Weekend 19: Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca

I waited until after my program officially ended to travel to the forbidden city of Oaxaca. Back in August (seems so long ago) at the orientation in Mexico City, some Fulbrighters had to be reassigned to a new city because of uprisings against teachers. Throughout my 4 months, there was nothing that I heard about that situation, but that does not mean it could still be dangerous in some parts of the State of Oaxaca.

I was there only a few days, but the experience was worth wait. First of all, the weather during the last week of December was perfect sun and shorts weather. I insisted on wearing my linen shorts everyday because when I get to New York tomorrow, my tanned legs won’t see those shorts until mid-June.

Oaxaca has many historical places outside the city, such as the Mayan Ruins of Monte Alban and the “frozen waterfall”. Both of these places were impressive because of their (respectively) historical significance and natural beauty. Within the city, there are museums. However, I felt that I had just spent the past 4 months visiting what feels like close to 20 museums and I was saturated. I loved every museum I visited, but the few in Oaxaca will have to wait until my next visit.

What’s actually good here are the artisan crafts and the food. I liked the woven woolen rugs and the intricately painted wooden menagerie of animals. I was able to squeak into a morning cooking class on Thursday (as there was one more space to make a group of 10!) to experience the complicated process of making Black Mole. Now I know that about 30 ingredients go into the making of that sauce and it’s not only chocolate that gives it that flavorful depth and complexity . It took several hours, but the meal was worth the group effort at the end. Also, I will just buy a jar of Black Mole and call it good.


Weekend 16: Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

One of the highlights of these 4 months was a whale-watching boat ride I took off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. This town had a reputation of being a party town, but I believe that was several years ago because I did not see much partying during the weekend I was there. If fact, any noise came from the parading devotees marching in pilgrimages for the Virgin of Guadalupe day on December 12th. Perhaps I was part of a non-crowd, neither a pilgrim or a party person.

1 Minute “Trailer” about the Whale Watching (click here)


I signed up for this whale watching excursion the first weeks into my program. The whales are most visible from December through March, so this was the only weekend to experience it. I searched for a reputable company and all reviews pointed to OceanFriendly. They did not disappoint. It was educational as well as efficient.

The group that weekend met in the morning at the pier for a brief 20 minutes talk on whale migration behavior from and to Alaska. I learned that there are many types of whales in the Pacific Ocean. I was partially relieved to realize that what I had heard from an eco-tour guide in Chiapas about baby whales born in Mexican waters might eventually be caught and eaten in Japanese waters. The water off the coast of Puerto Vallarta is the right mixing of warm temperature water from the  south this time of year, which switches on the mating instinct of the whales. These temperatures also cause more krill to be produced to feed the wildlife.

On shore we saw beautiful iguanas called Queen Iguanas because of their spiky orange head adornment that trails down their backs. They are green bodied, so the black and white blocks that color their long tails make these iguanas very striking to behold. I could not tell whether they were happy by their expressions because they have to look mean to warn predators (I suppose humans are their enemy since they are endangered), even when the come for their lunch feedings put out by non-predatory humans. On the boat, on the way to the whales and after the whale watching, we saw boobies, which are marine birds with feet that could be either brown, yellow, or blue! Amazing.


The Bay is made from two tectonic plates that are separating. One on the south side is more lush and sustains more wildlife, whereas the north side is drier and has of course less vegetation. It’s interesting to look at the land formation from the boat as the hills and mountains are arranged at about 45 to 90 degrees from each other. Perhaps the name Vallarta derives from vaya, which means “go away”.

As for the whales, we saw three groupings of two or three. They are so amazing to watch because they seem to be playing or chasing in such a natural way. Contrast this behavior to animals in zoos or large holding tanks for the benefit of humans. I so dislike these circuses that use animals to make money. With the use of digital technology, experts can be paid to film animals in their natural habit. Instead of paying to see animals do tricks, we can pay to see them act naturally. How far will this idea go?

It takes some patience to watch whales because they don’t jump up just because there are people around. But when they do, I loved the experience of witnessing an animal the size of a bus spout air at the surface and dive back down, sometimes their tales come up! The underside of the tale is the whale’s fingerprint. No two are exactly alike, so they are easier to track. Evolutionarily speaking, these white colorations are camouflage. From the bottom of the sea, the whale is camouflaged against the sky and clouds. From the top, they are blue so they can escape from whalers.

Art Abounds in Monterrey

Besides being an important town for industries, Monterrey has three excellent museums. I had a chance to walk through Mexican history once more at the Museo de Historia Méxicana. It was yet another amazing museum curated by, I presume, the department of culture. I was not disappointed.

