Cuenca New Year’s Eve 2020

How can it be 2020 already? This was a date in the mist of the far off future. The one with flying cars, life expectancy extended to age 150, robots doing laundry, self-driving cars and permanent moon colonies. Yet here it is, and even more amazing, we’re alive to see it! It’s hard to imagine that this is the start of a new decade.

2019 was a busy year for us, and our travels took us to 11 countries, not counting our home here in Ecuador. We will slowing down a bit in 2020, and have so far only planned to visit 6 countries. In addition, we had three couch surfers visit us in Cuenca, including our favorite niece and nephew.

As has been a New Year’s Eve tradition in Cuenca for decades, neighborhoods compete for prize money in a competition organized by the Amistad Club Cuenca (Friendship Club). This year, 27 participants created elaborate displays of paper mache and foam mannequins. We started New Year’s Eve this year by hiking over to the El Vergel display. They have won first place with their displays for the last two years, and created a repeat performance this year, winning $3,000 for first place once again.

Their theme was “883,” which is the number of the Executive Order that was intended to eliminate subsidies on gasoline, bringing the price to world market levels. This executive order was met with strong, armed resistance that essentially shut down the country for 10 days, until the president agreed to rescind the order.

Monigotes, or paper mache mannequins, representing the President at an evil gas pump (bottom-third from left), the head of the military in a tank (center), the head of the indigenous group that led the revolt (upper-right), and many other political figures involved with that failed attempt to fix the growing and unsustainable national debt.

After dark, we started making the rounds of some of the displays in El Centro, the part of the UNESCO town where we live. One of our regular stops every year is the El Vado neighborhood. Their theme was mineral mining rights, for which they won 4th place for $1,000 cash prize.

Mining is a controversy that has existed for several years, but which came to a head in 2019. There are many illegal mines in the Ecuadoran Andes mountain region. Gold, copper, silver and other minerals are often mined in operations that are dangerous (there were several mine cave-ins that killed miners this year), and which pollute nearby rivers with toxic runoff. The government got serious this year, and closed many of these down.

At the same time, the national government was negotiating with major mining companies to come in and mine these minerals in a manner that would be safer, and perhaps more important to the government, would result in large tax payments. Several indigenous groups protested and took the government to court to prevent the mining, saying that the constitution guarantees that they have independent control over those lands. Towards the end of 2019, the Ecuadorian Supreme Court sided with the indigenous people, and have ordered all such mining to stop.

There were also several other smaller displays that we walked pass, including those on Padre Aguirre, Presidente Cordova and Juan Jaramillo. Many of these monigotes are huge, reaching 15 feet tall, as can be seen in the center image above.

Besides the major competing neighborhood displays, many people have their own monigotes. When walking around town, you can see them in front of stores, or tied to cars cruising through streets. At midnight, the effigies are tossed into bonfires and burned.

There were fewer people with masks and costumes wandering the street this year than in past New Year’s Eves we have seen in Cuenca, though a few could be seen. There also seemed to be less street food for sale this year, though some sticky sweets still existed (upper-right and lower-right).

Two major activities occur simultaneously at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Cuenca. The hundreds of monigotes around town are thrown onto bonfires and burned, symbolically leaving the woes of the old year behind. That is the event that we have focussed on in past years, and if you check the January 1 posts from 2013 through 2019, you will find lots of photos and discussion of that practice. (In the right column of this page, choose the desired month under the ‘Archives’ popup menu on a laptop.) Here’s the direct link to last year’s NYE blog, when we focused on the jumpers and bonfires at midnight.

The other major activity is fireworks. They are fired from several dozen places around the city. We see fireworks almost weekly from our apartment window. As such, we have never focused on the NYE fireworks. This year, we were invited to a friend’s home, and spent a couple enjoyable hours with friends that had gathered there.

A little before midnight, we all climbed up on the roof, which presented a 360 degree of the city, with very little obstruction. I placed my camera on a tripod, expecting to capture a few photos for the blog. By 11:20 pm, multiple fireworks were being fired every minute, as if people were warming up by firing test shots. By 11:45, the entire city was exploding with fireworks all around us. We kept thinking “this must be the finale,” only to check our watch and realize that it wasn’t even midnight yet.

When midnight finally came, the entire city was engulfed in fireworks. The above images are straight-out-of-camera, meaning there is no composite combining of images. That center image really did capture all those fireworks from all those locations in a single 1 second exposure. There are many more like this, but to avoid an entire blog consisting of just fireworks, we chose the few here to give a sense of the scene. I had my camera set for single frames, so I did not catch any useful video. Next year, I am thinking of setting up two cameras, and let one just capture video of this chaos.

