You know how when you arrive somewhere new, and your senses are heightened, and you notice every little thing that you would never notice at home, like the layers of smells and sounds, and the way things look and feel? I LOVE that part of travel.
I have what psychologists would probably call a novelty seeking personality. I thrive when everything is new and exciting: I’m totally energized and inspired by it, and then, over time, things normalize, and I’m kind of like, meh, what’s next.
And then Geoff goads me just a bit — fully knowing exactly what he’s doing — and I’m like, okay: Let’s take the trans-Siberian across Russia! Let’s get a VW van and drive across a continent! Let’s move to (insert country)! And Geoff says, “well, if you really want to…”
It’s the dance of our marriage.
Since arriving in Oaxaca almost two weeks ago, I’m in full on zing-newness-yay mode: basically noticing and enticed by everything. And I gotta say, on the surface, Oaxaca seems trés fiesta.
That’s simplistic, of course. There are serious poverty issues here, with Oaxaca State being the third poorest in Mexico, with almost 62% living under the national poverty line, and 23% in extreme poverty (source).
On the surface, however, things seem festive. As an outsider who has barely scratched the surface of Mexican culture in my travels, my perception — now and in the past, when I’ve travelled around — is this: having fun; enjoying friends, family and food; and taking time to enjoy life is engrained in Mexican culture.
I hope I’ll gain a more nuanced understanding over time, but for now, I’m enjoying the festive part of living in Oaxaca.
In Centro, there never seems to be a moment of silence.
There are a tonne of live musicians everywhere: in restaurants, on the street, in markets, in bars. The other night, we were walking home from the Zocalo, and passed a bar that was packed to the gills — people were literally spilling out onto the street — for a performance of what I can best describe as Mexican Ska.
The organic market I often eat breakfast at frequently has a guitar player/singer performing a few songs.
Often, we’re sitting in our apartment at our computers, and there will be an explosion of loud, unignorable music from somewhere. We can never figure out where it’s coming from, or why — it’s like a constant wondering, are we missing something — and it’s often accompanied by seemingly random fireworks.
No joke, right after I wrote that sentence, fireworks were set off down the street.
The other night we went out for dinner, and decided to sit inside the restaurant, because we were just so tired of the constant freaking music.
Talk about first world problems: Oaxaca has too much cheerful music. *Shakes fist*
Okay…to be fair, I’ve been on and off sick since getting here…I’ll spare you the details and just go with the polite euphemism of ‘tummy troubles.’ So there’s that. But it hasn’t fully deterred me.
The food in Oaxaca is really good. Like, really good. Oaxaca, after all, is the land of the seven moles and delicious insects. I haven’t tried the insects yet — patience, young grasshopper (see what I did there?) — but I am doing my best to make my way through the enmoladas, tlayudas and tacos. Gastrointestinal upset be damned.
And then there’s the condiments. Every meal you get comes with at least one salsa option, but often it’s 3: a runny guacamole-type sauce, plus one salsa based on red chillies, and one on green chillies. While I’m probably not as enthusiastic as this condiment-focused graffiti artist…
I am trying to use the salsas with gusto. Also, chilli helps kill bacteria…right? Right????
Oaxaca isn’t very touristy. Actually, scratch that. It’s not very international touristy. There seem to be lots of domestic tourists, but a relatively small number of non-Mexican tourists. And so, most interactions in shops, cafés…pretty much everything, is in Spanish.
Geoff studied Spanish for a year before we went to South America, but has forgotten a lot of it from a lack of use.
And the closest I’ve ever come to studying Spanish was in 1997, at Tørring Amts Gymnasium, when my Danish high school class was learning Spanish…in Danish, of course…which I was still learning, and definitely didn’t speak well enough to learn Spanish from.
Despite the fact that our interactions here are limited by our Spanish skills, we’ve still managed to connect with people, even if it’s just for a day-to-day, need-based interaction, like getting our coffee beans ground. In general, it feels like there’s a lot of civility and warmth in day-to-day interactions, and not only in customer service situations, where someone’s tip, or a sale, depend on cheerfulness.
