Living in the soup:

By official count – no doubt low due to unregistered vehicles – Oaxaca city now has in excess of 135,000 automobiles clogging its arteries. None who drive in this town are surprised that there is one car for every three and a half citizens.

Fueled by fast, easy credit plans offered by the auto industry, there has been a noticeable increase in cars of new and recent vintage on the streets, a situation which may begin to reverse itself as the current recession deepens and more cars are repossessed. With gasoline prices continually rising (that’s right, even with a nosedive in the price of crude oil, and while prices at the pump have receded in the U.S., they have gone up in Mexico), and payments getting tougher to make, many will rediscover the bus – but right now traffic shows no sign of abating.

[One of the fun things about taking pictures in Oaxaca is how the changing light and shadows affect the photo.  This picture of a street near our house was not enhanced to look like an oil painting, it just came out that way.]

Add a major street and sewer reconstruction project to the increasing number of cars, and the result – an escalation of both car horns (noise pollution) and exhaust gas emissions as more cars idle longer in traffic jams – is inevitable.

For us, it’s been a double whammy, as the reconstruction project on Juarez street has reached down to Murguia, the street where we live. For the last couple of weeks, we have been playing mountain goat, picking our way up and down and around through the construction in order to get from here to the Zócalo.

We’ve become obsessed:

We spend hours every day following the election process. We chew over the teensiest morsels of rumor, scandal, inconsistency, poll result, pundit prognostication and trend indicator. We’re hooked on MSNBC. We check “The Field” and “The Huffington Post” several times a day. We’ve been to three Debate parties, and have already reserved front row seats at a friend’s November 4 blowout. I begin to understand how people become addicted to soap operas.

[Democrats abroad, come into the city from their suburban home in San Pablo Etla, to get out the vote for Obama]

We probably wouldn’t be quite so strung out if it weren’t for Slingbox. Slingbox is a way to watch cable or satellite T.V. from the States, in real time. Briefly, you buy a Slingbox apparatus, which takes the incoming stream and uploads it to an address somewhere in cyberspace; then you log onto that space from your computer using a unique access code, and watch it “live” on your computer. You can then attach your computer to a T.V. here in Oaxaca and you have a seamless connection that brings your cable or satellite feed from “there” to “here”.

Our reception is a little rough. We think it’s a bandwidth problem at Slingbox’s end, but we’re still working out the kinks with Diana’s son (the box is attached to his T.V.) in hopes of improving our reception.

Meanwhile, we hope that our fixation will evaporate in a week with the end of the election cycle. Otherwise, we may end up having to get electroshock therapy – or starting up a new chapter of Political Junkies Anonymous.

[Days of the Dead are nearly upon us. This Catrina guards a store selling traditional crafts near Santo Domingo church.]

Ambulantes:

Basically, there are two kinds of ambulantes (ambulant ones; itinerants; street merchants), those who have a booth and those who don’t.

Anyone who’s been to Oaxaca (or most any other Mexican city) is familiar with the hustlers who wander through the downtown restaurants and sidewalk cafés, selling anything from candy to rugs, often with one eye out for “inspectors” who can arrest them and confiscate their goods if they are peddling without permission. They are the lowest rung of an infrastructure of entrepreneurs who make their living without being burdened by papers or taxes; the so-called “informal economy”. Altogether, they are said to be engaged in producing as much as 50% of the gross national product.

It is unclear to me just exactly how the walking ambulantes achieve a permit, and I’ve asked. Some say it’s organized by extended family, others say it’s organized by extended community ties, and still others claim it’s strictly political, according to party affiliation. Of one thing I am convinced: that the same beggars and sellers that I see day after day around the Zócalo are there under some kind of protection.

The next rung on the ladder is occupied by the “blanket sellers”, folks who lay down tarps or tablecloths etc. on the street and sell arts and crafts, clothing and jewelry. Some of what they sell is locally made but most comes from factories in MexCity, Guatemala, or China. They show up, and in a day or two they are gone. I have yet to figure out how they pick their “on” days. The goods mostly come from large warehouses who supply the vendors on credit in the morning and collect the same night when the goods are brought back. The balloon sellers in the Alameda are the classic model for this trade.

[This blanket seller set up her display of sun/moon ceramics in front of the Primavera]

Clearly, the blanket sellers are controlled. I have seen sellers establishing – and measuring – spaces among one another. The other day, I witnessed a confrontation between about six burly middle-aged men and a skinny hippy with dreadlocks who had rolled out his towel with his jewelry on it. It was clear that he did not have permission to be there, but he refused to leave. In that case, said the unidentifiable (no badge or warrant card) enforcers, he had to pay (I didn’t actually hear this conversation, but the body language was pretty suggestive). When he refused to pay, one of the heavies bent down and grabbed a few necklaces off his towel: payment in kind. He gave chase, there was a tussle, and eventually some sort of accommodation had been reached, because he returned to his towel and rolled it up and went away. None of the other sellers appeared to pay any attention whatsoever to these goings-on.

On days when there are demonstrations or informationals being run by various dissident groups including the teachers, the blanket-sellers are vending radical books, audio and video recordings, jewelry, pottery, posters, etc. One assumes that someone is collecting from them, but whether it’s the teachers, the Communists, the Anarchists or whomever is anyone’s guess.

