Blog 14: Weird

21 December 2013


            Salvador Dalí is reported to have said: “By no means will I return to Mexico. I cannot stand being in a country more surrealistic than my paintings.”


            Saturday noon the opera is Verdi’s Falstaff in a Metropolitan Opera simulcast, a once-a-month highlight of the Oaxaca social season screened in the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, which is as much of a spectacle as the opera itself. Set on the corner of two busy downtown streets, it is a late Victorian masterpiece: a first floor of massive blocks of green stone with a second tier of ornately columned salmon-pink windows and balconies, the whole ensemble capped with a green copper dome. Inside? A Louis XV foyer, the ceiling covered with delicate nymphs and fauns performing gauzy allegories in blue and pink, the walls crusted with elaborate iron sconces, a white marble staircase. The auditorium itself is a miniature Met or La Scala, five horseshoe tiers of glitter, velvet and gold, like a Fabérgé fantasy of what an opera house should look like. The audience seems to be mostly gringos of a certain age, the men well dressed but casual, some jeans, some guayabera shirts, many of the women wearing huipiles, the traditional handspun, hand woven, hand embroidered women’s dress of the Mexican native communities. Linda and I flash each other one of those looks: we are both picturing a community of, say, Ukrainian ex-pat women in Buffalo going to the community theater dressed up in their finest Iroquois tunics. Thirty years ago half the women we saw in the street in Oaxaca wore huipiles; nowadays in the city it is mostly the few Zapotec or Mixtec or Triqui women who make their living peddling native dress to tourists or selling fast food from tiny trays or braziers set on the sidewalks.

            After the opera we are eating dinner with friends in a little neighborhood restaurant called El Biche Pobre when Linda glances out the window and announces: “There are giants in the street.” And it is true

. Eighteen-feet high, papier-mâché giants, a man and a woman, broad shouldered and stolid, with painted smiles that verge on rictus. They weave and sway and bounce up and down as the presumably much shorter humans who are bearing them on their shoulders dance along the street. Presumably, because we can only see the humans’ shoes, which look to be about size 36, or 10½ north of the Río Grande. There is a church way up at the end of the street with a throng of people out in front, a black car with ribbons and a bouquet stuck on as hood ornaments.  A tuba thumps out an intricate rhythm punctuated by the shwooosh-boom of cohete rockets; a piñata the size of a small satellite dangles from a tree. Seems like the sort of place a couple of giants might go to fete a bride and groom. Isn’t that right, Salvador?

             Tuesday Linda drove into Oaxaca for her massage. No problem. Coming home she found that busses had blocked one lane of the national highway into Oaxaca in support of the Protest of the Day. No problem, she was on the other side of the median driving away from Oaxaca. Suddenly several busses hop the median and move into her lane. In the brief moments before the cork gets firmly set, Linda and the taxis and pickup trucks around her zig and zag around the busses and break into the clear. No problem. Nobody honks. Nobody’s blood pressure goes up. Business as usual. Last week it was the teachers who blocked the highway.

             Then there was last Friday. Bill and I go out birding at dawn, and as we peer through our binoculars down into the stubbly cornfield a couple of hundred meters below us, not far from our house El Huajal and up behind the preschool, we see a bull stretched out forlornly on its back, not moving. After a while a campesino comes into the field, walks slowly around the bull, starts to walk away, turns back, lifts one of the bull’s hind legs and levers him over on to his other side. We speculate that he is looking for signs of injury, but he doesn’t seem to find any. After a while the farmer clumps back up the hill and Bill and I browse on through the scrub recording the daily tally of warblers and buntings, hummingbirds and tanagers. An hour later, when the field comes back into view, through our binoculars we see three men peering closely at the bull. Eventually they leave, and Bill and I separate and go home to breakfast.

                  An hour later the phone rings. The San Pablo rumor mill is humming with the news that it is two bulls—it turns out to be one bull and one cow—that have keeled over dead the same night. The second bull, or cow—this from Rebecca through Mary through Bill—was found dead in a field adjacent to the Raabs. Preliminary verdict: it got tangled up in its lead rope and choked itself to death, cows not being known for either their wit or their athletic ability. Why it was wandering at night trailing a rope around its neck is not clear, but still . . .

            By noon we have more information. The vet has come and examined both corpses. The cow on the Casa Raab side of the ridge indeed strangled itself. The vet has pronounced it healthy, though dumb; the butcher has been called; and the cow has already been reduced to hide and steaks. The bull, on the other hand, has died of rabies after having been bitten by a vampire bat. The backhoe operator has been called, a pit will be dug, and the bull will be two meters under before it can ripen enough to tempt our resident zopilotes, the turkey vultures that congregate on the cell-phone tower just up the hill from the scene of the crime. By four o’clock we have learned that the San Pablo community is sorry for the bull, but not for its owner, who should have vaccinated his cattle against rabies as most of the farmers do. Vampires frequently molest large animals that pasture outside at night (meaning all of them: no barns around here) and, in fact, several of Rebecca’s burros carry scars where they have been bit. Linda and I resolve not to sleep at night outside in the San Pablo fields with ropes around our necks until we have got our rabies shots.


            Roughly once a month a group of amateur musicians styling themselves “The Bodega Boys” gather around the swimming pool up at the Casas Entantadas to make music. One day in a casual conversation we hear they are meeting that night, about sunset. Linda and I go up to listen. Five musicians: a couple of guitars, a mandolin, a harmonica, a washtub base. Mexicans and gringos, all either retired or with other jobs. They play with gusto and some talent, but nobody is likely to pay to hear them. There is a gorgeous sunset over the valley, soft drinks and mescal. Linda chats and watches the sun light up the clouds while I go back down the hill to get my guitar. I am now a Bodega Boy.


