Monthly Archives: May 2021

Memorial Day Tribute

My goddaughter from Oaxaca, Janet Chavez Santiago, asked me, How do you celebrate Memorial Day? Well, I answered, now if we have been vaccinated, we have barbecues and drink beer in the backyard with family and friends. Some of us raise the flag and think about freedom. Maybe we play music or basketball or croquet. Perhaps we take a ride in the country or shop for online sales. It’s a three-day weekend, the beginning of summer. We are supposed to be having fun.

And, then I thought about it more. This is a tribute to Veterans, the people like my dad who was conscripted in 1943 and sent off to war in the Pacific Theatre. He was a medic because he was a biology major in college, an Ohio State University 1936 graduate who knew about cultures, petri dishes, and looking at specimens sliced and displayed on glass to evaluate under a microscope. But, that didn’t prevent him from being in the line of fire.

He never talked about it — how his ship was torpedoed and sank at Guadalcanal. How he floated in the dark, fathomless sea until rescue came. How he contracted malaria, had night sweats and nightmares his entire life. How this was a phenomenon that was then called shell shock or battle fatigue or combat fatigue. It was thought then that if the symptoms lasted longer than six months, it had nothing to do with war, but was a deep-seated psychological issue within the individual. As a society, after the Vietnam War, we came to know this more holistically as PTSD –– a lifelong nervous system response to extreme trauma.

Our dad never fully recovered from his war experience and he managed, despite lack of support from the Veteran’s Administration and a wife who was weary from his angst, to survive, father three accomplished children, teach high school history and ceramics, and live until the age of eighty-three.

During the Vietnam War, our family became anti-war activists. It was a moment in history of right-wrong. They were wrong. We were right. Our neighbors were building bomb shelters down the surburban San Fernando Valley, California, street where we lived. Our mother explored migrating to Australia. We took to protesting and joined Another Mother for Peace. Our dad led the way. He knew what war did to people.

Back then, I had disdain for those who didn’t get deferments in what we blamed as Lyndon Johnson’s War. I didn’t fully understand how conscription swept up Brown and Black people who lacked the resources to avoid service, or who sought military service as a way out of poverty and a path to developing a marketable skill. Many in the general population hailed Our Country, Right or Wrong, a justification. I didn’t fully understand how those returning from combat in 1972 with PTSD needed our full support and resources to make them well again. It was a moment of upheaval, confusion and despair. Since then, we have sent our young men and women to Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, to Africa and the Middle East. There is always justification, which is weighed against cost of human life.

In the intervening years, I have come to honor the service of the individual who is sent by government to uphold the ideals of democratic principles. Often, this goes awry as principles get tangled up with economic priorities — access to oil, gas, trade, low-wage manufacturing, maintaining political balance of power.

I go back to our Dad, who went to war to protect us from the annihilating clutches of Nazi expansion and the insidiousness of Adolf Hitler. Most in our European family perished in the Holocaust. Since then, there have been many Holocausts: Cambodia, Sudan, Guatemala, not to mention the holocausts perpetrated agains indigenous peoples here and around the world.

It is nothing short of a miracle that our Dad survived to give us life. Today, I remember him, pay tribute to his sacrifice and tip my hat to all the Veteran’s who deserve our thanks for risking and giving their lives. I set them apart from the often misaligned political goals, ambitions and policies of nationhood.

As a footnote: I have been in Taos, NM, for two weeks. I’m settling in, embracing the landscape. At times, I wonder about the wisdom of my choice to leave North Carolina at the age of 75 and embark on another new adventure. I am the wanderer in my family. Then, I look at the mountains, the vastness of the sky, the austerity of sagebrush, the ancient culture surrounding me, the similarities between Mexico and Nuevo Mexico, and I reach a place of contentment and peace.

Have a great Memorial Day and remember those in your family who gave of themselves so that we could live.

Eating in Oaxaca: A Culinary Paradise

Norma’s Note: Rico. Delicioso. Sabroso. I again invited Carol Lynne Estes to contribute a blog post about her experiences living in Oaxaca. Carol isn’t a visitor; she is a resident who knows the ins and outs of eating — from humble comedors to the finest upscale restaurants. Her impressions and recommendations are here for you to savor and enjoy.

