Monthly Archives: December 2008

Four Days in Puebla: Part One

Carlos picked us up at 7:15 a.m. this morning to take us the 17 miles from Teotitlan del Valle to the ADO (Ah-Day-Oh) bus station in Oaxaca city for our trip to Puebla, departure time 9 a.m.  We made prepaid credit card reservations six days ago, a necessity for securing a ticket, by phoning the local Oaxaca bus station.  The roundtrip cost is 590 pesos on ADO GL.  I think this is the first class bus, though I’m not certain, since there was advertised the UNO bus for the 12 hour trip to San Cristobal de los Casas that has two toilets — one for hombres, on for mujeres.   Seems like if there are two toilets, then this would definitely mean premiere class travel.  The bus station is a pristine temple to fine travel, complete with ATM, a baggage check area, an espresso bar, and snack shop all under a modern metal and glass arched structure.  As we waited, a cleaning woman mopped under my feet with sweet smelling antiseptic.  The 3 pesos bathroom was tended by a helpful lady who directed me to the toilet paper dispenser next to the sinks.  I sipped latte and nibbled on a breakfast cheese sandwich waiting for the boarding call.  It was much more civilized than current air travel … more like waiting for the train at Penn Station.

As we cued up to board the bus, each of us was stopped for a security check — frisked with the metal detector and bags examined.  Then, much to our amazement, after all boarded, the woman went down the aisle with a video camera to capture each of our faces.  There must be a reason, we said to each other, as we settled into the plushy upholstered seats, reclined, and adjusted the foot rests.  As soon as we pulled out of the station, the James Bond movie started.  Sam warned me it would be some shoot ’em up action film, which is what she has experienced on bus rides all over Mexico.  Indeed, “Casino Royale” dubbed in Spanish was a loud, action-packed adventure that I wanted to sleep through but couldn’t.  We had spent Christmas Eve reveling with the extended Chavez family — four brothers, two sisters, their children and grandchildren, consuming great quantities of beer, wine, Tequila, champagne, roast chicken, tamales, gelatina and chocolate cake until well after midnight.

It wasn’t long after climbing out of the Oaxaca valley that the landscape turned desolate, high desert, scrub oak, brown grass, pine forested mountains in the distance.  Further along the highway, about halfway through the Bond film, the organ pipe cactus burst onto the scene.  After three and a half hours, as we approached Puebla, the land became more generous.  Farms were verdant and prosperous.  Sheep and goats grazed.  Dried corn stalks formed tall pyramids where they were gathered up from cleared fields.   At exactly four hours, we pulled into the huge Puebla bus depot and got a taxi to our hotel on the outskirts of town.  Sam got a deal online at a Best Western for $60 per night, about half the price of a Zocalo historic center location.  We deposited our bags, and hit the streets, first stopping at El Porton on Ave. Juarez for comida.  It’s a favorite chain with good quality food.  Today I discovered, much to my horror, that it is owned by Wal-Mart!  It took about 45 minutes to walk to where the action was, but the meandering was very satisfying as we stopped to take photos of ancient courtyards, Talavera tile covered 17th century buildings, brass studded pine wood doors that had to have been built 300 years ago.

Puebla de los Angeles was created by the Spanish and was NOT built upon a pre-existing indigenous village.  It’s architecture is like ordering a chocolate ice cream sundae with whipped cream, cherries and nuts on top.  The facades of the buildings are sheer delights … fanciful curly cues, brocades, and dripping embellishments.  Shops and houses are tints of peach, plum, cherry, and lime.  There are wide avenues devoted to pedestrian promenades.  The churches are magnificent structures of quarried stone exteriors and gold leaf interiors that would put any Di Medici to shame.  The tile work adds a splash of Baroque splendor that blends Moorish origins.  The interior wood carvings by local Indian artisans are masterful.  Tonight we visited Puebla’s Iglesia de Santo Domingo and spent considerable time in the Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary — an extraordinary gilded and carved sanctuary lined with paintings and Talavera tile.  Tomorrow is 8 a.m. breakfast and then a shopping quest for Sam and Tom.  I’m along for the ride.

