Gringos Without a Car — An ecological decision pays off in cultural literacy

Yellow taxi Oaxaca

When we first began staying for months at a time in our pueblo, we began querying how to lease or buy a used car…but Oaxaca is already choking on pollution and congestion. It doesn’t need one more car. More importantly, we are gaining insight into the culture via the taxi drivers.

Sí, sí, canela, pero ¿qué tipo de chile? Pasilla? chile de agua? chilhuacle rojo? costeno?

Yes, Yes, cinnamon, but what type of chili?

We are flying down the highway to our mountain village some forty minutes from Oaxaca City. It’s a road with axle-snapping potholes and this is evening commute time where every vehicle is jockeying for position and our taxi driver is on his cell phone. We are responsible because when we told him how much we loved Oaxacan cuisine he began sharing his recipes for traditional dishes, his method of cooking, say turkey in mole coloradito — while darting around an exhaust spewing bus — or puerco con salsa verde — while passing trucks with a load of cement bricks or Sopa de Guias — navigating around another truck stacked high with old mattresses. That last truck swoop was punctuated by a screaming motorcycle cutting in front of us. Our taxista is on the phone because he forgot some of the ingredients in one of the moles so he’s checking in with his madre. Pollo con mole negro, Huachinango (red snapper) with mojo de ajo y guillijo (chili). The list goes on and on and the names of ingredients — hoja santa, epazote, pitiona — are flying about the taxi as we weave around a potpourri of vehicles on the road.

When we first began staying for months at a time in our pueblo, we began querying how to lease or buy a used car because serious food markets are at least 20 or 30 minutes away and all the other stuff of life takes an hour’s commute depending upon traffic. Besides our friends are sprinkled all around the hills and valleys that envelop the city. We have stalled on the car project because Oaxaca is already choking on pollution and congestion. It doesn’t need one more car. More importantly, we are gaining insight into the culture via the taxi drivers. And they are a captive audience for our developing Spanish. Well, at least my primitive mastery of the language. My husband, Stephan, is more fluent and since he sits in the front seat, he engages the drivers more directly, often inspiring passionate conversations.

On this particular night, our corpulent driver, Eduardo, is describing how to make estofado, a stew of chicken and/or pork with almonds, raisins, cloves and olives and a bunch of other ingredients. He is on a roll. By the time we reach the turn off for our village he is explaining why you need avocado leaves to make tasty beans. After we warn him about the thirteen topes (speed bumps) before we get to our street Stephan is sharing his famous recipe for sopa de siete chiles con perfume de vainilla. (Soup with 7 different chilis and a hint of vanilla) Then just before reaching our gate Eduardo and Stephan are trading recipes for Zapote Negro mousse. Eduardo adds orange juice. Stephan adds ginger.

Gathering our bags to exit his taxi, I wonder how I can share with people back in New York the riches of the fruit and vegetable markets here featuring greens nobody has heard about in El Norte and seasonal fruits that have ripened on the vine. We take Eduardo’s telephone number for future reference.

Traffic in Oaxaca

Jorge Negrete, Banda and Cumbia

One night, after having dinner with friends in town, while Stephan was back in El Norte, I got a taxi home with a twenty-something man, Santiago, who was playing a radio station with old classics from the 1940s, the romantic crooners, Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. I was shocked. Santiago confirmed that most of the young people here are into Rock en Espanol, Electronica, reggae or rap. How was it, then, that this kid was playing music by the seducers in the heyday of radio and black and white movies? Handsome guys who starred as romantic leads opposite sultry women? When I told Santiago how much I love that music, he fingered through his playlist at a traffic light and put on more. When I mentioned Chavela Vargas, he produced her “Adoro.” I am melting. How can this cute young man know this stuff? I ask. He explains it is his grandparents’ favorite music. And he kind of likes it. I sink into my seat and think about what I am missing. Grandchildren who would appreciate or at least be kind towards my musical tastes.

