The Neumann Collection

April 25-26, 2009

I flew out of Vancouver this afternoon, and after checking my bags and consulting with Alissa, discovered that YVR has free wireless internet.  That certainly made waiting two and a half hours more bearable.  The flight to Los Angeles was uneventful.  Air Canada has inflight entertainment screens inset into the back of the seats, and this allows you to watch TV and movies, and generally kill time before hand.  I was able to select my seat when I booked my flight, and I deliberately picked a seat in the emergency aisle.  I swear I had more legroom in this seat than I did when I flew first class on Delta.  I could barely reach the seat in front of me to put my feet underneath it, and I put my laptop beneath it.

 Security at YVR was uneventful.  In LAX, security confiscated a bottle of hand sanitizer that Dad has slipped into the side pocket of my backpack.  I had to play it cool, act if will, like I put it in there myself, and reluctantly relinquish it to the security personnel.  All the people working security, janitors, and food service workers were either black or latino.  Racial discrimination for crummy jobs?  I also saw a woman in an airport wheelchair that was being assisted through security.  She was short and thin, old as well, and the could have easily fit another person or two onto that chair because it was so wide.  It reminded me of the fat people on that TLC show where they put them into the fat guy hospital so they lose weight for stomach stapling surgery.  In LAX at my departure gate was the first time I saw health measures to combat the swine flu.  The Aeromexico stewardesses (not flight attendants) wore the masks on the flight, as well as the odd passenger.  The McDonalds in the LAX terminal was the first place that my debit card wouldn't work as well, and ended up paying for a grilled chicken sandwich with my Mastercard.  The Aeromexico people were aslo very helpful, and rerouted all of my bags to Oaxaca, so I wouldn't have to recheck them at the Mexico City airport.

The plane was three quarters full, but I had a row of three seats all to myself, so I was able to sit in the middle, and have nobody touching me.  The descent into Mexico City was sudden, as I managed to fall asleep, thanks to the neck pillow that Mom thoughtfully provided for me.  As we got closer to the ground, all you could see was city lights in all directions, and suddenly the funky air came into the cabin via the vents above the seats.  It smelled like a mix of air pollution and sewage, and the smell permeated the air in the terminal as well.  I only stayed in the new terminal, and despite its cleanliness, was still missing toilet seats in the bathroom stalls.  I don't know if they were deliberately not installed, or if they were stolen.

After another two hour layover, I finally boarded the commuter jet that went to Oaxaca.  These planes grew progressively smaller as I got closer to my final destination.  I also lost mental, and motor skills, as evidenced by spilling orange juice on my tray and sleeve on the one hour flight to Oaxaca.  The only time I got something other than water.  Landing in Oaxaca was fun, because the valley is filled with smaller towns and villages surrounded by fields, like a large quilt.  The plots of land are also long and thin.  Passing through customs was uneventful, as I was the only one there doing so.  I pushed the red button, and got the green light to go!

The cab ride to the B&B was exciting, the Casa Maria Calenda.  The were numerous speed bumps, one way streets, poor observation of traffic signals on the part of the driver, and many one way streets.

After I unpacked and had a shower, I put on my shorts and sandals to do some exploring.  First I had to learn how to open the door to get out.  My brain wasn't functioning properly, and I couldn't figure out that you had to pull the latch to the left to open it.  It makes sense now, but it was difficult at the time.  I also had to get help turning the key to the right to open the door.  As for exploring the downtown core area, I walked for about four hours in sandals.  BIG MISTAKE!!!  By the time I got back, my feet were so sore, I thought I was developing blisters.  Every few cross streets there seems to be a church or a cathedral.  I havn't entered any yet.  I walked down to the zocalo (town square), around the market, up and down streets, up to the Benito Juarez park (Parque Llano), where there were a ton of used booksellers.  Unfortunatly everything was in Spanish.  Some of the books looked ancient, perhaps two hundred years or more.

After more wandering, I finally found an open restaurant for a late lunch.  Possibly the most expensive restaurant as well.  It was seafood, and I pat about $15 for three small baby shark enchiladas, and three small fish tacos.  Very tasty, but not worth it.  The restaurant was called 1243 Marco Polo.  After lunch, I walked back to the hotel, washed the dust off my feet and sandals, watched a DVD on my computer, and fell asleep eventually.  I was also given a thick blanket in case I got cold, but I slept with the ceiling fan on, without even a sheet covering me, it was that hot.

Hopefully this blog eases some of Mom's and Spider's anxiety of my trip.  I've only seen a few people wearing masks in Oaxaca, and most of those were also wearing hairnets because they were handling meat in the market.  UNREFRIDGERATED MEAT!

April 27, 2009

With a clearer head after a long sleep, I had breakfast with my hosts.  Apparently I'm the only guest until later this week for a Mexican holiday.  I had coffee (I didn't want to be rude, and it didn't taste that bad), toast, and delicious fruit.  After eating, I got directions to the nearest supermarket, in this case, Soriana.  After walking ten blocks there, and crossing a busy street, I realized that I didn't have my debit card with me, and only about $150 pesos.  I had to limit my spending to various condiments not available in Canada, and to bottled water. 

The sidewalks in Mexico are a strange sort.  In my walk south along Calle Porfirio Diaz (Porfirio Diaz Street, named for the man who was president/dictator for thirty years) the sidewalk got slowly narrower and taller, to one point where it was about a foot wide and about a foot and a half high.  It was difficult when people came walking in the opposite direction from me.

After returning to my room to get my debit card, I got my camera to take some photos.  After walking four blocks, I realized that I had forgotten my card again, and had to backtrack through an alley and small courtyard that had a statue of an angel with out hands, back to the hotel.  This is the Los Arquitos neighbourhood, named for the arched aqueduct that was built to bring in water from the mountains.  Its no longer in use, and residents have incorporated the arches into their own houses.

