Monday, December 13, 2010

Greetings from Oconahua!

About a week from now I’ll be returning to the US, if all goes according to plan. I’m busy wrapping up my work here in Mexico and starting to pack my suitcases for the trip home. The holiday season is underway here now, as well. Sunday was one of the big religious celebrations of the year—the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico. She is a version of the Virgin Mary who is said to have appeared to an Indian named Juan Diego in what is now part of Mexico City. There is a basilica (actually, there are two of them) build at the location where she first appeared which is a major destination for pilgrims each year. Pretty much every home, bus, and taxi here in Mexico has at least one picture or statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and many girls here are named for her. Often on her day, you will see people set up altars to the Virgin in the street outside their homes. I saw one of them here in my town. There will be an altar, flowers, and decorations and chairs provided for people who want to come pray to the Virgin. These altars and the pilgrimages are often done as a show of devotion by someone who has asked the Virgin for help. There were also lots of fire crackers set off at all hours of day and night as is often the case in the days leading up to an important saint’s day.

The granddaughter of one of our workers here (and the daughter of another worker) was born on the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day, so there was a birthday party for her this weekend. It actually took place in the patio of my house here, so I got invited to join in on the fun. It was her third birthday, and most of the people here were kids ranging in age from 8 months to teens. There were 4 piñatas to be broken and 2 birthday cakes to be consumed. It was quite the afternoon! A couple of the fun things that were different from the parties I’m used to in the US were the cutting of the cake and the serving of the cake. After the Mañanitas were sung (the traditional Mexican birthday song) and the candle blown out, the birthday girl was told to take a bite out of the cake. As in leaning down and taking a bit bite out of the side of it. They had her do it to each of the cakes before they were sliced. Then the kids formed a line to get their cake. They line up according to height from shortest to tallest and get their cake in that order. Both of those events made me smile.

My photos this week are from the birthday party. One photo is of the birthday girl swinging at one of the piñatas. The small stick they had for hitting them broke, so someone got a huge handle to something like a shovel. There were a few scary moments as kids continued swinging while other kids were running in to try to grab some of the candy that had fallen out. The other photo is of some of the kids waiting in line for their birthday cake and jello.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


My work here is winding down just as the excavations are getting ready to get bigger. I have about a week’s worth of analysis left to do and about 2 weeks in which to complete it, so things are looking good for my getting finished before I am scheduled to leave. Excavations here in Oconahua started on a small scale a few weeks ago, with four men excavating. Hopefully sometime soon the money for the project arrives from the government so that excavations can expand to include many more workers and some more archaeologists.

The site here is known as the Palacio de Ocomo (Ocomo Palace) and consists of four huge platforms arranged in a square with an open area (known as a plaza) inside the square. There are also smaller platforms and foundations found underneath the modern town and in the areas surrounding the town. This site is believed to be more recent than the sites in the area like Los Guachimontones, which used circular arrangements for their big important architecture instead of a square arrangement.
I am not really here to work on this site, but to do the ceramic analysis that I need for my dissertation. Since the house I am living and working in is built on one of the huge platforms, though, I get a chance to visit the excavations several times a day and to help out a bit when needed.

This week’s photos are of the work being done at the Palacio. One is of the workers excavating. They are working on the outer wall of one of the huge platforms. The part in the foreground was excavated and restored last year. It shows three levels of walls, which are thought to be three different versions of the platform. After some time of using the platform, a new outer wall would be built and the platform would be made a bit bigger. The distance from the base of the wall (which is underground) to the top of the dirt pile is about 25 feet, so it is a pretty big platform! The other photo is of a team that came this week to take some readings using a ground penetrating radar. This device sends a signal into the ground and records how it bounces back. Once the results are processed, they can show things like rock walls hidden under the dirt. The orange box is the part that sends (and I think also receives) the signals. The other part has a monitor on it and is connected to the orange box by cables. The operator can see the results that are coming from the radar while the readings are being taken.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Just three more weeks to go until my return to the US. At this point I’m counting down the days. Things have been going pretty well here the last couple of weeks. My work is wrapping up and will be finished on time. Excavations here at Oconahua are underway, which gives me a nice distraction during the day when I want to take a break and also gives me much more company. I’m still living in the house alone, but at least there are a few people around from time to time during the day, so I’m not completely in isolation anymore.

