Ancient Cultures, Beautiful and Strange; and a Visit From Mom

Mom, Pelé and a big-grinning-dummy

 Can you remember your mother?  Right now, try to picture her in your mind. Do you see her as a young woman, an old lady, a blurry combination of life-stages, hair styles and outfits?  Maybe you have the type of mind which can picture her in any state or setting your imagination chooses?  Whatever your imaginary prowess may afford you, regardless of your relationship with your mother, whether she is alive or has passed on; picturing your mother right now will likely be accompanied by an emotional response.


Having recently seen my mother in person, I can picture her quite well.  It had been almost two years since I last saw my mother when she landed in Oaxaca.  We are both sporting a bit greyer hair (whiter in her case), but for the most part, she looks the same to me as she has for the past several years.  Her smile is as full hearted, welcoming and deeply comforting as it has ever been.  Her eyes are still bright and full of equal parts hope and heartbreak; the kind of eyes that reveal a deep knowing yet are not insulated from the joy of bewilderment.


I feel incredibly fortunate to have the relationship I do with my mom, and equally lucky that my wife and my mom are so close.  I’m certain my mom was as happy to see Tiffany as she was to see me.  When she walked up to us in the airport, Tiffany and I were both overflowing with gratitude, love and excitement.  We would spend the next week with my mom, exploring the natural and man-made beauty, variety of culture, complex history and the relative strangeness of the City of Oaxaca.  Oh yeah, she also showed up with treats and toys for Pelé!


We got to do some serious catching up on our way from the airport to the apartment we rented for the week.  There was a parade in the center of town for the Guelaguetza festival (one of the biggest festivals in a fairly full calendar year of festivals in Oaxaca).  It took us almost an hour to travel the 6 miles from the airport to the apartment. 


Mom, Pelé and his new favorite toy.

We dropped off our stuff, my mom and Pelé did some bonding over treats and new toys, then we hit the road, walking into the center of town.  The streets of Oaxaca are almost always alive with craziness and excitement of some kind.  During this festival, there were fireworks, bands playing, pop-up street markets, and about 3 million little kids running around in sugar-fueled frenzies.  The Guelaguetza brings in tourists from all over the world, and performers from all over the state of Oaxaca.  People are wandering the streets before and after their performances wearing bright, colorful costumes.  Men who have come to watch the performances are dressed in similarly colorful and stunning clothes and are themselves often equally stunning. 


The mix of Spanish and Indian genetics have made for some truly attractive people.  I’m mesmerized by their thick, black hair, full and luxurious eyelashes, the skin tones ranging from latte to just shy of ebony; and that’s just the men!  The women who populate these streets have all of the above features and then some.


Our first meal in Oaxaca was perfect.  We ended up on the rooftop of a busy place in El Centro, and had a fantastic and particularly Oaxacan meal.   We started off with some chapulines (roasted and marinated grass hoppers), a mix of Oaxacan cheese and a Tlayuda (basically a type of pizza on a roasted tortilla with rendered pork lard instead of red sauce…it is honestly much better than it sounds).  We all ended up with various dishes featuring one or more of the Oaxacan varieties of mole (not mole like little rodent, but pronounced Mole-eh). 


A square at night, filled with good looking people - Oaxaca, MX

After dinner we walked around El Centro for an hour or so, enjoying all of the crazy music, and booths filled with artisans selling their work.  We decided to take a cab home, and I was immediately in an impassioned conversation with our driver when I mentioned that we had sampled mole that evening.  He rattled off the seven moles of Oaxaca in an almost lyrical and sing-song pentameter.  His pride was unmistakable when I asked him which was his favorite; “Amarillo”!


Mole has been written about with greater skill, elegance and passion than I have the capacity to muster.   However, I will submit to you the following, mercifully brief yet heartfelt, tribute:


Mole Mi Amore

How did we begin?

“As lovers”, says Rojo

“Electric from the start!”

Negro y Amarillo

Two jealous sisters

Like Kahlo, you share your heart

Aztec cocoa and chile de agua

Enchanted and connected

Mole Verde y Mole Chichilo

Chiles y cilantro

Ground into magic


A fruit stain, a confession

Each dish a lesson


Give me courage

And plantano rojo!

