A collection of anecdotes and pictures during my year as an English teacher in Mexico. Because it would be a shame for the beauty, bizarreness, hilarity and kindness of this country to go unnoticed...
Oye, que pasa?
It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this. I’ve been busy, but slacking a bit too, preferring to search for full episodes of Locked Up Abroad after a long day rather than compose a lengthy blog post requiring thought, creativity and effort. But I have a free day today so let’s go!
I didn’t have to go to work today because most of the doctors and nurses came to Oaxaca for a demonstration with their unions. All syndicate members from the Secretaria de Salud in Oaxaca come to these marches monthly, asking for more government funding and better wages. As far as I can tell though, it gets them nowhere. Anyway, that means that yesterday was my last day working in the clinic in San Antonino. Sort of. I may continue to come Saturdays when I can to work in the clinic for a couple hours and then teach the two English classes. But that depends on how much work I have with my new project and how much energy I have. The clinic is going to have a goodbye lunch party for me soon, but not sure when. We’ll probably go to the same restaurant in Ocotlán and they want to throw me in the pool. Apparently, that’s kind of common here for birthdays and goodbye parties, etc. When I told them I thought that was weird, they said, “Why? What do you guys do? How do you celebrate birthdays?” Um, we drink…? I didn’t really have a good answer.
I’m going to miss seeing everyone in San Antonino every day. They are such nice people and I’ve really gotten to know them and the community. People I have never seen before will come into the clinic and call me by my name and ask me about Washington, DC. Even the van drivers from Oaxaca to Ocotlán recognize me now and know my stop. So here is how I wrapped up my three months in San Antonino.
About a week ago, it was pretty slow at the clinic and I was just organizing some pregnancy records when Sergio, one of the dentists, poked his head out of his room and asked if I could help him for a minute, which I was happy to do. I thought he needed an extra pair of hands to pass him instruments or something. He did need an extra pair of hands, but to extract a patient’s cavity-ridden molar. He handed me a pair of large pliers and told me to grasp the tooth and pull it towards myself as far as possible. I immediately second-guessed my Spanish skills because I was a little surprised he was telling me to just walk in and stick my hands in this woman’s mouth. I was not prepared for that and was afraid I would do the wrong thing! So as I held the tooth at an angle, he took a scalpel-type instrument and began sawing at the root. He said it’s better to do it this way because if you simply yank out the molar, there can be nerve damage, resulting in paralysis in the patient. It took a little while, but he finally got it loose, I twisted it, and popped it out. Pretty effing sweet. Then I watched Sergio seal the cavity with this French product we don’t use in the U.S. that honestly looked like chewing tobacco. And that was it. All in a day’s work!
Doctora Yazmin finished her “residency” of sorts at the clinic, so she left and we now have a new doctor named Carlos in her place. He is a happy, friendly guy. Last week I went with him to the elderly home to check up on a few patients. I was responsible for taking their blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate and then filling out their chart while Carlos reviewed their cases, medications, and asked them questions. I really had no idea what to expect going into this place. I have been to an elderly care home in the U.S., and while the facility itself was nice and equipped, it was an awful experience. Thus, I was expecting something worse here in rural San Antonino, Oaxaca. However, I was surprised – it was actually a home and somehow seemed more peaceful and comforting. The residents surprised me too, but not as pleasantly. Most had medical issues like chronic diarrhea and high blood pressure, but everyone had unique stories. Some had basically been abandoned there by their children. One man seemed quite alert and together, but for some reason could not speak a single word. I don’t think he had many teeth, but there was something else wrong. So he just yelled these sounds and only every once in a while could you make out a word. I honestly have no idea how the woman who runs the home understands this man. No. Idea. He did try telling us some story that didn’t relate to anything, but I’m pretty sure it involved a gun, so there could have been an accident there…Another sad case was this woman named Martina. They had found her wandering the streets and it is clear she has some severe psychiatric problems. She doesn’t speak much and doesn’t know her last name or her birthday or age. So she’s just Martina. Apparently she is always restless and resistant, so she is usually sedated with strong sleeping pills I actually used to take. She can’t really do much to take care of herself and her hair was sort of cut and shaved at different lengths all over her head. She had also stuck string through her pierced ears and toilet paper inside her ear. She didn’t say anything the entire consultation except “hola” and “gracias” and just stared blankly as I took her vitals. Very sad. The worst though was this girl they took us to see in another room. I don’t know what disease she had, but she was born with some serious condition/birth defect. She was 17, but looked 8 and was confined to this crib. She was skin and bones and her feet and arms were stiff and crooked. She could not talk and still had the infant reflex of sucking on anything put near her mouth. Her mom had brought her to the home because she had no idea how nor the resources to care for her. And there isn’t anything anyone can do, but lack of therapy early on has severely worsened her quality of life. On a happier note, there is one man who is somewhat of a celebrity at the old folks’ home. His name is something like Norben and he is a little man with huge ears. All you have to do is ask, and he wiggles them back and forth like an elephant. It’s strange/hilarious. We met him while he was eating lunch and he just started flapping his ears for us. Plus, he was wearing a bright yellow shirt with a picture of a treasure chest on it that just said, “Treasures from the Deep.” I’m glad I got to see that side of medical care in San Antonino, but it was definitely a unique experience.
