Looking for art in all the right places

One of the many attractions of Oaxaca is discovering art on almost every corner. Mexicans are master craftspeople and Oaxaca offers an intriguing balance between adherence to tradition and innovative design. The result is the same – a walk in any direction is a feast for the eyes.

Look up.

Look down.

Look into doorways.

Street art is everywhere. In the next blog posting I will feature a couple of neighbourhoods that are well-known for their street art, some of it done by international artists. The following examples we discovered not too far from home.
This one is asking for Mexico to allow citizens to control their own land and for women to control their own bodies. Women’s rights are a common theme here – posters about violence against and murder of women are everywhere.

I wish I knew more about the meaning behind this one. This woman, with her rather fearsome lady bits, is flanked by men with eyes averted.

How to interpret this piece? Are these young men breaking away from tradition? Bringing precious history forward with them? Or just being little hoodlums?

This haunting piece is just inside a restaurant door and visible from the street. I loved the expressions on the faces of these children.

And this one…is this man, carrying his heavy load, leaving the world of flowers and birds and light…is he heading into darkness and the unknown? Or perhaps he is just coming home after a long day. Or perhaps I am reading too much into these murals and could benefit from a knowledgeable guide.

This is right across the street from our place. The white sign on the wall advises us that this building is unsafe and presumably destined for demolition. In the meantime, it has been beautifully decorated.

Oaxaca is constantly undergoing renovations – many streets have scaffolding and boarding up to hide the work that is going on behind. This is an example of the contrast: a recent reno beside a similar building that needs a little TLC. There is a height restriction in Oaxaca of just three storeys, which makes for a very pleasing streetscape.

Most of the restaurants we have been to so far have had decor as interesting and innovative as the food. La Zandunga, which is a traditional Mexican waltz, is also an excellent restaurant and a showplace of design. Have a look:

We ate very well here (sadly my photos didn’t work) – two huge plates of assorted starters that gave us a generous taste of Oaxacan cuisine, plus three beers – all for $40, tip included. This same meal, in this kind of restaurant in Canada, would have cost three times that amount.

Baltazar, a Oaxacan newcomer, is both restaurant and mezcal distillery/museum. The doors behind Stephen open into three exquisite rooms that, through paintings, text and exhibits, explain the history and manufacture of mezcal. Those objects in the air are pine cones hung from overhead wires. The food was just as imaginative – a three-course comida corrida for $6 CA.

Our friends Jan and Dave introduced us to El Pipe, a traditional restaurant in a hotel. We sat out in the courtyard and enjoyed the most delicious lunch together and a high point was the beautiful service we received. Tourism has been devastated here, as it has everywhere of course and the sad fact is that many places will simply not survive another winter. In spite of the fact that we were the only guests that day, our server made it comfortable and fun.

We began with shrimp bisque and then followed with pork mole poblano. This is a classic Oaxacan sauce, made of dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, chiles, tomatoes. There are several varieties of mole and this one is a bit smoky, a bit sweet and a bit spicy. The pork literally could have been eaten with a spoon. You know when food is so good that words fail you and you just sort of incoherently laugh and groan? That was this dish.

No room for dessert? Don’t be silly. Who would say no to a tiny, perfect flan?

Back out on the street. This are two rooftop restaurant/bars side by side that we intend to visit one day.

We passed by this young man creating a street scene from string. I would loved to have hung around long enough to see it really take shape, but that never seems like the right thing to do. He was polite but very intent on his work, and not encouraging the chatty gringo lady to linger.

Even the most mundane objects can be made beautiful. Here are two examples – a recycling bin for plastic bottles.

And a Coca-Cola sign.

More street scenes.

Our final image shows one of our favourite pastimes – watching the sunset from one of our shared rooftops; this one from Jan and Dave’s patio.

We’ve moved to Mexico…

…Oaxaca to be exact, and we’ll be here for seven weeks. It’s not long enough to totally escape winter, or Covid, or the lasting effects of Trump, but it’s a very welcome change.

