The Invisible Teardrops, Never Mind the Sandra Bullocks

Here are some pics from when I saw my friends Katie Kat and Jamie’s band, The Invisible Teardrops, play at my old stomping grounds, The Princess Theater, in Columbus, Mississippi.

teardrops.jpg

IMG_1946 copy.jpg

Ming Donkey’s newest band with the Hartle Road boys, Never Mind the Sandra Bullocks, also put in an appearance.

IMG_2026 copy.jpg

Meanwhile, this was happening at the same time in the next room…

Oaxaca, Mexico

I’ve been a terrible blogger. I’ve avoided even looking at this blog, because I’ve gotten so far behind, and because I feel like I should be doing something more formal here — maybe getting off WordPress, getting a proper website? I had a photography portfolio on Jux, and it was lovely, and as soon as I finished making it, Jux folded and it went away forever.

Plus, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the internet. I love, love, love information at my fingertips. I can’t even imagine how journalists did their jobs prior to the existence of this incomprehensible resource. But I hate the constant pressure to create content and keep up a public persona, and the idea that if you don’t do this, you don’t matter and you’ll disappear. Although I guess it’s not too different from the pressure to publish, to have fresh bylines, and that’s always been there, and who are we kidding? Most of us don’t matter (in terms of the public sphere) anyhow.

In the words of Courtney Barnett, “No one really cares if you don’t go to the party.” Or at least, no one cares until they do. (My guess is, in Courtney’s case, these days people care very much).

All a digression… My trip to Guerrero and Oaxaca was half a year ago, now. I’m going to give you the fast and furious run down anyhow.

HERE GOES. From Puerto Escondido, it’s easy to get an overnight bus into Oaxaca City, and I arrived in the first week of a huge, annual indigenous culture celebration called Guelaguetza. (Lucky coincidence for me, worth planning a trip around for you!) There were Aztec dancing demonstrations, mezcal tastings, prehispanic food offerings and more bazaars than usual, in a city that’s known for bazaars.

11058207_10153006793377256_6167896183130228530_nThere were parades, with marching bands and folk dancers and giant puppets. You could join the parade, walking alongside it for hours, much like a Second Line in New Orleans. 11011961_10153006794072256_1755511473551697839_n.jpg

11800188_10153006793937256_2680298169460908307_n.jpgOaxaca is a colonial city, so it has a bit of a European vibe (ornate cathedrals, universities), and it’s the capital of the state of Oaxaca, so it’s also quite urban (fantastic restaurants, street art, museums – including the stellar contemporary art museum MACO – and galleries and boutiques). Because of it’s strong indigenous culture, it’s a political city. There are constantly people demonstrating. When I was there, there were multiple protests — an artist camped in a tent in front of Santo Domingo church, on a hunger strike against deforestation, and hundreds of teachers who had been living in tents in El Zocalo for months, protesting low wages.

11825017_10153006793307256_1960392676684654746_n.jpg

11813367_10153006793532256_3556227653751306235_n.jpg

If you want to buy gorgeous, handcrafted textiles, Oaxaca is the place. If you want to eat chocolate for every meal (hot chocolate for breakfast, mole for lunch and dinner), Oaxaca is definitely the place. And the food on the street is as amazing as the food at the trendy restaurants, so it’s really a matter of atmosphere and how much you want to spend. (I only went to one “high-dollar” restaurant, which is priced “moderately,” $15-20, by American standards. Casa Oaxaca, in the upscale, arty neighborhood of Reforma, is bright and uncluttered, in terms of both decor and food.)

Convenient day-trips from Oaxaca include Hierve el Agua, a calcified waterfall about two hours from the city, with two spring-fed, nature-carved “infinity” pools. The pools are open for swimming (the springs are hot, the pools are not), and there’s hiking and abundant mountain views. 11825101_10153006795327256_4617242949785079079_n.jpg11800605_10153006797662256_4286658464374899989_n.jpg11207294_10153006797917256_4281099815965630343_n.jpg

Milta, a charming little wander-able town with an important archeological site and more bazaars, is the halfway point. Usually hotels can set up a tour for you that includes Hierve, Milta and mezcal factories, but I just took a collectivo and skipped the mezcal factories. (If you do it this way, you might get to ride in the back of an open-air truck. This is great fun, because the views are stunning.)

