Colour and Light, Part Three: Markets and Martyrs

faces on the organ pipes
faces on the organ pipes in Tlacochahuaya

You learn about a culture through food and religion. We continued our exploration of the cultural life of Oaxaca (“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura”) in markets and churches.

My guide book tells me that Etla is a county-sized region encompassing a number of villages, the centre of which is sometimes referred to as the Villa de Etla, or sometimes Reyes Etla, or as one guide book tells me should be more correctly called the town of San Pedro y San Pablo Etla. But everyone just calls it Etla. It is the site of a massive market on Wednesdays, selling produce, cheeses, meats, herbs, sheepskins, pottery etc.

We went to the Etla market with our friend Lynda on a Thursday, missing the crowds and giving us time to enjoy a local desayuno (breakfast), a stroll through the market and a visit to both San Pedro and San Pablo.

Pan dolce at the market in Etla
Pan dolce at the market in Etla

Breakfast was chiliquilles of several varieties. My breakfast tortillas were swimming in a mole sauce of dark ancho chilies, sprinkled with fresh queso and chopped sweet onion. I am not an egg person, so I opted for chicken, and was given mounds of gorgeous shredded chicken, which I swirled in the sauce. My mother and Lynda had green tomatillo sauce on their tortillas, topped with soft fried eggs.

The cooks at the market in Etla, stirring a pot of mole
The cooks at the market in Etla, stirring a pot of mole

We cradled cups of fresh coffee and delicious sweet cocoa. Outside, just past our table, a woman sat on the ground tying together bundles of seed pods to sell alongside her roasted squash seeds and chilies. “They are Huaje seeds,” said Lynda, “The name ‘Oaxaca’ comes from the nahuatl Huaxyacac, which apparently means ‘the place of many huaje trees’”. The practice of gathering and selling the Huaje seeds has been going on for many centuries. The trees grow everywhere.

Sated, we walked through the market. There were gorgeous breads, bright yellow chickens (one chopped open and proudly displayed with egg yolks still inside), cheeses, and people cooking quesadillas with ingredients I couldn’t identify. I bought a bottled chili sauce with chapulines (grasshoppers) and some chili powder ground with toasted worms. It’s the best powder for dipping slices of oranges and limes into, to have with your Mescal. It will definitely brighten up a dreary winter day in Canada!

The town was filled with whizzing 3-wheeled vehicles. They are collectivos (shared transit) and they were transporting people to and from the rural areas around the town.

The colectivos outside the Etla market on a quiet Thursday
The colectivos outside the Etla market on a quiet Thursday

In the centre of town is the church and former monastery of San Pedro y San Pablo.

Outside the church of San Pedro y San Pablo
Outside the church of San Pedro y San Pablo

The statue of San Pablo is in the courtyard. A 12th century Venetian martyr, San Pablo was assassinated on the road to Milan when someone put an ax through his head. He looks remarkably calm about it.

San Pablo in the church of San Pedro y San Pablo
San Pablo in the church of San Pedro y San Pablo

Less than 2 kilometres away, on the outskirts of the village, is the Santuario del Señor de las Peñas. Legend has it that when God was making the world, He sat down to rest here, and that the mark that He made has become petrified into rock (Peña). The chapel is built on an old Zapotec archeological site that has yet to be dug. It’s a magote – a hummock in the landscape that implies a pre-historic structure beneath. The Oaxacan valley is filled with unexplored magotes, overgrown evidence of a thriving culture.

Santuario del Señor de las Peñas
Santuario del Señor de las Peñas

The chapel is a place of pilgrimage, where people go during Lent to be cured. The church is filled with painted decorations, simplification of 16th century “white vine illuminations” commonly seen in Spanish manuscripts of the time. Here, though, they seem to be painted from memory, from a vague sense of what they must have looked like in the old world.

painting inside Santuario del Señor de las Peñas
painting inside Santuario del Señor de las Peñas

A few kilometres down the road, in the village of Tlacochahuaya, is the massive Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, one of the first Dominican Churches built in the new world, begun in 1586.

the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, in Tlacochahuaya
the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo, in Tlacochahuaya

A huge fig tree grows in the vast front courtyard. The yard was built to be large enough to hold 5000 people, who could be preached to in the open air. It was built with 3 open-air arched-roofed chapels or pozas where conversions took place. San Jerónimo still looks down on the courtyard below, his left hand on a skull, the voice of God coming to him through what looks suspiciously like a megaphone.

Detail of San Jerónimo. He is in the centre alcove of the facade.
Detail of San Jerónimo. He is in the centre alcove of the facade.

Inside, the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo is filled with paintings of flowers and happy angel faces. We were greeted by two men, one of whom spoke some English and offered to take us up to see the church’s treasured organ – for the price of 10 pesos each. Andres lived in the United States for 30 years, working to support his family here in Tlacochahuaya. He wants to stay home now – his daughters have all married and he tells us, passionately, that he wants to stay in Tlacochahuaya with his wife. After 30 years of living away, we couldn’t help but wonder what his wife thought.

Andres unlocked a low door and we followed him up a narrow stone staircase to the choir stall above.

Heading up the stone steps to the organ stall
Heading up the stone steps to the organ stall

The organ is magnificent, covered in decoration, the pipes painted with wonderful faces and the stops hand lettered.

