A Tree and Water

Posted on 6 March 2018

We parked near the town plaza of Santa María del Tule and approached the square. The greenery of an enormous tree towered ahead of us, utterly overshadowing the church beside it. This tree, El Árbol del Tule, is the world’s widest tree and is, at the very least, over 1,000 years old – and some believe it is much older than that. What no one needs to believe, though, because it’s obvious, is that this tree is majestic. After paying the few pesos’ entry into the square, we circled the trunk. It was impossible to capture the its size in our camera frames. So we walked under the outstretched branches and just did our best.

El Tule Trunk of el Árbol del Tule Trunk of el Árbol del Tule II

El Árbol del Tule, given its age, has seen not only the arrival of the Spanish to Mexico, but also the arrival of the Aztecs to Oaxaca state. This tree has lived at least a dozen of long human-length lives. Here it stands, surrounded by our artifice. It seems silly, to think this about a tree, but perhaps it shouldn’t be: I hope this tree is happy in a tree way. After all, trees communicate and do all sorts of things the average person just can’t see happening, so I wish this particular tree-comfort and tree-satisfaction.

We walked across the street to eat at the neighboring market hall and after doing a round through the building, pushed through with calls of quesadillastamalestlayudastacosmemelas we settled on a stall. I ordered a vegetarian tlayuda (a crunchy, toasty tortilla covered in beans, vegetables, cheese, and meat for the non-vegetarians) and it was far better at this random stall than the one I had the night before at a spot in Oaxaca that was recommended in a guidebook. Ben had a quesadilla with quesillo and squash blossoms. We were more than satisfied.

Santa María del Tule Plaza

Next up: about an hour-long drive, switchbacks on a sometimes-bumpy road (the newer toll road was closed but we didn’t mind) to Hierve el Agua. The name means “the water boils” but the water is, in fact, a bit cold – especially the further away from the warmish springs you swim. Hierve el Agua is a natural spring area that was modified and used by the Zapotec people for irrigation after they created a series of terraces and canals over a thousand years ago, traces of which remain. The calcium carbonate in the water has left deposits on two hillsides, creating “waterfalls”, cascada grande and cascada chica, which can be hiked between.

Hierve el Agua Tree Green Pool, Hierve el Agua Cascada, Hierve el Agua

The pools of Hierve el Agua vary in color and in size. I unquestionably had to swim there and despite the chill, I paddled around in perhaps the world’s coolest infinity pool, ringed by slight ridges – the canals – built ages ago. The complex is, of course, a tourist attraction, but not overwhelmingly so. People padded around the pools in their flip-flops and took turns taking photos at the most scenic spots. We wandered around for some time before I changed out of my wet bathing suit and, with a few last photos – it was hard to turn my back on this beautiful spot – walked with Ben toward the parking lot. We stopped at one of the vending stalls along the way and got fruit treats – jicama, pineapple, watermelon, and cucumber sprinkled with chili pepper. We sat in the parking lot by our rental car, savoring our snacks, before driving down out of the hills back to Oaxaca City.

Blue Pool, Hierve el Agua Bush, Hierve el Agua Green Edge, Hierve el Agua

There was more to this one day; this was only the second chapter. The first was visiting Monte Albán. The third was traipsing the nighttime streets of Oaxaca City, popping into mezcalerias and staying at one in particular, spending time chatting with a staff member/mezcalier. The days we elongated there, and the days I wish I could add, are but fractions of drops in the grand bucket of the history of this place, but for me in my one life – they’re outsized.

Smaller pool, Hierve el Agua View from the hike out, Hierve el Agua Tree, Pool, Tourists, Hierve el Agua

Rise and Fall

Posted on 22 February 2018

It’s early in the morning but the sun is already sharp above us, the air clear. We’re among the first onto the grounds of Monte Albán that day, which I like, because the grassy plains between the pyramids stretch out empty before me. What I imagine as a once-busy square is now abandoned like the city itself was about a thousand years ago.

