Upon arriving in Oaxaca from the dreary, gray New England, I was immediately struck by the vibrant colors of the southern Mexico state. Although the warmth and food were indeed perks of my trip, I traveled to Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka) these past few weeks for the first time as part of my job with Simply Smiles. Our programming in Mexico focuses on two distinct areas in Oaxaca - in Coyotopec, a suburb of Oaxaca City, and in the remote jungle community of Santa Maria Tepexipana. In both locations, we lead volunteer groups to help us to carry out our community development programs, which focus on education, food aid, home and infrastructure development, hookworm eradication and medical care. (I encourage you to read more about the efforts of Simply Smiles in Mexico here.)
During my first week in Oaxaca, I had the opportunity to travel to my friend Gaby’s home village of Santa Ana Yareni, where her mother prepared a garden-grown and -raised lunch of soup and tamales (I think this visit may have been the closest living definition of “bucolic” and “picturesque” that I’ve ever experienced.) Other key food moments? During the second week, a family graciously gave us space inside their home so that I could cook meals for a volunteer group in the Santa Maria Tepexipana. Or, when I visited a community that lives and works inside the Oaxaca City dump and ate sandwiches made by a woman who owns a now thriving torta shop inside the dump.
Yet, food was only a small piece of the trip. In graduate school, I’ve learned much about defining your bioregion. Rather than politically defined boundaries and constructs, a bioregion describes an area based on ecological patterns, land formations, and, often, human and animal culture and interactions. This concept may seem abstract, but it really does help to contextualize the areas we call home and the places we visit. The concept of a bioregion has guided much of my thinking, both personally and professionally. My job requires me to spend long periods of time in distinct places, immersing myself in the unique culture and ecology of the region. Oaxaca, for example, is proud of its history, indigenous roots and large populations of Zapotec and Mixtec Indians. But, as Emerson’s quote suggests, to travel with only beauty in mind can do a disservice to the people and place, especially to those individuals who need and deserve a voice.
Sure, I took a lot of pictures of the flowers, animals and landscapes of Oaxaca, but I didn't want to turn the people or place into spectacles. I didn't want the following images and what I took away from my initial trip to the region to fall into the trap of poverty porn, nor try to characterize or define the region - an area the size of New England - as a whole. Yet, the photos posted provide some context into the place of Oaxaca, and the people who allowed me to take their photos (after conversations in broken Spanish and a lot of hand gestures if Zapotec dialects were their native language!). This trip raised very real and challenging issues (i.e., hunger, poverty and privilege) and ones that I'm just beginning to process; but, I also tried to provide snapshots into the more light-hearted and entertaining. As the captions reflect, this is an attempt to begin to share my experience and the stories of the kind, immensely hardworking and overall beautiful people whom I met as a first-time visitor to Oaxaca.
(1) A view of the Oaxacan Mountains from the Simply Smiles Center of Operations, standing from inside our new dormitories (2) Cactus flora (3+4) Downtown, historic Oaxaca (5) Oaxacan mountains, framed (6) Flora in the park (7) Instead of barbed wire, shattered glass serves as an effective - and pretty - barrier on concrete walls (8) Water insecure: safe drinking water must be trucked in (9) Cactus (10) Dona Rosa artisan market, where a woman, Dona Rosa, created unique black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotopec in Oaxaca, celebrated for its shiny finish after firing (11) A mountain view (12) Life in four bottles: milk, Coke, Corona and formaldehyde (13) Tree at the Oaxaca City park (14) Gardens in San José del Pacífico, a town located at 8,000 feet in the Oaxacan mountains (15) Hey, goat (16) Street food in San José del Pacífico (17) Coffee seedlings in Santa Maria Tepexipana, a region that grows incredibly high-quality, organic beans (18) Loncheria, San José del Pacífico (19) A view from the jungle (20) Mescal is the drink of choice in Oaxaca, made from the agave cactus that grows both wild and cultivated (21) Maria Sabina, a shaman of sorts, who is celebrated for finding medicinal mushrooms in San José del Pacífico. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, hippies and expats alike sought Sabina’s “talents” and the town has become known for its medicinal and culinary mushrooms (22) …and the mushroom soup at this restaurant was amazing and magical! (23) My room in the jungle for the night (24+25) PSAs (26) Comedor Jazmin in San José del Pacífico (27) Jungle bananas (28) A schoolgirl in San José del Pacífico (29) Sunglass fashion, San José del Pacífico-style (30) Mexican Chinese food (31) Dog in the Oaxaca dump, which is an entire community of individuals and families who live in work in the dump, sorting through the mountains of trash from the entire city for recyclables (32) Mattress frames serve as fences for many home plots in the city’s dump community (33) A view of the dump community in Oaxaca, from atop a trash pile (34) Santa Ana Yareni, three hours north of Oaxaca City (35) An evening in historic Oaxaca City (36-38) Shots from Santa Ana Yareni (39) Draft animal-powered farm fields on the hillsides and cliffs of Santa Ana Yareni (40) A poised pup in Santa Ana Yareni (41) Up in the clouds in Santa Ana Yareni (42-46) Flora and fauna in Santa Ana Yareni (47) A prominent Catholic church in Santa Ana Yareni (48) Flowers in Santa Ana Yareni (49+50) Housing in Santa Ana Yareni (51) Garden limes (52) An older woman makes her way up the hill in Santa Ana Yareni (53) Cilantro and self-sufficiency (54) Cliff and mountain-side gardens in Santa Ana Yareni (55) En route to the jungle (56) A pooped pup (57) Road-side garden (58) My friend Gaby (in blue) and her family (59) Farmland in Santa Ana Yareni (60) Embracing a tree friend (61) Traditional adobe home (62) Kids in Santa Maria Tepexipana (63) A woman and her child waiting for their food supplies at the Simply Smiles despensa program (64) Alebrijes, or brightly colored folk art sculptures made from wood found in the mountains. On artist said that the shape o the wood determines the creatures he produces (65) Corn husks, used for tamales, animal feed and a fuel source (66) Cocoa pod in the jungle (67) Sunset in Santa Maria Tepexipana (68) Pineapple in Santa Maria Tepexipana (69) A hibiscus gift from a new friend, outside my temporary kitchen window in Santa Maria Tepexipana (70) A couple receives their monthly food supplies as part of the despensa program in Santa Maria Tepexipana (71) Handmade pottery in Coyotopec (72) I had the opportunity to cook in a family’s home for the volunteer group during our second week in the jungle. It was a privilege to be given this space to use, and, as the token white people, we had a lot of visitors. But, it was also uncomfortable cooking large amounts of food for the group and being watched. In this region, people have been known to boil leaves to satisfy their hunger (73) A woman awaits her food supplies as part of the Simply Smiles despensa program in Santa Maria Tepexipana (74) A nursery in Coyotopec