Monday, December 3, 2012

Oaxaca Dia de Los Muertos Dia Seis

Today is Tuesday, October 30 and it is day six of the Oaxaca adventure.  I wake up at 4:30 with issues.  Oh, oh. But, to my great surprise, after a dose or two of this and that, I was fine.  It did give me a ton of time to work on my photos from day one.  And, I was still the first one down to breakfast, evidently having no fear to stuff more stuff into me under the assumption it was going to stay there. 

Today a field trip is scheduled for the morning with our super tour guide, Juan.  The group splits up into two vans and I beetle for the back seat, sidewalk side, again for more Fuzzy Out the Window shots:

Today's destination is Monte Alban, a pre-Colombian archaeological site built by the Zapotec.  Monte Alban is huge, dominating the top of the mountains above Oaxaca, an intentional decision by the original builders, I am sure.  Much of Monte Alban's history is lost because there is no written record of the civilization, having disappeared before writing became a way of preserving culture.  Guides like Juan use the best information they have to tell us the importance of the site while the on-site museum is beautiful and interesting at the same time.  Check out the view from the museum's porch:

After being guided through the museum by Juan, he then took us out to the structures that are the main attraction of Monte Alban.

These sculptures have been deemed The Dancers and no one really knows if they were or not but I like to think that it is magical that an artist in the distance past would choose to carve other artists dancing. 

Why art?  Did all this sculpture and carving have greater meaning than art for art sake?  Time does not tell us but I would like to think that some of this exists just because it was beautiful to view and fun to do. 

Back in the vans, it is time for more Fuzzy Out the Window shots:

At this point in the trip, I could take advantage of a moment of serendipity that would provide me with one of the real highlights of this whole experience.  Because my project was completed, I had the opportunity to do an extra excursion this afternoon.  While I had wandered off on my own a couple of times (and would again in the next few days), today I was able to accept an invitation to join Juan and Katherine Engen on a field trip.  Katherine Engen and I are very simpatico on how we would like to travel:  she asked Juan to take her (and eventually me) to where people live that is not a tourist attraction.  Juan's response was to ask if she wanted to go "above the clouds" into the mountains outside Oaxaca to visit some of the smaller towns and it was at this point that I got my invitation.  I am so glad I said, "Yes!!!!!"

The afternoon started with Juan introducing Katherine and me to the delicacies of his ethnic origins by taking us to lunch at the Itanohi restaurant which serves the food of the Mixtec.  Juan took on the duties of ordering and he arranged for one serving of eight dishes for us to share.  The food and the company was great and was a perfect starting point for a very intriguing afternoon. 

Next Juan began our journey up into the mountains in the state of Oaxaca, taking twisty roads through the mountains region.  We pulled off at one point to gaze out over the landscape and view the wildflowers growing in the fields along side the road. 

Here is the point I might as well bring up the fact that occasionally the Oaxaca landscape can be a bit challenging.  I am not going to begin to pretend I understand the political and military climate of Mexico or this region but there is a military presence in the communities that is a little weird to deal with.  Specifically, on this trip, we ran into a military blockade on the road in the mountains.  The troops were set up on each side of the road, stopping traffic and making everyone get out of their cars.  Some of the people had to take all their belongings out of their vehicles as well.  All of this activity was overseen by military vehicles with mounted machine guns strategically placed amongst all the chaos.

However, we had a Star Wars moment.  You all remember, "These are not the droids you want?"  Well, Juan said, as we slowly approached the checkpoint, "Do not worry.  They will not stop us."  And, we drove right through the checkpoint.  On thinking about this later, it is my opinion that on the front of the tourist van Juan uses is a big sticker that says, "I have already paid off the Federales."  Either that or he is the Oaxacan version of Obi Wan Kenobi. 

And, right now, if you are saying to yourself, "Where are the pictures of this?" I need you to think about it, think about it...OK, you got it. 

The village that we entered first was Ixtlan de Juarez wherein the Templo de St Tomás Apóstol resides.  It is a massive church that dominates the high point of the town and seems overblown for the town until Juan explains that the Spanish built it on native sacred ground when they discovered there was gold in them there hills. 

While we were visiting this church a little tiny old lady entered, with flowers, to kneel in the front of the church at the altar and begin to pray.  We stayed in the back and gave her a lot of space until some other locals busted into the church carrying palm fronds for the ofrenda.  She greeted them warmly, they greeted her warmly, all sense of religious obligation left the air and I started taking photographs again.  This small village has a magnificent church and they are not letting it go to waste:  the pre-Dia de Los Muertos decorations were especially fine and I was glad we had a chance to see it. 

The three of us went in search of a public restroom in Ixtlan de Juarez and Juan led us into a medical clinic where we just walked right in past the checkout counter and used the facility, not something you could do in America anytime anywhere.  We went out the far end of the clinic which was a fortunate choice as there was an open air market with a booth full of flowers for ofrendas.  I tried to order some flowers without Juan as a translator and it went fairly well until I tried to buy 5 pesos worth of flowers for our ofrenda in the workshop for 5 pennies.  No major international incident occur, much laughter did and then we were on our way to the next town. 

