Oaxaca de Mis Recuerdos
Trip Start Mar 22, 2006
10Trip End Ongoing
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Yes, I am in paradise. Yet, it is hard to entirely relish in the beauty that surrounds me. I left Oaxaca reluctantly, emotionally torn, and intellectually devastated. Few of you know the crisis that has recked the city in the last three months. There is virtually no international press coverage of Oaxaca, in fact, most Mexicans outside of this southern state do not know what is going on. Southern Mexico, poor and rural, is forgotten by the world, is largely forgotten by its own federal government. The bottom line is that the shit that go down in the third world without anyone noticing is truly mind-boggling. What started as an annual teacher`s strike has turned into a broad based populist moment to unseat the dictatorial governor, to demand true freedom of the press, and to properly account for human rights abuses. The left wing newspaper was attacked at gunpoint, the university radio station taken over by paramilitary forces, and the local TV station held captive by women with pots and pans demanding that someone, some source of media, tell the truth. Last week police in civilian clothes fired on peaceful protesters walking in the streets, at least 4 people died. All public transportation has come to a stand still, buses have been burned (with people in them). Those buses that are still in service cannot get anywhere, with most roads surrounding the city blocked by protesters. The situation is incredibly complex. Though the government is undoubtedly abusive and repressive, the methods utilized by the protesters are largely ineffective, and often self-defeating. The chaos was getting progressive worse, and I knew that I had to leave.
I cannot adequately explain my connection to Oaxaca, its culture, its history, and its people, but I felt and continue to feel so incredibly guilty abandoning it. I could leave, but my friends cannot. They do not have the financial means, have no where to go, and besides, they would never give up on their patrimony. I never personally felt unsafe, but the guilt of leaving my beloved city, and all my friends, could not compare to the guilt I would feel toward my mother should anything happen to me. And so I left the city I have made home for the last four months. I have yet to thoroughly process all that has transpired. The thing about living in conflict, is it just starts to feel normal until you leave and have a chance to think about all that occurred. I hope to one day soon write you all some poetic prose about the politics of Mexico, the abuses of government, and the unfaltering strength of Oaxaqueños. But, for now, I am simply too emotionally exhausted. All that my brain can muster in these days of reflection are fragmented thoughts, disjointed memories of the last five months. And so here they are, Oaxaca de mis recuerdos....
THINGS I DO NOT KNOW HOW I AM GOING TO LIVE WITHOUT
The incredible warmth and welcomingness of Oaxaqueños is what makes the place magical. From the moment you meet at Oaxaqueño you are invited into their homes, their hearts, their lives. Often they do not have much, but what they do, they want to share with all of their being. Oaxaqueños are humble. Regardless of class or position in life, everyone shares in the sentiment that while life is a challenge, we are all in it together. The humility is contagious. You are instantly brought down to reality, we are in fact all human beings with the same needs and desires; our individual futures are very much dependent on the well-being of the community. I can think of a million trifling examples of the respect and warmth Oaxaqueños show both each other and extranjeros: speaking to elders, or those who wait on you in the service industry, in the ud., greeting all, even those you just met, with a friendly kiss on the cheek, never saying "adios" but rather "nos vemos" (we will be seeing each other soon), wishing all whom you encounter a good day, starting every conversation with "how are you?" regardless of whether the person is a perfect stranger, when leaving a restaurant, and passing those still eating, stopping to express your hopes that they enjoy their meal. But, it is not any of these minor concrete examples that makes a community what it is, Oaxaca has an intangible spirit that draws you in.
People say that the older we get the more walls we place in front of ourselves, and the less open we become to meeting and understanding new people. People have often told me that I will never have a group of friends like those I had in college because I and others will never be able, or willing, to make ourselves as vulnerable, and therefore open, as we were when we were eighteen. Well, it is true that I cannot and never will replace by friends from college, but my experience in Oaxaca was actually somewhat similar. The ex-pats I met were all on their own, a long way from home, and all (just as I am) searching, emotionally reaching for something. The friends I made in Oaxaca happen to be extraordinary people, but it was also the time, the place, and the emotional space we were all in that allowed us to open up to each other, to trust in each other, to learn from each other. I will miss them terribly. And then there are all my Mexican friends who patiently listened to me butcher their language, taught me about their culture, their history, their food, their music, and dance. But more than any of these things, my Mexican friends taught me about life, helped me in my journey of self-discovery. I am forever indebted to these people, my teachers.
NO TE PREOCUPES, DISFRUTA LA VIDA! ENJOY LIFE!
Mexicans enjoy life in a way Americans rarely permit themselves. Faced with serious struggles, when the chance to relish in life arises, Mexicans embrace the opportunity without reservation. Complain about getting fat from all the cheese and lard you have been eating, and the response will undoubtedly be, "I am so glad that the food is pleasing to you, and besides, don´t you know that when you are well fed and content you look better". While dancing with two left feet, if you comment on your lack of rhythm a Mexican will surely say "who gives a shit, we aren´t in a competition, what´s important is to have fun, you will dance better when you are having fun." If when dancing you apologize for being disgustingly sweaty, the near certain response will be "excellent, you are embracing the moment, dancing is way better for you than going to the gym anyhow". If you fail miserably at carrying a tune, a Mexican is likely to comment on how nice it is that you are appreciating the music. Life is hard, when it is time to enjoy, we should actually enjoy!
