"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to Make the Most Beautiful Pinata (Mexican Photos Part Two)

The pinata is the universal celebratory item, is it not? I don't know if the pinata is a purely Mexican invention that has spread around the world, or if the idea of the pinata is a kind of cultural universal (I suspect the latter) but in either case, a pinata is a lot of fun and a must-have item for all festive occasions.

My children broke seven pinatas on this trip. That's by their own count. I kind of lost track. Pinata making is a cottage industry in Mexico, and many is the family that makes its living with newspaper and paste. The sad little cardboard factory made things that pass for pinatas here in the states are pathetic by comparison, and I hate buying them. Pinatas in Mexico are truly works of art, even if most of them are based on Disney characters and one might question the tastefulness of beating the little mermaid to death with a stick.

My sister-in-law Temy and her children made the most beautiful pinata I have ever seen - with small help from us. It is in the form of a branch of grapes, and is molded on a clay pot and covered with blown, confetti stuffed eggs. If you count the time it takes to save up so many eggshells, this pinata must have taken months to make. I hope to make one myself someday, so I documented the process. This pinata is truly for those with the Martha Stewart gene, so be warned. But if you want to make the mothers of the friends of your five year old swoon with envy, make this for her birthday party. Just start four months ahead of time.

The girls covering the clay pot with strips of newspaper glued on with a paste made from water and cornstarch. Since you are unlikely to come across an unfired round clay pot here in the states (and may also wish to avoid the risk of concussion), mold your pinata base on a balloon.

For several months ahead of time, anytime you use an egg, be careful to crack it only at the top, preserving as much as possible the shell. Set the shells aside to dry. When you have about 150 of them, buy a bag full of confetti and fill the eggshells with a spoon.

Use small strips of newspaper and paste to cover the openings of the filled eggs. Set the covered eggs out in the sun to dry - this will take a few hours to a day, depending on solar availability in your area.
Turn the pot upside down - or, if using a balloon, cut off a small opening on the top for filling with candy. Then turn upside down. Roll a piece of thin cardboard into a cone and attach to the bottom of the pinata (the top, turned upside down - get it?) with newspaper and paste. Let dry completely. Poke four holes in the rim of the opening and run twine through in a cross pattern. This is to hang the pinata later. When eggs and pinata are dry, use a hot glue gun to attach the eggs, covered side in, to the pinata. Start at the tip of the cone and work your way down on a spiral, trying to cover the pinata as closely as possible. When all are attached and dry, carefully turn pinata right side up and hang with the twine outside somewhere.

Use spray paint to paint the pinata grape-colored. This pinata has leaves made of cardboard covered with green crepe-paper, which is a nice touch. The hardest part is transporting the pinata after it is filled, so if possible make and fill the pinata on the same site where it is to be broken. Once it is turned right side up and filled, a strong person has to hold it at arm's length so the eggs don't break until it can be strung up.

It feels like a damn shame to destroy such a beautiful, painstakingly constructed object. You will not want to. I didn't. But the children have so much fun, they are so delighted with the crash and the shower of confetti and the candy. And there is something both terrible and elating about the violent destruction of beauty, especially of a beautiful object that embodies so much time and effort.

Breaking this pinata is like a tiny lesson in mortality. In all endeavors, natural and artificial, complexity occurs slowly and with effort, but can and will inevitably be reduced in a relative instant. Breaking the pinata is ritually laughing in the face of death, a beautiful celebration of ending. To break the pinata is to bow to the inevitable, but to do so with grace and spirit and joy.

How very Mexican.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Mexico Photos Part One (Shout Out to Rowan)

The trip home was almost interminable - we were up at 5 am two days in a row - but is it finally over. We arrived back at the farm around two o'clock this afternoon, to some very excited dogs and other animals. Everybody is fine and healthy.

Rowan did an amazing job taking care of the place and deserves some public props. For almost three solid weeks she was fully and solely responsible for feeding the horses, goats, chickens, dogs, rabbits, and cat twice a day. For the first week we were gone, the hose was frozen solid and she had to haul warm water in buckets, a nasty job. She kept the house clean (or at least cleaned it before we got home) and even threw a Christmas party for a bunch of teenage friends without wrecking the place. She dropped us off at the airport (125 miles away) when we left and picked us up when we arrived home. She did a bang-up job, and I'm extremely proud of her. Thanks, sweetie.

According to my iPhone just now, I took 488 pictures while I was gone. This is what happens in the digital age, I guess. I am old enough to remember buying three or four rolls of film before a trip and being choosy about what I photographed. Nowadays everyone - including me - just walks around with a camera raised to their face pretty much all the time. This actually drives me batty, in much the same way that people breaking off a conversation in mid-sentence to answer their cell phones irks me, but I am nearly as guilty as everyone else, so I am ashamed to complain.

