Blog 11: Etla [1]

Blog 11:   Etla       [1]                8 January 2013                                             

            We’ve been in our little rented house in San Pablo Etla now for 8 days. The house, La Casita del Barco, is a cozy three-room affair on five levels. To us it looks like an afterthought, a way for the owner to eke some profit from a bit of space on a hill between two large houses and their yards. Our house is part of a compound called Casas Encantadas on narrow ridge running up to some seriously steep, high mountains. These Enchanted Houses are about 10 kilometers and ¾ of an hour northwest from the center of Oaxaca [Wa-ha-ka for non-Spanish speakers], one of Mexico’s most charming cities. Oaxaca is at 1550 meters (a little over 5,000 feet). Etla, at 1660m, is a little cooler, and it catches the breezes coming down from the pine and oak forests on the upper slopes. These mountains, which form the eastern wall of the valley of Oaxaca, top 3,000m (nearly 10,000 feet).

            We found Casas Encantadas on the web. Two of the four houses in the compound are rental properties, and two are mostly owner-occupied, though one of these is rented at the moment. Each of our front doors opens to the level, graveled oval on the flat of the ridge, at the enter of which are some massive maguey cactus and a couple of flowering, fruiting trees. Most of the surrounding landscape is scrub, but our ridge is palisaded with eucalyptus trees, and the hillsides below the houses are thick with thorny brush. Three of the four houses are clamped sturdily against the sides of the ridge; ours seems to trickle down toward a gulley.


From our front door one goes down three steps to a small gardened area, roofed but open to the elements on both sides. From this “foyer,” one drops another few steps to our indoor-outdoor-living-room-patio. It’s a real living room —table, chairs, some shelving, a fire place, some plant stands—only there aren’t any real walls: a ceiling, but no walls. On the east is open space looking up to the mountains and down to the thicket of brush.

A few steps further down is our truly-outside-patio, with another half dozen planters and a small cast iron table and chairs. From our indoor-outdoor-living room one opening leads to a bedroom, currently serving as my study. A door on the other side leads to our bedroom, through which one must pass, before descending three steps to the pantry, and another step to the kitchen, in order to reach the bathroom. Our walls are stone and brick, painted in bright colors; the floors are stone and cinnamon-tinted tile, the ceilings bamboo over which has been laid a roof of red-orange tiles called tejas. Every place something might conceivably grow, something does. Everywhere some stunning piece of Oaxacan folk art can be set on a surface or hung from a hook, it is. The Casita is small, cozy, charming, and adequate for the two of us. Of course there is only room for two chairs at the kitchen table; only room for one chair in the bedroom; only room for two on the truly-outside-patio. We’re hoping that the house will not seem like a gerbil cage when our daughters Deborah and Abby arrive at the end of this week.


Oh, and on the valley side of the compound there’s a swimming pool. And the views . . . !


The city of Oaxaca itself is masked by the Cerro del Fortín, a hump-backed arid hill (which New Englanders would call a mountain), so our nighttime view of a zillion stars is not encumbered by the city lights. What we do see splayed out before us is a twenty-kilometer stretch of the northern portion of the Valley of Oaxaca. Monte Albán, the massive fortress city of the pre-Spanish Zapotec rulers of this realm, is directly across from us on the other side of the valley.


Etla, or more appropriately the Etlas, are a string of small villages and agricultural settlements that fill a 15-kilometer stretch of the east side of the Oaxaca valley north of the city. Together they form a semi-autonomous traditional community, something like an ejido, with their own elected institutions and forms of communal ownership and taxation. (More about this, I hope, in a subsequent blog.) 

Linda and I arrived at our Casita late on a Saturday afternoon. It would have been earlier, but the roads up hill from the Carretera Internacional are mostly unpaved and poorly marked. Also, some are under repair and closed to traffic, requiring circuitous intermittently signed detours. Also, the address that we’d been given for the Casita was Camino al Seminario, sin número, but none of the houses up here are numbered, and the Road to the Seminary was one of those that was cut. We wandered the hills for two hours, caking our car with dust, before eventually finding a workman who knew that the Casita del Barco was indeed nearby, indeed reachable, and not on the Camino al Seminario at all. With his directions, leading to yet another steep one-lane dirt road with a ford at the bottom where it crosses a stream and a climb to a ridge top, we found our little paradise. By the time night closed in, we were ready for bed.


First light, though, as always, alas, I was up and ready for a morning walk before my breakfast with later-waking Linda. Sunscreened, hatted, jacketed against the early morning nip, binoculars around my neck, bird book in my shoulder bag, I peered into the brush and the tops of the eucalyptus trees for whatever might be visible in this still-new-to-me habitat. Out of his house next door came Bill, similarly uniformed (hat, binoculars, jacket, note cards), and after thirty seconds of chitchat we were out on his regular morning route logging the warblers, flycatchers, gnat-catchers and hummingbirds like a couple of long-time buddies. As we have done almost every morning since.