I wandered back down to the zocalo and the markets to look around, and skipped the museums because they're all closed on Mondays.  The markets were interesting, full of tiny old ladies selling stuff.  At one point, to avoid the crowded sidewalks, I cut through a portion of the market that had two rows of people barbaqueing huge strips of red meat on grills.  The place was filled with smoke.  After dodging through there, past the old ladies, piles of dried chiles, mole (sauce stuff) by the kilogram, I emerged onto the street in search of lunch.  Lunch was the daily special for $5, with lentil soup, rice, chicken, and rice pudding for dessert.

After another walk to the zocalo, I spotted large groups of people with banners with the hammer and sickle on them.  A later google search revealed that it was the Frente Popular Revolucionario was the group behind them.  All this walking made me hot and tired, and after relaxing in my room, I emerged looking for supper.  I ate at a restaurant around the corner, and had chicken with mole negro, a sauce with many ingredients, chocolate among them.  I saw it being sold by chunks in the market, perhaps I will by some unrefridgerated foodstuffs for mom.  I assume that its safe to eat. 

April 28, 2009: San Bartolo Coyotepec

Breakfast this morning was great, with a fruit bowl, coffee, pancakes and bacon.  I hope to take a tour either tomorrow or the day after, but this morning I set out to see the Santo Domingo complex of religious buildings.  The church is beautiful and gaudy in a baroque, gold leaf filled kind of way, just as Jesus intended his churches to be.  I was careful not to use the flash, so I would avoid angering the maintenance people.  It has been extensively restored, and more work is still being carried out on one of the altarpieces, a massive thing three stories tall. 

After the church, I tried to go to the attached museum to view the Mixtec treasures from a tomb at Monte Alban, a large archaeological site nearby, and other treasures.  Unfortunately, INAH, the governmental agency that manages the museum and archaeological sites in the country, has closed everything down.  I did run into some nice Canadian girls from northern BC who took my picture in front of the church though, so it wasn't a total bust.

I figured after the Santo Domingo disappointment that I would finally get up the courage to visit one of the outlying villages.  San Bartolo Coyotepec is the birthplace of the black pottery, and I thought I would attempt to take one of those collective taxis there.  I found my way down to the main highway, and crossed the street (dodging cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, old people, etc...) and first found the second class bus station.  Its pretty big, and also makes absolutly no sense.  Its round, and I couldn't see any buses to the local villages, so I made my way back to the main street, and found tons of cabs.  I got into the fourth one that I saw, and for eight pesos, I was driven to the village.

"Village" is an oversimplification.  It probably once was a separate town, but it seems to be mostly swallowed up by the greater Oaxaca area.  I got dropped off at the Mercado de Artesianas (the artisan's market) and after looking around for a little bit, I found an open museum, full of handicrafts that were made by master artisans.  I coveted some of the pots there, but as they were half my height, I would have had difficulty bringing them home in my checked baggage.  I had an expensive buffet lunch at a local restaurant.  I will never do so again, because these things are draining my finances rapidly.  I also found the workshop of the woman who started the black pottery phenomenon (she died in 1980), but refrained from making purchases because they looked like the get a lot of business already, even though I was the only one in the massive store.  I figured I would pick up what I wanted at the mercado, to give the tiny old ladies (ancient, really) some much needed business.

Before I got to the buying, I purchased a nieve from a street vendor.  Nieves are fruit ices, like a sorbet, and I got lime because all the cactus fruit flavour was sold out.  I bought two item from one lady.  She had a little difficulty making change for me, and even more difficulty walking two paces to a table to wrap my purchases.  I can't stress enough how ancient these women look.  She looked to be at least ninety, but I suspect that hard life down here ages you much more quickly.  With that in mind, she may have been forty or fifty.  More shocking, was when she fished a change purse out of her BRA in order to give me ten pesos back in change!  Two more purchases, each at different vendors I crossed the street to attempt to catch a bus or a shared taxi back downtown.

A cab found me before I could get onto a bus.  These things are cheap.  I paid nine pesos to get back downtown.  The downside is that they are extremely uncomfortable.  The car is the equivalent of a 1990 or so Nissan Sentra that they still manufacture down here, but under a different name.  I had to squeese into the back seat next to a fat guy who kept falling asleep because he was drunk.  The cab driver kept waking him up to keep him alert.  So there were three people, myself included in the back seat of this car, and two women sharing the front seat.  As soon as one woman left, another would take her place in the front seat of the car.  We eventually made it back to the city, but got bogged down in traffic.  I paid the driver, and got out while we weren't moving anywhere and slowly made my way back to the B&B, after getting my self lost.  I had to find a church in order to orient myself. 

After getting back to the B&B, and checking my email, I exchanged some money downtown again.  I was hoping for smaller bills, but they just gave me these 200 and 100 peso notes, the equivalent of $20 and $5 Canadian.  I hope to avoid getting change from an old lady's bra, and will consult with the B&B owner tomorrow over breakfast about where I can do this.  I find it extremely irritating dealing with these huge bills because these poor people just can't break them.

The zocalo was still packed, but with more people daily wearing those masks in a futile attempt to block out germs.  The city also has some interesting odours, I noticed tonight, and previous days.  Sometimes it smells like sewage, but other times like BBQ chicken, or even roses, as I passed a woman carrying a large basket of red and white roses on her head as a walked in front of the cathedral.  Hopefully there will not be any more terrible developments stemming from this stupid swine flu plague.  Not all of the museums are run by INAH.


April 29, 2009

My hosts had some brochures for tour companies, and I picked a tour that I would like to do tomorrow.  Apparently it lasts for eight hours, and goes out to the eastern part of the valley, as far away as Hierve el Agua, a mineral spring that has deposited a lot of minerals to create what looks like a frozen waterfall.  After breakfast, and while it was still relatively cool, I set out in search of an open museum so I would see at least SOME history stuff. 

