Oaxaca Journal

Cafe patrons usually find me sitting in the corner of Los Cuiles, sipping a cafe and pounding away on my Mac. I try to convince the staff that I am doing very, very important work so they don't ask me (too often!) to get up and help out. Below are thoughts and views of Oaxaca from the perspective of a corner of our little cafe.

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April 29, 2016

My oh my, how time flies. I don't write in my blog anymore. I don't look like my photo anymore. I can't believe this website is still up...it must be the oldest website on the web.

I openened yet another store, a toy store with Alana Carr called Captain Little. So my workload is amped up about 150%. No wonder I have no time for blogs.

I now have my apartment in Oaxaca, and I love it. A respite from my hectic business life. I continue to hop down to Oaxaca maybe 6 or 7 times a year.

And best of all perhaps, Cafe Los Cuiles continues to grow and prosper. It has expanded out into the courtyard, Toña now owns and manages it, and it now could almost be called an institution. We were the second cafe to open in Oaxaca. Without exageration, I would say that there are now 50 cafes in Oaxaca.

We were the first of any public business in Oaxaca to offer wifi. Now, it seems hard to imagine or even remember life without wifi. What did we do? Converse, read, socialize, live, laugh, love. Isn't life so much better now with Facebook? We can stay connected with our friends 2,000 miles away while ignoring the people surrounding us.

So this may be my last blog entry. Partly because I can't remember how to use Dreamweaver anymore, and mostly because nobody reads my blogs, except maybe Nigerian internet sleuths trying to find hints for the password to my online checking account. (hint: it is not OAXACA)

Does anybody really read anything any more anyway? And if they do, how do they find the time? Don't they have a job? Don't they know that working insanely hard and making loads of money gives meaning to life in a way that sitting in a cafe talking with friends, reading, thinking, mindfulness, and genuine social interaction never can?

I leave the Nigerian internet sleuth to ponder this question, as I bid adieu and look for the send button.

April 7, 2013 Olympia Washington

O Oaxaca, where art thou?

Fear thee not, Oaxaca is still there in Southern Mexico. And the cafe is still open in Oaxaca. The problem is...I'm up here in Olympia. I've been to Oaxaca twice this year, but now I am bogged down getting a new store open in Tacoma Washington. I hate it when business interferes with my travel plans! Whose idea was it to open another store anyway, and what kind of fool would do such a thing? Designers, contractors, architects, inspectors, bankers, advertising reps...who wants to deal with these people? I just want to sit in my cafe. I have this unrealistic notion that once the store is open and sailing smoothly, the work load won't be much more than it was before, and I will return to my life of frequent procrastinations and peregrinations. Meanwhile, it is all business.

OK, the good news is that a Oaxacan friend is building an apartment for me in Oaxaca! Yea! Score! After years of bumming around the streets of Oaxaca, sleeping on park benches with dogs and in grave yards with ghosts, finally I will have a place of my own, with a view from my porch of southern Oaxaca City and the mountains that harbor Monte Alban.

Last Fall I finally made it to Africa again, and climbed Mt Kilimanjaro.photo In January of this year I flew to Indonesia to buy fixtures for the new store. OK, I suppose I should not complain so much about new stores when part of the job requires flying to Bali and Java and hunting down cool stuff. In February, I visited Oaxaca twice. Once, because I had been away three months. Then the second time a week later, because when I got home, I missed it already. Wait until I have that apartment! I'll be sitting at my desk in Olympia thinking, "hey I am all caught up...and nobody needs me around here anyway...I think I will take some things down to the apartment tomorrow." Ah yes, some people go to their cabin on weekends, I'll be working weekends and flying down to Oaxaca for the work week.

Another dangerous thing is that I am now a United Premium Gold member. The frequent upgrades are nice, but the luggage allowance is amazing. I can check in three 70 pound bags! And you know what that means: I check in three 70 pound bags. Seriously. Toña jokes that I am now a Oaxacan mula. A smuggler...but smuggling legal things in instead of illegal things out. Legal, but probably five times the allowable limit.

The custom's agent at the Oaxaca airport was pretty exasperated on my last trip. I knew I was going to get flagged because I had two huge suitcases, a big box, plus two carry ons.

After your luggage goes through the X-ray machine you get to push a button. Green light means go ahead, red light means...the dreaded inspection. They say it is random. Yea, right!

So, here is how it came down last trip after the X ray machine:

Inspector: "Whose suitcase is this?"

Me: "Mine."

Inspector: "And this suitcase?"

Me: "Mine."

Inspector: "And this box?"

Me: "Mine, Señorita." (It was a female inspector)

Inspector: "And this bag?"

Me: "Um, that would be mine too."

Inspector: "And this one here?"

Me: "Why gosh, I think that one is mine too! I sure do have a lot of bags, don't I?"

Inspector: "OK, push the button."

So, let me ask. What are the chances that I will push that "random" button and get a green light? One in ten to the 25th power?

I pushed the button.

The light flashed RED.

Inspector: "OK, I have to look at your bags..."

OK, here is the rub. What they hope to find in this situation is expensive stuff: electronics, computers, things with value that they can put a price tag on, and so make you pay a duty on it. If you bring two lap tops (as I did once), they will tax the second one.

So the inspector opens suit case numero uno. What does she see? Boxes of tea, baby clothes, espresso machine gaskets, bags of Hershey's chocolate chips, underwear, stainless steel pitchers, Chai Tea powder, baby toys, Women's blouses, etc etc. She opens suit case numero dos. And what does she see? Boxes of tea, baby clothes, espresso machine parts, bags of Hershey's chocolate chips, underwear, stainless steel pitchers, frothing spoons, Chai Tea powder, baby toys, T-shirts, etc.

Same for bag #3,#4, and #5.

Inspector: "Is all this your personal belongings?"

This is where you are supposed to say, "Yes inspector."

Me: "Are you kidding? This belongs to half the population of Oaxaca! My Oaxacan friends at home say "Oh, you're going to Oaxaca? Can you take this? My friends in Oaxaca say "Oh, you are coming to Oaxaca, can you bring this? It's crazy, don't you think?"

The line was piling up behind us. I had a ton of stuff, I was way over the limit and she knew it (I think I was a good $2,000 over the limit!), but it was all a mess and nothing in particular looked expensive. "You can go," she said, smiling. "Next!"

Toña, Walter, Norma, and Martha were all there to greet me (and help me carry luggage) and we went straight to my favorite late night taco place where we could have a good laugh about Oaxaca's numero uno mula.

 

March 18 2012, Oaxaca Mexico

I thought it was a joke when a friend of mine said he had heard it on twitter that Obama’s youngest daughter was in Oaxaca…staying around the corner from Los Cuiles in the Hotel Camino Real.

I quick Google search confirmed it. But only a few stories, and only in Spanish.

So I have been perched at the café window, waiting for Malia Ann Obama to pass by the plaza out front of the café. I figure I might not recognize her…but I should be able to spot her security contingent comprised of (reportedly) 25 secret security agents.

Tall men in suits with dark glasses and little wires going to tiny earphones. I would think they would stand out a bit amongst the scruffy artists, the chicle vendors (always either old women or young girls), the teen age students, the indigenous handicraft vendors, and the occasional tourist in shorts that make up the population of the plaza out front.

Of course the secret service could be going native, forgoing suits and sunglasses for ponchos or guayaberas. But I doubt it. I think I will recognize 25 American secret service agents in Oaxaca, no matter how secret they think they are.

I suppose it is comforting to know that Oaxaca is deemed by the State Department to be safe enough to send the President’s daughter here. But does she really need 25 secret service security agents?

I think I fear more for the secret service than for Malia Ann. It is getting too hot here for those suits.

