When Oaxaca Was A Battleground

Preface: this story was reported and written in late 2006 and early 2007 after some of the worst riots in Mexico broke out in the idyllic city of Oaxaca.

IMG_4180“Your life will be in danger,” my friend Bill had told me the afternoon of my flight to Oaxaca in early December.

His warning was bracing. Traveling in the shadow of fear was nothing new to me; after all, I’d just returned from Iran. But direct danger?

“I could always postpone the trip,” I thought to myself. “Besides, no one really cares about Mexico anyway. It’s all Iraq, all the time.”

I called another friend experienced in situations like these, especially Mexico.

“Listen. Ask questions. Take notes like I taught you. But stay out of the riots and protests. It’ll be great; what are you waiting for?” she asked. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

The next afternoon I was in Oaxaca.

My taxi from the airport followed a truck filled with soldiers down Avenida 20 de Noviembre. As the truck stopped my cabbie said, ” Su hotel, señor,” pointing at a clean, traditional square inn with purple borders and neon sign saying Hotel Francia to his left. In between dodging several pedestrians and grabbing my bags, I saw gunmetal black and gray hanging on the back of the rearmost soldier. Tension hung over the crowded street.

The story of how Oaxaca, a city surrounded by verdant mountains of pine and streets full of elegant colonial architecture, fell from the pinnacle of Mexico’s tourism industry into its basement began in May 2006 when the annual Oaxaqueño teachers’ strike raised the ire of the state’s blue-blood governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. In June he sent in the state police to disperse the teachers. The police action quickly turned violent; eight people were reported killed (although this claim has since been corrected, it was important in galvanizing public opinion in Oaxaca), and more than 100 were hospitalized. As news spread, Oaxaqueños from all over the region converged on the city and fought off the police, regaining control of the city square.

Hotel Marques Del Valle: Closed Until Further NoticeTwo days later, an estimated 400,000 people marched in support of the teachers’ union. A unified movement of almost 200 diverse groups within the state of Oaxaca, calling itself the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, or APPO, demanded Ruiz’s resignation. A six-month long confrontation ensued, frequently violent, sometimes murderously so, between those without the power to decide for themselves and those with the power. One casualty that suffered in silence was Oaxaca’s tourism industry.

The morning after my arrival I wandered through the streets of Oaxaca. The angry crowds were gone, their chants but an anguished echo in the valley. The gardens of the zocalo, Oaxaca’s town square, were filled with poinsettias, each with a small card attached to it, a spontaneous peace offering from the city’s families, rich and poor. Large armored trucks topped with water cannons guarded the main entrance to the zocalo.

Preparation 'F'Soldiers uneasily pitched tents under the colonnades of the Hotel Marques Del Valle, under the shade of the huge trees in the Alameda de Leon and beside the northern wall of the cathedral. Squads of gray-clad Federales marched up and down the Alcala Oaxaca’s main tourist thoroughfare while shopkeepers swept up broken glass and laborers, rushed in by the governor, hurriedly painted over the ubiquitous graffiti. Old ladies carried baskets full of pastel Aztec calendars and little boys ran around selling chicle.

Here was Oaxaca in the aftermath: colorful, full of beauty but marred by reality. The big question on the minds of most Oaxaqueños was: Will the tourists return? And if so, will it be safe for them? My search for answers begins at Amate, an American owned, English-language bookstore that has the finest collection of books in English on Mexico I have ever seen. The owner, Henry Wangeman, greets me. He has blue eyes, graying reddish hair, an identically colored beard and a warm handshake. We sit down in a cafe above his bookshop. Santo Domingo is off to my right and I get lost gazing at the mountains in the distance as Henry starts talking.

“(Felipe) Calderon (Mexico’s new president) has a chance to unite the country,” he says.

Indeed, several people in the week I visited Oaxaca had similar feelings. The manager of the hotel where I stayed told me, “Yes, of course we want to be united. We hope to be united. We are all Mexicans.”

IMG_4188However, Henry added a bit of a businessman’s twist to his comments: “I think most people would be happy if the government didn’t steal too much from us and let us work.”

“Is the government that bad?” I asked.

