Sunday, November 27, 2011

And November Continues

Just because it took me a couple of weeks to write up the trip didn't mean that life didn't continue on it's merry way.  Sometimes I wish it would take just a little break.

So  . . . Things I Came Back To

An indigo dyeing demo.  The museum's Farm Days was the day after we came home--and I had already agreed to do an indigo dyeing day.  Didn't remember to take the camera--I'm amazed that I was able to get me and the blue dye out there.  But farm days is fun--there are other activies to watch, cane syrup to bring home, and catch up with friend who come for it.

A Present!  A couple of months ago I taught my friend Rob how to spin with a drop spindle--and I've created a monster!  The goldenrod was coming into bloom just as we left, and as Rob and Jeff were house- and critter-sitting while we were gone, I told Rob he could use my dye kitchen.  I didn't know that I would be the recipient on the results--a most amazing lemon-yellow scarf, with green stripes (add a pinch of iron to yellow and you get green).  I'm so proud of him.

The barred owl.  The Museum now has a beautiful barred owl, and I had just finished being certified to handle her when we went on vacation, so I've been trying to get out there.  Unlike our other owl, she is fully flighted, which makes it tricky to catch her (she doesn't necessarily want to get on the glove.  She does wear jesses (leather leashes on her ankles) so it's a matter of being able to make a quick grab--that's often easier to do with the ungloved hand (gloves are pretty clumsy) but you have to be aware that you're a couple of inches away from some very sharp talons.  But while she can be a bit bratty, she's not ill-tempered and doesn't ever try to attack.  I think she's a lovely bird, and I like walking around with her.

The classroom!!??!!!  My resolutions don't seem to be working out.  In September I had bragged to some friends that this year I a)wouldn't be doing the Haunted Trail, and b) would not be talked into teaching.  Well--if you read my October blog, you'll see that I got rather involved in building the trail.  And I came home to this--yep, that a classroom of students.  One of the faculty walked out, and as I've taught this class before I was the logical person to step in.  Sigh . . .

A glance at this picture shows why I gave up teaching.  Yes--this was taken during class.  No--many of them didn't notice that I was taking a picture because they're too busy cruising the web or texting.  There's supposed to be  100 students in the class--I doubt if I've seen 30 of them.   

Fun Stuff: Dinosaurs!  Jim Gary is an artist who has made dinosaurs out of old car parts, and the museum gets to keep them for awhile.  It's amazing the amount of anatomically correct detail that he can get out of car parts.

And I went back to see Cute and Creepy (the art show at FSU's art museum)  I find the serene expressions on the gazelle's faces to be particularly disturbing.

Finally, as it often does at the end of November, Thanksgiving rolled around.  We had friend over (nope, no pictures) and then the next day had Thanksgiving, Part II--taking the leftovers over to the folks.  I have always thought that Part II was the best part of Thanksgiving--and the reward for being the hostess of Part I (so that I get to have the leftovers).

So November is about over.  Now--got to get ready for Christmas!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Time to Come Home

Wednesday evening we go for one last stroll on the zocolo.  The party is still in full swing--the square is full of vendors, both in stalls and walking around, selling shawls and flying toy birds and the popular big bopping balloons. Once again--I do not eat a fried cricket (all of those mounds on the table are crickets.  One of our fellow travelers in Quiotepec had tried them--she suggested if I did, to have a small one "because they don't taste so much like cricket")   We see the tag end of a parade finishing up at the zocolo, and watch the dancers at a costume charity competition (check out the excellent body makeup on the bride in the front.)

Our ears prick at the sound of a band a couple of blocks away--the sound of yet another impromptu parade--and we hurry over.  Sure enough--there are a line of cars with Day of the Dead altars, followed by musicians,  dancers in "native" dress (not sure how authentic they were) and a streetful of people with flags.  Of course, the batteries in the camera chose this time to die, so Bob was trying to trade them out while trotting to keep up with the parade.

