Monday, March 30, 2015

A Very Busy Oaxaca Weekend

glyph at Monte Albán
My brother is only visiting for one weekend so it was a very busy one. He has never been to Mexico before and he has a passion for photography so we decided to visit Monte Albán, a nearby archeological site. Monte Albán was inhabited by Zapotecs in the 7th century B.C., abandoned and then taken over by the Mixtecs who were conquered by the Aztecs. When Cortez arrived in 1519, the Mixtecs were vassals and paid tribute to the Aztecs. Monte Albán was discovered in the early part of the 20th century and is an important early MesoAmerican site.
The Zapotecs were one of the earliest civilizations in the Americas.
This is the third time that I have visited Monte Albán.  The other times, I have taken a tourist bus that costs about 200 pesos and visits  the artisan workshops. Saturday, we chose to go directly to Monte Albán to take advantage of the early light. We paid 35 pesos return and travelled up with the guides and the vendors.
The Fería del Tejate at Huyapam
On Sunday, we were invited for tamales at the home of some American ex-pats who living in the nearby village of Huayapam. The young woman that we sponsored lives in their guest-house when she returns from her teaching job in the mountains. Sunday was the Fería del Tejate when the village population more than doubles as vendors come from all over the state to sell their special tejate, a pre-hispanic drink made of flowers, cornmeal and fruit.

It was so fascinating to see all the different tejates and the colourful costumes of the vendors. Unfortunately, I have tried tejate before and I'm really not that much of a fan.
Beto, Mari and me
We were fortunate to have a visit in a beautiful home in Huayapam. The couple that we visited left their life in New York to live in Oaxaca. They travel for a few months of the year but Oaxaca is their home now. Mari, who is from a small pueblo in the mountains, was introduced to this couple through the
Oaxaca Learning Center who coordinated the funding and support that enabled her to attend Teachers'
College. The state of Oaxaca struggles with a shortage of trained teachers, as in the past, teaching jobs 
were passed down through families. Very powerful unions protect the teachers' positions but it is truly 
the students who suffer. With trained indigenous teachers, the rural students stand a better chance at success. My sister and I, who provided  money for  living stipend and school supplies, received a letter 
each month during Mari's studies. It was interesting to compare teacher training in Mexico with that in Canada.
palm crucifix
Yesterday was Palm Sunday. The last three years, I have spent Holy Week in Paris. There are processions and free music in many churches. In Oaxaca, everyone was selling ramas, palm decorations.  I resisted for a while but finally, I bought this palm of Jesus on the cross. 

It was such a busy weekend that I am very slow getting started this Monday morning but the
bookshelves are calling and brother only has a few days.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Rentals:Oaxaca and Paris

During the last three years, I have rented 4 apartments in Paris, 2 apartments in Oaxaca and 3 casitas in Tucson. Locating the apartments and negotiating prices is definitely part of the adventure.  There is not such a large rental inventory in Oaxaca because "snowbirds" return every year to the same "nests". A lady that I met from Victoria rents her Oaxaca "home" all year even though she returns to Canada for 6 months. For this reason, I am spending a month at the Casa Peyrera before I move to the Learning Center.
There are brightly coloured ornaments in the patios at Casa Peyrera.

I originally researched Oaxaca about six years ago when I was still working. All of my life, I have wanted to experience different cultures. I had trained as an English as a Second Language teacher in the 1980's as a means of achieving my long-term goal. Little did I know in the early 1980's that the Vancouver area would have such an enormous influx of immigrants. In 2010, I discovered the Oaxaca Learning Center apartment where I stayed for two summer vacations. 

