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Report #9
Oaxaca

April 17, 2007Route Map

Today’s journey from Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast to Oaxaca in the interior is only 200 km. We are traveling Hwy 131 which doesn’t seem to actually show up on most maps. But it’s on ours and it looks like the most direct route so Steve has decided it is the road for us.

As it turns out, direct is not always fastest. The drive probably would have taken half as long if we’d gone 60 km further south and taken Highway #175, the road most people use to head inland. But we are always looking for the road less traveled and we certainly found it today.

This road goes up and up and up, corkscrewing all the way, to nearly 11,000 feet. We both develop headaches. The scenery is interesting but it is the usual story of no pull-offs and when there is, the locals have used it for a garbage dump. In any event, oxen on road to Oaxacaovergrown bushes obscure sightlines. It’s a peek-a-boo view at the best.

There are dozens of donkeys or burros, seemingly wild, grazing in groups at the sides of the road. Similarly, lots of cows and steers, wandering about. Calls for a cautious approach to the gas pedal – never know what is blocking the road at the next turn.

The topes today have been unbelievable, many of them with no signage. Steve actually “lost” his brakes at one point, they had heated up so much. They came back later but we blame the topes. Our poor little trailer is getting shaken to bits.

The mountain villages are bucolic and peaceful. People are poor but they keep things clean and plant flowers everywhere – masses of bougainvillea but also purple jacaranda trees, orange flame trees, huge trumpet flowers in white and peach and yellow, impatiens, purple magnolias and lots of blossoming trees – pink and white.

Saw a man ploughing a field with two oxen – doing a good job too. Saw lots goats. In one village a man was herding about a hundred goats down a narrow lane. It seemsBurro carrying sticks like it would be an easy enough task when there is nowhere for the goats to go but how will he keep them together once they hit the open road?

Saw lots of burros pulling wagons and burros loaded down with sticks – as if life has not changed all that much in the past thousand years. And it occurs to me that the normal tasks of everyday life require a great deal more effort in this corner of the world than they do in mine.

Finally came to the end of that interminable road – took us 9 hours to travel 200 km with only one short stop to have a sandwich, another to have an ice cream, and once to gas up.

This brought us to Oaxaca and an extremely decrepit trailer park that is in the process of being converted to a big hole in the ground – to build an apartment complex. It is 111 degrees. The site attendant determinedly directed us to a spot near where most of the construction is going on. Reluctantly set up there and promptly discovered that both the electricity and water have already been cut off to this side of the trailer park. So uplifted and re-settled on the other side of the property. It is soooo hot and I am not in a good mood about any of this.

Today is our 31st wedding anniversary so we left this Shangrila and headed out to celebrate with dinner at a nicer than usual restaurant called the Calibri. It looked like a high class French restaurant, with waiters all duded up in tuxes and gold charger plates. But the charger plates were never removed and since they provided no bread and butter plates we noticed diners using the charger plates for their rolls. The butter was margarine, the decaff coffee was instant, the creamer was powdered whitener. Oh well.

I ordered cream of mushroom soup and it was very good. Shared a slice of apple strudel with Steve that was also very good. Waiters seemed disappointed that we didn’t eat more but it is just too hot to be hungry.

April 18, 2007

Had a decent sleep. The band playing at a nearby club were pretty good, but I finally had to insert earplugs or I never would have slept. Apparently that saved me from the car alarms which everyone else complained about the next morning.

Monte AlbanHeaded out to see the ruins at Monte Albán this morning. These date from several centuries BC to the peak of the Zapotec culture in AD 300 to 700. By 750 the Zapotecs had abandoned the hilltop city of Monte Albán to disperse throughout the valleys. The most popular theory is because of lack of water.

Monte Albán is located at nearly 2000 metres and you really feel that when you climb up and down the many steep staircases. We paid a local guide, Hector, 200 pesos to guide us around the ruins – he was an interesting and Monte Albanenthusiastic interpreter. He emphasized that the ruins you see on Monte Albán are just the tip of the iceberg, that more than 100,000 people lived and worked in the city and the terraced hills surrounding the ruins – that what we are seeing is just the platforms on which the actual buildings sat.

Those ancient people must have had legs of steel because the staircases are so steep and the stairs are quite high. It was intimidating. I had Steve on one side and Hector on the other to steady me as we walked up and down.

Clowns in the ZocaloFollowed our morning at Monte Albán by driving into the old section of Oaxaca. The traffic in these Mexican towns is horrendous, but Steve has a knack for finding a good parking spot. We always wonder if the truck will be there when we return but it always is and has never been tampered with.

