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Hola a Todos!
I’ve officially been here one week, and to recognize that, I decided to borrow the idea of some of the other students here and start a blog. Since this is a Study abroad program, I thought it would be fun to write a bit about what I’ve learned this week, both in the classroom and in the city, starting with last Sunday, the day I arrived in Oaxaca.
Sunday, I arrived in Oaxaca after flying into Mexico City around 4 in the afternoon the day before, and I learned that meeting up with fellow students in a foreign country would be much easier with cell phones, or walkie-talkies, or Harry-Potter-style owls, or at least some form of communication. I also learned that the Benito Juarez Airport has multiple taxi stations, so if you’re planning to use it as a meeting place, make sure you specify which one. I also learned, after taking the midnight bus to Oaxaca with a fellow student, that the buses are comfortable enough to sleep on, although I cannot recommend them over a bed.
Monday, classes began and I learned how to find my way to the ICO, the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, where I’ll be studying this semester. We took our placement test and had an orientation to life here, which included lots of information in somewhat rapid Spanish and lots of introductions to the wonderful people at the ICO (who made us dinner on Friday, but more on that later). In our actual Spanish class, I learned that slackline does not translate very well into Spanish, and that I will never stop practicing the subjunctive in all of its wonderful forms. That afternoon, we had our first Salsa class, where I learned four types of steps and a turn to the right. I also found out that Salsa dancing uses the hip/butt muscles quite a bit more than I expected.
Tuesday, we began our normal schedule, which is a bit like this: Spanish class from 9 to 1, and then a break for “La Comida,” the big meal of the day. Meeting with our Intercambios at 3, Salsa from 4 to 6, and dinner as a group afterward. The Intercambio, or exchange, is a partnership through the ICO with a local student who is learning English, and we spend half the time speaking English and half the time speaking Spanish, and it’s great for learning vocabulary words and idioms. For example, the English term “to stand someone up” on a date or meeting or the like, translates to “dejar plantado,” in Spanish.
Wednesday, a few of us decided to go for a run in the morning, which taught me a lot about being a pedestrian in Oaxaca. For example, stop lights are not always incredibly visible, so I have to be sure to look on every corner and overhead at an intersection to check for lights. Also, the sidewalks are somewhat narrow/not always the most even, and often have some sort of pole or other hard object right in the middle of them, so I have to always look forward, no matter how much I’d like to carry on a conversation with the people running with me. There were definitely a few close calls.
Thursday after Salsa, we went to a “Librespacio Cultural,” which is basically a cool little place that has some food, drinks, a little bookstore, and shows interesting and educational movies every Thursday night for free. We watched a powerful documentary about the U.S./ Mexican border that left me with a lot to think about. It talked not only about the border itself but also about about a lot of the situations facing communities near the border, everything from stray dogs to the mentally ill, to coroners trying to identify people who had fallen victim to the elements. I didn’t understand all of the Spanish, but what I did understand, combined with the images and scenes, left a pretty powerful message.
Friday, I learned about the teachers who are on strike here as they marched past the gates of the ICO during our class. We were outside, so we could see and hear them pretty well. It turns out they’re protesting quite a lot of things, and it has been going on for quite some time. Everyone here seems to have an opinion about them as well. In the afternoon, I learned a lot about the city, as we had a scavenger hunt that took us all over the streets. We discovered that not all machines that look like an ATM actually are, and a nice lady walked us all the way over to the market that we were looking for when we asked her for directions. At one point, we sort of stopped trying to find all the points and got ice cream. But we tied for the winning team because of our good stories. Afterward, the people at the ICO had made us dinner- hot chocolate, sweet bread, and tamales, and we shared (in Spanish) our experiences with the scavenger hunt.
Saturday, we visited the ruins of Monte Alban, which are west of the city. I learned a lot about archaeology while climbing large, stone staircases. Afterward, my host brother told me that they used to have tunnels that went under the ruins, to see tombs and the like, but they got too dangerous with all the rain, so they closed. Still, it was neat to see all the social systems that were in place that many years ago and understand a bit more of the history of the area. In the evening, a few of us went to explore one of the big markets that’s about a 15-minute walk away. I learned that churros with caramel and hot chocolate make an excellent dinner, and that we do stand out a bit in the markets.
