Category Archives: Creative Writing and Poetry

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!

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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

Sabbaticals, Cleaning Out, Chiapas Cat For Sale

For the past month that I have been in North Carolina, I have looked around my house and decided it was time to deconstruct my collection.  This includes all things Oaxaca, Mexico, plus art and artifacts from past lives where I have traveled around the world and wanted to bring home the memories represented by something tangible and beautiful.

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You have not heard much from me during this time.  I have focused my energies on editing my collection, selling and cleaning out.  This is in preparation for spending more time in Oaxaca in the coming year, and for my month-long trip to Peru starting in mid-September.  When I retired from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, my foundation board gave me this trip to Peru as a departing gift and thank you for my service to the school.  I was surprised, amazed, and speechless!  Now, I get to plan the adventure.

And, no, I’m not leaving North Carolina and this home I love.  Merely taking an opportunity to downsize, deconstruct, re-evaluate how much I want and need, and taking steps to simplify my life and go lighter.

I’ve been selling most of my collection on ebay and Etsy, and lots is still there.  This includes ceramics figures from the famed Aguilar sisters and alebrijes by Bertha Cruz, and handmade Mexican vintage sterling silver earrings.

Here is a beautiful stuffed Chiapas Cat I’ve had in my collection.  10″ high and 9″ wide. Do you want it?  $24 plus shipping and it’s yours!

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Here goes Comandante Ramona on horseback (or is it donkey?) with Subcomandante Marcos across EZLN territory of Chiapas.  A great figure of felted wool, embroidery and wood.  10-1/2″ tall and 8″ wide.  $26 plus shipping.

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I subscribe to and regularly read The Improvised Life blog written by Sally Schneider.  This week she posted she was taking a one-week sabbatical and posted a TED talk video in support of this idea.  I’m sharing it here.

For me, this sabbatical is intermittent, unplanned, and I don’t know what I will write or post here or when.  I do know I am doing more reflective and creative writing, writing more poetry, and creating the basics of a memoir that may or may not be published!  I’m taking one day at a time.

How are you doing as you approach summer?

And, have you thought about participating in the February 2014 Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat?  We are accepting reservations now.

Literary Journal Publishes Women’s Writing Retreat Essay

Minerva Rising Literary Journal co-editor and poet Dulcie Witman invited me to write a guest essay for their blog.  My essay, Women Who Have Something to Say, reflects the women’s creative writing and yoga workshop/retreat experience.

Minerva Rising Literary Journal celebrates the creativity and wisdom in every woman.  Their blog invites guest writers to contribute essays, stories, experiences, insights and perspectives.  The pieces are usually creative non-fiction written in the first person.

Minerva Rising publishes two editions per year.  It seeks submissions of written works that include photographs.  The current theme is “rebellion.”  Give it a try!

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Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014: Lifting Your Creative Voice

4th Annual Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat.  Arrive Friday, February 28, leave Saturday, March 8, 2014–8 nights, 9 days.

We are women who have something to say. We keep journals, notes, drafts of unpublished material. Or, we dream of writing and never have.  Ideas percolate and we want to develop them. Perhaps we have let the writer’s life lapse and need renewal.  We may seek guidance and support to continue an unfinished piece or publish it.  The Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice is your place to learn, express yourself, and be the woman who writes. (Note the active tense!)

With published author/poet and university professor Robin Greene‘s guidance and coaching, you’ll gain knowledge and perspective about the art and craft of writing.   We offer writing exercises and triggers, thoughtful discussion, caring feedback, and the simple gift of time.

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Minerva Rising Literary Journal blog publishes women’s workshop essay

Our goal is to empower you to tell your story well, and to lift and share your voice—widening your lyrical range and adding to your narrative toolbox.  Here you can choose the genre that best suits what you have to say: memoir, journaling, poetry, creative non-fiction and fiction. The retreat is designed to accommodate both novice and experienced writers, and it is limited to offer an especially satisfying small group experience.

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The writing workshop is complemented by and integrated with daily yoga sessions led by Beth Miller, and tailored to each participant’s physical level and needs. Through this practice, we flex our bodies to stretch our imaginations.  Beth employs movement, chanting and using the breath to help us find voice and creative center — a perfect combination of the physical and spiritual, says past participant LeeAnn Weigold. We meet in the altar room of a local family for both yoga and writing. Each informs the other. 

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What Participants Say

  • I learned I am fully capable of being the writer I dreamed of becoming.
  • The location, teaching and program structure created a truly transcendent experience of enormous value.
  • I was challenged and that turned out to be exactly what I needed.
  • Far exceeded expectations. Got many suggestions for how to write healing stories for my family.
  • It was wonderful!
  • The combination of writing, yoga, meditation and shared sisterhood is transformational.
  • Oaxaca feels safe, safer than my hometown in the USA.
  • I identified a writing project that engages and excites me.
  • The balance of intensive writing workshops, cultural excursions and yoga lead to a powerful experience on all levels.
  • The feedback was so thoughtful.  I honestly can’t think of anything I would change.
  • Beth’s yoga is the best I have ever experienced.  A perfect combo of the physical and spiritual.

