Intrepid Den: Travels through Central and South America, Oaxaca

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the first of many guest posts by Intrepid Den. Den is on an adventure of a lifetime travelling through Central and South America and has asked me if I will post her diary entries on my blog, and why wouldn't I? She is, of course, an excellent writer, and you will no doubt be entertained by her writing and anecdotes, it runs in the family you know. So here's the first dairy entries, Day 1 and 2 in Oaxaca.

Day 1 Oaxaca

            Hung like a hammock in the hills, high above the Sierra Madre of Mexico, lies the tiny city of Oaxaca.  It's so remote, that when Cortez and the Conquistadors came to the Americas looking for gold and found non in Oaxaca, they left it alone and it was allowed to carry on as it always had done.  Today, it is quiet, respectful, regal and in total harmony with the surrounding nature.  It still has a soul untouched by the ravages of consumerism and the diseases of the West.  No one smokes, no one drinks and no one is fat.  They still have their own dialects and no one speaks English.

            This is the town I arrived it on my first trip to Mexico, part of 3 month trip that will take me to the Pacific beaches of Mexico, the towns and Caribbean beaches of Columbia, both the oceans of Costa Rica and finally, to the metropolis of the Western world which is New York.

            Arriving late at night, I was dropped off by collective mini-van at my hostel Zipolite in the southern part of town.  I was shown to my barren room by a really helpful girl – it had no more than a table, chair and a bed but that was all I needed.  After travelling for nearly 24 hours, all I wanted to do was sleep!

            With coffee, is the way I like to start my day, so the following morning I went to search for it.  There were no coffee shops, but what there was, was a street stall with 3 enormous vats; one of hot chocolate – the locals favourite, one of “coffee” and one of thick hot white stuff.  I'm dairy intolerant so didn't want milk (what my alternatives might be hadn't really registered – usually it's soya milk) but as I speak not a word of Spanish, I stood there in the early morning, mooing like a cow.  What they thought they were looking at seemed to be something really amusing to them and with big smiles, they shook their heads – no it was not milk.   What it was, I still have no idea, but I bought one of both for next to no money and headed back to my room to imbibe – interesting, but not like any coffee I'd ever had before.

            Refreshed, I wanted to log on to my super new, super mini laptop, to let those who care know that I'd arrived.  I'd packed and planned in a hurry – this time last month, I wasn't going anywhere.  And now here I was!  I dug out my adaptor plug I'd last used in India.  I looked at the round pins on the plug and then I looked at the straight holes in the wall.  It was never going to work and bearing in mind I had an entire bag of chargers for phones, cameras and everything else you could think of,  including hair straightners without which, my hair has all the sophistication of a 10 year old's, all plans of sight seeing were void.  I had to sort the plug situation and sort it fast.

            After serveral hours and many miles on foot going this way and then that and this way again (clearly lost) and passing the same bemused people again and again, I found the tourist booth where someone did in fact speak english and within minutes, I'd found an adaptor.  I was so happy, I wanted to kiss her.  She had no idea what it meant to me!

            Re-connected and re-invigorated, I set out to see the city – I can never relate the scale of a map to real life, but Oaxaca is really tiny and everything is within one mile – all the churches, markets, shops and restaurants – magnificent!  There are churches everywhere which proves that where Cortez failed, priests didn't – they weren't looking for gold, they were there to give it, in the words of God.  And what a legacy they left – the churches are breathtaking.  The ornate facades have crumbled slightly, but inside, they are so beautiful, even I would wonder at the existence of an Almighty!  Santo Domingo de Guzman in particular, is a building of sheer masonic majesty and has stood there for over 500 years!
Food in Oaxaca is supposed to be unique and the street stalls come highly recommended.  I had no idea what to try from the myriad on offer so allowed myself to be enticed by a smiling, plucky, young girl – how often do we just need a helping hand?  She showed me minced beef which yes, I could eat, but seemed disconbobulated when I pointed at the tacos etc and shook my head (I have a wheat and grain intolerance as well – not much fun in a land most anywhere).  She smiled beatifically and then she bade me sit down.  She set to work frying the mince and then ladelling swathes of yellow stuff that looked like piped play dough all over it and then brought it over, (with the obligatory tacos) and yes, you've guessed it – cheese, but not like cheese any of us would know and which of course I can't eat....  So there I sat, at a taco stall, trying to pick the beef out of what seemed like wallpaper paste AND she over charged me!  I know they're poor and in comparison, I am rich, but I'm on a sparse budget!  Luckily, afterwards, when still trying to find real coffee and once again, failing, I met a local man who seemed beguiled by me and my plug story and he treated me to a bowl of “coffee” which was mostly “milk” with only enough instant coffee to change its colour....

