Mexico Trip - Feb. 2012 - Kathy's Blog

Day 1 - Wednesday

Operation drive, park and fly is complete! We are safely on our way to Chicago and I can feel the temperature rising already.  We all arrived safely at the airport with plenty of time to have breakfast together, since we did leave at six am!  The flight is due to take three hours and the sun is shining up here at 37000 feet.

We actually got to Chicago a bit early. We decided to take the blue line train in to the city, about a  forty five minute ride. We walked around looking like tourists until we found the Exchequer Pub, home of the famous deep dish pizza (apparently Roger Elbert's favorite place) With full bellies and a chance to find our bearings (wifi access), we headed out into the windy city. One group went in search of Intelligentsia coffee and my group headed to the Chicago art gallery to see George Seurat, Monet, Picasso, etc. quite an experience and a whirlwind tour (we tried to hit the highlights in one hour).

Then it was back to the airport on the train.  We got serenaded by a homeless man on the street and gave him our leftover pizza.  People have been really friendly. We even met a Mexican at the airport who gave us travel tips.  Our plane was a bit late arriving so we are currently in the air about to land in Mexico. A little late but in one piece. Still very excited but a little weary after a long day.  Let's hope day two is just as exciting!

Day 2-Thursday (Mexico city)

That was a long day. I just realized with the flight delay and time change we were up from 6 am until 4 am! We were really tired by the time we hit our beds.  The trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca was long - six hours, but very interesting and full of contrasts.  Mexico City is busy with traffic and people. Not surprising for such a large city.  I also found the smog quite intense. We didn't see much of it as it was dark when we arrived and we were a bit rushed to get to the bus station.  I had my first Mexican meal, huevos and fritos (that's eggs and beans for you Anglophones). Of course I forgot all my Spanish when faced with having to speak to the waiter. I couldn't even remember how to say 8 (as in there are 8 of us). The drive out of the city was long since urban sprawl is huge and looked just like the Mexico of the movies. When we left the city it was like turning a switch. At first I thought it was weird since there were no animals, but it wasn't long till the fields were filled with sheep, goats, cows and the odd horse or donkey. The roads seem a lot narrower, or maybe that was just because I was ten feet up in a big bus on the side of a deep gully. The mountain roads are twisty and the lady in front of me with the rosary was continually crossing herself as we made our way along.  Good thing she was there to keep us all safe.

The mountains and scenery are breathtaking.  We saw lots of strange looking cacti. As we entered Oaxaca it had a more small community feel, even though the population is about 265,000. Also it seemed much greener and there were flowers everywhere.  The streets in the historic part of the city  are cobbled and the buildings seem old and typically Mexican in their architecture.

We had beer on the rooftop garden looking out over the city, filled with cathedrals. Then we walked through the streets of Oaxaca to a little restaurant in the neighborhood, passing many interesting stores which we didn't take the time to go in because my belly was rumbling.

At the restaurant we sat in a central open square. We have one of these interior courtyards right outside our room.  A beautiful concept.  I forgot to mention how warm it is. But the evening and the courtyards help to keep everything nice and breezy. 

So on to the food. I was going to order salmon with salsa, orange and guacamole, but the waiter told me it was muy picante, so I changed to pollo (chicken) with apple and queso (cheese).   I knew that Spanish would help even if it is just to read menus. And while the others ordered cervesas, I found jugo (juice) on the bambino menu. We tried some different appetizers, everything from stuffed squash blossoms to swordfish and pork rinds.  We all tasted everyone's dishes and boy, are we full.  Some people never even got their main courses but it didn't matter.  There was plenty of food to share.

After supper we walked down to the zocalo (or main square) where the place was alive with people.  Everyone from grandmothers to babies.  There were kids and balloons everywhere.  There were street performers and musicians.  A great place to people watch, which was about all I had the strength to do.  My feet and knees are complaining, but there is so much to see and do. Before long we are safely back in our little courtyard and ready for some well-deserved rest.

Day 3-Friday

Had a great sleep in our cozy little Oaxacan hotel. The courtyard makes it quiet and cut off from the busy street noise.  We all met for breakfast on the roof at 8 am - lovely sweet breads, yogurt, fresh fruit, cheese, fresh juice and of course coffee.

