Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Travel Journal: Oaxaca

for Jon Swanson and Henry Wangeman,
gracious hosts

Dos Viejos On The Road

Jon and I drove from Ann Arbor to Oaxaca in seven days. We left on a Sunday three days after Thanksgiving, driving south from Michigan through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, west across Louisiana and Texas through Brownsville, down along the Gulf Coast of Mexico past Vera Cruz and then inland up through the clouds to Oaxaca. We logged in a little under 3,000 miles on his Toyota Tacoma.

Jon Swanson, who is a retired anthropologist and union activist, has a wry sense of humor and after all these years still retains the capacity to become nearly apoplectic with rage when he encounters social and political injustice. I find this quality deeply admirable.

Back in October Jon casually invited me to accompany him when he moved some furniture to a house he and Edith Lewis, his wife, had rented in Oaxaca. At first this struck me as a fine idea, given my current status as an unemployed person. It sure beat staring out the window waiting for the winter to arrive or watching water go down the drain. However, I started to have second thoughts when I read news accounts of the horrific War on Drugs in Mexico. Jon seemed confident the drive through Mexico would be a piece of cake. Since he’d done his fieldwork in Yemen, another country with its share of tough hombres, I figured we’d probably be fine.

In the end, I threw caution to the wind and took Rebecca Solnit’s advice in her wonderful book Hope In The Dark: “…hope should shove you out the door.”

We were accompanied on our journey by Jon’s dog Rags, who charmed the military patrols when they stopped us at various checkpoints in Mexico. They were looking for members of the Gulf Cartel, notoriously cruel narco-gangsters who control drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion along the Mexican Gulf Coast. These are the folks who pioneered in beheading their victims.

A U.S. border policeman in Brownsville advised us not to drive at night and to avoid the small towns. He told us the Mexican military had driven cartel gang members away from the border areas and into village hideouts.

As the American and Mexican landscape flashed past us, we mostly listened to Jon’s extensive CD collection of Country and Western music. His tastes run to Golden Age artists like Hank Williams, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Meryl Haggard. I enjoy C & W as much as anyone, but after seven days of hearing songs about alcoholism, heartbreak, betrayal, failed marriages, aging, loneliness, job loss, jealousy and desolate honky tonk saloons, I came to the conclusion that this musical genre brilliantly supports the Buddha’s first noble truth: All life is filled with suffering.

Many songs strongly suggest that everything will eventually turn to ashes:

Love Songs and Romance Magazines
Seem like their written for you
Till you’re magazine falls apart at the seams
And love songs turn into the blues

The artists give voice to difficult truths:

It’s hard to kiss the lips at night
That have chewed your ass out all day long

And there are terrible confessions:

Everybody’s got a hobby
Everybody’s got a shtick
Please consider me eccentric
Don’t think of me as sick
I didn’t mean to spoil your party
I didn’t mean to be uncool
But I’m standing here holding
The genitalia of a fool


Clever lyrics, artfully arranged instrumentation, and the talented singers partially mitigate this catalog of horrors, but I believe Country and Western music celebrates the realm of samsara—the cycle of rebirths driven by desire and ignorance.

We also listened to IWW songs and a number of 30 minute talks from the Modern Scholars series on the HUAC hearings. When the lecturer said the American business community was behind the funding of anti-communist investigative units in police departments in the United States, Jon said, “Well that’s really a big fucking surprise!”

We stopped in Oxford, Mississippi at Square Books, one of the best bookstores in America, and in the Mississippi Delta we visited Clarksdale, birthplace of Sam Cooke, childhood home of Tennessee Williams, and site of the Blues Museum. We were hoping to catch lunch at the funky bar Morgan Freeman owns, but it was closed. We did some holiday shopping at the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Store ( Cat Head showcases art from the Delta region. It has an extensive collection of blues recordings and paintings and small dioramas of life in the Delta done by untrained local artists that are wonderfully vivid.

In Louisiana we listened to a rightwing religious talk show on AM radio (taped in Oklahoma) from someone named Brother Bob, who claimed a cabal of Marxists, Islamists and the World Council of Churches were behind a proposed Congressional investigation of hate speech.

Once we crossed into Mexico, the roads were better than I thought they’d be, although they were mostly two lanes with no shoulders. They are filled with huge speed bumps called topes. If you aren’t paying attention and you don’t see them coming, you’re in for a teeth rattling bad surprise.

