04 December, 2012

...and life keeps on rolling

Just because you write a post doesn't mean life stops, no? Time keeps passing and events take place, moments happen, and so what was maybe true one day has transformed the next. Or even a few weeks later.

Since I last posted, broadcasting from the land of doldrums and dark thoughts, many things have happened. In fact, I even changed locations twice. My last missive was sent while I sat on my mom's couch in Chicago, enjoying an extended summer-esque break in the city where I grew up and that I missed so much. In the middle of my Stateside sojourn I hopped down to Texas and stayed near the Houston-area for a few weeks, spending time with Chuck and his mother, and of course the rapscallion poodle Rio--who is as adorable as he is a knucklehead. When that stay wrapped up, I migrated back to Oaxaca.

Now I am here. It's nice to be back, although I wish everything was a lot less stressful and that I could actually enjoy being in the sunshine and flowers surrounded by mountains. The little joys and pleasures are still there...our first meal back we went to our favorite comida corrida and we ate as if we had been starving for months, the flavors cause neuron explosions in my brain, it was so fantastic...but the stress makes it hard to really feel the mountain breeze and take pleasure in the colors, sights, and sounds of Oaxaca.  

Despite the stress, everything is much better than the last time I posted. Because its a good kind (sort of) of stress, the stress of finally doing business--we have a 2 pallet order that just came in, our first order for the United States, and its going to Chicago!!! We've been running around putting out little fires here and there while also trying to light a fire under the collective asses of our people down here, trying to get them motivated and understand that this first order is just one of many, and it is VERY important. We've been delayed three weeks longer than we wanted (ARG!) but we're almost at the finish line (THANK GOD!). Then we can relax until the next order, and I can stress myself out about other things!

Other things such as my upcoming (possible) dissertation project. Yep. Something is finally happening, and I feel pretty good about it (though I knew that eventually something would happen, I still battled a pricking sense of hopelessness for the past few months, ya hear). I'll have to tell you about it in the next post.

And I promise, there will be a next one! I know I drop and pick-up this blog often, but I want everyone to know that its always niggling in the back of my mind, reminding me that I need to post and get my thoughts out there into the wild internets. So I'm going back to my promise of 2 a week (which does not preclude more than that, who knows I may have a lot more to say here and there)--this time, you can count on it.

Just like I can count on a sunny day in beautiful Oaxaca. Til next time!

10 September, 2012

Endings without beginnings

When life decides to deal a blow, sometimes it delivers one that is so devastating that you stop functioning for a bit. You avoid things, people, work, whatever. And even though you know you can pick back up the pieces, that you can move on...your numbness keeps you from doing so. But sometimes you need the time to accept what has happened, to lick your wounds and recover before you can emerge out of your self-imposed exile of the mind. Thus why I abandoned this blog for a bit, despite my promises of writing once a week. Despite the small kinds of joy I found in writing it.

You see, in the beginning of July I had written to a former project leader of mine, asking for the final informe (report) from the project I worked on in 2011. I needed the data contained in that report to finish writing my proposal for INAH to get the permissions to carry out my own planned dissertation project. This project was to start sometime in September--in fact, this very week. A week later, I received the blow that life was to deal me.

The former project leader emailed me to tell me that he thought my project was unworkable, and that he was not willing to commit his time nor the project's time and resources to something he did not support. I remember reading the email and going numb, standing up, leaving my chair (I was out at a coffee shop in Oaxaca, getting ready for a day of work) and taking a deep breath. Trying not to lose my shit....well no, not close to that. I wasn't about to do that. But I did feel like the rug had been pulled out from under me--that I was facing a gaping crevice and I wasn't sure how I was going to get across now, and the only feeling is a sinking in my stomach as I faced the abyss.