Oh...and Mt. Kilimanjaro (below): didn't go. My friend decided in the last minute to postpone the trip until September. So I forewent the snows of Kilimanjaro for the sun of Oaxaca. Not a bad trade off.

Feb 19, 2012, Oaxaca Mexico

Change is always a little scary. In business, it is a double-edged sword: you have to keep changing to keep up in a competitive world, but if you make the wrong changes (e.g. the “new” Coca Cola fiasco), it can be disastrous.

So I was trepidatious about expanding Los Cuiles. Small and intimate is often a good thing…for a restaurant as much as for a theatre.

Nevertheless, I decided to take the leap when a restaurant in the inner plaza went out of business. We moved our tiny kitchen to the new larger space in the plaza, we moved our coffee bar to the gallery, we put new seating in the old kitchen area, and we took over the interior plaza with beautiful umbrella shaded tile tables.

The result: todo un exito! And I love it. More people streaming into the plaza, more people hanging out, more staff scooting back and forth from the kitchen to the far flung tables.

We have a new employee, Lupe, and I love to watch her work. She is even more, um, vertically challenged than the other girls on the staff (which you would hardly think possible because none of them can be over 4’ 10” and that’s on their tippy toes).

Lupe is like the Road Runner in the old cartoon. Any chance she gets, she runs! I have to be careful coming out of the kitchen or I will crash into her. First I peer around the corner….to see if Lupe is coming…and then jump out into the plaza if the coast is clear. If she is coming, I jump out of her way. Quickly. All that energy packed in her tiny frame, a collision with her could be painful, like being hit by a super charged energy particle. I might be ionized.

When she runs into the kitchen with her order, she will skid to a stop just in time to avoid a collision with the cook or the work table. If she is making a smoothie at the work table, I swear she has it half made by the time she reaches the table! She is like Ichiro Suzuki…already running to first base before he has hit the ball.

For me, it is a delight, a tremendous delight, to see these diminutive Oaxacan women running the business. And they are running it…literally! It is now their café. Emiliana and I have now redefined our role as founders of the café, and the Mighty Oaxacan Women are in charge. Power to the Mighty Oaxacan Women! Power to Toña and her crew…they are amazing.

Meanwhile, I am here in Oaxaca for a few more days, and then I fly back to Olympia to grab my back country stuff and then I am off again to Africa in early March. I am tired of Washington’s tiny mountains, and I want to climb a real Mountain. Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet will do nicely.

If this journal ends here, and this is my last entry, then you know I am lost on the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro. . .

Oct 11, 2011, Oaxaca Mexico

It has been a while since I have added a journal entry. I haven’t stopped coming to Oaxaca (I am here now), and I haven’t exactly been too busy.

Rather, it is more a case of general sloth, torpor, and indolence, traits I seem to manifest especially well down here. Oaxaca will do that too you, particularly when it is hot.

The big news in the café is that we will be expanding! We have taken over an additional space in the plaza, and we plan to move the kitchen there. This will give us not only a larger, more efficient kitchen, but it will increase our outdoor patio seating and our indoor seating (where the kitchen is now). At least that is the plan. Since I am better at thinking than doing, it still remains a theory up in my little curly haired head.

Oaxaca… ah Oaxaca. Oaxaca remains beautiful. I was dubious about some of the renovation that has been going on, but for the most part, the changes seem to be for the better (except in the Zocolo, where they tore out old original cobble stones and replaced them with cement blocks!).

But the faux cobblestone look of the streets, and the new trees and lawns in the parks are a definite improvement. Oaxaca seems to slowly be growing up while for the most part holding on tenaciously to its historical past. Not always an easy thing to do.

Tourism is way down, however, but that is to be expected with all the news about cartel violence that reaches the States. There are definitely some dicey areas in Mexico (Chihuahua State being one…I have many friends there that can testify to that), but fortunately Oaxaca is not one of them. Not yet, not ever I hope.

So c’mon down folks, don’t be scarred by the headlines. Oaxaca remains a treasure

 

Feb 13, 2010, Oaxaca Mexico

I flew into Mexico City a couple of days ago. The DF (as it is called in Mexico) can be intimidating. You know some 20 million people live there. And you have heard (probably rightfully) that Mexico City is the kidnapping capital of the world.

You definitely make sure the doors are locked as you ride in your “official airport taxi” (how big of a target is that?) to your hotel.

But once ensconced in a Mexico City neighborhood, you feel anything but unsafe. In places, it doesn’t feel like you are actually in a city at all. And in a way, you aren’t. The city as it grew basically devoured a lot of smaller towns and barrios, and these are now just neighborhoods. And they feel like neighborhoods. Really. Even in Mexico City.

I was sitting at a food stand in one such neighborhood a couple of days ago. On a small side street. A young man and his wife tended the food stand, baking huaraches and tostadas and other goodies on a big griddle like thing.

A homeless man ambled by. “Sir” the proprietor of this tiny, humble business directed to the homeless man. The homeless man paused. “Sir, would you like a huarache?” he asked, handing him a piping hot one before he could answer.

Just a few minutes later, the wife called out to her husband, “help her!” nodding at an old lady struggling to cross the street with a cart. The man leapt to her aid and guided her across the street.

And then only a few minutes later, I hear “whose pack is this?” A school girl had left her school pack on a chair. Again the man was off, this time chasing down the school girl, who was probably 7 or 8 .

All this happened in the time it took me to gulp down my food, which couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. It was like something out of a boy scout manual! Do these things really still happen? Is that the image you had of Mexico City?

Probably not, and yes I was impressed buy not surprised by the exhibition of civility in the heart of what is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Reality is usually much different from our distorted perception (often perverted by the media) of the world’s dangers. People recently have been terrified to drive their Toyotas when in fact you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to die in your Toyota on account of a stuck accelerator.

We hear about Mexico City’s crime, but the truth is that if you go there you are probably a thousand times more likely to be assaulted by a random act of kindness than by a bad guy.

Life in general, and travel in particular, is a hell of a lot more fun when you don’t let irrational fears dictate your itinerary.

 

July 27, 2009, Oaxaca Mexico

Emi and I take a little walk

You know it is a good bar when you see “Favor de no escupar” printed in big block letters on the wall: “Please do not spit.”

Emiliana and I had finally crossed paths again here in Oaxaca. Emi is a serious scholar, but everyone knows that when Emi cuts loose, there is no telling what you will do or where you will end up, and all you can do is hold on and enjoy the ride.

We had a few glasses of wine in the café. That is usually my limit: a couple of glasses of wine. OK, so I’m a lightweight.

By midnight we had had more than a few glasses of wine, and I figured I had had enough to drink, maybe for the month, and it was time to wander home to my apartment and planchar orejas. But Emi. . . she convinced me to “take a little walk” first. You know, to walk off the wine.

Her “little walk” ended up being a beeline for one of her favorite bars.

Her bar of choice happended to be closed when we got there, however we heard music coming from another bar around the corner, and we decided to step in and have a look.

Whereas the closed bar is actually kind of a Gringo and hip Mexican bar (and believe me, it does not say “no spitting” anywhere), the bar around the corner is a. . . how do I put it . . . a real Mexican bar in all its seedy, gritty, smelly, and raucous glory.

Everyone noticed us as we walked because we were the outsiders, and this was a local bar. There were only about twenty people on this Tuesday night, and it was obvious that all of them. . . or at least all of the men…were trashed.

We sat down and I took in the scene. OK, so you’ve got Cumbia music playing on the jute box, you’ve got this guy passed out on the counter, you’ve got cases and cases of beer stacked almost to the ceiling, you’ve got this gay guy strutting around like a peacock (but nobody is noticing), you’ve got a table of drunk guys yelling at (through?) each other with every sentence punctuated by “huey” (so all you hear is “blah blah blah, huey…no huey…si huey… blah blah blah, huey…si huey…), and you’ve got another table of what looks like three guys and three prostitutes.

