Maybe, just maybe, I ate fresh tomatoes at the Quinciñeara last weekend that were probably not disinfected. Quien sabe?
Food borne illness is a big deal and is borderless. We get sick anywhere in the world, even in Los Estados Unidos aka El Norte. One friend says she is going to take Microdyne back with her when she returns in December.
Probably one of the most fun things to do living here in Oaxaca, or anywhere else in Mexico for that matter, is shopping for the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available in the local markets.
It’s easy to get carried away: A dozen mandarin oranges for 10 pesos. A huge papaya, ripe and ready to eat, 20 pesos. A bunch of 8 bananas from Chiapas, 18 pesos. Squash from the vine, 7 pesos. A perfect cabbage, 10 pesos. Eight large Roma tomatoes, 12 pesos. Melon, otherwise known as cantaloupe north of the border, is 37 pesos. A perfect bright orange sweet pepper is 8 pesos.
For example, today’s exchange rate is almost 19 MXN pesos to $1 USD at the ATM. I can eat for about $35 USD a week here if I don’t eat out. That leaves a lot more for handmade huipiles!
I don’t live in Mexico because of the prices or the great food. I live here because of the culture, history, art and generosity of the people. But, the prices are a bonus!
Too many times, I return from the market with a shopping cart-full of fresh fruit and vegetables. After about two-hours of making my way down the aisles and through the stands and getting my bags into the house, I know this is just the beginning!
It will take me another chunk of time to process the food. I don’t mean using the food processor! I mean, sorting, separating, disinfecting and storing what I have bought. Nothing goes in the refrigerator without being disinfected.
Living here requires food sanitation diligence. If one errs on the side of cutting corners, the digestive system will rebel and cause permanent disruption of the intestinal tract, often requiring strong antibiotics and visits to a gastroenterologist. None of us wants that, so we disinfect.
I use a product called Microdyne. The instructions call for using from one to fifteen drops, depending on what needs disinfecting. I use the maximum: 15 drops for 1 liter of water to clean fruit and veggies, letting them soak for 30 minutes. Depending on what I’ve bought, like fresh lettuce or chard or cabbage, I will rinse the sand and dirt off the leaves first before the Microdyne soak.
All the fruit and vegetables need to be completely covered in water. If not, then you need to turn them to make sure the other side has soaked, too.
As you can see, all this could take the better part of a morning! I want you to know that I don’t spend all my time going shopping for textiles or ceramics out and about in Oaxaca! I go food shopping several times a week because fresh food matters.
Most of us prefer to eat food we buy from our local markets. We know that it is probably organic. Here, in Teotitlan del Valle, the fields are fertilized with cow manure, and that means we need to pay special attention to sanitizing what is grown locally.
I will often ask in restaurants if they disinfect their salads, fruits and veggies. Of course we do, they say. I know restaurants that buy pre-packaged and pre-washed lettuce to serve to customers. I suppose it’s okay but who knows. I trust the salad I make at home.
If you are visiting, what to do? What to eat? You are safe with cooked vegetables, grilled and roasted meats, baked potatoes, rice, and any fruits that you can peel. In restaurants, I will often order verduras al vapor, steamed vegetables that have been completely cooked. I will also order a glass of water from the large purified bottle of water — un vaso de agua de garrafon — that is used in the kitchen for food prep instead of buying a small bottle of water that adds on to the cost of a meal and the world’s carbon footprint.
The 18th annual Feria Maestros del Arte happened last weekend at Lake Chapala, Jalisco, about 40-minutes from Guadalajara. I had never been before and I decided it was time! Plus, it gave me a chance to spend some time with friends Chris and Ben, who moved to Ajijic from North Carolina last year.
And, there was another good friend, flying shuttle loom weaver Alfredo Hernandez Orozco with his son Yaolt, who make extraordinary cotton cloth home goods and clothing. Their workshop is in El Tule.
There were other Oaxaca artisans whose work I know and respect: alebrijes makers, ceramic artists and sculptors, basket weavers, and some very fine clothing weavers from remote areas of the Oaxaca coast and Mixe regions. Many of these are included on our Oaxaca Discovery Tour coming up at the end of January 2020 (yes, a few spaces are available).
Juan Toribio from San Juan Cotzocon, whose work I wear with pleasure
An added bonus of going to the Fair was participating in events hosted by Los Amigos del Arte Popular. This is a non-profit group that supports Mexican folk art. They are appreciators and collectors, and do a lot to underwrite this Feria and provide scholarships for artisans to travel here.
I also had a chance to connect with friends Mariann who moved to Ajijic from Philadelphia, friend Ellen who comes to Oaxaca every winter, her sister Sally, and locals Elizabeth and Greg who live in Chapala. I also bumped into David and Barbara from San Diego, too.
Unlike the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe that covers the world, this Fair reunites those of us with Mexico-LOVE. While I’m most happy living in Oaxaca, coming to the shores of Lake Chapala is a refreshing change of pace and a great party all the way around. I had to come home to rest!
What is an Exquisite Corpse Poem? The root of the exquisite corpse poem comes from the Parisian Surrealist Movement, and is a method by which a collection of words or phrases is assembled. Each collaborator adds to the composition. In our case; Professor Robin Greene, our writing instructor and coach, constructed this poem from lines that each of us contributed, taken from pieces we wrote during our five day Women’s Creative Writing Retreat.
