Stay away from the Buffet:

OK, I’m going to vent now. It’s all I have the strength to do, having just spent a couple of hours glutting myself on too many helpings of too many varieties of starchy and fatty food. Four kinds of meat, two kinds of rice, 2 kinds of pasta, four kinds of salad, and four kinds of desert. Yes, that’s right, folks, I – who should have known better, but let my greed take advantage of me – just got back from an all-you-can-eat buffet.

To the best of my recollection – clouded as it is by my overworked digestive process – there was only one downtown Buffet, El Mesón (aside from a few of the hotels and the venerable “Catedral”), when I arrived twelve years ago. Now, they are all over the place. The quality is for the most part pedestrian, and breakfast is usually more tasty than comida.

Buffet, like sushi, has proliferated with the return of Mexican cooks from the U.S., where they worked in various ethnic restaurants and steam table eateries. Oaxaca now boasts a number of Chinese, Italian, Japanese, French, and Continental (remember, to a Oaxacan, Continental is “ethnic”) places, most of which serve pale versions of the original cuisine. A few boast chefs from the “old country”, but they can be more expensive than their U.S. counterparts, and are often limited by the lack of “original” ingredients.

[One of the most fun things about walking in Oaxaca is the profusion of flowering plants and trees of all sizes and colors. This bit of flora lives along the street near or house. Can anyone tell me the name of it?]

Buffets are usually some combination of “típico” (typical Oaxacan dishes) and ethnic (usually “continental”). The best of them (in my opinion) are “puro típico”. Usually, the selection in these places will include at least one good Mole, a couple of kinds of rice and spaghetti, chilis rellenos, chilaquiles, and – not typically served in many comida restaurants – a variety of salad ingredients. This is true both for “regular” and “vegetarian” Buffets.

It is a mystery to me that so many salad vegetables are sold in the markets – thus indicating that Oaxaqueños eat salad at home – while so few non-vegetarian típico restaurants offer salads with meals.

El Mesón is still my favorite Buffet, offering a limited variety of meats and starches and a nice selection of salads, along with a wide choice of fruit juice drinks, for about 60 pesos. Unlike the higher priced places where the waiters hover, and dishes are whisked away the second you are finished (sometimes I eat almost all the food on my plate, then make uncompleted motions toward the last morsel, watching out of the corner of my eye as the waiter gets ready to snatch the plate), Mesón is an unpretentious, noisy, relaxed place.

In recent weeks, we have visited two Buffets, one an old Oaxaca tradition (La Veranda; LV), and one brand new eatery in San Bartolo Coyotepec (Casa Coyotepec; CC). They charge similar prices (the former, 120 pesos; the latter 129). The wait-staff hover in both places, although the (mostly female) staff at CC seems friendlier and more genuinely interested in their customers’ comfort.

[This is the garden in ARIPO, the state-run outlet for native Oaxacan crafts. The “second patio”, behind us, hosts a few Pochote organic market drop-outs, including our friends Simon and Gudrun, who make smoked meats, sausages, and other goodies.]

One of the things I hate about Buffets is the waste. When we were at LV, during Comida hour, there couldn’t have been more than six tables occupied, but the chafing dishes, lined up along one wall, stretched in an endless line to the horizon. We figured about 70% was going to waste. We wondered what would happen to it. We doubted that it would find its way to any of Oaxaca’s malnourished. We thought the food was for the most part uninteresting, but not unpalatable, except for the deserts, which were outstanding. The garden, however – beside which we were seated – made a lovely setting for a leisurely meal.

CC is a mix of típico main courses, inventive salads, and a pleasant big-room atmosphere. The food is half-hidden in one corner, and the choices are sufficient without being gross. The moles are excellent, and the presentation better than LV. The waitresses insist upon carrying your dish to the table once you have over-filled it with heaps of food, and probably would prefer to fill the plate for you (you point, they spoon), but we insisted on filling our own. Diana didn’t care for some of the salad combinations, but I did. Along with a tour of the fabulous municipal museum at San Bartolo, across the street (where you get a coupon that gets you 30% off the price at CC), it makes for a fun trip to the exurbs.

Both are “urban” places, with tablecloths and quiet atmospheres. Also available are “Bufetes campestres” (country buffets), which are most often noisy, with metal folding chairs and many large family-style tables (as well as some smaller 4-place settings). Mariachis roam the room(s), the tin roof makes a righteous racket when it rains, and meals are often punctuated with renditions of “Las Mañanitas”, the traditional Mexican happy birthday song. La Escondida is probably the best-known of this kind of Buffet, and aside from the party atmosphere, what keeps us coming back is the huge variety of salads and salad fixings – and the café de olla, traditional Oaxacan coffee boiled with a little brown sugar and cinnamon.

