Archive | October, 2014

This Animal Once Had a Head… And, there it is!

26 Oct

You know you’ve been living in a “developing” country for a while when you see an article titled “Hand-washing Dos and Don’ts” and you assume it’s going to give you tips on washing clothes by hand instead of discussing hand hygiene. Or when you can haggle over prices and only feel slightly embarrassed instead of too mortified to even try. Or when riding your bike through the mud is an regular occurrence (during rainy season) and not an extreme sport. Or when things like a car radio become complete and utter luxuries, things that are so far down on your list of things to buy “someday when we have the money” that you cease to even dream about them. Or when it’s no longer strange to see entire families on a motorcycle. 

But the biggest sign that I am no longer new to southern Mexico is, of course, food-related. Specifically, this long-time vegetarian has a very different relationship to animal products. Granted, I have always been a vegetarian that ate meat while traveling in a different country, because a) I want to try everything, and b) people often offer you, the visitor, fabulous hospitality which may include animal flesh of some kind, and I really don’t like to snub my nose at such niceness unless it’s absolutely necessary. So in Chile I ate beef empanadas and completos (hot dogs, really, with avocado and mayonnaise and other such Chilean-style dressings- only while drunk). In Italy I probably ate my weight in salami (which was one of my favorite meats from childhood anyway) and proscuitto. In Ireland I tried black and white pudding (NOT a sweet treat- it’s blood sausage!), among other things that can be eaten with or without potatoes. In Argentina I ate milanesa galore (totally not exotic- just breaded meat). When I visited Mexico before moving here, I got invited to try turtle stew and turtle eggs (the eggs were good, the stew was a texture I wasn’t thrilled about). A couple days later, I was horrified to find out that what I had eaten was a protected species in the area. But such are the adventures of a traveling vegetarian willing to try anything.

Living here is a bit different. We mostly eat at home, and what I cook hasn’t really changed. Most days of the week my diet is full of fruits and vegetables and eggs and grains and a little dairy. Conan occasionally buys and cooks some kind of meat, some of which I’ll eat bits of and other things I don’t. There are all kinds of “weird” not-vegetarian things I have learned to adore, like chicatanas (a kind of fly-ish insect that you make a sauce from). There are other things that I still haven’t convinced myself to try (like chapulines, these grasshopper-like things they sell lots in Oaxaca City- my friend Corrina swears she was burping “spicy grasshoppers” for days afterwards). 

We do eat some meat on a semi-regular basis. Every once in a while someone gives us a live chicken, for example, or Paulina kills one of her chickens, and I’ll eat the hell out of that (especially if there’s mole sauce involved). That said, I haven’t yet learned how to kill one and clean it yet (or really to cook it, for that matter). Someone else always ends up doing it for us. It was on my list of things to learn this year but I have yet to accomplish it. Maybe for Christmas. I am a chicken connoisseur now, however, in that I can pretty quickly tell the difference in taste and texture between  pollo de rancho and  pollo de granja (de rancho is a chicken from someone’s back yard, that’s been eating worms and table scraps, and de granja is mass-produced and are always fattier, for one thing).

I have learned how to cook fresh fish, though. And you know we’re not in the U.S. because we cook it and serve it complete; head, tail, eyes and all (you do take out the insides first). And it’s funny because it doesn’t gross me out in the slightest. I don’t think it even did at first. Maybe it’s the result of years of preparation, from my mother telling me stories about her childhood visit to Mexico, being served a fish with the eye staring up at her. Or maybe it’s just that I suppose if you’re going to eat an animal, you might as well admit that it’s an animal. So there I am, picking the last bits of meat from the head, leaving the bones like a cartoon version of what the cat pulls from the trash (pretty much the only time we see all the fish bones in Louisville, Kentucky- on cartoons). Most often the fish I’m eating has been pulled from the ocean that morning by Conan’s uncle, and every last bit of it is delicious

Conan eating the whole fish! Can't find my picture of the whole fish I cooked recently : (

Conan eating the whole fish! Can’t find my picture of the whole fish I cooked recently : (

I reassessed my vegetarian-inclined limits again the other day when we went to Conan’s friend’s house for brunch. His friend is a butcher and told Conan he’d be killing a pig that day. For better or for worse, I didn’t eat before leaving our house, banking on the fact that if nothing else I could eat tortillas. We went out back to his open-air “workshop,” where the pig’s head, along with other parts, were still hanging from meathooks. “Yep, definitely pork meat on the table” I confirmed to myself.

