Trip Start Oct 15, 2008
Trip End Jul 15, 2009

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Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Thursday, December 4, 2008

The coast was getting crazy busy and prices rising fast, plus after several weeks of hanging around on glorious sunny beaches, decided it was time for a change.

Headed to Oaxaca, (voted #8 in Conde Nast Traveller Best Cities in the World), for the festive season - unlike many inland cities in the Sierra Madre, Oaxaca is not too cold, being nestled significantly lower in the Central Valleys. It is still nippy at night and there is a big temperature difference between day and night, sun and shade - cold enough to feel a little Xmassy and to give many travellers gripe! (a cold).

The fun started on arrival at the small minibus terminal when I asked the girl where we were so I could find it on the map - she insisted we were on this street but couldn't understand the need to tell me between which cross streets and was unable to point it out on a map. Asking directions is a lottery - the usual reply is a vague waving of the hand and "por la vuelta" (round the corner) and even when they don't know, they will tell you something so not to appear unhelpful or stupid - you therefore have to ask several people and go with the mode! - Mexico is a bit like India in this respect.

Accommodation here is expensive all year round, but higher still as this is peak season, so decided to rent an apartment for a month - not hugely cheaper than a basic room but the kitchen means you can save bucketloads on food costs and get to eat more healthily (yeah right!).

Most important factor though was location - I know what a lazy git I am, so needed somewhere right in the centre to ensure I had no excuses for not going out at night, especially important given the quality of Mexican event planning and timing!! The Tourist Offices are nigh on useless, that is if you can find them (no signs!) - no event listings or calendar, no handouts or leaflets apart from a couple of maps & one brochure which took 15 minutes to extract from them!

Had to resort to looking at posters on walls & noticeboards until I eventually went to the library and found a helpful gringa had pulled together all the disperate sources of info into one document which she printed and published on the web. I was now as organised as it was possible to be but was thwarted at every turn by Mexican time!

Arrived on Thu 5th Jan and got tickets to a weekender, which had some organisational input from Americans and Welsh people, so I was hopeful - however, as the organisers and performers were all volunteers and I'd only paid $2 for the ticket, I guess I should have known! The few events that I actually saw were good, despite them not being the ones I'd intended to see, as everything was 2 hours behind. Another thing I'd wanted to see happened early so I missed it! When you pack for Mexico, bring a limitless supply of patience and tolerance!

It is all very well Oaxaca being known as a cultural centre, but sadly many local people don't behave in a cultured fashion! Uncontrolled screaming fidgetting brats, adults refusing to switch off their mobile phones & making/taking calls, workers talking/working noisily nearby, events held in open auditoriums with no microphones or amps, all compound the problem and all of the above ruined last nights' classical guitar recital.

Thankfully there are so many events of this nature, and my tolerance for much of this culture is limited that, I have had enough by about half way through, so the open exits and noise, mean my quiet escape goes unnoticed! 

In terms of music, there is the regular marimba/dance on a Weds eve and the orchestra play under the laurel tree in the Zocalo at noon on Mon, plus publicised one off events such as a classical guitar recital, an orchestra in Santo Domingo church, the Basque tuna (not the fish nor the fruit of the cactus - tuna ice cream is a favourite here!) at the cultural centre and a concert by an international Trova diva. On top of this there are numerous other planned (but not publicised) performances, many of which you just come across by chance, put on by local schools or the university.

There are also the usual selection of buskers, some really good, like the pan pipers, but most are hideous, especially the young accordianists, who just can't sing - I suppose we should admire their effort as many of the beggars just sit there with their hand or bowl out! There are always some clowns putting on a show in the plaza! (seriously!)

Then there are all the Saint's Days - while here there has been the days of The Virgen de Guadalupe, effectively the patron saint of Mexico and also the Virgen de Soledad, the patron saint for the state of Oaxaca. As well as the usual pilgrimages, by individuals and by local churches, by any available means, the tougher the better, there is the attendance of mass, praying for miracles, offerings of flowers and lighting of candles. The image of the saint is usually carted around the streets & churchyard on the shoulders of the devout, along with a torchlit procession and religious singing, all accompanied by a brass band. The last mass of the day is followed by fireworks - first attached to a wood/paper animal model, usually a bull - young lads queue up to dance around with it on their shoulders, getting showered with sparks in the process. Then they will burn the Castillo, a rickety makeshift wooden tower of fireworks with the name of the occasion on the top and, at the peak, a circular crown like firework which flies off willy nilly into the crowd/trees! This may also be accompanied by regular fireworks and a waterfall firework formation draped on the church. For the few days leading up to this there are always numerous stalls selling food, drink, ices, religious artifacts, etc blocking the nearby streets, plus the usual really tacky funfair.

