Chapter 5. Valley of Oaxaca
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Bert) The best high country drive in Mexico is how I judge the 200 mi. stretch between Puebla and Oaxaca. The two cities are amongst the most populated in Mexico, but the mountainous land between them is unpopulated and, except for the cuota road ($56 in tolls), the landscape remains the way Father God created and Mother Nature altered. Most impressive is the parade of scenery changes. Exiting the fourth largest city in Mexico, we drive on a flat broad plateau stretching to a distant horizon of mountains. Some of these are lower, rounded bumps on the horizon, but others tower above them and we speculate on which of the cloud topped peaks is Pico de Orizaba, the highest in Mexico at 18,457 ft. Here on the flatlands, a small population lives, tending farms which, when we gain altitude, look like a patchwork quilt of greens and browns and grays stitched with shrubby borders. Herders on horseback or donkeyback tend goatherds. Climbing higher, the farms end and yuccas and other cactus mix with thornbrush on hillsides. Still higher, the vistas become broader, higher, deeper and more varied. The evolving scene is a pastel painting of mauve and deep purple mountains, yellow-green freshly leafed shrubs, deep green cactus, dried yellow spent grass, black and white rock outcroppings, blue skies and white cloud puffs. The ups and downs become more extreme. Bridges cross deep chasms, scary to look down. Towering mountains are more abrupt and studded with cactus clustered in pipe organs. Grand Canyon class views await every turn in the road as we spiral upward, traveling slowly as we cannot pass some of the heavily loaded semi’s that lead us. The cactus garden changes venue, transitioning from the spreading spines of yuccas, to candelabra clusters, to 20-30-ft. erect spikes, leaning slightly and topped with white caps, to erect needles that transform distant mountains into threatened porcupines. Bright yellow flowers stitch an open umbrella on each short tree. Birds are few. We take notes on one gray raptor sitting on a tree near a toll booth, unable to identify it from its back only. I see a Harris’s Hawk and a few Common Ravens and a Crested Caracara. Topping 8500 ft., we stop for lunch and I forgo eating to see the first of the White-throated Towhees. By mile 155, colors change to burnt orange, feathering from the ground to the mountains, looking like Utah’s Canyonlands. Distant trees have the light and dark green and rust red texture of coarse balls with stems that populate electric train sets. Another 30 miles, we enter a thinly studded pine forest, our last climb for today, and then descend into the Valley of Oaxaca, broadly nestled under prominent Cerro San Felipe where we will visit tomorrow. With more than enough said for this day, I shall leave the story of our adventure through the city to Shari.
(Shari) “He wants to get out of the car, but I want to keep him,” I tell Bert over the handheld radio. A young, mainly Spanish speaking, policeman is in the passenger seat of my car and I am driving, following his directions, around the town of Oaxaca - population 1,000,000 - with the caravan behind me. What a mess and all because of a closed road! The day has passed so peacefully until now, with gorgeous scenery on smooth roads through the mountains. We see a policeman setting up barricades as we approach our turn toward Mitla, but figure it is just to protect some workmen fixing the street. He lets us pass, but again we come to a barricade and this time the police only let a few rigs through. Up the hill we see a wrecker, a smashed car, and many policemen on motorcycles. We are really stopped now and they are motioning for us to go down an 18% decline. No way, Jose! So, they tell us to turn around. Bert tells me to get out and see what I can do. Now remember, I know very little Spanish so what I am about to relate may seem a strange choice of words. I tell the man that looks like he is in charge that I cannot go there and say, “Too big.” He tells me to turn around. I say, “Please, please, can we pass?” He says, “No”. I say, “Look, there a bus go.” He says a lot in Spanish but I pick up three words: “road,” “closed,” and “meeting.” I point and lightly touch his chest and ask, “You guide me?” He gets on the walkie-talkie and now I do not pick up even a smidgeon of what he says. But again he tells me to turn around. “Aie Carumba,” I say and again start to plead with him. He calls over the nice young policeman and I think he is going to lead us. We unhook, reengage, disconnect and then Bert backs R-Tent-III in a “Y” turn onto a rocky siding. The policeman and I get into our car and off we go. I know Spanish for “right, left, straight ahead, here, there” and that is how we maneuver through the city traffic. Constantly asking for reassurance on when I am to turn, I then relay it back to Bert who in turn relays it to the caravan via the CB. The policeman says that I speak better Spanish than he