Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pacha Mama

It's been awhile since I've had a chance to do much writing. The reason? I've been busy teaching, playing music, learning Capoeira, enjoying the city of Cuenca, and otherwise having a good time. Now, I'm on vacation until January, and in the coming weeks I'll be relaxing on the beautiful Galapagos Islands. In the meantime I hope to spend a little more time doing some writing and enjoying some time off. I may only teach a few hours a day, but I've managed to fill up my free time with a fair amount of obligations that don't involve me sitting in front of a screen as much as I once did, and for that I'm grateful.

In the last few weeks I have had a chance to do some exploring outside of Cuenca, including a trip with some of my fellow teachers to a place called Susudel. Susudel is named after the Sucsudel, a Native American tribe that called as their home a place remarkably like New Mexico:

There we met our guide for the weekend, the appropriately named don Juan. Juan and his family are shamans, all living in the beautiful mountains surrounding Susudel. He and his father Alejandro both own property lying next to a small mountain stream from which they've managed to coax their own oases up from the arid landscape around them. Juan's home, humble and peaceful, is quite different from his father's, an incredible and expansive 200 year old hacienda lying on land whose tall palms and old dams stand silently in witness over a place that's been under careful cultivation for many generations.

We met Juan at a church a few miles from the village of Susudel, where he led us on foot to his home. Along the way we witnessed mountains as rugged as I've ever seen, made moreso by their stark and barren slopes, unsoftened by vegetation. Here is Juan speaking with Jason, another teacher at CEDEI. We stopped here briefly to catch our breath and, in my opinion, to witness a place of honor, graced by a stand of majestic trees well-adapted to their dry and wind-swept environs.

Juan was taking us to his land so that we might experience a temazcal ceremony. To call temazcal a sweat lodge is as poor a translation as the rendering of the beautiful word and concept of acequia into the English 'irrigation ditch.' But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we needed to make our way to Juan's property in time for us to build our camp for the night, which, as is predictably the case throughout the year in Ecuador, would be coming at 6:30 sharp. We got their just in time, to both set up camp and take in our surroundings before dark. Here are a few glimpses of our setting for the night:

There you'll see Juan's house, a closer look at his kitchen, and our recently built camp, on the far side of Juan's fire pit, where very soon we would place the pile of rocks in front of the left tent. On top of those rocks would be built a massive bonfire that would burn for the next several hours, until the stones underneath were glowing red. Also in this picture is a strange white light that I don't quite understand, and nor, judging from the look on her face, did Erin in the blue shirt. But there you have it.
Once it was fully dark, Juan asked each of us to pick up a rock from his pile, put our prayers and intentions into it, and hand it to him to be placed in his fire pit. Once they were all in place, Juan and his assistants began to assemble a large pyramid of cut wood for the coming blaze. Meanwhile, all of us sat in a circle around the fire and prepared ourselves for the temazcal in whatever way we could. Before the fire began burning, Juan's father arrived with his wife and younger son. Just in time, in fact, because only a few minutes after his arrival, Juan asked his father to light the fire, which in a short time began burning furiously.

To the right of the fire in the background, you can just make out a small little hut in the background. That is the place of the temazcal, where all 20 or so of us would be huddled inside in short order. Before this, Alejandro's wife Monica administered to us a preparation of San Pedro cactus, a traditional visionary medicine that grows wild throughout the mountains of Ecuador. Compared to my previous experience with San Pedro, this one was very subtle, serving mostly to contribute to my sense of calm and appreciation throughout the grueling temazcal to come. After we partook of the San Pedro, Juan then came around with a snuff he had prepared from tobacco and other herbs, stuffing copious amounts of it up each of my nostrils before ordering me bruskly to inhale it deeply. This I did, and shortly thereafter this round of medicine, the fire was encircled by loud coughing and sneezing from all sides. We were told that this snuff, as well as the San Pedro, would serve to open up the doors of our senses, to permit us to fill our awareness with powerful sights and experiences, while ridding ourselves of the negativity we may have accumulated in our lives.

Then Juan and his father lit a cigar and while smoking it, said prayers of intention and thanksgiving for the ceremony to come. They then handed the cigar to Monica, who did the same. Watching this, I, sitting only a few places ahead of the path of the cigar, began to hastily prepare an adequately profound oration of my own in Spanish, but then saw that once the cigar reached the hands of a layman assistant, it was passed to the next person with nothing more than a few deep inhalations in silence. I had even come up with a phrase or two of prayer in the subjunctive and was quite proud of that fact, if not relieved that I wouldn't have to recite it to a crowd.

At this time, a few Ecuadorians who had journeyed to Susudel for healing underwent a ritual with Juan and his father, which involved the shamans spraying the petitioners' bare chests with a combination of alcohol, herbs and their own saliva before setting them alight. They also did some chiropractic work on them, cracking their backs and shoulders. From the frequent moaning I heard, it wasn't a pleasant process. But Luis, one of those who sought healing, told me later that he'd been suffering from back pain for months and it was now much alleviated.

It was now time for the temazcal to begin. We all put on the lightest clothes we could, swimming trunks and bikinis for most people. Then we walked barefoot clockwise around the fire, and then clockwise around the lodge for the temazcal. We were told not to break the line between the fire and the lodge, which was like an umbilical cord that connected the two. The women all entered first, and then the men, all of us crawling on all fours to fit through the tiny doorway. Once inside, Juan and his father began to explain that the temazcal, where we all now resided, was like the womb of Pacha Mama, the Earth Mother. Within here, we would experience the journey of life and death, through four doors that would be opened and closed throughout the ritual. The first door, the door of nascency, would prove to be the easiest overall.

