Archive for the ‘Daily Life’ Category


Hey Rocky, Watch me as I…Rocky?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

While I was in the Sierra for Carnaval, I saw something I hadn’t seen before here:  smoked squirrel.  I had had squirrel [beriida’] before when I had visited Macuil on an earlier trip.  No big deal, but I hadn’t thought about it being smoked (I don’t think what I had eaten had been).  But while we were visiting someone during the last trip, I had noticed that along with the regular strips of beef smoking over the hearth, that there was also a whole, small animal hanging over the bar above the fire.  I asked if it was what I thought, and sure enough, they told me it was a squirrel.  Unfortunately, nobody offered me any (I don’t know if it was ready), so I will have to wait to try smoked squirrel some other day.


Long and Winding Road

Saturday, January 24, 2009

After a long day, we finally made it to Macuil last night, but at least I got my second opportunity to drive in Mexico.  The first time had been two summers ago when I had gotten a trial by fire, driving in Mexico City.

This time was much less stressful.  Nacho drove us out of the city, and then feeling tired, he let me take over.   It was the first time I got to drive on the twisty mountain road leading through the Sierra.  It was quite fun and much faster than I expected.  We made it in about two, two and a half hours.

I got to experience another first, too, on this trip:  getting stopped by a police security checkpoint.  For a long time, there had been regularly police/military checkpoints on the roads I had been on leading out of Oaxaca City.  I had seen them both on the road into the Sierra and the road to Tlacolula, but I had never been in a vehicle that had been stopped at one.  In recent years, they hadn’t been in use though.  But last night a temporary checkpoint was set up and we were stopped just before we reached the turn off to another town, Jaltianguis.

I had always been nervous passing the fixed checkpoints in the past, but maybe because this one was a surprise, I wasn’t nervous (at least once I figured out what the heck was going on).  We had to pull over and Nacho, Margarita, and I had to get out of the car, while the heavily armed police (or was it the military, I’m never sure about these things in Mexico) checked for drugs.  Luckily, they let the sleeping Benjamin and Margarita’s mom stay in the car.  They patted down Nacho, but no one else.  Maybe being a gringo saved me the inconvenience.

Overall, I was happy for the stop.  It was a nice clear night and the stars looked spectacular, it was a chance to wake up a little, and with all of the recent drug violence I’ve been hearing about in Mexico, I actually felt a little better they were there checking.



Monday, August 25, 2008

One of things I miss while I am in Oaxaca is breakfast.  It’s not that Oaxacans don’t eat a morning meal, it’s the differences in what is likely to be served.

In the US, we have many dedicated breakfast foods which are predominantly served in the morning:  bacon, eggs, sausage patties, pancakes, waffles, bagels, cereal, oatmeal, cream of wheat, toast, English muffins, breakfast pastries, etc.  Sure these items can appear at other times of day and IHOP serves breakfast all day, but they are prototypically foods for the first meal of the day.  And not only are these foods associated with breakfast, but personally at least, I have come to expect my first meal to usually be taken from this menu.

Here, this isn’t the case.  There seems to be much less of an association between particular foods and certain meals of the day.  (I would say that eggs skew toward being a morning food here, but that is at best a trend, rather than something more categorical.)  As a result, today at Margarita’s sister house, for our first meal we had chicken in a green sauce.  It was quite good and I’m not going to refuse food that required no effort on my part to prepare, but still, it struck my American sensibilities as an odd thing to be having at 10 in the morning.

Part of this clash with my preferences may be my own doing, however.  Here, meals are spaced out a bit differently than they are in the US.  People often start their day around 6 or earlier with possibly coffee (or some other hot drink) and a little bread, a meal that can be referred to as [cafeto’].  This is followed by a big meal around 10am [xtììlà], another big meal in the afternoon around 3pm [yhuugwe], and then the day is finished off with something light, again usually coffee and bread [cafeto’].  (Actually, there is a dinner meal [xiella], too, around 6 or 7 when men return from the fields, but it’s not something we’ve been typically eating; a late yhuugwe carries us over until the nighttime coffee, usually.)

So, if I would get up early enough, I could convert the 6am nosh into a breakfast more familiar to me, like cereal and milk, or even just stick with the local coffee and bread.  Then when the 10am meal comes, I might be psychologically prepared to have something that seems more lunch-like to me.  As it’s been going though, I’ve been getting up later and am offered the 6am food and 10am food back to back, which is too much food for me first thing in the day, and again, odd food to start the day with.