Music is one of the themes of our taxi rides from Centro. The predictable music chats circulate around ranchera from up north, son jarocho from Veracruz. Then there’s danzon from Cuba that became a hit in the 90s in Mexico City ballrooms and which an orchestra plays in Oaxaca’s zocalo every Wednesday while older folks elaborate the formal steps. We are reminded that the marimba players in the zocalo here are really from Chiapas. Sometimes the driver will find a radio station playing the boleros and romantic classics that were once the staple of guitar strumming trios singing Besame Mucho, Sin Ti, No te Vayas sin Mi in every restaurant in Mexico. We bemoan their disappearance. The truly local music is banda from the Oaxacan countryside — derived from brassy marching bands that are organized in every pueblo and whose echoes ricochet through the mountains during early morning practice.

What we’ve learned from the taxistas is that Oaxacans of all ages mostly love cumbia, lively dance music now played by large brassy bands. Although cumbia originated in Columbia from a mix of African slave rhythms, indigenous flutes and Spanish guitars, it has evolved into large bands with piano and horns. Cumbia long ago leaked out of its home base into Venezuela, Peru, El Salvador and Mexico. Our regular colectivo driver, Mario, who lives nearby and fetches us at our house to take us wherever, always lets us know when the famous cumbia bands are playing at the big Guelaguetza Theater hanging off the mountain’s edge overlooking the city.

Another night a middle-aged driver, Jesus, explained that he used to sing with a choral group and they traveled all over Mexico. There was a name for this kind of choral music, that I should have written down, because I cannot find a reference to it on Google. A guitar and harp accompany them. When I look on Wikipedia I discover how many kinds of choral groups there are in Mexico — Baroque, classical, traditional romantic, 20th and 21st century composers, etc. But here in our taxi whizzing past the clouds of pollution from buses on the highway the conversation has turned to the hours it took for his group to drive to Guadalajara — 14, or San Luis Potosi — 12 or Quereterro — 7, all cities north of here to sing in competitions and festivals. Lost in translation is his explanation for why he isn’t doing that anymore. Why he is driving a taxi and not singing. There is so much that slips between the cracks of our vocabulary and comprehension. Frustrating. Back to studying verb conjugations!

Bloqueo on Highway by Teacher’s Union

Topes, detours and noxious fumes…

When we’re coming home from Centro at night our first request from our taxi driver is to ask him (never had a her) to take Division Oriente, the lower road that passes the magnificently lit Soledad Church, then leads to the highway. Drivers don’t really want to take this route because there are a bunch of topes and traffic lights but at least it’s not two lanes of traffic racing and swerving around a curvy mountain highway where you pray the car or truck next to you takes the curve in their own lane. I much prefer the poky road of speed bumps, traffic lights and noxious bus fumes.

Once when our driver took the curvy mountain highway, the traffic was so backed up, he turned quickly onto a dirt road that went straight up the mountain. We were both apprehensive — perhaps not quite over-reacting in a land where kidnappings and robberies are part of life. The route twists and winds, dropping and scaling heights on parched, dusty roads scarred by deep ruts and bumps. There is nothing that could be called a shoulder on the narrow road. We navigate in darkness except for our headlights. But even in the black we sense a favela hanging on the mountain side. Houses built higgledy piggledy, corrugated tin sheds poised to drop off the steep slope, a lot of cement blocks and exposed rebar. We are reminded of the hard scrabble life that many Oaxacans live. Our driver explains these are all squatters and at first there was no water or electricity here. We contemplate this as we look out into the dark night at the spectacular vistas of the electrified Etla Valley twinkling far below with traffic snaking along that highway. Humbled by our privileges. Hoping we’ll get back down safely.

This desviacion (detour) reminds us that another profound value of the taxi and colectivo drivers is their extensive knowledge of alternative routes. In a state that has regular bloqueos — protests by unions and social organizations that will block off highways for a whole day — this knowledge of the spider web of back-country and pueblo roads is critical. But then some days it is the taxis and colectivo drivers who are making a bloqueo!