The Baroque Organ in Tlacochahuaya
The Baroque Organ in Tlacochahuaya

It was build in 1789 and restored in 1991. The bellows look very clean and new. Being up in the choir stall afforded us a detailed view of the painted decorations, and an overview of the smoky church below.

Looking down into the Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo in Tlacochahuaya
Looking down into the smoky Templo y Exconvento de San Jerónimo in Tlacochahuaya

From Tlacochahuaya we headed to the town of Tlacolula and one of Oaxaca’s largest and oldest markets. Tlacolula was founded by Zapotecs around 1250, and their culture still dominates here. Originally called Guichiibaa (“place between Heaven and Earth”), Tlacolula has a population of 15000 – most of whom come to the Sunday market. We drove down the main street behind a Mexican cowboy on horseback, and oxen in yokes. A cow stood idly in the middle of the road.

People leaving the market in Tlacochahuaya
People leaving the market in Tlacochahuaya

In the market, live turkeys and goats compete with stands of cheeses, chapulines, fruits, nuts, vegetables, breads, tortillas, Tlayudas, herbs and spices. I contented myself with a small package of toasted pipitos, squash seeds. We headed for comida at Comodor Mary’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the village. A photo on the wall shows people building the restaurant in 1929 – it’s been run by the same family ever since. We were brought a basket of fresh radishes, Chepil (an herb used in molès, soups and salads) and Huaje bean pods. The beans, which I had been longing to sample since we were in Etla, were a bit bitter raw. Still, a fresh and interesting taste, and the radishes were the best I’ve tasted in my life.

fresh radishes, Chepil and Huaje bean pods at Comodor Mary’s
fresh radishes, Chepil and Huaje bean pods at Comodor Mary’s

For my comida I had a perfectly cooked chili rellanos (chili stuffed with cheese), sitting in a sea of coloradita molès and refried beans. I sipped cold beer as I watched market women in brightly coloured clothing pass by with baskets on their heads.

Beside the market is the Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción.

Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción in Tlacolula
Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción in Tlacolula

It is lavishly decorated in carved ornaments, paintings and sculptures. Not one inch has been left bare. These urbane paintings and sculptures of Tlacolula were a striking contrast to the simplicity that we saw in the country setting of the Santuario del Señor de las Peñas.

We headed to the chapel, Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula, which is known for its assemblage of martyrs who have died gruesome deaths. And it is here that I again found San Pablo. Amongst martyrs who have been shot with arrows, had their entrails pulled out, left with large holes in the bodies, San Pablo’s body leaned over calmly, his fully decapitated head sitting serenely below.

San Pablo in the Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula
San Pablo in the Capilla del Señor de Tlacolula

I heard a soft sound behind me. A woman was weeping in a pew. I became aware of intruding in her space. I am, of course, a tourist, a gringa with a camera, insensitive to the sanctuary that this chapel offers to the inhabitants of Tlcacolula.

We left the vibrant colours and tastes of the Etla Valley and headed back to the city lights of Oaxaca.

Our table in the Zocolo
Our table in the Zocolo

Colour and Light, Part Two: A Cultural Vanguard

“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura.” (Oaxaca is in the vanguard of culture.)  So states a special report in our morning paper. http://www.noticiasnet.mx/portal/oaxaca/general/gobiernos/195390-oaxaca-la-vanguardia-en-cultura

The statement reflects everything I have been experiencing this week. The state of Oaxaca blends a respect for tradition with an awareness of contemporary issues, politics and ecology. Rural towns specialize in indigenous crafts of pottery, rugs, alebrijes (brightly painted fanciful wooden creatures) and mescal, but the valley also houses artists of the new Mexico, whose work is exhibited in urban galleries. Within moments you can travel back in time, or leap forward with new approaches and creative solutions to new problems.

Our friend Lynda Wilde is a photographer and writer who lives in Mexico during the fall and winter months www.lyndawilde.com. Lynda offered to take us on an adventure to discover some of the range of Oaxacan culture. Our first stop was  a tiny village three quarters of an hour out of the city, San Marcos Tlapazola, where she wanted to get  a new cooking pot from los Mujers del Barro Roja.

The road to Tlapazola
The road to San Marcos Tlapazola

The signpost outside of Tlapazola lists the population as 1500, but I think that this may be generous. The village is tucked into the side of a mountain, as are many of the rural villages.  An old reference book mentions the tourist Yu’u in Tlapazloa as a place to get a guide, and to stay the night. As we passed, it was clear that it has been deserted for many years – woe betide any tourist who heads there looking for accommodation!

But in the heart of San Marcos Tlapazola is an extraordinary family of women – the Mujers del Barro Roja – who have been making extraordinary red clay pots, plates and jugs for several generations.

Mujeres del Barro Rojo
Mujeres del Barro Rojo

The women work in a completely non-mechanized way, spinning their pots on pieces of leather stuck in the ground and firing them in a kiln coated with wood and donkey dung. Lynda visits them every year, and has made a film of their firing process. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mpk_XcFPks  When we arrived the women greeted her with great hugs and smiles.

Their pottery is simple, elegant, light weight and incredibly functional. Polished and shiny, you can cook with them on the stovetop or in the oven. We sat in their small storage room and pulled pots from the shelves, comparing sizes and shapes, and searching to find lids that matched our favourites. If I weren’t flying home I would buy them all. I loved their feel and glow.

the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola
the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola

The sister’s warmth and humour was infectious, their way of life honest and indigenous. Their beautiful elderly mother sat polishing a small bowl. A young niece worked over an open fire preparing comida. Chickens scratched in the yard. There are no men in their world, and they seemed entirely happy and at peace.

