Friday, 29 June 2012

Violence & culture shock

My plane left Tuxtla Gutierrez on Thursday at 8:30 am. We would disembark at Terminal #2 in Mexico City's International Airport, the very terminal in which three police men were shot to death just two days before. It had been a drug related violent scene. Two policemen were under investigation for taking bribes and letting drugs get through the screening process. The head of the airport security was also a target of the police. When the suspects saw the police closing in, they opened fire and shot three. Two died on the scene and another later at the hospital. I never was able to find the rest of the story to see if anyone had been arrested. I wasn't terribly worried about further violence. Mostly I was concerned that security would be so tight I might miss my connecting flight to Houston and have to stay overnight in one of the most polluted cities in the world, fighting asthma the whole time. If such a thing had happened in the states.......

As it turned out, there was NO security. I walked right through the food court where the shootout happened and there was no added security, no police presence at all. It was business as usual.

Terminal #2 is for domestic flights. I had to find my bag and get on the train to Terminal #1where I could get the bag checked in at the United counter. After that chore was done, there was plenty of time for some lunch at their food court. It was anchored by McDonalds, Starbucks, and Panda Express. Other counters featured tacos al carbon, sushi, sweet breads, and fried chicken. I opted for vegies, noodles and chicken from a Japanese place, which took almost half an hour and could have been a bad mistake if there hadn't been so much time.

A bunch of Americans were seated around a large counter, dressed in matching green t-shirts. They were part of a missionary group finishing up a one week visit to an indigenous village where they built a system to catch and store rain water. Nice people, enthusiastic teenagers. I asked if any of them had been afraid before coming to Mexico. They all said yes, they'd been warned about how dangerous it was, so they prayed and came anyway. Then I asked how they felt now and they all laughed. One said he felt kind of foolish now, after seeing how wonderful Mexicans are. One of the mothers said she wouldn't worry about her kids coming back next summer without her.

In Houston, I had some culture shock of my own. I paid $8.25 for a granola yoghurt and a juice drink! Then in the bathroom, I looked all over for a trashcan next to the toilet, until realization flowed over......I can flush the paper now!

Fifteen hours after starting off with Guadalupe, the driver from San Cristobal, I made it to Albuquerque where it was daylight at 8:30pm and still sweltering from the +100 F temps. Such a shock after six months of coolth in the highlands of Chiapas.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Last day in Mexico

I woke up this morning contemplating my last meal in Mexico, like a condemned prisoner. Will it be Cochinita Pibil at Dona Chayito's restaurant way up past the end of the Guadalupe Andador, across the street from the Chicken Ranch, home of the best roasted chicken in town? Or will it be the sheep barbacoa at that tiny place off the beaten path to Chedraui, Mexico's homegrown Wal-Mart?

I spent much of yesterday giving stuff away. My favorite red & black velour jacket went to Arunulfo, along with a blender, an iron, and a long piece of red, turquoise, and black material made into a reboso but used periodically as a curtain, table cloth, and wrap. All the girlie stuff: nail polish, combs, hair barretts, eyeshadow, and mascara, went to Yesi and Malena. Dishes, kitchen stuff, everything but the really good Henkle knife and knife sharpener that I brought with me stay here at Margarita's.

Arunulfo just moved into an empty house. He was house sitting for Theresa for almost three months, so even though he's been here almost as long as I have, he moved in one taxi ride with his rolling suitcase and a back pack. He plans to build a house, so he'll be buying everything shortly, to furnish his new place.  I loaded him up with food I know Margarita probably won't eat: canned soups, dried garbanzo and pinto beans, lentils, Cajeta sauce, soup bases and oatmeal.

A foot high stack of clothing has gone to Casa de las Flores, a day-home and school for street children. It was hard to believe that a suitcase full of clothes has almost disappeared to be replaced with scarves, handmade goodies, and coffee. Some things I brought with me, like a pair of old black jeans, simply wore out and had to be thrown away. Some were shabby to begin with, like an old sweat shirt I slept in, and a yellow tee that was anything but flattering. I purchased several pairs of pants and shirts that were more suitable for this climate at second hand stores, and then donated them on the way out. One beautiful teal shirt had to be modified. I shortened the sleeve and moved the pretty trim up. I couldn't get Margarita's sewing machine to sew that slick fabric well, so it was done by hand. No wonder clothes in the old days were so valuable! It took me an entire eventing to accomplish that relatively simple task. With a scarf over that shirt I look almost elegant.

