Oaxaca: pronounced Wa-ha-ka
Oaxaqueno: Wa-ha-ken-neeo (person from Oaxaca)
Rate of exchange: approximately 10 pesos per Canadian dollar
September 10th, 2007
Finally. I am in Oaxaca. We’ll call this day one; we cannot count an overnighter in a dumpy Houston airport hotel. My original Oaxaca trip was booked for September of 2006 after years of reading about the wonders of this very Mexican region. Keeping an eye on the Trip Advisor’s forum, the final hour found me making a detour due to the escalation of the teacher’s strike, fueled by the presidential elections, which had finally culminated with violent protesting and demonstrations. I made a last minute change to Cuba and now I am here, back to Plan A.
I arrive grateful to find a small, tidy airport after the hubbub of the Houston airport. The first person I meet on the taxi collectivo is a travel writer, Michael, working for a large newspaper in the Bay area - serendipity at work. The taxi system from the airport is well organized and reassuring with set prices listed for each zone. I am staying in the Centro Historico zone, which is a $37 peso
Hotel Las Mariposas is one of the two hotels I had narrowed my choices down to. It won out over Las Golondrinas because of its amazing rating on Trip Advisor of #2 of 94 listed accommodations. I have chosen the small studio on the second floor and am pleased to discover it is quaint, clean and private with a tiny kitchen.
Lucia, one of the owners, hands me a map on my way out in search of the zocalo - the central plaza. One must always find the center of action first, but foremost is the search for a good lunch. She recommends Restaurant La Olla a few blocks away. Upon reviewing the menu, tears sting my eyes and in my mind I am saying, I am in my Mexico! I am happy! I am so happy! A woman is watching me and can read my thoughts I am sure. I start with guacamole. It has less lime and more chile than in other regions I have been in. My first meal in Oaxaca must have a mole so I order a tlyuda, a large fire roasted tortilla smothered in a red mole with chunks of tender
chicken, tomato, avocado and onions. Delicioso. With my reasonably priced accommodations I can happily eat my way through Oaxaca.
The zocalo is a large, busy square with music of some type in each corner. I choose the bustling Italian Coffee Café for people watching and a cappuccino, which I may regret this late in the day, but it’s worth it. There are an inordinate number of flag sellers and then I remember that Independence Day will be celebrated on the upcoming weekend.
On my way back to the hotel I pass a restaurant and stop to the read menu. A waiter asks me if I speak Spanish.
“Estoy apriendendo.” (I am learning).
“Where? Are you taking a class?”
“ No. In the streets.”
“You need to practice. I have just finished my teaching degree. If you wish, I will help you.”
Perfecto. Within the first three hours of arriving I have found a Spanish tutor. We arrange a meeting for 10:30 the next morning.
The breakfast at the hotel consists of cold cereal and sweet breads with margarine so I opt for Amarantos at the zocalo before meeting Abimael, my new tutor.
I love Mexican breakfasts and I choose one of my favorites - Huevos Divorciados: two eggs sunny side up, one with salsa verde (a cilantro based salsa) and one with a tomato salsa. The great divide is black beans. The service is excellent and the eggs are great.
I arrive before Abimael at his restaurant. Six waiters surround me and want to know whom I am meeting. They tease and joke and ask a lot of questions. He is headwaiter at this restaurant so they respectfully back off when he arrives and we go to the garden of the Santo Domingo church to begin our Spanish class. I love the irony of the sea of maguey plants in front of the church, which is what mezcal is made from.
Abimael (meaning my God is Lord) is not a Suave Rico type, rather a studious good boy type who volunteers for the church is his spare time, helps his mother who is recovering from both cancer and alcoholism and
has a Mexican girlfriend with an American name. His English is about the same as my Spanish and I help him practice as well. He agrees to take me to
the central market to pick up flowers for my room.
At the doors, a woman sits with four huge metal bowls heaped with red, aromatic “things”. My new friend tells me they are roasted chapulines: grasshoppers. And some roasted worms for good measure. I cannot wrap my head around crunching into a grasshopper. We go to a flower stall he frequents for the pink roses his girlfriend likes and I choose a bouquet of roses and one of sunflowers to brighten my room along with the tea lights I have scattered around.
Back at the zocalo, Andrew introduces himself. He is the new owner of a renowned restaurant named El Naranjo, which I’d read of in Bon Apetit. He is an American who has moved his small family to Mexico to live out a dream of owning a restaurant. He tells me he has kept the integrity of the menu and I promise to come in for dinner on my trip.
For the life of me I cannot get a grip on the lay of the land. Streets change names for no reason and there is no indication on the map. I am
Wanda in Zaachila
Lots of fun with Abimael on a day trip
perpetually going in the wrong direction. I firmly tell myself that if I can conquer Venice in a day, I can gather my bearings in this city.