With our purchases made, they sent us on our way with freshly made Tlayuda (a regional crispy, thin tortilla about 20” in diameter).

Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo
Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo

Lynda also wanted to show us the other, contemporary Mexico. Any excursion into the arts of Oaxaca must pay tribute to Francisco Toledo. Toledo is renowned for his artwork and his encouragement of the contemporary arts of Oaxaca. He was instrumental in starting an art library at the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca and in founding the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO). He was also one of the driving forces behind the Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla http://www.cenart.gob.mx/vida-academica/centros-de-las-artes-estatales/centro-de-las-artes-de-san-agustin-etla/.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

Founded in 2006, the centre is the first ecological arts centre of Latin America. Housed in a former spinning and weaving factory outside the small town of San Agustín Etla, it sits in atop Vista Hermosa, Beautiful View, looking over the valley of Oaxaca. The Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla was created to encourage training, experimentation and collaboration amongst artists in all disciplines. The classrooms, display halls, residences and libraries are an inspiration to national and international artists.

The Vista is indeed beautiful, as are the renovated buildings of the centre.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

On the day we arrived, there were no classes going on, but we were able to wander through the facilities to our heart’s content. A new display showed us that the next phase of the project is to build a home for the study of mathematics, which to me seems thrillingly creative. There was also an exhibit of new work by Francisco Toledo– a wonderful show of drawings and watercolours created as an homage to Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastical animals. Ribald, sexual, surprising, the show revealed Toledo’s collaborative approach and incredibly artistry.

A steady stream of water flowing down from the top of the mountain made the location ideal for the nineteenth century factory, and in the twenty-first the flow of water encouraged the creation of Arte Papel Vista Hermosa. An artisanal paper making facility just down the mountain from the Centro de los Artes, Arte Papel encourages the use of natural fibers and techniques, using ecologically motivated production processes and contemporary artistry. The discipline and craft of the institute’s paper artists are reflected in the sheets of hand made paper and paper creations (jewelry, kites, hand bound books) offered for sale. Paper, I thought to myself, is easier to carry home than pots.

A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa
A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa

From the peace and beauty of Vista Hermosa, Lynda said she’d like to take us to an industrial park. An industrial park? “We’re going to visit a glass factory,” she said. “I need some new glasses.”

We drove through a gate surrounding a number of sterile looking buildings.

Xa Quixe, the glass factory
Xa Quixe, the glass factory

Walking through a yard of machinery and broken bottles we entered Xa Quixe, a Zapotec word meaning, amongst other things, “a time for transparency”. http://www.xaquixe.com/. Inside the factory we were greeted by Padro, who informed us that they were not blowing glass that day but we welcome to look through the showroom and factory.

While lacking the natural scenic beauty of Centro de los Artes, Xa Quixe is equally inspiring in terms of artistry. Founded in 2002 by Salime Harp Cruces and Christian Thornton, Xa Quixe has a mission to produce original designs while being commited to environmental and social ideals. “Xaquite is a calling to a disciplined process manifested through creative action with fire and glass,” says the translated web site. The web site is a wonderful combination of poetry, imagery and information, blending Zapotec history with contemporary sensibilities.

Glass pieces in Xa Quixe
Glass pieces in Xa Quixe

Standing in the slightly dusty showroom, I was hooked. Sleek forms had been stretched into bird like sculptures. They nestled beside functional glasses in organic forms that begged to be held, admired and sipped from. And what a range of colours! The pieces were vibrant and full of life.

Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe
Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe

Padro introduced us to Salvador, who spoke fluent English – which was necessary in order for us to fully comprehend the innovations that Xa Quixe is undertaking. Environmentally conscious, he explained, they use recycled glass. Recycled glass doesn’t take colours well, but Christian Thornton has developed a new way of working, a new secret chemical process that allows their recycled glass to accept colour.

Salvador also explained that a glass factory uses an incredible amount of energy – the furnace is constantly burning at 1300° centigrade. In order to save on energy, they have converted the furnace to use vegetable oil recycled from restaurants. They are able to get it to burn hot enough, and to have no bi-product. Looking forward, they know that there will be a huge competition for recycled oil, so they are working to develop a solar heating system. Solar? I ask. Solar up to 1300°? Yes. They think they are about 3 years away from that, Salvador says. Solar, plus an ecologically friendly combination of hydrogen and methane.

Inspiring. Blending modern technology with ancient craft and social consciousness. Salvador and Pedro are people who bubble over with the love of their profession and their art. This was a new Mexico for me, a forward-thinking Mexico of innovation.

Now I if I can just find some bubble wrap to pack up my hand blown mezcal glasses…

On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca
On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca

Colour and Light, Part One: Smashing Watermelons

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Tim shovelling us out

Anyone who lives in our part of Canada will tell you it’s been a hard winter. Long cold spells, mounds of snow. Not without its beauty, of course. We’ve had lots of opportunities to snow shoe and explore our woods.

But I’ve escaped for a couple of weeks to an easier world, a world of colour and light. I’m visiting my mother in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has one of the most benign climates imaginable. Mornings of warm sunshine, just right for coffee on the patio. Hot at midday, but a heat that is easily escaped by moving to the shade. Cool in the evenings, perfect for long, air soaked sleeps. Every day predictably the same.

