Of course, you know I’m here for most of January learning Spanish. I am determined to become fluent before I die . . . and I’m running out of time! In no particular order, here are some of my impressions after a couple of weeks:
This part of Mexico is ripe for real estate. Unlike most other Mexican destinations, Oaxaca doesn’t seem to have the smattering of American franchises that are elsewhere. I haven’t seen a Century 21, A Re/Max, or an ERA, which is very different from, say, Baja or Puerta Vallarta; even Guadalajara and Mexico City boast dozens of American real estate brands. So far I’ve seen only one oficina de biennes y raices (real estate office). It looked relatively elegant and I suspect they are tapping into the more affluent markets. Too bad most people here are basically poor. I’ve asked and it seems that two things operate for most Oaxaquenos when it comes to real estate: 1) they don’t sell their homes very often, electing instead to keep them in the family, sometimes for generations. 2) when there is a transaction it’s usually negotiated by the parties and closed with an attorney.
It’s important to realize how different Oaxaca is from most of Mexico. You have tourist meccas all over the country: Puerta Vallarta, Cancun, Cabo and so on. You have bustling metropolises like Guadalajara, Queretero and Mexico City, where industry thrives and the cities hummm with excitement. But South of Mexico City, down here in Oaxaca and beyond, it’s different. This is a more real Mexico. You actually see women in traditional dress, carrying their goods in a bag on their heads. People come in from the country to go to market and look like they just stepped out of a wild west saga. There are real cowboys everywhere and if you take public transportation any distance you may be riding with a little livestock. In the markets they sell every part of the chicken, including the feet, parts of cows I can only speculate on and chapolines: Fried grasshoppers flavored with chili. Mezcal is a near sacred beverage and is touted as the only medicine anyone would ever need. When I was struggling with nausea and diarrhea the first week here, three different people told me to drink Mezcal and I’d be fine.
If there is a problem here, it’s infrastructure. It rains plenty in season but water remains somewhat scarce because they have no way to catch it and use it. The streets are all stone, often cobble stone, and the cars – most of them pertty old – take a beating. Buying basic necessities is a challenge and while there are supermarkets (somewhere) in my neck of the woods all commerce seems to take place in the large mercados where seemingly anyone can set up and sell nearly anything. It took me three trips to different mercados this week to locate basica ropa interior para hombres: underwear!
It’s noisy here. The right to blow the horn on your car is highly revered and exercised. All day long, vendors of various things: water, etole, tamales, tortillas, push their cars through the street and announce their presence with some unique and very loud sound. In commercial zones, vendors compete for attention by blasting usually bad music from loudspeakers aimed a the sidewalk.
But the people are warm and welcoming. They will talk with you about anything and exercise extreme patience as you stumble all over their language. The whole valley is rich with culture, both ancient and new. There are stunning ruins at Monte Alban, Mitla and other places. Folk art thrives: pottery, carving, weaving, decorative painting. And the food can be good.
Now: I love Mexican cuisine and cook lots of it myself. And, Oaxaca is the Mole capital of the universe (it was invented here), so dishes featuring one of these amazing sauces can be fantastic. But beyond that … well, I haven’t been impressed. The street food of choice is the Tlayuda (pronounced more like ‘Clay-you-duh’). It’s a huge tortilla like thing, smeared with frijoles, sprinkled with cheese and salsa and sometimes with various other guisados (stuffings), folded and heated. I had one the other night from a vendor that my friend described as the best Tlayuda maker in town. I’m sorry: it was just nasty. Offseting that is the passion for hand-turned ice cream, ‘nieves’, that Oaxaquenos possess. There are two kinds of nieves, those made with leche (milk) and those made with agua. I really like my Limon nieve de agua ( I know, it sounds like lemon, but it’s actually lime). Yesterday I had one of Leche Quemada (burnt milk). You know what? It was outstanding!
So all in all I’m glad I chose Oaxaca as the place to teach me Spanish. there is a magic about this city – a magic that becomes very apparent during Dia De Muertos in November – that lingers throughout the year. You are aware that around any corner my lurk something fantastic, something otherworldly and it makes simply walking around a treat.