Tag Archives: tourism

Pre-Hispanic Oaxaca Cooking Class with Vicky Hernandez

High up the hill in the shadow of Oaxaca’s famed archeological site of Monte Alban is a humble comedor on a dirt side street down the hillside from a paved access road. Carefully make your way down a curved, steep stairway cut into the hill to find the simple kitchen of Cocina Pre-Hispanica con Fogon where Vicky Hernandez teaches about the origin of Oaxaca food. Simple yet complex, organic and healthy, flavorful and rich with tradition.

Carol, who has known Vicky for years, arranged this cooking class for her daughter and her daughter’s fella. I tagged along. While I used to own a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, there is always more to learn, especially about the roots of Oaxaca food. Moreover, I remember meeting Vicky six years ago when she taught her first cooking class in Carol and David’s miniscule kitchen on Huzares.

First, what is a FOGON? This is the adobe mud table-height cooking stove fueled by wood and topped with a clay comal (griddle) that is nixtamalicized (coated with white calc so the corn doesn’t stick).

Mamela with yellow corn masa, beans, cheese, salsa verde

We start the morning at 8 a.m. Vicky picks us up in the Historic Center where Carol lives, hiring two taxis to ferry the four of us and her to Abastos Market first to do the shopping. Central de Abastos is one of the largest market in Mesoamerica. It is a maze, a warren, a hub of everything Oaxaca — food, drink, pottery, clothing, animals and feed. The uninitiated can get lost — easily. It is best to follow an expert like Vicky, who led us to her favorite organic vendors.


Vicky at Abastos Market, smelling a lime for ripeness

On the cooking class menu today are memelas, sopa de guias, quesadillas with squash blossoms, chicken with mole rojo, atole — all traditional pre-Hispanic foods. So we gather ingredients, wending our way through narrow aisles just as the market vendors start to set up shop. The bustling begins.

Vicky shopping for ingredients ts

We are like ducklings and somehow, we end up on the other side of the market only to exit to find the taxis waiting for us on the street. We climb in and begin the drive up the winding Monte Alban hill.

Cheese vendor, Abastos Market

The day is starting to heat up but the hillside shade keeps us cool. We start off with traditional sweet bread to dunk into a cup of steaming cafe de olla (sweetened coffee flavored with cinnamon). On the table are plump cobs representing different pre-Hispanic colors of corn. Vicky asks Becky to choose which color corn to use for the memelas, and Becky points to the red.

Chicken vendor, Abastos Market
Becky and Tyler with Chipil

Vicky puts the corn kernels into a pot on the charcoal burner and adds calc. Corn needs human intervention to eat. The corn soaked and cooked in calc will soften the hard protective shell, making it edible. Then, the grinding begins. For speed, Vicky uses an untraditional hand-cranked grinder instead of a metate (original stone grinding platform).

Nixtamalization, corn cooking in the olla

We learn that corn soaked in ash is used for corn beverages like atole and tejate, while corn soaked in calc is used for food preparation. We learn that pre-Hispanic cooking translates to using only natural materials: clay, wood, calc and ash, and native plants.

Vicky’s mom preparing a mamela

The memelas are the best I’ve eaten, smeared with bean paste and topped with Oaxaca queso fresco (the crumbly local cheese). The corn base is shaped into a huarache (a shoe). The native red corn turns blue in the cooking. It is crunchy, nutty, filled with flavor. Corn and beans combined are an excellent protein source.

Sopa de Guías ready to eat

For the sopa de guias — squash vine soup — three local herbs are needed: chipil, chipiche and piohito. The base is water to which is added small round squashes called calabacitas that are quartered, squash blossoms (remove the stamens), shredded squash vine leaves, and 2” cut sections of the vine (thick outer strings removed like you do with celery stalks). Nothing of the plant goes to waste. We set about stripping the leaves and flowers from the chipil stalks, careful not to add the seed pods.