The transition from Canada to Mexico is a jolt. My first days have been overwhelming, the sensory overload almost unbearable. Sounds, smells, colours everywhere. Soft breezes, warm sun. The beauty and struggle with language. The laughter and frustration, as I try to dust off old vocabulary.

It is a gorgeous immersion. I started my first the day with a breakfast of quesadillas, made with soft corn flour tortillas, filled with black beans, Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms, grilled over a wood fire.

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Breakfast with my mother on the patio of Las Mariposas

Sated, we headed to the market just up the street at Llano Park. The stalls sell everything imaginable: clothing and shoes of all varieties; hardware and kitchen utensils; toys and electronic games; fruits and vegetables; cheeses and meats; jewelry and makeup.

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Market vegetables. Note the size of the green onions!

There are grills throughout the market where endless amounts and varieties of tacos are being prepared. We walked long enough to work up a bit of an appetite, and rewarded ourselves with a plate of arranchera tacos – soft, tiny tortillas filled with shredded, grilled and chopped meat, onions, peppers, cheese. We topped them with fresh salsa and the most amazing blend of raw onions and hot peppers. Each plate has 3 tacos on it and costs 10 pesos, about 80 cents. We shared a huge glass of hibiscus water and were both stuffed.

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Food stand at the Llano Park market

My mother invited me to join in her one-on-one Spanish class, where her teacher hugged me and thanked me for sharing my mother with her. My mother has that effect on people. The class consisted of a lot of hugging and laughing, my mother working on subtleties of the subjunctive that I don’t understand in English, let alone Spanish. I signed on for some private sessions next week, if only just to exercise my brain, wondering, as always, why I didn’t do this sooner in my life.

A poster caught my eye. There was to be a performance on the atrium of Templo Santa Domingo. Viva la Vida, it was called. It seemed to have something to do with dancing and watermelons. Of course I was intrigued. So at 5:00, as the sun was just hitting the front of the church, we assembled to await whatever adventure would befall.

A program told me that I would see pre-Hispanic rituals, religious symbols and images from the fiesta de Quinceañera, a celebration for girls when they turn 15 years old. I also was reminded that the title comes from a work by Frida Kahlo. Sounds interesting, I thought. I was open to whatever was to come.

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Santa Domingo

Hundreds of spectators milled around, with cameras at the ready. Eventually a space cleared. A drummer and keyboard player played something that was vaguely liturgical  and a woman lay prostrate in front of the church. Suddenly about 25 children ran into the space carrying watermelons and they began to run in formation with the woman. Then they set the watermelons down and it was time for a costume change. The crowd waited, the sun moved down the church façade and the drummer did a 15 minute drum solo.

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And the drummer kept on drumming…

When the woman finally reappeared, she was wearing a wedding gown and wielding a very sharp machete.

She was inches from me, looking quite menacing, the knife clanging and creating sparks as she whacked the flagstones in front of me. This is not something we could do on a Canadian stage, I thought. Health and Safety standards would have protected me.

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Viva la Vida with the menacing machete

The musicians played something that sounded vaguely like Pink Floyd. The woman picked up a watermelon and held it high before splitting it open with the machete. She gouged out the red flesh and began to wolf it down carnivorously, the seeds splattering her dress. Holding a fresh chunk, she then circulated through the crowd offering portions as a kind of perverse communion.

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Viva la Vida. The communion watermelon

On it went. Watermelon pieces passed to the children, to the audience. Music and vague menace. Then the woman raised a watermelon high in the air and smashed it on the flagstones. This is what I had been waiting for! Smashing watermelons. At least 30 of them! Mexicans never waste food, so the throng dashed forward to rescue what they could. Photographers swarmed like paparazzi. I have no idea if they were part of the performance, or just part of the audience longing for a spectacle they could record.

Spent from her watermelon frenzy, the woman again lay prostrate in front of the church in her soiled wedding gown. Then she sat up and was joined by a young girl. The woman took off her golden shoes and put them on the girl. Then they both stood up and screamed. They screamed at each other, they screamed at the church, they screamed at the crowd.

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Viva la Vida screaming

Surely this is the end, I thought. The sun had left the Churchyard and we began to feel the pull of the downhill walk to the Zocalo, to a glass of chilled wine and the happy contemplation of the universe. We turned from Viva la Vida, from costume changes and drum solos and plunged ourselves back into the world of un-programmed surprises, of street musicians and performers, of families joyfully reuniting after work and school, of shy young lovers snatching a few moments together, of tourists buying brightly coloured hats and rebosas that will look out of place in Minnesota, of ancient indigenous beggars with outstretched hands hoping for a centavo.

Sometimes art cannot hope to compete with life.

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For Fearless Drivers: A Journey into the Sierra Juárez mountains

Just north of the city of Oaxaca is the Sierra Juárez mountain range. It is the land of the Sierra Zapotecs, one of the first indigenous peoples of Mexico, whose ancestry stretches back to at least 1000 BC. The mountain range is known for its incredibly rich natural diversity, with over 2000 different plant species, tropical evergreen forests, and a cloud forest that forms a band 1,000 – 2250 meters high. In Zapotec, Schiaa Ruavia means the “hill where the cloud is born”.

