It’s been a whole week since my last post, and – no surprise – a lot has gone down since then.
First thing’s first – my class at the studio of Jacobo and Maria Angeles Ojeda in San Martin Tilcajete has been great. Originally, I only planned on taking a week-long course. After the third day of class this week, I realized that I wanted to take another week of the course. So that’s my plan next week!
On the first day, it took me a while to get to the village. I didn’t know where to catch a colectivo, so I went to the default Mercado de Abastos (the lovely place where my wallet was stolen) and caught a cab there. The driver ended up missing my stop, so I had to take a mototaxi (a little three-wheeled vehicle that takes you shorter distances in the outlying villages) to the center of San Martin. I arrived a bit late to class, but I was greeted warmly by Maria Angeles and Francisco – a tour guide and business-y dude who works for the studio. They introduced me to Raymundo Fabian Melchor, my teacher. I recognized him from the last Thursday that Marty, Lazaro and I visited the studio. He is one of the few master carvers that works at the studio, and produces most of the work that is exhibited and sold there. He’s a young dude, probably in his lower thirties (I felt rude asking!), and he has a lot of energy and enthusiasm for his craft. He has been woodcarving since he was a child, as all of his family are artisans. It is instinctual for him. His uncle, Agustin, is another master carver. They work next to each other in the carving area, each man equipped with his own tree stump and small cabinet for tools. Raymundo usually works on larger commission pieces, whereas Agustin produces the staple figures, such as fish, quails, dogs, etc.
When I arrived, Ray grabbed me a trunk and set me up across from him and Agustin. He then asked me to choose a figure from one of the hundreds that was set out to dry on the shelves on the wall of the studio. I ended up choosing an owl – it seemed easy enough. Ray then picked out an appropriate piece of copal wood, and I was given the task of removing the bark with a machete. I had brought my machete with me to be sharpened (which Freddy, an awesome 18-year old kid who works with the family, did for me on a grinding wheel). I ended up using a smaller machete because it was lighter for me, and because the piece of wood I was using was relatively small. I swung away at the wood wildly, getting almost nowhere. Ray noticed that I was having some difficulty, so he showed me how to properly use the machete. In order to get the bark off, it’s easier to angle the blade of the machete almost parallel to the surface of the wood. That way, the blade is able to penetrate the bark, and also lift larger pieces of it off of the wood. Doing it this way proved a lot easier for me. Still, in the process of using the machete, I scraped off a good chunk of skin from my index finger and my middle finger from the friction of the handle. Wood is fucking hard, even wet copal, which is considered softer than most.
After the bark was removed, Ray took a Sharpie and drew a rough outline of the owl. The owl that I chose was just in a standing position with its wings held close to its body, so it was relatively symmetrical. I was told to then to basically “cut to the lines,” meaning to remove all the unnecessary wood to reveal the rough figure. I used the machete for this step as well, hacking away in a triangular fashion. Because of the way the wood behaves, the only way to remove big chunks is gradually, through angled cuts that look like a triangle. Otherwise, you won’t get anywhere, regardless of how much brute strength you have.
Once this was done, I started in with a gurbia or chisel. I used a 1/2 inch wide chisel and beat it with a hammer to take out smaller, more rectangular chunks of wood. The chisels are quite handy for removing wood that is in between the legs of the figure, tight angles (for instance, where the head meets the body, where the feet meet the body), and for marking out detail (for instance, feathers on wings). I was getting so enraptured in the process, that I didn’t realize it was 2:45 until the boys were called to each lunch! They kindly invited me to join them, but I had to get back to Arquetopia to eat an Angela meal.
Little did I know, it takes about an hour and a half to get back to Oaxaca from San Martin Tilcajete. I waited for an eternity for a colectivo that wasn’t already full, or going the opposite direction. Eventually, I caught one and made it home over an hour late for lunch. Luckly, I was still served, and it was delicious. I hadn’t eaten anything since 8 am.