One by one, blazing red rocks were carefully brought to the door of the lodge by one of Juan's assistants. Juan, seated closest to the door, would then pick up the rock with a tool that he had ready, placed it in a small hole in the center, and Alejandro would sprinkle various herbs on top which at first produced a heavy smoke so thick that I could barely breathe nor see. Meanwhile, the rocks were quickly bringing up the ambient temperature in our little lodge so high that my face and shoulders were already burning from the heat. Once the proper number of rocks had been placed in the center of our circle, Juan ordered the door closed from outside. It was now pitch black, save for the glowing red mass of stones in the middle of us all.

With a few prayers, Juan began ladling water onto the rocks, which rapidly kicked off a steam so hot that it stifled my breath. My lungs refused to inhale an air so humid and burning, and all I could muster were short gasps of air drawn with my head between my knees. How could I possibly withstand hours of this smoke, steam and burning heat? I already began thinking about what I would do if I needed to leave, but I kept reminding myself that I had chosen to engage in this experience and would see it through.

With steam pouring off the rocks, Juan and his father begin beating their drums and shaking maracas, singing the songs of the temazcal. After several renewed doses of water onto the fire and the subsequent bursts of steam throughout our black and enclosed space, Juan ordered the door to be opened. As a fresh salvo of rocks was brought into our circle, this one proving to be easily twice as many as the first, Alejandro explained that this second door was the door of youth and adolescence. Here we should reflect on our lives and shed the negativity of the past, while embracing our spirit of youth. Another sprinkling of herbs was bestowed on the glowing red heart in our center, and Juan invited any of us who would like to, to sing a song. Danilo, sitting to my right, volunteered.

So the door was closed, Danilo was given a maraca, and Juan once again began pouring water onto the rocks, this time in greater quantities than before. While Danilo sang, the steam issued forth copiously, and while I struggled to keep my head lifted, more than once I was forced to duck down and seek cooler air closer to the ground. Meanwhile, our group was packed so densely within the lodge that I had the knees, elbows and feet of my friends jabbing me in various places as we all struggled to find a modicum of comfort. This time the heat was so much greater than before that I could hardly believe it. When I lifted my head high I could literally feel the steam cooking my flesh as though I was holding it above a pot of boiling hot water on the stove, after just removing the lid. Only now I couldn't draw it away, I could only sit there and feel the heat and let it run over me. Each round of steam would last a few minutes before the heat would subside, only to be renewed by Juan's faithful administration of water over the rocks.

How could Danilo sing with a face full of steam? I struggled to draw enough breath to sing the refrains as they came but could scarcely make a sound. It was so hot this time that one person in our group lost control. Sitting right in front of the stones, he couldn't tolerate the intense heat and in a loud, frantic voice, screamed, "Open it, open the damn door!"

Juan let the heat subside, mustering what English he had to soothe the man: "Take it easy man, take it easy. Don't worry!"

Finally, Juan ordered the door to be opened again. There was a collective moan of relief from us all, and Juan was forgiving enough to dole out cups of water to those who needed it, and then threw water on us, which was so cold it was shocking. He also waited a few minutes before giving the order to bring more rocks in, which turned out to be the greatest quantity of all. Alejandro explained that this door was the door of maturity, the door of our lives in the present. Here we would set our intentions and give thanks. He offered my roommate Jenni to sprinkle herbs onto the rocks as they were brought into the circle, and Juan asked if anyone would like to sing. It suddenly occured to me that I wanted to sing, and so I volunteered. I was handed a maraca, told to shake it with confidence and steadiness, and the door was closed.

As the steam rose in the lodge, I began singing a song of thanksgiving in a cadence that had come to me during my previous San Pedro experience:

Thank you, Lord, for what you've done for me.
Thank you, Lord, for what you're doing now.
Thank you, Lord, for every little thing.
Thank you, Lord, for every song I sing.

I don't need no competition,
Because I've made my decision.
You can keep your opinion,
I'm just calling on the wise man's communion.

For those of you that aren't familiar this song of Bob Marley's, I couldn't help but sing it in a slow chant with prolonged syllables. I was amazed by the transformative effect that the singing had on me. I was able to draw long sustained breaths and hold my head high in order to sing loudly. After I had finished singing this newfound tolerance for the heat stayed with me, and I relished in the ability to withstand the heat and steam. It was empowering to me, and I began composing in my mind a prayerful intention that somehow seemed to connect palpably the thoughts in my mind with the will of my body in a way that I had never felt before.

As I recited and perfected this prayer in my mind, I began thinking about events in my past that had led me to where I am now, experiences both pleasant and painful. I gave thanks for them all in a way made more profound by the intense physical duress of the moment, and in my mind that thanksgiving drove my intention with a willpower stronger and more tangible than any that I can remember. That is prayer. That, for me, was the purpose of temazcal. It gave a poignance to my thoughts and prayers of intention, through the sheer overwhelming physical presence of the heat, darkness, and throbbing heart in the center of the lodge.