However, the compensation for seeing Mexico on a three by three inch screen is that I do, in fact, have a lot of very nice pictures. In the old days, I used to come home and eagerly develop my precious 36 frames, usually to discover that 22 of them were complete crap. I specialized in pictures of my own feet. Now, even though the crap:pleasant ratio is about the same, I have a lot more to sift through and can come up with a few pictures worth sharing.

Here are some of them, in no particular order:

Homero sitting on a wild horse. Not kidding. This was during our trip to Crecencio's village to deliver some gifts to his family (A Visit to La Mixteca Baja, Mixteca Trip Part Two, Take Three, Damnit!). The young man holding the horse's head actually went out into the hills and captured that horse, brought it home, and broke it and trained it himself. He is seventeen. The boy, not the horse.

On the way out to Crecencio's village, we stopped to visit the ex-covent of Yanhuitlan. Passing by, Temy, my sister-in-law, noticed it was open. She yelled "Stop!" Apparently, it is almost never open. It was well worth the delay. This enormous and beautiful temple-complex (I don't know what else to call it) was built in the mid sixteenth century by the Dominicans. Well, actually, as the caretaker told us, by six hundred native Mexicans working every day for twenty five years. I have my doubts about whether a single Dominican priest ever lifted a single stone. But breezing right by that (shall we) it is a place of extreme beauty. To be honest, now that I look at the above picture, I think it is probably not of Yanhuitlan at all, b ut instead of one of the apses in Santo Domingo in Oaxaca City. Hmm. So many beautiful churches in Oaxaca, they blend together after a while. But Yanhuitlan's beauty is austere, and Santo Domingo's is baroque. Well. Either way.

Ahem. Moving on. Below is a very ordinary, typical street scene in central Oaxaca. The streets are cobblestone; the buildings are stone or stuccoed adobe, still habitable and functional after five hundred years. The native stone that much of the city is made of is called cantera, and is usually a beautiful light green, though sometimes rosy pink as well. The building on the left is made of cantera. The small fountain in front is operational, and is a favorite place for young lovers to pass a few minutes "tortorleando." Literally: acting like lovebirds.

Below: street corner on the edge of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which is the main central market. Plenty of people still shop there for their daily goods, but it has largely become a tourist attraction. That is not to say, however, that you should pass it by if you happen to be in Oaxaca. By no means! Go! The market is a real experience. It may give you a migraine from the press of people, the competing music blaring from adjacent stalls, the mixed up smells of raw meat, rotting flowers, fresh herbs, copal, and sweat, but if you go to Oaxaca and miss the central market, you may as well not have gone.

Besides, the other option is the Mercado de Abastos, where the majority of city residents go when they want to shop (those that don't go to Wal-Mart, that is) and that place is scary as hell. The Mercado de Abastos is for professional adventurer tourists only. There you can hire a brujo to take a curse off of you, or get a pirated version of a movie that isn't even out in theaters yet, or buy anything from a live chicken to a pair of fake monolo blahniks, but you can also get lost irrevocably in the vast labyrinth of tarp-backed puestos, and I am here to tell you that that is not a fun experience. Once was enough for me: now I stick to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, touristy though it be. It's plenty colorful enough for me. Look below and you'll see.

Senora Maura's garden. Although her patio is very small - perhaps only 10 by 30 feet or so - she has managed to create a very serene and beautiful haven. The concrete walls are dusty pink, and dozens of terra cotta pots are planted with flowers and edibles. The two trees in the photo are a papaya (left) and a pomegranate (right). She also has a chayote vine (that's mirliton to you southerners) and a chile de arbol. A bird of paradise plant blooms along the other wall, and night blooming jasmine scents the evenings. It was a beautiful place to spend a few hours on a warm December night, chatting and drinking mezcal.

In my experience, if I may generalize, Mexicans have a gift for creating beauty in small, intimate spaces. As tourists, many Americans never have the opportunity to get behind the two-story wall of concrete that lines every Mexican street. From the perspective of a tourist, Mexican towns can seem loud, dirty, and claustrophobic. Those damn unbroken walls of cement! There are no sight-lines - all views are blocked by walls. The noise of unmuffled trucks and loudspeakers announcing God-knows-what at high decibels bounces back and forth against the concrete walls. The walls are decorated with spray paint, much of it artless graffiti or poorly drawn representations of Disney characters.

What the unlucky tourist may never know is that just on the other side of each of these walls is a shady, serene courtyard. Every home, no matter how humble, encloses a central space open to the sky. In the city center, the most gorgeous, expansive colonial homes may have three or more courtyards, gardens, fountains, balconies, trees - but none of that will be evident from the outside.

