Sunday, November 29, 2009

Done with Tanning and back to Culture

Even after four days of lathering on the sunscreen, I had a mighty awful burn in some awkward spots. I gave up the idea of horse back riding my last day and instead renting a chair and umbrella, ordered a big plate of seafood and took in the surfing competition on the main beach. My stomach was still recovering from whatever it is that makes us gringos sick, so I still didn't consume more than one beer the whole week. Which is hard when you're surrounded by fun-loving (and very good looking) Aussies and Kiwis back at your hostel cooking up fresh caught fish on the barbie every night trying to get you to party.

After four days I could have stayed the rest of the trip and diligently worked on my tan, but two things spurned me on: the thought of having to take a bus back up to Oaxaca and the joyful fact that I had a direct flight from Tuxtla to Mexico City already bought. I hopped on a first class bus and made the 11 hour, very comfortable trip to San Cristobal.

I can't even remember the first thing that made me first look at San Cristobal. Even before I left I wasn't sure if I was going to make it that far. I am so glad I did. The hostel was perfect. My $5 US a night room was empty almost the whole week. Breakfast was on the house. The living room was stocked with about a hundred bootleg DVDs and best of all two new puppies were allowed free range of the courtyard. It was like a second home.

I continued my practice of busy sight-seeing and soaking in sun during the day and laying low at night. My trip-long sickness preventing me from partying up could be considered a blessing and a curse. I'm sure it saved me a lot of money and drama, but I missed out on a lot of fun, I'm sure.

Days in San Cristobal were dreamy. I did a horse-back riding trip to a tiny village inhabited by natives whom had kicked out the Christians years ago and instead used the pew-less church for healing ceremonies and ground-level worship on beds of pine needles. I hiked up to churches perched above the town. Mostly I wandered the charming streets eating churros and shopping the wears of the highly talented artisans.

While there were a handful of tourists, most looked Mexican, but you could tell that before the swine flu/drug war media craze this place was a haven for both the American hippies looking to get in on the Zapatista revolution and yuppie travelers. Excellent restaurants catering to vegetarians abounded and I caught an artsy, political flick at a restaurant/language school/cinema.

It was a wonderful last stop on an 18 day tour and if there's one place I'd return to, it's San Cristobal.

Bus Ride from Hell . . . to Paradise

Now the distance between Oaxaca and Puerto Esconido looks about the same as Philly to New York City, which would take any sensible driver 2 hours. There are two buses you can take from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido: the first class bus for about $35 takes the flat, newer highwaysaround the mountains and takes 8 hours or the second class bus for $17 that cuts right through and takes 5 hours. Given this info, which would you take? Second class, right there with you.

Ehhhh! Wrong choice. I am no elitist. Hell, I had slept on the floor already one night on this trip, but this was a scary bus. It took off as the sun had just set. Extra passengers stood in the aisle, holding on to the back of my seat for one hour as the contraption (nearly a bus) zig-zagged up the mountain range. Each and every settlement along the roads had put in a tope, or speedbump, bringing our demon-speeding bus to a screeching crawl.

My alarm went off at 1am, what should have been 20 minutes before arrival, but the minutes, then the hours ticked by.

The view out the window was jungle flying by to the right. Then jungle flying by to the left as the bus wound very narrow pot-holed roads. Our soundtrack was that creepy Bach organ fugue, followed by Carmina Burana and then . . . the Nutcracker Suite. Was this a nightmare or dream? For the next four hours I was wide awake thinking I'd miss my stop.

I didn't, at 4:30am we arrived. My hostel's guard let me in, pointed to a bed and I collapsed.

I awoke to paradise. A walled in set of houses that all seemed to run together surrounded a quiet pool. A bridge ran over the pool and let to hammocks and lounging chairs. Palm trees were everywhere. Nothing looked too well kept, but in my haze of little sleep it was a dream. I put on my suit, got directions and headed out to the nearest beach. My hostel was a ways away from the center of nightlife and a good walk to the beach, but oh what a beach. One of the more secluded, less traveled beaches, I found myself virtually alone, with a cove of blue and multiple sleepy little bars ready to hack a coconut for me and stick in a straw.