There are often other parades, usually drunken affairs put on by students, following in the wake of a beer truck (the only time you're allowed to drink on the streets here and always dry by the time I got there!) with the usual animal firworks and brass band, but, due to the beer, lots of dancing and firecrackers too!

Then there are the political protests/rallies, whether a promotion by the green party/left, a hunger strike, including people nailed to a cross, plus speeches and performances to protest against some injustice/commemorate an unlawful killing or diasappearance.

The posadas, put on by local families and institutions, to celebrate Xmas, as well as having a nativity parade calling at various houses in the neighbourhood and being refused a room, finish with food, drink and the kids smashing a pinata. 

These and other events, including weddings, funerals, etc are often accompanied by burning incence, resin or sage, a brass band, giant papier mache/wood figures and a balloon advertising the event. The Noche de Luces (effectively late night shopping day!) was one such event.

The biggest festival was Noche de Rabanos, Radish Night (Dec 23rd), effectively thought up about a century ago as a marketing ploy and judging by the number of people there, it still is! Since starting with elaborate displays of figures made with giant radishes, now grown especailly for the purpose, it has extended to corn husks and dried flowers too. There were thousands of police outside the crowd barriers which contained the audience crawling past the displays on all 4 sides of the plaza, plus hundreds more with riot shields, machine guns and bulletproof vests closing off nearby streets - naturally they had miraculously disappeared when they were actually needed for crowd control later. Some people had waited up to 3 hours in the queue to see the displays and the place was rammed, when some bright spark (haha) decided it was time to start the fireworks a half hour ahead of schedule (probably the police wanting to knock off early!). Consequently me and several thousand others were bottlenecked/crushed under the trees of the plaza and missed the fireworks - hope the 3 people that saw them enjoyed them!

Xmas Eve saw the plaza heaving with local families, there to watch the candelas, parades from/to the various local churches with the obligatory brass band, fireworks, candlelit procession, but this time following a float with everyone dressed up to represent some religious theme or other subject associated with the festive season. Also, the number of vendors increased to accommodate day specific items - eggshells filled with confetti (these guys will be eating scrambled eggs every day for the next month!) and/or flour for smashing over peoples heads, giant sparklers and cans of foam/silly string.

Haven't just confined myself to the delights of the city, have been out and about to 2 lots of Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban & Mitla - really not that different from all the Mayan ones seen previously!), a large tree (El Tule - apparently possibly the fattest tree in the world!), a carpet weaving town, another mezcal place and, my favourite (not because of all the free samples of Mezcal before!), Hierve El Agua, some petrified waterfalls a bit like Pamukkale in Turkey.

It has been really interesting, from a tour of the ethnobiological gardens in the city, from the dye mixers at the weaving town and from my tour in the Sierra Norte, to discover how all the plants and insects found locally are used in the manufacture of products and for medicinal/spiritual use. Most of you probably already know about cochineal the red food colouring being from crushed beetles -they are harvested from nopal cacti and used to be a major commodity for bartering, resulting in some of the wealth of Oaxaca, which incidentally is a bastardisation of the local name for the pod of the Mimosa tree!

The salsa lessons have been a dismal failure - the maestros kept failing to show up, so we have given up - will try again when I'm somewhere next for any length of time. Did go to a salsa club to check out the scene - full of people who were scarily good & felt intimidated - maybe an intensive course is needed!

The Spanish (they teach Mexican!) lessons were not much better - I gave up after 8 hours - I just wanted to understand it and relate it to how we would say it in English so that I could quickly decide in a conversational situation which was the right tense to use - but that's not the way they teach it, so I ended up working it out for myself and sacked them! Did get a nice trip out of them before I jacked, a tortilla making & eating jolly and met some good people.

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