At El Vergel park, there was a children’s playground. The kids were having a blast, not caring about manigotes nor fireworks. We stopped for a while just to watch them have fun.

Pase del Nińo Viajero 2019

Christmas Eve is always the biggest event of the year for Cuenca. The parade is called “Pase del Nińo Viajero” or “Passage of the Traveling Child.”

This parade has been held every year since the late 19th century. The main guest of honor is a small sculpture of Jesus, that was made in 1823, then taken to Rome to be blessed by Pope John XXIII.

Estimates of the crowd this year, including both paraders and spectators runs as high as 135,000. Given that the population of Cuenca is only 415,000, that is huge turnout, and the city essentially shuts down for the parade every year. Surprisingly this year, we saw many restaurants and small tiendas open for business during the parade. It was tough finding taxis though, as traffic is blocked around the entire el centro.

The day starts with official mass at the New Cathedral at Parque Calderón, in the center of town (center for front door). Mass is also held at other churches during the day, such as the Sanctuary Mariano at the flower market a block away (center-left).

The top military officials attend mass in the reserved front rows (upper-right), ready to have the Jesus doll ceremoniously given them to guard as it is taken to its resting place for the day, at the reviewing stand at San Sebastian Plaza. The parade started late this year, as mass finished late, which is fairly common in Ecuador. It was nine hours later before the parade ended.

Center above, you can see the official Traveling Jesus doll on the reviewing stand. Every neighborhood participating in the parade, also has a Baby Jesus doll of their own, some of which are shown here.

Many neighborhood groups have their own bands performing along the parade route. The military also have their band, some on horseback (right column).

When watching a parade, don’t forget to look up and around at others also watching the parade. They are often a show unto themselves. There are also many support teams, such as the paramedics in upper-left, all along the parade route.

The parade is about the children, so they figure prominently in every portion of the parade. While some of the boys were having fun (center-left), most of the young boys were bored, or sleeping.

The girls seemed to be more interested, and having fun all day long. Some were on horseback, others on the back of floats, while others were walking or dancing along the parade route. Even at 1:00 pm, many floats were still lined up at the coliseum on 12th de Abril ready to enter the parade.

Though the parade centers around the estimated 10,000 children participants, people of all ages join in the parade too. Often they were supporting their children, or carrying Jesus dolls (lower-right). The majority were dancing and singing and appearing to have a grand time. Spectators are still allowed weave in and out of the parade route, so participants merge with the crowds, creating a bonus for photo ops.

This is our 7th Pase del Nińo parade, and there is one gentleman (a retired professor) who has been in every one of those parades, and who generates a lively and fun atmosphere for his entire entourage. He was there again this year, shown above in center image.

The priest at the official mass asked his congregation to pray for “warm, cloudy weather with no rain,” and was quoted in the newspaper as saying that God had answered his prayers. This is considered ideal weather for parades here in the Andes, since it can get rather hot in the sun if the sky is clear.

At the beginning of the parade, as the official Baby Jesus doll was being placed on the reviewing stand at San Sebastian Plaza, a helicopter flew overhead and dropped rose petals over the crowd, as seen above.

We first read about this in Facebook, and couldn’t believe it, since we had never seen that in past parades. Evelyn asked a city official, and he stated that he had never heard of such an event. This is pretty common in Ecuador though, where details are not well communicated. As Evelyn was taking photos of the reviewing stand, a helicopter flew overhead for two passes, dropping rose petals on the crowd.

After the parade ended, within a half hour, the streets had been thoroughly cleaned by what we have dubbed “The Blue Army” — a group of people dressed head-to-toe in blue coveralls, hired by the city to pick up all litter and keep the city clean. They are amazing in how quickly they can remove all evidence that 135,000 people were celebrating in that location, less than an hour earlier.

Oaxaca, Mexico 8 – Wrap Up

We have come to the end of our three week visit to Oaxaca, so let’s wrap up with some overall impressions. There are a few things that stand out and can’t help but be appreciated.

First is the weather. We were here during late November and early December. The temperature was between the mid- 70’s and mid-80’s every day, while the nights would drop into the low 60’s. We never needed to wear a long sleeve shirt, let alone jacket while walking around the town, from 8:00 in the morning until shortly after dusk. No rain, and the only clouds were fluffy on the horizon. We could not have asked for better weather. Of course, it does give us pause to wonder about how the weather would be in the Summer. We may come back and check that out at some point.

