To Juxtlahuaca and back

I emerged from our hut on the agave farm in San Felipe del Agua at 4:30 am. The moon looked like a fingernail clipping, thus shedding no light on the landscape. I shuffled across the farm’s acreage in absolute darkness past rows of cacti and mentally prepared myself for an encounter with the approximately 30 lb. mystery-mammal that dances across our roof on a nightly basis. Because of light pollution in the populated areas I have dwelled in for decades, I have not seen stars in years. The constellations caught me by surprise and reminded me that there are some distinct drawbacks to living in a city. The taxi driver was due arrive any moment and transport us and our overnight bags to the centro. For fear of being attacked by a roving pack of street dogs, I waited behind the gate and scanned the street for approaching headlights.

The taxi pulled up, we loaded in and joked with the driver about drunken people who had been riding in his taxi all night. Twenty minutes and 80 pesos later, we arrived at the colectivo station, met up with the other folks in our group and boarded a 16-passenger van bound for Huajuapan. The first part of the journey was relatively silent. Many of the passengers slept while the van wound its way through the mountains. The sun finally lit the sky as we drove through Teposcolula. In another hour, we pulled into Huajuapan and lugged our belongings to another colectivo station and inquired about passage to Juxtlahuaca.

After wandering around the central market and hunting down a statue of Valerio Trujano in the zócalo, we waited on the pavement in the morning sun next to a pile of luggage. Rad and I decided to claim the front bench seat so we could get a good view of the mountains and pick the driver’s brain about this area of Oaxaca. Our driver told us about how his van is meticulously maintained and that he takes pride in driving in a professional and safe manner. He asked us our names and told us his name was Vicente Guerrero. We finally believed him when he offered to produce identification.

Along the way, Vicente directed our attention to points of interest, including a canyon, a peak called the devil’s backbone and a point on the road where two buses crashed about seven or eight years ago. The buses tumbled down the cliff and many people died. Today, there is a 50-foot metal cross to mark the scene of the crash and a guardrail has been installed. We soon passed over the devil’s backbone and began our descent into Juxtlahuaca.

The town’s buildings and roads are constructed entirely of concrete. Everything is gray except for the brightly colored paint on the buildings. We made our way to the zócalo to meet up with more people and attempt to find hotel accommodations. The plan was to meet back in 45 minutes to allow some people to hunt down lunch while two others searched for a hotel.

While we waited for the others to return to the rendezvous point, the town drunk stumbled up to us with a chicharrón in his hand. He asked us for a few pesos, we refused his request, but he continued to accost us and nibble on his fried pork skin. A few onlookers found the scene amusing while others were indifferent to the tanked-up man’s antics. We finally outfoxed him by walking about 12 feet away. Once we were out of his direct line of sight, he staggered away.

Everyone in the group finally returned and we wandered over to the hotel. We scored a room with a balcony that overlooked the main road plus had its own restroom, but no toilet seat. About half of the 13 people in our party boarded another van to another town two hours away. We stayed behind to rest and look for a restaurant that had cold beer at a reasonable price.

I awoke sometime in the afternoon to the sound of a parade. I darted out onto the balcony with my camera and saw people dressed as devils, women in traditional dresses, a band and men wearing suits made entirely of torn rags who were abusing an effigy of a bull. There was no time to put on shoes and run down three flights of stairs to get some street-level photos, but I got another chance a few hours later when the same parade made another pass through town.

We inquired about a place to eat, and were directed to a restaurant that served grilled meat and 18-peso beers. After eating, we made a stop at the store for provisions and returned to the hotel, just before a thunderstorm soaked the streets and sent people and dogs scrambling for shelter. We stood on the balcony, watched the rain and sipped Vicky tall-boys.

The other half of our group returned to the hotel some time later and described a harrowing journey of washed-out roads and dangerously close lightning strikes. One woman told me that she spent the entire ride in absolute terror; weeping and clutching the hands of the passengers next to her.

