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.