During the summer, a bunch of kids come to the clinic to work with the psychologist in a little summer learning class. I like to sit with them and talk to them, answering their endless questions about anything and everything. A favorite question is always, “What are your parents’ names?” I thought that was a little odd when the first girl asked me, but I was amused and told her and her friends. A day or two later, a different kid asked me again what my parents were named. A couple kids who were nearby heard his question and immediately answered “William and Janet!!” I was shocked they had remembered them so easily! William and Janet are actually somewhat familiar names – Guillermo and Yanét, haha – but still. They also know my full name, age and birth date by heart. Hahaha, if only they could use the same gusto in remembering some of the English words I teach them…
In between English classes one day, I was talking with Maestro Joel and was unexpectedly treated to quite an interesting story. We were talking about his time in the states, where he had lived, what he was doing, etc. when all of a sudden he just started talking about the time he smuggled drugs across the Arizona border. Oh, really? My ears pricked up at that, especially since this guy is as far from a narcotrafficker as possible. He said he was 17 and reckless and a bad kid. I think he succeeded once before getting caught, but somehow he avoided jail time in exchange for being barred from the U.S. for 10+ years. I couldn’t believe it, but I guess it isn’t that surprising. He went on to say how he had completely reformed himself, became a minister and teacher, married and had kids. Crazy. Now he is trying to go back to Nashville, where he worked before, to teach Spanish. Really nice guy.
On Monday, when my mototaxi pulled up to the clinic, I passed a young white couple wandering around the town square. Backpackers and tourists come to Ocotlán because it is bigger than San Antonino and has a great market. But it’s pretty rare to see tourists wandering around San Antonino. Anyway, I went to some of the schools, whose classes started this week, with Dr. Valente in the ambulance to get some demographic information. When we got back, the couple was standing at the pharmacy window. I thought they were asking directions or even getting medicine, so I passed them and went back to work. Everyone at the clinic thought they were my friends just because they were also white, but I was just as surprised to see them! The girl kind of followed me and asked me in Spanish if I was American. I said yes and turns out they were Canadian. They were 19 and 20 and were taking a year off to travel. That’s cool, but these people were literally crazy. They had absolutely no plans, knew no one in Mexico, and were hitchhiking everywhere. It’s one thing to wing it across Western Europe, and quite another to do the same from northern to southern Mexico. They said they came through Tijuana, got stuck there for a while because they didn’t know to get a visa…I mean, what the hell. They somehow made it to San Antonino and had spent a night in the municipal building before befriending a nearby painter who graciously offered them a room in his house. They came to the clinic to ask to use our shower (because they hadn’t showered in several days) and because everyone in town had told them an American worked there. I don’t think the rest of the clinic really knew what to do with them, so I talked to them in English. The girl spoke pretty good Spanish, but I don’t think her rasta boyfriend knew much. I asked them if their parents were ok with this trip and the girl said “Oh yeah, they don’t care.” Hmmm. After they left, everyone at the clinic was pretty much like WTF – “parecen como vagabundos, no?” (They seem like vagrants!) – asking me why the guy wasn’t wearing shoes and had dreads, etc. I was just as clueless as everyone else though!
Also, the clinic has recently set up this box on the receptionist’s table asking for donations, but I’m pretty sure there is a maximum of 10 pesos in there. I brought a dollar and put it in there as a little memento, and as I was dropping it in everyone went berserk and started whipping out their phones to take a picture…
Another thing I’ve noticed about Oaxaca is that EVERYONE’S wardrobe consists of a combination of several of the 4 quintessential American high school brands: Hollister, American Eagle, Abercrombie, and Aeropostale. The guys especially wear the logo polos and the girls wear the screen tees with something like “Sand Dunes Hotel” or “Sweet and Spicy” on it. I saw this one girl wearing a shirt that said, “you’re my next girlfriend” – guessing she didn’t know what it meant. They sell these clothes in specific stores entitled “Ropa Americana” = American clothes. Unfortunate that these brands are considered American fashion. I often see people wearing other random stuff, like “Barnes and Noble Volunteer” or the waiter at the Thai restaurant (yeah, a Brit and his Thai wife!) I went to who was wearing a Radisson Hotel polo. But then I think that it’s not at all impossible that they could have really worked at these places…It’s still funny though.
