Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Essence of Oaxaca, and Blue Essence

For the last couple days I have been wandering around the central part of my new home for the next year: the city of Oaxaca de Juarez. I am living temporarily in the home of a very nice middle-aged couple, Mario and Eva, a mathematics professor and administrative assistant who both work at the Universidad Tecnológico, where I will soon be assistant teaching English. Classes at the university were delayed for a week for whatever reason, so they don’t start until this Monday, and English classes start even later, on September 20th. So I have some time to get to know the city, find a permanent living space, make some friends, travel a bit, whatever. It is a very strange feeling to be in a new place, know no one, not know your way around, and have no time constraints. I keep thinking: “What the hell am I doing here?” But I think the strangeness will wear off pretty quickly. I’m starting to warm up to this place; after two days it’s already starting to feel a little more like a place I could call home.

It is rainy season now, so the city has been pretty gray, but when the sun comes out it is gorgeous. The city center is filled with sand-colored cobblestone streets, colonial churches and cathedrals, and homes and businesses painted bright colors. It’s an interesting mix of local indigenous culture and cafés and bars that are obviously catered to tourists as well as the city’s many ex-pats. The whole city is surrounded by green and sandy-colored mountains, making for a beautiful backdrop. And as soon as you leave the city center, things start to become rural. Mario and Eva live a mere 20 minutes by bus outside of the center, but the area feels much more like the campo than an urban area, with nothing but little general stores and not an internet cafe in sight, to my chargine. Back in the center, the zócalo, or main square, is always bustling with vendors; indigenous people from surrounding pueblos selling their crafts, itinerant artisans like the many I ran into in South America, and food vendors as well, selling tamales, chorros, elote (corn). Like the rest of the country, Oaxaca has also been preparing for big celebrations on the bicentennial of Mexican independence, which is coming up on September 15th. Right next to the big cathedral in the zócalo, there is a big glowing digital countdown clock, counting down the days and hours until the colossal national party will begin.

Thankfully, Oaxaca is still showing healthy signs of dissent: elections were just held in July, which finally ousted the repressive governor, Ulisses Ruiz, who came to power in 2006 and is famous for provoking the massive teacher’s strike that year, which lasted for months and turned violent, putting a temporary stop to all tourism in the city. What began as a customary annual teacher’s strike turned into a much larger and more broad-based movement when the governor, rather than negotiating with the teachers, responded with violence. At that point, many other sectors began sympathizing with the teachers, and APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) was formed, a coalition with the main goal of ousting Ulisses Ruiz and promoting democracy. For months, APPO pretty much controlled the city, and had even taken over (peacefully) several television and radio stations. But unfortunately, due to some under-the-table negotiations between the governor and the federal government, the strike ended and Ulisses Ruiz staid in power until this year. Now, a candidate has been elected who my “host dad”, Mario, says is backed by a coalition of political parties rather than any one party. I asked if it was a leftist coalition, but he said no, it was just a broad-based coalition. I guess you do what you’ve gotta do to get the bad guys out; hopefully this “Gabino” character will be an improvement over Ulisses Ruiz and his political party, the PRI (the single party that controlled Mexico and held fraudulent elections from 1910 to 2000). In the zócolo, there are still cloth banners hung promoting the APPO and denouncing Ulisses Ruiz. And on the radio I keep hearing an announcement for some kind of “democratic convention” that will be taking place this Saturday morning (apparently referring to the democratic political ideal rather than the party, since Mexico does not have a “Democratic” party). I have also been told several times that the Oaxacan street sweepers are on strike, which is why the streets are so dirty (they still don’t seem that dirty to me, but good for the street sweepers).

So anyway, what have I done in Oaxaca? Let’s see... the first day I went with Jesse, a British girl who will also be assistant teaching English at the Tec, to see the university for the first time. The campus is pretty small and has a nice, humble and friendly feel to it. There we met some of the professors, got some coffee and a bite to eat in the cafeteria, and made our first Oaxacan “friend”: predictably, a 19-year-old male who approached us, wondering who the “gueras” were, and invited us to come to a bar with him and his friends on Friday. Whether we will actually go is questionable, but hey, I guess one friend is better than none.

Since our visit to the university, Jesse and I have mostly been wandering around the center of town. Highlights include: eating the best “mole negro” I have ever had, snacking on “chapulines”, or toasted crickets seasoned with lime and salt (not sure yet if I’m a fan), eating Oaxacan chocolate (amazing!), and having a sample taste of mezcal, a liquor made from the agave plant, like tequila. So yes, all those highlights have to do with food, predictably. All except for a little adventure I had yesterday.

Jesse and I had split up for a couple hours in order to get a feel for the city on our own. I was wandering about in a little plaza when I ran into a group of high school students who stopped me to ask if I would help them with a commercial they were making for one of their classes. They wanted to film me holding a bottle of perfume and saying, “Buy this new perfume, Blue Essence. It’s the secret to seduction for all women, and if you buy it, you’ll get this free bracelet.” At first they told me to say it in Spanish, but then changed their minds and thought it would be cool if I said it all in English so they could add subtitles. I was to say those lines, and then spray a bit of perfume on myself. Then, a really punked out kid (I’m not sure if he was also a student or just someone else they’d gotten to help them) was to walk by me, sniff the perfume, and appear enamored. This being my first commercial appearance and one of my only experiences with perfume, it took me a couple takes to get it exactly right. The first time, in trying to spray the perfume around my neck, I accidentally sprayed it on the side of my face and had to wipe it off, provoking uproarious laughter from everyone including myself. It was good fun for everyone. So now, I am a model for this (probably fictitious) “Blue Essence” perfume. Who knows what else might await me in Oaxaca?

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