Sunday, May 4, 2014

Oaxaca Sojourn -- April 6 - 9, 2014

This is a "flashback post" of an inland visit we took while Abracadabra was in Marina Chahue, Bahias de Huatulco:

The crew of Abracadabra (including guest star crew member Bob Romano) grew bleary eyed from looking at weather forecasts for the Golfo de Tuhuantepec. It became clear that we were not going to be able to cross for at least a week. We had exhausted the local tourist opportunitiesIt was really hot in Marina Chahue, and we couldn't all fit into the tiny air-conditioned office at the marina without persuading the marina staff to leave. The one air-conditioned restaurant in La Crucecita was good - but expensive. What were three sweaty gringos to do?

Leave for cooler climes.

One obvious choice for a cooler-weather trip was the colonial city of Oaxaca. If you've spent much time talking to Bryce or Molly about Mexico, you've probably heard how much we liked our last trip (in 2006) and it won't come as a surprise to you that we assured Bob that he would enjoy a trip there.

And, based on the number of pictures he took, we're pretty sure he did. 

Bob In Camera Mode

We know we enjoyed the trip - it's always a good sign when, upon departure, we talk about how we wish we'd had more time . . . 

Oaxaca Al Aire Libre (Outdoors)

There's no need to expend a lot of effort seeking out entertainment in Oaxaca -- it generally just happens as one walks around town.  On any given day one can:

  • just wander around town;
Street-Scape, Oaxaca

  • watch dancers performing in a plaza;

  • worry about the stilt walking boys performing in the zocalo (we never understood the significance of their performance - if someone knows, please share),

Cross Dressing Stilt Walkers

These Guys Are Strapped On To Their Stilts - 
It's Stilt Walking Without An Exit Strategy

  • or sit at a table at a cafe on the zocalo and just observe: 

Tables Waiting For You
Balloon Sellers in the Zocalo

Oaxaca A Dentro (Inside):

For those that prefer being indoors, there's the central market.

Chiles Upon Chiles

The Poultry Table

And a variety of stores selling the seven types of mole found in Oaxaca cuisine.

Grinding Coco For One Type of Mole

There are more churches and museums than we could begin to fit into our short stay. We took on the biggest museum in town - the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo located in the former monastery (for some reason called an ex-convento) next to the beautiful Santo Domingo church. 

Santo Domingo
This church is prettier than Oaxaca's cathedral - lots of gold leafed carvings of saints and a ceiling depicting the entire gold-leafed family tree of Saint Dominic. Sadly, we had planned on relying on Bob to explain Mexican churches to us because he was raised Catholic. However, it appears that the Catholic churches in California just aren't up to speed artistically. Bob failed miserably at playing Spot That Saint for us . . . so we are left with pictures and captions like:  

The Gold Leaf Carving Saint 

The museum is an all day event and has stone floors; wear comfortable shoes and plan on taking a lunch break. There are several good restaurants and coffee houses nearby; we ate at the Italian Coffee Company - a chain of coffee and sandwich shops we've found in several Mexican cities. We were able to return to the museum using the tickets we had purchased that morning.    

Santo Domingo As Seen From The Italian Coffee Company

The museum offers a recorded audio tour that helps make sense of the very large and wide-ranging exhibits.  Even a shorter (less than full day) visit would be worthwhile. The building is beautiful and its history alone (monastery, army barracks, university, museum) is interesting.

View From The Museum
Among the exhibits are several from Monte Alban, the ancient capital of the Zapotecs. There are exhibits at the museum at the Monte Alban site, but some of the most beautiful and delicate are in this museum.

Zapotec Pottery

For Burning Copal (A Resinous Incense)

We can't begin to show the breadth of the exhibits in the entire museum, as they range from the pre-Hispanic to the present. Nor were we able to schedule a trip to the botanical gardens that we enjoyed during our last visit. More can be found on the internet, if you are interested in exploring the idea of visiting this area. For us it was part of our exploration - bit-by-bit - of Mexican history. 

Oaxaca Politics

Our last visit to Oaxaca followed a six-month strike by school teachers that caused the federal government to blockade the majority of the center of the town. As a result many tourist-dependent businesses (shops, restaurants, hotels) were closed and some were never reopened.  

Today union politics and indigenous politics are both still alive and well in Oaxaca.

Religion Is The Opiate Of The Masses
One entire side of the zocalo is closed, and occupied by indigenous people from towns throughout the state seeking redress for a wide variety of political and economic issues. People seem to take turns sleeping at the site on bedding of cardboard and eating out of sidewalk soup kitchens set up by supporters. 

