Category Archives: Travel & Tourism

Accidents Happen. Buy International Medical Coverage.

This is not a happy post.  A friend and workshop participant arrived several days early to do some sightseeing on her own before our program started.  The taxi she was traveling in crashed into a concrete barrier on a major highway.  On impact, she was thrown from the back seat to front, hit her head on the dashboard, and went into an immediate coma.  She did not have international health/accident insurance and she was not wearing her seat belt.  I urge you to always wear your seat belt.  Even in collectivos where they pack 5 passengers into a 3 passenger vehicle.

It took me over three hours to get to her from the city center to the suburban clinic because of traffic to intervene.  It took hours of bureaucracy to get her moved from this clinic with limited facilities (where the ambulance took her from the accident site) to the best hospital in the city with a neurosurgery unit.

The cost for an emergency admission at a private, highest quality tertiary care center in Mexico, is 200,000 pesos payable in advance. That’s about $15,000 in today’s exchange rate.  That’s the base.  The cost for a medevac airplane to take an accident victim to the U.S. is $60,000.

This covers the logistics. I am unable to talk about the emotional impact to her family, friends, and to me.  It’s too painful.  This woman is young, beautiful, smart, and sensitive.  She does good work in the world that makes a huge difference in people’s lives.

It’s called an accident because we never know who it will happen to, what the severity will be, when or where it will happen.  Mexico is a wonderful place to visit.  However, you don’t want to be without medical insurance coverage here.  Indeed, if you travel the world, you need to be covered.

I am now requiring that anyone who attends one of our programs carry international travel/accident insurance.  Before it was an option.  Now, it is a requirement.

Accidents happen.  Let’s be prepared.

International Priests Visit Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The firecrackers call in early afternoon to announce that something spectacular was about to happen in the village later that day. It’s filled with surprises here.  My neighbor Ernestina comes over in the morning to offer me 20 fresh, creamy chicken and mole amarillo tamales for 100 pesos.

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Then, later tamales are served for lunch at the guest house where the felt fashion workshop participants assemble.  It is not yet Dia de la Candelaria, when everyone eats tamales. What is going on? I wonder.

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At six-thirty, the young men atop the bell tower ring the church bells. Rosario and Josefina say goodbye.  Where are you going? A la iglesia. To the church, they say.  There’s a fiesta  to welcome 30 visiting priests from Columbia, China, Nueva York (New York), California and India.  I follow the sound of the bells to the church courtyard.

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Nearly the entire village gathers.  I arrive just in time to be offered a fresh, steaming hot tamale, to see the children dressed in Dance of the Feather plumage dancing the re-enactment of the conquest, to hear the band play, and to see banquet tables filled with men who sip hot chocolate and eat tamales, served by traditionally dressed village women.

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I hear that more than a thousand tamales are made that day by the women chosen to the traditional, pre-Hispance Jarabe del Valle dance.  They are part of the church committee that supports the village festivals.

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A master’s of ceremonies talks about cultural exchange, the many Zapotecs from this village who live and work and practice their traditions in towns throughout southern California, and how these priests help people to adapt, acclimate and stay connected to their roots.  The Spanish is sprinkled with a little English to make the visitors more welcome.

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Then, the women, holding branches of fragrant herbs welcome the guests to join them for the Jarabe del Valle.  The men, towering above them, move their feet to the rhythm of the dance and catch on quickly.

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The band played on.

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All Night Party Called Las Cuevitas

Seven years ago I wrote one of my first blog posts called Sunset at Las Cuevitas. Las Cuevitas is an annual Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico tradition that draws the entire pueblo to the caves up in the grassy, nopal cactus dotted hills beyond the village.  Festivities start on the night of December 31 and continue through November 3.

Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2014

Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2014

This is a rocky, sacred pre-Hispanic ritual site now holds a small chapel.  Three three niches form altars where offerings are made and prayers are whispered. Families come to sleep in the open air or under tarps held high by poles or pitch tents.  Others come for the day and stay well into the night, bringing chairs, blankets and picnic baskets.  Vendors sell all types of snacks and food lest you come or get hungry: sugar wafers, just made French fries drizzled with chili salsa, tamales, even donuts.

