Kate in Mexico

Kate, a senior psychology major, is participating in SMU-in-Oaxaca during Winter Term. The group will spend two weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, and then travel to the Sierra Madre mountains for a week. While in Oaxaca, the group will take classes on ceramics, weaving and painting with talented craftsmen. The students also will engage in a service learning project, will enjoy Mexican traditions related to the holiday season and will collect oral histories.

Home from Oaxaca

k-CuicatlanDance.jpgOur last few days in the mountains taught each of us a bit of a lesson on fame and the eerie feelings that accompany it. We traveled to the small town of Cuicatlan and were greeted with an entourage of people, including the mayor (and a dance, left).

The town had been planning our arrival for four months and prepared lunch, special tea and a dance performance for us to see. We were never alone. Each member of the town community was trying to “one up” the other citizens and show us the newest things or things otherwise unseen to the public. Many of the members of our group were a little intimidated and found the situation a bit much. However, we managed to survive and learn a lot about life in a very rural area of Mexico.

k-EdibleCactus.jpg We were lucky to get to tour a botanical garden, which was full of many cacti native to the area. We also learned that many flowers on the cacti were edible and got to try them. One tasted a bit like strawberry but had an oozy consistency to it. At the gardens, the mayor showed up with a lunch he had prepared for us to eat. Many of his fellow political figures joined us for lunch.

k-BirdHike.jpg During our time in the mountains we did a lot of hiking. Our last night was in an even more rural town and we got to go on a hike through ruins that are currently being excavated. We were amazed at the size and distance many of the ruins spread.

k-HikeMountans2.jpg Our tour leader explained the ancient cities were built strategically at the top of the hill to prevent invasion and also allow communication from area to area. Much of the site was unexcavated, and we were all certain we hiked over some fairly significant infrastructure. When we arrived at the top of the mountain, it was exceptionally windy. The breeze felt great.

We returned to town for dinner, but as this is not a tourist destination, there are no places to dine. A local lady prepared food for us to eat in her house. She had made tables for us to sit and dine, and only a small shower curtain separated where we were from one of the bedrooms in the house. The house was also very in touch with nature. A small creek ran through part of the backyard, which was home to many chickens, dogs and even a donkey!

The rest of the day was spent at the cabins resting, relaxing and getting ready to return to Oaxaca. Late that evening, two people from the town of Cuicatlan decided to visit us and bring us gifts and some snack food. We were all shocked these people drove over an hour to visit and did not want to be rude. However, many of us were tired, so we politely sat and thanked them for everything they had done.

It was hard for a lot of us to grasp our apparent celebrity status. However, towns like Cuicatlan do not get many visitors, and rarely ever are the visitors concerned with the culture. These towns are also home to many people who will never leave the city, much less the country, so having Americans visit was significant.

We returned to Oaxaca on Thursday and had one last afternoon in the city. We went to one of our favorite places for lunch and to enjoy some vegetables we all felt we had been deprived of. Later, a few girls walked around to spend our last pesos and pick up any last-minute gifts.

Walking around Oaxaca after being gone for so long gave many of us a different feeling. We left right after the holiday season was over, so many people were still in the city. However, we returned to what felt like a ghost town. The markets we walked through were disassembled. The crowded streets were vacant and it appeared there were many, many more American and European tourists than we had witnessed before. In some ways, the city was very comforting after roughing it in the mountains.

After showering and packing, we left the hotel for our farewell dinner. We chose to eat at a dinner on the Zocalo to get to be in the atmosphere one last time. Our Mexican guide, Ester, her assistants and drivers all joined our group for the celebratory dinner.

Two of us decided to be adventurous and order a “Botana Oaxacana,” which is a Oaxacan meal for two. We did not realize the meal came out in two courses. Our first plate was full of food we could not exactly identify but we ate and enjoyed. We were both discussing how full we were when out comes the second plate. This plate was the “meat and cheese” portion of the meal and had everything we encountered for the past three weeks, including a large serving of the grasshoppers. What a fitting way to end our evening!

