Sights and sounds .. and sites
Good stuff to know if you’re visiting Oaxaca*
By Carolyn Callison Murray
The first thing you should know about our opinions of Oaxaca, is that we went to Mexico with open minds honed by 40-plus years in journalism.
We came home completely biased.
How biased? We dumped our bags in the bedroom of our South Carolina home just before midnight Saturday. By noon on Sunday, we had booked a return visit for el Dia de los Muertos in November.
Yes, we are enchanted. Here are a few reasons, a few lessons and a few tips.
First, some lessons, which began before we left home.
“Don’t bother trying to fit in. No matter what you wear, you will be too tall and too pale to look like a native,” our friend Susan Bean Aycock advised as we prepared for our first trip to the town where she’s lived for seven years.
Mexican men don’t wear shorts, at least not in public, she advised. And most women don’t go around in sports bras and barely butt-covering workout shorts. Oh darn. I so wanted to share my pasty thighs with an international crowd.
It was hot during the day, so I was thankful to have my moisture-wicking capris and T-shirts. Tom was grateful for his rip-stop Eddie Bauer cargo pants. I was also thankful to have my easy-to-pack shawl for our first-night rooftop meal. Or at least I would have been if I hadn’t cleverly left it behind in the hotel room when we went out. Luckily, Susan had not forgotten her shawl and was gracious enough to do an every-other-course swap so that my lips didn’t turn blue in the after-sundown breeze.
I will be writing more about the Zen of sidewalk surfing in Oaxaca, but the short shoe advice is: comfort, comfort, comfort. If you can’t travel without multiple pairs of sexy (i.e. spike-heeled) footwear, you are going to the wrong place. Road and sidewalk surfaces are not friendly to wobbly shoes, no matter what their designer label. Seeking treatment for a broken ankle, or worse, may not be the best way to dust the rust off your high school Spanish skills.
On the other hand, taxis are cheap. For example, it cost a whopping $2.50 to go from an eye clinic (for more on our adventures in Mexican laser surgery, click here) about 10 miles back to our lodgings one night. If you’re going to take one, however, it’s a good idea to get your host to write down your address so you can show it to the driver unless you are confident of your language skills. Also, ask for the price at the beginning of the ride.
Taking a taxi everywhere, however, will rob you of one of Oaxaca’s great attractions: interaction with the residents.
Street life and language
We spent three hours every weekday morning in class at the Becari language school, then headed out to explore the city, enjoy a late lunch and test our fledgling language skills. The reaction to our butchery of their language was uniformly gracious, whether we were trying to ask a pharmacy clerk for cough drops or directions from a random person on the street. They always smiled broadly and did their best to understand what we were trying to say. Sometimes it was a Monty Python-esque pantomime (on our part) but they never failed to try to help, they never laughed (at least to our faces) and they almost always asked where we were from in les Estades Unidos, then shared their own stories of visits there, or relatives there, or dreams of going there.
And therein lies another lesson. The answer to the “where are you from” question for us, was the United States, not America. Wikipedia will remind you that “The Americas,” extend 8,700 miles from north to south, from Northern Canada and Greenland through South America. Yes, that includes Mexico.
We spent most of our Central America stay in an apartment rented via AirBnB in the neighborhood known as Xochimilco. (Sho-chee-mil’-co — the X is pronounced as an “sh,” for future reference). It was out of the hustle of the more touristy El Centro, but a quick walk to everywhere we wanted to go.
The residential neighborhood was quieter than the main part of town, but quieter is a relative term, especially in a region where open windows are a necessity if you want a breeze. Our first night, we were jarred by what to our ears sounded like a police loudspeaker used by a very excited (panicked?) officer.
Turns out, it was a tamale vendor, whose route brought him through Xochimilco each evening sometime around 10 p.m. or so. What was he saying? We’re told it was “tamalestamalestamalestamales,” though I couldn’t swear to that. Sadly, we were always in bed by the time he came by, so I can’t swear to his wares, either. But did I mention we’re returning in November?
We can vouch for the food though. Those who know us know Tom and I are not picky eaters. We are generally open anything, but we are also not “foodies” in the 21st century definition of that word. That said, we had no bad meals, and many excellent dining experiences.
Our favorite restaurant was El Quinque, a small relatively inexpensive spot where I had one of the best steaks I’ve ever had (and I am a bona fide carnivore). We ordered arrachera (flank steak) at the owner’s suggestion. The perfectly cooked large portion came with salad, fried potatoes and guacamole for a whopping $8. We could easily have split it between us, but we both ate every bite. And Tom’s not even that much of a steak lover.
We ate there two more times, and probably would have gone more often except for feeling like we should sample other restaurants. Another favorite was A.M. Siempre,(Always Morning) a small cafe just up the hill from our apartment. We were never there for breakfast because they didn’t open until 8 a.m. and class began at 9, but we had breakfast for dinner twice. It was also a great place to sample the hot cocoa made from Oaxacan chocolate, a regional specialty.