Norma’s Oaxaca Favorites: A Baker’s Dozen

1.     Museo Textil de Oaxaca, corner Fiallo and Hidalgo, closed Tuesdays.  Ask to meet Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education, for a personal tour.  Take a class if you are in town for a while.

2.   Federico Chavez Santiago Family Weavers for authentic, masterful, naturally dyed rugs at fair trade prices, Francisco I. Madero #55, Teotitlan del Valle, 52-44078 (call ahead to be sure they are home)

3.  Shiatsu massage with Annie Burns, Teotitlan del Valle, 951-1313 009.  She will also come to Oaxaca city.  By appointment.

4.  Remigio Mestas’ Arte Textil Indigena, Macedonio Alcala #103, in the Los Danzantes Restaurant Arcade, for the best Oaxacan textiles handwoven, handspun and naturally dyed by Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe and Trique tribal groups.

5.  La Olla Restaurante, Calle de Reforma

6.  Nieves Anita in the Teotitlan del Valle market.  Closes at 4 p.m.  Nieves is local ice cream made from fresh fruit, nuts, and grated vegetables.  My favorite  flavor is the one that combines the coconut ice cream with chopped pecans, pineapple chunks, and fresh grated carrot.  Tuna, by the way, is the fruit of the nopal cactus and there is an ice cream flavor for that, too. Second choice:  nieves in the Tlacolula market.

7.  Grill your own carne for lunch in the Tlacolula Sunday market.  Walk back deep into the bowels of the market into the covered building beyond the church where you will find the meat vendor stalls and an aisle of charcoal grill stoves.  Meander and buy a bunch of onions, avocados, a few tomatillos, limes, and fresh tortillas (choose from blue, yellow or white).  Then, buy your meat.  Ask for suave (soft) for the most tender cut.  Put all this on the grill in front of the stand (except for the avocado and lime).  Peel the avocado.  Assemble all into the tortilla, sprinkle with fresh lime juice, roll up and eat standing using one of the vacant stalls for your table top.  If you like, use fresh baked rolls instead of the tortilla (ask for pan por tortas) found just down the long aisle.  Total cost is about $1.75 per person.

8.  Definitely Monte Alban.  Take the tourist bus from Calle Mina.  Ask the Zocalo tourist police how to get there.

9.  Mitla for the ruins and for great, inexpensive handloomed cotton tablecloths, blouses, napkins, shawls.  The REAL market is down the hill from the church and ruins.  The market in front of the church is too turistica.  The Mitla archeological site is different from Monte Alban because it incorporates both Mixtec and Zapotec designs in the carvings.  It is a treasure.

10.  Bertha Cruz woodcarver in Arrazola, Justo Xuana woodcarver in San Martin Tilcajete, and Dolores Porras potter in Atzompa.

11.  Handmade paper jewelry from the Francisco Toledo taller in San Augustin Etla can be found at La Granen Porrua on Macedonio Alcala.

12.  A cooking class with Pilar Cabreras at Casa de Los Sabores.

13.  Comida at El Gran Gourmet Oaxaqueno on Calle Independencia.  Be sure to order the Agua de Pepino con Limon (fresh cucumber and lime juice).