Around me, people's moans were especially noticable to me. I'm not sure if there was more moaning than before or if it was just more obvious after I had found my peace with the heat of the temazcal, but I found a great solace in keeping quiet in the midst of the groaning of those around me. Interestingly, it was especially the men who seemed to be making the most noise. The women in the group, who composed probably half of the temazcal participants, were silent.

When Juan ordered the door open, so did many in the group, with the loud yell of -Abierta! As Alejandro explained the last door being that of life's end, I was greatly looking forward to the last quantity of stones and the steam they would bring. Once I found comfort in the heat, I felt like I had found myself on the other side of a barrier and was now eager for another experience with it. As Alejandro sprinkled his herbs onto the fire, I breathed deeply and tried to allow as much of fragrance to enter my nose as I could. I leaned forward to be closer to the smoke. As if sensing my willingness, Juan encouragingly said to the group that if we felt heat on a part of our body, to try to expose that part of our body even more to the heat, to allow the heat to have its way with us as it would.

Once all the rocks were in place, the door was closed, and Juan poured so much water on the rocks that the entire lodge was instantly saturated with steam. I held my head high and took deep breaths of the steam, feeling water dripping from my chin, my nose, my elbows, my ears and my hair. As Juan and Alejandro sang the last songs of the temazcal, I renewed my prayer and watched the pulsing red of the stones and felt the heat from it burning my forehead and shoulders. I followed Juan's advice and leaned into the heat, finding a comfort in the burning sensation it caused. I felt like the temazcal was a metaphor for life, that finding peace in the physical challenge presented by the stones was like a crucible that the challenges in our life represents as well: an opportunity for us to polish ourselves and find out who we really are.

When the last door was opened and we all exited the lodge one by one to dry off and stand around the fire, I was impressed by how clean and fresh my body felt. I had expected to feel grimy from the thick smoke and steam and sweat trapped within that small space, but I felt cleaner than I would after a long shower. I looked at the stars, a far different set than I'm used to seeing in the northern hemisphere, and then looked at the moonlit mountains around me, so similar to the mountains of New Mexico. The paradox of the strange sky and familiar landscape was made sharper during a hike we took to Alejandro's land the next day. On the way, we walked past a patch of nopal cactus, so common in the hills around Santa Fe.

I had encountered a lot of this cactus in Oaxaca as well, huge varieties that dwarfed the small patches of it that grow in northern New Mexico. Here in these mountains, they looked much like the nopal I was familiar with, same size, same shape. The only noticable difference for me was the flower, here small and orange, in New Mexico, large and yellow. This cactus, so humble, is the home of the cochinilla, source of the red dye that contributed in large partto making Oaxaca the rich and beautiful city it is, as it was traded around the world for centuries by the Spanish. Here, as in New Mexico, you wouldn't know that to look at this tiny but threatening plant with its thorns and unseen little fibers that imbed themselves in your skin at the slightest contact.

The unassuming nopal has made its habitat throughout the entire great distance between the Andes and the Rockies. It has found itself transformed by virtue of its journey. Is it any different for someone like me, or any other traveler? I'm grateful to have had an experience like this in a place so much like my last home, high in the mountains of Susudel.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Little bandits

For about the last month, I've been living in Cuenca, Ecuador. Cuenca is in the southern Azuay province of the country, high in the mountains. The weather is surprisingly cool and cloudy, though on the rare occasion that the sun dissolves the clouds enough to shine through, it does get pretty hot. Being so close to the Equator, the sun rises like clockwork at 6:30 every morning, sets about the same time each night, and bisects the sky right across the middle each day from one horizon to the other. I got here a few days before the equinox, a fitting time to arrive in a place where the days and nights get equal treatment the year around.

This week, I began teaching English at a language institute here known as CEDEI. I've got some great students, almost all of them young teenagers with a lot of talent and eagerness to learn. I was a public school teacher for a short time in Santa Fe, where the long hours and large classes wore me down enough to quickly seek more peaceful employ. Here, I'm not making anywhere nearly as much as a school teacher in the US, but none of my classes number greater than 6 students, and I only teach 2-4 hours a day. Not bad! And the pay's not bad either, actually, when you consider lunch is a 3 course meal for no more than $2 and usually less.

I'll talk more about Cuenca and my work here in another post, because, as the title above would suggest, this one is not about little English students, but rather, little banditos.

Myself and two companions decided last weekend to do a little hiking in a national park west of Cuenca, called El Cajas. It's an hour bus ride from town, up a predictably windy and hilly road. Ecuador being an Andean nation, there really aren't many places you can go without taking a bus along some beautiful but treacherous terrain.

Kristi, a fellow teacher at CEDEI, and I went with the understanding that with our intercultural visas, we'd be able to get into the park for $1.50. Here's a picture of Kristi after we walked out of the ranger station:

Unfortunately, once we got there, the park ranger, while willing to listen to my long-winded and broken explanation in Spanish that our visas were in Quito for registration and that we were here on a volunteer basis to help the youth of Cuenca, patiently tapped the $10 entry form the whole time. It didn't help that there were a bunch of impoverished travelers all trying to negotiate for a lower price, and even though a guy came along who explained - in much better Spanish than mine - that our Censo cards were en route and that we were truly qualified for the local's fee, we ended up paying the gringo rate. Hopefully it went to the park and not the ranger's wallet.
Cajas park is in some incredible countryside, with more lakes than you'll ever see in one place. In a few hectares there are more than 200 lakes, and walking on the turf is like stepping on a semi-moist sponge, which occasionally breaks underfoot and sends you ankle-deep into a spring that seems to flow just below the surface throughout the park. I've heard that the water here in Cuenca comes from Cajas, and it tastes great. While I'm usually pretty reluctant to drink the water when I travel, enough locals have spoken up for their water supply here to convince me.