Mexico, somebody talking about sex once said, is not a prudish culture, but it is intensely private. I think that is true of its houses, as well. Homes which are closed up tight as an oyster yield lush, sensual hospitality once you are granted entrance. There are no people on earth as generous, as fun loving, and as welcoming as Mexicans - but you might not guess that from the impassive faces you see in the street. Mexico has a great poker face. But get it to crack a grin - and it's the most beautiful smile you've ever seen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Almost Over (Recreation)

This may have been the shortest three weeks ever. Oour time in Mexico just sped by, we were busy just about every day. Anyone who has moved far from home, but whose relatives mostly stayed put knows that a visit home isn't really a vacation. There are so many people to visit, and the holidays superimpose their own hectic schedule.

Christmas was nice. Homero's grandmother hosted. Abuelita Adelina doesn't know how old she is, having been born in a time and a place without birth certificates, but her oldest child is well into his seventies. Adelina has slowed down, of course, but she is still capable of getting up at six am and making enough tamales to feed a crowd. Dinner was tamales, roast chicken, a delicious and interesting potato/apple salad, and ponche. Ponche is basically a whole lor of fruit - mostly things we don't have at home and that I didn't even recognize, such as tecojote and ciruela and guayaba - thrown into a kettle with cinnamon sticks and boiled for a while. It was very good, especially with a little "piquete."

I used the children as an excuse to go home and go to bed around midnight, but of course the party went on. As it did in the streets all around us. Mexicans love fireworks, the bigger the bang the better they like them. It sounded like Christmas in Afghanistan until about three a.m. Oddly, I've become accustomed and can sleep through most of the fireworks, the packs of howling dogs, and the rediculously loud music. At home, I sleep with blackout curtains and ask everyone to please use headphones after eleven. I am only a few steps away from Michael Jackson, sleeping in a sensory deprivation tank. Truth is, I'd LOVE a sensory deprivation tank. Here, I guess I've acepted the fact that there is absolutely nothing to be done about the noise. I can make my own dog stop barking at home, but a chorus of raggedy ass Mexican street curs? Not likely. Pull the covers over your head and shut it out.

The weather has been pretty much delightful the entire time. The first couple of days was very hot - maybe 90? - and I wasn't careful. I took a long walk and didn't hydrate enough and ended up with the most massive migraine ever. I thought I was going to die, but luckily our resident physicians (my brother and sister in law) went to the pharmacy and brought back something that killed the migraine in fifteen minutes flat. I know the Spanish name but not the English name. I plan to bring some home, if I can. After the first few days, the weather has been terrific. Still hot enough to be aware you are in Mexico, but not can't-move hot.

Yesterday, Mama and I took all four little girls out to a water park some twenty miles out of town. It would be a small water park by US standards - it isn't a third the size of the birch bay waterslides, for example - but it was heaven for us. Three tall waterslides (even though one of them gave some pretty hefty electrical shocks when you first step in) and three pools for swimming. The air was hot and the water was cold and they sold beer and snacks and I had sunblock with me and it was great.

After the waterpark, we went to see some nearby ruins that Mama had never seen before. There are so many prehispanic ruins around here that only the largest, such as Monte Alban, ahve any kind of national or international name. The entire state is covered with medium and small ruins that were once towns or noble houses. This was a heavily populated area before Europeans arrived. The ruin we went to see is called Yagul, and was probably once a pretty good sized town. It has a very well preserved ball court and the remains of a rambling palace that they call the labyrinth. For good reason! We ran around the inside, up and down narow corridors, finding small courtyards and shouting to each other over the shoulder-high walls. we could see each other's heads, but we couldn't reach each other in the twisty passages. The children adored it.

Today we are having a quiet day, relaxing at home and sorting through our luggage preparatory to packing up. Later on this afternoon, we will take the children downtown and take a tour through the city botanical gardens, something I have meant to do on every visit but haven't yet. Tomorrow is our last full day here. We leave at 6 am thursday, first taking a six hour bus ride to Mexico City and then two flights home, with a two hour drive home from the airport on the other side.

I am ready to go home. I miss Rowan, my oldest, who stayed home to watch the farm. I miss the farm. I miss my dog and my goats. And my sister. Not necesarily in that order.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Honeymoon in Chiapas

Everyone should wait and have their honeymoon after they've been married several years. That's when you will need it. Think about it - before you get married, before you have kids, it's all honeymoon, all the time. A decade after the wedding, when you have two or three kids, a mortgage, jobs... when you have to squeeze making love in between putting the kids to bed and washing the dishes. In our case, we took our honeymoon for our tenth anniversary. It was supposed to be Hawaii, but well, here we are in Mexico again.

