Rome, ancient and modern

Near sunset, the Piazza del Popolo is buzzing with the practiced hum of a sound and lights crew setting up a concert stage. Lights hang from the awning and a screen projects an image from someone’s Mac that will no doubt turn into the graphics for Coca-Cola’s Summer Festival in time for the opening two days later. According to their website, 50 Italian and international artists are scheduled to play a three-day festival, taking advantage of Rome’s 80-degree summer sun.

At one time, the city gates on the north side of this square provided many people’s first glimpse of the world’s dominant metropolis. At its peak, ancient Rome had a population of one million, with more than 50 million spread across its vast empire. The north entrance is an archway flanked on the left by the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and on the right by a carabinieri (Italian federal police) station. On the south, two domed churches straddle the Via del Corso, a wide boulevard now home to international fashion chains.

In the center of the square, there’s an obelisk, one of at least eight stolen by Rome from Egypt. I’m a terrible judge of distance, but it seems close to a hundred feet high. (Wikipedia tells me the obelisk itself is 24 meters, though the base brings that to 36). Originally, this obelisk belonged to the temple of Ramses II, who lived around 1300 BC. Romans brought it to their city around 10 BC, where it decorated the Circus Maximus, and moved it to this square in the 1500s.

Santa Maria’s church isn’t quite as old, dating only to the mid-1400s, but its facade was built with stones from the Colosseum. Much of the damage to that ancient arena has come not from earthquakes or the slow decay caused by wind and water, but from theft. Seeing a ready supply of already-cut stone, builders in latter years found it expedient to simply cart off pieces of the Colosseum, which was built around 80 AD and stopped functioning as an arena around the 6th century.

Once again, I am the New Worlder struck speechless by the sheer age of the things around me. This church was built 600 years ago using stones that were then part of a stadium nearly twice that old, and it is still older than any structure in the United States. The obelisk was built in tribute to a pharaoh who ruled three millennia ago, who predates Jesus by a span of time longer than I can quite understand.

Venice showed me a sea breeze, even on the other side of the world, will always find a way to remind me of home. In Rome, I’m struck by the feeling of ambient history. Here, trendy bars and smart cars blend perfectly into a sea of Roman stone and Baroque churches.

Modernity and antiquity never feel at odds – perhaps because Italians have learned to be modern (smartphone-wielding, Vespa-riding with an efficient national train system) without moving at the frantic pace that seems to integral to the world’s other metropolises. It’s nearly impossible to get lost navigating because there are so many stone monuments, cathedrals and ruins spread around the city center. All you have to do is glance at your map to find the right one.

Entering the Colosseum, tourists are filtered into an exhibit hall on the covered, curved upper level before being allowed to come out of the tunnels into the stadium itself. Shuffling our way with the throngs of visitors, we could have been in any sports arena in the world; just replace the stone with concrete, and I’d have been waiting in the wings of Memorial Stadium to march into a Garfield High School football game with the rest of the band. The design entirely unchanged after almost 2,000 years. Even the word arena, now ubiquitous, comes from the Latin for sand – the sand scattered on the Colosseum’s stage to absorb the blood shed by gladiators.

In the Piazza, the setting sun shines gloriously against church and obelisk. The concert set-up has taken the bulk of the square, but there’s bare ground left. A Michael Jackson impersonator trades control of the audiosphere with a South American pan flute ensemble, adhering to some unwritten code of Roman street performers. His performance lacks a certain showmanship, but his moonwalk is solid and an appreciative crowd forms, then disburses as he finishes the act with an underwhelming sample of Billie Jean.

On the south end of the square, a man blows bubbles with a giant net. He’s happy to take donations in the hat he’s set out by the bubble soap, but his face lights up when kids run forward, eager to chase the watermelon-sized orbs. Most are popped while they’re barely head high, but a few float higher, the rainbow light from the soap shimmering against a backdrop of ancient stone.

Sea breezes and sore feet

venice canal
Canal below the Bridge of Sighs.

This post was updated on June 21 to correct the county my grandpa grew up in. Thanks, Dad!

A Seattle girl like me was bound to love Venice. The lingering smell of salt water calls up my fondest childhood memories of exploring downtown, which was always tinged with the smell of fish.  I’ve heard more than one person complain about Seattle’s ocean odor, but to me it’s always meant fresh food, crisp air and the chance to feel the freedom of a boat on Puget Sound.

We arrived late last night on a train from Rome -the intercity variety, which takes nearly six hours to wind its way north, stopping at a dozen metropolises along the way. Lightning flashes lit up the damp cobblestone streets, though the rain had stopped falling. They were the kind I’ve rarely seen outside of movies, where the entire jagged path of light is visible just before it whites out the entire sky for an instant.

Growing up in Seattle, it took going to college before I realized that most Americans don’t live in places where ferries are an integral part of the public transportation system. My grandparents live across the sound from the city proper, so I rode those huge boats named for the dry inland parts of the state dozens of times per year, relishing the spray and wind that made standing on deck a freezing experience, even in the heat of summer.

The vaporetto boats here are an order of magnitude smaller than Washington State Ferries, but they’re run in the same spirit (and cost about the same to walk on, about $7). Riders are loaded and unloaded quickly and efficiently, and while many people use them for daily commutes, the ride is an experience in and of itself that’s worth making time for if you’re visiting.

I somehow didn’t realize until a week before we left that Venice is a city without cars. I must have known this at some point, but I guess I hadn’t given it much thought until my arrival was imminent. This doesn’t mean calm: there are still crowds of people, unwashed masses teeming off the cruise ships and smaller boats. They turn the street lining the open ocean into a Times Squarian mess of humanity, except because not everyone is American, my countrymen stick out by virtue of their inability to speak at what Europe considers to be a civilized volume.

