Sunday, April 7, 2013

Oaxaca, la ciudad

While I’ve written a little about exploring the region around Oaxaca city, I wanted to add a little about the city itself.

The Zócalo, or central square, is filled with excellent people-watching opportunities. There are always vendors (balloons and games for children, drinks, and all kinds of souvenirs and crafts), musicians and other performers, and plenty of people, whether playing chess, meeting friends, shopping or simply strolling. During the time I was there, there was a festival for schoolkids to promote sports and dance (complete with public Zumba), demonstrations by the teachers (a common occurrence, I was told) and related to the inauguration of the new president.

Oaxaca Cathedral

The region is known for the seven kinds of mole (or different complicated sauces with many spices and some using chocolate, usually served with chicken) made for special occasions throughout the state. The city has become a destination for its food both within Mexico and internationally and there are many restaurants offering creative takes on traditional dishes or interesting fusion options. Mezcal, a spirit distilled from maguey, is produced all around the area and many artisan producers sell their products in and around the city.

Mezcal bottles
A particularly interesting spot, for domestic and foreign travelers alike, was the Botanical Garden, which houses a variety of plants native to the region. Visits are available only by guided tour, which ensures that tourists leave with a decent understanding of some of the ecological uniqueness of the province and challenges of preserving the area native species. It’s also beautifully laid out, set into and around the grounds of the Santo Domingo church and Cultural Museum of Oaxaca (another treasure).

In the Oaxaca Botanical Garden

One of my favorite things about the city was that by the time I was leaving, I still saw new places that I wanted to explore each time I crossed the center of the city. I hadn't come close to exhausting the list of restaurants and dishes that I wanted to try. There are many destinations for foreign and domestic tourists, but I think many people who live in and around the city are also able to take advantage of the events and cultural opportunities in Oaxaca.

I’ve already mentioned the school where I took some Spanish classes and family I stayed with here, but it’s worth repeating that my excellent experience was largely due to them and some of the other friendly people I met around town, fellow students and travelers, but also Oaxaqueños who took a few hours to exchange language lesson with me. Thank you!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Societies distilled or imagined

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Garbriel Garcia Marquez, is strange, powerful, and melancholy. Not to be read when one is already feeling badly or disconnected from reality, it draws you into a  magical world of love, loss, and catastrophe. Magical moments flow smoothly within the narrative. The town seems driven by human emotions, but at the end, not so much has changed. It bothered me how characters’ futures could be written off in the space of a sentence, but learned to accept the book’s pace and not try challenge its proclamations.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, also tells the story of multiple generations and an entire society in a single volume. It focuses on a black slaveowner and his plantation in fictional county in Virginia. I was struck by some of the style similarities to One Hundred Years of Solitude, such as introducing a new member of the community or a child and then telling of that person’s fate. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, at the moment you read the line, you struggle to believe or understand the path that could lead to such an outcome, but by the time you get to the foreshadowed point in the story, the entire context has changed, so it’s still new or surprising even though you learned long ago what would happen. The Known World’s indications of the future, instead of being wrapped fully into the narrative, seem to show changes or continuities in the society beyond the period covered by the book.

A few lines that show Jones’ painful but beautiful phrasing:
“Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.” 
This line seemed more critical of Henry to me the first time I read it. Upon reading it again, I liked the way that it seemed to reflect the voice of the book. While not exonerating bad actions, it also tries to show the context and how the actions came to be.
“So when I say he was a handsome man, he was indeed. Henry was, too, but he never got old enough to lose that boyish facade colored men have before they settle into being handsome and unafraid, before they learn that death is as near as a shadow and go about living their lives accordingly. When they learn that, they become more beautiful than even God could imagine.” 
“Mary, hearing Ophelia sing, had decided right then that she didn’t want heaven if it came without Ophelia. Mary asked Ophelia about coming with her and eating peaches and cream un the sunlight until Judgement Day and Ophelia shrugged her shoulders and said ‘That sounds fine. I ain’t got nothin better to do right at the moment. Ain’t got nothin to do til evenin time anyway.” 
Before picking up The Known World, I had greatly enjoyed Jones’ Lost in the City, a series of interwoven short stories set in Washington, D.C.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Holidays Links

Happy Holidays. I hope this finds you happy wherever you may be. Here’s to seeing many of you in 2013! some links.