But finally, it was dark--we had been up since 4:00 a.m. and had to get up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to catch our flight--so we said goodnight to the party on the zocolo and went back to the hotel to pack, and sleep.

Our flight was at 6:15--so we figured we had to be at the airport by 5:15.  Allowing a half-hour to get there meant leaving at 4:45.  As Mexico is not exactly famous for being prompt, we had ordered a cab for 4:30.  At about 4:20 we went to the desk to check out--and saw that the cab was already there, the driving taking a nap.  The drive to the airport took only about 20 minutes--and the airport was closed.  There was a gate across the road about 300 yards from the terminal.  We finally understood from our driver that the gates would open at 5:00--and that he really didn't want to sit there for for the 20 minutes.  So we got our bags and huddled at the gates with a few other refuges.  After the 20 minutes the gates opened and we hoofed it to the terminal; I was grateful that I had indulged in a wheelie-bag for this trip.

The flight to Mexico City was uneventful--and they even had the boarding gate for our flight to Atlanta posted.  An equally uneventful flight to Atlanta, where we were slightly delayed in getting through customs because there were a couple of hundred soldiers still in their desert camoflage filing through.  We happily stood aside--although we had a fairly short layover in Atlanta, it was more important for these men and women to get home than it was for us.

Another short flight, and we were back in Jacksonville.  It's funny how fast you get acclimated--when we got back to our hotel room, I realized that I was thirsty, and "rats--I forgot to pick up a bottle of water."  Then I remembered that we were back where it was OK to drink tap water.

So we're home, safe and sound.  We brought some gifts for friends, but not much material goods for ourselves.  We we have are a couple of hundred pictures, some amazing memories--and a plan to plant a field of golden marigolds.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wednesday--Back to Oaxaca

We left the graveyard after dawn.  Eric suggested "a stroll down to the river before breakfast."  Why the quotes?  Because the "stroll down" had to start with a "hike up" the mountain before you could get to the goat paths that would go down.  After quite a bit of "up" half of our merry team decided to just sit and enjoy the view while the other half went on in search of "down."  I was in the second half; unfortunately I left the camera with the first half.  But we made it down to the river--fairly shallow, not too fast; could be waded if we felt like it (we didn't).  Shore covered in rocks--maybe not a source of fascination to all, but remember I'm in Florida and we just don't have many rocks lying around (when we built a rock garden, we had to buy rocks, fer cryin' out loud).

Finally Glenn, Jenny and I decided that it was time to kidnap Eric and make him show us a goat path back up (there's an awful lot of "up" around here).  We'd all been up since 4:00 a.m. and breakfast was starting to seem like a really good idea.

And then, alas, it was time to head back to the van for the long twisty drive back to Oaxaca.  I would have liked to have stayed another day in Quiotepec; in all our wanderings we hadn't gone into the church (with the thick walls and the purple neon cross on top) and I would have liked to try baking bread with Isabel.  But you can't do everything.

We stopped at a town partway back for lunch--at least we tried for lunch.  A wall had been painted with a sign for a big Day of the Dead party, and apparently most of the restaurant staff had attended--Eric was told that everyone was too hung over to prepare lunch.  So we just hung on until we got back to Oaxaca and a restaurant where the staff hadn't partied too much.

It was our last meal together--it was time to return to our separate ways, but we'll always have been, for a short time, a small family in Quiotepec. (Eric, aka Fearless Leader, is the one in the hat)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Return of the Souls

We slept Tuesday night with the scent of marigolds and the candlight of the altar.  Well before dawn, we got up, dressed, and slipped out into the night to meet our fellow travelers.  It was time for the Return of the Souls--the vigil in the graveyard.

In other parts of Mexico, the graveyard visit takes place on the night of Nov. 2.  But in Quiotepec, the evening winds make this impossible; the vigil is held instead before dawn.