Day 2: I now know where the colectivos depart from the center of Oaxaca to San Martin Tilcajete, and boy does it beat wandering around frantically in Abastos, desperately searching out a taxi that reads “Ocotlan” (the final destination on the route to San Martin. I got in a taxi with a nice man who had Jesus figurines on the dashboard and a rosary draped over his rear-view mirror. Unlike most other colectivo drivers, this man didn’t even try to pick up other passengers besides me. Usually, colectivos will drive around or wait in heavy traffic to pick up 5 people to fill the cab – two passengers in front, three in back. This way, they make more money. I was the only person in the cab, and I was still only charged 15 pesos, which I’ve only paid when I’m one of 5 people shoved into the car. Turns out, this driver lives in San Martin Tilcajete, right near the studio where I’m taking classes. He offered to drop me off there, and sure enough, it was only a couple streets over. Nice guy.
My second day of carving proved to be a bit more challenging than the first, due in part to my injured hand. The bandaids kept peeling off from the friction of the knife and chisel blades, and so I was very distracted. My progress was slow. I managed to carve out the neck and some of the face, and also start on the ears, but other than that, not much was accomplished. There were several tour groups that came through the studio, and one was from Chicago. What a coincidence! As they were coming through, the tour guides would always say that I was here learning the technique from Ray, the master carver, sometimes joking that when my work was finished, they would use it for kindling. Ha ha ha. Very funny.
Truly, though, I have been treated very kindly at the studio. Despite my lack of experience, Ray is very patient with me and seems to enjoy teaching me. His teaching style is very hands-on, and while he does help me with more difficult cuts, he lets me do most of the work on my own. It takes me 10 times longer to cut anything than it does for him, but still… I make some strides.
Third day, I was feeling much better. Andreja lent me some antiseptic cream and a cloth bandage to better protect my gaping wound. I was able to fully concentrate on working, making significant progress on my owl. I was using the smaller, highly-sharpened modified kitchen knives, and by the end of class, I was getting much better at it. At first, it was nearly impossible to make any cuts in the wood, because after each day, the surface of the piece dries out a little bit. I’ve been keeping it in a plastic bag to keep it moist, but the superficial layer usually dries out slightly over time. Once this layer is removed, it is easier to cut the wood. Agustin noticed I was struggling with the knife, only managing to make little lateral cuts that looked sloppy and bad. He showed me how he holds the knife, and how you must follow through on your strokes, this way, making wider, more effective cuts. Freddy compared it to playing a violin. This metaphor stuck with me, not because I play violin, but because it was something memorable that I could hold on to when I wasn’t sure how to approach the wood. Another thing you must keep in mind when carving, is the direction of the grain. If you are cutting against the grain, then you won’t get anywhere, and you’ll likely end up hurting yourself or the knife because of the resistance of the wood. However, if you are aware of the grain of the wood, then it’s like peeling a potato. If you’re handling the tools correctly, you can carve elegant curved forms in only a few strokes.
I have been feeling incredibly lonely as soon as it gets dark out and I’m at home. I’ve been painting, drawing, etc, but sometimes I just crave the company of others. I love walking around the city and absorbing the vibrant nightlife, but I’m a little too scared to do it alone. By a stroke of luck, I randomly met two Mexican dudes on the street. I was just coming home from the art store with some canvasses in tow, when they asked me if I spoke English (in English). I said yes, and they then showed me a little book of poetry that a friend gave to them. It read something along the lines of “Mesh-Up… Poems from St. Croix by Marty.” Marty Campbell is the older resident at Arquetopia, and he had met these two fellows, Oscar and Lalo, at an English-Spanish intercambio at the library. I was thrilled at this coincidence, and we looked through the poems. Many of them were written in Caribbean dialect, which is difficult for even a native English speaker to decipher unless he/she is reading the verses aloud. We did this right on that busy street corner, sounding out Caribbean English and having a fun time. When we parted ways, we made plans to meet the next day at 6:30 pm in front of Santo Domingo to hang out.