What was there next to do? There was contacting my adviser, there was choking back the tears, there was playing my favorite computer strategy game, there was doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. For a week or a day. For a month. Oh there were things I still managed to get done, academic and business related. I am never a total slack-off even at my lowest moments. But there were many hours of being selfish, of mindless entertainment. Of numbing and being numb as I wrestled with the next thing to do. The next step. I know I'm being overly dramatic. But the thing was is that I was so close. Grants had been applied for, equipment purchased. So much time spent and so much thought invested, this project had become me. And I was so excited about it. And then I had to put it away. At my lowest I wanted to put it all away, just drop this futile pursuit for a PhD and settle with the letters already at the end of my name.

Two months later I'm picking up the pieces again. I am moving forward. There is nothing really to do except that. Hopefully things are going to look up again, and I'll find a PhD project soon. Until that time I am going to keep plugging away at the little things that are within my control, the things I can do. And I'll keep writing, writing articles and chapters, writing emails, and writing on this blog. Maybe the writing will help me to find the next path or fork in this life I call mine. One can always hope.


26 June, 2012

Rain and sadness

Yesterday Chuck and I returned from Santiago Matatlan, the Capital Mundial de Mezcal (the world capital of mezcal) where his mezcal is made, and it was pouring. I was driving Allan and Teri's beat-up old Ford van down the carterra (highway) praying that the tires wouldn't fail and that the windshield wipers would continue to work. You see, they have this tendency to stop working when you turn on the left-turn signal, which in Mexico you actually do a lot as people signal with their left blinker to say "Hey you can pass me" or "Hey I want to pass you". So you could imagine my white-knuckle terror as I'm driving (only going 80-100 kph or 50-55 mph) in a car that is one good tope (speedbump) away from completely falling apart, and every time I need to pass or allow someone to pass my windshield wipers stop and I have to squint through the rain at the gray ribbon in front of me. Thankfully I am a very confident driver and also grew up in a city famous for its inclement weather. Yeah Chicago!

Anyway we made it home just fine. But it was at home that I had my bit of sadness for the day. We were hanging out with Teri and Allan on their porch when, as I was getting up to get something from our casita, I heard the sound of a kitten crying. Now, I don't know what it is, but I have for whatever reason super-sonic hearing for crying kittens. My ears will always pick up their cries (and given the common analogy between baby cries and kitty cries I feel good about my future parenting skills)--you can ask Chuck, I am constantly rescuing kittens (I don't keep them though....Gizmo wouldn't allow it, she is an only-cat).

So I go look for this kitten. I can tell by her cries that she is outside our compound door. I go out there and I am looking but I can't find her, it's not easy to tell where she is based on her cries. So I look up, scan the top of the wall, I look around and when my eyes fall on the a pink box in the corner of our entrance I see a little back paw push through the plastic on the box front (it was previously a box for a girl's toy). Realizing the kitten was in this box I quickly scooped it up and brought it to the porch, alerting everyone to what was inside. I reached in to this soggy box and pull out the tiniest kitten--she couldn't have been more than 1 month old. One eye was blue, clearly from some kind of trauma, and the other was closed shut. She was wet, stinky and scared, and clung to the front of my sweater.

I held her close to keep her warm, and she began to purr. It was as if she was just so desperate for warmth and comfort that she wasn't scared of me. But I couldn't keep her--not only because of Gizmo but because with her eye damage I knew I didn't have the resources to nurse her to health. Teri suggested we take her to the vet that instant, and Allan kindly drove me to the nearest one. The vet was thankfully open, there were two guys in there and we explained the situation. They suggested we could take her to the pound, but Allan and I both knew that her chances of adoption were not good--as it turned out, her eye wasn't shut it was actually gone. She had experienced some kind of trauma that damaged one eye (but did not blind) and caused the complete loss of the other. And these were only the problems we could see. So we knew that she would never be adopted, and she would be put down anyway.

The humane thing to do then, was to have her put down at the vet's, where she could at least be with people who care, and not be alone in her final moments. Allan paid for her to be put down, then elected to go back home--which I could understand, these kinds of things are never fun. I decided to stay, and hold her while the tranquilizer took effect. Her breathing slowed, she vomited some ham that someone had tried to feed her (ham had also been in the box with her), and after 15 minutes the vet gave her the final shot, and she passed. They wrapped her body in a plastic bag, and gave her back to me. I took her home, and together Allan and I buried her in the yard.