Vintage Molcajete with salsa, plus ingredients for quesadillas

Next comes the herb epazote. This very aromatic green is used to flavor beans and squash blossom quesadillas. We use quesillo for this, the Oaxaca string cheese. Don’t be skimpy with the cheese! Vicky tells us epazote is also used as a tea to kill parasites and to eliminate gas and bloating when added to beans during cooking. She a scrambled egg sandwich with epazote and chopped onions is the best.

Tyler consuming a quesadilla

The mole rojo, the red sauce for the chicken, is started by cooking together roasted, skinned organic tomatoes and two tablespoons of vegetable oil, then adding two cups of chicken broth. Once this is combined and cooked, we add about one cup of mole paste Vicky bought in the market earlier. Later, we eat this slathered over a piece of cooked chicken, scooping up the sauce with pieces of tortilla. Yum.

Chicken slathered in mole rojo

Kitchen accoutrements are basic: a molcajete to make the salsas, a metate to grind the corn or cacao, a clay olla or cooking pot, a comal (griddle) on which to cook the tortillas. For the salsa to accompany the Sopa de Guias, Vicky puts sliced onion, lime juice, salt and chiles de agua in the molcajete her father made 50 years ago, smashing all the ingredients together. Aromatic and flavorful. If you can’t find chile de agua, you can substitute jalapeño or serrano chiles.


Vicky and Carol go way back together
Tomatoes roasting on bed of charcoal

We sit to eat at a table in the humble comedor with views of the mountain above and the city below. The sun is shining and we are satisfied. At the entry, Vicky’s mother prepares an order for customers at the next table. I sip the hot atole. It is the best I’ve ever had, a rich corn liquid punctuated with small particles of floating corn. I ask to take home the corn residue left after squeezing the liquid through the gauze cloth. I’ll use this to add crunch to my homemade, gluten-free biscotti. In Italy, the residue is what makes polenta. Mexico, the source of corn, provides sustenance around the world.

View from the comedor

When we finish, we walk to the crossroads a short distance from the comedor and hop on a new Oaxaca city bus that takes us back to the zocalo in the historic center I. 20 minutes. Cost: 8 pesos or 40 cents.

Bus to town

Note: Class is taught in Spanish. If you need translation, Vicky can arrange for a translator to be there with you.

How to find Vicky Hernandez:

Telephone: 52-951-396-2621

email: vickyher70@gmail.com

Instagram: cocinaprehispanica

Reserve class with linktree — linktr.ee/cocinaprehispanicaoaxaca

Website: cocinaprehispanicaenfogon.com

Cost: $1,800 pesos per person cash for a 5-hour experience

Four stuffed and satisfied people

Highly recommend for great food and culinary education.

Covid Basics: The Science and What to Know Before You Travel — Part 1

Ted Fahy and Priscilla Taylor are traveling with us to Chiapas in February 2022. We’ve been having back and forth conversations about traveling as safely as possible during COVID. Ted is a retired pediatric physician and Priscilla is a retired pediatric nurse practitioner. I invited them to write an occasional commentary about COVID, concentrating on its relevance to travel.

Because Ted and Priscilla can decipher COVID in basic, easy-to-understand lay person terms, I thought what they say might be helpful to Oaxaca Cultural Navigator clients and readers. Perhaps, this will also be informative for others who are considering international or national travel, too.

Today’s newsletter gives you background for Ted and Priscilla. We are also starting with the basics — What are the differences between viruses and bacteria.

About Edward Fahy, MD and Priscilla Taylor, PNP

We are Ted, retired Pediatrician who is still an active Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Priscilla, retired Pediatric Nurse Practitioner.  Between us we have 85 years of clinical training and experience.  Pediatrics has always been a medical discipline primarily concerned with infectious disease.  We both were born when polio was rampant and rubella (German Measles) caused countless cases of mental retardation, hearing loss, heart defects and blindness – and when a bacterium called H. influenzae (NOT the same as the virus Influenza) killed thousands of kids per year in the U.S.  Ted’s very 1st patient in 1975 was an elderly woman who lived through the Influenza pandemic in Philadelphia in 1919.  She vividly recalled how a family in the brownstone next to hers all died in one night during that pandemic.  

