The morning started out sketchily. Our drivers were friendly enough, but being shuffled from unmarked van to unmarked van, surrounded by people speaking a language we didn’t understand, was slightly worrisome. We clutched onto recognized phrases – “Monte Albán” – like lifesavers to assure ourselves we were in the right place, with the right people.
We were placed conspicuously in a dated hotel lobby, where we waited. For what? Two touristy tramps carried along through a narrative that had no discernable beginning, middle, or end. We were thrust into a machine, oiled and operated in a different culture, a different tongue; a ride we had bought tickets to but had no voice in. Like two stray cattle. Vladimir and Estragon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, flipping coins to pass the time, awaiting our fate.
Finally we were ushered into another vehicle and introduced to our captains. I cannot remember their names, but they chatted to each other as we rattled up the steep slope to Monte Albán, picking up a withered couple that made their living selling jewelry outside the archaeological site. They showed us multi-faced glittering beads, round balls of bright blue plastic hung on string, clinking and clanking and rapid Spanish (or something like it) no doubt explaining why we needed such things. No, we said. No, gracias. Sorry, but no, no thank you. Gracias. No.
The van rattled and swayed. B ate something composed of ginger. I thought about WB and his stomach. Mine may not have an easy time with dairy, but it can handle a roller coaster.
We were spat out of the van into the dusty parking lot and the heat. A flurry of introductions – new guides, new faces, a new group of pink English-speaking tourists like us, with silly hats and hulking cameras, reeking of sunscreen. Together, we stood squinting in the sun among the foliage as our guide pointed at things with a stick – furry fingers of cacti reaching for the bright sky, spiked sheaths of agave clawing up from the ground, trees purplish, green, and grey. He explained their medicinal uses, their cultural relevance, their hallucination-inducing properties. Mist clung to the hills, valleys, and wrinkles of Oaxaca spreading eternally below us. A tomb with an ancient vaulted ceiling, sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes, was discovered under a house’s foundation.
In a ballcourt, Zapotec or Mixtec or Olmec played holy games for their gods. Its relation to ritual sacrifice is, at least at this site, unfounded. Was it just me, or did a shrug of disappointment whisper through the crowd? I marvelled at the impressive green of the lush carpet of grass. Surely that wasn’t accurate.
We snaked around the perimeter of the ballcourt like a tour guide’s tail, descended a boardwalk into the Main Plaza where stone slab buildings baked in the sun. It is the site of postcard pictures and the 20 peso note. The tour guide lifted the blue polymer pesos up for us to see; the modern money flapped into the wind, tiny against its enormous archaeological inspiration.
Monte Albán was the dominant city in the area for 1200 years, from about 500 BC to AD 750. Throughout that time it’d been home to Zapotec, Mixtec, and Olmec peoples, changing hands through battles and wars. At its peak, the plaza would hold tens of thousands of citizens and the acoustics allowed important voices to carry across the landscape.
It is a place of legend and mystery, brimming with puzzles archaeologists, scientists, historians, and anthropologists are still trying to solve. There are 300 stones carved with “Danzantes” or dancers, later imagined to be carvings of men and women writhing in pain from serious medical ailments or breech births. The strange, arrow-shaped Building J jolts out of the plaza’s precise alignment and vertical lines, pointing eastward. Its bricks are inscribed with place names and upside-down faces. It’s suspected these names are places conquered by Monte Albán’s warriors, and the building’s uncharacteristic shape has something to do with astronomy and the solstice. But it’s almost better not to know; it leaves room for magic and fairy tales and aliens (yes, some theories claim Building J is a spaceship).
Not to know. It’s strange how old humanity is, but also how young compared to the earth, the universe. Monte Albán and sites like it make you keenly aware of your insignificance, with its old buildings and even older surrounding hills. Hills who saw the Zapotec rise and fall, and people trickle out and abandon Monte Albán, and watched it like a movie – to them, to the hills, it was short, gritty, and entertaining. The hills now watch us filtering back into the site, in our khaki shorts, flapping plastic money at the sky, admiring the long history humans have created. We’re probably just a pathetic comedy in comparison. A brief series of poorly-written sitcoms.
But thousands of years ago we built temples to ideas and stories that, while they may seem silly to us now, demonstrate intelligence and abstract thought. Just realizing there are gaps in our understanding of the nature of things and filling those spaces with highly complex faiths that inspire the creation of buildings and ballcourts and wars…it’s amazing, even if it has often caused the world to suffer. We crave answers whatever the cost, and it becomes not only the foundation for so many individual lives, but for cultures and societies and humanity as a whole. Today, we visit Monte Albán and see that we still do not understand, so we fill the ballcourts and vaulted tombs and Building Js with gods and science and aliens and the movements of stars.
We’re not so different from the Zapotec with their beheaded princess and sacred games. The hills can see this, though they themselves are young. Their parents, whatever created the earth, laugh at them too. And on it goes, backwards and backwards into a dense and tiny dot of origin.
As you can see, a sweaty climb up ancient stairs and a stroll with sweeping views encourages introspection. I brought my monkey with me, and he laughed with the hills at my deep contemplation. He is made of stuff, and concerned only with stuff. The stuff is here, end of story. But he did enjoy the fresh air.
I climbed a second set of stairs and witnessed a second set of spectacular views. Also, a young American couple being informed in broken Spanish about the effectiveness of one of Monte Albán’s native plants on hemorrhoids. The guide, grasping for the correct word, pointed at his bum. The couple blushed.
It was a harsh awakening back into chaos when we couldn’t find the van to take us to our next stop. Another quest for answers, now not in the mode of deep philosopher, but of bumbling idiot whose mouth stumbles over graciases and perdons. None of the myriad of smiling guides we’d been introduced to seemed to know what we were meant for, nor who this mysterious Roberto (or was it Alberto?) we kept crying out for was. Pitying us, a new guide took us under his wing, packed us into his flock of tourists, and we headed on to San Antonio Arrazola.
To be continued…