Oaxaca

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.

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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.”

“Fuck.”

“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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Libre

Oh yea. The time has come.

Oh yea. It’s time

Crystal Passion minces and flits around the ring in a thong leotard with along white tassels and a blonde wig, and it’s a performance so ridiculous that I think it must be satire—’this is what an ignorant making fun of a cross-dresser would look like.’ The emcee screams, “He’s gay!” Which is a conclusion the alternately laughing and jeering crowd has already come to. Passion is big, muscly, and what looks around two-fifty, and although the suplexes and slaps are there, the main attacks seem to be nonconsensual kisses and a generalized threatening-with-gayness.

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This is lucha libre.

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The Feria

The feria is on here in Jalpan, and it’s the best one there’s been in a while. This is an election year, and it’s the last chance for the outgoing municipal government to do things up big—whether or not the pesos could have been better spent elsewhere.

It’s something like what I imagine a small-town fair might have been in yesteryear in the US. Carnival rides, music venues, and half a hundred small eateries and bars cover our big soccer field-rodeo complex (my favorite bar name so far is Alcoholegio, something like Alcohollege; they’re ersatz establishments and they get to re-do the nomenclature every year).

I’m told the musical lineup is great, and there’s a concert every night, from older-timey Recodo:

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Through stoner-rap band Cartel de Santa:

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To the huge banda act Kommander:

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To the lucha libre fight than ends proceedings this Sunday.

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Team Player

I’m out in broad, broad daylight today, typing on the back of my Peace Corps medical forms for want of paper. It’s only the middle of February and the sun already feels as hot as it ever did in DC. A volunteer named Danny in Xichú has been telling me about the heat in full summer, and it’s pure horrorshow. Weeks where it tops 125 every day, where people get heatstroke in the shade, and nights where everyone shows up to mill around the jardín because it’s over 90 in the dark and even the natives can’t rest easy. I’m pulling my normal shirtless routine but I might have to modify because it feels like I’m already lobstering up.

Hot as gooch

Hot as all get out

I played baseball for a long time. Every year from pre-k through ninth grade, all four years in China. I loved baseball, even if I was never really good enough to play past Freshman year. I still love it, and I miss playing. I loved being on a team, going to practice, playing catch and pepper with Dad, chewing sunflower seeds and shooting the shit in the dugout. But if I thought about it, I’d have to say that there were precious few times I enjoyed the game while I was in it. In the field or at bat I was too goddamned nervous. Dad used to say that you had to want the ball, to hope it was coming to you ever single play, to see it lined out to you and imagine yourself fielding it, pitched and hitting it. As far as I recall, it didn’t matter how well I was playing on the day. I always sweated it. I remember making a sprinting, diving catch in left to end and inning, and I remember that as soon as I trotted back out there I kept on praying not to see another ball for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until eighth grade that I got comfortable in the box, and that was only because I’d figured out that I could piss pitchers off by being slow as anything and toeing up to the plate, and between the two I could count on getting hit or winging a grounder between the third baseman’s legs a good bit of the time.

I’m bringing up baseball because it’s more or less the same way I feel about my kids.

I do it for them

These kids

I’ve got a group of Ecochavos for myself in the secondary school here (something like junior high, 12-15). I’m the same way about them as I was about baseball. I love having them, seeing them around town, doing the slap-bump that passes for a handshake among young people. I even love working with them when we’ve got a definite project to do.

Not the guy

Like this mural

But when I’m with Chava and he’s monologuing in his indefatigable way, I’m sitting four feet off third again, paying rapt attention and hoping like hell that he doesn’t hit it up the baseline. It’s all the same insecurities that it used to be. Worrying that my Spanish isn’t up to task, that I’m not well enough prepared, that if I fuck up I’m letting the whole team down.

There’s nothing for to exorcise my anxieties, as far as I can see. I’ve been playing with the same lineup since long before anybody’s supposed to think like Woody Allen talks. In the end I loved baseball and I’m glad that Dad didn’t hold with any of my fucking around and always got me out there. And that he went to all my games, even when some coaches with issues of their own benched me through fifth and sixth grade in Catholic school. I don’t know if that means the things that make me the most nervous also make me the most happy. The thesis checks out for girls and dancing. Ditto, so far, the Peace Corps.

Ten steps from buying a skydive ticket on a dirty sidestreet in Prague,  I decided that if I managed to do some cool stuff, I’d probably have made some kind of life, even if I went bug eyed and slippery palmed along the way. So far, maybe, so good.