I don't miss Hawaii one bit. Someday I'll get there. For now, we had Chiapas. Alas, we only had three days. We could have easily spent a week. Ten years ago, Homero and I and then-seven-year-old Rowan took a week long car trip around parts of southern Mexico, including some of Chiapas. We went to Palenque, one of the largest and best excavated Mayan cities in Mexico. An amazing sight. On this trip, I had hoped to be able to visit another Mayan site, either Bonampak or Tonina. There just wasn't time. Even though new superhighways have sprung up all over Mexico, linking once remote places, the distances are just too great.

As a matter of fact, we spent most of our three day honeymoon driving. It took us eleven hours to get from Oaxaca to Chapa de Corzo, the small town on the banks of the river that runs through el canyon de sumidero. But we weren't hurrying. We stopped here and there to look at this and that, to eat, to take pictures. And we like driving, even on these incredibly mountainous, curvy roads, where every quarter mile there is a litle cross set up to show you where somebody plunged 500 feet to a grisly death. The views are awesome. Once again, I apologize for not having pictures up, but I still can't figure it out. When I get back home I'll put up all the photos at once.

One of the towns we passed, Matatlan, is famous as the world capitol of mescal. If you don't know what mescal is, the easiest way to describe it is as Tequila's countrified cousin. Both are distilled from fermented agave, but the name tequila is restricted to that produced from one species of agave and produced within a certain area, mostly, I think, the state of Jalisco. Oaxaca is where the greatest quantity and variety of mescal is made, and much of it is still made in small family run operations that produce mescal in small quantities, the old fashioned way. We stopped at one such operation, and watched the pit roasted agave hearts being crushed by a stone wheel driven by a donkey. The fermentation and the distillation all takes place on site. We bought a liter of mescal fresh from the still for 30 pesos, or about $2.50. Of course, the good stuff is aged in oak for three years or more, and we also bought a liter of that, for the rather more exorbitant price of 110 pesos, or about 9 bucks.

We packed a lot into our one full day of no driving. In the morning we took a tour through the canyon, which is narrow and very deep. At the deepest point, the walls tower 300 meters above the river. The walls are sheer, just about perfectly vertical, but nonetheless cactuses, aloes, orchids, and even trees grow out of the rock face. We saw four alligators. One of them was about three meters long.

After the tour, we jumped into the car and drove to San Cristobal de las Casas. This beautiful, colonial town has become too famous for it's own good. Fifteen years ago, it leapt onto the world stage as the home of the zapatistas, and ever since it has been inundated with tourists of every description, from well-meaning journalists and anthropologists to culture-vulture hippies and "extreme" adventure tourists. The houses, streets and churches are all as gorgeous as ever, but now you walk shoulder to shoulder with crowds of sightseers.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed it. The zolcalo was lit up for the holidays, and a marimba band was playing. We danced in the street alomg with several other couples. Homero bought us a ride in horse and carriage through the old streets, and the guide pointed out sights of interest. We ate pizza and bought a ridiculous number of tchatkes from tiny children in traditional clothing. It's hard to say no to a five year old selling painted clay animals for five pesos apiece, especially when said five year old has eyes the size of dessert plates.

Some ten miles outside of town there is a park, located in a pine forest (that tells you how high San Cristobal is, to have a pine forest in the tropics). In this park is the entrance to a limestone cave. It is a living cave, and there is a half mile long walkway built inside, with some few and far between lights strung up. They are nothing like the Oregon caves, for example, but still ´pretty impressive. I try never to miss a cave, wherever I am. I love caves. The entire lower half of Mexico is riddled with caves, and I'm sure this one goes on and on beyond the place where the walkway ends.

The next morning we drove back, again ambling along stopping here and there along the way. The children didn't miss us at all, says Mama. They had a wonderful time playing with their cousins and eating as much candy as they could stuff in their faces.They went to three posadas and broke three pinatas and stayed up till all hours. They are probably sad we are back.

Time flies. Less than a week left. Christmas is the day after tomorrow (they celebrate Christmas eve, not Christmas day). Then just a couple more days to pack, buy last minute gifts, and we,re off back home. I know Rowan has been taking excellent care of the place, but I´m still anxious. I want to see Rowan. I want to check out the animals. I want to cook in my own kitchen again. I'd even like some cold air - it's been above eighty every day here, and at night it cools down to about sixty.

More later.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Take Three, Damnit!

RRRRGH if i acidentally move the cursor I can't get it back it goes to the beginning of the post and I can't move it. Okay here we go I was takking about wild horses.