The next day, we milled around downstairs and waited for the others before we ate a leisurely breakfast. After eating, we all dawdled down to the cathedral and loitered there for a while. The big parade was not until 3 p.m. and nobody wanted to hang around and wait. A vote was taken and we decided to leave Juxtlahuaca and visit the canyon we passed by the day before.

The ride down to the canyon was uneventful except for when our van stopped in the road so we could get out and look across the valley. We were standing on the narrow shoulder when the sound of a Jake brake broke the silence. The driver of a semi came to halt behind the van and angrily motioned for us to remove ourselves from the narrow highway. Naturally, we obliged and the van continued to speed down the mountain.

The van left us on the side of the road near Cañyon el Boqueron and sped off down the mountain. After a pleasant riverside stroll, we sat on the side of the highway and waited for another van to scoop us up and take us back into Huajuapan where we would board yet another van bound for Oaxaca.

The final leg of the journey distressed every gringo on board the 22-passenger van. The cocksure driver took hairpin turns at high speed, passed other vehicles on blind corners and drove with total abandon for the laws of physics. I thought of the 50-foot cross outside Juxtlahuaca and wondered if a similar one would be erected in memory of the 22 people aboard our van. The fact that you’re reading this means we escaped death on this expedition, but we agreed that we are both finished with inexpensive van transportation in Mexico for a while.

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Nochixtlán and Santiago Apoala

 

We spent hours travelling between Oaxaca, Nochixtlán and Santiago Apoala yesterday. At 8 a.m. we left Oaxaca for Nochixtlán, where we ate in the market and inquired in a few stores before tracking down a roll of film for the Nikon F. After procuring all of our necessary supplies, we met up with Angél, an energetic man wearing a Che Guevara shirt. He directed us toward his Suburban and we took off through the campo toward Santiago Apoala.

We pulled over at an overlook, saw a few farm animals and peered down into the valley before making a pulque pit stop at a local man’s house. We stood next to giant cacti in the middle of a corn field and drank from plastic cups while our host showed us a cavity in the side of a cactus where the pulque ferments.

In Apoala, we visited the library, cathedral and city hall before walking through another corn field toward a waterfall. We visited this same town last year and hiked down to the bottom of the falls. Those photos can be viewed by clicking here. This year, I was not foolish enough to believe that I possess the physical endurance to climb back up from the bottom. Instead, we sat on a rock a quarter of the way down and watched others struggle as they made their way back up the mountain.

We reached the only restaurant in town just as a thunderstorm rolled in. There was some talk of the road potentially washing out along our planned route back to Nochixtlán, so we elected to take the longer, safer route back. A family of three was stranded in Apoala, and we invited them to share our Suburban back to town. It was a tight fit, so the driver squeezed the teenage son into the back with the baggage.

Good timing allowed us to board a van that was just pulling out bound for Oaxaca City. After suffering through the driver’s Linkin Park album, we rolled into the city, flagged down a local bus that was headed to San Felipe and dashed through a downpour back home.

the main road in Nochixtlán

the main road in Nochixtlán

tacos with tongues and ears

tacos with tongues and ears

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inside the market

inside the market

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blooming cactus at high noon

blooming cactus at high noon

the pulque guy

the pulque guy

pulque

pulque

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city hall

city hall

outside the cathedral

outside the cathedral

inside the cathedral

inside the cathedral

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San Juan Mixtepec

 

At 5:30 a.m. we grabbed our overnight bags and walked to the zócalo in Oaxaca City to meet up with the maestro of Rad’s Mixtec class. I was excited about the opportunity to tag along on the trip, meet some new people and take a few photos. Our final destination was San Juan Mixtepec for its yearly three-day San Juan Bautista festival. We walked in the rain toward the colectivo station and boarded a camioneta bound for Tlaxiaco.

