Monthly Archives: July 2013

Women’s Creative Writing Workshop: What a Peanut Says–Truth Starts Small

Laura Lamm, our guest contributor today, wrote this essay as an example for her ENG 100 students at Methodist University where she teaches English. It is about her 2013 experience participating in our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice.    Our 2014 workshop is open for registration.

As I cull through and edit almost 800 photos from the Lunes Cerro extravaganza we call Guelaguetza to share with you, I offer you this extraordinary piece of writing to enjoy for today!


My Failed Free-Write by Laura Lamm

Last spring, on the fourth day of the Oaxaca Women’s Writing Retreat, Robin [Greene], our writing coach, had passed around a bag of peanuts. Her only instructions had been “take one and don’t eat it. Well, at least not right away,” and she had laughed in that funny light-hearted way we had immediately loved hearing from her on our first day. Her lesson of this day was “truth starts small” when writing.

Some members of our group were lucky enough to get a whole nut, but some of us only got a half.  Robin told us to examine our peanuts for a few minutes and write about them.  Admittedly, while game for the exercise, I had thought how much can be said about half a peanut. I was surprised by the details the other writers in the group gave.  Truly inspiring words flowed from their lips as they read aloud: crunchiness, smoothness, grooves, dimples, and salt flakes.  Each woman had something astounding to say about the small world of her peanut, but I did not meet the challenge.

In fact, if I had been scored in a classroom on my attempt, I would have failed, totally missing any points given for following directions, falling way below the other women writers on the retreat.  I would have been that girl in the back of the proverbial classroom who would make the teacher shake his or her head and later comment to a peer, “Poor child, she just doesn’t get it.”

Peanuts make me think of humid August dog days.  The ones so bad that my mother would buy us ice-cold Cokes and bags of Lance salted peanuts, and we’d pour the nuts into the top of the bottle, making the Coke fizz until we covered the top with our hot mouths and drank, catching the peanuts with our tongues, stuffing them in our cheeks like squirrels.  Small things, like peanuts, make me remember other things.  Peanuts also make me think of elephants.

Robin could not have known about my fondness for Coke and peanuts or of my admiration for elephants when she had made the writing assignment.  She could not have imagined that I had watched a television documentary, revolving around a herd of African elephants, the night before my flight to Mexico.  The elephant herd, which had been large in number, was steadily decreasing because of a drought.  That day in Oaxaca, where life was a string of perfect small truths to be discovered, I couldn’t focus my mind on my peanut half even for a brief time.  My mind kept wandering to the ancient cow that had many daughters in her herd but had birthed a male that season.

Instead of the nut in front of me, I kept seeing her walking, searching for any water or food to be found.  I sat in the safeness of my writing retreat, thinking about how that mother would have loved to have even this single half of a peanut for her calf.  He had died that summer in the documentary. His mother had continued to grieve for his loss until the herd splintered into smaller groups that had gone on their way, because she would not leave him behind even weeks after his death.  Her daughters and granddaughters stayed beside her until her death; then the eldest herded all of the surviving cows onto their primordial walking path, following the herd’s other females, for what she instinctively knew would be a better life just as her mother had done before her.

No, I don’t think I would have scored very highly on my free-write if I had been judged by an assignment’s standards, and it was lovely that on this retreat I didn’t have to worry about failure. My destiny was not predetermined by a rubric from a filing cabinet.  Instead, I was afforded time to reflect on my truth.

I found that I thought not of peanuts or elephants.  I realized that I am always emotionally torn by events that revolve around mothers and daughters. I thought of my mother who has led me until she can no longer do so.  I thought of my daughter who I am trying to lead, but, like the granddaughters on the African plain, she is willful and head strong—not seeing the path of least resistance that I have already walked.  One day she will make her own path because she finds no solace in mine.

In the end, the peanut did fulfill its purpose just as Robin had said it would.  It gave me pause to think, and its small truth brought me full circle to a universal truth.  As a daughter and mother, I am faced daily with many types of conflicts that all require resolutions; but no matter the pull of each problem, I put one foot in front of the other, on instinct alone at times.  I win. I lose. I make a decision only to make another decision, avert this problem to face another.  I stand in the face of many adversities.  The greatest one being that no matter what I do, I will send my daughter out into an uncertain future just as my mother sent me.


Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014

            Registration is Now Open

Oaxaca Guelaguetza is Authentic: True or False? and Tickets

The week-long Guelaguetza, the last two Mondays in July folkloric dance event on the Cerro Fortin, is Oaxaca’s biggest tourist event of the year. Tickets for reserved seats are expensive, from 900 to 1,250 pesos, and now also hard to come by.   There are two performances left, one at 10 a.m. and one at 5 p.m. on Monday, July 29, 2013.

Where to Get Tickets

At Teatro Macedonio Alcala, no tickets are available and a handwritten sign directs you to go to the Tourist Office on Av. Benito Juarez across from Llano Park.  At the Tourist Office, they tell you that tickets are sold out and direct you to a travel agency.  Seems like the agencies bought up lots of advance tickets in order to charge a 200+ peso commission on each one.  Ticket Master Mexico is also sold-out.  Try the travel agency in the Quinta Real hotel on 5 de Mayo.  They are very helpful and the commission is less than most.

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Guelaguetza: Tourist Attraction or Traditional Custom

The three-hour extravaganza that features the indigenous dress of pueblos throughout Oaxaca state along with their particular dance traditions, draws people here from all over the world.  

The spectacle is grand entertainment, though not everyone can afford to see this version of it.  True, there is free seating in sections C and D of the Guelaguetza Auditorium, the white-tented amphitheater on the hill, but seats are way up in the peanut gallery far from the stage.  People tell me you have to get in line by 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. performance in get in free.  Not for the faint of heart.  Chilangos and gringos have far more money, so the economic class system prevails.


Nevertheless, throughout Oaxaca, free performances abound under tents near Santo Domingo Church, on the Zocalo, and in public spaces at San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center on Calle Independencia.  Or, anyone could catch a parade of masquers down Macedonia Alcala, the walking street that connects the Zocalo and the plaza in front of Santo Domingo.

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This week, Oaxaca is sizzling with excitement — a mezcal fair at Llano Park and a festival of seven moles.  It is a great time to be here.


Yet, the controversy and discussion around Guelaguetza continues.  Earlier in the week, San Pablo hosted academics from Mexico City and Oaxaca, and indigenous leaders from Oaxaca to talk about the authenticity of what has become this city’s tourism masthead.   Public definitions are influenced and changing through the lens of tourism.

Guelaguetza Definitions

In traditional villages throughout the state, Guelaguetza is the form of mutual exchange and support for the community good.  It is how indigenous people have survived and continued for thousands of years.   I ask you for something that I need now that you have.  I ask and you give it to me freely. In years to come, I owe you this same thing back plus a bit more — a cow for a wedding feast, a band for a quinciniera, tamales for a baptism, mezcal for a birthday, etc.  We keep a record so the interchange is accurate.  It is not considered a debt nor is it a gift.  It is giving and giving back.  The price one pays to be in community.


What happens when the general public believes that Guelaguetza is a folkloric dance performance that is disconnected from its cultural roots?

We see the baskets on the stage filled with nuts, candies, bread that the dancers throw out to the audience.  We see the gourds filled with mezcal that are traditional offerings that predate the Spaniards and Aztecs.  Little cups of mezcal are offered to the audience.  How are we able to understand the symbolism of these discreet events that become intertwined with a performance.


Yes, tourism is important to Oaxaca.  It is vital to Oaxaca’s economy.  It is good that there are ways to draw and attract visitors.  Yet, somehow it seems, we need to be doing better to make Guelaguetza more accessible, affordable and understandable.

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Mexico City’s Quintonil Restaurant is Simply Delicious

I asked Deborah Morris, MD, PA-C, who met me in Mexico City before we traveled together to Oaxaca, to contribute to this blog by writing some of her impressions.  She was dazzled by Quintonil and gives us this report.


On our last evening in Mexico City, after a day of eating homely (and tasty) street food, we decided to splurge.  Lesley from Eat Mexico recommended upscale Quintonil and we snagged a last minute reservation there.  We dressed up, and took a cab through pouring rain and awful traffic to an inconspicuous side-street in the Polanco neighborhood. Parked along the streets were Mercedes’ and BMW’s, yet, the restaurant entrance was unassuming except for the doorman who opened his umbrella and sheltered us from rain pellets as he guided us in.  Impressive!