11836777_10153006798262256_3463107523822202188_n.jpg

From Oaxaca, I flew back to Acapulco. NOTE: IF YOU DON’T SHOW UP AT LEAST AN HOUR AHEAD OF TIME, AEROMEXICO WILL GIVE AWAY YOUR SEAT. And that will not be fun. You will end up spending a night in Mexico City at your own expense and getting up for a 5 a.m. flight, so you won’t even get to enjoy your cushy hotel.

Before this mishap (I showed up 45 minutes ahead of time), I’d booked an Acapulco beach hotel and planned to spend my day lounging, before catching an evening flight back to Arkansas. Because I actually arrived in Acapulco in the early morning, I had no need for a hotel, but I didn’t want to waste the entire day at the airport. I was also low on cash, had maybe 50 pesos — way too little to take a cab anywhere, and I didn’t want to change any money, since I was on the way out.

One of of my favorite things about traveling is finding yourself in unusual situations and having to make it up as you go — seeing how you react when you can’t communicate well and spent hours on a bus, only to end up in the wrong town, or you find yourself broke in the middle of nowhere, with no ATMs, or your hotel room door doesn’t  lock and the “manager” is nowhere to be found. I like the challenge of having to be unexpectedly resourceful.

I wanted to go to the beach. Mexico beaches are public, but beachfront property is private, so I knew I had to access the beach through a hotel. And beachfront hotels don’t let you near the beach without reservations. I schelped my bags to a bus-stop and took a local bus to a fancy hotel complex. Then I took a cab into the complex, because I was pretty sure arriving on foot wouldn’t be very convincing when I told the guards I was on my way to make reservations. The guards didn’t speak English, and I pretended not to understand their Spanish at all. They didn’t want to let me in, but I was persistent and really played up the miscommunication thing, and ultimately they let me go.

Once I hit the beach, I was home free…I picnicked on airport food purchased with vouchers (my Aeromexico consolation prize, since my seat was given away) and swam, always with an eye on my bags, then cleaned up after in the hotel’s poolside bathroom and bartered a ride with a local cabbie back to the airport. (Told him I had 35 pesos left, and he said fine. He’d just been hanging out chatting, anyhow.) And that was that.

Hasta la vista, Mexico!

Puerto Escondido: the locals’ beaches

Okay, more nifty stuff about PE:

  1. Swampy’s been there. That’s a long way to ride the rails, from the U.S. to the second-to-southernmost Mexican state. IMG_0244
  2. The local beaches are fascinating. My favorite two are Playa Angelito and Playa Principal.

IMG_0272 IMG_0273

Angelito, guarded by an altar, is miniscule, claustrophobic and crowded. Fishing-boats come close, cutting off swimmers’ access to open sea. But that’s okay, because most people are waders, anyhow — adults packed into tight kiddie inner tubes, kids in water-wings, everyone squealing and clutching each other with each wave. A motor-boat pulls tykes around on, no joke, an inflatable hot dog. Gulls circle low to catch one-off’s from the fishing boats. Men on the shore hawk “seven beach boat tour” to tourists, except that there really don’t seem to be many tourists. The shallow expanse of sand is ringed by hut-style restaurants, and little boys stand on the wet rocks and fish using a line and a cardboard square, and grin and scramble when a fisherman whistles at them and tosses handfuls of guppies. The small fish flash silver on the rocks and the kids grab them in bare handfuls and shove them in a nylon backpack to use as bait.

IMG_0233 IMG_0277 IMG_0281

IMG_0229

Playa Principal is the downtown beach, sunk just below the main drag. It’s wide, gritty and teaming, best at dusk, because that’s when the fishermen bring in their catch. There are naked tots and competing boom boxes, kids tossing balls and playing chicken. The street alongside the beach turns into a night bazaar, with people offering indigenous crafts alongside cheap trinkets. It all feels summery and festive, like a grand place to stroll bare-shouldered, enjoying soft air and eating ice cream.

