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HOME » Travelogues » Paul B. Wiener, Stony Brook - USA (April 8-14, 1999)

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Paul B. Wiener, Stony Brook - USA (April 8-14, 1999)

A summary of impressions, experiences April 8-14, 1999: First trip

1. Few tourists, fewer American tourists, little English spoken except by front desk personnel of major hotels and guides. We spoke no Spanish, but I know a few words and can understand some, including numbers. It was almost never a problem communicating anything, bargaining, joking, eating out. Great not to have to talk.

2. The people, a beautiful mix of about 16 Indian tribes, mainly Zapotec and Mixtec. Many locals can't speak the various Indian languages or dialects, even a few native Indians can't speak their own language. Unlike the sick Central Europeans, these different "ethnic" groups seem to get along in their huge state and with bordering states.

3. In the zocalo, the main city (of 600,000) square where all public social life occurs, dozens of Indian children, some 3-5 and unattended, beg for pesos, are never obnoxious. They're all so beautiful, sad, gentle, sweet, sometimes crafty - it's hard to give to all, though I managed a good selection. Many 5 year olds seem to be in charge of 2 and 3 years olds. We never saw any violence, anger, meanness, shouting, scolding, rarely crying among them or between them and their parents - some of whom looked 14 (and were), and some of whom looked 60 (and weren't). Most of the Indians, though apparently very poor, don't look ill, are handsome or attractive, very clean, dress decently, the women always colorfully, are polite, dignified, deferential, warm, sociable amongst themselves, proud, don't like to be photographed.

4. We took three tour trips outside the city, via Oaxaca Tours: to the famous Monte Alban ruins (nearly 2000 years old and still pretty inexplicable) - very beautiful but boring, unrestored, few decorations, carvings, history, little guidance in English - perched atop a small mountain, the top half of which was hand-leveled by the original Indians, god knows how. Oaxaca is 5000 feet high but in the Valley of the surrounding Sierra Madre Mntns. (yes, the famous ones) - many over 13,000 feet high. We also visited famous churches, very ornate, one with a 17th century hand organ in it (not mine). Saw El Tule, a 2000-year-old living cypress tree with the world's largest circumference (about 158 feet); the magnifiicent Santo Domingo (some locals consider it a snob church - let them); the great pre-Hispanic museum next to Santo Domingo; Mitla, more interesting ruins than Monte Alban, small; a local village market on its market day - fabulous experience, took lots of surreptitious pictures; and a famous rug weaver in his village of Teotitlan, where we bought an expensive rug (one of his hangs in the NY Met): $220.
Attended Guelageutza at Camino Real - very good food, crowd, but dancing and music become too similar after half an hour. Better to be borracho.

5. Nothing is modern in Oaxaca. Stores sell new stoves for about $100 - stuff from the '50's. The main public library, in a very beautiful, well-kept building near a University, has possibly fewer books than I do at home. No bookstores visible. Many public internet shops (I rented 10 minutes for a few dollars). Many old VWs. Food, taxis, drinks, most everything non-touristy is VERY cheap. No street or market vendors presented unrerasonable bargains or prices. We stayed in the two best hotels, one a converted 16th century (Camino Real) nunnery, unbelievably beautiful, luxurious, quiet, huge, 20-ft ceilings, 4 courtyards overflowing with bougainvillia, guitarists at night, wonderful outdoor dining, 2-room suites, big pool, festival hall in large old chapel, walking distance to zocalo and good food. Worth the expense. Second hotel (Victoria) on a nearby hill overlooking the city, noisy due to traffic grinding gears uphill near the mountain, but very beautiful with gigantic heated pool; we had the best room (#535 - get it!) with a large ceramic terrace overlooking everything, but no A/C. Free buses to town and back. Little English, almost no guests.

6. We ate fried grasshoppers, as I'd planned, for bragging rights. My wife had only a taste, but I ate the whole appetizer portion (at El Cathedral, superb dining and atmosphere) and liked it! Brought (snuck) some home as proof. You can buy these - chapulinas - everywhere on the streets and markets - it's a local specialty, like salmon fritters in Seattle. Big ones weren't served in the restaurant. We never got upset stomachs, even slightly (I did after I got home, a little) - due to eating many limes, yogurt, alcohol, bottled water. All the food everywhere was superb - they specialize down there in moles (a sauce, often made with dry chocolate) and in chocolate unlike anything European - water-based, really great stuff. A Must-go: to the chocolate factory near the market: get the cold chocolate drink, a big one for 50 cents. Super refreshing. Fresh tortillas everywhere, even on the airline terminal counters. Good beef and chicken, good breakfasts. We ate only two large evening meals - one part of a great dance festival, where guests spoke four different languages, very cordially, at our table), preferring the midday for big food, as most do. Fresh juices. I never took my vitamins or even one Maalox - but also didn't eat any street food, as I did in Merida, except bakery items.

7. Flying AeroMexico is always a joy - a generous, comfortable airline with great food, lots of free drinks, pretty stewardesses (like the old days). Mexico City airport also pleasant, even with a 4-hour layover, lots of food (get those hollow sesame crackers - wow!), shops, people watching. We never heard American music (maybe once in a clothing store), never rap music, jazz or classical. Watched almost no TV (except some of Titanic). Every night there was a free concert in the zocalo, hotel or a restaurant. No good local radio (by my standards). Lots of movie theatres, some stage, baseball stadium (big there; we almost went to a game); soccer of course. One day I sat up front with the van driver/guide and got great videos; also struck up a quick friendship with the guy (bright, nice-looking, funny, youngish, told us he became a guide because he got his girlfriend pregnant while he was in college, had to drop out).Creepy military checkpoints with soldiers playing hide in plain sight, while being driven along the Pan-American highway.

8. We called home four times - two of the calls cost $90 (then we caught on - never call direct) to comfort the kids (9,10). This is no place for kids under 13, unless they have a special interest or crafts skill, nor for Americans who want the touristy Mexico they see on MTV. Flying over the Sierra Madres one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. Very very dry country everywhere - drought-like even in rainy season.

9. Men: if you don't want to stand out here, wear jeans and simple, uncolorful shirts - the American tourists are mostly embarrassing to look at. Almost any American woman will stand out, however. If you eat outdoors at the zocalo, be prepared for beggars and vendors. Just smile and nod them away. No one's ever offensive or offended. And give too, if you can. Why bargain so strongly for something that costs 150 pesos instead of 120 pesos (when at home it'd be five times the price) - it's all peanuts, and it makes Americans seem especially obnoxious and insensitive.

Paul B. Wiener
Special Services Librarian
SUNY at Stony Brook
516/632-7253
pwiener@ms.cc.sunysb.edu
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