"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Merry Mabon (Be Prepared)

Mabon is one of the eight high festivals of the ancient Celtic calendar, and one of my favorites. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the autumnal equinox can be counted on to be one of the loveliest times of the year. The sky will almost always be electric blue, the temperature a comfortable 70 degrees, and the golden afternoon will nearly always fade to a crisp evening full of stars. This year is no exception.  I've been enjoying many beautiful afternoons lately out with the goats and a good book.

Mabon is the middle harvest, out of three. Lammas, or midsummer, is the festival of the early harvest. Here, we celebrate flowers, snap peas, spinach and other tender greens, eggs and milk. The late harvest is celebrated at Samhain, or Halloween. Pumpkins and gourds, nuts, and those crops which are improved by frost such as parsnips and kale. Mushrooms.

But here, the richest harvest is the middle harvest. I have been writing about nothing but the harvest lately, so I don't want to repeat myself, but I can't resist a little bit of harvest poetry.

Blue plums, on the branch and on the ground
wonton in abundance and in sweetness
a feast for wasps
hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts
glossy shells peering through their spiny husks
green beans and shelly beans and dry beans
rattling in the pod
still clinging to the yellow vines
thistle down and burdock root
blown dandelion and amaranth
pasture grass seed headed and heavy 
nearly horizontal
apples and apples and apples and apples
pears upon pears upon pears
fall raspberries, few and golden
blackberries, insouciantly out of reach
late potatoes, asleep in the loam
sweet corn and field corn and popcorn 
tall and tasseled, dressing up the landscape
staunch chard and sturdy kale
cabbages, round and ready
opening their outer leaves
proud to embody
the very heart of fall. 

Today I dressed the altar for Mabon. I removed my Demeter icon and replaced her with a painting of autumn leaves. I laid down pears from our trees and chestnuts that I found on a walk, along with the last two blooms on my rosebush. It looks like there are several bottles of beer on the altar, but actually those are several bottles of home-brew apple cider, which I bottled today. I was a bit short on bottles, so I am enjoying the excess cider as I write this. 

Mabon is a time of preparation. In the most literal sense of course, a time of preparation for winter. Have I preserved the harvest? Is the freezer full? The bank account? Can we pay the second half property taxes? Do the children have winter coats? Are there home repairs that need to be completed before the rains start, or before it freezes? It is good to be reminded, via the calendar, to pay attention to the mundane work of the season. But for those who are so inclined, Mabon is an appropriate time to address other kinds of readiness. 

For those who choose to do so, this is a good time to ask not just what is the state of my larder,  but what is the state of my soul? What is the state of my marriage? How about my health? Have I done what I need to do to prepare for the next phase of my life? How about my children, have I laid a path for them to follow? Maybe I should write a will. Do my loved ones know what my wishes are?

These are hard, deep questions, and I don't know about you, but when I decide to think about them in a serious way, I want divine guidance. Far be it from me to suggest who anyone ought to pray to, but there are some gods and goddesses associated with this time of year, the time of perfect balance between light and dark. These are the threshold crossers; those numinous beings who are equally at home in the underworld and the world of light. My personal guide at this season is Persephone, bride of the God of the underworld. She joyfully sinks into the earth to meet her husband every fall and she joyfully rises again every spring to blossom in the sun. She is both the queen of the dead and the resurrected daughter of the dawn. She is the wisdom that comes at life's end and the hope that is manifest in the first signs of every spring. 

painting of Persephone I did many years ago

When I appeal to her, I ask her to grant me the ability to sit quietly in the midst of doubt and fear, in darkness and uncertainty. To stay balanced in the muddled middle until answers make themselves known.  I ask her to show me what are those aspects of my being that need to be brought up out of the depths and into the light of day? How can I make manifest and concrete those inklings and urges that want to remain hidden? Which of them should be lifted up and which of them should be remanded to outer darkness? Help me decide what belongs in the light and what belongs in the dark. Where, O Persephone, are the roots and where are the shoots? Help me give the right gifts to each, that each may be nurtured and come to full fruition. Help me, in this season of balance, to find the right balance in my life.