It continued to rain as we made our way through the mountains. A crucifix mounted to the windshield by a suction cup kept an eye on us as we weaved through the mountains. As we passed vehicles and sped around blind corners, I noticed that Jesus listed about 45 degrees. So did we. The camoineta stopped at the town of San Martin Huamelulpan. We grabbed our bags and walked down the road into town. After indulging in some five-peso coffee, we climbed a hill to see ancient Mixtec ruins.

A few centuries ago, the Spanish really liked to steal the stones from indigenous religious structures to erect their cathedrals, and this was no exception. They were even thoughtful enough to embed a Mixtec statue in the side of the cathedral.  After a visit to the town museum, we arranged for two Nissan Tsurus to take us on into Tlaxiaco.

After lunch, we waited in the rain for other Nissan Tsurus to take us the rest of the way in San Juan Mixtepec while local people stared at us with puzzled expressions. A good portion of the road leaving Tlaxiaco is unpaved and littered with boulders from the surrounding mountains. Large sections have been washed away, but our taxi driver navigated the route without incident. Shoddy wiper blades screeched across the windshield with each pass. The taxista swiped at the inside of the glass with the back of his hand to combat the fogged glass. It must have been enough visibility to keep us from careening off the side of the mountain, because we rolled into the clogged streets of San Juan Mixtepec 45 minutes later.

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked around the flooded streets, watched a basketball tournament, played rigged carnival games and crashed into each other in bumper cars. Later, three teenage girls in elaborate white dresses stood on a stage while other festivities took place below. One of the girls in white was crowned the reina (queen) and the other two were crowned first and second princesas (princesses).

We soon realized that about half the town had been drinking for several hours by this point in the evening. We met several people that used to reside in Florida and were pleased to hear that we both grew up near Tampa. One man was persistent with his offer of Modelo Especial from the back of his truck and invited us to his home several times. Two youths that were leaning up against said pickup truck beckoned Rad over and began criticizing the deportation practices of the United States. A local girl yelled over the noise of the crowd and advised us not to talk to these folks on account of their high level of intoxication.

The next morning, we left the hotel at daybreak and walked around town to grab a few photos before the festival was in full swing. Later, our group cruised by the cathedral in town that was bedecked with elaborate flower displays inside and out. We then trudged uphill to a celebration under a circus tent next to another church. We waded through the mud to where the festivities were being held, and we were ushered into a small wooden structure with an altar of San Juan Bautista inside. We stated where we were from and why we wanted to learn about their pueblo’s Mixtec culture. I was really hoping I would not be singled out from the group and questioned because I knew I was incapable of articulating very much in Spanish. The mayordormo, a sort of master of ceremonies, welcomed us to sit down under the tent.

I had only a rudimentary understanding of the festival. Fireworks that were all bang and no show continually exploded above us, bands played, people drank and ate and I heard that some roosters were going to be relieved of their heads later in the day. I also understood that we were going to eat some food prepared by dozens of local women who rushed back and forth between rows of tables and a temporary kitchen area. They set plates of rice, beans and the best chicken I’ve ever eaten before us. I sat next to a vegetarian, so I quickly offered to eat his piece of chicken as well as mine. Men poured Tepache, a fermented pineapple drink, from large clay pitchers into Styrofoam cups and handed them to us. My initial thought was that the jugs contained coffee, but instead, it was this sweet, thick alcoholic drink to start the day.

After breakfast, we were asked to join the procession as it meandered through town to the pueblo’s oldest cathedral. Locals piled in until the building was at maximum capacity and people clustered outside around the doorway. We opted to stay outside because we are not religious and I didn’t want to prevent local people from getting a glimpse inside on this special day.

It was not long before the rain returned and we took a vote on whether to return to the mayordormo’s place and eat again or return to the hotel and rest before the mass beheading of roosters. Naturally, Rad and I opted to return to the site of the morning feast to eat beef stew and drink mezcal, tepache and soda. Not long after we ate, the mayordormo, the reina, the two princesas, the band and several other people in indigenous traje started back down the hill with festooned roosters and fireworks in tow. The procession made stops by the cathedral and to the presidente municipal’s office to present the birds to the pueblo’s highest ranking politician.