Traffic was another pleasant surprise. Cars routinely stopped for us as soon as we stepped off the curb. There were a few times when I stepped off the curb, looking for an opening in traffic a few cars back… only to have the front car stop and wave me across. Drivers really do give right-of-way to pedestrians here. Car-to-car is more on par with Cuenca though, with drivers frequently squeezing to assure nobody could cut in. Mostly being pedestrians, we received the more pleasant side of these exchanges though. And, we heard almost no car alarms. There is definitely a lot more traffic in town. Also, public transportation is quite affordable.

There were numerous mercados around town (as seen above) with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and mezcal. In most ways, they were the same as those we find in Cuenca. The people were universally pleasant, and most of the foods were similar. Oaxaca does not have any hornado, the roasted pig we enjoy in Cuenca. However, they had dried grasshoppers, and Tejate. With mezcal being such a trademark export from Oaxaca, you can also count on seeing a few small vendors selling their homemade brews, no FDA approval needed.

Some memories which will be forever etched in our minds. One is the daily street vendors shouting at the top of their voices what sounded like …”GUA” “GUA”, but which was actually “AGUA”, as they sell 5-gal bottles of water door-to-door. Another was the sounds of cows. “MOO-OO-OO”, which was the propane tank dispensing trucks announcing their arrival at least twice per day. Then, there was the cascade of water trickling down our roof, letting us know that the water tank on the roof was full, and we can again take a shower and flush our toilets. Of course, gravity-fed water also meant wimpy shower pressure. Oaxaca, like Cuenca, is not a sidewalk friendly town and you really have to watch where you’re walking. However, there are very few stray dogs, and most pets are behind fences. Finally, they do have mosquitos here, though we were at the end of the season and never got bit by them on this trip.

Oaxaca is a city rich in culture, visual arts and textiles. Though not as many Catholic churches exist as in Oaxaca, most are open to enter, and many have museums attached. One such example is the Templo Santo Domingo (upper left), which has a large cultural museum that requires hours to cover (remainder of images above).

Every week, there always seems to be something happening, so there is no shortage of things to do. You can listen to live music performances, watch pop-up parades celebrating weddings, birthdays, protests, hikes, tours, etc. Like Cuenca, Oaxaca likes their rockets and noise. Mariachi bands play at the mercados, and the concerts from the auditorium at the top of the hill can be heard over the entire city.

Murals are common throughout town. Whereas most murals in Cuenca are painted directly on the wall freehand, the mural artwork in Oaxaca tends to be more in the style of graphic designers. Many of the murals are spray painted through a stencil (lower-left, commemorating a local famous artist who died earlier this year), or are simple stencils pasted onto the wall (lower-right). These are clearly art and improve the appearance of the neighborhood, but do not exhibit the artist sophistication of many of the murals in Cuenca.

If you look close enough though, you can also find more conventional freehand art murals painted on walls also. Sometimes they have clear protest orientation (middle-left), and other times are used to add beauty to a local store (middle).

This was not intended to be a photography-intensive vacation. Rather, we were relaxing, and exploring a city we had not visited since 1985, 34 years ago. Evelyn therefore had time to take out her sketchbook and do some quick paintings of urban scenes around town. She joined Urban Sketchers Oaxaca while here, a network of artists who draw on location and “see the world, one drawing at a time”.

Here are a few of the sketches she produced during our stay in Oaxaca. Upper-left is the auditorium that oversees the town, and can be heard throughout el centro whenever there is a concert in progress. This was painted from the landing of our Airbnb on the last day. Blue skies, vivid facades, pleasant temperatures, slow pace and drink the beer.

Oaxaca, Mexico 7 – Mezcal Distillery Tour

Family-owned Mezcal Distillery

When I think of Mexico, I typically associate it with moles, salsas, tostadas, beer… and tequila.  When we asked friends what they would like us to bring them back from Mexico, tequila was the only thing that came to their mind.

It turns out that Oaxaca is most known for mezcal, and tequila is merely one kind of mezcal, made only in one region of Mexico. Much like the word champagne is a name only legally allowed to be used for sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, the name tequila may only be used for mezcal made from the blue agave plant in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

We decided we should explore the mezcal made in the state of Oaxaca in tiny rural Zapotec villages, where families have refined their mezcal recipes over generations.  We therefore joined Mezcal Educational Tours for a full day of exploring mezcal distilleries (known as palenques), with plenty of tasting along the way.

