Oaxaca and Surrounding Pueblas 03-23 to 04-19

Filed under: Mexico — Aaron and Amy at 5:20 pm on Wednesday, May 3, 2006

We left Huatulco with great anticipation of what the road to Oaxaca would bring. After turning onto highway 190 from Tehuantepec, we were faced with the beautiful mountains that would bring us to the city of Oaxaca. Amy was giddy with joy as the mountains unfolded in front of us, “We’re going to the mountains!”. We had been beachside for over a month, and like most places there comes a time when you yearn for different scenery. We planned on taking Spanish courses and would be in the very indigenous city of Oaxaca for Semana Santa, so there was a lot to look forward to. Agave fields began to dominate the mountainous landscape. The blue-green plants filled large rolling fields and clung to the sides of mountains that seemed too steep for them to survive.
On the exhilarating drive winding through the mountains, suddenly there was a loud noise coming from the engine. We pulled over as soon as we could and inspected the engine. Aaron found that two hoses had blown off the vacuum system, and only one remained. The other hose had fallen down through the engine and was probably alongside the road somewhere a half mile back. We had pulled over in front of a restaurant and asked if they had a truck that we could use to look for our part. After about 20 minutes a truck appeared and took Aaron up the road and back several times, but to no avail. We were told we could get a temporary hose in the next village that would get us to Oaxaca. After doing just that we continued without incident and arrived at Mitla at about 5:20 p.m. We drove right to the center of town on a two-way street that is not nearly wide enough! After asking several people where would be a good place to park for the night, we chose to park right on the street in front of a hotel/restaurant. We got the RV settled and had a wonderful dinner of filet mignon with grilled potatoes! This was a real treat after eating fish for over a month! We took the dogs for a walk around the lively little town and stumbled into an internet café for a while. We could actually see a part of the ruins from where we were parked, so we knew we wouldn’t drive far in the morning. Mitla is a small town southeast of Oaxaca that is famous for its ruins. Several indigenous groups occupied the site including the Zapotec and Mixtec. When the Spanish arrived they tore down parts of the ruins and used the material to build a church directly on top of some of the ruins. It makes for a spectacular setting, the old ruins with their unusual geometric designs and the burgundy domes of the Catholic Church right in the middle. We had a lovely time walking around the ruins and exploring some tombs that lay beneath the earth. It was amazing to see all the work that went into the detailed geometric decoration of the interior and exterior of these buildings. We had a great lunch at a little restaurant behind the ruins, and then headed to the city of Oaxaca.
For our first few days we walked around the city looking for an apartment to rent and a language school to attend. We knew we would be in Oaxaca for about a month, and thought it would be fun to live near the center of town and have a little more elbowroom than the RV provides, especially since we would be taking language classes. It turns out that the apartments were more than we were willing to pay, and the only apartments that take dogs are the same distance from the center of town as our RV park. We decided to stay in the RV park for a month, which would also allow us to do some much needed work on the RV. The Oaxaca trailer park is located just outside the periferico (the ring road that skirts the center of town) and is near the main bus route which only costs $.35/person. We also had the great fortune of having a good wireless signal right outside our RV. This allowed us to stay in touch with current events, family and friends via email and the computer-based phone service SKYPE. After looking for several days we chose to attend the language school called Solexico. It is located right near the pedestrian walkway that leads to the Zocalo (the cathedral and main square in town). The school has a wonderful little courtyard with a small kitchen that can whip up tortas (sandwiches) or tostadas for lunch break. There are several small classrooms to accommodate the class size of no more than 5 students. We signed up for a week of instruction with the hope of doing another week after Semana Santa. We took a written placement test so they could place us in the appropriate level based on our current knowledge of the language. The week before school we explored around town, worked on the RV, ran some errands regarding our Mexican tourist VISA and visited the archaeological site of Monte Alban.