The maestro suggested that we beat the throng of onlookers down to the rooster gallows so we could stake our claim to a good vantage point. As we stood frying in the sun, we could hear the procession approaching. Hundreds of people, men on horseback and masked men playing harmonicas and dancing accompanied the convoy.

A few of the birds let out one last cock-a-doodle-doo before they were strung up by the feet to a rope between two telephone poles. A man stood on one side and yanked the clusters of birds up and down like piñatas while men on horseback grasped for the heads. The necks of the chickens stretched like a tube out of a bicycle tire before the men on horseback ripped the heads off and flung them into the crowd. Lively music played, feathers flew and fireworks burst in the air above the flapping and squawking birds. When all the birds in the first group had been decapitated, more were strung up and the ritual was repeated. Midway through the massacre, it began to rain. We scurried for cover as the killing continued and emerged after the rain to join the other people in our party at the edge of the river. It was then that I learned one of the reasons that the roosters are sacrificed is to ensure a bountiful crop the next year. It lasted about an hour and we watched people from our hotel balcony return from the edge of the river carrying headless birds. Santa Claus showed up near the end of the event and I snapped a photo of him and a guy in a Miguel Hidalgo mask before climbing into a taxi and bouncing back down the road toward Tlaxiaco. I have seen a few roosters around since the festival. Even though they don’t understand, I warn them to stay far away from San Juan Mixtepec on June 24.

 

 

view from the ruins

view from the ruins

ruins at Huamelulpan

ruins at Huamelulpan

Mixtec statue in side of the cathdral

Mixtec statue in side of the cathdral

pottery fragments at Huamelulpan

pottery fragments at Huamelulpan

trucks at San Juan Mixtepec

trucks at San Juan Mixtepec

perros borrachos

perros borrachos

basketball

basketball

 carnival game with blunt darts

 

 

carnival rides

carnival rides

bumper cars

bumper cars

sexy bumper car

sexy bumper car

sad puppy outside bumper cars

sad puppy outside bumper cars

merry go round that I was too big to ride

merry go round that I was too big to ride

raging river of mud

raging river of mud

the street at 7 a.m.

the street at 7 a.m.

Abarrotes Vianey

Abarrotes Vianey

Sol advertisement with cow skull

Sol advertisement with cow skull

giant Modelo Especial can

giant Modelo Especial can

inside of the 16th century cathedral

inside of the 16th century cathedral

two helpings of the best chicken ever

two helpings of the best chicken ever

one of the bands playing that day

one of the bands playing that day

the road to the party tent

the road to the party tent

the procession into town

the procession into town

tuba player

tuba player

coming down the hill behind the band

coming down the hill behind the band

people at the cathedral

people at the cathedral

festooned roosters

festooned roosters

the reina and the two princesas.

the reina and the two princesas.

another rooster taking his last ride.

another rooster taking his last ride.

our new friend

our new friend

fireworks

fireworks

the bridge near the rooster gallows

the bridge near the rooster gallows

the rooster gallows

the rooster gallows

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the festival shirt for 2014

the festival shirt for 2014

stringing up the roosters

stringing up the roosters

roosters strung up by their feet

roosters strung up by their feet

roosters and horses and men

roosters and horses and men

yanking the heads from the birds

yanking the heads from the birds

May I direct your attention to the horse slobber?

May I direct your attention to the horse slobber?

feathers flying

feathers flying

rooster head on the ground

rooster head on the ground

after the ceremony

after the ceremony

Santa Claus, Hidalgo, and some guy walking down the road

Santa Claus, Hidalgo, and some guy walking down the road

Yagul

If you are looking to visit an archeological site outside Oaxaca City and want to avoid having tchotchkes thrust into your face on the way up to the gate, you should consider visiting Yagul. First, pack some water and a snack because there isn’t anything to eat or drink at the site.

