Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico
Scattered across the foothills of the Sierra Juarez Mountains, east of Oaxaca in Mexico, the village of Teotitlán del Valle is fuelled by an artisan spirit.
We stand on the edge of the highway about 30 minutes outside Oaxaca, where the sun’s evil bite is relentless. The only brief respite comes from the somewhat perilous (yet, in our sticky states, welcome) breeze coming off the enormous trucks as they hurtle along the blacktop. It’s been about 15 minutes since the bus driver dropped us off at these crossroads instructing us that, if we wait long enough, a tuk-tuk driver would arrive to ferry us on the next leg of our journey.
Eventually we hear a tinny putter coming up behind us and the driver instructs us to hop in. He does a swift U-turn before we begin our slow, uneven ascent, bouncing around in the back of the tuk-tuk like popcorn kernels on high heat. Drenched in sweat, my friend begs me to crack a window – and by window she means plastic flap – but the air that ambles in doesn’t make much of a difference. The trip, which would have probably taken about five to ten minutes in a normal vehicle, lasts about 20 (several times during which I suspect we could have walked at a faster pace than we were going). Still, the pretty tableau that glides past our window is worth the slow ride. Vibrant houses bask brightly in the sun, prefaced by enormous clusters of aloe vera and gnarled cactus fences. Atop the flat roofs, dogs stand watch, barking bossily at passersby.
When we arrive in the tiny village of Teotitlán del Valle, our limbs are practically humming from the vibration of the tuk-tuk ride. We disembark on what seems to be one of the village’s main streets, though it’s hard to tell, as there’s not another soul in sight.
Known for its longheld tradition of weaving, Teotitlán is home to a small but immensely talented population of artisans who create intricate textile creations on hand and floor looms, which, in some cases take up the majority of living space in their tiny homes. Using local wool and cotton coloured with vegetable dyes, they meticulously handcraft all manner of adornments, from ponchos to floor rugs and bedspreads.
After wandering along the dirt thoroughfares of a few slender and sleepy streets, we eventually stumble upon an open marketplace in what looks like the main square. The fringe of the plaza is lined with tiny stores filled with different textiles, and their owners all stand hopefully in the doorways beckoning us in. The immaculately stitched seams and delicate embroideries of each item are subtle clues to the time and effort that has gone into making them. Knowing that this is the livelihood of many in this town, I silently wish that I could buy something from everyone. Unfortunately, my already lumbering suitcase waiting back at our casita won’t allow it.
A humble yet elegant church overlooks the square, and on its steps sits an elderly woman. The weariness of old age has locked her back and shoulders into a permanent hunch, while a long grey plait snakes over one shoulder, and the vibrant print of her apron clashes exuberantly with the pattern on her dress. She is toiling with great concentration over a bowl, mixing a pinkish powder with water. It’s a blend of nuts and maiz, she tells me – as her shy smile reveals an endearing tooth gap – intended to make agua frescas.
A neat succession of stalls line the center of the marketplace. I imagine that there are times when this square is bustling with footsteps, but today we seem to be two of the only visitors in town. Everyone calls out as we walk by, desperately trying to entice us into a purchase, but, having already made our selections, we smile and shake our heads apologetically.
As we meander back down the hill in hopes of encountering another tuk-tuk to return us to the crossroads, we pass another small textile shop with a sign next to its door that reads ‘El Comedor Jaguar’. It’s the home of Antonia, an enterprising local women who has cleverly realised that a way to supplement her rug-selling income in such a competitive market is to also serve lunch. She ushers us to a small wooden table surrounded by piles of blankets, rugs and wall hangings, and asks what we would like to eat. We tell her we’ll have whatever is her specialty, which turns out to be moreish spread of quesadillas, frijoles, huevos rancheros, salsa and soft, warm tortillas.
When we’ve devoured all of our lunch, Antonia invites us out the back of the shop to see her home. A half-sheltered kitchen expands out into a dirt yard that appears to be the family’s open-air living room. Her son tumbles around with a puppy, while her husband sits in a small room off the yard, toiling away at a loom making the woven creations for sale out the front. Nearby, another loom is paused amidst an intricate pattern.
As if summoned, a tuk-tuk sputters past just as we are bidding Antonia and her family goodbye. Back at the crossroads, we return to our long wait under the sun’s wrath. Twenty minutes later, we finally hail a collectivo taxi to take us to our next stop and I hop in the front seat. Just as the taxi is about to pull away, however, the driver stops and says something to me that makes me question my Spanish. What it sounds like he is requesting is that I move over towards him. I ask him to repeat himself and, sure enough, I was right the first time. I look out the window just as a tubby moustachioed man opens the door and begins to get in, forcing me to shuffle over until I’m sitting gingerly on a small cushion just behind the gear stick. An elderly couple and a young girl squeeze into the back with my friend until every possible inch of room in the taxi is occupied. The driver leans on the horn to shoo some moseying goats out of our path and we resume our journey.