speaks English. If so, we are really in trouble. Taking us around to the other side of the city on a very congested street with lots of stop and go lights, we inch our way ahead. He constantly wants to get out and I gently pull on his shirtsleeve saying “ No,” that I still need him and that I will returno him to his work. Not understanding that, he asks me to write it. I write, “I will take you back.” I hear him pronounce, “take” and say over and over again “back, back, back” before he says he does not understand. He starts to talk in rapid Spanish. I retort in rapid English and we both laugh. After he draws me a map on a napkin that he found in the glove compartment, I finally agree to stop the car to let him out because I think I know where I am now. I search for some money and all I find is some loose change, which I give to him. He says it is not necessary, but I push the money on him. Now he asks me how to get out. No wonder he never hopped out before this, he does not know how to open the door. I could have kept him longer! I reach over and open the door handle, and off he goes. I have no idea how he is going to get back, but we are still not out of the woods and I am to look for a VW dealer and then make a turn. At least the traffic congestion has died down. We travel a good seven miles and I see a town off to our left, before Bob and Cindy tell me over the radio that that is Tule, because Bob sees the famous tree. Okay, we are on the new bypass – nonexistent when we were here two years ago - and now must turn around. We passed up the town and campground. I go ahead and find a place for the caravan to exit, go under the bridge and come back. In town, stopping traffic and generally making a mob of Mexicans mad, Bert holds the caravan back, while I forge ahead to find the campground. I know I am close, but since it is a new place, (the other one closed in December) I do not know where the turn is located. Stopping the car, I go into a restaurant and ask where is parking for motor homes. I am greeted with blank faces, except one young man points. Still not seeing a road, I drive in that direction anyway. Sure enough, I have to get on top of the road before I see it, but it is there, and on a sign, facing the opposite direction, is written “RV” in nice big orange letters. Hurrah, we made it! Time for a drink and dinner out with friends!
(Bert) The city limits of Oaxaca push up to the base of Cerro San Felipe, an imposing mountain ridge almost one mile higher than the city. It’s about 21 miles to the peak, but we start birding once we pass La Cumbre and enter the dirt road through the forest preserved by the World Wildlife Fund. Much colder than some anticipated, Judy R. is happy to accept extra jackets from Cindy and me. The birds must feel the chill also – the temperature remains in the forties all morning – as they remain out of sight and usually out of sound. Tendrils of clouds twist through the tall pines, whispering as they tickle the needles. On most of our stops along the road we come up empty, but after a couple of hours we find one turn in the road with a view up into the forest partially cleared by a trickling stream. Carl and I see the first of four Golden-browed Warblers for the day, this one hiding low in the brambles surrounding the stream. High in the canopy, we can hear the Dwarf Jays and Gray-barred Wrens, but I see only fragments of the birds. I get a better view of a pair of Band-tailed Pigeons perched atop a pine on the horizon peak a quarter mile up the steep incline. The only other highlight I count for the morning is several Russet Nightingale-Thrushes that give very brief appearances. After lunch when we finally reach over 10,270 ft. elevation and the sun begins to warm the forest up to 54º. Now the real birding begins. We find several mixed flocks traveling through the pines like a slow puff of smoke, eventually dissipating out of view. But while in our sight we see Olive, Orange-crowned, Black-throated Green, Townsend’s, Hermit, Black-and-white, Wilson’s, Red, and Crescent-chested warblers mixed with Painted Redstarts and Mexican Chickadees. One remarkable flock of Audubon’s Warblers is a continuous procession of these patched yellow birds. Sandy hears Carl and me – out of earshot of each other – both make the same comment, “I can see six in my binoculars at one time.” In fact, during the 15 min. parade hundreds of Audubon’s pass us by. The group separates after lunch, more by chance than design, and one party finds a hot spot where dozens of Gray Silky-flycatchers explore the mid story and two or three Rufous-capped Brush-Finches and a Collared Towhee poke in the brushy under story. We return to this spot later, as the towhee would be a lifer for me, but I fail to see it, although seeing the Brush-Finch again is a delight as is the Brown-backed Solitaire I get close enough to photograph. On the return we get a better look at the Dwarf Jays and find a Streak-backed Woodcreeper and, for good comparison, another Spot-crowned Woodcreeper.