In order to rent an apartment in Paris, I have had to use rental agencies. I tried a private rental once but the deal "fell through". In 2012, I was planning to study in Paris for 5 months. Location was important to me and I knew that I would be having a few visitors. I located my "perfect" apartment on Rue St Jacques close to Reid Hall where I would be studying. This would be my most expensive apartment at 2100 euros a month. Fortunately, the Canadian dollar was worth more 3 years ago because today the cost would be $2850 Canadian a month!
This was a lovely bright apartment with a place for me to study.
Only one of the apartments that I rented in Paris included regular cleaning in the rental price. Romantique, located in Montmartre, was a beautifully decorated apartment, that I found through VRBO. The owner was easy to deal with and the apartment was cleaned and the bed linens were changed weekly.
Last year, I did laundry in Paris.
I do feel that, with long-term rentals, cleaning and fresh  bed linens and towels should be provided. A long-term tenant means fewer financial transactions, fewer communications and fewer cleanings. In Oaxaca, Sofia, spends 2 hours cleaning my apartment every week. When I move, next week, I will leave her a tip for all of her thoughtfulness. A bed was set up downstairs for my brother who also was given his own keys and clean towels.

The rental market in Oaxaca is busy from November to March because of "snowbirds". The couple from Chicago who have been in The Learning Center apartment have already booked for two months next year. Here, in Casa  Peyrera, I am paying $1200US but I will only be paying $800US at the Center. That rental fee has not gone up since I was here five years ago.

Locating long-term rental properties is always a bit stressful. I have had nightmares of entry codes that might fail and late-appearing property managers. There is nothing like sitting in front of an unknown building in a foreign country waiting for a stranger to let you in. But so far, I have enjoyed the adventure of each temporary "nest".

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Oaxaca Living:Food

mole negro, fresh salsa and guacamole
One of the reasons that I chose to spend the spring in  Oaxaca this year was cost. This is my fourth year of travel and I need to consider the lower value of the Canadian dollar. In Oaxaca, I can live well for very little money. In fact, unless I buy something exceptional, my costs are averaging about $30 Canadian a day. This does not include my rent but I am eating in lovely restaurants and choosing healthy food.
un omelette saludable (healthy)
In Oaxaca, the middle class people (for those are the people who eat in restaurants) have coffee and a light snack upon rising. I have some yogurt or a multigrain bar in my apartment. Desayunos (breakfast) in a restaurant is served until 2:00 pm and involves, meat, beans, tortillas, cheese, eggs and fruit with optional sweet rolls, juice, coffee or the regional hot chocolate. I usually skip this meal but on week-ends, it is fun to watch families sharing desayunos. If you look, there are healthy options. My omelette,
with unlimited coffee and fresh grapefruit juice cost under $10.
The restaurant is beautifully decorated with flowers, paintings and springtime cutout banners.
The restaurants that I choose are all nicely decorated with bright colours. They are excellent spots to watch people or quietly read my book as I wait. Many of the waiters in Oaxaca speak English as they have worked in the United States. Since there were few jobs in Oaxaca, many left but have returned and  outside many restaurants, shops and bakeries, there are signs seeking employees. Remember the minimum wage is 66 pesos (less than $5 a day).  My omelette cost 85 pesos.
fresh citrus salad with zucchini flowers
Although it has just started to rain a little. Oaxaca usually is dry from November until April. I don't see greenhouses anywhere so the greens and fish that I tend to order must be trucked in. So much for  the 100 Miles Diet.The zucchini flowers are served with just about every dish here so they must be local.
fresh salmon with salsa and vegetables
The coast is about 5 hours away by road that winds through the Sierra Madre Mountains so my salmon,probably imported from Chile, is one of the more expensive dishes. I eat fish at least once a week and it is always prepared with fresh salsa made of chopped vegetables sprinkled with citrus juice. Carrots and broccoli are served frequently. Mexico exports more than 100 million dollars worth of broccoli annually.

poblano en nogada
Oaxaca is famous for its moles, complex sauces usually served over chicken or beef. I have tasted most of the moles and so this visit I am avoiding them. I did, however, visit La Azucena Zapoteca, a restaurant known for its poblanos en nogada, a roasted pepper stuffed with chicken, nuts and fruit, served with a creamy sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate and nuts. I couldn't finish the dish but it was delicious.
I was served a complimentary mescal.
Oaxaca is  also known for its hot chocolate and its mezcal. Tequila is a mezcal that is made in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal is made from the agave cactus. You drink it in one gulp (for me two).  I don't usually drink hard liquor but the orange was juicy sweet, the cayenne was spicy and the mezcal burned on its way down. The contrast of tastes and sensations is the basis of much of Oaxaca's cuisine.
At home in Oaxaca, I have very simple meals but today my brother is coming from Canada to visit. I will go down the street to Carmelita's pastelería to pick up pastries for tomorrow's breakfast. Pastries cost 6 pesos (about 40 cents Canadian).  We won't have them every day but after a day of travel, my brother might be hungry tomorrow morning.