I investigate the center and sit in an outdoor café in the zocalo to write. My one word impression of the Oaxaquenos: polite. I see scant evidence of last year’s problems. This being my twenty-third trip to Mexico, I find a civility that I’ve not seen elsewhere. I think it has to do with the influences of the bashful indigenous peoples (of which there are seventeen separate groups in Oaxaca, most predominantly Zapotecas and Mixtecas). The men are timid in comparison to the bawdiness of the men in the states of Jalisco, Narayit and Sinaloa. I decide to hang in the center of the square to see whom I may meet. An assortment of vendors and one donation collector stop. Next, an older professor with a Pancho Villa mustache stops to chat me up. He invites me for a cerveza and I decline. He is persistent and wants to know why I don’t want to go. I only say I don’t feel like it. He gives me his number urging me to
Artful Market Day
change my mind.
Love is in the air in Oaxaca. Lovers embrace and kiss deeply in the streets, on church steps, under trees, in restaurants, on park benches. It is one of my favorite sights anywhere in the world, keeping my belief in love alive, especially living in a passion-parched city that shuns public displays of affection.
I see Michael, the travel writer from the taxi, enter the zocalo and wave him over. He sits with me and we chat about Oaxaca and about writing. Andrew, the owner of El Naranjo walks by and greets me by name, much to Michael’s surprise. I am thrilled to have him share so much information and advice with me on writing. He checks his watch and runs off to catch an expected call from his wife.
Tonight I have dinner at El Naranjo. The squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese are divine. Andrew sits a while to chat and points out the fact that with the indigenous mix, these people look different than in other parts of Mexico. He is a nervous man and I sense he is feeling the stress of the drop in tourism, it being uppermost on
Spanish Tutor and friend Extraordinaire
Abimael and I have plans to go to the Thursday market day in Zaachila. He presents me with a traditional decorative pot inscribed, To: Wanda. This present is with honey, respect and I wish that you enjoy your staying in Oaxaca. What a sweet gesture.
The bus stop for this village is located only a few blocks from the zocalo. We enter the market to a burst of color and activity. Women in all types of indigenous dress are selling flowers, fruit, vegetables, herbs, beans, cookware and many unidentifiable things. There are mounds of calcium (lime) for tortillas and heaps of what looks like crushed rock that is used for its scent, which I buy. The sellers in this market are masters of presentation; everything is enticingly and artfully laid out in baskets and large bowl-like bags. Live chickens are carried under the arms of women and turkeys wrapped in bags are sitting sadly clucking, awaiting their fate. In one area of the market, the women are loudly yelling out in competition and it sounds like the New York stock exchange.
Zaachila has a small collection of ruins and a beautiful
Loads of Chiles
190 Varieties Grown in Oaxaca
view of the surrounding mountains. We meander around the area, Abimael holding my hand up and down the hills to ensure my safety.
We stop for handmade ice cream at Siboney’s stand, which Abimael’s friend owns. The extensive flavors of ices and ice creams are all natural and I choose a scoop of cactus ice cream and one of burnt milk at the owner’s suggestion and it is delicious. I am invited to try the old fashioned hand spinning method of making the ice cream which has been done at this market for six generations. The owner kindly presents me with a gift of a Siboney’s shopping bag as well.
I am in need of a siesta after the full day.
Before dinner I stop at La Olla to inquire about cooking classes. I am informed that next week there are no classes due to low season but tomorrow morning I can still enroll for the tamal class. What luck! This is exactly what I had hoped to learn to make.
I decide on Italian for the evening and for some reason as I enter the restaurant, I change my mind and go to a different
Snacking on Grasshoppers
place I’d read of, Pizza Nostrana Spagetteria. The owner offers up whichever table I want and I choose one next to him and another man. They are instantly interested and within minutes, invite me to their table, to which I happily agree.
Pepe, the owner, is a talker and decides to regale us with two long stories in Italian with a little Spanish thrown in here and there. - Italish. I strain every fiber of my language brain parts to understand the stories and even a joke. I’m not sure why he thinks I understand Italian. He tells Mateo how much he is enjoying our conversation and compliments me; he has mistaken my straining as intense interest and fascination. Mateo shares his sangria and bites of his meal with me and I share my large ensalada Caprese and seafood spaghetti. Finally Mateo is able to squeeze in a word and asks if I would like a ride home.
Mateo takes me to my hotel but asks if I can go out again with him in forty-five minutes? Si, si. I stay out far too late considering I have a cooking class in the morning. But, who cares?