And then, and I kid you not, in the middle of the bar alone at a table sat a clown. He had the full costume, the painted face, even the red bulb on the nose.

And this was a very drunk clown.

“Hey, it’s a working class bar” Emi suggested. “He probably came to the bar straight from work.”

We had no sooner ordered our beers when the clown was at our table. “I’m a clown” he slurred as he sat down, as if he thought maybe we had missed the painted face, the red nose, and the clown outfit.

“Hey, how much does a clown make in America?” he asked.

I get that question a lot here in Mexico… how much does such and such job make? But it seemed surreal coming from a clown in a bar.

“I’ve heard a good clown (I think implying that he fell in that category) can make a thousand dollars a day,” he suggested.

I couldn’t resist saying, “No seas payaso huey!”

OK, it works better in Spanish, but basically that translates to “quit clowning with me dude.”

He stared at me, obviously not amused by the joke. I thought for a second that this clown just might rip my head off.

Whoever doesn’t think clowns are scary has not been six inches away from a drunk Mexican clown in a seedy downtown Mexican bar after you have just insulted him.

The only way to get away from this clown was to dance with the prostitutes. Emi kindly chose one for me.

So that was our evening. Dancing with prostitutes, and trying to keep away from the clown. The music blared, we danced, people came and left, people stopped by our table to chat a little, maybe curious what we were doing there, and all in all it was a pleasant and fun evening. Except for the clown maybe.

We definitely should have called that a night, but unfortunately on the walk home I noticed the lights were on in my friends restaurant, and Emi had the bright idea of knocking on his door.

A few mezcals and two hours later, we finally stumbled out of Andrew’s restaurant, and off to home at 4:30 in the morning.

Thanks Emi, nice little walk that was.

 

May 8, 2009, Olympia Washington

Poor, poor Oaxaca

It is always sad to see how the news impacts tourism. Fear spreads as quickly as a computer virus. In this case (at least so far), the swine flu has infected about as many people with flu symptoms as has the latest computer virus has: none. Nobody anyone the employees and friends of Los Cuiles know in Oaxaca has come down with the swine flu. Yet . . . from what I hear (I am in Olympia now) tourism has fallen off a cliff. C'mon people! You are (frankly) in much more danger driving to the airport to get to Oaxaca than you are actually walking the (now nearly deserted!) streets of Oaxaca.

So the cafe staff is sad and discouraged. Where are the tourists? Desiderio writes to me and asks "What do we do? How do we pay our bills?" As an owner, this is always difficult. I (unlike the corporations) do not like to lay off people or cut hours. The staff depends on their salary. The loss in tip money is bad enough. So we are quickly going from a non-profit to a subsidized-by-Paul business.

But hey, if you happen to be in Oaxaca and want to stop by Los Cuiles for an iced mocha, a fresh fruit smoothie, or a veggie burger . . . Los Cuiles will be open!

 

March 1, 2009, Oaxaca Mexico

Mexican diplomacy

We mostly serve a lot of good coffee and food in the café, but we also serve alcoholic drinks…this being Mexico where it is still possible for a business to be a little of everything and not a lot of anything. Little corner stores still exist, for example, where you can buy a loaf of bread, take care of your photocopying needs, and maybe even get a part for your blender.

So, in that vein, Los Cuiles is also a bar, with the occasional attendant problems and hassles.

When customers have had too much coffee, the biggest problem might be that they knock over the salt shaker as they leap up from their table to run to the restroom.

When customers have had too much to drink, you never know what is going to happen, and you fear the worst.

Such was the case the other night when two local men were drinking heavily in one of our corner tables.

I decided that they had had enough, and contemplated how, exactly, to tell them. I have tried this before, and invariably it does not go well. The gringo telling the local that they should call it a night and go home. Yea, right.

So this time I decided that less egos would be bruised if I just let Laura handle it.

So when one of them staggered up to the counter, slapped a hand down, and told Laura, “Dosh mash cerveshas porfa,” I braced for the worst.

But Laura, being more the diplomat than I, was up to the challenge. Summoning her knowledge of Mexican culture and language, this young, attractive girl deftly yet sweetly denied the drunk’s request with two simple words.

He immediately paid up and left.

I was shocked.

How did she do it?

Well, I’ll leave a more profound explanation to the linguists and cultural anthropologists, but let me just say that whereas some cultures (might I suggest north American and north European?) tend to be more blunt in their approach to conflict resolution, other cultures (might I suggest Mexican and Asian?) tend to be more diplomatic.

These more diplomatic cultures seem to have developed escape valves in their languages to help mitigate and deflect difficult “situations.” It is really quite clever. I don’t know why English, for all its supposed complexity, does not seem to incorporate more such subtle nuances.

For example, nobody drops and breaks glasses in the café. Se cayen y se rompen. They fall themselves and break themselves. It doesn’t matter that Laura (say) was carrying the glass when it fell. Luara isn’t to blame, because the glass “fell itself.” Instead of attributing blame, the language tends to disperse blame.

(This can be very convenient for screw ups. Like politicians, for example. The money “…disappeared itself!”)

But, back to my story.

Believe it or not, the two simple words that Laura used to both deny the drunk his request and allow him to make a dignified exit were, “es dificil.”

Let me explain.

Literally, “es dificil” means “it’s difficult.” “It’s complicated,” we might say.

In general, when these words are used in the context of an awkward (at best) request in Mexico, they actually mean: “Whatever you are asking me, I don’t what to do it.”

But what Mexicans seem to have unanimously agreed the words to mean is something more like this: “I’m sorry but the great and mysterious powers of the universe make your request virtually impossible to comply with.”

It’s that dispersion of responsibility again. Who can argue with the great and mysterious powers of the universe?

So the drunk walks away with nary a complaint, and Mexicans everywhere deftly eschew social inconveniencies and annoyances. Maybe that partly explains their strong social ties.

A little diplomacy goes a long way.

Feb 11, 2009

Que mas quieres?

I wouldn’t consider Oaxaqueños to be big complainers in general, but one thing they love to complain about is the weather.

This sometimes verges on the incredible, because if there is one thing you can say about the weather in Oaxaca, it is that it is consistently nice. Every night is cool but not cold, and every day is sunny and warm but not hot. What is there to complain about?

It isn’t raining. It isn’t snowing. There are no tornados or hurricanes. So all there really is left to complain about is the temperature, which actually varies very little.

So, from what I have observed, Oaxacans have an extremely narrow temperature zone that they consider acceptable, and anything that falls out of that narrow band is either considered freezing cold or burning hot.

My unofficial studies and circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that the band of acceptable temperatures ranges from about 60 degrees to 78 degrees.

I’ve come to work on a nice sunny morning in my T-shirt, and found the windows of the café closed and the staff huddling in the kitchen and wearing sweaters like it was winter in Chicago.

Then a few hours later, after it has warmed up to a beautiful 80 degrees, invariably someone would come into the café complaining about the heat and the “burning sun.”

All this complaining makes as much sense to us sun starved northerners as our complaining about the stress and difficulty of life in the US makes sense to Oaxacans.

“Money is tight” we say but you don’t see us hand washing our clothes, carrying baskets of food on our heads, or scrounging spare pieces of wood for our stoves. Well, OK, things aren’t that tight. Our idea of economizing is paring back our HD TV service, and putting off the purchase of an iPhone for a while. Yea, we have it rough.

It is funny how the more set and comfortable we get in our “zone” . . .whatever that zone is . . . the more entitled (to our wealth, to our comfort, to our good fortune, etc.) we feel, and the more quick we are to complain when things (life!) happen that don’t exactly suit us. It’s human nature, from Oaxaca to Olympia.