At our stop in San Dionisio (above), we saw the agave from seed to fermentation. The agave plant (lower-left, with the other couple who joined us on this tour), grows a tall stalk that then produces seeds (lower-right).  These seeds are used to plant new agave plants for future mezcal production.

When harvested, the piña is removed from the center of the plant, and stacked in a pile to be processed further (upper-left). The piña are then ground up, with this site using a horse and stone wheel (center) for that work.  The ground piñas are then combined with water in large vats (upper-center), and allowed to ferment from 3 to 10 days, depending mostly upon the outside temperature (shorter time needed during summer).

Fires are then stoked with wood in an oven (lower-center), and the mezcal obtained through distilling in the copper bottom pot (upper-right).

In a distillery in Santa Catarina Minas, we tasted 14 different varieties of mezcal.  Each is made with slight variations that a sensitive palate could discern, though to be honest, only a couple stood out to my own taste buds.  They vary from the type of agave plant used, or the season (winter mescal has a somewhat different taste than summer mescal), or infusion of various herbs.

One large gourd (a Jicara) was filled with each variant of mezcal, and then passed around to everyone in the room, as shown above. Sometimes a rag was used to wipe out a gourd before filling it, but mostly they were just pulled off a stack, and then replaced there when empty. No dainty separate wine glasses for mezcal drinkers!

There was a circular chart describing various possible taste variants for those who chose to try to describe the subtle tastes each mescal (upper-right), though none of us could even come close to such categorizing. The producer showed us how he pours mezcal in a stream from a funnel (lower-right) to determine the alcohol level. Below 40% alcohol, no bubbles are formed. Above 60%, they form, but quickly dissipate. Their target is between those two levels, and a trained eye can tell from the number of bubbles and rate of dispersal, just what the alcohol level is.

We were told that Americans like the alcohol level to be between 45% and 50%, but that Mexicans call that “white people mezcal,” and rarely drink anything below 65% alcohol themselves.

When we purchased any mezcal, it was filled on the spot for us. Poured out of the same plastic jugs we had been tasting from (upper-left), it was funneled into a bottle (center), and then an adhesive label attached.

Our final stop was at a pulque distillery in Santiago Matatlán.  Though pulque is also made from the agave plant, it uses a completely different process, scooping out the pińa to force the plant to produce a sap, which forms the basis of the liquor.  We were told that the woman of the distillery (bottom-right) is only one week shy of her 90th birthday, and that she drinks pulque every day…

Oaxaca, Mexico 6 – Fundación En Via Tour

We took a tour today with Fundación En Via, a charity empowering women in Oaxaca to improve their livelihood. They provide tools and interest free micro loans to women in 6 communities surrounding Oaxaca, helping them start and grow their business.  While we drove to the first small town, Villa Diaz Ordaz, the spokesperson told us about the history, philosophy and techniques used by En Via.

We were led by two women volunteers on this trip. Kara was our community and history guide, while Karen was our translator. We were provided information on the organization’s budget, including the fact that 1200 pesos, or $60, from the day’s tour receipts pay for the van and driver, while the remainder (about 6000 pesos, or $300 USD from the entire busload) went towards running the organization and provided the funds for the micro loans.

To qualify for a micro-loan, the women must form teams of three. They are not business partners, but rather form a peer group to help each other succeed through the program. These women must then complete a prerequisite series of eight business classes.  All three women must complete all eight classes, which are usually completed within a four-week period. This is where the peer group starts to have an effect, since if any one of the three fails to complete the classes, then none of the women in that team will receive their loan. Payback has been 99% and generally paid off within 12 weeks.

We met with six women, from two teams that had recently paid off their loans.  The first was a weaver shown above.  She told her story about how the en via loan had changed her life, and enabled her to buy the needed materials to make her tapestries.  She has been with en via now for 10 years, through multiple loan cycles.

We were told about the business concepts taught in this series of classes, and we were quite impressed. They basically get the guts of the MBA program we required 16 months to complete, and they get it in two weeks.  Such things as separating business money and personal finances; calculating costs and setting prices; how to avoid losing money; managing credit; how to differentiate their business to stand out from the crowd; how and when to buy in bulk for savings vs buying smaller to avoid spoilage; how to market themselves, etc. After the prerequisite 8 classes, there is ongoing continuing education, which many of the women seek.