We saw some beautiful country as we drove south along the coastal Mexican plains, but things got dicey when we turned inland. I tried to man up, as they say, when the trucks filled with toxic chemicals barreled past us on the cloud-covered two lane mountain roads with no shoulders and terrifying hairpin curves, but it was difficult.

On our last day on the road we stopped for the night at Tehuacan. It was after dark and there weren’t any streetlights or road signs for travelers indicating the location of lodging. We saw a ratty motel sign along a dark road and drove through a gate into a dimly lit area that had motel rooms with attached garages. This afforded maximum anonymity for the guests, whether they be lovers seeking an illicit tryst or drug cartel types looking for a new lair.

Back in Tennessee Jon and I had joked about stumbling into various Bates Motel scenarios, but this felt like the real thing. We were the only customers. A taciturn older man showed us the rooms. He didn’t look like Norman Bates, but what do I know? I was exhausted and jumpy, ready to bolt if it seemed appropriate.

There was a bad reproduction of a Salvador Dali painting on the wall in my room, and the only television channel that worked was a hard core porno station. A sign on the door informed guests that the price was 100 pesos for 6 hours. The lights were so dim that I could hardly see across the room. It was impossible to read.

As I lay waiting for the psycho/narco/slasher to break in, I wondered how anyone would explain this to my grandchildren.

“Grandpa won’t be returning from Mexico, honey. He was dismembered by some maniac in a love motel.”

The next time I drive through here, I’ll bring along some 100 watt lightbulbs

When we finally arrived in Oaxaca Jon told me a psychic back in Michigan urged him not to take the trip because she had a vision that he would be beaten senseless and I would be murdered during the road trip.

Fortunately, the prophecy turned out to be false.

The worst thing that happened to me was that I fell flat on my face on the sidewalk the morning after we arrived in Oaxaca. I was somewhat lightheaded due to the altitude and I’d gotten up early that morning. Jon, a man with nearly boundless energy, rises around 5 am, ready for a long walk. One morning, after he hooked up the speakers to his sound system, he rousted me out with a recording of the Internationale.

Happily, I wasn’t injured when I fell, and it was early enough in the morning so that only a few Oaxaquenos observed this clumsy gringo trip.

My mojo remains strong.


At the tollbooth on the road into Oaxaca there were armed soldiers positioned behind walls of sandbags.

In June 2006 Oaxaca went through a period of social violence initiated by the heavy-handed policies of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who many people considered corrupt. He tried to crush a nonviolent teachers’ strike by ordering 3,000 local and state police to torch a tent city of 15,000 strikers camped in the zocalo. The strikers responded by retaking the center of the city. They were joined by a number of sympathetic organizations, including indigenous groups, and established the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, a counter-government.

The rebellion lasted through November 2006. There were 17 fatalities and many people were wounded. The impact on the local economy, which is partially dependent on tourism, was immediate and negative. This was followed by the swine flu scare and the 2008 world economic downturn.

The last time I was in an urban center with such a large military presence was Srinagar in 1992. The vibe there was ugly and very tense. Oaxaca, by comparison, seems normal. Life goes on in the midst of all kinds of difficulties.

One afternoon while I was there a group of striking teachers set up a barricade at a major intersection in the city. The police detoured cars around the strikers onto a backstreet, and traffic moved along in an orderly and calm fashion.

And I saw two military people armed with machine guns pull a young man off a crowded pedestrian sidewalk across the street from the Abastos market in Oaxaca. They spread-eagled him against a wall and one of the soldiers frisked him while the other covered them with her weapon raised. They told him to open his mouth, which they checked for drugs. He was clean and they let him go. The crowd walked around the scene as if this was nothing extraordinary.

* * *

When we arrived in town, the first place we stopped was the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a huge cavernous market filled with people, flowers, pottery, bread, fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, toys, crafts and clothing. The aisles were tiny and I found it impossible to orient myself directionally. There was too much to see. We sat at a long table and had a huge breakfast of tamales, pastries and bowls of hot chocolate. It was a great introduction to Oaxaca because the traditional markets are central to social life here.

Jon, whose family were Swedish farmers, is tall, lanky and fair. He towers above almost everyone else, Max Von Sydow striding through the market. His Spanish is excellent and since he’s been here on and off over the past seven years, people know him. He looks carefully at the vegetables and asks vendors questions if he doesn’t know what something is. People clearly respect his curiosity.

