Wednesday 1st November, 2017 All Saints Day

We gathered in the reception of the hotel.  To one side a shrine had been set up acknowledging the passing of a member of the hotel staff.  We were to see these all over the town during our time in Oaxaca.

It was another bright and sunny day and we drove out of Oaxaca a short way to the archeological site of Monte Alban. This was the powerful city of the Zapotec people who lived there from 500 BC to 800 AD when they abandoned it and the Maztecs took it over.
It was about 8.30 when we arrived and the day was warming up. The hat sellers were setting out their stall – their wares to be much needed later. The whole area was very much larger than the archeological sites we had seen before. There are no pyramids, but huge platforms on the north to south axis of the large area.  In the centre is a broad plaza with what is thought to be an observatory in the middle. On either side of the plaza are the remains of large buildings, including the royal palace. The location of the City is on the smoothed out top of one of seven hills. A plan of the site was helpful…..

Out first high view of the area was quite breathtaking. Seen from the north platform, approached by the by now inevitable steep steps, the whole area lay out before us. 

 In the far south east corner there were stone ‘stellas’ depicting what are thought to be castrated slaves. 

 Climbing to the top of the southern platform and looking back, we were on the site used for human sacrifice.  They certainly did not look very cheery……

Looking back from the top of the southern plaza we saw the royal place to our right and the tombs where the amazing jewellery was found that  we were to see later in the cultural centre. Another new feature for us was the ball court. 

 Tucked away to the side of the site, this ball game was a ritual frequently performed when rain was required (I can’t quite make the connection).  An interesting feature was that the winner was often sacrificed at the end of the game. Not much of an incentive to win methinks, but apparently it was a great honour for you and your family. I am still not sure.  

On the way back from Monte Alban we visited a cemetery where all was busy. Although not a public holiday, there were lots of people with brooms, brushes and buckets of water sprucing up the graves and decorating them with all sorts of Day of the Dead accessories and items and things that the dead person enjoyed in life. Whole families were clustered around the graves, drinking and eating and having their photos taken.  A man played a guitar. It was all very convivial. Apparently many will come back at midnight (the 2nd November is All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead) to celebrate the deceased with drinks and food. A very different take on death and cemeteries to ours…….. the marigold was a prominent feature.  

Back at the hotel we were given the afternoon off and Monica and I spent a very jolly time strolling about and doing a little retail therapy and enjoying the trappings of the Fiesta – even the bread was dressed up!

We also visited the Cultural Museum where the jewellery found in the tomb at Monte Alban is displayed.  It is amazing – pieces you would love now.  Oaxaca is very nice town although apparently not as large as I previously reported……  apologies for incorrect information!

I have to report here a less than satisfactory aspect of our afternoon.  The posting of our postcards. Having found the post office, affixed additional stamps to those cards still wanting and obtained directions to the postbox – we still got it wrong.  We found a nice little box outside – slightly rusting but sporting a padlock.  We knew by the hollow sound our cards made that we had got it wrong. Definitely what Monica’s Aunty Sylvia would call ‘not reliable’.  We were subsequently advised by others in the group that we had walked past the real, currently in use boxes. Apologies to those who usually receive postcards.  Not this time, I fear!

The whole group, bar one(!),  had decided to have their faces painted in order to join in the festivities.  5.30 pm was makeup time and we waited patiently until we were all painted up before we took to the streets.

 Bands played, people danced and tall figures were paraded up and down. It was joyous.

 Fireworks went off at intervals and we eventually found a wonderful place to have dinner at the top of a building where we could look down on the crowds below. 

 Great fun!

What a day! 

Tuesday 31st October 2017

Tuesday 31st October
A travelling day. We left Mexico City at 8.00 am and drove out through the black market area. Apparently it is something of a ‘no go’ location. From the bus it felt strangely empty with the odd person walking along the street. Perhaps it was a bit early for gangsters of Mexico City to be out and  about…. 

We were heading to Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wahacca’). Our journey took us through the stunning Sierra Madre. Steep hills soared upwards on both sides of the road with very thin cactus shooting up above the undergrowth. Overhead we caught sight of the occasional vulture. 

Oaxaca is named after a tree. The Spanish changed its name, but it reverted back after independence. It is a colonial style city of 23 million people but has a much smaller feel. The roads are quite narrow. We arrived to a band coming down the street leading a procession of mainly young children dressed up to reflect the characters of the underworld associated with the Day of the Dead. There was definitely a carnival atmosphere which we were to see repeated throughout our stay in Oaxaca. The Day of the Dead is cause for celebration in Mexico.