The “top of the heap” are the booth sellers. These are the folks who put up those steel-frame jobbies from which to hawk their dvd’s and cd’s, plastic gew-gaws, baked goods, finger food, midway games, and other items. They come in two types: the temporary booths such as spring up every holiday season in the area surrounding the Zócalo; and the permanent installations along the main shopping streets such as Las Casas.

However murky the protectors of the temporary booths may be, the bosses of the permanent “ambulantes” (the word has really come to stand for any business that sets up shop in the street at the curb in front of licensed and taxed businesses) are well-known business persons. These “caciques” (bosses) are not only rich, they are politically influential; and it is this political influence that accounts for much of the commercial unrest of today, throughout the country: the Oaxaca situation is one that repeats itself in city after city.

[October 2 is the anniversary of the massacre that took place in 1968 when government forces opened fire on a crowd protesting against the diversion of funds meant for social services, to support the Olympic games.  This and the next two shots were taken at the Curtiduria gallery. The poster and torch are strictly two-dimensional, but the interposition of the hand by a casual passerby enhances the three-dimensional intent.]

Whether you sell in the Abastos market or along Las Casas street, you won’t last ten minutes without a gang to protect you. The competition for space is intense, and without protection from encroachment by members of another association (gang) no single individual can survive. Most of the gangs are affiliated with the ruling PRI party. They not only share their earnings with their political patrons, they also make their members available for duty attending political rallies, and on occasion to threaten – and sometimes to attack – anti-government activities.

Not long ago, we witnessed a group of “unidentified” hooligans menacing a peaceful demonstration, across from the Primavera, by some folks claiming to be APPO, many of whom were themselves no strangers to street violence judging by the way they formed up in a line facing the intruders. The person speaking had to stop his speech and exhort his companions to ignore the hecklers; to not be provoked. The outsiders appeared to be concentrating on harassing the blanket sellers that always attend these rallies, leading me to speculate that at least some of the hecklers were ambulantes. In this case, there was no violence, but the tension got pretty intense for a few minutes.

One of the results of the structure of gang-controlled politically patronized booth-sellers is the inability of the municipal authorities to keep the streets clear of “puestos” (booths), particularly around the Zócalo: the gangs are, after all, just collecting their payment for services (and payments) rendered. Even when, on rare occasions, the police come to clear out the unlicensed puestos, it isn’t clear whose booths they are, or whether they are a faction that has no political clout, or if they are a faction that, for whatever reason, has fallen out of favor.

The merchants (who pay often exorbitant rent, license fees, and taxes) complain bitterly about the booths that clog the streets in front of their establishments, with little or no results. A significant number of these embattled entrepreneurs have switched their loyalty from the PRI to the PAN and Convergence parties as a result. As money dries up and unemployment increases in this recession cycle, there will be more booths, and more merchants going out of business. It remains to be seen if there will also be a significant increase in foot-sellers and blanket-sellers around the Zócalo.

Notes:

*ASUR, the conglomerate that among other things runs the airports in Oaxaca state, has purchased approximately 330 acres of land on one of the bays in Huatulco, where they have agreed to build 1,300 hotel rooms over the next four years.

*For those of you who are interested in such things, I recommend a long but excellently written article on NAFTA by David Bacon, in the magazine of NACLA (actually, the whole magazine is an excellent source of information and analysis on “the other America”, just go towww.nacla.org). To read the article, just clickHERE.

*Local expat Sam Johnson recently published a partial directory of websites and videos that deal with small-scale solutions to scarcity in developing – and developed – countries. I’ve excerpted it for those of you who may be interested. You can access it HERE.

* Just in case you were planning to invest in a factory or other large ticket item, you should know that Coparmex (the Mexican equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce) just awarded Oaxaca state it’s lowest rating for investment climate.

*Last month, Azael Santiago Chepi was named as head of Section XXII of the teachers’ union. Reviews so far are mixed. Folks are waiting to see how he performs as head of the largest (by far) single union in Oaxaca state.

*Friends and family of Thorny Robison will be commemorating his life and calming his spirit at a graveside celebration from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 1, the day for departed children and those who died in accidents. Thorny resides in the Panteón General, on the east end, about half way back.

Off on another adventure:

We’ll be leaving town for a couple of weeks in November, headed for another stay with Diana’s daughter and son-in-law on their boat, the motor sailer Pearl. You may recall that we had a great time with them last year in the lagoon of Isla Mujeres.

This time we will join them at their mooring on the Rio Dulce, in eastern Guatemala. The Rio Dulce is one of my favorite tropical getaways. It goes inland from Livingston, a Garafuna community founded by escaped slaves, located on the Caribbean between Belize and Honduras. There are no roads to Livingston, just boats and small planes.

At the western end of the Rio is Lake Isabel, one of Guatemala’s largest. Just before you reach it, you go under a very modern, very long bridge, on the road from Guatemala City to Flores and the ruins at Tikal. Pearl is moored nearby.

We will get there by flying to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where we will stay overnight before catching the very early morning bus to the Rio. Weirdly enough, it is cheaper to fly to SPS than to Guatemala City; and the bus ride is a couple of hours shorter…

Expect the next Newsletter to be a travel edition, with lots of Diana’s fine pictures.