Oaxaca City, Mexico


My New Hat

I packed a brown cotton oilskin hat to wear while I’m travelling. That hat was too hot, the brim wasn’t wide enough, and it was just plain uncomfortable to wear, so the first task this morning was to buy myself a new hat. A brief foray into the market located the “straw goods” section, and after a bit of negotiation I procured a great straw hat for just 15 pesos. It’s without a doubt the most comfortable piece of clothing to ever adorn my head, and the wide brim is wonderful against the intense mid-day sun.

The trip to El Tule, a small town about 10km down the road, cost a whopping 3 pesos each. By the time we were on the highway the bus was packed with passengers literally hanging out the door. When we reached our destination we were dropped off rather unceremoniously by the side of the road, and we wandered off to see The Tourist Attraction.

A Big Tree

El Tule’s big draw is a big tree. That’s it. A really, really big tree, standing in a courtyard in front of a church in the middle of town. It’s not “tall”-big, it’s “everything”-big — like an undulating mountain of bark with little green branches. So yes, it’s big, thanks for paying two pesos to get into the courtyard, now please get on with your day.

The Yellow Sauce

We wandered down to the local mercado in search of lunch. We encountered another of Oaxaca’s famous moles — this time, mole amarillo. The mole was spread onto a tortilla which was then folded over and stuffed with chicken, cheese and epazote (“wild spinach” — kind of like a cross between basil and bay leaf). The sauce itself was like a mexican combination of Italian marinara and Indian curry. Like the mole negro it was rich, warm, and intricately delicious.

The Real Day of the Dead

“Perdon,” Ana said, poking the shoulder of the man in front of her. The man ignored her. She wanted to do know if the bus we were on, the return bus from Tule, would go near Mina street so we could catch another bus to the ruins at Monte Alban. She tried again, and again received no response. She gave me an exasperated look.

Out the window, I saw a crowd gathered along the the street leading to the Panteon General, and I knew we had to get off right away to see what was happening. We stepped off the bus and walked up the street.

After two days we’d finally found the real thing. The cemetery was packed with people, and every single grave was decorated with huge bouquets of flowers. The place was a symphony of stone and colour — mostly rich orange marigolds, but also every other flower known to the Oaxaquenos.

People were busy. Some carried flowers and buckets of water, while others cleaned or painted the grave of a dear departed. Solemn families could be glimpsed through the white stone memorials, passing time with the memory of a loved one. Musicians offered to sing favourite songs.

Ana and I stopped to listen to one trio — a guitar, trumpet, and vocalist — as they played for a large family gathered around an elaborate headstone. The song was upbeat, not the funeral dirge one would expect, but the tone was sombre as the singer expertly worked each note. While we stood there, listening, an old man pushed past us rather rudely (but that’s not uncommon for the respected Mexican elderly). The song continued.

The old man stopped beside a simple brown grave, lovingly adjusted the flowers at its head, crossed himself, and then stood alone, head bowed, eyes far away. His Raquel had died three years earlier. The song ended, Ana wiped a tear from her eye, and we drifted further into the maze of gold and white. This was the real Mexico.

The Gringo with the Guacamole

Ana is concerned for my welfare. She doesn’t think I’ll survive with my rudimentary Spanish after she returns to Mexico City, and I must admit that I’ve been using her as something of a security blanket. So, she decided that it was time to pay a visit to the market, where I could practice my survival Spanish. We headed for the smokey taco aisle, where raw meat was available for immediate grilling. After giving me a much too brief explanation about what to do, she left me to get dinner while she tried to find a bano (bathroom).

The first part was easy. I grabbed a woven basket/tray with a paper liner, and asked the vegetable merchant for some guacamole, salsa, and cebollas (green onions). I got all three for 15 pesos. The young girl then said something about refrescos, and I asked for a coke and some water. Then she said something about meat — asking if I was going to get some, I think. I responded affirmatively. Then she said something about a table which I didn’t understand so I just said “okay” and went off to get some meat.

An imperious young woman sood behind a rack of raw beef, pork, and sausages, taking orders. I asked for uno chorizo (one sausage) and she asked if I wanted quarter, half, or what? Fortunately, I’d done my homework and knew she was referring to kilograms. I asked for a quarter-kilo of chorizo and another of cecina (marinated beef or pork, a Oaxaqueno specialty) (total cost, 27 pesos) and she threw them on the grill.

An old woman was working the grill from my side, fanning the coals and dishing out the cooked meat. I had a huge basket tray in one hand and a bunch of onions in the other. I need to get the onions on the grill, and I needed to keep the stupid tray from landing on the floor amid the jostle of the dinner rush.

“Perdon,” I said to the old woman. “Mi cebollas?”

She ignored me.

Another customer’s order was thrown onto the grill, and he pushed past me to hand her his onions, which were tossed into the coals to cook. Apparently, I hadn’t used the right words.

A few minutes later I tried again. This time she glanced back at me with pathetic disdain, grabbed my onions, and threw them on. Glancing back again, she said something which I believe translated as, “hey, you stupid gringo, you’re spilling your guacamole everywhere.” Which I was. A lightbulb went on inside my head — if yougrab the salsa and guacamole afteryou get your meat, you won’t stand there like a dork balancing a huge woven tray in one hand for fifteen minutes in a crowded mercado. The meat was finally done, and Ana procured us some drinks, tortillas, and a place to sit.

