Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oaxaca 2 - Regional Museum

May 6th to 9th June

The Regional Museum in Oaxaca is housed in the beautiful Santa Domingo complex of buildings.....


Building work was originally started in 1572 by the Dominican Order and took over 200 years to complete. The monastery saw monks until 1857, then soldiers during the revolutionary years from the 1860's to the 1930's when the monastery was converted to barracks. Then students arrived when Oaxaca University claimed the buildings. Finally, the students were booted out to make way for treasure taken from the tombs of nearby Monte Alban when the old monastery became a museum in 1972.

The building now houses a fine collection of Zapotec art and treasure used to decorate the tombs of the dead to ensure a head start in the afterlife. The most famous piece is this human skull mosaic from "Tomb 7"....


The Zapotecs traded over vast areas and were fine craftsmen. This ivory carving depicts eagle, jaguars and men in ornate headress and is exquisitely detailed....


Stone carved figurines....


There are quartz crystal goblets so fine they are translucent and large collections of jade jewelery....


Gold jewelery with incredibly fine filigree work from around 500AD


Behind the monastery building is a large botanical garden with collections of native Mexican plant life....



Dominated by about a million types of cactus.....



Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oaxaca 1

May 6th to 9th June

We decide to take a break.
We've been on the move constantly for 8 months and some 12,000 kms now all the way from Vancouver, Canada.
Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ca) seems like a good place to sloooow down and really get to know a Mexican city. Oaxaca is famous for it's food and boasts a huge number of restaurants and bars. It's also a beautiful place, well located in a bowl shaped dip between pine and juniper covered mountains with some stunning gardens and old colonial style buildings.....


There are some great Spanish schools here so we rent an apartment for a month and book some classes to try and fix some of the damaged lingo we've picked up on the road. You can pretty much pick and choose how much or little you do and we take 4 hours each morning. It's more than enough for unused brains, rusted solid on the road.

These are the guys from "Spanish Magic" and if you are looking for a school in Oaxaca - this is the place to go. Professional, informal and tailored to your level, they will also arrange accomodation with families and informal English/Spanish chat sessions with Mexicans wanting to practice English ....


Maestros; Lili, Jessica (our teacher), Alberto, Flor - the school's director and Miguel. Jessica is brilliant and we had a lot of fun in a class of just her, Sue and I.

The other students were great as well and it's a pretty social way to learn. School nights out at the baseball....


Yeah - Mexico is pretty big on baseball and it was a real surprise to watch a game there. Not really knowing what to expect we turned up at what turned out to be a really smart stadium to see a pretty good standard of play. Well Puebla were a pretty good standard. Oaxaca always lose, apparently. This was a close game though, level after 9 innings and going into extra time and the crowd was getting tense, sensing a rare sniff of victory. It was not to be though as Puebla smacked 3 home runs in the 10th winning 9 to 6.

Great atmosphere though, largely helped by the huge numbers of food and beer vendors who keep a steady supply coming. You never even had to leave your seat!

Lili (one of the Spanish teachers) dances in a salsa group and invited us to a club where she was performing. A few of us from the school went to watch and this being Mexico, a show starting "around 10ish" finally got going around midnight. It was worth the wait! After the show, the dancers gave way to a salsa competition for regional dance schools. The standard was incredible and the dancing went on for well over 3 hours, before cups and trophies were awarded. A great night out....


There was no way this leaden footed gringo was going to stomp his unco-ordinated stuff on the dance floor after that display, despite numerous attempts to drag us up there. Mexican's can move!

And all the while we were testing the quality of the food.
It definitely passed!
There are so many good restaurants that any lack of quality means an absence of customers. We find a backstreet favourite charging 35 pesos (3 dollars) for a 5 course set menu and it was still excellent. Pushing the boat out for around 10 dollars gets something truly exceptional!

Oaxaca definitely has a lot going for it; there's always something going on! A Saturday afternoon and the main street comes to a stand still as an exuberant wedding procession takes place and the atmosphere is carnival. The bride and groom wear traditional oversize costumes and are noisily followed by a 25 piece brass band and their well wishers....


It's a political city as well. Streets are frequently closed or blockaded by protestors with a variety of causes from labour reform and pay disputes to amnesty for political prisoners. In 2006 there was a large riot when teachers went on strike over pay and their protest was forcibly broken up! The teachers are apparently involved in spearheading many minority causes now as they have credibilty that some groups lack. After 2006, the authorities are more cautious in their methods of restraint with teachers and they are seen as a useful mouthpiece for other organisations. Protestors camp out in the main square outside government buildings to help free a political prisoner....