Mostly, we eat at home. But when we do go out, we tend toward “comida corrida” restaurants with a fixed-priced, all-inclusive meal for 50 pesos or under. Even there, we are often fed too much food, but at least they are doing it to us; as opposed to Buffet, where we end up doing it to ourselves.

Guelaguetza super-concert too much for Casa Mujer:

Each year for the past several years, there has been a concert, in February, to fund the Guadalupe Musalem scholarship fund, which sends young women who would otherwise be unable to get an education to school. For all but the original benefit, the headliner has been Lila Downs. This year, the Casa bit off more than it could chew. It was a learning experience. They sold less than half the seats in Oaxaca’s giant amphitheater, which fortunately did not charge them for the use of the space. In an effort to bulk up the audience, the Casa made an arrangement with the local newspaper “El Imparciál” which gave away free coupons, a practice known as “papering the house”; and which the Casa noted as “courtesy tickets” along with other bartered and gifted seats, on its summary report.

All in all, there were 4,097 tickets sold, 2,735 given away, and 4,171 left over: about a 40% paid attendance. Clearly, a major task for next year (it has been pretty much decided to do the Guelaguetza again) is to concentrate on ticket sales.

Having said that, it must be noted that 4,097 is the most tickets the Casa has ever sold for a benefit performance; and that the income therefrom is the highest gross ever taken in, especially when you include sales of cd’s, t-shirts, cushions, etc.

[This is a small piece of a marvelous urban garden at our friend Jane’s house. Many of our friends have little or no dirt in which to plant, and so they get inventive with flower pots. Photo by Tamar Clark]

The hoped-for profits, unfortunately, went to expenses: cost of performers (all three headliners donated their time, but their bands got paid), housing and travel for same, a rip-off by a local sound-and-light company who doubled the price at the last minute, a generator unit imported from MexCity to make sure the electricity didn’t fail mid-performance, etc.

Actually, if it wasn’t for the Amigas de Casa – that intrepid band of gringo women who congregate here every winter and make it a project to sell “sponsorships”, the concert would have lost money. Sponsorships are packages that include two tickets in a preferred section, a mention in the program, and a “private” reception with Lila. This year, with fewer Amigas, more – and more costly than ever – packages were sold, saving the Casa’s bacon.

The Casa feels pretty sure they can make up the $20,000 dollar shortfall in the scholarship fund from savings and future small events. If anyone is so inclined, they can help directly by contacting the Casa de Mujer by email and asking how to contribute. If anyone wants more explanation of what the fund is about, etc., feel free to email me.

While the concert itself was well received, there was some question about having three star performers; some grumbling about the difficulty of climbing the stairs and the lack of signage for ramps, for us old folks; Lila’s unfortunate late arrival at the reception (rehearsal problems); and the lack of backs on the concrete benches of the auditorium.

In my opinion, next year the Casa needs to hire a real event producer to devise and implement a theme, co-ordinate volunteer groups, administrate binding contracts with services providers, organize the traffic flow inside and outside the event, and make sure that products for sale get a prominent placement. A six-month head start would probably be a good idea.

A personal and ongoing rental story:

We are going to move. For some time, Diana and her slightly out-of-shape knee have been suffering from the mile-long walk to the center of town, mostly because of the broken sidewalks that we have to traverse between our house and the Pan American Highway (Niños Héroes de Chapultepec), a four-block stretch that’s not so bad when it is the first part of the trip (going downtown) but is really annoying when it comes at the end (going home) and one is a little tired. Crossing the highway is also quite daunting, even though there are semaphores. Traffic lights are something our fellow Oaxacans pay attention to only when they have to, and pedestrians have no rights – if they exist at all on the radar of the average motorist.

We have really enjoyed our nearly-three-years in our little bungalow in the suburbs. Our landlords have been great, the space has been light and airy and secure, and the water supply (not insignificant in water-starved Oaxaca) has been more than adequate. If we could take our casita (little house: about 1,000 square feet) and plunk it down closer to the center, you’d have to bulldoze the place to get us out. Unfortunately, that is not an option.

About a month or so ago, we mentioned to a couple of people that we were looking to move closer in. Within a few days, while enjoying one of the fine monthly jazz concerts at the Casa Colonial, a friend who had heard it on the grapevine approached us with the news that there was a ground-floor flat available on Murguia street, within about 6 blocks of the Zócalo. The next day we went to check it out.

