Tag Archives: tourism

Mezcal and the Labor Shortage in Oaxaca

One of my first outings after settling into my casita in Teotitlan del Valle upon arrival to Oaxaca was to make a visit to weaver Arturo Hernandez in San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Mitla is one of those ancient Zapotec villages where a spectacular archeological site rises from the landscape of wild agave, cactus and a mountain backdrop. It was originally known at Mictlan (translates to Place of the Dead). The Spanish couldn’t pronounce it, so it became Mitla.) This time of year wild marigold dots the horizon with a sea of yellow flowers that the ancestors used to decorate altars in honor of loved ones — a pre-Hispanic tradition that blended into Dia de los Muertos. Because Zapotec royalty were interred here, the town goes all out for Day of the Dead traditions.

Ceremonial sculpture, Mitla antiques shop

Arturo has been a friend for many, many years. He is one of those few weavers remaining in Mitla who uses the back-strap loom to create wool cloth that becomes ponchos and blankets. (He also works in cotton on the pedal loom.) This loom is wider and heavier than the traditional back-strap loom for cotton, and is used by men in a standing position. They sway back-and-forth to control the tension, one end tied to a post, the other around their waist.

Wild marigold with cochineal over-dye

The traditional pattern woven in Mitla includes symbols of corn, cacao and the plumed serpent — all important in Zapotec mythology and prayers for fertility and food. Arturo has the distinction of also working with natural dyes. His pieces are spectacular examples of textiles colored with cochineal, indigo, wild marigold, zapote negro (a local fruit), and pecan shells. Over-dyes yield purple, pink, and green.

Wild marigold dye pot

The village of Mitla, a Pueblo Magico, is about five miles from Santiago Matatlan that bills itself as the Mezcal Capital of the World. Corn fields have given way to neat rows of espadin agave, the fastest growing of all plants used for mezcal, that are ripe after seven years. Traditional farmers of the milpas: corn, squash, and beans are forgoing these crops to plant agave. As demand rises rapidly, this cash crop has become a favored way of making big, fast money. Who can blame them?

Spent wild marigold at Arturo’s feet

I’m standing in a long line at the airport to buy a shuttle ticket to town. In front of me are two young men, 30-somethings. When I ask, they say they are from Denver. How long will you be here? I say. Four days, they answer. What will you do here for four days? I continue. We plan to drink a lot of mezcal, they say. This is the story of Oaxaca today. Mezcal. The men decided to come to Oaxaca instead of going to Chattanooga for a friend’s wedding. Why? Because the airline cost to Tennessee was too high! Go figure. I ask them if they know anything about the culture? Will they visit Monte Alban or any of the nearby Zapotec artisan villages? Hmmm. They hadn’t thought of that. This is the story of Oaxaca today. Mezcal.

A stunning cochineal shawl

So, Arturo says to me, I don’t have enough weavers. I’m down to one. No one wants to work the traditional looms. They are all going to the agave fields where they can make 400 pesos a day. That’s $20 USD, folks. Considered a good wage here. So, my observation is that labor for traditional craft and artisan work will become more scarce in the Tlacolula Valley. I ask Arturo what he pays his workers. About the same, he says. But, I see this is repetitive work to stand at a flying shuttle pedal loom all day, throwing the shuttle back and forth across the warp threads, manipulating the design with your feet. Whereas in the agave fields, one can move and breathe the fresh air.

For everything that ails you, mezcal will cure it. For everything good, also mezcal. — old Oaxaca saying

There’s another factor at play here that has a huge impact on the environment and sustainability. Arturo says that herbicides and pesticides are now widely used in the agave fields. He says this is no longer artisanal, even though the marketing people claim otherwise. He sees men carrying the tanks on their backs, spraying the earth to eradicate the weeds that come up between the rows. The edible wild plants eaten by the ancestors, like quelites, are supressed. The insects and animals that aerate the earth are wiped clean. The plants will grow faster and bring a larger yield.

Natural dyes, Arturo’s studio

I think a lot about the rise of mezcal as a favored distilled beverage. Of course, I love it! Especially the wild agaves like tepeztate, madrecuishe, and arroqueño. It takes a longer time for these varieties to mature, some as much as twenty-five years, which makes the cost so much higher. As the wild varieties are used up, the mezcaleros (mezcal makers) are now reproducing them as cultivars. So, technically, they may no longer be wild, absorbing the flavors of the earth from a specific rocky outcropping of land. Mezcal making is a complex art much like wine making. It is NOT tequila!