There wasn't really much to say. It was sad, but it was the best thing to do. In Matatlan I held Joel's baby (Joel is the son of the Master Distiller Don Tacho) for the first time--he is only 1 month old. I couldn't then hold someone else's baby and then abandon her on the streets to die alone, cold, and slowly. If I had the resources and the space, I would have taken her in. But I didn't, and the best thing I could do was give her a peaceful death, and hold her as it happened. After it all went down I went and gave Gizmo the biggest hug in the world.

So, a bit of rain and sadness yesterday. Hopefully today the sun will shine.

16 June, 2012

When hurricanes pass, and birthdays too


Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am an absolutely fan of the weather down here in Oaxaca. And when I say weather I do not refer to the semi-arid/tropical climate we have here that makes for gorgeous sunny days that are perfect for rubbing into the faces of your friends in colder areas. I am talking about the clouds.


Looking north on Garcia Vigil.
Yes clouds. Sun or rain, the clouds down here are magnificent. Especially when it rains. The combination of the mountains, the extensive valley system, and our position close to the Pacific as well as the the Gulf of Mexico genders an amazing weather system that produces some of the most spectacular vistas of storms and clouds ever.

In fact, if you were to look through my years of photos here you will see a ton of pictures of clouds and weather.

From our office. You can see the rain storm on the left and clear skies on the right.

Looking east towards Calle Alcala.
Last night Hurricane Carlotta passed over Oaxaca, having made landfall earlier. All night there was a soft, gentle rain that was almost like having one of those soothing sounds sleep assist machines from Sharper Image. Before the hurricane made it to shore, the clouds had come down over the mountains to the north of us to say hello. It was an incredibly beautiful site.

Again from our office, when the rain was really coming down.
Looking north on Venustiano Carranza. You can see how low the
clouds are.

From our neighbor's roof looking north.
On a side note, other things have passed aside from hurricanes. The previous week's Thursday, June 7, was my birthday. I turned 29 years old. To say that I am going to mourn the end of my 20s is the truth, for I really did enjoy my 20s. But to say that I am not looking forward to my 30s is false. Aside from all the people who have told me that the next decade is in fact very awesome, I know in my heart that this is how it will be. Being in your 20s is great, but you still lack a certain amount of polish--you should be an adult and you try to act like one, but you are still growing out of being a teenager and sometimes that veneer just sticks around until you hit the latter end of that decade. So being in your 30s is kind of like finally being an actual adult, or at least old enough to know better.

Anyway, so here's to being 29. At least I welcomed it in in style!

Chowing down on the bone of what was an awesome cowboy-cut steak.....
....and drinking some mezcal!

14 June, 2012

La Gatita en Paraíso (The Kitten in Paradise)

Hola a todos!

Last week was my birthday, so I took a week off from blogging. To make up for it I will be posting twice this week.

Anyway, I thought I'd take this time to share a little about an amazing creature that lives with me in Oaxaca. Her name is Gizmo, and she is my adorable 6 year-old tabby cat. She is also a very special and amazing little kitty. I know a lot of owners say the same thing about their respective pets, but I think I can make the convincing argument that in my case, at least, its very true. Let me share a little bit of of Gizmo's story with you.

I first met Gizmo in October of 2006, when in Uncle Hardy's Fun Shop I spotted a flyer advertising "Free Kittens", the only requirement being that they go to a home that won't declaw them. I remember saying "Oh free kittens!" and the lanky guy behind the counter unfolded his long body and sprang to his feet--"I'm the one with the free kittens...". And we went from there.

Oh my! What big eyes you have!
As it turned out, by the time I called only one kitten was left, but he described her to me as very beautiful kitty with a sweet character and assured me that I would love her. I went by his home (which was actually not far from parent's house) to pick up my little two month-old kitten. And that's when I met the cutest thing ever--a sweet little tiny tabby with big eyes. I picked her up and held her in my arms, and the Uncle Hardy's guy remarked "I have never seen her stay in someone's arms for so long!". From that moment I knew that she and I would have a special bond.

