Thursday, March 31, 2011

3rd Day and my birthday

My Birthday

Yesterday was the third day of the trip, and my 58th Birthday. I still cannot believe I am zooming up on 60. I don’t feel a day over 45.  But my knees disagree. And the calves are screaming NO MORE STAIRS!

The days have been so pleasant. The nights, not so much. I’ve been sleeping in my Mexican Hoodie, sweat pants with jammies underneath and two pairs of socks. There's a doubled cotton Mayan blanket on the bed plus the comforter. It’s just darned cold at night.

Wednesday morning, the computer revealed many birthday salutations from my friends on Face Book and via email. My mother and Jim called and so it didn’t feel in the least like a lonely birthday.

Beautiful peppers in the market.
Alexandra had mentioned that a water truck comes around each morning with a loud speaker booming AGUA PURIFICADA. If you need a refill on the huge water jug, you just run down and they’ll fill it up for 15 pesos. Problem is I was completely out of water after I’d made coffee, and the truck wouldn’t be around for some time. She said I could also go to the little store down the street and they’d exchange the bottle for me. It’s one of those giant water cooler bottles that hold 5 gallons and weighs a ton, when it’s full. I found the tiendita in a brown wooden shack with a window that’s open all the time. Anything one might steal is just far enough inside so the thief would have to crawl through. There’s a buzzer that is used to summon the owner. That lady exchanged my giant bottle for a full one which she passed through the window with some difficulty. Fortunately it was already at window level and I could easily get it onto my shoulder for the hike back up the hill. By the time I got the gate open again I could no longer see myself lugging that thing two more flights of stairs to the apartment. Alexandra had also left a smaller 2 liter bottle with a handle. So my plan from now on is to keep the huge water jug in the carport inside the fence and just go fetch water in the little jug.  I think that’s going to be a daily chore along with washing dishes and cooking.

Everyday views of the neighborhood.
Natalia, the upstairs neighbor was outside at her picnic table with a friend studying. She’s a teacher in Argentina, but is here getting a master’s degree. She showed me how to turn on the hot water so I could take a shower. The kitchen sink has only a single cold spigot. I guess all the camping I’ve done in life has finally paid off. I put a bucket of water out in the sun to warm up and in a couple of hours it was fine for washing the dishes. However, I still had no dish soap, so resorted to shampoo which doesn’t quite cut the mustard…..

Beautiful and Crap together....
With new shopping bag in hand, I headed down to the Merposure market around lunch time. It was still early for the Mexicans who tend to eat around 2:00. The food vendors were set up and ready for the crowds. Cooked meat with peppers and spices sat waiting in the open air under warming lamps, cutup fruit and sweet pastries were crawling with bees. I bought a nice sharp Japanese butcher knife from a little Mayan woman who had lived in the states for years and spoke English, a revelation she made long after I’d spoken plenty of broken Spanish to her. I guess when you sit in a booth all day, it’s great entertainment to make the gringas work for their purchases.

Because of the difficulty in transferring water, I wanted to buy a funnel, but nobody seemed to recognize the old Spanish word I knew for it, embudo. Instead it’s called a mercalto. There is a large store that sells really cheap plastic stuff, utensils, dishes, buckets, brooms, shopping bags, anything in the world made from plastic. A large blue bucket, a funnel, and a spatula later, I was ready to go home. But still, I needed dish soap. After a bit of exploring I found an actual American style grocery store with everything else I needed. The ride back was packed. School had let out and many people were on their way home for lunch and siesta. I got on with my big full shopping bag and blue bucket full of stuff. A lady finally got tired of watching me struggle and offered her seat next to an exceptionally wide man who took up most of the room. Then people continued to get on until we were literally pressed body to body. Sometimes it’s probably worth it to just take a taxi.
The callejon, almost outside of town.
I decided to go on a little photo expedition and wandered the callejon to an area that is still town, but mostly farmland. Up on the hill, making weird snuffling noises was a strange brown furry animal with a huge butt. Its head was in a hole and when it looked up, I could see it was a pig. It was so cute I popped out my camera but then a woman nearby shouted at me, saying something about “working” and “no pictures”. So I put the camera away. I know many of the locals don’t like to have their photos taken, but I didn’t know they’d object when it came to their animals. Maybe she thought I was going to photograph her as well, but the truth is I never saw her until she started yelling at me.

Back home, in the cool house, I took a much-needed hot shower and a nap.

My apartment is the bottom set of windows
The steep staircase.