Our flight to America was fairly uneventful. The Oaxaca airport is very small, so it took quite a while to get checked in for our flight. The airport was a large room with three doors, which were considered the gates. Upon arrival in Mexico City, two of us had to change terminals for our flight to Houston instead of the group one to Dallas. As we were on the airport tram we saw a gas-station under an apparent attack of sorts as there were over 100 federal police swarming a large truck parked beside it. We were both a little nervous and quite glad to be heading home. The airport in Mexico City was our first exposure to reality and the comforts we had grown to live without during our time in Oaxaca.

After having a day to relax and think about my adventure, it is still amazing to me – everything we did in those three short weeks. I learned so much about a rich, diverse and historical culture that will stay with me for the rest of my life. People in the whole state opened their arms and their homes to us, and it is ironic to think if they were to visit America they would not stand out or receive any special treatment.

k-MountainSunset.jpgIt also made me thankful to be born in a country with as many opportunities as we have. Things I had never taken for granted – fresh water, clean, running bathrooms and my education were foreign to several families we visited. I had a great time on the trip and know it will impact me for the rest of my life.

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The Magical Town of Calpulalpan

We are in an even smaller town in Mexico, Calpulalpan, which is home to less than 3,000 citizens and again is operated on a communal system. The town is run by a committee, and everyone has a job they do without pay.

Calpulalpan is considered a “Magical Town” by the tourism department of Mexico. We have had ample downtime here, and today four of us enjoyed a very nice hike. We hiked for a little over three hours and were able to view many indigenous plants and animals to the area.

It was raining a bit and is quite cold, but we enjoyed every minute of our hike. We were able to visit a fresh spring, where another girl and I were either insane or brilliant and had some water straight from the stream. Our guide spoke only Spanish, and we spoke very little, so we think he said it would be all right but we are not certain.

The cabins we are staying in are very nice and have large fireplaces to keep us warm. Everyone in the town knows everyone, and so we are well received anywhere we travel. Yesterday we got to see some children practicing their music – their teacher quit but they love music so much they practice on their own. We distributed some of the school supplies we have, and they played several songs. This area has a real small-town feel.

We are heading to the warmer side of the mountains tomorrow and because of the rain today are supposed to experience some rough roads, so our bus is going to be on the road no later than 7 am, which is early to all of us!

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Up in the mountains of Ixtlan

We have left the city of Oaxaca and are now in the mountain community of Ixtlan, which suprisingly is very cool and green. Nights are very cold and days are quite hot! We wake up and debate getting out of bed for many many hours, as we are all deciding when we want to freeze!

Ixtlan is a special community within Oaxaca as it has a cooperative agreement. Land ownership does not really exist, and to get property a person must petition the community and display how their service or business will better the community.

Trout farming

Our first day we visited a trout farm. This farm was started by several men after they retired. A series of unfortunate events forced the group to start their farm three times over – it is now very successful! They teach young people how to farm trout and these people start the farms on a smaller scale in their communities.

The farm was exceptionally clean and the man who spoke to us took great delight in sharing his story. The men were able to study with people from all over the world to develop an effective system for trout. I do not tend to like to eat fish but found on this day it was quite tasty!

Yesterday we hiked down from the top of the mountain to the small center of town. The hike was incredible and made many of us feel like we were in Colorado or another mountain community in the States.

Learning the customs

Later in the day we had a Zapotec language class, where we learned to speak a few phrases in the indigenous tongue. “Paduishi” means hello in the Zapotec tongue of the area we were in. Our teachers were an elderly couple who have lived in Ixtlan their entire life. They have ten children, seventeen grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

After a bit of free time we had a dance class to learn Mixtec dance – it was much more difficult than any of us would have thought. The local children play in a band and we were given an ad hoc performance of some of their band music. Our dance class was full of a bunch of jumping up and down – we were all worn out afterward.