..... they are not truly wild but they know the touch of man on only two occasions - when they are caught and branded, and when (if) they are caught and brought to the village to be tamed. I was told, though I find it hard to believe, that a man will rope a horse and run it down and grab it by the ears and bring it to the ground. It's true they aren't very big - this one was about twelve hands, and small framed - and also that the men are ncredibly tough, but even so. I can't picture a man wrestling a horse the way they wrestle steer in the rodeo.

This teenager, however, was the absolute picture of an old fashioned Mexican charro. It was a real pleasure to watch him ride. He had a saddle - a gorgeous hand tooled leather saddle, and a bridle, but the bridle had no bit. It was pure neck reining. I have a photo but I can't upload it until I get home.

I also enjoyed seeing the harvest of corn laid out on the houses sroops to dry. The whole year's harvest was piled up in mounds to dry, and soon the people will seoarate the seed coen from the food corn and will twist the seed off the cob. It is very easy to do - I tried it, and also put a handful of seed in my purse. Next year I intend to see if criollo oaxacan corn will grow in northwest washington.

There is so much more to write, and I'm so frustrated with the limitations of this stupid keyboard. Tomorrow morning early Homero and I are off on our honeymoon trip. Three days in Chiapas. We are driving from here to Chiapas de Corzo, and then el canyon de sumidero. If we have time, I,d love to see Bonampak, but that deoends on how the children take to being left alone with abuelita and their aunt Temy.

More to follow!

Mixteca Trip Part Two

sorry about that folks, im trying to type this on a tablet and i haven't got the bugs worked out yet. I can't seem to go back and edit, so any mistakes i make will just have to stay.

ok, we arrived in San Pedro Nopala at about noon, and were greeted like kings and queens, with tamales and cold beers and wide, delighted smiles. The village itself is not one of the most pictaresque, but it is typical of the region, and the setting is gorgeous. It is nestled into a narrow valley among high, eroded hills, covered in scrub and scattered trees. The earth in that region is very strange, almost white. San Pedro Nopala has a small, stone church with a handsome courtyard planted with roses, and the streets climb the hills at alarming angles.

Up one of these steep hills we were welcomed into a traditional kitchen, separate from the rest of the house, with an open fireplace for cooking, on which a giant pot of tamales was bubbling away. About fifteen people were there to greet us, not counting the half dozen young children tumbling about. After distributing our gifts, we passed the time chatting and drinking beer while the children played outside. A teenage boy, younger brother of one kf our friends, arrived with his horse and gave the children turns sitting on it.

No ordinary horse, this was one of the wild horses that runs in the hills surrounding the village. I asked how many horses there were, and got a vague answer, maybe somewhere around a hundred. They are not exactly wild - there are no true wild horses in North America - but they are a free-running, free-breeding herd that knows the touch of man only on two

A Visit to La Mixteca Baja

Oh how annoying it is not to be able to upload photos! Bro, if you read this, please tell me again how to do it on my iphone. Doesn't blogger have an iphone app?

Yesterday we went on a daytrip to a tiny village in the mixteca baja region called San Pedro Nopala. Our good friend Crecencio is from there, as is his wife and cousins. When they heard we were going to Oaxaca this christmas, they asked us to bring gifts for their family. This always hapens, by the way. If you know any Mexicans and you are going anywhere in Mexico, expect to be regaled with backpacks and cellphones, jewelry and cameras and such to deliver to your friend's loved ones.

In our case, we were convinced to bring a backpack full of gifts and an electronic piano, which must have weighed a hundred pounds, in a hard case. The relatives would have sent someone to Oaxaca city to pick up the gifts, but Crecencio was excited for us to see his village and meet his parents. "If you think I can barbecue a g
oat, "he said, "wait until you try my father,s barbecue. No, hombre!"

About an hour north of Oaxaca, we turned off the autopista at Noxchtitlan. We stopped at an incredible ex convent that happened to be ooen at a place I can't remember, but it was pretty incredible. The caretaker there told us it was started in the year 1550 and that 600 men worked for 25 years to complete it. Six hundred poor indians, I thought, but did not say. And though I feel terrible for even thinking such a thing, it occurred to me that through force and torture had emerged a thing of eternal beauty and power. Though surely the means does not justify the end, I couldn,t help but marvel at the finished product.

We only got lost once on the way to the village, which lies some twelve kilometers off the paved road. We stopped and asked an old man resting next to his burro in the fields and he set us straight. As an aside, this particular trip was an eleven donkey trip. Whenever we go on a roadtrip in Mexico we count the donkeys we see by the side of the road. There are fewer now than there were a decade ago. When i first came to Oaxaca, this would surely have been a twenty donkey journey.
e a goat," he said, "Wait untik you have my father's barbecue. No, hombre, no hay nada asi."