Our second stop was with a baker from the same three-women team, who used her loan to open a panaderia in her home. She used her loan to build a kitchen. She proudly gave us samples of her bread, which was delicious. She had already sold out her production for today, so there was none for us to buy.  She noted that she needs to be careful in how much she makes each day.  If she makes too much, then she loses money from waste, but if she does not make enough, then she loses sales to people who will go to her competition.

Once the women have completed these business classes, they each receive a loan of 1500 pesos (about $75 USD). They must begin repayment after 2 weeks, and must make a minimum of 20 peso per week (about $1 USD).  If any of the women in the team fail to make their payment, then there is a 60 peso penalty ($3 USD) per woman, which encourages them to help each other, and fill in on a payment for one of the team who may be having a hard week.

Our third stop was to meet the last member of the first team. She had originally been a weaver of rugs.  With the loan and education she received from en via, she expanded into embroidery, which allows her to differentiate herself from the many other rug weavers in the area.

These loans are made at ZERO percent interest.  The loan repayment rate for 2018 was 99%. That is certainly higher than any conventional bank can claim, despite these loans going to women with no credit history, no collateral, and no formal business training prior to joining the program.

After lunch, we visited a second town, Teotitlán del Valle, and another team of three women who had recently successfully paid off their loan.  Our first stop was with a weaver of rugs. She did tell us that she is having a difficult time financially, as there are more rug weavers than the current market can support.  Regardless, she gave a fascinating presentation of her business, including showing how she grinds various bugs and minerals to produce the dyes for her wool.

Once a woman and her team has paid off their initial loan, they are eligible for another loan.  The women may choose to keep their team together, or shift and join other successful women in new teams.  While the initial loan was for 1500 pesos, the second loan is for 2500 pesos ($125 USD).  After that has been paid in full, the women are eligible for 3500 peso, then 4500, 5500, 6500, and finally a maximum loan of 7500 peso ($375 USD).

Our second stop of the afternoon was with another woman weaver.  Her loan allowed her to make arrangements with sheep farmers in a nearby community, so she can buy the wool directly and save money.  That requires more work, since she takes the raw wool and must first card it (middle-left).  One of the women taking the tour with us took a turn with carding (lower-left), and found it much harder than it looked! She also showed us how she grinds natural colors (upper-right), and how she works her loom (lower-right).

Many of the women we have met on this tour have been with En Via for up to 10 years now, each time using their new loan to expand their businesses further. Other than the one weaver who seems to having a difficult time financially, the others all seemed very hopeful about the future that en via has helped them create.

Our last stop was with a food vendor, who has set up an outdoor stand next to a church and mercado.  Instead of competing with other weavers, her first purchase was to buy plates, utensils and glasses. As she made her presentation to us, there were several people around her table enjoying her food, and commenting on how good it was. She then proceeded to make a quesadilla, which she gave each of us to sample.

After we were dropped off back at the En Via offices, we walked home. Along the way, we came across a small parade.  This was another teacher protest, demanding another primary school in Tlacolula, as well as more equipment and better facilities in general.

We have heard of micro-finance operations before, usually associated with Africa.  This is the first one we have been able to observe directly.  We saw first-hand the impact these micro loans have made on the women and their families.  Not only the money itself, but the education and ongoing support provided.

If you wish to help these women out, please visit their web site at envia.org and either donate or, if you are local, consider volunteering.

We were told that this En Via Tour and the Mezcal Educational Tour (which we will describe tomorrow) were the top two tours in Oaxaca. We have to agree that this tour was well run and allowed us to visit homes of the entrepreneurs.

Oaxaca, Mexico 5 – Thanksgiving Dinner

Oaxaca Lending Library is a long-standing nonprofit with 450 members in Oaxaca founded in 1966 that primarily caters to the English speaking expats. It has a lending library with some 20,000 English and Spanish language books. OLL also organizes tours, hikes, yoga, Spanish and English language classes, and is generally a great place to meet other expats. You can see a calendar of their upcoming events here, and note how they have something going on every day.

OLL organized a Thanksgiving dinner and mini concert for 60 expats, and we decided to join them. This was a good opportunity for us to meet other expats in town. During the dinner, we spoke at length to six others and we found everyone to be well traveled, well spoken, and generally very upbeat.

The turkey was one of the better we’ve savored, the presentation was incredible, and the event was very well organized. Kudos to the OLL event organizers.

