The battle of the titans:

[Much of what makes Oaxaca so attractive to visitors – and the more affluent Mexicans – would not have happened without the generosity of wealthy artists and culture mavens, whose donations have helped restore many colonial buildings and fill them with art, classrooms, performance spaces, and other social amenities. Some of the donations also aid the less affluent, such as Rodolfo Morales’ computer classroom in Ocotlán, where local kids get a crack at learning new skills. Here’s a little tongue-in-cheek tale…]

Last week, the Harp Foundation, the charitable arm of billionaire banking mogul Alfredo Harp, announced the purchase of the Posada San Pablo, an ex-convent in the heart of the city, that had over the years seen various uses (the latest as a top-dollar hotel); as well as an adjoining building. When completed, the project will house a museum dedicated to the textiles of the world.

Some wags have implied that the whole business is just a scam to keep from having to pay taxes on an otherwise taxable gift to his wife, who is a textile maven and will be the Director. This seems to me to be unlikely, since she is so wealthy in her own right that she could have bought it for herself if she wanted it that badly.

[Speaking of textiles, this Maya girl, vending chicklets among the tables of the Oaxaca sidewalk cafés, is always dressed in her indigenous finery. Unlike many, she will not take your money unless you take a pack of gum]

A few days later, millionaire artist Francisco Toledo laid the cornerstone for a new School of Art at the state university, a privilege for which he paid a cool 4 million pesos. Having outlived Rodolfo, and Oaxaca’s other great (and long dead) artist / philanthropist Rufino Tamayo, his second place in the most-donations column seems assured, but he has a long way to go if he wants to be numero uno. Let’s face it, billionaires just have more money to spend than do millionaires.

What, one wonders, will be next? Will Harp buy the Guggenheim, dismantle it brick by brick, and reassemble it somewhere around Plaza del Valle? Will Toledo contract the entire faculty of the Rhode Island School of Art and Design to staff his new school? Ah, the suspense of it all…

[We went on a little journey (as you will see below), and followed our usual fascination with Zócalos. The masthead photo and this one were taken in Córdoba, Veracruz. The following photo was taken in Cardel, Veracruz.]

And the winner – once again – is abstentionism:

With 60% of the voters staying home, the PRIwon 2/3 of the mayoral races in the state of Oaxaca on Sunday, including Oaxaca city. Almost all the rest went to the PRD. Some key cities changed hands; most did not. Low voter turnout always favors incumbent parties.

However you look at it, the fourth-place finish for the PRD’s Lenin Lopez was a crushing defeat, the first time in recent memory that they came in behind the PAN in a municipal election in Oaxaca. Some APPO and teacher leadership had broken with the PRD early in the election process, leading to speculation that, since the PRD did so poorly, the APPO may still be a strong political force.

Of course there will be protracted grumbling, probably backed with legal challenges, by the losers – much of it reasonable under the circumstances:

*Our universally reviled governor was taped at a PRI meeting, saying that any government employee who votes for an opposition candidate would have good reason for fearing for his or her job. Interference by elected officials in political campaigns not their own is a serious felony under Mexican law.

*The head of one state government department was taped telling his workers that it was their duty to help pass out the building materials, small appliances, money, and other “gifts” that the Party had stockpiled. Vote buying is illegal.

*A group of dissident priests issued a denunciation of the “clergy that is for sale”, revealing that a PRI operative recently retired from the Interior Secretariat and one of Ulises’ closest pals, had laid large gobs of greenbacks on the Pastoral Association who then passed out a pamphlet to the churches. The pamphlet, thinly disguised election propaganda, accused all the other major parties of various sins: the PRD as “immoral” for its support of women’s choice and gay marriage; Convergencia as a bunch of godless closet communists; etc. The separation of Church and State is one of the cornerstones of the Mexican constitution.

Still, it seems pretty clear that, even allowing for the usual election shenanigans and the APPO / teacher “punishment vote”, the biggest vote getter was “none of the above”.

[We stayed in the hotel with the red awnings, which among other things boasted one of the two oldest elevators (1904) in Mexico. Either it was scrupulously maintained, or the original Swiss manufacturers built it to last. The Zócalo in Veracruz is all concrete and stone, so the strolling vendors and minstrels come to the sidewalk cafés on the eastern border of the square.]