We scale the pyramids, shoes disturbing tufts of grass that have made a home amid the rocks. We look out at the flattened ridge top before us. How did they do that? We walk around the edge of the city and look out over the valley below. How did they build a city, up here?

And why did they leave?

What remains: monuments to a human past that is not entirely knowable, though it is ours. What has changed? Or are we fundamentally as they – we – are?

I don’t know; our technology has changed but we humans still rise and fall. Ascend and crash. Create amazing things and watch them fall to pieces, or destroy it all ourselves.

So, people built this place about 2,500 years ago, and people lived there for maybe about 2,000 years. Imagine that stretch of time and imagine the thousand years since. And their work is still standing, physically, and perhaps also in all of us. Maybe it’s how we are.

There are things I cannot change, and so we left to find a coffee shop and live.

Monte Albán 1 Monte Albán 2 Twisted Tree, Monte Albán View of Oaxaca from Monte Albán Little Daisies, Monte Albán Monte Albán Detail Monte Albán 3 Monte Albán 4

Growing Branches

Posted on 30 January 2018

Flowers by Baikal

I did something which I perhaps should have done long ago – I made a Facebook page and an Instagram for this blog of mine. If you want to see more photos, or hear more thoughts (in smaller doses!), give them a follow.

Alas my busy life makes it difficult for me to give my travel writing, and this blog, the time I would like, but hopefully this year I will 1) write more (and travel more – I have plans!) and 2) these other venues will allow me to more frequently share words and images that I hope you’ll appreciate. Look for you there!


Posted on 28 January 2018

As you zoom in on a map, from country to region to state to city to neighborhood, somehow more, rather than less, appears. Dimensions and edges and corners reveal themselves, and the expanse of what you’ll never quite grasp makes itself clear yet again. Planning for a trip is an exercise in this realization that there is too much space, too many layers, never enough time: one article leads to another, one destination to another, and then you realize you have a month rather than a few days on your hands. At least. But still, these research endeavors do reveal things, and that is how we came to drive from Mexico City, up over and through Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl National Park, to Puebla.

As time would have it, we had one day in Puebla. And dammit, this is another place where I found myself wanting to stay.

Cathedral and Wall in PueblaPuebla Center

Puebla is Mexico’s fourth largest city, and the capital of the Mexican state with the same name. It sits in a valley in the shadows of volcanoes. Over three million people situate themselves in the metro area but, perhaps because we just were in Mexico City, it doesn’t quite feel it – we drive into villages, then towns, which blend into Puebla itself, its high-rises interspersed with cathedral towers and interrupted by public squares. Its size comes softly.

Catedral de Puebla

Given our limited time, we mostly contained ourselves to the city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site dominated by the high-reaching Catedral de Puebla, the second largest in the country. I struggled to frame it with my camera. This cathedral is one of many, some of which were still roped off and surrounded by scattered rubble due to the recent earthquake. Grandiose buildings, impressive indeed, but what I was really drawn to were the typical buildings of the center, lining the streets, showing off different colors, different tile work, and different states of upkeep. Each turn might reveal a new favorite, but we couldn’t wander the streets forever.

Puebla BuildingsOld Puebla Building

The downtown is lively with shopping and people sitting in the numerous parks, big and small. The tourist market stretches down a pedestrian street and I weave my way through, stopping to get a trenza that brings back a flood of memories of the last time I got one, five years prior in Sucre, Bolivia. We walk up and down a street called Los Sapos, apparently after the frogs that used to come out when the river that had run through town flooded. Lights are strung overhead. As night falls we sit in the main square, the Zócalo, and people watch. If I catch someone’s eye, they smile.

Los SaposMe and my Trenza

We wander a bit more in the morning before we have to leave. I have my favorite breakfast of the whole trip, a build your own chilaquiles deal, at Xilaquitlán (go there). The waitress is patient with my Spanish and the chef comes out to say hi and ask us about our trip. The sun shines into the room and hits our table, warming us up. I don’t want to leave, but I do want to see our next destinations. I should say I want to stretch time.

