Oaxaca street scene from Santo Domingo cloistersI was wondering why the Instituto where I’m going to take my intensive Spanish course was scheduling everything for 9AM. Which doesn’t sound particularly bright and early, but is the crack of dawn if you are in Mexico. None of the shops are open and the guesthouse doesn’t even start serving breakfast until 8:30. Which gave me only enough time to grab a pan dulche and a quick sip of coffee before I sprinted up Avenida Benito Juarez to get to orientation on time. Turns out it’s advisable to get administrative things out of the way between 9AM and 11AM, because after that all pinata breaks loose. Case in point, as I walked to class through Parque Benito Juarez (yes, every other thing is named after “Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln”) there wasn’t a soul in sight. When our walking tour of Oaxaca reached the park at 11AM, every square inch was covered with food stalls, craft vendors and hundreds of Oaxacans shopping, socializing or dancing to the roving bands. It was the same in every other square we went to on our tour (and every block or so there is another square). By the time the tour ended, the fireworks were shooting off, the Gigantes (giant paper mache and cloth puppets) were dancing in the street and Mariachi Madness was in full swing.

Released from orientation for the rest of the day, two of the older students and I decided to escape the noise and head for the museum in the old monastery at the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman.

refreshment in Oaxaca

Keith is on his third mocha drink of the day and Johanna seems unsure of the chile soaked peanuts. (And let it be known that Keith is Japanese and Johanna is Finnish. We are all attempting to speak as much Spanish with each other as possible, so drinking still counts as language immersion.)

agua minerale with mango

I had agua minerale with mango and chile. Because I am NOT afraid of chile.

The extensive monastery complex is one of the few Colonial buildings where the Spanish bothered to take the Natives’ advice about building. Hence it is one of the few that survived every earthquake, thanks in part to its massive 8 foot thick walls. Suffice it to say, it was quiet as a tomb inside where we viewed priceless artifacts from Temple 7 of the Zapotec city of Monte Alban — a treasure trove second only to King Tut’s tomb in the richness and number of artifacts found. Of course there were extensive exhibits and artifacts from pre-history through the Spanish invasion and into the present day. But jarringly, as we journeyed through the maze of corridors, we kept coming out to open balconies where we’d be blasted by the fiestas that seemed to be in full swing around the cathedral. Then back into the maze to contemplate relics in silence.

Zapotec footed vessels, Cathedral Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

We saw room after room of cool Zapotec stuff like this.

Zapotec skull from Monte Alban

And this! (I guess it was always Day of the Dead in Monte Alban.)

Zapotec artifact from Monte Alban

And this flying monkey from the Zapotec version of The Wizard of Oz.

Finally, we’d turned too many corners and glimpsed too much of the sights and sounds of the fiestas, so we headed out to the streets.

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca de Juarez

Clearly the old Padres wanted everyone to party. They had thoughtfully planted an extensive garden of maguey plants (from which Mezcal is made).

Dancer Oaxaca

So we danced with the gigantes, listened to the band and met Frida Kahlo's younger, prettier sister.

All too soon, it was time to put our serious student faces back on and head to our welcome dinner with the Director of the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca.

mezcal and lime

Where we were immediately treated to shots of mezcal, chile and lime.

In Oaxaca, you never know when a fiesta will break out.

Find more pictures of my first full day in Oaxaca here.