Help me to see the beauty in the bones, in the deepness, in the decay and the quiet work of winter. Help me to honor necessary rest, to partake in necessary rest, help me to gather and to guard my strength through the long dark, that I might rise renewed as you do, ready and refreshed. Blessed be the sacred season of repose, and thank you for the hospitality of the velvet earth.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Preserving a Peck of Peppers

The harvest season is winding to a close. Of course it's only September, and a good deal of produce is yet to come
- winter squash, more apples, more
pears, mushrooms. The harvest won't be over for quite some time. What I mean is that MY preserving season is winding down. 

I had a wonderful season this year; better, I think, than any in recent memory. I've been canning salsa in small batches all year - from Gleaner's produce - so I won't even count that. Real summer preserving this year involved making a ton of fermented pickles (the fridge is still full of jars); drying what felt like
hundreds of plums and pears; canning bread and butter pickles, dilly beans, pear sauce and applesauce; and even making wine and cider! 

Yesterday I did what I think will probably be my last canning of the year (not counting gleaner's salsa). I had a couple pounds of beautiful small green hot peppers. I'm not sure of the variety because I bought them from a farm stand, but they looked like green cayennes. Since I still have plenty of home canned jalapeños in vinegar, I decided to use these ones for pepper jelly. 

Not everybody likes pepper jelly - my husband for one thinks it is a bizarre substance, but I love it. Alas, I am just 
not very good at making jelly. There are still six - count em six - pints of straw berry syrup in the cabinet that was supposed to be strawberry jam. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but my jelly often, well, fails to gel. 

This time it was sort of a half-success. It did gel, not very firmly but firm enough. It isn't syrup. And it tastes good. But I don't care for how it turned out aesthetically. It's kind of an ugly algae green color and most of the pepper bits sank to the bottom before it really gelled. It is still delicious on a cracker with chèvre, and I know we are capable of going through it, but I had hoped to send off little jars of pepper jelly as Christmas presents this year, and I don't think these are pretty enough. 

Oh well - another harvest that is still going on is the Salmon harvest. I haven't smoked any salmon yet this year. Last year I sent everybody smoked salmon for Christmas, and I didn't hear any complaints. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Is There Anything as Good as Apple Cider?

Oops, that's a picture of bowls full of cherries. When I selected the thumbprint, I thought it was buckets of apples. Oh well - doesn't matter. I didn't take any pictures of the first - and probably only - cider pressing of the year, because I was too busy pressing cider!

We didn't make any cider at all last year, and I missed it. Cidering is very hard work - even if you can convince other people to bring you apples so you don't have to pick them all yourself. But it is so, so worth it. There's almost nothing as good as that first drink of fresh apple cider after the sweat and the aching back of cidering.

Things that are not as good as fresh apple cider:

- finding a twenty dollar bill in the laundry

- coming home to an unexpectedly clean house

- seeing a movie you thought was going to be dumb but it turned out to be really good after all

- losing five pounds somehow without even really trying

- (average) sex

- a phone call from an old friend

- when you thought you were wrong in an argument but later you read something and find out you were right all along

Things that are almost as good as fresh apple cider:

- getting a handwritten letter in the mail from an old friend

- finding a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk

- surprise bouquet of your favorite flowers from the husband AND an unexpectedly clean house

- discovering a really, really great new author

- that dream, that one dream, swimming effortlessly underwater like a mermaid in a coral garden

- the hot bath you take after a hard day's work on the farm

- baby goats

Things that are better than fresh apple cider: 

- only you know the answer to this one. We each have a different answer and I'm not telling mine.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Fermentation Files (High Summer Edition)

My High Summer Altar

It is the highest point of high summer. The sun is strong and steady and the pastures are pure gold, without any hint of green from a distance. If you get right up close and part the tall golden stems, you will see the green clover underneath. My goats burrow in and eat the clover, along with those sturdy, wiry weeds that are still green at summer's height: plantain, burdock, false dandelion, thistle. 

The leaves have started to turn, so some people might call this short, beautiful season "earliest fall" but I'm sticking to Summer. As long as the weather makes you want to go jump in the nearest lake, it's summer. Lucky for me, I have my choice of lovely lakes nearby. Last week I took the children for a dip, and gave thanks for the blessed cool water. 