And still it's iffy about getting the rest of the stuff packed. In the bag now are about 12 scarves, a reboso, clothes, some painted wooden objects, and a handmade pipe with Pakal's face for my son who says he doesn't smoke, a bag of coffee and another of chocolates. It weighs a ton and not everything is packed. Three boxes of books, clothes, and kitchen items are now stored at Malena's with all of John's junk.

The landmark cross
in the plaza in front of
the cathedral.
So in spite of my vow to keep life simple and not buy much, I bought stuff. The big money was spent on jewelry and I'm leaving none of that behind! Smaller amounts of money went to street buys. I bought a couple of little headbands, knitted by a Chamulan girl who used her sweet smile to lure in soft hearts like mine. One went to Sophia, Damian's daughter, the other to Violeta, Edith's daughter. Both looked very cute and seemed to like them.

It feels like it was a productive trip. I wanted to learn Spanish better and I made a lot of progress, though I'm nowhere near fluent. I have had some wonderful conversations with people. Like yesterday, while waiting for Malena in her little restaurant to give me a cooking lesson in making green mole. A man was there having breakfast and while he waited for his change, he struck up a conversation with me. He's a veterinarian who, like most Mexicans, has relatives in the states. One sister has become Mormon and lives in Utah. So that led us to discuss religion. He's Catholic, and I told him about my own Unitarian religion, which of course he knew nothing about. I understood him, he understood me, and we had a very nice chat. Neither of us were in the least interested in converting the other person, and instantly saw our shared values. When I left I felt a bit stunned. I'd just discussed religion, not an easy subject, and did it all in Spanish. Progress has been made on this trip, in spite of having American room mates, John, Derek, and Margarita, the entire time. I really have Edith to thank for that, and the multitude of opportunities to practice in this land of patient kind people.

The other goal was to write. Not just this blog, but a book. So far, two sections (7 chapters) down and two more to go. That's huge, and I need to focus hard on it when I get home. But that won't be for a few days. Tomorrow is all travel, then a few days in Albuquerque, then Monday - home to Lost Almost.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A couple of fruits

Summer in San Cristobal feels a lot like fall in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The days are cool and potentially rainy. The nights chilly enough for a jacket or warm reboso, and the bed has a down comforter year round.

But in the low country, it's now hot and steamy summertime. Interesting fruits and vegetables just keep pouring into the markets.

Papausas in a pile.

The latest one is a yellowish green color with brown marks, bright pink cracks and a creamy pink interior with rose colored veins and reddish brown shiny seeds. It's called a papausa. The texture is like a thick vanilla pudding (except for the big black seeds) and the flavor is a bit like vanilla ice cream with flecks of peach and strawberry. It's quite sweet and rots quickly.

The markets are now crowded with guayaba (guava), a fragrant fruit that also has a short shelf life. When it disintegrates, the smell becomes quite intent. The flesh is sweet and has many small seeds that are easily eaten. In some varieties the seeds are quite hard. Here the apple guayaba and the red guayaba are the most common. The taste can only be compared with another guayaba, it tastes only like itself, defying description. Plus according to Wikipedia and other online sources, the guava has many medicinal qualities, and the leaves especially contain cancer fighting chemicals.

The odd fruits stand: mamey zapotes in the foreground
guayabas in the buckets, papayas in the distance.

Guayabas (guavas) about 20 pesos per bucket

Mamey Zapote fruits

Mamey Zapote fruit and seed

Mamey Zapotes are in season now too, resembling rough brown avocados. Inside there's a rather large hard seed, the flesh is soft and buttery like an avocado, and comes out of the shell in the same easy-to-remove fashion. Most have a sweet vaguely pumpkin flavor, but if overripe it begins to take on a fishy salmon taste, which is not appealing in a fruit. The seed is so hard and durable that I've seen them carved and made into smoking pipes in the market

Papausa and seed

Friday, 22 June 2012

Learning English, Teaching English

So yesterday, later in the evening, but still before dark, I was wandering around the Guadalupe Andador. Two teenaged girls approached me and in Spanish asked if I spoke English. They were doing a project for school. They needed to video themselves interviewing English speakers. Except neither of them spoke English and I was to be their first victim. They had translated their Spanish questions into English with some dorky online translator. Well, dorky is a harsh word. It would be difficult to program a computer to know if a sentence should be translated from the formal 'you' in Spanish or with the pronoun him/her. So this was one of the questions they'd wanted to ask me: "What did he do in place before he come to San Cristobal?" Or my favorite "Size what give he family come with?"