A taxi driver told me about this holiday festival as I was leaving Oaxaca. I wish I would have had the chance to experience it. If you’ve been, please tell me what you saw!

NY Times researchers pick up where Walmart left off. This should not be buried. (Perhaps it should not so directly expose local politicians with photos and names, but the story and practices detailed should be covered.)


Some of my favorite Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like posts: "their passports" and "being based”. I’m definitely guilty of both and I know I’m not the only one. Also, I appreciated the recognition that those of us without UN laisser-passers tend to be drawn to them like shiny objects. (Dissent welcome)

Old and new friends

Facebook. It is becoming less useful for me because of things like this. I wish there were a better way to easily keep up with friends from other places.

I’m excited to move to New York in about a week. Several of the reasons why are located in Queens, the subject of a recent NYT 36 hour writeup. (But seriously NYT? a travel section on a portion of your city?)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Oaxaca: Monte Albán

Monte Albán was the center of the Zapotec civilization. It sits on a hilltop above the city of Oaxaca and has commanding views of the valley below (that also make the pollution quite visible). It’s incredible to think of people living and worshipping there for approximately 1,200 years, especially because of it’s distance above the valley with its farming and water resources. The main (huge) plaza is arranged north-south (lined with temples to the east and west) and contains buildings and pillars for astronomical and solar observations. The funeral urns from the site are bad ass and a little scary-looking, but since the afterlife for these guys was probably a little scary (as most have been normal life), perhaps it was a good idea.

Limited explanation of the usage and society is available on the placards onsite and in the museum. A guide I spoke to recommended enjoying the spiritual feeling of the site rather than seeking details about the culture since many of its aspects remain unknown (of course, much more is known than I learned during my short stay and descendants of Zapotec cultures and speakers of related languages still reside in Oaxaca state). I was amazed by the scale of the site, which is poorly shown in these photos and the powerful feeling created by it’s alignment with the cardinal directions and the movement of the sun.
A small part of the main plaza

  • Bring plenty of water and sun protection. Guides may be hired at the entrance. 
  • Buses depart from the Zócalo and southern part of the centro on the hour or half-hour. Fully touring the site requires at least two hours. (You can also visit as part of a multi-stop tour may feel quite rushed with this option.) 
  • Many artifacts from the site and surrounding region are on display with explanations (Spanish only) in the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, next to Santo Domingo.
  • The ice cream and hat vendors at the entrance had quality wares and good prices.
Temple at the north of the site with Oaxaca city beyond

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Oaxaca week one

I’m currently in Oaxaca studying Spanish and eating my weight in delicious moles, tostadas, tacos, arroz con leche, helados, y mucho más. Last weekend, I took a day trip to a couple of sites in another part of Oaxaca’s central valley. We visited a huge, old cyprus tree in a nearby town, a calcified waterfall called  hierve el agua (the water boils) for the way that it appears to bubble out of the rock (though the water is not hot) and a Zapotec temple site, Mitla.

Mosaic work at Mitla
My life here is relaxed, with low-stress Spanish classes and plenty of time to explore on my own. The family I’m staying with is charming and the school (Amigos del Sol) director has been amazingly friendly and helpful. People on the street seem quite willing to speak to foreigners like me with broken Spanish (and are often keen to try out their English). There’s always something going on in the Zócalo; so far I’ve seen a physical activity fair complete with baton twirlers and overzelaous public Zumba classes, a seven(ish)-year-old singer with a band in spiffy uniforms, public chess, Paraguayan musicians, marimba players, clowns, and craft and food markets. When you get bored of any of these things, the people watching remains top-notch. There are lots of museums and sites of interest around the city, as well as some fabulous places to eat. I’d wholeheartedly recommend the city and the school.

