This Oaxaca Tile Series will transport you to Mexico.
By Tile Designer Rohin Bhalla.
“I knew I was here for a reason.” That thought was my only solace as I wondered what I was doing here, far away from everything else, in a place with nothing to do.
Join Rohin as he finds inspiration for the Oaxaca Tile Line.
Taking time away from the Hustle and Bustle
I came to San Agustín Etla, a small town up in the hills of Oaxaca, to spend a few days away from the main city and tourist attractions. But I felt out of sync here and wondered if it would be smarter to spend my time somewhere else.
Maybe because my first moment in San Agustin went slower than I would have liked. The taxi dropped me off the night before to a locked and empty hotel with no one to open the door. I waited on the dark, empty street until a lady eventually arrived, let me in, and then left as soon as she could.
But the hotel was beautiful inside, and the breakfast they made next morning was simple and unforgettable: Huevos a la Mexicana, Oaxacan-style black beans (thinner than usual), fresh papaya, and chocolate to drink. Perhaps my favorite meal during all my time in Oaxaca.
Let the Magic Begin
I began exploring by walking a few minutes to the Centro de Artes de San Agustín (CaSa), a historical building defined by expansive, open spaces and magnificent views peeking through every window. I finally was able to imagine myself in the 1920s period drama I had been watching on Netflix.
This huge structure lived as a textile factory for almost 100 years, and then stood abandoned for decades until Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo remade the place into an education center for art and design. Toledo is responsible for many things around here, especially for why the big capital city has remained so culturally preserved and full of art. (He’s also the reason why it does not have a McDonald’s).
Outside I walked up and down CaSa’s most iconic art installation: a simple staircase designed by Claudina Lopez Morales, that in the same glance, looks modern and traditional.
Everything was so serene, I felt like I was the only one around, as if my footsteps were disrupting the tranquility of the town. I kept walking past the building, into the trees and found a paper-making studio at the Taller de Papel Oaxaca.
It was all lovely. But was I done already?
That was all there was to “do.” Why had I planned to spend so many nights here? It was a day trip kind of place. A half-day trip.
Soaking up Creativity
A cute café caught my attention after seeing “agua de sabor del día” drawn on a chalkboard sign. Inside I asked the girl what the flavor of the day was. The preoccupied girl replied “agua de naranja con vainilla.” I had never heard of that! I sat outside and she brought the drink along with a small bowl of popcorn covered in a mixture of powdered spices that I couldn’t figure out. Everything here was creative.
I ate and drank from the tall glass slowly while the worried girl moved around preparing for the day. Going upstairs, downstairs, and running outside when the tortilla car drove by spewing a pre-recorded message that the tortillas had arrived. But the way she flagged it down was casual. I guess I noticed all this because she was attractive. Another guy arrived to help. A random dog from the street strolled up to me and the guy quickly scared it away. The dog looked shocked and alarmed. Poor dog. What was I doing here?
I left a big tip for the pretty girl. But the guy came and picked it up.
Time to head back to the Capital?
Back at the hotel, the payment wasn’t going through. I offered them a brilliant idea: Let me pay with whatever cash I had (enough for one night) and I would leave immediately for another hotel back in Oaxaca City.
I could keep taking advantage of my time like before:
Swimming atop a mountain at Hierve del Agua (a place no visitor to Oaxaca should miss).
(Almost) learning how to smoothly lay a raw tortilla on a hot comal while taking a cooking class in a beautiful outdoor kitchen.
Visiting Mt. Alban, where all of the green grass made me want to wander barefoot around the Zapotec pyramids.
Or in Mitla, where I got lost, driving the wrong way down a one way street for quite a while until a police officer kindly helped me turn around, and then had me follow him to the address I was looking for: The palenque where they make Mono de Calenda, a friend’s mezcal.
And so many more places I had yet to see! Not a bad plan, but the hotel manager was not interested.
Taking a closer look at San Agustin
And so began round 2 of exploring the town of San Agustín.
I headed back through the calm and quiet along the main street, but this time, the town was in charge. Without any plan, I let the wind tell me what to do. I ended up with my feet dangling over the ledge on the top floor of the CaSa building looking out over the vibrant hills of Etla. Half an hour passed? Maybe more, maybe less. There was no hurry. Nothing pressing in the back of my mind of what I should be doing next. The sun took its time to set, like an orange egg yolk sliding down the sky and behind the mountains.
