Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Moveable Feast

One of the many examples of street art in Oaxaca

"The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity."   
          ~Attributed to George Carlin

Left to my own devices, I sometimes pretend that I am a restaurant critic. Especially when I eat at a restaurant I really like in Oaxaca, such as La Olla or La Biznaga. Today I took notes  as I ate a very good spinach salad at La Biznaga, along with the delicious bread they serve there, and a cerveza. To tell the truth, my notes had nothing to do with the food, but were more stream of consciousness ramblings.

I was the only person eating alone. There were two young American couples, a middle-aged Mexican man with his mother, a couple with a new baby and both admiring grandmothers, a table of US hipsters, and several tables with women around my age.  I enjoy the pleasures of the table, whether eating alone or with others. A bit of pleasure, or a good dollop of it, does the heart and soul good.
I just moved to a new neighborhood in the northern part of El Centro in Oaxaca. I am  one of several travelers living at Conchita's casa. Conchita grew up in this house, and she has seen a lot of change in Oaxaca since she was a child. Once there were burros and fields all around. But now, there are many buildings and a lot of traffic. Conchita is very warm and friendly. There are always three to six Mexican people of all ages visiting or working here, it seems. Of course, I do not know what I will learn about the life of Oaxaquenas by living here, but I am certain I will learn something. The everyday life of this house definitely involves a community. When I first arrived I felt a bit timid, but that soon evaporated in the friendly welcome I received.

The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity

This butterfly painting is on a wall about a block away. There are frescoes or graffiti or street art--call it what you will-- all over Oaxaca. Some of it is focused on political protest and some is simply exuberant creative expression. You never know when you will will discover another beautiful painting on some previously unadorned wall. I really enjoy what this kind of art adds to the cityscape.

No Home to Go Home to
Micky Gardener at Al Sol

My next door neighbor at Al Sol Apartments, where I lived when I first arrived in Oaxaca, was Micky Gardner. I interviewed her recently because I found her lifestyle as an elder nomad interesting.

In 2000, when her 27-year marriage ended, Micky sold her house and possessions.  First she traveled in the US, then after 9/11 she moved to New Zealand to live.  In 2003, she moved to a surfing village in Costa Rica. She stayed there for 6 years, teaching English to students there. In the process, she learned Spanish.

"I love Spanish-speakers--their joie de vivre. And I love the Spanish language, its rhythm, beat and texture. It's such a romantic language-- it's fun," she told me with a grin.

These days Micky spends most of the year traveling in Mexico and South America. Last year she stayed in Equador for months. This year she will be on Oaxaca for 3 1/2 months and then will travel to Peru for 2 months.

Micky was a textile science major in college and she still loves weaving and textiles. Recently she took a course in natural dying and weaving in Teotitlan, something she had wanted to do for many years.

"I have to have a project when I am traveling," she confides. In Oaxaca this visit, she volunteers for the nonprofit microfinance project En Via, which I wrote about in my last blog post. Micky likes traveling alone and does not miss having a home to come home to.  Instead she enjoys connecting with places and people as they appear in her life. There is a lot of freedom in traveling this way, according to Micky. "If it doesn't work, just leave," she advises.

Micky returns to Delaware for 4 months in the summer. There she teaches international students English at the university, replenishing her treasury for her next months of travel. While she is in Delaware, she housesits. She has 6 boxes of belongings in Delaware, mostly clothes she uses for her job there.

Most of the folks I meet here have a home to return to after they leave Oaxaca. But not Micky. She is a real elder nomad. Like Shari Sunshine and Julie Pierce, two other elders with a lot of nomad travel behind them. This life suits Micky. But she is not a proselytizer for the gray nomad lifestyle. "Every one should do what they love," she told me.

To change the subject every so slightly....okay....estoy cansado.....I am tired. My feet hurt from walking all over town again today. Now I am resting in my room, whose walls are peach-colored.

What is missing here---I really wish I could share with you some of the fabulous hair styles of the young guys here. I went on the Internet to try to find anything like them, but nada. Black shiny hair with lots of hair mousse on it, standing straight up! It's great. I will see whether I can take some photos soon.

Studio and shop in the village of Teotitlan
I wanted to go to the village of Teotitlan again today, but couldn't motivate myself enough, especially knowing that the place would be crowded because of a corn festival they were having.
Instead I went to the Ethnobotanical Garden, a wonderful place developed through the work of artist/activist Francisco Toledo. Francisco Toledo seems to be a person who has done and is doing many things to improve life in Oaxaca. I plan to learn more about him. The garden is just one of his beneficent projects. My camera batteries died and I couldn't take photos there. Such is life.