The devil made me do it!

So, what will happen to Arturo and his weaving studio if there is no one who wants to work the looms? Is our Oaxaca artisan craft on the verge of extinction, much like the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica.

What will you do and what will you learn when you come to Oaxaca? Isn’t the story of Oaxaca more than mezcal?

Arturo and his wife Marta grow their own organic corn

Why Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween

Rooted in pre-Hispanic indigenous religious and spiritual practices that has nothing to do with the Catholicism imported to Mexico by the Conquistadores and attending priests, unfortunately, Day of the Dead has morphed into what is becoming an attraction for party-goers in Oaxaca. Day of the Dead is coming back around on the calendar, observed from October 31 to November 2, and it’s time to write about What is Day of the Dead? for visitors and travelers. I want to plead for respectfulness for ancient cultural practices. These are the days to remember the ancestors.

These dates were set by the conquerors to blend the pre-Hispanic native rituals to remember those who have passed with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days on the Christian calendar. The blending of European and indigenous practices is called syncretism and was an effective way of bringing indigenous people into the religious fold of the conquerors.

Let’s take a step back. Up the road from where I live in Oaxaca, the Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site (and village) San Pablo Villa de Mitla was the burial grounds for the ruling elite. Originally called Mictlan, which means place of the dead, the reverence for the ancestors was played out with offerings of candles, incense, bread, corn and squash, pulque, chocolate and flowers, mostly wild marigold that grew in the countryside. Elaborate altars were constructed on floor-level that included these offerings. With the conquest, the altars were raised and included a backdrop of Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, in many traditional homes we visit, the altar is placed on the ground as it was in ancient days. Around the altar, family members sit with their memories in quiet contemplation as the candles burn and the incense is constantly replenished.

In ancient times, family members were buried in tombs inside each home. With Catholicism, cemeteries became the place where the deceased were interred. Yet, the tradition of respect, reverence and solemn tribute to a loved one’s memory continued. In the 18 years I have lived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I have come to understand how important Day of the Dead is to the collective, family and individual memory of a loved one who has crossed over. I have sat quietly with friends at their family plots as they recall the life of the person buried there. Often, these plots will hold the bones of generations of family members, as the plot is recycled every ten years, the time it takes for a body to decompose. The grave is cleaned and the bones replaced there, readying it for the next occupant.

This is how we do it here.

In the last two years, all this has changed. Foreign visitors arrive on tour buses with painted faces and in Halloween costume. (Did you know that Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the USA next to Christmas?) They bring mezcal, beer and a picnic into the cemeteries. They gawk. They dance to the music the village band is playing to cheer the local community. It is party-time in Oaxaca regardless of local custom, and these external influences are changing local behavior.

I’m not one to say, Let’s keep everything the way it was. Change is inevitable and there has always been cultural interchange, innovation and adaptation. Yet, what I see I interpret as destructive. Locals are going earlier in the day to decorate the graves and then leave the cemetery before the crowd of visitors arrive. They prefer the peacefulness and solitude that marks this ritual. A few locals say, It’s good for business to have visitors. But, no one, in my opinion, who comes to the cemetery to party is going to buy a handwoven rug that may cost hundreds of dollars! They come to take away only an experience.

I often wonder if any of the guides who bring visitors has a conversation with them about cultural history and respectfulness, as we do when we bring people to the cemetery. When we take a small group we always go accompanied by a local friend who will take us to a family gravesite, sit with us, and explain the practices.

Oaxaca is now an international destination. It is attracting visitors who want to sample mezcal, dine in world renown restaurants, and immerse themselves in the excitement of the Day of the Dead comparsas — the parades — in Oaxaca city. The film Coco did much to popularize Day of the Dead, and I hear from friends in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the Coco story originated, that in the artisan villages surrounding the lake, Purepecha people have adapted and adopted the face painting and costumes to attract tourism.

Eric and Norma, Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle

When you visit, please be aware that you will leave a footprint. What kind of footprint do you want to have? What will you learn and what will you take away from participating in this ancient practice? How will you reflect on death and dying, and compare it to how mourning and remembrance is done in Mexico with where you come from? What are your own family traditions?

And, how would you respect your own grandparents and antecedents in the cemetery where they are buried?

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.