Through long experience we are extremely familiar with infections.  Our goal is to explain the basics of epidemic disease so that you will have a context within which you can better evaluate information about COVID and better understand why at times there is so much confusion and lack of clarity.

Disclaimer

You can’t talk about epidemic disease without discussing three things: Biology, numbers, and understanding causation.  All three can be intimidating and/or boring.  We’ll do our best to make them interesting.

Viruses and Bacteria

These are profoundly different – and the differences mean everything.

Bacteria – are alive in every sense of that word.  They need food for energy (usually a sugar) and will reproduce every 20-40 minutes.  They are very genetically complex, with 4,000 – 5,000 genes. They have many hundreds of chemical reactions (“metabolism”).  They are relatively big – very easy to see with an ordinary microscope.  

Most importantly, it’s possible to treat and kill bacteria after they have infected the body because they are killed by antibiotics, which disrupt their chemical pathways.

The simplest example is penicillin, which kills streptococcus (as in strep throat).   Penicillin is taken by the strep and put in its cell wall….but that creates a weak wall structure and the bacterium literally explodes!!!!

Viruses – are not alive at all.  They don’t use food.  They are genetically extremely simple.  SARS-Cov-2 (today’s Covid) has about 31 genes.  Outside the body they are inert, do not duplicate, and have NO active chemical reactions.  They are incredibly tiny – impossible to see with a standard microscope.  They have a very different mechanism of actionfrom bacteria.  Much like magnets, they attach to a cell, squirt their genes into it, and hijack the cell’s chemistry, using very few chemical reactions to make copies of themselves. 

Here is a link to a description of exactly how COVID attaches to and inserts its RNA gets into our cells: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xuc9D4LVJdg or click on the video below

Viruses are literally self-copying xerox machines – so they produce new viral particles incredibly rapidly.   The numbers for viruses are staggering – almost incomprehensible.  If you take a nasal swab of someone with influenza, a single swab can contain 800 million viral particles. One single swab.  

Worse – You can’t “kill” them because they aren’t alive. This means that antibiotics don’t work.  Yes, there are some instances of antiviral agents, but none of them actually kill viruses.  They only inhibit the self-copying process or enable white blood cells to identify and destroy the viruses.  Once a virus infects a person, the main medical goal is to support of the body’s own defenses.  The primary approach to viral infection is immunization: Prevention by priming the immune system to recognize the virus ahead of time.

Next time:  Our immune system – White blood cells, antibodies, and how they work together to eliminate infectious organisms.

Norma’s Note: We don’t have a regular publishing schedule for Ted and Priscilla’s newsletter. We are hoping this short series will inform you over the next few weeks, in between our commentary about Oaxaca life and culture.

Notice: This is not intended to substitute for consultation with a medical professional. We are not providing medical advice or diagnosis. This is for general information purposes only. For all medical questions related to vaccines and COVID-19, please consult your medical professional.

At Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, we require all travelers with us to be fully vaccinated. This definition as of December 25, 2021, means two vaccines and a booster. Flu vaccines are strongly recommended. We also ask that our travelers bring and wear N95 or KN95 — which are demonstrated to offer maximum protection.

FYI: We have three vacancies for our March 8-16 study tour to Chiapas. Please contact Norma if you are interested.

And, as always, thank you for reading.

How to Travel Safely (More or Less) to Oaxaca During Covid

My son Jacob always reminds me that each of us has a different comfort level of risk for contracting the virus. As we face new mutations — Delta, Omicron, Whatever is Next — we need to take a pulse for our own willingness to travel by plane. Whether we are traveling within the U.S. to Mexico or to South Africa, some degree of discomfort is going to follow us.

Even with three vaccines behind me, I am an uneasy plane traveler and I take precautions. I realize, too, that I am not completely immune from contracting covid. I just arrived back in Oaxaca on Monday after a two-legged journey from Albuquerque to Houston to Oaxaca as Omicron is spreading. This was my second trip back and forth to Mexico in a month.

What Did I Do? What Did I Notice?

Planes are full. That means that two or three abreast is more common than not. It means airports are filled with people and it’s the holiday season so more are traveling. The flight from Houston to Oaxaca was packed with Oaxaquenos living in various parts of the USA returning to their homeland to be with family for Christmas and New Years.