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As the sun begins to set, the warm afternoon turns to chill.  Women wrap themselves in wool shawls or put on sweaters and bundle up their children.   Men wear jackets and baseball caps.  The line to enter the grotto snakes down the dusty path lined with sellers of hand-embroidered tortilla covers, copper bracelets for good health, and quesadillas made on wood-fired comals.

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The mood is festive.  At five in the afternoon an outdoor mass begins at the grotto. Then the band plays.  We sit on the hillside and watch pre-teen boys strike matches to light sparklers and fire balls, while others construct rock houses and make roofs of twigs and dried grass.  Everyone is eating something.

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Today the new president begins his three-year term, a voluntary and elected position.  The newly initiated volunteer police force that starts their one-year service term today are present to keep the peace, more symbol than necessity.

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On the hillsides, campfires burn, rockets shoot skyward, balloons and papel picado separate earth from sky.

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As we approach the grotto to add our candles, prayers, and offerings, I see that we are in the perfect spot for the upcoming fireworks display, a perfect ending to my perfect day in southern Mexico.  The celebration will continue through the night, all day and night on January 2, and end on January 3.  Good things come in three’s here.

NOW FOR THE FIREWORKS

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I was so close, I had to stay out of the raining hot cinders.  The cracking sounds were deafening.  It was an amazing spectacle to see a man dancing, holding a cow above his head spewing circles of light.  TheN two men followed holding female figures high as the fireworks circled and the crowd was mesmerized.  The band played on.

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Next?  That brings us up to Day of the Three Kings, January 6, when we will find the markets filled with round holiday breads infused with candied fruits and several little plastic baby Jesus figures.  The bread is called rosca de reyes, and Mexican children will receive their Christmas gifts on this day.  Whoever gets the baby Jesus is obligated to host a tamale party on February 2, Dia de la Candelaria, the last event associated with Christmas.

May the party continue!

MORE SUNSETS ANYONE?

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There were fewer than ten extranjeros (foreigners) in the crowd.  Most of us who were there are connected to local families and live on their land or rent from them. Las Cuevitas is probably the closest thing I can think of to July 4th as a family day of picnicking, partying, and enjoying life.

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And, don’t you agree, Omar’s smile is like a brilliant sunset!

 

Christmas Collage: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Martha, Marianne, and Judy arrive from the city for dinner on December 23 and then we gather at the house of the eighth posada.  Earlier, I go to the local morning market and find a fish vendor from the coast.  We eat organic and fresh talapia, squash, potatoes, carrots, onions seasoned with kumquats, candied ginger, carrots, prunes, dates, and raisins all cooked together in the tagine.  Later, I use the head and bones for stock.

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The posadas continue through December 24, when baby Jesus appears on Christmas Eve at La Ultima Posada, the last posada, which is the grandest and most magnificent of all.

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On the street we meet a young woman and her mother who are originally from Teotitlan del Valle, and now live in Chicago.  She tells us she and her family put their name on the list to host La Ultima Posada ten years ago.  They will welcome baby Jesus in 2014.  The cost to host is about $50,000 USD, which includes a magnificent array of food for three days — enough to serve hundreds, two bands, drinks and refreshments, candles, lanterns, decorations.  She explains to us that it is an honor and a commitment to community and God to be able to do this. They meet with the church committee twice during the year to review details that will ensure a traditional celebration.  Service and community cohesiveness is essential for Zapotec life.  They have lived in this valley for 8,000 years.

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On December 24, I make a last minute run to the village market once more to discover it packed with shoppers and sellers at eight-thirty in the morning.  This is likely the biggest market of the year! Every one presses up to buy fresh moss and flowers from the Sierra Norte to make the creche that will bring baby Jesus to their home, too.

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There is fresh pineapple, bananas, papaya, mandarin oranges, apples, and spiced guayaba (guava). Lilies, roses, and flowering cactus lay on tables ready for plucking. Live chickens and turkeys, feet secure to keep them from flying away, lay subdued, waiting.

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Children hide under their mother’s aprons or eat fresh morning bread or sip a horchata. Who can resist the blue corn tortillas?  Not me.

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Piñatas are an integral part of the baby Jesus birthday celebration.  The market is filled with them on December 24.  Children adore the rain of candy.  Me, I adore the perfectly ripe avocados, organic lettuces and eggs.

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I bump into Janet and Jan, expats from France and Holland who winter here. They eat breakfast at the stand set up in the middle of the market, quesdadillas fresh off the griddle.

