March 29, 2010

Three Oaxaca Ruins: Mitla, Yagul & Monte Alban

We're hooked on archeological ruins! We like to explore places where people created societies in response to their surroundings and in doing so shaped history…for a while or for much longer. Their lives were a struggle, yet their achievements mattered. These civilizations rose and declined, or were destroyed by outsiders. Whether the ruins are large or small, we wander and imagine. The Americas have nurtured many rich ancient cultures. Mexico’s are very diverse.

We saw three sites around Oaxaca that differ in size, location choice, structures and the indefinable mood the place creates for visitors. Similarities common to all are pyramids, temples, altars, palaces with various rooms, and underground tombs. Structures and rooms were covered with plaster and painted in solid colors, images or patterns. Red was a favorite. Some aspects of these societies were brutal, including war and human sacrifice. It was a hard life, serving the gods and the rulers.

Mitla is a quiet hillside town of 7,500 people who live among the pre-conquest Mitla archeological ruins. Surely many Zapotec residents are descended from the old people. Shops along the street sell souvenirs in a low-pressure way. In back rooms, we saw looms and men weaving the white cotton, pastel-striped tablecloths and bedspreads sold in Oaxaca and in Patzcuaro. I’d thought they were machine made! I still wonder if some are?
Mitla, the most recent of these three old cities, was a Zapotec religious center, at its height for two or three centuries before the Spanish arrival in 1519. Built by Zapotecs, it was surrendered in wars to Mixtec, Zapotec again, and finally to the Aztecs, who were subjugated by the Spanish.

The Spanish destroyed most of the old site, and built the Mitla church on the largest ancient temple, using temple stones. Some palace rooms were used as stables and out-buildings, probably saving them from destruction.

The stonework at Mitla is unique, with 14 different patterns, each having a specific meaning. In most cases, stones were cut in small pieces and set in place without mortar. The solid stone lintels are also unusual.

Some of the ruins are scattered through town. Most are just foundations, wall remains and piles of stones. This adobe pyramid, different from others because it was never covered with quarried stone, has an apparently unused church atop, where two men in the doorway (look closely!) are lighting candles on a makeshift shrine.

All of Mexico's ancient places are preserved and protected by INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), which has an excellent education program that includes site labels, displays and museums.


The Yagul ruins cap a hill, with fortified structures on stone cliffs high above. Isolated, they are dramatic, though not yet fully restored. Yagul, older than Mitla, was built mostly after A.D. 750.

Here, Yagul workers maintain an unexcavated temple.
The Yagul ball court is second largest in Mesoamerica. The largest is at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. No one knows the exact significance of the ball game/Juego de Pelota, but it must have been awesomely difficult. No hands! Players used only their body, shoulders or elbows to propel a hard rubber ball among team members and to pass it through a thick stone ring attached high on the sloping side of the court. There are many ideas about the game's purpose: to resolve disputes, gain honor, settle the fate of prisoners, and select the next human sacrifices necessary to appease the hungry gods. Outcomes were not pleasant.

Monte Albán.
To reach this site, we followed a sign uphill from the Oaxaca Abastos market. The road seemed unlikely, but an old neighborhood bus coming down said "Monte Albán," so ok! We should have paid more attention to the graffiti. The twisty road high above the city became remote...then narrowed to one lane, still with two-way traffic. Things got tense for Gigi, on the passenger side, because of its crumbling concrete edge! Just before Monte Albán, we finally met the wide tourist highway!
The Spanish couldn’t build a church on Monte Albán, its too immense! The people of Monte Albán flattened a hilltop 400 meters above the valley for a location with spectacular views. This site is truly ancient, begun about 500 BC, probably by Zapotecs. The civilization peaked from 300 to 700 AD, when the surrounding population was 25,000.  They used intensive irrigation, and controlled other populations in the valley of Oaxaca. The site was abandoned by 950. Perhaps population pressures became unmanageable.