IMG_0993

IMG_1039IMG_1061 IMG_1005 IMG_1047

3. Pablo and I finally made it the tiny cove on Playa Carrizalillo. Maybe because the power was “harnessed” by rocks, the surf was completely wild. It churned up huge shells (I found one the size of a small plate) and knocked us off of a rock we were using as a lounger. I got a huge bump on the back of my head, and Pablo’s glasses were knocked off his face. He didn’t notice till we had hiked the hill back to the main beach. Then we went back to look for them, though he was sure they were at sea.

I nearly stepped on them. They were sitting on the beach, lenses up, neatly folded, like someone had placed them there intentionally.

IMG_4492

That’s it for PE. Next up, Oaxaca city!

Puerto Escondido, water for every whim

Puerto Escondido is fabulous, and I wish I had more time there.

My hostel, Casa Losodeli, was full of 20-something Europeans and Americans who had essentially moved in. It seems anyone willing to tend bar and set out cereal is welcome to a free private room. Some had been there for weeks. Some had been there for months.
IMG_0269

These lifers spent large swaths of the day at the hostel, occasionally leaving for an hour to run or wash clothes or surf. They played Davila 666 and Beach House (the San Fran bike messenger) and Vampire Weekend (the Austrian) over the common space speakers, and read or used wifi at the wooden tables on the thatched-roof patio They grocery-shopped and cooked in the hostel kitchen and shared with each other, or split giant pizzas. The Europeans speak four languages and bitched about how broke they are and how their parents ignore their requests for money.

There were also Mexican guests at Casa Losodeli. Confusingly, they lounged by the small, kidney-shaped pool, ignoring Puerto Escondido’s loveliest beach, a mere three block stroll.

IMG_0904

I befriended, Pablo, a 28-year-old insurance salesman from Mexico City, who had planned to travel with friends. They ditched at the last minute,  so my first full day and his last, we got up early and descended the hundred-plus stairs to Carrizalillo Beach, a half-moon of pleasant pounding, gradiated blues and tropical foliage. (It’s also great for surfing, if you’re not quite up for “the Mexican Pipeline” that is Zicatela.)

We swam out far, past the breaks and the surfers, and I spend a lot of time floating on my back, trying to tilt and crane enough to keep the mansions in view, scattered about the green bluffs. I also spent a lot of time marveling at the convex sky and thinking about how much I love the ocean, being simultaneously contained and infinite (a mantra, of sorts).

From the sea, we saw two things we hadn’t noticed from the beach — a tiny, secretive cove that we could maybe access if we climbed a small bit of bluff, and the remains of a house in the hills. We decided to try the ruins first.

IMG_0238

We’d eyeballed the distance using a large white house which, upon walking up a dirt road, we identified as the hotel with the best terrace restaurant for watching the sun set over the ocean (as we discovered that evening), called Villas Carrizalillo. There are briars and a bit of downed fence behind the villa and a small, overgrown path that leads to what seems to have once been a private residence.

Much of a narrow kitchen is intact, with some painted tile remaining. Street artists had been there before us and it looked as if someone had used part of the place for dumping, but the floor is made of large cool tiles, the view is amazing and it would be a perfect place to camp, unless you’re worried about snakes or scorpions slithering through the night. (I am maybe, a little.)

IMG_0759

There were also bats in a stone chimney, and when we spoke into the void, they emerged in a chaotic, thrilling mass.

We hiked back and ordered lunch from the family-run, open-air restaurant on the beach. Pablo asked for fish, but by this point, I’d eaten loads of fresh, spiny, flat-eyed fish. I wanted the chicken mole the cook was feeding her children.

Pablo negotiated this for me, and at first the woman was reluctant, since the mole isn’t on the menu. But ultimately I was presented with a plate of thick, rich chocolate sauce over boiled-to-disintegration (i.e. perfectly moist and tender) chicken and rice and a stack of handmade tortillas, which Pablo rolled and dipped in the mole and said that’s how Mexicans do it.

It was way better than his fish tacos, and it ended up costing much less — about $2 US.

Then we took a cab to Playa Zicatela, but it was too early for the surfers. Cautious people avoid the water at Zicatela. We plunged in, of course, and it immediately became apparent why this is considered one of the most dangerous beaches in the western hemisphere. There are killer (literally) rip tides. You can see them, like a giant zipper being dragged up and down, just under the water.

