I Moved To Oaxaca

Friday, November 12, 2004

Goodbye Oaxaca Roadtrip: Day 9 Tlaxiaco - Oax-town

As cold as I'd been the previous evening during dinner, it was even colder the next morning! Vivani spent the night under the blankets, and when I put my glasses on I noticed her food bowl was untouched. What's up with that? As soon as my feet touched the linoleum I realized: the floor was too cold for her. Poor cat! I mean, for someone born in July, in Oaxaca, the cold must have been mind-blowing. So I moved her bowl to the nightstand and tried to warm up.

Back at the Rincon el Gon, G ordered the wrong thing, and ended up getting toast with cinnamon and sugar instead of French Toast. I took a risk and ordered something I'd never heard of, a dish with a Mixtec name. It turned out to be really good: a tortilla cooked on one side, with a rub of herbs on the other, then balled up and toasted some more. Three of those with a piece of tasajo. And really bad coffee.

We loaded up the car and noticed that the right front tire was almost completely flat! Eek. We hustled to a Pemex station and filled it. I'd hate to pop a tire out there, and it would be so easy on those roads.

We had a couple of choices as far as objectives for the day: visit the oracle at Achiutla, visit Maestro Antonio at Yucunama, visit Sr. Ramos at Yucuita and see if he'd show us the ruins in the next town over, or drive out to Tilantongo and see what we could see. Now, Tilantongo was the capital city of 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, a famous Mixtec king. (He's famous because through some quirk of fate many of the Pre-hispanic codices that survived the Conquest were Mixtec, and most of them related the exploits of 8-Deer.) Our various books said that the archeological zone was off limits, that the museum in town is only sometimes open, etc. And it's a long haul down a dirt road. But Tilantongo was the place G really wanted to see, so we decided to give it a try.

It was startling to find ourselves on familar roads again shortly outside Tlaxiaco. And on roads that weren't horribly twisty. Or mostly missing. Although still populated with lots of farm animals.

As we drove through Teposcolula I remembered that on our last visit the Casa de Cultura had been closed, and that there were supposed to be artifacts on display inside, so I suggested we stop. The town was buzzing, with trucks and guys in hats lining the road–looked like a cattle auction was about to begin. So parking was tight, but we found a place in the shade and went into the Casa de Cultura. Nada! Oh well. On the way out we saw that in addition to the auction a tianguis was going on just off the plaza, so we took a stroll through that. Lovely mounds of fruits and vegetables, toys, pirate cds, clothes, the usual. One of the toy stands had a bunch of plastic horses, cows, and cowboys, and the vendor had set up little plastic corrals for the plastic animals with the plastic cowboys riding herd. I stopped to take a picture then noticed some of the plastic steeds were giraffes. The vendor even had little toy-sized wood yokes and plows sized to fit the plastic oxen. Damn cute. Oh! And a tiny old lady selling baskets. Hmm. These were palm-frond baskets, square base with round sides, with an attached palm-frond tumpline. If you drive around the state you see lots of people hauling goods in them, with the tumpline going around their little shoulders. The señora noticed our interest and showed us a couple of baskets. Toys, really, about the size of a quart jar. G said, Hey this'd make a great hat, and put it on his head with the tumpline going around his chin like a strap, which set the old lady and her daughter laughing pretty hard. I picked up a printer-sized basket and the old señora started saying what sounded like "veinte" but I wasn't sure, so her daughter shouted to her, "HOW MUCH?" and it was veinte. Twenty pesos. You've got to be kidding!

Now, if any of you weave you know that while palm isn't a difficult material, you've still got to gather it, size it, then weave the darn basket. I didn't even make a pretense of bargaining, and just handed the señora a $20. I can't wait to go collecting fruits and nuts with it in the California woods.

Back in the car, and down the road. Our Oaxaca guidebook says the road to Tilantongo is in one place, but our roadmaps say it's in another, so we went with the maps. Just past the beautiful old church at Yanhuitlan we turned off the highway on a blacktop road toward Santiago Tillo. Since we'd lucked out at Nopala and had had paved road all the way into town, I was hoping for another Hermes miracle, but the pavement ended four miles later. That left 16 miles of dirt and gravel road, through a series of little towns of mostly adobe and stick houses, all with beautiful bright churches on a hill. No signs of course, except for the ones announcing the town name, so we frequently would pull up beside somebody walking along the road, or plowing their field, or herding their goats or cattle around, and asked if we were going the right way to the next town on the road to Tilantongo. Yes, yes, and yes. On and on and on.

We finally pulled up toward a town and asked a guy on horseback, Is this Tilantongo. Si! We headed toward the church and parked at the presidencia, which was thronged with farmers and their wives. Packed. And I knew what was coming: we stepped out of the car and about two hundred heads swiveled toward us and stared. We could see that a town meeting was going on, with the men in hats heading into the plaza in front of the presidencia, and the wives hanging around the margin, sitting and talking ... in Mixtec. Everybody was talking in Mixtec. No traje except modern-style, though. A little guy came up to G and started chatting away in I think a mix of Mixtec and Spanish. G later said the guy reeked of mezcal and, when he had shaken his hand, had used the Secret Mixtec Handshake ... as well as sticking his finger in G's armpit! We're not sure what that was about.

We walked into an abarrotes next to the shady spot we'd parked in to ask if it was okay to park there, and ran into some luck: the shop owner had lived in Fresno and California for four years, got his stake together and had come back home to open the store. His English was great, so while his two daughters and I smiled and made faces at each other G asked him about the mural, the museum, and the ruins.

Despite what our books said, there was no community museum (bummer) but the ruins were open to the public, and we didn't need a guide (rock on!). We took a look at the church, wading through the crowd of frankly curious locals, then, as the presidencia with the mural was full, we hopped in the car and drove another 7 miles up the mountain to Monte Negro, the archeological zone.

We didn't know what to expect from the ruins, so when we pulled up and saw not just piles of rubble or dirt-covered mounds but actual buildings, we were stoked. We put the car in the shade, fixed Vivani a bowl of sopa de Whiskas, and took off. We were on the top of a mountain (3414 meters) with a great view of the valley and ruins all around us. Plazas, temples, staircases, pillars, residences. All over. Fantastic. Not much pottery, and no carved stones–I expect they remove those to foil looters–but pretty well preserved and easy to imagine what it must've looked like when it was occupied.

Then back down the road. The tire seemed fine, most fortunately, and in town we returned our soda bottles, checked out the mural, and headed back toward the carretera.

A little ways outside of town we saw two small ladies and their burro. The burro was loaded with firewood, and lying down in the middle of the road. We pulled up and G asked if they needed help getting their burro up. They enthusiastically nodded yes, so we hopped out and, while one of the ladies held the halter rope, G and I grabbed the ropes tying the wood to its back and hauled it to its feet. It wasn't any bigger than the old lady who owned it, so it wasn't too hard. The burro kept trying to lie down again, but I propped it up with my leg while G and the señora (just one now, the other had taken off like a shot up the road) readjusted its load. Then the señora asked us where were from and when we said Oaxaca, asked us if we knew a woman who lived on Monte Alban who was from Tilantongo. We regretfully informed her that we did not. She thanked us for helping her, shook our hands, and we were off.

We spent the night in our old bed, back in Moderate Shangri-la. I think we broke our thermostats, too, because we were freezing. We went around the corner for tlayudas at El Chepil all bundled up, but everybody else was in shirtsleeves. And I'm really noticing, too, how many tourists there are in Oax-town! And that nobody stares at us here. Whew.


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