Valentina’s Garden

My friend Annie, known locally as Ana del Campo, lives on the hillside on the other side of the river Rio Grande that runs through town from the presa (dam) throuh the cleavage between two mountains.  We came to visit her some years ago and that is how we got to Teotitlan del Valle.  Annie was the second gringa to connect with a local Zapotec family and be invited to build a home on their land.  A former psychologist, she is an expert Shiatsu massage therapist and has a loyal clientele in the village and in Oaxaca.  One of the treasures and pleasures of coming back to Teotitlan is to enjoy time with Annie, sipping tea, catching up, looking out over the village below from her hillside perch, and then laying down on her mat to give myself and my body over to the expert pressure touch of her hands and fingers in her sublimely tranquil space.  This evening was my third massage of the week — a totally relaxing experience, and I feel I can splurge with this expense because the cost is 200 pesos (about $18 USD) per hour.  As I walked up the winding rocky drive to her brick and stucco casita, the stars sparkled in the sky and were mirrored by village lights below creating a seamless vision of dancing stars with no horizon.   Annie has asked me to visualize who I am in the form of an animal to take as my talisman as a form of meditative relaxation.  I am a gazelle, sleek, agile and grazing.  Annie tells me that my body will respond and become the form that I visualize.

After the massage and to honor my gazelle,  Annie makes me a plate full of salad containing at least four different lettuces, fresh grated beets, cherry tomatoes and bright red nasturtiums from Valentina’s garden.  This is for grazing, she says.  Valentina, who was once Valerie, moved to Oaxaca some years ago from somewhere in el norte and started an organic garden.  She sells her bounty every Friday and Saturday at the Pochote Market in the Arcos, just beyond Santo Domingo Church on Macedonio Alcala.  Annie sprinkled goat cheese and pecans on the salad and topped it with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette.  I followed her lead.  This is the ONLY way I will eat lettuce in Mexico — organically grown and washed in purified water by someone you know and trust.  To top it off, Annie brings to the table a red tortilla, handmade by Esther (Ess-tare) her neighbor, who ground the village grown red maize herself.  Below us, the band is playing its posada repertoire, drum beats, tubas, and saxaphones call out to the night sky.  A firecracker rocket is a shooting star.  I imagine the tables full of revelers eating fiesta tamales with amarillo mole, downing shots of mezcal followed by beer chasers, sucking limes and salt, dancing the slow Zapotec two-step far into the night, men in one line facing the women opposite them, never touching.  The firecrackers pop and the dogs bark in response.  The bray of a donkey punctuates it all.  Tomorrow, Mary and Joseph will move to another home where the cycle repeats the harmony.

Catching My Breath and Catching Up: Posadas, Remigo Mestas, Indigo Tie-Dye Workshop

It’s vacation and I’m trying not to be breathless.  For the last two days, I have walked up and down Teotitlan hills following the posada processional from one house to another in the annual pre-Christmas tradition of Mary and Joseph visiting and staying over in the altar rooms of nine homes before the birth of baby Jesus on Christmas Eve–and the ultimate posada.  On Friday night, there was a gallery opening at Las Bugambilias where Lisa Cicotte exhibited the rugs she designed that were woven by master Tito Mendoza, and the lyrical paintings created by Aurora Cabreras, the proprietress of Las Bugambilias, were celebrated.  On Saturday morning, Eric Chavez Santiago taught a tie-dye workshop at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca using anil or indigo dye in which I participated along with 10 other people — adults, children, a Trique weaver who works with Remigio Mestas, and one other gringa.  It was loads of fun, very messy, and gave me another new appreciation for what it takes to work with natural dyes and create great designs.  In the afternoon, after a great $50 peso comida at  El Gran Gourmet Oaxaqueno on Independencia just past Avenida Juarez walking away from the Zocalo.  It is fabuloso — and the meal includes soup (this day, sopa de crema de verdura), fresh steamed veggies perfectly cooked, arroz, filete de pescado (oooh, delicioso), agua de pepino con limon (a great cucumber lemon juice drink), and gelatina for dessert.  YES, all for $50 pesos!  Very clean. Oh, and homemade tortillas on the premises.

I want to write about Remigio Mestas, who has a current exhibit in the second floor library of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.  His shop, Arte Textil Indigena, is on Macedonia Alcala 403-2, in the historic center of Oaxaca.  Telephone:   951-501-0552.  Email It is the premiere location for authentic indigenous weavings.

See Remigio talk about a textile from the Sierra Madre del Sur.

