Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Perfect Red

a  cochineal painting of Oaxaca de Juaréz

When the Spaniards first came to Mexico, they were amazed by the brilliant red colour of the blankets of the Aztec nobles. They learned that the dye for these blankets was paid as tribute by some people who lived to the south. The source of the colour was a type of cactus  beetle that produces carminic acid as a means of protection. A few weeks ago, I was able to visit a site where the cochineal is produced.
Today there are very few cochineal plantations.

The beetle lives on nopal cactus that grow in the desert areas of Oaxaca state.
The cacti are cultivated on the plantation.
Nests are placed on healthy cacti.
The eggs begin to hatch and leave the nest.
Clean, fertile females are placed in "Zapotec nests" to be fertilized by the males. They are kept at a temperature of about 27degreesC. As the eggs hatch, the mites leave the nest and infest the nopal.
The nopales are infested.
Only the females survive to feed on the nopales. They are harvested after about 90 days.
The cochineal must be cleaned and sorted.
It takes 80,000 to 100,000 insects to make one kilogram of dye. Once, second only to silver as an export of Mexico, today the cochineal dye in Oaxaca is used mostly by the native weavers to produce textiles. The colour can be changed by adding an acid or a base to it. Even when different people squeeze the beetle, the colour is slightly different.
The pink and scarlet wool is from cochineal.
Weaving in an important industry in Oaxaca. Most of the inexpensive weaving sold in the zocalo is from commercial dyes. The cost and time involved in production make cochineal  relatively expensive in Oaxaca. Children learn to weave at about age 6 in the pueblos.
This wool has been dyed with natural dyes.

There has been renewed interest in natural dyes in the last few years. Most Oaxacan dye is used locally but Peru exports cochineal that is used in printing, art and cosmetics.

As for me, although I have resolved to buy little during this visit, there is a beautiful scarf in the Museo de Textil store. Perhaps, I will go and take a picture of it!

A Growing Market

tourism for older adults

Oaxaca has identified itself as a destination for "older adult" tourists. This poster is advertising a course in developing tourist programmes for the members of the "grey-haired" generation.  How very progressive! There are so many opportunities for retirees and those who write, teach or work online to live comfortably in Oaxaca. 

view from my rooftop apartment
Rents are very inexpensive. Many of the single ex-pat women that I have met pay $400-$500US for an apartment. Word-of-mouth keeps these apartments rented and some people sub-let when they return to Canada or the United States.  I have paid more because I have chosen to support the learning centre. Who could wish for a more pleasant classroom than the courtyard downstairs? It hums with activity from about 8:00 am until 8:00pm. 

water is a luxury
Those of us from Canada and the United States take water for granted. The delivery truck is a common sight here. Some of the apartments do not have hot water and drinking water is not included in the rental price. My rental includes both. There are not many washing machines around, landladies frown on tenants using the water for laundry so clothing must be taken to a lavandería where an attendant does your laundry. Many people buy clothing from thrift stores as clothes don't last well.



clothes line on my roof
Fortunately, I am allowed to wash my clothes and there are clothes lines on the roof. There is even an iron and ironing board in the apartment. I have been wearing my "Oaxaca wardrobe" for almost eight weeks. 
a wedding procession
On Saturday, I heard music on the pedestrian street and thought that it was a parade for the 483 birthday of Oaxaca that is being celebrated this week. But no! It was a wedding, complete with giant puppets, dancers and a brass band! Entertainment in Oaxaca is definitely on every street corner. This week, there is a documentary film festival as well as Fiesta Oaxaca.

I have been finding the heat oppressive as this is the hottest part of the year. The rains have not yet come and every afternoon, the temperature hits 90+F.  Yesterday, I was invited to the swimming pool of a lovely hotel where ex-pats pay a modest membership for year-round use. Water shortage or not, if I lived here full-time, I certainly would join.

Today, I have students in the afternoon and I am finding that 13-year-olds don't want to study in the afternoon any more than I want to teach. School starts at 7:00 am. and by 4:00 in the afternoon, they have little interest in learning English.

The heat, finding my way in a very different culture and meeting new people take a lot of energy. I am contemplating taking some Spanish classes during my last two weeks, visiting some favourite locations
and relaxing a bit before I return home.




Thursday, April 16, 2015

Books for Kids!

book display
I have worked in libraries (public and school) for more than 30 years. For as long as I can remember,
I have enjoyed reading and visiting libraries. When I was a little girl (50+ years ago), our local library was a very small outpost of the Fraser Valley Library System. I quickly read most of the children's books and moved on to the Adults' Section. 