The guidebook tells me, “80 percent of Venice is not touristy, and 80 percent of the tourists never notice.” I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s an optimistic philosophy that I appreciate. Our B&B is twenty feet from the eastern edge of Venice, practically off the last island forming the giant fish-shaped network and a good half hour’s walk to St. Marco’s Square, the main tourist destination. In the morning, we hear more Italian than English on the sidewalk for the first five minutes of our walk.

No cars means the cobblestone streets are narrow and because all buildings are basically the same height, it’s impossible to see the place you’re trying to navigate to until you’re more or less there. It’s an intricate city of alleys with strange shops to stumble into, full of carnival masks and wax seals and gelato in a dozen flavors. It is a city built for getting lost.

Today we spent twelve hours exploring, on foot for nearly all of it. I walked the start of a blister into my foot and crossed a score of bridges, stopping every time to stare down into the water, somehow both blue and colored like algae. Everything feels old, doubly so for us New Worlders who can’t conceive of historical monuments built before 1500. On a gondola ride, we passed a row of nondescript buildings, brick with stucco over the top. “Those are from the 8th century,” our guide says. I still don’t quite believe him, because how can anything that old still be here on earth when it’s sitting on a lagoon slowly sinking into a rising sea?

My grandfather lived in the small town of Ada in Kent County, Michigan, for nearly all of his life and always called Seattle a “funny little town” when he came to see us. He and his wife once visited Venice and found little redeeming value. They came away complaining that the city was dirty.

I wonder at their judgment – by that standard of cleanliness, you’d rule out New York City, San Francisco, the entire continent of Africa, Asia minus possibly parts of Japan and Singapore, anywhere else with a population over 1 million people, anywhere humid and pretty much any hiking, camping or other outdoor recreation. If half the word now lives in cities, are you really living if you have the means to set foot in a concrete jungle or explore your choice of old world monuments but opt out because you’re afraid the cobblestones might smell like piss, because the trash might be uncollected, because Venice might not actually be Disneyland?

I’m here with my cousin and we both love to swim, so I wonder aloud if it’s possible to jump in a canal and make a go of it. No, she says – you’ll come away with an infection or worse. I’ve seen open air sewers and lakes overgrown with algae and this water smells like nothing but sea, though it’s murky. But there are mussles lining the brick walls up to the tide line, and I counted three whole oranges floating in one canal during our gondola ride. The gondoliers throw their cigarettes into the water, and a deep dive into the canals would uncover more trash and treasure than a lifetime of sorting could hope to classify. I suspect a swim is ill-advised, but I love the canals all the same. They smell at once exotic and like home.

Signs from around Oaxaca

Street signs, graffiti and other written snapshots of life are one of the best parts of traveling to new places.

We head off to Italy and India tomorrow morning, so for my last post about Mexico, I wanted to share a few of my favorites.

First, we have the lost parrot. I would add that the reward money is in pesos, so it’s about $225.

missing parrot
Last seen at a church.
Ecotourism sign in Latuvi. Instructions include "Kill nothing but time."
Ecotourism sign in Latuvi. Instructions include “Kill nothing but time.”
“Everything for the people, nothing for the federation.”
condoms save lives
Using a condom saves lives. (Spotted outside a Catholic church.)
street art
Street art outside a Spanish school.
Communist party sign protesting structural reforms
Communist party sign protesting structural reforms
Detailed informational sign about an insect-borne fever.
Informational sign about an insect-borne fever in Benito Juarez.
"Show your education - this is not a bathroom."
“Show your education – this is not a bathroom.”
Detailed instructions for breast self-exam in Latuvi.


Mexican elections

benito juarez polling station
A sign in Benito Juarez, Oaxaca, marks a polling station for the upcoming election.

I’m safely back in the States now (and over my acquired Mexican fever/stomach bug), but I’d be remiss if I closed that chapter of our trip without saying something about Mexican elections.

Mexicans went to the polls on June 7 for a highly contested midterm election to pick representatives for the lower house of the national two-chamber legislature, state governors (Mexico has 31 states and the Federal District, rather like our D.C.) and a variety of other local offices.

I’ve been reading about Mexico-U.S. relations for years, wrote a thesis about migration through the Arizona desert, spent three weeks talking to migrants for my work on the border and have been translating Mexican news for two years, so I’d like to think I’m more than a casual observer of Mexico. And with all that, I am just barely starting to understand enough about Mexican politics to ask a few intelligent questions of Mexicans that may someday help me formulate actual opinions on this stuff.

That is to say, Mexico is infinitely complicated and multilayered, so anything I say is only one perspective and likely incomplete. As always, I highly recommend the Mexico Voices blog for English readers who want to read news and commentary from a number of Mexican journalists explaining the election results.

Calls for boycott, general unrest

The weeks leading up to the election seemed tense to me, with many groups calling for an electoral boycott. Graffiti to that effect was quite common on the streets of Oaxaca.

electoral boycott
“Everyone makes promises, no one fulfills them. Vote for no one!” A common piece of electoral graffiti on the street of Oaxaca.

Mexicans are very, very good at protesting, but my sense was that this election had drawn more controversy than previous ones. (I could be wrong about this.) Some of that is due to continued protests over the 43 Azotzinapa student teachers who were taken into custody last September in Iguala, Guerrero, then turned over to the criminal gang Guerreros Unidos to be murdered.