So myself, Kristi, and Christine, another traveler from Denver who left for Peru the next day, set out on our hike around the first lake. We had planned a route that would take us up and around a range to our north, and would ultimately lead us back to the highway several kilometers to our east. The whole trip was an anticipated 5 hours, although by the time we found the main trail we'd be taking, we had already wandered the pampa for a good hour or so.

Along the way we passed many people on horses and donkeys. They were all very friendly and usually had some sheep and dogs with them as well. The last group the three of us encountered was a group of three boys, probably about the age of my students, looking like some local campesinos. They were all on horseback and had some dogs and burros with them, and all but one of them said hello to us as they passed us. The other boy, wearing a big furry hat as big as his head, only grunted at us and was looking pretty grumpy.

Looking back, that should've have raised my defenses a little, I guess. But we were all enjoying our hike and the scenery so much that I didn't give his reaction a second thought. Plus we had been making a steep and protracted ascent up some rocky terrain, and at that point were well above 13,000 ft, far higher than any of us had hiked in quite awhile, probably. So we rested, the boys passed us by, and Christine began to wonder whether she'd have time to finish the hike we'd planned. Just then a rock came flying at us from up the hill and hit Christine in the back of the leg, in what should have been another red flag to us all. We were immersed enough in our own agendas to still not give it much thought, though.

A short distance up the hill we reached a flat summit and took another breather, and found that the three boys were waiting there as well. A few of their donkeys had proceeded further up the trail, as had the smallest of the kids on his horse. The other two were waiting at the top of rocky portion of the trail that led downhill, and the one kid's horse looked a little reluctant to go ahead. Or so I decided at the time. Meanwhile, Christine snaps a few pictures and decides to turn back on her own. Kristi and I, with no real plans for the rest of our day, decided to finish the hike we'd mapped out. Christine starts walking down the hill, and the other two of us turn to face the trail ahead, trying to decide if we ought to wait for these kids to move along or just go past them on the narrow trail.

I ask the one boy if his horse is afraid to go down and don't get a response. So we decided
to just walk on by them. As I walk by the grumpy kid in the furry hat, I hear him mutter something, and on my way by him I see that he's got a small knife pulled. That's weird! As we pass them, the two boys proceed to follow us, staying right on our trail. We stop to let them pass, and they stop as well. Kristi asks them if there's a problem, and they tell us yes, there is. In their words, we aren't in the national park, we're on their land and we'd better give them something in payment. I apologize and suggest that we could turn back if there's been a misunderstanding. But no, these kids have made up their minds to exact some tribute from us and won't be convinced otherwise. They tell us that if we don't give them something we'll be in trouble when some other people come along the trail.

Considering we'd each paid $10 already, and besides that, we were clearly on the park trail, I tell them that that's fine, we can wait for someone to come along and see who gets into trouble. Maybe they hadn't thought we'd react in that way, because they didn't have much of a response to that besides to wait there with us awhile. We exchanged a few more words before, along the trail ahead of us, two older fellows on horses come into view. There, I told them, are some other people who can straighten out our misunderstanding.

As the two other riders dip down a hill and out of sight for a moment, the boys make one last demand, and two of them pick up rocks as they move ahead of us on the trail. Kristi moves behind me, the boys move ahead a bit more, they raise their rocks, and in a feeble effort the smallest of them chucks a rock at us, which didn't make it halfway towards us before rolling uselessly to the ground. I couldn't help but scoff loudly at their half-hearted attempt at robbery as they rode off up the trail.

So as the boys disappear from sight, Kristi and I collect our thoughts while we wait for the other riders to come our way. We could finish our hike like we planned and risk another run-in with the kids, if they hadn't just kept hiking. Or we could turn back. While we think, the two men on horseback come along, wish us a good day, and continue along. It's at moments like these that I can't help but question how things might have unfolded differently, if for instance we had mentioned our little run-in to them and hiked back with them a ways. But the thing about life is that our experiences only play out in the way that the events actually unfold, and there's not much use in worrying much about what-if. As it is, we let those guys ride on by us without another word, and it wasn't long before the three kids came riding back after us.

We started walking briskly back the way we came, but at a gallop they caught up to us not far from where we saw them in the first place. One of them hurried along past us to see if anyone was coming the other way, and emboldened by our isolation, now demand from us our camera, our backpacks, our jackets, and probably another thing or two as well. No, I tell them, we've got our business, they've got theirs, and we're going our separate ways now. Damned if I was going to let some little kids playing at highway robbery get a thing from either of us, even if they were riding horses.

The kids pick up rocks again. One of them starts untying a rope from his horse. We weren't sure what he planned on doing with that, but we decided it was time to move. The kid with the knife is making demands at us through blue lips and chattering teeth, he was so cold, but he was still the one making all the threats. We jumped up off the trail where their horses wouldn't go and made a path around them. They tried to surround us again, but the terrain was broken enough to allow us to keep moving ahead. At one point I had to walk right next to the kid with the knife, who clearly wasn't willing to use it, as much as he threw the phrase Voy a matar around. As we push forward, the kid with the rope starts swinging it like a lasso, which got another big laugh out of me. What are you going to do with that thing?

