Thursday, November 26, 2015

Oaxaca - Jan-Feb 2009

I arrived in the city of Oaxaca, capital of the state by the same name (by the way, a little known fact is that Mexico is officially called Los Estados Unidos De Mexico- the United States of Mexico, and it's a federation of 31 states plus the separate federal district). The city lies in a semi-arid valley, and is surrounded by a desert with a large variety of cacti. Well, I'm pretty sure in Israeli terms it wouldn't count as a desert, but in Mexico it is considered one. It actually reminded me a little bit of the semi-arid desert around Jerusalem. On the bus there I could already see one of the things the area is famous for: hundreds of fields of agave, a plant used to make the local drink mezcal, line the road to the city. The surrounding area is predominantly brownish yellow mountains, and is beautiful in a harsh way.

The city itself has several attractions and points of interest. Oaxacan food is considered amongst the best and most varied in the country and it is famous for its coffee and chocolate. Obviously I needed to compare the rumors with reality, so I partook in local cuisine (again and again), and wasn't disappointed. Several markets close to the center provide the perfect setting to try the different dishes, chief amongst them the tlayuda, a big grilled tortilla filled with cheese, cabbage, avocado, tomato, the meat of your choice and hot sauce. If there's one thing I learnt in Mexico, is that you can have countless kinds of food that are basically tortilla (wheat or corn, big or small) filled with something, and they will each have a different name, according to what exactly it's filled with and whether it's fried or grilled or stewed. I can think of 25 different Mexican dishes that fit that description off the top of my head, and eventually I made a list and came up with more than 50. The most fun part is when you have the exact same name for different dishes in different areas. But the tlayuda is unique to Oaxaca. And the mezcal and the chocolate were indeed great. I also ate a lot of mole negro. Mole is a paste made up of lots (30+ is my understanding) of different spices, that is mostly used for stews and meats. It's common to have it either as a main dish, or inside a tamal (stuffed corn dough that is steamed inside a leaf, usually corn or banana) or a tlayuda. The local variety is the black mole, which has chocolate in it, but there's also green, red, yellow, and probably several more. Oaxacan black mole is one of the most famous ones, and for good reason: it's delicious. I also ate fried chapulines (grasshoppers) with lemon, salt and chili. And frankly, it tasted like something crunchy and fried with lemon, salt and chili. Not bad, but nothing special. And I'm sure I ate lots of other things, but enough about food. At least for now. 

Besides eating, I visited a couple of large churches, went to the modern art museum (kinda disappointing), saw a religious parade in which there were decorated trucks, costumes, giant dolls dancing around (amongst them wholly unrelated ones, like Marge Simpson) and of course a lot of fireworks, and learnt about the city's recent history. Apparently, a teacher's strike in 2006 escalated into armed conflict and the founding of a revolutionary group called the APPO, that still organize large protests demanding funding for education and the indigenous communities in the state, and calls for the state governor to either resign or be fired. While I was there they occupied the main square and closed down all the roads leading in and out of the city for a day (of course it was the day I wanted to go out of the city, but that's not really important). So with the zapatistas, the APPO, and a big movement that doesn't recognize the current president because it's believed he was elected in rigged elections, it seems Mexico is quite the fertile ground for revolutionary and anti-govertmental activity these days [that was 2009. Things seems much more stable to me now, in 2015. But that could say more about myself, where I am in life and the people and places I've been going to than about the actual political situation]. None of the groups are violent though, at least not overtly or in a large scale. Maybe because they know that they will lose militarily, and also lose support both locally and internationally. So as far as I understand, the vast majority of violence comes from the government's side, when they're trying to break them up. Pretty typical, really. [Six and a half years later, Oaxacan teachers are still protesting, occupying the main square, closing down roads and seizing tollbooths to get money for their movement].

Moving away from politics, I spent a lot of my time in Oaxaca talking to two people: a 60-year old orthodox jew from Chicago, with whom I had a lot of heated discussions about the war against Hamas (can you guess which side I was on?), and a 19-year old kid from Idaho who had his own permaculture ranch there, where they grew all of their own fruits and vegetables in a chemical-less, sustainable way. Lots of interesting stuff with those two. 

I did go out of the city for a short day trip, but a full one. I went to the town of Mitla to see the local ruins, what used to be a Zapotec and later Mixtec city. It is considered the most important Zapotec site. One of the cool things about this site is that it's completely within the town, and sort of blends in with the everyday life. The town's cathedral was actually built over the Zapotec city's main temple, and parts of it were used as the church's stable and priest's quarters (that part is less cool, but very common). The site is very small, but it has some very well preserved geometric carvings and reliefs, and some frescoes as well. 