After the meal, we were entertained by a string quartet, which is part of a larger orchestra. Camerata Oaxaca is a chamber orchestra comprised of 13 young professional musicians from some of the top music schools in Mexico, and was recently awarded as the best emerging artist group in Mexico. They were clearly talented and appeared to be having fun playing some 13 pieces from Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Beatles, to traditional Mexican. What a wonderful wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving.

Oaxaca, Mexico 4 – Monte Albán & More

Today we took a private tour with our Crespo cooking school friends, Elizabeth and Jonathan from New York. This was a chance to see some of the major archaeological ruins and villages outside of Oaxaca.  We hired Zapotec Tours to set up the trip, though our guide was actually an independent contractor, Gabriel Sanchez Garcia, a history buff who did an outstanding job of sharing history lessons of pre-USA Texas (and Monte Albán) plus showing us around the ruin. He turns out to be quite a success story. He was taken in at an early age by Mrs. Brown, an elementary school teacher, then graduated from a Texas university in history, and returned to Oaxaca to lead tours. Fluent in French, Spanish and English, he is enthusiastic and loves sharing stories of the history of his indigenous ancestry and country.

We had the option of a group tour with 8 others, but instead decided to take a private tour with only Elizabeth (upper-left, top-left listening to Gabriel, and center with us) and Jonathan (upper-left, and center with us), who we met yesterday at the Crespo cooking class. They were excellent traveling companions, and this allowed us more flexibility on where we went and how much time we spent.

Our first stop was a few hours at Monte Albán, a pre-Colombian ruin that was the pre-eminent Zapotecan center of culture for more than 1000 years. The site sits upon an artificially leveled ridge (think of the massive effort to level an entire mountain top more than two thousand years ago!), and covers an area as far as the eye can see. There are hundreds of unearthed terraces here, with evidence of significant cosmological knowledge of solstices, equinoxes, etc. We were told that there is only one other ruin built on a hilltop in North America, Machu Picchu.

We also visited Dona Rosa black clay pottery factory in San Bartolo Coyotepec. Dona Rosa discovered a way to make the clay black and shiny after firing, which created new markets for the pottery from this village.

Here you can see a 15-minute production of a clay pot reduced to 2-1/2 minutes. It is interesting to note that the potters here do not use a pottery wheel of any kind. Instead, they use two bowls, with the bottom one inverted. The bowls are then spun on each other to give the effect of a manual potter’s wheel. You can see them in the thumbnail above, and well as see the process in action in parts of the video.

Our other stop was in San Martin Ticajete, at a Alebrije workshop. These are also called “fantastic figures.” Originally they were indeed fantastic, with three-headed dragons and similar creatures. Over time though, they found that exotic versions of more standard animals sold better, and that is what is produced here now.

We were shown the entire process from carving out of branches (creatures are carved from both hard and soft woods), the drying stage, filling in the cracks phase, painting, then varnishing. Some of these carvings take several months to complete.

Artisans start here as young as 9 years old, practicing on some simpler pieces that are then sold for lower prices. After four or five years, the artist can advance to Master ranking, where they work on the more sophisticated pieces, and the work sells for very high prices.

Here are a few of the finished pieces for sale. These have been produced by Master craftsmen, and the more detailed pieces, such as the rabbit center, sells for more than USD $100.

Oaxaca, Mexico 3 – Concert and Wandering

The symphony is free in Oaxaca.  However, you must get advance tickets to see it, and by the time we tried, all those tickets were “gone”. We were told later that tickets were available for a 50 peso bribe (about USD $2.50), or you could stand in the long line the day of the concert. Fortunately, the Oaxaca State Band was also giving a free concert in the park at the Zócalo Sunday afternoon, just 10 blocks from where we were staying.  We opted to go listen to them instead.

Essentially the difference between the symphony and the band is that the latter has no string instruments. Though we did not have an opportunity to listen to the symphony while in town, the quality of the band was outstanding,  We stood and listened for about half an hour, then went into a nearby restaurant and sat on a balcony overlooking the band, listening to the remainder of the performance while having an excellent lunch. We looked at each other in amazement – here we are in short sleeves at the end of November sitting outdoors listening to free music! 

After lunch, we wandered around downtown. The park was filled with people, just as parks are in Cuenca. Similar to yesterday, we found some teachers protesting, this time with signs (center-right and lower-right), which we could mostly read and get a better understanding of the nature of the protests.

We also visited the largest mercado in the city, Benito Juarez, which is near the Zócalo (center plaza in town). Dried grasshoppers (center) were sold by many vendors.  The chocolate bars sold (upper-center) are actually produced by Casa Crespo, from the Crespo cooking school mentioned yesterday.

