Oaxaca, Mexico – intercambios, alebrijes & more

This is a common way of learning languages: you interchange your language with theirs. You can do it different ways, half the time on each seems simplest. 
I had my first intercambio tonight, with M. He is one of my teachers but this is separate. We met in a coffee shop, yes, the Brújula, at a bit after 6. Didn’t leave for well over 1.5 hours. Started with english, talking about the political system here. After about 45 minutes we swapped to spanish. 

His english is very good but, like most ESL speakers he had a few corners. Would that my Spanish was half as good as his english though! Not sure a month more will be enough for me but my speech has improved. I still need lots of practise to be able to understand TV and the radio. Some is ok but, not near enough, yet. Four weeks to go. 

Anyhow, both M and I enjoyed tonight’s session and agreed to meet again next Wednesday at 5. He is clearly ambitious and wants to find and take opportunities. He is about 28 and a very keen cyclist. The hills around here provide great training grounds for cyclists. The road up to Monte Albán, for example, requires a good rider and that is one part of one of his training rides. He has a big competition late September, one for mountain bikes.

My other is an intercambia, a woman, who I’ve not met yet but M kindly arranged it. We are going to meet twice a week. Fingers crossed it goes as well with her as with him. 

National month

A different crowd this morning at the flag raising ceremony. The band was different and, sitting idle at the time the last was underway. The rent-a-crowd was standing happily chatting. Must be a different group’s obligation to provide the crowd today. No kids yet. And no functionaries under the low stage at one end.  

And then, action: the army headed towards the Zocálo and its band members started playing and the school kids filed in. Half of the army members were instrument players and half, flag carriers. The flag carriers marched with the straight leg so beloved of fascist forces, the carefully folded flag carried at chest height. As the flag was raised, by a local functionary, the cornets played. Then the crowd saluted, arms across chests at nipple height, while the/a national song was played.



 I left then for the outing with the school, noting the local teacher/student protestors’ tent city remains in the central bandstand, a little south of the flag raising. The protestors have been there a considerable time and the recent daily shows of federal power, with groups of helicopters flying overhead, suggest it may be considerably longer yet.  

For the annual celebration of independence from Spain in 1810, people go to their local Zocálo and at 11pm on 16th September shout, welcoming independence. Protestors are expected to refuse to shout if the President attends in Mexico City. Nothing is expected to happen in Oaxaca but a local show of federal power suggests this is a better place to be than those with more local unrest and with more such demonstrations.

Friday trip

The destination had changed to the town, San Martin, one with many makers of the most beautiful, brightly painted, small animals, alebrijes. I really like them. Some are mythical animals, some, realistic and some, imaginative composites of different types. Two of the three workshops we visited were very generous with their time, demonstrating and explaining how they are made. A bonus in one was that we were also told which animal best represented each of us, based on our date, month and year of birth. I’m an iguana, always wanting to learn, focussed, determined and I’ve forgotten what else. Two of us were iguanas, one a coyote and one a tortoise. Anyhow, back to the alebrijes. 

 The carvers use green wood, mostly from one or other type of copal tree, red, black or white. Hacked out by a machete each item is then carved with successfully smaller knives and chisels as its shape develops. The sizes range from very small to large. One nearly finished bull, on order, was over a metre high and long and would cost $M220,000 ($USD 13,750). The processes for making that sized object have already taken over 3 years and it’s not finished yet.  Same with a large lion. Very large for a single piece of carved wood.


 Carving, drying in the open air, filling and refilling the cracks that develop during drying, sanding, painting with insecticides and other finishes and then the decorative painting. Many take years. 






 Wow! The painting we saw was amazing. Fine designs and painting at the place we agreed was the best. Beautiful designs. Absolutely beautiful. I wanted to buy some alebrijes but you need a group of them, painted in different colours, to realise their impact and appreciate their wonderful workmanship. If you were hoping I bought you one, sorry, no. Not so far.

