Oaxaca: Guelaguetza

Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Con Los Brazos Abiertos

[There is a video at the end of this post and click here to see the separate post with my photos.]

When Erik and I first arrived in Oaxaca at the end of March, in was Party Central – Semana Santa (the week before Easter) followed by a celebration of Oaxaca’s 480th anniversary.  When I arrived by myself in mid-July… even bigger and more parties.  Why?  The Guelaguetza.

From the Guelaguetza performance

The Guelaguetza (the word itself is Zapotec – one of Oaxaca’s major indigenous cultures – for “offering”) is Oaxaca’s several-week celebration paying tribute to the varying communities and cultures in Oaxaca.  More than a dozen delegations come and present costumes, music, dancing, traditions, food, art… it’s incredible on so many levels.  The diversity is wonderful but also the pride that each group has in its own culture – and the pride that all Oaxaqueños feel in their state for having and preserving these living histories.

Mi amigo Fernando shows our empties from our mezcal sampling.

Simultaneously occurring with the Guelaguetza itself was a Mezcal Festival (mezcal is a distilled alcoholic spirit made from the agave plant, and I attended the festival three times – free samples! – and maybe bought a little too much, but I bought it mostly for Erik since he couldn’t be there…right?), a small Tejate (an indigenous non-alcoholic beverage made from cacao and maize) and Tamale festival that I accidentally stumbled upon and enjoyed a couple of very cheap and delicious meals, a restaurant-sponsored festival of the seven moles, a mushroom festival and a cheese festival in neighboring towns, and really much more than one person could possibly attend without either a time machine or a clone.  I have neither of those things with me.

A very memorable evening listening to wonderful music from around Oaxaca

There were concerts of all types of music all the time and in various locations. I went to all sorts of musical events.  One of my favorite performances was a gentleman somewhat advanced in years who sang native songs accompanied by two incredible guitarists.  There were about 50 of us in the audience in this intimate room.  The people around me quietly sang along, some people demonstrated some native dance steps, and then – my favorite part – shots of mezcal started getting passed around the audience.  I don’t know if it was the sincerity and beauty of the gentlemen’s voice, the palpable comradery of those around me, or the two shots of mezcal I had, but my heart was overwhelmed and a tissue needed to be procured more than once.

Pyrotechnic towers getting readied in the zocalo

In addition to the musical events, parades kept happening everywhere.  Fireworks were everywhere and at all times.  There was even a church festival happening at the same time with games and lots of food.  And more fireworks.  (Mexico really does love its fireworks.)  I was everywhere I could be and usually always with the camera, just in case.  By the end, though, I was ready for it to be over.  Sensory overload.  And so, so many tourists.

Incredible view of the city behind the stage

But the highlight of the whole shebang are the Guelaguetza performances at the auditorium on the hill, overlooking the great city of Oaxaca.  There are two performances on each of the two final Mondays in July.  You can pay between 600 and 1000 pesos for a ticket or you can wait in line for free tickets on the day of the performance.  Since I blew all my pesos on mezcal, I chose to get in the freebie line for the final performance that was offered.  The show began at 5:00 p.m.  I was in line by 11:30 a.m. and far from alone.  I feel lucky that I got there when I did, because thousands and thousands of people found their way into that free ticket line for that performance.

My two friends for the day and my sombrero

I was very fortunate to have been able to spend my several hours in line with two very lovely señoras who adopted me for the day.  We chatted (as best I could) and they kept filling me with food and candy, saying I was too thin.  (Then they would grab their own bellies and we would all laugh.)  When we finally got through the mad house that was Guelaguetza security, they waited for me and we all sat together.  They explained things about the dances and the lyrics of some of the songs.  And at the end of the night, they let me keep the sombrero they had loaned me that day.  I love it!