At Monte Albán's heart are two huge connected complexes and additional outbuildings, many set aside for excavation by later generations of archeologists. Of our three sites, this is the only one with pyramids too daunting to climb – or too many to climb, at least after being slightly stunned by a long walk in the hot sun!
Above, a view of half the Grand Plaza.
In the first picture, this Observatory building is a small smudge in
the upper left, a bit off center in front of the large mound that is the Platforma Sur.
The huge Platforma Sur, over 300 meters away at the end of the Grand
Plaza, peeps over one of the North Platform patios.

The Danzantes is the name given to a group of large reliefs that originally covered a temple inside room. Most were moved outside many hundreds of years ago. They are thought to be images of conquered leaders who have been tortured and await a sacrificial death. The hieroglyphs accompanying the Danzantes are earliest known examples of true writing in Mexico, and date from 500-200 BC.
      Small figure in the very good site museum.                                        
                               Vendors grab exiting visitors.

That's all, folks! Whew, go take a rest!

March 24, 2010

Glimpses from Our Last Saturday in Oaxaca

The Waiting Car.
A shiny white car with an orange floral arrangement on hood and trunk waited beside the Iglesia Sangre de Christo. I peeked in the open church door. The front aisles were full, while a young woman in an orange gown sat alone in a straight-backed chair before the priest, her full gown spread wide about her. There was quiet, beautiful music. It was a quinceañera ceremony, the coming of age event eagerly awaited by 15 year old girls.
A Peek at the Glamorous.
As I walked into the gallery district, I wondered where a man and two elegantly dressed women ahead were off to. By the time I reached the Iglesia Santo Domingo on my roundabout route, stopping at a couple of galleries and artisan displays, a gorgeous wedding party filled the pews.
This historic church seems a particularly prestigious location for an elegant wedding. Every woman was dressed in a fabulous traditional long gown with ruffles, pleats, silk embroidery on satin, brilliant colors and lace, many with hair in formal braids and ribbons.
Two young married women with infants remained outside. The one with a baby boy held him to kiss the tiny girl…Beso, beso! Many tourists AND locals were sneaking pix at a distance. What a contrast between the tourists and the beautiful women!

An Old Woman Fills a Need.
No picture but the one in my memory! Walking north from the zocalo on a street of quiet residencs and closed offices, I passed an old, simply dressed man who ducked his head and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A few doors down, an old woman sat on a narrow concrete stoop in front of a closed door, clutching a large un-marked bottle. Another old man sat beside her. Heads together, she tipped a bit from the bottle into a small cup he held. A third man stood a few steps away, waiting his turn.

Contemporary Art with Traditional Metates!

The Home of Benito Juarez.
In 1818, Benito Juarez, a 12-year old Zapotec Amerindian orphan who spoke no Spanish, left his work as a goatherder and walked down from the mountains into Oaxaca to find his sister, who was working as a servant. He was soon taken into the home and family of a bookbinder, who adopted him and supported his education. Juarez learned quickly, went to seminary and to university, became a lawyer, and rose to serve five terms as President of Mexico. His leadership transformed the country, and continues to inspire her people. Our visit here provided an awesome insight into this amazing man. His home and street have not changed (though we don't know if it was blue and red back then!).

Saturday Afternoon in the Zocalo. 

The Oaxaca Zocalo is two large squares joined at the corners, filled with towering trees. On such a fine Saturday afternoon it was packed with people of all ages – families, sweethearts, young people, shoeshine stands, musicians, and vendors selling toys, clothing and more. A group on a platform drew a crowd with a rousing speech, Tempting aromas filled the air: coffee candy, carnitas, pizza, mole, fish, hamburgers.

Difficult Highway Signs.

By the time I sound out the town names, we could easily fly by our turn!

However, we traced our way back up the highway to the northwest, past Mexico City, through Cuernavaca, and are now in one of our favorite cities - Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan.

