Wednesday, September 03, 2014


  Still drowsy from the nightbus, I have a pleasant surprise, the  station serves black tea...a rarity..I am picked up by my host  Alejandro and his friend Wil, who inspite of his name does  not speak a word of English. It is funny, I can tell within five  minutes Alex is an interesting guy and we will get on. This is  about how long it normally takes to figure out the click is  there or not. They are both Zapotecs, another people that  dates back from pre-Hispanic times. They do not speak the  language however. The reason why I came today is because  I did not want to miss the Guelagetza, an annual indigenous event in which all the seven provinces of Oaxaca are represented in folkloristic dances and clothing. It has become a tourist attraction, but it is mainly the locals that love it and people stand hours and hours in line in order to get in. First we drive quite a while to get to Alex´s house. Well, ´house´might not be entirely the right word...We climb a few steps to get to a terrace with several rooms adjacent to it. Families and couples live in them: a mattrass, a plastic table with clothes piled up on it. Water needs to be hoisted up from a well, which can then be used in the little bathroom to wash or to flush the toilet. I am awake again after a quick cold wash. Where we will be staying is a few steps higher in a tree. Yes, it is a room in a tree. Couchsurfing: you never know what you are going to get...
Wil takes me to the Guelaguetza where I snap away, enjoying the colours and the Mexican ´hoompa hoompa´ music (as we call it in Dutch). In order for me to enjoy it more, people decide I need to go to the front, after first having had a taste of mezcal, the local alcoholic drink, which you will know from your margarita. It is not the first time that I notice I am treated slightly better in a subtle way. Being white and foreign I get the benefit of the doubt, whether it is when I do not have enough change or want to use the bathroom in an expensive restaurant. I can sense colonial thinking still plays a role here. Guerita (blond girl, but they call me that as well) means better education, more money and having something ´more´. Television here shows people that look more like me than the actual population.

That night I sleep like a log on the floor, in spite of the endless barking of dogs all around and am woken by the sun shining through the curtainless window. That day I want to take off to do some writing and work, but Wil reacts heavily disappointed as he has to go away for a few days and is really keen on showing me around. I give in and we go to a few villages around Oaxaca where they make all types of artisinal decorative products. Fun, but it is clear they purely live off tourism and is created for that (which right now is quiet), as an actual long lived tradition of this does not exist. I see a few women at work, they all work without a design and paint the little wooden fantasy animals in all kind of detailed patterns and just paint over it when they don´t like it. 
The next day is my day off I decide. We visit a friend of Alex who is building a beautiful restaurant and we go foodshopping. Finally! I get to cook something myself. Food is part of travelling, but it is the one experience I choose to miss out on. I am a vegetarian and do not like spicy. This leaves me with quesedillas. I cannot eat any more of those. Just when I smell tortillas on the street, which is pretty much everywhere, I want to walk away from it as fast as I can.. Anyone seems to be able to put up a stove, tables and chairs and sell food- so far almost all my guest eat out (keeping in mind that several do not have a kitchen). They are proud of their Mexican cuisine, but I have seen very little homecooked meals. The menu seems pretty much unchanged since pre-Hispanic times, as they already ate tortillas and adored corn as a divine entity.
I have so far resisted the chapulines, fried locust.

In the evening we go to the feria de mezcal, a festival to celebrate this drink. Bands play and there are innumerous stands that let us taste their drink, so my mood turns happier and happier.

Alex offers to go together to the Pueblos Mancumunados, in the mountains. We pack a tent and off we go. It is nice to get out of town and the air is so much fresher. The night in the tent is really cold, but it is bearable with all my clothes on, a borrowed winterjacket and three thick blankets. I would like to walk more, but Alex really wants to see Lila Downs, a famous singer, perform in town. I decide to leave his place, as  sleeping on the floor has become quite uncomfortable and I don´t want to outstay my welcome. (and perhaps not the worst decision, as Alex posts a video 'never fall in love with a girl who travels' after I leave). I go to my new host, who lives centrally. For a moment I think I am at the wrong address, as it takes a while before he opens the door, he then disappears to finish his shower, but I think he forgets about me, as I call him after an hour of waiting. He has a nice room, but to my not so pleasant surprise he is offering to sleep in his double bed. I am less than thrilled, but realise he is quite young and I can handle him. Besides, I have just spent several night sleeping next to someone else and indeed it turns out to be fine, he respects my space. We go off to find Alex in the queue which is at least half a mile long. It is clear they won't get in. The two of us go up to the other side, to see if we can catch anything from outside. We find an open gate at the top and get in. Downs is definitely an interesting performer. She uses indigenous influences, sings very old known songs (well,  not to me) and her own material. Cannot quite hear the lyrics well, but there is clearly more to her than just love songs. She is dressed traditionally and has dancers from the Guelaguetza join her. It is a very entertaining experience being in this big open air stadium.

All I am left with is a visit with Wil to Monte Alban, another pre-Hispanic site, Zapotec this time and a visit to an interesting museum which gives an overview of how Mexico has become what it is now. Monte Alban is the one site that cannot enthuse me, I have seen too many pre-Hispanic sites by now, and even though they are of a different people, the architecture, religious beliefs and habits seem similar. Languages would differ, but also within the groups that spoke the same language, there were local variations and they did not operate as one group.