After xtììlà today, however, I did score one of my favorite Oaxacan food items:  sugar cane [ettia].  It’s something I was really looking forward to and I can’t believe we have been here over two and a half weeks without any.  But luckily, as our meal was winding down, Benjamin was starting to get antsy, so I took him out for a walk.  We went by a place I had seen before that was offering bags of sugar cane pieces (and other fruits) and I was able to buy a bag for 10 pesos—I wasn’t even charged a gringo tax.  The sugar cane was really good and juicy; I wish I had some more.


Dial-Up Access

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Internet is still out at the library and I haven’t heard about any improvements at the secundaria.  So, if we are going to stay here for long, I’ll need to get my own Internet setup.

Macuil is too remote and small for DSL, which is too bad.  I’ve been impressed with Telmex’s DSL service in larger metropolitan areas.  I particularly like that their modems seem to come automatically with wireless service, although I wish it wasn’t automatically password protected.

So with no satellite in my back pocket, I am left to try out dial-up.  One problem will be finding a phone line that I can use.  It’s nice the town has been hooked up with phone service, but the house we are staying in hasn’t been.  I’ll have to find someone who doesn’t mind me tying up their phone.

And of course I haven’t been on dial-up in years.  I try to remember just how slow it is and brace myself for the worst.  After finding a temporary location to check it out, I find that dial-up turns out not to be so horrible; it is certainly workable.

And actually, there might be certain advantages to working at sublight speeds.  It would help me not overload the web-dictionary with too many bells-and-whistles which might render it impossible to use in Macuil, with slow and inconsistent Internet access.  It would also force me to find the most efficient way of packaging those bells-and-whistles that are necessary.  Finally, there is the added benefit that it might limit the amount of web-related goofing off that I can be tempted to do.  Maybe.

So, I feel cautiously optimistic, but am still not convinced how it will all work out.


Hard Hat Required

Friday, August 22, 2008

An unexpected occupational hazard for me doing research in Oaxaca has been low ceilings, doorways, beams, overhangs, gutter supports, etc.  Historically, Zapotecs are a shorter people (although this is changing with improved nutrition—Margarita’s generation is noticeably taller than her parents’ generation and her generation’s children are taller still, with many of the guys coming close to my height, which at 5′ 10″ isn’t all that tall by US standards).  Most of the houses here, however, have been built to those shorter heights, and as a result I am forever putting lumps and gashes on the top of my head.

So, something I like about the new place we are staying is that there are only about three places I can hit my head:  the doorway going into the bedroom, the doorway going into the hallway leading to the kitchen, and the doorway into the kitchen.  All things considered, that’s not too bad.  Doorways are a natural place to duck and once I’m into the rooms or out on the porch, I’m in the clear.

In contrast, at Margarita’s uncle’s house, in addition to low doors there are numerous low beams.  And some doorways are really low:  if I wanted to get through the doorway standing up to where we sleep, I would have to remove my head.  So at his house, I often duck to avoid one obstacle and hit the next, or I sometimes I don’t duck down quite enough.  Her uncle has joked that I need a helmet for his house.  I wonder if I can put that down as a necessary equipment purchase on a grant application?


Support Your Local Government

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Besides the day being filled with cleaning and getting the house ready, we also met with the cabildo, a group of five men who are selected for 18 month terms to administer the workings of the town, acting as mayor, treasurer, etc.  An additional nine men are chosen to take care of other duties around the town, such as serving as police.  These 14 men make up the autoridad municipal.

So, today we met with the cabildo to let them know about my current project and that I would be around.  It was the earliest they could meet with me since they had been occupied with festivities for La Asunción.

I was a little nervous before meeting with them, but the meeting went really well.  Thankfully, I had already met the man who is currently serving as the presidente municipal (mayor), and he was familiar with what I do.  Overall, they seemed very supportive and welcoming, so I feel hopeful about the current project.


Zapotec Homes and Gardens

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Today, we got our own place to stay.  We are renting a property in Margarita’s neighborhood [Barriu Lattsi’].  We had been staying with her aunt and uncle, who are just two houses up and across the street from the new place.  It will be nice to have a place to ourselves, but since we haven’t figured out a good solution for the Internet yet, it may just be a temporary move, or something we end up using only on visits to Macuil.

There are no typical floorplans for housing in Macuil.  As Nacho pointed out to me when we were visiting his nephew who was working on his own new house, there are no codes, building inspectors, or restrictions of any kind.  You can build however you like, but at your own risk.  Most people adapt their housing to fit the available space (oftentimes, children are building on their parents’ property) and do the work piecemeal, adding a room here, a building there.  This leads to a frequent phenomenon I see which is windows that open onto other rooms or are otherwise in less than ideal locations.

