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Mexico Travel - Oaxaca
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
AT THE MOMENT THE RAILWAY IS YOUR BEST BET, FOR THE automobile road is good only as far as Tehuacan. Construction is going on at the present time, and when the road is completed, it will form part of the Pan-American Highway; and in a few years Oaxaca will be connected with New York by a paved road.
There is a direct sleeping car from Mexico City to Oaxaca leaving Mexico City at 5:00 P.M. and theoretically arriving at Oaxaca at 8:10 A.M. the next morning. I say theoretically because I was told that once when the train did arrive at 8:1o A.M., there was not a single taxi or porter in the station.
The sleeping car which operates over the narrowgauge railroad from Mexico City to Oaxaca is an amusing miniature version of the standard sleeper. The main difference between these little cars and the ordinary sleepers is that the berths are somewhat narrower, and when you go over the narrow-gauge road, you are shaken up a little more. Also, the curtains in front of the berths seem to have been designed just to fill the space when the cloth is stretched tight, and since cloth has a decided habit of wrinkling and refuses to stay stretched tight, there are sometimes broadly humorous consequences.
The food on the train is really very good, but it must .be confessed that the ride is rough-in fact, between Puebla and Tehuacan, during the time when you expect to do your best sleeping, you would be willing to swear that the train has left the track and is just going straight across country.
This is the worst section of the line, and now that the new parlor cars have been put in operation, it is possible to combine the Oaxaca trip with the Puebla trip, thus avoiding discomfort and at the same time getting some fine views. The thing to do is to go from Puebla to Tehuacan, stay overnight there, and take the day train down, having luncheon on the train and dinner at Oaxaca after you arrive.
Even if you take the night train, you will probably see all the best scenery, for the train, fortunately for your sightseeing, is always late. The last four hours of your trip are the most beautiful, and if the train is late, you will arrive at TOMELLIN somewhere around 6 A.M. Be sure to have yourself wakened, because shortly afterward, the train is going to enter the TOMELLIN CANYON, and for hours you will have one of the most beautiful rides in America. The canyon combines the grandeur of the great gorges in the Rocky Mountains with some exquisite tropical scenery. The grades are inconceivably steep, and it took two powerful locomotives to pull our six-car train up the slopes even though the speed was very slow.
The glimpses, not only of the scenery, but of the life of the people from the train windows, as you pass up the canyon are unbelievable in their beauty. Unbelievable, too, are the little Indian farms, perilously perched on the hillside at an angle of anywhere from 6o to 75 degrees. From the window, you can see the Indians washing and fishing in the stream at the bottom of the canyon, and as the train gets up to the narrow head of the ravine, it is easy to see why the railroad is narrow gauge. There could not possibly be room enough for a wide-gauge road, and even if there were, no broad-gauge car could make the curves.
Near kilometer 319 the canyon is so narrow that at several points there isn't sufficient room for both the stream and the railroad. Since they needed the stream bed for the railroad, they dug out tunnels through some of the rock walls of the canyon and gave the tunnels over, not to the railroad, but to the stream. It sounds silly on paper, but when you see it for yourself, you will see why it is the obvious solution to a most difficult problem.
A few minutes later, between kilometer 322 and kilometer 323, you reach LAS SEDAS. Here you are 1,923 meters above the sea, and here you will drop your second engine and skate downhill into the valley below, where Oaxaca is located.
OAXACA is a beautiful town, lying in a tropical setting, where life flows on at an easy and languorous pace. The weather is usually good. It is too far south to be too cool, yet its altitude of 5,087 feet keeps it from ever being too hot. The average temperature is about 70 degrees, which makes it just comfortable for a light dress or a white suit. They have a saying in Oaxaca that the formula of life there consists of go per cent weather, 9 per cent gossip, and 1 per cent business.
The center of the gossip is, of course, the PLAZA, around which are clustered many delightful PORTALES. Here you will see the small shops, cafes, vendors, and public scribes. The band, which plays frequently, is one of the finest in Mexico.
Sitting in a cafe in Oaxaca and watching the people go by is an experience. The population is largely Indian, and they say that in the State of Oaxaca there are over a dozen different races speaking something like fifty different languages.
Oddly enough, the great sight of Oaxaca is not the CATHEDRAL, although it is by no means an insignificant structure. It has been used several times as a fortress and has been considerably damaged by earthquakes. There is a clock tower in the Cathedral concerning which there is an amusing legend.
The Wicked Bell of Oaxaca
Hundreds of years ago the Holy Office of the Inquisition established, as in duty bound, one of its agencies in the city of Oaxaca. But the people of Oaxaca were an exceedingly moral lot, and the Lord's Inquisitors were placed in the unpleasant position of having no work to do, which meant that eventually they would lose their excellent jobs unless they could find someone to accuse of heresy, or at any rate, of sin.
But this was almost impossible. No one could be found who seemed to have the slightest interest in sinning. The townspeople were so religious that they not only observed all the fast and feast days, but also dedicated certain hours of each day to holy meditation, when no one in the whole town spoke a word or made a sound.