We hung out and talked as he continued to prepare the meat. Much of the ribs and other choice cuts, which he’d already finished preparing, would go to a near-by restaurant where Conan and I eat sometimes. As we chatted, he was chopping the skin and other leftover pieces into chunks to fry, a food called buces (maybe kind of like pork rinds, but fresh and thicker? I don’t think I’ve ever had pork rinds, so I can’t be sure). We were going to eat the buces for brunch, so I pretty much resigned myself to tortillas then, since I’d had buces before and the texture does nothing for my appetite. But the company was good and Lucia was in seventh heaven with their super docile chihuahua, who was happy to be picked up and rather roughly handled by my kiddo for long periods of time.

fresh pork meat

fresh pork meat

Conan’s friend was telling us that he doesn’t normally make buces, that usually those parts he uses to make lard. So it was like a special treat that we were having buces. I thought again about perspective being everything in life. But then, when the buces were pulled out of the fryer, he set aside some parts that were mostly meat, which Lucia and I tried. And we both liked it! So as it turned out we had tortillas and avocado and some pork, not to mention a successful visit where I didn’t have to feel awkward and embarrassed about refusing someone’s food.

the giant vat of oil for buces and lard

the giant vat of oil for buces and lard

buces- the finished product

buces- the finished product

Not only that, but I surprised myself by how not-grossed-out I was in the whole situation. I think it actually may help me eat meat when I am seeing where it comes from. I even cooked the chorizo he gave us and ate some of it myself (which, really, is easy to eat because it’s loaded with garlic and chile guajillo, yum). Granted, I’m still never exactly excited about the meat hanging on racks in the market, or the ladies constantly waving the flies away from their grilled salty fish. I have zero plans to try and incorporate more meat into my diet, because I don’t think it’s necessary, really. I like the relationship I have now with animal flesh, in which it’s something special and not everyday, certainly not for every meal. I like that I can look forward to freshly-killed-chicken tamales for Day of the Dead next week. I like that I can eat some fresh chorizo every once in a blue moon and not worry about all the grease and my cholesterol or whatever, because it’s only every once in a while. I like that we spend less money by not buying meat. I like that we use less resources by not consuming much meat. And even though there are some animal parts that you’ll never talk me into liking (such as chicken feet and cow feet, but which I have tried, thank you), I still like that all the animal gets used here, that there is constant acknowledgment of what this is and where it’s come from.

So while some perspective changes are kind of sad, while I’d prefer to still be driving down the road screaming along with some Sleater-Kinney or Against Me, while I wish I never, ever had to think about washing any clothes by hand, other perspective changes are pretty cool. I guess I gotta take the good with the bad, eyeballs staring back and all!

The Tropical Paradise Version of Snow-Days

19 Oct

We don’t get a whole lot of rainfall around here, which is good since it is practically a state of emergency every time it rains. It’s kind of like in my hometown, where just the threat of snow is often enough to cancel school, despite the fact that it usually snows a few times every year. We know it’s coming, we know it’s that time of year, yet still we act like it is some outrageous event. Here, even without cancelled classes, you’ve gotta appreciate a rainy day as if it were a holiday, because who knows when the next one will be.

During the rainy season here (late May through the end of October, peaking in September), it mostly rains for short periods in the evening or at night, and we might go up to a week or two between showers. I think it only rained once or twice the whole month of July this year. It certainly doesn’t rain every day, or usually for very long periods, unless we’re getting the effects of a nearby hurricane.

The rain is usually like a nice summer rain, cooling things down a little but not making it cold, just turning down the humidity for at least an hour or two. I like it best when it rains in the late evening, turning down the heat and making soothing sounds for bedtime. I have to admit, though, that with as little rain as we get, any time it rains is kind of okay. Despite being the vitamin D lover that I am, here in the land of 350ish days of sunshine, even I can appreciate a nice cloudy day, too.