If you are sans vehicle like we are, the best way to get to Yagul is to walk south on Niños Heroes past the baseball stadium. You should see a crowd of people on the corner waiting for buses and taxis. Wait for a bus that reads “Tlacolula” and “Mitla” on the windshield. See the example below.

 

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When the man comes around collecting pesos, tell him you are headed to Yagul and pay whatever he tells you. We paid around 16 pesos per person. A few kilometers outside of Tlacolula, there will be a sign over the highway that reads “Yagul” with an arrow pointing down a two-lane road. They should holler at you when the stop comes up, but be ready to jump off the bus. Scamper across the highway in the direction of the arrow. Be careful when crossing the road. Most vehicles are travelling at top speed.

As you take off down the road, look to the right and check out the paintings on the cliff. If you don’t feel like making the two kilometer uphill trek, you might see some guys in a green minivan who will offer you a ride for a modest fee. I recommend walking and checking out the surroundings. A ticket to get through the gate will run you about 45 pesos. If you hear gunshots, don’t be too alarmed. It’s only a firing range a short distance away. Judging by the absence of bullet holes in the north wall of the ruins, the folks who go shooting down there have good marksmanship skills. A few of the features I enjoyed were giant ant hills, massive cacti and the trail behind the complex that leads to a lookout point over the entire valley.

After hiking back to the highway, we waited on the side of the road and saw a collectivo flash its lights at us, giving us the signal there was room for three gringos in the taxi. The fare to continue on to Mitla was 10 pesos per person. After gorging ourselves at La Choza, we rode in a mototaxi for a nominal fee to where the buses pick up passengers heading back to Oaxaca City. If it happens to be Sunday and it’s still relatively early, I recommend stopping in Tlacolula for market day before heading back into Oaxaca.

 

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inside the mototaxi

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outside the mototaxi

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the return bus

 

Week two in Oaxaca

During our first week in Oaxaca, we moved into a filthy house that had been severely misrepresented in craigslist. Initially, we tried to solve the problem with bleach and other solvents, but when Rad found me lying in bed with insects crawling all over my body, we made plans to flee and seek other lodging. In the new apartment I contracted some variety of food poisoning complete with projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea. Rosita, one of the women who manages our apartment building, has years of experience dealing with ailing gringos. She made me some sort of miracle tea and sent Rad to the pharmacy for the wonder drugs Loperamida and Hioscina. My condition quickly improved and I have been able to snap a few photos from around town and a trip to the Sierra Norte mountains. I have been on this tour before, but it never gets old. Plus, I’m really into riding in a big van full of people I have never met and I usually get some good photos.

 

 

drinking cafe de olla at Itanoní

drinking cafe de olla at Itanoní

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a fraction of el Arbol de Tule

a fraction of el Arbol de Tule

another segment of the tree

another segment of the tree

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no pets

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calcite falls at Hierve el Agua

calcite falls at Hierve el Agua

No sunblock. Wear a bathing suit.

No sunblock. Wear a bathing suit.

23 hours to Oaxaca

 

Due to a gross miscalculation, we over drafted our checking account one week before a three-month trip to Mexico. We quickly regrouped and took stock of our assets. We had a $25 BP gas card, a prepaid Visa gift card with $11.60 left on it, $12.60 in bottle deposits and about 300 pesos that Rad still had in his wallet from last year. After some real brainstorming, we rustled up enough cash to buy a loaf of bread, sliced ham and enough gas to drive to Fayetteville, TN to see Rad’s family before flying out of Nashville. Early Tuesday morning we headed for the airport with some additional funds courtesy of Rad’s family. We decided that it was not wise to keep all the money we had in the world in one location. As soon as we arrived at the airport and cleared security, I headed for the restroom to stuff a portion of our cash into my bra.

“Will you know if it starts to slip out of there?” Rad asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ve got a $20 bill stabbing the side of my boob right now.”