The harvest goes on unabated. Principally, pears. So many pears. A hail of pears. Almost a plague of pears, but I would never be so ungrateful. We have FOUR pear trees, which, I can assure you, is more pear trees than any one family needs. Alas, pears cannot, like apples, be made into cider, so either we have to eat them fresh or find other people who want pears and trade with them. I cannot possibly process so many pears myself. So far this year I have made eight quarts of pear sauce, a whole bunch of pies, and now dehydrated a dozen or so. That has not made a discernible dent in the number of pears covering my kitchen table. 

But canning is not the main way I am preserving food right now. I have a number of exciting fermentation projects going on. I have so many varied fermentation projects going on, in fact, that it sometimes feels like I have a collection of small pets in the kitchen. Each living cultivar needs its own special care. None of them are particularly demanding on their own, but caring for all of them does begin to add up. 

There is always sourdough, of course. I've had a good sourdough going for about a year now, since a neighbor gave me some of her family's dough that - so the story goes - dates back to Alaskan pioneer days. Its a good dough and makes nice bread and great pancakes, but I don't bake as much as I used to and I often find myself pouring sourdough in the trash just to make room in the jar. The sourdough is not very hard to maintain though - every three to five days I have to refresh it with a cup or so of flour and more water. If I forget and leave it in the fridge for two weeks, it's fine - just pour off the accumulated alcohol on top and refresh as usual. 

I brought back some new kefir grains from Oaxaca. My last kefir cultivar died ( Well, That Was Fast) before I could really even use it. These ones are a different kind of creature - small, separate grains each only a millimeter or so in diameter. My mother in law acquired them a few years ago locally and makes what she calls "yogurt" out them. She knows them as "bulgaros." The "yogurt" they make is extremely sour but has a very good flavor. I smuggled a tablespoon or so home in a spice jar. The kefir grains need a little more care than sourdough - every other day or so I have to strain off the kefir into a clean jar, wash the grains with water (my book says to use milk but mama has kept these puppies alive a long time so I'm doing what she tells me) and put them into fresh milk. 

I've made two batches of kosher dill pickles - each batch is about two gallons, because that's how big my crock is. I was lucky this year and both batches came out fabulous. Sometimes pickles just don't work - don't ask me why.  I make them the same every time but sometimes they get soft and slimy. That happened last year and I was sad. This year though, both batches turned out crisp and delicious. So good, I even drank some of the brine straight, in little sips out of a shot glass. So good, I saved back a little of the brine to use to get my sauerkraut started. 

As you can see, I used purple cabbage this year. My neighbor of the HSH  (hotel-sized-house) gave me three beautiful purple cabbages. I chopped them finely, and packed them into the same crock I'd used for the pickles, saving the dill and the grape leaves. I left about an inch of pickle brine in the bottom, then covered the cabbage with a new salt brine. 

Today, after approximately ten days in brine, I emptied the crock and rinsed the cabbage and repacked it into quart sized jars in the fridge. I could, if I chose, water-bath can it at this point. But I don't think I will. I am really enjoying the live, complex flavors of all different ferments. Canning the kraut would preserve it, yes, but it would also kill it. Since there isn't a ton of it, just three cabbages worth, I'm sure we can get through it before it goes bad in the fridge. 

And I'm trying something new this year. My Italian Plum tree has decided to produce enough plums to sink a battleship. So many plums that branches are literally breaking from the weight. So many plums that I thought - well, I can experiment. It doesn't really matter if I devote a bucket of plums to an experiment that doesn't pan out - it's not like we are going to miss them. We are all, in fact, mortally sick of plums, so if my experiment ends up in the compost, I'm kind of sort of doing everybody a favor, right? 

Plum wine. Yesterday evening, I sat out on the lawn with a knife and a clean plastic bucket and a pile of plums, and pitted plums as I watched my daughters doing cartwheels in the setting sun. The bucket slowly filled up and their long legs flashed, upside-down in the slanting afternoon light. The scent of ripe plums - their purple sweetness - rose up into my nostrils. Haku lay panting at my feet and my husband sat a few feet away, reading quietly. When I had a bucketful, I carried them into the house and covered them with sugar water. 

