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.

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