For children in the pueblos of Oaxaca State, borrowing books is a new experience. There are no public libraries outside of the city and school libraries were non-existent before Libros para Pueblos
began its mission to help small Mexican communities provide libraries for  children. This week, I visited one of the libraries that is located in the Primaría Margarita Maza in Zapoteca, a town about 40 minutes drive from Oaxaca de Juarez. Many of these pictures are taken by Alan, a volunteer for Libros
para Pueblos.
gym class at Margarita Maza
It was very interesting for me to visit an elementary school in Mexico and to see how much the children enjoy themselves and their library. When we arrived, a class was having a Physical Education class. These students attend school from  8:00 am to 1:00 pm.  Afternoons are very warm in Oaxaca so morning is a better learning time.
Reading gives wings to the imagination!
The parents of the community built the library building and take pride in the facility. They served our group a mid-morning meal. The children spoke to us about their favourite books and how they enjoyed the library.
Each class has a book to record their books.
The library is a happy place, brightly coloured and full of children who want to see the visitors.
The plaque says it all: life is fuller with reading.
Since I retired, I have not been in many school libraries but I remember creating a project once for a Library Education class. My theme was "the library as a garden" where all are free to visit and enjoy without judgement.
Someone enjoys nonfiction.
The children at Margarita Maza were full of smiles and so excited to interact with visitors.
happy kids
Libros para Pueblos is a charitable organization that supplies a "yearly infusion" of new books to each library. It is so important for a school library to have new, exciting books on a regular basis. I know that
when I was working, I had to "hide" the new books until they were processed because the students were so eager.

Education is so important for all the countries of the world!


There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take      
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.

Emily Dickinson

Sunday, April 12, 2015

La Cultura

What should I do today?
Every Sunday, when I don't have volunteer work, I am confronted with many choices of cultural activities.  Today, I decided to visit a gallery, attend a concert by the Oaxaca State orchestra and have a meal at a  museum fundraiser. The first two activities were completely free.

the black pottery of Oaxaca
The former convent of San Pablo houses a textile museum, art gallery, workshops, coffee bar and restaurant. You can sit in the courtyard, watch artisans work, purchase crafts, listen to music or visit the displays in the rooms of the convent. I visited a display of black pottery.
The San Pablo Cultural Centre is funded by the Alfredo Harp Helú  Foundation.
A number of cultural sites in Oaxaca are funded by the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation. They are beautifully restored and there is no admission charge. I wondered who Alfredo was. I discovered that he is the cousin of the second richest man in the world!!! Alfredo used to own Banamex (a bank) that he sold for a lot of money. Oaxaca is a city full of surprises.
Macedonio Alcalá theatre
A free concert by the Oaxaca State Orchestra was being held in the Macedonio Alcalá theatre. I had a choice because a piano concert was being held in the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert and I was amazed at the beauty of the theatre.
Our theatre at home seems Spartan in comparison.

By the end of the concert, it was time for the mid-afternoon meal. There was an event at the Museo Belber Jimenez, a museum funded by Federico Jimenez, a Mixtec jeweller who became very successful
in the United States and who donated a building and a collection of pre-Columbian gold jewellery to the city. The event was called Pig Nic. Six or seven Oaxacan restaurants were grilling pork dishes and vegetables.
a busy place
I paid 200 pesos and could choose from an assortment of different dishes. I joined a Mexican family at a table and enjoyed some different tacos, a scramble of corn, onion, peppers and pork, and roasted vegetables.
a freshly made taco
I  have three more Sundays in Oaxaca so I have more opportunities to explore. Although Oaxaca is a city with a lot of poverty, it seems to be a city with many generous benefactors and incredible cultural
diversity. 


Friday, April 10, 2015

Choose Beautiful

The streets were jammed with people.

Hace calor! It's hot! There was not a lot of work for me to do at the library today so I left early.
As I wandered through the Historic Centre where I live, I noticed that the streets were blocked. There was an indigenous rally. Thousands of indigenous people from the pueblos were gathered in the streets
protesting. It was hard to pass through the throngs so I cut over a couple of blocks. 

Did I mention how hot it is? I passed an artisan co-op and I bought a hat. I have lots of hats at home but hats are difficult to travel with. My crushable hat looks frightfully out of place here! Cooperatives are the best places to buy goods because they are actually made here and the profits are shared by the membership. 
my new hat
My hat, tightly woven and lined, cost $8 Canadian. Years ago, I bought Panama hats for Monsieur and myself in a shop in West Vancouver. Each one cost almost $100 Canadian. My 100 pesos hopefully will help an indigenous person. 

As I come to know Oaxaca as an temporary resident and not a tourist, there are a lot of things to think about. Before I left home, I collected all the little hotel sized products in my drawers so that I might use them here. After 5 weeks, I have just about used them completely. Remember the 66 peso daily wage?

That's for the locals who have a job. As my products are depleted, I need to replace them. My scrunching spray (for wash and wear curls) cost 186 pesos ($15 Canadian). I've got about 2 days worth of moisturizer (Avène). I can take a taxi to a mall and buy Avène but I walk past an Yves Rocher outlet on my way to the library. Yes, really! The disparities are enormous…. 