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Later, I join my family for the traditional dinner at eight.  Elsa brings homemade bacalhau, there is organic salad, roasted pork leg infused with bacon, garlic and prunes, pinto beans, with plenty of beer, mezcal and wine.  Dessert?  Why tiramisu cake from Quemen bakery, of course!

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Omar entertains Christian.  Lupita entertains Christian.  The children kick the soccer ball and jump on the piles of wool waiting for the loom.  We sip spiced ponche (hot fruit punch) made with guayaba fruit sweetened with sugar cane.  Some will go to the church for midnight mass.  Others will go on to aanother supper at midnight.

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Christmas day presents another dinner feast on Roberta’s terrace, this time a potluck with organic lettuces, Annie’s garden arugula, enchiladas with green salsa, roasted chicken, red wine, fruit salad and Susanna Trilling‘s Mexican Chocolate Bread Pudding that Jan prepares.  The patio is filled with flowering cactus and the sunset can’t be better.

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All is well with our world.  I hope your holiday season is spectacular, too.  Feliz Navidad! Gracias a todos.

XmasCollage-37              Our next photography workshop is this summer 2014 for Dance of the Feather.  Find out more!

 

Christmas in Oaxaca: Teotitlan del Valle Posadas

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For nine days and nights leading up to Christmas eve, the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico recreates the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Each night they sleep on the road, which means they arrive at the home of a host family who welcomes them to their courtyard, then altar room, filled with copal incense and prayers.

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There is a huge feast for invited guests:  tamales, roasted beef or pork, homemade tortillas, wild turkey called guacalote.  I can smell the charcoal cook fires from a distance.

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The villagers gather at the front gate.  Hosts distribute tamales and atole (women have been cooking for days), men sip beer and mezcal, children blow whistles. The celebration is grand, festive.  Then, at around 6:30 p.m. the procession leaves the host home and passes through the streets of village, up hills, through narrow alleyways, from one side to the other,  until they come to the home of the next night’s host family and the celebration continues.

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It is both solemn and celebratory.  Women, men and children are selected by each host family to do the honors of leading the procession and light the way with handmade beeswax candles decorated with beeswax flowers, birds, and glittering pendants.  Followers cover their heads in scarves as if in church. 

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The men who handle the fireworks and shooting rockets are out in front to guide the way with sight and sound.  From all corners of the village we can hear them until late at night, and then again in the morning as a wake up call.  I arise at six to the blast of a rocket. Behind the fireworks are the altar boys carrying crosses, then four young women carry the palanquin of Mary and Joseph.

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On this night, our procession must have picked up more than 300 people along the way as the route passed through every corner of the village and ended at a home not more than two blocks from the one we had left.

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Up hill and down, across cobbled streets, we picked our, way careful of potholes and uneven stones and construction materials.  The streets were swept clean and watered so there would be no dust for us.  We must have walked three miles at a steady shuffle.

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Those who didn’t process waited in doorways.  The older people who had difficulty walking made it part of the way and then dropped off, as did the parents carrying sleeping babes on their shoulders, and holding toddlers by their hands.

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On the night of December 24, the baby Jesus appears in the altar room of the host family for La Ultima Posada — the last procession.  This is the biggest party of them all and it will continue through the night and into the morning.

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Visitors are welcome to join the procession.  You can spend the night at Las Granadas B&B or at Casa Elena, both excellent establishments.  You can start out having comida at Las Granadas prepared by Josefina and then end the night with a glass of wine or a cup of mezcal!

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A Word About Night Photography

It is difficult!  In the ideal world, one would use a tripod to hold the camera steady, avoid flash, use manual settings on your camera to manipulate the shutter speed, aperture, and film speed/ISO.  That means constantly changing settings for various lighting situations.  In very dark situations, like during this posada on streets barely illuminated, one gets a golden glow.  I also turned off the automatic focus setting on my camera and lens and used manual focus.  The lens has a hard time reading light and will not focus otherwise.  With my bad eyes and very low light, that meant guessing, which is why many of my photos were blurry.  Those you see here have a warm, golden glow typical of low light, night photography using a hand-held camera.  I was able to adjust some of the photos using Lightroom photo editing software.  We teach all this in our Oaxaca Cultural Navigator photography workshops.  We learn about the camera and immerse ourselves in the indigenous culture, too.