Monthly Archives: November 2009

Dissing Talavera Armando, Los Sapos, Puebla

It was going to be touch and go, I just knew it.  I could imagine the luggage I left back in Oaxaca, filled to the brim and getting heavier in my mind’s eye.  That’s why I decided to ask Talavera Armando to ship the three plates, bowl, and six small tiles I bought.  How much, I asked, would it be to send these by air freight.  Fifteen hundred pesos, she answered.  She pointed to the maestro who was in charge of shipping, saying that he does this every day.  Barbara pulled out her iPhone with the instant currency converter app and showed that the cost would be $123 USD.  We gulped.  Then, we thought about what it would mean to jam these things into our luggage, which was already at risk of being overweight, and decided to take the plunge.  Okay, we said and forked over our pesos.  It’ll arrive by Monday, she said, four days from now.

Back in North Carolina, I waited.  Then, we got a call from FedEx.  Talavera Armando had not transcribed my address correctly, even though I had printed it clearly enough.   My husband, who received the phone call, corrected the address and today, four days later, we received the package.

Gleefully, I just opened it only to find the poorest packaging possible, a bit of bubble wrap protecting the fragile contents, in a box much too small to safely cushion each piece.  In fact, the dishes were wrapped together with only a thin veneer of bubble between each of them, and there was no tape to keep the bubble wrap secured.   When I saw that, I was not surprised to see that the contents arrived broken.

Lots of things work in Mexico.  This didn’t.  I have filed my FedEx claim, but who knows?  Meanwhile, the $123 we paid for shipping and handling (most of which probably went to the “handling” or the “packaging” was a way for Talavera Armando to put a few extra dollars in their pocket.  I’ll know better the next time.

Meanwhile, everything I packed myself and shipped home in my suitcase came undamaged.  The safest bet is to use Mail Boxes Plus or Mail Boxes Etc.  They do a great job from their franchise in Oaxaca.

Whirlwind Day Two Shopping in Oaxaca — If it’s Friday, it must be Ocotlan

Sheri picked us up in her white van at the pre-determined 9 a.m. hour, early by Oaxaca standards, though the streets were already abuzz with honking vehicles.  Our first stop was the ATM (exchange rate 13.12 pesos to the dollar) to stock up again for the day long adventure down the Ocotlan highway.  We passed the airport and headed south along the valley highway that leads to some incredible crafts villages, stopping for gas at Pemex the state-owned oil company.  The earlier the better along this road because the Ocotlan market attracts people from throughout the region whose motivations are to shop for the sheer pleasure of it or for survival needs of buying and selling everything from oilcloth table coverings, hammocks, woven baskets, pipes and gaskets, kitchen utensils, leather belts, children’s plastic shoes and everything else under the sun, including live turkeys raised for market, feet bound in twine so as not to escape.  The van boasted New Mexico license plates, a good fit for around these parts, although vehicles are brought down from every state in north America to be bought, sold and traded.

We circumvented the hubbub, stopping first at the three Aguilar sisters whose shops you might miss if you didn’t pay attention.  They are on the right side of the road heading into Ocotlan, about three blocks before arriving at the zocalo, market central.  This is true folk art at its best.  Josefina sits with legs tucked under her on a padded blanket in the courtyard of her home and sales area forming figures out of soft clay that will later be fired in a kiln that may not reach more than eight hundred degrees.  Grandchildren dart around playing with kittens.  Sons and daughters participate in the clay forming and painting.  Tourists from all corners of the earth stream in and out.  This is a famous stopping place for collecting Oaxaca art, yet the prices of the pieces match the humble working and living space:  smaller figures range in price from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pesos.  That translates from about twelve to twenty dollars each.  Collectors and dealers buy, pack and resell these figures in the U.S. for triple or quadruple the cost.

Next door, sister Irene sculpts hot women of the night and paints their hair yellow, applying blue glitter to create a dress, bosom prominent, one arm on hip, the other akimbo sporting a cigarette, a snake boa wrapped to cover cleavage (just barely).  Imagination flies.  A muerta, not yet painted, bares her skeletal teeth and she flaunts a haughty lilt of the head topped with a wide-brimmed hat to shade her from the strong sun.  How will I get these home?  I ask myself as I consider a purchase.  Oh, don’t think about it, I answer silently.  Go for it anyway, and I do, and because of my magic packing suitcase, everything arrives undamaged.  My prize possession from Guillermina is a skeletal crone whose flowing dress is painted black.  The hem is adorned with cream colored skulls, a red spider crawls along the folds of her skirt, a black shawl frames the sinister face.  Dia de los Muertos is characterized by underworld forms.

Forgive me if I repeat myself.  The impressions of Oaxaca are continuous revelations in memory.   As we head back out of town, we make a left turn almost immediately onto the side road leading to San Antonino, where I want to relocate Don Jose Garcia, the blind potter.  We go down a ways, turn right, make an immediate left at the next street and look for the clay animals that hang over the door to the courtyard that signals we have arrived.  A dog barks.  The door is ajar.  We ring the bell and step inside to be welcomed by the family.  Life-size clay figures cluster around the patio, are tucked haphazardly into corners, are laying on their sides — humans, animals, children.  We are greeted by Don Jose and his wife who guide us into the workshop packed with more sculpture, wall to wall, like the clay soldiers of Xian, men, women, and children stand or kneel side by side, almost alive, waiting to be adopted and taken home.