The next town was San Baltazar Yatzachi el Bajo where we went to the Santa Maria Yahuiche church, an institution more expected in a town of this size.  In fact, one of the interesting things was to see the huge difference in the opulence between the two parishes.

When we went into the courtyard outside Santa Maria of Yahuiche, Katherine spotted a teeter totter.  There were two young boys playing on the swings and when Katherine tried to get Juan to ride the teeter totter, he engaged the boys in a conversation in Spanish that of course Katherine and I could not understand.  He then turned to Katherine and said, "The equipment is only for the children."  Much later I had to explain to Katherine that I though that was the coolest dodge I had ever seen to avoid an unwanted ride on a teeter totter. 

Next stop on our tour was San Pablo Guelatac, the home town of Benito Juarez.  When we pulled into this small town with narrow streets, we passed a grade school where the school's brass band was outside the school on a porch, practicing.  The people of this town must love their children because throughout the rest of our experience here we could always hear their brass instruments, slightly wavering and slightly off-key, blasting away in the distance. 

In San Pablo Guelatac, there is a town square with many statues of Benito Juarez.  Juarez was a Zapotec lawyer who served his country from 1858 to 1872 as a benevolent leader and innovator who is still very revered today in Mexico.  There is even a small lagoon that is gorgeous.

In that same square there is a small library.  Each day a librarian arrives with a key, opens the paddle lock on the rolling doors, opens for business, and then closes up when her day is done. 

I wanted to meet this remarkable woman.  In an outdoor setting each day, she provides reference services, checks out books, and will even do a story time for the kids if they want one.  I asked Juan what the Spanish word for librarian was and then introduced myself this way:  "Me llamo Gary.  Soy de bibliotecario.  (My name is Gary.  I am a librarian. (I think.  I hope.  Well, it worked)).  As this conversation went on she kept insisting she was not a librarian but rather just a clerk.  I kept telling her (through Juan) that in my book, if you work at a library, you are a librarian.  Then we asked Katherine to take a photo with my camera. 

Photo by Katherine Engen

Unfortunately, I had the goofy 50 mm lens on the camera and Katherine tried a few photos backing up and backing up so she had to switch to her phone camera.  While all this time was going by I was wondering how a complete stranger would feel about me with my arm around her. It is possible that the height differential meant this nice lady could only reach soooo high but all I am going to say is that this librarian (no, I am a clerk) sure could hug in an interesting place. 

Photo by Katherine Engen

Once again bathrooms entered the picture on this trip.  This time Juan and Katherine disappeared to pass the time and I wandered towards some singing that I heard coming out of one of the government buildings on the square.  I had to look over the very eager parents on the outside of the room looking through the windows to see into a classroom wherein two teachers, in full Dia de Los Muertos makeup, were flanking a teacher with a guitar. 

They were attempting to teach a song and dance to a school full of preschoolers.  I ran back to find my companions and Juan was able to explain to us that the kids were about to start a comparsa through the town of San Pablo Guelatac.  Katherine asked the key question:  what do the kids want?  Juan said, just like for our Trick or Treat, they want candy.  Katherine, being Katherine, immediately demanded that we buy candy and off she and Juan went to a little grocery store across the street to buy treats. 

I stuck around and witnessed the kids pouring out of there classroom to practice their song and dance one more time.  Then it was time to start the comparsa and Katherine was primed to hand out candy.  Having no idea who we were, it took some parents to jump start the kids but once they got the idea that we had free goodies, the feeding frenzy was on.  Of course, I was hovering with my camera and the parents also help herd children in front of my lens.

Then they were off into the town where the plan is to ring a doorbell, sing and dance, and then get candy.  Maybe that was why they were slow to take ours:  in America, you pretty much get candy for doing absolutely nothing but having a container for it. 

I owe a lot to Juan for guiding us here but even more to Katherine for choosing a non-tourist event for the afternoon.  I realized as we were driving away that we were the only non-residents in sight when this comparsa happened proving that this was truly a "real" event and not something staged for tourists.  Amazing that I could see this and it might be one of the real highlights of this trip. 

It was dark by the time we worked our way down the hills from the clouds and we were hungry.  Katherine made another great decision when she asked Juan to take us to a non-tourist place to eat.  Juan explained that while we might eat three big meals a day he was used to eating light at night so we settled on dinner at a local Oaxaca tacorea where the tables and chairs are on the sidewalk and the meat is made right on the street.  It was delicious and plentiful and capped off our afternoon adventure in fine style. 

Photograph by Katherine Engen

It was later when we got back and I set to work on a third piece:  a little skeleton guy made from one of the tins I bought at the tea pot shop and a rubber skeleton head that Colleen provided in the goody bag.  Despite the long day, I still had enough energy to be interested in making art.  Oaxaca is like that. 

You can see the full set of photos from this trip at

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