One week had officially passed since our arrival in Mexico when we went to Mitla. Mitla is a Zapotec archeological site. While Monte Albán was a city full of markets and political leaders, Mitla was an important religious center.
Walking up you could already see the incredible mosaics. What was really neat was to notice that the designs are made up of small stones that are not held together with any sort of cement or mortar.
If you looked close enough, you could even see some of the original red paint that used to adorn the stone designs.
One thing I really enjoyed about Mitla was the tunnels, of which a few were open for you to crawl into. I went down to check them out, but the lighting left me with sub-par photos. Therefore, you’ll just have to settle for a picture of me coming out of a tunnel.
Next, we went off to see the beautiful massive Montezuma cypress tree known as “El Tule.” El Tule is the widest tree in the world, and has a pretty awesome estimated age of more than 2,000 years old, according to the book sculpture at the tree.
The tree itself is protected by a fenced off area. Furthermore, there are gardens with plenty of sprinklers around the area to keep pumping water into the ground for the tree’s extensive root system. During your walk around the tree, you might be interested in looking for some shapes in the trunk. One of the easiest to spot is the lion.
Forget looking for shapes in the clouds; El Tule is obviously better.
On my first Saturday in Mexico, we went on an excursion to Monte Albán, an ancient city, and Atzompa, a nearby town with a thriving market.
At Monte Albán, the first thing I did was purchase a hat. A big awkward one, just to protect myself from the sun. I burn easily, and being up in high places in Mexico is a good way to get sunburnt for a normal person. I am not normal; I burn incredibly easily. A hat is required for Lynnae.
Our guide showed us around the mountain top city, which was once the capital of the Zapotec empire. We were given stunning views. The moment I saw this one, I knew I wanted to climb the pyramid structure at the other end:
As the speaking part of the tour ended, my roommate and I took off up those steps and enjoyed another spectacular view. The area down below used to be the city’s market place, where inhabitants mingled, traded goods, and celebrated religious events. In addition to the buildings and platforms you can see, there are also tunnels under the city that people used to get around.
For sports fans, there is a Mesoamerican ball game court in the city as well. You may have heard in your history classes that in some places, the winners of the ball game won the right to be sacrificed to the gods, but there is no evidence of that having ever occurred at Monte Albán.
After we finally came back down the steps, we checked out some of the other archaeological wonders in the city. My favorite part was definitely the carvings that we found lined up. I was always fascinated by Central and South American ancient carvings, but seeing some in person was surreal.
At the end, we went to the market at Atzompa. There were so many things to buy, including alebrijes, mezcal bottles with actual hooves on them, and pottery, not to mention food! My roommate bought a rather large selection of delicious conchas, which are a type of Mexican sweet bread. They go fabulously with Oaxacan hot chocolate!
And that’s my Monte Albán experience in a nutshell. For anyone planning to go in the future, my advice is to bring sunscreen, a big hat, and cold water.
Much of my first week in Oaxaca was spent exploring the city. Oaxaca has many beautiful parks, pedestrian streets and historic buildings.
On the second day, we wandered through a side door into a church with gorgeous decoration on the inside.
When we came out the other side I was amazed at how gorgeous the exterior of the church is. I asked a local (in Spanish!) which church it was, and he said that it was Santo Domingo! The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is one of the most famous and oldest churches in Oaxaca. This Catholic church was built from 1570 to 1666. While it was used by the military in the past, today it is fully restored.
Santo Domingo was my favorite church in Oaxaca. We took in a lot of Oaxaca that first week. Though it was a good week of trying new food, getting caught in late afternoon storms, and visiting the Friday market at Parque Lleno, it wasn’t until the second week that I started to talk to more locals. After that, I started to feel I was getting to really know the city.
I’ll leave you all with this short post today. News of my next big trip will come soon, since I finally got the letter in the mail!
Monday, April 21, 2014: My first full day in Oaxaca, Mexico.
My roommate and I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast where we were encountered by another girl who was living in the house. Over papaya and granola (no yogurt for me) we learned that she was from New Zealand, a student at a Maori immersion school studying abroad for a semester. In the next few weeks we became friends, and I got to experience a little of her culture.
After breakfast, our host family drove us to the school, Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. We began our time at the Spanish language school with a language test. At the conclusion of this test, I was placed in B1 (levels range A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 with C2 being the most advanced level). After the exam we were released to our classes.
My weekdays began to follow a schedule:
9am-12pm: Spanish class
12pm-1pm: Group conversation hour
3pm-5pm: Cultural workshop (excluding Friday)
5pm-6pm: Intercambio (excluding Friday)
In Spanish class, we spoke and the teacher tailored the lessons to areas in which we were deficient. If she noticed we were deficient in reflexive verbs, she went over it and made us practice. My Spanish got much better in the short time I studied at ICO because of this teaching method.
During our group conversation we just spoke, and if we stumbled around the words and grammar, it wasn’t a big deal. The idea was to practice speaking, not to be perfect. I really liked this and the first day already I felt that I had been missing this in my Spanish classes of previous years.
Since it was the first day, we were then briefed on life in Oaxaca. It went a little like this…
Free tea and coffee available in the cafeteria daily. (This is the original source of my tea habit, which solidified in Northern Ireland.)
No toilet paper in the toilets because the Mexican plumbing system can’t handle it; throw it in trash cans instead. (Not as gross as it seems.)
