Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Daytripping (Teotitlan del Valle)

About 45 minutes from Oaxaca, on the way to Mitla, is the beautiful little town of Teotitlan del Valle. Like other towns in the area, the people are mostly Zapotec, and Zapotec is spoken in the streets almost as much as Spanish. The town itself is attractive, nestled into the big green hills that line the valley of Oaxaca, with steep cobbled streets and a lovely if not particularly distinguished church. 

Teotitlan is mainly famous for one thing, and that is the beautiful weaving done here. For centuries or perhaps millenia the zapotec people have been accomplished spinners and weavers. Of course, there were no sheep in Mexico before the Spanish arrived, so they worked with cotton rather than wool. Today the best tappets and sarapes are made from the wool of local sheep. 

This handbuilt spinning wheel is in a museum (community museum of Santa Ana del Valle, a few miles away and worth a visit), but I saw many of the exact same design in the shops and home based businesses I visited. They are used standing up, and the wheel is turned by hand rather than with a pedal. I also saw some wheels ingeniously made from old bicycles. 

Most weavers also do their own dyeing, mostly with local plants. Traditionally no synthetic dyes are used. This señora is showing us the plants they use, and giving a demonstration of the many colors that can be extracted from the cochineal insect, native to Mexico and a great source of treasure for the Spanish, being the only colorfast natural dye in blood-red. 

It is highly recommended that serious buyers of textiles get out of Oaxaca City and head for Teotitlan or Santa Ana. Prices will be half of that in the tourist markets of Oaxaca, and you will have the chance to meet the artists and see them at work, not to mention enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and beautiful scenery of rural Oaxaca. I couldn't help myself - I bought this gorgeous blue tapete from the artist herself, pictured here with her creation. This is Dona Juana, who has been weaving tapetes for over fifty years and is a true master of her craft. It gives me great pleasure to be able to support a true family industry, and help in a small way to ensure that this traditional knowledge lasts for another generation. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Day-tripping (Mitla)

There are any number of places to visit within a few hours drive of Oaxaca de Juarez.  Los Valles Centrales, or the Central Valleys, are full of gorgeous scenery; myriad small towns with beautiful, ancient churches and zocalos to visit; and endless examples of fine craftsmanship in every medium from clay to textiles. There are pre-hispanic ruins and there are opulent buffets. 

I've been here many times and made many daytrips from Oaxaca, and I've barely scratched the surface of places to visit. In the coming posts, I'll try to lay out a few possible trips, with photos, depending on your interests. One of my favorite daytrips from Oaxaca is Mitla. 

Mitla is a world heritage site, and one of the largest and most interesting pre-hispanic archeological sites in Oaxaca. The entire modern day town of Mitla was built right beside and largely on top of the old town, and as was their habit, the Spanish built their church directly on the ruins of the ancient temple, and largely using its stone. 

Church of San Pablo, with ancient foundations in foreground

The archeological zone, which costs about $3.50 to visit, is directly adjacent to the church, and covers an area of perhaps 30 or 40 acres. It is well worth hiring a guide. They hang out in the shade under the largest tree in the upper plaza as you enter. Look for a guide with an official laminated card showing he is certified by the state historical society. Unless, of course, you are more interested in learning the local people's oral traditions regarding the site, which most likely do not square with the archeological record. 

The unique feature of Mitla is the marvelously preserved mosaics facing most of the buildings. These are not reconstructed; they are original. They are not bas relief, which is what I thought when I saw them, but true mosaics. That means that each of the tens of thousands of pieces were individually carved and then fitted together into the friezes that face the surviving buildings. I have not the slightest idea how it was done without metal tools, and neither does anybody else.

Mitla seems to be well excavated, and one would never imagine that there were still hidden treasures here, but there most certainly are. Only a few years ago - less than five - a German tourist visiting in the rainy season went off the marked path and literally tripped over a half-exposed skull. This is not a suggestion that one should bring along a shovel, of course, but it surely adds to the general mystique of the place. 

The town of Mitla is a wonderful place to explore. It is more touristy than other, similarly sized nearby towns (owing to the world-class ruins, of course) and therefore the prices of artisanal goods are a bit higher than they might be elsewhere. On the other hand, you do see the very best of the best, especially as regards textiles. This whole section of the Valle is renowned for its textiles. One of the things I enjoyed most in Mitla was entering a textile fabrica and watching a young man weaving a cotton tablecloth on a gigantic, handmade loom. I took a short video, but I can't get it to upload. 