It’s not even really travelling, since we’ve been here before, but we knew what to expect – sun, warmth, colour, gorgeous architecture, art everywhere, fabulous food, lovely people and the opportunity to walk for miles, read and practice speaking our kindergarten-level, present-tense Spanish, which sadly never seems to improve.

While Mexico’s Covid cases have been very high, the state and city of Oaxaca have been much lower and stable and controlled. Their protocols may have something to do with it – they are considerably stricter than in Canada. Masks are worn always – indoors and outdoors – no exceptions. At the entrance to every store and restaurant, patrons are given a squirt of hand sanitizer and in most cases, temps are taken and guests are asked to walk through a mat filled with sanitized water. In some cases, guests’ clothing are sprayed with sanitized water.

This is a typical entrance to a shop. The guard backed away when I pointed my camera, but there would be no getting past him without being sprayed and sanitized.

While some of you might recoil at the thought of going to a market during these times, you could honestly eat off the floors of the two or three markets we’ve visited so far. Again, the entrances are being guarded by the likes of these two where you not only walk through sanitized mats, have your temperature taken, but wash your hands and then sanitize them. Armed guards are at the exits, in case you thought you might sneak in the back way.

Oaxaca’s markets are fantastic during normal times, but the extra level of cleanliness is much appreciated. There is one very large market, Abastos Market, that we have always been warned to avoid, but especially now. It is situated in the south end of the city in a bit of a rough neighbourhood and was always more than a little intimidating. A massive labyrinth of stalls with dirty alleyways, dim lighting and opportunistic pickpockets at the best of times, apparently Abastos did not get the memo about keeping things clean.
No loss – we have several others to choose from during our time here, which we’ll feature during upcoming posts.
The photogenic Mercado de la Merced.

Obviously no-one is making light of the dangers of Covid, but like everything else that life throws them, the Mexicans seem well-equipped to cope and carry on. Art is everywhere in Oaxaca, and Covid-themed art has found its way onto street murals.

This image can be found all over the city – not sure if he is “someone” or if he represents the common bond that we all share during this time.

We stumbled upon a small park with displays of art set up for purchase – some of it quite good. The agave plant (which produces the region’s mezcal) figures largely, as does the ubiquitous Frida Kahlo, although she seems a little more contemplative. Tough times for everyone.

This exhibit was dedicated to those who have lost their lives to Covid.

And, like so many other things Mexicans do so well, why not make their masks beautiful?

Most Mexicans are matter-of-fact about keeping a safe distance from others; they just do it. There are no pained and exaggerated face-averting body-swooping postures that we have encountered back home.

Even the dogs keep a pretty chill distance during siesta.

Let me introduce you to our new home. Ten years ago we met a couple, Jan and Dave from Massachusetts, who spend half the year in this complex in Oaxaca. They are back this winter and we’ve been happy to reunite with them for distanced rooftop drinks. These units are usually rented out, but due to Covid, we were able to snag a large one-bedroom – for just $700 CA a month!

Like so many houses in Oaxaca, this one hides behind a high gate and fence, giving passersby no clue as to what lies beyond.

There are about 20 units spread out over three buildings and three floors. This is the entrance.

We’re on the second floor on the first building and have a cute little patio leading into our unit. I have been having a good time watering and deadheading the plants – our own little garden for the next several weeks. There are also a number of shared rooftop decks to watch the sunsets over the mountains and the city.

Our living room. We love the coved brick ceiling and our in-the-treetops views.

Our dining room and kitchen. We also have a spacious bedroom, several closets and bathroom.

This compound was an operating weaving studio for number of years. This mural shows the late founder, Roberta French. Her daughter currently operates the business.

This building is to one side of us. Many full-time residents have created beautiful homes here, filled with Oaxacan art, textiles and pottery. Our friends Jan and Dave have the rooftop unit and balcony – probably the best view of the whole complex.