Our trip, you might say, was for the birds:

[Diana wrote this. I asked her to. This part of the story really belongs to her: most of the time, I was sulking in the hotel room in Cardel, availing myself of the dehumidifying properties of air conditioning, while she was cavorting with the birders, protected by an awning on the roof from the punishing sunshine.]

After four months without leaving the Central Valley of Oaxaca,  Stan and I decided it was time for a change of scenery.  A few months earlier we had  heard and read about the “River of Raptors, a flyway in the sky in the state of Veracruz where millions of birds of prey head for Central and South America in the fall of every year.  The peak time is normally late in September and early in October.   A town north west of  the city of Veracruz, named Cardel,  is strategically located to see the “river” and that was where we were going to discover and learn more about this large migration of birds.   This area is strategic because raptors don’t migrate over water and the narrow channel of land  between the Sierra Madre mountains and the Gulf of Mexico is their only southward route before they can spread out again to go to their winter destinations.  After checking for information on the computer and  quizzing a few ‘birder’ friends hoping to learn more about this extraordinary natural phenomenon,  we left on the bus for a couple of days in Veracruz en route to Cardel.

We enjoyed Veracruz,  walking  on the Malecón,  strolling through the Zocalo and downtown streets,  stopping for a cool drink in the famous Gran Café de la Parroguia,  and eating fish Veracruzana (a great combination of tomatoes, olives, capers, onions, and spices), which is to Veracruz what mole is to Oaxaca. It was a dish we revisited a few times during our trip. We sat on benches in the park and listened to the strolling musicians passing the sidewalk restaurants in the Portales – a row of arches and hotels.   For the two mornings we were there it rained.  This concerned us because if it continued it would inhibit the flights of the birds over Cardel.

The buses  leave frequently for Cardel from the main bus station, and arrive conveniently near the Zócalo and the Bienvenidas  hotel – the highest building in the town, with a rooftop that is used as one of the two designated observation places to study and watch the raptor migration.    A non-governmental, non-profit organization,  Pronatura,  dedicated to conservation, research, and education,  provides the logistics for information, tours; and trains bird counters.  There is a Pronatura poster that describes Cardel as (translated) ..”the region for the major traffic of migratory raptors in the world.”

Pronatura keeps records for each species – the number flying each day – and averages for the years since 1994 when the official counting began.  Of more than 20 different species, there are four species that are the principal raptors.  They are the Broad-winged Hawk,  the Turkey Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk, and the Mississippi Kite.  Their yearly averages in that order are 1,724,842;  1,707,521;  731,260;  and 139,455.    That’s a lot of birds!!    They may come from as far away as Canada and cover 6 to 7,000 miles, to end up in the pampas of Argentina.   It takes 2 months to complete their migration, covering an estimated 120 miles per day.  It is thought that they roost in forests or dense vegetation areas or for the Kites and Turkey Vultures in open agricultural areas.  They are good for the farmers, eating mice, snakes, and insects that infest the growing crops.

[There are bird watchers (left), and bird counters (above). Sometimes they are one and the same, sometimes not.]

We talked to some of the Pronatura workers, all dedicated folks.  They could not,  however, guarantee that in the short amount of time we had budgeted for, we would be able to get a good impression of the size and numbers of birds in flight.

That varies from day to day depending on the climatic flight conditions.  When there is rain or if there is low pressure,  there might be no flights at all.   It is not just the geographical fact of the “egg-timer” effect of  the narrow passage through this part of North America,  but the tropical temperatures and clear skies needed in the coastal plain of  Veracruz to develop the thermal currents to carry them to the heights so they can spread their wings and tails and soar southward from thermal to thermal.

I should answer the big question of what we saw in the three days (or parts of days) that we sat and observed on the rooftop.   The answer is disappointing, but true – not much.   Wrong weather, bad timing, weak binoculars.  The counters saw more than we did through their strong telescopes but I got the flavor of the migration and learned new things. I don’t know if I’d do it again, but I’m glad I did it this once.


*Opened, “Candelas Ceramicas de Mau”, at Juarez 505. Owner Sharon Hancock, a transplanted Tejano, sells pottery from Atzompa, filled with colored aromatic soy-wax candles. She ships anywhere, and will custom blend color, style, scent, and pottery piece. Check out the gallery on her website .