Mole y Pollo
I have awakened too late for a proper breakfast before the class and I manage to achieve my daily routine of going in the wrong direction so turn around and rush to the class.
I arrive to find “Tres Abogados”, as I come to call them (instead of Three Amigos, Three Lawyers). The Zapoteca gods are with me; I will take my class with three gorgeous, young and polite Englishmen (think Hugh Grant).
Pilar, the owner of Restaurant La Olla, reviews our shopping list and off we go, each with a bag in hand. We visit a smaller, colorful market filled with fresh produce and flowers, each vendor selling their own little specialty and stop at many stalls for the various ingredients. Pilar is a stickler for freshness and quality, which is clearly reflected at her restaurant. There are 190 varieties of chile peppers grown in this region.
• Salad of Nopalitos (baby cactus), tomatoes, jicama and chepil
• Tamales with chicken and black mole in banana leaves
• Tamales with black beans and hojas de santa (an anise like leaf)
wrapped in a corn leaf
• Tamales with
Yummy Menu del Dia
only the corn maseca and chepil leaves wrapped in the more common cornhusk
• Chile and tomatillo salsa (made complete with two crushed worms)
• Mango pie
• Two types of mezcal and cerveza
The class is held in a large, traditional tiled kitchen and is great fun - the guys are good sports - tall Matthew wearing a frilly blue apron, James in a lovely red traditional apron and David donning denim. We mix, grind, chop and wrap our masterpiece tamales as Pilar, our maestra directs us and teaches us about the food we are working with. I am feeling very “Like Water for Chocolate” right now and I would do Isabel Allende proud because I am sure I am infusing my tamales with pure joy. We dine at a table beautifully set by our two sous chefs and our creations have turned out magnificently. Pilar is a wonderful, warm instructor and I am glad to have had her teach me the art of tamales, which truly are an art. The Englishmen are off to watch an important soccer match and I am off for a siesta before my 5:00 p.m. date.
Mateo arrives and takes me
to his studio/gallery for a tour and he reads me various publications at my urging and gives me two of his exposition books, both of which are prestigious, and which he signs. This is no average struggling artist. He's extremely prolific and has collectors in various places and is clearly a rising star. One piece I like sells for approximately $7000 US and his largest piece in progress will be $35,000 US. This next exhibit he is working on is bulls, bulls, bulls in all their glory. Is there a correlation to his astrological sign? He has just returned from a large exhibit in Italy of which he was the only Mexican invited. His art is beautiful and a lot of it is erotic, mostly subtle but some boldly so.
After our evening out, he invites me to breakfast in the morning.
Sometime in the wee hours I am startled awake, thinking that someone is in my room shaking my bed. It takes me a moment when I hear the door rattling and things shaking to realize it is an earth tremor. Ohmygod. Being completely unused to this I cannot sleep for most of
Wonderful Markets Everywhere
what is left of the night.
Note to self: wear pajamas in event of earthquake.
I spend the day with Mateo, firstly over breakfast in the zocalo and some deep conversation (en espanol - my head is pounding from trying to translate, especially since he uses an extensive and complex vocabulary) a visit to a large museum in the neighboring town of San Bartolo Coyotepec where his next exhibit will be held for Dia de los Muertos (where we leisurely view the exhibits as we discuss the art) and then an afternoon of walking, eating and talking.
Although this casa was rated extremely high for hospitality, at this point, I do not find the owners overly warm. The mother barked that a 5 peso per minute rate would apply to a cellular call I want to make to Abimael. It is Dia del Independencia and the festivities will be in full swing at the zocalo. I cannot reach him so I rest, then go alone.
The streets are teeming with activity. The little girls dress up and wear sparkly pointed hats and matching masks. The teens giggle, chase and spray one other with foam and are covered
in it. Some of the little ones are also allowed but it is their parents who spray them. Food vendors, flower, flag and foam sellers are out in full force. I arrive at the zocalo and a huge mariachi band is playing, squeezed into the large gazebo. The square is filled and I find myself in a crowd so tightly packed that I decide to exit. It is not enjoyable alone, the only foreigner in sight at an event filled with families and lovers. There have been rumblings about problems and the police are clumped in groups on corners so this may be why there are few tourists out in this vast sea of Mexicans. I do not feel threatened in any way; I just don’t care for crowds this large anywhere so I opt to have a late dinner and sangria at a little bar off of the zocalo. Sangria is my drink of choice on this trip - it has been delicious everywhere. I think I have sufficiently stuffed myself with the Oaxaqueno cheese, it being in every second dish I eat.
Back in the courtyard of the casa I hear the fireworks, which the Mexicans adore,
go off at 11:00 p.m. for El Grito del Independencia, Dolores Hidalgo’s Cry of Independence, which is reenacted by mayors all over Mexico on this night. The night ends in celebration and without incident.
