Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Monte Alban

I suppose that everyone that comes to Oaxaca goes to Monte Alban and despite my disklike of doing what "everyone" does, the ruins at Monte Alban are unique and impressive for many reasons. The site is so spacious that it is possible to absorb many visitors without marring the atmosphere.The site is located on a low mountainous range rising above the valley of Oaxaca and can be seen from many other important pre-hispanic sites in the area. The site is truly a commanding one that overlooks the whole valley.From about 500 B.C. through 800 A.D., Monte Alban flourished as the capital of the Zapotecs so it is one of the New World´s very earliest cities.The number of inhabitants eventually reached 35,000.Some time around the year 800 A.D. the population decreased and by the time the Spanish arrived the site and inhabitants were in decline.
I was fascinated by the beauty of the design and the way the buildings were placed on the site. I also liked the trees with huge white blossoms with giant bees diving into the center.
I was also offered "genuine artifacts" that the sellers promised "were actually dug from farmer's fields", I but declined the offer, although the artwork was really quite good. Perhaps the instinct to make beautiful folk art is too deeply a part of the Oaxacan nature to skimp the artistic effort even making real/fake artifacts.

Market in Zaachila

Zaachila is about 12 miles south of Oaxaca city and has been having a Thursday market for hundreds of years. The town is named for the Zapotec ruler, Zaachila Yoo. The city was taken over by the Mixtec shortly before the Spaniards arrived and is thus has a heritage of being a Mixtec-Zapotec capitals that was still inhabited at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Zaachila is known for its bustling livestock market. Some may think that the animals brought for sale are being displayed in a cruel fashion but although the animals are not happy to be here and one could say they are stressed by the experience, they are not treated in a cruel way. There is feed for for the animals and the market is over by early afternoon. The animals that are not sold are taken back to the farm. These people are too poor and the animals too valuable for them to be mistreated to the point of damaging their health or value. True, there is no false sentimentality, unlike the way most people in the so-called “civilized”, first world countries like to imagine that the meat wrapped in plastic and gleaming in all its antiseptic glory in the supermarket somehow was not the product of a living creature that suffered and died to feed us. Indeed, I am sure that these animals in the Zaachila market lived a more humane life and will have most likely a more humane death than the factory farms and killing machines our meat production methods would have given them.

Friday, December 7, 2007

fiesta in San Martin

Photo notes: lots of fun, adorable angels, beautiful ladies, dancing big heads (if you look closely at the dancing big heads, you can see that these are children from the size of the feet)
short video clips at the bottom
San Martin Tilcajete fiesta at a wood carver's home and village
I met a new friend in Oaxaca who buys alebrijes* from several families in Oaxaca. She has a good eye for quality carvings and I learned a lot from seeing what she bought. Over the years she has become friends with the carvers and their families, she always treats them fairly and respects their life and culture. So she was invited to a fiesta for the saint's day, for San Martin Tilcajete and she invited me to go along. As I understand it, the fiesta includes a child who "stands in" for the saint, he is the ultimate guest of honor and is dressed and treated almost as the embodiment of the saint for that day. The father made a promise at the boy's birth that he would give that day to the saint, which means that the father and family is responsible for the fiesta with food, drink, flowers, bands and the expenses associated with procession to the church, and of course, lots of fireworks.

Everyone there was so warm and wonderful to us, it was clear that was a very important day for the family and indeed the whole town.
*Alebrijes are fanciful woodcarvings, made in the villages of San Antonio Arrazola, San Martin Tilcajete, La Union Tejalapa, and San Pedro Cajonos in the state of Oaxaca.
Some are avidly collected by folk art museums all over the world and have helped some villages become more prosperous in one of Mexico's poorest regions.
These carvings are not derived from ancient traditions but in the 1930's were inspired by a dream when papier mache artist Pedro Linares fell ill at age 30 and who then had a miraculous recovery. After the dream and recovery his sculptures were brightly-painted with intricate patterns and bizarre creatures with wings, horns, tails, fierce teeth, and bulgy eyes that he called alebrijes.
Later, in the 1960's the Oaxaca carvers began making wooden alebrijes most often using the wood of the copal tree. Today there are wood carvers making just about any creature, real or imagined, some with levels of skill that are masters of art and design by any standard.

video video

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hierve Agua

Photo notes: beautiful mountain views on the road to Hierve, detail of one of the channels with spring water, the pool, and the "petrified waterfall". Video at the bottom with the bubbling spring.