To be in that place and that time was a feeling I will never forget.  There were copious amounts of tourists from outside of Oaxaca those weeks, to be sure; but the Oaxaqueños had such uncompetitive pride in their cultures and their people.  More than 10,000 (SOBER!) people screamed and cheered and clapped along with the dances, laughed at the jokes, and sang along with the songs.  And they do it every year and they love it.

¡Mi sombrero me encanta!

I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times an event was introduced and the host would use the phrase “con los brazos abiertos” – “with open arms.”  They made sure at all times that everyone knew that they were welcomed and that even the visitors were considered Oaxaqueños for sharing in the displays of their culture.  As a foreigner alone in another country, it had a surprisingly touching affect on me.  And as I said earlier, there was no competitive nature to their patriotism; they were just proud and happy, and they wanted everyone else to be happy and feel included.  Nothing more.  It was warm and endearing.

Please take a moment to check out my photos from around Oaxaca during that time.  It’s really incredible how beautiful, colorful, and complex these costumes are.  As well, it’s very inspiring that Oaxaca, with these annual celebrations – which are immensely popular – is adamant that their indigenous traditions will never die.

A few words and hints about the video below.  First, all footage was taken with my camera so the quality isn’t too impressive.  Add on top of that the fact that usually there were big crowds and I was never near the front.  Plus, truthfully, sometimes I just didn’t understand what the camera thought it was doing.  The video is only about 10 minutes long but really worth sticking it through to the end (in my opinion).  The clips are fairly short, but the end – the crowd’s reaction to the pineapple dance – is so awesome.  (If for some reason you can’t see the video, just try refreshing your page; it should appear.)

Brief descriptions:

  • 0:03   Tribal dance with costumes
  • 0:22   Musical group performing Basque music with dancing
  • 1:05    One of the many parades with costumes, dancing, and lots of fun from the  delegations participating in the Guelaguetza
  • 2:35    Performance of some of the delegations at the Plaza de la Danza
  • 3:36    Giant woman loses arm and goes crazy (I could not stop laughing!)

Now to the actual Guelaguetza performance:

  • 3:58   One of the most unfortunate musical instruments I have ever heard
  • 4:17    Fun dancing and music clips
  • 5:52    I love the way they wave with their sombreros as they depart and the entire crowd waves with their sombreros in return
  • 7:04    At the conclusion of every group, they throw prizes (like apples, bread, hats, and even pineapples) into the crowd.  This group added a pyrotechnic element.
  • 7:41   The whole crowd waits and waits for this: La Danza de la Flor de Piña.  The crowd goes berzerk for the Rockette stuff.  It’s charming and lovely on so many levels.

Posted in Mexico, Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | 2 Comments

Oaxaca: Guelaguetza Photos

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Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.Here are some photos from my time visiting the multitude of performances and activities surrounding the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.  What an incredible and beautiful spectacle! Hopefully we will find our way back in the future so … Continue reading

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Return to Guatemala

Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Four weeks of living out of a duffel bag and backpack

Hi, Everyone!  Sorry for the delay in posts lately.  It’s been a relatively hectic month.  After two weeks in a temporary apartment, today I moved to a different apartment in Oaxaca, where I will remain until Erik arrives later this fall (we hope). This post is about my recent return to Guatemala, where our friend Chuck and I traversed and explored that wonderful country. To view some pictures of that trip, click here.

After leaving Mexico City on June 30, I began the journey to Guatemala City, which was expected to take about two days. It took three.  And, in fact, I never made it to Guatemala City.

It was a two-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Puebla followed by a 12-hour bus ride from Puebla to San Cristóbal de las Casas (in the state of Chiapas).  I arrived at the SCC bus terminal at 2:00 a.m.  My plan was to wait there until the shuttle, which I had prearranged many days beforehand, arrived to take me on another 12-hour adventure to Guatemala City, complete with border crossing.  My experience with the cross-country bus terminals had thus far always been very good: they are clean, large, comfortable, and safe.  The terminal in SCC was none of those things.  There was virtually no place to sit, it was small, and for whatever reason all the doors were wide open in the middle of the night; not only was it cold but anyone could (and did) just wander in at anytime. Needless to say, after not sleeping on the bus to SCC I did not sleep in the bus station either. That’s okay, I’d maybe catch a nap on the shuttle that day.