Moles De Oaxaca

From wisdom to food

In One Thousand easy steps!


We passed this at least twice a day on our walk into the city of Oaxaca.

Each morning we spent with my mom had its own sort of flow, but the coffee ritual was a constant.  We always made time to share a cup.  There is something deeply comforting in knowing your mornings will have a slowness, savored with strong coffee and plenty of time for nothing in particular. 


Squash blossoms, Oaxaca cheese, blue corn fungus and frijoles negros.

We eventually managed to leave the apartment to get breakfast before my Mom headed to mass.  We headed straight for a little street market near the cathedral.  A Oaxacan favorite is a tasty treat made of squash blossoms, refried beans and stringy Oaxaca cheese, cooked in a corn tortilla over a wood fired, convex shaped griddle of sorts.  We all sat, ate and chatted with the woman who cooked our meal at a little stall adjacent to the giant cathedral of Santo Domingo de Guzmán.


My Mom is a devout Catholic, so getting to attend mass at that cathedral was meaningful to her.  Tiffany joined her, which was interesting for her as she is not familiar with Catholic mass.  This one was particularly strange for her as it was super Catholic and delivered in Spanish.


Pelé does not appear to be Catholic, and neither am I, so the two of us headed out to explore the city on our own for a while.  We walked aimlessly for a bit, and ended up at the Zócalo.  A Zócalo is basically the town square in any given Mexican town.  The Zócalo in Oaxaca is particularly cool, as the mix of people who gather there to sell food, clothing and other items of interest are a mix of indigenous groups from all over Oaxaca state and beyond.   


Oaxaca, MX

I’m not a huge fan of people hassling me to buy shit, but I didn’t really mind it so much in Oaxaca.  Pelé and I found an open table on the periphery of crazy busy outdoor café on the edge of the Zócalo.  The waitress had one of those personalities which let you know, straight-off, to not fuck around with wondering what it is that you might think you want to order.  I sat down, poured Pelé some water in his little cup, looked up and she was standing there with pen resting on paper, waiting to take my order, but looking in another direction. 


“Listo, (Which means, Ready?)”, She barked at me without eye contact.  I liked her right away.

“¡Si, si, Quiseria un café de olla, por favor!”  Café de olla is coffee made with cinnamon infused water and a little bit of sugar.  I love it.

“Algo mas? (Anything else?)”  She slowly dragged her eyes away from the fifteen other tables which need her attention to meet mine, and looked at me with something resembling a quizzical grin.

“No, no gracias, solo café (No thanks, I just want a coffee).”  She turned away without comment and made her way through the throng of tables, taking orders, picking up empty dishes and silverware as she head back inside to deal with everything she had written down on her little dog-eared pad.

Moments later, she arrived with my coffee.  She carefully put it down on the table, and managed to lean over to Pelé, who was settled in at my feet and said, “Hola, guapo (handsome)” as she pated his head and tousled his permanently tousled hair.

Selling shit you like but do not need, and celebrating that with explosions - Oaxaca, MX

After coffee, I headed to meet up with Tiffany and my mom in front of the cathedral.  On the walk back, a woman about four feet tall approached me carrying bags filled with hand carved and painted items for sale.  She pulled out a small, wooden comb.  She told me I should buy it.

I thanked her and told her “no necesito (not necessary).”

She gave me a hilariously wry look, and pantomimed the stroking of a particularly wiry beard on her face, never breaking eye contact with me and saying, “no, no, señor, es MUY necisito.”

Of course, I gave her 20 pesos and bought the comb.


Within moments of rejoining my mom and Tiffany, Pelé had his first introduction to a Mexican phenomenon which would plague him for the rest of the time we were in Oaxaca state, and into Puebla, the cohete!


In order to let people in any given area know that church is about to start, or a parade is ready to begin, or a party is starting, or a party is over, or maybe a party is about 2/3 of the way finished, or to just let people know that you still have some to set off, the lighting of amazingly loud fireworks, which launch roughly 20’ feet in the air and explode with great force, is the preferred method for lunatics and the well adjusted alike.  Fireworks in Spanish are Cohetes…Pelé does not like them...not even a little.