“There is no accountability or openness in the Oaxacan government. The caciques, the aristocracy heavily entrenched here in the state, aren’t going to let go,” Henry replied.

An example of too much government interference, according to Henry , is the Botanical Gardens of Oaxaca. Originally set up as an independent organization to conduct research on and show off the local flora, the government “swooped in” when the gardens showed revenue potential. What was once a vibrant, indigenous expression of curiosity and entrepreneurialism is now just a place full of pretty flowers for people to have their wedding pictures taken.

Henry had a laundry list of other issues he wanted to talk about, ranging from NAFTA to the old gods that still haunt the villages. Indeed, I could have listened to Henry’s enthusiastic digressions all day, but time was short and I came to the point.

“What about tourism?”

“Right now is a great time to visit for crafts many wonderful pieces have languished the last six months.”

“Souvenir hunting is hardly a reason to come visit amidst a riot,” I interrupted. “What would you tell a pair of San Antonians looking for a long weekend getaway? Would they be safe?”

He grew thoughtful, and then smiled.

“Yeah, come visit.”

Paul Leveno, an expatriate technology worker in Oaxaca, wasn’t nearly as sanguine as Henry. With sandy blond hair slicked back, he had an air of intellectual dissipation about him.

“Why do you see it differently?” I asked.

“People think that Mexico is a really great place,” he said, “because they think the Mexicans are spontaneous. But that’s crap. Spontaneity doesn’t exist here. What it is, is lack of control. The peasants, the poor, the working class, they don’t control their lives. They are ruled by the rich here. Essentially they get kicked around. And when they react, people think it’s spontaneity.”

IMG_4183When I met Paul he was deep in conversation with a raffish young Mexican man named Oscar, who was nodding in agreement with Paul’s analysis. I described him in my travel journal thusly, “Oscar looked the character. The very stereotype of a Mexican intellectual with a very Mexican mustache, wire-rimmed glasses and the air of a thoughtful and very smart young man.” Oscar, like Paul, wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions. I put identical questions to Oscar as I did Paul and Henry. To the main question, is Oaxaca ready for tourism? Oscar replied in flawless English, “No, Oaxaca will not be better served if tourism happens now. The city and region need stability first.”

But therein lay the paradox of tourism-based economies: stability is necessary to win tourists, but it’s the money tourists bring with them that provides, in large measure, the stability needed to increase tourism. A rising, or at least stable, standard of living is necessary to prevent Oaxaca-like political instability.

Luis Marti­nez and his extended family are Zapotec Indians who depend on the traditional carpets they weave for their livelihood. “If there are no tourists, we sell no carpets,” he told me the day we met. Luis’ shop sits further up the Alcala than Amate Books, right in the shadow of Santo Domingo. But Luis lives about 60 miles outside of Oaxaca in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, which I visited the next day.

Sitting on the floor of a narrow valley, Teotitlan is about 10 miles off the main southern highway we took out of Oaxaca. The landscape is surprisingly dry, almost semi-arid with plots of agave lining both sides of the road, marked out by rock fences and prickly-pear cactuses. A tangerine tree sits in the yard of Luis’ family home. Saltillo-like tiles adorn the roof of this U-shaped home. The family quarters are off to the left and the weaving wing of the home sits to the right in the shade of tangerine and mango trees. Sylvia, Luis’ cousin, greets us, ushering me into the left wing of the house to sit down. Speaking in Zapotec, an accentless and soft language, Luis translated for her.

“It is a pleasure to meet you. We have not had any visitors in many months,” she told me, adding that she hoped I liked the fresh chocolate drink and pastries she prepared. While talking she whisked the chocolate up into a froth that would have made any Starbucks barista ashamed.IMG_4234

“Business has been bad the last six months?” I asked Luis.

“Yes,” he told me, pointing to several beautiful carpets lining the walls, “all of these carpets are what you call, surplus. They are good carpets, of excellent quality,” he said. “I have won many awards in the United States for the carpets we weave here,” he added, showing me several certificates and photos of a much younger and more ebullient man.

