mexico diaries 6: Pok Chuc and Palapas, Huapangos and Oaxaca

mexico diaries 6: Pok Chuc and Palapas, Huapangos and Oaxaca

It’s been a long time since I attempted any kind of communication about my life south of the border. Actually, that’s not true. I started writing a letter only a month after my last one (which was in May of ’99), but quit after two paragraphs—still, those paragraphs, sitting forlornly in my hard drive ever since, are kinda interesting, historically speaking. Here’s the first:

[warning: begin boring, non-Mexico-specific sports bit…]

“We started taking capoeira at the beginning of June, just after Sharon and Mark [some friends from Chicago who visited for a week] left. Sharon had told me that “I heard it really kicks your ass”, you know, in a good way. Ha! yes. What she didn’t tell me, however, is that it also really kicks your thighs. Especially the parts of your thighs that you need for going down stairs, or sitting. or standing up. or running. or walking. Or getting up onto curbs, or getting down off them. In fact, do you have any idea how many things you use your ass and thighs for? And no, I’m not talking about that. Anyway, capoeira kicks ALL that shit. But within two lessons, when I started not to hurt quite so much, I already felt almost like Supergirl, so I’m in, man, I’m there.”

I’m still far from Supergirl status, though one of my teachers, Rosalinda AKA Pantera Rosa AKA Wonder Woman, keeps my eyes on the prize. However, Matt and I have become very capoeiristically-inclined in the intervening, what? eight months? I go four to five times a week, Matt two to three. For those of you who know me personally, this will come as a shock of possibly life-threatening proportions, as I have never shown any tendency to do any kind of sport, ever. Those of you who know Matt personally will be equally shocked, and for the same reason. However, despite the fact that capoeira’s an extremely demanding… ahem…sport…is has a million other things going for it, like dancing, singing, playing instruments, and, in our lucky case, great teachers—Adolfo and Rosalinda—who give the whole group some mighty “axé” (pron. “ashay”—meaning spirit, or communal energy). In case you’re unclear as to what the hell I’m talking about here, capoeira is a Brazilian martial art probably developed by black Brazilian slaves a couple of hundred years ago, possibly based on earlier African fighting techniques, but, again, possibly, disguised as a game or dance so that the masters wouldn’t recognize it as martial training. (There are a lot of different theories about how, where, and why capoeira developed.) It involves a group of people standing in a circle singing songs (in Portuguese), clapping and playing instruments, while two of the group “play” in the center. Other members of the group frequently change places with the pair playing in the center. It looks like a cross between judo and breakdancing (which, apparently, draws from capoeira, or maybe it doesn’t…). I think that’s as far as I need to go into this whole thing, but if you think it sounds interesting, there are tons of websites with lots of pictures, including our own group’s: Longe do Mar (i.e. “Far from the sea”, which makes a lot more sense when you learn the songs, which seem all to be about being a sailor…)

[end boring, non-Mexico-specific sports bit]

Here’ s the other paragraph I wrote back in June:

“Experienced my first earthquake today. My insides felt like they kept moving a lot longer than the earth did—I had to check to see if the glass of water sitting on top of the table was still sloshing around when I got up from under it. Matt was teaching, and all I could think was how much I wanted him to be there with me. Between that and wondering/hoping that the table would hold if a huge chunk of roof fell on it, the minutes passed. I have no idea how long it took, but it sure seemed like forever. I was flooded with adrenaline, and nothing to do but sit there and feel it. Matt came home in between classes to see me, and his skin was cold with anxiety. His hands were trembling, and we just kept looking at each other. ‘reality check’ is an understatement for that one.”

This was the first of two major earthquakes that have hit Mexico in the past eight months. My first earthquakes ever. As it happens, the epicenters of both were quite far from Mexico City, but the quakes were huge, and the effects were still felt very strongly here. No major damage was recorded here, and only one or two deaths, all from heart-attacks and the like. The population is fairly traumatized by earthquakes, and with good reason. In ’85, most of you will remember, there was a huge, devastating quake here that killed tens of thousands. Up to the present day, some people experience panic attacks during an earthquake, and many of the recorded injuries are due to panicked citizens jumping out windows and so forth. It’s strange, having grown up in an absolutely stable (earth-wise) region, and now, in six months, having experienced two major and several minor earthquakes, I can’t get it out my system. I was just thinking about it today, before I sat down at the computer: whenever I step a little awkwardly and I feel my weight sway, or if my heart is pounding and I can feel it throughout my body, or if I get a little dizzy for any reason, my first thought is that there’s an earthquake. I get a little rush of fear, and look around me to see if anything’s moving. It usually isn’t. I don’t know if this is normal, but I also don’t know if I could live in a place as unstable as this long-term (says the woman who is planning her move to Tokyo…).

