Today's assignment: Get ready to let go.
Our last day in Teotitlan. Our last plates of fresh mango and papaya, our last breakfasts made by Josefina, Magda, and Rosa. Our last time wandering around the village. Our last time buying chocolate and water bottles from our friendly corner drug store. Our last time seeing Omar.
All of the lasts we had today may sound insignificant, silly. We've only spent collectively about twenty days here. We've spent less than three weeks with Omar. But somehow, Teotitlan has become a place more
dear to us, more significant, than places we've spent years in. Omar has become one of our best friends, what the Irish call anam cara. This is not an ordinary place. It gets under your skin, latches onto every part of you, long after you have left it. It is a home.
This is not the first time we have had to leave our Teotitlan. We had to make the same painful departure exactly one year ago. But this year is a little different. Last year, we already knew we would be returning this summer, we could reassure ourselves by making plans for what we would do the next time around. Tomorrow, when we load into a taxi in front of Las Granadas, it may be the last time we see that beautiful turquoise door. Tomorrow, we watch Teotitlan disappearing through the car windows, not knowing when we will be able to return. Not knowing when we will see our new family here again. Not knowing how long it will be until we see Omar's face.
Tonight, I am not writing about the day's activities or what we saw and did. This single place, this single small village, has created changes in me, in us. Sam Robbins, our teacher and mentor, once gave us her rules to photography. Her wisdom has always transcended a single subject, and with her words, I can make sense of these ten days. Tonight, I am remembering everything Teotitlan has taught me, not only about photography and capturing a place, but how a place can capture you, every last part of you.
|Teotitlan del Valle.|
Behind a camera, you have to move to get the best shot. If you stay still, you'll get the same frame over and over. You'll never find that one, wonderful photograph.
Without moving our feet, getting our of our comfort zone, we would never have landed ourselves in Teotitlan. Standing still, we would've remained ignorant of the wonder and beauty that awaited our discovery so very far from home. How different things would've turned out, for all of us. With that one decision, we flipped our worlds upside down and found the image we'd unknowingly been looking for for years.
Rule Number Two. Look for the light.
Without light, a camera cannot function. No light means no photograph.
It is easy in this day in age to see the bad, the ugly, the evil, the darker side of things. Nobody, and no place, is perfect. But it is truth that everything has its light, if only you look for it. Mexico is by no means a place without flaws. It has its problems, and they are many: a stumbling economy, abundant poverty, increasing violence from drug cartels, a population dissatisfied with its government. All of those crises, yet a warm, dappled light shines on so much here.
The light is apparent everywhere you look in Teotitlan. It shines from every Buenos Dias from passers by, in every story of someone taking in a complete stranger, in the intense connection to family and culture. In all the time I have been here, there has not been a single second in the darkness. For there is no place in my world on which the light shines brighter than my Mexican home.
Rule Number Three. Consider what you want your picture to say.
A good photograph is one that evokes some kind of response, any kind of response. A good photographer will think about what she wants that response to be, and works to capture that emotion.
It seems to me that every person in this village has long ago decided what they want their life's picture to say. They want it to say that they have worked hard for everything they have, and everything they have is worthwhile. Their pictures tell stories of loving families and traditions. They struggle, they work their fingers to the bone, but ultimately, their picture evokes happiness. That, my friends, is something we should all consider a little bit more.
Rule Number Four. Take plenty of time to look.
If you shoot before you take in your surroundings, odds are, you will miss the point.
The same goes for Teotitlan. If you dive in before taking time to actually look at what is around you, you will miss over half of what makes this place so beautiful and unique. Spending our time here behind a camera forced us to look, I mean really look. And what we saw was both soul-lifting and stirring. Just watching the people, trying to understand their culture, what things must look like behind their own lives' cameras. Taking time to not only look, but to see, was what led to our true connection with this place. We look, and we see how life can be, we see ourselves. If we had wandered around Teotitlan with seeing anything, we would have missed this part of us completely.