For the last 15 years, Remigio has identified the greatest weavers, dyers, and spinners from all over Oaxaca state and has worked with them to preserve the traditional patterns and processes involved in textile creation.  He has also influenced their use and return to natural dyes.  What is purchased there is guaranteed to be authentic.  Remigio says he is responsible for the livelihood of over 200 artisans who live in villages near Oaxaca and in remote mountain villages. His commitment is to sustain the culture, history, and create economic opportunities for Mixe, Mixtec, Trique and Zapotec communities all over the state.

Soledad’s 77th Birthday Fiesta

The house was smokey and as I walked up the stairs to the second story living room, the smoke thickened, my eyes watered and I could barely see Federico and Dolores through the haze.  They were at the large kitchen table chopping onions and cilantro.  Beyond them was a large cauldron atop a wood fire bubbling away.  But, I couldn’t stay because of the smoke and they sent me downstairs to the altar room to sit with Soledad to drink a Victoria (small size Corona beer) and await the birthday crowd.  It was three o-clock in the afternoon.  The men began to set up long banquet tables and 20 chairs.  The women had been cooking all day; the teenagers swept and washed the floors.  The garage was converted into the dining area to accomodate the expected extended family, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins.  At four, they began to arrive with birthday gifts in hand: a 24-pack box of beer, sweet bread, flowers, fruit, chocolate.  These are the traditional “regalos” of Zapotec life gifted for all special occasions — food and drink for sustainence, flowers to add beauty and tribute to la vida buena.

Soledad is mother to Federico Chavez Sosa and his three brothers and one sister.  She is a substantial, strong, stoic, solid woman who goes to the market daily to sell and make a little extra money.  Some days she sells pottery that she has bought elsewhere and takes a small mark-up.  Other days, she sells her fresh homemade tortillas or special Christmas wreath bread.  She is a great cook.  Today, the family pays her homage and cooks an incredible Sopa de Mariscos — a seafood chowder — that has simmered over this charcoal wood fire for hours.  We sit at the table.  I am with the men because I am the invited guest.  We are elbow to elbow and they want me to keep up with the beer consumption.  I tell them in my simple Spanish that I must pace myself.  Soledad clinks the neck of the Victoria bottle to each “Feliz Compleanos” happy birthday toast with her sons, sister-in-law, and the streaming group of family that arrives and joins the table.

The women in the kitchen bring each of us huge bowls of spicy tomato fish broth.  The bowls are brimming with white fish, clams, shrimp and langostinos brought in especially from Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca.  Piles of deep golden yellow fresh made tortillas that are at least 12 inches in diameter are brought to the table, covered with elaborately embroidered cloth.  Baskets of fresh baked rolls and plates of extra chopped cilantro and onion arrive.  The women serve.  The men sit.  I acculturate myself to the custom and note that this is tradition, and that women around the world serve their men, including most in the United States.

This is likely the most delicious meal I have eaten in Oaxaca in all the time I have been coming here.  I roll the yellow organic maize tortilla and dip it in the broth, slurp and suck the crab legs, pile the ocean’s detritis on the table, mimicking the others. The talk moves into Zapotec and I am clueless.  After the meal, the dishes are cleared, other guests arrive with their beer or chocolate, join the crowd and are given food.  The homemade cake is brought out along with the mezcal and the women begin to play with the three new babies in the family, singing, clapping, entertaining each other with the joy of just being together.  It is now 7 p.m.

The wealth of this environment is in the interconnection between families, the coming together of multi-generations, the mutual support, the sharing of celebration.  It is traditional and respectful. Even when there is family conflict and disagreement, issues are put aside in order to participate in life cycle events together.  The pace is slower.  There are many hands that help raise babies, cook, clean, attend to the small, repetitive tasks of living.  We have much to learn from each other, I think, as Estadounidenses re-evaluate our own lifestyles in this era of economic downsizing and belt-tightening.  It is a good time to reevaluate our values and personal connections.  The experience of living in a Zapotec family and community is teaching me this.