The here and now... and what and why

Complacency is a trap. At least that’s what I was thinking when I up and left the comfort of a Yankee prep school gig, where I taught music, amongst other things, for 28 years. There was also that life long career as a composer, musician and artist.

First, it was a year in St. Thomas, USVI, working as a reporter and shooting photography and then, a year in San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Time passed.
More time passed and a year back in the Athens of America followed by a hasty return to Oaxaca where it is all happening.
A couple of years in San Sebastian Etla and now, just down the road in San Pablo Etla. Life is good.

Click on an image to see it larger.
For additional photography please visit my flickr page.
You can find my music on Jango (World & latin - Worldbeat) and at iTunes and most online stores.
¡Soy consciente de todas las tradiciones del Internet!
If you are coming to Oaxaca, please contact me for tours or advice.

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo
The view from Corazon del Pueblo

The hereafter re me

My photo
Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico
Musician, photographer, videographer, reporter, ex-officio teacher, now attempting to be a world traveler

Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's a dog's life

I am a dog person. One of the things I have noticed about Mexico is just how different a dog’s life is here.

I had noticed it before in my many trips here, but as the months progress on this current adventure, my perspective is evolving.

As I make my drive into the city, I count the number of dog’s bodies I see. Sometimes it is only four or five, sometimes more. They are in all sorts of shape. Some are laying like they are asleep and others, just an unrecognizable thing on the road. Either they stay there until they decay or people burn the bodies. Often the dogs are covered with lime, so one just sees a brilliant white pile of powder, but there is dog under there. When I started driving in September, I remember being so struck by the daily carnage. Each dog I saw gave me a jab in my heart. They each still do.

And they are teaching me things, hard things, but things I need to learn.

I would add here, that I have had 17 dogs in my life, with the last five being adopted adults who needed homes. Four of them were Giant Schnauzers and they were the best. They taught me the most. In fact, I used to give speeches with one of them, Tia, the last one. in which I would quote a fictitious W.C. Fields adage, “Never share the stage with a dog or a baby. They always steal the show.” “But,” I would add, “In this case it is a honor.” as Tia would come through the audience, often a few hundred people, and join me on stage.

So I gave lots of speeches on just how much I had learned from my dogs, who incidentally, thought I was an idiot for the most part, but teachable.

And I did learn. I learned many things. Mostly, I learned about unconditional love for that is what they give. What a concept and they really have it down.

And I learned patience. The adoptees sometimes needed weeks or months to feel comfortable and at ease.

One was named Birdie. That’s the name she came with and she also came with much baggage. She had been in a kennel for a year with a lot of miniature Schnauzers, but not much human contact and when she arrived she was terrified of me. This was shortly after we had euthanized our mother and son Springers, ages 14 and 12, on the same day. We had had those dogs since birth and their loss was a profound one, so when Birdie arrived, I just needed to pat a dog, but she was too scared or scarred to let me get near her.

Weeks went by and I grew frustrated. I took her to the vet across the street and said, “I can’t do this.” The doctor asked, “Is she any better than last week?” I admitted she was. Then the doctor said something that changed my life. Its funny how it works that way. Dr. Denk said, “Get out of my office.”

And little by little, Birdie and I developed that most special of relationships that dog owners know when it happens.

For years, I would see Dr. Denk and tell him how much he had taught me, about patience and incrementalism. He thought I was just crazy.

Point well taken and I took it with me to Oaxaca, where dogs have a much different life.

First, Mexicans, at least in Oaxaca, do not think that dogs have souls and consequently, are not given human names. There are lots of “Fidos.” I live with a “Lucky.” Mostly, there are just lots of simply, “Perros” (dogs.)

There are feral dogs everywhere, living in packs, where one can observe the natural laws of order meted out with swift and powerful judgment. I watch the dog pack in front of the house and see "human" politics at its essence. The “Dick Cheneys” of the dog world rule, but the runts still have a place. The power struggles are constant. And pity the “old dog” that can no longer meet the challengers.