While there is not uniformity—no housing developments here—there are certain common themes.  As seems to be common throughout Mexico, the entire property is often blocked by buildings and/or surrounded by a fence.  Usually, there are several distinct buildings [yú’ù] on the property, possibly representing different generations of a family, but frequently just dedicated to different functions (eating, sleeping, showering, etc.).  There tend not to be interior rooms.  Most buildings and rooms (even those with a common wall) open directly to the outside.  This is changing with newer builders often opting for having multiple rooms and interior doors, but it is not yet the predominant pattern.  Floors and walls tend to be cement or adobe or brick, which could be trouble in case of earthquakes, which are not totally unknown in this region.  Thankfully at least, most buildings tend to be low, only one story or two maybe, and roofs are lighter, typically made with wooden beams supporting lamina (tin sheets).  These are unfortunately noisy when it rains.  One advantage to the house we are staying in is that instead of tin sheets it has what Margarita called lamina asbesto (which sounds a little worrisome, but for different reasons).  They are thicker and not metallic, so they don’t magnify the pounding of the rain, but instead dampen it.

Most properties have a kitchen, bedroom (or bedrooms as needed), an all-purpose room and a bathroom area.  (Historically the bedroom and all-purpose room would have been combined into a [yú’ù xeeni] ‘big room’.)  Kitchens are the most likely to be separate structures since they are built to have open fires.  Usually the fire is just built on a raised platform that is open on the sides.  There is a raised tin roof above the fire to let the smoke out.  Since the smoke isn’t otherwise contained, the rafters, wall by the fire, and other parts tend to become blackened and smoke-cured over time.

The kitchen [cocina] is the only room that is heated, which is fine if you are going out to work in the field all day or you are working hard at housework.  You can sit by the fire while you eat and then hide under blankets at night, when it does get a little chilly, especially in the wintertime.  I am worried though about what happens if your job is to sit in front of a computer, not working up a sweat.  Right now the days are warm, but later in the year, I’m not sure.  Or what if I want to work after sunset when it can get cold?  Maybe I will be thankful that my laptop puts out a lot of heat.

One thing I do like about housing here is that the toilet and shower are usually housed in separate compartments, often with their own individual doors.  I think that is a great idea and something I would adopt in the US if I ever had the chance to design my own house.  I have seen a few houses here try to adopt the American model of having a bathroom with the shower and toilet in the same room, but it doesn’t seem to work out well since there is no tub for the shower or walls to keep the water out.  Separate is a better a way to go.

The one room I don’t fully understand is what I am calling the all-purpose room.  It is usually a large room which as far as I can tell doesn’t get much day-to-day use.  Margarita tells me that my perception may be a little skewed, since we have mostly stayed with older couples as they are likely to have room for us, and also because with emigration Macuil’s population is aging.  These rooms may have seen more use back when there were still children living at home and when people had larger families.  Today though these rooms don’t seem like places where people typically go and hang out.  Casual visitors are usually invited to the kitchen.  Altars are typically maintained in the all-purpose room and that seems to be their current daily function.  Otherwise, the rooms seem kind of like storage (but only along the walls), or maybe have some beds for guests.  And if someone hosts a posada this would be the room that would be used.  It would also be used I suppose for wakes and novenarios.  So, now they seem to be largely ceremonial spaces with a few practical encroachments.

The place we will be staying at is newer built—most of the dates inscribed in the concrete are from the late 80’s, and it is a little different from more traditional properties.  Everything is contained in one building on the property, though again, most rooms open to the outside rather than having interior rooms.  It is a two-story building, although we’ll mostly be using the upstairs.  It contains one large room which serves as a bedroom and another room which serves as the kitchen.  Both open out onto a shared balcony.

The kitchen is quite different from what I am used to seeing here.  There isn’t just an open area for a fire.  Instead, it looks like there is an enclosed space for building a fire with a PVC pipe chimney, but no one we’ve consulted so far about it is sure about how to use it.  And I don’t know if the fire would be solely for heating—the space for building the fire is too small to cook in—or if you might be able to cook on the platform above the fire.  When the owners visit we can ask them—we’ve gotten the keys from one of their parents in the meantime.

An exterior staircase leads down from the balcony.  I’m guessing an all-purpose room is down there on the first floor, but it is currently filled up as storage by the owners.  At the back of the house on the first floor is the bathroom, containing a sink, shower, and toilet, each in their own separate stalls.  The owners had walled off an interior bathroom connected to the bedroom but that was as far as they had gotten, so right now if nature calls at night it means a trudge outside and downstairs.  (Or there is the chamber pot solution, which are still used here.)

Overall, I’m looking forward to a place to ourselves.