Four of us went on this visit, the American student, two teachers and me. We caught a local bus there and back. Had to stand for half the distance coming back, carefully balanced, towering over the locals, trying to avoid treading on their various large packages. Getting a seat was great! 

  Two places we visited were family or group compounds. The dappled light under vines, the animals on the other side, the burro, goat and sheep, and alongside them an old couple with a large heap of harvested beans, pulling them off the plants and podding them. The old guy wanted me to pay to photograph them. Hence, no photo. 

Generally, in the compound, colour. Beautiful colours and vegetation.    
   The rule of these trips is that the students pay the costs and I bought drinks for the teachers too, a interesting local drink containing cocoa and maize. I’ve seen it for sale everywhere with the small bubble like floaties, the cocoa fat, covering a freshly poured drink. Yes, I’ll buy it again. Can’t remember its name but it’s ever present. And yes, it does look like dishwater! 

  The town itself exemplified those I’d seen in earlier visits to Mexico: long empty, dusty streets with little sign of life. A few people out but not many. This is a down time in the tourist world of Oaxaca, the end of the rainy season here. And so a town which usually has a Friday market had only 3 vendors. 

 Friday market

I was tired but I had to see the weekly local market, held about 4 blocks north of me. Very crowded and busy at about 4pm even. Yes, I bought some peaches, pineapple, flan and peanuts. Was a little late to buy tlayudas but, next week. I loved the first tlayudas I had here and will find a place that consistently sells nice ones! Market had many and varied products for sale: food, clothes, sweets, some fruit and vegetables. Interesting. The school trip next week is supposedly to another market but, plans may change. As this week. 

  The other student finished today. Don’t know how many will join us next week. Fingers crossed I continue in a class by myself. An excellent way to learn. Four hours a day of one on one. Good choice of time to visit. Mind stretching, some days more than others.

So ends another interesting day and week as a student in Oaxaca.


Last night was one of the worst ever. Had I had a night on the turps I’d have understood. But no!  

Loud fireworks, one roughly every quarter of an hour between 10 and 12.30am, was just the start. After that, peace and half an hour or so of sleep and I was AWAKE. No obvious reason. And I was wired. And then didn’t drift off until about 7am. Yes, I lay there, gave up and read two newspapers from cover to cover and listened to the radio, had a hot cup of coffee and was still awake. And still awake….

A brain overload? No. I was very tired. Friday night followed limited sleep on Thursday night when J and I changed my travel arrangements at about midnight here. Understandably that was inimical to an extended night’s sleep. I was definitely wired but eventually got back to sleep.  

I didn’t think that in the two weeks after I finish school I would want to fly from here to Mexico City, fly down to Mérida on the Yucatan, bus to Campeche and then fly back to Mexico City. The archaeological museums were the attraction. However, another few weeks here and I’ll be very ready for home. Trying to do more wouldn’t improve the experience of Mexico for me. Learning Spanish in congenial circumstances is the focus this trip.

Next few weeks

Currently I’m planning on another month in school and then flying directly home, via Mexico City and Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Since tickets all the way from Oaxaca are now booked the only variable is the time I spend in school. If I can keep on improving and can start to understand more then four weeks more are worth it to me. The decrement I’ll experience once at home may not be as serious as usual. Maybe! 

 Everyday issues

Thankfully I don’t have a car here and don’t have to cope with the agressive drivers. Pedestrian crossings: meaningless. Traffic lights: having only 1 on the 4 corners of a crossing means being very careful. As I mentioned earlier, here has three car width central roads: yes, park on left, temporary parking in the middle for quite a while on some, through traffic on the right. Easily blocked by one car on the right looking for a park or stopping for a passenger to get out, it’s an audible source of frustration leading to much, aggressive, tooting. 


 A few blocks west of here is the Acála, a street running north from the Zocálo to the cathedral. This is pedestrian only, except for bikes and the various hand or bike drawn food and drink carts. Last night even at 7 or 8 it was wonderfully busy with everyone checking out the action, and each other.


Washing clothes. Sleeping. Reviewing Spanish notes. 

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