it turns out, is relaxed and rational about the situation; Emily’s host mom seems to be on the verge of collapse, her daughter still panicky about the presence of so much smoke in the sky at night and the police banging on doors late looking for “hiding APPO members.” Taking these two perspectives in mind, from Emily’s house, we set out for the zocalo.
The zocalo is entirely blocked off by military. At first I approach timidly, my heart in my throat, but as I take stock of the situation I realize that I am not, in fact, the only person taking pictures. Media representatives and local onlookers are swarming all over the place, taking pictures of burnt out buses and the austere line of the federales lined up with clear plastic shields. Their faces are youthful and soft behind the harshness of their masks, and they look bored. I see two of them through my lens looking at me and trying not to giggle a few feet away; they are about my age. They are trying to be grownups and failing miserably, giving in to the enjoyment of watching a guera take pictures of their encampment, something which to them must seem commonplace and even boring. Finally, I venture, as I blatantly aim my camera at them, “¿Como estan? ¿ Abburidos?” They giggle. “Un poco,” one confesses quietly. We laugh, and I am struck with a strange desire to offer to go buy them a Coke or something: it is very hot, and they look uncomfortable in their full, black, riot gear and heavy masks.
The next intersection is more of the same: men of about my age standing behind shields looking uncomfortably hot and trying to remain serious and calm as onlookers take pictures and shout the occasional offensive comment. Burnt out buses and cars line the streets, and I remark that what once served the APPO in their blockading of the center against the military now serves the counter-purpose of blocking the military from the potential of the invading APPO.
We snap pictures and walk the circumference of the zocalo for a while, and I am much braver in my questions, asking the federales how they are, whether they are hot, and how they feel. Some do not respond. Others give rigid, rehearsed, patriotic answers. Others confess quickly, quietly that yes they are a little bored, and yes, it’s a little hot. But all seem to be in the hand of someone larger, giving orders that they do not understand, and speak hushedly lest their superiors should overhear.
Eventually, we have seen enough, and go home. Jessica returns from her weekend excursion and sits playing soft music on the porch, singing softly. Emily naps. I write. Helicopters come and go. We get up to eat and make our plans for the evenings. We make phonecalls home, write emails. The plan hasn’t changed, we don’t know what to say, we don’t know what’s going to happen or even really what’s happening right now. It’s getting dark. But we’re at home, and we’re okay. For now, it’s more waiting.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Just another instance of nothing happening...?