Bloqueo by taxistas

Back on the highway the red and white colectivos are whizzing by stuffed with up to seven passengers. That means three in front next to the driver, sitting on laps in these cramped 1990s Nissan Tsurus which replaced the ubiquitous VW bugs a decade or so ago. But although the Tsurus are supposed to be phased out as the most dangerous car on the road they are the staple of the transportation system in Oaxaca. Hundreds of them ply the highways and roads connecting villages with the city. When we are traveling into the city usually in the day-time we are in one of these colectivos with our regular driver, Mario. We pay for his service as a private taxi. Like all the other colectivos, his has few or no shocks. The yellow taxis we get from Centro are more recent models of Nissan Tsurus. Cleaner, more comfortable. Some with shocks. A tiny bit safer, we hope.

A Colectivo, a Nissan Tsurus, can carry 7 or 8 passengers

Sometimes at night returning in a yellow taxi we have a more taciturn driver or we are just tired and it is an effort to engage a shy driver in Spanish, although Stephan always tries hard at that. I start counting the landmarks to make the trip go faster. First the Santa Rosa market where I now know some of the sellers and I get expertly filleted fish. The Bodega Aurrerá supermarket, Comex paint store outlets, the plant store where the stubborn older duena never wants to bargain.

At night the highway is transformed as if fairy dust has brought the scene to light. The mechanic shops seem to retreat into obscurity while restaurants, taquerias, rotisserie chicken joints and bars are all lit up. Beckoning. Almost cheerful.

During daylight the cacophony of businesses along the highway look like a blur of human chaos baking in the sun, blinded by dust and dominated by mechanic shops offering to repair breaks, carburetors and shocks. Shocks!! At night the highway is transformed as if fairy dust has brought the scene to light. The mechanic shops seem to retreat into obscurity while restaurants, taquerias, rotisserie chicken joints and bars are all lit up. Beckoning. Almost cheerful. I point out a new Tlayuda chain restaurant to the driver. He says the best one is still the old place next door. He wants to make sure I know what Tlayudas are — the Oaxacan version of pizza only it’s made with a large corn tortilla crust. He rattles off the optional ingredients: frijoles, tesajo, chorizo, queso, tomate, cebolla y aguacate. And chiles, of course.

Doble remolque on highway

On the highway, there are more Oxxo’s, than I wish to look at selling their fabricated snacks and sodas. They should be required to flash gigantic Diabetes warnings in neon just below their enormous brand mark signs. At night clusters of doble remolques — double length trailer trucks seeming much longer than the U.S. variety — park at the side of the highway near the Pemex stations. Our driver explains that they travel the highways together, park and sleep together to avoid robberies. Now we’re passing one of the love motels. Called Alas. Another across the highway promises erotic furniture.

Sola at night — telling lies

At first I felt a bit apprehensive as a foreign woman going on such a long trek alone with a strange driver. I was unclear what assumptions a Mexican taxi driver might make about me. After their first questions about where I come from, how long I have been here, do I like Oaxacan food will come the predictable question, are you alone here? That’s when my mental calculator starts whizzing with lies to put forth. No, I am here with my family. My husband and my grown son. They are at the house waiting for me. (In case he has any crafty idea). I have other children, but they live in Europe. (Makes me seem normal). Yes, one grandchild (ditto). All lies. Then, of course, I switch roles and become the interrogator. I find out how many children he has. Usually two or three these days, a substantial change from family size when I first traveled around Mexico in 1979. I ask what school levels, studies at college or what kinds of work they do. Maybe his reports are lies, too, but I choose to believe them. I keep him talking about his family. And I keep learning. Almost all of the drivers have deep family roots in Oaxaca.

