The view from Monte Alban is spectacular. Far below, the city of Oaxaca stretches out along the valley floor; a thin layer of smog hanging low between mountains. Terra cotta hills streaked with green, the same colors as the famous pottery found in the mercados here, undulate, giving way to jagged peaks painted every color of indigo and ink. It is a quiet, perhaps sacred, place, high above the fray. It is easy to see why “the people of the clouds” chose this as the location for their majestic city. “This is magnificent!” Gabriel announce, awe struck, and so it is.
The origins of this ruined city, different from so many in Mexico, date to the same era as the Egyptians. At some point, the city was destroyed and then later used by another people as an elaborate burial site. From what is left it’s clear that the people who piled these stones and carved these rocks were an intelligent, industrious and artistic people. Scattered throughout the ruins are larger than life carvings of men who appear to be dancing, although archeologists suspect that they are, in fact, captives of some long forgotten war. They were astronomers, and scholars as well as a religious people, although little more than their carvings are left to tell their story. The richest tomb yet discovered in North America was found here, “tumba 7.” It contained gold breast plates and ornaments, jade sculptures and beads, all of which have been whisked away to museums. I cannot help but wonder as I wander the length of the great plaza who they were and what this place was like three thousand years ago. Now it is filled with school children on field trips, one bus load full of German tourists and a sprinkling of Mexican men in white cowboy hats hawking items they’ve and crafted. I purchased a sculpture of a woman with a dog. The man selling it insisted it was from a Zapotec tomb, which is possible, considering that this place is only 10% excavated, it looks as if it could be, but I suspect it is not. His starting price was 450 pesos. Mine was 150 pesos. I got it for 200 and we were both happy. She is the same color as the hills I can see from the rock I’m sitting on, overlooking the valley. I like her eyes. I wonder what she has seen.
It was worth the long, dusty drive through the valley to the outlying town of Ocotlan to visit the Friday market. We were worried because the two other little towns on the way, which were also supposed to have their markets on Friday, were completely devoid of the usual make shift tents and bustle surrounding their zocalos. We were not disappointed. Following a fifteen minute parking adventure, which included, a bevy of taxis, a truck full of goats, three attempts at ridiculously narrow spaces and a group of men in dust covered hats chewing bits of sugar cane conferring in low tones of amusement, a dropped water bottle and a thick application of sunscreen, we dove into the square with anticipation.
There is nothing like a mercado that is not expecting tourists. The sea of humanity, the sensory soup of colors, smells, sounds and textures defies any attempt to constrain it’s boundaries with words. Lacquered gourds, polished to a high shine, are turned into treasure boxes, while others, intricately carved with birds and leaves, have become maracas and are arrayed on a blue tarp. Tiny indian women, smaller than Elisha long white hair braided together with pink and green ribbon and then wound about the tops of their heads like crowns, sit barefoot on hand woven reed mats selling chunks of something that looks like chalk. When I ask what it is they say it is for cleaning and soaking corn.
Little children laugh and run and pop their heads out of enormous baskets they’re hiding in to scare passersby. We stop to admire the local art: intricately carved wooden animals painted in every neon color of the rainbow. Hannah likes the lizards best. Of course there is the signature black pottery that the Oaxaca valley is famous for, and the green glazed terra cotta that reminds me of the low lying hills. The children purchase a bag of sugar cane pieces for 5 pesos and suck contentedly, spitting out the pulp on the sidewalk like everyone else. We wander into a municipal building on the square to admire the murals covering every surface, wall and ceiling. “Are these Diego Rivera too, Mama?” Asks Elisha. They are not. There is a figure of a green woman hands out stretched full of something she’s selling that intrigues the children. We find the market reflected in the painting: reed mats, local fruits and veggies, children running, pottery the color of the earth. Just outside the door are lines of recruiting posters for the Mexican military. Stern faced men wearing camouflage, steel helmets and shiny black boots laced half way to their knees stand, unsmiling, holding automatic rifles between the posters.
Tony is looking for a hat. Elisha and Hannah are on the hunt for a black lacquered treasure box, but we’re not in the right place for those yet. Gabe wants a sombrero for his stuffed raccoon. I’m in search of a bag, pottery and my childhood. Ezra wants to taste everything. I buy him coconut candy, one lump of white and one of pink, to prove they taste the same. The lady selling dried grasshoppers dusted with chile tugs on the edge of my dress, “Tiene usted tres ninos?!” she asks, with a smile of disbelief, pointing down the aisle where the kids and Tony have disappeared into the crowd. “Yes, three boys, one girl,” I reply. She pats my knee and says a blessing over me before eyeing Ezra and offering him a grasshopper. He looks up at me with big eyes. “Try it,” I suggest. He shakes his head and busts out his best Spanish phrase, “No, gracias.” The lady laughs and pats his hand before the tide sweeps us onward.
Loaded down with a roasted chicken and all of the trimmings, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes (thirty cents a pound) onions, a half kilo of cocoa beans, and Mexican play money for the kids’ on going “shop” game we made our way toward the van. Two turkeys in a gunny sack, only their heads protruding, raised an eyebrow each when we walked by and gave us a look of foreboding. I asked about some fabulous looking watermelon with skins spotted yellow, hoping to save the seeds for my Dad. Turns out they weren’t watermelon at all, but some sort of squash. We didn’t buy one.
It took an hour and a half to make the twenty mile drive home. Of course an hour of that was spent lost in Oaxaca, again. The roads here are reminiscent of a hot wheels race car track, crisscrossing one another at dangerous angles with no warning and with a completely indecipherable pattern.
We ate by moonlight, listening to the dogs bark and the music drifting up from San Felipe. It was dark by the time I’d completed the elaborate washing and bleaching rituals that accompany any attempt at safe salad eating, but the children were appreciative, as it was the first green salad we’ve had in two weeks.