I awoke this morning to realize that I had slept the night through; the sun beamed down full force through Jessica’s bedroom windows. Why isn’t the city in flames? I wondered to myself. I rolled over and ran my fingers through my newly short hair and asked, unimpressed, to no one in particular, “Is this just another instance of nothing happening?”
“I think so,” Emily said from across the room. “Still, my nerves can’t handle it.”
It didn’t seem strange to me to find her standing there at the window, nor did it alarm me that I was in fact in someone else’s bed in someone else’s house and wearing someone else’s clothes. Whenever rumors begin to fly through the city about political chaos and conflict at the barricades we all find our way to the Crespo house one way or another; it isn’t uncommon to pass the night on the couch or comfortably in Jessica’s enormous bed downstairs. This latter circumstance was the case last night, and so I awoke at 8:15 in Jessica’s room with Emily standing gazing out the window at Oaxaca on yet another lazy Sunday and it did not seem strange at all the Jessica herself wasn’t there.
A journalist from Indymedia in New York was killed in my city two days ago, one of four to be shot by plainclothes policemen in a systematic raid of barricades on Friday organized by the state government. The move was one of unparalleled stupidity, and all in all it was precisely what we have come to expect from Ulyses Ruiz Ortiz, Oaxaca state governor currently banned in his own capital city and on the run from insurgent forces who have had control of the city for the past five months. His actions were in stark contrast to the current situation in the rest of the city, which had led us to believe that things would soon return to normal in the confused city.
Friday began another three-day economic paro or huelga (strike) by businesses in the city. The APPO put up extra blockades so as to be especially annoying. It was a quiet day, one which I passed almost entirely reading in my hammock after my morning class was finished. Call it foresight, call it clairvoyance, but sometimes I just know when it’s a good day to stay home. By mid afternoon we knew that something had come to pass which was wholly unexpected: local police had systematically, overtly, come to remove the barricades. In the resulting mayhem and confusion—protesting teachers had all but returned to classes and given up their quest, at least on the local level, and there seemed in fact to be no reason for additional pressure from the government—several people were shot, including Brad Will, a 36-year old leftie journalist arrived in Oaxaca perhaps three weeks ago to cover events here.
Saturday was shrouded in tension; we cancelled our Halloween party at the last minute as perhaps only four or five students showed up to each class, including mine which usually has twenty rowdy, jostling eleven year olds eager to do anything but learn English on their Saturday morning. The softspoken director of my school, perhaps 27 and originally from Cincinatti, Ohio, himself an APPO sympathizer, interrupted class to call all the teachers together to organize a meeting after work at the downtown building. He was calm and a little shaken: as it turns out, he had written once or twice for Indymedia and had been in correspondence with Will before his arrival in the city.
The full meeting with all my coworkers was brief. Mostly James, our director, talked for a while and reiterated the emergency contingency plan; the rest of us looked at one another, half bored and half nervous. The other teachers at Cambridge Academy also happen to be my dearest friends; we have independently discussed the situation to death and as I looked around the table I could guess with a fair amount of certainty exactly what was going on in each of their heads.
After the meeting we walked to the nearly empty organic market and ordered seven wheatburgers from one of the last closing stalls, sitting in front of the fishpond and chatting. Loud fireworks banged throughout the afternoon. We then in various groups wandered, as we always do, to the Crespo house, the closer of the two buildings that we as teachers inhabit in the city, because it has wireless internet where we can follow the news and all sleep in the same place if need be.
The night passed uneventfully. Periodically we looked up to see airplanes, but none of them were military planes. Loud, frantic wedding music blared into the twilight and the night resonated as it always does with periodic booms of ubiquitous Mexican fireworks. Nothing seemed remiss except for the somber attitude of the city and the deserted streets. Bored, we cut my hair to a boyish crop, gave Britney punk rocker bangs, and gave Emily a bob minus the garish bangs typical of that style, which we kept long. John offered to let us glue the extra hair onto his own head, the front of which hasn’t seen hair for a while, but we didn’t have any crazy glue and gave up the mission in favor of playing hearts and listening to music, our ears secretly attuned to helicopters or other unusual sounds in the night which never came.
But the night passed without event, and in fact I slept peacefully. Breakfast consists of quesadillas from the local market and Nescafe instant coffee. We laugh at the fact that we are so accustomed to instant coffee. Everything seems to be an ordinary Sunday. Only today, we hear the thumping of helicopter propellers in the sky, harbinger to the eerie sight of helicopters circling, circling, circling the city in their lazy arcs. It is a sound familiar to all of us by now, and it draws us out onto the roof to look. Sure enough, they are circling the sky. Two, shiny new ones. Not the older ones of a few weeks ago. A sign of the federal police. I shudder in spite of myself. I don’t know if I can ever look at the powerful creatures the same way anymore—such an incredible, graceful phenomenon of modern physics, and yet so terrifying that my hair stands up on end as I see them and I feel adrenaline surge to my limbs. I think of Chris Rea and his fascination with aviation, back in the states somewhere living his normal life, and of the days we spent putting together model planes in high school. Then, I secretly wished to know more about them, so that perhaps one day I could design them. Today, I am simply confused.
Our boss arrives, and between gulps of instant coffee and the rush to find new batteries for his camera, he announces that there are new mentions of peace talks, which is a relief. We now know that there are 3000 troops in barracks in Etla and 200 poised to block the road to Mexico City. Local police are still in plainclothes throughout the city, but for the most part they have no real meaning. It is the federal troops which could, when pressed, do real damage, armed with riot gear, tear gas, and everything else necessary to have a very violent “nonviolent” intervention. But today, nothing seems to be in the works—only the neighbors flashing large mirrors into the sky to harass the two military helicopters still circling the southeastern part of the city.
James scoots off on his motorcycle, APPO identity card/“press pass” in hand, to check out the barricades, promising to keep us posted via cell phone of what is actually happening. I fuss after him for a few minutes, making sure he has an emergency backup plan and that what he is doing is not actually stupid. When he finally turns to go, I shake my head and bite my lip, laughing to myself at the fact that I should feel like such a mother to a man who is in fact my boss. In a sense I wish I could go with him, but I know that to be stupid. He knows the city and its people far better than I do, and I am in that respect content to stay at home at the computer, listening to the University radio station with my instant coffee, typing and plotting things out on the giant map of the city spread out beside me, following things as best I can while, as always, taking things with a grain of salt and a dose of courage.
I know that the news at home sounds bad. Fox issued a written statement recently saying that he would now use force if necessary. We made the Americas section of the New York Times again today (actually a very good, fairly accurate article, available at Headlines and photos look horrendous, and are, as usual, exaggerated. But I say—slowly and cautiously, with as level a head as possible—that things are okay. That I am okay. I will know when things go wrong, when it is time to switch into panic mode and get the hell out. The system of action here is delicately calibrated for appropriate planning and response. And I have—we have—a system in place for if and when it comes time to leave.
As always, I have two hundred dollars in cash stashed in my room next to my passport and my FM3 visa ready to go in case of emergencies, photocopies of all of my important documents, including credit cards and extra identification. My cell phone is stock full of phone numbers to call in case of an emergency, people with cars and safe places to stay. And in the meantime, the owner of my school has a home in the hills that we can leave to in the event of a personal crisis or the need to escape for a while, and a house in Puerto Escondido in case we simply feel like taking a week off. I am okay. The weather outside is fantastic, my instant coffee for some reason tastes good in spite of its cheapness, and the company of my friends is unparalleled in its comfort and honesty. I shall spend this afternoon, like so many other afternoon recently, listening to insurgent radio and watching helicopters do recon over my city.
Today, incidentally, marks the conclusion of my fourth month in Mexico.


