Oaxaca city, located 450 kilometers south of Mexico City in Oaxaca state, is a cauldron of culture in the form of art and textiles, cuisine, mescal, pre- and post-Hispanic history, and beautiful natural landscapes. We arrived on Sunday and my first cultural act was to seat myself in the Zocalo, which is the main square where all manner of people are selling all manner of things to all manner of people, and watch a restaurant T.V. set placed about 50 meters away and tuned into Sunday night football. Thus, you could say I had a seat on the 50-yard line as the N.Y. Giants scored a late touchdown to beat the San Francisco 49ers. While I watched, a young campesino boy bounced a ball on the street in front of us where probably a million pairs of feet trod that day and gutter water ran in the cracks between the stones, and then put the ball in his mouth to hide it from us in a cute, but slightly unsettling game, while his mother sat nearby hawking gum, lollipops, and cigarettes. We, including my 70 year-oldish in-laws, spent our first night in Oaxaca in a hostel dormitory where J may have picked up bed bugs but we otherwise emerged well-rested and none the worse for wear. From the roof of the hostel, we watched a man with an accordion who apparently knows only one 30-second song busk on the streets for hours to no avail – people walked by him like he wasn’t even there, so the only money he made was the few pesos that J periodically threw in his hat to encourage him to play on.
Oaxaca is a city. We haven’t stayed in a city yet during the 8 weeks or so that we have been in Mexico, and there’s a lot going on in the streets. For example, as I write this at 7 a.m. on Thursday from the bedroom of the AirBnB place that we’ve rented a short walk from the city center, someone may have fallen asleep on their horn while driving up and down our street. This, of course, has inspired the dogs that roam the neighborhood all night looking for new places to shit to try to outdo each other in the bark department, which, no doubt, will rouse the guy across the street - if he was not already woken by the guy who drove down our street an hour ago repeating words over and over through a microphone which I couldn’t understand because I had a pillow over my head - and he will start banging on the bicycles in his repair shop. Such is city life.
I’m not complaining. We like the AirBnB place where we are staying, and this kind of real experience is actually what we signed up for, though, it would be just as cool if this sort of authenticity started around 8 a.m. instead of before dawn. Our hosts, Brett and Renee, are a young couple who recently moved to Oaxaca from Jamaica. Brett spent two years being dragged around Mexico by his parents when he was a young teenager and it was encouraging to hear him shower praise on R and me for undertaking this trip, and hear how awesome an experience he thinks it is for Coconut and J, and to understand how much his experience traveling at that age impacted and influenced his own life. I don’t give the gory details of life on the road with kids because I don’t want anyone in a position of authority to revoke my parenting license, but trying to do this “let’s see the world” thing with a 12-year old girl and 10-year old boy isn’t always as nice as the buttered corn sold on the street corner.
Anyway, Brett and Renee have converted the front portion of a former warehouse into two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen, and left the rest of the space as play space – a soccer pitch, basketball court, squash court, stage, and movie theater. J played five sports at once the other day – he wore roller blades, kicked the soccer ball, hit the tennis ball off the wall, took a shot with the basketball, and did something else that I forget. He thought this up on his own which shows how creative he is and also how prepared for fifth grade he’ll be if we get back to Alexandria next year.
We plan to be in Oaxaca through November 2, which is the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. Oaxaca is recognized as the premier city for celebrating this important day so we wanted to experience it here. There are plenty of things to do in the meantime to keep ourselves busy. Since we’ve been here, we’ve spent a couple of mornings at the offices of an organization that works with about 600 children of local families whose parents sell things on the streets. It’s kind of like after school care - with arts, crafts, games, fun, and food – one difference being that whatever the kids get for snack includes fried garlic. R is going to give a presentation to the parents of the children about the consequences of crossing the border illegally, and the Vanamos family is going to come up with some other activities that we can do with the kids over the next few weeks. Giving some of our time to worthy organizations like this is something that we planned to do over this year so we are excited for this opportunity.
One thing we thought about doing was going on a field trip with some of the kids to Monte Alban – a nearby pre-Hispanic ruin of a city of Zapotec origins that existed as early as 500 B.C.. The Zapotecs are a culture that most Americans who religiously tune in to The Big Bang Theory have probably never heard of because our elementary school education about European explorers only concerned those later-in-time Aztec and Mayan cultures that the Spanish Conquistadors enslaved and slaughtered. We thought Monte Alban would be a good experience for the kids because some of them may even be of Zapotec origins themselves, and also because it’s unlikely that their parents can take a day off from selling gum in the streets to take them there. We hope a visit to the site may inspire them to know that this ancient civilization set in their own backyard had created something as grand as a city set atop a mountain and it has outstanding views of Oaxaca and its surrounding villages. At a minimum, there is a grass field that they can run around in and maybe they will remember this in a positive way when they are older, even if they are not one of the handful that goes on to University from this children’s program and instead end up pushing a handcart in the street for a living.
Because the Spanish never discovered Monte Alban, they couldn’t loot and otherwise destroy it like they did to the rich Incan city of Cuzco in Peru and countless others, so when it was finally discovered in the early twentieth century, much was learned about what the Zapotecs where up to. What we learned was that pretty much what the Zapotecs were up to was having a bunch of priests and astronomers lord it over the rest of the population, castrate and disembowel their enemies in the name of scientific research, and farm. According to the guide we hired, no evidence was found that the Zapotec performed human sacrifice and heart-eating rituals like the Aztecs did – which provides further support for the notion that things were better in the old days and the world is going to hell in a bucket.
On a more positive note, the Oaxaca film fest is in town and on Tuesday night R and I went to see a screening of some documentary shorts shown on a screen like a giant moon bounce that had been set up in the street outside the Burger King near the Zocalo. The one that resonated the most with R and me was about a 70-year old man in Tehran who has been collecting and selling rock and roll records for his life and living. His friends tell him, if you had gotten a real job you could have a house now, to which his response is, but then I wouldn't have lived the life I wanted to live. We liked that. We also liked that he drove some version of a VW camper van and often slept in it in the parking lot of the market where he sold his records.
Afterwards, we strolled up the pedestrian street – the Alcala – to the plaza outside Santo Domingo church (the church was completed in 1608 and probably has more gold adorning its walls and ceiling than L’il Wayne has in his mouth) where a good old fashioned hoe down was in full swing – a horn band with drums, about fifty cowboys and their ladies dancing in the streets, and lots of other people standing around watching, drinking beer, and eating ears of corn with mayonnaise. We tried to figure out what was going on and think that it had something to do with campesinos from around the country coming to tell the government how to improve things in the countryside. One idea that occurred to me is that they could add an accordion player to the band.
After this bit of fun, we decided to walk home rather than drop 50 pesos on a cab ride thinking it would be a good test of just how safe our new city home is because we knew our 25-minute walk would take us past some very dark corners and through some very empty streets. In preparation, I hid the several hundred pesos I had on me in various articles of clothing, but this turned out to be unnecessary because the most exciting thing that happened was watching a man pedal past us with a DJ speaker attached to his bike blaring club music followed by about 50 other bikers of varying sex, age, and size, with strings of lights attached to their own rides. Bringing up the rear of this random parade were two police cars – not there to put an end to the fun, but an escort.