We have been going to bed very early, as when it gets dark in our cabins we are left with limited entertainment and have gotten to know each other QUITE well. All of the girls share one cabin and the boys share another.

University visit

Today we were lucky enough to get to go to a University that just opened in Ixtlan. We sat in on and helped teach the English classes all students are required to take. The professors were mostly from the United Kingdom and one was from Minnesota – it was interesting to hear the stories of how they ended up at this small school.

The school is just three years old and will celebrate its first graduation next year. It specializes in forestry, computer science and other life science classes. Students are admitted after attending a harsh summer session, and usually about half of the students who begin in the summer will actually enroll. School is free to citizens of Oaxaca, and they only pay fees (about $100 US Dollars) and for books.

The campus was pretty and everyone was well received. We were asked to sing a “famous American song” and could only come up with “My Girl,” so we did a short version of the song – I do not think we will be forming a music group anytime soon!

We have some free time in Ixtlan now before another dance class later, so I am sending this from one of the internet cafes where it is 3 pesos for an hour of internet use. We are going to one more community on this side of the mountains tomorrow, then visiting the poorer west side of the mountains before one more night in the city.

It is incredible to think we have already been here two weeks!

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A Parade for Three Kings Day

ThreeKings.jpgToday was one of my most favorite days in Oaxaca thus far. We woke up pretty early this morning and went to finish our puppet for the parade. In Mexico, Three Kings Day is the Christmas celebration – it is the day when the children get most of their holiday presents.

We finished our puppets, which are actually giant life-size figures people wear on their shoulders, and made special candleholders to carry in the parade. Two of the guys in our group practiced walking around and were ready for the parade.

We had the afternoon off to pack up to move to the mountains tomorrow but went to lunch as a group. We ate lunch at a natural health food restaurant, which was the favorite place thus far for most of us!!!

At 6 we met in a park for what we expected to be a little parade through the town. Little did we know, our professor and local guides had spent endless hours planning quite the procession through the town.

Not long after we arrived, a radio station showed up to do a live remote from our set-up. They said all were welcome to come and enjoy our event. Our professor and two students dressed as the three wise men, which all the kids were really excited to see. Little children would come up to kiss the kings and hold their hands. The rest of us were given traditional dress to participate in the celebration as dancers.

Other locals came to join us, a band played music, and fireworks announced our arrival. American students studying at language schools were also invited to participate. We were even accompanied by a police detail and many news reporters and cameras.

The parade was quite an experience, one of my favorite in Oaxaca thus far. We were received well by many, people in stores would come to watch and clap. When we arrived in the Zocalo, an impromptu dance party broke out and I danced with a sweet little 2-year-old girl. The four of us, dressed in traditional attire, were interviewed for the evening news in a mix of Spanish and English. We then gave out toys to all of the children who were in the area.

As we posed for a picture, we truly felt like we were celebrities – all of the locals had their cameras out. The Wise Men were a big deal! We were a little hesitant we would not be well-received, but the evening was incredible.

We leave for the mountains tomorrow and have been told to expect an entirely new experience.

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New Year’s Day

Feliz Ano Nuevo! (Happy New Year’s!)

TuleTree.jpg New Year’s day was quite a celebration in Mexico. We started out with a visit to a Tule Tree in a small village. The tree we focused on was over 2,000 years old. When we entered the viewing area, a small school boy said he would give us a tour if we would tip him pesos. He explained to our guide he did this on the weekends and holidays so he could pay to go to school. We all decided it would be a meaningful way to visit the sight.

The child offered us seven different language options for the tour. He did not speak seven languages fluently but had taught himself enough in each of the languages to show us the tree. Using a mirror, he pointed out the various animals and religious symbols we could find in the tree. Some of them were a stretch, but the tree did house a dolphin, three wise men, a cow and a monkey for sure!