A scam artist…

The only scary trip I had when I was alone was from an older driver who I hailed on Garcia Vigil in town. As I jumped into his yellow Nissan he immediately flung his arm and hand into his lap and grimaced while shaking his hand. What happened? I ask. He said I slammed his hand in the car door. But his hand hadn’t been anywhere near my car door. Then I wondered if I hadn’t noticed. He began to drive and complained about his hand, now wrapped in a grubby rag. I responded that I’ll get out and he could go to a hospital or clinic. No. No. He continued driving. His hand seemed to be functioning well enough to drive. Then he made a call on his mobile phone. He said he was calling his doctor. We were heading toward the highway. My first suspicion arose when he immediately connected to his doctor. It’s around 8 or 9 at night. After a short curt conversation, he put the phone down and explained that he would go and have his hand X-rayed at his doctor’s office. It is too late for me to ask him to stop. We are on the highway. I cannot get another taxi here. Perhaps an over-stuffed colectivo, and I would need to change cars twice to get to my street corner and then walk up a steep hill in pitch dark. So I am stuck in his car.

Why don’t you stop at one of the clinics off the highway, I suggest. I mention the San Lorenzo clinic where I have been before. No response. We are dashing past traffic. When I’m panicky my Spanish dissolves into mush, but I have to keep conversing with this guy. He makes what I now realize is another fake telephone call. Oh, he tells me his doctor will see him after he takes me to my house. It will be expensive, he explains. I see that this is now a calculation — trying to figure out how much he can charge me for a doctor and x-ray. I now know he is a scam artist. Most Mexicans don’t have private doctors. And if his hand was really injured he’d be going to an emergency room. Most Mexicans go to local clinics and hospitals that are part of a public health system, however stressed.

When we get to my house, he predictably asked for more than double the fare so he could go to the doctor. I was alone on a quiet dark street with few houses and farm fields. Now my lizard brain turns me into a scam artist. Mi esposo esta en la casa esperandome. My husband is inside waiting for me, I lie. El es un doctor, I lie again. Please come in and he’ll look at your hand — all in my challenged Spanish. Oh, no, no, he says.

I pay him the regular fare, get out and he whizzes off…whew!

Herbal adventures…

Another night, when my husband was back in town we got a taxi driver, Jorge, with whom we had been having an interesting conversation about natural herbal medicines in Oaxaca. We began by discussing the great health benefits of the basic Oaxacan diet: Squash, corn, beans, chiles, and nopales (the big paddle-size “leaf” of the Prickly Pear cactus), tomatoes, avocados and chocolate. Pumpkin and papaya seeds are eaten for intestinal parasites. Then Jorge referred to poleo (a delicate branch and leaves) used to make tea. It’s called “la hierba de borracho!” he laughed, the herb for the drunks. Hangover tea. And, he continued, you can also use it for altitude sickness. Jorge then mentioned Sávila. Pronunced SA-be-la. We couldn’t figure out what he meant but we were very interested because it was a cure for gastritis and digestive problems and a bunch of other things he was rattling off. Sávila. Sávila We couldn’t understand his description. What could it be? The conversation moved on.

Awhile later, in a dark patch of the highway, where the traffic and businesses thin before we get to the Coca Cola Plant, our driver suddenly skidded off the highway onto the rough dirt shoulder. No lights. Stephan and I look at each other. Now the driver is slamming into reverse backing up. Stephan yells. What are you doing? Meanwhile I am thinking. This is it. Our luck has run out. We’re about to be robbed…or worse. Our driver barks impatiently. Sábila! Ahi. Mira! Mira! There! Look! Look! We look out into the obscure shoulder where we can barely make out a common succulent plant with spiky but plumby stems growing in a big clump by the highway. Aloe vera! My God! A fucking aloe vera plant! Then he peels out into the traffic and the highway. We feel so stupid and embarrassed. And relieved. Sávila is Aloe vera.

A Sávila plant

The price of migration…

Stephan often asks the drivers if they’ve worked in the U.S. or have family there. Almost all say yes. They describe driving delivery trucks in different regions of the country, spraying paint on auto parts, packing boxes, landscaping, almost always the conversation veers to what they like about the North — U.S. dollars; what they missed when they were there — family, loved ones, the cuisines of Oaxaca, the chiles, the ingredients, the way of living, relating to people, traditions. Sometimes they worked six or eight or ten years. Enough to build a house back home in Oaxaca. Often when talking about their relatives, they indicate that they cannot return to the U.S. They have created families in Los Angeles, Kansas, Chicago or wherever. If they return to Oaxaca to visit they might not be able to get back across the border into the U.S. to be with their Norteno family.

