Category Archives: Workshops and Retreats

Market Town Sunday in Oaxaca, Mexico

Our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014 is coming to a close. We have been furiously writing this week, opening up to truth, reality, powerful voices, memories, love, comfort and despair.  Tonight, we will speak at a reading. Tomorrow, most will return home.  Today, I share this creative non-fiction piece with you as homage to life’s randomness.

Market Town Sunday in Oaxaca, Mexico 

First, getting to the bus.

The green bus they call Turtle is two blocks ahead of us. My impulse is to run after it and I start to squawk:  Stop.  Stop.  Let’s catch it, I say to the women who walk beside me, as I step out in front.  Uneven cobblestones underfoot slow me and I feel my ankle twist as my foot lands on a crevice between two stones.  I think, don’t trip and break a hip; don’t anyone else fall either. It’s a silent prayer for Suzie and one for the women who trail behind me now.  Accidents happen and I’m not ready to deal with another one.  I look back reassured they are taking it slow.  Still, I speed walk, pulling the old lady rolling shopping cart behind me, stopping every few steps to catch my breath and my footing.  The stones are slippery after years of others running before me, smooth from the beat of sun, the polish of rain, the tread of tires and tired feet.  The bus honks, hurry up. I imagine it will pull away any moment and the next one to carry us to the market town will take forever or thirty minutes.  Impatience is my cultural predisposition unlike this Oaxaca village where time drips like a leaky faucet. The driver waves. You take this as a signal and dart ahead like a bullet sprinter.  Your hair comes loose, flies away, sways like a tic tock pendulum with each leap until you reach the bus.  The rear lights flash red.   Now, I know it will wait for us.  We climb aboard, take our seats, look at each other, smile.  We made it.   There are no seat belts.

Second, woman in a gingham apron.

She boards the bus at the next stop.  All the seats are taken.  She stands in the aisle next to me, leaning tight against the seat back, an anchor.  The gingham apron she wears is brown and beige, a pattern of small checks that could be called plain, boring, undistinguished.   She is tidy.  As she turns to face forward, I see that each of the three buttons down the apron back is fastened with a matching fabric loop.  A perfect bow is tied at the back of her ample waist like a package ready to present as a gift.   Embroidered white daisies with deep yellow centers and green stems crawl across her bodice from elaborate baskets that mimic real life.  One of the two deep pockets on either side of the skirt likely contains the small purse with market money for rice, beans, chicken, roses for the empty vase on the altar room table. This is the uniform of Zapotec housewives.  The bus lurches forward as the driver lets out the clutch.  The bus sways.  Her moorings loosen. It is hot, though it’s only mid-morning.  In unison, she and I wipe our brows and our eyes meet. Her mouth opens into a wide smile.  Her fillings are gold and sparkly, reminding me of how the ancients drilled their teeth to embed precious stones and bits of gold, signs of wealth and prestige.  In that time, this was ample protection.

Third, buying tablecloths.

Do you mind? She asks, careful not to want this particular one too much.  Oh, no, says the other, I like either one.  You choose.  Both are blue, though one is the color of ocean and the other of sky.  I imagine the click, click, clack, clack of the flying shuttle loom that wove the threads into whole cloth, soon to drape a table, a bed, a comforter, all the comforts of home.  We concentrate on cloth, stroke the nubby cotton surface, admire the combinations of peach and minty green, plum and ash, rose and cream.  I am surrounded by sound:  a hurdy-gurdy accordion, a raucous laugh, screeches of children playing tag, the cheep, cheep, cheep of chicks caged, the thunder thump and beat, beat brass of salsa.  I hear Suzie’s sweet voice at lunch, excited about the trip, making plans.

How much, the shopper asks?  Doscientos pesos, says the vendor, plump, matronly, seasoned at sniffing what a buyer will pay.  The two hundred peso notes are green with the image of Sor Juana, Mexico’s high priestess of intelligence, women’s rights and devotion to study.  Just like us.  Just like Suzie.

Fourth, barrage of smells and sights.