Natalia was ready to go to dinner at 6:30. Robin didn’t come with us because he was too tired, and knew we’d be out late. His first class starts at 8:00am.  We bussed to Centro and she took me to an art exhibition. She knew all the artists and one man gave me one of his posters, a beautiful painting of transformation from ucky real life to becoming a butterfly. I’m still studying it for the symbolism it contains. I think my friend Karen who teaches dream interpretation would love it.

Natalia speaks English better than I speak Spanish, but I could understand her quite well, and she was happy to answer questions when I didn’t.

We ate at a bar where they were also holding a poetry recitation. It was quite a crowd. More than I expected. The meal was wonderful. We split a dish of tostadas with guacamole and salsa, and shared a lovely salad with fruit and pecans. Among many other conversations, she revealed that she thought the word “nuts” was only for peanuts, and I said I thought “nueces” were only pecans, and didn’t encompass all other nuts too. She enjoyed the poetry, and since I couldn’t really follow it I watched the people enjoying the antics of the poetess who reminded me of my mother with her gestures and facial expressions.

We walked down the car-free streets and she told me about the town, the issues with the Zapatistas, the government and it’s medical system, her life over the last few years which involved a very serious battle with breast cancer (she’s only 26!) and how much we both enjoyed being alive in a foreign country.   

A subsiding mountain or a mine? I'm not sure.

The entrance to Callejon Don Bosco.

Looking up my street to the little orange gate.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Apartment

I must have slept well on that lumpy bed at the Posada. After dozing off, the next thing I saw was daylight beyond the curtains and the room was warm.  There had to have been numerous people staying there, because down the portal to the bano, there were towels hanging over the banisters. The young man who’d been there the evening before was mopping and when he saw me he motioned me to go upstairs to use the shower. I thought it was a roof but no; there were half a dozen more rooms up there. And the views from the roof were beautiful. The whole town is surrounded by steep verdant mountains. Most of the rooftops here are tile, probably better for the massive amounts of rain they’ll get later in the summer.  But unlike Portland or Seattle, there is no moss growing in the cracks of the sidewalks, no green moldy streaks on the walls of buildings. There is however a plethora of graffiti. I’m told the drug cartels are not prevalent here but there are clearly active gangs. However, some of the graffiti is in English and says things like “Dogs Rule” and “Wild Love”.

The little restaurant from the previous night had shown Chilequiles on the breakfast menu and I remembered how much I loved that dish in San Miguel. So I headed back to Tierra Adentro after I met the landlady and got the keys. The Chilequiles were a filling though only passable breakfast, not like the exquisite dish I remember. The coffee was quite good. Chiapas is a coffee producing state and famous for some varieties of beans, however, most of it is exported. What is sold in stores and delivered in most restaurants is instant Nescafe. Gag!! So when I find a decent cup of coffee it’s worth savoring. 

Back at the Posada, I packed my stuff and checked my pocket for the keys. They weren’t there. I looked everywhere, thinking I might have mindlessly stuck them into a side pocket of the rolling backpack, or something, anything. Finally in a near panic I returned to the restaurant where the waiter found them under the table. I’ve never had keys fall out of a pocket while I was sitting down before. It made me nervous all day long, wondering if I’d lose them again.
The 'Great Room", kitchen, dining, living....
The cab ride was quite long, but not because the apartment is so far away. The streets are narrow, crowded and mostly one way, so getting out of the downtown area simply takes a while. The cab driver knew the area and got me to the bottom of Callejon Don Bosco, but he cringed when he looked up the narrow street. Not only was it steep, it was in pieces. At the very top I could see the orange gate Alexandra had told me about, and the “Se Vende” Remax banner the landlady mentioned. We inched our way up the “ugly” road and then my key wouldn’t fit into the lock on the chain. The cabbie hopped out and quickly ascertained the lock on the chain wasn’t actually holding the gate together. The lock that should have been securing the gate was just sitting there, not pushed in at all. What a relief after the first key fiasco. I got inside the yard and locked the padlock. Then proceeded to drag my two suitcases over gravel and up the equivalent of two flights of concrete stairs to an orange house way up at the top of the property. The house is a large rectangular block, two stories. My apartment is in the bottom. The larger one on top is rented to two teachers, who weren’t home. The yard is huge, with room enough for a whole other house. And behind rises a mountain covered in jungle.

