Colour and Light, Part One: Smashing Watermelons

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Tim shovelling us out

Anyone who lives in our part of Canada will tell you it’s been a hard winter. Long cold spells, mounds of snow. Not without its beauty, of course. We’ve had lots of opportunities to snow shoe and explore our woods.

But I’ve escaped for a couple of weeks to an easier world, a world of colour and light. I’m visiting my mother in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has one of the most benign climates imaginable. Mornings of warm sunshine, just right for coffee on the patio. Hot at midday, but a heat that is easily escaped by moving to the shade. Cool in the evenings, perfect for long, air soaked sleeps. Every day predictably the same.

The transition from Canada to Mexico is a jolt. My first days have been overwhelming, the sensory overload almost unbearable. Sounds, smells, colours everywhere. Soft breezes, warm sun. The beauty and struggle with language. The laughter and frustration, as I try to dust off old vocabulary.

It is a gorgeous immersion. I started my first the day with a breakfast of quesadillas, made with soft corn flour tortillas, filled with black beans, Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms, grilled over a wood fire.

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Breakfast with my mother on the patio of Las Mariposas

Sated, we headed to the market just up the street at Llano Park. The stalls sell everything imaginable: clothing and shoes of all varieties; hardware and kitchen utensils; toys and electronic games; fruits and vegetables; cheeses and meats; jewelry and makeup.

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Market vegetables. Note the size of the green onions!

There are grills throughout the market where endless amounts and varieties of tacos are being prepared. We walked long enough to work up a bit of an appetite, and rewarded ourselves with a plate of arranchera tacos – soft, tiny tortillas filled with shredded, grilled and chopped meat, onions, peppers, cheese. We topped them with fresh salsa and the most amazing blend of raw onions and hot peppers. Each plate has 3 tacos on it and costs 10 pesos, about 80 cents. We shared a huge glass of hibiscus water and were both stuffed.

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Food stand at the Llano Park market

My mother invited me to join in her one-on-one Spanish class, where her teacher hugged me and thanked me for sharing my mother with her. My mother has that effect on people. The class consisted of a lot of hugging and laughing, my mother working on subtleties of the subjunctive that I don’t understand in English, let alone Spanish. I signed on for some private sessions next week, if only just to exercise my brain, wondering, as always, why I didn’t do this sooner in my life.

A poster caught my eye. There was to be a performance on the atrium of Templo Santa Domingo. Viva la Vida, it was called. It seemed to have something to do with dancing and watermelons. Of course I was intrigued. So at 5:00, as the sun was just hitting the front of the church, we assembled to await whatever adventure would befall.

A program told me that I would see pre-Hispanic rituals, religious symbols and images from the fiesta de Quinceañera, a celebration for girls when they turn 15 years old. I also was reminded that the title comes from a work by Frida Kahlo. Sounds interesting, I thought. I was open to whatever was to come.

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Santa Domingo

Hundreds of spectators milled around, with cameras at the ready. Eventually a space cleared. A drummer and keyboard player played something that was vaguely liturgical  and a woman lay prostrate in front of the church. Suddenly about 25 children ran into the space carrying watermelons and they began to run in formation with the woman. Then they set the watermelons down and it was time for a costume change. The crowd waited, the sun moved down the church façade and the drummer did a 15 minute drum solo.

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And the drummer kept on drumming…

When the woman finally reappeared, she was wearing a wedding gown and wielding a very sharp machete.

She was inches from me, looking quite menacing, the knife clanging and creating sparks as she whacked the flagstones in front of me. This is not something we could do on a Canadian stage, I thought. Health and Safety standards would have protected me.

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Viva la Vida with the menacing machete

The musicians played something that sounded vaguely like Pink Floyd. The woman picked up a watermelon and held it high before splitting it open with the machete. She gouged out the red flesh and began to wolf it down carnivorously, the seeds splattering her dress. Holding a fresh chunk, she then circulated through the crowd offering portions as a kind of perverse communion.

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Viva la Vida. The communion watermelon

On it went. Watermelon pieces passed to the children, to the audience. Music and vague menace. Then the woman raised a watermelon high in the air and smashed it on the flagstones. This is what I had been waiting for! Smashing watermelons. At least 30 of them! Mexicans never waste food, so the throng dashed forward to rescue what they could. Photographers swarmed like paparazzi. I have no idea if they were part of the performance, or just part of the audience longing for a spectacle they could record.

Spent from her watermelon frenzy, the woman again lay prostrate in front of the church in her soiled wedding gown. Then she sat up and was joined by a young girl. The woman took off her golden shoes and put them on the girl. Then they both stood up and screamed. They screamed at each other, they screamed at the church, they screamed at the crowd.

