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!

1 comment:

- Mexican Trailrunner said...

Nice! Your posts just keep getting better and better. Nice photos too!