Mexican machismo culture is pretty interesting and bipolar. There is the not so good side, involving domestic violence, disadvantages for girls in schooling and the workplace, the constant whistling/honking, etc. But it’s the classic anthropological dichotomy of the Whore and the Madonna (ha, sorry) – there is also the side of it that absolutely reveres women and that is awesome. For example, I was walking downtown with a Mexican friend and he moved to walk on the street side of the sidewalk. I was confused and he said guys are supposed to walk on that side to “protect” women and allow them the “safer” inside lane of the sidewalk. Not necessary, but I like the gesture. I had never heard of that before. This same friend went to college in the states and I was telling him how I loved people-watching in the zócalo because there are always such weird characters there. He agreed, but said he had never seen weirder people than he did on public transportation in the U.S. Hahaha, he has a point.
My host family has a dog now!! Yay! About 3 weeks ago, I came home and was greeted by a mini schnauzer. Apparently she had just walked into the house when the outer door was open, “como fue su casa,” like it was her house, according to my host mom. She had no tags and we saw no notices around the neighborhood. So, they got her checked and groomed at the vet and now Coco is part of the family. I have never taken an interest in miniature schnauzers, but Coco is pretty awesome. She is loving and crazy, like my Argentine host dog, Platón (RIP). And it’s just nice to have a canine presence in the house. Although, Mexicans (and most of Latin America) treat their pet dogs quite differently than we do in America. I mean, it’s completely normal for the dog to stay outside most or all of the day. They definitely don’t sleep on their owners’ beds and aren’t snuggled on the couch…
So, I start my new project on Monday. I will be working with an HIV/AIDS organization called Amemos VIHvir = we love life, and VIH is HIV in Spanish. It is a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS and is quite new, only about 2 years old. They don’t have an office yet, so one day of the week I will be working in the specialty HIV/AIDS clinic, hopefully one day in the mobile unit that goes around town giving free HIV tests, and the rest of the week helping them with administrative, publicity type things. I’m very excited, especially since it’s still a pretty underrepresented/taboo subject in Oaxaca and Mexico as a whole. So stay tuned for stories on that, I’m sure it’s going to be pretty interesting.
Hasta luego, que les vayan bien!! :)
I’m writing today from my perch at the Italian coffee shop in the zócalo. It’s lovely outside and Sundays are always good for people watching. I’ve had another interesting and crazy week, and my list of anecdotes/experiences to tell is lengthy. So here it goes!
The week started off with a bang on Monday with the second Lunes del Cerro of the Guelaguetza. This time I walked to el Cerro with Dr. Valente and the delegations in a sort of mini-parade. Most people were already at el Cerro, but a lot of people waited to watch the delegations walk through town. I think many people were surprised and equally interested at the lone güera accompanying the delegations. Speaking of staring, at least when guys stare at girls, one of my Mexican friends said something pretty interesting/funny: he said he didn’t understand why guys in the U.S. are always “stealing glances” at girls – “if we like you, we are going to stare and let you know we think you are pretty!” Rather blunt, but he has a good point. Although it can be creepy/annoying at times, in some ways it makes more sense! Also, one of my English students was asking me about DC. She told me her uncle had gone there for a little bit but didn’t like it so much because he didn’t get a good response when he catcalled at women, hahaha. That took me by surprise coming from an 8 year old.
At el Cerro, I hung out with Darinel the psychologist, his cousin Fernando, and their friend Manuel, all of whom are rather flamboyant and some of the coolest and most entertaining people I have met here. Dr. Valente and Don Raúl sat on the ambulance again, while we took the stretcher and used it as our seat closer to the stage. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t as nice as the previous week and right before the first delegation started, it started pouring. I thought we were going to get the normal hour or 2 of strong afternoon rain typical of Oaxaca’s rainy season, but thankfully it let up for good after about 10 minutes. So although slightly wet, we cracked open our 6 packs of Modelo Especial and enjoyed the show. Five year old Juan also joined us for the majority of the show. His mother and grandmother were sitting on the grass in front of us, but Juan was standing next to us for a while when Fernando offered to buy him a snack from a passing vendor. Sadly, Juan chose something resembling jumbo cheese puffs, but he was happy. From then on, Juancito became our adopted son/friend/niño for the rest of the night. He was having a great time, clapping and dancing to the music with us, and running up and down the hill. Darinel and his friends were joking that he had found the perfect group because he was acting drunk hahaha. I think the reason he was having so much fun was because we were actually paying attention to him and happily interacting with him, unlike his mother and grandmother. There was a different group of delegations, some which performed last week and some new ones. After each delegation performs, they usually toss out fruit or little packages of some traditional food from their pueblo, like bread or some little sweets. As we were closer to the stage this time, we were determined to get something. Fernando caught a sweetbread and Darinel got a pastry. One delegation was throwing pomegranates, and my softball skills reemerged when I snatched one out of the air one-handed. The güera got some applause for that one.