An overcast day, view from my back door

An overcast day, view from my back door

But the rain, when it’s not while everyone’s sleeping, is totally inconvenient and often a bit chaotic. Streets that are paved don’t have any real drainage system, so there are huge puddling problems and flash flooding in many areas. Dirt roads can also get ugly, like on one of the streets near our house where even big trucks get stuck in the mud when it rains hard. Our other exit route is a little bit safer, although for one block half of the street has a line where the wet ground sinks down below the rocks, making a mini-creek while the rain is pouring down. Luckily it’s small enough to avoid as long as you know it’s there. It causes a big puddle at the bottom of the hill, but nothing we haven’t been able to pass so far.

Imagine the mini waterfall when it rains, on the road near my house

Imagine the mini waterfall when it rains, on the road near my house

If you have a car, the rain’s not so bad, except that the already erratic driving of the general public is worse. Many people go at a snail’s pace, even in spots where the road is just fine. Other folks are speeding, but all over the road, avoiding large puddles. People are still out on their motorcycles (for lack of other transport), although their ability to see the road is reduced thanks to the rain in their eyes, and your ability to see them is lessoned as well.

If you don’t have a car when it’s raining and you have to go out, there’s a totally different set of problems. Everyone and their mom will be trying to take a taxi, so you may or may not get one. Even if you find a free taxi, they are likely to charge you extra (up to double, some bastards), taking advantage of the rain. If you’re walking, you either need rain boots, or you just wear sandals and plan to have wet and muddy feet until you get home (and trust me, wet feet in sandals get dryer and are more comfortable than wet feet in tennis shoes all afternoon). Of course public transport is running rain or shine, but you still have to walk a bit to get to where you are going, most of the time. And some routes change a bit for the rain; for example the bus that goes closest to our house stops where the pavement ends, instead of just a block from our house, which is a four block difference.

And all of us, even though we know that sometimes the rain lets loose suddenly, are guilty of walking around totally unprepared. Several times now I’ve had both of my rain ponchos in the office at work and there’s an afternoon storm while I’m home on lunch break. Or vice versa, I’m at work and I’ve left all relevant gear at home. Alas. So there I am like everybody else, looking surprised and betrayed by the actual presence of rain during the rainy season.

This weekend there was a tropical storm (the light version of a hurricane) that hit along the coast of Oaxaca and Guerrero- not too far from us, but not too close, either, thank goodness. We got two days and two nights of nearly constant rain, ranging from a drizzle to a heavy downpour. And it was actually chilly for the entire two days! Lucia and I wore pants with gusto, stockings and boots, and even a hoody! It was kind of fun to come home from work at 1:30 in the afternoon and not be sweating. On Friday, lunch break felt like a real break; Conan had made vegetable soup, the perfect fix for the weather. We watched a kid movie that Lucia had picked out and ate popcorn (the real kind, popped on the stove, of course), the three of us cuddled up in the bed, cozy and dry while it poured outside. When I got home that night (nice and dry, thanks to having my rain gear and Conan picking me up in the car at the edge of campus), it was still rainy and getting even chillier. We made hot chocolate and ate muffins that Conan and Lucia had picked up in the afternoon. Lucia got to wear some PJs she hadn’t seen in months, whole-body ones with a cat that she screamed “cute” about when she saw it. Conan and I got to cuddle up under a blanket, the rain lulling us all to a peaceful sleep. I declared it a holiday, hands-down.

I told my mom recently that I really enjoy the rain, and luckily she wasn’t eating anything in that moment or she would’ve choked to death from shock. “You like the rain? And clouds? Did you just say that? Since when?” And it’s true, I haven’t been particularly positive about gray, dreary, bleak, cold weather. Not when I was living in Ireland, the land that only looks green and lovely in photos because mostly they catch it in the 10 minutes per day of sunshine. Not in November in Kentucky, a month full of gray day after gray day. Certainly not in Juquila, where there are 6 months of being trapped inside. But here, where gray is an anomaly, where slipping into jeans or boots is typically a sacrifice for style, where sunblock is a way of life, where a nice mug of hot tea is rarely enjoyable, rain is kind of amazing. Yes, it catches us unawares and we may curse it’s inconvenience, but you can’t live in paradise all the time, and even its dreariness is a nice change of pace. Perspective truly is everything, and every rainy day moment can be like a snow-day holiday if you take it with the right attitude, and maybe some Mexican hot chocolate.