This weekend I had all sorts of adventures. On Friday I went with a friend to a small conference in Michoacan, a neighboring state about a 3-4 hour drive from here. It was nice to meet some archaeologists who are working on other projects and hear about what they are working on. Friday evening I got back to Guadalajara too late to get a bus to Oconahua, so I ended up spending the night at a hostel in the city. The last bus that will get me to Oconahua for the night leaves before 6pm. I had been thinking about returning to Guadalajara the next day anyway, so wasn’t too bad being stranded there. It saved me several hours of travel time and cost me about $10 extra.

The reason I was thinking of coming back was an annual event in Guadalajara called the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Festival). It is a huge event with publishers from all over the world setting up booths to show their books and try to make deals with book buyers. There are lots of people making big deals to buy many books, but it is also open to the public. For under $2 anyone can attend for the day and wander through aisle after aisle of booths to look at (and buy) books. There are also things like book signings, talks by authors/illustrators/publishers and cultural performances. There is even a huge room set aside as the kid’s zone where they have games and activities for kids (and bigger people as well). I like to go to the FIL to look for archaeology books that I can’t find easily in the US. Most of the schools in Mexico send books from their presses there to display and sell, so there is a good variety there of scholarly work. Sometimes they are even available at a good discount from list price. This year I didn’t end up getting too much—I got a packet of several older books for about $7.50 and got a few back issues of Arqueologia magazine. It was fun spending a few hours wandering around looking at all the booths and books, as well.

Getting to the festival and back home were an adventure. The central part of the city (where I was staying and where the bus station is) spent much of Saturday slowly closing down the streets for a parade of some “monos gigantes” which I never saw, but assume are some big walking doll costumes or something similar. I just missed what turned out to be the last bus from my area of downtown to the Expo center where the book festival was being held. After waiting nearly an hour for another to show up, I gave up and walked about a mile to another bus route. It turned out that the buses there didn’t exactly go where I wanted, but got within a few blocks. My bus driver was very nice and let me know the best place to get off the bus and gave me directions on how walk the rest of the way there. After the festival, I had to take that same bus route back since most of the other routes going downtown were using alternate routes or just skipping downtown. That left me walking a couple of miles to the bus station, where I thought I was quite fortunate to find out that the very next bus leaving was one of the few each day that go to my town (instead of going to the closest large town and requiring me to wait up to an hour for the next bus to my town). It turned out to not be so fortunate, perhaps. About half way into the trip home, we hit a solid wall of traffic from an accident that had closed the road. We happened to be near a turn-around that could take us to an alternate route. The driver attempted the turn, and the bus died in the middle of it and wouldn’t start again, even with the help of a passenger who was a mechanic. The bus that left Guadalajara 15 minutes after ours came by soon, and we all got on it. It was full before we got on and our bus was full, so we were all crammed in very tight as the bus had to drive backwards for a long time to get to the alternate route and the passengers then had to try to help the bus driver pull out into the road across a couple lanes of heavy traffic since the driver couldn’t see anything because of all the people. The alternate route was some pretty small, windy, and not always paved roads through the countryside. I would have enjoyed seeing the new route if I could have actually had a good view of a window through all the people. After another hour or so we’d finally gotten rid of enough people so that we could almost all have seats, when we met another bus that was disabled and had to take on all its passengers as well. Our poor bus driver (of the second bus) was supposed to end his route at about 6:30 in Etzatlan, but ended up having to take those of us from his first disabled bus pickup to Oconahua and those from the second disabled bus pickup to San Marcos, which I think is the first town in the neighboring state of Nayarit. He got us to Oconahua at about 7:30 and left us at the edge of town to walk the rest of the way. My day was filled with lots of bus delays and rerouting and lots of walking as a result, but I did have a nice time at the FIL and eventually made it home safe and sound.

