Sunday, 2 November 2008

Helping a radio station, eating grasshoppers, and dealing with death (no relation)

Oaxaca ― Zaachila ― Xoxocotlán and back, Thursday 30 October

A day full of Sun and great experiences. But first a few thoughts on our dependence on electronics. Sometimes I try to be too organised, and therefore I forgot my camera on this beautiful day, of all days. Plus I have almost no battery left on my cell phone, that is to say my clock and alarm clock as I cannot connect over here anyway. The good thing to all this is that I could just walk around with an even more free mind as I did not have to think of taking photos. The only time it annoyed me, and this only slightly, was when I saw election posters for a guy called …Lenin! And this was from the minibus, so I couldn't've caught it anyway. So again: never mind. Just enjoy the Sun. And the below picture, taken in the evening as I did carry my camera again. It's a Day Of The Dead altar, taken from a slightly experimental angle. So you only see a bit of it and thus get a bit of an idea of this almost surreal celebration that is upcoming but has actually already started, with the altars, and performances on the central square by dancers with one half of their face masked as a skull.

Today's first highlight was the visit to the indigenous Zaachila Radio, an initiative started in July 2006 during the conflict in Oaxaca in order to provide people with information rather than the official stations' propaganda-like approach. Financed entirely by the Zaachila community and working without commercials, its broadcasts and numerous events are very popular. Maybe too popular, as authorities blocked the station's frequency in the end of July this year. Zaachila Radio changed to another frequency, and after pressure from several organisations, a.o. Amnesty International, the old frequency was opened again three weeks later.

The community radio as it calls itself ― as opposed to a pirate radio, which is a commercial station that take a frequency ― has applied for a permission to broadcast officially and hopes to get one by December this year. For this, the station has to pay for even applying, again to receive an answer, and then again for the permission itself. All in all 10 000 pesos, or some 600 € or 800 $. The permission is valid for 7 years but can be withdrawn at any time for whatever reason. Should this happen, the whole procedure starts all over. And as an indigenous media, money and bureaucracy will not be the only obstacles for Zaachila Radio.

With a permission, the station will switch to a more powerful antenna with a 100-kilometre reach. As it is now, it reaches 15 kilometres and therefore remains very local. Of the community's 28 000 inhabitants, just 1% speak Zapoteco, so the station's programmes ― from 12 noon to 8 pm every day ― are in Spanish. However, in an attempt to revive the Zapotec language in the community, the station is beginning to broadcast the introduction to and ending of programmes, as well as to make announcements, in both languages. This is a way of promoting Zapoteco little by little.

Another effort to raise awareness in the community is to broadcast 'radionovelas', i.e. soap-like radio drama series, on women's rights and other social issues. The chosen series come from the Cañada municipality in the Northern part of the state of Oaxaca as well as from Argentina and Costa Rica, and Zaachila Radio has high hopes for this initiative.

Given my 'weakness' for communication and, I guess, also my experience with bureaucracy and long procedures, I think this brave little radio station deserves some support. And not only moral support, also financial, so I contributed with 500 pesos as at least a little help to get that official broadcasting permission. I think the committed people behind Zaachila Radio, and the whole indigenous community, deserve it, and I look forward to hear news about the permission.

Listen to Zaachila Radio

Another personal gain from the visit was that I forced myself to write down my questions to the radio's representatives in Spanish, with the inverted question marks and everything, even though only I would read them. Being here in a Spanish-speaking country for three weeks teaches me more than the lessons of grammar I miss while I'm away. Plus I think it is more fun to learn it by immersing myself in it. That's the way we all learned our mother tongues, and I do believe there is no better way.

It also came in handy on the market. To prepare for Day Of The Dead, each member of the Reality Tours group had to buy something for the altar we were going to build in the hotel. Now, I am sure there is plenty about this special celebration on The Net, and much better than I can describe it, so I won't go into details other than those that come with my descriptions anyway. Each group member drew a little piece of paper, and I got an easy one: nuts. The market bursts with nuts. As well as fruits and vegetables and plastic toys and meat and bread and alive turkeys and two-metre high sugarcanes and candy and candy skulls and chocolate and chocolate skulls, not to mention the flowers which are also very important on any Day Of The Dead altar. Actually, of all the mentioned things, only plastic toys, meat and turkeys don't belong on the altars. But in addition to the edible skulls, you see little figures and sceneries in which skeletons act in everyday situations. A skeleton at his desk working on the computer (I thought about buying that one for work…); a skeleton with a fancy haircut and wearing a dress walking, er, her dog (who, oddly enough, is not a skeleton); a skeleton couple dancing, you name it.

So nuts was an easy one. So easy that I bought three different kinds. And had time to stroll around in the narrow paths between the booths and the locals, the tallest of which barely reach my chest. The tent-like things covering the market are understandably set up by and for them, so now I have an idea what it must be like to be 2 metres or above in Europe, having to bend your head and sometimes your back and knees just to be able to move forward. It was a relief to spend a few minutes in the real market halls selling meat and bread. It was nicely cool, there were few people, and I could walk upright. And breathe my impressions, enjoying Latin America. 'tis good to be back here.