Most likely, my plum wine will not be objectively delicious. But if, when I drink it, it reminds me of that hot August afternoon with my family; if it brings me back to my hands, working, and my back, aching gently, and my daughters calling "watch this, mom!" and my husband glancing over at me with a smile on his face, then it will be a success. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Plum Conundrum and Pear Perplexity

In recent days, as I took Haku outside in the evenings to run around in the orchard,  I've noticed that a couple of trees in the orchard are so heavily laden with fruit that the branches are actually sitting on the ground.  Specifically, the Italian plum and one of the pear trees - the Comice - were so bowed down that I made a mental note to get out and pick some fruit as soon as possible.

Then a couple of days went by. This morning Homero told me that the plum tree had broken nearly in half.

I said "No, the big branch is just sitting on the ground, that's all."

He said "Go take a look."

The biggest branch was indeed broken. It must have happened just that day, because the leaves were still bright green and crisp. I ran for a bucket and with Homero's help, stripped off five gallons of plums from just that one broken branch in five minutes flat. We didn't even get all the plums from that branch - many of them fell on the ground and we didn't even bother to pick them up.

The plums are not quite ripe, but it doesn't matter, because I looked it up and plums ripen beautifully off the tree. In two or three days I will have a bushel (more or less) of ripe plums, not even counting those still on the tree. The still-on-the-tree plums account for at least four fifths of the total. I tried to think of something to do with five gallons of plums. Drying comes to mind, of course, but really - who likes prunes that much? And I am not much of a jam-master. If I'm going to attempt to make jam I will make blackberry jam, which we all like, rather than risking going to all the work of canning jam only to find out that nobody enjoys the end product.

That left wine.

I don't have much experience with making alcohol. Sure; a side effect of fresh cider is tepache (naturally fermented fresh juice) - and I have occasionally expanded upon wild fermentation and ventured into the alchemy of hard cider - with mixed results. But I have never set out deliberately to create "wine" which seems for some reason very serious and highbrow, even when made from an accidental glut of plums instead of fancy pedigreed grapes.

Today I went to our local home-brew store and told them what I was up to and ended up spending something over $50 in tubing, plastic airlocks, yeast, and specialized equipment. Chances are better than even that I will not produce anything drinkable by any but a late-stage alcoholic, but I'm going to try.

The pears are a whole 'nother story.

For one thing, they mostly will not ripen on the tree and demand careful and specific post-harvest handling in order to reach peak perfection. For another thing, the time period between "peak perfection" and "post-perfection" is about fifteen minutes.

Also - The pears arrive in tsunami-sized waves. So when I try to think of something to do with the pears, I am thinking about seventy-five or eighty pears at a time, not six or eight, which would be the perfect number to make into a pie.

With that in mind, I went and bought a dozen wide-mouth quart sized canning jars. I figure I can make a few gallons of pear-sauce; hopefully mixed with blackberry if I can coerce my children into picking a few pints.

I may also try Car-dehydrating. The weather has been unrelentingly hot. It's supposed to hit 90 degrees tomorrow and stay there through the weekend. I have read that in this kind of heat, you can lay our thin slices of fruit on foil-covered trays and put them in your car. The temperature inside will reach 150-175 quite quickly. Basically, if it would kill your dog, it will dehydrate your pears.

But by far the best option is to trade some of my fruit for something else that I want more. I put out the word today over social media and within minutes had received offers to trade plums for locally caught trout; for freshly harvested green beans;  and for assorted canning jars. That's neighborliness at its best.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Homecoming Harvest

We had a bit of difficulty getting home
from Oaxaca. Without going into details, we got home 48 hours later than we thought we would; paid more than a thousand dollars more than we thought we would have to; and had to take a seven hour bus ride to Mexico City instead of flying from Oaxaca, as we had planned. 

None of that matters, in the grand scheme of things. We are home - whole, hale, and hearty. We had a wonderful trip (recap to follow, with pictures). The farm, under Rowan's care, has flourished in our absence. 