I have no appointments so awaken and get ready for the day slowly, listening to Mexico’s Marco Antonio Solis on my laptop. It is a sunshine lollipop day with only wisps of cirrus clouds here and there painting the sky.
I am on the Spanish immersion program; almost no one wants to speak or be spoken to in English here. I should not include this in my little article however because it may intimidate potential tourists who are sorely missed in this city right now.
I am enjoying not one but two cappuccinos with my breakfast at my favorite zocalo breakfast place. There is a parade for Dia del Independencia with an ear piercing master of ceremonies. I try to overpower it with my musica espanol on my laptop headphones. If I can find the bus, I will go to the town of El Tule for the afternoon but firstly I will leave a note for Abimael at his
I have walked about two miles and cannot find the bus and don’t really care so I walk back to check out the bookstore. I meander through the street market and stop at a little café to rest. I take a new route back to the hotel and then go to my room but work instead of siesta.
There is a knock at my door; the desk clerk tells me I have a guest. It is Abimael and he's taken time off work to come see me. I show him the slideshow I have begun of Oaxaca, which he is in, then the slideshow of Cuba. The guests and owners are milling about and everyone is checking out this young Mexican. He wishes to book me for tomorrow morning, for Tuesday and for Thursday. He is adorable, this polite boy from the mountains of Huatulco.
I finally take a nap. I have been eating as the Mexicans do - late. I want to return to Pizza Nostrana for the authentic Abruzzo cuisine but I am not up for a long-winded attempt at translation. I would enjoy chatting with Pepe if only I understood Italian. I opt for a not so close second choice but the waiter is friendly and the salad is fresh.
I consider going to Abimael’s restaurant to listen to live music and to possibly dance but realize I am too tired and head off to read and dream. The prospect of dancing doesn’t look good this trip.
I wake in the night with sinus pain and a plugged nose and gladly I have nasal spray with me as well as Cold FX.
I have breakfast at my favorite zocalo restaurant and a man next to me strikes up a passionate conversation about the conditions and corruption in the state of Oaxaca and his work with the indigenous peoples. He is a revolutionary lawyer on a quest and barely takes a breath as he expounds - this all in Spanish. The problem with speaking Spanish without an American accent is that people assume I can understand the language in its entirety. Au contraire.
His name is Venustiano - how unusual. The names in this region are not the typical Paco or Juan or Carlos, they are Wuilver and Beniguo and Abimael. As I wave my hands around like an Italian when I speak, a wasp crashes into my hand and in retaliation, bites me. Eeouch!
“It was an accident.” says Venustiano, “He didn’t mean it,” as he chivalrously stomps the life out of the poor thing.
He is in the city for an overnight stay from Santa Cruz de Huatulco to pick up his propaganda pamphlets from the printer. He wants to take me on a tour of el centro so I follow along, not having much planned for the day anyway. After the tour, we stop at a small bar where revolutionary types hang out. He tries to steal kisses and chooses to ignore my “cease and desist” body language. He tells me he is thrilled to be spending an afternoon with a woman of such character and spirit.
I pull out my laptop to show a few pictures and listen to some music and we dance a little in the deserted bar. He is a font of information and, since he works with the indigenous peoples, I ask an anthropological question I have been curious about - their sex lives. Wrong move. He is swilling his Coronas and it’s time for a quick exit. I make up a story about needing to meet a woman at the hotel. “Where is she from?” Dammit! Ummm. “Italia.” He wants me to meet him later for a birthday celebration.
I am slightly drunk when I leave, two beers under my belt in the afternoon heat. Today is exceptionally clear and hot. I go to Restaurant La Olla for the Menu del Dia (these are great value and interesting). I go back to the hotel to read and rest but can’t sleep so I use the Internet.
Mateo calls. He tells me he has called at noon but I was out in the streets, si? You are a vagabond, si? Yes, yes, but you are on vacation. He says he is working like crazy; besides his upcoming exhibit, he now has secured another one right after that. And I know he has an exhibit in Washington next year, did he really say the White House? I must ask. I can only imagine the work required to be as prolific as he is and to be painting on such large-scale canvases. I am daunted when I begin a 24x36 canvas.
Yesterday, he says he felt sick, achy, his throat hurt, he feels like he has a cold. He is tired and says if he feels better he can meet me tomorrow for a café.
I change clothes and give my postcards to the adorable young man, Arturo, who lets me in late each night. I will go to Abimael’s restaurant tonight for dinner although my food intuition tells me the cuisine will not be all that good.
I stop at the farmacia for extra-strong vitamin C. I am tempted to ask for some kind of drug, just because I can. One can purchase prescription drugs in Mexico without a prescription.
