Friday, January 13, 2006

Letter from Oaxaca

This note is from an ex-student and friend of mine. She works for an election consulting/polling firm. The letter was sent home to their parents, but was also forwarded to me, as an ex-teacher. A nice story of innocents abroad, recovering nicely through the application twenty-something ironic detachment. Thanks to Taren Stinebrickner for permission to use the letter.....

We haven´t had as much time as we´d like to share our adventures with our dear friends and families, but we couldn´t resist sharing one recent episode. Where by recent, we mean in the last two hours. Enjoy!

Almost since beginning to explore Oaxaca on the 23rd, we have been seeing large, professional-looking posters all around town for a choral Christmas concert. The posters read:

"Navidad en Oaxaca
El Insituto Cultural de Oaxaca presenta sus tradicionales

Pastorales de Navidad

Tuna de Antequera
y el
Coral Aleluya

80 pesos"

with multiple performances daily for over a week.

So we thought, 80 pesos! That´s eight whole dollars! That must really be something special, considering that people have been trying to sell us scarves, tableclothes, their children, for less than THIRTY pesos! And the Hallelujah Chorus! performed by the Cultural Institute of Oaxaca! Must be a venerated Christmas tradition! And besides the cultural value, it will really feel like we´re back home, Taren at her family´s Christmas party, Emily listening to Kevin´s precious sound system... We know, we´ll go on Christmas Day! It´ll be GREAT!

So we looked forward to it all week long, getting more excited every time we saw a new giant poster. When we wondered to ourselves, what will we do on Christmas Day? Will anything be open? What if we run out of food and money? Will we die of thirst in the streets? We don´t know, but at least we can count on the Hallelujah Chorus!

This morning, as we wandered the streets trying to fill our time, our bellies, and our hearts until 8 p.m... OK, Taren´s lying, we were on our way to the Museum of Oaxacan Culture... we happened upon a free concert on the Zocalo (town square). It was a beautiful concert by the experienced, high-quality Music Band of the State of Oaxaca, who played such numbers as Prokofieff´s Peter and the Wolf and Gershwin´s Rhapsody in Blue with great aplomb. Wow, we said to ourselves, if this good of a concert is FREE in Oaxaca, imagine what you can get for 80 pesos!

We while away the day with growing anticipation (OK, Emily says I´m "exaggerating" again, but hey, poetic license and all...), even to the point of rushing through our five-star Christmas dinner (fried grasshoppers, mezcal martinis, and all!) in Oaxaca´s snazziest restaurant, Los Danzantes, to pacify Taren´s fears: "We should get there at 7:30--what if the church fills up?"

Our first clue was the guys in the maroon and gold jester outfits. Literally. Tunics, capes, pantaloons, and all. All they were missing were the hats. Our next was the median age of the non-jester-outfitted portion of the choir -- best estimate, 12 years old. But we courageously masked our growing anxiety. The whitewashed domes of the church, the cracks painted over with plaster, the fluorescent lighting, the metal folding chairs, and the creepy dead guys (presumably saints, but in retrospect I´m not quite as sure) notwithstanding, we were going to enjoy our Hallelujah Chorus, dammit!

The lights dimmed. And flickered. And changed color at random. The tambourine was struck. On every body part. With only a passing relationship to the tempo. The children danced and swayed (almost) in unison, though not always in the same direction. The choir´s voices rose to the heavens in perfect cacophany (though there were almost never clear attempts at harmonizing). They only repeated a song (by accident? intentionally? we may never know) once. Needless to say, the song that was repeated was NOT the Hallelujah Chorus. In fact, no Hallelujah chorus was sung this night.

Our favorite girl was in the front row on the right side. She was always swaying opposite everyone else, and never once moved her mouth. Our favorite boy was probably 4 years old, and so short we couldn´t see him until the time he ventured out into the aisle with our favorite tambourine player, who seemed to be possessed, writhing on the floor in a near-nauseating tambourine breakdance extravaganza, while the little boy marched up and down the aisle clapping. The little boy was in rhythm. The tambourine, not so much. (The audience, perhaps in desparation for SOMEONE to keep time, rose to its feet and clapped to the beat as well.)

Speaking of which, the audience. We should have been tipped off by the audience, which was predominantly... no, 90%... clueless old white people with hearing aids. Honestly. We sat next to an 80-year-old woman from Dallas who asked us where we were from, how much we had paid to make sure she hadn´t been ripped off (little did any of us know, at the point, the extent to which we had indeed been ripped off), and then asked us where we were from again.

Needless to say, we did not restrain ourselves from making snide comments throughout the performance. Luckily, due to the tambourines, the screechy whistles, and the median hearing ability of the audience, no one seemed to notice. We stayed until the bitter end, largely to fantasize about our plan to exit poll the audience:

"Would you say that you were very surprised, somewhat surprised, not too surprised, or not at all surprised that the Hallelujah Chorus was not sung?"

"Would you say this concert makes you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to ever pay 80 pesos for a concert in Oaxaca again?"

"Which of the following comes closest to your point of view? (ROTATE STATEMENTS) Statement A: "$8! I could eat for a week on that much here!" Statement B: "$8! Hey, it´s less than the cover at the Black Cat." Statement C: "What´s that you say? Speak up! I can´t abide these soft-spoken young folk."

We forewent the opportunity to conduct this exit poll in favor of coming back to report to you, dear readers.

This, we have concluded, is the best church scam ever. They didn´t even lie, it turns out -- they merely misled. They may not have performed the Hallelujah Chorus, but it certainly isn´t lying to put the name of your choir -- El Coral "Aleluya" -- on your posters!

Much love,
Taren & Emily