THE SLOWNESS OF LIFE
Time has an entirely different meaning in southern Mexico. When it rains in Oaxaca it truly pours. Instead of getting wet, people simply seek shelter. Everyone gathers in the nearest store or restaurant, chats amongst themselves, and simply waits for the rain to stop. Every time I stood there waiting for the sunshine, I laughed. Can you imagine such a concept in the States? We find all manners of occupying "down time." We can blackberry messages to the office on our commute to work, chat on our cell phones while sitting in traffic, bring our laptop on the plane to meet that oh so important deadline. We feel a need to conquer time. In southern Mexico humans are subservient to nature, and time, just like the rain, is part of nature. We have our place in nature, but we don´t own it! Things happen when they happen in Oaxaca, and that´s just the way it is. A business may supposedly be open at certain hours, but then again, the owner may have decided to take the day off, or maybe they have a personal commitment to which they must attend. While it can be annoying, it is also a refreshing change, oh yeah, people have lives outside of work, and sometimes work just has to take a backseat, even if other´s are inconvenienced. There are various restaurants in Oaxaca purporting to sell "comida rapida", but fast food, like everything else, is not exactly fast. Once we waited 45 minutes for fast food to eat while watching a futbol game. The food was already cooked, it just needed to be put into to-go boxes! A check will never be brought to you in a restaurant without you asking, and when you do request the bill, you can easily wait another 30 minutes. If a Oaxaqueño tells you he or she will meet you at 10 you can safely arrive at 11, 90% chance they won´t be there yet. When they do arrive, there will be no apology. Sure, all of this can be quite annoying, especially if you are trying to get something done. But on the other hand, what´s the hurry? Life is not a race, stop, enjoy, be patient!
THE BEAUTY OF THE CITY
Four hundred year-old colonial buildings are set upon cobble-stone streets; nearly purple omnipresent mountains encompass the valley below; it is nearly impossible to stroll through Oaxaca without a smile. The sun shines 365 days a year. The weather is warm, if not hot, day after beautiful day. You never need a jacket; in fact I only have one pair of pants! In the afternoon the rain comes, just to remind you how lucky you are to live in a place with so much sunshine. The rain never lasts long, and when the sun returns, you once again find yourself gazing off into that magnificent horizon. Many artists have settled in Oaxaca due to the glimmering light. It truly does feel that the sun smiles down on Oaxaca, and why wouldn't it, it is a beautiful place.
Black mole, red mole, green mole, quesillo, guacamole, tlayudas, hot chocolate from the birthplace of cacoa, mangoes that melt in your mouth, agua de fruta, tortilla soup. Sure there are days that I longed for a good Thai dish or Fettuccine Alfredo, but the food in Oaxaca is to die for. It is sooooooooooo good and sooooooooooo bad for you. It is not jut the flavor of the food, but the love with which it is prepared. Watch any woman making a mole with nothing but her hands and a grinding stone and you too will understand the appreciation Oaxaqueños have for food. Oaxaqueños rarely use the word sabrosa (tasty), but rather rico (rich) when referring to food. While a person who says "que rico" is literally only referring to the fact they are enjoying their food, there is a sense that in that moment they are in fact rich, full with all they could ask for. The Spanish equivalent of bon appetite is buen provecho. The verb aprovechar means to make the best of something. Oaxaca does produce quality crops, but more than the resources which have been given to them, Oaxaqueños make the best of what is in front of them, turning a few basic ingredients into a mouth-watering feast.
MUSIC, EVERYWHERE IS MUSIC
It has been said that Mexicans need noise so as to avoid what amounts to deep, individual loneliness. Perhaps, but I too have become accustom to blasting background music. I am now lonely without it. Music seems to emanate from the air in Oaxaca, from cars, homes, stores, restaurants, bars, everywhere. It is a sound-track to life. It is not only that I love to dance, and treasure the fact that people are ready to drop what they are doing to cut a rug at any given moment, it is that the loudness and rhythm of music in Mexico, like everything else, seems to shout at you: "You are in Mexico, Have Fun!"
THINGS I WILL BE HAPPY TO LEAVE BEHIND
The billowing black, choking smoke emitted from all vehicles on Oaxaca´s streets. The concept of a "smog check" has certainly not entered the Mexican consciousness. My dear friend Sarah became absolutely obsessed about crossing the street "while we can," so as not to have to breath the polluted air one minute longer.
HONKING CAR HORNS
The incessant honking could drive you mad. Is it a taxi asking if you need a ride? A man feeling the need to demonstrate his machismo by honking at a gringa? An actual traffic problem perhaps? Maybe it´s a friend trying to get my attention, and I should actually look? Who knows! I tried many times to find music in the symphony of horns. I failed.
GUERA, GUERA, GUERA!