Of course, I wanted to know how this city in the north portrayed the indigenous peoples. My expectations were albeit, low before arriving just because more indigenous people populated the southern part of Mexico. I was wrong in presuming this! The displays about the indigenous people were balanced, not unilateral. The storyline was succinct yet many artifacts were set in modern casements. I liked the “Olmeca Babies”! See them in the collage on this post, top right corner.

In the center of the Macroplaza is a fountain that hints of those in Versailles, one in particular where the Neptune god is carried out of the waters on a chariot pulled by stallions. The fountain in Monterrey might be of Poseidon being pulled across the waters by wild horses. He holds his trident high. It can all bee seen from the floor of my hotel room.


Weekend 3: Las Bellas Artes & La Casona

El Palacio de las Bellas Artes

We were all in for a real treat to see national folk dancing in the beautiful building. This is the link to the government website! Everything was beautiful and “on point”, even through it wasn’t a ballet. The best performance was a modern dance version of a deer dying. It took forever, but the performer had to be an amazing gymnast to be able to perform those athletic jumps to avoid the hunter, then suffer for a good while before dying in several intermittent spasmodic fits.

It would have been better if I had “studied” the program before watching so that I could associate the dancing with the state in Mexico where they originate. The performances were similar to the Peruvian folk dancing that I saw in Lima with the Fulbright-Hays group.



La Casona (restaurante)

One of the best foods in Mexico has to be molé! They make several types, but they are all good. I hear that it takes a special chile from Oaxaca to make the recipe authentic to the discerning diner. And there could be up to 30 ingredients!


It was Shalanda Baker’s idea to eat at La Casona. She’s a Fulbrighter this year, too. Her project is related to the recent energy reforms in Mexico and its effects on indigenous populations. I would be interested to know what she discovers… On another gastronomic adventure, Shalanda and I ate at La Bajio, a restaurant in a shopping mall. Pretty good.



Weekend 2: Fiesta Indígena & Palacio Nacional

IIIra Fiesta de las Culturas Indígenas

This fiesta was going on all week, but I could only get to it today! I was amazed at all the people who turned out for the talks, expositions, and food for sale. I didn’t take too many pictures because there was just so much. The main collage shows one of the talks I attended on multiculturalism that is developing in Mexico. I believe that this is at the national level promoted by the ministries of culture and education, so I don’t know if it trickles down to the school level, especially in Mexico City. I’ll have to find out.

I made it a point to visit the expositions in the “Medicina Natural” tent, of course. I saw some of the treatments that we (Healer2Healer.org) trains the rural women in Guatemala. There was incense similar to moxa. Healing massage was going on as well as shamanic healing from the Nahuatl, or other, traditions. I didn’t want to take pictures since patients were actually getting treatment. I’m sure you understand!

My take away from the event was a couple of contacts of publishers and bookstores where I can resource some materials germane to my project. Namely, books in several languages for adolescents (and adolescents at heart!) on stories and fables in the traditions of indigenous cultures in Mexico. I am looking forward to getting a few to include in my project!


Palacio Nacional

The most striking part of entering the national palace was the simplicity of its grandeur. This is the seat of power in Mexico, but because I visited on Sunday there were only a few tourists roaming around. I loved the maguey plant! There are more pictures in the next section. The small sculpture section was quite nice. I got to see for my own eyes the work of national sculptors. I liked the naked man balancing himself perfectly on one foot on top of a column. Then there is the iron cactus! The two giant balls in front of the admin building were interesting, but I didn’t really find a “meaning” to them. Does there have to be one?


One of the wings in this immense edifice contains the homage to Benito Juárez, one of the more important presidents in Mexico, the 26th president from 1858-72. Here is a Wiki-link. He was an extremely important president for people apparently because there is a pristine colossal monument on the main street flanking the Alameda Park (where the Palacio de Bellas Artes stands).

Benito Juárez was also the first indigenous president; he was from Oaxaca. He wasn’t that educated growing up, but he was able to become president anyway. According to the museum placards (in the wing of the national palace where he and his family resided and where he died), I read that Juárez (following the trend of leaders of the time) tried to bring in as much European influences into Mexico as possible in order to copy the culture and know-how of the power countries (France, German, England) in order that Mexico become just like Europe. This mentality was carried on with his replacements, including the notoriously famous 29th president Porfirio Días. But more about him later!

These are pictures of the magnificent Maguey and Cactus plants that are symbolic of Mexico and Mexican-ness. In James Michener’s novel “Mexico”, he leads in with a chapter on these two symbiotic plants. I’ll let you read how he weaves them into his novel.