Saturday, July 24, 2010
Day of the Dead and Drag Queens - Part Three of the Mole Tales
THE BIG AFTERNOON CRYFEST AND THE NIGHT OF THE DRAG QUEENS
Day of the Dead is a celebration, not a time for lamentation. Folks down here have a rather interesting POV when it comes to the concept of death. The ones who have departed come back every year to feast, smoke and drink and sing with the living. In Zapotec culture they believe that death means starting to live. They tend to celebrate deaths moreso than births because of this belief.
I know I am really boiling down some serious concepts here but I am not a trained anthropologist and as far as I am concerned there are some folks in this field that could use an enema or five.
The big afternoon cry fest, post mole production, was not really a cry fest but more a time for my good friend Richard to let off some steam. He had taken some friends, Bill, Alan and Frank, to the ruins in Mitla, appropriately known as the City of the Dead. Richard has cancer and the fact that at this writing he is still alive is a testimony to his need to explore and understand these same concepts that he has been enveloped in for most of his life. I am happy that he got to be around for this particular fiesta for obvious reasons. This is indeed a special time.
I had been told to meet everyone in the courtyard for drinks but when I saw Richard, drinking was the last thing on my mind. One moment he would be crying that he was not yet ready to die and the next moment he would be hysterically laughing that planning a death was not all it was cracked up to be. I ignored as best as I could all of his rantings because I did not want to lose it�. I had made my peace with his disease well over a year ago and I wanted this time to be one of camaraderie and not one of boo hoo hooing. That shit can come later.
Some things remain blurry and for good reason. I am not going to describe what I saw that afternoon for to me that is kind of private and I do not believe that Ricardo would appreciate my telling it here. Suffice to say it was an intense several hours. Alan was headed back to Oaxaca, returning the next day, but Bill was going to sleep in his truck with his corgie. This left mister Frank. I told him to come and bunk with my family as we always can spare space and the family loves to meet new folks. We put Richard to bed for tomorrow he would need his energy for the visitations.
Frank is a fellow writer and when I first saw him earlier in the day my gaydar went right off the scale. We conversed as if we had known each other all of our lives and this my friends is a wonderful feeling to have when you are stressed out. I needed a diversion or five and Frank was to provide diversions not only for me but for my family who were suffering through a particular crises of their own. Let's just say that the visit had been very intense and not just because of the holy times.
Frank, Alan, Bill and Richard had earlier in the day visited the ruinas and Frank had recorded all of Ricardo's words so he could later transcribe them. I thought this was a great idea for Richard always has some sort of bawdy anecdote to add into his historical musings. Frank would have his work cut out for him and I would be able to fill in the gaps later.
Now after I got Frank settled in we decided that the time was right to go out exploring - read - find a bar. It's not that I wanted to get shitfaced for tomorrow would be a busy day but I wanted to sit down with Frank and have, well, a frank discussion about not only the day's events but our collective journalistic experiences.
We caught a moto to Ruben's cantina but he was closed so I asked the driver to take us to any cantina. Now the driver must have had gaydar too for he dropped us off at the home of Mitla's only reigning official Drag Queen Miss Ruby. Miss Ruby is amazing to see with her well-defined Zapotec nose and her statuesque presence - god damn - those heels of hers! She has my admiration for this is one conservative town if there ever was but hey this was October 31st so let the fun begin!
Miss Ruby's family are pretty cool folks for they allowed her to have a cantina/dance/lounging space right in the family home. We met other
folks of the same persuasion and proceeded to have some great conversation. Frank was all pumped up about possibly seeing more DQ's out and about but the big drag event for Day of the Dead that had happened two years ago was a one-shot deal. Ruby confirmed this but went on to tell us that a boffo party was happening at another cantina near the ruins and yes, the DQ brigade would be out in full force.
Now I will digress here a bit. The town of Juchitan in the Istmo region (Tehuantepec area) is a town worth exploring if gay/drag culture is your thing. Those of us in the know already know about Puerto Vallarta's boy's town area but Juchitan is the real thing babies! In this town parents brag about their gay sons for they know that they will have someone to look after them in their old age. In Juchitan the closet has never existed.
We grab another moto, address in hand, and head for the party. Miss Ruby promises to be in attendance later. Typical Queen. She needed to get real gussied up as if she was not fabulous already?