These ancient springs at the top of a bluff have been used since about 2,400 years ago.
A petrified waterfall formed from the calcium carbonate and magnesium in the water is one of the sights. The springs mysteriously bubble up from the rock, with deposits of minerals that give an unearthly appearance to the area and a pool that looks strange to be perched on the edge of the bluff.Hierve el Agua has been open and closed during the past few years due to disputes among San Bartolo, San Isidro Roagui, and San Lorenzo Albarradas. These communities are disputing which town gets what part of the entrance fees had been collected by the San Lorrenzo Albarradas. the tourist office in Oaxaca says that the area is closed, but several tour agencies said they go there. Usually, I do not go with any sort of tour, but even though I think it is possible to get there one one's own, by going first to Mitla and then take a collectivo taxi from Mitla to HierveAgua, I decided that a half day trip for $15 US in a van with only 6 other passengers would be good use of my time and money. We left Oaxaca around 12:30 and met up with the other folks there. The group was made of of a nice couple from Mexico city, a couple from New Zealand, a German couple and a nice local Mexican family with a child. So a very pleasant international group. Our driver a very pleasant young man named Willie, told me that 3 people had been killed in the villages over the disputed economic benefits from the Hierve Agua visitors. Very sad and highlights the sparse resources that these communities have and the importance of the money that tourism brings to some of these small remote villages. We passed by the new construction for the new highway going to the Isthmus, so perhaps these villages will be less remote in the near future. I think this new super highway to the Isthmus is part of the "Plan Panama" to make the Isthmus and the southern Pacific coast an industrial and transportation corridor to the north, eventually all the way to the US border. Some of this plan is unpopular with the indigenous people in the Isthmus because they see little benefit to them, but lots of environmental damage and destruction of their culture, and I suspect their fears are valid.


Sunday, December 2, 2007


(photo notes: the first two pictures are of the church built over and from the original temple, you can see parts of the designs to the left of the first church photo)
It is fascinating to see the designs in these Zapotec ruins that are the same as in the carpets, although when one thinks about, not surprising at all. The geometric designs symbolize the powers of nature (according to what I have read) but their undulating rhythm is beautiful in itself. Each frieze consists of up to 100,000 separate pieces of cut stone, amazing.
n 1494 the Aztecs conquered Mitla and sacked the city. Later the Spanish took over followed their common practice building a new church on top of the of the former temple, scavenging the temple for building materials.
Everything that I have read says these geometric designs are unique in the Americas.

Agave ... maugey

notes on pictures: all are of the agaves growing in front of the church in Oaxaca except for the second photo which is of a blooming agave in Cuajimoloyas in the Sierra Norte. The video at the bottom, I took in the mercado.
Agave nectar (aguamiel) is harvested from a variety of agave( maguey ) .
Agave nectar is harvested from the plant through a process which does not kill the plant. Just before the agave grows its tall flower spike, the top section of the piña is cut and scooped out to allow the agave juice to collect. The nectar is collected and then allowed to go through a natural enzymatic process, ending with a product similiar to honey, but unlike honey it does not crystalize. Agave syrup can also be used to make a low-alcohol, fermented drink called pulque. This is an ancient drink, the Aztec and Mayan codices depict feasting and drinking what was probably a form of pulque.
Then there is mezcal, made from the center or pina of the maguey which is cut out and thus kills the plant. The piñas are baked in rock-lined pits in the ground. Next the piñas are piled to 3–4 feet above ground level, covered with banana leaves, used fiber from the last process, or agave leaves, and earth where they cook for 3-4 more days. By this time the starches have converted to sugars and after resting for as long as week, they are crushed by a large stone wheel attached to a post pulled around by a horse or burro, crushing the piñas and making a mash which is then put into wooden vats where it ferments. The fermented mash is distilled twice to produce mezcal. The better mezcal is aged up to seven years, but typically mezcal is aged from 2 months to 2 years. The longer it is aged, the darker the color and the more intense the flavor.