The kid with the knife jumped off his horse in order to keep pace with us as we beat a path off the trail. At one point the kids got between Kristi and I, and while I stopped and waited for her, she picked up a bunch of rocks and walked by them and they got out of her way, only to stay right behind her as she caught up to me. We were now making our way back down the steep mountainside where it was impossible to go off trail and confound their horses. From then on we made sure to stay close together and not let them in front of us. Rather than try to get back on his horse, the boy with the knife starts hurling rocks at us down the hill. He was actually a pretty good shot, and managed to hit both of us on our backs a few times, but fortunately never got either one of us on the head.

The kid with the lasso stayed right behind us as we made our way down, and more than once managed to get a loop around our heads. I never would have guessed this kid was any good with a rope, but if we weren't in the middle of nowhere being pursued on horseback, the whole situation would have been pretty funny, as I'm sure it is for you right now. Honestly, there were more than a few times that they were laughing, and so was I. It was half a game, but they certainly would've gotten something from us if they could've.

Each time we managed to get the kid's loop off of our heads before he pulled it tight, except once. The kid got me around the head, and as lucky as I am that the loop didn't get around my neck, he managed to pull it tight before I could shake it free. The kid with the knife ran up and starts helping his friend try to pull me back up the hill, and Kristi and I played tug of war with him for a minute before I got enough slack to pull the rope off my head. I also got pretty pissed off, having been roped around the head, and starting yelling at the kids like I'd scold a dog. At the same time, we managed to get the rope out of their hands, and so now we were running down the hill pursued by little banditos with something of theirs, after all.

Not much further down the hill we caught sight of the other two riders who had now made their way to a lake and were dismounting. They were pretty far away from us, but the kids were reluctant to pursue us within sight of other people, apparently, because they stayed at the top of a ridge and proceeded to hurl rocks and insults at us without following us any further. Once we got out of sight from them, we stopped and caught our breath, amazed by the absurdity of the whole situation. The entire encounter lasted for over a mile and more than an hour, and we managed not to lose a thing to them. I could've kept their rope as a souvenir, but I elected to drop it on the path where they could find it.

The chattering teeth and blue lips of the meanest of the boys flashed in my mind. Were they desperate or just having fun with us? Either way, I'm glad neither one of us elected to try to fight them, as they were, in the end, just kids, however persistent and violent. That we were far from any assistance and that they were on horseback made them the threat that they were, and while it may have been possible to stand our ground against them, I'm sure that had we done so either they, us or everyone would've been injured, and I'm here to teach kids, not try to hurt them! As it is, another crazy story, and besides a scraped-up nose from the kid's lasso, we're no worse for the wear!

Kristi's got her own, more hair-raising impression of the story. Check it out here: http://www.xanga.com/kridybug

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Arte en la calle

One of my favorite things to do in Oaxaca is just walk around on the streets. Occasionally I'll notice a door that's open and peek in, and I'll catch a glimpse into what world might exist inside. Every open door seems to reveal some incredible interior design. The exterior walls are great to look at as well, especially those that have been well-seasoned by the elements.

There's one element in particular here in Oaxaca that frequently peppers the walls, probably often to the chagrin of whoever may own the wall in question: the street artists. While there's plenty of hastily-scrawled graffiti on the walls - which unto itself is a window into the enduring culture of resistance here, if not the most visually or intellectually stimulating - there's also some well-crafted spray paint expression to be found.

I'd like to think that whoever owns the wall now adorned with the multidimensional cyclops cat featured above is happy to lend that surface to the cause, even if it was perhaps unsolicited. That said, there's a fair share of street art that does little more than vandalize other people's property. I've often felt that graffiti, depending on the level of creativity in either the philosophy behind it or the actual rendition of the art itself, can range from thought provoking to a complete waste of time. Some unintelligible initials carved or sprayed onto an old tree, to me, is not only disrespectful to the object but lacking in purpose to the point that I have to wonder if it was even worth the effort to deface the poor tree in the first place.

Which leads me to think that whoever tags FUERA URO for the thousandth time is another young kid who sees little to lose even if he gets caught, which is unlikely given the ten seconds it takes to spray 8 letters on a wall in quasi-cursive. Not to say that I think such a sentiment doesn't deserve expression, but there's clearly a more effective and creative way to say so.

Usually such guerrilla expression is painted over as quickly as it's portrayed, if not in quite the same color the wall might have been originally painted. Case in point, underneath and below the man in red are some tan squares that doubtlessly cover over some less inspired creativity, while the gentleman wheat-pasted on the wall is still there as I write today, if in a slightly more tattered state. Whoever painted over in tan what was painted before deemed this portrait fit to remain. Is it because this fellow is more visually appealing than one more tagline on the wall, or because, having been created on paper, he's bound to come down on his own before long anyway?

