Five characters (and their guests) in search of something.

Sunday, November 28, 2004


We had been to Monte Alban and to several other pueblos within an hour's drive, but our trip to Hierve el Agua was the first overnight for us. We went with Lauren and Mark Beam (Lauren is a local tour guide and consultant), their family, and a family of their friends from San Francisco.

Hierve el Agua is a mineral spring that spews its salts over the edge of several cliffs high in the mountains. The salts solidify and form what look like petrified waterfalls. Above the cliffs are some small pools, cold in the Mexican winter, where people float and look across the range of mountains ringing the valley below.

The attraction is valuable for the local people. So valuable, in fact, men from a neighboring town draw up a rope to close the road demanding their own cut of the profits that Hierve el Agua brings. The cut is small.

Though we brought quite a bit in the trunk of our rental car, we had neglected to bring any mescal. Once we were settled, Mark and I went to find a special mescal that he had had the last time he and Lauren came to Hierve. He described to me a hand-painted bottle with a picture of the mineral cliff--that held very good mescal. When we looked through the tienditas in the park, it seemed that the vendor was gone. Asking a few people where we could find such special bottles, some indicated San Lorenzo, the pueblo with the rope just before the park.

Mark and I left for San Lorenzo in his van, giving a ride to a local woman and probing for information about the elusive mescal bottles. She told us that we would have to travel all the way around the range, back to the other side of the valley. Still, we continued to San Lorenzo.

Passing over the rope, passing by the roperos, we saw a sign for "MESCAL" hand-painted on a white wall. It seemed closed. We asked two men talking over a fence next door. "Just knock."

We tentatively knocked on the metal door. No light inside. And then a groan. A low, disoriented groan. Then shuffling. The door opened onto a tilted face, out of focus red eyes, and a back hunched in the shape of a cot. We asked if he sold mescal and he responded in grunting spanish. "Pasa le." A wall of painted mescal bottles on a metal storage shelf. On one side colored liquids and on the other clear. "Is one better than the other?" Mark asked. He thought that some of the darker liquids might be mescal reposado (aged). "No, dulces." Sweetened and flavored. He pulled a bottle of clear mescal from the shelf and told us that it was good. "Can we try it?" Mark asked. "Si," the man answered as he went to the shelf for a nearly empty bottle. He removed the plastic cap and took two long swigs himself. Wiped his mouth and passed the bottle to Mark.

As Mark put the bottle to his lips and began to drink, the man spat the mouthful onto the ground. Mark decided to swallow. I took the bottle next and drank immediately, revelling in the moment, remembering my friend John Gant during his taste tests of coffee--slurping and spitting. Our man had perhaps done the same, perhaps had drunk to show his ownership. Perhaps drinking had become a reflex. Few customers and a hypnotic product from magical, mercurial nature hanging there like fruit in front of him in the dark.

We bought four bottles and drank half of one under the full moon that night. Outside our cabins, not close enough to the fire we had built.

On the way back the roperos held up their rope, although when we stopped at the mescal tienda we were still within sight. We showed them their receipt from no more than an hour earlier and they slowly agreed to lower the rope.

The morning was peaceful. Burros brayed below the cliffs. The moon still hung in the sky, eventually lowering between two peaks. The wind from the night had died down and we passed time dressing the children and picking at food as the burros' owners awakened. Our view of the range showed a wide variety of trees. From pine to palm. And the maguey plants in all forms sprouting up in rows or on hillsides became the symbol of this spherical whole for me.

A hike to the bottom of the petrified cascade. A late breakfast in the park. We left in the warm part of the morning and spiraled down through the mountain villages until we were back to Carretera 190, to Mitla, to Teotitlan del Valle, to Oaxaca.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Every two months Tracy and I have agreed to try to capture the flavor of the city as we know it. The idea is to be able to track the changes in our perceptions of Oaxaca over the time we are here.

At this point I am sorry that I haven't done this each week, since I feel we have gone through a lot of changes in the past two months. From a need to defend to feeling close to being "at home".

The Ciudad de Oaxaca is insulated by outlining streets (on the north end, Heroes de Chapultepec, etc). Once you cross these streets into the surrounding colonias (or neighborhoods), the pace changes. The security of homes change. The sounds change. Colonia Reforma (not to be confused with calle de la Reforma) is quieter, newer, more like an urban suburb. Houses are more open there and their interiors more visible to passersby. More pizza. More taquerias. More money. More patrons filling little restaurants. And with fewer stone walls, the temperature is cooler. One day it seemed nearly 10 degrees (F) cooler.