The restaurant is not large, seating maybe fifty people.  The decor and ambience, streamlined, subtle and quiet.  We could tell this was going to be all about the food and service. Our waiter presented us with a paper menu folded like origami, a secret package revealing an astounding menu, each dish described in loving and mouth-watering detail.  The Mexican red wine we wanted was only available by the glass, but the manager agreed to sell us a whole bottle at a very reasonable cost.

Last things first, flan for dessert.

Last things first, flan for dessert.

Almost immediately, our servers delivered a small loaf of fresh-baked sourdough bread, along with a small bowl of butter infused with huitlacoche, the delicious corn fungus, a second bowl of a silky black bean purée with shreds of hoja santa, an anise scented herb, and a third bowl filled with a complex sweet-tart-deep-picante salsa. The bread on its own would have been good.  The accompaniments made it heavenly.

Making a first course choice was difficult. We passed up the smoked spider crab tostada with lime, watermelon radish and Habanero mayonnaise. Instead, we opted to share a melt-in-your-mouth scallop carpaccio on a sprinkle of a green lime and onion flavored oil.  The  garnish was slices of plantain rolled into cones and dabs of a tart lime chile mayonnaise. Texture, flavor and temperature met in small perfect bites that had us moaning superlatives under our breath.

First course to share: scallop carpaccio

First course to share: scallop carpaccio

Between each of our three courses, our waiter delivered a little surprise. After the scallops, we both received a small gourd bowl holding a smooth potato purée flavored with little crunchy bits of chorizo.  It was glorious. (Photo below.)

For her entrée, Norma selected a Baja red fish fillet (photo below) perfectly cooked with a glossy center, presented on a base of kale and kohlrabi purée glazed with an orange and red chilhuacle (meaning ancient chile in Aztec) sauce and topped with fresh lettuce leaves.

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Mine was a square of duck breast with crisp skin and red juicy middle, tender enough to cut with a fork, covered with an amazing dark red mole flavored with huitlacoche and garnished with tiny ears of corn, quartered and sautéed. We shared these dishes, too, oohed and aahed, and felt grateful to have found this place.

Another little regalo, or present, came after the main course in the form of a green tuna sorbet.  Topping the tuna, or nopal cactus fruit, was black smoked sea salt.

We certainly could not pass up dessert, although we did resist a Mexican chocolate dish baked in a pottery bowl that had that spicy, cinnamon and nut rich aroma that wafted in our direction when delivered to the next table.  Norma’s mix of fresh and candied figs was adorned with a little scoop of a creamy cheese ice cream and lacy wafers of caramelized honey (below right).  I had flan with fresh flowers.


Of course, there was no way we could finish drinking that entire bottle of red wine, so we offered what remained to two women dining at the next table.  They were drinking the same wine by the glass.

In anticipation and before we could even ask, the manager came to the table to ask if we needed a taxi, which arrived muy pronto in less than ten minutes. We traveled back to our B & B completely content.  Now, back to real life!

  • Quintonil Restaurante
  • Newton 55, Polanco  Álvaro Obregón, 11560 Federal District, Mexico
  • +52 55 5280 1660

And the last gift, a sprinkle of chocolate mints in a surprise package grand finale — as if we needed anything else!

Regalo of chocolate mints

Regalo of chocolate mints


Oaxaca Guelaguetza: 2013 Folkloric Festival


They call it Mondays on the Hill.  The original Zapotec meaning of Guelaguetza is transformed into a folkloric dance festival held in the auditorium on the Cerro del Fortin on the last two Mondays in July each year (except when the date falls on Benito Juarez’ birthday).  There are two performances today, Monday, July 22, 2013 — one at 10 a.m. (as we speak) and another this afternoon at 5 p.m.  The schedule repeats next Monday, July 29.

 All You Want to Know: Oaxaca Guelaguetza on Oaxaca Wiki

Tickets are not cheap!  They cost 1,250 pesos per person which translates to $97.62 USD in today’s exchange rate.  Pay a premium if you buy on Ticketmaster.   Another option is to go to the Llano Park tourism office and buy your ticket(s) there.  I’m still debating about whether to go next Monday for the second week live performance.

