New Insect Found Living on Fridge

…of the chapulin variety. He’s from Oaxaca and I’ve named him Chappy…Chappy the Chapulin. I’m hoping he’ll scare off all the other bugs (somehow we have none, even though we live in the heart of the world’s second-largest city. Go figure. NYC was full of roaches. Mexico City? Clean as a whistle.)

Chappy is an alebrije. I wanted to buy many more alebrijes while we were in Oaxaca, but the no-good rule known as “luggage restrictions” kept me from indulging in my intense need to collect oodles of Oaxacan folk art (much to Brendan’s pleasure, I’m sure).

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Here is where Chappy originated:

This roadside stand of alebrijes is located way up in the mountains of Oaxaca.

This roadside stand of alebrijes is located way up in the mountains of Oaxaca.

Like all alebrijes, Chappy is carved from wood and hand-painted.

Like all alebrijes, Chappy is carved from wood and hand-painted.

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From Your Car Exhaust to My Window Sill

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In New York, our window sills were always covered in a greasy black soot, as if it were the byproduct of gasoline. Here it’s definitely a thick non-greasy dust, which I’m assuming is a smidge better for your ailing lungs — it doesn’t “stick” to them so much. Either way is certainly not great. And since we’re at 7,500 feet, it’s already harder to breathe. I’m somehow immune to either dirty air condition, and have yet to develop a “big city cough.” Although it does seem to irritate my eyes more.

A bright spot, though: After a long p0lluted week, the air miraculously cleared today. It’s warm and clear today. No cough cough cough. (And I don’t own a car so I can definitely put a lot of blame elsewhere…) Air quality here, at times, does seem unbelievably bad, and just when I think I can’t take it anymore, it goes away and the sky becomes the most beautiful shade of blue.

Posing with Virgin Mary: Like Sitting on Santa’s Lap

Along with being one of the most holy days of the year in Mexico, Dec. 12 — Dia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, also is one of the most adorable.

Families across the country dress up their children as either  indigenous pilgrims or Juan Diego, the Indian man who saw a vision of a dark-skinned Mary in what is now northern Mexico City. Little girls wear elaborate dresses and shawls, have their hair braided, and sometimes even wear make-up. Boys put on baggy hospital-scrub like shirts and pants, ponchos/sarapes, a scarf around their head or a straw hat, sandals and often a drawn-on mustache. Even the tiny babies are dressed up. It’s all you can do not to run off with these adorable children.

Last year we witnessed the adorable kids in Taxco, Mexico. This year in Oaxaca, which has its own church for Guadalupe. The large park in front of the church was taken over by a carnival. Immediately in front of the church were about 20 elaborate photo backdrops where kids could have their picture taken — much like posing with Santa. A photographer snaps your photo for about 30 pesos ($3).

And like the crying jags elicited by Santa, many little kids here too don’t know what to make of the experience:

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This is such a great "half-hearted smile" for the camera.

This is such a great "half-hearted smile" for the camera. But the donkey seems thrilled.

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Ahh…..Our Oaxacan Paradise Eco-Vacation

The first-half of our trip last week in Oaxaca was spent at the eco-resort Bahia de la Luna on Playa La Boquilla, near Puerto Angel, Mexico.

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Again, because we like to do it our way, we purposely picked Bahia because of its remoteness and its individual cabana setting. I dislike large hotels, especially many of ’em all lined up in a row on an otherwise lovely beach. They tend to destroy the ecosystem in many ways (beach erosion, broken reefs from too many people dumbly kicking them, sewage) and plus I am just not a giant people-lover, particularly if I’m trying to relax.

However, remote equals challenging to get to. The last three miles of the drive to Bahia are on a steep, rutted, sandy road. It made the previous stomach-churning 6 hours seem like fluffy cupcakes by comparison. Twice we got stuck in the sand, and Brendan had to perform 4×4 style driving in our compact rental car. Not fun. (Actually, he had a big grin, and I had my hand over my heart and my eyes closed.)

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Once we arrived, it was all waves gently crashing, palm trees swaying and geckos squeaking. Yes! We were far from civilization (or, far enough). First day, after the long drive, in spite of the beauty around me, I kept wondering when I would shake off the accumulated stress from the past day and many months (it’s been a long time since we had a long vacation). Second day I could feel it slowly melting away, especially after I put on my snorkel and mask and discovered the beach was utterly spectacular for snorkeling (Puffer fish! Blennies!  And this was the first time in my snorkeling adventures that I was surrounded by schools of fish. Large schools — we’re talking hundreds of plate-sized yellow-and-black angelfish who didn’t care about me and just swam all around me, slowly. I spent a fun-but-futile 15 minutes diving down to point out a zebra eel to Brendan, who still maintains he never saw it in its lair.)

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By the third day, I had no stress, except for all the de-tangling required after I went snorkeling and had to pull my long hair out of the mask’s plastic straps. Ouch. While not swimming or kayaking, we read under a little palm palapa, shaded from the sun, never too hot or too cold. (Sometimes my life feels like an eternal search for temperature happiness).