Feb 7, 2009

You don't have a chance

She comes into the café almost every day. Short and stocky, traditional skirt, weathered face. She must be at least 75. And carrying a ridiculously, rediculously large basket on her head.

“Pan dulce?” she asks, innocently.

If you don’t want a pan dulce, you don’t dare even look at her.

If you do, and if you hesitate the slightest bit, she has got you. You are done. You just bought yourself a pan dulce.

Because as soon as she sees the slightest flicker of hesitation, quicker than a Judo master, but with obvious and deliberate effort, she is hoisting that ridiculously huge basket off her head and dropping it to the floor.

And now she is asking you which one you want.

Do you really think you are going to refuse to buy a pan dulce from a 75 year old lady who just went through all that pain and effort to show you it?

No way.

This is what you are going to do. You are going to say “cuanto cuesta?” . . . still hoping to get out of buying some pan dulce that you don’t want, and buying yourself a little time to think.

Now she is going to quote you a price about 3 times the cost of the pan dulce in the panaderia just down the street, where she in fact probably just bought it.

But the fact that you even asked the price now means that you are committed. First she brought down the basket for you, and now you are asking the price. There is definitely no going back. And it certainly is not worth haggling over the price, not for a piece of pan dulce.

So you buy the pan dulce. And you help her hoist the basket back up on her head. And she moves on to her next target.

You never really had a chance.

January 26, 2009

It's great to be back. . .

So I have snuck back to Oaxaca.

I have done the same trip probably 20 times: fly out of Seatac around midnight, (thanks for the rides Sokha!), arriving in Houston four hours later with a sore neck and feeling sleep-dumb; snatch a drip coffee with room for milk at Starbucks on my way to my gate (the only time I ever drink Starbucks…but what else am I to do at 4 a.m. my time?), catch the next leg to Mexico City, go through customs hoping for that green button, grab a cab for El Tapo bus station, pay a porter 20 pesos to haul my bags and café supplies to the ADO bus line, and . . . finally, get on board the bus for the 6 1/2 hour ride to Oaxaca city.

It sounds grueling, but that’s how I do it, and I actually look forward to the bus ride at the end. Time to sit there and think as Mexico rolls by. Or I roll by Mexico, however you look at it.

But the best part is walking into the café some 20 hours after leaving Olympia.

Keyla, looks up and sees me first, yells “Pauuuul,” and runs up to give me a kiss on the cheek. Teresa lingers, smiling shyly, behind the counter, waiting for me to finish my greeting with Keyla and come to her with a kiss and a hug and attention before moving to Toña in the kitchen with more of the same. “Gordo,” Toña says smiling, “you look flaco (skinny), what do you want to eat, don’t they feed you back in Obamaland?”

I don’t think it is the greeting most bosses get when they show up at work, especially here in Mexico.

Desiderio appears from somewhere, smiling with that sheepish grin of his, and gives me a formal handshake. We sit down to talk a little in the open window overlooking the bustling Plaza Labastida, and before I know it Keyla is dropping a plate of steaming enchiladas verdes- - my favorite - - in front of me, asking “algo para tomar?"

So are you still wondering why I look forward to that 20 hour trip down to Oaxaca?

Yes, it is nice to be back. For the 20th time or so. Maybe I keep leaving just so I can come back.

November 5, 2008

Viva Obama!!!

I have been in Oaxaca for two weeks, and am just now getting a chance to sit down and reflect a little on this momentous time. I have friends visiting from Norway, and between the onslaught of customers in the café, some amazing hikes into the mountains, all the craziness and fun of Dias de los Muertos, and then the culmination last night of one of the greatest events in world history, I have been living in a Oaxacan whirlwind.

There are a dozen things I could write about (starting with getting lost at 9,000 feet in the jungle like forest outside of Oaxaca City, out of water, out of food, and having to find our way out of the mountains in the dark, eventually stumbling upon a town some 15 miles away from where we started) but for me there is only one thing on my mind now, and that is the Obama victory. Or rather, not so much the Obama victory, but our victory, our country’s victory, the world’s victory. I am not a populist, but I sound like one when I say that this was a victory for the people. And it was.

But this was more than a victory. This was, in my opinion, an event of almost cosmic importance for the planet earth. Call that hyperbole if you will, but I say time will tell. I think one hundred years from now, the Bush era, characterized by terrorism, war, economic chaos, government secrecy, and a general desecration of human rights, will be looked back on as the “Dark Ages” of American politics, and Obama will be considered to have ushered in a new period of enlightenment.

For me, and it seems everyone I talk to as well, it is something far more important than the changing of a Presidency. This strikes a chord deep within us. For me, it is a very emotional chord. I find myself tearing up at just the thought of cute black children scampering around the White House. Is there a sweeter image?

When hope prevails over fear, when right prevails over prejudice, when justice is so long time coming and a human victory is so deserved, our human soul is warmed and our human spirit sours.

I am beside myself with joy.

And there was a lot of joy happening last night in the Café! True to my promise, we had a celebration that I am sure no one here last night will ever forget. I only put up two flyers outside of the café announcing our “Obama Victory Party” knowing we would we overwhelmed with excited revelers. We were.

For me, it was the honor of a lifetime to host an Obama victory party. Over a hundred people crammed into our tiny café as we monitored computers, watched a live TV broadcast over the web, and listened to NPR updates over the café speakers. We had an eraser board on one wall where we tallied the electoral votes for Obama and McCain. Every time a new batch of electoral votes came in, someone - - the first to see it - - would shout it out, the “board monitor” would chalk it up, and the whole café would roar.

This was history in the making, and everyone here knew it, and was just as excited as I was to be witnessing it from a little café in Southern Mexico.

“I have never seen you Americans get so excited about anything!” commented a woman from Brazil over the clamor. “This is…wonderful!”

And so it was.

And so it is.

A new page has been turned in US and world history, and I could not be happier.

August 31, 2008, Olympia WA

Missing Oaxaca

It seems like months since I have been in Oaxaca. OK, it has been months since I have been in Oaxaca. I have been home in Olympia, working (if you can believe it), and hiking. I have this notion that I am going to try to climb Pico de Orizaba when I return to Mexico in the fall. Never heard of it? Well, it dwarfs Mt. Rainier or any other of our 14,000+ mountains in the lower 48. At over 18,000 feet, it is the third highest mountain in North America.

I talked to Desiderio and Toña (the evening cook) and all seems to be going well in the cafe. We have some new staff who I haven't met yet...guess I will be updating the staff photos when I get back.

And for the second time, I will be in Oaxaca during a Presidential election. Last time I promised free beer in the cafe on election day if Gore won. Unfortunately for Oaxaca's beer drinkers (and the world at large) Bush won. Go Obama! I want to see beer gushing out of Los Cuiles and onto the streets this November 4!

April 29, 2008, Oaxaca Mexico

The Rain in Oaxaca Falls Mainly in the Afternoon

The afternoon rains have descended onto Oaxaca. With the summer heat comes the rainy season. The hotter it is in the early afternoon, the more likely thunderstorms will develop late in the late afternoon and send people scurrying for cover. Like, into the cafe, for instance.

In Olympia, we are inured to the rain. It's going to rain, it is probably going to rain all day long, and we know it and accept it and that's that. Most people I see in Olympia don't even bother to use an umbrella. They just put on a parka and get wet.

Here, where rain is much more of an unusual event, you would think getting wet was a death sentence. You see people standing under doorways peering into the inscrutable sky waiting for the last drops to fall before cautiously venturing back into the street.

It's not hydrochloric acid, it is water!

Well, I guess here they would laugh at how, in Olympia, it is considered a heat wave whenever the temperature bursts through the 80 degree mark.