Cooking anything elaborate will be a challenge!
The place is tiny and ‘shotgun’. The front room is the size of an average bedroom in a ranch style house. It has a sink along one wall, with a two burner gas stove to the side. There’s a small refrigerator with a microwave on top. And next to that is a shelving unit with a nice top and four open wire ‘drawers’ for fruits and vegetables. Under the sink is a shelf full of dishes, two pots and one skillet. There was no food, not even salt and pepper. The door leads into a bedroom half the size of the front room. In it are two single beds that are side by side with maybe one foot of gap between them and less than a foot gap to walk around the ends. I’m thinking I might rearrange to make them perpendicular to each other, but I’m not sure there’s room to do that. No chest of drawers, only a single shelf on the wall, and a small closet. Another door leads to a bathroom with a hanging sink, toilet and shower spigot on the wall opposite the sink which does actually have hot water coming out. When and if John ever shows up, I’m not sure how we’ll cope. He’s not going to enjoy the five story climb from the bottom of the hill to the apartment, and neither of us will find any privacy. The bathroom is barely large enough to turn around in. I’m 5’2”. I think the ceiling of the bathroom is 7 inches above my head. Anyone approaching 6 feet would have instant claustrophobia.

I made up the beds and with spreads they looked downright cheery. There is a large window that opens onto the view of the valley and mountains to the east. I think the Posada owner furnished this apartment with reject beds from the hotel. They are even harder and lumpier. But since I slept so well snuggled between the lumps last night I didn’t worry about it. All unpacked and with my few items put away, I sat on the bed and smelled the humid cool breeze and listened to the birds making noises I’ve never heard before. Suddenly, it hit me. I’m going to be here for 4 whole weeks and I just burst into delighted laughter. Funky as the place is, it’s comfortable enough. Every day is going to be an adventure!

Next on the agenda: shop for food. Merposur was the name of the market Alexandra recommended. It’s the smaller and closer of the two in town. I also met Natalia, the young Argentinean teacher upstairs. She said buses run on the main road all the time, just go down there and catch one.

Sure enough, one came by within a few minutes and I hopped on. I had no shopping bag so purchased one of those large woven plastic bolsas with the sturdy handles, then loaded up on my favorite things. Two avocados ripe for today, a bag of mangos, two bags of dried beans, limes, onions, tomatoes, garlic powder, some chard, a bunch of those tiny red bananas, and double cream queso. I was weighted down and still didn’t find ground coffee, salt, or eggs. But I had plenty to bring home and make a nice little lunch. It was getting hot and I was over dressed. The house is concrete and rock, plus it’s set into the earth. Inside is lovely and cool.

I couldn’t get the Internet device the landlady gave me to work. I thought maybe Natalia would know since she must also have one. Her husband Robin was home for lunch. I thought he was German or maybe even Mexican and spoke Spanish for the longest time till he said something in English with a slightly British accent and I almost fell over. He’s from London. And of course, he knew how to get the device to work. I guess it’s kind of like a cell phone; the USB device is the antenna. No phone at this house either, but incredible internet service.

I stayed home till about 5:00. The school at the bottom of the hill let out at 2:30, just like they do in Eronga. Shortly thereafter the neighborhood was entertained with tune-challenged band practice.

I looked out the window and saw billowing smoke down the hill from the school, and shortly thereafter heard the sirens. It is too wooded to see what was on fire but the smoke was gone within an hour. The forest above the house is pretty dry. Although the building is concrete, plenty of damage could be done if smoke were to get inside.

Beautiful clouds.
Around 4:30 I thought I ought to go to the Centro and do a bit more shopping. The bus dropped me at the place where, last night at midnight, people were holding an outdoor flea market. The centro was packed. Some dancers performed on a stage in front of the super-white government building. I walked back up the street where I’d had breakfast and stumbled onto a supermarket with no sign in front. I just happened to glance through the open door. They had all the things I really needed and can rarely find in the open-air markets, like coffee and soymilk. I should have planned ahead better and eaten dinner, then shopped. Loaded down again, I hopped on the bus at the same location. It took me to the other enormous market which was so crowded with people and cars that it took almost 2 hours to get out of there and back to my little apartment. One of these days soon, I’ll know my way around. And I’ll know how to plan the day, shop wisely, and dress appropriately.

One of the traffic-free streets around sunset. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Crossing the Border

Crossing the border was a trip. Larry, my cousin, arranged a taxi to take me to the bridge on Stanton Street in El Paso, Texas. The driver dropped me at the bridge, which, on the American side, was under construction. With dirt walkways and barricades, I felt like I was already in a third world country. By contrast, the arching bridge descended into Mexico to smooth new sidewalks. A guy in an army uniform pawed gently through my bags and waved me on. There was no signage indicating how I should get a visa, or even that I might need one. Good thing I knew to ask. There was no cost for the visa (surprise!). The immigration guy asked for my driver’s license, which I had left behind in my wallet at Larry’s house. I certainly won’t be driving in the next month but in retrospect that was probably not the brightest idea I’ve had lately. Now I’ll have to take my passport everywhere with me.