Abimael is happy to see me and, as I suspected, the food is not up to the high standards I’ve had thus far. Oh well. He has sweetly given me a discount. We agree to meet tomorrow at Café La Antigua for cappuccino and another lesson in Spanish and English.
I would have preferred to stay just a little closer to the zocalo. The last four or five streets to my hotel become deserted at night and honest to godfrey - I get lost at least once a day. This ticks me off because I pride myself on my normally excellent navigational skills. Is it the altitude that has scrambled my compass?
Mateo calls in the morning and says he is going to go pay his cellular and light bills. Do I want him to come by in fifteen minutes? Yes. However, I misunderstand that he will have time for a coffee but no, he came just to say hello. I have (rudely) cancelled on Abimael but I ask Mateo to use his phone to reschedule.
We kibitz and he takes me to the tintoreria (drycleaner) and then to the dermatologist to book an appointment. I ask for five Mexican minutes to show him the first part of my slideshow of Oaxaca. He listens closely to the music and asks for me to turn it up; I hope he doesn’t misread my choices.
The first song is a melodious Josh Groban in Spanish that I love called Si Volvieras a Mi - If You Return to Me…
Como calmar mi sed (How to calm my thirst) - He asks, “Do you have thirst?” (Yes, but that’s besides the point)
Como sobre vivir (How to live on)
Como seguir sin ti (How to follow without you)
Como saltar sin red (How to jump without a net)
And it just gets more romantic and tortured…
Anyway, he compliments my composition and off he goes to run errands and work and whatever.
I have breakfast at the nearby La Olla. The flavors in Pilar’s recipes are soft and subtle. Excellente. An old woman comes in with calla lilies and some long stemmed purple flowers of exactly the kinds I want for my room today. I buy both. Next an old man comes in with a huge batch of calla lilies and wants to sell me more.
“I have some,” I say, pointing to my bundles.
“Yes, but mine are better. And I need to eat.”
This gets me every time. I can’t bear someone going hungry as I eat such bountiful meals and his thin body makes me believe it is true. I leave, arms overflowing with flowers.
Abimael comes into Café La Antigua smiling and looking more handsome with his new haircut. Today he has pictures of his life to share with me. I have a mission: conjugating verbs in the “you” past, present and future tense. We create a long list and then we do some English translation for him. After he leaves for work, I sit and do homework, lots of homework; if I am going to start cavorting with Mexican intellectuals (and drinking with verbose revolutionary lawyers), I need to learn a whole lot more Spanish than I know now.
Tonight on my way out, I see the biggest butterfly I have ever seen in my life floating gracefully through the courtyard. How apropos in a hotel called Las Mariposas.
Mateo has told me of a restaurant near my hotel called 100% Naturale. I decide to feed my body an immunity boosting meal tonight to fight the cold. I didn’t expect the place to be pretty but it is too American in design and menu. The list is extensive and offers an endless array of shakes and drinks. The meal is just what the doctor ordered, however, that will be the end of my American style fare.
I’m far more industrious on a vacation than any day at work. I expend an enormous amount of energy researching, investigating, writing, photographing and creating slideshows, collecting, studying and
reading (I’ve already finished a novel).
And I absolutely love all of it.
I have had a horrible sleep, my throat on fire all night long. I am not too concerned about it; I am in a place I love, doing what I love and this too shall pass.
Mateo calls; as if it not difficult enough to understand his rapid Spanish but to add to the challenge, the phone lines at the hotel crackle horribly and only one phone works, so I search all over for it. I don’t really understand what he is doing today, mostly painting I think.
I suppose the guests and owners of the hotel don’t find me overly friendly; I am always flying by, running off to somewhere and don’t take my breakfasts in the courtyard with them. Today I will ask Lucia to help me with a bit of my homework and linger around for a while.
I have found a tranquil little spot across from the Santo Domingo church where I book a reflexology session for late afternoon. It’s back to Amarantos in the zocalo to try the next thing on the menu for breakfast and to write in the ambience of the square. There are many vendors as on the beach and I am handing out pesos left, right and center to the buskers and old people begging but this is my tiny contribution to the livelihood of a few people each day.
(An old man is singing, okay, howling in the square and I giggle as I think of a TV commercial for Lotto 649: A man who has won the lottery is being pestered by a mime as he reads on a park bench. “I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you stop doing that,” he says…I’ll give you a hundred pesos if you stop doing that!)
At her request, I have shown a little street vendor girl and her nephew (who is maybe three years younger) my photos of Oaxaca and allow her write on my laptop. She is painstakingly typing her list of sisters and brothers …Catalina y Javier y Jesus y Jasmine y Margarita y Basilica y Alejandra y Pedro y Andrea… I think we could be here all day.