I guess one reason I like Oaxaca is that the temperature spends a lot of time hovering in my happy zone, which is between 70 and 85. Tomorrow I return to Olympia, where the nights are still in the 30's. That is NOT in my happy zone!

Fortunately, in just over a week I am headed to southern Uganda, and checking ahead, I see the weather looks about perfect there: 65 at night and around 80 during the day.

Uganda? Yes, I thought I would scout out rural Uganda for cafe locations before Starbucks gets there! I am going with long time friend Sebowa Kiboigo, who is from the village of Budondo in the Busoga region north of Lake Victoria. There is No Way we are going to let Starbucks beat us there!

March 19, 2008, Oaxaca Mexico

A day in the Life

So what, exactly, do I do all day in Oaxaca? Inquiring minds want to know. And even if they don't, I'm going to tell you anyway!

I will take you through the day of a gringo cafe owner in Oaxaca.

I woke up this morning around 9 am, sun streaming through the bedroom window. Another sunny day, probably the 181st in a row. Last night after closing Los Cuiles, Toña, Myra, Veronica and I went to go eat tlyudas on Libres, so I didn't get home until 12:30 and I read until 2. Usually I wake up much earlier, like around 8:45.

A quick shower, and I'm out the door. El señor Onti greets me at the door of his shop as I start down the street. "Buenos días meester (he likes to say "meester" for fun), a trabajar ya?" he chides me. He has been up since 5:00.

Onti was once one of Mexico's best baseball players, and probably would have made it to the major leagues if back then (in the era of Mays and Mantle) scouts came to Mexico. He nevertheless graced the front pages of Sports Illustrated some years back. Now he sells baseball equipment out of his small shop, and greets sleepy gringos on their way to work.

I trot on down the street, hugging the thin strip of shade alongside the buildings. It is only March and only 9:15 am, but already the sun is intense. The strip of shadow, a little wider than it usually is, tells me I am a little later than I usually am.

This is historical Oaxaca, the buildings are two hundred years old, two to three stories high, painted mostly warm earthy tones. The stone church on the corner, that is around 400 years old. I am passing a lot of history on my way to the cafe.

The cafe is completely full as I walk in, and I can tell things are hopping. Diminutive Bianca goes sailing by me with a tray full of food quickly chirping "buenos dias Pol" (as my name is pronounced here), Rosario is pulling a coffee drink at the espresso machine, and Doña Hilda is brooding over the kitchen stove, eggs splattering in a frying pan and a tlyuda heating on the grill.

You can tell how busy the cafe is by how fast Bianca runs (or walks, when it is slower). Right now, she is running full speed.

"Doña Hilda, otra Tlyuda con tasajo" she pitches to the cook as she grabs a couple of cafe Americanos for table 3.

Some mornings when I get to the cafe I can casually pull myself a strong double real short americano with a little leche, and sit in my favorite open window seat and sip my coffee and think about how nice it is to be in Oaxaca.

Today is not one of those days. When the cafe is busy, I wash dishes. That is my job. And today there is already a pile of them.

By the time I get through the dishes, we are out of orange juice, and I start squeezing more. We go through between 50 and 100 pounds a day.

By the time I have a few quarts of orange juice squeezed, there is a new pile of dishes.

And so the morning goes. When I get caught up on dishes, I may foray out into the dining area to bus some tables to help Bianca.

By about 11:30, things have slowed down and I can finally, mercifully, get my morning coffee. In the cafe, the mostly tourist breakfast crowd is moving out and the more local (some gringo, some Oaxaqueño) lap top wielding crowd is moving in. Bianca has slowed to a fast walk.

Now I can pull my Mac down from on top of the kitchen refrigerator, grab my corner table in the dining room, and start the more lazy part of my day. Read the news, check the market, check my email.

Now freed up, the cook, Doña Hilda, sends some echilades verdes to my table for breakfast. Obama is confronting race issues. Bush is saying the war, now going on five years, has been a success. It is rainy and cold in Olympia.

These enchiladas verdes taste great, . . .what a beautiful day outside, . . .hey it's Marc.

Marc, who has just walked into the cafe, left Wallstreet and moved to Oaxaca soon after we opened the cafe. I hadn't seen him for almost a year, and we have some catching up to do.

So that is how the afternoon goes. Work on my computer (trying to put together a website for Compass Rose). Talk to people who come into the cafe. Marc. Don. Jessica. Hector. The Japanese girl who's name I forget. People stream in and out all day long, and I - -not exactly the loquacious type - - end up getting diverted all day long from my computer. Which is just fine. That is what a cafe is all about.

Then there are the errands. We are a small cafe without much storage space, so it is a constant struggle to keep things in stock.

In the early afternoon, Toña takes over as chef. "Pol...no seas malo....run and get me some garbanzo beans would you?" The hummus salad is a hit in the cafe.

Later in the afternoon, "Hey Pol. . .I am almost running out of sliced ham. . . can you go get me some?"

Last Sunday we ran out of oranges - - an essential - - and guess who ran to the market and lugged back a 70 pound sack?

Late afternoon, as the sun begins to fall towards the mountains of Monte Alban to the west and the day's heat wears off, it is time for me to take my run.

It is one of the things I like most about being here.

A stadium called the Guelaguetza sits overlooking the town of Oaxaca. Leading to it is a very long, shady, tree lined road of steps, made just for me, but also used by thousands to climb up to the Guelaguetza stadium during events. I counted all the stairs once, starting at El Crespo, and leading up to and around the stadium. Three or four hundred, I forget. Plus a few sleeping dogs to negotiate.

These stairs I run up, and that is just the beginning. From there I follow a paved road higher that later turns into a dirt road that takes off and winds around the hills overlooking Oaxaca, eventually winding up at the top of a hill at a large white cross.

To get to the top it takes me twenty minutes when I first get to Oaxaca, and maybe 19:00 when I leave a few weeks later. A good runner would probably do it in 18, and a very good runner in less. I am just happy to be alive and running the hills above the city of Oaxaca.

I head back to the cafe after my run and a shower. It is now almost dark, a warm, beautiful evening, and the streets are vibrant and full of people. The Alcalá, the main pedestrian avenue that runs from the zocolo (central plaza) to Los Cuiles (some would say it runs to the famous Santo Domingo church) is now streaming with people out for a walk. Tourists, kids, locals, vendors, students, everyone is out. It looks like a parade in both directions as I cross the street, skirt the hamburger cart, and jump to the safety of the sidewalk on Abasolo street. Here in Mexico, pedestrians don't get any respect.

The cafe now has the evening crowd. Some gringos, but more locals. Drinking coffee with friends in the evening is a Mexican custom. The gringos, worried about their sleep, tend to shun coffee in the evening. (Me, I drink coffee all day and night, and sleep like a baby.)

Hugo, an artist here in Oaxaca, is being interviewed by a reporter. At another table, a group of locals are playing cards. Santiago, another artist, is chatting with the young Mexican dentist whose name I forget in a window seat. The Japanese girl is back and esconced in a sofa seat as she writes in her journal. A table of people who are probably tourists from Mexico City are ordering tlyudas and beer. Some ambulant musico in the inside plaza behind us is singing old Mexican ballads, and the music competes with the cafe's stereo and the buzz from the busy plaza outside, creating almost a carnival like atmosphere.

Let's see, where was I with this website I am supposed to be making? So many distractions, it is no wonder I don't get anything done here.

A bit later I run out to get some tamales down the street from the lady who sits on a little wood stool in a doorway every night with her large pot of fresh steaming tamales. Toña has ordered one verde and one shredded beef, Myra wants the same, and I pick a mole and a verde. Six tamales, about two dollars. I sneak them into the kitchen: we wouldn't want the customers to see that the cooks are ordering out, that could look bad!