We rented a car and asked our friend Lynda Wilde, a fabulous photographer from Kingston, Ontario, if she would drive us into the cloud mountains. Heading out of Oaxaca on a cool morning, she also drove us backwards in time.

Teotitlán, 37 kilometers outside of Oaxaca, is the gateway to the mountain road. The town sits under the shadow of el Picacho, the mountain where, legend has it, the Zapotecs were born.

el Picacho
el Picacho

The town has been Zapotec for 2500 years and Zapotec is still the primary language. Teotitlán is famous for weaving. Rugs and tapestries are made on hand looms, mostly with locally sourced wool and dyed with natural, traditional dyes. Even though tourists flock there for the authentic craft, it is small and retains ancient customs and ways.

Out of Teotitlán, the road begins a serious sequence of switchbacks. Checking directions in a guide book, we notice for the first time the cautionary sentence, “for fearless drivers”.

Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains
Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains

Linda has done this journey before in her four-wheel drive. Our little economy rental seems wildly inappropriate. It would be a suicidal drive in the rainy season.

Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance
Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance

But after travelling through seemingly endless, narrow, remote roads, we arrive at the bustling town of Benito Juárez (population about 1,000), fifty-eight kilometers north of Oaxaca city.

The town, originally called San Pablo Guelatao, was the birthplace of Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president and Mexico’s most beloved native son. We are now 2900 metres (7200 feet) above sea level, sitting amongst the clouds. It’s cold, so we stop for hot chocolate and pan dolce beside the tourist information centre.

Benito Juárez tourist information centre
Benito Juárez tourist information centre

The mountains are home to endangered species of jaguar, ocelot and deer. One of the largest areas for butterflies and birds, there is a strong ecotourism movement to try to conserve the forest and protect it from the stresses of logging, agriculture and potential hydroelectric dams.

the Sierra Juárez cloud forest
the Sierra Juárez cloud forest

Los Pueblos Mancomunados is a group of eight small towns that have developed trails for hiking, mountain biking and camping in the mountains. The town of Benito Juárez is one of the starting points. We meet a Polish couple, who ask if we can tell them where the trail begins. We encourage them to go to the information centre, but they speak no Spanish. Intrepid, they head out into the woods. We hope they have a map.

In the centre of town we come across school children performing what looks exactly like “Speech & Drama”. A small girl declaims in the central square, her voice commanding the space as examiners make notes and parents look on.

Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez
Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez

Beside the square is a recreation of Benito Juárez’s birth home with adobe walls, tile roof and dirt floor.

Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez
Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez

Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao. His parents died when he was 3. He was raised by an uncle and became a shepherd. When he was 12, speaking only Zapotec, he walked to the city of Oaxaca where he was taken in by his sister. Here, his “thirst for learning” was recognized, and he received schooling at the city’s seminary. He became a lawyer, entered politics, and in 1857 became Mexico’s first indigenous president.

The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez
The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez

Throughout the country there are statues and monuments in his honour. March 21st, his birthday, is a national day of celebration. The town of San Pablo Guelatao changed its name in his honour.

Clearly this is a town of impressive orators.

Lynda takes us out of the town on a search for “Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan”, a trout farm in the mountains. A trout farm in the mountains? We weave through the tiny streets of Ixtlan de Juárez, searching for handwritten signs that say “Truchas”. It’s like a scavenger hunt. After many false turns, and several dead ends, we find a dirt path that leads to a small parking lot. We’ve arrived.

We shiver as we settle at outside tables. But we are greeted immediately by Noel, the owner, carrying glasses of mezcal.

Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal
Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal

Noel grew up Zapotec and left to live in Los Angles before returning home to begin a family business. His English is flawless, so we are able to understand the story of the trout farm.

There is a stream running down the mountain, which Noel’s family has tapped into. They have set up a series of holding tanks and, working with water from the stream, have built up their fish nursery. The baby trout are furthest up the mountain. Our lunch trout are in a tank right outside the kitchen door.

Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Noel brings us cups of sweet Mexican coffee to augment our mezcal, and hot toastados to nibble on while he cooks our fish. My filet arrives sealed in aluminum foil. It’s been steamed over the wood stove. I open the foil and the warm smells of tomato, garlic, lime, epizote, onion, chili verde and quesillo (a thin cheese sauce) waft out.

The drive may be for the fearless, but it is certainly one well worth conquering your fears.

The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Cooking and Eating in Oaxaca

Nora Andrea Valencia learned the techniques of traditional Oaxacan cooking from her late grandmother, Ofelia. Together they earned a reputation for the delicous breakfasts they prepared every morning at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos, the family’s B &B. My mother stayed at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos for a number of years, and has become a friend of the family.

With interest in Oaxacan cooking at an all time high, Nora has become internationally recognized for her knowledge of Oaxacan cuisine. She conducts cooking classes from her home, (http://almademitierra.net/) and we joined up with a small group for a day of cooking and eating.

The history of Mexico can be learned through food. Nora comes from a Zapotec tradition and many of the cooking methods that she has learned are based on knowledge stretching back for thousands of years. But since the Spanish invasion, Mexico has been a blend of cultures. The Spanish brought African slaves with them, and the mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African was perhaps the world’s first true fusion cooking.

Our first stop is the Merced Market to buy the ingredients for our comida.

Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad
Nora outside of the market, with a large cactus pad

There are many markets in Oaxaca, and this one is in Nora’s home barrio. Before we enter the market proper we meet some of the women sitting outside. Their hands are busy cleaning nopales (cactus pads) of various sizes.

Cleaning the spikes from the cactus (nopales) pads
A woman cleaning the spikes from young nopales. Hierba santa is on the ground beside her.

Nopales are very good for cholesterol levels, and the Mexicans put them in many different dishes. Nora picks a few choice pads and a big bunch of hierba santa, or sacred leaf. This green is used extensively in southern Mexican cooking. It has a unique lemony, licorice taste and it’s believed to cure just about everything including rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, digestive disorders and skin conditions. Of course, it is impossible to grow or find in Canada. Nora recommends fennel as a flavor substitute, but there is nothing that can substitute its health benefits.

We proceed into the market where Nora explains properties of different chilies, dried and fresh.

So many chilies
So many chilies

So many chilies, so many flavours. The capsaicin in chilies is a stimulant and analgesic. It awakens endorphins, which means that “eating chilies gives your body pleasure. It also means you can get addicted to them.” But even Nora admits you can never really know how hot a pepper is. “It’s like a lottery,” she says cheerfully. You just have to keep tasting as you go. If it gets too hot, she tells us to add a bit of something acid, like cider vinegar or tomato, to bring down the spice. She introduces us to the pastillo oaxacaño, a special pepper grown only in the high Mixtec region and smoked in adobe ovens. A ready-made paste from this smokey pepper is a kitchen staple – she keeps it by the stove to add a little zing when necessary.

From the chili stand we move to the squashes. Every part of the squash plant is used, and Nora shows us how to pull the fibres from the stems so that they will be softer when added to a soup.

Nora peels the squash stems
Nora peels the squash stems

Bags of ingredients are sold cut and ready to cook a perfect Zapotec soup – squash stems, squash blossoms, pieces of squash, pieces of corn. Nora selects some perfect blossoms for our soup. “We only use the male blossoms. They are very showy, but not good for anything else,” she laughs.

At the tortilla stand, Nora shows us the soft masa dough that makes Oaxaca’s unique tortillas. Northern Mexico uses wheat for tortillas. In the south, they are corn based. Preparing the dough is an incredibly labour intensive process, involving lime and soaking and grinding corn. The result is a velvety soft corn dough that makes light tortillas totally unlike the hard corn tortillas I buy at home.

Next, Nora takes us to the cheese stand. I am addicted to Oaxacan cheese. There are two kinds – soft and stringy. The soft cheese is sold in wooden boxes to keep it moist. Like a cross between a ricotta and feta, it is crumbled over salads, enchiladas, and most dishes that have sauce on them. The harder cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, is boiled, kneaded and stretched into strands. It is melted in quesadillas, separated into strings for raw eating, wound into tight small balls to include in soup. It is salty and chewy and tastes like nothing else I’ve ever had.

The cheese stall
The cheese stall

Our final stop is to look over the mangos and avocados. She rails against people squeezing avocados in the store. “You can tell if they are ripe by looking at the stem. If there is a little dent, it is ripe. If it isn’t ripe put it in a paper bag and leave it in the trunk of your car. It will ripen!”

Nora and the mangos
Nora and the mangos

Mangos come in different sizes, colours and varieties. The small ones are super sweet and perfect for just eating a bit of fresh mango. The larger ones are better for adding to other ingredients – they absorb other flavours well.

We head to Nora’s home to turn these fresh ingredients into our comida.

Nora's courtyard
Nora’s courtyard

Mole. Originally from a Zapotec word, mole (pronounced Moh-LAY) reflects a whole concept in cooking – blending ingredients together to make a paste for a cooking sauce. Guide books talk about the 7 moles of Oaxaca. “But it’s impossible to have just seven,” laughs Nora. Mole is a concept, more than a specific thing. It is ubiquitous. “Aguaca” is Zapotec for avocado. Thus we get guaca-mole or guacamole – ground up avocado.

Nora gets us chopping and peeling. Our Comida today consists of “Consome de Hierba Santa”, a light chicken soup with tons of garlic and hierba santa, served over squash blossoms and balls of Oaxacan cheese; “Ceviche de Mango”, a marinated red snapper salad served on tostados; “Pipian de Camarones”, a pumpkin seed mole with shrimp and nopales; “Salsa Borracha”, literally drunken salsa – a hot sauce made from our dried peppers; and “Gelatina de Kahlua”, a light dessert jelly of coffee and chocolate.

Comida menu
Comida menu

We are assigned tasks. We do a lot of dry toasting on a comal, a flat dry pan traditionally made of pottery. We dry toast chili de arbol, chili de onza, and chili mora for our salsa borracha. We dry toast and boil huajillo chilies for our mole. We dry toast and grind pumpkin seeds, the thickening agent for the mole. We peel our fresh shrimp and make a shrimp stock with the shells. We cut and cook nopales; chop onions, mangos, cilantro and avocado for the ceviche. We lightly cook chunks of red snapper.

Nora shows us how to toast the chillies
Nora shows us how to toast chillies on the comal

Everything in Nora’s kitchen happens at a measured and even pace as she laughs her infectious laugh and sprinkles our cooking with historic and gastronomic information.

Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls
Nora shows us how to lay out squash blossoms and cheese balls in our soup bowls

William comes in with glasses of mezcal, slices of orange and little piles of dried chilies. “Mezcal is a digestive. We have it before a meal. We have it during a meal. We have it at the end of a meal.”

We sip, dip orange slices in the chilies, taste and sip again. We are ready to eat our comida. It is as wonderful as you can imagine.

Our class is over, comida is finished. A good day with Nora Valencia
Our class is over, comida is finished. We’ve had a good day with Nora Valencia!

The Restorative Powers of Mezcal

Oaxaca is known for its cuisine. Apparently there was an article in the New Yorker recently that raved about a particular Oaxacan restaurant. For those gringos/gringas who have been coming to Oaxaca for many years, the article presented a terrible conflict. It is wonderful for the world to know about the wonders of Oaxaca, but for those who love it, Oaxaca is treated as a well-guarded secret, a secret that could be jeopardized by more tourists.

I struggle with the word “tourists”. The Canadians and Americans that I’ve met come here for 2 – 3 months every year. They study Spanish, they take cooking classes, they contribute respectfully to the life of the city. I am only here for two weeks, and my Spanish is abysmal, but I have been welcomed into the homes of the ex-pates and, through my mother, have been given the chance to see a bit deeper into the life of the city.

Last night I was initiated into the smoky world of Oaxaca’s best-known specialty – Mezcal. Mezcal is Oaxaca’s equivalent of Scotch, and serious mezcal drinkers treat it with reverence. Many come to Oaxaca just to tour the distilleries, of which there are 570 in Oaxaca state. It’s produced using the same methods that have been used for over 200 years. As with Scotch, the best distilleries are prized, and differences are compared, savoured and discussed.

Mezcal is made from the piña or heart of the maguey plant (a kind of agave). Oaxaca state has the perfect climate for growing maguey plants, and they are cultivated throughout the region. The plants are harvested when they are between 7 – 15 years old and weigh about 40 kilos. The central hearts are chopped out, roasted in a pit, mashed to a pulp and distilled in casks made from either barro (baked red clay), copper or aluminum.

Traditional mezcal has chicken or turkey breast put into the fermentation, but contemporary mezcal sometimes adds fruit or chocolate. In a rush to attract foreign consumers, mezcal producers are adding caramel syrup and a variety of sweet flavourings. For serious mezcal drinkers, true mezcal may be an acquired taste, but it is one worth acquiring without the trappings of commercialism.

mezcal tasting
the tools for mezcal tasting

Mezcal bottles will often include the larva from a moth that lives on the agave plant (“mezcal con gusano”), and there are many arguments about the correct way to imbibe the worm. The worm is said to add flavour. It definitely adds mystique and price to the marketing.

My mother’s friend Virginia is a lawyer from Kingston who lives in Mexico for four months of the year. She has a wonderful and spacious apartment that allows her to escape the Canadian winter, a climate that plagues her lungs. She loves traditional mezcal, and invited us over to a tasting to compare three types.

At Virginia’s I met Dwayne, Canadian from Vancouver who lives in Oaxaca for 5 months of the year. Virginia and Dwayne met many years ago in a Spanish class. The formal Spanish class has long since evaporated but they have continued to meet, swap Oaxacan confidences, and argue over mezcal.

Our tasting begins with Albarradas, the “house brand” of a local restaurant. Virginia pours the clear liquid into tiny red clay cups.

“You have to take the first sip into your mouth and hold it there as long as you can. You let it burn until you think ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then you swallow.” This, Virginia explains, will open up our taste buds.

I taste salt on my lips before I am aware of the smokey essence that fills my cranium. I hold and swish until it begins to hit my tear ducts, at which point I swallow. I make the mistake of breathing in through my mouth, and am enveloped in a haze of alcoholic fumes. Mezcal is between 45 – 55% proof. But I like the smoke. The mezcale stays in my mouth, on the tongue, for a short time. It is clean and a bit citrusy.

Our second mezcal is Virginia’s personal favourite, from Chichicapa. She confides that she took some in an empty Coke bottle to a “Live from the Met” broadcast recently. “How else could I get through 5 hours of Wagner?” She and a friend sipped surreptitiously out of the little clay cups at each intermission. It was only after the film, when they sat in the empty movie house having a final round, that they were discovered and told “no se permite.”

“But it sure  helped me to enjoy the Wagner,” she said.

The Chichicapa is much smokier, deeper, earthier than the Albarradas. There is less salt, little citrus. Complex and satisfying, it lingers longer on the tongue. Dwayne says that is due to the “pechuga de pollo,” the chicken breast. Virginia, a vegetarian, disagrees but acknowledges that it tastes too good to care one way or another.

We finish our tasting with a tobalá mezcal from the Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca. (Tobalá is a smaller maguey plant. A palenquero is a mezcal maker.) It is as different from the Chichicapa as an 18-year single malt is to a blend. Adequate, with just a hint of sweetness, more complex than the Albarradas, it served mostly to show the brilliance of the Chichicapa.

Two million litres of mezcal are produced annually in Mexico. It’s believed to cure hypertension and diabetes, and that it is an aphrodisiac. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” – for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well.