Monte Alban is a site that was occupied by the Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec. It is just outside of the city up on a hill overlooking the Oaxacan Valley. They actually scraped off the top of the hill in order to have a flat top on which to build their temples. Before arriving at Mitla and Monte Alban, Amy read a very informative book called “The Cities of Ancient Mexico”. It was an excellent and necessary read, especially since Amy’s archaeological knowledge did not consist of much from Mesoamerica. This particular book indicated that Monte Alban is considered one of the first “cities” in ancient Mexico. It was a nice site with several pyramids, temples, a ball court, an astronomical building and houses for the elite. Compared to the site of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, Monte Alban was very compact with all the structures more or less within sight of one another.
Having the motorcycle and the RV park so close to the bus line made it very easy for us to do our own thing when we wanted to. Aaron was able to work on the RV and zip around town on the bike running errands; while Amy was able to meander through markets and museums, window shop, sit in the Zocalo, explore churches and take photos at her leisure. One afternoon Amy was walking down the pedestrian walkway to the bus stop when she stumbled upon a parade that was about to start. In all the separate groups of people there were several pueblos represented with different traditional clothing and props. The girls that wore long colorful skirts also had the same color ribbons braided into their hair. This group had a leader that shouted phrases and the girls would respond in enthusiastic unison waiving scarves in the air. One of the groups of girls danced in two lines while carrying a pineapple on their shoulders. The different groups created a rainbow of colors twirling and dancing down the street! As the parade wound its way to the Zocalo, Amy ran and jogged alongside them taking pictures all the way! Some of the girls were very shy and modest, while others liked the attention of all the spectators and photographs. There were a few girls and boys in the “rowdy” group that posed and asked for their picture to be taken after they had seen Amy running alongside them. The parade snaked through several streets towards the Zocalo where they ended their parade and proceeded to put on an unforgettable performance for a large crowd.
As the participants filtered into their seats near the stage, Amy met two guys from Florida that were shooting with the same camera she has, but with much more advanced lenses. They began talking about their trips and cameras. It soon became evident that these guys had a lot of knowledge and experience regarding photography. They showed Amy some parts of her camera that she hadn’t become familiar with and gave her some pointers on lenses and techniques. After Dan and Tom armed her with advice and information to improve her photography, she became very motivated to experiment with different techniques. We ran into them the next night at the Zocalo and then they accompanied us to Monte Alban the following day. After spending the day at Monte Alban, they came back to our RV for some drinks and more photography lessons. They even got to look at some of Amy’s photos and provided some constructive criticism. After a late dinner at the Zocalo, we said our goodbyes and headed home.
On Monday April 3rd we started our first week of language school at Solexico. When we visited the school the week before we requested that we be placed in different classes even if we are at the same level. Amy was placed in a class that was more advanced than Aaron’s, but at the first break of the day she decided that she should transfer to a lower level. She finished her class with her teacher Miguel that day, then moved into Aaron’s class with Laura Yvonne the following day. Most of the girls in Amy’s first class had been at the school for several weeks already, so when Amy joined them they were in the middle of a lesson. She hit the ground running and tried to absorb as much as she could, but she knew she would learn more if she changed classes. Aaron’s class was really the speed and level we both needed to be in so that we could improve our Spanish. We can communicate pretty well (but would like to be fluent) and have a little information about a lot of subjects in Spanish. We really needed to strengthen our basics so that we can move forward with grammar and learning more Spanish. We went to school for five days, with five hours of instruction per day. The first part of the day was grammar lessons out of a book. The second part of the day was a conversation class where we spoke freely with our instructor or did some exercises he had planned. It was also an opportunity to learn phrases, slang and ask questions we had about speaking Spanish. Some of our friends we met in school were going to a favorite bar of theirs Friday night and asked us to join them. We had a great time meeting and trying to speak with some locals over the loud Greenday-like Mexican music.
