Blog 11: Routine

The road up to San Pablo, whose official name is the Camino al Seminario (Road to the Seminary) branches off the national highway at the village of Viguera. Eight months ago the first kilometer 

of roadway was a poster for the results of shoddy construction and heavy truck use: patches of broken asphalt; topes (speedbumps) that have become saw-toothed; potholes that range in size and depth from merely annoying and manageable at snail’s pace with care, to avoidable at all costs. These pits—in the Yucatán they’d call them cenotes like the sacred sink hole at Chichén Itzá—are skirted by swerving onto a shoulder that is normally the home of large rocks, dogs, and assorted flotsam, or onto the sidewalk in the rare cases where there is one. The two kilometers from Viguera to San Pablo were similarly pocked, but the road was narrower and, with not so much heavy truck traffic, not quite so degenerated. Linda’s and my first surprise came as we made our maiden drive up to San Pablo this fall. The kilometer through Viguera has been repaved, and is silky and smooth as a sow’s ear. Except for the topes, of course. The upper section, from Viguera to San Pablo, still awaits redemption.


The second surprise: redemption! Two days later in the morning we drove down to the national highway to go into Oaxaca City to do some shopping: bump, bump, swerve and dodge, and then the kilometer of smooth sailing. In the afternoon, when we returned, there was a barricade at the end of the smooth road, and the road beyond it as far as we could see, the road that we were counting on to take us home, was gone: topes, asphalt, gravel base, everything, skimmed down to the packed earth and trucked away. There were no warning signs. No detour signs. No indication how far up the hill the project would go, or how long it would take. We spun the car around and turned into the maze of dirt roads that branch off of the Camino del Seminario, zigging and zagging up through the sprawling town until we got into farmland and found a link to a connector that brought us to our house in San Pablo. Consider it reconnaissance.


We’ve been here now for ten days and it feels like always. Old friends and new acquaintances, all with a smile, a Buenos días and either a Que tenga buen día or a Que Dios te bendiga, depending on whether the politeness is secular or religious. Linda and I have renewed our cred at the local shops: The Aurrera supermarket down on the highway (a Walmart subsidiary), the independent and much nicer Chedraui at the edge of Oaxaca, and doña Concha, the lady on the corner with an abarrotes shop. Abarrotes are small convenience stores, offering bags of snacks, a few boxes of milk, bottles of soda, botes of Nescafe, drinkable yogurt, and a small assortment of very fresh produce, much nicer than the supermarket. We patronize her for bananas, avocadoes (“One ripe enough for today, and one for tomorrow”), ejotes (string beans), carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes. Not lettuce though: Kathy grows that on her organic farm up the road, and her delivery man brings it to the door on Tuesday mornings: fresh greens, nasturtium leaves and flowers, cherry tomatoes, sometimes escarole and chard. Doña Concha’s store is one small room, open to the street, with a couple of shelves and a cooler for the drinks, and a board table set up outside for the vegetables.


We’ve settled into a routine. I get up in the predawn, squeeze the orange juice for Linda, make coffee, drink a cup with a sweet roll, and, when the sun just touches the top of the eucalyptus trees along the fence, head up the hill to go birding for an hour and a half with Bill. The climb up the steep shortcut through the grounds of the Casa Ames gets my heart pumping (in altitude it’s only a 50-meter climb, but still . . . ), and the birding sharpens my eyes and ears. We work Bill’s circuit slowly and intensely: the grounds of the Casa del Barco, the old water tower up at the corner of the dirt road, the thickets along the fence by the school property, the gully where the blue mockingbird and the endemic white-throated towhee hang out. It’s all about noticing detail, and I am learning a lot. We have five species of hummingbird at this altitude and vegetation, and in a week I’ve learned to distinguish all five at a glance, and two of them by their calls. At 9:00 Mary comes back from walking the dogs with Rebecca at the Casa Raab, and Bill goes in to make her breakfast. I hike back down through the Casa Ames, share the last of the juice with Linda, and make breakfast.


We wash the dishes, straighten the house, check the email (when it’s working), and repair to our workspaces. Linda tackles cooking projects, or scopes out new patterns, and knits on one of her many scarves, shrugs, sweaters, hats, and whatnot. She seems to have two or three going at a time, and which one she picks up is a matter of mood and lighting. She works like Isaac Asimov, who famously had a study with a dozen typewriters arranged in a circle: in the morning he would walk round and round until he found the book he would like to write on that day. I crank up the Mexican miners book. I think I’m past the logjam, and am at a point where there are only two—well, maybe three—chapters to go. But then, I’ve thought that before. Depending on my tolerance for distraction, I work in the study by the window, or on the back patio with its view over the fruit trees, or on the front patio with it’s view over the bougainvillea and bottle bush, the orchids and the west-most cactus garden. Around 2:00 we break for lunch, which we treat like the main meal of the day.


Some days Linda goes up to walk Rebecca’s newest stray dog at the Casa Raab (more about that another day), and one or two days a week to work as a volunteer at the OLL, the Oaxaca Lending Library (more about that, later, too). I tend to work until my eyes will not longer focus or until 4:00, whichever comes first, and then go for a long walk. Everywhere in San Pablo Etla is either up or down from where we live, and I tend to favor up, because then when I am completely exhausted I can walk down hill to get home again. Yesterday I made it up past the last abarrotes, past the last houses and the goat farm, to the place where the scrubby hill becomes forested mountain. I found a dirt road (the kind best driven in a 4-wheel drive rental car) that led me from the gully that is San Pablo’s water source to the next ravine north, and then followed a path into a deep notch in the mountains to a check dam and a small reservoir.


Every significant gully on the mountainside has a dam like this: they’re used to store water during the three month rainy season and then bleed it down into channels during the dry months to use for irrigation. Agriculture here is patchy: we’re close enough to Oaxaca City that there are a thin scattering of houses around San Pablo that might be considered suburban. But the majority are fairly humble homes of families that combine subsistence farming (corn, beans, some fruit trees) and day jobs in the city or as drivers of three-wheel moto-taxis, which, after walking, are the most common mode of transportation in these hills. At dusk, when I am coming down, it seems that every second house compound has a moto-taxi parked in the yard among the chickens and the middle schoolers kicking a soccer ball around. San Pablo is decidedly rural, but without the air of desperation that seemed to characterize the subsistence farming around Zirahuén, where we used to live in Michoacán.


After a light dinner of soup, or salad and sandwiches, we read or watch TV until bedtime. Our landladies have signed up to a service that provides HD Netflix and a few TV channels, and with an HTML cable Linda can get another couple of dozen channels through her PC. It seems very strange to be sitting in our living room in San Pablo on Sunday night watching the Patriots sneak past the Cowboys on Sunday night football. But, then, that’s just one of the strangenesses in our lives these days.

More to follow

David & Linda


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