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The trip took 22 hours, but we made it. Well, if you count from the time we left our house, it was more like thirty six hours. We picked up the girls from school on monday and drove down to my moms house, where she had prepared a beautiful Christmas dinner and gave us our present. A very nice present, this Zoom that I'm writing on. Its a little more limited than a laptop, and i haven't yet figured out how to put photos on the blog, so those will have to wait.

After our Christmas with mom, we drove to the airport and found the closest, cheapest hotel we could find, drew the curtains, and set the alarm for 4 am. Our flight left on time, at 6:00, and we had no trouble with security or anything else. However, we had a plane change in Dallas, and it was a very tight connection. In fact, the boarding time listed on our pass was five minutes after the landing time of the first flight! And I had never been in the Dallas airport before, but it is by far the biggest airport I've seen. Of course, the gates were as far apart as they could possibly be. There's a train, but even on the train it took a full ten miutes to get there. We arrived at the second gate sweaty and panting, but in time.

Landing in Mexico City, we were supposed to meet my brother and sister in law, who had driven up from Oaxaca to pick us up. That's a six hour drive. As my sister said, when I told her, "That's like driving from Bellingham to Eugene Oregon to pick someone up at the airport!" Yep. That's what Mexican families do.

However, we couldn't find them. We spent a very nervous half hour sitting on our luggage in the main terminal and fending off offers of "aid'" while trying to decide what to do if they didn't show. Find a hotel and stay overnight? Rent a car? Try and get a bus? We couldn't make our cell phones work and no-one was answering the house phone. Homero was more worried than I was, I figured they were waiting at a different door somewhere. As it turned out, they were circling the airport to avoid having to park and stopping in to check each time they came around to the loading zone. And they found us before actual panic set in.

By the time we got outside of the city, it was sunset, and we had a gorgeous view of the two mountains, Popocateptl and the other one that looks like a sleeping lady, pink and glowing in the hazy late afternoon sky. The drive was long, but enlived by lots of happy talk and gossip, and the batteries on the Zoom held out so the kids were okay, and we arrived at Abuelita's house about half past midnight.

Of course Abuelita had food and cold beers waiting for us, and after we carried the children to bed we stayed up talking and eating and drinking until about two in the morning. Then we fell inro bed and slept like the dead unril noon the next day.

I hope I can figure out how to add pictures from here. If not, I will add them when I get home. We have so many great things planned. Homero and I are going on a short honeymoon for our tenth anniversary to el Canyon de Sumidero (google it, it's gorgeous). Our goat butchering friend Crecencio is from a small village not far from here, and we are going there to bring his family some gifts he sent with us and to attend - what else - a goat barbecue feast in our welcome. That is sure to be interesting.

It being Christmas, there are all sorts of things gojng on in the centro - parties, concerts, shows and displays, church processions, posadas, and of course the night of the radishes. Three weeks seems like a long time but it really isn't. Not when there is so much to do! More later, it isn't very east typing on this zoom thingy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Speed Christmas (I've Doubled my Trouble)

In my last post, in which I described a few Mexican Christmas traditions I was looking forward to on our vacation this year, I mentioned that I was relieved to not have to participate, this year, in the frenetic endurance test that is the modern American Christmas.

Ha ha ha, and of course, Ho Ho Ho.

Opting out of Christmas is not an option, even if you will be out of the country. In fact, planning to be out of the country only increases the Christmas related stress, because all your relatives will insist on having a pre-Christmas Christmas with you before you go. At least, that is what happened in my family. So I still had to make, buy, or otherwise scrounge gifts for everyone while simultaneously trying to organize and pack for a three week trip. And wrap them, because there is no greater shame, in my family, than handing over a gift - no matter how expensive or thoughtfully picked out - in a plastic bag. So the annual rummaging-through-of-the-drawers for scissors and scotch tape was held as usual.

Then my children, who are in the prime Christmas years of their lives, being eight and six, became alarmed that they were going to miss out on things like a live Christmas tree and visiting Santa. For some reason, regaling them with tales about the joys of midnight mass did not relieve their longings. While I wasn't going to buy and decorate a real live tree, I decided to resurrect a tradition we had when we lived in the city and had no room to plant a Christmas tree every year. I went down to the Learning Store and bought some thirty feet of green butcher paper, cut it into tree shapes, and the kids and I decorated them with potato stamps and glitter glue. Then we taped them to the walls to make a Christmas tree forest.