After his parents’ death a few years back Luis became the patriarch of his family. Now he runs the business, provides a home for his unmarried cousin and money for many other family members. He balances the books, and also ran, before the present troubles broke out, a village co-op, which brought tourists (and their precious dollars) from Oaxaca out to Teotitlan. The difference between the man in the photos he showed me and the man before me reveals a person consumed with worry.

The politics of the unrest clearly affect Luis and his family, and on the drive back, I was determined to learn Luis’ views.

“Do you feel like the APPO represents you and your family’s interests?” I asked. Luis’ answer was ambivalent, at best, but hardly hostile. He seemed more bewildered by a wild storm he little understood, only wanting to steer his family business safely to port.

“It’s hard to say,” he told me. “Sometimes I am glad to see my countrymen stand up to the government. I am happy to see them do something. But we’ve all lost so much. The governor has lost his reputation, his good family name. The city of Oaxaca has been damaged, although this can be repaired. And the people, what have we gained? Maybe in six months things will return to normal, but I doubt it.”

“Will things get better?” I asked him.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders and turning his head back to the road. “How will I support my family until things return to normal? If I can’t sell carpets, we cannot eat.”

IMG_4254The rest of the ride was quiet, each of us lost in our thoughts, until we arrived back at my hotel. I offered Luis my thanks for a wonderful day.

“It was my pleasure. Hopefully you will tell people it is time to return, but I cannot say. We need them to return.”

As I wandered back through the streets of Oaxaca one last time I saw the poinsettias in the zocalo garden and thought: If anything is proof that it’s safe for tourists to return, this yearning for peace among the city’s families is it. Besides, with so few tourists, Oaxaca is a bargain.
This story was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News print edition in January 2007.

Iran’s Holy City Isn’t What It Seems

Originally published by the San Antonio Express-News in March of 2007

IMG_3555Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport is a cheerless backwater, especially at four in the morning, after enduring a 10-hour flight to Amsterdam, a nine-hour delay, followed by the six-hour flight to Tehran. At this hour clearing customs takes an eternity, and the only stimulus in the lonely, echoing arrival hall, other than young female passport inspectors sporting lumpy black chadors and henna tattooed hands, is the faded portrait of the Ayatollah Khomenei grimly staring down at those unlucky enough to remain in the customs queue. But that’s how my pilgrimage to Iran began last October, bone-tired, bleary-eyed and ready for whatever came next.

Then, like the click of a slide show, I was off to the golden domes of Qom, through elegant Isfahan, the desolate, ancient beauty of Pasagardae and Persepolis and graceful Shiraz. I dashed across the Dasht-i Kavir desert, passing through Yazd long enough to explore its underground aqueducts. I spent one lonely night in Tabas, Queen of the Desert, and then to Nishapur, the gateway to Khorasan and Iran’s most wrecked, ruined and rebuilt city, which has survived earthquakes, Scythians, Turks, Mongols and Timurids. It was two short weeks of grasping memories from the jealous clutches of time; 3,000 years of culture rushed by me in a blur until I arrived in Iran’s holiest city, Meshed, the chief object of my journey.

Once known as Sanabad, it was here, in A.D. 817, that the eighth Shi’ite Imam, Reza, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, arrived after a triumphant tour of the Shi’a heartland. The Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun, a Sunni, grew jealous of the imam’s rising popularity and imprisoned him. Fearing the imam’s growing spiritual authority might mature into something more temporal, something the greedy caliph could not allow, Ma’mun devised a plot involving pomegranates and poison, which were fed to the unsuspecting imam who soon fell ill and died.

Immense waves of grief washed over the sands of Persia and the martyred imam’s tomb quickly became a site of pilgrimage, one that attracted the scattered Shi’a of the caliph’s far-flung empire. Surviving invasions, earthquakes, rapine and ruin, the site, and even the name changed. Sanabad became known as Meshed — “place of martyrdom” — and Meshed turned into a booming modern metropolis sitting astride the old Silk Roads, some leading north to Samarkand and China and others west to the Levant and the Italian city states.

I crawled out of the car just as the sun set and walked into the hotel. Members of the Tajik national soccer team milled about the small, two-star hotel lobby; a curious mélange of Tajik, Farsi and Russian filled my ears.

“Passport please,” the attendant asked. I fumbled through my money belt but quickly complied.