Carol’s Restaurant Recommendations

Of the many joys of Oaxaca, food tops most lists. The variety and freshness of vegetables and fruits plus excellent quality meats make this a culinary paradise.  Combine that with the creativity and imagination of Oaxacan cooks, and there’s a treat around every corner. The documentaries running on the TV leave most viewers ready to hop on a southbound plane, and rightly so.  The joy of it all are the many “levels” of dining, from street food and carts with seats welded on the front, to roof top dining in five star, famous restaurants… and all in between.

After seven years, I am not a tourist, and so I approach my meals as though I’ll be here a while with no need for a blow out meal three times a day. My apartment has a beautiful kitchen, and so unless I’m dining with friends, I generally eat at home.  Rarely will I eat on the street carts unless it’s a fresh peeled grapefruit that I cannot resist or tamales. Any time my friend Gail arrives to meet me,  she’s munching on some treat she’s bought along the way from hamburgers to potato chips. She’s the expert on what to buy where from a cart. Many Oaxacans do not have kitchens and eat all their meals at these street stands. Food is plentiful and reasonable.

A great pleasure are the “squat and gobble” spots. Often on our way to the gym of an early morning, my husband I would stop by our favorite tamale lady off Garcia Vigil to enjoy a tamale stuffed into a fresh bolillo roll and a cup of atole. Total cost, $2 each. Occasionally as a weekend treat, we wandered to the Zocalo around 9pm when the trailers set up along the streets outside the large mercados. The Compadres are two groups of young men with stands next to one another.  They start the evening with two roasted pigs’ heads, and when the evening is over, they’re all gone, including the oink. They are poetry in motion, and we all have a great time. We love taquitos or pozole there. Delicious beyond your dreams and about $4 for both of us. At both these places, we  were the only white faces and welcomed generously.

Also in abundance are tiny restaurants for three or four-course lunches (comida corrida) served around late afternoon. A menu at the front door lists what’s on offer for the day, usually fresh produce that was available that morning at the market. Always offered will be a soup or salad, an entrée, and a dessert plus an agua fresca (fresh fruit drink). These meals range from $70-90 pesos, less than $5. Some of the best soups of my life have been these simple broths prepared well.

Coffee shops and bistros… Gourmand, Nuevo Mundo, Boulenc, Brújula, and my new favorite where my Australian nephew works, Onnno Loncheria.  There are amazing bakeries in all of these, plus wonderful Oaxacan coffee. Each is a very nice place for a simple, healthy, delicious meal.  Locally-owned Oaxacan coffee shops are on every block where most roast their own beans, often from family owned coffee plantations.

Next up are what I call the mid-level restaurants that garner $$ on Google. Most are excellent.  One of my favorites, and for many expats here, is El Quinque, now located on the west side of town and two blocks from our previous apartment on the way to Mercado Abastos.  David and I had our first date at their original restaurant near Cruz de Piedra. Many of us get the hamburger “itch” satisfied there. They also offer wonderful seafood dishes (especially on Friday), and I’ve never been disappointed in their salads. I was there last week, and the shrimp and rice was generous and delicious. El Olivo is next to my apartment on Calle Constitucion and has delicious charcuterie and extensive wine selection, and a rooftop with music that I enjoy from my courtyard. Chepiche in Barrio Xochomilco is another breakfast treat, my favorite meal out.

Close by is El Tendajon with creative, delicious huevos rancheros, but then the taquitos de cerdo are as tasty as they are beautiful. La Levadura serves “criollo” (original/indigenous) food, especially tomatoes, that amaze.  The tomato salad boasts nine varieties of tomato in every size and color. It is served on a 10” plate with a bed of beet purée. Here words fail. Yesterday one of my tiny lady friends ate TWO of these. My tamale came to me on a bed of smoldering corn husks… oh my! Almost always I have enough food to carry home for mañana.

Finally further on down the Alcala is Los Danzantes, a place I love. It is located in a classic interior courtyard between Allende and M. Bravo. Enter next to Oro de Monte Alban. The ambiance is special. One can dine under the stars next to a beautiful waterfall fountain. When I went there recently, I enjoyed a thunderstorm that accompanied a ribeye steak with a chocolate “gravy” that I remember still and cannot describe. Another place with lots of stars and wonderful, gracious service, is La Catedral, one block from the Cathedral. Breakfast there is a special treat, and the place is “old world” beautiful. Many professionals here have what seem to be business meals here. Ambience is great and the food never disappoints. 