The Tule Tree is important in Oaxacan culture, as there are many stories about how the tree reaches from the heavens all the way down into the underworld. This notion is the Axis Mundi, and witnessing such a large tree really brought the ideas we have studied to life!

We were lucky enough to get to spend the rest of our day with a weaving family in a small village outside of the city. Maria Luisa Mendoza and Fidel Cruz Lazo invited our group to spend a day learning all about loom weaving. We learned the entire process – turning the llama wool into a soft fiber, spinning it to make yarn, creating dyes with natural plants, rocks and herbs, dying the yarn and finally weaving the yarn into a delicate rug.

Yarn.jpg Fidel is quite famous, as he is one of the only artists who continues to dye all of his yarn. Specifically, his process with indigo is very important. He is working on a book to teach future generations of weavers to do this process.

Maria Luisa and Fidel together have created three unique colors using the various natural elements in their process. They were very emotional when telling us about how the energy in the house is indicative of the process of dying the wool. When they have a positive energy, and life is good, the colors are vibrant and exciting. However, when they are going through a rough patch, their work and their colors suffer.

We had a chance to talk to the youngest son as well. It was interesting how he told us he would pursue weaving but also learn other things as he knows this is the future and he wanted to stay educated.

I have not felt like many of the other craftsmen have encouraged their children to learn many things other than the basic family trade. The children learn Zapotec as their first language and later work on Spanish. Zapotec is a native language of indigenous Oaxacan people.

The family home was very nice as far as Mexican standards are concerned. After our workshop, we were served lunch by Maria Luisa and her youngest son. The room in which we had lunch was adorned with many family pictures marking each and every milestone in the lives of the members of the family. Interestingly enough, the passport photographs were put in a special place along with baby pictures and wedding photographs. I can only imagine the pride that would come with the opportunity to travel outside of the small village in which they lived. Fidel and Maria Luisa occasionally travel to Santa Fe to sell their fine rugs. They do not share patterns with other artists, so their work is unique to this family.

That evening we traveled with the two boys to a mountain for a New Year’s tradition. We all wrote our New Year’s wishes on balloons and sent our wishes up into the sky. The “cave,” as it was called, was a place where people would write their wishes for the new year and then chip off a piece of rock to make the dream come true. Then people hike up a mountain and create a version of their wish. We witnessed a family constructing a mini-house as their wish was to be able to buy a house in the next year.

The evening was a big celebration as large amounts of fireworks were detonated in every which way, making many of us a little apprehensive. At one point in the evening, we all wished just to get off of the mountain with both eyes and a full head of UNburned hair. The event was very meaningful and something very few tourists get to experience. We were lucky the weaving family took the time to show us such a neat experience.

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Arts, crafts and grasshopper powder

We have been a very busy bunch of travelers. Our days are full of rich cultural experiences, and our nights have been filled with fine dining and other meaningful holiday celebrations. It is hard to believe we have been here less than a week, as we have already done so much.

ValenteNiete.jpgWe got to have arts and crafts workshops with two native crafters. Our day started in San Bartolo at the home and studio of Valente Niete (photo left), who is a member of the famous Niete family for black pottery. He did a demonstration for us, showing how he makes a pot without any mechanical wheel.

He uses two small bowls, representative of the sun and the moon, and turns a block of clay into a beautiful pitcher. Black pottery is completely made from the earth, as the “glaze” used to keep the material shiny is really quartz rubbed on the partly baked clay. He made the adventure look so effortless, and then he let us take a turn.

Well, the clay that he so carefully molded was very hard. We worked hard just to break small pieces off the block. Valente’s son Francisco was there to help and oftentimes do our pottery. Two group members managed to make pots; the rest of us stuck to sculptures of sorts. I made a bird that is reminiscent of the arts I took home from kindergarten class. We had a great time and enjoyed having very soft hands after using the clay.