At 7:45 am I went outside to where all the taxis wait and all passengers get picked up and dropped off and waited for my shuttle, which was to arrive between 8:00 and 8:20.  Cut to the chase: after patiently waiting, at 8:45 I called the number on the back of my ticket and tried to explain the situation to the voicemail.  Of course, I was freezing, hadn’t slept all night, and was now trapped in a city I had no plans to be in since there is only one shuttle from SCC per day because the trip to Guatemala City is 12 hours long.  I was not in a good place psychologically.  Then I called Erik, my mind a complete blank with how to proceed.  Under normal circumstances, there should have been no stress involved. However, I was to meet a (completely non-Spanish-speaking) friend from Minnesota in Antigua, Guatemala the next day.  Because of this one shuttle mishap, I was now an entire day behind schedule.

Old church in San Cristóbal de las Casas

By the time I made contact with the shuttle company, which included five international phone calls since the company is in Guatemala and my phone is from Mexico, I had no choice but to hang out in San Cristóbal de las Casas for the day, find a place to crash for the night, and hope that the next day’s shuttle would not forsake me.  (According to the shuttle company, the driver said he was there but I wasn’t; it’s hard for me to understand how I possibly could have missed the shuttle – but no one will ever know what really happened.) SCC is a very popular tourist city, but it wasn’t really my favorite – although I happened to be there on Mexico’s presidential election day, which made it more interesting.  There are certainly some interesting sights and old churches but far too many coffee shops and fancy restaurants catering to out-of-towners for my taste.  I found a decent hotel, got a cheap room, did some sight-seeing, some eating, and some napping.  Things could have been much worse, but I was concerned about the arrival of our friend Chuck at the Guatemala City airport with no one to meet him or help him get to Antigua.  Chuck isn’t a frequent traveler and has never been out of the U.S. (except for a quick trip to a nearby Canadian city).

The line to vote at this one location. There were more. But people were generally in very good spirits. And it was a Sunday, so most people didn’t work. What a thoughtful concept!

The next day the shuttle did arrive at my hotel and I was headed to Antigua now, not Guatemala City.  There was no reason for me to go to Guate City because Chuck would already have arrived and headed to Antigua before I would get there.  Around 7:00 p.m. that night I made it to the hotel.  The shuttle trip was fairly uninteresting but I had another small world experience: shuttle buses and drivers cannot cross the border, so it is organized so that a shuttle coming from Guatemala and one coming from Mexico meet at the border, completely swap passengers and cargo, and then head back from whence they came.  A passenger on the other shuttle (coming from Guatemala) happened to be a student at the same school in Xela that Erik and I attended.  Imagine coming to the Mexico/Guatemala border crossing and, out of happenstance, running into someone you know.  Small world!

Picturesque Antigua

Arriving at the hotel in Antigua I found Chuck safe and sound. Erik had armed him with a list of phrases to help get him from the airport in Guatemala City to the hotel in Antigua. (Even when he’s not there, Erik has a knack for saving the day.) Chuck and I spent three days in Antigua, touring the ruins and tasting some delicious foods – both humble and thoroughly Guatemalan, as well as some… well…. delicious cake. One night we even went to a Mexican restaurant and I taught the bartender how to make me a Negroni (I noticed that he had all the ingredients behind the bar).  The Negroni is my favorite cocktail, and it was good to have one again.  And the bartender and the waitstaff claimed that they all liked it, too, after trying it.

Chuck loved Antigua, especially its successful mix of old and new.  It is a charming city that takes great pride in its ruins and is very tourist-friendly.  But after three days we headed of to San Marcos La Laguna, which is on the same lake where Erik and I spent January and February learning Spanish.  Our residence for a week was quite exceptional: we each had our own space, there was a full kitchen, hammocks, a view of the mountains, volcanoes, and lake, and the weather was nearly perfect.

