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Oaxaca Journal: Traveling with Oliver Sacks

This is a book review, of sorts. Perhaps it’s my own journal of movement and re-discovery both internal and external. The Time Machine of air travel took me from Oaxaca to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Huntington Beach, California, now to land in Durham, North Carolina. I also call North Carolina home though I spend most of the year in Oaxaca. After three weeks on the road to visit friends and family, I am now taking time to chill and to read.

Sierra Juarez detail of bark and moss

I return to Mexico on October 16 for the start of an immersion weekend Art History Tour of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City. There is ONE space open. Then, on October 21, I return to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, to prepare for our Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat: How Memory Inspires Us. There are TWO SPACES (shared room) open for this program.

To and fro at the Tlacolula Market

True Confession: I never read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, who fell in love with Oaxaca in 2001 when he went with the New York City fern society to venture into the desert and cloud forests in search of rare species. The book was published in 2002.

Ferns per se aren’t my thing. But Oaxaca is. So, my friend Jenny, who read it three times, brought her copy to me in Santa Fe and here I am, telling you about it.

Sierra Juarez landscape. There are ferns in there.

This is a quick read. Entertaining and informative. After living in Oaxaca for almost 14 years, I am taken with a sense of new discovery of place and a reminder about how important it is to pay attention to the familiar — it’s so easy to take in the sweeping view instead of noticing the fine details. When we move too fast, we miss so much.

It’s like taking a close-up photo — you have to crouch down, bend your knees, get your eye focused on the particular, the micro, to appreciate its beauty. Oliver Sacks reminds me to slow down. Throughout the book, he talks about how he and his fellow travelers use a microscope to examine the underside of fern fronds to understand the biology of life. I take this as an instructive metaphor. In the process of looking for one particular thing it is possible to see others heretofore unknown.

Hone in, get close, examine the detail and contrast

Critics delight in this book, which they call the work of travel writing. Sacks died in 2015 at age 82, but he lives with us through his insights. He is a role model for inquisitiveness and curiosity, experimenting with the joys of life.

As I follow Oliver Sacks around Oaxaca to familiar places, I am struck by how it was in 2001 and how it is now in 2019, years later, and how things change and don’t. Read 1970’s accounts of rutted, dirt roads in Teotitlan del Valle, and you don’t recognize the place today.

Cochineal over-dyes wild marigold churro wool yarn

Then and Now. Do’s and Don’ts.

  • Take the road to the Sierra Juarez where biodiversity yields cloud forest, mushrooms, ferns, bromeliads and steep hiking trails at 10,000+ feet
  • Compare the simplicity then and sophistication now of mezcal making and big business, bringing great wealth to the Oaxaca valley
  • Assume a naive perspective of culture, people and place with one or two visits, and the propensity to romanticize lifestyle so different from our own
  • See the grandeur and importance of Zapotec civilization in Mesoamerica by visiting Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla to gain respect for indigenous people
  • Project your own desires, wishes and beliefs as you yearn for a simpler life
Cochineal rug on the loom, Teotitlan del Valle, Galeria Fe y Lola

Sacks visits Teotitlan del Valle with his group to see the rug weaving and natural dyeing process. See page 115 in the book. In 2001, there were few families working in natural dyes and it is understandable that a guide would take them to visit the most famous weaver of the time, Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in the Rug. The New York Times mentions him in a 1988 print story, Wall Hangings From Oaxaca, now digitized. You will see how demand and time has changed the pricing.

When I arrived in Teotitlan in 2005, I was determined to find a weaver working in natural dyes who had not yet been discovered. Fame, I think, has a way of changing people, pricing, production and products. I didn’t go with a guide, so I set out to explore the village on my own by foot, to compare weaving quality and ascertain the visual difference between natural and commercial dyes. That is how I met the Chavez Santiago Family to start my Teotitlan del Valle adventure. They now run Galeria Fe y Lola.

Cochineal bug, dried. Grinding cochineal and indigo for dye bath.

It is easy, when one doesn’t speak Spanish, to misunderstand, misinterpret, what is said. Sacks reports that Isaac Vasquez and his family produced all the cochineal from their nopal cactus to dye the rugs. This is impossible. It takes thousands of bugs to make a dye vat. Dried cochineal is purchased, then and now. Peru and the Canary Islands are the largest producers. There is a Oaxaca cochineal farm now to supply local demand but there is not enough produced for export.

Indigo dye pot, complex oxidization process requires expertise

Sacks reports that weavers in the village had a deep knowledge of dyeing. At the time only a handful of weavers used natural dyes. Everyone knew how to use the one-step, easy process of making a chemical dye.

Cochineal parasite on prickly pear cactus host yields carminic acid

Now, perhaps a dozen families use natural dyes. I like to promote all of them. It’s a worthy endeavor. It is an expensive and chemically complex process. Yet, everyone knows how to give a cochineal dye demonstration that includes squeezing the bug on the palm of a hand, changing the color with lime juice or baking soda. Ask to see the dye pots before jumping to conclusions!

Monte Alban, the detail
Monte Alban, the long view

Sacks is expansive in his Oaxaca Journal. He talks about astronomy of the ancients, the cuisine of bugs and mole, cultural competency, the traditional and modern, hanging out on the Zocalo, Hierve el Agua and calcified waterfalls, the magic of tianguis street markets and more.

Hierve el Agua. In 8,000 years, perhaps only the bathing suits have changed.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s been on my reading list for a decade. If you are returning to Oaxaca or making a first trip, I highly recommend this read. The page-turner took me two days! The impact reinforced the messages of living.