The fiesta continued when we went back to the town square to eat, drink and dance. We ate tlayudas, which people describe as a Mexican pizza. It is basically a large, crispy tortilla with topped with mole, lettuce, chicken, beans, salsa, cilantro, onions, and any number of other toppings. I’ve had several tlayudas since I’ve been here, but that one was by far the best. What’s great about the Guelaguetza in the pueblos, like San Antonino, is that it is so much more personal. All the townspeople and the delegations come back to the square where everyone can mingle with each other. It was sort of weird though because San Antonino is so small – Oh, there’s the American who takes my glucose/gives me insulin injections dancing up a storm with the psychologist. I met and danced with a lot of people from other parts of Oaxaca and generally just had a great time. Darinel kept running around getting pictures with some of the delegation members, which was cool because I otherwise probably wouldn’t have taken so many pictures. We were posing with a few of the Flor de Piña girls, when suddenly ALL of them ran over excitedly to be in the picture. Coming with three gay men also turned out to be even better because they did a great job of turning away weird guys who repeatedly asked me to dance – “nos te cuidamos,” we’re taking care of you. One thing I noticed that was fascinating and hilarious was that Darinel, Fernando and Manuel generally referred to each other in feminine endings – e.g. “estas loca” as opposed to loco, which indicates you are speaking to a man. I heard this often and to me it just demonstrates the amazingly interesting complexities of language and culture. We stayed until about 1 am and then they gave me a ride back to Oaxaca, asking me all the way about past boyfriends.
Let me just make it clear that I did not drink excessively or make a fool of myself or anything, but simply because I took part in the fiesta, I was teased a lot the following day at work. For example, I always bring a water bottle to work and drink a lot of water during the day. Tuesday was no different, but Don Raúl was commenting, “Mira, estas tomando mucha agua!” (You’re drinking a lot of water!). And of course, the cooler ran out and I had to ask him to help me refill it, so it seemed like I was drinking more than usual…Haha, oh well, all in good humor. Also, some of my English students passed by the clinic and asked me how my night was and what time I left. I told them we left around 1 am and one of them replied, “Oh, temprano!” (early!) Haha, wow, sorry I’m lame but I do still have to work at this clinic at 9 am every morning.
The other big event of the week occurred on Wednesday. It was about 10 am and kind of slow at the clinic. Yazmin then asked me if I wanted to take a ride in the ambulance because they were getting ready to take a pregnant woman to the hospital in Oaxaca. She was full term and was experiencing some bleeding and slight contractions. So, the patient, her husband, Don Raúl, Yazmin and I rushed off to Hospital Civil, sirens blaring all the way. And I got to press the button for the manual horn, too :) . We made the 50 minute journey in about 30 minutes, weaving in and out of cars, honking for others to clear the way, and running red lights. Quite exciting. When we got to the hospital, Yazmin and her patient went into a consultation room with a couple other doctors. About ten minutes later, Yazmin came out and motioned for me to follow her. This is sometimes confusing for me since Mexicans flick their hand downwards (palm down) to say, “come here,” as opposed to our motion of waving your hand towards yourself. This is especially confusing in clinical situations, because I’m not sure if I’m allowed to enter the room or come see what’s going on, and although I really want to watch, I don’t want to make the mistake of entering in on a private consultation, or someplace I’m not allowed. But thankfully that hasn’t happened, probably because there is no such thing as patient confidentiality. So I hesitantly followed Yazmin and was allowed to watch the patient’s examination, which I was not expecting. I also felt a little guilty about being allowed in, because it just didn’t feel right, but it was still really interesting. Turns out it was a false alarm - the bleeding had stopped and it wasn’t anything serious to begin with. They told her to come back in the evening to check on everything, so we returned to San Antonino. Besides the specialty hospital, Hospital Civil is the biggest/main hospital in Oaxaca City. Granted, I only saw one wing of it, but it was a lot different than I was expecting. I knew it probably wouldn’t look like most hospitals in the U.S., but this place was crowded beyond belief, the examination rooms were tiny and ill-equipped, and the doctors still used typewriters! There were patients lying on gurneys in the hallway and people just standing around everywhere – in the doorways, on the steps outside, and lining the sidewalks. It seemed so disorganized and kind of dilapidated. It just surprised me that that was the best level of hospital care in Oaxaca. I guess that’s what the public health system looks like in the poorest Mexican state. As we were leaving, I saw a man sitting on the steps wearing a CIA t-shirt. It made my day. I stayed in San Antonino that day to teach an English class, so I got a ride back to Oaxaca in the ambulance again when they took the pregnant woman back to the hospital. Two ambulance rides in one day!