Little Gizmo peeking through the window.
To give a little more of an idea of the specialness of Gizmo--she has moved about 8 times in her short life. Now, the conventional wisdom is that cats are more attached to places than people. When you move a cat, there are a series of steps you take to ensure that your cat doesn't flip out and try to run back "home". But every time Gizmo has moved, she has been a trooper.

Her first move came in Chicago, when I relocated from one apartment to another. Next, after a 3-month absence and about 4 weeks of being extremely angry with me for leaving her behind in Chicago while I galavanted (sp?) about Oaxaca, she came with me on an air flight to Tucson, Arizona, where I was going to start graduate school. She settled in quite nicely and became a queen of the desert, though a slightly less campy version than Priscilla, and lived among lizards and coyotes for almost 3 years.

Her biggest adventure came next, when she was plucked from her home and placed into a kennel, until 5 days later when a friend of mine could rescue her. She stayed with him for about two weeks before being woken up one morning, snatched from a pile of blankets and sweaters, stuffed into a cage, taken to a vet where she got poked and prodded and injected, then back into the cage where she endured a 2 hour road trip to Phoenix, and then not one, not two, but three THREE flights from there to Oaxaca (PHX --> Hermosillo --> DF --> Oaxaca). Somehow she made it through being stuck in the underbelly of a dark tube just fine, and without being extremely mad at me.

However, landing in Oaxaca didn't mean the end of her moving around. I stayed in a small 1-bedroom place when I first arrived, then when Chuck came down we moved to another apartment, Gizmo in tow. Finally, once our casita opened up again, we packed her up one final (hopefully) time and brought her there. And she seems to have settled in just peachy, and in fact I suspect she is even enjoying herself. She's already brought down one bird and took out a mouse, at least that we know of, and she spends her days napping at her leisure and her nights terrorizing the neighborhood birds.

Gizmo in her favorite hiding spot in our old apartment now office.

And through all the constant moving and having to readjust to new environments, Gizmo has remained a happy, cuddly little kitten. She'll often jump into bed, snuggling with me and curling up into the crook of my arm. She's as vocal and sing-songy as ever, and she still does things that make your heart break from all the cuteness.

So this was my long ode to my lovely Gizmo. She's a sweetheart and a true trooper, and I hope she sticks around for a long time.

Stay tuned for the next post tomorrow!

01 June, 2012

El Gran Viaje por los Cerros de Coixtlahuaca - Pt 1


As I mentioned in an earlier post (the first post since 2010), a lot has happened in the year and a half since I last wrote on this blog. One of those grand occurrences was a big survey project I was a part of in the Winter and Spring of 2011. This survey, the crew I worked with, the house and town I lived in, the work I did, and all the stress and joys that came with it were a big part of my life for about 5 months. I lived and breathed and loved and got completely fed up with survey in the Coixtlahuaca Valley. I walked for kilometers and kilometers, over hills and across streams, weaving through wheat fields and pulling myself up the sides of cerros (hills) using tree branches and grass stems while dangling over drops of 100 meters. I made it through many hairy situations--one of which rightly deserves its very own post because it was just that freaking scary--and I had some incredible experiences. Over the course of the next couple of months I will post about my experiences on this immense undertaking of a survey project in a series of posts. This time around, I'll just give a short introduction about the 2011 Proyecto Recorrido Arqueologíca del Valley de Coixtlahuaca.

