You are enchanting, San Miguel de Allende.

Your sounds…. the melodic church bells calling the faithful to mass… the sudden explosion of fireworks in the middle of the night…mariachis crooning soft romantic songs and then the sudden blare of their trumpets… boasting roosters crowing at weird intervals throughout the day… the barking of dueling roof dogs… the deep bass of car stereos blasting out of car windows…the long whistle of the knife sharpener… donkeys braying, swaying under their heavy loads of topsoil…  the loud unintelligible cries of the food vendors passing by…the giggling of children, playing street soccer with an old pop bottle… 

Your colors… flouncy skirts of folkloric dancers – in intense magenta, sunshine yellow, fire engine red, vibrant green and brilliant blue… enormous feather headdresses and shiny sequined costumes of the nearly naked Aztec dancers… the crazy purple and pink houses… brightly patterned ceramic tiles… the abundant plastic stores… older women dressed in serious striped blouses with lively flowered skirts and checkered sweaters… rich wild bougainvilleas cascading over sober gray stone walls…the balloon man with his wide array of toys for the young and young at heart…

Your smells… fresh corn roasting over wood coals, enticing skewers of perfectly seasoned pork, taco stands with their rich mix of tummy-growling aromas, Margarita’s palamita popcorn… copal incense…. the sweet perfume of  flowers wafting in the air…

Your tastes… homemade mango ice cream laced with hot chili… chicken tamales for breakfast along with warm drinks of atole…  tacos made of many different animal parts, delicious but better not to ask… lamb barbacoa – roasted in a pit and served in consome and corn tacos… hot chocolate and churros for dessert…

Your ambiance… the open friendly faces of the Mexican people, laughing and gently correcting foreigner’s Spanglish… sharing coffee and stories with friends, new and old…  hours spent in the jardin, watching the ‘tourists’ go by, mouths wide open in awe, seeing the Parroquia for the first or the hundredth time… the families, hand in hand, children dressed in their finest, their excitement spreading contagiously… 

San Miguel de Allende, you really are a magical place. Every day spent here is a gift straight from heaven.

 

 

 

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Curious crafts in Oaxaca

Exploring small towns in Oaxaca is quite the adventure. Driving through them, they all kind of look the same. Dusty and deserted, they make you wonder what the people are up to. Then you stop and enter the dark, unobtrusive buildings. They suddenly spring to life with marvellous creations hidden inside, and you are hooked.  You want to see more…

Teotitlan del Valle

First, squish a dead dried up bug, then sprinkle water on it. It will turn bright red! Then add lime juice and it will turn a shocking orange. Put on a little baking soda and you’ll have purple.

For blue, it isn’t quite as exciting. You just dry an indigo plant and use it like chalk.

This is the process still used by traditional Oaxacan carpet weavers to make their natural tints.

Here in Teotitlan, the entire population of the town works together as a coop. Every member of the community participates preparing the wool, whether hand carding, cleaning, spinning, or dying it.

Then on big wooden looms, they weave this wool into beautiful traditional carpets. Some of the younger generation are now making newer modern designs, but they still incorporate the age-old methods to create them.

Mexcal factory

Mexcal, hmmm, very interesting! It is actuallypretty good, who knew?  In many of the ‘home breweries’ they demonstrate how they make this smoky liquor. The procedure hasn’t changed since they first discovered that the agave cactus had ‘magic properties’. Mexcal is made using the heart of the plant, which looks like a giant pineapple. A horse does most of the work, going around and around in circles, pulling an enormous stone wheel, which mashes the plant and extracts the juice. The mash is then cooked in wood ovens giving it a musky, smoky flavour. Finally it is put into big vats and left to ferment.  For extra flair – they add a worm to every bottle!

San Bartolo Coyotepec

Entering the workshop, pictures and news clippings immediately grab your attention. Images fill the back wall like a page in a giant scrapbook. The focus of this homage is captured in a brilliant ebony clay sculpture.

Doña Rosa was a small Mexican woman who made a humble living making simple items in clay. But in the 1950s, it occurred to her to try something different. What would happen if she polished the clay before firing it? Experimenting with this, she found that instead of the usual dull gray colour, it turned a shiny black.

With this discovery, she changed the life and economy of her friends and neighbours.

Now her community of Coyotepec is known throughout the world for the ‘Oaxacan black pottery’ they produce.

 

San Antonio Arrazola

A tiny little town with grand ideas!

