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Oaxaca, etc.

Michael Kluckner

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Artwork & text © Michael Kluckner, 2019

The 7th trip to a Latin American country since I started doing this website, and the 4th to Mexico.

We began in Mexico City, flew to Oaxaca and for 5 days rented a casa (airbnb) in a working-class area called Barrio Unidad Modelo, about a 20 minute walk east of the touristy heart of the city, then moved to the excellent small Hotel Azucenas on the west side of the centre, then flew back to Mexico City and went by bus to Cuernavaca, then on to Taxco, and finally back to Mexico City for a few days.

Oaxaca is a very popular destination for people like us – middle-class gringos from the USA and Canada – and has a well-deserved reputation for its fine buildings, artisan markets and constant and colourful fiestas. Ironically the State of Oaxaca is apparently also the biggest source of migrant farm labour in California. The countryside is very poor and very dry, something of a surprise given how close it is to Central America, but Oaxaca City is on an altiplano – not as high as the ones in, say, Peru, but in the rain shadow of high coastal mountains.

By comparison, Cuernavaca and Taxco southwest of Mexico City/CDMX have good soil and adequate rainfall. Ironically, they seem to be off the gringo map (except that you can do either of them as a bus daytrip from CDMX) and have fallen on hard times. However, for example, the Hotel Antigua Posada in Cuernavaca is a great place to shipwreck for several days.

It was just 'artwork on the fly' for me – pencil in the Moleskine book with a bit of colouring-in with coloured pencils which, as I've written on the main page, is not terribly successful. The pleasure, of course, is making a personal record different from the snapshot one that everyone takes, as well as the discipline and practice of drawing quickly the things in front of you.

However, don't miss the cellphone snapshots lower down on this page....

I am surprised by how many of my drawings are of people with their phones. This is not really intentional, but people on phones are typically frozen long enough for me to get a drawing going. It used to be that most people I would draw would be reading a book or newspaper or contemplating life in a martini glass in a bar, but that's terribly 20th century.

L'Opéra on Cinco de Mayo is our favourite bar in the Centro Historico of CDMX – Mexico City, that is. We discovered it on an earlier trip.
"Espere" means "wait" – lots of that in airports, less of it in bus stations. It's the same word as 'hope' in French, which seems appropriate.

Selling to the gringos in Oaxaca ... Volkswagen Beetles everywhere, like in Mérida!

The highlight of this trip was getting to know our Oaxaca barrio – our neighbourhood – watching the people come and go, eating in a few of the street cafés, and especially going to the Mercado Victor Bravo Ahuja, a covered market about a block and a half from our casa. It and the shops across the street were a constant source of interest. A girl who worked in the helados (ice cream) shop next to the panaderia (bakery) was a student at a nearby graphic arts studio and workshop called the Taller de Gráfica Bambu, which we visited; every morning I walked over to get bread, and typically had to return at some point in the day to buy water or fruit. We had a good kitchen in the casa which we used a few times instead of eating out. Lots of graffiti in the 'hood, some barbed wire, way too many barking dogs, but friendly people going about their business. And no gringos other than us – okay, call me a travel snob!

Teotitlán is a village famous for its weaving about an hour southeast of Oaxaca.

The water shortage is acute in Oaxaca, Mexico City and many other places. You get used to seeing the pipas (water delivery trucks) in the neighbourhoods; they pump water into rooftop tanks which then gravity-feed the houses, and there always seems to be an overflow that creates puddles in the courtyards or on the streets, maybe due to broken pipes, such as the one in the alley a few doors from our casa.

One morning when I was going out for bread at 7 am, before most people were out and about, I was surprised to see a naked woman, about 40, washing her body and her hair in the clean puddle that had emerged into a swale in the alley. It was evident that the pipe leaked quite regularly as there was a healthy patch of grass growing in the swale. Presumably the woman lived in a room without running water – certainly without bathing facilities – but I didn't stick around to ask her, didn't photograph her, and drew her from memory. She may well have been one of the people who bought breakfast for a few pesos at the mercado's kitchen a block away.

Perros de la calle (street dogs) are absolutely everywhere, most in pretty good shape given the circumstances of their lives ...

From the roof terrace of the Hotel Azucenas with the coloured pencils.
There are many many Canadian and American tourists, some of whom spend several months each winter in Oaxaca and in Puerto Escondido on the coast.

And back to Mexico City en route to Cuernavaca (where I did no drawing) and thence to Taxco, the picturesque former mining town in Guerrero State.

Juan Ruiz de Alarcon was a Taxco-born playwright in the Spanish "Golden Age" of 4 centuries ago – his statue in one of the town's little squares....

...and some snapshots with the cellphone:

One of a set of landscapes by Jose Maria Velasco that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Mexico City painted from different vantage points around the Valley of Mexico in the 1870s. Mexico City/CDMX has spread out to occupy the lake beds of Aztec times – lakes very visible in these paintings, which are classics of the 19th-century style with their peasant figures moving through the foregound and the enormous sweep of terrain in the distance. The draining of the lakes and the huge (22 million or so) population of CDMX today is causing an environmental disaster, with land sinking due to the compression of the clay soil because it is pumped out for drinking water and covered with buildings. Below: a detail, zooming in – the huge Cathedral on the Zocalo in CDMX, already more than 200 years old when this was painted, is clearly visible.

Above: the National Gallery of Art near Bellas Artes and the Alameda in CDMX
Below: the art of the selfie at the Contemporary Art Museum in the Parque Chapultepec, CDMX

Above: parasols in the small CDMX Chinatown near Alameda
Below: the huge and impressive monument and museum to the Revolution in CDMX, under a smoggy sky.

Grand CDMX – the Mexican lottery corporation headquarters on Paseo de la Reforma.

Above: Cuernavaca, about 1-1/2 hours southwest of CDMX, is famed for its gardens and pleasant climate. But much of the beauty of it, as in the eccentric/worth-a-visit Museo Robert Brady (below), is hidden behind high walls and sheltered from the rather ramshackle, charming, chaotic streets.

Below: sunrise in Taxco, 3 shots between 7 and 7: 15 am on a February morning

Taxco is over-run with smelly white Beetle taxis (above) and vans used as collectivos – cheap jitneys that stop anywhere along a more-or-less set route.

Above: like the Beetle taxis, this delivery vehicle for a bakery in a house near our hotel has its passenger seat removed.
Below: quite a lot of Taxco is, thank goodness, inaccessible to the aggressive, smelly cars and buses. Much of the market activity of the town takes place in steep alleyways between the valley and the Zocalo – a scene that could almost be a souk in Morocco.

Above: grand Oaxaca
Below: La Lupita, a restaurant for the locals in our barrio (see map above).
The barbequed chicken on the spit is "al pastor" – typically tacos al pastor on a menu.

The Hotel Azucenas in Oaxaca – a historic photo in its tiny lobby and, below, as it is today. Worth a journey.

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