I looked up, behind the desk stood a clean-shaven young man with slightly receding hair and cheerful, pecan-colored eyes.

“You are American, yes?”

“That I am.”

“How awesome!” he exclaimed in almost perfect American English.

“I’ve never met an American before,” he said excitedly and then came out from around the lobby desk, arms outstretched, exclaiming all in one breath, “This is the best day of my life. Can I hug you?”

After two weeks of kind salutations, warm welcomes and polite, almost infectious pride, I still wasn’t prepared for an outpouring quite like this.

“Sure, why not,” I replied, a tad embarrassed.

“So, now that I’ve hugged a complete stranger, tell me your name?” I joked, a feeble attempt to get through this awkward moment.

“Amir Isazysadr,” he said, stretching out his hand.

“Sean-Paul Kelley,” I replied.

We shook hands vigorously. Full of contagious enthusiasm, I liked him instantly.IMG_3818

“Why Meshed? It is a big, dusty, ugly city, filled with too many people.”

“Gohar Shad,” I told him, as if in a whisper. “If I’m lucky I will see the Gohar Shad.”

“The mosque surrounding the Shrine of the Imam Reza is splendid,” he said.

“Are you Muslim?” he asked.

“No, I am not.”

“That is a pity, my friend, because one pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Imam Reza is equal to 17,000 Mecca pilgrimages, or so say the mullahs.”

Between the late ninth and 14th centuries, the area surrounding Meshed witnessed the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate, an eruption of Turkic hordes into Persia, and then the Mongol cataclysm. Through it all the pilgrims returned. Finally, Tamerlane’s son Shah Rukh, faced with the growing demands of pilgrims, enlarged the shrine in the early 15th century. His formidable wife, Gohar Shad, ordered the construction of a new congregational mosque around the imam’s tomb as well, commissioning the Persian architect Qavam al-din Shirazi with the task. In the 1930s the shrine, by now a burgeoning complex in need of restoration, was again enlarged by Reza Shah. After the revolution it was enlarged once more to its present size encompassing more than 75 hectares in the heart of the city.

Since the revolution non-Muslims have been prohibited entry into the shrine housing Imam Reza’s tomb, but the rules regarding the Sacred Precinct and mosque surrounding the shrine are more confusing. Some guards let non-Muslims pass. Others do not. Sometimes it just depends on what day one visits. Aware of this maddening state of affairs long before I arrived in Meshed, it wasn’t until the night before my visit that I asked Amir and his brothers, who had come for dinner at the hotel, for help.

“What should I do? I want to get in, but I don’t want to see the shrine, that would be disrespectful. I only want to see the Gohar Shad.”

“Talk to the guards, express to them your deep admiration for the art of our land,” he told me, winking.

“No,” said Ali, with a strange grin, “it would be best if he said nothing. Just act like an Iranian.”

Adel, the youngest, suggested that I hire a local guide, one who might be able to bribe the guards.

“No bribes, not for this,” I replied.

The brothers looked at each other, said something in Farsi and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You are funny. This is such a serious matter for you. But Ali is right. Just walk in. Say nothing to the guards. Act like you belong there.”

“So, I’ll have to brazen it out, yes?”

They laughed again, as if in on some secret.

“Yes,” said Adel. “I’m certain you will be fine.”

The next day I set off before late afternoon prayers. The walk from my hotel to the Sacred Precinct in the heart of the city was easy. I only stopped once for directions before I arrived.

I crossed the street, dodging traffic, stepped onto the large plaza and strode towards the entrance gates. A large family ambled slowly in front of me, the mother pushing a baby stroller. I followed them closely, better to blend in. A guard waved a security wand over and around me as nervous fear and excitement pulsed through me. He patted me down for good measure and sent me through the gates. Not a word was spoken until I was about 10 meters away. I said nothing and kept walking.

Once inside the main gates I took a moment to absorb the outer plaza. Polished and sparkling in the sun, the immense outer courtyard was paved in bluish marble. A thick wall of brick geometrical shapes rose up in front of me, not, however, high enough to block out the sun, as I shielded my eyes. Finally, I caught a glimpse of a small passageway, took three deep breaths and walked into the main quadrangle of the Gohar Shad.