But if you avoid these zippers, the waves are great. Standing in thigh-high water, you can catch a swell and body-surf the hundred or so yards to shore. And when the waves are big enough to be terrifying (every fourth wave or so), simply dive under them, the deeper, the calmer. But I like to surface dive, to feel the bubbles skimming my body like fizz on a soft drink. I love how each beach has entirely different types of waves, which lend themselves to entirely different forms of play.

IMG_0822

When we’d had enough, we got massages on loungers ($8 US, from women walking up and down the beach seeking customers), and then watched the surfers (7-8am and 5-6pm, usually) weave through raging, 15-20 foot tubes.

Then we had mezcal-coffee shots at a bo-ho bar called Casa Babylon. It wasn’t open yet, but we convinced them to let us in.

They were playing some chill electronic lounge that sounded like early-90’s New York, and the ceiling and walls are a museum of wooden artifacts, including indigenous masks. There are couches and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and signs about yoga, and I know that if I lived in PE, I’d be a quick regular.

IMG_0860

But here’s the highlight of it all: that night, we went swimming on the moon.

Except the moon is called Manialtepec (meaning “place of the lizards”) and it only exists during the rainy season (May to November), and it’s currently only accessible via a stinky motorboat that’s likely not doing its amazing biosphere any favors.

Without signing any sort of releases and without life vests (oh so different from US tourism), we joined a guide and random others in this stinky motorboat and rode 20 minutes out into a pitch-black convergence of salt and fresh-water.

Then we were told, unceremoniously, to jump in.

Hope the “lizards” are iguanas and not crocodiles, I told Pablo. We jumped.

The water was soft and warm, like Mississippi summer nights. And as we moved around, we saw little flashes of white light, like Mississippi summer fireflies, except they started increasing in intensity and merging together creating little “trailers” to mark our movement.

We were told that motion disturbs the phytoplankton who sometimes live in the lagoon. Then they light up as a defense mechanism, and then you dance and spin and make water angels, trailing circles and sparkles.

If you push from your chest, a la basket-ball passing, you fling a ball of white energy, like a wizard, commanding a spell.

I could have stayed forever.

Apparently, no one else could. An hour later, only Pablo and I were still swimming.

It had been raining for awhile, and every drop coaxed a blink-and-you-miss spark from the dark water. The sky had fallen to earth and we were star-swimming.

It was sheer magic. Then it was sheer panic.

The lightning had been in the distance, but one slash was frighteningly close and instantly, I was grasping the (gulp, metal) ladder, hauling myself onto the boat.

We shivered through the ride back, the plankton drying on our skin as shimmering, chalky powder. I slept still wearing moon-dust — a perfect ending to a perfect day.

Xochistlahuaca, “land of flowers” in the Guerrero mountains

 xochistlahuaca, guerrero, mexico

xochistlahua_franco

Xochistlahuaca is in the Guerrero mountains, where corn grows on steep hillsides and everything is lush and green. It’s 4,000+ residents primarily belong to an indigenous group called Amuzgo, many of whom speak Nomndaa rather than Spanish.

Since 2002, Xochistlahuaca has provided it’s own community police and governed itself somewhat independently from the rest of Guerrero (a right of indigenous communities under the Mexican constitution) and since 2004, it has hosted Radio Nomndaa, the only Amuzgo-language radio station. (Radio Nomndaa advocates for indigenous rights and has been a target of state and federal police.)

Amuzgo women weave shifts, called huipil, and scarves. The linen-like fabric often incorporates design motifs of flowers, animals and legends, and sometimes it takes three months to make a single piece.

xochistlahuaca_franco

xochistlahuaca womens coop

They sell these pieces at a boutique run by a cooperative of 28 women, which was founded by Florentina Lopez de Jesus in 1969, and also on certain Saturdays, at an early morning casual street gathering where a few hundred women mill about with bags, pulling out handiwork and naming their price. Mostly the buyers and sellers are Amuzgo women but Sonia and I were there, and later we saw another woman, an Afro-Mexican tourist.