(Shari) Retracing our route from yesterday, Bob, Sue, Van, Karen and I go to the market in Zaachila. Not a market for tourists, we see very few, if any, white skinned people. Mostly indigenous, the people of the area arrive on market day by foot, by motorcycle drawn cabs, by cart, or by truck. People leading oxen or goats, carrying chickens and roosters for someone’s next meal, or having bags in their hands for their purchase of fruits and veggies all converge on this little town. The goods are spread out in artful displays to entice the buyer. I buy a tub of oranges and some bananas. Sue gets some cantaloupe and mangoes and Karen buys some peppers. Mostly we walk and look. It is all so fascinating, especially for gringos used to picking our things up at the grocery store and placing them in our cart. We then find a unique restaurant in a park like setting and each order something that is unknown to us. When the food arrives, we are surprised at what we get. Van’s meal turns out to be black beans and ham hocks - not the best meal of the day. I get grilled pork ribs which is probably the best of the day. After our meal, we drive to Arrazola, the place where they make the whimsical wooden animals. The “artists” literally live in hovels with dirt floors and sell their wares in one room off their house. Makeshift tables are laden with the colorful creations and prices are about a quarter of that found in gift stores in the U.S. However, I do not buy anything since I live in a motor home and certainly do not have room for a quirky dragon, no matter how cute or how cheap. We finally arrive home in time for Happy Hour and have fun with Bert since he missed a life bird for the second year in a row, when at least three others found it. He is so intense, we have to loosen him up.
(Bert) On the outskirts of Teotitlán del Valle we stand at the base of a mountain road as cloud slivers, like broken glass, reflect the unborn sun. Dawn creeps over the ridge, throwing the first warming rays of the sun over the thornbrush. Ocellated Thrasher is the bird I want to see, a life bird that many in the group saw here two years ago, but I missed, and it would be a life bird for everyone in this year’s group too. With recordings, we’ve reminded ourselves of its melodic thrasher song. We’ve set up our spotting scopes, and our binoculars are ready to pounce on any movement. Many of us carry personal radios so that we can relay reports as we spread out up and down the inclined road. As we search for the first signs of an Ocellated, other birds divert our attention. On the steep hillside a flycatcher in the Empidonax genus gives us many views, sometimes even in the spotting scope, but it takes us some time to deduce it must be a Dusky Flycatcher. Judy S. tells me she has heard a thrasher or mockingbird at the uphill curve and I replay the recording for her. She’s not sure about Ocellated, but more confident of Curve-billed. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, we walk back to the curve. We soon hear the song again, and it indeed does sound like a Curve-billed Thrasher. When I find the songster perched atop a dead branch on a dried bush, I’m excited to see it is my sought after Ocellated. I quickly align my spotting scope and have the eyepiece filled with a sharp side view of the thrasher as he sings his varied solo. While others line up to see through the scope, I page Cindy that we’ve got the bird. As she hikes uphill, I take one photo through the scope and just before she arrives a car and truck pass simultaneously, frightening the bird away. We wait a half-hour for another sign of the thrasher, but then most of us drift back downhill. Cindy stays with others who have not seen the bird and an hour later finally sees it when it reappears. By the way, the word “Ocellated” lead to quite a discussion two years ago as to its meaning. Most confused the word with a rotating fan or cycling frequency, but did not take note of its different spelling. Sometime after our trip, a friend told me the meaning, shared with the wild cat Ocelot, and referring to spots. Indeed, the Ocellated Thrasher today had well defined black spots on a white breast. The afternoon is quite different from the morning, as we join the non-birding contingent and visit the rug making shops of Teotitlán del Valle. We hear a discussion of their production that I’ve related before and Shari may comment on today in her journal. But one point stuck in my mind. The son of Don Isaac Vásquez, a master weaver of carpets and rugs and a man much pictured and quoted in books, passes around several of these books. At the same time he explains how the Cochineal insects (females only) are cultivated on cactus and then crushed to produce a brilliantly red dye. Meanwhile I scan one of the books, written by Oliver Sacks. The author quotes Vásquez, “It takes seventy thousand of insects, Don Isaac tells us, to produce a pound of dry material.” In fact, the early Spaniards valued the dye with silver and gold and pound for pound the dye was more precious than gold.