Masjede Gohar shadFor a moment, all activity around me stopped. The colors were mesmerizing, as turquoise, pink, purple, yellow and green danced along the walls. Tall bands of ivory white kufic calligraphy topped four high iwans(monumental arches). Arabesques and floral patterns blended into the right angles of the courtyard. A perfect symmetry of light and beauty collided and caromed up and across the walls climaxing in a narrowing pointed arch, its niche filled with deep blue muqarnas. Sitting against a wall in a small niche I watched pilgrims enter the courtyard, hundreds of them milling about under the cerulean sky. Like the sacred spaces of any religion, they all come to participate in something personal but paradoxically bigger than themselves. Perhaps a few came, like me, hoping to snatch a hint of inspiration, to touch the walls and feel the echoes of the past on their fingertips. Or maybe there were others seeking surcease from their own troubles, finding peace at the foot of the imam’s tomb.

A thick cloud covered the sun while the faint prayers of the devout rose up into the cool air of the courtyard. An inner calm came over me, that wondrous calm which is reserved for the summits of mountains, perfect sunsets and the birth of one’s children.

The call to prayer sounded. Thus, like many other more famous travelers before me, my time was cut short. Out of respect for traditions not my own, I left. I walked back to our hotel in contented silence.

Later that evening I ate a last meal with the brothers Isazysadr. All three asked me the finer points of certain English words and taught me a few similar Farsi words, but cautioned me not to speak them in public or in mixed company. Toward the end of the night, Adel asked me about my day.

“I hear you made it into the Gohar Shad today, yes?”

“I did. It was worth coming all this way just to have 10 minutes there.”

“Indeed, they let many foreigners in at this time, especially Americans. I think the Mullahs are trying to, how do you say it, ‘play nice’ with your government.”

Slightly crestfallen, I replied, “I didn’t know that. I thought I was sneaking in. Like a real adventurer, you know? You three knew all along I would get in, didn’t you?” The table erupted in laughter.

“Sean-Paul, my good friend,” said Ali, “nothing is ever as it appears in Iran. Surely you have learned this by now.”

Apparently I hadn’t. But I was catching on.


Sean Paul Kelley is a travel writer, former radio host and recovering investment banker native to San Antonio. You can read his travel-blogging at MySanAntonio.com.

Originally published in the print version of the San Antonio Express-News March 18, 2007

A Ramble Through US Culture and Politics and Baseball

My good friend Chris Duel had me on his show today. I also got to meet the super smart and lovely Vanessa Macias in person. If you are so inclined, you can watch the show here.  If you want to listen to me talk about Syria, speed ahead to about 51 minutes.

Or, click on the photo to watch:

Talk Now SA with Chris Duel and Vanessa Macias

Zen, Crossroads and Robert Johnson

Robert JohnsonI was just reading a short essay from a book called, “The Mindful Writer, Noble Truths of the Writing Life” by Dinty W. Moore and came across these lines:

So often, [the] ideal phrase or line of dialogue is more of a discovery than an invention. It is a flash, like the proverbial light bulb above the head depicted in cartoons. This flash of insight doesn’t come from thinking, from the intellect, or from reason; it comes instead from a more mysterious part of our awareness. For that moment at least, it can seem as if time and place and eternity have somehow met.

For the writer, the problem is to find that “peculiar crossroads,” the ever-shifting “location” where insight forms.

And then I thought about Robert Johnson’s famous song “Cross Roads Blues” and the myths that swirl around his early death and the so-called deal he made with the devil and thought, “fuck that, he found a kind of Zen loophole, what made him great and mysterious, people just didn’t understand back then.”

Strange the way thoughts just come together like that for no reason. Ain’t it though?

Charles Bukowski’s Obituary

Bukowski's ObituaryI was looking through the garage the other day at my father’s place and stumbled upon my college papers–lots of terrible undergraduate prose, newsclippings and other such odds and ends. In one box was a pile of old University of Houston Daily Cougar’s. I’d written a twice-weekly op-ed during my senior year and one post-bacc semester. All of the op-eds were terrible, except this one, which I present to you. The obituary of one of my favorite poets, writers and drunks: Charles Bukowski. Happy reading.