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.