Now this was a vacation.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Oaxaca in Color

The Ruins of Monte Alban, set high in the hills above Oaxaca City

A weaving cooperative outside the city

Oaxaca Institute for Culture displays alters from regions across the state

Celebrators pose

A woman offers shots of tequilla as she sits by her alter

The finale of a dance production put on barefoot in the dirt against the backdrop of the city´s cathedral

Go South!

It was advice given to me on my last night in New York before flying out. I should have listened right away. Mexico just gets better and better (and cheaper) the further south you go. I was charmed by Oaxaca. As soon as I arrived I signed myself up for the first tour. I was tired of do-it-yourself and wanted to be escorted around a bit.

Despite being one of the most popular times to visit Oaxaca (Day of the Dead) our tour was not the embarressing tour bus group of 40 people or so led by a shouting woman holding her umbrella high to make sure her ducklings were following. A van picked me up at the hostel with a mere 6 others and our visits to the ruins of Mitla, the Tulle tree (possibly oldest in the world) and a textile weaving cooperative were uncrowded and all worth it. I found fast traveling companions in the two germans in the backseat with me and two older ladies from the West Coast in front.

Delighted by the cheapness and relaxed tours I decided to do more. I signed up for a cooking class and a visit to Monte Alban, some of the best ruins left in Mesoamerica. I was delighted to find myself the only one signed up for both.

The private cooking class turned into a hangout session with the young chef´s friends that worked at the hostel. While learning the 20 ingredients that go into mole, I also learned about the life and times of being young in Mexico. The eldest girl had recently married. She and her husband were in school studying sustainable tourism. In order for her to share his scholarship they needed to be married. So, he had proposed over the phone and they were married the next day. It was fine, but not what she wanted. She also longed to be out of Mexico City, away from the pollution, but that is where all the good schools and jobs were. It´s not the first time I had heard the story, my host in Mexico City also had had no desire to get married and have kids and wanted out of the city. Mexicans all don´t fit our preconceptions.

The rest of the time, I wandered the old colonial streets and spent my evenings gawking at Dias de los Muertos festivities -- now a strange blend of indigenous belief that the dead come back for a night to commune with their families, the Christian celebration of All Saint´s Day, and the American tradition of dressing up scary and partying. Here the celebrations last 4 nights, with people getting dressed up, multiple bands in the streets, and alters honoring the dead everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean the entire Zocalo, every hotel, every store, every restaurant and school.

My fourth day I tried to get an early bus to Puerto Escondido, but found tickets sold out until 8:30pm. No matter; I spent one more afternoon wandering, catching a cultural tour show on the plaza and then steeled myself for what was supposed to be a 5 hour bus ride to the coast. . .

Monday, November 02, 2009

Restarting in Oaxaca

Mexicó city had been rough. Going from serene, fall foliaged, bikable, Boston--barely a city, really--to the 2nd largest megatropolis in world is shocking. Even my brief overnight stay in NYC before the flight didn´t prepare me for the people shock. It doesn´t help that Mexico City is actually a city upon cities, with falling apart infastructure and not designed for a newcomer.

I have two kinds of the Mexicó City in my head--the beautiful museums, the ruins exposed next to the Zocalo, in the subway stops and in the hinter land, the delicious quesadillas, the murals, political discussions with my host. Then there´s the waking up at the crack of dawn with my host, always being lost, the drenching rain, the confusing and crowded subway, getting very very sick. The two images now seem to balance eachother out, so that I don´t much like or dislike the place. But sitting in the bus station, I was ready to get out and start an acutal vacation.

Finally out of the ring of Mexicó City´s smog, the skies were bright blue, and the fields of marigolds were in full bloom, being sold on the side of the road for Day of the Dead festivities.

As the bus pulled through the narrow Oaxacan streets I hit the reset button in my head. And arriving at a suprisingly spotless hostel I found my reservation (made at an internet cafe in the station right before my bus pulled out) was in good standing. My simple baguette dinner felt fine in my stomach and the city museum was free and open late for the Day of the Dead. My head hit the pillow soundly that night after my first hot shower with shampoo in ages, very, very soundly. I was finally on vacation.

Unedited, untitled, raw mess of photos here. Try guessing what the pictures are for fun.