Hearts and Crafts of Oaxaca

Oaxaca is known for the variety and beauty of its handicrafts. Exquisite pottery, woodcarving, weaving, basketry, embroidery, and many other crafts attract collectors from all over the world. Many of the small towns and villages surrounding Oaxaca City specialize in one particular type of craft. The skills have been passed down through the generations and often the whole family takes part in the various stages of producing the art, each adding their unique creative touch.

My husband and I visited several of the artists’ villages and, in some cases, even their private homes. We found that by hiring a private driver to take us around, we were able to tailor our experience to our interests and benefit from the guide’s personal knowledge. The “one-size-fits-all” packaged tours only visit the more touristy shops (never the private homes), often spend just a short time at each stop, and (we were told) steer purchases to locations that offered the tour operators a commission.

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In addition to viewing the displays of finished products ready for sale, several of the studios we visited demonstrated how the items were made, including how dyes were created from natural sources. When we visited a shop in the village of Teotitlan del Valle, famous for their hand-woven rugs and tapestries, we were shown how a tiny insect gathered from the prickly pear cactus created the intense reds used to dye wool for weaving. Other dye sources include the indigo plant, wild marigold, pecan leaves and shells, pomegranates, and tree moss.

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Another fascinating visit was to the village of San Martín Tilcajete, which is famous for the fantastical carved wooden animals called alebrijes (al-ah-bree-hays) created there. San Martin’s – and Oaxaca’s – most famous alebrijes artists are the husband and wife team, Jacobo and Maria Angeles. Not only do they produce bright and exquisitely detailed artwork themselves, they have converted their studio into a model of community development. They employ many talented artists from their village and offer tours and demonstrations. Although the alebrijes made by Jacobo and Marie were out of our price range, they also featured beautiful – and much more affordable – carvings made by their apprentices.

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Making our tours to the outside villages even more special was having the opportunity to visit the private homes of a few of the artists. We met Conception Aguilar, whose family helps her create beautifully crafted and whimsically painted clay sculptures in their small home, and Jose Garcia Antonio, also known as “The Blind Potter,” whose large and wonderfully messy compound is a jumble of his primitive – but exquisite – ceramic art.

My husband and I aren’t big souvenir purchasers, but we did come home with a few items we fell in love with. Not only are they mementos of our travels, but we feel that buying pieces directly from those who make them is the best way to support the artisans and their families, and helps them to keep their heritage alive.

GratiTuesday: A Cuppa Gratitude

When I first saw this café along one of the pretty pedestrian walkways in Oaxaca, I, of course, had to stop for a cup of coffee and to take a few pictures.

Gratitud

Comida que hace bien

(Food that is made well)

Therapia y Cocina, con Alma y Corazon

(Therapy and Cooking, with Heart and Soul)

 

Not only was I grateful for the smile this café served me along with my coffee, I was doubly grateful that it included a side helping of a GratiTuesday post.

El secreto en Gratitud es hacer las cosas con amor

(The secret to gratitude is to do things with love)

 

Yes.

By the way, did you notice the menu board out front in the first picture? Least you think they were charging $20 US dollars for a Café Americano or a Café Expreso, or $30 US dollars for a Cappuccino, the current peso to US dollar conversion rate is about 18.9 to one. The price of those coffees is around $1.06 and $1.59… that is something to be grateful for!

Oaxacan Celebrations

Although the timing of our recent stay in Oaxaca didn’t coincide with any of the large festivals that city is famous for, there was no lack of celebratory events. And, lucky for us, many of these festivities took place in public so we could experience the magic, color, music, and joy of an Oaxacan celebration.

We had no idea what this parade was for, but we were happy to join in!

Whether it was a wedding, graduation, quinceanera, or a religious celebration of unknown (to us) origin, the cobblestone streets were often filled with revelry and processions. What I especially liked about these celebrations is that they weren’t arranged by the chamber of commerce or designed to entertain tourists. Instead, they were authentic and steeped in ritual. That we were there to witness the festivities was fine, but the celebration was for the invited guests, the citizens of Oaxaca, and for those who roots run deep in its culture and traditions.

Many of Oaxaca’s festivals trace their origin to indigenous rituals that were later combined with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. One such holiday, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is celebrated on the same day as All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd). Unlike the solemn rituals surrounding these Catholic holidays, Dia de los Muertos is marked with festivals, parades, and celebrations. The holiday and its rituals recognize death as a natural part of the human experience. The departed are seen as part of the community and on these days, they are awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.

During the Day of the Dead celebrations, this cemetery will be filled with people and flowers.

Other festivals that are tempting us for a return visit include the huge Fiesta Guelaguetza, held in July, and the many festivals surrounding the Christmas season including Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes), which brings people from all over the valley into the city center to display their homegrown radishes that have been carved into imaginative sculptures .

Whether they are remembering their departed loved ones, marking a religious holiday, or observing part of their ancient culture, the people of Oaxaca are creative and artistic, exuberant and friendly. They know how to celebrate and, best of all, we are all welcome to join in.