We walk quietly in the darkness and the stars.  We stop when we round the curve in the road that led to the graveyward. The night air mutes the sounds--the swish of a machete, cutting brush for a fire to keep warm, the soft clop of a burro's hooves, a low murmur of voices--most of the village is there before us.  We see the light of hundred of candles, and the silhouette of the mounds of marigolds.  The air is sweet with copal incense.

We wander the graveyard, strangers here, yet welcome.  They may not understand why this group of strangers has come to pay honor to their dead, but they accept it.  Some graves are large and showy monuments, some with tiny chapels, some are merely neat mounds of earth.  Not all are remembered--this is a very old village--but all are honored.  I see three tiny mounds, barely two feet long.  A woman decorating a nearby tomb sees me looking at them, and pauses to lay an armload of flowers on each one.  No one remembers these lost babies--but their spirits are welcome back.

The flowers are laid in armloads on the grave.  Flower heads are plucked off and placed in rows.  I watch one man lightly scatter a drift of petals.

Dawn breaks over the mountain.  The light reveals the colors--the brilliant gold and pinks of the flowers, the colors of the tombs and decorations.  People are talking more now--the ones whose homes we visited last night greet us.  The spirits, welcomed home through the altars last night, return to their own world.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


One of the things I like about Mexico is the altars.  Almost every restaurant has one; many businesses do, and every home I've been in has one.  Sometimes they are a simple picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (in fact, even in the States, Bob looks around for the Virgin whenever we go to a Mexican restaurant to see if it is a "real" Mexican restaurant).  Sometimes there is an entire wall, or even a small room, dedicated to the altar.

Altars are especially important during the Days of the Dead, as they act as a gateway for the departed spirits to return.  Usually there is an arch of some sort (sugar can is popular for that), fruit, flowers, food (tamales,bread, chocolate)--there is a feeling of abundance.  The favorite food of the departed is placed on the altar (Coca Cola was popular) and there might be pictures or possessions.

We had collected items for our altar in the market, and gathered flowers in the field.  We all met in our room to arrange the things that reminded us of the ones we had lost--a paint pallet, a Cubs shirt, a picture of a favorite spot, tiny shoes, herbs, spices, a favorite drink.  We lit the candles and sat together and told the stories of the people we were remembering.  It was a sweet and comforting time, oddly close for people who had met only the day before, coming to this tiny rural village to remember.

Going out for the night, I leave the door slightly ajar, just for the welcoming beauty of the candles and the golden flowers.

After this, we walked through the village to visit other altars.  And, for this, Bob has stepped in to add his part to the story:

In the town of Quiotepec( in the valley of the Rio Grande de Oaxaca) night does not so much  falls as it comes into being. And on this night, the night before theReturn of the Souls, is when from home to home, house to house, the visiting occurs. We travelers, in the wake of Eric our guide and conductor to this world take to the rocky streets to see this celebration for ourselves.

There in the darkness ( for the town’s power grid has fallen victim the vagrancies of electrical conductivity) we slowly and quietly proceed.

In each humble home--for there are no McMansions in Quiotepec-- we reverently file in to visit and view the family altar to the departed. Each altar carefully, lovely constructed in the best room of the house and adorned with the traditional arch for the souls to return through, the  beyond brilliant marigolds and the fruits and foods of the valley, the loved one’s favorite food, drink or endeavor, the golden glow of many candles. And of course a photo of the loved one themselves, a departed Patriarch with fierce mustaches, Grandmothers with kind eyes, a beloved Grandson killed in a hail storm, a soldier brother lost in the narco-war only three days after his last home leave.

Some of the people talk brightly and happily of their lost ones, some stand quiet and still very much lost in their grief.

But they all share, a sip of mescal (tequila’s wild cousin), cane alcohol, or the ever present Mexican Coca-cola that is made with real sugar.

Sometimes some bread, a bowl of goat stew.

We gringos stand out in this world. Our world is far away, our ancestors and customs from even further. And in this world of small dark people I appear most ursine than human.