Wednesday night, I met up with the boys, and we went to various mezcalerias to take free shots of mezcal. Then we visited the Casa de la Ciudad/Biblioteca Andres Henestrosa to see some art exhibits. This library houses the large collection of Andres Henestrosa – a Oaxacan writer, poet, and political activist who helped to transcribe the Zapotec language into phonetic Spanish, enabling these ancient texts to be understood and studied by Spanish speakers. There are countless art books and other wonderful things in this library, and I definitely plan on returning.
After this, we headed to a crowded bar with a pretty young crowd called “Desestresse,” and we had a beer. Lalo doesn’t drink, so just me and Oscar had one. Lalo speaks 6 languages and works at the Office of Tourism in Oaxaca. Oscar works as a psychologist for the government, and he speaks relatively good English. We were mostly chatting in Spanish, which was great practice for me. After a while, Oscar had to go because he had work early the next day. Lalo and I headed to a bar that he likes to visit for its salsa dancing. The place looked like a converted parking garage. The DJ played a variety of tunes, everything from bachata, cumbia, banda, merengue, and salsa, and for a while, we just sat there on the outskirts watching the people dance. I felt a strong sensation come over me. Looking at all of the couples moving their hips in the most sensual way, completely in tune with each other, smiling and laughing, man hands inching down towards ample girl butts, I missed Andres. Being surrounded by that erotic attraction reminded me of how starved I am for the physical affection of my man, my lover, my best friend. I was focusing in on one couple in particular – a chunky, tall dude in a tight polo shirt, and an Amazonian, voluptuous woman. They were the first ones to start dancing, and the last ones to stop, all the while, twirling and swaying to the beat. They seemed so incredibly happy and at peace. It was as if they were one entity, a gyrating, pulsating love organism. I was sad and overjoyed at the same time thinking about the person I share that intimate bond with.
After Lalo showed me some moves, we said goodbye and I got back to my house. I was so happy I was able to have a normal, fun night without being hit on or molested by guys. Maybe I can actually have friends here and go out and do things with them at night!
Fourth day of class, I worked mostly on the face and feathers of my little buho (owl). The feathers were easier than I expected. Ray showed me how he marks detail with a small knife, cutting long, thin triangular lines into the wood, then going in with the formon (a sharper chisel that does not require a hammer) to define the curvature of the feathers. They turned out surprisingly well for a beginner, and even Ray was impressed!
Fifth day, I finally met Jacobo, husband of Maria Angeles, who had been in LA for an exhibit of his work. He drove in a big U-Haul truck and he said that the caddy was full when he left. I peeked in and it was more than half empty! He sold a ton of work and had a successful trip. He was very kind and welcoming to me, and even offered me some breakfast. I haven’t been eating that much (basically just one large meal per day at 4:30 pm), so I happily accepted. I ate some delicious black beans and rice with coffee with some of the detail painters who work on the quieter, undisturbed second floor of the studio. After breakfast, I finished the owl with a couple hours of class to spare! He turned out good – a little fucked up, but definitely similar to the model I was working from. Now alls I need to do is let it dry for a week, then I can sand it. Then I let it dry for 3-4 months, fill in the cracks and holes with wood glue and sawdust, then I can paint it. I also have the option of soaking it in gasoline after I sand it to kill all the insect eggs that are inside of it. While I was carving, I noticed there are many tiny little holes in the wood that small, brown insects crawl out of, so I’ll probably take that extra step to insure that my owl doesn’t get eaten alive.
After this, I chose a more challenging figure to conquer next week – a jaguar with an open mouth and a curved tail. It will be hard, but I’m ready to accept the challenge. I might as well take advantage of the tools and resources available to me during this course, and the help and guidance of Ray, Agustin, and Freddy. I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. The figure is from a single piece of wood, larger than the owl, and much much much more complicated. Ray told me it would take me more than a week to finish it, so I’m prepared to stay a bit longer each day to make up for the limited time I have. The first thing I had to do was remove the bark, like last time. Then I had to create a level surface of the wood for the legs to balance. This step is very important, as the figure is carved from a single piece of wood, it must be balanced before any more cuts are made. This was so hard! Jacobo and Ray helped me a lot with this step, making paper-thin cuts with the machete, using full force with their big man muscles. I could only stand back and watch in awe. I’m psyched to continue work on this tomorrow!