Ode to my Mercado, City Center of my Heart

12 Oct

I adore el mercado, the market. I love that it’s our unofficial city center, even though here in Puerto Escondido it’s not where the plaza is, not where the government buildings are, not where the cathedral is. Our town’s important structures are scattered, not centered in one central plaza, defying Spanish colonization’s mandates about the heart and soul of the place. No, around here the heart of our town is far from the church and the government, right in the chaos and raging colors of the mercado.

I love that the market encompasses an entire block, and is the landmark for everything in like a mile radius around it. I love it’s vibrancy and the madhouse variety of things you can buy within it. You can buy hammocks, mosquito netting, clothing, shoes, cleaning supplies, errand bags, birthday candles, toys, plastic tupperware, floats and beach balls, tacky souvenirs, and much more.

Mosey down the row of fresh flowers for a break from the onslaught of recently killed meat that’s hanging out in your face (try passing that with morning sickness- whew!) You can eat at a multitude of budget-priced comedores (dining areas which in this case are all close together in rows, each its own restaurant but mostly offering such similar food and the seating so limited it might as well be all one restaurant). You can get fresh juice and smoothies at many stands (Lucia and I love “vampire” juice- beet and carrot and oranges, yum). You can go down the row that’s half full of tamales and half uncooked local or wild food (like squash blossoms and chile tusta and verdulagas). There are plentiful herbs everywhere for cheap, including basil, although people here think it’s totally bizarre to eat basil, since they use it to cleanse people of negative energy or to attract customers to their business.

Most often we go there for the several rows of produce stalls. Of course, there’s no refrigeration, no sudden “showers” washing it off every half hour. Some produce is fresher than others, of course. There are two days a week when huge deliveries come in from Oaxaca City (which is really stuff that’s grown in various parts of Mexico and beyond), so those two days are prime pickings. Inside these areas of the market you might suddenly one day come across brussel sprouts, okra or snap peas, none of which qualify as a normal find around here. You can always get ginger and eggplant and a few other things that never seem to appear in the typical Oaxacan diet, but must get used somehow because they seem in-demand enough. And of course all the staples are at every stall, year-round- tomatoes, onion, jalepeño, etc. 

Even more fun than the normal stalls are the folks that post up along the back row, behind the meat and fish and cheese and chickens rows, on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I wouldn’t call it a farmers’ market because some of what they’re selling is still just imported from who-knows-where. But there are always several folks (especially little old ladies and children, mothers with babies at the breast) who are indeed selling stuff from their land at really good prices. There are six year olds who put U.S. teens to shame with their rapid ability to make correct change. And their food is fresh and free from chemicals. This is where I buy my jicama and sweet potato, red bananas, limes, baby onions that don’t quite qualify as spring onions, and all kinds of other deliciousness.

Misperos, the newest fruit I've tried from the back row Saturday market (delicious! a little like peaches but no fuzz, big seeds inside)

Misperos, the newest fruit I’ve tried from the back row Saturday market (delicious! a little like peaches but no fuzz, big seeds inside)

And if you are bringing the kids, not to worry because there’s a playground attached to the market. If you want to splurge you can buy a popsicle or an ice cream from one of the seemingly hundreds of vendors pushing their little cart around. You can people watch, which in itself could be an all-day adventure. You can run up and down the ramps that go from one section to another- an extra exciting fun time if you’re a two year old, particularly. Or find a fallen lime and you can have a mini soccer game. The market is anything but boring.

Lucia on the swings at the market

Lucia on the swings at the market

And if that weren’t enough right there, I love that there are a ton of other vendors right outside the market’s walls, selling fruits and vegetables and fish and other random wares, usually for cheaper than inside the market, every day of the week. Some are selling giant watermelons from their truck for 10 pesos each (less than a dollar, folks). Or selling papaya from a wheelbarrow. Or they’ve got a bicycle cart full of coconuts. There’s folks just standing around or sitting on the ground selling hammocks or nopales or matches or whatever. On all the streets surrounding the market, you can buy food for cooking, ready-to-consume snacks and drinks (including the fresh cut coconut for 1/3 of the price you pay on the beach), clothing, and more, right there outside. It’s like the market just keeps on expanding, chaotically and beautifully, all around, making the heart of my town bigger and bigger, making my love of this town grow along with it.