I was sorry to have missed so much of harvest season. All the berries were early this year and the strawberries and raspberries came and went while we were gone. I got anxious as I saw my friends' Facebook posts of blueberries and even blackberries while I was still
thousands of miles away. 

Today I found out that there is plenty of harvest season left. As you can see above, the blackberries are in full swing but there are plenty of green ones left and there will be blackberries for weeks yet. 

The blueberry harvest is not over yet, either. My favorite local no-spray blueberry farm had many plants loaded with berries still, although some had begun to dry on the bush. It only took me twenty minutes to pick about 4 pounds. Sometime this weekend I'll be bringing the kids out to pick more.

Walking the orchard brought some delightful surprises. Some trees that had never yet borne fruit are bearing. Chiefly - the hazelnut. I don't know if this is due to the two new tiny hazels I planted this spring for improved fertilization or if the bush simply needed more time. In years past, it flowered but never developed nuts. This year there are hundreds of nuts all of a sudden. I need to read up on when to harvest them and how to cure them. 

Another tree, which I had pretty much given up on, surprised me: the greengage plum. We have two plum trees - an Italian plum and a greengage plum. The Italian plum has been providing us with a good harvest for several years, but the greengage plum had not set a single fruit, despite growing tall and flowering. For whatever unknown reason, it decided that this was the year it was going to fruit. The plums are just ripe - and delicious. The greengage plum is a heritage fruit that many of us remember, but which you almost never find in the grocery store. I'm so happy ours has decided to bloom.

All the pear trees look pretty loaded (we have four - too many), but one in particular is so weighed down with hundreds of enormous pears that the tips of the branches are actually resting on the ground. I think it is the Comice pear - my favorite. They haven't started to fall yet, so I'll leave them be until they do. 

Our first day back happened to be a Friday, which is farmer's market day in Ferndale. Overly ambitious, perhaps, I bought enough green beans for canning and several pounds of pickling cucumbers and dill to start a crock of lacto-fermented pickles. 

I've already got the pickles going in a big glass container on the kitchen counter but the green beans will have to wait until I buy some new canning jars - tomorrow. I swear. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Yucatan Roadtrip

One of the main things I wanted to do during our six weeks in Mexico was take a significant roadtrip to see some Mayan ruins. 

Before Homero and I were married, we lived together in Oaxaca waiting for his fiancé visa to come through. My oldest daughter, Rowan, was seven. During that time, the three of us took an epic roadtrip. Among other places, we visited Palenque, one of the largest and best excavated Mayan cities in Mexico. Ever since I have wanted to go back and see more of the ancient Maya world. 

Mexico is bigger than you think. It is WAY bigger than google maps thinks. Google told us, as we were planing our trip, that Chichen Itza is a fifteen hour drive from Oaxaca. 

This is late night on day three of the roadtrip and we are still several hours short of Chichen Itza. Luckily, we landed in Campeche - a world heritage site and a beautiful place to spend a day or two recuperating from three days in a van with no air conditioning in July in the tropics. 

I had never heard of Campeche as a tourist destination, which only goes to show how much there is to see on Mexico. I'm not going to google it right now, but I think I remember reading that Mexico has more world heritage sites than any other single country. 

Campeche is on the south-eastern side
Of the Yucatan peninsula, and has a colorful history full of piracy, conquistadors, and indigenous uprisings. The city was completely walled in the 18th century after being repeatedly sacked and burned by pirates. These walls are largely intact, as are the eight watchtowers that punctuate them. At each watchtower is a small but impressive museum cataloging some aspect of Campeche history. We especially enjoyed the museum of Mayan architecture. 

The main city museum - a block away - is also worth a visit. It has a very modern aesthetic, and rounds out a slightly scant collection of artifacts with top-notch presentation. 

As Hope and I sat in the zocalo this evening - she playing guitar and attracting the attention of young Mexican males; I enjoying a good book and a spectacular sunset - we were startled by the abrupt start of a light-and-sound show projected on the facade of the governmental palace. I guess such things have been standard for a while now in European capitols, but I'd never seen one before. 