One day I also went with one of the dentists, (who also does a lot of general care) Dr. Luis, to do a home visit. We went to the house of a man who had a number of health issues and couldn’t walk the 2 blocks to the clinic. First of all, he was about 85 years old and had Parkinson’s disease. Additionally (I’m not entirely sure what happened), he had suffered a severe reaction from some prior treatment that had caused a large swelling/infection in his mouth around one of his molars. You could see the massive lump on his right cheek that apparently was full of pus/fluid. He also had a history of heart problems. The poor man was in a lot of pain and because of that and the Parkinson’s he could not stop moving. He would flail his arms, tug at his shirt, twitch his legs, etc. After we left, Gloria, one of the nurses, came over to give him a pain killer injection and some other medicine. Dr. Luis and I returned the next day to check on him and it was like night and day – he was completely calm and the swelling had gone down somewhat too. I think we are going to bring him to the clinic in the ambulance tomorrow so Dr. Luis can remove the molar – I asked him which one it was and he said it’s easy to tell because it’s one of three teeth he has left. This guy seemed really interesting though. He was an artist and close friend of internationally-renowned surrealist painter Rodolfo Morales, who lived in the neighboring town of Ocotlán. He had a lot of cool clay figures and murals all over his house/studio that his wife let us look at. On the flipside, that was the first house I had been inside in San Antonino and it revealed a lot about most people’s living conditions. This family seemed relatively well off for the town, by no means in poverty, and had a one level house with several rooms. However, it was dark, damp, and virtually without ventilation of any kind, not even many windows – good conditions for disease (and smelled awful too). Sadly, basic hygiene is also lacking for many people. A lot of patient charts have “daily hygiene” as part of the treatment recommendation, whatever illness they may have. Many people may not have constant access to running water, but it doesn’t seem like they bathe even when they do, to the point that it is affecting their health. Many of the forms for new patients and diagnostic questionnaires also include questions like, “Is your floor dirt or concrete?” or “What is your house made of?” Quite eye-opening.
Dr. Luis gave me a ride back to Oaxaca one day and I love talking to him because he has a lot of clever insight, as well as a good humor about everything. And he likes to talk and always has interesting tidbits of information. We were first talking about customs in Oaxaca and he was explaining how courtship practices in San Antonino still include dowries and that is why divorces are so rare, not really because of any Catholic influence. It is still common for women to have to bring assets consisting of money, livestock, and other valuables, which then intimately/financially link both families, making divorce near impossible. We moved on to rituals for el Dia de los Muertos. Most families visit graves of family members during the Day of the Dead celebrations to clean the sites and lay offerings. However, there is one pueblo in Oaxaca that actually exhumes the bones of their family members to wash them every year…pretty wild. Then we were talking about religion in general and Luis mentioned the missionaries of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Oaxaca. They actually have an office a few blocks down from my house, across the street from the massive supermarket. Anyway, they go door-to-door, asking people for a moment of their time to listen to their mission. According to Luis, people generally say something like, “No, I don’t have time, I have to do xyz” so the missionaries offer to help them finish whatever household tasks so they have time to listen. Thus, Luis says many people in Oaxaca “los aprovechan,” or take advantage of the missionaries for free help, hahahaha.
Since it is summer, Darinel (the psychologist) works with about 20 kids daily who have behavioral problems and/or difficulty learning. They do exercises, puzzles, drawings, etc. outside and I like to sit in on these classes and talk to the kids. They were making a collage of San Antonino and one girl brought a telenovela magazine to cut pictures out of. However, I don’t know what she expected to find in there that would have anything to do with San Antonino. It was all about telenovela celebrities on the beach and the ads were all for online dating sites or call girls. It was pretty inappropriate actually, and I was really surprised when she pulled that out of her backpack… A lot of the girls like to play with my hair too for some reason. They told me I had hair “como una muñeca,” like a doll’s. Many of these kids are also in my English classes, and during one class they asked me what “la vida” was. Vida means life in Spanish, so I told them that, but they kept asking. Maestro Joel told me in English they wanted to know the answer to the question “What is life?” Uhh, wow, that’s pretty deep. I don’t think I can answer that/why are you asking me this? Then he explained later that they wanted to know what life was like in the U.S. – I think. Somewhat of a lost in translation moment…
Yesterday I went with two girls who work at ProWorld back to the equine therapy center where we had worked the week before. The three of us really enjoyed it there, so we are going to go every Saturday to help out and ride. When we walked up, there was a woman sweeping the dirt ground with a roughly-made broom. Blaze said, “I love it when they do that” hahahah and it’s true, I’ve noticed a lot of people doing it and I’m not sure why – they are just pushing dirt around. We crushed and bagged plastic bottles for a while, so the center can turn them in for money, and then we brushed a bunch of horses and got to ride. So much fun. There was this guy working with someone else’s horse from down the road and he was dressed to the nines and so was the horse. It was the most beautiful horse I have ever seen, tall and glossy black – he got on it, lit a cigarette, and was literally the Mexican Marlboro Man. Also, the horse was named after Black Velvet Whiskey, which made it even more awesome. He’ll be there again, so next time, I’m fixin’ to get on that horse. And, the three of us decided we need our own Mexican riding attire, so I’m going to look for a sweet shirt and a hat and stuff.
I will post pictures and maybe some additional tidbits mañana, or soon after. It’s getting late and I have to wake up early. Hasta luego!