I also walked around the town, visited the market, and a mezcal distillery. The distillery was really cool, very rustic. All production is done in a one-room wooden building, and they use such new technology as a bonfire and a grinding stone pulled by a donkey. I was supposed to also go to a place called "hierve el agua", where there are petrified salt waterfalls and bubbling water on top (which makes it appearas if the water is boiling, hence the name), but the only way to get there was by pick-up truck, and the truck has to fill up with 6 people to go, and after sitting with the driver for 2 hours and trying to convince people to come I gave up on that ever happening. [Not to worry though, this year I finally made it there. We got in and out hitchhiking, and camped at the site. I really recommend it! It's a beautiful place, very interesting geologically and comparable with Pamukkale in Turkey. There are a few springs from which water that is oversaturated with minerals flows, right above a cliff. When the water comes out of the ground and flows down the slope or the cliff, these minerals "stick" to the ground and create clear colored, shiny deposits. And when that happens in an 85-90 degree slope on the cliffs, it creates the petrified waterfall. If you go there, I have two recommendations for you: camp there - the "waterfalls" are a strong white and look really beautiful and striking in the moonlight, plus the place will be much quieter; and go down below the waterfalls - from the main pools there's a path that leads up, around and finally down below them. Well worth it to get the extra angle, it's probably the most beautiful and up-close one. And all of this in a desert setting, full of cacti and barren but pretty landscapes]

After that I went to the town of El Tule, to see the tree of Tule. It's a 2000+ year old tree, enormous, more than 55m in diameter and weighing more than 650 tons. It is a sight to behold- there's a church right next to it that isn't small by any standard, but the tree is about double the size of it. Very impressive.

Now that we've visited the city and the semi-desert, let's go to the beach! After 4 days in the city I took the bus down to Mazunte, on the pacific coast. I had heard that it was quiet, not too touristy, backpacker-y in character and very beautiful. As you might guess, I wasn't disappointed. The whole Oaxaca coast line consists of little bay beaches surrounded by rolling hills that are abruptly broken into cliffs as they reach the sea, with little fisherman villages spread about. Mazunte is such a village, but today tourism is just as important there as fishing, if not more. [That was 2009. In 2015 tourism is definitely more important, economically, than fishing]. But it still hasn't been run over by the hotel hordes, like the nearby cities of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco. I stayed my whole time there sleeping in a hammock on the beach, under a palapa (a wooden structure with a palm leaf roof). Swimming, watching the sea, exploring the nearby beaches, rock cliffs and hills, waking up to see the sunrise (without getting up from the hammock), walking over to the nearby cliff of punta cometa to watch the sunset, eating and going to small music shows in town at night... That's just about all I did, and it was great! 
On the first day I met up with the Calculli gang, a group of 5 Argentinians I first met in San Cristobal, and for those two weeks I joined their group. They're quite the inter-connected group- 2 sisters and a brother, the brother's girlfriend and one of the sisters' boyfriend. The older sister and her boyfriend had been traveling for more than a year, making handcrafted jewelry and selling it and living off of that, and we all learned a little of it there. She taught me how to make macrame, and I made several bracelets, and even sold one (!).

It's quite calming and shuts down the mind for a while, and it fitted in very well with the atmosphere at that beach. I got to know this family pretty well, and to feel part of them, at least for a while. There's really not much else to tell about those two weeks. They were just great, calm, uneventful days, that were all sort of the same, but all really good. Oh, wait, we also went snorkeling near the rocks a couple of times, and one day we went out with a speed boat tour in which we saw loads and loads of dolphins, some pretty big turtles (including a couple that was copulating), some manta rays jumping over the water, a huge rock completely covered with birds and bird poo (the smell near it was quite strong), and several beautiful beaches in the area. I should also say that the music was pretty cool. A couple of traveling bands that live off their music to be able to keep moving around Latin America, some random guys just playing for the next meal, some jugglers, fire-jugglers and clowns... the atmosphere was great. OK, now I can close off the Mazunte section with that sentence from before: There's really not much else to tell about those two weeks. They were just great, calm, uneventful days, that were all sort of the same. My original plan was to stay there for 2-3 days and then head south to Guatemala, but plans are made to be unmade. This was the first time that I had really succumbed to the magnetic pull of the ocean. Before that, I had always liked beaches, but for a few days at most. Eventually I would always get restless and want to DO something. Mazunte was the first place that really drew me in into beach-bumhood, and I can't complain at all. Plans to go down to Guatemala were scrapped (or at least postponed) - I knew I had to stay in Mexico longer than planned. 

But alas, at some point you have to move forward, and on the 13th or 14th day we went to Huatulco, still on the coastline. But this place was more of a city, the beach was about a 20-minute walk from where we stayed (compare that with 20 seconds...), and it just wasn't the same thing. About Huatulco I really have nothing to say, besides the fact that I ate some really good pineapple paletas (natural popsicle that consist of water, fruit and sugar, and only that) with bits of frozen fruit in it. I had decided I was gonna leave the group before that, but Huatulco was a good place to do it, since they were going to stay a few days for "business", and I didn't like it very much. Plus I needed to see something that wasn't the beach. I just didn't really know where. Luckily, we met a Mexican couple there, and they invited me to their city, which they said was young, full of students and pretty cool. And that's how I ended up going to Veracruz State, first to the port city of the same name, and then to the state capital of Xalapa. But that's going to wait for the next post. 

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