This past weekend, we decided to do the tourist thing, and dropped 200 pesos per person to be guided through Oaxaca’s Central Valley.
Little did we know, our 8 hour-long excursion would not only be an introduction to the landscape, but also the history, culture, and politics of this ancient land (not to mention a few lessons on good ‘ol human nature).
After a late takeoff – due to, what else, the teachers’ strike – we boarded the camioneta with a German couple “Gertrude and Hanz” (names have been changed to protect the innocent – or to cover the fact that we never actually learned their names, focused as we were on ourselves), a Mexican couple “Alejandra and Jose,” as well as a Mexican family that refused to speak to us the whole trip (to their credit).
FIRST STOP – THE TULE TREE
An ancient beautiful tree, as old as Jesus Christ Himself. I mean, it was beautiful and all, but the coolest thing was this little local boy who was using a small mirror to reflect light and point out stories and images he found in the tree. He showed us a crocodile head and the face of Jesus.
Needless to say, that cute, industrious boy went home that day with a pocketful of pesos — from our tour group and many others.
NEXT — THE TALLER DE TAPETAS
At this rugged but beautiful rug workshop an hour outside the city, we were given a brief but informative lesson on this region’s ancient art of weaving.
One rug we noticed was of the ancient Zapotec god — whose name we can’t remember (you seeing a trend here?) — of wind and speech. It stood out to us because of our interest on wind energy.
As we gazed at the rug, “Jose,” our new didactic tour-mate from Mexico DF, explained that the figures could either be gods or mortals. If it was a god, the wind was a sign of renewed vitality; if mortal, it just meant he was talking too much. Time, it seems, hasn’t changed us all that much.
MEZCAL MEZCAL MEZCAL!
Before arriving at our next stop, our guide explained to us that we were going to wait to have lunch until after we drove up and down a mountain later in the day. In his experience, he logically explained, it was better to do the trip on an empty stomach. This made sense to us. What didn’t make as much sense was that we were now heading to a Mezcal factory without any food in our systems.
At the plant, which seemed like something between a tire factory and a theme park, our guide gave us a sort of hackneyed history of this ancient Oaxacan tradition and showed us how the stuff was made. But what it was really all about was the tasting.
This is our guide.
From this photo, I think you might be able to get a sense where this afternoon is going…
UP THE MOUNTAIN
It took nearly 40 minutes up the mountain, nearly swallowing our own vomit. Along the way we passed make-shift Mezcal factories where horses were literally using “horsepower” to distill the liquor and mashing the plant.
Finally we arrived at the beautiful – the breathtaking – Hiervas del Agua. Luckily, we brought our bathing suits. Jose and Alejandra unfortunately did not. But it didn’t matter. They just took off their clothes and went in their undies.
ALL YOU CAN EAT
The first thing you think of when you think of Mexico is probably not all you can eat buffets. That’s something we don’t even do in the States, despite our new residence in North Carolina – the self-proclaimed home of southern BBQ and apparently all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.
So, imagine our surprise when our camioneta pulls up to a Mexican buffet! It was form-fitted for the foreign tourist wanting to try more than a bit of everything. Tacos, tameles, mole, carne asada, queso… we won’t bore you with the glories of our 3pm gorge-fest. At least we were able to restrain ourselves compared to the rest of our group – probably because of previous experiences getting food poisoning. Hans and Gertrude and Alejandra and Jose went at it. We felt somehow, at that moment, as though our stomachs failed our national stereotypes.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In the midst of eating way beyond our needs, our conversation took a turn towards politics, the future of Mexico, and the common man. Unbeknownst to us – inundated as we are with the U.S. political circus which it turns out isn’t the center of the universe – on July 1 Mexico is to undergo possibly its most important presidential election in a generation.
Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (aka the “PRI”), which had ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, is poised to unseat the ruling PAN party and return to power. As it happened, our tour companion Jose was as knowledgeable about politics as he was about Zapotec gods and tapestries.
Jose was an alumni of Mexico’s elite private university Ibero-American, which was the site of a recent political drama that has captivated the country’s attention. In the past month, the university was to house a presidential debate for all of the candidates. It soon came to light, however, that the campaign for the PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, was trying to bribe students at the university to clap when the cameras turned their way. Classy move!
Surprisingly, the young, idealistic students were actually pissed off at this, and they created a video that quickly went viral and has threatened Peña Nieto’s chances of winning. Although he is still favored to win, on June 10 there were a string of protests across Mexico against him.
A LITTLE FLERTEO
In the midst of this deep political discussion, one of the waiters took an instant liking to Steph. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” Steph later reported that he said to her. “Please tell me you are not married!” “Not yet,” she said, coyly, but pointed over to Ivan, who was staring blankly in the air massaging his stomach. “He is my boyfriend,” she said, resignedly.
The waiter responded in stunned amazement. “Him? That cannot be!”
He then gave Steph a disappointed kiss on the cheek and walked on… Baby’s still got her groove!
THE RISE AND FALL OF A CIVILIZATION
(IN A FEW DRUNKEN WORDS)
With this epic meal done, our guide, 2 more cervesas down, barked at us to get in the car for our final stop — the ancient Zapotec ruins at Mitla.
We drove up to Mitla on a narrow stone rode. Little market stalls spotted the streets, filled with tourist wares, ice cream and other refreshments.
Beyond the human maelstrom was an incredible, timeless, awe-inspiring monument. The beauty and serenity of this place couldn’t have contrasted more from the all-you-can-eat restaurant.
“Children – get over here!” our guide called to us as we were trying to take in this remarkable site. Taken aback, we followed him like sheep and sat down. We were excited because we thought he might have something interesting to say about this place.
He took a stick and starting drawing indecipherable markings in the sand. As he spoke, he wavered between English, Spanish, and some other language or languages we couldn’t understand — maybe ancient Zapotec. The result was that Mexicans, Germans and Americans alike — we understood basically none of it.
What our guide lacked in coherence, he made up for in emotion. It was sort of like watching a video of Mussolini.
But what he was able to communicate loud and clear was that he abhorred the Aztecs. He informed us that the Aztecs decimated the Zapotec people, exploiting local conflicts to their own advantage. Hundreds of thousands of Zapotecs were killed over the course of Aztec rule. Therefore, the Zapotecs had every justification to join forces with the Spanish when they arrived in the 1500s (though that may have led to an even worse fate).
Our guide’s eyes began to tear up — we still aren’t sure if it was due to the alcohol or the truly horrific nature of this story. We all looked at each other awkwardly, not sure what to do. We got up to see this spectacular landmark for ourselves, as our guide continued to lecture to an empty bench.
“Mexico was not, and will never be, a nation!” we heard him cry as we walked down the road.