After breakfast we met up with Benito, our guide, and headed out to Monte Alban, an ancient Zapotec ruin.  It was unbelievably big with lots of steps but I was able to find a nice  shady spot under a copal tree. The others walked up the steep steps of the ruins while I sat back and filmed it in the shade. An amazing story, to be sure, but I missed most of Benito's history. I did have some interesting encounters with school groups and listened to a storyteller who had them all entranced, he even had me entranced and I didn't even speak the same language. I also befriended a local man selling souvenir masks and sculptures.  Authentic!  Handmade! He even showed me his scars from creating them. But alas my money was with mi espouso on top of the temple...good thing too, because I saw hundreds more of these a "authentic" sculptures on my way out as we ran the gauntlet back to the parking lot. This man was amazing and spoke to tourists in Spanish, English, French and German. I almost felt sorry I couldn't buy anything from him because he certainly kept me entertained.

After the weary and sun scorched travelers returned, Benito drove us back to the hotel via a lookout over the city. Then we walked through the historic district for another amazing lunch. This time I had chilies stuffed with chicken, olives, nuts, raisins and other goodies, with a sweet sauce covered in pomegranate seeds with rice. And of course a little sliver of traditional flan for dessert.

After lunch we visited the home of Benito Juarez (whose name has been added to Oaxaca de Juarez, so he must have been great.) The home showed how the better half lived 150 years ago, before he became president 5 times! And of course he had the prerequisite inner courtyard , almost as nice as mine back here in our cozy little room. We then continued downtown, past the church of Santa Domingo. Unfortunately the church was closed for the afternoon (apparently even god has an afternoon siesta). There was also an interesting display of sculptures-  2501 Migrantes, Sculpture Exhibit by a Oaxacan artist. It is meant to represent 2500 dispossessed Oaxacans, plus the artist.

Well, another magical night. We had a magnificent dinner at the rooftop restaurant. It started with the waiter making salsa to order for us at our table.  We had a super hot one, a medium and a baby version.  We then moved on to a sampling of appetizers including fish tacos, stuffed squash blossoms, and tacos with grasshoppers. And since that wasn't enough, we got a side order of grasshoppers so we could truly taste them.  For our main courses we had things ranging from duck tacos, to turkey mole and shrimp.  We all shared samples as we watched the stars come out. To finish the waiter brought five dessert for all of us to share.  Fresh coconut and chocolate creations and other fruit delights with unusual ice creams like rose petal and rum.  All this plus cappuccino and chocolate covered coffee beans.

So good and great company too. We had Benito and his wife and Donna our wonderful and helpful host from the hotel. All in all a magical night to be remembered by all of us.  Then Michael, who the group has started calling Miguel, invited everyone back to our rooftop for Miguel's mescal party, that just wrapped up.  Probably because the bottle was empty...

Day 4 - Saturday

Another early start to the day. We have to cram a lot in to a short time. We are meeting on the roof for breakfast in half an hour. Then our plan is to head in our van with Benito to Chayotepec - an exciting 6 hour drive through the mountains.

Our first stop this morning was the public market. Picture a scene from Slumdog Millionaire. The market was for locals and was a maze of mostly food stalls with narrow passageways in between. We were on a mission to find vanilla and dried chilies. We are all primed to cook an authentic Mexican meal when we get back! Along the way we saw parts of animals, tails, heads, feet, internal organs. Not for the faint of heart. After we accomplished what we wanted we headed out of the city to see El Tulu - the biggest tree in North America. It was amazingly l large and very unusual looking, like something from an alternate universe where trees are a world unto themselves (think Terry Prachet books).

