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Once upon a time in Oaxaca - News - bespk

Once upon a time in Oaxaca

Posted on Wednesday, 12th December 2012 by Eunice

The Monday after we arrived in the city was a public holiday to celebrate Mexican Independence,  which was good; as it gave us a chance to catch our breath, walk around the city and discover the whereabouts of the school: Solexico.  This is located about a mile and a half away from our accommodation and was a good twenty minutes’ walk at a fast pace. 
Oaxaca is a beautiful, historical city; with spectacular architecture. The buildings many in the colonial style include a number of churches;  the most impressive of which is the Cathedral of San Domingo in the centre of the city.  It overlooks one of the many squares and is a focus for much of the activity in the city.  Next to it and situated  in the old monastery; is an impressive museum with a very comprehensive collection of artefacts, through the ages.  The early history; pre conquistadors is particularly intriguing and it is fascinating to see how advanced the Zapotecs and the Aztecs were.
Our days took on a fairly rigid regime:  up early for breakfast, the walk to school, grammar lessons from 9.00 to 11.40 with a 10 minute break, then a half hour break and a chance for an early lunch or more coffee in Eunice’s case;  before conversation class until 2pm.  Then the walk back up the hill to the casa de mama Mexicana for comida; the main meal of the day (usually eaten between three and four pm., before settling down to homework and sleep  (All very intense and quite exhausting).
Our fellow students were all very pleasant and mostly from Western Europe: the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France.  Many of them are on a two month programme; where they spend a month in school learning the language and then volunteer in a local home for street children to improve their language skills. A few are intrepid travellers (like ourselves).   All are considerably younger than us, so we are both feeling particularly ancient. 
We had classes by ourselves, which was both a good and bad thing, as it allowed Guy to intersperse the lessons with lots of English.  Our maestros are lovely: kind and understanding and incredibly patient.  Both of us are unsure how much Spanish is sinking in and certainly struggle to try and remember words.  It is good to be immersed in it though and just hearing it being spoken all the time is great.  (That is if it isn’t too rapid!)  The school organises cooking classes on Tuesdays.  We constructed ensalada de nopales (cactus salad), delicious chicken tortillas and a beef, potato and tomato salad that is used fiestas as it is the colours of Mexico.  All very tasty.  Romi;  who runs the café is brilliant at involving everyone and making a little go a long way.  There are also salsa classes on a Friday afternoon, but by then we were both so tired, we gave these a miss.
There are also ‘peliculas’ (Spanish for films) to watch on Thursdays.  We watched two of these.  We used this as an occasion to stay in town, exploring the streets and markets before going  out to dinner in one of the many fantastic restaurants in the city, which serve a variety of local specialities whilst we sit watching the world bustle past in the zircolo (the Central Square). We are entertained by a variety of musicians playing a wide range of musical instruments.  There is always an excuse for a party or a march it seems, whether it is an anti-government protest or an anniversary of some sort.  The Oaxacans love to party.
At the weekends it is time to catch up with domestic bliss.  Taking the laundry down to get it washed is a new venture;  but there is no other way to get it done and it provides employment for others.  There are also expeditions organised by the School with our fellow students to local sites of interest.  On our first Sunday we travelled to Santa Maria el Tule, where there is an enormous tree (Sabino or Ahuehuete), with the biggest  girth  in the world.  It is very impressive and its gnarled and ancient branches can lead the imagination astray.   Our next visit was to the pueblo of Teotitlan, where the local people spin and dye wool, using natural dyes to make beautiful carpets.  A good job we have no room in the car, or we may have ended up buying some.  The people continue to speak their native tongue – Zapotec and their history is fascinating.  They believe that they came from the caves, rather than some divine intervention.  Their ancestors made jewellery for the Zapotecs and were involved in the building of beautiful cities (Monte Alban and Mitla).
We went to a Mescal factory; which is far more rural than our visit in Tequila and explains why Mescal has that rather smoky taste to it, as the pinas (the core of the agave) are still cooked in pits using the traditional method.  Here they say it is the cure for all ills and no matter how much you drink you will not get a hangover.   Now fairly mellow we took the long and windy drive out to the hills to see Hierve del Aqua (a petrified waterfall) made from mineral deposits from  springs in the mountains.  The scenery was incredibly beautiful.
