A Week in Oaxaca….

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Last week at this time I was on a walking tour of several of Oaxaca, Mexico’s beautiful Roman Catholic churches. It was 90 degrees and sunny. Today in Boston it’s in the mid-20s which makes the re-entry process somewhat unpleasant. But I can always look at the pictures on my phone to bring back warm memories of our first trip to Mexico.

I didn’t know very much about Oaxaca, located in the southwest of Mexico, but my husband wanted to learn more about the Zapotec culture and visit Monte Alban, the ruins of a pre-Columbian site where thousands of people lived between 500 BC and 750 AD. This was my first visit to large well-preserved archaeological ruins, and now I want to plan future vacations around seeing ancient ruins around the world. It was an unforgettable experience.

An added bonus to our trip: two long plane rides (and a delightful coffee shop around the corner from our hotel) gave me lots of time to read. Here are a few pictures from our trip, along with notes about my vacation reading…

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I knew the hotel was a good match from our first step inside and I looked down at the floor tiles!

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Scenes from Cafe Brujula – my Starbucks away from home – where I learned to order a mocha with soya!  As much as I missed my local baristas, it was awesome to begin each day sitting outside talking with other travelers.

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Oaxaca is known for having many small villages dedicated to crafts, especially carved wooden figures, rug weaving and the region’s distinctive black pottery.

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Of course, one of our favorite places in Oaxaca was Amate Books, one of the largest English-language bookstores in Mexico. It was the best place to buy books about Oaxaca and Mexico, but also to talk with other visitors and get restaurant recommendations!

I read three books during our trip…

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I finally read The Dinner by Herman Koch, the international best seller about two couples having dinner in Amsterdam – and the terrible crime that their two fifteen-year-old sons committed together.  It was definitely a good airplane read – compelling enough that I barely looked up between Boston and Houston. My friends were right – The Dinner is a tense and uncomfortable novel, but I keep thinking about it. I didn’t even like the characters, but the book is so well structured, skillfully giving just enough away every few pages that you can’t stop reading. There were times it felt incredibly over the top and manipulative, but then I would start thinking about what a perfect book club choice it would be. Lots of provocative issues and difficult questions about how much we’re willing to do for our children.  After my husband read it and we had a lively conversation, we left the book in the hotel lobby where there was a collection of novels for travelers to share. When we walked by about 10 minutes later, it was gone…

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The second book I read was, predictably, Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks. Reading it in Oaxaca was a joy – as was Sacks’s story of a group of scientists and other enthusiasts who are studying, of all things, ferns.  I didn’t start the book especially interested in ferns, but I have to say that I will never look at them the same way again. The best part of the book is the passion that Sacks and his fellow travelers have for the wonders of the natural world.  Their curiosity is insatiable and inspiring.  Ferns aside, it was Sacks’s digressions about Oaxaca that were most enjoyable. His passages on Monte Alban and the famous 2,000-year-old Tule Tree enriched our visits to those sites.

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On the way home I read a new book that had caught my attention (thanks to a glowing New York Times review by Dwight Garner) a week before our trip – Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos.  I loved this book. I know that’s not very helpful, but it’s an honest response. Villalobos’s novel is totally different from my typical reading which is part of why I liked it so much. It is funny and fresh and moving.  Garner uses the word “manic,” which is exactly right. This may be more helpful – a link to Garner’s review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/books/quesadillas-by-juan-pablo-villalobos.html?_r=0

Finally, one of my favorite pictures from our trip. A funny sign in a Oaxaca restaurant…

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