On Sunday we went to Tlacolula, a town 38 km east of Oaxaca, which becomes a gigantic market once a week. It goes on and on, block after block, a coming together of thousands of people. In the midst of this purposeful chaos, we ate ice cream and watched customers bargain with vendors.

In Abastos, the main market in Oaxaca, I made a serious attempt to buy a cowboy hat. I was looking for something that combined a 10 gallon traditional macho gunslinger look with the cool urban breeziness of the hat Marcello Mastroianni wore in 81/2. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you ask my wife), I couldn’t find anything that combined these two disparate statements.

In the end, I settled for a light box with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When I plug it in, it radiates colored lights. This proved to be a great hit with my grandchildren when I returned to Ann Arbor.

D.H. Lawrence was in Oaxaca eighty-five years ago. He wrote rhapsodically about the markets here in Mornings in Mexico, and he caught the energy of what this experience is about:

An intermingling of voices, a threading together of different
wills….Only that which is utterly intangible matters: The contact,
the spark of exchange

* * *

It turned out that Jon has rented a beautiful two bedroom house with a small unattached studio located in the oldest section of town, about a 20 minute walk from the zocalo.

It is early December. By mid morning it’s hot, but the humidity is low because we’re in the mountains, and at night there is a slight breeze. It’s not cool enough to close the windows. Despite the cacophony of barking dogs and the Oaxacan’s love of loud fireworks (the explosions peak around 9 pm), this is an extremely pleasant place.

Jon’s next door neighbors and longtime friends are expats Michele Gibbs and George D. Colman. Michele Gibbs, a poet and artist, was active in SNCC and other social change organizations. George Colman developed social justice ministries for the Presbyterian Church modeled on the worker-priest movement. They left Detroit 22 years ago, living in Grenada, Greece and Jamaica before settling in Oaxaca in 1995. Their books are available through or Amazon.

* * *

When I think about leaving Ann Arbor (which isn’t often) I carry inside my head a check list of things I’m looking for in a new place. At the top of my list is a good bookshop.

Just south of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo and four blocks north of the zocalo at 307-2 Macedonio Alxala is Amate Books, one of the most interesting bookshops I’ve visited in the last few years. The collection of English language books about Mexico is the best I’ve seen anywhere and the fiction section is a joy to browse. It was a wonderful surprise.

Jon asked me about my criteria for evaluating bookshops. I think it is apparent when you walk into a bookshop whether there is—or isn’t—a central organizing intelligence behind the store. Independent bookshops reflect the passions and biases of the people who choose the books that are for sale there. You can immediately feel it if the collection is coherent and exciting.

Henry Wangeman, the proprietor of Amate Books, was in the store and I told him how much I admired his shop. There is a fraternity among booksellers that I’ve seen often over the years. Henry, a generous and outgoing man, is a member of a guild of people who see books as central to a civilized life.

If you visit Oaxaca, buy a book at Amate Books. This place is a gift to the community, to all of us.

* * *

In addition to a good independent bookshop, my ideal community would include an identifiable city center (as opposed to the anonymous suburb), a diverse population that is engaged with community issues, lots of sunshine, coffee shops, decent restaurants, movie theaters that show international films, access to reasonably priced fresh food, pedestrian friendly streets, a good public transportation system, reasonably priced housing and quality medical care.

I can personally vouch that Oaxaca has most everything on this list. I didn’t have the time or the occasion to check out the last two items.

* * *

The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is located in a former Dominican convent, a beautiful building directly connected to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The entrance fee is 51 pesos (roughly $5.00). I rented an audio phone for 50 pesos and walked through the museum listening (in English) to the history of Mexico while I looked at the permanent exhibits. These included a treasure of gold, jade and silver from the ruins of the great Zapotec city Monte Alban.

There was a special retrospective exhibition on the first floor of work by the 20th century Mexican artist Lola Cueto. Among the drawings, lithographs and paintings was a collection of extraordinary puppets she created. These dream-like creatures, some of them slightly menacing, combine Mexican folk traditions and surrealism

The museum shop has a fine collection of Spanish language books, art magazines and videos.

The most direct route to the Museum from Jon’s house is a one-lane back street that’s under construction. I switched back and tried to stay on the shady side of the block. The main traffic route through Oaxaca, a busy, noisy and fast four lane highway, is a few streets over. People cross this road very carefully.

* * *

On Wednesday afternoon, Henry Wangeman drove us to Teotitlan, a Zapotec pueblo 28 km from Oaxaca. Henry told us he initially was drawn to Oaxaca because he and his wife were interested in folk art. He is an expert in Oaxacan indigenous art and is friends with many of the artists and craftspeople here. He talked about the diverse cultures in the valley. Sixteen different languages are spoken in the state of Oaxaca.

