Mushroom hunting in the Juarez mountains:

For years, we’d been hearing about the annual “Ferria de Hongos” (Mushroom Fair) held each year in the village of San Antonio Cuajimoloyas, located in the Sierra Juarez mountains above the Sunday market town of Tlacolula. We had met some of the folks from the “Pueblos Mancomunidades” – the umbrella organization that spearheads various eco-tourism projects in that area – at various functions including the annual Rural Tourism Fair; but between Diana’s bum knee (which limits her climbing ability) and my general aversion to “the great outdoors” ( I confess, I really do prefer concrete ), we just hadn’t gotten there.

This year, in late August, at the height of the growing season up there, when we finally determined to go, we phoned our pal Anita and asked her if she’d like to join us. She not only agreed, she insisted on driving, thus saving us a long, early bus ride and a lot of walking.

That’s Anita, on the left, with a friend holding our mushroom basket.

With a couple of visiting Minnesota friends, she met us at an intersection near her home and we climbed on board.

After a two-hour drive up some spectacular mountain roads, we found ourselves at the plaza in front of the municipal palace along with perhaps sixty others, lining up to purchase tickets, and selecting the length and severity of the climb we wished to make. Turned out that we five were the only ones who chose the easiest, shortest route, so unlike the others (who had to walk up the hill to begin their hunt) we piled back in our vehicle with our guide and drove to the final destination: a very rustic “comedor” (dining area) on a level spot near some ponds where the village grows trout to sell to the folks who dine in the slightly less rustic restaurants back “downtown”.

Once parked, we started trekking down a very smooth, pretty level road with barbed wire fencing on either side. In spite of the narrowness of our “field”, quite a variety of mushrooms were picked. The object is to pick only one of each variety encountered. Still, our basket (the guide carries one basket, and everyone’s pick goes in there) was positively anemic compared to some of the baskets we saw. The record, for one person in one day, is 156 varieties; and our guide said that the fellow missed a lot.

A mural on a wall back home in Oaxaca.

At the end of the “hunt”, all the mushrooms get turned in to the village, and everyone sits down to comida, which of course includes a mushroom soup – prepared earlier in the day from selected safe varieties. Although rain threatened, the day was dry, and the temperature was down in the sixties.

I left our group early to return to the camp site (remember, I told you I’m not much for the great outdoors) where there was a pickup soccer game going on, amid the construction of more covered dining area. The players didn’t believe in wasting a slot on a goalie, so things got a little wild. The goal on one end was half the width of the goal on the other.

Most of the mushroom hunters came for the day, but there are cabins available for those who wish to stay for both days (we attended the first day, but on the second day there are workshops, etc.). If you decide to stay overnight, be sure to bring lots of warm clothes and maybe some blankets. It gets real cold up there, especially at night.

The Mancomunidades have other projects going, including sustainable lumbering, furniture making, and purified water from their deep wells (Agua Pura by name, if you happen to live in Oaxaca). For those of you who want to find out more about what’s happening in Cuajimoloyas, go to Ron Mader’s excellent web site,Planeta.

A couple of days in Mexico City:

Last week, we decided to treat ourselves to a change of scene. On Thursday, we hopped a bus to the center of the Mexican universe, six hours up the road. The “deluxe” ADO-GL, equipped with two rest rooms and a coffee bar, cost us about 220 pesos each with our “old geezer” discount card (half price), and was about a quarter full, it being a week day.

This time of year, we get a lot of rain. However, luck was with us and the road remained dry and free of rockslides, so we made good time. In spite of forecasts of serious storm action, it remained so up until early evening on Saturday, when a half-hour gulley-washer hit the DF. As it happened, we were in a taxi when it hit, so once again our luck held.

We stayed at the George Washington Hotel, the same one we used on our last trip, in March. It’s a very basic hostelry, with small rooms and slightly cramped bathrooms, but it’s clean, and the price (280 pesos double) is right; and the location, a block from the Zócalo, two blocks from the Allende Metro stop, is ideal for our purposes.

Friday didn’t start out very well. We tried to get in to see the murals in the National Palace, but it was blockaded by police and army elements in anticipation of the Independence Day “grito” (shout of Viva México) by president Calderón on the following Monday evening. By grito time, we are told, there were even more law enforcement types surrounding the Zócalo than were at the Republican convention.