Another specialty? Chapulines, aka spicy fried grasshoppers. It is said that if you eat one, you’ll return. We did. We will. I can’t say I’ll eat them on the next visit, but they were mostly just crunchy and spicy, except for having to dig the tiny legs out of my teeth.
Grasshoppers aside, Oaxaca has become known as a foodie haven, so if you consider yourself one, enjoy.
Water and plumbing
The short answer to your unasked question is: No. The longer answer: Don’t drink from the tap; don’t rinse your toothbrush in the tap (the hardest habit to break); and don’t open your mouth in the shower. Today’s water might not call forth the full force of Montezuma’s revenge, but as Susan noted, not even the locals drink it because it tastes awful. And who wants to risk turning your vacation posts into a catalog of public restroom facilities.
By the same token, you don’t really need to worry about eating vegetables and fruits in a restaurant. It’s safe to assume they have been safely washed. “No restaurant wants to risk its reputation by making patrons sick,” she reminded us. Be wary, however, of buying fruits and vegetables from street vendors. It’s hard to be sure of their disinfectant practices.
We didn’t want to leave when the time came, but we must admit that it was nice to feel free to flush our toilet paper again when we landed in Atlanta. (Well, it would have been nice, if we’d had time for a potty break enroute through customs, the TSA and the mad dash to our flight.) Mexican plumbing is not friendly to toilet paper, no matter how squeezably soft it might be. So it goes in the trash can.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am mathematically impaired. So the idea of computing pesos into dollars was enough to make my already language-challenged brain explode. Especially when the sign for the Mexican peso looks like the American dollar sign. A menu listing $120 as the price for your pollo mole (chicken mole) dinner sounds like a lot until you follow Susan’s advice, crack out your trusty smartphone calculator and multiply it by .05, the basic peso-dollar rate more or less. Then move the decimal two spaces to the right. That turns a $120 peso dinner from Heimlich-worthy to an entirely digestible $6.
As you would expect, everyone has something they want to sell to the touristas. The constant barrage from vendors quickly became an annoyance when we visited Cancun several years ago. Once again, wise Susan shared her expertise.
In Oaxaca, vendors will try to sell you things, whether you are in an open-air market or people watching in the Zocalo and, as already noted, you are obviously “not from ‘round” there, as they say here in South Carolina. But rather than repeating “no, gracias” ad nauseum and to little avail as we did in Cancun, Susan advised us to hold up a hand as you would if you were directing traffic to stop, smile and say “muy amable.” It translates to “very nice,” and is less a hard-and-fast “no” as a “maybe.” They are more likely to leave you alone if they believe you like their work and might buy something later. This may seem counter-intuitive, at least it did to us, but it worked well.
We got so good at it, in fact, that when a one-legged man approached Tom with his hand out, Tom reflexively held up his hand and said “Muy amable.” Uh, well, no, it’s not really so nice that you’ve lost your leg. But in keeping with the generosity of the people, the man didn’t pick up his crutch and crack Tom in the head with it. We’re counting that as a win.
Protecting your stuff
Susan gave us woven wallets the first night of our visit, along with some advice: “Local women tuck their money purses in their bras.” I settled for wearing my bag under my shirt. Tom tucked his gratefully in the zippered pocket of his pants.
In addition to cash, we carried a debit card in case we needed more pesos, which are available from ATM machines at banks and inside stores. Another piece of Susan advice: Getting cash from a machine in a store, especially after dark, cuts down on the possibility that someone might be watching a bank ATM for potential victims.
We also carried copies of our passports, leaving the real things locked safely back in our room.
As we would anywhere, we were cautious our surroundings and were cautious about flashing around our pouches. I hasten to add, however, never once, even when our internal, untrustworthy GPS systems led us far outside the tourist zone, did we ever feel uneasy or unsafe.
As Tom noted more than once, “I keep waiting to meet a ‘bad hombre.’” That doesn’t mean bad guys don’t exist, as they do everywhere, but happily, we didn’t find any.
At the risk of repeating myself, all we found were beautiful, friendly, gracious, patient and talented people. The history of the region is fascinating and we look forward to learning more about it, its people and its language.
Hasta Noviembre, Oaxaca.
Tom Murray and Carolyn Callison Murray are retired journalists who now live in South Carolina and own Show and Tell Media Pros, a writing, editing, photography and media consulting firm.
*With thanks to Susan Bean Aycock for sharing the insights and advice accumulating during 7 years of living in and loving Mexico. Want to know more about living here? Check out her blog, Embracing the Chaos. Want to see more from us? Go to https://medium.com/@carolyncallisonmurray