Then back to Mitla for a meal and to visit the ceremonial Zapotaec religious site.  It is a vast and very impressive site with buildings decorated by intricate patterns seemingly carved into the stone. But they are each individual that fit together without any interruption of pattern, even at the apex of a corner.  It caused us to wonder how they managed to do that, with the tools and facilities they had in their time.  The site also houses burial tombs and has many reminiscences with Egypt for both of us.  It was dusk by the time we walked back to the house and not long before we were in bed, preparing for another week of Spanish.
The town is gearing itself up for Christmas and there are more decorations and lights appearing by the day.  Whilst shopping in the supermarket the other day we heard White Christmas being sung by Pinky and Perky on the music system.  It all seems very strange.  Our Spanish was good enough to be able to negotiate changing a pair of jeans we had bought in the wrong size and getting both ourselves and the customer service lady flummoxed.  Apparently this is not usually done here.  Everyone is very kind and tries to understand. 
Our second weekend we spend going out and about on the Saturday, visiting the amazing Zapotec city of Monte Alban, a short distance outside Oaxaca and inhabited by them for 1600 years until approximately 900AD, housing up to 60,000 people at its zenith. The buildings are impressive, situated on top of a mountain and overlooking the surrounding valleys.  They consist of an observatory, several temples to the many gods, a ball court where battles of prowess were fought out.  If you clap your hands in the central plaza the sound reverberates off all the structures., so the voice of the ‘gods’ would carry well.  Their long term observation of the skies enabled them to know about the cycles of the sun and moon and stars and meant they were able to predict eclipses and comets.  The Mistecs later occupied the buildings leaving many of their amazing artefacts there as well.  Truly mystifying and a good work out too – climbing all those huge steps.
From there we visited the village if San Antonio Arrozola, where craftsmen and women create wonderful mystical creatures out of wood, which are  then painted in bright and fascinating patterns.  There was an amazing psychedelic dragon and very delicate humming birds, hovering over pitcher plants.   We travelled on to Cuilapan de Guerrero, the site of two churches.  The earliest was built by Dominican monks shortly after the arrival of the Spanish.  They do not depict Christ on the cross as this would be condoning torture and human sacrifice, and would appear very hypocritical to the natives whom they wished to convert to Christianity.  The other church was built later alongside  but never completed.  It is, allegedly, the assassination place of Guerrero – the leader of the Mexican Revolution in 1821 (we think).  He was betrayed and shot there.  Our last port of call was a pottery where the potter’s wheel is two convex discs. One facing down, the other up;  on which the potter throws black clay, mined from a local area open to all who live in the village.  The finished result is either a dull black pot, which will hold water, or if the clay is fired for less time a shiny black pot, which is used for decorative purposes, the body of which is usually pierced with intricate designs.
We joined some fellow students for a drink in the evening and whilst waiting for them outside San Domingo, there was a man dressed in Aztec costume dancing, giving purifications and blessings and blowing on his conch shell.  It was a strange end to the day, which sort of tied together the magic of the place.  As usual there were many  celebrations taking place.  This night it was a wedding.  Whilst we were sitting in the bar, a fantastic display of fireworks overhead.
The new Mexican President was sworn into office as we were having these adventures. We walked home finding many examples of vitriolic outbursts as graffiti. By Monday evening they had all disappeared. As if by their being ‘rubbed out’ any dissent simply didn’t exist.
And so our final week at school.  We could stay for a further month and I am not sure we would ever feel truly confident.  It is now time to put to test what we have learnt and to keep practising.  We have enjoyed the support of our teachers and fellow students and hope we have not been too much of a headache for them.  We both have a continuing dilemma about getting the journey over and seeing as much as we can whilst we are here.  Just now, with Christmas getting closer and missing friends and family a great deal our thoughts are very much about being home.  We plan to leave Oaxaca at the weekend and head down towards the Guatemalan border.

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