(Shari) Hardly able to get the birders to leave the reservoir after our picnic, I honk the horn for the second time. Still Bert does not budge from his position at the spotting scope. I walk down to him, and announce that my car is leaving with or without him. He says just one minute, but soon packs up and we are on our way. The SOB’s have met the birders for lunch and now intend to stop at the village where the weavers make beautiful items. We find a place that shows us the process from beginning to end and even shows us books where their rugs are on display. These rugs are expensive, but really spectacular. The dyes are all natural, and the red dye is fascinating. It comes from a white mite that lives on the prickly pear cactus. When squished, it produces a dark red color that brightens with lemon juice and turns purple with baking soda. For about 90 min. we wander the streets of this small down devoted to wool, carding, spinning, weaving and the crafts made from it. I purchase some more coasters that I like so much and a table runner. Others make purchases of rugs, tablecloths, placemats, etc. It has been a wonderful day and after Happy Hour we join Bob and Cindy for tacos at a restaurant in Oaxaca.
(Shari) While Bert stays home to deal with our satellite problem, I go with the group on a city tour. Eugene, our guide and one of the best I have had, shows us an old nunnery, an old church, a chocolate factory, and the city market. He tells us tales of unwed mothers, the government taking over the church for a horse barn, and politics of today. At the market he introduces us to many new foods, words I cannot pronounce. We taste a refreshing rice drink; we nibble on spicy dried grasshoppers, and try chocolate at the chocolate factory. Sandy and I watch as our 2.2 kilograms of chocolate is mixed with almonds, beans, and sugar. We split the mixture between us and are told to spread it out on plastic when we get home so it will harden. Sandy, Carl and I eat a Mexican calzone; a large crispy tortilla filled with beans, cheese and tomatoes topped with meat. We stroll the market stalls searching for green and black pottery, yellow mole, colorful dresses, belts, wallets, watches, T-shirts, Oaxaca cheese and ice cream. Meeting up again at 4 PM, we all are exhausted, but still have to move our rigs from one lot to another. Because another caravan is coming to town today, we have to give up our luxuries. No more bathroom that doesn’t flush, no more shower that only trickles water, no more water hose that pumps only a brownish liquid and, most of all, no more smelly pigs. Still it is a pain, but by nightfall all are nicely snuggled into the new lot.
(Bert) Some go gallivanting off to the city on tour, some take care of errands, but I stay cooped up in R-Tent-III trying to get our computer-controlled Internet satellite dish operational. A marvelous invention, but one whose bugs have not yet all been worked out, I’ve tried since January 24 to connect to the Internet and transfer e-mail. I’ve used all the tricks I know: Antenna Pointing, Web Setup, rebooting dozens of times, unplugging, cable checking. Then, with the aid of California technicians – I’ve talked to five of the seven that work for Ground Control - we’ve tried all the tricks they know, including decommissioning, pinging, adapter diagnostics and finally disabling my network and creating a new network setup. In all cases, the end result is that, through the specialized modems and the satellite dish, my computer can transmit to the satellite and can receive signals back, but I cannot connect to Internet web sites nor transfer e-mail. Including previous days, by noon today I’ve already talked to California for 3 hrs. 22 min, according to my cell phone records. On the phone again, we’ve just had another session of repeating a litany of procedures. After a long pause where all I hear is the wheels grinding in the technician’s head, he asks, “Do you have another computer?” Well, I actually have three computers with me and all already have the software installed. So, now I switch the modem and controller cables over to another computer. Over the next few hours we work through more glitches in selecting the satellite (SatMex5), trying two different frequencies and aligning the dish. By 3:30 we have the second computer connected to the system and successfully communicating with the satellite, but still have the old problem of not being able to google. This time when I hear the technician’s mind wheels turning, he asks, “What’s your telephone number?” I know that means he has run out of ideas – actually I think they ran out of ideas a few days ago – and he will call me back after a powwow with his supervisor. An hour later he calls back to say they have decided to decommission my modems again and will call back when the process is completed and I can reregister with Hughes. Night falls and I’ve yet to receive a call back.
