Saturday, July 31, 2010

The holy trinity of Oaxaca

image of watercolor by Francisco Toledo via

No, I'm not talking about The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost, although Catholicism is a very important part of Oaxacan spiritual life. It's the first Catholic place I've been where the churches are actually full all the time, for early morning mass, afternoon mass, even Saturday evening mass. It's an interesting brand of Catholicism mixed with the many and varied indigenous traditions of that part of Mexico.

The holy trinity I'm referring to are Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo and Rodolfo Morales, three 20th Century Mexican artists who have worked tirelessly to revive Oaxaca's colonial towns, their markets, churches and craft spaces. Of the three, Toledo has had the most noticeable affect in Oaxaca City itself. This is not to downplay the effect that Tamayo and Morales have had on Oaxacan life. One need only visit Ocotlan to see what a huge impact one man can have, and I'll write about Morales's work there later. But Toledo is still alive and heavily involved in projects that bring attention to Oaxaca both at home in Mexico and abroad.

In Ciudad Oaxaca, Toledo started a foundation that renovated the Casa de Cortes, a beautiful colonial building that legend says Cortes lived in. (It's been determined that the house was built too late for this to be true, but legends are nice, aren't they? Perhaps he lived in a previous structure on this spot.) The renovation resulted in the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca on the pedestrian Calle Alcala smack in the middle of town. Unfortunately, it was closed for restorations during our time there, but there were huge screens set up outside so that passers-by could wish Sr. Toledo a happy birthday.

Another even more impressive project has been the restoration of an old factory that is near a water source and formerly generated electricity for the area around San Agustin Etla. The space is now a beautiful museum with a papermaking workshop close by and a store that sells the paper products, all stunningly set in the hills a taxi ride from Ciudad Oaxaca. We spent a wonderful afternoon there:

The front of the former hydroelectric plant with water elements incorporated on the sides of the steps

A textile on display (embiggen to see how magnificent the embroidery is)

Up on the 2nd floor terrace -- pottery and remnants of the former plant

A fantastic sculpture show by Gustavo Perez (again, embiggen for details)

The tienda where you can buy kites and other paper products from the workshop

These are just a few of the many projects Sr. Toledo has overseen or funded. But you don't have to travel to Oaxaca to see this wonderful artist. If you are in New York this summer, you can see an exhibit at the Cervantes Institute called The Fantastic Zoology of Francisco Toledo which is based on the book by Juan Luis Borges. I plan to visit next week when I will be in town running errands and will let you know what you can see if you visit yourself!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Let's leave dancing!

Friends and family who've traveled with me over the years will tell you that I am the worst traveler in the world. The worst. That's why they all find it so funny ("weird," not "ha ha") that I love to travel so much and will go to great lengths to see new places and return to favorite spots over and over. (I think I know Rome better than I know New York at this point in my life.)

I have been physically ill on every mode of transport known to man since my family first drove from Baton Rouge to California when I was five years old. All of my travel companions have favorite stories that they never fail to rehash about my unfitness for moving through space and time, some of which are now semi-legendary. Just say the word "vomit" to my Dad and, much aggrieved, he'll be happy to relate how I once got carsick crossing the Mojave Desert and threw up down the back of his shirt when we were hours and hours away from civilization.

Then once I arrive somewhere, it takes me days (more and more of them as I get older) to adjust to my new surroundings and start enjoying myself. Looking back over my travel journals, I have to laugh at the predictability of my entries for the first 2 or 3 days I'm in a new place, even in Rome, as much as I love it there. "Why did I come?" or "I wish I was at home in my own bed" or "How many days before I can leave?" are phrases that repeat themselves ad infinitum.

But then the sense of awe and wonderment kicks in and I find myself marveling how I lived so many years not being in this place, interacting with these people, eating this food and seeing these colors. I am like a teenager falling in love all over again, and I drop all pretense at sophistication and become the callow teenage girl I was when I went to Paris and London by myself for the first time and began to see a world I'd only read about in books.

As the Wheel turns again, the journeys draw to their close. Because I'm lucky enough to have a life that I love and a wonderful home to return to, I'm usually ready to go back and begin processing all the new stimuli I've been exposed to. But the re-entry after a pilgrimage, and all travel is pilgrimage of a sort, is almost as difficult as the preparation and departure, both physically and mentally.

