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Yesterday, I did it again!  After a year’s hiatus, on Día de la Santa Cruz I returned for the ritual pilgrimage to the top of El Picacho, the sacred mountain that watches over Teotitlán del Valle.  To avoid hiking in the worst of May’s high temperatures, our ascent began at 5:30 in the morning.  Yes, it was dark, with not even moonlight to guide our way.  Thank goodness for the flashlight app on my smart phone.  However, by 6:30 AM dawn was breaking and our artificial lights were extinguished.  Our hardy band arrived at the summit about 7:30 AM to the ritual round of handshaking that accompanies greetings and farewells in the village.

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The three crosses mark the summit

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Pilgrims perched on the rocky outcroppings that make up the peak.

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The views were spectacular no matter which way one chose to look.

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An altar greeted pilgrims at the peak.

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At 8:30 AM, an hour-long mass was celebrated and, perhaps a first, some of it was in Zapoteco.

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As the mass began, the cicadas (cigarras or chicharras, en español) began their song — one even perched on the fabric swag festooning the crosses.

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Mass over, Procopio Contreras, the young priest (first from Teotitlán) took off his vestments and posed for photos.

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Mountain top delivery of tamales de mole amarillo followed the mass.

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Along with a cup of agua de jamaica, we took our tamales into the shade, where bromeliads clung to tree branches.

After a lazy comida filled with conversation between new friends and with our strength renewed, we (3 Teotitecos, 1 Belgian, and me) descended the mountain.

While the day may be designated Día de la Santa Cruz and a mass said on top of Picacho, this day has pre-Hispanic roots in ceremonies related to the sowing season.  In the early days of May (by our calendar), prayers and rituals were dedicated to Cosijo, the Zapotec god of lightening, thunder, and rain — later to Tláloc, the Aztec god of rain — thus fertility and water for the growing of crops.  Hmmm…  On May 2, lightening flashed and thunder roared, but Mother Nature only delivered a few drops in the village.  However, on May 3, once the daylong festivities atop the mountain concluded, three hours of a good hard rain fell in Teotitlán del Valle.  The gods must have heard the prayers.

h/t  Zeferino Mendoza

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For years, I’ve gazed at the bell towers of Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo in Teotitlán del Valle and wanted to go up there.  I mused that the views must be spectacular.

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I struck it rich a couple of weeks ago when visiting gal pals and I were wandering around the church and were asked if (for a small donation) we wanted to go up to the top.  We didn’t have to be asked twice.

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It was well worth the climb up the narrow, winding, and steep stone staircase.

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There I was, up close and personal with features I’d never before noticed.

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Overcoming a moderate case of acrophobia, I even ventured out between the towers and the dome.

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Despite a dry season haze that hung over the valley, the views in every direction were spectacular.

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A bird’s-eye view!

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It was great fun trying to pick out the homes of friends.

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The icing on the cake:  The bell-ringer emerged, grabbed a couple of ropes, and the bells began to chime.

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It was really loud (bordering on deafening) and lasted a long time!!!  But, we wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

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After the wretched week that was (RIP Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, not to mention the USA elections), reviewing my Día de Muerto photos from Teotitlán del Valle was the ideal tonic.

On November 1, as I previously mentioned, after strolling and sitting and contemplating and conversing our way through the panteón in Tlacolula de Matamoros, we drove to the home of friends, Zacarias Ruiz and Emilia Gonzalez, in Teotitlán.  Arriving at 3:00 PM, we were just in time to join the family and other guests, as Zac gave words of welcome to the difuntos, who had also just made their appearance.

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Our pan de muerto and mezcal joined the other offerings on the altar to provide nourishment to the departed while we, the living, sat down at the long table for a little cervesa, mezcal, and more than a few of the 500+ tamales Emilia had made.  After lots of eating and conversation, we walked across the courtyard to give our regards to Antonio Ruiz (weaver of one of my treasured rugs), wife Claudia, and their children (the beautiful Beatriz and her lively brothers, Diego and Antonito), and to see Antonio’s new showroom (Chris has a photo in his Familia blog post) and their altar.

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Invited to return to the Ruiz home the following day for Emilia’s famous mole negro, we also stopped at the village panteón to listen for the wind that signals the departure of the difuntos at 3:00 PM on November 2.

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We also stopped to pay our respects at the grave of Arnulfo Mendoza, though it took a little searching to find it, as the large tree that stood next to it had fallen, leaving only a stump.