Day of the Dead — Nine Women Writing
We are all made from mole
and the daily tortillas that hold us
to life. Hold us, that is until
mescal creates thunder
and all our clichés work.
But how much is a songbird worth?
And are birth and death only
an entrance and an exit,
or are they the constant cadence
of beginning, becoming, ending —
much like the stories we write?
We watch the shadowed Zapotec
mountains from the cemetery
tonight — Dia de los Muertos —
and want to understand
how the dead know where
their families live now? And what
will happen if everybody moves
to El Paso or Cincinnati? Will thunder
still roll across a purple sky,
or perhaps we’d have to take it
undercover until no one laughs
again, or we find ourselves
drinking Créme de Menthe
frappes, sickly green minty stuff,
poured over crushed ice
and diluted with vodka.
After Robin read this poem to open our last evening together, we each took turns reading a piece we had written which we chose to share. After the reading, we celebrated with dinner and a mescal toast!
Our next Women’s Creative Writing Retreat will be held December 15-21, 2021, again in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. During this winter holiday season, so magical here, we will delve into writing about holiday traditions, meaning, family gatherings, and anything else that celebrations conjure up. It’s a time to reflect and write about what was meaningful, disappointments, yearnings and relationships. Send me an email if you are interested in participating: firstname.lastname@example.org
Not only do I organize the Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat, I am a participant. This means I take Natalie Goldberg’s advice for Writing Down the Bones seriously. I sit with my thoughts and emotions, dig in, write. We are based in Teotitlan del Valle, where I live many months each year and most of my creative writing energy is spent with this blog. Day of the Dead and the retreat give me the freedom to look back in a more personal way.
The retreat/workshop focuses me, helps me dig deeper and remember stories, especially about my dad, who was the supporting role in our 1960’s San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California, family movie. I loved this experience. Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle transported me back to my youth and it was an important way to bring my dad to life again.
Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle is low key compared to many extravagant city celebrations, which is why I love it here. From three in the afternoon on November 1 to three in the afternoon on November 2, people go visiting extended family, godmothers and godfathers, to pay their respects to the dead.
They come bearing gifts of bread, flowers, a candle, chocolate, a bottle of mezcal or beer to add to the altar. They sit a while, usually an hour or more, in the altar room to talk about memories and catch up. Relationships take time.
Here, the difuntos make their own way back home, following the aroma trail of copal incense, marigold flowers, and their favorite foods placed on the altar to entice them back. On November 2, they join the family for tamales (traditionally, yellow mole amarillo with chicken) for lunch before making their way back to their tombs.
We follow them, making sure they are safe and secure going back to the underworld. We want their spirits to be at rest. By dusk, usually the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery is filled with locals who settle in at grave sites with a picnic, beer, mezcal, fruit and nuts, both for themselves and their loved ones.
There is the village band playing joyful music under the outdoor shelter. There are village volunteers inside the small chapel praying and chanting in ancient, tonal Zapotec. It is a contradiction to the band. I imagine they are asking for guidance and support from a higher power to help them fulfill their charge. This is their cargo; they are responsible for cemetery care. With them are volunteer constables who carry a baton for just-in-case.
It is different this year, I see. There are newly paved cement cemetery paths. We are no longer stumbling between graves to get to the distant side of the cemetery. There is strobe light that illuminates some areas as if it were daylight and fewer candles. The periphery is still obscure. And, there appear to be more tourists now. Five years ago, I was among one or two foreigners.
Most of the families I know come to the cemetery early now, decorate the graves and go home, or they don’t go at all. By seven in the evening, the cemetery is alive with visitors and by eight there are only a few locals hanging on to tradition. Sitting with the difuntos all night was the practice then.
The grandmothers still wear their faldas, their plaid, wool woven wrap around skirts held in place at the waist with a red-dyed wool sash. Their long braids, woven with ribbons, are wrapped like a crown on their heads. They are the last generation in traditional traje and they will be here next.
I see village friends and sit with them. Debbie joins me. So does Poppy and Claudia. We are offered beer, a cup of potato chips. We sit on a concrete skirt serves us as a bench. It contains the dirt of an adjacent grave. Children play, running across the mounds of the ancestors. No one seems to care. It is natural.
A boy of about five comes over and hands each of us peanuts. He is grinning. We are grateful. We had lunch a long time ago. His father explains that we are sitting at the grave of his grandmother and great grandfather. We can use the same tomb if people are buried fifteen years apart, he says.
As a land conservation plan, I think this makes sense. In the ancient world, Zapotec tombs where at the center of each dwelling. People practiced ancestor worship. I call that respectful and it is how to keep memory alive.
What I noticed was the serenity of being in the obscurity. Away from the sharp light and the gaggle of visitors, I could feel the meditation of sitting in a cemetery celebrating life.
We will hold the next Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15-21, 2020, to explore the winter holiday/Christmas season, what it evokes for memory, traditions, expectations and disappointments, giving and receiving. Ask your family to join you in Oaxaca after the retreat. It’s a magical time here.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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