Toña teases me about taking so long. Did I get lost? It is only a block away, how could I get lost? Silly gringos. Used to going everywhere in a car, can't find anything on foot.

I get back to my computer. Let's see, where was I with the website?

Another musico comes into the cafe with his guitar, and I turn down the music for him. His name is Antonio. I know, because he had me set up a hotmail account for him the other night. He is missing a tooth and sports a rather ragged cap, his guitar looks cheap, and I have only heard him sing four or five different songs over the last few years. Cielito Lindo is a favorite. After he passes his hat around the room, he has me check his email. Nope, no mail. He looks astonished. What kind of mail service is this?

"Antonio, have you given your email address to anyone?"

"Nope."

"Well, someone has to have your email address before they can write to you," I explain again.

He nods his head as if to agree, but I can still he is still not happy about this email thing.

Before I know it, it is 10:00 and I am closing the doors in the cafe as customers linger and the staff starts cleaning up. Another day is coming to a close in Oaxaca.

So OK, you tell me. . . what did I do today? After all is said and done, I am not really sure.

I lived, I guess that is what I did. I lived another day. Another day in Oaxaca. Another day in the life of a gringo cafe owner in Oaxaca. Y esto no estuvo nada nada mál.

 

March 14, 2008

Who is happy now?

I was interested in an article on Yahoo the other day ranking countries around the world in terms of how happy their populations (via polling) stated that they felt.

During my travels over the years to a lot of countries, I have taken a particular interest in observing how happy the population basically appears to be.  Peru in the late 80’s had the most miserable and disconsolate population I have ever seen.  Bali Indonesia in the 12 times I have been there (can you believe it?) has definitely garnered first place in the happiness department. Judging by smiles and laughter, the Balinese are much much happier than the wealthy vacationing guests they graciously host.

So it was interesting to see on this particular Yahoo list that Mexico ranked #2 in the world for happiest population (again, according to polls of the population, and not based on objective statistics.  But happiness is subjective anyway, isn’t it?).

When I commented this to a Mexican friend here, he laughed and laughed and laughed, and was still laughing as he walked away.

Which I guess reconfirms the article’s findings. 

I think I would have to agree, with Brazil a close contender.

Mexicans work hard, but they are less inclined than people in the richer countries to sacrifice their free time and their ties with family and friends for a  relentless pursuit of wealth. And they know how to laugh.  Laughter is the only recourse many Mexicans have in an economy and society where they are quite powerless to effect change.

And we Americans thought we had it all.  No, we don’t have it all, we just want it all. Mexicans know they can’t get it all, and they laugh about it.

I’m feeling pretty happy here in Oaxaca (especially with my man Obama winning up north).  In part, I think, because I have learned from my Mexican friends. . .

Any y'know, I kinda like being happy!

 

January 10, 2008, Oaxaca Mexico

And then the tourists returned to Oaxaca . . .

I had never been in Oaxaca around the Christmas holidays.  I’m always too busy back home at my retail store business happily accommodating the voracious Christmas purchasing power of the American consumer.

But my Cuiles partner and long time friend Emiliana gave me an excuse to skip out of town early: on December 28th she was getting married in Cieneguilla, the remote indigenous community she grew up in.

She had a lot of friends and University associates flying down from the states to attend. For many, like myself, it was the first time to Cieneguilla.

Those who have taken the road from Oaxaca city towards the coast do not soon forget it. The narrow (by American standards) paved road twists and curves and carves its way through the mountains (“like a tedious argument of insidious intent,” as TS Eliot would put it), reaching as high as 9000 ft.  before diving back down into yet another valley.

Don’t look back now, but did you see those wrecks at the bottom of the gully at that last hair pin turn?

Do you know what those white crosses along the road mean? Them ain't for dogs.

Travelers with a light stomach have more pressing concerns.  Things tend to come up. Mole . . . orange juice . . . that breakfast you didn't really want to see again . . .

Cieneguilla is another hour on a dirt road from the nearest town (Juquila).  This dirt road jaunt into the mountains was not a lot unlike logging roads I used to travel in the Pacific Northwest, and equally as beautiful. The town itself is hardly what we think of as a town: just houses scattered here and there amongst trees, green grass, and sloping hills. The center of town consists basically on a town hall, a plaza that doubles as a basketball and soccer court, and a church that is under construction. And a tiny store dispensing cokes, tortas, and dulces.

The people of Cieneguilla must have felt like they were being invaded as two white vans pulled up near the town center and gringos stiff from a seven hour ride began piling out to stretch their legs and look around with that “Where the hell am I?” look.

But soon enough Emiliana had everyone sitting down for a welcoming cup of coffee and a bowl of chicken feet soup.

 I have been served a lot of chicken feet soup over the years from Peru to Indonesia, but I still won’t eat it. The soup maybe, but not the feet.  I used to raise chickens, and all I can think of is where those feet have been walking (in this case, just a few hours ago!)

Knowing Emi, the chicken feet soup was part of the fun. 

Later Emi had all the guests dispersed to different family houses throughout the community, and the invasion was complete.  The Gringos had taken over again!

Getting out of town was even more difficult.  The hired vans were long gone. For most of us, the hangovers weren’t.  Images I remember include piles of fresh plucked chicken, the shy smiles of the local townspeople, dancing and music and mescal and more mescal, and wandering the town’s footpaths in the dark wondering where the party had moved to.

Emi had things planned well.  It always seemed like we were on the verge of running out of mescal, with just a little, nearly empty bottle going around, and someone offering you a little cup of the last little bit.

It was only later when I saw the jugs and jugs of mescal that she brought back to Oaxaca did I catch on to the little trick. 

The morning after the big dance, my niece Rachael, her boyfriend Mehdi, and I decided to head back to the land of warm showers and real beds.  One way to get out of town is to walk.  The other way is to sit and wait by the road and try to catch a ride with someone leaving town.  We were fortunate and caught a ride in the back of a pickup within 30 minutes.

Back in Oaxaca . . . where my budget room suddenly seemed luxurious . . . we got caught up in another invasion.  A tourist invasion!  The streets and the hotels and more importantly the café were bustling with tourists!  It hardly seemed possible that little more than a year ago the streets were virtually deserted save for burned out busses, blockades, APPO camps, and the regular protest march.

The Zocolo was all lit up.  The Acala street was a crowded thoroughfare, and the café hummed with conversation amidst the clatter of coffee cups and the clanging of utensils.

All is not well in Oaxaca. Most of what has changed is just cosmetic. But I can’t help but feel more optimistic than I did a year ago.  Vive Oaxaca!

 

October 31, 2007, Oaxaca Mexico

My favorite time in Oaxaca

People are pouring into Oaxaca as Dia de los Muertos approaches, and the café has been busy the last few days. That means I have to get up from my computer and wash dishes!  The women in the kitchen dutifully tolerate my slow and methodical dish washing efforts, but I think they believe I am painfully slow.  Sometimes they just kick me out.

We have a tiny kitchen, as anyone who has been here can see.  It is actually astounding how many dishes our cook puts out in such a tiny space using what is basically a cheap tabletop gas stove.  And everything from scratch.  If an order for green enchiladas comes in, the cook starts by boiling the tomotillos to start making the sauce!  Not poured out of a jar or purchased in the market.  Made from scratch right here.

So usually I just try to stay out of the way. Sometimes I will bus tables or make coffee drinks or smoothies, but sometimes when I try to help I am just getting in the way.  And you only have to try working as a waiter once to appreciate the profession.

 (I got flustered and quit!  Which table was it that asked me for sugar?  What’s wrong with these eggs, they look fine!  So, there is a hair on your plate. Big deal!  Do you realize how much canine fecal matter you breathed into your lungs on your last trip to Mexico City?)

The other night I and one of our customers (Adela, a professor from UC Davis) went to see Lila Downs in concert.