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Both days, the drive back to the city was filled with the warmth, peace, and joy that Teotitlán del Valle always seems to impart.

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Under the strong and comforting gaze of Picacho, who could ask for a better resting place.

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As with all of life, there are changes going on in Teotitlán del Valle.  A large new Cultural Center is nearing completion.  It’s courtesy of the federal government and, according to the sign at the construction site, not a peso is coming from the state or village.  From what I’ve been told, it will house the museum, a library, and a performance space.

And, with their final Danza de la Pluma performance on Día de Guadalupe (Dec. 12), the three-year commitment of the last Danzantes de Promesa group was at close.  The new group has already begun the demanding work of learning the steps of the 40+ dances that make up the Danza de la Pluma.

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Under the watchful eye of El Picacho, Moctezuma, Malinche, Doña Marina, Teotitles, Capitánes, Reyes, and Vasallos practice from 7:00 AM to 1:00 PM, Saturday through Monday to be ready for their debut the first Wednesday in July 2016 during the festival of the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo.  A major and meaningful commitment, it is.

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

Changes by David Bowie (descansa en paz)

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Basketball is big right now in the San Francisco Bay Area; as I write the Golden State Warriors are 35 and 2 and a new, albeit controversial, 18,000 seat arena is in the works.  But, I’ll bet it won’t have views like these…

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Unlike in wider mestizo Mexico, where soccer reigns supreme, in the Sierra basketball is king. The sport was introduced in the 1930s by president Lazaro Cardenas as a way to bring Oaxaca’s disparate and historically rebellious indigenous groups into the national fold.

Cardenas’ dream of a unified national identity didn’t take root in the Sierra, which has historically been isolated and impoverished, but basketball soon became tied to the region’s most significan traditions, and to indigenous identity itself.  — Jorge Santiago

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One of several canchas de baloncesto (basketball courts) in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

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Festival fireworks in Oaxaca are usually 3-part affairs, consisting of toritos (little bulls) and/or canastas (baskets) wired with fireworks and worn on top of the head by daring-do guys (toritos) and gals (canastas).  This is followed by a castillo (castle) and then the more familiar rockets-exploding-in-the-sky fireworks most of us have craned our necks and oooh-ed and ahhh-ed over since childhood.  Sometimes the order of the latter two is reversed.

The subject of today’s blog post is the castillo that was constructed and executed this past Saturday by “los maestros pirotécnicos los C. Rigoberto y Dagoberto Morales” for the festival in honor of the  Santisima Virgen del Rosario (Sainted Virgin of the Rosary) in Teotitlán del Valle.  They and their crew went about the business of constructing and wiring this “Erector Set” type castillo out of wood and carrizo in the church courtyard.

I couldn’t resist playing with the saturation on this photo.  In my mind’s eye, this is the way it looked.IMG_9957satAnd, de-saturating this one against the backdrop of El Picacho, the sacred mountain that watches over the village.IMG_9994b&wThe result of the work by these maestros and their crew?  A spectacular castillo, accompanied by the band, Herencia Musical.  It was quite a show!!!

And, if you want to see some inside action from a torito, check out the video Chris made, Torito Danza – Dancing with Fireworks.  He actually attached a POV (Point of View) camera to the torito!!!

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The sunburned shoulders have turned brown and the leg muscles are no longer sore.  I’ve fully recovered from last Sunday’s annual Día de la Santa Cruz (Day of the Holy Cross) hike up Cerro Picacho (in zapoteco, Quie Guia Betz), the sacred mountain in Teotitlán del Valle.

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All that remains, are memories and photographs from another lovely, if strenuous, day.  The cicadas (cigarras or chicharras, en español) again provided the  soundtrack, as we wound our way up the trail from the presa (dam).  The climb begins rather benignly but rapidly gets steeper and steeper.  That little speck in the lower right of the photo below is the car — and this was less than a tenth of the way to the summit!

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At 10 AM, when we began our ascent, it was already hot and experience told us shade trees were few and far between.  We were the only extranjeros (foreigners) on the trail and were frequently passed by Teotitecos (people from Teotitlán) going up and coming down and never failing to greet us with “buenos días.”  After several rest and water sipping breaks, we eventually reached our destination.

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This 2.9 mile (4.7 km) hike took us from 5,750 feet (1,752 meters) to 6,830 feet (2,082 meters).  However, once we arrived, we were immediately offered much-needed and appreciated cups of agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) and later we were fed amarillo tamales pulled from steaming pots in the makeshift kitchen.  No doubt, the gals in this alfresco cocina appreciated the newly constructed shade structure and counter that had been bolted into the side of the mountain, as I’m sure did the young man who sat down to serenade us.