I actually found two museums that were open, but the problem of getting change for my larger bills once again reared its ugly head, so I walked all the way back down to the Soriana, bought a bottle of salsa just so I could break a 200 peso note.  I had to walk all the way back up the street, up hill, to return to the museum, which is in a restored colonial mansion.  Just a note, a lot of these buildings here seem to be old, but it looks like its just the facades of the buildings that have been saved from the original structures.  I've passed a few buildings with boarded up doors and windows that are just empty lots behind a fancy brick and stone wall.

I was diverted by the Church of the Virgin of Solitude on my walk back, when I spotted an attached museum.  It was pretty small, but entrance was by donation, and I saw that as a great opportunity to get rid of some of my small change.  Inside was filled with religious icons and paintings, along with displays of offerings by the faithful, like small coins, jewellery, and seashells for some reason.  Photography was forbidden in the museum, so you will just have to rely on my colourful and amusing descriptions.  Outside was a diorama of the founding of the church.  The story goes that a man with a pack train of mules stopped for the night, and found that he had an extra mule in his train.  This mule wouldn't move from the spot that they rested, and when they opened a crate that it carried on its back, it contained the head and hands of a statue of the Virgin.  Once these items were removed, the mule died on the spot, and that spot was where they built the church.

I took a few pictures outside the building, and it was during that that I found a carved stone that had been reincorporated into the wall as a piece of building material.  The stone was upside down, and the writing in Spanish, but I took a picture of it anyways.  After my exploration there, I headed back the museum I originally wanted to view, the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Prehispanic Art.  Rufino Tamayo was an artist, and collected these pieces from across Mexico.  My favourite pieces were the Mayan pottery and carvings.  All the signs were in Spanish, but they had laminated cards for each room that you could carry with you that had translations and explanations of the items in the cases. 

The museum was very professional, and quite impressive.  It is housed in a restored mansion along one of those streets with the really high and narrow sidewalks.  It has inspired me with regards to the Neumann Collection, and how it should be displayed at the library as well.

After more wandering in the heat, I settled on a restaurant for a late lunch.  People eat differently down here in regards to mealtimes.  Lunch is the main meal of the day, and its usually eaten around two in the afternoon, and breakfast and dinner are only small meals or snacks.  The restaurant, La Casa del Tio Guero, is only a few blocks from my B&B, and was a little expensive.  Then I thought to myself, "I'm on holiday, and I should enjoy myself, and not be so cheap and nickel and dime the fun out of the experience.  And besides, the cost of the meal is still less than a six inch Subway sandwich."  For seven dollars, I had as a main course mole coloradito, a dark red mole with chicken.  It was interesting to order, because I don't know Spanish, and do mostly menu pointing.  It turns out I could also pick the cut of chicken that I wanted, and realized this after the waiter started to pantomime the options, and point them out on himself.  I believe he also knew more english than he let on, because he both said, and understood, "chicken breast".  I think it was an embarressing moment for the both of us.  I also got Aztec soup, which had avocado, cheese, and crisp tortillas in a soup, and a wedge of lime on the side for flavour.  The meal also had rice, and fruit with vanilla yogurt for dessert.  The most interesting part was the drink that came with the food, the agua de dia (water of the day).  This is a mix of water and fruit juice, and I have no idea what it was that I drank.  It was white coloured, and tasted like a mix of pear and lychee.  I don't know if they grow pears down here or not, so it may have been some fruit that is indigenous to the area.

After lunch, I went back to the B&B to get out of the heat, and ended up falling asleep.  By the time I woke up it was too late to do anything outside, so I just watched a clip of my cousin getting tasered on my aunt's Facebook page a bunch of times for amusement, and then a DVD on my laptop.  I also did some googling re: antique stores in Oaxaca, and I hope to find one or two before I have to go.

Mole count so far: 2 (negro and coloradito)

April 30, 2009: First day trip

I had my first day trip today and it lasted over seven hours, and cost a whopping $220 pesos.  I visited five areas, and had lunch at a restaurant that I would consider to be very expensive for Mexico.  It was a group tour with eight guests, a driver, and two guides (one for English speakers of which there was technically just me, and one for Spanish speakers).  There were three people from the Mexican city of Monterrey, two French, and two Germans, although the Germans were wearing sandals without socks, which I found odd.  On the way out of town, I spotted some tourists wearing socks and sandals, and I assumed that they too were German, as everyone knows that wearing socks and sandals is a German thing.  I had difficulty locating the plug for my seatbelt, and initallly we had to wait for ten minutes for the last of the group to arrive at the meeting point.  Everyone was picked up from their hotels and delivered to a central van for the trip.

The first stop was brief, twenty minutes at the town of Santa Maria del Tule, famous for having the tree with the largest circumfrence in the world.  It was pretty big, I guess.  Its in a very well kept churchyard and garden, and you have to pay five pesos to get close to it.  The money goes towards maintaining the gardens, and watering the tree, as irrigation has lowered the water table, making it more difficult for the tree to survive.  This was the most well kept area that I have seen so far, as there must not be any bottle deposit charged in stores.  Water and beer bottles are everywhere, and nobody has any incentive to pick them up.  I also suspect that there is no recycling programs in place here.

Next stop was Teotitlan del Valle, the town where the Zapotec indans weave rugs out of wool.  We were taken to a store and given a demonstration on how the wool is carded, dyed using natural dyes from plants, seashells, and cochineal.  Cochineal is an insect that grows on a certain cactus, and was Oaxaca's most valuable export during the colonial period before the introduction of synthetic dyes.  When squished, the insect becomes a blood red juice, that incidentally is used to colour lipstick and Campbell's tomato soup.  Think about that next time you open a can!!!!  There was ample opportunity for rug shopping, which I attempted to do, but was denied by both my debit card and Mastercard.  I ran into this problem before when I was in search of a cash machine.  Unfortunately, I had to leave without blowing $3000 pesos on a cochineal-dyed rug.  Hopefully I will find something just as nice in town here before I leave, and not someplace as expensive.

