Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oaxaca Part I

All is quiet in Oaxaca. At the moment it is closer to a ghost town than a traveler’s Mecca, as the preceding months demonstrations have kept the tourists away and sent many locals seeking refuge with friends and family elsewhere. Some hotels have boarded up for the season, and the restaurants that remain open are lucky to have two or three tables’ worth of customers at peak times. The craft bazaars were bereft of buyers. Amazingly, this did not seem to affect market equilibrium. Listless merchants, once engaged in a haggle over a rug or a shirt, sprung to action with a steely enthusiasm that made me look over to shoulder to see if there were really were a dozen other shoppers after the same item.

The only element Oaxaca is not in short supply of at the moment is a police presence, both local and federal. All of the access points into the zocalo, the old town’s main square, and varying intervals along the major roads into the central city are manned by a half dozen flak-jacketed, machine gun bearing troops, with riot shields and batons stacked against the piles of eight foot steel barriers at the ready to cordon off the streets. Last Saturday, on Dia del Reyes, the Mexican day for their equivalent to Santa Claus, the barriers were up. All streets into the zocalo and six blocks around the Santo Domingo church were cordoned off by groups of twenty troops per check point, their riot shields and tear gas canisters in hand. All this bravado for a march of 300 or so men women and children, on their way to a toy giveaway for the children of political prisoners, those who lost their parents, and the kids who live in the public housing complexes around the valley.

It is hard to really get off the beaten track these days, and though Oaxaca is mainstay on the Gringo trail, I have had the rare chance to imagine myself as a solitary wanderer far removed from the backpacking crowd. I had several museums to myself the last few days, and it was nice to take them in as one might a private collection. I was walking to breakfast this morning when I heard the sound of frantic sandals slapping down on the cobblestones behind me.

¨San Francisco Guy, Wait! ¨

I turned to see a set of gangling limbs flailing in my direction. It was a woman from New York I had met at the vegetarian restaurant the day before yesterday. A block and a half beyond her was the cab she must have sprung from upon seeing me, its back door was still open and it was idling in the middle of the street.

¨I thought you might want to check out one of the villages today, you want to go? ¨

I explained that I was on my way to breakfast but she insisted I could just as easily grab a bite at the bus station. The cab dropped us off at the second class bus station where there is line of colectivos, shared taxis that service different villages outside of the city. We found the one marked with our destination in the front window and hopped in the backseat. Normally a colectivo would cram in as many people as possible before setting off, but as there was no one around we only waited a few minutes before he started his engine and the three of us set out. The mountains seemed a lot closer once we got out of the city, and the light and vegetation was not unlike the mountains of southern California. We picked up a few villagers on the way to Ocotlan, and Lia and I chatted about her job in New York, she’s a researcher for a quiz show, and some of her other travels in Mexico.

The driver let us out at a dusty zocalo ringed by dingy shops and a somewhat attractive 16th century church. We wandered into the church and looked at the various saints and ornamentation. In a side chapel there was what looked to be a fake tree wrapped with vines that several women were praying around. The rest of the town was very sleepy. We decided to walk off the square until we hit dirt road. This took three blocks. Before the end of the pavement there was an entrance to a graveyard. Most of the tombs were elevated, the cheaper ones built up with tile, but most had nicer stone, granite and even marble finishes. Some of the structures with columns, porticos, and resident angels and saints, approached the size of the shanties we had seen on the road into the village. There were many elaborate plots for children who didn’t survive their first year. Well over a year’s median income went into many of these displays for the departed, and after a few minutes we ran into what looked to be a grounds crew. In Ocotlan, the dead seemed to sleep more comfortably than the living.
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