The site of Inguiterria, the main Postclassic kingdom in Coixtlahuaca.
So the goal of the Coixtlahuaca Valley Survey Project was to do a surface survey of all 60,000 sq. km of the Coixtlahuaca Valley to look for signs of prehispanic occupation, measure the size of these occupations as well as any architecture that may be present, and date the occupations according to the ceramic material found on the ground. Running concurrently with the archaeological survey was a geomorphology study of the soils at selected sites that we had surveyed. The goal of the geomorphological analysis (geomorphology is basically the study of landforms and the processes that create and change them--in other words the study of landscape change over time) was to connect environmental and soil events or changes to prehispanic occupations. What we wanted to know was what effect did human settlement and agriculture have on the landscape, and vice versa. How did people adapt to the fluid dynamics of the soils, which are highly prone to erosion in this area? How did abandonment of settlement affect the surrounding environment? Etc.

Our survey area.
In total there were 3 survey teams and a 1-woman geomorphology team. My crew consisted of Leonardo, a Oaxacan archaeologist, Ellen, an American from the University of Georgia, and myself.

Ellen and Leonardo with one of our guides.
This was in Tulancingo on our second day of survey.

This is me. Being goofy.
For whatever reason, for the first 2 months of survey, my crew was consistently sent to the high hills, to scale 100 to 600 meter heights looking for signs of occupation. And just when you want to say "F*ck it" cause this is the 5th time this week that you have risked your life and you haven't found anything yet, you scale a mountain and find a site on top (I'm giving the side eye to you Cerro La Campana, and to you too, Cerro Solitario!) The funny thing about being sent to the hills, though, is that I do have a slight fear of heights, which made for some interesting (read: scary) times as I navigated my way along goat paths next to sheer drops that plunged down 100 meters or more. And if you are thinking that it shouldn't be too big of a deal cause I'm on a path, let me remind you that goats have tiny little hooves. And are generally much more nimble than I am in hiking boots.

View from one hill looking onto some others in the distance.
One day we covered all of those hills you see in
the foreground.
That is a post for another day.

Climbing up one of many hills we surveyed, early in the morning.

Resting after a hard climb up.
But as scary as it could be sometimes it was also really exhilarating and fun. And even when our hearts were beating furiously after we had scaled a particularly difficult section of a cerro and had made it, we still managed to laugh and have a good time (at least at first). We even had a slight gallows humor about it all. Once when we had to descend down this toe-slope of the Cerro Niate known locally as El Puente, which because of the barrancas on either side was so severely eroded that one false step meant a long slide down some rocky terrain, we stopped to take pictures of the descent, joking that we wanted a photo of where we going to die. It may not seem funny when you read it, but at the time we were laughing and it helped us, in a way I think, to make the trip down. Unfortunately I seemed to have lost that photo :(

It wasn't all sheer terror though. Sometimes we did fun things, like helping out the locals when they needed it (this photo is from one of those instances, which I will talk about in a future post).

Ellen and I participating in a village ritual.

Anyway, I will be posting more about my surveying adventures in the Coixtlahuaca Valley, so stay tuned. For now I leave you with this:

Well, hello there!

24 May, 2012

Real quickly....My site

So as we were driving back from Puebla to Oaxaca we ran into some rain storms in the Mixteca Alta, which is a cultural-geographic zone in the northwest part of the state on the border with Puebla. It was really awesome to see because the rain was mostly in the west, while to the north and east of us it was sunny and clear. Weather in Oaxaca--because of the mountains, valleys, its proximity to the ocean, etc.--is always fantastic and breathtaking. I have folders and folders of photos of just clouds and weather events.

Entering the Mixteca Alta from the north. You can see rain in the distance.

Oh doom and gloom! The clouds weigh down upon us...

And he gazed out onto the sky, "Today is not a good day for revolutions,"

And on one side her face was the color of night and on the other, white; and she sat always perfectly still on
her throne, watching, waiting, ever silent as Time itself

But the rain wasn't the only cool thing about the trip through the winding mountains of the Mixteca. You see, the highway runs somewhat close to the site where I hope to carry out my dissertation research, only 8.2 km away as the crow flies. I'm going to save the story of my site and all the reasons why I think it is totes cool and worthy of study (gotta ton of stuff to do!), but I will say that it is on a gigantic hill called the Cerro Niate and it can be seen from said highway. So every time I make the drive from Oaxaca to Puebla/Mexico City, I get to stare out the window and gaze wistfully at my future project site--at least during daylight hours. And because I know what's there, I can see the little tiny knob of the mogote (mound) that first told us that we had stumbled upon something special.

