Tag Archives: NCSU

Cultural Continuity and Sustainability in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Valley

I thought it was important for the North Carolina State University Study Abroad students to spend an overnight in an indigenous Zapotec village while they were here in Oaxaca. So, I recommended to Professor Ricardo Hernandez that we include a stay in Teotitlan del Valle as as part of our itinerary.

Teotitlan del Valle church sits atop Zapotec temple, archeological site

The students were here in Oaxaca — the valley and the coast — to study sustainability. Through the experience they learned that the definition is wide-ranging and far-reaching. It has to do with the land and her people, traditions and beliefs, values and practices. It is economic and social and political. It is still small scale agriculture here where farmers use age-old practices rather than technology.

It is instructive to study cultures where people have been successful for generations by transmitting knowledge as a way of life.

The market experience in Teotitlan del Valle

Afterall, this is the region where corn (maize) was hybridized over 8,000 years ago up the road at Yagul. We talked about Monsanto and GMO, how to overcome hunger and develop crops abundant enough to feed people without sacrificing nutrition. We compared the industrialized agriculture of the USA and the disappearance of family farms, and noticed how things work — and don’t — in Mexico.

Olivia, Alysia and Emory enjoy artisanal hot chocolate

I arranged for them to sleep at two local bed and breakfast inns — Casa Elena and Las Granadas B&B — operated by three generations of women. They ate home-cooked and delicious meals prepared from locally sourced, organic meat and vegetables.

After lunch at El Sabor Zapoteco, Reyna Mendoza treats us to nieves de tuna

Teotitlan del Valle is one of the few villages that still operates a daily market. It is a sight to behold entrepreneurial farmers and vendors who sell native corn, squash, beans, squash blossoms, poultry and meat, and more, plus all the household necessities for a home to operate here.

After indigo dye demonstration, the group gathers for a photo, Galeria Fe y Lola

After the market, we toured the church and noted the carved stones inlaid into its walls. When the Spanish arrived, they razed the Zapotec temple and used the stones to build the church walls. The stucco has been peeled away to reveal this part of the village history. We walked around the back side of the church to see the recently restored archeological site that was the temple foundation.

Grace tries her hand at weaving with Omar, while Alysia is next in line

This is a rug weaving village. There are now about 10,000 people who live here and more than 2,000 looms. Only about a dozen families use natural dyes to color the wool they use. We visited one of them — the home workshop of Galeria Fe y Lola –to see the process and learn about this part of the culture.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the Chavez Santiago family makes red dye from cochineal
Professor Hernandez talks with master weaver Federico “Fe” Chavez Sosa

Student takeaways:

  • It was wonderful to be in the village market and explore it on our own.
  • Meeting 26-year old Omar Chavez Santiago from Galeria Fe y Lola was a testimony to artisan life and pride of workmanship — he is dedicated to continuing his culture. This is refreshing to see.
  • The church offered me a glimpse into the blend of Zapotec and Catholic traditions.
  • There is a reverence for community here that we don’t see at home.
  • Families are close-knit, welcoming to outsiders.
  • Everyone was consistently kind.
  • It was important to see the different ways people earn an income: baking bread, sewing, selling food, services and repair work, doctors and teachers, musicians and weavers — it looks like a self-sustaining community.
  • Walking the back streets of the town gave me a perspective for how people live in rural Mexico.
Watch and listen to Omar Chavez Santiago talk about natural dyes
Guillermo decides to take this one home to Wilson, NC

At Gracias a Dios mezcal palenque in Santiago Matatlan at the far end of the Tlacolula Valley, Emmy Hernandez, the daughter of mezcalero Oscar Hernandez, showed us the artesanal process of making this distilled beverage. Agave is an important native plant and agricultural product in the region. It contributes to Oaxaca’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination. This is also a family business and Emmy is the next generation to sustain it.

Mezcal, not at all like NC moonshine, yet still made by the same process

How many different types of agaves are there? They say over 200 types of agaves exist and 30 are suitable for making mezcal. Espadin is cultivated and easily to reproduce, and therefore, the most sustainable. The wild, or silvestre agaves, have a long growth cycle and are rare. I love cuishe (also spelled cuixe) and tepextate and tobala. For everyone harvested, some growers like Gracias a Dios are planting three to replace them. The wild ones are earthy and take on the flavors of the soil they grow in.