The Guadalupe Andador, a walking street.
Here was a perfect teaching moment. I read their questions in Spanish, then translated into English and wrote it on the paper they were reading from. They still couldn't pronounce words like Why and Where and What, because the "wh" sound is a bit foreign, but not really. I told the girl who kept screwing up the pronunciation "You can say Iztaccihuatl, can't you?" She drew a blank. "The volcano, very famous, near Mexico City?" Then she snapped. I kept going: "Huatl, hua, that's the same sound as 'wh' in English." They both tried to say 'Why' but instead said 'Whee'. Another teaching moment:  "You can say pie  can't you?" (Pie is spelled 'pay' in Spanish but pronounced the same as pie in English, and means a pie too!) Why, yes they could manage that! "Now put the sounds together and you can say 'why'." One was filming, the other would try to say the word and then both would erupt into peals of nervous laughter. I gave up and laughed along with them and somehow we managed to make a few clips on a cell phone which I'm sure will be enormously entertaining to their teacher.

That little moment reminded me of my stepfather's teaching moment when he was in Mexico many years ago. A gentle polite boy who was bell-hopping at the hotel asked how he could get people to move out of his way, politely, and in English. So Jack told him, "First you always say 'excuse me', then you always say 'please' which is disculpame and por favor." So the kid practiced 'please' and 'excuse me' many times. Then my father said "Then you put that together and you say 'Excuse me. Please move your ass."

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Belly Dancing

Who would have thought San Cristobal de las Casas would be a hotbed of belly dancers? Sunday I went with Margarita and Marlu to a little house on the edge of the forest preserve, to a party put on by belly dancers for their teacher, a 71 year old German woman named Katarina. She will soon be joining her family in the US, gone forever.

Wednesday night I went to their class at a small dance studio near the Guadalupe andador. We all wore loose clothing and a scarf around the hips so we could see how well we shimmied, or swayed, or seductively rotated. Some women were very advanced and could do the jet speed jiggle. Others (me) had one roll of fat still on the upswing when the last roll was coming back, the waves cancelled each other out. It was a killer hour of lifting arms up or out, coquettishly flitting them hither and yon, swaying hips back and forth simultaneously raising and lowering, prancing around on tip toes, and dripping sweat. The teacher did everything she asked us to do, for the entire time, without a glisten of perspiration. An amazing woman. And the class was packed, probably twenty five women in a smallish room with a decent floor (wood not tile).

Everyone said good-by to Katarina, but it turned out she has decided to return and will teach again. Meanwhile, the more advanced students will continue the practices and they'll still be in good form when she returns.

Learning to keep the upper body still.

Outdoor practice

Katarina leading the group, Arnulfo, the only
male belly dancer, enjoying himself immensely.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Building a house

Arnulfo chatting with the owner
of a house Marlu built.
My German friend Arnulfo is about to take a huge step. He came back to Mexico in March after returning to Germany for about six weeks. His old life there had changed. The woman whose dog he walked had died and the dog went to a new home. Other things he'd been doing in retirement just didn't have the pull for him that Chiapas did.

His dear friend Edith asked him to come back and see if they could share a life together. Beyond that there were no promises, and from time to time, their relationship has been a bit rocky. Edith is very independent and protective of herself, and her children. Arnulfo is the kindest man in the world, loves those kids, and is a grandfather figure to them. He loves playing that role since he has no grandchildren of his own. Now, after a few months, the relationship has settled down. The man who owns property behind Edith has offered to sell a nice chunk of land to her. Arnulfo would like to buy it and build a house for himself.

So I introduced him to Marlu, a Dutch woman who has lived here for thirty+ years, and is an architect. I know of her because people I know live in her designs. I took Arnulfo to see Linda and Andrew's townhome, and he was very impressed. Marlu can turn the tiniest walled lot into a spacious airy and useful home, full of custom cabinetry and multi-use spaces. And she speaks Dutch, close enough to German, so the two of them hit it off royally.

The tiny house, an octagon, where 40 people
gathered to play music and dance. 
Marlu also takes belly dance lessons with my landlady, Margaret. Yesterday the four of us and Marlu's friend Pepe went to a friend's house for a belly dancing party. Arnulfo is almost as fond of Turkey as he is of Mexico, so he had a ball; belly dancing with all those women in their silky costumes to lively Turkish music, and eating hummus, baba ganoush, safron rice, home made pita breads, and halva. There were three houses in a row on that property, right next to a forest reserve, all designed and built by Marlu, so Arnulfo got to see some more excellent examples of her work. The homes are adobe with solar features and environmentally sound construction. They're tiny homes, but one could envision living in any of them very comfortably.