Yesterday, I asked my mentor at the library, a lady who has lived here for more than 20 years, about food and sanitation. The people selling food in the street have no running water or refrigeration. They wash their utensils in buckets of water. She does not eat street food for this reason. Food right off a comal (grill) is probably safe but I really don't feel like taking the chance.
My "expert" says that this is probably safe but the added sauces are not refrigerated.

My brother has never been to Mexico before so I will enjoy introducing him to all the sights, sounds and tastes of Oaxaca!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Day in the Neighbourhood

Please do not use the Cathedral as a bathroom.
Today was a day of no tutoring or library work so I just wandered a bit in the neighbourhood. I live about 4 blocks from the Zócalo or main plaza of Oaxaca. The Plaza's official name is La Plaza de la Constitución and it is the site of the former Governor's Palace and of the Cathedral of Oaxaca. There are also lots of people camped out in backpack tents, electrical cords running along the ground in every
direction and the  sounds of live and recorded music competing with speeches of all sorts. I went over to listen to what I thought was a political speech and it turned out to be a man selling herbal remedies.
The sign above implores people to not use the church as a bathroom. There has been quite a lot of criticism of the Zócalo on Trip Advisor but I find it a pleasant spot to people watch.

The vendors in the stalls are very relaxed and I stop to browse but I don't purchase. There's a lady further up Avenida de la Independencia where I have purchased a woven scarf. She's just on a street corner which means she probably can't afford a permit for the Zócalo. I put my loose pesos in my pocket so that I could give the street musicians something. I don't like to take my wallet out on the street but I do like to be ready with some spare change.

Further down Independencia, I see a tiny woman with two grey braids and the traditional woven apron
selling lettuce, herbs and zucchini flowers. I bought a little bag of lettuce (which is soaking in disinfectant right now) and politely asked if I might take a photo. She was not willing. If you are interested in seeing pictures of the people in traditional garb, I found some photos taken by another Canadian on Flickr. Many of the people of Oaxaca are shorter than 5 feet tall and traditional clothing is common.
El Templo de San Felipe de Neri
Between my apartment and the Zócalo is yet another church. I live within the sound of three sets of bells. Today, when I went in, there was another funeral. San Felipe is in a Spanish baroque style and was built in the 18th century of the local cantera stone.

It's interesting to observe this Oaxacan world. There is so much to see but I am sure that I miss a lot because it is so different from Canada. I am meeting so many Canadians and Americans who choose to live here for part of each year. It truly is a magical place!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thinking about Life and Travel

an anniversary trip to Seattle

This morning, when I awoke at 5:00 a.m. in my apartment in Oaxaca, I wondered what Monsieur was doing. Likely, he was sleeping. After making an effort to go back to sleep, I turned to the comfort of the blog world. Blogging is like having friends everywhere in the world who are available at any hour in any time zone. As a solo traveller, connection is extremely important. A Skype or Face Time call reunites me with my loved ones. Yesterday, I talked with Maman, my daughter and my walking buddy.
I e-mailed Janet, my sometimes travel  partner and my longtime friend, a picture of my lunch. It's a joke!

Well, back to the story. Duchesse at Passage des Perles posted about solo travel. It seems that there are many women who are married to husbands who do not enjoy foreign travel. This can become more evident when we retire. Personally, I would like to travel as much as possible in my early sixties when I am relatively healthy and strong.  I have enjoyed tours, cruises and resorts but I am really
a person who likes to "pretend" that I live in a foreign country. I'm a dreamer and a romantic.

