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Hopeful! 2021 Oaxaca Day of the Dead Culture Tour

October 28 to November 4, 2021 – 7 nights and 8 days, starting at $2,795

We are hopeful! Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, is meaningful and magical.  Celebrations in the villages go deep into Zapotec culture, community, tradition and pre-Hispanic practice. Some say it is the most important annual celebration in Mexico and here in Oaxaca, we know this is true. This tour is limited to 10 participants.

At Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, we hope to give you an unparalleled and in-depth travel experience to participate and delve deeply into indigenous culture, folk art and celebrations. Our hope, too, is that we will all be well and it will be safe enough to travel to Oaxaca by October 2021. If for any reason we must cancel this tour, you will receive a full 100% refund. See notes below about COVID vaccination requirements to travel with us.

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Day of the Dead Altar

Now, back to the tour: Beyond the city, in the Tlacolula Valley, the smaller villages are still able to retain their traditional practices.  Here they build altars at home, light copal incense, make offerings of homemade chocolate, bread and atole, prepare a special meal of tamales, and visit the homes of relatives to greet deceased ancestors who have returned for this 24-hour period.  Then, at the designated hour, the living go to the cemeteries to be with their loved ones  — either to welcome them back into the world or put them to rest after their visit here – the practice depends on each village.

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You will learn about this and more as you come with us to meet artisans in four different villages who welcome us into their homes and their lives during this sacred festival.

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Study Tour Highlights:

  • Visit homes, altars and cemeteries in four Zapotec villages: Teotitlan del Valle, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, San Marcos Tlapazola and San Miguel del Valle
  • Participate in presenting altar offerings at each home we visit
  • As a group, build a traditional altar to remember and honor your own loved ones
  • Learn to make homemade chocolate with the Mexican cacao bean
  • See a tamale-making demonstration and taste what is prepared
  • Shop for altar décor at the largest Teotitlan del Valle market of the year
  • Learn how mezcal is an integral part of festival culture and tradition
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We created this study tour to take you out of the city, beyond the hubbub of party revelry and glitz of a Halloween-like experience that has morphed into a Hollywood-style extravaganza in downtown Oaxaca.  We will compare how city celebrations differ from those in villages by participating in city events first.  Our desire is to give you a full immersion experience that evokes what Day of the Dead may have been like 20 or 50 years ago–mystical,  magical, transcendent and spiritual.

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Even so, cultural tourism has found its way into the back roads of Oaxaca.  We do our best to be respectful by limiting the size of our group to 10-12 participants, to give you an orientation about to what to expect and do during our visits, and to offer you an intimate, personal experience.

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You have the guidance of local expert Eric Chavez Santiago who will co-lead this cultural tour with Norma Schafer, founder of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator.  

Eric Chavez Santiago is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexican folk art with a special interest in artisan economic development.  He is a weaver and natural dyer by training, a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola rug weaving family, who was born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions and customs, speaks the indigenous Zapotec language, and serves as your cultural navigator. 

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Eric is a graduate of the Anahuac University, and speaks English and Spanish. He can translate language, culture and traditions, tell you about practices in his extended family and how they have experienced the changes over time.

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Moreover, he is deeply connected and will introduce you to some of the finest artisans in the region, where you will meet weavers, ceramic artists, apron makers and traditional cooks. You will have an opportunity to see artisan craft demonstrations and to shop for your own collection or for gifts, as you wish.

You will spend the first two nights in Oaxaca City, then you will move to a comfortable Bed and Breakfast Inn based in Teotitlan del Valle for the remainder of our time together.

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Angel in Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread)

Preliminary Itinerary

Thursday, October 28: Arrive in Oaxaca City and check in to our centrally-located boutique hotel

Friday, October 29: After breakfast, explore the city and the Benito Juarez market to see preparations for Dia de los Muertos, and gallery/shop decorations. We will also catch a comparsa – the traditional Muertos parade – along the pedestrian street as our schedule permits. Overnight in Oaxaca. (Breakfast and welcome dinner)

Saturday, October 30: Travel to Teotitlan del Valle and check in to our comfortable B&B, take a chocolate making workshop with a traditional cook that includes a visit to the local molino (mill) to grind the cacao bean mixture. See how traditional mole Amarillo tamales are prepared and have a tasting.  We will talk about family altars, their significance and what goes into making one. You will then enjoy comida (late lunch) in the home of a local family.  (B, L)