We stopped on the outskirts of Teotitlan at the studio of the Gonzales family. Emelia Gonzales was at work grinding natural dyes and preparing yarn, while her son Alberto Ruiz Gonzales was working at a treadle loom. Zapotec women prepare the yarn and dyes and the men weave the designs.

Emelia Gonzales explained that she was making a red dye from the cochineal insects found on cactus plants. Henry translated and pointed out the subtleties of fine yarn thread.

Alberto Ruiz Gonzales weaves traditional designs but he also creates his own work. When we arrived he was at work on a huge tapestry. At first glance I thought the piece was an abstract design, but next to the loom he had a computer circuit board for inspiration.

The pattern on the tapestry was an artistic rendering of a computer circuit board.

Alberto told us he believes the patterns on computer boards are connected to Zapotec codices in that they both contain information essential to our lives. I thought this was a beautiful example of an indigenous syncretic take on 21st century technology. Instead of turning away from the modern world, Alberto had incorporated and integrated contemporary technology into a traditional Zapotec world-view.

I purchased one of Alberto’s circuit board weavings—a blue and red design—as a Christmas gift for my wife.

* * *

On our return, we stopped for lunch in the open market at Tlacolula.

Henry ordered plates of lamb and pork. We cut off big hunks of meat and rolled them into tortillas and added lettuce and sliced chiles. They were delicious.

Jon mentioned to Henry that I had balked when he told me fried grasshoppers were a delicacy around Oaxaca. Henry, who was on his second shot of mescal, immediately ordered a batch. When they arrived, he wrapped some in a tortilla and offered them to us.

At this point Jon may have regretted bringing the subject up. He said he’d read the grasshoppers contained large concentrations of mercury. Henry dismissed this with a wave of his hand and a laugh. “Nah, those grasshoppers are downstream from here.”

I picked out what I thought was the smallest grasshopper and carefully ate it. It was crunchy and had a salty lime taste.

The young women working in the restaurant were quite amused by us and asked if we’d pose for a photo. We stood and smiled into the cellphone camera. I worried that brown grasshopper legs were protruding from between our teeth.

* * *

A few days earlier Jon told me about a giant 2,000 year old tree somewhere between Oaxaca and Tlacolula.

Henry pulled off the road at Santa Maria del Tule and, sure enough, we were in the presence of the biggest tree I’d ever seen. The circumference was huge and the bark looked like the flow of time itself, moving slowly in many directions at once. I saw bees swarming high up in the branches and many birds. Jon, Henry and I circumambulated the tree like pilgrims moving around a sacred mountain. The United Nations should declare this place one of the sacred sites on the planet.

* * *

When we arrived back in Oaxaca Henry invited us to a storeroom where he warehouses pieces from his collection of wooden folk art. Following the political troubles in 2006 he commissioned indigenous artists in the valley to create alebrijes—brightly painted copal wood carvings of people, animals and supernatural beings—all engaged in the act of reading. He has hundreds of these fanciful one-of-a kind figures. It is an extraordinary collection that would make a great exhibit at a library or museum.

* * *

On Sunday, Jon and I took the bus to Mitla, about 50 km from Oaxaca, to see what remains of the most important Zapotec religious center in the valley, which flourished between 950 and 1521 CE.

We arrived in the late morning and took a taxi from the bus stop at the center of town to the archeological site. When we got out of the taxi, Jon realized he’d left his wallet on the bus. He wouldn’t let me go back with him into town. Fortunately, with the help of the skillful taxi driver, he caught up with the bus and found his wallet untouched on the seat where he’d left it.

There were very few visitors that morning and I had the place almost entirely to myself. Mitla was soaked in light, and I had to walk quickly across the dazzlingly white stone courtyards in order to get under the shade of the walls where it was a bit cooler.

I’ve visited a number of archeological sites and ruins over the years, and if I’m patient they usually open to me. I tried to imagine what this place was like in its heyday, but I couldn’t pick up a vibe. There was no resonance. It was closed to me, and I was dizzy from the sun.

Mitla is called Lyobaa in Zapotec, which means Resting Place or the Place of the Dead. I read later that it is believed to be the gateway between the world of the living and the dead. One of the two principal Zapotec deities is Coquihani, the God of Light. Perhaps Coquihani was protecting the gateway by zapping North American tourists with blinding sunlight. Or maybe I was the one under the guardianship of the God of Light. It was certainly not my intention to enter the realm of the dead that morning.