We slept in the back of this truck many times.
Monsieur and I spent the first 15 years of our relationship camping in the Pacific Northwest. I have stayed in many campgrounds from Washington State to Northern California. I have backpacked, slept in the back of the truck when ice formed on the windows, and slept in Oregon yurts during Winter Break. I always insisted on a hotel stay once in a while to clean up and/or dry out. Survival, solitude and "roughing it in the bush" are a recurring theme. Monsieur probably owned a "Davy Crocket hat" when he was a boy. His dreams are different from mine.

As years go by, it seems that we need to decide "what do I really want to do?" In a perfect world, we would have unlimited resources and a partner who enjoys most of the same activities as we do. I don't know those people personally but I am sure that they exist. Monsieur claims that "most couples envy our arrangement."
a wine-tasting and  golf  holiday with friends
Which brings me back to solo travel! If you choose to travel solo, there are lots of groups where you can meet other people of similar interests. I went to study French in the Auvergne 28 years ago and met one of my walking partners. We found that the level of instruction wasn't appropriate to our needs so we explored the countryside. I found Walks in Spain offered a modified version of the last part of the Camino at good prices. The group was mostly congenial 55+ aged people and the accommodation was excellent. Last year, my cousin and I joined HF Holidays for walks in Cornwall and Devon. The single supplement for this group was very low and the oldest member (92) was a veteran HF walker who literally went along for the ride. She came on the bus and drank tea while her friends walked. Some days, I just explored the villages by myself.
graduation at the Sorbonne
 If you are like me and you enjoy learning and teaching, you might enjoy studying French at Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne. The course is offered for different lengths of time and at different levels. One of my personal dreams was to study in Paris. My professor, who is retiring this year, was truly the best teacher that I have encountered. She had high expectations, was available to students for consultation and marked with such rigour that I felt extremely satisfied with my progress. For all the prestige and quality of instruction, the cost of the course is not high. If you take the longer course as I did, you will need a visa to remain in France longer than 90 days. If you are renting an apartment in Paris, don't book with any agency that demands an agency fee or payment in full before you see the apartment. There are many apartments in Paris and you will be paying a fair bit of money for a central location so you can afford to be choosy.

If you want to travel inexpensively, you can always teach (volunteer or be paid) if you speak English.
I have English as a Second Language training but as a pensioner, I work for free. Right now, I am in Oaxaca, Mexico volunteering in two places,The Oaxaca Learning Center and The Oaxaca Lending Library. I can't be too idealistic about volunteering because it pretty much is doing the same work as I have been doing for the last 30+ years for free. I went, armed with some materials that I had purchased and some books that I had borrowed, to meet my first student. She didn't show up! Later the coordinator emailed that she wanted to change her time. Students seem to be the same everywhere! Today, I am meeting a 13-year old who has failed all of his English exams.  What the Center is offering is free Learning Assistance to students who can't afford to pay. My duties at the library are shelving, duplicate checking and data entry. I think this is déjà vu.  I actually enjoy handling books and working with students one on one so volunteering is not a chore for me.

I just went back to re-read La Duchesse's post which really gave lots of practical ideas about groups for women travellers. There are many women who face the dilemma of a stay-at-home spouse. I feel more reassured as I've talked to Monsieur on Skype since I started this somewhat lengthy post. Seeing his face and the apartment and learning that he had spent all day yesterday practising and performing, made me feel better.  Now, if there only were a way to transmit a hug!

It's all about the bass.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Avenida de la Independencia

my home away from home

I am staying on the Avenida de la Independencia, one of the busiest streets in Oaxaca's centro historico.
The Avenida is a lively street of churches, shops and restaurants. It skirts the zocalo and passes the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá.

Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
There are often flowers being rolled down the street to one of the five churches that I pass on the way to the Lending Library. One day there were police and a procession led by men dressed in traditional white clothing who were holding up the moon and the stars.
It was a very large funeral procession.

Some of the sights that I see seem a bit comic! Loud American music of the 1970's blares out into the street from stores that look like a Mexican version of Forever 21.

