March 10, 2010

Oaxaca Area: El Tule and Teotitlán del Valle

 Our first Oaxaca day trip included two towns,  El Tule (pop. 6800) and Teotitlán del Valle (pop. 4600).
 At El Tule, they asked for a donation to support El Árbol del Tule, the Oldest Tree in the World. I told the elderly woman collecting, El Tule has the prettiest plaza ever! The entire area is a perfectly trimmed garden with immaculate green grass, fragrant roses, bird of paradise, topiary, and walkways to wander. Those gardeners must be on duty 24/7. Around the edge are the Municipal Building, a round artisan market, shops, restaurants… and the tree, to the left of the painted church.

From a distance, the old tree is a green mass. Up close it’s all trunk, too big to photograph. It’s over 2,000 years old and loaded with cheeping, busy birds! How old is the church? I asked. After some thought, the helpful woman told me that the church was equally old, but hmmm, I don’t think so!
The pre-Spanish indigenous inhabitants must have also thought the tree special to have cared for it. Today it's lush and green, and has a hijo/son on the opposite side of the church that is 1,000 years old!
We prowled the town center, then left the tourist area to look for lunch. We stopped where a woman was flipping big tortillas on her big clay comal (a somewhat dished round pan) over a wood fire. She was making the large empanadas typical here. Tortillas are filled with lots of red-orange sauce and chicken chunks, folded in half, sealed on the edges, then cooked till too hot to touch. No pica! (not hot!) she promised.

We ordered one each, plus another to share, filled with queso/cheese and squash blossoms. Served, they extended over both sides of the plate! Both were delicious, the tortillas dry but not crisp, the filling saucy enough for a  knife and fork. She said Si, si! I could take a picture of her and the “kitchen,” but she wouldn’t look my way!

The El Tule residents were delightful. When we arrived and got stuck in a street too narrow to park our big truck, a fellow cleaning up a vacant lot pointed out a better place (in English). After we moved, he called across the road to say he’d watch the truck for us. And I believe he did, because he was still working when we returned, and waved to us!

Teotitlán del Valle
The weaving tradition in Teotitlán stretches back to pre-Hispanic times, when the town delivered cloth tributes to the Aztecs. The road to town rises off hwy 190 to give a nice view of the arid valley. Soon it was lined with dozens of homes, most displaying looms, woven goods and welcome signs. We entered another extremely tidy town, with an Artesian Market near a tiny square, very good community museum, and artisans eager to describe the resurgent interest in using natural dyes for their woven rugs.
But first, the church! The 17th century Templo de la Virgen de Navidad is white, with brightly colored plaster trim. When the Spanish arrived, they destroyed the existing Zapotecan temple and built their church on top, using the old stones. This was the custom until 1850, when President Benito Juarez passed a law to stop the practice. This church is unusual because a number of carved stones were incorporated into the new structure, and today are proudly displayed.

An old man sat on a bench outside the open door, keeping an eye on things. Inside, the church was a wonder with painted stone walls and bunches of fresh flowers lining the side walls. Tall, thick beeswax candles with attached bright plastic flowers were everywhere. Paintings covered the dome above the altar.

The excellent community museum was the only dusty thing we saw in town! Artifacts described the pre-conquest ruins (now gone) and community life, with text in Spanish, English and Zapotec. A large exhibit described wedding traditions, including the many customs that must be carried out prior to and after the wedding that connect the bride and groom and parents to others in the community through gift-giving that is repaid over years at other life passage celebrations. Such obligations reinforce a network of relationships over many years. For instance, the god-parents have a role in dressing the groom; later he will repay this by carrying out a specific obligation that helps them. Hopefully, this will be a gift of slightly more value. These traditions contribute to building a strong, cohesive community.

The afternoon was hot, so we stopped at a nieve/ice cream stand next to the mercado. Colorful posters encouraged recycling for a better world; good nutrition to avoid obesity; and a return to natural foods and products in place of packaged goods in order to keep the town cleaner. Another taught how to reduce dengue fever by keeping property clean of trash and things that enable mosquitoes to nest. A very aware town! But it did make me wonder about that ice cream ....

On the way in, we’d admired a rug with a jaguar design hanging outside a weaver’s home, so we stopped at Casa Gonzalez Rugs. The weaver got up from his loom to welcome us. Several large floor looms sat under the deep eaves along two sides of the courtyard. He displayed the work, tossing several rugs from a folded pile onro the tile floor. A good wool rug will immediately flatten.

Next, he invited us to watch him weave a gorgeous, large and complex piece in process. He was about 80% completed after four day’s work. How fast! I’ve had a lot of practice, he said, every day! So many looms! My whole family works, he said proudly, as his wife Silvia came to meet us, with an old woman in colorful embroidered white blouse and dark skirt. This was getting more and more fun! Then, his young teen son came out and settled at a loom to continue work on a striped rug.
Chuck asked to see the jaguar piece and Senor Gonzalez took it down just as his daughter Maria Luisa walked in the door. We were introduced…and this is my daughter’s work! he said. We agreed to buy. Photos were taken. As Maria Luisa left for her English class, we kept chatting. Silvia had been to (or lived in) Zihuatenejo, where the picture on our traveling card was taken. They were curious about how long we’d been in Oaxaca and how we liked it. Everyone we talk to in the shops asks us this!  Where do we live in the states, and do you like Mexico? What does Maria Luisa study? Suddenly, we were such friends.
This day was a perfect example of why we are crazy about Mexico!

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