Monday, October 02, 2006

helicopters and swimming pools

We were to have had a party on Saturday. Nothing special, mostly Cambridge teachers and a few of the older students with whom we could share hors d'oeuvres and some mescal to fight off the nonexistent cold.

While I actually didn’t live at the hosting house, I was considered a resident because I lived there a while ago, before half of the current residents moved in, and so went early on in the afternoon to help prepare. This consisted mostly in sitting on the cement roof in a hammock, drinking familiar-sized Coronas and reading Neruda poems aloud with my friend and fellow teacher John. One of us would read and the other would sit and stare thoughtfully into the sky, making appreciative noises at any of the many particularly moving passages. It was an incredibly beautiful day: blue sky overhead, lush green plants swaying in a light wind, and the pleasant, mellow company you can only find among real friends.

The helicopters were a total surprise and completely incongruous. At around six, two of them emerged with an unpleasant drone from the southernmost part of the sky, from the general direction of the airport. One tailed the other as they flew low, making wary loops around the city. The first lap we could only sit and stare at the grey camouflage above our heads with the rest of the city. Nicolas and Veronica, the house’s landlords and frequent visitors, flew outside from where they had been working and stared in amazement. “Federal police,” Nicolas said. “It’s about time. I hope they shoot every last one of them.” We gasped in surprise but could not in all honesty blame him. The city is in economic crisis, businesses are closing, people are fed up with protesters and barricades in the street.

On the third lap we could see the word MARINA in big black letters on the bottom of each of the two choppers, indicating that the they were actually not federal police but the Marines. They circled around ominously once more and then left amidst a barrage of warning fireworks. The APPO signals, which we have all memorized by now, are one burst for “hey what’s up?” two for “you might want to pay attention” and three for “report to HQ, the war’s on.” Today the signals were coming hard and heavy in sets of three from the various base camps, sometimes one right on top of the other, a barrage of nonsensical messages. Church bells, another ancient system of warning typical to smaller towns, tolled incessantly. The city was in chaos.

“The last time they used helicopters was June 14th when they dropped tear gas,” John commented. “This isn’t good.” After failed attempts at negotiation this past week, panic shopping on Wednesday to precede business strikes on Thursday and Friday, and a passed governmental deadline for the APPO to withdraw, we could only think that the time had come for the city to once again be shrouded in tear gas and terror. Tempers were wearing thin. Fox had sworn to solve the conflict before he leaves office in November. No one really believed him, but perhaps this was a first step.

We watched as the helicopters came and went again and then were replaced by a military plane, ancient and clunky but equally ominous. They’re trying to scare people into their homes, we thought. Showing they’re playing hardball this time. And yet nothing more came of the event. No teargas, no violent outbreaks. But the rest of the night we were on edge. So was the city, which was quiet except for fireworks, hushed voices, and false cries of alarm. “This country has a surplus of fireworks,” Jessica commented drily, as we jumped to our feet for perhaps the tenth time in a row to look at the smoky plumes disappearing into the twilight. Night fell and fireworks from the city below kept bursting in periodic spurts, as though perhaps we hadn’t noticed that the world was about to end and were interested in finding out from the APPO´s own strange brand of morse code.

“I guess that means no one’s coming to our party,” I said grimly. “I hope no one minds sharing a bed, because I’m not walking home right now.”