This costumed character outside the medical clinic is bizarre!

I don't like to take pictures of people on the street so I can't show you the small brown ladies with grey hair who sell cups or bags of fruit. They sit peeling and chopping all day. Or the well-dressed older man who sells computer memory sticks.  The balloon sellers, the hat sellers, the accordion player….You can imagine!

They sell tortas  (sandwiches) on my street.
There are a lot of  interesting smells on the street as well. Most merchants are constantly washing the sidewalk in from of their shops Even in my courtyard, the walkways are washed daily. I'm not sure what the cleaner is  (my friend would probably tell me cockroach killer!!!) but I smell it everywhere.
On a more pleasant topic, there is the constant cooking of food on the street. I am tempted by the corn on the cob but it is boiled in unpurified water. 

The Avenida de la Independencia is a bustling and noisy street during the day. I hear cars, the traffic patrol whistle, marching bands, marimbas, someone practising the violin….but when night falls, there is
even more music and more food vendors. Next week, I will have a visitor and we will go out to see the city after dark.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Food! Glorious Food!

squash blossoms wrapped in a tortilla and fried

Whenever I walk through the zocalo or the Parque Llano, I smell so many different foods cooking and see so many people eating delicious looking food. Many people do not live in apartments with kitchens and so eat in the market or buy food from street vendors. There are ladies peeling and slicing fruits on every street corner. The people buy a bag or cup of prepared fresh fruit. There are also vendors selling freshly made juice.

a juice cart
The Mexican people love to eat together and food is not costly. Unfortunately for me, there is no clean water or refrigeration in evidence anywhere. I would love to try some of these foods but I am travelling alone and really do not wish to have any "tummy troubles".

There are many beautiful restaurants in courtyards
Consequently, I choose to eat in more "middle-class" sorts of restaurants where I can find salads or seafood. These restaurants are usually "tucked away" in courtyards and offer healthy (for me) foods and prices that are less expensive that those in Vancouver.
grilled prawns with rice and chard served with fresh pineapple
This week, there is a "dine out Oaxaca" special. Several of the restaurants are offering a multi-course meal with mescal for 250 pesos. This is a great price but I can't really eat that much.
Restaurant Week in Oaxaca (Where is Janet when I need her?)
Fortunately, I don't have a sweet tooth. I can walk by Paris patisseries and seldom purchase. In Oaxaca, there are sweets carts and I live near the spot renowned for "nieves" or flavoured ice.
This cart sells cream-filled pastries. I do wonder about lack of refrigeration.
Wandering through my nearby plaza, I saw this sign:
That is grasshopper flavoured ice.

Buen Provecho!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

But I Didn't Buy Anything! Almost!

I had to go down a side street to find out who she was.
As I explore more in Oaxaca, I have found some of the shopping spots.  There are artisan
cooperatives where it is possible to buy handicrafts that bear the artisan's name and tribal origin. My friend, Frida, is standing in front of such a coop.
a vividly painted alebrije
The brightly coloured alebrijes are carved in outlying pueblos by Zapotec carvers. Monsieur and I watched them being carved on an earlier visit.
Black pottery comes in every size.
The black pottery is only made in one pueblo of Oaxaca.
good marketing
I already have alebrijes, a little black pot and a number of table runners but the textiles and clothing are so colourful!
The  blue dress could be worn at home.
The artisan cooperatives are like bright treasure chests of colour.
Oh, I wish that I could still wear orange!