Carvers create wild fantasy figures from wood. They can be disassembled and reassembled easily, like a puzzle. They are painted in very colourful intricate designs.

These extraordinary figures are known as alebrijes. They can be very small simple figures or huge complicated creations.

As in many of the small towns in Oaxaca, the members of the community get together in workshops and produce and sell the items in a coop. The men generally carve the figures and the women paint them.

These wooden treasures are just plain fun!

The skilled artisans of Oaxaca are known and respected worldwide. It is easy to see why…

Historical Oaxaca…

Oaxaca is a state full of history – and the cool thing is that a lot of the archeological sites are very close to Oaxaca City, making it very easy to explore…..

Monte Albán

An important Zapateca site, Monte Albán is is very impressive, both visually and energetically.

There are several large pyramids and altars with a big empty field lying between the well-preserved ruins. While walking over the seemingly bare stretch of land, I got the feeling that there was movement all around me – and below me. I realized that Monte Albán is like a giant ant hill. We were walking on the surface enjoying the sights around us, but underneath lies a labyrinth of tunnels. I had the sensation that there were still some Zapateca guys running around down there… This feeling was reinforced when I came upon an entrance – to nowhere – or maybe to the underworld… There are old worn stone steps leading down into the ground…. I am sure they are still being used, albeit by spirits.

The ruins are situated on top of a dry grass covered mountain close to Oaxaca City.

Several tombs were discovered there, and the treasures of the richest one are displayed in the downtown museum. Gold, gold and more gold!

Intricate jewelry with jade and turquoise – and hand carved crystal goblets! Imagine the excitement of the archaeologist when he unearthed this find!

On an adjoining mountain, excavation is underway and this site will soon be ready for visitors as well! New wonders to behold…

Cuilapan de Guerrero

Cuilapan is the site of a 500 year old church and monastery.

It is like a fortress – very old – very interesting. The color of the stones, the strength of the huge pillars, the ornate facades speak of the appreciation the Spaniards had for beauty.

The afternoon that we visited this ancient church, they were holding a mass in the chapel. I wondered how similar it was to the ones they held 5 centuries ago…

Mitla

Mitla is an ancient ceremonial site unique for its GREEK designs.

It was pretty strange being in the heart of Mexico looking at the Greek geometric designs on the ruins.

This site was apparently for the rich people – there were several palaces and everything was very ornate.

The town of Mitla is built around the ruins, so much so in fact that one of the courtyards is wide open for kids to play soccer, drunks can pee, etc.

 

The Spaniards built a church right on top of some of the ancient buildings.

There are signs explaining this (negatively of course) but the town is now allowing houses to be built over the courtyard of the church…

You can really see the history in the different levels – and the destruction of one culture making room for another.

 

The more places I visit in Mexico, the more questions I have.

Who were the people that lived here? Where did they come from? Why the links with Greece & Turkey? How? When? Why? Where? What? It is all so confusing. The mystery whets the appetite…. Travelling does not answer questions, it gives you new things to ponder…

The very dry and barren hills of central Oaxaca hide some of nature’s most wonderful treasures…

 

Santa María del Tule

I saw the world’s largest tree!  And maybe the oldest!

It is an amazing Sabino or Ahuehuete tree (a type of cypress), over 2000 years old.

This corpulent beauty is estimated to weigh more than 630 tons!

It is almost 150 feet across. Apart from the sheer size, the incredible thing about it is the energy it exudes. Although you can’t touch the trunk, you can feel it from 30 feet away.

So full of life, the knarled arms hang heavily with soft shiny leaves and millions of seeds.

The branches stretch over the fence and you can stroke them (or let them stroke you) with their fine fingers.

This tree is strong – it has a force that made me realize that we can’t destroy the earth, it is much stronger than we are!

There is a second tree on the same site as well, but it is much younger – only 1000 years old!

Apparently there are 12 of these ancient giants in this little town.

I bet they are hiding some intriguing secrets…

 

 

Hierve de Agua

This amazing place took my breathe away. If fact I was almost speechless, which doesn’t happen often.

You climb through the mountains – surprisingly dry and rocky – on a windy trecherous road, until you reach a dusty old village. You pass old folks herding their goats right down ‘main street’ and young guys on their bikes herding cows – those weird brahma bull looking ones. Then you arrive at a motley gathering of taco stands and you realize you have arrived. Walking down a short path – which is actually a zillion year old lava bed, you suddenly arrive at the end of the earth, looking over the edge.

