Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Just let me say that when you arrive in a new country you must always be ready for the unexpected. When we arrived on Monday evening at about 10:00, our taxi took us to the address we had been given. It turned out that the address was incorrect. So we were stranded on a dark street, in an unfamiliar city, with all our bags and no apartment. We tried knocking on the doors adjacent to the address we had been given, but to no avail. There was nothing for us to do but walk down to the main street and hail another taxi to take us to a hotel. Fortunately we had our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to help us.

In the morning, we walked to our language school (they had made the arrangements for the apartment) and told Luz, our teacher, what had happened. She immediately checked and found that we had been on the correct street, but at the wrong number. After class we collected our things from the hotel and returned north of the zocalo (main square) to the correct apartment.

To add to the success of this Expedition, we had decided to take an "immersion" language course to better understand Spanish. We already spoke some Spanish, but we wanted to learn to put the words we knew together properly. This would help us understand the traditions behind the celebrations for the Dia de las Muertes.

Our class is very interesting. Absolutely no English is spoken. Our teacher, Luz, speaks to us in Spanish and if we donít understand, she will pantomime her meaning or use different words to get her meaning across. It often reminds us of a game of charades. We work for four hours per day and it is exhausting.

When class is finished for the day we go out for lunch and explore the city and the nearby ruins. On our second day, we went to the open marketplace to eat. We found a wonderful side alley filled with smoke from grills cooking carne asada (barbequed meat).

We purchased thin strips of pork and chorizo (pork sausage) from a vendor who then threw it on the grill to cook. Next we purchased chilies, onions, salsa and guacamole from a second vendor who also grilled the vegetables for us. Lastly we purchased tortillas to hold it all.

After combining all of our ingredients on one large tray, we sat down to enjoy our fantastic meal of fajitas.


Friday, October 27, 2000

Every day has been interesting and exciting. On Thursday afternoon we took a bus to the fantastic ruins of Monte Alban. The ruins are spread across the mountaintops for several miles. The main plaza and the surrounding pyramids were built on the edge of the tallest mountain with magnificent views of the Valley of Oaxaca. Click here to read the history of Monte Alban on the Oaxaca, Mexico page.

We spent our time exploring all the ruins within hiking distance. First we visited the ball court. Like most of the cities of ancient Mesoamerica, Monte Alban had a ball court for ritualized games. These games, unlike those held by the Maya, did not result in the death of the losers. We then climbed to the top of the South Platform (pyramid), and back down and across the courtyard to climb the North Platform. Our one disappointment was the closure of tomb 104 due to damage from the 1999 Oaxacan earthquake. The tombs are numbered in order of their discovery.

Tomb 104 is considered to be one of the gems of Zapotec art. A hatchway in the middle the patio leads down to the tombís chambers. What we wanted to discover for ourselves is the facade over the doorway to the tomb itself. There, in a niche, sits a ceramic sculpture representing the deceased dressed as one of his gods. Inside the tomb the walls are still decorated with bright murals, even after nearly 700 years!

Our Spanish is getting better and our class is going well, although we could practice more. Today during our break, Luz took us for a walk around the neighborhood. We visited a school to look at the ofrenda (altar) built by the children for victims of accidents. It was very large and included "flowers for the dead" which are fist sized marigolds called zempasuchil or Cempasķchil , apples, oranges, calaveras (skulls made from sugar), coffee, tea, alcohol and cigarettes. There were also glasses of water for the souls of the dead to drink on their long journey to and from the afterlife.

We also visited the great cathedral in the zocalo. We have been invited to a quinceanera (15th birthday party) and this is where the religious portion of the fiesta (party) will be held. Our Spanish is improving and the fiesta will be a good opportunity to practice.


Sunday, October 29, 2000

This weekend was extremely busy. On Saturday, we visited the Mercado de Abastos. This is the central market in Oaxaca and Saturday is the day when people from the outlying communities come into town to buy and sell. This weekend was particularly busy because it was the last weekend before

Los Dias de Muertos (The Days of the Dead). The market was filled with people purchasing items for their ofrendas, food, clothing, live animals, flowers, you name it, and itís there somewhere. We spent several hours wandering around and experiencing all the sights, sounds and smells.

On Saturday evening we attended the quinceanera of Luzís goddaughter. The closest comparison to a quinceanera would be a sweet sixteen, but with religious overtones. What a fiesta! The evening started with a church service blessing the girl and her family. This was followed by a sit-down dinner at the family home/business. The parents own a restaurant in an old colonial building in downtown Oaxaca and their home is above it. Entertainment during dinner was provided by a mariachi band. After dinner there was more music and dancing. We left around midnight and the party showed no signs of letting up. We had a wonderful time.

On Sunday, we took a collectivo (shared taxi) to a small town called Tlocolula (pronounced tu-lock-o-lula). Sunday is their big market day and there were lots of people buying and selling their wares. Many of the people who come to the market are indigenous people from the small pueblos, or villages, in the countryside. The market surrounds a Dominican Church, built in the 1500ís, and the church is thought to be one of the most beautiful in the Americas. The walls and ceiling are highly decorated in white and gold paint with raised graphics. There are many indigenous people living in the area and the Dominican brothers were thought to have been protective of them when others were trying to exploit them.

After visiting the market we took a local bus to the town of Mitla to see the ruins there. These pre-Hispanic stone "mosaics" are considered to be unrivaled in Mexico. The history of Mitla dates back as far as 1800BC. The ruins visible today date from 1250AD. The city was believed to have been inhabited by the high priests and rulers of the Zapotec people. After the decline of their empire, the Mixtec people moved into the area and added their stylized murals to the buildings. It was also believed that beneath the temples and palaces were treasure-filled tombs, however, all the tombs found so far have been empty.

In the early 1900ís some restoration work was done to the stonework but Alfonso Caso, the "father" of Mexican archaeology, did the major restoration in 1934 and 1935. The original mosaics were individually cut to fit a design, and then set in mortar on the walls and painted. There were 14 geometrical designs that are thought to symbolize the earth, sky and various animals. There are several groupings of buildings at Mitla and it is believed that each grouping was reserved for specific individuals such as the high priest and the king.

After a very interesting day exploring markets and ruins, we caught the bus back to Oaxaca and a very tasty dinner of typical Oaxacan food.


Tuesday, October 31, 2000

This morning on our way to class we stopped to view the tapetes (carpets of sand) being built in the courtyard of the Cathedral next to the zocalo.  Click here to take a quick look at some photos of tapetes.  They are almost finished and they are really impressive. These are huge murals carved of sand and then "painted" with cement colorant. The murals depict skeletons, katrinas, calaveras, flowers and animals. There are about eight murals and they are each about 625 ft. square (25 x 25 ft).

We have spent yesterday and today preparing for the Days of the Dead festivities. Yesterday the students in our Spanish class went to the mercado (market) to shop for items for our ofrenda. We purchased stalks of sugar cane for the arch, flowers to decorate the arch, calaveras for each student, oranges, kumquats, manzanitas (miniature apples), chocolate for mole and candies, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and copal (traditional incense).

Today we assembled all of our ingredients. We built our arch and decorated it with flowers and pan de muerto. On our ofrenda we placed the fruit and plates that will hold the mole and chocolate. We also placed candles that will be lit tomorrow night and we created a pathway of flower petals for the souls of the dead to follow home.

Tonight is the first night of celebrations in the cemeteries and we are going to the Panteon San Miquel.  This is the Municipal Cemetery.  There we will find the municipal ofrenda and more tapetes, and at 8:00 they will illuminate thousands of candles. It sounds like it should be beautiful. We canít wait.

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