Mid-February, 2012 - Oaxaca enchanted us. We were visiting during the
week that includes my birthday, Valentine's Day and our anniversary, and
it was a special treat to be staying in a delightful little hotel in such a
spirited and radiant city.
The Zócalo is where it's at in this town, and every time we wandered over
there we found something -- or many things -- going on, especially in the
evenings. A little orchestra was playing in the bandstand one night to an
appreciative audience. They weren't the Berlin Philharmonic, and they
sounded much like any small town band, but they played with enthusiasm
and did all the old standard pops favorites that get the little kids around
the bandstand jigging and jumping and running.
A few steps away, the balloon
vendors were lined up, and behind
them the juggling clowns had their
audience in stitches.
Suddenly we heard the loud music of
a marching band in the distance.
They paraded right past, sweeping
us and everyone else up in their
wake. The band in the bandstand
seemed to try to raise their volume a
little, but it was aural pandemonium
as the two bands played their
hearts out just 100 yards
Behind the marching band
came a dizzying array of
young kids in brilliant Mexican
costumes. The girls had
primped for hours, getting
every hair and ribbon in
place, and even the teenage
boys got into it, with brilliant
satin shirts and classic
sombreros on their heads.
Meanwhile the band in the
bandstand kept on going, and the jugglers did their
thing, and the street vendors bumped through the
crowd selling their wares. Fresh fruit snacks are a
popular item to sell, and across from us an old man
bought some munchies for himself and his wife.
A stunning young girl wandered towards us on the arm of her very
proud boyfriend. I couldn't resist snapping a few photos of her,
which she enjoyed, and then I asked her what the parade was all
about. She explained that it was the 50th anniversary of the
founding of her school, Instituto Eulogio Gillow. There was a
stage set up and proud parents filled all the folding chairs and
stood in rows behind and around them.
Suddenly some kids got up on the
stage, the girls with recorders and the
boys with guitars. The announcer said
they would play "Yesterday" by "John
Lennon" (apologies to Paul
McCartney). Mark's ears perked right
up, since he is a Beatles fan from way
back, and we were treated to a
charming rendition of the song.
Just beyond the
circle of school
madness of the Zócalo continued. The
juggling clowns had lost some of their
audience when the parade went by, but they
had won it back with their crazy antics. The
outdoor sidewalk cafes surrounding the
square were filled with happy folks imbibing
and eating, and the band in the bandstand
forged ever onwards, slightly out of tune but
so very charming to watch.
The kids from the school milled around in
animated groups, waiting their turns on stage. Once up there they danced, sang songs and made music, while the parents'
video cameras took it all in. It was amazing to me that a group of young teenagers would be so excited to wear traditional
costumes, strut around, and follow the instructions of their teachers who hustled them into groups and lines and got them up on
stage at the appropriate moments.
The vendors seemed well used to all this action. The Zócalo has stuff like this happening every night. Sure, it was a
Saturday night, but the press of people, the cacophony of music and noise, and the sight of couples ambling hand in
hand, kids smooching under the trees and prim and proper waiters serving patrons at the more elegant restaurants
around the square were all just part of the scene.
Many of the street vendors had their kids in tow -- kind of. The babies were strapped to
the moms' backs, alternately sleeping and looking around. The older kids were on their
own -- but with a job to do selling items out of their baskets. These ultra slick saleskids
are really well trained. They sell boxes of Chiclets, candies, bobble toys and cigarettes.
More than one patron at a restaurant bought a cigarette from an eight-year-old kid, getting
a light from the kid as well. Cigarettes are 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents), and earlier
we had seen the moms buying the cigarette packs at the little convenience stores around
town. No wholesale pricing there, but they mark up their product pretty darn well.
Money is what its all about with these kids. A little brother
and sister stopped by our table as we sipped on a beer.
They were very cheeky and lots of fun. The boy was 9 (I
couldn't quite catch his name) and his little sister Julia was
7. They were absolutely insistent that we buy some of their
very grubby looking candy. How long it had been dragged
around town in their basket and handled by their dirty
fingers I have no idea. We snapped a few photos of them
and they instantly had their hands out. "50
pesos!" ($4). We laughed. I put my camera up to
take another shot and Julia covered here face with
her hands. I clicked anyways and she shoved her
hand at me again. "50 pesos!"
I teased her and said that she had to pay me 100
pesos for talking to me. Her little lopsided missing-toothed grin got even bigger and she
rolled her eyes in exasperation, laughing. I don't know if any other gringo tourist ever had
ever challenged her like that before, and she was stumped to find a response. "50 pesos!"
she said again, seriously, hand out. We went back and forth like that for a while, giggling. I
asked her when she was going to finish working in the Zócalo and go home to bed. She
shrugged. Things wind down around 9 pm, but she was a street urchin and was probably
used to staying out however long mom needed her to be selling Chiclets.
They hung at the edge of our table for a while, refusing to let go of a potential sale. Mark
finally came up with the perfect compromise on the 50 peso issue. He pushed the remains of our little dish of peanuts in Julia's
direction. "Have some peanuts!" he said. Like greased lightning, she leapt into action. She grabbed a napkin, spread it out on
the table, scooped up every last peanut with her sticky fingers, snatched a wedge of lime off another dish and plopped it on the
peanuts, wrapped up the napkin, and shoved it in her basket. In a flash she and her brother vanished into the night.