Mini geysers send water bubbling happily up over the surface of the emerald green pools. I stuck my feet in and they wanted to smile, the water felt so cool and clean. Following a narrow path through the dry brush, I arrived at a viewpoint where the front of this precipice is wide open to see – and what a sight it is!

A petrified waterfall!  The eyes are confused since there is no movement. You feel like the water is rushing down, but all is silent…

Over 2500 years ago, the inhabitants of this area built an irrigation system, consisting of carved grooves in the rocks with hollowed out bowls along the way.

There are only two places in the world where they have discovered this method of irrigation – the other one is in Turkey.

Obviously there were international spies in those days!

Impressions of Oaxaca City

Impressions of Oaxaca City

My favourite things:

Gold-dipped churches – the Dominicans left a trail of marvellous churches, full of exquisite carvings, high pillars reaching to the sky, the smell of wood and flowers permeating the air.

In the heart of the city is a beautiful square, full of flowers and trees, vendors with their colourful artisan wares, toys, food, music, laughter…

Music  – orchestras playing ‘danzon’ music, surrounded by happy couples dancing, bodies held tight… The joyful marimba music using a piano-like instrument that several musicians play at the same time. On one occasion there were 3 guys playing one marimba and 4 playing another, accompanied by drums and a saxophone. What a wonderful sound…

Perfect weather, at least in January. Every day it was 25 degrees with brilliant blue skies. In the afternoons, a little breeze would come up and cool everything down, just the perfect amount…

Everything smells like chocolate!!!  It is freshly ground for making hot chocolate and mole (a yummy sauce used in many of their regional dishes) Mmmmmm….

Least favourite things:

Traffic – I didn’t see one speck of courtesy in the drivers here. They disobey all the rules. They really do get their driver’s licenses by means that do not include a test! A bus came within an inch of crushing me – the driver decided to turn right – right on top of me. My first reaction was to shake my fist and swear at him. So now he speaks some English!

The  city is predominately Spanish, with incredible colonial architecture. But it seems to be almost devoid of Indigenous culture. After experiencing Chiapas, I expected a similar mixture of cultures here. I thought I would hear the many dialects that are still used, see traditional hand woven and embroidered clothing, and learn a bit about the Zapatecas, the pre-Hispanic culture that lived around here. But no. Instead of being a multicultural mix of people here, the Indigenous people still live in the surrounding small towns, in poverty.

Noise – wow, I sometimes I think everyone is deaf except me! Loud speakers blaring everywhere, people yelling, dogs barking, horns tooting and tooting… It makes me cranky!

Oaxaca hosts a humungous folkloric dance event in the summer that people attend from all over the world. But it appears that for the rest of the year, it almost doesn’t exist. I didn’t even see one beautiful woman in the colorful traditional embroidered clothing, nevermind folkloric dancing. I was disappointed…

The people are friendly and eager to converse. But we really didn’t see any evidence of cultural events. No concerts, dances, art shows… nothing. I imagine that because we visited in January, it was an unusually dry spell, because Oaxaca is well known for its rich culture.

We really enjoyed our time in Oaxaca city. I had heard a lot about it and was excited to experience the rich multicultural ambiance. But I went with expectations and that is always a mistake. It is a wonderful place and I will definitely return. But next time I will leave my preconceptions at home and experience it with an open mind and heart!

Some interesting sights…

A display of 2501 clay figures representing the people who left one small town in Oaxaca and went to the US. The rough sad images illustrate the hard life many encounter there.

Exquisite sculptures inside and outside the churches…

And some good old fashioned FUN!

Small town Mexico

A Small town – where?

Imagine a small town situated on the banks of a large muddy river… Surrounded by dense forests… mills spewing out smoke into the clear blue sky…

Sounds a bit like Quesnel, doesn’t it?

But deep in the heart of Veracruz, on the banks of the Papaloapan River, lies the town of Cosamaloapan. Surrounded by dense forests of sugar cane, the refineries chug away converting the raw stalks into sugar.

This is a typical Mexican town. It is hours away from the ocean, there are no archaeological sites nearby and no tourists. People turn and stare at me and I’m not even blond!

Cosamaloapan is a traditional town, not just Vilo’s birthplace, but that of his grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother…. back until the beginning of time… Everyone is related, if not by blood, then by generations of friendship. And nearly everyone lives within a block of where they were born.