The zocalo here is absolutely lovely. It is full of life – people relaxing and eating and getting their shoes shined. Children race around being children, young lovers snuggle up whispering. The university is close by so that encourages its use by young people.

As we were walking a young woman approached us with a menu from a nearby restaurant – they all have tables and umbrellas out on the plaza ...much like St Marks in Venice. The whole spirit Lunch in the Zocaloof the place and the architecture is very European.

So we were enticed into her restaurant, the Terranova, and enjoyed an excellent lunch. While we ate a band of young buskers set up opposite the restaurant and enlivened the scene. Everyone here is an entrepreneur.

We walked up to the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, about seven blocks away. The museum is located in the beautiful monastery buildings that adjoin the Iglesia de Santo Domingo.

Museo de las Culturas de OaxacaThe building is stately, with soaring white columns and elegant covered walkways, all grandly proportioned and surrounding an interior courtyard. Interior courtyards are a big thing here, again, very European. The exterior of buildings may be modest and unassuming but when the gates open you catch glimpses of elegant interior spaces and gardens.

The museum is very nicely done up. Costs 45 pesos to go in and 50 pesos for a telephone-type recording device into which you punch a number (according to the room you are in) and a taped commentary provides more than you ever wanted to know.

There is lots of good stuff in there for sure, but most interesting would be the contentsBell in the Museo of Tumba 7 from Monte Albán. These tombs were used to bury kings and the treasure they buried him with (as well as his sacrificed servants) is quite extraordinary. Also interesting to see how highly developed the Zapotecs were with their pottery and weaponry and jewelry and metal work.

So ...feet now getting VERY tired, we continued back down towards the zocalo again to try and find the artisans mercado. We did find the mercado indicated in the LP guide but just the usual t-shirt and bric-a-brac shops. Very disappointing.

As we were leaving the heavens opened and a torrential tropical storm broke over us. We feared for the trailer since we had left the windows and vents wide open but while there was a wet spot below the open top vent, everything was in fine shape on return – great little home.

April 19, 2007

Today we headed 10 km east of Oaxaca to see El Tule, the ahuehuete (type of cypress) tree which is claimed to be the biggest biomass in the world. Could be. I don’t El Tuleknow. It is HUGE - an amazing tree some 58 metres around. I stood below it watching thousands of birds flitting from branch to branch, in and out of their nests in the hollows. It’s like a supersized condo development for birdlife.

Next stop was Teotitlán, the famous weaving village, to see the rugs and tapestries. It’s a pretty and very tidy little village, obviously a place that has seen prosperity. Right now there is not a lot going on, most of the stalls are empty. Tourism has all but evaporated since the political unrest in Oaxaca last year. We bought two rugs. Hope they fit into the house nicely. If not, well, we made a contribution (2100 p) directly into the hands of the Carolyn with Weaverweaver.

Carried on to Yulga, another site of extensive ruins, this one situated in the high country, surrounded by beautiful cacti. Steve has an insatiable appetite for this kind of thing. I walked around for awhile but couldn’t see much difference between one pile of old rocks and another so sat down under the only shade tree on the whole site.

Along came a lovely young couple who talked to me for quite a while – his English was pretty good and he was anxious to practice it. They had come up for a picnic and were making themselves shrimp cocktails. They insisted on making one for me too. Very sweet.

Then on to Mitla where the ruins just amount to a pile stones behind a church. Steve went in to see those while I walked around the artisan mercado. This is really sad. There are several hundred stalls but they are virtually all empty. I asked a fellow where his amigos were. He told me that there are no longer any tourists, so no sellers either. Very sad.

So I bought placemats and napkins and a little girl’s dress and a table runner – all things I don’t really need, but could not walk out without making some purchases. Again, a contribution directly into the economy.

Mexican tuk tukHad lunch in Mitla, a pretty and very clean looking town of moderate size – excellent hamburgers. Saw an interesting conveyance in Mitla- a motorbike with an attached bench under a roof kind of thing – I think they call them tuk-tuks in Asia. There are lots of places where commercial buses don’t go, so local conveyances take up the slack. Small pick-up trucks with benches covered by a tarped roof are also a very common site, usually loaded with a dozen people and traveling the mountain roads between small villages.

Back to the city to find a laundromat and get ourselves tidied up again – tomorrow we head for the Caribbean.

Carolyn Usher

Next: Caribbean

Unless otherwise noted all prices are quoted in US$ or Mexican Pesos. At time of writing, 10 pesos = $1 US or CDN.