The third, and my favourite stop was Hierve el Agua, a natural spring high up in the hills.  Translated, the name means "boiling water", or "the place of the ill-fitting bathing suits".  We had forty five minutes to take pictures, and had the opportunity to go swimming in the natural infinity pools that the water forms.  I didn't have a bathing suit with me, so I settled for taking off my shoes and walking around in the shallower pools.  Some people there were better prepared than I, including one (I assume European) woman who wore a bikini at least five sizes too small for her.  The hike back up to the car was exhausting in the heat.  I've been doing a ton of walking while I've been here, and I have never been this drained.  We came here before stopping for lunch, because our guides feared we would get sick on the winding roads.  The way the people drive here is crazy.  The consider the shoulder to be a second lane!  As we got higher into the hills, the road grew more narrow, and we eventually left the pavement behind, and passed through a village filled with people shorter than my maternal grandmother.

Just a quick sidebar on streets here in Oaxaca, and likely Mexico in general.  The highways are paved with asphalt, but the city streets are either cobbles or concrete, or concrete moulded to look like cobblestones.  It probably keeps Mexican mechanics in business replacing shocks on cars.  These smaller villages also have local cabs in the form of tuk-tuks, which are motorcycles modified into three wheel cars.  They can't go fast and look uncomfortable.  I hope I get the chance to ride on one.

After Hierve el Agua, and before a late lunch, we stopped in Mitla, the site of the ruins with the unique stone patterns on the buildings.  Unfortunately, INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) still had the ruins closed due to the swine flu, so we could only look at them from the distance.  Instead, we visited an ancient pyramid that the Spanish had built a small chapel on top of, which was still in use by the native people to make offerings to the precolumbian gods.  This fusion of Christian and precolumbian beliefs is called syncretism.  The chapel was full of offerings to the gods, with cacao beans, flowers, candles, fruit, paper, and other offerings.  The guide explained that some of the offerings were asking for the gods to give them money, or success, and some black offerings were  curses.  Whether or not this was the guide spinning yarns or not, it had the air of authenticity, based on what I have learned in school as well.

Lunch was at a highwayside restaurant, and once again, I had the meal of the day, with mole amarillo (yellow).  I thought that yesterday's food bill was high, but today's cost $120 pesos!  The meal included a soup that had baby squash leaves and flowers, squash, corn, and miscellaneous.  I also had papaya water, and flan for dessert, which so far is the only thing I've had that I didn't really care for.  It tasted like butterscotch pudding, but was harder, with something drizzled on top.

On the way back, we stopped at a mezcal "factory" and got to see the process of making it, and tasting the final product.  We also got to taste and chew the agave after it had been cooked underground for three days.  I liked it way better than the flan.  It tasted very sweet, and the closest comparison I can think of is like brown sugar, though it isn't very accurate.  The guide said that it is also used for baking.  The finished product was kind of gross, so I didn't buy any.

I got dropped off downtown, and found an antique shop that I wandered through for a bit.  It was a bit of an imposing place, with heavy furniture and paintings, and metates.  The owner seemed a little surly, so I didn't linger.

Mole count: 3 (negro, coloradito, and amarillo)
Swine flu symptoms: 0, but having hand sanitizer definately made me popular at lunch, as it is currently sold out in Mexico. 

May 1, 2009

Today I had another tour that was booked for me by my B&B.  It was an all day tour of the markets along the Ocotlan route.  To start off the day, the van picking me up was twenty minutes late arriving.  To confuse the issue further, it was the wrong van, and I had to meet up with another car in the front of a random restaurant.  The owner of the tour agency had to call for the correct vehicle to pick me up, and I ended up waiting for another fifteen minutes.

The car finally came, and it was a brand new Toyota Camry, with some familiar faces inside.  The driver was the tour guide from yesterday, and the other people were the Mexicans from Monterrey.  Our first stop on the shopping tour was, once again, San Bartolo Coyotepec, but this time I got to see a demonstration of how the pottery is made in the ancient way.  They don't use a wheel to throw the pottery, but rather two bowls that are balanced on each other, and the potter spins it on that.  Its difficult to describe.  Since I already had my fill of black pottery, I only bought a few small pieces for souvenir gifts.  There was some kind of procession happening on the street outside the pottery compound, with lots of music and firecrackers/explosions.  I don't know what it was for, but the guide explained in Spanish to the Mexicans that the do these things, called calendas, for many reasons: festivals, religious processions, protests, etc...

Next we stopped along the highway at a woodcarver's workshop, and we got to meet the man himself.  His name was Zeny Fuentes and has exhibited and toured the United States, and had some beautiful and expensive stuff.  I didn't have $500 for the one I wanted, so I had to refrain from spending.  The Mexicans loved to spend a lot of time there, and at all the places that we stopped.  I got to know the daughter a little bit.  Gabriella was very nice, and works for an importing company that gets stuff from China, so she does the researching and purchasing in this company.  I gather that the family was well off, judging by the alebrijes that they purchased.

After the alebrijes of San Martin Tilcajete we were off to Santo Tomas Jalieza, where the women have formed a cooperative, and sell their handicrafts in a small market on fridays in the middle of town.  Surrounding the square were other stores filled with textiles.  Unfortunately we only had twenty minutes to shop, but I managed to pick up two woven bags.  They even had women weaving on backstrap looms for the benefit of the tourists.  The items are of high quality, and woven of cotton.  I ran out of money here, and had to stop at a cash machine at our next stop in Ocotlan.