The Ongoing Fight Against Self-Pity and Rage, through Rain and Shine

5 Oct

I was writing my blog this morning when I ran out of battery on the computer. Sadly, this is not a rare occurrence, but it’s still incredibly frustrating. Because then I have to figure out where I’m going to charge it, if I’m going to try to finish writing and post it all in the same space, if this can happen before Lucia’s nap time or not, and other such relevant questions. And then I decided I better go ahead and do some housework meanwhile, and set about washing two weeks worth of socks and underwear for the three of us (it’s too weird to get strangers to wash your underwear). I despise hand-washing clothes, and because the computer had no battery I couldn’t listen to music while washing. I was trying to feel grateful about the fact that we had water, but my passionate hatred for washing was winning out. I even got to have a long phone chat with my best friend, and still I was grumpy. And I had other house work to do, and still a blog post to finish. I was pissy that I hadn’t done my yoga video like I’d wanted to (again, because of lack of computer battery) and I really just wanted to lay around and finish reading the cheesy murder mystery I was reading. I was pretty much seething with resentment and self-pity, irritation radiating from my body like heat from the oven.

And really, you can’t write a decent blog post or have any real interaction with the universe when you’re a big ball of self-pity and simmering anger. So I decided I’d have to write a very different kind of piece. I’ve been writing down three things I’m grateful for everyday. Well, most days, while I sip my morning coffee or tea, in those glorious but brief moments of alone time before I do exercise and get ready for work. I leave my notebook out in case Conan wants to take a peek, but I never share them anywhere. I’m hoping it’ll help my mood and my attitude if I share some recent highlights. So here goes. Hopefully it won’t come off like those facebook posts from folks who are severely over-sharing (guys, I don’t need to know how many times you’ve gone to the bathroom today.). But ha! It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to (to the tune of that horrendous Lesley Gore song I adored as a small child- “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”… and yes my child is turning out just as weird as I was!)

Today I am super pleased that Conan put Lucia’s carseat in our car! I’m grateful we finally have a car in the first place, and I’m so relieved that I can quit yelling at Lucia to sit the hell down while the car is moving, that I can quit envisioning her flying through the windshield as she tries to climb from the front seat to the back, the way I know my mom did when she was a kid (which got her 3 days of unconsciousness).

I’m grateful that my mom sent me some maternity clothes, because out of the 10 shirts in the maternity section of the only department store (the only place I’ve found ANY maternity clothes), 9 of them are utterly appalling. I’ve decided that if I lose my job as an English teacher, I owe it to myself and to the women and families of Puerto Escondido to open a shop and information center focused on needs during pregnancy and for babies. Because there’s nothing here! It’s crazy the way people do without! Wearing shirts that are too small for them, wearing “batas” (think something like a muumuu). And the lack of information is just as extreme- like all the people who are sure they can only have another C-section just because they had one (often because the doctor is guessing that their baby will be “too big”). There’s so much lacking that I’m thrilled with my backup plan- Puerto Escondido’s own version of Mama’s Hip in Louisville.

I’m grateful for my creative cooking skills, and all the days when I make a dish that is precisely what I wanted to be savoring, and healthy to boot. I’m grateful that my outlandish chocolate cravings during this pregnancy are mostly controllable with a small weekly treat, although I wish Conan would commit himself to hiding a Nutella jar for me so I could have just one half hour alone with it first, without stressing about eating the whole thing. I won’t buy a jar of it until he promises. (And no, don’t give me any tricks on handling a sweet tooth because I’m not craving other sweets or sugary junk- mostly just gobs and gobs of chocolate. Which I didn’t even like as an adult until I was pregnant with Lucia. Thanks, hormones.)