Blue awnings, tarps spread across the sapphire sky, pillow clouds float by.  Guava, orange, apple, papaya, mango sit on tiers, altar to goodness and fulfillment to whomever worships here.  The scent of fruit mingles as if this is a secret potion mélange that will cure all.  I want some of that for Suzie, I think as I drift along the pavement inhaling the next sensation: smokey wood fires where chickens roast and red meat sears.  Do you see the red coals where fat drips? Do you hear the sizzle?  Watch the faces of women, flushed red, turning the red meat with tongs not quite long enough to keep their eyes from tearing up.   Women sing in mezzo soprano: tomates, tomates, ajo, ajo, diez por diez.   Scarves wrap their heads or carry babies, squash, flapping chickens, eggs, a bundle of kindling, dozens of lilies.   The scarves are intense turquoise, violet, magenta, black, cerulean, stamped in a Chinese factory with images of chrysanthemums, pansies, peach blossoms, lush green vines.   Perhaps, they are blue and white ikat made by a weaving machine in a far distant Mexican town where made-by-hand is only a memory.   Do you see their braids dangle down bent backs, wrapped in a tangle of red or purple or green ribbon?  Do you notice the ones whose barefoot feet are calloused or covered with worn leather huaraches, worn soles, souls seeking redemption, something to eat, shelter from intense heat?

Fifth, going home.

Together we pull the cart and carry the burden. We are overloaded with a day of waiting for money to dispense from the magic machine, then spending money, enough to make a difference in another’s life.  Buy a whistle.  Hear the police whistle direct traffic, the vroom-vroom motorcycle starting up and taking off, churning cart  wheels propelled by human feet and the grunt of the effort.  We make one last stop for art, for clay, for the hand-woven basket, for a perfectly ripe, ruby-red grapefruit. I speak a warning: Watch the speed bumps in the road, look out for that wheelbarrow filled with dripping honeycomb coming straight at us. Swerve around the gaggle of crouched women peeling nopal cactus paddles. Do you see those peddlers on bicycle carts careening toward you? The barriers are soft, not concrete.  We are not catapulted forward at sixty miles per hour.

We shift loads, trade our burdens, find a taxi driver to carry us home.  Three of us climb in the back, two of us wedge into the front alongside the driver.  No seat belts today.  I am wary, though we don’t have far to go.  Go slow, I tell him in Spanish, drive on the right shoulder.  Suddenly, up ahead smoke bellows, a vapor of grief trailing skyward.  A car on the highway is aflame surrounded by fire trucks.  An ambulance whizzes by.  Our driver downshifts into second.  His hand on the shifter pushes into my thigh.  Don’t goose me, I say, wiggling, giggling, knowing he doesn’t understand.  Then, again in Spanish, please use only first, third and fifth gear.  He laughs, reddens.  I am straddling the stick and it is almost up my ass.  My knees are jammed against the dashboard.  I tilt my head back into the space between the two front seats and know that with one stomp on the brake, my head would bounce forward, then back, forward again into the dashboard.

I think of Suzie in a coma and make a wish for life, full and unedited.  Today, I hear she briefly opened her eyes.

-Norma Hawthorne, March 3, 2014 






Day of the Dead Photography, Oaxaca, Workshop Tour 2014 with Frank Hunter

Oaxaca, Mexico, is famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations.  You experience it and capture it for a lifetime of memories!  This is cultural immersion travel photography at its best!  Arrive Monday, October 27, depart Tuesday, November 4— 9 days, 8 nights, $2,295 base price.

  • Limited to 8 participants. Small Group. Personal Attention.
  • Beginners and more experienced photographers welcome.
  • Trailing spouse and cooking class options.
  • Registration is now open!


This is our Fifth Day of the Dead Expedition in Oaxaca, Mexico.  More than a tour, this is a hands-on photography workshop for learning and improving technique while you experience Oaxaca’s famed Day of the Dead rituals.  By the end of the week, you will better use your digital SLR camera for visual storytelling and cultural discovery.

Your workshop leader is Frank Hunter, whose photographs are published in the New York Times, and are part of museum collections worldwide. For over ten years, Frank taught at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, North Carolina.  He now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is represented by Thomas Deans Fine Arts gallery in Atlanta, Georgia.


This cultural immersion workshop tour offers you a deeper appreciation for the food, religious symbols, rituals, family celebrations both in the city and in the rural Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle.  We take you into cemeteries, local homes, markets and cultural sites.


During our week together, we will review each other’s work, give feedback, and offer supportive critiques.  The workshop includes a mix of class instruction and being out on the streets to capture the action.   We offer structured group discussion and opportunities for daily coaching sessions with Frank.

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Technical topics covered include using Lightroom photo editing software, natural light, exposure, manual camera settings, and night photography. Frank says he uses just enough technique to help you express a visual idea. 