I go on one more day long organised excursion which takes us to the biggest tree in the world, or at least that is what they claim, in Tule, a mezcal factory, another pre-Hispanic site (this one is pretty cool actually, as it has some decorative parts) and a tapestry weaver (not that I have seen any tapestry in any of the houses, just another tourist point). I meet a friendly couple from Puebla and bump into some Americans I had met on a previous excursion.

Not much of a beach bum, I still decide that I have enough time to go visit the coast here, as I have seen the Carribean one, I now need to see the Pacific one... A very uncomfortable nightbus with loud music takes me to Puerto Escondido. I arrive at six, so will have some waiting to do and head to the beach. An hour later the beach starts to fill up with fishermen returning from their 24 hours of fishing. I watch with fascination how they sell their fresh fish right from the boat; women, from restaurants probably, fill buckets with fish and weigh it on a hook attached to a portable scale. One of the fisherman tells me what a hard life it is and that they cannot even sell it for the price they want, as people just simply pay what they want to pay. Outside tourist season there is not much to sell.
I make my way to my next host, with difficulty, everytime I get a little lost when I try to find my way back. My host cannot be there himself, but I am welcomed by a Brazilian-Russian couple who stay here. It is a hostel in the making and I get to sleep on a bed with a mosquito net in the garden. It is hot. Very hot. Without moving, sweat drips down my back.The beach here is for surfers, as there are lots of waves, which makes swimming a little dangerous. I make beach walks, talk to people, read my book, go for a swim, but essentially feel bored, as the people here are actually not very interesting if you don´t spend your time talking about surfing. I decide that this is ideal to do some work and don´t leave in a hurry, but then the internet is down in the whole village and beyond, so I feel stuck. I read about four books in three days. Against my own better judgment, I decide to take a beginner´s class surfing. The teacher is not very good, as he spends most of his time yelling ´arriba, arriba´ at me and I am not warned about chaving, my whole stomach is red and burns by the end of it. Anyway, always good to have confirmed for certain what you are NOT supposed to be doing. The one excursion here is the phosphorescent lagoon. A type of microorganism lives in the water and its luminescence is activated by the movement of the water, which could be humans, fish or rain.

Back to Oaxaca to catch a bus to Puebla. Puebla is a small town with colonial buildings and has a pleasant atmosphere. Volkswagen has a major factory here. Elias takes me to his place in the centre, a large studioflat which looks like it could have been restored about 60 years ago. He wants to go to a party, but I have very little energy and only stick it out for an hour so I take a cab back. I hardly see Elias over the next days, due to a family emergency. We have one long conversation about the state of the country and the treatment of minorities. He is an anarchists, cannot stand Americans (gringos) and is part of the Zappatista movement. I explore the city on my own and on one of my wanderings I find myself on a square which houses several mariachi bands. I spend some time with them, it is basically a song-drive in. People drive by and request songs and pay accordingly.

I also meet up for dinner with the couple met at the excursion. I also invite a couchsurfer who I know will be going to the same rafting event as me. The couple is impressed with all the stories of meeting strangers and having a good time together.

I then visit Cholula, attached to Puebla. It used to be an important place in the old days. It used to have a pyramid which is considered the largest in the world. In 1519 in order to scare the Aztecs, Hernan Cortes, the main Spanish conquistador, massacred a great part of the population. To show the power of the Spanish crown and the Catholic church, he built a big church on top of the pyramid.There is little left of the pyramid, it is pretty much a big hill.

 . He then continued to build about 50 more churches in Cholula. There is defintely no lack of churches in Mexico, in any remote corner you will find one. People are very devout; most people have a cross or pictures of Jesus in their house and the same can be found in public places such as busses. The conquistadores (Spanish colonisers) might not always be looked on favourably, but there is no negativity towards the Spanish, the religion and language are too strongly adopted and most people are probabaly mestiza (a mix of indigenous and Spanish). In order to make Catholicism more acceptable, the crucifixion of Jesus was emphasised (compared to human sacrifices that existed in the aborigen culture). Within indigenous groups there is still a lot of influence of original traditions mixed up with the Catholic one. For example in the north the Tarahumara wear traditional clothes and masks and dance all night during Semana Santa (Easter), where they put the emphasis on 'evil' (faces painted white, like the Spanish) and 'good'.
      In Cholula I meet up with an American couchsurfer for lunch, who works for the peace corps, an American organisation that gives help to developing countries and in this way promoting the US (an open propaganda agenda). She takes me to a small bakery where I meet Kate, an English woman, married to a Mexican. I tell her that I have so far been relieved that Mexicans have not bothered me, as sometimes my experience with Latinos has been different. She says there is a strong Catholic ethic, where men are supposed to take out women for a long while before sex is an option. Result is however that they often will tell a girl fairly fast that they are boyfriend and girlfriend to move things on, even though they don´t mean it. Perhaps I have not felt the machismo in the streets, there does seem to be a much higher percentage of cheating and mistreating women (and women putting up with it, as they don't have the education, financial means and there are simply more men). Kate says that the men are very attached to their mothers, so every time she wants something from her husband, to avoid arguments, she asks her mother-in-law to make the request. A shortcut to get things done. 

Next stop: The capital...