In all, the learning curve has been a bit steep this week, but I’ve discovered a lot, and I think my Spanish is getting better. I even learned how to curse pretty fluently in Spanish on Thursday! But this will likely be the pattern of my days for the next two weeks until our classes change. At the moment, we’re taking a Spanish intensive to prepare us for the classes we’ll take in the next term (Sociology and literature for me), as well as Salsa dancing because, hey, it’s a life skill. Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this list of things learned this week. Next week, it’ll be something else!
Monte Alban, Church, and Protests
Hello again from Oaxaca! As this is a study abroad experience, this post will be more focused on some things that I have learned the past couple of days, since the other one was pretty much just about food. Food is still my favorite part, but hey, learning is good too.
This Saturday we had our first excursion with the ICO and went to Monte Alban, one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and the political, economic, and social center of Zapotec society for hundreds of years, with a population of about 17,000 people. Just by looking at the ruins one can derive so much about Zapotec society: it was violent and war-driven, with huge arenas for human sacrifice and battle-esque sporting events; they had a fascinating system of religion with many gods, the Jaguar being most important; religion and politics were closely intertwined with the many temples also being the political centers of the different sects; it was not an isolated city but rather had a complex system of trade and competition with neighboring indigenous groups; and so much more. We went with an anthropologist who does research in Mexico on Prehispanic societies for a living, so he was an endless source of information and could tell us the history and significance of each section, especially when we went to the museum and looked at the artifacts. In other words, the trip was basically anthropology heaven. It’s also in a gorgeous location, with a panoramic view of the valley of Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains, and was very humbling to stand underneath gigantic temples over 2,000 years old.
Then, on Sunday, I went to Mass (la misa) with my family at a beautiful cathedral. It was a very interesting experience and I’m glad I went, but it was also a little uncomfortable for me. I loved the singing, the exquisite architecture and art, and participating with my family in something that is very important to them. I also really appreciated the “sermon” section– even though it was in Spanish, I picked up on the main points which were about avoiding materialism, always treating others with love, and working for peace in our community and the world. The rest was pretty ritualistic and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself for most of it, especially during communion. I also spent a solid 10 minutes thinking about my “pecadas” (sins), and then asking for forgiveness. So that was new! But overall it was fascinating to be in a very catholic church in a very catholic city, and also interesting to learn more about the culture. For example, only the women in my family went to Mass, and the vast majority of the audience consisted of women. Women seem to be pretty in charge of family, religious, and social life here, which is quite different from the “machismo” culture I was expecting. My initial impression is that although I sometimes get negative attention on the street and women definitely still have a disproportionate role in housework and childcare, women and men seem to have different but equally important and “powerful” roles, which is pleasantly surprising.
After Mass on Sunday, we were delayed about a half an hour getting back to the house because of a teacher protest. In Oaxaca, the public teachers have been on strike periodically for many years, with many grievances against the government. This came to a climax in 2006, when there were many riots and violence from the protestors and the police, and about 20 people died. The teachers occasionally march through the streets, and have been camped out in the Zocalo, or city center, I think for a couple of months. I have seen two of these demonstrations thus far (completely non-violent), and everyone has different opinions about them. Many people agree with their grievances, which include lack of government transparency, corruption, discrimination, and other protest-worthy causes, but do not not agree with their methods because they are very disruptive to every day life in Oaxaca. I will not write much about the teacher protests now because I still don’t know enough to have formed an opinion about or a holistic understanding of them, but it’s a very interesting topic that many people are reluctant to talk about or acknowledge, and I will write more once I learn more.
It’s probably becoming obvious some of my main interests and reasons I chose this program: to improve my Spanish, immerse myself in a different culture and learn more about anthropology, and learn about things like gender and social justice movements that I’m very interested in (I know that’s bad grammar, but “in which I am very interested” just sounds too pretentious). The past few days have been full of great learning experiences, and every day I have a new adventure that makes me glad I chose to come here!
Until next time,