Needless to say, dinner was absolutely delicious — the best tacos I had during my whole stay in Mexico.

Culture Shock

Just surviving in such an unfamiliar culture is exhausting. It’s frustrating to have to work so hard to understand and be understood. Combine that with the heat, the rich new diet, and the effects of my earlier travel, and I was just plain overwhelmed. I was experiencing classic culture shock. I needed a night off, but this was Dia de los Muertos! What intricate, intimate celebration would I miss if I took an early night? Well, I’ll never know — I went to bed early and stayed there until morning.

There is so much to see and experience in that I’ll never be able to catch it all, not even if I spent a year here. It’s better to take a break when I need one. Adding to my fatigue was real concern about what I’d be doing for the next few weeks. Stay in Oaxaca with a language school? Travel up the valley? Head for the beach? Much of that stuff required planning ahead, and the weight of those decisions left me tossing and turning.

The Ruins of Monte Alban – Dances with Tourists

The Ruins of Monte Alban

I awoke this morning feeling much better — much of my culture shock was just plain fatigue. Ana and I grabbed some breakfast at the panaderia (3 buns and some cookies: 8.5 pesos), then caught the 11 am tourist bus for the half-hour ride to Monte Alban.

Monte Alban is a several-thousand-year-old set of ruins located atop a hill overlooking Oaxaca. It was re-discovered about a century ago. It was originally built by the Ohlmecs, and then taken over by the Zapotecs and then the Mixtecs. At its peak, its influence extended for hundreds of miles and it ruled over an immediate population of about 30,000.

Ana and I walked through the ruins under the noonday sun. Ancient, grass-covered stone walls lined the pathway. After a few minutes, we encountered an old man offering guide services. He spoke english well, but the 200 peso price was too steep for me. Ana, on the other hand, found the price entirely reasonably and Lucio was hired.

“My name is Claudio Lucio Rodriguez Carlo. Claudio. Lucio. Rodriguez. Carlos. In english, Lucas.” We walked on through some trees towards a large stone structure. “I will talk for one hour, and give you some important details. Then, you can spend some time by yourself exploring.” We had reached the top of some steps, and a huge grassy courtyard unfolded below us. Stone temples surrounded it, and a few more filled the center.

“This one, to the north, is the largest. Over there,” pointing to another stone structure at the other end of the courtyard, “is the tallest. This, the largest, that one, the tallest.” As we were to discover, Lucio filled a not insignificant portion of the hour repeating himself.

We walked down the steps, and Lucio said one part of his name for each step: “Claudio. Lucio. Rodriguez. Carlos. Claudio…”

When we reached the bottom of the stairs, Lucio explained how he knew that he was not of pure Mixtec ancestry: the Mixtecs had lots of hair on their heads, and none on their faces. Lifting his straw hat, he showed us that he was the opposite. The tour continued with Lucio explaining the significance of astronomy and geometry to the societies that had inhabited Monte Alban. He constantly drew comparisons to other prominent cultures — Greek, Roman, or Egyptian, for example — to illustrate the knowledge of the prehispanic peoples against other “great” civilizations.

The most interesting stop was in front of a series of large carved stones showing various medical conditions: breached births, Downs Syndrome, midgets, dwarfs, anatomical carvings showing intestines and internal reproductive organs, and more.

Lucio spoke several languages (Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, and presumably Mixtec), all of which he taught himself. “Not to be proud,” he would say, “it is a gift from Jehovah. I am uneducated.” Then he would show off by repeating some interesting phrase in every language he knew.

The tour finally ended and Lucio handed us off to a clandestine vendor selling jade carvings (replicas) and smaller clay/stone carvings (supposedly the real thing). After some humming and hawing and a bit of bargaining I bought a small Zapotec carving which, if genuine, is around 1,000 years old. But I’m not very optimistic.

Dances with Tourists

Ana and I went to see the Gueleguetza. It is a traditional dance celebration, featuring dances from the seven regions of Oaxaca. The real thing is held in July for two mondays — Los Lunes del Cerro, (Mondays of the hill). It has its roots deep in prehispanic culture.

We saw a version designed for tourists at a local restaurant. Shortly after we arrived, around 8:30 pm, the tour buses disgorged their contents at the front door and in marched dutiful flocks of Germans and Mexicans. The food was only so-so, and the service rather slow. I sat with my back to the stage so I had to twist around to watch the dances. Needless to say, I was in a bad mood.

The dances were, for the most part, interesting. The hispanic influence was evident in both music and costume for most of the dances, which surprised me a little. I was expecting more traditional prehispanic dances. But true to form, the culture has blended hispanic and prehispanic elements to create something uniquely Mexican.

Evening Of The Dead

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Ana and I relaxed in the warm night air. The Zocalo was packed with throngs of people, gringos and Mexicanos, all out to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Some people were selling balloons and trinkets, and two street performers juggled flaming torches, but mostly people just walked around and around. Some were dressed in costumes — and they were much better than those one normally sees around halloween back in Canada. They are all uniformly macabre; there’s no power rangers or pokemon crap here. Except for the very youngest (dressed in cute little pumpkin outfits), all were dressed as something sinister: witches, devils, vampires, and other assorted misshapen creatures.