Oaxaca, Mexico in 40 seconds

View from the plane window

The view from the airplane landing in Chicago. Photo cred: Ami Relf (seeing as I am too scared to look out of plane windows).

I have safely returned to the Windy City, but I can’t stop daydreaming about my time in Mexico.  It was beautiful and filled with cup-runneth-over joy.  I wrote several blogs while there, but because of spotty internet and the fact that I always wanted to be out tasting moles and dancing at festivals, I will post them over the next several days.

But until then, check out this little film that I think best represents my month in Oaxaca.  To create it, I used the app “1 Second Everyday“–an easy-to-use app that creates souvenirs more meaningful than t-shirts.


Going With The Flow at Hierve El Agua


Hierve El Auga, on the top of the world!

Before I moved to New Zealand for a semester, I received two guidebooks for the country as gifts. I studied them both, inside and out, carefully marking the adventures I wanted to turn over in my brain during dull moments, like waiting for buses and late friends.  Both books were heavy to carry with me across the planet, but I wanted to have my post it notes and bookmarks.  On my first full day in New Zealand, I found my way to the tourism office, and I took so many brightly colored pamphlets that one of the women working at the tourism bureau asked if I wanted a shopping bag to take them all home with me.

But I’ve done quite the opposite while in Oaxaca.  Instead of meticulously planning out each and every second of my days, I’ve tried the “go with the flow” method.  I decided I wouldn’t research, wouldn’t highlight and star, I would just accept as many invitations to see and do and feel as possible.  One reason—the pragmatic one at least–for my change in mindset is that I know that there is such a plethora of things to do and see  that I realistically cannot see all of that I would want to see in Oaxaca in just thirty days.  This is further exacerbated by the fact that my primary reason to be here is to study and collaborate and not to play.

Picture of all of us at the top.

Our band photo

So, I knew before coming here that if I just “let things happen,” that I can better stay in the moment, saving me some of the uncomfortable and scratchy “shoulda/coulda/woulda” feelings that can follow me home in the night.  The second is that I’ve just simply been tired—tired of working, tired of planning, and most importantly, tired of worrying.   So, in Mexico, I am just going to jump into things, arms outstretched, and see what returns my hug of the universe.


The “frozen” waterfalls

And the first real experience was my day trip to Hierve El Agua, beautiful mineral springs in the valley of Oaxaca.   My other NEH colleagues started murmuring about this natural wonder from the first day I arrived, stating that they wanted to see the beautiful waterfalls.  At one point, I got confused because someone asked me if I wanted to see the “frozen waterfalls,” and as I was sweltering in 88 degree heat, it felt incredulous that water could be frozen anywhere in the state of Oaxaca outside of a freezer.  In addition, the name “Hierve El Agua” translates as “boiling water,” so I thought that for sure the name must be incorrect.

Picture of waterfalls.

One angle of the “frozen” waterfalls.
Photo cred: Aisling Roche

But as someone finally explained to me:  Hierve El Agua isn’t waterfalls at all, but streams that have created hard, rock-like mineral deposits that give the appearance of enormous frozen waterfalls.  They are amazing to see, and the community has also damned some of dripping water to create beautiful, natural mineral water for people to swim in.  It’s a wonder (and gift) from nature.

I said yes without thinking twice.  We had a meeting point of 12 p.m. outside my friend Benita’s hotel.  In all, eight of us showed up: Benita, Steve, Vanessa, Shidah, Geoff, Aisling, Katherine, and Jesse (a male Jesse, whom everyone calls “el Jesse” and me “la Jessie”).  After everyone congregated (Ashling and I were late as we had spent the morning running all over the city to photograph street art), we had to figure out how to get there.

And boy am I glad I said yes before I knew exactly what I was getting into. Let’s just say that unless you go with a tour, the ride there is half the adventure.

Pictures of colectivos.

Pictures of colectivos.

First, we walked north a mile to a colectivo stand.  There are three main forms of transportation in Oaxaca—bus, taxi, and colectivo.  The bus is pretty self-explanatory, but it is entertaining to see men hanging outside of the passenger entrance yelling the bus’s particular destination.  Second, there are taxis, which you can hail off of the street, call, or jump into at taxi stands.  There are no meters inside the taxis—you negotiate your price before you get in the vehicle.  It seems the going rate, no matter how many people are with you or where you are going in central Oaxaca—is 40 pesos (roughly less than $3).  The other day, my friends and I took a taxi to a restaurant that was almost twenty minutes away, and there were four of us the car—and the price was still 40 pesos.  Amazing!

So last, we have the colectivo, or collective cabs.  This is definitely the cheapest option if you want to travel out of central Oaxaca and see the neighboring cities.  A colectivo has a specific designation (made clear with a sign in the car’s front window) and makes its rounds at each of the designated stops.  Anyone desiring to go to that destination can get hop in, and the driver will notify how many spots are open by sticking the corresponding number of fingers out of his window while he slowly drives by.  Colectivos are a far cheaper way to get out of town, and be a quarter of the cost of a regular taxi.

We split into two groups of four to try to make hailing a colectivo easier.  We finally negotiated the ride for 25 pesos each (less than $2), which I realized quickly was a large victory as the drive to the city of Mitla was about 35 minutes away.  Once we arrived and got out of the comfort of the taxi, I stretched and smiled, thinking we were almost there.  But soon, I saw one of my Spanish-speaking friends negotiating fares in front of what essentially was a pickup truck with a top over it.  I gulped and imagined someone holding my frizzy hair back as I puked up the three amazing al pastor tacos I had enjoyed from lunch.  Remembering to bring medicine for car sickness is not something I had put on my daytrip packing list.  Swimsuit, yes!  Motion sickness pills, a big ole nope.

Here’s a video clip of our journey before we start climbing the mountain thanks to Aisling Roche!

But I made it.  We piled into the camioneta and settled in for 40 minutes of going up a mountain over potholes and dirt terrain.  We had to hold on to whatever we could—the metal poles on the edges, the seats, each other.  I was my total chameleon self—because the group was happy, positive, and bubbly, I stayed comfortably in the same mood.  As we reached almost the top, I thought we had finally made it.  Nope.  We had to change hands and pickup trucks, and the “new” truck made the old truck look like a hot rod.  It was smaller with torn up seats and a roof that leaked.   In addition, the new pickup truck already had passengers inside, so we squished even more next to a kind and very curious Oaxacan man.

Photo cred: Aisling Roche

Photo cred: Aisling Roche

So by the time we made it to the top of the mountain, it was 2 hours and 45 minutes after we had initially left.  Our eyes welcomed the snack and taco stands at the top of the hill, but we weren’t swayed by the owners’ beckoning calls.  We could impale our stomachs with food later.  For now, we just wanted to see it.

A picture of Hierve El Agua

The beautiful natural swimming pool.

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Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news.  I have received an NEH grant!

As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide.  One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics.  The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.

There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA.  Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico


I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

 A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me.  The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from.  When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower.  But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman.  Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

The picture of the first free ancestors on my dad’s side.


Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came  when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing  40 meters under the earth.  We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness.  And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky.  This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.


Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.

Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

And I just… lost it.  There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love.  There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms.  I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the  moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone.  And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.

Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times.  But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches.  I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.

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