About 15 minutes down the road we found Teotitlan where we stopped to see how they create natural dyes using things like moss and marigolds and a parasite from the prickly pear cactus called the cochineal to make a vibrant red dye. Apparently after gold and silver this was one of the most valuable commodities in the past. We squished one of the little white cocoons to reveal a vibrant red dye.  The dye, when mixed with a little water in our hands, reacted with our own Ph and turned our own unique shade of red. It changed again when lemon or baking soda was added. We had fun finger painting our palms. Of course I had to buy a rug which had all the colors in it. A great souvenir. We also had sopa Azteca and quesadillas for lunch at a nearby restaurant. By then we realized we were still 5 hours from Chayotepec.  At about five pm we left the main paved road and took an untried shortcut across the Benito Juarez dam. An exciting adventure with spectacular views of the dam that brought us to the newly built, but unfinished highway. Then we began the adventurous drive up the mountain, and it really was an adventure as the only thing that prevented us from reeling at the narrow roads and huge drops was the darkness that began to set in. And just when we thought it couldn't get any more exciting, the car had a flat tire. We stepped out into the dark jungle with more stars than I thought was possible. Our expert driver soon had us on our way again, but the roads only got narrower and twistier.  Just when we thought things couldn't get any more dramatic, we entered the cloud forest. A thick blanket of white that further obscured the road.  We finally arrived at what appeared to be a deserted village at about 9:30. We were pretty hungry and tired but when Jesus and Ilma arrived they made us welcome with steaming mugs of coffee and tostadas with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, a chunks of warm sweet bread.

We were all tired and anxious to get to our cabanas to sleep. Michael and I had one to share at the top of the hill.  We were glad to get our feet up and slept like we really meant it. It rained in the night and I heard the drumming on the roof above us, lullling us back to sleep. I felt like we were on a different planet, especially since we seemed to climb forever and we couldn't see anything in the total darkness that surrounded us like a blanket. Anxious to see where we landed!

Day 5 -Sunday

Apparently UCIRI has their own time zone. Of course it worked in our favour and we got an extra hour sleep. We met for breakfast at 8:30, as we opened our eyes to a whole new world.  Unfortunately it was a bit drizzly but as we ate our breakfast of warm tortillas with prickly pear cactus and cheese we saw the sky clear and reveal the most incredible view of the village and the surrounding mountains. Over cups of coffee we planned our next few days. The adventurous and healthy types hiked up the mountain in search of coffee, while those of us who know our limitations took off to see the sights in the light of day.  Benito and I drove two hours down the road to Ixtepec  in search of a tire repair shop (vulcanizadora) or a new tire.

The scenery was breathtaking and Benito filled the drive pointing out various local birds and plants. It was amazing to see how remote this village was. He told me most of the community rarely leave the village, especially the women and children, but there is a bus that goes down to the next village (Santa Maria  Guienagati) at 5 am and again at 3 pm.  Not that there is much in the village.  On the way back there was a wedding celebration and many people were in the streets celebrating with loud and joyful music.

Once in Ixtepec we searched for a tire repair shop, where we dropped off the offending tire and walked around town looking for a pastille or birthday cake for Liz who is celebrating today.  With all our chores accomplished, including filling up the tank with gas and having some lunch, we headed two hours back to Chayoteypec.

We arrived to find an anxious group who were envisioning us at the bottom of a canyon. While we were gone Michael and the others picked coffee cherries in the rain, about 10 pounds in total and then brought it to the de- pulper. First they had to sort out the green ones which go to be dried in the sun in their cherry so they will ripen and ferment and eventually these will be used for their personal coffee. The ripe cherries were de-pulped as they all took turns cranking the de-pulper. The slimy beans were separated from the fruit which was used for compost.

After that our intrepid coffee farmers went on a hike along the valley floor. It was a very nice trail and they saw lots of lush and tropical plants and old growth forest, including plenty more coffee trees. Then they were rewarded with a fish lunch and a siesta.  After their nap it was time to wash and roast the beans. They were roasted by Guadalupe over her wood fire.  Then she ground them and mixed them with boiling water in a pot over the fire.  This was the point when Benito and I returned (perfect timing). Soon we were all enjoying steaming mugs of Just Us! Special Roast, hours after the beans were picked.

Time for another siesta and then a special birthday dinner for Liz of chicken mole and tortillas, followed by sharing stories with some members of the community, Guadeloupe, Jesus, Rosendo and Victoria (and a whole bunch of kids). We shared a Mexican happy birthday song and our cake that took us 5 hours to get and a piñata that we smuggled into the car from the market in Oaxaca. Surprise Liz! I'm exhausted again just thinking about it.  It is an especially windy and cool night but we are snug in our little cabanas and ready for some sleep.