When I go to the villages and go from house to house, my guide will often have a rock or two to throw at the dogs that come close. With good reason, dogs are wary of humans.

And because the people do not think that the dogs have souls, the dogs actually believe them and act that way, like they are soulless, without value. It is sad and a great lesson.

There is not a lot of affection shown. No one pats anyone’s head or licks anyone’s hand. It is a two-way street.

I have yet to have the experience of a dog coming up to me and recognizing that I am a “dog person” and just saying a happy hello. Quite the opposite, I was actually nipped at, for the first time in many years, by a black lab in La Union. He was the son of Lucky, so I will cut him some slack. It could have been Freudian. Maybe he smelled his mother.

Actually, there is one incredibly friendly dog that one can see regularly in the zocalo, a golden Lab named Barney, who is lives with the owner of the fine restaurant, El Naranjo. Whenever I see Barney he runs up with his tail wagging like we are old buds. Oaxaqueños always smile when the see Barney, but he is a gringo perro and somehow they don't smile when they see the other dogs in the zocalo.

Above all, dogs live a very tough life here. Often they are on their own. It cracks me up to have grown up being told not to give them chicken bones and to watch dogs here eat them with gusto with no ill effects, a delicacy.

The dogs of Oaxaca are watching me.

They continue to teach me. They also realize I may be slow, but I am teachable. I believe there is a Spanish saying, “Tonto y tonto, pero no tanto,” which I probably have backwards and means, “I may be dumb, but I ain’t that dumb.”

So “It’s a dog’s life” and “Every dog must have its day” and “All dogs go to Heaven” have all taken on different meanings now.

Update: Of course, dogs have jobs here. They watch and protect their/our turf. Most nights are filled with dog communications and alerts. They seem to be asking the age-old question, "What's that over your head?"

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Noche y El Día

It is hot and very dry. The winds are howling.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Empañadas at La Guerita

Serena recently wrote in about Itanoni, which specializes in tortillas and many regional corn dishes. They pride themselves on using many different local varieties of corn and the dishes that are prepared daily are determined by what is fresh and available. Still, as I talked with others, we felt that the tortillas I was blessed in getting were extra special.
Speaking of extra special and readily available, there is always La Guerita in the Mercado Merced. This small stall is famous for its empañadas and is generally very busy. Just grab a pad and write down what you want. Today, we had three different combinations.
Quesillo, Oaxaca's fantastic string cheese, is in all and we had it combined with squash blossoms and corn fungus, (flor de calabasas y huitlacoche) and mushrooms (champiñones.) Their tortillas are lighter in texture and are stuffed with the ingredients, placed on the comal for a short time and then the comal is lifted and they are baked on the coals until hot and crispy.
Choose your salsas and add a glass of fresh juice from the stall directly across from La Guerita, where there are a myriad of choices from orange, beet, carrot, pinapple, alfalfa, etc.
Hungry yet?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to Deal

I will admit that the graffiti in the city seems out of control. Some of it is “tagging”. Some is advertising and some is political.

Part of the problem is the nature of the buildings here. Oaxaca is a colonial city laid out on a grid, easy to get around and very walkable. One finds oneself walking down streets that are essentially walled corridors with entrances on either side. Those walls provide privacy and security but also close out the sounds of the city and offer tranquility. Behind the walls one finds hidden courtyards that stay cool during the heat of the day.
Those walls also present large expanses of smooth surfaces just perfect for graffiti.
So as the great Diego Rivera might have said, “Walls? They are there to paint on, aren’t they?”
I do like the selective covering up. Censorship with the proverbial "broad brush."

Whether it is art, I may not the best to judge, because I think that everything is art, both the painting and the painting over, just different aesthetic motivations. Just listen to John Cage’s 4’33” and tell me that is not art.

Still Life -Life Still?
So it comes and goes....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Matter of Perspective - Trés

The graffiti in the city continues to fascinate me.
It comes and goes.
Sometimes it is encouraged and considered neighborhood art.
and other times, it is purely political.
Oaxaca's governor - Ulises Ruiz Ortiz
Detail from above "Mexico Dreams"
Often it is a combination of the two.