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Teotitlan del Valle tamales with mole amarillo, made by Ernestina

Sunday, October 31: After breakfast, walk to the Teotitlan del Valle market to shop for altar decorations to later build a group altar. Bring photos of those you want to remember! Then, we will venture out into the countryside to visit the Zapotec villages of San Marcos Tlapazola and San Miguel del Valle to meet artisans and discuss their family Dia de los Muertos traditions. You will see demonstrations of red clay pottery and embroidered apron making and have a chance to buy if you wish. We will come prepared with altar gifts of chocolate and bread to present to the difuntos. On the road, we will stop at a traditional comedor for lunch (at your own expense). (B, D)  

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Monday, November 1: After breakfast, travel to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to meet weaver artisans who will take us to their family gravesite at the village cemetery and talk about this village and their history and traditions. Visit homes where traditional altars tell the story of ancient Zapotec culture. You will bring your offering of chocolate and bread to put on their altars to honor the deceased of our hosts.  We will take lunch at a local comedor along the way (at your own expense). Then, make a stop on the way home for a mezcal tasting – Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien.  (B, D)  

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Tuesday, November 2: After breakfast, you will visit the homes of selected weavers in Teotitlan del Valle to experience each family’s variation on altar preparation, and see a weaving and natural dyeing demonstration. You’ll then join a local family for lunch and accompany them to the cemetery to sit with their loved ones as they return to the underworld. After the cemetery, you will have a cena (late repast) of bread and hot chocolate, discuss how participating in Day of the Dead had an impact on you. Compare and contrast this experience with USA and Canadian experiences with death and dying.  (B, L, D)

Wednesday, November 3: After breakfast, the choice is yours for this free-day. You may like some downtime to write about your experiences or take a hike to the reservoir or meander the village. You can also arrange a taxi to take you to neighboring villages or archeological sites. We will enjoy a final goodbye supper before you depart.

Thursday, November 4: Departure. We will help you arrange a taxi (at your own expense) to the airport or you may choose to stay on in Oaxaca or visit another part of Mexico.  (B) Hasta la proxima!

Itinerary subject to change based on scheduling and availability.

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What Is Included

  • 7 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 5 dinners
  • 2 nights lodging at an excellent boutique hotel in Oaxaca City
  • 5 nights lodging at a charming B&B hotel in Teotitlan del Valle
  • museum and church entry fees
  • van transportation
  • outstanding and complete guide services

What is NOT Included

The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Cost • $2,795 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,445 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)

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Natural dyes have strong color, beautiful and more complex than synthetic dyes

Reservations and Cancellations.  A $500 deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 50% of the balance is due on or before June 15, 2021. The third payment is due on or before September 1, 2021. We accept payment using online e-commerce only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2021, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before September 1, 2021, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date. After that, there are no refunds. If we cancel for whatever reason, you will receive a full refund.

The tour and COVID-19: You are required to send proof of vaccination to participate. You must send Proof of Vaccination by email on or before June 15, 2021. You can take a photo of the documentation and forward it to us. All participants are required to wear face masks, use hand-sanitizer and practice social distancing while together. We will sanitize vans and keep the windows open when traveling together. Please note: You MUST also provide proof of international travel insurance including $50,000 of emergency medical evacuation coverage.

Registration Form

Complete the form and Send an email to Norma Schafer.

Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room. We will send you an e-commerce invoice by email that is due on receipt.

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Red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola

Who Should Attend • Anyone interested in indigenous culture and creativity, who wants a deep immersion experience into Day of the Dead practices and traditions, and who appreciates artisan craft — weaving, embroidery, pottery. If you are a collector, come with us to go deep and find the best artisans. If you are a photographer or artist, come with us for inspiration. If you are an online retailer, come with us to find the stories to market what you sell.

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

Reservations and Cancellations.  We accept online e-commerce payments only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2021, there are no refunds. If we receive notice of your cancelation on or before September 1, 2021, 50% of the funds you have paid to date will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.

All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: Oaxaca and surrounding villages are colonial and pre-Hispanic. The altitude is close to 6,000 feet. Many streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, narrow and uneven. We will do a lot of walking. We walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day. We recommend you bring a walking stick.

If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the study tour for you.

Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include free time to go off on your own if you wish.

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Sitting vigil in the village cemetery, Dia de los Muertos

Guest Post: Take (or Gift) a Oaxaca Embroidery Workshop Online

Are you looking for a last-minute meaningful gift? Are you looking for a creative Covid-19 diversion? Do you want to learn traditional Oaxaca embroidery techniques? Do you want to support an indigenous family who depends on textile sales for livelihood?

There is no tourism now, so no sales. My friend Susan deLone thought up this great way to learn and help a woman embroiderer in Oaxaca.

If your answer is YES to any of these questions above, please read on …

An Invitation from Susan deLone to Learn Oaxaca Embroidery

I am the director of a Latino tutoring program for families in New Jersey. All of our families come from the pueblos of Oaxaca.  We started a Zoom class with craftswomen from Oaxaca to teach our moms and kids.

One talented woman, Rosa, has been teaching embroidery with great success. She is originally from the village of San Bartolome Ayautla, where women make exquisite embroidered blouses and dresses.

 I attend these classes given by Rosa as well. The classes are in Spanish. Rosa is the wife of a Oaxaca doctor who was himself, infected with COVID-19 and spent two months in hospital. He had to learn to read and write all over again. He continues to improve.

Rosa is also a housekeeper for a Philadelphia family who now lives in Oaxaca.

I find Rosa to be exceptional…warm and patient, eager to teach, well prepared.  She also gives homework!  I enjoy her class very much.

I hope you will want to learn from her by Zoom.  She will send a Zoom invitation to you once you have registered. We are taking registrations for an introductory set of 4 classes for $50 USD.

How to Register:

Mail a personal check for $50 USD to Susan deLone, 4300 Church Road, Doylestown, PA 18902. Questions: send an email to Susan at sdelone@comcast.net Susan is looking into creating a Venmo account, too, for those who want to pay online.

More Class Info:

Each class is 40 minutes and there will be a set time depending on Rosa’s availability. There is no translator, however, Rosa’s hands are demonstration enough! It is easy to learn by watching. The figures are not as elaborate as those shown in these examples. They are very simple. Rosa draws a flower or a person and we draw on our own fabric. Rosa recommends that you use cotton. She teaches different stitches by demonstration. You have a week to do these patterns on your own, and then bring your work to the next class for show and tell.

Supplies:

You provide your own cotton, embroidery floss (thread), hoops, needles, scissors. White cotton is recommended.

In embroidery you can chat and have fun…it’s like having coffee with friends and also making something beautiful. This is a wonderful, meaningful gift to yourself or someone who appreciates needlework.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing Retreat 2020: Winter Holidays, Traditions

This is our 9th year offering this retreat! We will gather in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, from December 15 to 21, 2020, to reflect and write. Holiday traditions run deep here and it is a perfect place to explore our theme: ‘Tis the season for family, traditions, celebration, gift-giving, holiday expectations and disappointments, wishes fulfilled or not. The Christmas season evokes many memories and this is an opportunity to recreate them in a supportive environment. We are often inspired by our shared voices.

Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca church atop Zapotec temple ruins

You may even think about staying on in the village or in Oaxaca after the retreat, inviting your family to join you for the traditional posadas, Night of the Radishes, and other events that happen during this magical time of year.

We accommodate vegetarian and vegan diets

Winter solstice and other seasonal celebrations inspire us to revisit our memories of people and places, to dig in and go deep, and to write in whatever genre speaks to us: memoir, journaling, fiction, personal essay, creative nonfiction, and poetry. You will also participate in the Teotitlan del Valle Christmas posadas. Here you can explore traditional culture, values and celebrations to trigger your own experiences.

The last posada, December 24, when Baby Jesus arrives

New and seasoned writers are welcome. Come to kindle and rekindle the writer’s life.

Cost is $1,369 per person for a shared room, and $1,885 for a private room. A 50% deposit will reserve your space.

Participants meet local weaver in his studio

Retreat is limited to 10 participants.

See the Exquisite Corpse Poem from our 2019 writing retreat.