May is the start of the rainy season in Mexico. Mornings are blue skied, bright and hot, but by mid afternoon the clouds have gathered and skies become leaden and angry. The humidity rises and the air becomes thick and soupy, heavy with moisture from the juniper and pine trees that cover the surrounding mountains. After a few oppressive days, the threat of storms materialises spectacularly and the rains are biblical in their ferocity. Drainage systems overflow and peoples yards are washed out onto the now sand covered streets. Hailstones the size of coins smash down and the nightly deluge lasts several hours....


It's a nightly routine, and the next day dawns bright and clear; the skies blue and innocent - for now.

And we settle into our routine - school in the morning, followed by lunch in another great restaurant, homework, then more food with storms raging outside, then maybe a couple of drinks - but not too much. Not on a school night.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Monte Alban

May 9th 2009

Just 9kms West of the city of Oaxaca lies one of the largest pre Columbian ruins found today in all of Meso America - Monte Alban. Those 9kms involve climbing 400m up the sheer side of a hill that dominates the valley floor below. Being a strategic location, the Zapotecs began levelling a flat terrace by literally shearing off the hilltop. All this was done around 500BC using hand tools and without the use of the wheel! It's an incredible achievement when you see the scale of the place with the central plaza covering a huge 300 by 200 metres.....


Rock was quarried from nearby hills and dragged without the aid of animals to the site to begin this enormous building project. Mante Alban rapidly became one of the largest cities in the region with an estimated population of 5000 by around 300BC. It's power and influence continued to grow until around 100AD when roughly 20,000 people lived here making it one of the largest cities in all Meso America. It's zenith was around 500AD with about 40,000 people. Shells and pottery artifacts hint at trade with distant tribes hundreds of miles away in coastal regions. After about 500AD this great city began it's slow decline and was finally abandoned in 1000AD. No one is really sure why.

The city is dominated by the North and South platform. A massive stone staircase can be seen in the distance leading to the top of the South platform....


It gets more impressive close up....


Little is really known about the purpose of many of the building, nor the reality of daily life. Much of the research has been sporadic and many discoveries only date back a couple of decades. One area of controversy centres around carvings of strange contorted figures that are strewn round the site. Bent and twisted in bizarre poses they were originally believed to be "Danzantes" meaning dancers. However, all figures are male and many depict dancers with mutiliated genitalia! Another explanation which I think more likely is that the carvings depict torture victims and are a warning to other tribes. The region was at the centre of a giant war zone when it was built and rival tribes were all vying for supremecy at the time Monte Alban was prospering....


Another contovertial area is the sport that took place in this ball court....


Again the rules of the game and it's purpose are debated, but there are stone hoops set in the four corners and the object was probably to get a ball through the hoops in teams of 3. Carvings seem to suggest the prize for victory was to be beheaded after your body had been disembowelled! Not sure what the loser got....

It was traditional for the bodies of ancestors to be buried under the floorboards of the house in which you lived. Sounds like a plot for a Brookside episode. Skeletons discovered in the foundations are on display - Anna provides scale for a race of little people....


Looks like this one met with a violent end....


Ironically for a race of people with little understanding of the use of animals, nor knowledge of the wheel, they had great knowledge of astronomy. This is the ruins of an observatory and one of the buildings is designed with such precision to allow a shaft sunlight to fall within the building only on the summer and winter solstice....


It's an impressive site, and in common with many of the ruins in Mexico it's secrets are tantalisingly hidden and are only being revealed slowly as funds become available for new research. It's both fascinating and frustrating to visit such places, especially for a European who is used to the history of archeological sites being more complete.
Or maybe the guides in Europe just have a more polished story to tell.

The view from the South Platform with fellow ciclistas Anna and Ali riding from Alaska to Southern Argentina....



Thursday, June 18, 2009

To Oaxaca

May 2nd to 5th  2009

The media drops stories concerning swine flu to cover the more pressing issue of a Coronation Street actor who has had a car accident. From this we conclude the flu threat is less serious than we were lead to believe and decide not to cancel the tour. We leave Puebla and head for our next destination Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ca) after a full 10 days off the bikes.

It’s my excuse for losing the race to this guy. He must be 60, but he sure was determined and the race lasted nearly 10kms with the lead changing many times before he pulled away on a hill…


Shortly after we pass the toll road that was deemed too dangerous for us to ride…


Mexican toll roads are prohibitively expensive to the average driver with charges every 50kms or so costing around 6 dollars! I guess that’s the reason for the lack of traffic and it’s a shame we are often turned away from this perilous alternative. Not only is the wide shoulder great to ride on, but these roads tend to be a lot flatter than the free roads.

