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 18: Puerto Morelos to Chetumal, Quintana Roo

I had planning to chat with another Fulbrighter researcher, Austin, in Puerto Morelos, but it did not happen. I wanted to go diving by the reef off the coast to bring back some stories for the Fish Club in Harlem New York.

This used to be a small fishing village, but with the increasing popularity of Cancun resorts, the tourist creep has come to disturb the natural fauna of the Mayan Riviera. I wanted to ask Austin about his work with the lobsters and the fishing rights for indigenous fishing industry. We did not meet, but this is what he emailed me a couple do months ago.

Austin said, “Fishing rights in Quintana Roo are granted to cooperatives, which distribute these rights among their members. The NGO I’m working with has a strong relationship with some of these cooperatives, who have made great strides toward sustainability. In 2012 and 2013, the cooperatives worked with the NGO to set aside some of their fishing concessions to create legally recognized “no take zones,” where fishing would be banned for 5 years in an effort to preserve fishing stocks. When the refuges were established, interviews were carried out with many of the fishermen from multiple cooperatives to assess their understanding of and attitudes toward these no take zones. Now that 4 years have passed and the refuges are coming up for their first round of governmental review, we’re going to repeat that study to see what benefits and costs the fishermen have observed with the refuges, and whether or not they are still in favor of them. Once this project is done, I’m planning on carrying out a more quantitative, economic analysis to see how the annual lobster catch has been affected by the implementation of the reserves, and more specifically, if certain fishermen benefit more from the reserves than others. Finally, plans are in the works to attempt a lobster-tagging study to assess migration of lobsters from protected areas out into fishing grounds, but this is permit-dependent, and I’ve heard the permitting process here is a nightmare.”

So, perhaps in Chetumal I can get some fish-related story for the Fish Club. I will go to two museums that focus on Mayan history and some markets that sell artisan items. I’m excited to go and see what they have!

From Tiajuana to Tulum

I made it to Tulum! That means I have spanned the country of Mexico from east to west: Tiajana to Tulum; and from north to south: Monterrey to San Cristóbal de las Casas. During my 4-month Fulbright, I did not travel to Tiajuana, but rather it was on my first trip to Mexico, in 1989, when I made a cross-country puddle-jump flight from Tiajuana down to Guatemala City , at the heels of Hurricane Mitch. I unofficially copiloted a 2-passenger fixed-wing Cessna150. It was the craziest thing I have ever done. Such a small aircraft is suitable for local flying, for example, around your city and state; not transnational flights. I live to tell about it as a testament to the saying that “ignorance is bliss”.

Tulum is quite a bit smaller than I thought, yet quite a bit busier with daily commerce and tourism. The ruins of the Mayan civilization are nice. They are like the ancestral beach resorts of the high Mayan priests. There are sacred caves that still are filled partially with rain or river water called cenotes. About an hour drive from Tulum is a cenote that I visited with my British friend, Chay, called Cenote 7 Bocas (Well with 7 Mouths). This was a true cenote because the caves were joined together by underwater passages drilling with stalactites! I wish I could have taken pictures underwater for you , but my smartphone is not that smart.

It was an eerie feeling just walking down the wooden ladder into the first Boca to the platform. Ropes were tied to guide you from platform to platform. This helped me initially. The first sensation when I jumped in was that rainwater is cold. No natural hot spring here! My rented mask helped me to make out the stalactites in the cave under the pale green waters. I couldn’t help but imagine that the guide at the reception area said NatGeo came here and measured the cenote depth at 150 meters. That’s half of the Empire State Building. So, I kept my head above the water.

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)

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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.

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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.

Weekend 15: Mérida, Yucatán

Visiting Mérida was like a going back to the 1800’s. The glorious mansions that line the Pasejo de Montejo are still there, reminding us that this was an important town that governed the Yucatán Peninsula, or at least the northwestern part of it during the Caste Wars. That information I will safe for a later post. What you can experience in Mérida is heat. The best times to be outside are before 10 am and after about 3 pm. Be warned and stay inside from 10 am until about 3 pm.

One of my Fulbright research friends, Shalanda, took me on a great evening walking tour from around Pasejo de Montejo to Calle 60, which is Mérida’s 5th Avenue (in NYC). We ate the best mole covered mushrooms at a small cafe. Later, we happened upon a book launching of community stories, too. The book is a compilation of stories that are from the Yucatán. I bought one for myself and one for students. I am sure these stories will enhance their understanding of the people from this area, especially the students who made videos of their communities in Maxcanú. It was all very serendipitous.

Did you know that there is a growing community of expats in Mérida? The weather and low cost lifestyle are what has fueled this town’s growth. I thought for 10 minutes about spending more time here, but the heat would really drive me away. To keep cool, the men here wear the traditional guayaberas which are shirts made of light fabrics like linen (local and Italian), cotton, and others. I bought one, probably overpriced, to wear during some blistering hot New York summers. The main industries here were logging (of palo tinto, or red cedar, used for English textiles) and henequen, a fabric made from the stately maguey plant. There is a great museum here dedicated to the yucatecan music and ballad singers from the 1930’s to 60’s. A must-hear for anyone who visits Mérida.