And finally, an urban still life?
Viva Oaxaca!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

La madre Naturaleza

There is much happening here. There was a 6.4 earthquake this morning at 6:50 AM centered in Chiapas the next state to the south.
Here's the epicenter from Reuters

I would guess it was maybe 15 seconds long, but one’s sense of time is all off, so who knows. It started slowly and built up until the last five seconds were scary. At that point, I was thinking, “Mmm, if it gets any worse, there will be damage, “ but it ground to a halt and it was followed by a collective pause, much like the silence just after the music stops.

Instant adrenaline buzz! No matter how you slice it, Mother Nature must be respected at all times and feared every now and then.

There are lots of earthquakes here. I just checked and there have been 93 in the since Jan 24. Here's a link to the current stats. The locals only worry when there are none for a time, because the next one could build into a major tremblor. And this area has had some big ones.

The houses are all one or two stories at the most and built of adobe or concrete with re-bar - very study stuff. I don’t think there was much damage. I read that a few old abandoned houses fell in the city.

After months of virtually no rain, it actually rained yesterday. I was working in the garden when it started. The winds in San Agustin are often fierce. They sing like no other place I have been. They were howling and I could look north across the valley and see dark clouds over Etla, which is to the northwest.

I have never experienced a dry season like this. The ground plants crunch, the dust is so fine it is like velvet and clothes dry on the line in just a few hours. Man, it is dry.

So to feel moisture coming from the sky was sublime. I just stood there in the rain and wind... until I realized I was late for dinner with Henry in the city.

We dodged raindrops and enjoyed the smell of the rain.
The jacarandas are blooming early. They normally flower in March and they come when it has been so dry for so long, they seem like miracles, an explosion of purple. So it appears that it has been so dry that they felt the need to arrive early.
Mother knows best.

UPDATE: It may have been a 6.6 and lasted over 40 seconds - time flies when you're freaking out!


I have to practice shooting on the run, so I shoot a lot from the car while driving because there are so many remarkable sights, everything from oxen pulling carts to political demonstrations. You should see the shots I have missed – damn. So I practice.

I ain’t never seen anything like this. So you tell me…..

Thursday, February 7, 2008

El Burro

Tortillas are at the very heart of Mexican cuisine. As one who loves to cook and learn about food and its preparation, I have gotten quite an education about corn. It is a very big deal here and transgenico corn is a major political issue. There are literally thousands of varieties of corn here. In certain villages there may be as many as 26 different varieties growing, each dependent on differing amounts of sun, soil condition, etc. Having lots of different varieties helps the plants to be more insect and disease resistant.

And for those of you who have never had a real tortilla there is nothing the real thing.
I certainly have eaten my fair share of fine Mexican food in the States, but I never had a real tortilla until I came here.

It is like the peaches we used to get directly from the orchards in South Jersey. You could not even drive them home. They were so perfect and delicate even the slightest bump damaged them. They were the real peaches that very few ever get to taste. Manna from Heaven.
And that is what the tortillas I get are like. A woman in La Union makes them for me from the corn she and her family have grown. I can pick the color corn I want –white, yellow, black, blue.

And her tortillas are the best. You have to pull a bit to bite through them as they slightly tough and chewy with wonderful flavor.
The corn is shucked in a very unusual way. Normally in La Union people simply do it by hand, but here they use el burro, a ring made up of corn cobs bound together on the outside by wire.
They say they learned about it from people from Santo Domingo de Morelos Pochtla, a village near the coast and it really does the job.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Blood sacrifice

Yesterday, my good friend Henry, in whose house I am staying and who is back in town for a week, and I went on a trek to find Apoala, the spiritual birthplace of the Mixtec nation. We were off to find the navel, a cave, from which the Mixtec believe life began.

