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Exploring Oaxaca

An excursion to San Felipe, Oaxaca, as well as Santa María Xadani and San Miguel del Puerto

by Sheila Clarke   palomaspto@yahoo.com
June 2007

Sheila Clarke, who has been teaching English in her own small language institute in Puerto Escondido since 1993, writes a monthly letter/essay for her family and friends. This year she is on sabbatical with a plan to visit parts of Oaxaca unknown to her. In her June 2007 letter she wrote about her trip to San Felipe. - tomzap
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San Felipe   More Photos
Someone asked me recently how I choose the communities I visit. Sometimes, Iíve heard a name or read a road sign that piques my interest. Frequently, I look for communities that have a telesecundaria, because I can assume that those areas are remote, but more often, I simply set out for a general geographical area, and by listening and asking questions, I choose my spots. For example, early this month I struck off for Huatulco, the largest of only four resorts on Oaxacaís 322 mile coast. I knew it would be easy to find reasonable off-season lodging.
Experience has taught me that hotel receptionists and tourist information personnel often donít have the lowdown on little villages off the beaten track, so arriving at the Huatulco bus station, I stopped to chat with the woman who collects the fee for the loo. Within minutes she rattled off three destinations. Excited, I dropped my daypack at a small hotel and took off for the park from which covered pickup trucks depart for more remote areas. I decided to take the first one leaving.
It was a perfect day for exploring as I headed to Santa María Xadani (ShahDAHnee), [GPS: 16°22'N 95°01'W] a village of 2000 folk nearly an hour from Huatulco. As we bumped along a rutted road, I chatted with my fellow passengers and watched the landscape change from dusty brown, to sage green, to emerald green as we went higher and further inland. It's easy to understand why people settled in Xadani a few hundred years ago. Two rivers flow through it creating an oasis of lush greenery. There are some seldom visited cascades nearby which I hoped to see. I explored the church and was in the cemetery when sprinkles turned to serious rain. I considered huddling with some chickens on a metal roofed grave, but instead hurried back to the covered portico of the municipal building where I met some high school students waiting out the deluge. The kids told me that principal crops are coffee, corn, watermelon and beans, but that many young men have left the fields for greener pastures in the construction trades in Huatulco. They chose having access to the Internet as their main desire for the future in Xadani. Our unexpected chat lasted until it began to turn dark. Foregoing the falls because of the rain, I grabbed the last truck back to Huatulco.
On the return trip, I met Ignacio who used to be a campesino, but now works as a forestry conservation officer. He named all the trees we passed and enthusiastically explained the successful local program to protect the forests. When he invited me to his town, San Miguel del Puerto, I cheerfully accepted; it was on my list. The other name I had, San Felipe, kept coming up in conversations, always with the caveat, "but you canít get there because thereís no transportation, and itís a four hour walk uphill one way."
Early the next morning I set off for San Miguel where coffee is still king, despite falling prices. The weather was glorious, the scenery exceptional, and the hour-long ride very informative. Again, San Felipe was mentioned...but I understood I couldn't get there. The people in the city hall greeted me warmly; the vice-mayor escorted me to the church and cemetery after posing me with him for photos in various parts of the municipal hall. Before I left the office, however, the secretary told me to pay close attention in the church to the villageís patron saint, the Archangel Saint Michael. "He doesnít have wings," she said darkly, awaiting my reaction. I tried to look appropriately astonished. Then she told me the legend.
Centuries ago, the people who founded San Miguel del Puerto lived about a two hour walk away. When a plague of biblical proportions struck the town, village elders divided the population, sending one party to found present-day San Miguel, and another to create the current Santa MarŪa. It was decided that the statue of St. Michael would accompany the first group, and the townís Virgin Mary would go with the others.

Padre Tacho   More Photos
The pioneers of San Miguel chose a site and quickly built their church, installing St. Michael in his place of honor above the altar. Then, the mystery began. Periodically, St. Michael would disappear. The townsfolk would inevitably track him down in Santa MarŪa, but the residents there swore they hadnít stolen the saint. To support their story, they pointed to sand on the statueís feet, suggesting that St. Michael himself had flown and walked to rejoin them. The saintís disappearing act continued. The priest and the townsfolk became increasingly angry. One night, in a fit of pique, the padre cut off St. Michaelís wings. The punishment for his rash act was swift. He died instantly that night and was buried underneath the church. San Miguel ArchŠngel, however, never left the church again.
When I returned from my guided walk about town, distinguished by two huge grave vaults in the cemetery, home to the remains of wealthy coffee growers, and by beautifully carved fifteen foot high doors on the church, I met the new parish priest, a casually dressed, friendly guy. When he heard about my travels, he, too, mentioned San Felipe as a place I might like to visit. "But I canít get there!" I exclaimed. "Iím going," he said. "You can come with me." He was even willing to wait more than an hour while I taught. The teaching experience was a joy. From 80 students, the teachers selected the ten best of each of five groups. The kids were enthusiastic and fun to work with.
As I was winding up the lesson, we heard a horn blast. The vice-mayor arrived panting to say that the priest was ready to go to San Felipe. Yea! Off I went in a new truck the community had just donated to the parish. We traveled through breathtaking forests, crossed rolling rivers, and, far above on the mountain sides, we saw various caves where there are ancient paintings....and hidden pirate treasure!
San Felipe, perched on a peak an hour above San Miguel, can only be reached on foot for long stretches of time during the rainy season. All year long there are frequent power outages, and even when there is light, itís weak. There are no phones. Most of the 800 residents speak Zapotec, and are very shy, a result, I imagine, of being so isolated. There are a good number of blue-eyed descendents of German settlers, living reminders of the Jewish Diaspora.
Padre "Tacho" lives in San Felipe, a decision which might have made sense three hundred years ago, but isnít very logical today. I ate with him in the rectory and we discussed at length the separation of church and state, required by the Mexican constitution but ignored in practice. I wanted to stay longer, but the parish truck was about to leave for San Miguel. I needed to catch the five oíclock colectivo, the last leaving for Huatulco. What a crazy ride that was! In a double cabin pickup, designed to carry a maximum of 15, or maybe 20... packed in, there were 38 of us, many of whom were fearless teen-aged boys headed to soccer practice who rode on top or hanging from the sides.
Before that recent exploratory trip, I never gave sandpaper much thought, or wondered what its precursors might have been. It turns out that for centuries before the development of modern sand paper, man used shark skin, crushed shells, and glass particles to smooth surfaces. And in Mexico, and surely other parts of the world, plant leaves were, and still are, used. I learned that tidbit from the truck driver en route to San Felipe who had me pluck a roughly textured eight inch leaf from a plant growing at roadside. Pedro explained that carpenters continue to use the plant's new leaves for fine sanding and more mature leaves for coarser work.


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