Lila puts on an incredible show. The range of her voice, the variety of her music (singing in three languages for starters!), and her sheer energy are amazing. She is a star here in Oaxaca. “Te queremos Lila!” someone yelled out in a moment of relative quiet between songs.  Lila smiled gratefully.  The audience applauded.

It must be nice.

I have the opinion that if anyone deserves stardom, it is Lila Downs.  All the proceedings of her concert went towards scholarships for young indigenous women.  Though she lives in New York and tours the world, she hasn’t lost touch with her roots in Oaxaca. She is proud, yet modest and kind.

That is why we like her here in Los Cuiles.  And hope she will stop by our cafe again . . .

 

Oct 21, 2007, Oaxaca Mexico

No leeches, but weird red bites all over my legs!

A few weeks ago I was in Miami and I decided to take a quick trip to Nicaragua.

Managua was a huge disappointment . . . after looking for a downtown, I soon realized that there isn’t one!  I should have taken a clue from the woman at the reception of my hotel. When I asked her which way to downtown (“Por donde esta el centro?”) she looked at me kind of puzzled.  I guess the historical downtown was destroyed in a 1972 earthquake. I hadn’t gotten the news.  But the Nicas took a hint and scattered for the suburbs, so now you have  a city with no apparent design or plan, just newer houses and businesses scattered all over.  It gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of historical Oaxaca.

The other towns I visited, Leon and Grenada, were more interesting. Leon is not touristy and kind of has the feel of Mexico maybe 20 years ago. Very poor. Not much happening. People just struggling to get by. Shops without much merchandise (and almost all of it imported because Nicaragua doesn’t have much industry). Power outages. People sitting around because there is little economic opportunity.

I thought: “So, if I lived here and had to start a business to make a living. . . what would I do?”

I would starve, that is what I would do.

Fortunately I live in a place (Olympia) where I can be dumb and lazy, and still get by quite well. I don’t deserve my relative fortune any more than the poor people of Nicaragua deserve their poverty.  It just turned out that way because I was born where I was born and got the breaks that I got. 

So, should the more fortunate (lucky) people of the world be obliged to share their good fortune (mostly luck) with the less fortunate people of the world?  Hell yes!

Just how to do that is a personal choice.  But the choices are there, and to do nothing is simply immoral. If I fall out of the sky and land hungry and bleeding in the middle of some poor pueblo of Nicaragua . . . or Indonesia or India or rural Oaxaca . . . I know people would take care of me. I just know they would.  I have personally experienced the incredible generosity of poor people around the world innumerable times.

We, the well off, the lucky, have an obligation. Share the luck.  It is only fair.

May 18, 2007 Bali Indonesia

No cobras or leeches . . . but lots of monkeys.

So we did Mt Agung, and it was a real slog.  We started at about 3000 feet, and climbed 8 hours.  The first 6000 vertical was a kind of mountain climbing I haven’t done before; climbing straight up a slippery gully through a humid tropical forest, up and over and around and through countless root wads.

We camped at about 8,000 feet, well after dark, and I just lay on a rock for about 6 hours without sleep, and then we got up at daybreak and started again.

And this is fun?  Well I can’t say the trip up through the dense forest was fun. But the last 1000 vertical feet we broke out into the open, and then it was just an easy run up the hardened lava with the whole world spread out below us. You are on top, and that makes it all worth it.

Back at camp, we were greeted by a whole clan of monkeys, which, fortunately, had not busted into our tent. They sat around eyeing us and acting like, well, monkeys as we the more advanced primates acted like humans and took photos, ate breakfast, and broke camp.

Then we climbed/slid back down over all those roots again.  Our driver and friend Gede was patiently waiting for us at the bottom, and we slumped in his car all the way back to Kuta.

I leave tomorrow, back to the western hemisphere, back to cool Olympia, back to work, a spring garden, summer backpacking and a fall trip to Oaxaca.

 

May 11, 2007

Just cobras and leeches. . .

Last night we started planning our climb of 10,000 foot Mt Agung, on the eastern side of the island of Bali.  Back in Washington, a 10,000 foot mountain is just a bump next to Mt Rainier, but here the large volcano rises impressively from sea level, and dominates the whole eastern side of the island.

We were talking with Topan, my friend’s son.  He has climbed Mt Agung four times, and will be our guide.

We were planning what to bring.  Lots of water. “I have a water purification kit,” I told Topan, noting that we could start the two day trip off with less water if we could find creeks along the way.

“No, there is no water except in the swamp that we have to cross in the beginning.”

So two days of hiking on exposed lava flow with no water.  Hmmm...

“Swamp?” I asked.

“Yes, no problem to cross. Except leeches. But we take them off.”

That was reassuring!

Surjit (my traveling partner) asked about wildlife on the mountain.

“Just monkeys and wild pigs,” Topan informed him.  OK, that didn’t sound so bad.  At least there weren’t any tigers.

But Surjit was persistent:  “Any snakes?  I hate snakes.”

“Yes, some snakes” Topan said. 

Surjit cringed.

“What about poisonous snakes, any poisonous snakes? Surjit asked.

“Only Green snake (highly poisonous) and Cobra.”

“Cobra!  OK, I’m not going.”

“Not to worry, not many cobra” Topan reassured Surjit.  “Last trip, I only see one!”

So that’s it.  We are planning to take a two day jaunt through leech infested swamps and cobra infested jungle, then climb straight up a hot dry volcano without water.

Sounds like fun!

 

May 3, 2007

Adios Oaxaca......

I returned to Olympia a few days ago.  Much to my dismay, it was still cold and rainy!  I spent the first few days shivering in my office, and the next few days planning my escape. Today I planted kale, lettuce, and broccoli in the back yard, and  tomorrow, I leave for Bali Indonesia.  I know for sure it won’t be cold there. And just to sit down in a backstreet Padang restaurant is worth the 20 hour flight.  Well, almost. I guess I must be hungry.

Sunny and good food, good 'nough reason to swing by Indonesia for a couple of weeks, even if good coffee is hard to come by. Guess I could open a cafe in Ubud. . .

April 21, 2007

Life continues without Mel

Mel never did come by Los Cuiles next day.  That’s OK.  We were plenty busy without him.  And living in southern California, he probably doesn’t appreciate good coffee.

I've been taking salsa lessons.  When I mentioned it to Jessica back in Olympia, she said it was about time I learned to make Oaxacan salsas.  No Jessica, not that kind of salsa.

Uno, dos, tres, y cinco, seis siete.  Salsa has a rhythm that this gringo doesn’t follow too well. Fall a half step behind and you’re all messed up. “You’re not listening to the music,” Mario would tell me.  Of course I wasn’t: how could I listen to the music when I concentrating on where my lead (both meanings work) left foot was supposed to go next.

Back at the café, work and life continues. I show up about 9:30 in the morning, groggy, and Bianca greets me with her energetic smile and a kiss on the cheek, Teresa peaks out from behind the espresso machine to see if I have noticed her, and Doña Hilda from the kitchen jokes that is looks like a truck ran over me in my sleep (geez, do I look that bad?).

I pull myself a strong double short Americano and slide into a seat at the open window to enjoy waking up to another beautiful sunny Oaxacan day. 

April 13, 2007

Finally, Mel Gibson gets to meet me...

Someone who almost spends as much time in the café each day as I do is Berdardo Ruiz, a Mexican artist and actor. He isn’t just a wannabe actor. . . he had a major role in Mel Gibson’s recent movie Apocalypto.  So Bernardo is somewhat of a celebrity here in Oaxaca.  Yet he is ever polite and humble. . . and hey, he likes Café Los Cuiles.

So this evening I went to go see my friend Sabina in her office, and in her office was a magazine which happens to have a full-page photo of Bernardo, and two other smaller photos of Bernardo and Mel.  “Hey, have you seen the photo of Bernardo in that magazine?” I asked Sabina.

