A Shared Life in Oaxaca

Mis hermanos Pecos, Arturo, and I just finished hosting a week of culinary and knitting adventures in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before our week together, I would have called this a map. But the illustration has become animated and breathes the daily communion of life in Mexico that I have fallen in love with.

If you could zoom in on almost any inhabited spot on the map, here is what you would see: A woman is standing beside a table, tending a wood-burning brazier, patiently waiting for a hungry passerby. She presses freshly made masa into a tortilla to cook on the comal, then adds beans, cheese, meat, salsa, avocado, or vegetables to order. All the while she and her customer are chatting, their smiles lit from within.

Every meal is a sacrament. This intimate, soft exchange happens all day long and into the night all over Mexico. It is a slow dance that lodges in the heart.

Everywhere people are carrying fresh ingredients from the mercado.

Papayas wrapped in newspaper to keep them from bruising, avocado leaves for flavoring beans, passion fruits, small sweet bananas, peanuts roasted with garlic cloves and chiles, string cheese rolled up like a ball of yarn…

…chickens the color of marigolds.

The sound of mass flows out of open church doors, and men with bundles of thin branches meticulously sweep the sidewalks.

Young lovers, oblivious to everything, kiss and embrace in slow motion beneath shady trees, leaning against walls, and sitting on park benches. Jacaranda flowers flutter to the ground to form a purple carpet.

We stayed in a small garden hotel in the Jalatlaco neighborhood. Each morning we gathered on the rooftop terrace amidst flowers and bird-song, drinking steaming mugs of Café Tequio, while our very own Arturo, an award-winning musician and song-writer, played and sang for us. Each morning there were still more pink flowers than before on the trees in the neighboring churchyard, and we all forgot winter existed in the north.

One by one, the hotel staff crept upstairs to see our knitting and to ask if they could join us. Even Panfilo the parrot showed an interest (1 beak + 1 claw = 2 hands, si?), and our communidad flourished.

Alejandro, a young boy whose sister had abandoned him there a year and a half earlier, turned out to be the fastest learner I have ever encountered. When one minute into his knitting career, his needle fell out, he simply reloaded the fallen stitches and continued onward.

Flowers spilled over every wall.

 

Mole, Oaxaca’s most famous dish, is a living, breathing celebration of all that nurtures a community, from seeds to family, and to the commitment of every individual to contribute to the greater good. It is stirred over a fire for 3 days and nights in a cauldron large enough to swim in, with an abuelita at the helm, and then shared with hundreds of people. We were able to spend a day making a less ambitious mole from scratch with Oaxacan chefs in the home of one of Pecos and Arturo’s long-time friends.

The number of ingredients is staggering: chiles, chicken, nuts, seeds, chocolate, fresh tomatoes and onions, garlic, herbs, cloves, cinnamon, tortillas, and much more. Here are some of the ingredients.

Mole is the work of fire, of intense heat that explodes flavors open…and then the the metate, which grinds open anything that remains closed and marries it to its neighbors…and then more fire, as everything is combined in a large clay pot set right on the flames, and stirred and strained and simmered and thinned with broth until it reaches perfection.

 

At every stage, we each breathed deeply of the flavor combinations and each of those inhalations was a profound journey of sensual ecstasy. Here is the mole almost ready to pour over chicken and rice. Just looking at it makes me catch my breath.

There is no photo of us at the table sharing our feast because apparently we were so joyful that we forgot. Perhaps it is better to carry the memory without a photo.

Another day we traveled to Santa Ana del Valle to visit master weaver Ernesto Martinez and his extended family who together manage all the endless and complex tasks involved in being self-sufficient farmers and textile artists.

Ernesto had saved several triplet ears of corn to show us. His sense of awe at this gift was very beautiful, and he made sure we understood that it came from the divine nature of the sky.

Monte Alban is one of Mexico’s greatest archeological sites and speads across the top of a hill less than an hour from where we were staying. We could have spent days taking in the vast spaces, carvings, ruins, and vegetation (from a kapok tree to wild arnica growing in cracks in the ancient stonework). The pre-Columbian architects of Monte Alban engineered an acoustic miracle: in a space larger than a modern sports stadium, a voice can be heard clearly at the other end.

Partway down the hill from Monte Alban is the small village where Pecos, his wife Mags, and their two young children lived for nearly 8 years. As we left Monte Alban, Pecos veered off the paved road to take us there. One member of our group was a retired architect, and Pecos told him, “I’m about to show you the most amazing arch you have ever seen!” For nearly a whole mile we drove, breathless with wonder, through this natural bamboo tunnel, which every so often opened into sunlight.

On our final evening we sat knitting with our companions, young Alejandro, the hotel owner, and her friend.

The warm amber light itself seemed to express the communion all knitters know so well, and I struggled to articulate this in Spanish to our friends. The two women leaned towards me, listening intently, and then they offered me a beautiful Spanish word that matched my feeling: convivir…to share a life…convivencia…a shared life…

Yes.

Pecos, Arturo, and I will continue to lead groups of knitters into intimate convivencia in Latin America. We have three groups going to Peru in 2014:  March, June, and November, and hope to schedule one or two trips to Mexico this fall. To learn more, visit my workshop page on this website or email me via the contact page.

We would love to have you join our shared life.