After seeing those little houses, and getting an idea of what it might cost to build one (between $25 and $50K US) Arnulfo was on fire. He was so excited he's already made a list of the features he wants, and how it might be situated. Now he just needs to purchase the land and the work will begin.

An even smaller octagonal house

Larger two bedroom home in the trio of houses

Friday, 15 June 2012

Tenejapa & Mammoth Cave, Chiapas

The area around San Cristobal is a fractured block of limestone, riddled with faults and cave systems. One cave south of town is called la Gruta after the stream that springs inside and flows out. It is popular and easily found on the highway between San Cristobal and Teopisca.  Other caves can be found east of town on the road towards Tenejapa.

Mayan Cross in front of
the Cathedral in San Cristobal

My friend Jon has a car, so I was delighted when he was interested in driving up to Tenejapa to take photos. Along the way we passed a wonderful Mayan village with a massive old graveyard, many of the graves long forgotten as the wooden crosses have rotted. At the crest of the hill was a row of blue and green Mayan Crosses. I've seen this cross form in some of the old ruins, it's usually more of a plus-sign, but the modern Mayan cross has a longer limb at the bottom making it resemble a Christian cross. Originally I think the sacred cross symbol signified the four directions, the four seasons, the four stages of human life, etc, four being itself a sacred number. The crosses are always associated with the colors blue and green, and accompanied by pine branches and long slender pine needles. In the Tsotsil and Tsetsal villages, the church has a Christian Cross and then usually three Mayan crosses opposite the church's front door.

This cemetery is the scene of many parties during the Day of the Dead festivities, where children play around the graves, and a carnival is set up down along the road. It's the day when families come to visit their dead family members. Everyone has a good time and then they share the sad times as they sit vigil all night with candles and prayers. The family brings the dead people's favorite foods to share memories and stories of them. How nice to be dead eventually knowing your family will come year after year to tell you how much they miss you and loved you when you were around, how your great grandchildren will play on your grave and then everyone will spend the night with you. What a way to teach children the meaning of death and how to deal with it.
Mayan Crosses

Jon and I went on to Tenejapa where they have market day every Thursday. I'd heard it was a good market, but in fact it was just a regular people's weekly market where they can buy the stuff they need like toilet paper, laundry soap, plastic containers, fresh chickens (sold dead and alive), fresh dripping beef or lamb (the live ones were outside the market in the backs of pickup trucks or tied to trees nearby), fresh fruits, vegetables, and beans. There were no artesanal items for sale. These townspeople aren't the artists' main customers. There were, however, many booths with material, threads, and other supplies for making crafts, and many indigenous women were crowded round picking out what they needed for the coming week's work. I purchased a huge bag of black and red zarzmoras, a type of raspberry, very small and very tart.
The grave of someone
obviously richer than most

The town itself was pretty typical of indigenous towns. The plaza was surrounded by municipal buildings and offices, the church was open for business, and dozens of stocky men stood around in their black hairy tunics with billy clubs slung over their shoulders, looking mean and tough. They were the police. What made Tenejapa unusual was it's location in a narrow valley surrounded by high forested mountains. It's such a pristine location, much higher in elevation than San Cristobal, colder in winter, and lovely during the summer. Most of the women were wearing sweaters over their normal satiny blouses, though I'd stripped down to just a t-shirt by that point in the morning. The road to it and back was through country green from all the recent rains, weaving through gorgeous valleys and along the edges of steep hillsides.

On the way back we stopped at La Cueva del Mamut, Mammoth Cave. The road down to it was completely washed out, but the exit road was open down the hillside into the small river valley where the cave entrance was. There was no sign saying it was ok to go down the exit road, I guess they figured if you wanted to come in, you'd figure it out.