We are accepting reservations for 2020 and 2021 university study abroad programs. It takes about a year to plan this program. Please contact us for a proposal. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Agave in the fermentation vats — oak barrels, just like wine-making
Emmy Hernandez, the next generation to sustain artisanal mezcal

Scavenger Hunt: NCSU Students Discover Oaxaca

The emphasis of the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Study Abroad Program in Oaxaca was on sustainability. How we develop as communities and nations depends upon how we provide for ourselves now and for future generations. These are complex issues that over the course of the 10 days in May 2019 that we were together, we parsed and discussed.

Take photos of 3 agricultural products you do not know, ID their scientific + local names

Professor Ricardo Hernandez, a leading researcher in NCSU’s department of horticultural sciences, led the group of 11 students and involved them in daily discussions, all focused on sustainability, environmental impact, social structures, and innovation using technology.

Jordan, Stephanie and Chloe identify cactus species, Templo Santo Domingo
At Monte Alban, a foundation of history and culture

Since I know the city, I helped develop the Scavenger Hunt for students on their first day. This took them to six sites around the historic center; they traveled by foot in teams of three. At each site they needed to answer questions, take photos, and engage with local people. We provided maps and clues!

Guillermo, Amalie and Dallas find the aqueduct, year it was constructed

Ricardo and I met them three hours later at the Zocalo for dinner at one of the patio restaurants, where they described their experiences, what surprised them and how they felt making their way in an unfamiliar place.

Here is what students said:

  • People are open and welcoming.
  • They take what they have and use it to the fullest.
  • They are resourceful and close to their environment.
  • Artisans make and sell the beauty of their cultural history.
  • It seems that they are recycling everything here. A Gatorade bottle becomes a soap dispenser or planter.
  • Poverty inspires ingenuity: I saw a dog house made from scrap metal.
  • If a culture does not evolve, then it will not survive.
  • People here are close to the earth. This made a big impact on me.
  • Sustainability depends on increased food production.

The next day, after a visit to Monte Alban, and then lunch and a pottery demonstration in Santa Maria Atzompa, they noted that food is sourced locally and is community-based. The family that cooked for them took pride in the preparation and in offering a culinary experience that was a reflection of their cultural heritage.

What’s this? Fruit of the nopal cactus called tuna!

The students ranged in age from 19 to 39, in undergraduate and graduate school. Their hometowns were urban and rural, in Virginia and North Carolina. The father of one student was born and raised in Oaxaca, so this trip was a homecoming for him.

Who was adventurous enough to taste these?

I found them all to be curious, intelligent, thoughtful and respectful — a great testimony to their parents and their educational experiences.

Organic blue corn tortilla and grilled nopal cactus paddle, foundation for healthy eating

We are accepting reservations for 2020 and 2021 university study abroad programs. It takes about a year to plan this program. Please contact us for a proposal. norma.schafer@icloud.com

North Carolina State University Study Abroad Comes to Oaxaca, Mexico

For the past 10 days, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC (and me!) was host to 11 students and Professor Ricardo Hernandez. They came to study sustainability in developing countries. Dr. Hernandez is a leading international researcher in agricultural greenhouse design in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at NC State University.

With Professor Hernandez at Monte Alban

This is the second time I have worked with him to host a group of visiting students. We developed the program together and I sourced the contacts to meet his needs and made all the arrangements.

A hot chocolate break in the Teotitlan del Valle market, made from scratch
Restored wall, Zapotec temple, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

We were based in Oaxaca City for the first five days of the trip and then flew to the coast of Oaxaca, staying in Puerto Escondido to investigate commercial and small scale farming techniques, hybridization, plant cultivation, natural dyeing and weaving. Temperatures on Oaxaca’s coast this time of year are in the stratosphere. The heat index on some days reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit!

Grace tries her hand at weaving with Omar’s help. Alysia waits her turn.
At Taller Fe y Lola, the NC State University group around the indigo dye pot

Students couldn’t help but learn about the culture of Zapotec and Mixtec people along the way as they studied the milpa planting system, visited mango and peanut farms, and explored the Hierve El Agua canal systems built by Zapotecs centuries before the Spanish arrived.

The NC State Wolfpack Jump, Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden #rocaxaca
Fresh red snapper and shrimp tacos, Puerto Escondido

They ate mole, chapulines, and handmade tortillas. They visited a mezcal palenque and learned about agave cultivars. They dug deep into Oaxaca history with a climb up to Monte Alban, a walk into the depths of Benito Juarez market, and a tour of the Ethnobotanical Gardens.

#packabroad #rocaxaca at Hierve el Agua
Calcium deposits, Hierve el Agua

For one overnight, they experienced traditional village life in Teotitlan del Valle where they met rug weavers, cooks, and market vendors. They compared the daily village market and supermarket shopping at home. They saw the newly restored Zapotec archeological site that serves as the church’s foundation.