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We emphasize documentary-style photography, an organic, spontaneous form of understanding the culture and people you are photographing.

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About Frank Hunter

Frank grew up in the American southwest and spent his early years photographing people and landscapes of Mexico.  He has taught at the university level for more than 20 years.  Frank is a virtuoso photographer, as adept at digital photography as he is with creating 19th century style platinum/palladium prints.  

Don’t be intimated! Frank also taught fundamentals of photography at Duke University. You can read more about him here:

And, if you want more, just Google Frank Hunter.  You will get pages of citations!

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Preliminary Itinerary (subject to change) and Optional Add-Ons

Day of the Dead Workshop Expedition 2014

Day 1, Monday, October 27:  Arrive and check-in to our colonial-style hotel near the Zocalo and main walking street of Macedonio Alcala.  Dinner on your own.  Overnight Oaxaca.

Day 2: Tuesday, October 28:  After breakfast, welcome and learning session on camera settings and exposure, we will go on a city orientation walk, visit markets, gilded in gold Santo Domingo Church, and enjoy a welcome lunch at one of Oaxaca’s slow-food restaurants.   After  a gala welcome lunch we will meet for a Lightroom tutorial to review the workflow that will get your images edited and moved to Dropbox.  Overnight Oaxaca.  (B, L) Dinner on your own.

Day 3, Wednesday, October 29: After breakfast and workshop session, we will tour Monte Alban archeological site and the pottery village of Santa Maria Atzompa. After lunch, you will have the afternoon to roam and capture Oaxaca street parades, and market vendors selling wild marigold, special breads, candies, and other Day of the Dead ritual necessities. We’ll meet in early evening to review our best of day work. Overnight Oaxaca.  (B, L).   Dinner on your own.

Day 4, Thursday, October 30:  After breakfast and learning, session you will have the day on your own.   Today the streets are abuzz with Day of the Dead revelers.  Shops and galleries have extraordinary altars on display.  The sand paintings in the Zocalo and Plaza de la Danza are not to be missed.  Optional afternoon technical coaching session with Frank. We meet again in early evening before dinner to review best of day work. (B) Lunch and dinner on your own.

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Day 5, Friday, October 31:  After breakfast and a learning session on night photography, you will have the rest of the morning and early afternoon on your own.  At 2:30 p.m. we depart for the famed Xoxocotlan cemetery for an extraordinary Day of the Dead extravaganza, with a stop first to visit an extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path Arrazola wood carver. Frank is with us every step of the way for coaching and technical support. This could be a late night, so be prepared!  We will stay until at least 10 p.m., maybe later! Overnight Oaxaca. (B) Lunch and dinner on your own.)

Day 6, Saturday, November 1:  After a late breakfast and a debriefing session to review your experiences at Xoxo, you will have the afternoon on your own.  We depart later for the Zapotec weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.  Includes breakfast, dinner.  (B, D)

Day 6, Sunday, November 2:  After breakfast and learning session you will share your best photos from the Xoxo cemeteries.  Then, we will pair you with another workshop participant to share a traditional meal with a local host family and go with them to the village cemetery.   This is an amazing cultural immersion experience to learn more about indigenous customs and traditions.  We’ll see you back at our B&B after nightfall.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.  Includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. (B, L, D)

Day 7, Monday,  November 3:  After breakfast we will share experiences and photos of the day before in our last learning session. You’ll have the rest of the day on your own to meander and prepare your Best of Week photo presentation.  We get together with a celebratory fiesta with invitations to our host families to join us.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.   Includes breakfast and dinner. (B,D)

Day 8, Tuesday, November 4:  After breakfast, depart for your home countries. (B)


What You Should Bring

  1.  Digital SLR camera with lens(es) — wide angle, zoom, and/or fixed focal point 50mm
  2. Tripod for night photography
  3.  Laptop computer
  4.  Lightroom software installed for organizing and presenting images (Note: If you are an experienced Photoshop user, you are welcome to use this software for photo editing)
  5. External hard drive
  6. External card reader
  7. Batteries (2) and battery charger
  8. Memory cards (at least 2) and data sticks
  9. Pen and notepad
  10. Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, sun protection, sun hat

(Before the workshop starts, we will send you a complete packet and information guide with suggested packing list, and other useful information.)