Though the buildings are no taller in the city, the warmer city, the pace quickens. Cars are more impatient. Trees are older. And the iglesias. The people in Oaxaca are very warm (this coming from someone who just spent about 6 years in Upstate New York, USA where you are more likely to catch cold than get a warm "Hello" or "Good Morning" on the street). And the people make eye contact. I've always taken a sort of visual poll of eye contact, by women and men, and the people in the center of Oaxaca are likely to make eye contact with foreigners. The eye contact then triggers a "Good ____ (refer to your watch for Day, Afternoon, Night, etc.)" either from you or spontaneously from them. Lately, it may be that it requires me to instigate the greeting. Older Oaxacans and folks from outlying villages also will give you the civilian salute of waving the back of their hand at you a couple of times with their greeting. I like this very much since it reminds me of 1940s movies and wearing hats. I've always liked Clark Gable's hand-sliding-across-the-side-of-his-hat-and-out-at-ya (or sometimes from the eyebrow) salute. And this is the closest salute to Gable's still in use that I can find.

I find myself walking in the middle of streets that have been closed to traffic. Either the sidewalks are too narrow or there are couples making out on the curbs--and it becomes awkward to say "with your permission" to people who are french kissing. I haven't yet become comfortable with the lack of distance between me and people who are obviously spending some necessary personal time. The family or the house set-up in Oaxaca seems to put these kids into the streets for dates. Under trees. In the shade of walls near the garden. In parks. It's funny, because at once I am drawn to experience the open, the welcoming nature of the people here, and at the same time, I am aware that I'd like to give these people some space and privacy. "Hello! Oh, I'm sorry... Excuse me."

The city seems quite small, especially if you don't count the colonias. Looking up at the mountains that rim the valley of Oaxaca, it seems that a city that takes up the space of the valley would have to be expansive. Yet, each day we drop off the kids at school and usually walk back to our house. From central Oaxaca's southeast corner to the north central end of the city's center. It's only about 20 blocks at the most.

The markets have gone from being a place of wonder and awe--considering the variety of goods and our lack of familiarity with local food and customs--to a place of distrust and business-like shopping. In two days two members of our extended house were robbed in markets. At the Ocotlan and Abastos markets. A digital camera out of a backpack and a wallet out of a front pocket! Both robberies happened during the Day of the Dead holiday, and probably by out-of-state carteristas, but nonetheless, it has created in me a grave need to create a mental canopy around our entire group during a visit to places like markets and busy tourist spots. I've never really liked shopping, but it has made it so that I don't even like to go to busy places with more than two people at a time in my group. And NEVER AGAIN with the kids. Being forced to watch the kids in a busy market puts me at a severe disadvantage. This is too bad because so many of our cultural differences, the really educational ones, are housed in these markets. Eating, shopping, working, and negotiating.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Note From Leland
Dear classmates, I love you. I like playing with you, Ramon. You're my best buddy in the world.

Oli, I'm happy that you turned 3, soon you're going to turn 4. And then you're going to turn 5. 1 2 3 4 5. And then you're going to turn 6.

The costume that I love the most is my "El Santo" wrestling outfit. It is very fun to wear. When we wrestle, I put my costume on. When I am El Santo I can do a kick out, just like real wrestlers. It makes Papa laugh, too. Maybe I will grow up and get a new costume.

For Halloween I was a devil. In Spanish they call it "El Diablo". It has horns and it has flame and it has a devil on it and it has a tail and a hood and a cape. Now I wanna be done.

I was born in Ithaca, New York. And you know where it was where I was born? It was in the hospital. Write that.

Leland Richardson (4 years old)

"I think I see it!"
Muriel and Leland wait for the bus. A hot afternoon in October.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Note From Muriel
Oaxaca is so nice. I loved the Day of the Dead, it was so fun. I am having a very good time here with my family. I am meeting lots of people and I love going to school. My school is a Montessori school called "Casa de los Ninos". I like writing and drawing pictures. And I have an English class, which helps, because I hardly speak any Spanish so far. Some of my friends are named Carolina, Ena-Daniela, Daniel, Daniela, Juanjo, Jorge, Adara, Maria, Mireya, and many more.

I thought I was going to be really shy when I first got to school, and I didn't feel at home right away, but now I feel quite at home. At every school students have to wear uniforms. Same with Leland and me.

It is really hard to speak Spanish with my friends at school, because they ask me so many questions so quickly and I don't know what to say. But papa tells me I am learning a lot of Spanish. He thinks I know a lot of new words.

I was born in Oakland, California and moved to Ithaca, New York to have my brother, Leland. My name is Muriel.

Muriel Richardson (7 years old)

Thursday, November 11, 2004

We needed some images in this blog. Here is Tracy's photo of a rare burro in the city limits of Oaxaca. Hauling alfalfa (aka:rabbit food).

