How to even start with Oaxaca? Ben and Alex and I spent ten days there, and the trip feels too big to distill. I know I’d never thought about staying down here after service until I went. I know that I’d never seen a place as interesting or socially conscious or politically alert in this Republic.


I’ve got no coherent narrative or explanation, but I can piece together some vignettes.


Ben and I are sitting in a gloomy bar called La Cantina that will on following days evade us like the Room of Requirement. The air is close and the place is crowded for a football match. Every other table is twenty beers deep, bottles crowding empty cases underneath. Brews are ten pesos until six, but we’ll manage to pay more all three times we stop in.

A local, clearly plastered, bellies up to the bar and orders us two beers in jailhouse English. This is unwritten code—he’s bought twelve ounces worth of time to practice speaking with us. It’s always a bit of a press-gang situation, but he’s on Ben’s side, so I let him handle it and keep watching the game. After five minutes, the guy’s still there, and Ben and I pointedly empty our bottles and pay for the next two.

I try to get the attention of the guy’s friend, and I notice the first guy’s touching Ben. A lot. All over his pechos. He’s going on and on about his wife, which usually means he wants to make the gringo he’s hanging on his husband. After another sweaty five minutes, he ambles back to his table, shaking my hand through six or seven false starts before he goes. Ben and I get a few minutes of peace before he starts whistling from his stool. “That’s for us, isn’t it?” Ben asks.

“It’s for you, hombre.”


“He’s coming over.”

“No, come on, he isn’t right?”

“Hey guys,” he slurs, his hand sliding back onto Ben’s chest. He’s trying to make it look normal, like a hand on a shoulder, but it’s not. “You should come over, talk English, we practice.” He tries to look into Ben’s eyes, but my friend’s staring resolutely my way. “Bring a stool,” he says. “One stool,” he adds, caressing Ben’s tit again. He stumbles away. We look over at his table. There’s a very small gap between two sets of knees and sweaty dicks.

“Just one stool, Ben.” We pay our check.


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Being a Peace Corps Volunteer means getting sick. No matter the strength of your stomach, illness will strike early—at the least, and I mean the very least, you’ll have traveler’s. It’s your body’s way of announcing that you’re into a new gut biome and an in-country delicacy has brought a batch of local bacteria to roost. Traveler’s Diarrhea is mandatory and the slate of gastrointestinals explodes from there.

Mexico has what even Mexicans call Moctezuma’s Revenge, a catch-all for waterborne stomach ailments. We’re told that the source isn’t inadequate water treatment, as you might expect, but improperly sealed pipes that let in ground germs. Depending on where you live and how you get your water, it might be totally safe or liable to give you an amoeba infestation—hard to detect and dangerous—or giardia—usually from drawing your water downhill of someone else’s latrine, identifiable by crystal clear water jetting from where it oughtn’t. My potables seem safe here, so far, but anyone near standing bodies of the stuff is at risk for worms and other, larger gut parasites.

You know the kind

You know the kind

The Mega down in the city has a whole aisle for anti-parasitics, so I assume one or two volunteers have had to tangle with them. Beyond the named afflictions, all of us are familiar with the two-day bouts of crippling chorro that come and go like cramped and unwelcome ghosts in the night.

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I’ve eaten almost nothing but beans since the start of the month. An egg here and there, some cheese earlier along, tortillas to scoop them up with. But every meal, black beans. Hot beans, cold beans, mashed and refried beans. It’s been a long three weeks.


I keep a pretty Spartan larder in the best of times—with a small fridge and no storage space, it’s easier to pick up whatever I’m eating at the corner grocery on the way home.  And while my settling-in allowance served to furnish my unfurnished apartment (and mine came with neither sink nor toilet seat), it wasn’t large enough to buy an oven or a countertop or a decent knife once I’d gotten a bed and a fridge and a stove and all that. I made a kind of cupboard from old planks and crates from the market and I cut my vegetables on top of my refrigerator, but it’s not the same. I’d like to be baking the kind of fresh bread you can’t get here, but that’s out of my price range.

And tin cups without holes in them

As are mirrors

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The Good Shit’s at the End

So I’m sitting in my house again without any beautiful view to show you folks because I only manage to get down to this on weekdays when I get home from the office after dark. There’s just always stuff to do on the weekends and when there isn’t I tend to take naps and generally fart around or sometimes even get up to Peace Corps work, but in any case I just don’t sit down to write. And that’s a shame, because as Alex Guyton reminds me, the only cure for not writing is to write. That’ll come up again in a second.