And yet several people did show up. It was a horrid assortment of people, everyone on edge and feeling somewhat awkward, alternating between pointedly commenting on the situation and pointedly not commenting on the situation, which was almost worse. We tried playing cards, but no one was in the mood and none of the Mexicans knew how to play save one, who didn’t really but insisted on telling everyone how to play nonetheless. Soon everyone left the table except for me and the guy who sells shallots at the organic market, who sat too far too close to me at the end of the long table and drooled at me from perhaps a foot away. I’m still not sure who invited him. “What a wonderful accent you have,” he crooned. “You are so beautiful.” “Tell me the best way to learn English.” “Practice a whole freaking lot,” I said flatly. It’s a classic routine, all too familiar, and I found myself infuriated for once instead of patient and somewhat flattered. It wasn’t even mildly entertaining. Couldn’t he see there were more important things going on in the world than wooing a disinterested gϋera? “You have to help practice speaking,” he begged. I pointedly ignored him, shuffling the deck of cards over and over, trying to mark and then cut Aces and failing miserably. He kept rambling. Irritated, I got up and went outside without making excuses. Not long thereafter I decided it was time for bed.

Sunday was a gloomy day. The morning brought more helicopters and airplanes, and the whole city seemed devoid of cheerfulness. It was too hot. Everything seemed grim, everyone seemed upset. No one knew what to do. It seemed stupid to pretend it was a normal day, and yet going through the motions of everyday existence was the only way to pass the time. We ate breakfast. I made a peach cobbler while everyone else took naps. We ate the cobbler. We made small talk, checked our emails, and looked for news on the internet. I carted a copy of The Lost World around the house with me, walking aimlessly upstairs and downstairs, thinking that somehow, sometime I would start reading it, but the inspiration never came. I wanted to go home to sit in my hammock but my house felt a million light years away, and it felt saner to be in the company of friends. Eventually in desperationwe caved in to our confusion and our American ness and ordered pizza, something I didn’t even know you could do here, and watched Magnolia. By the end when the frogs fall from the sky, it didn’t even seem all that unusual. I don’t think I would have been that surprised had it happened outside at the same time it did on television. Eventually I went home, feeling grimy in borrowed clothes and not having showered for a day and a half.

Today, the local paper confirms that there are choppers, troops, and helicopters in Guatulco, “a long drive but a short plane ride away.” And still, no one knows if this isn’t just a really big bluff. No official statements have been made, no intentions declared. When the APPO attempted to assassinate Ulyses last Sunday at El Camino Real (a hotel two of my friends just happened to be touring at the time of the attack), they specifically chose a day of rest in which most people would be safe in their homes. No one is looking for a bloodbath here. And yet it has been three days of helicopters circling, circling, circling as we eat, walk to work, and go about our daily routines. Nothing has happened. Fireworks go off at all hours of the night. Our director insists that he has connections in the APPO and that nothing will go wrong. Without being morbid I know that he will be the first one to die or be arrested if it does, a single white man with something to prove in a sea of Mexican rebels.

I got a membership at the pool today after three months dry. It was a long time coming. And yet I knew I needed it to keep my sanity in these strange times. The water felt miraculous, and the grime on the bottom reminded me of Clark’s pool before it was remodelled. An odd thing to be comforted by, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, puzzling at the floating debris as I passed it at every lap. I hardly even noticed that I was the only white person there, and didn’t once think of the troubles in the outside world even once. My soul felt at peace. Never mind the outrageous expense; never mind my aching shoulders and newly clicking tendonitis; never mind that my suit, once several sizes too small and nearly impossible to put on, slid easily over my torso after over three months of walking everywhere and living off a simple Mexican diet. The calm turquoise radiated with light, and as I finally settled into my breathing pattern—hold, bubbles, breathe, hold, bubbles, breathe, hold, bubbles, breathe—my body relaxed and my mind shut off. I finally felt at home, there in that expensive bath of chemicals and clear blue water. I was able to go to work this afternoon and not feel panicked, and everything made sense again. I even listened to the rantings of my overbearing German roommate about how naïve our boss is to the whole situation with something akin to sympathy, nodding and flipping through my French books as I did so.

So, well… I’m okay. Things are strange but not dangerous. Or at least, not at the moment. At my prompting, we are having a meeting/discussion about all of this at work tomorrow, and we have developed an emergency contingency plan as the result of my German roommate’s hysterics this morning, which were apparently not just for my benefit but that of everyone else at work as well. I live in one of only two houses in the city that Cambridge teachers live in; my best friends live in the other. I am well connected to any news of federal movement by my former coordinator Anna Barto, who teaches English to Oaxaca’s airport director, and any movement of the APPO by my director, who apparently has something to prove to himself and therefore has adopted the cause. I will keep you posted on how things unfold.