I'll try to post a video but internet is a bit spotty here in my otherwise world-class hotel. If you've seen one before, it needs no description, and if you haven't, than no description will suffice. It was a
Magic Lantern show, parading all
The attractions of the region. Jungle scenes - Spanish galleons fighting pirate frigates- aerial views of Mayan pyramids. All accompanied by typically too-loud music. I loved it. 

I can't stress enough how much I love Campeche -even as I recognize it has been cleaned up and sanitized for the high class European tourist crowd. It has just about everything - a beautiful centro historico; nice beaches; world class hotels at bargain prices (we are staying in an eighteenth century palace with high octane air conditioning); excellent seafood; and several large Mayan cities within easy day trip distance. 

The heat though. The fucking heat. There's just no way around that. Be prepared to sweat buckets. Carry - not water - but pedialyte. If you are tender of skin like me, bring not just a wide brimmed hat and the highest test sunscreen available, but also an umbrella for shade. Even so, be prepared. Know the symptoms of heatstroke and don't fuck around with the tropical sun. 

We had no air conditioning in the van, so we bought a five gallon bucket and a few bags of ice at every gas station we passed. In addition to eating it, we dipped our T-shirts in the ice water and put them on. 

Tomorrow we leave Campeche for Chichen Itza, and after that we will head back home by way of Chiapas. It's been a great trip so far. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ok in Oaxaca

My fears about finding Oaxaca in a state of anarchy were overblown. Yes, the zocalo is covered in tarps and tents, filled with teachers conducting a prolonged sit-in. 

And there is a whole new layer of protest graffiti covering the 500 year old walls of the downtown core:

And there is certainly a dearth of tourists, but on the whole Oaxaca is recognizable and functioning. 

There is a scarcity of a few things in town because of the blockades, but certainly no lack of basic foodstuffs. For example Homero wasn't able to find the right kind of hardware for a job he wanted to do at the house. He went to three different hardware stores and was told they hadn't had any new shipments in for a week or so because of the blockade on the road from Mexico City. Also, he tried to buy a case of Corona beer for a party and the store was all out - he had to settle for the greatly inferior Indio brand. Our in-laws who shop at Sam's club said there were some bare shelves. 

The mercados, however, still look like this: 

And you can still get a meal like this for a few dollars:

Our only concern is whether it would be wise to take a long roadtrip out of town, because there are still roadblocks in place on major highways and of course having an American in the car makes it all the more likely we would be shaken down. I'm not sure I want to risk not being able to get back into the city once we are outside of it. 

There's plenty to do here in town, though, and we are having a good time.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ill-Timed Harvest (Bowls of Cherries)

The cherry trees are loaded. The cherry harvest is nearly over, in fact - the cherries are early this year, as is all the fruit. We have been picking cherries off the low-hanging branches of our three cherry trees for a week or so. Today, though, it suddenly occurred to my husband that if we didn't pick the cherries - NOW! TODAY! - they would fall on the ground and be wasted while we are in Oaxaca. 

Waste is a cardinal sin in his moral universe, so he marshaled the troops and drove the Case loader into the orchard. He lifted the girls in the loader up to the higher branches and told them to get picking. Within an hour, they had brought some twenty pounds of cherries into the house. These are Rainiers, beautiful yellow cherries with a pink blush. Rainier are the most highly prized local cherry, commanding a premium at the grocery store. Myself, I actually prefer the black cherries like Bings. I think they have a deeper, more intense flavor. 

No matter how much we enjoy them, however, it's unlikely we will be able to eat twenty pounds of fresh cherries by tomorrow night. I haven't got the time to try and process them. I don't even know how to process fresh cherries, other than by pitting them and submerging them in a jar of 100 proof vodka. So I think we will simply eat as many as we can and send the rest to the compost pile. 

When we planned this trip, I knew we would be missing strawberry season and raspberry season, but I assumed we would be home before the blueberry harvest and certainly before the would blackberries were ripe. Now I don't know - the blueberry U-pick farms are open already and the blackberries are already in the hard green stage. We may miss berry season entirely. 

