Saturday, 28 June 2014

Oaxaca - The United States of Mexico

I am very excited to start blogging about Oaxaca and Mexico, a country I know very little about, despite its important place on the world stage. Like most people, my 'knowledge' of Mexico mostly consists of news reports about drug cartels, illegal immigrants or violent gangs.

During the next few weeks, I'm looking forward to learning more about this country, through the lens of Oaxaca, I want to discover Mexican music and literature, I want to learn about Mexico's great linguistic diversity, about the cultures that survived the European conquest, the modern-day Aztecs and Mayans.  I want to find out about Mexican telenovelas and read some Mexican literature.  I want to prepare a traditional Oaxacan dish (if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below!)

Which United States?

When we hear the words 'United States', I'm sure most of us think 'USA', so it was interesting to discover that the official name of Mexico is Etados Unidos Mexicanos or the United States of Mexico/Mexican United States.  In the 21st century, the USA and USM are two different sides on the see-saw, with the USA very much in the ascendant and Mexico considered to be somehow less developed and less important, despite the fact that Mexico has the world's 14th largest economy, just behind Spain and just ahead of South Korea.  They're also not doing too badly in the FIFA World Cup!

Say Oaxaca?

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
Oaxaca is a part of Mexico that isn't that well-known to the rest of the world.  I really only found out about Oaxaca when I was blogging about Enrique's Journey and Honduras.  Many illegal immigrants riding the trains to the border of the USA pass through Oaxaca and this got me interested in finding out more about this less familiar Mexican state.

I started by pronouncing Oaxaca as o-aksaka but, I now realise that it's pronounced more like wahaka. The pronunciation of Oaxaca got me thinking about the links between Mexico and the United States. Wahaka sounds a lot like a Native American Indian word and it made me understand that our modern perception of Mexico/USA means we separate Aztec culture from US Native American Indian culture when, actually, they're very much related to each other.

Native Americans and the arrival of Europeans

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
Funnily enough the last place I blogged about beginning with the letter O was Oklahoma.  I learned a lot about Native American culture, when I was blogging about Oklahoma and I feel there is a real 'trail of tears' in the Native American story that stretches from Oklahoma to Oaxaca and beyond.

I'm reading a really interesting account of  the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru by BBC books called Conquistadors by Michael Wood (2000). It's an informative and clearly-written account of the 16th-century conquistadors, Cortes and Pizarro.  It's a pretty horrific tale and, from a 21st century point of view, a real tragedy that the great cultures of Mexico and Peru were destroyed by Europeans without a second thought.

The Mexican Jigsaw

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
The chapters on Cortes and the Aztec Empire have given me a real sense of Mexico, as it existed in the 16th century, long before modern borders and states.

In fact, the big division, culturally, in Mesoamerica seems to have been between the Aztecs and the Mayans.  Even in modern times, Yucatan probably has more in common with its neighbours Belize, Guatemala and Honduras than it does with the rest of Mexico.  I'm speaking in cultural terms, of course, economically, with its thriving tourist industry Yucatan is a world apart.

When Europeans first started arriving in Veracruz and other parts of eastern Mexico, the Aztec culture was slightly beyond reach, hidden away in the Mexican valley.  The modern name Mexico, comes from this specific geographical area, once sheltering the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, now occupied by the conurbations of Mexico City.

Between the valley of Mexico and Oklahoma were much smaller cultures, eking out an existence in the harsh deserts of Chihuahua, Colorado and Mojave.  Aztec rule had barely reached these northern deserts, when the Spanish turned up on the scene.

Oaxaca's place in the jigsaw

Oaxaca en México.svg
"Oaxaca en México" by Yavidaxiu - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
What is now Oaxaca was only part of the Aztec empire for 30 years before the Spanish arrived and changed the political landscape forever.  Oaxaca is a very mountainous place, most of the state is 2,000 metres above sea-level, which made it inaccessible in past centuries and, to an extent, protected from the radical Europeanisation that happened in other parts of Mexico.