An exhibit on cacao at the San Pablo Cultural Center
“Blossoms are scattered by the wind and the wind cares nothing, but the blossoms of the heart no wind can touch."
           - Yoshida Kenko

Traveling gives one an opportunity to reflect on what is most deeply meaningful in life. At least, that is my own experience.

The blossoms of the heart that no wind can touch. For me these blossoms include spiritual life, the teachers and spiritual community, as well as art, imagination and the long-lasting love I feel for family and close friends. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, some teachings urge the practitioner to leave home, friends and family in order to focus more clearly on spiritual development.

I cannot pretend to have accomplished anything much in this regard, though I recognize that loosening the bonds of attachment is a wise practice especially in the later years, since we will have to leave everything familiar when we leave this body and life.

Far from what has been my home for many years, far from my friends and daughters, I take the time to reflect on attachment and love in its various forms.

Cacao and Corn: Two Ancient Holy Substances

In the state of Oaxaca 56% of the people are indigenous. (In the rest of Mexico, 15% of the population is indigenous.) The state of Oaxaca has 16 indigenous languages which contain many variants within them. The prevalence of indigenous peoples influences many things here, including old traditions regarding cacao and corn.

Oaxaca is considered the Mecca of chocolate culture. And that culture is very different from French truffles or Belgian bon bons. It involves raw cacao and its treatment and processing. Cacao was used as money long ago. It is still used as medicine. In Oaxaca, traditional healers called curanderos give chocolate drinks to cure bronchitis and plant cacao beans in the earth to pay off evil forces and heal those who have espanto, sickness from fright. Children drink chocolate for breakfast to ward off stings from scorpions or bees. Shops with small mills will grind cacao for you, adding sugar or whatever spices you prefer.

I went to an exhibit showing various ways that cacao beans are treated in order to be used in creating chocolate. Mole, a rich sauce of chocolate and spices, is the most famous way Oaxacans use chocolate, but there are many more, including beverages like tejate, a cold drink that originated in pre-Hispanic times and champurrado, a thick hot drink made with finely ground corn, chocolate and sometimes spices. 

Corn, like chocolate, has an ancient history here, and people feel passionate about safeguarding the authentic native corn from GMO contamination. That passion led Francisco Toledo to organize a wonderful exhibit at the museum in San Augustin, a small village near Oaxaca. These are two of the pieces from that show, which was a rich display ranging from protest art to paintings and textiles that focused on the holy quality of corn.

Dreams of Corn, one of the pieces at an exhibit at the museum in San Augustin Etla

Honoring corn

Life here is a continuous experience of exploration and discovery. This is the Juarez market, a cavernous, crowded place filled to overflowing with people and many things ranging from beautiful to absurd.

It's impossible not to think of the state of the planet while moving around here. It's not time travel, after all--it is travel right here in the modern world with all of its severe problems--garbage, pollution, chemicals, plastic, new illnesses, poverty. too many cars and trucks.
Nopales salad at La Olla

There are days when I wish it was time travel. I think that has been my habit for decades, wishing that I could escape from the exigencies of the modern industrial world.

It's no use. There is even less place to run to than there was 40 years ago when I first started to have the wish to find an escape. This is the particular crazy place we were born into, and this is the world we must navigate. So I tell myself. And it is true.

I am much more fortunate than the old women with pleading eyes who come with bunches of flowers or packets of gum or lovely woven shawls, hoping to get me to buy something from them. I seldom buy anything but I do give them a few pesos.

A few pesos. Which will never solve their problems. I do pray for them. I think of their situations and I pray for them as I contemplate my own existential dilemmas and eat nopales salad at a restaurant that I like. I am a fortunate woman living a fortunate life. Of course I have existential dilemmas. Don't you?
A beautiful shrine at La Olla Restaurant
I also have a lot of freedom. I am healthy. I am possessed of all my wits and wisdom, such as they are and may they increase and deepen.

One of my Dharma sisters wrote me an email in which she urged me to continue to "pump out the  bodhicitta in Oaxaca."  I was touched that she thinks of me as a venerable bodhicitta pumper outer.

I aspire to that. I wish I could end the suffering of beings. When I see Americans and Canadians, so edgy about personal space and so uncomfortable with intimacy, physical or otherwise and when I see Mexican people, so comfortable in groups and so interconnected and happy, I know I am just seeing a few things from my limited perspective. We all suffer difficulties. All of us want to be free.

And freedom is a big subject, big as the sky. It's an inside job. I may not be much of a philosopher, but I know that much for sure.


  1. Your wanderings in Mexico continue to fascinate me. This was an especially good post.
    -- barbara