JacoboAngeles-sm.jpgAfter a brief lunch, we went to the home of Jacobo and Maria Angeles, who are famous for their wood creations. The little animals that are so finely and delicately painted are his best-known work. He also gave us a demonstration, this time focusing on how he creates such a wide variety of paint colors from things in nature. He used limestone, pomegranate, lime and many other things. The wood he used is a special tree found only in Mexico, and he showed us the various female and male trees. It was interesting because the trees varied so much in weight even though they appeared the same.

Jacobo’s entire family has followed in the trade, as has Valente’s. It was interesting to see many children studying their skill so carefully and hoping to one day be as good as their parents.

BoysAttire.jpgWe finished our day with a very nice resturant called Los Danzantes. The group went out dressed in our new Mexican attire (photo left). Dining in Mexico is a very leisurely process – we have spent three hours dining most of the nights we have been here. The resturant was outdoors but had a retractable roof and space heaters to warm it up.

We all were a bit suprised to learn the seasoning we have become accustomed to being on almost everything is actually grasshopper powder, but still had no problem finishing our meals. Salads are very different in Mexico, so many of us are feeling partially vegetable deprived. However, at Los Danzantes we were able to have a salad – but there was no dressing.

We finished dinner around 11 and were all quick to hit our beds. We are all getting excited for New Year’s and hope to have some downtime before the evening festivities start. Tomorrow we are going to travel to Mitla to visit ruins and a petrified waterfall.

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New Year’s Eve in Oaxaca

We have been going nonstop for the last few days, having lots of fun and also visiting some amazing places.

We visited Hierve El Agua, which is a petrified waterfall in the state of Oaxaca. This waterfall is one of only two in the world; the other one is in Turkey.

HierveElAgua.jpgWe took quite a treacherous hike down to the bottom of the waterfall – the hike was incredible. It is really amazing to see how such a natural wonder is still so isolated in Mexico. We drove on a dirt road and hired a local guide to take us to the bottom of the waterfall. When we climbed to where the water was falling, it almost felt like snow falling on our heads.

Later that day, we traveled to Mitla, which are ruins.The Zapotec people built the ruins and then were conqured by the Mixtec and finally conquered by the Spaniards. The ruins were not destroyed but merely converted to whatever religious group was there.

It was incredible how open the ruins still are for exploration. We were able to climb on top of several structures and even crawl into an ancient tomb. Ester, our guide in Oaxaca, explained how the stairs were so narrow because it was considered offensive to face the Gods directly or to turn one’s back to the people below. So, we Americans walked up the stairs much like the ancient people did – one step forward, one step up. We were quite a sight for all of the visitors to the area.

NewYearsTradition.jpg We had a large lunch that day, so at night, instead of eating dinner, three of us opted for just dessert. We went to a little tent and had a pastry, which was soaked in sugar water. It was basically a very sweet fried dough, reminded me a bit of funnel cake. The tent was set up just for the Christmas holiday. In Oaxaca, it is a good luck tradition to eat this dessert and then break your bowl. While it is no longer considered safe to break the bowls in the street, a little area was set up and we got to break our bowls. The actual event produced quite an adrenaline rush!

The next day, New Year’s Eve, was quite a spectacle. We traveled to Monte Alban, which are ruins of the Zapotec people. These ruins were overgrown and deserted before the Spanish conquest, so they are preserved quite nicely. There are still many unexcavated ruins, as the process is expensive and people are more devoted to excavating the “famous’ ancient people, like the Aztec and the Maya.

MonteAlban.jpg The ruins at Monte Alban were also magnificent. Monte Alban is home to Structure J, one we have studied extensively for our course. The structure is built to align with stars and other buildings, as well as to let the Priest know when to move to another structure on the equinox. We also got to see many different carved stone structures, which depict Danzantes. There are several stories as to what the Danzantes may actually depict; regardless they are magnificent.

We went to the Zocalo and had dinner and watched the fireworks for New Year’s Eve. In Mexico, there are no regulations about fireworks, so very young children were igniting fireworks many different places. Our group tried some sparklers and other more benign fireworks.

