An adventure through the Oaxacan countryside

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Reg Mel and Matt on Oaxacan bike expedition

DAY 9 — We are on our bikes riding on dirt roads passing alfalfa and corn fields, passing locals hauling alfalfa by donkey carts. It is day two of a trip to Oaxaca in Central Mexico that Austin Lehman Adventures (www.austinlehman.com) has arranged for our family.

Because we didn’t have time for the company’s eight-day adventure, we signed on for a shorter “custom” trip just for our gang. Oaxaca and the surrounding villages are renowned around the world for their artisans, their food, their culture dating back thousands of years, yet Americans who vacation in Mexico tend to spend their time at the beach (as we did our first week here).

I’m glad we ventured inland. We stopped at Santa Maria El Tule, about eight miles outside of Oaxaca City to view the world’s largest (in circumference) Cypress tree — 2000 years old! Fifty people could hold hands in a circle and still might not circle the tree. It’s fun to look at the wood seeing all kinds of faces and images. Is that a lion, a fish? The tree looks different from every angle.

One of our guides, Marci McLellan, tells us she was living near here when she was pregnant with her now two year old son and loved to come and sit by the tree just to feel the positive energy. We feel it too.

We take off on our bikes through tiny towns of Lochigolo and Guendolain, locals waving at us as they go about their Sunday. We ride on dirt roads and cobblestones. The villages are modest, the buildings old. We stop at a church that dates from the 1500s. There must have just been a wedding here — rice on the steps, flowers lining the pews. It’s amazing to think of a couple getting married in a church that has seen weddings and baptisms and funerals for more than 500 years. We’re struck by how the paintings — made with natural dyes — are still so vibrant-the blues and reds and greens painted so many centuries ago. We wonder about the local Zapotec people who were taught by the Dominicans to paint the church.

We cycle on to Dainzu, a ruin of the native Zapotecs’ big stadium. It was here where as far back as 300 AD they gathered to play a kind of ball game. Two year old Otis McLellan, our guides’ son, races up and down the stones. (Who says history is boring?)

We cycle on to the village of Teotitlan del Valle, known around the world for its textiles. Josefina Mendez Lopez and her family are waiting to greet us in her home, which also is a tapestry shop. There are colorful rugs and wall hangings everywhere — oranges, reds, greens, browns.

Perhaps 6000 people live in this village and 80 per cent are weavers. There are 420 shops. Josephina is the fourth or fifth generation of weavers in her family.

The Zapotec have been weavers here for centuries, one generation teaching the other. She points to a 6x 8 foot rug on the wall and her husband, who speaks a bit of English, explains that it would take a month to weave the rug on the big loom and at least a week to spin the wool.

It’s not easy — we try — carting the wool and then taking our turn on a spinner that the family has been using for more than three decades.

Josephina interrupts her lesson to hurry us outside where a Quinceañera parade is going down the street to celebrate a local girl’s 15th birthday. This is a huge deal here with a big party and the birthday girl is decked out in an elaborate blue dress surrounded by family as the local musicians lead the way down the street. She smiles at us shyly.

Inside, Josefina shows us how she mixes the dyes as her great grandparents did — the red come from the Cohil bug. (Mix it with lemon and it’s orange!) The dried moss used to make green. Yellow comes from dried marigolds browns from a nut.

This family clearly works hard — and clearly loves what they do. Their two young daughters wander in and out. Josephina’s mother, Hermelinda Lopez Vincente, also a weaver, demonstrates for us how to spin the wool.

Life is simpler here. We buy a small rug hanging so we won’t forget this family, nor this day.

We adjourn to a local restaurant Descaso for a wonderful lunch full of local specialties — Sopa Azteca, a kind of tomato-based soup with chicken, avocado and local soft cheese as well as fresh made tortilla chips. Delicious. And the Tlayuda — a local pizza made of a giant tortilla covered with refried beans, cheese, and more.

We end our day tasting Mezcal which, like Tequila, is made from the agave plant, but is distilled differently and has a different flavor. We’ve stopped at a small local place and taste different flavors (Coffee? Coconut?) Traditionally. A worm is put in the bottles. My older daughter opts for a wormless — bottle to bring home for a New Years Eve party.

We head back to Oaxaca City tired, dusty and happy.

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