Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oaxaca and San Cristobal

Our last full day in Oaxaca, we went to the Museum of Oaxacan culture which is a former convent that has been repurposed.  The museum covered the many different indigenous groups that live/lived in the area going as far back as the 2nd century BC, including the Zapotecs who built the structures on Monte Alban.  There are still many mysteries about these peoples, such as why, in the height of their kingdoms glory, the great cities were abandoned and the culture suddenly disappeared.  I wasn't feeling that great, something I ate just didn't settle right, so we took it easy and walked around the Zocalo in the evening, enjoying the performance of some clowns.  On Thursday, we checked out of our hostel and headed towards the bus station, but since our bus was not until the evening, we stopped at the Textile Museum on the way, which exhibited hand-made clothing made by local people's from the 18th century though today.  The looms they use are very similar to the ones used by some indigenous tribes in Thailand!  I thought it an amazing coincidence.  We spent some time in a beautiful park in the north of the city then caught our bus.  You can read about the Mis-adventures on the bus in Matt's previous post.  The one advantage to the whole situation, to me, is that for the first time, we sat with and talked with several other backpackers from all over the world.  There's a bunch of Aussie's and folks from New Zealand, here on their summer break or doing a semester abroad and travelling at the end.  Also, some Russians who spoke little Spanish and little anything else!  Everyone was very friendly, trading stories - it was real fun, despite the huge delays and spending an extra 13 hours in transit.

Before the specifics of our day, I'd like to share my impressions of San Cristobal de las Casas, which are good.  The city is just quaint - in many ways, it makes me think of a small village in the Alps!  There was bakeries and coffee shops everywhere, as wells as wineries and restaurants, and many of the streets around the town square are pedestrian only.  The city is very international feeling, as there are Lebanese and middle Eastern restaurants, Italian, as well as traditional Mexican, all side by side, and many tourists from both inside and outside the country.  Mixed in are the indigenous people, speaking mixture of Spanish and their native language, Tzetzil, wearing handmade woolen skirts and wide belts around their waists.  The colors of the hand made crafts are bright and beautiful.  Even with all this, the town doesn't feel like a tourist trap.  Though there are signs in Spanish, English, French, and Tzetzil, everyone mostly speaks Spanish and prices, especially in the market, are some of the lowest we've seen yet.  Of course, there are some touristy restaurants that are more expensive and the tchatchkis for sale are set at prices for "rich" tourists, it still feels like a small village that we, and a couple other hundred (or thousand?) tourists popped into to, unnoticed.  Onto the details...

It's amazing how a good nights sleep can totally reinvigorate you!  This morning we woke up bright an early, and well rested, and headed to the Cafe Museo Cafe - the Coffee Museum and Cafe.  Where else can you sip your Cafe Chiapaneco (Chiapan style coffe with cinnamon syrup) as you stroll through the exhibits?  The museum is owned by a small coffee collective and it was very informative on how Europeans brought coffee to central America and how it re-shaped the indigenous life, unfortunately not always for better, from the 18th century all the way through today.  There was also a very interesting photo exhibit of workers on coffee farms - striking photos of the people and their lives.  The floor was covered with fresh pine needles, so the room smelt like Christmas!  It went perfectly with the coffee - you can see me enjoying it in the picture.

Next, we wandered north towards the central market which was amazing.  There are tons of fresh produce as well as plenty of LIVE chickens and turkeys which small indigenous women carry around for sale.  Unfortunately, not too many pictures of this area since many of the indigenous people do not want their picture taken and of course, we want to be respectful.  We ate lunch at a small stall in the market - we are at altitude here (2200 m/7200 ft) and while the sun is out and shining, it's still very crisp and chilly with mountain breezes, so we both got soup.  Matt has meatballs and I had chicken.  Even though this is not my Bubi's chicken soup (certainly no matzah balls), there is something so wholly satisfying about hot chicken soup on a cool day.  The fresh carrots, potatoes, and squash inside didn't hurt, either!  We also snacked on some fresh Macadamias and some other nut or seed tossed with chili powder and some coconut milk in a bag (Coco b'sakeet?) - all delish!

We continued north to the Mayan Medicine Museum.  It was a bit off the tourist path, but when we got there, it seemed a French couple and a large Israeli tour group were there also.  The museum is organized by a group who are trying to preserve their local traditions in healing in modern times.  We read about various animals and plants and candles that are used for their healing properties,including a garden that showed which plants were useful for what, as well as a video featuring a Tzetzil midwife discussing how she cares for a mother and baby before, during, and after the delivery.  There is some footage of her prepping the mother and cleaning the baby, but nothing too graphic.  Interestingly enough, the Tzetzil women (a direct line from the Mayan people) deliver babies standing on their knees with the father or a close family member supporting from the front and the midwife in the back, praying, using incense and heated rocks, pushing on the mothers stomach - a very different image of western hospital births - and very interesting to see.  Apparently, a breast-feeding mother should not eat avocado or onions for 3 months, according to the midwife in the documentary, as it will cause a baby's penis to swell (the video was about a boy baby).  Also, the father had to bury the placenta - face up if he wanted the next child to be a boy, face down for a girl.  

We headed next to the Mayan herbologist, to see what sort of curatives she had.  There was a local gentleman there and the two spoke in a mixture of Spanish and Tzetzil, which reminded me of Yiddish.  The Tzetzil language almost sounds like Russian to my ears!  I asked if there were any creams for scars (I am still very aware of the scare on my neck from my Mediastynoscopy in 2008), which of course there was and it is also good for burns, she said.  For less than $2 a got a small jar.  Matt asked what sort of remedy she may have for allergies.  She needed to know if it was skin or respiratory.  As Matt's allergies are respiratory, mostly, she gave him a cream also, to be rubbed on his chest or in his nose twice a day, also less than $2.  I think we're more worried that it WILL work, because if it does, we'll need to keep coming back to San Cristobal for more!  Matt then asked what kind of foods I should eat if I want to have twins, or triplets, or even quadruplets!  She thought this was very funny as did the other locals in the shop.  Though rosemary is often good for infertility, her recommendation for twins was to eat fruits that were also twins - the kind that looked like two but were stuck together - or an egg with two yolks.  When Matt pressed about quadruplets, she told him to make sure to stop at 8!! 

With our herbal remedies in tow, we headed down past the market and the zocalo to a church on the south west part of the Centro.  There were many stairs to climb up, which we took slowly, since we are at altitude, but the beautiful panoramic view from the top was well worth the hike.  (pictures on Facebook, soon!).  The churches in this area are not to be photographed, as many of the indigenous people still believe the camera may steal your soul.  It seems the locals practice a combination of their original belief mixed with Catholicism.  

We are now relaxing, taking a little siesta, but there is a Festival de Queso y Vino going on in the zocalo tonight, so we're definitely going to hit that up!  Tomorrow is market day in a nearby Tzetzil town, so that is the plan and on Monday - we cross into Guatemala!  Mexico is a very large country with so many different landscapes and peoples.  We've had a great time journeying through, and excellent first month of our adventure.  I can only wait to see what the coming months and countries will bring.  I believe we'll post some musings soon.

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