March 17, 2010

Oaxaca Area: San Bartolo Coyotepec - Zaachila - Cuilapan de Guerrero

Friday was our last Oaxaca road trip! Off we went up the crazy-busy highway past the airport to San Bartolo Coyotepec, where black pottery called “de gabil” or “rústico” is made. Large or small, simple or heavily carved, it's available in any price range.

We parked by the church, where black pots with flowers top each wall pillar. In the churchyard, they were setting up a event with flowers, tables, tall river rushes, and an artificial “wishing well” with a black bowl hanging from a rope. Maybe a wedding?
The town seemed asleep, nobody on the street, most doors closed. No traffic.  Moto-rickshaws are used in every town in the Oaxaca valleys. We went into the only shop in sight, where a sign announced

A college-age boy sat reading, and paid us no attention. In the courtyard, an old Indian woman sat alone on a very low chair, intent on smoothing a small bowl with a flat wood tool. As we approached, I realized she was even older than I realized! Tiny, wizened, stooped, her veined brown hands stained with grey clay, clothes hanging on her frame. Her hair had been dyed black some time ago, maybe by a great-granddaughter, and an inch of white shone brightly down the middle of her scalp.

I said Good day, senora, and she looked up. She stood, and little crumbles of clay fell from her blue plaid apron – and seemingly from every part of her body, as though she’d emerged from the earth! When she spoke, it may not have been Spanish. Many here still speak the indigenous dialects. She stooped to scoop water from a bucket onto the little pot, pulled plastic from a large pile of dark brown clay and handed us a dab. I asked where it was from, and she gestured far away. Profuse thanks from us, this was our demonstration. The boy had disappeared, we were alone in the shop. This picture may be our potter, taken when young, in the early 20th century!

Across the highway was the Zocalo, where a few pottery shops lined one corner. All of the shopkeepers were very old Zaxatecan Indian ladies. I decided on handmade beads on a string. The lady pulled a plastic bag from under the counter, fumbled with it, and announced she had no change. We went across the street to break a 100 peso note (worth about $8) by purchasing a soda. The old woman behind the counter looked me in the eye and said she had no change. When I said That's ok, we’ll go elsewhere, she opened her change drawer. Back at the shop, I still needed change for a 5 peso coin. The seller still had no change, but dropped the price 2 pesos. Lesson: always carry change for the Zapotec ladies!

Strolling the tree-filled plaza and adjacent streets, we saw that Coyotepec has many well-kept adobe buildings and a fine Museo de Arte Popular Oaxaca, which we enjoyed very much:
We headed to Zaachila for lunch. Our drive down a near-empty road took us past small plots of land with a mix of crops, then into Zaachila, with paved and dirt streets. Very little traffic!
Looking for the church steeples that would mark el centro, we saw white smoke puffs from cojetes/fireworks. Something was going on! The plaza intersection was jammed with cars, trucks and moto-rickshaws. Luckily, we found a parking place. Traffic cops and municipal police directed movement through streets narrowed by tents set up on both sides. These were crowded with people who seemed to be pushing forward in line for food! Let’s ask the cops what’s up!

Senor, por favor, que es la occasion? Is it a special day? Oh, I could not fully understand him – it sounded like “Semana Santa,” but that was impossible. A stocky man stepped up, the English speaking volunteer. Proudly, he began to explain…Oh no, I thought, this guy thinks he speaks English! However, I was able to pick out… sounds like – aha! – Good Samaritan Day!!! Both men encouraged us toward the tents: Go, go, it is for everyone!

Long tables were decorated with palms and flowers… this is what they had been doing in San Bartolo! Women with pitchers and pots filled plastic cups with natural juices, and each strongly urged us to take their own. I reached for coconut, but was firmly convinced by her neighbor to take a brown drink filled with fruit pulp and flat, dark oval seeds. It was strange, refreshing, and filling. (Anyone know what it is?) Chuck chose fruit sherbet served from a stainless pot submerged in a wooden tub of ice.