There are thousands of towns just like this in Mexico so I thought I would share some of my impressions…

The climate is very hot & humid. It is often in the 40s in the summer and a cold damp day in the winter may drop down to 20 degrees Celsius. Everyone wears coats and talks about the cold weather from the north. During the rainy season, the river often overflows its banks and floods the town. Weather is a constant conversation theme. It is the same as in Canada, if we aren’t complaining about the cold, we are complaining about the heat!

There are visually many contrasts – There are brightly coloured houses with flowery gardens with swaying palm trees and bougainvillea flowing over high rock walls. Interspersed with these are old abandoned shells surrounded by patios that used to ring with laughter, but now are covered with moss, the yards full of weeds and garbage.

Going for a walk is an interesting proposition. You have to wait until almost nightfall to avoid the sweltering heat. Of if you go in the morning there is a heavy wet fog hanging over. One day we went around the block to stretch our legs and passed a tarantula spider walking down the sidewalk – seemingly with same attitude as a dog, confident in his right to be there. I almost had a heart attack on the spot. A man with a broom soon put an end to his airs. As an almost-arachnophobiac, I couldn’t really feel too sorry for it.

Everyone is busy working in or out of the home. Preparing meals takes most of the day. Food is an extremely important part of the culture. And they eat a lot of weird things, in my humble opinion. As a special treat for an honoured guest, my sister was served a fish head with herbs and salsa wrapped in aluminum foil. When she opened it, she screamed! They eat everything here – and I am too squeamish to try most of it. Who wants to eat tacos made of eyeballs, ears, cheeks, stomach, colon, yuk… I’ll have fried chicken, thank you very much, and don’t give me the feet!

As you can guess, going to the market is quite an adventure…

In Mexico, the market is the heart of the city – or more apt – the guts of the city.

You see everything. Artistically arranged fruit looking like a brightly coloured buffet on a cruise –mandarins, mangoes, papaya, mamey, zapote …. Vegetables that we haven’t even heard of… Rows of dried fish & shrimp, funny piñatas, cheap bad copies of movies and music, clothing… Rainbows of dried beans of more varieties than you can count…

Whole plucked chickens, complete with heads and feet – still looking oddly alive…

While choosing some freshly picked bananas for breakfast, I had the strange feeling of being watched – I turned around and there was a huge pig head hanging on a giant hook, swaying back and forth, catching every movement I made.

The noise level is almost unbearable at times. Every little business has their speakers outside turned to full volume. And they don’t sell earplugs! There are Volkswagen bugs driving around town with huge loudspeakers on top announcing the latest specials and events, and sometimes even the obituaries!

Every town has a main square, situated in front of a Catholic church. This is where families gather, young people flirt and dramas act out.

There are always vendors selling food, interesting fun toys like balloon animals for the kids and cold drinks and homemade popsicles…. Parents rent battery-operated cars that their kids sit in and drive around the park, sometimes avoiding the people, learning maniacal ways of driving, so when they get older they’ll survive on the streets here. Road laws are definitely made to be broken…

Family is the number one priority. The favourite thing to do is get everyone together and eat and eat and eat… Music is a very important ingredient to every gathering. Almost everyone here plays an instrument and sings. Although the town sometimes appears boring from the outside, inside the houses are families interacting – without having to make an appointment first – and really enjoying each other. Last night our 10 year old niece dropped in to visit us, and she made us dinner! Immersed in a happy culture like this one, you have to feel good about life!

Catemaco is a town famous for its witches – and for its legendary Virgin. Sound like an interesting place to visit?

This small town in southern Veracruz is the destination of pilgrims seeking help from the Virgen de Carmen,  symbolized by a very old and revered statue housed in the impressive Basilica.

It is also the destination of people seeking a cure or spell from a witch or a cleansing or healing from a shaman.

The strange thing is that the two streams converge at the Catholic church. Girls outside sell basil to the arriving worshippers. With these bouquets, the pilgrims enter the church and do a cleansing in front of the statue of the Virgin.

Situated on the shore of a lake with an island of monkeys, a nearby reserve with crocodiles roaming around, surrounded by lush jungle, Catemaco certainly is an alluring place to explore. The sweet aroma of crushed rose petals as you enter the church, the fresh lake air on your face as you sit in the main square, the delicious homemade coconut ice cream, the vendors calling out trying to sell tegogolos (what the heck are tegogolos anyway?) fill your senses.

And the air of mysticism titillates the imagination…

A Catemaco Witch?