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Cost:  The base cost for the Expedition is $2,295. USD. This includes:

  • All instruction and coaching
  • 8 nights lodging, shared room with shared bath
  • 8 breakfasts
  • 3 lunches as specified in the itinerary
  • 3 dinners as specified in the itinerary
  • Transportation to villages and archeological sites included in the itinerary
  • Entry fees to museums and sites specified in itinerary
  • Gift to local Teotitlan del Valle host family
  • Comprehensive pre-trip planning packet (via email)

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Not Included:

The expedition does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor/alcoholic beverages, breakfasts and other meals not specified in the itinerary, and optional transportation.

Please indicate your preference.

[  ]  Option 1–Base Cost: Double room with shared bath; $2,295. Deposit to reserve: $1,150.

[  ] Option 2: Shared room with private bath; $2,495. Deposit to reserve: $1,250.

[  ] Option 3:  Single Supplement, private room with private bath;  $2,695.  Deposit to reserve: $1,350.

[  ] Option 4:  Trailing partner/spouse.  Bring them along. Even when they don’t participate in the workshop, they can enjoy all the group activities we have planned.  $1,795

[  ] Option 4:  Add-on Tuesday, November 4 Traditional Zapotec Cooking Class.  Learn how to prepare Oaxaca’s famed mole sauce.  $125, includes one night lodging on November 4, breakfast, lunch, dinner, all recipes.

[  ] Option 5:  Add-on nights in Oaxaca, City at $145 per night per person.

[  ]  Option 6:  Add-on nights in Teotitlan del Valle at $55 per night per person.

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About Our Accommodations

In Oaxaca City, we will stay in a lovely, highly rated intimate colonial-style hotel close to the Zocalo and all the major activities of the season.  In Teotitlan del Valle, we stay in a family owned and operated guest house/posada where the meals are home-cooked and delicious.

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Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit will reserve your space.   The final payment for the balance due (including any supplemental costs) shall be made on or before August 1, 2014.  We accept PayPal for payment only.  We will send you an invoice for your deposit to reserve when you tell us you are ready to register with your lodging and option preferences.

Please understand that we make lodging and transportation arrangements months in advance of the program.  Deposits or payments in full are often required by our hosts.  If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After August 1, no refunds are possible; however, we will make every effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute.  If you cancel on or before August 1, 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.

To register, email us at or  We accept payment with PayPal only. Thank you.

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This workshop is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to alter the itinerary and substitute instructors without notice.

Don’t let this workshop pass you by!


Special thanks to 2013 workshop participants Barbara Szombatfalvy, Donna Howard, Steve Dank, Luvia Lazo, Starr Sariego, Ron Thompson, Kate Kingston, and instructor Frank Hunter for contributing photographs posted here.



Flexible Schedule, Intensive Weaving Workshops and Studio Time, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator can arrange and schedule intensive tapestry weaving workshops and independent studio residencies for you with the Chavez Santiago family weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, at a time that best fits your travel schedule.  These can be private or semi-private sessions.

WeavingWkshpClaudiaMichel-3 WeavingWkshpClaudiaMichel-5

We are happy to offer you this opportunity to come to Teotitlan del Valle to learn from one of the most accomplished master weavers of the village.  The workshop can be scheduled as a private experience to suit your schedule.  The studio residencies are flexible and can be scheduled for as long as you wish to stay — several days or several months.  This includes time at your own dedicated loom to work on your own projects.

Here is what we can offer you:

  • Weaving Workshop: Intensive beginner to intermediate level 4-day workshop at $585 USD per person.  This includes all wool and 4-6 hours of instruction daily. At the end of the workshop you will have completed a tapestry sampler about the size of a pillow cover or small wall-hanging.  You will make your own lodging, food and transportation arrangements.  Note: Weaving workshop may overlap with other participants.
  • Optional:  We can make all-inclusive arrangements for you when you register for Tapestry Weaving Workshop: Dancing on the Loom. 
  • Studio Residency: Up to four-hours daily of studio time in the workshop at a dedicated loom to weave on your own projects.  This includes a daily coaching/briefing session. The cost for the 4-hour daily studio time and coaching is $60 per day  or $15 per hour .  A minimum of 3 hours a day is required for this option.  Note: Studio time may overlap with other participants.
  • Purchase naturally dyed wool you need for the independent studio time directly from the family.