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However, the best was yet to come — the spectacular views of the village and the mountains beyond that unfold when one reaches the summit.

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Even more overwhelming is the sense of oneness with the natural world and with generations of Zapotecos who have been climbing and honoring El Picacho for thousands of years.

P1090266As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, May 3 is Día de la Santa Cruz.  The committee members who organize Teotitlán’s celebration change from year to year, so each year takes on a slightly different character.  This year brought the newly built kitchen space and, unlike last year, no foot race up the mountain and the absence of massive speakers blasting music — for which we were grateful!

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Three permanent crosses can be found atop Picacho and for Día de la Santa Cruz, all were decorated with fragrant garlands of frangipani blossoms.  A cross of concrete and stone crowns an altar and two wooden crosses, which I’ve been told were carved in Chiapas, preside above the altar and look out over the valley.

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Teotitlán (Teocaltitlán, in náhuatl) means “land of the gods.”  Sitting on top of Cerro Picacho, it certainly felt as if I was indeed gazing out at the land of the gods.

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Defining the terms…

According to Harrap’s Spanish and English Pocket Dictionary, convite means reception.  However, if I drag my weighty Larousse Standard Diccionario down from the shelf, convite translates to “invitation” or “banquet.”  And, if one turns to Google or Bing translation programs, a convite is a “treat.”

All pretty much agree, the English translation for cochinilla is cochineal.  As Wikipedia explains, “Cochineal is probably from French cochenille, Spanish cochinilla, Latin coccinus, meaning ‘scarlet-colored,’ and Latin coccum, meaning ‘berry (actually an insect) yielding scarlet dye.'”  It has been called, A Perfect Red and was much sought after by Europeans.  Home to said insect is the nopal cactus and guess who and where it was probably first cultivated?  In the valley of Oaxaca by her indigenous people, long before the Spanish set foot on the continent.

Which brings us to last Saturday (September 6) in Teotitlán del Valle, under the watchful eye of el Picacho, the sacred brother/sister mountain, for the convite that precedes the Virgen de la Natividad (Nativity of Mary) festival day, held annually on September 8…

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It is the custom in this Zapotec village for the unmarried women of the village to process through the streets two days before this (and a couple of other) important religious festivals, elegantly balancing handmade canastas (baskets), decorated with Catholic and Zapotec imagery, on their heads.  They wear brightly embroidered blusas (blouses) and, in this village known worldwide for its weaving, enredos, hand-woven red wool wrap skirts — the yarn dyed red with cochinilla.  They are accompanied by bands, men carrying enormous (and heavy!) marmotas (cloth globes), little boys carrying poles topped with miniature marmotas, sheep, and airplanes (the significance of the latter is a mystery to me), fearless pirotécnicas announcing the convite’s progress by shooting thunderous rockets into the air, and the dancers who will be performing the Danza de la Pluma in the church courtyard during the following two days’ of festivities.

Borrowing from the definitions above of convite, I would like to think of these processions as a lovely treat, an invitation to the impending fiestas/feast (banquet) days for the saints venerated by the village.  The beauty of the welcoming faces of the young, old, male, and female in the convite provide a warm reception to villagers, visitors, Catholic saints, and Zapotec ancestors, alike.

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July in the valley of Oaxaca has begun!  There will be festivals of mole, mushrooms, cheeses, and tamales.  And, there will be the costumes, calendas, and music of Guelaguetza in the city and in several of the surrounding villages.  But first…

Subalterno with open arms

Under a dark and threatening sky, the people of Teotitlán del Valle began their week-long Fiesta titular a la Preciosa Sangre de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo (Festival to the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ).  Wearing traditional embroidered blouses and wool skirts woven in this Zapotec village known for its weaving, the unmarried young women and girls gathered in front of the church (Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo) for the convite (procession) that kicks off Teotitlán’s most important fiesta of the year.

Young Zapotec women and girls in front of church

The rain held off and the procession left the confines of the church courtyard.

Marmotas and people leaving entry gate

Marmotas (giant cloth globes), music, and pyrotechnics led the way…

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along with little boys holding canes of carrizo and poles topped with small marmotas, fluffy sheep, and airplanes (don’t ask me).