The mayor of Iguala was implicated in their disappearance, and the whole thing has led to ongoing protests and a scandal for the PRD (Democratic Revolution Party), Mexico’s third largest political party. The mayor was a PRD member and the PRD is the leftmost of Mexico’s major political parties.

Oaxaca is one of several states where teachers have also been aggressively protesting president Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reform bill. Among other things, it requires a teacher evaluation, which seems to be the focus of much of the protesting I saw.

It’s worth noting that it’s very, very common for teachers and students to protest throughout Mexico and especially in Oaxaca, and these protests have been going on for months. Two days after Spencer and I left the state, the Oaxacan teachers union took over the airport and a gasoline refinery, causing a statewide fuel shortage and briefly halting all air traffic.

The Mexican army was sent in to break up the protests, and was also deployed in Oaxaca and several other states to stop protestors from destroying ballot boxes. There’s some (English language) video of this happening in Oaxaca here.

Mexican political parties and the current landscape

It’s probably worth a brief summary of major Mexican political parties for some context. Mexico became independent from Spain in 1810 and fought a revolution from 1910-1920ish against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Modern Mexico’s political parties were started after that revolution.

The Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) has dominated Mexican politics practically since the revolution. It was founded in 1929 and held the presidency uninterrupted from 1946-2000, when Vicente Fox was elected. Mexican presidents and most other political offices are limited to a single six-year term. It’s also illegal for someone to run for political office while holding another office, so it’s not uncommon for politicians to resign midterm so they can run for their next position.

The PRI is politically centrist compared to Mexico’s two other major parties, the PAN (National Action Party) and the PRD. The PAN is the most conservative, and held the presidency from 2000-2012, first through Vicente Fox, then Felipe Calderón. Those presidencies were characterized by a much more aggressive crackdown on drug trafficking (bolstered by U.S. support), which many Mexicans I’ve talked to blame for the rise in violence within Mexico.

The PRI took the presidency back in 2012 with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto. He was regarded with high hopes by the neoliberal international community (The Economist was a big fan, for instance) and was able to pass some trade liberalization measures and his education reform bill. But his approval rating now is very low within Mexico, and the disappeared student teachers are a common refrain among opinion columnists criticizing the administration, as well as impunity for criminals, general failures of the justice and larger political system, and another scandal where a government contractor helped his wife buy a house on favorable terms.

Reports of drug cartel violence seem to have decreased during his time in office, but I’ve heard some people say that’s indicative of a savvy PR campaign more than it is actual levels of violence. I’m not familiar with the nuances of his signature legislation, but I think it’s fair to say that he’s not well liked among average Mexicans now, and there’s a general feeling of both unrest and weariness with his administration and the political system as a whole (not unlike in the U.S. in many ways).

The 2015 elections

With so much frustration and seeming disenchantment, voter turnout was still 47 percent last Sunday – higher than in the 2009 Mexican midterms, if memory serves, though I can’t find the source for that now. About 1.8 million ballots of the 36.3 million cast were left blank or were invalid.

Some notable results:

  • The governorship of Nuevo Leon went to an independent candidate, Jaime Heliodoro Rodríguez Calderón, though he’s a 30 year veteran of the PRI
  • Other governorship results are here; if I’m reading correctly, the PRI didn’t gain any seats, though a few states changed hands
  • Morena, a new progressive party, picked up 40 seats in the national legislature

As for what this will all mean for Mexico – that’s beyond my pay grade and expertise (and my cynical friends would say it means nothing, anyway). But I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out.

Hostel life

hostel amigo lobby
The lobby of Hostel Amigo, our temporary home in Mexico City

Most of my travels have involved stays at hostels in one form or another. I was going to describe hostels as hit or miss, but I think it’s easy to overstate that case. Sure, some hostels do quasi-inexplicable things like stack two mattresses on top of each other, creating a leaning tower situation that forces me to either attack Spencer in his sleep or risk falling on the floor (why, Hostel Amigo, why?). But mostly, I think the issue is that hostels force you to interact with people, and people themselves are kind of hit and miss.

Europeans on holiday
Inevitably, hostels in Latin America are teeming with Europeans who always seem to be traveling for an indeterminate amount of time with no real set itinerary. “We’re just exploring Central America for four months. We don’t have a return ticket yet,” a French couple in Oaxaca told us. Later, we ran into a young French woman who was staying in Mexico for a year, just traveling, as far as we could tell.

Granted, I’m currently in the middle of a three month trip, but for an average American girl like me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime (or at least, once-in-an-every-few-decades) opportunity that I know is rare and probably won’t happen again. With the Europeans, you never get that sense. It’s as if their 20s exist solely for the purpose of having round-the-world adventures, all facilitated by their trilingualism and the fact that the Euro here will do you even better than the dollar. I’m tempted to ask how they’re able to spend so much time not working – social programs incentivizing travel for recent grads? Generous vacation allowances? Maybe it’s just high unemployment leading the young to say, more or less, “Fuck it” and buy a one-way plane ticket to Latin America.

Perhaps my sample is unrepresentative. I know many Whitman classmates, after all, who are in the Peace Corps or on fellowships or otherwise living abroad or traveling right now. By and large, though, the people I know have either permanently relocated across the world or are doing some sort of program with a defined start and end time and some structure. I’ve met plenty of Germans who are doing something similar, and foreigners of many other stripes. But Europe accounts, by far, for the largest proportion of seemingly aimless backpackers I’ve ever run into.