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This was all aided by amazing food. Breakfast and lunch were pretty typical, but dinner was as healthy and tasty as healthy and tasty can be. They serve the catch of the day, freshly prepared, and so we ate octopus, red snapper, shark, and mahi-mahi. With salads like “strawberry and cucumber” or “spinach and orange slices.”

Fourth day? I didn’t expect this, but I was too relaxed?! I found myself doing something highly unusual: Pining for TV. Please, let me explain before you stop being my friend: Our cabana had two beds with mosquito netting, two lamps, a ceiling fan and a basic bathroom — no phone, no TV, no computer, no air conditioning, no cell phone service and no hot water. With no bar down at the beach (there’s alcoholic beverages for sale, but no people to sell them to you after a certain hour) and total darkness by 7 p.m, we spent enormous amounts of time reading under our insect-proof nets.

Even I, avid reader, needed something else to do after ingesting The Poisonwood Bible, People and US Weekly (last two are required beach reading, didn’t you know?)

In spite of my random attack of boredom, we do plan to go back, of course (even beach-hater Brendan had to admit “that was a fun beach vacation!”)

So, paradise: I’ll be back one day, hopefully soon, maybe with friends or relatives (Suzanne? Dana? Dora? Adam? Connie? Victory clan? Near-Frozen Minnesotans? Facebook friends?) We can bring our dominoes set, a deck of cards, maybe even Pictionary, and everyone: Bring your laptop loaded with movies ready for watching, under the netting, in total solitude.

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Oaxaca City to the Beach — in Six Knuckle-Biting Hours

"Drive with caution -- windy roads" (Understatement? Yes.)

"Drive with caution -- winding roads" (Understatement? Yes.)

We just got back from a week of vacation in the Southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. We decided to make a road trip out of it, flying into Oaxaca City, picking up a rental car, and then heading south on Carretera 175, which takes you to the Pacific Oaxacan coastline — after traversing many, many mountains.

We had done our research and were aware it was up there in the list of “crazy drives you’ll probably only attempt once in your lifetime.”

But wow — what’s beauty if not a little crazy?

First, here’s how it looks on a normal map:

The orange dot in the middle is Oaxaca City, the dot on the beach is where we drove to.

The orange dot in the middle is Oaxaca City, the dot on the beach is where we drove to: a private little beach -- more on that later this week!

But in reality? Well, here is my homemade map:

My arms were sore from driving -- that's how twisty it is.

My arms were sore from driving -- that's how twisty it is.

But as you can imagine, there’s a good reason it’s this twisty. The never-ending mountains! Lots of them — through the desert, then the pine forest, and finally the tropics. (Segment 1: Twisty, dry, and hot. Segment 2: Twisty, dry and cool. Segment 3: Twisty, moist and very hot.)

Let’s take a look:

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Companions to None: Film Explores Street Dogs in Mexico

Flickr Photo by Pedro Rueda

Flickr Photo by Pedro Rueda

If there are two things I love, it’s film documentaries and dogs. But dog documentary Companions to None is one of those films I probably shouldn’t watch because I’ll just cry the entire time.

It’s about the overwhelming street dog population in Mexico (I highly recommend Amores Perros — or Love’s a Bitch in English, for a fictionalized-but-apt examination of Mexico’s bizarre relationship with dogs.)

My neighborhood, as I’ve explained before, is an odd microcosm of this societal ill. There’s people like me, walking our fancy, neutered, well-loved dogs in beautiful Parque Mexico. Never far away, though, are street dogs. Sad street dogs with open wounds, limps and desperately sweet souls. And because there is no consistent sterilization program for street dogs, these dogs keep reproducing, in the shadows, ignored by most. Thankfully, a few kind people in the neighborhood do try to take care of these dogs, such as putting out mats for them, feeding them, and taking them to the vet/groomer’s if they need help. More than once a street dog has followed me home, hoping for a hand-out. Of course I oblige when this happens.

Go to more rural parts of Mexico and profound poverty and cultural norms exacerbate the problem. People barely have enough money to feed themselves (and their large families — contraception for humans is not a wildly popular idea, either), so taking proper care of street dogs is low on the list of priorities.

Flickr Photo by patotenere

Flickr Photo by patotenere

As well, a persistent belief that neutering male dogs will make them “gay” keeps sterilization programs from taking hold. One woman in the film trailer credits the Catholic Church with propagating this belief, and I’m not surprised. Homophobia knows no bounds, not even when it comes to pets.

As the LA Times explains, the film may not be widely seen. (I want to give a shout-out right now to the Times for having excellent coverage of Latin America at a time when most news divisions are cutting staff.)

“Problems securing a wide distribution for the film may obstruct the diffusion of what is an important message. Buchanan said American networks such as Animal Planet, Discovery and HBO passed on broadcasting the documentary and that a deal with TV Azteca –- one of Mexico’s two main commercial broadcasters –- fell through.”

I do hope the film gains momentum, or at least the important message it carries. Sterilizing dogs is far more humane than letting them over-populate, starve on the street, and create more starving puppies. And the more your sterilize, the smaller the problem gets with every passing generation.