Computer Ringside Seats!  Live Streaming from Oaxaca! at

10 a.m. and 5 p.m. today — Central Daylight Time.

Disfruta bien! Enjoy!

A few years ago, I wrote about the history of Guelaguetza here.  What I wrote then is still true today.  And, you can read more about Guelaguetza meanings and celebrations held in California.

Oaxaca Community Health Clinic is Learning Laboratory for U.S. Physician Assistant Students

When Meagan Parsons and Ben Cook arrived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, three weeks ago to start their month-long public health clinic externship, they expected that people would be friendly and open since they had traveled before in Latin America.   They didn’t know quite what to expect about Mexico’s health care system.

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What the two physician assistant students from Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, discovered was that

  • local resources were more advanced than they imagined,
  • the federal and state government funding and delivery of health care provides excellent continuity of care,
  • patients are more appreciative of the health care they receive compared with what they see in the United States,
  • there is no poly-pharmacy — meaning that patients are not over-medicated, and there are few if any drug interactions,
  • pharmaceuticals are free with a doctor’s prescription,
  • the types and choices of medicines dispensed are limited
  • there are few resources for state-of-the-art equipment, and
  • people here are hardworking and dedicated to doing things well, taking pride in what they do.

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After only a few days “on the job,” Meagan and Ben assisted in a labor and delivery, which was a highlight.  This primary care practice experience compares with a family medicine practice in the U.S. for which they receive academic credit as part of a clinical rotation

Some of the most common medical problems that present at the clinic are diabetes, hypertension, intestinal and respiratory infections.  Dr. Jonas Gutierrez explained that there is no breast or cervical cancer here.  Neither is there Dengue fever or malaria.  

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The clinic staff, which includes five primary care doctors (one assigned to each residential section of the village), a pediatrician, psychologist, dentist, nurses, a  social worker, and physician administrator who is also a surgeon, concentrate on preventive medicine through regular check-ups, health education, and administering vaccines.  Complicated labor and delivery cases are referred to the tertiary care hospital, as are critical cases.

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The doctors included Ben and Meagan in social activities, inviting them to lunches, sports events and family outings.  There was no relationship hierarchy.  

For a look into Meagan and Ben’s Oaxaca blog click here!

After the first few days, Meagan and Ben’s “ears turned on,” they began to hear the words and their Spanish improved, especially the medical terms that got bandied about.  Meagan says that she developed keener non-verbal skills and could begin to pick up cues given by patients, which will help her immensely when she returns to North Carolina.

Ben says he will take home the language and how to better relate to Hispanic culture.  He saw first-hand how everyone in the family is involved in health care decision-making, and this awareness will benefit him as he moves on in his career after December 2013 graduation.

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Academic advisor Deborah Morris, MD, PA-C, who came for a one-week site and supervision visit, talked with Meagan and Ben about developing a Spanish-language diabetes education pamphlet to leave behind for patients, since this is a pressing health care issue for the village. The content will include treatment choices, self-care, diet and nutrition, and exercises.  There will be lots of visuals to make it easy to understand.  The doctors will review the content and provide feedback before the document is ready to print.

Each of the doctors who Meagan and Ben worked with said the students were very helpful, learned a lot and so did they.  This was an excellent “intercambio” —   an opportunity for cultural exchange, mutual sharing, learning, and collaboration.

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Medical training in Mexico involves five years of study to become a family practice generalist M.D., plus a one year internship and one year of social service (medical education is paid for by the government and is nominal to students), for a total of seven years of education and service.  To become a specialist, doctors add an additional four years on to their education by doing a hospital residency.

Thank you to the doctors and nurses of the Centro de Salud, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, for welcoming students to the clinic to gain valuable experience, especially Clinic Director Dra. Elizabet Lopez Martinez, Dr. Jonas Gutierrez, Dr. Pablo Aredondo, Dr. Jesus Morales, Dr. Faustido Hernandez, Administradora Mayra Mendez, and Dra. Jessica Lopez. Thanks also to the Public Health Committee of Teotitlan del Valle, and to Deborah Morris, MD, PA-C, for facilitating this collaborative health care exchange.

Note:  All photo subjects gave their permission to be photographed.