After 6 full weeks in Puebla, with nothing more than a few day trips to break up our time, we were all very ready for a little traveling. That being said, our week-long trip to the state of Oaxaca could not have come at a better time!
Our first stop was Oaxaca, a quaint colonial city, known for it’s thriving artisan community and Zapotecan heritage. We left early Saturday morning for a 4-hour drive to Oaxaca, arriving first at Monte Albán, a socio-political and economic center of the Zapotecan culture for nearly 1000 years, from about 500 BC to 500 AD (credit to Wikipedia for that one). While I can’t say I remember all the history we learned on our tour, I do remember that they built the buildings a special way so that sound in the center (such as claps) echoed in harmony, and that the stairs were incredibly steep. If I had trouble climbing them, I can only imagine how difficult it was for shorter indigenous people 2000 years ago!
After our afternoon at Monte Albán, we drove to an incredible buffet at an old hacienda that looked out at the valley below. We stuffed ourselves full of food, I unintentionally tried tripe (and promptly spit it out–I thought I got mushrooms until taking a bite!), and I tried every single dessert there to try to erase the tripe from my memory. Tres leches cake=delicious. Fried plantains=my favorite dessert in Mexico! (well, tied with churros). We then explored the rest of the property of the hacienda to walk off all of our food, danced to a mariachi band (probably embarrassing ourselves), and watched a pig get covered in butter and chased around as part of a Mexican tradition for Independence Day!
After this, we went to a museum in downtown Oaxaca that dealt with the history of the area, from it’s original Zapotecan inhabitants to Spanish takeover and the influence of Catholicism in the area. Quite appropriately, the museum was an old Catholic monastery, and it was beautiful! Since outdoor buildings aren’t very practical in most the United States, it was new and exciting for me to see a building like this, built totally open to the outside, with a big open courtyard in the center…very European, according to those in the group who had been to Europe. I think I enjoyed the beauty of the building more than I actually enjoyed learning the history (many of you know that history hasn’t always been my favorite thing)!
Sunday was an even busier day that Saturday, beginning with lots of tours and ending with celebrating Mexican Independence Day in el zócalo, the central part of Oaxaca! We toured a chocolate factory, where they make chocolate by grinding up cocoa beans and cinnamon and then adding sugar. A block of chocolate is formed by these 3 ingredients (and other variations) and then added to milk for hot chocolate!
We also learned about how mezcal, a very popular liquor in Oaxaca. While both mezcal and tequila come from the agave/maguey plant, I definitely prefer mezcal, as it tingles in your mouth instead of burning down your throat. We got to try a bunch of different types of mezcal, some more aged than others, and some with a worm from the maguey plant in it!
We also went to a tapestry factory, where tapestries were woven using traditional Zapotecan techniques–the wool brushed, dyed with natural dies, spun into yarn, and then woven with a loom. Everything was beautiful but much more expensive than what I can find in the market!
Finally, we went to Mitla, a more recent Zapotecan ruin site, and we were allowed to walk inside this one (I hit my head multiple times)! We went inside the building where priests lived, and even went underground to the tombs. We discovered why the stairs are so steep–so that when you walk down them, you have to walk sideways, so your back is neither to the priests in the building nor to the tombs at the bottom of the stairs, as a sign of respect. Nonetheless, it was still tiring to walk up those stairs!
When we got back, we had a little bit of downtime before heading to el zócalo to celebrate la Día de Independencia! Dressed up in red, white, and green, we ate a buffet dinner at a great restaurant right in the town square, with a balcony that looked out over the square to watch the festivities. At 11 pm, the town mayor went out on the balcony of el palacio municpal for el grito, where everyone yelled “Vive México!” and fireworks went off. We then wandered through the crowds downtown until about 1 am, ready for a 5 am departure to Puerto Escondido!
At 5 am on Monday, we hopped on the bus for a 10-hour drive to Puerto Escondido, a beach/surfer town on the Pacific coast, to enjoy the water and work with Child and Family Health International (www.cfhi.org). After popping some Dramamine and sleeping for the bulk of the windy trip, we checked into our beautiful outdoor hotel with a pool in the center, about 3 minutes from the beach. Almost immediately, we left for the beach, where we were met by some locals who lead us through some beachside caves to another hidden beach! We spent hours exploring, swimming, and playing volleyball, before heading back to the hotel for dinner and a talk on preventing tropical diseases, specifically dengue and chagas.
On Tuesday, we used what we had learned the night before to go on a health brigade with district public health workers. We visited a few houses each, looking for pools of water where mosquitos could lay eggs. While malaria has been almost fully eradicated in that region of Oaxaca, dengue is still a big problem, so public health workers try to control the mosquito population to control dengue. When we did find pools of water, we checked for larvae and pupae and emptied the water. Each house also has larger, more permanent pools of water–at least one was present in each house, used for bathing and doing dishes, while a few houses has additional ones for showers. In the permanent pools of water, we added a powder to the water that killed mosquito larvae without harming humans (as long as they didn’t drink a lot of it). The chemical was in a little bag with holes in it, so it was released gradually and generally lasts for about 2 months. Another (preferred) method of preventing mosquito larvae from surviving in the water was by having a few small fish, crabs, or crawfish in the water, which is more natural, less expensive, and doesn’t run out after 2 months! The first time I saw a crawfish crawling around in the dish water, I was alarmed, but we saw it in more and more places.