While facemarks are mandatory in airports and on airplanes, they are of varying quality and fit. I saw lots of “slippage” with masks migrating below the nose. I saw masks worn as neckbands. I saw eaters and sippers who did not return their masks to faces afterward.

  • I wore two face masks. First, an N95 covering my nose and mouth, then a handmade cloth facemask that includes a metal piece across the bridge to guarantee NO SLIPPAGE.
  • I used hand-sanitizer liberally.
  • I carry alcohol spray and wiped down seat armrests, tray tables and seat belt buckles.
  • The two young Mexicans flanking me on the Houston to Oaxaca flight asked to borrow my pen to complete the entry forms for immigration and customs. I didn’t deny them. But, I alcohol-sprayed the pen after use. (Nutz? Maybe.)

With a six-hour layover in Houston and the end-of the year approaching, I used my annual United Club Pass that comes with the credit card to enter the lounge. After scanning the room, I picked a seat far away from others. All the staff were masked appropriately. All the food was pre-packaged and safe. I noticed some doing business calls with masks on and others who did not. There were no mask police. I wasn’t going to be one.

When you fly direct from the USA to Oaxaca on either United or American, this is your port-of-entry. The flight attendants will give you three forms to complete while in the air: an immigration form (different for foreign and Mexican citizens), a customs form, and a COVID questionnaire. No COVID vaccine card is required. This questionnaire is in minuscule type. Don’t forget to bring a pen and have it handy.

When we arrived in Oaxaca, another international flight had arrived just moments before. So the line to enter the airport and go through immigration and customs was VERY LONG. There were at least 200 people in line. Sidewalk signs indicated a 1.5 meter (5 feet) social distancing rule. Airport personnel, however, wanted to make space on the sidewalk and asked us to get closer to each other.

I did not comply.

  • Instead, I maintained distance between me and the person in front of me.
  • I was still wearing two face masks.
  • I extended the handle on my carry-on roller bag as far as it would go and stretched the suitcase out behind me, guaranteeing a distance of about four feet as we waited in line.

Inside the terminal building, after presenting the passport, immigration and customs forms, and covid questionnaire to the official, I entered the bag claim area where it was CHAOS. It was not possible to maintain social distance. However, everyone was calm, respectful and wearing a mask properly.

One by one, we loaded luggage and handbags and backpacks onto a conveyer belt to go through an x-ray machine. Then, we hand the customs form to an agent. To the left is a kiosk where you are asked to push a button. Green light and you are free to exit. Red light and you are subject to luggage inspection. Completely random.

For those of you needing transportation from the airport to downtown, there is a kiosk to the right of the bag claim area after you exit. This is where you purchase the shuttle ticket. You tell the driver the address where you are going.

Protecting ourselves and traveling during covid is not easy. All of us want some degree of normalcy and I also think it is difficult to be vigilant 100% of the time. Travel during the holidays has always been stressful anyway. It’s even more so now. I just figured I would do the best I can.

Worth it? When I left Taos it was 3 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Days warmed up to high 30’s and low 40’s. Albuquerque was 17 degrees at night with day temps in low 50’s. Here, I’m enjoying chilly nights in the 40’s and daytime temps in the mid-70’s. Is it worth it? For me, yes.

Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery: Cultural Sensitivity

Preamble: Our Day of the Dead Cultural Study Tour ended on November 4. Everyone tested negative for Covid to exit Mexico and re-enter the USA. We were all very relieved AND we practiced all safety measures during our time in the city and in Teotitlan del Valle — masks in all public spaces (even outdoors), social distancing, hand-sanitizer. Every artisan we visited (except one) was double-vaccinated. We won’t be visiting that artisan again — they were not disclosing! In Oaxaca, vaccine roll-out is slow and no one under 30 has been able to get the vaccine yet. It is a problem of availability and distribution.

