Travel

GOD'S FOOTPRINT ON EARTH | ETLA, OAXACA

About an hour’s drive north on bus from the capital of Oaxaca sits the birthplace of Quesillo, or Queso Oaxaca as it’s better known to those outside of our communities. It is believed the ancient ruins of San José el Mogote in Etla was once the capital of the Zapotec people as far back as 1500 B.C. and abandoned around 400 B.C. as Monte Álban soon became the new capital of the ancient peoples. Now according to Wikipedia, San José Mogote is considered to be the oldest permanent agricultural villages in the central valley of Oaxaca and probably the first settlement in the area to use pottery. It produced Mexico’s oldest known defensive palisades and ceremonial buildings around 1300 B.C., was an early adopter of adobe around 850 B.C., has the first evidence of Zapotec hieroglyphic writing within 600 B.C., and evidence of early examples of architectural terracing, craft specialization, and irrigation, 1150-850 B.C. Now keep in mind I have never been to this archeological site, so I’ll elaborate on the topic after I visit.

The municipality of Etla plays an important role in the Hollywood classic Nacho Libre. Filmed mostly in the chapel of Las Peñitas standing on top of a rocky hill overlooking the valley. For those of the Roman Catholic faith, it is believed that God himself took rest here while He created Earth. Leaving a footprint behind when He sat here to rest when the Earth was all but clay. If you visit, you’ll find this fabled footprint inside an enclosed area at the foothill of the chapel. I suggest you visit with your faith in heart. I’ve only had the pleasure of visiting twice, the first being when I was in my late teens with not much faith in my heart and the second in my late twenties with my faith fully restored. I make an emphasis on faith because inside the rock formation where the footprint of God has formed, you’ll find a small hole within the rocks and if you’re One of faith, you’ll see the image of Christ glowing in a blue flame inside it. Similar to the flame that Moses saw those many years ago before his return to Egypt. Visiting this site with faith was advice I took from the caretaker I met on my second visit and have held to those words since. Surprisingly both my Mom and Cousin did not see Christ’s image while both my Grandmother and I did. 

If you arrive to Villa de Etla by public transit be aware there’s no public transit from the town square to Las Peñitas. Although a local Moto Taxi will happily give you a lift to and back if you’re not in the mood for a hike. Just let your Moto Taxi driver know what time you’d like them to come back for you. 

LEYENDA DE CUILÁPAM DE GUERRERO | OAXACA

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Roughly six miles south of the capital of Oaxaca sits the small town of Cuilápam de Guerrero with a sinister tale of the macabre. If arriving by public transit, the bus taking you to Villa de Zaachila makes a route stop in front of the former monastery of Santiago Apóstol or better known as the Basilica of Cuilápam by locals. What’s striking of this temple at mere glance is its incomplete state, the missing roof of the cathedral casts an ominous aura as you walk through its incomplete pillars. Construction of the temple began in 1556 with Antonio De Barbosa as chief architect and used a mix of architectural styles that were predominant in Europe throughout the 16th century. Construction suddenly halted around 1570 for unknown reasons, though official records state it was due to financial disputes on who would bear the cost of the project between the Crown of Spain and the [Hernán] Cortés family. Over the centuries local towns folk have contrived a more supernatural version of events that to this day, have been the canon of events that occurred as to explain why this church was never completed. 

❡ For several nights the convent of Cuilápam was met by a presence of a dark shadow that only met with the Prior General, Domingo de Aguiñaga late into the night hours. This shadow person wore black silky robes matching the black of the dark sky itself and arrive in a luxurious, aristocratic wagon coach pulled by two Friesian black horses. One morning, the Prior asked the Friars to no exit the dormitories the following night, as something strange and otherworldly would take place outside their very doors. As promised by the Prior, dark shadows moved around the convent passed midnight and among these shadows, the same dark presence that met with the Prior could be seen hovering throughout the makeshift construction site. 

The shadows began mixing concrete, raised pillars, walls and arches with remarkable speed and efficiency. These shadows began building the holy temple commissioned by the Crown of Spain that was promised to the clergy of the region. As they finished the central dome of the temple just before dawn, a rooster was heard crowing nearby. Construction stopped immediately, and the shadows disappeared leaving the temple unfinished. Years later on his deathbed the Prior General confessed that the dark presence was the Devil himself and offered to construct the temple in a single night, before the crowing of a rooster at dawn in exchange for the souls of the congregation. ❡ It’s told Domingo de Aguiñaga never meant to keep his end of the deal and set a trap to make the rooster crow before dawn to allow the Devil to build most of the church and not take the souls of the congregation with him. It is also said that the head of the murdered Zapotec Princess Donají is buried underneath this unfinished church. 

MONOLITH | YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

In the Spring of 1927 a young photographer but experienced climber, trekked deep into snowbound Yosemite National Park in California. But his hike didn’t go according to plan with the light about to die and just two glass plates left for his 4x5 view camera. Under pressure, he created what many consider one of the greatest masterpieces of American or any other landscape art, Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. Ansel Adams captured the great mountain in dramatic light and would change how Americans saw their country. When Adams came on this scene, it was an epiphany. It was like falling in love, but more importantly, he became not just Yosemite’s photographer, but its great artist, the high priest of its temple, of its stone, its light, its water. What he created in those landscape altarpieces, was an America irradiated with luminous majesty, taller than the highest skyscraper, more powerful than the mightiest business corporation, and he wanted Yosemite to be for everyone, as this is our land. By the 1950’s Ansel Adams’ photographs had become the iconic images of the American west.  