In his book Essays on Mexican Art, Octavio Paz has written about the radical “otherness” of Mesoamerican cultures, their isolation and originality. For Europeans, the civilizations were “impenetrable.” Paz concludes:

(T)he bridge between myself and the other is based not on a similarity
but a difference. What links us is not a bridge but an abyss. Humankind
is a plurality: human beings.

Mitla is a unique Mesoamerican site because of the mosaic fretwork on the walls of the buildings. I read an excerpt from an essay by the art historian Paul Westheim reprinted in an elegant small book of photographs by Tomas Casademunt of Mitla:

The stepped fret originated in an age when men had not yet allowed
themselves the luxury of a purely decorative art. They still felt the
anguish and menace of the enigmatic and unfathomable world that confronted

For Westheim, a German Jew who fled the Nazis and settled in Mexico, the 20th century must have seemed every bit as mysterious and dangerous as the world did to people living in pre-Hispanic Mitla:

The stepped fret is doubtless a sign, a sort of talisman. It is a
protective spell….(I)t may be supposed that it is a sign of magical
protection against death.


On the flight from Mexico City to Detroit, I sat next to a stoic German businessman and an Assistant Professor in Astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was returning after working on the Sierra Negra radio telescope, located on a 15,000 foot peak in Central Mexico.

We talked about the new CERN particle accelerator, the age of the Universe, the Vedic conception of time, the short growing season in Canada, the final stage of the Hindu life cycle and the idea of multiple universes.

When I stepped off the plane in Detroit it was very cold.

from the collection of Henry Wangeman

An Idiosyncratic Booklist

These days my reading is unsystematic, just like the rest of my life.

Here’s a list of the books I read on the trip. I call them to your attention because they deepened, broadened and extended my experience in Mexico.

Bewildered Travel: The Sacred Quest for Confusion, Frederick J. Ruf (University of Virginia Press). This is the best book I’ve read on the subject of travel. Ruf is interested in tourism as a form of pilgrimage, and he argues that we travel because we crave disorientation and rupture. We want to be confused. Bewildered Travel is a deeply insightful blend of literary criticism and cultural/religious studies.

The People Decide: Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly, Nancy Davies (Narco News Books).
Ground level reportage by Davies, an American expatriate, on the events of 2006 when Oaxaca was declared a “government-free zone.” Hope and idealism came up against political complexities and military power. For a moment, the people triumphed.

Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico, Peter Kuper (PM Press). Kuper spent 2 years (2006-2008) in Oaxaca. His visual diary is a collage of surreal juxtapositions—insects, urban street scenes, Mexican wrestlers, street dogs. This is a beautifully designed and produced book, filled with interesting information, by one of our finest graphic artists.

Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya, Dennis Tedlock (University of New Mexico Press). These stories are presented without much context—although there are extensive notes at the end of the book for anyone who wants to follow up on sources and background. I think this strategy honors the material, which is wonderfully strange and compelling. The spirit of a shaman-king is seen leaving his body to become a serpent, an eagle, a jaguar and then a pool of blood. A secret trap door inside a pyramid leads to a child whose clothing is made of pure silver. Stones that are neglected commit acts of violence. This month the University of California Press will publish Dennis Tedlock’s 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, which I look forward to reading.

The Mexican Dream, Or The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, J.M.G. Le Clezio (University of Chicago Press). Le Clezio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, recounts the savage destruction of Mexico/Tenochtitlan—“the last magical civilization’—by Cortes. He calls this “the greatest disaster in human history” because it served as a precursor to the murderous colonial empires that were to come and it spread a “materialistic and opportunistic culture” over the entire world.

from the collection of Henry Wangeman


Bob said...

Becky worked for several years in Oaxaca, usually two weeks at a time leading and organizing art and archaeology elder hostels. She lived in Mitla. We went on a vacation there back mid 90s and Oaxaca became one of my favorite places on earth. Great writing, Karl. What an adventure. Bob Hart

Bud said...

I'm glad you liked my book ("Bewildered Travel"), Karl. I think we travel in similar ways. I've definitely been in some of those Bates Motels ... and I'd sure love Marcello Mastroianni's hat.

Bud Ruf

Mara Pastor said...

Great writing, great trip. Best wishes from Ann Arbor.