Puebla ParkChurch and trees, Puebla

I visit a place and learn what there is more to learn, and see only a fraction of what I know can be seen. And I often want to go back even though the whole world beckons. But really, Puebla would make a fine stop to go and study Spanish for a while. The plans spin in my head. I don’t want this day to have been my only time. Add it to the list. I go, I see, I want to return. The grandiose and the ordinary, the well kept and the crumbling, the near perfect and the chipped – I want to see it all. I want to burrow ever deeper into the map and absorb it, tunneling my way through the infinite everywhere.

The Sun and the Moon and Here We Are

Posted on 8 January 2018

The one-hour bus ride from Mexico City turned into three but at least buskers kept us company with their music. Traffic sped, slowed, and crawled to an almost stop. One accident ahead was all it took to throw everything off.

At one point, Teotihuacán was the largest city in the Western hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world, home to some 100,000 people, perhaps more. Moreover, though we don’t know exactly who built it, we do know that multiple ethnicities lived there. Its grandiosity is all the more staggering when you consider it was constructed roughly 2,000 years ago. Humans have really been very capable for a very long time. What else have we been?

Wandering Teotihuacán

Teotihuacán takes time to wander. We walked all over the city, and it was a city; from the Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead stretches out into the haze that obscures its end. We walked the paths lined with tall brush, approaching the Temple of the Sun. Jaguar growls repeatedly pierced the rustling in the grass as vendors showed off their wares. Teotihuacános had a panther god and today we still appreciate its representation: panthers biting skulls, intricately painted faces. Draw the threat close and perhaps you’ll know enough to survive.

The Pyramid of the Sun looms high. If people used to be shorter, the stairs would have been all the tougher to climb. And yet, we clambered up the 248 steps, resilient grasses poking out between the rocks, to reach the highest height we could and see out over it all. The grandiosity trembles as you look down from whence you came.

Teotihuacán StairsOn the Pyramid of the Sun

Archeologists and historians aren’t exactly sure why Teotihuacán collapsed. There was likely a fire, but why? One thesis posits that there was an internal uprising of sorts against the elite, who did, after all, ensconce themselves in the nicest buildings, displaying their status and likely hoarding the gods’ favor to themselves. This may have been complemented by environmental disturbance from droughts and volcanic eruptions, which set the stage by exacerbating class divides and grievances. At any rate, the city’s large population plummeted and it was abandoned during the seventh century. This rise and collapse forms a pattern; other civilizations in the Americas, such as the Maya, experienced booms and busts even prior to colonization.

Pyramid of the SunTeotihuacán Pyramids

We like to glorify those who came before us, whether they are of our own culture are not. People used to be in harmony with nature, we proclaim, and while we certainly aren’t now, it seems many prior civilizations were only bound by their more limited technology. Even when humans first stepped foot in the Americas, or in Australia and Oceania, we caused destruction, sending nearly all megafauna to extinction. And though over time many societies collapsed, or were conquered by others, humans as a whole proliferated, enlarging our footprint physically, atmospherically, and digitally. All the while we’ve warred, we’ve set body-altering beauty standards, we’ve manufactured societal divides based on gender, class, ethnicity, and basically anything we can figure out. There are exceptions to a degree, of course, but that means there is an overall rule, a pattern of human behavior. To idealize earlier civilizations and cultures is thus, in a way, to deny them their humanity.

On the Pyramid of the Moon

It is beautiful, the view from the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun looms to one side of you and the Avenue of the Dead stretches before you. There is beauty beside us and yet a questionable unknown ahead. And isn’t that how we are? Isn’t that how we’ve always been?

That night, back in Mexico City, we wandered the streets until we found a spot to have dinner. From our second floor perch, we watched the passersby as we ate our tostadas. Trickling by: a mass of humanity, varied, not knowing each other every one, coexisting, rising, falling, prospering, struggling. Here we are.