German nightmares
Once, in Ecuador, I spent the night in a co-ed hostel dorm room populated mostly by young Germans. They were perfectly lovely people who spoke Spanish that was better than mine and English in that way only Germans do – technically perfect, but with something slightly off about the phrasing that makes it just a degree too precise.

This was, of course, before I’d learned to bring ear plugs and a sleeping mask with me on travels. I went to sleep and was startled awake a few hours later by what I thought must be a German military occupation. Turns out my roommate just had a habit of yelling, in German, in his sleep. I mentioned it the next morning. “Oh yeah, I do that sometimes. Sorry!” he said cheerfully.

Travel partners
In Tucson, I spent two nights at a hostel on spring break. I had a day or two free before the U.S.-Mexico border program I was participating in started and no itinerary or car in a city that more or less demands them if you want to leave downtown. At breakfast, I got to chatting with some older 20-somethings who were planning a day trip to the desert museum. By the end of the meal, they’d offered to take me along and gave me a ride there and back.

We spent the day out in the desert looking at cacti and coyotes, me getting to know all of them. We never traded contact information or looked each other up on Facebook, so we never had to ruin our good impressions of each other with too much information. Three years later, I can’t recall their names, but I still remember how rare and special it felt to share a moment like that with strangers.

Latin American politics
Here at Hostel Amigo, many of the guests are visiting from other Latin American countries. Right now, there’s a group of four from Venezuela and at least one Colombian, plus a few other nationalities I didn’t catch. The group spent breakfast on our first morning discussing the political situation in their various countries, arguing about whether Venezuelan crime is truly high across the board, or if it’s really just robberies more than kidnappings and murders.

I did my best to follow along without chiming in, since I had nothing intelligent to add, and ended up being used as a rhetorical device. “We don’t know, she could be a chavista [supporter of Chavism, the politics of the late Hugo Chavez and his successor] right now!” one of the young woman said, pointing at me. She smiled and asked where I was from. I said the U.S., which set off a whole new flurry of conversation about anti-American sentiment that I struggled to keep up with. As the group got up, there was a chorus of “Buen provecho!” – the Spanish equivalent of “Bon appetit,” which is liberally used to express goodwill towards other diners.

The French couple we ran into in Oaxaca had been to India recently and wanted to know about our itinerary. We explained that we’d originally planned to stick to south India, but had since revised our plans for a brief leg up north to see the Taj Mahal, just in case we never made it back to India. After all, almost everyone I know – seasoned world travelers, people who have only been to India once, Indians themselves – were telling us it really is worth it.

They sighed in unison. “That’s not even India,” the guy said. His girlfriend nodded. “It’s touristy. There are people everywhere.”

Spencer and I exchanged glances. Yes, I imagine one of the most photographed monuments in the entire world might be full of people, I wanted to say. Do you tell people not to visit the Eiffel Tower or the Arc du Triumph because they’re crawling with foreigners too?

I shrugged and said we’d heard great things from everyone we know who’s been themselves, and we quickly finished eating and excused ourselves from the table.

At Teotihuacán, Spencer and I looked out at the massive pre-Hispanic pyramids built by a city that collapsed around 750 AD, paving the way for the Toltecs and later the Aztecs to consolidate their power. “This isn’t even Mexico,” I said, and we both laughed.

We enjoy unique experiences while abroad just as much as the next person. I think most travelers would like to believe they’ve found a shred of authenticity, something off the beaten path, when they return home, and we’re no exception (see my earlier post about our four day backpacking adventure up in the Sierra Norte). But sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe. Sometimes, the reason thousands upon thousands of people from all over the world flock to a particular monument is because it really is that cool.

Spencer and I have since adopted their too-cool attitude when planning other aspects of our trip. “We’d better not see the Sistine Chapel,” I’ll say. “It’s not really Italy anyway, it’s just a tourist thing.”

Talavera pottery in Puebla

We’re now safely in Mexico City, but Spencer and I made a quick detour to Puebla, Mexico’s fourth-largest city, and the first colonial city not founded on the remains of an indigenous one.

With only a day and a half to see the town, we limited ourselves to the centro historico – the historic downtown area centered on the zócalo, the main plaza next to a sprawling cathedral painted a shade of near-purple I’ve never seen on a church. The architecture in the centro is gorgeous, with tall stone buildings and colorful facades.

Among other things, Puebla is the home of talavera pottery, a style characterized by its use of a milky white glaze. Like tequila and champagne, talavera is region-protected, so only a few towns in the state of Puebla, plus the city itself, are allowed to produce it. Genuine talavera comes with a hologrammed certificate of authenticity – a hedge against enterprising Chinese imitations.

talavera pots
Talavera pots at Uriarte Talavera in downtown Puebla

Located in downtown Puebla, Uriarte Talavera is one of the oldest pottery workshops in the city. It’s been continuously operating since 1824 using mostly the same process to create beautiful pieces by hand.

Potters first shape pieces out of clay, then leave them to dry for 8-12 days, though that can vary depending on the season and humidity. After that, the pottery is baked in a kiln for six hours, turning it from its clay color to a lighter greyish shade.

Pottery sits in the Uriarte workshop, ready to be bk
Pottery sits in the Uriarte workshop, ready to be baked

Once baked, workers paint the pieces with a milky white glaze that includes lead (the amount is regulated by the state, since many of the pieces are used to serve food).

glaze application
Uriarte workers apply glaze

After that, the painting process begins. Uriarte has some designs that they’ve used since their inception, but old ones are constantly being retired and new ones added.

Workers first stencil the pattern on to the clay in black using a plastic cut-out of the design.