His first encounter with them sent him into a shivering state of panic.  He looks to dart into any building within scampering distance.  I tried to project a calm confidence to let him know the loud noises were not something to worry about.  Tiffany picked him up and tried to comfort him.  He chose to believe Tiffany, and I don’t blame him.  It is particularly nice to be in Tiff’s arms, so panic and shivering are his method of coping with cohetes from now on.


Another site from our daily walk into the city - Oaxaca, MX

One of dozens of flower stalls in Tlacolula!

From there, we headed back to the apartment, got in the van and drove to buy food and witness one of the craziest mercados I have ever seen, the Sunday market in the town of Tlacolula!  Tlacolula is about 45 minutes away from Oaxaca, and is situated in a green and fertile valley, with beautiful mountains on either side.  The mercado takes over the town and fans out for over a dozen blocks, encompassing buildings, whole streets, plazas and parking lots. 


Everywhere you look, brightly colored booths, filled with vegetables, flowers, small electronics, leather goods, handmade clothing, toys, gifts, meats, treats, prepared foods, blankets, and too many other items to list, fill the streets.  Inside the main mercado, there are booths with butchers selling everything from super recently butchered chickens, to goats of an unknown vintage.


Grilling meat in the mercado, Tlacolula, MX

There are large grills down a few of the isles which are hot and ready to cook your purchases if necessary.  One of the items on our shopping list was chorizo, a flavorful and mildly spicy sausage.  We bought enough to cook later, and I also bought a little to cook right there on the grill. 


One of dozens of meat stands - Tlacolula, MX

The booth I chose, as there are over a dozen within striking distance selling identical meat products, was being operated by three beautiful women wearing floral print dresses, with floral print aprons on top of that.  They were all smiles and cheery.  One of them, I thought at first, was a little girl.  It turned out, she was an adult, but of especially diminutive proportions.  I’m certain in the United States, there is a politically correct term to describe this woman which would only offend a few people.  In Mexico, however, people seem not to be concerned with things like this.  If you are fat, people don’t sweat it, in Mexico you are Gordo; plain and simple.  If you have dark skin, you are negro, equally plain and simple.  If you are under five feet tall, you are just Pequeño, also simple.  This Pequeño lady was grinning at me with full teeth and dimples. She was super pretty to me, and I couldn’t help but return her grin with one of my own.  Her friends at the booth noticed us sharing this little exchange of grins and were teasing her about it. 


I took my purchase over to the grills, laid out a string of sausages on the hot surface, and grabbed a pair of tongs for the eventual turning and flipping of the meat.  I walked back to the booth of women who were grinning and watching me intently to ask them how long they normally cook the meat.  The ring leader pushed her Pequeño friend out of the booth, clearly wanting her to come cook for me so they could see the two of us standing close to one another.


I suppose I should mention, at this time, I’m about 6’4” when I’m well rested, and was most definitely the tallest person in town.  I had to duck under the tarps which were draped over the booths, I had to watch my head when I passed through some doorways, and I almost always needed to bend at the knees to speak with people at their booths.  My Pequeño pal was most certainly the smallest adult in town.  The sight of the two of us together was something to behold.


She approached me, reached her hand up high above her head and took the cooking tongs from my hands.  She was clearly a little embarrassed.  I followed her back to the grill, and asked her her name.  She couldn’t hear my question, so I had to bend at the knees and duck down to ask her again.  I could hear her friends erupt in laughter in the booth behind us.  Her cheeks flushed red and she answered in the softest and sweetest voice, which was difficult to hear over the commotion and noise of the market.  Due to the ruckus, combined with the wild cackling of her friends behind us, I can’t be certain, but I think she said “Rescenta”.  I asked her if maybe she and I could take a picture together, hoping that maybe she was just shy and not totally embarrassed.  When she politely declined, I understood completely.  As adorable and sweet as she was, I no longer felt good about what her friends were up to.


Before I could tell her that I could take over the cooking duties, a man with a microphone approached me.  I hadn’t realized it before, but there was a live radio broadcast happening from the mercado.  I had heard an amplified voice floating above the din of music and chatter of hundreds of people engaged in commerce and chatting, but I honestly thought is was just an MC of sorts. 