It was really an impossible situation, and the Inquisitors were at their wit's end, when along came a great stroke of luck. Very literally a stroke, for in the middle of a silent hour a bell was struck in the Cathedral grounds!
The Holy Office held proper and exhaustive hearings, but could not find anyone who did not repudiate with horror the idea of this blasphemy, or who had even been seen near the bell during the silent hour. And since no one had struck the bell, it became apparent that the bell must have struck itself. Thereupon they followed the logical course of trying the bell, and having found it guilty, they condemned it to be struck every fifteen minutes throughout eternity.
But another difficulty arose. The bell, being stubborn in its wickedness, refused to strike itself, and the town could not afford to pay anyone to strike the bell in perpetuity. But about this time, through a happy coincidence, a queen of Spain gave a great clock to the Cathedral of Oaxaca. The solution was obvious. The bell was immediately fastened to the striking mechanism of the clock and has been expiating its sin every fifteen minutes ever since.
What to See in Oaxaca
The great sight now is the COLLECTION OF JEWELS taken from Tomb Number 7 at Monte Alban, which is on display in the MUSEUM at Oaxaca. This is one of the greatest finds since the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in Egypt, and one of the most important. There are all sorts of jewels, masks, and nose ornaments on display in the cases, and the collection is so interesting that it has driven everything else in the museum out of my mind, just as it will out of yours-which is a pity, as there are many other things of interest there.
The next most interesting thing in Oaxaca is the MARKET, which has its big day on Saturday. The Indians come from miles around to sell their wares, and the variety of articles they bring with them will keep you gaping for hours.
YOU must see the PIG AND BURRO MARKET. It is a sym phony of squeals and brays. Little suckling pigs can be bought for 2 pesos each. Burros, including the saddle, cost from 12 to 20 pesos, according to the age and the condition of the burro.
You will notice that the little pigs are always shaved to make it easy for you to see how fat they are. Formerly, the job of shaving was done by the Indians at home, but now according to law, it has to be done in the market. Some bright Indian discovered that if he shaved a pig at home and then rubbed it with poison ivy, the little pig would swell up and be a very fat pig indeed. As it is impossible to rub the little pig with poison ivy while the hair is left on, by municipal regulation, the pigs have to be brought in unshaven.
I heard an amusing story about an Indian and his burro. All over Mexico you will see the male Indian riding a burro, while his wife trudges alongside. A tourist from the United States, female, naturally, who was rather incensed at this custom, finally bullied her guide into asking one of the Indians why it was that he rode while his poor wife was forced to go on foot. The Indian looked surprised at the question. Then he said with simple dignity, "My wife hasn't got a burro."
Besides the pig and burro market, you should see the place we nicknamed the "BURRO GARAGE." This is the place where the Indians who come into the market park their burros for the day. They also park their wives elsewhere (unless the women go to the market with them), and I am told that, including lunch, it costs only 2 pesos to park a wife and, including lunch, it costs 3 pesos to park a burro. This may be true or it may be part of the g per cent gossip.
I don't suppose you will want to buy either a burro or a live suckling pig (we did and had him for lunch the next day), but there are all sorts of other interesting things for sale at the market. You will find extremely good POTTERY and POTTERY TOYS. The black pottery comes from Coyotepec and the green comes from Ozumba. The DISHES, which are gaily decorated with animals and birds, are made in Oaxaca.
In TEXTILES there are the usual TABLECLOTHS, NAPKINS, and little APRONS, which are embroidered in bird designs. The good SARAPES are easily distinguishable from the bad ones. The good ones are those with stylized animals in blacks and grays, and the bad ones are the polychrome affairs with the inevitable calendar stone design made for sale to tourists.
Sometimes you can find the Indian blouses called HUIPILS, in exquisitely embroidered patterns, for sale at the market.
One of the most colorful markets takes place only in May and June and is not held in the market place at all. This is the little BIRD MARKET along the side of the plaza, where an unbelievable variety of singing birds is on display.
Near the market the old church of SAN JUAN DE DlOs marks the site of the first straw, bamboo, and thatch church built in Oaxaca. This one dates from about 1600 and was built to mark the spot where the original church stood. There are some excellent native paintings of scenes of the Conquest in the church, but otherwise, except for historical and sentimental reasons, it offers nothing of particular interest.
The great architectural sight is the old church of SANTO DOMINGO, founded in 1539. A great many people consider this the outstanding church of Mexico. The style is baroque, and because of its massive construction, has remained in an excellent state of preservation in spite of the earthquakes from which Oaxaca has so often suffered. The monastery adjoining the church once covered ten acres, but it is now being used as barracks. The exterior is splendid in its architectural strength, but the great feature of the church is the interior.
The interior of the church of Santo Domingo is said to be the most magnificent interior of any church in Mexico, and according to some, in the world. It is decorated with inconceivable richness, and yet, instead of being merely rich, as so many of these baroque interiors are, it is also amazingly beautiful, with its walls and ceiling covered with gold and polychrome ornaments in high relief.