After a quick turnaround in the hacienda style hotel, we headed off to the richly decorated Dominican Church. Passing more ghouls on the way……….

The church was originally a large monastery complex. It remains as an ornate reminder of the establishment of the New Spain. It’s interior has been richly carved by the natives in wood and overlaid with gold leaf. The ceiling depicting the tree of life was incredible.  

Leaving the church and it’s splendour behind, we were back onto the square where the party continued.   Large paper mache figures twirled and bobbed, costumed and painted faced figures clapped and another brass band led the dancing as we squeezed past to try to get ourselves orientated with the town. 

 The street thronged with people as we made our way through the crowds,  we passed a group of dancers………

As it got dark it proved difficult to keep together, but we almost managed it!  A few got lost in the hubbub and found us later and eventually all arrived at the market.   This was full of stalls selling all manner of food.  We were given the opportunity to try the chocolate and nuts and a cheese rather like mozzarella.   By bow it was getting late and time for dinner.   

Another full day.   Tomorrow the UNESCO site of Monte Alban.  

Monday 30th October 

We were up and on the coach by 8.00. We were heading for the pyramids but first we set off through a park which was the site of many killings during the time of the Inquisition. The spaniards gave the indigenous people the option of Catholicism or death. Cortes saw the human sacrifice of the old religions as ‘barbaric’. Apparently putting people to death because they would not adopt Catholicism was ‘ death for a reason is different …… it is a very fine line.    
Our first stop was at the square dedicated to Saint Mary of Guadalupe, a much revered saint for Mexicans. The square hosts several churches but is dominated by a new Cathedral built again by Pedro Ramirez and is notable for its round shape. The older churches on the square showed considerable evidence of the sinking that is taking place all over the City. Although we were there early a mass was already in full swing and could be clearly heard due to the very open aspect of the Cathedral.  

St Mary of Guadalupe’s claim to fame was that she appeared to a native man who had converted to Catholicism. After several abortive attempts to persuade the powers that be to accept the his story that he had been blessed with a vision, her image appeared on his cape. The cape convinced the bishop and now has pride of place in the very modern Cathedral and can be seen behind the altar by the slightly bizarre device of four travelling walkways constantly moving below the cape which is housed in an ornate gold frame. There is a similar arrangement that allows you to see the crown jewels in the Tower of London, but it seemed somehow incongruous to form part of a religious experience. Interesting stuff. 

It was now time for the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. To reach the site we left the City, passing as we did so the vast suburban sprawl of the homes of people who have left the rural areas to find work in the City. These rise up the steep sides of the valley in which Mexico City sits.  They are very colourful and until recently had no running water, electricity or sanitation. They. still have no transport and anyone living there has to travel on foot down to the road that runs along the bottom of the hills.  

Having left the City behind it did not take long to get to the Teotihuacan site. Now surrounded by gardens of cactus, in its day it was thought to house 175,000 people. No one knows why it was abandon but it was a thriving community from 409 bc to 200 ad. The main area comprises two huge pyramids. One dedicated to the moon and the larger one (the third largest pyramid in the world) dedicated to the sun. The moon pyramid sits at the end of the site, with the sun off to the left. Joining the two sites is a broad road with the remnants of buildings on ether side. When in full operation it must have been amazing place.  

The first area we visited was inside one of the buildings where there were some original wall paintings. The first were a terracotta red. Apparently this was a colour frequently used by the Mexicas. It represented the human sacrifices.  The colour was generated by squahing the cochineal grub. It was amazing to see wall paintings so well preserved rom this age. The next room was perhaps even more remarkable as it depicted an exotic bird still with its multi colour plumage.   

We then moved outside to the main thoroughfare running between the two temples and beyond. Hawkers plied their wares but no-one was hectoring or aggressive. One elderly chap demonstrated quite graphically the crushing of the cochineal grub to make th rich red dye and showed how local plants generated some of the other colours. His stall displayed a number of items made from obsidian a shiny black rock apparently emanating from lava, heavily polished. It was the source of sharp knives and daggers in ancient times, as well as jugs, containers and beads. Topically it was moulded into very shiny skulls on the stall to assist in the Celebration of the Dead.  

Next stop was the Moon Pyramid. This sits at the end of the long road. It is possible to climb the steep face. For me the steps were a bit of a stretch but I made it to the first platform which is as far as you can go at the moment. It was worth the climb as from the top you had a fine view of the whole site. The Moon Pyramid is thought to have been the location for the human sacrifice ritual. I found myself wondering what they did with the rest of the dead bodies if they were only really interested in the hearts. Tidily I think we heard that some of the indigenous people did eat human meat…..