One photo this week is from the book festival. It shows a tiny part of this huge event. Probably the funniest arrangement of booths was in the “religion” section. On one side of the aisle was a Catholic publisher selling things like calendars, book marks, prayer cards, and lots of books for Catholics. Across from it were Pentagram press with a variety of books about the occult. Next to that booth was one about “futbolismo” or “soccerism.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a photo to capture that fun juxtaposition, so the photo I’m sharing is a more generic one of some other publishers’ booths. My other photo is of some buses and people (including my parents) at the New Bus Station in Guadalajara. I almost always use the Old Bus Station, since it serves the areas and routes that I travel most often while I’m here. It is much more crowded and dirty than the New Bus Station.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Greetings from warm and sunny Oconahua!
This time of year has beautiful weather here in Mexico. This week we’re having highs in the 80s and lows in the 40s and not a drop of rain. Weather-wise, this is probably the best time of year to be here. It will be quite a shock to my system a month from now when I suddenly land in Kentucky in the middle of December.

My work here is going pretty well. I’m nearly finished with the data collection that I came down here to do. Work has begun at the archaeological site that I’m living at, so I’ve been getting to go outside and play in the dirt some, as well. It has been nice to get outside to enjoy the great weather and to do some excavation rather than sitting indoors all day studying the ceramics.

For the last couple of months, I have been giving English lessons to some kids here. I have two students who come regularly—they show up a couple of times a week for lessons and sometimes come by on other days to chat or to have me practice flash cards with them. It has been a lot of fun for me, and they are really learning a lot of new English words and phrases. Their favorite lessons are colors and numbers. They never seem to tire of having me go over the number cards I made or naming the colors for me.

They are teaching me a lot about childhood and education here, as well. I’d never been able to figure out the school schedule here, since I would see kids going to or from school at all sorts of hours. I’d also wondered why it always seemed like half the kids in town weren’t in school on any given day. It turns out that they do half days for the elementary school here. The students (or their parents) get to choose between going to school in the morning or afternoon. So at any given time, at least half the kids in town really aren’t in school. They either attend from about 8:30 to noon or 2:30 to 6:00 five days a week. I was pretty surprised to hear that they go to school so few hours each day. I think when they get to high school age, they go for the full school day like we do in the US. At that age, quite a few of the kids, particularly ones who plan to go on to college, will go to a larger town to go to a prep school instead of attending the local secondary school.

My photos this week are of the kids I’m tutoring and the schools here in Oconahua. The school in the picture is the local elementary school. It is pretty typical of the elementary schools in this part of Mexico. The buildings tend to be one story with windows all along the walls of the classrooms and with doors opening out onto the school’s courtyard area rather than into a hallway as is more typical in the US. Like most buildings here, they don’t have heat or air conditioning. My other pictures are of the two girls I tutor most often. The older girl, Liz, appears at the food stand where we ate lunch the day I took her to Teuchitlan with me to visit the archaeological site there. The younger girl, Anahi, appears in a photo at today’s parade in town. She is the girl with a doll strapped on her back and holding up the banner.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Days of the Dead

Greetings from Etzatlan, where I'm spending a few days in the big city-- or at least the larger town.

Only about 7 weeks remain until my return home. My lab work is going well, and will probably be finished a couple weeks before my scheduled return home. It has turned out to be a very productive trip.

This week was one of the Mexican holidays that people always ask me about-- Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead isn't really just one day. It spans a couple of days at the beginning of November. The focus is on remembering friends and family members who have died. People build altars and put food, drinks, and other things on them for the dead people they want to honor. Some people believe that the souls of the dead come and consume the spiritual essence of the offerings. They also go to the cemeteries to fix up and decorate the graves. Gifts of flowers, alcohol (for the adults), toys (for the kids), and similar things are often left at the graves. In some towns, people even stay overnight in the cemetery and/or have a picnic at the grave.