Starting in the 1920’s, Ansel Adams pioneered an approach that insisted photography was not simply a mechanical process, but a true art form. His method was to work backwards from the image he’d visualized then anticipate the moment when the light and subject could be seen at their most illuminating and then, with the press of the button, realize that vision. In 1960, the year John F. Kennedy became president calling for a new frontier, Adams published a book, This is the American Earth. It became an instant bestseller. More and more Adams’ photographs became preachy, but those visual sermons were radiant, mystical, ecstatic. They’re passionate statements of how humanity could be redeemed through the encounter with nature. He became a kind of patriarch of environmentalism, and every so often he’d put the camera down and even go away from his beloved Yosemite to try and persuade this or that president to his point of view, but throughout, he remained steadfast to his belief that his job in life was to give visual form to that silken cord tying together the fate of man with the fate of the Earth. 

It was the moment for some, when the photographer became a prophet. In 1977, when the Voyager spacecrafts were launched with a golden record containing images and sounds of Earth and its inhabitants, Adams’ images were among them. My photographs of Yosemite will never come close to those of Adams, considering he carried a 4x5 camera and tripod up there and I a modest, lightweight Nikon F3. After a two-hour hike in the middle of the rain and snow, I laid eyes on Half Dome. I cried. As I stood watching, I thought how this massive rock will be the most majestic thing I will ever see. I marveled at how many more millions have seen it, how many photographs have been taken, and how long Half Dome will it stand long after we’re gone. 

“We all move on the fringes of eternity and are sometimes granted vistas through the fabric of illusion.” – Ansel Adams 

DÍA DE MUERTOS | OAXACA, MÉXICO

When I think of death I recall to Professor Dumbledore’s words from The Philosopher’s Stone, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Because of the emotional roller coaster people get themselves in when dealing with death, we cope with this inevitable part of life vastly differently from one person to the next. Using myself as an example I will be the first to tell you that I deal with death as a celebration. A celebration for the person’s life towards the next, wherever that place may be. At the same time, I tend to remain rather neutral and treat death as say a quick trip to the convenient store. And yes, I’ve always been this way and I owe it to my upbringing you see, the women in my family have set a standard on remaining neutral in severe situations, especially during someone’s passing for the sole purpose of being a much-needed pillar for those coping with death. Considering some folk don’t deal with death as well as we do. Do I fear death? No, but as I get older I’ve become well aware of my own mortality and with each passing, death becomes ever so closer.

El Día de los Muertos is a national holiday observed on the 2nd of November within the Mexican Republic and its been a staple holiday my family has observed for as long as we’ve been around. By no means am I an expert or an authority for this or any other Mexican holiday, but from what I know El Día de Muertos has its origins heavily rooted in Pre-Hispanic times. In those days, native peoples baked human shapes out of Amaranthus and covered them with juice of the Tuna (prickly pear) to symbolize blood. This was how they honored those who have passed over to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. 

Surprisingly however not much is done on the actual holiday. The city pretty much shuts down as November 2ndis to be spent at home with family. The majority of events and celebration of the holiday take place on the latter weeks of October with the main event take place on October 31st at the Mictlancihuatl cemetery (named after Mictlantecutli, Goddess of Mictlan) in the town of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán, roughly 20 miles south of Downtown Oaxaca. The Mictlancihuatl cemetery or the new cemetery as it’s known to the locals hosts a wake the night of October 31st to symbolize the welcome of our passed loved ones from the netherworld. A massive celebration of vendors, food, music and carnival games gather outside both the new and old cemeteries in  Xoxocotlán. We’re fortunate to have our Great Uncle buried in the new cemetery, which grants us permission to hang out at the grave site all night. Our Great Aunts brings with her candles, marigold flowers, beer, Mezcal, fruits and sugar cane to decorate the grave site of her passed husband, along with food for us to eat while we sit around the grave and listen to music as the musicians walk from grave to grave asking for a few pesos in exchange to play the songs our passed loved ones enjoyed in this life. 

The best part of the holiday aside from the Comparsas (Halloween themed parades) throughout the city, is the food and free Mezcal you get while walking in the Comparsas. At home, my Grandmother puts together an altar in the spare room of her house two weeks prior from November 2nd. To my surprise, my Grandmother had the foresight to plant marigold flowers at the plot of land we own close to the town of Zaachila. The altar is decorated with photos of our passed loved ones, together with an abundance of marigold flowers or as we call them Flor de Muerto. Other adornments include Pan de Muerto, Mezcal, fruits, nuts and as the day gets closer, tamales de frijol, tamales de mole and other dishes our passed loved ones enjoyed when they were alive. About a week before November 2nd, the grave site of both my Grandfather and Uncle (they share the same gravesite) is decorated with the same adornments found on our altar. As I stated, I’m not the authority of this or any other holiday, but you’re always welcomed to visit Oaxaca during this time and I’ll happily show you around.