Sunday, March 10, 2019

Carnival, a Zapotec village, Weavers, a BIG Tree and an easy way home

March 5, 2019
Today we called to see if we could change our return airline tickets as we have a very tight timeline to change planes and go through customs in Dallas on Thursday. The schedule change was cost prohibitive so we will take our chances. If we miss our connection, there is a late flight at 10:30 pm arriving around 12:30 a.m. Anything would be better than spending the night in Texas.

We went to a museum today that had Mexican antiques and a big display of indigenous dress. There was lots of antique jewelry. It was small and right on our way to another restaurant. Hierba Dulce is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant and was delicious. I could only eat half of my enchiladas, however. We split a fruit salad of jicama, mango with a nest of fabulous orange slices and shredded beets. We made a stop for cash and came home to cool our jets until time to leave at 3:00 for carnival…think Mardi Gras… in a small village outside of Oaxaca.

Tonio picked us up and then we stopped to pick up two women from PA who are here on a tour Tonio led. We were joined by Antonio’s wife, Paulina and their charming four-year-old daughter, Inez. What a treat to witness this part of a culture. The band was playing loudly when we arrived and still going strong after almost two hours. The brass section was blaring the entire time and it was totally impossible to be heard when speaking to someone. 

The crowd of partygoers increased over time, many dressed elaborately in various costumes. A number of the men were bare-chested and in shorts and had oiled their bodies with oil and pigments; some green, some black, and others brown. Ron did his best to capture as many as possible but all were gyrating madly to the music most of the time or just as Ron snapped the photo, someone walked right in between him and the subject. 

I had to step back from the crowd and the noise after a while and take a break on a nearby park bench. Tonio and his wife met up with a friend there who was with her daughter. They joined our group and came back to Oaxaca when we returned.

After two hours of carnival, Tonio recommended we all go find
a restaurant. I was ready and hungry. He took us to a local place back in Oaxaca. It was a one-dish restaurant with variations on a theme. It consisted of a large tortilla that was cooked over a wood fire made in a concrete structure that was covered with a sheet of steel. The tortillas were cooked until crispy and then had various fillings. Most of us ordered the string cheese and refried bean version. It was huge so Ron and I ordered one to split and I still couldn’t finish it. Tonio insisted on paying for all of us. The meal was a great ending to a terrific day.

March 6

Today was another visit to a village day. Tonio picked us up at 9:00 and we went to Mitla, about an hour away. Here there are the remains of a Zapotec religious center that existed two or three centuries before the Spanish conquest. The geometric stone mosaics ‘have no peers in Mexico’. Fourteen different designs are thought to symbolize the earth and sky, a feathered serpent, and other important beings. There are individually cut blocks of stone that are then fitted together like a three-dimensional puzzle to make the designs. I have never seen anything like them and was truly awestruck by the technique and how elaborate it was. 

There was evidence of paint and painted images of an eagle and faces in various places, amazing that it still exists when subjected to the weather. One of the techniques used to protect the surfaces was the walls were slanted out from the top so when it rained the water would run off the roof and away from the walls. We walked through the three standing structures and marveled at the ruins. We were glad we took the time to visit this site as it was different and much smaller than Monte Alban.

Next, we drove to Teotitlan del Valle, the famous Zapotec weaving village, the tradition of weaving here goes back to pre-Hispanic times. Teotitlan had to pay tributes of cloth to the Aztecs. There was an amazing number of home-based studios. Our first stop was to a large shop owned by Nelson Perez at the entry of the village. The showroom was impressive. We were looking for a two-meter-long runner and they showed us three once we clarified the colors we were interested in. We stopped here because their brochure highlighted the use of natural dyes. We found one that would work well in the master bath but said we would be leaving for an hour to visit another place. The woman who was helping us immediately dropped the price by $50. I told her I would let her know later.

Next, we visited the Gutierrez family studio/home. Tonio is a friend of the family and wanted us to meet them. We were introduced to Juana who is responsible for all the dying of the wool. I was blown away by her. She dropped out of school at eight years old and by 12 she was interested in the family business. She spent 45 minutes going through the process of natural dyes, showing us large baskets of plant materials such as pecan leaves, moss, chunks of anil (indigo), cochineal, and dry pomegranate peels. Most fascinating was learning about cochineal. They use domesticated cochineal bugs that burrow into flat cactus leaves and extract carminic acid. They then dry the bugs and when dried they crush them on a grinding stone to produce the red dye. It is even more involved. When the female bug lays her eggs, they separate the eggs from the female and plant them on different cactus leaves. It takes three months for the bugs to get large enough to produce the red dye. 