There are no banks and no ATM’s in Xochistlahuaca, so bring plenty of cash. Huipils run anywhere from US $30 to $250, and you’ll want to buy them all.

We hitched a ride with some people from our Playa Ventura hotel to Ometepec (where, from a car window, I caught a glimpse of a church that reminded me of Sufi shrines), and from there, took a collectivo a winding few hours. (Definitely break out the dramamine.) Our fellow passengers, a young Amuzgo couple, asked me for name suggestions for their yet-unnamed three-month-old son. Talk about pressure.

There isn’t much to do in Xochistlahuaca beyond eat amazing food in restaurants that are likely to be the upstairs of someone’s house (the area is known for soft cheese), hiking the hills (you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of town) and ambling around taking photos.

xochistlahuaca_Franco

There’s a river with rapids (the San Pedro?) just before Xochistlahuaca, with a calm, swimming spot near the road. Otherwise the current is rough, although I braved the rapids and wedged myself between rocks, letting the water pound me. (Swim in clothes. The Amuzgos are more modest than many Mexicans and don’t seem to wear bathing suits.)

Cheree Franco

Most people wear traditional clothes, although at a wedding we attended, the bride work a fluffy white dress and some of the younger women wore short, tight numbers.

If men aren’t in jeans and button-downs, they are in loose, white pajama-like outfits, with the shirt open to the waist. Women wear huipil and for less formal occasions, polyester lace shifts over long cotton dresses.

Many Amuzgos are Catholic, but there is a growing number of Protestants (missionaries started coming in the 1940’s), and there’s lot of magical thinking concerning hexes, medicine men, the power of heavenly bodies (more deaths are thought to occur during solar and lunar eclipses) and the power of specific burial rites.

The wedding was Presbyterian and certainly seemed, to my Protestant upbringing, to fit the bill. There was no alcohol and much prayer, and there were many religious songs. The ceremony, held in the town’s central auditorium, was a curious mix of unfamiliar traditions (children’s games, a receiving line where the bride and groom spoke to everyone and accepted gifts) and familiar trappings (an official procession, a sit-down dinner).

Invited guests had seats at the table, but anyone in town was free to wander in and watch the proceedings from the bleachers.

Once the sun sets the streets are dark, since there are no street-lights, and most shops are closed. Some businesses close but leave doors opened and lights on, and people gather and chat in their entryways. There is at least one cantina (it happened to be very noisy and directly below our hotel), but it definitely seemed a men’s place more than a women’s place.

IMG_0700

There are two small hotels in town, and ours was empty but for us. We ended up in something called the “presidential suite” (about $20), with no wifi (though we paid extra), no hot water and a broken lock, so that we piled furniture against the door before sleeping. The suite was funny, like a kingpin’s idea of luxury, circa 1987. It had hideous red-orange walls, a black laquer dining set and china cabinet, two love-seats and a coffee table. Oh, and a TV that is, apparently, just for looks, since neither the remote or the power button enticed a picture. (The comedy of the room compensated for it’s shortcomings?)

Xochistlahuaca = time well spent.

The Costa Chica region of Guerrero, Mexico

Apparently, I take the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings as vacation recommendations. But the Mexican state of Guerrero is much more than mass graves in hillsides, and I encounter more shady characters in 48-hours in my own Little Rock neighborhood than I did in a week in Guerrero. I’m not saying terrible things don’t happen there (and everywhere), just, hey, let’s keep some perspective.

PERSPECTIVE: Would you travel to Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland or Chicago? I have lived in three of those cities and frequent two others. In recent years, the French government has issued travel warnings against all of them.

So. Now we have that out of the way.

If you visit Guerrero, you’ll fly into Acapulco, which is, incidentally, the only city in the state that the U.S. government allows it’s personnel to visit. It’s also, arguably, the most dangerous city. In 2014 it had the highest homicide rate in Mexico. But that’s not why you’ll want to leave Acapulco as soon as possible –it’s simply not as amazing as the rest of the state.

Acapulco

Acapulco beach

My friend Sonia, who works with the UN in indigenous education and lives in Chilpancingo (the capitol of Guerrero and #3 on the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice’s list of most violent cities in Mexico), met me at the airport. We spent an evening and morning at a fancy-ish hotel called the Crowne Plaza, with a series of complicated, interconnected pools and a swim-up bar.

