Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Big Mexico: Oaxaca

Forty one years later.....Oaxaca again.

My memory of the previous visit is so fuzzy. I went there in 1971 with Sylvia Maldonado, a Texan who didn't speak Spanish. I remember the owner of the small hotel we stayed in admonishing her for not speaking Spanish, after all she had an illustrious last name!! I had to translate for him.....

Our guide with a model of Monte Alban
John loves Oaxaca, especially the beaches, one of which is a nude beach, Zipolite. I didn't get that far south on my way 'home' to San Cristobal. The bus ride from San Miguel de Allende was about six hours, counting the time it took to wait around in Mexico City for the next bus.

On the bus to Oaxaca there was a handsome young man with very hip black glasses who had a new MacBook. He didn't speak much English and unfortunately his MacBook was loaded with only English programs He did have a little thumb drive antenna to pick up internet, like the one I once used out at the cabana south of San Cristobal. We were able to ascertain that he needed to purchase a Spanish language add-on to his Office products. He was just darling but we had a terrible time understanding each other. Well, let me rephrase that. I had a terrible time. He was originally from Veracruz and his accent and the speed of his speech, combined with the noise of the perpetual blasting action-flick on the bus TV screens, and then road noise on top of that, made it almost impossible for me to understand him. After a while I gave up. But when we finally reached the outskirts of Oaxaca we had a bit more conversation.

He is serving in the army and works Intel. He was in Oaxaca for work, and recommended the Hotel Veracruz, near the Central bus station as a good hotel with reasonable rates. He even walked me over to the hotel since it was already dark when we got there. He was right, it was small, clean, smoke-free, secure, and had a very good restaurant that was frequented by the locals. It was only $40 a night.

Ah, what a difference twice the price makes! After the horrible hotel experiences in Tuxtla and Mazatlan, twice the price was worth every penny. I couldn't see through the sheets, the shower was enclosed, there was hot water, the toilet had a seat and it flushed!! I was positively spoiled!

Monte Alban
The next day I signed up for a tour of Monte Alban, thinking it would be like some of the other tours I'd taken on this long trip. We were supposed to spend about three hours at the ruins of the great Zapotec/Mixtec ceremonial center, then visit some other little towns, one with an ancient Cieba tree. I paid $300 pesos for the tour and there was no mention of additional fees for Monte Alban. When we got to the ruins the guide told everyone to pay for their entrance fee. That's when I discovered that I had paid $100 pesos more than anyone else so I refused to pay more and the guide had to fork over the extra money. That was the first of several tip-offs this was not the usual up-front tour company.

A god being born, feet first,
 of a virgin, what a concept!
In the ruins the guide was mediocre. He pointed to several trees that were clearly the same species and called them different names, saying they were used as medicine for this or that. Then he told the Spanish speakers rather different stories than when he spoke in English. And I wasn't the only tourist to notice. A Frenchman on the tour was disgusted with him as well. I loved Monte Alban and would have preferred to spend the rest of the day there. We never got to see the museum at all. The day was turning hot and we had to move on with the rest of the tour. The bus barreled down a dirt road that dropped off the Monte Alban mountain and we ended up in a little village where we were ushered into a wood carvers workshop. Seven or eight women were employed painting the wood figures and while it is a style that is cute and very Oaxacan, we spent an inordinate amount of time there being urged by the guide to buy things. After the workshop we had lunch at an expensive buffet restaurant. The food was quite good and it was nice to sit in the shade and have a tasty meal.

The next stop was another workshop where a woman, dressed in a costume, gave a pot making demonstration, then we were urged again to buy, buy, buy in the pottery's shop.  Last stop was in Culiapan de Guerrero, at the Dominican Monastery, church, and archeological ruin. That was interesting, but the guide never mentioned what I later discovered on the Internet, that Mexico's second President, Vicente Guererro was executed just outside this monastery.  What makes this ruin interesting is that the roof appears to be missing from the nave, but was in fact never installed. The church was built for the purpose of supplanting the local native religion, and the indiginous people found indoor rituals claustrophobic.
Plaza Santo Domingo with some of the
2501 Migrants

I visited the Santo Domingo Church on my way to the Zocalo, and it was absolutely the most beautiful church I've seen yet in Mexico. The walls and ceiling are covered with paintings and murals, much like the photos I've seen of the Sistine Chapel. Next door is an ex-convento, a monastery, that is now the Regional Museum of Oaxaca. It was also a beautiful building with displays of the treasures found in Tomb 7 at Monte Alban, old paintings that came across the Atlantic with the early Spanish settlers, furniture, religious icons, and loads of history. Plus history is being made right out in front of the church. An artist named Alejandro Santiago has created 2501 statues of human beings, all sizes and shapes, and placed them in groups around the church. They represent people who have left their homes, villages, and even their country in search of work and a better life. The statues were produced by people in Santiago's village as part of this effort to inform people in and out of Mexico of the plight of the poor.

Two kids with an 'electric' car!

Over the next day and a half, I wandered all around Oaxaca, meeting and chatting with locals in the parks. A large demonstration was held to protest violence in general, and specifically against women, with hundreds of people in the streets, a truck mounted with a loudspeaker, and then all gathered in the Zocalo for a rally of political speeches and rousing songs. This is also an election year for Mexico, so I am never sure how much of the activity is normal and how much is a result of political parties trying to get their messages out. Many large cloth banners have sprung up lately thanking the government of various states for basically doing the job they're supposed to be doing: "Thank you Mr Governor for  the paved road.....fixed hospital, etc." Really? The local people paid good money to put up those banners?

I met a woman who teaches cooking at a local language school, and toured the school. It is housed in a beautiful old hacienda with giant palm trees and flowering Jacarandas. She gave me the names of a couple of her friends who put up students and promised to help me find a place to live if/when I want to try living in Oaxaca. I think that will be my next long-term Mexican destination. It's a lovely city with a warmer and dryer climate than San Cristobal, but not super hot like along the coast. It seems as safe as any other major Mexican city, with a lot of foreigners living there too.

The roofless church/monastery
in Culiacan 
The bus ride home was a 12 hour overnight drop to the hot and humid coast, where we laid over  at 3:00 am for half an hour so the bus drivers (of several other buses) could have a meal and we could all stretch our legs. This bus went across Chiapas to Comitan, so it passed through San Cristobal and I got home at around 7:30 am. It was lovely to finally land in my own place, sleep in my own comfortable bed, and be home at last from the Big Mexico trip.

Beautiful painted wooden sculptures

Spring buds on Monte Alban's trees

Monte Alban

View through open portal at Monte Alban's
visitor's center

Language school in Oaxaca

Carved stelae at Monte Alban

Protesters in Oaxaca

Balloon vendors!

Santo Domingo Church