There were racks of cacti leaves with the bugs on the leaves. These bugs were the size of a ballpoint pen tip! Think about separating the eggs from something that small. She told us how indigo is obtained. Anil is obtained from a bush so they collect the leaves and branches from the bush and chop it up and put them is water to ferment. Once the fermentation is completed they take the sludge from the vat and dry it. It is then in small chunks that look like coal or charcoal in brilliant blue color. From there she grinds it using a flat grinding stone and tubular stone to grind the anil.

Juana talked about how she created various colors   
using the primary colors to form secondary colors such as cochineal (red) and indigo (blue) to obtain purple. She took us over to her vats where she makes the dyes from the powders and showed us how different dyes require different vats so some vats were galvanized steel, some stainless steel, and some copper.

Recently she has taught herself how to dye new fibers they are introducing into the weavings such as agave fibers and jute. Juana made eye contact with me the entire time which many people do not do. They usually speak to the translator, in this case, Tonio. But she rarely looked at him. She made us all laugh when we started the tour by asking us did we want her to speak to us in Zapotec or Spanish? We asked for Spanish so Tonio could understand what she was saying.

This woman has a primary education yet she knows her chemistry and how different materials react with different substances. I told her she should be given a degree in chemistry. She liked that.

We went upstairs to the weaving room where Antonio, the weaver, not to be confused with Tonio the guide, was teaching a student from Kansas City how to weave, She had just completed a three-day workshop with Juana on dying. Her piece she was working on was with yarn she had dyed during her workshop with Juana. Antonio showed us two pieces he was working on. He is introducing new fibers to his work. The new fibers are much finer, and thinner than wool so it takes much more work and time to complete a piece. The second piece was much smaller but much more detailed. It was a wall hanging of an ocean scene with feathers, copper wire, agave fibers, and some wool. He said he works on it for a short period then takes a break due to how intense the project is. It reminded me of the bandhani process used in India for their intricate tie-dying. Women work on tying the knots for 30 minutes then take a break and come back and repeat the process for 30 minutes.

Antonio was an exacting teacher as he measured the students work and said ’You are two centimeters off. Do it again.’ Afterward our time with Antonio, we went to the small showroom. Although they didn’t have a runner that worked for our color scheme, we bought a couple of small pieces. Juana was in the showroom and she came over to me and said ‘You take a piece of me with you’ as she pointed to my purchases. I got tears in my eyes as she truly struck a chord with me. I touched my heart and gave her a big hug which she reciprocated in return. It is moments like this when you know there is hope for humanity and it helps me to move forward in hopes that as a species we will continue to make connections and learn to love one another.

Back to Nelson Perez to purchase our runner which is based on a Zapotec design with symbols of the life cycle, water, light, etc. 

From here we went to El Tule, a small village known for El Arbol del Tule which is the largest tree in the world. Some say the General Sherman tree in CA is bigger but El Tule is 11 meters in diameter so it is, at least, the worlds widest tree.

We had Tonio drop us off at a restaurant since it was almost 3:00 and we have reservations for dinner at 6:00. So we split a small salad and an order of pork tacos We rested at our apartment until dinner time then enjoyed a fancy meal at one of our favorite restaurants that had great ambiance. Both of us are ready to return home. I miss my bed, my bathtub, and good coffee.

March 7
We are all packed and we take off for breakfast. Within blocks, we find a local place that already has customers, all local. We decided to give it a try. We each order an omelet and enjoyed our breakfast. The coffee was weak and worse, it was tepid. Why does anyone drink tepid coffee when they can have it scald all the way down? Can you tell I like it hot?

Our prearranged taxi arrives and off we go to the airport. Check-in is quick and easy since we are early. We decided to eat lunch at the restaurant before security since the immigration rep told us inside the terminal the food choices were limited.

Our trip to Dallas is uneventful and we arrived early which is to our advantage since we had an hour on paper to go through customs and change terminals in order to make our flight. We flew through the terminal to get to customs. Fortunately, the Global Entry line was short with no wait, security didn’t take any time either so we raced to the sky train to get to our terminal. Ron ran to the restroom while I found an eatery right across from our gate and picked up two ready-made salads so we could eat on the plane. Hooray, we made it! We got home around 10:00 p.m. and unpacked…Yes we always unpack before going to bed after a trip. I took a bath and by midnight we were in bed which was 2:00 a.m. body time.