We had forty five minutes in Ocotlan, which had its huge weekly market that stretched out down cordoned off streets from the zocalo.  Conveniently, across the street from the zocalo was a Scotiabank, where I was able to replenish my dwindling supply of cash.  I could have easily spent hours wandering around here.  People were selling everything, from brand new clothes and shoes, to pirated movies and CDs, handicrafts and baking.  I was tempted to buy a cup of tejate, but the traditional way of making it is for the tejate lady to water down the chocolate flavoured drink, and mix it with her arm.  I also saw ladies making tlayudas on a comal.  I met the driver at the appointed meeting place and time, and then we waited another ten minutes for the other members of our party to get back to the car.  I ended up buying a table runner for about twenty dollars from a vendor who had some English skills.

We headed back to San Bartolo Coyotepec for lunch, hilariously enough at the same buffet place that I ate at when I ventured to Coyotepec on my own.  The food was about the same, except they had beef ribs as well.  I filled up so I wouldn't have to eat supper.  After lunch, which took a while, as Mexicans take their time while dining, we headed to Cuilapam to see the semi-ruined Dominican church.  It was closed, but a side gate was open because church service was in progress.  We only had a few minutes here, but I took as many photographs as I could.  According to the guide, it was abandoned because the Spanish brought along African slaves with them during the conquest, and the slaves had diseases.  I doubted this assessment, due to everything I have learned at university.  Disease did kill a lot of indigenous people, something like 90% of the population.  There was no need for the church if there were no parishoners.

After Cuilapam de Guerrero, we stopped in Zaachila to look at another carver's workshop.  Once again, I purchased nothing.  During our time at the workshop, it started to rain, and it poured for about ten minutes, and then came back off and on.  It was pouring again when I was dropped at the B&B, and as I turned on my laptop there was some pretty spectacular thunder and lightning that sounded very close.  I could still see the lightling outside the window as I compose this entry, and I now see the downside of having a courtyard in the middle of your house.  Everything is tiled, and they get slippery when wet and when combined with stairs of irregular heights, you need to be careful.

Mole count:  still 3
Swine flu symptoms: none, though my ears were plugged for a while, and I've started sneezing

May 2, 2009

Today was more of a spending money on souvenirs type of a day.  It started out as a search for a telephone so I could call Mastercard to let them know that my credit card wasn't stolen, and to allow me to use it.  After buying a card at a corner store, I set out to find a payphone.  There are two on every block, at least, down here, so I had no trouble finding one.  The problems came when I attempted to use the card.  You have to dial 001 to make an international call, and I learned this after running into one of the Canadian girls from Santo Domingo in a small plaza marketplace.  After finding this out, I spent ten minutes figuring out the correct order of inserting the card, lifting the reciever, and dialing.  I ended up making a collect call to Mastercard to get everything sorted out.  I still had some time left on my calling card, so I called my sister's cellphone, as there was no answer at home.

After that, I tried to find the textile museum, but was unsuccessful, so I continued going south down to Mina Street, where the chocolate shops are.  I bought nine boxes is Mayordomo, and three boxes and a container of mole coloradito from Chocolates la Soledad.  I made the mistake of wearing sandals again, and had to put shoes on before heading out, back to the markets.  I found the artisans market, and after buying a bag and a table runner, headed to get some lunch.  Lunch was at the same restaurant, La Casa del Tio Guero, and I had the mole rojo, along with water flavoured with flor de jamaica (jamaica flowers, pronounced "ha-my-ka")

I took the city bus back to the market, and purchases a large rug.  The sales girl clamed that it was made from natural dyes, but I have my doubts, due to the price.  Its larger than the one I tried to buy in Teotitlan, and cost nearly half as much.  I couldn't bargain her down, but then I felt guilty because there were no customers in the market.  She claimed that I was her only sale, and I don't doubt it.

I found a great store that had a pottery sculpture of the Virgin of Solitude that I am coveting, and I think it would go great with the gigantic rosary I've already purchased.  Can I justify this expense?  Maybe.  When am I going to be down here again?  I will have to check my bubble wrap and packing peanut inventory to see if I have adequate space for it.  The store also had some Zapotec pottery repilicas for a reasonable price, which I am interested in as well.

Mole count: 4 (mole rojo)
Swine flu symptoms: More sneezing, some lethargy

May 3, 2009

Today is sunday, and Oaxaca is basically closed, except for a few restaurants, and some high end stores.  This morning I attempted to take a bus to the modern shopping mall, but I got on the wrong one, and ended up at the top of a huge hill in a less than affluent neighbourhood.  The driver asked where I was trying to go, and I said, "centro" so I could get back downtown.  The buses are rickety, in poor condition, cheap, and plentiful.  I think if we had bus service back home like they do here, more people would ride the bus.  The drivers will actually give you change, and the have a tray of money where the box usually is on buses at home.  After changing buses, I ended up back downtown, and walked to the zocalo for brunch.  The zocalo is surrounded by restaurants on three sides, with the former palace of government on the fourth.  This building has been converted into a municipal museum, which is now shut down due to swine flu.

I had brunch at one of the numerous restaurants, of eggs in a spicy sauce, bread, hot chocolate, and freshly squeezed orange juice.  This gave me the opportunity to observe people in the square.  There are street sweepers with homemade brooms, the bristles of which are a meter long.  It looks like their made of some very spindly twigs, but not soft enough to be made of grass or stiff enough to be made of tightly bundled straw.  Musicians try to earn tips by singing off key songs.  There are also many shoe shine chairs, with a variety of polish colours.  I just have runners here, so they didn't bother me.  Also patrolling the zocalo are roving vendors.  Old ladies sell baskets of flowers and varieties of candy and gum, others sell weavings, helium balloons bookmakrs, wooden spoons, and molinillos (for whipping hot chocolate).  I assumed that these are the poorest of the poor people, until I saw one girl listening to an MP3 player while selling shawls.