Weekend 14: Campeche City

What an amazing find! The State of Campeche certainly tops my list of surprises in Mexico. It seems to be a given that the western region of the Yucatán is a bit “sleepy” relative to other places in the country. What I discovered is that Campeche City is vibrant, even if it is not as robust as other cities I’ve visited. In 1999, UNESCO declared and listed Campeche City as a Cultural Patrimony of Humanity due to its preservation of the fortified walls from the XVII century.

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What Campeche does not lack is history! Founded in the mid-1500’s, it prospered because of the tremendous value of its timber resources. The palo de tinta (or palo de Campeche) is wood that gives off a reddish to dark-blue ink. This quality was known by the Maya’s, but completely exploited by the Spanish entrepreneurs who invaded the Yucatán. Not to be outdone, pirates from England, France, and the Netherlands robbed the galleons transporting these logs and other precious commodities en route to Europe.

Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum L.), highly prized as a dyestuff for the European textile industry, attracted British smugglers who settled mainly in Laguna de Términos and Belize, where they were a threat to local trade.

Museo Baluarte de la Soledad (Mayan Architecture)

This museum is worth visiting for the information-packed videos when you reach the fourth display area (dealing with funerary customs of the ancient Maya). I appreciated the explanation of they type of tools used to construct the pyramids as well as the use of these buildings.

The ancient Mayas employed hammers, wedges, and chisels made of stone or wood. Limestone blocks were joined with stucco (lime and sand mix), also used to surface buildings with painted platers of different colors, and to model figures adorning both facades and inner spaces. Building decoration also included stone sculptures, as well as hieroglyphic inscriptions and carvings on lintels, columns, and jambs.

“The distribution and shape of decorative elements (such as this winged figure) varied by region and through time. In Campeche, at least four regions have been identified with distinctive architectural styles that could indicate political or cultural exchange networks. In all of these cases, Maya cities consisted of two basic areas: a civic-ceremonial precinct, where rulers lived and conducted their administrative and ritual activities, and a residential area located on the outskirts of the city, where the rest of the people dwelled.”

Zona Arqueológica de Edzná

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Museo de Piratas

The disturbing image in the lower left of the collage is from the small Pirate Museum. It is not to be missed! You can get through the displays in about 20 minutes, but you’ll come out with a deeper historical perspective and understanding of a topic that other museums gloss over. Because of the lucrative lumber trade between the Yucatán and Europe, piracy flourished, too. Legends have been spun from the seemingly heroic feats of these men, but that is not to glorify the cruelty they meted to those they captured and killed. This museum has realistic effigies of pirate prisoners that will startle you. A wall of pirates (left) and defenders (right).

Museo Cultural de Campeche

I loved seeing the handicrafts that the Campechanos had to innovate to use as payments for their land grants. Did you know that the Mayans were essential indentured workers.

The Mayans had to deliver payment in goods to the encomenderos (land grant holders), the Spanish Crown, and civil and ecclesiastical authorities. These products included cotton mantles woven by the women, was and honey, collected by the men from the stingless bees int he region’s jungles; in addition to corn, beans, chilies, hens, fish, and iguanas.

Salt had to also be mined nearby to supply two major industries: hide and leather work, and salting and preserving meat and fish to feed the people on the galleons.

Centro Cultural Casa No. 6

Items pictured are typical to Campeche!

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Weekend 13: San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Thanks to Deborah Colvin, I was able to add her video project to my video project. Deborah works with English language teachers and a group of students in rural Chiapas who speak the indigenous language of Majosik. She and Frances Westbrook from the U.S. Embassy just produced a terrific video that highlights this community with these English Language Learners. My inquiry project on Significant Digital Stories on First Heroes overlaps their project, so I had to travel to San Cristóbal de las Casas! (Deborah and I met in Monterrey at the MEXTESOL Convention when the U.S. Cultural Affairs director at the U.S. Embassy, Brenda Bernáldez, connected us.)

The town itself is laid out in somewhat of a grid radiating (as usual in Spanish-conquered towns) from the central square, cathedral, and administrative buildings. It reminds me of Antigua, Guatemala. History links San Cristóbal, Antigua Guatemala, and Oaxaca City together.

The most memorable site for me in San Cris was a small, humble chapel behind the main cathedral. The chapel was open for the servants and slaves of that time to hear mass.

Tourism is heavy here as the trendy restaurants and trinket shopping areas attest. Eco-tourism is growing here because of the natural beauty that surrounds SCDC. The only time I had to see any rural areas was when I was invited to view a community property that is available to have a university-level school built on it, which is almost 2 hours east. I hope they include adult continuing education classes for those who want this instruction.