The last week or so has been crazy. Lots to update on. So let’s begin…
First of all, the 5-day migraine I said I was recovering from on my earlier post actually turned out to be 8 days of salmonella poisoning! When I wrote that post, I thought I was in the clear, but the horrible pain in my head returned 2 days later, as bad as ever. I went back to Hospital Reforma and this time met with a neurosurgeon – I guess the neurologist was out that day. I ended up accepting an injection after all (in my arm thankfully), because the pain was so strong. Haha, I knew it had to happen sometime during my stay in Mexico. Anyway, the neurosurgeon ordered a blood test for me, because there are some infections that can present themselves quite like migraines, but in fact aren’t. So I went to the lab and got that done, and returned to his office later that afternoon with the results. Certain cell counts in my blood were more than double what they should have been, indicating an infection. I was given a strong ibuprofen and an antibiotic to take, and after a full day of rest, I have felt great since, gracias a dios. I have no idea where I contracted the salmonella. I rarely eat street food here, except that I buy containers of mango whenever I see someone selling them (all the time). But really, it could have come from anywhere – a little bit of dirty water on something, people’s contaminated hands touching the food, whatever. Probably pretty easy to get here, actually.
Thankfully I was better by the time our next Impact Project rolled around last Friday. We went to an equine therapy center on the outskirts of Oaxaca City and it was great. This place is amazing. The owner, Carolina, and her small staff work with kids who have learning disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, and other emotional/behavioral issues, via horseback riding and caring for the horses/maintaining the center. It is a small, independent and non-profit enterprise that is one of about 12 equine therapy centers in all of Mexico. It is located in and serves a very poor part of Oaxaca and the clients receive these services free or at very discounted rates. Thus, with no profit and scarce donations, the center has to rely mainly on its own resourcefulness and it is truly remarkable what they have accomplished. First, they have partnered with a co-op of women who make whole grain breads and sell them at the center, providing employment for the women and revenue for both them and the center. The equine center also raises money by selling compost in the community, which is much better soil than much of what the surrounding land offers. Finally, and most amazingly, the center and the community work together to collect TONS of plastic, which they were recently able to exchange for enough money to buy a laptop!! Incredible. We did a variety of things, from painting their logo on the side of the building, to painting chairs, and creating learning materials for the kids. I bagged compost and stained about ¼ of the fence around the ring. Then, as a little reward, we got to ride if we wanted, which I of course was thrilled about and jumped at the chance. I rode a former police horse for a while. Carolina then let us each take home a horseshoe for good luck, which was sweet. Nice day spent outside the city.
Last weekend was the start of the Guelaguetza festivities. Guelaguetza basically means “give and receive,” a form of unity/brotherhood/sharing, in Zapotec, which is the largest indigenous group in Oaxaca. It’s a two-week cultural festival that occurs every July and is Oaxaca’s biggest celebration. There are two main shows of music and dance on the last two Mondays in July, unless one Monday falls on Benito Juarez’s birthday, like it did this year. Then it is pushed back to August. There are also tons of parades, exhibits, concerts, etc. during the two weeks. Last Saturday a group of us started the evening at the parade downtown. Each pueblo in Oaxaca sends a delegation to represent them – they have their own unique dances and traditional dress – and it’s pretty cool to see them all lined up. A ton of tourists also flood Oaxaca during the Guelaguetza, more Mexicans and Europeans than Americans, but it’s weird to walk around and see white people. Then we went to the mezcal fair. Mezcal is THE drink of Oaxaca – it’s similar to tequila, but if you call it that they get angry, haha. This fair is basically a celebration of all the little private, artisan producers. It was located in one of the main parks in Oaxaca City and after paying a 35 peso ($3.50) entrance fee, it is all you can drink. Literally. You can ask for a sample of anything, but usually people push it on you before you can even ask. The samples are only about a half a shot, but those can really add up. Especially since some varieties of mezcal are upwards of 120 proof. There are a ton of flavors of mezcal, in either crema or regular/clear variety: cream flavors range from strawberry, coconut, and melon, to honey, nut, gum, cinnamon, and something called Oaxacan Sky that was a terrifying shade of bright blue. The regular kind ranges in alcoholic content and smoothness, just like any other liquor, but the specialty is gusano, which is made with a large worm placed in the bottle to give it flavor. They also take it with worm salt. It’s not bad actually. I stayed away from the cremas, because they looked like Pepto Bismol and stuff. But I don’t really drink much liquor, and after a couple, I had to cap it on account of the gag reflex, but it was still really fun. It’s funny because I can guarantee that if this existed in the U.S., there would be drunk people everywhere and quite a few arrests. But here, people generally know how to drink and how to act when they drink, so it was pretty normal. I saw only a few police officers, doing nothing.