One odd thing about living here is the surprisingly frequent noise from explosions that you hear in any direction at any time of day. My host family assures all is normal and that people are celebrating, and other people have called the explosions fireworks, but I’m a bit confused by the phenomenon. Fireworks at 10 AM? You wouldn’t be able to see them. Explosions sounding off at 11 PM on a Tuesday - why? Perhaps this wouldn’t be the best place for anyone coming directly from Syria or Afghanistan to learn Spanish. (I’m not exaggerating the frequency, I’ve heard 15 or so while writing this paragraph!)

Hierve el agua from above
Hierve el agua from below
And finally, to inspire a little salivating:

Duck tacos at Los Danzantes restaurant

Monday, December 3, 2012

Not recommended

Sometimes we come across books that just aren't our style. These two books are well researched and contain interesting information, but for me they fell flat, one for lack of an overarching argument, the other for its dogmatism. They also reminded me how important engaging writing is for non-fiction works. If you’re fascinated by either topic, these might be interesting books for you. But I think they could have used an additional edit to highlight the good information they offer in a more interesting and approachable or organized manner.

Mark Kulansky’s Salt: A World History includes encyclopedic detail on different cultures’ and eras’ usage of salt, as promised by the title. Unfortunately, it lacks an overall narrative other than the idea that salt is indeed important and regularly veers off for sections that seem only tangentially related to the overall topic. Since the information doesn’t come together to support an overall argument or theme, I found it difficult to remember many of the details presented. I read the first third, then a couple months later made it to halfway though. I enjoyed the chapter on India since it seemed to track a story arc better, then had trouble finding the point of the subsequent chapters. I do plan to finish the book, at some point...perhaps.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan, was more engaging than Salt. It tells the story of early conservation efforts, the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, and battles between different land users in the Rocky Mountain West. The devastating fire season of 1910 challenged the Forest Service’s claim to be able to control wildfires, but also gave the rangers a chance to demonstrate their skills and value to their communities. Egan spent an inordinate amount of time describing the deaths by burning and smoke inhalation of a variety of groups and individuals trapped in the mountains during the main fire blowup. One or two of these descriptions would have sufficed, if combined with a sense of scale of the injured and deceased. Instead, the gruesome descriptions go on for a good portion of the book. Egan’s moral criticism of western workers in boomtowns as being lazy, alcoholic, and lecherous, particularly in comparison with his description of the noble forest rangers seemed heavy-handed and unnecessary. Egan’s research could make the case for the value of the Forest Service without the good vs. evil dynamic he uses to characterize many of the key players and sides in the disputes. He manages a bit more nuance when describing Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt’s Forest Service chief, and President Taft, but his often repetitive descriptions of even these figures could have used some editing. Parallels between the era’s social conflicts and differences of opinion regarding the environment and today add interest and strength to the book. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Links: free market flights, Congo news, and wacky science questions

“Why, after all, should an industry that has ingeniously used free-market principles to squeeze the most revenue out of each middle seat be protected from competing in a real free market?”
asks Clifford Winston in a NY Times op-ed

Humanitarian humor
Wronging Rights highlights the Radi-aid campaign. Africa for Norway. Awesome. (HT Marc, Françoise, and Wronging Rights)

Scarlett Lion with another amazing photo.

M23 rebels recently took the town of Goma in Eastern DRC. These documents offer a little background on the group, who is behind it, and what might happen next. Stay tuned. 

The UN Group of Experts report has finally been released and has some serious criticisms of Rwandan and Ugandan participation. 

Background from Texas in Africa about the Group of Experts report on the M23 rebel movement. 

Congo Siasa has the latest and the background on the situation in Eastern Congo. 

Wacky science

I enjoyed these NPR articles and becoming a fan of Krulwich Wonders:

Attaching cameras to chickens’ heads to see if they see the world more smoothy than humans. Why not, right? I don’t think this is enough to make me feel better about seeing chickens in their boxes bumping down dirt roads on the back of motorbikes. 

A cool project looking at biodiversity and an additional scary view of US agriculture.