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You can bypass the Intensive 4-day Weaving Workshop and go directly to studio time IF you are an experienced tapestry weaver or if you have taken the beginner-intermediate workshop from the family at another time.


If you are interested in making these arrangements, please contact Norma Hawthorne at Oaxaca Cultural Navigator.   We can set up the studio residency for as many days or weeks as you wish.  You would make all payments to reserve the workshop and studio arrangements with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. We will send you a PayPal invoice for 1/2 the total cost with the remaining amount due 45 days before the workshop/residency begins.  You would need to specify the dates you prefer for the workshop and/or when you want the residency.

Natural Dye Workshop Yields Glorious, Colorfast Textiles

Working with natural dyes like cochineal that yield red, indigo blue, wild marigold (pericone) and fustic to give us yellow, is like being a pastry chef and following a recipe.  It helps to know a little chemistry or have a willingness to learn.


Indigo dye bath percolating

Eric Chavez Santiago, who is one of Mexico’s most knowledgeable natural dye experts and our workshop leader, takes us through the steps to use a non-toxic process to mordant wool that we will  use to dye cochineal, fustic and wild marigold.  Wool that we dye with indigo requires no mordant but another set of intricate steps that will guarantee a result of intense blue and its variations.  See the green bloom in the photo above. The chemistry here is to allow no oxygen to enter the dye bath. Stirring is a no-no.

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The intense colors we get depend on a number of factors, including the original color of the natural wool, the amount of dye for the recipe, the length of time in the dye bath, the number of dips, how little dye is left in the dye bath, and whether we use an acid (lime juice, for example) or a base (baking soda, alum or ashes).  Eric has developed an extraction technique for the cochineal that yields the most intense, concentrated color.  The extract can be saved and refrigerated for later use and then refreshed.

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In the three-day Oaxaca Natural Dye Secrets workshop, we go through the basics and then tackle more advanced dyeing techniques using acids, bases, and over-dyeing.  Over-dyeing is when you first dye your fiber with the base color such as red (cochineal) or yellow (fustic or wild marigold).  The red is then dipped in the indigo dye bath to yield various shades of purple depending on the shade of red.

Next Workshop:  March 6-12, 2014

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This is not a complex process, but requires attention and following the recipes.  By the end of the workshop, participants have color samples with specific formulas/recipes for all the shades from yellow to green to pink to red to orange to purple to blue.

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During the workshop, we also experiment with shibori dye techniques using indigo with 100% cotton fabric.  The resulting pattern depends on how we fold, wrap, package, or tie the fabric.  Some use rubber bands, string, marbles, sticks, and other materials to manipulate the design.

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Everything depends on whether the material is a protein (animal) or cellulose (plant) fiber.  Cochineal only works best with protein fibers that are mordanted in advance.  Indigo is not really a dye but a stain and only coats the surface of the fiber (which you can see through a microscope).  Indigo works well with protein AND cellulose fibers.  And, wow, does it attach to everything it touches!

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Assisting Eric with the workshop is his wife, Elsa Sanchez Diaz.  As his partner in life and this workshop, Elsa takes detailed notes about the formulas that Eric is using so that there is a record of the colors achieved.  She also helps the participants to complete their samplers with tagged formula notes at the end of the workshop.

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Our participants come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Northern California, and Kansas.  They include novices and experienced fiber artists/dyers.  Several had never been to Oaxaca before.  One is an English professor, another a faculty member in architecture and interior design, another a mixed media artist, and two professional weavers.  Everyone came away with a great experience and more information than they ever dreamed possible.

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Next Workshop: March 6-12, 2014 

If you can’t attend this workshop, let us know!  We can possibly schedule the next workshop to suit your travel schedule.

Color Intensity of Natural Dyes from Oaxaca Sources

Today I changed the banner of the blog to give you a picture of the range of intense colors we got from the natural dye workshop we just completed with Eric Chavez Santiago.  Eric is one of Mexico’s most knowledgeable dye masters and his techniques include how to extract the color without wasting it.


We started with three colors only — cochineal, indigo and fustic — red, blue and yellow.  By over-dyeing and using various shades of natural wool, plus the chemistry of using an acid or a base with the color, we were able to get the amazing, rich colors that you see in the banner photo. They are all colorfast.

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I will be writing more about this in the next few days and publishing more photos.  But in the meantime, I wanted you to see what our group accomplished during this three-day workshop.


The next natural dye workshop is in March 2014. Let me know if you want to participate.