The previous governor of Oaxaca recently built a large amphitheater solely for the Guelaguetza on a hill just above downtown. It’s nice and big, and I’m sure would have been fun regardless, but instead of going to the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca City, I opted to save my 500 pesos and celebrate it for free in San Antonino, where my clinic is located. A lot of Mexicans I talked to believe the show in the city has become way too touristy/expensive and has somewhat lost sight of it’s cultural roots. Besides, the vast majority of the indigenous people around which this festival revolves do not have 500 pesos to spend on a ticket. And I figured it’d be better to spend the holiday with the doctors and clientele of my clinic in a much more personal setting. I really had no idea what to expect, especially since everything I had been told (re: timing, length, location, etc.) was more or less incorrect. The clinic is right next to San Antonino’s municipal building. In the front of the building there is a large open concrete space and this is where they set up a tent for everyone to eat and gather and dance after the main show. A bunch of women from the community basically just posted up there and were cooking different things all day. So around noon, I went over there to eat with Dr. Valente. I was given entomadas, a tomato-based soup in which crispy/puffed up tortillas are placed, followed by a cut of meat. Then they put chopped onions, cilantro, salsa, and avocado in it. Very good and very authentic. I was also served a sort of rice water drink, which tasted like thinner liquid rice pudding – would not have been my first choice, but it was actually pretty good. A lot of people were just walking around with bottles of mezcal, drinking and serving people. Dr. Valente asked if I wanted a shot. I declined, having had enough mezcal over the weekend to last me several years, and because it was 12 pm on a Monday. I finally acquiesced, and it was actually better than any mezcal I had had at the fair. It was the regular kind, but they had placed slices of pineapple in it to ferment, which took some of the bite away, but didn’t make it too sweet. We went back to the clinic, and about 2-3 hours later, I was invited to eat again with some other doctors. I went, but didn’t eat anything. Instead, I was offered mezcal again, because Don Raul ordered a shot (this was all free by the way). I declined again, several times, but gave in to take one with Don Raul. After that, the guy with the bottle kept offering me more – I swear he was trying to get the guera drunk. I ended up having about 4 shots of mezcal that afternoon, not by my own choice…haha I was fine though. All the nurses kept saying, “Wow, you’re not drunk??” No, I went to college in America. But now they have this joke where they tease me that since we have (rubbing) alcohol in the clinic, all I need are some pineapple slices and I’m good to go!
At about 4:30-5, Dr. Valente, nurse Rosalva, Don Raul, and I drove in the clinic’s ambulance to El Cerro (the hill) in San Antonino, where they have a little open-air amphitheater. It is nestled in the country amidst the larger hills and is an absolutely gorgeous place. People set up and save their seats days in advance, so for the first half I watched from behind the sound stage with Dr. Valente, which was a pretty good view. Later, the four of us sat on top of the ambulance, which was great. Some kids from the community also joined us. It got pretty windy and cold, so two little sisters who were sitting on the ambulance with us asked their mother for their jackets. The mother was holding their youngest sister while trying to hoist the jackets up. I stretched out my hand and offered to take the jackets, but she gave me the child instead. Wasn’t prepared for that, but I sat for a while with an adorable little girl on my lap. I’m kicking myself for not getting a picture. But I am going to the second show tomorrow, so perhaps we will do the same thing. So, unbeknownst to me, this show lasted for about 2.5-3 hrs. So I stayed in San Antonino until about 9 pm, as opposed to the 5-6 pm I was expecting. But Don Raul’s friend drove me back to Oaxaca in his taxi, so it was OK. Tomorrow I will also most likely be staying for the fiesta after the show, where everyone, including the delegations, go back to the municipal building tent to eat, drink, dance, and be merry J Apparently this can last until 3 am, so I think I will spend the night with Yazmin, the young OB/GYN doctor. Should be quite interesting…
The fiesta continued on Tuesday with Dr. Valente’s birthday. The entire clinic went to lunch in this expansive, hacienda-esque restaurant in the hills of Ocotlán, about a 10 minute drive from the clinic. It was really fun to have all the staff there, even one I rarely see because he works only on weekends – Dr. Erick is awesome and says he loves talking to me because I can understand everything he says, haha. They bought me a beer or two, and also a drink called a suero, which is a lime juice and salt mixture with a beer added to it. Not bad, I just don’t know why they keep buying me alcohol. I order one and they run with it! Oh well. Can’t complain I guess, I just don’t want them thinking I’m some alcoholic! After lunch, some of the other staff pushed Dr. Valente into the pool.
