Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I have a new home in Oaxaca: I am renting a room in an apartment about two blocks from the zócalo, or main square. I have a nice big room with a sliding glass door/window looking out on the street. There is a big market a few blocks down my street, so it is a bustling place. At least 12 hours a day, I can hear loud merengue music coming from a store across from my apartment that sells washing machines and other household items. I presume it makes the washing machines seem a lot more exciting. In my apartment complex, there is also a rooftop patio from which you have this view:
The apartment is shared with two middle-aged women, one of whom is the owner of a dance studio down the street. We have already made a deal in which I am giving her free English classes in exchange for dance lessons. The other day I learned some basic cumbia moves, which seem to be essential in these parts. Take the poll on the side of this page to put in your two cents on what dance I should learn next.

The last couple weeks have been filled with all kind of discovery, hence the title of this blog. Highlights include:

1) Taking a walk with Jesse to an "orquidearia" (orchid garden) in San Andrés Huayapan, near where my former host parents lived. We had to ask directions about ten times, and ended up passing by the place the first time and having to turn back because there was only a sign for it coming from the other direction. (There was, however, a sign for "gotcha", evidently the Mexican version of paintball.) The garden was pretty impressive-- it is kept up by one guy who explained to us that there are 1,300 species of orchids in Mexico, and at the orchid garden 1,200 of those are represented. The orchids all bloom at different times of year, so there is always something new to see. Anyone want to go back with me?

2) Visiting the largest tree in the world, judging by trunk width: "El arból del Tule", 14.5 meters in diameter. There are different estimates for the age of the tree, but Zapotec legend has it that El Tule was planted about 1,400 years ago by Pechocha, the Aztec wind god. El Tule also has a "son", who lives nearby but is not quite as big as his dad.

3) Taking a bus to Tlacolula for the Sunday market. The market was absolutely HUGE, taking up what seemed like the majority of the town and including everything from food to crafts to music to household items like pasta strainers (which I, thinking practically, bought). There was an eerie silence as soon as you left the market area, which led me to believe that the entire population of the town was in some way involved with the market. Tlacolula is known for its production of mezcal (a liquor similar to tequila), which I sampled. I also had the opportunity to try pulque (yet another, even more traditional drink made from the same plant--agave--that is used to make tequila, but this time fermented), and techate(sp?), similar to pulque but with fermented pineapple juice added-- a Zapotec beverage, I was told. The last yummy thing I will mention are these amazing little avocados that have smooth, thin skins you can eat. The skin has a kind of licorice-y flavor, and they sometimes use it to flavor beans here. The ones I bought in Tlacolula were particularly small, about the size of golf balls. I eat them like candy.

Another discovery I have made is that my "side project" of learning a bit of Zapotec and volunteering in a bilingual school might be a bit harder to arrange than I had thought. There seems to be no language school in the city in which Zapotec is taught, other than the Universidad Benito Juarez, but when I inquired there about classes I was told that Zapotec is not being offered at the moment--maybe in the spring. That means that I'm going to need a private tutor if I want to learn the language.

Lo and behold, I found one! A girl from couchsurfing that I have become friends with told me that her dad speaks Zapotec, and can teach me! For a couple days I thought my problem had been solved. But there is another complication: I have since learned that there are about 40 different dialects of Zapotec, so that in many cases even people from neighboring towns are unable to communicate with each other. (Also, for the record, there are 60 dialects of Mixtec-- and those are just two of the 16 indigenous languages spoken in the state of Oaxaca.) Fortunately, I've been told that there are only 3 or 4 MAIN dialects of Zapotec according to the different regions in which it is spoken, suggesting that many of the dialects are probably similar. However, my friend's dad is from a town about 4 hours outside of Oaxaca City, which would not be convenient if I wanted to have an ongoing relationship with the community.

And yet another issue: as might be expected, in communities closer to Oaxaca City, local dialects are being spoken less and less and are becoming mixed with Spanish. This also means that there may not be any truly bilingual schools in the immediate vicinity of Oaxaca. I am now thinking that if I cannot find a bilingual school in a neighboring community, perhaps I could try to do a kind of language exchange with some school, in which I came once a week to teach the kids a bit of English, and in exchange they could teach me some Zapotec. However, this would require that the kids in the school actually spoke Zapotec, which could also be hard to find. More investigation is required.

In the meantime though, I have decided to be tutored once a week by my friend's dad. My first lesson was yesterday, and I can already see that this language is not going to be easy. Since it is an oral language, there is no official way of writing it. It includes some unusual guttural sounds as well as many words that have a sound pronounced like the French "J", as in "Jaques". And there are certain things that seemed designed to confuse me: for instance, the number three is pronounced "sho-nay", and the number eight is "shO-nay". The only difference is that the "O" sound in the number eight is slightly more drawn out. Also, "cho-pay" is the number two, but "shin-cho-pay" is seventeen. Ack! Study time.


  1. Zapotec has four different tones! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapotec_language#Tone It also has two or three contrasting phonations, depending on the dialect - which basically means that a vowel can be normal, laryngealized (i.e. said with a creaky voice), or glottalized (i.e. cut off more quickly than normal). Maybe one of those is what you're hearing.

    I am sorry that the very first comment on your blog had to be so dorky.

  2. I wholeheartedly approve of the dorkiness level of the blog commentary and I bid it continue.

    Also, I want to try a funky little avocado.