Stenciling in progress

Then, the really magical part begins. Sitting in workrooms of four or five painters, workers paint in the designs using a small palate of about seven colors, including a deep cobalt blue.

painters working
Painters at work

Their motions are precise, showing their familiarity with the design. A seasoned worker can finish a dinner plate in about two hours. Each piece also includes a handpainted symbol that’s unique to the workshop, as well as the year the piece was made. Many of the street signs in Puebla’s centro are also talavera pieces bearing the signature of Talavera Uriarte.

The shop will do custom orders for clients. While we were there, they were working on some mugs for Starbucks.

starbucks mug
Starbucks mug painted by a Uriarte artist

Once painted, the pottery is baked again for about 12 hours. This changes the color of many of the paints, producing the rich colors you see on finished pieces.

painted pottery ready to bake
Painted pottery ready for a second baking

The whole process can take several months from start to finish – one reason why talavera pottery is pricey compared to other handcrafted styles. But it’s absolutely gorgeous, especially when you get a lot of finished pottery in the same place.

uriarte courtyard
Courtyard of the Uriarte Talavera store and workshop

Dissecting a Mexican newspaper

This post has been edited since it was published to correct my fading understanding of Spanish verb tenses. My bad, and thanks, Henry.

One of my favorite parts of traveling is seeing what newspapers look like in other parts of the world. That’s especially true in Mexico, because I translate newspaper articles into English for Mexico Voices, a blog focused on educating the English-speaking world about Mexican politics and government and the consequences of the War on Drugs.

I’ve been buying papers semi-regularly since I arrived two weeks ago and have skimmed a few editions of both La Jornada, a left-leaning national daily tabloid that the Mexico Voices team regularly translates, and Noticias, the main Oaxaca daily (run by a larger company with several other papers in Mexico).

man wheeling newspapers
A man wheeling stacks of today’s El Sol de Puebla into the paper’s office in the Centro Historico.

Now we’re in Puebla (capital of the state of Puebla, a city of about 1.6 million people roughly 2 hours east of Mexico City) for two days. I picked up their daily, El Sol de Puebla, and figured I’d write a bit about what stood out to me.

I should add that I have neither the context or the precise Spanish language skills to comment on larger issues like how well the Mexican press serves the public interest, partisanship or corruption in the media here or the current election season, which is dominating the papers (elections are June 7). This is merely a curious gringa reporter flipping through a newspaper in another part of the world.

el sol sections
The sections of El Sol de Puebla, June 1, 2015

The first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the paper. Today is Monday and El Sol has eight sections – the A section, which includes opinion and editorials, a separate police section, sports, entertainment, social (not pictured), cities, the Republic (news from other states), and national and international. The national and international news, as well as entertainment, are mostly wire content as far as I can tell, but the rest seem to be El Sol staff bylines.

That may be in part because newspaper readership seems much higher here, or at least much more visible in public. I’m not sure if Mexican newspapers offer home delivery subscriptions (a brief glance at the website and the paper itself yielded no mention of that service), but even if they do, most people seem to buy papers from vendors on the street. These are not unlike the newsstands you still see in some larger cities in the U.S. and in airports, with magazines, serious newspapers, Cosmopolitan, the National Enquirer and some gum and candy.

Public newspaper readership seems to be more of a thing here as well. I can’t think of the last time I saw someone in the U.S. sitting on a park bench reading the paper, but here, you’ll find a dozen in a quick walk around the Zocalo.

man reading the paper
A man reading El Sol in Puebla’s zocalo, the large town square.

The classified section is also alive and well in Mexico. That “police” section I mentioned earlier? It’s three pages of articles and sixteen pages of classifieds, with a nice full page color ad on the back of the section. While wandering around today, I saw a guy, paper in hand, glancing at the classified section and typing on his phone – presumably calling to inquire about some service offered.

With elections a week away, four full pages of the A section were dedicated to election coverage, including the lead A1 story about the National Electoral Institute (INE) predicting a calm election. Coverage also included a full page listing the candidates for disputado federal (representatives to the Mexican legislature’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies) for two Puebla districts. There’s no real coverage of the candidates or their platforms – just a photo of each, a party logo, name and an academic qualification or profession (ie. “licesnsed in law” or “veterinary doctor”).

Interestingly, there are no actual articles on A1 – everything is a sort of long tease for a story inside the paper. The first three or four paragraphs are printed on the front page with a byline and an inside page listed, but it’s not a jump – the entire story is printed in full with a byline on the inside page too. (I think Noticias did the same thing, though I’m not sure I actually realized it then. I do remember it confusing the hell out of me, though.)

Being a public safety reporter, I was especially interested in the police section. I counted nine total articles, six of which were about car or vehicle crashes. Most involved deaths or something else making them newsworthy (like the involvement of a police car, or a drunk driver hitting a guy and his horse pulling a cart), but the majority of them seem like they would be briefs in Spokane and probably not worthy of coverage at all in larger cities.

The lead story is “Bittersweet Rollover” – a solid headline for the crash of a truck carrying candies, to be sure. But with one man dead in the wreck, I think most American papers would refrain from wordplay.

police section front
A “bittersweet rollover” leads the Police section on June 1, 2015

What really caught my attention was an article about a young man arrested for allegedly murdering his mother by hitting her over the head with a hydraulic jack.

article on accused murderer
Article on an accused murderer

First, the article has a staff byline. Every other article in the section is written by Paulina Gómez, and some are shorter than this one, so I’m curious why a general byline was used in this case. I haven’t spent decades in the newspaper business, so I may be wrong, but I’m used to seeing staff bylines in pretty limited circumstances: briefs and really short items or items where a bit of local information is added to a wire story (by the Associated Press and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin). There are exceptions, of course, but the only time I’ve seen one used for security reasons was in a New York Times story reported from ISIS-controlled Syria. I’m wondering if the convention is different here or if there was some sort of risk to the reporter for publishing this information.