Rule Number Five. Spend time looking through the viewer.
As a photographer, you have to not just look at all that surrounds you, but also at the narrower image your camera sees. You have to choose a focus, see the details.
I have found that it is the details that really create what Teotitlan is. Whether it is the significance of the Danza de las Plumas or the way two women greet each other in the morning market. Through that smaller window, I could connect to the village on a more intimate level. I could begin to become a part of some of those details and rise above our apparent differences. The small things are what make Teotitlan different from the other lovely villages in Mexico. Looking through the viewer, we all discovered the extra things that have changed Teotitlan from a travel destination into a haven.
Rule Number Six. Take a context shot.
You have to know where you are. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is only bliss for those who have never truly experienced happiness.
We have spent the past ten days in a village that resides in one of the poorer regions of Oaxaca. Just minutes away are villages practically crumbling from poverty. The outskirts of Teotitlan are dotted with houses assembled from varying materials and metal sheet roofs. While the people may be happy, their happiness is not without cost, and it is no secret that many a Teotitlan citizen has suffered.
Just here in Las Granadas, our salt-of-the-earth hostess Josefina has born tragedy after tragedy. Her husband passed from cancer, caused by his exposure to acids while dying wool. She was left alone, without a way to support herself. But then, she found our Norma, our beloved Norma, and she found a way to help herself. Now, she runs a successful bed and breakfast, is surrounded by a family that loves her and constant bouts of laughter. Without knowing that story, we would miss a large part of who Josefina is. We may have been spared the sadness of her history, but we would never know just how strong she is.
Josefina is a lot like Teotitlan. Strong, beautiful, kindly, but not without work to get that way. Half of the beauty comes from the history. Why would we want to put our own personal comfort above knowing the wonderful truth about this place?
Rule Number Seven. Move your feet.
Once again. Moving once is not enough. You have to keep moving, keep trying new things, keep pushing yourself to do something you are afraid of. We may have moved once to get ourselves here, but our work is not done. Teotitlan does not cease to exist because we are gone, and the changes we've undergone will remain. Every day, we have to work to keep Teotitlan alive within us. We have to move our feet, running towards our better selves, like the people here do every single day. Most importantly, we have to move our feet back towards this place, hoping that some day, we will walk once again into its open arms.
Rule Number Eight. Be willing to discard.
The photographer must be able to toss the less than stellar photographs, to get rid of those that will go no where. So it is in Teotitlan. Discard your preconceptions, discard your discomfort. There are a few things that if held onto, will prevent you from experiencing Teotitlan. In these few short weeks, we have discarded a lot of things about ourselves, but gained so much more. Out with the bad, in with the Teotitlan.
And so the sun sets on our adventure in Teotitlan del Valle. We have to leave almost everything behind, taking only our photographs, memories, and a few pieces of the town. Most things we can accept having to relinquish and leave behind. But there is one thing we, the three of us, cannot seem to accept leaving. Rather, one person.
Omar Chavez Santiago is the purest soul I have ever met. He is unfailingly kind, infinitely patient. His deep brown eyes never falter from yours, giving you the feeling that he is not only listening to what you are saying, but caring about it. A lot. He is never without a twinkle in his eye and mischief in his step. A hilarious joke is always right around the corner, and he has reduced me to tear-ridden laughs more times this week than in the past several months. He is genuine and real. He is intelligent and driven, hoping to become a civil engineer to help the ailing villages in Mexico. He is our friend, greater and truer than many we have known.
My words and descriptions fail compared to the actual person, but starting tomorrow, that is all I have for quite some time. Let it suffice to say that when we leave Omar behind, we will leave a little bit of us.
In a matter of hours, I will wake up and leave Teotitlan del Valle. It is a diamond true, a place I love with all my heart. It may be years until we will once again walk along the dirt roads and breathe in the rich, earthy air.
But I know I am not alone when I say that I will carry Teotitlan with me every day until I do.