Approaching the Cerro Niate

The Cerro Niate. The small rise on the right of the photo is the finger-like
projection where the civic-ceremonial complex is.

Sigh. I can't wait to get out there!

Of Culture Clashes and Church Pimples

Hola there!

Last week I was in Puebla and Cholula por un ratito (for a little bit) assisting with a tasting for Real Matlatl Mezcal (I know what you're thinking--what is an archaeologist doing working for a liquor brand? Well, I try to help out Chuck where I can and a girl has to justify free room and board somehow right...plus well I enjoy it, it's always a nice break from endless site reports and C14 dates). Both cities in the state to north of us, Puebla. Puebla the city is an interesting place...in many ways it reminds of Mexico City but on a smaller scale. The set-up of colonial architecture, the way the streets are designed, the feel of the place, the hustle and bustle of the people, is more like Mexico's megatropolis than my humble little colonial town. Cholula however, is not Oaxaca to Puebla's Mexico City--it too is very different, and reminds me of zócalos I've seen in other Mexican states (Oaxaca's zócalo  is very distinct, in my opinion, and the only one similar to it is perhaps San Cris).

But one of the more interesting things about Cholula (where we spent a good amount of our daylight time, as we were there only for 24 hours) is the huge pyramid located pretty much in the center of town. You see, Cholula is (was?) a prehispanic city of great importance during the Classic and Postclassic times (so from about 250 AD to 900/1000 AD), particularly as a religious site. Aztec princes and kings would go to Cholula to be anointed by Cholulan priests during enthronement rituals. This ritual and religious importance is reflected in the fact that the modern city is famous for having the most churches in all of Mexico, 365 in total or one for each day of the year if you believe the legend (in reality it's more like 37 or 156 if you count all the chapels [source Wikipedia - Cholula]).

Quick shot of the Giant Pyramid with Spanish colonial church on top.

What I love about this gigantic pyramid in Cholula the most though (and it is massive, designated as the largest monument by volume in the world [source Wikipedia - Pyramid]) is that right atop this artificial mountain or tlachihualtepetl sits a colonial church that is still in use today (also making this pyramid the world's longest occupied building in the Americas). You see, when the Spanish arrived, they encountered this prehispanic city that was second only to the Postclassic head honcho at the time, Tenochtitlan, in size and sheer numbers. Cholula or Cholollan was also divided in 18 barrios, which still exist today, did have at least 360 temples, and was also the site of a famous massacre involving that dastardly Hernán Cortez.

So in a lot of ways, the Giant Pyramid of Cholula--with its colonial church hat--is a perfect symbol of the (past? modern? both?) Mexican mestizaje. The millenia of prehispanic culture as a foundation and body with Spanish religiousity and European sensibilities smashed right on top (and not in a necessarily pleasant nor particularly horrible way). In my opinion, if you really want to start to understand the Mexican mindset, you just need park yourself in front of the Giant Pyramid, marvel at the site of a prehispanic structure with an awkward church pimple on its dome, and ponder how that might affect a culture's psyche.

Another quick shot as we were zipping out of town.
Anyway, at night the church lights up and the whole thing looks even more amazing. I couldn't get a picture, but the archaeological detective in me has been piqued and I really want to go back, check out the site, and grab some better snapshots than the ones I could get as we zipped around Cholula. Plus, as my Wikipedia reading informed me, not much study has been done on either the monument nor the archaeological site itself, so we no woefully little about this incredible important Mesoamerican city. I must know more. Maybe sometime in the (distant) future I will be the one sticking a trowel into the pyramid to unearth its secrets. Someday.

For those who want to know a (little) more about this fascinating place, Wikipedia has a fairly decent write-up with links to other sources.

Cholollan (prehispanic Cholula)
Great Pyramid
And in case you want to read more on modern-day Cholula.