Second, there’s less hedging of the suspect’s guilt than you’d usually see in the States. The headline proclaims “Another parricida [literally, person who has committed patricide] captured: he killed his own mother.” The story is a bit more restrained, but not much. It does say he’ll face charges for the likely killing (similar to language I’d use). It also describes the killing in the imperfect subjunctive tense (asesinara a su madre), a tense used in Spanish to denote things that are somewhat conditional, but doesn’t quite make sense in this context since you can’t really use that sense to express doubt about past events. My friend Henry, who’s lived in Mexico City for a few years and speaks much better Spanish than I do, says it reads to him as an error and simple past tense should have been used. So make of that what you will, I guess.

Finally, the sourcing is much cagier. The second paragraph lists the source for presumably the entire content of the article: “according to information from people close to the state prosecutor.” There’s no mention of court documents, which is one of our main sources of information about alleged crimes because they’re public records and easily accessible through the court system. There’s also no mention of getting any information directly from the police, which we often do for high-profile cases and arrests. If I had to guess, I’d venture that the anonymous byline is related to much tighter holds on information from the court and police system here. But that would just be a guess.

Missteps and mountains in the Sierra Norte

Latuvi, a town of about 650 people in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca.

I forgot how much your calves hurt after hiking 23 miles. Especially when half that distance is climbing hills in the mountains.

I didn’t realize I’d signed Spencer and myself up for such an intense trek when I planned to spend four days this week traveling through the Pueblos Mancomunados (“associated towns”, more or less) in the Sierra Norte mountains north of Oaxaca City.

Spending time in the Pueblos is a unique ecotourism experience that’s been created from the ground up by the towns themselves. The eight communities in the association have anywhere from 80-900 residents and are located in a cloud forest dominated by various species of pine trees about 9,000 feet above sea level.

Map of the Pueblos Mancomunados

The towns are historically Zapotec and run their own tourism agency, Expediciones Sierra Norte, which does bike, horse and hiking treks through the forest and also offers ziplines and other attractions in the towns. They decided to venture into ecotourism about 20 years ago, and began constructing cabins for visitors to stay in and mapping trails through the forest.

Revenues from tourists work a little differently in each town, but end up staying local. In some places, the administrators and guides aren’t paid and revenues go into a communal fund that’s used for infrastructure projects, school funding and other things to benefit the community as a whole. In others, those positions do receive a wage and a percentage of revenue is held to pay for cabin maintenance and other projects.

We signed up for a hiking trek through four towns, starting in Cuajimoloyas before progressing to Latuvi (16km), La Nevería (13km), Benito Juarez (8km) and back to Cuajimoloyas (8km). All the hikes were guided – some guides as young as we were, others nearly old enough to be my grandmother – but all lifelong residents of their various pueblos. Most had an encyclopedic knowledge of the culinary and medicinal uses of local plants, which they imparted strategically on difficult bits of the hikes to give us tired gringos a chance to catch our breaths while still saving face.

The trek was at times an odd clash of cultures and expectations. Some guides were happy to share their knowledge of the forest umprompted, but one preferred to keep ahead of us and check his cell phone at the top of every hill we (barely) managed to climb. Breakfasts were four courses of rich food, after which we were expected to hit the trail for a brisk 10 mile hike that tended towards being straight up or straight down a mountain, with very little in between.

Our itinerary had us set out hiking around 9 each morning for an early afternoon arrival in our next town, where we’d eat and sleep before setting off on the trail again. Supposedly, a dizzying array of authentic cultural experiences were available to us upon arrival – my packet listed everything from “learn the traditional art of making bread in an adobe oven” to “speak with an elderly resident of the community, who will be delighed to tell you traditional stories and legends.” We also had the option of a warm bath and massage (for an additional cost).

tourism sign la neveria
Sign advertising tourist activities in Latuvi

My skepticism was quickly vindicated when we arrived in Latuvi for our first night. I inquired about the bath and was told we had to reserve that in advance. The guy in the office shrugged when I asked about other activities. “You can walk around town,” he suggested.

We headed over to the basketball court and sat on a bench near some other men, figuring we might get some idea of how residents spend their time after tending to their fields. An older man gave us a confused look. “Are you waiting to see the town authority?” he asked. Apparently we’d cut the line. We retreated to the safety of our cabin and decided to read our books instead.

The following night, we got to La Nevería, by far our smallest town (80-90 people). When we arrived at the tourism office, our guide started chatting with the local administrator, a friendly man named Hugo. Hugo was quite upset because someone had sent the town’s tourism brochure to the printer without proofreading it thouroughly. Rather than advertising their “great hospitality,” the leaflet spoke only of the community’s “great hostility.”  And the waterfall on the second panel wasn’t even theirs, Hugo said – it was the one by Latuvi. “At least it’s not from another country,” I offered, drawing a hearty laugh.

La Neveria
La Neveria as seen from the trail

We’d signed up for a homestay in La Nevería, figuring it might give us more opportunity to interact with locals. Hugo took us to the house, which happened to belong to his parents, and the octegenarian couple showed us to our room, an improbably large stand-alone concrete structure up a hill from the main house where they slept. Inside were four beds, a single fluorescent lightbulb hanging bare from the ceiling, and no other furniture.