Not to mention picturesque Lago Atitlan

Unfortunately, being near the lake in these months, one has to occasionally do battle with bugs.  Flies, bees, and mosquitos were everywhere.  Spiders were nearby, too, but they didn’t cause us any problem.  However, in the first day or two I killed three scorpions inside the apartment.  These were not terribly small: maybe three-to-four inches each.  It’s not something I did every day back in Minnesota, but faithful readers (with good memories) will remember that I did find a scorpion on the wall behind my pillow one night while we were living in San Pedro.

On the penultimate night in San Marcos, a scorpion found me before I found him.  I was sleeping, it was about midnight, and I felt something on my leg.  Virtually asleep, I reflexively reached down to brush whatever it was away.  That’s when I felt a sting and pain like I hadn’t known before.  I was immediately awake and the bed was open.  When I found the guy, he was maybe 3/4 of an inch long – a small one.  But with a big bite.  I took care of him first then realized how much of a jolt he gave me.  My hand hurt like the dickens for a good 20-30 minutes; afterwards it tingled for a couple of hours.  Needless to say, I didn’t go back to sleep before completely checking over the bed as well as underneath it, nor did I fall asleep with any ease for a few hours.

Pedro, Pepe, Rosario, and Erik back in February

That situation notwithstanding, Chuck and I had a great time at Lago Atitlan.  I showed him around San Pedro, taking him to the school that Erik and I attended and introducing him to our family there (who just got a new puppy!).  I gave Rosario (our mamá) a gift that Erik and I had been traveling with months because they are impossible to purchase in Guatemala: a set of rubber scrapers/spatulas.  We thought they were the perfect gift for her because they are so useful and she loves to cook.  Not surprisingly, I had to explain to her what they were used for.  But she and Pedro were as generous as always, reminding me over and over that their house is always my house.  They even invited Chuck and me to spend the night since there was a marimba concert that night as a part of the San Pedro Festival, but they wouldn’t want us to return to San Marcos at the time the concert ended.  Chuck and I passed on the concert, but the offer was so heart-warming.

We had a wonderful time in San Marcos, no question.  But it was time to head back to “civilization” – to Xela (the full name being Quetzaltenango) for a week in the city!  For me, Xela seems to be the best of both worlds.  It’s a fair-sized city with restaurants of various international cuisines but also eateries specializing in Guatemalan food (which are also cheaper).  There is culture and technology, but also look in any direction at any time anywhere in the city and you will see women wearing the typical, customary dress.

Admittedly not a great picture but a GREAT piece of cake at Moonkat in Xela.

In Xela I was able to introduce Chuck to Erik’s and my favorite place – Moonkat, a lovely little café that has the BEST cake in Guatemala.  And after sampling the German chocolate cake (my fave) Chuck had no choice but to concur.  Our time in Xela was spent wandering the streets, hanging out in the parque central, and of course eating – including time spent at a great French restaurant, an amazing Mennonite bakery, a couple of decent Guatemalan hamburger joints, and of course Pollo Campero – Guatemala’s successful answer to KFC.

There were parades, programs, celebrations, and markets – lots to do and see.  But also we were reminded how nice it also can be to just sit and be.  The parque central was full of people who already knew how to do that and we did our best to find our way into that mindset.

After a two-week stay in a developing country, Chuck headed back to Guatemala City to catch his flight.  A couple of days later, I left on a shuttle (which arrived perfectly), crossed the border (not without its hitches but nonetheless successful), and found a bus back to my new home for the foreseeable future, Oaxaca.

Chuck with Lago Atitlan and San Pedro behind him

It was a wonderful privilege for myself to be able to return to Guatemala, but it was an added bonus to have the opportunity to not only present it to a friend but then to see my old haunts through the astonished eyes of someone who had never beheld anything quite like this: the culture, the poverty, the beauty of landscape, the holes in the roads, the cuisine, and especially the warmth of the native people.  It was a great reminder to me of why I loved Guatemala in the first place.  Thanks, Chuck.