Since June, a lot has happened, and also not very much. I finished my Radio: An Illustrated Guide comic book for This American Life, and it was used for the fall national fund drive on public radio stations. It will be used for local winter drives (around now [Oct 99]) and the national spring drive (in April 00) as well, and then it will go on sale to the rest of the world in May 00, via my comics publisher Fantagraphics. If you’re interested and you shop at a comics store, look for it in the next Previews. If you don’t, look for it on Fantagraphics (or on starting in May! (this is long since available, of course—ed.) I am really happy with how the project turned out. I feel like I really succeeded in conveying host Ira Glass’s ideas about how to make effective radio, and in a way that’s interesting for non-specialists as well as aficionados. As one of the only projects I’ve been happy with, not only before, but also after getting it back from the printers, I hope you’ll seek it out.

So that was my summer. Very far from our original plan of taking trips every few weekends to parts as-yet-unknown, I was at the ol’ drawing table non-stop through early September. In fact, the vast majority of our plans to travel and see the sights while here in Mexico have been just that: plans. The first trip we took within Mexico since last spring was in December, when my mom came down and we three went to the Yucatan peninsula for Christmas. It was about the least-Christmassy Christmas you can imagine (I wore a bikini during the day and we ate Italian for dinner), which suited me fine. At left, Matt phones his parents from the beach on Christmas day.

We were in Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, for about five days first, and took side trips to the extremely impressive site of Uxmal, and also several other, smaller sites, including one next to a hacienda that was manufacturing sisal (that rough fiber that all those fashionable pottery-barn-type rug/mats that kill your feet are made of), which comes from a Yucatecan succulent plant called henequen. There was something about this place that seemed like a city lost in time. The hacienda (the mansion, I mean) itself was ruined, as far as we could tell, and there were villagers living in the grounds. The manufacturing plant had been working steadily for probably 300 years, and looked it. It was supposedly “French-style” and when we pulled up in the car it appeared to be deserted and ruined, except for a giant pile of henequen leaves stacked outside. As we drove slowly past the stack, we saw a couple semi-toothless (but friendly-looking) workers lounging and smoking. We approached them and asked about the place, and whether we could take pictures.
They said we could, but just then the big boss drove up in a pickup, and they disappeared into the mountains of leaves, so as not to get caught lounging. How…colonial. So we took pictures. Then we hiked back around the back of the sisal factory to the archeological site, paid a nominal fee, and signed in the guest book (we were surprised to see that there was actually a staff person on hand, extremely bored, since the last vistor had come maybe a day or two before). Then we hiked up to a rather impressive set of pyramid stairs topped with a double row of columns. It looked almost Greek. We climbed around on the pyramid, and another one that was masquerading as a small mountain, covered in trees.
Another day, we went to Izamal, AKA the Yellow City, which is, indeed, yellow. It was easily the most magical place of the trip for me, as I have not too much use for pyramids, and this was a real town: all the buildings in the center painted yellow and white, a huge former abbey where the Pope came a few years a ago, a couple of great restaurants, and horse-buggy-taxis to get around in. Yes, really. Not that there weren’t cars, but there were a heck of a lot of buggys! For the final touch, there are three ruined Mayan pyramids right in the middle of town. The one we climbed had its “entrance” between a yellow house and a yellow micelanea (a sort of low-level convenience store). There was a quietness and beauty to the town that made me ponder what it would be like to have a sabbatical there, away from anything, a few hours even from Merida, which isn’t exactly the center of the known world, pretty as it is, with its well-preserved colonial center.

(One thing that sucks about colonial cites (or colonial areas, like parts of the center of Mexico City) is that the sidewalks are incredibly narrow, and so are the streets, but no one drives any slower or more carefully, and you have to walk single file with your companions, getting jostled constantly by the other passers-by, and with giant busses and things screaming by two inches from your elbow. That is not fun. On the other hand, when you then turn into a pedestrian street, or the quiet inner courtyard of a restaurant or public building, it is such a relief, and it is so beautiful, that it almost makes it worth it.)

