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September 25, 2003


This was the first stop on our ten-day trip around the south of Mexico. One of the best things about Oaxaca is saying it. Say it: Wah HAH kah. Sounds great.

On Monday 14 September, myself and my traveling companions, Mel and Tristan of Melbourne, headed to Oaxaca, capital of the eponymous state. We took a bus to Puebla for lunch first, on the advice of Cecilia's parents, who gave us the name of a restaurant that serves a very good enchiladas de tres moles. It was called Fonda Santa Clara.

We weren't disappointed. The restaurant was all decked out in green, red and white for Independence Day and the food was just as festive. Three little chicken enchiladas, each one glistening with rich sauce - one red, one green and one brown. The brown mole is made of all sorts of chiles and spices, and is dark because of the main ingredient - chocolate. It's amazing and tastes like nothing else on earth. I love it. I have no idea how they make the red one, but it's tasty, too. The green one is made from crushed pumpkin seeds and it's delicious. We had tequila with sangrita (spicy tomato juice that comes in a separate little glass) and some beers, then wandered around the pretty town and hopped back on the bus for Oaxaca.

It was raining when we arrived, but this wasn't going to deter the lively residents, who were crowding the square, enjoying the carnival rides that had been set up and cheerfully spraying one another with cans of white foam. We missed the Grito - the cry that the state governor makes from the balcony of the Palacio on the Zōcalo, or town square. This is what Padre Hidalgo shouted when he kicked off the War of Independence: "Mexicanos! Viva Mexico!" Apparently it gets everyone going, because the city was swarming with foodstands, jewellery stalls, people selling pirated CDs and all the citizens of Oaxaca just cruising around and pouring in and our of bars.

We had unfortunately checked ourselves into a truly repulsive youth hostel for the evening. Our ceiling leaked, the toilets were disgusting, and the vacuous hippie platitudes scribbled onto the walls were of an inanity not to be believed. People that brainless shouldn't be let out of sight by their parents, let alone let overseas. We bolted the next morning, quick smart, and installed ourselves in the pretty Las Rosas, right near the Zócalo.

The party was still going, and we breakfasted at a street stall. A woman was plucking chunks of dough from a mound, flattening it between her palms, and cooking fresh tortillas which she used to make special cheese sandwich things, whose name escapes me, but they weren't exactly quesadillas. Mine had chewy cheese and zucchini flowers inside. It was delicious.

Shortly after breakfast there was a huge procession though the town, which included all the schoolkids, kind of just ambling along, followed by ambulance drivers, firemen in very snazzy yellow outfits, and scary looking riot police doing the goose-step and carrying unnecessarily large weapons, if you ask me. It was pretty funny.

For me, the best thing in Oaxaca, besides the gracious town itself, was the church of Santo Domingo. It's full of incredible detail and so much gilt! You look up and the ceiling is just as crowded as can be with painted stories of the saints, the creation, the Passion, and everything else the Catholics are into. It's very entertaining and extremely beautiful.

But the best thing is the museum next door, in the old Dominican monastery. The monastery is so beautiful, with its simple, light, elegant cloister. Inside is a terrific museum of the history of Oaxaca, including a wonderful collection of Mixtec jewellery. Archeologists found it inside a tomb in the Zapotec city of Monte Albān. After the Zapotecs skipped town, the Mixtecs continued using the city's ceremonial center, and they left lots of jade and turquoise jewellery, as well as engraved bones that I think they used to draw blood for sacrifices to the gods. They were very keen on human sacrifice. There was even a human skull decorated in a mosaic of tiny turquoise stones.

The Spanish stuff was less interesting, of course, but I was amused to learn that the missionaries had to change to style of their crosses when it became apparent that the sight of Jesus on a crucifix got the natives confused - they thought Catholics practiced human sacrifice, too. So the Dominicans took him off.

Outside the monastery, there is the most amazing garden you can imagine. It's all cactuses. Every imaginable shape, from tall skinny ones that form spiky, uneven hedges, to those ones that look like a stegasaurus. The shadows they cast in the setting sun were beautiful.

In the evening, what luck, there was a concert in the cloister. A Cuban pianist, a Mexican guitarist and a French violinist variously played work by the Argentinian tango composer Piazzola (that was my favourite), someone else I've never heard of, and Prokofiev. The Prokofiev was very stirring.

The next day we headed to the town market, which was a sight. There was every imaginable variety and size of chile, more kinds of tomatoes than I knew existed, and great mounds of bright red fried grasshoppers, which Oaxacans like to munch on. We weren't game. There were also women slicing the spikes off the leaves of the stegasaurus cactus. The Mexicans eat it, but I don't care for it. It's kind of slimy.

Oaxaca was my favourite place besides Mexico City.

Posted by Sarah on September 25, 2003 01:06 PM
Category: Mexico

if you're still in oaxaca be sure to check out rodolfo morales' gallery. his artwork is beautiful. nice to read your words...x.karen

Posted by: kaz on October 5, 2003 06:44 PM

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