We arrive and are greeted by this wonderful cadre of queens, not as statuesque as Ruby but glamorous all the same. I provided much amusement by letting off some firecrackers at the hangers-on lingering around the corner who were too cheap or scared to go into the party. Tossing small incendiaries by the way is to me, a big part of the fun. The locals seem to think that gringos do not know the system but hahahaha I do. I just wished that I could have had some cherry bombs on hand. Alas, not so. I made do with what I had.
Frank asked me if we should get some mescal. I was a little leery about this because I know how deadly it can be but I threw all caution to the wind this night. Why not? I have pretty much given up hard liquor so a little tumble off of the wagon could be fun? The bartender happened to have a bottle of anejo (old) mescal. We have a joke around here about anejo products. Folks want to impress you, the traveler, so they drag out any donkey piss to serve you and tell you it is anejo. A seasoned mescal aficionado like me can tell the difference but I never say anything. I just do not go beyond the one shot. Being a woman is definitely advantageous for women do not traditionally drink down here so I can bow out of a bad mescal situation without hurting anyone's feelings.
This mescal however was ANEJO and therefore damned good. So good in fact that we got into it and got into good right down to the ground up GUSANOS (worms) flavoured with chile salt. I had maybe three shots and I knew that was my limit. Ahhhh, but as to beers? No limits there. Once the music got going me and the girls had some fun.
More folks started to arrive but there was something really strange about this. The majority of the attendees were young males, definitely not gay but seriously curious. They all sat in a circle hugging the walls gaping at the spectacle. Frank was in boy heaven and I gave him his space. It was fun to watch him govereeting with the young men.
I had a sweater on and was starting to get hot. Dancing a samba will do that to you so I decided to take it off ( I had a decent-sized sport tank bra on) and create a mini-scandal. I love to dance and yes, I did dance with absolute mescal abandon and I could keep up to the frenetic beats. A couple of diesels (dykes) moved in on me and I was so much taller than them but the queens formed a phalanx around me as these chicks were trying way too hard.
The place was getting more packed and the bartender told me I could not let off anymore firecrackers. Okay, that was cool as there was lots of papier mache around that could have caught fire.
A man started to dance with me, obviously straight and his English was very good. He started twirling me around and as I got closer to him he tried to cop a titty feel. Oh that is just so amateur-hour so I gave him a nice little cuff across his left cheek like I would to a stroppy little boy for that is what he was and he was old enough to know better. Now some folks would get angry but he knew that his behaviour was uncalled for and he immediately apologized and bought me a beer. Frank was pissed off that he did not see the exchange for he would have been greatly amused.
The time came soon to leave for I was fading fast. I am usually in bed by 9 PM and it was already two in the morning and that day was gonna be busy. It turned out that my dance partner had a moto taxi and he graciously offered to take us back to Artemio's. I bade the DQ brigade goodnight, Frank got some addresses of folks who wanted him to visit later, and we left. When our driver discovered where we were going he confessed to me that he used to date Artemio's daughter Irma. Hahahahahahahaha! This was just too too precioso.
Lucia had left some food out for us and we snacked. I drank gobs of water because I did not want to be CRUDA (hungover) the next day. Fat chance of that working right? I had somewhat crossed the line of reason but I am one of those folks that no matter what the show must go on.
The church bells were tolling as we went to bed still calling out the Angeles (the little dead children spirits) to come out and eat and drink. On the 31st at exactly high noon Don Juan had stood in front of our shrine saying novenas to welcome the little spirits as Lucia and I had made sure that the little cups of hot chocolate and treats were placed reverently there for them to partake of.
THE CEMETARY GATHERING AND THE VISITATIONS
We arose early because there were many preparations to be undertaken. The day before we had all bought huge bunches of flowers, some to be placed around the shrine and the rest to go with us to the PANTEON (cemetary).
Frank and I wandered over next door to Artemio's bro Ernesto's place, where Ricardo lives, and we had coffee with the family and Bill who had just arrived with his corgie. Alan and another friend, Jody who is an ethno botanist and a woman full of information, had also arrived.
Nobody is ever in a rush down here. I imagine because most of the town was crudo that there were many folks adopting that strategy.