Little boy carrying small marmota

And then came the young women and girls, carrying canastas with images of the saints on their heads.  I have to note here, these baskets are REALLY heavy.  I know, because last year one of the gals asked if I’d like to try — I did for all of about five seconds.  They carry them for almost an hour!!!

Young women with carry canastas on their heads

Most of the residents came out to watch at prime viewing locations.  (Teenage boys were especially prominent, but they deserve another blog post.)

Men, women, and children standing on street

Under the watchful eye of El Picacho (the sacred mountain of Teotitlán), the procession wound its way up and down the cobblestone streets…

Procession in mid-ground and mountain in background

and eventually returned to the church courtyard, where it all began.

For more photos, including some of the pyrotechnic guys in action, check out Oaxaca-The Year After.

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Yesterday, we returned to Teotitlán del Valle to join in their annual Día de la Santa Cruz hike up El Picacho, the sacred mountain that watches over this incredibly special pueblo.  This year, instead taking the route up the mountain directly from downtown like we did last year (and it kicked our a$$), we drove to the presa (dam) and headed up a surprisingly well-marked trail from there.  A symphony of cicadas (cigarras or chicharras, en español), serenaded us as we climbed, young people passed us, and Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo, off in the distance, got smaller.  However, after more than an hour, we sighted our first pack burro (they bring up the food and drink) and knew we had almost reached our destination.

We were welcomed at the top by the family hosting the gathering and given cups of agua de jamaica — just what the doctor ordered!  There were even more people than last year, music blared from large speakers the aforementioned burros must have carried up the mountain, a new cross had replaced the one that had been hit by lightning last year, and, of course, the views were breathtaking.

But, with spectacular views in all directions, why was most everyone looking down toward the road from the village to the presa?

A foot race!  From what we could understand, there were 3 classes of runners; one that ran all the way from mercado in the center of Teotitlán and other two “only” ran up from the presa.  Whichever route they took, as one of the runner’s t-shirt says, they were all “chingon!”

And so was this gal, who was on her way up as we were coming down.

Woman carrying basket on head

Muchisimas gracias, yet again, to the people of Teotitlán del Valle for another unforgettable experience.

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I went to Teotitlán del Valle yesterday for the annual Virgen de Guadalupe performance of the Danza de la Pluma.  As many of you know, I’ve seen it many times, BUT I’ve never stayed until the end, as the dance lasts for eight hours.  Yes, 8 hours!  It would mean returning to the city late at night — and driving at night is something most try to avoid.  Thus, I decided to spend the night at Las Granadas, one of the few B&Bs in town.  However, the thought of waking to the sounds of roosters crowing, burros braying, sheep bleating, AND going for a morning walk in the country sealed the deal.

And so, a little before 9 AM today, I headed up (down?) Calle 2 de abril toward El Picacho.  The work day had long since begun…

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Crossing the Arroyo Grande, I turned right to begin the trek up Revolución.  El Picacho kept a watchful eye as I kept pausing to snap photos and just take in the sights and sounds of being out in the country.

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Black bull crossing dirt road

My destination was the presa (dam) and its precious reservoir.  Most of my life has been spent living five minutes from the San Francisco Bay and fifteen minutes from the Pacific Ocean — and now living in a landlocked city, I do miss bodies of water.

Dam, reservoir, and mountains

Reservoir

Crossing to the other side of the arroyo, I turned right on Avenida Benito Juárez for the return trip to the B&B.

Dirt crossroads

Houses on hillside

As I walked, the lyrics to Al Kooper’s, House in the Country kept playing in my mind.

No need to worry
Folks in a hurry
Leave them behind you
No one can find you
House in the country
House in the country

All the relaxin`
Will soon fill the cracks in
Good for your head too
If you are led to
House in the country
House in the country
Green surrounding
Love abounding
You won`t find a manhole there

A sublime morning in Teotitlán del Valle.  Ahhh…

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I’ve always liked Thanksgiving — and not just because, after I turned 12, my aunt would pour a little red wine in a shot glass for my cousin and me.  It’s one of the least commercial US holidays, if one discounts the whole “black Friday” and, now, “brown Thursday” (eww!) phenomenon.  And, it isn’t wrapped in flag waving.

Multicolored corn in basket

It’s a day set aside for a communal sharing of Mother Nature’s bounty, counting our blessings, and acknowledging and giving thanks for the assistance of the dark-skinned original human inhabitants of the Americas.  What a novel idea!

Corn stalks in foreground, El Picacho mountain in background

Besides being thankful for my loving and supportive family, wonderful friends (both old and new), dedicated and encouraging blog readers (Yes, you!), I’m extremely grateful for having the privilege of living among people whose ancestors first cultivated corn in this beautiful valley.