I am happy to believe in its medicinal and restorative properties. I certainly feel on the road to being healed…

Oaxacan Diary 2: Travels with my mother at the top of the world

The main plaza at Monte Albán
The main plaza at Monte Albán

For more than a millennium, successive generations of Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples ruled the life of the Oaxacan valley from the city state of Monte Albán. Carved into a mountaintop 6400 feet above sea level, vast areas  were levelled in 300 BC for terraces and plazas. Temples and residences that allowed for seismic movement were built using layers of quarried stone and adobe. By 800 AD, 50,000 people lived in the city of Monte Albán. It was so large that suburban satellite neighbourhoods were built on surrounding mountaintops.

Monte Albán was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.

When you are in Monte Albán, you feel as though you at the top of the world. There is nothing between you and the sky. The scale of the city is overwhelming. The central plaza is exactly oriented on the cardinal points (I checked with a compass), and so large that it dwarfs people as they cross. Stone staircases seem built for giants. It was built to impress.

Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán
Looking north to the observatory of Monte Albán

My mother and I have been to Monte Albán before, and wanted to go again, but we wanted to start with a visit to Atzompa, one of Monte Albán’s satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond
Looking north from Monte Albán to Atzompa on the mountain beyond

The Atzompa archeological site has only been open to the public since the fall of 2012, and there is little information about visiting. New roads are being built to access it, but as yet there are few who travel there and it remains undiscovered by most tourists. So we hired a car and driver to take us to the top of the world.

We left early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Our driver Vincent took us out of Oaxaca, edging upwards through villages with dusty, winding streets. The “modern” village of Atzompa is known for its distinctive green pottery. About 90% of the villagers are involved in making pottery. It’s a traditional village and there is terrible poverty, but people are scraping by somehow.

The contemporary village of Atzompa
The contemporary village of Atzompa

There’s a small artisan’s market for intrepid tourists, but we passed by, and headed up the mountain. We passed a man with a burro, laden with something that looked like coal or maybe just rocks. We passed workers building the new road. Up and up Vincent drove, weaving past barriers, until he could drive no further. Mom and I set out on a newly created gravel stairs, leaving Vincent to wait in a newly built but vacant parking lot.

There is an entrance to the Atzompa archeological site, where we signed in. From the sheet I could see that there were 4 visitors yesterday, 18 the day before. Today, we have the place to ourselves.

The name Atzompa is Nahuatl meaning “at the headwaters”. It was built by Zapotecs from Monte Albán about 1200 years ago. After about 600 years of Zapotecs, it was inhabited by Mixtecs for over 600 years. The pottery making inhabitants of the contemporary village of Atzompa are descended from those Mixtecs.

Atzompa was built in a similar style to Monte Albán, although scaled down. There are small plazas, a temple, a tomb with funerary chambers, an artisan’s area, a stone quarry, and a large ball court.

From “Plaza C” you can see across to the city of Monte Albán, as well as to other, as yet uncovered, satellite neighbourhoods.

Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán
Looking from Atzompa across the valley to Monte Albán

The plaza makes us understand the level of wealth and privilege in Atzompa. Residents looked down on the peasants, workers and farmers in the valley. They looked across to the seat of power, both political and religious. But it was also practical. Looking down, they could easily see movement or threats from other people travelling in and out of the valley. These were wealthy and powerful people, who lived in luxury.

Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below
Looking from the main square of Atzompa to the valley below

The main square is 50 x 50 metres, bordered by a temple, with a central burial mound.

Main square and temple, Atzompa
Main square and temple, Atzompa

One of the two residences, the House of Altars, has a sunken patio surrounded by a sidewalk, and 18 rooms accessed by four different staircases. Servant’s quarters were attached by walkways. A desirable house, in prime location.

House of Altars, Atzompa
House of Altars, Atzompa

The ball court, one of the largest in Meso America, is 5 x 22 metres in an “I” shape, with a north/south orientation and long benches for spectators on either side. Ball games had both religious and political ramifications, and were “practiced to influence the movement of the stars in the sky, the continuation of the existence of the cosmos, and thereby, the continuation of life” (so the signage at Atzompa tells us). It is easy to imagine, as we stand so close to the sky, the power and influence of the games.

Ball court, Atzompa
Ball court, Atzompa

There’s a kiln and ceramic studio here. The original building hasn’t been excavated, as it sits 2.5 metres under the surface, but a re-creation gives weight to the importance of the studio, which specialized in large cooking pots. As today, each artisanal home is responsible for one type of pottery whether it be pitchers, griddles, casseroles or toys. I think back to the potters we passed on our way here. Tradition goes a long way back in this part of the world.

Kiln, Atzompa
Kiln, Atzompa

A burial chamber was unearthed in July, 2012. Not open to the public, it’s been dated to be 1100 years old, apparently in amazing condition, and unique in its design of three layers of tombs above ground and brightly painted murals on the walls. A wooden structure sits incongruously on the top, replacing the original stucco temple. The restoration is clearly still in progress, but the only work we see being done today is by men slowly raking stones on the plaza.

Funerary Chamber, Atzompa
Funerary Chamber, Atzompa

The mid morning sun is beginning to bake us. We gingerly make our way down the gravel paths, to find Vincent waiting patiently. We reluctantly leave the peace of Atzompa. Monte Albán, filled with tourists and school groups, beckons to us across the valley. Aztompa has become our shared secret, our own private discovery. Monte Albán is, as it should be, filled with the trappings of civilization.  We head there for desayuno (breakfast) in a lovely outdoor café …

Desayuno at Monte Albán
Desayuno at Monte Albán