Day 6 - Monday

The roosters start crowing at about 5 am, so I am not regretting eating one of them for supper last night! I pulled myself out of bed and decided it was time to attempt a cold shower. I'm awake now! Breakfast is at 8 (UCIRI time) and we are treated to a beautiful day and a beautiful view, after yesterday's wind and drizzle.  For breakfast there are tortilla roll ups with chicken and more mole sauce, covered with sliced onions. There are also chunks of fresh papaya, lemon tea, coffee and more sweet rolls.

After breakfast we head down the mountain to Santa Maria  Guienagati where we stop to see the church and the infamous rock from the "rock you die" story we heard last night. This was a church that Francisco worked in at one time.

We continued  to drive down to the UCIRI headquarters in La Chivista to meet Francisco van der Hoff for lunch and a tour of the facilities. It was interesting to see all the places I have only seen in photos. Frans gave us a brief history of the forming of the UCIRI co-op and talked a little about the crisis in Fair Trade. Then he showed us around the processing plant, the fruit processing (which was closed), the medical clinic, the credit union, the assembly space and the chapel.  Many areas were covered with murals by the same artist who did our mural in Wolfville.  Finally we ended up at the meal hall for the communal lunch.  The weather is much warmer today so we are all drinking lots of water and looking for shade. It's another hour back to Chayotepec.  Just in time for a little siesta. The others are heading in to the woods in search of caves. I'm in search of 40 winks before I help with dinner tonight.

I joined the ladies in the kitchen today to help make empanadas. First they had me shred the freshly made string goat cheese (quesilla). Then we made the empanada dough from a mix of regular flour, corn flour, salt and water. This was rolled into balls and flattened in a press. The cheese went in the middle and the empanadas were folded in half and fried in oil.  A sauce was made with tomatoes and chilies, to be served with them. Also a salad of lettuce and carrot, some more cheese and a white sauce that may have been sour cream. A great cooking lesson.

After supper Guadeloupe and the others shared some of their local medical knowledge on how to deal with sprains and broken bones, cold, headaches and other ailments. Guadeloupe is a twin which gives her special powers. I made sure I got a hug from her, as I can use all help I can get and her touch is supposed to heal.  We also discovered that Liz was also a twin, so we have good luck all around us.

Day 7 - Tuesday

We still haven't figured out this UCIRI / Oaxaca time thing... At 6:15 we got a wake- up call. (Jose Luis knocking us up out of a dead sleep)  We knew we had to leave early, but we thought it would be 8 am. No time for a cold shower this morning...

We met for huevos and fritos and coffee for breakfast and headed right out for parts unknown.  Jeff promised paradise, complete with a waterfall. The problem was paradise was an unknown to all of us, including our guide.  So complete with our Chayotepec guide, Jose Luis, we headed down to Santa Maria Guienagati for water and so the kids could get candy. That takes about 45 minutes.

The town of about 800 was hopping because it was the day the women all get 800 pesos (or about $75) for much needed supplies.  Of course they have to listen to the government propaganda in the streets and get fingerprinted in order to claim it.  The streets were closed off and a market was set up in anticipation of lots of women with money burning a hole in their pockets.  There were clothes for the kids and new shoes, not to mention candy!  Then it was an expected 2 hours to our destination. 

The community of San Isidro Lachiguxe was high in the mountains and I realized that the roads we had been traveling were nothing by comparison, plus we got to go into the cloud forest and a completely different ecosystem. After climbing the mountain for some spectacular views that I doubt the photos will do justice, we entered a deep river valley. This community is just starting to develop an Eco-tourism project and we were their first official visitors. They had many caged exotic birds, like parrots and toucans, unusual species of chickens and turkeys, as well as all the usual critters roaming around free.  They also had some enormous turtles.  It was like a mini zoo. The group headed along the river to see the rest of the community, with the intention to make a one hour journey to the waterfall. The journey proved to take a lot longer, as they viewed their cocoa trees and other crops and stopped to pick up assorted bits of our afternoon meal along the way.  An elderly lady was making corn tortillas in something that looked like a tandoori over. An 84 year old farmer gave them a cabbage. Someone else supplied an unusual tuber from China  (malenka) that cooked up with sugar and cinnamon provided a purple portion that was sweet and like purple sweet potato mash. Also included in the lunch was a dried beef jerky, salad, salsa, frios, tortillas and a sweet watery pink juice that tasted vaguely of coconut. As the clock was ticking and we had a three hour return drive, we ate our lunch and headed back to Guienagati.  After a quick pit stop, and picking up a few more passengers, we arrived safely (thanks to Benito and his amazing van) back at Chayotepec at 7 pm (6pm UCIRI time?)  just time for a quick shower or a snooze before supper and our farewell party.