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“love
iz
a
big
fat
turkey
and
every
day
iz
thanksgiving”
Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire

Now off to the kitchen to make the stuffing.  ¡Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias!

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Yippee, I’m back in Oaxaca!  Last night’s flight was smooth, on-time, and mostly empty.  I have to admit to always getting a goofy grin as the little Embraer comes in over the lights of the city and the smile continues through immigration and baggage claim.  It usually falters and turns to a grimace when I have to hoist my 50 pound suitcase up onto the x-ray conveyor belt.  However, last night the grin returned when I pressed the “to search or not to search” button, got the green light, and was able to proceed directly to the booth to buy my colectivo ticket —  60 pesos for door-to-door service to the historic district ‘hood.  An easy return to home.

Unpacking done, late this morning I walked down to my local mercado to restock the larder with some basics:  2 perfect avocados, 1 pristine white onion, a bunch of unblemished small and sweet bananas, half kilo of quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), and 6 freshly made tamales (mole, rajas, and verde).  I’d actually asked for 4, but my regular tamale gal threw in 2 extras.  How often does that happen in el norte?   A welcoming return to home.

This afternoon, blogger buddy Chris and I drove out to Teotitlán del Valle for the performance of the Danza de la Pluma.  We stepped up onto the plaza of Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo and it was like emerging into the middle of a technicolor movie.  We’ve been there countless times, but today we were blown away by the scene.  Mother Nature had conspired to use her enhance wand on the sky, clouds, sun, and costumes.   A spectacular return to home!

The recent trip to California was to sign papers finalizing the sale of the house my grandparent’s built in 1957.  Prior to relocating to Oaxaca, it had been my home for 30 years, where I’d raised my kids and made many wonderful memories.  Needless to say, selling it was an emotionally challenging ordeal and it has engendered a lot of thinking about the notion of “home.”

However, these past 24 hours have reinforced my belief in bumper-sticker wisdom seen many years ago, “When you live in your heart, you are always home.”  It’s good to be home!

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Friday, I went Teotitlán del Valle to visit a friend.  N is living out in the campo and it was an adventure just getting there — necessitating a colectivo, bus, moto-taxi, and a fair amount of walking.  However, it was well worth it!  The conversation was non-stop, comida was delicious, and the setting is spectacular.

El Picacho from rooftop terrace.

El Picacho from my friend’s rooftop terrace.

However, a major topic of conversation in the village is the lack of rain.  Granted, I was grateful the creek the 3-wheel moto-taxi and I had to ford only had about six inches of water in it, but looking out from N’s terrace, it was evident the fields are suffering.

Maguey fields in Teotitlán del Valle.

Maguey fields in Teotitlán del Valle.

Acres upon acres of parched earth, with rows upon rows of drooping and stunted corn — the lifeblood of this country.  When the campo suffers, so too the people.

Rows of corn stalks.

Rows of corn stalks.

Word has it that this is the driest rainy season anyone can remember.  In a normal year, afternoon showers irrigate the fields and clean the city’s streets at least four to five times a week from June through September.  This year, nada!  I can probably count on two hands the number of times it’s rained.  Your offerings and prayers to Cocijo would be much appreciated!

Update:  Wow, I have some powerful blog readers — it rained last night!!!  Mil gracias.  

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Monday, we returned to Teotitlán del Valle for the Fiesta titular a la Preciosa Sangre de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo — the pueblo’s most important festival of the year.  While special masses have been celebrated at the Templo de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (the village church) since June 30, Monday’s convite (procession) by the unmarried women in the village, kicked off the more public events.

Lovingly decorated canastas (baskets) waited in the church to be reclaimed by their owners, placed on their heads, and carried through the streets.

Crowds gathered in the plaza in front of the church and sidewalks and streets along the route.

And then it began — with solemn drum beats, fireworks, church bells, marmotas (cloth balloons on a pole), and a band.

Little boys (and a few girls) carrying model airplanes (don’t ask me why), paper mache lambs, and turkeys followed.

And then came the neatly organized rows of girls and young women.

For over an hour they wound their way up and down and around the streets of Teotitlán del Valle.  The weather was perfect, no late afternoon thunder showers this year, and it was glorious.

Stay tuned, the festivities continue all week.  And, check out Oaxaca-The Year After this week for blogger buddy Chris’s photos and commentary.

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