This weekend was fun filled and a little crazy. Friday after class, Andreja met me in Ocotlan (a nearby town to San Martin) for the weekly market. Like most Mexican markets, there is everything – fruits, veggies, meat, cheese, chiles, dried fish, grasshoppers, knives, toys, clothes, underwear, batteries, artesanias, blankets, hats, belts, embroidery floss, etc. It was overwhelming and awesome. I ended up buying 4 knives (!) and an awesome fluorescent colored, hand embroidered skirt. Andreja picked out some beautiful embroidered shirts, and a scarf for her mom. As it started to get dark, we left the town in search of leftovers at the house, since we had missed lunch. We ate a ton of poblano spaghetti with black beans, and then got ready for the night. Andreja wasn’t feeling too hot, so I went with Kim, Alex, and Greer to a tiny mezcaleria called Cuish (Quixe) in the red-light district of town. It was a surprisingly young, artsy crowd, which put me at ease immediately. I met a dude named Boby – a 23-year-old street artist and muralist from Oaxaca who has an iridescent mural installation at the Contemporary Art Museum in Oaxaca. For such a young dude, he is quite accomplished. After a few shots of mezcal, we joined Kim and her friend Leo at Cafe Central – a larger, more posh venue that hosts shows and events. It reminded me of a Mexican Brillobox, fulla hipsters and red booth seating areas, and completely packed with people. Once we broke through the dense crowd of smokers in the patio near the entrance, we got in and had a beer. It was fun, but I was feeling a bit beat, so I asked Boby to walk me home. As I was almost at the door, I passed Zapata gallery, right next door to my house, and who do I see but Julio peeking his head out! He was like, “Hey! Come in! We’re having a party to celebrate the new president!” Apparently, Dec 1st is a national holiday when there is a cambio de poder (changing of power), and this year, Enrique Peña Nieto, a member of PRI (the conservative party in Mexico) was “elected” president. According to what I can gather, this dude is a total rich, big wig douche who is ignorant to the problems of Mexico and especially its indigenous population. He used bribery and corruption to get his way into office, and he’s also married to a soap opera star! I feel bad for the Mexican people that they are living in what is called a democracy, but the government is so corrupt that “power to the people” is simply a theory rather than reality.
Anyway, this party at the gallery was fun. I ended up meeting a lot of people, some of which I already recognized from Tia’s show and other art events throughout town. I met a girl from Philadelphia who knew my former roommate from college (what a small world…), a dude from Boston who was trying to get in touch with his Mexican roots, and a dude named Pepe with whom I shared some Good Times and chatted about the city he loves. I didn’t get home until 4am, but it was quite an eventful night.
The next day, I woke up after getting maybe 2 hours of sleep. I felt like crap, but Kim, Alex, Greer and I went to Arrazola to pay back a sculptor that did some commission work for a former artist-in-residence. I tried ringing the Jimenez bros, but no one was home. The place was kind of a ghost town, both because it was a weekend, and also the day of the presidential inauguration. After this, we visited the Ex-Convento de Cuilapan de Guerrero, about 15 minutes away from Arrazola. Construction on the building began in the 16th century, but it was never finished due to lack of funds. It stands to this day without a roof. There is a small chapel that still holds mass (and has a roof!) connected to the historical site, and we saw a mass going on with eerie hymns being chanted slowly in Spanish by a mostly indigenous congregation.