We sat in the courtyard exchanging barbs and of course Richard had to ask Frank and me what we had gotten up to the night before. He of course rolled his eyes. It's funny how our friendship has morphed from drinking buddies to him being an almost father-figure and admonishing me for what may seem to be decadent behaviour. Oh well. I told everyone that I was his bastard daughter from a liaison with a Berlin call girl. He really rolled his eyes then amidst the laughter.
Well he is almost old enough to be my dad.
The time had come to make the important visitation to the panteon. This is the time when folks gather with treats, flowers, incense (copal) and cleaning materials. The latter is for the freshening up of the gravesites so we can festoon them with the decorative and imbibing elements. Some graves even sported joints and mescal in shot glasses.
Richard looked tired and sad and unfortunately I did capture that on the camera. There are some pictures that need to be taken if only to give others an idea of the gravity of a particular situation. I allowed (not like I was in charge) Richard and Jody to walk together while Frank, Alan, Bill and I walked separately. We did not need to mention to each other Richard's situation. It would have been moot.
Richard needed to visit the gravesite of a very old friend. He gave some good stories about this man that when he passed on had the largest funeral cortege ever in Mitla, such was this man revered. Alan had wandered off to take shots but I decided that I did not need to do so. Richard remarked as to the differences between Norte Americano attitudes to gravesites vs. those of Mexicans. We walked all over the tightly packed sites as did everybody else exchanging greetings, shaking hands and hugging those folks that we knew. Back at home I could not imagine a festive situation like this being accepted. The closest I had ever come to duplicating this moment in Canada had been at the funeral of my best girlfriend's brother when we bade all in attendance to release balloons while his favorite song TIME OF YOUR LIFE by Greenday was playing in the background. To this day I cannot listen to that song without crying and laughing at the same time and yes, that is possible to do just that, laugh and cry simultaneously.
Frank, Bill and I went back to Artemio's so Bill could get the truck and fetch Richard and Jody back. Richard needed to conserve his energy for the afternoon visitations. He would try to do four of them but he managed only two. He did two more the next day. Last year we did ten, one in another town down the road so this should demonstrate just how difficult the day would have been for him.
FOOD OF THE DEAD, THE MOLE TEST and many jokes about hangovers
That day we had started off our morning with Caldo Guajolote at Ernestoâ€™s house. I would say that was great hangover recovery food. Served with fresh tortillas and chiles this broth made from the turkey was enjoyed by all. Nothing gets wasted down here foodwise. I do the same thing in my home with carcasses, bits and sometimes offal. The caldos down here are flavorful and are meant to be enhanced by freshly chopped chiles, cilantro and onions eaten of course with the ubiquitous tortillas.
I had taken recently to calling Margarita's and Lucia's salsas SALSA DE MUERTO - salsa of death - named so for they can range from medium to quite fiery but have great flavor layers that are subtle and do not smack you between the eyes like a badly made salsa would.
The ladies, the two sisters in law, love my naming of their salsas so much that now they refer to their salsas that way. The household rivalry between these two women will be explored in further musings. It is thoroughly amusing to say the least the two of them vying for the compliments of the visitors and the opinions of la gringa.
That they value my opinion means a great deal to me for our shared love of the kitchen is something that cannot be described. It just happens.
I had already been sampling and making sauces for almost a month and boy was I ready for the challenges ahead. Our first visitation was for Hugo's place, he of the forgotten breakfast pledge regarding the musicians who had been playing for the San Judas fiesta. I wondered what his wife would be like for I knew that she had been very angry with him just days before.
As I sit here typing warmly ensconced in my reboso (shawl) I am still chuckling about Hugo whom the families call my boyfriend. He is a funny, warm and generous man and as I was to find out, had a wife who was incredibly patient. Myself, I would have bitch-slapped him several times over regarding some of his foibles. Yeah right, like I am some kind of saint? Hahahahaha!
Alan and Bill were not able to stay for the visitations and that was unfortunate for they missed some great scoff. Jody, Richard, Frank, Ernesto and myself made our way to Hugo's where we were first seated in the salon for the initial ritual of beers and mescal. Hugo had brought out the first bottle of a pretty decent anejo. I was not in the mood for mescal but I took a shot glass after much ribbing about the night before. It seems that mine and Frank's exploits of the night before had already made the rounds in this little burg. Oh well, suffer in style sayeth I.