Today is our last day here in Oaxaca. I have many things still to post about, but that will come after I've returned to New York and have had time for reflection. We must now repack our bags, figure out if we have enough pesos to get out of Mexico, and begin making lists of all the things we didn't see this time but must see when we return.

Because, of course, Oaxaca is a place we have added to the list of those to return to, and we will be back. You can count on it!

Monday, July 26, 2010

You have to make the climb if you want to see the view

I think this will become my new motto in life!

Monte Alban is the oldest city center discovered so far in Mesoamerica. At its height, as the center of the Zapotec empire in 500 - 800 C.E., there were over 40,000 inhabitants within a 3 sq. mile radius. By 1000 C.E., the city had been completely abandoned for reasons that archaeologists are still not sure about. The ruins were then occupied and adapted by the Mixtec peoples, and even after they moved on to Yagul and Mitla and other cities, Monte Alban retained importance both as a burial place and as a place of shelter during times of upheaval up to the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500's.

I am currently working on a slideshow of our visit here set to music by Pasatono, a modern group of ethnomusicians who are recreating Zapotec musical styles. In the meantime, enjoy this small taste of our rambles over the ruins.

In Oaxaca, one must eat . . .

Sopa Azteca with epazote, corn and a zucchini-like vegetable called chayote

Tlayuda with sausage and -- yep, those are tiny chapulines (grasshoppers). Watch out -- they're hidden in many dishes!

Fish steamed in brown paper with herbs and peppers and mushrooms

Flan -- notice that portions are half the size of what we're used to, so you can eat many different courses

Sated and happy

It's possible to eat well here without being too adventurous. But if you really want to get into the spirit of Oaxaca, you must be open to trying things that look a little (okay, very) different than what you are used to. (Sorry to sound so smug, but I've been quite pleased with myself for trying unusual things and not gagging!)

The pictures above were taken at a restaurant in the hills near Ocotlan where we had gone for the Friday market and to visit the church and museum that were funded and/or restored by Rudolfo Morales (more about him later).

A funny thing happened while we were there. A loud marimba band was playing at a baptism that had taken over the inside of the restaurant. We were eating out on the veranda and our guide (let's call her Nina) who is also the owner of the apartment where we are staying, knew the restaurant's cook, so she asked him what was going on.

Imagine her surprise when he pointed out the man who was paying for the baptism of his child and the child's beautiful young mother. The man is married to a woman in Nina's husband's family who had not been very welcoming of Nina's marriage as Nina is not as pure-blooded as her husband. (Apparently, this woman always used to ask Nina, "What are you going to do when my cousin throws you over for a more sophisticated woman from Mexico City?")

This woman, the cousin of Nina's husband, is apparently unaware that her own husband has a whole second family with what the cook called his "weekend wife"!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is it July 25 already?

Don't touch! Even the skin of these chiles can burn your fingers!

Lots of cacti, most of them edible

Red-barked trees hugged by cacti

Interesting, knobby bark

An advantage of visitng during the rainy season is that the cacti are alive with blooms!

Hmmm, blogging has slowed down a bit, mostly because we are both fit and enjoying morning activities, coming home for a short siesta, and then going back out for evening entertainment. I expect the rhythm of my days would be quite different if I were here studying and writing curriculum, but for a little less than 2 weeks, a free-form kind of life has been great fun!

I'll write more later about our apartment and host, our cooking classes (we've learned a second mole -- mole verde -- which is good with fish, pork and rabbit), our trips to the mountain villages where we bought some beautiful museum-quality things, and the concerts we've seen. In the meantime, I'm trying to blog different photos than the ones I've put up on Facebook for those who are following us on both sites. I'm also investigating ways to consolidate all of my photos in one place, both to share and to keep for myself, but more about that later.

The above photos were taken at the Ethno-Botanic Gardens that are part of the Santo Domingo Cultural Center. I'm not sure what it looked like in the days when Santo Domingo was a working convent, but certainly not like this! When the monasteries and convents were nationalized in the mid-19th century by Benito Juarez (a son of Oaxaca, btw), these grounds were turned over to the military and housed soldiers and stables for their horses. Everything was pretty-much flattened although archaeological traces remain under the surface.