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

First real day of film writing here in Oaxaca. I spent the morning preparing a cataloging system for script ideas and typing up some script ideas from the past. It is important to me that I give myself some writing time to unwind and consider many possibilities.

Then in the afternoon, I met with Guillermo Monteforte and the filmmakers from Ojo De Agua Communicacion. Roberto, Kim, Clara, Sergio, and later Bruno. I saw about 5 different film/videos and got an introduction to the way this group works. They seem to do quite a bit of work directly enabling indigenous people to make their own videos or tell their own stories. I saw a 10 minute spot about a government project in Guerrero that has been planning to flood over 20 villages to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

Roberto had just returned from a National Geographic Doc festival in Washington, DC and Los Angeles. His piece was also a short, but about Marcos and his trip to Mexico City with the Zapatistas. I had never really heard Marcos's words as clearly as I did today. Perhaps I had a better perspective this time.

This Saturday I'll show STRAY, the only film I brought with me to Oaxaca.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Nov. 4

The house is quiet. Bob, Tony, Donna and Alta left this morning to return to the States (Alta will return in 2 weeks). It's been quite a week. Dia de los Muertos culminated on Tuesday....Hope terminated on Wednesday a.m.... Half the household left Thursday a.m....

We had our first dinner party here Tuesday evening. Tony and I made carnitas; the pork was fantastic--a highly successful colaboration/experiment. Plus Bob's cabbage salad, salsas, and more. The only minor disaster was an entire bowl of salsa fresca that inadvertently ended up in the dishwater. An offering to the gods. Guests were happy. An older couple from Mexico, D.F. remarked that it was some of the most Mexican, and best food they'd had in a long time. (Weren't we pleased with ourselves)! An entire bottle of mescal disappeared down various gullets. Gellato was procured, and Bob pulled off making a gallette de manzana. And so, Tuesday evening progressed, we had a pinata for the kids, our Dia de los Muertos altar glowed, and things seemed right with the world. Intermittently we would check the news, but nothing seemed definitive. Thom and I stayed up past 2 am checking various web sites, trying to hold out hope. I woke at 4:30, checked online again. Horrified, but still holding onto a vestige of hope. Up at 6:15 to prepare M & L's lunches, and get them fed, and off to school. Tired, depressed on bus ride home. Hope waning. Then Kerry concedes race to GWB. All hope gone. Depression, shock, sadness prevail in the house on Wednesday--there are a few forays out and about as it is Tony, Bob and Donna's last day here. Thom sums it up well below in saying it has a feeling like being out of the country when a calamity happens at home--natural disaster, terrorist attack, etc.

And so now, the house is quiet. We dismanteled the altar today after everyone left. Trying to carry on with our happy habits--morning stop at Mercado Merced. Bought almonds, jamaica, memelas. Had a hot chocolate, and huevos rancheros at our favorite comedora with Donna before she left. Played with our new bunny rabbits. Played concentration. Ate leftovers. Muriel was asking for more of that "yummy pig" (carnitas pork) today. We may all return with elevated cholesterol... We've heard that jamaica (pronounced ha-my-ka) is meant to lower cholesterol and improve circulation, so perhaps all is not lost since we consume mass quantities.

The weather was dramatically cooler today. Feels very pleasant, but also reflects the strangeness--as if everything has changed this week. What did that lunar eclipse mean? Struggling not to be the queen of doom. As my friend Valerie wrote to me this a.m. (amidst a flurry of election related e-mails), it's time to get busy. Number one priority should be to support Planned Parenthood....and, beyond that, reach out to and educate all those "red states" on the morals of diversity, inclusiveness, and global conciousness.


Just lost this post, but am going to try to rewrite it from short-term memory.

I think this must be how those out of the country during Sept 11 must have felt. A sense of great pain from family and friends, but very little to do about it. And to think that George Bush is claiming that this narrow victory is a mandate, only a bit more substantial than the one he was handed by the Supreme Count in 2001, is nearly more than I can stomach. Not much different I suppose than claiming that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein because Bush had secret proof of weapons of mass destruction aimed at Israel or USA or wherever.

I feel quite far from the country that would vote for George Bush this year. That sea of red states squashed my hopes that the US would wake up to the transparent agenda of Bush and his compatriots. The Conservative Republicans have done an amazing job of solidifying their base by creating a foundation based upon moral values that camouflages their true agenda from the voters. Looking at Bush's statement regarding the Republicans' plan for this term, I was dumbstruck to realize that this was the first statement I had heard regarding such a plan--and I imagined that this was true for most of the people who had voted for him this past Tuesday as well. The Conservative machine has successfully covered its agenda with a nerve gas-perfume of morality that is very difficult to fight through for the people of the US.