If that's true, wheat-paste art, for its impermanence, might be the way to make a point last a little longer. Existing on paper, it also has the advantage of being infinitely reproduceable, as was the case with this anti-bullfighting propaganda that caught my eye my first week here this year:

For a few weeks, this visual campaign was visible throughout the city. Granted, due probably to their more meaty political message, these tended to get clawed down from the walls much moreso than the red man featured above. Wheat paste also has the advantage of going up pretty quickly. For the street artist concerned with being caught in the act, most of the time-consuming creative process for a flyer like this takes place from the comfort and safety of the computer desk. Press print, repeat 100x, mix a can of paste and go to town. Each singular example of self-expression will take no longer to perpetrate than one more anonymous ULISES ASESINO tag, has a bona fide political intention, and in my opinion at least, is much more interesting to look at.

The medium of guerilla expression I appreciate the most, I think, shares with wheat pasting the benefit of being infinitely repeatable, and in the case of the simpler versions, quick to be put on the wall. It also retains the classic element that made graffiti the art form that it's become: the spray bottle. Of course, I'm referring to stencil art.

Okay, so this one goes beyond simple stenciling, and it probably didn't go up in just a few seconds, either. But it does illustrate why stencil lends itself to some highly creative expression. It blends nicely with more traditional spray can graff, and while it can be as simple as a single tone outline, it can clearly be taken much further. Work like this also raises the question: when does art borne in the street become something besides what the word graffiti brings to mind? Does this art - here in Oaxaca or elsewhere - have a place outside of city walls?

As I walked to Ollin one day, I saw on the wall of a bus stop a sight that brought my rhetorical question closer to a real answer:

This poster, along with a half dozen or so others, was promoting a gallery opening of a project by various students at Bellas Artes, a fine art school across the plaza from the chapel of La Soledad. Appropriately enough, this exhibit, displaying a collection of work sprung forth from the movement of resistance that arose in this city over the course of several months in 2006, was promoted by means of flyers wheat-pasted around town. I had the fortune of being able to attend the art opening, and happened to choose a route to the gallery that put me in a better frame of mind to appreciate the medium:

This brooding scene appears amidst a downtown neighborhood given over to the cause of guerrilla expression ranging from the simplest scrawled message to vistas such as this one. Connecting the dots even further were the halls of Bellas Artes themselves, graced as they were by the presence of some well-rendered zoology.

At which point I arrived at the entrance to the gallery, in time to join in the audience of the commencement of the exhibit, given by a number of faculty at Bellas Artes, and distinct from other gallery openings I've attended by virtue of a ribbon cutting ceremony. An auspicious introduction to a project inspired by a movement borne in the streets. While I spared the presenters my flash during their introduction, I was shameless in photographing the work on display after the initial rush of onlookers had subsided.

This piece, for me representative of the collection for its imagery - elements of which I've seen in street art both this year and last - as well as its statement of popular solidarity, brings together symbology given definition in our minds throughout the history of the culture of modern urban uprisings. The most central image in this work could be found around the city during this year's guelaguetza, a traditional Oaxacan summer fiesta tradition this year punctuated by a brief relapse of conflict between protestors and police:

Such an image, removed promptly from the canvas of the public streets after the guelaguetza was over, is now reappropriated and raised up on exhibition at the city's well-known school of fine art, where it joins a well-articulated assembly of modern visual archetypes, some distinctly Mexican, others universal. The street corner above, like many others in town, is home to ancient walls weathered by many generations of paint and paste. Like the countless doors one passes in the streets, they offer a glimpse inside the city's hidden corridors.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Mountain paradise

I thought I'd share with you my stay in the village of Cuajimoloyas, which I visited on the 18th and 19th of August with my group from Ollin. Cuajimoloyas is a small town in the mountains north of the city of Oaxaca, beautiful and green.

Our original idea for that weekend was to go to the beach for a couple of days, but the massive tropical storm in the Pacific had other plans. So Omar from the school recommended that we rent a cabin in the mountains outside of this village that he'd been visiting since he was a child. If you're going to get caught in the rain, I thought, more fun to do so on the trails in the woods than on the beach where you're expecting to soak up some sun.

With very little persuasion necessary, we managed to convince Omar to come along with us for the weekend. Looking back, I think he planned to go all along, given how at home he seemed to be both in the village and on the trail.

Omar told me later that he'd known the little boy sitting to his left since he was a newborn. When you get to know the people of this village, it's easy to understand why Omar cares so much for that place. The villagers there are incredibly kind, their children shy and curious about this strange bunch of visitors that descended suddenly on their streets.

The people there are living traditional rural lives, raising livestock and living to a great degree off of the land. As I've noticed is common amongst the small villages around the area, there is an outspoken consciousness towards natural resources and the need to protect them.

Omar, dedicated to the preservation of traditional language and culture, is working towards bringing more ecotourism to the area in order to help support the people of Cuajimoloyas to continue living in the way that they do. He said the greatest part about working in such a way is that he gets to visit places like this and conduct business with his friends who live throughout the state.

There was a great restaurant in the town that served what I might consider to be the best food I've had in Mexico so far. We ate there twice in two days, and I think if I lived in that village I would go there probably every day, the food being as healthy, simple and delicious as it was. We were served fresh tortillas at least every five minutes, along with black beans, rice, green beans and nopales, the flesh of the paddle-shaped cactus that's ubiquitous throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

After that delicious country fare we headed into the woods towards our cabin. The campsite is about a kilometer outside of town and is located on the edge of a large wilderness that reminded me a lot of the New Mexico pine forests. There were two main varieties of pines that weren't so different than what you'd find in any forest I've visited from East to West. One thing I realized during our night there in the mountains is that when you get into nature it's easy to forget that you're in a countryside that might happen to belong to this nation or that. The only language being spoken when you sit down in the woods is that of the wind in the trees and the birds in their branches. The first moments of holding still in a forest are those of total silence. Then, as your ear becomes accustomed to the relative quiet, it becomes loud with the many sounds of nature.

