Looking for the Real Thing – Teotihuacan
by David A. Robinson
I was in Mexico looking for original handcrafted items. On my list were Indian blankets, silver jewelry, wood or stone Maya face masks, silver money clips, leather goods and anything else that might suit my fancy and my budget. How do you determine what is handcrafted and of artistic quality, and what is mass produced? I decided to find out.
My quest began in the small Indian commune of Mi Mexico in Teotihua. A short Mexican host with thick, jet-black hair greeted me. “Welcome, welcome. Quickly, come this way. Move it babies, move it,” he exhorted as we were led to a cactus tree. He cajoled us to come closer. “Come on babies, come on, you haven't seen anything yet.”
Deftly removing a cactus leaf, strands of fiber are removed and intertwined, creating yarn called celine. It is a renewable resource. From this yarn fabric is produced, creating clothing, rugs, blankets and other textiles. Different parts of the cactus, nearby plants, and flowers are used to show how they produce natural dyes in hues of red, yellow, green, blue and other colors.
Our host picked up a gourd and inserted one end into the cactus and sucked on the open end. He poured out what must have been over a quart of cactus juice. We were then invited to sample the juice of the cactus. It is sweet with a refreshing citrus flavor. Out came a bottle of Tequila. Slices of lime were given to each person.
He demonstrated – lick your open palm by your thumb, add salt, hold lime in left hand between thumb and forefinger. As our shot glasses were filled with the amber liquid, he addressed each of us and we downed the shot, licked the salt, and squeezed lime juice in our mouths. Caution: doing this procedure in a continual repetitious motion could lead to injury and possibly an altered mental state. Now that the government warning is out of the way, let’s continue with the story.
An Indian was nearby, working a loom with both his feet and legs, constantly moving them in a forward and backward motion, like the Nordic Track ski machines on television. He continually fed different colored yarn through this machine, using only body power to create fabric.
“How do you determine what a quality mask is supposed to look like?” our host asked, as he picked up a mask and began to explain. “This rock face mask was made in a factory. See the nose, mouth, ears, eyes. They all look the same. Each mask will look the same, highly polished stone with no individuality. Our masks,” (he led us over to a table with two Indians creating the facial features of masks with the help of mechanical grindstones) “all have slightly different features.” We were ushered into the store (like little babies). “These masks are masterpieces.”
I admit. They were impressive. My gaze fell on a face mask of black stone, inlaid with greenish black tile in the head, ears, and below the mouth. Facial features were inlaid with varying shades of brown, light tan and red copper toned tile. Eyes were white onyx with wide multi-hued lips and an open black mouth. Ears were totally square and long with dark tile.
Our host quickly ascertained I appreciate artistic quality and told me to pick it up.
“How much is it?” I timidly asked.
“Three thousand pesos, not 3,000 dollars, about $300.00.”
I liked it, but it was a little more than I planned to spend.
He continued. “Well, let’s put it behind the counter before someone else buys it.” I continued to look at it. “Come here, I want to show you something.” He opened a book and pointed to a face. “Your mask is an exact reproduction of this, plus it comes with a certificate of authenticity.”
Another stone mask was placed on the counter. It was made with swirled bluish white stone, and though attractive and less expensive, the first mask drew me back. Two figurines were placed next to it. “Look, you can buy the blue mask and two figurines as gifts for the same price as the other mask.” This was becoming too hard of a sell for my taste. I wandered away to look at other items.
As I prepared to leave, he approached and stated he could do a little better on the price. A saleslady escorted me back to the counter. I looked at the mask and tried to determine how badly I wanted it. It was quality.
“I want 20% off.”
“That's a lot, but I'll take 15% off – if you pay cash.”
“No, 15% off, and I put it on my credit card.” The mask was carefully wrapped in bubble plastic and then newspaper. I remember thinking, I hope I like this as much when I get home.
My next stop was a Mayan ruin. Everything was for sale – stone, wood statues, beads, necklaces, clothing, pottery. Walking past the outdoor stalls to enter the ruins, I observed these products and more. Before and after each climb and descent of a pyramid, the vendors were there.
Looking at an item meant a sure sale. A vendor approached with two small black stone figurines.
“Look at these, it doesn't cost anything to look. Hold them, see they are heavy, turn them in the sun.” I did as I was told. “See, they change colors – only $100.00 dollars for two.” Nothing unusual about this.
The mineral content in some strata will cause stone to change colors as light is reflected off. Remember fool’s gold? I declined.
“Look, it's been a slow month, $50.00 for both. Listen, I have to feed the kids, buy shoes. $35.00 for both?”
I told him no thanks. I suspected they were mass-produced in a factory someplace and probably cost $3.00 each, wholesale. Sadly, this constant badgering was repeated at most major ruins I visited. To look is to buy.