You can still see this today, in the fact that Oaxaca is Mexico's most ethnically complex state with sixteen officially recognised indigenous cultures.  More than half of Mexico's speakers of Native American languages live in Oaxaca and the Spanish language isn't as ubiquitous in Oaxaca, as it is in other parts of the Mexico.  I guess Oaxaca is the Mexican equivalent of Oklahoma, but much more so!

Missing pieces of the jigsaw

It wasn't until the 19th century that Native Americans felt the pressure from the growing power of the United States of America and that nation's manifest destiny and expansion westwards.  Mexico lost around half of its land area during the 19th century, the missing pieces of the Mexican jigsaw being modern states like California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.

I'm embedding a useful YouTube video below, from the Open University, which explains the changes that took place in Mexico and the United States in the 19th century.  I thought it was quite poignant to note that, whilst the 19th century was all about borders crossing people, the late 20th and early 21st centuries are all about people crossing borders.

I guess the fate of these two countries will be forever intertwined and I hope the future of US-Mexican relations will be one of mutual respect, cooperation, promotion of Native American cultures and a sense of shared history.

Image credits:

Oaxaca doesn't really have an official flag, so I made my own image which combines the Mexican national flag, but replaces the national seal with the Oaxacan state seal.

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of Flickr member psicoloco aka Alex Torres, who is originally from Mexico City.  You can see more of Alex's beautiful photos on his photostream.

Thanks Alex for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.  

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - The Final Word on German Tourism

Until I started researching for this blog, I'd never heard of Engelbert Kaempfer, the 17th century naturalist from Lippe in Westphalia, who travelled through Russia and Persia, all the way to Japan, arriving in Nagasaki in 1690.  He wrote The History of Japan, one of the most famous accounts of a European journey to that most secretive of nations.

The ubiquitous German Tourist

You know that you've managed to get off the beaten track, when the only other Europeans you encounter are Germans.  When I was blogging about Eritrea, back in September 2012, I came across the work of the UNWTO (the World Tourism organisation).  Every year the UNWTO publishes a report on world tourism and it's fascinating to look at the summaries of their findings.  For the purposes of this blog, I have decided to look at the summaries from 2014 and 2004, to find out how many Germans are travelling and how popular Germany is as a tourist destination.

World Tourism in 2003

Bavarian Alps, a popular tourist destination in Germany
Germany has often topped the UNWTO list as the country which provides the biggest revenues in terms of 'outbound' tourism (ie. Germans travelling as tourists to other countries).  Looking at the report from 2004 (which analyses data from international tourism in 2003), Germany was top of the list with a 12% share of the world's outbound tourism.  US citizens were the second-biggest travellers in 2003, followed by the British and the Japanese.

The top tourist destination in 2003 was - perhaps not surprisingly - France, which frequently tops this list as the most visited country in the world. Germany took 9th place as a tourist destination, just behind Mexico and ahead of Canada.

World Tourism in 2013

The picture has changed quite a bit over the past ten years, with the rise of China and the strength of the Chinese economy.  There were more Chinese tourists travelling the world in 2013, than tourists from any other country (11% of the 'outbound' tourism market). German tourists are now in third place (7.4%) and a little bit behind tourists from the United States.

Interestingly, Japanese tourist numbers have dropped dramatically and Japan doesn't even appear in the top ten list any more, despite the fact that Japanese tourists were the fourth biggest group in 2003.  There has also been a sizeable growth in the number of Russian tourists, who were the tenth largest group in 2003, but are now the world's fourth largest group.

France is the world's most popular tourist destination
France remains the most popular tourist destination in the world, however, Germany has become increasingly popular, going from 9th to 7th place.  Germany now receives more tourists than the UK, but slightly less than Turkey, which has seen an explosion in tourist numbers during that 10 year period.

The next ten years in Tourism

It'll be interesting to see how things change over the next ten years - will France still be the world's most popular tourist destination?  Will the number of Chinese and Russian tourists be even higher, or will they be lower?  I think it's a difficult industry to make predictions about and that only time will tell!