Looking out into the open hills is enough to make you wonder how we ever got obsessed with dividing up the world into arbitrary borders and territories. In the woods, that idea becomes absurd. As Eduardo Galeano has written -Perhaps one day the world, our world, won’t be upside down, and then any newborn human being will be welcome. Saying, ‘Welcome. Come. Come in. Enter. The entire earth will be your kingdom. Your legs will be your passport, valid forever.’

Or maybe Bob Marley said it best -Why can't we roam this open country?

Along with our small group of noisy invaders roaming in the woods were the livestock. The people of Cuajimoloyas let graze their burros, toros, cabras y caballos in the mountains, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to engage in a brief communion with them. Some were bewildered by our strange shenanigans:

Others, cautious but curious:

Some were very friendly:

Others, a little too friendly:

That last guy was a really nice little donkey, actually. I just made the mistake of leaving my hand in his face for a few seconds too many. The bandana around his neck, besides earning him style points, is there to protect him from mal de ojo, known in English as the Evil Eye. You've got to watch out for that! Of course, if you ever do get hexed by mal de ojo, you can make use of an egg, which you rub on your body, to restore your good mojo to its former glory. It makes sense, when you think about it. The egg, a symbol of life. It gets you back to the source.
We also witnessed what I think must be the biggest agaves I've ever seen in my life:

Once we got to the cabins, we spent a very long time - and all but a couple of our matches - building a fire from some wet firewood, after having explored the mountains awhile. Omar managed to find some mushrooms that seemed a lot like the kind we call "hen of the woods." They were very tasty, as was the tea we made from some leaf that he gathered that reminded me of lemon verbanum. We stayed up nice and late, sipped some mezcal, told a lot of stories, and saw a different set of stars in the sky than I had before, sitting at a different vantage point for stargazing than I'm used to. We also might have filmed an impromptu Bollywood movie, of which I have a copy. As much as I'm tempted to post it here for posterity, I said I'd keep it off the internet and I guess I will.
Leaving the next day was hard for me. And not just because the bus driver was hurtling down the windy dirt road at what I'd call a breakneck pace while text messaging his girlfriend.
A mountain village such as Cuajimoloyas is pretty close to my mental image of paradise. Maybe someday I'll move to a place like that and spend some years there, retiring or raising some children. Until then, I'm glad I took a lot of pictures.

My latest attempt at academia

In the last month, I've completed the program through the School for International Training, at a local language institute here in Oaxaca called Ollin Tlahtoalli (a nahuatl phrase, English translation: language, movement).

So, I'm now certified to teach English around the world. Not bad for a month's work! It was an intensive course: four weeks, five days a week, and at least ten hours a day of learning and teaching, observing, and giving & receiving feedback for the lessons I gave and those of my classmates. My group of classmates was small, five of us, our trainer Joah, and the director of the institute, Omar. Here I am with one classmate and great friend, Meara, a student at Smith College who's been living and studying in Mexico since January. She came to Oaxaca already having grown familiar with the city of Puebla and a love of Mexican culture:

and, with Sari, a Swedish/Colombian brooklynite who's likely to become a naturalized Brasilian in the near future. She plans to open a language school and organic farm near the Brasilian coast:

This is Jules, who came to Oaxaca directly from Costa Rica, where he's been working for the last few months. Here he was learning some backstrap weaving from one of our students. He's been working hard to find some work to begin teaching right away, and with luck will be working in Quito before long:

Here is Greg, calmly seated behind the wheel of Omar's coveted silver 2002 VW Beetle (the classic air-cooled model, of course). Greg's a pre-med biology student at Tufts University (alma mater of New Mexico governor Bill Richardson). By now Greg's back at school and about to embark on his junior year of undergrad.

Joah, our trainer and primary source of information about such topics as teaching and Bollywood, has been walking the talk of teaching your way around the world for the past several years. He's taught and trained in Costa Rica, Mexico, Japan and India, and is most likely about to begin work in the land of Burma.

Last but not least is Omar, director of Ollin Tlahtoalli. Here he is pictured in front of a cabin where we stayed in the mountains outside of the village of Cuajimoloyas, an amazing town he introduced us to during our second weekend as a group. For the last several years Omar has been working tirelessly and happily on his mission to preserve and cultivate a wider awareness of the cultures and languages of the state of Oaxaca. Not the least of his efforts was to host and guide our group of wide-eyed norteamericanos during our stay in his native city.

We taught two different classes, one class of young professionals living in Oaxaca city, and the other a group of weavers from the nearby village of Santo Tomas Jalieza, a small town of weavers who showered us with an outpouring of affection and food upon our visit to their home. They have been a joy to work with, and have taught me at least as much as I've been able to teach them. I have the good fortune to stay here in Oaxaca for another two weeks and continue to work with them here in Oaxaca and hopefully, in their village as well.
Here we are during a meal together in Santo Tomas. A scene that looks a little too much like the last supper for my taste! Not all of the weavers were able to join us for lunch, but from left to right standing behind me is Priscilla, Dolores, Victoria, Teresa and Alicia. Seated at the left of the table is Suzanne, a graduate of the SIT program here to visit Oaxaca once again, Gisela, one of our students from Oaxaca, and Matt, a student in the US here to study with Omar.