Thanks to Don Raul, my new nickname at the clinic is “Hannanita,” which I actually have grown rather partial to. You can pretty much add one of about 3 suffixes to almost any word in Spanish to make a diminutive. What is also quite interesting is the music choice at the clinic. It ranges from good Spanish bands, to traditional mariachi music, to current American pop. Dr. Sergio often plays his iPhone in his office and a lot of times I’ll walk in to him playing LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” or David Guetta ft. Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj “Where Them Girls At.” Many times while he is cleaning some old lady’s teeth. In case you are not familiar with these songs (although you probably get the idea by their titles), these belong in a nightclub, not a rural clinic. But it’s hilarious. I asked him if he knew what they were saying, because it’s all about drinking, partying, hot girls, etc. the usual nonsense, and he said yeah he looks up the lyrics, hahaha. Also, sometimes Dr. Valente has to go to Oaxaca in the afternoon so he gives me a ride back, but he unfortunately listens to some terrible music. It’s either the 24/7 romantic ballad station or a CD of pan flute covers. I mean, it’s bad. They did a cover of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” which was just an abomination. Oh well, that’s what I get in return for a free ride I guess. When he gave me a ride back on Friday, I also experienced one of the most overt displays of shock and awe by Mexicans. We were sitting in traffic and I had my window down. Next to us was a truck with a bunch of people sitting in the back, kids and adults. The girl nearest to me saw me and just stared for a couple minutes. She then tapped the girl next to her, who tapped the boy next to her, etc. etc. until the ENTIRE group of people had turned their heads, were pointing, staring, and obviously talking about me. Quite strange to have been here nearly two months and still have these experiences. Especially since it’s high tourist season now.
There is also a probable case of dengue now in San Antonino. Dengue is an infectious disease transmitted by a few certain types of mosquitoes. Thus, it is more of a risk here now during the rainy season, as more rainwater collects more often, breeding more mosquitoes that may infect people. It’s not usually fatal, only if you develop the advanced stage of dengue hemorrhagic fever, but it’s still a problem because it can spread very easily and is especially harmful to children. I mean, I get at least a good 20 mosquito bites every day. The patient is a 16 year old boy who came to see Dr. Valente last week when I was working consultations with him. The symptoms resemble a severe flu, with high fever, joint/muscle pain, severe headache, pain behind the eyes, and a rash – actually quite similar to what I experienced during my salmonella infection. Anyway, he had to come back Thursday to get a blood test, because that is the only way to diagnosis it for sure. Pretty crazy to see this stuff firsthand.
On Thursday, I stayed in San Antonino to teach two English classes to kids in the municipal building. The first class is younger and knows very, very basic words, but the second class is more of a teenaged group with a little more experience. It is so much fun to work with these kids, although they can be a rowdy group. Sometimes while I’m teaching, they will just ask me random questions, like: “Hannah, is your eye color natural?” …yes. “Is your hair color natural??” haha, yes. The thing they probably need the most help with is pronunciation because they never get to hear a native speaker, only English in a heavy Spanish accent. So they are still unaware of key differences between English letter sounds and Spanish letter sounds. For example: we were going over some basic food words in the second class, and I asked them to tell me some. They said “ham” so I went off of that and asked them to tell me the animal it comes from. They stared at me with confusion, so I said pig/cerdo, right? Still nothing, until I finally got that they were actually saying “jam,” just with a Spanish “j.” !! Had to explain the crucial differences between ham and jam. I also got some more drawings, which are unbelievably awesome. I will post pictures soon.
So everyone who came here with me 2 months ago has now left, except for one girl who leaves in about 2 weeks. Crazy. There are two more girls here who came later, and I think about 4 or 5 people are coming later in August. So hopefully that will be good. I can’t believe it’s been two months – I only have 1 more month at the clinic before I switch to my other internship with the HIV/AIDS organization Amemos Vihvir (HIV is VIH in Spanish – clever, eh?) Anyway, tomorrow is bound to be a long and entertaining day, so it’s off to bed for me. Hopefully I will get pictures and my next post up sooner than last time!
Abrazos y besitos xo,
hola de nuevo,
I realized I just threw those pictures up without explanation. So a little note about them:
Last weekend, I went with some friends to Tlacolula and El Tule. Tlacolula is known for it’s huge Sunday market, one of the biggest in the area. They sell quite a variety of things there. From baby chicks and huge turkeys to hand embroidered aprons to knockoff Chanel makeup and any kind of remote you ever dreamed of. You also get heckled to NO END. If you so much as glance at a vendor’s wares, he/she will jump all over you, trying to sell you something. My favorite tactic though is when the guys just say “hi hi hi hi hi” to get your attention. We walked around the little plaza and listened to the church mass for a bit.
Also, I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that crickets are a delicacy here. They are called “chapulines” and are usually dried and prepared with lime, salt and chili powder. They sell them by the basket, too. I have yet to try them (figure I probably should, but am dreading that day), but everyone says the little ones just taste like crunchy lime/chili flavored things. The big ones, however…
On the way back from Tlacolula, we stopped in El Tule to see the famous tree. Basically it is a tiny town built solely around this massive tree, which is the widest in the world. I believe it is also one of the oldest, estimated at around 2,000+ years. It is a Montezuma Cypress, which is a cousin of the Redwood. But that is literally the town. They have a festival for the tree annually and everything. It’s pretty cool, but can be seen in about 10 min. Some people were also videotaping it, which I don’t understand.
And finally, Oaxaca’s biggest festival of the year, the Guelaguetza, starts this weekend with a mezcal fair, which could be the best/worst idea ever…so stay tuned for more stories!!