I’m generally feeling pretty good nowadays that I’ve met some folks in town but especially because I’ve taken on a project. Everything you do for Peace Corps is a ‘project,’ somewhy, and unlike the Ecochavos, which irrevocably belong to Chava, this one is mine. Trey, the other guy volunteer in my site, and I are putting together an event for World Wetlands Day (it was the 2nd of February). I didn’t know there was one until a month ago, and we’re doing it for the Presa, the dam-created reservoir in town,  which doesn’t fall under what my understanding of what wetlands were, but it’s a Ramsar site, so it counts, and we’re providing the impetus for the event.

Here's a picture of a mural from the event because of course it's already happened

Here’s a picture of a mural from the event because of course it’s already happened

The first meeting we had was with the local juventud guy, the representative for the bit of the municipal government oriented at the youth. What he proposed, and what was the going plan for all of four days, was to have a rap contest. Hear me out. There are, apparently, in this town of ten-to-twelve thousand, four or five high school age rap groups, and we were thinking of inviting them and some others from the surrounding Sierra to come down and write songs about the Presa. For us to judge. As far as the juventud guy was concerned, this plan was not only plausible but easy.

These are the kids. They're who I do it for.

These are the kids. They’re who I do it for.

Chava wasn’t as enthused, and when I walked into the office the day after, the local turismo delegate was there with him coming up with an alternative plan. I was hesitant to bail on what already sounded like the Peace Corps’ most hilarious project, but they both started by yelling about how we’d put some more traditional bands on a floating platform in the lake and that just about sold me right off. I’m typing from the john now because, well, if you’re been following along you already know I spend a lot of time here. I always said that reading through these situations is what helped me kill my history syllabi in college, and I figure there’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to writing too.

So now we’ve got a floating concert, the expected participation of the municipal president, a mural series and a cleanup campaign all going on one day ahead of schedule so we can throw a Superbowl party with my host aunt the Sunday that’s the actual Wetlands Day.

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

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Strain Like Nobody’s Watching

Today I’m writing in the middle of our office planning meeting for 2014, so I won’t have a picture of the process live, but I’ll see if I can get a photo of the office I’m in because, well, it’s wicked.

I'm not using a typewriter

I’m not using a typewriter


I want to talk about shitting in Mexico. I’m going to be blunt here because nobody actually likes those cutsey litanies of euphemisms and because I already used some the last time I wrote on this subject. What, except for the time I spent eating in Leo J. O’Donovan Hall at Georgetown University, is normally a numbingly quotidian process has become a constant struggle.

There are a few facts that help explain. One—public bathrooms here are few and often very far between. Usually the best bet is inside a restaurant or a store, but often as not whichever little store you’ve picked doesn’t have its own john and you’ve bought a preemptive pack of gum for nothing.

Two—sure, there’s a bathroom at my house. It’s inside (I live in a detached bedroom), through the kitchen and somebody else’s bedroom, possessed of a lock that doesn’t. The door’s far enough from the seat of power that you can’t hold on when you’re sweating and struggling through what’s got to be done.

Three—there are no toilet seats in the Sierra; maybe in your house, but at work or anywhere else, you’ll be dealing with bare bowls. Since it’s always hot here, it will always be slippery, and unless you’ve got a truly expansive grip, you’ll be fighting a constant battle against the elements of buttsweat and gravity.

Hold on tight, baby

Hold on tight, baby

Four—there is a bathroom I can use in security, but only at night. It’s the neighbors’ and I’m allowed in when Doña Mari locks the house at ten pee em.

Five—in Mexico, you don’t throw the paper in the toilet. The pipes and the pressure aren’t up to it, so all sanitary paraphernalia head to the wastebasket. Which presents two dilemmas in public shitteries: if there’s no paper, you’re up a certain creek unless you’re packing (you should be packing), and if there is paper but not basket, you’ve got to decide if you’ve found the fabled full-powered porcelain or whether you’re one flush from dishonoring your host family, the Peace Corps, and the government of the United States.