Below, however, please see an example of the local ingenuity that makes me very happy indeed. It's a spinning wheel made out of an old bicycle. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

There and Back Again (Memory Lane)

Last week I was in Seattle and environs, visiting my family. Originally, I was going to take care of my mother after an operation. But the operation was postponed after the tickets were bought, and so I went anyway. Truth be told, I was ready for a little break from life in Oaxaca. Not that there are any major problems; on the contrary, things here are going better than I ever dared hope. Even so, I missed my family and friends, and I just wanted to be in a place where everything was "normal" for a little while.

A wonderful little break it was, too. Autumn is my favorite time of year in Washington, at least during those few precious weeks when the days are sunny and the evenings are crisp, and the leaves are bright against the sky and crunchy underfoot. The second week in October was just such a week, luckily.

In addition to spending time with my daughter,  mom, and sister, my girlfriend Sarah made a special trip up from Portland just to see me. We stayed in my mom's centrally located condo and walked all over town. I haven't lived in Seattle for years, and not downtown for many MANY years, but my entire youth was spent there, and everywhere we went I was overcome with memories. It was actually almost scary - the memories were coming up so thick and fast they were almost choking me.

On Capitol Hill we walked past Seattle Central Community College and Seattle University, where I jointly went to college. We stopped and ate in a couple of my old favorite restaurants, and passed by coffee shops where I wrote many a paper. For the most part, my Capitol Hill memories are good ones, from a time when I was young, strong, independent and happy, engaged in academia and writing a lot of good poems.

We walked down the hill to the Pike Place Market, and deeper into my past. My first legitimate job was at Market Spice, and I spent thousands of hours in the market, both working and getting into trouble. Before I was working, as a young teenager, I used to catch the ferry over from Bainbridge Island, climb the old steps, and hang out in the market listening to buskers and trying to get someone to buy me coffee or lunch. I was an incredibly lonely child at thirteen and fourteen, willing to go to just about any lengths to have a conversation with somebody. It was also a time when I was hungry, and passing the produce stalls I vividly remembered spending a dollar on an apple and a handful of nuts.

The train station is in Pioneer Square, the oldest part of the city and the place I spent the most difficult years of my life. I've visited many times since I left for good, and never felt the press of memories like I did this time. These are memories that I would just as soon stay put, but nothing doing. For more than two years, I lived with my father in a room in the Pioneer Square Hotel, which was then a skid-row flophouse for people one step away from the streets, either going up or coming down. Mostly the latter. Walking past, I remembered the fire. I remembered the stabbing. I remembered the rapes.

I'm certainly not making this sound like a good trip, but it was. It was very good for me to have these memories. None of it felt traumatic; it was all too long ago. My biggest concern was not boring my friend Sarah to death by blurting out all these private visions. "And this is where... oh my God, and this is where...."

Anyone who knows me will tell you I have a shocking memory. I am notorious for remembering nobody until I have met them six or eight times. Although I absorb anything I read from a book without difficulty, I can't remember anything about what I actually do. My life is pretty much a clean white sheet until the age of eight or nine, and my husband is constantly insulted that I can't remember details of our courtship or married life. My memory is so bad that is pretty much has to be a self-inflicted condition, my history of pot-smoking notwithstanding.

As a matter of fact, the idea of my trying to write a memoir is ludicrous. I recently read that Mick Jagger was once offered a large sum of money for his ghost-written memoir, but the deal fell through when it was discovered he could remember almost nothing about his own life. I laughed out loud. That could be me. It was, therefore, a bizarre and disorienting experience to get a kind of bum's rush through the disused passages of my own mind. If pressed, I could have given a narrative of those years, even one that included many of the details... but that would be a dispassionate recitation of events that might have happened to anyone. Very different to feel the memories as living experiences. I'm not entirely sure what to think about it. I guess I should write it all down before the curtain of amnesia falls again in three....two....one...