I want to talk about how Day of the Dead has changed in Oaxaca and the villages. Years ago, when I first arrived in 2005 and for a decade after, when I went to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to participate in Day of the Dead, I was the only non-villager. I always went with local friends at sunset to be a part of the experience and I was mindful to keep as low a profile as possible, even though I knew I would stand out solely based on my skin color. I wore the traditional apron used by village women, came with offerings for the grave: flowers, oranges, chocolate, candles. Paid my respects by joining to sit quietly, mindful of my place as an outsider.

Then, and up until a few years ago, the grave sites of loved ones were surrounded by large gatherings of family members sitting, talking, taking sips of mezcal, placing last minute candles and flowers on the tomb mounds. It was a solemn and mystical time of tradition and respect. One that I hold close to my heart in meaning and symbolism for the circuity of life in pre-Hispanic culture here.

Last minute decorations. photo by Tiina Antiila

Now, it is different. Much different. I could see it coming even by 2016, when tour companies began to add the Teotitlan de Valle cemetery to its list of stops on their itineraries. Perhaps the mezcal culture has influenced this change, too, as drinking and enjoying Oaxaca cuisine has attracted the hedonists to experience an intense 5-day party weekend. I recall a National Geographic Photography Tour coming to the cemetery maybe in 2017 or 2018, huge cameras with impressive lenses in tow, not asking permission, setting up tripods and photos just a foot or two away. Now, with cell phone cameras, it is not as intrusive, but another phenomenon is happening.

Tomb with favorite foods, beverages of deceased

The atmosphere is more like Mardi Gras as face-painted revelers from the city embark from buses, vans and taxis. They are all foreigners, mostly from the USA. The cemetery is overwhelmed by them. I noticed that fewer locals were here this year.

Excavated tomb waiting for burial. Ancestor bones in bags will be reburied with corpse.

I asked my friend Natividad if she goes to the cemetery for Muertos. No, she said. It is like a fiesta. I don’t like it. I go another time, when it is quieter and I can sit without being disturbed. A widespread sentiment here, I think.

Sand painting carpet in chapel

As I sat with Norma Gutierrez and her daugher Lizet at her husband and father’s gravesite to remember Juvenal, age 52 who died of covid in a San Diego hospital, a face-painted woman approached to ask to take a photo (at least she asked). Remember Juvenal? We raised $3,000 to send his body home.

Norma nodded an okay. I looked at her and said, you can say no. (The circumstance felt invasive to me.) Her eyes said, Really? I can say no? So, she turned and said, No, and the woman walked away. This is a culture of being in agreement and it is a culture where women do not speak up as contrarians. So, when people do not object, it does not mean they are comfortable or in agreement.

If course you can take my photo, she says proudly

The flowers and graves were magnificent. A stark contrast to the predominantly Anglo dominance of the cemetery. I could not bring myself to photograph people sitting with their loved ones. I took photos of flowers and tomb altars. I wonder if I should continue to bring our small group of culturally sensitive travelers here in the future. Are we adding to the problem? Even as I prepared them with information about cultural meaning and cemetery protocol, it is difficult to not be a part of the cultural impact. We went to the cemetery accompanied by Ernestina and paid respects to her father Jose. I advised them to disperse and not walk around in intimidating groups larger than two or three people. We were all masked. It was 4:30 p.m. Still two hours of remaining daylight. Most of us left by 6:00 p.m.

Ernestina placing fruit on her father’s grave. Our group observes the tradition.
The band plays on

In the cemetery chapel, the volunteer committee that oversees cemetery maintenance and religious traditions, chanted blessings in Zapotec and Spanish, kneeling before the altar. Outside, the village band started playing Sousa-like music. Visitors planted themselves on benches drinking beer and mezcal, while others began to dance vigorously. Some were picnicking on the grass, pulling out their mezcal bottles from backpacks.

I went to visit the grave of my friend Lupita, who died of breast cancer at age 48, four years ago. I was heartbroken and went home.

The village depends on tourism. Visitors keep weavers and restauranteurs in business. It is up to the village leadership to decide.

No explanation needed

It is difficult for me to suspend judgment. I ask myself, Is this cultural appropriate or insensitivity? What does it mean to be authentic? Does authentic mean to keep things the way they have always been and to prevent change from happening? Change is inevitable and who am I to say that we are are experiencing cultural degradation? It is up to the people who live here to decide.