Planned Itinerary: 2020

  • Tuesday, December 15: Arrive and check-in to our retreat space. Group dinner. Introductions. (D)
  • Wednesday, December 16: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, optional activities, group dinner, coaching session (B, L, D)
  • Thursday, December 17: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, independent writing, lunch, afternoon workshop, participate in Teotitlan del Valle posada, dinner on your own, coaching session (B, L)
Abuelos at the posada. What do you remember about your own grandparents?
  • Friday, December 18: Morning yoga (optional), breakfast, writing workshop, lunch, afternoon independent writing, optional activities/workshop visits or participate in Teotitlan del Valle posada, dinner on your own (B, L)
  • Saturday, December 19: Morning yoga (optional) breakfast, writing workshop, optional activities/workshop visits or participate in Teotitlan del Valle posada, dinner on your own (B, L)
  • Sunday, Sunday, December 20:  Morning yoga (optional) breakfast, writing workshop, lunch on your own, afternoon independent writing, optional activities/workshop visits, group reading and celebration dinner (B, D)
  • Monday, December 21: Breakfast and depart (B)

We reserve the right to make itinerary changes and substitutions as necessary.

Scene from Teotitlan del Valle mountain-top

You can add-on days in Teotitlan del Valle or Oaxaca before or after the retreat at your own expense. To get to Teotitlan del Valle, please buy a ticket at the airport for secure taxi service.

Noche de los Rabanos, December 23, Oaxaca City

There will be optional daily activities in our schedule: gentle yoga, afternoon walks, and mini-seminars on writing topics such as writing effective description and dialogue, grammar, or submitting creative work for publication. Each person will have a private coaching session, too. We will also arrange visits to the home workshops of local artisans so you can delve more deeply into the culture.

Beeswax candle making for the Posadas

What is included?

  • Complete instruction with 5 workshop sessions
  • 3 dinners
  • 6 breakfasts
  • 4 lunches
  • 6 nights lodging
  • transportation to local artisan studios
  • daily gentle yoga and meditation (optional, but included in fee)
  • mini-seminars on writing topics
  • one coaching session
Watching the posada go by on the street

Meet Robin Greene, Writer-Editor-Professor

We are pleased that Robin Greene is returning to lead this intensive writer’s retreat. This will be her ninth year teaching with us to rave reviews.

Novelist and Poet Robin Greene in Oaxaca, Mexico

Robin Greene is Professor of English and Writing and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, where she held the McLean Endowed Chair in English from 2013-2016. Robin has published two collections of poetry (Memories of Light and Lateral Drift), two editions of a nonfiction book (Real Birth: Women Share Their Stories), and a novel (Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman). Robin’s second novel, The Shelf Life of Fire, is published by Light Messages Publishing, 2019, and Robin is currently working on a sequel.

Notes, Women’s Creative Writing Retreat

Robin is a past recipient of a North Carolina-National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Writing, and has published over ninety pieces of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in literary journals. She has received two teaching awards, the latest of which, the Cleveland Award, received in 2017, is the most prestigious award offered by her university. Robin has given over a hundred academic presentations, literary readings, and writing workshops in a variety of venues throughout the US.

In addition, Robin is a registered yoga teacher (RYT200), cofounder and editor of Longleaf Press, and cofounder of Sandhills Dharma Group for Buddhist meditation. She holds a M.A. in English from Binghamton University and a M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Art at Norwich University.

Higadito, scrambled egg and chicken holiday breakfast

What is a Workshop Session? The group meets daily for three hours to actively listen to each other’s writing, giving supportive and constructive feedback about what resonates or not. We offer guidelines for the process. Everyone takes a turn to read and everyone participates. Writers may accept or reject suggestions. Workshops offer an important learning tool for writers to gain feedback about how their words are communicated and understood.

How to Register:  Cost is $1,369 per person for a shared room, and $1,885 for a private room. A 50% deposit will reserve your space. Send us an email to say you want to attend and if you want a shared or private room. We will send you an e-commerce invoice to secure your space.

Holiday decor in the markets to decorate mangers. What is/was yours?

Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health/emergency evacuation insurance with a minimum of $50,000 of medical evacuation coverage. Proof of insurance must be sent at least 45 days before departure. In addition, we will send you by email a PDF of a witnessed waiver of responsibility, holding harmless Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We ask that you return this to us by email 45 days before departure. Unforeseen circumstances happen! Be certain your passport has at least six months on it before it expires from the date you enter Mexico!

Plane Tickets, Arrivals/Departures: Please send us your plane schedule at least 45 days before the trip. This includes name of carrier, flight numbers, arrival and departure time to/from our program destination.