I stop by the photo shop with a CD to print a few photos as gifts for Abimael and to keep the promise I have made to send a woman in the Zaachila market her picture. I also find a restaurant called Coma Agua Para Chocolate, named after the movie I assume, and purchase an apron for cooking - a reminder to cook with love.
I meander and stop at the corner of the Cathedral in the zocalo to listen to a news journalist as she is being filmed. Within moments, a young Mexican stops by to chat. He speaks English well and tells me he is from Teotitlan del Valle (Tee o ah wa teet lan), a nearby village. He and his family weave the Zapotec rugs as is the tradition of this town. He tells me of the stories, symbols and legends that are weaved into each rug and I ask if he can explain the significance of the Mayan prediction for 2012, which I am very interested in. He weaves the story beautifully and I am enchanted. I ask him if, perchance, he knows of a medicine man in his village. Si. I tell him of my plans to go to El Tule tomorrow with Abimael and he suggests we come to Teotitlan afterwards.
I had decided in Canada that I would try to find a medicine man. It is pure magic that Samuel has found me. What a stark and welcome contrast to the shark-infested streets of Havana in December.
During my reflexology session, tears sting my eyes as Sara’s tiny but strong hands relax me and I think my little heart has broken open it is so full of love for this place and its people. As I walk to the dermatologist, in this moment, I know I exude love - I can see it reflected in the smiles of the people who pass me and in the faces of the little girls waving out of their cars at me.
I am surprised to find that the dermatologist smokes - in his office. I can, of course, smell it immediately. He does an examination and asks many questions, looks in his book and comes to the same conclusion as the doctors at home. He is a very engaging gentleman and wants to chat and ask questions about my life and travels and of Canada. I cannot help but teasingly berate him for the smoking. My Spanish has been useful for this visit otherwise I don’t know how I would have communicated. He taps out my bill on an antique typewriter I’d thought was only a monument sitting on the corner of his desk.
Throughout the night my cold keeps me bolting upright, trying to catch my breath at times. Bugger.
For today’s breakfast at Amaranto’s I have a mole tamal wrapped in a banana leaf with a plate of fruit. Excellente. Abimael is to meet me here and is quite late. Finally he shows and tells me he is sorry, he stayed up too late with a friend to listen to his problems. “What do you think?” he asks. The friend’s girlfriend is pregnant.
I ask him if he is interested in a change of plans to visit Teotitlan del Valle today. He is game. Leaving the tranquility of the Centro Historico zone is a whole other world. We walk to the super hectic area where the buses and taxis gather. We try to find a taxi - no easy feat. Each taxi driver has a zone he is permitted to work in and there are none for Teotitlan so we go to the bus stop. It is all confusing, even for Abimael. Immediately, our bus zooms past the stop, gone. We wait. And wait. And wait some more. One hundred buses pass by and the pollution on this street is horrendous. Finally, we flag a taxi for El Tule to see if he will take us to Teotitlan. Yes, but at an inflated rate. We agree, exhausted from the wait and he stops a policeman for permission to go out of his zone.
We take our Spanish/English class along the way while watching the scenic valleys and mountains and arrive at Samuel’s home in the sleepy, picturesque little village. He pulls two juicy red pomegranates off of the tree for us to try. A bull is tethered and a large braggadocio turkey struts by with his feathers in full splendor. Samuel shows us the dried bugs, the red blood used for dye. His mother demonstrates the grinding process. Next Samuel shows us the weaving techniques and allows me to try. His mother also shows me how to spin the wool and we enter the humble shop and Samuel explains many of the pattern’s meanings. His new ipod is juxtaposed in this setting.
Next we go to meet the medicine woman. More waiting. I am surprised to find a younger woman in pants. She pulls out a deck of playing cards and asks me to tap them three times. She asks why I have come. She sets out the cards and explains. My skin condition is not dangerous and may be an allergy that developed when I was in the sun and had taken medications at the same time. She recommends a specially concocted tea, which cleanses the blood. I must take the tea with meals for forty days and then the condition will dissipate. She also gives me a mini “reading” about my life: I have some projects that I am working on. They will be successful because I have strong purpose. I also have a permanent job right now and I should stay at it until the project takes flight, and it will. I will travel to many other cities and countries because of this project. I will also return to Oaxaca.
I invite the boys to lunch and we have an appetizer of fried quesadillas with zucchini blossoms and agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) then go to another café for the balance of our lunch. Abimael insists on paying for the second course.