            And so the first day was almost over and having found the only booze shop in town, I headed home with a bottle of Chilean wine to drink and smoke in relative peace up on the roof as the little lights of the little city came on and lit, like a christmas tree, the surrounding hills.

Day 2

            Feeling slightly more normal, I took a second look at my enormous bag which could seat 2 comfortably but which had lost a wheel in Houston.  The old song, if anyone remembers it, “One wheel on my wagon, and I'm not rolling along” popped into my head.  I thought:
            “Am I really prepared to lug this thing on one wheel over 5000 miles?”

            Luckily and surprisingly, (the budget again) I decided not to and so out I went again.  Same streets, same bemused faces, same tourist booth and after circumnavigating the town, I found a huge hypermarket where I was assured, I would find exactly what I wanted.  I didn't, but what I did find, was the smallest booze section of perhaps any supermarket on earth – I bought one just to make it worth their while...  Finally, I found a bag with 2 wheels which was perhaps a little bigger than I needed – in fact on closer inspection, it would fit my 12 year old god daughter Rosa in.  But never mind, it would do and choice was non-existent.  And this is where I really discovered what everyone in Oaxaca does – they work in the service industry and Ghandi would be so proud of them!  One person opened the door of the shop and greeted me, two other people served me, another took my money and lastly, another described to me the exact details of the item AND the guarantee even though it was completely obvious I didn't understand a single work he said.  And it is the same in every single shop and cafe and I am so pleased to see it – machines don't buy things they just make more profit for the owners!!!!!!!

            So, enormous bag on wheels safely stowed, I thought it was time I really ate something substantial.  I'd passed a bar be que chicken shop earlier – huge racks of chickens as yellow as the sun – that's the quality of the food in Oaxaca, and so I headed back there.  I pointed to “1/4”, was waved to a table and not long after,an enormous plate of perfect chicken, rice, salad and all manner of chilli sauces arrived and I am not even embarassed to say, I ate like a pig.  I was happy, they were happy and when I offered them what I thought it cost – next to nothing, they even gave half of it back to me!!!  If I could eat in a place like that every day, I would never cook again.

            Almost too full to walk, I headed back into town with my (now) fully charged camera to really see what Oaxaca had and discovered the north of the city which is basically the half a mile above the the main square.  Today was Valentine's day.  I was surprised to find that they celebrated it but they certainly did.  Everywhere, there were women selling flowers and enormous clouds of balloons all declaring love.  There was such an innocence of love it was simply heartening.  One couple sat on the steps of a church, the girl holding a 3ft teddy bear and they were just so in love.  I asked if I could take their photo and it was as if this was the only decleration they needed to proclaim what was obvious – they would spend the rest of their lives together.  It is all so uncomplicated.

            And then I walked and walked and walked.  I passed textiles for which Oaxaca is famous, I passed tiny old ladies selling lace, I passed deeply lined Indian ladies who's skin was as tough as the leather goods they sold and I passed workmen laying a new road, dressed in straw hats and literally, hewing kerb stones  from bare rock and everyone, almost without exception, showed a simple courtesy that would make even the worst misenthrope smile.  Even back at the hostel, the girl, having realised morning coffee was something of a problem for me, led me into the back room, showed me a little two plate electric cooker and between us, we understood that I could use it and in the morning, that is exactly what I did, albeit with a sachet of instant coffee but you know what?  It was pretty perfect.

            Oaxaca.  What a wonderful place and even though hardly anyone spoke English and I spoke no Spanish, I think we all had an experience to share and I am so glad I started my Mexican adventure there.

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