The Zócalo is the heart of the action at night, but all of Oaxaca's
historic district is wonderful by day too. We wandered through the
Zócalo the next morning and it was perfectly neat and tidy without a
single trace of the mayhem that had gone on the night before. The
stage was gone, the chairs for the audience had disappeared, the
entire square was completely swept, and just a few people milled
around with coffee cups in their hands. But by nightfall the whole
thing came to life once again. The stage was set up for a different
performance by a different group, chairs were set out for the
audience, and street vendors wandered through it all.
The Santo Domingo Cathedral has a beautiful botanical garden
behind it, and we decided to take a tour. Mark loves photographing
flowers, and he got some wonderful shots.
English tours are two hours long and happen just a few
times a week while Spanish tours are an hour long every
hour every day. We opted for a Spanish tour, but
because there was just one other gringo couple and an
Austrian who spoke fluent English (and Spanish and
French), the guide spoke to us all in English. What a
lucky break for us. When our tour finished there were 50
gringos waiting for the next tour which would be officially
in English. I wondered how this huge group would
manage on the tiny garden paths.
The Oaxaca region is very dry, so most of the
gardens were desert types of plants. The
botanists at the garden work hard to propagate the species, and
many of the plants they have are endangered. Those plants have
their flowers and seed pods wrapped in gauze so they don't
accidentally get cross-pollinated and hybridize with something else.
The best part of the tour for us was the funny nicknames of some of
the plants. The "Sunburned Gringo" tree has an outer layer of bark
that peels incessantly.
The "Monkey's Desperation" tree
looks like it would be a wonderful
tree for a monkey to climb. It is tall with long limbs
spreading wide. But the base is covered with hard
little thorns that would prevent even the hardiest
monkey from shimmying up.
The "Air cactus" is a "guest plant" (not a parasite or a
symbiotic plant). It arrives in the air and settles on a
tree, getting all its nutrients from the air without ever
bothering its host except for sitting in its lap.
The "Organ Pipe Cactus" is familiar
to us from Arizona, and in this
garden it had been planted as
fencing along two paths.
The "Marriage Tree" is a nasty
looking thorny thing. The needles
are razor sharp and plentiful, and it
produces poisonous fruit.
Everyone in our group got a good
chuckle out of that tree...
Speaking of love and marriage, we were in Oaxaca for
Valentine's Day, which is also our anniversary. Heart decorations
were everywhere, and love was definitely in the air.
As we came around the side of the cathedral we noticed a group
had gathered in front of the church. They were very well dressed
-- and there was a bride in the middle. "Wow!" I yelled, running
to get a good angle with my camera. A wedding in the cathedral!!
OMG. What a place to get married. For all you future brides and
past brides, this was the wedding many of us dreamed of at one
time or another, complete with a frothy, frilly white dress and the
grandest, most gold-filled, most magnificent cathedral imaginable as a backdrop.
I ran around like a madwoman taking photos. All the tourists on the plaza started
closing in on the church too. Most of us were enthralled little girls, seeing our princess
dreams unfold in front of us. Chiclet-selling girls, white haired heavyset women visiting
from foreign countries, and young girls on the eve of such an event themselves all
pressed towards the cathedral.
This was clearly a very wealthy family, and the father was the
image of pride as he shook hands with his guests around him.
The bride welcomed everyone warmly. Her friends, all of them
hot babes in stiletto heels and tight, short, brightly colored
dresses, emerged from fancy cars and exchanged kisses with
her. More than one was a young mom, walking up pushing a
stroller just to hand it off to an older lady waiting outside the
church, giving her instructions for how to keep the baby
entertained during the coming hours of celebration.
The music began and the group dwindled to just the wedding
party as the guests entered the cathedral. The throng of
enchanted women tourists and vendors hung back just enough
to give them a little space. All of a sudden the bride glanced
over her shoulder at all of us and waved us in. She looked
straight at me and motioned for me to come into the cathedral.
"Me?" I pointed to myself incredulously. She nodded
vigorously. I stepped over the threshold and received a strong
handshake from her dad. Holy Mackerel, I was in the middle of
a wedding at this cathedral, wearing shorts and a tourist hat.
The other tourists all filed in, many genuflecting as they entered,
and we filled the back half of the church. How totally cool. The
bride and her father made their way down this most splendid of
aisles and the service began. I didn't feel right about staying too
long, so I snuck back out once the priest got going in earnest.
As I left I noticed one of the Chiclet-selling girls outside the
entrance of the cathedral looking in. The invitation had been for
all of us to enter, but she had stayed back. The longing in her
face was touching -- and heartbreaking.
I found Mark at the
far end of the plaza
sitting on a wall. I
started talking a
mile a minute,
thrilled and amazed
by the whole scene.
He smiled and
He just didn't get
into weddings like I
did. The princess
thing is a little beyond him, although I tried my best to explain it. He hadn't
really known how when you're a little girl wearing a full skirt you have to
spin around and watch it flare out. He hadn't ever dreamed of being
Cinderella, parading across a grand room in an elegant dress, nor of being
Prince Charming for that matter. But then, I've seen him ooh and aah over
muscle cars from the 1960's like they were the sexiest of pinup models.
How many old cars can you look at and get excited about? Apparently, all
of them. How many princess weddings can make a girl's heart soar?
Definitely all of them.
Oaxaca held us tightly in its clutches and we still had more to see, espeically the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.
Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.