Tuesday, December 7, 2010

End of Week 17 - The Colors of Oaxaca

Oaxaca - the state, not the city - is an off-limits area, meaning we need to have permission from Peace Corps in order to go there. I don't know much about Oaxaca or why it's off-limits, but I do know that what isn't allowed is usually more exciting than what is. But I'm not about to break any rules that could get me kicked out of Peace Corps, especially after spending so much time trying to get in. So how can I get to Oaxaca?

About two months ago during training I went with the environmental education group to a center for "ecotecnias", permaculture and environmental education in Huixquilucan, near Mexico City. We spent an entire week at the center where we all realized that ecotecnias, like estufas lorenas, are complicated things to build and that Mexico actually does get cold, especially at 3,000 meters. I also learned that the center had a partner center in Oaxaca - the state, not the city - and that was my answer. I could travel to Oaxaca if it was with work. But how do I convince my new work place, SEMARNAT in Puebla, that a six-hour trip - each way - to Oaxaca is worth their time as well as mine?

Apparently, its not as hard as I thought. My counterparts at work, like me, enjoy traveling. And when we started working on the development of a center for training in ecotecnias in Puebla, I suggested we go to the center in Oaxaca for a visit to a model center. My counterparts jumped on the idea and within a week all three of us were on the highway at 6:30am, heading to the center about 60 kilometers from Oaxaca city.  http://www.grupedsac.org/portal/index.php/en/demonstrations-centers/itt.html

Pico de Orizaba
Mountains along the highway.
The road to Oaxaca was fascinating. First we passed Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest mountain. Then we went through the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve, one of the most remote and arid places in I've ever seen. We were surrounded by deep canyons, rugged mountain peaks, bare rock faces, and tall cactus forests.

Deep cactus valleys.

Adobe building with natural ochre paint.
The center that we were traveling to, called Tonantzin Tlalli Institute (at least there are no x's in this one), is in a very remote, rural community, where the forested mountains meet the scrub desert below. There is very little water there. The center uses ecotecnias to generate energy, supply water, and support its permaculture gardens. Each building uses a different natural building technique, and all structures were beautifully painted and sculpted, even the outhouses.

The art of a dry toilet.

After our visit, we headed to Oaxaca city to spend the night. Before heading back to Puebla the next day, we spent a little time touring the historic city center. Oaxaca is a beautiful colonial city in the center of a large fertile valley. Its historic architecture was painted with colors that you can only find in warmer climates. It's central zocalo was lined with vendors, selling beautiful ceramic pottery, paintings, and clothing. Oaxaca is famous for its alebrijes, or ceramic figures of creatures with features from multiple animals, some real some fantastic. Its market was crowded early in the morning; meats, fruits and vegetables filled the stalls. I walked by women making blue tortillas, loaves of golden bread, giant pink pigs feet, mounds of white cow stomach, orange chickens piled high, crates of dried chilies in various shades of red and purple, stands with tropical colored fruits, and buckets of mole of all the colors of the rainbow.

Oaxacan hot chocolate.
Crickets, or chapulines, are a local favorite - the little ones taste like whatever they are cooked in, while the big ones taste like, well, sour grasshopper - and I bought some to bring home to Ana and my host family. I also tried Oaxacan chocolate. Oaxacan chocolate is well-known and for good reason (remember the movie Chocolat with Johnny Depp?); it's a mixture of cinnamon and cacao grown in Oaxaca, served for breakfast in hot milk or water with a loaf of sweet bread.

The city isn't all just pretty colors, though. Less than four years ago it was the home to a brutal fight between protesters, anarchists, the state police, and eventually the federal army. During a routine protest by local teachers, the governor ordered the state police to attack, killing several of the protestors. The protestors eventually took the city from the state police and held it for several months before the federal army was sent in to win it back. The city was shut down for nearly a year.

A new governor took office the day before I arrived; it was the first change in political parties in over seven decades. Although political graffiti covers nearly every building, the hotels and restaurants are filled with tourists, and the markets are bustling with shoppers, both local and from abroad. The crickets were alive and well, at least until we arrived. The beautiful colors of Oaxaca have largely returned since the violence ended, but there are still many subtle tones of grey left over from memories of the not too distant dark past.


Fruits and vegetables

Pigs feet



Fruits and vegetables

Ceramic parachuters


  1. Extremely colorful...about the chapulines...I'm not so sure....

  2. Thanks for posting these beautiful photos!

    Charlie Goldsmith

  3. eToro is the best forex trading platform for newbie and pro traders.