I'm went to Oaxaca in July 2011 courtesy of the NEH to study the arrival of the Spanish from the indigenous point-of-view. I'm now plotting to return and continue researching GM corn and colonial architecture in 2013.
Posting regularly has become a dream with the wonky WiFi here, so I give you -- highlights with minimal commentary! We are just about to wrap up our second week, I'm grappling with my curricular unit (not too successfully, I'm afraid), and a good friend arrives tonight, but I'll try to throw something up whenever I get a connection.
Okay, I know you're waiting for me to say something profound and intelligent about my first week here, but in the evenings I'm too tired to say more than, "Attach Part A to Part B." That's good, isn't it? I'm having a great time, meeting wonderful people, and learning a lot. But I'm thinking of you all and sending you good vibes from a spiritual/historical hot spot!
We began Tuesday's excursion at Monte Alban. The ruins of the structures that survive were built by the Zapotec and give us a picture of ceremonial life in a city that reached its zenith between 350CE and 550CE, about 1,000 years before Mitla's rise.
Unlike Mitla, Monte Alban was built on a strategic hilltop that is at the intersection of three arms of the Valley of Oaxaca. It was abandoned, possibly abruptly, around 850CE and was deserted until the Mixtec appropriated it as a sacred burial ground and continued to use it up to and after the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.
Some of the first archaeologists to explore the site in the 19th Century were -- no surprise here -- Germans, but systematic exploration and documentation began later in the early 20th Century led by Alfonso Caso. It was his work that uncovered the Zapotec treasure -- both in terms of objects and knowledge gained -- from Tomb 7, much of which can be seen today in the Museo of the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Reading the following article has shown me that while we covered a lot of ground in our two-hour visit, we didn't even scratch the surface of what there is to know about this site:
(I've posted some new photos but am still having problems with wonky WiFi, so uploading photos has been a struggle. I'll keep at it but may not get a lot up until I return to NYC next month.)
On our way to Mitla, we stopped at a mezcal plant and learned the various stages of turning agave into a potent drink. We sampled several varieties before we ate a splendid meal:
The group dynamic continues to be positive and enriching. We're all negotiating social boundaries with 30 or more new acquaintances while grappling with a lot of visual and intellectual stimulation, so it's tiring, but in a good way. I feel very lucky to be here and am just as happy socializing for hours on end as I am going off on my own. So far, I've found a balance that's working for me.
We've crammed a lot into the last two days, some of which Professor Spores hilariously called "miscellaneous blah blah." Of course, he's being self-deprecating as it's all been fascinating, and I hope a lot of what we've learned will stick in my increasingly porous mind. We're all definitely in a heightened state of awareness, aural, visual, intellectual, and for some, spiritual. But we are very fortunate to have a wonderful group of people, so there shouldn't be any repeats of the NEH Florence drama, as memorable as some of that experience was!
After yesterday's introductory lectures, we spent today on an excursion to Monte Alban, Rancho Zapata for mezcal tasting and lunch (pictures to follow), Mitla and El Tule. So this is a little backwards, but just think of it as circling back and forth through time.
Mitla -- or Mictlan ("Underworld" in Nahuatl) -- has been peopled for over a thousand years, and possibly as far back at 950 BCE. The ruins we see today are from the site's heyday as an important religious site beginning around 1350 CE. Unlike Monte Alban, which was built on a hill and overlooks the Oaxaca Valley from several strategic vantage points, Mitla was built by the Mixtecs on the bottom of the valley near a small river. However, Zapotec influence remained strong, and the architecture shows influences of both societies. The geometric fretwork, called grecas by the Spanish, is constructed by arranging thousand of small cut pieces of stone using no mortar. It wasn't clear to me what the patterns were meant to represent, although someone suggested the elements of wind, rain, lightning, etc., so I'll have to do some research on that later.
Our last stop of the day was at El Tule, a cypress tree that is over 2,000 years old and considered the largest surviving tree in Latin America. I was glad that we visited on a day that was not too crowded because last year we passed by after visiting the market one Sunday at Tlacolula, and it was so packed with people there was no place to park.
So here are a few photos taken with my iPod of Mitla and El Tule. I'll try to get the rest of them up on Flicker before too long. Enjoy!
Mitla -- The Palace of the Columns from the entrance gate
The Church of San Pablo built by the Spanish using plundered stones from the Mitla complex
Remains of red Mixtec wall glyphs possibly describing important persons
I've been getting spotty internet access the last two days and I left my camera's USB cable at home, so there will be a slight pause in posting until I resolve both of these issues. But the institute officially kicked off last night with a reception that included some delicious local foods, many made by our institute's director and hosts, and a wonderfully sleep-inducing mezcal drink. We had opening lectures today and will be traveling tomorrow to both Monte Alban and Mitla with Professor Spores, an authority on Mesoamerican archaeology. As soon as I get reliable access -- I'm typing this up on my iPod -- I'll post photos.
What I Did: Planned to shop locally at the markets but ended up at a supermercado. Bought some basic foodstuffs and minimal utensils for the apartment. Will be a more thoughtful shopper tomorrow. Channeling Scarlett O'Hara, but I'm dead tired from yesterday's trip.
Where I Ate:La Olla for a huge breakfast of eggs over easy, chorizo, pan tostado, frijoles, nopal (cactus), a 7-fruit juice, and the best coffee in Oaxaca. (Forgot to take photos until I'd eaten it all. I'll do better tomorrow!) A small sandwich from Cafeteria La Principal for lunch. Lots of cacahuates.
Something I Learned: Not everyone loves futbol. I took a cab home from Soriano's supermarket, and the driver remarked that he finds watching it very boring and prefers to sing and play guitar in a local band. We had a nice conversation all in Spanish although I'm stumbling whenever I need to express complex ideas. But he said I spoke like an angel, so he has a warm place in my heart!
What I'm Thinking About: You need to have a pretty thick skin to be a photographer, especially if you're taking photos of local people. Before noon, I'd seen so many things that I thought would make great pictures but was reluctant to take out my camera. I mean, really, does the guy sweeping the sidewalk using a twig broom that's taller than he is really want to appear on my blog? I also saw a confirmation group of little kids all dressed in white, long chiffon dresses for the girls and mini tuxes for the boys, outside a church on the north perimeter of Parque El Llano and a funeral procession down Calle Porfirio Diaz that included many people on foot carrying white gladioli, calla lilies and Madonna lilies following the hearse, some singing very solemnly. But I will leave these scenes to your imagination.
And about texting, something I'd never done before this trip, all I can say is that the language of the tweet or text is just one step above grunting. R U gettin' me?
My experience with flying has taught me for every good trip you pay with a bad one. Today's fight to Oaxaca follows a relaxing, stress-free flight to Rome this winter. Although it didn't match the trip-from-hell from Alabama this past Christmas -- and, really, what could? -- it was, door-to-door, a 15-hour groan fest.
For some reason -- maybe the weather, but who knows-- flights out fo Mexico City were delayed this afternoon. The top photo, taken on the sly with my Mexitel cellphone, shows a group who had been waiting for hours to get to Villahermosa and been told that they couldn't get on a flight until tomorrow. Things got a little -- ahem -- out of hand, and the Policia Federal were called along with some private security. Most of the group was escorted away, some still screaming bloody murder as we boarded our only-two-hours-late flight to Oaxaca.
But I arrived along with my luggage this time and am staying in a small apartment that lacks charm but makes up for it in space and convenience. I plan to go to the markets tomorrow and stock up on supplies and maybe get a few things to make the space a little cheerier.