We are based in the Zapotec weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.  Imagine a setting so beautiful that it inspires all the best within you.  Here, amid the flowering bougainvillea and in the shade of red pomegranates, with the backdrop of 9,000 foot mountain peaks, you will enjoy a rich and rewarding experience. Our all-inclusive workshop is perfect for renewal and self-reflection.

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A Message from Your Workshop Leader, Author/Poet and Professor Robin Greene

“The writing retreat is very relaxed, and in the past three years–yes, this is our fourth!–the participants have been wonderfully supportive and open-hearted. You don’t need to bring any writing, but if you wish, you can–anything from a piece in progress, notebook ideas, some journal entries, or finished work. Oaxaca is a lovely place and finding writing topics is easy. Also, I’ll have plenty of prompts, writing exercises, and suggestions—and, of course, as women write, we energize each other.

“As the writing instructor, I like to encourage women to find their individual voices so that the retreat experience is personally meaningful. In addition to one scheduled conference with each participant, I’m available for feedback and coaching throughout our time together.  And, because I teach creative writing, I have a repertoire of techniques and strategies to share with writers at all levels.

“While I’m a university professor, this Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat remains my favorite teaching experience.”

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We cannot promise that you will win a poetry prize, as did one of our 2011 participants after writing her winning poem at the retreat, or be published in a literary journal as a 2012 participant accomplished.   We CAN promise that you will explore, develop and deepen as a writer.

If you are working on a project — bring it. If you have something in mind but haven’t yet put it to paper (or computer), this is the place to do it.

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You’ll have an opportunity to write on your own during open time in the schedule.  And, if you choose, there’s also plenty to do here. We’ve scheduled daily yoga, stretching and meditation sessions, plus options to participate in other activities: cooking class, massage, walking, hiking, bird-watching, a Oaxaca city shopping excursion, and visiting village weaving and artists’ studios.

What the Retreat Includes:

  • 21 hours of group writing and instruction
  • One-hour individual coaching session
  • Daily workshop sessions to give/receive feedback
  • Focused coaching to hone your skills: grammar, reading in public, publishing
  • 7 daily yoga sessions, tailored to varying skill levels
  • Women’s traditional temescal sweat lodge
  • Guided visit to Tlacolula regional market
  • 8 nights lodging
  • 8 breakfasts
  • 4 lunches
  • 6 dinners

Optional Added Fee-based Activities:

  • Shiatsu Massage, $50 per person
  • Zapotec/Oaxaca cooking class, scheduled as an option within the workshop week, $70 per person  (2 person minimum)

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Exquisite Corpse* Poem 2013-- Flower-Spangled, Hopscotch Light

Sun filters through the window,

dances across the freckles of his nose

and cheeks, a hopscotch of light. But you,

you only left me an afternoon, our shared

history erased as surely as footsteps

in a snowstorm, woven lives unraveling,

a plum fallen to the ground, left for crows—

graduation over, parents pacified.

I would like to embellish this place

in which I live, drink Red Rose tea

from a flower-spangled cup at the edge

of an untended maize field, boundaries

marked by old posts with termite trails.

Damnit. I wish people would tell the truth

and stop using words like “fine,”

so I could finally think about what to do

with my education. And so, my dear

Skye, you do have ancestors, and we love

the water anyway, even if it cannot clean us.

*Exquisite Corpse is a surrealist tradition, as Robin Greene explains, in which a piece of art is made collaboratively.  The Corpse Pose in yoga is the Shivasana ending pose.  Robin asked each participant to contribute a favorite line or two that she wrote during the workshop. Robin collected our voices and wove them together to form one collaborative voice.  The result was Flower-Spangled, Hopscotch Light

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There are lovely walking paths around the village, along the river and into the countryside near a local reservoir. You are welcome to venture out and explore the village and its environs on your own. Personal safety is not a concern here.

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What Women Say . . .