Tasting wild and cultivated mezcal at Gracias a Dios, Santiago Matatlan

Some students told me their parents were afraid to let them go to Mexico. Nine were undergraduates and two were master’s level students. All said this was the experience of a lifetime!

Lunch with Reyna Mendoza finishes with nopal fruit sorbet called tuna

Over the next few posts, I’ll be featuring select stories and photos of the NC State University Study Abroad Program journey through Oaxaca. If you are an Instagram user, check out the group posts at #rocaxaca

Puerto Escondido baby Ridley sea turtle release is trip highlight

We can customize study abroad programs for university faculty and students on a range of topics, including agriculture, sustainable development, art, archeology, history, textiles and cuisine. Contact me to explore options. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Climbing rocks in search of endangered murex snails used for purple dye
Fishing boats and NC State group, looking at daily catch
Luis Adan weaves with murex snail dyed cotton, Tututepec Mixe, Oaxaca

Video: Oaxaca Study Abroad with North Carolina State University

We organized a spring 2017 Oaxaca, Mexico, study abroad program for North Carolina State University faculty and students from the Department of Horticultural Sciences. Three faculty members and thirteen students came from Raleigh, NC, to study sustainable agriculture, landscape design, natural dyes, horticulture, marketing, and ecology. We visited an organic permaculture farm, archeological sites, sea turtle sanctuary, endangered ecosystems, an organic coffee farm and artisanal mezcal producers. The weeklong program can be customized to any university study abroad program with a focus on culture, community development, business development, sustainability, textile design and more.

Here is the video produced by Rafael Hernandez. I hope you enjoy.

Universities interested in bringing a study abroad program to Oaxaca in 2018, 2019 or 2020 should contact me to discuss costs and itinerary.


NCSU in Oaxaca: Saving Sea Turtles

Oaxaca is one of the most diverse states in Mexico. It’s Pacific coast is rugged, rocky, with swirling turquoise water, warmed by ocean currents. Our group from North Carolina State University Department of Horticultural Science has been based in Puerto Escondido, a favorite spot for world-class surfing, too.

NCSU students take part in sea turtle release

This is a global sea-turtle nesting area, among the top five in the world. Preservation efforts to protect the eggs are a priority by volunteers and wildlife preservation group.  Several species have been on the brink of extinction.

Amanda and Ricky’s expressions of delight, fascination say it all

Harvesting sea turtle eggs has been banned by the Mexican government since the early 1990’s, but ancient cultural traditions are powerful. Coastal indigenous communities have depended on turtles and turtle eggs for food long before the conquest. It is difficult to change ingrained habits.

Green sea turtles, just born, ready to go to the ocean

Poachers still roam the beaches in the midnight hours to find nesting sites and steal eggs.

Sunset illumination on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast

One of the most incredible experiences of this journey with students and faculty was to take part in a baby turtle release on the coast just north of Puerto Escondido. We arranged this through our wonderful hosts at Hotel Santa Fe.

John couldn’t be happier — he’s about to release a baby turtle

The gender of a sea turtle depends on the warmth of the sand and where the eggs are laid in the nest. Climate change has a huge impact on future populations and reproduction.

Students hear environmental protection practices from volunteer

I remember visiting the coast village of San Mateo del Mar in 2008 to meet the Palafox family weavers. Located on the coast, surrounded by lagoons, the fishermen of the village depended on sea turtles for food.

Nearby luxury beach homes at water’s edge

A huge pile of turtle eggs graced the center of the dining table at the lunch prepared for us. I couldn’t eat, and I know it was rude to pass the bowl without taking one.

Watching the turtles move toward the sea — fascinating

This week, there were faces filled with delight as each student scooped up a tiny baby turtle with a coconut shell bowl to carry it from the nest to the edge of the sand, where it would make its way into the ocean.

Wolfpack tribute on the beach near Puerto Escondido

The group left Oaxaca yesterday. They are an amazing set of young people, smart, curious, sensitive and courteous — a tribute to North Carolina State University. I am impressed by their intelligence and caring, and I will miss them.

It was a privilege to work with the faculty at NCSU to develop this program.

A big, brilliant Oaxaca sky over the Pacific Ocean.

Our donations to participate in this activity help to fund the on-going preservations efforts of the sea turtles along Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.

Baby turtle before release

Volunteers patrol stretches of beach throughout the night. If a volunteer encounters a poacher who finds a nest before s/he does, the volunteer can offer money or most likely backs away to avoid confrontation.

Another view, sea turtle release