As we sat around breakfast the next morning, I asked our group about their impressions. Here is what they said:

  • I was offended by the dancing. It seemed so out of place.
  • I’m tired of the commercial creep in the USA. That’s why I came here, for something more meaningful.
  • The face painting was out of place.
  • So many visitors were not wearing masks. I tried not to be judging and I noticed that in myself.
  • I walked by families sobbing from their loss surrounded by revelers. It was a real disconnect.
  • I saw outsiders going to graves, laying down flowers to express their sympathy.
  • I was conflicted — I wanted to be there and found it very uncomfortable.
  • I was angry at the tourists. Then, I was angry at myself to being a tourist and I had to walk away.
  • It was more powerful for me because we had all the preparation leading up to the cemetery visit.
  • It’s creeping commercialization. Will the town speak up?
  • Most of the graves were decorated in advance earlier in the day, so I suppose that’s when most of the villagers were there.
  • It was mixed for me. It was a privilege to be there, but I felt like an invader to private, sacred time. This is an intimate, family time.
  • The city is packed with tourists looking for smaller venues.

The COMMENTS SECTION ON THIS BLOG DOES NOT WORK. If you wish to make a comment, please send me an email and I will publish in a separate post.

Norma with co-leader and godson Eric Chávez Santiago, Teotitlan del Valle

Masks Up Oaxaca

I’ve arrived. And I’m astounded at the safety precautions in Oaxaca city. I spent Friday in the city. First, I met Carol for brunch at El Tendajon at the corner of Calle Constitución and Pino Suarez. You can’t just walk in! There’s a gate. They check your temperature and ask you to use Ha d da itinerary before entering. Every staff member is properly masked.

i walked there from the La Noria neighborhood, a good mile and-a-half. Along the way, I’d say 1 in 50 were unmasked. Better than the US I think. This is outdoors, on the sidewalks, with a breeze!

Translate from Fahrenheit to Celsius

After brunch, Carol and I went to the stamp museum at the corner of Reforma and Constitución. No entry without a temperature reading there, either. Hand sanitizer mandatory. The thermometer was some kind of fancy technology gizmo that takes a reading from your wrist.

How safe did I feel? Completely safe. Quite a relief after the frenzy of air travel.

Bread vendor in the market

Now, I’m in my little house in the campo in Teotitlan del Valle. The sun is shining and I’ve just gotten back from a walk with the dogs. Yes, they remembered me even though I’ve been gone for 19 months. It’s supposed to rain. Everything here is lush and green.
Im

I am sure the farmers are happy.

On my walk in the village

This morning I went to the village market to buy chicken and vegetables for a Caldo de Pollo. Mask up. Hand sanitizer at the ready. Here, about 1 in 20 are wearing masks. I asked my chicken lady why she didn’t have one. I don’t believe it, she said. Another woman I know said God will protect me. I’m not sure it’s much different here than in Oklahoma or Florida. Although Natividad told me that the majority of the people in the village are vaccinated. So that is reassuring.

We hear that indigenous people have deep suspicions of government, especially the older ones who have suffered discrimination. Even so, I used my hand sanitizer frequently and disinfected the veggies and fruit when I got home, just like I always did.

My host Federico said the virus and Delta variant is waning here, so people are not as afraid as they were before. And, so it goes.

With my mask up, and three vaccines under my belt, I’m not feeling as vulnerable and I can monitor my social distancing and step away as needed.

Butch and Tia in the campo. Federico renamed them Chiquita and Viejo!

The elevation here is 5,000 feet, quite a bit less than Taos. With my doggy companions, Tia and Butch, I kept up a good pace going through the agave and corn fields. I’m noticing that more fields are planted with mezcal-producing agave, a cash crop that is bringing high market prices at maturity (seven years for espadín).

My friends Natividad and Arnulfo, with Esmeralda and Rodolfo

For those coming with me and Eric Chávez Santiago for our Day of the Dead Tour, I know you will love being here, just as I am.