We might have made a meal from the generous women who were also set up at the municipal building and church, but we went to a comedor/restaurant beside the Mercado. The menu is only a hint at the offerings. It's best to ask what's on today.
It was delicious! A tomato chicken dish for Chuck, mole negro for me. Cost? $7.30 for two with sodas! A young cook did the work, but wise  old women seem to make this world go round, and the cook handed her the money, which she tucked in a basket.

Outside the market, small, old Zapotecan women displayed their wares - flowers, fruit, and generally agricultural items. When I stopped to admire some flowers, the woman looked up at me, smiled, and handed me a purple flower, then turned to wrap lilies for a customer. When she’d finished, I asked what the flower cost. She laughed, said, No, no price! and handed me a carnation. Muy amable, muchas gracias, Senora! I will remember you! I do wish I could show you a picture of this lovely, round-faced woman, but my friend Marilyn has so cautioned me against offending the traditional Indigenous by showing a camera that I dared not ask for a picture, fearing to spoil the mood, darnit!

Again, we wandered on.Townsfolk were already stacking their tables. The short-lived event was over. One wishing well was left, in front of the church. Online later, I found that Good Samaritan Day is a Zapotecan celebration that takes place three weeks before Good Friday in the state of Oaxaca. It was a wonderful surprise on an already very fine day!

In Cuilapan de Guerrero we visited the Ex-Convent (monastery) of Saint James Apostle. After the military conquest of New Spain, King Carlos granted land to Spanish encomenderos/military leaders who would ensure the Christianization of the native people. The grants also included native labor (often virtual slavery) and tribute – usually a share of a harvest or craft goods. This convent and church were established on one of Hernán Cortez' extensive estates.

The area’s Mixtec and Zapotec population was relocated to the site most suitable for the church. The imposing Dominican complex, begun in 1555, includes an open-air church for natives who might be uncomfortable within the confines of a traditional church. Meanwhile, the indigenous population was tragically declining from introduced European diseases. By 1595, about 90% (!!) had died, so the striking, very large building was never fully completed, and has been used for many purposes over the centuries. Now restored very like the original, it's a museum, and also houses archeological laboratories for the National Institute of Anthropology and History. We peeked into rooms where archeologists at great tables were painstakingly sorting and matching pottery fragments. The local populations use the main church for services, but it was closed when we were there.

The building has intriguing architecture, and shows the wear of centuries.

We're spending a few days in Cuernavaca now. Our posts don't always talk about where we are now, but you can always click the "See Our Location" link to find out where we are in real life!

March 10, 2010

Oaxaca Area: El Tule and Teotitlán del Valle

 Our first Oaxaca day trip included two towns,  El Tule (pop. 6800) and Teotitlán del Valle (pop. 4600).
 At El Tule, they asked for a donation to support El Árbol del Tule, the Oldest Tree in the World. I told the elderly woman collecting, El Tule has the prettiest plaza ever! The entire area is a perfectly trimmed garden with immaculate green grass, fragrant roses, bird of paradise, topiary, and walkways to wander. Those gardeners must be on duty 24/7. Around the edge are the Municipal Building, a round artisan market, shops, restaurants… and the tree, to the left of the painted church.

From a distance, the old tree is a green mass. Up close it’s all trunk, too big to photograph. It’s over 2,000 years old and loaded with cheeping, busy birds! How old is the church? I asked. After some thought, the helpful woman told me that the church was equally old, but hmmm, I don’t think so!
The pre-Spanish indigenous inhabitants must have also thought the tree special to have cared for it. Today it's lush and green, and has a hijo/son on the opposite side of the church that is 1,000 years old!
We prowled the town center, then left the tourist area to look for lunch. We stopped where a woman was flipping big tortillas on her big clay comal (a somewhat dished round pan) over a wood fire. She was making the large empanadas typical here. Tortillas are filled with lots of red-orange sauce and chicken chunks, folded in half, sealed on the edges, then cooked till too hot to touch. No pica! (not hot!) she promised.