Supper was delicious as usual. We had beef quesadillas with radish and avocado. Then we walked down to community hall for an evening of shared music, some professional and some not so much. Our group did a silly version of Singing in the Rain and rewrote the lyrics to She'll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain to reflect on our experiences this week (we'll be eating chipolinas in Oaxaca...). Liz shared a special moment when she talked about her family of farmers in our own Valley. She told about their attempts at Eco-tourism with their corn mazes and boils in the fall. This brought us all closer as we realized our similarities, rather than our differences.

Day 8 - Wednesday

It was sad to wake up this morning knowing that we have to leave this place and our new friends at Chayotepec.  Michael l and I packed and went down early to have coffee and look out over the mountains.

Words cannot express how beautiful this spot is.  These people are so lucky to live here and they know it. Protecting the land and their way of life is so obvious to them and to us now.  As we sat slipping coffee that was grown a few feet from where it started its life you can't help but reflect on how simple and uncomplicated life can be. We add so much stress to our daily lives on a regular basis. I hope I can remember this simplicity when I get back to my regular routine. Even if it is just to take a moment every time I have a sip of coffee to think about this land and these people. As we sat surveying the land, Señora  Guadeloupe came by to say goodbye and give us blessing for the final leg of our journey home.

After  a final meal with our hosts of sopa de verduras (vegetable) y huevos we said our thanks and our goodbyes. Liz brought out her hand grinder and Aeropress and made our kitchen hosts a special farewell coffee. Another poignant moment as they watched with amusement at the almost revered process and shared a cup of coffee "Just Us" style. The car was quiet as we began our final descent down the mountain. I am sure we were all reflecting on the experience.

Our drive was uneventful, although we decided not to make any of the extra detours to local swimming holes or to say a last goodbye to Frans in Ixtepec, however tempting as we had a  long drive ahead of us  if we want to see the Pacific. Driving directly to Playa Congrejo was one of the best decisions we made today.  We had miles of white sand and warm salty water to play in, tables and chairs in the shade, freshly caught red snapper and cervesas! Does life get any better than this. We all almost said never mind work, let just live on this beach for the rest of our lives. I'm still not sure what changed our minds and sent us all back to the van for another six hour drive, but I'm sure it probably had something to do with the people we left behind back home.

Jim asked us all a leading question over lunch about how this trip has changed us. I'm not sure I can answer that until I get back to my real life.  It certainly has made a lot of what I thought I knew about the lives our producers a lot more real.  It's one thing to think they are remote and poor and another thing to actually experience it. They are also so lucky in so many ways. This will require some more thought by all of us.  And it certainly has been a bonding experience with my fellow travelers. We'll always have Mexico...

As we entered the rush hour traffic and bustle of Oaxaca, I was longing for that quiet mountain top.  Maybe it's not too late to go back.

Day 9 - Thursday

Our last day in Mexico. We met at Hotel Acuzenas for breakfast on the roof one last time. Some of the kids ran down to the zocalo for some last minute shopping, but our taxis arrived to take us to the bus station at 9:15. It's a long bus trip to Mexico City, but they give you free water or pop, headphones so you can listen to English movies in Spanish, and shampoo???  The driver stopped occasionally for a bathroom break but we weren't allowed to get off.  Liz kindly offered Michael her front row seat so we had extra leg room. Tip for future travellers - bring snacks on the bus.  It was very comfortable and I actually slept a little this time.  The trip was uneventful, but we did see one accident.  I am amazed we didn't see more the way people drive around here.  They must be very good drivers.

