Oaxaca A midsummer’s getaway
Taking a writing retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico, offered the perfect getaway combination for a midsummer vacation. It provided a unique location, a creative challenge and a chance to experience Old World culture and charm.
The city of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka) is the capital of the state of Oaxaca, about 300 miles south of Mexico City. The city is more than 5,000 feet above sea level in a valley surrounded by mountains. The climate is temperate with little humidity, sunny days and cool nights.
A mixture of Spanish and Indian influence is seen in the art, architecture, churches, ruins, villages, farms and city of 350,000.
My nine fellow travelers and I were fortunate to have the pleasurable companionship of two local women who acted as interpreters, chauffeurs, guides and friends. They greeted us at Oaxaca’s small, convenient (no hassles) airport and took us straight to a family-run bed and breakfast, the perfect spot to be inspired to write.
Its open courtyard was filled with bougainvillea vines that climbed above the second floor. The charm of the courtyard’s flowerbeds made an inviting afternoon gathering place. Our rooms were traditionally decorated, each with its own personality, color and crafts. The rooftop patio was a wonderful place to watch the sun set over the city, surrounding valleys and mountains.
After a morning of writing, we were treated to platters of tropical fruits, pan dulce (pastries), fresh-squeezed orange juice and a new entree each day – the perfect way to start our day of touring and writing.
One leisurely tour we took was to the Monte Alban ruins. From 500 B.C. to 750 A.D., Monte Alban was the capital of Zapotec culture. The Zapotecs were among the first Mesoamericans to use numbers and a calendar.
The contents of Tomb 7 are on display at the extensive and elegant cultural museum in the Santo Domingo church complex. Native vendors sold copies of the tomb’s funerary figures. Standing in the middle of an abandoned ball court, our tour guide told us that being allowed to sacrifice oneself to the gods was the highest honor the players could win.
The Monte Alban Museum, with its displays of pre-Hispanic vases, masks, bowls and statuary, helped put together pieces of the historic puzzle of the changing cultural regimes that once thrived in the mountains of Oaxaca.
Sixteen indigenous languages are still spoken in the state. We heard the Zapotec language in the village of Teotitlan del Valle, which is renowned for its tapestries and woven wool rugs. We saw a bit of the process of grinding the cochineal, an insect that lives on cacti, into a powder used to make a brilliant red dye. The grinding can take up to four hours, the boiling of the wool another 10 hours, and the actual weaving of rugs anywhere from a week to several months, depending on the size and complexity of the design.
In another village, we visited the home of the Aguilar sisters, famous for their clay figurines. Another village sold painted wooden figures, known as “alebrijes.” We stood with the geese and goats to watch the artisans work. Another day, we stopped for lunch at a women’s cooperative that sold hand woven scarves, bags and shawls. Each village held a new surprise.
The city of Oaxaca is one of painted stucco, open-air restaurants, fountains, colorful shops, lush parks and one of the world’s largest open-air markets. In the evenings, a marimba band plays in the town square, and locals come to dance. Children play with 10-foot long balloons, and local vendors sell their wares from carpets laid on the ground.
Booths run down aisles with no end in sight. The contrasts are dramatic: meat hangs on hooks gathering flies while the smell of chocolate drifts from the factory, calling tourists to sample its flavors. Woven dresses called “hupiles” caught my attention. Stitches are woven in with meaning; each tells a story or adds to a local myth. Local women, beautiful in their brightly colored dresses, sell everything from homemade pecan candies to bouquets of fragrant gardenias to wooden spatulas. Shopping options are endless.
There seemed to be a church on every corner. Their gigantic doors never closed; services ran throughout the day. The Church of Santo Domingo is one of the most ornate baroque churches in Mexico. It is decorated with gold paint and lavish carvings of saints and angels. Its museum had once been a convent.
After Sunday evening Mass, priests carry the statue of Saint Domingo into the well-lit courtyard. A brass band leads the way as old women follow, singing a woeful tune. You cannot help but be touched by the procession’s richness.
Oaxaca is a safe city; the feeling of family dominated the refreshing coolness of the evenings. Children play in the parks well past dark; couples walk hand-in-hand and sit on benches watching the birds fly under the starlit sky.
While we enjoyed sightseeing excursions, the focus of the retreat was to work on our writing skills. Our instructor, Donna Hanelin, a Nevada City poet and author, had us read the poems and prose of famous writers who had been touched by the surreal spirit of Oaxaca.
We were reminded of dancing carved skeletons, of women flying above the sky and how rivers flow from their hair, of mythical animals with polka dots and brightly painted eyes. We were instructed to use the feelings and experiences of Oaxaca in our writing.
We shared our work with each other at evening readings. We read from our dialogues, spoke of spirits, and told of the beauty found in the eyes of street venders.
We stumbled on stories to share, history that had been left to discover, colors that make dreams come to life, and found a place in the world that I will look forward to returning to forever.
Rose Murphy lives in Rough and Ready.
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