Unfortunately I'm not the only one who thinks so. I had to help three fat (sorry but yes) and arrogant lady tourists who hadn't even bothered to learn a few numbers in Spanish ― I basically had to translate prices for them for ten minutes before I could finally see what the poor man was selling myself ― before I found myself buying two colourful little flutes. No idea what I'm gonna do with them 'cause you certainly can't play anything hearworthy on them, but I also bought two just as colourful rattles made of dried squash shell for the twin nieces I'm looking forward to welcome in January.

Today's second highlight was lunch in the forest. Now that's the short version. The slightly longer one is that we went to the eco-tourism park El Chapulin run by the indigenous community of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán (Xoxo for short, prounced something like 'hrohro'), a wonderful little oasis not far from the Monte Albán ruins, and had a fabulous eco-lunch: chinchilo made of chili, flour and chicken. But not before having tried a tiny glass of mezcal (a distilled liquor made on agaves, for example tequila is a type of mezcal) and more than just tried the snack, a delicious mix of toasted and spiced grasshoppers, pumpkin seeds and nuts. I have wanted to try to eat insects if I got the offer, and this was actually truly delicious!

During lunch, Noemi Gómez Bravo told os briefly about her work as a representative for indigenous women at the United Nations. An impressive woman, having learned Spanish by herself from the age of 14, but unfortunately time was too scarce to go into much detail. It would have interested me a lot to hear about how an indigenous woman is perceived among the suit-clad lads and what results her work had given, and as it is the main idea of this trip to learn and discuss such issues, I will suggest to Global Exchange to time and prepare this better on future trips.

Afterwards, we took a short walk to see the park (which is not a park in that sense, more of a nature area) and did a short canoe trip on the lake. One of the indigenous had to save the most enormous toad that I discovered and which was apparently not where it should be. None of the ladies of our group wanted to kiss it though, despite the chance of winning a kingdom. Oh, that's with frogs, innit? It must have been some prince, given the size of the toad or frog or whatever impressive natural creation it was, now back and safe in its lake and kingdom-to-be.

Back in Oaxaca, caught in a traffic jam ― the city has grown immensely over the last decades ― some of us decided to walk the last blocks to get to the hotel faster. Didn't though, as we were let off the van close to one of the many chocolate shops. And we are not talking Leonidas or Namur here, but a chain of shops called Mayordomo where you get your cocoa beans (or coffee, or rice, or chilis, or any other thing you want) grinded. They can then make you a thick hot chocolate, adding milk or water as you want. Trying to cut down on chocolate, but driven by my untamable curiosity, I just tried a bean directly from its shell. Pure cocoa is bitter indeed but I kinda liked it, it was like crunching a very over-sized coffee bean. Tasty. What lacks taste are some of the chocolate objects on display such as a picture frame, ready to put on your living room table, and what is right out tasteless is the pack with a chocolate gun and chocolate bullets.

But it might just be another sign of how Oaxacans, or maybe Mexicans in general, deal with atrocity or sadness. A way to survive maybe, through a peculiar sense of sarcastic humour, in this subtle yet obvious manner as if it is part of their whole mentality. The Day Of The Dead is the culmination of this, as the altars like the one we built in the hotel and the dances in death costumes on the Zocalo show. And that's where this eventful day ended: on the Zocalo, the central square of the city of Oaxaca, with late dinner and a quick stroll on the market. I had to try those grasshoppers again, so I ordered a plate with guacamole. Turns out they are better as a snack though, rather than shoveling them in in larger quantities. Flushed them down with a mug of beer… I finally found some dark draft beer instead of this girlie stuff that Corona is. Except this didn't taste of much more ― maybe the friendly waitress forgot that I had asked for 'obscura' as she managed to sell me the special offer: Oktoberfest beer and you get to keep the mug. Imagine that, an Oktoberfest mug from Oaxaca! I have never been to the original thing in Munich and I guess now I don't need to…

Due to the intensity of the days on this tour and the 7-hour time difference to the heart of Europe, I have not been able to send a single postcard or make a call. What I did do, for fun, was to change my Facebook profile photo yesterday to the one where I hold the little indigenous boy from the temazcal (indigenous 'spa' place) ― now that can get people up of their chairs or at least their fingers to the keyboard; I had six reactions already.

I will be able to blog more regularly from next week on, when the second part of my trip, the travel writers' boot camp, starts and I have the afternoon to write assignments. And to blog.

New word: mofle = exhaust (on a car)

Beetle count: 183 (thereof just 4 'New Beetles')

Meanwhile, do vote for me ― 5 logos (it's easy, takes just two clicks but they gotta be in the right place). Every day. Thank you.

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