DROP IN OIL PRICES SPELLS HARD TIMES FOR MEXICO:

On March 10, the per-barrel price of Mexican crude fell below $10.00 usd for the first time in recent history. OPEC’s inability to restrain Saudi output has resulted in a glut on the market. Mexico, not a part of OPEC, is being devastated by the low price of crude.

Mexico has pledged its output of crude as collateral against the massive external debt payment schedule it has with the World Bank, the IMF, the World Development Fund, the US Treasury and various US banks. With the price of oil plummeting, it may not be able to both meet these payments and continue to maintain even the reduced level of domestic infrastructure support to which it is presently committed.

The Zedillo government claimed, on the 10th when the news broke, that the present “recovery” will continue without interuption. On the twelfth, the secretaries of treasury and interior held a news conference to reassure everyone that all is under control. Others have expressed grave doubts.

In an article in the March 8th Mexico City News, respected oil business analyst David Shields warned that lowered prices would spell disaster for Mexico, since all recovery predictions — and all social programs — depend upon a steadily increasing price for a barrel of crude; and, more significantly, an increasing output.

Shields talked about a little-discussed scenario that is developing under the Gulf of Mexico: the largest field of “sweet” crude that Pemex has, is drying up. It is still there, but because of rapid depletion it is getting harder to get to. Pemex’ solution is to inject nitrogen into the hole, in an attempt to push the oil closer to the surface. It is an expensive solution: a nitrogen production plant will have to be built at a cost of one billion dollars, and perhaps billions more in pollution and aquifer destruction on the Tabasco coast, where they plan to build it. Even more alarming is the very real possibility that it may be a flawed procedure: there is a good chance that rather than pushing the crude toward the wells, it will push it away. Also, even if successful, the injections may stir up other elements, creating a product that will require a lot more refining — at a higher price. Developing the new pockets of crude that have recently been discovered under the Gulf would be a far better alternative, but Pemex is too broke to undertake it.

Finally, there is the universal logic of IMF/WB/WDB loans: that they are really a device for forcing third world countries to sell raw materials, which they then have to buy back as value added commodities at a higher price. In the case of Mexico, they must sell crude to pay their debts, forcing them to buy back 25% of what they just exported, as gasoline. A nation that produces the ingredient for gasoline, Mexico cannot keep enough to satisfy its own needs.

STILL ON THE ROAD: MORE TRAVEL ADVENTURES:

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, just three hours up the road from Morelia, is as different as it can be and still be Mexico. Since we only spent 27 hours there, I can hardly qualify as any kind of expert on the place, but as my loyal readers will know, ignorance is yet to stop me from commenting — although refugees from SMA who have attended my Orientation class bring much the same impressions with them as I got while I was there.

First and foremost, is cost. While hotel/motel prices are not that much different from other areas we have visited, apartment rentals seemed to be out of sight. For instance, when I told one couple that they could rent a nice 2 br bungalow for well under $500 usd per month in Oaxaca, they told me that $2,000 is not unusual in SMA. Also, prices in international cuisine restaurants were much higher that we had been seeing, although “peasant food” restaurants seemed reasonable.

We stayed just out of town at the Siesta motel. For the first time, in all our trips through Mexico, there were vehicles with US plates parked on both sides of our van. Behind our room, there was a trailer park, filled with big motor homes and shiny house trailers, all with US and Canadian plates. The rooms were dark and basic. No phone. Breakfast included. Cost about 250p. I think one could do better closer to town, particularly if one had no auto.

For an inexpensive, greasy tummy stuffer, try the Comal, a fried bread palace featuring Gorditas, a masa cake that can be sliced open and stuffed like a pita. I enjoyed the mushroom sauce and the guac. Gorditas come either plain, or with ground meat or cheese cooked in the middle. Comal is just across the street from the Library.

The Library, the heart of the expat community, is big. Our Oaxaca library can be fit into two of its rooms, and there are many rooms. There is a coffee shop/restaurant, a perrenial rummage sale, and a computer classroom. The Library’s weekly newspaper in English is the largest circulation periodical in town.

San Miguel’s cornucopia of galleries, gift shops, and artesanias is truly amazing. In general, we thought the quality quite good, and prices not unreasonable; however, we found this to be true in almost every town we visited after we left SMA: mostly in the “bajio”.

The Zocalo in SMA is one of the nicer ones we saw, for visiting or just sitting in the sun. While it doesn’t have the magnificent trees of Oaxaca, or the fancy inlaid benches of Papantla or the size of Morelia, it is nonetheless a very pleasant place to be.