Indefatigable tourists that we are, we headed for stop two of the day, “Mirades 1968”, a “Memorial to 68”, mounted in the UNAM (Autonomous National University of Mexico) Student Cultural Center, located in the Tlatelolco neighborhood, a huge complex of medium rise dormitories and apartments, in the center of which thousands of students and faculty were fired upon by the Army on October 2, 1968, while protesting the diversion of badly needed money from social projects to glitzy Olympic sites. Perhaps as many as 300 people died either in the square, later in hospital, or “disappeared” by security forces.

The show completely covers two floors of the building. Mounted in chronological order, starting in the late ‘50s, using every sort of media there is, this magnum opus could easily occupy a whole day, particularly for folks who are of college age: us older folk were already aware of the cultural changes that were taking place in the last half of the 20 th century, and so could cruise through the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Posters, newspaper articles, photographs, art and music from the times are used to great advantage, as is – particularly for Spanish speakers – the testimony, much of it recorded for the show, of those who were involved in the goings-on at the time. Two years in the making, we think this show is one of the most important must-do places to visit in MexCity these days.

In a “room” meant to look very like a prison facility, constructed in the show sequence just after the section on the massacre, four backlit walls of photos of people under detention provided an extraordinary moment. 

Friday night, we attended a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra, in the Teatro Juarez, just behind the Belles Artes. This is classical music at a totally different level from the Oaxaca Symphony. Sixty or so pieces were crammed on to the stage of an auditorium of about 500 seats, with excellent acoustics. Twelve cellos, an equal proportion of basses, violins and violas, and modest but sufficient brass and reed section are complimented by up to seven percussionists from tympani to carillon.

Friday’s performance consisted of two longish pieces, one by Prokofiev and one by Rimsky-Korsakov. The (guest) conductor was Bulgarian. It was a sweet evening, and it only cost 100 pesos.

Saturday was spent at the Zoo. Part of the vast Parque Chapultepéc, the Jardín Zoologico is itself quite large. While the setting and the layout are not as spectacular as, say, the zoo in San Diego, they are not disappointing; and the animals – and the insects, and the arboretum, and the invertebrate building, etc – all appear to be well cared for.

For us, there were two highlights: the butterflies and the pandas. The zoo has two giant pandas from China, who have produced offspring that we were told are still in the “nursery” and could not be seen. The parents are a lot bigger than I thought they would be, about the size of a black bear.

Do you have a street corner in your town where out-of work people wait to be picked up and taken to a job?  MexCity has many.  This one is just off the Zócalo, next to the National Cathedral.

The butterfly house is a meeting place between people and lepidoptera. The visitor is brought through two sets of doors, acting as a sort of airlock which is kept under slightly different pressure to keep the butterflies from escaping. Once inside, there are several species of the little beauties flying about, mating, eating and resting – sometimes on one’s shoulder.

Entrance to the zoo is free, although some attractions – such as the butterfly house, and the poisonous snake display – do charge a modest entry fee.

Nowhere are visitors allowed to feed the denizens, although there are several McDonalds restaurants, and a few food courts with smaller franchisees, where one can feed oneself.

For comida on Saturday, we were guided by friends Aran and Margot to the Mercado Medellín. It goes by a different name now, but everyone calls it the Medellín; kind of like everyone here calls the Parque Paseo Juarez “El Llano”. This is an upscale-looking place, with neat stacks of produce. The floors are clean. The aisles are wide. The variety of goods is astonishing, for one used to Oaxaca’s mercaditos (small covered markets). One stand I perused had seven different kinds of mushroom available. While there is a small flower section, the market is a place to go for food, raw and prepared.

Aran and Margot took us to their favorite seafood restaurant, the Ostionera Marina, with tables placed at the corner of an intersection of aisles. The menu is extensive, the service fast, and the food good and simply prepared.

I had an excellent oyster stew in white sauce, and we paid 240 pesos for the four of us. A jara (jug) of fruit juice from the juice stand next door added 60 pesos to the cost.