Having descended the Moon Pyramid, we headed off to the much larger Sun Pyramid. It was great to walk down this ancient avenue as the people who lived there must have done all those years ago. Monica gamefully joined me for this climb. She is certainly one determined lady as it was quite a challenge, even though the steps were somewhat shallower. Added to the experience was the fact that the day was really heating up. Nevertheless we set out, taking it in stages. Monica climbed probably 2/3rds which was worthwhile given the incredible view. I have continued to the top which was something of a puff but satisfying, if a little dangerous as the final few feet was just walking over a rocky outcrop. Some of the others in the group were up there and it was good to share the satisfaction of completing the feat and feasting our eyes on the view. 

Descending was equally precarious due to steep the gradient and the uneven nature of the aged steps. I am pleased to report that we made it and smugly walked back to our coach. A very successful and interesting morning! We lunched in an excellent cafe where a rather discordant trio serenaded us and we ate guacamole with the Sun Pyramid on the horizon and the tiny outline of climbers on the top. The sun shone from a cloudless sky.  

We returned to the City and M and I set out for a walk. We passed the macabre Celebration of the Dead statues along the road by the side of the park.

 They were fascinating. We reached the stunning Opera House, very much reflecting the Francophile taste of a past president. Made of Carrera marble it is beautiful inside and out.

 Regrettably we were unable to see a rather contentious Diego Rivera painting as the upper area was closed, but what we saw was interesting. We wondered on and identified the blue tiled building recommended for supper. We also successfully found the post office and purchased some very underwhelming stamps (the pretty ones weren’t available!) and wandered home.  

You will be pleased to hear that my supper was somewhat more substantial than previously and the setting was a richly ornamented building, complete with chandeliers and stuccoed ceiling. It was very grand and a stark contrast to the cafe of the previous evening.  

Home to pack, we move on tomorrow.  I had something of a technical hitch as my contact lens flicked out and was lost down a drain in the bathroom. Bother(!*?#).

Sunday, 29th October, 2017

I woke up early. The advice given to us when we arrived at the hotel was to have breakfast there. So at 7.00 we ascended to the sunny 10th floor where a man with a somewhat Dickensian look, who painfully appeared to desperately needed glasses (his nose was no more than an inch from his checklist) checked our room number and invited us to sit down. We subsequently learned that the workers in the hotel earn about 80 pesos a day.  (10 pesos is 4p)

On this basis the poor man’s glasses could be a long way off……….

Breakfast was good and we began to find out who our travelling companions were to be. We learnt more at our first meeting of the group – all but Gary who we learnt later had put his clock on an hour rather than back (I am still not sure how this worked……!!)) anyway they look a lively lot. We seem to have a full house for an Explore trip. We are 16 in number. We also met Ana our leader, an extremely knowledgeable, able and lively Mexican lady who talks at a great pace and I am confident will prove to be an excellent guide. (Phew. I am so glad our tour guide did not prove to be our silent ‘meeter and greeter’ from the airport!)

After an hour of introduction and basic outline of the two weeks ahead we were on the road. Literally. No tour bus today. We were launched into Mexico City on foot. This was to prove challenging to some as the day transpired, but I will record it as it happened.  

We first took the metro to the city’s central square. Emerging from the gloom of the Locapolo station we were faced with a sunny space, dressed for a party (preparations were all around us for 1st and 2nd November activity). 

 The large ornate Metropolitan cathedral seemed to look darkly down on proceedings on one side of the square and on another the probably larger, but smartly severe National Palace lined another side. Occasional small clusters of people were applying face paint and huge feathered head dresses in what appeared preparation for the day’s entertainment of passers by of dancing and replicating the rites of ancient ancestors. 

We first visited a small archeological site showing the only remains of the huge Aztec city of Tenochtitian demolished by Cortes and his 50 Spaniards when they arrived to claim the area for Spain in the 1500’s. More of this later, but I will not deceive you here. I am finding the unpronounceable names difficult to absorb so my diary, while trying to capture the spirit of the story, is likely to fall short of the detail. Those wanting more detailed information are advised to look elsewhere!

We moved off from this to interior of the Palace. A large colonial building, it’s major treasure (and what a treasure) are the huge wall murals of Diego Rivera. One time (or in fact several time!) husband of the amazing Frida Kahlo.  This staunchly communist painter dramatically tells the history of Mexico through all its troubled stages in a giant, larger than life series of paintings on the wall of the palace. They are awesome in the true sense of the word. My photographs can only provide a hint of them. Ana made them come alive as she took us through them from early inhabitants, through mighty, human sacrificing, civilisations to Spaniards, American and French interventions, the abusive corrupt power of the church, the literal branding of the indigenous people and beyond. The story is incredible. The paintings are fantastic. Sadly Rivera became seriously ill before all the panels were completed but those that were there were wonderful. Showing only slight damage from the earthquakes that are such a hazard to the area, they retain their glorious colour and vibrancy. I loved it and we were so lucky to have such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable person in Ana to take us through them. A truly memorable experience. What a start!