Coming Up: Pepe attends the biggest party of the year in Oaxaca and lives to tell about it!


Posted in Guatemala, Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | 4 Comments

Return to Guatemala – Photos

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Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.Here are some photos from my return visit to Guatemala.  While it’s true that Erik and I had already visited some of these places and posted photos from there, it’s nice to revisit things, right?  Actually, … Continue reading

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Pause Update No. 2: Minnesota and Oaxaca

Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.

After having met with the orthopedic surgeons at the VAMC (after lengthy delays and still more to come), Erik is now aware of the surgical and nonsurgical options regarding his unique ankle situation.  (If you need to get caught up on that situation, it is outlined in our Big Announcement post.)  He will first attempt the nonsurgical option of having a custom made leg brace fitted and manufactured.  However, there is currently a backlog of several weeks in the Prosthetics Clinic at the VAMC.  Rather than waiting, the VA has decided to help Erik receive the new leg brace sooner by outsourcing him.  They are sending him to a civilian clinic and prosthetic manufacturer in Minneapolis.

Relaxing and roasting hot dogs

A custom fitted leg brace will lift weight off of the ankle while walking.  After several weeks of using this new brace and a cane, he and the doctors will better be able to determine if the pain is reduced enough to continue on in life without immediate surgery or if a sooner surgery is a better option.

Erik roasted a turkey in the middle of July, just because he could.

In between multiple visits to the VAMC, Erik has been keeping very busy by visiting friends and family. He has been making improvements and fixing little things in both Apollo and Maggi, spending time at his parents’ farm mowing the lawn and cooking/baking up a storm, and even visited HQ in Wisconsin a couple of times as well.  He appreciates the friends that have reached out to him, spent time talking with him, and taken him out for coffee, cocktails and food.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *         *         *         *

Pepe arrived safely in Oaxaca last week after spending three weeks revisiting favorite places in Guatemala with a friend (a separate post on that trip is forthcoming).  After spending almost four weeks living out of only a duffel bag and a backpack, he is very happy to be almost completely settled and again have access to the luggage/clothes he had in storage in Oaxaca.  Next week he moves to another apartment where he will stay until Erik returns.

The marching bands come out for Pepe’s return!

But Oaxaca must have known that he was coming because there are many different festivals happening right now – complete with music, dancing, and food.  On Saturday he went to a mezcal festival (LOTS of free samples!), saw part of  a youth band concert, grabbed dinner at a church festival, watched some of a huge annual ethnic dance performance at another church and then walked to the other side of that same church to take in a competing festival (complete with its own marching band), saw a live performance in the zocalo (with smoke machine and lights!), and of course spent some time listening to the various mariachi bands and marimba bands.  Yes, this was one day.  And he walked everywhere.

As he has told his family and friends, he was as comfortable returning to Oaxaca as if he had returned to Minnesota.  He knows where everything is, how to get there, and there is always something exciting to do, watch, or eat.  And after three (horrible) weeks in Puebla, a (wonderful) week in Mexico City, and three (fantastic) weeks in Guatemala, it feels good to be planted a while.

Coming Up:  Pepe’s return to Guatemala complete with tales of missed shuttles (that was a bad day) and his first losing battle with a scorpion.

Posted in Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | 1 Comment


This gallery contains 35 photos.

Posted from Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.With Erik in the U.S. meeting with doctors and Joe currently exploring the various public transportation systems of Guatemala, we seem to have stumbled into a drought with our posts.  Therefore, we hired out for this … Continue reading

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Mexico City

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Posted from Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico.After three somewhat traumatic weeks in Puebla (let’s just say that my “friend” in Puebla is no longer my friend and I’m very grateful the whole ugly situation is behind me), I had the … Continue reading

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