Monthly Archives: January 2008

Packing Tips

I bring one giant suitcase with me filled with good, clean used clothing for infants, children, and women size 10 and under.  Shoes, women’s size 6 and under, are useful, too.  I fill it to the max — 50 lbs. worth! and when I arrive we put out the word.  I get these clothes by sending an email out to my workplace and friends. I usually get to the quota within a couple of days!  If you are interested in doing this, send an email to Annie at and she’ll let you know who to make contact with in Teotitlan for distributing the needed clothing.  Annie and friends have a women and family support project going. 

In the outside pocket of the suitcase  I pack bubble wrap and clear packing tape.  If I don’t have enough, I get more bubble from Mailboxes, Etc. in Oaxaca City, where it is cheaper that Office Depot. (Yes, they’re both there.)

Okay, so now I have an empty suitcase and can fill it up with whatever I buy.  To pack the fragile items securely, I go to the Teotitlan or Tlacalula market and buy a sturdy bamboo woven basket without handle with a diameter and depth to fit the size of my suitcase (this one is a monster).   Then I buy a bamboo woven “tray” that is used all over the Oaxaca Valley for serving and displaying.  I turn this upside down and use it for the lid.  After I’ve packed all the fragile stuff inside, wrapping everything well in bubble, I secure the “lid” to the basket base with the tape, wrapping the tape multiple times around the vertical circumference for a tight fit.  If I’ve bought textiles, I put them under the basket, and between the lid of the suitcase and the lid of the basket for cushioning.  I have used this technique repeatedly with much success for pottery, carved wood alebrijes, and other fragile items. This last time, my Dolores Porras clay sculpture and masks came through perfectly, as did the pottery from the Aguilar sisters, and the carved animalitos from Jacobo Angeles and Justo Xuana.

Bueno suerte!

Guacamole Heaven: Food Costs in Oaxaca

The last few days I was in Oaxaca, I gorged on avocados — thoughts about calories to the wind. I mashed them, sliced them, added them cubed to soup, to eggs, to chicken tacos. One day, I bought 6 avocados for a dollar and made enough guacamole to last for days. I knew when I got home to Chapel Hill it would be a cold day in hell before I would ever see an avocado for 20 or 25 cents each. A teeny weeny Haas avocado in any local NC super or organic market is costing $1.29 to $1.99 each. Must be the cost of gasoline to get it here! I roll by them in the market, looking longingly, fingering the skin to check for ripeness, then just can bear to pay the price for such a small bit of food. In Oaxaca, avocados, papaya, melon and bananas are grown locally, so they are abundant and inexpensive, even in winter (which is like early summer in California). California pears and peaches, pineapples from Costa Rica and Guatemala are readily available and are not exhorbitant. Restaurant fare varies according to where one chooses to eat, of course. On the high end, a comida midday meal at Casa Oaxaca can easily run $50 USD per person. I’d rather eat at La Biznaga or La Olla, knowing I was buying healthfully prepared food, spend about $7-10 USD for a meal (although one could eat there for as little as $4-5), and put the money I “saved” toward buying an alebrije or rug. Other good bets for meals are restaurants Marco Polo, and Maria Buena in the same price range, and at the San Martin Tilcajete crossroads, Jacobo Angeles’ new restaurant, La Azucena. I’ve taken to eating in the markets when the stall looks clean and the food is either grilled or boiled or steamed to oblivion. In Tlacolula, on Sunday market day, Stephen and I went to a grilling stall where the raw red meat was draped over metal display racks like at a butcher after we saw the long lines in front of the place. One thing I’ve learned from traveling the world, especially Asia, is that where large groups congregate, it’s got to be good food. So, we picked out our piece of meat, they grilled it, along with the onions we bought at an adjacent stall. Stephen went off to forage for bread baked that day, a hunk of Queso Oaxaqueno, and drinks. With food in hand, we strolled out to the church courtyard, plunked down on the raised concrete edge of a flower bed, and ate our “lunch-dinner” just like the locals. The cost was about $6 for both of us including everything. Delicious and no worries!