Sometimes those stories include being arrested, thrown in jail, moved from prison to prison in the middle of the night, not allowed a phone call home, the horror of it, the abuse. We apologize. The car goes silent. We feel ashamed as privileged people who can visit Mexico on a tourist visa for several months at a time. Although we are aware that we are not looking for work in Mexico, so it’s not exactly an equal scenario.

The part of this conversation that is always missing is how they got into the U.S. We already know that these are tough and brutal stories, money paid to coyotes who may or may not deliver. Who may hold the migrant hostage while extorting more money from his or her family. But Oaxacans have historic pathways. They have traditionally gone to work on the giant farms and orchards of California. Yet recently, we have met drivers who have worked in pork plants in North Carolina or on housing construction crews in New Jersey. We are silent for awhile as we ponder what an extraordinary journey that entails and what kinds of exploitation they may have experienced. Instead, some have referred to the kindnesses. A sympathetic boss. A generous neighbor.

Traffic on Highway in Oaxaca

One night a driver revealed that he came from one of the indigenous pueblos in the Sierra Norte west of the city where the Zapotec speaking pueblos meet the Mixe language region. He explained that in order to leave his tight-knit community to work in the U.S he had to apply for permission from the community leadership. If village migrants are away too long they may lose their house in the village. Mostly they are pressured into returning after a few years so they can contribute their work to the community. Like all pueblos in Oaxaca, his requires techio, free work contributing to the community. Maybe volunteering on the police force on the weekends, building drains or roads and public buildings.

We consider the contrast with our individualistic, ruthlessly competitive world in El Norte. These community controlled indigenous pueblos in the Oaxacan Sierras are also world renowned for their management of the forests. The federal government does not manage the forests — or private corporations — but local communities.

We are learning how migration can disrupt family roles, ties, responsibilities, and hearts. One driver, Carlos, who lived in Illinois with his wife for many years, explained that he loved to cook. He had learned to cook when he and his wife were working long hours and different shifts in Springfield. Since he returned to Oaxaca with this wife, his mother has continually criticized him for cooking. He has disrupted the traditional gender roles in the home. She accuses him of becoming a woman. But he learned to love cooking and he and his wife both still work long hours, so they share that responsibility.

Baróns y princesas…

There are always new lessons about families. Like how many will show up for a family fiesta. More than a hundred sometimes because previous generations meant ten or twelve brothers and sisters meaning lots of tías and tíos and sobrinos. We learn about the taxistas’ kids. The baróns and the princesas. One night our driver, Fernando, explained to Stephan and me that his young 12 year old son was a fanatic rock climber. He had won all the contests and prizes in his age group. He practiced several hours everyday. We were amazed. We identify that sport with millennial, privileged kids who go to city clubs with fake rock walls as a form of date night. This father was relieved that his son had a passion other than getting into trouble with other teenage kids. And his son was going to travel to the U.S. for a competition. Proud dad.

Occasionally we’ve had a driver who is still single in middle-age. It is so unusual in Oaxaca, if not all of Mexico. We do not ask, but assume he is gay. Oaxacan gays can still suffer physical threats in the street, depending upon the neighborhood yet, I am told, there is a lively gay nightlife scene. And in the southern part of the state, the Isthmus, the Muxe tradition includes the stretching of sexuality and gender. One gay couple, friends, plan to go to Mexico City to get married where it is legal. We are curious about the clandestine life of a gay middle-aged taxi driver here. Some things will remain mysterious.