Formations in Mammoth Cave

As is the case with many privately owned and operated attractions, the facilities are in some early stage of development with minimally trained employees. We parked in a big grassy area, because much of the "road" appeared to be a sucking mud pit, and because there was one other car parked there. It was quite a distance to what looked like the cave entrance. On the way to the ticket booth, a kid on a bicycle asked for a parking fee of ten pesos and gave Jon a reciept. At the cave, entrance was also ten pesos apiece but then a guide came following after us. He had a flashlight which was quite handy because much of the entrance was muddy, fitted with boards to walk on, and unlit. Deep inside the cave, this man asked for a propina, a tip. We put together our coins and he was clearly disappointed so he actually demanded thirty pesos. So I gave him a fifty peso bill and he never offered change, he just smiled. There were no signs or explanations inside the enormous cave room. I asked questions and he said he didn't know. Finally I asked if Spanish was his second language and he said no, yet he had no idea what the kind of rock the cave was made or or even how a stalactite forms. Didn't know the word for stalagmite, or any of the other formations like flow stone. He just pointed his little laser dot at formations and said silly things about them, like "Look, it's a rabbit". One formation looked like a bunch of skulls. I asked what was the name for a head that is nothing more than bone without hair or skin, and he said "Cara" (face). Oh brother. I know my Spanish isn't perfect but this guy wasn't listening or trying. Jon asked him to pose for a long distance picture, and afterwards he wanted another ten pesos. I told him we'd already paid him a lot but he just smiled and kept saying "ten pesos for the picture".

Light from a hole in the ceiling

None of it cost us a lot of money, that wasn't the issue. It was the total lack of communication and the charging of fees after the fact that was so irritating. No sign said a word about sending a guide with us, nor did the guys at the entrance mention it, the guide never said a word about charging until we were deep in the cave, the whole experience felt like extortion. The cave itself was quite amazing and huge, well worth a thirty or forty peso entrance fee, if that fee would have covered the hidden fees like a guide.

Jon on top of a large block of limestone
that had dropped from the ceiling

Outside we explored the grounds a bit and walked over a bridge to the other side. There were palapas and picnic tables, and way off across the muddy field, bathrooms with flushing toilets. A tiny hand-lettered sign said to pay three pesos at the entrance and to get toilet paper there. Of course at the entrance there was no mention of paying for the toilets or TP. The place was just very poorly organized and I doubt seriously if it will get any better, there's so little concept of customer service. I went ahead and used the toilet, I always carry TP with me. When I came out, the kid on the bicycle was there wanting three pesos.

Palapas and picnic tables

View of San Cristobal from
a tiny house along the road

The river next to the cave entrance

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Museum of Mayan Medicine

Arnulfo and three Mayan Crosses
The one place I've been wanting to go, but have only walked past it several times, has been the Museum of Mayan Medicine.  Thinking about it this morning, I thought I'd go over to see if Arnulfo wanted to accompany me. Minutes before walking out the door, the bell rang and it was Arnulfo, wanting to know if I'd like to go to the Museum. As they say, great minds think alike. (Of course we'd discussed doing it earlier in the week....)

It's located north of the Santo Domingo market on Solomon Gonzales Blanco, the road that becomes General Utrilla when it crosses over a nasty little river that is nothing but an open sewer. In many ways, as modern as Mexico is, the infrastructure for such things as sewage treatment is still back in the 1950s.

Getting there means walking past dozens of shops selling everything from veterinary supplies to charcoal briquettes, and a multitude of talleres (workshops) where cars, furniture, and electronics get repaired.

The museum grounds consist of a museum, a workshop and store where the dried herbs and various salves and concentrated concoctions are sold, offices, and gardens where many of the medicinal plants are grown. This is their official (pretty basic) website:  MuseoMedicinaMaya

A Temescal on the museum grounds a sweat lodge or
steam bath, for internal and external cleansing.

It was the first museum in Mexico that I've experienced, where we were offered translated packets in English, German, French, or Japanese. The fellow at the front desk gave each of us a packet of plasticized papers describing the Mayan healers, the ideas behind curing people of various malaise's including losing one's soul, and all the processes involved in curing someone.

There are five healers: the rezador who offers prayers to the mountains and the wind, the pulse reader who knows everything about you based on what she feels in your pulse, the partera is a midwife and doctor for women's afflictions, the huesero fixes bones, and the hierbero uses plants and makes concoctions for healing.

The woman I'm living with now, Margarita, is an American who's been in Mexico for almost twenty years. She fell and broke an ankle. The doctors at the hospital put her foot into a cast and sent her home. It hurt all the time and didn't seem to be healing. She went to a local huesero who took the cast off. Her foot was black and blue, clearly not in any state of health. He manipulated her ankle in ways that were quite painful, used a small glass heated up so that when applied to the skin it sucked up the blood and left red spots all over her foot, then he applied herbs and hot cloths to wrap it. She went back every few days for more treatment and the foot healed up perfectly.