At the Indian village of Chamula, they made beautiful blankets of wool and cotton. A golden beauty inlaid with raised blue embroidery of different designs fascinated me. The color was warm and inviting. I asked the price – $120.00 and the Indian girl explained the features. If only I could speak Spanish, or was it an Indian dialect? I replied in a non-commital tone. As she continued, my tone became more guttural. I decided it was not wide enough for my bed and I left.
I was told I might be able to get a buy on an Indian (Mayan) blanket at the outdoor market in Oaxaca. One stall had queen size blankets. But it was closed. I did buy a fairly nice painted wood mask for about six dollars.
In Merida, as I window-shopped and explored places for dinner, a merchant said to me. “I have a shirt that will fit you.” This should be interesting, I warily thought (I am six feet three, 312 pounds with a 52-inch chest – a giant by Mexican standards). My traveling companions told me as I walked in local markets and streets, all eyes were on me. I am sure it had nothing to do with my safari hat and wrap-around sunglasses.
I entered his store and tried the shirt on. “Only $35.00 American.”
The shirt was too tight. “Listen, I forgot my wallet.” I realized I had left my wallet at the hotel.
“How much do you have?”
I emptied my pockets. “About three dollars in Mexican coins.”
“You take the shirt, I'll take the coins.” This was becoming surreal. “Look the shirt is too small, but here’s a dollar for a coffee, on me.”
He looked pleased. (I know you’re thinking I am the last of the big spenders, the big tippers, man about town, but hey, when you have this reputation, I try to live up to it.)
“Is there anything else you need?” he ventured.
“Well, I am looking for an Indian blanket, queen size with a design of a setting sun, with temples and pyramids.”
“I have just the one,” he exclaimed. Quickly crossing the sidewalk, he reached into an idling car and pulled out an Indian blanket. I was dumbfounded. Stretched out on the floor, it was at least a queen size. Mayan temples, rows of pyramids and a setting sun stared back at me. “This is handcrafted, made with cotton, wool, polyester and celin. Only $150.”
It was pretty, but as I touched the fabric, it felt too slippery and too stiff. I could just imagine this blanket sliding off my bed each night. I tried to excuse myself, but he wouldn't take no. “$75.00.”
“Let me stop by later, and we will talk. I have to get my wallet anyway.”
I met with two of my traveling companions as we began the hunt for dinner. I crossed the street to avoid his store. He spotted me. Damn.
“When you coming back?” he yelled.
“How much later? I'll be closing soon.”
“Much later!” I hollered and hightailed it down the street.
Many cities and towns had lively open air markets. Situated in or near plazas, these shopping centers were a maze of stalls divided by wood barriers. Their storefronts were simple textiles, hard goods and foodstuffs on wood pallets, tables and benches. Many vendors only had patches of bare ground, covered with plastic to protect their merchandise, piled high with wares.
Many tarps covered the whole area, acting as temporary protection from sun and rain. I had to continually crouch since my head would scrape the roof. At places, the tarps did not meet, and sky would stream through. I could then walk upright for a few seconds – being alone, with crowds rushing past me, their view was below and mine above – looking over a sea of tarps. In the distance, my pupils focused as churches and other buildings came into view. Simply following a myriad of passageways, one could become disoriented, lost, and find the unexpected treasure.
Oaxaca, for example, is famous for its chocolate (actually several kinds of loose cocoa for making chocolate bars and drinks). I could not find my favorite candy - taffy on a stick, surrounded by a hot pepper. The deep fried or roasted grasshoppers were crunchy, spicy and they provided a punch. And there were fantastic selections of breads and pastries, cheeses, fruits, fresh-butchered chicken, beef and pork (the beef was chewy, but flavorful, probably grass fed and not pumped up with antibiotics). The best places for fish and shrimp tacos were located in Ensenada on the harbor. Try different vendors to find your favorite place.
Fresh-cut flowers, straw hats, baskets, textiles, blankets, pottery and a cornucopia of goods were cheap in a local market. My last purchase of the trip was an intricately crafted and designed, woven doily mat for pots and pans. It is made of celine, fibers taken from the body and leaf of the cactus tree – durable, strong and heat resistant. I use it to protect the wood finishes on my dining table and countertops. Cost was about seven dollars.
Silver money clips can be a reasonable buy. I bought two – one a design of the Mayan sun calendar, and the other embedded blue lapis stone – both rated .925 pure silver content. Buy your watches and electronics in the States, unless you know exactly what you are getting.
When visiting Mexico for leisure and shopping, bring your walking shoes and solar protection, a willingness to haggle (but not too much – everyone is entitled to a livable wage). MasterCard is not widely accepted. Your Visa card is preferred.