Our local driver, Mario, who picks us up in his red and white colectivo with the stained seats, teaches us a lot about village and family customs. One Sunday morning he came looking like a wreck. We knew his mother had died that week. He explained that after the late mass the night before he and other men in the family were up all night digging a grave for her in the panteón, the village graveyard. The custom is to dig all night, drink a lot of mezcal and then bury your loved one in a ceremony in the morning. Mario had been doing all this while grieving for his mother and then went home to shower and change before picking us up. What could we possibly say in the midst of our guilt.

Most of the taxi drivers from town love to talk. Some don’t mind correcting our Spanish, although most Oaxacans are too polite to do so. Stephan always asks the drivers if they speak an indigenous language. Oaxaca has sixteen official indigenous languages, but even more dialectics for each of those. Some Zapotec speakers cannot understand the dialect in the village down the road. If our drivers speak one of these languages, there is always a vocabulary lesson. One driver, Manuel, became so animated about teaching us Zapotec expressions that we worried he would drive into other cars or hit my husband in the face as he punched out his lessons with his arms and hands.

In August each year taxis & colectivos are adorned in bows and bouquets for the Saints Day for Taxis

Taboos…

One topic of conversation that we are hesitant and cautious about is politics. Foreigners in Mexico are discouraged from any political activity by law. But we are never sure if expressing opinions about the news might wander into that territory. During the campaigning leading to the presidential election last year, one driver explained why narco-trafficos are so popular since that was a subject addressed by the presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — who won the election.

This driver was candid: “Since the government offers people nothing, folks are attracted to the cartels because they deliver jobs and money and protection.” Well that was a neat and tidy thought. We have learned that the cartels are in many more businesses than the drug business. We do not discuss whether the cartels have moved into Oaxaca state, although it is common knowledge that they often infiltrate business, government and unions around the country.

More likely our political conversation focuses on the Trump administration and the drivers usually ask us timidly what we think of him. Testing us. A long litany of complaints spews out of our mouths. And again, we are in the position of having to apologize. For Trump’s insults to Mexicans. His accusations of migrants being criminals and rapists. For Trump’s policies separating families at the border. Children. Putting them into what are essentially prison camps. For Trump’s effort to deport immigrants who have lived in the U.S. a long time and have green cards or applications in process. It is an endless conversation filled with apologies.

If Mexican politics are supposedly a taboo subject we do feel free to talk about the economy. In December, 2018, at President López Obrador’s inauguration he gave a speech critiquing neo-liberalism and addressed the needs of the poor. He promised to raise minimum salaries, address corruption and bring down salaries of government representatives in order to pay for his programs. My husband regularly asks the drivers what they think of Obrador’s policy ideas. Most of the drivers respond as other Oaxacans have responded. “Corruption and impunity are rampant.” They have great hope for change with AMLO as he is known (Andres Manuel López Obrador) but it will be tough. They get animated around the salary issue. Raising the minimum wage and salaries in general is a beginning, they say. Mexico has the second lowest minimum wage of Latin America after Nicaragua.

We have talked to our drivers about the fact that almost forty percent of working people in the U.S. cannot survive on one job, while 43% of Mexicans live below the poverty level. Both sides of the border are armies of the working poor. In Mexico, many are part of the informal economy (selling a few things here and there in the streets (mercados ambulantes) or running a little diner or store out of their house or garage,). Others may work in conditions of servitude. With our regular colectivo driver, Mario, we discuss the latest economic reports in the news. In Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country, almost one in four working age people, including campesinos, receive no wages. Almost one in three receive the minimum salary. Only ten percent receive good salaries or enough salaries in the family to live comfortably.

Our drivers are always shocked to hear about the statistics in the U.S. But most of our drivers do not seem to know much about the rest of the world. They are experts on Mexico. Like taxi drivers in many parts of the world they work a twelve hour shift to survive while listening to local news on the radio.

Moto-taxis are common in all the mountain towns that surround the valley of Oaxaca. When we lived in San Pablo, Etla, this was the fastest way to get to the highway to catch a colectivo or bus.