“I came hoping to pick up a few tips that would improve my writing.  I leave with a reignited passion to write, improve physical goals, and unlimited gratitude for the competence and gifts of my instructors.  Robin is flexible and responds to our varying needs.  The balance of intensive writing workshops, cultural excursions, and yoga results in a powerful experience.   This is the place to improve writing skills and explore the emotional elements that undergird them.”  –Jan Donaldson, North Carolina

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“The instruction was excellent and supportive. The personal coaching session offered me a chance to talk about my writing in a way I never had before.  The workshops are especially valuable because the feedback is so thoughtful.” –Susan Lesser, New York

“I discovered that my writing entertains people!  Beth’s yoga is the best I have ever experienced.  A perfect combo of the physical and spiritual.  And I loved the cooking class.” –LeeAnn Weigold, British Columbia, Canada

“The yoga was so freeing, allowing a creative flow so that I could feel and write [with intention, intensively.]  The fellowship of this group was so amazing.” –Laura Lamm, North Carolina

“Focused learning.  Beautiful setting.  Talented participants.  I was challenged and that was exactly what I needed.”  –Marta Light, New Mexico

“Robin’s insights push us into self-awareness.  I am fully capable of being the writer I dream of becoming.  The temescal made me feel so powerful and helped me to further love my body for exactly what it is.” –Rebecca King, North Carolina

“It was wonderful!  Now I can write healing stories for my family because of the many suggestions about how to do that.” – Janet Andrews, Arizona

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“It was all perfect. You gave us a beautiful writing workshop in a beautiful village setting and you also gave us a strong community-of-women bond that will far outlast this conference. Mil gracias!” — Katie Kingston, MFA, Trinidad, Colorado

“The quality of the teachers was stellar and the combination was a perfect fit for me. Robin has a clarity that is lovely, supportive, truth-telling, knowledgeable, superbly skilled. Beth is a beautiful, beautiful teacher. Combining the yoga and sound with writing was profound.” — Nancy Coleman, Portland, Maine

“This retreat is held in a really wonderful place, with a guide who knows a great deal about the town, has true relationships with people who live here. Robin and Beth are great teachers and work well together.” — Morgen Van Vorst, Los Angeles, California

“The week helped with my intention to write my book. There were too many valuable parts to list! We experienced an amazing time together, sweating leaves, meditation, chanting, writing, and honoring our lives. This was an awesome experience.” — Susan Florence, MFA, Ojai, California

“We learned from the other women in the group, from the culture, the language and people in the village. It was magical.” –Bridget Price, Sydney, Australia and Mexico City

“I loved that Robin, Beth and Norma were just a part of the group. I loved going to the markets and the cooking class. I’ve always wanted to come to Oaxaca and this was the perfect opportunity.” — Sue Spirit, Boone, North Carolina

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Your Workshop Leaders

Robin Greene is the McLean Endowed Professor of English and Writing, and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is also co-founder and senior editor of Longleaf Press, a literary press that publishes contemporary poetry. Greene is the recipient of a NC Arts Council/NEA Fellowship, a university teaching award, and a visiting professorship in Romania. Her work is widely published in literary journals. Greene has led community and conference workshops, has served as a writing consultant, and has taught creative writing for over two decades. Her books include Real Birth: Women Share their Stories(nonfiction), Memories of Light and Lateral Drift(collections of poetry), and Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman (published in 2011). Greene holds an M.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. See Robin’s website: www.robingreene-writer.com

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Beth Miller is our yoga instructor who combines yogic practice and philosophy with meditation, creativity and improvisation. She specializes in Vinyasa-Hatha yogic traditions and employs sonorous yoga practices as an approach to help women of all ages to give voice to their lives.  

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Portrait of Beth Miller by Mauricio Cervantes

Beth has a background in Holistic-Health Counseling, working primarily with teen girls and young women to inspire healthy lifestyle habits. In addition, Beth is a vocal artist, performer and teacher of Western classical and sacred music. She holds a B.A. in music from Westminster Choir College, is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor, and completed the chef training program from the Institute for Culinary Education.

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Norma Hawthorne produces arts and educational programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, operating as Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC since 2006. She offers textile and fiber arts, tapestry weaving, natural dyeing, creative writing, and photography workshops that people throughout the world attend.  During her 30-year university career, Norma organized national award-winning programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, and George Washington University.  Before she retired, Norma raised more than $23 million for The University of North Carolina School of Nursing. She holds the B.A. from California State University at Northridge and the M.S. from the University of Notre Dame.

 

Preliminary Workshop Outline

  • Friday, February 28, travel day, arrive and check-in
  • Saturday, March 1, orientation, village walk, writing, yoga
  • Sunday, March 2, regional market visit, yoga, writing
  • Monday, March 3, yoga, writing, temescal
  • Tuesday, March 4, yoga, writing, cooking class option, consultations
  • Wednesday, March 5, yoga, writing, consultations
  • Thursday, March 6, yoga, writing, Oaxaca city option
  • Friday, March 7, yoga, writing, reception and reading
  • Saturday, March 8, departure

Lodging/Accommodations and Cost

To keep this program affordable, we have selected clean and basic accommodations at family operated bed and breakfast inns.  Local meals are prepared by excellent cooks from organic ingredients made from scratch. Vegetarian options are available.

