Before arriving in Mexico I believed everything my parents, teachers, and friends had told me. I pictured a huge, impersonal city, diseased food and water, drunk and, reckless drivers and aggressive men.
And yes, I often found myself with eight other people in a five-person car, not one of us wearing a seatbelt. And yes, one Swiss girl at the Instituto did get salmonella. And yes, I did get whistled at walking down the street. But the majority of the time, I was touched and impressed by the generosity, friendliness, and respect demonstrated by the people of Oaxaca. Not only respect for others, but respect for themselves, for their families, and for their country.
A clear example of this deep respect, bordering on reverence, for the people and culture of Oaxaca, were the wise words of my tour guide at the ruins of Monte Alban.
His name was Victor, and as the other students from the Instituto and gathered around him at the bottom of the sacred hill, he took up a wooden staff in his ancient hands – quite the Mexican Moses – and began to speak. His English was almost as slow as his walking pace, but every person in our group hung on each word he spoke, because they demonstrated not only his seemingly limitless knowledge, but his pride at having descended from the people who had built the structures around us as well.
I say ’structures’ because he berated a member of our group for referring to them as ’pyramids.’ “Pyramids!” he cried. “The Egyptians built pyramids, and a thousand other civilizations copied them. The Zapotecas did not have anyone to copy, no other civilization for hundreds of miles. So they copied the mountains around them. They built little mountains.”
As we passed a crumbling stone temple, a woman asked Victor if that was where they sacrificed people. “You sound like those damn foreign archeologists!” he said. His voice was harsh, but his eyes twinkled with delight at enlightening someone. “They come in from France, England, the United States, thinking they know everything! They dig up our past and say, ’Well, the Aztecs cut out people’s hearts, so every Mexican civilization must have done so too.’ But the Zapotecas were a gentle people, a farming people. They might have sacrificed an animal for a special occasion, but mostly they burnt sweet-smelling spices for the Gods. Those archeologists can stop making assumptions about our people, take their Ph.Ds, and go home!” Apart from berating archeologists, ignorant foreigners, and the Aztecs – whom he would only refer to as “that bloody people” – Victor gave us many fascinating mini-lessons, such as how the obsession with the Gods both helped and hindered the Zapotecas intellectual progress.
For example, they were very advanced in astronomy, because they needed to know when to worship each celestial body, but backward in transportation, because they believed that a wheel – a sacred shape that represents the sun god – could never be used for such demeaning tasks as moving stones, animals, or people.
On the tour, when a point came up that he felt required extra explanation, he would hunt for a flat patch of dirt, and with his walking stick, illustrate everything from the ancient numbering system to the structure of a typical house. The ground was his chalkboard, we travelers – ranging in age from 17 to 70 – were his students, and the entire mountain was his classroom.
Just as we Santa Monicans take our beach for granted, the Oaxaqueños think nothing of the great ruins looming on their horizon.
After returning to the house, I told Miguel, Eloi’s best friend, that I had just come from Monte Alban. He shuddered: “I had to run up that damn mountain for soccer training, then run up and down the stairs of the temples. We must have done it about 20 times, and I think I threw up 12 of them.”
Miguel was not the only young, male “friend of the family” present at the house. As the house slowly filled up with foreign girls (I think we were eight at one point), my host brothers’ many friends made an ill-concealed point of dropping by the house daily, if not more. And not only was every Mexican boy I met well-dressed, well-mannered and a terrific dancer, I will never forget their chivalry and kindness: Saulo, who patiently taught me to salsa dance and merely smiled when I spun into him or stepped on his foot. Eloi, who sat on the couch and discussed philosophy with me for two hours, and concluded by telling me that my braces just made me prettier; Roy, who walked me two miles back to the house when everyone else wanted to continue shopping, and has continued to write me wonderful e-mails in Spanglish. Marco, who took me out for tacos when the bouncer at the club let in everyone but me, carried me across every mud puddle at the carnival when it rained and I was wearing sandals, and missed work to drive to the airport to see me off.
I went to Mexico expecting to be treated like a friend, the younger friend that you allow to tag along but don’t really include, but I ended up being treated like royalty.
The city of Oaxaca was large, the capital of the state of the same name, but felt as intimate and small as its outlying pueblos. We couldn’t walk a single block without someone on the street recognizing someone in our party. There would be handshakes, hugs, and the exchange of the latest news. Needless to say, it made for slow, but interesting progress.
And, since there was never an absence of new things to see, I didn’t mind the delay. Brightly painted wood carvings, hand-woven rugs, shirts and dresses, sparkly earrings made of beer caps…even outside of the designated mercados, the streets were teeming with things to marvel at and purchase. Inside the mercados existed a delicious chaos. Giant bins filled with bootleg DVDs and CDs proudly advertised their piracy. Shanks of meat swung, covered in flies, over crates of mangos. Everyone wanted you to buy their wares, and if they thought shouting at you, blocking your path, or physically placing their goods in your hand would do the trick, they didn’t hesitate.
Because my blonde hair and naïve grin gave me away as a gringa, I was often overcharged. My host sister Eleni told me that the price of everything had risen because so many Americans had come to the city for the Guelaguetza, the biggest cultural festival in Oaxaca. But by the end of my stay, I learned to haggle, and though I probably only saved myself a few dollars, I was proud to be able to take part in a Mexican activity that requires fast thinking in Spanish.
On hearing my improved Spanish three weeks into my stay, Marco placed a hand on my shoulder: “You’re not a gringa anymore, you’re just… American.” From him, a high compliment.Next week: I bring back more than souvenirs.