[This is the photographer, on the other end of the camera. Daughter Tamar posed Diana in front of this doorway across the street from Pochote. Note the camera attached to her left hand.]

We knew the building, and I had been in the upstairs apartment, which I had liked immensely (the floor plans are identical). The artist who lives upstairs is clean, quiet, and discreet, all nice characteristics for a neighbor, and the property, which includes two other detached houses, is totally secure. We visited with the upstairs neighbor, and she was pleased that we were considering moving in. Her last neighbor had not been very pleasant or co-operative. Then we went downstairs to have a look.

The place was a filthy mess. Termites had invaded, and whole door-jambs need replacement. Fixtures are hanging by wires that don’t look any too capacitous. There is broken glass in one door. It needs paint. The floor needs to be refurbished. The cistern does not look very appetizing. There are problems getting city water in that part of town. We loved it on sight.

The only furnishings in the whole place (living-dining room, 3 bedrooms all with a wall of closet, kitchen, bath, back “garden” with just enough room to hang my hammock, capacious cement patio) are a hot water heater, a sink, and the bathroom fixtures. Fortunately, we have a sofa and a couple of chairs, a plastic garden-style table and a few plastic chairs, a bed, a refrigerator, and adequate shelving, end tables, and lamps, with which to move in. We will need all the furnishings for a second bedroom, a stove and cabinet work in the kitchen, mosquito screens, and a front security door, as well as some wiring. The cistern will need to be cleaned and some sort of communications established (there is no phone line in just now).

We take possession on May 15, and move at the end of June. We are in California now, and have no idea how the landlady’s promised termite extermination, wood and glass replacement, and painting are going, although we expect it to be completed, judging from our assessment of her. I will find out after I return on the 13th of May. Diana will be here until June 10, so I will be responsible for getting the “systems” (screens, wires, plumbing, phone, etc.) going, leaving her free to deal with the furnishings and the move when she returns.

We will miss our papaya tree, which Diana grew from seed, and the open plan with merely a counter between the kitchen and the dining room. We will be delighted to have a third bedroom to use as an office and workroom. The large superette across the street, the proximity to the Merced market (our favorite covered market), the Casa de Cultura, and other cultural venues, and a plethora of hardware, lumber, and furnishings outlets nearby, lifts our spirits. As does the lower rent: 4,000 pesos per month.

As it happens, this proved to be a fortunate time to switch from the dollar-based rent in our old place to the peso-based rent in the new place: the peso has been slipping dramatically, having gone from just a little over 10 to more than 11 in the last month. That means a savings of as much as 30% in actual dollar terms. Of course we won’t actually save that much for the next year or two, given all the repairs and furnishings we will be paying for…

From now until it is completed, we will be reporting on our progress: a sort of “This Old Casa”.

Menaces and Alarums: The Frente Común gets roughed up.

As those of you who have been with us for some time know, we have always been staunch supporters of the Frente Común Contra el SIDA (the common front against AIDS). For a while, until they got their own website, we acted as their web hosts and contributions funnel. We still support their work, which happens on at least two levels: education of the local folks as to the realities, dangers, and prevention of AIDS; and holding a mirror up to the “official” agencies, federal, state, and international, as a method of getting them to do the work they have agreed to do. I can go on and on with statistics about how many condoms they’ve sold, lectures given, etc., but all that is available on their web site, which we urge you to visit.

Whether in the streets of New York by uniformed police, or Oaxaca’s state university by unidentified “porros” (non-students hired to go in and kick ass), against demonstrators, dissenters, or journalists, the goon squad is a standard response of tyrannical bosses aiming to bust up unions, secret governments suppressing dissent, or any one of a hundred different kinds of “troublemaker”. Dictatorships and would-be dictatorships all honor similar terrorist methods for controlling their populations. There is hardly a country in the world that doesn’t unleash the dogs (figuratively and/or literally. We all “know” such things go on. However, there’s “knowing” and then there’s “knowing”. When the knock comes on your very own door, your world changes forever. Last month, they came knocking on the Frente’s door. They showed up at Condón Mania, the highly successful store that sells condoms at just enough over cost to stay in business. They gave a little demonstration, by smashing the windshield on one of the workers’ car. They gave everyone some advice about how to avoid these kinds of visits in the future.