As soon as he saw me, a tall skinny white dude, he approached and started asking me questions.  I answered him in my child’s Spanish, and could hear my own voice echoing off of the rafters in the high roofed building of the Mercado.  My little Pequeño pal tried to walk away as soon as she saw him approach, but he noticed her behind me before she could escape.


“WHOOA!!!”  He sang into the microphone, his voice echoing throughout the big hall of the Mercado.  He clearly saw comedic gold right in front of him.  He told her to stay right where she was; he needed to take a picture.  I looked at Rescenta, and she finally made eye contact with me again.  I reached for her hand, as much for my own comfort as to offer some to her, and she reluctantly took it.  Holding her hand was like taking one of Pelé’s paws in my hand.  It was tiny, hesitant and roughly the same size.  Mercifully, the photo was taken in moments, and she could escape back into her booth.  Her friends, teasing her about her new “boyfriend”.  Before I walked away with my cooked sausages (which were amazing and delicious), I walked up to the both and gave her one of our Monkey Tooth stickers.  She took it and gave me one last shy and beautiful smile. 


As my Mom, Tiffany and I walked around the crazy Mercado, buying the ingredients to make breakfast for the next several days, we approached a booth selling a variety of breads.  I could feel someone staring at me across the aisle from where we were.  I turned around and saw a woman in her early fifties, looking at me with a funny grin.  I walked over to her and said hello.  She shook her head at me with a comical smile and showed me her telephone.  She had just opened up a message from the Facebook page of the Tlacolula Mercado, and showed me the photo of Rescenta and I by the grill.  She continued to shake her head, giggling at me with a sideways grin.

I’m pretty sure she said her name was Rescenta…I could most certainly be wrong about that and just about everything else.


We wandered around the town for a bit longer, found a really cool rug for our van, then headed back to Oaxaca.    


Some little church, Tlacolula, MX

Our friend Helena, who we met a few years back in Baja, when she was riding her bike from Florida, now lives in Oaxaca.  We made plans to meet her for dinner in El Centro.  I decided to stay in with Pelé, and Tiff and my mom headed out to meet with Helena.  I ordered a delivery from a nearby taquería.  All of us ended up having a wonderful evening, especially Pelé, who got bits of tacos al pastor sprinkled in his dog food and did not have to encounter any more cohetes for the night.


The following day, we tried to get tickets to the Guelaguetza, but they were sold out.  Tiffany and my Mom managed to get tickets to see a show in a smaller theater.


We spent the rest of the day, wandering around El Centro de Oaxaca, and had as much fun seeing the sights as watching my Mom enjoy seeing the sights.  We walked for miles around the city until my ankle (still recovering from popping out of socket in San Miguel) was completely swollen and in need of ice and elevation. 


Tiffany and my mom headed to see the performance of the native dancers, and I stayed in again, nursing my swollen ankle.  Tiff and Mom loved the show, and I was happy to read a book and relax. 


Guelaguetza dancers telling a story so ancient and strange, white people from Mississippi travel there to witness it - Oaxaca, MX


The following morning, we all got up super early, had quick cups of coffee, packed up in the van and headed out to see an ancient ruin.  Set in the hills above the city of Oaxaca, Monte Albán is the ancient home of the Zapotec peoples.  What remains now is an archeological site, a museum, and a beautifully bizarre but somewhat opaque window into a complicated history.


We hired a guide for our exploration of the site. I have no idea what his name was.  He told me what it was.  I even repeated it, sort of.  However, I could not say it again if my life depended on it. For what it’s worth, I really wanted to be able to say it, but my brain and my mouth refused to keep the name, so now it is lost to me, like the true meanings of some of the glyphs we would see inside are lost to history’s best guess.  He was a Zapotec, about five feet and three inches tall, and eighty-four years old.  He spoke mostly fluent English, Perfect Spanish and I assume perfect Zapotec. 