 

Dance like there’s People Around

Well, inside today. The winter I mentioned a couple of posts ago has lasted through vacation and I can more than see my breath in my house, even after running the stove for 90 minutes making stew. When the sun’s out in Jalpan, it’s obnoxiously hot and when it’s cloudy it’s goddamned frigid. I haven’t seen the sun in three weeks. Like I think I’ve mentioned, there’s no indoor heating here, so it’s cold everywhere when it’s cold anywhere. Trey and I have taken to wearing our hobo cutoff gloves at work because it’s the only way we can keep our hands warm enough to type. Anyway, let’s keep catching up on Christmas.

This would be the view if I were outside and there was blessed warming light

This would be the view if I were outside and there was blessed warming light

The day itself here isn’t quite as important as back home; the general sense of festivity starts on the 12th, which is the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and it continues all the way to yesterday (at the time I wrote this), the 6th of January, the Day of Kings (specifically the three of the nativity story). Christmas Eve is the bigger date, at least in Jalpan, and it was definitely more eventful for us volunteers. I spent most of the day running around trying to get presents for Trey and Janessa (a bottle of Jack and a coffee-maker, respectively) and pecans to make pie with later in the week. Pecans are one of the few things in Mexico that would qualify as expensive in the United States, but both Trey and I felt like since we hadn’t made one for Thanksgiving, I’d have to put one together this time around.

After that was all done, I went to a rosary prayer service at Trey and Janessa’s Mom (Lupe)’s house for her more-or-less recently deceased mother. After that was mass and then we got down to the spiked ponche (pretty much like our punch with different fruit), spiked coffee, spiked fruit tea, and an asada, which is like any American cookout if you had it on the 24th of December.

Lupe introduced (and shoved me bodily into) her daughter Monica, back from college, earlier in the day, and we ended up getting tapped to rock the infant Jesus for awhile in a ritual I wasn’t curious enough to inquire after (when we did later, we got the answer we should have expected—’you rock him because he’s a baby, obviously‘).

Right, of course, why'd I even ask

Right, of course, why’d I even ask

After the meat and tortillas ran out, we headed for the plaza for what was supposed to be all night huapango.

I spent most of my time during this bit running around with Monica getting more punch and meeting her friends and just generally getting dragged by the wrist (in the friendliest of ways). She’s just as excited and energetic as her mom (although Lupe says ‘loca’ for them both), and I think it would be pretty fair to say that after two weeks, she’s one of my better friends here, for all that she’s back in Toluca in Mexico State now. Which I’m all the more happy about because she’s got virtually no English.

Friend!

Top left. Moving on up.

Anyway, after a bit of running around, we abandoned the other Americans to go hang out on top of a hill with a few of her friends, and when it got too absolutely frigidly cold, we headed back to listen to Zeppelin and Macklemore in her older friend’s psychology consultorium. You know, how people do.

A few days later there was a town dance for the paisanos. Paisano can mean a few different things, but in Jalpan it refers to all the guys who work in the States and come back for the holidays. They all meet up at the border and they caravan down with a government escort through the rougher northern states, and when they get here, the town throws three different parties. The 28th is the Día del Paisano and there’s a parade where all the caravaners drive through town in their trucks and that night we have a big old dance.

These are the kinds of things that Northerners imagine they have in small town West Texas. Everybody shows up in cowboy hats and their best Levis and plaid with giant belt buckles and rodeo boots, and they all crowd into the giant basketball court outside the auditorium and dance and buy six-packs and carouse until four or five in the morning. As long as I’ve got some local friends to go with, I’m in love with these things. Huapango’s easy enough to fake, and banda and cumbia are simple enough to dance if you don’t get too ambitious with the spins, and either I’ve gotten to be a better dancer than I remember or folks are just happy to have a turn with the newer gringo in town, so I’ve no problem finding partners inside of our high-school-style dance circle or out.

So Monica and the friends and the other volunteers and I went over to her house and got the culturally appropriate amount of lit and then we headed for the dance, plaid and all. We danced, those of you who know me won’t believe, until five in the morning, turning and stepping and jigging and trading partners and spinning and even knocking down a square dance to the tune of Achey Breakey Heart that’s as obligatory as the Cupid Shuffle used to be.

Friends, these people are as warmhearted and welcoming as everyone in the South pretends to be, and I’m having one hell of a time.

Still sitting on this bucket though.