*Coming up on October 27, the annual Library art auction at the Painters’ Museum. Since the 27th is the first concert of the two-night Lila Downs benefit for the Casa Mujer’s scholarship programs, those who plan to attend the auction should buy their concert tickets for the 28th .

EPR? Which EPR?

You have probably heard that some PEMEX facilities, mostly transmission pipes, were blown up during the last month or so. According to the “official” reports, this resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for the plants that relied on getting a steady supply of power. The group responsible for the damage is said to be the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejército Popular Revolucionario; EPR).

According to government handouts, the EPR is currently a family affair, run out of Mexico City, with maybe 100 adherents spread throughout the country: what is left of the decade-old clandestine revolutionary cadre that first rose up in the mountains of Guerrero and Oaxaca, after numerous arrests and deaths, and squabbles over doctrine and tactics.

If true, the attacks – coordinated to occur simultaneously in wide-spread locations, some of which were being kept under observation by the Army at the time – bespeak a sophisticated and well-equipped organization. Some analysts have expressed doubts that such a group – small, clandestine, sophisticated, and anti-government exists. Add to that, the government’s attribution of almost a hundred kidnappings, and credulity is stretched.

Even if the “EPR” of today is the culprit, what is their motive? The infrastructure strikes were, according to an announcement attributed to the group, to force the government to produce, alive, two of their brethren thought to be in government hands (which the government continues to deny). Hardly a “revolutionary” manifesto.

One analyst has posited that they are actually an arm of one of the narcotics trafficking cartels. He thinks that their job is to undermine the State to make it easier to continue the narcotraffic without interference. Problem with that theory is that the narcotraficantes already have subverted the State, with money, lots and lots of money.

Another theory is that the EPR is an excuse for increasing the repression in the name of national security; that the EPR are just a bunch of “plumbers” operating at the behest of the President in order to justify further erosion of civil rights.

Whatever the EPR really is, it has so far scrupulously avoided killing any civilians, and has not bombed any tourist facilities. “Terrorism” sells newspapers. Unless you intend to hang out in a PEMEX facility or catch a few rays in front of a police outpost when the drive-by shooters pass by, the EPR is of no danger to you.

[This sculpture is in a park in Veracruz, right next to the Pemex Museum. Apparently, it’s proximity to “the enemy” has not inspired the EPR to harm it…]

Some traveling lessons:

It hardly ever fails: if we book our flights way in advance to assure specific times and dates, and as a hedge against the ever-rising price of air travel, there will be a terrific sale offered a few days before we are due to take off. If we wait, no sale materializes and the price has risen by 50%.

Sometimes we get lucky. We didn’t book in Veracruz, and when we got there the downtown hotels were all offering “promotions”. We got a room in the Imperial, right on the Zócalo, at a reduced rate (450p for a rack price of 735). If we had booked in advance, at the rack price (they won’t tell you over the internet, I promise) it is unlikely we would have gotten a cash refund. We did book in Cardel, because we were worried that some tour might come in and wipe out all the rooms in the Bienvenidas, but Cardel is inexpensive to begin with. That’s one nice thing about Cardel: the prices don’t go up during the “raptor season”.

In the “off season”, which it definitely was in Veracruz, the harbor tours don’t run, and the “trolley ride” buses only run on weekends; and Sunday closings are more frequent in the tourist zone. If you’re going to “see the sights”, keep that in mind, along with the fact that in may places, tourist sites may be closed on either Monday or Tuesday, high or low season.

In every ADO bus station we used, most PEMEX stations along the turnpikes, and in other unlikely venues, there was an Italian Coffee Company franchise. ITC is the Starbucks of Mexico. There are also “convenience stores” where the sandwiches are really expensive and generally suck. One of the phenomena I observed was that where the station is off on the outskirts of town, as it was in Cordoba and Veracruz, there are no handy taquerias or torta stands, so if you think you’re going to be hungry later you might want to take a snack with you before you leave for the depot.

If you have a tight schedule (transferring buses, catching a plane) you might want to ask at the ticket counter or travel agency exactly where your bus originates. We caught a bus from Cordoba to Oaxaca, for instance, that came not from Veracruz (as we, reasonably, assumed) but from the border at Matamoros. It was over an hour late getting to Cordoba. It turned out that it’s ALWAYS at least an hour, and usually an hour and a half late, but that information is not discoverable when you are buying your ticket from a machine in a corner of a shipping office in downtown Cordoba (as we did), or over the internet.