The best part of Acapulco was an early morning swim. I liked the misty hills, the slate-gray water, the contrast between warm ocean and cold drizzle. (This is supposedly the rainy season. But in 10 days, that first morning drizzle was as rainy as it got). After breakfast, we hopped a collective taxi to Playa Ventura — roughly $5 and two hours, if you don’t mind doing part of the ride with four people in the backseat and two in the front passenger seat.

Playa Ventura is in Costa Chica, a region of largely undeveloped beachfront and home to many Afro-Mexicans. We stayed at Meson Casa de Piedra, run by a Czech woman and her Mexican husband, both of whom speak English and Spanish. It’s amazing and affordable (about $20-30 a night), with maybe a dozen rooms, all of them unique and many with private terraces.

The front desk doubles as a bar, and there are winding shell and stone paths, driftwood furniture, shell and stick mobiles, hammocks, Chinese lanterns, two friendly Great Danes, free mangos and a restaurant that serves up yummy chilaquiles. There’s no hot water, mosquito screens or consistent wifi, but it’s so peaceful, you probably won’t notice. (Ok, you may notice the mosquitos. I live in Arkansas, so for me, that just made things homey.)

Mesón Casa de Piedra hotels playa ventura costa chica copala guerrero mexican beaches mexico beach

Mesón Casa de Piedra _cfranco

Mexican breakfast chilaquiles

The waves directly in front of the hotel are too dangerous for swimming – at least in the rainy season – but a short walk down the beach/climb over a great rock pile, the waves are more calm. And there’s a family owned, open-air beachfront restaurant there, where you can get fresh fish, homemade tortillas and sticky garlic rice. If you order raw coconuts (the nut with a straw), a guy shimmies up a tree and hacks them down.

PlayaVentura CostaChica Guerrero Mexico MexicanBeaches

Shells and bits of coral are plentiful. I had quite the collection in our room, though I ended up having to choose a few from a few dozen, because bag space was tight. They were brilliantly pink and purple, except for one of my favorites — a golden teardrop with a surface that looked like cracked glass.

playaventura mexicanbeaches costachica guerrero mexico mexicopacificcoast

Playa Ventura CFranco

PlayaVentura MexicanBeaches PacificCoastMexico CostaChica Guerrero

Okay, the requisite WARNING (Are we friends again, State Department?): Be careful on the rocks at high tide. I met a Mexican couple climbing, and we sat on one outcrop and tried to communicate, shouting our encouragement to the sea – “mas grande, mas grande” – basking in the spray. Then one wave slammed me into a rock and nearly washed him out to sea, and we scrambled down, bloody and lucky.

The day before, when he dropped us at the hotel, the bus driver told us about a saint’s festival in town (Copala, maybe?). So he picked us up and deposited us at the celebration, promising to return in a few hours.

IMG_0303

IMG_0216

Copala Guerrero Afromexican CostaChica

Neither of us ever caught which saint we were celebrating, but past the skinny, hyper-made-up teenagers in flouncy dresses, the kids wrestling in trampolines and bouncy houses, the food vendors and the man with mylar balloons, there was a tiny chapel with people filing in and out, lighting candles.

playaventura guerrero mexico

IMG_0247

IMG_0256

But the real attraction was the cumbia band and the middle-aged women wiggling their hips, shimmying on tent-supporting poles, grinding against each other. They were super sexy, more fluid and free than the teenagers, and they’d all mastered a particular party trick — dancing with a full beer on their heads. They were friendly, enticing Sonia and I to dance, their husbands plying us with tiny bottles of beer.

IMG_0187

IMG_0370

IMG_0392

IMG_0454

By the time the sun set and our bus driver returned, we were buzzed from beer and adrenaline and didn’t want to leave. But he said we should go before the men got too drunk and started fighting.

IMG_0325

He was our ride. Reluctantly, we did.

We took our buzz to the beach and laid across the flat rocks in front of our hotel, looking for shooting stars sans light pollution. Stars, waves, fish, mango — basically, Playa Ventura is heaven.