The tiny Rio Grande in Juarez, from the top of the bridge.
Two very poor looking fellows walking along the sidewalk got very excited when I said I needed a taxi. They waved one over and insisted on putting my bags into the cab. I tipped with the four quarters I had in my pocket and they seemed happy even though it wasn’t immediately spendable.

The cabbie was a cute round faced fellow who didn’t speak any English at all, so we had an entertainingly stilted conversation about all the American companies like Wendy’s, Auto Zone, WalMart, Sally’s Beauty Supply, and Lucerne (Leche Lucerna) that permeate Ciudad Juarez. I told him there weren’t as many of those in the south and he seemed surprised.

The tiny, four gate airport was almost deserted. I suppose there are many planes that leave early, then another glut towards mid-day when mine takes off. With three hours to wait, I think my desire to have plenty of time might have been overkill.  But I learned a few things. My visa was not free and in fact I need to go to some/any bank and pay for it, then turn it back in before I leave the country. The man who explained the rules to me was about the fourth person to handle it, and he noticed the slip of paper attached that is apparently the bill, M$250.  He said “You don’t forget to pay now ok?” What a laid back system!

The flight into Mexico City was long but sitting next to me was a lovely young lady whose Mexican parents had raised her in Las Vegas, Nevada. We had a great chat about her recent trip to Argentina, plans for the future, and her desire to get dual citizenship. There are a lot of advantages to being Mexican. For one thing you don’t have to pay huge “retaliation” fees to South American countries when you visit them.  Mexico doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for a visa, so they don’t over-charge the Mexicans in return.

Mexico City's odd concrete airport.
Mexico City literally stinks, and from three or four thousand feet up. My nose and throat were burning before we touched down, there’s so much pollution and smog. We descended thru the brownest cloud I’ve ever seen, and I’ve landed in Los Angeles in the wintertime!! Being inside the terminal didn’t help in the least. To top off the gross air, I kept looking around and seeing concrete. Concrete walls, ceiling, floors….all monstrous thick spans of concrete. I just kept telling myself, the chances of a massive earthquake right now is pretty slim, but I was incredibly grateful to be back up in the air.

I keep meeting people who want to put me in touch with other people. It seems to be a Mexican ‘thing’. The fellow sitting next to me was the Minister in charge of Ecology and ensuring the survival of the wonderfully varied ecosystems throughout the country. He wrote down his name and the names of the directors of Palenque and some river preserve I hadn’t heard about. I’m to look them up and tell them he sent me. I’m not sure what that will ‘get’ me, but heck, it can’t hurt. An insider’s look at Palenque would be incredible.  Just meeting interesting people is fun by itself.

It felt good to be in Tuxtla-Guitierrez. It felt like central Mexico, moist, humid, warm but not sweltering, the buildings looked familiar in their bright turquoise, orange, pink, green and electric blue colors. By the time I got on the last leg of transport, a Mercedes van, it was night. A shame. I would have enjoyed seeing the scenery whiz past, but alas, I took a much-needed nap and woke up in San Cristobal.

A taxi to the Posada, owned by my landlady, to pick up the key, and then another short ride to the apartment, and I will be ‘home’. Could the day possibly go any smoother? Well, yes it could. And it could have, but it didn’t.

Typical room at the Posada, note the sexy photos!
I am now writing this sitting on the lumpiest bed I’ve ever known, in a $6.50 a night room, because the landlady was gone and none of the people working at the Posada knew anything about me, or a key, or an apartment, nada, nada, nothing. I had her cell phone, could they call her for me? My phone was dead. Nope. No telephone.

However, there was a room available. And Wi-Fi. The fastest Wi-Fi I’ve ever seen. Either they have some exquisite new technology down here in Mexico, or I’m the only person using it.So how is it that a hotel has NO phone but super fast Internet?

Bring your own towel to the Posada with its shared bathroom.
The bathroom is down the hall, and the young kid who brought up my bags was very proud of the fact that the shower has hot water 24/7. I sort of assumed it would have hot water, but I guess that’s a recent addition/improvement. Maybe they should think about adding a phone line, it might improve their business.  I may be sharing the bathroom with other people, but I haven’t seen another soul. I haven’t seen the landlady either, and she supposedly lives here.