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Viva la Vida screaming

Surely this is the end, I thought. The sun had left the Churchyard and we began to feel the pull of the downhill walk to the Zocalo, to a glass of chilled wine and the happy contemplation of the universe. We turned from Viva la Vida, from costume changes and drum solos and plunged ourselves back into the world of un-programmed surprises, of street musicians and performers, of families joyfully reuniting after work and school, of shy young lovers snatching a few moments together, of tourists buying brightly coloured hats and rebosas that will look out of place in Minnesota, of ancient indigenous beggars with outstretched hands hoping for a centavo.

Sometimes art cannot hope to compete with life.

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Running away from winter: Oaxacan Diary part 1

My grandmother started going to Mexico in 1970. She continued to journey south every winter until she was 89, when it became too hard to travel. In 2003, my mother and I scattered her ashes in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico.

My mother has been travelling to Mexico since 1975. Like my grandmother, she loves the land and the people and, of course, the fact that there is no snow or ice. In 2001, Oaxaca became her winter home.

Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca
Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca

Now, I’ve come to visit and escape the deadening greyness of winter in Eastern Ontario. I’ve left Tim at home, writing, and for a few precious weeks I’ll immerse myself in colour, feel warmth on my skin, shed layers of clothes.

Oaxaca City is in the capital of the state of Oaxaca, a central area of Mexico. The word Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word Huaxyácal meaning the “summit of the acacias”  and the city sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. The colonial city centre was declared part of the Cultural History for Mankind by UNESCO in 1987.

This isn’t the place to go into colonial history, but the confluence of cultures forms the city. Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs lived in the Oaxaca Valley for at least a 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived. With the conquest, the Spanish built on top of the original Aztec fortress. They designed the city around a central square, the Zócolo, and oriented it to the cardinal points. The cathedral, built over the Aztec spiritual centre, is along one side of the square and facing it on the other side they built the municipal buildings. Thus the square was designed to radiate a balance of civic and spiritual power throughout the city.

The cathedral on the Zocolo
The cathedral on the Zocolo

Today, Oaxaca is a busy and friendly city of 250,000 that does, in fact, seem very balanced between both worlds. On one side of the Zócolo is a permanent tent city of protesters. On the other, there are constant processions in and out of the cathedral.

The weather in Oaxaca is blissfully temperate. Mornings are cool, and I must wrap up in a shawl as I sit on the patio for morning coffee. My first morning in Las Mariposas, the family run hotel where we are staying, I am treated to fresh tortillas stuffed with black bean sauce, salsa, zucchini blossoms and cheese, cooked on an open grill on the patio.

My kind of breakfast.

My mother and I spend the morning walking the city streets, looking in shops, smiling at people. There is, everywhere, a mixture of wealth and extreme poverty. My mother carries coins to distribute as we walk, making a special effort to give money to musicians and elderly women. Yet even with the poverty, there is a feeling of ease on the street, an assurance of safety.

My mother constantly reminds me to slow down. Not because I am walking too fast for her, but because I am walking too fast for life.

We sit in the Zocolo listening to speeches about workers rights and watching the women and children make their rounds selling shawls, beaded jewelry, gum, wooden toys and bookmarks. Young children are employed in the family business of selling on the streets. Why aren’t they in school, I ask. “School costs money. Uniforms cost money,” explains my mother. “Many children cannot go. And many of those that do, only go half days.” I know this should depress me, but all around me are smiling, encouraging faces.

Food, and food preparation, is everywhere. Comida is the main meal of the day, served from about 2:00 – 4:00.  There’s a small restaurant beside our hotel where the owner serves a simple comida, with daily specials.

Comeda down the street
Comida down the street

Today’s menu includes Chayote soup, a kind of Mexican squash. When we ask, the owner/cook brings one from the kitchen to show us. It is light green and shaped like a fat pear. The soup is soft, light and topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Second course is a “dry soup”, a rice pilaf accompanied by hot salsa and a kind of guacamole sauce. We pause as we sip our pineapple water. Lighter than juice, it is a way of getting all of your electrolytes and hydration at one go.

Chillis Rellanos are stuffed poblano chillis that are battered and fried. Today, ours are stuffed with ground meat, carrots, potatoes – almost like a dry stew in a fat pepper. The pepper sits on a bed of mole, with some fresh salsa and salad on the side.

A flan, decorated with swirls of chocolate and caramel completes our comeda.

Comida costs us each 4.50 pesos – less than $4.00 Canadian. There are up-scale restaurants in Oaxaca and we could have gone somewhere fancy and paid twice as much, but this suited us perfectly.

Our simple Comeda restaurant
Our simple Comida restaurant

This is another reason why my mother lives in Mexico. The global financial crisis hit Mexico hard. It is incredibly cheap to live here. With every peso you spend, you feel you are doing a service for the country.

As the heat of the day begins to overwhelm us, we spend the afternoon dozing, reading and recovering from comida. It hasn’t taken long to forget winter.

Ready for a post-Comeda rest at Las Mariposas
Ready for a post-Comida rest at Las Mariposas