We made it to Monte Albán on a Tuesday and super early.  In fact, when we got there, they were just opening up the gates and beginning to sell tickets.  When we presented our tickets to the man at the gate, the gentleman who would become our guide (whom I will refer to from this point forward as Edgar, because I like the name and it fits him in my mind) was resting in a chair and almost whispering the phrase, “Guide Service” as we approached.  I liked him right away.


I guy and a guide…I’ll call him Edgar because I can’t hear people or remember names with more than three syllables.

Edgar was wearing an old and well worn pair of black leather shoes, a pair of fading jeans which were a little too large, a button-down, long sleeved shirt (tucked in) and a wide brimmed hat.  He carried a satchel with a few guiding tools.  He was patient, walked at an amazingly brisk clip for being 84 years-old and dealing with a fairly pronounced limp.  I liked just about everything about this guy.

He showed us around a fair bit of the site, and did his best to describe the various elements of the build to us.  One space was for a crazy game where the winner was sacrificed, another was for dancing, and another was meant to be some sort of medical college.  Some of the details were fuzzy, and the chronology was equally vague.  I thought for sure the museum would clear things up once the tour was over. 


Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, MX

We followed Edgar around for over an hour, and he was by far my favorite part of the ancient ruin.  I asked him how long he had been doing the tours, he told me he had worked at Monte Albán for 54 years!  When it was time to climb up to the tops of some of the larger structures, Edgar wished us well, and concluded his tour.  He wandered off, and we never saw him again.


We did our own bit of wandering, and managed to climb up on top of every structure you could possibly climb.  My Mom seemed to love the place. 

Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, MX


We all needed to use the bathroom and wanted to see the museum, so we climbed down from the big beautiful ruin-site and made our way to the now incredibly busy museum and lobby.  Of course, the line to the men’s room was exactly the same length as it would have been in any country, meaning there was no line whatsoever.  The ladies, however, were waiting in line for so long that men were standing by the door of the men’s room while women took turns using it.


I took the opportunity to wander around the museum while my polite mother and wife waited in line for the toilets.  Regrettably, nothing was made any clearer by the plaques in the museum as there were very few, and what few there were, were printed in Spanish and Zapotec. 


I did see some strange shaped skulls in one corner of the museum; shrunken, elongated, alien shaped skull bones populated a beautiful display case.  Under this case, a detailed description awaited all of the Spanish and Zapotec visitors. 


I Waited For You, But They Came For Me…..

My Mom and Tiff had had their fill of waiting in line, and didn’t want to fight the crowd which had formed in the museum, so we took off.


On the way back to Oaxaca, we stopped at a little road-side taco shop and had a fantastic meal.  My Mom quite liked sitting in the ramshackle restaurant, and seemed to take great joy in all of the little details which I also tend to appreciate about places like that.  For example, these places are incredibly relaxed, and are willing to sell you anything, even if it isn’t on their menu.  If you order something they don’t have, they will go over to another restaurant and get it, then sell it to you for just a little bit more.  We both also like the crazy number of employees who tend to work in these little places.


We spent the rest of that day wandering around Oaxaca again, hitting markets and checking out the town.  That evening, we invited our new friends Julie and Marcus Tuck (previous world-traveling Podcast guests) over for dinner. 


It was fantastic to see my mom get to enjoy hanging out with the type of people we’ve been meeting on this journey.  Marcus and Julie are a delight to be around, and Pelé absolutely looses his shit when he sees Julie.  We ate pizza, talked for hours and had a great time playing with Pelé and sharing stories.


Pelé tends to find certain people more enjoyable than others.  For instance, our friend Jane Maru (also a former guest) is one of Pelé’s favorite people on the planet.  When he met her, it took about twelve minutes for him to go completely crazy for her.  Anytime he sees her, he jumps around and does a little dance of worshipful joy at her feet. 


He did the same with my Mom.  When she would get up in the morning, Pelé, normally a late sleeper, would jump up to go see her; tail wagging like he was trying to take flight.  I can only imagine how happy he was to be around Tiffany, my Mom and Julie all at the same time. 


The next day, we had a cooking class scheduled for the afternoon with a lady called Sonia.  After a delicious breakfast in the apartment, we took a bit of a walk around town, then headed out to Nazareno Etla.  What we found there was something I enjoyed tremendously.