Image credits:

Both images were taken by me - please feel free to use them with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Books and Movies

The Books

I've read five books, as part of my research for Nordrhein-Westfalen.  Here's the list with links to blog posts, where relevant:

Germany: Insight Guides (2005) ed. Tony Halliday and others.  This book provided me with a good overview of German history and culture.  It's got me really interested in visiting the Rhine valley again, perhaps a cycling or walking trip will be on the cards in the near future!

Reading list for Nordrhein-Westfalen
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque.  I wrote a blog post about this fantastic novel back in April.  I read the 1996 Vintage edition with an afterword by Brian Murdoch, who is Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Sterling and an expert on Remarque.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) by Heinrich Böll. I also wrote a blog post about Böll's novel.  I read the Minerva edition of 1993.

Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction (2011) by Mark A Noll part of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series.  Regular readers will know how much I love these books and I found Noll's Protestantism invaluable when I was researching my blog post on Protestantism in Germany.

Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) by Lewis Lockwood.  I must admit, I didn't read the entire book - it was very much a last minute addition to my reading list and I just didn't have time to read the whole thing, although I found the bits I read enjoyable.  Lewis is a musicologist from New York city, who is an expert on Beethoven.  This book was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer prize for Biography.  He alternates each chapter, to combine biography and musicology and I found this approach really engaging, although I can't tell my arpeggio from my adagio!  I used the early chapters of this book to inform my blog post on Beethoven.

The Movies

Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas (1984)
I didn't really know anything about Wim Wenders before I started blogging about Nordrhein-Westfalen and I'd never seen any of his movies, although some of the names (e.g. Paris, Texas) would have been familiar to me.

He's quite an iconic film director, originally from Düsseldorf, his movies portray an emptiness and silence that, in many ways, symbolise the broken soul of post-war Germany.  Wenders also has a lot to say about American culture and some of his most famous movies are set in the United States.

I couldn't get my hands on all of the Wim Wenders' movies I wanted to see, but I managed to watch the following:

Alice in the Cities (1974)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Wings of Desire (1987)
Don't come knocking (2005)

Opening sequence from Paris, Texas (1984)
His movies are quite slow-moving and should definitely be appreciated for their artistic qualities rather than story-telling.  I particularly loved Alice in the Cities, one of his earliest movies - shot in black and white, it's mostly set in the Rhine valley and the industrial cities of the Ruhr.

In Paris, Texas I can see the influence of Wenders on a whole generation of US movies - those bleak landscapes and slightly surreal shots.  I've just recently finished watching the popular US series Breaking Bad and I can see hints of Wenders in the deserts of New Mexico.  The boundaries between TV and cinema are increasingly blurred these days and I like the fact that TV programmes are embracing style as well as substance.

Here are some of the themes that Wenders' movies tend to deal with:

Typically stark Wenders shot from Wings of Desire
- Individuals who are outside the norms of society (the character of Stanton in Paris, Texas or the angels in Wings of Desire)
- Road trips
- Alienation from a world which is incredibly materialistic
- Timelessness
- Children being abandoned by their mothers
- Adults who disappear
- Shots of faces within faces
- the trauma of progress (ubiquitous television in United States, changing landscape of the Ruhr valley)
- melancholic and repetitive music

As well as learning about Wim Wenders, I also watched both movie versions of All Quiet on the Western Front, the fantastic 1930 film and the less engaging version from 1979.

I had a really nice Easter weekend with my sister in Leeds, when we devoted several hours to my research and watched Amadeus (1984, dir. Miloš Forman), the slightly crazy movie about Mozart and Immortal Beloved (1994, dir. Bernard Rose) starring Gary Oldman.  I loved both movies and they helped me contextualise the development of music in the Classical period and the influence that Mozart may have had on the work of Beethoven.  I'd recommend either of these movies to anyone who wants to learn more about these composers.

I'm going to leave you with a trailer from Immortal Beloved so you can get a sense of what the movie is about:

Image credits:

The image of the books was taken by me.

The images of the stills from Wim Wenders' movies are from photos taken by me. These images are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote these movies. By publishing these images, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These images are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to highlight the performances of these actors in these movies.