Still, I checked the wad of cash through my shirt about every 90 seconds. This was a solid plan. We ate Popeye’s fried chicken and waited to board the plane.

I don’t know why I continue to fly Delta Airlines. I don’t get any points or miles. I seldom get a thank you or a smile. On any plane or bus that we ride, Rad always battles me for the window seat, and I always let him have it. My heart went out to him when we discovered that there was no window on our aisle. We had been downgraded to the two back seats next to the restrooms. From this day forward, I will always remember that 36A and 36B are the worst seats on an MD90. During the entire flight, I felt like we were riding in the trunk of a car.

Since virtually all flights on Delta route passengers through Atlanta, we had to take a plane from Nashville to Atlanta before boarding a larger plane to Mexico City. Before takeoff, the pilot announced that we would be sitting on the tarmac for about 45 minutes due to a traffic control issue. People who had connecting flights began asking the flight attendants about what will happen if they miss their plane.

“It’s not our fault,” I heard a flight attendant say. “It’s air traffic control.”

I surmised that since it wasn’t the airline’s fault, its employees weren’t obligated to find solutions for customers.

“Uh, we’re going to try to and bug them,” the pilot announced. “But we will probably still have to wait a while.”

Pestering air traffic control did not get us off the ground any faster, but I could feel the plane lift off the runway as we took flight. We tried to peek through the window of the row in front of us, but the passenger who was sitting there left it closed the entire time except for a few brief peeks. Every time he cracked the shade, four people tried to catch a glimpse of the outside world. He responded with a scowl and slammed the shade closed. We were left to wonder what was going on out there. The roar of the engines was so extreme, that the flight attendants who were seated by us in the rear of the plane plugged their ears the entire flight. We entertained ourselves by writing crass and clever things on the vomit bags and replacing them in the seat pockets for the next passengers to enjoy.

“We have reached our cruising altitude of 29,000 feet for about 30 seconds,” the pilot said. “We will be in Atlanta soon.”

Suddenly, it felt as if the jet was falling out of the sky. Everyone gasped and clung to the seats. This happened a few more times without any explanation from the folks in charge. I fully expected the pilot’s next announcement to include something about this being his first day on the job, but the plane soon hobbled its way into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. All the passengers collectively stood up and began shoving their way to the front of the plane in a hopeless effort to catch connecting flights.

It was about this time that I noticed a three-inch hole in the seam of the pants I was wearing. I wondered what color underwear I had put on that morning and hoped it wasn’t the bright pink pair. Because we had a substantial layover, we leisurely made our way to concourse E while I strategically held a carryon in front of my private zone. When we reached our gate,
I sprinted to the restroom with some sewing supplies my mother-in-law gave me and mended the crotch of my pants.

For entertainment, we watched the lackadaisical ground crew drive banged-up Delta vehicles around the area outside the window. A box truck blew a tire in the distance and Delta people moseyed over to investigate. One employee lazily dragged a wheel chock by a rope across the pavement, probably counting the days until retirement. He joined a few other employees who fraternized while waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to tear into packages and harass passengers who just flew in from Colombia. A Delta gate agent gave us the blow by blow of what was happening on the ground as we looked out the wall of windows.

It was our turn to get corralled onto the plane in preparation for takeoff. The flight was pretty uneventful save for a screaming and thrashing toddler in the next row. We ate terrible, tiny turkey sandwiches and drank complimentary ginger ale as we challenged each other to games of trivia on the seatback entertainment devices.

After landing in Mexico City, we breezed through customs, collected our luggage that had been damaged free of charge and headed for the currency exchange after I fished the stash of money from my bra. Rad exchanged a few Andy Jacksons for 500 peso notes with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo printed on them, and I nervously walked to the restroom while attempting to look normal so I could conceal pesos in my bra. Somehow, I thought Rivera and Kahlo would not have minded too much, while Jackson would have probably been offended. It seems to me that he must have been an uptight guy.