The Etlas are also home to a sizeable ex-patriot community, mostly people our age from the US, but with a smattering of Canadians, Europeans, and even an Australian or two. Our entry to this world were our immediate next-door neighbors, Bill and Mary, retired here from Chicago: he as an architect, she a social-work administrator. They’ve been living in Oaxaca for over a decade, and have owned their house here for six years. Bill is an avid, meticulous, very accomplished birder. Every day he tallies the neighborhood: what he sees, at what hour, and at what altitude. At the end of the month he sends his report to the Cornell ornithology lab. He is deeply involved in local issues: tree planting, helping to set up an ecological education center, lending his architectural skills to community building projects. He and Mary seem to know everyone in the area, both native inhabitants and ex-pats. As we walk, he waves hello to every passing vehicle – SUV’s with American plates, three-wheeled moto taxi jitney cabs, pickup trucks — and as they jounce off trailing a cloud of dust he fills me in on who they are and what they do in the community. He is also a good interrogator, engaging Linda and me about our work and interests. He seems fascinated about our research, and uses our morning walks to pump me about Spanish and Jewish history, literature, and culture.


I quickly learned that we are not the only people he talks to. On our third day in San Pablo de Etla I decided to hike up into the mountains. About a half hour into my walk, I looked back along the steep path I had just panted up and saw a red-jacketed, white-haired woman with a cane and two dogs climbing about twice as fast as I had been. Since I was at a fork in the trail, and didn’t know the terrain, I decided to wait and ask her for advice (and catch my breath – but I would never admit that).


“Buenos días, qué magnífico mañana, ¿verdad? Yo me llamo Dah-víd.”

“Dah-víd?! You must be David of El Camino,” smiled the woman, as the two dogs sniffed at my ankles.

“Well … yes. I suppose I am. And you know this because . . . “

“Bill called me. He said: you won’t believe who was just here in my living room. Since I have walked the Camino de Santiago and he suspected I’d used your and Linda’s book, well . . .”

Cathy. She and her husband Jim have a house and a small farm a kilometer uphill, a little below the Seminaro. She raises lettuce and chard, fennel and arugula for the local community (and delivers! – we got our first order Thursday), tends a few sheep and chickens, and raises marigolds to dress up the village shrines on saints’ days. Jim has been a moving force in setting up the ecological center on the edge of the forest, and helping the community get Oaxaca, federal and international grants, to support it. On Reyes (3-Kings day, 12th Night) they threw a large brunch party in their airy house that Cathy designed, with spacious gardened patios on both sides (mountain view, valley view), a library of classical CDs and books on Oaxaca, a 3-sink kitchen, and an orchid garden. In the center of their table, surrounded by bowls of fresh fruit salad, guacamole, nuts, hummus, crackers and tortilla chips, was a rosca de Reyes, a glazed pastry dotted with candied fruit and nuts, in which a tiny plastic baby Jesus was hidden. The lucky guest who found the baby in their slice of rosca is obligated to invite the same group for a party on the Virgen de Candelaria, February 2, in which the main dish has to be tamales.


Through Bill and Mary (and their New-Year’s Eve Party), and through Cathy and Jim (and their 3-Kings party), we have met painters, sculptors, musicians, textile artists, and writers, most of them former teachers and lawyers, ministers and editors. All of them deeply engaged with the Etla community.

[non-birders should skip this next paragraph] Last Monday morning there was a bonus. Bill introduced me to, and invited me to accompany him on, an expedition with the man who wrote the book about Oaxacan birds. Also along was a post-doc at UC Davis who is a forest expert as well as a birder, and a French ex-pat who—to hear several people tell it— is the premier birder in Mexico. We started at dawn, jounced up one of those better-I-shouldn’t-try-to-describe-it-if-you-get-vertigo roads for an hour, and birded in cloud forest at 9,500 feet for the entire morning. The forest was gorgeous, --bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight--(as America’s very first college Spanish teacher, once wrote), but … I’ve never seen anything like these guys at work. Bill was recording secretary. At one point, as we walked below a grove of pines that towered 60-90 feet above us, a mixed flock of warblers flitted through at canopy level. By sound and by sight, the three experts started calling out species, as fast as they could say the words: orange crowned warbler, yellow-rumped, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, hermit, Nashville, yellow, black-throated grey, olive, red, redfaced, and rufous-capped. By me they were tiny specks, darting through the dense treetops too fast for me to get my binoculars on them. By these guys they were sitting still and preening and aching to be counted. By morning’s end, writing down just the birds that I had seen clearly, including the red-faced warbler, I had added ten never-previously-seen birds to my life list.


So, … in the euphoria of this week, we are once again thinking seriously about  . . . and there are several houses for sale in the immediate . . . and opera and good theater in Oaxaca . . . and the weather is pretty close to perfect . . .


We shall have to wait and see if more practical thoughts prevail.


David & Linda