Guera literally means blondie, but it is used for anyone with lighter skin. It is meant to be a compliment (a commentary on the sad state of Mexican race politics). I cringe at even writing the word, I had to endure it so many times. I could easily get 50 guera calls in one day. Just once I wanted to scream back at the dude, "No shit Shirlock, I know I am white!" or "Or my god, you mean I have fair skin, I had no idea, thanks so much for letting me know." Of-course, I never did.
The Mexican equivalent of the English saying, "what doesn´t kill you makes you stronger" is "Lo que no mata, engorda" or "what doesn´t kill you, makes you fatter!" I love this phrase because it is so fitting. The food in Mexico is divine, but in addition to making you fatter, it can also make you pretty damn sick. Eating vegetables without first soaking them for fifteen minutes in some horrible "disinfectant" chemical, or eating a salad without thinking about whether you are going to be near a bathroom in 30 minutes will be a nice change.
I can´t wait to throw used toilet paper IN the toilet, as opposed to the trash can sitting beside the toilet. Brushing my teeth with tap water, and/or not showering with water that has been treated with some god-awful toxin to kill dengue carrying mosquitoes will also be nice.
Those things just won´t die, and they make such a disgusting mess when they do. I can´t tell you how many times I came back to my apartment late at night to a party of cockroaches. They didn´t even invite me, and it was my freaking apartment! I of-course had to kill them all (and squeal loudly) before I could fall into bed, no matter how late it was.
MEMORIES I WILL CHERISH FOREVER
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Most of what I have done in the last five months is learn to speak Spanish. As cliche as it is, language truly is the key into a culture. It is only of late that I can have complicated conversations about politics and current events, and truly understand a Mexican´s view of the world. I will remember fondly my bizarre dreams in Spanish where friends and family from home, who do not speak a word of Spanish, magically speak with perfect fluency. I will cherish those moments where I realized I was actually having complicated friendships in Spanish; these epiphanies usually arose when in recalling a conversation I realized it had all gone done in Spanish only because the other person doesn´t speak English. And then there are those less significant, but endearing moments in learning a language. Thinking myself cool enough to use Mexican slang and meaning to say to a group of Mexican guys, "don´t mess with me!" (no me chinges) and instead saying "You don´t have sex with me!" except in far more graphic words (no me coges). Ay, I continue to be embarrassed about that one. I still find myself giggling at words that are everyday common occurrences. For example the use of commands. To get someone´s attention you shout across the street "Oye!" (Listen!), if someone is trying to calm someone else down they are likely to say "Mira" (Look!) It just strikes my fancy, it is so the opposite of how we use commands. If you told someone to "listen!" or "look!" in English you could easily get a "fuck you buddy, I´ll look and/or listen when and where I damn please". Then there are those grammatical structures that I treasure because they so deeply reflect on the culture. For example, a Mexican would never say "estoy tarde" (I am late) but rather "se me hizo tarde", some imaginary thing made me late. There is absolutely no responsibility in the statement, the person arrived late because that is what happens, not because they weren´t paying attention to time. Or "se me olivdó", not, I forgot, but rather, "it was forgotten on me.". The better you speak the language, the more in tune you become to the way a people act, think, and feel. I am terrified that I am going to loose it all the second I leave Oaxaca. Ojala que no sea la verdad!
THE RHYTHM OF LIFE
Oh how I will miss my unbelievably self-indulgent routine! That I could find it perfectly normal to nap between 9 and 11pm, shower, and leave my apartment at midnight reflects only on how little responsibility I have had. Dancing until I was so completely drenched with sweat that there was literally no reason to have bathed. Eating tlayudas on the street with dear friends at 4am. Eating comida (lunch) for three and half lazy hours, and then of-course having to take a siesta after all of that hard work. Having "work" mean sitting in an office and shooting the shit with other lawyers while reading the paper. Walking to any place I wanted, or needed, to go. Learning Spanish through daily gossip sessions with my dear friend and teacher, Laura, at a beautiful outdoor cafe. Having the time and patience to go to three different places to buy my weekly groceries, why would you shop at the super-market when you could go to the produce stands? Knowing a week had passed by the simply fact that I had no clean clothes left, a week´s worth is all I´ve got. Finding absolutely no need to buy anything other than what I can carry on my back. Sitting under the trees at Santo Domingo, watching the world go by.
MY INNER PEACE
I have never been as at peace with myself as I have been in the last five months. It is not that I am without worry or stress. I worry about my future, what do I want, what will make me happy, what is next for me? I stress about the state of the world, the injustices I see in front of me. I miss my family, and feel guilty for being away for so long. But despite these realities of life, I am at peace. I have no idea what the future holds for me, but I know I will figure it out. The challenge of traveling, of being away from the grind, is to hold onto that calmness when you return to "real life". I do not yet know when I will be coming back to the States, and I know the pressures of everyday life will take some of my tranquility away, but I pray that the peace I have found travels with me, as it is now a part of me.
And so, tonight I leave Mexico, full of fond memories, complex thoughts about the state of the world, and with enormous respect for the ancient and beautiful culture that resides south of the border.
Que todo este bien! Les extraño mucho.