Mezcal is known for the tradition of adding different items into the bottle along with the mezcal itself. These can include worms, scorpions, and decorative elements such as glass sculptures with gold leaf. A lot of people mistakenly that tequila has a worm at the bottom, but if you see a worm it must be mezcal.The "worm" is the larva of one of the several kinds of "maguey worm". The worm is found on the agave plant. Many brands contain such worms because the worms are believed to improve the taste.The maguey worm is also eaten by itself, I found some in the 20th noviembere mercado, for sale live and dead for eating and for putting in mezcal.


wedding in Oaxaca

I am sure that this wedding is quite upper class, but the spirit was universal. In Oaxaca it appears that almost any occasion is celebrated by the walking big heads, often characterizing a person or a type of person, in this case the bride and groom.And of course there were a lot of fireworks! (if you look more closely (click to enlarge) at the 3rd picture, you can see the person's head peeking out near where a belly button would be on the giant character.

Journey to Ixtlan

Not the Carlos Castaneda version (although walking up to Ixtlan de Juárez is a mind altering experience). We started out from Oaxaca and took a short bus ride to the sitio where the collective taxis waited for passengers to go up to Ixtlan. Our destination was the trout restaurant called Cauchirindoo after the chief of the Zapotec army which defeated the Aztecs in 1486. There is a statue of the chief at the mirador (good view) looking down on Ixtlan and a large part of the Sierra. The people here are proud of their history and the fact they were never conquered by the Aztecs, and according to what I have read, kept their culture more intact than some other indigenous groups even after the Spanish invasion and conquest. The dignified and very handsome Senor (known to some as Mr. Guapo) runs the trout farm and restaurant called Cauchirindoo . The taxi ride is a shared taxi, 3 in the back and 3 (including the driver) in the front. I was lucky or unlucky enough depending on one’s viewpoint to get the middle seat, right next to the driver and the gearshift. I was very impressed that during the 45 min+ taxi ride our driver Roberto was very careful not to brush my leg or thigh, which considering my perch in the middle took a lot of attention on his part!
Ixtlan has a very well managed eco-tourism project with cabins in the mountains and trails for hikers. The town itself is beautiful and tranquil, when we arrived someone was cooking chicken over a wood fire in the square, it smelled wonderful, but had a mission: Lunch at Mr. Guapo's trout restaurant, Cauchirindoo After a 3 KM walk (according to the sign, but I think is more like 4.5KM) we arrived at the restaurant. Lovely people, lovely food, lovely view all together prefect.

On the way to Ixtlan, we passed through Guelatao which is the birthplace of Mexican President Benito Juárez. who began life as a poor Zapotec, orphaned at 3 years and who walked into Oaxaca city when he was twelve? At the time he was illiterate and only spoke Zapotec. In the city he had a sister who worked as a cook in the house of the Maza family and there he took a job as a servant. What were the chances that he would land in this particular family where Senor Maza took an interest in his education and development? For me, Benito’s story shows the way that one person can change the fate of a country. In his case, there were so many things that had to happen just the right way for him to get the chance to change the world. What were the odds that a poor shepherd boy whose parents died when he was three would end up as the first and only full blooded indigenous president of Mexico? By 1841 he had become a Civil Judge, and then, the Governor of Oaxaca. Two years later, he married Margarita Maza, the daughter of his patron. Margarita who was of pure Spanish descent was his devoted wife and staunchest supporter until the day of his death. At this time for a Zapotec Indian to marry an upper class Spanish woman was incredibly rare, again, the chances of this happening at that time in history were incalculably small.

One of Benito’s most profound statements is: Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz, meaning "Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace." It is inscribed on the coat of arms of Oaxaca. Benito Juarez is sometimes called the Lincoln of Mexico; they were contemporaries but never met in person.

page views