While learning about preventing dengue was certainly interesting, what interested me even more was the way in which these people lived. I have really only been exposed to urban poverty, where many people do not even have a home. On the other hand, while all the homes we visited had a decent amount of property, these people still most certainly lived in poverty. Their “houses” did not have 4 walls, let alone rooms; a few had curtains hung up to separate the sleeping quarters. Their roofs were mostly made of metal sheets, and their yards were filled with random animal coops, tires, buckets, boxes, and fallen fruit. It was interesting how, even though they did have a lot of property, there did not seem to be a sense of pride in their property–nothing was really in order. As we were walking home on Thursday during a thunderstorm, we walked by a house like this, with 2 walls, a plastic tarp up on the 3rd wall, and a metal roof, and could not imagine calling that my home. I could not imagine being stuck in that little hut during a thunderstorm, with water leaking in on you, bugs flying all around you, and nowhere to sit. It seems that Mexico has a way of reminding me that, while it is abundant in natural beauty and resources, it is still a very poor country.
On Wednesday, we went to the botanical gardens about 15 minutes from the beach to learn about herbal medicine and traditional healing techniques. Since Puerto Escondido is a very rural community, with a lot of indigenous influence, the importance of this traditional healing cannot be overstated. The botanical garden was more or less a tropical rainforest preserve, and it was beautiful and lush and fresh! After spending so much time in the polluted air of Puebla, it was wonderful to be a fresh forest. At the end of our tour of the gardens, we were shown a bunch of different herbs and tried some nice hot herbal tea, which probably would have been better chilled but I was too thirsty to save it for later.
After the botanic gardens, we headed straight to the beach for surfing lessons! We went to a new beach this time, a secluded cove with only a small beach but lots of open water to swim around in. Because there were over 20 of us there to take surfing lessons, we each only got to ride 3 waves, but I’m happy to say I got up 2 of those times! For the rest of the afternoon, we swam around, ate at the beachside restaurant, and laid around. Since I’m not too good at sitting around when I’m at the beach, I spend most of my time in the water, swimming out to where the cove opened up to the ocean and taking lots of shots from the water (gotta love my waterproof camera!). It was my favorite afternoon in Puerto, and I went home that afternoon exhausted with salty lips, a thirsty mouth, and tan skin. I couldn’t have asked for a better day!
That evening, we went home and had a potluck dinner, with each suite cooking something to share with the group. My suite made a cake for our program coordinator’s birthday, and it was a hit! It was very nice to be able to cook for myself again. After the potluck dinner, we found out that one of our buses was having mechanical issues, and after quite a bit of deliberation, we decided to stay the extra day (instead of 2 extra days) while it got fixed. I cannot pretend that I was even the least bit upset by the change of plans–who could be upset about getting another day in paradise?! We had to pay about 30 dollars the next day for an extra night in the hotel, it was 100% worth it. I started off the next day with yoga on the beach with Clara, a leisurely breakfast, and a trip to a more commercial beach for the day. We staked out our spots at a beachside bar and spent the day swimming, enjoying margaritas, and eating fish tacos before walking back to the hotel along the beach for a relaxing night with the group. It was the perfect way to end the trip; while our other days had been jam-packed with activities, we were free to take Thursday at our own pace, and just enjoy our time talking, eating, swimming, and being together.
We left Puerto Friday morning for the long, windy 14-hour drive back to Puebla, and we were on the bus sunup to sundown! Not my favorite trip, but for safety reasons we aren’t allowed to take buses overnight, so that was our only option. We’ve had Saturday and Sunday to re-orient ourselves and catch up on schoolwork–back to the “real world” tomorrow with classes! While I’m happy to be back in Puebla, this trip has definitely given me the “travel bug,” and I now realize how much more of Mexico I have to see in the next 3 months! Lucky for me, this trip was the beginning of a busy month of travel–we are going to the state of Hidalgo next weekend, going to climb a volcano the weekend after that, and going to a music festival in Mexico City the weekend after that!! I am also happy to say that, the following weekend, Chris is coming to visit me in Puebla for a week!!!! I am so excited to see him, and to share Mexico with him. We are planning on taking 2 day trips, as well as spending a lot of time in downtown Puebla. With such an exciting month ahead of me, I think that time will fly by, and before I know it I will have visited lots more of Mexico and will be spending time with Chris. Furthermore, we are now beginning to plan our trip for the end of the semester through Chiapas and the Yucatan, ending in Cancun! I can’t wait for what this month, and the rest of my semester in Mexico, has in store for me!