Cost: 

  • $1,195 per person double occupancy with shared bath
  • $1,395 double room with private bath (sleeps 2)
  • $1,495 single room with private bath (sleeps one)
  • $50, add-on Shiatsu massage
  • $70, add-on cooking class, learn to make mole
  • $125 per night, add-on lodging in Oaxaca city
  • $45 per night, add-on lodging in Teotitlan del Valle

Most travel workshops of this type and length cost more than twice as much!

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The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca city.  We will arrange taxi pick-up and return from/to the Oaxaca airport at your own expense.

We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

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Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit based on your preferred options is required to guarantee your spot. The final payment for the balance due (including any add-ons) shall be paid by January 10, 2014. Payment is requested or PayPal. We will  send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register.  After January 10, refunds are not possible.  You may send a substitute in your place.  If you cancel before January 10, we will refund 50% of your deposit.

We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible.  We can provide a quote for this.

Workshop Details and Travel Tips.  Before the workshop begins, we will email you a map, instructions to get to the workshop location from the airport, and a document that includes extensive travel tips and information.

To get your questions answered and to register, contact: normahawthorne@mac.com  Since we are in Oaxaca most of the year, we are happy to arrange a Skype conversation with you if you wish.

This retreat is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.

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Sunday Tlacolula Market for Women’s Creative Writing Group

We include a trip to the Sunday Tlacolula market outside the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, as an integral part of the creative writing experience at our annual women’s writing and yoga retreat held in early spring each year.  Why?  Because the market stimulates the senses and gives participants triggers from which to jump off into writing about their own lives and experiences.  It’s a great way to enjoy the local culture and see how locals go about about shopping for food, household items, and the necessities of daily life in contrast to our own.

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Tlacolula de Matamoros, as it is properly called, is a ten minute bus ride from Teotitlan del Valle where our workshop is based.  It is the commercial and political hub for the region.  All the Teotitlan buses go there on market day, making numerous round trips up until about four o’clock in the afternoon.

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Villagers from throughout the Tlacolula valley congregate in Tlacolula, arriving by private car, taxi, collectivo or community-operated bus.  You can identify the villages people come from by the style of clothing they wear, plus the names on and colors of the vehicles that bring them. 

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It was only a few minutes after we got to the corner that the bus came to pick us up.  It was already packed, standing room only, because we didn’t get on where the bus originates at the church, so the nine of us squeezed in and clung the the overhead railing. The ride was seven pesos per person.  That’s about five cents.

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One of my favorite stopping off points is Tlacolula’s Chocolate la Tradicion chocolate maker.  The shop is on the right side of the street about three blocks from the bus station as you walk toward the church.  Here, they combine roasted cacao beans, cinnamon, almonds and sugar, then put it through a grinder to make mole.  Usually families have their own recipes and the molina will prepare the blend exactly to family specifications.  Yummy.  They sell the prepared chocolate along with the famous Oaxaca handmade wooden frothers and all hot chocolate drinking accoutrements — a Oaxacan ritual staple.  When you visit, dance to the music and tell them I sent you!

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Here, everything is fresh and available in the cacophony of street vendor frenzy.   The aisles go on for city blocks and are actually cordoned streets covered with plastic awnings, lined with a hodge-podge of sellers.  They sell from tables piled high with butchered chicken or fresh fruit or kitchenware or spices or recycled clothing or hardware or field plows.  They sell from rolling carts and backpacks.  They sell from bicycles and tarps spread on the asphalt.  Whatever you need to eat or replenish for your household is available here.

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This is also a tourist mecca.  There is always something to bring home as a useful remembrance: a fine handwoven bamboo basket, painted gourd bowls, colorful cotton shawl with delicately macrame tied fringes, a floral patterned apron, an embroidered blouse, or a high quality tablecloth and napkins.

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Take a rest and have lunch at Comedor Mary on the block that borders the far side of the church.  Run out of pesos?  Stop in the Banamex ATM on the street where the Teotitlan vendors sell their rugs.

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I always pinpoint the church courtyard as a meeting place just in case we get separated.  This time, having a local cell phone really came in handy because the market is definitely big enough to get lost in, especially for first-timers.

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My favorite things to shop for at the Tlacolula market are:

  1. handwoven cotton or nylon hammocks–made locally
  2. red clay pottery from the village of San Marcos
  3. glorious, wildly embroidered floral gingham aprons
  4. finely woven bamboo baskets with palm leaf handles
  5. chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla — all from Mexico
  6. tablecloths and napkins from Mitla
  7. a silk (really rayon) ikat rebozo (shawl) with a fabulous punta (macrame fringe)
  8. and lots of photographs!

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