We ordered one each, plus another to share, filled with queso/cheese and squash blossoms. Served, they extended over both sides of the plate! Both were delicious, the tortillas dry but not crisp, the filling saucy enough for a  knife and fork. She said Si, si! I could take a picture of her and the “kitchen,” but she wouldn’t look my way!

The El Tule residents were delightful. When we arrived and got stuck in a street too narrow to park our big truck, a fellow cleaning up a vacant lot pointed out a better place (in English). After we moved, he called across the road to say he’d watch the truck for us. And I believe he did, because he was still working when we returned, and waved to us!

Teotitlán del Valle
The weaving tradition in Teotitlán stretches back to pre-Hispanic times, when the town delivered cloth tributes to the Aztecs. The road to town rises off hwy 190 to give a nice view of the arid valley. Soon it was lined with dozens of homes, most displaying looms, woven goods and welcome signs. We entered another extremely tidy town, with an Artesian Market near a tiny square, very good community museum, and artisans eager to describe the resurgent interest in using natural dyes for their woven rugs.
But first, the church! The 17th century Templo de la Virgen de Navidad is white, with brightly colored plaster trim. When the Spanish arrived, they destroyed the existing Zapotecan temple and built their church on top, using the old stones. This was the custom until 1850, when President Benito Juarez passed a law to stop the practice. This church is unusual because a number of carved stones were incorporated into the new structure, and today are proudly displayed.

An old man sat on a bench outside the open door, keeping an eye on things. Inside, the church was a wonder with painted stone walls and bunches of fresh flowers lining the side walls. Tall, thick beeswax candles with attached bright plastic flowers were everywhere. Paintings covered the dome above the altar.

The excellent community museum was the only dusty thing we saw in town! Artifacts described the pre-conquest ruins (now gone) and community life, with text in Spanish, English and Zapotec. A large exhibit described wedding traditions, including the many customs that must be carried out prior to and after the wedding that connect the bride and groom and parents to others in the community through gift-giving that is repaid over years at other life passage celebrations. Such obligations reinforce a network of relationships over many years. For instance, the god-parents have a role in dressing the groom; later he will repay this by carrying out a specific obligation that helps them. Hopefully, this will be a gift of slightly more value. These traditions contribute to building a strong, cohesive community.

The afternoon was hot, so we stopped at a nieve/ice cream stand next to the mercado. Colorful posters encouraged recycling for a better world; good nutrition to avoid obesity; and a return to natural foods and products in place of packaged goods in order to keep the town cleaner. Another taught how to reduce dengue fever by keeping property clean of trash and things that enable mosquitoes to nest. A very aware town! But it did make me wonder about that ice cream ....

On the way in, we’d admired a rug with a jaguar design hanging outside a weaver’s home, so we stopped at Casa Gonzalez Rugs. The weaver got up from his loom to welcome us. Several large floor looms sat under the deep eaves along two sides of the courtyard. He displayed the work, tossing several rugs from a folded pile onro the tile floor. A good wool rug will immediately flatten.

Next, he invited us to watch him weave a gorgeous, large and complex piece in process. He was about 80% completed after four day’s work. How fast! I’ve had a lot of practice, he said, every day! So many looms! My whole family works, he said proudly, as his wife Silvia came to meet us, with an old woman in colorful embroidered white blouse and dark skirt. This was getting more and more fun! Then, his young teen son came out and settled at a loom to continue work on a striped rug.
Chuck asked to see the jaguar piece and Senor Gonzalez took it down just as his daughter Maria Luisa walked in the door. We were introduced…and this is my daughter’s work! he said. We agreed to buy. Photos were taken. As Maria Luisa left for her English class, we kept chatting. Silvia had been to (or lived in) Zihuatenejo, where the picture on our traveling card was taken. They were curious about how long we’d been in Oaxaca and how we liked it. Everyone we talk to in the shops asks us this!  Where do we live in the states, and do you like Mexico? What does Maria Luisa study? Suddenly, we were such friends.
This day was a perfect example of why we are crazy about Mexico!