We rung in the New Year’s from a rooftop, complete with Mexico’s national countdown. At the stroke of midnight, streamers and confetti came down from the sky and all of the girls were given beads and leis. The celebration started at midnight, as many places were opening up exactly on the stroke of midnight. The celebration reminded me a lot of Mardi Gras.

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Dancing in Oaxaca

Girls.jpgToday we stayed in the main city and did a walking tour with our local guide, Ester. Ester is a very animated lady who tells incredible stories. She does not like to move slowly through things, and when we are taking too long, we will hear a loud “VAMANOS.” She has really brought the experience to life.

Cathedral.jpgWe visited a church and were able to see the first bit of Sunday Mass. The church was incredible; the Dominican architecture is detail-oriented, and the churches are all very decorated. I found it a bit difficult to see such an extravagant church and then go outside and experience the poverty found in this country. Church is critical to the environment in Oaxaca; the decorations of the church made me feel it may be the most vital part of life – even above basic needs.

After church we went to the nunnery, which is now a historical museum. The museum is home to the largest collection of historical books in the country. On display were several Codices, which are the Zapotec and Mixtec people’s creation stories. The codices are elaborate pictoral drawings that open like an accordian into one book. After spending several hours looking at the delicate artifacts of the indigenous people, we moved to the Zocalo (town square) for a break.

In Mexico, the Zocalo is the center of much of the activity in the town. The Zocalo in Oaxaca is a park with many different things going on. Men have stands to shine shoes. There are lots of people, including some very young children, trying to sell various things. There are also performances and lots of dances that take place in the Zocalo.

Because we are in Mexico during the Navidades (Christmas holidays), there are poinsettias, lights and a large Nativity all on display. The band that was playing had set up an area for dancing, and all of the girls on the trip were in the middle dancing Flamenco. The locals were applauding and taking many pictures. Dancing is one of the things I never thought I would do; we jumped right in and have embraced Oaxacan culture!

The rest of the day was full of shopping; we went to the Market, which is a crowded area full of vendors. Parts of the market were pretty and full of flowers and fruit. Other areas were dedicated to meats and cheeses. There was even a little “bar” with benches for locals to have a cerveza. Ester bought a bag of crickets (which are a delicacy in Oaxaca), and several of us tried them – again, I never would imagine I could say I willingly ate cricket. We all found some artisan clothing and plan to wear it to dinner tomorrow night.

As of now, the best way I can describe Oaxaca is “open,” as everyone is very willing to share their culture and trade with us. People are all friendly and talkative. Unlike America, everyone walks down the street waiting for others to talk to. People ask if you would like to join them at their table if there is extra room.

Everyone is excited about being here and ready for the adventure!

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Arrival in Oaxaca

We landed in Oaxaca early this afternoon. There are 11 students and 3 trip leaders with us. The airport was quite an experience – we were the ONLY plane at the whole terminal. There was a “mirado” section, which was full of people just watching airplanes take off and land. In Mexico, I would imagine the majority of citizens rarely use planes as a method of transportation.

The baggage claim was about the length of a bus, and our luggage came off quite quickly. I have found my limited Spanish is already coming in handy, both in the Mexico City airport as well as here. We have some downtime now, but later are going to walk to the town square and admire the holiday decorations. Our hotel is very “Americano,” so we have not experienced the full culture.

Oaxaca is much more urbanized than any of us would have imagined; driving in we observed many car dealerships, American fast food stops and even a Sam’s Club! Our group is going to get to it tomorrow, but we get to sleep in – our Oaxacan leader said we were all “exhausted-looking,” so we will have a bit of a later start tomorrow.

It is so warm and sunny here, hardly feels like the end of December! We were even able to swim in the pool, which felt more like a bathtub!

That’s all for now – we still have some settling in to do and then are going to get to know the area.

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