After brunch I made my way slowly back to the B&B to rest.  I woke up this morning feeling like crap, and my eyes were red and puffy, with black circles underneath them.  I tried to get some sleep with a cold cloth over my eyes, but it didn't work.  After talking with a few people online, I went for supper at seven, back to the same restaurant.  This time, for $5 I had a chili pepper stuffed with shredded pork.  It was the most delicious one I have ever eaten, plus it was so cheap.  Whats the point in paying a fortune for an all inclusive holiday when you only spend $10 to $12 dollars a day on food?

Mole count: Still 4
Swine flu symptoms:  Constant sneezing, sore eyes, no energy

May 4, 2009

Today is my second to last day here in Oaxaca, and I am determined to make the most of it, though it generally didn´t work out that way.  Right away, I made my way down to the market, following the advice of my hosts to stay out of the sun because I´m sick.  There is some nice stuff here, and it isn´t at all like a flea market back home, full of used stuff.  It is all new, or handicrafts, and a farmer´s market.  From one lady, I purchased three woven Mixtec baskets for the price I would have paid for one in the higher end stores along Alcala, the pedestrian mall.

I also stopped to smell the coffee beans, though I didn´t purchase any.  They were already pre-ground, and I was looking for the whole beans.  I tried many stores, both independent small groceries, and department stores, as well as other market stalls, and all they had was ground beans already.  Tomorrow I will go back to the market and get some of the ground beans from the first stall I visited. 

The rest of the day I just wandered around and looked in stores.  These posts seem to be getting shorter as I wind down my trip here.  The lunch I ate at the same restaurant again, and it was a bell pepper stuffed with chicken this time, instead of pork.  One thing that was different today was, on the recommendation of my hosts, I bought some cold medication.  Its some Mexican brand called "Next", and it works very well.  I stopped sneezing, and my ears cleared up.  This evening though, it felt like half of my throat swelled shut, but it was gone when I woke up on the fifth.  I am thinking of buying some more and bringing it back with me.  For a box of ten capsules, it only cost $2.40 so its much cheaper than back home.

I am writing this at an internet cafe, as I tried to print off my boarding passes, but it wouldn´t let me because I booked a separate airline to begin with.  I had an afternoon nap, and got a good night´s sleep.

May 5, 2009

Today is my last day here in Oaxaca, and I spent is mostly getting things together and ready to go home.  After breakfast, I headed out to the zocalo and the markets to pick up some coffee, and entertain myself while I wait for my clothes, which I dropped of at a laundry place, to be ready.  I headed off to MARO, a really expensive store to buy a pottery sculpture, but I just couldn't bring myself to spend that much money on a statue barely ten inches tall, though it was wide.  I headed to the 20 de Noviembre (November 20) market, and bought some coffee to bring back home.  I looked at the wares of the basket lady again, and then walked to Llano Park, and sat there for an hour and a half to read.

After the park, I walked back to the B&B to relax while I waited for three o'clock to come around so I could get my stuff.  I got to the laundry right on time, but my clothing wasn't ready yet.  They told me, in Spanish, to come back in about twenty minutes to half an hour, about 3:30 in the afternoon.  I walked all the way down to the zocalo again for a late lunch, which consisted of a pork torta (sandwich).  It was ok, definately not the best I've eaten.  I gave them an extra half an hour, and took a bus back because I was hot and lazy.  I got there, and my stuff STILL wasn't ready, and they told me to come back in an hour.

OK, so I walked all the way back down, past the zocalo to the 20 de Noviembre market, and bought three more baskets from the basket lady.  These aren't big heavy things, but woven of dyed grass or something, into different geometric patterns.  All six of them together probably only weigh three hundred grams.  I guess she was happy to see me.  After that, I felt the need to spend some more money, so I went all the way down to the mercado de artesianas, and bought another table runner from the same vendor as before.  I concluded my business with her, and then because I was feeling spendy spendy, I bought a second from the vendor right beside her.  It was time to start thinking about heading back to the laundry, so I left the market, but stopped at another store and bought a molinillo, a beater for whipping hot chocolate.  Loaded down with purchases, I was rather parched, so I stopped at a convenience store and grabbed the first bottle of water I could find.  I opened it quickly, not realizing that it was sparkling mineral water, and it exploded all over me.

Since it was water, there was no sticky mess.  I made my way back to the bus stop, and after a ten minute wait, got on the bus, and arrived at the laundry at a quarter past five.  My clothes still were not ready.  They were in the midst of folding and bagging them, and they were very apologetic.  Once I paid them their fee, I headed back to the B&B to start packing.  When I got there, I realized I overspent, and wouldn't have enough cash for a tip for the room cleaner, and have enough money for cab fare back to Xoxocotlan Airport.  So I had to walk back to the zocalo AGAIN (three times now) to go to the Scotiabank and take a few dollars out.  I made it back to the B&B, finished packing my belongings, and then updated this blog.

Tomorrow, I have to get up before five in the morning to catch my flight to Mexico City, and from there to Los Angeles.  I will attempt to update my blog from the cruise ship, Zuiderdam, but I don't know if Holland America has wireless hotspots on their vessels.

May 6, 2009

I am writing this portion in Word as I wait for my connecting flight in Mexico City.  I had a difficult time falling asleep last night, and kept waking up every hour.  I suppose it was a combination of the stifling heat and apprehension.  Not about the flight itself, but getting to the airport on time, and finding a taxi to take me there.  I got up at 4:45 a.m. to catch my 6:30 a.m. flight.

Needless to say, I had ample time.  The international airport in Oaxaca is quite small, and has only four gates.  For my library readers, I would guess it’s the size of the Clearbrook branch.  It’s served by commuter jets, mostly flying via Mexico City, but with some nonstop flights to Los Angeles and Houston.  Since I have to take a cruise ship back to Vancouver (life is hard), I had to take the earliest possible flight available, to ensure that I wouldn’t be late.