Since I have chosen my "authentic" hair colour, grey and blue are my neutrals. Somehow, they're just not such exciting colours in the tropical zones. I have bought one "made in Mexico" top to brighten my look. It's not really ethnic so I will be able to wear it at home.
my favourite Oaxaca restaurant
Wherever we have travelled, Monsieur and I have purchased small souvenirs but as we get older perhaps a photo is enough. On the other hand, the principal industry of the state of Oaxaca is handicrafts. I do enjoy making a few purchases and the cost of goods is low. Perhaps my small suitcase will have a few additions when I return home.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Learning, Schools and Culture

school supply store
It seems to me that we often undervalue those things that come easily to us. Take education for example…In Canada, it is free and easily accessible to all. In the school district where I used to work, parents paid a nominal fee, if they were able, for unlimited school supplies. In Oaxaca, even the poorest families must pay for school supplies and for uniforms. Remember, the minimum wage is 66 pesos a day and families are large.
dedication plaques for the law school
Despite the poverty, there seem to be schools of all sorts in the city of Oaxaca de Juarez. The earliest schools were seminaries founded by the Spanish priests to convert the indigenous people. Because of the rugged, mountainous terrain of the state of Oaxaca, it has always been necessary for students to move to the city to be educated.
students in the courtyard of the Oaxaca Institute of Arts and Sciences
The average Oaxacan student attends school for 6.39 years. For indigenous people who comprise a third of of the population, only 5% have completed primary school. The Oaxaca Learning Center where I am volunteering and where I will be living in April and May helps to prepare students for Secondary school and University. Yesterday, I met with the Coordinator of English Volunteers, Pamela
Mendez Duarte, who came as a student for tutoring at the centre, and now attends the Benito Juarez University as well as being employed as Coordinator. All of the paid employees of the Center are Oaxacan people who have been involved with TOLC and who have attended University. Some have even attained a Master's Degree.
Beautiful educational buildings are everywhere.
When the orphaned  Benito Juarez walked into the city of Oaxaca at the age of 12, he realized that only through education would his life be improved. A Zapotec, who did not speak Spanish, Juarez became a lawyer and the most respected President of Mexico. An interesting fact that I just read was that Benito might have been the shortest president in world history (4 '6"). The reality for the people in the mountain pueblos has not changed much in 200 years.

Today, I will be meeting my first student. As I have no materials provided, I will go to the Lending Library where I am also volunteering and borrow some English books. My student is 23 so I hope that my choices will not offend her.

In Canada, students take it for granted that paper, pencils and notebooks will be provided. In addition, there will be cars, cellphones and spending money. The students of Oaxaca expect nothing. This is really an adventure for me!

Monday, March 9, 2015

We're Definitely Not in Paris

Je lèche les vitrines.

The Sundays that I spent in Paris were often dedicated to just walking and  "licking the windows"
(not really but almost). Paris shops, except in such tourist areas as Le Marais, are closed on Sundays but most of the fun is in the strolling and browsing. In Oaxaca, most shops are open but there are either no windows or there are bars in front  of them.
shops in my neighbourhood
This lack of glass is partially due to the fear of theft but, for the most part ,people living here just don't browse. They listen to music and watch dancers in every corner park. There was standing room only in the Basilica de La Soledad  near my apartment yesterday. Outside in the plaza, the ladies were preparing an inexpensive community meal.

They looked like they were having fun.

The emphasis here is definitely not on the acquisition of material goods but everyone is "out and about"on Sunday.
The prices are very cheap These are pesos not dollars.

I'm not in the market to buy anything other than the necessities during my stay because I already have souvenirs of Oaxaca and I know that I am unlikely to wear more than one embroidered blouse when I return home.
There are always historical markers.
Down the Avenida de la Independencia from my apartment is the site of the house where Porfirio Diaz,
an extremely controversial President of Mexico, was born. Diaz, who opened Mexico up to foreign investment during the latter years of the 19th century, governed for 30 years until he was forced to flee to Paris. He is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Since I am responsible for bringing several billion dollars in foreign investments into my country, I think I should continue in my position until a competent successor is found.
—Díaz declarations to John Hays Hammond at the summit with Pres. Taft in 1909.[42]

I am watching season 3 of House of Cards and perhaps Porfirio was a bit like Francis Underwood.

You can cut the flowers but you can't stop the spring!

Sometimes the graffiti can be a lesson in Spanish and food for thought. 

Wandering the streets of Oaxaca can be a very dangerous activity for me as the pavement is very irregular and I seem to make a habit of falling on every trip. Happy Monday!