As fate would have it, I visited Santo Tomas last year as well, as part of a tour through the language institute I was attending at that time. I have to admit, as part of a tour that felt like an excuse for the older people in my group to buy textiles, I didn't have a great first impression of the village. This year, after I had already been teaching some of the people from Santo Tomas for a couple of weeks, when we came to visit them in their village I realized that I had been there before. My experience was very different this time, and the difference was that now I knew the people and understood who they were. When I looked at their weavings I realized that these were their creations, made by their own hands. When I held them and ran my fingers across the designs I could almost see how they made them and the time and attention it took to create them.
That's the main difference between the two kinds of human encounters you can have, I think. Either you know someone and have compassion and respect for who they are and where they're coming from, or you don't. One thing I learned from visiting Santo Tomas a second time is that I ought to look at every stranger as someone I just need to get to know in order to see into their lives for who they really are. For those people who I may meet and not have the opportunity to get to know, it's enough to think for a moment or two about that person and the entire life that's unfolded behind them and before them. I'm very grateful to the people of Santa Tomas for welcoming me and helping me to learn that little lesson. Here's one more photo of all of us together for the last time as teachers and students, this time at Ollin Tlahtoalli:

There's been a lot more going on in the last few weeks as well, but I'll save those stories for another time! Be well and keep in touch.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

La ciudad con garras

Esta es Oaxaca!

As most of my friends are probably already tired of hearing, I've been planning a trip to Latin America for the last several months. I'll be teaching in Cuenca, Ecuador for 6 months beginning in October of this year. But first, I'm back in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, where I studied last summer, and where I became inspired to return to teaching as a means to travel this hemisphere and see for myself some of the places my friends have described to me over the years.

This year I'm studying at Ollin Tlahtoalli, a language institute partnering with SIT, a school dedicated to training teachers of English as Second Language. I'm staying at a very nice posada:

My friend Andrea stayed here last year. I remember coming up to her posada for a few minutes last summer and wondering how she got a place as nice as this. She got into a little trouble con la senora de la casa for bringing strangers into the house, but in the end I think la duena would thank Andrea, as I'm now staying with her for the next six weeks and posting pictures of her amazing home downtown for others who might be interested in staying en el centro de Oaxaca para una semana o mas. If you are, drop me a line and I can tell you more.

I flew to Oaxaca on Monday, July 30. Actually, I didn't make it here to this city until the next morning, seeing as how my flight from Phoenix to Mexico City was late, and I missed my connecting flight to Oaxaca that night, which meant that I spent the night on the tiles of the Mexico City airport, sleeping little and poorly. Then, physically exhausted, I needed to negotiate with the various airlines involved with my flight to determine who, besides me, would be footing the bill for my new flight to Oaxaca. It took some walking and labored discussion in Spanish, which I hadn't had to use functionally for over a year, but in the end I got on a plane that afternoon and made my way to Oaxaca at last.

I did get to Oaxaca much lighter than I left the States, however, my checked baggage having been lost in the transition. I thus spent a couple more days a little unkempt and without change of clothes, all my toiletries and laundry still somewhere besides my new home away from home. A couple of times each day I called an 800 number from a payphone to figure out where my things were. Each day, no word, until finally one morning, yes! Now my bags were in Oaxaca, at the airport. The airport, miles outside of town, was a cab ride away. A cab, upon inquiry of the first taxista to come along as I walked down the street from the payphone, was cien pesos. Demasiado, en mi opinion, especialmente on such a beautiful day for a walk.

So I chose instead to begin my walk towards the airport, determined at the very least to shave some of that cost by going at least halfway to airport on foot. In the end, I walked the entire distance, one that took about 3 hours to traverse, and in the journey saw sides of Oaxaca I'd never seen and doubtfully would have otherwise. Of course, once I had my baggage, weighed down heavily with 9 months worth of my favorite possessions, I decided to take a colectivo.

Since then, I've been wandering the streets of Oaxaca, each morning arbitrarily selecting a destination some distance away and walking, not necessarily as the crow flies, either there or some other location that might have appealed to me in the meantime. On the way I've already met a lot of great people, from the states of America or Mexico, and more than a few from New Mexico, as it turns out, including my housemates. My meandering has already earned me a reputation amongst my acquaintances for choosing strange routes from place to place, including Omar, the director of Ollin, who told me - after a circuitous journey led by me to a lunch spot - that he was thinking -pinche Brian, he's lost! Lost? I always know where I'm going, I just don't always know how I'll get there.

As a result, I've also seen a few more of the many faces of Oaxaca than I had in the past:

Yesterday I had my orientation at Ollin Tlahtoalli, met the small group I'll be studying with for the next month, and shared a meal. Now I find myself writing to you all sitting in a cafe with Sari, one of my new friends and fellow students. She works at a Mexican restaurant in New York City and is trying hard not to proscrastinate on our homework, and I'm doing my best not to distract her while I write. I, for once, did my homework early, which might have something to do with the fact that it's election day in Oaxaca and there's no beer for sale. I have a feeling, given the fact that we were given binders close to half a foot thick for our impending courseload, that the opportunities to procrastinate and luxuriate will be pretty slim this august. I'll let you know before long.