Sonia’s cooking class is hosted her in a simple but beautiful home in Nazareno Etla.  She has a beautiful garden, a fabulous outdoor kitchen, and is helped out by her son, Baldo and her friend and coworker, Esperanza.  You are immediately greeted with offers of Mezcal, cerveza, and snacks. 

Eating with Sonia!

We started eating, right away, and did not stop until we left several hours later.  They even let Pelé hang out while we cooked, ate and drank. 

After everyone arrived, we got a little tour of the organic garden in Sonia’s front yard.  We saw vegetables and fruits we had never heard of, and many we all recognized.  We were all very impressed with the layout, variety and output of the small garden.

Once we had a little introduction to the family and what they were about, we got a chance to taste some of the things which had made them so successful.  The family had been in the cheese-making and dairy business since Mexico started handing out permits to be in the cheese-making and dairy business.  The father proudly showed me his father’s original permit application and license.  We then ate two of the cheeses and tried one of the very best fresh creams I’ve ever had.

Top to bottom - Cafe de Olla, Mole Negro, a pot filled with chicken - Cooking with Sonia

After introductions were completed, we got into the ingredients of what we would be making and eating.  Fresh herbs, spices, peppers and a few tomatoes would be used to make a mole Verde.  A Mole Negro, which takes days to prepare, had been made long before our arrival.  We got to work right away, grinding the ingredients of the Mole Verde on a tool which looked like a mortar and pestle had a baby with a rolling pin. 

While some of us we were working on the Mole Verde, others were making tortillas out of a strange and blue corn fungus, and other tortillas out of regular old corn meal.  I was eager to learn both techniques.  I spent a great deal of time grinding the Mole, and listened as Sonia told us how to make the chicken dish which the Mole would be making even more delicious.  She planned on holding back some of the Mole for Tiffany to enjoy with vegetables. 


There were other choices for aprons, luckily I picked the best one.

After I finished grinding the Mole, I made my way over to the tortilla station, relieving my Mom, who had been pressing them and placing them on the concave, wood-fired cooktop surface.  I was delighted to help Esperanza with the tortilla process.  She was incredibly patient with my technique and was visibly relieved when I finally got it down.  We ended up pressing and cooking over a dozen delicious, fresh corn tortillas.


We ate the tortillas, and the blue-corn fungus tortillas were split open, filled with a raw egg, then cooked again.  We had Chapulines (crickets), Mole Negro con arroz & Pollo, and the Mole Verde con Pollo in a soup.  


One of the other guests was from India, and had come to Oaxaca for his birthday in order to eat!  Sonia was aware of it being his birthday somehow, and had prepared an amazing, home-made cake to celebrate.  The cake was paired with hand whipped hot chocolate and café de Olla (my favorite).

 We left full of food, and filled with joy to have spent so much time with such wonderful people.  Getting the opportunity to hang out with a Mexican family in this way was truly special to all of us.  I would highly recommend traveling to Oaxaca for this experience alone!

We made it back to our place in something of a food coma.  My mom was feeling a bit green around the gills from the massive feed, so we called it early.  I slept like a baby.

 The next day, we all woke up feeling well and decided to visit a petrified waterfall outside of Oaxaca, called Hierve El Agua.  It is a spectacularly beautiful drive, and the “waterfall” itself is something worth seeing.  There are only two such waterfalls in the world, the other being in Turkey. 

Hierve El Agua - about an hour south of Oaxaca, MX


Pelé, dummy & Tiff overlooking the Hierve El Agua, near Oaxaca, MX

Hierve El Agua

We hiked around the small park which surrounds the waterfall, and marveled at the views.  We saw mountains filled with wild forests mixed-in with agave plantations, row crops and some livestock wandering around.  Farmers were sparsely dotted across the landscape working the fields without the aid of machines.  Mules and donkeys were about as close to machines as these guys got, and they used them accordingly.

The first creature we encountered on that road who didn’t charge us for driving on it, or try to sell us something.


On our way back from our hike around the Waterfall, we stopped in the beautiful little town of Teotitlán del Valle for lunch, and to look for some small rugs.  Lunch was delicious and interesting.  The place where we found the rugs was one of the coolest places I’ve been in a while.