This past year has been a challenge world over, and Oaxaca had covid pains as well.  But as this place is no stranger to tough times, they responded with grit and creativity.  Most all places hustle deliveries to whoever calls. Food arrives fresh and packaged carefully. Most restaurants are still here. In fact, La Biznaga, a favorite of many expats, moved to a larger place with a nice patio, and La Zandunga (creative Isthmus fare) next door expanded into their old space.  Both seem to be thriving. La Biznaga is famous for their margaritas, and never let anyone convince you that two is a good idea.

As I write this piece, Oaxaca still reels from the pandemic, but gradually life is returning. Restaurants have opened carefully with well-spaced seating, and the vast majority of people wear “cobrebocas.” Most stores and restaurants take temperatures and hand out squirts of sanitizer before anyone enters. Poco a poco….

Other foodie recommendations from my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago who is visiting me in Taos and lives in Oaxaca. She’s a local who travels the Cheap Eats circuit:

  • Dururu for Korean food. Best for carry-out since they are tiny, tiny with only two tables. Corner Manuel Doblado and Colon.
  • La Popular has great tacos de cochinita pibil and sopa de guias.
  • Gourmande for Oaxaca-brewed draft IPA. Their brewery is in San Sebastian Tutla.
  • Tacos Don Juanito. Try the tacos el vapor!
  • Arugula on Calle Miguel Hidalgo offers all organic and vegetarian choices for Comida Corrida (the 4-course, fixed priced lunch Carol mentions above).

Want your own culinary adventure? Sign up to take a tasting tour with Oaxaca Eats.

See the Facebook page, Taste of Oaxaca, for dining recommendations from locals and visitors.

7-1/2 Hours to Denver: Mexico Along the Way

We spent the night in Gretna, Nebraska just outside Omaha off I-80. Janet Chavez Santiago, my Oaxaca goddaughter is traveling with me. I drive. She feeds me orange slices and bits of smoked turkey jerky. The sun is shining and we move from the flatlands of Indiana and Illinois, crossing the Mississippi River and onto the rolling fields of Iowa crossing over into Nebraska. Today, we will drive seven-and-a-half hours to Denver and do a bit of sightseeing before landing in Taos, NM on Sunday.

We pass an Iowa road sign, Montezuma it says, exit here. Why Montezuma? We are out in the middle of rural Iowa where silos and neat red barns dot a landscape of slender trees with bright green leaves flow with the horizon. Look it up, I say. Montezuma, Iowa, population 1,338 (2019), It was first established in 1848 when local veterans of the Mexican-American War named the city after the last Aztec Emperor of Mexico.

Next to our motel is a Walmart. It is the only place that is walkable and we need a stretch after our picnic supper on a green patch beyond the parking lot. At the check-out, a young Latino is in front of us. He looks at Janet and smiles at me. Where are you from? Our interchange is in Spanish. Mexico, he answers. Where in Mexico? I continue. Campeche, he says. Do you like Nebraska? I ask. Yes, very much, he says and waves goodbye.

When we left Durham, North Carolina, on May 6, we drove eight hours to Columbus, Ohio, to spend two days with friends we met sixteen years ago in Oaxaca. Frances has a nickname. It’s Sam. Her husband is Tom. They are photographers who taught workshops with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator in Teotitlan del Valle and have a collection of Chavez Santiago family rugs. Making art is in their DNA and we immersed ourselves in what I call Sam’s Art Camp, making book covers. Tom became an outstanding woodturner and makes amazing turned wood vessels. You can find them on Instagram at Birch Mountain Crafts.

Our next stop was South Bend, Indiana, a short five hour drive from Columbus. This was the place I lived for almost twenty years, raising a child, opening and closing a cookware shop and cooking school, starting my professional career in university continuing education, marketing, communications and development. Lifelong friends still live there. Who knows when I will get there next.

So, here we are. On our way west. The time changes. The air is dryer. The cooler is filled with food. I have my mezcal. It is a passage overland to what is next.