The finest part of the church and the most elaborately decorated is the CAPILLA DE LA VIRGEN DEL ROSARIO. This is almost a separate church. Although the style is fundamentally the same as that of the much-admired chapel of the same name in Puebla, it decidedly was not done by the same artist. This one has a homogeneous design with a tree motif, and the richness of its ornamentation, instead of seeming studied and tortured appears to be quite natural. Most of the high relief is not appliqued, but is built directly into the brick walls as a protection against earthquakes.
The walls of the main building are six yards thick, and the side chapels are built into the wall. The old MAIN ALTAR was made of gold. It was melted by Diaz in 1866, and a columned horror has been substituted in its place. The railings in front of the main altar and the altar in the chapel were at one time of solid silver, but now iron ones have been substituted. Another interesting feature of the church is the wonderful CHOIR LOFT over the central door.
Although there are some twenty-five churches in and around Oaxaca, these are the principal ones, and after you have seen Santo Domingo, any other church would be an anticlimax. If you want a short, pleasant drive, follow the old AQUEDUCT OUt Of town. The aqueduct is still in use, and homes have been built right into its arches. Follow the aqueduct out into the country until you pass the atrocious pseudo-Greek structure erected as the HOUSE OF THE GOVERNOR arid then come back by way of Main Street.
There is a nice little park beside this street with whitewashed trees and the inevitable basketball court. BASKETBALL has become practically the national game of Mexico, and there is hardly a town or village in Mexico without a basketball court.
Having admired the park, go up the hill toward the Juarez statue. Juarez, one of Mexico's great men, was a native of Oaxaca, and they have erected his statue on a most commanding position overlooking the town. As far as I know, there is no statue dedicated to Diaz, who was also born here, and who studied law under Juarez and through him acquired the revolutionary ideas which in his later life he forsook for extreme conservatism.The statue points to Monte Alban, and the little bumps on the hill which you will see far across the valley are all parts of that great Archaeological Zone which covers some eighteen square miles. The statue is also said to point to the railway station and to show you the way out of town if you don't like the place!
On this hill an interesting festival is held on July 31 of each year. It is the Festival of Flowers and Fruits, and it goes back so far into pre-Spanish times that its origin has been completely lost in antiquity.
From the hill you get a perfect view of the cloven-hoofshaped Oaxaca Valley and of the town itself. If you wish some real local color, focus a pair of field glasses on the patios in the town, and you will see half the family life of Oaxaca.
You can also get a good view of the CONVENT AND CHURCH OF OUR LADY OF SOLITUDE from this vantage point. The convent has been unroofed by time and earthquakes, but in the church there still stands the miraculous statue of the patroness of Oaxaca. She is famous as the patroness of sailors and has a beautiful pearl in her forehead which was given her by one of her admirers. There is a rather touching story of how this sailor once prayed to the Virgin of Solitude to save him when he was in peril at sea. She heard his prayer, and when in later years he became a pearl fisherman, he found this wonderful pearl and as an old man returned to Oaxaca and presented the pearl to the Virgin in fulfillment of his vow to give her the most valuable thing he had in return for saving his life.
They tell another story about this church. On the outside of the church there is a replica of the miraculous statue of the Virgin which stands on the altar. The church used to be the favorite place of worship for mule drivers, who would tie their pack animals outside, go in to worship, and then come out to discover that their goods had been stolen. The replica on the outside of the church is said to have been placed there so that the mule drivers could worship and keep an eye on their property at the same time.
What to Do in Oaxaca
The band which plays at frequent intervals in the plaza, is one of the best bands in Mexico. When it plays, the plaza, particularly on Sundays, is a wonderful sight. Here you will see the Mixtecan and the Zapotecan Indians, the men in their spotless Sunday white and the women often wearing the elaborately embroidered huipil.
Under the portales around the plaza are numerous cafes, and at the one outside the Bar Moctezuma, where you are in an excellent position to hear the band, they serve a divine, but powerfully strong drink known as the pablo. The bartender refused to reveal the secret of the concoction, but it tastes as though every known kind of fruit juice-all good-had been mixed into a perfect blend and then treated with some other wonderful flavors. It is served in rather small glasses with tiny tortillas which act as a sort of hors d'oeuvres, or cocktail snack. They are the best tortillas I have ever eaten anywhere.
It is whispered that there are cockfights every Sunday. The sport is illegal and kept strictly secret, so nobody in town knows where they are held except all the inhabitants and every policeman. I advise you not to ask a policeman but to consult your hotel if you are interested in seeing this spectacle.
The best hotel in Oaxaca is the Monte Alban at the side of the plaza facing the Cathedral. Many of the rooms have baths; the place is kept spotlessly clean; the food and service are impeccable. The next best is the equally clean Hispano-Americano. This has recently been refurnished, but on a much simpler scale than the Monte Alban.
What to Buy in Oaxaca
In addition to all the things in the market, there are certain specialties which can best be bought at various shops.
Beautiful TOLEDO STEELWARE is Sold by a family named Aragon. They are the only people in Mexico doing this work, and their product is unique and considered quite as good as the Toledo steel from Spain itself.
JEWELRY with a strong Mitla and Monte Alban influence is for sale in several of the larger curio stores-very beautiful and not at all expensive. POTTERY is one of the features of Oaxaca, and the best places to buy it are Lanalinche, Castillo, and Jimenez.