The food in the area is simple, but really delicious. One thing we discovered there—it’s on basically every menu—is Pok Chuc, a thin piece of pork loin marinated in sour orange juice (from a different type of orange, not just an unripe one—you can gt it in Carribean groceries here in NYC – ed.) and grilled, then served with black beans, tortillas, and usually a red-onion condiment. Delicious. Other great specialties include Relleno de Negro, a soupy kind of chicken or turkey dish that’s black due to charred tortillas in the sauce, and panuchos, a kind of tortilla stuffed with black beans and topped with dogfish or turkey and red onion. It’s a cuisine defined by fresh, citrussy tastes, and almost no use of chiles, although the hottest chile I’ve ever had, the habanero, is often served as a condiment on the side.

After this, we moved on to Playa del Carmen, which is a beautiful beach on the Carribbean in the state of Quintana Roo. We stayed in a wonderful, very friendly posada (small, informal hotel) in the back of a textile shop, half a block from the beach. Matt and I had a palapa, which is a building whose roof, and walls, if any (in this case there were), are made of palm leaves. Very rustic, and there was maid service too! The best of both worlds. Playa del Carmen is a booming beach town that only ten years ago was probably tiny and quite homey. The whole coast is just exploding with development. I sincerely doubt whether it would be possible to find an “undiscovered” town anywhere from Cancun to Belize. On the other hand, if a place is to be developed, Playa del Carmen is not a bad example of it. The beach is pristinely clean, if busy; the main drag is pedestrian-only; and for whatever reason, almost no American tourists are there. It’s mostly Italians, Germans, Swedes, even Canadians, but hardly any of our tribe. Which is A-OK by me. The result of this is that the stores are a bit less familiar, and there are tons of great restaurants! What a surprise! We had some wonderful Italian and French food there. Never woulda predicted, but there you are. One major downside: the fashion this year was for every white girl to get Bo Derek braids, and, since my hair is longish at the moment, we got hounded by vendors wielding braided-up mannekin heads on spikes everytime we hit the strip, which was all the time.

In the near future is a trip with Jazmin, our Mexican cartoonist friend, and Jim from Austin to either Oaxaca City (which would be my second time) to meet up with our capoeira group, or to Veracruz (we went to Veracruz, and it was fantastic – ed.), the home of our favorite folk/party music, huapango. If any of you saw my strip in Pulse! Magazine in December 1999, the music being played in the background is a huapango. It utilizes two guitars of slightly different types and a fiddle, and three or four people singing at the top of their lungs and yodeling. OK, I know, it sounds disgusting, but believe me, if you’ve ever wanted to hear pure joy on tape, this is it. If you’re curious, look for Huapangos de Veracruz (or San Luis Potosi, or Tamaulipas, even-it’s a gulf-state sound) or Sones Huastecos. Good luck. You can barely find them here in Mexico. Above, Matt and I are serenaded by a Son Jarocho band playing the kitschy classic “el Querreque”. (In February, when we went to Veracruz with Jazmin and Jim).

Other than that, we’ve been here in the city or in the US of A! I never thought, when I moved down here two years ago, that I could possibly be back in the states as often as I have been. September in New York, Connecticut, Washington (OK, Bethesda), and Richmond, Virginia. October in Chicago. January in New York again, for a short trip. I haven’t had to renew my three-month tourist visa more than once in the entire time I’ve been here, and that time I was only in town for three-and-a-half months…None of you can possibly know how close I feel to the US, and how strange it feels to have most of my US friends think of me as living in, gasp!, a foreign country! As I contemplate my next move, to Tokyo in May (this plan obviously changed in the meantime—ed.) and realize that I will, for the first time, be without the resources to go “home” constantly, it feels very strange. Matt has gotten used to it, as he’s been on only a fraction of the visits I’ve made to the US, and has a resident visa here. I sometimes think I don’t actually know what it feels like to live abroad! The ex-pat life continues to charm, however, little as I know of it. Returning to the US for me is a little like visiting one’s family: you love them, but they drive you crazy, and you can’t understand how friends of yours don’t see how they always do this annoying thing, and always have to eat that disgusting lunch, and harrass you constantly to do that other thing that you don’t want to do! Only your family, or your home country, can possibly be so dear and so infuriating at the same time. We’ve earned an exemplary record with our Mexican friends: every time someone makes a crack about “gringos”, we can expect an apologetic look and/or a “I mean, you’re not gringos, really…” That is, until we bitterly disappointed our friend José with the admission that we had actually attended the Ballet Folklorico (a tourist-friendly presentation of fancified versions of folk dances)…at which point he disgustedly said, “And I thought you were trying to really live here, and not be gringos!” Or something. He played it off as sort of a joke, but take this as a warning: don’t ever go to the Ballet Folklorico if you want to retain the respect of the locals! (it was terrible anyway, no big loss there.)

Matt and I toast the new millenium on the roof terrace of our apartment, watching the fireworks.