Samuel and I discuss the reading and decide how much tea I will need to buy. Abimael is very quiet and I hope he is not bored to death, however, I know he is a deep thinker and is assessing Samuel and his extensive grasp of English and this medicine woman’s predictions. I can see he doesn’t believe in this stuff. We return to the medicine woman and wait yet again.
We run into the lovely American family from my hotel and find each other waiting for the bus at the same time. Samuel offers to take us all to the highway but then it begins to pour and he offers to drive us to the hotel, which we gladly accept.
Mateo arrives at 7:30 p.m. for our date. We go to Toscana’s, a beautiful restaurant in the Jalatlaco neighborhood. He talks and talks and I love to listen to the Spanish although I tell him, please know that I understand only half of what you say.
I awaken to the morning noises of a busy B&B. There is lots of laughter below in the courtyard and it is enticing but I am too tired to get out of bed yet. There are many churches in Oaxaca and at some godforsaken hour, the bells start to toll. The way I see it, the priests think that if they have to get up early, so do we.
It’s off to el zocalo with my laptop and another sunshiny day in paradise. It is unseasonably dry this year. Each day, as I become a more frequent customer of Amaranto’s, my fruit plate grows. Today it is huge and fresh with papaya, watermelon and pineapple. They now have the Wanda cappuccino mastered.
Andrew from El Naranjo spots me and stops by for chat. Then Samuel sees me and stops and I am completely sidetracked from writing. I invite him to have a cappuccino with me and we philosophize and chat and I show him my slideshow, which he stars is in. He thoroughly enjoys it and recognizes a few people; one of the vendors in the Zaachila market is his neighbor.
I have my spa afternoon booked and I am excited for my three hours of massage. Sara starts with the reflexology first, soft indigenous music playing in the tranquil room. The full body massage is relaxation incarnate and next the gentle facial cleanse and massage. It is pure sensuous bliss! An idea floats in and out of my mind for a different type of Spanish translation book, which would greatly help me in my communications and maybe many others.
When I leave it is lightly raining and the owner insists that I take a robe to keep warm for the walk home. I can just imagine a spa in Canada letting you leave with a monogrammed robe - not.
I snack on some tasty street tamales while I check my email.
Late night I go to Pizza Nostrana’s again for dinner and just putz around for the balance of the evening and work on my little slideshow and do some writing.
At Teresa’s (the other owner) request, I have written out a small list of recommendations for the hotel guests in one of my own art cards that I will glue into the guest book. She loves it so much she says that she will frame it and photocopy the information, a kind compliment. (After this, I am shown the phone, which I can use for calls to Canada and the USA at no charge - I should have shown my friendly self a whole lot earlier!)
I go the central market to buy chapulines (for anyone who wishes to crunch on a grasshopper’s head at home) and moles and chiles and then go to the bookstore to buy Abimael an idiomatic phrasebook, which will greatly help him with his English. I go to his restaurant to deliver it. He gives me the kindest compliment I have ever received and I leave in tears, feeling privileged to hear such words, and with sadness to be leaving this place too soon.
I have promised Andrew that I will eat one more time at El Naranjo and he wants to ask me about the cooking class. He is interested in starting classes and I give him some of my marketing ideas for it, which he happily writes down. I feel badly for him; his shaking has intensified this week with the lack of business in this low season.
I hang around the zocalo, moving from place to place now and then to steal shots of the lovers. I want to capture the memory of such calm, sensual pleasure. An old man with only a few teeth comes over to me.
“Porque triste?” Why are you sad? “No, no,” I lie, “I am only thinking.”
He sits next to me and we begin an intense discussion about his Zapoteca beliefs about life and the culture and his need to share his knowledge. He is writing a book and has met a Frenchman who says he will help translate and publish it. For the hundredth time, I wish I could understand Spanish in its entirety. What he has to say is great wisdom passed down over the centuries. The Oaxaqueno men that walk by are curious to know what this old man is saying to me that has captured this guera’s attention so wholly. Some stop and sit nearby to eavesdrop then leave. One man sits reading a paper, and the instant the old man leaves, he comes to me. “I am a Mixtexa….and off he chatters, telling me all about his culture. He asks if I would come sometime to visit him in his village and gives me his address, telling me to just ask around for the directions when I arrive.
I stop at a shop, Artesans de Las Mujeres, the owner a warm woman who helps me make a selection of fiesta decorations for a Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) party I want to hold back at home and go to rest for my evening plans.
Mateo arrives looking handsome and fresh in a white cotton shirt and jeans. He takes me to Hotel Victoria, an out of the way hotel on a hill overlooking Oaxaca. The view is lovely from the terrace lounge, there is a light breeze and a trio plays beautifully as we sit and chat and drink. We order dinner very late and he apologizes; the food here is not good but the ambience is.