One of our many topics of discussion after we returned to their apartment was “security”. We hear about people being robbed or kidnapped in Oaxaca, but we personally have known very few victims:less than ten in fifteen years of living here. Lots of people we know, know people who claim to have been robbed in Oaxaca, but it’s always been kind of a remote concept to us. So we asked our friends Aran and Margot if they personally knew any robbery victims. Oh, yes, they said, they have met perhaps twice that many, in the last two years, one of which occurred on the sidewalk in front of their building. Some of these were gringos, but most were Chilangos (residents of MexCity).

I asked them if this didn’t disturb them, and the answer was that of course it does, but what is one to do? Life must go on. After we left the apartment, walking toward the Metro station, it started to rain. We were half a block from their building, and there was a cab cruising the street in front of us. We know that it is safer if you call for a cab from the cab stand. Faced with the probability we’d get soaked if we tried to get back, we flagged it down. You just can’t let yourself be paralyzed. We arrived at our hotel safely.

By the way, the Metro seems to be a lot less of a den of thievery than it used to be, probably due to better policing; and the new cars are Spartan but … well … newer. However, the hawkers were constant and loud; and it seemed that there was at least one in every car at all times.

Sunday we went home. We decided to take a “first class” ADO back, and were most pleasantly surprised. Our new Mercedes bus had only one bathroom and no coffee bar, but it had just as much leg room as the GL, was perhaps a smoother ride, and cost about 40 pesos less – and, it leaves virtually every hour, all day, as opposed to the three or four GL departures. Another advantage was that the “regular” bus took a fifteen minute bathroom, stretch, and snack break about half way down, near Tehuacán. No more GL for me!

We hit some mild rain on the run, but it appeared that there must have been some pretty strong storms just a little earlier, judging by the rock slides on the highway going through the passes in Oaxaca state.

In the andador (walking place) next to the Cathedral, you can get a “limpio” (cleaning), buy some herb cures, or get your fortune told.


*Another prediction has come true: the state University (UABJO) appears to be in a state of collapse, the victim of “porros” (non-students) in the employ of various factions in the administration, the unions and the government, who are fighting over who gets to control (and, one assumes, spend) the funds. Shots fired, beatings administered, buildings vandalized, buses captured and burned, etc. When the people recognize the names of gang leaders quicker than they do the rector or the deans, things have gone quite far indeed.

*Construction on the new highway between Oaxaca and Huatulco has been shut down. About one-third finished, the completion date has been put back about four years. The reason, according to official sources, is that the money has disappeared. So far, nobody has been accused of the theft.

*The market at Pochote is ten years old, this month. Smaller, less diverse, and still riven with turmoil, it has nonetheless survived, and for that it should be acknowledged.

*The “grito” (shout) of Viva Mexico, given out by governor Ruiz, went off without a hitch on the 15th . Folks complained about the volume of the speakers, cranked way up to drown out any counter-demonstration, perhaps. Observers say that there were noticeably more police, in uniform and out, than there had been at previous pageants. The fireworks afterwards went on for a good 15 minutes: an obscenely expensive display considering the lack of money for infrastructure such as water and sewage pipes, roads and education.

The National Cathedral, from in front of the barricades that protect the government palace from the people of Mexico.

*Some months ago, we reported on the struggle of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza to enfranchize women in the community assemblies that run the vast majority of Oaxaca’s municipalites. At the time, I predicted, somewhat offhandedly, that she would not have much success, a prediction that I now withdraw. In fact, since she began her crusade, some 100 of Oaxaca’s 500-plus indigenous municipalities have granted the vote to women.

*Scott Campbell has an excellent article in Counterpunch about the state of the APPO. To read it, click HERE.

*The Rufino Tamayo Museum of Prehispanic Antiquities has fallen on hard times. The director says reductions in money from the state government and lack of tourism, resulting in fewer visitors, have already required cutting back on all non-essential activities such as courtyard concerts, classes and colloquia. The façade is crumbling, she said, and there is not enough money to both stay open, and do the necessary repairs.

*Sadly, we report the death last month of artist, cook, and social activist Imma Cervantes, from stomach cancer, after a prolonged illness. In better days, Imma was a “regular” at “the other Pochote market”, in the archdiocese building, where she sold objects made from recycled paper and cardboard.  The cabinet in the masthead photo is one of hers.  It occupies a place of pride in our house.