News from the AMLO front:

Still-besieged mayor / governor of the Federal District, Andres Manuel López Obrador, may be on the ropes, but he’s not out by any means. This week, the congressional committee in charge of such things is supposed to decide whether or not to strip him of his constitutional immunity (all public officials have it), a first step toward trying him in court for defying a court order to halt construction on a road to an important public hospital in a timely matter. It would be a tempest in a teapot (even if convicted of these trumped up charges, he would face no fines or prison time: what he did is not recognized as a crime in Mexican law), were it not for another law which states that anyone convicted of, or under indictment for, any charge, may not run for public office.

This is the side entrance to the back patio in one of Oaxaca’s two “other” libraries, the Welte Library. Chock full of books, PhD theses, magazines and maps, all to do with the archeology and anthropology of our adopted city, the Welte is a rich resource.

What this is all really about, is trying to get rid of the clear front runner for the presidential election in 2006, and everyone knows it. While president Vicente Fox Quesada is pronouncing piously about no-one being above the law, and posing as a champion of justice, there is a growing groundswell of support for AMLO throughout the nation.

Alejandro Santiago, a local artist with an international reputation, has begun constructing about 500 clay figures, each to represent one person who lost their life trying to cross the border to the U.S. Eventually, he intends for them to be displayed somewhere near the frontier, but for now they are being stored in the fields, in a barn, and on the front porch and main room of a dwelling, all on his property near the town of Suchilquitongo, Etla, about half an hour from Oaxaca city.

Even here in Oaxaca, cars are sprouting bumper stickers saying “no to the Disafuera” (the process of stripping an official of immunity). Every day in MexCity, thousands demonstrate for AMLO, who vows to run “even if from prison”. In a press conference the other day (he has one every day at 6:30 a.m., where he personally fields the questions) he disclosed that he had been approached by someone in Fox’s PAN party interested in making a deal, presumably including his renouncing presidential aspirations – although, he says, he can’t be sure because he refused to talk to the gentleman, since his position is, and always will be, to defy this latest attempt to unseat him.

A national student movement has formed, following a decentralized model such as was used at Cancún, Seattle, and elsewhere, and the implications of that probably go well beyond the current struggle. There is talk of civil breakdown if the Congress goes ahead with this move in the face of overwhelming national opposition. Mexico could end up facing the worst domestic political crisis since the “dirty war” days of the late 60s.

Meanwhile, to his credit, Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, AMLO’s rival within thePRD, and a perennial aspirant for president, has said that if AMLO is not allowed to run, then neither will he.

Last Minute Update: the congressional committee met on Wednesday, and, surprisingly, agreed to put their discussions in abeyance until the end of their current session at the end of March. Apparently, as well they should be, the leaders of the PRI and PAN parties take seriously the possibility of massive civil unrest should AMLO be stripped of his office and his ability to run for president.

Continental begins regional service from Los Angeles:

Continental Airlines began flying non-stop from LA to León recently. The significance of this is that the pattern of new non-stops from Houston that culminated in the present non-stop to Oaxaca, also began with flights to León. If Continental repeats the pattern, they will eventually fly non-stop from LA to Oaxaca, a great boon to those of us who live on the Left Coast.

Speaking of airline news, did I mention a few issues back that there is now service direct from Oaxaca (3 stops: Tuxtla Gutierrez, Villa Hermosa, Merida) to Cancún? It used to be, the plane only flew north, but not south, making it necessary to go first to MexCity and then change planes to get to the Yucatan. A couple of days ago, I checked the Sabre page, and discovered that the flights are now operated by AeroMexico (before, they had been flying a smaller subsidiary, at of course a much lower price). Current price, one way, is around $160 u.s. Round trip, in the Mexican fashion, is double… Total flight time: over 5 hours, due to layovers… Better than the bus, and not that much more expensive. Aside from a stop to see my friend Jules Siegel, who lives in Cancún the only reason I can see to go from Oaxaca to Cancún is to catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres…

New book tax:

Recently, a friend, subscriber, and local gringo resident, received a box of books by parcel post. They came from Powell’s Books, which as many of you may know, does not charge shipping to anywhere in the world, as long as the order is $50 u.s.d. or more. While their prices are a little higher than Amazon, the free shipping can sometimes make up for the difference.

When she arrived at the post office counter to claim her books, she was told she owed “impuestos” (taxes). She pointed out that these were books, that she had been getting them this way for years, and that taxes had never been charged before. Correct, the clerk informed her: this change was effected in November.

Since then, she received a single book from the same source, and was not charged any tax. It is anybody’s guess what this means: incompetence, change of policy, or that taxes are not charged up to a certain amount of books in a box. We will continue to monitor this situation, and let you know what we find out.

While we didn’t stop to figure out the exact percentage extracted, it appeared at a quick glance that it is probably IVA (a value-added tax, much like a sales tax, currently 15%). Don’t forget to add it into your calculations, the next time you order (or ship books to friends, or to the Library).

This carved and painted animal, about 9″ high, is produced by “Tribus Mixes”, in Viguera, Etla, not far from Oaxaca city. Pretty, huh?

Burn, ballot, burn:

In what now looks to have been a media non-event, the anti-government local daily “Noticias” recently published a picture of partially burned ballots from the last election for governor, under headlines screaming “election fraud”. It now appears that the 40,000 ballots, mostly marked for losing candidate Gabino Cué, had been incinerated by agreement between representatives of all the parties involved, who had been present at the burning.