March 9
It was another wonderful adventure for us. We met some great people, saw some grand sights and ate wonderful food with no problems, digestive or otherwise. We weighed ourselves the next morning and were pleasantly surprised. Ron is BELOW his high school weight and I am only eight pounds over my high school weight! Who knew walking all over SMA and Oaxaca could help us lose pounds while eating all that great Mexican food?

black pottery, wood carving, and weaving

March 4
Today we were picked up by Tonio at 9:30 to visit three crafts’ villages. Tonio is a guide I learned about through my friend Kamaldeep whom I befriended when we lived in India. She is a textile designer and told me about Tonio when I wrote to her to ask about her experience in Oaxaca once I knew we were coming here. She raved about Tonio, calling him the most amazing man in Mexico.

Tonio speaks perfect English, always a gift to us non-speakers of Spanish. Ron prepped for this trip by revisiting his vocabulary cards from previous lessons we took four years ago. Our first stop was at a black pottery village where we met a man whose family has been potters for several generations which is apparently common here. He walked us through the entire process showing us how he constructs a piece and how it is fired in a wood-burning kiln. 

We did not see what we had hoped to find and proceed to his sister’s studio/home where we purchased a smaller pot than the one we had seen in SMA. It was not as fine as the one in SMA but that was the risk we took by not purchasing the one we had seen first.

Our next stop was at the wood carvers’ villages. This was a small town known for the alebrijes which are fantasy animals carved from copal wood and painted in intricate patterns. Check them out on Google. The finer the work the more expensive the piece sometimes running into thousands of dollars. Our host told us the history of the alebrijes and how the first carver in his family was his father who was a farmer. His carving was mostly folk art, our host, Jesus Melchor, became a more skilled carver and his son, Giovanni was an incredible carver. Jesus still comes to the USA every year to pick apples in WA. The farm he works for brings a van to Mexico and takes the workers to the border to obtain their visas and takes them on to WA. We bought a few small items, then Jesus walked us over to his brother’s house. His brother likes to make figures riding bikes and scooters so we bought one of his pieces for a friend who hates the new electric scooters that have invaded Portland. We thought he would get a good laugh when he sees it.

On our last stop, we visited a family compound of weavers in a nearby village. Here several sisters made a variety of products including traditional sashes, belts, purses, placemats and table runners. They use backstrap looms and there are four generations who weave in this family compound including a four-year-old girl.  We enjoyed visiting with the woman who was weaving the entire time we spoke with her. Her husband is a painter so we toured his studio before leaving.

Tonio dropped us off at our favorite restaurant, La Popular. I order the flying salad, a tostada which was another wonderful carnitas dish and Ron had the carnitas tacos. We waddled home afterward for our siesta. I fell asleep again and Ron woke me around 4:30. We left late for dinner and tried to get into Los Danzantes but there was a 90-minute wait so we headed up the street to a place Tonio recommended. We waited at the bar for about 20 minutes before getting a table right in front of a duo of street musicians playing horrible music. The singer played a ukelele and sang tortured songs while his partner tried to play along on his trumpet. We couldn't tell if they were playing the same song. We were relieved when they moved on.

The restaurant was in a complex with two stores and an art gallery with a show that extended into the open-air restaurant. We liked the paintings a lot and I loved the exhibit of rugs by a designer from Santa Fe who uses imported New Zealand merino wool and designs rugs and blankets based on Zapotec designs. For 30 years he has worked with Zapotec Indians who weave his blankets and rugs.  Remnants of Zapotec blankets were found as early as 800 A.D. in the SW among the Pueblo Indians.  Visit for a look. The rugs on exhibit were absolutely exquisite.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Enjoying just walking around and returning to prehistory

March 2
Today we ate our breakfast outside our apartment on the terrace.  We decided to have a Plan B for our shopping excursion. One reason we came to Oaxaca was to visit villages famous for black pottery and textiles. We have arranged for a knowledgeable guide to take us there Monday and Tuesday but he has requested we go Monday and Wednesday. Since we leave on Thursday, we thought we should have a plan in case we do not find what we are looking for. So today is dedicated to looking for shops that have the items we are seeking.

While wandering around town, popping in and out of shops we encountered another wedding. This one appeared to be a Mexican bride and an American groom, judging by the guests who trailed after the couple as the brass band played loudly.

At home, I had read an article on Oaxaca in the Sunday NY times and saved it for this trip. We read it again today. It mentioned a local restaurant that is popular with tourists and locals. The place is called La Popular. OMG, I had the BEST tacos of my life today. I ordered carnitas tacos and they came with some guacamole and pickled onions. The generous amount of pork was incredible; crispy yet moist and so flavorful. They were served on fresh tortillas made in the kitchen. I watched the woman making them on a flat grill. The tortilla was perfect, soft but slightly chewy. The couple next to us said they had eaten there the day before. They were European and didn’t know what they had ordered the day before but had taken a photo of their meal and ordered it again today. It was a tostada. They were ecstatic, calling it a flying salad because they could pick up the tostada and eat it while holding it. We determined we would return and I asked if they were open on Sunday, tomorrow. I was told yes but not until 1:00.
We waddled home and took our siesta. On the way, we spied some activity outside Santo Domingo Church.