Last weekend, we attended an annual event that we enjoy very much - Old Time Christmas at Pioneer Park in Ferndale (City of Ferndale - Parks - Pioneer Park). Pioneer Park is one of the coolest parks around - the city has moved some fifteen original pioneer homes to the park and furnished them with authentic period furnishings - everything from stoves to bedsteads and quilts. In the summer, you can tour the homes with a docent guide for the measly sum of $3 per adult and $1 per child, the best bargain in the county. The park is closed in winter, except for one weekend in December, when the cabins are all decked out in Christmas decorations, there are activities and crafts for the children, and Santa is there to hear your child's wishes. You can even take pictures - for free.

I wouldn't miss old time Christmas at Pioneer Park for a stocking full of bourbon and cash. The kids loved it.

But Christmas before Christmas wasn't over yet. Hope wanted to have a Christmas themed slumber party before we left. Frankly, I just couldn't face that idea, so I haggled her down to a Christmas cookie decorating party. That was today - thank God for sugar cookie dough in a tube is all I can say. I had six children over and we decorated about a thousand cookies. Even now, some four hours later, my kids are buzzing around the ceiling on a sugar-cookie and purple frosting high.

But at least I have something to leave in the neighbor's mailboxes before we go. Green angel with pumpkin seed wings, anybody? Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas in Oaxaca

We are leaving for Oaxaca in one week. I have done exactly nothing to get ready. That, however, is a story for another post. Today I would like to inform you all of a few lovely Christmas Season traditions that I am looking forward to. Firstly, I am delighted that the Christmas consumerism we all love to abhor has yet to take hold in Mexico. There really is no tradition of gift giving on Christmas. A couple of weeks later, on Three Kings Day (Epiphany), small token gifts are given to children only.

Given that there are also no Christmas trees or Christmas lights, one might be forgiven for wondering just what Mexicans actually DO for Christmas. Well - and I know this going to be hard to believe - for most Mexicans, Christmas is still a religious holiday. They celebrate the birth of Jesus by following the biblical story. The major ritual that Mexicans enjoy is that of Las Posadas.
Beginning on December 16th, various houses in a given parish will host the nativity. The manger scene is set up in the first home, and then people dressed as Mary and Joseph will proceed from the church to that home, stopping at other homes along the way to sing songs and ask for lodging. They will, according to the script, be denied until they reach the home where the nativity scene is. Of course, as they journey through the streets, they acquire a long train of local families and children who follow along with lit candles and join in the singing.

At the appointed home, the entire train is finally allowed entry, and there is a party with hot drinks and snacks, and perhaps a pinata for the children. This happy scene is repeated at a different home every night until the 24th, when the creche is installed back at the church. The holy family arrives at the church at midnight on Christmas eve, and midnight Mass is spoken.

After THAT, most families go home and have a feast in the wee hours of the morning. The children drop where they may and are carried to bed. On Christmas day everyone sleeps until mid afternoon, which may be a source of envy for American parents whose children wake them up at first light, even if they have to stab them with forks.

Another picturesque tradition, this one unique to Oaxaca, is la noche de los rabanos, or "the night of the radishes." About one hundred and fifty years ago, there began a tradition in Oaxaca of people creating nativity scenes out of various local materials such as dried flowers and straw and displaying them in the zocalo, or main square. The most unusual such material was the giant Mexican radish: a truly gargantuan root that can be as big as a man's leg.

Over the years, local folks have taken this tradition to astonishing extremes, comparable, perhaps, to the fanciful, enormous gingerbread houses created and displayed in the states. For two nights, the 23rd and 24th of December, thousands of people crowd into the zocalo to see the amazing displays made out of radishes.

Some of these displays are really incredible: scale models of the city cathedral; troupes of dancers in native costumes; beloved religious icons.

I am looking forward to Christmas in Oaxaca. Christmas in America is the 800 pound gorilla of holidays - the holiday which must be appeased. For many of us, a great deal of the joy has been leached out, as we run ourselves ragged and spend more than we can afford to give our children an experience which we secretly doubt is even valuable at all. I cannot, for example, bring myself to entirely "deprive" my children of Christmas as they know it - we will be hanging stockings in Abuelita's house, and Santa will stuff those stockings. But I hope and expect that my kids will enjoy Christmas as it is practiced there. That they will experience the kind of joy in family and giving that we give lip service to up here.

Here are a few links to other posts about our trips to Oaxaca, both at Christmas and at other times.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Unwelcome Drama in the Goat Breeding Business

For the last two years, breeding my goats was very easy: I had my own buck. Storm Cloud was handsome and healthy, but alas, as with all bucks, his usefulness was only a couple of seasons long (The King Must Die (Goat Breeding and Divine Kingship)). This year I had to look for a buck.