“Oh, the one with Mel? Hey, did you know he is in Oaxaca now?  Victor saw him.  He is staying in the Camino Real.”

“Ya sure?” I said as I ran out the door.

You see, the Camino Real is around the corner from Los Cuiles, and I knew Bernardo didn’t know that Mel was in town because, well, he would have said something.

So I found Bernardo in the café tapping away on his latest Apple powerbook.

“C’mon, lets go ask at the Camino Real if he is really here,” I said.

So we walked over to the Camino Real and up to the reception desk.

“Hi, I’m Bernardo Ruiz.....I’m an actor...and I was wondering . . .”

“Yes, we know who you are” the receptionist said. (I was impressed!)

“So anyway, I heard that Sr. Gibson is here staying in the hotel. . . is that true?”

“Yes, he is staying here, but he went out.  If you want, you can wait for him here in the lobby.”

We decided to come back later, and went back to the café. 

The café was full, but Doña Yolanda the cook and Sam were handling it well, so I took up my computer, and sat in one of the window tables. Oaxaca has beautiful evenings, and just sitting in the open-air window is to inhale Oaxacan life.  Music reverberates in the little plaza as a group of young Oaxacans practice traditional folkloric dances. Across the other side, Indigenous women sell handicrafts while their kids run around the plaza playing tag.  Everywhere, people are walking and sitting and talking and out enjoying the warm evening.

You know what people are doing back home?  Watching T.V.

Wanna know why I like Mexico?

But, back to the Mel story....

When we went in to the Camino Real, there was a group of about ten people in the lobby, and before I could pick him out, Bernardo said, “There’s Mel.”

And there he was.

A group was standing to one side, and it looked like a French family had just come into the lobby and saw Mel, and now where getting their photos taken with him. The daughter, a very cute teenager, had her photo taken with him, and I’m sure she is still text messaging her friends back home about it.

Then Mel spotted Bernardo.  “Bernardo, how are you!” and a big handshake.  I was impressed that Mel remembered Bernardo’s name.  How many thousands of people does he know, and how many thousands have been on his sets?

Bernardo graciously introduced me to Mel, and we shook hands, and I became the interpreter.  How have you been, what are you doing in Oaxaca, why didn’t you tell me that Oaxaca was such a nice place, etc. etc.

So the other group that was there was Myra, who is apparently a famous Mexican TV actress (and who invited Mel to Oaxaca) and Myra’s family.

So then Myra asks Bernardo to come over and meet her family, and I am left talking with Mel.

Mel Gibson, that is. The Mel Gibson. Me...chatting with Mel Gibson.

Of course as the only native English speaker around, I was the default conversationalist!

“Where you from, what are you doing here?” he asks.  I tell him I have a little Café, and I just like coming here and hanging out and meeting famous actors and directors.

“Any come through her recently? He asked.

“Not any good ones," I said.

OK, I am lying. I don’t think I would say that to Mel Gibson. I wouldn’t want to judge his acting or directing, but in person he comes across as very friendly and down to earth. He told me how he liked to travel, how he is going to Colombia soon, “muy peligroso,” he noted.

“But I’m sure you’ve got guys who will look after you,” I said.

“No, actually I don’t do that. Don’t like bodyguards. Make me feel uncomfortable. I rather go by myself.”

I told him I had just been to Lima Peru.  “Yea, I want to go there too,” he said.  “And Costa Rica.”

“So where did you say you were from?” he asked again. (Was it my accent?)

Then he wanted to know what it was like having a café here, and how much time I spent here. He whisks in and whisks out (he is leaving tomorrow), but I have to think he wouldn’t mind scratching a few days or weeks off his busy agenda and just chilling in Oaxaca.

Finally Mel asked me if I had a light, and then quickly said, “No, you look too healthy,” and he went off to get a light from the front desk.

Bernardo introduced me to Myra. “Hola, Pablo, o Paul en ingles, mucho gusto,” I said. She wasn’t beautiful and sultry in a stereotypical Mexican actress way (like Salma Hayek, who shops in our Olympia Compass Rose store), and I wouldn’t have taken her for an actress, but she was pretty and you could sense something special about her. She asked me my name like she really wanted to know, not just to be polite. I will have to find out who she is. . .

Mel chatted it up with the hotel staff for a bit, and then came back, and Myra and her family said goodnight, leaving Bernardo and myself with Mel. Mel invited us to breakfast in the morning, we shook hands, and said goodnight. “Que descansas.”

I told Bernardo I would skip on the breakfast, but if he brought Mel by the café then I could take a picture of him with the staff.

Bernardo was happy that he had caught up with Mel, and I have to say that although I am absolutely no celebrity admirer (I think brilliant scientists, doctors, engineers, and visionaries are the real celebs) I have to say that it was fun meeting Mel. It is a little bit reassuring when you meet someone of his fame to find out that they are nice, modest, and just human, basically nothing exceptional about them except their cards fell a different way in life.   Not necessarily better or worse, just different. Life brought Mel fame and riches.  It brings other people other things of equal but less appreciated merit.

It brought me. . . a little café in Oaxaca.

 

April 8, 2007

Back in Oaxaca...

I pulled into town a week ago on an ADO bus from Mexico City.  No burning busses or blocked roads this time. In fact, a smart new 4-lane road now curves around the Cerro del Fortin and drops smoothly into Oaxaca and up to the brand new and stylish ADO bus station.  Geez, was I gone that long?

Only two months. 

But it could have been two years from the looks of things. A huge, and I mean HUGE Mexican flag . . . it must be 40 feet long . . . now flaps gloriously in the wind above the town.  In town, there are new pedestrian street crossing signs with the same irritating chirps as the ones in Olympia.  Chirp, chirp, chirp, as the little white man walks. 

And new tourists signs everywhere pointing in all directions.

Want to know which way to the Basilica de Soledad?  Just look up at the sign you are standing next to.

The government has stomped harshly on El APPO, and has obviously redoubled its efforts to lure tourists back into town.

It seems to be working.  Partially. This Easter week, the town seemed lively if not full of tourists like Easter’s past.  But they are coming back, slowly.

Meanwhile, while I was gone from Oaxaca, I had a quick but interesting trip to Lima, Peru.  I hadn’t been to Peru for years, and the Peru I remembered was the Peru of the late 1980’s (though I have been there more recently). In the 1980’s, Peru was the sorriest country I have ever seen, a country that seemed without hope.  You could see it in the faces of the population.  Despair.  Absolute, utter despair. Downtown Lima was grimy and dirty and it seemed every third person was a thief.  I got robbed twice and kidnapped once.

The Maoist group Sendero Luminoso controlled much of the countryside, and in Lima there was the fear that they would ultimately take over the country. Bombings were frequent in Lima.  One conveniently went off at the Lima airport while a gnarly customs official was holding me up.  He wanted a bribe.  I was smiling at him and playing the dumb gringo who doesn’t understand when suddenly there was a big boom and all the windows rattled, and the customs official ran off. I grabbed my pack and moved on with my loot.

Ah yes, those were the days.  Traveling to Peru was a bit dicey.

Today tourists are pouring into Peru.  Downtown historic Lima has had a face-lift. And it is clean! Much cleaner than Mexico City.  Lima doesn’t have the backdrop of other nicer cities; it sits on a less than spectacular coast, is surrounded by desert, and is covered (oddly) by a thin mist most of the year. But it no longer has the feel of a forgotten, crumbling city in a backwater country.  Lima is rising.

And Oaxaca is.... well, that remains to be seen. Some want to return Oaxaca to the stone age, others want to grab the tourist loot and run. I think Oaxaca will eventually find its own way and move forward.

 

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