There’s a night life now in Teotitlan. It is called “Samburguesas.” Samuel is the proprietor and he unfolds his awning every evening around 7 p.m. on the side of the market that faces the church. The grilled burgers are delicious, as are the tacos al pastor. These tacos are made from grilled pork meat that is sliced off a vertical roaster, topped with grilled pineapple, and served over two small soft handmade corn tortillas. A plate of condiments is put on every table that includes guacamole, red onions, salsa fresca, and hot peppers (watch out for those peppers). You dress your own tacos. They cost about 50 cents each. Beer is available, though it is usually warm. Throughout posada season, Samburguesas is really busy, and townspeople just love the idea of getting out around 8:30 or 9 at night for cena, and it’s a place for teens to gather, too, beyond the street corners.

Transportation to Oaxaca

The fastest, easiest way to get to Oaxaca is to fly there directly from Houston via Continental Airlines — non-stop. The daily flight leaves around 9 a.m. and arrives into Oaxaca about 11:30 a.m. To get there from the east coast, I get to the airport at 4 a.m. (two hours in advance as required for international flights, get on the 6 a.m. flight to Houston, and then, if I’m not totally zonked, have a whole day in Oaxaca. The flight to Oaxaca is on a small regional jet and flying time is about 2-1/2 hours. After landing, a couple of cups of great organic Oaxaca coffee will get me juiced up enough to stay awake until 9 p.m. Summer is hurricane season along the gulf coast and Oaxaca’s big weather is in spring (lots of rain in April-May). The other major airlines will take you to their hub city (Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte), on a Boeing 737 or MD-80 (which for me, is a bit easier ride in weather) where you will fly to Mexico City (about 2-1/2 to 3 hour flight), have a layover (which you want because you have to clear immigration–which takes about 30-40 minutes), then hop the 1 hour flight on Mexicana or AeroMexico into Oaxaca City. There is a “direct” Mexicana flight from Los Angeles to Oaxaca, but it stops in Mexico City, no plane changing. This last trip, I flew American Airlines, left at 6 a.m. and arrived in Oaxaca at 7 p.m. that evening — still a long day!

When we went in December 2007, my husband decided he wanted to save a couple hundred dollars, so he booked a separate round-trip on US Airways to Mexico City only. Then, he made an advanced prepaid reservation on the first class overnight bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, which arrived the next morning at 6 a.m. The bus ticket cost about $60USD. He got the last ticket for that bus, so especially during holiday season, it’s essential to make a reservation in advance. This was his itinerary: fly from RDU to St. Louis to Phoenix to Mexico City, arrive at 6 p.m. Get a taxi from the airport to the first class bus station across town to catch the bus leaving at 10 p.m. to Oaxaca. Recline on almost flat bus seats (they give you eye mask, ear plugs and mints) and hope you don’t get seated next to a snorer or someone who keeps lifting the window shades. Sound good? I met a Oaxaquena native and her teenage daughters from Fresno who were visiting relatives over the holidays. I asked her how they got to Oaxaca. They take a bus from Fresno to Tijuana and then there’s a direct flight (via Mexico City) to Oaxaca. Somehow, I think that if you buy the airplane ticket inside Mexico, it’s probably cheaper. We’ve been buying tickets on Hotwire lately and it’s pretty competitive. A couple of years ago, before $100 a barrel gas, you could get a RT ticket for $600 from the east coast. Lately, it’s been closer to $800 and I’ve seen them upwards of $1,000. Another idea we’re looking into is flying to Huatulco and then taking a bus to Oaxaca. We heard from a Canadian that he got a real deal: $200 RT from Regina, Sasketchewan to Huatulco through a travel agent. We wouldn’t want to stay in Huatulco but we certainly wouldn’t mind flying there for that price!

Note: On your return trip to the U.S., make sure you have enough time to clear U.S. Immigration, U.S. Customs, go through Security, and make your connecting flight. My last trip through DFW going through this process took a good 45-60 minutes, what with long lines at immigration, waiting for the bags to be off-loaded from the plane to go through customs, standing in lines there, giving the bags back to the airlines to load onto the next flight, taking off my shoes and unloading my computer at security, using 4 gray plastic bins to contain my coat, my computer, my shoes, my computer bag, my carry-on bag, and the silver bracelet that can trigger the alarm system, trying all the while to remember to turn off my cell phone, take it out of my pocket and put it in my purse, keeping my passport and ticket handy at all times. The plane was late arriving at the gate and lots of people on board didn’t make their connections. Then, it’s a good 10-15 minutes via the tram to get to the connecting gate. Where’s the SkyTram? I think, yikes, how do we keep doing this?