I’m grateful for all the help from family near and far. My family in the north has sent big chunks of money our way for a car, and then my aunt and her best friend (my honorary extra aunt, Anita) sent money for car repairs, out of the blue. Now my dad’s planning to get us the money for a generator. And Conan’s mom is constantly helping us out with tons of bits and pieces that add up- a bag of coffee here, a pound of beans there, all the eggs from her hens, cell phone top-up minutes as she continues to include our cell phone business in her store, and much more. Plus when she comes to visit I always come home to find lots of extra cleaning has happened and more meals are cooked. She gives us a break with Lucia, too, even changing poopy diapers! If that’s not sacrifice I don’t know what is. And Conan’s aunt here in Puerto is always sending us fish freshly-caught by her husband, and not letting us pay her for it. And her three sons, Conan’s cousins, are always helping us out in different ways as well- his cousin Cheko recharging our lamps and freezing ice for our cooler, his cousin Daniel making doors and windows for us (slowly but surely) in exchange for Conan teaching English to his kids. (Yes, guys, we now have a real door on our bathroom!!) Between the two of us, I’m pretty sure we have the most helpful and generous family on Earth, which is a big something to be grateful for.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Lucia has started to potty-train herself, too. I say she’s training herself because all of my intents and efforts were for naught. Bribes for stickers, cajoling, convincing, promises of sweet treats got us zero progress. All the articles I read were useless. My child is a stubborn-ass who will not do anything unless she decides to do it of her own accord. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was a bit taken aback when suddenly she decided she wanted to pee in her little potty instead of wearing a diaper. She’s never had an accident, because she’s known for a while when she needs to go. We’d let her run around with no diaper and then she’d tell us she needed to go and we’d have to put a diaper on her. Which is what she’s still doing with #2, but at least now I know she’ll go in the potty when she decides it’s time.  (Yikes, here I am talking about potty habits! This is turning into one of those over-sharing Facebook posts! Sorry, y’all!)

I’m grateful for cheesy exercise videos. I remember making fun of my mama for working out with Richard Simmons, sweating to the oldies. I remember praying to the heavens that I never ended up that corny. Alas, here I am, with no time to go to a gym, no time for organized sports, and only a few minutes a day on my bicycle. I’m pleased as punch with the way my body feels after all the cheesy videos (no Richard Simmons, though.). I feel weak and icky after not exercising for  a few days, so I don’t want to know what my life would be like without this option that I used to think was so sad (sorry, Mama). I’m grateful I can giggle about giant shifts in perception.

I’m grateful that I don’t normally have to sit in an office for eight hours a day. Between semesters I’ve had a couple weeks of working only in my office, not teaching any classes, and it makes my want to pull my hair out by the roots, one by one. I need to be up and about, interacting with people, like I do with my normal schedule. After eight hours sitting down staring at a computer screen, my back hurts, my butt hurts, my head hurts and I’m bored out of my mind. I’m like kid who’s been trapped inside on a rainy day, ready to burst at the seams and run around in circles screaming, just to get it out of my system. So thank goodness that’s not my normal schedule, and now I’m back to the bustle and business of the classroom. I didn’t get busted running around in circles and screaming, and now my energy is safely and appropriately funneled again.

And did I mention that we had a miracle on our block the other day? The garbage truck came! To our street! And collected all of our garbage from the garage! The garbage truck’s been around, somewhere in our neighborhood, but it’s never come and collected our trash before. “It looks like God is starting to remember you guys,” my mother-in-law said. That gives you an idea how grateful I am.

I’m grateful for this month’s rain. We’re about to have another 6 months of pure sunshine (haha, you’re probably cold even as you’re reading this!), so the coolness of the frequent September rain has been lovely. Our lack of a fan in the house really gets to me at night these days, with the extra heat of this creature growing in my belly, so the cool breeze on rainy nights is heaven-sent. But I’m also grateful that there was no crazy hurricane-induced weather, since we still don’t have windows that close. The weather’s behaved perfectly. It wasn’t even too bad the day I got soaked and spent the afternoon in wet jeans and shoes at work. And I’ve lucked out on us having the car, getting rides when it’s too rainy and muddy to get to work in one piece (our street is a dirt road). It’s been all a girl could hope for from a rainy season.

There’s been lots more to be grateful for, but these are some of the highlights of late. And, as I wrote one day, “being exhausted is better than being dead”. So there’s that, too. I feel better already. Thanks for listening. Let’s do it again tomorrow, because this fight against self-pity and nasty attacks of anger is an ongoing battle.