When leaving the airport in Mexico City, don’t mess around. Get a taxi autorizado. It costs a little more, but I prefer to be whisked off to my destination securely. Since we were light on funds, we decided to take an overnight bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca and sleep on the bus instead of blowing money on a hotel. We hung around the bus station for a few hours, drank Cokes and snacked on knockoff Oreo cookies called Lors with a caveman on the package. As the ADO took off from the TAPO bus station, we plugged our complimentary headsets into the radio and flipped through the stations. We both listened to the soothing sounds of the ocean combined with soft music and reclined our seats.

I woke up a few times not knowing where we were and peered out the window at the dark Mexican countryside. Our journey was almost complete. Rad woke me up as the bus pulled into Oaxaca City so I could see the colossal statue of Benito Juárez in the middle of the divided highway. After 23 hours of travelling, we made it. We sat in the bus station and stared at the restaurant across the road waiting for someone to roll up the steel doors and start cooking eggs. Around 7 a.m. we rushed into the restaurant and scarfed down a fantastic breakfast for a reasonable price. A taxi shuttled us to our hotel and the man at the desk graciously allowed us to check in seven hours early. We have been asleep at the Hotel Aitana ever since except emerging to eat pozole and tlayudas. It’s good to be back in Oaxaca.

Since I haven’t had the opportunity to take any photos other than one at the airport, I posted some photos from past trips. But never fear, I will have plenty to post in the coming months.

 

 

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M A and Alebrije 110

 

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Spring in New York City – a journey to the center of the universe

 

 

 

Staying in Manhattan was not an option on our tight travel budget for our trip to New York City, so we opted for a budget hotel in Brooklyn. As soon as we checked in, we dropped our suitcases and headed back out to ride the subway. The woman at the front desk supplied us with a crude map and highlighted the Nostrand stop in case we forgot how to get back to the hotel. On the way to the train, a man on the street was midway through a semi-coherent rant about the evils of white people and gave us hostile look as we passed. I wanted to explain to him that we were only in town for a history conference at Columbia University and we would be gone in a few days, but I was certain that this information would not quell his rage.

I was not prepared for the amount of urine that permeated the concrete in New York’s subway stations. I don’t want to come from Michigan and tell you how to run things, but maybe a public restroom or two would help the situation. After we figured out how to ride the A train in the direction of Columbus Circle, we walked around Manhattan in search of food and beer. Rad spotted Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant with a kindly bartender who bought us a Negra Modelo. After consuming ropa vieja, Cuban sandwiches, black beans and a few beers, we wandered around before hopping a train toward Battery Park.

Several tour guides on the street were absolutely convinced that we were there to see the Statue of Liberty. It didn’t matter that we turned down the first four people that shoved leaflets in our faces, the fifth and sixth tour guides were certain that they could convince us to visit Liberty Island. We waded through a sea of people wearing green foam crowns and carrying small statues of Lady Liberty on our way toward the Staten Island Ferry terminal. A woman stood out front and urged commuters to repent immediately or suffer in Hell for eternity. We kept moving. Soon, there were more guides. This time they were hawking helicopter and boat rides.

We soon ran into Chinatown and subsequently Little Italy. I stopped for a moment to snap a photo of a building that was painted in the colors of the Italian flag. A hipster girl on a bike slowed down enough to ridicule me for my obvious lack of coolness. “Seriously?!” she called to me as she flippantly rolled her eyes. She reminded me of a girl who called me a bitch at a yard sale one time because I had just purchased something she wanted. Some encounters just stick with you. We continued on and ate at a hokey barbecue restaurant with a rude staff before finding the train back to Brooklyn. After a few stops an intoxicated man boarded and began threatening passengers with a plastic butter knife.

“I’ll cut you!” he yelled. “I’ll slice you up! You can’t run to your momma now. I’m gonna kill somebody!”