One of my friends shared the "Choose Beautiful" video on Facebook. It is so difficult to watch
because there is no "average." How would you rank women's beauty?  The weathered brown faces of the native women are beautiful. The dancing lady that I saw last year in Paris was beautiful. Those we love are beautiful, children are all beautiful….It is so important that every little girl grows up to believe that she is beautiful. 
"the Paris lady"
"Choose Beautiful" is an advertising campaign with the same purpose as every other campaign:to promote and sell product. But a byproduct of this clever campaign is the growing awareness of the effects of society on women's self-esteem. 

Another week has passed and my time in Oaxaca is half over. The yoga mat that I bought this week is still unused but early morning rooftop yoga seems like a good idea for the week-end!


Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Long Week-end in Oaxaca

The roof is decorated with statues and cacti.

Loneliness is a choice. It is Easter week-end and I am missing my family and friends. My brother is now at home with his family, his nietos (grandchildren) and his garden. My new Oaxaca home is on the roof of the Oaxaca Learning Center. There are statues, cacti and blooming flowers.
my dining room
It is very quiet here as the students are on Spring Break. I have started reading a book called Esperanza's Box of Saints by María Amparo Escandón, a Mexican novelist who now lives in LA.
There is a comic/fantasy tone to this novel that I have noticed in the works of another Mexican novelist, Luis Alberto Urrea who wrote The Hummingbird's Daughter. I try to explore the fiction of the country that I am visiting but I must admit that I find this woman's search for her "dead" daughter in brothels a bit bizarre.
blooms on the rooftop
Although I am in Mexico, I am able to use Skype or FaceTime to communicate with friends and family at home. The connection is not always clear but it is an economical means of communication. My Netflix works in Mexico so I am able to watch a movie in the evening if I want. My friend, Janet, advised me to watch Season 3 of Call the Midwife. It's always nice to enjoy a bit of BBC wherever I go.
a silver bangle
Most of the shops in Oaxaca feature works by artisans. I have bought souvenirs during other visits so, except for a few small gifts, I have bought very little. I did however heed the Hostess's advice and buy a silver bangle. Mine has greyish toned pearls with some interesting silver work. It will be a decorative reminder of my visit.

I decided to attend an Easter service at Nuestra Señora de la Merced, the closest church to my new home. The service was held in Spanish but I can follow along by reading the handout. I don't take pictures inside churches during worship services but the flowers and the model of  the resurrected Jesus that was carried into the church was very beautiful.

beautiful salad

 There's time for lunch before I go home to read. It's very warm in the afternoons so they are usually spent indoors. Tomorrow is Library Day and it's time to get back to work! I've finished 3 books since Beto left on Thursday. I don't recommend The Paris Bones or The Witch of Painted Sorrows, two novels that I chose because I was missing Paris. Paris Bones dealt with Surrealism and The Witch of Painted Sorrows with demonic possession and Kabbala. I must say that I prefer my reading to be a lot more cheerful.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Colours and Adios Mi Hermano

My grey/black/blue wardrobe is being fully used on this trip.

I am a daily reader of The Vivienne Files. No other blog has had a greater influence on my wardrobe and on how I combine clothing. For most of my working years, I was a "clothes horse" and my closets and drawers bulged and sagged under the weight of my excesses. Not a pretty metaphor!

Now I am retired, my hair is grey and although I am not as thin as I might wish, I am strong and healthy. My wardrobe needs to be simple, multipurpose and easily maintained. I have been away from home for more than a month with just a small suitcase. As I can't reach the overhead compartment on a plane and I am a solo traveller, I don't do carry-on. My trips are lengthy but this year, I am staying in the city of Oaxaca so I am only packing for one climate. I am volunteering in a very dusty library and I am tutoring teenage students so my wardrobe is a working one. This travel experience has been planned as a lower-cost alternative to Europe, so I won't be making a lot of purchases.
My only purchase has been this pink cotton top.
I did buy one top that is definitely not grey/black or blue but I have worn it a lot and it does provide
a more colourful alternative. Oaxaca is about colour and textiles. Yesterday, Beto and I visited the Textile Museum in San Pablo, a restored area of Oaxaca. The museum is free so I will visit again and take photos. On Tuesday, we visited Teotitlan del Valle, where weavers use traditional methods and natural dyes to create carpets and wall hangings.
beautiful colour


If you love colour, this is the place! The Zapotec weavers have been weaving for more than a thousand years.


The colours come from natural sources and can be changed by adding acid (lime juice) or base (chalky mineral).
Many of the patterns have been derived from early Zapotec stonework.
stonework at Mitla where we visited on Tuesday
My brother left at 4:45 this morning. In a week, we had a lot of adventures. Although there are only 14 months between us, my brother and I haven't spent a lot of time together. We have lived apart for more than 40 years and our life styles are quite different. We talked so much this week about education, philosophy, religion, adventures and even family! We rode buses, drank beer (me not so much), visited people and sites and got to know each other better. Now he is going home to spend Easter with his family….

Easter window on Rue du Pas de la Mule
I have been alone in Paris for Easter but I do prefer to have company. Easter in Paris is a time for lovely 
shop windows full of fashion and food. In Oaxaca, Semana Santa is a time for processions and worship. It is definitely "all part of the adventure" as my brother would say!