Unfortunately I feel even further from the Democratic Party. This is a party that has completely lost its usefullness and should be remade. This election for me was about the lesser of two evils. Was it more evil to have Bush in office or was it more evil to allow the bankrupt Democratic party to continue its ruse. It is the null party. The only reason that John Kerry rec'd votes was that he represented NOT-Bush. There was nothing within the man that made me think he would stand up any straighter than Bill Clinton. When Bill Clinton won the 1996 election I remember walking down the middle of the streets with people thrilled to be rid of the Conservative yolk that Reagan and Bush Pere represented. By the time the second election came around, I felt that liberal values had been left on the doorstep while Clinton and the Democratic party courted the conservative vote in the kitchen.

My strongest feeling today is for the left. I believe that many of the traditional values of the left in the US are actually closer to core US values than those being broadcast by the conservative machinery. I really do. How about the country's feeling for its Declaration of Independence? How about the revolutionary flag that won't die "Don't Tread on Me". How about routing for the underdog? How about the selfless giving of hundreds of thousands of veterans in WWII? Remember the crying Indian public service announcement in the 1970s? That was an environmental statement that worked.

It is as simple as this. The left must build bridges to the American people and must stop mumbling to themselves. was a self-selected group that emailed each other and raised money for each other--but did the commercials that its members paid for reach out to the voting public or only to the pre-converted? I have seen protests of Bush's war in Iraq, but how are we marketing this to the people? The left needs to get smart and to get smart quickly about how it markets itself and its ideas to the rest of the country. Right now, this is not "our" country. Liberal is a four letter word, or at least a four letter code word. Look at the third debate. Bush's retorts went something like this: "Liberal." "Liberal from Massachusetts like Ted Kennedy." "Liberal." Etc. It's too easy for Conservatives if mere mention of the word "liberal" is enough to condemn it.

There are not enough liberals in the country to do a damn thing by themselves alone. The election told us this. The country must identify itself with traditionally liberal values, values that the country indeed carries, before any liberal party or agenda will succeed at the national level. At the same time it needs to deconstruct and deflate the political value of the Conservative mantras of "Pro-life", "God told me to", and "patriotism". This election tells us that the public does not care what lies behind the morality, they respond to the moral statements.

First things first. What services, what programs, what rights are we going to have to protect first? At the same time we need to start identifying ways not to redefine the public, but to have the public redefine themselves.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Nov. 1st

Last night Thom, Bob and I went out to Xoxo (pronounced "Hoho") to witness the first night of Dia de los Muertos. It was so incredible--virtually every grave adorned with flowers and candles. Some had food, drink, cigarettes, balloons. Some had elaborate designs made out of flowers (marigolds mostly, and coxcomb), or out of dirt and colored sand. Many families were gathered around the gravesites, chatting, eating food they'd brought, and sharing drinks. There were several kids asleep on blankets (we got there around 12:30am and left around 2am). Many firecrackers were being set off in an adjacent field. Mariachi bands were strolling through the graveyards, stopping and singing requested songs with the families.

It was so alive, colorful and open...and each gravesite was so individualized. It made every graveyard I've ever been to seem incredibly sterile. If buriel was my post-mortem choice (which it isn't), I'd choose Xoxo, where your gravesite can be adorned with and how you please--with agave, or poinsettia, or sculpture....candle holders, fencing, or--nothing.

Alta, Bob, Tony, Donna and I had also gone to the big Oaxaca graveyard around 9pm. It had it's appeal as well. One of the most beautiful things there were the walls of candlelit "wallcrypts". There were also several beautiful altars along the perimeter of the graves.

Tonight we will take the kids to the Oaxaca cemetery so they can get an idea of it all. It was just too late last night. They went to a Halloween party last night with a bunch of kids--a fairly international bunch, who have had some sort of exposure to cultures which celebrate Halloween. The family who hosted the party had to go to their neighbors and warn them of our coming, as well as supply them with the candy! Quite a different experience, and thouroughly enjoyable. Muriel and Leland did not notice the differences.

We all worked very hard over the last week making an altar in the house. It has been a tremendously satisfying creative project... How often does one get to assemble such a magnificent thing? I'll send pictures out soon.

Bob and Tony return to S.F. on Thursday after over 2 weeks with us. They will be sorely missed! Their arrival gave our lives here, and the house, a new infusion of energy and excitement. We've got a good groove going with cooking now, and the house looks fabulous! Also, Donna is here for a quick visit (5 days), adding another creative force for alter assembly, etc. The house will seem very quiet Thurday night.

I'm now off to do some drawing with Leland, as promised.