As passengers spied a weapon in their periphery, their heads jerked around before realizing that the knife was likely swiped from a 7-11. Though his speech was slurred, I picked up on his contempt for white people. Was a he friend of the guy near the Nostrand station? Even though I was pretty sure that a plastic knife wouldn’t kill us, I was positive that it would involve some measure of pain and possibly leave a scar. My strategy of avoiding eye contact paid off and he soon moved on to yell at other white people.

The next morning, Rad put on a sport coat and grabbed everything for his presentation at Columbia University. We headed for the subway and left ourselves extra time to get to our destination by 9 a.m. The train didn’t move for several minutes. An over modulated voice came over the speakers and indicated that there was an “incident” on the track. We sprinted from the idle express train and boarded a slower local train on another track. Time was quickly passing and there was a good possibility we would be late. After a transfer, the crammed train approached our stop. I tried to politely make my way to the doors so we could make a mad dash to the conference. I tapped a woman on the shoulder and asked, “Do you mind if we squeeze past you?” She didn’t budge. Puzzled, I inquired again and told her that we needed to get off at the next station. “We’re all getting off here!” she thundered at me as she shoved Rad out of her way. “Uh, I’m sorry. How was I supposed to know?” I said. As the doors opened, Rad pointed at her and announced to the other passengers, “Hey everybody, I thought you might want to know that she’s getting off here!” A few people snickered at her and we felt vindicated as we briskly walked to the conference. With minutes to spare, we made it to the correct building and choked down a bagel and cup of coffee before the presentations began.

After the conference, we grabbed a beer with a friend and then made our way to a Tex-Mex restaurant with a mariachi band that played “Canción Mixteca” in exchange for a few bucks. A drunken man from Michigan who claimed to be spotlight operator on Broadway was throwing cash around as if it were spring break. He bought us a beer and shoved a wad of bills in the front pocket of the guitar player. After eating a plate of meat, onions and peppers that was ensconced in cheese, we took the most expensive taxi ride of our lives back to the hotel.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant and strolled through a street market before returning to Columbia to see a few presentations that I only partly understood. Later in the day, we met up with a friend at the Guggenheim and later went to grab some food at a Shake Shack. As we crossed the street near the Papaya King, a taxi pulled over abruptly, blocking the crosswalk. The driver got out and began to shout at another man on a bike. We naturally stopped to see what the commotion was. Evidently, the man riding the bike dropped the N-bomb in reference to the man driving the taxi. As the cabbie was telling the man on the bike to prepare for a supreme ass beating, his passenger became aggravated and exited the vehicle; presumably without paying. The guy on the bike threw out a few more racial epithets before pedaling off with the taxi driver chasing him down 86th Street on foot. I’m still hoping the taxi driver caught up with him.

On the last day, we rode the subway to Coney Island. We were some of the only people on the train and the most of the attractions were closed when we arrived. Nathan’s Famous was open, so we had a late breakfast consisting of hotdogs, cheese fries and lemonade. Maybe the hotdogs were excellent a few decades ago, but I might as well have been eating a hotdog from a roller grill at a gas station. Since there was not much to do down by the shore, we headed back to Manhattan to kill some time before we needed to leave for LaGuardia.

Central Park is free and seemed like a good place to waste some time. We sat in a shady spot and pitied the horses that were pulling hansom cabs while bathed in sweat and pooping onto pieces of tarp that were strung up under the carriages. We then walked over to the pond and gazed at all the people rowing boats backwards through the filthy water. Finally, we decided to just get to the airport and wait on our flight. When we arrived at the gate, the staff at the Delta desk was yelling at passengers and threatening to give their seats away. We struck up a conversation with a desperate man who had been trying to get on a Florida-bound plane for a few days to no avail. Naturally, our flight was oversold and they were asking for volunteers to give up seats. There was no way I was going to surrender my ticket.  A sense of relief washed over me as the plane took off from New York back toward Detroit. I looked at the city lights and wondered aloud, “How many people are down there being assholes to each other right now?”

 
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