Just to paint an accurate picture for you, we also have a less-than-picturesque view outside our living room window.

A number of years ago, the complex was broken into by someone who gained entry by scaling a wall. A resident was beaten up during the robbery, and while thankfully they were not critically injured, the entire complex is now ringed by three rows of razor wire. Not even Spiderman could get past this.

I hate to even mention this because I am such a defender of Mexico and the safety of travelling here, but this is the reality of life in a poor country. Feeling safe and being safe are two different things. Doors have heavy-duty locks and windows have bars, albeit attractive ones. We walk with comfort but also with awareness of our surroundings. As a New Orleans police officer once advised me about his tremendously crime-ridden city, “Don’t be a victim.” So far, that advice has worked well for us throughout all parts of Mexico and we are so pleased to be back here.

One of the reasons we love Mexico are the people. They are such a fascinating combination of soft and tough, friendly and discreet, incredibly helpful and the very heart and soul of patience.

Here is an example. For some reason, direct deposit does not seem to exist here, so people have to pick up their paycheques, pension cheques, whatever and then line up to deposit them in the bank – twice a month. These are long, long lines and many of those waiting are older folks, in the hot sun, with nowhere to sit.

This would kill me. I hate waiting for anything – I’d be looking at my watch, sighing out loud, shifting my weight from one foot to another and complaining to anyone who would listen. The Mexicans may not like it, but they simply wait with grace and fortitude.

It goes without saying that Mexicans are hardworking, but we are always amazed by the sheer strength exhibited by many men. This man made multiple trips delivering cases of beer (four at a time) from the truck to the store. Sure, he’s young, but I’m thinking about back troubles or torn rotator cuffs in years to come.

Another element of Mexican life I adore is their devotion to family. Children are much loved but not spoiled, included in conversations, taught simple age-appropriate tasks and brought up to be a functioning part of the family. It was heartwarming to see the little kids out in the park, doing normal things.

This made me a little sad. These slides and bouncy castles are a fixture in most Mexican parks, and would normally be crawling with kids. Our poor children, with their new restrictions and their masks. This one had just a couple of children playing rather listlessly on it, but it made me think of our own grandson, who is 20 months old. Is he big enough to go down that slide on his own, or would his featherweight body become airborne? I’m going with the latter – essential learning for grandmothers who have forgotten everything they knew from when their own kids were small.

The food!!! Oaxaca is Mexico’s culinary centre and has developed a tremendous restaurant and food production scene. There are so many restaurants to choose from – the traditional family-run to the very innovative; the food trucks, the market stools, the taquerias, the bakeries, the cafes, the artisanal mezcal bars, etc. etc. One of our favourite things here is the comida corrida. This is a fixed-price lunch menu that offers starter, main, drink and dessert for between $4 and $14 per person, depending upon the fabulousness of the restaurant. Portions are usually on the small side, but this allows us to sample food from all types of restaurants without breaking the bank. In most cases, the decor is every bit as interesting as the food.

We will bring you food every blog posting – this one is from Casa Taviche.

Inside the decor was simple – pastel-coloured tables and chairs and art-filled walls. We began with a full-bodied broth filled with chicken, rice, vegetables and fresh herbs. Next we were served this dish (forgot the name) – succulent beef encasing a warm potato salad, with a sweet tomato sauce.

Dessert was a warm zabaione with fresh fruit, and chocolate cake crumbles. Stay tuned – we are doing this all for you.

We haven’t talked about the history, the architecture, the surrounding villages, the art and crafts, the mountains, Monte Alban, the indigenous people, the textiles, carpets, pottery, hiking, etc. etc. All to come.

We’ve been feeling a little disappointed that the many great museums are currently closed, but there is still so much to see and discover. We look forward to sharing it all with you.

We went to Chedraui, a large grocery store/department store to stock up with basics. When we passed by the furniture section, we were struck by this tableau. Another of the many diverse sides of the Mexican character that someone would think to place plush animals as decoy dinner guests. Hasta pronto!