The difference in food may upset your system for a few days. (It did.) Don’t drink the water or even use it to brush your teeth. (I didn’t. But I will add, be wary of swimming in it, too.) No raw food or fresh produce that was washed in said water, unless it was processed by your host family. (Even though the strawberries and sliced mangoes look lovely at the market.)
It’s illegal to participate in demonstrations, so don’t get involved. (Saw one, stayed away.) And of course, we received the usual “how to not die in a city / stay away from these areas” talk. (Heeded; survived.)
With that out of the way, we went on home for lunch. A little note on meals in Mexico: breakfast and dinner are usually pretty small, with lunch being the biggest meal of the day. Breakfast is eaten about 8am or 9am, as you would in the States. Lunch is at about 2pm. Dinner was the most difficult for me to adjust to, being eaten at 8pm. Cereal and fruit were normal dinners for us after exploring the city.
As I said, we had cultural classes in the afternoon after we got back to school. I decided to take the cooking class, even though I don’t consider myself an excellent chef. For the first cooking class, our instructor took us to both a chocolate shop and local market in the city center.
The chocolate shop, Mayordormo, had cocoa beans, machines to grind the beans and make chocolate right in front of you, and a variety of chocolates for eating and drinking! Anyone visiting Oaxaca should try the Oaxacan chocolate. It’s definitely different from that of the States, but it tastes a lot more rich and natural to me.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a market I went back to again and again. It has vendors selling clothing, pottery, alebrijes, jewelry, and a variety of food. On a typical day in May, the food section sells fresh bread, fruits and juices, mezcal (a type of alcohol), different meats, and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers).
As our cultural class ended, we walked back to the school and met our intercambios (language exchange partners) for the first time. The language exchange was one of my favorite things, because we took turns in English and Spanish. My partner told me about her university, and I really enjoyed learning more about her life in Oaxaca.
After our school day was officially over, my roommate and I decided to make a trip to the grocery store, supplying us with most of what we would need over the next three weeks.
Their grocery store was not so different. You could buy batteries, shampoo, and food, just like in the States. A lot of their things were even the same brands as ours, such as Lays, Oreos, and Fruit Loops. One thing to note is that they had a lot more fresh produce, meats, and bakery products compared to processed foods. After seeing this, I wrote in my journal, “No wonder the locals seem healthier than most Americans I know, not to mention a lot of them also walk everywhere.”
My roommate and I walked home to a lovely sunset. After getting everything in our room completely settled and chatting for a while, I got ready for bed. I remember that night after my first day-long experience of Oaxaca. I thought about all the amazing cultural differences and similarities I had seen as I drifted off to sleep, listening to the sound of some strange creature outside my window.
Thinking about this day, I often wonder what others’ first full day abroad was like.
The clouds were massive and building around us. With each new gust of wind, the plane shook violently. The flight attendant brought our snacks by, and I wondered how she managed to stay standing.
With each bump the flight took, I began to feel sicker and sicker. It was only about an hour long flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca, but it seemed to take ages with all this turbulence. At long last, we landed. I was never so happy to have my feet on the ground again.
We walked into the small airport where our host families were awaiting us. My roommate and I were introduced to our host mamá. La Señora gave us each a hug with accompanying besos (kisses) on our cheeks, which I was not ready for! As a side note, I think that any culture which uses kisses in greeting will be something that will startle me, no matter how many times I am told to accept it.
Our host mamá and her son had come to get us. The sun was setting on this new-to-me country as her son loaded our bags into the back of the truck. Then we were driven from the edge of the city to the home of Señora.
On the ride, our mamá asked us questions to which I couldn’t respond. All of a sudden, after several years of Spanish class, the foreign language I tried so hard to decode was entirely foreign to me again. I understood not a word and couldn’t formulate a proper sentence to answer. While my roommate chatted away in Spanish (she had been to Mexico before), I looked out the window.
I saw some people walking barefoot in the street, and little half-broken buildings. Meat was cooking outdoors at some restaurants. As we drove, I began to see familiar things: KFC, Sam’s Club, Office Depot. The longer we drove, the nicer the clothes of the people on the streets. I was acutely aware of how much more wealth could be seen the further we drove.
I remember thinking, “I am in Mexico. I am in Mexico. Oh, what kind of place did I come to? Everything is moving too fast…” And then we were home, at my host mamá‘s house at least. As we got out of the truck, one of the dogs came up, smelled me, and let me pet it. That was the only time one of those dogs was so nice to me.
My host family’s home was inside walls and solid gates. Their lawn was meticulously groomed and almost as green as the Emerald Isle. Their flowers were resplendent in their beauty, especially their Birds of Paradise which effortlessly flourished. But I didn’t see any of that. My eyes went to the sidewalk, to the smooth orange-red ceramic tiled floor, to the stairs as we followed our host mom… She showed us our room we would share, and its adjoining bathroom. We met another American living across the hall.
Then I excused myself. I went into our bathroom and sat down on the delightfully cool floor. “What was I thinking? What am I doing here?” And then I was sick. Mexico had spun me around and turned my world upsidedown in no time at all. And I hadn’t even started to experience the full extent of the culture.
After a while my roommate and I were called downstairs to dinner: cereal (dinners are small meals in Mexico). Then, we went to prepare for the next morning’s class. As I went to sleep in Mexico for the first time, I felt confused, uncomfortable, and unsure that I made the right decision in coming. The lesson here: give it time and experience the culture, not the window’s view.