We eventually left the palace and Rivera to return to the square. By now it was much busier. Stalls selling all manner of food and trinkets had been set up around the cathedral and the Sunday morning strolling families enjoyed the sunshine and the spectacle. We made a brief visit to the Cathedral itself, despite the well supported mass taking place. It was groaning with the gold carvings and dusty altars of these ancient buildings of catholic worship. The young choir boy leading the singing had a beautiful voice and the music echoed up to the arched ceiling but somehow it did not sit well after the scenes Rivera depicted on the walls of the palace. I was not sorry to leave the incense and chanting behind and once more get out into the sunshine.  

We returned to the metro to travel to the Museum of Anthropology, a must for any visitor to the City. What a joy it turned out to be and more than lived up to its reputation. Despite alighting at the nearest metro stop, the route there through the large Chapultepec Park was crowded with people and the thoroughfare was lined by the (by now) inevitable stalls selling food, toys of all sorts, masks and souvenirs. There was almost a carnival atmosphere. However, the sun was quite warm and it was a long walk and maybe a step too far for some in our party. We eventually arrived at the museum, an amazingly modern building, quite beautiful in its own right. Built in 1964 by Pedro Ramirez,  it is huge. After a reviving lunch we set out to see the highlights of the museum. Many of the exhibits we saw – and we saw very few of the rich pickings available despite being there all afternoon – gave us the opportunity to see some of the artefacts found in the archeological sites in the City and the other locations we are to visit during our tour. 

I think I should say at this stage as I try to recapture the experience, my ability to retain what the pieces were, where they were found and their significance, is very poor. Nevertheless, I want to record the experience because it was very special.  

One of the first things we saw was a huge statue of the goddess of water. Her name Chalcchiuhtlicve (now you understand why there will not be too much detail here!). She was found at Teotihucan the next archeological site on our agenda. The statue stood about 24 feet high. The detail was amazing. Eyes, lips, earrings, necklace, hands, skirt and sandals all clearly visible. She was one of my favourites!!

The next major figure was Ocelotl, the Jaguar, found in the City. His striking pose was impressive but also allowed us to see where the Aztecs, now more correctly called Mexicans (pronounced ‘Mecheecans’) placed the hearts of their human sacrifices in the hole in the top. Nice……

I thought the painting of the Aztec City demolished by Cortes was useful to see how it was built on the lake, now the cause of the real problem of sinking that Mexico City faces today. There also a scale model of how it is thought it looked. Seeing this it was even more amazing how quickly it was overpowered by the spaniards.   

Another astounding piece was something called the Tizoc Monument. A large round stone with a recurring frieze showing a gladiator type warrior with a very exotic headdress clearly pulling the hair of his unfortunate conquest, the ruling god.  

There are just two more items that I feel I must record. First the incredible round stone disc now known as the Sun Stone but previously thought to be an Aztec Calendar. A very detail item, it is an extraordinary example of Mexican carving, the meaning of which is still being considered.  

Finally, two heads of the Olmec people. These lived in an area we are not going to visit but they were so impressive I felt they had to be included in my photographs.   

The heads marked the end of an amazing afternoon of information about the indigenous people of Mexico and was probably as much as we could absorb in an afternoon. A bit battle weary, we set out to experience another form of transport. The Mexico City bus. After a short wait, what looked to me like a full bus pulled up. It was certainly more full when it pulled away with the 17 of us and a few more besides added to the numbers on board…….

We arrived back at the hotel quite tired but elated by the things we had seen and learnt. It was fascinating stuff!

Supper was interesting. The consensus was that it was necessary to eat somewhere close at hand. Where we ate was a local tacos cafe. The food was very interesting but somewhat confusing. The descriptions escaped us somewhat and the portion size was hysterical. Monica ended up with a very nice plate of cheese on toast and I had a small disc of taco (maybe 2 inches in circumference!) with a small heap of pork, onion and pepper topped with a minute slice of pineapple! It was delicious but gone in a trice. It took so long to come that I had not got the energy to ask for something else, but it was very economic! My supper Рtaco and beer Рcost £4! A bargain!

And so to bed with another 7.00 am breakfast in prospect. Tomorrow our first pyramids!