I didn't really get out to see the Day of the Dead activities this year, so this week I'm sharing a couple of photos from the last time I was hear for the holiday. One photo is of some of the goodies that are available for sale for Day of the Dead. Included are some miniature altars (the little things with green cloth) with miniature offerings, candy skulls, and candy coffins. The other photo was taken at the cemetery in Teuchitlan when the graves were decorated and the families were arriving for the evening. It was really interesting to be in the cemetery when it was so beautifully decorated and when there were hundreds of people in it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Here comes the dry

Greetings from a rapidly drying Oconahua!
Yesterday I was out walking around on top of a giant platform at the archaeological site here and noticed that the plants under my feet were starting to get brown and crunchy. The dry season is truly upon us. As I mentioned before, during the rainy season, which lasts from May or June until October or November, most of the annual rainfall falls. For much of the season it will rain for a while every afternoon or night, which really makes everything lush and green after a few weeks. The dry season, which covers the rest of the months of the year, sees very little rainfall and things get drier and drier until the area resembles a desert. The last of the regular rainfall here this year took place in the last week of September, so we are currently about 3 weeks into this year’s dry season.

My timing of my trip this year won’t let me observe the dramatic changes in Oconahua, since things will still be only about 3 months into dying off when I leave in December. The time to really get to see dramatic changes is when the dry season turns to the rainy season in what are the late spring and early summer month in the US. In 2004 I was here during those months and decided to take weekly photographs of the change from April and May before the rains started through my departure in July. When I left in July, things still weren’t as green as they would be later in the rainy season, but it still gave a really good look at the changes.

This week I’m sharing two of those photos. They were taken from on top of the largest pyramid at Los Guachimontones (the site I worked at in Teuchitlan) and look across part of the site and show the town and lake in the valley below. The picture where everything is shades of brown was taken at the end of the dry season and the picture with all the pretty green grass and trees was taken a few weeks in to the rainy season. The difference is amazing, isn’t it? At the time the site was occupied, things would have looked very different. The site was surrounded by pine forests and the natural springs on the hill hadn’t yet dried up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Greetings from Oconahua!

I was so busy with my mom’s visit that I didn’t get a chance to post anything last week. We spent the first week of her visit living and working in Oconahua, then went to Guadalajara for the last few days. There were all sorts of interesting things going on in Guadalajara when we were there, and we took advantage of our time there to visit various attractions that one or both of us hadn’t been to before.

One of the interesting things that took place during our stay in Guadalajara was the Virgin of Zapopan’s holy day. This particular Virgin is a small idol that is said to have come from Spain and be made of corn husks. Her home is in the town of Zapopan, which is now a part of the city of Guadalajara. She spends much of the year out visiting other churches in the area, ending up at the Cathedral in downtown Guadalajara. Mom and I went to see her there on Monday, which was the day before her trip back home. The cathedral was full of people wanting to visit her before she made the trip. Most people just walked in and waited in the line to get up to the front to see her, but while we were there one woman was making the trip by walking on her knees. I’d seen that for pilgrimages to see the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, but never in Guadalajara before. I’ve heard that sometimes people will travel their entire journey on their knees, but I’ve only seen people making the trip across the church yard or up the aisle that way.

On Tuesday morning, there was a big parade to move the Virgin to Zapopan. It is a big deal in Guadalajara—there were estimates that perhaps 2 million people would be lined up along the parade route. She begins her journey at sunrise, so by about 6am the festivities had started with church bells ringing, drums beating, and fire works being shot off. Mom and I didn’t make the trip to see the parade since Mom had to leave for the airport at 7. We did watch part of the parade on TV, though, as we were waiting for a cab to be able to make it through the traffic and closed streets to pick her up.

We did get to see a big parade on Saturday, though. My photos this week are from that parade. It was a parade to kick off the big annual October Festival that takes place in Guadalajara. This isn’t a German-inspired Octoberfest, but a celebration of the culture of Mexico and Jalisco (the state that Guadalajara is in). One photo is of some girls who I guess must represent country girls from the time of the Revolution? They are wearing some typical country costumes and dancing with prop rifles. I can’t imagine going an entire parade dancing in those boots, but there were some folks in the parade in even more improbable footware! The other photo is of some people dressed up in traditional Indian costumes. That’s not to say that it’s how the pre-Hispanic folks actually dressed, but it’s how they are traditionally depicted in modern times. You’ll find dancers dressed like this at in many parades, at touristy locations like the Zocalo in Mexico City, and at archaeological sites on the first day of spring (a traditional day to visit archaeological sites to pick up the good vibrations). Some of the costumes are very beautiful, and it’s fun to listen to the rattles around their ankles as the participants dance.