Poster advocating alternatives
to drinking Coca Cola,
drink with conscience.
Thanks to my own experiences with Mexican street medicine (see post: StreetMedicine&IslandViews) I was willing to try a little Mayan cure myself. I've been fighting with a stomach bug that comes and goes, and wondered if they would have a cure, after all, it's a bug they probably have a lot of experience with. Sure enough, in the store, the curandera offered a little bottle of Microdosis Diabetik. Twenty drops, three times a day. She punctured a hole in the tip and I counted twenty drops onto my tongue. At least I think it was about twenty drops - after the first ten or so my tongue had lost all feeling and I could barely swallow that herb flavored turpentine. An hour later, Arnulfo and I had some lunch at our favorite little hole in the wall restaurant and I felt noticeably better, able to eat even a little chile sauce on the quesadilla.

In order to heal someone, a variety of things are put into use: candles of various colors, the Mayan Cross, prayers, incense, flowers, posh (sugar alcohol) and soft drinks. Coca Cola is the most popular because it's dark (that's significant for some reason) and full of bubbles that make you burp, thus expelling evil forces from your body. In Chamula, posh and Coke, plus candles are essential if you want to pray in the church. Naturally, some people overdo the posh part.....

In the museum there is a poster urging people to find an alternative to Coke for many reasons: it makes you fat, weakens your bones, rots your teeth, gives you gastritis so it's better to drink water, and the Coca Cola company is against the assassination of drug dealers!  Inside the display of a typical Mayan church, there is a case of Pepsi to be used in the rituals. Pepsi is the sanctioned alternative? I wonder if PepsiCo advocates the murder of drug dealers.....

The childbirth scene in the museum
The museum features a film about childbirth and shows a woman having a baby. It's an interesting and probably very practical method, not likely to ever be adopted by modern hospitals. The woman kneels in front of her husband who is sitting in a chair and he supports her so gravity assists in the birth. The midwife puts soft belts around her abdomen to apply gentle pressure to push the baby out. The woman still has on her long skirt and the midwife takes the baby out from under the skirt. There are rituals involving the umbilical cord, how to wash the baby properly so it doesn't lose the soul the midwife made for it earlier, and burying the placenta in certain ways to ensure the next baby is a girl or a boy. To assist in a more difficult birth, a chicken might be waved over the mother, or a machete passed around her abdomen in a symbolic Cesarean. A piece of amber is given to the child to protect it from evil eye. Each person also receives a nagual at birth, usually an animal spirit benefactor. Everyone needs a nagual's energy in order to live. As they grow older and the nagual dies, they will receive another. Some people with exceptionally strong healing powers may have up to thirteen naguals at a time. They are not always animals, sometimes a nagual is lightning, the wind, or even a meteor.

The museum has a display and explanation for the use of candles, how they are made, and what the colors signify. Everything in Mayan life has a practical side, and a ritualistic side. The connection between individuals is exceedingly important. Someone can give you the evil eye, be jealous of you and cause all kinds of illnesses, or not take care of you if you are injured and your soul gets left behind in that place.

Inside the temescal.

Typical interior of a Mayan church

People praying before three Mayan crosses

POST NOTE: four days later. I'm feeling much better. Not sure if the drops helped but they certainly did not hinder. A side effect is that horrid medicine shut down my appetite. So I suppose not eating may have starved the little buggers in my gut. I'll keep taking that medicine for a couple more days to see if the problem is really gone or not. The label said no caffeine so the first day without coffee, and the withdrawal headache was worse than the stomach bug ever was. Miserable. Took 24 hours to die down.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Weird food

What is most fun for me about traveling is trying new food, and new food combinations. In the local market some very strange hairy fruits are sold, called Rambutans. A couple months ago I passed by a young man with a wheeled cart full of hairy berries. They look like Ogalala strawberries, with soft spines. He opened one and inside was a white fruit with a squeeky bite. It was a lychee! I know lychees from the canned version served in Chinese restaurants. It tasted like a lychee but then again, not quite. So I thought the canning process added more sugar or something to account for the less sweet taste. And that "Rambutan" was the Mexican word for Lychee, even though it didn't sound at all Spanish.