            Thursday. The road down to Viguera is open again, Concha informs us with a smile as we buy a couple of avocados (one for today, one for tomorrow) at her abarrotes store. It’s about time! We’ve had three weeks of long detours on dirt roads through the hills to get us down to the highway into Oaxaca. We start down in our CV, cheered to see that a couple of cars are indeed driving uphill toward us. But when we get to the triangle park where the Viguera Wednesday market sets up, a large truck blocks the road with the driver just getting out of the cab. No detour signs; no indication of when or whether the road might open again. The only certainty is that it is closed. We follow a pickup truck onto dirt road and find ourselves back in the increasingly familiar maze of tiny rutted roads. No matter. As long as every time there is a level ground choice of roads we take west-most, and when the choice is altitudinal we opt for down, eventually we will get to the national highway.

            The hot water has gone tepid. We ask Carlos, the incharge-ikeh of Tami and Karen’s house, and he climbs up on the roof and pulls the tarp that was covering half of the solar water heater down so that it covers only one third. Without the tarp to provide some shade the water tank boils over and rains down off the roof to kill the plants that are along the house’s foundations. It did that last spring. Quite spectacular.           

            Sunday. Linda has gone to a palm-basket weaving class in the Botanical Gardens next to the Santo Domingo Monastery. A group of twelve, mostly Mexicans, and an engaging teacher. Everything in Spanish. Fifteen minutes into the lesson they go around the circle with names.

            “Linda, de los Estados Unidos. Mi madre era optimista.” Linda (which in Spanish means beautiful). My mother was an optimist. 

            A Mexican man comes over to her. “And she was right! Prescient. Where are you from?”

            “Well, my husband and I live in Rhode Island.”

            “Rhode Island?! I was there just the day before yesterday. In Barrington. For the birth of our grand-daughter. I am Luis; my wife over there, Miriam. So, what do you and your husband do?”

            Linda tells him we are historians, which is the easiest way of explaining the mélange of things we have written about.

            “About pilgrimages? And the Jews in colonial Mexico? And culinary history? Miriam, listen to this.”

            He brings her over and turns again to Linda.

             “There is this fabulous book, you’ve got to see it. A cookbook with recipes for Spanish Jews from around the time of Columbus.”

            Linda fesses up that we know the book because we wrote it, and in an hour they are fast friends. Luis is Mexican, child of Jewish immigrants who came here between the World Wars. Miriam is American, and has studied with some professors on the west coast who are old friends of mine. Luis has taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and in Berkeley. 

    The next Friday night we are having Shabbat dinner at the home they built on the other side of the mountain in San Felipe. The Kiddush wine is sweet vermouth.

           “I couldn’t find Kosher wine,” Luis tells us, “so I went to one of the churches down in Oaxaca and asked the priest if he’d sell me a bottle of sacramental wine. Sure, he said, no problem. But when he brought it out the label said ‘Sangre de Cristo’ (Blood of Christ), and, well, not even I. So . . . the vermouth.”

            In the salad garden we have planted the peas are up about three inches and the chard is just poking up points of green. Lázaro brought us a half dozen eggplant volunteers from another house for which he gardens. We know we have rabbits, but they don’t seem to have noticed the gardens yet.


     We have learned that if you tie plastic bags to the side mirrors of your car the vermillion flycatchers won’t sit on them and poop all down the sides of your cars.

            Doña Carmen Solís, our gardener Lázaro’s mother, is coming over for lunch tomorrow. We had lunch at her house a couple of weeks ago, along with several of her kids and grandkids. She lives in a small house a ten-minute walk from el Huajal on a large property, punctuated by tall thin cypress trees, that has been in her family for generations. Forty years ago she gave an American couple, the Patricks, professors from Iowa, a 30-year lease on a portion of the property and they built a slightly larger house adjacent to hers overlooking the stream that leads down to Viguera. They have all lived together as an extended family for nearly a half-century now. The sign on the gate says “Casa Solís-Patrick.” Carmen cooks and cleans for the Patricks and grows corn and fruit and herbs, the Americans—during the months they are here; we haven’t met them yet—paint and sculpt. Doña Carmen has a reputation as a fabulous cook, and the pollo ahogado, chicken in a red chile sauce that she served us, bears it out. We have decided that there is no reason for us to cook a la mexicana while we are here. The sauces are complicated, and the local women—at home, in the restaurants, on the street—do them so well. So we will be serving Doña Carmen a non-Mexican meal instead: gazpacho followed by meatballs with a fruit glaze on rice, and some brownies. The purpose of the visit is for her to check out our kitchen preparatory to her catering a cooking demonstration meal for us when Bob and Libby (our daughters’ biological mother) and their family (his kids) come to visit in a couple of weeks.

            I found a red and white soccer ball in the yard this morning and kicked it back across the fence to the back lot of the Evangelical Church whose congregation gather on Wednesday nights and Sundays to sing hymns (very off key) and play soccer. They don’t shoot off rockets, though; rockets are for Catholic saints and Virgins.

            Magic Realism was a term coined by literary critics to describe the mixture of fact and fantasy, history and imagination, that characterizes much modern Latin American fiction. In Gabriel García Márquez’s novels, for example, men can turn into butterflies, towns can exist in real places not found on any map, and miraculous coincidences never strain credibility. Weird in the world of magic realism is routine; contradiction is commonplace; oxymoron is a way of life. A pretty good description of Mexico. I once spent an afternoon with my brother John, whose linguistic interests parallel my own, discussing how one translates the nuances of the English term “magic realism” into Spanish. Our answer was simple and straightforward: realismo. In Mexico, like the rest of Latin America, the qualifying adjective is superfluous.


            Dalí was just afraid to compete.


David & Linda