We are safely checked in to our hotel and about to go across the street for dinner. Then we plan an early night as the taxi is due to arrive at 4:15 am to take us to the airport.  Dinner at Sanborns was unremarkable, but it's hard to compare to some of the meals we have had. We did get a chance to pick up those last minute gifts for our friends back at home.

Day 10. - Friday

Up at 3:30 to leave for the airport at 4 am. There were long line ups at the airport, but we got through to security before we hit our first snag. Apparently the large stone salsa dishes that we all wanted as a souvenir (that was what the kids ran out to find on our last morning in Oaxaca) caused some problems. Duncan and Tracey managed to get through but poor Liz H. couldn't sweet talk her way past security. She had to go back through the long line ups to the Continental check in and pay $40 to check it.

We were a bit late taking off and we had a tight connection time for our Houston flight. Luckily a strong tail wind (hint at more to come) managed to blow us in only a few minutes late.  But as Bette Davis would say, "fasten your seat belts, we're in for a bumpy ride".

We had to go through customs in Houston and the line was long and slow. We didn't think we were going to make it, we only had 1.5 hours and we had to pick up our luggage and get through security. We tried to plead our case with people in the security line ups, but most only shrugged and said, you'll just have to book the next flight and muttered something about expecting delays...  They switched planes for a larger one and reassigned all the seats, so in addition to making the mad dash through the airport, it also meant chaos and crowding on the plane.  The turbulence was quite bad. I guess my favorite moment was when the flight attendant was on the intercom delivering a message and one particular dip had her exclaim "@#%^*&" mid-sentence. Michael was clutching my hand and closing his eyes (he's not a happy flier), but I just exclaimed that it was just like on the roads to Chayotepec and I hoped we had another Benito driving.

Landing safely in Newark, provided another adventure. We knew we had a five hour layover, but that was a relief to me given all the running and panic in Houston.  We split up to wander, but one by one began to notice the flight time being delayed (until midnight) . Since most were still carrying heavy backpacks (some filled with stone salsa dishes that could also be used as a weapon apparently...) I parked myself near the expected gate and collected bags. We tried to get an earlier flight, but they said they records showed ours was on time. I watched flight after flight get cancelled as I sat guarding luggage.  But hey, ours was now reading on schedule and an actual "bug smasher" (as Jim called the little prop plane) showed up with a crew. Just as we reached boarding time and had all chicks safely gathered, disaster struck. Cancelled!  Why? It was only raining out.  More line ups and ultimately rebooking for 8:30 am. Exhausted, we joined the throngs of people looking for a bed for the night and found some room at the (holiday) inn and a donkey (shuttle) to get us there. The shining green holiday inn sign beaconed just like a star in the night sky.  So with no luggage we found our beds and a much valued Internet connection, so we could contact others back home.  The weatherman is saying expect major delays in New York in the morning (high winds and snow) so who knows what daylight will bring. Did I mention none of us have coats? Or clean clothes, a tooth brush or medication.  But we all still have our sense of humor and an adventurous (albeit tired) spirit...

Day 12-Saturday

Awoke to a sunny day in Newark and a New York skyline. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere, c'mon New York, get me home.

The airport shuttle got us to the airport, security was a breeze, breakfast was delicious and we caused a sensation in the airport terminal as Duncan and Liz brewed coffee using our beans -ground at Starbucks, and their hot water and cups.... The aroma of the freshly ground and brewed coffee, plus our Just Us! travel mugs, hats and coats, soon aroused suspicions and our "local" fellow travelers started chatting with us and sharing their Just Us! stories, all positive.  We felt like minor celebrities in the Big Apple.  And what a story we'll have to share with our communities and friends!

One final wrinkle, as we left the tarmac, Liz H.  noticed our familiar bags still sitting on the ground. Sure enough, none of our luggage arrived with us. Who cares - it was the experience of a lifetime, what's a few pairs of dirty socks. And now we will have to go back and get all the souvenirs again!

Thanks fellow travelers, for your camaraderie, staying healthy, sharing this wonderful experience and the new bonds formed. And thanks to everyone at Just Us! for allowing us to have this experience. We look forward to sharing stories and facilitating everyone's chance to go in the future.