The drivers biggest complaint is the price of gas. When we look out at the gasping, burping pollution from the traffic on the highway — the smell of it gives us headaches — we wonder how Mexicans can be weaned from their fossil fuel drug. Of course, we think the same thing on the Long Island Expressway and the streets of Manhattan. We are all addicted. Mexico’s export of crude oil is also their biggest income producer. A lethal trap. Can we stop the Sixth Extinction?

But now, in 2019, AMLO is going after the monumental theft of Pemex’s gasoline and just last week a huge explosion killed dozens of folks who were trying to tap off the large pipes delivering gas in the north. It’s a hot topic in our taxis. One driver says “it’s a good lesson for the thiefs!” A very expensive lesson for desperate people.

Hundreds of colectivo drivers are based in the villages along the highway. They produce an ecologically terrible rapid transit system but offer hundreds of jobs. If the environmentally improved fast bus materializes, those jobs disappear. Those jobs support families.

On the highway we pass the shiny new aluminum high-designed bus stop shelters providing a seat and protection from the elements. The previous state administration constructed them to go along with its newly paved and marked rapid bus lane. But the rapid bus has never appeared. And every single bus rest stop has been smashed. I don’t know who specifically did that. But one driver has acknowledged that it is an expression of disagreement in the interest of the taxis and colectivo drivers. Hundreds of the latter are based in the villages along the highway. They produce an ecologically terrible rapid transit system but offer hundreds of jobs. If the environmentally improved fast bus materializes, those jobs disappear. Those jobs support families. Our driver, Mario, plies the highway with his colectivo from the famous market town of Etla to the Abastos market in Centro every day. Back and forth. He supports a wife and 3 children. His two daughters go to college. If the rapid bus had succeeded, he might have been thrown out of work. It’s the devil’s compromise.

The taxi and colectivo drivers have staged bloqueos to prevent Uber from entering Oaxaca as well.

Legalizing marijuana…

If politics is a risky territory of conversation, drugs might be another. One afternoon returning from Centro alone to my house in the hills, I asked the driver what he thought of President López Obrador’s new proposal calling for legalization of marijuana. The driver looked at me frowning in his rear view mirror. Did he hear right. Mandé? Mandé? What? Pardon? I repeated carefully my question. What did he think about legalizing marijuana. He looked shocked and dismayed. Oops. Perhaps this was a mistake. He also looked suspicious. What is this old gringa asking me this for? Was she a drug cop? So I rattled on about how Canada, where I was from, had legalized marijuana for the country not just for medical purposes. And how many states in the U.S. had legalized it. The government can collect taxes and pay for pensions, etc. The driver continued to look uncomfortable and said that only street bums and no-goods smoke marijuana. It would never work here. A local friend explained to me later that many older Mexicans associate pot smoking with tramps and rough looking trouble-makers. So I continue to wonder how that policy will work out. Certainly young, hip, educated Mexicans seem to be more attuned. But then they mostly don’t drive taxis.

Another night, with my husband in the car, our taxista openly suggested we might want to go to Huautla de Jimenez, just a few hours up the highway. It’s the famous place for magic mushrooms, for the legacy of Maria Sabina, who in the 1950s and 60s introduced many Nortenos and Europeans to the mystical experiences of psilocybin. People can be surprising.

We have also bicycled through the Etla Valley not far from our mountain village

Meanwhile, we continue to eat the dust, breathe in the fumes, bump along the highway in uncomfortable cars, but engage in enlightening discourses while improving our Spanish on those forty minute rides between the city and our house. Recently, we have started talking about buying a car again. We relish shocks, comfort, an AC on these hot and dusty rides. But when we look enviously at all of our friends in their station wagons, or SUVs, we think about what we would miss — cultural literacy from a distinct class of Mexicans. Their histories, thoughts, opinions, and concerns. Besides we are putting a little money into their pockets.

And at the end of every ride, the driver leaves us with a litany of courtesies Muy muchissimas gracias, Que vaya bien, Hasta luego, Adios. Courtesies we seldom experience from taxi drivers in New York. And now we know all about sávila!

Stephan and Gail in the back of a moto-taxi in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca