Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sights in Oaxaca City's Historic Center: December 17-26, 2017

For us, it is always interesting and photographically rich to visit local markets. In Oaxaca City, it was no exception.

Chapulines (grasshoppers)
Grasshoppers and Maguey moth larvae are excellent ecological sources of protein. We tried grasshoppers sautéed and grasshoppers fried. Both ways there is an oily grassy flavor (probably because they are raised in alfalfa fields) to them and I got to the point that if I was even close to a chapulines seller, the smell kind of turned my stomach. If pushed, I preferred the crispy texture of the fried chapulines.

Sal de Gusano made from the toasted Maguey worm, salt, and chilis
Sal de Gusano is made from toasted Maguey worm combined with salt and chilis (not actually a worm but larvae of a moth found on the mezcal agave plant). It is used in salsa, sprinkled on orange slices, and to flavor the rim of margarita glasses.

Seller of Moles
Molé means mixture. Molé sauces often contain many ingredients and come in many flavors. At the Benito Juarez market in Oaxaca City, after tasting a few flavors of molé, I committed to buying two. Afterward as I schlepped my MUY heavy purchase back to our hotel, I realized I had a lot of molé--six pounds! After I figure out what portion to use for a meal, I'll freeze the rest for another time, and another time, and another time... Molé dinner party anyone?

Cheese shop at the Juarez market

The site of the piñata party

The Templo de Santo Domingo is appropriately landscaped with agaves. The interior of the nave is European Baroque while the Chapel of the Rosary is Mexican Baroque style. A European looking Virgin of the Rosary is enthroned behind the alter while just inside the door to the chapel, the Virgin Mary is dressed in Mexican peasant clothing.

Ceiling in the Chapel of the Rosary-Each of the 4 apostles are depicted and named in the corners
The antechamber ceiling decorated with the family tree of the Dominican order beginning with Santo Domingo de Guzman. He is the father of the Dominican Order

Inside the front entrance and under the Santo Domingo family tree, are the symbols of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith is blindfolded, Hope has an anchor because when an anchor is cast into the sea, one must have hope that it will find the bottom, and Charity is a pelican who is said to pluck its own flesh to feed its chicks when other food is unavailable.

From the windows of the adjacent Cultural Museum of Oaxaca it is possible to get a really good view of the Ethno-botanical garden without the crowds.

Every flower bed in the Zocalo (main square) was lined with poinsettias. Poinsettias are indigenous to Oaxaca.

Zocalo at night
Marimba players in the Zocalo
Marimba music floats over the zocalo as families stroll past shops and restaurants or just stop to chat.

We stayed at the well located Casa de las Bugambilias on Reforma Street. The staff were kind, the rooms comfortable, the table always colorful, and breakfast so very flavorful.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Archaeological Route in The Valley of Oaxaca: December 24 and 25, 2017

Mitla reached the height of its population in AD 1350. While Mitla is an archaeological site and its original builders are long gone, the descendants of those Zapotec ancestors continue to live in the area.

The Catholic Church was built atop a pyramid using stones from the ancient Mitla structures. The church builders left intact the surrounding wall with its varied stone fretwork sections.

The stone panel fretwork patterns show up in today's Zapotec textiles.

Wherever archaeologists dig, they find more evidence of life in this ancient city. The ruins include dwellings, plazas, tombs, monumental columns in addition to the features that are visible.

On Christmas Day we visited the spectacular ruined city of Monte Albán. Monte Albán was built atop a hill. It was occupied for at least 1200 years between 500 BC and AD 750. By AD 1000 the city was abandoned--reason unknown.

View of Monte Alban from the South Platform
The ruined city includes ceremonial grounds, plazas, a ball court, an astronomical observatory, tombs.

View of the City of Oaxaca from Monte Alban's South Platform
Archaeological research reveals an onion-like layering of ruins of both of these cities. When one layer is removed, evidence of earlier habitation is found below. In modern-day Oaxaca, it is the same. Modern residents have continued to move up the mountain or build their homes next to 2,000 year old walls thereby encroaching on the evidence of past cities and creating the newest layer in the onion.

It was once thought that Olmecs were the mother culture and all subsequent cultures borrowed from the Olmecs. With more sophisticated methods of dating now available, the new theory is that Zapotecs existed concurrently with the Olmec culture.

Visiting the archaeological sites was the least colorful part of Oaxaca. While interesting, the ruins are sterile and formerly painted surfaces are bare. As always, the lesson here is that all civilizations, no matter how great, eventually fail.

Christmas Festivals, Oaxaca City, Mexico: December 17-24, 2017

The Virgin of Soledad wearing her 5-pound golden crown encrusted with 600 diamonds
We arrived in Oaxaca City a few days early so we could experience the Festival of the Virgin of Soledad.

The Virgin of Soledad (Solitude) is the patrona of Oaxaca. Oaxacans love her because she chose them. The legend goes that in 1620 a mule driver guiding a mule train through the streets of Oaxaca on his way to Guatemala suddenly realized that he had an extra mule that was also carrying a huge box on its back. The mule collapsed under the burden it was carrying.  He didn't want to be accused of stealing so he reported this additional mule and its load to Oaxacan authorities. Once the authorities lifted the box off the mule, the mule stood but immediately died.

The city authorities opened the box and found inside the image of the Blessed Virgin of Solitude. The city authorities deferred to the Bishop of Oaxaca who immediately ordered that a sanctuary be built to honor the Virgin of Solitude. The Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude was finished in 1690.

Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude
This second night of the three-day festival included a procession with the "traveling" Virgin of Soledad and fireworks.

During the festival, the area around the Basilica was crowded with stands selling irresistible food.

Tacos at "The Queen of Tacos" stand were fabulous and we couldn't resist trying elote. Elote is grilled Mexican street corn on a skewer. The boiled and then charcoal grilled corn was slathered with lime-flavored mayo, rolled in shredded cheese, and sprinkled with chili powder. The corn was the starchy kind and it is grilled to a toughness that fights being eaten. A more demure choice would have been the esquites which is the off-the-cob version served in a cup. The aroma of all those flavors is divine.

The next evening we watched a flamboyant Nativity pageant outside of the Santo Domingo Church. Actors entered the stage from the center aisle: angels, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, animals, wisemen, roman guards, mariachis, flower girls, even giant paper mâchè puppets. The story had a real baby and ended with fireworks.
Joseph and Mary

The nativity pageant was followed by piñatas. Piñatas were suspended from ropes across the street. The street was sectioned into age groups. We watched the age 4-7 group pummel their piñatas and scrum for the candy. Then we moved on to the 50+ age group. The over 50s didn't have any less enthusiasm for whacking their piñatas and when they candy rained down, they were just as joyful.

Ages 4-7 - Candy Scrum

Age 50+ - Candy Scrum
There were a couple of differences between the 4-7 group and the 50+ group. In the 50+ candy scrum there was a woman with a walker who lifted the walker up so she could get closer to the candy. Second, the emergency ambulance was parked next to the 50+ age group's section.

Another religious event that occurs for the several days before Christmas Eve is a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay for the night during the census pilgrimage. The re-enactment is called a "Posada". The Spanish word "posada" means inn. Neighborhoods and other groups sponsor posadas. The first posada we saw was a group of young people. Mary and Joseph were not in costume but were holding statues of Mary and Joseph. The walk is accompanied by singing.

Later we saw a more formal Posada that began at the Santo Domingo Church and continued to the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude. This one attracted a huge crowd of followers. Along the way, Joseph and Mary stopped to ask if there was room at the inn. Turned away, the entire entourage continued to the next inn and the next inn. When they arrived at the Basilica, the doors were closed. Joseph knocked on the door and the church doors were flung open. Finally, a room at an inn!

We saw one last Christmas Festival on Christmas Eve. It was a Calenda or parade. For this calenda, church members decorate floats or vehicles and children, adults, animals, gigantes or monos de Calenda (large paper mȃchè puppets powered by humans) parade around the Zocalo before turning toward their churches for midnight mass. The procession is accompanied by music. My favorite group was Barrio de Jalatlaco--they had so much enthusiasm.

Mary carrying a super radiant Baby Jesus