The weekend after school we decided to take a day trip on the motorcycle and tour some of the nearby pueblos. All the pueblos around Oaxaca have their own specialty craft, which they are widely known for all over Mexico. Our first stop that day was El Tule. It’s a small village that doesn’t have much else to offer other than the Tule Tree, which has a circumference of 160 feet. It is a cypress tree that is said to be about 2,000 years old. There is a story that says Cortes stopped to take a siesta underneath the tree! Our next stop was Teotitlan del Valle. It is a small village that specializes in wool rugs made of vegetable dyes on a loom. They were really beautiful rugs of great craftsmanship and quality. We found several that we liked ourselves, but none of our favorites would fit in the RV! Since Amy’s mother and father collect Navajo rugs from Arizona, we took several pictures of rugs to see if she wanted to purchase any. In the process of taking photos of rugs, we were able to get a picture of one of the families in front of a rug that is their family pattern. The grandmother was particularly striking in her traditional clothing and braided ribbons in her hair. On our way back to Oaxaca we stopped at a small archaeological site called Dainzu. There were some great carvings of ball-players in bas-relief that were preserved under a tin roof. There were also several little tombs that we were able to explore.
We heard of a great National Park called Mancomunudos a few hours away from the city up in the mountains northeast of Oaxaca. Aaron decided that he would like to take the motorcycle up by himself and see if there was any fishing. He strapped his fly rod onto his backpack and headed into the mountains for a few days of camping. It turns out that there was not much water or fish in the streams, so he only stayed one night and then returned to Oaxaca.
While Aaron was up in the mountains Amy decided to take one more day of language classes. She was in the same class that she had before with a few new students. In addition to school, Amy was able to spend more time in museums and walk around town exploring new churches.
The week of April 9-16th was Semana Santa, ending with Easter on the 16th. In this predominantly Catholic country, this is a very important and serious holiday. No Easter baskets filled with chocolate here. There were a few processions that we witnessed, but most of the events took place in private homes and at late-night mass. We were able to witness the Procession of Silence from a second-story balcony. This procession recreates the crucifixion of Christ (in statues) and mourning period thereafter. Before the procession started, the statues of Christ surrounded by flowers were lined up on the street. (Imagine a kind of “float” that is carried by a group of people, as if pallbearers carrying a casket.) To the faithful, these are not just statues of Christ. When they look upon these statues they interact with them as if the event (crucifixion) were happening at that moment. It is very real to them every single year. As several people took pictures of one of the statues adorned with flowers, an older woman leaned in within inches of the face and was speaking to Christ. Not just speaking to the statue, but to Christ as if he were there. As she spoke to her God there was an unforgettable look of pain, sorrow and gratitude on her face. This truly set the mood for what we were about to witness. It wasn’t an entirely silent procession, due to the solemn single drumbeat, trumpet and kazoo announcing the presence of different oncoming statues representing Christ. There were several statues of Christ surrounded by flowers that were carried on the shoulders of different groups of people. Sometimes they were carried by little old women dressed in black, other times they were men (or young boys) in hooded garments. There was one group of about twenty young men reenacting Christ carrying the cross. The crosses the young men were carrying were quite large and heavy creating a loud, rhythmic roar as they drug them on the otherwise silent cobble stoned streets. No matter what your beliefs are, you can imagine the eerie sound of twenty crosses slowly being drug across the cobblestone in this procession of silence. After the procession had passed the area we were in, we walked to the Zocalo and looked for a restaurant for dinner. We found one that was inside a hotel on the second level where people were gathered outside on the street. Sure enough the procession had wound its way through the neighborhood and was going to pass right by our restaurant! Since we had already seen it and we were there for dinner, we didn’t watch the whole thing, but we did poke our heads through the potted plants on the balcony to see some of the groups walk by. After our dinner was delivered to our table the entire kitchen staff came outside onto the balcony to witness the procession go by. They were all standing up on the ledge trying to peer through the potted plants! It was quite a sight!
On Tuesday, April 20th, we traveled from Oaxaca north on highway 175. Then we headed to the exquisite Palenque ruins for nights. We are currently on the Gulf of Mexico north of Ciudad del Carmen and will meander through the Yucatan where we will pick up Aaron’s Uncle Michael in Cancun on May 17th. We will travel the Yucatan for a while with Michael, giving him a taste of the wide variety of things to see in the Yucatan!

Happy Birthday, Dad!!!!!!!!

We learned today of the loss of Aaron’s Uncle Bob Young. He was a wonderful person and will be missed sincerely.
Uncle Bob was a wonderful story teller and possessed a great deal of family history. We were able to spend last Thanksgiving at his house with he and his wife Martha, to whom we send our love and deepest sympathies.
Love, Aaron and Amy

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