Some spices could be purchased out of bags, as we see in other mercados.  However, there were also vendors with a wall full of jars of specialty spices (bottom-second).  Additionally, there were more than a dozen fully stocked liquor store vendors (lower-left) in this massive mercado.

One of the oddities we have discovered in Oaxaca is that every home has a plastic water tank on the roof. These tanks are plumbed, but the water must be turned on manually to fill them. In our AirBnb, we must fill the tanks every two days, or we will have no shower or toilet water.  We know the tanks are full when the water pours over the edge of the roof onto our garden below, which tells us it is time to turn off the water feed.  The water pressure in the homes is very low, since it is only a gravity feed from the roof of the building.

As we walked around town, we saw these plastic tanks on every roof. There are two brands, one black and one off-white. These can be bought in many hardware stores in town, but other than the color, there does not appear to really be any difference between them.

At one point in our wandering, we came across a Biblioteca Infantil (children’s library). The architecture looked organic, so we wandered in. We discovered a very well designed, modern, airy building with various rooms that could be reached from outside (lower-right) or internal passageways. Each room was separated by use and age group. Several rooms had middle and high school students studying (lower-left).

In one room, we found a classroom where preschoolers were being taught to count.  They bounced and climbed over soft mattresses, as they repeated after the teacher (top) “uno, sol, dos, luna, tres, pisces.” In English, that is one, sun, two, moon, three, fish – no idea how those subjects past one relate to the numbers, but the kids were gleefully reciting them as the teacher would show pictures in his book.  You couldn’t help but smile as you saw the kids learning while squealing and having fun on the cushions.

Street art is very common around town, though it is not as sophisticated as many of the murals in Cuenca.  Above is a sampling from Xoxomilcho, one colorful neighborhood that we were exploring today (there will be more in the final wrap-up post from Oaxaca).

We also noticed that most of the windows have metal grills over them.  My first reaction was that they indicate a crime problem.  Looking closer though, I also noticed that many are quite decorative, and most are unique from their neighbors. Thus, they give protection against crime, but also add to the creativity of the area.

At the end of the day, we were heading home, and came across this lively scene. A small street band had started on the street. Others gathered quickly to listen and to dance — some of them quite enthusiastically!

Oaxaca, Mexico 2 – Cooking Schools

We attended two different cooking schools while in Oaxaca, both recommended by our AirBnb host. The first was Seasons of My Heart, founded by Susana Trilling who starred in a 13-part PBS Series on the Oaxacan culinary experience and authored a book, both by the same name. This class was held in Villa de Etla, a small town about a half hour drive outside Oaxaca. Etla is also where 90% of the potable water serving Oaxaca City comes from. We started with a tour of the largest mercado in Etla, shopping for ingredients, and sampling grasshoppers and various types of tamales. We were joined by a couple from the Netherlands, Rose and Flo, a gourmet chef.

In many ways, this mercado reminded us of Feria Libre, the largest market in Cuenca. There were some differences though. For example, there were many vendors selling dried grasshoppers (center and right-center), which are added as a spice to food, or just eaten directly as a snack.  Also, there were far more types of chilis available here (upper-left and upper-right), as Oaxacan food is heavy on the chili.  The green onions in the market are also the largest I have ever seen (lower-right).

We continued to wander through the market for a couple hours. Another item I found unique was the sale of limestone (upper-left).  Women would grind the stone into powder, and then bag it for sale to cooks.  The powder is added to dough, allowing the tortillas to be cooked crispy.

A favorite drink in the Oaxacan markets and street vendors is a drink with a vaguely chocolate taste called Tejate.  Each vendor has their own secret recipe passed on through generations. We each had a gourd of the drink during our market tour. Our companions are seen above (Rose in lower-left and Flo in upper-right, while Evelyn drinks middle-left).

Our next stop was at the school, where the cooking class would be held. Our class was lead by Yolanda (center), who started with a short lecture on the meals we would be making, and the ingredients involved.  All ingredients were pre-measured, so we only had to mix at the proper times, while adding the proper heat and/or stirring.

Evelyn made our salad and salad dressing, both of which were excellent.

Other courses included chicken (center), a soup made from squash flowers, a salad, roasted tomatoes and chilis, moles, tostadas, curries, and a bread pudding for dessert.