10 days off the bikes seems to have affected our planning as we foolishly pass up the opportunity of a hotel after 75kms (50 miles). It turns out to be the last one for another 45kms and the heat and the gradient both start to rise brutally at this point. At 5pm we manage to find a room above a local village bar in Tehuitzingo just as it’s getting into full swing on a Saturday night. Daytime temperatures are becoming a serious factor and riding after midday is now a strength sapping ordeal. Despite the party below, we crash wearily into a deep, deep sleep.

But the damage has been done and the next day, our heavy legs struggle to propel us a mere 45kms further over some gently rolling terrain, before we throw in the towel and splash out for an air conditioned room for some serious recuperation. Acatlan has an open air market and we gorge on a whole roast chicken and pounds of locally grown fruit to rebuild our strength.

Recovered, we hit the road early and sight a familiar shape way off in the distance…


I take off in hot pursuit and ride down another couple of cyclistas, Anna and Alistair, a Dutch and Australian couple riding from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the Southern tip of Argentina. For the first time since Los Angeles we have company and we ride in a pack. Great company, and then the terrain starts to improve markedly as well. Huge bends sweep round stratified hillsides as we attack the next range after Huajuapan de Leon….


Then the land starts to break up into soft sand-stone arroyos, weathered and cracked after the seasonal gyration from torrential rain to baking sun and back again…. 


It makes a stunning backdrop as we sweep through this alien landscape….


Sue and Anna ride on as I admire yet another huge mountain vista….


Lunch stop. Sometimes you’re limited to what you can get on the road, but a cyclista takes whatever he can get. Canned sardine in salsa with refried beans in a bright blue(?) tortilla. Delicious….


After lunch it all gets a but much for Sue, who finds time for a little snooze at the roadside. This girl can sleep anywhere….


Oaxaca state is the 2nd poorest in Mexico and it’s economy is more rural than other states we have passed through. We stop in Huitzo just outside Oaxaca and this is becoming a common sight….


The next day is a short morning ride into Oaxaca city after 3 days of great riding with Anna and Ali. Thanks guys, we had a lot of fun….

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Puebla

April 28th to May 2nd

Did I mention I hate taking buses. 
Well I do and we are forced to arrive in one to Puebla. On route we miss one of Mexico's finest volcanos 'Popocat├ępetl' close to the town of Amecameca. I wanted to climb it so I'm cross. Sue is actually quite relieved as she never really wanted to be dragged up another volcano. At 5286m is a good big higher than the 4260m Vulcan Nevado we climbed earlier, but the views are supposed to be spectacular. Travelling is supposed to cross things off the list of 'places you want to see', but I just keep adding new ones to the 'places to return to' list. Oh well.

Puebla is a good antidote to being cross. It's another Mexican city that is almost absent from guide books and they've got it wrong again! In the Spanish world you can get a bit 'cities out'. It goes like this.
1) Huge central plaza - check.
2) Enormous cathedral - check.
3) 400 other smaller churches - check.
4) Couple of dodgy museums - check.
5) Crumbling colonial style buildings - check.

They're always nice, but it does get a bit samey.
Puebla is different. Settlers from the Spanish town Talavera came here and brought an 8th century Moorish technique for producing hand painted tiles with them. They went slightly mad after that and covered every single building with them, but it does look really good. Once you get closer you start to notice colourful individual tiles, gold leaf and moulded plaster and it's like no other Mexican city we've visited.

Of course Puebla does have the requisite central plaza and cathedral, but it's a beauty and the cathedral has the highest towers in the country so Puebla is closer to God...



It does have old colonial buildings and we sneak inside to see just how nice they are. It's very nice....



But the tiling is everywhere and it just feels a little different here....



Of course, there are the churches. Puebla is allegedly more religious than any other Mexican city..... 
Now I'm a little bemused as to just how these things get weighed or measured or whatever you do, but apparently it's true. Did they hold a competition? I know not, but apparently it's just true! 
Have faith.
Above in the background is the 17th century Iglesia Santa Domingo and the gold leaf covered mouldings inside the Capilla del Rosario are genuinely incredible . 

But I really like Puebla for the food! Birthplace of many of Mexico's traditional recipes such as tinga (meat stewed in chiles) and Mole (pronounced mol-eh) - a rich, smooth, nutty, chocolaty confusing amalgam of taste sensations absolutely nothing like the black velvet fured blind rodent thing. There is an entire market dedicated to making these wonder dishes and the women inside this building will give them all to me for just 3 dollars!



If the building looks this good - the food was even better!

But panic has spread and the flu has closed down all government run buildings here as well - schools, libraries and museums. It's a shame as Puebla again has a good reputation in this area. The musuems I mean - no idea about the schools. Luckily Puebla is a good ambling kind of place and nothing shuts down a local market. You can get anything here, provided you can find it on the overstacked stalls. 