So I traipsed off down the street to seek out some sustenance since all I’d eaten was a bag of airline peanuts, apple juice, and a couple of beef jerky sticks since breakfast. Several streets appear to be traffic-free, are lined with restaurants and packed with people. Music blared from each open doorway and some customers sat outside on little metal tables.  In the Centro were more restaurants, and an open-air market. Probably fifty vendors sat around on blankets, wrapped up in rebosos and warm sweaters with their handmade linens, hats, scarves, blankets, shoes, handbags, and jewelry spread out in front. I wandered by after 11:00. It was DARK. If a customer showed some interest, the vendors would enhance streetlight illumination with a strong flashlight. And there was no shortage of customers. Mexico never ceases to amaze me….what people will do to earn a living! And how late everyone stays up. Back in bed after midnight, a live band, distant blaring TVs, and the occasional siren serenaded me to sleep.

View from the Posada's roof of San Cristobal.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Canyon of the Ancients

Back today from a weekend at Canyon of the Ancients in SW Colorado. Bill Priedhorsky, fearless leader of the previous canyoneering experience, organized this one as well. I will add, he did a great job. There were probably 40 of us, and we all managed to arrive on Thursday night, get up in the morning and be organized into troops (like baboons) to go out on expeditions. One group led by Momo (sound like a good baboon name? Sorry Momo, I couldn't resist....) went off on an eleven or twelve mile hike through the newish national monument called Canyons of the Ancients, up the Sand Canyon route. The rest of us went with archeologists on a private tour of the Kelly Place property (the B&B where we stayed, check out their website: to see exceptional ruins in pristine condition. There were two archeologists, a young energetic newly minted PhD named Joel, and an old long-winded codger with a bushy beard and thick glasses named Jim Colleran. I wiggled my way into the group that looked like it would be going with Jim. What a character! I fell in love with him before we'd stepped off the sandy bottom onto the trails.

Jim and Bill, Fearless Leaders

We climbed natural stairs in the sandstone for a hundred feet up to a 'level' and walked along the base of steeper cliffs reminiscent of Arches and Moab. There were 'alcoves' in the rock, naturally occurring deep shelters in which the ancestral puebloans built their cliff dwellings. Hiking up to those was somewhat treacherous. Along the way we stopped often to see some interesting artifacts on the trail, places where they had sharpened their stone tools on other stones leaving long slim grooves, pottery shards, depressions that indicate a long filled kiva, mounds telling of buried house walls and other interesting bits that the untrained eye would simply swoop over. In the alcoves we learned of different building styles, how to roughly tell whether it was built locally or with Chacoan influence, whether it was old or more modern, 800 AD vs 1300 AD.  Mesa Verde, the entire mesa, is visible at the east end of the canyon, so we speculated whether or not they had used smoke signals or light signals for long distant communication. In the arroyos I looked for, but didn't find, evidence of dams. Jim said the Anasazi built all kinds of damns, they saved every precious drop of water they could, but evidence of them has long vanished in subsequent floods. 

He told of a nearby 'find' where 19 people had been cannibalized. The bones were scraped, boiled, the marrow removed, and the gourmands' caprolites (turds) were found in the fireplace ashes. When you eat a human, there are enzymes the body cannot process and the enzymes end up in the poop. Sure enough, those were present. We found many shards of different types of pottery. A bowl is one painted on the inside, a jar is painted on the outside. If there is painting on both sides, it's still a jar. Go figure....

Ruins on the Sand Canyon Trail

We learned about the many uses of Yucca fibers, how they were extracted from the leaves, and how modern pueblo people still use them for fine paint brushes. The old ones made ropes, sandals, wove material, and probably had dozens more uses for the tough little fibers. They raised turkeys and had domesticated dogs. They split turkey feathers and wove the fuzzy edges of the feathers into warm blankets. Jim was a wealth of information and his enthusiasm was contagious. He was also an amazingly strong man. He carried a full pack with emergency gear and plenty of extra water in case someone didn't bring enough. It was no 'girly' pack. 

We hiked down the trails stopping at various sights, the last of which was a very deep alcove with only the smallest ruin at one end. It was pretty modern and the rest of the alcove had a large deep sand floor. The blackened ceiling spoke of maybe 10,000 years of periodic human occupation. Every one of the sites had a spectacular view of the opposing snow covered mountain range, a sunny warm southern exposure, a kiva or two, and no obvious source of flowing water. It amazes me that not only did people survive here, but their populations got large enough to spread out and even, perhaps, surpass the region's ability to support them all. An ecological lesson we should keep in mind with our 7 billion-plus population on the planet right now. 

Hiking along the canyon edge