From MexicoChannel

“Narrations of various myths on the origins of the Mixtecs, have come down to us today. According to one narrative tradition collected by Francisco de Burgoa, “their origin was attributed to two magnificent trees, proud and boastful of their branches whose leaves were stripped by the wind onto the banks of a river within the withdrawn solitude of Apoala between the mountains. This river had its source in a crevice between the two mountains... and at the foot of one of the mountains it flowed into a chasm or cave... From the veins of this river grew the trees which produced the first chiefs - male and female - who in their turn begat other beings and increased their numbers, populating a vast kingdom.”

We drove about 50 k. north on Mexico’s toll road and got off near Noxchitlan.

Henry is very knowledgeable about all things Mexican, especially its history and folk art. Well, he should. After all, he owns Amate Books, one of the best bookstores you could ever hope to visit, if you were searching for books on all things Mexico.
He suggested a trip in the opposite direction to see the 16th century Dominican church in Yanhuitlan.
Henry told a wonderfully long and involved story of the place and its ties to Spain and the Church.

The very short version: Early on, Mexico was essentially divided between three orders, the Dominicans, the Augustinians and the Franciscans. The Dominicans got Oaxaca.

When the Dominicans arrived, the Mixtec numbered almost a million and so the Church began to build an enormous structure mainly because of the richness of the place. It had the materials and a “large flock to shepherd” – a huge work force.

So the project was begun. Then disease began to take its toll. The population plummeted to 10,000, a ninety per cent kill rate. With no flock and no work force, the project was halted.

Now it is being restored. Henry said, “It’s the first place to be restored before it was finished.” So we saw it in full construction mode and had to sneak in to see the much of the church, which was filled with scaffolding and sheets of plastic. The adjoining monastery has been largely restored, but they destroyed too much of the original in my opinion. They lost much of the patina when they replaced floors and sand blasted walls. Still, it was well worth the visit for the sheer size of the structure and its amazing architecture. The flying buttresses were absolutely massive and the setting, just beautiful. There is not much out there. Some sparsely settled villages and one massive church.
We then headed back to Noxchitlan on our way to Apoala. Of course, we had to stop for food in the market.
We had an unusual dish with blue corn flattened and filled with nopales, beans and cheese. Then some special tamales for the road and we were off…

Only to discover that it was Feb. 2, Candelaria or Candlemas, the day on which people bought the Christ child from their Nativity scenes for presentation.
Candelaria is the day that the recipient of the Christ figure baked in the special sweet bread, Rosca de Reyes, on Three Kings Day needs to buy lunch (tamales) and have a party. They also have to buy the Christ child’s clothes for the following year.
So there were hundreds of people, mostly women, carrying these statues into the overflowing church.

Henry said that for that moment all of the women felt like they were the Virgin Mary with their Child. It was quite a beautiful and moving ceremony.

Eventually, we hit the road to Apoala. The road was a dry dusty one that wove its way through some very rugged country. We had to go 30 k, so Henry told me that if I went between 40 and 60 kph, we wouldn’t feel the bumps. It was a fun drive.
When we got to Apoala we learned it was the fiesta for the beginning of Carnival and the place was hopping – as much as a tiny village in desolate country can hop.

We had to register with the village and get a guide to get to the waterfalls and cave. Our guide was Oscar, a sharp and informative 10-year old.

We made our way down to the base of the falls, where there was wonderful swimming in the cold spring water.

Then we hiked back up headed to the cave, which was about a couple of kilometers downstream. Henry said he would wait behind because the place made him claustrophobic. So Oscar and I squeezed in the narrow opening and headed down into what proved to be a huge and deep chamber. He had a powerful flashlight and I could not see the end of the cave. At one point Oscar said, “Watch your head, the cave is low here.” What he should have said was, "Watch out for the razor sharp stalactites that you are about to walk into.”

Head wounds really bleed and my small cut completely freaked out the small number of people who saw me. I was covered with blood – but somehow I did not get any on my shirt and after a quick rinse, I looked better. It really was nothing and stopped relatively quickly, but it was bloody.

So there it is. I offered a healthy blood sacrifice in the cave that is the navel of the Mixtec nation. It seemed somehow fitting. I wonder if I am an honorary Mixtec now. That would be great.