(Bert) The clear skies and still air suggest today will be warm but now, at sunrise, jackets are still in order. We stand at the stone ruins of a culture dating back more than 2000 years, built on a hill now named Monte Alban, 1100 feet above the Oaxaca valley. Our panoramic view shows the dense city population filling in the valley like a shallow lake, with no houses splashing up the hillsides as they do in U.S. cities; just rounded hills carpeted in spent grasses separate us from the city. Checking a roadside path before the gates open, I see a Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer – I love that name! – land on the path and abruptly fly into the shrubbery. Others miss this one, but try finding another elsewhere throughout the day. Such is also the case for Slaty Vireo, highly sought but infrequently seen. As it turns out, the birding group splits and reforms many times throughout the day as we both bird and visit the ruins. Collectively, we find 50 species including many new to our list, but the specialties are often seen only by a few. Prominent on Judy R.’s list is a pair of Slaty Vireos and a Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, these only seen today by her. Cindy sits for hours at the spot where Judy saw the vireos, but to no avail. She hears them respond to song recordings that we practiced listening to on the drive here. According to Cindy’s creative mind, the song, offered in two renditions, seems to ask, “Who made our bed?” answered by “Hummer V did!” Cindy’s list nearly matches mine as we birded together much of the day. Highlights are Dusky , Nutting’s and Pileated flycatchers, and Boucard’s and Canyon wrens. For a few seconds, we watch a Lesser Roadrunner snatch a lizard, flip it lengthwise, swallow half and leave the tail swinging wildly out of its bill, before the bird disappears in the brush. Cindy and Bob see a West Mexican Chachalaca, which I miss. But I do get to see an active pair of Blue Mockingbirds, singing, imitating a meowing cat, and flying between hidden bushes. In flight I can see sunlight reflect off their deep navy blue feathers. During a long vigil, Tom waits for birds to come to him and is rewarded with the Flowerpiercer. With Ken and Karen, I find the most unusual bird of all – one that is not in any of my North America or Mexico bird books. During the 15 min. I view the bird hopping on the stone ruins, I take extensive notes and many distant photographs. Perhaps a reader can tell me what this is, for I cannot: a sparrow about the same size or slightly larger than a Chipping Sparrow accompanying it; striped head, patterned back, wings and tail much like the Chipping Sparrow; bright yellow throat, breast, belly and undertail coverts – a brightness and intensity of a meadowlark. The bird chipped constantly as it searched for food – a softer mellower version of the Chipping Sparrow’s note – but it did not tell me its name.
(Shari) Calling my dad at 9:30 PM, I announce to him what he already knows, “Our team lost.” I mean the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. Bill and I are the only ones rooting for that team, and at times I tell the more boisterous ones in the group (Van, Carl and Sandy) that I will auction them off to the other caravan that has joined us at the “pig lot.” This is all in fun of course. We start the day with a trip to the ruins of Monte Alban. Getting there about 4 hr. after the birders, we share a picnic lunch. Bob B. and I then go to the restaurant and I am treated to cappuccino while he eats French fries for lunch. I swear, he will die young for lack of a balanced diet, if nothing else. I retire to the shade of the car and read a book, but not before I treat myself to a necklace and earrings of silver and turquoise for $6.00 from one of the many vendors lining the sidewalk. Soon it is Super Bowl time, and Bob B. and Sue have arranged a “villa” for us. The owner has allowed us to use the whole upstairs of a building to watch the projection TV on the wall. Of course, we buy beer and margaritas and most of us even eat dinner. Sue organizes a football pool and for two pesos, you can pick two slips of paper out of an envelope and get your name on a grid. If the last digits of each team’s score added together, at both halftime and final, match your number, you win. Van wins at halftime and the owner of the bar, wins the final. So I guess the owner makes out pretty good with our group. We surprise Mel and Beth with a big cake topped with fruit, for their 51st wedding anniversary. After making them perform a short dance to Paul McCartney’s halftime number, we share the cake with them. Married 51 years, and I often see them still holding hands and giggling with each other. It is a role model to emulate, for sure. The Wagonmaster and three others of the other group leave before the game is over. As they go, I hear Van say, “Now don’t forget to feed the pigs.” Now he is just too funny. His one-liners just have me in stitches sometimes. Between him and Tom with his puns, it is a wonder I don’t have a side ache from laughing all the time. Just as I head to the RV for the night, Van tells me that Bert is not in there. He said he got a call from someone down the road that saw Bert with a pack full of something big and round in shape. “Something about: hardware for sale,” he said. Again, I burst out laughing. Bert stayed home tonight to deal with the satellite issue, and I am sure Bert wants to rip that satellite off our roof and give it a kick somewhere where the sun don’t shine.
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