Christmas turkey shopping in Tlacolula market

Reservations and Cancellations.  We accept payment by credit card with an e-commerce service. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After October 1, 2020, refunds are not possible. If there is a cancelation on or before October 1, 50% of your deposit will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.

All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Flocked, fake trees from El Norte, an imported tradition to Mexico

Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: The altitude is almost 6,000 feet. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, mostly narrow and have uneven paths. The stones can be a bit slippery, especially when walking across driveways that slant across the sidewalk to the street. We will do some walking. If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please let me know before you register. This  may not be the workshop/study tour for you. Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico

How to Get To Oaxaca: United Airlines operates direct flights from Houston. American Airlines operates direct flights from DFW. Delta Airlines has a codeshare with AeroMexico with a connection to Oaxaca from Mexico City. All other major airlines fly to Mexico City where you can made independent connections on Interjet, Aeromar (code share with United), Volaris and VivaAerobus. Check Skyscanner for schedules and fares before you book.  Note: I always book directly with the carrier for better customer service.

Workshop Details and Travel Tips: Before the workshop begins, we will email you study tour details and documents that includes travel tips and information.

To get your questions answered and to register, contact Norma Schafer. This retreat is produced by Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.


Exquisite Corpse Poem: Day of the Dead — Nine Women Writing

What is an Exquisite Corpse Poem? The root of the exquisite corpse poem comes from the Parisian Surrealist Movement, and is a method by which a collection of words or phrases is assembled. Each collaborator adds to the composition. In our case; Professor Robin Greene, our writing instructor and coach, constructed this poem from lines that each of us contributed, taken from pieces we wrote during our five day Women’s Creative Writing Retreat.

Day of the Dead — Nine Women Writing

We are all made from mole

and the daily tortillas that hold us

to life. Hold us, that is until

mescal creates thunder

and all our clichés work.

But how much is a songbird worth?

And are birth and death only

an entrance and an exit,

or are they the constant cadence

of beginning, becoming, ending —

much like the stories we write?

We watch the shadowed Zapotec

mountains from the cemetery

tonight — Dia de los Muertos —

and want to understand

how the dead know where

their families live now? And what

will happen if everybody moves

to El Paso or Cincinnati? Will thunder

still roll across a purple sky,

or perhaps we’d have to take it

undercover until no one laughs

again, or we find ourselves

drinking Créme de Menthe

frappes, sickly green minty stuff,

poured over crushed ice

and diluted with vodka.

***

After Robin read this poem to open our last evening together, we each took turns reading a piece we had written which we chose to share. After the reading, we celebrated with dinner and a mescal toast!

Our next Women’s Creative Writing Retreat will be held December 15-21, 2021, again in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. During this winter holiday season, so magical here, we will delve into writing about holiday traditions, meaning, family gatherings, and anything else that celebrations conjure up. It’s a time to reflect and write about what was meaningful, disappointments, yearnings and relationships. Send me an email if you are interested in participating: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Oaxaca Journal: Traveling with Oliver Sacks

This is a book review, of sorts. Perhaps it’s my own journal of movement and re-discovery both internal and external. The Time Machine of air travel took me from Oaxaca to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Huntington Beach, California, now to land in Durham, North Carolina. I also call North Carolina home though I spend most of the year in Oaxaca. After three weeks on the road to visit friends and family, I am now taking time to chill and to read.

Sierra Juarez detail of bark and moss

I return to Mexico on October 16 for the start of an immersion weekend Art History Tour of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City. There is ONE space open. Then, on October 21, I return to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, to prepare for our Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat: How Memory Inspires Us. There are TWO SPACES (shared room) open for this program.

To and fro at the Tlacolula Market

True Confession: I never read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, who fell in love with Oaxaca in 2001 when he went with the New York City fern society to venture into the desert and cloud forests in search of rare species. The book was published in 2002.

Ferns per se aren’t my thing. But Oaxaca is. So, my friend Jenny, who read it three times, brought her copy to me in Santa Fe and here I am, telling you about it.

Sierra Juarez landscape. There are ferns in there.

This is a quick read. Entertaining and informative. After living in Oaxaca for almost 14 years, I am taken with a sense of new discovery of place and a reminder about how important it is to pay attention to the familiar — it’s so easy to take in the sweeping view instead of noticing the fine details. When we move too fast, we miss so much.