Wrong on both accounts. It didn't taste like a lychee.....because it wasn't. It's related, and in the same family, but not the same thing. So today in the market, a man was selling the hairy Rambutans and a smaller nut-looking thing with bumpy brown skin which he called a Lychee. I bought a quarter kilo of each and brought them home. Inside the fruits look almost identical, but the seeds are quite different. The Rambutan seed is larger, softer, and cream colored, while the Lychee seed is shiny black. A taste of the Lychee leaves no doubt what it is, the canning process does not detract at all from its delightful flavor. The Rambutan is similar but milder and not as sweet.

At the Mercado Organico, I purchased some strange looking fruits and the woman told me the name, but I promptly forgot because I didn't write it down. I always assume someone else will be able to tell me, but back home Margarita said she vaguely recalled having once eaten something like it and didn't know the name. Pasqual the gardener had no clue whatsoever, and neither did Clara, the woman who comes to clean once a week.

Un-named fruit
I took photos, opened the fruits up and discovered they are filled with seeds, each one in it's own little fruity sack, like a pomegranite. It looks like a small squash in the shape of a banana, the skin is baby-face-furry, and the flavor is clearly fruit-like but sour and tart. The seeds are black and hard so I put the interiors of those fruits in the blender with some water and whizzed the seeds out of their fruity sacks. Fortunately the blades didn't tear up the seeds and it was easily strained. A little sugar added made a decent "liquado". We also had two of those mealy red bananas that have such intense flavor, so I added those and the juice of one lime to keep it from turning black. It became an excellent liquado.

Also sold in the market are small baskets of what look like fried rolly polly bugs. A photographer friend actually bought some and said they are giant flying ants. At the beginning of the rainy season, the flying ants come out to mate and swarm under street lights. The locals catch them in nets and then roast them on a comal, a large ceramic plate over a wood fire, the same comal they use to cook tortillas. It's a seasonal delicacy that I'm glad Jon tried and not me. He ate a few, just to say he did, but wasn't smitten. The only insect I've ever eaten that I would eat again, any time, are chocolate covered bees. Here in Chiapas, the birthplace of chocolate you'd think I could find some, but alas.

Close up of strange fruit

And of course the avocados. They're hardly weird, but there is one really weird variety. I am guessing, probably wrong again, that it's the ancestral avocado, before human beings took over and modified them. The big fat almost black bumpy avocados here are the best in the world. They are softly ripe and have relatively small seeds, so only one or two yields an enormous amount of guacamole. But in the market I saw a bumpy brown and green avocado, twice the size of the black ones, shaped like a crook neck yellow squash. I asked the seller if it had a large seed and she nodded. They were so cheap I went ahead and bought four. She wasn't kidding. The seed was as big as my hand and the avocado meat was a thin stringy ring around it. All of which might have been forgivable but they had only the faintest flavor, and two of them were black rotted.

Into the compost with those awful things!

(Post note - a few days later:  I asked my Spanish teacher who seems to be quite knowledgeable about everything if she'd ever heard of a fruit matching the description of the mystery one. She said maybe it's a maracuya. So good 'ol Wikipedia had several entries for different types of passion fruits, one of which was banana maracuja. They showed other Maracuya's, and I knew those as granaditas. They go by a dozen names throughout the world, including granadilla, which is close to what they call it here. So mystery solved. One more chink in the cultural jigsaw puzzle down, a million to go.)

Such odd shapes for avocados

Bizarre avocados with huge seeds and
almost no meat

The un-named fruit before cutting,
about 4 inches long (9-10 cm)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Political Spectrum

Communists in the street
Yesterday a group of marchers chanting and carrying signs walked down the Guadalupe Andador. In front of the group were photographers snapping pictures, and more at the rear following up. Their signs said they wanted schools, not soap operas (telenovelas). It was a strongly anti-PRI and anti-PAN demonstration. Last Sunday, the communists were out in force, several hundred people with red flags chanting slogans about wanting land returned to the people. They marched for several miles weaving back and forth across the city on the one-way streets. There is less traffic on Sundays, and more potential spectators out and about as Sunday is family day.

Last weekend I met a man named Quentin. We ended up at a coffee shop chatting with some of his local gringo friends about the demonstrations. A column of communists filed past. I noticed there weren't any police around, which seemed unusual to me, demonstrations can easily get out of hand. Those men said when the police are there, that's when things get out of hand! So the police watch from rooftops and with cameras, and stay out of the way, in order to keep the peace. Police presence escalates emotions. It's a lesson they've learned the hard way, and one the US could learn as well.