The other day, I was eating breakfast at a market, and a man and his wife got up to leave, passing by my table on the way to the exit. If this had been in Canada, they would have just waked on by.
In Oaxaca? They offered me a random buen provecho while passing.
It’s kind of nice to not be ignored by strangers…who knew?
No one could ever accuse Mexico — at least the parts of Mexico I’ve seen — of being drab. Mexico is the opposite of beige, filled with bursts of blue and yellow and red and green.
Everywhere we look, there is colour. Building exteriors are often brightly coloured blues, yellows, pinks and greens. Many restaurants and shops have colourful streamers and banners hanging from the ceiling. Plus, there’s great street art, which we’re only starting to explore, but our friend Drew has in abundance on his Instagram, in case you’re curious.
When Geoff and I got married, we declared we’d never live somewhere that palm trees couldn’t live. After 7 years, we haven’t done too badly on our promise:
Calgary, Vancouver, Kaohsiung, Prague, and now Oaxaca . Three outta five ain’t bad, right?
The weather in Oaxaca is consistently good, at least from what we’ve experienced so far, and our Interweb research into average temperatures and rainfall throughout the year.
Right now, it seems to consistently hover between 28 to 32 degrees in the day, with gorgeous blue skies that make the colours of the buildings pop, and fluffy white clouds.
Around 3pm, things cloud over in preparation for the 4pm to 7pm danger zone, during which the city is more than likely going to piss rain all over you. Last week, we got caught outside when the sky opened up, and decided to take a taxi 7 blocks home. We still ended up getting soaking wet running from the taxi to our front door.
But then the rain stopped, it cleared up, and it went back to being awesome, with that refreshing after-rain feeling as an added bonus.
Here’s just one example.
One block up and half-a-block over from our place is our laundry mat of choice. But this is no average laundry mat, filled with coins, and baskets, and vending machine soap.
No, this is a magical place where you drop your laundry off, and it comes back to you a few hours later, devoid of the stink and stains you worked so hard to create, smelling fresh and cleanly pressed.
We’ve done two loads so far, and it’s never cost us more than $60 pesos (~$3.50 USD).
We’ve been buying our fruit and veg on the street corners just outside one of the central markets. The other day, I bought 2 seeded pomegranates, 7 tomatoes, 7 onions, 5 heads of garlic, 6 avocados, 3 poblano peppers, and a huge bag of limes. And it cost me $70 pesos (~$4 USD). Kinda hard to beat that.
I think it will take us a full 6 months before we figure out the craziness that is each of Oaxaca’s markets: they still seem like mazes. The Benito Juárez market, which is closest to our house and has everything from fresh tortillas and coffee beans, to leather goods, party supplies, and random bits of hardware, covers a full city block. Every time I go in there, I lose all sense of direction.
Going hand-in-hand with markets, are the textiles. I love textiles: I once took a 2-day ride across Laos on a chicken bus (actual chickens were on board) to the remote northeast corner of the country because I read that traditional weavings had been replaced with motifs depicting the Americans dropping bombs on the province during the Vietnam War. To this day, those weavings of planes dropping bombs, red cross helicopters, and UXO are probably my favourite travel purchase ever, although Oaxacan textiles might give them some competition.
Every time I go out, sensory overload ensues. There are just a lot of awesome textiles here.
The not so awesome
Obviously, nowhere is perfect, and living in Oaxaca is certainly no exception.
The car exhaust and air pollution remind us of life in Kaohsiung, where we breathed in the exhaust of 100+ scooters while sitting at traffic lights. We’ve started to choose which streets to walk along based on how many buses and taxis — the worst offenders — regularly use them.
And of course, there are bugs. Before we got a mosquito net, I awoke every morning with new bites, two of which were angry enough that I reached for the antibacterial cream. We’ve put up DIY screens on our windows, have citronella products galore, and use mosquito coils during and after the afternoon rain to keep them away.
But overall, Oaxaca seems like a pretty good place to hang for the next 6 months.