With the sun no longer around, I returned to wandering down the main road and saw someone disappear into the cafe.
Where else did I have to go? I headed back to Las Delicias de Sherezada. Inside, the person from the street was already chatting away with the owner girl from earlier. I sat outside in the same place as before and when she came over, I asked her how was the “mezcal de la casa.”
“Quieres un mezcal?!” she asked with a big smile. Her surprise made me think maybe this wasn’t a typical moment that non-tourists drink mezcal.
A few minutes later I was drinking Tobala. Why wasn’t I inside where everyone else was? People on the street passed by in slow-motion. I ordered dinner (even though I had already eaten dinner before going out) because I wanted the bill to be more substantial after spending so much of my day there. Probably, I was afraid if I left, the day would be over.
Connecting to the People
The guy from the morning peeked his head out from inside and said they were about to watch a movie if I wanted to join. I escaped inside and was pretty happy to be in this unexpected situation hanging out with this cool group. Was this the reason I was here? To have this experience and watch The Breakfast Club with these people?
Before the movie was over, the two girls left to go outside and chat. By 10 o’clock, the cafe was closed, the chairs put away, and one by one, everybody left, until it was just the girl from this morning and I blah blah blah-ing for a few minutes more in front of the cafe.
But then we kept talking. And talking. Well she mostly talked and I listened.
She told me about how she believes in giving when she can and if she gives something to someone begging for money or food, that it’s more important that she looks them in the eye first and recognizes them as a person and an equal.
And in this small town she gives easily, but the other day she went to a big city and was at Wal-Mart and she refused to lend her phone to a stranger, and that made her cry.
Things like that. This went on until 1am.
We ended up standing there for a couple hours, afraid to pull out the chairs again, as if it would disrupt the flow of the conversation.
Enjoy the Change of Pace and Lifestyle
Here I was again, standing in the middle of the same strip of road, in the same darkness, where 24 hours earlier I had felt so uneasy. And right now I felt more comfortable than I ever had before in my life.
I had arrived frustrated that everybody was so slow. Why didn’t anybody care?
My instinct from living in the U.S. was to be hurried and cunning, to try and control what happened next.
I assumed that kind of pace was the smartest way. (I couldn’t see it any other way before and I’m sure most people reading this will also see any alternative as something less).
But San Agustín is a place that’s not in a hurry. It’s calm, quiet, patient. There’s more trust in what happens, so less need to try and change things, or try and take advantage of every moment.
The mindset of this girl and everyone else melted my habits away. Suddenly, the frenetic pace of things back home seemed silly.
Here there’s less worry. Less noise. It’s easy to go with the flow when it elegantly slides next to like a slow gel. There’s nothing to distract you from seeing it.
Bringing the Oaxaca Tile Design to Life
I drew a lot while connected to this feeling. Always outside with a dull pencil (no sharpener) and spiral notebook, drawing a bunch of patterns. I could imagine mosaic tiles and I wanted to see this flow run across the floor.
The Oaxaca tiles I designed for Clay Imports were inspired by being in a place that was different, but not just because of the colors, food, or language. The design did not come from a surface.
Lifting some motif I saw somewhere in Oaxaca would be seeing the culture superficially. More than that, it’s pretty disrespectful.
It happens way too often. Just because an indigenous-looking design is uncredited and comes from a simpler place doesn’t make it less modern or less refined (nor available to copy).
Taking an artisan’s creation and re-purposing it as the essence of your design, to be used in another culture … that’s what is truly becoming something of the past.
So, I really valued what San Agustín Etla showed me, once I let it.
And I didn’t want the feeling to fade. (Even though it seems it has a little already).
My hope is that maybe these Oaxaca Tile designs can capture a little bit of that spirit and allow me to transport it all the way here through these tiles. So that I can bring life to a floor and always have a reminder to stay grounded.
We hope this journey sparks your curiosity. You can bring a piece of it into your home and projects. Shop the handmade Oaxaca Tile Collection by Clay Imports. Designed by Rohin Bhalla.