But we have come here to know, to understand. So later back in our cabin we too  build our own altar and talk of our loved ones, so that like the people of Quiotepec, of Oaxaca, of Mexico, so that maybe we too on this one night  may open a gate and create a path so that our lost ones can walk in more than our hearts and memories.

And I think they may be right. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tuesday Morning in Quiotepec

Well, I'm actually still on Monday afternoon--but I'll get to Tuesday.
After beer and bread, we were taken out to a field of huge golden pompom marigolds to gather flowers for our altar. All families have an altar, and Eric decreed that since traveling together made us a family of sorts, we should have one too. The cabin that Bob and I got is built into the side of the mountain and had a natural shelf, so it became the altar space. I temporarily stored the marigolds in the shower--it was rather decadent and wonderful later to take a shower in a stall filled with flowers (and be grateful--I didn't let Bob take a picture). Flowers are everywhere--they are said to help guide the spirits back to this world.

Dinner in the beautiful dining hall was a new favorite of mine: tlayuda.  Sort of a Mexican pizza--a large crispy torilla with a spread of black beans, topped with bits of meat, crumbled cheese, tomatoes, and avacado.  Really have to figure out how to make them.

Time to turn in.  We sat for awhile on the steps to let the night fold around us.  Up in the mountains, in the desert, the air is impossibly clear, with more stars than can be imagined.

Tuesday morning we got up early (to the sound of Isabel playing the Mexican national anthem on the loudspeaker) to go witness the Unburying Of the Tamales. A tamale is corn dough, often with a filling, wrapped in cornhusks, and normally steamed. But in Quiotepec, twice a year--for their saint's day in July and All Saint's day--they pit bake them all night. A fire is built in the pit during the day, and then layers of bananas leaves and tamales are put in (several familes bake them together, each family's worth separated by banana leaves). The final pile is covered in woven mats, then dirt, and left to steam all night. The tamale itself is also unusual--normally they are a thickish layer of dough, with a filling inside. These were make more like a jelly roll--thin layers of dough and bean filling. They are wrapped with an avacado leaf (giving a delicate anise flavor) before going into the cornhusks. Delicious. Although we later noticed that in general these were not being eaten; we would see them on the altars and the graves.

Although the tamales would have been enough, our hostesses had breakfast ready for us in the dining hall. Black beans and scrambled eggs with nopales (prickly pear cactus leaves). I had not had nopales before--I had heard that if not cooked properly, they have okra's tendency to be slimey. Our cook knew what she was doing, and they were delicious. So were the cups of chocolate.

Tamales, beans, eggs, and chocolate--how is one to work all of that off? With a good hike, that's how. Back into Eric's van, across that old railway bridge, and off to see some meso-american ruins on the mountainside. It's not a long hike up to them (Eric said about a mile and half), but we're Florida Flatlanders and it was mostly up (except for returning, which was mostly down). The huge candelabra cactus were impressive (how big? That's me standing in front of one--that is estimated to be 800 years old). More subtly impressive was the industriousness of the people of Quiotepec, who not only cleared paths and edged them with stones, but made stone rings around most of the trees (if you build it, will they come?) Not all of the ruins have been excavated--you can see pyramid-shaped mounds when you learn how to recognize them. Only a few of the excavated ones have been partially restored. We've been to ruins in Mitla and Monte Alban that have been cleaned and restored and opened to the public--but these, mostly unbothered, gave more of a sense of their great age, and yet gave more of a feeling of the people who were once there. This place may look inaccessible to us--but it's at a meeting at the rivers, and in it's time was an important crossroads and trading area. And for us Flatlanders--the view from up there was magnificent.
After the hike, we return, dealing with the Quiotepec version of a traffic jam--a large herd of goats on the road. Lunch (beans and torillas and fresh guava juice), and it's time to build our altar (that will be the next post). We retire to our various rooms, to rest for awhile, and listen to the wind. The afternoon wind in the mountains is a living entity, wrapping around the buildings, shaking the shutters. The wind is why we will be getting up before dawn tomorrow. In the city, the Return of the Souls and the visiting of the graveyards is done in the evening. Here, the wind would scatter the flowers and blow out the candles, so the vigil is held before dawn.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Monday Morning: On the road to Quiotepec

