Mexico Bound - Winter 2007 travel blog

black pottery

painting wood sculpture

natural dyes

finished wood sculpture

Octolan church

close up view

selling nuts

wanna buy a goat?

meat so think you could read thorugh it

view of Oaxaca


cathedral interior


band shell

Movie Clips - Playback Requirements - Problems?

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zocalo band

(MP4 - 1.54 MB)

painting wood sculptures

(MP4 - 479 K)

shaping the wood

Oaxaca is my kind of town. There's so much to see and do here we toured from 9am until 8pm and hardly scratched the surface. This mild, dry climate seems to have triggered some sort of artisitic explosion. In Oaxaca and its environs, artisians gather to produce all sorts of handrcrafts in small family enclaves. It seems that their presence has reached a critical mass and the ideas of one stimulate the creativity of another. It would be easy to fill a museum with all the different sorts of artistic work being produced here.

We started the day in San Bartolo Coyotepec, where the famous black pottery of Oaxaca was invented. In truth black pottery has been produced here since man knew how to make pottery. The clay here always made it look black, but in modern times, demand lessened and a clever woman looked for ways to make it of more interest. After lots of experimentation she found that rubbing the wet pot with a smooth stone and then firing it, would give it a unique glossy look without glaze. Her son runs the workshop we visited today and has been at it for over sixty years. He and close to one hundred family members have made a good living producing unique and creative black pottery, combining both tradtional patterns with original and more modern shapes. The combination of glossy with matte finish and the filigree work on the pots made them irrestible. I'm glad I'm living out of an RV instead of a suitcase.

Then we visited San Martin Tilcajete where fanciful wooden creatures are sculpted and painted by another large family group of over one hundred. The wood is shaped wet and the artist decides on the final result according to the shape of the wood. Then the painters take over and apply fantastically tiny decoration with paint brushes so fine, it seemed like one bristle was enough. Although most of their work is done with acrylic paints, they know how to make every color of the rainbow from natural substances. It was amazing to watch how one herb turned colors dpending on whether lime juice or honey was added to it. Natural dyers almost need chemistry degrees to produce the colors they have in mind. This work was extremely labor intensive and quite expensive, but the atmosphere of this little enclave all working together to produce beautiful products, was amazing.

As we toured the craft villages we were served a variety of local drinks free. This was in honor of the day Christ was offered water as he carried the cross to his crucifixion. One drink called horchata, a rice drink, I've had before, but never with fruit and nuts added. Another was made from pumpkin juice and I could have done without.

Villages trade off holding market days and Friday was Octoloan's big day. It felt like we were at Woodfield mall the Friday after Thanksgiving. You name it, it was for sale there. The aisles between the outdoor stalls were thronged with people. I would have gotten claustrophobia, but most of the shoppers were no taller than my shoulder. I always find it hard to take photos in such settings, when the locals make it clear that they don't appreciate it. I wouldn't have liked people taking pictures of me while I was working either. But it was all so interesting and exotic to us. Often when we order what is called fajita in restaurants, we get nothing like what we expect. Rather it is meat pounded so thin you could read through it. And in the market, there it was, hanging like gross curtains from horizontal poles. Even though the market felt chaotic to me, there was a definite order to things. Vendors of similar products were grouped together and locals knew which circuitous path to follow depending on the demands of their shopping list.

In the afternoon we toured the city center, spending most of our time in the Santo Domingo Culture Center which houses a wonderful array of artifacts excavated from the ruins near here. We are dealing with another set of ancient peoples, the Mixtecs and Zapotecs in this region. It's tough to keep it all straight. The museum was housed in a convent attached to the Church of Santo Domingo, an active church that is permanently in a state of being restored and added to. It hd one of those interiors where you hardly know where to look first. Every inch was covered with ornate wood carvings covered with gold plate, polychrome reliefs, and statues. Only after the guide pointed out the subtleties, did I see the combination of religious art done in the Spanish style mixed with the local cultures way of seeing things. Some of the madonnas looked much more like the local ladies we saw in the market, than the ones from front yards at home.

Oaxaca is a univeristy town and today seemed to be the last day before Easter break. Throngs of happy students poured into the zocalo (main square) happy to make music, smooch, and celebrate their freedom. We were happy to join them.

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