While we were there we observed the use of the city buses to block traffic. A newspaper photographer explained to Bryce that this was an action by one of the communist-leaning parties. As mere observers we didn't really understand the action -- particularly since in most Mexican cities the bus companies are privately owned and operated. We saw young men with bandannas covering their faces, buses blocking intersections, and local drivers that seemed completely nonplussed by the whole thing. At our hotel (Las Golondrinas - very pleasant, particularly for $73 a night) a member of the family that owns and operates the hotel simply said that these transit-related actions were an ongoing bother and bad for business. Like in Paris and Italy, the strikes of Oaxaca go on. We hope they have some value to someone . . . 

On our last day in town there was a massive march by people from various indigenous towns within the state of Oaxaca.  Some marchers came in traditional dress.  

Where There's a March, There Are Customers --
Ice Cream Vendor To The Masses 

Other marchers were less festively attired. And around them milled people going to pick up groceries. It became difficult to tell the marchers from people going about their daily business.

Marcher? Shopper? Commuter?

Monte Alban

The big "must see" archaeological site near the city of Oaxaca is Monte Alban, a pre-Hispanic site of the Zapotec culture. The portion of the site made available to the public is the ceremonial center of the area occupied by the Zapotecs.  Most of the structures that have been uncovered and reconstructed dated from between 100 BCE to 500 CE, even though the area was occupied much earlier - and was not abandoned until about 1000 CE. It's a very extensive site, and not as overrun by tours as many other sites in Mexico.

We took one of the local buses to the site (they were running that day) and hired a charming guide that had a smooth -- if occasionally outdated -- tour of the site memorized.  

We say "occasionally outdated" because, according to information at the museum in Oaxaca, a series of famous sculptures and carvings found at the site which are called "Los Danzantes" (the Dancers) are now believed by most archaeologists to represent mutilated, conquered warriors. Our guide held fast to a prior interpretation -- that the Los Danzantes sculptures represented medical procedures and used at a medical school operated at the site.  

Birth, Or Castration - ??

Our guide also held fast to the view that the Zapotecs were very peaceful people. We like that vision but it doesn't seem to be supported by current thinking.

And we say he "memorized" his tour because it was often difficult to take him off topic. There were things he wanted to show and tell - and we were going to see and hear them. Questions were often answered by repeating what he had previously told us.

Note to self: Next trip to Monte Alban, hire a guide from one of the more reputable tour companies. 

That's not to say the tour wasn't interesting or that we learned nothing. Or even that we didn't enjoy our guide. He told us that he had been showing people around Monte Alban for 49 years  - he was an artifact now!

Our Artifact

There is a small, but very nice museum at the site as well. Sadly, the signs were all in Spanish. But many of the artifacts spoke eloquently in any language about the talent of the artisans at Monte Alban.

Getting There And Back

Huatulco to Oaxaca can be a short trip by air, a long trip by first class bus, or an uncertain trip by "Suburban" (a van that departs according to a schedule). We traveled to Oaxaca by OCC first-class bus. The trip was similar to our trip to San Cristobal de las Casas, except that on this route the bus stopped for food at a very pleasant restaurant.

Our return trip by "suburban" was more of an adventure. First, our departure was delayed for about half an hour by the large march of indigenous citizens described above. Never one to waste an opportunity, Bryce picked up a couple of tacos from a street vendor outside of the waiting area. 

Play Spot That Gringo

The van -- when it finally arrived -- was new and clean and air-conditioned.  Our fellow ticketed passengers included a woman travelling for her family's coffee business and a university student going home for a visit.  

Over the length of the trip we had the added adventure of stopping to pick up seemingly random road-side passengers, one of which proceeded to load gigantic baskets of bread and bags of coconuts on top of the van.

Loading Bread and Coconuts

This gave  us time to stretch our legs and, upon receiving permission, to visit the road-side bakery.  Bob took notes - he's going to build a pizza oven as part of an outdoor kitchen project!

Bob, Studying Oven Construction

The downside to the Suburban experience was that, apparently, the driver gets to chose where to stop for the midday meal. Apparently there are still some extremely icky, dirty and poorly equipped (can't say enough bad things about it) toilet facilities in rural Mexico and food purveyors that can't cook. Really - a bad taco in Mexico? A sacrilege. But the Suburban got us back to La Crucecita. From there it was only a short cab ride to the  marina.

And then we crossed the Gulfo de Tehuantepec!

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