These Ancien Regime folks, am I right

Courtesy of undocumentedfacts.blogspot.com

Some of this is my fault. I could man up, ignore how crowded my house is, get over my stage fright and the way that every one of the many toddlers around loves ripping that door open, no warning, and shit in my own house. Some of it, like the way that Doña Mari serves me so much food that it leaves me with sickness in the morning and labor in the afternoon, is not.

So I rely on the office. Sure there’s no seat and the window leaves it sweltering; sure the maintenance lady uses the Men’s like it’s her daytime lounge; sure, every once in a while we’re out of paper and I’ve got to buy; sure, sometimes there’s a rag in the bowl for God knows why, sitting there, inexplicable, unflushable, irretrievable, daring me, and I’ve got to run to the municipal shithouse behind the ATM which doesn’t have paper because of course it doesn’t have paper, just a basket full of brown journalism, so I’ve got to waddlerun back to the office and skip from foot to foot while I wait for Lolita to get through napping in there or whatever she does and I throw open the stall and I look that fucking rag right in the eye before I reach in and pluck it and find some stability in the slime and start to fight the fight I was born to.


Some Stay Dry and Others Feel the Pain

Writing in class today, so no photo. Sorry folks.

Let’s talk about Mexican food. I love Mexican food. Who doesn’t. In the US we’ve got more Tex Mex than pure Mex, but that’s at least a good starting point. Tacos, tortillas, tamales, we’ve got here. Burritos, we don’t. Our salsas are spicier, in general everything’s simpler (though that’s because Queretaro’s at the northern edge of the Mesoamerican zone. Further south gets more complicated, further north more American), and all the growing things are different. Maiz is the rule, and wheat flour, in tortillas or otherwise, is comparatively rare. Fruit holds a central role that you’ll never see north of the border, and the vegetables are all cactus bits and squash and flowers. It’s all a helluvalot healthier than the cheese-heavy stuff slung back home (though I’d be the last to cast aspersions on the American take).

To be fair, this is the epitome of food

Tequila and Corona we’ve got, but by and large the fluid situation’s got nothing to do with Mountain Dew Baja Fresh. I’ve been sucking down hot chocolate made from corn on the daily, local coffee to no end, water from those big blue bottles, and any number of ‘aguas frescas,’ which they squeeze out of every fruit and melon and vegetable that you can think of.

Jamaica or jicama, who knows

I usually don’t know what I’m drinking

There is, of course, a dark side, and you’d be surprised to know that they say ‘Venganza de Moctezuma’ down here too. For me, it started with the mole.

The Black Mole

Mole (mole-ayy) is an incredibly complicated little sauce you make by dicing and frying up peanuts and garlic and onions and three to four dozen other strong, spicy, chemically potent ingredients and then pureeing them all together for a couple hours. Afterwards, you submerge something like chicken in it, cook it a little more, and pour the meat and a gallon or so of the mole onto a plate. Let me be clear, mole is good. My mom’s mole is real good. And while there’s a certain nonchalance with which street venders treat concepts like cooking thoroughly, storing safely, and not transferring guttersludge directly from hand to taco, Natalia’s living at worst in the cleaner half of the last century, and I’ve got zero worries on that front. Like I said, it only started with the mole.

Natalia, mixed-message-sending sweetheart that she is, told me how good this mole was and how hard she worked on it right before she advised me that mole is ‘real heavy’ and ‘not good before bed.’ I gave her an “está bien” and an ‘I’m easy’ face, and she plunked down the fateful chicken breast and attendant deluge. There’s some artful foreshadowing.

The situation was clear by morning. I woke up nine and a half months pregnant with the feeling that the newborn’d be coming that day, but not before a good long labor. My dad took ill with kidney stones on a slow hospital night once, and while he was doped up and moaning, every doctor in the place stopped by to tell me he was as close to childbearing as a man could get. They might have been right painwise, but I’m sure his stones weren’t shadowboxing and crawling around the place. I’ll spare you the entire aftermath, but my similarly afflicted buddy B. invented the term lluvia negra, and it’s become common parlance in our little corner of the Corps.

THIS guy

This guy

My first bout with the Aztec emperor left me a week later and five pounds lighter but no less eager to be out and eating. When Natalia bought the first round of extra paper, she cut me off from anything that might ‘trouble the stomach,’ but I got back on the spice train as soon as I could. If we want to dig the street food, we’ve got to go a few rounds with the old king. Until then, we’ll be waltzing in the black rain.