It's OK for browsing, but a ciclista buys nothing he cannot eat....



There's an artist's quarter where easels sit out on pedestrianised streets and you can watch the painters work, their creations taking shape before your eyes. Botanical garden anyone? Rather nice for chilling out....



And here's the crumbling old colonial style buildings. Actually they're not that crumbly and Puebla has a more up market, well kept air about it than many other places. We find coffee shops here and ponder....



We're getting close to the rainy season now in Mexico, which runs roughly from May through to September. On cue, every evening at 6pm, grey curtains draw themselves over the otherwise cloudless blue skies and turn the air to liquid. I am talking biblical rain, the type that turns roads to rivers and the inside of our hotel to a swimming pool. It clenses and cools everything and is welcome now afternoon temperatures approach 3 figures....



Unfortunately after 5 days, the 'flus', sorry news about flu is no better and it looks like we will have to abondon all thoughts about seeing Mexico City.



Tomorrow - we ride East.....

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Plans Change in Taxco

April 22nd to 28th



Taxco was originally settled by the Aztes, and then later by the Spaniards after Hernan Cortes inquired about the origins of a coin he was given; he was searching for the source of the tin it contained. On arriving in Taxco, the Spaniards found not tin but iron, but that was OK and they stayed anyway. 200 hundred years later they found silver and now the place has more silver shops than the rest of the world combined.
Nearly. 
An estimated 900 silver vendors do business in this town of around 100,000 people. If you're not the shop guy, you're the guy making the stuff, and if you're not that guy, you're the one looking for the tourists to buy the stuff. This is a silver town. Designs are original, craftmanship outstanding and the competition is fierce.

I guess there was no other reason that could possibly persuade sane people to build a town here. Nowadays inhabitants spend more time trying not to slide off the mountain than actually mining it. It's a tough place to ride a fully laden bici....



It's also another of Mexico's "Puebla Magicos" - magic towns that offer the traveler just that little bit more than other, less enchanted destinations....



I like it. Big business has been forced to tone down it's garish shop frontage and blend in. Streets are cobbled and the place has an olde worlde charm with teeny tiny plazas crammed in between miniature buildings. Nothing is large here - there is just no flat land to build on other than the beautiful Plaza Borda where Indian laurel trees provide the shade in front of pink stoned Santa Prisca Church.... 


The rest of the town is precipitous. One museum walks you in the front door and leads you through a couple of rooms overlooking a 4 story drop at the back! It's all steps and higgledy piggledy alleyways that disorientate and confuse....



Bloody difficult to get about with heavy shopping as these locals take a breather in altitude depleted air.



However, plans change when the Swine flu hits. Originally we planned to stay a day or so and then ride the 2 days into Mexico City. This all changes when the panic hits and Mexico starts to close down. It would be pointless to ride there now, and maybe a little dangerous as well, so we decide to stay a little longer and watch the news unfold.

It gives us a little time to sight see at Las Grutas de Cacahuamilpa (big caves) where you are guided into a simply gargantuan cavern. The tour stretches over 2kms into this subterranean expanse and the tour is apparantly hilarious judging by the Mexican's reactions. Unfortunately, my Spanish lets me down in amongst the confounding echoes....


And then all the museums and some of the restaurants here begin to close. Blue face masks are starting to appear and the smell of disinfectant pervades the air as people begin to murmur and whisper. Nothing deters the silver merchant in the various markets and the ever industrious VW taxis though....



However, after 5 days we decide to make a break for it and take a bus around the outskirts of Mexico City (MC). I hate taking buses and this breaks the chain where we ride the whole route, Canada to Panama, but at this point things are looking grim. MC is officially closed, the death toll is 190 and rising. Flights from Peru and Argentina have been cancelled and travelers are leaving before the airport closes down completely. We don't want to leave Mexico, but we don't want to be trapped this side of MC either. So we take the bus to Puebla, figuring if things worsen we can still fly home from this major city. If things impove we are still  on route heading South and East. MC sounds dangerous at this point and in any case is a washout as everything will be closed for the forseable future. It's a bitter blow. I hate breaking the chain and I know how these guys feel. 



Writing now with 20/20 hindsight, the swine flu threat is being played down in the media and the world is on the verge of questioning Mexico's "over reaction". Amazingly, these same people simultaneously forget that they had earlier criticised the Mexican government for not acting quickly enough. The media is as capricious as ever! Taking the bus was the right thing to do given the situation and information available at the time. Even now MC is only just returning completely to normal and nobody then could say for certain what the extent of the threat was.

But the chain is broken and I still hate taking buses!!