The coffee bar at the Belles Artes has tables in the courtyard, which contains a series of modern, impressionist fountains. Very good coffee, reasonably priced. The bulletin board was well used and lots of activities were listed.

This is one of the main questions I get from SMA refugees: where are the macrame classes, taught by expats in English; the writers workshops; etc? Things are so much more organized in SMA…

DOLORES HIDALGO:

Most of the “Talavera” that you see for sale in Puebla’s lower priced market stalls comes from Dolores. Driving through town is like a trip to pottery heaven. Soap dishes that cost 30p in Puebla sell for 12p in DH. We bought some stuff on the road in from SMA, at Talavera Ruth, a sprawling complex of seven shops strung out along the highway. Some pieces we bought off a truck traveling through Oaxaca last year, also came from this taller.

If you never buy a pot, DH is worth going to just for the ice cream. Sellers surround the Zocalo, offering everything from Avacado to Shrimp Cocktail flavors. Liquor lovers can choose from Rum and Coke, Tequila, Pulque and; fruit connoiseurs can pick mamey, zapote, REAL strawberry and guava.

Our vendor, at the corner of the square nearest the municipal market, featured a vanilla with large morsels of pine nuts and walnuts: the best I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. All cones are hecho en casa, from tortilla flour, sugar and cinamon. At 12 pesos, the most expensive single cone in Mexico, but, like his sign says, the best in the world.

DH is one of the places that we intend to revisit.

DOING WELL BY DOING GOOD: LILA DOWNS SINGS FOR THE CASA DE LA MUJER:

The Woman’s House in Oaxaca has been in business for more than a decade, educating the community and it’s female clients in issues affecting women and — by collateral necessity — children. I first discovered this important and dynamic facility shortly after I arrived four years ago. Three years ago, Guadalupe Musalen, since deceased (see my column on Mexconnect.com, “Festival of Guadalupe”), appealed to the foreign community for help in raising some money, and we put on a successful concert in the Porfiriata era opera house.

This year, most of the previous organizers were back for the season, and they did an incredible job, this time with the locally (and soon, nationally) acclaimed singer, Lila Downs. To a packed house that contributed over $3,000 usd to the Casa, Lila poured it on. Having heard her — and loved what I heard — in various night clubs and a couple of theater venues in the past, I was still unprepared for the level of performance I heard that night. Backed by a five-piece band, some from Mexico City where they now play in the suburb of Coyoacan, and some from here, she and mate Paul Cohen on keyboards and sax, were stunning. The sound system and the acoustics of the concert hall are the elements for her immense voice and range.

Incidentally, she has a cd out, “Sandunga”. If you are interested, let me know.

DRAGON DANCE THEATER DOES IT AGAIN:

Last year, the Dragon Dance Theater of Vermont, a “mask and puppet” theater given to big masks and people on stilts, presented a gruelling two and a half hour performance at Monte Alban. Standing on top of the hill with a strong wind blowing in the midst of a cold snap wasn’t easy, but proved to be worth it.

This year they returned, to find that the Antiquities Ministry, INAH, had refused permission to perform at Monte Alban on the grounds that using the pyramids for performances has a negative ecological impact. After scrambling around for an alternative site, they settled on Huitzo, a village about 40 minutes away, with a well-developed ruin of its own. However, the performance was sited in the town itself, for two nights, after which it migrated to Ciudad de las Canteras for one night. Ciudad de las Canteras is a marvelous park constructed within an old rock quarry in Oaxaca. We decided to attend the second night in Huitzo: last night.

For openers, the bus didn’t come. Just never showed. It was to have been arranged by Dragon’s Mexican counterparts. Fortunately, Daniel Sanchez, one of the drummers, a fine student and player of pre-hispanic music, is also a licensed tour guide (he charges NP120 per hour for up to 8 persons in his VW bus; if you are interested I have his phone no.). With one phone call, he had a comfortable tourist bus at the pickup point in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, we were already an hour late. The ride was a bargain: 20 pesos round trip for a forty-minute ride.

As luck would have it, the show had started on time, so when we got there we had missed the first third, including the narrative that explained what we would see. For the next hour and a half, we followed the pageant all over the charming — but dusty — village of Huitzo. Scenes were set around a miniature of the Tule tree, a mere seven or so feet across; alongside a sixteenth century church; in the soccer field; in a patch of woods; in the town plaza.

Mounted by seventeen musicians, dancers and set designers and constructors from the States, and put together and performed by at least twice as many local folks and a few non-US foreigners, the performance was an enjoyable one, enhanced by the setting and the full moon. Next stop for Dragon Dance: Canada.