GratiTuesday: Building bridges, not walls

We had several choices of airlines and flights when we booked our travel to Oaxaca. Several of the major U.S. airlines offer flights, but all of them required stops in between and planes changes along the way. Fortunately for us, we were able to book our flight on a Mexican airline that offered a non-stop flight from the Tijuana International Airport to Oaxaca. By flying out of Tijuana rather than our city’s airport, our flight was quicker, cheaper, and only required a 5-minute walk across the border over a 390-foot-long bridge to reach the airport.

The picture is a little blurry, but so were we as we set off to board our 1:10 am flight to Oaxaca.

The Cross Border Xpress (CBX) terminal and bridge was financed by private U.S. and Mexican investors. Since its opening in 2015, an average of 4,800 passengers walk over the enclosed pedestrian skywalk each day to catch flights originating in Tijuana or return from trips to Mexico. It is believed to be to only such cross-border facility in the world.

This was the second time we have taken advantage of the CBX Bridge to fly domestically from Tijuana to another city in Mexico. Our first experience, when we flew to La Paz a year ago, went so smoothly – even with our limited Spanish language skills – that we did not hesitate to travel that way again.

I am so grateful to those with the vision – and the finances – to imagine bridges across borders rather than envision walls. Although I understand that countries have to protect their borders, by working together and extending a hand of friendship and support, mutually beneficial outcomes can be realized. The CBX Bridge is an example of collaborative thinking and long-term planning. Just what we need more of these days.

Oaxaca’s Street Markets

The tianguis, or open-air street market, is much more than a place to buy and sell merchandise. Throughout Mexico – and maybe especially in Oaxaca – markets are a fundamental element of the cultural structure. They are where people meet and catch up on news and gossip, new babies are shown off, and young romances are kindled. Market day is a ritual that has been celebrated every week – virtually unchanged – for thousands of years. These markets are not set up for the tourists (although tourists certainly can be found there – often with their cameras, like me), they are an important component in the day-to-day lives of many of the citizens.

We were able to enjoy amazing fruit every day.

The city of Oaxaca has several tianguis that are open each day. Mercado Sanchez Pasqua, located very close to our house, was our go-to source for fruits and vegetables, as well as freshly made tamales. Just about every day, we stopped by on our way home to purchase delicious, just-picked avocados, mangos, and bananas.

Oaxaca’s original and best known market, Mercado Juarez, is housed in a huge, warehouse-like building. The energy and chaotic mix of sounds, colors, smells, textures, and shapes is an experience not to be missed. Among the multitude of stalls selling merchandise, one can find fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, mezcal, sauces, beef, chicken, and seafood. Other stalls tempt buyers with displays of brightly colored clothing, crafts, woven bags, shoes, and blankets.

 

In addition to the markets in the city center, the Valley of Oaxaca is famous for the tianguis that each of the surrounding villages set up one day a week (each village has its designated day). These local markets not only sell the usual food, flowers, and clothing, but they also feature items that their particular village is known for, such as weavings, cheese, or wooden furniture.

Don’t forget to pick up your Chapulines (fried grasshoppers). And, yes, I tried them.

As unique and exciting as these markets are, there is some worry that they might eventually become a victim of our global society. Oaxaca now has two Walmarts and several large grocery/department stores called Chedraui (all, mercifully, outside the city center). Amazon deliveries are also available. While I understand the ease and time-savings of going to a single location for all ones needs, I fear this convenience will someday lead to the demise of the traditional street markets. A ritual that has been around for thousands of years could be made irrelevant in a few years by big box stores and the internet. That would be an unimaginatively sad and irretrievable loss.

Slow Travel

Since we both retired, my husband and I have done quite a bit of traveling. Sometimes we take a quick drive somewhere close, other times we are away for several weeks or even a month.

Two years ago, a month-long road trip took us through several western and midwestern states, and included a journey along a good portion of Route 66. Last year, we flew to Montreal, rented a car, and traveled through parts of south eastern Canada, and the north eastern United States.

Although we thoroughly enjoyed these trips and relished visiting a lot of different places, each time we moved on we regretted not being able to stay longer and experience all that a specific location had to offer.

This time, we decided to travel in a different way, one that allowed us to slow down, breathe, and relax into life in a foreign country. For a little over five weeks, we rented a private home in Oaxaca, Mexico and enjoyed the luxury of unpacking our bags just once. The house was within walking distance to the central area: close to activity, shops, and restaurants, but far enough away to provide us with a place to enjoy our own company and recharge our batteries.

Our oasis came with a private garden.

By staying in one location for an extended period, we found that our pace slowed and our appreciation for this beautiful city and its culture was allowed to deepen and grow.  Because we weren’t on a tight schedule, we started to match – at least somewhat – our rhythm to that of the city around us.

Santa Domingo at twilight.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t take a few tours or enjoy other “touristy” pursuits – we did. But, because we knew that we had a lot of time to engage and explore, we also could make discoveries that most short-term visitors would probably miss.

What type of travel do we enjoy more? Our answer is that it really depends: it depends on the location, it depends on our curiosity level, and it depends on the time we have to devote to a particular trip.

We just returned home yesterday and I have already found my pace quickening. I have hundreds of photos to go through and pages of notes to organize. Although I promise to not share everything, I do have enough post ideas, along with pictures of doors, murals, churches, architecture, archaeological sites, celebrations, and many other delights we found in this UNESCO World Heritage city, to keep me busy for a while.