It’s like taking a close-up photo — you have to crouch down, bend your knees, get your eye focused on the particular, the micro, to appreciate its beauty. Oliver Sacks reminds me to slow down. Throughout the book, he talks about how he and his fellow travelers use a microscope to examine the underside of fern fronds to understand the biology of life. I take this as an instructive metaphor. In the process of looking for one particular thing it is possible to see others heretofore unknown.

Hone in, get close, examine the detail and contrast

Critics delight in this book, which they call the work of travel writing. Sacks died in 2015 at age 82, but he lives with us through his insights. He is a role model for inquisitiveness and curiosity, experimenting with the joys of life.

As I follow Oliver Sacks around Oaxaca to familiar places, I am struck by how it was in 2001 and how it is now in 2019, years later, and how things change and don’t. Read 1970’s accounts of rutted, dirt roads in Teotitlan del Valle, and you don’t recognize the place today.

Cochineal over-dyes wild marigold churro wool yarn

Then and Now. Do’s and Don’ts.

  • Take the road to the Sierra Juarez where biodiversity yields cloud forest, mushrooms, ferns, bromeliads and steep hiking trails at 10,000+ feet
  • Compare the simplicity then and sophistication now of mezcal making and big business, bringing great wealth to the Oaxaca valley
  • Assume a naive perspective of culture, people and place with one or two visits, and the propensity to romanticize lifestyle so different from our own
  • See the grandeur and importance of Zapotec civilization in Mesoamerica by visiting Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla to gain respect for indigenous people
  • Project your own desires, wishes and beliefs as you yearn for a simpler life
Cochineal rug on the loom, Teotitlan del Valle, Galeria Fe y Lola

Sacks visits Teotitlan del Valle with his group to see the rug weaving and natural dyeing process. See page 115 in the book. In 2001, there were few families working in natural dyes and it is understandable that a guide would take them to visit the most famous weaver of the time, Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in the Rug. The New York Times mentions him in a 1988 print story, Wall Hangings From Oaxaca, now digitized. You will see how demand and time has changed the pricing.

When I arrived in Teotitlan in 2005, I was determined to find a weaver working in natural dyes who had not yet been discovered. Fame, I think, has a way of changing people, pricing, production and products. I didn’t go with a guide, so I set out to explore the village on my own by foot, to compare weaving quality and ascertain the visual difference between natural and commercial dyes. That is how I met the Chavez Santiago Family to start my Teotitlan del Valle adventure. They now run Galeria Fe y Lola.

Cochineal bug, dried. Grinding cochineal and indigo for dye bath.

It is easy, when one doesn’t speak Spanish, to misunderstand, misinterpret, what is said. Sacks reports that Isaac Vasquez and his family produced all the cochineal from their nopal cactus to dye the rugs. This is impossible. It takes thousands of bugs to make a dye vat. Dried cochineal is purchased, then and now. Peru and the Canary Islands are the largest producers. There is a Oaxaca cochineal farm now to supply local demand but there is not enough produced for export.

Indigo dye pot, complex oxidization process requires expertise

Sacks reports that weavers in the village had a deep knowledge of dyeing. At the time only a handful of weavers used natural dyes. Everyone knew how to use the one-step, easy process of making a chemical dye.

Cochineal parasite on prickly pear cactus host yields carminic acid

Now, perhaps a dozen families use natural dyes. I like to promote all of them. It’s a worthy endeavor. It is an expensive and chemically complex process. Yet, everyone knows how to give a cochineal dye demonstration that includes squeezing the bug on the palm of a hand, changing the color with lime juice or baking soda. Ask to see the dye pots before jumping to conclusions!

Monte Alban, the detail
Monte Alban, the long view

Sacks is expansive in his Oaxaca Journal. He talks about astronomy of the ancients, the cuisine of bugs and mole, cultural competency, the traditional and modern, hanging out on the Zocalo, Hierve el Agua and calcified waterfalls, the magic of tianguis street markets and more.

Hierve el Agua. In 8,000 years, perhaps only the bathing suits have changed.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s been on my reading list for a decade. If you are returning to Oaxaca or making a first trip, I highly recommend this read. The page-turner took me two days! The impact reinforced the messages of living.