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit home, and returned to Oaxaca refreshed and eager to see my family. The weather turned while I was gone and the rainy season is over. It's been quite hot and sunny lately. We have no major plans or obligations for the next month, and it may be a good time to take a trip. Out to the coast, say. I'd love to get a little snorkeling in.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Birthday Parties Are Different Here

Again, I can't write too much, because I plan for "parties" to be the topic of an entire chapter in the book, but a few bullet points about children's birthday parties in Mexico:

1) There might be a hundred and fifty people or more.

2) They will not all be people you invited, at least not by name. They will be parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins, and maybe neighbors of the people you did invite. This is totally expected. It isn't bad manners to bring uninvited guests; on the contrary, it's bad manners to be so stingy that you don't provide enough refreshment for all the people who might show up.

3) Therefore, as you might expect, they cost a mint. A party held up the street from us (for a one year old!) involved a closed street; rented tents big enough for a mid-sized circus; clowns; and a catered meal. The goodie bags they gave out - to approximately 75 children! - were impressive.

4) Mezcal is provided. Very occasionally, I have seen beer and wine provided for the adults at a children's birthday in the states, but I think it's fair to say that the consensus opinion is that alcohol has no place in the same room with balloons or anywhere in the vicinity of a bouncy house. Here, a good host provides a bottle of mezcal at every table, as well as beer and soft drinks. No-one gets snookered at a children's party (it's rude) but no-one is expected to attend a party of any kind without a little booze.

5) If you don't let your kid eat sugar, or if s/he has some sort of food issue, it's all on you. I've never seen so much sugar in one place in all my life - cakes, coca-cola, jello, showers of candy from the piñata, ice cream, more candy, more cokes..... As far as I can tell, no-one restricts their children's diets in any way at all. And their behavior precious little.

6) Although children's parties don't get rowdy, there will be at least one incident of shocking gang violence, and somebody will get pummeled with a stick.

7) They might even lose their head entirely.

Monday, October 1, 2012

River in the Mixteca

Another trip to our friend Chencho's village in the Mixteca Baja. He asked Homero to come up and fix a few cars, and he would kill the family pig and give another feast.

Never ones to say no to a feast, we gathered the family and the mechanic's tools and set out on the two and a half hour drive. I had wanted to arrive the day before to witness (and help with) the pig-killing. Back home, we raise a pig a year, sometimes two, and although we do process our own goats, we always call the professionals in for the pigs. I wanted to get a real idea of how much work it is, how many people it takes, and if it was truly beyond the tolerance of my gorge. Homero didn't want to spend the night, however, so we didn't see that part.

By the time we got there, the pig was jointed, cut into medium sized pieces, and marinating in a bath of milk and spices in the largest clay olla (casserole) I had ever seen. The skin, de-bristled and cut into strips, was sizzling away gently over an open fire in a cauldron of lard. That is how you get chicharron,  by boiling down the fat and the skin together until the lard is all rendered out and the skin is crisp and deeply browned. The lard gets sieved and saved for use in tamales and other dishes, and the chicharron is broken into small pieces and eaten with hot sauce and fresh lime juice.

It all smelled heavenly, but there were hours to go before the food would be ready. Chencho's wife Mari suggested we take a walk in the surrounding hills. "See that hill over there?" she asked, pointing at one of the dozens of peaks around us. "See those reddish spots up there? That's my dad's ranchito. Why don't we walk up there?"

Why? Well, how about because it's 90 degrees and I'm fat? Oh well, sure, let's go. I slathered some sunscreen on myself and the kids and we started off. Probably it was about a mile walk, maybe a touch more. But it was mostly uphill, of course, sometimes very steeply so. And at a mile and a half above sea level, exercise is even harder on my lungs than it normally is. I was puffing like a freight train by the time we reached the river, but it was worth it.

Over a stretch of perhaps 50 yards, the river has carved a wonderful flowing stone cascade. There are natural baths where the water pools, deep narrow stretches where it runs swiftly, and broad shelves for wading. 

The girls had a great time jumping over the rocks like goats, leaping the stream where it is narrow and playing in the stone "bathtubs."

Unfortunately we hadn't come prepared with swimsuits, and it was just a bit too transited to skinny-dip - the river is bordered on both sides by cultivated fields with farmers working in them, and the track that runs alongside is frequented with goatherds and their flocks. But the water was cool and lovely, there were frogs for the children to chase, and luckily I had worn a skirt so I could tuck it up high and wade. 

If it weren't for the mosquitos it would have been perfect.