About ten years ago, another set of do-gooders, similar to the ones who restored the Textile Museum, gathered donations and began the process of turning the space not into a re-creation of what it would have been like before nationalization, but more of a gathering place to preserve all of Oaxaca State's varied flora in its unaltered state. Oaxaca has some of the most varied species of several plants -- chiles and cacti, for example -- in the world.

The hard work of these plant activists has paid off in spades. The garden is not huge but is cleverly broken into several zones and, as it is a work-in-progress, there will probably be many more as the garden expands. The most popular zone is the Edible Zone where huge squashes bloom next to several varieties of chiles, potatos, corn and runner beans.

You are only allowed to tour the garden as part of a group with either an English-speaking or Spanish-speaking guide in the mornings. This is not only because you could get lost on the pathways but because many of the plants are dangerous to the touch, being either poisonous or prickly, or both. As you can see from the photos, the textures of the trees and cacti are so unusual that I had to restrain myself several times from reaching out and touching.

Our guide was very knowledgable but not pedantic, and the two hours flew by. I've begun to consider including a science element in the lesson plans that I hope to generate from this trip to Mexico and can't wait to do more research and visit again in the future.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Never a dull moment

I have to be honest. As soon as we arrived and I saw how small Oaxaca was, I was afraid that after a few days we would get restless and want to go back to the excitement of home.

Silly me.

After 4 nights in a row of free music and dance concerts on the plaza outside the Church of Santo Domingo, we reluctantly passed up the chance to see some music last night so that we could do some shopping. I was sorry to be missing the action, but not for long. We walked two blocks and ran into a small parade on the Alcala.

Then we turned onto Alvarez Bravo on our way to the museum there and a second parade came along.

Then, before we could turn around, there was a third parade on the corner one block away. All this in the space of ten minutes in four square blocks!

Tonight we opted for another free concert in the plaza. A family band of traditional musicians played for a group of dancers that consisted of 2 young adults and four kids all under the age of seven. They were adorable and very talented.

From our seats, we could turn to the left and watch as a young girl celebrated her quinceanera and took photographs with family and friends.

And we could turn around and watch a huge parade that was going on one block south.

All this without leaving our seats!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moving at a slower pace

photos via

I am taking my camera out less and less often as people here do not like to be photographed, even inadvertently. But we are also moving at a very slow pace. Now that I'm recovered, The Husband is feeling a little lethargic. Fortunately, his stomach is good, but his knees and back are aching, probably due to the uneven cobbled streets we've been navigating.

So this morning we got up late and strolled to the zocalo to have a simple breakfast of pan tostado, frutas, apple strudel and yogurt with coffee and chocolate. We sat for quite a while just watching everyone go about their business through the heart of the town.

On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at a beautiful new museum of textiles that was created by a group of artists from a downtown colonial building that was being destroyed by neglect and greed. The outer shell was saved but the inside rebuilt to include space for exhibits, classrooms, lectures and meetings, and a library. You can read the story of how the building was saved and see pictures here .

It approaches 4pm now, when most Oaxaquenos have already eaten their biggest meal of the day and gone out for the evening. We should get moving soon!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rough Justice

Huevos Divorciados for breakfast -- green and red sauce

In the kitchen with Nora

Ingredients for mole

After much toasting, sauteeing and blending, the ingredients become the mole

1st course -- squash blossom soup

I spent the morning searching for a farmacia so that I could buy some Pepto-Bismol, so it's only fair that I mention the food here.

Did I already say that everything, and I mean everything, is eaten with chiles? This not only includes things you would expect -- moles, meats, fish -- but even things you wouldn't expect. (You think that dish of red sauce next to the butter on your bread plate at breakfast is raspberry jam? Nope!) However, for those of you who are thinking tasbaco sauce and waving your hand in front of your mouth, you would be surprised at how subtle and not-hot some of these chiles are. Once your tastebuds get used to them, you will wonder how you ever ate papaya, ice cream or hot chocolate without them!