The whole time they were imbibing all I could do was commiserate on the smells emanating from the kitchen. Oh man. Pure fucking ambrosia. Not soon enough for me we were summoned to the kitchen for what would be a veritable feast. I broke my plan of eating small because I kind of figured that due to Richard's flagging energies I would not be doing that many food stops that day so why not indulge?
Hugo's wife had three dishes on tap for us. Firstly a fantastic caldo, followed by the poultry in a chile-based sauce, not a mole and then another dish that encompasses the giblets, some offal, eggs and ham in the same caldo broth. Wow. But before we could start on the courses we had to first have some PAN DE MUERTO (dead bread) accompanied by hot chocolate, Oaxaca style. This is always the format - drinks, chat, bread, chocolate then the food. Now do you understand why one has to pace themselves?
By the way it is seen as gauche if you do not eat all of the bread given to you with your chocolate water. This is why I always ask for small portions of this dense bread for it will fill you too quickly. Mind you, gringos are almost always forgiven for this slight.
The ancho chile sauce could easily have been confused for a mole. Its flavor was dense, smoky, garlicky and sweet/hot but it did not have that chocolate element to it. I loved this sauce and asked how many kinds of meats it could be served with. Many it seems. I shall have to get her recipe as this sauce would be a good start for me to attempt as opposed to the complex mole that I would get into later that I had been observing the preparation thereof.
Almost two hours of great food, conversation and laughter had passed and it was time to take our leave for we had to go to Don Fausto's.
The wind had started to pick up strength and I felt chilled. I regretted having to change from my Mitla-made long skirt into more practical trousers but I was cold. I am a denizen of the tropics and the weather here can be taxing if one is acclimatized to a warmer temperature profile. The blowing dust swirling in the courtyards causes me to serial sneeze. Other than that, all is good in Oaxaca and this is why I am planning on building something here. That will be later though as my heart is Belizean first. Besides, I have digs for now and that is good enough for me to share space with my crazy family.
MASKS, SKULLS, FOOD, FIREWORKS and more ribbings.
Richard, in a rather morbid moment a couple of weeks prior to Day of the Dead had bought this grotesque yet funny mask to wear whilst sporting a classic seersucker suit. This getup was topped off by his favourite hat while he carried a cheesy skull whose mandible could be manipulated. I think he liked the mask for it represented his feelings about the pinche cancer and what it was doing to his body and spirit.
He had decided those two weeks ago to trot out the seersucker because, well, why the fuck not? He looked very dignified and dashing in it but by the same token to me he looked like one of those old Dons which was kind of cool. He is Italian so it was kind of fitting for him to be dressed so even with that damned zombie mask.
It was with Richard and the entourage that we made our way to Don
Fausto's place. He scared the crap outta a bunch of little kids and I enjoyed that.
After tossing more firecrackers and scaring more little kids we finally arrive at Fausto's to repeat the same joyous ritual. By this time I can enjoy some mescal and cerveza. I normally would never have chocolate with beer but in this case I toss aside my prejudices. The fabulous mole is soon produced in bowls with a special piece of the turkey swimming in that chocolaty morass. The tortillas are brought out for we use them instead of forks. Spoons yes, are most apropos as we can taste the sauce at a leisurely pace. Oh joy. I am sorry but this tastes amazing!!! What is really ironic here is that I had tasted this same mole at the same house last year and yes, it tasted the same which was amazing as one would think consistency would be difficult to achieve with such a complex sauce!!
To achieve that sort of consistency I am gonna have to work my ass off.
Oh the food and the company. Why cannot more folks back at home live this way? They are too busy buying shit they do not need.
The town was quiet. Folks were out walking on their way to visitations. The shops were closed down tight and many of the businesses would not be open proper until Sunday. Even the Saturday market was a non-entity and this was a first. For some odd reason Day of the Dead was more observed this year. Maybe it was because this was the first year in several that the valley was this green (it had been an excellent rainy season) and not muted in brown tones. Everything felt more fertile, folks were smiling and no one was in a hurry.
As one of my amigas was remarking to all one day - how green is MY valley.