A couple days later, we attended the Cooking School at Casa Crespo Restaurant in Oaxaca. This day also began with a quick tour of a mercado, though it was the same Mercado Sanchez Pascuas near our AirBnb that we had already visited multiple times on our own. Our maestro, Oscar Carrizosa, showed us stores that specialized in making tortillas, where many people would bring their flour and these specialists would blend the dough accordingly.

Oscar allowed us to choose what meals we would make. He asked our favorite foods, and then created a menu around those.  That was a very nice and unique touch, as every cooking class we have ever taken in the past has always taught a preset menu. A couple from New York, Elizabeth and Jonathan joined us for this class. For our menu, we made several moles, shrimp appetizer, seafood soup, enchiladas, chili relleno, corn masa, and finished with avocado ice cream.

The kitchen was not as grand as the Seasons of the Heart kitchen, but we each got involved with preparing all the ingredients, and took part in the cooking. 

At the end of each class, we were provided with recipes for the courses we had cooked.  Though the Seasons menu was more elaborate, the Crespo menu has far more choices that I have set aside to make for guests once we get home.  Since I consider that to be the ultimate achievement of any cooking class, I have to give the nod to Crespo as being the more successful for us.

Oaxaca, Mexico 1 – City Walking Tour

This is only the second time we have visited Oaxaca, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Oaxaca is also known for the best food in Mexico, along with its vibrant arts and crafts. We first visited Oaxaca almost 40 years ago, and were eager to see the changes.

We frequently take “walking tours” when first visiting new cities.  These are tours that have become popular in recent years, where guides lead groups around town, showing guests a blend of landmarks and places they may not have gone to on their own. Plus they share stories or history from a local’s perspective, and hope for a tip at the end for payment. The tour is technically free, in that no fee is charged up front, and you may pay whatever you feel is appropriate.

We started our first full day in Oaxaca by having breakfast at the Mercado Sanchez Pascuas one block from the AirBnb where we are staying.  It is much like our mercados in Cuenca, except there is no hornado here (the baked pig that is so delicious in Ecuador).  The green onions here are huge (upper-right), and they sell dried grasshoppers (lower-right) for snacking or adding to meals.

We have had very excellent tours in places like Buenos Aires, where the guide had a sense of humor and timing and could keep your attention through fascinating stories. At the other end of the spectrum was Venice, where we walked out without paying anything in the middle, after repeatedly telling the guide she could not be heard.

The guide here in Oaxaca was somewhere in between. Miriam was pleasant, but her recitation of history sounded like it was being read from a history book. Nevertheless, we were able to get a sense of how the downtown was laid out, and where some of the key landmarks and markets were.

We started at the Templo Santo Domingo, which is considered by many to be the most beautiful church in South America due to the extensive gold leaf used. This baroque style church is located right in the downtown area, shown above, and it is common to see weddings, parades, fireworks starting here.

Our guide (Miriam, upper-right) introduced us around El Centro, where we saw the stamp museum, a graphics art museum belonging to an famous print maker who recently passed, located where the ancient aqueduct is (center), walked us along Macedonia Alcalá which is now a pedestrian-only street, took us to an organic market and experienced the many brightly colored facades (upper-left).  There were occasional remnants of the Día de los Muertos festival (lower-left) from a couple weeks ago. A side benefit was an introduction to a pharmacy where the physician provides a free medical exam before issuing the prescription (Farmacias del Ahorro).

After we left the official tour, we continued to walk around town on our own. On the Zócalo (main center square, equivalent to Parque Calderón in Cuenca), we found a small driving course set up for young children to ride tricycles.  The course was complete with street signs, traffic signs, and police teaching the children the rules of the road.  Everyone seemed to be having a grand time, even though most of the time the children were ignoring the police and were instead racing and bumping into each other.  Seems to me like they were training to be normal Cuenca drivers! 

At another part of the Zócalo, we found tents and people sleeping on the sidewalk (bottom row).  At first, I thought these might be homeless, but we later learned they are teachers protesting low salaries, lack of adequate classroom equipment, and demanding a new primary school in a neighboring village.  We found that these protests have been going on every year since 2006, which was the only year in which things got violent and bloody.  I have not been able to discover if these annual teacher protests have actually made any changes or not. The protests are so prevalent though, that there is a cell phone app to help motorists navigate away from traffic jams caused by protester’s blocking various roads.

Photo Galleries

At the top of this page is a menu that will take you to a variety of galleries showing our favorite images.

The most recent galleries include our recent trips to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. You can see all our favorite images from our 2019 travel here:

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