All the more reason to gorge ourselves on cherries right now. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Oaxaca Trip (Bad Timing)

It's been three full years since we returned from our year in Oaxaca (for more about that trip, see my sister blog, www.newtomexicanlife.blogspot.com). Three years is a long time in the girls' lives - they were children of eight and nine when we returned and now they are young ladies of eleven and twelve. Their memories of Oaxaca are hazy - especially Paloma's, who is the youngest - and their fluency in Spanish has taken a few giant leaps backward.
Therefore we were very happy to be able to plan a fairly long trip this summer - six weeks. We are supposed to leave on Friday. Back in February or March, there was a short period of time when airfare was very cheap. It was so cheap that we decided to fly all the way to Oaxaca, instead of flying to Mexico City and going the rest of the way by bus, as we usually do. Mama was ecstatic that we would be bringing her grand babies back to her, and the girls were delighted at the prospect of seeing their cousins. In fact, since they are so grown up now, we thought we would let the girls stay at Tia Temy's house with their cousins, and Homero and I would stay at Mama's house, fifteen minutes away by car. Maybe we'd even be able to get away for a three-or-four day trip, all by ourselves. 

Then this happened:
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Fires set by protesters to block the road

And this: 

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a truck carrying chickens set ablaze and used to blockade the highway

And this:

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civil unrest in Nochixtlan

The perennial dispute between the branch of the teacher's union known as section 22 and the federal government has once again flared into violence, as it has been doing every couple of years since at least 2006. This particular exacerbation is probably the worst since that time. Eight protestors have been killed by police, and there are fires and marches and blockades and rocks being thrown and molotov cocktails being tossed and batons swinging all over town.

Blockades are nothing new, and for the most part have been traditionally seen as nothing more than annoyances - inconvenient, yes, but a legitimate tactic nonetheless, like a strike. In fact I would venture to say that most Oaxacans view blockades and strikes with a kind of grudging admiration: "these people have guts" sort of thing. If it weren't for these people putting themselves on the line we'd all be ground under the heel of the imperialist oppressor. At worst, a blockade is met with a resigned shrug.

That changed, however, at least among the people I knew, a few years ago when the teacher's strike dragged on so long that schoolchildren missed almost a half a year of school. Those who could afford to sent their children to private schools. Those who couldn't do that had to miss work to care for kids or else leave them at home alone. Blockaders were so inflexible that a woman died in an ambulance that was not allowed to cross the blockade to the hospital. Tourism shrank away to nothing and many jobs were lost.

This time looks to be pretty bad. But it's so hard to judge without being there. A friend of mine who lives in the city center says that the blockades are so bad that grocery stores are running out of food. He said all he could buy at the local market was potatoes, yams, and cucumbers. Mama, on the other hand, just returned from a trip to Tuxtepec and said her bus had no trouble with blockades and that the stores in her neighborhood are perfectly well-stocked. She and my siblings-in-law are pooh-poohing the situation and say that we ought to come down as planned. In three days.

Here is a case where differing cultural expectations can be glaring. When I expressed concern to Homero that there might be a blockade on the road leading from the airport to the city, so that we might be stuck at the airport with no way to get to mama's house, he waved off my fears.

"The blockades are only stopping vehicles," he said. "you can walk around. It's only a few miles."

Somehow, the idea of attempting to traverse "a few miles" of terrain like that in these photos - a terrain littered with tire-fires, riot police, dead chickens, and rock-throwing youth does not inspire confidence. Especially when I imagine having to do it in 90 degree heat, with young children in tow,  dragging all our luggage. I know those Oaxaca highways and even at the best of times they are not suited to those little plastic suitcase wheels.

Thus far we have not been able to contact the airline. My brother suggested that given the situation, the airline would probably waive the change-date fees. Maybe - IF we could get ahold of a human. But really, what good would that do? Who knows when the situation will be any better? Homero spent an hour attempting to contact the customer service department of AreoMexico and only succeeded in soliciting the information (from a computerized voice) that the change-date fee is $250/ticket.

I think we will go. Nothing is ever as bad as it looks on the news.

But I'm bringing a carton of Cliff bars in my carryon.