After we walked around the site, we caught a bus back to the center, fell asleep, and woke up past our stop in the second-class bus terminal. We freaked out for a second, but then realized that we were withing walking distance of Abastos, which in turn is within walking distance of our house. Kim and I were starving after a long day of being hungover, so her and I and Andreja went to a place nearby to get tlayudas. It was in a garage, but the food was great, the owner was very nice, and it was cheap. I got a chorizo tlayuda, and it was served with the chorizo on top, for you to put inside yourself, or to just munch on. It was three generous links, perfectly charred and orange and salty and juicy, just how I like it! Mmm, sausage…
Once we recuperated forces, I met up with Oscar at Santo Domingo to go to the Cafe Central. There was a concert of Austin TV (a popular Mexican indie rock group) going on, and we came early to buy tickets. The place was even more packed than it was on Friday night. Marty and Kim arrived later, and Marty is actually friends with one of the guitarists from the band. Marty has accumulated quite a few friends in his short time in the city. He loves to talk and get to know people, and feels strong connections towards complete strangers that quickly evolve into deeper friendships. Totally awesome dude. Oscar lovingly calls him “El arbol” which means “The Tree” because of his height and his lanky frame.
The night was going great until Oscar started to say weird, flirtatious things to me and talk very close to my face. He then kissed me completely out of the blue, grabbing my face and forcing himself upon me. In front of others from the residency, and his own friends, I was humiliated. I pushed him away and told him to not do that again. Please.
I’ve experienced this kind of behavior from 90% of the guys I’ve been hanging out with so far in Oaxaca, and I am absolutely fed up with it. While I appreciate the attention, I don’t want it. It is completely unwelcome and out of line. I make it clear from the get-go that I have a boyfriend who I love and adore, and who I don’t lie to or cheat on. I did enough of that in Spain, and although my boyfriend at the time (who lived in Pittsburgh) and I had an agreement to have an “open relationship,” I ended up hurting him immensely because of my recklessness. I regret my behavior there, but at that time in my life, I had no idea how much it hurts to be cheated on. Of course, I didn’t realize this until after I was cheated on by someone I loved. It was the most awful feeling in the world. I felt worthless, betrayed, angry, and vengeful. My preoccupation with this single indiscretion led to the demise of our relationship. I understand that these things happen and that people are not designed for monogamy, but still – I would have been much better having not known about the cheating.
Here in Oaxaca, I am not here to fuck around. I’m here to learn woodcarving, absorb the culture, and experience the city. A huge part of any city is the nightlife, and I’m always down to party and have a drink with friends. This is where most of the best conversations with people emerge, and where I’m able to open up and make friends. However, I’ve realized that I cannot be myself around men here. Almost all of them, seemingly innocent and friendly, have ulterior motives. I’ve had to push guys away trying to kiss me and touch me inappropriately, sometimes in crowded areas in front of other people I know – in one case, on a dark street against a wall with no one around. I’ve been frightened by these events, and always tell myself, “Okay – now that I’ve dodged that one, it won’t happen again.” But it keeps happening. I still have a man stalking me (the bartender from Whiskey). It’s been 2 weeks, and despite being threatened with police, he continues to come looking for me. Certain dudes I’ve had great times with always turn creepy within an instant, perhaps because I am a naturally friendly person. Any kind of friendliness is construed as flirtation with guys like this, and they think that they have the right to grope and kiss you because of it. I am not interested in this. I do not want anyone to touch me. I have no desire to do anything sexual or physical with anyone I meet here. How many times do I have to fucking say it? I am in a committed, rewarding relationship with a wonderful man that I love deeply and who loves me back equally. For the first time in my life, I feel that we are balanced in our love and affection for each other, and I’ll be damned if I am conned into fucking that up. I hate feeling helpless and powerless against almost complete strangers. I fall into the trap of trusting these guys at first, mostly out of my own loneliness and desire to make friends, but then they completely betray my trust and treat me like an object. When I push them away, I have to use force, sometimes having to do it repeatedly because they are so relentless. “Why don’t you want to?” they ask. “Because I don’t want to.” Do I honestly have to come up with a reason? I make my own decisions and no one makes them for me. It’s my body, and I’ll cry if I want to, and I have. It’s deeply upsetting to me to be treated this way, and I have never experienced it so strongly as I have here in Oaxaca. It makes it nearly impossible to make friends, and turns this small city into a minefield of people that I’m trying to avoid.
Sorry for the rant. That’s life. Until next time… que les vayan bien.