Speaking of cruise ships, I’ve noticed a trend in the media whenever a story involving the cruise industry, that the ship is referred to as a “luxury” cruise ship.  For example, the Melody, an MSC cruise ship was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and this vessel was described as a “luxury” vessel.  The Melody is thirty years old, and is the oldest in MSC’s fleet.  When a cruise costs less than airfare, and they nickel and dime you on board, then it is not a luxury cruise.  True luxury cruises include the cost of the airfare, all gratuities, shore excursions and beverages on board. Often these cruises costs over a thousand dollars a day, and out of reach of the average person.  It’s like describing all cars as “luxury vehicles” when we know that not all cars are created equal.

The flight from Oaxaca to Mexico City lasted for an hour and was completely uneventful.  The only event was when we landed, we sat for fifteen minutes until a medical team boarded.  Nobody came off in a stretcher or anything, so I assume everything was ok.  This time, I didn’t spill orange juice on the tray or my jacket, and the toilet in the terminal had a seat this time.  The airport here is confusing.  Instead of following the signs that say “connecting flights”, you have to exit the terminal, reenter, and go through security all over again.  My belt set off the metal detector.

From my stateroom

I had no trouble going through customs, although I was disturbed that they fingerprinted and took my photograph.  I guess it was because I was on a plane full of Mexican nationals, and even the customs agent wasn’t sure if they did the biometric scans to Canadians, as she had to ask and confirm it with another agent.  After passing through customs, I made my way out to the shared van area to get my ride to the terminal.

The van had two other people going to the cruise ship, as well as some guy from Atlanta with a really thick accent going to look at some semi-trucks, and another old couple who was leaving on a four week cruise tomorrow.  I was really impressed with the van though.  The website advertised that what set them apart was the fact that their vans were clean and well maintained.  This van reeked of cigarette smoke, and was pretty beaten up.  The driver was really surly, and had a poor attitude.  I assumed it was because he was either Russian or some other Slavic country of origin, judging by his accent and the terrible music he played.  You know how the “European smile” in photographs is really a frown?  Perhaps he was “smiling” after all.

The three of us going to the Zuiderdam were the last on the route, and ended up having to wait in a huge embarkation line, while filling out a couple forms while we were standing there.  The first one was a health checklist, which I of course lied on.  If you selected “yes” for any of the symptoms, the ship’s medical staff would give you a checkup.  The second one was a disembarkation form for when we would like to get off the ship in Vancouver.  I chose to get off the latest, at 10:00 a.m. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t go and see the Queen Mary, which is permanently birthed next to the Long Beach Cruise Terminal, because the embarkation process took too long.  My stateroom however, was a very nice surprise.  I have never seen an inside stateroom so large, or perhaps it’s because the last inside stateroom I was in was so tiny, as I was a crew member at the time.  I believe that this is one of the “family” staterooms, as it has a door to the adjoining cabin, as well as a sofa bed.  It also has a flat screen TV with DVD player, and tons of closet space.  I also have the use of a robe, which I am wearing as I write this.  I am taking full advantage of everything that is being offered.  Later I should go to the casino and get some change for tips, as I would like to order room service, and only have pesos in my wallet.

I had to participate in the lifeboat drill, and in my professional experience, it seemed a little sloppy.  I am not bragging about my experience, but simply stating the fact that as part of my duties as a cruise ship librarian, I was in charge of keeping everyone in order at the muster station.

I went down to my stateroom to wait for my dinner time, but accidentally slept right through it.  So I went upstairs to the Lido deck to the buffet, and had a small supper there, with a dessert.  I must be getting old or something, because I couldn’t finish the dessert, tasty as it was.  It was way too sweet for my liking, even though it was advertised as “sugar free”.  When I got back down to my cabin, it was turned down for bed, and an octopus was fashioned out of a towel.  Compared to the B&B in Oaxaca, the bed here is a million times better.  The pillows and the mattress are much softer here, and the thread count of the sheets is much higher. 

I am finishing this entry the next morning in the Crow’s Nest, a lounge that has been cut in half, with half being turned into the library and internet centre.


May 7, 2009

I didn’t think I would get jetlag on my trip, but as tired as I was, I found myself wide awake at five thirty in the morning.  My stateroom is an inside cabin, which means that I don’t have a window to the outside of the ship, which would have cost more money.  Even though there is no natural light to wake me up, light still seeps in underneath the door from the corridor, and the glow-in-the-dark labels on the closet doors for the lifejackets.

I read my book in bed for about an hour, and headed up to the Lido deck for breakfast.  I had smoked salmon and Belgian waffles with peaches and whipped cream.  After that, I tried to stand on the outside deck on deck 9 aft, but the winds were too great.  So I went downstairs to get my laptop to maybe play a game or to continue writing the blog.  So I am sitting in the library now observing the clientele that frequents it.

There are a lot of old people reading both books, and a shrunken down version of the New York Times that the printing press produces.  It’s not the quietest room, and there is a coffee bar directly behind me that is steaming milk by the sound of it.  The library is horribly disorganized, with no cataloguing scheme beyond some numeric code, from one to ten.  I think they just correspond to the shelving unit number.  Fiction books are not in any alphabetical order, no genres are separated.  They are even divided up into ordinary fiction books, and “New York Times Best-Sellers”.  They are separated from each other, and are on opposite sides of the room.  There are large print books, and other items that are geared towards a more “mature” clientele.  For example, they have a 2008 copy of the Consumer Reports Consumer Drug Reference.  Other books in the library were new and newer as well, and it seems like Holland America is investing in their library, way more than Celebrity did.  If they had a dedicated staff member who actually knew how libraries worked, they would have a top notch facility here.  They definitely need some genre stickers here, and it need not be expensive either.  When I worked for Celebrity, I made up my own genre stickers by going to the Brodart website and copying the graphics into a Word document, and then printing them off on a sheet of labels, and then cut them out individually by hand.  We are definitely spoiled at the FVRL when we have things like stickers, glue, scissors, break times, etc…

Non fiction books are divided roughly by subject area, like history and biography, but they definitely have a bias as to what subjects are represented.  For example in the history section, the vast majority are about American history and politics.  Something that is nice is that they have a good atlas in decent shape, and a small section of nautical books.  Their travel guides are also relatively up to date, with 2008 editions on the shelf.  Most what I had on Celebrity’s Mercury were AAA travel guides to Mexico, and a few other ones that were six years old.  Of course, my position was discontinued shortly after I left, so their priorities were very clear in regards to libraries.