We were to meet Eric (our tour guide) and our fellow travelers at 9:00 Monday morning.  As service in Oaxaca tends to be a bit, well, leisurely, we got up bright and early to go have breakfast.  You'd think we would have learned by now.  So we had another lovely long stroll.  The morning light on the richly colored stucco buildings is amazing--I wish Van Gogh could have come here.  The ancient aqueduct now has little shops tucked under its arches.

Finally a tiny cafe opened.  We knew we had a long (and twisty) ride ahead of us so we ordered lightly--bread, hot chocolate, and fruit.  In a land where we've seen huge piles of gorgeous bread all around--we got toast from sliced packaged bread  :-(    But the chocolate was in bowls--so comforting to hold in your hands while you sip.  And the fruit was beautiful.   This small cafe had all the incongruities that is Mexico--small open kitchen, altar in the corner--a computer at the checkout.  Look at the sign in the doorway beyond the kitchen--it's an internet hot spot.  You can see the church past the Corona sign.  And on the back of the menu is "like us on Facebook"

Then it was back to the hotel to meet Eric and our travelling companions--Glenn and Jenny, Chuck and Marsha.  We all piled in the van and headed off to Quiotepec.  I have no idea of how far it is from Oaxaca to Quiotepec--we saw a sign that said 75 kilometers (46 miles) but I don't know if that was straight or counting the twists in the roads.  It's about a 3 hour drive, mostly switchbacks, much on narrow gravel roads going up the mountainside.  After a couple of hours we stop at a village for lunch, and to shop the market for the altar we're going to build.  We need fruit, chocolate, flower vases--and something to represent loved ones we have lost (more on the altar later). Glenn wants some mescal--the girl running the booth was 11 years old. It's also time for a nature break--to experience the public rest rooms.  We aren't in Kansas anymore.  You give your three pesos to the attendant, who gives you a handful of toilet paper and a bucket of water (you flush by pouring the water into the bowl).  Eric's research has not yet answered the question of why public toilets don't have toilet seats--it's a mystery.    We lunch on chicken in delicious mole sauce (there should be an accent on the e--it's pronounce mo-lay).  Yes--there's chocolate in it.  No, it's not a chocolate sauce.  It's a dark complex sauce, and chocolate is just one of the seasonings.  Amazing stuff.

Back in the van--more twisty roads.  At one point the nice new bridge had been badly damaged by trees washed down in the flood--so we crossed on the 100-year-old railway bridge (the train no longer runs).  What's a trip without a little excitement?  In the distance, we spot the little village that will be our home for a few days (far right in the second picture).  The river is not particularly deep--if you zoom in on the second picture, you'll see that one of those specks is a man wading across.
Quiotepec is a small village--population around 450.  Dirt roads, adobe buildings, fences made of sticks or sometimes recycled bed springs.  But it does have internet access.  We were surprised to pull up to our cabins--they're very nice.  And there's a lovely restaurant/conference center.  It seems that the government is trying to promote ecotourism, with the philosophy of "if you build it, they will come."  They just need to work on promotion and marketing--and maybe make it easier to get there (we had Eric--otherwise the train doesn't run any more, and the buses don't go that far).  And yes--the town has a web page:

After we offload and rest a bit, we go down to the bakery where Isabel is tending a wood (cactus wood) fired clay oven, baking bread.  She is also the town crier--her store/home has a loudspeaker on the roof.  She wakes the town every morning with the Mexican national anthem, and then plays whatever music she feels like (she has a stack of 45 rpm records).  For about 10 pesos, you can have an announcement made.  We are soon settled in with cold beer and fresh-baked bread.  And if you're hungry for a taste of home, you can get some instant cup 'o noodles (we skipped that).