[This is one of the most fun things about living in Oaxaca: you never know when you will come upon a street performance, a festival, or a rally. Photo by Tamar Clark.]

For years, the Frente has been holding the feet of COESIDA, the Oaxaca state arm of the “official” AIDS organization, to the fire. As a result, there are now more folks being treated, and a broader spectrum of drugs available than there might otherwise have been. Operating on the edge of destitution, with volunteer workers led by founder Bill Wolf, the Frente has always been a moral and professional embarrassment to their well-paid COESIDA brethren, but nobody thought their antics to be worth getting violent about. Until recently.

The occasion was an “official state function”: an international AIDS conference to be held in Oaxaca city. Our governor, Ulises Ruiz, had made it part of his patronage, investing his personal prestige, when the Frente sent a letter out to many influential and well-read newspapers and AIDS organizations, asking the participants to boycott the gathering, on the grounds that COESIDA had not fulfilled its obligations to the community and did not deserve the good publicity. A copy of that document, translated into English, is available by clicking HERE. That’s when the thugs dropped by, with a clear message: no demonstrations, no attempts to attend the conference, no press conferences. Sit down and shut up. Or else.

The conference took place without the Frente. That was just sensible, under the circumstances. The rest of the work goes on, a vocation that Bill rightly calls “saving lives”. Fortunately, Ulises does not find the daily guerrilla warfare in the trenches of the COESIDA bureaucracy to be personally embarrassing. The Frente needs money, and volunteers, as much as they always have.

There is already one plea for support in this Newsletter, for the Casa de la Mujer’s Guadalupe Musalem scholarship fund, and now here is another. We’re all inundated with requests for funds; I know we sure are. Our community bleeds in so many places, and we can’t plug all the holes, but in case you’re interested, here’s another one that’s worthy.

A potpourri of news:

Yet another airline is weighing in on the mad scramble to capitalize on the relatively untapped market for no-frills transportation both within and to-and-from Mexico. Added to Aerolitoral, a subdivision of Aero Mexico which is currently flying from Oaxaca to MexCity and beyond, and the handful of licensed airlines who expect to come online with Toluca as their hubs, is the giant Ryanair, whose flights within Europe are hugely successful and a great value. Ryanair has not yet announced its hub, but they are known to use secondary airports (for example, in London, they hub at Stanstead). We’re all crossing our fingers that they will choose Puebla, but it’s more likely to be Toluca.

For the many Mexicans and other central valley residents who fly in and out of Mexico City, there is now a non-stop flight to Fresno, the central city of the Valley, and home to a Mexican consulate. It’s a bit pricier than flying to LAX, but if you add in what it costs to get to a Valley destination from LAX it will probably be worth it. Now what is needed is some sort of “Super Shuttle” system to get folks from Fresno to their final destination…

[When we left for California, the Jacarandas were in full bloom. Like the lilacs in my native Minnesota, they are a true sign of Spring.]

Speaking of airlines, troubled Aero California, whose spectacular crash a few years ago brought continued surveillance by government agencies, has been given 90 days to stop cannibalizing parts from decommissioned planes (and other safety violations), start filing honest incident reports, and otherwise conform to the regulations, or close its doors. The powers-that-be in Baja California, where the airline is based, are crying “foul”, complaining that without Aero California, tourism – domestic as well as cross-border – will fall by as much as 40%. It is unclear how this will finally shake out, but in the meantime, we advise finding some other way to get to your Baja destination.

The campaign for President is heating up, with trailing candidate Calderón of the PAN closing the gap on Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), mostly through a series of negative TV spots accusing him of “populism” (a word associated with the authoritarianism of the PRI before they lost the presidency in 2000) and claiming he has ties to Hugo Chavez. Some ads go so far as to claim that Chavez is a financial contributor to AMLO’s campaign, a charge for which no proof has ever been offered. Rumors have surfaced that Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, angry at the PRD for having chosen AMLO over him as its candidate, is preparing to join the campaign of PRI third-place runner Roberto Madrazo. Should that happen – an unlikely scenario – AMLO’s deliberate strategy of seeking an independent power base while at the same time accepting the support of the PRD could prove to have been a stroke of genius. The PRI continues to implode, as dozens of national and regional figures have either quit the party or declared themselves unable to support Madrazo and his interference in the process of selecting candidates for other races – a clear move to entrench his “friends” in positions of power from which they could support his continuing takeover of the party structure.

Coming up in May:

El Llano update, more house report, a couple of reasonable hotels, a new magazine, and politics in the last days running up to the July 2 elections. Stay tuned…