28th October 2017

Well, here we are then. Saturday 28h October, 2017 and I am heading off to Mexico via Houston Texas. On this occasion I am not accompanied by the lovely Keith, but instead my companion is my old travelling chum Monica who wanted another adventure together as part of her 70th birthday celebrations.  
Over the years Monica and I have travelled many miles, seen many wonderful things, laughed a thousand laughs and got into more than a few scrapes. And got out of them. Luckily……. however, we have not travelled far together for some time. We are a little more creaky now, but the spirit of ‘It is out there, so let’s do it’ does not fade, even the if the vision of what we will see is less clear!
All will be revealed in time, but we are heading for a brief tour of the ancient sites of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and to experience the famous Celebration of the Dead.  From what I now understand our involvement with Guatemala and Belize will be merely glancing as we pass. Interestingly, until recently I did not realise we would have even a passing acquaintance with these places – my eye for detail having not noticed their association with Mexico at all. But there, neither detail nor geography has ever been my strong point.  
So, having introduced the activity and hastily (at the check in desk!) become the proud possessor of an ESTA to allow me to sit in Houston airport for a few hours, courtesy of Mr Trump and having parted with a few dollars for the privilege, I am settling down to a few hours of rather noisy flight. I will return to report on the ‘adventure’ as it unfolds…… 
The flight turned out to be very good. It was not full, so we had room to spread out and the ten hours or so passed uneventfully. We glided into Houston on a sunny early afternoon, coming in over the large Houston lake and a very different but busy urban landscape. It was quite flat and, although in places forested, had a desert look about it.     
We spent four hours there, with further security checks as we moved through the terminals to prepare for our flight to Mexico City. After an interesting interaction with a computerised cafe -we did manage to get some food under the close supervision of someone who could probably have more easily taken our order – and a sneaky gate change, we boarded a very packed flight to our final destination.  
The Mexico City flight was in stark contrast to our earlier experience. The ‘plane was full to the gunnels and both Monica and I were wedged in the middle of two banks of three seats. However it did not matter for the two hours it took to fly to Mexico City and at about 8.00 we touched down on Mexican soil with a display of fireworks on the horizon. Not, I hasten to add, that these pyrotechnics were anything to do with our arrival on the shores, but more to do with the ‘warming up’ of the celebratio of the dead, of which more later. I hope. 
We were met by a rather silent young woman who collected us and the other five people on the flight who were also on our tour and herded us onto a very dark minibus. Then, with a brief .’goodnight’, closed the door on us and was gone. Interesting we thought. Not an overwhelming welcome. No instructions re the hotel or guidance on meeting times. Where was the notice drinks on arrival, those additional cost outings that usually occur?  Our driver continued the silent approach by announcing that he was Miguel and did not speak anything but Spanish. After this, apart from ensuring that the air conditioning was ok, nothing was said in the whole of the three quarter of an hour journey to our Hotel.   
Despite the lack of social interaction, the journey was interesting as we were, upon leaving the airport, immediately immersed in the city. It was obviously dark, but there were a lot of people about and the traffic was brisk. Police cars wove in and out of the lanes of cars with great purpose and wailing sirens. I counted six lanes of traffic in the same direction at one point and then we turned off into dark narrow streets with pedestrians well represented as dark shadows moving along the side of the roads. Occasionally there was a light showing through the hessian drape of a roadside market stall or a group of people chatting on a corner.  
The hotel was serviceable but battle scarred with evidence of the ravages of the recent earthquake clearly showing on cracked plasterwork and holes in the ceiling at various points of the building. Our ‘wing’ looked as if it might break away from the rest of the building as it had a gash all the way around the entry into our corridor. Hey ho! (When we got to our room there was a useful notice about how to act in the event of an earthquake, giving the helpful first piece of advice of ‘Stay Calm’. Could be tricky on the the 4th floor or having breakfast on the 10th…….) Another, this time positive, excitement was that the clocks went back in Mexico as well as the UK on the 28th October. This was welcome news when we found out that breakfast was to be at 7.00 am ready for an early start…….
Our baggage was helpfully transported to the room by a young man who pointed out the fairly obvious bathroom and air conditioning and then proceeded to turn the television on – not to a programme but to a musical loop that incorporated Elvis Presley warbling about Acapulco……. fine on the first hearing. When we came to retire we found we had not noticed where he turned it on. There seemed to be no hand control. We eventually turned it off by standing on a chair and stabbing all around the device until we found the off switch. Silence. We adjourned to bed nearly 24 hours after leaving London. What a difference a day makes…….
Tomorrow Mexico City.