From my stateroom, before bed

I spent most of my day just wandering around the ship, and finishing the last novel that I brought with me.  Reading seems to be the most popular activity on the Zuiderdam, with readers taking over various bars and lounges, not to mention the library, where space is at a premium.  I also noticed people that had fallen asleep in the library with their books, which is just like the FVRL, except the people here aren’t homeless.  I also purchased a bottle of vodka to take home with me.  The prices here are so tempting, but extensive research (and believe me, I put a lot of time into it) has shown me that buying more than your duty free allotment isn’t worth it if you get caught.  But a full litre of Absolut mango vodka was only $13.  That’s a quarter of what you would pay at the liquor store in BC.

I didn’t miss dinner this time, and I was seated at a table for eight.  And although the table sat eight people, I was the only person there.  Apparently there is another couple assigned to the table, but they were nowhere to be found.  Throughout this entire trip, I have put myself in situations where I would be forced to socialize with people, and I have been thwarted in my attempts so far.  The B&B in Mexico was empty, and now the table in the dining room!

Luckily the table next to mine was missing a couple, so the people there invited me to sit and have dinner with them, which I accepted.  The four of them are all from B.C., Alert Bay and Coquitlam to be exact, and they all had interesting stories from their voyage so far and from their lives at home.  They were very happy with the itinerary change due to the swine flu outbreak, and got to see four different ruins.  The ship left Fort Lauderdale on the 18th or 19th of April, and visited three Mexican ports before the cruise lines diverted their vessels away from the country.  They were supposed to stop in Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco on their way north, but stopped in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala instead.  The couple from Alert Bay had lived there for years, and I jokingly remarked that they must remember the steam ships that used to go up there.  And they did!

When I mentioned that I collected BC steamship memorabilia, they said that they had a few small things from the Union Steamship Company, and that a big collector in Alert Bay recently died, and they are pretty sure the collection is still with his wife.  Naturally my ears perked up when I heard this information, and I told them about my website, and that I would give them the web address tomorrow when I saw them again at dinnertime.  They also asked me some questions about my time on the ship and stuff like that, and while I said that the service here was just as good, the ship wasn’t as nice as the Mercury.  The ceilings in the public areas are way too low for my taste.  It’s like having the same ceiling height in your house.  It doesn’t sound so bad, but when you have over fifteen hundred people on the ship, it makes the spaces feel small and cramped.  


May 8, 2009

I slept in later this morning, until eight, and went upstairs to the lido deck for breakfast.  I had an omelet with cheese, ham, peppers and tomatoes, and a Belgian waffle with peaches and whipped cream.  After breakfast, I headed up to the Crow’s Nest for trivia, and my group lost again.  Today we were playing for Holland America hats, of which I have one already. 

After trivia, I went down to the Screening Room (movie theatre) to watch Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond film.  The theatre here is much nicer than on the Mercury, and it has limited seating, as all the normal seats you would find in a movie theatre have been removed, and large chairs, not unlike recliners that don’t recline, have filled the rest of the space.  The chairs are super comfortable, and have huge armrests to separate you from your neighbour, and built in cup holders.  After the movie, I went back down to my cabin to update this blog, and found that my single bottle of alcohol that I ordered had been delivered to my stateroom.

I went for trivia for one thirty in the afternoon in the Crow’s Nest lounge/library on deck ten, and my team actually won!  And would you believe that the category was sports?  I think I mostly provided moral support, and two other gentlemen had their heads down praying.  It’s surprising how easy it is to meet people when you are out of your element.  I had a group of people that adopted me for trivia, and a second group for dinnertime conversation and entertainment.  I was sort of wishing that the prize was a free hat or something, but instead it was free drinks.  I got a shot of Absolut Mango, the same vodka that I got from the duty free, and I think I made the right choice in picking that particular flavour.  I haven’t seen it in the liquor stores, but then, I haven’t really shopped around there lately, except for that bottle of mojito that I split with Dr. Tsang.

On my way to supper, I stopped for a martini, as they were half price from five to seven in the evening.  On my way to dinner, I ran into one of the gentleman from my table, a professor at Douglas College.  Dinner was great, and had a celebratory, but bittersweet air, as it was the last night of the cruise.  The three couples had been having dinner together for three weeks, and got to be great friends.  To accommodate me, they graciously moved to a larger table so I could dine with them.  I was sure to hand out my website address, in hopes that they would get in touch with me.

It was refreshing to have people to speak with for supper, as I had been dining alone or with a book for the past week and a half.  We were at the table for two hours, just chatting.  Is this what its like to be a grownup?  I’ve never “networked” before, and I did feel at a slight disadvantage as I didn’t have any business cards ready to hand out.  While I was in Mexico, I designed one online through; hopefully they will look good when they arrive.

I skipped the show again to pack up, and put my bags in the corridor to be picked up by the stewards for disembarkation tomorrow.  Even though my trip didn’t turn out the way that I planned, with museum closures and getting really sick for a few days, I don’t regret taking it.  I met some nice people, and I was able to get some nice souvenirs for the apartment.