After settling in, I descended to the main house, braving a torrential downpour in my determination to learn something about the town and its inhabitants. I pulled out my paper itinerary, which hung limply in my hand, and asked Hugo’s father, Guillermo, if he knew where we might be able to do a bread-making workshop or learn more about agriculture. If nothing else, I hoped he might be able to tell me some stories from his long life in the small town.

“What? I can’t understand what she’s saying,” he muttered to his wife. Hugo practically ran into the room, looking concerned, and asked what I needed. When I showed him our list of promised activities, he frowned. “It’s a bit late in the day for that,” he explained, though we had arrived two hours earlier than the itinerary suggested. He allowed that it might be possible for us to help the locals shuck corn (at least, I think that’s what he said, but my Spanish may have failed me at this point). But that would be an extra cost.

Another afternoon of reading it was.

So, it wasn’t quite the cultural immersion we were promised. But we did learn a decent bit about local plants, enjoyed some beautiful views and got to do the one kilometer zipline that runs high above Cuajimoloyas.

I even got Guillermo to talk over dinner, drawing on my journalist’s instincts. After some abortive attempts to ask simple questions were met with monosyllabic answers, I asked, “Could you tell me a bit about how the town has changed since you were a kid?” For an hour, we talked of population flight out of rural areas, how kids of farmers don’t want to be farmers anymore (every bit as much a problem in rural Oaxaca as it is in Garfield County), the decline of Zapotec as a native language, our families (his six children live in La Neveria, Mexico City, Puebla and San Diego) and the ecotourism program.

On that last topic, Guillermo was quite animated. “We want more of you to come because you give us money!” he said, displaying a frankness that I think is truly universal in men of a certain age. “We might make some mistakes here, but we try, and we want to have more of you,” he said. So I promised I’d tell my friends to pay them a visit.


Mezcal, the traditional Oaxacan spirit

mezcal agave
Agave plants growing in central Oaxaca for later use in mezcal production.

There’s a lot to love about Oaxaca – amazing food, friendly people, gorgeous natural scenery – but Spencer and I were both drawn here in part by mezcal.

Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant that’s similar to tequila, but often has a smokier, earthier flavor. Technically, tequila is a specific type of mezcal, since the general term refers to any spirit made from agave. Tequila must contain at least 51 percent sugars from agave (specifically, blue agave), but most mezcal producers use 100 percent agave sugar.

We were both introduced to mezcal by our favorite bartender, Jim German, who runs an eponymous bar in Waitsburg, Washington. The majority of the mezcal in the world is made in Oaxaca, so we spent a day touring with Alvin Starkman, a Canadian ex-pat who’s become a local expert on the stuff and leads tours to artisan producers. My information on the history and distillation process for mezcal comes from his tour, which we did on May 22.

Indigenous Oaxacans have been drinking pulque, a fermented agave beverage, for centuries. Mezcal was created sometime after the Spanish conquest as Spaniards brought distillation techniques with them. Many Oaxacans have been producing mezcal for generations and the drink has traditionally been a regional specialty, though the rest of the world is gradually disocvering it. That’s led to skyrocketing agave prices over the past few years, and dramatically increased agave cultivation. An agave plant takes 6-8 years to mature, so if demand doesn’t keep growing as predicted, there may be an agave glut sometime around 2020.

I was snapping pictures all day during the tour, so I’m going to walk through the process as best I can here.

pina unloading
A mezcal producer unloads harvested agave piñas from his burro.

The process starts with piñas, the base of the agave plant (all leaves grow out from there). Piñas are quite large and can weigh several hundred pounds. Some mezcal producers grow their own agave, but it’s more common (I think) to buy piñas from farmers in the area. Piñas are harvested once the agave plant flowers, which only happens once in its life.

Once you have piñas, they’re roasted in a large pit for several days. This converts the starch in the plant into sugars that can ferment.

roasting pit
A piña roasting pit.

At the bottom of the pit, you put burning logs. Then, rocks go on top. When they warm up, a wet fiber scooped from the top of agave mash (from a previous fermentation) goes on top. Then the agave is placed around and on top of the rocks and fiber, and the whole thing is covered with plastic or a mat, then dirt.

When the agave emerges from the pit, it’s ready to be crushed.

agave wheel
A stone wheel like this can be pulled by horse to crush agave before fermentation.

This can be done via a stone wheel pulled by horse, or by hand with a pestle. The government has also distributed machines that can crush agave to some small producers.

alving crushing agave
Alvin demonstrates crushing agave by hand.

Crushing increases the agave’s surface area. It’s now ready for fermentation.

agave fermenting
Agave ferments in a large wooden vat.

Agave can ferment almost anywhere, but many producers use wooden vats like this. Fermentation time varies depending on the season and ambient temperature – it can be several days, or more than a week.

After fermenting, the mezcal tastes very acidic – not something you’d want to drink. Next, producers distill it in either copper stills or clay pots.

felix still
Felix Ángeles Arellanes, a mezcal producer in Santa Catarina Minas, tends his still.

The basic setup involves a wood-burning fire under the pot or still. The still is filled with the fermented agave mash and heated, which causes the alcohol to evaporate. The mezcal then travels to a condenser kept cool by water, where it turns back into a liquid and drips out the side.

The first producer we visited, Felix, had a small setup with three stills using clay pots. Each pot had a metal cone containing cold water on top, so mezcal condensed inside, then ran down a white tube to a waiting jug.

still fireplace
The fireplace at the bottom of a small still.

