MEET BART (Or how Steph and Ivan challenged gender norms in Comitancillo)

Before heading out of Juchitan, our cab driver and trusted guide Rolando had the great idea to take us to the local fish market. We knew instinctively that this was an opportunity not to be missed, even though we had to get there at the crack of dawn.

Walking the jagged streets, lined with stands with piles of glistening fish and women in traditional Zapotec dress made famous by Frida Kahlo…

…it looked like a scene from another time — or was that our own romanticized projection of a normal, everyday market?

Rolando then took us to Ixtepec, about a 30 minute drive from Juchitan.

Steph had the utmost confidence in Rolando’s driving ability

Through Steph’s research in wind energy projects in the area, we had a hookup for a place to stay. We heard it was going to be a bit rustic, but we really had no clue what to expect.

And we certainly didn’t expect this…

Goedemorgen!

MEET BART

A master’s student from Holland also studying renewable energy, Bart was staying at the house when we arrived. He was slim, handsome, and, as we would soon learn, had a head endearingly in the clouds.

This was the fifth time he’d lived in Mexico, and he’d already been in Ixtepec two weeks. Yet, when we went on an excursion to the town center, he looked at us and asked us which way to go. We started to wonder how in the world he had survived in Mexico so long.

Any guide book about Mexico will strongly advise against drinking the tap water, or even using it to brush your teeth. Once we saw Bart brushing straight from the tap, and when we asked him about it, he said, “Oh it’s fine. Where do you think we are — Guatemala!”

Come to think of it, we are pretty close to Guatemala…

MEET ALAN

Bart wasn’t the only guy staying in the house with us. There was also Alan, but we didn’t see much of him.

Alan is an ornithologist, and he was here on a project to study the living patterns of an endemic bird species. He got up every morning around 5am and headed out of town to the mountains in order to track the birds’ movements — rain or shine. (Let’s just say there was a little more rain than shine, this time of year.)

Bart, Steph and in the center — Rambo

The first time we met Alan he was wearing army fatigues and a bandana on his head, holding in place his long, flowing hair. A few times we saw him from the other room doing an elaborate yoga routine, seeming to flex every perfectly formed muscle in his well-honed physique. (We’ll just say Steph didn’t mind this particular house guest.)

Telling us about some of his extreme nature adventures over the years, Alan jokingly referred to himself as Rambo. And indeed, he was the Mexican Rambo!

On the last day of Alan’s stay, when we were dropping him off at the bus station, we made some reference to our Jewishness, to which Alan burst out laughing and said, “If you’re Jewish, I’m a Muslim!”

When we told him we were actually Jewish and not making a joke, he quickly went silent. Everyone in the car felt very awkward — except Bart, who was sitting next to Alan giggling like a little school girl.

MAKING A HOUSE HOME

Bart quickly became our friend and constant companion. We became three peas in a very rustic, leaky, sometimes flooding pod. Bart informed us that he grew up with parents who at times practiced nudism, so the fact that the house had virtually no inside doors didn’t trouble him.

Our rustic but beloved house in Ixtepec

A little flooding doesn’t hurt anybody

Our fort: mosquito netting and all

Sleeping beauty

FIESTA TIME

Not only does Bart love Mexican culture — he particularly loves Mexican women. This was, we learned, the main reason why he agreed to accompany us to a town party — dedicated to a saint we can’t remember — in nearby Comitancillo.

This party has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. It really captured the beautiful colors and the warm, welcoming nature of the people in this part of Mexico. Words don’t do it justice…

Words also don’t do justice to Bart’s ability on the dance floor.

Or our ability, for that matter.

Bart was trying to make inroads on one woman — not sure he was so successful!

Beauty and the Bart

But Bart and Ivan were very successful with two other woman. In the spirit of the open nature of gender roles and sexuality in this region, the age difference didn’t seem to be such an obstacle.
And in this same vein, Steph didn’t do so bad herself!

The parties here are called Velas, which translate as something like Candlelight.

There is a very elaborate system of gift-giving. Back in the day, they would hand out local fruits and prepared foods.

Today, things are a little different. Plastic pasta strainers, refuse buckets, bars of soap, hand towels — even toilet paper. As gifts were only given to women (except, of course, for beers, which are handed out literally like candy), Steph made out like a bandit.

Our hosts were very excited for us to take photos of the Muxe (pronounced “Mooshay”) — the Zapotec word for men who take on feminine characteristics. At parties like this, they wear traditional medallion necklaces that mark their identity.

Don’t think this means that traditional gender roles don’t hold in this region, or that machismo is out of fashion, as evidenced by these two pictures (the bottom one obviously the universal ideal of masculinity).

To be perfectly honest, we’re still trying to figure out the gender landscape here, and dare we say it, coming to question our own…

Ok, maybe not entirely, but in any case we’ll keep you posted on our findings.

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