Josefina Artesanias - Teotitlán del Valle

Josefina Artesanias is located in the home of an extended family.  A grandmother, her daughter, her husband and their two children all live and work from this amazing place.  Each member of the family possesses a certain skill relevant to making and selling beautiful rugs.


The mother does the floor show, and recruits the grandmother to help showcase how the wool is spun into spools which will then be tinted with all natural dyes.  The mother then shows us the process for dying the wool.  You are then taken over to a set of two huge, handmade looms which are used to make the various rugs which are hanging from the walls of the courtyard of the home. 


Possibly Josefina? Josefina Artesanias - Teotitlán del Valle (photo credit Jeannine Gaudet)

We spent almost an hour, learning about the process, then carefully picking out our rugs.  These beautiful, handmade pieces of art are incredibly reasonable, and worth every peso.  We bought one for the floor of the van, and my Mom bought one for her home.  The whole experience was warm, welcoming and something I hope to experience again in other cultures as we head south.


From there, we worked our way into the town of El Tule, to see one of the largest trees in the world, the Montezuma Cypress.  The tree did not disappoint.  When I first saw a giant redwood tree in California, surrounded by other giant redwood trees, I was completely blown away.  When I saw the tree in Tule, I wasn’t exactly blown away, but I was certainly in love with the beauty of the thing.  It is simply enormous, with a dimension of 40 meters around, and has been growing since about 400AD!


The Montezuma Cypress in El Tule, Oaxaca

When we arrived in El Tule, we were stopped by a small parade of people carrying a statue, followed by a brass band and several maniacs, firing cohetes into the sky at random intervals.  Pelé was not digging it.  After parking the van, we made our way to the square, where you have to buy tickets to approach the tree (and oddly to get into the church).  We got our tickets, and were not surprised to see the band and members of the parade, piling into the church ahead of us.  As the band played in the church, we handed over our tickets which gave us the privilege of walking in a circle around this crazy-huge tree.  Meanwhile, the afore mentioned cohete-blasting lunatics were firing, con gusto!  Pelé was literally shivering in fear, and leapt into my lap when I sat down on a bench to admire the tree.


El Tule

A group of young kids approached to ask what was wrong with the dog.  They posed their question in broken English.  When I answered them in Spanish, they didn’t understand me at first.  Then they realized I was speaking Spanish, and not English, and got it.  After that, they started asking Tiffany, my Mom and I a ton of questions in English and Spanish.  They had come from the state of Veracruz on a family trip, and all of them were taking English in school.  They were thrilled to be able to practice what they had learned on some bonafide gringos. 


That evening, we were happy to make it back to the apartment to rest after a big day.  We sat together in the comfort of a stranger’s living room which had become as close to home as I’ve been for years.  My mother, my wife and my dog, all in the same room in a strange land, which had known the dying screams of sacrificial virgins, the treachery of conquering armies and the beauty of the dance between art, food and memory.  We spent a little time there in that cozy room, chatting and preparing for my mother’s departure the following afternoon. 


Jeannine Gaudet

The next morning, after another delicious breakfast, my Mom and I sat down across from one another, in much the same way I’ve been sitting with friends and strangers alike on this journey, to record a conversation.  We had been chatting for a week about religion, philosophy, family history, faith, death, skepticism and the mysteries of being alive.  Our conversation that morning was not much different.  I was curious to know more about my Mom, and always wanted to do something like this with her.  The resulting recording is something I will cherish.


We packed up our things, moved ourselves back into our van, and drove with my Mom, one last time to the airport.  She was on her way to Mexico City to worship at the foot of a sacred statue, and to take in a few sites in one of the largest cities in the world.  As we left her, I was tremendously happy for her.  She is courageous, yet vulnerable, humble, yet accomplished, and willing to fail, yet unafraid to try.  Watching her wander off into the airport with her minimal luggage, Tiff and I were sad to see her go, but thrilled to know she was doing what she loved.  Hopefully her experience was similar as she watched our big red van lumber off into the mid-day sun. 

Jeannine Gaudet, upon arrival in Oaxaca, MX