Anti-PRI and anti-Pan demonstrators
The demonstrations are such a contrast to the slick PRI "fiesta" just a few nights before. There were no matching shirts, no shiny advertising signs, no humorous theme songs, no food reward at the end. These were regular people, most probably in the lower levels of the socio-economic spectrum, dressed in jeans, rebozos, and the traditional Mayan costumes they wear every day.

After the parade passed I continued up the street and was stopped by a man in his forties who asked if he could practice English with me. I said, "Sure, if I can speak in Spanish to you". So we chatted. He grew up in Mexico City and was obviously fairly well educated. He was curious what I thought it was that just passed. "Looked like a political protest to me." I told him. I wasn't sure if he was curious which English words one would use to describe it, or if he actually was curious if I understood what it was. He said he thought it was a bad idea not to respect the power of the country, the leadership. The way things are is how it works, it gets things done, changing it is a bad idea. So I asked if he thought the Spaniards should still be in power? He laughed. And agreed, change can be good. He sounded like he watches too much Mexican television.

I told him I was pleased to see so many people in the streets, protesting, carrying signs, being spontaneous in their political process. That doesn't happen in the states very often any more. In order to have a protest like that, you'd need a permit and there would be police all over to make sure things don't get out of hand. Simply by protesting, one is assumed to be right on the edge of violence, in need of restraint.

Professionally produced signs you see
all over Mexico, thanking the Government
for doing it's job. In this case, for refurbishing
a market, with special thanks to a politician. 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Slick Politics

Malena and I spent the morning cleaning out all of John's stuff from the casita, packing it into bags and boxes for storage. She has a couple of men who work for her, Mariano and some other guy I don't know. Mariano is the guy who sprayed water all over at the cabana I rented last year. Click here to read that story!  Safety&SecurityInMX The men took all the boxes and did the heavy lifting, we had time finally for a long visit.

While working, we chatted mostly in Spanish. I'm amazed at the number of Mexicans who understand English but don't speak it. They've seen hundreds of American movies with subtitles and have quite large vocabularies, without the structure to string all the words together. Malena, for instance mixes he and she, him and her, and so I sometimes have trouble following who she's talking about exactly. Gossip forms a large part of our conversations!

Marco at the podium.

Malena's husband Marco works (voluntarily) for Pancho (Francisco Pedrero), a rich hotel owner who is running for President of the Municipality, like mayor of a city. In Mexico, municipalities are both cities and counties, so the number of people voting is quite large here, probably close to half a million people. Malena invited me to a political party at a house that evening. I imagined hob-nobbing with the elite of San Cristobal, sampling little antojitos served by maids and sipping wine or margaritas. Malena was all dressed up with her hair painfully straightened, makeup, high heeled boots and a cleavage blouse. We got into the VW bug and lurched our way through Friday night traffic to what was essentially a staged political rally. Red shirts with Pancho's slogans and logos printed on them were given away at the door, a mariachi band played outside, then moved inside to play, while a guy on super speakers shouted slogans at deafening levels. The floors were thick with pine needles. In Mayan country this signifies a commitment to tradition and nature, it's also a nod to the indigenous communities. The three candidates for the PRI party were Pancho, and two others running for state offices. The master of ceremonies said wonderful things about the three candidates as they entered the massive warehouse packed with red-shirted supporters. I could not have understood much of the rapid fire Spanish anyway, but amplified to those levels made it impossible. However, Malena's husband got up and gave a nice speech that became more and more animated until the crowd began to listen and then cheer. I was impressed. Marco is a good looking man, but he never struck me as the personality type to stand up in front of a thousand people and speak. However, he knows, if Pancho wins, he'll be given a government job, so I guess his future is really on the line.

Pancho schmoozing
in the crowd, the only
bald head there.
The rally was all about Pancho. He's a medium height man, but very muscular and a bit fat. He's also bald, which is unusual in Mexico. He looks like a forty-something Telly Savalas. He hugged and kissed supporters all the way down the aisle. The electronic speakers were outfitted with pre-recorded clapping which added volume and static to the crowd. The whole thing was so slick it bordered on sleazy.

After an hour of speeches and promises the loudspeakers played Pancho's theme song which had lyrics referring to his hair-do, or hair-don't in his case. People queued up for hot tamales and soda pop. My skeptical nature wondered how many people would have shown up if there hadn't been free shirts and food.

(My apologies for the poor photo quality, all I had with me was a cell phone!)

Closeup of Pancho taken on the
street a few days later