The stomach is the last line of resistance, though, especially as we get older. I began feeling a little uncomfortable an hour after breakfast yesterday and have been sticking close to the apartment for the last 24 hours until the little pink tablets begin to do their magic. In a way the timing was good -- it could have been disastrous if we were on a bus excursion in the mountains to visit ruins. But it was also unfortunate because The Husband and I were taking a cooking class with our host and the smell of the delicious mole and tamales we learned to cook was making me queasy. The Husband got to eat my share and his, so I'll just have to wait until I get home and replicate this dish before I can taste it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I'll eat anything that doesn't eat me first

seasoned pork, steak, pork rinds, cheese, quesillo, grasshoppers, guacamole, fried tacos filled with chicken and memelitas.

chapulines and quesillo (string cheese)

The first thing besides mole that I had to eat was chapulines (grasshoppers). I was expecting a big crunchy bug but instead got a pile of teeny tiny bugs that are closer to the size of gnats. They were delicious and organic, as were all the items on the Oaxaca sampler platter from Restaurant La Olla .

So far I've drunk bottled water but have eaten fruit off the street and used tap water to brush my teeth with no problems. I'm also taking a lot of acidopholus daily, so hopefully I havent' jinxed myself!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Who eats mole for breakfast?

It's not as spicy as it looks, in fact, it is poco picante and very subtle. The dark red one is called "coloradito" and is made from chilies, sesame seeds, almonds, raisins, bananas, tomatoes and spices. There are more than 7 distinct versions of mole, so I still have a lot to sample.

Lost luggage

Half of this stuff didn't make it on time!

More than 30 years ago, I took my first trip overseas without my parents to do an LSU summer trip in London. I left from DC on Pan Am to Paris on an employee pass which meant I was traveling first class for about $50 each way but on a space available basis. We were told we could only bring one suitcase, so I bought the biggest one I could find and stuffed it full. This was long before I became famous among my friends for being a savvy packer. Eventually I learned to get by even on long trips with one carry-on bag, made easier by the fact that I was still thin enough to wear a large scarf as a skirt or even a dress. The above photo is evidence that I have regressed and am no longer a savvy packer, but I digress . . . .

Anyway, I got bumped from the flight to Paris, but Pan Am put me on a flight to London and then arranged for me to connect to a flight on Iran Air to Paris. What they forgot to tell me was that as I was traveling on an employee pass, I needed to go find someone to get my suitcase off the flight to Paris. Oh well. I got to Paris almost 36 hours after I began traveling, and there was no suitcase. It had remained on the original flight and continued on through the Middle East, eventually making its way to Tokyo. You can imagine my delight when, after a week in which I wore the same increasingly grubby beige pantsuit with some shirts I bought at a flea market, the bag arrived.

I've traveled a lot in the last 30-odd years and I've never had another bag get lost. So it was with much surprise and dismay that I stood in the tiny Oaxaca airport and watched the itty bitty carousel go around and around with no bag in sight. But this time it wasn't my fault. In fact, I think the bag was deliberately left in Mexico City because our flight was so crowded and I could see that the luggage compartment was quite full when we boarded. But until this morning when the bag arrived, I wasn't sure if it was actually lost or just delayed.

Oddly enough, I had a bizarre dream last night that my bag was on the plane but had a hole in it which caused all of my clothes and shoes to fall out and rain upon the city of Oaxaca.

Thus began my first real trip into the heart of Mexico.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

T-minus 18 hours and counting!

Roses and Rosemary

Black-eyed Susans




Lobelia and Marigolds


The lone survivor of the Sunflower Massacre

Morning Glories (a little past their prime at noon)

Day Lilies

My favorite -- Sundial Flowers (aka Portulacas)

My sister reminds me that I shouldn't blog about going on trips because of the safety issue, so let me start by saying that living by the beach means that you always have a ready supply of friends who want to house-sit, summer and winter. So, all you sticky fingers folks out there trolling for a place to burgle should pass mine by. There are usually more people in the house when we're gone than when we're here.

While you await blogging from Oaxaca, our sponsors will leave you with shots of what is blooming here at La Casa de Nos Madres (everyone out here names their beach houses, so we've named our house to honor our mothers, and I love the pretentiousness of the foreign language! LOL):