Once the mezcal condenses, it’s usually distilled a second and sometimes third time before it’s ready to drink.

Mezcal flavor varies widely depending on the species of agave used, the soil conditions, the weather over the plant’s multi-year life and a number of other factors, so the same type of agave used by the same producer may have widely different tastes across different batches.

Felix pouring mezcal
Felix pours a sample.

We were lucky enough to be able to sample about a dozen local mezcals on our tour and picked up a few bottles to bring home. It’s awesome to be a bit more educated about one of my favorite drinks – hopefully we can cook up some good cocktail recipes!

Small loans help Zapotec weavers in Oaxaca

Many of the Zapotec weavers in Teotitlán buy their wool thread from other vendors, but Crispina likes to make it by hand. When we visited her house this afternoon, she showed us how to card the raw wool until it was soft. Then, her practiced hands held the fiber in one hand while gently turning a crank that spooled a thin strand on to a waiting spindle.

We gave it a try, but quickly found ourselves less than adept.

“Gently! Gently!” she admonished another visitor in our group with a wide smile on her face. “Turn it!”

Crispina spinning wool
Crispina instructs Spencer on proper wool spinning.

Crispina is one of about 330 women in small towns surrounding Oaxaca City who have benefitted from a microloan from Fundacion En Via, a unique organization that provides zero-interest loans funded almost entirely with revenues from their responsible tourism project.

The group was started by Oaxacans about six years ago, and began giving small loans to women entrepreneurs in 2010. Their work has been featured in a number of U.S. newspapers, including the Seattle Times.

Many of En Via’s clients are indigenous Zapotec women who work in a variety of trades, including traditional weaving, cosmetic sales, agriculture and the restaurant business.

woven rugs
Rugs woven by Crispina (photo by Spencer)

I’ve been interested in microfinance for years, ever since I learned about Grameen Bank, one of the first microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the world, founded in Bangladesh in 1983. The founder, Muhammad Yunus, realized many women were living in abject poverty because they lacked a few dollars to buy the raw ingredients they used to make stools.

Giving them a small loan was a simple solution to the problem, but no bank wanted to take on the risk of lending to people with no capital or credit history, or spend the time administering loans worth only a few dollars. So microfinance institutions (MFIs) were born, to provide low-interest loans to the working poor across the world. (This is, of course, a vastly oversimplified history that’s coming from my memory, so you should check out other sources if you want to learn more.)

Over the past decade or so, microfinance has become a trendy thing, and the growing number of MFIs worldwide has led to some skepticism about the business. Some lenders charge fairly high interest rates – I’ve seen 20-25% in many places – leading to questions about the supposed affordability of financing. Kiva, a website that’s turned into a major source of funding for larger MFIs (and where I’ve worked as a translator for about two years) had a mini-scandal a few years ago when people discovered that the individuals loans donors were ostensibly funding via their website were often disbursed to borrowers well in advance (they’ve since updated language on their site to more clearly reflect this).

En Via is a very small player in the MFI game, with just five staff members and a handful of volunteers running the program, which works in seven communities around Oaxaca. Having spent time working for Kiva and around others interested in microfinance, I was curious to see how their program worked.

Women join the program in groups of three. Usually, one woman hears about it through word of mouth and recruits two friends or neighbors to join her. The three of them receive an interest-free loan of 1500 pesos, about $100, and decide on a repayment term together (no more than 30 weeks). They also get a six week business class which discusses financial planning and goal-setting.

If one member can’t make her weekly payment on the loan, she and her groupmates all earn a fine. Three fines, and the loan amount they’re allowed to take out decreases.

Once a group has paid back their first loan, they’re required to host an En Via tour group before they can borrow again. En Via leads twice-weekly tours where tourists like us can visit several entrepreneurs in their homes and hear more about their businesses. The $55 tour cost goes entirely to cover loans, and tourist revenue covers about 86 percent of En Via’s funding (the rest comes from donations).

Money is lent out three times, then goes back to En Via to pay staff salaries and administration costs. Groups are eligible to take out larger loans as they’ve been in the program longer, with a current maximum of around 3,500 pesos (about $230).

On our tour, we met Crispina and her daughter Silvia, both weavers, and Rufina, another Zapotec weaver in the town of 5,700.

Photo of Silvia
Silvia at her loom


We also stopped in the town of Tlacochahuaya to meet three women who had just finished paying off their first loan. Acelia, the group leader, sells garlic in the local market on Sundays and used her loan to buy more inventory. She told me she’s considered financing before, but could never afford it because Mexican interest rates are so high – about 70 percent on average, according to En Via staff.

Carmen, another group member, sells cosmetics through a catalog and said having access to credit has helped her expand her business. Her customers order items from her and she has to go pick them up and pay out of pocket, assuming her customers are good for the items later.


Before her first En Via loan, she often had to cap sales because she was short on money or didn’t want to take on that personal risk. But with access to a loan, she’s been able to cover more inventory costs upfront and worry less about customers defaulting, allowing her to make more sales.


The women we spoke to were enthusiastic about their work and profusely thankful (in a way that seemed entirely genuine) to us and the En Via staff.

Silvia showed us how she weaves – she’s working on a wool blanket with a design called the Tree of Life. She joked with Kim, our tour guide, about how weaving was such good exercise she’d never have to go to the gym and smiled as she explained the origin of her three looms – one a wedding present from her father, one originally her great-grandfather’s.

“I love this work. I’m happy weaving,” she said, beaming as she wrapped white strands of wool on the loom.