 I fell asleep for over an hour. We went out before dinner to look at more shops we had read about. We realized we were still full from lunch so decided to just grab a salad. We passed a gallery and realized they had a small eatery inside so here we found the small salad we wanted. Fresh and tasty.

The real treat was the gallery. They featured an exhibit of Jacobo and Maria Angeles Ojeda. They are copal wood alebrijes artists. World class and unbelievable. Google their names and you can see their incredible work.  In addition, there were other exhibits including some unusual jewelry, beaded figures, and skulls. Is there anything more delightful than seeing fine art and crafts? It is amazing how creative some people are and it is always a pleasure to see.

We came home and relaxed, reading until bedtime.

March 3, 2019
It is Sunday and we had no plans today. After breakfast on the terrace, I read my emails and learned that tomorrow we would have a very long day if we tried to go to two craft villages and try to see Monte Alban. I quickly looked at our five-year-old tour book on Mexico and learned that there is a bus that leaves hourly to Monte Alban within a few blocks are where we are staying. I told Ron if we left within a few minutes we could catch the 9:30 bus and beat the heat. It worked; we got there less than ten minutes before it left. The trip took about 30 minutes, stopping to pick up a few vendors along the way. We climbed to 6200 feet in altitude to reach Monte Alban.

Layout of Mount Alban
This city from which the Zapotecs ruled Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales is one of Mexico’s most spectacular pre-Hispanic sites with temples, palaces, tall stepped platforms, an observatory, and ball court all arranged in an orderly fashion with wonderful 360-degree views over the city, surrounding valleys, and distant mountains. (Lonely Planet).
Add caption
big steps for little people

More steps
Monte Alban was first occupied around 500 BC. At its peak, there was a population of 25,000 between 350-700. Between 700 and 950, the place was abandoned. We walked through the entire site with its massive structures. The scope was impressive. After two hours we had seen everything there was to see except the museum. We went there and quickly viewed all the artifacts that were displayed. All the signage was in Spanish only so that aided us in going through quickly in order to catch our return bus to town. By now it was noon and really hot.

Massive stone slabs - How were they moved?
Depictions of castrated captured leaders

More captured leaders


We decided to return to La Popular for lunch from the bus drop off. We arrived a few minutes before 1:00 but we were bushed from the walk in the heat. We sat on a step waiting for them to open. A truck drove up and the driver started unloading beer. The driver made multiple trips and went through a side door. After he finished, I walked to the side door to inquire when they would open since it was now about 10 minutes after 1:00. The driver was the owner and told us they opened at 2:00 on Sunday but they are open daily at 9:30-midnight. We were so tired and hungry we decided to go to another place for lunch and return to La Popular for dinner.

In a few short blocks, we went to Los Danzantes, ‘The Dancers’. This restaurant also had been recommended in the article from the Times. What a treat. The d├ęcor and ambiance were terrific and the food was delicious. We didn’t want a heavy meal so we split a good salad with hearts of palm, fresh greens, pickled onions in beet juice and avocados on the side for me. Ron had tortilla soup and I had the best black bean pureed soup imaginable. The blue corn tortillas were a real treat along with the sauces and ginger chili bread. What great food they have here.

Back at our apartment we stripped to our undies and sat in bed reading and writing with the fan going on full blast. We left for our second try for a meal at La Popular at 6:00. The place was filled with locals. I think there was one other couple who were gringos. We each had a shrimp cocktail for dinner. It was served in a tall glass like what used to be used for ice cream sodas back in the day of drug store lunch counters. We lost count of how many shrimps were in the glass. The sauce was liquid with minced onions and cilantro and wonderful spices and flavors. I could taste what I assumed was Woostershire sauce. Whatever it was it was fantastic.

We strolled home in the cool night breeze around 7:30. As we passed through the Zocalo it was even more crowded and animated tonight. The vendors were roaming through the crowds and having success at selling all manner of items, the music was playing and folks were dancing. Kids had balloons and were eating melting ice cream. It made me smile seeing so many having a good time with family and friends.

After we got home, we watched Free Solo, a documentary about Alex Honnold who climbed El Capitan in Yosemite Park without ropes. This was a 3000-foot climb! It was terrifying to watch. My idea of a thrill is traveling to Mexico!