I started out with high hopes - I advertised for a spotted purebred Nubian. Weeks and weeks went by, and no responses, except for one. I lowered my standards and simply looked for a Nubian. Same thing - no responses except for the same one. A problematic response. A response from a person I know, and would rather not work with.

D* is a local, small scale goat breeder. She is, in fact, the first goat breeder I met up here, and she was very helpful, giving me tips on general care such as hoof trimming and which worming medicines were most effective for local parasites. I was grateful. However, it didn't take me long to take a rather sharp dislike to her. I didn't like the way she spoke to her toddler child. I didn't like the way she vigorously badmouthed other local goat folks, people I didn't know. When I visited her home, to bring her a gift for her new baby, I was truly shocked by the conditions she was living in - not just squalid but actively dangerous for small children. And as time went on and I did meet other goat folks, I learned that everyone who has had dealings with her has had serious troubles.

I can't give too many specifics without identifying her, which I do not want to do, but various people told me of dealings with her that resulted in hard feelings, at best, and police involvement, at worst. I also heard that the Humane Society had removed some of her animals. You can see why I would prefer to have my does bred by somebody else's buck.

But I just wasn't finding one! A few people called me with bucks of other breeds on offer, but D*'s was the only Nubian available. Time went by, and I realized that if I wanted to breed my does to a Nubian buck this year, I would have to see D*.

There were immediate issues, but mostly minor annoyances. She insisted on current CAE and CL tests for all of my does (reasonable) but when asked for test results on her buck, she couldn't provide any. We talked about my boarding her buck for a few weeks to impregnate all the does at once (my preference), but I ended up transporting my does to her. She wanted to charge me a $3/day boarding fee for my does, plus a few bales of hay, but when we were talking about my boarding her buck there was no talk of her providing hay. In fact, she wanted to charge me a $10 transport fee, each way!

I ignored all this, because I really wanted my does bred, and the buck was actually quite handsome. Black and white spots, tall and big bodied, just what I was looking for. I brought over three of the four does (the fourth was waiting on test results - which cost me $48). All went well on the first go round, and I brought my does home after about a week. D* was paid the full stud fee for the three does, although of course we didn't know yet if they were actually pregnant.

Just a few days ago, I called D* to schedule bringing over my fourth doe, along with one of the original three, who was showing signs of heat, which would mean she wasn't pregnant. D* told me to bring them by anytime, but that the buck I had used before was no longer available and I would have to use her junior, unproven buck. Turns out, that first buck wasn't even hers, she was boarding him for someone else.

"Um, okay," I said. "That's not what I was expecting. How about a price break on the stud fee?"

"No," she said, "I'm already discounting the fee for multiple does. Take it or leave it. And bring some more hay."

I was pretty pissed off at this point. I felt that D* was trying to gouge me at every turn, and also that it was pretty duplicitous to collect stud fees on a buck that wasn't even yours... although of course I don't know what agreement she might have had with the buck's actual owner. However - it was now December, and goat breeding season is drawing to a close. I really wanted this particular doe bred, because she is a first freshener and already a little old for it. Also she is Storm Cloud's offspring, the only blood of his I have on the farm, and a spectacularly gorgeous animal. I don't want to wait another year and a half to see what she produces.

So I brought the goats. D* wasn't home, but she had told me where to leave them, and I did. I also brought a full bale of hay. The string on the hay broke as I was trying to unload it, and so I had to move it in several armloads, which I piled up on in the barn next to the rest of their hay. Then I went home.

A few hours later, I got an e-mail. It said "You have to either bring me more hay or pick up your goats tomorrow. This amount will not compensate me for my time and labor." Immediately following, there was a second e-mail: "disregard first message. Come get your goats now, we don't want them here."

Well. The woman clearly has issues. Anyone who so consistently creates chaos and strife in all their relationships is more to be pitied than hated. I say that now, after a few days cooling off time. In the heat of the moment, I was furious. I'm afraid I have to admit to firing back a long and ungracious e-mail, in which I told her some of the things I've heard about her in the past, and how I should have listened to those people and stayed far away. I am definitely not proud of sending that e-mail - I should have just shut up, collected my goats, and chalked it up to experience.

Also, as my sister told me, it wasn't very smart to send that e-mail while she still had physical possession of my goats. In any case, we got our goats back without difficulty. I told Homero I wanted him to come with me, just in case there were problems. There weren't: D* didn't come out of her trailer. The goats are back home, still unserviced, and I still have no leads on a Nubian buck.

But I have learned a lesson. I hate gossip with a passion, which is probably why I disregarded so many stories about D*. But when three or more people have similar stories to tell about an individual, maybe it isn't just gossip. Maybe it's worth a little caution. At least, in my case, there was no harm done and no police involvement! I'm counting my blessings.