These pieces are glorious, primitive, raw clay, unglazed.  Some are rough.  Some are polished.  Each with a unique expression that conveys individuality and personality, a special quality that Don Jose has breathed life into as he forms the clay, braids the hair, fashions the nose, tilts the neck, arches the brow or mustache.  These are heavy pieces, primitive.  To ship them would require a crate and an investment of hundreds of dollars.  We admire and take our leave.

Hungry, our next stop is at Azucena where Jacobo Angeles operates a fine restaurant that caters to tourists and tour buses, Elderhostel, and other forms of non-adventure travel.  This is good for San Martin Tilcajete business, since Jacobo represents many of the finest carvers in the village.  On this day, there is a special exhibition of regional folk art on the grounds of the restaurant and gallery, a perfect opportunity to pick up another carving, to eat and drink well, and to make a necessary bathroom stop.

We backtrack to Santo Tomas Jalieza to visit Abigail Mendoza and her family at Nicolas Bravo #1.  On backstrap looms, they weave fine cloth with intricate figures that are fashioned into handbags, belts, wrist bands, table runners, and placemats.  Abigail does the finish work for the rugs woven by Arnulfo Mendoza and Tito Mendoza.  This is among the finest quality backstrap loom weaving you will find anywhere in the Oaxaca valley.

By now, it is five o’clock in the afternoon and the light is beginning to wane.  We travel along the highway back to Oaxaca with a trunk full of goodies, ready for a fresh mango margarita and guacamole at La Olla.  Descanse.

Puebla Recipe: Sopa de Pollo con Flor de Calabassas OR Chicken Broth with Squash Blossoms

We ate this for a late supper (cena) at El Mural de Los Poblanos restaurant in Puebla.  It was delicious.  The best I could do was identify the ingredients and try to recreate this at home.  The soup bowl came with the chewable ingredients mounded in the center, about 1 cup per bowl of broth.  Our server poured the steaming clear chicken broth into the bowl from a covered pitcher, designed so that the diner would be served the hottest soup possible.  I loved that idea.


  • Cubed queso fresco (the white, firm Oaxaca-style cheese)
  • Baby zucchini cubes
  • Diced green pepper
  • Sliced mushrooms
  • Fresh corn kernels (use frozen, then thawed,  if fresh is not available)
  • Squash blossoms
  • Bits of fresh spinach or chard
  • Hot chicken broth, pre-seasoned with salt, pepper, a bit of ground chili for bite

Serve with hot, crusty french rolls and butter and a glass of chilled white wine.

On Leaving Mexico: Travel Diary November 2009

There are one hundred fifty-five pesos in my pocket, equivalent to about twelve dollars.  Just enough left after paying 385 pesos or $25 USD for my extra bag.  Take your pick.  One weights fifty pounds exactly and the other is thirty eight pounds.  The smaller duffle is packed to the gills with soft clothing.  I can barely close the zipper.  I wore the same black pants and two different shirts for a week, so why did I bring all these extra clothes?  It sure didn’t seem like much when I left home.  Space, like time, is precious.  The biggest bag is hard sided and measures thirty inches high by 23 inches wide by twelve inches deep (deeper when unzipped to expand) .  When I install a sturdy woven bamboo basket inside to create a rigid barrier, it becomes a great shipping container for ceramics and alebrijes.  This bag weight in at fifty-one pounds, one pound over limit.  Not even a smile and a plea to let it go worked, so I removed a small bubble-wrapped package from the cache of like wrapped packages, and stuffed it into my carry on.

Now, we are all tucked away in the Continental Express jet to Houston, two hours and seventeen minutes away.  Palms and blooming orange jacarandas line the runway.  The sky is pure, clear blue, without a cloud, transparent to heaven.  It will be another beautiful day.

Mexico Safety November 2009

We walked at night arm-in-arm through the streets of Oaxaca and Puebla, two women, sisters of middle age (though, of course not looking it), linked together now though one from the east coast, the other from the west, coming to a common meeting place to travel together.

Mexico is a place for strolling and we walked together from dusk into the evening to darkness, some nights until eleven or twelve with no fear, no worries.  We traveled round trip by bus from Oaxaca to Puebla, negotiating taxis and bus stations, two among a handful of gringos without getting sick or encountering aggression.

In some of the higher end hotels and restaurants, chefs and wait staff still wear face masks, more of a precaution than a necessity I think, or perhaps a PR message to tourists that they are paying attention to public health safety.

Mexico’s economy depends on three things, a three-legged stool of financial security: remittances, crude oil sales, and tourism.  In 2006, federal income from remittances (the dollars Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. send to their families in Mexico) equaled what was earned from oil exports.

The perception of safety is linked to fear.  Perhapss it is fear of the other, of the H1N1 influenza, of drug wars.  Yes, these are real dangers but the prevalence is imagined.