I still want to see El Tule, a 2000 year-old tree with the largest circumference in the world. On the way to the zocalo, I arrange a three-hour private tour to El Tule and the Sunday market at Tlcacolula (try saying this one! Tkla ko lu la). The guide arrives introducing himself as Roberto.
“Really. What is your last name?” I ask.
“Unbelievable! I am Wanda from Canada. I wrote to you last year to arrange some private tours.”
“Yes, Yes! I was going to email you last week to find out if you planned to come to Oaxaca.”
Another synchronicity; I had lost his email address and was too lazy to try to find him on the Internet.
Roberto tells me about the hardships everyone has endured with the significant decline in tourism due to the political issues. The tour is short and sweet with an extra stop at a beautiful old church and I promise Roberto I will write a good article in the hopes of enticing tourists.
After dinner I pack my bags before my late date with Mateo. He arrives telling me he is stressed out, but in a short while he is laughing and animatedly talking. We go for drinks in an off the beaten path barrio.
Once again I return to the hotel en la madruga - the wee hours.
I am vibrating this morning when I awaken, anxious that I must leave, my sadness threatening to overwhelm me. I am in my element in this place, I am in my Mexico, my real home and I have found a place with energy that emits at the same frequency as I do.
I go for my last breakfast at the zocalo to memorize the sounds of the birds and the music and the people, the images in this meeting place that I want to keep in my heart. I know I will return, but as is always the case, I leave with immense reluctance. I say farewell to my waiters and weep a little as I walk back to the hotel to gather my bags.
As I head to my room, the maid says, “Oh. Oh. You are very sad to be leaving today, si? Yes, I can see it.”
Mateo pulls up and as he takes my bags to the car, I quickly turn around to run and say goodbye and thank you to the maids, but in my quivery haze, I miss the small step and slam! I crash onto the rough stone tiles with one heck of a thud. I am both deeply embarrassed and shocked by the intense pain; in a nanosecond I have scraped my left knee open, sprained my hand and twisted my right ankle. The maids come running as does Mateo.
“Dios mio! You are so sad and upset, that is why you fell! ” says the maid.
Yes, I think, this is true and I also think some people will do anything not to go home. They run to get the first aid kit and begin to attend to my knee but Mateo takes the things from them wanting to take care of me and he tut tuts, shaking his head as he gently washes and dabs. I break into a sweat and I am dizzy from this last moment injury and my ankle is swelling by the minute. The bruja (medicine woman) was right - I am too nervous.
He repacks my bags so that all heavy things can go into the checked luggage and gives me two more books - one of his exhibit in Italy. The clerk is kind but tells me I am quite late and that I must go to the gate immediately.
By the time I board the plane, my ankle is melon-like and I tell the attendant that I have just fallen and ask if she could possibly bring me some ice after takeoff. She takes one look and says, “Ohmygod! I will take care of it right after we leave.” She is an angel and moves me to an empty area to elevate my ankle as she kindly tapes and gauzes ice to it. She checks on me and I am still tearful and she asks, “The tears are not just your ankle, are they?” so I tell her of my sadness to be leaving this magical place. “Ahhh yes, I suspected so.” She comes back throughout the flight and I show her my slideshow and we talk more, we have clicked. When I leave I give her some bookmarks and the two smiling pilots join in on the farewell.
She has arranged for a wheelchair and I am grateful because the distance to get to customs is long and they transfer me to a cart to my gate at another segment of the airport.
On the second and longest leg of the flight, the plane is large and packed but as fate would have it, someone moves and I have the only spare seat on the place vacated next to me so I have room for my gammy leg. I end up having an hour-long coughing fit (further embarrassment) and wonder if this is my punishment for my immense irritation with the crying children on my flight down! It is the pilot who wheels me out to the main area and both he and two attendants stand and wait for my attendant, not wanting to leave me alone and they ask about my vacation and injury. What an amazing airline. I have been impressed from start to finish with Continental as always.
So…I am back now; a little beat up, a little sad and a lot sated by the wonderful adventure of a Fish Called Wanda!
Places to Stay
There are, what seem to be a hundred lovely places to stay. These are the hotels I toured and found desirable.
Casa de los Abeulitos
If you are up for a rustic residence with ambience, this is the place. The rooms have small kitchen with a loft type bedroom. Very few amenities.
My hotel as outlined.
Casa del los Frailes
This boutique hotel is beautiful and tranquil with immaculate rooms. I like the location next to the Santo Domingo church You are about 8 blocks from the zocolo at this hotel and in the cultural zone.
88.00-98.00. Discounts may apply based on room and season. Full amenities.
Tot: 2.535s; Tpl: 0.111s; cc: 10; qc: 49; dbt: 0.0594s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.5mb