Mexican Rug Weaving Patterns

Walk down Avenida Benito Juarez, the main road of Teotitlan del Valle, or stroll through the central commercial market next to the church and village museum, or go down the side streets and walk into any weavers home, and you will see the myriad different patterns and designs incorporated into the woven wool rugs. Traditional designs will incorporate the patterns you see on the Zapotec temple ruins that make up the foundation of the village church, plus other patterns found in nature. These include grecas (Greek key), the caracol (Pre-Columbian snail), lightening (zig-zags), animals such as birds, lizards, armadillos and jaguars, mountains and rains (alternating pattern of undulating waves, dots, dashes, stripes, and overwoven squares), Zapotec and Aztec god figures, lightening and stars. The “tree of life” pattern filled with birds and animals is a favorite and loved pattern incorporating many anthropomorphic figures.

The ancient sacred Aztec symbol of the cross was widely used long before the landing of Cortes, and continues to be incorporated into rug patterns today. “The cross is not only a Christian symbol, it was also a Mexican symbol. It was one of the emblems of Quetzalcoatl, as lord of the four cardinal points, and the four winds that blow therefrom.” —Fiske: Discovery of America, vol. ii. chap. viii. p. 250.)

If you pick up a copy of the Codex Borgia, you will see that some weavers love to incorporate some of these early Olmec/Aztec/Zapotec images in their weaving. Many will play on the size and scale of a pattern to vary its interest. Weavers will also create or mimic contemporary patterns they think will sell, like a Joan Miro or Escher painting or a portrait of Benito Juarez or Che Guevarra. In the 70’s and 80’s, dealers from New Mexico and California came to Teotitlan to find a cheaper source for creating “Navajo-style” rugs. They brought with them traditional Navajo designs and asked village weavers to reproduce them. Today, you will see this influence in work that incorporates the use of both traditional Zapotec and Navajo patterns, creating a hybrid of sorts. It is important to be able to discern between an authentic Navajo rug and one reproduced in Teotitlan if you are a collector. Now, China has entered the Mexican weaving market, is copying rug patterns, and reproducing them even more cheaply. Soon, perhaps, the Sam’s Club in Oaxaca City will be selling Zapotec designed rugs made in China. Is this the benefit of a global economy?

The weaving cooperative, Bii Dauu, as part of its mission, only sanctions the use of traditional weaving patterns for its members as a practice of preserving Zapotec cultural heritage. Members must bring their designs before a committee to get approval in order to proceed.

Federico, Eric, Janet and Omar Chavez are experimenting with new designs that are not literal replicates of traditional patterns. They are playing with color, the variation and variegation of color, circles and curves. They are also continuing to weave the traditional patterns for which their family is known. I read recently that an artisan is truly an artist when she or he continues to experiment and innovate. Imagination drives development of an art form. Repeating what has been successful in the past is a sure way of doing business but it is not necessarily part of the creative process.

As one becomes familiar with Mexican rug weaving patterns and the variations that weavers are incorporating into the traditional patterns, you can begin to discern the masterful from the mediocre.


Norma and Jose


Recipe: Agua Fresca de Melon or What to do with an under ripe cantaloupe?

Oaxaca is famous for its Aguas Frescas … those sublime fruit drinks perfect for sipping while sitting on the zocalo or strolling down the Alcala Macedonia. Fresh fruit waters come in a variety of flavors: pineapple (pina), cantaloupe (melon), watermelon (sandia), mango or papaya. They are made in a blender with water, sugar and ice (hielo). Ice made from purified water, which the good restaurants always use, is not a problem….no worries! Now that I’m home, I’m yearning for those delicous Aguas Frescas. I bought a cantaloupe the other day, cut it open and discovered it was not yet ripe…and once cut, too bad. So, I quartered it, seeded it, cut the flesh into bite sized pieces, put it in the blender with the following recipe, and lo and behold, Agua Fresca de Melon — fabulous.

  • 1 large cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, with flesh cubed into 1″ pieces
  • 2 T. sugar or 1 T. Splenda
  • 2 cups water
  • 8-10 ice cubes
  • Optional: 1/2 cup non-fat plain yoghurt
Blend the fruit and sugar with 1 cup of water until pureed. Add the remaining water and continue blending until smooth. Add the ice cubes until you get the coldness and watering consistency you want. If needed, add more ice cubes and correct the sugar for taste adding more if you so choose. I put in the yoghurt to give the drink a delicious creamy texture. A su salud!