Some diehard opposition politicians have appealed to the federal investigative police (PGR: Procuraduria General de Republica) to investigate the incident, even though the Oaxaca branch of the federal election institute had found that no fraud existed. The ballots, the commission said, were for one reason or another rejected, as is proved by the fact that they had not been folded, as they must be to fit through the slots in the ballot boxes. Politicians from the winning PRI party are also calling for an investigation: why were the ballots only partially burned, and then planted on the banks of a river, instead of being totally incinerated and the ashes being disposed of in “normal” fashion? Could it have been to provoke an investigation?

Two days after Noticias published this article, the whole issue was dropped from the news. Does this mean the election was “clean”? Absolutely not: the PRI is notorious for election fraud (and the other parties, in the areas that they control, don’t appear to be a lot better), and if there was no hanky-panky this time, then truly the millenium has arrived. Nonetheless, only the rabid few still refuse to accept the results of the election.

A day in the country:

Eco-tourism is a great idea. In its purest form, it preserves natural resources, particularly trees and water, while providing income for local residents who otherwise might be tempted to cut down trees, and otherwise despoil “nature” in order to put tortillas on the table; and it preserves natural sites for those among us who seek them.

For years, we have been attending conferences, fairs, and lectures on various methods, locations, and plans to promote, sustainable methods of development. We’re not much for roughing it these days, and as many of the sites provide only the most rudimentary accommodations, we’ve hesitated at trying them out.

One of the nearby projects we have been hearing about for years is in Santiago de Apoala, a small town in the Mixteca Alta mountains east and north of Oaxaca city. Feeling the need for a change of pace and a few days’ release from the parties and festivities of the “snow bird season”, we decided to give it a try last week, based partially on its nearness, and partially on the pictures we saw in a very slick brochure put out by the town’s tourism authorities.

You get to Apoala through Nochixtlan, a regional market town which reminds me of Ocotlán, but without the works of Rodolfo Morales. Functional, architecturally uninteresting, doing business. The Zócalo is pleasant, but not special. Nochixtlan is probably not the place for an overnight stay, but we were fortunate to find a restaurant, the Roma, where they serve decent food in a pleasantly decorated room that is well away from the street, separated from an atrium by a glass wall.

Nochixtlan is two hours from Oaxaca by two-lane highway, or one hour by the Mexico City tollway. From there, it is two hours to Apoala on a rough crushed-rock hard-pack road. There are two different roads that go there, both about equally as miserable. We drove, but I would never do that again: Apoala is so small that a car is superfluous. Why beat up your car for nothing? Take a cab or a bus.

Aside from ecotourism and farming, there is a small but brisk business in baskets and sombreros woven from palm leaves. While you can’t see it in this picture, the weaver is working as she walks down the road.

Apoala is a no-horse town (although there are scores of burros). With a population of about 300, a stroll of its perimeter will probably take you about and hour and a half. It is a farming town, and with plenty of water available, it turns out some pretty good looking crops. In fact, there is so much water that they supply it to a nearby town that ran out some years back, a project that involves thousands of feet (mostly straight up the mountain) of pipe, and three pumping stations. Surrounded by fields and ringed by mountains, Apoala is bucolic to the nth degree.

There is only one habitation for tourists, a three-bedroom hostel owned by the town. The bedrooms are clean, simple, and pleasant. Ours was a corner room with a double bed, a reading light above the bed, and a modern bathroom with hot water, for only 160 pesos for the two of us.

It is also the only restaurant, serving breakfast and comida. Comida, prepared in the morning, is simple; and choices are few. The nice thing about them is that the staff is willing to heat them up at any time of the day. There is a glass-roofed indoor patio with tables where meals are served, and folks can hang around there as long as they can stand the hard wooden dining table chairs.

The workers at the hostel are “volunteers”, appointed by the town council for a year at a time. They do not get paid: it is their “tequio” (TE-kyo, community service). The two young women who were serving when we were there, Rosalba and Elvia, were unfailingly cheerful and helpful.

Rosalba and Elvia answer the phone (the only one in the village), book the tours, rent and clean the rooms, cook the meals and laugh a lot.

To visit any of the ecotourism sites, you must register at the hostel, and pay a 25-peso-per-person fee. The main attraction is a waterfall, although there are also caves and hiking trails. The waterfall is an hour’s walk from the hostel, across some fields and down a path so steep and so narrow that we decided not to try it, much to the relief of our guide, a taciturn and bored young man. Other “sites” promised in the slick full-color brochure that the town puts out, proved to be elusive. The “ruins” had been buried under the slab of the new school; the “museum” was not yet opened (even though our two-year-old brochure had announced it).

Unless you are a mountain goat, there is little reason at this time to visit Apoala as an “ecotourism” destination. However, if you are after a day or two of complete rest and relaxation, vale la pena (the trouble is worth it). We had a lovely day of quiet walks interspersed with reading and a little writing. I came home much more relaxed than I was before we left.

From the Field:

A new edition of George Colman and Michele Gibbs’ fine quarterly of prose, poetry and art can now be seen by clicking here.

Another “Memoir” piece:

After quite a long hiatus, I have posted a new chapter to my Memoir. “Little Boy Lost” is a story about what happened when I ran away from home at age 4, to go to Kindergarten. To read it, click here

A New Photo Album:

Diana has posted a new album, dedicated to our trip to Apoala. As usual, the quality is brilliant. To see the album, click here.